Monday, March 19, 2012

Europe lost the mobile race. For good

When I moved to Silicon Valley in 1999, one thing really hit me: my grandma in Italy had a cellphone then, and in my soon-to-IPO tech startup only few people had one. I mean, in the heart of Silicon Valley, at Tibco, going IPO that year... I was puzzled, my grandma (she is over 90 years old now) was ahead of the geeks here.

At that time, the gap between Europe and US on mobile was huge. Europe had the fastest networks, the best phones (remember Nokia), the software developers (crying over JavaME differences), the ecosystem... Everything.

Here, we had nothing.

A few years later, I started pitching a concept of a mobile synchronization play to investors in the Valley. It was 2002 (Funambol is about to pass the 10th year mark, wow ;-) and there was no mobile signal whatsoever at 3000 Sand Hill, the heart of the VC world. For years, the mobile signal over there sucked.

For years, there were no mobile companies here. And the networks were so bad that I could drive from San Francisco to San Jose and have the connection drop five times (and I knew the spots where it was going to happen, so I could tell the european guy at the other end of the phone that I was about to drive into a tunnel...).

First, the mobile companies started showing up. I was one of the early people to say Silicon Valley will jump on the mobile bandwagon, that this valley would not miss the biggest change in our lives. Many in Europe thought I was dumb to try to do a mobile company here. They told me to move to Finland instead (too bad I like the weather here better ;-)

Then the mobile OS war started. Palm first. Then Apple with iOS. Then Google with Android. Then Microsoft moved their mobile team here. In a few years, the mobile world moved here. On mobile operating systems, iOS and Android alone command over 90% of the market. Easy. Bye bye Europe, with Symbian and all the other stuff.

Still, Europe had the better networks. UMTS, HDSPA, the 3.5G: just ahead of the US by a mile.

It all changed when I went to MWC in February. Before leaving, my friend Hal (our VP Marketing at Funambol) showed me his new Android phone. It had LTE. I did a SpeedTest and my jaw dropped. This thing is faster than my DSL at home. By a lot. It seems like something coming from the future.

Then at MWC, I heard the CEO of Telecom Italia say: "we have started an LTE trial in Turin".

Hey, what do you mean "An LTE trial"? Trial? But it is live in pretty much the entire US! And it works, I saw it with my eyes, from a guy who is not even a geek!

When a week ago Apple announced the new iPad, with LTE, I just had a flashback. Hal is like my grandma (sorry buddy ;-) and my geek friends now live in Pavia, Italy. They have no idea what LTE is and how fast it is. If Apple has LTE on its flagship device, it is mainstream, not a trial.

Mainstream is the US now. Europe just lost the mobile race. For good.