Mobile is the future. As we move closer to the much-hyped era of cloud computing, everything will be online. Desktops will serve little purpose but as gateways to the internet that holds our data and the bulk of our interactions. Mobile, however, will still remain an important platform front in the face of a new generation of Web 2.0 applications. As recent announcements by Apple and Google show, the war for control of your mobile phone is serious.
State of the Handset
As technology becomes more sophisticated, users are carrying more and more in their hands. Years ago, it would have been unfathomable for users to carry what amounts to a music player, a digital camera, and a PDA in their pockets. Now that’s possible, and there’s a whole lot more being done with the mobile platform. While much of it is still relegated to expensive phones like Nokia’s N95 and the Apple iPhone, technological advances are slowly seeping their way into the lower-class line of telephones that most consumers use. Bigger processors and batteries are needed to work with all of this equipment, and the processors in these phones are increasing in speed as well.
The new hardware has prompted a deluge of new, sophisticated software for mobile phones that helps users take advantage of the new technological power of their phone and increasingly widespread access to the internet. Truly sophisticated internet applications are run best with 3G data plans, which are just appearing on phones that top the lines of American carriers. It will be a little while before full adoption of 3G is achieved on the majority of mobile phones.
Presently, there are four players in the phone OS market, the Symbian OS, Windows Mobile, Blackberry OS, and Palm OS. Symbian is a variant of Linux available on many Nokia, LG, and Sony Ericsson phones, and the functionality that it gives users is hard to find elsewhere. Oftentimes, however, it proves very difficult for the average user to interact with. Additionally, most Symbian phones are expensive and several must be purchased through the phone manufacturer and not through a carrier. Windows Mobile is spread out on a wide variety of phones on a multitude of carriers. It grants users a traditional experience and tight integration with both the desktop Windows and enterprise-level mail, calendar, etc. RIM’s Blackberry OS, limited to devices manufactured by the company, is in most widespread usage throughout the enterprise level. With incredible tools for the business market, they’ve seen rapid adoption in that field. Palm, who used to be the market’s heavyweight, has now been reduced to a small player.
Noticing an opportunity to jump ahead of the competition, Google launched its own attempt at capturing the mobile platform several months ago with the launch of Android, an open source mobile platform designed to be distributed across a wide variety of phones. While open source endeavors have targeted the mobile phone, none have had much success. OpenMoko’s Neo1973 phone has been popular among hackers and programmers but hasn’t seen widespread adoption by other groups. Google’s Android platform launched with the support of industry veterans and companies that can truly help the company to make a change in the mobile industry. Carriers, hardware creators, and software creators have all joined the effort to make Android the predominant mobile operating system.
Demonstrations by Google show a smooth user interface and tons of capabilities that take advantage of new technology. Android finally makes an attractive, easy to use operating system available to the masses. That, at least, is Google’s hope. Google has stimulated development by creating a seed fund of money to invest in companies that develop for the Android OS. Winning control of the mobile phone is obviously a very important priority for Google, and they’re not playing games with Android. Scheduled to be released towards the end of 2008, it’s shaping up to make a huge splash in the mobile industry. The company is still in talks with many US carriers about becoming part of the project, and there’s no reason to suspect that the plan won’t be rejected. Mobile carriers have enjoyed control over the software installed on distributed phones for years, and ceding that control would change their business model, which currently places lots of weight on mobile downloads like ringtones, movies, etc.
The iPhone is without a doubt one of the most revolutionary mobile phones on the market (disclaimer: I’m a proud owner.). While other phones provide similar capabilities, none have been able to put everything together in a package as easily accessible and usable as the iPhone. Critics gripe about the iPhone’s poor camera and the EDGE connection, but it’s seen incredible sales and has received tons of praise from industry insiders. The Safari browser, perhaps the hallmark feature of the device, is the first mobile browser to allow users to peruse full websites, rendered nearly without any alterations. It’s not a pocket-sized version of the internet; it’s the whole thing.
Today, Apple took another step in an attempt to accelerate the iPhone’s sales and growth. Steve Jobs’ emphasis on web applications at the device’s launch have created a market of more than 1,000 of them, each created to fit on the iPhone’s gorgeous screen. Yet Steve Jobs acknowledged in October that the phone needed native applications. The announcement came today at an Apple event, where Jobs unveiled both a Software Development Kit, new enterprise features, and a roadmap for iPhone firmware 2.0. The enterprise features bring the iPhone up to the level of a Blackberry or a Windows Mobile phone for corporations. No longer is the phone just for consumers. That, however, wasn’t the biggest news. The new SDK allows developers to finally take advantage of the iPhone’s dozens of innovations – including the accelerometer and the multitouch technology – to build their own applications. Examples of applications included games by SEGA (Super Monkey Ball), a CRM application by Salesforce.com, medical information, and games by Apple and EA.
Perhaps the biggest news to come out of Steve Jobs’ event today was the iFund, a new venture capital fund designed to invest $100 million in development of iPhone applications. The fund, managed by venture capital legends Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, seeks to capitalize on what partner John Doerr claims is a “revolutionary new platform,” something that is “a rare and prized opportunity for entrepreneurs.” Kleiner Perkins claims the focus will be on “location based services, social networking, mCommerce, communication, and entertainment.” I wonder if the fund will be used strictly to pay for native apps, or if it can be applied to web apps that have an iPhone front as well. This new strategy, putting tons of money out there for potential developers, may lure more talent to the iPhone. With a great group of third party applications, Apple’s iPhone may truly become the “must have” device for the sophisticated mobile user.
A New Financial Trend
The establishment of the venture funds by both Apple (KPCB) and Google signals a new and different trend in financing for companies. Company-specific venture funds help to propel growth and encourage intense development. The interesting distinguishing factor of the two funds – other than the fact that Apple’s ($100 million) is ten times larger than Google’s ($10 million) – is the fact that Google’s has no strings attached. Apple’s, meanwhile, is a venture capital fund, meant to bankroll companies that have a shot at success in becoming a public company. Google simply is paying developers that create great products. It will be interesting to see if that leads to a difference in the types of developers attracted to both platforms. Regardless, the tremendous amount of money available to developers will no doubt help to spur further innovation for both of these mobile platforms.
The Big Question
So, at the end of this, who comes out on top? There are endless examples of how money doesn’t always solve problems (looking at Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid is a great example). Apple, despite all the money they have thrown at this iPhone SDK, still have only one device on which the software will run. If Google continues recruiting operators, handset makers, and other companies, they could have their software on dozens, or even hundreds, of different phones. If all a developer is looking for is sheer volume for their application, they would have to go with Google at this point.
The potential advantage Apple has is the quality of their hardware. The demonstrations given onstage showed sophisticated games that really took advantage of key iPhone features like the accelerometer. One game, made by Apple itself, had the
user steering a ship by using the accelerometer. It’ll be hard to do something like that for Android phones, when developers can’t be sure that the user will have a built-in accelerometer. Engadget has a great chart that compares the recently announced SDK with some other mobile operating systems.
The iPhone could be the impetus that gets mobile social networking started. If the SDK ships in June as it’s expected to, then it’ll beat Android to the market by several months (it’s projected to come around late 2008). The location-aware feature of the iPhone makes it one of the most widely deployed phones that is apt for location-based social networking. While it’s been available on phones like Nokia’s previously, the iPhone is the first to bring very sophisticated technology to a demographic that’s not always so technologically advanced.
Mobile is becoming more important each day, and a look at today’s kids show how important it will be for our future. Walking down the street, it’s impossible not to notice the number of young people with their heads buried in their phone, either texting or on the internet. When they mature, they’ll want to own a phone that does social networking, mapping, games, and more. The phone that will provide that is being developed now, and a battle is on for talented developers between Apple and Google, with countless others sure to join the battle.