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.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of my Samsung Galaxy S2, mostly because the specifications are enough to make any geek weak at the knees. It’s not just geeks that are obsessed with the phone either as Samsung has moved an impressive 10 million of them in the 5 months that its been available. Samsung has made something of a name for itself in being the phone manufacturer to have if you’re looking for an Android handset, especially when you consider Google used their original Galaxy S as the basis for their flagship phone the Nexus S. Rumours have been circulating for a while that Samsung would once again be the manufacturer of choice, a surprising rumour considering they had just sunk a few billion into acquiring Motorola.
Yesterday however saw the announcement of Google’s new flagship phone the Galaxy Nexus and sure enough it’s Samsung hardware that’s under the hood.
The stand out feature of the Galaxy Nexus is the gigantic screen, coming in at an incredible 4.65 inches and a resolution of 1280 x 720 (the industry standard for 720p). That gives you a PPI of 315 which is slightly below the iPhone 4/4S’ retina screen which comes in at 326 PPI which is amazing when you consider it’s well over an inch bigger. As far as I can tell it’s the highest resolution on a smart phone in the market currently and there’s only a handful of handsets that boast a similar sized screen. Whether this monster of a screen will be a draw card though is up for debate as not all of us are blessed with the giant hands to take full advantage of it.
Under the hood it’s a bit of a strange beast, especially when compared to its predecessors. It uses a Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 processor (dual core, 1.2GHz) instead of the usual ARM A9 or Samsung’s own Exynos SOC coupled with a whopping 1GB of RAM. The accompanying hardware includes a 5MP camera capable of 1080p video, all the usual connectivity options with the addition of NFC and wireless N and, strangely enough, a barometer. The Galaxy Nexus does not feature expandable storage like most of its predecessors did, instead coming in 16GB and 32GB variants. All up it makes for a phone that’s definitely a step up from the Galaxy S2 but not in every regard with some features on par or below that of the S2.
Looking at the design of the Galaxy Nexus I couldn’t help but notice that it had sort of regressed back to the previous design style, being more like the Galaxy S rather than the S2. As it turns out this is quite deliberate as Samsung designed the Galaxy Nexus in such a way as to avoid more lawsuits from Apple. It’s rather unfortunate as the design of the Galaxy S2 is really quite nice and I’m not particularly partial to the rounded look at all. Still I can understand why they want to avoid more problems with Apple, it’s a costly exercise and neither of them are going to come out the other side smelling of roses.
Hand in hand with the Galaxy Nexus announcement Google has also debuted Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of the Android OS. There’s a myriad of improvements that I won’t go through here (follow the link for a full run down) but notable features are the ability to unlock your phone by it recognizing your face, integrated screen capture (yes, that hasn’t been a default feature for this long), a NFC sharing app called Android Beam and a better interface for seeing how much data you’re using that includes the ability to kill data hogging apps. Like the Galaxy Nexus itself Ice Cream Sandwich is more of an evolutionary step rather than being revolutionary but it looks like a worthy compliment to Google’s new flagship phone.
The Galaxy Nexus shows that Samsung is very capable of delivering impressive smart phones over and over again. The hardware, for the most part, is quite incredible bringing features to the table that haven’t yet been seen before. Ice Cream Sandwich looks to be a good upgrade to the Android operating system and coupled with the Galaxy Nexus the pair will make one very desirable smart phone. Will I be getting one of them? Probably not as my S2 is more than enough to last me until next year when I’ll be looking to upgrade again, but I can’t say I’m not tempted
It was just under 2 years ago when I wrote my first (and only) post on smartphone virtualization approaching it with the enthusiasm that I do with most cool new technologies. At the time I guessed that VMware would eventually look to integrate this idea with some of their other products, in essence turning user’s phones into dumb terminals so that IT administrators could have more control over them. However the exact usefulness was still not clear as at the time most smartphones were only just capable of running a single instance, let alone another one with all the virtualization trimmings that’d inevitably slow it down. Android was also somewhat of a small time player back then as well having only 5% of the market (similar to Windows Phone 7 at the same stage in its life, funnily enough) making this a curiosity more than anything else.
Of course a lot has changed in the time between that post and now. Then market leader, RIM, is now struggling with single digit market share when it used to make up almost half the market. Android has succeeded in becoming the most popular platform surpassing Apple who maintained the crown for many years prior. Smartphones have also become wildly more powerful as well, with many of them touting dual cores, oodles of RAM and screen resolutions that would make my teenage self green with envy. With this all in mind then the idea of running some kind of virtualized environment on a smartphone doesn’t seem all that ludicrous any more.
Increasingly IT departments are dealing with users who want to integrate their mobile devices with their work space in lieu of using a separate, work specific device. Much of this pressure came initially from the iPhone with higher ups wondering why they couldn’t use their devices to access work related data. For us admin types the reasons were obvious: it’s an unapproved, untested device which by rights has no business being on the network. However the pressure to capitulate to their demands was usually quite high and work arounds were sought. Over the years these have taken many various forms, but the best answer would appear to lie within the world of smartphone virtualization.
VMware have been hard at work creating full blown virtualization systems for Android that allow a user to have a single device that contains both their personal handset as well as a secure, work approved environment. In essence they have an application that allows them to switch between the two of them, allowing the user to have whatever handset they want whilst still allowing IT administrators to create a standard, secure work environment. Android is currently the only platform that seems to support this wholly thanks to its open source status, although there are rumours of it coming to the iOS line of devices as well.
It doesn’t stop there either. I predicted that VMware would eventually integrate their smartphone virtualization technology into their View product, mostly so that the phones would just end up being dumb terminals. This hasn’t happened exactly, but VMware did go ahead and imbue their View product with the ability to present full blown workstations to tablet and smartphones through a secure virtual machine running on said devices. This means that you could potentially have your entire workforce running off smartphones with docking stations, enabling users to take their work environment with them wherever they want to go. It’s shockingly close to Microsoft’s Three Screens idea and with Google announcing that Android apps are now portable to Google TV devices you’d be forgiven for thinking that they outright copied the idea.
For most regular users though these kinds of developments don’t mean a whole lot, but it is signalling the beginning of the convergence of many disparate experiences into a single unified one. Whilst I’m not going to say that anyone one platform will eventually kill off the other (each one of the three screens has a distinct purpose) we will see a convergence in the capabilities of each platform, enabling users to do all the same tasks no matter what platform they are using. Microsoft and VMware are approaching this idea from two very different directions with the former unifying the development platform and the latter abstracting it away so it will be interesting to see which approach wins out or if they too eventually converge.
I’m pretty fiscally conservative when it comes to my own cash, agonizing over purchases for sometimes weeks at a time before I take the plunge. It’s enough to outright kill some purchases entirely like the Motorola Xoom that I was convinced was worth at least having around just for the “tablet experience” but couldn’t seem to pass my financial filter. There are however times when my inner geek becomes so impressed with something that it overwhelms any sort of fiscal responsibility and I’ll find myself in possession of my object of desire well before I realize that I’ve taken my credit card out of my wallet. The Samsung Galaxy S2 is a brilliant example of this as I had been looking for a new phone for a while (and the Windows Phone 7 handsets available weren’t wowing me) and a quick trip to the specification sheet had me deep in geek lust, and 3 days later I had one in my hands.
The Galaxy S2 is really another world away from any other handset that I’ve had the pleasure of using. It’s quite a wide unit with the main screen measuring an impressive 4.3″ (10.92cm) across the diagonal but it’s also incredibly slim, being only 8.49mm thick. It’s also incredibly light weighing in at a tiny 116g which you’d think would make it feel cheap when compared to other similar handsets (the iPhone 4 is much more meatier) but the construction of the handset is very solid despite it being entirely plastic. The front screen is Gorilla glass which is incredibly resistant to scratches. I haven’t had a single scratch on it despite dropping it a couple times and putting it in my pocket with my keys by accident, something that would’ve ruined a lesser phone. To say that the first impressions of just holding the handset are impressive is putting it lightly, it’s simply an incredible device to hold.
In fact coming directly from an iPhone to the Galaxy S2 I can see why Samsung is in hot water with Apple over this particular device. I’ve covered the TouchWiz interface being strikingly similar to iOS in my Android review but the handset itself is also very Applesque, sporting the same single physical button on the front right in the same location that Apple has. Although its hard to accuse them of outright copying Apple since you can only get so creative with large touchscreen devices, especially when some of the required buttons are dictated by the underlying OS.
Under the hood of this featherweight device lies immense processing power, a multitude of connectivity options and enough sensors to make privacy nuts go wild with lawsuits. To give you an idea of just how jam packed the Galaxy S2 is here’s a breakdown of the specifications:
As you can see it actually stands up quite well when compared to my Sony. The video and picture quality is very comparable, especially in well lit situations. However it does fall down in low light and any time there’s motion due to the smaller CMOS sensor and lack of image stabilization. The LED flash on it is also incredibly harsh and will likely wash out any low light photo you attempt to take with it, but it does make for a decent little flash light. It won’t outright replace my little pocket cam any time soon but it’s definitely a good stand in when I don’t have (or don’t want to carry) it with me.
The everyday usability of the Galaxy S2 is also quite good for someone like me who has large hands (…ladies and used to struggle somewhat with the smaller screens on other handsets. However one gripe I do have with the handset is the lack of physical buttons for the options and back buttons for Android. The Galaxy S2 opts instead for 2 capacitive buttons either side of a the physical home button which does give the device a much sleeker look but can also mean accidental button touches should you brush against them. Samsung has also opted to put the power button on the side of the handset instead of the traditional placement on top near the headset port, which takes a little getting used to but is quite usable.
Where the stock Galaxy S2 falls down however is in its battery life. With moderate usage the battery wouldn’t make it through a second day requiring me to keep it plugged in most days whilst I was work lest it die on me overnight when I went home. This could have been the deal breaker for this phone as whilst I’m not the forgetful type I do like to be confident that I can make it through the day without having to watch the battery meter like a hawk. Thankfully the guys over at XDA Developers came to the rescue again with their custom ROM for the Galaxy S2 called VillainROM. After going through the process of doing the upgrade my battery now lasts about twice as long as it used to, only needing charging once or twice a week. I’ve yet to run Advanced Task Killer to attempt to squeeze even more battery life out of my handset, but it’s good enough for the time being.
It should come at no surprise then that this has been a wildly popular handset with both the tech and non-tech crowd a like. In the 3 months since its release the Galaxy S2 has sold a whopping 6 million units and just anecdotally it seems nearly every single one of my friends who was looking for a new phone has got one as well as almost half of my workmates. I used to laugh at anyone who touted any smartphone as an iPhone killer but with the Galaxy S2 not even being available in the USA yet and already garnering such a massive reception it might be the very first single phone that will be able to come close to touching Apple’s numbers. Of course I don’t believe for a second that any single Android handset will be able to take down the iPhone, not for a while at least.
The Samsung Galaxy S2 has set the bar as to what smart phones should be capable of and it will be the gold standard with which all are compared to for a long time coming. The combination of elegant design, incredible power and features galore make the Galaxy S2 stand out from the crowd in a big way, so much so that buying any other handset seems illogical. For many it has the potential to replace several other devices with its top notch multimedia components, further improving the overall value that you can derive from this handset. Overall the Samsung Galaxy S2 is a wonderfully impressive device and if you’re in the market for a new smart phone I really can’t recommend it enough.