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iCloud will solve problems you should no longer have

Last week I wrote a post on how the iPad’s and iTunes’ dependency on USB-cable based content synchronization is undermining Apple’s post-PC agenda. This week in WWDC 2011, Steve Jobs took the stage to announce upcoming features to iOS5, including the iCloud service. Does this mean Apple is compatible with the cloud era requirements? Yes and no.

Yes – in the sense that we will finally see the chord being cut on iOS device activation and operating system updates. Over The Air (OTA) updates will finally arrive, three years after the feature was available on Android. Well, at least they’re on the right track, making the 5th generation iPhone purchase experience more in line with the overall UX that Apple traditionally excels in. Wi-Fi sync of iTunes library content to iOS devices will certainly be helpful for people who are actually managing content with iTunes.

No – because the biggest announcement from WWDC was aimed at solving the wrong problem: synchronizing files between devices. I’m of course talking about the seemingly wonderful service that iCloud will provide to millions of Apple customers living in the content management hell brought to them by previous Apple innovations. When acquiring digital content from iTunes store is made so convenient, you can easily end up in possession of a lot more digital content than you had before. Now, to make sure you continue to purchase content from iTunes store, it’s only natural that the store keeper will feel the need to make managing this content easier. Enter Apple iCloud, priced at $25 per year, which promises to remove the burden of moving files back and forth between different storage locations. iCloud will match your iTunes library content and make it downloadable (notice: not streamable) to any device registered to your Apple ID. Hurrah, problem solved! Or is it?

Here’s the thing: we don’t need a better way to synchronize music files, we need a way to remove files altogether. I don’t want to own bits if I don’t have to. Ever since I signed up for a Spotify subscription, the real need for me to manage digital music files locally on my gadgets has in practice already been removed. That’s because Spotify is not a store like iTunes, it’s a service. Anyone familiar with the cloud computing concept will probably know the term SaaS, software as a service. What this means is that you no longer purchase a copy of the installation media or bits for a software application, rather you subscribe to a service that delivers the application to you (most often through a browser). Subscription based services for music delivery, such as Rdio and Spotify, have already brought the SaaS revolution into our PC’s, smartphones and iPods. Why purchase music as bits if you can get them as a service?

In the business IT lingo people are talking about public cloud, hybrid cloud and private cloud. Basically the first one is a “real” cloud service like Gmail or a private business application built on a publicly available cloud platform like Windows Azure. The last one is used when trying to operate with many of the principles of the cloud, while still remaining in possession of your own servers and application instances, perhaps located in an external data center. Hybrid… well, let’s not go there. A label that some people have cast on the private cloud option is “false cloud“. I think this also fits with what Apple has introduced to the world as their version of the cloud. It initially looks like a cloud service for music (“all your music available anywhere!”), but in reality it’s a cloud service for files (“…just the music you already had somewhere”). Blah.

iCloud will no doubt become a success. Knowing Apple’s track record in delivering excellent usability, it may well turn out to be a killer product for cloud adoption among consumers. I can imagine it becoming “Dropbox^2″ in its ability to solve day-to-day file synchronization problems, which is surely great news. What the iCloud will not do is make the iTunes paradigm relevant again, for those customers who’ve already left their bits behind. In my eyes, Apple has become a victim of its past success in selling both the hardware for media consumption as well as the content. Evolution over revolution is a safe bet to make when you’re riding on the top of the evolution wave. iCloud could have been Apple’s revolution, but now it looks like the revolution may take place elsewhere.

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Cloud, come save us from the cables (and iTunes, Ovi Suite)

We have great gadgets with state of the art wireless connectivity technologies around us, in our pockets, on the office desk or on the bedroom drawer. Everything is network enabled these days, be it your TV, printer, eBook reader, USB drive, game console or almost any device with a screen and buttons. That’s the way it should be and that’s how it increasingly will be.

Why is it then that we’re still required to plug in a variety of USB cables into some of these devices? Not for charging it with electricity, but for loading it up with bits. If I’m able to consume much of the bits already through the wireless network connection that hooks me up with the great big data cloud of the Internet, then how can there be another category of bits that must still travel through the cable?

Let me illustrate the issue through two recent experiences I’ve had, one sponsored by Apple and the other by Nokia.

Case iPad 2 and iTunes

I recently decided it was finally time for me to give up on trying to steer clear from Apple products. The tablets are not just a new revision of the mini-PC/netbook boom from three years ago, I believe there’s much more to them. If the netbooks were about squeezing the familiar PC experience into a more portable form factor with a lower price tag, the tablets are aiming to bring us the smartphone experience of iOS and Android on a not-so-miniature device that gives better room for content presentation and user interface design. You could say it’s a case of less vs. more, which tends to trigger the primitive human reaction of “more is better”. I was so impressed with what my 4.3″ Android smartphone was capable of delivering compared to my previous 3.2″ gadget with the same OS + applications that I wanted to see what happens when you keep adding up more hardware goodness in a similar environment.

In an ideal world I would have preferred to purchase an Android tablet, as there are several reasons why I believe it will eventually become the leading platform for tablet computers and applications. However, the future is not here yet, as we’re pretty much lacking both the Android tablet computers and applications right now. Devices like the Samsung Galaxy Tab with pre-Honeycomb/3.0 version of the Android OS are not true tablets in my opinion. Also the current Android applications designed for a typical 3.5″ smartphone screen probably wouldn’t deliver the “more” effect I’m after. There’s no way around it, iPad rules for the time being. With the recent launch of v2 it was also easier to justify why now is a convenient time to invest in new hardware.

I won’t bore you with a general iPad 2 review here, I’ll just state that it totally rocks your socks off. Now, the one thing that doesn’t rock one single chord is the fact that you need to plug the device into a PC/Mac equipped with iTunes just to turn it on. In a way I understand the need for the iPad activation as a part of the bigger picture that includes the App Store, credit card billing, DRM and all that jazz. A necessary evil if you are stepping into the light /dark side (depending on one’s point of view) of the Apple empire. However, there’s some big irony in the whole post-PC era gospel preached by Steve Jobs when the product that should lead us into this era starts its life with a navel cord attached to a PC.


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Just leave your 3G and PC behind

We’re approaching the post-PC era, according to many sources. If we switch our focus away from the icon of the phenomena (iPad), what this basically means is that the traditional personal computer is losing its status as the default device for all data processing and information management tasks that we perform as either employees at work or free individuals at home. Instead we’re increasingly turning to mobile devices that are always with us, always on and always connected.

Nowhere else is mobility more central than when travelling abroad, away from your familiar services and surroundings. It would therefore be perfectly natural to assume that the traveller segment would be the one that mobile service providers would be actively looking to cater for. Yet the reality is completely the opposite: mobile operators are making sure that no sane person uses mobile data while travelling abroad, thanks to the ridiculous prices of data roaming.

Going on the road? Let’s burn the books & switch off

Last week I was travelling in Macedonia, a potential candidate for becoming an EU member. An exotic location to some extent, as I hadn’t been to any of the former Yugoslavia countries, but at the same time not too distant from the average central European culture. Skopje, their capital city, is not exactly on the top 20 list of cities for tourists to visit, so there wasn’t any paper guidebooks available to take with me. I did download the Skopje In Your Pocket guidebook into my Kindle, but the painful rendering of PDF magazines on the small black & white ePaper screen meant I hardly opened the document. Instead I decided to try and rely on content that I could use on my HTC Desire HD.

The price for mobile data use in Macedonia was according to my Finnish operator’s (DNA) pages a bit over 10 euros per megabyte. Ok, so the first thing to do before boarding the plane was to disable all APN information to make sure that zero bytes would be transferred over the mobile operators’ networks. Hey, what else is new?

A key criteria in selecting our hotel in Skopje had been the availability and visitor ratings on free WiFi connectivity. Even if there was to be no hotspots discovered while out on the town, at least the hotel would serve as a home base for downloading information on sights to see and pubs to visit. In preparation for the times without a network, I had installed the Maps(-) app from Androind Market and downloaded offline Google maps data of the city.

Fortunately it was not too difficult to discover open, free WiFi networks while walking in the center of Skopje. Cafes and shopping centers tended to frequently have a network of decent quality. Outdoor signs of a free T-Mobile hotspot being available to the customers made selecting the restaurants quite a bit easier.

(Non-)Economics of data roaming

During the 3 day visit I ranked up in total 300 MB of data transfer over WiFi. While I did frequently perform Google searches, check into Foursquare (and of course Untappd while going round the pubs!), browse FB/Twitter streams etc., none of the use was particularly data intensive. No video or audio transmitter, just your everyday transactions with applications that have become a part of my daily routine.

How much would have all this mobile data connectivity cost if I had stayed APN enabled and used the 3G network provided by the local telecom operator? Over 3000 euros. Wow. That’s ten times more than what I paid for the flights and hotel altogether. I could have travelled around the world with that money.

How much did I end up paying for the mobile data connectivity while travelling in Macedonia? Zero euros. That’s right, the local economy received more of my money through bubblegum purchases than through offering me telecommunications services.

How much value did I receive from having a mobile device with Internet connection available to me during my travels? Quite a lot, and I expect that value only to increase in the future when the apps and databases available become even more useful. Would I have been willing to pay something for the convenience of not having to hunt for hotspots and just rely on an always-on 3G data connection. Of course I would have! Continued…

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Brand new day for Nokia and a nice Win(phone7) for Microsoft

Februrary 11th 2011 was a big day for two countries: Finland and Egypt. I won’t touch the latter one, there are better places to speculate on was it social media or the people of Egypt who made it all happen. Instead I’ll write down a few thoughts about the newly announced marriage of Nokia and Microsoft.

We all knew it was coming, but someone had to say it

Last July I wrote a blog post on how the world will end for Nokia. At that time I was deeply frustrated with the mainstream media reporting on how the brand new Nokia N8 and the updated operating system Symbian^3 were going to start Nokia’s big fight to reclaim the position they had lost to Apple and all the Android manufacturers. Such claims were totally detached from the reality of what was happening in the mobile marketplace of 2010 and I’m sure not even most the Nokia personnel believed in them anymore.

A growing crowd of people were joining the cult of Apple, some of them skipping right to the end conclusion that iPhone was simply better and Nokia was therefore screwed – period. A much more telling sign was, however, that the ecosystem around Symbian application development was not only facing problems in growing its presence in the US markets – it was in fact dying altogether. Long time advocates of Symbian were throwing in the towel, because they couldn’t live with the huge gap between Nokia hype and lack of results delivered. Symbian and Nokia had become an embarrassment that no one wanted to associate themselves with anymore (in other words, an epic fail).

What I believed Nokia had to do was to admit their failure instead of trying to cover it up while attempting to build a replacement in the form of MeeGo. My concluding comment at that time was:

We don’t need an N8 from Nokia, or Symbian^4, or statements from Anssi Vanjoki about the company’s passion to reclaim smartphone leadership – we need a hard reset, and we need it yesterday.

That was what we have now finally received, first in the form of the burning platform memo from Stephen Elop and a few days later in the announcement of adopting Windows Phone as the primary smartphone platform for Nokia future devices. All of this had of course started already in September with the naming of a new Nokia CEO, when the Finnish Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo (a long term member of Nokia’s former management “dream team”) was replaced not by another Finn like Vanjoki but with a man from Microsoft. Makes perfect sense, since it’s a lot easier to admit failure when you haven’t been the one causing it.

If you look at where Windows Phone 7 is coming from, you’ll see that also Microsoft went through a similar phase earlier on. They realized that the existing Windows Mobile platform foundation was simply not good enough to build on anymore, so Microsoft made a brave move to re-design WP7 from scratch, which meant they gave up on backward compatibility and a big catalogue of existing Windows Mobile apps while at it. Thanks to this earlier reset they were now able to get the largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world to commit to their platform. Think about that for a while: everyone fails sooner or later, but the winners will be those who are the quickest in admitting failure.

Symbian no longer exists (but would you like to buy one anyway?)

When I switched jobs in December (not related to mobile industry at all, BTW), I was presented with the dreaded question “which Nokia E-series phone would you like to have?“. Having lived without a Nokia phone for years, the thought of returning back to the non-touch S60 world was simply unbearable and literally made me feel sick in the stomach. There was absolutely nothing in the Nokia business phone catalogue that I wanted to carry in my pocket. To buy off some time, I asked if I could wait for the Nokia E7 release that was just around the corner. My employer agreed and I just continued using my personal Samsung device, powered by Android. Continued…

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