1. Benedict Evans: the cut-down version of the internet is on the PC

    Posted May 15, 2015 in links  |  No Comments so far

    Benedict Evans writes that we should stop thinking of mobile devices offering a constrained, semi-functional version of the internet experience available on PCs:

    We’ve always thought about the mobile internet as a limited thing compared to the desktop internet, because of the constraints of hardware and network. Today, obviously, those constraints are a lot less than they were in the featurephone world, but it can still feel natural to talk of the PC as the most fully-featured version of the internet, and mobile as the place where you have to make lots of allowances for limitations of various kinds, just as for a smart watch…

    I’d suggest that we should think about inverting this – it’s actually the PC that has the limited, basic, cut-down version of the internet.

    I get where Evans is coming from. I felt that way after buying my first proper smartphone—not the Windows Mobile monstrosities that I used to wrestle with in the pre-iPhone days, but my first recognisably modern smartphone, an HTC Hero back in 2009.

    It was clear right away that the device was designed and built to be on the internet, while desktop operating systems and first-gen smartphones still felt like machines from another age which had had internettiness retrofitted on to them. Up until then I’d always had to sync new phones with horrible software (Microsoft ActiveSync for example) but this was the first phone I’d had that just did all that over the internet without making a big deal of it. Thinking about the potential of the thing was overwhelming and nearly gave me a panic attack.

    What wasn’t clear to me then, though, was just how much these devices would redefine the internet by breaking it out of the browser’s sandbox, by disconnecting it from the desktop PC’s power socket. Desktop & laptop PCs still do a lot of things that mobile devices don’t and I don’t see them becoming obsolete any time soon. But their relationship with the internet is, and always will be, far less direct, far less intimate, than that enjoyed by mobile devices.

  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. Are we approaching the age of the disappearing computer?

    Posted February 7, 2011 in hardware  |  3 Comments so far

    Technology is getting smaller and more powerful all the time. Today’s phones pack more punch than the bulky PCs that sat on our desks ten years ago. Where is this trend going? Computers clearly aren’t going anywhere, but could the computer – the physical device we actually use – become so small that it effectively disappears?

    Let’s start by looking at what makes up a computer. For the sake of this post, we’ll assume there are two simple components – the “brain” and the “body”.

    The body and brain of a computer

    The body and brain of a computer (click for full size)

    The brain (CPU, hard drive, memory, etc) does the actual work. It gets smaller all the time, which has led to things like laptops, smartphones and tablets which only became possible because the brain got small enough. And if the brain keeps shrinking, even if it becomes microscopically small, that’s not a problem – after all, we don’t have to be able to see it or touch it.

    The body is different because it must be big enough to remain usable. Keyboards the size of postage stamps wouldn’t be much fun, would they? The human form sets a minimum size threshold for the computer’s body.

    Anyone who’s been through a 30-minute Angry Birds marathon will have learnt the hard way that smartphones aren’t great for sustained daily use (and, yes, I’m talking from personal experience here). We couldn’t use them like we use our main computers, which is fine because they can’t actually do what we need our main computers to do.

    So far, the cramped form factors of these handheld devices are consistent with their capabilities – but this might be about to change. We’re nearly at the stage where the smartphone’s body can easily house a brain capable of working as a desktop or laptop PC.

    The extended device

    As smartphone’s brains become ready to replace our main PCs, the only thing stopping them will be their small bodies and the discomfort caused by extended usage. But does this need to be the case? What if the smartphone’s brain extended itself into larger, more ergonomic bodies?

    Smartphone brain

    Tomorrow's powerful smartphones could control a whole range of devices (click for full size)

    I’ll admit, I find it difficult to get my head around such a small device projecting itself on to a large TV screen. Something about it seems counterintuitive. But I can see the benefits, and the technology’s already heading in this direction.

    The latest batch of HTC smartphones feature a technology called DNLA which lets mobiles stream video to televisions and other compatible display devices. If your TV isn’t bleeding-edge enough to support DLNA, you can get an adapter to do the job instead. So you can use your TV to watch the movies on your phone, which is obviously preferable to spending two hours hunched over your Desire HD.

    A more innovative approach has been taken by Motorola, whose forthcoming Atrix smartphone will be accompanied by a special dock – a much larger “body” that, when plugged in, turns the phone’s form factor into a laptop.

    Motorola Atrix with laptop dock

    This is much more interesting than just streaming video to a television. It represents a dramatic decoupling of the computer’s brain from its body, and points to a future where phones, as primary computing devices, are accessed through a wide range of interfaces. When we pick them up and turn them on they’ll behave like phones, but we’ll also interact with them through numerous devices in our immediate environment.

    Today’s computer may gradually vanish – our laptops and PCs becoming mere peripherals, mindless bodies controlled by the brains in our pockets. And it might go even further as the brain continues to shrink. Who’s to say that a similar fate doesn’t await the smartphone itself, that they won’t also become mere interface devices controlled by computers we wear as watches or jewellery? This might sound a bit sci-fi, but research fields like ambient intelligence and ubiquitous computing have even more radical ideas than these about where we might be heading.

  4. An open assault on the walled garden

    Posted December 21, 2009 in strategy  |  No Comments so far

    Mobile telcos charge us for the texts, minutes and megabytes we use. They buy our loyalty by heavily subsidising our increasingly expensive phones. And they’re terrified of becoming like the people who supply our electricity or gas. They’re terrified that one day they’ll be nothing but interchangeable providers of a commodity, irrelevant logos printed on tedious, humdrum bills.

    This is why their marketing focuses so much on music, culture and lifestyle. It’s why O2 customers get priority tickets to concerts at the arenas bearing their name. It’s why Orange customers get half-price cinema tickets on Wednesdays. And it’s why T-Mobile runs that insufferable campaign about Josh and his ever-growing band.

    T-Mobile advert screenshot

    Join the b(r)and: T-Mobile want to be associated with music and lifestyle

    Customers are being encouraged to associate the brands of mobile operators with a certain type of lifestyle experience instead of just voice and data. This experience extends from the marketing to exclusive content services and even the interfaces and feature sets of the handsets themselves.

    In this sense, mobile telcos are offering their customers a walled garden, in which the mobile internet is presented as part of a convenient package branded Orange, AT&T, T-Mobile or O2. If your internet memory goes back as far as the mid-1990s this might sound slightly familiar. But in the next ten years this walled garden is due to come under direct assault.

    Charlie Stross has posted an excellent, thought-provoking piece looking at how the next ten years might pan out for the mobile industry – and making it sound in some ways like a technology rehash of the Great Game, with Apple and Google as the chief protagonists.

    As Stross sees it, Apple and Google both want to destroy the walled garden built by telcos but for different reasons and in different ways. As a premium marque, Apple wants to work with telcos while preventing their brands from adulterating the Apple experience:

    Apple don’t want to destroy the telcos; they just want to use them as a conduit to sell their user experience… [they] want to maintain the high quality Apple-centric user experience and sell stuff to their users through the walled garden of the App Store and the iTunes music/video store

    Google, on the other hand, wants people to view more of its ads. To make this happen, Google wants to fundamentally reshape the mobile industry:

    I think Google are pursuing a grand strategic vision of destroying the cellco’s entire business model… turning 3G data service into a commodity… getting consumers to buy unlocked SIM-free handsets [like the Nexus One]… and ultimately do the Google thing to all your voice messages [through Google Voice] as well as your email and web access.

    These distinct strategies both threaten the mobile telcos, who stand to lose any emotional connection they have with their customers either way. But this doesn’t mean that Apple and Google are going to be bedfellows:

    Apple’s iPhone has been good for Google: iPhone users do far more web surfing — and Google ad-eyeballing — than regular phone users. But Apple want to maintain…  the walled garden of the App Store and iTunes… [and] Google can’t slap their ads all over those media. So it’s going to end in handbags at dawn … eventually.

    The piece (here’s the link again by the way) has me thinking that the coming decade in mobile networks will be much like the previous decade was in land-line internet service provision.

    If Charlie Stross is right, the idea of the telco as provider of an experience will not last the decade, meaning that flash mobsOrange Rock Corps and Josh Ward will become nothing but a dim and distant memory. And customers will hopefully have greater choice over how they use mobile networks, which would be nothing but a good thing in my opinion.

  5. 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.