He did not comment on whether they'd feature the new Motorola UI or the tried and tested shambles they usually use.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
He did not comment on whether they'd feature the new Motorola UI or the tried and tested shambles they usually use.
Friday, July 21, 2006
Let's hope the bigger players get increasingly vocal - everyone will win, from consumers through all developers up to the operators, if only they could be made to see it.
I'm intrigued as to the level of integration that Motorola and Yahoo! are going to achieve with their bundling deal. As far as I could tell Yahoo’s original offering was a vast bloated wrapper for a bunch of stuff the phone could already do better in the native UI, which may have been useful if you were a Series 60 user who used Yahoo! Mail and remembered not to install the app OTA. Why Series 60? The creator of Series 60 is head of mobile at Yahoo! and he has obviously been busy passing round the kool aid, suggesting that limiting your potential market to ~4% of the handsets out there is a credible business strategy - any day now, the other 96% will see the light and everything will be fine! Given how little they’ve achieved in mobile I was wondering how long he was going to stay in charge, but I guess the Moto deal is a big thing.
So back to the original question – what level of integration? I’m going to assume that Moto haven’t undergone a sudden conversion to Series 60, and Mobiledia just pasted an S60 screenshot onto a Moto shell because the app currently doesn’t run on anything else. Presumably then we have two options – they’re going to bundle the app in some form as a Midlet on a bunch of devices, or they are going to go for a little more integration with their new platform. Bundling the Midlet would be useless on two counts:
1) The steps to run a midlet are just too cumbersome to make use of most of the functions Yahoo! want to offer, and the integration is just not good enough. Running the midlet for phone functions is a pain and it can't run automatically/in the background so they'll just do stuff in the native UI and forget about it.
2) Motorola phones are a bitch to set up for networking through Java, and most operators just don’t supply the right settings so the user will click on the app maybe once, realize it doesn’t work, and never look at it again.
So we have to hope there is some greater integration with the rumoured new UI they are developing, if this deal is to achieve anything. Given that one of the stated aims of the Yahoo/Moto global alliance was to make internet browsing on Moto phones a better experience, this might finally be a sign that they’re addressing the hideous settings issues etc which would be a bonus for everyone. I’m not going to hold my breath though.
I never found time to blog on Yahoo’s other great mobile product, the world cup Midlet they pushed out. I tried it on a Sony-Ericsson K600i, which I’ve found is one of the fastest and most robust Java phones out there. My experience went a little like this:
1) Install very large app.
2) App syncs with server for 30 seconds.
3) App displays broken(?) countdown to something non-specific which was many months away (this was during the first round).
4) App syncs with server again.
5) Very nice looking menu appears. Try to move through menu. 1-3 second time lag on all keypresses makes menu highly frustrating.
6) Manage to move to another screen. Time lag persists.
7) Turn app off after 2 minutes (most of which spent syncing with server), uninstall.
I can’t wholly blame Yahoo! for this because they actually bought it from Everypoint; Yahoo! seem fairly incapable of actually achieving much useful in-house dev. Possibly it worked like a dream on the other handful of phones supported, but if they can’t do something slick with $14m VC funding and a jar that big on the K600 they have no clue what they’re doing.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
There's an interesting take on the mobile porting issue at MobHappy, which because of the way it was pitched to the author did read a little bit like a straight plug for Innaworks' mBooster. It's a mighty impressive compression tool with a price tag to match, but it doesn't in itself address J2ME porting. I'll expand on my comment a bit below, as porting is a huge issue with J2ME that seems to put a lot of people off.
Unless you are writing a very trivial or ugly app, no IDE will be able to seemlessly port across all devices, and a lot of the reasons for that are not specific to Java. Claiming that the restrictions imposed by handsets are tied into Java is disingenious - Java has become so widespread because some flexibility had to be given in the specs, and this has made it the only mass market platform worth developing for (except BREW in a few countries).
Any open platform which becomes deployed on multiple vendor’s devices starts to fragment, as Flash Lite is doing despite having tiny market penetration split between two largely incompatible versions. (More coming on Flash Lite at some point from Thelf I believe...)
You can adopt a one-jar-fits-all approach for simple/ugly apps, and sometimes it is forced on you when eg. you have no specialist hosting capable of delivering device-specific binaries; in these cases tools like mBooster are a particular help because they can minimise the overhead of all that redundant cross-device code. However it’s the wrong approach for most mobile apps because in the end you are forced to either needlessly restrict the app for the lowest common denominator, or more seriously you must ignore the mass market low-end phones to concentrate only on the easier high-end devices.
A well designed build system that can deliver device-specific Jars from a common codebase is essential to proper mobile development, as is a hosting system capable of pushing those Jars to the right devices. Many hosting systems are available, including all those which power the operator portals like End2End, QPass and ProvisionX and some smaller players like Mobile365; a lot of these are based on the WURFL and its absolute URL matching approach, which means every time a firmware digit changes the handset isn't properly supported for a few months until the WURFL is updated, but I guess you can't blame them for that and there are simple algorithms which can improve on it. The build system side is something you refine over time - obviously the big gaming guys will have them, and I'd imagine some of the older specialist mobile houses like Future Platforms, Masabi and Cellectivity also have equivalents, or you can pull one in from Polish (if you don't have much money) or Tira (if you do).
Here’s an incomplete summary of differences you (may) have to factor into porting:
- (many) handset-specific bugs, which get the most press but really once you know them can safely be ignored / abstracted away
- The exact MMAPI code needed to play sounds efficiently (one of the worst areas)
- Key codes, whether release events are handled reliably, etc (though some of this can be abastracted away)
- UI considerations:
- Pen vs QWERTY vs Suretype vs standard numeric
- Available keys
- Graphics optimised for the different screen sizes
- JPEG support
- Alpha transparency support
- PNG loading bugs (eg. Sagem tearing, Samsung white/transparency misloading)
- Supported sound formats
- Optional API support
- Jar sizes, and what functionality you have to drop for the small ones
I would argue it is better to ditch 90% of what you learnt about good OOP design principals though, coding for minimum memory footprint and heap fragmentation, etc etc. If you then still need extra space, as with any other tool you then assess whether the price justifies the gains and plan accordingly. Great to know it’s there, but I have heard the annual price per developer is quite some way north of Photoshop so not within everyone’s budget.
There’s a wide spectrum of approaches to the porting world. APIs like Polish can help with the porting alongside mBooster, as they also address a number of handset bugs and provide a rather lardy way of making the app look prettier than an lcdui interface. Systems like Tira Wireless’ Jump platform offer the next level of automated porting if you have some VC cash to spend and want to be further abstracted from the underlying issues. Finally you can actually know what you’re doing and learn all the handset issues the hard way, abstracting into an ultra compact reusable platform, which not everyone has time for - on the plus side that gives you absolute control over everything you put on screen, but on the minus side you then have absolute responsibility to put everything on screen correctly.
Your approach is dictated by your experience, your timeframes and your budget. mBooster can help whichever approach is best for you because it’s just a tool, and only a small part of the picture. If it all gets too much, give one of the specialists a ring, I'm sure they'll only be too pleased to handle everything for you!
Monday, July 17, 2006
World Too Hot For Exciting Phone News
Also I found out the N80 is actually just falling over on Orange and therefore the issues seem to be entirely Nokia QA related; my apologies to Symbian. It is ironic that the extensible programmable smartphone platform is incapable of handling a few simple menu extensions whereas eg. Samsung appear to be able to Orange-customise their closed non-extensible OSs on the D500, Z400 etc for near simultaneous releases across networks. But there you go...
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Ventured into the local Carphone Warehouse at the weekend with my brother who was on the lookout for an upgrade. Despite having made him squander his last upgrade on a Siemens SX-1, (worst. keypad. ever.) and the fact that barely a week has past since in which he lets me forget it, all seemed forgiven.
Perusing the selection we were jointly draw to the shiny allure of the Nokia N91. It’s quite big, but is it very, very shiny and also expensive, so when the sales assistant said he could have it for free it was a done deal. The brother got it home and spent a goodly few hours playing about with the WiFi the video files of Live8 and the like and was generally impressed. So far so good.
However he brought it around to my house last night and whilst I was browsing through the free media I got a couple of random errors about the phone being unable to read the files/disk. Restarted the phone and these went away, but it was still a bit worrying. Then I tried to transfer some MP3s from my laptop, first the software tried to convert my MP3s to AAC or some such. Ok I thought, lets give that a go. I selected 10 files and off it went, or rather it didn't. The conversion was going soooo slowly that I gave up and quit after it had only done 2 files within 5minutes. Then I went for the transfer, which similarly produced a progress bar which seemed reticent to move. After another couple of minutes I gave up. The iPod it experience, it ain't.
Despite the issues, as a phone in general I do quite like the N91. It’s got a nice weight to it, some pretty good features and did I mention how Shiny it is? However I still think the phone manufacturers have a way to go until the get these things as usable as consumer electronics devices...
Monday, July 10, 2006
The Mobile Internet - Dead or Alive?
The monkey gets very enthusiastic about the idea of connecting the physical world to information through your phone, which on the one hand is great for certain types of limited data search which could be hugely useful to users, and on the other hand is seen by marketing types as amazing because they can push loads of stuff at consumers. These two perspectives overlap - some people want the content that some marketers produce - and could lead to some great innovation in off-portal mobile distribution. But I remain sceptical that this will change the world in any deep way for the following reasons:
- The idea is presented as new, with no reference back to the guys who've been doing it for ages
- By all accounts they work very nicely, with good integration into the handset UI.
- Lack of smooth integration (preinstalled, on mass market phones) will kill the many 3rd parties trying to break into this non-Japanese market.
- Who is going to download 3rd party software and then go through 6 clicks to start it, then take a photo with it, just to get pushed on to an advert they're semi-curious about? Ergo outside select niches, these companies have no future.
- Why would Nokia, Samsung et al want to turn into mobile internet companies? Are they bored of making real money? The carriers would never let them make any revenue from this kind of service, so they will only do it if the carriers force them to. Note:
- DoCoMo did it years ago - and they rigidly control the specs of all handsets on their network;
- In the more global handset market no manufacturer has followed suit, and no other operator has enough control to demand it in a correctly integrated way, even though the handsets have been technically capable for some time (I've seen 2 year old handsets do it in near realtime in Java).
- The size of the claims inspire scepticism:
- I doubt end users will get very excited about the "billions" of links could be pushed to them on a Coke can;
- I'm even more sceptical that a can could usefully hold 'billions' of links - in practice I think one link would be the most a user could cope with, possibly a link to a menu containing various options if it was a really exciting Coke can.
- The post's language just reads like Web 2.0 groupthink not reasoned argument.
- The post points out a key danger by saying "a good mobile marketer knows how to turn pull into push" - a marketer may know how to push but a user burnt once won't sign up a second time to be hassled by a call centre robot or SMS spam.
In conclusion: as long as the user is choosing to activate a reader to follow a link on some real world item they are interested in, there is huge potential for certain types of information searches. For example: reading and storing a business card, storing a taxi number from an advert, picking up a discount token for a shop, triggering a link to a mapping servicve showing you how to get somewhere. Certainly there is more potential than the Bluetooth spam peddlers offer, who in my view risk alienating users by pushing links at anyone who strays too close. I can avoid looking at a billboard advertisement but I'd get really narked if my phone kept buzzing as I walked past shop windows - it's intrusive annoyance rather than passive background colour.
On to the other post: this dovetails nicely with the ideas discussed before on targeted niche apps driving mobile application take-up - there is no one killer app, because everyone is different and the mobile is a very personal device. VCs will be unhappy about this as there's no 2 second elevator pitch and no easy way to pour in money in the hope of forcing a sale or float before everyone realises it was a rubbish idea; they will likely continue pouring money into mobile social networking and other ideas that almost everyone thinks of within the first ten minutes of a brainstorming session. No-one has yet done these well because ultimately phone calls and SMS are the killer apps in the socializing field, and incremental improvements are more likely to win out then advertising-subsidised or subscription-based awkward add-ons. I digress - no need to add anything else, just read the article!
Saturday, July 08, 2006
Chair: "So who owns the customer, Vodafone or BSkyB? Who deals with customer care and funds the spectrum purchase?"
BSkyB: "It’s a joint venture so we have to sort it out in our back office. As to who funds the spectrum investment, well that’s the million pound question."
Vodafone: "The thing that the operator has is the customer. I think fundamentally it’s our customer... (snip)"
Chair: "So he thinks you’ve got a joint venture, and you think you own the customer!"
Vodafone: "I think we have to recognise that we have responsibility for the customer."
This sounds like the behaviour of a jealous insecure child, publicly undermining a friend. The vastly overhyped failure that will be mobile TV is the subject for another post, but if you had two brands like Voda and Sky trying to really make mobile TV work you could do all sorts of innovative stuff leveraging the Sky digital STBs and on-handset services to tie mobile into the living room TV experience and vice versa; instead, you have a dysfunctional relationship where everyone gets protective about money that isn't even there yet, hardly a recipe for success.
Growth in the games market has stalled for a number of reasons: content discovery has to be the biggest barrier, but the ~50% average revenue share taken by operators (on top of aggregator revenue shares etc) makes it an unprofitable business for all but the largest. This will lead to the same dearth of innovative content currently worrying the mainstream games industry (read any issue of Edge to get a palpable sense of it). Developers run for the big name brands and produce formulaic rubbish because they know operators will put it on the top of the content decks and it will sell for now, at the cost of downstream poisoning of the industry.
Music is another area where a potentially great service is being stifled by operator greed. I have never understood why people would pay £2-3 for a ringtone, especially when often it's just a 30 second MP3 with an abrupt fade-to-silence at an inappropriate moment; this screams of utter disdain for the consumer when a full track can be downloaded for 99 cents on iTunes (and even that is steep). But in the short term it has made some money, so it will continue. Operators brought up on this then want to price music accordingly - I'm sure at some meeting between the innumerable layers of bureaucratic dross in Vodafone someone keeping a consistent pricing strategy and charging a tenner for a full song. In China piracy has forced the operators to keep down at the 15% revenue share level for music, but they are also looking to change that by forcing themselves into a larger role in the "value" chain.
Writing this article vividly brings to my mind the description of the mining industry in Jared Diamond's book Collapse: an industry which gouges everything it can with no thought for others leaving huge problems for everyone else. Even the oil industry is slowly waking up to the advantages of sustainable responsible development, but mining has basically wiped itself out in the US because of the way it conducted business.
Whilst Vodafone pride themselves on being the biggest - largest number of non-Chinese customers in the world, most expensively hyped content portal, biggest UK corporate loss, largest failure in the Japanese mobile market - ultimately it needs to get over the billions European governments extorted for 3G licenses and become a data pipe with added benefits. They have a solid role to play in all of the content markets, eg. providing payment infrastructure at acceptable rates, but not at . Making this transition whilst still providing growth will be hard - but strangling every new potential market that grows up around the mobile phone just ruins the party for everyone. DoCoMo have managed to build a functioning ecosystem by leveraging their near monopoly to deliver compelling new features to a Japanese market isolated from the rest of the mobile world, but this will largely be a voyage into uncharted territories where innovation and agility will suddenly be useful again.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
The Apply iPhone (TBC) Will Be The Greatest Phone Ever! (repeat every slack news day)
I may not be the first commentator to suggest that Apple have done rather well with the iPod. Their core product traits - insistence that usability should play a part in the dev cycle and penchant for slick case design - have proven to be rather more effective at selling consumer-oriented digital music players than they ever were selling computers for rich gay people (and graphic designers etc – I’m not passing judgement on being rich or gay as a lifestyle choice, just pointing out a trend). Creative and the other early competitors were left standing, and Sony were very much caught with their pants down on what should have been their home turf.
Convergence is a big buzz word now and Apple would be remiss if they weren’t eyeing up the latest Walkman-badged handsets or the Nokia N91 and putting a future phone strategy into place: the iPod market will never match the mobile handset market for size, and it could easily be sucked dry. There are a lot of arguments about whether single do-everything gadgets are a good thing or not, and I don’t see either side winning an outright victory. I’d categorise electronic gadget consumers into three rough groups:
- People who love gadgets and will always buy as many as they can;
- People who prefer a small working subset (maybe a phone, music player, watch, camera) and pack according to what they are doing;
- People who just don’t care that much about electronics and 90% of the time have no need for more than a single basic device that does one thing well – and usually, that’ll be a phone for SMS & voice calls, which can also tell the time. (LINK?)
I’m looking at my Nokia 770 sitting largely unused on top of my 6”x4” photo printer and putting myself in the first group. I’d hazard a guess that most people are in group three, which suggests to me that the handset market will get more and more fragmented as niche devices are fine-tuned to the preferences of different market segments.
Back to Apple – how does this affect them? Many fanboys, which seems to include a lot of commentators and industry analysts, see convergence as inevitable, Apple as largely infallible when it comes to case and UI design, and therefore predict Apple will launch a phone and everyone will buy it. Apple’s traditional strengths and iPod success seem intuitively to support this, and maybe it will happen. But I think a fanboy’s intuition sometimes has a little bias that should be questioned.
We shall ignore the Rokr E1 and pretend it never happened, because it should never have happened.It was a low cost way to dabble in the market maybe, but spending money to damage your brand in a new market does not seem to make business sense to me whether it be a big or a small amount of money, and I cannot see how anyone ever thought this could work.Moto have terrible UIs, Apple are famed for good UIs. The E1 was ugly, Apple are famed for beautiful product. And the music capabilities were a bad joke.Enough said.
What sort of phones would Apple actually want to sell? Whilst they’ve tasted the mainstream with the iPod, it’s still a premium product carrying a hefty price tag from which Apple takes a healthy profit (though let’s be charitable and assume they splash out a little of it on an extra bowl of rice for their Chinese sweatshop workers at Christmas or something). The same strategy holds with the Mac, where you pay a massive premium for the Mac OS and the case despite the commoditised internals. So we can assume that if Apple does release a phone, they’ll be pushing for the premium end of the market with a music bias, and they’ll probably stick to this lucrative niche rather than trying to go head to head with, for example, the Nokia 1100. It might even be sensible to market the Apple phone as a member of the iPod family, though the distribution channels would be slightly more diverse.
Over the years Apple have generally excelled with the case design of both Macs and iPods giving the gay men, women, monarchs and graphic designers of the world some design classics which accessorise nicely and/or suit their home décor better than a beige box. Cumulatively they’ve also sold more iPods than Moto has sold RAZRs, though that is really just highlighting the relative sizes of the music player and mobile handset markets. Looks are crucial in the fashion-driven mobile sector - see RAZR again, and LG’s Chocolate as well where you pay a massive premium to collect your fingerprints on the shiny case. Can Apple keep rolling out updates to their phone’s case design fast enough for such a fickle audience? Probably, as they just need to keep knocking out slight revisions around a central theme as they have with the iPod. If things get desperate they can always do the usual and change the case colour, on the safe assumption that the faithful will buy another one anyway.
Phone UIs are generally appalling and any shakeup of the market that brings UI design to the fore has to be a good thing. Apple are usually competent at UI design, if they can be restrained from placing an inch of mock brushed-aluminium around everything, so they are starting from a better place than most but I think this are will be more problematic for them.
Very few consumers currently buy a handset based on usability – they buy one that looks nice, has long battery life, or a 3Mp camera, but they usually assume they’ll get used to however it works. The main exception would be brand loyalty – “I’ve always used a Nokia so I know how they work so I’ll always buy Nokias” – but this inertia usually just reduces the number of models they can select from using the same basic criteria of looks, battery, etc. You’ve got to pity the poor people who upgrade to S60 assuming they’ll get that simple S40 interface they know and love, but that’s another story. Apple could conceivably change this, in that the brand carries an implicit usability guarantee which won’t hurt uptake – if it is met.
Expectations will be very high for an Apple phone, probably Phantom Menace high. They are going to have to maintain the simplicity of the iPod for MP3 playing to persuade their existing customers to upgrade, whilst adding a vast array of extra features which must be created from scratch as they get to grips with a new OS and a lot of complex hardware. Taiwanese box shifters will be less help for Apple than they are for other new entrants to the phone market because they won’t want to take a standard platform (think HTC) and just stick their badge on it. The more they rely on 3rd party software components the less control they will have over the UI – they can probably get away with things like a 3rd party JVM if they just add a little UI tweaking (please God not Esmertec’s), but the core phone functions will all have to be written from the ground up. This is a mammoth task which will require huge investment in a non-core area of Apple’s business, and also large ongoing costs as they will now have to keep pace in an incredibly fast moving market.
All this development will have to keep on track against a moving target: the final feature spec of the phone will need to match in a lot of respects the other high-end phones in the market, but the phone can’t be launched until it’s perfect. Launching a phone that is underspecified could be bad, but launching a phone which isn’t simplicity itself to use and/or has serious bugs could be fatal.Apple would have a much harder time recovering from a Nokia 6600-style release than Nokia did, where heavy marketing was booked in advance and the phone had to ship on time even with serious bugs that took months to be fixed post-launch.I doubt we’ll see a Duke Nuke ‘Em Forever bottomless development pit, but there’s a risk that we could get something more akin to Sierra Wireless’ first and only phone, the Voq: despite requiring almost no software development it shipped late and buggy, with a keypad that would have been groundbreaking a year earlier but had already been overtaken by the Blackberry et al on launch. The handset division was canned and shareholders sued.
Apple must either release a phone or allow iPod sales to shrink as convergence starts to bite, something Wall Street is never keen on. It is dangerous to assume this phone will be the greatest ever - it will probably just sit in a small high-margin niche, alongside some heavy competition from bigger more experienced companies. A lot of diehard fans will buy it when it is launched regardless, but it has to meet their expectations else they won’t be coming back and they won’t be joined by anyone else. The iPod has defined a new market and pulled it into the mainstream, the phone however will launch into a faster bigger mature market with large, well established and aggressive competitors and it will be a much more complex product; more like the Mac than the iPod, but it is unlikely to achieve such a high market share as the Mac within the first few years.
I think to my mind this is not so much a Symbian issue as a QA issue at Nokia, involving the S60 team and Symbian. Almost every major Nokia S60 launch has been dogged with serious bugs (7650, 6600, 6630, N80...) even if their launch was delayed (NM850iG, N91, ...). They have to get this right - if they can't then they will lose ground at the high-end to other platforms, such as Windows (still offering the full Windows desktop experience, ie. repeated crashes and OS reinstallations/updates every few months, but improving with every revision) and potentially the new Linux-based initiative when it finally brings a stable platform to market. While they're at it they could still usefully improve the UI as well, but that's another story.
In good news for Symbian though, the father of S60 is really rather happy that the N73 is just as great as he assumed, featuring adequate speed and an aluminium grille. No news yet on whether Orange et al agree.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
I do feel that the slant is slightly misleading though:
- The Symbian figures imply exponential growth because they neglect to state that they are also cumulative (Symbian claim 11.6m devices shipped in 06Q1).
- For a fair comparison, you'd ignore all Symbian shipments before the start of 2005 and find Symbian had only just outsold RAZRs over the period
- 45.5m vs what looks like 42-43m from the graph
- Symbian have ~100 models compared to one RAZR, or maybe four (not sure what is counted in the RAZR figures - V3i? V3m? V3x? - and Symbian may have more handsets, they just note that the 100th model shipped during Q1).
Aside from the slight bias in the reporting, which I feel implicitly exagerates the trends somewhat but doesn't actually completely break the truth, there are a few extra things which would be nice to know:
- Where do the Symbian sales come from? How many, for example, are locked-down Symbian on DoCoMo's 3G phones that have been heavily pushed this year? Japan is apparently the fastest growing market for Symbian phones, which makes sense given DoCoMo's market dominance there and standardisation on Symbian for FOMA.
- How will these be canabilised by DoCoMo's flirtation with Linux (which is admittedly hardly new but looks a little more substantial now)?
- What would happen if Nokia shunted S60 onto Linux, which given the abstraction in the architecture should theoretically be very easy to do given a sufficiently robust fully featured Linux platform? I'm not sure why they'd want to given their de facto control of Symbian, but they are clearly keeping their options open...