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10 May 2015

When the future of smartphones was in doubt

It’s hard to believe it now. But ten years ago, the future of smartphones was in doubt.

At that time, I wrote these words:

Smartphones in 2005 are roughly where the Internet was in 1995. In 1995, there were, worldwide, around 20-40 million users of the Internet. That’s broadly the same number of users of smartphones there are in the world today. In 1995, people were debating the real value of Internet usage. Was it simply an indulgent plaything for highly technical users, or would it have lasting wider attraction? In 2005, there’s a similar debate about smartphones. Will smartphones remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

That was the opening paragraph in an essay which the Internet site Archive.org has preserved. The original location for the essay, the Symbian corporate website, has long since been retired, having been absorbed inside Nokia infrastructure in 2009 (and, perhaps, being absorbed in turn into Microsoft in 2014).

Symbian Way Back

The entire essay can be found here, warts and all. That essay was the first in a monthly series known as “David Wood Insight” which extended from September 2005 to September 2006. (The entire set still exists on Archive.org – and, for convenience, I’ve made a copy here.)

Ten years later, it seems to me that wearable computers in 2015 are roughly where smartphones were in 2005 (and where the Internet was in 1995). There’s considerable scepticism about their future. Will they remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

Some commentators look at today’s wearable devices, such as Google Glass and Apple Watch, and express disappointment. There are many ways these devices can be criticised. They lack style. They lack “must have” functionality. Their usability leaves a lot to be desired. Battery life is too short. And so on.

But, like smartphones before them – and like the world-wide web ten years earlier – they’re going to get much, much better as time passes. Positive feedback cycles will ensure that happens.

I share the view of Augmented Reality analyst Ori Inbar, who wrote the following a few months ago in an updated version of his “Smart Glasses Market Report”:

When contemplating the evolution of technology in the context of the evolution of humanity, augmented reality (AR) is inevitable.

Consider the innovation cycles of computing from mainframes, to personal computers, to mobile computing, to wearables: It was driven by our need for computers to get smaller, better, and cheaper. Wearables are exactly that – mini computers on track to shrink and disappear on our bodies. In addition, there is a fundamental human desire for larger and sharper displays – we want to see and feel the world at a deeper level. These two trends will be resolved with Augmented Reality; AR extends our natural senses and will become humans’ primary interface for interaction with the world.

If the adoption curve of mobile phones is to repeat itself with glasses – within 10 years, over 1 billion humans will be “wearing.”

The report is packed with insight – I fully recommend it. For example, here’s Ori’s depiction of four waves of adoption of smart glasses:

Smart Glasses Adoption

(For more info about Augmented Reality and smart glasses, readers may be interested in the forthcoming Augmented World Expo, held 8-10 June at the Santa Clara Convention Centre in Silicon Valley.)

What about ten more years into the future?

All being well, here’s what I might be writing some time around 2025, foreseeing the growing adoption of yet another wave of computers.

If 1995-2005 saw the growth of desktop and laptop computers and the world wide web, 2005-2015 saw the growing ubiquity of smartphones, and 2015-2025 will see the triumph of wearable computers and augmented reality, then 2025-2035 is likely to see the increasingly widespread usage of nanobots (nano-computers) that operate inside our bodies.

The focus of computer innovation and usage will move from portables to mobiles to wearables to insideables.

And the killer app of these embedded nanobots will be internal human enhancement:

  • Biological rejuvenation
  • Body and brain repair
  • Body and brain augmentation.

By 2025, these applications will likely be in an early, rudimentary state. They’ll be buggy, irritating, and probably expensive. With some justification, critics will be asking: Will nanobots remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

7 September 2014

Beyond ‘Smartphones and beyond’

You techno-optimists don’t understand how messy real-life projects are. You over-estimate the power of technology, and under-estimate factors such as sociology, psychology, economics, and biology – not to mention the cussed awkwardness of Murphy’s Law.

That’s an example of the kind of retort that has frequently come to my ears in the last few years. I have a lot of sympathy for that retort.

I don’t deny being an optimist about what technology can accomplish. As I see things:

  • Human progress has taken place by the discovery and adoption of engineering solutions – such as fire, the wheel, irrigation, sailing ships, writing, printing, the steam engine, electricity, domestic kitchen appliances, railways and automobiles, computers and the Internet, plastics, vaccinations, anaesthetic, contraception, and better hygiene
  • Forthcoming technological improvements can propel human experience onto an even higher plane – with our minds and bodies both being dramatically enhanced
  • As well as making us stronger and smarter, new technology can help us become kinder, more collaborative, more patient, more empathetic, less parochial, and more aware of our cognitive biases and blindspots.

But equally, I see lots of examples of technology failing to live up to the expectations of techno-optimists. It’s not just that technology is a two-edged sword, and can scar as well as salve. And it’s not just that technology is often mis-employed in search of a “techno-solution” when a piece of good old-fashioned common sense could result in a better approach. It’s that new technologies – whether ideas for new medical cures, new sustainable energy sources, improved AI algorithms, and so on – often take considerably longer than expected to create useful products. Moreover, these products often have weaker features or poorer quality than anticipated.

Here’s an example of technology slowdown. A 2012 article in Nature coined the clever term “Eroom’s Law” to describe a steady decline in productivity of R&D research in new drug discovery:

Diagnosing the decline in pharmaceutical R&D efficiency

Jack W. Scannell, Alex Blanckley, Helen Boldon & Brian Warrington

The past 60 years have seen huge advances in many of the scientific, technological and managerial factors that should tend to raise the efficiency of commercial drug research and development (R&D). Yet the number of new drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on R&D has halved roughly every 9 years since 1950, falling around 80-fold in inflation-adjusted terms.

In other words, although the better-known Moore’s Law describes a relatively steady increase in computational power, Eroom’s Law describes a relatively steady decrease in the effectiveness of research and development within the pharmaceutical industry. By the way, Eroom isn’t a person: it’s Moore spelt backwards.

The statistics are bleak, as can be seen in a graph from Derek Lowe’s In the pipeline blog:

R&D trend

But despite this dismal trend, I still see plenty of reason for measured optimism about the future of technology. That’s despite the messiness of real-world projects, out-dated regulatory and testing systems, perverse incentive schemes, institutional lethargy, and inadequate legacy platforms.

This measured optimism comes to the surface in the later stages of the book I have just e-published, at the end of a two-year period of writing it. The book is entitled Smartphones and beyond: lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian.

As I write in the opening chapter of that book (an excerpt is available online):

The story of the evolution of smartphones is fascinating in its own right – for its rich set of characters, and for its colourful set of triumphs and disasters. But the story has wider implications. Many important lessons can be drawn from careful review of the successes and, yes, the failures of the smartphone industry.

When it comes to the development of modern technology, things are rarely as simple as they first appear. Some companies bring great products to the market, true. These companies are widely lauded. But the surface story of winners and losers can conceal many twists and turns of fortune. Behind an apparent sudden spurt of widespread popularity, there frequently lies a long gestation period. The eventual blaze of success was preceded by the faltering efforts of many pioneers who carved new paths into uncertain terrain. The steps and missteps of these near-forgotten pioneers laid the foundation for what was to follow.

So it was for smartphones. It is likely to be the same with many of the other breakthrough technologies that have the potential to radically transform human experience in the decades ahead. They are experiencing their missteps too.

I write this book as an ardent fan of the latent power of modern technology. I’ve seen smartphone technology playing vital roles in the positive transformation of human experience, all over the world. I expect other technologies to play even more radical roles in the near future – technologies such as wearable computing, 3D printing, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, neuro-enhancement, rejuvenation biotech, artificial intelligence, and next generation robotics. But, as with smartphones, there are likely to be many disappointments en route to eventual success. Indeed, even the “eventual success” cannot be taken for granted.

General principles about the progress of complex technology emerge from reflecting on the details of actual examples. These details – the “warts and all”, to use the phrase attributed to Oliver Cromwell – can confound naive notions as to how complex technology should be developed and applied. As I’ll show from specific examples in the chapters ahead, the details show that failure and success often co-exist closely within the same project. A single project often contains multiple layers, belonging to numerous different chains of cause and effect.

It is my sincere hope that an appreciation of real-world examples of these multiple layers of smartphone development projects will enable a better understanding of how to guide the future evolution of other forms of smart technology. I’ll describe what I call “the core smartphone skillset”, comprising excellence in the three dimensions of “platforms”, “marketing”, and “execution”. To my mind, these are the key enablers of complex technological progress. These enablers have a critical role to play for smartphones, and beyond. Put together well, these enablers can climb mountains.

I see the core smartphone skillset as having strong applicability in wider technological areas. That skillset provides the basis for overcoming the various forms of inertia which are holding back the creation of important new solutions from emerging technologies. The existence of that skillset underlies my measured optimism in the future.

But there’s nothing inevitable about how things will turn out. The future holds many potential scenarios, with varying degrees of upside and downside. The question of which scenarios will become actual, depends on inspired human vision, choice, action, and follow-through. Fortune sometimes hinges on the smallest of root causes. Effects can then cascade.

Hits and misses

As well as the description of the core smartphone skillset” – which I see as having strong applicability in wider technological areas – the book contains my thoughts as the things that Symbian did particularly well over the years, resulting in it becoming the leading smartphone operating system for many years in the first decade of this century:

  1. Investors and supporters who were prepared to take a long-term view of their investments
  2. Regular deliveries against an incremental roadmap
  3. Regularly taking the time to improve the architecture of the software and the processes by which it was delivered
  4. High calibre software development personnel
  5. Cleanly executed acquisitions to boost the company’s talent pool
  6. Early and sustained identification of the profound importance of smartphones
  7. Good links with the technology foresight groups and other roadmap planning groups within a range of customers
  8. A product that was open to influence, modification, and customisation by customers
  9. Careful attention given to enabling an ecosystem of partners
  10. An independent commercial basis for the company, rather than it being set up as a toothless “customers’ cooperative”
  11. Enabling competition.

Over the course of that time, Symbian:

  • Opened minds as to what smartphones could accomplish. In particular, people realised that there was much more they could do with mobile phones, beyond making phone calls. This glimpse encouraged other companies to enter this space, with alternative smartphone platforms that achieved, in the end, considerably greater success
  • Developed a highly capable touch UI platform (UIQ), years before Android/iPhone
  • Supported a rich range of different kinds of mobile devices, all running versions of the same underlying software engine; in particular, Symbian supported the S60 family of devices with its ergonomically satisfying one-handed operating mode
  • Achieved early demonstrations of breakthrough capabilities for mobile phones, including streaming multimedia, smooth switching between wifi and cellular networks, maps with GPS updates, the use of a built-in compass and accelerometer, and augmented reality – such as in the 2003 “Mozzies” (“Mosquitos”) game for the Siemens SX1
  • Powered many ground-breaking multimedia smartphones, imaging smartphones, business smartphones, and fashion smartphones
  • Achieved sales of some 500 million units – with the majority being shipped by Nokia, but with 40 million being shipped inside Japan from 2003 onwards, by Fujitsu, Sharp, Mitsubishi, and Sony Ericsson
  • Held together an alliance of competitors, among the set of licensees and partners of Symbian, with the various companies each having the opportunity to benefit from solutions initially developed with some of their competitors in mind
  • Demonstrated that mobile phones could contain many useful third party applications, without at the same time becoming hotbeds of viruses
  • Featured in some of the best-selling mobile phones of all time, up till then, such as the Nokia 5230, which sold 150 million units.

Alongside the list of “greatest hits”, the book also contains a (considerably longer) list of “greatest misses”, “might-have-beens”, and alternative histories. The two lists are distilled from wide-ranging “warts and all” discussions in earlier chapters of the book, featuring many excerpts from my email and other personal archives.

LFS cover v2

To my past and present colleagues from the Symbian journey, I offer my deep thanks for all their contributions to the creation of modern smartphones. I also offer my apologies for cases when my book brings back memories of episodes that some participants might prefer to forget. But Symbian’s story is too important to forget. And although there is much to regret in individual actions, there is much to savour in the overall outcome. We can walk tall.

The bigger picture now is that other emerging technology sectors risk repeating the stumbles of the smartphone industry. Whereas the smartphone industry recovered from its early stumbles, these other industries might not be so fortunate. They may die before they get off the ground. Their potential benefits might remain forever out of grasp, or be sorely delayed.

If the unflattering episodes covered in Smartphones and beyond can help increase the chance of these new technology sectors addressing real human need quickly, safely, and fully, then I believe it will be worth all the embarrassment and discomfort these episodes may cause to Symbian personnel – me included. We should be prepared to learn from one of the mantras of Silicon Valley: “embrace failure”. Reflecting on failure can provide the launchpad for greater future success, whether in smartphones, or beyond.

Early reviewers of the book have commented that the book is laden with lessons, from the pioneer phase of the smartphone industry, for the nascent technology sectors where they are working – such as wearable computing, 3D printing, social robots, and rejuvenation biotechnology. The strength of these lessons is that they are presented, in this book, in their multi-dimensional messiness, with overlapping conflicting chains of cause and effect, rather than as cut-and-dried abstracted principles.

In that the pages of Smartphones and beyond, I do choose to highlight some specific learnings from particular episodes of smartphone success or smartphone failure. Some lessons deserve to be shouted out. For other episodes, I leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions. In yet other cases, frankly, it’s still not clear to me what lessons should be drawn. Writers who follow in my tracks will no doubt offer their own suggestions.

My task in all these cases is to catalyse a discussion, by bringing stories to the table that have previously lurked unseen or under-appreciated. My fervent hope is that the discussion will make us all collectively wiser, so that emerging new technology sectors will proceed more quickly to deliver the profound benefits of which they are capable.

Some links

For an extended series of extracts from the different chapters in Smartphones and beyond, see the official website for the book.

The book is available for Kindle download from Amazon: UK site and International (US) site.

  • Note that readers without Kindle devices can read the book on a convenient app on their PC or tablet (or smartphone!) – these apps are freely available.

I haven’t created a hard-copy print version. The book would need to be split into three parts to make it physically convenient. Far better, in my view, to be able to carry the book on a light electronic device, with “search” and “bookmark” facilities that very usefully augment the reading experience.

Opportunities to improve

Smartphones and beyond no doubt still contains a host of factual mistakes, errors in judgement, misattributions, personal biases, blind spots, and other shortcomings. All these faults are the responsibility of the author. To suggest changes, either in an updated edition of this book or in some other follow-up project, please get in touch.

Where the book includes copies of excerpts from Internet postings, I have indicated the online location where the original article could be found at the time of writing. In case an article has moved or been deleted since then, it can probably be found again via search engines or the Internet archive, https://archive.org/. If I have inadvertently failed to give due credit to an original writer, or if I have included more text than the owner of the original material wishes, I will make amends in a later edition, upon reasonable request. Quoted information where no source is explicitly indicated is generally taken from copies of my emails, memos in my electronic diary, or other personal archives.

One of the chapters of this book is entitled “Too much openness”. Some readers may feel I have, indeed, been too open with some of the material I have shared. However, this material is generally at least 3-5 years old. Commercial lines of business no longer depend on it remaining secret. So I have applied a historian’s licence. We can all become collectively wiser by discussing it now.

Footnote

Finally, one other apology is due. As I’ve given my attention over the last few months to completing Smartphones and beyond, I’ve deprioritised many other tasks, and have kept colleagues from various important projects waiting for longer than they expected. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to pick up all these other pieces quickly again – that kind of overcommitment is one of the failure modes discussed throughout Smartphones and beyond. But I feel like I’m emerging for a new phase of activity – “Beyond ‘Smartphones and Beyond'”.

To help transition to that new phase, I’ve moved my corporate Delta Wisdom website to a new format (WordPress), and rejigged what had become rather stale content. It’s time for profound change.

Banner v6

 

6 September 2014

Smartphones and the mass market: the view from 2005

Filed under: insight, openness, smartphones, Symbian — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 7:07 am

The following article was originally published in the “David Wood Insight” series on Symbian’s corporate website, on 11 Sept 2005 (the first article in that series). I’m re-posting it here now since:

  • It’s one of a number of pages in an old website of mine that I am about to retire – so the article needs a new home
  • The message is aligned with many that are included in my book “Smartphones and beyond” that was published earlier this week.

Smartphones and the mass market

Smartphones in 2005 are roughly where the Internet was in 1995. In 1995, there were, worldwide, around 20-40 million users of the Internet. That’s broadly the same number of users of smartphones there are in the world today. In 1995, people were debating the real value of Internet usage. Was it simply an indulgent plaything for highly technical users, or would it have lasting wider attraction? In 2005, there’s a similar debate about smartphones. Will smartphones remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

Personally, I have no doubt as to the answer. Smartphones are for all. Smartphones – the rapidly emerging new category of advanced computer-based programmable mobile phones – will appeal to all users of mobile phones worldwide. Smartphones are built from highly advanced technology, but they won’t require a highly advanced understanding of technology in order to use them. You won’t need to be a computer whiz kid or the neighbourhood geek to get real value from a smartphone. Nor will you need a huge income to afford one. Smartphones will help us all to keep in better touch with the friends and colleagues and information and discussions and buzz that are important to us, and they are opening up new avenues for entertainment, education, and enterprise alike. Smartphones will help us all to work hard and play hard. And in line with their name, smartphones will also help us to work smart and play smart.

Smartphones differ from ordinary mobile phones in two fundamental ways: how they are built, and what they can do. The way they’re built – using open systems to take advantage of the skills, energy, and innovation of numerous companies from a vast range of industries – means that smartphones extend the phenomenal track record of mobile phones by improving constantly and rapidly, year by year. As for what they can do – in line with the “phone” part of their name, smartphones provide all the capabilities of ordinary mobile phones, in a particularly user-friendly style – but that’s only the start. In addition, smartphones increasingly use their computer-brains and network-connectivity to:

  • Excel at all sorts of communication – instant messaging, email, video conferencing, and more
  • Help us to organise our to-do lists, ideas, calendars, contacts, expenses, and finances
  • Boost our effectiveness in our business life – connecting us smoothly into corporate data systems
  • Entertain us with huge libraries of first-rate music, mobile TV, social networking, and games
  • Guide us around the real world, with maps and location-based services, so we never get lost again
  • Subsume our keys, ID cards, tickets, and wallets – so we can leave these old-world items at home
  • Connect us into online information banks covering every topic under the sun.

In short, smartphones are rapidly becoming our preferred mobile gateway into the ever growing, ever more important digital universe.

In 1995, some people wondered if the Internet would ever really be “useful” (as opposed to a passing fad). Today, you may wonder if mobile access to the Internet will ever really be useful. But if you look at what smartphone users are already able to do, you’ll soon see the benefit. If it’s valuable to you to be able to access bbcnews.com or amazon.com or ebay.com or betfair.com or imdb.com or google.com or wikipedia.org (etc) from your desktop PC, you’ll often find it equally valuable to check these sites when you’re away from your desktop. Because you’ll be carrying your smartphone with you, almost everywhere you go, you’ll have the option to keep in touch with your digital universe, whenever it suits you.

Crucial to this increase in value is the steady set of remarkable improvements that have taken place for both output and input mechanisms on smartphones. Screens have become clearer, larger, sharper, and more colourful. Intelligent handwriting recognition systems, word-completion systems, multi-way jog-dials, Bluetooth keyboards, and ingenious folding and twisting mechanisms, mean that it’s easier than ever before to enter data into smartphones. And faster networks, more powerful on-board processors, and more sophisticated software, mean that “www” on a smartphone no longer means “world wide wait” but rather “world wide wow“.

In parallel, costs are dipping, further and further. In part, this is due to Moore’s Law, which summarises the steady technological improvements in the design and manufacture of integrated circuits and memory chips. But in large part, it’s also due to the dramatic “learning effects” which can take place when world-class companies go through several rounds of finding better and better ways to manufacture their smartphone products. In turn, the magnitude of these “learning effects” depends on the open nature of the smartphone industry. Here, the word “open” has the following meanings:

  • Programmable: the intelligence and power that is in a smartphone can be adapted, extended, and enhanced by add-on applications and services, which tap into the underlying richness of the phone to produce powerful new functionality
  • Interchangeable: services that are designed for use in one smartphone can be deployed on other smartphones as well, from different manufacturers (despite the differences between these smartphones), with minimal (often zero) changes; very importantly, this provides a better incentive to companies to invest the effort to create these new services
  • Collaborative: the process of creating and evolving smartphone products benefits from the input and ideas of numerous companies and individuals; for example, the manufacturers of the second generation of a given smartphone can build in some of the unexpectedly successful applications that were designed by previously unknown companies as add-ons to the first generation of that smartphone
  • Open-minded: the companies who create smartphones have their own clear ideas about how smartphones should operate and what they should contain, but newcomers have ample means and encouragement to introduce different concepts – the industry is ready to accept new ideas
  • Free-flowing: the success of a company in the smartphone industry is substantially determined by its skills with innovation, technology, marketing, and operations, rather than any restrictive contractual lock-ins or accidents of location or history.

In all these cases, the opposite to “open” is “closed”. More specifically, the opposite of the successful smartphone industry would see:

  • Fixed functionality, that changes only slowly and/or superficially
  • Non-standard add-ons, that are each restricted to a small subset of phones
  • Overly competitive companies, whose fierce squabbles would destroy the emerging market before it has time to take root
  • Closed-minded companies who are misguidedly convinced that they have some kind of divine right to act as “benign dictators” for the sake of the industry
  • Bottlenecks and chokes that strangle or restrict innovation.

Foreseeing the risks of a closed approach to smartphone development, the mobile phone industry came together to create Symbian, seven years ago. The name “Symbian” is derived from the biological term “symbiosis”, emphasising the positive aspects of collaboration. Symbian’s motto is “cooperate before competing”. It’s no surprise that the vast majority of today’s smartphones utilise Symbian OS.

The volumes of smartphones in circulation are already large enough to trigger a tipping point – more and more industry players, across diverse fields, are choosing Symbian OS to deploy their new solutions. And at the same time as manufacturers are learning how to provide smartphone solutions ever more affordably, users are learning (and then sharing) surprising new ways they can take advantage of the inner capability and richness of their smartphones. It’s a powerful virtuous cycle. That’s the reason why each new generation of smartphone product has a wider appeal.

Footnote (2014): The site http://www.symbian.com has long since been decommissioned, but some of its content can be retrieved from archive.org. After some sleuthing, I tracked down a copy of the above article here.

9 April 2012

Six weeks without Symbian

Filed under: Accenture, Android, Apple, applications, Psion, Samsung, smartphones, Symbian, UIQ — David Wood @ 10:58 am

It’s only six weeks, but in some ways, it feels like six months. That’s how much time has passed since I’ve used a Symbian phone.

These six weeks separate me from nearly thirteen years of reliance on a long series of different Symbian phones. It was mid-1999 when prototype Ericsson R380 smartphones became stable enough for me to start using as my regular mobile phone. Since then, I’ve been carrying Symbian-powered smartphones with me at all times. That’s thirteen years of close interaction with various Symbian-powered devices from Nokia, Ericsson (subsequently Sony Ericsson), and Samsung – interspersed with shorter periods of using Symbian-powered devices from Panasonic, Siemens, Fujitsu, Sendo, Motorola, and LG.

On occasion over these years, I experimented with devices running other operating systems, but my current Symbian device was never far away, and remained my primary personal communication device. These non-Symbian devices always left me feeling underwhelmed – too much functionality was missing, or was served up in what seemed sub-optimal ways, compared to what I had learned to expect.

But ahead of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, held 27th Feb to 1st Mar, I found three reasons to gain a greater degree of first-hand experience with Android:

  1. I would be meeting representatives of various companies who were conducting significant development projects using Android, and I wished to speak from “practical knowledge” rather than simply from “book knowledge”
  2. Some of my colleagues from Accenture had developed apps for Android devices, that I wanted to be able to demonstrate with confidence, based on my own recurring experience of these apps
  3. One particular Android device – the Samsung Galaxy Note – seemed to me to have the potential to define a disruptive new category of mobile usage, midway between normal smartphones and tablets, with its radically large (5.3″) screen, contained in a device still light enough and small enough to be easily portable in my shirt-top pocket.

I was initially wary about text entry on the Galaxy Note. My previous encounters with Android devices had always left me frustrated when trying to enter data, without the benefits of a QWERTY keyboard (as on my long-favourite Nokia E6 range of devices), or fluid hand-writing recognition (as on the Sony Ericsson P800/P900/P910).

But in the course of a single day, three separate people independently recommended me to look at the SwiftKey text entry add-on for Android. SwiftKey takes advantage of both context and personal history to predict what the user is likely to be typing into a given window on the device. See this BBC News interview and video for a good flavour of what SwiftKey provides. I installed it and have been using it non-stop ever since.

With each passing day, I continue to enjoy using the Galaxy Note, and to benefit from the wide ecosystem of companies who create applications for Android.

Here’s some of what I really like about the device:

  • The huge screen adds to the pleasure of browsing maps (including “street view”), web pages, and other graphic, video, or textual content
  • Time and again, there are Android apps available that tailor the mobile user experience more closely than web-browsing alone can achieve – see some examples on the adjacent screenshot
  • These apps are easy to find, easy to install, and (in general) easy to use
  • Integration with Google services (Mail, Maps, etc) is impressive
  • I’ve grown to appreciate the notification system, the ubiquitous “back” button, and the easy configurability of the device.

On the other hand, I’m still finding lots of niggles, in comparison with devices I’ve used previously:

  • It’s hard to be sure, but it seems likely to me that I get a working network connection on the device less often than on previous (e.g. Nokia) devices. This means for example that, when people try to ring me, it goes through to my voice mail more often than before, even though my phone appears (to my eyes) to be working. I’m finding that I reboot this device more often than previous devices, to re-establish a working network connection
  • I frequently press the “back” button by accident, losing my current context, for example when turning the phone from portrait to landscape; in those moments, I often silently bemoan the lack of a “forward” button
  • The device is not quite capable of one-handed use – that’s probably an inevitable consequence of having such a large screen
  • Although integration with Google services is excellent, integration with Outlook leaves more to be desired – particularly interaction with email notifications of calendar invites. For example, I haven’t found a way of accepting a “this meeting has been cancelled” notification (in a way that removes the entry from my calendar), nor of sending a short note explaining my reason for declining a given meeting invite, along with the decline notification, etc
  • I haven’t gone a single day without needing to recharge the device part-way through. This no doubt reflects my heavy use of the device. It may also reflect my continuing use of the standard Android web browser, whereas on Symbian devices I always quickly switched to using the Opera browser, with its much reduced data transfer protocols (and swifter screen refreshes)
  • Downloaded apps don’t always work as expected – perhaps reflecting the diversity of Android devices, something that developers often remark about, as a cause of extra difficulty in their work.

Perhaps what’s most interesting to me is that I keep on enjoying using the device despite all these niggles. I reason to myself that no device is perfect, and that several of the issues I’ve experienced are problems of success rather than problems of failure. And I continue to take pleasure out of interacting with the device.

This form factor will surely become more and more significant. Up till now, Android has made little market headway with larger tablets, as reported recently by PC World:

Corporations planning tablet purchases next quarter overwhelmingly voted for Apple’s iPad, a research firm said Tuesday [13th March]

Of the 1,000 business IT buyers surveyed last month by ChangeWave Research who said they would purchase tablets for their firms in the coming quarter, 84% named the iPad as an intended selection.

That number was more than ten times the nearest competitor and was a record for Apple.

However, Samsung’s success with the “phablet” form factor (5 million units sold in less than two months) has the potential to redraw the market landscape again. Just as the iPad has impacted people’s use of laptops (something I see every day in my own household), the Galaxy Note and other phablets have the potential to impact people’s use of iPads – and perhaps lots more besides.

Footnote 1: The Galaxy Note is designed for use by an “S Pen Stylus”, as well as by finger. I’ve still to explore the benefits of this Stylus.

Footnote 2: Although I no longer carry a Symbian smartphone with me, I’m still utterly reliant on my Psion Series 5mx PDA, which runs the EPOC Release 5 precursor to Symbian OS. I use it all the time as my primary Agenda, To-do list, and repository of numerous personal word documents and spreadsheets. It also wakens me up every morning.

Footnote 3: If I put on some rosy-eyed glasses, I can see the Samsung Galaxy Note as the fulfilment of the design vision behind the original “UIQ” device family reference design (DFRD) from the early days at Symbian. UIQ was initially targeted (1997-1999, when it was still called “Quartz”) at devices having broadly the same size as today’s Galaxy Note. The idea received lots of ridicule – “who’s going to buy a device as big as that?” – so UIQ morphed into “slim UIQ” that instead targeted devices like the Sony Ericsson P800 mentioned above. Like many a great design vision, UIQ can perhaps be described as “years ahead of its time”.

9 October 2010

On smartphones, superphones, and subphones

What comes next after smartphones?

There’s big league money in smartphones.  In 2009, around 173 million smartphones were sold worldwide.  IDC predicts this figure will jump to nearly 270 million in 2010.  According to Informa, that represents about 27% of the total mobile phone unit sales in 2010.  But as Informa also point out, it represents around 55% of total market value (because of their high average selling price), and a whopping 64% of the mobile phone market’s profits.

As well as big money from sales of smartphones themselves, there’s big money in sales of applications for smartphones.  A recent report from Research2Guidance evaluates the global smartphone application market as being worth $2.2 (£1.4) billion during the first half of 2010, already surpassing the total value of $1.7 (£1.1) billion for all 12 months of 2009.

  • What’s next? If there’s so much money in the rapidly evolving smartphone market, where will the underlying wave of associated technological and commercial innovation strike next?  Answer that question correctly, and you might have a chance to benefit big time.

Three answers deserve attention.

1. More smartphones

The first answer is that the smartphone market is poised to become larger and larger.  The current spurt of growth is going to continue.  More and more people are going to be using smartphones, and more and more people will be downloading and using more and more applications.  This growth will be driven by:

  • Decreasing costs of smartphone devices
  • Improved network connectivity
  • An ever-wider range of different applications, tailored to individual needs of individual mobile consumers
  • Improved quality of applications, networks, and devices – driven by fierce competition
  • Burgeoning word-of-mouth recommendations, as people tell each other about compelling mobile services that they come across.

Perhaps one day soon, more than 50% of all mobile phones will be built using smartphone technology.

2. Superphones

The second answer is that smartphones are going to become smarter and more capable.  The improvements will be so striking that the phrase “smartphone” won’t do them justice.  Google used a new term, “superphone”, when it introduced the Nexus One device:

Nexus One is an exemplar of what’s possible on mobile devices through Android — when cool apps meet a fast, bright and connected computer that fits in your pocket. The Nexus One belongs in the emerging class of devices which we call “superphones”. It’s the first in what we expect to be a series of products which we will bring to market with our operator and hardware partners and sell through our online store.

Blogger Stasys Bielinis of UnwiredView takes up the analysis in his recent thought-provoking article, “Nokia’s doing OK in smartphones. It’s superphones where Apple and Google Android are winning”:

Smartphones and superphones share some common characteristics – always on connectivity, ability to make phone calls and send SMS/MMS, access the internet and install third party software apps.  But the ways these devices are used are very different – as different as iPads/tablets are different from laptops/netbooks.

The main function of a smartphone – is a mobile phone.  You use it primarily to do voice calls and send/receive short text messages via SMS/MMS.  Yes, your smartphone can do a lot more things – take pictures, browse the Web, play music, stream audio/video from the net, make use of various third-party apps.  But you use those additional functions only when you really need it, or there’s no better option than a device in your pocket, or when there’s some particularly interesting mobile service/app that requires your attention – e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, or other status updaters.   But they are secondary functions for your smartphone. And, due to the design limitations – small displays, crammed keypads/keyboards, button navigation, etc – using those additional “smart” capabilities is a chore…

Superphones, on the other hand, are not phones anymore. They are truly small mobile computers in your pocket, with phone/texting as just another app among many. The user experience – big displays, (multi) touch, high quality browsers, etc – is optimized to transfer big screen PC interaction models to the limitations of mobile device that can fit in your pocket. While the overall experience doing various things on your superphone is a bit worse than doing those same things on your laptop, it’s not much worse, and is actually good enough for the extensive use on the go…

There’s scope to quibble with the details of this distinction.  But there’s merit in the claim that the newer smartphones – whatever we call them – typically manifest a lot more of the capabilities of the computing technology that’s embedded into them.  The result is:

  • More powerful applications
  • Delivering more useful functionality.

3. Subphones

The first answer, above, is that smartphones are going to become significantly more numerous.  The second answer is that smartphones are going to become significantly more powerful.  I believe both these answers.  These answers are both easy to understand.  But there’s a third answer, which is just as true  as the first two – and perhaps even more significant.

Smartphone technology is going to become more and more widely used inside numerous types of devices that don’t look like smartphones.

These devices aren’t just larger than smartphones (like superphones).  They are different from smartphones, in all kinds of way.

If the motto “smartphones for all” drove a great deal of the development of the mobile industry during the decade 2000-2010, a new motto will become increasingly important in the coming decade: “Smartphone technology everywhere”.  This describes a new wave of embedded software:

  • Traditional embedded software is when computing technology is used inside devices that do not look like computers;
  • The new wave of embedded software is when smartphone technology is used inside devices that do not look like smartphones.

For want of a better term, we can call these devices “subphones”: the underlying phone functionality is submerged (or embedded).

Smartphone technology everywhere

The phrase “smartphone technology” is shorthand for technology (both hardware and software) whose improvement was driven by the booming commercial opportunities of smartphones.  Market pressures led to decreased prices, improved quality, and new functionality.  Here are some examples:

  • Wireless communications chips – and the associated software
  • Software that can roam transparently over different kinds of wireless network
  • Large-scale data storage and information management – both on a device, and on the cloud
  • Appealing UIs on small, attractive, hi-res graphics displays
  • Streaming mobile multimedia
  • Device personalisation and customisation
  • Downloadable and installable applications, that add real value to the base device
  • Access to the Internet while mobile, in ways that make sense on small devices
  • High performance on comparatively low-powered hardware with long battery life
  • Numerous sensors, including location, direction, motion, and vision.

The resulting improvements allow these individual components to be re-purposed for different “subphone” devices, such as:

  • Tablets and slates
  • Connected consumer electronics (such as cameras and personal navigation devices)
  • Smart clothing – sometimes called “wearable computers” – or a “personal area network”
  • Smart cars – including advanced in-vehicle infotainment
  • Smart robots – with benefits in both industrial automation and for toys
  • Smart meters and smart homes
  • Smart digital signs, that alter their display depending on who is looking at them
  • Mobile medical equipment – including ever smaller, ever smarter “micro-bots”.

By some estimates, the number of such subphones will reach into the hundreds of billions (and even beyond) within just a few short years.  As IBM have forecast,

Soon there will be 1 trillion connected devices in the world. A smarter planet will require a smarter communications infrastructure. When things communicate, systems connect. And when systems connect, the world gets smarter.

This will be an era where M2M (machine to machine) wireless communications far exceed communications directly involving humans.  We’ll be living, not just in a sea of smart devices, but inside an “Internet of Things”.

Barriers to benefits

Smartphone technologies bring many opportunities – but these opportunities are, themselves, embedded in a network of risks and issues.  Many great mobile phone companies failed to survive the transition to smartphones.  In turn, some great smartphone companies are struggling to survive the transition to superphones.  It’s the same with subphones – they’re harder than they look.  They’re going to need new mindsets to fully capitalise on them.

To make successful products via disruptive new combinations of technology typically requires more than raw technological expertise.  A broad range of other expertise is needed too:

  • Business model innovation – to attract new companies to play new roles (often as “complementors”) in a novel setup
  • Ecosystem management – to motivate disparate developers to work together constructively
  • System integration and optimisation – so that the component technologies join together into a stable, robust, useable whole
  • User experience design – to attract and retain users to new usage patterns
  • Product differentiation – to devise and deploy product variants into nearby niches
  • Agility – to respond rapidly to user feedback and marketplace learnings.

The advance of software renders some problems simpler than before.  Next generation tools automate a great deal of what was previously complex and daunting.  However, as software is joined together in novel ways with technologies from different fields, unexpected new problems spring up, often at new boundaries.  For example, the different kinds of subphones are likely to have unexpected interactions with each other, resulting in rough edges with social and business aspects as much as technological ones.

So whilst there are many fascinating opportunities in the world beyond smartphones, these opportunities deserve to be approached with care.  Choose your partners and supporters wisely, as you contemplate these opportunities!

Footnote 1: For some vivid graphics illustrating the point that companies who excel in one era of mobile technology (eg traditional mobile phones) sometimes fail to retain their profit leadership position in a subsequent era (eg superphones), see this analysis by Asymco.

Footnote 2: On the “superphone” terminology:

It wasn’t Google that invented the term “superphone”.  Nokia’s N95 was the first phone to be widely called a superphone – from around 2006.  See eg here and here.

In my own past life, I toyed from time to time with the phrase “super smart phone” – eg in my keynote address to the 2008 Mobile 2.0 event in San Francisco.

Footnote 3: I look forward to discussing some of these topics (and much more besides) with industry colleagues, both old and new, at a couple of forthcoming conferences which I’ll be attending:

  • SEE10 – the Symbian Expo and Exchange – in Amsterdam, Nov 9-10
  • MeeGo Conference – in Dublin, Nov 13-15.

In each case, I’ll be part of the Accenture Embedded Software Services presence.

19 May 2010

Chapter finished: A journey with technology

Five more days have passed, and I’ve completed another chapter draft (see snapshot below) of my proposed new book.

This takes me up to 30% of what I hope to write:

  • I’ve drafted three out of ten planned chapters.
  • The wordcount has reached 15,000, out of a planned total of 50,000.

After this, I plan to dig more deeply into specific technology areas.  I’ll be moving further out of my comfort area.  First will be “Health”.  Fortuitously, I spent today at an openMIC meeting in Bath, entitled “i-Med: Serious apps for mobile healthcare”.  That provided me with some useful revision!

========

3. A journey with technology

<Snapshot of material whose master copy is kept here>

<< Previous chapter <<

Here’s the key question I want to start answering in this chapter: how quickly can technology progress in the next few decades?

This is far from being an academic question. At heart, I want to know whether it’s feasible for that progress to be quick enough to provide technological solutions to the calamitous issues and huge opportunities described in the first chapter of this book. The progress must be quick enough, not only for core technological research, but also for productisation of that technology into the hands of billions of consumers worldwide.

For most of this book, I’ll be writing about technologies from an external perspective. I have limited direct experience with, for example, the healthcare industry and the energy industry. What I have to say about these topics will be as, I hope, an intelligent outside observer. But in this chapter, I’m able to adopt an internal perspective, since the primary subject matter is the industry where I worked for more than twenty years: the smartphone industry.

In June 1988, I started work in London at Psion PLC, the UK-based manufacturer of electronic organisers. I joined a small team working on the software for a new generation of mobile computers. In the years that followed, I spent countless long days, long nights and (often) long weekends architecting, planning, writing, integrating, debugging and testing Psion’s software platforms. In due course, Psion’s software would power more than a million PDAs in the “Series 3” family of devices. However, the term “PDA” was unknown in 1988; likewise for phrases like “smartphone”, “palmtop computer”, and “mobile communicator”. The acronym “PDA”, meaning “personal digital assistant”, was coined by Apple in 1992 in connection with their ambitious but flawed “Newton” project – long before anyone conceived of the name “iPhone”.

I first became familiar with the term “smartphone” in 1996, during early discussions with companies interested in using Psion’s “EPOC32” software system in non-PDA devices. After a faltering start, these discussions gathered pace. In June 1998, ten years after I had joined Psion, a group of Psion senior managers took part in the announcement of the formation of a new entity, Symbian Ltd, which had financial backing from the three main mobile phone manufacturers of the era – Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia. Symbian would focus on the software needs of smartphones. The initial software, along with 150 employees led by a 5 man executive team, was contributed by Psion. In the years that followed, I held Symbian executive responsibility, at different times, for Technical Consulting, Partnering, and Research. In due course, sales of devices based on Symbian OS exceeded 250 million devices.

In June 2008 – ten more years later, to the day – another sweeping announcement was made. The source code of Symbian OS, along with that of the S60 UI framework and applications from Nokia, would become open source, and would be overseen by a new independent entity, the Symbian Foundation.

My views on the possibilities for radical improvements in technology as a whole are inevitably coloured by my helter-skelter experiences with Psion and Symbian. During these 20+ years of intense projects following close on each others’ heels, I saw at first hand, not only many issues with developing and productising technology, but also many issues in forecasting the development and productisation of technology.

For example, the initial June 1998 business plans for Symbian are noteworthy both for what we got right, and for what we got wrong.

3.1 Successes and shortcomings in predicting the future of smartphones

In June 1998, along with my colleagues on the founding team at Symbian, I strove to foresee how the market for smartphones would unfold in the years ahead. This forecast was important, as it would:

  • Guide our own investment decisions
  • Influence the investment decisions of our partner companies
  • Set the context for decisions by potential employees whether or not to join Symbian (and whether or not to remain with Symbian, once they had joined).

Many parts of our vision turned out correct:

  • There were big growths in interest in computers with increased mobility, and in mobile phones with increased computing capability.
  • Sales of Symbian-powered mobile devices would, by the end of the first decade of the next century, be measured in 100s of millions.
  • Our phrase, “Smartphones for all”, which initially struck many observers as ridiculous, became commonplace: interest in smartphones stopped being the preserve of a technologically sophisticated minority, and became a mainstream phenomenon.
  • Companies in numerous industries realised that they needed strong mobile offerings, to retain their relevance.
  • Rather than every company developing its own smartphone platform, there were big advantages for companies to collaborate in creating shared standard platforms.
  • The attraction of smartphones grew, depending on the availability of add-on applications that delivered functionality tailored to the needs of individual users.

Over the next decade, a range of new features became increasingly widespread on mobile phones, despite early scepticism:

  • Colour screens
  • Cameras – and video recorders
  • Messaging: SMS, simple email, rich email…
  • Web browsing: Google, Wikipedia, News…
  • Social networking: Facebook, Twitter, blogs…
  • Games – including multiplayer games
  • Maps and location-based services
  • Buying and selling (tickets, vouchers, cash).

By 2010, extraordinarily powerful mobile devices are in widespread use in almost every corner of the planet. An average bystander transported from 1998 to 2010 might well be astonished at the apparently near-magical capabilities of these ubiquitous devices.

On the other hand, many parts of our 1998 vision proved wrong.

First, we failed to foresee many of the companies that would be the most prominent in the smartphone industry by the end of the next decade. In 1998:

  • Apple seemed to be on a declining trajectory.
  • Google consisted of just a few people working in a garage. (Like Symbian, Google was founded in 1998.)
  • Samsung and LG were known to the Symbian team, but we decided not to include them on our initial list of priority sales targets, in view of their lowly sales figures.

Second, although our predictions of eventual sales figures for Symbian devices were broadly correct – namely 100s of millions – this was the result of two separate mistakes cancelling each other out:

  • We expected to have a higher share of the overall mobile phone market (over 50% – perhaps even approaching 100%).
  • We expected that overall phone market to remain at the level of 100s of millions per annum – we did not imagine it would become as large as a billion per year.

(A smaller-than-expected proportion of a larger-than-expected market worked out at around the same volume of sales.)

Third – and probably most significant for drawing wider lessons – we got the timescales significantly wrong. It took considerably longer than we expected for:

  • The first successful smartphones to become available
  • Next generation networks (supporting high-speed mobile data) to be widely deployed
  • Mobile applications to become widespread.

Associated with this, many pre-existing systems remained in place much longer than anticipated, despite our predictions that they would fail to be able to adapt to changing market demands:

  • RIM sold more and more BlackBerries, despite repeated concerns that their in-house software system would become antiquated.
  • The in-house software systems of major phone manufacturers, such as Nokia’s Series 40, likewise survived long past predicted “expiry” dates.

To examine what’s going on, it’s useful to look in more detail at three groups of factors:

  1. Factors accelerating growth in the smartphone market
  2. Factors restricting growth in the smartphone market
  3. Factors that can overcome the restrictions and enable faster growth.

Having reviewed these factors in the case of smartphone technology, I’ll then revisit the three groups of factors, with an eye to general technology.

3.2 Factors accelerating growth in the smartphone market

The first smartphone sales accelerator is decreasing price. Smartphones increase in popularity because of price reductions. As the devices become less expensive, more and more people can afford them. Other things being equal, a desirable piece of consumer electronics that has a lower cost will sell more.

The underlying cost of smartphones has been coming down for several reasons. Improvements in underlying silicon technology mean that manufacturers can pack more semiconductors on to the same bit of space for the same cost, creating more memory and more processing power. There are also various industry scale effects. Companies who work with a mobile platform over a period of time gain the benefit of “practice makes perfect”, learning how to manage the supply chain, select lower price components, and assemble and manufacture their devices at ever lower cost.

A second sales accelerator is increasing reliability. With some exceptions (that have tended to fall by the wayside), smartphones have become more and more reliable. They start faster, have longer battery life, and need fewer resets. As such, they appeal to ordinary people in terms of speed, performance, and robustness.

A third sales accelerator is increasing stylishness. In the early days of smartphones, people would often say, “These smartphones look quite interesting, but they are a bit too big and bulky for my liking: frankly, they look and feel like a brick.” Over time, smartphones became smaller, lighter, and more stylish. In both their hardware and their software, they became more attractive and more desirable.

A fourth sales accelerator is increasing word of mouth recommendations. The following sets of people have all learned, from their own experience, good reasons why consumers should buy smartphones:

  • Industry analysts – who write reports that end up influencing a much wider network of people
  • Marketing professionals – who create compelling advertisements that appear on film, print, and web
  • Retail assistants – who are able to highlight attractive functionality in devices, at point of sale
  • Friends and acquaintances – who can be seen using various mobile services and applications, and who frequently sing the praises of specific devices.

This extra word of mouth exists, of course, because of a fifth sales accelerator – the increasing number of useful and/or entertaining mobile services that are available. This includes built-in services as well as downloadable add-on services. More and more individuals learn that mobile services exist which address specific problems they experience. This includes convenient mobile access to banking services, navigation, social networking, TV broadcasts, niche areas of news, corporate databases, Internet knowledgebases, tailored educational material, health diagnostics, and much, much more.

A sixth sales accelerator is increasing ecosystem maturity. The ecosystem is the interconnected network of companies, organisations, and individuals who create and improve the various mobile services and enabling technology. It takes time for this ecosystem to form and to learn how to operate effectively. However, in due course, it forms a pool of resources that is much larger than exists just within the first few companies who developed and used the underlying mobile platform. These additional resources provide, not just a greater numerical quantity of mobile software, but a greater variety of different innovative ideas. Some ecosystem members focus on providing lower cost components, others on providing components with higher quality and improved reliability, and yet others on revolutionary new functionality. Others again provide training, documentation, tools, testing, and so on.

In summary, smartphones are at the heart of a powerful virtuous cycle. Improved phones, enhanced networks, novel applications and services, increasingly savvy users, excited press coverage – all these factors drive yet more progress elsewhere in the cycle. Applications and services which prove their value as add-ons for one generation of smartphones become bundled into the next generation. With this extra built-in functionality, the next generation is intrinsically more attractive, and typically is cheaper too. Developers see an even larger market and increase their efforts to supply software for this market.

3.3 Factors restricting growth in the smartphone market

Decreasing price. Increasing reliability. Increasing stylishness. Increasing word of mouth recommendations. Increasingly useful mobile services. Increasing ecosystem maturity. What could stand in the way of these powerful accelerators?

Plenty.

First, there are technical problems with unexpected difficulty. Some problems turn out to be much harder than initially imagined. For example, consider speech recognition, in which a computer can understand spoken input. When Psion planned the Series 5 family of PDAs in the mid 1990s (as successors to the Series 3 family), we had a strong desire to include speech recognition capabilities in the device. Three “dictaphone style” buttons were positioned in a small unit on the outside of the case, so that the device could be used even when the case (a clamshell) was shut. Over-optimistically, we saw speech recognition as a potential great counter to the pen input mechanisms that were receiving lots of press attention at the time, on competing devices like the Apple Newton and the Palm Pilot. We spoke to a number of potential suppliers of voice recognition software, who assured us that suitably high-performing recognition was “just around the corner”. The next versions of their software, expected imminently, would impress us with its accuracy, they said. Alas, we eventually reached the conclusion that the performance was far too unreliable and would remain so for the foreseeable future – even if we went the extra mile on cost, and included the kind of expensive internal microphone that the suppliers recommended. We feared that “normal users” – the target audience for Psion PDAs – would be perplexed by the all-too-frequent inaccuracies in voice recognition. So we took the decision to remove that functionality. In retrospect, it was a good decision. Even ten years later, voice recognition functionality on smartphones generally fell short of user expectations.

Speech recognition is just one example of a deeply hard technical problem, that turned out to take much longer than expected to make real progress. Others include:

  • Avoiding smartphone batteries being drained too quickly, from all the processing that takes place on the smartphone
  • Enabling rapid search of all the content on a device, regardless of the application used to create that content
  • Devising a set of application programming interfaces which have the right balance between power-of-use and ease-of-use, and between openness and security.

Second, there are “chicken-and-egg” coordination problems – sometimes also known as “the prisoner’s dilemma”. New applications and services in a networked marketplace often depend on related changes being coordinated at several different points in the value chain. Although the outcome would be good for everyone if all players kept on investing in making the required changes, these changes make less sense when viewed individually. For example, successful mobile phones required both networks and handsets. Successful smartphones required new data-enabled networks, new handsets, and new applications. And so on.

Above, I wrote about the potential for “a powerful virtuous cycle”:

Improved phones, enhanced networks, novel applications and services, increasingly savvy users, excited press coverage – all these factors drive yet more progress elsewhere in the cycle.

However, this only works once the various factors are all in place. A new ecosystem needs to be formed. This involves a considerable coordination problem: several different entities need to un-learn old customs, and adopt new ways of operating, appropriate to the new value chain. That can take a lot of time.

Worse – and this brings me to a third problem – many of the key players in a potential new ecosystem have conflicting business models. Perhaps the new ecosystem, once established, will operate with greater overall efficiency, delivering services to customers more reliably than before. However, wherever there are prospects of cost savings, there are companies who potentially lose out – companies who are benefiting from the present high prices. For example, network operators making healthy profits from standard voice services were (understandably) apprehensive about distractions or interference from low-profit data services running over their networks. They were also apprehensive about risks that applications running on their networks would:

  • Enable revenue bypass, with new services such as VoIP and email displacing, respectively, standard voice calls and text messaging
  • Saturate the network with spam
  • Cause unexpected usability problems on handsets, which the user would attribute to the network operator, entailing extra support costs for the operator.

The outcome of these risks of loss of revenue is that ecosystems might fail to form – or, having formed with a certain level of cooperation, might fail to attain deeper levels of cooperation. Vested interests get in the way of overall progress.

A fourth problem is platform fragmentation. The efforts of would-be innovators are spread across numerous different mobile platforms. Instead of a larger ecosystem all pulling in the same direction, the efforts are diffused, with the risk of confusing and misleading participants. Participants think they can re-apply skills and solutions from one mobile product in the context of another, but subtle and unexpected differences cause incompatibilities which can take a lot time to debug and identify. Instead of collaboration effectively turning 1+1 into 3, confusion turns 1+1 into 0.5.

A fifth problem is poor usability design. Even though a product is powerful, ordinary end users can’t work out how to operate it, or get the best experience from it. They feel alienated by it, and struggle to find their favourite functionality in amongst bewildering masses of layered menu options. A small minority of potential users, known as “technology enthusiasts”, are happy to use the product, despite these usability issues; but they are rare exceptions. As such, the product fails to “cross the chasm” (to use the language of Geoffrey Moore) to the mainstream majority of users.

The sixth problem underlies many of the previous ones: it’s the problem of accelerating complexity. Each individual chunk of new software adds value, but when they coalesce in large quantities, chaos can ensue:

  • Smartphone device creation projects may become time-consuming and delay-prone, and the smartphones themselves may compromise on quality in order to try to hit a fast-receding market window.
  • Smartphone application development may grow in difficulty, as developers need to juggle different programming interfaces and optimisation methods.
  • Smartphone users may fail to find the functionality they believe is contained (somewhere!) within their handset, and having found that functionality, they may struggle to learn how to use it.

In short, smartphone system complexity risks impacting manufacturability, developability, and usability.

3.4 Factors that can overcome the restrictions and enable faster growth

Technical problems with unexpected difficulty. Chicken-and-egg coordination problems. Conflicting business models. Platform fragmentation. Poor usability design. Accelerating complexity. These are all factors that restrict smartphone progress. Without solving these problems, the latent potential of smartphone technology goes unfulfilled. What can be done about them?

At one level, the answer is: look at the companies who are achieving success with smartphones, despite these problems, and copy what they’re doing right. That’s a good starting point, although it risks being led astray by instances where companies have had a good portion of luck on their side, in addition to progress that they merited through their own deliberate actions. (You can’t jump from the observation that company C1 took action A and subsequently achieved market success, to the conclusion that company C2 should also take action A.) It also risks being led astray by instances where companies are temporarily experiencing significant media adulation, but only as a prelude to an unravelling of their market position. (You can’t jump from the observation that company C3 is currently a media darling, to the conclusion that a continuation of what it is currently doing will achieve ongoing product success.) With these caveats in mind, here is the advice that I offer.

The most important factor to overcome these growth restrictions is expertise – expertise in both design and implementation:

  • Expertise in envisioning and designing products that capture end-user attention and which are enjoyable to use again and again
  • Expertise in implementing an entire end-to-end product solution.

The necessary expertise (both design and implementation) spans eight broad areas:

  1. technology – such as blazing fast performance, network interoperability, smart distribution of tasks across multiple processors, power management, power harvesting, and security
  2. ecosystem design – to solve the “chicken and egg” scenarios where multiple parts of a compound solution all need to be in place, before the full benefits can be realised
  3. business models – identifying new ways in which groups of companies can profit from adopting new technology
  4. community management – encouraging diverse practitioners to see themselves as part of a larger whole, so that they are keen to contribute
  5. user experience – to ensure that the resulting products will be willingly accepted and embraced by “normal people” (as opposed just to early adopter technology enthusiasts)
  6. agile project management – to avoid excess wasted investment in cases where project goals change part way through (as they inevitably do, due to the uncertain territory being navigated)
  7. lean thinking – including a bias towards practical simplicity, a profound distrust of unnecessary complexity, and a constant desire to identify and deal with bottleneck constraints
  8. system integration – the ability to pull everything together, in a way that honours the core product proposition, and which enables subsequent further evolution.

To be clear, I see these eight areas of expertise as important for all sectors of complex technology development – not just in the smartphone industry.

Expertise isn’t something that just exists in books. It manifests itself:

  • In individual people, whose knowledge spans different domains
  • In teams – where people can help and support each other, playing to everyone’s strengths
  • In tools and processes – which are the smart embodiment of previous generations of expertise, providing a good environment to work out the next generation of expertise.

In all three cases, the expertise needs to be actively nurtured and enhanced. Companies who under-estimate the extent of the expertise they need, or who try to get that expertise on the cheap – or who stifle that expertise under the constraints of mediocre management – are likely to miss out on the key opportunities provided by smartphone technology. (Just because it might appear that a company finds it easy to do various tasks, it does not follow that these tasks are intrinsically easy to carry out. True experts often make hard tasks look simple.)

But even with substantial expertise available and active, it remains essentially impossible to be sure about the timescales for major new product releases:

  • Novel technology problems can take an indeterminate amount of time to solve
  • Even if the underlying technology progresses quickly, the other factors required to create an end-to-end solution can fall foul of numerous unforeseen delays.

In case that sounds like a depressing conclusion, I’ll end this section with three brighter thoughts:

First, if predictability is particularly important for a project, you can increase your chances of your project hitting its schedule, by sticking to incremental evolutions of pre-existing solutions. That can take you a long way, even though you’ll reduce the chance of more dramatic breakthroughs.

Second, if you can afford it, you should consider running two projects in parallel – one that sticks to incremental evolution, and another that experiments with more disruptive technology. Then see how they both turn out.

Third, the relationship between “speed of technology progress” and “speed of product progress” is more complex than I’ve suggested. I’ve pointed out that the latter can lag the former, especially where there’s a shortage of expertise in fields such as ecosystem management and the creation of business models. However, sometimes the latter can move faster than the former. That occurs once the virtuous cycle is working well. In that case, the underlying technological progress might be exponential, whilst the productisation progress could become super-exponential.

3.5 Successes and shortcomings in predicting the future of technology

We all know that it’s a perilous task to predict the future of technology. The mere fact that a technology can be conceived is no guarantee that it will happen.

If I think back thirty-something years to my days as a teenager, I remember being excited to read heady forecasts about a near-future world featuring hypersonic jet airliners, nuclear fusion reactors, manned colonies on the Moon and Mars, extended human lifespans, control over the weather and climate, and widespread usage of environmentally friendly electric cars. These technology forecasts all turned out, in retrospect, to be embarrassing rather than visionary. Indeed, history is littered with curious and amusing examples of flawed predictions of the future. Popular science fiction fares no better:

  • The TV series “Lost in space”, which debuted in 1965, featured a manned spacecraft leaving Earth en route for a distant star, Alpha Centauri, on 16 October 1997.
  • Arthur C Clarke’s “2001: a space odyssey”, made in 1968, featured a manned spacecraft flight to Jupiter.
  • Philip K Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, coincidentally also first published in 1968, described a world set in 1992 in which androids (robots) are extremely hard to distinguish from humans. (Later editions of the novel changed the date to 2021 – the date adopted by the film Bladerunner which was based on the novel.)

Forecasts often go wrong when they spot a trend, and then extrapolate it. Projecting trends into the future is a dangerous game:

  • Skyscrapers rapidly increased in height in the early decades of the 20th century. But after the Empire State Building was completed in 1931, the rapid increases stopped.
  • Passenger aircraft rapidly increased in speed in the middle decades of the 20th century. But after Concorde, which flew its maiden flight in 1969, there have been no more increases.
  • Manned space exploration went at what might be called “rocket pace” from the jolt of Sputnik in 1957 up to the sets of footprints on the Moon in 1969-1972, but then came to an abrupt halt. At the time of writing, there are still no confirmed plans for a manned trip to Mars.

With the advantage of hindsight, it’s clear that many technology forecasts have over-emphasised technological possibility and under-estimated the complications of wider system effects. Just because something is technically possible, it does not mean it will happen, even though technology enthusiasts earnestly cheer it on. Just because a technology improved in the past, it does not mean there will be sufficient societal motivation to keep on improving it in the future. Technology is not enough. Especially for changes that are complex and demanding, up to six additional criteria need to be satisfied as well:

  1. The technological development has to satisfy a strong human need.
  2. The development has to be possible at a sufficiently attractive price to individual end users.
  3. The outcome of the development has to be sufficiently usable, that is, not requiring prolonged learning or disruptive changes in lifestyle.
  4. There must be a clear implementation path whereby the eventual version of the technology can be attained through a series of steps that are, individually, easier to achieve.
  5. When bottlenecks arise in the development process, sufficient amounts of fresh new thinking must be brought to bear on the central problems – that is, the development process must be open (to accept new ideas).
  6. Likewise, the development process must be commercially attractive, or provide some other strong incentive, to encourage the generation of new ideas, and, even more important, to encourage people to continue to search for ways to successfully execute their ideas; after all, execution is the greater part of innovation.

Interestingly, whereas past forecasts of the future have often over-estimated the development of technology as a whole, they have frequently under-estimated the progress of two trends: computer miniaturisation and mobile communications. For example, some time around 1997 I was watching a repeat of the 1960s “Thunderbirds” TV puppet show with my son. The show, about a family of brothers devoted to “international rescue” using high-tech machinery, was set around the turn of the century. The plot denouement of this particular episode was the shocking existence of a computer so small that it could (wait for it) be packed into a suitcase and transported around the world! As I watched the show, I took from my pocket my Psion Series 5 PDA and marvelled at it – a real-life example of a widely available computer more powerful yet more miniature than that foreseen in the programme.

As mentioned earlier, an important factor that can allow accelerating technological progress is the establishment of an operational virtuous cycle that provides positive feedback. Here are four more examples:

  1. The first computers were designed on paper and built by hand. Later computers benefited from computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture. Even later computers benefit from even better computer-aided design and manufacture…
  2. Software creates and improves tools (including compilers, debuggers, profilers, high-level languages…) which in turn allows more complex software to be created more quickly – including more powerful tools…
  3. More powerful hardware enables new software which enables new use cases which demand more innovation in improving the hardware further…
  4. Technology reduces prices which allows better technology to be used more widely, resulting in more people improving the technology…

A well-functioning virtuous cycle makes it more likely that technological progress can continue. But the biggest factor determining whether a difficult piece of progress occurs is often the degree of society’s motivation towards that progress. Investment in ever-faster passenger airlines ceased, because people stopped perceiving that ever-faster airlines were that important. Manned flight to Mars was likewise deemed to be insufficiently important: that’s why it didn’t take place. The kinds of radical technological progress that I discuss in this book are, I believe, all feasible, provided sufficient public motivation is generated and displayed in support of that progress. This includes major enhancements in health, education, clean energy, artificial general intelligence, human autonomy, and human fulfilment. The powerful public motivation will cause society to prioritise developing and supporting the types of rich expertise that are needed to make this technological progress a reality.

3.6 Moore’s Law: A recap

When I started work at Psion, I was given a “green-screen” console terminal, connected to a PDP11 minicomputer running VAX VMS. That’s how I wrote my first pieces of software for Psion. A short while afterwards, we started using PCs. I remember that the first PC I used had a 20MB hard disk. I also remember being astonished to find that a colleague had a hard disk that was twice as large. What on earth does he do with all that disk space, I wondered. But before long, I had a new PC with a larger hard disk. And then, later, another new one. And so on, throughout my 20+ year career in Psion and Symbian. Each time a new PC arrived, I felt somewhat embarrassed at the apparent excess of computing power it provided – larger disk space, more RAM memory, faster CPU clock speed, etc. On leaving Symbian in October 2009, I bought a new laptop for myself, along with an external USB disk drive. That disk drive was two terabytes in size. For roughly the same amount of money (in real terms) that had purchased 20MB of disk memory in 1989, I could now buy a disk that was 100,000 times larger. That’s broadly equivalent to hard disks doubling in size every 15 months over that 20 year period.

This repeated doubling of performance, on a fairly regular schedule, is a hallmark of what is often called “Moore’s Law”, following a paper published in 1965 by Gordon Moore (subsequently one of the founders of Intel). It’s easy to find other examples of this exponential trend within the computing industry. University of London researcher Shane Legg has published a chart of the increasing power of the world’s fastest supercomputers, from 1960 to the present day, along with a plausible extension to 2020. This chart measures the “FLOPS” capability of each supercomputer – the number of floating point (maths) operations it can execute in a second. The values move all the way from kiloFLOPS through megaFLOPS, gigaFLOPS, teraFLOPS, and petaFLOPS, and point towards exaFLOPS by 2020. Over sixty years, the performance improves through twelve and a half orders of magnitude, which is more than 40 doublings. This time, the doubling period works out at around 17 months.

Radical futurist Ray Kurzweil often uses the following example:

When I was an MIT undergraduate in 1965, we all shared a computer that took up half a building and cost tens of millions of dollars. The computer in my pocket today [a smartphone] is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion-fold increase in the amount of computation per dollar since I was a student.

A billion-fold increase consists of 30 doublings – which, spread out over 44 years from 1965 to 2009, gives a doubling period of around 18 months. And to get the full picture of the progress, we should include one more observation alongside the million-fold price improvement and thousand-fold processing power improvement: the 2009 smartphone is about one hundred thousand times smaller than the 1965 mainframe.

These steady improvements in computer hardware, spread out over six decades so far, are remarkable, but they’re not the only example of this kind of long-term prodigious increase. Martin Cooper, who has a good claim to be considered the inventor of the mobile phone, has pointed out that the amount of information that can be transmitted over useful radio spectrum has roughly doubled every 30 months since 1897, when Guglielmo Marconi first patented the wireless telegraph:

The rate of improvement in use of the radio spectrum for personal communications has been essentially uniform for 104 years. Further, the cumulative improvement in the effectiveness of personal communications total spectrum utilization has been over a trillion times in the last 90 years, and a million times in the last 45 years

Smartphones have benefited mightily from both Moore’s Law and Cooper’s Law. Other industries can benefit in a similar way too, to the extent that their progress can be driven by semiconductor-powered information technology, rather than by older branches of technology. As I’ll review in later chapters, there are good reasons to believe that both medicine and energy are on the point of dramatic improvements along these lines. For example, the so-called Carlson curves (named after biologist Rob Carlson) track exponential decreases in the costs of both sequencing (reading) and synthesising (writing) base pairs of DNA. It cost about $10 to sequence a single base pair in 1990, but this had reduced to just 2 cents by 2003 (the date of the completion of the human genome project). That’s 9 doublings in just 13 years – making a doubling period of around 17 months.

Moore’s Law and Cooper’s Law are far from being mathematically exact. They should not be mistaken for laws of physics, akin to Newton’s Laws or Maxwell’s Laws. Instead, they are empirical observations, with lots of local deviations when progress temporarily goes either faster or slower than the overall average. Furthermore, scientists and researchers need to keep on investing lots of skill, across changing disciplines, to keep the progress occurring. The explanation given on the website of Martin Cooper’s company, ArrayComm, provides useful insight:

How was this improvement in the effectiveness of personal communication achieved? The technological approaches can be loosely categorized as:

  • Frequency division
  • Modulation techniques
  • Spatial division
  • Increase in magnitude of the usable radio frequency spectrum.

How much of the improvement can be attributed to each of these categories? Of the million times improvement in the last 45 years, roughly 25 times were the result of being able to use more spectrum, 5 times can be attributed to the ability to divide the radio spectrum into narrower slices — frequency division. Modulation techniques like FM, SSB, time division multiplexing, and various approaches to spread spectrum can take credit for another 5 times or so. The remaining sixteen hundred times improvement was the result of confining the area used for individual conversations to smaller and smaller areas — what we call spectrum re-use…

Cooper suggests that his law can continue to hold until around 2050. Experts at Intel say they can foresee techniques to maintain Moore’s Law for at least another ten years – potentially longer. In assessing the wider implications of these laws, we need to consider three questions:

  1. How much technical runway is left in these laws?
  2. Can the benefits of these laws in principle be applied to transform other industries?
  3. Will wider system effects – as discussed earlier in this chapter – frustrate overall progress in these industries (despite the technical possibilities), or will they in due course even accelerate the underlying technical progress?

My answers to these questions:

  1. Plenty
  2. Definitely
  3. It depends on whether we can educate, motivate, and organise a sufficient critical mass of concerned citizens. The race is on!

>> Next chapter >>

4 March 2010

Coping with mobile fragmentation

Filed under: applications, developer experience, fragmentation, runtimes, smartphones, standards — David Wood @ 10:21 pm

My recent article “Choosing intermediate mobile platforms” appeared on the same day as the TechCrunch article by Rich Wong, “In Mobile, Fragmentation is Forever. Deal With It“.  Despite the different titles, the articles covered many of the same topics.

Rich and I were fellow jury members at the Emerging Startups Mobile Premier Awards in Barcelona last month.  The discussions of the jury room ought to be kept confidential, but I’m not revealing too many secrets if I say that the topic of de-fragmentation magic bullets came up during our deliberations.  So it’s no coincidence that we both have something to say on the topic!

Even though I’ve written about mobile fragmentation many times in the past, Rich’s article has spurred me to put pen to paper one more time.  Mainly I agree with what he says, though there are a few additional points that deserve to be stressed.

Points of agreement

  • Mobile data is on fire. Despite a few false starts, we are now in the midst of a transformative “Open Mobile 3rd Wave” … We are just in the early swell of the wave … thanks to continued improvements we’re now seeing in smart phones, mobile OS platforms and 3G/4G networks, the raw ingredients are just getting better every month.
  • There is an alphabet soup of protocols, standards, and regional differences by country which can be daunting for any entrepreneur. Just look at the range of technologies on handset platforms alone…
  • Anyone who is waiting for a single silver bullet to solve fragmentation issues in mobile will be waiting a very long time, especially if they want to go after the global mobile opportunity…
  • Sadly, whether or not there is an elegant technical answer, it will be hard to drive any single set of worldwide standards given the different economic incentives of the many players, however good it would be for developers…
  • Get a guide.  It is difficult to explain the subtleties of the mobile ecosystem without a longer dialogue, but the good news is that there are quite a few battle-scarred mobile veterans around that can help you with the Cliff Notes on the industry. Find one to help you.
  • Don’t wait.  There’s an incredible startup and wealth-creating opportunity in this new arena of Open Mobile. The smartest entrepreneurs will not wait for these fragmentation issues to be solved but are figuring out now how to pick a use case, a core platform, and geography to bound their problem and get going. Once you have initial momentum, you can pick through these fragmentation landmines, and make a 2nd and 3rd step. Don’t wait for the unifying technology to solve these issues before diving in. It’s going to be an exciting time to build great mobile companies this next 5-7 years.

Next, let’s extend the discussion:

Some developers can find a magic bullet

It’s true: there won’t, in the foreseeable future, be a single platform that all developers can use to solve all their mobile needs.

However, platforms and tools are appearing which can address all the mobile needs of some developers.  I tried to give some examples of these potential solutions in my previous article.

I’m far from being an expert in any of these systems, so I risk being completely wrong in my assessment.  However, it does appear that at least some of these emerging solutions can remove a significant part of the technical pain from a developer who wants to deploy a particular kind of solution across a wide range of mobile devices.

Depending on the kind of application the developer has in mind, a different intermediate platform may be needed.  So, no single magic bullet.  But there are plenty of smart solutions that deserve a hearing.

Before trying to roll their own mobile solutions, developers should, therefore, take a look at what’s already available.

New intermediate platforms for old phones

Rich makes a good point when he notes,

One of the worst myths floating around the blogosphere is the wait by some for a “unifying technology” that will make things “simpler and easier” to develop services and apps for the global mobile market.  At times, some have claimed that Java (J2ME) was the answer, then Flash Lite, then Webkit browsers, and most recently HTML5. While each solution has its merits, there will not be any unification anytime soon. Even as HTML5 richness has improved substantially, browser support will still vary and many, many phones will not support HTML5 for 7+ years.

In other words, even if new devices contain a powerful new intermediate platform (such as HTML5), this will leave the vast majority of existing phones in the cold.

However, this dynamic can change, to the extent that new platforms can be installed on existing phones.

For example, Qt Labs have recently described a “smart installer” that is now available for beta testing:

Qt 4.6.2 is released, and in addition to all the bug fixes in it, we’ve also snuck in a feature or two, especially for the Symbian platform. One of interest is the ability for Qt to make use of the beta version of the Nokia Smart Installer, which makes it easier to deploy your Qt application to Symbian phones…

When the user now installs yourapp_installer.sis on their phone, the Smart Installer will go on-line and get all the dependencies that your Qt application requires, typically Qt and QtWebkit + Open C. If these packages are already installed on the phone, the Smart Installer does nothing. So, it is a little bit like an “apt-get for Symbian” has been wrapped around your application.

In other words, the Qt environment will be automatically installed onto the phone, if it’s not already present.

The drawbacks with this, of course, include the facts that upgraded new intermediate platforms can:

  • Have heavy hardware requirements – for example, they may use up a considerable portion of the available memory on older phones;
  • Be difficult to install on simpler phones (the above “smart installer” depends on the Symbian software installation system being present on the phone).

However, we can see these points as challenges rather than dead ends.  And it’s handy that there are a considerable number of intermediate platforms under development, adopting different approaches.  It’s reasonable to expect that at least some of these platforms will find ways to reach out successfully to older devices.

An imperative to solve the fragmentation problem

It’s true that developers need to make progress in the existing, heavily fragmented mobile world, without waiting for the fragmentation to be solved.

However, this doesn’t mean the mobile industry should stop worrying about the drawbacks of excess fragmentation.  The effort that people have to put in to bridge different fragments of the mobile world is effort that would be better placed providing direct benefits to users.

  • For example, suppose that a developer puts 40 units of effort into the platform-independent logic of an application, and then another 30 units of effort for each adaptation of the application to a different mobile operating system platform.  To cover six different mobile platforms would require a total of 220 units of effort.
  • Imagine, instead, that the developer could use an intermediate platform that would cover all these operating systems.  Suppose in this case that the adaptation to the single intermediate platform consumes 30 units of effort (on top of the 40 units for the platform-independent logic), and then the developer prefers to add a little polish for each of the different operating systems.  If the intermediate platform is doing its job well, this final polish ought be require something like just 5 units of effort each time.  That makes a total of 100 units of effort.
  • The net saving of 120 units of effort can then be applied to developing v2 of the application, or to some other quite different project, rather than wrestling with different mobile operating systems.

So whilst we advise developers that their approach to fragmentation should be to “Cope with it”, we should be vigorously campaiging at the same time for rapid progress towards meaningful standardisation of fit-for-purpose intermediate platforms.

The problems that need to be solved

I’ll end with some remarks about the main issues that this standardisation process (whether formal or informal) needs to solve:

  1. Performance – especially battery usage.  This includes coping with applications that want to run in background (potentially draining batteries).
  2. Functionality – so that the intermediate platform provides access to the really interesting parts of the functionality of the mobile device and the mobile networks.
  3. Security – to avoid applications wreaking havoc with user data (especially when these applications have accesss to advanced functionality of the device and network).
  4. Device reconfiguration – to cope with the fact that the “one box” design of most smartphones today is going to be replaced by “multi-component” designs over the next 3-7 years, with new roles for detachable screens (and more).
  5. Business models – to ensure that there are enough ways for applications to be economically viable (rather than just technically viable).
  6. Speed of standardisation – so that the big picture of “a rising tide lifts all boats” prevails, rather than the process becoming bogged down in smaller scale turf wars and filibustering.

On the last point, history might just show that the single most significant announcement at Mobile World Congress was about the formation of WAC – the Wholesale Application Community:

A number of the world’s leading telecommunications operators and device manufacturers are launching an open global alliance, that will establish a simple route to market for developers and provide access to the latest and widest range of innovative applications and services to as many customers as possible worldwide.

Together, we have signed a memorandum of understanding with the aim of building an environment or ’wholesale applications community’ where innovative applications can be developed irrespective of device or technology.

The new alliance, which represents more than three billion customers worldwide is inviting players from across the ICT industry, not only operators and developers, but also handset manufacturers and internet players to join forces to create an initiative based on openness and transparency. We believe this model presents the most compelling format on the market where developers will thrive and customers will reap the benefits of greater choice.

The mobile industry doesn’t have a great track record for working together quickly in this way.  However, more people than ever before in the industry are aware of the likely price of failure.

Choosing intermediate mobile platforms

Filed under: applications, developer experience, fragmentation, runtimes, smartphones — David Wood @ 12:55 am

Over the last few months, one thing I’ve noticed is the increasing number of companies who are offering mobile intermediate platforms and tools, that are designed to hide differences between underlying mobile operating systems.  For example, I heard about several new ones (that is, new for me) during Mobile World Congress at Barcelona.

I’d like to mention some of these companies.  But first, here’s some context.

People who want to develop applications (or provide content or services) for mobile devices face two levels of decision about platform choice.

The first decision is: what should developers do about the fact that different mobile devices run many different mobile operating systems (such as Symbian, BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, Palm webOS, LiMo, Maemo, Series 40, Bada, Windows Mobile…)?

In other words, should developers:

  1. Prioritise one operating system platform above all others, and attempt to become an expert in that?
  2. Try to become experts in all the major operating system platforms (including different UI families and other platform sub-variants)?
  3. Rely on third party experts who can deliver “mobile applications as a service” across a wide range of relevant operating systems?
  4. Try to find an intermediate platform and/or tool, that will hide the differences in underlying mobile operating system?

The first of these approaches has the merit of simplicity, but cuts off large numbers of devices.  The second of these approaches is particularly hard to achieve: it requires wide-ranging knowledge.  The third is what I advocated in an earlier blog post, “A strategy for mobile app development“: it involves building a relationship with an external company which maintains up-to-date knowledge about changing mobile operating systems.  The fourth is a variation on the third.  Rather than rely on paying a third party to use their own systems to develop apps for each different platform, it relies on finding an intermediate platform and/or tool, to achieve the same end.

That takes me to the second decision about platform choice: what should developers do about the fact that there are so many different intermediate platforms available?

In one way, this second decision is harder than the first one.  That’s because the number of intermediate platforms available seems to be larger even than the number of different mobile operating systems.  Therefore the choice is larger.  (And it seems to be getting larger all the time, with the emergence of new intermediate plaforms.)

But, thankfully, in another way, this decision is easier.  That’s because there may well be more than one “right answer”.  Depending on the type of applications being developed, various different intermediate platforms are well-suited to distributing the application acrosss a wide range of mobile devices.

I’m not expecting a consolidation, any time soon, down to just a few intermediate mobile platforms.  Developers’ needs are too varied for that.  But I am expecting at least some of these platforms to become better and better, as their owners respond smartly to the evolving needs of the growing number of developers who want to bring applications to ever larger numbers of mobile devices.

Here are just four of these platforms which have caught my eye recently.  As I said, different platforms are appropriate for different kinds of developer needs.

1. JumpStart Wireless BusinessSuite

JumpStart Wireless has a solution for enterprises that want to improve how they interact with their mobile workforce.

A special feature of this solution is that no “programming” in a traditional sense is required: no C/C++, no Java, no HTML.  Instead, I heard the solution described as “you fill in a spreadsheet” giving details of an existing paper-based system that you’d like to replace by a version that runs on mobile devices – a paper-based system for work orders, time cards, daily reports, punch lists, inspections, sales orders, and so on.  The architect and founder of JumpStart Wireless, Dr. Jeffrey Bonar, observed many similarities between systems used by different companies, and captured the similarities in the engine that lies at the heart of the JumpStart Wireless BusinessSuite platform.  The platform generates versions of the application that can run on a wide variety of different mobile devices.

Their website states:

Problem: Mobile Employees Typically Waste Hours Per Day With Paperwork and Communicating to Headquarters

Time and money wasted:

  • Driving to pickup/drop-off paperwork, filling out paperwork and excessive phone calls.
  • Chasing down missing paperwork, correcting errors and dealing with illegible paperwork.
  • Dealing with backlogs of completed work waiting to be closed out and billed.
  • Manually entering field data

Solution: JumpStart Wireless™ – One Tenth the Cost of Conventional Wireless Approaches

  • Leveraging JumpStart Wireless’s patent pending artificial intelligence technology, your customized wireless applications are one tenth the price of conventional approaches to wireless software.
  • Your forms and mobile employee process is automatically transformed into a wireless device application

Works with Normal Cell Phones and PDAs

  • JumpStart Wireless applications work on normal, off-the-shelf cell phones and BlackBerrys.
  • You do not need an expensive ($700-$2000), complex, custom device

2. The MoSync Mobile Development SDK

The MoSync Mobile Development SDK takes a different approach. It provides access to a wide range of underlying device functionality, via a C/C++ SDK.  As such, it requires a greater degree of software skill from the developer, and in principle can enable a rich variety of different kinds of application.

MoSync were one of the finalists in the Mobile Premier Awards at Barcelona, where I had the chance to meet a couple of their founding team.

Their website states:

Mobile cross-platform done right

Today’s mobile device market is more fragmented than ever.  New platforms are introduced every year.  Dozens of new devices arrive from manufacturers every month.  Sometimes it can seem that writing your application is the easy part: the real headache is tailoring it for all those different platforms and devices, and trying to keep up with the ever-changing marketplace.

We think that mobile application development is hard enough without having to worry about porting issues. That’s why we’ve created MoSync — a truly open-source solution for today’s fragmented mobile market.

MoSync’s fully-featured software development kit helps you develop anything from simple programs for basic mobile phones to advanced applications that exploit the full potential of the latest intelligent smart phones and mobile devices.

And with MoSync you can adapt, build, and package your application for hundreds of different mobile devices in a few clicks – all from the same code base! That means huge savings in development costs, faster time-to-market, and wider distribution and revenue possibilities…

Most approaches to cross-platform software development involve

  • either manual brute-force porting (in essence rewriting the application for lots of mobile devices)
  • or the use of virtual machine runtimes that need to be installed on the target devices.

MoSync does neither — instead it gives you the best possible solution: Symbian, Windows Mobile, j2me, Moblin, and Android built from a single source…

3. The Airplay platform from Ideaworks Labs

The Airplay platform from Ideaworks Labs has particular strengths for high-performance rich-media mobile applications – including graphically-intense mobile games.

Their website states:

Airplay is a native mobile application development and deployment solution that overcomes many of the major problems faced by developers and publishers of mobile games today.

The Airplay SDK comprises a set of powerful and extensible tools and technologies within a framework of processes and workflow best practices. This combination of technology and know-how delivers massive cost savings during both development and deployment and enables a much faster time to market.

This solution is the unique result of a 7-year symbiotic relationship between Ideaworks Labs and Ideaworks Game Studio divisions, and it is through building many of the most innovative mobile games in the world that our solution has been fine-tuned and thoroughly battle-tested.

Key Features:

  • Single Binary: Airplay combines the platform-specific execution environment implementation with a single binary for each game or application. The key advantage of this is there is no need to embed software on the handset, no dependence on manufacturing supply chain, or individual manufacturer or operator deals.
  • Open Platforms: All applications built using Airplay run on all “open” platforms, such as Symbian, BREW, Windows Mobile, Linux, and can be embedded on “closed” platforms, such as RTOS.
  • Scalable Graphics: Fully scalable graphics pipeline optimized to support all leading semiconductor architectures…
  • OpenKODE compliant: Ideaworks Labs was co-spec lead in Khronos on OpenKODE Core API, committed to standards-based portability of native applications.

4. EZMobile from 509inc

509inc have a solution which may appeal to developers who already have a web service, which they want to connect to mobile devices in such a way that it takes advantage of mobile device features such as location.

Their website states:

5o9 EZMobile uses Web standards to simplify development and the support of mobile users. 5o9 EZMobile works with existing Web servers, most HTTP mobile browsers and any network. 5o9 EZMobile can reduce the time and cost to mobilize by 2 to 10 times that of cross-platform mobile application development and support…

5o9 EZMobile software enables enterprise-level Mobile SaaS by delivering contextual data to your Web Apps. It provides a cost-effective alternative to cross-platform mobile application development.

Now you can extend your existing Web services to mobile users by leveraging the power of the Web. Your Web apps can access real-time who, what and where data about your mobile users, letting you personalize services via customized menu-based navigation. Standardize delivery, via the browser, across multiple mobile platforms. You determine the data you need. You control your data security and privacy  policies. You choose the appropriate level of personalization for your mobile employees, customers and partners.

Experienced cross-platform mobile developer Simon Judge recently looked more closely at 509inc and wrote some of his findings in a blog post “509 Bridges the App Web Gap“:

Last year I mentioned how 5o9 had developed a solution that allowed BlackBerry and Windows Mobile device location to be made available to web sites. Since then, things have progressed and they now offer a range of multi-platform tools for mobile developers.

5o9 told me that their view of the future is that for mobile to really take off the web has to know the end-user better. This means that web browsers need better access to phone features.

If you go to the 5o9 web site you can learn more. However, what it doesn’t say is how this technology works and how it might be integrated into your mobile solution, so I dug deeper

The 5o9 solution is a simple mobile application that can share critical meta data (without the need to type it in) with any web app in the world. It works by extending the HTTP protocol with new customizable HTTP_X headers….

Some people think that the future of mobile is the web. Until such time, technologies such as those offered by 5o9 can be used to bridge the gap.

This is just to scratch the surface…

Above, I’ve provided brief details of four attractive intermediate mobile platforms, but there are probably at least five times as many more that could be added to this list (I apologise for the highly selective nature of my list).

And that’s without covering the better known intermediate platforms such as Qt, Java, HTML5, Adobe Flash/AIR, and Microsoft Silverlight.  It would take a long time to fairly compare and evaluate all serious players in this space.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this multiplicity of offerings is that there’s wide perception of the need for such solutions, driven by the combination of two observations:

  • The mobile opportunity is huge, and demands attention
  • Mobile development is still generally seen as unnecessarily difficult.

6 January 2010

Mobile trends for the next decade

Filed under: futurist, m2020, smartphones, vision — David Wood @ 5:04 pm

A few days ago, I received an interesting invitation from mobile strategist and innovator Rudy De Waele:

It’s the end of the decade and for many of us it has been a very actively ‘mobile’ decade, a lot of the efforts and projects of our peers have become real and succesful during this decade.

As for the start of a new decade, I’ve had this idea of asking some of the people I met during the last decade  to write down their five game-changing mobile trends for the next decade.

The format is to list your 5 trends for the next decade, in words, a sentence or a pagaraph, no links.

It was a great question – especially the requirement to stick to just five trends.  Here’s the set which, after some thought, I emailed back to Rudy:

  1. Mobiles manifesting AI – fulfilling, at last, the vision of “personal digital assistants”.
  2. Powerful, easily wearable head-mounted accessories: audio, visual, and more.
  3. Mobiles as gateways into vivid virtual reality – present-day AR is just the beginning.
  4. Mobiles monitoring personal health – the second brains of our personal networks.
  5. Mobiles as universal remote controls for life – a conductor’s baton as much as a viewing portal.

No fewer than 37 different people from throughout the mobile and IT industries contributed answers.  The entire set of answers is now available for viewing on Rudy’s m-trends.org blog and is also posted onto slideshare.net, from where you can download a PDF version.

Each of the 37 sets of answers has at least one item (usually more!) that’s a good conversation starter.  The ongoing “#m2020” dialog that Rudy has started is likely to cast a long shadow.

Some of the predictions are very encouraging – like the set from Katrin Verclas covering mobiles in social development, transformation of politics (for example, in Africa), mobile payments, mobile healthcare, and mobile environmental monitoring.  Other sets of predictions foresee difficulties and backlashes as well as progress.  Some of the destruction foreseen could be counted as “creative destruction”, as in the prediction by Alan Moore:

The communications revolution accelerates, destroying businesses that refuse to think the unthinkable.

The predictions include many “first order effects” (technologies or products that people already foresee and desire, and which are already under development), but also several interesting comments on what Tom Hume calls “second order effects“.  Tom comments:

No-one predicted the loosening of time and space that Mimi Ito has noted. Similarly, what happens to our social arrangements when every photo can be face-recognised, geolocated and individuals tracked? What happens to shops when every price can be compared? What happens to conversation when it’s all recorded, or any fact is a 5-second voice-search away from being checked?

The full effects of ever-wider usage of mobile technology are, indeed, hard to predict – especially when we bear in mind the following forecast from Carlos Domingo:

Ubiquity of mobile broadband will lead to an explosion of connected devices (à la Kindle, not just phones) and M2M services (machines to machine services, without a human behind the device). In 10 year, there will be more devices/machines connected to the mobile network than humans.

In similar vein, Nicolas Nova predicts:

Non-humans (objects, animals, places) will generate more data than humans.

Mobile handsets will very likely look quite different, at the end of the decade, than they do at the beginning.  As Marek Pawlowski forecasts:

Keyboard dimensions and screen size cease to be the primary limiting factors in handset design as new input and display technologies free designers to radically change the form factor of personal communication devices.

I’ll end by sharing one of the predictions from Jonathan MacDonald, which seems to me particularly compelling:

Convergence of physical, augmented and virtual reality: augmented and virtual reality will become an increasingly standard method for search, discovery, gaming, eyesight, healthcare, retail, entertainment and most other experiences in life. Location and other contextual functions will grow so our 2D mobile experiences become 3D and ‘real’. To such an extent that the prefixes ‘augmented’ and ‘virtual’ will eventually become redundant.

The items I’ve picked out above are just scratching the surface.  There’s much, much more to read and ponder in the entire slideshow – click over to Rudy’s blog to explore further!

Rudy De Waele

25 October 2008

"Symbian too old" – a mountain worth climbing

Filed under: Cringely, developer experience, E71, smartphones — David Wood @ 2:03 pm

In case I had forgotten how little mindshare Symbian has in many parts of North America, the recent Robert X. Cringely piece “Why Windows Mobile will die” contained yet another stark reminder.

As usual with Cringely, the piece mixes potential insight with a lot of conjecture and then some fancy. Most of the article discusses Windows Mobile, iPhone, and Android. But it squeezes in a dismissive paragraph about Symbian:

…donning flameproof clothing: Symbian is simply too old. The OS is getting slower and slower with each release. The GUIs are getting uglier and are not user-friendly. The development environment is particularly bad, which wouldn’t hurt if there weren’t others that are so much better. Symbian C++, for example, is not a standard C++. There is little momentum in the Symbian developer community, maybe because coding for Symbian is a pain. Yes, there are way more Symbian phones in circulation, but those phones will be gone 18 months from now, probably replaced by phones with a different OS. Lately, Symbian’s success has been primarily based on the high quality of Nokia hardware, on the loyalty of NTT DoCoMo, and now on the lure of being recently made open source and therefore free. But if open source developers don’t flock now to Symbian (they aren’t as far as I can see — at least not yet) then the OS is doomed.

And if that weren’t a sufficiently strong reminder of Symbian’s lack of mindshare, I found scant encouragement in the 65 comments posted (so far) to Cringely’s piece.

Allow me a few moments to respond to individual points in this paragraph, before I return to the bigger picture.

“Symbian is simply too old” – but it has been undergoing a constant internal renewal, with parts of the architecture and code being refactored and replaced with each new point release. Just a few examples: we introduced a new kernel in v8.1b, a new security architecture in v9.0, new database (SQL) architecture in v9.3, new Bluetooth in v9.4, substantially revised graphics architecture and networking architecture in v9.5, and so forth.

“The OS is getting slower and slower with each release” – on the contrary, many parts of the operating system are humming much quicker in the newer releases, as a result of a specific and pervasive focus on performance across the whole system. Deliverables include speed ups due to smart incorporation of demand paging, file system caching, data scalability improvements, and wider adoption of separation of activity into three planes (data plane, control plane, and management plane).

“The GUIs are getting uglier and are not user-friendly” – but the UI system is increasingly flexible, which allows customers to experiment with many different solutions (whilst retaining API compatibility). New developments such as the S60 Fifth Edition touch interface, and the recently announced support for Qt on Symbian OS, take things further in the user-friendly direction.

“The development environment is particularly bad” – but documentation and tools for Symbian OS have markedly improved over the last two years.

“Symbian C++, for example, is not a standard C++” – but watch out for our forthcoming annoucements about EUserHL that go a long way to address this particular gripe.

“There is little momentum in the Symbian developer community” – but that’s not the impression given by the media reports from people who attended the Symbian Smartphone Show last week.

“Yes, there are way more Symbian phones in circulation, but those phones will be gone 18 months from now, probably replaced by phones with a different OS” – but I beg to differ, based on my knowledge of development projects underway at phone manufacturers across the world. For just one example, consider the recent remarks from Li Jilin, Huawei Communications Vice President (note: Huawei has previously not been a user of Symbian OS):

“Huawei is excited by the plans for the Symbian Foundation. We look forward to participating in the work of the Symbian Foundation and using the foundation’s platform to deliver a portfolio of devices for mobile network operators around the world. We believe that the Symbian Foundation ecosystem will enable innovation which will benefit users and drive increased customer satisfaction.”

“If open source developers don’t flock now to Symbian (they aren’t as far as I can see — at least not yet) then the OS is doomed” – but this is far too impatient. It’s too early to make this judgement. You can’t expect the open source developers to flock to us before more plans are published for the roadmap to put our source code into open source.

As for the bigger picture: despite the above individual points of fact, I don’t expect significant changes in mindset (except among the far-sighted) until there are more Symbian devices in the hands of North Americans.

It was the amazing array of devices at the partner showcase stands at the Smartphone Show last week that caused the biggest buzz of all – bigger than the announcements from the keynote hall next door. Thankfully, AT&T have publicly mentioned their “plan to introduce more Symbian phones“. North American users shouldn’t have too long to wait. And there are encouraging signs of independently-minded North American writers actually (shock horror) liking the latest Symbian phones. For example, the renowned software essayist Joel Spolsky called the Nokia E71 “the best phone I’ve ever had – I’m loving it“.

In the meantime, the Symbian Foundation has a big mountain to climb, in public perception. But it’s a mountain well worth climbing!

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