Thursday, August 23, 2007

The birth of an ecosystem

I have been observing the iPhone phenomenon very closely. Partly because I believe the iPhone is the turning point of this market and will have a lasting impact. Mostly because it had to create a new ecosystem from scratch, and I love studying new ecosystems (from open source collaboration, to social networking). In particular, those managed by an entity acting as God.

The iPhone ecosystem was created overnight, although carefully crafted for months. At the beginning, it was geeks and fashion-conscious people (I repeat myself here, but those who do not understand the fashion component in cellphones and believe it is just about technology are deadly wrong...).

The geeks attacked the phone on day one. The goal was to crack it open. Study it from the inside. It was a discovery expedition. In a day or so, the iPhone was cracked. In a month or so, the first native applications appeared. In two months, the first two methods to unlock it were invented.

The fashion-conscious looked at the geeks to see if they could add ringtones and change the icons on the screen. Once the tools were easy to use, they acted and were very proud to be even cooler.

Apple reacted in an aggressive and smart way. They upgraded the OS of the phone twice, once a month. The upgrade is a marketing positive, with a few twists.

The positive for Apple is that this is the FIRST mobile device that gets a software update once a month and it is so easy to upgrade. It is a game-changing procedure. Nobody else does it or does it even nearly so well. They are years ahead of the competition.

One twist is that every single OS upgrade wipes out every modification by the hackers. If you changed an icon and you upgrade, it is gone. On top of it, the upgrade takes 30 minutes instead than 4. And you have to re-hack the phone to put your ringtones back. And you might lose something else in the restore process, if it does not work well.

Now, the fashion-conscious have had enough. Cool is great, but wasting one hour of your life every thirty days is insane. The ecosystem is losing these people. They won't hack the iPhone anymore, unless Apple lets them do it.

The geeks are still there. They keep working on it. Unlocking the device has been a remarkable effort, similar to pure science. You have an organism you do not know, someone else made it (God or Steve Jobs, pretty much the same). Many researchers try different paths, some paths lead to new paths, someone else picks them up and boom, a new discovery. Fascinating.

New participants are now appearing at the horizon. The "I am not getting the first device because it is buggy, I'll wait a few months". These are now demanding software upgrades. Nobody on the planet ever thought their cell phone will be updated, after they bought it. They now expect it from Apple. Apple MUST add new features. New icons MUST pop up on the phone. Apple created a demand and expectation. It is another twist, but I am not sure if Apple planned it. It looks like a by-product. Sometimes the deus-ex-machina loses a bit of control.

The next step of the evolution is Apple giving Eva (or was it God giving Apple to Eva, I am confused...) and the geeks the power to add applications and change ringtones, without hacking the phone and being forced to throw away all the effort once a month. This will happen once the geeks have satisfied their ego, which will be pretty much done in a month.

At that point, new elements will appear. The ISVs. The companies that build applications for a living and make money out of it. They will change the landscape once more.

Then Apple will create another iPhone and will change the ecosystem. Again and again and again...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The beauty of free software as a service

Ok, I title of the post is misleading. One would think I will talk about how open source software is powering SaaS and why this is making life great for everyone. I have done it already. Many times. It does, believe me.

Something happened last week.

On Friday, I opened my computer and tried to access Netvibes, which is my current home page. I got a "500 Internal Server error". Reload: same thing. Reload again: sorry... Ohh well, I said, it is a free service, how can I complain?

Fifteen minutes later I had a call scheduled with Italy. As usual, with Skype. Strangely, I was not connected to the network. Strangely, it was not working. Ohh well, I said, it is a free service, how can I complain? I used the phone.

An hour later, my wife yelled from the living room: Skype is not working!!!! I need to call mom!!! She was not happy. She complained. Like it was my fault... I scrambled to put money in Jajah. I made the call for her, phone rang, mom was on the line and she was happy (high priority in my life goals).

My normal computing abilities were halved on Friday morning. No news, no calls. I invested "precious" time to help my wife. Simply because free services were down. Free services my life relies on...

Could I complain to someone? No. Try calling someone in Skype or Netvibes...

You can't complain for a free service.

Did Skype give an explanation? No. C'mon, you are kidding me, the problem was that a Microsoft patch made reboot all the PCs on the planet???? The issue was that the authentication system on their servers got screwed up, probably because it was not sized properly. That's a scalability issue. I had one in my past while working on a consumer online trading platform. Our authentication server started to choke up. The queue got long. The clients re-tried to login after 30 seconds. The queue increased. More login attempts... The system died. We had to manually clean the queue, block the clients, increase the power of the machines and their throughput, open clients up a chunk at a time. A painful excercise. But easy to explain. And we had to. Skype does not have to.

You can avoid giving explanations when a free service crashes.

Did Skype offer a refund? Nope. They increased my subscription for a week. Lame...

You do not have to offer a refund for a free service.

Bottom line: free software as a service is good for businesses. Get people hooked to them. Screw their lives. Nobody can say a word. Yep, they might leave you and use something else (in particular, if you piss off their wives), but it is a small prize to pay :-)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The future of OSS companies

Today marks another joyous day for commercial open source companies. Xensource has been bought by Citrix for 500M. Yep, that's half a billion. For a commercial open source company making less than 10M in revenues this year and pretty much zero last year (rumors say). That's a huge multiplier, on any standard (the only acquisition with a higher multiplier I know was YouTube and, maybe, Skype). It comes after the JBoss acquisition, which already had a big multiplier (but this one beats it by a long margin).

Now, I was reading Alex Fletcher's blog this morning (an analyst at Entiva), where he defines "The five phases of maturity for open source software ecosystems". For those lacking hyperlink clicking abilities:
  • Phase 1: Purely open source stage. The technology doesn't feature any commercial support and may or may have reached a level of production-ready stability. [...] Example(s) - open source implementations of Jingle
  • Phase 2: Entrance into the marketplace. Often marked by the initial offering of commercial services or "productization" of open source code. [...]. Example(s) - Untangle
  • Phase 3: Momentum takeoff drives growth. A midpoint in the evolution of an ecosystem [...]. Example(s) - Alfresco, Funambol, Zimbra
  • Phase 4: Predictability. After the ecosystem reaches an invariable point of cultivation, momentum transfers into sustained equilibrium. [...]. Example(s) - Red Hat Linux, MySQL (still in the early stages)
  • Phase 5: Emergence as full-fledged platform. The transformation from ecosystem into platform represents the highest form of an evolved open source ecosystem, in addition to its final maturation phase. [..]
Now, Xensource is definitely in Phase 3, together with the other three in the list and surely a few more. JBoss was there as well, when it was bought. Same for Sourcefire or Sleepycat.

Two questions arise in my mind:
  1. Will anybody make it to phase 4 or will we be all snatched by a proprietary vendor before making it? Considering all of us have VC investors on board, I just do not see how anyone would be able to resist a 100x multiplier...
  2. Will anybody make it to phase 5, eventually, and become a huge company like Microsoft?
Looking at what is happening in the market, either proprietary vendors are "killing" open source companies or open source is becoming such a basic need that it will blend in the mainstream (I believe the latter is true). If this happens, there will be a few companies getting to phase 4...

What about phase 5? We already have only MySQL and RedHat that could make it, but I always thought MySQL will be a target for an acquisition one day. RedHat could become the big pure open source play. But it is at risk to be the only one. Maybe a pure open source dominating player will never exist...

Wow, that's a sad thought in a joyous day :-)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Mobile Monday with the iPhone

Tonight is Mobile Monday. Ok, the first monday of the month was supposed to be last week, I know. But it is August, it is sunny out there, it is right to take it easy...

Anyway, Mobile Monday tonight is about the iPhone. One of my favorite topics of late. I am scheduled to talk about "what we have been working to get Funambol support for the iPhone as well as posting some info of general interest to iPhone hackers". An event not to be missed (it is free ;-)
  • What: August 2007 Mobile Monday (iPhone)
  • When: August 13th, 2007 7:00pm
  • Where: AOL Building 12, 401 Ellis St., Mountain View, CA
  • Who: Anyone interested in mobility
  • Cost: Nothing!
See you there!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Open source beats SCO

If you are reading this blog, most likely you heard about SCO. They sued IBM claiming they had copyrights on Linux. It was 2003 and many thought it could signal the end of Linux and open source in general.

Not many people believed the claim or - at least - CIOs kept buying Red Hat...

The issue looked to me like a mosquito flying around while you are enjoying a nice dinner. It bothers you, you look at it, you hope someone will squash it, but you keep having dinner and still enjoy it.

Today the mosquito has been squashed. SCO has lost the case. They did not have any copyright on Linux. End of story.

The Groklaw site went down, after publishing the news, under heavy load... The mosquito bothered many, apparently :-)

Glad to see it is gone.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The MAGX of Motorola

Today I spent some time with the MOTODEV team around LinuxWorld. I like the team and what they are doing, however I end up always hoping they would move much faster. I have the feeling they share my hope but there is not much you can do in a gigantic company (well, there is a reason why I like startups...).

This week, they did a magic trick. They announced something that is not available. And they called it MAGX.

I saw this before (remember Apple and iPhone in January?), so no surprises. here. However, it gets worst when you announce developer tools you do not have, instead of cool electronics for consumers. Consumers are friendlier than developers. Bullshit a developer and you risk of losing his/her forever. This is valid for Apple as well. "The first Software Developer Kit without a Software Developer Kit, also knows as browser" speech by Steve Jobs was insulting. But at least the device was cool.

What is MAGX? A Java ME platform (uuuuhhh, that's news ;-), a vague WebUI for Web 2.0 applications (are they going to announce a browser as well??) and a Linux API for building native applications. The first one is available, the other two only for "selected developers" in Q4.

As everyone else, I hate "selected" everything, as long as I am not selected...

Jokes apart, the cool thing here is the last one. A full Linux API, to build native APIs. What is missing in the iPhone, although we got a hold of one through hacking...

The issue is: when? We would need it tomorrow. It would put the MOTO phones ahead of the curve, with OpenMoko. Ahead of the iPhone. Ahead of Nokia (which, at least, has the N800 Tablet).

Unfortunately, I believe it is going to take a while... Let's hope it does not take too much. It smells a lot like Palm to me and time-to-market is supercritical in mobile.

Lastly, I played around with the RAZR2 V8, due later this year in the US (at&t? Directly against the iPhone? Or T-Mobile?). Nice phone, snappy user interface, SyncML, Opera browser. No wow, though. Nothing that would convince an end user to change its phone. Linux does not sell to end users. Cool applications do.

But you need developers for it. And developer tools. And you need them now... That's the MAGX.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Mobile 2.0 is happening now

Back in November, I wrote a Manifesto about Mobile 2.0 and what I thought it meant (and will mean in the future). Since then, lots of things have happened. The X-Series from 3. The Helio Ocean. The iPhone. The 700 Mhz auction and what Google wants to do with it.

Last week at HostingCon I had the exact feeling of how all this is changing the mobile world. Simply, the carriers are starting to lose the grip on their customers... Flat data plans are here to stay. The $20/month of the iPhone is the new bar and it is destined to go down (see $15 plans from Sprint or the €9 from 3, for example).

What does it mean? It means a new world. If the carrier just provides me the IP, anyone in the world (starting with web hosters and portal, such as Google, Yahoo and AOL) can provide me services. You would not need to go to a carrier to get mobile email, you can get it from your web hoster.

On the other side, competition forces the carriers to accelerate their deployments. They cannot sit on the SMS revenue stream any longer. They have to act and start providing services or the hosters will eat in their plate. Google is not really a friend, when takes the users away from you. Nor it is Apple when your brand is only in the top left and there is nothing else from you on the phone (I am sure one day at&t will regret the move on the iPhone). That means, better+useful+cheap services from the carriers. Starting now.

This is the beginning of Mobile 2.0, but it is happening very very quickly.

P.S. I am in Frankfurt, Germany today. If you are around tonight and want to meet, just give me a buzz.