Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why tablets are jump-starting the connected home

I have been thinking a lot about mobility inside the house, lately. It is a novel concept, if you think about it. In your house, devices were not supposed to move. You had a landline phone, a desktop PC and a TV, plus a VCR/DVR and so on. All static.

The fist moving part was probably the wireless phone. Initially, a wireless version of your landline phone, then your actual mobile phone, becoming the main way for you to communicate with the world - even at home.

Then you bought a laptop. Mostly a desktop replacement, so you can use it while moving around (starting with coffee places). But you wanted to use it around the house as well, or - at least - you did not want to plug an ethernet cable every time. Therefore, you added a wi-fi router, close to your Internet router. If you are like most people I know, your router was in the home office, close to your desktop. For some, the wi-fi coverage of the initial wireless network did not travel too far. Too bad the signal was weak near the TV or the toilet, you could live with it.

Then came the iPad (and all its sisters). A weak signal near the TV means a weak signal on the couch. The main repository for the iPad. The place where you really want to use it (while your laptop is in your home office). Otherwise, why did you get one? Same for the kitchen, because that recipe on the iPad looks so yummy. Or your bedroom, because nothing beats watching a stupid YouTube video on the iPad before going to bed. And what about the restroom? Hey, you can hold this thing with one hand, like a magazine, but it contains a full newspaper... You definitely need great wi-fi coverage there as well.

And so it happened: your home is now fully connected. There is no spot in the house where wi-fi is weak. It is strong in the office, the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, the restroom.

Think about it: your home is now fully connected, because of your tablet. And you are not alone, this is a trend that will bring all homes fully connected. For Thanksgiving, Toys"R"Us was selling an Android tablet for $139.99. Everybody is getting one. Even just to have it and tweet about the game on the couch.

If the connectivity is good on the couch, it is good for the TV. Your Wii gets connected, even if you bought it as standalone. And now you can use it to watch Netflix movies. Your TV gets connected.

Then it spills to the bedroom, where your alarm clock gets connected. Picture frames appear around the house, all showing pictures taken a few minutes before. Appliances in the kitchen have connectivity: your gas appliance knows it is going to be freezing cold tonight and turns on a bit earlier. Your sprinklers know it is going to rain in the afternoon so why bother even starting?

It is the connected home, the Internet of Things moving its first steps. It all started with a stupid tablet that most people buy, not sure what to do with it. It provided the connectivity for everything else to get on.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Windows Mobile 7? No thanks, I am a developer

As you might remember, I have been quite positive on Windows Mobile 7, from the user perspective. It looks like a well designed UI. I haven't had the opportunity to actually play with a device for an extended period of time, but it looks good - at least from the outside.

Clearly, Windows Mobile 7 is a big gamble for Microsoft. They had an enterprise-ready operating system and they trashed it, in favor of a consumer one. While doing it, they also trashed all Windows Mobile 6 applications, which are not compatible to Windows Mobile 7. That forced developers to start from scratch while waiting for the new OS to appear.

The vacuum has been filled by Android, which has attracted the largest share of developers for the enterprise. The rest are building for iPhone.

Now that Windows Mobile 7 is actually available, what are developers doing? Will they build consumer apps for it? What about the enterprise ones?

My first checks are not positive. At all.

The Funambol Community Manager posted in his blog yesterday and summarized what he does not like about Windows Mobile 7:
  1. No support for open source licenses
  2. Only C# supported
  3. Missing APIs
He concluded:
developers will sit and wait, not considering Windows Mobile 7 a serious OSs until a new release is out
I can't agree more. He is a developer. He knows what he is talking about.

Lack of OSS licenses limits development, but you can go around it. Forcing people to develop in C# is a huge requirement, which will trim down the amount of developers (although Apple was able to convince a lot of people to code Obejctive-C, so you never know).

The last one, though, is the killer. Just take Funambol and our community as an example. We are ready to go and we would love to build a sync client to bring Windows Mobile 7 in the family. However, we simply cannot do it. There is no PIM API in Windows Mobile 7. There is no way a developer can access contacts or calendar data.

If you recall, I bitched about Apple not providing APIs. Eventually they did. I bitched about Apple initially providing only contacts, and not calendar. Eventually they did (at version 4 of the OS...). I believe that was a mistake, but they could go away with it, because they were early.

Microsoft is late. They cannot get away with it. An operating system without developers is dead. If you cannot get the developers to build on it, you are doomed. They have lost the enterprise developers and they are not doing nearly enough to get the consumer developers.

Very risky move for a latecomer.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Finally, Apple is making MobileMe free

I have been saying for a while that Apple will eventually open up MobileMe, making it free.

Synchronization of your personal data in the cloud is the stickiest service imaginable. Once a system has your spouse cell phone (which you do not know, trust me) and the picture of your kids, you are locked in. No chance to move out. They have you.

Look at Flickr, which does picture "sync". I have my entire life there. If they raise the price to $50/year, I will simply pay it. I just cannot conceive the idea of moving out. Too much effort, and too much risk. My pictures are my life. I do not want to mess with my life. I am ready to pay any reasonable price for it.

What I never understood was the price for MobileMe. $99/year is an hefty price. One that prevents the masses to join. One that limits Apple's ability to get sticky-er. A price paid only by few (geeks).

Synchronization does not work like that. It is impossible to find millions of people willing to pay for it. If you are a pure consumer, you just do not see the value in it. It is a nice-to-have, not a must-have. Until you start using it. At that point, you cannot live without it. It is your life on the cloud, moving across your devices. It is you.

Think about losing your phone, with no cloud service where you stored your data. Think about losing all the pictures you took (and you had no way to sync somewhere, or you were just too lazy, because you needed a cable or to click on an icon). Think about losing all your friends contact info. Yes, at that moment you realize the value of transparent synchronization, the value of having your data automatically stored somewhere, the value of getting everything back with one click.

But you would not pay for it, probably. It just sounds like an insurance.

However, once you are using a cloud sync system, you are in for good. It is just like having push email on your mobile phone. "Nah, I do not need it". Then you start using it and you would kill anyone who wants to take it away from you. The famous Crackberry.

No, no, it is not just for business people. It is you, the consumer. Let me take away your SMS, your Facebook. Let me take away your iPhone and move you back to a dumb phone. See... You will kill me.

Think about it. Once you start using synchronization, you are locked in. It is too good. You see your life moving across all your devices. You know someone is taking care to secure it for you. They do the backup you always forget. They will save your friends and your kids.

At that point, you are not going anywhere. And once that happens, there are so many ways to monetize it. From advertising (Facebook is making billions of dollars, you know...), to storage (think Dropbox), to paying for restore (this is a smart one, more once we have launched a few customers on it ;-) There are billions in cloud sync. Billions.

So, cloud sync is sticky. Few want to pay for it. But once they use it, they are locked in. Make it free, you will get everyone in the world to join. And you will make a boatload of money on the premium part of the freemium model.

I am sure Apple knows it. I am sure they realize it. There is a reason why they have built a huge cloud computing center in North Carolina. They want to store your life there. Starting with your music. iTunes on a desktop is going to be replaced by iTunes in the cloud. The cable is going for good. All your data will be synced to the cloud and back to your devices (did you notice that the new Apple TV is just a cloud device? Did you notice that the new MacBook Air does not have a CD? It is all going in the cloud, then synced and streamed back to your devices).

So, what was the missing link? MobileMe becoming free. I have been waiting for it for a long time. Today, the rumor became true.  In the new iOS 4.2 builds, there is a message that says: "The maximum number of free accounts have been activated on this iPhone".

Here you have it. Not every aspect of MobileMe will be free. Just the part that will lock you in (let me bet: PIM sync, with a storage premium on rich media, for starters). They know how to make money on the rest, beginning with selling you content (music, books and movies). Maybe, they were just not ready, so they put a high price on MobileMe, to make sure they would have a limited set of "test" users. They now have the cloud computing capacity to make it happen. And they are going for it.

Facebook and Google, be worried, Apple is coming. It all starts with cloud sync.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Facebook is attempting suicide by spam

I remember clearly the moment when I thought Facebook would be the future of messaging, replacing email. It was a few years back, I am not exactly sure when but I would guess 2008.

My wife told me she sent an email to a friend, and the friend did not answer. She waited a day or two, then she realized her friend was on Facebook as well. Therefore, she sent her a Facebook message and got an instant reply. Curious, she asked her friend why she did not reply to her email.

The answer?

"I did not receive it. It must have landed in my Spam folder."

Pop. A light went on in my brain (there must be some empty space there, I guess). It became obvious to me: that failed attempt represented my wife's last email to her friend. From that moment on, email was dead in their conversations. It was going to be only Facebook messaging.

Many people think of spam as something annoying they have to delete. In reality, the killer is not the spam you receive, is the messages you send which are flagged as spam. The false positives. They kill your faith in the system. They give everyone an excuse ("Sorry, I did not receive it". "Yes, you did, you liar!". "No, I swear I did not. It must be in my Spam folder!". "Yeah, right...").

The beauty of Facebook is that there was no spam. Nobody could send you a message, unless they were a friend. There was the risk of being spammed with requests for friendship, but who would do it, knowing it would automatically get a no? The simple way to avoid spam was to be sure your Facebook friends were actual friends. Not a difficult task.

Yep, this messaging system had a flaw: you were not able to receive messages from strangers.

But that flaw was its #1 strength.

Who cares Facebook messaging did not cover email? If I wanted spam, I would have continued using email. Facebook messaging was about the messages I really wanted to receive. Not the ones I hated.

Facebook new messaging system, announced this week, turns the table around. Completely. They are now allowing you to have a facebook.com email address. You can also import other email accounts in it. It is email + SMS + IM in one Inbox. Now strangers can send you messages in Facebook. They can spam you on Facebook.

The future of messaging, they say. The thing that will kill email, they say.

Maybe. Maybe it will kill email. But it could kill Facebook messaging as well. Facebook has decided to welcome spam in their system. The one thing that made their system great, because it was not there.

Facebook is attempting suicide by spam.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Finally I know why there is no Facebook iPad app

I have used an iPad since the day it was released. I went from avid users to casual user. Initially, I put the iPad in my bag every day, to eventually find out I never took it out. It now lives on my couch and it comes with me every time I fly somewhere. I love my iPad (and I think it loves me too).

The app I want to use more in my iPad is Facebook. I do not have time during the day to play with Facebook (sadly), but I do have time at night in front of the TV (hoping that someone will eventually discover that stupid multitasking is the cure for Alzheimer).

The problem?

There is no iPad Facebook app.

I know, I know, there is an iPhone Facebook app. You can download that one and use the tiny window with an enormous black frame, or stretch the tiny window to a full size with horrible UI degradation (in particular for pictures, and - you know - Facebook is the largest photo site in the world since 2008...).

For months, I wondered: why? Why? Why are you forcing me to a crappy experience or, worst, you want me to open the browser and access Facebook there? It is insane, the browser is not meant for it. I am not going to do it. The native Facebook iPhone app is the best Facebook experience, even compared to a desktop browser. It is what a mobile app is supposed to be. It is where mobile plus a touchscreen show why they are the future of computing.

Why there is no Facebook iPad app? One with the same usability of the iPhone app, but at full screen, with beautiful graphics, great photos, using the power of a larger screen? It would be the best Facebook experience ever.

TechCrunch reported a week ago that the official Facebook answer is: “The iPad isn’t mobile”. Ergo, use the browser as on a desktop and suck it up, you losers.

What? May I call BS?

Yes, I do. This morning I opened the iPhone Facebook app on my iPad and for the first time ever I noticed one thing: it does not have any advertising. I just do not know why I did not notice it before (maybe ADD due to stupid multitasking). There is no ads. None. Period. Facebook is making zero dollars zero on the iPhone app. They make all their ad money on desktop and the browser...

Here you have it. This makes sense. Facebook does not yet have a mobile ad machine. If they push a great iPad app and the tablets become the future of computing, they are screwed. They need first to find a way to stuck some ads in the mobile app, then they will do it. For now, they are just trying to force you to use the browser on the iPad, so they can push you all their ads.

Oh, BTW, I would pay for an iPad Facebook app with no ads, Zuck. You got me locked in. That is what I want to do on my couch. Just do not BS me, please.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The open cloud just got a bit more closed

Something interesting happened today in the open cloud world: Google shot at Facebook...

It is no surprise that Google does not like Facebook much, considering one in five Facebook employees came from Google and that Google is trying to catch up on the social war (no results so far, but I am told the man in charge is Vic Gundotra, so it is just a matter of time).

The war here is on a different turf, and it is close to home for me: the open cloud. Google has tried to portray itself as an open cloud, one that does not lock in your data (since my data is my data, and I want to take it with me wherever I go). The Data Liberation Front is at the forefront of the Google marketing. Their motto is "Users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google's products. Our team's goal is to make it easier to move data in and out". I like it. And I used it a couple of times. It is not just marketing. It is real stuff.

On the other side of the spectrum? Facebook. They built their entire business around collecting your data, and they definitely do not want you to take it with you. Or, worst, share it with other clouds. They have made some openings lately but it is probably not even close to what they could do.

What happened today? Google changed a tiny paragraph of the Terms of Service for the Contacts API:
5.8. Google supports data portability. By accessing Content through the Contacts Data API or Portable Contacts API for use in your service or application, you are agreeing to enable your users to export their contacts data to other services or applications of their choice in a way that’s substantially as fast and easy as exporting such data from Google Contacts, subject to applicable laws.
Looks small, right? Just contacts, after all. It is one of the many data types out there... Well, it is THE data type. Friends are in the address book. Social starts in the address book. Calls, messages, everything starts there. Believe me, when it comes to synchronization, the address book is king.

How do you read this? Well, "if you suck data out of of cloud, you must allow us to suck data out of your cloud". Pretty simple.

If you are naive, the move from Google reads "we want an open cloud, we are open, you should be open too!". If you are cynical, it reads "we want to keep our data for ourselves, forget the BS about data liberation, we were joking... It works only if it does not harm our business, and Facebook is. Our cloud is as open as the other ones out there".

Pretty scary. The open cloud just got a bit more closed.