1. The new iPad might not be very impressive on paper. But who cares?

    Posted March 8, 2012 in mobile, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    Yesterday Apple revealed the new iPad. You can read all about it elsewhere or go right to the source if you want to buy one.

    As usual the announcement was preceded by feverish speculation. Would the new device come with iOS 6? Was it going to allow users to ‘touch’ pixels (or tixels) through advanced haptic feedback technology? And what about Siri?

    The answer to all these questions turned out to be “no”, but some new features did make it in. First and foremost was the Retina display, which doubles the screen resolution. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this – talk about display resolution never really captivates ‘normal’ people – but it does matter.

    The other enhancements possibly fall into the “so what” category. Take the support for 4G and LTE connections. If you’re in the UK you might well ask, support for what? These are new standards for mobile networks that are becoming common in north America, but they’re still some way off here. So that enhancement isn’t really relevant to British users.

    And then there’s the new quad-core processor. The less said about that the better. It’s not that it isn’t important – it’s just that it really doesn’t excite consumers. Remember in the early 2000s when Windows devotees would mock the lower clock speeds of PowerPC CPUs, believing this proved the inferiority of Apple machines? You probably don’t: it turned out that no-one cared. Apple refused to join a CPU arms race and it turns out that they were right.

    So this leaves Apple with a new product announcement that is evolutionary rather than evolutionary. No freaky futuristic stuff, no “one more thing”. But does it matter?

    I don’t think it matters at all really. The iPad dominates the tablet market and there’s nothing on the immediate horizon that’s going to change that. When Windows 8 launches it’ll be in a battle against Android for second place, but that could end up being a pretty small prize to fight for. There’s a more tangible threat to the iPad from the Kindle Fire but Amazon has work to do if it’s going to convince people that these products belong in the same device category. Apple’s dominance of the tablet market is ensured for the foreseeable future.

    Given all this, throwing new features at the dominant product in an attempt to revolutionise it would be a bad move. When you’re behind, the “hail mary pass” – a single recklessly ambitious scheme to stave off disaster – is a good strategy. But when you’re ahead that’s the last thing you want to do. It’s what Microsoft did with Vista, and it ended up spending millions giving the world a product it didn’t need. Apple isn’t going to be “doing a Vista” with the iPad any time soon.

  2. QR codes have many flaws, but at least one estate agent thinks they’re here to stay

    Posted September 18, 2011 in mobile, user centred design  |  1 Comment so far

    There’s been a bit of discussion lately about QR Codes, those blocky visual tags that try to make the real world machine-readable.

    They’ve been with us for a while and, unlike NFC, most of us have had phones capable of using them for some time. But have you used QR codes more than once or twice in your life?

    I certainly haven’t. Maybe in five years nostalgic 20-somethings will ask each other, “hey do you remember QR codes?”, and they will, but in the same way as my generation remembers laser discs or Global Hypercolour T-shirts: we knew they existed, but never really made them a part of our lives. There are too many points of failure:

    Points of failure when using QR codes

    Points of failure when using QR codes

    Anyway, not everyone agrees with me about QR codes. Recently I came across this sign in an estate agent’s window on Upper Street, Islington:

    "You'll be seeing a lot more of these around"

    "You'll be seeing more and more of these around" - sign in an Islington estate agent's window

    Maybe they’re right, but I’m still not convinced.

    It’s not that the fundamental idea is bad. Building bridges between the physical and virtual worlds makes sense, and hyperlinks or metadata embedded in real-world objects is an obvious way of doing that. But for the idea to succeed the execution has to be far more elegant than this.

  3. The long countdown to Android 2.1

    Posted June 19, 2010 in mobile  |  4 Comments so far

    For the last eight years, my mobile phone usage has followed a simple, predictable routine. Every year in June or July, I get tired of my current phone and pester Orange into giving me a new one.

    This is triggered by two things. First, I’ll be bored with the old phone. By now it’ll seem annoying, clunky and over-familiar, even though a year ago it looked really exciting and futuristic a year ago.

    Second, a new crop of phones will typically be catching my eye. These new phones and the life-transforming features they offer will seem – you guessed it – really exciting and futuristic.

    This routine saw me move from one Windows Mobile phone to the next – I’d been a WinMo user since 2003’s  Motorola MPx200 proto-smartphone. But last year I took a more dramatic step, abandoning Windows Mobile in favour of my first Android device: the HTC Hero.

    Out with the old, in with the newFast forward to today, and my HTC Hero is approaching its first birthday. As expected, I’m getting the urge to upgrade. But I’m trying to fight that urge. And helping me fight it has been the promise of Android 2.1.

    In the modern world of smartphones, and especially Android, the idea is that you don’t have to upgrade your hardware to get a better experience. Occasionally, a new release of your OS or firmware will come out which pretty much gives you a new device.

    I like that idea, because although I switch phones often it’s because of features rather than simple “gear-lust”. My main motivation behind each switch has been to ‘get more internet’ on my phone. This is why I was happy to put up with unsexy Windows Mobile devices for so long.

    Orange SPV C600 - it's no iPhone

    So when HTC announced that Android 2.1 would be released for the HTC Hero, I was pretty happy. My phone would get better and I wouldn’t have to pester Orange.

    I was even happier when HTC announced that the update would be released in February. I didn’t mind when this was subsequently changed to March. When it slipped to April, I was philosophical: better late than ever, and in the old days stuff like this didn’t happen at all.

    But other HTC Hero owners were far less patient. Lots of anger and annoyance erupted each time the release date slipped, and many pledged never to buy an HTC product – or even an Android phone – again. I thought this was all a bit over the top (after all, a HTC Hero running Android 1.5 isn’t exactly a hunk of junk). Then the April release date slipped, and this time it was worse: it slipped back to June! So I removed my blue UN peacekeeper helmet, took up a pitchfork, and joined the baying mob of enraged HTC Hero owners.

    When June finally came round, I started checking the HTC and Orange websites frequently in the hope of seeing a freshly posted upgrade before anyone else. I became gradually more hostile towards my phone. And then disaster struck – the Yammer application, which had become essential for keeping in touch with my office, stopped working in Android 1.5!

    At that point I stopped simply wanting Android 2.1 and started needing it. Since then I’ve been searching Google and checking websites every single day for the upgrade. In fact I’ve become something of an expert in the workings of the Android 2.1 rumour mill, which has been churning away like mad for the last couple of weeks.

    So now we’re in the second half of June and the signs are encouraging – at least Android 2.1 has now appeared in America and east Asia. But in Europe there’s still nothing. Some people have triggered an update by shifting the phone’s calendar several months into the future. Sadly enough, I tried this, but it failed.

    The HTC Hero is now in “endgame” as far as I’m concerned. If the Android 2.1 upgrade hits before June 30th, its tenure will be extended. But my yearly urge to switch is hard to suppress. If Android 2.1 doesn’t turn up, that Hero is headed for ebay and I’ll be in the market for yet another exciting and futuristic new device.

    EDIT: Shortly after posting the above my impatience got the better of me, so I took Tristan’s advice and installed an unsupported Android 2.1 ROM. Android 1.5 is already a distant memory. In case you’re interested, I installed VillainROM 10.3 and these instructions came in very handy.

  4. Are mobile apps here to stay?

    Posted December 17, 2009 in mobile  |  3 Comments so far

    A few weeks ago a guest speaker came to our office to talk about mobile apps. His company produced a lot of them, for pretty big brands. He knew his stuff: the team here was both impressed and engaged.

    But an exchange during the following Q&A session stuck in my mind later. One of our directors asked a question: is the mobile app destined to be a transitory phenomenon, something that will fade away as mobile browsers become capable of delivering the same functionality?

    The speaker was adamant that this was not the case and that mobile apps were here to stay. He felt that Google’s increasing preference for mobile browser apps over native apps was misguided and that Google were wrong on this one. Mobile browsers were so far from rivalling the functionality of native apps that it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

    I was tempted to counter this point by bringing up the iPhone’s support for HTML 5 and starting a detailed discussion about in-browser capabilities. But this wasn’t the main subject of the talk and I’m in no way an expert on HTML 5, so I decided to keep my mouth shut instead.

    In the weeks since the talk, however, I’ve often found myself turning this question over and over again in my head. And the more I think about it, the more I feel that mobile apps are basically doomed – or at least I hope they are.

    Don’t get me wrong – they play an important role. It’s good that so many people today see phones as devices for more than just calling or texting, and the iPhone and its suite of native apps is largely to thank for this. But in the longer run, the publication and distribution model they are based on has to go.

    The idea of tying software to a single hardware platform is anachronistic, uncompetitive and limits user choice. This is bad enough when you’re dealing with computers, but it’s even worse when the devices are as personal as mobile phones. People should be free to choose a different phone without needing to buy new versions of the software tools that have become integral to their lives.

    Aside from user choice, there’s a more practical reason why the native app model is unsustainable. Developers won’t want to keep maintaining multiple codebases for the apps they produce, especially when there’s the option of building an equally functional in-browser app which any standards-based client can run. And although Apple might hope to render this point irrelevant by establishing monopolistic domination of the smartphone market, relieving developers of the need to consider other platforms, current research indicates that they won’t succeed.

    The smartphone OS market will be more fragmented in 2012 than in 2009

    The smartphone OS market will be more fragmented in 2012 than in 2009

    A more fragmented smartphone OS market will increasingly compel developers to support separate codebases for Windows Mobile, RIM, Android, Symbian and the iPhone. But as mobile browsers become capable of delivering similar interactivity, serious developers will become inclined to start using the browser as the platform instead. This will be a good thing for users and the industry alike.

    If I’m correct and native apps do fade away over time, we may look back on the era of pointless mobile apps as just one among many strange blips in the history of technology. But despite some early rumblings from notable developers, native mobile apps will be with us for some time yet – and, in the medium term at least, they still have an important role to play in encouraging mainstream adoption of the mobile internet.

    Edit: This article was later reposted on Android and Me and attracted numerous comments. Click here to see the conversation on Android and Me

    Edit 2: Stephen Fulljames shared a couple of links related to this post. PhoneGap is a toolkit for developing mobile apps in HTML & JavaScript. And this post from front-end consultant Peter-Paul Koch provides some background to his work with Vodafone on mobile browser compatibility and W3C widgets.

  5. Skyfire – a browser for Windows Mobile

    Posted September 25, 2008 in mobile, software  |  No Comments so far

    Yep, I’m a Windows Mobile user—although I may not be one for too much longer. It looks like there’s going to be a long wait for Windows Mobile 7 (I’m on version 6) and the new HTC/Google Android device has piqued my interest. But for the time being I’m stuck in WinMo world.

    I was therefore glad to read that Skyfire, a Windows Mobile browser that’s been in private beta for several months, has now been released to the public. And although it’s still in beta, it’s pretty much complete.

    Skyfire aims to provide a “real” web experience on a mobile handset. Rather than viewing (at best) mobile versions of sites or (at worst) the mangled results of mobile devices trying to display bad HTML/CSS code, Skyfire seeks to render sites in the same way as your desktop/laptop computer might. And from what I’ve been able to tell so far, it does this pretty well.

    How does this work? Well, the rendering engine for Skyfire doesn’t actually reside on your mobile device itself – that would put way too much strain its CPU. Instead, your device only connects to one of Skyfire’s servers. That server then loads the web pages you request, renders them in full, and streams the rendered output down to your phone.

    The server, of course, doesn’t have the same CPU limitations as your phone, and is therefore able to fully render web pages containing Flash and video. Even bad HTML & CSS code doesn’t cause it problems. It’s quite an interesting experience, seeing Flash and video run so well on a phone.

    There is a downside, however. Server-side rendering takes a horrible strain on a phone’s battery life, and my HTC TyTN II is already struggling to last a whole day without charge. Also, if you’re not on an unlimited data plan, this could be a more expensive way to browse the web than simply using pocket IE.

    So, although I’m pretty impressed by Skyfire, I think I’ll be restricting my use of it to when I’m on a wireless LAN and have my phone on charge.