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Tag: iPhone

No Digital Skyscrapers

A colleague of mine shared an interesting article by Sarah Lacy from tech site Pando Daily about the power of technology building the next set of “digital skyscrapers” – Lacy’s term for enduring, 100-year brands in/made possible by technology. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly agree with one of the big takeaways Lacy wants the reader to walk away with: that more entrepreneurs need to strive to make a big impact on the world and not settle for quick-and-easy payouts. That is, after all, why venture capitalists exist: to fund transformative ideas.

But, the premise of the article that I fundamentally disagreed with – and in fact, the very reason I’m interested in technology is that the ability to make transformative ideas means that I don’t think its possible to make “100-year digital skyscrapers”.

In fact, I genuinely hope its not possible. Frankly, if I felt it were, I wouldn’t be in technology, and certainly not in venture capital. To me, technology is exciting and disruptive because you can’t create long-standing skyscrapers. Sure, IBM and Intel have been around a while — but what they as companies do, what their brands mean, and their relative positions in the industry have radically changed. I just don’t believe the products we will care about or the companies we think are shaping the future ten years from now will be the same as the ones we are talking about today, nor were they the ones we talked about ten years ago, and they won’t be the same as the ones we talk about twenty years from now. I’ve done the 10 year comparison before to illustrate the rapid pace of Moore’s Law, but just to be illustrative again: remember, 10 years ago:

    • the iPhone (and Android) did not exist
    • Facebook did not exist (Zuckerberg had just started at Harvard)
    • Amazon had yet to make a single cent of profit
    • Intel thought Itanium was its future (something its basically given up on now)
    • Yahoo had just launched a dialup internet service (seriously)
    • The Human Genome Project had yet to be completed
    • Illumina (posterchild for next-generation DNA sequencing today) had just launched its first system product

And, you know what, I bet 10 years from now, I’ll be able to make a similar list. Technology is a brutal industry and it succeeds by continuously making itself obsolete. It’s why its exciting, and it’s why I don’t think and, in fact, I hope that no long-lasting digital skyscrapers emerge.

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A “Fandroid” Forced to Use an iPhone 4 for Two Weeks

I recently came back from a great two week trip to China and Japan. Because I needed an international phone plan/data access, I ended up giving up my beloved DROID2 (which lacks international roaming/data) for two weeks and using the iPhone 4 my company had given me.

Because much has changed in the year and a half since I wrote that first epic post comparing my DROID2 with an iPhone 4 – for starters, my iPhone 4 now runs the new iOS 5 operating system and my DROID2 now runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread — I thought I would revisit the comparison, having had over a year to use both devices in various capacities.

Long story short: I still prefer my DROID2 (although to a lesser extent than before).

So, what were my big observations after using the iPhone 4 for two weeks and then switching back to my DROID2?

  • Apple continues to blow me away with how good they are at
    • UI slickness: There’s no way around it – with the possible exception of the 4.0 revision of Android Ice Cream Sandwich (which I now have and love on my Motorola Xoom!) – no Android operating system comes close to the iPhone/iPad’s remarkable user interface smoothness. iOS animations are perfectly fluid. Responsiveness is great. Stability is excellent (while rare, my DROID2 does force restart every now and then — my iPhone has only crashed a handful of times). It’s a very well-oiled machine and free of the frustrations I’ve had at times when I. just. wished. that. darn. app. would. scroll. smoothly.
    • Battery life: I was at or near zero battery at the end of every day when I was in Asia – so even the iPhone needs improvement in that category. But, there’s no doubt in my mind that my DROID2 would have given out earlier. I don’t know what it is about iOS which enables them to consistently deliver such impressive battery life, but I did notice a later onset of “battery anxiety” during the day while using the iPhone than I would have on my DROID2.
  • Apple’s soft keyboard is good – very good — but nothing beats a physical keyboard plus SwiftKey. Not having my beloved Android phone meant I had to learn how to use the iPhone soft keyboard to get around – and I have to say, much to my chagrin, I actually got the hang of it. Its amazingly responsive and has a good handle on what words to autocorrect, what to leave alone, and even on learning what words were just strange jargon/names but still legitimate. Even back in the US on my DROID2, I find myself trying to use the soft keyboard a lot more than I used to (and discovering, sadly, that its not as good as the iPhone’s). However:
    • You just can’t type as long as you can on a hard physical keyboard.
    • Every now and then the iPhone makes a stupid autocorrection and it’s a little awkward to override it (having to hit that tiny “x”).
    • The last time I did the iPhone/DROID comparison, I talked about how amazing Swype was. While I still think it’s a great product, I’ve now graduated to SwiftKey(see video below) not only because I have met and love the CEO Jonathan Reynolds but because of its uncanny ability to compose my emails/messages for me. It learns from your typing history and from your blog/Facebook/Gmail/Twitter and inputs it into an amazing text prediction engine which not only predicts what words you are trying to type but also the next word after that! I have literally written emails where half of my words have been predicted by SwiftKey.
  • Notifications in iOS are terrible.
    • A huge issue for me: there is no notification light on an iPhone. That means the only way for me to know if something new has happened is if I hear the tone that the phone makes when I get a new notification (which I don’t always because its in my pocket or because – you know – something else in life is happening at that moment) or if I happen to be looking at the screen at the moment the notifications shows up (same problem). This means that I have to repeatedly check the phone throughout the day which can be a little obnoxious when you’re with people/doing something else and just want to know if an email/text message has come in.
    • What was very surprising to me was that despite having the opportunity to learn (and dare I say, copy) from what Android and WebOS  had done, Apple chose quite possibly the weakest approach possible. Not only are the notifications not visible from the home screen – requiring me to swipe downward from the top to see if anything’s there — its impossible to dismiss notifications one at a time, really hard (or maybe I just have fat fingers?) to hit the clear button which dismisses blocks of them at a time, even after I hit clear, I’m not sure why some of the notifications don’t disappear, and it is surprisingly easy to accidentally hit a notification when you don’t intend to (which will force you into a new application — which wouldn’t be a big deal if iOS had a cross-application back button… which it doesn’t). Maybe this is just someone who’s too used to the Android way of doing things, but while this is way better than the old “in your face” iOS notifications, I found myself very frustrated here.
  • selectionCursor positioning feels a more natural on Android. I didn’t realize this would bug me until after using the iPhone for a few days. The setup: until Android’s Gingerbread update, highlighting text and moving the caret (where your next letter comes out when you type) was terrible on Android. It was something I didn’t realize in my initial comparison and something I came to envy about iOS: the magnifying glass that pops up when you want to move your cursor and the simple drag-and-drop highlighting of text. Thankfully with the Gingerbread update, Android completely closes that gap (see image on the right) and improves upon it. Unlike with iOS, I don’t need to long-hold on the screen to enter some eery parallel universe with a magnified view – in Android, you just click once, drag the arrow to where you want the cursor to be, and you’re good to go.
  • No widgets in iOS. There are no widgets in iOS. I can see the iOS fans thinking: “big deal, who cares? they’re ugly and slow down the system!” Fair points — so why do I care? I care because widgets let me quickly turn on or off WiFi/Bluetooth/GPS from the homescreen in Android, but in iOS, I would be forced to go through a bunch of menus. It means, on Android, I can see my next few calendar events, but in iOS, I would need to go into the calendar app. It means, on Android I can quickly create a new Evernote note and see my last few notes from the home screen, but in iOS, I would need to open the app. It means that on Android I can see what the weather will be like from the homescreen, but in iOS, I would need to turn on the weather app to see the weather. It means that on Android, I can quickly glance at a number of homescreens to see what’s going on in Google Voice (my text messages), Google Reader, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, but on iOS, I need to open each of those apps separately. In short, I care about widgets because they are convenient and save me time.
  • Apps play together more nicely with Android. Android and iOS have a fundamentally different philosophy on how apps should behave with one another. Considering most of the main iOS apps are also on Android, what do I mean by this? Well, Android has two features which iOS does not have: a cross-application back button and a cross-application “intent” system. What this means is that apps are meant to push information/content to each other in Android:
    • android-sharing-500x500If I want to “share” something, any app of mine that mediates that sharing – whether its email, Facebook, Twitter, Path, Tumblr, etc – its all fair game (see image on the right). On iOS, I can only share things through services that the app I’m in currently supports. Want to post something to Tumblr or Facebook or over email in an app that only supports Twitter? Tough luck in iOS. Want to edit a photo/document in an app that isn’t supported by the app you’re in? Again, tough luck in iOS. With the exception of things like web links (where Apple has apps meant to handle them), you can only use the apps/services which are sanctioned by the app developer. In Android, apps are supposed to talk with one another, and Google goes the extra mile to make sure all apps that can handle an “action” are available for the user to choose from.
    • In iOS, navigating between different screens/features is usually done by a descriptive back button in the upper-left of the interface. This works exactly like the Android back button does with one exception. These iOS back buttons only work within an application. There’s no way to jump between applications. Granted, there’s less of a need in iOS since there’s less cross-app communication (see previous bullet point), but when you throw in the ability of iOS5’s new notification system to take you into a new application altogether and when you’re in a situation where you want to use another service, the back button becomes quite handy.
  • And, of course,  deluge of the he-said-she-said that I observed:
    • Free turn-by-turn navigation on Android is AWESOME and makes the purchase of the phone worth it on its own (mainly because my driving becomes 100x worse when I’m lost). Not having that in iOS was a pain, although thankfully, because I spent most of my time in Asia on foot, in a cab, or on public transit, it was not as big of a pain.
    • Google integration (Google Voice, Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Maps) is far better on Android — if you make as heavy use of Google services as I do, this becomes a big deal very quickly.
    • Chrome to Phone is awesome – being able to send links/pictures/locations from computer to phone is amazingly useful. I only wish someone made a simple Phone-to-Chrome capability where I could send information from my phone/tablet to a computer just as easily.
    • Adobe Flash performance is, for the record, not great and for many sites its simply a gateway for advertisements. But, its helpful to have to be able to open up terrible websites (especially those of restaurants) — and in Japan, many a restaurant had an annoying Flash website which my iPhone could not open.
    • Because of the growing popularity of Android, app availability between the two platforms is pretty equal for the biggest apps (with just a few noteworthy exceptions like Flipboard). To be fair, many of the Android ports are done haphazardly – leading to a more disappointing experience – but the flip side of this is that the more open nature of Android also means its the only platform where you can use some pretty interesting services like AirDroid (easy-over-Wifi way of syncing and managing your device), Google Listen (Google Reader-linked over-the-air podcast manager), BitTorrent Remote (use your phone to remote login to your computer’s BitTorrent client), etc.
    • I love that I can connect my Android phone to a PC and it will show up like a USB drive. iPhone? Not so much (which forced me to transfer my photos over Dropbox instead).
    • My ability to use the Android Market website to install apps over the air to any of my Android devices has made discovering and installing new apps much more convenient.
    • The iOS mail client (1) doesn’t let you collapse/expand folders and (2) doesn’t let you control which folders to sync to what extents/at what intervals, but the Android Exchange client does. For someone who has as many folders as I do (one of which is a Getting Things Done-esque “TODO” folder), that’s a HUGE plus in terms of ease of use.

To be completely fair – I don’t have the iPhone 4S (so I haven’t played with Siri), I haven’t really used iCloud at all, and the advantages in UI quality and battery life are a big deal. So unlike some of the extremists out there who can’t understand why someone would pick iOS/Android, I can see the appeal of “the other side.” But after using the iPhone 4 for two weeks and after seeing some of the improvements in my Xoom from Ice Cream Sandwich, I can safely say that unless the iPhone 5 (or whatever comes after the 4S) brings with it a huge change, I will be buying another Android device next. If anything, I’ve noticed that with each generation of Android, Android devices further closes the gap on the main advantages that iOS has (smoothness, stability, app selection/quality), while continuing to embrace the philosophy and innovations that keep me hooked.

(Image Credit – Android text selection: Android.com) (Image Credit – Android sharing: talkandroid.com)

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Singapore to Combat Dengue with Social Media

(Cross posted to Bench Press)

Singapore is a fascinating country – despite the lack of what most in the West would recognize as democratic freedom, it consistently ranks well in terms of lack of corruption and high and growing standard of living for its people.

It is also one of the boldest when it comes to instituting policies and reforms: they were the first to implement a congestion tax to help manage traffic. Unlike most countries, Singapore is open to competition and investment from foreigners in strategic areas like telecommunications, power generation, and financial services. Singapore has also been extremely active in attempting to build up its capabilities as a center for life sciences excellence.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that they are among the first countries to actively utilize social media applications like Facebook and Twitter to help deal with a public health risk like Dengue Fever (from The Jakarta Globe):

The city-state’s National Environment Agency (NEA) plans to roll out … providing information on the latest dengue clusters or areas that have been earmarked as high-risk – on these new media platforms within the next three months … Through Facebook and Twitter, the public will also be able to post feedback or provide tip-offs. For example, if Singaporeans notice an increase in the number of mosquitoes in your neighbourhood or find potential breeding sites, they can alert NEA officers by posting on the agency’s Facebook page or tweeting the NEA account. “We need to put more information out in the public space, so more people can be informed and take action,” said Derek Ho, director of the environmental health department at NEA. “Leveraging on new media channels such as Facebook and Twitter is a good way to do that.”

A refreshing understanding of the uses of social media by a government agency – more interesting than that, though, is the work Singapore’s NEA is doing to build image recognition capabilities into smartphone apps like the NEA’s iPhone app to help field workers (and potentially the public) track and identify mosquitos and mosquito larvae!

The NEA is also in the process of developing a mosquito-recognition program that can identify the species of mosquito from a photograph of its pupae or larvae. With such software, and with the help of a mini microscope that attaches to the camera on a personal digital assistant or cellphone, NEA officers will be able to take photographs of larvae or pupae found in mosquito-breeding sites and instantly find out if they belong to the Aedes species, which spreads dengue … When it is ready, the agency hopes to be able to integrate it with the NEA iPhone application, so that the public or grassroots members conducting checks around the neighbourhood can use the technology as well.
Early identification will allow the NEA to act more swiftly to curb the spread of dengue in potential high-risk zones.

Very cool demonstration of the power of smartphones and of a government that is motivated to try out new technologies to tackle serious problems.

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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.

(Image credit) (Image credit)

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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.
      image
    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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Decade of Moore’s Law

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I’ve mentioned Moore’s Law in passing a few times before. While many in the technology industry see the concept only on its most direct level – that of semiconductor scaling (the ability of the semiconductor industry, so far, to double transistor density every two or so years) – I believe this fails to capture its true essence. It’s not so much a law pertaining to a specific technology (which will eventually run out of steam when it hits a fundamental physical limit), but an “economic law” about an industry’s learning curve and R&D cycle relative to cost per “feature”.

Almost all industries experience a learning curve of some sort. Take the automotive industry – despite all of its inefficiencies, the cost of driving one mile has declined over the years because of improvements in engine technology, the building of the parts, general manufacturing efficiency, and supply chain management – but very few have a learning curve which operates on the same speed (how rapidly an industry improves its economic performance) and steepness (how much efficiency improves given a certain amount of “industry experience”) as the technology industry which can rely not only on learning curves but disruptive technological changes.

One of the best illustrations I’ve seen of this is a recent post on MacStories comparing a 2000 iMac and Apple’s new iPhone 4:

2000 iMac 2010 iPhone 4
Processor 500 MHz PowerPC G3 CPU 1 Ghz ARM A4 CPU
RAM 128MB 512MB
Graphics ATI Rage 128 Pro                             (8 million triangles) PowerVR SGX 535              (28 million triangles)
Storage 30GB Hard Drive 32GB NAND Flash
Weight 34.7 pounds 4.8 ounces

Although the comparisons are not necessarily apples-to-apples, they give a sense of the speed at which Moore’s Law progresses. Amazing, no?

(Image credit)

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Nokia Conducting Search for a New CEO

Very provocative headline for an interesting WSJ piece:

“They are serious about making a change,” one person familiar with the matter said. Nokia board members are “supposed to make a decision by the end of the month,” that person said.

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They should be very serious about making a change – its been disappointment after disappointment at the former Finnish phone giant (and its stock price, see above). But, this gives me a great chance to play $100-armchair CEO. So, what would I do if I was in the big chair at Nokia? I’d be focusing on three things:

  • Change the OS approach: With Nokia’s next OS Symbian^3 delayed and widely perceived to be inadequate, you really need to question the ability of Nokia to keep up in the industry-shaking smartphone platform war. In particular, Nokia’s challenge is that its attempting to take a software platform built to enable carrier services and high reliability on lower-end phones that weren’t meant to run software and somehow force it into achieving the same high-end software functionality that Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android provide. While there’s nothing that says this is impossible, this is an order of magnitude more difficult than Apple/Google’s initial problem of just creating a software platform without the burden of any legacy constraints/approaches, and, in an industry as fast-moving and disruptive as the smartphone space, that’s two orders of magnitude too many, invites all sorts of risk with no clear reward, and discards Nokia’s traditional strengths in wireless communications R&D and solid hardware design. What does that mean? Three things:
    • Re-tool Symbian for the low-end to be more like Qualcomm’s BREW (or heck, maybe even adopt BREW?): an operating system focused on enabling carrier/simple software services on the many featurephones out there. That category is Nokia’s (and Symbian’s) traditional strength, and that’s where Symbian can still add a lot of value and find a lot of support.
    • image In the mid-market (high-end featurephone/low-end smartphones), I’d tell Nokia to bite the bullet and adopt Android. Not only is it free, but it immediately levels the software playing field between Nokia and the numerous  OEMs who are itching to adopt Android allowing Nokia’s traditional strength in hardware design to win over.
    • imageIn the high-end, Nokia should go all-in with Intel on their joint MeeGo platform. In that space, Nokia needs a killer platform to disrupt Google/Apple’s hold on the market, and MeeGo is probably the only operating system left which might contest Android and iOS and drive the convergence of mobile devices with traditional computers that this category is pushing towards.
    • Double-down on Qt to make it easier for developers to “develop for Nokia”. A few years ago, Nokia bought Trolltech which had created a programming framework called Qt (pronounced “cute”). Qt had gained significant traction with developres as it made it easier to make a graphical user interface which ran across multiple devices and operating systems. This is a key asset which Nokia has tried to use to make MeeGo and Symbian more attractive (and which is probably one of the main reasons both OS’s still have reasonable levels of developer interest; although, interestingly, there has been an effort to bring Qt over to Android), but it needs to be emphasized even more if Nokia wants to stay in the game.
  • Pick your battles wisely: It is entirely possible that Nokia has lost the high-end smartphone battle in the US and Europe (even despite the operating system approach laid out above). But, even if Nokia was forced to completely cede that market, its not the end of the war – its simply the loss of a few (albeit important) battlegrounds. Nokia is still well-positioned to win out in a number of other markets:
    • image The featurephone world: Many of us tech aficionados often forget that, despite all the buzz that the iPhone and the Droid devices generate, smartphones actually make up a very small unit base. Featurephones are still the vast majority of the volume (for cost reasons) and, as devices like the iPhone continue to capture mindshare, there will be significant value in helping featurephones imitate some of the functionality that smartphones have. While it is true that Moore’s Law makes it easier for high-end operating systems like iOS and Android to be run on tomorrow’s featurephones, the incentives of Apple and Google are to probably better aligned with taking their mobile operating systems up-market (towards higher-end devices and computers) rather than down-market (towards feature phones) to chase higher margins and to continue to build highly optimized performance machines. So, given Nokia/Symbian’s traditional strength in building good devices with good support for carrier services, its natural for Nokia to solidify its ownership of the feature phone market and to emulate some of the functionality of higher-end devices.
    • Emerging markets: This is related to the previous bullet point, but much of the developing world is now seeing vast value in simply adopting basic services and software on their (by Western standards) very low-end phones. As banking systems and computer availability are extremely limited in Africa and parts of Asia, this represents an enormous opportunity for someone like Nokia who has spent years making their phones capable of mobile payment, geolocation, and carrier-enabled services. Couple this with the fact that there is enormous growth waiting to happen in markets like India, China, and Africa (where cell phone penetration is nowhere near as high as in the US), and you have the makings of a potential end-game strategy which could offset short-term setbacks in the US/European smartphone market.
    • image Japan: While Europe and the US are eagerly adopting smartphones (as in phones with rich operating systems), Japan has been a laggard due to differences in the carrier/vendor/services environment. While its been difficult for foreign companies to break into Japan, the recent technology deal between Japanese semiconductor company Renesas and Nokia might provide an interesting “foot in the door” for Nokia to enter a large market where its weakness in software is not so much of a hindrance and its strengths in hardware/willingness to play nice with carriers are a big asset. This is in no way a slam-dunk, but its definitely worth considering.
  • Figure out the key ecosystem player(s) to partner with: The previous two bullet points were mainly tactical suggestions – what to do in the short-run and how to do it. This last bullet point is aimed at the strategic level – or, in other words, how does Nokia influence the creation of a market environment which leads to its long-term success. To do this, it needs to figure out who it wants to be and what it wants the mobile phone industry to look like when all is said and done. I don’t have a clear answer/vision here, but I’d say Nokia should think about partnering with:
    • Carriers: Although Apple/Android have had to play nice with the carriers to get their devices out, the carriers probably see the writing on the wall. If smartphone platforms continue to gain traction, there is significant risk that the carriers themselves will simply become the “dumb pipes” that the platforms run on (in the same way that  internet service providers like AOL rapidly became unimportant to the user experience and purchasing decision). Nokia has an opportunity to play against that and to help bring the carriers back to the table as a driving force by helping the carriers expose new revenue streams/services (which Nokia could take a cut of) and by building more carrier-friendly software/devices which help with coming bandwidth issues.
    • image Retailers/Mobile commerce intermediaries: One of the emerging application cases which is particularly interesting is the use of mobile phones for the buying and selling of goods. This is something which is extremely nascent but has a huge opportunity as mobile commerce can do something that traditional desktop-bound eCommerce can’t: it can bridge the gap between pixels on the screen and actual real-world shopping. It can be used as a mobile coupon/payment platform. It’s camera and GPS enables augmented reality functionality which can let shoppers look up information about a product without having to type in search-strings. It can be used to provide stores with more information about a shopper, letting them tailor new ad campaigns and marketing efforts. I haven’t run the math to build a forecast, but there’s good reason to believe that this could be the application for mobile phones. While Nokia may have to cede application/ad revenue to Google/Apple, it may be able to eke out a nice chunk of profit (maybe even bigger than the one Google/Apple can get) from focusing on this particular need case instead.

Obviously, none of these are guaranteed home-runs, but if I were a Nokia shareholder, I’d hope that the next Nokia CEO does something along the lines of this. And, yes, I’d be willing to accept $100 (and “some” stock) to be Nokia’s CEO and implement this :-).

(Image credit – Business Insider) (Image credit – Android logo) (Image credit – MeeGo logo) (Image credit – feature phone montage) (Image credit – Japanese phones) (Image credit – Mobile coupon)

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Platform perils

image One of the most impressive developments in the web and the mobile phone space has been the emergence of new platforms for software developers to target. The developer’s repertoire is no longer just Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, but Android, iPhone OS, Windows Phone 7, Facebook, Twitter, and many more.

While these new platforms are big opportunities for developers, I always find it quite amusing to see the reaction of developers as they see the platform owners aggressively expand beyond their original domains, for example:

imageI’m always shocked at how up-in-arms developers can get about these moves. Why? Because this is nothing new in the software industry. Remember when Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with their operating system and killed off Netscape? Or when Apple bundled iTunes into Mac OS and killed third-party MP3 player developers? Or IBM, widely considered a pioneer in open source, who bundles a full and very closed software stack with its UNIX servers and mainframes?

So, how does any developer succeed (seeing how most developers don’t control the platforms they develop for)? They key is to understand the economics from the platform owner’s vantage point:

  • Platform value and proliferation – When all is said and done, the business of the platform owner is to sell and proliferate its platform. So, foremost in the owner’s mind in rolling out a new feature which was once left to third party developers is whether or not that feature adds significant value to the platform. For Twitter, implementing a list feature (where formerly it was managed with custom apps like Tweetdeck) made a lot of sense as it not only helped users with organizing their Twitter usage but also helped to increase the social value of the service by helping users find other users to follow. Likewise, to me, the big surprise was not that Twitter acquired Ate Bits, but that it took them this long to buy/release official Twitter clients for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry.
  • New monetization – The full value of a platform extends far beyond the price tag on the platform and the applications being sold. It also includes advertising, virtual goods sales, content, and online transactions which take place. Is it any wonder, then, that Apple has expanded into mobile advertising with its iAd platform or content with its iTunes store? As before, the big surprise to me is that it took them this long to roll out iAd.
  • Impact of integration – There are many features where integration into the platform drives significant additional value. Whereas a cute game or widget doesn’t benefit much from being integrated into an operating system/web service, there is significant additional value to an operating system like Windows or Mac OS or Android to have an internet browser integrated, and there is a great deal of value in tying features related to security or virtual currency into a web platform like Facebook.
  • Impact on developer community – Despite what developers may believe, platform owners do care a great deal about the effect of their actions on their developer community. It doesn’t benefit a platform to have the owner unnecessarily alienate their developer base or to make the developer’s lives significantly harder. After all, a rich developer community makes platforms significantly more valuable – even giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google can’t possibly create all the games, music, videos, and features which users may want, nor can they necessarily create better apps/content than specialized third party developers. This means that, by default, platform vendors are generally loath to aggressively push their own applications –- and it in fact requires a significant value-creator from one or more of the reasons above  to get an intelligent platform owner to “step on the toes” of their developer community.

Put them together, and you drive a number of conclusions about where platform owners will make aggressive inroads into the domains of their developers:

  • The “cost of admission” – If there is a feature or application which is used by enough users that it needs to be integrated/bundled in order to get users “up and running” quickly, you can be pretty sure that the platform owner will build, acquire, or partner with a vendor of applications there. Examples: web browsers and multimedia players in operating systems, social features in social networks, mobile phone apps to access a popular web application/social network, common device drivers in operating systems
  • “Platform in a platform” – In war, the side which maintains control of the most important roads and resources will win. Similarly, in business, not only does disproportionate profit tends to flow to the businesses which control the key “gateways” to developers and the change of funds, control of those gateways also enables the business to better shape the consumer’s experience. In the past, this has primarily resulted in platform owners seeking greater control over the development of applications, but Apple has proven that advertising, transaction fees on application sales, and digital content delivery are also key gateways to have influence over. Examples: virtual goods/currency on social network, advertising, development tools, digital content, application store, runtime layers
  • image “Plumbing” – To a platform owner, the platform’s inner workings are sacred. After all, a platform’s performance and ability to work with content/applications is heavily tied to its “plumbing”. In the same way that you aren’t likely to trust a random stranger to do open heart surgery on you, platform owners are unlikely to trust third party hacks/modifications on their platform’s inner workings and are unhappy when third party developers clog their “pipes” with too many requests/garbage. It should be no surprise that platform owners often restrict access to and limit/prevent modifications to a platform’s inner workings. Similarly, because of the value of integrating enhancements to lower level processes into the platform itself, it is also likely that platform owners will make their own modifications when needed and heavily restrict access (if its granted at all) to those lower level processes. Examples: APIs which tap into hardware-level capabilities on operating systems, quantity limits on social network/web service API usage, device driver creation in operating systems

So, what to do if you’re a developer who doesn’t own your own platform? The following is a quick (and by no means comprehensive) list

  1. Develop a plan for dealing with a platform owner’s ire: If you go into a business venture expecting everything everything your way, you are likely delusional. This is especially true if you’ve hit a modicum of success as there is nothing which paints a bullseye on your back better than success. The recent Zynga/Facebook spat (although its recently reached a semi-amiable detente) is an example of this. Better to assume, at a relatively early point, that you will sooner or later earn the platform owner’s wrath and come up with ways to prevent/deal with it than to be caught with your pants down when it happens.
  2. Build the best app: There’s almost never a situation where building the best product isn’t a good strategy, but in this case its a very good one. Building the best product gives you a reputation among users who may put pressure on the platform owner in your favor. It also gives you a shield, especially if your app goes above and beyond “the cost of admission”, by making it harder for a platform owner to take market share from you (i.e. the strength of Oracle’s products have allowed it to maintain its lead position in databases despite attempts from IBM and Microsoft). It also gives you more options as it gives the platform owner a reason to acquire/partner with you rather than with a competitor.
  3. Make your app flexible: Flexibility creates more options for a developer. It allows the developer to potentially work with additional platforms, thus creating a larger user base and an “exit strategy” if one platform becomes too hostile. It also allows a developer to more rapidly release new features or cope with platform changes. In the case where a platform owner is also considering acquisitions/partnerships as a route, the more flexible developer has a strong leg up in that he/she can more quickly integrate with the platform, as well as provide a more competitive opponent to take on.
  4. image Ally yourself with other developers: I pointed out earlier that the reason a platform owner exists is to sell and improve the value of the platform. Because of this and because the value of a platform is dependent on having a vibrant developer community, platform developers are loath to make aggressive moves which may alienate that community. To that end, aligning oneself with other developers can help amplify one developer’s protest when a platform owner makes an aggressive move encroaching on your turf.
  5. Create stickiness: There are many ways for developer “Davids” to tilt the battlefield in their favor against platform owner “Goliaths”. Building in social functionality (i.e. social games) so as to force users to give up connections with their friends if they switch to another vendor is becoming increasingly common as a tactic to develop stickiness. Linking your applications to other commonly used applications or services is another way (i.e. pulling in data from Google and Twitter). It may be an uphill battle, but its not a hopeless one.

It was great that there was a time when one could be a success just by building cute Twitter mobile applications that don’t do anything more than access Twitter’s basic API, but such a strategy was never going to be sustainable.  And the same thing is (or will be) true for a lot of the other new platforms.

(Image credit – Apps) (Image credit – Fish) (Image credit – Pipes) (Image credit – Fish)

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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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Why smartphones are a big deal (Part 1)

image A cab driver the other day went off on me with a rant about how new smartphone users were all smug, arrogant gadget snobs for using phones that did more than just make phone calls. “Why you gotta need more than just the phone?”, he asked.

While he was probably right on the money with the “smug”, “arrogant”, and “snob” part of the description of smartphone users (at least it accurately describes yours truly), I do think he’s ignoring a lot of the important changes which the smartphone revolution has made in the technology industry and, consequently, why so many of the industry’s venture capitalists and technology companies are investing so heavily in this direction. This post will be the first of two posts looking at what I think are the four big impacts of smartphones like the Blackberry and the iPhone on the broader technology landscape:

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

I. It’s the software, stupid!

You can find possibly the greatest impact of the smartphone revolution in the very definition of smartphone: phones which can run rich operating systems and actual applications. As my belligerent cab-driver pointed out, the cellular phone revolution was originally about being able to talk to other people on the go. People bought phones based on network coverage, call quality, the weight of a phone, and other concerns primarily motivated by call usability.

Smartphones, however, change that. Instead of just making phone calls, they also do plenty of other things. While a lot of consumers focus their attention on how their phones now have touchscreens, built-in cameras, GPS, and motion-sensors, the magic change that I see is the ability to actually run programs.

Why do I say this software thing more significant than the other features which have made their ways on to the phone? There are a number of reasons for this, but the big idea is that the ability to run software makes smartphones look like mobile computers. We have seen this pan out in a number of ways:

  • The potential uses for a mobile phone have exploded overnight. Whereas previously, they were pretty much limited to making phone calls, sending text messages/emails, playing music, and taking pictures, now they can be used to do things like play games, look up information, and even be used by doctors to help treat and diagnose patients. In the same way that a computer’s usefulness extends beyond what a manufacturer like Dell or HP or Apple have built into the hardware because of software, software opens up new possibilities for mobile phones in ways which we are only beginning to see.
  • Phones can now be “updated”. Before, phones were simply replaced when they became outdated. Now, some users expect that a phone that they buy will be maintained even after new models are released. Case in point: Users threw a fit when Samsung decided not to allow users to update their Samsung Galaxy’s operating system to a new version of the Android operating system. Can you imagine 10 years ago users getting up in arms if Samsung didn’t ship a new 2 MP mini-camera to anyone who owned an earlier version of the phone which only had a 1 MP camera?
  • An entire new software industry has emerged with its own standards and idiosyncrasies. About four decades ago, the rise of the computer created a brand new industry almost out of thin air. After all, think of all the wealth and enabled productivity that companies like Oracle, Microsoft, and Adobe have created over the past thirty years. There are early signs that a similar revolution is happening because of the rise of the smartphone. Entire fortunes have been created “out of thin air” as enterprising individuals and companies move to capture the potential software profits from creating software for the legions of iPhones and Android phones out there. What remains to be seen is whether or not the mobile software industry will end up looking more like the PC software industry, or whether or not the new operating systems and screen sizes and technologies will create something that looks more like a distant cousin of the first software revolution.

II. Look ma, no <insert other device here>

imageOne of the most amazing consequences of Moore’s Law is that devices can quickly take on a heckuva lot more functionality then they used to. The smartphone is a perfect example of this Swiss-army knife mentality. The typical high-end smartphone today can:

  • take pictures
  • use GPS
  • play movies
  • play songs
  • read articles/books
  • find what direction its being pointed in
  • sense motion
  • record sounds
  • run software

… not to mention receive and make phone calls and texts like a phone.

But, unlike cameras, GPS devices, portable media players, eReaders, compasses, Wii-motes, tape recorders, and computers, the phone is something you are likely to keep with you all day long. And, if you have a smartphone which can double as a camera, GPS, portable media player, eReaders, compass, Wii-mote, tape recorder, and computer all at once – tell me why you’re going to hold on to those other devices?

That is, of course, a dramatic oversimplification. After all, I have yet to see a phone which can match a dedicated camera’s image quality or a computer’s speed, screen size, and range of software, so there are definitely reasons you’d pick one of these devices over a smartphone. The point, however, isn’t that smartphones will make these other devices irrelevant, it is that they will disrupt these markets in exactly the way that Clayton Christensen described in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, making business a whole lot harder for companies who are heavily invested in these other device categories. And make no mistake: we’re already seeing this happen as GPS companies are seeing lower prices and demand as smartphones take on more and more sophisticated functionality (heck, GPS makers like Garmin are even trying to get into the mobile phone business!). I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon see similar declines in the market growth rates and profitability for all sorts of other devices.

(to be continued in Part 2)

(Image credit) (Image credit)

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Slides done properly

After about a year of slide-umentation, it’s nice to finally see a business person use slides the way they were meant to be used. And, no, this wasn’t at my client, it was at this past week’s Apple WWDC. Take it away, Mr. Jobs (all pictures are from Engadget’s liveblogging):

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Simple. Unwordy. Clear in meaning. What is he saying in this slide? He’s saying that Apple rests on 3 major product groups: the Mac (PC), Music (iPod/iTunes), and the iPhone. That’s all you need in a presentation, people!!

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Bam! We know that the iPhone 3G has several enterprise features: Push Email, Push contacts, Push Calendar, Auto-Discovery, Global address lookup, and Remote Wipe. Notice how we can tell its about the 3G, because there’s a big picture of the 3G that takes up the left half of the slide. Notice how the right slide just has big text, not tiny text to describe what “Push Email” and “Push contacts” mean, or the little technical specifics on everything.

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Now, for something “technical” — but, oh look — the slide makes it again very simple to understand without resorting to an insane mind-numbing wordwall or any overly sophisticated diagrams. It’s just, email pops up in server, is then pushed to the push notification service, and then pushed to the iPhone.

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I mean, seriously, using words to describe this slide does injustice to the slide.

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Frankly, Jobs could’ve done without the horizontal grid-lines, but again, very simple and elegant chart.

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Somebody at a typical consulting firm/business would want to put on this slide the dimensions of the iPhone. Jobs knows, however, that all you need to do is show a picture — so the audience understands how thin it is. How many inches doesn’t stick in one’s head. This image, however, does.

As always, Mr. Jobs, well done. Now, can I please have a free iPhone?

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