Monday, October 29, 2007

The Skype phone and the beginning of the end

3 and Skype announced the Skype phone (sPhone?) today. It is a pretty basic and cheap phone (roughly $100) with a button to open the Skype application. Over 3G, it allows you to call other Skype users and text them.

That's it. Pretty simple. Voice over IP. The carrier gives you the IP. Everything else goes through that, including voice.

How significant is this?

I believe it is a huge step. Yet another one towards the "dumbification" of the carrier's business. That is: just being a carrier. Carrying voice and data, and in the near future... simply data. Because voice is just another data type.

Why is 3 doing it? Because they are not the incumbent and need to deliver new stuff to the market to become appealing.

What about the other carriers? I bet they are panicking. They should not. There is nothing wrong with being a bit pipe. It is the same as being a voice pipe, as they have been up to a few years ago (or today, considering SMS is the only real data service with traction).

They should just focus and do what they did on their voice business. Carry the voice. Who has the most reliable and cheaper network wins. Pretty simple.

Just carry the data. Make it cheaper and reliable. Try to keep the margin up. Who has the most reliable and cheaper network wins. Pretty simple. Forget about value added services. The world is going somewhere else...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Introducing the Funambol iPhone plug-in

The day I bought my iPhone, I was totally surprised to find that the only way to synchronize address book and calendar was over iTunes. I could do that ten years ago with my Palm III via HotSync...

The iPhone is a networked device, I could not believe they missed the over the air synchronization element. After all, it is what made BlackBerry what it is today (and RIM a 60B+ company, with a market value
bigger than Motorola...).

Since that day, I have been thinking about porting the Funambol plug-in to the iPhone. We have it for Windows Mobile, Outlook, JavaME... Based on the Java or the C++ API. The goal was to have a native SyncML client, which would synchronize myFUNAMBOL (or any other SyncML server) with the local address book on the iPhone.

Once the hackers opened the door to actually make it happen, I called Patrick Ohly, the guy who wrote SyncEvolution and ported our SDK to Linux and Maemo. It just needed an iPhone to get going, so I shipped one from the US. A few weeks later, he had a first prototype. Then he went on vacation, rightly so ;-)

A couple of weeks ago, he sent me the first pre-release of SyncEvolution 0.7, with the iPhone address book sync. Awesome. He made it, through undocumented API (and he built a plug-in for Mac OS X while doing it ;-)

The stuff is great, but it requires a terminal and ssh to make it work. Manually... I asked him if he could do the GUI for the rest of us, he said "no thanks, I have better things to do in life" :-)

So I decided to build the GUI myself, as I did with the Funambol web interface for the iPhone address book. Quite an experience, navigating through Objective-C and undocumented Cocoa interfaces... A few nights and two weekends, and here it is.

There is a settings panel, to add your configuration parameters and sync to myFUNAMBOL.

To get it on your iPhone, you need Point your Safari browser on the iPhone to the URL and install the Funambol Source, then open Installer (if you have an iPhone 1.1.1, you should open Installer, click on Sources (bottom right), click on Edit (top right), click on Add and put then click on Done (top right) and refresh), select Productivity and install Funambol. That's it, it includes SyncEvolution as well (but you need the BSD subsystem to be installed on the iPhone already): change the settings and you have over-the-air address book sync...

I have to say the undocumented UIKit is extremely powerful. If you know Cocoa, you will find yourself at ease. The issue is that you have to try everything, because you have no clue what would work or not (the beauty of "undocumented" :-) The end result is a language that is elegant and allows you to build a GUI in hours (vs. weeks), with threads, timers and animations. Wow.

The issue is that I would bet Apple will not give developers this same API in February. They will take stuff out and will probably make it very difficult for anyone to really build powerful apps. Or maybe not. We'll see.

For now, enjoy the first native address book synchronization for the iPhone. And let me know if you find bugs in the GUI or you have suggestions.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

iPhone SDK: the Apple deck

As a usual commentator of iPhone fortunes, I have been mulling Steve Job's announcement of the iPhone open SDK for a few days and I finally I made up my mind...

It is not going to be open.

My first reaction was pure excitement. I have been pushing for this announcement since day zero, when Steve made me laugh saying "it is the first SDK without a SDK", also known as a browser... Now that the announcement is here, I just do not think it will be enough.

Here you have my predictions on the SDK (hey, I got the announcement of the Touch right, I might get lucky for the second time ;-)
  1. You are not going to be able to download apps on the iPhone over the air.
  2. You will have to go through iTunes, where they will build the Application Store, keeping complete control of the system (is anybody saying "on-deck"? ;-)
  3. As a developer, you will have limited APIs. For starters, no file system access, it will be a sandbox with access to your own application files. That's it.
  4. Because of the above, no way to build ringtones (they have to protect that chunk of the business) or access to music or building another million interesting applications.
  5. As a developer, you will have to "certify" yourself first (hopefully without paying), submit your application (hopefully online) and wait for a person to review it. I do not believe this system will be automated. They will have a certification suite but also someone to review the app to make sure it is "appropriate" for the iTunes Application Store. It will take time and be a tedious process.
Bottom line, we will have removed the on-deck requirement of the carrier... and we will get the on-deck requirement of the device manufacturer. The excuse will be security, viruses and blah blah. The end result is going to be an open SDK which will not be really open. That would be a disgrace.

Therefore, the key application which is missing on the iPhone, over-the-air synchronization, might not make it "on-deck". Hoping for the better, we just finished the first version anyway. Patrick Ohly, one of our estimated Funambol community MVPs, just released the iPhone version of SyncEvolution. It is the first SyncML client for the iPhone, syncing your address book with the free myFUNAMBOL portal natively (and other SyncML servers). For now, it has no GUI (so you need to be a geek and have ssh access to the device), but it works extremely well. We are also working on a nice GUI, which will have all the bells and whistles you would expect. It is going to be out in a week or so, stay tuned...

Just hoping to see Funambol on the Apple deck in February...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Something is cooking in Italy

Yesterday I watched another Italian triumph in sports. I could not believe my eyes, but Ferrari won the F1 World Championship. For those that like Nascar, F1 is the second most watched sport on the planet (second to soccer ;-)

This is not just a triumph of Italian determination and never-give-up attitude (like in the soccer World Cup). This one represents the excellence of Italian technology. Of Italian high-tech. Of Italian engineering. And it is the second this year, after Ducati in MotoGP.

During my last trip to Europe, I stopped in Rome for the Venture Camp event. We talked about entrepreneurship in Italy and the lack of venture capital in Italy, despite the high tech competence.

I sensed something very interesting. A group of entrepreneurs with real drive and extreme talent. Willing to push forward, despite the rest of the country holding them back.

There were those who made it, like Gianluca Dettori (who brought Vitaminc to IPO, then sold it to Buongiorno) or Marco Palombi (who created the #1 blog site in Italy - Splinder - then sold it to Dada). There were those who are still trying, like me, Marco Rossi (CEO of Movenda) and Andrea Genovese (editor of 7th floor, a superb magazine). There were those who are just starting, such as Marco Barulli of Clipperz (a fantastic online password manager. If you are like me and you are tired of remembering 10,000 passwords, give it a try).

I sensed there is something new boiling in Italy. People that are there to make a difference and not planning to give up. Sadly, the only government help is coming from the other side, the American Embassy in Italy ;-) We'll take it, Richard Bohly is doing a terrific job and he is hundred times more effective than any Italian bureaucrat...

The issue is just access to capital, not lack of skilled entrepreneurs, human capital or clever technology.
Exceptions are rare, like Luca Ungarelli of the Golden Mouse fund, who first believed in Funambol. At ETRE, I spoke to many European VCs and it is unreal to see the stats about Italy, comparing innovation vs. capital invested. We are at the bottom of the chart for capital invested, and at the top for innovation. Something must be wrong...

As usual, my hope is that the Funambol model (getting the capital elsewhere, since they are impossible to find in Italy) is the one for the short term. Moving that to a fully VC-backed Italian Silicon Valley will take some time, but we'll get there. What I saw in Rome was an eye-opener. There are more Ferrari and Ducati out there, I can tell you that.

Something is cooking in Italy, and it is not just pizza.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A turning point in wireless

Today we announced our deal with 1&1, which happens to be the largest web hoster (ISP) on the planet. Details are sketchy and I do not think I am allowed to add anything on this blog, but it is most likely going to turn into the biggest deal in the history of Funambol ;-)

Why does this matter for anybody but us?

Because it is a turning point in wireless.

1&1 has roughly 70 millions email accounts under management (some free, through one of their portals). Not a small number... As of today, for any of those customers to have mobile email on their devices, they would have to call their mobile operator. Once the service is launched, they won't. They will just get an IP from the mobile operator (through a data plan) and they will get mobile email from 1&1 directly.

Consumers will get mobile email from their email provider, not the mobile operator.

I wrote before about Mobile 2.0 and the shift in the market, which involves data plans, flat rates and direct access to the "Internet" from your mobile device. A scenario where the mobile carrier becomes a "carrier" of voice and data, not services (a.k.a. a "dumb" pipe). If you thought it would happen in a few years, you were wrong. It is happening now. Today. It is 1&1, Earthlink and the rest of those who own your email (think Google, Yahoo, AOL...).

Mobile operators are risking to become a bit pipe, more than ever. If they do not move fast (really fast), they are toasted. The train is about to leave the station...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Technology is human

I am a technologist. I love gadgets and rely on a computer and a mobile device for many hours, every single day. I trust computers and understand how to work around issues (for example, using my iPhone here in Budapest with a Wind SIM card ;-)

Mostly, I know whom to blame when there is a problem: a human being. The developer, the operator behind the service, the company. Someone, who made a mistake.

I know it is not the machine.

Many people don't. They talk to their computer like it is a human. And get upset at the machine, when it fails them. Or they do not trust machines to be right, like my dad who does his taxes with a calculator, then verifies every single sum by hand...

I was reminded of how human technology is on Sunday. I woke up early to take a flight from Rome to Budapest. I arrived at the airport, checked in my bag and waited in front of a screen, far away from the gate. I do it always this way, I hate the packed crowd at the gate and people getting in line two hours before the flight is actually boarding. I like silence and a book. Even more, when I am in Italy...

In a word, I trust the computer.

This time, it failed me. The boarding sign never appeared and, while I was waiting for the plane to board, it actually left me there. My flight never showed "boarding" and disappeared from the screen, all of a sudden.

I had to pick up my bag, rebook a flight 10 hours later and, surprisingly, enjoy a full day in Rome. As a tourist. During a business trip. I left my bag at the airport, took the train back to the center. I had great pizza, fantastic coffee and super gelato. I walked around Fontana di Trevi and the Colosseo. I sat on the stairs in Piazza di Spagna with the Sunday crowd.

For a second, I actually thought the computer did it on purpose, to allow me an unexpected holiday.

Back at the airport, they initially told me I was not in the passenger list for the evening flight, then they called the manager in charge (an Hungarian lady from Malev) who finally put me on the plane. However, just when she gave me the boarding pass, she started yelling at me because I forced a 20 minutes delay of the morning flight, while they searched for my bag. I tried to explain I was looking at a computer and I trusted it. She would not listen. She kept yelling that I should not have trusted a computer. That it was all my fault, that she had to pay 30 euros to get my bag off the plane (which is probably a huge cost, for the Malev airline...). That I was supposed to be at the gate.

That I should not have trusted the computer.

Wait, was the computer at fault? Who forgot to press Enter and tell the system the plane was actually boarding? I would bet it was the same Hungarian lady... She screwed up, not the computer.

Technology is human, especially when it fails you.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Voice over data, and the future of telephony

Rather quietly, this week RIM announced the BlackBerry Curve 8320, a dual-mode phone. It supports the Tmobile GSM network, but it also adds wi-fi. Not a big deal, you might think. The iPhone has wi-fi as well, so do many smartphones.

The difference is that this device can switch to wi-fi for voice calls. Not just data. Voice...

That means you can sign up for T-Mobile Hotspot@Home ($10/month) and call for "free" when you are at home, in the office, at a Starbucks, in the airport, when you are traveling abroad... Without changing your number. Your cell phone will ring when they call you.

The technology behind this is called UMA. Tmobile acts as a gateway between your phone and the GSM network (that is, the phone gets an IP from your home router, then talks to a T-Mobile server, which routes the call). That's why you have to pay them the $10 per month.

If you have ever traveled with a BlackBerry, you know how expensive it is to call home from an hotel or a conference. Ten bucks go in a few minutes... Now, in all those places you have wi-fi. With $10/month, all your calls are included. You just have to sign-up to the hotspot where you are.

I am ready to bet that all CFOs on the planet are preparing to force their employees to take the new device and have them use it with wi-fi, at least at home and in the office, where the majority of the calls happen... It will be a huge saving.

Although it came in quietly, this is a big turning point in the market. Data is now used for voice. It is the start of a new era. Data will be ubiquitous. Blending voice as a data element makes data king.
A number of very interesting applications will emerge out of this.

There is a competing option to UMA, which is also quite interesting. It is called femtocell (for the geeks out there, femto is just a bit smaller than pico, which is smaller than nano, which is smaller than micro, and so on). It is a very very small cell, that you put in your house or office and connect to the Internet. In practical terms, it is like having a cell tower in your house, giving you five bars on your cellphone. Sprint has launched a trial on it, called AIRAVE. You get a small box in your house, plug into your Internet router and voila', you get great signal coverage. In your house, calls are routed from you normal mobile phone to the AIRAVE, then to a Sprint server via Internet. When you walk away from the house, your cellphone switches automatically from you own small cell to the tower cell. Sprint is charging $15/month for the service (unlimited nationwide calls), plus $49.99 for the device.

Just based on my gut feeling, I like UMA better... Femtocell gives me the impression I am paying my carrier to improve their network coverage, because it sucks in my house. They should have a better cell tower ;-) And I am not getting any advantage in a hotel, bar or even in the office. I can use my current phone, which is nice, but I am planning to change my phone every 18 months like everyone else. And the next device I get is definitely going to be data capable and have wi-fi, so... Femtocell seems like a stop-gap solution and, therefore, it might not last very long.

In any case, the future of mobile telephony looks very interesting. Wow, it is all changing so fast...

On my way to Europe

I am taking off tonight for a quick tour of Europe. Stops are London, Rome to speak at VentureCamp (looks like a very interesting event, if you are Italian with aspirations to become an entrepreneur and raise capital), Budapest to speak at ETRE, Helsinki and London again.

If you happen to live on one of my stops, drop me a note and let's have a beer (or some good food, if you are in Rome ;-)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

iPhone lead: for how long?

It is pretty clear that the iPhone has caught all device manufacturers by surprise. First, they said "it is very hard to build a phone, Apple do not know what they are getting into, the first version will be a failure". Then, when the device was showed the first time, they gulped and started hoping it was all hype. And went back to the drawing board, just in case. Lastly, when it hit the market, they realized it was exactly what the marketing machine told us it would be. Apple did the impossible: they built a phone, which is hard to do, and the first version is nearly flawless. On top of it, it has many innovations. Every device manufacturer is now trying to catch up as fast as possible.

The closest seems to be HTC, which certainly was working on much of this before the iPhone was unveiled. They have manufactured devices without a logo for a while, now they are pushing their logo. The HTC Touch is the closest thing to an iPhone out there, with a reasonable price (Prada or Armani phones do not count...). It has TouchFLO, which reminds of the iPhone multitouch. They just announced they sold 800,000 of those. Not a bad number and very close to the iPhone. Today, they announced an evolution of it, the Touch Dual, with a sliding keypad. Both phones sport Windows Mobile.

What is the difference between the Touch(es) and the iPhone? Well, marketing... Apple wins hands down. However, the Touch has Microsoft behind and they will pour some dollars on this one, in my opinion.

The main difference is applications. There are a tons for Windows Mobile, an "open" platform. There are none available for the iPhone today (if you upgraded to 1.1.1, that is). The difference is staggering. Apple is putting itself in a hole. After the launch, they managed to leave a door open for hackers and dozens of apps were written. With AppTapp, installations and upgrade were seamless. Now it is all gone and it might never get back to wher
e it was (playing cat and mouse is fun for a while, then you get bored to be eaten by the mouse every month and you just give up). Apple is risking big. They might lose their lead, if they keep insisting on supporting a fully closed device.

It is also hurting their marketing a lot. Look at the Nokia poster that went around the web today...

The message is simple: the iPhone is closed and has limits, imposed by Apple. And it is locked to a single carrier, that you might not like...

Mobile Linux, Windows Mobile, Symbian... all open platforms... And you can buy an HTC phone, put your SIM card in it and use it anywhere you want. Unlocked...

The iPhone has a lead, but if Apple is not careful, it is not going to last long.


BTW, thanks to those of you who voted for me in the Visionary category for Consumer Mobile Software at the Mobile Star Awards, allowing me to be a Bright Star for the second year in a row. Much appreciated ;-)