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:

  • Apple is ahead in terms of user experience and application ecosystem among devices that are actually shipping; those are big advantages.

  • 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?


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Dave (Jan 12 2009, at 22:44)

I think you are giving Palm WAY too much credence. After working on this OS for how many years, all they could show is a mocked up phone, that won't ship for another six months?

They may happen to have mindshare today, but they will need a miracle to actually become a player in the actual marketplace, you know, selling the things. Particularly when their product line will be bipolar (both WinMobile and NewPalmOS).

You really need to check 6 months AFTER the phone is released, to see how open the phone is to development, if people are willing to pay more for it than for the iPhone (as Palm seems to want to sell it for more than the iPhone).


From: Davide (Jan 13 2009, at 00:09)

Let's hope no one wins, and a healthy market is born out of competition, a Canon/Nikon situation.

The Pre is clearly the news of the day, but at this stage is half vaporware, there's too much unreleased information, starting from the price. If they plan to price it like the iPhone they should think twice, for the iPhone is going to get cheaper and cheaper, like the iPod did, and this thanks to the selling volumes.


From: JerÔÔme (Jan 13 2009, at 00:16)

This is really improving fast. But (at least here in France) the main problem still is the cost of mobile Internet connections.

The operators are buying all open wifi experiments to ensure we are buying 3G subscriptions. And 3 operators are not enough to provide healthy concurrence.


From: Martin Probst (Jan 13 2009, at 03:15)

I have some very limited experience with the RIM software tool chain.

RIM basically ships a Java ME version with some limitations, some extensions, a large amount of bugs, a not-so-nice emulator, and a truly horrible development tool.

So, Java ME sucks in general, but RIM's sucks harder. And their whole tool chain is closed - it's really difficult to get anything working that doesn't use their (horrible) IDE. Debugging is pretty nightmarish etc etc.

Meaning: you can get software developed for RIM, but it's really painful. I think this is going to be a major problem - platforms with bad developer tools loose in the long run.


From: Chris (Jan 13 2009, at 06:03)

Hmm - Palm, Apple, Android, RIM. The real winner here, apart from us consumers, is WebKit!


From: Simon Crosland (Jan 13 2009, at 09:03)

I always find analysis of the mobile device market by someone from the left hand side of the Atlantic to be very different from what it looks like from over here in Europe. In the European market, Nokia is the one to beat and therefore the one with the most to lose; conversely Palm have almost zero real world presence. My very unscientific survey also suggests that RIM seem to be increasing their presence and Microsoft declining.

Nokia certainly have a clunky UI at the moment in S60, but hopefully the touch interface in the 5800 will be the start of a push to bring them up to speed alongside Apple.

However, as JerÔÔme says, the biggest problem that I find is the cost of a decent data connection.


From: Rob Sayre (Jan 13 2009, at 18:02)

I've been working on an iphone app (know your enemy). I suspect there will be a big market for server-side proxying code.

Why in the world would you waste user cell phone battery life parsing XML? I make Mark Pilgrim's python code do it, save DNS latency, have Google host it on appspot, and send it to the phone in a cheaper serialization.


From: Jay Carlson (Jan 14 2009, at 12:25)

Notably absent is WinCE, which gave you root on your own hardware. Well, at least in the pro versions like the Treos.

In theory you could build a browser that doesn't suck on WinCE but I haven't seen it, which is why I ditched the Treo 650wx for an iPhone. Give me root and a browser that doesn't suck and I'll consider switching.


From: james hoskins (Jan 15 2009, at 02:16)

I'm holding my breath and purse strings until someone brings out a device with the camera/video features of an n96 and the web/net chops of an iphone.

Also, best use of the mobile net so far - to look up the recipe for grog while rowing down the Thames in a wooden skiff last year.

*it's disgusting.


From: Duncan (Jan 15 2009, at 05:55)

Nokia says they will open source S60 and add LGPL license option to Qt (which has a S60 port). Qt platform already has a developer base larger than e.g. Android. I think they will be added to major mobile platforms list soon.


From: Scot (Jan 16 2009, at 08:57)

JavaFX? Surely you jest? Sun can't even be bothered to make it cross platform -

"JavaFX 1.0 is not currently supported on your operating system. We encourage you to try JavaFX on Windows XP, Windows Vista or Mac OS X. (See system requirements for details.)"

You'd think Sun would be casting the widest possible net for developers (which you would think would not be hard, as it's based on Java), but no.


From: james hoskins (Jan 28 2009, at 08:25)

Might I point you in the direction of a recent article by Mr Stephen Fry; a long rambling piece on the beginnings of the smart-phone golden age.

It seems that there are a fair few gadget fiends looking forward to a revolution in their pockets!


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