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.