Today I read Rob Scoble’s lucid and forceful Smartphone competition; it clarified a growing internal buzz I’ve been feeling as I experiment with Android and follow the news. We are, right now in early 2009, sliding into the golden age of mobile technology and business.
Despite the tough times, I expect an astounding outburst of creativity and invention that will bring qualitative change to the shape of culture and business. Put another way, this is going to be fun.
The Big Four · Scoble points out that four players now have big chunks of the next-gen technology space and network mind-share: Apple, Android, RIM, and Palm. The territory is theirs to lose. His take-away is that it’s going to be hard for others to find room in this new ecosystem. He may be right, although I wouldn’t be too quick to rule out Nokia, Microsoft, and wild-cards like JavaFX. But so what? What’s crucial is that there will be at least four players—all with healthy finances and real engineering depth—vying to build devices to improve your life.
Diversity to the Max · Which is wonderful! This kind of competition on a wide-open playing field is what makes evolution and growth happen. There’s no monopolist to choke off innovation, and the players differ dramatically in both business models and technical architectures. Charles Darwin himself couldn’t sketch out a more promising evolutionary scenario.
What Could Screw it Up? · I have in the past been gloomy about the network operators’ belief that ARPU comes from control, and that they have to stand between developers and users; but the iPhone seems to have shattered that paradigm.
A reasonable person might be reasonably paranoid about oligopoly and collusion, and I’m unreasonably paranoid. But right now I’m not worried; the network operators themselves are pretty diverse corporately and in their global positioning.
I see some players doing things that don’t look smart. But hey, I could be wrong, and a fiercely competitive market like the one we’re heading into will be ruthless in revealing which strategies don’t work.
The Net is Central · The iPhone has proved that a mobile device can really truly be a first-class citizen of the Net. Which had been true in theory for a decade; but only in theory. Speaking personally, as a person who’d never thought I needed the Internet in my pocket, I find myself using my G1 to approve comments and check the weather and fetch maps and so on all the time.
I was discussing the iPhone with a friend who works at Apple, back when the programming environment was pretty constrained, and he said: “Remember, the killer app is the phone call, so we have to protect that first.” Except for, I don’t believe that any more. And the smart players are going to focus on making their devices better and better Net citizens, even if you sometimes pay a cost in the basic voice function.
Oh, and by the way; I smell a huge build-out opportunity, for my employer among others, in the back-end infrastructure to support the avalanche of network-application traffic all these mobile Net nodes will generate.
Pros and Cons · Strengths first:
RIM has an insanely-huge installed base in the business world, and anybody who underestimates the importance of getting email really right does so at their peril. It isn’t an iPhone that President-elect Obama is fighting to be allowed to use. RIM has a little time to play catch-up.
The Palm device is very much the blogosphere’s story-of-the-day, and if the initial breathless reports are to be believed, Apple can’t count on maintaining its user-experience lead.
Finally, Android represents a bet on a radically-open ecosystem and getting out of the developers’ way to the maximum possible extent. Plus, a well-designed programming that empowers the massive universe of Java professionals is not to be sneezed at.
Now some vulnerabilities:
I personally believe that Apple’s insistence on iron control will work against it in the long run. For example, forbidding the use of any virtual machine but their own. And the whole App Store thing: “You make the investment in building something good, and we’ll decide whether or not you’re allowed to sell it. When we get around to it.” And at the business level, the network operators are not exactly eager to have Apple do to them what they did to the music business.
Plus, Objective-C and Cocoa, while good, are a bit uncomfortably far from the develoepr mainstream.
RIM, as an Internet citizen, is behind. And I don’t hear any buzz about the wonderfulness of their programming framework.
Everyone I know who carries a Palm device complains about reliability. So I think the new Pre (or is that Pré or Prē?) is crucial; if it’s not great I’m not sure they have another chance.
As for Android, the big deal is that there’s no installed base or loyal tribe of customers. The user experience is (slightly) behind the iPhone right now and the application diversity way behind; while there are good reasons to think those things will change, it remains to be proved.
Who’ll win? · I have no idea. Isn’t that great?