Mobility Growing Pains

About three months ago I was considering a blog post about how the diversity and fragmentation in the mobile operating system environment was going away. Nokia and  Microsoft were getting together, Android was growing by leaps and bounds and even Blackberry was planning to run Android apps, Apple seemed rock solid, and WebOS was purchased by a big player with deep pockets. Now? Not so much. Oh what a few months can mean . . .

The Future of Blackberry is Black

QNX was supposed to be the next wave for Research in Motion’s Blackberry line of mobile devices. The new Playbook tablet would lead the pack into a new wave of enterprise tablet computing and new and better smart phones on the platform would soon follow. One of the great advantages of QNX was the possibility that it could run Android applications and this seems to be the case, but the implementation seems to be lacking. First, the Playbook tablet was not a great seller and was often poorly reviewed, precisely because of the lack of apps and expected features. This puts doubt on the viability of the entire QNX platform. Second, Blackberry just launched 3 new devices (in 7 different variations) to very lukewarm reception. None of these devices had a hint of the QNX platform. Finally, Android applications will only function within QNX devices within an “Android player” – basically an Android emulator. This limits Android application functionality, speed, and usability and the nature of the player means that only a small set of Android applications will be compatible. All of this leads to much market speculation that RIM is intending to rush out QNX-based smartphones early next year. From a developer’s perspective hearing the term “rush out a device” makes your skin crawl and there is doubt it will bring about the speedy adoption rates that RIM needs to continue as a major smart phone player.

WebOS May Be Destined for the Dustpan

Try this for a second: reach into your wallet and pull out a dollar bill. Then pull out 1.2 Billion more. That’s how much Hewlett-Packard paid for Palm less than a year and a half ago. Their big prize at the time was WebOS, the jewel of Palm’s portfolio. HP claimed that consumer WebOS devices would start popping up all over the place, including printers, net-aware appliances, and even PC’s. Most analysts believed, that unlike Palm who could never get the capital to successfully market or manufacture huge numbers of the WebOS mobile devices, HP had the big pockets necessary to make it a real competitor. Flash forward to today: HP has a new CEO and a new direction, they released a single underpowered WebOS tablet and a couple, almost unpublicized, WebOS phones. The new CEO declared the platform and hardware a failure and announced that it didn’t make any sense to continue with WebOS. Oh, and by the way, if anyone else wants to try WebOS, then HP would be happy to get it off its hands.  Developer’s confidence in the platform shattered instantly.

Android May Have Just Bought Itself a Pack of Trouble

One of these days I’ll probably crash my head into a pole and decide to do a blog post on software patents, but that day is not today. Still you need to understand that patents are at the heart of a situation that may very well rip Android and the entire mobile space into teeny, tiny pieces. Android mobile phone and tablet manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung, LG, and Motorola have been litigated against by Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, and others for patent infringement. The details aren’t important for this discussion, but the fact that this situation was getting worse and worse put Google’s back up against a wall. In order to fight the patent claims, they felt they needed a large patent portfolio of their own. They managed to buy some from IBM and others, but when Motorola Mobility came up for sale with its thousands of patents it was too big a carrot for Google to pass up. So they’ve offered to buy the hardware manufacturer and are now awaiting regulatory approval. From many people’s perspectives this is like smashing your hand with a ball-peen hammer because you have a headache.

One of the reasons that Android has been able to surpass Apple in the number of smartphones sold is because they have many, many different manufacturers on every major carrier. But if you were a smart phone manufacturer and your operating system provider just announced they were going to make their own smartphones and compete directly with you, would you consider maybe switching to another platform? So far the hardware vendors have been mildly supportive of the deal, but there are indications this might just be a façade. The South Korean government for example is gathering support for their own mobile operating system in the wake of the Google/Motorola acquisition. Two of the top handset makers: Samsung and LG are based in South Korea. This could mean more splintering of an already splintered Android ecosystem.

Apple Has Jobs to Fill

Recently, Apple’s iconic CEO Steve Jobs announced his retirement from day-to-day operations at the company. All indications are that his replacement is a very intelligent and competent person with a long history at Apple. However, the best business CEO in the world cannot replace the vision and hands-on leadership of a person like Steve Jobs. There are numerous examples, including Apple itself in the mid-80’s after they fired Steve Jobs and the company began a major downturn that only righted itself after his triumphant return to power in 1997, where a company lost its primary visionary and became just another also-ran. There is no evidence to suggest that this will happen at Apple but there is also no clear evidence to suggest that anyone else at Apple can continue to innovate the way Jobs could. Without that innovation, Apple could quickly revert back to the “high end niche player” it was in the nineties. If Apple can’t answer the question, “what’s next?” it will be stuck making minor improvements to things that have already been done.

Windows Phone 7 Is Hungry for Mango

The Windows Phone 7 launch was not a big success. Despite significant marketing and mostly positive reviews the general public has not taken to the devices. Nokia, has yet to release a Windows-based phone yet and indications are that they may not until next year. In order to improve the Window Phone 7 experience Microsoft has developed a new update codenamed Mango with many desirable features including: multitasking support, threaded messages, unified inboxes, better searching tools, and HTML5 support. All are very welcome additions and should make the platform much more attractive to consumers. The problem is that Microsoft has been thwarted in its attempts at deploying updates. Despite the platforms supposed support for online updates most carriers and/or hardware makers have prevented this system from functioning. Pushing out updates from Windows Phone 7 has been a series of problems, delays, false starts, and mostly wishful thinking. Instead of improving the customer experience this has had the exact opposite effect as users become frustrated at the lack of updates and the perceived staleness of the platform.

All is not lost, these speculations and observations are designed to be pessimistic. In the end, there will always be viable platforms and opportunities for mobile development. Overall, the number of smartphones on the market is going up, not down. These problems may just be the latest growing pains.

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1 Comment

  1. I could be wrong, but I’m even more bullish on Android after the acquisition of Motorola.

    The knock on Android has been that they couldn’t produce a well-integrated product that beats the iPhone in user experience.

    My guess is that Google will be releasing awesome pure Android handsets that can compete head-on with the iPhone. BMW vs. Mercedes.

    (They’ll also seek to drive the price down and deliver lower cost choices to put Android into the hands of a type of customer who doesn’t want to pay for a smartphone today.)

    But the rest of the Android ecosystem will stay intact. What choice do they have? They can either go to the expense of developing their own OS, or they can keep using Android as a base, stay compatible with the legion of Android apps, and build other features on top of Android to differentiate.

    It could strengthen Windows Phone, and webOS might get bought by one of the OEMs, but when I make a two year buying decision on a phone, I’m making a bet on which OS will be compatible with the apps I want to run next year. And I know developers are going to build for Android and iPhone. I don’t know that for any other platform.

    The good news is…we’re rapidly approaching the day when every white or blue collar worker in America has a computing device in their pocket that can run DATArrive software. 🙂

    Reply

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