Monthly Archives: August 2008

Mobile: a challenger in Google Android?

You’ve probably heard tidbits here and there that Google is going to release their own phone – informally dubbed the “gphone” or “google phone”. What’s really going on is that Google built an open source operating system called Android. Through an alliance with hardware and carriers, there is an initial device being built by HTC and will run on T-Mobile’s network.  HTC is the the Taiwanese company with U.S. headquarters in Bellevue that make some very nice hardware (but often have the not-so-user-friendly Windows Mobile installed on them, like the Dash, Shadow, and Wing.)

Now there are some interesting pieces to the story that have been developing over the last few months. Some is unconfirmed (e.g. analyst speculation, fanboy lust).  I highlight some here:

  • the new phone is tentatively called the “Dream“. It will be a little smaller than the iPhone, but slightly thicker. FCC filings show that it will have a touch screen with haptic (vibration) feedback AND a slide out qwerty keyboard (sweet.)  Also has all the popular radios: wifi, GPS, fast data (i.e. HSDPA). For lots of deets, check out Engadget’s Android post roundup.
     
  • tentative release date Oct-Nov.
     
  • they have their own app store called Android Market - similar to the Apple iPhone app store, but some say better and more extensive. There are already some amazing apps announced (thanks Robert B for the link.) Google sponsored a competition for devs to create killer apps before launch – to the tune of several million dollars. The community responded.
     
  • there is talk that the gphone will be very web and search centric, and will integrate with Google’s suite of online apps. There is also talk that it will support Exchange, but probably not in the initial release.
     
  • and there is also talk that the gphone will be cheap and, perhaps, supported by advertising somehow. Cheap is nice, but with cheap always comes some other tradeoff like being stuck with your carrier for many years. Not clear on the pricing of the device or data service as of yet.

So what does this all mean? For one, I think we will have some true competition for the iPhone – not just in the device, but also in the ecosystem surrounding the device. This is really what helps makes a mobile device take of – great integration with, and extension of, your world. One missing piece (that I’m sure is being thought about as you read this) is media content – will there be an accompanying “gtunes” music store? My bet is yes (even though at this point T-Mobile is the only major carrier in the U.S. without some sort of online music/media store.) Perhaps the gphone will let you simply use whatever service you want, like AmazonMP3.  If you’ve heard anything about this, please shout out…

Second, when they get Exchange up and running, it might provide true competition in the corporate space (probably not right away while they figure out all the security/SOX compliance stuff and work on their 1-2 sucker punch on blackberry/windows mobile.) It also might have mass appeal, great usability and low price point that would make it appealing to the masses. As such, it might be a viable option for your own company. Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone is cool and I love that there are more and more of them popping up here at work. However, the gphone may turn out to be another great option (that doesn’t feel like you had to compromise.) Even though the iPhone provides a really great user experience, it is also fairly locked down – the gphone may represent a true open-source mobile device with great developer community support.

I’m excited to see how the synergy continues to develop between Android, device manufacturers, and the growing community of developers…

Mobile Analytics

I seem to come across more and more talk/pointers to analytics aimed at mobile. I know of some of Omniture’s offerings and am coming to find out that the iPhone, because of its javascript ability, is opening up multiple advertising and tracking option. Even to the point of tracking what apps a person uses on their iPhone and features within those apps. Sweet.

I came across a nice breakdown of some different iPhone analytics options outlined and discussed by our friends at ianalyzr.com and was compelled to do a quick summary here. Note that all of these provide mobile analytics solutions, but some focused on iPhone. Not listed in any order of preference:

  • AppLoop - provides analytics tracking and distribution of advertising for iPhone 3g apps. Tracks usage, user location, and session information. Leverages GPS, so can track how a particular app is used in a given area.
     
  • PinchMedia - provides location-based statistics as well as usage/session data. Similar to AppLoop.
     
  • SOMA - analytics and mobile ads. No location-based capability though.
     
  • AdMob - another mobile analytics solution. See http://analytics.admob.com/ for details/demo on their mobile analytics

Mobile US Sales down, Smartphones up

NDP report on US mobile device sales just released. A quick highlight: “Handsets sold with a QWERTY keyboard saw the greatest year-over-year rise, with 28 percent of handsets sold with this feature in Q2 2008, versus just 12 percent the year prior. Smartphone sales comprised 19 percent of all mobile phone sales in Q2 2008, an increase of 9 percentage points since the same period a year ago.”

This is worth thinking about: As more smartphones reach end users’ hands, more people are experiencing a richer mobile experience. And they are expecting more out of mobile devices. With the iPhone being the mobile “for the rest of us” and being one factor pushing manufacturers to improve usability, the bar for mobile user experience is continually being raised. And that’s good news – as more people expect great mobile usability, the opportunity to design and build for this experience increases.

Mobile Safari caching

I’ve been a mobile Safari user for over a year now, on both the 2G and 3G iPhone models. One thing that I’m continually bugged about is that it seems whenever I hit the back button, Safari goes out and gets a new version of the page. And if I have multiple pages open, typically when I move from one to the other (in effect moving from one “tab” to the next), the page usually refreshes. (OK, that’s two things.)  In my experience, Safari doesn’t do much in the way of caching pages.

The user experience when using the browser takes a hit. What I’m not sure about is if the mobile Safari is intentionally set up this way, to make a call to the network every time a page changes. Perhaps it is too much to ask of a mobile browser that is capable of rendering full, true-to-life webpages (not just smaller mobile sites.) Since mobile Safari is capable of keeping up to 8 pages open, this is a considerable amount of information that Safari needs to keep open and readily-accessible, let alone keeping additional page history and assets stored so they can be pulled up immediately. I’m sure there is a pretty good hit on the processor as well since it takes some work to simply render a page from memory, let alone load one as it rolls in over the network.

If you’ve ever used the mobile version of Opera, you know that the “back” action is very fast and visually cool – the pages “swipe” back from right to left, as though they had been sitting in a long row. Granted, Opera uses techniques for optimizing the content to generate smaller pages that work on browser. With the Blackberry browser it seems sometimes is was quick loading a previous page when selecting “back” and sometimes it made a call to the network and refreshed the previous page. I was never quite sure when it was going to do which. The Blackberry proxy servers do some optimization on the server-side, so the pages that the Blackberry browser rendered were somewhat mobilized. (note: I’m referring to the the browsers used prior to OS 4.6 – the browser in the Bold and the Kickstart might provide a different experience.)

Since OS 2.0 of OSX for mobile is bringing the iPhone platform into its toddler years, perhaps we will see an improvement in the responsiveness of Safari this over time?

Where are the Killer Apps?

…on the iPhone. Or should I say, where is the killer functionality? Since the announcement of the iPhone apps store on July 11th, I’ve spent around $40-$50 on apps, and have “researched” many, many more (amazing how you can kill a few evenings looking at app descriptions and screenshots.) In the app store there are tons of games, cool “show off” apps, some productivity and information apps, and some interesting social media tools. Like I said,  I have downloaded many of these and tested them out. I can’t say that I’ve hit them all (there is something like a few thousand up now.) But so far, very few are standing out for me as being must haves.

I really like some of the IM apps, particularly Palringo. I also really like Pandora and AOL Radio for streaming internet radio. And the News Reader RSS app is pretty sweet. But in all of these cases, there is no way to run the app in the background like you can on your desktop computer. This is a big deal, especially in terms of what I like to call the “flow” of the device – the multitasking and switching between apps that make for a fluid mobile experience. Not being able to run apps in the background may not  sound like a big deal, but it really is. Let me explain…

With instant messaging it is important to have a persistent “on” state so your status is visible, you can receive messages, etc.  However, all of the iPhone IM apps shut down as soon as I want to do something else on the device like check my calendar, look something up on the internet, or take a call. And when the app shuts down, any conversations end – just like you went offline. Apple does have a “notification” solution coming in September which will allow indicators to be sent to your device in the background – you can see if someone sent you a message and then open the app to start the conversation. But somehow this seems to put a dent in the user experience of the app. Blackberries and T-Mobile Sidekicks have several options for good instant messaging experiences, all of which run in the background so you feel connected. Pandora and AOL Radio have amazing interfaces, great quality sound, and key functionality. But the fact that I can’t use either of these in the background while doing other tasks also dents the experience (it is interesting though that the iPod part of the iPhone can run in the background). Even the Palm Treo allows for playing internet radio in the background. 

This “not-able-to-run-in-the-background” extends to other apps as well. In particular, RSS newsreaders benefit greatly by being able to download content in the background so that it is ready to go when you open the app. Not on the iPhone – when the app opens it makes a call for data. And you wait. Again, it might not seem like a big deal, but all of these usability hits add up to a less than optimal user experience. If you’ve used an RSS newsreader on your desktop or even Blackberry device, you know how responsive this type of app can be. And you’d also know that the content is available to read offline – say on the airplane or in the subway.

As the “mobile experience” is continually being defined through the plethora of devices, interfaces, and standards, it is important to always be thinking about the overall user experience and to try to leverage the technology where possible. There are many places where focusing on the overall user experience pays high dividends. Mobile device usability is defined by many factors, all of which need to add up to more than just the individual parts. By paying attention to the details, we create a better user experience. 

So maybe Apple’s upcoming notification system will do a good job bringing back some of the usability we’ve come to expect in our desktop machines.  So maybe it is not so much about where are the killer apps, but rather where is the killer functionality that will lead to the killer app. Do location services run in the background – does the iphone “know” where it is even when you don’t have Google Maps open? However, even though the upcoming iPhone OS update (2.1) will include notifications for non-running apps, we will still be limited by the extended functionality/user experience by not allowing multiple apps to run concurrently. It is interesting though that many of the built-in Apple apps can do this – you can play the iPod while using Safari. Mail “listens” for new messages and downloads them even when the app isn’t open. Perhaps Apple will start to let up on the constraints of what apps can run when and we’ll start to see/hear an improvement in the overall iPhone experience…

It’s the platform

Mobile devices, particularly smartphones, are often introduced and talked about as sole entities with this feature and that feature. The spec sheets about the devices and the review of the hardware and software running on them is usually the focal point. But what is often left out is the interaction of the device with the larger system. Sure, reviews tend to include quality of reception on a carrier’s network and what features tend to be locked down (e.g. MMS, IM). But what is often missing is talk about the ecosystem. Here I’m talking about how well the phone is supported through OS updates, how easy it is to find/download/install applications, etc.

The experience of the device – i.e. the full user experience — isn’t about device specifications. If the device is built well and has solid hardware and software under the hood, the specifications shouldn’t matter. In fact, if done well, the particular specs (e.g. camera resolution, screen resolution, speakerphone loudness, etc.) should fade into the background and fall out of focus for the user. The user can then focus on the tasks – sending a message to a friend, taking a picture, placing a call. It is when the hardware and software isn’t up to snuff that they become more obvious, more obtrusive, and tend to interfere with the user experience.

But getting back to the often one-sided reviews – leaving the ecosystem out of the discussion and focusing just on the device provides only half the picture. Getting my first Blackberry – a 7100 from T-Mobile – is a case in point. I had had several Treos and two Sidekicks by then, but was really interested in this device that looked and felt like a phone (tall/narrow) but had smartphone features. I was particularly interested in the modified QWERTY – the SureType keyboard – which seemed to be a nice compromise between the standard T9 entry and a full QWERTY (like on the Treos and Sidekicks). I spent time learning how to navigate the often cryptic menu system. I felt like I was becoming a power user as I learned more and more shortcuts and settings. But what I really started to long for was additional applications. Where do could I find applications for a Blackberry, for my particular Blackberry. I relied on reading Blackberry Forums to find the nuggets, the cool apps, along with the reviews of these apps by discerning Blackberry Forum members. But the apps were all over the place. Often, the could be downloaded from the app’s website. This frequently involved downloading it to your computer and then uploading it to the device during a sync – similar to the Palm Desktop model. Occasionally I’d find direct downloads to my device (which I thought was the coolest thing – no computer involved!) But all of this was work, and it felt like needless work. Why couldn’t all the apps be co-located in one place, searchable by the type of Blackberry I had? And why couldn’t they all be downloaded to the device directly? If I could do it with a few of the apps, why not all?

It seemed to me that RIM should have been in charge of corralling all of these into one place. To me, and I’m sure to a lot of people, having the ability to quickly and easily add functionality to my device so I could do more things was not just a feature, but part of my overall experience. And it seemed that RIM didn’t quite pull this together. Maybe it’s not the device manufacturer’s issue? My frustration was with a particular device, but in a way it was with the carrier as well. Either way, the ecosystem could have been much better and to stay competitive in the consumer space I think creating and maintaining a robust ecosystem aroudn a device is key.

Upcoming Mobile Conferences

Just wanted to highlight a few upcoming mobile conferences. There are many conferences of course, but these are a few that are not too far from Seattle and ones that I’d love to attend…
  • Mobilize 08 – Sept 18, San Francisco.  This conference focuses on the “mobile web (of) today and tomorrow”. Organized by Silicon Valley elder Om Malik, this is a one-day event that has a particularly strong industry/VC/startup influence (Om is an ex-VC). Great stuff at this one:  wide representation including Google Android, Yahoo, Symbian, Cisco, and Adaptive Path.
     
  • Mobile2.0 2008: Nov 1, San Francisco.  A one-day event focused on the future of mobile – what is converging, what new services/features are on the horizon, what we need to be thinking about regarding dev and UX, etc. I’ve heard great things about it and am (hopefully) attending this year. Registration is tentatively scheduled to open by end of August on the site.
     
  • CTIA Wireless 2009: April 1-3, Las Vegas Convention Center.  This is one of the biggest mobile/wireless conventions in the world. Pulls in 40k+ people, with reps from just about every part of the industry (device manufacturers, carriers, developers, etc.) I haven’t been before, but it has always sounded like it was the wireless version of the annual CES – 3 full days to geek out on mobile technology.