The iPad created a new class of computing devices and a new way of interacting with technology. It seems like this ambitious device means something different to just about every segment of the technology world: Old Media publishers herald the device as their salvation from death at the hands of the Web. Open software advocates balk at its controlled app platform as a regression for things like rich web applications and open standards. Tech pundits label it a device which prioritizes passive consumption of content over production and collaboration. Customers complain about the $500 starting price — and then buy over 15 million of them in under a year. (This quarter, Apple is on track to sell more iPads than Macs.)
I took the plunge and bought an iPad last September to see what all the fuss was about. I have to say that I don’t think any of the popular perspectives effectively mirror my experience. Things are about to change very quickly in this new space, and I think this is the appropriate time at which to reflect on its current state and potential in the future.
It’s that time again: CES, the annual consumer electronics convention in Las Vegas where companies show off their gadget game plans for the upcoming year.
This is usually the biggest time of year for gadget news – tech blogs and Twitter feeds are overflowing with information, which can be too much for even those paying attention all day. These are the most significant things I noticed from today’s announcements:
LTE smartphones barrel forward while American carriers slap a “4G!” sticker on their 3G networks
Phone after phone gets announced, almost every one of them having the same specs: 4.3″ display, Android 2.3 “Gingerbread,” dual-core 1GHz ARM CPUs, front- and back-facing cameras. The only development here over that of one year ago is the extra CPU core, really- HTC’s EVO 4G and Incredible of yesteryear are almost identical to their HTC ThunderBolt, which only adds LTE to the mix.
Sadly, this year’s announcement of 4G phones doesn’t live up to the hype being generated by the phone carriers. The reason: most of the phones marketed as “4G” run HSPA+, which is actually just the fastest revision of current 3G GSM technology. The real 4G phones have converged on the LTE standard, except for Sprint, which bet its chips on WiMax to get a years’ head start. AT&T today followed T-Mobile’s lead in deceptively rebranding their existing network as 4G. The reason? Their own LTE 4G transition won’t be complete until 2013, while Verizon’s antennae lit up in December 2010. If you’re buying a phone in 2011, take the time to find out if it can even take advantage of these next-generation networks that offer incredible speed boosts.
- Engadget: HTC ThunderBolt in the wild one more time: 8GB internal, no HDMI?
- The Wall Street Journal: AT&T Pins 4G Label to Existing Network
Legitimized by consumers as a new device format, slates turn to Android
Last year, manufacturers flooded CES with slate devices in anticipations of the rumored Apple iPad. Without exception, they all sucked, being low-cost devices with Android 1.5 or 2.0 haphazardly tacked on without any considerations to changing a UI designed for 3.5″ phone screens.
This year, everyone knows the iPad is a bombshell at around 10 Million sold, and wants to get in on an obvious growth market. Google today announced the Tablet-specific version of Android 3.0, “Honeycomb”:
A possible iPad 2 tease on the show floor
Engadget’s bloggers were trying to fit their iPad into a vendor’s unique iPad case on the show floor when they were told it wouldn’t fit, as it was designed for the next iPad. Better yet- the case included a metal mockup with the supposed form for the iPad 2. Is it real, or just a clever PR exploitation of the Apple rumor mill? Read Engadget’s great post about it all, including a photo gallery, here.
Microsoft takes desktop Windows to the mobile ARM platform, while Nvidia takes ARM to the Desktop format
After enjoying moderate success from the Atom-powered netbook boom of 2008-9, Microsoft has obviously read the tea leaves that all the cool kids are building their devices on ARM-based System-on-a-Chip (SoC) silicon, instead of the traditional IBM PC setup that’s been shrunk down to miniature form on netbooks. In an effort to make Windows
avoid complete irrelevance take advantage of current ARM innovations, Microsoft has announced that the next version of Windows will run on ARM in addition to x86/AMD64. But all Windows executables will need new ARM-compatible versions, unless Microsoft has a Rosetta-esque dynamic translator up its sleeve. That Windows would even consider this route on consumer devices is interesting, as Windows apps are have been forwards compatible since the 1980s. Perhaps it’s a telling sign of Windows’ ability to compete in the future. (And perhaps I’m looking to far into this.)
On the other side of this coin, chipset maker Nvidia announced “Project Denver,” their adaptation of the mobile ARM architecture to high-power desktops and servers. (Jon Stokes writes more about Project Denver at Ars Technica.)
Yet again, a big web property’s new feature makes independent developers’ products irrelevant; This time, it’s Twitter
This isn’t really CES news, but it still got buried in all the CES coverage: TechCrunch secured confirmation on reports that Twitter will release a first-party Mac application during tomorrow’s launch of the Mac App Store. If it’s free, and even more so if it’s ad-free, third party developers are not gonna be happy (though one could argue that they have ample opportunities to innovate beyond “cookie cutter” Twitter clients.)
So there you have it. Tons of stuff today! Stick around on ZekeWeeks.com or just follow me on Twitter, as I’m sure to post on anything of major significance that emerges amongst the thousands of announcements made at CES. Coming up next is my in-depth analysis of what is to come of Honeycomb, Google’s slate-specific version of Android OS.
Note: Skimmers should definitely skip my overtures and get straight to my recommendations at the bottom of this post.
A lot of concern has cropped up regarding “bloatware” in the most recent batch of smartphones running Android. There are really two sources of complaints in this area:
- Custom User Interface skins put on top of the stock Android OS by the manufacturer.
These skins take a generic, manufacturer-agnostic OS and create an experience unique to an individual manufacturer’s devices. Manufacturers seem to experiment endlessly with these custom UIs, often revising them with each new generation of device. They vary a lot in quality, but in turn also create more options for customers to choose the device best tailored to fit their own personal preferences. (Some will decry the existence of any custom UI, but I am in love with the time-tested HTC Sense UI, and moreover think that an “open” platform should allow for such innovations.) But it’s now impossible to buy a high-end Android phone in the United States without one of these custom UIs. With Google’s removal of their Nexus One phone from the consumer market, there are few examples of phones offering the pure “Google experience.”
- Additional “bloatware” programs pre-loaded onto phones by carriers to make a quick buck.
Just like many new Windows PCs, carriers now compensate for their ever-decreasing margins on device sales by loading programs onto their phones for the purpose of generating more revenue, often without regard for the quality of the customer’s experience with the end product. One phone comes with a non-removable copy of Avatar; another has the search set to Bing by default and doesn’t allow owners to change to another service; AT&T doesn’t allow the loading of programs outside the Android Marketplace; and yet others build basic caller ID or visual voicemail apps and tack disproportionate monthly fees onto the bill for their use.
I’m not surprised or discouraged to see this come up as an issue as the Android OS matures. In fact, Android works this way by design. Android would not have existed as a product if it weren’t for the support of the Open Handset Alliance, a huge consortium of carriers, manufacturers and developers who stood to benefit from such an open platform. Back in 2007, the iPhone turned the smartphone status quo upside down, and did so by taking almost all the power away from the carrier with a vertically integrated product of uniform hardware and software. Any company wishing to make money in Apple’s new market, they had to first cede the final say on all matters to Apple, who in turn prioritized the quality of the user experience above all else. In many ways, Android only became successful because it gave carriers the opportunity to re-prioritize profits over quality products and services.
This isn’t to say that Android is doomed to a future of bloatware and terrible UX. Indeed, we’re seeing rather textbook examples of differentiation in a free market. Android is the best platform for differentiating devices for different preferences and price points. And anyone who oversteps the bounds of what a customer is willing to buy, they won’t succeed. And on top of these economic norms, Android’s open nature and fast release cycle makes it the most accessible mobile OS for innovators throughout the platform, from app developers, to service providers, to device manufacturers.
But at the same time, it’s clear that no American carrier sees economic benefit in selling a “pure” Android phone. Manufacturer-controlled phones from RIM and Apple are seamless integrations of hardware and software, and even Microsoft is asserting more control over the process with Windows Phone 7. With rumors of an imminent end to the iPhone’s exclusivity, it’s possible that carriers could just see Android as a good lower-end option below “premium” offerings on other OSes.
But I think this can be easily changed to keep Android’s momentum working in a positive direction without making sacrifices to openness, profits, or much else. Here’s how:
- Change the “Google logo” terms to put the customer’s needs first again.
Android itself is totally open source and free, but you have to follow some extra rules to get the “with Google” logo and access to Google’s apps, including the Android Marketplace app store. Right now those rules aren’t very demanding, but Google could definitely insist that extra OEM/Carrier things on top of stock Android be removable by the end user. (They could even go as far as to ban custom UIs or bloatware, but I think it wouldn’t fit Android’s open nature, and would be a losing move towards competing with Apple’s business model.) “But what about the lost carrier revenue?” That’s where step #2 comes in:
- Give carriers a share of Google’s 30% cut on app sales.
This gives them an incentive to make more pure “Google logo” devices over crippled alternatives. As carriers worry more and more about becoming generic service providers of wholesale data bits, this gives them a significant new revenue stream that actually rewards them for making the devices their customers really want. “But the Android Marketplace is mostly free apps, this isn’t Apple’s app store…” That’s true, but sacrifices don’t need to be made there, either:
- Charge developers an annual fee for the Android Marketplace to encourage paid apps, but protect developers’ existing freedoms
Apple charges each developer $99 per year to develop and sell their applications in their store, and the only alternative is through jailbreaking. Android’s Marketplace is more financially accessible, and has a lot more free apps. To convince carriers that a Marketplace revenue share is attractive, they would need to change the Marketplace’s composure to a more revenue-driven approach. But the existing community of free app developers should also be accommodated for – I envision creating even more freedom for developers to use alternative distribution methods, first by forbidding AT&T-like restrictions on outside applications, and even – this is probably too optimistic – making root/super user access an easy opt-in setting on every phone for geeks who know what they’re doing.
I have no experience in the telecom industry, and I bet the folks in charge of Android at Google know a lot better than I, but I think something like this would be a logical direction to take as Android moves to new heights of popularity. I wonder especially about revenue sharing in the Marketplace when the carriers are going to the lengths of crippling their own devices in order to compensate for diminishing margins on unit sales.
This caught my eye- Apple has released a new video featuring the full gamut of iPhone and iPad application developers, from tiny shops to tech startups to media giants. While I think it’s overall not too remarkable – merely an ad presenting the strengths of Apple’s development platform for mobile devices – I do think it very clearly presents Apple’s approach to the mobile market.
Seeing this video makes me wonder about Apple’s competitive strategy in the quickly evolving mobile device markets. In 2007, they forced the lazy rulers of the cellphone market to start innovating again – and now they’ve finally caught up and started producing high-quality phones, some of whose features apply to many niches better than the “one-size-fits-all” iPhone. Though not #1 in smartphone share, iOS (previously called iPhone OS) certainly dominates among those using their phones for more than SMS and e-mail. But has domination ever been Apple’s strategy? Since Jobs’ return to Apple, the company has shown no ambition to kill the competition; I think they in fact benefit from having competing products around to make the case of Apple products’ superiority. And while the iPhone and iPod certainly lead in their markets, OS X certainly doesn’t – and the three use Apple’s same approach to producing highly-polished combinations of hardware and software.
I’ve maintained that 2010 would be the year of the Android phone, and I think that so far things are turning out that way. Not in terms of an “iPhone killer,” but in terms of a serious competitor. The growth of Android devices, market share, and applications have all exploded, and the Android Marketplace is quickly evolving from a ragtag group of ugly tech utilities to genuinely amazing ones that contend with some of the best iPhone apps. I wonder how Apple views Android now, especially in the light of this video, which takes several shots at perceived downsides to the Android platform. It’s certainly true that today, iOS delivers the biggest return on investment for development work. But where will things go in the future? There are some critical differences in the platforms which affect their potential:
- Apple’s AT&T exclusivity in the US
- Approach to usability: Apple picks form & ease of use; Android says, “why not have an annoying menu button if it gives you access to a bunch more features?”
- Android’s double-edged differentiation sword: can better target various niches, but also introduces fragmentation and compatibility concerns for developers
- OEM and Developer innovation: On Android, new features can be created just about anywhere, anytime; iOS waits for others to innovate and then introduces a way to “do it right”
I don’t think most of these things are “X is better than Y” values but inherent differences in the appeal of different platforms. As an owner of both kinds of devices, I think we’re going to see Android push smartphone penetration to all kinds of new market segments, and be the new platform for innovation. I see iOS as a major player for the long term, though probably not hanging on to its current dominance of high-end smartphones. There’s plenty of room for both moving ahead, and the only thing that’s certain is that everyone gets more options in their search for the device that best meets their needs.