Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Designer Confusion

Apparently, "Since its March 2007 debut the Prada Phone by LG has been recognized as one of the world's most sophisticated handset combining innovative design with technological breakthroughs including the first complete touch screen."

Yes, that's right, the first complete touch screen ever. On anything? Well I assume they, like everyone else, know all about the touchscreen microwave in 2001 so they probably just mean the first on a mobile handset. Because of course all touchscreens on handsets prior to 2007, from 2000's Ericsson R380 through the Sony-Ericsson P800 and right the way on up to 2006's HTC TyTN were not, in fact, complete touch screens. No, they were all bereft of something, despite offering touch recognition over their entire screens. Possibly a designer logo or something.

It certainly has nothing to do with a lack of buttons, because the Prada has three on the front and a whole load round the edge. It may be to do with finger control instead of the more conventional stylus favoured by the UIQ and Windows Mobile devices that came before it - but that would assume some sort of definition of 'complete' hitherto unknown to me...

Alternatively, the press release may purely talking about phones that might be owned by people who would actually buy something because it had 'Prada' written on it. That is understandable, of course - the plebs really aren't worthy of consideration, and the P800 was certainly not marketed at the world's fashionistas.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How Many App Stores Does The World Need?

Can anyone replicate the success of the Apple iTunes App Store? Plenty are trying in the standard 'me too' world of the press release and the 'visionary' VC, but have they a hope in hell?

Arguably, Apple have only managed to be successful with wireless applications because they have tethered them to the PC, requiring cable-based syncing from a desktop app in much the same way that the geekier mobile customers have been doing with GetJar and Handango for years. Heaven forbid a user might want to bypass the desktop tether – that's not what the wireless experience is about, after all.

They can only do this for two reasons – the device treats apps as first class citizens in the very simple UI structure, encouraging use, and because iTunes already existed as an essential part of the handset's infrastructure. iTunes existed long before the iPhone and its App Store, and for a very compelling reason – a music player is no good without music, and digital music is the sort of content that must be synced between a player and a bigger storage system, which means a desktop computer. Apple executed both the hardware and the software well at a critical turning point in the market, and now owns that market (though arguably iTunes is only a so-so music management tool, and took ages to sell very much).

Wither the recent app stores, then, without this strong heritage and compelling existing service to piggyback on?

Blackberry may have a chance. Much like the iPhone, Blackberry users are a very loyal niche in the marketplace with very specific needs, cash rich and tied to their devices. As a glorified email machine, it is tied to the desktop and there are existing mechanisms for corporate rollout of apps etc, along with a well known and easy to use development system (OK, it's god awful for developers, but it is possible to write apps with minimal fuss).

Microsoft have dropped the ball for so long it has probably rolled off somewhere and can't be picked up again. The platform is buried under custom UIs these days, and has no coherent customer base, pushed on the one hand to US business users and on the other to PAYG users as own-brand operator handsets like the SPV, the XDA etc. Seems a remote forlorn hope an app store would in any way revive it, even though the desktop sync experience can be better than average for contacts and the like.

Android has no users. One day that will change, but by how many? Hard to say right now.

The rest probably won't be seeing iTunes App Store numbers, ever.

The operators hurriedly announcing app stores are making non-announcements, they have had app stores for ever in the form of their stifling content portals. They can send out BREW or Java apps just as well as they can send out games, and in many cases have been doing so. They have long been poor at content discovery and they serve a wide range of devices which most developers can't effectively address (though it is quite possible to do so if you know what you are doing).

The handset manufacturers probably will try and compete, probably by rehashing their current game portals, which do very little business as far as I am aware. Buys them a press release but not much more.

Nokia are the obvious exception here, as they have been aggressively pursuing a service strategy in the form of Ovi, and they have enormous market share (a lower percentage than Apple's iPods, but vastly more shipped units). Could Nokia emulate iTunes in this respect?

It is possible. They could. But they won't.

Apple has sold primarily music devices – the iPhone is an extension of this, and probably some users don't use it much for music (or video and other media consumption), but even if they don't those same users must still use iTunes to update firmware, and just to charge the battery over the USB cable. Apple have managed to make firmware updates so simple users actually don't mind doing them, something Nokia has never managed despite some serious effort, releasing firmware so buggy it's amazing any user could stand to use it without an upgrade – 6600 anyone? So we can probably concede that most users of the iPhone will have synced at least a little music with it, and will probably have been familiar with iTunes from their iPods even if not – very few non-technical grannies bought iPhones, but plenty have bought Nokias (mine, for example). The App Store then becomes a natural extension of this default behaviour.

Nokia has sold plenty of music players, just like it has sold plenty of cameras and GPS units. I have some. I've personally barely used the camera on my phone and never used the other features, however, and I suspect I am not alone in this (though many consider me to be somewhat akin to the Amish in this respect). You buy a Nokia because they used to be easy to use, and you naively hope they still are. Or because you tried a Motorola once and suddenly realised even the new Nokias aren't that bad. Why would you sync with your PC? It's just a communications device, often supplied without a data cable, and one which is very unrewarding to sync with (though it has got better). You can (and should) back up your contacts, but the number of Facebook “I've lost my phone, please send me your contact details” groups I have seen suggests many people don't. There's no driver like there was with iTunes, and retro fitting one to leverage even new handset sales will be an immense challenge that requires considerable more focus than Nokia have thus brought to bear.

A closed iTunes clone will not work. As discussed, there is not enough compelling reason to use it. It will be forever niche, and a small unprofitable niche probably.

What Nokia could try and embrace is a fully open system – turning Ovi into an iTunes equivalent which is better, easier to use and works with any device from low-end Nokia through Samsungs, Lgs, Motorolas (do they still exist) and even including iPhones. Seamless out of the box syncing, via cable or OTA. No stupid constraints. Fully integrating and working alongside popular web services, instead of replacing them. Open to all developers with a clear revenue stream and good support.

Exactly the approach they are not taking, in fact, preferring awkward me-too software replicating every function that already exists, in a closed and inferior way. I won't change my calendar system because I bought a new Nokia, but I might actually bother to sync my calendar to my phone for the first time ever if I plug in a USB cable and it just happens. Nokia don't appear to know this, and until they do they will fail.

In turbulent times such as these, I think investing in a million App Stores is completely foolhardy – so if you are considering it, don't, you're better off following the Motley Fool's advice to “buy shares in companies that sell cheap alcoholic beverages, and pubs. They always storm in with good returns when the economy goes t*ts-up!”. Really.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Oysters, Chickens, Eggs, NFC

O2's trial of using NFC handsets to interface into London Tube's Oyster card payment network was apparently a resounding success, which is great news for two groups of people - those who make NFC chips (currently in almost no non-Japanese handsets), and those who hang out next to Tube stations waiting to steal phones (a large special interest group, if the Metropolitan Police's poster campaigns are to be believed).

Any sharp-eyed thief will now know exactly what handset Tube users have and which pocket they keep it in, which will certainly help them restrict pickpocketing to the higher-end , higher-value devices.

The silver cloud in this potential orgy of phone theft being, of course, that almost no handsets available in the UK have NFC, and there are almost none on the current release schedules either - a situation which has been the status quo for some time. Nokia have now released three special NFC-edition handsets over the years (each replacing the last), but these aren't generally supplied to users by UK networks - they can be bought unbranded at full retail price for anyone who wants one.

Without any NFC services, not even early adopters will pay a premium for a mid-range handset just to get an NFC chip, and without any users no services are rolled out, etc etc. Oyster could conceivably be a big enough kick-start to the market that manufacturers will start to build the chips into every handset - as analysts have predicted will happen for some time (just like mobile TV and so many other mobile services which have failed to gain users). However, given the relative market sizes of the entire GSM market and the Tube core regular users, I'm not holding my breath...