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Mobile phones are boring, let’s go shopping

As I’m writing this, the Mobile World Congress 2012 is under way. Being the biggest event of its kind, here’s how the self description reads on their website:

Our industry is redefining “mobile”.  No longer limited only to communications, mobile is now a force transforming our world in an unprecedented way. Mobile connects, entertains, informs and inspires us, ultimately changing how we live and who we are.

Redefining, as in “boring”, by chance? Because that’s how I’ve found myself reacting to all the mobile phone announcements recently.

I was doing a comparison between Nokia Lumia 800 and the new Nokia Lumia 900, to figure out if I wanted to ask my employer to get me one or the other. I opened the specs side by side on my monitor in an attempt to analyse the finer engineering details and come up with a winner. I didn’t. It’s the same phone, the same operating system, the same apps. The only clear difference between the two devices is the size of the screen: 3.7″ vs. 4.3″. And even that little detail is kind of a false victory, as the resolution is the same on both of them, because of Windows Phone. The very same OS I already run on my current Samsung Omnia 7, released over a year ago, but of course updated to the latest Mango version.

Yes, a significant factor in why the device releases nowadays have become so boring is that hardware makes so little difference anymore. The operating system and the applications continue to marginalize the importance of their host devices. Sure, the build quality of a mobile phone still has to be decent, the screen needs to be good enough and the battery life should be at least one day (well, it is never enough on modern smartphones). Beyond that, I’m having a hard time getting excited about physical attributes in mobile devices anymore.

There was a time when each and every round of releases in the world of mobile phones introduced new features that got me thinking “oh yes, that’s something my next phone needs to have”. Now I feel just as much excitement towards the new round of Nokia/Samsung/HTC devices as the sneak preview of the Dell/HP/Lenovo spring line-up of laptops. The manufacturers are now in the role of just a hygiene factor, rather than the driver. The experience on any Windows 7 laptop is going to be fairly identical (for the first few months, until your PC grinds to a halt like they always do). The real differentiator is not a new model from HP with a shinier display – it’s Windows 8. Similarly, in the world of Microsoft-based mobile devices, we’re unlikely to get much surprises or deviation from the release roadmap pointing towards Windows Phone 8. Predictable, reliable, compatible and oh so boring.

Yet that doesn’t stop people from buying smartphones. By the looks of these numbers, people hardly make babies anymore, but they sure like to shop around for mobile devices. Everyone and their dog has an iPhone these days. Granted, most of them don’t do much else non-phone use with it but read their Facebook newsfeed, but a global smartphone population in the hundreds of millions will ensure that even niche apps and social networks can carve out a decent market for themselves in the long tail.

In MWC 2012 we saw Samsung release a mobile phone with a built-in projector. Nokia, on the other hand, released a phone with a ridiculous 41 megapixel camera, just so they could do away with having a physical zoom. Isn’t that the kind of innovation to really get excited about? Well – not really. If you buy a Samsung Galaxy Beam, you can expect a battery life of 10 minutes for projecting your slides in the meeting, after that you’ve got a brick in your hand where your phone used to be. If you go for a Nokia 808 PureView, you’ll be stuck with a burning platform inside your smartphone, also known as the Symbian OS, which is known for making simple things as sharing photos without cables a nightmare. How many would be comfortable with compromises like these?

Neither of these revolutionary devices are able to challenge for the nr. 1 position in your pocket. You wouldn’t replace your iPhone 4S with them, now would you? That’s OK, because they’re not meant to do that anyway. You see, you don’t get to 4.8 billion handsets in the world without selling a few second devices to the 4.0 billion mobile phone owners.

Remember when you only had one TV in your house? Or just a single computer for the whole family to use? While there’s a significant population out there who’s already been carrying more than one cell phone in their pockets for years, the main driver behind this has always been telecommunication. Cheap calls to specific networks, optimizing your SMS plans etc. Well, that particular driver is about to go southbound as the whole telco business may have well peaked. As Microsoft continues to bake in services like Skype and GroupMe (both which it owns, btw) into its mobile platform, and as Apple engineers keep dreaming of the SIM-less iPhone, it’s certainly looking like software is about to eat the world of mobile business, like it’s already done elsewhere.

What this means is that mobile phones will become capable of everything and everything will be able to perform many of the tasks we use mobile phones for today. Do we really care if it’s a pico projector running on Android OS, or an Android mobile phone carrying a pico projector? If you want your camera to have better connectivity for sharing images onto your other devices and into social networks, why not just start building the solution from a platform that already does the sharing part and just add a killer camera? Why build a universal remote control for home entertainment devices on the old infrared concept, when your smartphone gives you a great touch UI, has WiFi connectivity and so do many of the other gadgets you want to control with it.

Perhaps the industry is being “redefined” after all. It simply doesn’t take the same old form of an upgrade cycle for your one and only phone. As Tomi Ahonen puts it, the mantra of the perfect device is over. With tablets, e-readers, ultrabooks and smartphones surrounding our everyday lives, now its time for us to optimize for the perfect device for the particular occasion. Which means we’ll get to do much more casual gadget shopping and spend less time waiting for the next Jesusphone to be announced.

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Wintel PC becomes the iPad, Nokia MikroMikko becomes the Lumia

Yesterday I bought my first desktop PC since around 2005. I felt really nostalgic clearing up space under the desk to fit the black box, and also to notice that they still make computers without built-in WiFi adapters in the year 2012. Oh well, I bought it purely to get a piece of that SSD magic – and boy, is it fast! I can barely see a difference between installing a local app or opening a web app.

Anyway, back in the late 90’s when we all were buying those beige boxes and living the golden era of Wintel, would you have ever thought that Apple could make a comeback and overthrow the PC market? Well, they have now done just that. iPads are outselling desktop PCs and are now equal to 17% of the PC market.

Of course there are still more Windows based computers sold than Macs or iPads combined. The thing is, Wintel was never really the king of the mobile computing era, which started when we replaced desktop PCs with laptops. Sure, you could carry around an XP equipped machine in your backpack and boot it up whenever you had some half an hour to invest in nursing your PC on and off, connect it to the network, balance with the battery life and all that.

At the end of the day, what you had was a portable desktop PC, not a true mobile computer. We had to wait for the iPad to reach a point where computers are just like magazines in our bags or on the kitchen table. You don’t manage a magazine, and similarly you don’t have to think about the iPad when you pick it up. It’s ready for you, it stays in the background as much as it can, and 90% of the time it delivers you all the computing power you need for the occasion.

It’s not just the hardware, of course, but the whole Wintel^3 experience that Apple can deliver because it can design everything but the last mile of UX (the app). Why is it that when you buy a laptop PC from Acer, Sony or whoever, the first thing you want to do is get rid of all the crapware applications that came bundled with the machine? How can it be that when a single company gets to choose what to include in the end product, the result in the PC world is pure garbage? Seriously, no one ever chose the Sony laptop over the Acer one because of the software that came with the Vaio. In a Wintel world the only true difference the manufacture was able to promote was the physical design of their physical product, since all the software available for PC’s was the same anyway.

Hmm, come to think of it, didn’t Nokia just release their first quarterly results as a Windows Phone device manufacturer? Yes, they did, and reports indicate that they’ve sold over 1 million Windows Phone devices. That’s not a bad start, considering the phones are not even available in their home market Finland yet, let alone many other significant markets, like the US. Sure, the smartphone sales are dramatically down from one year ago, but that’s not really relevant, since Symbian always was a burning platform anyway.

I’m sure the numbers will improve as a result of Nokia+Microsoft joint effort in pushing their 3rd ecosystem to the market, especially the enterprise market. It’s not as significant anymore as it used to be, thanks to the BYO trend of employees choosing their own iPhones over corporate RIM’s or whatever. It may not be the market that sets any trends, but it’s a world where no one can really challenge Microsoft when it comes to luring in the IT departments. No one loves Microsoft there either, but it’s better the devil you know, and the devil that knows you.

Where does that leave Nokia then? Isn’t this the Wintel story playing all over again on mobile phones? Well, yes, it is. Sorry. The best Nokia can hope to achieve is that the Lumias become the Vaios of the new mobile computing era. Given how Windows 8 is heading towards the Windows Phone 7 model in terms of UI and app distribution, it’s actually not very outlandish at all to assume that Nokia will soon be competing head on with Vaio laptops. Give me one reason why they wouldn’t? Of course we won’t be calling them laptops anymore, since that’s the label for portable desktop PC’s. They will be called tablets, slates or whatever combination of letters the biggest marketing departments in the world can come up with.

In the 80’s we had Nokia PC’s, called MikroMikko, being a clone of the IBM PC, running Microsoft DOS. In the 2010’s we’ll see Nokia mobile computers, called Lumia, being a clone of the Apple iPad, running Microsoft Windows 8 / Windows Phone 8, depending on the form factor. History comes full circle, only to repeat again.

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Everything gets smarter through social, including Google (plus you)

The inevitable launch of Google’s new personalized search has stirred up a lot of discussion on how Google broke the Internet, made its search engine inferior to Bing, screwed over Twitter etc. Wow, were there people in the tech industry that didn’t know this was coming?

Perhaps these have been the same people who’ve declared Google+ a failure over and over again. Even the fastest growing social network is not enough in a world that has Facebook. And even if there would be tens of millions of registered users for the service already after a few months, at least they weren’t using this “ghost town” of a network (see the discussion around #aavekaupunki in Finnish). Yeah, it can only be a failed attempt from the Mountain View engineers to build a Facebook clone, since that is the gold standard of social networking that every other contender must be evaluated against.

To all those people surprised about the launch of Google “Search Plus Your World” with integration to Google+ profiles, circles and posts, I’d like to present the following question: did you think for a moment that Google was not going to leverage it’s core competence (search) in the social network it was building? Vice versa, was it not blatantly obvious right from the start that the company would utilize this new social data source it has unlimited access to (G+) for improving the relevancy of search results?

Ok, enough of the “my network is better than your network” wars. For the end user there’s precious little significance in which US based company is luring in the biggest number of status updates per second. What we ultimately want is for the creation, sharing, discovery and consumption of relevant information to be as convenient as possible, so the question is: what can I get out of a social search engine that wasn’t possible before?

Yesterday I came across a brilliant presentation from Jeff Atwood (behind Coding Horror and more notably Stack Overflow), which contained this quote from Clay Shirky:

Work is when your boss tells you to do something, you do it, and you get paid.

work is motivated by inherent interest and generally unpaid.

It was late Sunday evening and I had happily spent a good number of hours reading work related articles on my free time and loving every moment of it. The though of the looming Monday morning and returning back to mundane Work tasks made the concept strike a nerve and I decided I wanted to post it on a social network, as people generally do nowadays in such situations. I went googling for the source of the quote, to get a link that would be shareable (yes, it is a word). This is what I received:

It turns out I had actually already posted an article referencing the very same speech 11 months ago, only I didn’t have any recollection of it. It was on my Posterous “blog” that I’ve used mainly as a public noteboard of interesting articles I come across regarding knowledge work. Due to the ultimate simplicity of Posterous, it’s very quick to compose an email with quotes, images & links, send it to the Posterous email address  and see it turn into a blog post, which is why you don’t need to spend much time thinking about the topic itself. A noteboard is only useful if you know to go and read its content, which is what I didn’t know. But Google did.

Ok, the result in the example is most likely taken from a tweet rather than a Google+ post, since that didn’t exist last February yet. The point is not really about Google+ itself, rather it serves as yet another reminder that the web knows you better than you do. Instead of being frightened of the privacy implications, what I would recommend everyone to do is to make the most of it – exploit the intelligence of the machine that we’ve all helped to build.

For example: in a world of personalized search, is there any longer a need for social bookmarking á la Delicious? Why should I bother saving links into my own list on a separate point solution like Delicious, when I might as well share the link to my followers/circles/friends/whatever and trust that the system will bring it up if I ever need it again? Trying to come up with descriptive tags for links all on my own seems like a futile attempt compared to the power that the networked online society can have on building relevancy for the shared content.

To continue on the thoughts expressed by Shirky, sharing is work, but not Work, as it feels inherently like the right thing to do and requires effort, yet you don’t get paid for it. “Big Work drives the economy, little work drives the Internet.” It took around 100 million hours to create all of the content on Wikipedia, but thanks to the evolutionary nature of social technology and the network effect, the next Wikipedia will most likely take only a fraction of those hours. It has to, and we really shouldn’t settle for anything less. It is therefore imperative that the tools being built by companies operating in the realm of IT, be it the Google Goliaths or the start-up Davids, strive to make the most of what the collective little work of the online population has already built, because that is the best way to foster motivation of workers (with a lowercase w). This motivation, in turn, will be more and more in demand as the human civilization is facing problems that its capitalist system is not very good at solving. The little work can go a long way.

As what comes to the search engine business that built Google / Google built (any which way you want to look at it), we’ve already seen signs that indexed search has peaked. The way we used to search for content is on the decline, and if Google would be sticking to what they do best now, fighting against the next big thing, they would be standing on the deck of a sinking ship. You could well blame them of being hopelessly late to the game of social, but based on what I’ve seen from them during the past year, I wouldn’t count them out just yet. The reason is, I believe we don’t yet have nearly enough tools for social technology to make us as smart as we could be.

Right now we have the infrastructure  in place for networking with people and sharing content. That’s a good start and it’s been a big enough revolution on its own to fuel the stellar rise of services like Facebook and Twitter. However, if we’d just continue on the same path of ever increasing tweet counts, would we end up becoming increasingly smart or rather end up in the lunatic asylum? If we look at the content search functionality offered by Twitter (basic keyword search on less than a week’s worth of data) or Facebook (absolutely none!), it’s easy to see that the game has only just begun on developing content relevance and discovery algorithms that deliver real added value over simply consuming an ever growing feed of data. While social media has brought us new strategies to overcome information overload through relying on recommendations and content sharing  by people we know/trust, this won’t scale indefinitely, and it is in fact quickly contributing to the very problem it once promised to solve.

In order for us to keep getting smarter through social networks, the filters available to us will need to get smarter first. The question is: can Google produce the missing UI needed for harnessing the true power of social networks? And if not Google, then who?

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From Connecting People to Connected People

I’ve got a Windows Phone 7 device that refuses to send/receive SMS’s. I’ve got an Android device that refuses to stay awake, thus not allowing me to receive phone calls. I’ve got an iOS device designed for consuming web content that refuses to stay connected to any WiFi network. Now isn’t today’s mobile technology just grand?

Don’t get me wrong, these are all wonderful toys and I love having shiny gadgets as much as the next geek. However, as their capabilities increase, so does they time I spend maintaining the gadgets and their applications. Configuring settings, hard resets, custom ROMs, googling for answers to problems that also other users have. Back in the days of hardware centric consumer electronics it used to be possible fix problems with spare parts, but when the value of the electronics is increasingly built out of bits, there’s often precious little that a repair shop could do to fix that bit for you.

With more joy comes more pain. You gain new ways to be connected with people, yet you loose something that you used to take for granted, such as phone calls and text messaging reliability. The devices get cheaper every day, which means there’s more features for the buck, like it or not. Very quickly even the entry level mobiles will have the features that a top of the line iPhone introduced a couple of years ago. The feature list will extend infinitely, but the user experience can degrade just as fast. Our future handheld devices will do a million things, cost next to zero euros, yet they may still leave the user less satisfied.

Life used to be so good

Connected PeopleNever thought I’d say this out loud, but I’ve actually started to consider if I should grab a Symbian phone while Nokia is still manufacturing those. You know, in a “one more for the road”, “here’s to the good times” kind of way. Then again, we all know what Symbian has become, so if I really would want to have a simple, working mobile phone for oldskool communication like phone calls and SMS (even the occasional MMS, heaven forbid), I’d need to aim for an S40 feature phone instead. Something that hasn’t been destroyed by Nokia’s futile attempts to catch the iPhone wave. The wave, which, you could say, is one reason behing the troubles that more and more people are facing with their “devices previously known as mobile phones”.

And that’s where the troubles begin. I’ve lost my ability to be a feature phone user. Here’s a few reasons that come to my mind:

Input method. I haven’t used a non-QWERTY keypad for typing messages since 2005. Looking back at my handset history, using the numeric keypad was a period of roughly 9 years, and it’s now been 6 years since the end of it. I’m not getting any younger, so I’m assuming I have already lost the capability of typing with the traditional feature phone keypad. I also never adopted T9 for real, so it would be just as ackward for me.

Contacts. All my contact information on friends, co-workers, customers and online acquaintances lives in the cloud. When I install a new device, the data flows from Gmail, Facebook, Exchange Online, Twitter etc. The days of moving data around on a SIM card have truly passed. A feature phone without a cloud connection would be a silo that simply couldn’t be maintained. No way do I plan to install any more crapware like PC/Ovi Suite, Kies or something like that for data synchronization. No cables, please, these are wirelessly networked devices.

Operators. I’ve got in total 4 SIM cards at my disposal that each have unlimited mobile data plans. 2 from my employer, 2 of my own. If I would transfer my primary phone number to a feature phone, I’d be effectively closing down one 3G data pipe that is being paid for.

The legacy of the GSM revolution

The fact that certain communication methods we still use in our modern society are tied into physical SIM cards is in a way one root cause for these dilemmas. If you try to call me and one of my devices just happens to be unavailable at that time (battery is out, network is down, device is rebooting, forgot it in the other room etc.), why couldn’t I pick up the call from some other device? If you send an SMS to me and pay a few eurocents for the privilege, why am I more limited in the choice of how and where I can receive the message and reply back to you? Emails, tweets or even FB messages are available to me anywhere I am 24/7, and their cost per transaction is zero cents. Which leads me to ask the question: is the problem really the lack of GSM like reliability with today’s mobile devices, or are we again trying to solve a problem that we should no longer have?

Nostalgia can be a fun pastime and it also serves as a tool to give us human beings perspective on where we’ve come from and where we are right now. When used in the right way, it also enables us to analyse where we will be in the future. Use it the wrong way and you’ll just end up living in the past, hoping and waiting for the train to turn on its tracks, all the while it’s getting further and further away from you. Instead of just sitting at the train station, cursing the way how the world is these days, maybe I’ll need to focus on picturing in my mind where the train is heading right now.

You see, there will become a day when you can’t reach me from a phone number any longer. In fact, the technology surrounding me today is already doing its fair share to make sure the day is getting closer and closer, even if I’m not personally asking for it to do that. It presents me a compelling, alternative method of communication and asks me with its calm voice “would you like to try this instead, or should we go back to the old way and forget about these new possibilities? It’s you’re choice, I’m here to serve you either way.” And of course we won’t stick to the old, because our curiosity will always eventually trump our resistance to change. It was a tough call for many folks to give up their land line telephones, but still it was only a matter of time. I expect we’ll see similar phenomena also in the future.

We’ll move on from “connecting people” to “connected people”. In the “connecting people” era, it used to be the technology between two people that allowed them to reach out their hands and establish the connection and communicate with one another. In the world of “connected people”, the technology has already drawn people to gather around its virtual bonfire, which is where all the communication takes place. You don’t have to be online all the time, but the connection doesn’t disappear even when someone steps offline – the flame keeps on burning. Our devices enable us to be present at the bonfire whenever we want, at different levels of intensity (active speaker, casual attendee, passive consumer) that suit our current status in the physical world. Whereas the GSM technology included text based communication only as a side product (almost an accidental invention), the “connected people” will use text as the primary and persistent for of communication, supplemented by voice and video when appropriate. Finally, the transformation will not take place as a result of the new communication services and products that the major telecom industry players have been trying to design and sell to big corporations for use in their operative business. Just like with GSM, it will ultimately be the consumer adoption of new social networks and communication tools that makes the transition from old to new a reality.

So, I’m sorry to break this to you, but there is no way back to the golden days of GSM. Having said that, I still wouldn’t mind if the product engineers and FOSS fighters working on smartphone platforms would still reserve a decent fraction of their time on providing reliable applications for supporting legacy protocols such as telephone calls and SMS. As we can learn from the story of Microsoft Windows (1.0 to 7), there’s still a tangible business value in being able to support your own legacy. And most importantly: it can be done.

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