Thursday, February 28, 2008

Apple's iPhone paves the way for Android

As a telecoms commentator, I always find it's important to get things wrong occasionally. After all, if you were always right it probably just means you've been sitting on the fence or that you write a boring, predictable column. So I'm happy to report that I'm changing my position on both Apple's iPhone and Google's Android mobile platform.

Let me recap. Just before Apple unleashed its iPhone on a suspecting world, I made a bold statement that it would fail, at least in its first incarnation. Perhaps I should have just said I won't be buying one, because I don't like its closed nature and because it lacks 3G. But thanks to the hackers, we now know that there are hundreds of thousands of people around Asia that are willing to snap up an iPhone and, more importantly, they're loving it.

One grey vendor friend of mine that sells unlocked iPhones in both Bangkok and Singapore can't get enough of them to satisfy demand. The other day he managed to get a shipment, told a few friends via email and they were snapped up within the hour. Another friend who had managed to buy one earlier was an instant fan -- and not just because it made him the centre of attention everywhere he dragged it out. It was also because, finally, someone had made the mobile Internet usable. That alone -- making web sites easily viewable on a mobile screen -- should be enough to cement Apple's place in mobile history.

Another interesting stat I came across: Google is apparently getting 50 times more search requests from iPhones than any other mobile handset. That stat, according to the Financial Times, was so extraordinary that Google first thought it had made an error with its data. It hadn't and it just shows how much more people will use the mobile Internet if you make it easier for them.

Which is where Google steps in. There's no doubt that one of the keys to the search giant's success is the way it makes its services easy to use. Presumably, it will bring that talent to its mobile phone efforts. But more importantly, it can harness the immense power and developer base of the open source movement. Already that's happening, with many local software promotion boards across Asia getting behind it and Google offering significant prizes for developers through competitions.

To date, the two dominant smartphone operating systems -- Windows Mobile and Symbian/System 60 -- have not exactly attracted a fanatical user base. Get the open source community behind a mobile OS, however, and that's exactly what you'll have: a growing and fanatical base of users and developers. And as we have seen with Apple, fanaticism can go a long way.

In a recent research note by Saugatuck Technology, they pointed out that Google's Android and other Linux-based mobile initiatives, notably LiMo, are potentially disruptive influences on the mobile space. The main reasons cited were scalability and portability, affordability and maturity. Another significant point was the ability to work with other open software that can be delivered as a service, either from telecom providers or from pure-play SaaS vendors.

In short, Android (and LiMo) have "the ability (and promise) of becoming game-changing influences – and within a very short time," the research house stated.

If the introduction of the iPhone is any guide, users of mobile devices and services are looking for ease of use and better offerings than they have had in the past. Which is why I (now) think that Google's Android also has a great chance of following the iPhone and succeeding. -- Geoff Long

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Google shouldn't fear Microsoft!

The iPhone was undoubtedly the tech story of 2007, given the number of column inches and blog posts it managed to generate. And despite only being two months into 2008, it would seem we already have a major candidate for this year's top tech story: Microsoft's planned takeover of Yahoo. Neither Jerry nor Steve has asked me what I think of the proposal, but if they did I'd politely tell them I think it's a dumb idea. If the takeover does go ahead, however, they should at least consider my suggestion for a new business name: "Microsoft!"

Seriously though, what makes Microsoft think it can compete better against Google with the addition of Yahoo? The integration of the various services alone will take more than a year to complete, by which time Google will have enhanced its lead even further, no doubt helped by the addition of the disgruntled top Yahoo talent banging on its door. And lets face it, there's a very simple reason why Google thrives while similar offerings from Yahoo and Microsoft struggle: it simply makes a better product.

It's not just about search either, although I regularly compare each of the big three offerings and end up coming to the same conclusions: Google turns up more, and more relevant, pages. Yahoo and Microsoft also both have comparable web-mail services, yet most of the tech-savvy users I talk to prefer Gmail. Similarly, its products like Google Reader encourage loyalty to the brand because they just work damn well.

Both Microsoft and Yahoo both have the services, but what they need to do is refine them so they work better than anything Google has and encourage users to switch. Again, some unsolicited advice: Imagine what Steve Jobs would do with the service and improve from there. Let's face it, if Jobs got hold of Yahoo you could guarantee that he would create the best user experience on the planet and scare the hell out of Google.

I like some of the stuff that Microsoft is doing with its Live offerings but I get confused by the various brands -- why have MSN and Live and Windows Live and Windows Live Mail and Hotmail and so on. And what is Windows Live Spaces? I'd wager the majority of users have no idea. Adding in the various Yahoo services and brands is going to confuse everyone even more.

And we haven't even started on the lead that Google is forging with the integration of its services as well as its software as a service offerings. As I've mentioned in this column before, I now make use of most of the Google online offerings and particularly like the way you can create things such as blogs, email accounts, web sites and so on off your own domain, making use of tools such as Google Analytics, Calendaring, Notebooks and the rest of it. I'm also starting to make use of the online apps like its word processor and spreadsheet offerings.

Microsoft, as many have pointed out, has no real desire to do something similar because of its cash cows in Windows and Office. Let's face it, if Microsoft had been serious about software as a service it could have made a better fist of it by now. It hasn't and it's unlikely to anytime soon. Yahoo, on the other hand, has no such existing market to protect and could have over time done a much better job in competing with Google (and still can), particularly with acquisitions such as Flickr and other Web 2.0 services.

Which all points to Microsoft-Yahoo being a great story but a lousy merger. I do think it's possible for someone to challenge Google's online supremacy, but I also think we'd have better competing services with all three companies in healthy competition. Here's hoping that's an outcome that can still emerge. -- Geoff Long