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...