Sunday, December 13, 2009

Always blame the dumb pipe

I have written many times about the risk for mobile carriers to become dumb pipes. The device manufacturers are all out trying to steal the relationship the carriers built year after year with their customers.

It started with RIM and the Blackberry, then came Apple the iPhone. Nokia with Ovi, Palm with Synergy, Motorola with MOTOBLUR, Sony Ericsson with Rachel and more to come.

The carriers are all fighting back: Vodafone with 360, built on technology they acquired (Zyb), and many others licensing code from third party vendors (many, many carriers, I know for a fact ;-)

I always knew that being a pipe is painful. Your revenues become flat, then they start going down. The brand of the device manufacturer becomes all of a sudden more important than yours. Your users become their users.

However, one thing I did not expect: the carrier being blamed for everything...

This is what is happening these days with at&t and the iPhone. Anything cool about the iPhone is Apple's making. Anything bad with the iPhone is because of the network. It is because of AT&T. They get blamed over and over, with crowds dreaming of a Verizon iPhone (ready to blame Verizon as soon as they take on the device).

This article on the New York Times talks about the AT&T network versus the Verizon one, claiming AT&T is not worst than Verizon. Actually, some of the issues iPhone users are experiencing are just due to the iPhone bad usage of the network.

That does not surprise me. A few weeks back, I put the SIM card linked to my AT&T Blackberry account into my iPhone: a few moments later, I received a call from my AT&T representative asking me not to do that. I asked why, since I believe I am paying the same amount for the iPhone plan and the Blackberry plan. They said the iPhone use of the network is way different and my Blackberry plan does not cover that. No surprise the AT&T network is collapsing...

Who did I blame for the call? AT&T, of course.

Always blame the dumb pipe. After all, they must be dumb because they let the device manufacturers take their users and blame them for anything. Dumb and dumber.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Bada starts with bad

Picking a name for a product or a company is not an easy task. When I chose Funambol, I looked for a Latin word starting with Fun, and the concept of tight-rope walking fit perfectly a commercial open source company. I found out later the word can't be pronounced in English or spelled on the phone. Too late, I got stuck with it :-)

Still, I like that Funambol starts with Fun. It brings a good vibe to everything we do.

Today Samsung announced Bada. The name means ocean in Korean. Which is nice. And you can always yell Bada Bing Bada Boom. Which might cheer you up.

But Bada starts with Bad. And there is more to the name.

First of all, it is yet another platform. How many do we need?? Enough already... There is a reason why Funambol decided to acquire an Ajax framework. The future of mobile development is web apps, locally installed with sync and push... We are fed up with any language which is not Javascript+HTML+CSS.

Bada is C++. Developers have had enough of C++, they need something cool to feel their time spent in front of a computer is worth it. I know it is geeky to talk about languages, but Windows Mobile is not going anywhere, also because people like to use Java. And Objective-C is kinda cool.

Then the SDK and IDE are only on Windows. I know, I know. I am an open source guy who does not get that Windows has 92% of the market. It is an obvious choice if you are developing a consumer application (!!!). If you are targeting developers, Linux is much better. Mac OS is much better. Windows is just one choice and most likely not the good one. If you want people to work on your C++ platform, better make an SDK on Linux or Mac fast.

Moreover, they call it "open" but it is not open source. I think we are past SDKs that are not open source. We are past platforms that are not open source. If you are targeting developers, please get yourself in line. We (I have been writing some code lately ;-) do not want to touch proprietary SDKs anymore. Period.

I know users do not understand what open source is and they can't appreciate the benefit of it. But developers do. They see the code. That is what they use to develop. If the code is not open, they go somewhere else.

Lastly, with all written above, there are no phones supporting bada today... Do you really want me to buy a Windows machine to write C++ code on a proprietary platform for a phone that does not exist?

Why?

Why???

Some days I wonder why Google is the only company in the world getting it right. As evil as they are (and they are, the Google DNS service is the incarnation of evil) they just get it. They get developers. They built a platform around a mobile operating system out of nowhere. They got developer to write Android code before there was a phone. They open source everything (although I do not like the way they keep the development process closed, the code is open and they get by with it). They let you use your tools. Maybe it is just that they are a company built by developers. But they got every device manufacture to adopt it (they sold it to the OEM developers, you know? Not their users...) and they are going to dominate the market next year. Every carriers I talk to is about to deploy Android phones, not one or two, five or ten in 2010...

I am sorry but I feel Samsung does not get it. If they want to lure developers, they better call someone who knows how to do it, or they have a guaranteed failure in front of them. Bada is going to also end with bad.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Somebody better build a sexy Android phone for Europe soon

I was reading an IDC statement the other day about Android in Europe:
Android OS continued to grow its market share from 4.2% in 2Q09 to 5.4% in 3Q09. Several operators listed Android devices in 3Q09 for the first time, which helped Android shipments to grow, though consumers steer clear of Google's OS and sell-out is below everyone's expectations. Consumers recognize the Google brand, but still do not understand what Android is.
Once again, I do not think anyone in Europe buys a phone for what is inside. The fact there is Android in a phone does not matter. Not that much inside the phone matters.

What matters is the outside. It is the look.

Yes, you can claim that with Android you can now take a picture of a book and have the book name show up in a search. And you can do the same with business cards and touristic spots. Or search by voice. Or show your friends augmented reality. That is super cool.

If you are a geek.

Sorry, if you are not a geek looking for a geeky companion, you are not going to score showing off your Android phone. Actually, you better keep it in your pocket.

I am not saying this is true only in Europe. But we Europeans do look at what you wear and at what you carry. You get judged based on the color of your socks (if you are Italian, you know what I am talking about...). Your image is important to you and it is reflected on what you wear and carry (purse or phone, same thing). We Americans (cool to be able to talk about both without taking sides ;-) are not looking at people that way. Not in Silicon Valley, not around the part of the country I have been to. What you do matters a lot more. And if you can find a product by its barcode and save a buck or two, you might even be considered cool. Actually, geek is kinda cool, at least in the Valley (now you know why I moved here 10 years ago :-)

For Android to sell hard in Europe, we need a sexy device. Something that sends out the right message to the people around you (your message). Something that matches your purse, shoes or belt.

I haven't seen one in the market yet. Until there is one, I fear Android will not take off in Europe. However, I guess it is just a matter of time. There are so many device manufacturers on it that we'll probably see one or two in 2010.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My impressions on Chrome OS

I have been curious to check Chrome OS since I first heard of it. It is mobile open source, after all, so it fits well with my blog. But my curiosity really stems from the confusion in my brain about the Google OS strategy between Android and Chrome OS.

Android is a full OS for a mobile device. It is getting better by the day (bringing supercool apps with it: I drove with the new Google Maps Navigation tool to work yesterday and it is WOW). Android is going upstream. I am betting we will see a in-car navigation device on it very soon. We are seeing eBook readers already and netbooks. If you look at it, you would assume Google strategy is to kill Microsoft from the bottom: kill Windows Mobile and move up, slowly killing Windows. There are already way more mobile devices than desktops...

Chrome OS is an OS in a browser. A purest form of business model for Google, since it forces everything on the cloud, where they make money. I followed the easy instructions and I quickly built an image on a USB key. I booted my laptop and boom, in 10 seconds I had the OS up and running.


Excluding Wi-fi and audio not working, everything else pretty much worked as expected. Not very fast, I have to say. But I was not looking for that. I was looking for a use case.

I could not find it...

If the OS selling point is that it boots fast, then who cares? My laptop (Mac) boots a little slower but I close the lid and it goes on standby. I open it and it is there. Not in 10 seconds, in 2. Unless the OS crashes or I have to reboot for an upgrade (no more than once a week), I could not care less about the booting time.

Then what? Maybe an uncluttered UI. Yes, that is nice. But the compromise is big. The little windows (e.g. the calculator) open up in the bottom right and they stay there iconized. That is a menu bar, like in every other OS. However it is confusing, because they are trying to stretch a browser to resemble a desktop environment. Chrome OS is something you need to get used to, unlike Android that is immediate.

Aside from some very specialized devices, where you might need just a browser (kiosks?) I do not get it. Maybe I am dense, but I see two paradigm that fits usability patterns:
  1. A full desktop interface, with multiple windows and spaces. A menu bar. Multiple apps running at the same time in different areas of the screen (not tabs). Mouse and maybe touchscreen as a nice to have for presentations. Keyboard. The full enchilada. Power to the user. Not a cramped UI.
  2. A home screen with icons to launch single apps. You click one, it opens, you do something, you close it (or leave it open if it really makes sense). One-click to the task you have in mind.
The desktop interface can scale down to netbooks and maybe tablets. But it is an overkill for mobile devices with small screens, or even eBook readers. Actually, it is probably an overkill for anything that is not meant to be heavily multi-purpose.

The home screen interface can scale up, maybe even to desktops. I do not see a reason for Android not to make it up there. Maybe it won't happen because we are all so used to what we have, but there is a chance. At the end of the day, it is a Linux distro and it is proving useful, with lots of apps. I see a future where it could eat in the Windows and Mac OS plate.

However, I can't see it with Chrome OS. On a desktop, it is too limiting. On a mobile device, it is not usable (it is clearly designed for interaction with a mouse). Unless there is a category in the middle where it will fit, I do not get it.

And products in search of a problem are not usually best-sellers. You need a problem to solve first. I understand why a world in the cloud helps Google business, but they are better off going the Android route. There, they solved a problem - and a broken business model.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Yahoo Go(ne)

Today, I found out that Yahoo Go is gone. It is an interesting development for the Yahoo mobile platform, definitely linked to the departure of Marco Boerries in February (just after presenting the new application at the Mobile World Congress, where I was on the panel... weird).

I have followed the Yahoo Go platform since the beginning. Some days, I felt they were totally on the right path. Some days, I felt the complete opposite. The difference? In the details, as usual.

The idea was intriguing: bringing the entire Yahoo experience on any phone. A rich experience. It made sense.

The problem? Too rich. Too heavy. They tried to implement the app download in chunks (it would not download a feature until you actually wanted to use it), but it was still too slow and too heavy. You might think they were simply ahead of their time. The network were not fast enough. The devices were not powerful enough.

It all came down on usability. The thing was not usable. Period.

On the other side, Google chose a different path: simple one-purpose apps, rather than one gigantic app. The entire Google experience a-la-carte. You can download Maps, if you want. Or Voice. Or Gmail. All individually.

The Google strategy worked. The single-purpose app delivers what you need. It is fast to download and fast to start. It is usable. It also fit well with the iPhone and device manufacturers in general. You give some room to Google but not too much. It is not the full Yahoo experience, it is the Apple experience with some Google flavor (BTW, I think the strategy will backfire, Google will slowly but surely penetrate the entire phone, starting with building their own OS ;-)

I still remember a billboard on 101, where Yahoo was advertising that Yahoo Mobile was years ahead of Google. It was... But it did not last long. It seems ages ago, but I guess it was just before the iPhone (I said it before and I repeat myself: we will always talk about the wireless market before the iPhone and after the iPhone. It changed everything).

Later, Yahoo tried a different strategy to catch up. It focused the app more towards bringing an entire content experience on any phone, including Yahoo. That is, taking your Facebook, Twitter and such and putting it on your device. Something that made sense, but not for Yahoo - in my opinion. They are a content provider, not an aggregator. Those that can aggregate are device manufacturers (think Palm Synergy or MOTOBLUR) and mobile carriers (first out of the gate is Vodafone with 360, many are following in panic, I know because they are calling us...).

What is left for Yahoo? I am not sure. It is a company that has so much content that a mobile extension sounds like a no-brainer. The issue is that the brand is damaged, people are moving away from it every day. I used My Yahoo, Yahoo Mail, Yahoo IM, Yahoo Finance for years and I moved away ever so slowly, one app at a time. I still have my Yahoo email, but that is it. And anything they can do in mobile will probably not matter to me.

However, I have great opinion of David Ko (he is a super-smart guy), so I am sure they will come out with something good. But they need to do it fast.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mobile cloud does not mean network computing

I found an interesting comment the other day in an article:
Nokia has batted back the concept by stating that mobile devices will not become ‘dumb clients' relying on the Cloud for the majority of intelligence.

The company's chief development officer, Mary McDowell, has stepped forward by accepting that the Cloud will grow, "we don't think the cloud is the total answer. Mobile devices are becoming more personalised and increasingly part of an individual's life. We think it will not be either/or," she said. "There will be a lot of intelligence in the Cloud and in the device, and the ability to exchange data with the Cloud will not pave the way for thinner devices, but increasingly powerful ones."

I could not agree more. I do not see a future where mobile devices are dumb, and source everything from the network. I see a future where mobile devices have local data, where the data is updated when the device is idle (from the cloud), where the applications are installed on the device. A network where the data is dispersed on every device and aggregated in the cloud.

Would it make more sense to just have all the data in the cloud, and have dumb terminals access it?

Yes, if you do not consider the following:
  1. COST. That for me nails the argument. The cost of network is going down ever so slowly, if it ever does. And the network are ever more saturated (think about it, they said we had enough capacity with 3G, now even 4G sounds limiting). On the other side, the cost of storage is going down dramatically. I can store on my cell phone what I could store on my PC a few years ago, for a fraction of the cost. Who can point to one single projection where network bandwidth will be sufficient and cheap, while storage on devices will cost a ton? Exactly...
  2. USABILITY. It starts with bandwidth, but it does not end there. Data on the device and apps on the device mean immediate access to what you are looking for. I wrote about it many times in the past: the scenario to keep in mind is the user with an open umbrella in pouring rain.
  3. OFF-LINE usage. It is a scenario that might become less frequent with wireless reception getting on planes, trains, tunnels, rural areas and so on. But it is not going to disappear completely. And, believe me, in that particular situation you will need that information on your device badly...
  4. OWNERSHIP of data. This is a silly need, because you still "own" the data even if it is not on your device, but it is stored in the cloud. However, the perception of it being far away, even if it is yours, will come in play. One article of a cloud player who lost all of the users data, and people will appreciate having their own data on their own device as well. It is mine, I want to keep it with me. All the time.
I just do not see how we could make network computing work in the mobile space, when we could not make it work in the desktop space, where bandwidth is not an issue, connectivity is constant and immediate access to data is less of a problem. It might happen there one day, but the day it will happen in mobile is 10 years or more away. If it will ever happen.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Why did you acquire Zapatec?

This morning we announced the acquisition of Zapatec. I believe Dana at ZDNET summarized it best: "With Zapatec Funambol has one stack to rule mobile open source". I believe this is a big part of the reason why we made the move. However, there is more and I thought it would be nice for me to answer some of the questions you might have here.

So: why?

Well, I wrote here before many times that I believe the future of mobile apps is native, with sync and push, built on Web 2.0 technologies (Ajax, CSS, HTML).

To clarify: I am not talking about remote apps on a web site, I am talking about local apps, installed on your mobile device. I do not believe in a future where everything is streamed from the cloud. Usability is key. You want your app on your device, you want the data synced on your device, pushed to you when you are not looking at it. It is the reason why mobile email has been that popular on Blackberries. Your app is there, your emails are there, pushed to you while you drive. One click, fraction of a second, and you are productive.

Remember, speed is everything. We started using Google as a search engine years ago, not only because it delivered the best results but because it was fast. On the desktop, waiting one second was too much. On a mobile phone, when you have your umbrella open and it is pouring, a fraction of a second is too much. Usability is key. Speed to access what you need is key.

App Stores solved the issue of the delivery of apps to the device. It is that easy now to install one: it takes seconds. The problem is with developers. There are too many platforms out there. You have to be an expert on Objective C, C++, Java, cross-compilation, testing on a gazillion of devices and so on. And it is not going to get any better in the future. This is not the PC industry. We have lived through it. We learned. No vendor will own 95% of the market. In this market, as soon as Apple becomes successful, carriers jump on Android to prevent them to be too successful. This is a market for five operating systems - at least - with 15% of market share each...

If you are a developer, what are you dreaming of today? A way to develop apps with web technologies. Same as in the desktop world: Ajax, CSS, HTML. A platform that allows you to develop apps that move across devices. Where your only issue is to deal with screen sizes (which is already a challenge).

Now, if you need local apps, you need sync and push across a billion phones. Which is what Funambol does, since the beginning of time (Sync4j goes back to 2001). If you believe the world is moving towards mobile apps built on an Ajax framework, you need Zapatec. They have the best Ajax framework out there. I speak from personal experience. We have been working with the Zapatec guys for a year. We built our portal on it. We have been amazed by how good it is, how flexible it is, how open it is (they chose AGPL v3, smart guys)... And how good the people behind it are. Acquiring them was a no-brainer, since our business is booming, we have signed so many big customers in the last months, doubling our numbers Q2 over Q1, Q3 over Q2. This is the time for us to be aggressive. To change the world, to be the first billion dollar company in open source (ok, I got a bit carried away :-))

To me, Funambol+Zapatec is the future of mobile apps. Native applications, installed on your mobile device, that sync and push. But that are built on Web 2.0 technologies. A dream for users and developers.

Stay tuned. The future starts now.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Capacity, capacity, capacity

Funny how the wireless world changes fast. I spent a few days at Rutberg's Wireless Influencer this week in San Diego (awesome event, if you get an invitation do not miss it) and I kept hearing the same word over and over: capacity. The network capacity. We do not have enough bandwidth. The iPhone is sucking our network dry. The networks are at risk of collapsing. Screw network neutrality, we need bandwidth management and app profiling. We have to deploy 4G quickly, but someone has to pay for it.

Ok, I get it. The AT&T network in San Francisco (and New York, I am told) are collapsing under the iPhone influence. You get in the city and your phone says "resource not available", when you are trying to make a call. The data portion of the network is saturated (I am told, because of the backhaul, whatever that is :-) and all of a sudden I can't even call 911. Weird and scary at the same time.

If you go back one year or maybe two, the message you would hear from carriers was: we have too much capacity. We built this 3G network for data and there is no data. We spent all this money for what?

Now, it is the opposite. It is all ooooops, data growth is exponential. With conservative prediction, we are all screwed ;-)

One of the solution carriers are talking about: wi-fi. I mean, wi-fi!! Their enemy… They now want to push as much traffic to wi-if to offload their networks. An Asian carrier summed it up: "A year ago, wi-fi was our worst enemy. Today, it is our best ally". See, the world changes fast in wireless.

Will the network collapse taking the mobile internet with it, leaving us all out naked in the cold? I do not think so. I am an optimist. I can't help but think about the third World Wide Web conference I attended in Boston in 1995 (good memory, even more because I am in Boston today). A pundit stood on stage and said: "With this rate of growth in traffic, I predict the Internet will collapse. If it has not happened in a year, I promise I will be back on this stage and eat this piece of paper". I did not go to the fourth WWW - if there was one - so I do not know if he swallowed his paper, but I can tell you the Internet did not collapse.

The mobile Internet will not collapse either. There is way too much money at stake. Way too many business plans built on it. Clearwire pushing for 4G, which forces everyone else to upgrade to LTE quickly. Better devices, better experiences for users, better monetization for everyone, from device manufacturers, to carriers, to portals, to application developers. Capacity is going to be there to sustain all this.

Capacity is always there, when there is money to be made. And the mobile Internet is the greatest money-making opportunity in our lifetime (yes, more than the wired Internet). No chance a bunch of iPhones will take that away from this industry. It might be painful for a bit, but it is going to go quickly. Capacity will be there.

Believe me, the world changes quickly in wireless. Next year at Wireless Influencers people will talk about something else.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

No, Google won't make a smartphone

There are a lot of rumors today about Google making its own smartphone.

I do not buy it. It does not make any business sense.

I have been a big supporter of Android from day 1. Heck, it is probably the thing that transformed me in the market, from an idiot to a visionary :-) I kept talking about mobile and open source for years. Everybody told me "you are an idiot, it will never happen, mobile and open do not go together". I begged to differ. Then Google came around with its marketing machine. Ooops, mobile open source became hot. The future of mobility is open source. Open is the new closed...

Well, unfortunately most of the people that thought I was an idiot have not changed their mind. But I have my inner confidence and I am not going to stop acting like one :-)

Back to Android. It was a big splash at the beginning. Then there was some disappointment around Mobile World Congress in February (no devices to show). And now it is an explosion. If you were at CTIA in San Diego, you know it: at least 50% of the phones on display were Android. From every device manufacturer. Amazing.

The Android phone are here and they are looking good (the Droid in particular).

Operators are pushing for Android like crazy. Yesterday I met a European carrier and he told me "We are launching one Android phone this year and ten (10!) next year". He said "We were terrified with the iPhone, we needed something open we can build on".

Booom, open source in mobile :-)

You have an operating system that is open. You can take it and ship it as it is, with Google inside (many have done it). That is an option, works with marketing, but includes the risk of moving from evil #1 (Apple) to evil #2 (Google). But you also have a second option: just take the open core, add your apps and move Google in second place (e.g. what Motorola has done with MOTOBLUR). Take the best of open source, keep the source and innovate on it. The best of both worlds.

On the side, developers are creating Android apps like crazy. It is the Google effect, combined with the open source effect. Nobody is going to take down my app. Apple is not controlling my business model. Think about it: if you have to write a social networking messaging app that will take a year to develop, would you go with iPhone? Would you risk to spend a year and then get rejected on iTunes because Apple is - obviously - building a similar application? I would not. I go Android. And so are doing all the other developers.

Android is the #1 mobile developer choice today, as long as there are enough phones out there. And the phones are out now. It is not the iPhone, because it is closed. And it is definitely not Windows Mobile (I second the comment from Laura Fitton to Steve Ballmer: "have you noticed very few people are developing Twitter apps for Windows Mobile?").

Ok, let me go back to the subject. You are Google. You have an ecosystem that works so well it is a miracle, you have displaced Microsoft for developers creating the dominant OS of the future (remember, everything is going mobile), you have phones coming out every day, almost all device manufacturers using your OS, carriers that bring you in even if eventually you are going to make them a pipe.

You have made it in mobile, coming from nowhere.

Now you screw everything up? You create a smartphone? A competitor to every new friend you made?? And you are a company that has never built hardware???

I do not think so.

Google won't make a smartphone (Microsoft will, because their Windows business model is broken forever, not being open source). Google won't do it now. Maybe in a few years if things change. Now it does not make any sense.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Proving that open source can be beautiful

It is out. We have Funambol V8 on our demo site, myFUNAMBOL. It is for everyone to play with, look at and experience (yes, it is free, and unlimited for our community members).

Why am I excited? Because I am a usability guy, and I love things that are both usable and look good. I am an admirer of Apple, because of it. And I feel I can say this (ok, I am biased, I know): our portal looks better than anything Apple has out in the market.



There is one thing that people say about open source: it works, it works, but it is ugly. Think about it: few products out there are open source and actually look great (there are some exceptions, although I think Firefox is uglier than Chrome or even IE8). Open source products just work great. They are super-well tested. They function well, they are designed by engineers for engineers... Usually, they are ugly.

It was about time to turn this around. We are a company with Italian roots after all. If made-in-Italy can't build beautiful things, who can?

Here you have it. Funambol V8 is made-in-Italy software, works great because it is open source and tested by millions, can be tailor-made, and it looks fashionable.

Living proof that open source can be beautiful. It does not have to be ugly.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Microsoft will build a smartphone

I have been thinking about Microsoft in mobile for a few days, trying to guess what I would do, if I were Ballmer.

Quick look at the state of Microsoft in mobile: first, they have the Zune, an mp3 player of dubious success (because I am in a good mood); second, they have Windows Mobile, an operating system of lagging success (see, I am in a good mood!).

Now, any news on Windows Mobile lately? Lots. First of all, Palm dropped support for it in favor of WebOS (not a surprise). Then Motorola did the same in favor of Android (well, not a surprise to me, but it must be sad for Microsoft). HTC, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson all said they will have Android devices. It does not mean they are gone, but they are close.

To put it in a different way: everyone is abandoning the ship.

Any good news? The Nokia new netbook runs Windows 7 (which is still not Windows Mobile...). That took me by surprise. It is good news, but not in the smartphone business, where the growth is. And I am ready to bet that Nokia is doing just a test, ready to jump to a different platform (Maemo) as soon as it is ready for prime time on the netbooks as well (it is ready for smartphones today).

Ok, you can bet your house on Windows 7 (the "good one"), but would it be sufficient to turn the boat around? Will all the device manufacturers change their mind and rush back to Microsoft. And why?

No, I mean, why? The open source OSs out there are free. Microsoft charges $$ for it. The other OSs support the Office docs and have ActiveSync for Exchange. Why does a device manufacturer need to go back to Windows? Why?

Exactly: they won't.

So, what are the options, if you are Ballmer:
  1. open source Windows 7 (yeah, right)
  2. build your own smartphone
I just do not see #1 happening soon, although it might one day (I am an optimist). Even if they do it today, they are late. Therefore, I am left with #2.

Microsoft will build a smartphone. A Zune smartphone. Definitely with a different brand, because Zune does not score too high with consumers... They are a HW company, whatever you think. They have been successful - at least - with the XBox. And they must have bought Danger for something... Once again, the device(s) will be designed in Silicon Valley, which is now the center of mobile (as odd as it seems for those that have lived here for a few years).

Will they succeed? Windows 7 better be really good, because they are way behind. Honestly, looking at their history in mobile and the market development, I would not bet on them. But what do I know? I am an open source guy and Ballmer once said Linux was a cancer ;-)

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The world keeps diverging

Tomorrow is the day Apple will not introduce the iPad (or so I believe). They will reshuffle the iPod lineup adding a bunch of cameras here and there, and probably killing the iPod Classic forever, in exchange for an additional focus on the iPod Touch (which sold well, and it was a surprise for many). Apple has an advantage on pushing the Touch because it uses the App Store, which attracts developers: I even heard one say "we have to keep our app on version 2 of the iPhone OS because many Touch users do not upgrade the OS"...

So... tomorrow won't be the day of even more divergence. We'll have to wait a few more months. But it will happen. Apple will come out with an ebook reader one day, adding one more device in my pocket.

If you read this blog, you know I am not a fan of convergence. I never believed in the ├╝berdevice that does everything for me. I believe in many specialized devices that do one thing and one thing well. Not one that does many things and all badly.

For me, it goes down to usability. It is a science of no compromises. If you have to compromise, your user experience will suck.

If you force me to watch a movie on a small screen, I will do it in an emergency. At the end of the emergency, I will sit on my couch and watch something else happily on a big screen (ever noticed the TV screen size is getting bigger and bigger and the quality higher and higher? How do you match it on a small screen??).

If you force me to type a long document on a touch screen without a keyboard, I will try to do it in an emergency. However, I will probably give up before the emergency is over, put the ideas on a piece of paper and type them back later on a keyboard...

Input and output are key. If the screen is small, many things do not make sense. If there is no keyboard or I need a pen, many things do not make sense.

I want a special device in my car for navigation. My phone won't do it (sorry N├╝vifone). Yes, it might work, but the screen is small (I just came back from South Korea, where they have huge car navigator screens). And it is multipurpose. And the GPS is not that good. And ... and ... and.

Bottom line: give me one good device for what I need. Make it cheap. Make it interact with the others: this is key, few have made it happen. I want my data to be unique and be synced on all devices freely. Do not lock me, make me shake my iPhone when I get in the office to pass the call to my landline phone. Or to the TV when I am close and watching a movie on the device, so I can sit on the couch and watch it on a big screen. Make all this transparent and you got me.

There is one joke I always tell about convergence. I carry two devices in my pocket every day: my wallet and my keys. They haven't converged yet. There is a reason.

Hey, that does not mean they won't converge. A world without cash is nice, and maybe with NFC (near field communication) my mobile phone will eventually substitute my credit card. And my door will open just waving my phone. So I will be down to one device. It makes sense, because the input and output will change, and there is no need for a big screen or a big keyboard. See, I am all for convergence, when it makes sense.

Another complaint I hear all the time: "I do not want ANOTHER device. I cannot carry one more. I already have my phone and my laptop with me, there is no room for an eBook reader!". I say BS (pardon my French). Look in my bag when I leave for a flight. You find my mobile phone, my laptop, two books and a newspaper. The two books weigh way more than one eBook. And the newspaper takes a lot of room and spreads its dirty ink around. If you can carry a book in your bag, you have room for an eBook reader. And if you want to read your book on your phone, be my guest ;-)

I love divergence. One device for all (things I do).

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Apple iPad will be an ebook reader

I have been quite decent at predicting Apple's moves recently. With all this talk about the new tablet/netbook by Apple, I thought it was time for me to jump in and make my predictions.

First of all, I do not think it will be a netbook. I just do not see a reason for it. Steve Jobs has said he does not see how they can build a laptop for $500 that is not a piece of junk. Although I disagree with him (they can build one for sure ;-) I totally understand why Apple won't do it: they are the king of the high-end market in laptops, why would they eat into their own market? It is nonsense.

And it will be boring... The MacBook Air on which I am typing now is a beautiful machine, with a large screen and all I need from a laptop. You shrink it a bit and it loses a good keyboard and the large screen. To save money?? Not a chance.

Ok, so now we know it will be a tablet, a sort of an oversized iPhone Touch, with no keyboard.

When you start thinking about the usage for it, you start discounting anything that has to do with typing. No keyboard, no typing. Or, at least, just minimal typing. It is going to be mostly a read-oriented device.

Ok, what do you do with a read-oriented device?
  1. not much email, word processing, spreadsheet and so on
  2. reading something with a browser or an ebook reader
  3. watching something
  4. listening to something
  5. playing games with minimum input
Well, that is an iPod Touch...

What is wrong with the iPod Touch? It is small enough to put in your pocket, but it is too small for reading a book (although it is doable) or watching a movie with a good screen (although it is doable). It is just too small for those things. And it is not even a phone.

Do I need another DVD player? Hardly. As most people out there, I do own one for my daughter, and I just bought her a second one (region free, of course) because the first one broke. It cost me $79 on Amazon... Yes, I might like having a DVD player with me when I fly alone (I don't have one, I watch movies on my laptop or on my iPhone or on the plane TV) but there is not a good reason for me to jump and buy a new one for $500, even if it can download movies on-the-fly...

Do I own an ebook reader? No.

Do you own an ebook reader? Probably not, it is still a niche.

A niche that is going to explode.

I am not saying the iPad will be just an ebook reader. I am saying it will be sold as an ebook reader, that its main feature will be allowing you to read a book. A good-looking Kindle. But one that doubles as a video player, that you can use to browse the web, play games, listen to music and download apps from the App Store. And do some email when you have to.

This is the mp3 player market all over again. Where there mp3 players before Apple came in? Yes. Any really good? No. Any good sync between them and your PC? Nope. Apple changed everything and that market exploded, with Apple owning 90% of it.

The tip that this was going to be Apple's direction came from a very quiet announcement a few months ago: Amazon licensed its book reader technology for the iPhone. Few people read it, but it was huge news to me. It was the trigger for Apple to access the entire library of Amazon. Expect a book store by Apple, with Amazon being a big supplier (but maybe not the only one).

Now, would I buy an ebook reader? Maybe. I have been thinking about it for a while. I just do not like the Kindle aesthetically and maybe an ebook reader would not be enough for me to do it. But if I can also watch movies on a plane, and I can play a little game with it, and I can use it to read email on the couch, and I can leave it on the kitchen table (must have a holder of some sort) for my wife... maybe I will actually buy one. I do believe it has market potential. A sort of mass market Kindle. Exactly as Apple did in the mp3 world, which was a niche until they moved into it.

A book reader. Think about schools and students and kids. It is not a niche.

I do think it will have a camera for videochats. I believe it will be built on the iPhone OS, vs. a full Mac OS X, because developers have built apps for no-mouse interaction on the iPhone. It will be easy to port them to a bigger screen. Apps built for Mac OS require a mouse: you would have to rewrite them from scratch to be used only with fingers or voice. And the App Store is already there (BTW, I am expecting an App Store for Mac OS software soon as well).

Ok, here you have it. I do believe Steve Jobs will be on stage and deliver a great performance, as usual. The press will go wild. Developers will go wild. A new market will be started.

I have seen it before ;-)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A world without the browser

This morning I was contemplating the browser war, which has started again. IE vs. Firefox vs. Chrome vs. Safari. Nice fight to watch, something that takes me back to memory lane when Mosaic was my browser, when the fight was Netscape vs. Microsoft. You know, the browser is the center of our Internet experience. Everything goes around the browser. Google is built around the browser. Microsoft and Yahoo just agreed on a search deal around the browser. The browser is everything.

Then I got an epiphany.

The browser is going to disappear.

Whhhaaaaat? Are you crazy?

Ok, ok. Let me try to explain ;-) I saw the birth of the browser. I attended the third World Wide Web conference. I started the first web company in Italy. Once Tim Berners-Lee came up with the hypertext concept and created the idea of the web, I even thought about building a browser. I did. I still have some Tcl/Tk code somewhere. Others were much better and faster... The browser was the perfect visualizer for the web on a desktop. The hypertext meant links. Links need to be clicked. We had the mouse. We had big screens. We had a chair and a desk. Great match. Boom, the Internet was born.

Then came mobile.

I haven't seen one single implementation of a browser on a mobile device that actually makes the experience good (not great). Do not tell me you like the iPhone browser. It is horrible. It is probably the best you can do on a small screen, with no mouse. Clicking is a pain. Zooming and panning is a super-pain. You click when you want to scroll. You yell.

If you can choose between browsing on your PC or on your iPhone, what would you choose?

Exactly.

Now let's talk about Mobile Apps. They are built for interaction without a mouse. With one finger (the other hand holding the device). They are quick, immediate, intuitive, interactive.

If I have to choose between checking the weather on my PC or on my iPhone, what do I choose? The iPhone. One click. Done. I do not have to sit, open the browser, click and re-click and maybe even type my zip code. It is there when I need it.

Think about it. Mobile Apps can deliver a better experience then those on PC. Granted, I am excluding the productivity tools where you need a lot of typing. But those are few and you will need a keyboard, a desk and a chair. When you do not have to do a lot of typing, a mobile app becomes preferable.

Where is the world going? To mobile. The new Apple Tablet will blur the line even more. But it will be a mobile device for sure. An e-book reader + video player + music player + weather viewer + news viewer.... All with your fingers. All with little apps. All with no mouse. All with an App Store where you can find everything you need. The world is all going to mobile. We will spend more time without the mouse than with it.

This is the Internet era all over again. Back then, we had hundreds of small companies that started with the goal to build web sites. Now, every company wants an iPhone app. You can deliver more value with an app, than you can with a web site. More interactive, more personal, 24/7, in the hands of your customer, with push capabilities.

The result is that every company will have a mobile app, and hundreds of small companies will be created to support it. That you will "navigate" between companies moving from an app to another. That the search engine will not be on a browser, but in the app store (or in the search engine of the app stores, which someone should start developing fast...).

This is going to change the world as we know it. If the browser loses its centrality, ads will go somewhere else. The search engine will be way different. Someone has to invent a platform to link apps one to the other, of course, but the infrastructure is there. It is the engine of the browser itself, with its HTML, AJAX, CSS.

The browser will be swallowed inside the apps. We will have a world without the browser. The future is all of a sudden clear to me. Well, the browser fight looks kind of moot now...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hard to be a dumb pipe, AT&T?

I have been saying for a while that the carriers need to move quickly to deliver mobile cloud services (in particular on the most important mobile user generated content), or they will become a pipe before they know it.

AT&T has been playing with the devil for a while. They have launched the iPhone with Apple, which clearly makes them a pipe (how can you tell the difference between the AT&T iPhone and any other carrier iPhone?), and have reaped short-term huge benefits from it. However, that should be a given when you sell your soul... The real problems start appearing after a while.

And when the problems start appearing, the walled garden moves up. Just to be teared down a few months later. It simply does not last. History has proven it.

Think about it: they stopped Skype over 3G, same for Sling. Today the news is that Apple blocked the approval of the Google Voice app on the App Store (after removing all the Google Voice-like apps yesterday).

Some are claiming it is Apple doing it. Yeah, right... Like Apple would stop Google. For what?

I have been a GrandCentral user for a while, now a happy Google Voice user. Google Voice is a spectacular service. I have way too many phones and I keep switching between them. Google Voice routes calls to any of my phones, and it routes SMSs too. So far, no problems with AT&T. It was only generating more revenues for them.

Then on July 15th they launched Google Voice apps for Android and BlackBerry. I use the app on my BB. The idea is that you can call someone from the app, over IP, completely bypassing the AT&T network. I can't say that feature works for me, but the other two do work well: I can listen to my Google Voice messages over IP (but I was able to do it before, but now it is more convenient) and I can send/receive SMSs for free (this is new).

That means I am not paying a dime to AT&T for texting anymore. Zero. Gone. It was a small amount of money, probably a few dollars a month (because I text only when I am in Europe ;-) But you multiply for every user they have and it piles up fast. A drop of a few dollars on ARPU per user would be a big hit. In particular, if the power users start adopting it.

If you add voice to texting, you can see the future. The carrier is a pipe for data. Voice is a data type (revenues: gone). SMS are a data type (revenues: gone). A data pipe... with no value-added services. It has to be hard to swallow, Mr. AT&T... Hey, you signed the pact with the devil, not me!

Om Malik has questioned why are people blaming AT&T over Apple. The argument is "if they did not prevent their BlackBerry users to download the app, then why would they prevent the iPhone users?". Because they can... Because Apple built a fortress around the App Store. You just need to click on a link in a website (Google) to download the BlackBerry app. There is no way for AT&T of stopping it, unless they lock the entire phone, which RIM will never allow (and it is too late, anyway). On the iPhone, you have to go through the App Store. The gate is controlled by Apple that has to listen to AT&T (for now).

Apple built a fortress, AT&T controls the gate. The combination is the worst possible... Openness is ages away.

How does this stop? When Apple pulls its trigger. When the exclusivity of AT&T in the US ends. When another carrier comes on board (or two). When the Apple Tablet comes out with Verizon. When the market opens up a bit. It will happen for sure in 2010, and it could even happen in 2009. It is not far away.

At that point, boom. Walled garden gone. Only the fortress will be there. Apple will still be able to control the gate and decide what goes in and out. AT&T will be just a dumb pipe with no say.

For now, they are still a dumb pipe with some power. Unless they decide to start creating value-added mobile cloud services, and go around Apple and every other device manufacturer. It is not too late, but the clock is ticking.

Friday, July 24, 2009

About open sync, the Pre and iTunes

Oohh, this is hitting so close to home that I have to comment. I am referring to the battle between Palm and Apple around iTunes. A battle of open mobile sync (or something like that ;-)

Let me give a recap, for those in the dark (mostly in Europe, where the Pre has not started shipping yet). The Palm Pre supported sync with iTunes, when it was launched. Palm made the Pre "look like" an iPod to iTunes, and iTunes was happily syncing with it. A few days ago, Apple released an update of iTunes (8.2.1) shutting down the Pre. Official word from Apple: "Apple does not provide support for, or test for compatibility with, non-Apple digital media players". Ok, but you shut them out, that's different ;-)

Yesterday, Palm announced WebOS 1.1 and in the official Palm blog they wrote "Oh, and one more thing: Palm webOS 1.1 re-enables Palm media sync".

The "Oh, and one more thing" is obviously a jab at Steve Jobs... You may debate whether the comment was funny or not, but the clear message is "bring it on Apple, we are here to fight". It is getting interesting...

The beauty of the Palm update is that is OTA (over-the-air), so everyone is going to get it and everything will return to work magically.

The bad for Apple is that I have a feeling they have little ground to sue Palm. When you spend some time reading material about reverse engineering, you see it is clearly a black art. Palm is not damaging Apple software, they have not done anything bad or stole any code, it is "just" that the Pre is claiming to be an iPod... Borderline, but still within limits.

What changed in WebOS 1.1? In the previous version, the Pre was claiming to iTunes to be an iPod built by Palm. That is what Apple shut down in 8.2.1 (anything claiming not to be built by Apple). Now the Pre is saying it is an iPod built by Apple ;-) Uuuhhh, very very close to the line here. However, apparently the device still presents the root USB node (IOUSBDevice) as a Palm Pre. Therefore, Apple could shut them down with 8.2.3 in a whiff.

Will Apple shut the Pre down? I believe so. Palm left the door open to be shut by not changing the root USB node and they are happy to make Apple look like the bad guys. It is going to be a cat and mouse game for a while. Apple has the right to do whatever they want with their product. Unless someone forces them to an open sync protocol.

Who could do it? The Europeans, of course. Wait until the Pre ships in Europe. One second after Apple shuts down the door, Palm will file a claim with the European Commission. And they will win (ooh, another good reason to love Europe ;-)

Look at Palm last comment: they are just getting ready for it, starting with some standard body...
Palm believes that openness and interoperability offer better experiences for users by allowing them the freedom to use the content they own without interference across devices and services, so on behalf of consumers, we have notified the USB Implementers Forum of what we believe is improper use of the Vendor ID number by another member.
Open protocol and open sync is the way to go, I have no doubts about it. It will happen no matter what. All the forces in the market are pushing towards it. There is no way back from open.

iTunes is a great product and closing it to the outside world to protect the iPhone is not going to work. Eventually, Apple will have to suck it up and accept that the data must move freely (BTW, it is MY MUSIC...). One day, they might even switch to an open protocol, such as SyncML. It is usually the first step before open source comes in. At that point, Apple will become an unbeatable force in the market. For now, they just like to play the big fat cat.

And, as usual, I am rooting for the mouse (who BTW is selling above my expectations, at 350,000 devices). Stay iTuned, it is going to be a fun ride.

Monday, July 20, 2009

In mobile... always follow fashion

When someone in your organization asks you "are you abandoning your blog?", you realize it is time to post something... I have many excuses, from traveling abroad, losing some important piece of equipment (thanks Malpensa people for taking advantage of an idiot) and being under a significant pressure... But that's my normal workload, so I should not complain ;-) I will definitely post more in the next weeks.

I was looking at a graph about iPhone 3G buyers from Nielsen's Q2 2009 Mobile Insights Survey, and I realized many people noticed different things. Here it is. It shows what phone did the users have before buying the iPhone. What stands out for you?


The figure that looks disproportionate to me is the Motorola number. Yes, Motorola has a shrinking market share but it has never been that big to justify the largest share.

Why are RAZR users flocking to the iPhone? It is a huge jump, from the most basic device to the most featured. The RAZR has the worst possible user interface, while the iPhone has the best one. It is somehow counter-intuitive... You would expect people with advanced feature phones to upgrade to the iPhone.

I believe the answer is fashion. The iPhone looks good. It is the coolest device in town.

If you go back in memory and think about all the people that bought that pink RAZR, you realize the driver was exactly the same. The RAZR looked good. It was the slimmest device in town. Nobody cared about the crappy user interface. The RAZR was a show-me-ohh-cool device.

Same for the iPhone.

The Google Tmobile G1 phone could have all the features in the world, the best screen, the best UI, the best Google integration. But if you take it out of your pocket and people say "What's that, a garage door opener?", you won't feel much cool (unless you are a geek and you start going on for an hour talking about multi-threading and the like, but please remember that you are part of a tiny percentage of the population).

When you look at the market in mobile, never forget fashion. Your mobile phone is an essential component of your image. It speaks about who you are, what you like, and tells the world if you are cool or not.

Same as your latest pair of shoes. Who cares if they are comfortable or not? I do, but I am a geek.

Monday, June 22, 2009

S is the new bar

While traveling, I have been playing with the devices in my bag: an iPhone 3G, a BlackBerry Curve, a Palm Pre, a Palm Windows Mobile and a G1 Android (I know, my bag is heavy and the guy at the security looking at the X-ray always smiles...).

What I was paying attention to was speed. Not really speed in the network (not always dependent on the device, but mostly up to the carrier), just speed in launching an app, moving from one app to another, going through a long list of emails and the like.

Speed as in making-my-life-easier-while-on-the-move speed.

I always felt my Windows Mobile was slow, and it is. In particular, when you open a bunch of apps. But at least you can kill them (it requires geek skills).

The Curve is ok, although it stops once in a while for no reason. Pretty good on email, I have to say, but beyond it... it starts coughing. And I am never sure if I actually closed an app or not.

I have to say I forgot that Android was fast. It is, faster than anything else I tried. Much faster than the iPhone 3G I have, even if the iPhone does not support multitasking (mono-tasking should make it a lot faster than anything multitasking).

Lastly, the Pre is not up to par. The apps start slowly, the email client has problems handling my vast IMAP server content. It works, the GUI is beautiful, but it is not fast. It is like the first iPhone, but now with multitasking (big difference). I would say the Palm Pre is a very good start on speed, but it is just a start.

Introducing the iPhone 3G S... where S stands for speed. Apple is trailing Palm on the UI now, so they switched the focus on something else. They built a device that is super snappy. Not supporting multitasking makes it much easier, but the user might not notice it. You will sit close to your friend, he will take a picture in a second, you will be still waiting for your camera to show up. Same for calendar, email and so on.

It is very smart marketing. The iPhone 3.0 is a catch-up operating system (yes, I have seen cut and paste and MMS in other phones before...). The iPhone 3G S is a catch-up phone (yes, I have seen 3 megapixel camera on phones before...) but it is fast. Faster than anything else. Faster than the Pre.

It is the new bar set by Apple. You can catch us on features (and maybe pass us) but look at our speed. We are faster. Now catch up with us on that, while we innovate on something else ;-)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Inside the Pre

Last night, someone discovered a file, which includes the ROM of the Pre. This morning, there are instructions all over the web on how to get access to the Pre as root. In a few hours, the first Hello World app has been developed (without access to the Mojo SDK...).

Once again, this is quite amazing. Every time these things happen, I have a feeling the device manufacturer did it on purpose. I just can't believe they let it happen by mistake. Three steps and you are root with read and write access. You can see everything inside the phone, including comments in the config files. However, some are a bit embarrassing, so I do not know what to think anymore...

For example, getting access to the device requires you to type upupdowndownleftrightleftrightbastart on the device (I swear). This is clearly a punch at the iPhone because doing the same with the virtual keyboard would take you an hour, while with the Pre keyboard it is a breeze ;-)

When you look inside, you find a lot of very interesting things. First, it is a Linux machine 2.6.24 (check, yet another mobile open source based operating system). It has a Java Virtual Machine (1.5 Standard Edition). It already has settings to connect to the AT&T and T-Mobile network (which make sense, reading rumors about a GSM version coming soon). Moreover, there are hints of the rumored Palm EOS device (the one at $99) which in the OS is called pixie (the Pre is castle) and even a third one coming (zepfloyd, which seems to support wifi as the Pre, while the EOS won't).

There are also funny comments left by Palm developers inside the phone, like the TODO list. E.g.: "TODO FIXME: we ought not call this, eh?". Or this one: "On the offchance that the user hits the 'minimize' before we finished capture ... slimy bastard users"...

In general, it is very easy to modify things, for example someone quickly modified the camera to no longer make the shutter noise even with all system sounds enabled (not that I know what the use case behind it could be...). Tethering your laptop via wifi is just a matter of changing a couple of config files. There are also things I cannot talk about, but others are (for example here and here).

Bottom line: it took a few days and WebOS is naked. The world is looking at it. From what I have seen (ehm, read on the blogs, I would never do this and risk to void my warranty ;-), it looks like a very nicely developed OS (with the three stacks, Linux and Java and Javascript/HTML/CSS). Even if Palm hasn't leaked it out on purpose, the feedback from the hackers community is two thumbs up, which is another good sign for Palm.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Palm Synergy is awesome

Let me start with the end: the Palm Pre is really a great device.

I have played with a lot of cool gadgets, forcing Rose many times to wait in line at 5 am with some weirdos (thanks Rose, you are awesome!), but I have been rarely impressed. The one that shocked me was the iPhone. I could not believe how good it was. The other one was the G1. I could not believe how ugly it looked (although the software was nice).

The Palm Pre first reaction is similar to the one I had with the iPhone: good hardware, great software, I want to play with it.

It also passed my wife's three-seconds taste test (her first reaction to the G1 was "it is a garage door opener?"). She said "it is better than the iPhone". Wow. I guess the mirror they put behind the sliding keyboard (pure genius, ladies will dig it) impressed her.

The device feels nice in the hand. The screen is gorgeous. The touch system works great. I have to say the keyboard is not that good, but I can live with it (better than trying to type on an iPhone, but probably not as good as my BlackBerry). The button to turn the device on and off is strange. The little thing that hides the mini-USB port took me a minute to open. Obviously, they want you to buy the Touchstone wireless charger...

Pictures are way better than the iPhone. Video looks ok. Calendar is missing the Agenda view (a killer for me). The App Store has few apps but useful and the download+install procedure is a snap: I downloaded the Weather, Linkedin and Twitter one. All absolutely great apps, which is a very good sign for the Palm SDK. I have to say the browser did not impress me, but maybe I am picky (however, they did not put it in the list of the top apps at the bottom, so they might agree with me).

I upgraded the operating system to WebOS 1.0.2 and it was a breeze. All over the air. No cables, no iTunes, no waiting for Tmobile to decide when the upgrade would be available for me (a thing I really hate about the Android OS upgrades).

The UI navigation is a pleasure. The deck metaphor is easy to understand. Swiping to erase is just one movement. Throwing away apps makes you feel good. How to move back using the hidden bar was not that intuitive, but once you try it one time, you are good to go. I have to say I still have to understand how to paste without using the menu, but maybe I am just dense. Beside that, this is the iPhone UI with benefits. The ability to have more than one app at a time is such an improvement (for a geek, at least). You can copy something from an email, put it in a contact, come back and the app is still there waiting for you... Oohh...

All nice, but the killer app is Synergy. I know I am biased, but this is the best implementation of synchronization I have seen so far. I started adding a Gmail account. Immediately, my contacts and calendar and email from Google appeared on the device. I have two different calendars in Google, both showed up, and with different colors (and I could see only one if I want). Anything I changed on the device appeared later in Google, anything I changed on Google appeared on the device. Two way sync. Transparent as it should be.

Ok, you might say this is exactly as the G1 works. But then I added my Facebook account and the magic started. My friends appeared on my contact list with pictures. Where possible, the app merged my Facebook and Gmail contacts (I guess using their email or cell phone or name). Visually, it reminds you if a contact is merged, because you see the contact picture in a deck (easy to see than to explain). You can remove the link, or add a link to connect two contacts that are the same but do not share any common info: for example, my wife that has no email address in Facebook so it could not be linked, but now I have her picture on my phone and it will change if she changes her profile in Facebook. When you edit a contact, it shows you where every field came from. Some can't be modified (you can't change any of your friends info from Facebook, they do). It even merged two contacts I had duplicated in Gmail by mistake... Awesome. Sync nirvana. Finally.

I do not know if the Pre will be a big hit. There are many factors in play, starting with the carrier they launched it with. With Verizon and AT&T saying "we'll have a Pre too" (true or not that is, marketing is everything...), many are questioning if they should switch. Most won't do it.

However, I am sure it is a fantastic device. It will be a hit, and Palm does not need for it too be that big. An ok hit is what they need.

And the sync is awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Every carrier in the world should have the same capabilities. They should not leave it to a device manufacturer to make their services sticky. They should not allow others to make them a pipe. They should just give me a call :-)

Oh, the Pre is also capable of functioning as a phone and calling people. But who cares about it?

Friday, June 05, 2009

Apple WWDC predictions

Tomorrow is Palm day and I will celebrate it. There is nothing secret about the Pre. We know everything about it and I liked what I saw so far. I am definitely hopeful it will be a big hit, although I know Palm actually needs a reasonable hit to be happy.

Monday is Apple day. WWDC. Usually, Steve Jobs gets on stage and presents something cool. And, usually, I write a bunch of predictions on what he will present. Strangely enough, I have been doing pretty good on the predictions, missing only on the things I really wanted (like the Calendar API they never delivered). It is the same with fantasy football: you should never ever think about the team you cheer for, or you will screw up your fantasy team predictions. Luckily, there is nothing I am expecting that I need or want from Apple this time, so I can go easy on predictions ;-)

MOST PROBABLE
  1. A new iPhone with a similar case (so much that you won't have to change your pink cover) maybe multi-color, with more memory, space, a faster CPU, video support (download and upload) and better camera (with a dedicated button for it). Yawn...
QUITE PROBABLE
  1. A compass, with some clever app by a partner to use it. Yawn...
LESS PROBABLE
  1. Flash support for the iPhone (chasing Palm)
  2. A clever way of powering the iPhone wirelessly (chasing Palm)
  3. A mini iPhone or, at least, an iPhone for $99 (killing Palm)
  4. A tablet iPhone, also known as a smartbook (kinda like a netbook but with no keyboard, I guess). Or maybe really a netbook, at a $549 price, enough for Steve Jobs to save his face about "not being able to create a netbook for $500 that does not suck"
  5. Steve Jobs on stage, something you will see only if #3 or #4 happen.
I guess it is all about the last item. Without something new and exciting, Steve Jobs will not come on stage and this is going to be the most boring WWDC keynote ever. If he shows up, he will have something cool to announce. But he has a good excuse not to show up, because he said he will be back at the end of June. So there is a good chance it will just be really boring.

I hope not, I like sparks ;-)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Apple will buy Palm

Will Apple buy Palm? Probably not ;-) but let me explain why it could make sense.

It seems that Palm is doing everything they can to piss off Apple these days. Not only they have multitouch, they are "copying" features from the iPhone and they are launching their phone two days before Apple WWDC.

Moreover, they recently announced support for iTunes. The only way to do it is to have access to the protocol the iPhone uses to talk to iTunes. To make the Palm Pre look like an iPhone... Reverse-engineering it is probably illegal, although you can always go with the story of "Clean Room Design". Clean like a pig in the mud, considering how many former Apple employees Palm has, starting with Jon Rubinstein (the guy who built the iPod for Steve Jobs).

You would guess Palm is looking for a lawsuit. Apple should have sued them already. But they haven't. Strange. Unless Palm has legal access to the API, which makes sense only if there are ties between the two companies that go beyond a partnership...

Clearly, the Palm Pre is ahead of what Apple has, starting with multitasking (not an easy one). I know, the new iPhone will catch up a bit, but it will still be behind. And when Palm will launch the EOS (a cheaper Pre), it will be trouble for Apple and its iPhone pricing.

The DNA of Palm is the DNA of Apple. They share it. Putting together the two teams would be easy. And the two offices are in the same area.

Lastly, it will be quite convenient for Apple to get rid of the only real competitor they have in the space. It is cheap, brings technology and innovation, it is easy to swallow.

Aren't you wondering why Apple has not sued Palm yet? I am... Maybe they are threatening a lawsuit while they negotiate a price for an acquisition (and what if this is what Elevation was targeting from day one?)

What if Monday at WWDC Steve Jobs gets on stage and shows a Palm? That would be fun :-)) Or it might happen later, after Apple actually sues Palm, lowers their price a bit and then buys them.

Bottom line, it sounds crazy, but it might not be.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Why mobile apps fail

The other day, a tweet from a competitor (for whom I have great respect) triggered some thinking about mobile apps. He was questioning (I believe) the existence of our Symbian Sync Client, that you can download from the Ovi Store. His tweet was: "who needs a symbian syncml client when it ships with a built-in one that works just fine...".

It is a good question. All Symbian devices come with a SyncML client pre-installed. Once it is configured properly, you just launch it and it syncs well. Why would you need an app on the device to do the same thing?

Because it is easy to discover, configure, launch and use. In a word: because user actually end up using it.

That thought lead to a more generic analysis about why mobile apps fail. I have seen so many fail in my market that I lost count. Here you have my reasons in categories.

1. Discovery
Discovering an app has been the #1 issue for a long time. How do people find out they have a SyncML client on their device? They don't... It is buried under a million clicks. They do not even know they have it. The same for many apps that were developed and had a few users. You have to make it easy for people to discover your app. It was almost impossible.

Then it came the App Store. It changed everything. Finding an app is now easy. You have a need ("I want to sync my contacts with my Outlook"), you search the app store, you click and boom. Here it is, your app, ready to go. Visible in the area where you would expect it to be (the Home Page, in an iPhone).

Discovery has always been a problem, but it is gone. And gone is the fear that the app might screw up my phone. If it is in the App Store, it must be good. I can download it. And use it.

Yes, you can configure a SyncML client remotely over the air (we do it), but that leads to the next item.

2. Configuration
Most app that interact with the network need a configuration. You have to put in login and password somewhere. In the worst cases, you have to select an APN as well and even a URL.

Forcing a user to type a URL is a guarantee of losing 90% of your users. Finding a slash on a numeric keyboard is a task for the fittest. And only the fittest survive. The others give up. Unfortunately, only 10% of the population goes to the gym daily to exercise...

The beauty of the App Store is that you can send an app with all the parameters you need, ready to ask you for additional info when it starts. You have the app on your device, just downloaded, you click, put the additional info in and you are good to go.

If you send a binary SMS (WAP push), you have to hope the users saves the information (not an easy task, I am ready to bet you lose 30% of the users right there), then goes to the sync parameters on the phone (where??? another 30% of the people will give up before getting there), then open the configuration and change the data there. And then they have to go and actually launch the application. It is a two-step process, you just do not start the app, configure and go.

If you want your app to be used, work on the configuration. Make it as simple as possible. Minimize parameters. Make sure they pop up as soon as you launch the app for the first time (do not present a "sorry, app not configured, go into Settings, configure it, then launch it again"). You do not want to lose users just because you are lazy... I know you can guess if the app has never been launched before...

3. Launch
Ok, this seems easy: finding the app and launching it. Anybody can do it.

Wrong.

Apps end up in the wrong places. Apple perfected it, others have to work harder on it. They are hard to find on the phone.

Even worst if they app is preinstalled, like the SyncML client. It is put in an ungodly location on the phone. I am a pro, and every time I get a phone in my hands, it takes me 20 clicks to discover where in the world the client is. Nokia has been moving it around for years...

If you can't find the app, you can't launch it. If you do not launch it, you won't use it. Another 30% of users lost. You really have to want it hard to make it.

There is not much you can do about this, if you are a developer. Make sure the instructions are clear and hope for the best. Device manufacturers are improving fast (thanks as usual, Steve!) so this issue is about to disappear (at least, for apps that are installed from the App Store, I am not that confident about the pre-installed ones).

4. Use
Ok, you made it, you have the application up and running, properly configured (congrats!). Now you use it... and the UI sucks. 30 seconds later you give up. You remove it from the device or leave it there thinking "I might use it later" and you never go back doing it.

Most mobile apps have a very bad user interface. I mean, something that yells "did you ever read a book on usability???". I have been insisting on the topic many times, due to my background on usability. I do not want to be boring, so I will stop here. But if you want your app to be used, make it usable.

Guess which apps are often horrible to use? The ones preinstalled by the vendors... It sounds incredible, but that is often the case. The pre-installed sync client on Symbian is ugly. It does not support client push and has a clumsy way to do server push. It somehow looks like an app slapped on the phone by someone, just to check a box on an RFP ("do you support SyncML?").

Bottom line: if you sum up how many users you might have lost along the way, developing an app that is hard to discover, configure, launch and use... you are probably at 99%. There is no mercy out there. You have to be perfect on every aspect of the experience, and the most important element is making sure the app actually runs... I believe we spent more time architecting and developing the set up process than the app itself. It seems crazy, but it is not.

The statement "who needs a symbian syncml client when it ships with a built-in one that works just fine..." has an embedded flaw: when you get to the "works just fine" part of the experience, you will have 10% of the users that started the process. The rest will not make it. The set-up will kill the experience.

Believe me, mobile users have a limited time doing anything. If you do not get them up and running in 10 seconds, they will give up. They are mobile, they are on the go. They do not have time to wait for you. Do not make them wait. Or your beautiful mobile app will fail.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Can Nokia pull it off?

Today marked the day of the launch of the Ovi Store, the Nokia answer to the Apple AppStore. Symbian has been around for years and years, and so have the Symbian apps. However, it took a year after Apple announced its store, for Nokia to realize they needed one...

Being second is not always a bad thing. You can learn from the first one (or second one, since Android Marketplace has been live for a few months) and make adjustments.

Or you can screw it completely...

TechCrunch has been pretty quick to call the launch "A complete disaster". Maybe they were even too quick and too harsh (I could get to the Funambol app on the store pretty easily), but the initial meltdown highlights one thing, a key one: maybe Nokia is not good at running services...

Or better: maybe they have never done it, they are trying (Ovi has been up and running for a while now) but they do not know how to manage a peak of interest. They are learning.

This is the tough part: they are a hardware company. They have always been (although they were selling very different hardware in the years before mobile telephony, like galoshes...) and they have decided to morph into a cloud services company. They have to. But it is not easy.

The question is: can they pull it off? Can a company change its DNA, and reposition itself as a software and services battleship?

Apple was started as a software company with a superbly engineered hardware around it. The difference was the UI, although they have been innovative on the HW side as well. And they still are. The iPhone is a superb piece of good looking hardware but the difference is inside. So much that everyone is catching up on the HW part, but nobody has matched them on the SW (Palm excluded, I think they surpassed them, actually). Apple knows software and they translated it pretty easily to services, starting with iTunes and playing with .Mac for years before going into MobileMe.

RIM was started as a software company with a very usable HW. The core, though, is the push email mechanism and the service behind it. The HW has been good looking enough (ugly, in most cases ;-) but very reliable. They know services.

Nokia is different. They are a hardware company. They bought software companies and they destroyed them (Intellisync being the last one coming to mind). They have to make a huge effort to turn the boat around. But they have to.

If I have to bet, knowing the resilience of the guys in Helsinki, I would say they will make it. It will be painful, they will need to get more help outside of the company (you do not change your DNA, you get some new from the outside and you recombine it) but eventually they will pull it off. It will just take a long time.

The worry is that they might not have that much time because the competition is moving extremely fast and they are out to kill them... We'll see.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Palm gamble

I am a big Palm fan. I have always been and I will always be. Or so I hope, if they do not let me down. They did not let me down with the Pre. It is a fantastic device, beautifully engineered, sporting the best synchronization engine on the planet, really (and for the first time) giving iPhone a run for its money.

Now it is official: it will be out on June 6th and it will cost $199. Both numbers are interesting.

Why is $199 interesting? Because it is the right price to be competitive with the current iPhone.

Why is June 6th interesting? Because it is two days (two) before Apple WWDC, the developer conference when Apple is expected to announce a new lineup of iPhones (rumors abound: from new colored iPhones, to an iPhone mini, to an iPhone tablet, to new pricing, to....).

It is a huge gamble. Palm is announcing their make-it-or-break-it device two days before Apple is announcing something. They always do. Hard to believe they won't do it this time.

In any case, Palm will benefit from two days of huge marketing, pumped up by the expectation of the new iPhone two days later (expect the press to go berserk).

If Apple has something spectacular in store, though, the wind will be gone. Two days and Palm will be history in the press. Everybody will talk about how Apple did it again, how they killed the competition and so on...

If Apple disappoints, though, Palm is going to be on a trajectory towards the moon. The company that challenged Apple, the company that is ahead of Apple, the company that will kill the iPhone, and so on...

If Apple comes out in the middle, then Palm will be in the news anyway. They will have a big marketing push for free, lifted by the Apple marketing machine. They will be the challenger anyway, at least because they put themselves in front of the guns. They do not need to sell 10 millions devices in a month, they need to do ok to survive and grow.

It is a gamble. But a smart one. One I would have taken. The probability of Apple hitting out of the park are there, but the probability of something in the middle is higher (also, I have a feeling Palm knows more about Apple than we do...).

If they get it right, this might be remembered as one of the best marketing stunt in the history of mankind...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Do we really need another OSS mobile stack?

There is one reason Linux has been successful as a mainstream server OS: RedHat. It is not the company behind it that made it good, it is the fact that one company made the Linux enterprise distribution. There are few more distros, but one is mainstream. The rest is noise.

The market does not like noise, it likes mainstream. Early adopters are a nice bunch of people, but they are not that many... You need the Early Majority and the Late Majority to step in, to make something mainstream. Crossing the chasm happens when there is a clear leader.

Now look at Mobile Linux today. It is a mess. And I am upset about it because I am one of the big supporters of mobile open source, as you might have noticed. And if I am confused, imagine the rest of the world...

We have Android (open source dictatorship), LiMo (open source oligarchy) and Symbian (open source to be). Then you have Maemo (a Nokia effort for the tablets, which somehow clashes with the acquisition of Trolltech) and Moblin (an Intel effort for MIDs, Mobile Internet Devices, which seems not be going anywhere).

Too many initiatives?

Nope, now we have a new one. Nokia and Intel (wow) announced oFono today. I do not think it is an OS, probably more of a stack. But it is meant to do all the things an OS does on a mobile device (telephony, for once).

The description of the project is a geek dream and a journalist nightmare:
oFono.org is a place to bring developers together around designing an infrastructure for building mobile telephony (GSM/UMTS) applications. oFono.org is licensed under GPLv2, and it includes a high-level D-Bus API for use by telephony applications of any license. oFono.org also includes a low-level plug-in API for integrating with open source as well as third party telephony stacks, cellular modems and storage back-ends. The plug-in API functionality is modeled on public standards, in particular 3GPP TS 27.007 "AT command set for User Equipment (UE)."
I mean, the answer to "what is oFono?" is "A plug-in API functionality modeled on 3GPP TS 27.007"... Aahhh, now it is clear ;-)

Anyway, it is just another confusing effort in the mobile open source space. I do understand this is a hot market and everyone is jumping on it, but I think we are trying to do too much and it is not helping anyone.

Or maybe I should just look at it and celebrate yet another success of mobile open source, which attracts the bigger players, committed to make it the mobile platform of the future.

If I just could understand what they do, maybe I could make up my mind...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I am an art dealer

Yesterday I attended the third Venice Sessions event. It is an event promoted by Telecom Italia and held at their Future Centre in Venice. Spectacular location. The invitation by Telecom Italia to attend the event was the main reason for my last European trip, although as usual I packed the trip with a million of other things...

The topic was "Technology and modern art". Very interesting, because if there is something Italians are famous for, that is art (ok, ok, for the Garfields out there... pizza is a close second). In particular when you are talking about that topic inside that building inside that city... Art is everywhere, even overwhelming at times.

At first, I was a bit puzzled. Why was I there? Why did they invite me? I sell software for mobile phones, I had little in common with most of the speakers, beside personal interest. When the museum people were talking about paintings, exhibitions, modern art, I was just listening in awe. They were speaking a language I barely understood. I felt way out of my league.

And then, along the day, someone started talking about creativity.

Boom, lights on.

I always talk about Italy as the perfect spot for high tech innovation, software in particular. My usual argument is that software is pure creativity, a fine product of the brain. That Italians are masters of creativity, from paintings to sculptures to fashion to design to clothing to furniture to food. That software is just another representation of creativity, that is in the country DNA (in kilos). It is what made Italy a success worldwide, for centuries. Italians are meant to build great software.

I then realized, with the microphone in my hand, that software is actually a form of modern art. I realized that software developers are modern artists.

I always insisted to call my guys software designers, instead of developers, because they deserve to be considered at the same level of clothes designers, or architects: people that are known to be cool. Software design has not been considered cool in Italy. But it should, because it is a form of art. Artists are cool. And software developers are artists.

And now that makes me an art dealer, I guess.

Looks what happens when you listen to smart people in a beautiful place: you walk in as a software salesman, you walk out with a sense a coolness.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The content trap

In a world where mash-up is the buzzword (or was it? Web 2.0 is not that cool anymore...), you would assume content is freely available to anyone. That you can take some data from Google, mash it up with something coming out of Facebook, Yahoo and so on.

That is true, up to a certain point.

The trick is that who owns the content (even the User Generated Content...) owns the content. It is as simple as that. If you do not own the content, you have to get it from somewhere else. The company that owns it can shut you down whenever they want. They do not even have to ask for your permission... You might have the APIs to technically access their content, but that is not nearly enough.

One example is what happened today at Facebook. They shut down an application that was simply creating an RSS feed of your stream. Granted, the app was overstepping some boundaries on Facebook privacy rules, but they could have just changed the rules, had they not like it.

This is exactly what happened in the Instant Messaging world (at least in mobile). Do you know any mobile IM company that made it? I don't... You can easily build a Yahoo Messenger integration, but when you go and sell it to a mobile operator they will ask you "do you have permission from Yahoo?". Nope? Go ask them and they will charge you. Everyone will do the same. The economics will never work when you are trying to sell a free app and you have to pay hard dollars to the content owner.

I could go on and on with examples. If you do not own the content and you are trying to build an application accessing it, you are putting your foot in a trap. As soon as you are successful, you sell it to someone or you get a lot of users, be sure the content owner will knock at your door asking for money. They will say you use too much of their bandwidth for free or that they changed their privacy rules or whatever. Bottom line: they will ask for money (rightly so, they own the content after all) and you will be screwed.

If you are a mobile operator and you do not own the content, you are also screwed... It is exactly the same thing as above. Build an integration and they will come after you. Your only option is to actually be the content owner. Take the user generated content first (it is easy and it is free, with no copyright issues), then you can add more. But be very careful on avoiding the content trap. The Internet Portals are just waiting for you to put your foot in the trap...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Apple made AT&T a pipe

There is a war the device manufacturers are waging against the carriers. A scary one for the mobile operators, in particular because they are attacked by Internet Portals as well, at the same time...

It all started with RIM. They took over the relationship with the customer. The carrier disappeared. The only thing that reminds me of AT&T on my BlackBerry is a plastic sticker on the front. Nothing else. While I am roaming around the world, the BlackBerry still works and I do not even remember which carrier I am using. My email is synced with the BlackBerry Internet Service, AT&T is just a pipe.

RIM was not a big problem for carriers. They could manage it. It was a niche in the enterprise, and a very lucrative one (BlackBerry users do not mind paying big bucks). Then RIM started moving into the consumer market... Now they have more BIS users than BES users (70-30 ratio), so more consumers than enterprises. They are eating in the carriers plate.

Still, the carriers can take it. RIM is a small threat. Still a niche.

What is scary is Nokia with Ovi, in particular in Europe and Asia. In some countries, they have 50% and more of market share. They are just coming in and taking over. The operators are fighting back, but some are tempted by the shortcut ("I can make some money fast, let's launch Nokia Messaging and we'll see what happens later") and will commit suicide. The smart ones are resisting and looking at alternatives (I know one...). They still can fight.

Overall, Nokia is a risk, a very big one. But it has not materialized yet. They have not proved they can create data services that people use. As of now, they are just a device manufacturers. They do not know how to deal with services. Exactly as the carriers. They are a scary player to deal with, but not right now right here.

Then there is Apple. Same game as above, but a lot worst. They know services. They own music, the app store, MobileMe and more. They have proven they can do it, with one billion apps downloaded.

On my iPhone, AT&T is not even a sticker. Not even a physical object... It is a bunch of pixels on the top left. So virtual it can disappear in a second.

Want some proof?

Check the leak about Verizon and Apple talking. Who do you think leaked the news? I have my ideas... They did not leak it to a technology magazine, they went all the way, to a consumer outlet like USA Today!

It just puts an enormous pressure on AT&T, who needs to renew the contract with Apple. Best way to get a good deal? Work with the competition and let everyone know it.

The sad story: AT&T needs Apple way more than Apple needs AT&T. The Verizon leak is a living proof. They can walk away when they want. Why?

Because Apple OWNS their customers. They own the AT&T consumers...

Guess what? They have already made AT&T a pipe...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oracle + Sun and mobile

I have read quite a lot of comments on the acquisition of Sun by Oracle.

Most have focused the analysis on MySQL, since it is actually a cool story: Oracle is taking off the market the #1 long-term competitor, one they wanted to acquire some time ago (for $850M, some say) before Sun got it for $1B. In a way, Oracle now bought the entire pie, getting the icing for free. Sweet.

Some are focusing on Java, simply because Oracle said that is the main reason for the acquisition. The focus goes quickly on Weblogic, the heavy reliance of Oracle on Java and so on. It makes sense.

However, there is a point nobody is discussing: what about the #1 money generator for Sun on the software side? I mean, JavaME, Java on mobile... Sun has made zero dollars (or so) on Java, outside mobile. It is a little secret, but Sun has made a ton of money of JavaME. Ton for my standards, of course. Some might object they could have made more. But they made a lot.

Moreover, Sun is the de-facto standard development platform on feature phones today. JavaME is on every phone. Yes, you might argue it is a mess (every phone is different) and that they are at risk of losing the battle on the smartphone front. But the smartphone world has way too many operating systems to keep going as it is. Developers are going nuts. The mobile market needs ONE platform.

Sun has been working on it for a while. The JavaFX effort is going in the right direction. They have a foothold in the mobile operators and device manufacturers. They are moving towards smartphones, unifying desktop, mobile and TV.

Yes, the future could be a full web development environment, as I wrote in the past. But, as there is room for Flash on desktops (it is not all Ajax), there is room for JavaFX on mobile. With the market penetration of JavaME, Sun is the company best positioned to make it. And let me remind you that mobile is the future of everything ;-)

Bottom line: acquiring Sun means for Oracle controlling a piece of the future of mobile. They have not been that active on it, beside some Service Delivery Platform offering. They now control a gem, on the client side. They have a critical presence around the future of computing.

I am expecting Oracle not to screw this up, actually the opposite. I believe when they say "We bought Sun for Java" they actually mean more "We bought Sun for JavaFX, and mobile in particular". They will invest in it, even more than Sun has done so far.

I would. Wouldn't you?