Business Observations: July 31, 2008 Edition

Standard disclaimer: don’t take from my selections, ordering, headlines, etc. any indications of the interests or plans of my employer (if you do, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed when they don’t play out.)

It’s been a couple of busy weeks in the mobile blogosphere, so I have a lot of material to pass along.

The nature of the emerging mobile web has been a topic with lots of interesting recent comments.

Carlo Longino titled one of his posts “When will the mobile web be mass market?“  He answers his own question both qualitatively and quantitatively: “Subjectively, I think it will be when I can make reference to the mobile web with normobs and they know what the hell I’m talking about :) With that in mind, I think we’re getting there. Even if people aren’t using the mobile web, they’re certainly becoming more aware of it. … To put a time frame on it, 2012 sounds good, as that’s when Intel says there will be 1.2 billion portable internet devices, and IDC says there will be 1.5 billion mobile internet users then.”

Daniel Applequist phrased roughly the same question, but with a different twist when he titled one of his posts “What will be the Model T of the mobile web?” Unlike Carlos, Dan doesn’t directly answer his own question, but he does provide some guidance to all of us wondering the same thing: “Though I love it, I have to say the iPhone ain’t it. It fails on both the low cost and the extensibility criteria. The OLPC device fails on mass-market grounds. … What we need is for someone to come along and deliver a mass-market, low-cost device that is extensible and open but which has enough ease and simplicity of use that it is embraced by the great public and enough oomph to be a mobile Web workhorse. There is a gigantic vacuum in the mobile industry right now with this exact shape. Candidates include Google’s Android, Limo devices, next-generation Nokia devices based on the new Symbian Foundation and possibly even Microsoft Smartphones, developed under their new “end-to-end” strategy. Any others?”

Paul Golding provided a very helpful overview of trends in achieving many of the goals Dan referenced when he posted a deck on “Rich Mobile Applications and real-time web UX…

One of the technologies/trends Paul covers is Mobile Widgets.  Carlo commented on Qualcomm’s new Plaza, calling it YAMWP (yet another mobile widget platform).   However, he also said it’s a platform worth watching: “I think the parts of BREW that Qualcomm hopes will most show through in Plaza are the relative ease of the developer experience and its appeal to operators. By embracing operators and making them part of the value chain, Qualcomm can steal a lead over other mobile widget platforms.”

Dean Bubley, on the other hand, wonders “Mobile widgets – who wants them?“  He says “Maybe I’m missing the point, but I’m starting to think that the fascination that the mobile apps industry has with “widgets” (small Internet-connected applications) is misplaced. … But frankly, based on recent experiences, I can’t see where the customer demand lies. I can see why the industry would like widgets to be adopted. But I fail to see why end users are going to be bothered.”

Of course, the iPhone has many proponents who say that it will be the device that drives the mobile web to the mass market.  James Kendrick weighs in with his well thought out argument for how the iPhone is “changing the face of the Internet.” His main argument is how easy the iPhone is for quick web sessions, anywhere, anytime: “I can easily do most anything I want to do on the web using the iPhone and it’s just plain easier to use than any other mobile browser platform.  Sure text entry is not the best with the on-screen keyboard but let’s face it, how often do I really need to enter a lot of text?  Not as often as I might have thought at first.  So I am finding the iPhone is changing the way I consume the web, and from what I saw online this weekend I’m not alone.  You just can’t argue against something that does what you want so well. … There are very few web sites that don’t work on the iPhone and that surprises me.  I guess I’m prejudiced by my past experiences with other browsers but I find almost all sites work very well on the iPhone.  The only sites that don’t work well are those optimized for mobile browsers, an ironic situation.”

Tomi Ahonen, provided a lengthy and passionate argument against both the iPhone and the entire concept of the mobile web in his post “On Seventh Mass Media vs. Sixth, and role of iPhone.”   I often agree with Tomi and this is a case in point.  I’ve argued that the “mobile web” discussion is missing the point, but Tomi does it so much more passionately and credibly: “The internet as we know it, based on PCs and dedicated access methods and a free model of the internet protocol with all the implied sharing and lack of control; is the sixth of the mass media (regular readers know we classify them as print first, recordings second, cinema third, radio fourth, TV fifth, internet sixth, and mobile as seventh of the mass media). … The internet as a mass media channel, is crippled by severe problems. It is great, do not misunderstand me, and the internet will grow much for at least a decade to come. But it is fatally flawed when contrasted with its younger sibling, mobile as the 7th of the mass media. … The seventh mass media channel is the younger brother of the internet. It is not the same. And mobile is proving to be far superior as a media channel than the internet. … So – lets be clear again. I am arguing not for the overall benefit of the internet – there are countless benefits beyond the internet being a media channel. … So – lets be clear again. I am arguing not for the overall benefit of the internet – there are countless benefits beyond the internet being a media channel. … ”

Within this context, Tomi compares the iPhone to the Mallard, a steam locomotive that set a world speed record after the world had already started to shift from steam to deisel and deisel-electric locomotives. : “The iPhone is not the ultimate phone today (hear me out…). It is the ultimate pocket Macintosh today. It is small enough to fit your pocket, and easy enough that any Mac user can easily use all of its features. It is also supremely connected, now with the iPhone 3G having not only 2G and WiFi but also 3G speed connectivity worldwide. An amazing device – for a sixth mass media world. … It is the Mallard. The topmost model for the older generation. … It utterly fails as a 7th mass media device. If you consider 7th Mass Media opportunities – SMS, ringtones, MMS, user-generated content in picture and video sharing, etc the iPhone is stunningly BAD at it. You can’t type SMS text messages blind on the phone (half of the youth do that today, eventually this will be half of the worlds’ population..) but you can type SMS messages blind on essentially every rival smartphone from Nokia N-Series to SonyEricssons to Samsungs to the Blackberries. The iPhone does not SUPPORT the multimedia messaging standard – MMS – that essentially every 2.5G phone – 80% of the world’s mobile phone population today – supports. If you take a picture on your phone and send it to someone else, even the person with a five year old Motorola will be able to look at it but not the couple of million people with Apple’s so-called superphone. And how about that video recording? CNN advertises its i-Report on TV every day, and shows videos shot by users around the globe. But the iPhone does have a camera, it does not capture video !!  This is old mindset thinking, trying to build a faster steam engine. It is beautiful and slick and fast – like the Mallard was.”

Thanks Tomi – you’ve given me a smooth transition from discussions of the mobile web into discussions of devices and platforms.

Carlo quoted from a New York Times piece: “Though almost every discussion at the MobileBeat conference in Sunnyvale, Calif., on Thursday centered around the iPhone, venture capitalists told mobile entrepreneurs to broaden their focus and build applications for all phones.”   Carlo goes on to share his thoughts on the topic, closing with “But, there are still good takeaways here for platform providers, device vendors and operators: make development easier, and make app discovery and download simple and rewarding.”  Sounds like good advice.

Speaking of other platforms, Engadget poked fun at the J. Gold Associates analyst who boldly claims that Symbian and Android will merge in the near future: “Craziest thing, it turns out that Google, Nokia, and Symbian are all dismissing the platform merger talk as utter nonsense. And for once, we believe those trusty souls; who knows, maybe it’s the complete lack of technical synergy between them?”

Kevin Tofel recognized Palm’s success in selling 2 million Centros by observing “price matters.”  “Congrats to Palm, however. They take a fair amount of ribbing on their product line these days, but you have to give them credit: they not only saw the potential for a low-cost smartphone, they got such a product to market. Two million of them to be precise.”

Microsoft isn’t finding it so easy to sell smartphones in an immediate post-iPhone world.  Russell Buckley summarized it with his post titled “Windows Mobile in the dunk tank.”  He starts his piece by emphasizing why mobile has to be important to Microsoft: “the mobile will become the most important digital device on a number of different levels; more people have web connected mobiles than connected PCs – and that’s already happened; outside N America and Europe, the PC itself is going to be either leapfrogged or annihilated, which will profoundly affect the way that digital data is consumed everywhere; and in the words of my ongoing mantra, the mobile will do to the PC, what the PC did to the mainframe*. … This means that mobile needs to be central to Microsoft’s strategy if they are to have a future and a lack of success in this area means that their current problems are going to seem trivial in comparison.”  He closes with advice to the software giant: “I’d suggest that Windows Mobile probably isn’t going to be the answer and they need to think of a radical and brave new direction to assure their future in a world where the mobile is rampant.”

Meanwhile, new entrants into the mobile arena aren’t exactly finding smooth sailing.  Even Apple has had challenges, with Dan Jones commenting on “Apple’s iPhone privacy headache.”   Garmin is also finding it more challenging getting into the mobile phone business then they expected, as Sindre Lia observes in “Garmin Nuvifone gets spanked by carriers.”

On a note a little closer to home, many commented on a California judge’s ruling against Sprint as “a blow to the industry.”  However, Mike Masnick provided a more carefully considered analysis of the case and the ruling, demonstrating an understanding of the challenges that mobile operators must manage through: “However, there is a reason why such ETFs exist: it’s basically to recoup the subsidy that mobile operators pay to give you your super cheap mobile phones. And, those ETFs were in the contracts offered to customers, so it’s difficult to see why such things are really a problem.”

There’s a lot more happening, so here’s a list of other headlines:

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Now playing: Michael Card – Tears of the World

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