Monday, March 23, 2009

The Apple iPhone 3.0 announcement: a different look

Last week was quite a week for the iPhone... It started with all buzz around the highly anticipated iPhone 3.0 announcement. Every columnist, tech blogger, iPhone developer and user had his own wishlist for iPhone OS 3.0. Then came the actual announcement itself. While a few were underwhelmed in not seeing their most-wanted feature being announced, the general consensus was that the new OS had a few surprises, a few disappointments but it was more or less on target with the user's expectations.

When I got to sit down and reflect back on what's the most significant aspect of the iPhone 3.0 announcement, it struck me that it was neither the copy/paste nor the push notification feature that was significant. In fact the announcement lays emphasis on two important aspects of the changing dynamics of the mobile/computer industry

The power of Software
In this rapidly changing world, where mobile devices get dated so quickly, how does one cope and stay on top? For long, the hardware has been the sole distinguishing factor. The best device was the one which could boast of an array of high end hardware components like processing chip, camera, battery, etc. Any phone that you buy would get outdated in a matter of few months due to constant hardware advancements. Developments in software was considered minor and there was no concept of pushing software upgrades on existing devices (at least not for a layman). This is where Apple came in and demonstrated the power of Software on a mobile device.
The iPhone when released in fall 2007 was a revolutionary device. But what's more revolutionary is the way that Apple has managed to keep the iPhone on top through regular software updates. The power of software is that it can be refreshed continuously and in fact remotely too. The amazing thing is that it's been two years since I got my iPhone but still it gets a new lease of life every June, with features that keep it atop with competing phones that are newly released. Every time when someone says that the iPhone lacks a specific feature or utility, all I say is 'Wait till the next release' (unless there are hardware limitations). This also goes a long way in strengthening consumer loyalty as buying a phone is like an investment for what it is now as well as what it can evolve into, in the future. When I look at my iPhone, I see it as 'a intelligent bot that grows smarter every June'.

The App Store
When Apple first introduced the IPhone and the device became a runaway success, it realized the importance of taking advantage of the lead. Apple had to establish differentiating factors which would set it apart from the competition. The iPhone hardware was good and the software was amazing. But how long would it take for it's competitors who had spent years and years in the mobile industry to catch up? Well, not many. Apple's arrival was just a wake-up call. It did not mean the competition would sit back and languish on it's fate. Apple had to take advantage of it's position to set up distinguishing factors - those which will keep the customers loyal and which will make the competition tough to catch up with. The answer: iPhone App Store.
It is ironic to note that the very Apple that was stubbornly against native apps during the launch of the iPhone, not only reversed it's stance but set up an ingenious model of native 3rd party app development for both developers and consumers. For the users, it ensured a simple rating-based one-stop shop for all applications with a dead-easy iTunes based one-click payment system. What's more, all of this is OTA (over the air), thereby removing the dependency on computers to a great extent. As for developers, besides setting up a simple model where they don't worry about marketing and distribution, Apple also provided them with a powerful SDK kit for development and even went so far as to set up a 100 million dollar venture capital program to lure potential developers. The outcome was this: 25000 apps in just 9 months with a user base of 30 million. Apple had shot ahead in the blink of an eye. Now as other companies like Palm and Microsoft are developing equal or better phones and softwares, they are stumped against the biggest hurdle - the App Store. The developer and user base that Apple has established are a mighty challenge to oppose.
The rise of the AppStore has led to another significant development - the emergance of the iPhone as a mobile gaming platform that competes against the likes of Sony and Nintendo. The SDK provided great interfaces for developing powerful games for the iPhone. But the real reason that iPhone has evolved into a mighty gaming platform is the easy of content delivery and the rise of network games. A Nintendo DS or a Sony PSP, while being really advanced in game development and also features physical keys, did not have a suitable mechanism for buying games on the go. Apple revolutionized just that and now it boasts of more games than those of the DS & PSP together. Also it has set a precursor to the future of the mobile gaming world.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Coming this Summer: "Will the real Jesus Phone please stand up"

Announcing this summer's hottest release - "Will the real Jesus phone please stand up" - a combined production of Apple Studios & Palm Pictures.

Oh yes, this is better than any movie you'd seen.

Last year, Apple storm-ed (no pun intended) through the smartphone market, thanks to the release of the 3G iPhone and the App Store. But just when it all seemed like Apple had obliterated the competition with a swish of it's wand arose a worthy competitor, one that was written off by many - Palm. With it's new Palm Pre device, which boasts revolutionary features like seamless backgrounding and complete integration of the user interface, Palm is attempting one last like-a-Pheonix-from-the-ashes attempt to duel the mighty Apple and reclaim it's long lost throne as the King of Smartphones. At the same time, Apple is aiming to keep it guards up and bring new magic to the iPhone to hold it's throne. This summer unveils an epic battle between two mighty giants, the outcome of which will determine who holds the throne for almost the next year or so. So here we go, an analysis on the Strengths and the Weakest link of both the giants.

  • User Interface: Apple is the undisputed leader in designing an intuitive user interface and the IPhone is no different. That a phone can do so well even without a real keyboard is due to the wealth of features and the always intuitive layman features which Apple brings in.
  • App Store: Easily the biggest strength for Apple over Palm. Started only a year back, the App Store has grown in enormous proportions with more than 20000 apps. Any mobile application is bound to find it's way to the Apple App Store first, due to the huge user base and high returns. With demands not subsiding and new features and APIs being added in, the App Store is only going to draw more developers and naturally more customers to it's realm.
  • Well refined touchscreen OS: Developing an intuitive touchscreen OS is a big challenge. Even Apple stumbled a lot in the beginning with issues in connectivity, performance and reception. But over the past two years, Apple has toiled hard to produce a very stable and reliable operating system. This will be a huge strength against the new-kid-on-the-block Palm Pre.
Biggest weakness
Though the IPhone has been a runaway success, it has its own share of quirks. People have long lamented the lack of very basic features (like MMS, copy/paste,etc). The latest IPhone 3.0 is more of a catch-up game to plug some of these holes. However very many features like flash, background apps and video recording are still missing on the IPhone and to Palm's advantage, they've nailed a few of these. Whether these lacking features will really bite Apple is the question that remains to be answered.

  • Strong background: Palm was the pioneer in introducing the concept of smartphones and proved that cellphones are more than just a substitute for the Plain-Old-Telephone. Though it had lost ground in recent years to Blackberry and Apple and is now the underdog, it has stayed the longest and carries a wealth of experience backed by a strong developer and consumer base.
  • User Interface Integration: What makes the Pre a mighty competitor to the iPhone? The biggest lesson for Palm from the success of the iPhone is the importance of user-friendliness and intuitiveness in making the iPhone (and smartphone) a ubiquitous device. Also from the release of Google G1, Palm learnt that it is just not enough to catch up wirh the competition but instead bring something new to the table to make a real impression. Palm's Pre is a complete rethinking from it's past devices and has an integrated and intuitive user interface, called Synergy. Synergy tried to hide the details beneath the covers and actions happen seamlessly. For ex, it has an integrated contacts of all mail accounts, chat clients, facebook and twitter users. The Messaging application is one which bring together all kinds of messaging (SMS, MMS, all chat clients, facebook, etc) together so that one can see all the conversation is the same panel.
  • True Backgrounding: One critical feature which Palm touts and Apple lacks is true backgrounding in applications. While Apple settled for the Push Notification alternative, Palm claims to have perfected the art and has opened up to inbuilt background apps. If Palm lives up to it's claim without a significant reduction in battery life, it can entice a huge gamut of applications that can only be dreamt of on the iPhone.

Biggest Weakness
Palm's biggest weakness is that of starting from scratch and going against the well established Apple customer base. For eg, The new Palm App Store and SDK will be an infant standing up against the mighty and refined Apple App store which boasts of more than 20000 apps.

End Note: Palm's reentry is promising and has got people to turn their heads. The Pre is loaded with features that can make the device stand out in the limelight. Apple on the other hand, brings in a plethora of new features through the iPhone 3.0 OS. As for Palm, unlike the introduction of iPhone by Apple, itdoes not have much time to get its OS right. It has to get it's act together fast and that too, on the very first attempt. In all, the battle of the Titans is equally matched!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The IPhone Jailbroken AppStore: Will it fly?

The IPhone has been on the news buzz consistently and well, for multiple reasons. The latest buzz is that of the introduction of the Cydia App Store for the jailbroken world (the dark side).

To me, this is a very interesting development. The biggest question which will also help us answer whether the Cydia App Store will really kick off is this - Why will application developers flock the Jailbroken App Store instead of Apple's own App Store which has a higher reach? Also can the Jailbroken App Store provide something really special that motivates users to instead unlock their phones and switch over?

The IPhone App Store has been one of the biggest hits of the previous year and has grown in leaps and bounds. But it is not without it's own quirks - thanks to Apple's restrictions (some mindless). If the Jailbroken App Store leverages Apple's restrictions and provides unique Apps which can entice users, it can not only become a big success but also sound an alarm bell (deservedly so in some cases) to Apple.

Here're some Apps which can make big on the Cydia App Store and tempt users to jump to the dark side
  1. Turn-by-turn navigation: It's weird that Apple neither allows developers to develop apps for turn-by-turn voice guide navigation not has it release one on it's own. People have proved in the past that the IPhone GPS is good enough to build turn-by-turn navigation apps. This will a hot category of apps in the Jailbroken world
  2. Tethering: Well, using the IPhone as modem and connecting your laptop to the Internet is very enticing possibility. Besides the fact that Apple has no App to do this, it is clear (due to AT&T restrictions) that IPhone Tethering with come at a big cost (atleast 30$/month and with a data restriction - like 5Gb). The high cost and the insane restriction alone can lure people into the jailbroken world where this is available without a penny cost.
  3. Copy/Paste Functionality: Well again, not a dealbreaker but Apple still has no solution for implementing Copy/Paste Functionality and already there're apps on the Jailbroken world which has some implementions of Copy/Paste apps (may not be clean solutions but who cares!)
  4. Video Recorder: For some reason, Apple App Store has no apps which allow video recording. Neither is there a native implementation by Apple. One can find a few apps (like Cycorder) to do this in the jailbroken world.
  5. Adult apps: This category alone can rocket the Jailbroken App Store to success. No more shall I comment...
- Others: MMS apps, podcast apps, new browsers, (maybe flash apps), the list of apps which Apple doesn't allow currently are many...

Add to the above restrictions, the weird Approval Process by Apple. Besides being very strict on following good standard and being high quality, the Approval Process is a mystery as it has in many cases rejected apps for no logical reason. The latest is the Sirius radio app developed for the IPhone. It is a pity when people's time and money are wasted when their fully-tested apps are rejected for no obvious reason. It is but a logical fallout for these people to take their apps over to the jailbroken world.

In my opinion, I think the Cydia App Store will have it's own niche market and in fact will spark off an increase in the number of jailbroken phones. This will also be a rude awakening to Apple to plug some of the pitfalls in the SDK and types of apps allowed in the App Store and actually make the Application Review process more transparent.

Will I be one of those to jump to the dark world: would love a turn-by-turn navigation app and the video recording one... But will hold off for another couple of months to give Apple another chance and to see what more the Cydia can really deliver.