10 February 2010

The mobile multitasking advantage

Filed under: Android, applications, architecture, iPhone, multitasking, Psion, universities — David Wood @ 11:48 am

How important is it for a mobile device to support background multitasking?

Specifically, how important is it that users can install, onto the device, applications which will continue to run well in background whilst the user is simultaneously using the device for another purpose?

Humans are multitasking creatures.  We get involved in many activities simultaneously: listening to music, browsing the web, holding conversations, taking notes, staying on the alert for interruptions… – so shouldn’t our mobile devices support this model of working?

One argument is that this feature is not important.  That’s because the Apple iPhone fails to offer it, and the sales of the iPhone don’t seem to have suffered as a result.  The applications built into the iPhone continue to operate in background, but downloaded apps don’t.  iPhone apps continue to sell well.  Conclusion: mobile multitasking has little importance in the real world.  Right?

But that’s a weak argument.  Customer sentiment can change.  If users start talking about use cases which the iPhone fails to support – and which other smartphones support well – then public perception of the fitness of the iPhone system software could suffer a significant downturn.  (“iPhone apps – they’re so 2009…”)

How about Android?  That offers background multitasking.  But does it do it well?

My former colleague Brendan Donegan has been putting an Android phone to serious use, and has noticed some problems in how it works.  He has reported his findings in a series of tweets:

I say, with all honesty that Android’s multitasking is a huge travesty. Doesn’t even deserve to be called that

Poor prioritisation of tasks. Exemplar use-case – Spotify [music playing app] + camera

Spotify will jitter and the photo will be taken out of sync with flash, giving a whited out image

Symbian of course handles the same use case flawlessly

Android really is just not up to doing more than one ‘intensive’ task at a time

Even the [built-in] Android music player skips when taking a photo

(Brendan has some positive remarks about his Android phone too, by the way.)

Mark Wilcox suggests a diagnosis:

sounds like the non-real-time, high interrupt latency on Linux is causing some problems in multimedia use cases

Personally, I find this discussion fascinating – on both an architecture level and a usability level.  I see a whole series of questions that need answers:

  1. Are these results applicable just to one Android phone, or are they intrinsic to the whole platform?
  2. Could these problems be fixed by fairly simple software modifications, or are they more deeply rooted?
  3. How do other mobile platforms handle similar use cases?  What about feature phone platforms?
  4. How important is the use case of playing music in background, while taking a photograph?  Are there other use cases that could come to be seen as more significant?

Perhaps this is a good topic for a university research project.  Any takers?

(Related to this, it would be interesting to know more about the background processing abilities of modern feature phones.  For example, it used to be the case that some feature phones would discard the contents of partially written text messages if there was an incoming voice call.  Has anyone looked into this recently?)

Regardless of the merits of these particular use cases, I am convinced that software responsiveness is important.  If the software system is tied up attending to task A when I want it to do task B, I’m frustrated.  I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling.

My 1990’s Psion PDA typically runs more than a dozen apps in parallel (several word processors, spreadsheeets, databases, plus an individual agenda, tube map app, calculator, and so on) and switches instantly between them.  That sets my baseline expectation.

Here’s another mobile use case that’s on my mind a lot these days.  It applies, not to a PDA or mobile phone, but to my laptop.  It’s not (I think) a device problem, but a wider system problem, involving network connectivity:

  • I frequently find myself in mobile situations where I’m browsing websites on my laptop (for example, on the train), and the pages take ages to load;
  • The signal indicator on the built-in wireless modem app says there’s a strong signal, but for some reason, wireless traffic is squeezed;
  • I sit watching empty tabs on my Firefox browser, waiting and waiting and waiting for content to appear;
  • In frustration, I’ll often open another tab, and try to visit the BBC website – to rule out the possibility that the server for the other web pages(s) has gone down – but that gives me another blank page;
  • Eventually, things recover, but in the meantime, I’ve been left twiddling my thumbs.

When I switch to a WiFi connection instead of a cellular connection, things are usually better – though I’ve had the same bitter experience with some WiFi hotspots too (for example, in some Starbucks coffee shops).

So what should the highest priority be for system architects to optimise?  Responsiveness comes high on my own wishlist.  I recognise that this will often require changes in several parts of the software system.

28 January 2010

The iPad: more for less?

Filed under: Apple, complacency, iPhone, strategy — David Wood @ 12:36 pm

There are plenty of reasons to be critical about the Apple iPad.  If they feel inclined, Apple’s competitors and detractors can lick their lips.

For example, an article in Gizmodo enumerates “8 Things That Suck About the iPad“:

  1. Big, Ugly Bezel
  2. No Multitasking
  3. No Cameras
  4. Touch Keyboard
  5. No HDMI Out
  6. The Name “iPad”
  7. No Flash
  8. Adapters, Adapters, Adapters (“if you want to plug anything into this, such as a digital camera, you need all sorts of ugly adapters. You need an adapter for USB for god’s sake”)
  9. It’s Not Widescreen
  10. Doesn’t Support T-Mobile 3G (“it uses microSIMs that literally no one else uses”)
  11. A Closed App Ecosystem.

(The last three items on the list were added after the article was first published.)

In similar vein, Robert Scoble reported the view of his 16 year old son: “iFail“:

  1. It isn’t compelling enough for a high school student who already has a Macintosh notebook and an iPhone.
  2. It is missing features that a high school student would like, like handwriting recognition to take notes, a camera to take pictures of the board in class (and girls), and the ability to print out documents for class.
  3. He hasn’t seen his textbooks on it yet, so the usecase of replacing heavy textbooks hasn’t shown up yet.
  4. The gaming features aren’t compelling enough for him to give up either the Xbox or the iPhone. The iPhone wins because it fits in his pocket. The Xbox wins because of Xbox live so he can play against his friends (not to mention engaging HD quality and wide variety of titles).
  5. He doesn’t like the file limitations. His friends send him videos that he can’t play in iTunes and the iPad doesn’t support Flash.
  6. It isn’t game changing like the iPhone was.

However, let’s remember that iPhone initially received a similar swathe of criticisms.  It, too, omitted lots of features that everyone took for granted would need to be part of a successful smartphone: multi-tasking, 3G, MMS, copy-and-paste…

The iPad shouldn’t be judged against existing markets.  Rather than participating in a “red ocean” that’s already swarming with active competitors, it has the chance to define and participate in an empty “blue ocean”.

  • Here, I’m using the language of W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne of INSEAD.
  • Blue ocean products avoid matching existing products feature-for-feature.
  • They miss out some items completely, but, instead, deliver big time on some other points.

It’s similar to how Palm made the first commercially successful pen-based handheld computer.  In comparison to predecessors – like the Casio Zoomer, the General Magic “Magic Cap”, and (ironically) the Apple Newton – the Palm Pilot delivered much less functionality.  But what it did deliver was a delight to use.  (I made a similar point in an earlier blog posting, reviewing the growth of the iPhone market share: “Market share is no comfort“.)

This is the “less is more” philosophy.  It’s a good philosophy!

Around the world, hundreds of millions of people are saying to themselves: the iPad is not for them.  But a different, large, group of potential users are likely to be interested.

It’s early days, but it looks as if the iPad will support excellent browsing of many kinds of content – content that previously would be read in physical books, newspapers, and magazines.  That’s a big market.

What’s more, reports suggest that the iPad packs tremendous speed.  For example, John Gruber reports the following on Daring Fireball:

…the iPad is using a new CPU designed and made by Apple itself: the Apple A4. This is a huge deal. I got about 20 blessed minutes of time using the iPad demo units Apple had at the event today, and if I had to sum up the device with one word, that word would be “fast”.

It is fast, fast, fast…

I expected the screen size to be the biggest differentiating factor in how the iPad feels compared to an iPhone, but I think the speed difference is just as big a factor. Web pages render so fast it was hard to believe. After using the iPhone so much for two and a half years, I’ve become accustomed to web pages rendering (relative to the Mac) slowly. On the iPad, they seem to render nearly instantly. (802.11n Wi-Fi helps too.)

The Maps app is crazy fast. Apps launch fast. Scrolling is fast. The Photos app is fast.

…everyone I spoke to in the press room was raving first and foremost about the speed. None of us could shut up about it. It feels impossibly fast.

Speed, for the iPad, might the special extra blast of usability that the new pen interface was the iPhone.

21 December 2008

Operators and the iPhone

Filed under: iPhone, operators, Strand Consult — David Wood @ 9:05 pm

John Strand, independent-minded CEO of Strand Consult, has reached some provocative iconoclastic conclusions about the iPhone.

An edition of “Strand Report” earlier this month was entitled “iPhone: an operator’s worst friend“. In short, although end-users frequently enjoy using an iPhone, the operators who spend money supporting iPhones on their networks enjoy the experience considerably less.

Since Strand Consult have spent 14 years building up an extensive network of connections among operators worldwide, it’s worth taking the time to listen to their opinion on this matter.

Here are a few extracts from the Strand analysis:

Having iPhone customers using large data volumes sounds good, but when data is being sold at a flat rate, a high data consumption results in high production costs without the corresponding increased revenue. You could compare the operators’ attitude towards the iPhone’s data consumption with a restaurant owner that has a “all you can eat for 10 Euro” buffet and that is proudest of the customers that eat the most!…

When you examine the iPhone data consumption, you will see that iPhone customers use their browser to view ordinary websites and that they often choose not to view the websites in XHTML – optimised for low bandwidth and mobile phone sized screens. In practice this results in that when an iPhone user browses a typical news site, an ordinary web page will be around 1 MB, while the mobile version of the same page will often be less than 100 Kb. It is significantly cheaper for an operator to produce 100 Kb data than it is to produce 1 MB data and it is much more fun to deliver 100 KB rather than 1 MB when you are selling data at a flat rate…

There are already a number of operators that have issued profit warnings related to their iPhone ventures and our research shows that there is not one single Apple partner in the world among the mobile operators that has increased their overall profit and market share due to the iPhone…

Across the world there is a huge market for unlocked iPhone’s. People purchase a phone that has been marketed, sold and subsidised by an operator who thereafter does not receive the data traffic and revenue from that handset. These phones are most often used on other non-Apple partner networks, resulting in the Apple iPhone partner operator ending up with a high SAC, while another non-Apple partner only needs to sell a SIM-only product with a low SAC and attractive voice and data prices…

We know of a great many operators and MVNOs that have done good business on NOT being an Apple and iPhone partner. These operators let other operators subsidise handsets and instead sell SIM cards with inexpensive data traffic at competitive prices. Their low SAC gives them a positive cash flow on the customer far earlier than the Apple partner operators that are subsidising, marketing and selling iPhones…

The conclusion is simple. This is not good business for shareholders of operators that are Apple and iPhone partners – on the contrary it is far better business not to be an Apple and iPhone partner. Operators that choose not to carry iPhone products have an increased probability of serving their shareholders interests over those that move their management’s focus, subsidies, marketing and distribution power on a product that is as beautiful as Paris Hilton, but increases production costs…

Strand Consult return to these themes in their year-end article containing predictions for 2009, “2009 will be the Moment of Truth for many players in the telecoms sector“:

Our analyses during 2008 have shown that there is not one operator that has increased their turnover, revenue or improved their market share due to the iPhone. In our latest iPhone analysis LINK we document that a number of operators have issued profit warnings based on the iPhone. We have documented that the closer partnership you have with Apple, the worst business case the iPhone becomes from an operator’s point of view.

I’ve spent a bit of time searching for substantive rebuttals to this analysis:

  • Some people have said that operators have indeed generated additional revenues from the iPhone – but that’s not the same thing as additional profits;
  • Some have commented that the iPhone gives great pleasure to end-users, but that misses the point of the analysis;
  • It’s also true that many third party developers have benefited from selling their applications on the iPhone, but, again, that misses the point of the analysis.

I see three possible interpretations:

  1. There are network operators who generate significant additional profits from their support of the iPhone, but they’re keeping relatively quiet about this;
  2. The iPhone is indeed better news for developers and end-users than it is for the operators who support it;
  3. We’re still in a transitional phase.

I think the third interpretation is the most likely. The mobile industry is in a time of very considerable flux. The iPhone has played an important role of opening people’s eyes to the possibilities of smarter mobile devices, but that doesn’t mean that operators will continue to be keen to actively support the iPhone. Instead, what I hear is that they’re looking for phone platforms that are both complete and highly customisable.

4 September 2008

More TechCrunch reality-distortion on iPhone vs Symbian OS

Filed under: iPhone, results — David Wood @ 8:04 am

Following fast on the heels of the recent attention-grabbing declaration by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington that “Nokia and Symbian are irrelevant companies at this point“, TechCrunch has published another piece of contentious analysis on iPhone vs. Symbian OS market share. On this occasion, the author is Don Reisinger.

The piece starts with the graph which I’ve reproduced above. The red line at the top shows six figures for Symbian OS quarterly sales – five of which are as already published by Symbian, and the sixth, for July through September this year, is speculation from TechCrunch. The blue-line projections of sales for iPhone in that period are similarly speculative. (Interestingly, the filename for this graph on the TechCrunch site is “iphone-v-symbian-real“. Real, that is, apart from the future projection.)

Don reassuringly writes, “I assume Symbian OS will only grow at 5 percent each quarter, since it is a mature technology”. Then he goes on to have some fun and games by considering what will happen if iPhone sales grow steadily, for the next few years (in some cases looking all the way out to 2012), at either 300% per annum, 100% per annum, or 50% per annum.

The article ends on a decidedly duff note:

But one thing is certain: the Symbian OS is simply not selling nearly as well as the rest of the industry and the iPhone 3G is outpacing every other smartphone on the market.

No. Symbian OS is currently outselling all other smartphone operating systems added together. This piece of the article makes explicit a confusion that lies under the surface of much of the rest of the article – a confusion between growth and actual value. (Mathematically, the difference between dy/dt and y itself.) It’s true that the recent growth in Symbian OS sales has slowed down, and that the iPhone, starting from a much lower base, has achieved higher growth percentages. But that’s a very different thing.

In the past, I’ve done a bit of sales growth projection myself. In November 2004, I wrote the following words as part of Chapter 1 “At the heart of the smartphone revolution” in my book, “Symbian for software leaders: principles of successful smartphone development projects” that went on sale the following year:

It’s no surprise that the commercial market for smartphones has grown by at least 100% in each of the last three years. There are good reasons why this growth should continue throughout at least the next three years – reasons grounded in technological progress, networking dynamics, and market evolution:

  • Moore’s Law means that, for the same cost, more and more powerful hardware can be supplied; tomorrow’s smartphones will have as much computing power as yesterday’s PCs
  • New generations of phone networks (3G, 3.5G, 4G, and so on) will allow the speedy transmission of ever larger amounts of data, both satisfying and whetting still more user demand
  • More powerful devices and more powerful networks jointly enable the provision of attractive add-on services, created by third parties, which in turn increase the market pull for devices capable of supporting such services
  • The cumulative operation of software means that new services and applications can piggy-back on the functionality and power of previous services and applications, with striking, innovative results
  • Many of these services are community-oriented: the more people who take part in these services, the more valuable these services become (this is sometimes called Metcalfe’s Law)
  • As people discover the benefits of mobile online gaming, mobile commerce, and so on, they will spread this message by word-of-mouth, so that the communities of smartphone users swell in size
  • Phone network operators have a strong interest in ensuring that phone users
    are attracted to make regular use of services that involve greater amount of
    data transfer (and which therefore attract higher fees).

Sales of Symbian OS phones up to the time I wrote these words had in fact been increasing, annually, at greater than 100%. Sales of 2.0 million units in 2002 had soared to 6.7 million in 2003 and again to 14.4 million in 2004. Similar percentage growth rates continued after that – for a time. Sales were 34 million in 2005, 52 million in 2006, and 77 million in 2007. Past performance (ie growth over 100% per annum) is no sure guide to future results! On the other hand – just to reiterate the point – declining sales growth is not the same thing as declining sales!

A better guide to future sales prospects is probably the number of active phone projects under development. Symbian reports these figures quarterly too. As stated in our press release, there were 92 Symbian phone models (to our knowledge) in development at the end of June. That’s a 48% increase from the same figure last year – 62 models. It’s also by some way the largest value this figure has been.

Another sign (admittedly, again imperfect) of potential increased volume sales is in the increased revenues earned by Symbian’s professional services department. To quote from the press release,

76% growth in consulting services from £5.1 million in H1 2007 to £9.0 million in H1 2008 driven by a demand for Symbian services resulting from a broader and deeper range of customer mobile phone products in the pipeline.

What factors will, instead, govern future sales of iPhones? I’ve previously discussed some of the potential breakthrough features in this device. But what prevents these features being emulated by products from competitors – including some of the 92+ new products under development using Symbian OS?

Steve Litchfield of AllAboutSymbian has just published a thought-provoking article that touches on this topic, “Joined-up applications and The Way Ahead“. Steve is a high-integrity, thoughtful, and immensely knowledgeable writer, with deep all-round hands-on knowledge of numerous smartphones, so I have a lot of respect for his opinions. Steve writes:

Now there are four good reasons why [the iPhone] platform is relatively novel:

  1. – the iPhone has a large (320 by 480, 4″), patented capacitive display that’s touch-sensitive and yet has super visibility in all light conditions, something that was previously impossible.
  2. – the iPhone is almost always on a flat rate, all you can eat data tariff, which means applications can assume full Internet connectivity, bandwidth no object.
  3. – the iPhone has a built-in, callable version of Google Maps and a good YouTube client.
  4. – the iPhone is fully location aware, using cell towers, Skyhook Wi-Fi location (this works exceptionally well in towns) and (in the 3G model) full GPS.

(I’m tempted to add a fifth reason – that the Mac-loving, iPhone-loving crowd have more imagination and creativity than their equivalents in the Windows and Symbian worlds).

Then Steve reviews some of the particularly attractive (“jaw-droppingly well conceived”) downloadable applications which have become available for the iPhone. Finally, Steve comes back to the four points he made earlier:

…here’s the kicker – there’s no reason why similar levels of imagination and integration shouldn’t happen on S60 and Symbian – with Maps/Chat/Ovi, progress is being made. But if I’m honest, Apple’s iPhone platform has already seized the technological high ground – in this area, at least.

What about my four reasons (above) why the iPhone has engendered this sort of enthusiastic solution? How can they apply in the Symbian world?

  1. – the unusual E90 aside, the largest screen sizes in common use in the S60 world are 2.8″, half the size of the iPhone’s display (in terms of area) and many phone displays are 2.4″ or even 2.2″ (which works out as just over a quarter the area of the iPhone’s). Bigger displays are needed and of higher resolution. No doubt these will come, and at least outdoor contrast is very good on most S60 devices, but in the meantime it’s again advantage iPhone.
  2. – flat rate data tariffs are the exception rather than the rule for most S60 phone owners. I’d like to see every contract come with unlimited data and
    every pay-as-you-go SIM allowed unlimited data for a day for a nominal fee (e.g. £1). Until people reach the point where they don’t worry about how much Internet is costing them on their mobiles, they’ll be suspicious and, again, at a disadvantage to the more expensive, but worry-free, iPhone.
  3. – Google Maps is already native S60, which is good, although it’s not as slick as the iPhone implementation. But YouTube playback is a toss-up between the low resolution official Java client or the third party and slicker (but often unreliable) S60 app Mobitubia. Yet again, advantage iPhone.
  4. – with almost every S60 device now coming with built-in GPS and an OS that allows positioning to be accessed from any application, location useage is simply down to the skill and imagination of developers. We’re starting to see S60 apps that use GPS, but it’s still early days, it seems.

I don’t want to sound too negative – I love my S60 phones and I love the high performance, high speed nature of Symbian OS. But credit where credit’s due – hopefully you’ll agree that the above two iPhone application examples are nothing short of inspiring – whichever platform you use or develop for.

The killer question is: can the successes of the iPhone indeed inspire similar applications, services, and devices from competing platforms? Can other platforms support devices that have a similary gorgeous screen, a first rate web browser, flat rate data tariffs, and rich callable middleware? If this is possible, the TechCrunch sales projections are dubious.

Personally, I don’t think these successes can be fully emulated by in-house proprietary operating systems – but the answer changes when the underlying software system becomes sufficiently sophisticated, flexible, and robust. That is, feature phones cannot compete with these devices – but smartphones can. With these complex products, innovation requires underlying strength. Maturity, as Don Reisinger calls it, doesn’t need to mean sales stasis: it can mean the basis for very significant new innovation and new sales spurts – especially when coupled with the kind of restructuring that will follow from Nokia’s planned acquisition of Symbian and the formation of the open source Symbian Foundation.

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.

19 August 2008

Nokia and the valley iPhone super-fans

Filed under: iPhone, Nokia — David Wood @ 9:47 pm

“Nokia’s Software Problem”, proclaimed an article in Forbes yesterday, that gave voice to excited Silicon Valley adulation over the can’t-do-anything-wrong iPhone.

The article contained a report on a recent roundtable organised by Michael Arrington. Arrington himself is quoted in the article as pronouncing,

“I believe that Nokia and Symbian are irrelevant companies at this point.”

Part of the problem, apparently, is that:

“Nokia sells hundreds of phone models and supports three different operating systems. No two phones work exactly the same way. Simple models like Nokia’s 2610 aren’t compatible with the Symbian software used on Nokia’s best handsets, such as the N95. Applications written for the iPhone, by contrast, will run on every iPhone.”

Now there’s such a thing as being a fan of the iPhone. That’s understandable. Indeed, there are many great features to the iPhone. It’s proved to be an impressive device. What’s much less understandable is when this fanship extends into super-fanship of the type reported in this article, which makes people blind to:

  • the genuine merits of devices from other manufacturers (such as Nokia);
  • the likelihood that these manufacturers will come out with impressive new devices.

(I almost used a less polite word than “super-fanship” here, but hey, let’s try to be objective.)

Let’s get real. Of course there are big differences between different Nokia phones. Nokia supplies phones catering to very wide varieties of taste, usage model, and pocket. It’s no surprise that different software is used to power these different devices. In contrast, up till now, there’s really only one kind of iPhone. That makes it relatively easy for developers to write apps that work on (err) every kind of iPhone. However, the current iPhone isn’t to everyone’s taste. Some people love the big screen form factor, and are happy that there’s no keyboard. Others would definitely prefer different form factors and UI mechanisms. Others again would prefer a far less expensive phone. If/when Apple produce a variety of phones comparable to that produced by Nokia, it will be interesting to see exactly how portable the different applications remain.

I have another reservation about the arguments in the Forbes article. The email capabilities of the N95 are criticised as being less immediately usable than those of the iPhone. However, a fairer comparison in this case would be with those Nokia phones that specialise in email connectivity. (Remember, there is more than one kind of Nokia phone…). The recently released E66 and E71 would be better comparators. (See eg here for one review of the E71.)

It’s true that we can anticipate very interesting times, as forthcoming new Nokia phones reach the market in the months ahead. Naturally there will be impressive new smartphones from several other suppliers too (running both Symbian and non-Symbian operating systems). We can expect new kinds of user interface models, as different manufacturers build and riff on the innovations produced by their competitors – and bring out some totally new ideas of their own. In achieving these new effects, Symbian-powered phones can take advantage of the following features that are missing (so far) from the iPhone stable: Flash, Java, and the new ScreenPlay graphics architecture.

Looking slightly further afield, the new levels of openness enabled by the Symbian Foundation should have the additional benefits of providing new routes to market for Symbian technology, as well as more rapid collaborative development. If that’s a “software problem”, it’s a problem of the most attractive sort!

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