The Android Situation

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

There has been quite a bit of press on Google tightening the screws on its Android OS and fundamentally altering the “openness” of it. Today’s Bloomberg Businessweek article adds lot more fuel to the fire. The article goes on to suggest that Android licensees are thinking or have already talked to DoJ on the matter. This has brought all the closet Android haters and Google haters in general out in the open. To them, this reveals a chink on the exploding Android ecosystem and one that can be exploited from a PR perspective. I thought it might be interesting to ponder on the topic with a post.

As an early disclaimer, I don’t own an Android device. I plan to get one in the near future to experience the platform just as I wanted to and currently enjoy the iOS based iPhone 3GS. I have done some personal Android app projects and like what I see. I think it has tremendous potential for the developer community and also the real capacity of taking the smartphone experience downstream to feature phones.

The Android OS has seen  growth unlike any other in the last couple of years. Thanks to a well baked OS with the backing of powerful Google, OEMs and ODMs have churned out customized versions of the OS on their devices. It has enabled tens of manufacturers to reach the market faster and utilize the exploding Android app market. Android has leveled the smartphone OS playing field that was being threatened to be completely monopolized by Apple’s iOS. In the process, it has forced Microsoft, Nokia and RIM to completely rethink and redo their smartphone strategies. Innovation has become a requirement in the smartphone wars, instead of being just an option.

Apple and Google have gone about their goals of world smartphone OS dominance in different ways. One approach is a closely monitored and moderated eco-system that has provided a lot of quality apps and very many happy end users. The Google approach has been much like other open source software- make a good base for the rest to build on.  This has also proven extremely successful. Unfortunately, the carriers and handset manufacturers who have adopted Android for their devices have made the system much less open to the end user and also far more cluttered. In addition, handset vendors and carriers have also been accused of holding back on OS updates to push more devices into the market which is definitely not how Google intended it to be.  This was not what Google wanted and hence the decision to delay the release of future Android builds to the open source community. This is a good move. It allows Google to bake the OS better and also ensure that the flagship devices are truly representative of the capability of the OS. It is not, as many have portrayed[1][2][3], an about turn in how they share Android with the world. It is a perfectly sensible way of releasing a better product to the community. If a few extra months of wait would result in a more polished experience which is relatively uniform across multiple devices, then why not?

Everyone should remember that Android is the only meaningful smartphone OS out there that is open. Everything else is closed. If it were not for Android, we really would not be having a smartphone alternative to the iOS worth talking about. We would have continued to live with Windows Mobile and the RIM of the old. Android has changed the ballgame and in a way that has benefited handset manufacturers, vendors, carriers, developers and ultimately the consumer. Google is too far committed to its “No Evil” mantra to become all draconian on us. Give them a chance to prove their point. They definitely deserve it.

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Of turkeys and eagles

February 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

“Can two turkeys make an eagle?”

If you believe in the occult and in magic, maybe it can. Or if you are a fan of technology being able to do everything including fusing two turkeys to create an eagle, you are a believer or maybe you work for Microsoft or Nokia. Ill not spend a lot of time explaining the turkey and eagle reference of the post. You can get it all here.

Last week in a less than surprising move, Microsoft and Nokia shared stage in London to announce a far reaching partnership between the two companies where Nokia will start using Microsoft Windows Phone 7 OS on their high end smart phone devices and slowly but definitely start phasing out their iconic and immensely popular Symbian platform. The move means different things to the two companies and this post reflects on the present on the future of this partnership.

The announcement is a big win for Microsoft, atleast in getting a solid partner for its WP7 devices. The operating system, while garnering good reviews has not really translated into the kind of sales it was hoping for with the gargantuan investment. It gives the Redmond behemoth a large market for its fledgling OS, one that will span multiple continents and hopefully millions of new users. It also makes its Bing search engine a player in the search wars from a mobile standpoint.

The big question is what it means for Nokia. For certain, it is a massive fall from grace for the once biggest mobile player and architect of the mobile revolution in much of the developing world. It is also a significant chapter in the woes of the Finnish legend that has refused to innovate against the oncoming hordes of iOS and Android. The last quarter was a clear indication of Nokia’s woes. Nokia was, until recently, pursuing a highest open source smart phone platform project titled MeeGo with Intel. MeeGo has seen multiple delays, although Intel believes it has value, unlike Nokia. Intel was supposedly caught off-guard with the Nokia announcement.

The first Nokia WP7 devices are not expected until next year, but the conspiracy theorists are already speculating if Microsoft alum and Nokia CEO Stephen Elop was really a Microsoft plant and part of a Redmond plot to takeover the Finnish company. A recent move to replace Nokia USA President with another Microsoft vet is only fodder to the theory.

Apple and Google might have much to gain from this alignment. Both companies have been trying to and have been partially successful in making inroads in developing markets. A void in products from Nokia coupled with the Android plan to penetrate all segments of the market will help. In addition, a rumored low-cost phone from Apple could fit very well into the segment that Nokia so admirably filled for many years.

Only time will tell if the partnership benefits either of the companies but I will leave with a parting note from a wireless industry veteran, who on hearing the news said, “Nokia+Windows=No Win”. For the sake of Nokia employees, the country of Finland, and the thousands of engineers in both companies working hard on the Nokia WP7 handsets, hope that is not the case.

Update: There is talk and also confirmation that Nokia had partnership conversations with Google and RIM which went nowhere and the one presented to Nokia board was only the Microsoft one. Even more interesting (although not very significant based on the scale of the effort) is a Plan B outlined by ex-Nokia folks that is getting some press time. See more here.

Second Update: Looks like Plan B was a hoax after all. Not that it had the muscle to go anywhere, but it doesn’t hurt to wonder the power of the Internet does it?

Motorola’s pricing strategy

February 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

A few weeks ago, Motorola had on its hands, two certifiably hyped up and much wanted devices- the Atrix 4G superphone launching on AT&T and the Xoom tablet launching on Verizon. What was known was that the devices had some of the best technical specs in their respective fledgling categories and also boasted the Motorola stamp of quality- one that has good street cred with the success of the Droid platform. Also in tow was their excellent experience in crafting cool Android products. In all, a win-win. Coinciding with the split of the company and the launch of Motorola Mobility (NASDAQ: MMI), this was to be a rebirth of the iconic Motorola brand with a new identity.

What has followed is a very puzzling pricing strategy that threatens to kill all the buzz surrounding these products (if the Internet forums are to be believed). The Atrix was supposed to be ATT and Motorola’s champion against iPhone on Verizon. And from a product stand point, it still is. But from a cost standpoint, it has the possibility of falling short of its lofty goals. The phone has been priced at $199 on a 2 year contract but the Atrix accessories which include a cool laptop dock and an entertainment dock have both been priced significantly out of a normal person’s reach.  The dock costs $300 when bought along with the phone (total $500) and $500 if bought separately. To note, a brand new iPad costs $500 in comparison. The entertainment dock comes with a wireless keyboard and a mouse for $200. Full pricing details are available here. To me, it seems like the pricing does not reflect that of its competition and does not capitalize on the uniqueness of its accessories. If there is a hidden secret sauce here, I am missing it. The Atrix looks like one of the coolest devices to be launched this year, one I was seriously considering upgrading to. At this price point, I am not sure if I can afford it.

The Xoom tablet was officially launched to the American public with a Superbowl ad that reminded us of the iconic Apple 1984 ad, just that Apple was “The Man” this time around. Earlier in the month, Google and Motorola had previewed the tablet and the new Android Honeycomb OS that will power it. People (and yours truly) were really excited for the tablet. It looked and played cool. And then came the hammer that the Xoom would cost $800. Yep, the first genuine iPad competitor (ignoring the Samsung Galaxy tab which was running an Android version designed for smartphones)  will cost almost twice as much. Yes, I agree that the $800 Xoom has inbuilt 3G which the $499 iPad does not. But people tend to compare apples to oranges all the time. And the barrier of entry is much higher for the Xoom than the iPad. In addition, the VZ data plans for tablets are pretty expensive (not that any tablet 3G plan is cheap). All in all, the Xoom is going to have a tough time matching the iPad sales numbers which is a pity considering that it looks and feels like a fantastic product- comparable if not better than the iPad.

I am no business executive or finance maven but in my humble opinion, Motorola should have launched a WiFi only SKU comparable in price to the iPad. The WAN version should have been priced closer to the iPad 3G price ($630) although Apple has immense pricing flexibility due to their purchase volumes ( I should someday write a post on Apple’s excellent supply chain management). The Atrix accessories should have been much cheaper. If you think the laptop dock to be really a screen with a connector and 15 inch LCD screens costing less than $80 in the market (cheaper with more volume) pricing it at $300 or worse still $500 puts it out of the reach of very many people. Until this changes, Motorola has lost a surefire customer in me for the Atrix and a possible customer for the Xoom.

I didn’t think there would be a day where the “premium” Apple products are also the most affordable ones in their segment. To be clear, I am not blaming Motorola for all this. It is probably a mixture of costs, strategy and also carrier constraints which are driving the pricing but it is something that is worth a revisit. For my sake if not anyone else 😦

Update: To validate the barrier for entry point, HP/Palm just announced the TouchPad tablet with webOS and the first model to ship will be Wi-Fi only. Well played HP/Palm. Very smart business move. More on the TouchPad here and here. I will write a separate blog post on this topic soon.

Bite sized games

January 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

If you were asked to remember the first game that came to your mind, chances are that it would be “Angry Birds“. This insanely addictive and immensely popular game has captured the minds and fingers of mobile users all over the world. Be it on iOS or Android, the game has taken its place in millions of mobile devices and promises to go even further with smartphone proliferation. Angry Birds is not alone. The Internet is abuzz about a 14yr old kid whose game, Bubble Ball topped the iPhone App Store game download charts recently. And most developers by now have read the BackFlip Studios case study presentation from GDC, where the company charted its growth from a one man operation to a developer whose primary game is a free app that generates over $1million a year in ad revenue.

Are console games on their deathbeds?. Is this the end of full sized blockbusters like Gran Tourismo, Call of Duty and Halo?. No. But there is an undeniable paradigm shift in the kind of games that attract attention and sell. Gone are the days when blockbuster games were PC or console only experiences. Today, the standard for console and PC blockbusters are very high. For developers with smaller pockets and not so infinite resources, the world of bite sized games is much more preferable. The mobile game market is exploding with all sorts of players big and small. Electronic Arts makes big blockbusters like its Madden NFL franchise. It also generates a ton of money selling Scrabble and Sudoku on every conceivable platform from iOS to Android to Kindle. The risk with these smaller games is much lesser than the budgetof a console game which can run a few million dollars. There is also a greater appetite for such games from users who dont mind spending 99 cents to $4.99 compared to the the $49-$59 that pc and console games cost.

To point, consoles now have a significant library of download only titles on the Xbox Live, PSN and WiiWare platforms where smart and addictive games are cheaper to build and play, not to mention, easier to obtain via direct downloads. Game developers and publishers will continue to build multimillion dollar blockbuster titles for the PC and consoles. But they will also prop their calendar and revenue with smaller download only titles that have the potential to turn into goldmines. They will also port such games to as many platforms, mobile and otherwise to reach the widest audience possible and maximize their revenue from the small investment.

It is a great time to be a small developer who can build breakout game hits from the confines of his home office. It is also a great time to be a gamer to experience fascinating games, indie and otherwise on all platforms at a very affordable price. Game On !

Disclosure: I did not invent the title moniker. I first saw its usage here. Since then, some references have popped here and there.

iOS vs. Android, part II.

January 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

Daggers drawn, here we go again. With the recent and totally “unexpected and surprise” announcement that the iPhone is heading the Big Red way, we now have a battle on our hands. Until recently, the battle between the two operating systems was fought as a proxy war between the two largest carriers, Verizon and AT&T. With the iPhone now soon to be available on both networks, it makes things a tad fuzzy. Added to the mix is the fact that some of the upcoming Android big hitters are also headed the AT&T way. Until the iPhone exclusivity existed, AT&T either chose or was forced to pick up second grade Androids. That has been changing the last few months and will become obvious with the upcoming Motorola Atrix, Samsung 4G Android devices, Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and more. On a smaller note, AT&T is also courting Microsoft by being the premier launch partner for Windows Phone 7 devices and also RIM with the exclusive Torch.

The coming months will hopefully provide answer for the following questions:

1. Was Android’s rise only due to lack of iPhone on Verizon?

2. Is AT&T doomed, now that it has the “perceived” poorer network and the iPhone is no longer exclusive?

3. With the blog world taking sides [1][2][3], are things only going to get murkier?

4. Will Verizon stop or significantly reduce its An”droid” ads?

5. Is the Google-Verizon honeymoon over?

6. What happens to Motorola now that the big ad dollars are probably not there from Verizon?

We are all set for an interesting 2011 on the mobile OS wars. Get ready folks. Its going to be one heck of a battle between the behemoths!

Is it time for Google TV?

October 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

In May, Google announced Google TV with much fanfare. It was announced as the second coming of television and the true marriage of the web and television. After many leaks and official sprinkling of information, the product is ready to go with a select set of partners (Sony, Logitech, Intel, DishTV,…). With official products now unveiled, I am not sure if I see the value in adding more hardware to my living room. Google TV may still thrill me by being a complete experience, but early videos and press has me skeptical about its real impact.

Take for example one of the early Google TV experience products, the Logitech Revue. It promises the complete web in your couch plus access to web enabled TV content. Cool stuff. But is it worth spending $299 on? I could see a $49 app or maybe a $99 hardware unit that almost disappears from view in the living room as enabling this cool stuff. But do I really need the $299 product (with extra for the camera and mini controller and many other useless accessories?). Maybe in the future, the add-on hardware will become a minimal unit that is essentially a commodity. Cool gear has a way of becoming a commodity fairly quickly.

Second example to illustrate my point is the Sony Bravia line of Google TV enabled HDTV’s. These already expensive TV’s might not be worth spending any extra money on unless its a small price point over its non-Google TV enabled counterpart. Sony could do this if the product takes off well and  an integrated experience without extra hardware and significant markup would be appealing.

By lowering the cost of its hobby TV product, Apple has set the price benchmark that Google and its partners need to reach to make it appealing against the competition. Given the ubiquity of the iOS fans and the success of iTunes, Apple TV will have a strong headstart in this nascent business and Google will have a challenging task ahead to one up the iOS product.

The most critical element to all of this is the programming. Google (and to a degree, Apple) is having problems convincing networks to participate and offer Google TV enabled programming. Until this happens, the connected tv/entertainment box industry will be segmented and thus minimally successful. Even Apple with its huge popularity hasn’t had much success selling Apple TV to the networks and thus to the consumer. If Google can change this status quo, it will be a huge difference maker. Early tidings aren’t very good but hopefully things will change for Google’s sake.

For now, Google and Apple just opened up yet another battleground and it will be an interesting one in the coming months to see how it goes. As always, the great folks at Ars Technica, have a nice writeup on the launch of Google TV.

What is in it for Google?

August 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Verizon and Google today unveiled an ambitious proposal for the future governance of the internet and more specifically handling the burgeoning traffic [Google][Verizon]. The coverage on the matter has been pretty good and some recommended links are here [1][2][3] . There is also a lot of chatter about Google “becoming evil” and abandoning its champion of the internet moniker. I wanted to pen down a few quick thoughts on the matter and see if it all makes sense.

Google and Verizon are basically saying the following key things:

1. Treat wired and wireless differently from a governance standpoint. This is critical for both companies since the Android operating system is growing by leaps and bounds primarily due to the Big Red push and any self inflicted wounds will potentially be fatal for both parties.

2. Do not allow any private deals on public networks and levy fines on guilty parties. The language on this is open so as to allow interpretation. In addition Google said that it had no monetary interests in such a proposal. What is left out is private networks like the FiOS private infrastructure of Verizon and the potential growth areas like healthcare and gaming.

3. Transparency and consumer protection are also highlighted as key areas. Transparency from ISP with regards to their traffic policies and consumer protection against blocking any of their content as long as it is legal and from a legal device.

The rest of the document basically can be described thus, ” Guidelines to live by but with enough options to work around”. The only part in all this that left me confused is what does Google get out of it?. I can see why Verizon needs it. It is a behemoth that wants to desperately manage its investments so as to get the best return and a deal with Google would be the best step to insuring its billions. But for Google, there is no “obvious” gain. The provisions pretty much keep things the same from a wired standpoint. It could be argued that the public face of Google probably took its worst hit today. Unless the deal gives Google some kind of access to data as this author suggests or a wireless deal for its Android OS, its hard to imagine Google being a winner in this deal. Am I missing something here?

Time will tell how this all translates into practice. For now it is just a proposal but one backed by industry giants. Will the FCC bless it or stick to its neutrality stance- we shall see. But it sure is an interesting development in an issue that warrants close attention.

For those interested in reading the full text of the joint proposal, it is here.

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