Small Footprints, Robotic and Otherwise

Here’s my 11/7/2008 Idealware post, originally published at http://www.idealware.org/blog/2008/11/small-footprints-robotic-and-otherwise.html

As the proud owner of a T-Mobile G1, the first phone out running Google’s Android Mobile Operating System (OS), I wanted to post a bit about the state of the Mobile OS market.  I’ve been using a smartphone since about 1999, when I picked up a proprietary Sprint phone that could sync with my Outlook Contacts and Calendar.  We’ve come a long way; we have a long way to go before the handheld devices in our pocket overcome the compromises and kludges that govern their functionality.  My personal experience/expertise is with Palm Treos, Windows Mobile, and now Android; but I have enough exposure to Blackberries and the iPhone to speak reasonably about them. My focus is a bit broader than “which is the best phone?”  I’m intrigued by which is the best handheld computing platform, and what does that mean to cash-strapped orgs who are wrestling with what and how they should be investing in them.

I wrote earlier on establishing Smartphone policies in your org.  The short advice there was that the key Smartphone application is email, and you should restrict your users to phones that offer the easiest, most stable integration with your office email system.  That’s still true.  But other considerations include, how compatible are these phones with other business applications, such as Salesforce or our donor database? How easy/difficult are they to use and support? How expensive are they?  What proprietary, marketing concerns on the part of the vendors will impact our use of them?

The big players in the Smartphone OS field are, in somewhat random order:

  • Palm: PalmOS
  • Nokia: Symbian*
  • RIM: Blackberry OS
  • Microsoft: Windows Mobile
  • Apple: iPhone
  • Google: Android

Palm is the granddaddy of Mobile OSes, and it shows.  The interface is functional and there are a lot of apps to support it, but there isn’t much recent development for the platform. Palm has been working on a major, ground -up rewrite for about two years, code-named Nova, but it has yet to come to light, and there’s a serious question now as to whether they’ve taken too long.  Whatever they come up with would have to be pretty compelling to grab the attention of customers and developers in light of Apple and Google’s offerings.

  • App Support: C (lots, but not much new; Treos do Activesync)
  • Ease of Use: C (functional, but not modern interface)
  • Cost: C (Not sure if there’s much more than Palm Treo’s available, $200-200 w/new contract)

Nokia’s Symbian platform is notable for being powerful and open source.  It’s more popular outside of the US, I’m not sure if there are any Symbian smartphones offered directly from US carriers, which makes them pretty expensive.  They do support Activesync, the Microsoft Exchange connector, and have a mature set of applications available.

  • App Support: B (Activesync, lots of apps, but missing some business apps, like Salesforce)
  • Ease of Use: B (Strong interface, great multimedia)
  • Cost: D (Over the roof in US, where contracts don’t subsidize expense).

The Blackberry was the first OS to do push email, and it gained a lot of market and product loyalty as a result.  But, to get there, they put up their own server that subscribes to your email system and then forwards the mail to your phone.  This was great before Microsoft and Google gave us opportunities to set up direct connections to the servers.  Now it’s a kludge, offering more opportunities for things to break.  They do, however, have a solid OS with strong business support – they are either on top or second to Microsoft (with Apple charging up behind them) in terms of number of business apps available for the platform.  So they’re not going anywhere, they’re widely available, and a good choice if email isn’t your primary smartphone application.

  • App Support: A- (lots of everything except Activesync)
  • Ease of Use: B (Solid OS that they keep improving)
  • Cost: B (Range of models at decent prices)

Windows Mobile has broad third party support and powerful administrative functions.  It comes with Activesync, of course.  There are tons of smartphones running it, more than any other OS. But the user interface, in this writer’s opinion (which I know isn’t all that pro-Microsoft, but I swear I’m objective), is miserable.  With Windows Mobile (WinMo) 5, they made a move to emulate the Windows Desktop OS, with a Start Menu and Programs folder.  This requires an excessive amount of work to navigate.  If you use more than the eight apps (or less, depending on model/carrier), you have your work cut out for you to run that ninth app. And the notification system treats every event — no matter how trivial — as something you need to be interrupted for and acknowledge.  It’s hard to imagine how Microsoft is going to compete with this clunker, and you have to wonder how the millions they spend on UI research allowed them to go this route.

  • App Support: A (tons of apps out there)
  • Ease of Use: D (the most clunky mobile OS.  Period.)
  • Cost: A (The variety of phones means you get a range of prices and hardware choices)

Apple’s iPhone represents a leap in UI design that instantly placed it on top of the pack.  Best smartphone ever, right out of the first box.  Apple clearly read the research they commissioned, unlike Microsoft, and thought about how one would interact with a small, restricted device in ways that make it capable and expansive.  The large, sensitive touch screen with multi-touch capabilities rocks.  The web browser is almost as good as the one you use on your desktop (and this is important – web browsers on the four systems above are all very disappointing – only Apple and Google get this right).  The iPhone really shines, of course, as a multimedia device.  It’s a full-fledged iPod and it plays videos as well as a handheld device could.  As a business phone, it’s adequate, not ideal.  While it supports Activesync and has great email and voicemail clients, it lacks a physical keyboard and cut+paste — features that all of their competitors provide (although the keyboard varies by phone model).  So if you do a lot of writing on your phone (as I do), this is a weak point on the iPhone.

  • App Support: A (it’s still pretty new, but development has been fast and furious)
  • Ease of Use: A- (Awesome, actually, except for text processing)
  • Cost: B (since they dropped it to $199).

Android is Google’s volley into the market, and it stands in a class with Apple that is far above the rest of the pack.  The user interface is remarkably functional and geared toward making all of the standard things simple to do, even with one hand.  The desktop is highly customizable, allowing you to put as many of the things you use a touch away.  This phone is in a class with the iPhone, but has made a few design choices that balance the two out.  The iPhone makes better use of the touch screen, with multi-touch features that Google left out.  But the iPhone is has far less customizable an interface.  And, of course, the first Android phone has a full keyboard and (limited) cut and paste.  It is, however, brand new, and I’ll discuss the future below, but right now the third party app market is nascent.  Today, this phone is best suited for early adopters.

  • App Support: C (it will be A in a year or so)
  • Ease of Use: A
  • Cost: A (G1’s are selling for as low as $150w/new plan)

The big question, if you’re investing in a platform, is where are these all going?  Smartphone operating systems are more plentiful and competitive than the desktop variety, where Windows is still the big winner with Apple and the Unix/Linux variants pushing to get in.  But the six systems listed above are all widely deployed.  Palm and Nokia have the least penetration and press these days, but they’re far from knocked out.  Nokia could make a big push to get Symbian into the market and Palm’s Nova could prove to be really compelling — at one point, Palm was king of these devices.  Today, the interesting battle is between the other four, Microsoft, RIM, Apple and Google.  Of these four, all but Android are commercial OSes; Android is fully open source.  RIM and Apple are hardware/software manufacturers, building their own devices and not licensing their OSes to others.  Windows Mobile and Android are available for any hardware manufacturer to deploy.  This suggests two things about the future:

Proprietary hardware/software combos have a tenuous lead.  RIM and Apple are at the top of the market right now.  Clearly, being able to design your OS and hardware in tandem makes for smoother devices and more reliability.  But this edge will wane as hardware standards develop (and they are developing).  At that point, the variety of phones sporting Windows and Google might overwhelm the proprietary vendors.  Apple is big now, but this strategy has always kept them in a niche in the PC market.  They dominate in the MP3 player world, but they got that right and made a killing before anyone could catch up; that edge doesn’t seem to be as strong in the mobile market.

Open Source development won’t be tied to the manufacturer’s profit margin. Android’s status as open source is a wild card (Nokia is Open Source, too, so some of this applies).  Apple and Microsoft have already alienated developers with some of their restrictive policies.  If Android gets wide adoption, which seems likely (Sprint, Motorola, HTC and T-Mobile are all part of Google’s Open Handset alliance, and both AT&T and Verizon are contemplating Android phones), the lack of restrictions on the platform and the Android market (Google’s Android software store, integrated with the OS) could grab a significant percentage of the developer’s market.  I’ve been pleased to see how quickly apps have been appearing in the first few weeks of the G1’s availability.

If I were Microsoft, I’d consider isolating the WinMo development team from the rest of the campus.  Trying to leverage our familiarity with their desktop software has resulted in a really poor UI, but their email/groupware integration is excellent.  They need to dramatically rethink what a smartphone is — it does a lot of the same things that a computer does, but it isn’t a laptop.  Apple should be wondering whether their “develop your app and we’ll decide whether you can distribute it when you’re finished” approach can stand up to the Android threat.  They need to review their restrictive policies.  RIM has to fight for relevance – as customer loyalty, which they built up with their early email superiority fades, well, didn’t you notice that Palm and RIM the only names in our list that don’t have huge additional businesses to leverage?  And we, the smartphone users, need to see whether supporting Android — which has lived up to a lot of its promise, so far — isn’t a better horse for us to run on, because it’s open and extendable without the oversight of any particular vendor.

* I have to own up that I’m least familiar with Symbian; a lot of my analysis is best guess in this case, based on what I do know.

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