dw2

11 August 2009

The future of energy

Filed under: books, Energy, innovation, UKTA — David Wood @ 11:03 pm

On Saturday afternoon (15th August), I’ll be chairing a meeting in Central London on the topic, “The future of energy: Leadership and technological innovation”.

The speaker is James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting & Innovation, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. I’ve seen James speak several times over the years, and he’s always both entertaining and thought-provoking.

The talk will cover some of the same ground as the recent book “Energise – A future for energy innovation” which James co-authored with Joe Kaplinksy.
Energise

Some extracts from the back cover convey the flavour of the book:

  • The way to deal with global warming is to build a bigger, better energy supply, not to invite the state to meter your family’s every use of energy at home and in the car;
  • This book shows you… why there’s still time to fix global warming without downgrading your lifestyle;
  • Energise! sets out a programme for innovation in nuclear, carbon-based and renewable energy.  The programme is one in which governments and industry do what they are supposed to do: enable people to get on with their lives;
  • Energise is a challenge to climate zealots, climate sceptics, and government moralisers alike;
  • This is a refreshing and a required read for anybody … bored with the idea of merely surviving, and confident that human beings can still make a much better world.

I’m expecting a lively debate!  The future of energy is a critically important topic, for all kinds of reason.

If you think you might like to attend, there are more details on the event blog.

7 March 2009

What have operators done for us recently?

Filed under: collaboration, innovation, Mobile Monday, operators — David Wood @ 2:13 pm

Mobile Monday in London this Monday evening (9th March) will be on the topic of “What have operators done for us recently?”.

To quote from the event website,

What have mobile operators done for innovators and developers, lately? Our next MobileMonday London event will explore this issue. The event will be held on March 9th at CBI conference centre (at Centrepoint Tower) at 6:00 pm, sponsored by O2 Litmus and Vodafone. Panelists will include James Parton from O2, Terence Eden from Vodafone, Steve Wolak from Betavine, David Wood from Symbian Foundation and Jo Rabin representing dotMobi. The event will be chaired by Anna Gudmundson from AdIQ and Dan Appelquist will be your host for the evening.

At the time of writing, there are still a few registration slots left. If you’re in or around London on Monday evening, and you’re at all interested in the future of the mobile phone industry, you will almost certainly find the meeting worthwhile. From my past experience, these events are great for networking as well as for highlighting ideas and sharply debugging them. The breadth and depth of experience in the room mean that any superficially attractive proclamations from panellists are quickly challenged. I typically leave these meetings wiser than when I went in (and often chastened, too).

Usually people blog meetings after they happen (or whilst they are happening). In this case, I’d like to set down a few thoughts in advance.

Early last year, Symbian commissioned a third party report into the viewpoints and experiences of mobile developers. The report had a Californian bias but the results are familiar even in the context of Europe. The report did not specifically seek out the opinions of developers towards network operators, but these opinions came through loud and clear regardless. Here are some representative comments:

  • “Everyone in tech has rope burns around their necks from doing business with the carriers [network operators]. They hung themselves trying to do carrier deals.”
  • “The operator is an adversary, not a partner.”
  • “The basic problem with mobile is that operators are in the way.”
  • “The reality is that the mobile operators will screw you, unless they already want to do what you’re developing. They always ask, ‘What’s in it for me?'”

I raise these comments here, not because I endorse them, but because they articulated a set of opinions that seem to be widely held, roughly twelve months ago.

Operators are (of course!) aware of these perceptions too, and are seeking to address these concerns. At the Mobile Monday meeting, we’ll have a chance to evaluate progress.

Ahead of the meeting, I offer the following six points for consideration:

1: With their widespread high bandwidth coverage, the wireless networks are a modern-day technological marvel – perhaps one of the seven wonders of the present era. These networks need maintenance and care. For this reason, network operators are justified in seeking to protect access to this resource. If these resources become flooded with too much video transfer, manic automated messaging, or deleterious malware, we will all be the losers as a result.

2: Having invested very considerably in the build-up of these networks, it is completely reasonable for operators to seek to protect a significant revenue flow from the utilisation of these networks – especially from core product lines such as voice and SMS. Anything that risks destroying this revenue flow is bound to cause alarm.

3: The potential upside of new revenue flow from innovative new data services often seems dwarfed by the potential downside from loss of revenues from existing services, if networks are opened too freely to new players. In other words, network operators all face a case of the Innovators’ Dilemma. When it comes to the strategic crunch, innovative new business potential often loses out to maintaining the existing lines of business.

4. New lines of revenue for operators – to supplement the old faithfuls of voice and SMS – include the following:

  • Straightforward data usage charges;
  • A micro-share of monetary transactions (such as mobile banking, or goods being bought or sold or advertised) that are carried out over wireless network;
  • Reliable provision of high-quality services (such as would support crystal-clear telephone conference calls);
  • Premium charges for personalised services (such as answers to searches or enquiries)
  • A share of the financial savings that companies can achieve through efficiency gains from the intelligent deployment of new mobile services; etc.

But in all cases, the evolution of these new lines of service is likely be faster and more successful, if new entrepreneurs and innovators can be involved and feel welcome.

5. The best step to involving more innovators in the development of commercially significant new revenues – and to solving the case of the Innovators Dilemma mentioned above – is to systematically identify and analyse and (as far as possible) eliminate all cases of friction in the existing mobile ecosystem.

6. Three instances of mobile ecosystem friction stand out:

  • The diversity (fragmentation) of different operator developer support programmes. Developers have to invest considerable effort in joining and participating in each different scheme. Why can’t there more greater commonality between these programmes?
  • The hurdles involved with getting sophisticated applications approved for usage on networks and/or handsets – developers often feel that they are being forced to go through overly-onerous third party testing and verification hoops, in order to prove that their applications are trustworthy. Some element of verification is probably inevitable, but can’t we find ways to streamline it?
  • The difficulties consumers face in finding and then installing and using applications that are reliably meet their expectations.

In all cases, it’s my view that a collaborative approach is more likely to deliver lasting value to the industry than a series of individualist approaches.

21 January 2009

2009 – end users modifying their mobile phone apps

Filed under: innovation, Open Source — David Wood @ 9:05 am

Here’s a scenario I expect to become increasingly common later this year.

(Elements in the following story are made up, of course, but they serve as placeholders for anticipated real people, real phones, and real apps.)

Vijaya is really fond of her new Nokia N225 based on the latest Symbian Platform Release, and is both intrigued and frustrated by features of the Jomo Player app that’s built into that phone. The app does some very clever things, but yet, Vijaya thinks it would serve her own needs better if some of the behaviour and functionality were changed. She also has ideas for tweaking the UI.

If this story were set in 2008, that would probably be the end of the story. Vijaya might write about her ideas on Facebook, and her friend Sunil might send them to someone he knows who has a job in the Nokia Devices R&D lab, but the chances are, the original developers of the Jomo Player app would be far too busy to pay attention to what appear to be idiosyncratic, quaint, or overly personalised change suggestions.

Now let’s make this story more interesting. Suppose that Vijaya already knows some Symbian C++. Maybe she took a course on it at the local technical university, which is enrolled into the Symbian Academy program. Or maybe she used to work for a phone manufacturer helping to customise their Symbian devices. So, either way, Vijaya starts writing an alternative Jomo Player app, starting from scratch. Her goal is to embody her own ideas on usability and feature set.

But guess what: her alternative Jomo Player falls far short of the performance and power of the built-in app. It’s tough to re-create a complex app. Although Symbian in 2008 is an open platform, with rich APIs, it’s not at all obvious to Vijaya how to emulate, in her version of the app, many of the features of the original, which she now comes to increasingly recognise as subtle and refined. Some of Vijaya’s friends band together to help, but they eventually abandon the project. The original app, they realise, is doing some incredibly complex things under the surface – and their attempted clone comes nowhere close to matching it. So, in 2008, that really is the end of the story.

Now let’s re-run this story sometime later on in 2009. The source code for the original Jomo Player app is available for download from the Symbian Foundation Mercurial code repository, under the open source Eclipse Public Licence. What’s more, the publicly available SDKs provide enough header files and libraries that Vijaya and her friends can rebuild the entire app. So the starting point is very different. Rather than struggling to create the whole app from scratch, Vijaya can fairly easily locate the parts of the source code she wants to change. As a result, she has a new version of the Jomo Player on her N225 in less than a week. As a result of using this app some more, with its altered features, she and her friends get yet more ideas – and then a major breakthrough flash. The new app quickly evolves into a dramatically better state.

Shortly afterwards, Vijaya makes her new app available via several application stores. It gets rave reviews. These reviews come to the attention of product managers in one or more phone companies. Both the N226 and a new Samsung phone build this version of the app into their ROMs, and reach millions of happy smartphone customers well before Christmas.

Vijaya started this whole process by scratching a personal itch. She wanted to improve a particular app running on her own phone. However, unexpectedly, she now has three different Symbian development houses competing to hire her into their teams.

In parallel, Mika has altered the Voton Reader app so that it’s more usable by his mother. (It turns out, afterwards, to be more usable by almost everyone!) Antony has added a whole series of shortcut keys to the Contacts app. And Alexa has produced a stunning new combination of two originally separate apps.

That’s the difference between what can be accomplished by an open platform (with published APIs) and by an open source platform (with published, buildable source code).

As 2009 progresses, the mobile phone platforms that publish their source code will increasingly play host to deeper and more interesting forms of innovation, than those mobile platforms which keep their source code closed. The phones from these open source mobile platforms (such as Symbian) will have the best Mojo Player, Voton Readers, and so on – not because the developers inside Symbian are cleverer than those in other mobile phone platform companies, but because these platforms can take greater advantage of the much wider pool of creative and clever people who are outside the company.

Footnote: Credit for key elements of this vision belong to some of my colleagues on the Symbian Foundation launch team, including William Roberts and Antony Edwards.

Disclaimer: The devil’s in the detail. Thoughtful readers will realise there are lots of important details missing from the above story. I look forward to returning to these details.

14 January 2009

Robert Scoble and the fallacy of uniqueness

Filed under: innovation, Nokia, operators, Qt — David Wood @ 11:58 pm

I was surprised to see esteemed blogger Robert Scoble fall into a weird reality distortion field in his recent piece, “Smartphone competition: It’s too late for Nokia and Microsoft, but not too late for Palm in USA“.

Here’s the core of his argument:

…in the USA there are only these major carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile.

  • AT&T? Gone. Apple has them sewn up.
  • Verizon? RIM has them sewn up. I met with RIM’s director of marketing at CES and he was smiling. That should give you a hint.
  • Sprint? Palm has them in the Palm of their hands now.
  • T-Mobile? Google’s Android is their key smart phone.

So, what does this mean? All the US carriers now have their SmartPhone choices. All the trains have left the station.

Who is out in this game? Microsoft and Nokia.

This argument depends on the fallacious idea that each major network operator can be “sewn up” by just one provider of smartphones – that there will be one uniquely preferred smartphone platform per network operator – and that this choice is already set in stone.

It’s true that almost all major network operators, worldwide, have expressed a desire to reduce the number of smartphone platforms that they have to support. The reason for this reduction is to avoid lots of effort being duplicated across different platforms.

However:

  1. Most major network operators are aiming at a number of supported smartphone platforms that, while small, is greater than one;
  2. One reason for supporting more than one platform is to benefit from an important element of competition – this is particularly relevant while so many smartphone platforms are either relatively new, immature, or going through a significant transition;
  3. Another reason for supporting more than one platform is that end users on the network frequently want a choice;
  4. Even if a carrier decides not to actively support a given smartphone platform – in the sense of becoming involved in customising phones from that platform to take advantage of specific network features – they often allow phones from that platform to run on their network.

Scoble also dismisses the prospects for future Nokia products:

I’ve seen the new Nokia OS, just a month ago. They don’t have it.

This judgement seems highly premature to me. It also seems that AT&T, for one, maintain an interest in shipping Nokia phones. Witness, for example, the AT&T-branded user’s manual for the Nokia E71.

More fundamentally, there’s much more to the future of Nokia than just one initiative (“the new Nokia OS”). There’s a whole raft of new initiatives coming. Some will come to light through forthcoming releases of the Symbian Platform. Others will reach the market in many other ways.

Nokia’s announcement today of an additional licence for the Qt Platform, in order to strengthen developer interest and participation in that platform, is just one example. To quote Sebastian Nyström, Vice President, Qt Software, Nokia:

Broader use of Qt by even more leading companies will result in valuable feedback and increased contributions, ensuring that Qt remains the best-in-class, cross-platform UI and application framework. The accelerated development of Qt will allow developers, including Nokia, to deliver better devices and applications, reduce time to market and enable a wider deployment base for their solutions.

In short, there are plenty more trains to come.

19 November 2008

New mobile OSes mean development nightmares

Filed under: collaboration, fragmentation, Future of Mobile, innovation — David Wood @ 11:30 pm

Over on TechRadar, Dan Grabham has commented on one of the themes from Monday’s Future of Mobile event in the Great Hall in High Street Kensington, London:

The increase in mobile platforms caused by the advent of the Apple iPhone and Google’s Android are posing greater challenges for those who develop for mobile. That was one of the main underlying themes of this week’s Future of Mobile conference in London.

Tom Hume, Managing Director of developer Future Platforms, picked up on this theme, saying that from a development point of view things were more fragmented. “It’s clear that it’s an issue for the industry. I think it’s actually got worse in the last year or so.”

Indeed, many of the panellists representing the major OS vendors said that they expected some kind of consolidation over the coming years as completion in the mobile market becomes ever fiercer.

The theme of collaboration vs. competition was one that I covered in my own opening remarks on this panel. Before the conference, the panel chairman, Simon Rockman of Sony Ericsson, had asked the panellists to prepare a five minute intro. I’ll end this posting with a copy of what I prepared.

Before that, however, I have another comment on the event. One thing that struck me was the candid comments from many of the participants about the dreadful user experience that mobile phones deliver. So the mobile industry has no grounds for feeling pleased with itself! This was particularly emphasised during the rapid-fire “bloggers 6×6 panel”, which you can read more about from Helen Keegan’s posting – provocatively entitled “There is no future of mobile”. By the way, Helen was one of the more restrained of that panel!

So, back to my own remarks – where I intended to emphasise that, indeed, we face hard problems within our industry, and need new solutions:

This conference is called the Future of Mobile – not the Present Day of Mobile – so what I want to talk about is developments in mobile operating systems that will allow the mobile devices and mobile services of, say, 5 years time – 2013 – to live up to their full potential.

I believe that the mobile phones of 2013 will make even the most wonderful phones of today look, in comparison, jaded, weak, slow, and clunky. It’s my expectation that the phones used at that time, not just by technology enthusiasts and early adopters, but also by mainstream consumers, will be very considerably more powerful, more functional, more enchanting, more useful, more valuable, and more captivating than today’s smartphones.

To get there is going to require a huge amount of sophisticated and powerful software to be developed. That’s an enormous task. To get there, I offer you three contrasts.

The first contrast is between cooperation and competition.

The press often tries to portray some kind of monster, dramatic battle of mobile operating systems. In this battle, the people sitting around this table are fierce competitors. It’s the kind of thing that might sell newspapers. But rather than competition, I’m more interested in collaboration. The problems that have to be solved, to create the best possible mobile phone experiences of the next few years, will require cooperation between the people in the companies and organisations represented around this table – as well as with people in those companies and organisations that don’t have seats here at this moment, but which also play in our field. Instead of all of us working at odds with each other, spreading our energies thinly, creating incomplete semi-satisfactory solutions that are at odds with each, it would be far better for us to pool more of our energies and ideas.

I’m not saying that all competition should be stopped – far from it. An element of competition is vital, to prevent a market from becoming stale. But we’ve got too much of it just now. We’ve got too many operating systems that are competing with each other, and we’ve got different companies throughout the value chain competing with each other too strongly.

Where the industry needs to reach is around 3 or 4 major mobile operating systems – whereas today the number is somewhere closer to 20 – or closer to 200, if you count all the variants and value-chain complications. It’s a fragmentation nightmare, and a huge waste of effort.

As the industry consolidates over the next few years, I have no doubt that Symbian OS will be one of the small number of winning platforms. That brings me to my second contrast – the contrast between old and new – between past successes and future successes.

Last year, Symbian was the third most profitable software company in the UK. We earned licensing revenues of over 300 million dollars. We’ve been generating substantial cash for our owners. We’re in that situation because of having already shipped one quarter of a billion mobile phones running our software. There are at present some 159 different phone models, from 7 manufacturers, shipping on over 250 major operator networks worldwide. That’s our past success. It grows out of technology that’s been under development for 14 years, with parts of the design dating back 20 years.

But of course, past success is no guarantee of future success. I sometimes hear it said that Symbian OS is old, and therefore unsuited to the future. My reply is that many parts of Symbian OS are new. We keep on substantially improving it and refactoring it.

For example, we introduced a new kernel with enhanced real-time capabilities in version 8.1b. We introduced a substantial new platform security architecture in v9.0. More recently, there’s a new database architecture, a new Bluetooth implementation, and new architectures for IP networking and multi-surface graphics. We’re also on the point of releasing an important new library of so-called “high level” programming interfaces, to simplify developers’ experience with parts of the Symbian OS structure that sometimes pose difficulty – like text descriptors, active objects, and two-phase object construction and cleanup. So there’s plenty of innovation.

The really big news is that the pace of innovation is about to increase markedly – for three reasons, all tied up with the forthcoming creation of the Symbian Foundation:

  1. The first reason is a deeper and more effective collaboration between the engineering teams in Symbian and S60. This change is happening because of the acquisition of Symbian by Nokia. By working together more closely, innovations will reach the market more quickly.
  2. The second reason is because of a unification of UI systems in the Symbian space. Before, there were three UI systems – MOAP in Japan, UIQ, and S60. Now, given the increased flexibility of the latest S60 versions, the whole Symbian ecosystem will standardise on S60.
  3. The third reason is because of the transition of the Symbian platform – consisting of Symbian OS together with the S60 UI framework and applications – into open source. By adopting the best principles of open source, Symbian expects to attract many more developers than before to participate in reviewing and improving and creating new Symbian platform code. So there will be more innovation than before.

This brings me to the third of the three contrasts: openness vs. maturity.

Uniquely, the Symbian platform has a stable, well-tested, battle-hardened software base and software discipline, that copes well with the hard, hard task of large-scale software integration, handling input from many diverse and powerful customers.

Because of that, we’ll be able to cope with the flood of innovation that open source will send our way. That flood will lead to great progress for us, whereas for some other software systems, it will probably lead to chaos and fragmentation.

In summary, I see the Symbian platform as being not just one of several winners in the mobile operating system space, but actually the leading winner – and being the most widely used software platform on the planet, shipping in literally billions of great mobile devices. We’ll get there, because we’ll be at the heart of a huge community of impassioned and creative developers – the most vibrant developer ecosystem on the planet. Although the first ten years of Symbian’s history has seen many successes, the next ten years will be dramatically better.

Footnote: For other coverage of this event, see eg Tom Hume, Andrew Grill, Vero Pepperrell, Jemima Kiss, Dale Zak, and a very interesting Twitter channel (note to self: it’s time for me to stop resisting Twitter…)

5 October 2008

iWoz inspires iMAX

Filed under: Apple, books, collaboration, innovation, Psion — David Wood @ 8:57 am

Last Wednesday, Apple co-Founder Steve Wozniak addressed a gathering of several hundred business people in London’s large-format IMAX cinema, as part of a series of events organised by the London Business Forum. The theme was “Apple Innovation”. Since the IMAX is just 15 minutes walk from Symbian’s HQ, this opportunity was too good for me to miss. I hoped Wozniak’s account of Apple culture might shed some new light on the all-conquering iPhone. I was not disappointed.

Wozniak spoke for more than an hour, without slides, running through a smorgasbord of anecdotes from his own life history. It was rivetting and inspiring. Later I realised that most of the material has already been published in Wozniak’s 2006 book “iWoz: Computer geek to cult icon: How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it“, which was given out at the event.

I warmed to Wozniak early on in his talk, when he described one of his early experiments in software – writing a program to solve the “Knight’s tour” around a chessboard. I remembered writing a program to try to solve the same problem while at roughly the same age – and had a similar result. In my case, programs were sent off from school to the local Aberdeen University, where clerical staff typed them in and submitted them on behalf of children in neighbouring schools. This program was returned several days later with the comment that there was no output – operators had terminated it.

A few weeks later, there was a short residential course at the university for sixth form students, which I attended. I modified my program to tackle a 5×5 board instead, and was happy to see computer quickly spitting out numerous solutions. I changed the board size to 6×6 instead and waited … and waited … and after around 10 minutes, a solution was printed out. Wozniak’s experience was several years before mine. As he describes it, the computer he was using could do one million calculations a second – which sounded like a huge number. So the lack of any output from his program was a big disappointment – until he calculated that it would actually take the computer about 10^25 years to finish this particular calculation!

More than half the “iWoz” book covers Wozniak’s life pre-Apple. It’s in turn heart-warming and (when describing Wozniak’s pranks and phreaking) gob-smacking.

The episode about HP turning down the idea of the Apple I computer was particularly thought-provoking. Wozniak was working at HP before Apple was founded, and being loyal to his company (which he firmly admired for being led by engineers who in turn deeply respected other engineers) he offered them the chance to implement the ideas he had devised outside work time for what would become, in effect, the world’s first useful personal computer. Although his managers at HP showed considerable interest, they were not able to set aside their standard, well-honed processes in order to start work on what would have been a new kind of project. Wozniak says that HP turned him down five times, before he eventually resigned from the company to invest his energy full-time into Apple. It seems like a classic example of the Innovator’s Dilemma – in which even great companies can fail “by doing everything right”: their “successes and capabilities can actually become obstacles in the face of changing markets and technologies”.

Via numerous anecdotes, Wozniak describes a set of characteristics which are likely to lead to product success:

  • Technical brilliance coupled with patience and persistence. (Wozniak tells a fascinating account of how he and one helper – Randy Wigginton, at the time still at senior high school – created a brand new floppy disk drive controller in just two weeks, without any prior knowledge of disk drives);
  • A drive for simplicity of design (such as using a smaller number of parts, or a shorter algorithm) and superb efficiency of performance;
  • Users should feel an emotional attachment to the product: “Products should be obviously the best”;
  • Humanism: “The human has to be more important than the technology”.

There’s shades of the iPhone experience in all these pieces of advice – even though the book iWoz was written before the iPhone was created.

There’s even stronger shades of the iPhone experience in the following extracts from the book:

The Apple II was easy to program, in both BASIC (100 commands per second) and machine language (1M commands per second)… Within months dozens of companies started up and they were putting games on casette tape for the Apple II; these were all start-up companies, but thanks to our design and documentation, we made it easy to develop stuff that worked on our platform…

… the computer magazines had tons of Apple II product ads for software and hardware. Suddenly the Apple II name was everywhere. We didn’t have to buy an advertisement or do anything ourselves to get the name out. We were just out there, thanks to this industry of software programs and hardware devices that sprang up around the Apple II. We became the hot fad of the age, and all the magazines (even in the mainstream press) started writing great things about us. Everywhere you looked. I mean, we couldn’t buy that kind of publicity. We didn’t have to.

In this way, the Apple II quickly reached sales figures far higher than anyone had dared to predict. One other factor played a vital role:

VisiCalc was so powerful it could only run on the Apple II: only our computer had enough RAM to run it.

But sales bandwaggons can lose their momentum. The iPhone bandwaggon will falter, to the extent that other smartphones turn out to be more successful at running really valuable applications (such as, for example, applications that can run in background, in ways that aren’t possible on the iPhone).

Apple also lost some of its momentum in the less reliable Apple III product that followed the Apple II. Wozniak has no doubts about the root causes for the failure of the Apple III: “it was developed by committee, by the marketing dept”. This leads on to the disappointing advice that Wozniak gives in the final chapter of his book: “Work alone”!

Here, I part company with Wozniak. I’ve explained before my view that “design by committee” can achieve, with the right setup, some outstanding results. That was my experience inside Psion. However, I do agree that the process needs to involve some first-class product managers, who have a powerful and authentic vision for the product.

24 August 2008

Market share is no comfort

Filed under: disruption, innovation, iPhone, Nokia — David Wood @ 9:55 am

In the discussion of whether Symbian and Nokia are fundamentally threatened (or even “irrelevant”) in the face of the huge market buzz around the Apple iPhone, I take no comfort in the fact that Symbian’s share of the global smartphone market is an order of magnitude larger than that of the iPhone. Therefore I disagree with those replies to my previous blog post that highlighted Symbian’s very considerable market share lead, worldwide (but admittedly not in the USA), over the iPhone.

At first sight, strong market leadership should count for a lot. It should trigger a virtuous cycle effect. More phones should attract more developers (who are interested in their apps running on large numbers of phones) which should result in more software tailored to that platform, which should in turn increase the attractiveness of these phones to end users. And that should result in even more phones being sold, and so on – virtuous cycle.

And in reality, a powerful virtuous cycle effect does exist. An experienced and sophisticated ecosystem (“ES”) has grown up around the Symbian operating system (“OS”) and is continuously adding more value to this platform. The OS-ES virtuous cycle does work. However, it’s not invulnerable.

The history of the technology industry is full of examples of companies who were in similar leadership positions to that currently held by Symbian, but whose markets were transformed by disruptive new entrants. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen is deservedly applauded for his description and analysis of how market disruption takes place:

  • Celebrated examples include how the leading providers of mini-computers, such as DEC, Data General, Wang, Nixdorf, and Prime, failed to appreciate the significance of the initially small market that grew up around fledgling personal computers. These manufacturers saw little profit in that market. But when PC technology improved and the surrounding ecosystem matured, it was too late for these erstwhile computing giants to take leading roles in the new industry (despite lots of effort which they eventually but unsuccessfully expended on that new cause).
  • An earlier example, also told by Christensen (in “Seeing what’s next: using theories of innovation to predict industry change“), concerns the disruption caused by the invention of the telephone to the communications industry of that era (1870s): market leader Western Union evaluated the new technology created by Alexander Graham Bell, but concluded it lacked the power to handle the long-range business communications from which the company made most of its profits. Again, technology improved and new business relationships formed, faster than Western Union could respond – with Western Union being plunged into decline as a result.

And there’s more. MIT professor James Utterback elegantly recounts many intriguing and salutary examples in his book “Mastering the dynamics of innovation: How Companies Can Seize Opportunities in the Face of Technological Change”. The book shows how familiar technologies such as refrigeration, electrical lighting, and plate glass, were all clear underdogs at the time of their initial market introduction, and faced serious competition from entrenched industrial alliances whose technologies (such as large-scale ice transportation, or gas lighting) themselves appeared to be regularly improving.

Could the iPhone fit into a similar pattern? It might. There are possible futures in which, say, more than half of all phones sold in the world have iPhone technology inside them. I don’t see that as the most likely future – far from it! – but it does have a certain logic to it:

  1. The iPhone is in many ways a simpler product proposition than existing smartphones (just as PCs were simpler than mini-computers). There are considerably fewer applications built into the iPhone than you can find in a standard S60 phone. That relative simplicity means that some feature-focused users will decide not to use the device. But the device taps into a new market that is arguably underserved by previous offerings. This is the very considerable market of users who don’t need every bell and whistle in feature-packed smartphones, but who are ready for a better experience than can be had from ordinary phones.
  2. The iPhone uses physical components that “break the rules” regarding cost: they’re considerably more expensive to manufacture than most other smartphones, and this makes the device more expensive to purchase. However, again, it may be that now is the right time to break this rule: a greater number of users may be willing to bear this additional cost (in view of the additional benefits that buys them).
  3. The iPhone isn’t growing its ecosystem from scratch; it can benefit from a crossover effect from various components that were already in place in Apple’s pre-iPhone product offerings. Principally, the highly-evolved iTunes distribution mechanism plays a big part in ensuring a good end-user experience with the iPhone.
  4. The iPhone has put special emphasis upon a number of usability aspects, including the graphics “wow”, the UI itself, the mobile web browsing experience, and the discovery and installation of new applications. Users have been drawn to these aspects of the device, even though the device lacks other aspects that are present (and well-evolved) in other smartphones.
  5. Despite what some critics have said, these innovations aren’t (all) easy for other companies to copy. The “look” can be mimicked, but the “feel” is the result of countless small design and implementation details, that are anchored in a sophisticated underlying software system.

For another analogy, the iPhone is similar to the initial Palm Pilot devices, which fared much better in the market than earlier attempts at pen-input handheld devices. The Palm Pilot delivered less than these other devices (such as the Apple Newton, the Casio Zoomer, and the General Magic “Magic Cap”) but provided a much more usable experience.

So, let’s evaluate this scenario. Do disruptive new market entrants always succeed in reaching market leadership position? Of course not. Although it is difficult for market leaders to respond to this kind of change of rules in their industry, it’s not impossible.

Here’s one counter-example: Microsoft and the Internet. Initally, it did look as though Netscape was succeeding in building an impregnable position by bringing a compelling new product to market in an area that Microsoft had previously ignored – an Internet browser. But Microsoft managed to turn around the situation, by dint of two measures:

  1. Clear internal recognition, from the highest leadership, of the fundamentally changing market landscape
  2. Swift and effective execution, continued over many years.

I’m loathe to compare Nokia/Symbian to Microsoft, but in this case the comparison has merits.

What’s more, I expect that it will become clear, over the next year or so, just how much the Symbian Foundation is itself changing the rules of the mobile industry – and (crucially) enabling companies who use this software to change the rules even further. If you think the iPhone is innovative, you’re right, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

« Newer Posts

Blog at WordPress.com.