Saturday, January 30, 2010

iPad scorecard and some thoughts

The iPad is finally out. If I look at my predictions of six months ago, I think I scored pretty high. I should start investing in the stock market or play the lotto ;-)

Things I got right:
  1. the name iPad. I had some doubts, but they actually picked the name I suspected in August. Too bad for the jokes, they might just add some color to its success (or lack thereof)
  2. built on the iPhone OS vs. Mac OS
  3. one button device
  4. price point "around $599, maybe even less". It starts at $499, which surprised many
  5. wi-fi and 3G, but with wi-fi more prevalent and 3G as an afterthought. Let's check back in a year and see how many bought the 3G models: I bet wi-fi will beat 3G by 80% vs. 20%
Things that surprised me:
  1. lack of webcamera. I can't believe it. It prevents me to give it to my mom, who is the perfect buyer for the device (but she can't live without videochat). I am so shocked that I think they will add it shortly (check the image on the right from the actual iPad, the address book app supports taking pictures...). Maybe even in the first release in March. A "one more thing" delayed joke
  2. the holder on the portrait side. If this is a video device, I just do not understand why I can't watch videos when the device is charging. I don't get it. May I repeat it: I don't get it. Still, it would not be a good reason not to buy the device
That said, the most interesting element of the entire iPad story is its positioning.

I thought "Kindle-killer" was the easiest one. Look at the New York Times demo they gave. Astonishing. The newspaper is so good looking, you want to throw away the paper for good. When they show the picture in the middle of the page becoming a video, you realize the Harry Potter newspaper is not far. This is the future of newspapers. The best of both worlds: a full page with articles, with the articles being alive.

Instead, they positioned it as "the best way to experience the web, email and photos". Books and newspapers are not mentioned in the tag line, not even video. Email is. Email??? Email???????? Email is dead, it is a relic in the enterprise. Social networks are the future of messaging. That is what kids do. Email is not a consumer feature anymore. The iPad is for consumers, right?

More: they talked about iWorks. Who do you think would work on a spreadsheet sitting on the couch? Anyone in the enterprise? Holding the device with one hand? Why? Why???

There is always a why. Steve Jobs knows the market better than anyone. Definitely better than me.

However, there have been times when I was right and he was wrong. When he positioned the web as the ultimate SDK for the iPhone, for example. I said "no way, developers won't go for it, not now, it is too early". He announced an SDK a few months later... A super U-turn. And the SDK is what made the iPhone the success it is. The App Store is what makes the difference today with other OSs. The super U-turn made the difference.

Or maybe he was not wrong. He knew it, but they were not ready with an SDK. He was just pretending there was no need because they could not deliver it.

What is clear is that he did not position the iPad against the Kindle. Probably because he believes that is just a niche. He positioned it against the netbooks. At the top of the netbooks price range, as Apple usually does.

Netbooks are not bought by you and me (unless you are a geek who needs two laptops). They are bought by people that have a desktop and need something to move around their data. Or that do not even have a desktop.

In that category:
  1. my daughter (7 years old). She loves my iPhone. She will prefer an iPad over a netbook a million times. She is the perfect user for it. It does everything she likes (browsing, watching pictures, gaming). And she does not have to sit on a chair to use it, which kids rarely like
  2. my mom (more than 60 years old). She loves my iPhone. Same as above, only that she cares about browsing, watching pictures, email and video Skype. The lack of the camera kills it, but as I wrote above, it is going away in no-time.
  3. my wife (less than 40 years old). She has a laptop and she would not give it up (it is a Mac, btw). However, what she does on that device is browsing, email, social networks, pictures and music, plus video Skype. She also reads books and the New Yorker. She has only one spreadsheet, which would be easily managed by the iPad. She won't buy one, until her laptop breaks. But when it does, she will be ready. She even bought a thing recently to be able to use her laptop on the couch. If you have that thing around in the house, it means you are also ready for the iPad
Look at the list above. It is a very large chunk of the population. The non-geek, non-enterprise crowd. It is not us (sorry, if you read this blog and you are an unemployed non-geek, you have some problems). It is them. The other 90%.

The iPad is a new paradigm of human-computer interaction. The desktop is gone. The folders are gone. The documents live inside the app. The device transforms itself in the object it becomes. It is a non-object. It is what you want it to be. One touch on an icon, it is a calculator. No folders, no files, just numbers as if you were holding a calculator. One touch and it is a notepad. One touch and it is a picture frame. It is the future of computing.

The iPad is the replacement of the home desktop computer.

Look at your parents staring at a computer. They can't do double-click. They will never master it. They do not like the mouse. Look at how they never really understood the folder metaphor. They are scared in front of the machine. Clicking with panic. Always at a distance. No love. Just need.

Now give them an iPad. No panic. No fears. They will touch everything. It is so easy. So fast. With my fingers! And when I am wrong, just one click at the one button and it is back home. Safely. A pleasure to use.

The rest is left for us geeks. The concept of operating systems, folders, Unix, everything we learned. Forget IT Managers for the home, it is going away (now we'll need network managers :-)

Bottom line: whatever pundits say, the iPad is going to be the start of a revolution. I have a feeling it won't sell in large quantities, but it is going to fill a niche after another. Those that want interactive books in color, then gadget freaks, then kids, then moms, then grandparents. Year after year, Apple will improve the device and make sure all the niches will be served.

The iPad is the future of computing for the masses, as the iPhone has pushed the mobile computing model to what it is today. Thanks to the iPhone, 66% of phones sold by Verizon last quarter were smartphones (not even one iPhone). The iPhone showed the world what people could do with a small tablet with one button, connected to the mobile network outside the home. The iPad is going to do the same, inside your house.

Trust me, I am good at playing the lotto.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My final prediction on the Apple slate

In August, I wrote a post with some predictions on the Apple slate or tablet. Now that it is finally about to be unveiled (on Wednesday), I wanted to add a few final thoughts.

First of all, I still believe what I wrote on that post:
  1. I still think it will mainly be an e-book reader, doubling as a video player, gaming machine, browsing tool and more. But the reason to buy it will be to read books, newspapers and magazines
  2. I still think it will have a camera for videochats (therefore, it will be on the front, not on the back)
  3. I still believe it will be built on the iPhone OS, vs. a full Mac OS X. Actually, I now believe it is going to be built on the iPhone OS 4, and they will unveil the new OS version on Wednesday for developers. While you port your iPhone app to OS 4, just make sure to take into consideration a bigger screen. That's it.
I believe the UI is going to be easy and simple, with one button. You do not realize how important is the "Go Home" button until you watch one of your older relatives use an iPhone: it is the safety net, what you click when you are lost. Something that relieves you from any anxiety in using an electronic device. For non-skilled users, you just wish they had one in any PC (hint: your older relatives might not need a PC anymore, this might suffice).

I feel they will position it as an add-on device, not as a laptop replacement. I am expecting 10" and a price point around $599, maybe even less. I just do not see how they can go to market with something at a $1,000 price, honestly. But I have been wrong before.

I think it will have a holder/charger as the iPhone, but on the wide side (because you want to watch something when it is on the charger: try to do it on an iPhone turning your head...).

I believe it will have both wi-fi and 3G. However, 3G will be available only to access iTunes. Therefore, you won't need a data plan. It will be free and the carriers will take a cut of the downloads (books, music, video, apps) and, therefore, they might even subsidize it. You will be able to sync video and stuff on the device when you have wi-fi coverage, so you will be able to watch it on the go. I just do not see how they can ask people to buy another data plan, even if it is added on an existing smartphone plan. I do not believe they will.

I am convinced they will announce Verizon as a partner, probably also selling the iPhone. The AT&T dumb-pipe-in-the-making process will be completed.

Lastly, I am not sure they will call it iPad as I originally thought. The idea of the retired Conan O'Brien joking about the max version of it (maxi-pad) has made me totally change perspective. iSlate sounds like a good name at this point...

Whatever they show, it is going to be the start of a new revolution. Yet another must-have device, one I will be in line to buy in March when it will be available.

And with all these predictions, I have a good probability to get one right :-)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chumby and the Internet of Things

While everyone is talking about cloud computing (including me, because mobile cloud services is going to be one of the main topic of 2010), another phenomenon is becoming more visible, every day. We are about to enter the Internet of Things era.

Every device out there will get an IP address. And it will be able to dialog with the rest of the world.

When I say device, I mean everything. From a refrigerator, to a camera, to an alarm clock, to a light bulb, to a car, to a garage door and so on.

I have heard about this concept from my friends at WideTag, a company I have been advising for a while (they have only one problem: they are too smart). They have built an open protocol (OpenSpime) to allow devices to communicate among themselves. You need something specialized to scale to trillions of devices...

It appears simple at the first look (why is it different from having a bunch of computer connected to the net?). However, it is going to change our life dramatically.

Having everything connected is a bliss. I bought a Chumby last week. It is an alarm clock. With a touchscreen and wi-fi connectivity. Built on open source (you can easily get root access in the Linux box), with a thriving community of developers building widgets for it. Therefore, it doubles as an Internet radio, an online picture frame, a weather station, it plays your Google Voice messages and a lot more.

I started developing a widget to show pictures from our Funambol server. So that you can take a picture on your phone and it shows up on your Chumby (or your mom's Chumby), without pressing a button. I wrote it in ActionScript 2, because the widget are based on Flash. With FlashDevelop and some example code, it took me no more than an hour...

Boom, I have pictures rolling on my Chumby. Data synchronized across the world. I take a picture on my phone in Europe, it gets automatically synced on the cloud, and it shows up on the other side of the world in my kitchen.

I brought the device home to do some more development (I want to put my Funambol calendar on it, so I can wake up and see what I have to do that day, just to ruin it right away ;-) and I left it on the counter in the kitchen.

In ten minutes, my daughter was playing with it. She found the widget for the Artillery game and she took over... Once she was done, my wife looked at it. She briefly mentioned it was an ugly device but she got over it quickly. The EDIS feed (Emergency Digital Information Services) shows alerts for bad weather in California. Since it is raining outside, she got hooked. Couple it with the weather forecast, her email, some classical music in the background and I got a "can you make it a gift for me for last Christmas?". Yep, she really liked her Christmas gift, so much that she wants to exchange it for a Chumby...

I was at CES in Vegas a few weeks back. They were showing microwaves with Android, refrigerators with Android, weight scale with Android. All devices interconnected, talking one to another. All syncing data among themselves (yep, I have a feeling Funambol will play a role in the Internet of Things era ;-)

It is going to be an amazing world. The only issue will be dodging so much information and unplug, just to read a book. Oopss, wait, we'll do it on an e-book reader... Get ready, if this was a world of billion of mobile phones, in ten years we will have a trillion. Now you just need a community of people to join together to make it actually work.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

No, Google will not subsidize the Nexus One (for now)

I have read lots of different comments on the Nexus One. As you might expect, I have my opinions on it...

I saw the phone for the first time around mid November, by mistake. I was at Google, meeting an executive, when he dropped the phone on the table. His eyes panicked while he tried to hide it. It was pretty clear to me of what I saw. However, I am not a journalist, I am bound to confidentiality and I definitely do not write about certain things on blogs (sorry).

Also, I had written a post a few days before about why "Google would not make a smartphone"... My reasoning was that it made no business sense, having Google made Android the mobile OS of choice for device manufacturers. It made (makes) no sense for Google to undercut them, right when Android is about to win the game.

Seeing the phone, at first I was a shocked, thinking they were actually making the gPhone. Then I thought about it and I concluded: "nope, it is not going to be a Google-manufactured phone, it will be a device manufacturer phone, sold by Google". Exactly like they were selling the G1 an G2 for developers before (we bought a couple, online, same thing as today only limited to developers).

Now that it is out, I have the exact same feeling. They are selling online a developer phone to stimulate the market. The phone is built by HTC and they clearly spell it out in the Terms of Sale. It is sold subsidized, yes, but by T-Mobile (yep, an old-style mobile operator, there are still around). If you want to buy it at full price, it costs as any other phone. The difference is that you can buy it online (although I think you can buy unlocked Symbian, iPhones and Windows Mobile online too…). Honestly, the only difference is the URL, which is Google, instead of Amazon (a significant change, mind you, I am not downplaying the move of Google to act as a retailer).

They did not go against the device manufacturers. They built it with one device manufacturer they know very well (HTC built the first Google phone, ooops, Android phone). They pushed the market forward once again. Device manufacturers that were sitting on Android 1.5 cannot relax. The market is moving. If a device manufacturer thinks it can sit on a release, Google makes sure it has a new Android version out with a reference phone. It is a stimulus to device manufacturers. It is not against them. Google needs device manufacturers (for now) and vice versa.

What about the mobile operators? The Nexus One is not against them either. You need a data plan at least, from T-Mobile or any other carrier that will sell it and subsidize it. They provide it to you. Google is not a carrier. It helps carriers make money. Google needs them (for now) and vice versa.

Now, the big looming questions is: will Google subsidize the phone? Not this one, apparently. And not any phone soon, in my opinion (some disagree ;-) However, Google could: the mobile phone today is a glorified web browser (their tagline is "Web meets phone"…), bringing advertising dollars to Google. It is easy to assume they should do it, changing the game forever. Give a phone away for free, destroy the device manufacturers and force the carriers to offer pure data plans to survive.

I might be dense, but I stand by my first comment months ago: it does not make business sense. It won't happen soon.

Android can only succeed if device manufacturers are pushing it hard. And they are. Google won't screw that. Did you wonder why they did not launch the phone before Christmas? Not to screw the Motorola Droid launch. One day, when Android will be the clear winner in the mobile OS space, they might (and they probably should). Now, nope.

And do not forget the carriers. They are here, alive, doing well. They are fighting not to become a pipe. If you think the world market can go around them, you are foolish. They still control the network, and they are not going to give it up that fast (and if someone wants it, they have to pony up a lot of billions to buy it, not even Google probably can…). Google needs to work with mobile operators. One day, that might change. Now, nope.

Bottom line: Google is doing this for developers, not consumers. They get this. This market is going to be won by the OS that can attract developers. Giving everyone in the world easy access to a reference phone is a very smart move. We started building stuff for Android 2.0 in Europe, on the emulator. It just does not work. You need the real phone. Now we can easily buy it. The rest is free marketing. They did not piss device manufacturers or carriers off. They are working with them. They got an enormous amount of ink, which will convince developers even more that Android is going to win. As a by-product, they will sell some phones online. I am ready to bet their margin on the phone is ridiculous (if not zero): all money to HTC and the carriers.

Developers developers developers. Steve Ballmer knew it and maybe has forgotten it. Someone else is doing it way better. Trust me, I know developers. Mobile developers in particular. We have tens of thousand working on Funambol. What works with them is open, and open source in particular. Nothing else works and will ever work (sorry, Microsoft, it is time you get it). You nail the competition, if you can convince developers. Google is pulling a Funambol (ok, this sounds a bit too strong, but it feels good to write it :-) We just started a few years before them. They are doing what we do, but at a grand scale. And they are going to be immensely successful (while we would settle for that $1B elusive open source company :-)

Sorry consumers, you'll have to wait a bit for your free phone with $20/month data plan with no commitment. It will happen, eventually. But it is going to take a while.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Laughing with European carriers

I spent some time in Europe around Christmas, joining our team in Pavia and visiting family.

With the need of being always connected (my BlackBerry not being enough, apparently), I decided to buy a USB Modem Stick for 3G Mobile Broadband. They are very popular in Europe (in Italy, in particular, I have to say). You plug it in the USB port of your laptop and you have Internet access up to 7.2Mb (which is way more than my DSL at home...).

I did some comparative shopping online and, as usual, I ended up choosing a Wind one. They have the best pricing for someone which lives abroad. The box said "39 euros with 40 euros of traffic". Nice, they are giving me one euro!! Plus, they have a data plan for 12.5 euro cents every 15 minutes, unlimited traffic, on a prepaid card. What not to like?

I spent the 39 euros happily to get the box. The price was tax included: I am so used to paying 9.25% more than the listed price, that I look like an idiot when I buy stuff in Europe. Plus, I can't recognize Euro coins because I left Italy when we had Lira, so I look like a total idiot when I am carefully looking the coins. They do not get it I am a foreigner because my Italian is still pretty current ;-) They just think I am dumb, which fits with what came later.

I got to my hotel, opened up the box, followed the instructions to put the SIM card in the stick (not easy, a bit of geekness needed) and plugged it in my Mac. The installation program came up on screen (very nice, no CD needed, read directly from the stick: optimal because I do not have a CD reader...), two clicks and a "Connect" button showed up. I got excited and clicked. A few seconds and booom, I was on, HSDPA: everything superfast. My Mac started downloading emails, I opened a few web site, then everything stopped.

Oopss, what happened?

I decided to read the fine print (I told you, I am an idiot, that is what you are supposed to do first). It said I had 10 euros of traffic on the card, plus they were going to give me 5 euros every month for six months (for a total of 40 euros). Got it. Then I started wondering what kind of data plan was I using a few seconds before, while connected... I read a bit more and it said the standard plan was 0.3 euro cent per KB. And that I needed to send an SMS to activate the 12.5 euro cent per 15 minutes plan.

Ouch, I thought. A quick look at the log and it said I downloaded 3MB in 85 seconds. Quick math: at 0.3 cent per KB, 3MB... 10 euros gone. I was out of luck, not even money to send the SMS and request the activation of the time-based billing.

What???? You sell me a stick for ultra-fast download with a laptop and it comes with a per-kilobyte billing?? And I have to send an SMS with a card inside a stick (how do I do it?), with text "EASY SI" and wait 24 hours? Easy what? You took 10 euros out of my pocket in 85 seconds!!

What does a raged customer do in the US? S/he calls customer service. So did I, using my cellphone. American ingenuity.

A nice lady answered, Aurelia. I asked a few questions about my balance being zero euros. She checked and told me she had no idea where my 10 euros went, but she confirmed my balance was 0. I told her I was connected for a moment and she told me she had no idea, because they do not get traffic data until the next day (ooops, so much for real-time traffic inspection and billing). I mentioned my theory, that in 85 seconds I went through 10 euros.

She started laughing. I mean, not smiling. She could not stop. While she was laughing, she tried to apologize about it. But she could not stop.

I asked her if I was the first one. She said, the first one to do it in 85 seconds.

She was cracking up. I broke the Italian record for blowing 10 euros on a stick. I guess most of other users do it in a few minutes. I was quicker. The Usain Bolt of USB modem sticks.

I asked Aurelia if I won anything for breaking the record, like getting my 10 euros back. She became serious all of a sudden. "Nope, there is nothing I can do about it". She did not add "you idiot" because she was really nice. I told her "in the US, the customer service representative would apologize to me, give me back the 10 euros, then add another 10 euros as an apology". She was puzzled and did not know what to say. I thanked her for being nice and told her goodbye.

I was 10 euros lighter but it was worth it. I would pay 10 euros for a good laugh any day. Going to the movies is more expensive.

I have my card in my laptop right now. I have 27 euros on it because I had to top it with 25 euros to be able to use it (at zero euros, you can't do anything. Nice trick, with the 10 euros I would have gone by forever), plus they gave me the first 5 euros free for the first month (after sending another SMS). I spent 3 euros using it every single day for two weeks to check email, browse and Skype with people around the world (in Italy as well, since it is cheaper than calling from my Wind cell phone ;-) I am a truly happy user. No monthly bill, and I will be back in Italy a few times this year. The money will last me the full year for sure, probably even a couple of years...

Still, I have that nagging feeling that someone in marketing at Wind tried to rob me of 10 euros. And managed to do it. With a smile. Demonstrating I am an idiot.

Call me stupid, but I feel customer service comes first. If you are in a competitive market, with everyone around you trying to make you a pipe, you have to be extra-careful in managing your customers. You have to make them happy (not laugh). You have to convince them you are the best, that they really care about you. You have to make them love your brand, your logo, your customer service people.

If you don't, people will leave you for someone else as soon as there is a better offer. It is business 101. Carriers must learn it fast. There is no walled garden anymore.

In the new world of wireless, customers have the last laugh...