Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dear Diary, welcome to the future...

The future of mobile computing that is, generously brought to use by the Seattle Technical Forum group.  Apparently the future involves red fuzzy dice and they are helpfully labeled “Dice” just in case you have issues figuring out what they are! Isn't that nice. :)

Well, the future seems to be popular at least, with four speakers and lots of folks there to find out about about it...

Our first speaker was Dan Mo from T-Mo(bile) talking about wireless data services:
Currently about 300million users in the US wireless market. Voice usage is declining – really? I often see people driving with a phone at their ear or walking along apparently talking to themselves.. I wonder if Dan was referring to a decline as a share of profits and bandwidth rather than actual minutes usage? And Text messaging will decline – 'lolz R U 4 real?' Data is the growth area for service providers, driven by smartphones & tablets & E-readers with 35% avg revenue per user (ARPU) and strong growth. Content is the lure for users: web browsing, email, games, news, shopping etc.

Dan’s slides were effective but they could have used some colour / styling in my opinion.  I resisted the urge to reach for my smart phone and add to his statistics.</cheekyMonkey>  Finally Dan pulled up a nice, colourful graphic slide showing at an acronym level the technical underpinnings of GSM wireless networking.

Business opportunities: 
  • Smart phones, apps, advertising, games, cloud services.  
  • Amazon, Google and Microsoft all big into Mobile payments which are just getting started in the US
  • Mobile advertising (bloomin' adverts get everywhere don't they)
  • Location based services (LBS)  (meet your friends, track your kids, stalk a celebrity! - just kidding)
  • Mobile music
  • Social networking
No great surprises there.

I was surprised and a bit disappointed he didn't really talk about micro development: one guy with a computer, a free SDK and his cell phone developing and releasing an app to the World. The potential of the application Marketplaces is phenomenal in my humble opinion and apparently in the opinions of Google, Microsoft, Apple, RIM and the U.S. cell service providers. Even Amazon wants in on the action…

Next up Friedbert Wall From Microsoft:
I really liked Friedbert’s slide deck - honeycomb style slide transitions along with a dash of colour and simple graphical layout really freshened up slides full of otherwise simple bullet points.

Friedman's personal predictions:
  • The next wave of growth in mobile will come from the cloud – the computing power of massed servers available on your phone over the carrier networks.  (Assuming of course you have data service available at the time, you are prepared to pay for it and it isn’t throttled for one reason or another – Me)
  • Smartphones: cost will continue to reduce, power will continue to grow.. sounds like Moore's Law to me

Apple has 350k apps and 4 billion downloads, Android has 250k apps and 3 billion downloads – no wonder all the big players are drooling over marketplaces. Good question from the floor: what % of Android downloads are freeware? Friedbert wasn't sure but had heard in past that 20-30% downloads are paid, the rest freeware. RIM is a ways behind but not dead yet and making changes with apps more than doubling in Q3 `10 to 25k. Windows phone 7 new to market in Oct 2010, already 13k apps.

China is the place to be.  By 2015 750 million people online in China up from 420 million today and 333 million phone internet users up from 233mil today. Over 1/3 “digital junkies” and “mobile mavens” replace their phone every 12 months or less. Digital junkies spend 34.1 hours / week on internet .. Uh oh, do I qualify? Gamers spend 8 hours / week playing online games – really? When I was into gaming we spent a lot more than 8 hours a week online!

Chinese users spend 20 mins a week on email, U.S. users spend 5.5 hours!   Wow, just think about that for a minute… what could you do with an extra 5 hours a week? I wonder why there is such a large disparity, does the average Chinese user simply send and receive less email than we do?  Has email marketing not taken off there?  If so, I cannot imagine the marketers ignoring such a large market for long.

Echoing Dan, Friedbert opined that the cloud will provide the power behind mobile phone apps and even took the idea a setp further, suggesting that phones could potentially become lightweight user interfaces with the real computing power in the cloud.  - Really? I continue to be skeptical about the notion of mobile devices being largely or totally reliant on network access.  I’m sorry, I just don’t see the average information junkie, er "user" accepting that compromise but who knows.

What about all the time we spend without service? Service availability is key. - No kidding.
“Multi-screen” apps and games will drive the ecosystem.  By which he means applications which are implemented on multiple plaforms and capable of seamlessly sharing user and session data – interesting idea.

Being a Microsoft guy, Friedbert naturally gave an MS example: you are playing an XBox Live game on your phone (while on the bus hopefully and not driving!), you get home, turn on your XBox and pick up where left off on your phone.

Following on from his earlier comments, Friedbert suggested that people will end up spending less on the hardware (phones) and more on services.  So the winner, business-wise, will be the one with the best cloud. (And the best cross-device support, providing a seamless service with data sharing, one assumes) 

For developers the key will be seamless toolsets for developing for different platforms to minimize the modification necessary to cross platforms and this is currently one of Microsoft’s big focuses.  He mentioned several technologies I am only passingly familiar with... Silverlight and Azure being the two that stuck in my mind.  (Silverlight is a cross-platform development toolset and it looks like Azure is Microsoft's cloud service offering)

Lai Lau from AT&T:
Lai is a former software developer now in marketing, managing products for business solutions.  As might be expected her presentation was a nice mix of bullet points and infographics.

AT&T is apparently releasing an SDK or SDK’s.

Mobile application developers face a difficult choice: What platform or platforms to focus on? In order of consumer popularity we currently have iPhone/iPad at the top, then Android phones / tablets, then Blackberry and finally Windows 7 Mobile (the most recent of the bunch).  To develop cross-platform even on phones takes a lot of time, effort and money.  

This problem will only be exacerbated by the explosion in smart devices: phones, notebooks, netbooks, portable games consoles, e-book readers, portable media players, portable navigation devices etc.  (Interestingly no mention of PDAs but then those functions seem to have been successfully absorbed into the smart phone / tablet form factors)

Platform-specific API’s only allow you to develop for that platform.  (Is AT&T proposing a middleware API? Interesting... potentially slow but interesting)  Continuing on, the AT&T network API allows access to services like SMS, MMS, location, WAP and device capability info across multiple devices without re-coding. (So it’s an extension for the device-specific APIs? – I still wasn’t clear)
Developers need a strategy for mobile solution not just mobile applications and it’s okay to use a hybrid (combination?) of local client & web based technologies.  Consider new opportunities with connected devices.  (In the panel Q&A afterwards one of the audience asked about the API: apparently it will allow access to cloud computing services from all the major mobile O/S's)

<< Darnit, this blur is the only shot I got of Li's amusing “Me! Me! Me!” inforgraphic demonstrating what would happen if we all tried to go to at the same time :( >>

When building apps back-ended by the cloud, developers must design the communication carefully to make smooth for user and efficient for device, caching where feasible.  (Please please please, if you are fetching data from a server, cache it locally so that I can at least access the last thing I was interested in when I am between WiFi networks – Me)  Security of course is paramount, especially when dealing with customer data.

Developers need to pay attention to app store fee structure and policies, not just size.  (A hint to check out AT&T’s new app store?)  A "carrier shelf" is a dedicated area on an OEM storefront, branded as the carrier e.g. AT&T’s app center . Putting your app in a carrier’s store could net you more visibility than putting it in the Android store.  (Presumably because there are less applications present.. but wouldn't the trade off be that your audience is likely to be smaller?  I wonder, can you put it in both stores? Should have asked that)  AT&T are really into this OEM storefront idea. Wonder what their fee structure looks like? Lai didn’t go into that.

Pei Zheng from Sony Ericsson was our last speaker:
(/mourn Symbian, the O/S that started me on the smartphone path 6 years ago with Sony-Ericsson’s P-series devices)

Pei is apparently the author of 3 books including his latest one which he could not resist cheekily promoting, on Windows phone 7 development for iOS & Android developers.  The audience didn’t hold this against him however as it quickly became apparent that Pei was an energized and amusing presenter.  :)

He started with a Chinese history lesson:

Around 1800 years ago there were 3 kingdoms in the area that is now modern China - Wei, Shu and Wu - and they were always fighting.  (Probably some misunderstanding about who called who’s Royal mother a grumpy old Ox – these kind of things happened all over the World, throughout history)  Anyway, 300 odd years later one country emerged to consolidate the whole area into one realm.

Today we have the three Kingdoms of Google Android, Apple iOS and Microsoft Windows phone 7, the others will fade away.  I don’t recall Pei mentioning what the implied techno-realm would be called however… Appooglesoft perhaps?  IOWinDroid?  J

In the meantime, like all youngsters, the mobile market is going through some growing pains:
  • It’s a Wild World out there: so many applications available that it’s hard to find the good ones
  • Google is developing Android fast and furious (though as far as I am aware, without Vin Diesel, Nitrous Oxide and go-faster graphics) and their partners must keep pace (carriers, hardware manufacturers an developers)
  • We are both blessed and plagued with a multitude of Android devices, perhaps too many: how are consumers to pick the one that is right for them?  (And how are manufacturers to maintain their profit margins? .. If anything I think the economic realities of a saturated marketplace will eventually be the calming influence)
  • Apple iOS by comparison just has a handful of iPhone variants (though Apple seems to be doing just fine with that model, as usual)


  • We are all operating outside the box
  • This is an application-centric World.  (Every consumer wants information and entertainment at their fingertips and any developer with an SDK and a device can join in)
1.       Apps for all settings: phone, tablet, PC, car, television, home automation (Google announced android at home last week? I missed that one..)
2.        Social gaming: think real-world setting simultaneous with virtual world.  (eLARPing? Nerds of the World unite! I can see it now, phone-lightsaber fights in the office, "Command & Conquer: Mall Assault”,..)
3.       Mobile healthcare:
o   low-cost real-time monitoring devices sending data across the phone network
o   Diagnostic advice on phone or online
o   Self-adjusting pillows for insomniacs! (He may have been joking on this one but stranger things have happened ;)

Android has experience phenomenal growth in the last 2.5 years. It has its share of growing pains: an overloaded marketplace, a confusing number of device choices.  The mobile game is getting more interesting.  New ideas & opportunities are welcome.  Oh and even Sony-Ericsson is confused about Chrome O/S's position in relation to Android.  (see my earlier entry, 'Reflections on Chrome')

Panel Q&A:
At this point, the moderator opened it up to questions from the audience but not before slipping in a question of his own.

Moderator: Monetization of apps - pay up front or in-app?
Lai: Free downloads are popular so in-app billing is growing - enterprises are hungry for mobile apps, particularly for customer relations / loyalty

Audience: How do we reconcile data caps / throttling bandwidth vs desire to put apps on the cloud?
Dan: It's about fair use for users. Hopefully as networks upgrade, throttling will be less necessary

Audience: But the number devices growing much faster than capacity of networks (in reference to previous question)
Lai: danced around the question a bit then talked about smart networking with devs building smart apps to use WiFi where available, phone network where not.

Audience: Explain network API? (To Lai re: AT&T''s proposed API)
Lai: It's an API for accessing cloud services, accessible from all the main mobile software platforms

Audience: In the PC world most apps are developed for Web rather than as a local client these days, will mobile apps go same way?
Pei: HTML5 may enable this at some point but right now native apps make more sense for mobile
Friedbert: Connectivity will be the limiting factor for this (What about the drive to the cloud then?)

Audience: Apple and Android app stores have subverted carrier-customer relationship, how will carriers re-assert their relationship?
Dan: (grinning) pass, we don’t sell iphones  (I bet it’s the first time he’s been glad to say that!)
Lai: I dont know how to answer that (Refreshingly honest.  Wouldn't that one of the goals of the carrier app stores?)

Wow, that is easily the longest entry I have ever written but there were just a lot of interesting thoughts and opinions to capture… I apologize for not having better pictures: I tried, in between frantic bouts of typing but many of the shots I did get came out fuzzy.  Fortunately, the organizers have posted photos on the event page.  Next month's meetup is entitled 'Social Media Talk'. Hmmm.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this up! Saved me some time : )