2008 introduced so many new concepts in Mobile telecommunications (software) industry that all players has been pushed beyond the point of no return.
Most of those gamechanging news are not strictly technological by themselves: we’re often speaking of conceptual changes.
First: the need for compelling user experience. By the second half of 2007 the I-phone debut pointed out new standards in Internet experience on mobile handsets. Furthermore, since Apple promotes a monolithic approach to product design and development (control all the product, from form factor to the installed application base), it was pretty clear from the start that the product wasn’t leaving enough space to other mobile and Internet industry stakeholders. My idea is that I-phone debut pushed Google to speed up Android debut: indeed OHA and Android concepts were disclosed at Q4 2007 and, if you remember, first versions of Android SDK were pretty buggy. It also seems that G1 was released in advance to the original timeline: G1 as a product is probably the result of the very first development stream Google started in 2005 after acquiring Android as a company. As you probably know the product is highly discussed and received not only positive comments on the blogosphere: lacks of some important features, usability is not the best achievable (think to the well known landscape-portrait issue) and finally android market was launched very near to the launch deadline with some open points. Don’t want to speak about Symbian here, I’ll recap on Nokia later in the specific.
Second: more web into the handset. Another leading concept that came up in 2008 is something that I call “more web into the handset”. And it’s not only a matter of having a more capable browser on board. The optimal mobile Browser is now required to grant full access to most of the leading internet sites (e.g.: facebook, youtube, etc…) and to support the most up to date standard and proprietary technologies. I mean AJAX and Flash/FlashLite for example. Apart from the availability of third parties plugins in some cases (e.g.: adobe), this implies also a bunch of technical improvements like for example the availability of more heap memory (think to Flash video) or computational power. As you probably know, browser is not the only word that relates to the internet at today. In fact there’s a growing interest towards widgets. I think this is inline (a consequence I’ld say) with the runtime fragmentation we experienced until now on Mobiles. A widget is (more or less) a way to develop a thin client that gives more a standalone than a browser feeling and, in some cases, can be more integrated in the handset system (accessing local informations like GPS or sensor data). This actually moves a part of the functionalities and business logic to the backend side, hereby lessening fragmentation impacts.
Third: Open source in the Mobile industry is getting serious. There are two major drivers guiding the adoption of the open source model in the mobile industry. One is purely technological and the other is related to how companies are starting to think about the innovation. From a technological point of view, it’s indubitably that linux achieved promising results in the mobile business in the last few years. We have significant experiences (such as Limo based devices by Motorola and others, OpenMoko, etc…) and even Nokia used Linux on it’s Web tablet products like N770. If you add the relevant experience made on EEE pc from Asus(and similar), it seems linux on mobile devices is far beyond the Proof of Concept state. After the linux kernel put its flag on the mobile planet the step towards a fully open OS has been quite short but not so streamlined. Effectively, and here we came to the second point, first approaches to linux (and generally an open source stack on a mobile) have been quite controversial. One one hand there were some ambitious approaches like the Trolltech GreenPhone or the OpenMokos. On the other hand there was LIMO foundation (and LIPS Forum – now converged). Even if the LIMO approach produced a two dozens of real products on markets it was, in my opinion, not as revolutionary as it could have been. And this was also a paradox. Not being inspired by a single community leader (like the Android/Symbian case) the LIMO-LIPS community should have been more transparent and more open to non members, unfortunately this did not happen. My opinion, in fact, is that The LIMO-LIPS initiative was born primarily to reduce the development and mantainance cost respect to old, legacy, RTOS systems and therefore was lacking of a “vision” (I know that’s a buzz-phrase, I’m sorry ). Then, finally, Android has come. When it was announced (late in 2007) the reaction from the community and the market leaders has been contradictory: after a couple of hype weeks criticism rapidly raised. Everybody was claiming Android to be “vapourware”. With months passing also thanks to strange stories (do you remember, just for example this) lots of critics said that the platform development was getting problematic and argued that things were not going forward as expected… At the end, T-Mobile G1 (announced for H208) was released more or less in line with plans and is now on the market. And, quite revolutionary, one day before the handset was in shops, you can download all the source codes and use it under ASL. I don’t know effectively if Android will win the mobile linux battle but it seems actually well trained… Do you want an example? Motorola declared recently that will abandon in-house/Limo/Montavista linux projects to switch to Android (and recently increased the Android team from 50 to around 350 people). Look here , here ore here too.
The Nokia file: Finally what’s Nokia doing about all these? I’ve recently (the end of October) been in Symbian SmartphoneShow2008 and actually it helped a lot to clarify my thoughts about Nokia position. As said, Apple IPhone debuted on Market on 2007 and very shortly Google kicked off OHA – Android project. Note that Android initiative in itself should not be seen only as a counteraction to I-Phone for two main reasons: seems in line with a long-term strategic choice since Android as a company was acquired in 2005, Apple and Google are not directly competing on core markets. Maybe was just a bit accelerated (as said). Nokia, as the world leader handset vendor, was suddenly required to face a couple of big threats: a new, higher, standard in user experience (according to someone very far beyond Symbian UE capabilities) and a “zero royalties” competitor on the OS side probably allowing handset manufacturers to deliver products with a reduced BOM very shortly. Also, but here the impression could be different from mine, while having the high-end OS (Series 60-Symbian) based on 10 years aged concepts in some way. We need to acknowledge Nokia that the answer to such threats was rapid even if not painless. It’s actually not easy to say: “we’ll buy all Symbian assets and stocks, we’ll take all symbian employees and then we’ll release the OS as open source commodity within less than two years”. It’s expensive it’s basically transforming something that is profitable for the owner in something that’s useful for the community (where such community involves some competitors also). Can you figure out why they did it? Why do not simply join the OHA and evaluate Android as an alternative to Symbian? First of all Nokia clashes with BigG on the “service side” – take a look at OVI – and being OHA truly inspired by BigG it means that Android platform will be always optimized and (very often) preconfigured to exploit Google’s service base. Furthermore, can you imagine what would have happen to Symbian if Nokia simply supported OHA? the company would be hardly affected in terms of value and, after all, a significant number of shares were in the Nokia bucket. Now, given that things are like this, it will be critical to understand the capability of Symbian to smoothly become something different and fill all the GAPs. In a few words, it’s not always easy to open to developers a born-closed project and it’s even more difficult to open it to innovation and quality becaose most of that openness relies on the overall quality of the software asset in itself at the opening moment. It will be an hard play. Anyway Nokia is not looking only to the OS and it’s making the first move in MVNO market.
Apple, Google and Nokia, these are the hottest names now in mobile industry.
Apple has it’s niche view and continues saying: “You do things? we’re also doing things but we are way more cool”.
Google has the innovation and is concentrated on it’s core business (ads) seeing mobile word only as one more point of contact with user base, they’re not making moneys selling products.
Nokia has knowledge, vision and the deepest understanding of what a mobile phone is. Unfortunately the mobile phone itself is changing, blending with something else: it’s Nokia turn to dust the furniture.
You can see that someone that traditionally played an important role on both IT and Telco industry is lacking. For example? Microsoft & Sun Microsystems. Maybe we’ll talk later about them. IMHO they are the first victims of the 2008 revolution in Mobile industry and if not taking proper actions, Mobile Operators, as we know it, are in danger too.