Thursday, June 28, 2007

My imaginary review of the iPhone

I was surprised when I received the call from Apple Marketing. They asked me to review the iPhone two weeks in advance. I thought they could not give a damn about open source and the largest mobile community of developers, but I was wrong. They wanted me to review the iPhone.

I spent the last two weeks with the iPhone. The bottom line is: it is an awesome device, too pricey for many, too slow for most, too closed for sure. But just right for me (a niche of one).

It is really small and light. The screen is fantastic. The virtual keyboard sucks, despite the marketing hype, because it does not have tactile feedback. If you got used to T9 on cell phones, this is immensely better, so just suck it up. If you got used to a BlackBerry, keep it because you will still be much more productive, but you will still look like the salesman that you are, even with a camera and an MP3 player.

Other reviewers probably live on the North Pole and do not sweat. I live in California and I do. The screen is greasy after the two weeks and I have to clean it once a day. But who cares? It is so cool to take it out in public that I am even happy to keep cleaning it. Yesterday, I was at a Starbucks and I took it off to clean it. Girls attacked me. If you are single and geek (not that I am), spend the night in front of an Apple store. It will pay off during the weekend.

I still do not get why I had to activate it by myself, instead of having someone nice doing it for me in the store. I am working for Steve Jobs for free and I should feel better. But, hey, I did it in the comfort of my home and I could buy it at an Apple store... So it must be good for me.

Not having third party apps on the iPhone is just insane. "The first kit for software developers that is not an SDK (software developer kit)!" said Steve Jobs during WWDC. Yep, it is called a browser... Hey, many will do their best to build web apps but I miss some of the ones I have on my Windows Mobile. Again, who cares? No girl ever was attracted to a BlackJack.

Being forced to sync it via cable is so Palm HotSync and last millennium... Man, I have wifi and cellular connectivity (albeit slow like my 56k modem), and I cannot sync it over the air with my Outlook or Thunderbird. I would love to see the address book of my old crappy cell phone on the iPhone. I would really need Funambol for it (stay tuned...).

When I was about done with my review, I received a call from Steve Jobs himself. I was shocked. He told me to stop writing dumb things about the iPhone and Apple. He made sure I was informed that he does not read my blog. Before hanging up, he screamed "wake up and go get yourself in line in front of one of our stores, or you are not going to get one, you idiot!!".

I woke up.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Teens and mobile email

There is a debate out there about teens and their use of email vs. Instant Messaging (IM). Anecdotal evidence suggests they use more IM than email on desktops, these days. If you translate it into mobile - where they spend a ton of time and cash they did not earn - this might indicate that mobile email is not interesting for this segment. Not a small thing, since teenagers represent the fastest growing segment and the most technically savvy. On top of it, kids become adults one day... They will be the market-makers for the next 40 years...

A recent report in the UK from the BBC surprised me a bit.

In a nutshell:
  1. 50% of 25 to 34-year-olds told ICM researchers they would not be able to carry on without e-mail
  2. 44% of 35 to 44-year-olds said e-mail was vital
  3. 41% o of teenagers said they relied on e-mail
I actually thought the gap between young and less-young would be bigger. Maybe young Brits are too shy to use IM ;-)

Anyway, the debate is interesting but, in my opinion, moot. Email and IM solve two different needs. Email is for asynchronous communication, IM is for synchronous communication. If I send you an IM, I expect you to answer right away. If I send you an email, I expect you to answer in a reasonable timeframe. IM does not kill email or viceversa. Both nicely co-exist.

IM requires people to have more time for others and be "available for interruption" (it has presence). It works well when you are a kid. IM time is higher over email time for teens (but email is not zero, you still need asynchronous communication...). When you grow up and start working, your IM time diminishes and your email time increases. I would bet that email time wins over IM time as soon as you join your first job.

Bottom line: teens are using email and will embrace mobile email (although maybe using it less than mobile IM, which is the SMS killer). Once they turn 24, I believe the switch happens. New generations with mobile experience will transform themselves in avid mobile email people. Consumer mobile email is going to be even bigger year after year.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The iPhone is going to change my world

No, I haven't changed my mind. I believe the first iteration of the iPhone is going to be for a niche. However, it is going to be a niche with a bang. The next three months will be iPhone mania. The first wave of buyer is going to be strong and iPhones will fly off the shelves. There is a cult around Apple products. They never gave up believing. They feel different. They are going to buy it at $600 + taxes, plus a $50/month voice+data plan (my prediction ). [update on June 26th: I missed by a bit, it is $59.99...]

Whatever happens next, I do not care. The iPhone has already changed the mobile world forever. More will happen from now to the end of the year. There is no way back.

Why? Because a carrier (at&t) completely gave up to a device manufacturer (Apple), opening up its entire network. This will force other carriers to compete ("my friend can do it with the iPhone on at&t, why can't I do the same with you?"). The wall garden is going to collapse quickly. Data plans will emerge to compete, because no carrier wants to give up its customers to at&t and the iPhone (the same is valid for Europe and Asia, they just have few months to prepare themselves).

If you are a carrier, what can you do? Offer services. Go beyond voice and SMS. Even with the network open, you still control your users. But you have to offer them a reason to stay with you. Give your consumers push email from wherever they have email, give them IM, give them content. Do not let device manufacturers and portals eat in your plate. React, embrace and remain relevant. Do not let them transform you into a dumb pipe. You still have time (not too much, though...).

The iPhone is the best damn thing that ever happened to mobile.

Look at portals... Google and Yahoo have been turning up the mobile volume by three notches. Yahoo is all about mobile. There is even a big board on 101 about Yahoo Mobile (that's THE sign of a turning point ;-)

Look at Microsoft... They just launched MSN for mobile, a week ago. "We firmly believe there is an inflection point here," said Phil Holden, Microsoft's director of mobile Web services. "There's a new battle, a new frontline developing on the mobile phone."

Look at device manufacturers. Nokia and Sony Ericsson brands are as strong as they ever been. They have a phenomenal opportunity to come back and play the Apple game. They are putting more and more open standards on devices. Nokia is even putting web servers on a phone (and it is open source). Imagine the chances of that happening with a wall garden...

June 29th is the turning point for the mobile market, the one we have waited for years. The fun starts now.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Open Source CEO Series

Matt just started a new blog at CNET and needs to attract visitors. Since he is a marketing genius, he came up with the idea of hosting other open source people on it that would tunnel visitors to his blog (just kidding ;-). He started with Dave Rosenberg, then Marten Mickos, then his boss John Powell and finally Javier Soltero. He quickly ran out of good names, so I ended up being the fifth. Glad to be in such a good company. I recommend reading what the other CEOs are saying, because they are very smart people.

For those curious but affected by hyperlink-laziness here you have the content of what I told him (his blog has some additional comments, but mostly around his inability to choose a soccer team that can actually win something, instead of just talking about it...).

Name, position, and company of executive
Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO, Funambol

Year company was founded and year you joined it
The company was founded in 2003, but I was working on it before then.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
We raised a Series A round in 2005 from Walden International (Mary Coleman) and HIG (Fred Sturgis). We then did a follow-up round in December of 2006, for a total of $10.5 million.

Background prior to current company
Funambol is the third company that I have started. The first one, in 1994, was Internet Graffiti - the first web company in Italy. The entire operation was run on Linux machines, loaded with the slackware distro (yep, that's A1, A2, ... floppies). In the late 1980s I was enlightened to the path of open source by Alessandro Rubini, a colleague in my university lab, where he wrote the Linux mouse device driver. My last serious job was at Reuters in 2002, where I ran operations around an online trading platform.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
The speed at which the industry has warmed to commercial open source. In late 2004, people started to believe me when I told them that I had found a way to balance being open source and making money, also known as funambolism or tight-rope walking. Before that, people dismissed me with "Yeah, right. Good luck with that." It changed so quickly - almost overnight. I was shocked.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
Convincing salesmen to filter out 99% of their leads. The biggest issue for an open source company is defining its focus in the sales process. Going after anybody that comes to your door - even if they want to pay you - is guaranteed suicide. Commercial open source is all about qualification and filtering. It is tough to tell someone, "Sorry, we are not going to sell to you, even if you want to buy," but particularly if you're a salesperson. But you must if you want to succeed.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
I would try harder to hire Matt Asay. Letting him go to Alfresco was a mistake. Hey, you makes mistakes here and there.... :-)

Top three pieces of advice for would-be open source CEOs

  1. Do not chase every lead that comes in the door. They might be few at the beginning, but if your project is a success you will be inundated by them. Build processes and tools to qualify your leads and make tough choices or you will drown quickly.
  2. Fire anyone that says "We win simply because we are open source." Being open source is just a component of your strategy and most likely your big differentiator. But if all you have is that you are open source, someone else will do the same and kill you.
  3. If you realize your project is not growing fast enough, maybe you made a mistake to make it open source in the first place. You need a big market to have a large open source project. If you attack a niche, you won't make it. If this is the case, look for the next gig. There is probably nothing you can do about it. De-open sourcing is not an option.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why is Yahoo collecting my cell number?

It might be the open source soul in me, but I always hated companies collecting information about me. However, I realize sometimes it is a necessary evil and I can live with that. At least, I expect something tangible in exchange. If you just get my data and you give me nada, I get pissed.

One spectacular example is Yahoo Go, advertised quite a bit lately. There is an ad to get you to download Yahoo! Go 2.0 for Windows Mobile, shown below. I would suggest you click on it...

If you followed my suggestion, you have been presented with a page that starts with:

We found 79 phones that work with Yahoo! Go

However, if you scroll that list, there is NOT EVEN ONE phone that works! They all say "Coming Soon"... The message should say "We found 0 (zero, nada) phones that work with Yahoo! Go"...

Why would Yahoo do it? Because there is a clear invitation on the right to put your phone number in. They will gladly collect it, send you a message (for which, you'll pay in the US) and have you walk into their site from your phone. At the end, they will tell you your phone is not supported, but they will notify you once it is ready.

If they know my phone is not supported, why are they collecting my cell phone number? Why am I spending my money to receive a message? What do I get back? Nada de nada... I am pissed...

Let's hope the Chief Yahoo! now Chief Executive Yahoo! turns his company around. It starts from the small things, like this one. Don't be evil.

My personal review of the Helio Ocean

A few days ago, I walked into the Helio store in Palo Alto, talked to a cool store guy and walked out with an Helio Ocean. I am clearly biased on the device, since Funambol powers it, but I hope I can still be balanced in my review ;-)

Done with the caveat, a first impression: the Ocean is an awesome device :-)

The thing that makes it unique, for starters, is the sliding dual keyboard. That is, you slide out the keypad from the bottom when you need to call someone; you slide out the keyboard from the side when you want to type (and the screen turns into landscape).

I am a fan of tactile feedback, maybe because I descend from monkeys. I believe having a keyboard to type is a must, if you want to do email or IM. I am willing to change my mind in two weeks (the iPhone birth date), but I had confirmation of my suspicions last week at the Apple WWDC. On the Apple site, check the video of the VP iPhone Software typing on the iPhone : he wants to type "john". He does "j", then "o", then "j" again (oops), then backspace, then "j" again (ooooooops), then backspace and finally "h" and "n". Agreed, he was on stage and everybody was comparing his performance to Steve Jobs... but if the VP iPhone can't type on it under pressure, I sure will have the same issue while driving (note: there are studies that say that the vast majority of mobile emails are typed while driving...).

The communication features of the Ocean are astonishing. You can do email with Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, Earthlink, Windows Live and your POP/IMAP. With Yahoo, it is even push (nice ;-) You can do IM with Yahoo, MSN and AIM (no Google Talk). You can sync your address book with Helio, Yahoo and AOL (via SyncML, that is). It is a messaging monster.

To be honest, all those options and brands are even overwhelming. Trying to pack every email, IM and sync brand on the phone is confusing and limiting. For example, it does not scale (imagine adding even more brands, like MySpace, Facebook, and so on). Also, you cannot filter anything (and I do not want spam on my phone or - worst - to be notified when there is spam waiting for me...). My recipe for this is: one Email client, one IM client, one Sync client. They all talk to a server (or gateway), branded by the operator, where you can easily define filters and set whatever sources you have. Packing everything in the phone won't cut it in the long run.

Other nice features are Google Maps, with GPS support, and a search tool that looks into different search engines. Even Yelp. That is: you are looking for an Italian restaurant, you do a search based on where you are (the phone knows it...), you get results, you check what people say about those places and call the restaurant to make a reservation with a click. That's the power of mobility, localization and a device that has an unlimited data plan...

When you have GPS, cool things happen. For example, you take a picture and it gets "geotagged" when you send it to Helio Up. That means you do not need to write on the back of your picture where you were when you took that picture. Pictures tagged with date and location are the future of photo albums.

There are shortcomings, though. For example, you cannot add another sync server... Although I have inside information that it would work ;-) And you cannot sync calendars (well, also that one I know it can be easily done...). Even if you have a pIMAP capable server, it does not push emails to the device (it is Yahoo only). Even more, you cannot download Java apps on the device, if they are not on deck. That's insane: it has a fully open browser but you can't add apps to it?? If you are an open source developer, good luck trying to find a way to post applications on the deck. They do not even give you a link or an email of someone you can talk to... When will they understand this is what makes such a phone really useful??? Even Steve Jobs realized it recently. Give the power to developers, they will shock you.

Bottom line, the Ocean has a sliding keyboard. Big plus. It also costs $195 (vs. $500+ of the iPhone). Huge plus... It has 3G (vs. 2.5G). Big difference, since you do not need wifi.

It feels light, it feels fast, it is packed with a million features, it is reasonably priced. It is an awesome device.

The iPhone killer? Probably not (brand matters), but if you are looking at an iPhone alternative to spend less money and have great features... it is probably it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Europe and New York

I am in Europe this week. I will be in Milan today, Rome tomorrow for an interesting event I am speaking at (with the US Ambassador and great entrepreneurs), Frankfurt on Friday and then back to the US, on the East Coast for a few days (New York). If you happen to be living in any of my stops, send me a note and I will be happy to meet.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The knight in shining armor

Writing nice things about your own product is bad manners. Linking someone else is pretty much the same, but you can always say "he said that, not me" and "I do not know the guy at all, I never met him and I did not pay him!".

Today, I was forwarded this post of someone I swear I do not know, never met and definitely did not pay...

Finally, Funambol
Several weeks ago, I got a Motorola Q–a very nice Windows Mobile based smartphone. I went back to Google and my “knight in shining armor,” Funambol, appeared (formerly Sync4j). As a commercial product with almost everything open source, I got an enterprise solution for free. First step was downloading and installing the server–which I put on my Ubuntu server. After 20 minutes of that and configuring my firewall, I was onto getting plugins. I installed one into Thunderbird that syncs Lightning and my contacts. I installed one on my new Motorola Q, one in my old PDA, and one in Outlook for good measure. The plugins have nice integration into Thunderbird, Outlook, and Windows Mobile, while not using Activesync. One awesome benefit is that I can now sync through the internet–no more USB cable. It just works.

The Winner
Funambol, in my mind, is the clear winner of syncing solutions. Cross-platform, open source, free, nice UI, remote syncing, and solid performance. There are plugins for Blackberry, Palm, Evolution, SugarCRM, Exchange, LDAP, iPod, and quite a few others. I now have my calendar and contacts synced on multiple computers and smart devices. I am happy since I am free of Windows and getting the most out of my smartphone.

Wow, I feel I should meet this person, know him/her and offer him/her at least a beer (so that s/he won't be able to write about us anymore ;-)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Arriving #1 at Monaco

Nope, I did not win the Monaco Gran Prix. And Ferrari was actually very slow this year in Monte Carlo...

However, Funambol yesterday won Best Messaging Infrastructure / Platform at the 4th Annual Global Messaging Awards. This was part of the Global Messaging 2007 conference in Monte Carlo.

This was "awarded to the product that has enhanced the existing messaging network by providing greater capacity, security, reliability or adds an additional application." (uuhhh, nice ;-)

As part of this, they provided us with a nice looking glass trophy. And nope, Caroline was not part of the ceremony and they did not give us good champagne to spray around (well, I believe, I wasn't even there accepting the award, Daniel was...)