21 April 2010

Designing the Internet of Things

Filed under: Internet of Things, mashup* event, Mobile Monday — David Wood @ 2:10 pm
  • Computers; smartphones; … smart things.
  • The Internet; the mobile Internet; … the Internet of Things.

These two epic trends tell aspects of the same grand story.  First, computing power is becoming more widespread, more affordable, more compact, and more miniature.  Second, networked intelligence is becoming more widespread, more affordable, more effective, and more informed.

As a result, we can look forward to a time, in just a few years, where each of us owns more than a dozen different devices that communicate with each other, wirelessly and transparently.  That will take the number of wireless modems in use in the world to upwards of 50 billion.

Going further, there are forecasts of no fewer than one trillion wirelessly connected “things”, where this time the connection will often involve simpler connectivity such as RFID.  As reported recently in Wireless Week:

There will be 1 trillion devices connected to the Internet by 2013, said Cisco Chief Technology Officer Padma Warrior during her Wednesday keynote address at CTIA.

Warrior argued the boom in connected devices, applications and mobile broadband would change not only the wireless industry but society in general.

“The Internet is no longer just an information superhighway, it’s a platform,” Warrior said, citing the increased adoption of M2M technologies and the exponential growth of apps…

To prove her point, Warrior moved through a series of technology demonstrations with a Cisco colleague that detailed what it would be like to interact with next-generation mobile technology.

The pair showed off augmented reality in a subway system; location-based advertising and mobile coupons; and a mobile telepresence app.

The next big revolution that will happen is the Internet of things,” Warrior said…

Evidently, the ever lower costs and increased quality of computing and connectivity are opening all kinds of new opportunities.  It’s easy to speculate on possibilities:

  • Distributed arrays of sensors that can more reliably – and more quickly – highlight the changing concentrations of volcanic ash;
  • Luggage tags that know (and can report) where your luggage is;
  • Air conditioning units and heating units that can coordinate to act in concert, rather than independently;
  • A handheld toothbrush that can let you know if you’re not putting enough effort into cleaning the innersides of your lower right molars;
  • Smart sticking plasters that detect microscopic changes in skin condition or blood flow;
  • A monitor that can detect if you are too distracted (or too dozy) to drive safely.  (Even better, put the driving intelligence into the car itself, rather than rely on human drivers.)
  • Surveillance cameras that can analyse what they are filming, being alert for security abnormalities;
  • Audio recording devices that can understand what they are hearing;
  • Smart glasses that can interpret what you’re looking at;
  • Smart digital signs that change their display depending on who’s looking at them;
  • And all of these devices connected together…

Does this sound good to you? We can debate some of the points, but overall, it’s clear this grand technology trend has great power to improve health, education, transport, the environment, and human experience generally.

So why isn’t it happening faster? Why is it that, as an industry colleague said to me recently, this whole field is in a state of chaos?

It’s chaotic, because we don’t know what’s happening next, nor how fast it’s happening.  The use cases developers identify as important at the start of a project often turn out to be less significant than ones that turn up, unexpected, part way through the project.  (That’s not necessarily a problem.  It is, of course, a large opportunity.)

In short, although lots of the underlying technology is mature, the emerging industry of the “Internet of Things” is still far from mature.  The roadmaps of product development remain tentative and sketchy.  Speedy progress will depend on:

  • A few underlying technology issues – such as network interoperability, smart distribution of tasks across multiple processors, power management, power harvesting, and security;
  • Some pressing business model issues – since not all existing players are excited by the prospects of cost-savings which would in turn reduce their profits from existing products;
  • Some ecosystem management issues – to solve “chicken and egg” scenarios where multiple parts of a compound solution all need to be in place, before the full benefits can be realised;
  • Some project development agility issues – to avoid wasted investment in cases where project goals change part way through, due to the uncertain territory being navigated;
  • Some significant design issues – to ensure that the resulting products can be widely accepted and embraced by “normal people” (as opposed just to early adopter technology enthusiasts).

These are some of the themes that I will seek to explore as one of the speakers at the mashup* event in London on Tuesday 4th May, entitled “Internet of things: Rise of the machines“.  In addition to myself, the other announced speakers are:

Many thanks to the mashup* team for organising this get-together!  I hope to see you there.

Footnote: The ReadWriteWeb publish a useful series of articles about the Internet of Things.  At time of writing, the most recent article in this series is “Internet of Things Can Make Us Human Again“, which highlights the ideas and work of David Orban, Founder of WideTag.  Here’s a brief extract:

Orban’s dream is that thousands of years of human subservience to machines will end because we will teach our machines how to not only take care of themselves, but how to take care of us as well…

These new machine networks will be so redundant and reliable that we will be freed from most of our machine-operating duties. We will get to be human again…

Extending these ideas, David recently spoke on the theme “Free to be human” at Mobile Monday Amsterdam.  It’s a great introduction to many Internet of Things ideas:

By good fortune, David will be in London this weekend, since he’s one of the speakers at the Humanity+ UK2010 event.  He’ll be addressing the Internet of Things once again, along with some thoughts on the progress of the Singularity University.  In my experience, he’s a fascinating person to talk with.

21 January 2010

Selecting the most exciting mobile startups

Filed under: Barcelona, innovation, Mobile Monday, startups — David Wood @ 3:32 pm
  • Study the online details of each of 50 attractive mobile startup companies;
  • Identify, from this list, the 10 that are “the best of the best”.

That was the challenge posed to me earlier this week by Rudy de Waele, the Simon Cowell of the mobile industy.

As in previous years, the Monday of Mobile World Congress week – when the mobile industry congregates in Barcelona – will feature an Mobile Premier Awards event.  This event will feature a number of quickfire pitches by companies selected by Mobile Monday chapters worldwide.  These companies are competing for a number of awards, including the Mobile Premier Award in Innovation.

By this stage in the contest, there are 50 candidates.  Each has been selected as the result of a process in one of the Mobile Monday chapters.  We’re now at the stage of reducing this list to 20, to avoid the event in Barcelona stretching on too long in time.  Responsibility for this reduction falls to a group of people described as “an online jury of industry experts”.

I was honoured to be asked to take part in this jury, but at the same time I was apprehensive.  It’s a considerable responsibility to look at the information about each of 50 companies, and to find the most deserving 10 from that list.  (Each jury member picks 10.  The organisers aggregate the votes from all 25 jury members, and the top-scoring 20 companies are invited to make a pitch at the event in Barcelona.)

The guidelines to jury members asked that we evaluate each candidate based on:

  • originality, creativity and innovation;
  • technical and operational feasibility;
  • economic and financial viability.

I created a spreadsheet for my own use and started following links Rudy provided me to entries for each of the companies on dotopen.com.  In turn these entries pointed to other info, such as the companies’ own websites.

As I anticipated, the selection process was far from easy!  I quickly found 10 companies that I thought definitely deserved to attend Barcelona – and I had only searched about one third of the way through the list of nominees…

Occasionally I thought that a particular entry looked comparatively uninteresting (for example, that it was a “Me too” offering).  But when I clicked onto the company’s own website and started looking in more detail at what they had done, I would I think to myself “Mmm… this startup has a strong proposition after all”.

However, by close of play yesterday I had made my selection.  It’s inappropriate for me to publicly mention any companies at this time.  But I will say that I expect the event in Barcelona will give strong evidence of some companies executing well on some very interesting business ideas.

19 January 2010

Mobile phones and sustainability

Filed under: Energy, GreenTouch, Mobile Monday, sensors, sustainability — David Wood @ 1:55 am

What role can mobile phones play in reducing energy usage worldwide and assisting the transformation to a sustainable economy?  More widely, what role can the mobile phone industry play in this whole process?

That topic was addressed at yesterday’s Mobile Monday London event, held (unusually) in Brighton.  One of the organisers, Jo Rabin, commented:

As any Londoner knows, Brighton is one of the further suburbs, and like the rest of South London, not on the tube. That said, a modest 50 minutes and £10 return advance booking gets you there in comfort from London’s convenient Victoria station (and others)

The event was entitled “Mobile Application Sustainability” and featured:

One striking claim from near the beginning of the event was when Galit Zadok described the mobile phone as “the least sustainable item of consumer electronics, ever” – on account of the very high numbers of mobile phones which are replaced every year.  To quote from the Green Switch paper (PDF):

an average replacement rate of 18 months, accounting for 500 million handsets replaced last year in Europe alone, … makes the mobile phone the consumer electronic device with the highest replacement rate in history

Galit noted some positive developments too, mainly over phone chargers.  Again quoting from the Green Switch paper:

Regulation is encouraging manufacturers to make reductions in no-load energy demands, and handset manufacturers are responding.  By 2008 Sony Ericsson reduced the average no-load power consumption by more than 90%, whilst Nokia has achieved 80% reduction.

To further spur the industry into action, in October 2009, the ITU has given its stamp of approval to an energy-efficient one-charger-fits-all new mobile phone solution. The new Universal Charging Solution (UCS) enables the same charger to be used for all future handsets, regardless of make and model. In addition to dramatically cutting the number of chargers produced, shipped and subsequently discarded as new models become available, the new standard will reduce the energy consumed by the charger. The new UCS standard was based on input from the GSMA, which predicts elimination of 51,000 tonnes of redundant chargers, and a subsequent reduction of 13.6 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions each year.

I was less convinced when listening to the claims of the Green Switch speakers that:

  • The power consumption of the handsets themselves amounts to a significant proportion of overall human energy usage;
  • The handset power consumption problem becomes worse, with more and more applications included on the device;
  • Therefore people should be encouraged to use simpler devices – or to run their devices in a “green” mode in which fewer applications are enabled.

To be clear, I’m all in favour of reducing the power used by mobile phone applications, since this will lead to longer periods between battery charging, and will therefore improve user experience.  Short battery life is a long-standing deeply difficult issue for manufacturers of smart mobile handsets.  I’ve also long recognised the problems that are posed as the amount of software included on a device increases.  For example, here’s an excerpt of an “Insight” piece that I wrote for the symbian.com website in November 2006 (copy available here):

Standing in opposition to the potential for swift continuing increase in mobile technology, however, we face a series of major challenges.  I call them “horsemen of the apocalypse”.  They include fire, flood, plague, and warfare.

Fire” is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster.  Alas, batteries don’t follow Moore’s Law.  As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet.  The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software.  Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire (or otherwise drawing too much power) as it performs its incredible calculations.

Flood” is the challenge of coping with enormous quantities of additional software.  Each individual chunk of new software adds value, but when they coalesce in large quantities, chaos breaks loose: software projects delay almost indefinitely in their integration phase (think of Windows Longhorn), and users struggle to find their favourite functionality in amongst seething masses of menu options.  As summarised in Brooks’ Law (which ought to be as famous as Moore’s), “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.  In other words, too many cooks spoil the broth.  Like the problem of fire, flood requires more than just money or people to solve.  It requires the right core software architecture, which allows add-on software to co-exist harmoniously…

So I care about the problems of power usage on mobile phones, and about the problems arising from an abundance of software on these devices.  However, I think it’s misleading to characterise these problems as problems of sustainability.

Here, my thinking follows the lead of David Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, as spelt out in his book “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” and in other writing:

Turning phone chargers off when they are not in use is a feeble gesture, like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.

The widespread inclusion of “switching off phone chargers” in lists of “10 things you can do” is a bad thing, because it distracts attention from more effective actions that people could be taking.

(For some more details, page 70 of David Mackay’s book compares power consumption for different household items.)

Nevertheless, despite this quibble, I strongly agree that there’s a great deal that the mobile phone industry should be doing, to reduce energy usage worldwide and assist the transformation to a sustainable economy:

  1. As various speakers noted, applications mobile phones can collect (via various sensors) useful information about a person’s overall energy usage, and present this information back to the user.  Here, rather than being part of the problem, the mobile phone can be part of the solution;
  2. Mobile phones can also help communicate ideas about alternative energy solutions to users – solutions that are relevant to what the user is currently doing;
  3. Improved recycling of mobile phones will help too: making more phones software upgradable will be a step forward;
  4. There’s considerable scope for reducing the energy consumption on the server side of mobile phone networks (where it matters most).

A press release from yesterday highlights an example of the final point.  The press release is entitled “M1 looks at 35% reduction in carbon footprint in Singapore“.  Here’s an excerpt:

MobileOne (M1), the leading mobile operator in Singapore, expects to achieve up to 35% reduction of its telecommunications networks carbon footprint by early 2011. This is made possible by Nokia Siemens Networks Flexi Multiradio base stations. The vendor is currently modernizing M1’s 2G network to prepare it for a smooth transition to Long Term Evolution (LTE).

In addition, M1 is set to start an LTE trial in February 2010. Undertaken in collaboration with Nokia Siemens Networks, the trial will last two months and marks another step in M1’s commitment to deliver an energy efficient, high-speed mobile broadband service to its subscribers.

The LTE trial includes Nokia Siemens Networks’ Flexi Multiradio Base Stations that enhance network coverage and capacity, while lowering site power consumption significantly. This forms part of its end to end Energy Solutions portfolio, which is a clear commitment from Nokia Siemens Networks to drive innovative solutions for energy efficiency…

(Thanks to Stefan Constantinescu, for drawing attention to this particular press release.)

If a 35% carbon footprint reduction sounds impressive, here’s an even larger figure to consider. The newly formed Green Touch consortium announced a bold vision as part of their launch activities last week:

We aim to reduce energy consumption in worldwide ICT networks by a factor of 1000.

This is reiterated in the Green Touch description of “challenges and opportunities“:

The goal of this new consortium is to create the technologies needed to make communications networks 1000 times more energy efficient than they are today.

A thousand-fold reduction is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

An early goal for this initiative is to deliver, within five years, a reference architecture, specifications, technology development roadmap and demonstrations of key components needed to realize a fundamental re-design of networks (including the introduction of entirely new technologies) that can reduce energy consumption – both by individuals and in aggregate – by 1000 times as compared to current levels.

Through a focused and collaborative cross-industry initiative, we intend to define the challenge, conduct breakthrough research, and deliver innovative new technologies and sustainable solutions that can be applied across ICT and beyond — for a greener and more sustainable communications future and for the benefit of all.

Their webpage “ICT Industry Combats Climate Change” provides more details:

Research from Bell Labs determined that today’s ICT networks have the potential to be 10,000 times (four orders of magnitude) more efficient then they are today. This conclusion comes out of Bell Labs’ fundamental analysis of the underlying components of ICT networks and technologies (optical, wireless, electronics, processing, routing, architecture, etc.) and studying their physical limits by applying established formulas such as Shannon’s Law, ‘father of information theory’.

Achieving even one-tenth of Shannon’s lower limit would cut network energy consumption by a factor of 1,000. A thousand-fold reduction in energy consumption is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

These huge gains can only be achieved by rethinking the way telecom networks are designed in terms of low energy processing. Today’s networks are designed for optimal capacity, not efficient energy use. What is needed is a major breakthrough, a radical re-design of networks, and that can only be achieved through the contributions of all essential participants, from basic and applied researchers and component suppliers to network operators, equipment and system suppliers and governments.

While these re-designed networks would dramatically decrease direct ICT energy consumption, the energy savings would be overshadowed by the indirect effects. Because ICT constitutes what the World Economic Forum describes as “our collective nervous system,” touching nearly every industry sector2 a shift in the magnitude of ICT energy usage would reverberate throughout the global economy. By further enabling energy efficiencies across the energy-hungry portions of human enterprise, the ICT sector holds the potential to substantially contribute to the fight against climate change on a global scale…

What kind of people are behind this consortium?  It’s an impressive list:

Service Providers: AT&T, China Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Swisscom, Telefonica

Academic Research Labs: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE), Stanford University’s Wireless Systems Lab (WSL), the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES)

Government and Nonprofit Research Institutions: The CEA-LETI Applied Research Institute for Microelectronics (Grenoble, France), The Foundation for Mobile Communications (Portugal), imec (Headquarters: Leuven, Belgium), The French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA)

Industrial Labs: Bell Labs, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), Freescale Semiconductor.

The press release also contains endorsements from:

  • Dr. Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy
  • Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, UK
  • Christian Estrosi, Minister for Industry, France
  • Jong-Soo Yoon, Director General, Ministry of Environment, South Korea
  • Paulo Campos, Secretary of State for Public Works and Communications, Portugal

Next time MoMo London looks at the topic of mobile sustainability, I hope there will be time to include an update on progress from the Green Touch team!

Footnote: Here’s a ten minute video summary of last week’s press conference launching Green Touch:

13 June 2009

Monday night is demo night

Filed under: applications, demos, Mobile Monday, Samsung — David Wood @ 4:12 pm

Mobile Monday London is at a new location this Monday (15th June). Most of the MoMoLo events I’ve attended over the last few years have been at the CBI Conference Centre in the Centrepoint building near Tottenham Court Road tube station. But on this occasion, the venue will be the 10th floor of the Blue Fin Building, 110 Southwark St, SE1 0SU. This venue is south of Tate Modern, and nearby tube stations include Blackfriars, Waterloo, Southwark, Cannon Street and London Brige. The event is being hosted by IPC Media, who are based in the building.

Blue Fin building has its own significance in the Symbian world. The second floor of that building is home to the UK branch of SOSCO – which is an acronym for “S60 on Symbian Customer Operations”. Prior to Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian Ltd last December, the unit was known by the simpler name of SCO – “Symbian Customer Operations”. It’s a descendent (via several renamings) of the Technical Consulting (“TC”) department which was created on the initial formation of Symbian Ltd back in June 1998. I was responsible for TC at that time, and several of the people from the early days of TC still work in SOSCO. Among other claims to fame, SOSCO engineers recently ported a version of the Symbian platform to run on an off the shelf Atom based motherboard from Intel.

This Monday’s event is a demo night. At the last count, the following mobile demos are lined up:

  • Vopium – like Skype but fully integrated into your mobile’s phonebook
  • Peepr.TV – webcam streaming to mobile
  • 0870.me – standard rate calls instead of 0870
  • Photofit – photo mashup application
  • Total Hotspots – Rummble your nearest wifi hotspot
  • Audioboo – audio micro-blogging as much loved by Stephen Fry amongst others
  • Artilium – making LBS easy for developers
  • Proxama – the latest in NFC wallets
  • Ookl – mobile learning
  • Singtones – karaoke on your phone
  • Masabi – rail ticketing
  • Corebridge – CRM on the go
  • Spoonfed – London restaurant finder

It will be a fine chance to weigh up some innovative mobile applications and services. There will presumably be some of the latest mobile devices on show too – given that the co-sponsor of the evening (along with IPC Media) is Samsung Mobile Innovator.

The word on the streets is that Samsung Mobile Innovator “will be making a special announcement on Monday evening” – which is another reason for attending. (OK, full disclosure: let me confess my source for this info: it’s someone who used to work for SOSCO, but who is now employed by Samsung Mobile Innovator.)

As the official site for the event explains:

  • Doors will open at 6pm for a prompt start at 6.30pm;
  • There’s a LOT to get through;
  • Please allow enough time to get through security on the ground floor and take the lift up to the 10th floor;
  • Also please make sure you are registered well in advance so you can whizz through security;
  • There is no guarantee of entry unless you are registered in advance.

To register, please visit the event website.

The venue has capacity for 155 participants. As I write this, there are 38 places still available.

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.

17 July 2008

Mobile development in a hurry

Filed under: Mobile Monday, mobile web, Symbian Press — David Wood @ 12:18 pm

“Google Mobile are moving all development away from downloadable apps to the mobile web”

That’s a message mjelly records Charles Wiles, product manager for Google Gears for mobile, as making at this week’s MoMo London event.

I was at the same event. I’m not sure I remember hearing quite such an emphatic message as mjelly reports, but I do remember hearing the following:

  • Eric Schmidt (Google CEO) has been asking the Google Mobile team why they only make one app release every six months, whereas development of apps for PC web-browser happens much more quickly
  • Downloadable apps for mobile devices are fraught with problems – including BIG issues with device fragmentation
  • Taking Google Maps for mobile as an example: there are 10+ platforms to support, requiring 100’s of builds in total – it all adds up to PAIN
  • There must be a better way!
  • The better way is to deliver services through the mobile web, instead of via downloadable applications.

I’ve heard this kind of message at previous MoMo London events, from lots of different speakers. Downloadable applications (whether written in native C++ for in Java) introduce lots of problems with development, deployment, and usability, whereas mobile web apps are a whole world simpler. The message that comes across is: If you want rapid development that in turn allows rapid innovation, stick with the mobile web. It’s not a message I’ve enjoyed hearing, but I can’t deny that lots of speakers have said it (in various different ways).

But what made the presentation from Charles Wiles all the more interesting was that, after highlighting difficulties facing downloadable mobile apps, he was equally critical of mobile web applications (which run inside a web browser environment on the device):

  • Mobile web apps suck too!
  • Javascript takes time to execute on mobile devices, and since it’s single threaded, it blocks the UI
  • There’s often high network latency
  • The mobile web apps lack access to location, the address book, and camera, etc.

It’s for this kind of reason that Google has continued to release downloadable versions of their most popular applications. (Incidentally, pride of place on the Quick Access bar on my Nokia E61i idlescreen are the native C++ versions of Google Search and Google Maps. They’re in that pole position because I find them both incredibly useful.)

It’s also for this kind of reason that Apple’s initial message about how to develop apps for the iPhone – that developers should just write web applications – was so poorly received. Would-be iPhone developers strongly suspected they could achieve better results, in many cases, by writing downloadable apps. This expectation has been vindicated by the heady events around the recent launch of the iPhone application store.

Four challenges facing mobile web apps

The four factors I generally highlight as limitations in mobile web applications vs. downloaded apps are:

  1. The UI provided by a web browser is general purpose, and is often sub-optimal for a more complex application on the small screen of a mobile device (an example of the unsuitedness of the web browser UI in general is when users are confronted with messages such as “Don’t press the Back button now!” or “Only press the OK button once!”)
  2. Applications need to be able to operate when they are disconnected from the network – as in an airplane or during a trip in an Olde World London underground train – or whenever reception is flaky. On a mobile device, the user experience of intermittently connected “push email” from the likes of BlackBerry is far more pleasant than an “always connected web browser” interface to server-side email
  3. Web applications suffer from lack of access to much of the more “interesting” functionality on the phone
  4. Web applications are often more sluggish than their downloaded equivalents.

Exploring two routes to improved mobile apps

So what is the best answer? Improve native mobile app development or improve mobile web app development? Unsurprisingly, the industy is exploring both routes.

To improve mobile web app development:

Each of these initiatives (and I could have mentioned quite a few more) is significant, and each deserves wide support. Each of them also faces complications – for example, the more AJAX is included in a web application (addressing problem #1 of the four I listed above), the more sluggishly that application tends to run (exacerbating problem #4). And as web applications gain more access to underlying rich phone functionality, complex issues of security and application validation rear their heads again. I doubt if any of these complications are fatal, but they reinforce the argument for the industry also looking, in parallel, at initiatives to improve native mobile app development.

To improve native mobile app development, Symbian has been putting considerable effort over the last few years into improved developer tools, developer documentation, APIs, and so on. The results are encouraging, but the job is far from done.

Quick recipes on Symbian OS

One of the disincentives to doing native application development on Symbian phones is the learning curve that developers need to climb, as they become familiar with various programming idioms. That’s a topic that Kari Pulli (Nokia Research Fellow) discussed with me when he visited Symbian HQ back in Fall 2006. Kari had in mind the needs of people (especially in universities) who were already good C++ developers, but who don’t have a lot of spare time or inclination to learn brand new programming techniques.

We brainstormed possible titles for a new Symbian Press book specifically targeted at this important developer segment:

  • “Symbian progamming in a hurry”?
  • “Hacking Symbian OS”?

In the months that followed, this idea bounced around inside Symbian, and gathered more and more support. The title changed in the process, to the more ‘respectable’ “Quick Recipes on Symbian OS”. Michael Aubert stepped forwards as the lead author – you can read an interview with him on the Symbian Developer Network. Happily, the book went on sale last month. For my hopes for the book, I append a copy of the foreword I wrote for the book:

This book has been designed for people who are in a hurry.

Perhaps you are a developer who has been asked to port some software, initially written for another operating system (such as may run on a desktop computer), to Symbian OS. Or perhaps you have to investigate whether Symbian OS could be suited to an idea from a designer friend of yours. But the trouble is, you don’t have much time, and you have heard that Symbian OS is a sophisticated and rich software system with a considerable learning curve.

If you are like the majority of software engineers, you would like to take some time to investigate this kind of task. You might prefer to attend a training course, or work your way through some of the comprehensive reference material that already exists for Symbian OS. However, I guess that you don’t have the luxury of doing that – because you are facing tight schedule pressures. There isn’t sufficient slack in your schedule to research options as widely as you’d like. Your manager is expecting your report by the end of the week. So you need answers in a hurry.

That’s why Symbian Press commissioned the book you are now holding in your hands. We are assuming that you are a bright, savvy, experienced software developer, who’s already familiar with C++ and with modern software programming methods and idioms. You are willing to work hard and can learn fast. You are ready to take things on trust for a while, provided you can quickly find out how to perform various tasks within Symbian OS. Over time, you would like to learn more about the background and deeper principles behind Symbian OS, but that will have to wait – since at the moment, you’re looking for quick recipes.

Congratulations, you’ve found them!

In the pages ahead, you’ll find recipes covering topics such as Bluetooth, networking, location based services, multimedia, telephony, file handling, personal information management – and much more. In most recipes, we provide working code fragments that you should be able to copy and paste directly into your own programs, and we provide a full set of sample code for download from the book’s website. We have also listed some common gotchas, so you can steer clear of these potential pitfalls.

Since you are in a hurry, I will stop writing now (even though there is lots more I would like to discuss with you), so that you can proceed at full pace into the material in the following pages. Good speed!

14 July 2008

MoMo London: the momentum continues

Filed under: Location, Mobile Monday — David Wood @ 11:11 pm

Mobile Monday is a worldwide phenomenon, with chapters in more than 60 cities. Typically, chapters hold one meeting most months, usually on the first (or second) Monday – though some smaller groups meet less frequently. I hear that the London chapter is among the liveliest.

Tonight, Mobile Monday London held its thirtieth speaker meeting. Checking back through my Series 5mx Agenda, I counted that I’ve attended 18 out of the 30, going back to my first attendance in December 2005. The reasons I keep returning to these events are:

  1. The networking opportunities are first class: all sorts of developers, entrepreneurs, VCs, project managers etc attend, from both large and small companies (including independent contractors)
  2. The presentations (which are deliberately kept short) and the demos that follow (which are kept even shorter) often convey new insight about the cutting edge of the mobile industry
  3. Disruptive yet throughtful questions are asked by highly knowledgeable audience members who have in many cases already personally been through a couple of business cycles, in different companies, experiencing the reality of technical ideas and business models similar to those being advocated by the presenters.

The quality of the Q&A alone often makes these meetings considerably more interesting and useful than some industry conferences which come with hefty price tags. That’s the benefit of the collectively highly experienced MoMo London community.

The topic for this evening was “Enabling Location in Applications”. The audience was enormous – being swelled, first by some members of the W3C who are attending a working meeting in London, and second by visiting members from overseas MoMo chapters (Germany, Estonia, Sweden, Spain, Boston, Italy, and New York, among others) who were in town to discuss the future international setup of the organisation. This was on top of the very sizeable more local audience.

All seven of the presentations / demos included interesting comments. Here’s a few points that caught my attention:

  • Skyhook Wireless (who were the sponsors for this particular event) have a database of the locations of over 50 million wireless access points, including 16M+ in Europe alone. This database grows as the result of the records made by 500 drivers worldwide, include 200 in Europe (who have already driven some 750,000 km)
  • A (non-mobile phone) application of the Skyhook technology is explained by David Pogue in this video: the Eye Fi system of automatically geo-tagging photos taken by your digital camera, without involving any GPS receiver
  • Another partner of Skyhook is Trapster, who have an app for mobile phones that allows drivers to provide real-time alerts to one another about speed traps in the area
  • Google Gears provides a Geolocation API, which in turn could provide much of the basis of a similar API in HTML5; that’s a reminder that (as stressed by the Google speaker, Charles Wiles) “Google Gears is much more than offline”
  • The demos and screenshots tended to show either the Nokia N95 or the iPhone; Andrew Scott of Rummble cheekily remarked that “It will take a long time before everyone has an iPhone – maybe two years”
  • Andrew touched on another sensitive point with a follow-up remark: “Mobile Network Operators are probably never going to waken up and realise that they shouldn’t be charging for location information”
  • Both Andrew and Justin Davis of NinetyTen emphasised that mobile search and recommendations needed to be filtered, to give more prominence to entries that had been favourably reviewed by trusted contacts of the user
  • Uniquely of all the speakers, Mark White of Locatrix (who said he had flown all the way from Brisbane Australia to speak at this event) spent more time reviewing business model issues. “‘Can do’ doesn’t mean ‘can make money’“, he emphasised
  • During the Q&A, the panel suggested it was only a matter of time before a free access API would be available, allowing applications to query central databases to find out the location of a cell with a given ID; any new startups who are working on providing this service wouild therefore be well advised to stop this at once.

Because the room was so full and was becoming pretty warm, the Q&A was stopped before it got into full gear, which was a bit of a pity. But lots of lively conversation continued in the reception area afterwards, over drinks.

To my mind, the energy and upbeat attitude of the meeting is testimony to:

  • The overall health of the mobile industry in and around London
  • The ever greater role of location elements in mobile applications.

I’ll end by echoing the closing words of Mark White: “This is not the LBS industry of 2000. It’s better”. Users have learned about the general benefits of GPS and positioning from car-based satnav systems, and are now increasingly looking for similar benefits from their mobile phones.

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