Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Better lucky than smart

I have always considered myself a lucky individual. I have a great family, good health, real friends, a fantastic job and every physical item I actually need. I could always get more, but I do not care about it. I do not see the point of wanting more when I have all I need. I just feel, almost every day, that I am a lucky lucky bastard. And that I did very little to deserve it.

Last week in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress, I felt exactly the same way. I felt I got even too lucky. This time, in my work life.

I have been talking for years about a few items: open source in mobile (easy to guess from the title of my blog) and server-based mobile computing (now known as mobile cloud services), with a focus on mobile cloud sync.

For years, I have seen the disbelief in the eye of every carrier I talked to. No, mobile and open source won't work together. Where is the IP? And why would we ever want to open our networks? It is all closed and it works so well for us. For years. Years!

There were days I told my wife this mobile open source thingy might take ages to really happen. That I might have started a company too soon and I will be remembered as the one who originally believed in mobile open source, only to get the timing wrong. When I was fundraising for Series A at Funambol in 2005, I was repeating to VCs a word I heard from Andrew Aitken, one of my advisors: "open source in mobile is inevitable". Inevitable. I believed it then, I always believed it. However, it could have taken 20 years to happen…

Instead, it took way less.

At the Mobile World Congress, the talk of the show was Android. There were Android phones everywhere. It is mobile open source. The big announcement on Monday? Intel and Nokia, two of the largest players in mobile (who is bigger than Intel on chips or Nokia on devices?), announced MeeGo. A mobile open source initiative (and you can tell by the weird name, right amigo?). Then Symbian rushed out Symbian^3… Guess what? Mobile open source.

Stop for a second. The talk of the show was mobile open source?? The talk of the #1 mobile show of the year?????

Guess what, I got lucky. Mobile open source just happened. And I did very little to deserve it.

The second theme was the cloud. The mobile cloud. Devices connected to the network, syncing data among themselves and the cloud. Check Eric Schmidt talk at the show below. It is a turning point for the industry. It is a must-watch for anyone in mobile. He is preaching the convergence of computing + connectivity + cloud. It all happens thanks to the cloud. Replication, he says. Mobile applications are sharing intensive, sharing replication, he adds. I call it syncing, but it is exactly the same thing.

Who else talked about mobile cloud syncing? RIM, the maker of Blackberry. An entire presentation devoted to explain their new mobile cloud syncing product for SMBs (Blackberry Enterprise Server Express). And what about that spectacular presentation of Windows 7 Phone OS (really? That is all you could come up to beat the Zune brand? How do you call a Windows Phone phone? Windows Phone Squared? C'mon…). Look at the video below. It is all about cloud interaction, your friends, messaging. They do not even mention you can call people!!! This is how you sell a phone now. The cloud sells it.

Guess what, I got lucky. Mobile cloud services just happened. And I did very little to deserve it.

Anything else? Well, only some talks about how to make the network faster and more efficient, without killing it because of all the above. But this is just a technicality in the big scheme of things. Networks will be faster and will support the load. There is no other way. Engineers will make it happen. Cash will be there to support it.

I have to say the first two days of the show I was speechless. Andrew joked with me on Facebook that there is no way I was not talking… He knows me well, apparently. However, I was actually without voice. Mostly due to a cold, but also because I could not believe what was happening around me.

Everything I said and preached for years just happened. And I did very little to deserve it.


As they say: better lucky than smart.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tethering and the iPad

Ok, I admit it. The iPad is often in my thoughts. Despite not being a mass market product, which usually is what interests me. What can I do? Anyway… I received an email from an Italian friend today, asking about tethering the iPad (see, it is not just me ;-)

My feeling is that people will simply not buy the 3G model, because the iPad is best used inside (try walking with it in your hands on the street, and watch out for that pole). Therefore, I expect most people to buy the wi-fi model. However, there are moments where 3G would be really useful. Still, adding $20 per month on a data-only plan is insane, if you already have a smartphone and you are paying a monthly data plan for it. Few will do it (and the 3G model is also more expensive…).

What are the other options?

One is that the carrier bundles your smartphone and iPad plan together. If the iPad plan is just $5 per month on top of your smartphone plan, many could go for it. At $10, I doubt it (I am cheap but I am not the only one out there).

The other option is tethering. The device has wi-fi, your smartphone has wi-fi and 3G: you just need to put your smartphone in tethering mode, creating a 3G connection to the carrier network and a wi-fi connection to your iPad. I do it all the time with my iPhone and my Mac. It is very fast, very convenient, in particular when there is no wi-fi around and I have to give a demo at a customer site (where there is often no open wi-fi available).

The problem? AT&T does not allow me to do it. I have to go around it, jailbreak the iPhone, add PDANet and hope not to be caught (if you are AT&T and you are reading this, I am obviously joking. I would never do such a thing).

In Europe, tethering is ok. It is quite expensive, but the carriers allow you to do it. It makes sense. If you are paying for a data plan, and it is metered, why limit you? More data means more revenues, so just go for it. I am told 3 in Italy charges 30 euros per month for 4GB (with voice and SMS included). It is a reasonable deal (although I would keep live video off-limits).

What's the difference between US and Europe? Metered plans.

In the US, we only have all-you-can-eat plans. They are good for users, who do not have to think about data consumption. Data size is not a natural measure. Time is (I know how long 15 minutes are). How big is a MB? Ask common users if they believe their graduation thesis (which took 6 months to write) is larger in size than a 5 minutes video on YouTube of a dog on a skateboard: the dog is not going to win, trust me. Nobody gets that video is so much larger than text. Why would they? All-you-can eat is so much easier to understand, and users do not worry when they click. Unfortunately, they get on drugs and it is hard to quit when you are addicted...

The problem is that the network gets overloaded fast. Ask people in San Francisco and New York with an iPhone. My friends are turning 3G off because it rarely works and sucks way more battery. That is bad bad bad.

So, what about time-based plans? I connect for 15 minutes, I pay for 15 minutes. Sounds easy to understand… Well, they might work for laptops and dongles, but when you have a smartphone always connected (e.g. to receive a stream of Facebook or email), you are screwed. It is always on. It would cost you a fortune.

Any other option? Well, in the desktop world, you pay for DSL based on speed, rather than time or bandwidth consumption. Can this be applied to mobile? I believe so. And I feel it would be the best option. However, for now, nobody is considering it. In my opinion, they should. What you have at home is unlimited connection, always on, you just pay more for convenience. Give me 2G for a very low price, 2.5 for a bit more, 3G quite expensive, 3.5G even more and so on. Maybe it is a bit early and the carriers have no way to bill this, but why not?

That said, tethering is still the best option for the iPad. One device has 3G (your smartphone, which needs it more and it is always on), all your other devices talk to it when they have to (when a high-speed wi-fi hotspot is around, you would always go for it, for speed reasons at least). One bill.

Personally, I believe Steve Jobs knows all this and he is forcing the carriers to adapt. The 3G plan for the iPad is just a joke. He is going to laugh at those that buy the 3G iPad, then laugh at the carriers trying to stop the wi-fi iPads owners to tether. Eventually, the users will win and Steve Jobs will add another nail in the carrier's coffin.

For now, if I have to suck up and get a metered access to have tethering capabilities in the US, I am ready to do it. If I can bet (and I like doing that...), I bet for this to happen in the US fairly soon. The networks are overloaded, the iPad runs on AT&T. AT&T has a crappy network. They have to stop it. They have to add metered plans. It is going to happen soon. In the meantime, they will try to catch the few that overload their network (AT&T, as I wrote before, it is not me ;-)

At the end, though, speed-based tariffs will win. But it will be a choppy road to get there.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

iPad and a new life for synchronization

This morning I was reading the Seybold's take on Applications for the iPad. It is an interesting article.

Seybold's take is that developers will have to build specific applications for the iPad, rather than having their iPhone apps run on it, or just modify them for a bigger screen.

I tend to agree.

He added:
For starters, many iPad users will not opt for a full wide-area wireless broadband subscription. Instead, they will use it for communications when near a Wi-Fi hotspot or subscribe to an occasional-use wide-area broadband plan. Applications that assume full wireless connectivity anytime the iPad is on will not be as well received as applications that are developed for occasional use. Many iPhone apps are constantly updating the information they provide, but iPad applications that require a constant or almost-constant connection will not be as functional.
Hard to disagree. As I wrote before, I am betting that non-3G iPad will beat 3G iPad, 80% to 20%.

And finally he concluded:
Because the iPad will not be an always-on, always-connected device, applications will have to recognize that fact and compensate for this difference between the two platforms.
Pop. A light bulb on my head.

With the cost of network and the need for carriers to limit heavy usage by people, in the near timeframe (before 4G is here but who knows for how long) tablet will not be welcomed in the cellular network. I mean, you could have them connect to 3G, but it would cost you a fortune. Therefore, you won't do it.

You could tether them to your always connected smartphone, but the carriers won't allow you. How difficult is to think about an iPhone sharing wifi with an iPad? Not difficult, it is just not good for the carriers on the dollar side, so they will make it really not attractive for you (or just prevent it, as Apple and AT&T are doing today).

The result, Seybold says, is that tablet will be on-line with wi-fi, then off-line, then again on-line: like a Kindle (I am still betting on Apple providing some free 3G access only to download content from iTunes, in the future). And like a Kindle, they will store data on the device, to be accessed off-line.

Like a Kindle, the key for the tablet market will be synchronization. Data to be synced will go from books to videos, from address book to calendar, from pictures to music. And a lot more.

Just when you thought the world was going all network computing, synchronization is still king :-)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

My Nexus One almost became an iPhone today

I woke up this morning and my Nexus One told me "I am ready for an upgrade". One click, a reboot, and I had a new phone.

Google (or T-Mobile, who knows and who cares) pushed down an OS upgrade. All of a sudden, the phone is capable of pinch and zoom, the feature that made the iPhone famous. It is a new phone.

I know we are used to this market moving fast, but let me stop for a second and reflect on what is happening. Three years ago, I was used to phones that would live with a bug for their entire life. No bug fixing. Never. You had a problem, too bad. Buy another phone.

Then came the iPhone. Apple introduced a new concept for mobile. OS upgrades via the Internet (and a cable). It started with bug fixing and then they began pushing features.

Desktop OS had bug fixing for years, and they still do. However, you do not get features. In mobile, you do (for free).

Palm improved the process with over-the-air OS upgrades, similar to Android. No cable. It is like magic. Your phone transform itself. No need to click, download, plug. A few seconds later, the phone is new.

It will spread to desktop, simply because the OS are converging and the speed of the mobile market will take desktop with it. The iPad is the new desktop and it will have OS upgrades. So will Chrome.

Tomorrow, if Google and Apple get together, my Nexus One could really transform in an iPhone. A question will pop up, a click, and boom.

For now, the Nexus One is still far from the iPhone. Amazing technology, too many buttons. A geek phone built by geeks for geeks. Fantastic integration with Google stuff, in particular Google Voice, great camera, spectacular navigation. Still, too complicated to use, not intuitive, very hard to type on.

Pinch and zoom made it closer to the iPhone. One more software upgrade and it could pass it. It is not a dream, it is a possibility.

The mobile and desktop devices are becoming plain tablets, looking the same. What matters is the inside. And the inside changes while you are sleeping.

Get ready for a world of interchangeable devices.