Friday, April 19, 2013

The Mobile Tech Revolution after five years - is unfriending the latest trend

(Originally posted as a guest article on The Wonder of Tech Blog)
  • Apple Maps, Siri
  • Samsung S-Voice
  • Google Motorola Mobility
  • Amazon Kindle Fire
  • Tizen
What do all of these subjects have in common? For one thing they show how alliances that have developed in a few short years are being shredded in even less time. The currently evolving technology and business relationships look nothing like the stable Microsoft-Intel-PC industry illustrated below that we’ve learned to love or tolerate for the last thirty years. For example Google's Eric Schmidt was removed from Apple's board when his company developed Android in direct competition with iOS. More recently Apple replaced Google maps on their mobile devices with Apple maps and introduced the voice search function Siri - both of which reduce reliance on Google and consequently reduced Google's advertising revenue.

Corporate decisions are often more important then technology

The introduction of Apple maps in 2012 was met with derision because the initial version was far from perfect. When understood in the context of corporate conflicts, it is clear Apple didn't make this move because they thought they had a better product - they did it to reduce reliance on an unreliable partner. (Many iOS users are thrilled that Apple Maps now includes turn by turn directions and a superior vector graphics engine - but that's another story.) Much of this article will focus on similar corporate battles illustrated in the above list.

In the end as with the Betamax versus VHS battles
none of these technical specs mattered at all

Now that the mobile revolution is in full swing and major companies have rolled out a full line up of smartphones and tablets we see numerous comparisons of “features” - iPhone versus Samsung, this tablet versus that tablet and on and on. In these detailed comparisons we are encouraged to make important decisions based on things such as screen size, battery life, customization, etc. etc. This is reminiscent of the PC wars that raged during the early eighties. Processor speeds, screen sizes, operating system features and of course price were used to prove Apple was better than IBM or Radio Shack was better than Commodore.

In the end as with the Betamax versus VHS battles none of these technical specs mattered at all. First, because every company copied the features of every other product so there was never a clear long time feature winner. And second, Microsoft developed one of the most important business arrangements in history with IBM and since every IT manager and consultant knew you could never get fired for recommending IBM in the 80s, it was all over at that point. No one else stood a chance and everyone dropped out. Everyone except Apple of course which hung on by its finger nails and began clawing its way from the abyss with the return of Steve Jobs and the announcement of the iMac in 1998.

Love it or hate it that was the world of personal computers
for thirty years. The complaints that technology was
always changing so fast were completely overblown

As an aside it’s interesting to note that the the tech specs we see quoted are meaningless to most people. How many of these terms can you explain: megahertz, gigabytes, quad core and the every popular megapixel? This last one has been added to our computer specs because the modern mobile device is a computer and a camera. As PCs got more powerful, speed and capacity became less critical because every PC was powerful enough and had enough storage. Mobile devices restarted this arms race  because early models were underpowered and didn’t have enough storage so for now “more is better” but not for long.

What can we learn from the PC era?
Let's take a deeper look at the forces behind the scenes that are shaping the mobile world; forces that will go much farther than features, functions and technical specs to determine who the ultimate winners and losers are likely to be. The rapidly changing corporate alliances will
have a significant effect on the outcome. In the old days when “a PC was a PC” they were made by IBM or one of the cloners; they used an Intel processor and ran the latest version of Microsoft Windows. Life was simple. (See Figure 1) The important factor was that the three main players each had a specific role and they all needed each other. Intel made the processors, many companies made the “boxes” and Microsoft made the OS. Love it or hate it that was the world of personal computers for thirty years. The complaints that technology was always changing so fast were completely overblown. The year to year differences in PCs typically amounted to a slightly faster processor, higher capacity hard drive, more RAM or a bigger screen - none of which could be called "breakthroughs".

With these announcements Google went into
direct competition with its former partners and friends

Initially the mobile world followed a surprisingly similar path on the Android side with Google supplying the Android OS; several companies (that few people could name) making the processors and numerous gadget makers cranking out smartphones and tablets by the millions. (See Figure 2) This cozy arrangement lasted about three years and then Google changed the rules by purchasing Motorola Mobility - the cell phone part of the company. Some said they were merely buying Motorola patents as a defensive measure and heavens knows those were needed. But if their motives were ever in doubt, they began selling smartphones in 2011, followed soon by the Google Nexus tablet and a laptop with the rather ungainly name of Chromebook Pixel. With these announcements Google went into direct competition with its former partners and friends. There is no better application of the word “frenemy” than this relationship. The simple arrangement shown in the above diagram began to crumble.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft took a similar tack one year later by announcing their own tablet - the Surface. As usual many PC makers will make Windows tablets but now Microsoft is a partner and a competitor. To soften the blow Microsoft initially said the Surface would only be sold in their stores - less than fifty worldwide at the time with a total shopping area of about 0.5% of the earth’s land surface. That compromise lasted about a month and then the company announced the Surface would be sold through Best Buy and Staples - greatly expanding their reach. This was critical since few people would order the Surface online without actually touching one since tablets represent a significant change in how people interact with computers - you’re not just replacing a PC.

So the biggest maker of Android devices has figured out two ways
to reduce its partner Google’s advertising revenue

Partners are sabotaging each other
The Android business model is not turning out well for Google. They spend millions of dollars to develop Android - by all accounts a great operating system - and then give it away. And now their best known and most profitable partner Samsung, announced they are going to make their own operating system Tizen and begin selling phones with that OS this year. Tizen has been designed with Intel to work across a range of devices in a way that Android was not. Two phrases you hear every day as these strategies evolve are "hedging their bets" and "playing defense".

Of course Google gives away Android so its partners will install it and increase the number of Google searches - which generate advertising revenue for Google - and increase app downloads from the Google Play app store - more money for Google. And what have its two biggest partners - Samsung and Amazon - done with this gift? In addition to Tizen, Samsung just announced S-voice a voice activated search capability that will bypass Google if it can - a cynic would say S-voice means “Siri voice” since it operates much like that Apple function. So the biggest maker of Android devices has figured out two ways to reduce its partner Google’s advertising revenue - first bring out a competitive OS and then bypass Google search.

Amazon’s Kindle is the biggest selling Android tablet but you might never know it because Amazon has made the OS look totally different from the “normal” OS and doesn’t even promote Android in its sales pitch. But it gets worse - much worse. Google makes money selling apps but Amazon has gone so far as to prevent its version of Android from accessing the Google Play app store. They’ve done this because Amazon loses money on every Kindle it sells and will only profit if users access Amazon online stores - including their app store. Needless to say Google is not happy about this and now refuses to provide anyone including Amazon upgrades to Android unless they let users access the Google Play store. It’s not likely that Amazon will agree to this so the Kindle version of Android will drift farther and farther from other Android devices.

Figure 3 above shows the conflicts that have developed as various players have attacked their former partners in both hardware and software arenas.

What defines the current leaders?
At the risk of oversimplifying the story you could summarize complaints about four leading companies with one word each
  • Apple - Closed
  • Android - Fragmented
  • Microsoft - Confused
  • Blackberry - Struggling
Taking Apple first, there has long been a myth that IBM beat Apple in the PC era because IBM allowed other companies to sell PCs. On the contrary IBM fought vigorously to stop cloners and failed. It was pretty clear for years that many companies could crank out PCs with much lower overhead and eventually IBM capitulated. No matter whether they allowed or didn’t allow others to make PCs, dropping out of the PC business could hardly count as success by any measure.

There is no doubt, however, that Apple tightly controls every aspect of their business they can. They make the products, the processors, the operating systems and many apps. They operate hundreds of retail stores, sell music and books online and only allow their iPhones and iPads to buy Apple approved apps from the Apple store. Some people like this because there is little room for finger pointing when something goes wrong and few opportunities for malware to infect iOS apps. Others find the whole idea stifling. Interestingly this closed approach is comparable to the way Microsoft has operated - no one ever modified Windows and the world is better off because of it. Can you imagine fifty different versions of Windows 7?

In the case of Android It’s a well known fact that most Android based devices cannot be upgraded to the latest version of the OS. Many devices ship with an outdated version and may never be upgradable. Few people would buy a PC with an old version of Windows that could never be upgraded. We’ve fallen into this trap because we think of smartphones first as phones and maybe later or never as computers. Most people could tell you which version of Windows they use but not which version of Android.

Not being able to upgrade a device means not only that new features can’t be installed but also that some apps won’t work and critical security patches cannot be installed. Google's uncontrolled distribution of Android to all comers has allowed the OS usage to explode but fragmentation plagues the product in ways most people cannot comprehend. It's easy to observe and compare screen sizes but not operating system issues.

How is Microsoft confused? The three main contenders for the mobile OS crown all took different approaches when creating their software. Apple built an entirely new product unrelated to the Mac OS. They’re very slowly modifying each one so they have more and more in common. Google had no desktop OS (except Chrome) so Android development was of necessity an entirely new product. Being four years behind in the mobile space, Microsoft swung for the fences with Windows 8 - an upgrade to the venerable desktop OS capable of running on touch screen smartphones and tablets.

Reviews of Microsoft's newest baby have not been good. Without going into all the details, the ability to touch the screen on some devices but not others, use of touch and/or a mouse and the confusion between the mobile home screen and the standard Windows screen are among the common complaints. While Microsoft made a "unified" PC/tablet version of Windows 8, they also rolled out an entirely different version - Windows RT that runs on lower priced tablets. To add to the confusion, the version of MS Office that runs on Windows RT is not the real Office.

PC makers are doing everything they can to make their Win 8 PCs appear unique by incorporating touch screens in a variety of “hybrid” configurations. If you compare these at a retail store, you'll likely be frustrated by taping a screen repeatedly only to discover that particular model doesn't have a touch screen. And finally, Microsoft’s track record in new product success has been terrible - not withstanding the billions they’ve made from Windows and Office. Here’s a list they wish you’d forget: Kin, Courier, Zune, Origami, Bob and Vista. With the exception of the X-Box, they’ve essentially struck out in hardware. Finally, there’ll be confusion between home and office settings since most consumer PCs are being sold with Windows 8 but corporate adoption will likely not come soon - most are just rolling out Windows 7.

Thousands of individuals and companies of all sizes will finally
make the call by deciding which platforms to develop apps for

And last but not least. Blackberry. Formerly called RIM, Blackberry has long held the position of being the most secure and widely used device in business. Its latest smartphone and OS are promising and it cannot be counted out but over a billion Android and Apple devices in the field represent a tremendous hurdle to overcome. PC evolution took more than a decade to reach the stage of development and market penetration that mobile tech has in less than five years which means both Blackberry and Microsoft are lagging far behind. To fend off a challenge from Blackberry, Apple and Google are adding security features but the Android OS presents the biggest challenge. The fact that most Android devices cannot be upgraded to the latest OS - where security capabilities reside - makes the issue problematic for an organization not willing to buy new devices every year for all employees.

What’s next for mobile tech?
As I hinted at the beginning, it’s likely the mobile contest will follow a path similar to PC development. There are a half dozen mobile operating systems now; it’s likely one or two will dominate in the future. There are many factors that will determine the outcome and technology and feature sets may not be the most important. Right now, Apple and Samsung have momentum and that will be critical. The battle between Android and Apple is mostly a battle between Samsung and Apple. Thousands of individuals and companies of all sizes will finally make the call by deciding which platforms to develop apps for. Just like Windows ruled the world because there was more software available compared to the Mac, mobile devices with the biggest selection of quality apps could be the winners. Some people say no one needs more than 200,000 apps but if you look closely at the quality of many of those 200,000 apps, you will understand why a bigger selection would be a definite advantage.

Most tech companies unfortunately are driven by geeks,
the geeks they employ, the geeks that write the reviews
and the geeks that are the early adopters

There is one very big difference between mobile and PC development. Microsoft Word illustrates this best. A recent version of that venerable word processor had 1,500 commands - ten times the number in the original version. Most people do not use most of those commands but everyone is forced to use that program. Two more basic office packages - AppleWorks and Microsoft Works - were discontinued a few years ago. In addition to the time users waste trying to figure out how to simply set document margins amid the plethora of unused features there is less and less usable space on the screen. The answer has been simple - buy a bigger monitor. If the program required too much hard drive space, buy a bigger hard drive. It ran to slow, buy a faster computer. In this model software design drove hardware development.

This approach came to a screeching halt with the introduction of truly convenient tablets (Laptops may have been portable but they were never called convenient.) People wanted ten inch touch screen devices - period. Software developers have to face an entirely new reality. The model of computing for the next few years is in place - tablets ranging from four to ten inches - some of which include phone circuitry. That model began in 2010 with the introduction of the iPad and has not changed substantially since. 

Most tech companies are unfortunately driven by geeks, the geeks they employ, the geeks that write the reviews and the geeks that are the early adopters. That's why new models receive such praise even though ordinary people can hardly use them and do not want most of the advanced capabilities - ala MS Word. Apple has tended to favor ease of use while competitors tout long lists of new features. The just announced Samsung Galaxy S4 will stop playing a movie if you look away and respond to finger motions without physical contact. I'll have to see both of those "features" to believe they would improve my smartphone experience.

We are seeing one interesting technology reversal - the move toward brick and mortar stores. If there's one area where you'd think people would be happy to shop online it would be for tech gadgets. Many companies had retail PC stores in the 1980s. Often these sold their own brand of PCs that were assembled in the back room. These still exist but their impact is greatly diminished. Gateway was the last one with a major national presence - until Apple came along. Now that there are more than four hundred Apple stores world wide, others are taking notice - most recently Microsoft. If Google and Samsung were to open stores, they would be continuing the trend of copying Apple - controlling as many of the "pieces" in the mobile game as possible - enough of those frenemies.