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fbPhone

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This past weekend, a TechCrunch article caught the tech blogosophere off guard with an interesting claim:

Facebook is building a mobile phone, says a source who has knowledge of the project. Or rather, they’re building the software for the phone and working with a third party to actually build the hardware. Which is exactly what Apple and everyone else does, too.

The question is, does a Facebook phone platform (or, fbPhone to borrow the i/g prefix style corresponding to Apple and Google) make sense for Facebook to pursue?

On the one hand, Facebook is rapidly becoming an “operating system” of sorts for the web. According to Facebook’s statistics page, Facebook has over 550K active applications developed on it and over 1 million additional third party websites which have integrated in some fashion with this monumental platform. But, beyond sheer numbers, Facebook’s platform passes what I consider to be the true “is it a real platform” test that Windows, Linux, and Mac OS have passed: it has the ability to sustain a large $100M+ software company like Zynga (which has been estimated to generate over $800 million in annual revenues), capable of now spending enormous amounts on R&D and sales & marketing (and even of experimenting with its own rival gaming platform). This is something which, to my knowledge, the iPhone and Android ecosystems have yet to achieve.

Given its status as an “operating system” for web developers, there is certainly some value Facebook could gain from expanding into the mobile operating system sphere. It would make the Facebook experience more sticky for users who, once they step away from their computers, can only interact with the most basic Facebook features (pictures, notifications, news feeds) by making it easier for developers to truly view Facebook (mobile and desktop) as one application platform.

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On a strategic level, Facebook probably also sees potential dangers from Google and Apple’s control of the underlying smartphone software platforms. This control could transform Apple’s very shoddily constructed music “social networking service” Ping and Google’s thus-far unsuccessful attempts, as per its usual business strategy, to weaken Facebook’s dominant position in the social web into a serious threat to Facebook’s long-term position.

So, there are obvious benefits to Facebook in pursuing the platform route. However, I think there is an even more obvious downside: its HARD to build a mobile phone operating system. The TechCrunch article points out that Facebook has hired a number of the top mobile/tablet OS developers in the industry – while this means that its not impossible for Facebook to build a phone platform, its a long shot from building a full-fledged operating system. Assuming Facebook wants to build a phone, its unlikely to take the Apple route and build one monolithic phone. Like Google, Facebook’s business model is built around more user engagement, so a Facebook phone strategy would more likely be centered around getting as many users and phones possible to plug into Facebook.

The path towards such a phone platform (rather than single phone) requires many complicated relationships with carriers, with middleware providers, with hardware manufacturers, and with regulatory bodies (who are not too keen on Facebook’s privacy policies right now), not to mention deep expertise around hardware/software integration. Compare the dates for when Google and its wide swath of partners first announced the Open Handset Alliance (November 2007) to when the first Android phone was available (October 2008). A full year of committed development from industry giants HTC (hardware), Qualcomm (silicon), T-Mobile (carrier), and Google – and that’s assuming the alliance got started on the day that the project was announced and that partners like Verizon/Motorola/Samsung/ARM/etc did absolutely nothing.

From my perspective, Facebook has three much more likely (albeit still difficult) paths forward given the benefits I mentioned above for having its own mobile phone platform:

    • Build another “Open Handset Alliance” with the ecosystem: This is the only route that I see for Facebook to take if it wants its own, strong foothold in the mobile platform space. The challenge here is that the industry is not only tired of new platforms, but is also not likely to want to cede as much control to Facebook as they did to Google and Apple (and potentially Microsoft when it rolls out its Windows Phone 7 OS). This makes the path forward for Facebook complicated at best and, even when successful, requires it to compete against very well-established operating systems from Google & its partners and Apple.
    • Pull a HTC/Motorola and build a layer on top of or modify an open OS like Android or MeeGo: This, to me, makes the most sense. It eliminates the need for Facebook to invest heavily in hardware/network/silicon capabilities for deep phone platform development, and it also allows Facebook to leverage the application and ecosystem support that Android and MeeGo command (provided they don’t make too many modifications). Instead, Facebook can focus on building the tools and features that are most relevant to its own business goals. The downside to this, though, is that Facebook loses a fair amount of control over the final user experience and still has to play nice with the phone manufacturers, but these are things it would have to do no matter what strategy it picked
    • Just build a more complex mobile app which can support Facebook apps: This is the path of least resistance but leaves Facebook at the greatest mercy of Apple and Google, as well as forces Facebook to keep up with phone proliferation (iPhone 3G vs iPhone 3GS vs iPhone 4 vs DROID vs DROID 2 vs DROID X vs…)

Bottom-line: I don’t know if Facebook is even thinking about a bold mobile platform strategy, but if it is, I doubt it comes in the form of a full-fledged fbPhone. To me, it makes a lot more sense to stay the course and build more a sophisticated app in the short-term and, if needed, figure out ways to integrate rich user interface/development tool layers on an open operating system like Android or MeeGo.

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Addendum to iPhone/DROID2

Having written a long treatise on how the DROID 2 and iPhone 4 stack up against one another, I thought it would be good to add another post on where I thought both phones were deficient in the hopes that folks from the smartphone industry would listen intently so that my next phone choice is more clear. Note: I’ve focused this list on things that I think are actually do-able, rather than far-off wishes which are probably beyond our current technology (e.g., week-long battery life, Star Trek-like voice commands, etc):

  • Usage profiles: One of the biggest pains with using smartphones is that they are a pain to customize. The limited screen real-estate and the difficulty of relying on keyboard shortcuts means that settings are buried under multiple menus. This is fine if you really only use your phone in one way, or if you only need to change one or two sets of settings. It is not useful if, like me, you want your phone to act a specific way at work but a fairly different way in the car, or in the home. In that case, both Android and iPhone are severely lacking. The Android Tasker app allows me to create numerous profiles (I’ve created a in-car, in-meeting, at home/office profile and separate profiles for weekends and weeknights with regards to notifications and email sync) – and so is well worth the $6 price – but it is not as elegant of a solution as if it were integrated into the OS, exposing additional functionality.
  • Seamless computer-to-phone: Because smartphones have small screens, weak processors, and semi-awkward input interfaces, there are some things (i.e., research, making presentations/documents, crunching, etc) which I prefer to do on a larger computer.  This doesn’t mean, however, that I want my smartphone to be a completely separate entity from my computer. Quite the opposite – what I really want to see happen is a more seamless integration of computer and phone. At the most basic level, it means I want my bookmarks/browser history/favorite music easily synced between phone and computer. On a more sophisticated level, it means I want to be able to read/edit the same material (from the same place I left off) regardless of where I am or what device I’m using. If I’m running an application on my PC, I want to be able to pick up where I left on in a reduced-screen version of that application on my phone. Google’s Chrome-to-Phone, Mozilla’s Firefox Sync, and applications like DropBox just barely scratch the surface of this – and if someone figured out a highly effective way to do this (it would probably be Apple, Google, or Microsoft), they’d instantly have my business.
  • Email functions: Honestly, guys. Why is it that I cannot: (a) sort my email oldest to newest or (b) create new folders/labels from within your mail application? Blackberry could at least do (a).
  • Every app/screen should support landscape mode: This is one of my biggest pet peeves (more so with the iPhone than the DROID). Why is it that the homescreen of these devices doesn’t support landscape view (the DROID2 does but only if I pull the keyboard out)? Why is it that the iPhone App Store, Yelp, and Maps apps don’t support landscape mode? And why is it that I can’t lock the iPhone in landscape mode, but only in portrait mode? Apple, how about, instead of reviewing iPhone apps for what you deem to be “inappropriate content”, you force developers to support both portrait and landscape mode?

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Droid 2 vs iPhone

imageI recently came out very positive on Google in a comparison of Google’s and Apple’s respective business models and product philosophies, but the post itself was very high-level and theoretical. So, I decided to write another post: this time on how the differences I mentioned before translate when comparing products?

I recently dropped my Blackberry and got Motorola’s new Droid 2 phone (on Verizon). Earlier this month, my company also happened to provide me with Apple’s iPhone 4 (on AT&T). Having played around with the devices and relied on them heavily for over a week, I decided to make a comparison of the two, not only to help myself think through how I’d use the devices, but also to help anyone out there considering a smartphone (warning: this post is LOOOONG):

  1. Neither phone is better, they’re different. In the same way that there is no one “best” car or one “best” significant other for all people, I would have to say the “best” phone for a person is the phone that has the right features/attributes for that person and makes the appropriate tradeoffs. In the case of DROID 2 vs. iPhone 4, each has their share of weaknesses, and each has their share of strengths and they will match different people’s needs and preferences.
  2. There’s still plenty of room for both products to improve. I think the “fanboys” on both sides seem to have missed out on this point – in their desire to tout one as superior to the other, they seem to have forgotten that both devices have more than their fair share of weaknesses. In fact, I’d say my dominant impression of both devices is more around “this needs to improve” rather than “this is awesome”.
  3. I’ve got a lot of more detailed commentary below, but my basic  impression of Android vs iPhone is very much like the comparison I drew in my post on Google vs Apple: the DROID 2 feels like a device where a bunch of engineers decided to cram a ton of “cool features” into a phone whereas the iPhone 4 feels like a device that was architected to support one particular user experience (but not others) as seamlessly as possible. What does that mean in terms of a direct comparison? In order of importance (to how I use the phone):
    1. Typing – Typing is extremely important to me as my main goal for smartphone is to let me write and respond to emails on the go. Given my years with the Blackberry’s famous high-quality keyboard, I was expecting to hate the iPhone 4’s soft keyboard. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, I actually got to be quick enough with it that speed did not become an issue. However, a few things plagued me. First, I absolutely hate the placement of the backspace key – its not where I expect it to be (having been trained by QWERTY computer keyboards) and is just close enough to the “m” that I hit it when I’m typing quickly. Secondly, the iPhone interface doesn’t actually support a landscape interface mode in all applications (i.e. the App Store) – which forces me to use a much more constrained portrait keyboard which slows me down. Finally, as good as the iPhone soft keyboard is, because there’s no good way to position your fingers or to “feel” when keys have been pushed, soft keyboards intrinsically force you to think more about how to type than a hard keyboard than otherwise. Enter the DROID 2. It has a hard keyboard which although not quite as good as a Blackberry’s (the keys seem oddly spaced to me, and they are more stiff than “springy”), still lets me position my fingers and type without thinking so much about how I’m typing.
      imageIn addition to the hard keyboard, the DROID 2 also supports Swype, a very cool (and fast) way to type on a soft keyboard where, instead of typing keys consecutively, you simply drag your fingers to the letters that you’re trying to type. There’s a little bit of a learning curve (in terms of learning how to punctuate and do double-letters), but once you get over that initial hump, I think the average person can get to a faster speed with Swype than they can just pecking at keys. In my mind, the DROID 2 wins hands down on typing.
    2. Exchange support – If you want a smartphone that can function as a work device, you need to support Exchange and you need to support it well. Both the iPhone and Android claim support for Microsoft Exchange with push synchronization. While I have some quibbles with the iPhone’s mail interface, there’s no denying that the iPhone’s Exchange support is seamless and fast. I have never had to think about it. And, on occasion, the iPhone would even notify me of emails before my computer received them! The DROID 2, on the other hand, is a different story. While the Exchange sync works most of the time, there have already been two occasions where the sync was broken and the device would think that a message I had already read was a new message. The sync is also significantly slower – requiring me to wait (sometimes up to 10 minutes) before an email that has already showed up on the iPhone and the desktop shows up through the DROID 2’s sync feature. I don’t know if this is because Motorola/Google introduced some intermediate layer in between the Exchange and the phone, but the iPhone 4 wins hands down on Exchange support.
    3. Google integration – I use a ton of Google services (Gmail, Google Calendar, Picasa, Google Reader, Google Voice, Google Maps, etc.) so integration with Google services is a key criteria when picking a phone. While the iPhone has an excellent interface to Google Maps (which puts the Android’s standard maps interface to shame in terms of smoothness and speed), its inability to do very much beyond basic synchronization with Gmail and Google Calendar and only webapp access to Google Voice makes its integration with Google on par with the Blackberry’s. On the other hand, is it  any surprise that Google services integration works best on a phone which runs a Google operating system? You can make calls using Google Voice as if it weren’t even there. You can easily apply and remove labels on and search through your Gmail seamlessly (without the semi-awkward IMAP interface). You can even access your personal online search history through Google Maps and Google Search. DROID 2 wins this one by a wide margin.
    4. image Attachment file format support – its not enough to be able to access email, a good work device should be able to handle the PDFs, Powerpoints, Word documents, and images that are likely embedded. Motorola had a stroke of genius by preloading the Quick Office application onto each DROID 2. But, while this app does a very good job of opening files, it not being integrated into the DROID 2’s email applications gives it a disadvantage compared to the iPhone’s in-line and integrated attachment viewer. Combine this with the DROID 2’s inexplicable inability to open certain image types in email and there is a distinct, albeit slight, advantage on file format support for the iPhone 4.
    5. Customization – I’m very particular about how I use my devices. As a result, I want to be able to customize the heck out of something. While the iPhone gives you some basic customization options (i.e., do you want to hear a sound when a new email comes in?), it doesn’t give you much beyond that (i.e., what sound do you want to hear when a new email comes in? would you only like to hear a sound if its gmail rather than exchange? would you like to hear a different sound for gmail and exchange?) On the other hand, the DROID 2 provides remarkable customization capability. Granted, some of the choices can be difficult to find, but the ability to customize so many things (including the ability to embed live, functional widgets on your home screen and not just functionless shortcuts) and to install apps like Tasker which let you customize even deeper is a big differentiator for the Android platform.
    6. UI responsiveness/slickness – Smartphones are expensive. They consume a lot of battery power. So when a device feels sluggish, I can get annoyed. The iPhone is, simply put, amazingly slick. No choppiness when you scroll or swipe. Great responsiveness. No odd user interface defects. While Google’s Android has made remarkable strides since its earliest incarnation, it still doesn’t come close to matching Apple’s user interface polish – the most shameful example of which, in my opinion, is the Android Google Maps’ sluggish multitouch support when compared to Apple’s. Come on guys, ITS YOUR OWN APP!
    7. Notifications – I don’t know a single person who likes the iPhone’s primitive notification system. Its overly intrusive. It can only display one particular message at a time. And, there’s no way for someone to get the history of all their recent notifications. And, as a Blackberry user who used to rely on a small LED indicator to unobtrusively inform him when something new happened, the iPhone’s lack of any way of notifying its owner that something has happened without activating the screen just strikes me as stupid. The DROID 2 is FAR ahead of Apple here.
    8. Network – I have mixed feelings here. On the one hand, I would  say that the call quality I’ve experienced on the DROID 2 has lagged what I experienced on the iPhone 4. Furthermore, my DROID 2 seems to have schizophrenic reception – I sometimes amuse myself by watching my signal indicator go from full bars to just one bar, all while sitting on my desk leaving the phone completely alone. The other side to this story, though, is that this experience quality has been primarily driven by an odd pocket of bad Verizon coverage in my girlfriend’s apartment – our calls from almost everywhere else have been very good. Also, despite my DROID 2’s signal indicator fluctuations, I have not yet observed any actual impact on my connection speed or call quality. When you combine this with the fact that my iPhone struggles to get signal where I work and in Napa (where I just came back from a wedding) but my DROID 2 had minimal issues, I have to say that DROID 2/Verizon beats out iPhone 4/AT&T.
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    9. Ability to turn off 3G – The two main things that burn out a smartphone’s battery are the display and the wireless connection. While its a pain to reach that particular menu item on the iPhone 4, Apple’s product does make it possible to turn off the 3G connection. Shockingly, despite all the customization, the DROID 2 does not provide this option. The iPhone 4 wins here.
    10. Turn-by-turn navigationThe DROID 2 has it. The iPhone doesn’t. And, believe me when I say this is: it is an AMAZING feature and completely displaces the need for a GPS device. I don’t drive places I’m unfamiliar with often enough for this to be higher in the priority list, but lets just say it saved my butt on my recent trip to Napa. DROID 2 wins here.
    11. Access to Bluetooth – In California, you cannot talk on a cell phone while driving without a Bluetooth headset. So, quick-and-easy access to Bluetooth settings is a feature of considerable importance to me. With the iPhone, the ability to turn Bluetooth on and off and change settings is buried beneath several layers of settings. The DROID 2’s pairing process is not only faster (although this is only by ~10-20 seconds), the ability to customize the home screen means I can embed widgets/links to quickly and easily toggle Bluetooth without diving through settings. DROID 2 wins here.
    12. image Chrome-to-Phone – DROID 2 has it. iPhone 4 doesn’t. This is a very cool browser extension which lets you send links, text messages, and maps to your phone straight from Chrome (or the Firefox clone of it). When I first heard about it, I wasn’t especially impressed, but its become a very useful tool which lets me send things which would be useful while on-the-go (especially directions). DROID 2 wins here.
    13. Absence of pre-loaded bloat – This is something where Apple’s philosophy of getting full control over the user experience pays off. The iPhone 4 does not come with any of the bloatware that we’ve come to see in new PCs. That means that the apps that run on my iPhone 4 are either well-designed Apple utilities or apps I have chosen to install. My DROID 2? Full of crapware which I neither want nor am I able to install. Thankfully, I’m able to remove them from my homescreen, but it annoys me that Verizon and Motorola have decided that preloading phones is a great way to generate additional revenue. The iPhone wins hands down here.
    14. Camera – To be perfectly honest, I hate both the DROID 2 and the iPhone 4’s cameras. With the iPhone 4, I find it pretty awkward to shoot a picture using the soft keyboard to both zoom in and out and take the shot. While the DROID 2 has obvious physical buttons to use for zoom and to take the shot, it has a lackluster flash and I found it more difficult to take steady pictures than I did with the iPhone 4. It also captures video at a lower resolution than the iPhone 4. In the end, though, I’d have to say that awkward use of the camera trumps bad flash photography and poorer video resolution: iPhone wins here.
    15. image Flash support – DROID 2 has it. iPhone doesn’t. This means no more stupid boxes on web pages which haven’t made the plunge into HTML5 video (because Firefox and IE don’t support it yet) or activating another application to watch YouTube videos. Does it burn battery? Yes. But its not like I’m watching it non-stop, and there are definitely some sites which you can’t visit without Flash. DROID 2 wins here.
    16. Voice control – Google recently unveiled its Voice Actions for Android application which allows you to perform all sorts of commands without ever typing a thing. While the Google search app on iPhone and apps like Siri have supported voice-based web searches, they don’t provide access to the wealth and depth of functions like email, text messaging (although, sadly, it does not yet seem to support Google Voice-based-SMS), calling up the map application, or controlling the music player that Google’s does. Granted, Google seems to still have issues understanding my girlfriend’s name is “Sophia” and not “Cynthia”, but the DROID 2’s voice-control functionality is way ahead of the iPhone 4’s and adds a lot of convenience when you are on-the-go.
    17. File management – Apple’s iTunes software works great as an MP3 player. I’m not so sure how I feel about it as the ultimate gateway to my mobile phone for pictures and applications. It also irks me that, because of iTunes, there is no obvious way to access or modify the directory structure on an iPhone 4. The DROID 2, however, looks and acts just like a USB drive when its connected to a computer. It even comes with a file manager app with which you can use to go through its file system innards from within the phone. If you are fine with the inability to specify your own organization structure or to use a phone as portable storage, then this is wash. But, if you value any of those things, then the DROID 2 has Apple’s iPhone 4 beat.
    18. Not proprietary hardware – You cannot remove/upgrade an iPhone’s internal storage. You cannot charge or sync with an iPhone without using its proprietary cable. This is great if you never want to upgrade your device’s storage capabilities, never want to slot its memory into another device, and never lose cables. But, if you ever want to do any of the first two or inadvertently do the last, then you’re better off with DROID 2.
    19. Display – One of the features I was most impressed with during the iPhone 4 announcement was the Retina Display: a screen with a resolution so high it was said to be at/near the limit of human detection. I can honestly say it works as advertised – the resolution on an iPhone screen is incredible. However, as I rarely use applications/websites where that resolution is actually necessary, its value to me is not that high (although the increased contrast is a nice touch). With that said, though, it is a nice (and very noticeable) touch and is definitely something where the iPhone 4 beats out the DROID 2.
    20. Device “feel” – The two devices have comparable screen sizes, but the DROID 2 has significantly greater thickness. The iPhone feels like a crafted piece of art. It feels metallic. Substantial. The DROID 2 feels like a thick piece of plastic. This doesn’t really impact the functioning of the device, but the iPhone 4 is definitely nicer to hold and look at and feels a lot sturdier.

    So where does that leave us? If you’re keeping score, I noted 12 things which (in my opinion) favor DROID 2 and 8 things which favor iPhone 4. As I mentioned before, which device you would prefer strongly depends on how you weight the different things mentioned here. If you value work-horse text entry, customization, and Google integration a lot (like I do), then the DROID 2 is probably the phone that you’ll want. If you value the Exchange/attachment support and UI slickness more, then the iPhone 4 is a better bet. And, there’s definitely room for disagreement here. If you think my assessment of Bluetooth support and notifications are off, then that could be ample reason to pick Apple.

Hopefully this was informative for any reader deciding what phone to get (even if they’re considering something which isn’t even on the list!). I’ll probably follow this post with a few thoughts on where I’d like to see the Apple and Google platforms go next – but until then, happy smartphone-ing!

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Why I Favor Google over Apple

image Many of my good friends are big fans of Apple and its products. But not me. This good-natured difference in opinion leads us into never-ending mini-debates over Twitter or in real life over the relative merits of Apple’s products and those of its competitors.

I suspect many of them (respectfully) think I’m crazy. “Why would you want an inferior product?” “Why do you back a company that has all this information about you and follows you everywhere on the internet?”

I figured that one of these days, I should actually respond to them (fears of flamers/attacks on my judgment be damned!).

imageFirst thing’s first. I’ll concede that, at least for now, Apple tends to build better products. Apple has remarkable design and UI sense which I have yet to see matched by another company. Their hardware is of exceptionally high quality, and, as I mentioned before, they are masters at integrating their high-end hardware with their custom-built software to create a very solid user experience. They are also often pioneers in new hardware innovations (e.g., accelerometer, multitouch, “retina display”, etc.).

So, given this, why on earth would I call myself a Google Fanboi (and not an Apple one)? There are a couple of reasons for it, but most of them boil down basically to the nature of Google’s business model which is focused around monetizing use rather than selling a particular piece of content/software/hardware. Google’s dominant source of profit is internet advertising – and they are able to better serve ads (get higher revenue per ad) and able to serve more ads (higher number of ads) by getting more people to use the internet and to use it more. Contrast this with Apple who’s business model is (for the most part) around selling a particular piece of software or hardware – to them, increased use is the justification or rationale for creating (and charging more for) better products. The consequence of this is that the companies focus on different things:

  • image Cheap(er) cost of access – Although Apple technology and design is quite complicated, Apple’s product philosophy is very simple: build the best product “solution” and sell it at a premium. This makes sense given Apple’s business model focus on selling the highest-quality products. But it does not make sense for Google which just wants to see more internet usage. To achieve this, Google does two main things. First, Google offers many services and development platforms for little or no cost. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Search: all free, to name a few. Second, Google actively attacks pockets of control or profitability in the technology space which could impede internet use. Bad browsers reducing the willingness of people to use the internet? Release the very fast Google Chrome browser. Lack of smartphones? Release the now-very-popular Android operating system. Not enough internet-connected TV solutions? Release Google TV. Not enough people on high-speed broadband? Consider building a pilot high-speed fiber optic network for a lucky community. All of these efforts encourage greater Web usage in two ways: (a) they give people more of a reason to use the Web more by providing high-value web services and “complements” to the web (like browsers and OS’s) at no or low cost and (b) forcing other businesses to lower their own prices and/or offer better services. Granted, these moves oftentimes serve other purposes (weakening competitive threats on the horizon and/or providing new sources of revenue) and aren’t always successes (think OpenSocial or Google Buzz), but I think the Google MO (make the web cheaper and better) is better for all end-users than Apple’s.
  • Choice at the expense of quality – Given Apple’s interest in building the best product and charging for it, they’ve tended to make tradeoffs in their design philosophy to improve performance and usability. This has proven to be very effective for them, but it has its drawbacks. If you have followed recent mobile tech news, you’ll know Apple’s policies on mobile application submissions and restrictions on device functionality have not met with universal applause. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t have the right to do this (clearly they do) or that the tradeoffs they’ve made are bad ones (the number  of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch purchases clearly shows that many people are willing to “live with it”), but it is a philosophical choice. But, this has implications for the ecosystem around Apple versus Google (which favors a different tradeoff). Apple’s philosophy provides great “out of the box” performance, but at the expense of being slower or less able to adopt potential innovations or content due to their own restrictions. image Case in point: a startup called Swype has built a fascinating new way to use soft keyboards on touchscreens, but due to Apple’s App Store not allowing an application that makes such a low-level change, the software is only available on Android phones. Now, this doesn’t preclude Swype from being on the iPhone eventually, but it’s an example where Apple’s approach may impede innovation and consumer choice – something which a recent panel of major mobile game developers expressed concern about — and its my two cents worth that the Google way of doing things is better in the long run.
  • image Platforms vs solutions – Apple’s hallmark is the vertically integrated model, going so far as to have their own semiconductor solution and content store (iTunes). This not only lets them maximize the amount of cash they can pull in from a customer (I don’t just sell you a device, I get a cut of the applications and music you use on it), it also lets them build tightly integrated, high quality product “solution”. Google, however, is not in the business of selling devices and has no interest in one tightly integrated solution: they’d rather get as many people on the internet as possible. So, instead of pursuing the “Jesus phone” approach, they pursue the platform approach, releasing “horizontal” software and services platforms to encourage more companies and more innovators to work with it. With Apple, you only have one supplier and a few product variants. With Google, you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution. A fair response to this would be that this can lead to platform fragmentation, but whether or not there is a destructive amount of it is an open question. Given Apple’s track record the last time it went solo versus platform (something even Steve Jobs admits they didn’t do so well at), I feel this is a major strength for Google’s model in the long-run.
  • (More) open source/standards – Google is unique in the tech space for the extent of its support for open source and open standards. Now, how they’ve handled it isn’t perfect, but if you take a quick glance at their Google Code page, you can see an impressive number of code snippets and projects which they’ve open sourced and contributed to the community. They’ve even gone so far as to provide free project hosting for open source projects. But, even beyond just giving developers access to useful source code, Google has gone further than most companies in supporting open standards going so far as to provide open access to its WebM video codec which it purchased the rights to for ~$100M to provide a open HTML5 video standard and to make it easy to access your data from a Google service however you choose (i.e., IMAP access to Gmail, open API access to Google Calendar and Google Docs, etc.). This is in keeping with Google’s desire to enable more web development and web use, and is a direct consequence of it not relying on selling individual products. Contrast this with an Apple-like model – the services and software are designed to fuel additional sales. As a result, they are well-designed, high-performance, and neatly integrated with the rest of the package, but are much less likely to be open sourced (with a few notable exceptions) or support easy mobility to other devices/platforms. This doesn’t mean Apple’s business model is wrong, but it leads to a different conclusion, one which I don’t think is as good for the end-user in the long run.

These are, of course, broad sweeping generalizations (and don’t capture all the significant differences or the subtle ones between the two companies). Apple, for instance, is at the forefront of contributors to the open source Webkit project which powers many of the internet’s web browsers and is a pioneer behind the multicore processing standard OpenCL. On the flip side, Google’s openness and privacy policies are definitely far from perfect. But, I think those are exceptions to the “broad strokes” I laid out.

In this case, I believe that, while short-term design strength and solution quality may be the strengths of Apple’s current model, I believe in the long run, Google’s model is better for the end-customer because their model is centered around more usage.

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My Take on Google/Verizon’s Net Neutrality Proposal

If you’ve been following the tech news at all, you’ll know about the great controversy surrounding the joint Google/Verizon proposal for net neutrality. Recently, Google came out with a defense of its own actions, and I thought I’d weigh in.

First, I think the community overreacted. There is a lot to not like about Google’s stance, but I think there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. There are political limits to what strict net neutrality promoters can achieve. Its a fact of life that the telco providers have deep pockets (part of their having government-granted monopoly status) and stand to gain or lose a great deal from the outcome of net neutrality legislation and thus wield enormous influence over broadband legislation. Its also a fact of life that the path towards net neutrality is more easily served by finding common ground which preserves the most important aspects of net neutrality than it is to fight the telco providers kicking and screaming the whole way. What I mean to say is: we should not criticize Google for dealing with a telco or with making compromises on net neutrality. That’s an unreasonable stance typically held by people who don’t have to actually make policy. With that said, we should criticize Google for making the wrong compromises.
  2. I don’t think Android was the issue here. Many people may disagree with me here, but I don’t believe Android has much direct impact to Google’s bottom line. From my perspective, Google’s commitment to Android is about two things: (a) preventing Apple from dominating the smartphone market (and potentially the mobile ad market) by empowering a bunch of phone manufacturers to provide devices of comparable (or better) quality and (b) forcing all mobile phone platforms to have decent-enough web surfing/app-running capability (by providing a free alternative which did) so that Google can provide its services effectively on those platforms and serve more ads. If anything, Google’s incentives here are better aligned with net neutrality than most companies: it benefits the most if there are more people using the web, and the best way to push that is to encourage greater content diversity. While Google TV may change Android into a true profit center, it wouldn’t be for several years, and so I think it’d be a stretch to say it is a big enough deal to significantly impact Google’s political policy moves. I can buy the argument that Google pushed a deal with Verizon because they have a closer relationship via Android, but I think suggesting that Google subverted net neutrality as a concession to Verizon on Android is taking it too far.
  3. I think Google did a good job of emphasizing transparency. The proposal emphasizes that telcos need to be held to higher standards of transparency, something which is sorely lacking today, and something which we definitely want to and need to see in the future.

With that said, though, there are definitely things to criticize Google’s agreement on:

  1. Wireless: I can sympathize with the argument that wireless is different from wired networks and could require more aggressive traffic management. I even went so far as to call that out the last time I talked about this. But, given the importance of wireless broadband in the future, it doesn’t make any sense to exclude explicit protections around neutrality for wireless. The arguments around competition and early development strike me as naive at best and Verizon PR at worst – whatever provisions exist to protect neutrality for wired networks should be applied in the wireless space. Competition and the development of more open gardens make it possible to compromise, but not necessarily throw caution to the wind.
  2. Wording weirdness: I’m concerned that the proposal contains phrasings which seem to give avenues for telcos to back out of neutrality like “prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted” without clearly explaining what are reasonable grounds for rebuttal. Even parts of the compromise which I accept as valid (i.e., letting telcos do basic network quality of service management, prioritize government/emergency traffic, fight off malware/piracy, etc.) were framed in terms of what telco’s were permitted to do, but not without clearly laid out restrictions (i.e., network service quality management must be subject to FCC review). For a document meant to safeguard neutrality, it sure seems to go out of its way to stipulate workarounds…
  3. “Additional online services”: I understand (and agree with) the intent – carriers may want to provide special services which they want to treat differently to meet their partners’/customers’ needs like a special gaming service or secure money transfer. The language, however, is strange and not imminently clear to me that there aren’t “back doors” for the telcos to use to circumvent neutrality restrictions.

Truthfully, I think most of the document rings true as a practical compromise between the interests and needs of telcos (who would bear the brunt of the costs and should be incentivized to improve network quality and provide meaningful services and integration) and the interests of the public. But, I would ask Google or whatever legislator/FCC member who has a voice on this to do two things:

  • Not compromise on content neutrality on any medium. The value of the internet as a medium and as a platform of innovation comes from the ability of people to access all sorts of applications and content without that access being discriminated against by the network operator. Not sticking to that is risking slower innovation and choking off a valuable source of commentary/opinions, especially in a setup where large local players hold enormous market power because of their government-granted monopoly status.
  • Create clear (but flexible enough to be future-proof) guidelines for acceptable behavior with clear adjudication and clear punishments. No squirrely word weirdness. No “back door” language. You don’t need to browbeat the telco’s, but you don’t need to coddle them either.
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Private concerns

imageOne reason I love science fiction is that it challenges our morals and beliefs in a way that other art forms rarely do. It asks us difficult questions, like, what if we had the ability to visit other planets and encounter different cultures? What if we could genetically “design” our children? What if we could go back in time and change history?

Unsettling questions aren’t they? But, why are they unsettling? My personal belief is that they are unsettling because our intuitions, our values, our beliefs, our laws, and our institutions were not designed to handle those questions. If you assume that Western culture is heavily derived from Ancient Greek and Roman humanism, is it any wonder that society has trouble understanding what to do with our nuclear arsenals or with humankind’s new ability to genetically alter the people and animals around us? After all, the foundations of today’s laws and values predated when people could even conceive that humans would ever have to think about such things.

So, when people ask me what I think about all the press that privacy concerns about Google or privacy concerns about Facebook or any of the other myriad social networks have garnered, I view it as manifestation of the fact that we now have technology which makes it super-easy to share information about ourselves and our location but we have yet to develop the intuititions, values, and laws/institutions to handle it.

Lets use myself as an example: I personally find auto-GPS-tagging my Tweets to be oversharing. However, I frequently Tweet the location I’m at and even the friends I’m with. Is this odd combination of preferences an example of irrationality? Probably (I was never the brightest kid). But I’d argue its more about my lack of intuition on the technology and the lack of clear cultural norms/values.

image And I’m not the only one who is beginning to come to terms with the un-intuitiveness of our digital lives. My good friend, and prominent blogger, Serena Wu recently went through a social network consolidation/privacy overhaul as a result of understanding just what it was she was sharing and how it could be used. All across the internet, I believe users are beginning to understand the consequences to privacy of their social network and search engine behavior.

Now, the easy reflex thing to do would be to simply cut off such privacy issues and cut out these social networks like one would a tumor. But, I think that would be a dramatic over-reaction akin to how the Luddites reacted to factory automation. It ignores the potential value of the technology: in the case of sharing information on social networks, this can come in the form of helping people advertise themselves to employers, assisting friends with keeping in contact with one another, and/or even delivering more valuable services over the internet. Now, that shouldn’t be construed as a blanket defense of everything Facebook or Twitter or Google does, but an understanding that there is a tradeoff to be made between privacy and service value is necessary to help the services, their users, society, and the government realize the appropriate changes in intuition, values, and rules to properly cope.

I’m not smart enough to predict what that tradeoff will look like or how our intuitions and values may change in the future, but I do think we can count on a few things happening:

  • Privacy will remain a big issue. Facebook and Twitter’s early years were marked by a very laissez-faire approach by both the users and the services on privacy. I believe that such an approach is unlikely to persist given the potential dangers and users’ growing appreciation for them. There is no doubt in my mind that, whether it be through laws, user demand, advocacy groups, or some combination of the above, data privacy and security will be a “must-have” feature of great significance for future web services built around sharing/accessing information.
  • Privacy policies and settings will become more standardized. I believe that the industry, in an attempt to become more transparent to their users and to avoid some of the un-intuitiveness that I described above, will build simpler and more standardized privacy controls. This isn’t to say that there won’t be room for extra innovation around privacy settings, but I think a “lexicon” of terms and settings will emerge which most services will have to support to gain user trust.
  • Data access APIs will become more restricted and/or use better authentication. The proliferation of web APIs has created a huge boom in new web services and mashups. However, many of these APIs use antiquated methods of authentication which don’t necessarily protect privacy. Consequently, I believe that the APIs that many new web services have grown to use will face new pressures to authenticate properly and frequently as to avoid data privacy compromise.

In the meantime, the few tips I listed below will probably be relevant to users regardless of how our rules, values, and intuitions change:

  • Understand the privacy policy of the services you use.
  • Figure out what you are willing to share and with whom as well as what you are not willing to share. Only use services which allow you to set access restrictions to those limits.
  • Check with your web service regularly on what information is being stored and what information is being accessed by a third party. (i.e., the Google Dashboard or Twitter’s Connections)
  • Advocate for better forms of authentication and privacy controls

No matter what happens in the web service privacy area, we are definitely in for an interesting ride!

(Image credit – ethics) (Image credit – Big Facebook Brother)

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Microsoft surprise attack!

If you’ve been following the tech news, you’ll know that iPhone-purveyor Apple has launched a patent infringement lawsuit against HTC, one of the flagship (Taiwanese) phone manufacturers partnered up with Google and Microsoft to push Android and Windows phones. While HTC may be the company listed on the lawsuit, it was fairly clear that this was a blow against all iPhone imitators and especially against Google’s Android mobile phone (which was recently reported to have generated more mobile web traffic in the US than the iPhone).

But, as I’ve pointed out before, the lines between enemy and friend are murky in the technology strategy space. It would seem that Microsoft may have just thrown HTC (and hence the Android platform and other would-be iPhone-killers) a surprise lifeline:

REDMOND, Wash. — April 27, 2010 — Microsoft Corp. and HTC Corp. have signed a patent agreement that provides broad coverage under Microsoft’s patent portfolio for HTC’s mobile phones running the Android mobile platform. Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft will receive royalties from HTC.

The agreement expands HTC’s long-standing business relationship with Microsoft.

“HTC and Microsoft have a long history of technical and commercial collaboration, and today’s agreement is an example of how industry leaders can reach commercial arrangements that address intellectual property,” said Horacio Gutierrez, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel of Intellectual Property and Licensing at Microsoft. “We are pleased to continue our collaboration with HTC.”

Why? I’d conjecture its a combination of three things:

  • Sizable royalty stream: Microsoft is an intellectual property giant. But, given Microsoft’s tenuous and potentially weakening position in mobile phones, they have probably been unable to fully monetize their own intellectual property. Why not test the waters with a company who is already friendly (HTC is a leading supplier of Windows Mobile phones), who desperately needs some intellectual property protection, and is churning out Android phones as if its life depended on it? And, if this works out, it opens the doorway for Microsoft to extract further royalties from other Android phone makers as well (and its even been suggested ominously that perhaps Microsoft is using this as an intellectual property ploy against all Linux systems as well).
  • The enemy of my enemy is my friend: Apple is the Goliath that Windows, Blackberry, Symbian, WebOS, and Android need to slay. Given Microsoft’s unique advantage from being the leading PC operating system, one potentially feasible strategy would be to simply stall its competitors from building a similar position in the mobile phone space (like by helping Android take on Apple) and, when Microsoft is nice and ready, win in mobile phones by moving the PC “software stack” into the mobile phone world and creating better ties between computers (which run Microsoft’s own Windows operating system) and the phone.
  • HTC probably made some fairly significant concessions to Microsoft: I’m willing to bet that HTC has either coughed up some extremely favorable intellectual property royalty/licensing terms or has promised to support Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 series in a very big way. Considering how quickly HTC embraced Android when it was formerly a Windows-Mobile-only shop, its probably not a stretch to believe that there were probably active discussions within HTC over whether or not to drop Microsoft’s faltering platform. An agreement from HTC to build a certain number of Windows phones or to align on roadmap would be a blessing for Microsoft who likely needs all the friends it can get to claw back smartphone market share.

Obviously, I could be completely wrong here (its unclear if Microsoft can even provide HTC with sufficient legal “air cover” against Apple), but the one thing that nobody can deny is that tech strategy is never boring.

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Keep your enemies closer

One of the most interesting things about technology strategy is that the lines of competition between different businesses is always blurry. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this, would anyone 10 years ago have predicted that:

I’m betting not too many people saw these coming. Well, a short while ago, the New York Times Tech Blog decided to chart some of this out, highlighting how the boundaries between some of the big tech giants out there (Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo) are blurring:

image

Its an oversimplification of the complexity and the economics of each of these business moves, but its still a very useful depiction of how tech companies wage war: they keep their enemies so close that they eventually imitate their business models.

(Chart credit)

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This is how you make a resume

The best recruiting advice I can give is to make your resume exactly like this fictional representation of what Sergey Brin (one of Google’s co-founders)’s resume looks like (HT: Pierre Lindenbaum):

image

Why do we like it?

  • It’s unnecessary, in a good way. Does anyone really need to read Sergey Brin’s resume to know he’s sharp? You are unlikely to be Sergey, but there are things you can do (doing informational interviews, networking, being recommended) which can help make your resume unnecessary in a good way
  • It’s simple. I can’t tell you how many resume’s I’ve read where the writer has tried to pack every last detail of his/her life into it. No. We don’t use resume’s to judge you as a human being – we use them to judge if you could be a good employee, worthwhile to interview.
  • Big font. Easy on the eyes. Memorable. To the point.

Rock on, Sergey Brins of the world.

(Image credit)

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Why smartphones are a big deal (Part 2)

[This is a continuation of my post on Why Smartphones are a Big Deal (Part 1)]

Last time, I laid out four reasons why smartphones are a lot more than just phones for rich snobs:

  1. It’s the software, stupid
  2. Look ma, no <insert other device here>
  3. Putting the carriers in their place
  4. Contextuality

My last post focused on #1 and #2, mainly that (#1) software opens up a whole new world of money and possibility for smartphones that “regular” phones can’t replicate and (#2) that the combination of smartphones being able to do the things that many other devices can and phones being something that you carry around with you all day spells bad news for GPS makers, MP3 player companies, digital camera companies, and a lot of other device categories.

This time, I’ll focus on #3 and #4.

III. Putting the carriers in their place

Throughout most of the history of the phone industry, the carriers were the dominant power. Sure, enormous phone companies like Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola had some clout, but at the end of the day, especially in the US, everybody felt the crushing influence of the major wireless carriers.

In the US, the carriers regulated access to phones with subsidies. They controlled which functions were allowed. They controlled how many texts and phone calls you were able to make. When they did let you access the internet, they exerted strong influence on which websites you had access to and which ringtones/wallpapers/music you could download. In short, they managed the business to minimize costs and risks, and they did it because their government-granted monopolies (over the right to use wireless spectrum) and already-built networks made it impossible  for a new guy to enter the market.

imageBut this sorry state of affairs has already started to change with the advent of the smartphone. RIM’s Blackberry had started to affect the balance of power, but Apple’s iPhone really shook things up – precisely because users started demanding more than just a wireless service plan – they wanted a particular operating system with a particular internet experience and a particular set of applications – and, oh, it’s on AT&T? That’s not important, tell me more about the Apple part of it!

What’s more, the iPhone’s commercial success accelerated the change in consumer appetites. Smartphone users were now picking a wireless service provider not because of coverage or the cost of service or the special carrier-branded applications  – that was all now secondary to the availability of the phone they wanted and what sort of applications and internet experience they could get over that phone. And much to the carriers’ dismay, the wireless carrier was becoming less like the gatekeeper who got to charge crazy prices because he/she controlled the keys to the walled garden and more like the dumb pipe that people connected to the web on their iPhone with.

Now, it would be an exaggeration to say that the carriers will necessarily turn into the “dumb pipes” that today’s internet service providers are (remember when everyone in the US used AOL?) as these large carriers are still largely immune to competitors. But, there are signs that the carriers are adapting to their new role. The once ultra-closed Verizon now allows Palm WebOS and Google Android devices to roam free on its network as a consequence of AT&T and T-Mobile offering devices from Apple and Google’s partners, respectively, and has even agreed to allow VOIP applications like Skype access to its network, something which jeopardizes their former core voice revenue stream.

As for the carriers, as they begin to see their influence slip over basic phone experience considerations, they will likely shift their focus to finding ways to better monetize all the traffic that is pouring through their networks. Whether this means finding a way to get a cut of the ad/virtual good/eCommerce revenue that’s flowing through or shifting how they charge for network access away from unlimited/“all you can eat” plans is unclear, but it will be interesting to see how this ecosystem evolves.

IV. Contextuality

There is no better price than the amazingly low price of free. And, in my humble opinion, it is that amazingly low price of free which has enabled web services to have such a high rate of adoption. Ask yourself, would services like Facebook and Google have grown nearly as fast without being free to use?

How does one provide compelling value to users for free? Before the age of the internet, the answer to that age-old question was simple: you either got a nice government subsidy, or you just didn’t. Thankfully, the advent of the internet allowed for an entirely new business model: providing services for free and still making a decent profit by using ads. While over-hyping of this business model led to the dot com crash in 2001 as countless websites found it pretty difficult to monetize their sites purely with ads, services like Google survived because they found that they could actually increase the value of the advertising on their pages not only because they had a ton of traffic, but because they could use the content on the page to find ads which visitors had a significantly higher probability of caring about.

imageThe idea that context could be used to increase ad conversion rates (the percent of people who see an ad and actually end up buying) has spawned a whole new world of web startups and technologies which aim to find new ways to mine context to provide better ad targeting. Facebook is one such example of the use of social context (who your friends are, what your interests are, what your friends’ interests are) to serve more targeted ads.

So, where do smartphones fit in? There are two ways in which smartphones completely change the context-to-advertising dynamic:

  • Location-based services: Your phone is a device which not only has a processor which can run software, but is also likely to have GPS built-in, and is something which you carry on your person at all hours of the day. What this means is that the phone not only know what apps/websites you’re using, it also knows where you are and if you’re on a vehicle (based on how fast you are moving) when you’re using them. If that doesn’t let a merchant figure out a way to send you a very relevant ad, I don’t know what will. The Yowza iPhone application is an example of how this might shape out in the future, where you can search for mobile coupons for local stores all on your phone.
  • image Augmented reality: In the same way that the GPS lets mobile applications do location-based services, the camera, compass, and GPS in a mobile phone lets mobile applications do something called augmented reality. The concept behind augmented reality (AR) is that, in the real world, you and I are only limited by what our five senses can perceive. If I see an ad for a book, I can only perceive what is on the advertisement. I don’t necessarily know much about how much it costs on Amazon.com or what my friends on Facebook have said about it. Of course, with a mobile phone, I could look up those things on the internet, but AR takes this a step further. Instead of merely looking something up on the internet, AR will actually overlay content and information on top of what you are seeing on your phone screen. One example of this is the ShopSavvy application for Android which allows you to scan product barcodes to find product review information and even information on pricing from online and other local stores! Google has taken this a step further with Google Goggles which can recognize pictures of landmarks, books, and even bottles of wine! For an advertiser or a store, the ability to embed additional content through AR technology is the ultimate in providing context but only to those people who want it. Forget finding the right balance between putting too much or too little information on an ad, use AR so that only the people who are interested will get the extra information.

The result of all four of these factors? If you assume that a phone is only a calling device, you’re flat out wrong. And if you think a phone is just another device for accessing the internet and playing goofy little games, you’re also wrong. The smartphone will, in this blogger’s humble opinion, dramatically change the technology landscape, and the smart money is on the companies and startups and venture capitalists who recognize that and act on it.

(Image credit) (Image credit) (Image credit)

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Upgrade

I had the pleasure of upgrading my Blackberry to use the latest version of RIM’s operating system (version 4.5) last Friday. I had intended to do it myself, but I discovered that if your Blackberry is connected to a Blackberry Enterprise Server (i.e. can you check your corporate calendar/email on your Blackberry? If so, then you are) then your IT department has to do the upgrade for you. At the time, I was annoyed, but in retrospect it’s not that surprising considering how RIM promises enterprise IT department control over each device.

And, I have to say, it looks good.

  • Revamped email system – No more ugly text-only emails, Blackberry OS 4.5 supports rich text emails and formatting so that the email on your handset looks like what you would see on your desktop/laptop screen; RIM claims that this new system also lets you open/edit Word/PowerPoint files, but I have yet to test that feature so I can neither confirm nor deny it
  • Enhanced browser – I haven’t gotten rid of my Opera Mini, but the new Blackberry browser looks infinitely better than the old one – now that, by default, it packs a cursor (I know, revolutionary), what looks to me like better stylesheet support, and its main screen even has an address bar and a search bar built in
  • Video record – I always wondered why it was missing in the old Blackberry OS!
  • Voice notes – You can now record voice notes and save them for later use!
  • Improved font handling – I’ll admit that I’m not a font expert, but the new Blackberry OS fonts just look nicer (have they enabled better anti-aliasing?)

I’ve also revised the list of applications that I’ve currently installed on my Blackberry to my current must-have’s:

  • Google Mobile App – This lovely upgrade to the original Google application suite manager now provides a central interface to do Google searches, now with new location-specific searches and voice-searching features, and manage my Gmail and Google Maps applications
  • Gmail – Provides you with almost the entire Gmail interface in the form of a rich application – access your Google contacts, star conversations, and access your messages in the threads you are used to
  • Google Maps – Full access to Google Maps – including search, Google Latitude, public transit data, traffic, and even street view. It also has the location-sensing which enables you to pinpoint your location, even without GPS, by tracking the nearest cell phone tower
  • Opera Mini – Still, probably the best Blackberry browser out there
  • Google Talk – Access to your Google Chat via your Blackberry
  • Vlingo – A creative application which allows you to voice control multiple features on your Blackberry – including voice dialing, voice-enabled search, voice commands to open up applications, update your Facebook/Twitter status, and (if you pay for the premium version) the ability to compose emails via voice
  • WeatherEye – an application which brings weather for a particular region right to your Blackberry; the icon of the application changes based on what the weather is like (for example, when its night time, a moon will show up, when its day time, a sun will show up, if its cloudy, you will see clouds, etc), and gives you ready access to long-term and short-term forecasts
  • Ubertwitter – Although still in beta, it’s a very solid Twitter app that I would recommend to anyone who Tweets and is a Blackberry user

And, now, with the new Blackberry App World application (and now that my Blackberry is actually compatible with the newest applications), I aim to test a lot more new applications.

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Playing with Monopoly

imageWith the recent challenges to Google’s purchase of Doubleclick, Microsoft’s endless courtship of Yahoo, and the filing of more papers in the upcoming Intel/AMD case, the question of “why should the government break up monopolies?” becomes much more relevant.

This is a question that very few people ask, even though it is oftentimes taken for granted that the government should indeed engage in anti-trust activity.

The logic behind modern anti-trust efforts goes back to the era of the railroad, steel, and oil trusts of the Gilded Age, when massive and abusive firms engaged in collusion and anti-competitive behavior to fix prices and prevent new entrants from entering into the marketplace. As any economist will be quick to point out, one of the secrets to the success behind a market economy is competition – whether it be workers competing with workers to be more productive or firms competing with firms to deliver better and cheaper products to their customers. When you remove competition, there is no longer any pressing reason to guarantee quality or cost.

So – we should regulate all monopolies, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The logic that competition is always good is greatly oversimplified, as it glosses over 2 key things:

  1. It’s very difficult to determine what is a monopoly and what isn’t.
  2. Technology-driven industries oftentimes require large players to deliver value to the customer.

What’s a Monopoly?

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While we would all love monopolies to have clear and distinguishable characteristics – maybe an evil looking man dressed in all black laughing sinisterly as his diabolic plans destroy a pre-school? – the fact of the matter is that it is very difficult for an economist/businessperson to really tell what counts as a monopoly and what doesn’t, for four key reasons:

  1. Many of the complaints and lawsuits brought against “monopolies” are brought on by competitors. Who is trying to sue Intel? AMD. Who complained loudly about Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer into Windows? Netscape.
  2. “Market share” has no meaning. In a sense, there are a lot of monopolies out there. Orson Scott Card has a 100% market share in books pertaining to the Ender’s Game series. McDonald’s has a 100% market share in Big Macs. This may seem like I’m just playing with semantics, but this is actually a fairly serious problem in the business world. I would even venture that a majority of growth strategy consulting projects are due to the client being unable to correctly define the relevant market and relevant market share.
  3. What’s “monopoly-like” may just be good business. Some have argued that Microsoft and Intel are monopolies in that they are bullies to their customers, aggressively pushing PC manufacturers to only purchase from them. But, what is harder to discern is how this is any different from a company that offers aggressive volume discounts? Or that hires the best-trained negotiators? Or that knows how to produce the best products and demands a high price for them? Sure, Google is probably “forcing” its customers to pay more to advertise on Google, but if Google’s services and reach are the best, what’s wrong with that?
  4. “Victims” of monopolies may just be lousy at managing their business. AMD may argue that Intel’s monopoly power is hurting their bottom line, but at the end of the day, Intel isn’t directly to blame for AMD’s product roadmap mishaps, or its disastrous acquisition of ATI. Google isn’t directly to blame for Microsoft’s inability to compete online.

Big can be good?

This may come as a shock, but there are certain cases where large monolithic entities are actually good for the consumer. Most of these lie around technological innovation. Here are a few examples:

  • Semiconductors – The digital revolution would not have been possible without the fast, power-efficient, and tiny chips which act as their brains. What is not oftentimes understood, however, is the immense cost and time required to build new chips. It takes massive companies with huge budgets to build tomorrow’s chips. It’s for this reason that most chip companies don’t run their own manufacturing centers and are steadily slowing down their R&D/product roadmaps as it becomes increasingly costly to design and build out chips.
  • Pharmaceuticals – Just as with semiconductors, it is very costly, time-consuming, and risky to do drug development. Few of today’s biotech startups can actually even bring a drug to market — oftentimes hoping to stay alive just long enough to partner with or be bought by a larger company with the money and experience to jump through the necessary hoops to take a drug from benchside to bedside.
  • Software platforms – Everybody has a bone to pick with Microsoft’s shoddy Windows product line. But what few people recognize is how much the software industry benefited from the role that Microsoft played early on in the computer revolution. By quickly becoming the dominant operating system, Microsoft’s products made it easier for software companies to reach wide audiences. Instead of designing 20 versions of every application/game to run on 20 OS’s, Microsoft made it easy to only have to design one. This, of course, isn’t saying that we need a OS monopoly right now to build a software industry, but it is fair to say that Microsoft’s early “monopoly” was a boon to the technology industry.

The problem with today’s anti-trust rules and regulations is that they are legal rules and regulations, not economic ones. In that way, while they may protect against many of the abuses of the Gilded Age (by preventing firms from getting 64.585% market share and preventing them from monopolistic action 1 through 27), they also unfortunately act as deterrents to innovation and good business practice.

Instead, regulators need to try to take a broader, more holistic view of anti-trust. Instead of market share litmus tests and paying attention to sob stories from the Netscapes of the world, regulators need to really focus on first, determining if the offender in question is acting harmfully anticompetitive at all, and second if there is credible economic value in the institutions they seek to regulate.

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Google for Blackberry Gets Better

blackberrygoogle

Google has recently overhauled the two applications I use on my Blackberry the most (Gmail and Google Maps) and introduced a new useful one (Google Mobile Updater) as well as made a few interface changes to the Blackberry Google Talk applet.

The new Gmail upgrade is the least polished of the overhauls. It feels a little more sluggish, although, thankfully, they’ve now included new bandwidth status messages to at least give you a hint of what’s going on. It also adds new features such as:

  • new keyboard shortcuts
  • contacts interface which allows you to search through your Gmail contacts, call those you have listed phone numbers for
  • secure connection — you now have the option to use a secure connection for all your Gmail interactions
  • drafts are something that I always thought were a no-brainer; unfortunately, these drafts don’t show up in your Gmail draft folder and you can only have one at a time
  • notifications are something which make the Gmail update much more useful; before, when new messages were received there was no way for me to know when or how many. New mail messages in my work inbox would result in my Blackberry’s LED flashing, a vibration or tone (depending on what mode I set the device at), and a change in the inbox icon revealing that there were new messages. Gmail’s new applet has finally fixed this allowing one to customize exactly how Gmail will notify your Blackberry that new messages have arrived– by icon, by LED, by tone/vibration, etc.

Much more useful is the Google Maps upgrade which now includes a new feature called “My Location” for those of us too poor to pay for GPS service and a built-in GPS device in our phone (and who can’t stand to re-charge our mobile phone devices super-often as the GPS service drains your battery like crazy). My Location is a feature which allows Google Maps to estimate your location to within ~2000 ft radius (highlighted by a light blue circle surrounding the blue dot in the interface) by locating the cell phone tower that you are closest to. While this doesn’t let you pinpoint your precise location, it makes the app much more useful. Case in point: on my way to our office’s Community Impact Day, I got lost, and instead of having to find some clunky means to estimate my location in Google Map’s interface, I simply used the My Location feature to give me an estimate of where I was so that I could quickly see the local streets. The video below summarizes:

Not particularly useful, but visually more interesting is the Blackberry Google Talk application updating to allow for Google Talk icons to show up, and a restructuring of the menu to be a little more usable. Alas, neither the rarely-updated Google Talk desktop application or the Blackberry Google Talk application seem to be able to interface with AIM the way the Gmail client does.

Google also very recently introduced the Google Mobile Updater which now provides one central location from which to install and update Google software (except for the Google Talk applet which appears to be maintained by RIM/Blackberry rather than by Google). This is currently only for Blackberry devices and, taking a page from the new Gmail applet’s icon, also informs the device user of updates and new products by change of icon.

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Google Reader Upgrades

My favorite feed reader just got three long overdue updates:

  1. It can now count to 1000. Back before this Google Reader update (during the wild, young days of the internet), on days when I couldn’t check Google Reader, the unread post count would build up rather quickly. However, instead of being told precisely how many blog posts I had, Google would only tell me that I had “100+” unread posts. Not particularly informative for a company that prides itself on being the organizer of the world’s information. Today, it can go to 1000. I have yet to reach the point where I have that many posts unread, but at this rate, I think in another year or two, Google may update the reader so that it can count to 10,000. But right now, our technology just can’t handle numbers that big 🙂
  2. You can use “back” and “forward”. Given that Google Reader is on a webpage, you might expect that the back and forward arrows on your toolbar should work like they do on a regular webpage. But, Google Reader is no ordinary webpage: it’s an AJAX application, which means that movement from page to page is not so clear cut. Implementing “forward” and “back” has actually been a challenge for a lot of online Web developers who create AJAX applications, so it’s very nice (and quite a feat for some hapless programmer who probably had to do a lot of unappreciated behind-the-scene work) that they were able to implement this.
  3. Search. Why a company renowned for search expertise create a product without search is beyond me, but its great that Google has finally gotten around to implementing it in Google Reader, allowing me to dig through every post I’ve ever read.
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