Friday, 31 October 2014

Information Mobility

The ebb and flow of technological innovation is always most visible through the divergence and convergence of solutions to a particular set of use cases. Solutions diverge as innovation flourishes in new area where there are no standards and few rules. A plethora of options appears, then conventions are established. These gradually harden into standards, as dominant players emerge, and innovation ebbs. Or, more commonly in technology, flows into the next use case: ecommerce was the innovation ground until Amazon and eBay perfected it and the innovation moved to mobile.

In information technology the innovation use case, right now, is consumer connectivity. Social networks are the most direct symptom of this craving need. But it's clear that the need is broader than our friends' news feeds. 'Information mobility' is probably the most accurate label I can think of to describe the current innovation battleground.

The cloud and big data are simply grist for the mill: essential ingredients to staking a claim in the information mobility market and harvesting results. Example: it seems every app on my phone wants to see my contacts list. Why? Because it's effectively a prospects list for them. That's why every consumer-oriented company on the planet wants you to download their app: they want your rolodex. And we let them have it - cheaply. For the sake of crushing electronic candy.

Mobile devices are starting to converge on standards. You can still get a touchscreen for any size from 3" to 12", but the newest phones are congregating around 5"-6" and tablets 8"-10". With this convergence, the walls between vendor software ecosystems are increasingly being tested because people want their information anywhere. They want information mobility. If they cannot use your service from any device they may choose, why should they pay for it?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Smart devices and wearables

Are wearables the next big thing? Eventually, yes. But the benefits have to significantly outweigh the issues. My old Nokia 2110 phone could go without a charge for 5 days. Nearly all smartphones last less than 24 hours. Phone charging has become a cultural thing, be it the nest of cables in that part of the kitchen at home, or the sponsored pillar in the departure lounge. We don't mind because the utility of our smart phones is is massively greater than our old mobile phones. But will the same be said for wearables?

The concepts are brilliant: I love the short advertising movies about all the cool stuff you can do with your watch/glasses. But none of them mentions battery life. The Apple watch video mentions, at one point, the ability to monitor your health 'all day'. Google Glasses' battery life is about 3 hours. My Casio ProTrek PRW-3000 never needs charging (it's solar powered) and, in addition to monitoring temperature, atmospheric pressure and my direction, it is calibrated to an atomic clock every night. So it offers a bunch of useful to marginally-useful features for free, effectively. I don't need to disrupt my life worrying about whether it's charged, or accurate, or needs an update. It's a watch. We already have phones for portable smart stuff. They are so ubiquitous they might as well be wearable. So the real questions are:
  1. What are the watches/glasses going to give me that my phone doesn't already?
  2. Will it be worth the hassle of charging them at least once a day?
The mass market answers are, and will be for some years to come: 1. not much; 2. no.

Now, when the solar-powered ones, with colour e-ink screens start rolling out, then we have Watch 2.0. Until then, feel free to keep giggling at the chunky wrist and head gear crowd constantly looking for charging points.

As for the current set of portable smart stuff, the key advantage that Android has over iOS is choice. Not just a plethora of hardware options, but OS choices too - from roll-your-own to plain vanilla. And as Google get to grips with their Nexus line, and their Nest products, they may supersede Apple by addressing their core offering: no-fuss, tightly-integrated smart devices.

Don't get me wrong: I love Apple devices. I love the design, the childlike simplicity of them - they all pass the 'granny' test, unlike... well, any of my Android devices. But the business model irritates me. No, not the 30% App Store tax. That's just pricing. It's the disingenuity: Apple say that they want a seamless customer experience, unsullied by 3rd parties' lesser offerings. So why disallow users to buy Kindle books in the Amazon iApp? Because it competes with iBooks. Or disallow the Google Voice app? Because it competes with their network partners.

This is hardly 'doing what's best for customers'. It's doing what's best for Apple in the short term. In the long run it allows complacency to creep in because, as in sport, if you don't continue to compete with the best, on equal terms, you lose your edge. So, it's a finite game, highly dependent on lack of user tech-sophistication: such users want Apple to make the smart choices for them. But as their tech knowledge/skills evolve, they seek to make their own choices. iOS 8 is starting to open up, with 3rd party keyboards, and 3rd parties allowed to have space in the Notifications area. But you still get the sense that they are conceding ground grudgingly, rather than keeping the playing field level and beating their competitors through better products. On the hardware side, Apple still make the highest grade (and highest margin) devices on the market, but as the size and shape of smart device choices start to multiply (you can get a screen for just about every inch between 3.5 and 12 inches), one wonders whether they can keep up.

So where does the Apple watch fit in? Contrary to prevailing (fawning?) journalism, I think this is Apple playing catch-up. They are a hardware business at heart, after all, so if they don't have a wearable offering they could be in trouble. This is something that Google don't need to worry about because their platform is open: if they don't build it, someone else will, using their platform. It might compete with their own offering, but that just means they have to evolve faster.

And for the reasons mentioned at the start of this note, wearables will be all about speed of evolution.

OS no-OS

Every once in a while an article appears saying something like "the OS is irrelevant because everything is on the Web now".

Yet, why can't I use my iApp on my android? Or on my mac, for that matter?

The current stress point in software is the OS. Apps are proof that the Web, while being a wondrously sticky medium, has a long way to go in democratising devices. If I want to build an app to be used across all devices I must build it for browser use. Or I must build 6 concurrent versions of it (3 desktop OSes, and 3 mobile OSes), which is not cheap, and depending on the app, not effective use of resources. In practice I'll pick the 2 most popular, usually Windows + either Android or iOS and extend when the revenue or funding kicks in. 

But why can't the browser do it all? Surely if the browser was the OS, we wouldn't need apps? Well, HP actually tried it with Web OS. As with so many of HP's recent innovations, it was a brilliant concept poorly executed. The devices were under-powered, and the marketing was crap. The HP Veer is still, physically, one of the nicest phones I've ever held.

And now we have chrome and chromebooks able to run Android apps.  Presumably Apple will follow, with OSX able to run IOS apps. But what about Apple TV too? It would need a better input device, like Kinect. Talking of Kinect, Microsoft, ironically, are probably the closest to seamlessness between their devices, with Windows, Windows Mobile and Xbox software all being sold in the one marketplace. Shame their user interface and many of their apps are so inconsistent. 

The thing is, apps are the best way to lock users into your platform. And for hardware makers, like Apple, the platform is everything. It is not in their interest for you to be able to run everything on the Web. It is in Google's interest: a cynic's view of Android is that it is a Google knowledge capture and advert delivery system. It's also in Microsoft's interest: they are laggards in both cloud and mobile, but gaining fast by slipstreaming the leaders. Google and Microsoft are software businesses, and even Microsoft have proven themselves bold in building apps for other OSes. They know that the proprietary app phenomenon is temporary: one day everything will run through your browser, on any device.