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.

The downside of a “smarter” life

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Note: This post is more personal and reflective than my usual ones. If that is not what you are looking for, skip this post and do come back for the next one which is will be more in line with my usual posts.

As most of my readers and friends know, I am a gadget freak who loves to surround himself with the best. In addition, I love to keep myself in the know of all things tech (and hence the blog). I have and love my iPhone 3GS and use all  the cool apps on my smartphone. I have enough and more to keep me occupied- online or offline until the battery runs out. And I am starting to pay the price for all this. You might wonder what and if there is a downside to such an up-to-the minute data filled life. Yes, there is.

As my apps have increased, so has my time on my smartphone. And this has taken a toll on my eyes. They hurt by the end of the day. Even when I was hooked for 8 hours on my computer in the past, they didn’t hurt quite as much. Now it does. The small screen kills. Really. Every second I think I am free, I am gazing on my Twitter feeds or reading about the latest Android superphone on Engadget. I am pretty sure my face-contact time in elevators and corridors is starting to drop. Not to mention the time at home where the laptop barely gets any time unless its for serious work. I am not alone. I just finally admitted to it. I am sure many of you are going through a similar experience or see others in the same place. At least I dont read my emails at traffic lights. Something I see so much in the Bay Area signals every day. I hope people realize that there is a downside to the content and information overload at our fingertips before its too late.

Admitting that you have a problem is the first step. The next is to take concrete steps to fix it. I plan on dramatically reducing my app time to a fixed duration every day. In addition, the daisy-chained-apps (as I call the ones which have embedded links leading you to other web pages) will not get any face time but for lunch and later in the evening. The phone will remain in the pocket while in the car and I plan on greeting every single person I see in the corridor and in the elevator. I fully believe the problem is under control and hope to be my pre-smartphone self very soon.

I dont believe that smartphones are to be blamed for where we are today. Its a combination of high speed cellular networks, affordable data connections, affordable and well designed mobile devices and our thirst for knowledge that has caused us to be where we are. Its all good as long as there are limits to the consumption. So instead of taking the dramatic step of downsizing to a feature phone, I will work on my ability to limit my use of my smart phone.

I apologize for the rare personal post here. I truly believe a lot of us are facing a similar problem and I wanted to use this forum to illustrate it. Ill be back to my usual posts with the next one. If you think you have some ideas to combat a situation like these, please feel free to share it for other readers.

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.

Search Wars

February 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

If you have been following the tech blogs the last couple of days, the search PR wars must have caught your eye. Google accused Bing of copying its results and the veritable follow up from Bing made for interesting reading. Before I delve any further, here is the original article that lays our Google’s accusation, the search conference where there was public airing of the complaint, Google’s  blog post on the topic and Bing’s follow up.

Google is the undisputed leader in search and Bing has been a steady underdog trying to usurp the title from Google. After trying to go at it alone and failing, Microsoft entered into a strategic alliance with Yahoo where the two companies put together a synergistic approach to their search offering a meaningful competitor to Google. While it hasn’t shown dramatic results, month to month search statistics show that Bing is very slowly chipping at Google’s over sized share of the pie. Bing has also tried to use Microsoft’s investment and cozy relationship with Facebook to make things interesting (read difficult for Google).

In the meantime, the last few months has seen some prominent web journalists and bloggers claiming that Google was turning up with a lot of spam results. In a tacit affirmation of the problem, Google started making moves to reduce spam and search engine manipulation before it took a larger toll on the brand.

In this rare case of Microsoft being the underdog the corporate behemoth is milking that moniker for all its worth. Google on the other hand has bigger worries in the form of trying to assert that its search results are still relevant amidst the deluge of sophisticated spam sites purportedly from the likes of recent IPO darling, Demand Media properties.

The accusation was a rare public outburst from Google that prides on keeping itself above such trivialities. But if the accusation that Bing uses some of Google’s sophisticated algorithms for outlier searches and spelling errors is true, the future of search wars is going to get very ugly and very competitive.

WP7

October 14, 2010 § 2 Comments

Windows Phone 7, the experience, was unveiled to the world earlier this week. In an interesting approach, Microsoft launched the operating system with multiple carriers and multiple device vendors. At launch (Fall 2010) about 10 devices are expected from every major manufacturer not named Apple or Motorola has a device scheduled for launch. Microsoft has also realized that apps and software are what drive smartphone adoption. No one cares if it looks or feels like their desktop. Hence the focus on apps at launch. Also evident is the impetus on highlighting the social aspect of the OS with tight Facebook integration. With a tight requirement list controlling each handset sold under the WP7 moniker, Microsoft is trying to do what it didn’t do with Windows Mobile and Apple does so well with iOS, namely close hardware software coupling. This also ensures that user experience is consistent across multiple handsets that hawk WP7. MS has also used the one successful element from the failed Kin experiment namely the cloud syncing of user profiles, information and data in bolstering the WP7 offering.

With iPhone soon to arrive in Verizon (want to bet on it?) and the Android juggernaut rolling forward, this was a critical launch for Microsoft. It also means something for AT&T which will soon lose iPhone exclusivity (and a lot of customers along with it) and has partnered with Microsoft for the WP7 launch. They have done well until now in terms of drumming up some excitement for the new OS and the handsets that will carry it. Will this translate to meaningful marketshare remains to be seen. To be fair, it would be unwise to expect WP7 to even make a dent on the iOS or Android marketshare. What it can and needs to do is to make Microsoft relevant again. That would be well worth the investment.

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.

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