Posts Tagged‘smartphone’

Nokia and Windows Phone 7: A Force to be Reckoned With.

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 Doesn’t Make Sense as a Consumer Technology.

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.

This Isn’t The Microsoft I Know…

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.

Windows Phone 7, Colour Me Impressed.

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.

Windows Phone 7: An Inertial Juggernaught.

6 months ago saw the announcement of Microsoft’s attempt to remain relevant in the smartphone space: Windows Phone 7. At the time I poked fun at it the fact that it was basically Microsoft’s interpretation of what the iPhone would’ve looked like if they made it but realised that the platform had potential. If there’s one thing Microsoft is good at its throwing money at a problem until they eventually get it right, like with the Xbox (are they even making money on the consoles yet?) and Windows Phone 7 seemed to be one of those kinds of problems. One thing that it did have going for it was the fact that a Windows developer like me could code for the device without reskilling too much and that’s where the real power is.

As much fun as it is to learn a new platform it’s still a giant barrier to building an application on a new platform. I haven’t done any development on any mobile clients yet purely because the two major ones I want to target use a language that I’m not familiar with. Sure there are cross platform libraries that might help to ease the learning curve but unfortunately they’ve been hamstrung by Apple’s restrictions and aren’t fully compatible with my IDE of choice, Visual Studio. So for any enterprising developer looking to build a mobile application there’s always an initial hump to get over in order to be an effective developer on the platform. That or you shell out some dollars to get someone else to do it for you, but not everyone can afford that.

If you were just to look at the number of developers working on any platform, whether it was mobile/desktop/web/whatever, the largest group would arguably be those working on Windows. With the number of desktops, laptops and other devices running some form of Windows exceeding 80% of the total computers worldwide the number of developers working on that platform far outnumbers that of any other. Microsoft knows this and whilst anti-trust legislation will prevent them from using their current monopoly on the desktop to leverage into the mobile space that won’t stop them from making it damn attractive for developers to gravitate to the Windows Phone 7 platform.

Now I’ve been a developer for a while, about 6 years as an amateur and maybe half that as being paid to do it as part and parcel of my usual system admin responsibilities. In that time I’ve used my share of environments, languages and platforms and out of the lot the one that I keep coming back to is Visual Studio. Whilst some might hate me for this next comment Microsoft’s tools just make coding things so damned easy to the point where there’s nothing I don’t think I’m a tutorial away from being able to do myself. Microsoft knows this and the past few months have seen them trying to lure their developers over to the mobile space with things like free development environments only seeking to charge you once you’re sign up for their marketplace.

They just don’t stop there either. Microsoft made headlines about a month ago when they gave each and every one of their employees a new WP7 phone. It was however a veiled gift as it came with the instructions that not only should they evangelize them amongst their friends but also develop apps for them in their spare time. With Microsoft having 89,000 employees this is no small number of handsets and whilst not all of them are developers (I’d hazard a guess at 30~40%) there’s still enough of them there to have their numbers brushing up against both the iPhone and Android platforms. That doesn’t even include potential developers outside Microsoft who might just start developing for WP7 if it takes off merely because it would be easy to do so. Realistically if Microsoft can harness the power of their developer base in the same way Apple did with theirs they could really pull themselves around in the mobile space, maybe even turning it into a 3 horse race.

The question is of course whether or not the teaming masses of Windows developers will find any point in developing for the mobile space. It can be argued that many desktop applications, where the vast majority of Windows application developers reside, can’t be transitioned onto a mobile platform in any useful way. Realistically if any developer was looking to tackle the mobile market they would have done so already and consequently have substantial investment in their platform of choice. Still the ease at which WP7 applications can be developed using existing skills and knowledge means that the platform might just become dominate because it brings developers to the mobile space that would have never considered it before. Since it can be argued that Windows Mobile is arguably the same thing as WP7 (just not as sexy) it’s going to take a bit more wooing from Microsoft to draw those reluctant developers over and in the lead up to the first WP7 phone hitting the markets will show them doing just that.

Personally I’m still excited about it. I’ve tried to develop simple applications for Windows Mobile before and it was always a royal pain in the ass. The new Windows Presentation Framework based interface for WP7 means that developing code for them will be that much easier. Additionally the integration with existing code bases will mean that the kinds of functionality that would usually have to be developed for the specific platform can now be leveraged with minor modifications, something that I know will at least have developers playing around with WP7.

And that is what has the potential to make WP7 the dominant player in the mobile space.

There’s No One Device To Change The World.

I consider myself to be pretty lucky to be living in a time when technical advancements are happening so rapidly that the world as we knew it 10 years ago seems so distant as to almost be a dream. Today I carry in my pocket as much computing power as what used to be held in high end desktops and if I so desire I can tap into untold pools of resources from cloud based companies for a fraction of what the same ability would’ve cost me even a couple years ago. With technology moving forward at such a fever pace it is not surprising that we manage to come up with an almost infinite number of ways in which to utilize it. Within this continuum of possibilities there are trends towards certain aspects which resonate with a need or want that certain audiences have, thereby driving demand for a product centered around them. As such we’ve seen the development of many devices that are toted as being the next revolution in technology with many being touted as the future of technology.

Two such ideas spring to mind when I consider recent advances in computing technology and both of them, on the surface, appear to be at odds with each other.

The first is the netbook. I can remember clearly the day that they first started making the rounds in the tech news circles I frequent with the community sentiment clearly divided over this new form of computing. In essence a netbook is a rethink of traditional computing ideals in that the latest and greatest computer is no longer required to do the vast majority of tasks that users require. It took me back to my years as a retail salesman as I can remember even back then telling over 90% of my customers that any computer they bought from us would satisfy their needs since all they were doing was web browsing, emailing and documents. The netbook then was the embodiment of the majority of users requirements with the added benefit of being portable and most importantly cheap. The market exploded as the low barrier to entry brought portable computing to the masses who before netbooks never saw a use for a portable computer.

The second is tablets. These kinds of devices aren’t particularly new although I’ll forgive you if your first ever experience with such a device was the iPad. I remember when I was starting out at university I looked into getting a tablet as an alternative to carrying around notepads everywhere and was unfortunately disappointed at the offerings. Back then the tablet idea was more of a laptop that got a swivel touchscreen added to it. Couple that with the fact that in order to keep costs down they were woefully underpowered you had devices that, whilst they had their niche, didn’t have widespread adoption. The introduction of a more appliance focused device in the form of the iPad arguably got the other manufacturers developing devices for consumption rather than general computing. Now the tablet market has exploded with a flurry of competing devices, all looking to capture this next computing revolution.

Both of these types of devices have been touted as the future of computing at one point or another and both have been pushed as being in direct competition with each other. In fact the latest industry numbers and predictionswould have you believe that the tablet market has caused a crash in the number of netbook sales. The danger in drawing such conclusions is that you’re comparing what amounts to an emerging market to an established maturing industry. Slowing growth might sound like a death knell to an industry but that’s actually more to do with the fact that as a market matures there are more people not buying the devices because they already have one, I.E. the market is reaching saturation point. Additionally the percentages give the wrong idea since you’re ignoring the market size. In 2010 alone there have already been 20 million netbooks sold, over 6 times that of the iPad and similar devices. Realistically these devices aren’t even in competition with each other.

So why did I choose the rather grandiose title for this post rather than say “Tablets vs Netbooks, Facts and Figures”? The answer, strangely enough, lies within spaghetti sauce:

(I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch that entire video, it’s quite fantastic)

The talk focuses on the work of Howard Moskowitzwho is famous for reinventing the canned spaghetti sauce industry. Companies approached him to find out what the perfect product would be for their target markets. After following tradition scientific methods he found that his data bore no correlation to the variables that he had to play with until he realised that there could be no perfect product, there had to be perfect products. The paradigm shift he brought on in the food industry can be seen in almost all products they produce today with specific sets of offerings that cater to the various clumps of consumers that desire their products.

How the heck does this relate to tablets and netbooks? Simple, neither one of these types of products is the perfect solution to end user computing and neither were any of the products that came before it. Over time we’ve discovered trends that seem to work well in worldwide markets and we’ve latched onto those. Then companies attempt to find the perfect solution to their users needs by trying to aggregate all possible options. However no one product could attempt to satisfy everyone and thus we have a diverse range of devices that fit our various needs. To make the three types of sauces analogy there are those who like their computing focused on consumption (tablets, MIDs, consoles), creation (desktops, laptops, netbooks) and integration (smartphones). These are of course wholly unresearched categories, but they seem to ring true from my anecdotal experience with friends and their varying approaches towards computing.

So whilst we may have revolutions and paradigm shifts in the computing world no one of them will end up being the perfect solution to all our needs. As time goes by we will begin to notice the trends and clumps of users that share certain requirements and develop solutions for them so the offerings from companies will become increasingly focused on these key areas. For the companies it means more work as they play catch up as each of these revolutions happens and for us it means a greater computing experience than we’ve ever had before, and that’s something that never fails to excite me.

Femtocells: I’m Not Paying For Your Infrastructure.

I spent the vast majority of my life living out in the country where mobile phone reception was scarce even when you were on the top of the highest hill you could find. For many years I stayed with Telstra because they were the only ones that could provide me with a connection that wouldn’t drop out most of the time and, thanks to my employment at a retail establishment that peddled their wares, I was able to get a very decent plan that kept me going until about 2 years ago. After moving into the city I’ve always felt spoiled having mobile phone reception wherever I go and I’m still mildly surprised when I get coverage indoors since the corrugated iron roof we had would kill any signal. I know I’m not the only one who’s had these kinds of issues but since I was at home I had many other ways to contact people, it was more the convience factor for those few who didn’t have IM or email.

The problem hasn’t gone away for my rural comrades who still languish with poor cell phone reception. Since the population is spread out so sparsely it’s not worth any mobile provider’s time and money to try and improve the signal out there as their potential customer base is quite small. It’s the same reason that they haven’t bothered with upgrading many rural exchanges with the DSLAM architecture required to give the same people broadband although there are other companies providing directional wireless broadband solutions to cover these guys off (that’s not the same as 3G broadband, just in case you were thinking that). The solution that companies overseas seem to be peddling to those who don’t get the mobile reception that they want seems to lie with the introduction of Femtocells, but I can’t really see how that fixes anything, nor why anyone would actually pay for the privilege.

A femtocell is basically a small version of those giant cell towers you see every so often. They work off the idea that they can route the voice and data traffic over a broadband connection, usually provided by the person who has purchased the femtocell. From a technical point of view it’s actually quite a simple and elegant solution as it makes use of existing infrastructure to provide a service that some people potentially lack. When deployed into the real world however there’s some issues that I just can’t see a simple solution for, especially when you consider those in a situation similar to mine all those years ago.

Firstly there’s the dependency on a broadband connection. Now whilst I’m not terribly familiar with the broadband situation in the USA here in Australia if you’re lucky enough to be able to get any kind of broadband the chances are you’re within a certain short distance from a telephone exchange which typically has its own cell tower. If you’re unable to get cell phone reception but you have connected broadband you’re either inside a building (which usually only kills 3G) or in some kind of freakish blackspot. Either way you’re still connected to the outside world via the Internet and possibly a landline or VOIP phone which could be your mobile phone if it’s capable of running Skype or similar. Additionally for those of us who lived with little to no mobile reception and lack proper broadband a femtocell is useless, since it simply can’t operate in those conditions.

There’s also the fact that, should Australian mobile carriers follow the USA’s lead, femtocells will have to be purchased by the end user. Now it’s always nice to have full bars on your phone but realistically if you’re at home there’s not really a need for it. The data aspect is fully covered by having wifi in the house which even the cheapest of ADSL routers come with these days. I can understand the voice aspect somewhat although if you have broadband in Australia you either have a landline which you can divert your mobile to when you’re out of range of a tower or you have naked DSL and VOIP, which could be used in much the same way. Additionally if you’ve got a smartphone there’s the possibility of using something like Skype which would still be contactable via the Internet should you lose signal at home. Really the mobile carriers should provide the customer with an outdoor picocell instead as coverage blackspots like that tend not to be isolated to a single household.

I guess I’m approaching this problem from the view of someone technically inclined as I can see the attraction for someone who’s stuck in a blackspot and doesn’t want to mess around with diverts and VOIP on their phone. Still the limited application of such devices really makes me think it should be a cost beared by the carrier as realistically it’s their infrastructure that the customer is paying for as even if it was free there’s still the broadband connection, bandwidth and power required for these devices. The problem would be rendered completely moot if a service like Google Voice came to Australia but for now it seems we’re still stuck with less than ideal solutions to poor signal issues in residential areas.

Android Going Nintendo on Apple.

I haven’t really blogged a lot about Android handsets mostly because I’ve never owned one of the beasts. My checkered past with the dominant supplier of hardware for the devices had me casting skeptical looks their way for the first year of Android’s existence but it’s become quite clear that since then they’ve managed to release some solid hardware backed up by  ever improving software in both the platform and the applications that are being developed for it. The current Android darling (HTC EVO 4G) has been selling out with an almost Apple like fever across the United States. It seems that the Android platform has finally hit critical mass, and people are starting to take notice.

The most notable data points I have to support this view is the often quote number of Android handsets sold per day. Back in February Google announced, much to everyone’s surprise, that they were shipping around 60,000 Android handsets per day. It took another 3 months before they’d quote that same metric again where upon they stunned everyone by saying that their shipped volumes had grown to over 100,000 per day. Two days ago saw them quote this metric once again albeit with the staggering figure of 160,000 sold per day:

Android cofounder and Google vice president Andy Rubin just announced at the Droid X event that 160,000 Android devices are being sold per day. That’s up sharply from last month when Google announced that 100,000 Android devices were being activated each day.

As recently as February the number was just 60,000 per day. The Droid X will begin shipping on July 15 for $200. Given how hot the EVO is selling on Sprint, we can probably expect another jump in those Android sales numbers soon.

If you take those numbers as an average then you get Android sales of approximately 14.4 million per quarter. Compare that to the most recent figures from Apple on their iPhone at about 8.8 million per quarter then it becomes clear that Android is now a very serious competitor in the mobile space. Apple might not be worried though and there’s a good reason for that, they’re taking a leaf out of Nintendo’s book (hear me out here people).

You see long before the Wii was released Nintendo was struggling to keep up with other 2 of the major console gaming giants. Sony was dominating the market with their Playstation 2 and Nintendo’s current answer, the GameCube, wasn’t the smash hit that its past generations were. Knowing that they had to innovate or die Nintendo began the process of identifying their market and began to reform themselves around this idea. In essence their target market, the loyal customers of decades gone past, had grown up and now saw Nintendo’s offerings as childish. The now grown up gamers were more happy with the offerings of Sony and Microsoft respectively and Nintendo, not wanting to lose the family friendly title they’d earned themselves, began to look beyond the gamer title to discover their biggest untapped market: people who didn’t play games. The result is the Nintendo Wii a console that was so wildly popular that they were sold out constantly for months at a time. Nintendo knew that some of the biggest markets are the ones with people not using your products.

Contrasting this with the Apple vs Android battle the similarities to Nintendo start to become apparent. Apple only makes two handsets both of which are really the same product. Granted it’s a pretty good product that is arguably the cause for the creation of its current competitors. Android on the other hand is now available on a multitude of devices with plenty more in the pipeline from multiple manufacturers. For Android sales this means that there’s a handset to suit almost any mobile phone user out there opening up a much wider market than that of the iPhone. Thus many of the features reserved for the annals of the smartphone users have now trickled down to the lower end of the market. This is simply a market that Apple won’t capture because realistically, that’s not where the money is for them.

There are of course pitfalls to capturing such a wide market. Platform fragmentation is something that all developers wanting to bring their application onto Android handsets have to deal with. For good programmers it’s an easy but time consuming task to overcome as you either aim your application at the lowest common denominator thereby limiting its capabilities or you deliberately shut out a segment of the market, potentially damaging your revenue streams or potential user base. Whilst this could be overcome with faster response times from handset manufacturers with software updates it still stands as a barrier to developers adopting the Android platform and it remains to be seen how Google will cope with it.

Realistically even though I expect Android to become the dominate player in the smartphone market I don’t think Apple will be affected that much. They carved out their product niche a long time ago and the users they courted back then will remain loyal to them for a long time to come. Android with their shotgun approach to market domination will capture more users overall but I think that for a long time to come they’ll still be playing catch up with Apple in terms of market potential. In the end though the smartphone war means better products and a bigger catalog of handsets to choose from, a boon to consumers everywhere.

It’s one of those rare occasions where everyone wins. Apple gets their profitable niche, Google creates an open platform that anyone can use and we get ever more capable phones. Isn’t that just plain awesome?

When SmartPhones Became Phones.

The last two years have seen a very impressive trend upwards in terms of the functionality you can fit in your pocket. It didn’t seem like too long ago that streaming a YouTube video to your phone would take half an hour to load and would cost you at least $5. Compared to today when my phone is actually a usable substitute for my fully fledged computer when I’m on the move. For the everyman this has led to even the cheapest of phones being filled to the brim with oodles of technology with even sub $100 phones having features like GPS and 3G connectivity. Even more interesting is the line that once separated smart phones from regular phones has become increasingly blurry to the point where consumers rarely make the distinction anymore.

Realistically the initiator of this paradigm shift¹ was Apple as they brought technology that was usually out of reach to everyone. Sure they did it whilst making a decent buck off everyone but they broke down that barrier many people held that paying over $200 for a phone was something of an extravagance. Now it’s not unusual for anyone to shell out up to $1000 on a phone these days, especially when that cost is hidden away in the form of a 2 year contract. The flow on effect was not limited to Apple however, and now we have yet another booming industry with many large corporations vying for our wallets.

For the most part Apple still reigns supreme in this world. Whilst they’re by no means the largest competitor in the smartphone market, that helm still belongs to Symbian, they still carry the lion’s share of mobile Internet traffic. That hasn’t stopped Google’s competing platform from sneaking up on them with them taking 24% to Apple’s 50%. The growth is actually becoming something of a talking point amongst the tech crowd as whilst Google has floundered in its attempts to replicate Apple’s succes with its Nexus One it’s platform is surging forward with little signs of slowdown. Could it be that the line Google towed of open winning out in the long run has some truth to it?

Amongst developers the one thing that gets trotted out against programming for Android is the market segmentation. With the specs on Android devices not tightly controlled you have many different variables (screen size, is it multi-touch, does it have a keyboard, etc) to account for when building your application. With the iPhone (and soon Windows Phone 7) those variables are eliminated and your development time is cut by a significant amount. Still the leniency granted by the Android platform means that manufacturers are able to make a wide variety of handsets that can cater to almost any need and budget, opening up the market considerably. So whilst Apple might have broken through the initial barrier to get people to buy smartphones it would appear that people are now starting to crave something a little more.

For every person that has an iPhone there’s quite a few who want something similar but couldn’t afford it or justify the expense. The Android platform, with over 60 handsets available, gives those people an option for a feature rich phone that doesn’t necessarily attract the Apple premium. In essence Apple pioneered demand for devices that it had no interest in developing and Google, with it’s desire to be in on the ground level for such a market, took the easier road of developing (well really they bought it) an open platform and leaving the handsets up to the manufacturers. At the time this was a somewhat risky move as despite Google’s brand power they had no experience in the mobile world, but it seems to be paying off in spades.

Real competition in any markets is always a good thing for end consumers and the mobile phone space is no exception. Today almost any handset you buy is as capable as a desktop PC was 10 years ago, fueling demand for instant access information and Internet enabled services. Google and Apple are gearing up to duke it out for the top spot in this space and I for one couldn’t be more excited to see them duke it out. I never really want to see either of them win though because as long as they’re fighting to keep their fans loyal I know the mobile world will keep innovating at already blistering pace they’ve managed to sustain over the past 2 years.

¹Don’t you dare call buzzword bingo here, that’s a proper use of the term.