May 25, 2009

checking in, commenting on landscape

Let's start by skipping the obligatory "it's been awhile..." (or not).

After almost three months as a member of the ever-growing class of the not-fully-professionally-occupied, my search for tomorrow's career continues. It's been a unique, liberating, oft-introspective, and definitively personal awareness-building experience. One or another opportunities have approached fruition only to then die on the vine, while others have been non-starters for me for one or another reason, and yet others remain in play. My targets, and those who have targeted me, have ranged from major global brands (tech and otherwise), to start-ups, to agencies and associations, to non-profits - representing an eclectic array of industries from beverage to fuel cell to reproductive rights, but with the lion's share of course being mobility/information technology-related.

In the meantime, I've been doing some freelance consulting.

Let's review the landscape...

On the mobile front...well, it's crowded, cluttered, confused, overlapping, integrated, inter- or not operable, etc. Look familiar? It should. It mirrors in many respects the essence of the Internet experience - in North America at least (which is where I'll focus for now).

Over the last decade, slowly but surely we've adopted mobiles - those once voice-oriented gadgets - into our daily lives. They are indispensable. Period. Today, even the most basic user has graduated from voice to texting, and, if not yet, will soon be snapping and sharing pictures and video, browsing the web, playing games, listening to music, navigating, face-booking, twittering, shopping, etc. Sound familiar? It should, it's a mirror replay of the PC's evolution from pre-Internet productivity tool to full-fledged commercial Internet multimedia gateway.

Can I get a resounding "well, duh?" I mean really, this is hardly new news - the mobile industry's been hyping the promise for years and, today, finally, with far less fanfare, the reality is happening all around us. Key to it all is ubiquitous (relatively) broadband at affordable (relatively) cost and richer functionality (not just relatively) devices. Everything else - the services, applications, content, etc. - follow as naturally in mobile as they did in the fixed Internet environment. Indeed, the line between fixed and mobile is irrevocably blurred.


And yet the mobility realm remains distinct in some respects. From a mobile device form-factor perspective, outside of the odd quirky fashion niche (e.g. swivel), we seem to have settled into flips and simple candy bars for the mass market low-end; mono-block qwertys, low-end touches or bulky qwerty sliders in the mid-range messenging class (once known as smartphones); and, lastly, sleek, upscale touch, qwerty or qwerty-touch hybrid handheld computers at the high end.

And then, of course, there's the mini-notebook and netbook phenomenon (Acer, Asus, HP, etc.) which so far seems to be mirroring the traditional mobile industry go-to-market model in terms of marrying subsidized, somewhat-limited utility micro-laptops to hefty and long-term AT&T and Verizon data plans (by the way, why not reverse the model? - subsidize prepaid data service via the unsubsidized cost of the netbook married to some unique value-added service/content?). But let's remember, these netbooks are still engineered and designed for "nomadic" activity as opposed to comfortably fixed or truly mobile. Don't get me wrong, there's a unique and exciting market for netbooks, but they'll eat more and faster into the laptop space than the mobile device space.

And before I depart devices, I'd be remiss to neglect Amazon's clever little disruptive Kindle which I believe is setting some interesting business model trends that the netbook folk ought to consider adopting - bit-piping the carriers and upending the years-long debate over who gets what in the mobile payments ecosystem by simply ignoring the debate altogether and maintaining their perfectly functional fixed status quo.


Some sort of shakeout or consolidation in the vendor space is inevitable. Apple's done a marvelous job in carving out a lucrative high-end niche - an impressive 5% of Q408 device share in North America generating somewhere north of 60% data traffic. With one device. One carrier. That’s not even counting the millions of iTouches out there. Pretty damned impressive indeed - just goes to show you what elegant design, intuitive UI and simple application/service/content discovery will do for you.

HTC is poised to play in this space as well, but needs to resolve its OS approach - Android? Windows Mobile? What's it gonna be guys?

RIM still dominates the business qwerty space, at least in perception, but faces challengers and challenges in terms of mainstreaming its consumer offering.

LG and Samsung have done a fine job of catering to carrier whim and fancy and building and holding a strong bastion in the mid-range, and flirting both up and down range from there.

Nokia's foothold in the low end and feature phone space is solid(ish), if a bit(?) weaker than during its heyday, but they'll need to beware LG and Samsung drilling down into low end volumes as they face increasing pressure from Apple and others looking to further mainstream and more broadly scale their higher-end offerings into the mid- (and even entry) range. Getting a volume-oriented S60/smartphone device into the U.S. carrier channel is going to be crucial to Nokia's success in North America, both in terms of regaining device and value market share and in realizing their service aspirations - given Nokia's global scale and scope this should be achievable, and yet so far remains elusive.

And, by the way, I'll not be surprised by any resurgence by Motorola or Sony-Ericsson (much more likely the former, particularly if they execute well on Android and services, but the latter also continues to have promise in and around music and imaging feature devices).

And I'd be remiss to not reference Palm's sleek new device/intuitive OS reinvention - After all, remember that the first digital status device many of us carried out of the last recession was a Palm Pilot - there's a great nostalgia play to be made by Palm, and an application developer community poised for rebound.

And then there's the host of other players niblling at the edges as well as the newcomers we're only beginning to hear about... Like I said, a shake out is inevitable.

Operating Systems

Related to the form factor discussion, I'll offer a quick word on the OS environment where things definitely remain, um, a bit messy. The range of proprietary OS's at the low end is overly (generous word) broad, but, hey, no big worries here - such commoditized devices will always exist to serve a certain population and to provide a certain limited-functionality service set (primarily operator-driven – which does ensure some level of cross platform consistency given very firm operator control of the user experience with such devices).

At the mid-range and high end, you start to see a more stable if still overly-fractured landscape: iphone's OSx, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, RIM's BBOS, Nokia's Symbian (and Maemo), Palm's webOS, and, of course, the as-yet-realized promise of Open Linux for mobile. There are pros and cons to each solution. The combination of iPhone's intuitive interface, impressive developer and application pool, and simple discoverability of value-added experiences is as yet perhaps unparalleled (but the lack of a physical qwerty keyboard remains a turnoff for heavy-duty messengers).

Meanwhile, Symbian's global reach is without peer in terms of embedded devices supported by a wealth of experienced developers, but the UI is still a bit clumsy (however, much improved) for newcomers and, in any event, Symbian is a relative non-player in the North American market and, moreover, application/service/content discoverability remains a bit sketchy.

Android has promise and a graceful elegance in terms of UI, but continues to lack a strong device base, as well as a robust developer community. The Jury’s still out on Palm’s webOS. RIM’s BBOS is naturally limited in its proprietary implementation and, as for Windows Mobile, well, it does continue to improve, but for whatever and sundry reasons has simply not been able to crack the mainstream.

Whatever the case, the whole ecosystem is certainly less-than-optimal for developers and brands looking to deliver cross platform application solutions and content (but notably not a bad picture for operators looking to control their cross-portfolio service offerings and consumer relationships).


The natural segue here would be to the application/content/services space, but I can't let that parenthetical operator aside immediately above just hang there.

Anyone who knows me or has read past posts on this site or others probably has a pretty solid understanding of my sentiments about open access and choice - bottom line: consumers should have the right to their device of choice to attach to the network of choice to consume the content and service they most value and desire (i.e. choose). You know, kinda like the fixed Internet works. Or, simpler analogy, like the electricity grid. Imagine the electric company dictating which lamps you can use to light your home, and which wattage bulbs, etc.

Okay, okay, so that's grossly simplified and certainly doesn't take into consideration the decades-old quasi-competitive regulatory structure, out-of-synch spectrum planning, deployment of multiple incompatible technologies, etc. that have produced the current North American wireless business dynamic, much less the all important public obligation that mobile operators have to ensure the integrity of their networks, non-interference, some level of interoperability, and billing and account management consistency and control. Nevertheless, the consumer has and to some extent remains a bit short-change on the choice front.

But - good news - that's changing. It's kinda like gravity - it is what it is and you can't beat it for any extended period of time. As consumers increasingly migrate their fixed Internet behavior to the mobile space they will naturally expect to carry with them the freedom of choice they have come to value and expect. And as mobile devices become more and more computer-like and broadband wireless more and more ubiquitous, in a variety of flavors and from a variety of competitive providers, the collision between mobility and the Internet will trump any past expectations of convergence of the same. Choice will out. Period. There was a time for walled gardens in the fixed Internet's evolution, and for more-narrowly fenced patios in the mobile space - but those days have passed.

Thankfully, while the operator space is relatively mature business models and plans are already evolving to embrace this change, particularly as the likes of Walmart and Best Buy flex their muscles, not to mention the impact the exertions of content/media stakeholders are also having on operators. That said, AT&T and Verizon continue to dwarf their competitors, and, ever insatiable, continue to nibble away at the T-Mobile and Sprint subscriber bases, with all four majors continuing to dominate the channel to and permanent consumer touch. But, again, the winds of change are blowing and fully-recognized. And by the way, there's still some room in the market for a major newcomer operator - via acquisition or otherwise - to shake things up further via e.g. innovative service offering, alternative device or service subsidization, and/or alternative rate plans. And, finally, let's not forget that the umpteen billion dollars identified in the Obama stimulus plan includes in excess of $7 billion identified for telecom buildout - good news for infrastructure gear-makers, device venders and operators - existing or new - alike. There is growth yet to come...

Applications, Services and Content

Finally (phew), a few words on the experiences people are realizing with all of these nifty devices connected to these big fat piped networks. Not unlike the fixed Internet experience, it will be applications, services and content that drive the next wave of mobility. Java and brew have served and will continue to serve well enough in terms of cross-platform mass market, low end games, simple apps, etc. But as we enter the true mobile computing age, Apple and iPhone have set the bar pretty high in terms of SDK, app store, simplicity of discoverability, updatability, payment, etc., not too mention richness and depth of applications. Android offers similar promise, but remains time-to-market and device and developer volume challenged. Symbian, on a global basis, should perhaps have or have had the greatest opportunity, but, per points made earlier, has yet to finesse discoverability, application quality consistency, iconic hardware, etc. Changes may be in the wind in these respects, however…

Bottom line: Consumers really don’t care about operating systems, UI’s and the like. They just want a cool device that let’s them do cool things, application-based or otherwise. Easily. Cooperative initiatives between vendors, operators, application developers, content players, social networks and beyond are beginning to bear fruit. It’s no longer about music and video and Youtube and FB and MySpace – those solutions are all relatively nature in the fixed and mobile environments, some implementations more sophisticated than other in the latter respect. Going forward, it’s going to be about how to marry content, with experience, with location, with life… Some extent of universality and consistency of experience is going to be necessary and as such the continuing hardware and software fragmentation remains a challenge. But platform solutions will emerge that both make those distinctions transparent to end consumers and allow a wider and deeper range of brands to extend themselves, their brands and their value into the digital mobile space. Imagine, for instance, a cost-effective, intuitive application platform/template-based solution that would offer major brands the opportunity to develop, control and deliver timely, dynamic and refreshable cross platform mobile applications to target audiences at a fraction of the cost and with more editorial and more brand consistency than reliance on third party developers. Food for thought…

Granting that, in North America particularly, we need to acknowledge that digital affinity relationships have had the better part of a decade to mature and develop. They will not be easily upended. For instance, the MySpace-Facebook migration of two years ago – a true singularity – is not likely to recur. Twitter may have gained a certain popularity as an alternative “social” activity, and novel solutions like clipmarks may carve out a similar (and more value-added niche, but the two big boys rule the roost, at least for the immediate future. The application and service developers that succeed going forward will be those that leverage unique mobile characteristics like location, synch them up with fixed or nomadic Internet applications, services and content and marry the the whole lot into existing social networks (latter day bitpipes?) to deliver an altogether unique experience. Imagine, for instance, a platform- and access-independent, mixed reality, simple-to-use, snackable, brain-teasing, socially-charged, competitive, diverting, entertainment-based experience with the promise of financial reward and enhanced social status. If that sounds like a mouthful, it is - it's also verbatim from the first slide of the business plan...


…Nah, just a beginning. Whole lotta minddump above – hopefully of some entertainment or educational value to the odd reader (or even the normal one). And I didn’t even get into all of the challenges we’re gonna be facing in terms of privacy, security, personal information protection, identity theft, etc. These are key strategic issues that will need to be managed in the context of all of the above. But manageable they are – ignored at your peril.