It’s sometimes hard to remember that smartphones are still a recent phenomenon with the first devices to be categorised as such being less than a decade old. Sure there were phones before that which you could say were smartphones but back then they were more an amalgam of a PDA and a phone more than a seamless blend between the two. Back then the landscape of handset providers was wildly different, one that was dominated by a single player: Nokia. Their failure to capitalize on the smartphone revolution is a testament to incumbents failing to react to innovative upstarts and their sale to Microsoft their admittance of their fault. You can then imagine my surprise when the now much smaller company is eyeing off a return to the smartphone market as pretty much everyone would agree the horse has long since bolted for Nokia.
The strategy is apparently being born out of the Nokia Technologies arm, the smallest branch out of the three that remained after the deal with Microsoft (the other two being its network devices and Here location division). This is the branch that holds Nokia’s 10,000 or so patents and so you’d think that they’d likely just be resting on their laurels and collecting patent fees for time immaterial. However this section has been somewhat busy at work having developed and licensed two products since the Microsoft deal. The first of which is z Launcher an Android launcher and the N1 a tablet which they’ve licensed out to another manufacturer whom they’ve also lent the Nokia brand name too. The expectation is that future Nokia devices will likely follow the latter’s model with Nokia doing most of the backend work but then offloading it to someone else to manufacture and ship.
There’s no doubt that Nokia had something of a cult following among Windows Phone users as they provided some of the best handsets for that platform. Their other smartphones however had no such following as their pursuit of their own mobile ecosystem made it extremely unappealing to developers who were already split between two major platforms. Had Nokia retained control of the Lumia brand I could see them having an inbuilt user base for a future smartphone, especially if came in an Android flavour, however that brand (and everything that backed it) went to Microsoft and so did all the loyalty that went with it. Nokia is essentially starting from scratch here and, unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for the once king of the phone industry.
Coming in at that level you’re essentially competing with every other similarly specced handset out there and, to be honest, it’s a market that eats up competitors like that without too much hassle. The outsourcing of the actual manufacturing and distribution means that they don’t shoulder a lot of the risk that they used to with such designs however it also means they have little control over the final product that actually reaches consumers. That being said the N1 does look like a solid device but that doesn’t necessarily mean that future devices will share the same level of quality.
Nokia is going to have to do something to stand out from the pack and, frankly, without their brand loyalty behind them I’m struggling to see what they could do to claw back some of the market share they once had. There are innumerable companies now that have solid handset choices for nearly all sectors of the market and the Nokia brand name just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. If they’re seriously planning a return to the smartphone market they’re going to have to do much more than just make another handset, something which I’m not entirely sure the now slimmed down Nokia is capable of doing.
There’s two distinct schools of thought when it comes to the modular smartphone idea. The first is that it’s the way phones were meant to be made, giving users the ability to customize every aspect of their device and reducing e-waste at the same time. The other flips that idea on its head, stating that the idea is infeasible due to the limitations inherent in a modular platform and reliance on manufacturers to build components specifically for the platform. Since I tend towards the latter I thought that Project Ara, Google’s (nee Motorola’s) attempt at the idea, would likely never see the light of day but as it turns out the platform is very real and they even have a working prototype.
The essence of the idea hasn’t changed much since Motorola first talked about it at the end of last year, being a more restrained version of the Phonebloks idea. The layout is the same as the original design prototypes, giving you space on the back of the unit for about 7 modular units and space on the front for a large screen and a speaker attachment. However they also showed off a new, slim version which has space for fewer modules but is a much sleeker unit overall. Google also mentioned that they were working on a phablet design as well which was interesting considering that the current prototype unit was looking to be almost phablet sized. The whole unit, dubbed Spiral 1, was fully functional including module removal and swapping so the idea has definitely come a long way since it’s initial inception late last year.
There are a few things that stand out about the device in its current form, primarily the way in which some of the blocks don’t conform to the same dimensions as other ones. Most notably you can see this with the blood oxygen sensor they have sticking out of the top however you’ll also notice that the battery module is about twice the height of anything else. This highlights one of the bigger issues with modular design as much of the heft in modern phones is due to the increasingly large batteries they carry with them. The limited space of the modular blocks means that either the batteries have significantly reduced capacity or have to be bigger than the other modules, neither of which is a particularly desirable attribute.
In fact the more the I think about Project Ara the more I feel it’s oriented towards those looking to develop hardware for mobile platforms than it is for actual phone users. Being able to develop your specific functionality without having to worry about the rest of the platform frees up a significant amount of time which can then be spent on getting said functionality into other phones. In that regards Project Ara is amazing however that same flexibility is likely what will turn many consumers off such a device. Sure, having a phone tailored to your exact specifications has a certain allure, but I can’t help but feel that that market is vanishingly small.
It will be interesting to see how the Project Ara platform progresses as they have hinted that there’s a much better prototype floating around (called Spiral 2) which they’re looking to release to hardware developers in the near future. Whilst having a proof of concept is great there’s still a lot of questions around module development, available functionality and, above all, the usability of the system when its complete. It’s looking like a full consumer version likely isn’t due out until late next year or early 2016 so we’re going to have to wait a while to see what the fully fledged modular smartphone will look like.
For the last 6 months I’ve been on the lookout for the next phone that will replace my Xperia Z. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still quite a capable phone, however not a year has gone by in the past decade that there hasn’t been one phone that triggered my geeky lust, forcing me to part ways with several hundred dollars. However the improvements made since I acquired my last handset have just been evolutionary steps forward, none of which have been compelling enough to make me get my wallet out. I had hoped that the Nexus 6 would be the solution to my woes and, whilst it’s not exactly the technological marvel I was hoping for, Google might just be fortunate enough to get my money this time around.
The Nexus 6 jumps on the huge screen bandwagon bringing us an (almost) 6″ display boasting a 2560 x 1440 resolution on an AMOLED panel. The specs under the hood are pretty impressive with it sporting a quad core 2.7 GHz SOC with 3GB RAM and a 3220mAh battery. The rest of it is a rather standard affair including things such as the standard array of sensors that everyone has come to expect, a decent camera (that can do usable 4K video) and a choice between 32GB and 64GB worth of storage. If you were upgrading every 2 years or so the Nexus 6 would be an impressive step up however compared to what’s been available in the market for a while now it’s not much more than a giant screen.
You can’t help but compare this phone to the recently released iPhone 6+ which also sports a giant screen and similar specifications. In terms of who comes out ahead it’s not exactly clear as they both seem to win out in various categories (the Nexus 6 has the better screen, the iPhone 6+ is lighter) but then again the main driver of which one of these you’d go for would be more heavily driven by which ecosystem you’d already bought into. I’d be interested to see how these devices compare side by side however as there’s only so much you can tell by looking at spec sheets.
As someone who’s grown accustom to his 5″ screen I was hoping there’d be a diminutive sister of the Nexus 6, much like the iPhone 6. You can still get the Nexus 5, which now sports Android L, however the specs are the same as they ever were which means there’s far less incentive for people like me to upgrade. Talking to friends who’ve made the switch to giant phones like this (and seeing my wife, with her tiny hands, deftly use her Galaxy Note) it seems like the upgrade wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Had there been a smaller screen I would probably be a little bit more excited about acquiring one as I don’t really have a use case for a much bigger screen than what I have now. That could change once I get some time with the device, though.
So whilst I might not be frothing at the mouth to get Google’s latest handset they might just end up getting my money anyway as there just enough new features for me to justify upgrading my near 2 year old handset. There’s no mistaking that the Nexus 6 is the iPhone 6+ for those on the Android ecosystem and I’m sure there will be many a water cooler conversation over which one of them is the better overall device. For me though the main draw is the stock Android interface with updates that are unimpeded by manufacturers and carriers, something which has been the bane of my Android existence for far too long. Indeed that’s probably the only compelling reason I can see to upgrade to the Nexus 6 at the moment, which is likely enough for some.
The tech world was all abuzz about Phonebloks just over a month ago with many hailing it as the next logical step in the smartphone revolution. Whilst I liked the idea since it spoke to the PC builder in me it was hard to overlook the larger issues that plagued the idea, namely the numerous technical problems as well as the lack of buy in from component manufacturers. Since then I hadn’t heard anything further on it and figured that the Thunderclap campaign they had ended without too much fuss but it appears that it might have caught the attention of people who could make the idea happen.
Those people are Motorola.
As it turns out Motorola has been working on their own version of the Phonebloks idea for quite some time now, over a year in fact. It’s called Project Ara and came about as a result of the work they did during Sticky, essentially trucking around the USA with unlocked handsets and 3D printers and holding a series of makeathons. The idea is apparently quite well developed with a ton of technical work already done and some conceptual pieces shown above. Probably the most exciting thing for Phonebloks followers ;will be the fact that Motorola has since reached out to Dave Hakkens and are hoping to use his community in order to further their idea. By their powers combined it might just be possible for a modular handset to make its way into the real world.
Motorola’s handset division, if you recall, was acquired by Google some 2 years ago mostly due to their wide portfolio of patents that Google wanted to get its hands on. At the same time it was thought that Google would then begin using Motorola for their first party Nexus handsets however that part hasn’t seemed to eventuate with Google leaving them to do their own thing. However such a close tie with Google might provide Project Ara the resources it needs to actually be successful as there’s really no other operating system they could use (and no, the Ubuntu and Firefox alternatives aren’t ready for prime time yet).
Of course the technical issues that were present in the Phonebloks idea don’t go away just because some technicians from Motorola are working on them. Whilst Motorola’s design is quite a bit less modular than what Phonebloks was purporting it does look like it has a bit more connectivity available per module. Whether that will be enough to support the amount of connectivity required for things like quad core ARM CPUs or high resolution cameras will remain to be seen however.
So whilst the Phonebloks idea in its original form might never see the light of day it does appear that at least one manufacturer is willing to put some effort into developing a modular handset. There’s still a lot of challenges for it to overcome before the idea can be made viable but the fact that real engineers are working on it with the backing of their company gives a lot of credence to it. I wouldn’t expect to see any working prototypes for a while to come though, even with Motorola’s full backing, but potentially in a year or so we might start to see some make their way to trade shows and I’ll be very interested to see their capabilities.
One of the first ideas that an engineer in training is introduced to is the idea of modularity. This is the concept that every problem, no matter how big, can be broken down into a subset of smaller problems that are interlinked. The idea behind this is that you can design solutions specific to the problem space rather than trying to solve everything in one fell swoop, something that is guaranteed to be error prone and likely never to achieve its goals. Right after you’re introduced to that idea you’re also told that modularity done for its own sake can lead to the exact same problems so its use must be tempered with moderation. It’s this latter point that I think the designers of Phonebloks might be missing out on even though as a concept I really like the idea.
For the uninitiated the idea is relatively simple: you buy yourself what equates to a motherboard which you can then plug various bits and pieces in to with one side being dedicated to a screen and the other dedicated to all the bits and pieces you’ve come to expect from a traditional smartphone. Essentially it’s taking the idea of being able to build your own PC and applying it to the smartphone market done in the hope of reducing electronic waste since you’ll only be upgrading parts of the phone rather than the whole device at a time. The lofty idea is that this will eventually become the platform for everyone and smartphone component makers will be lining up to build additional blocks for it.
As someone who’s been building his own PCs for the better part of 3 decades now I think the idea that the base board, and by extension the interconnects it has on it, will never change is probably the largest fundamental flaw with Phonebloks. I’ve built many PCs with the latest CPU socket on them in the hopes that I could upgrade on the cheap at a later date only to find that, when it came time to upgrade, another newer and far superior socket was available. Whilst the Phonebloks board can likely be made to accommodate current requirements its inevitable that further down the track some component will require more connections or a higher bandwidth interface necessitating its replacement. Then, just as with all those PCs I bought, this will also necessitate re-buying all the additional components, essentially getting us into the same position as we are currently.
This is not to mention the fact that hoping other manufacturers, ones that already have a strong presence in the smartphone industry, will build components for it is an endeavor that’s likely to be met with heavy resistance, if it’s not outright ignored. Whilst there are a couple companies that would be willing to sell various components (Sony with their EXMOR R sensor, ARM with their processor, etc.) they’re certainly not going to bother with the integration, something that would likely cost them much more than any profit they’d see from being on the platform.
Indeed I think that’s the biggest issue that this platform faces. Whilst its admirable that they’re seeking to be the standard modular platform for smartphones the standardization in the PC industry did not come about overnight and took the collaboration of multiple large corporations to achieve. Without their support I’m struggling to see how this platform can get the diversity it needs to become viable and as far as I can tell the only backing they’ve got is from a bunch of people willing to tweet on their behalf.
Fundamentally I like the idea as whilst I’m able to find a smartphone that suits the majority of my wants pretty easily there are always things I would like to trade in for others. My current Xperia Z would be a lot better if the speakerphone wasn’t rubbish and the battery was capable of charging wirelessly and I’d happily shuffle around some of the other components in order to get my device just right. However I’m also aware of the giant integration challenge that such a modular platform would present and whilst they might be able to get a massive burst of publicity I’m skeptical that it will turn into a viable product platform. I’d love to be wrong on this though but as someone who’s seen many decades of modular platform development and the tribulations it entails I can’t say that I’m banking money for my first Phoneblok device.
One of the biggest arguments I’ve heard against developing anything for the Android platform is the problem of fragmentation. Now it’s no secret that Android is the promiscuous smartphone operating system, letting anyone and everyone have their way with it, but that has led to an ecosystem that is made up of numerous devices that all have varying amounts of capabilities. Worse still the features of the Android OS itself aren’t very standard either with only a minority of users running the latest software at any point in time and the rest never making a true majority. Google has been doing a lot to combat this but unfortunately the unified nature of the iOS platform is hard to deny, especially when you look at the raw numbers from Google themselves.
Android developer’s lives have been made somewhat easier by the fact that they can add in lists of required features and lock out devices that don’t have them however that also limits your potential market so many developers aren’t too stringent with their requirements. Indeed those settings are also user controllable as well which can allow users you explicitly wanted to disallow being able to access your application (ala ChainFire3D to emulate NVIDIA Tegra devices). This might not be an issue for most of the basic apps out there but for things like games and applications that require certain performance characterisitcs it can be a real headache for developers to work with, let alone the sub-par user experience that comes as a result of it.
This isn’t made any easier by handset manufacturers and telecommunications providers dragging their feet every time an upgrade comes along. Even though I’ve always bought unlocked and unbranded phones the time between Google releasing an update and me receiving them has been on the order of months, sometimes coming so late that I’ve upgraded to a new phone before they’ve come out. This is why the Nexus range of phones directly from Google is so appealing, you’re guaranteed those updates immediately and without any of the cruft that your manufacturer of choice might cram in. Of course then there was that whole issue with supply but that’s another story.
For what it’s worth Google does seem to be aware of this and has tried to make inroads to solving it in the past. None of these have been particularly successful but their latest attempt, called Google Play Services, might just be the first step in the right direction to eliminating at least one aspect of Android fragmentation. Essentially instead of most new feature releases coming through Android updates like they have done in the past Google will instead deliver them via the new service. It’s done completely outside the Play store, heck it even has its own update mechanism (which isn’t visible to the end user), and is essentially Google’s solution to eliminate the feet dragging that carriers and handset manufacturers are renown for.
On the surface it sounds pretty great as pretty much every Android device is capable of running this which means that many features that just aren’t available to older versions can be made available via Google Play Services. This will also help developers immensely as they’ll be able to code against those APIs knowing that it’ll be widely available. I’m a little worried about its clandestine nature however with its silent, non-interactive updating process which seems like a potential attack vector but smarter people than me are working on it so I’ll hold off on bashing them until there’s a proven exploit.
Of course the one fragmentation problem this doesn’t solve is the one that comes from the varying hardware that the Android operating system runs on. Feature levels, performance characteristics and even screen resolution and aspect ratio are things that can’t be solved in software and will still pose a challenge to developers looking to create a consistent experience. It’s the lesser of the two problems, granted, but this is the price that Android has to pay for its wide market domination. Short of pulling a Microsoft and imposing design restrictions on manufacturers I don’t think there’s much that Google can do about this and, honestly, I don’t think they have any intentions to.
How this will translate into the real world remains to be seen however as whilst the idea is good the implementation will determine just how far this goes to solving Android’s fragmentation issue. Personally I think it will work well although not nearly as well as controlling the entire ecosystem, but that freedom is exactly what allowed Android to get to where it is today. Google isn’t showing any signs of losing that crown yet either so this really is all about improving the end user experience.
When was the last time you picked up a compact camera? I’ve got one sitting in my drawer beside me (the Sony DSC-HX5V that I reviewed all those years ago) and it’s been there for the better part of 2 years, not seeing the light of day. I’d hazard a guess that everyone has at least one digital camera lying around their house somewhere that simply doesn’t get used anymore and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. When the picture quality of your smartphone is comparable to your pocket cam there’s really no reason to bring it along, even more so when your smartphone has all those convenient options for sharing them instantly. With that in mind it seems a little odd that the major camera manufacturers still bother making them as it seems clear where the future of that segment is.
Indeed if you check out the recent financial results of both Canon and Nikon they both cite the lagging sales in compacts as a contributing factor to their recent decline in sales and profit. It’s not just isolated to them either, pretty much everyone in the camera business has been hurting recently and it seems to be all directly related to their continued presence in the compact market. Now I’m not saying that this market needs to disappear completely, there’s still people out there to sell them too, however when your bottom line is having an axe taken to it because of one particular product line it’s time to rethink your presence there. Indeed when the major player’s interchangeable lens system cameras are doing so well in comparison it seems inevitable that this is the direction they should take, although some would think otherwise.
Nikon’s president Makoto Kimura doesn’t want to abandon this sector and instead wants to “change the concept of cameras”, potentially with a non-camera device. As some analysts have picked up on this sounds an awful lot like they might be trying to enter into the smartphone market somehow but in all honesty that’s the last thing they should be doing. If Nokia’s attempt at bringing better camera technology to the mobile platform is anything to go by then I can’t imagine Nikon’s going much better, especially considering the luke warm reception their Android based pocket cam received. It would be far, far better for them to simply drop the whole sector together and then refocus their efforts on further improving their mirrorless and DSLR ranges which will always have a strong market behind them.
I’m not advocating that they just straight up stop making them, there’s still a bit of money to be made here, but it’s obvious that even super cheap compacts aren’t enough to pull consumers away from their smartphones. Instead they should gradually taper away their involvement in the area, reducing the number of models they produce significantly. It’s very possible that there’s a sustainable niche in there somewhere which could support a couple models and reducing the available product lines would show that. If they became unsustainable then it’d be time to drop that area completely and then put those resources to use in their other imaging sections. There’s also the possibility of licensing out their technology to smartphone manufacturers in order to get at some of the action that they’re currently missing out on although whether any of their tech is applicable is an engineering question I can’t answer.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for compact makers, all it means is that part of their market has been eaten away by technological advancements in other fields and it’s time for them to adapt. I think they’re all well placed to whether this change as their businesses outside their compact range are all strong, even growing in most cases. Whilst the loss of the compact sector won’t necessarily mean a boost to the DSLR/mirrorless sector it will mean they’re spending less money on a shrinking sector, something which seems like smart business sense. Hopefully they take this path sooner rather than later as I’d hate to see my favorite camera manufacturer suffer unduly because of it.
There’s no denying the success Apple has enjoyed thanks to their major shift in strategy under Steve Jobs’ reign. Before then they were seen as a direct competitor to Microsoft in almost every way: iMacs vs PCs, MacOS vs Windows and at pretty much every turn they were losing the battle save for a few dedicated niches that kept them afloat. That all changed when they got into the consumer electronics space and began bringing the sacred geek technology to the masses in a package that was highly desirable. There was one aspect of their business that suffered immensely because of this however: their enterprise sector.
Keen readers will note that this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Apple’s less than stellar support of the enterprise market and nothing has really changed in the 8 months since I wrote that last post. Apple as a company is almost entirely dedicated to the consumer space with token efforts for enterprise integration thrown in to make it look like their products can play well in the enterprise space. Strangely enough it would seem that this token effort is somehow working to convince developers that Apple (well really iOS) is poised to take over the enterprise space:
In the largest survey of its kind, Appcelerator developers were asked what operating system is best positioned to win the enterprise market. Developers said iOS over Android by a 53% to 38% margin. Last year, in its second quarter survey, the two companies were in a dead heat for the enterprise market, tied at 44%.
In a surprise of sorts, Windows showed some life as 33% said they would be interested in developing apps on the Windows 8 tablet.
Now there is value in gauging developer’s sentiment regarding the various platforms, it gives you some insight into which ones they’d probably prefer to develop for, however that doesn’t really serve as an indicator as to what platform will win a particular market. I’d hazard a guess (one that’s based on previous trends) that the same developers will tell you that iOS is the platform to develop for even though it’s quite clear that Android is winning in the consumer space by a very wide margin. I believe there’s the same level of disjunct between what Appcelerator’s developers are saying and what the true reality is.
For starters any of the foothold that iOS has in the enterprise space is not born of any effort that Apple has made and all of it is to do with non-Apple products. For iOS to really make a dent in the enterprise market it will need some significant buy in from its corporate overlords and whilst there’s been some inroads to this (like with the Enterprise Distribution method for iOS applications) I’m just not seeing anything like that from Apple currently. All of their enterprise offerings are simplistic and token lacking many of the features that are required by enterprises today. They may have mindshare and numbers that will help drive people to create integration between iOS products and other enterprise applications but so does Android, meaning that’s really not an advantage at all.
What gets me is the (I’m paraphrasing) “sort of surprise” that developers were looking to Windows 8 for developing applications. Taken in the enterprise context the only real surprise is why there aren’t more developers looking at the platform as if there’s any platform that has chance at dominating this sector it is in fact Windows 8. There’s no doubting the challenges that the platform faces what with Apple dominating the tablet space that Microsoft is only just looking at getting into seriously but the leverage they have for integrating with all their enterprise applications simply can’t be ignored. They may not have the numbers yet but if developer mindshare is the key factor here then Microsoft wins hands down, but that won’t show up in a survey that doesn’t include Windows developers (Appcelerator’s survey is from its users only and currently does not support Windows Phone).
I’ve had my share of experience with iOS/Android integration with various enterprise applications and for what its worth none of them are really up to the same level as native platform applications are. Sure you can get your email and even VPN back in to a full desktop using your smartphone but that’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. The executives might be pushing hard to get their iPads/toy dujour on the enterprise systems but they won’t penetrate much further until those devices can provide some real value to those outside of the executive arena. Currently the only platform that has any chance of doing that well is Microsoft with Android coming in second.
None of this means that Apple/iOS can’t do well in the enterprise space, just that there are other players in this market far better positioned to do so. Should Apple put some focus on the enterprise market it’s quite likely they could capture some market share away from Microsoft and their other partners but their business models have been moving increasingly away from this sector ever since they first release the iPod over a decade ago. Returning to the enterprise world is not something I expect to see from Apple or its products any time soon and no developer sentiment is going to change that.
I have a confession to make: I never took the plunge and bought a Windows Phone 7 handset like I said I would. It’s not because I didn’t want one, new gadgets are something I have a hard time turning down, it’s just that my desire to get one was overcome by the notion of spending several hundred dollars on a handset I wouldn’t use every day. I still kept my eye on them thanks to several people I work with having them but even their raving reviews of it weren’t enough to pull me away from my now Ice Cream Sandwich blessed Galaxy S2. In all honesty I had pretty much given up on Microsoft’s mobile efforts as they didn’t look like they’d be able to retake the crown they’ve lost to Google and Apple.
News comes today however that Microsoft has announced their latest version of their mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8. Unlike Windows Phone 7 which was more of a preview of Windows 8 than anything else WP8 keeps the same aesthetic that’s won them significant praise whilst firmly bringing their mobile platform into the Three Screens vision. WP8 also brings all the other improvements we’ve come to expect from new release such as support for faster phones, bigger screens, NFC and an upgraded browser that. The biggest improvement, from my point of view at least, is that WP8 devices will be running the full WinRT framework essentially elminating the gap between their tablet/ARM devices and their mobile line.
Now this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, Apple has long had a similar level of platform ubiquity between their tablet and handset platforms. However WinRT does provide the capability for applications to run on desktops as well, something Apple (or anyone else for that matter) has yet to achieve. Whilst the 3rd screen, the TV, has yet to receive the WinRT treatment from any Microsoft product it would seem to be a safe bet that the next generation Xbox will feature the framework. This is of course wild speculation on my part however Microsoft would be foolish not to take advantage of the foothold they already have in the home entertainment space and I’m sure the people inside Microsoft think in the same way.
Interestingly enough the announcement of Windows Phone 8 comes hot off the heels of another announcement from Microsoft: that of their new Surface tablet. Now this isn’t to be confused with the original Surface table as that’s now been renamed to Microsoft PixelSense. No this tablet is a lining up to be a direct competitor to the iPad having very similar styling and identical use cases. The differences appear to be however that the Surface will come in two versions, one WinRT only and the other a full blown x86 PC. The delineation isn’t made lightly and it’s obvious that the x86 model is going to be aimed more at corporate users who need all their applications and the WinRT version will be meant for the consumers. It looks like a solid product however I can’t help but shake the feeling that it might not be the greatest step forward for Microsoft.
You see whilst Microsoft does need to do something about getting into the tablet space they’ve already done most of the legwork with Windows 8. They already have great relationships with OEMs and this is why you don’t see a whole bunch of Microsoft branded devices around the shop: they make the software and others provide the hardware. Getting into the tablet business means they’re kind of thumbing their nose at the OEMs, especially when each license for Windows 8 will cost them $85. As long as Microsoft makes their tablet a premium price range product though this won’t be so much of an issue but they could really do some damage to their OEM relationships if their tablets debut in the $200~$400 range. Since there’s not a whole bunch of information about it now I’ll have to play wait and see with this one as things could change significantly between now and launch day.
Microsoft’s mobile platform has been taking a battering from every side but with the unification between all of their platforms they might just be able to tempt people away from their Android and iPhone comfort zones. Certainly the unified platform provided by WinRT will be attractive to developers and that will hopefully see more killer applications find their way onto Windows Phone 8. The next year of Windows 8 related releases will be key for Microsoft’s future and will be telling if their vision for platform unification is the direction they need to be heading in.
Adobe had also been quite stalwart in their support for Flash too, refusing to back down on their stance that they were “the way” to do rich content on the Internet. Word came recently however that they were stopping development on the mobile version of Flash:
Graphics software giant Adobe announced plans for layoffs yesterday ahead of a major restructuring. The company intends to cut approximately 750 members of its workforce and said that it would refocus its digital media business. It wasn’t immediately obvious how this streamlining effort would impact Adobe’s product line, but a report that was published late last night indicates that the company will gut its mobile Flash player strategy.
Adobe is reportedly going to stop developing new mobile ports of its Flash player browser plugin. Instead, the company’s mobile Flash development efforts will focus on AIR and tools for deploying Flash content as native applications. The move marks a significant change in direction for Adobe, which previously sought to deliver uniform support for Flash across desktop and mobile browsers.
Now the mobile version of Flash had always been something of a bastard child, originally featuring a much more cut down feature set than its fully fledged cousin. More recent versions brought them closer together but the experience was never quite as good especially with the lack of PC level grunt on mobile devices. Adobe’s mobile strategy now is focused on making Adobe AIR applications run natively on all major smart phone platforms, giving Flash developers a future when it comes to building mobile applications. It’s an interesting gamble, one that signals a fundamental shift in the way Adobe views the web.
Arguably the writing has been on the wall for this decision for quite some time. Back at the start of this year Adobe released Wallaby, a framework that allows advertisement developers the capability to convert Flash ads into HTML5. Indeed even back then I said that Wallaby was the first signal that Adobe thought HTML5 was the way of the future and were going to start transitioning towards it as their platform of the future. I made the point then that whilst Flash might eventually disappear Adobe wouldn’t as they have a history for developing some of the best tools for non-technical users to create content for the web. Indeed there are already prototypes of such tools already available so it’s clear that Adobe is looking towards a HTML5 future.
The one place that Flash still dominates, without any clear competitors, is in online video. Their share of the market is somewhere around 75% (that’s from back in February so I’d hazard a guess that its lower now) with the decline being driven from mobile devices that lack support for Flash video. HTML5’s alternative is unfortunately still up in the air as the standards body struggles to find an implementation that can be open, unencumbered by patents and yet still be able to support things like Digital Rights Management. It’s this lack of standardization that will see Flash around for a good while yet as until there’s an agreed upon standard that meets all those criteria Flash will remain as the default choice for online video.
So it looks like the war that I initially believed that Adobe would win has instead seen Adobe pursuing a HTML5 future. Its probably for the best as they will then be providing some of the best tools in the market whilst still supporting open standards, something that’s to the benefit of all users of the Internet. Hopefully that will also mean better performing web sites as well as Flash had a nasty reputation for bringing even some of the most powerful PCs to their knees with poorly coded Flash ads. The next few years will be crucial to Adobe’s long term prospects but I’m sure they have the ability to make it through to the other end.