Sunday, January 30, 2011

The next Nokia OS: Android or Windows?

I have read rumors that Nokia will have a special announcement on February 11th. Many are convinced it will be a shift away from the current strategy on operating systems.

Let me revisit what they have now:
- Symbian, a semi-open source OSS, their stronghold in the smart-enough-phones
- MeeGo, a fully open source OSS, now managed by the Linux Foundation, which is a merge of Maemo (formerly Nokia) and Moblin (created by Intel). In theory, this is Nokia's play in the touch phones or Internet phones (the smartphones that are so smart to have a good browser), including tablets

Everyone will tell you that a dual-OSS strategy is a lack of focus. It is already difficult to have one, having two is impossible. Too much effort, too many resources, too many things overlapping (hint for Google: you should pick between Android and Chrome OS, choose the former ;-)

Now, if you were Nokia, would you pick Symbian for the future? Probably no, it is an old OS, it has a very long history and a lot of code that is hard to manage: it is time to let it go, albeit slowly. This is exactly what Nokia has been doing lately.

What about MeeGo? It is a pretty good OS. I have tested only the laptop version, so I cannot fully comment on it. But Maemo was very good as well, so - if you combine that with the Linux Foundation management - I have very few doubts it is going to be a great OS.

Therefore, one would assume that Symbian for the low-end (and dying) and MeeGo for the high-end (and growing) is the way to go. Nokia's strategy makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, there is a little problem: a phone today is appealing if it comes with developers. And developers go where there are a lot of phones. There are no MeeGo phones, therefore there are no Meego developers.

The big question is: will there ever be a lot of MeeGo developers? Hard to say, the ship has sailed a long time ago. Developers today build for iPhone first, then Android. If they have a good reason (i.e. Microsoft paying) they build for Windows Phone 7. If they are in the enterprise, maybe they look at BlackBerry. If they want to support the existing bunch of devices, they suffer and go with Symbian as well. Hard to think they will pick yet-another-OS...

Will developers go for MeeGo? Honestly, it is hard to be optimistic. If this is the conclusion Nokia is coming to, then there is just one alternative, unimaginable until a year ago: that Nokia will start building phones with a third party OS, like any other device manufacturer excluding Apple.

It makes sense to me. They do not have to bet the entire house on one OS, they can keep Symbian going and maybe even find a place for MeeGo (although having three OSs would sound insane at best).

Bottom line: they still have a super-powerful brand and, with a popular OS with lots of developers, they could keep selling like crazy.

Options? Probably just two: Android or Windows Phone 7.

Naturally, I would go Android. It is open source, it is winning (ehm, are the two related?), there is room for differentiation. Granted, Google is not the easier partner to work with and Nokia will probably not be considered "special" by them. But it is a sure bet. Nokia with Android will sell a lot. It is a killer combination.

However, Microsoft needs Nokia more than Google does. And the new Nokia CEO, Stephen Elop, is a former Microsoft. The two companies have existing relationships (remember the Nokia notebook, built on Windows 7?). It is a no-brainer from the corporate perspective. Still, Windows Phone 7 is not a winner (yet) and it needs to attract developers (a lot). Going with Microsoft is a bigger risk, but Nokia will be treated as "special" for sure (although they will not have room to customize the UI on the phone, which is a biggie). In any case, it must be an attractive proposition, because Microsoft will offer the moon.

Windows Phone 7 needs developers and, possibly, having Nokia behind it will attract them. If that happens, we'll have a third OS with equal chances to Android and iOS. Having just two in the fight would be better, but variety is the spice of life, after all ;-)

I vote Android, but I bet Nokia will go with Microsoft (assuming the rumor is right, of course).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Android on the Playbook? Cool but unlikely

I have used the BlackBerry Playbook and I have been honestly impressed by the OS. It is very quick. And the UI is beautiful. It looks like the combination of Palm WebOS (beautiful but slow) and Android (fast ;-)

However, it is missing one little thing: developers.

I know developers (or so I believe, being modest is not my thing ;-) and I see a hard path for RIM to attract them to the Playbook.

The SDK for the Playbook requires Air, which is cool and has a good amount of developers. However, they are not mobile developers. You still need to convince the Air developers to build for the Playbook. It is a totally new platform, because it is a tablet, not a PC. Today the people building for tablets are mobile developers, not PC developers (because they come to the iPad from iPhone and to Android tablets from Android phones). RIM is asking PC developers to move to mobile, which they eventually do. But it is an additional step, a significant one.

You would assume RIM will add a JVM to the device. At least, to allow BlackBerry developers to port their Java apps to the device. Not doing it will piss off the BlackBerry developer community, which is their captive audience. Microsoft has done that with Windows Phone 7, but I would not recommend it to RIM. Bad idea to piss off your community, albeit small. They are your core, those building enterprise apps.

Now, I read about a rumor today: RIM might be thinking about allowing Android apps to run on the Playbook. Technically, I believe it might be doable, because the JVM Android uses (Delvik) is open source and it runs on a Linux derivative (Playbook OS is QNX, a Unix derivative, close enough). However, there are a million internal calls that would have to be rewritten and most apps would not work at all. Android is even moving towards allowing native apps to run (with the NDK), so imagine what it would mean porting... A mess.

However, it makes business sense. Android has a ton of developers and the idea of easy porting to the Playbook must be appealing to RIM. Also, because QNX is the future BlackBerry OS, for all BlackBerries (my personal bet). Therefore, if they can make it really compatible to Android, they would solve the developers issue.

Easier said than done. Knowing OSS and virtualization, the probability of this attempt turning into a major failure is huge. Unless Google wants this, which might make sense to attack Apple iOS. With Google behind this move, maybe there is a chance this will succeed.

If you want my opinion, it is not going to happen. The Playbook will eventually have a JVM, allowing existing BlackBerry apps to run on it. This way, the transition from an old BlackBerry with BBOS to a new BlackBerry with QNX will be smooth. They will also provide Air for easy porting of PC apps and to add a cool factor. Lastly, they will allow web-based technologies (e.g. HTML5) on QNX, because it is the future (and they are already doing it with WebWorks). RIM will want their own developers, not someone else developers. Developers are the king in mobile. You do not want your king managed by someone else...

For all of you thinking fragmentation is a bad thing, I agree. It would be better to have just one platform to write to. However, I am afraid it is not going to happen, at least not soon.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The iPhone Home Button is genius

After the release to developers of the iOS 4.3 beta, a bunch of people have noticed a new Multi-touch gesture support for the iPad. It says:
“This beta release contains a preview of new Multi-Touch gestures for iPad. You can use four or five fingers to pinch to the Home Screen; swipe up to reveal the multitasking bar; and swipe left or right between apps. We are providing this preview before releasing them to the public to understand how these gestures work with your apps.”
The first reaction from BGR has been to claim that the Home button will be removed from the iPad (and the iPhone), and it will be replaced by these new gestures.

I wrote about the Home button before, but I have thought about it a bit more lately. In particular, after CES, where I played with a bunch of tablets. Most of them have no buttons.

I watched people pick up the BlackBerry Playbook, play on an app, then look for the Home button. With their surprise, it is not there. They looked everywhere and finally they had to ask the RIM person at the show: "how do I go home?". "Simple" - he answered - "just swipe your finger from the outside of the tablet towards the inside and you are good to go". The reaction was "oohh, ok". That was it.

You can read the above as the consequence of the iPhone Home Button. People are used to it, they look for it, they can't find it, they are told how to do it, they learn, end of story.

I think you would be wrong.

Read the sentence above: "they are told how to do it". They do not know how to go home...

The Home Button is the Panic Button. The one you click when you are lost. The one that brings you home immediately. You can play with the iPad as much as you want, you can explore, you have no fear to get lost, because you can always go home. With one click, there, ready for you. A physical button.

The Home Button is what makes the iPhone a friend, versus an enemy. If you have watched your parents use a computer, you know what I mean. Your parents think about the computer as an enemy. They do not touch things they do not know, they do not explore, they are afraid they will never be back. If you give them an iPad, it is a friend. They click everywhere, who cares? One click and they are home.

I do not buy the idea that Steve Jobs did not want the Home Button, as some are implying today (hinting this is the reason why it will be removed). I think the Home Button was genius. And it still is.

The only reason I see for removing it is the addition of the camera in the iPad 2: finally, that will tell us where is up and where is down in the iPad (today, you can rotate it freely and you will never find out). The camera being in one specific position will screw up the positioning of the Home Button. If you put it on the right, you are favoring right-handed people (and I always suspected Jobs is lefty ;-) Therefore, if you remove it and make it virtual, the lefties will be happy.

Easy compromise: leave it there and add a multi-touch gesture. My mom will click on the Home Button and smile at her panic button. My daughter (kinda lefty) will use multi-touch to go home. Analysts will not be able to say "The Playbook does not need a Home Button, the iPhone does, therefore it is more advanced". Everybody will be happy. No Panic.

I do not think the Home Button will go away (although I have been wrong before ;-) It is genius.