Posts Tagged‘niche’

Windows Phone 7: The Disconnect Between Product Quality and Market Share.

I remember when I first saw Windows Phone 7 introduced all those years ago now how it just looked like Microsoft playing the me-too game with one of its biggest competitors. This was also a time when RIM, you know those guys who make the BlackBerrys that everyone used to rave about, where the kings of the smart phone world and Android was still considered that upstart that would get no where. Back then I said I’d end up getting one of these handsets eventually, mostly for application development purposes, but also so I could share the experience with you, my readers. I never really made good on that promise but thanks to LifeHacker I’ve had the privilege to have a Nokia Lumia 900 as my sole communications device for the past couple weeks and I thought it was high time I told you what I think of it.

Before I get into the meat of the underlying operating system I want to take a little time to comment on the phone itself. Nokia, renowned for their low end handsets that are everywhere, sheds those preconceptions easily with the Lumia 900. Whilst I know its no indication of the underlying quality the 900 has a really nice heft to it, feeling quite solid in the hands. The specs are actually quite incredible with it sporting a 1.4GHz Qualcomm Scorpion processor, 512MB RAM and 16GB of internal storage. Couple that with an 8MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics capable of capturing 720p video you’ve got a solid base of hardware that’s easily comparable to all other handsets from its generation. The battery life is also pretty incredible, easily lasting a couple days with moderate usage. Indeed if Nokia were to release a similar phone to the Android market there’s no doubt in my mind that it’d be right up there with the likes of Samsung and HTC.

My first impressions were quite good for Windows Phone 7 with some teething issues that I’ll dive into. On the surface Windows Phone 7 is visually pleasing with the large icons, live tiles and a very smooth scrolling experience that all just works. Just like you do with Android or iOS you sign into your phone using your Windows Live ID, which can be any email address you want, which then hooks into the underlying services that power your Windows Phone 7 handset. For the most part this is synching with things like Live Contacts, SkyDrive for your cloud storage and any other Microsoft service. For the most part these work well however I had a stumbling block at the start which did sour me initially on the platform.

So ever since I moved from my Windows Mobile device to my first iPhone all those years ago I’ve had my contacts stored in Google Contacts as that was the easiest way to ensure they’d follow me from platform to platform. Thankfully Windows Phone 7 allows you to add accounts across a wide range of services, Google being one of them. So I entered my details and hit sync…nothing happened. Indeed even when I tried to sync to my LiveID (which has nothing in it) I got a similar error saying “Attention required” and upon investigation it said that my username/password combination wasn’t correct. No matter what I did to get this to work it would always come up with this same error for both services. To rectify this I had to reset my phone to factory defaults, sign in again with my LiveID and then attempt to sync again. For Google Contacts I had to create an application specific password to use it (I have 2 factor auth turned on for my Google account)  but I wasn’t prompted for this from Windows Phone 7 like I have been for other services. Realistically I’d expect a little better from a platform that’s been around for this long and this was why I was initially unhappy with Windows Phone 7.

However all the other in built apps like email, messaging and maps work absolutely flawlessly. It didn’t take me long to get everything in sync with all my emails coming down as soon as the server received them and things like MMS, which usually require some fiddling to get them to work properly, just worked straight away from the APN settings that came down from Telstra. The problems I experienced getting my contacts onto Windows Phone 7 were really the only major issue I had with the platform itself and it speaks volumes that the rest of the experience was so trouble free by comparison.

Of course the platform itself is only part of the equation as it’s the third party applications that can make or break it. Thankfully I’m please to say that for all the major applications like Twitter, Facebook and Shazam there are native applications and the function pretty much identically to their counterparts on the other major platforms. There are of course some differences in the applications that can be rather irritating (Twitter for instance doesn’t preload tweets like it does on Android) but they are more than usable. I wouldn’t say I prefer the Windows Phone 7 experience over Android or iOS as I was very much used to the former due to it being my platform of choice for the past year and a bit but I don’t find myself wanting for any specific feature. It’s probably more due to the fact that Windows Phone 7 has its own UI styling that’s pretty consistent across all the applications and for some instances that fits well but for others it just doesn’t really work at all.

Where Windows Phone 7 starts to fall down is in the niche application area, I.E. those applications on other platforms that you have for one specific need or another. My best example of this would be SoundCloud, a music sharing application, which has a great application on both Android and iOS. For Windows Phone 7 there’s no official application and all the third party solutions are really quite bad, to the point of being unusable. Of the 3 I tried no one supported logging in with Facebook and since I have no idea what my SoundCloud password is (I never set one, because of the Facebook integration) I simply could not try them. The SoundCloud mobile application is actually quite good but it doesn’t function the way you’d expect it and in order to get similar functionality you have to do things that aren’t particularly intuitive. Reddit is another example as whilst there’s an usable application (Alien News) it’s just not as good as Reddit is Fun on Android.

The state of the niche applications might not be a big deal to the majority of people who only need a few major applications (which are well supported on Windows Phone 7) but for power users like myself it feels like you’re artificially limiting yourself to being a second class smart phone user. Now this is no fault of the platform, it’s simply a function of its popularity among the wider public, and the only thing that will solve it is more users and time. Whether that will happen is hard to say as whilst Windows Phone 7 market share has been growing it’s still hard to call it anything more than an also-ran in comparison to Android and iOS.

In an objective comparison between all the platforms, forgetting the applications as they’re not strictly reflective of the platform itself, I can say that Windows Phone 7 is most definitely comparable to Android and iOS. The interface is slick and smooth, the built in applications are very usable and there are no real show stopping bugs that prevent you from doing anything that you could do on other platforms. Whilst I’m not sure if this will become my default platform of choice for the future (considering my Lumia won’t get Windows Phone 8) I definitely can’t fault anyone for choosing it over any of the other ones available. Indeed for certain people, especially those who are heavily invested in the Microsoft platform, I’d recommend it over anything else as its tight integration with Microsoft would make it much more worthwhile.

So overall I was very impressed with Windows Phone 7 as I was truly expecting the majority of applications to be no where near as good as their iOS/Android counterparts but they were. The most telling thing was that I never found myself wanting to do something and then finding out I wouldn’t be able to do it. Sure the experience wasn’t ideal in some cases but the capability was there and in many cases that’s all that matters. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the upcoming Windows Phone 8 and whilst I won’t promise that I’ll rush out to get one for the review (I’ve made that mistake before) I won’t say to no if Microsoft gives me a loaner for a couple weeks.

Which is actually a real possibility considering I’ll be blogging for them 😀

Are Micro-Niche Businesses the Future of Commerce?

Maybe I’ve just been reading far too much into the world of startups and small business recently but there seems to be a trend towards developing niche businesses that are profitable due to their small size and low overheads. It’s a good model as it drives their founders to make sure their core business model is solid as typically they aren’t able to diversify their offerings due to their relative size, although it is possible to create multiple niche businesses with the right planning. The vast majority of them appear to be lifestyle businesses created by their owners to escape the drudgery of their corporate lives and it’s really only become possible in the last decade or so thanks in part to the information conduit that is the Internet.

I’m not the only one noticing this trend either. US census data indicates that the past couple years have seen a phenomenal amount of new businesses pop up each and every year:

If you took the time to sit down and sift through the US Census Bureau data, you’d see that over the past few years, entrepreneurs are starting new businesses at an unprecedented rate.  Consistently, the number of existing businesses at the end of the year has increased by between 500,000 and 1million.

That means that before subtracting out the number of startups that fail, the gross number of new businesses started is actually much higher than 1 million per year.  And that’s in the U.S. alone.

Why are entrepreneurs starting new businesses in record numbers?  The first chapter of my new book, Conquer the Chaos, makes the case we’re in an “Entrepreneurial Revolution” and it’s happening due to five big reasons.

The global financial crisis was a wake up call for many people and it showed that even the largest corporate entities weren’t immune to economy. As such people have become increasingly disillusioned with the traditional sense of being employed in a large company for the majority of their life and have begun to seek alternatives. Traditionally however there really weren’t many alternatives as the capital costs to starting up a business were out of reach of the everyman. Today however you can drop in an ecommerce site, set up a paypal account and find a drop shipper with your desired product and have your entire business ready to take orders in less than a week and for orders of magnitude less than what it used to cost. If you can tolerate the risk and are dedicated to achieving your goal there’s really nothing stopping you from trying and as many have proven it really does work.

This got me thinking, with so many small companies sprouting up that are targeting a specific niche how long will it be before all niches are covered? Realistically I know there are certain industries where a small company can’t really make it, usually in capital intensive markets (say high performance computing clusters). But there are an almost endless supply of other markets that can be directly targeted by small companies offering products and services specifically tailored for them. For us consumers it would mean that we (hopefully) get a much better product/service due to it being targeted directly at our needs rather than having to shoe horn in something that fits a wider audience.

The reality is though that when a niche company provides a product or service effectively it will begin to detract customers away from the current incumbent suppliers. Initially this can be ignored as larger companies can absorb such losses without it drastically affecting its business. Depending on how successful the new niche business is however the larger corporation will often look to acquiring it which most good businesses find hard to pass up. Usually this ends up with the business being melded into the larger corporate entity although in some cases you still get them operating independently with all the profits heading upstream. This is the better (for the consumer) of the two options but it is hardly the norm, as it does nothing to strengthen the parent’s brand power.

In the end it seems that whilst it’s infinitely easier to lash out on your own inevitably traditional business models will still stick around for a long time to come. For us as consumers it means that we will always be spoilt for choice when it comes to find the right product or service for your needs and should you come up empty handed you’ll be staring down the barrel of a new market. Whether you take advantage of that opportunity is completely up to you but as the trend is showing with over 1 million business being started up each year in the US alone it’s more than likely that someone else will do it if you don’t.

And now excuse me while I whip myself back into developing shape before some smart ass in a garage codes up my ideas 😉

The Internet Age: A Communication Method For Every Niche.

Cast your mind back 15 years, what was the most common way to get into contact with someone? Your answer was probably a land line telephone as the Internet was still low in its adoption rates and sending letters was starting to feel a little antiquated. Additionally faxing was beginning to take over as the de facto standard for sending documents around the globe  further cementing the telephone as the goto means for trying to communicate with someone. The alternatives where thin on the ground and realistically if you wanted to send a message to a large, multi-national audience you’d have to shell out some serious coin to get that done. Today however it seems that no matter who you are or who you want to talk to there’s already infrastructure in place to facilitate your desire to communicate and with that comes some interesting problems for those who used to dominate the international communications space.

This blog is a great example of just one of these forms of communication. Realistically if I wanted to write about things on a daily basis to a decent sized audience my options were fairly limited. Usually I’d have to have some kind of journalistic cred in order to get myself a daily column and that would also subject me to being under an editor. I could have wrote everything up, printed out thousands of copies and then hung them all over the place but that would be both time and cost prohibitive. Today I can reach a daily audience of dozens of people all for the cost of an hours work, an Internet connection and a bit of electricity to power my home server. If I was so inclined I could eliminate most of those costs by moving to a hosted solution, but I like tinkering too much to do that 😉

For the most part though I know that blogs don’t suit everyone, especially the kind of style that I’ve adopted for myself. Writing a post a day can seem like a chore to most people and if you’re like me you’re not prone to fits of creative inspiration often leading me on a frustrating hunt for something to write about. Additionally many people were already happy with their more traditional forms of communication and saw no need to start up a blog or similar to communicate to their intended audience.

Many of the new forms of communication are based around making the more traditional forms of mass communication (television, radio, newspapers, etc) much more accessible to the everyman. Primarily we have the Internet to thank for this as its pervasiveness opens up the largest potential audience for any content that you might dare to distribute. The rapid change from traditional media to the current user centric Internet experience has seen many corporations playing a game of catch up to make the most of this new medium with many just being outright hostile to what they perceive as being a threat to their bottom line. I can’t say that I blame them as any good corporations main goal is to maximize its profit for its shareholders but realistically if you’re trying to fight a fundamental change to your business model rather than adapt to it you’re not long for the technological world. There’s already a dozen hungry start ups that would be willing to take your place.

On the flip side though the various means of communication can be a bit of a curse. Although there is always a dominate player in the respective field the success of any new form of communication means there will be multiple players, all with their own distinct set of benefits. Ultimately this leads to a fragmented audience meaning either you attempt to cover off all your bases to hit the largest audience possible (exponentially increasing your work) or just target one potentially segregating off a large audience. In the end though content is still king and if you do good work people will overlook the medium in which its delivered.

What all this means for the everyman is that no matter who you are, what your message is or who your audience is there’s probably already a form of communication that’s perfectly suited to you. Want to start a TV show? Get a YouTube channel. Feel like exposing every little nuance of your life to the Internet? Get a Twitter account. Have aspirations of being a journalist but don’t want to do the training but hope that some technology/gaming/space big shot will see your potential and then pay you to write for them? Get off my territory and start a blog somewhere else boy! 😉 The traditional content gatekeepers no longer apply for those of us lucky to live in the age of the Internet, where those who wish to express themselves and their audience is only separated by a few clicks and bit of bandwidth.

OnLive: Can They Handle Being a Niche?

You might recall a while back me ranting about Cloud Computing and how it was just an idea that died a long time ago but managed to resurrect itself under a flashy web 2.0 name. In that post I made a passing mention to a gaming service called OnLive which promised to deliver high definition gaming experiences to any platform that was capable of streaming video over the Internet. Although I really didn’t mention it in that post I was pretty skeptical that it could deliver on any of its promises and had many conversations with my gamer pals along those lines. Still they had open their services up for a closed beta for carefully selected people (most notably only in the US) but details had still been scant. That was until one of the guys at PC Perspective managed to wrangle himself a login:

Of course things aren’t always as easy as they seem.  Immediately after the 2009 announcement technology and game journalists began to wonder how the game service could work as easily and and as effortlessly as OnLive claimed.  By far the most troubling question was regarding latency – how would a service like OnLive deal with the input latency (time between data leaving your PC and arriving at the data center) of a mouse, keyboard or controller?  With as much as 100 ms of delay between servers on the Internet, that is a potentially long time between your mouse movement and your mouse movement appearing on screen.

Well, obviously looking for answers, I found a login for the closed OnLive beta and decided to sit down for a couple of weeks and give the service a thorough evaluation.  In this article we’ll look at both the ease of use of the service as well as the real-world experience of playing a few of the games.  I think you will find the results to be interesting!

Indeed the results were and I encourage you to follow the link above and read through the article in its entirety. He raises some good points and also highlights what the big road blocks are for the service. There was one thing that he didn’t end up mentioning though, and that was the business model that OnLive is going to be relying on.

For game publishers OnLive is a dream come true. No longer are gamers buying physical copies of their games which have that nasty effect of generating the second hand market they can’t profit from (not for lack of trying, however) and are also rife with piracy. Instead you’re now only renting a copy of the game and the second you stop paying, you stop playing. It has the effect of turning a one off sale into a continuing revenue stream. Much like a MMO without the continual investment in providing new content. You can see why nearly every major publisher has jumped on the OnLive bandwagon, it’s a huge potential cash cow.

However the problems that Shrout notes in his review of the OnLive service are real threats to their bottom line. For instance let us assume that their service works flawlessly given you’re within a certain range of the data center. The range limit then shrinks the potential customer base substantially since, although Internet access is pervasive amongst the gamer community, not all of them are within a short distance from a data center. There’s still a large potential market of people who are (namely any city with a population over 100,000) but this still requires that OnLive servers be installed at these locations and here’s where the problems start to arise.

With any new installation there’s going to be an overhead of minimum equipment required to provide the OnLive service. This then rules out most of the smaller cities since they won’t be able to guarantee there will be enough subscribers to justify the install costs. As such it would appear that OnLive would be limited to medium to large cities who could have a large enough population to guarantee the minimum number of subscribers to make the installation viable.

There’s also the fact that the service really only appeals to the casual gaming crowd. Sure I’d love to be free of the upgrade cycle but if I have to deal with input lag, blocky compression and having to pay a continuing fee to access the games I want suddenly buying my own PC capable of playing the games doesn’t seem like so much of a hassle. Casual gamers on the other hand would rather that they just be able to play the game and would be less concerned about the issues I meant above.

So in the end the target audience for OnLive is the casual, city dwelling gamer and to be honest most of them are pretty satisfied with their consoles or Pop cap game collections. Don’t get me wrong there are definitely people out there who would use and love the service however I keep getting the feeling that the idea of OnLive somehow revolutionizing the way we play games is just plain marketing hyperbole. But then again I guess that’s what all good marketing companies do when they’re pushing a product that’s completely different from anything else that’s been offered before.

The real question then becomes: can OnLive survive and profit from this niche? Only time will tell. With our gaming rigs lasting a lot longer due to the console revolution most gamers aren’t too fussed when their rig needs an upgrade. Couple that with the average age of a gamer being somewhere in their early 30’s with a much larger disposable income and the advent of digital distribution you’re looking at a market who doesn’t really need the services that OnLive provides. They may attract enough of a crowd to continue on for as long as they need to but I doubt they’ll ever become the pervasive service that they were initially marketed to be.