Category Archives: Mobile

Google and Motorola: Quick Post Mortem

There’s been plenty of excellent commentary on Google’s $12.5 billion deal for Motorola Mobility Inc. (MMI) over the past few days, and we’re certainly not going to rehash covered ground.

Clearly this is a lot of money that was invested defensively. Money that could have gone into research or acquisitions that would have grown the business or opened new markets.


That thought hit us this morning after reading a NY Times piece on the bull market for patents. It reinforced our thoughts after word of the deal broke: that this was money spent for arming Google against patent predators in courts of law. In this case, it’s predators sensing blood to slow down or at least exact royalties from the Android platform juggernaut.

Of course much of the issue stems from the subjective nature of software patents; that’s a longstanding issue given that the iterative nature of software development. It is simply difficult if not impossible to prove that a software innovation does not base itself in some way on prior invention. Furthermore, the fact that software relies on other software to operate makes the notion of software patents even more dubious.

This doesn’t mean that software developers should get away plagiarism. Although discovery is still underway, the evidence continues to get more damning in the Oracle-Google case over Dalvik, the Android VM that on closer inspection looks like the JVM in sheep’s clothing. The irony is that when Google was still pulling its (J)VM clean room act, the company at the other end of the line was Sun. To us, this is a reflection of Google’s Not-Invented-Here mentality. Would it have killed them to secure a JVM license at the time, as they could have gotten far more reasonable terms from Sun – rather than Oracle, the new sheriff in town.

Just askin’.

Worldwide Wait 2.0

A hallmark of Web 2.0 is that the web is supposed to become more dynamic. That dynamism has been energized by critical mass broadband penetration, which in the U.S. now reaches over half of all households.

But unless you’re lucky (like us) to live within the Verizon FIOS service area, the future that’s supposedly already here is … not here yet. We’ve seen several fresh reminders over the past few weeks about the lack of connectivity, and how the issue is related to the fact that, while China is building cities, superhighways, metro lines, and networking, our physical and electronic infrastructure remains stuck in the 1960s.

No wonder that between 2001 and now, U.S. dropped from fourth to number 15 in broadband penetration. A proposed remedy by FCC chairman Kevin Martin to fund DSL-equivalent free WiMax access through royalties on wireless spectrum might contribute but a drop in the bucket.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been reminded of the penalties that the U.S. is paying for letting the ball drop when it comes to Internet infrastructure. We’ve also been reminded about the inertia of the media and entertainment industry in fully embracing the new technologies to revive what is a stagnant (in the case of music) or threatened (in the case of film) market. And we’ve been reminded about the resulting difference between hype and reality when it comes to the capabilities of the dynamic, location-based Internet that supposedly is already here today — but in reality is not.

Here are a few cases.

Basic Connectivity. About a month ago, we spent a lovely week up on the Maine coast. People who move to Deer Isle do so because they cherish the isolation — it’s 40 miles to the nearest McDonalds. But, unless you’re lucky enough to live on Highway 15, the main road, chances are, you’re still relying on dial-up Internet access. That is, if you’re lucky to get a dial-up line of any kind, because the copper wire phone system on Deer Isle is fully tapped out. You need to wait for somebody to move or die before getting a new line. About 18 months ago, Verizon sold off the landlines to Fairpoint Communications , which subsequently decided that the infrastructure was too obsolete to continue investing in. It promises — someday — to replace copper with fiber. You want mobile instead? Only a single minor carrier provides cell phone coverage. By contrast, back in 2003 we vacationed on the other side of the Gulf of Maine in Nova Scotia where virtually every town of any size had, not only broadband, but cellular coverage.

The hype of 3G. Adding 3G support to the iPhone was supposed to make it a true mobile Interenet device. Maybe it does — it certainly has a great UI and operating environment, but don’t take the Apple commercials literally, as this entry from agile development and Ruby on Rails tools development firm 37 Signals attests. Our mobile infrastructure — which was built on a divide-and-conquer rather than an interchangeable standards-based strategy, continues to deliver coverage that is spotty and inferior to the rest of the developed world.

Internet Home Media. There has been lots of press over the idea of dynamic movie downloads from the likes of Netflix. But when it comes down to old fashioned home entertainment — the stuff where you’re going to utilize home theater 100-inch flat screens and 5:2 sound, don’t count on internet streaming just yet, wrote colleague Andrew Brust recently.


There are several issues here:

1. A national failure to mobilize to renew our nation’s infrastructure (we’re too hung up on keeping taxes low and letting the market sort it out to pay for it) that touches broader policy issues.
2. The inertia of certain sectors that feel threatened but could otherwise profit if they could only think out of the box.
3. Hype continues to outrace reality.

Back to the Future: The Java Client’s Second Go-Round

JavaOne provides a good barometer of the current fads hitting IT. Three years ago, Java discovered open source; two years ago, it was Ajax; while last year was a non-event. But this year, the rich client’s back, baby.

In fact, this being our tenth JavaOne (which we covered remotely this year – too much darn travel), the spotlight on the client was déjà vu all over again. Covering our first JavaOne back in 1998, most of the booth traffic was around demos showing Java applets adding animation to word, numbers, and pictures on the browser. Ironically, we could have cared less about the animated browsers; instead what piqued our attention was this startup company called WebLogic, which made a bet on Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs) before the standard was approved. More importantly, their message was, forget the animations, the true value of Java was back on the server.

You know the rest of the story. Java’s early stab at rich client fell prey to bandwidth hurdles (those were the days of dial-up) and the nagging issue of browser compatibility. The Flash runtime stole eventually the thunder, literally.

But we digress.

This year’s appearance by Neil Young set the tone: it’s all about really rich multimedia, the type of stuff where Plain Old Ajax (POA?) runs out of gas. Yes, Sun made some announcements about its open source Glassfish appserver (a new telco edition was coming out), but this year’s big announcement was the roadmap for JavaFX, the rich Java client framework that Sun first announced last year.

Thanks to Neil Young, JavaOne made the news, but the news was hardly about Java. The headlines read, Neil Young is beginning release of his entire music and video archives on Blu-Ray, making it the first serious music collection to hit the new high-def DVD format. But it was funny seeing pictures showing Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz barely squeezed into the frame as a rock fan. The Java connection? Java lets you have a real interactive experience with Blu-Ray, rather than the rudimentary front, back, right, left navigation you get with run of the mill DVDs.

Back to JavaFX, it’s Sun’s all-Java answer to Adobe Flex/AIR and Microsoft Silverlight. To recap, JavaFX is a programming framework for accessing the rich media capabilities that to some extent were already part of the Java SE desktop spec, plus new ones such as the streaming audio and video codecs from On2 that Sun just announced it was licensing. And with the whole deal is yet another new scripting language, JavaFX Script, which would make all the rich media capabilities of Java accessible to web designers. Just like Microsoft Silverlight, and its associated scripting languages, this is yet another play for the Adobe Dreamweaver crowd.

During the keynote, Sun splashed demos showing screen renderings of the kinds of spinning, 3D spheres that for us rekindled memories of demos of the first multimedia PCs of the early 90s, and the finite element model renderings of CADCAM systems using souped-up graphics cards a few years before that. Some demos never change. We also saw a demo of Java applets (remember them?) being dragged and dropped off the browser to the desktop, where you could persist them as a regular local app –- which in its own weird way could be construed as Sun buying into Microsoft’s Software + Services vision blending the cloud with local client.

Ever since Sun hatched JavaFX a year ago, we wondered about why the world needed yet another multi-platform rich client framework, as Adobe would have proven a convenient multi-platform partner. But that was based on the dated perception of Sun viewing Microsoft as its primary rival. In fact, it’s much more nuanced picture, given (1) Sun’s and Microsoft’s interoperability détente; (2) the increasingly intense rivalry between NetBeans and Eclipse for Java development platforms; and (3) competition for the hearts and minds of Rich Internet Application (RIA) developers and designers, where for now it’s advantage Adobe.

And that’s where you get into a battle of lies, damn lies, and statistics. Sun and Adobe are battling over whose runtime is more ubiquitous in the connected world. Adobe claims that the Flash Player reaches over 98% of Internet-enabled desktops in “mature” economies (the number drops to 97% when rest of world is factored in), compared to 84% for Java. Sun counters that the JVM is on 90.7% of all Internet-connected desktops, plus virtually all smart phones produced within the last three years. Well not quite. The iPhone is expressly omits Java support, and of course, there are Windows Smart Phones. Adobe has Flash Lite for mobile devices, but it hasn’t published studies showing killer penetration.

Nonetheless, when you parse the numbers and statements, it’s clear that Sun views Adobe as it main rival for the Rich Internet client. JavaFX is Sun’s stake in the ground for its argument that the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) is the place to do your multimedia, rather than the Flash plug-in. And that’s why Sun is trying to reopen the barn door, even after some of the horses have galloped out.

The Enterprise iPhone?

Given anticipation over release of SDKs (Software Development Kits, or interfaces) for the iPhone, it’s not surprising that Sun decided to jump on the bandwagon as soon as it could. Barely 24 hours after Apple released the specs for the SDK, and made the long-awaited promise for Microsoft Exchange connectivity, Sun announced that it would port the Java ME JDK to the iPhone.

According to Sun Java group marketing VP Eric Klein, the 24-hour delay in Sun’s announcement was attributable to the fact that it, like everybody else in the world, had to wait in line to pore through the specs once Apple released them. Although Sun has worked with Apple to port the Java 5 stack to Mac OS X, it received no advance word of what Apple had up its sleeves.

Under terms of Apple’s release of the SDK is that developers pay $99 to join Apple’s development program, applications for the iPhone are offered only through Apple’s iPhone App Store, developers must fork over a 30% royalty to Apple for any end user licenses, but they also get to set their own pricing. That gave Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer another good excuse for not porting the Silverlight multi-platform rich Internet run time to run on the iPhone – for now. “Just noticed new runtime announced today/yesterday. They charge more money than everyone else on the planet. Good business if they can make it. May mean Apple’s not welcoming royalty free runtimes. We’ll have to wait and see,” when questioned by Guy Kawasaki at Microsoft’s MIX conference this past week (as transcribed by an attendee).

Yet Sun’s more than willing to hop at the chance of porting Java ME, as they’ve concluded that Apple has no problem with third parties, like Sun, charging bupkis. Or at least Apple has little problem with a platform that’s, in effect, the enemy of thy enemy.

With the level of hype around Apple’s announcement, there’s been no shortage of comment around the press and blogosphere. Quoted in a CRN ChannelWeb article, wireless market analyst Jack Gold mentioned that security remains an overriding issue for a platform that until now has been aimed at consumers. He wondered what kinds of management tools is Apple planning to put in iPhones, noting that’s a non-issue for RIM Blackberries. And he added concerns over lack of encryption and protections for business users who lose their iPhones. In a ZDNet blog, Linux Magazine senior technology editor Jason Perlow ranted that Apple is only about 25 years late in waking up to the enterprise. He termed the iPhone SDK and Exchange connectivity “a good start,” but that Apple would have to think more openly further up its stack – like allowing virtualization of Mac OS X – before he’d take Apple seriously as an enterprise player.

All this reminds us of the gulf between consumer and enterprise systems. It reinforces the fact that technology innovation today is coming from the consumer side – witness that the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as taken the place of Comdex. And it provides fresh reminder that what’s cool on the consumer side still has structural and cultural issues making the transition to enterprise. Security is just the tip of the iceberg (enterprises need more than a disabler when devices are lost). For starters, there are issues of licensing that show how some players get it and some don’t (as Josh Greenbaum recently pointed out regarding Google).

Nonetheless, just as PCs snuck through the back door, executives who try to convince you of their hipness and gadgetheads who simply like to remind you of what they really are, are providing fresh evidence that the iPhone can’t be kept out of the enterprise. The question is whether Apple will let itself in.

Time in a Bottle

The IT and consumer electronics worlds have had a kind of chicken and egg relationship dating back to invention of the transistor. Following the Internet bubble, the flow of innovation has shifting from computers to gadgets. And in some ways, so have the excesses of hype, as we’ve read reports of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) undergoing the same kind of bloat that previously afflicted Comdex.

If there’s a single platform that’s considered a barometer for the pace of innovation, it’s the mobile hand device. From the plain vanilla voice (and more recently, text) phone, it’s now taken for granted that, depending on target demographic, your device should be able to take pictures, play music, provide web access, deliver email, enabler location-based services, or make electronic purchases.

This being the week of CES (and the week before MacWorld), we had an interesting conversation this morning with Sony Ericsson CTO Mats Lindoff, who gave us a midterm assessment on trends with mobile platforms. Maybe there was something gamey with our connection (we think not!), but what we thought we heard was more evolutionary than revolutionary.

“Your phone will tend to know more about you than you know about yourself,” Lindoff told us. Of course, that might sound startling until you consider the fact that the Japanese are already beginning to use cell phones as payment devices with mobile-enabled vending machines. From that standpoint, there’s relatively little concept leap that your Bluetooth-enabled phone could similarly exchange credit card or debit account data with any similarly-enabled point-of-sale terminal or RFID device. Within the European Union, there’s even research on whether phones could serve as electronic passports, a prospect that biometric advancements could make thinkable.

Part of Lindoff’s prediction is that your phone will get smarter in parallel with the network or cloud. And that’s not exactly earth-shattering either, given trends in on demand computing, social computing, and, if you’re an adolescent or Second Life vicarious personality at heart, serial social gaming.

When you slice and dice the global market for handsets, you wind up with a matrix delineated by demographics and region. In developing nations, the trend is strongly toward basic voice and text handsets that, with modest additions, add FM radios followed subsequently with entry-level web access, as (1) people don’t yet have cars or home computers, and (2) the market is not yet mature enough to calve off into lifestyle segments. In developed markets of course, you wind up with more familiar segmentation comprising young gamers and music fans; mainstream voice, text and camera phone users; and corporate PDA users. From speaking with Lindoff, it sounds like demographic markets themselves might not necessarily change (although some may co-opt features from others), but that the global distribution of those segments will.

There’s another fact of life that’s not likely to change either. No matter how smart the device and the cloud get, unless you change the laws of physics or double the size of human anatomy, there’s only so much you can do with a device whose screen maxes out at 3 inches. Additionally, much has been speculated about the imminent opening up of the North American device market. That will certainly spur new content, applications, and make life simpler for handset manufacturers. But of course, such a market is already in place in Europe and parts of Asia, so again, change here would be evolutionary.

Both trends point to a single given: Your phone might become an even more intrinsic extension of who you are or what you do. You might thumb-key emails, watch video podcasts on the plane, and enjoy or consume more applications on your handheld device. Yes, you’re phone’s becoming more important. But you’re not going to toss out your laptop anytime soon.

Cracks in the Facade

As reported in today’s Wall Street Journal, Verizon announced it would open up its mobile network next year to non-Verizon phones. Obviously, Google’s noise for open networks has finally gotten a rise out of the nation’s second largest carrier. More importantly, this move could signify a major shift in business practices across the industry, as carriers finally ditch their outdated turnkey system practices.

Verizon’s move doesn’t necessarily translate to a literal definition of open networks; the move is more akin to Microsoft publishing the file format interfaces to its Office software products. And, while the step could place the industry more in line with modern practices from the computing sector, there remains one important difference: while computers are commodities, handsets as a generalization are not. Yes, voice handsets could be regarded as commodities, but the handset/mobile device market is so diverse that you have multiple types of products with different functions competing for different demographic slices of the marketplace. So that lays waste to the established notion of the computing industry that 90% of the value is now in the software.

But for mobile carriers, Verizon’s move signals a realization that their true value is the network and the services that networks provides. The impending auction of new bandwidth recovered from analog TV broadcasters underscores that point: with new spectrum, carriers can dispense more services. Yet, existing business models, restricting freedom of choice would simply act as a speed bump. With fewer hardware options, customers could not as easily gain access to new models that could take advantage of these new services, and with a restricted market, handset manufacturers would be slower to roll out updated models.

Ergo, there is far more upside for network operators to open their networks, because they will gain access to larger markets to which they can sell more valuable services to more customers.

While of course distinctions remain between telco network service providers and their IT counterparts, ZDNet blogger Dana Gardner suggested that recent trends of convergence are likely to promote more cross acquisitions in this space. Verizon’s move is entirely consistent with that.

Consequently, while it’s easy to conclude that Google’s rants for open spectrum might have prompted Verizon’s move, our take is that the advent of new spectrum finally brought the carrier to its senses.

Nope it’s Not a Gphone

Yesterday, Google’s announcement of Android headlined the blogosphere, as much for what it was as for what it wasn’t. For us, Google’s announcement took us a few steps down memory lane, back to an era when software appliances were better known as turnkey systems.

Thanks to Moore’s Law, it is taken for granted today that the brunt of value in an IT system is comprised of software. In other words, when hardware became cheap or commodity enough, you could cultivate a market for commercial software.

But until the early 90s, you couldn’t always take that for granted. If your application involved heavy number crunching, such developing mechanical or electrical designs (computer-aided design, or CAD; electronic design automation, or EDA), or grinding out a capacity-constrained schedule for a large factory, you probably had to buy a specialized box powerful enough to run your software. And you paid a pretty premium for it. By the early 90s, Moore’s Law made a mockery of that argument, and the market started demanding that vendors shake off their proprietary boxes. Arguably, the emergence of a free market for portable software helped create the conditions that enabled the Internet to flourish.

Today turnkey systems have come back, but we don’t call them that. They’re available as self-contained software appliances that handle functions so compute-intensive, such as XML message parsing or perimeter security, that it makes sense to move the computing overhead off your network or server farms. And then there are the devices that are bought turnkey, but not out of choice: the portable communications devices on which enterprises (and society at large) increasingly rely.

In the case of appliances, turnkey packaging adds value because of the headaches that it eliminates with integrating such resource hungry systems. By comparison, in the mobile device space, turnkey adds no value, except to the mobile carriers who profit from captive markets. As demand for unlocking the iPhone has demonstrated, the demand for freedom to separate the choice of device, carrier, and service plan is more than idle chatter. The Wall St. Journal’s Walt Mossberg made an especially elegant case:

“Suppose you own a Dell computer, and you decide to replace it with a Sony. You don’t have to get the permission of your Internet service provider to do so, or even tell the provider about it. You can just pack up the old machine and set up the new one…

This is the way digital capitalism should work, and, in the case of the mass-market personal-computer industry, and the modern Internet, it has created one of the greatest technological revolutions in human history, as well as one of the greatest spurts of wealth creation and of consumer empowerment….

So, it’s intolerable that the same country that produced all this has trapped its citizens in a backward, stifling system when it comes to the next great technology platform, the cellphone.”


With the FCC planning to auction off new digital spectrum, Google secured a well-publicized victory is persuading the commission to allot a portion to providers that would support a more open systems approach. And since then, we’ve been waiting for the next shoes to drop: when will Google unveiled its Gphone, or will it step up to the plate and actually bid on bandwidth (or do so through surrogates)?

Instead, yesterday Google announced Android, a first act towards opening a new mobile market that more resembles the mainstream of digital markets. It’s an open source platform for smart mobile devices that’s supposed to provide an alternative to Microsoft and Symbian. Android will include its own OS, an HTML web browser, middleware, for which third parties are invited to create applications. Or as colleague Dana Gardner put it, the potential ramifications of Android could shake the PC industry, which is finding itself converging with mobile and home entertainment systems.

“Google with Android and the Open Handset Alliance, however, may blow open a marketplace through a common open platform that can then provide a lot more content, apps, data, media, and services. And that will feed the demand by developers, users, and ultimately advertisers that open platforms be provided on mobile devices.”

Gardner speculates that the atmosphere around Android reminds him of the early days of Java with its idealistic goal of write once, run anywhere. He adds that the connection is more than coincidence as Google CEO Eric Schmidt lead development of Java while at Sun prior to 1997.

We certainly have no shortage of gripes with U.S. mobile carriers: reliance on a mishmash of standards that are largely incompatible with the rest of the world; coverage that is arguably inferior to that of any other developed nation; and restriction of choices that trap customers by linking hardware and software to carrier and wireless plan. As compute platforms opened up, the market for software exploded; the emergence of smarter mobile platforms combined with new bandwidth could certainly work similar wonders in the mobile space.

But lets get off our soapbox for a moment and back to reality. Google simply announced an open source mobile platform yesterday. It’s not the first time that an open platform has been proposed for the mobile world (recall the Javaphone?).

We feel that the excitement over Google’s announcement yesterday was a bit overblown, as there is no assurance yet, FCC decision or not, that a Google-style open mobile market will actually materialize. But the measure of the excitement over this rather modest announcement reflects the reality that there is significant pent up demand for mobile service innovation beyond gimmicks like your circle of five.