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?


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.