smartphones

Fiction: How Steve Jobs Cuckolds AT&T

Steve shimmers into a bar, materializes next to Dan Hesse, Sprint’s CEO, crying in his mojito and whispers: I can fulfill your fondest dream. You’re the Devil, go away! No, I’m merely Steve Jobs and I want nothing to do with your soul or your chiseled body. Relax, it’s just about money.

A little bit of context before we move to the How of Steve’s bargain.

In the US, we have three main carriers (sorry, T-Mobile), AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. Verizon appears to have the better, more modern (EVDO) network.
AT&T is rapidly upgrading to what is known as 3G, a world standard, competitive but not compatible with EVDO. Sprint, the smaller one, has EVDO, almost identical to Verizon, it is losing ground to the two big ones. The Sprint-Nextel merger is a disaster, to the point where Sprint wants to get rid of the company it acquired for $35 billions in 2005. Sprint’s revenue is falling: -11% when compared to the same second quarter last year, this in spite of introducing a $99 Everything plan, unlimited voice, data, music, video. “Some restrictions apply”: look at the minuscule print here, at the bottom of the screen, tiny white characters on a black background. In the almost illegible but instructive gibberish, they have the nerve to add: “Other restrictions apply. See store or sprint.com for details”. But I am on the Details Page on sprint.com!
(Intrigued, I checked: Verizon does a better job of spelling out its conditions and AT&T has the best organized one of all three.)

And, for the first six months of 2008, Sprint has lost 2 million subscribers, nothing to do with the reality and the perception of Apple smartphone sales: probably more than 10 million units in 2008, a majority of in the US.
Now we understand why the CEO is in his cups.

Steve whispers: Dan, look at the iPod Touch here. We’ve added a microphone, already available from third parties, and we grafted a Sprint radio, liberated from Jeff’s Kindle. It’s not a telephone. No, we have this exclusivity agreement with Ma Bell. In 2007, we let them say it was for five years. Now, with our 3G product, it’s been “extended” to 2010. Who knows, next year we’ll extend it to 2009.

Offer this iPod Touch with one of your All You Can Packetize plans. I’m sure the iPhone developers will put one or more Skype-like applications on it, VoIP software. You won’t mind, right? You’re not as uptight as AT&T outlawyering the use of an iPhone as a 3G laptop modem. This iPod is not a phone, it’s an Internet device, you’ll sell millions of them, your errant subscribers will return to Sprint’s fold. And you’ll keep your job. What do you say?

Awright, stop drinking that stuff and sign here. –JLG

Launchpad Chicken: MobileMe and Sync Trouble

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Simple is hard. Easy is harder. Invisible is hardest. So goes one of the many proverbs of our computer lore. As Apple found out last month with the MobileMe launch misfires, the lofty promise of “Exchange for the rest of us” translated into a user experience that was neither simple nor easy — in a highly visible way. Four weeks later, the service appears stable but doubts linger: Is Apple able to run a worldwide wireless data synchronization service for tens of millions of users.


What happened and what does it mean for MobileMe’s future?


Let’s start by decoding the “Launchpad Chicken” phrase. The game of Chicken is one by which two young males test their virility in the following way: from opposite directions, two cars speed towards each other on the same lane of a country road. The one who steers away first obviously lacks cojones and is derisively called chicken. You might ask about brains versus testes but here we are, the chicken is the one who “blinks first”. Now, let’s turn to the launchpad. Picture the NASA control room before the launch of an expedition to the Moon. Hundreds of (mostly) men in white short-sleeves shirts, pocket protectors and eyeglasses, hunched before screens, keyboards and telephones. Each one monitors a subsystem: left liquid hydrogen tank, backup gyroscopes, main engine telemetry… In the huge air-conditioned control room, five of these men are sweating, something’s not quite right with their baby. The temperature keeps rising, the pressure is falling, the telemetry link is weakening. Almost but not quite in the red zone. If the parameters keep drifting like this, they’ll have to pick up the red phone. But who wants to be the one who aborts the launch? So, they sweat some more and hope someone else blinks first. There you have it: Launchpad Chicken.


Now, move the imagery to projects with complicated subsystems. You see how the NASA metaphor made its way to Silicon Valley. There is always hope some other engineer will raise a hand and spare me the embarrassment of admitting my part of the project could crash the launch. This is what happened for MobileMe, with a twist on the cojones, so to speak. No one had enough brains and guts to risk humiliation, to raise a hand and say: Chief, we’re not ready here, let’s stop everything. As a result, MobileMe badly crashed on launch. A couple of weeks later, we have a leak: an “internal” memo from Steve Jobs. The email states the retroactively obvious, the project should have been delayed or at least launched in stages. No less obviously, a new leader is appointed, Eddy Cue, he’ll continue to run the iTunes systems as well. Charitably, the deposed MobileMe boss is granted anonymity, he might have been misinformed by his charges, or he might not have asked the right questions at the right times, it doesn’t matter anymore.


But, you’ll ask, that doesn’t tell us what went wrong, which liquid hydrogen tank sprung a leak. This now gets us into two more topics: sync and size. Sync here means keeping information identical, consistent over two or more devices. Less abstractly, for a simple example, I have a phone and a computer, I want their address books to identical or, at least, consistent. On simple cell phones, I use a cable (or a Bluetooth wireless connection) plus software to copy (parts of) my computer address book to the phone. But, wait a minute, I entered numbers on the phone that are not on my computer; I don’t want the copy from the computer to wipe out those new numbers. Trouble starts, as if connecting the cell phone to the computer and running the program wasn’t buggy enough. Tou want the software to compare the two address books, the phone’s and the laptop’s and decide what to keep and what to change, on both devices. But what about homonyms, or different numbers for the same person’s home? The program, hopefully, raises those “exceptions” and lets a human arbitrate.


We’re just warming up. Now picture a more real-life situation. One traveling consultant with one laptop, one smartphone, both carrying mail, address books and calendars and one assistant in the office with a desktop computer. In Microsoft Exchange’s lingo, the assistant is a “delegate”, has access, including modifications and new entries, to the traveling consultant’s data. Everything must be kept identical, consistent, in sync. How is this done?


Using the Exchange server as an example, it keeps the “true” data. And the “clients”, meaning the smartphone, the laptop, the assistant’s PC submit changes, new mail, an updated appointment, a new contact home phone to the Exchange server. In turn, the server propagates changes to the clients. We say the updates are “pushed” to the smartphone or the laptop, just as they “push” new mail or a new calendar item to the server. You can easily imagine conflict situations: the same appointment changed by the consultant and the assistant, address updates and the like. By now, at least on Exchange, these “exceptions” are well understood and generally well-handled. But it took years of practice. Just as it has taken years for RIM (founded in 1984), the Blackberry (launched in 1999) creators to polish what is the best-selling synchronized smartphone. Details, details and more subtle mistakes and special cases found and fixed. The Blackberry got its stardom from truly delivering the Simple, Easy, Invisible proposition referred to in the beginning of this essay.


MobileMe aspires to deliver a similarly invisible level of synchronization for people who don’t have an Exchange server, hence the “Exchange for the rest if us” slogan. But seeing the launch glitches, I wonder how many people at Apple stooped to using a Blackberry with an Exchange account. Doing this would have sobered them a little in advance of the launch, or delayed the whole thing, or tempered the boasts. Shortly after MobileMe’s first missteps, Apple publicly and smartly retracted its use of “Push” to describe MobileMe’s synchronization and the “Exchange for the rest of us” motto is no longer seen on the company’s Web site.


Moving to size: quantity begets nature. At some (often mysterious) point, more of the same becomes something different. One server, ten servers, more of the same. One thousand servers or, in Google’s case, running one million servers is of a different nature. Meaning different people with different knowledge and appetites than the ones needed to run a company’s email server. If every other iPhone customer wants to sync a PC or Mac with the newly (or old, with the 2.0 software update) purchased iPhone, MobileMe will soon serve millions and, in a not too distant future, tens of millions of iPhones. Besides knowing or not knowing the Buddha of sync, did the MobileMe team have the experience, the knowledge, the appreciation of the “size” problem before them? Very few people in our industry do. Ask Google’s rivals why they were trounced by someone coming late to the game but with a better handle on the “size” or “scale” problem. (See this paper from UC Berkeley, where ultra-large scale computing is actively researched, with private industry subsidies.)
In passing, 10 million MobileMe subscriptions at $100/year is a nice piece of change, one billion dollars, worth the trouble.


Let’s step back a little. Apple “pushes” somewhere between 100 and 200 megabytes of updates per month to each Mac user. Last week, the iPhone 2.0.1 update was announced, I connected two iPhones within minutes, the 200Mb files were downloaded and installed without a hitch and I haven’t heard any blogosphere complaints on the matter. iTunes has sold billions of songs, serves tens of millions of customers everyday and everything works with very few exceptions. In other words, some very large scale Apple systems do work. As discussed above, the iTunes boss (some say slave driver, a meliorative term in context) in now also in charge of MobileMe.


And, last week, parts of the Gmail service were down for 15 hours or so. Last month, Amazon’s respected Web Services went down. And, last year, RIM’s servers went down for about half a day in the Western Hemisphere, freaking out Wall Street investment bankers and management consultants. Even the best players must endure their share of false notes.


Back to MobileMe today:if you ask subscribers who’ve never experienced a Blackberry’s smooth delivery of sync, they love MobileMe. It works, it’s easy to set up and in the simple (most frequent) case of a PC/Mac with an iPhone, it does the wireless (OTA, Off The Air) sync job as now advertised. We’ll see how this scales once iPhones are sold in 21 more countries, 43 total starting August 22nd.


–JLG


iPhone 3G — One Week Later

Contrary to what I expected, the dust hasn’t settled yet. A week later, people still queue, 2h30 Friday morning before being admitted to the sanctum sanctorum in San Francisco. Besides the long lines, there were glitches: activation problems, trouble with the new MobileMe service, with getting access to software updates for the “old” iPhones. Apple claims 1 million phones sold worldwide for the first weekend, probably 400,000 in the US alone. The latter number could explain the activation servers overload: in more normal times, AT&T must activate “only” 25,000 phones a day. Apple apologized for MobileMe problems and even conceded they should suspend some of the verbiage used to promote the service. Calling “Push” the way email and other information is coordinated between computers and the iPhone was found a little “anticipatory”, meaning promises made couldn’t yet be fulfilled. ["Push" means your phone or your computer will receive information without asking for it, without "Pulling". The Blackberry is still the king of "Push".]

But this is mostly folklore, fun but transitory. Something more important is taking place: the advent of the App Store. On iTunes, the App Store is a section where you find new applications for the iPhone. On the iPhone, the App Store is an icon that enables the one-click purchase and wireless download of new applications, just like a song and often costing the same, 99 cents, or less. In about the same time it took Apple to sell 1 million phones, users (this includes the updated first generation iPhones) downloaded 10 million applications. Half of these were free. For the paid for ones, about half were games, the rest range from software for general aviation pilots, medical students, bloggers, to light sabers, yes, you read it right, translation with voicing of phrases, nice when you go to China, subway maps, newsreaders, CRM, social networking, instant messaging and music streaming. Apple signed in with a nice, free, flourish: a program transforms your iPhone into a remote control for iTunes or AppleTV, works anywhere in the house through your WiFi network. And on and on… I was going to forget the Chanel Haute Couture Show. Free. Highest Karl Lagerfeld quality. How did this get in? Let me guess, friends in a common advertising agency? Is this one the new business models discussed below?

When the App Store opened a week ago, the catalog featured 27 pages, we’re now at 42. It’s fair to say some applications are silly, useless or unstable. The user review system in the App Store is merciless and deals harshly with stupidity, bad code or dysfunctional UI (User Interface). Also, there is an automatic update mechanism and applications such as Facebook have already been improved. The bad ones will die quickly.

The BFD, as in Big Fundable (or other F words) Deal here is the Great American Instant Gratification. The mental transaction cost of getting an application is very low: lots of choices, small price, one-click transaction. This is the magic of using the existing iTunes infrastructure and exisiting customer behavior. I can’t help but wonder whem Apple (or its competitors) will also use the model for desktop applications, Cloud Computing notwithstanding. I buy iTunes music for my personal computer, why not buy applications for my Mac or my PC from the same store?

Wait, as we say in America, there is more: business models. We’re beginning to see ads on the iPhone, with photos, music or the New York Times. We, VC, will be watching carefully as we wonder if advertising on such small screens will work, will generate real money. Another form of advertising looks more promising: free music channels on the Pandora application. You first set “channels” on Pandora.com from your PC, say Mozart, Bach, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. On your iPhone, you click Miles Davis and you either get Miles Davis works or music deemed to belong to the same genre, with a nice note explaining why the piece was put on this channel. And…, if you like it, one click buys it form iTunes. Clever and clever a second time because not convoluted.

Lastly, content presented as, wrapped in applications. For 99 cents you buy and load an application called The Art of War. You’ve recognized Sun Tzu’s book. But, instead of having a separate book reader and content purchased for it, with the risk of “unwanted duplication”, content and reader are now budled as one application for each book. When I pitch my next book to the publisher, I’ll make sur to mention the 45 million iPhones to be sold next year. This number is an admittedly wildly optimistic (and widely criticized) forecast by Gene Munster from Piper Jaffray. Unless RIM (Blackberry), Nokia and Google fight back, which is very likely, they don’t like Steve Jobs wiping his Birkenstocks on their back. —JLG

Nokia makes Symbian Open Source: Declaring Victory?

When a $oftware company experiences a sudden access of generosity and donates its first born to the world of Open Source, what are we to think? They made so much money it was embarrassing? Or, it’s an act of desperation: We can’t sell it, maybe be they’ll use it if we give it away. Uncharitable minds add: And then we’ll make money telling others how to decipher inscrutable code and by explaining away bugs — not to be confused with fixing them. More politely: Give away the code and sell services around it. It can work, ask IBM and Red Hat. Or look at Google, it wouldn’t exist without the Open Source movement and its star, Linux, powering its servers, one million of them and counting.

Back to Symbian, what’s the real story? Admitting defeat or, having found a way to make money with the OS — finally? Knowing Nokia, certainly not the former. It is today the number one smartphone maker before RIM (Blackberry) and Apple. Nokia has no intention to cede the throne. But it’s not about making money with the Symbian OS either, that’s impossible. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, that was before Newton, Palm and Pocket PC, Psion, a British company, was the king of “organizers”, later called PDA, Personal Digital Assistants. Through the twists and turns of the genre’s history, perhaps a topic for another column, Psion lost its crown and went out of the PDA business. But the OS inside the Psion was a gem, this is an ex-user speaking, it multi-tasked without crashing. More twists and turns and a joint venture is born led by Nokia and Motorola, with followers such as Sony Ericsson and Samsung. Called Symbian, the company got the Psion OS. Symbian was to develop software for smartphones and make money licensing it to its partners.

Bad business model, bad timing, bad structure. Bad business model because handset makers don’t (or didn’t) actually care for software and don’t want to pay anything of significance for it. They (and their masters, the carriers) spend much more money on the nicely printed cardboard box than on the software inside. Bad timing because the smartphone market wasn’t really there when Symbian was born 10 years ago. The smartphone market only woke up around 2005 when Nokia, RIM and Palm totaled a few millions of units shipped that year.

Lastly, bad structure. No one was really in charge, the owners/competitors each wanted different features, a different user interface, application compatibility was nonexistent, unwanted even in many cases and development tools weren’t up to the power and quality PC developers enjoyed. Symbian kept losing money and Nokia, viewed as the main beneficiary of the messy joint venture, kept pouring cash in.

Today, we see that the smartphone market did more than wake up. RIM’s business grows by more than 100% a year; Apple, while number three worldwide, manages to shake up the industry and to look bigger than it is — or to project an accurate picture of its future, we’ll see; Google announces its Open Source smartphone OS, Android; Microsoft acquires Danger, the maker of an interesting smartphone, the Sidekick, and proclaims its intent to “own” 40% of the market by 2012.

All this, in my view mostly Apple and Android, pushed Symbian to try and regain control of its OS future. To do so, Nokia buys out its partners and becomes the sole owner of Symbian, now called the Symbian Foundation, sounding very non-profit.

Good, you’ll say, they want to be in the driver’s seat (unintended obscure geek pun here…) but why go Open Source then? My guess is that was a condition of buying the partners out. Nokia: You have access to the source code, my dear friends, you have total freedom. My other hunch is that the license won’t be the most constraining of the Open Source variants. By this I mean there is the GPL license that obligates you to share every improvement (or bug) you make and that also forces you to put in the Open Source domain any code that uses, connects to the GPL software you’re enjoying. Everything must become Open Source. Other licensing arrangements let you make contributions to the public Open Source domain but let you keep a wall between your private code and the public one. This, “true” Open Source or not, is the topic of heated arguments hopelessly mixing principle and money. Type “Open Source arguments” in Google for a sample.

I doubt Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson will keep using Symbian Open Source code for long, they’re likely to go to one of several mobile Linux vendors, this is better than developing their own OS code or safer than hoping Nokia will give away improved Symbian code. Just last week, the LIPS, the Linux Phone Standards group decided to merge into the LiMo, Linux Mobile Foundation.

This looks like a smart move by Nokia: Regain control of its OS future, look politically correct and throw its competitors into a jungle of platforms (more than 60 worldwide, I’m told) out there. A beautiful mess, opportunities galore, like microcomputers before Microsoft and Apple made them PC.

Nokia, control like Apple, sound like Google. –JLG


iPhone Applications: Apple people now believe in a Supreme Being

No, no, not Steve Jobs but an even higher entity smiling upon the company. As I hope to show, Apple’s hard work years ago is now about to pay huge unexpected dividends on the iPhone. When the iPhone first came out of Steve Jobs’ quasi-divine hands in January 2007, it was a hack, the result of clever handcrafting by Apple engineers, a crazed last-minute rush to the show deadline. As such, it lacked the basics of what we call a platform, an industry term of art – or BS. Here, a platform means a combination software, or hardware, or both on which software developers build applications. A platform requires documentation, where the building blocks are, what they do, how to use them. The platform also comes with tools, software to build and test the applications. Last but not least, a platform implies some stability, meaning it works often enough, and it’s predictable, it doesn’t take brutal turns that undo the work of developers.

Early 2007, the iPhone had none of these attributes. So, Steve resorted to proven industry maneuver: If you can’t fix it, feature it. No need for “native” (meaning running on the iPhone itself) applications. This is the New World of Web 2.0, bleated the propagandastaffel. Use the iPhone’s browser (the best in the business, it helped immensely) to run server-based applications. No need to download anything, centralized maintenance, easy updates… The faithful heretics would have none of that and a new game started. One week the hackers managed to break Apple’s barriers preventing the installation of native applications. A few days later Apple issued an update to the iPhone firmware that broke the hacks.

Let’s pause for a lemma, a building block in the story: from day one, the iPhone had something no competitor had: iTunes. Apple made having an iTunes account a sine qua non requirement for using an iPhone. For downloading songs and movies, just like its younger brother the iPod? That and more. With iTunes you backup your iPhone, you bring it back to “factory settings”, helpful if a hack “bricked” it, meaning if it became as lively of a brick, you install software updates, most of which defeated the impudent hacks.

Moving forward, the pressure was building: Apple made a very smart move by using a trimmed down version of OS X (the Mac’s software… platform) as the software engine for the iPhone. We know and love OS X, said the developers. Mr. Jobs, tear down that wall! It now looks like Google’s Android helped Dear Leader make up his mind. Rumors were mounting: RSN (Real Soon, Now), Google would announce a free, open-source platform for smartphones. Just as Steve smartly turned around and touted Intel processors after years of expounding the superior PowerPC architecture, on October 17th, 2007, he stood up and announced the SDK (Software Development Kit) for the iPhone. Availability by the end of February 2008.

The belief in Providence benignly smiling on Apple now comes in. In 2001, Apple sweated the servers, the legal agreements with publishers, the one-click payment system, the client software on PC and Mac. All this to create the still-unequaled iTunes experience. Now, one bright 2007 morning, they have an epiphany: Songs are zeroes and ones. One click and they land in a bin, a directory in the iPhone. But applications are also strings of zeroes and ones. If we put up iPhone applications in the iTunes store, they land in a different bin inside the iPhone but the one-click purchase and download is the same. Halleluiah! All the work to build the iTunes business now pays off for the applications. We must be The Chosen Ones. This is no small detail. Today, if you’re an independent software developer, writing good code is the easy part. The Evil S&M, Sales and Marketing, await you. Shelf space, physical or on the Web, is very expensive. Setting up download and payment systems isn’t for the faint of wallet either. With the iPhone, Apple removes (most of) these hurdles. All you have to do is write good code.

Picture the young developer still living in his mother’s basement, he sells 50,000 copies of his work for $10, the price of an iTunes album. Apple keeps $3, he gets $7. Times 50,000, he makes $350,000 and can now pay rent to his mother and buy her a car. (For perspective, the current forecast is for between 30 and 45 million iPhones sold by the end of 2009.) Picture also the competition. No one else has such a well-oiled, widely known system to add applications to a smartphone as Itunes. (Google says they will eventually offer one for Android.) This is a billion dollars business. Actually, $1.2 billion in 2009, according to Gene Munster a Piper Jaffray analyst. (For a healthy counterpoint, see the snarky comments on TechCrunch.) Regardless, the arrival of native applications on the iPhone is a big event, one made possible by an unintended – and rather amusing – consequence of the iTunes music distribution system. How will this be written up in books and Harvard Business School case studies? –JLG

The rise of the nomadic web browsing

“Welcome to the Weekend Web”, said Business Week. Internet browsing differs from weekdays to weekends. In this story, Google Mobile’s chief says that the biggest part of traffic on the search giant’s mobile sites occurs Saturdays and Sundays. The weekend’s mobile web promenade involves mostly classified and local sites. Among them (on the US market), Craigslist, both a huge classifieds site and a local destination. According to M:Metrics (now part of ComScore) mobile browsing has surged 89% last year and mobile page views are up by 127%. No doubt than within few years, the mobile Web will be bigger than current PC Web… but also harder to monetize.

Here are the top 10 sites viewed on mobile phones (figures are in minutes per user and per month) Craigslist_____99 mn

Ebay_________86 mn

MySpace______85 mn

Facebook_____84mn

Go.com(1)____67 mn

Google_______63 mn

Yahoo________53 mn

AOL__________41mn

Live.com(2)___37 mn

CNN.com_____10mn

(1) Disney portal gives access to ESPN

(2) Microsoft portal

Actually, The New York Times is also quite bullish about mobile browsing. In this video interview on Beet.tv, Michael Zimbalist, head of R&D at the Times, confirms the growth of mobile pages and explains the relationship the Times is developing between mobile and print content.