For the past year I was somewhat of an anomaly amongst my tech friends because I choose to get an iPhone 3GS instead of one of the Android handsets. The choice was simple at the time, I had an app that I wanted to develop for it and needed something to test on, but still I copped it sweet whenever I said something positive about the platform since I’d usually be the only one with an Apple product in the area. When it came time again to buy a new phone, as I get to do every year for next to nothing, I resisted for quite a while, until one of my friends put me onto the Samsung Galaxy S2¹. The tech specs simply overwhelmed my usual fiscal conservativeness and no less than a week later was I in possession of one and so began my experience with the Android platform.
The default UI that comes with all of Samsung’s Android handsets, called TouchWiz, feels uncannily similar to that of iOS. In fact it’s so familiar that Apple is suing Samsung because of it, but if you look at many other Android devices you’ll see that they share similar characteristics that Apple is claiming Samsung ripped off from them. For me personally though the Android UI wins out simply because of how customizable it is allowing me to craft an experience that’s tailored to my use. Widgets, basically small front ends to your running applications, are a big part of this enabling me to put things like a weather ticker on my front page. The active wallpapers are also pretty interesting too, if only to liven up the otherwise completely static UI.
What impresses me most about the Android platform is the breadth and depth of the applications and tweaks available for the system. My first few days with Android were spent just getting myself back up and running like I was on my iPhone, finding all the essential applications (Facebook, Twitter, Shazam, Battle.net Authenticator, etc) and comparing the experience to the iPhone. For the most part the experience on Android is almost identical, especially with applications that have large user bases, but some of them were decidedly sub-par. Now most would say that this is due to the fragmentation of the Android platform but the problems I saw didn’t stem from those kinds of issues, just a lack of effort on their part to polish the experience. This more often happened for applications that weren’t “Android born” as many of the native apps were leaps and bounds ahead of them in terms of quality.
The depth of integration that applications and tweaks can have with the Android platform is really where the platform shines. Skype, for example, can usurp your outgoing calls and route them through their network which could be a major boon if you’re lucky enough to have a generous data plan. It doesn’t stop with application integration either, there are numerous developers dedicated to making the Android platform itself better through custom kernels and ROMs. The extra functionality that I have unlocked with my phone by installing CF-Root kernel, one that allows me root access, are just phenomenal. I’ve yet to find myself wanting for any kind of functionality and rarely have I found myself needing to pay for it something, unless it was for convenience’s sake.
Android is definitely a technophile’s dream with the near limitless possibilities of an open platform laid out before you. However had you not bothered to do all the faffing about that I did you still wouldn’t be getting a sub-par experience, at least on handsets sporting the TouchWiz interface. Sure you might have to miss out on some of the useful apps (like Titanium Backup) but realistically many of the root enabled apps aren’t aimed at your everyday user. You still get all the benefits of the deep integration with the Android platform where a good 90% of the value will be for most users anyway.
Despite all of this gushing over Google’s mobile love child I still find it hard to recommend it as the platform for everyone. Sure for anyone with a slight technical bent it’s the platform to go for, especially if you’re comfortable modding your hardware, and sure it’s still quite usable for the majority who aren’t. However Apple’s platform does automate a lot of the rudimentary stuff for you (like backing up your handset when you sync it) which Android, as a platform, doesn’t currently do. Additionally thanks to the limited hardware platform you’re far less likely to encounter some unknown issue on iOS than you are on Android which, if you’re the IT support for the family like me, can make your life a whole lot easier.
Android really impressed me straight from the get go and continued to do so as I spent more time getting to know it and digging under the hood to unlock even more value from it. The ability to interact, modify or outright replace parts of the underlying Android platform is what makes it great and is the reason why it’s the number 1 smart phone platform to date. As a long time smart phone user I feel that Android is by far the best platform for both technophiles and regular users alike, giving you the usability you’ve come to expect from iOS with the tweakability that used to be reserved for only for Windows Mobile devices.
Now I just need to try out a Windows Phone 7 device and I’ll have done the mobile platform trifecta.
¹I’m reviewing the handset separately as since Android is available on hundreds of handsets it wouldn’t be fair to lump them together as I did with the iPhone. Plus the Galaxy S2 deserves its own review anyway and you’ll find out why hopefully this week
You know I was pretty hyped about getting a WP7 handset after having a short play with one in the store. The slick interface and overall usability of it was so high that I thought it was worth a shot and I had really nothing to lose since my work would be paying for it. The NoDo update was on the horizon however so I decided that I’d hold back until it made its way into production so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the same frustrations that day 0 customers had. Most notably this would be the inclusion of copy and paste, but there were also a few other fixes that I thought would be good to have and worth the wait.
The problem is however that unlike regular Windows patching there’s a gate keeper between me and Microsoft’s patches for their new mobile platform. You see the patches have to pass muster with the carriers first before they can be distributed to the handsets although Microsoft had said in the past that they were working with them to make the process as quick as possible. Unfortunately for us Australian customers looking for a WP7 handset you really only have one carrier to go with: Telstra. Now this wouldn’t be so much of a bad option normally since Telstra had to start playing straight after their retail and wholesale arms were broken apart but it seems that they’re not up to the job of testing WP7 updates:
Universal availability of the copy-and-paste update to Windows Phone 7, codenamed NoDo, is almost here, according to Microsoft’s latest schedule update. The final unpatched phone available in the US market, the HTC Surround sold by AT&T should start to receive its updates within the next ten business days. The network’s other two handsets, the Samsung Focus and LG Quantum, have been receiving updates since last week.
European carrier Deutsche Telekom (which includes T-Mobile UK) has at last finished its testing, as has Australian carrier Optus. Updates from phones on these networks should also appear within the next ten business days or so. This leaves only two carriers still delaying the updates due to “testing”: Telefonica, in Spain, and Telstra, in Australia.
This was the one area where I was expecting Microsoft to shine through since their bread and butter products have depended so heavily on their patch services for well over a decade. Sure the vast majority of the blame should be leveled at the carriers since they’re the ones causing the delays, but Microsoft isn’t innocent of incurring delays either. Of course the original iPhone and Android handsets weren’t immune to problems like this either but I had expected Microsoft’s late coming to the party to be at least coupled with a strong patch and feature release scheme so they could play catch up quickly.
It might seem like an extraordinarily small gripe considering the rest of the platform looks solid but when minor feature releases like this take so long to get through the pipeline it makes me wonder just how long I’ll have to wait for the next update, codenamed Mango, to drop. Amongst other things Mango will bring full HTML5 support to WP7 something which it currently lacks in its browser. Whilst the IE9 implementation of HTML5 does leave some things to be desired (my newest app idea uses HTML5 bits, and IE9 mangles it) it is a lot better than not having it at all, especially when so many mobile versions of sites rely on HTML5 functionality. With speculation now brewing that this update might slip to next year that’s starting to put WP7 at a serious disadvantage, unless some enterprising browser developer ports to WP7 ala Opera et al.
I’m still planning to nab myself one of these handsets if only for the few times I’ll want to try my hand at developing an application for it but with such delays piling up on each other I could very well see myself changing to Android or back to iOS until they’re finished playing the catch up game. I’m sure as time goes on they’ll develop a much better relationship with the carriers and hopefully they’ll be able to leverage that to remove some of the roadblocks to getting patches and updates out to us consumers. Until then however WP7 users are going to be at the whim of the carriers, even more so than they are normally.
The world of mobile gaming is a curious one. It’s roots date back well over decade but it’s only really come into its own in the past few years as smartphones became capable enough and there were platforms available to support it. The industry blossomed on the backs of the small and independent developers who took advantage of the low barriers to entry to be able to release their games on the platform and is now a multi-billion dollar industry. As a traditional gamer I was a bit sceptical that it would amount to anything more than just another time waster platform, my opinion only changing after buying Infinity Blade which I thoroughly enjoyed. Still I’m a firm believer that the mobile platform, whilst definitely a successful industry, is not killing other platforms as you just can’t recreate the same experience on a tablet or handheld as you can with a PC or a console.
Of course the large game developers and publishers are concerned about how what the future of their business will look like. With mobile gaming carving out a good chunk of the games industry in such a small amount of time (about 6.4% of all games industry revenue) and social networking games grabbing about the same it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that they might be worried about it. Recently Mike Capps, president of Epic who create the Unreal engine, went on record saying that the flood of 99 cent games was killing them:
“We have not been this uncertain about what’s coming next in the games industry since Epic’s been around for 20 years. We’re at such an inflection point. Will there be physical distribution in 10 years or even five? Will anyone care about the next console generation? What’s going on in PC? Can you make money on PC if it’s not a connected game? What’s going on in mobile?
“If there’s anything that’s killing us [in the traditional games business] it’s dollar apps,” he lamented. “How do you sell someone a $60 game that’s really worth it … They’re used to 99 cents. As I said, it’s an uncertain time in the industry. But it’s an exciting time for whoever picks the right path and wins.”
If you take into consideration the vast majority of people who play games on their phones don’t play games on other platforms¹ then it makes sense that you can’t sell them a $60 game because the platform just isn’t suited to that kind of title. Sure people may spend a good chunk of time playing games on their mobiles (rivalling the amount of time spent on more traditional titles) but it’s in no way comparable. Most of the time spent on mobile games is done in fits and bursts as the platform is aptly tuned to, rather than the long continuous sessions that PC and console gamers are more accustomed to. In essence if you’re a traditional game developer or publisher looking to push your wares onto the mobile market you’re not going to be building the same kind of products, nor are you going to be charging the same price.
Additionally the mobile gaming industry is in no way killing any of the other platforms. Consoles are by far the kings of the industry bringing in over 40% of the total revenue with PCs still making up a good 20% (and is even growing despite the heavy competition). Sure mobile games have brought some disruption to the industry and have given pause to many developers and publishers who are trying to gauge where the industry is heading. Frankly though if you think that there’s no future left in the classic $60 titles then you deserve to go out of business, since the industry figures just don’t support that view.
I do agree with Capps’ claim that we’re at an inflection point where the games industry is facing quite a few fundamental changes. Just like the music and film industries before them though they will need to adapt to these market changes or face dying a slow death as they attempt to shoe horn their business models into the new world. I do believe that the games industry is far better poised to adapt and innovate with these market disruptions than their more traditional media outlets were and that was proven by just how fast mobile gaming caught on as a mainstream phenomenon. Still mobile gaming is a long, long way from killing off the traditional gaming sector and realistically it has a lot of growing up to do before it would ever have a chance at doing so.
¹I tried my darnedest to find some solid numbers on this and couldn’t find anything substantial. I stand by the sentiment though as from my personal viewpoint the vast majority of people who are mobile gamers are solely dedicated to that platform and don’t play games anything else.
So I’m sold on the tablet idea. After resisting it since Apple started popularizing it with the iPad I’ve finally started to find myself thinking about numerous use cases where a tablet would be far more appropriate than my current solutions. Most recently it was after turning off my main PC and sitting down to watch some TV shows, realizing that I had forgotten to set up some required downloads before doing so. Sure I could do them using the diNovo Mini keyboard but it’s not really designed for more than logging in and typing in the occasional web address. Thinking that I’d either now have to power my PC or laptop on I lamented that I didn’t have a tablet that I could RDP into the box with and set up the downloads whilst lazing on the couch. Thankfully it looks like my tablet of choice, a wifi only Xoom, can be shipped to Australia via Amazon so I’ll be ordering one of them very soon.
Initially I thought I’d go for one of the top of the line models with all the bells and whistles, most notably a 3G/4G connection. That was mostly just for geek cred since whenever I’m buying gadgets I like to get the best that’s on offer at the time (as long as the price isn’t completely ludicrous). After a while though I started to have a think about my particular use patterns and I struggled to find a time where I’d want to use a tablet and be bereft of a WiFi connection, either through an access point or tethered to my phone. There’s also the consideration of price with all non-cellular tablets is usually quite a bit cheaper, on the order of $200 with the Xoom. It then got me thinking, what exactly is the use case for a tablet with a cellular connection?
The scenarios I picture go something along these lines. You’re out and about, somewhere that has mobile phone reception, but you don’t have your phone on you (or one not capable of tethering) and you’re no where near a WiFi access point. Now the possibility of having mobile phone reception but no WiFi is a pretty common event, especially here in Australia, but the other side to that potential situation is you either can’t tether to your mobile phone because its not capable or you don’t have it on you. Couple that with the fact that you’re going to have to pay for yet another data plan just for your new tablet then you’ve really lost me as to why you’d bother with a tablet that has cellular connectivity.
If your reason for getting cellular connectivity is that you want to use it when you don’t have access to a WiFi hard point then I could only recommend it if you have a phone that can’t tether to other devices (although I’d struggle to find one today, heck even my RAZR was able to do it). However, if I may make a sweeping statement, I’d assume that since you’ve bought a tablet you already have a smart phone which is quite capable of tethering, even if the carrier charges you a little more for it (which is uncommon and usually cheaper than a separate data plan). The only real reason to have it is for when you have your tablet but not your phone, a situation I’d be hard pressed to find myself in and not be within range of an access point.
In fact most of the uses I can come up with for a tablet device actually require them to be on some kind of wireless network as they make a fitting interface device to my larger PCs with all the functions that could be done on cellular networks aptly covered off by a smartphone. Sure they might be more usable for quite a lot of activities but they’re quite a lot more cumbersome than something that can fit into my pocket and rarely do I find myself needing functionality above that of the phone but below that of a fully fledged PC. This is why I was initially skeptical of the tablet movement as the use cases were already aptly covered by current generation devices. It seems there’s quite a market for transitional devices however.
Still since nearly every manufacturer is making both cellular and wireless only tablets there’s got to be something to it, even if I can’t figure it out. There’s a lot to be said about the convenience factor and I’m sure a lot of people are willing to pay the extra just to make sure they can always use their device wherever they are but I, for one, can’t seem to get a grip on it. So I’ll put it out to the wisdom of the crowd: what are your use cases for a cellular enabled tablet?
Whilst the only current smartphone platform I’ve had any decent experience with is Apple’s iPhone I’m still not completely tied to it. Sure the platform is great and I’ll always be keeping an iOS device around for as long as I keep developing for the platform but my next handset purchase is more than likely not going to be another Apple device. The case is strong for a Windows Phone 7 handset thanks to its great tool set and general esoteric-ness (I don’t yet know anyone who’s bought one) but that same air of mystery is a double edged sword. Sure most of my general applications will be available on it, like Twitter and Facebook, but past that there’s not a whole lot of interest in the platform.
It’s not surprising really considering that slice of the mobile market pie that Microsoft commands is only a mere 5.5% according to the IDC, which includes all handsets that come under the Windows umbrella. The nearest rival to them is RIM (creator of the Blackberry handset series) who nearly triple their share at a whopping 14.9% and even they don’t seem to command a 3rd party developer army comparable to that of Android or Google. Still with them sealing the deal on a partnership with Nokia recently the IDC has reported that Microsoft’s WP7 platform will begin to surge ahead, overtaking iOS and being second only to Android.
The intial reaction to this was of course, utter disbelief:
In the close to six months that WP7 has been available, it has failed to set sales on fire. In fact, Microsoft hasn’t provided any metrics on how many WP7 handsets have been sold. Also, the 5.5% market share that Microsoft has now represents both WP7 and the old Windows Mobile 5.x and 6.x systems, which are still being sold on enterprise handhelds.
Further, Microsoft has stumbled badly with the first two system updates for its smartphone platform. First by delaying it for nearly two months, and second by bungling the actual delivery of the updates. Things are not going so smoothly for Microsoft. Heck, WP7 champion Joe Belfiore actually wrote a public apology to its WP7 customers about the whole update debacle.
Zeman makes some good points about the WP7 ecosystem and the troubles Microsoft has faced in dragging their Windows Mobile platform into the modern age. The sales figures aren’t that impressive when you compare them to iOS and Android, heck they’re not even that impressive compared to single handsets on either platform. Still this ignores the fact that WP7 is still a nascent platform and it will be a while before it reaches the maturity level that everyone’s expecting of it. If we’re fair and compare the initial WP7 sales to the initial release of Android you’ll actually find them quite comparable with the G1 selling some 600,000 handsets in the first couple months and WP7 cracking 1.5 million in its first 6 weeks. It took quite a while for Android and even the iPhone to hit the fever pitch that they have today so the current market share of WP7 devices shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
I can’t provide an excuse for their botched update schedule however. Apple seems to be the only major competitor that’s nailed this completely with Android and WP7 both suffering from the same carrier induced delays and fragmentation problems. It’s actually one of the reasons why I haven’t already lashed out for a WP7 handset since the main carrier of them here in Australia, Telstra, is still testing the pre-update update and has no schedule for the release of the coveted Nodo update. Since there doesn’t seem to be any way to route around the carrier and install the patch manually (although I’ll admit I haven’t done a ton of research on this) it means I’m wholly dependent on someone other than Microsoft to get my handset updated. With Telstra’s track record that doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the platform.
Both Android and iOS faced similar problems in their infancy and I’m sure WP7 will be able to overcome them in the future. Whether it will become the second most popular platform though remains to be seen as whilst the Nokia relationship means they have a strong possibility of gaining some serious traction it’s not a sure bet that every current Symbian customer will convert over to WP7. With Microsoft being particularly coy about their sales figures its hard to get a good reading of how their new mobile platform is trending but it will definitely be interesting to see how their market share changes as Nokia begins releasing their WP7 handsets.
The date is fast approaching April and that means the Fringe Benefits Tax year is about to roll over. For most people this is a non-event unless you’re salary sacrificing a car but for contractors like me it means I can write off another phone and laptop device on tax, effectively getting them for half the market price. Whilst it’s not as good as it used to be (you were also able to depreciate them, making said devices basically free) there hasn’t been a year yet when I haven’t taken advantage of at least getting a new phone, and last year was the first when I purchased my Macbook Pro. So of course I’ve spent the last couple weeks looking through the available selection of phones and tablets with which to gorge myself upon and the more I look the more I get the feeling I won’t be able to leave my iPhone behind like I did with my other smart phones.
The tablet choice is pretty easy since I’m not particularly fond of the iPad (I don’t need another iDevice) and getting something like the Motorola Xoom would cover off my need for an Android device to code against. To have all current platforms covered then the smart phone choice (HA! See what I did there?) would be a Windows Phone 7 handset. Taking a look around I found a few pretty good deals on various handsets with contracts comparable to what I’m on now with tons of extra value. My handset of choice is the HTC Mozart which appears to be the cream of the current crop of WP7 handsets, anything else is just too far off on the horizon to be worth considering.
Of course whenever I’m contemplating a new phone I’ll always compare it to what I currently have to see if it fixes the things that bug me and whether or not it will be worth it. Whilst my 3GS is less than a year old it’s nipping on the feet of being 2 generations behind the current trend so any recent handset should beat it hands down. A quick look at the similarly priced handsets shows this to be true all of them bristling with bigger CPUs, more RAM and better dedicated graphics. Unfortunately however there’s one thing that all the other handsets I’ve been looking at don’t cover.
That unfortunate beast is the Apple App Store.
Despite the insane growth that Android has shown over the past year Apple is still the platform of choice for many early adopters and developers. It’s extremely rare for a company to attempt to launch a mobile application on anything but Apple first, simply because the user base tends much more towards that early adopter mindset of trying things out. Sure there are many examples of popular apps that made their debut on the Android markets (although none that I’m aware of for WP7) but when you compare them to the number of success Apple can count using its platform there’s really no contest. Couple that with the fact that despite Android’s runaway popularity the App store is still by far more profitable for developers looking to sell their wares and you’d really have to be crazy not to launch on their platform.
For me this presents an interesting conundrum. Whilst I was never going to sell my 3GS since it will make a good test bed for at least another year or two I do use it quite extensively to test out potential competitor’s applications. Since most of them launch on iPhone first this hasn’t been a big deal but with me planning to move to WP7 (or possibly Android) for my main handset I can’t help but feel that I’ll probably want to keep it on hand so that I can keep a close eye on the market. Sure I could just make a note to try an application later but many up and coming products are based around using them for a particular purpose, not booting them up occasionally to see the new features. Granted this is probably limited to social applications but any new product is almost guaranteed to have some kind of social bent baked in (heaven knows I tried to avoid it for the longest time with Lobaco).
The market could change and with the growth that Android is experiencing I may be singing a completely different tune a year from now. Still until the Android store starts pumping out billions of dollars to its developers I can’t see a future where any serious developer isn’t focused primarily on Apple first with Android planned down the line. For now I think I’ll stick with my plan of a WP7 phone and an Android tablet, keeping the gaggle of devices close at my side at all times so that I can test any app regardless of its platform. It’s the same line of thinking that lead me to buy every major console, although the Wii has only ever been used a couple times.
There’s an analogy in there somewhere
I’ve had quite a few phones in my time but only 2 of them have ever been Nokias. The first was the tiny 8210 I bought purely because everyone else was getting a phone so of course I needed one as well. The second was an ill-fated N95 which, despite being an absolutely gorgeous media phone, failed to work on my network of choice thanks to it being a regional model that the seller neglected to inform me about. Still I always had a bit of a soft spot for Nokia devices because they got the job done and they were familiar to anyone who had used them before, saving many phone calls when my parents upgraded their handsets. I’ve even wondered loudly why developers ignore Nokia’s flagship mobile platform despite it’s absolutely ridiculous install base that dwarfs all of its competitors, acknowledging that it’s mostly due to their lack of innovation on the platform.
Then on the weekend a good friend of mine tells me that Nokia had teamed up with Microsoft to replace Symbian with Windows Phone 7. I had heard about Nokia’s CEO releasing a memo signalling drastic changes ahead for the company but I really didn’t expect that to result in something this drastic:
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop announced a long-rumored partnership with Microsoft this morning that would make Windows Phone 7 Nokia’s primary mobile platform.
The announcement means the end is near for Nokia’s aging Symbian platform, which many (myself included) have criticized as being too archaic to compete with modern platforms like the iPhone OS or Android. And Nokia’s homegrown next-generation OS, MeeGo, will no longer be the mythical savior for the Finnish company, as it’s now being positioned more as an experiment.
We’ve argued for some time that a move to Windows Phone 7 would make the most sense for Nokia, and after Elop’s dramatic “burning platform” memo last weekend, it was all but certain that the company would link up with Microsoft.
It’s a bold move for both Nokia and Microsoft as separated they’re not much of a threat to the two other giants in the mobile industry. However upon combining Nokia is ensuring that Windows Phone 7 reaches many more people than it can currently, delivering handsets at price ranges that other manufacturers just won’t touch. This will have a positive feedback effect of making the platform more attractive to developers which in turn drives more users to come to the platform when their applications of choice are ported or emulated. Even their concept phones are looking pretty schmick:
The partnership runs much deeper than just another vendor hopping onto the WP7 bandwagon however. Nokia has had a lot more experience than Microsoft in the mobile space and going by what is said in an open letter that the CEOs of both companies wrote together it looks like Microsoft is hoping to use that experience to further refine the WP7 line. There’s also a deep integration in terms of Microsoft services (Bing for search and adCenter for ads) and interestingly enough Bing Maps won’t be powering Nokia’s WP7 devices, it will still be OVI Maps. I’m interested to see where this integration heads because Bing Maps is actually a pretty good product and I was never a fan of the maps on Nokia devices (mostly because of the subscription fee required). They’ll also be porting all their content streams and application store across to the Microsoft Marketplace which is expected considering the level of integration they’re going for.
Of course the question has been raised as to why they didn’t go for one of the alternatives, namely their MeeGo platform or Google Android. MeeGo, for all its open source goodness, hasn’t really experienced the same amount of traction that Android has and has firmly been in the realms of “curious experiment” for the past year, even if Nokia is only admitting to it today. Android on the other hand would’ve made a lot of sense, however it appears that Nokia wanted to be an influencer of their new platform of choice rather than just another manufacturer. They’d never get this level of integration from Google unless they put in all the work and then realistically that does nothing to help the Nokia brand, it would all be for Google. Thus WP7 is really the only choice with these considerations in mind and I’m sure Microsoft was more than happy to welcome Nokia into the fray.
For a developer like me this just adds fuel to the WP7 fire that’s been burning in my head for the past couple months. Although it didn’t take me long to become semi-competent with iPhone SDK the lure of easy WP7 development has been pretty hard to ignore over the past couple months, especially when I have to dive back into Visual Studio to make API changes. Nokia’s partnership with Microsoft means that there’s all the more chance that WP7 will be a viable platform for the long term and as such any time spent developing on it is time well spent. Still if I was being truly honest with myself I’d just suck it up and do Android anyway but after wrangling with Objective-C for so long I feel like I deserve a little foray back into the world of C# and Visual Studio goodness and this announcement justifies that even more.
3D is one of those technologies that I’m both endlessly infatuated and frustrated with. Just over a year ago I saw Avatar in 3D and for me it was the first movie ever to use the technology in a way that wasn’t gimmicky but served as a tool to enable creative expression. Cameron’s work on getting the technology to the point where he could use it as such was something to be commended but what unfortunately followed was a long stream of movies jumping on the 3D bandwagon, hoping that it would be their ticket to Avatar like success. Since then I’ve only bothered to see one other movie in 3D (Tron: Legacy) as not one other movie demonstrated their use of 3D as anything other than following the fad and utterly failing to understand the art that is 3D.
Last year was the debut of consumer level 3D devices with the initial forays being the usual TVs and 3D enabled media players. Soon afterwards we began to see the introduction of some 3D capable cameras allowing the home user to create their very own 3D movies. Industry support for the format was way ahead of the curve with media sharing sites like YouTube allowing users to view 3D clips and video editing software supporting the format long before it hit the consumer level. We even had Nintendo announce that their next generation portable would be called the 3DS and boast a glasses free 3D screen at the top. Truly 3D had hit the mainstream as anyone and everyone jumped to get in on the latest technology craze.
Indeed the 3D trend has become so pervasive that even today as I strolled through some of my RSS reader backlog I came across not one, but two articles relating to upcoming 3D products. The first is set to be the world’s first 3D smartphone, the LG Optimus 3D. It boasts both a 3D capable camera and glasses free 3D screen along with the usual smartphone specs we’ve come to expect from high end Android devices. The second was that NVIDIA’s current roadmap shows that they’re planning to develop part of their Tegra line (for tablets) with built in 3D technology. Looking over all these products I can’t help but feel that there’s really little point to having 3D on consumer devices, especially portable ones like smartphones.
3D in cinemas makes quite a lot of sense, it’s another tool in the director’s kit to express themselves when creating their movie experience. On a handset or tablet you’re not really there to be immersed in something, you’re usually consuming small bits of information for short periods. Adding 3D into that experience really doesn’t enhance the experience at all, in fact I’d dare say that it would detract from it thanks to the depth of field placing objects in a virtual space that in reality is behind the hand that’s holding it. There is the possibility that 3D will enable a new kind of user interface that’s far more intuitive to the regular user than what’s currently available but I fail to see how the addition of depth of field to a hand held device will manage to accomplish that.
I could just be romanticising 3D technology as something best left to the creative types but if the current fad is anything to go by 3D is unfortunately more often misused as a cheap play to bilk consumers for a “better” experience. Sure some of the technology improvements of the recent past can trace their roots back to 3D (hello cheap 120Hz LCD screens) but for the most part 3D is just used as an excuse to charge more for the same experience. I’ve yet to see any convincing figures on how 3D products are doing out in the market but anecdotally it’s failed to gain traction amongst those who I know. Who knows maybe the LG Optimus 3D will turn out to be something really groovy but as far as I can tell now it’s simply yet another gimmick phone that’s attempting to cash in on the current industry obsession with 3D, just like every other 3D consumer product out there.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Microsoft was never a major player in the smartphone space. Most people had never really heard of or seen a smartphone until Apple released the iPhone and the market really didn’t heat up until a couple years after that fact. However if you were to go all the way back to 2004 you’d find they were extremely well positioned, capturing 23% of the total market share with many analysts saying that they would be leader in smartphone software by the end of the decade. Today however they’re the next to last option for anyone looking for a smartphone thanks wholly to their inertia in responding to the incoming threats from Apple and Google.
Microsoft wasn’t oblivious to this fact but their response took too long to come to market to save any of the market share they had previously gained. Their new product, Windows Phone 7, is quite good if you consider it on the same level as Android 1.0 and the first iPhone. Strangely enough it also suffers some of the problems that plagued the earlier revisions of its competitors products had (like the lack of copy and paste) but to Microsoft’s credit their PR and response time on the issue is an order of magnitude better. They might have come too late into the game to make a significant grab with their first new offering but as history has shown us Microsoft can make a successful business even if it takes them half a decade of losses to catch up to the competition (read:the Xbox).
More recently though I’ve noticed a shift in the way Microsoft is operating within their mobile space. Traditionally, whilst they’ve been keen to push adoption for their platform through almost any means necessary, they’ve been quick to stand against any unsanctioned uses of their products. You can see this mentality in action with their Xbox department who’s fervently fought any and all means to run homebrew applications on their consoles. Granted the vast majority of users modding their consoles do so for piracy reasons so their stance is understandable but recent developments are starting to show that they might not be adverse to users running homebrew applications on their devices.
ChevronWP7 was the first (and as far as I know, only) application to allow users to to jailbreak their WP7 devices in order to be able to load arbitrary applications onto them. Microsoft wasn’t entirely happy with it’s release but didn’t do anything drastic in order to stop its development. They did however announce that the next update to WP7 would see it disabled, much like Apple does with their iOS updates, but they did something that the others haven’t ever done before, they met with the ChevronWP7 team:
After two full days of meetings with various members of the Windows Phone 7 team, we couldn’t wait to share with everyone some results from these discussions.
To address our goals of homebrew support on Windows Phone 7, we discussed why we think it’s important, the groups of people it affects, its direct and indirect benefits and how to manage any risks.
With that in mind, we will work with Microsoft towards long-term solutions that support mutual goals of broadening access to the platform while protecting intellectual property and ensuring platform security.
Wait, what? In the days gone by it wouldn’t have been out of place for Microsoft to send out a cease and desist letter before unleashing a horde of lawyers to destroy such a project in its infancy. Inviting the developers to your headquarters, showing them the roadmap for future technologies and then allying with them is down right shocking but shows how Microsoft has come to recognise the power of the communities that form around the platforms they develop. In all respects those users of ChevronWP7 probably make up a minority of WP7 users but they’re definitely amongst the most vocal users and potentially future revenue generators should they end up distributing their homebrew into the real world. Heck they’re even reaching out to avid device hacker Geohot since he mentioned his interest in the WP7 platform, offering him a free phone to get him started.
The last few years haven’t been kind to Microsoft in the mobile space and it appears that they’re finally ready to take their medicine so that they might have a shot at recapturing some of their former glory. They’ve got an extremely long and hard fight ahead of them should they want to take back any significant market share from Apple or Google, but the last couple months have shown that they’re willing to work with their users and enthusiasts to deliver products that they and hopefully the world at large will want to have. My next phone is shaping up to be a WP7 device simply because the offering is just that good (and development will be 1000x easier) and should Microsoft continue their recent stint of good behaviour I can only see it getting better and better.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was singing high praises of Windows Mobile when I received my shiny new Sony Xperia X1. In all honesty it really was the best Windows Mobile handset I ever had the pleasure of using but towards the end it began to suffer from the same kind of random issues that plagued all my other WinMo handsets that had come before it. The camera app would work only half the time and I was lucky if I could convince it to take video. I had long since foregone the panel interface because of how slow it was when compared to the default and the keyboard started sticking and missing key strokes. Still I couldn’t bring myself to sell or trash the handset and it still sits atop my desk with a fully charged battery, hoping that I find a use for it someday.
Microsoft was obviously privy to these kinds of issues that plagued WinMo users and in February this year they announced that they’d be releasing a new mobile operating system called Windows Phone 7. At the time of the release I was on the fence about it, realising the platform had potential but not convinced it was anything more than Microsoft’s me-too business model. More recently I came to see how Microsoft could employ their giant third party developing force to make WinPho7 one of the dominant players in the mobile space but there’s really no telling if the hordes of Microsoft developers would have any interest in developing for the platform.
Monday saw the final unveil for WinPho7 to the wider public with several handsets on display that the press were allowed to get their hands on. Initial reactions were positive with a healthy hint of scepticism:
As for Windows Phone 7 itself, it feels slick and polished. The interface is fast, the transitions are attractive, and built-in programs like e-mail are a pleasure to use. Anyone who uses a handset is going to want to explore it and learn more about it. If Microsoft can get good positioning in retail outlets, the platform should flourish. However, to get a feel for how well the operating system really works as a smartphone OS requires more time than we had today. First impressions are definitely positive, but it’s going to be a while before anyone knows what the software is like to actually live with.
Indeed going through the numerous posts I’ve seen about WinPho7 over the past 8 months or so it seems like many people feel the mobile operating system feels solid but aren’t really sure if it will catch on. If there’s one thing that Microsoft offers with all its products is deep integration between product families and that’s usually where the true value lies. Previous versions of WinMo might have been tedious for the regular user but for corporate clients they were pretty much spot on. They were beaten to the punch by RIM with the easy email to the phone integration but their competing product, Exchange ActiveSync, is quite comparable now. Couple that with a rebooted platform and RIM’s utter failure to capitalize on the touchscreen phenomenon Microsoft might just be able to claw back some of the corporate market they lost to them.
That’s not the only trick Microsoft has up it’s sleeve either.
iPhone owner’s out there are more than aware of the MobileMe service that Apple provides to its customers, usually as an up sell before you get your phone. For the low rate of $99/year (or $149/year if you have up to 4 people who want it) you get access to some cloud storage and a synchronisation service that keeps all your mail, contacts and photos in sync for you. Additionally you can use the service to find a lost iPhone should you misplace it or if it gets stolen. Microsoft has a competing service, known as Live Mesh, that was really only about files and remote access. Yesterday saw the announcement of a revamped version of this service that in essence replicates all the functionality of MobileMe. The kicker here is that Microsoft will be offering the service entirely gratis to all WinPh07 users, including the coveted find my phone feature that MobileMe is so popular for.
I don’t think anyone saw that bombshell coming.
Still the WinPho7 still has a little ways to go before it reaches its full capability. Whilst Microsoft has gone to significant lengths to drive development on the platform it will be a while before there’s a critical mass of users on WinPho7 to make it attractive to those looking to profit from the mobile space. There’s also a couple key features that are missing from WinPho7 such as copy and paste. Whilst that particular feature should be here early next year the absence of that feature and others will be enough for long time iPhone and Android users to think twice before replacing their handset. The lack of support for some carriers in the US could also serve to stymie adoption of the platform, but as the iPhone has shown many people are willing to make the switch if the platform is compelling enough.
If all this talk has you excited about trying out a WinPho7 device for yourself then you won’t be waiting too long with the first devices slated to hit Australia’s shelves in late October with the US getting theirs in early November. I won’t be lining up on launch night to get myself one but I’ll definitely be grabbing one of them (probably the HTC HD7) to fiddle with so I can start planning the Lobaco client for it. From what I’ve seen there’s definitely a lot of potential in Microsoft’s new grab at the mobile market but they’ve got an uphill battle in front of them. The next 6 months will be crucial for the fledgling platform’s success and I’m sure Microsoft will be doing everything they can to take back their title as the king of the smart phone arena.