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Tag: smartphone

Why VR Could be as Big as the Smartphone Revolution

Technology in the 1990s and early 2000s marched to the beat of an Intel-and-Microsoft-led drum.

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via IT Portal

Intel would release new chips at a regular cadence: each cheaper, faster, and more energy efficient than the last. This would let Microsoft push out new, more performance-hungry software, which would, in turn, get customers to want Intel’s next, more awesome chip. Couple that virtuous cycle with the fact that millions of households were buying their first PCs and getting onto the Internet for the first time – and great opportunities were created to build businesses and products across software and hardware.

But, over time, that cycle broke down. By the mid-2000s, Intel’s technological progress bumped into the limits of what physics would allow with regards to chip performance and cost. Complacency from its enviable market share coupled with software bloat from its Windows and Office franchises had a similar effect on Microsoft. The result was that the Intel and Microsoft drum stopped beating as they became unable to give the mass market a compelling reason to upgrade to each subsequent generation of devices.

The result was a hollowing out of the hardware and semiconductor industries tied to the PC market that was only masked by the innovation stemming from the rise of the Internet and the dawn of a new technology cycle in the late 2000s in the form of Apple’s iPhone and its Android competitors: the smartphone.

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via Mashable

A new, but eerily familiar cycle began: like clockwork, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Apple (playing the part of Intel) would devise new, more awesome chips which would feed the creation of new performance-hungry software from Google and Apple (playing the part of Microsoft) which led to demand for the next generation of hardware. Just as with the PC cycle, new and lucrative software, hardware, and service businesses flourished.

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But, just as with the PC cycle, the smartphone cycle is starting to show signs of maturity. Apple’s recent slower than expected growth has already been blamed on smartphone market saturation. Users are beginning to see each new generation of smartphone as marginal improvements. There are also eery parallels between the growing complaints over Apple software quality from even Apple fans and the position Microsoft was in near the end of the PC cycle.

While its too early to call the end for Apple and Google, history suggests that we will eventually enter a similar phase with smartphones that the PC industry experienced. This begs the question: what’s next? Many of the traditional answers to this question – connected cars, the “Internet of Things”, Wearables, Digital TVs – have not yet proven themselves to be truly mass market, nor have they shown the virtuous technology upgrade cycle that characterized the PC and smartphone industries.

This brings us to Virtual Reality. With VR, we have a new technology paradigm that can (potentially) appeal to the mass market (new types of games, new ways of doing work, new ways of experiencing the world, etc.). It also has a high bar for hardware performance that will benefit dramatically from advances in technology, not dissimilar from what we saw with the PC and smartphone.

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via Forbes

The ultimate proof will be whether or not a compelling ecosystem of VR software and services emerges to make this technology more of a mainstream “must-have” (something that, admittedly, the high price of the first generation Facebook/Oculus, HTC/Valve, and Microsoft products may hinder).

As a tech enthusiast, its easy to get excited. Not only is VR just frickin’ cool (it is!), its probably the first thing since the smartphone with the mass appeal and virtuous upgrade cycle that can bring about the huge flourishing of products and companies that makes tech so dynamic to be involved with.

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Disruptive Innovation in one Chart

There are few examples of disruptive innovation as clear as what happened to Research in Motion/Blackberry, the former giant when it came to smart mobile devices for businesspeople (and a device which was previously super-important to me). Despite a seemingly unassailable market position and huge profits, they were caught off-guard by the more software-and-consumer centric smartphone wave that followed, the result being an astonishing 94% loss in company value in 5 years (HT: Quartz):

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Only the paranoid survive indeed…

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Android in Kenya

I mentioned before when discussing DCM’s Android Fund that Android is a truly global opportunity. While Nokia is probably praying that this is untrue, the recent success of Huawei in Kenya with its IDEOS phone illustrates that Android isn’t just doing well in the First World, its particular approach makes it well-suited to tackle the broader global market (HT: MIT Technology Review):

Smart phones surged in popularity in February after Safaricom, Kenya’s dominant telecom, began offering the cheapest smart phone yet on the market—an Android model called Ideos from the Chinese maker Huawei, which has been making inroads in the developing world. In Kenya, the price, approximately $80, was low enough to win more than 350,000 buyers to date.

That’s an impressive number for a region most in the developed world would probably write off as far too developing to be interesting. Now Huawei’s IDEOS line is not going to blow anyone away – its small, has a fairly low quality camera, and is pretty paltry on RAM. But, the fact that this device can hit the right price point to make the market real is a real advantage for the global Android ecosystem:

  • This is 350,000 additional potential Android users – not an earth-shattering number but its always good to have more folks buying devices and using them for new apps/services
  • It’s enticing new developers into the Android community, both from within Kenya as well as from outside of Kenya. As the MIT Technology Review article further points out:

    Over the past year, Hersman has been developing iHub, an organization devoted to bringing together innovators and investors in Nairobi. Earlier this month, a mobile-app event arranged by iHub fielded 100 entrants and 25 finalists for a $25,000 prize for best mobile app. The winner, Medkenya, developed by two entrepreneurs, offers health advice and connects patients with doctors. Its developers have also formed a partnership with the Kenyan health ministry, with a goal of making health-care information affordable and accessible to Kenyans…

    Some other popular apps are in e-commerce, education, and agriculture. In the last group, one organization riding the smart-phone wave is Biovision, a Swiss nonprofit that educates farmers in East Africa about organic farming techniques. Biovision is developing an Android app for its 200 extension field workers in Kenya and other East African countries.

  • Given the carrier-subsidy model and the high price and bulkiness of computers, this means that there could be an entire generation of individuals who’s main experience with the internet is from using Android devices, not from a traditional Windows/MacOS/Linux PC!

This ability to go ultra-low end and experiment with new partners/business models/approaches is an advantage of the fact that Android is a more open horizontal platform that can be adopted by more device manufacturers and partners. I wouldn’t be surprised to see further efforts by other Asian firms to expand into untapped markets like Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia with other interesting go-to-market strategies like low-cost, pre-paid Android devices.

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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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My new thing

It dawned on me recently. I have a great smartphone. I have a long commute and have gotten pretty sick of the repetitive nature of most radio stations. What should I do, then?

The current solution I’m trying out are podcasts. For those of you who don’t know, podcasts are  RSS/RSS-like subscriptions to audio broadcasts, rather than blog/news posts. I’m still trying to figure out what to listen to, but I have found that I’m a big fan of NPR’s Radiolab. I’m also trying out PBS/Nova’s scienceNow podcast, TWiT’s Futures in Biotech, and NPR’s Marketplace.

I’ve gotten a few additional recommendations over Twitter which I will try out soon, but would love to hear any other recommendations that people might have on podcasts covering:

    • Science
    • Technology
    • Business
    • Cleantech

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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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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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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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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.

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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)

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