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 ;-)

  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...
  1. A compass, with some clever app by a partner to use it. Yawn...
  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.


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.