Devices and desires: why the portable device wars are a red herring

June 3, 2010 | 3 comments

A little pre-history

When I was a kid, I had an Atari 130XE. You’ve probably never heard of it. It was an 8-bit, all-in-one box that booted straight into BASIC; a flexible, well-built, sturdy computer.

There was just one problem: it wasn’t a ZX Spectrum or a Commodore Amiga.

At the time, Britain was undergoing a low-budget computing renaissance. Bedrooms up and down the country were filled with skinny boys (and yes, it was mostly boys) noisily loading games from cassette tapes and dutifully copying down source code listings from specialist magazines. The two engines of this renaissance were the Spectrum and the Amiga, and as such, the games, the tutorials and the social infrastructure were built for these two machines. Perhaps this helped me become more of a creative self-starter: I wrote my own games and stories instead of consuming other peoples’.

Later on, 16 bit computers became popular, and everyone upgraded to the Atari ST: a home machine powerful enough for creatives and musicians, but cool enough for game-playing kids. Except, perhaps inevitably, we had a PC. Running DOS. With a black-and-white Hercules display. Great if you wanted to plug economic figures through a spreadsheet, but lousy if you were a twelve-year-old who was mostly interested in playing The Secret of Monkey Island. Not only was the wholly PC incompatible with the Atari ST, but the PC was actually incompatible with itself: a game that worked on PCs with an EGA or VGA screen wouldn’t work with CGA or Hercules. Back then, the parts inside your computer were at least as important as the operating system you ran or the software you bought.

Plug and Play

Through heavy force and heavy lifting, Microsoft changed all that. Windows 95 was the first widely-accessible operating system that unified hardware platforms. Sure, you had to have an Intel-compatible processor, and it took them a while to get it right (for a while the system was redubbed “plug and pray”), but you didn’t have to mess with configuration files to get your computer working. This was a Big Deal.

Today, we’re used to not having to tinker with our machines. Windows will adapt to just about any hardware you throw it at, and even Linux has become an easy-to-use operating system (relatively speaking).

Better yet, we have data portability: in my house we’re running Windows 7, Mac OS X and Ubuntu, and I can move my documents between them interchangeably. Thanks to the web, and Java before it, we even have applications that don’t care what kind of operating system they run on. For an end user, things just work. That’s exactly how it should be.

Finally, computing is simple, data is interoperable and consumers are in control.

Uh oh: enter the portables

So just as we get a unified computing platform that’s easy to use and relatively simple for consumers to navigate, in comes a new device market that’s as fragmented and consumer-unfriendly as the computing market was in the eighties.

Android. iPhone OS. Windows 7 tablet edition. Windows Embedded Compact. Windows Phone. WebOS. ChromeOS. Kindle OS. Whew! It’s like 1986 all over again.

As a publisher or developer, figuring out which device to build for is a headache. Each one has a different operating system, possibly a different app store (something nobody had to worry about in the eighties), and a different set of underlying technologies. Do you exploit the iPad’s current success and develop for the locked-down Apple platform? Do you take advantage of Amazon’s huge built-in market and write a Kindle app? Do you hold out and wait for HP’s exciting-looking WebOS-powered tablet (which caused a storm recently by publicly moving away from Windows)?

Plug and Play (again)

The truth is, market forces are going to apply the same pressures to the mobile market that the personal computing sector felt in the early nineties. This story has played itself out several times now: one platform will emerge victorious. Judging by the lessons learned by IBM with their Personal Computer architecture, and both Microsoft and Linux for operating systems, it’s likely to be one which is:

  • Open: anyone can add it to their system for little cost, allowing hardware manufacturers to maximize profits by concentrating on the device itself rather than the ecosystem around it
  • Sustainable: it’s powered by a solid business ecosystem that will ensure the longevity of the platform
  • Friendly: it’s a system for everyone, not just hobbyists or developers
  • Flexible: it can be used in multiple contexts, from living rooms to science labs

By this measure, Apple is condemned to be a niche player, operating at the premium end of the market. Sure, right now technophiles everywhere are salivating over the iPad, but that will last until someone comes out with something nicer. In any event, Apple’s grasp is limited to the wealthier western nations – there are far more people seeking more affordable devices waiting in the wings in other places. The third world computer revolution is very much underway.

My bet, of course, is on web technologies. But it isn’t necessarily on the Internet: it’s time we separated web technologies from the World Wide Web. Indeed, connectivity isn’t ubiquitous, and isn’t likely to become ubiquitous world-wide for a very long time. Therefore, the ability to download, install and run apps offline, as we always have with software applications, is incredibly important.

With its Chrome Web App Store, Google is leading the way, and showing that it understands what it takes to create a next-generation application platform. It’s also shown leadership over HTML 5, which it is clearly investing in as a genuine method for powering both content and software. The genius is this: anyone can build using web technologies, and web technologies can run on virtually any hardware. Google makes its money through value-added services, like advertising (to allow both device manufacturers and software developers to supplement their incomes), its app store and underlying logic via some powerful APIs. It’s not an operating system, but for most end-users, they’re making the operating system irrelevant: it’s simply the thing that runs the web browser.

My advice: ignore the hardware

Computers as we know them today will always exist, but they won’t be for everybody. If you’re developing for non-technical end users, the plethora of hardware devices available to you is a red herring. You should be thinking of the web as the platform your products will be based on. Make no mistake: you need to become an expert in web technologies now – or, of course, find someone who is.

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So why do we need apps anyway?

April 29, 2010 | 3 comments

Ebooks don’t cut it: everyone wants an app

NB (May 20, 2010): A lot of my suggestions for web-based apps are part of the Google Chrome Web App Store. In fact, the .crx file used there is a zip file with very similar characteristics to epub. (I assume, as Chromium is open source, that .crx files are also open source – so the web app store is not limited to Google.) This post can be reread as an argument for building for the Web App Store.

At Intersection: Publishing in London the other week, there was a lot of discussion from publishers looking at mobile apps as their mobile publishing solution. Rather than creating ebooks, there seemed to be a general feeling that dedicated applications presented more of an opportunity for richer content, while closing the door to pirates and ensuring that publications remained a paid commodity.

The piracy argument is kind of spurious: although app stores tend to be locked down, this presents a false security blanket for publishers. It only takes one person to crack a store for piracy to be generally possible; technology only ever becomes less secure over time. A cynical person might suggest that the piracy argument is largely spread by the people who own the app stores or provide related services. The people who will suffer are authors and publishers.

Why apps rock

However, there’s definitely an argument for using apps – not just for publishers, but for anyone who wants to create dynamic content. Anyone who’s ever owned an iPhone will tell you that native applications can still provide a smoother, more consistent experience than a web app, without the hassle of remembering website addresses or waiting for pages to load. Tweetie is a million miles better than Twitter’s mobile website – something they themselves acknowledged when they acquired the iPhone application last month.

Mobile vs app

Above, mobile Twitter is on the left; Tweetie is on the right.

  • The app doesn’t need to load its interface from the web; only the underlying data is downloaded, meaning the app can appear instantaneously, loads data faster, and provides a better user experience.
  • The mobile web app needs to sit within the browser chrome (URL and search boxes, browser buttons on the bottom, and in my case, a debug toolbar). The app, on the other hand, has a full-screen UI dedicated to Twitter.

Why the web rocks

The mobile landscape right now is a bit like the personal computing landscape circa 1985. There are a bunch of different platforms to code for:

  • Apple iPhone and iPad
  • Android
  • Symbian
  • Windows Phone
  • Blackberry
  • WebOS (now more important in the wake of HP’s acquisition)

Each of these platforms is different under the hood, and must be developed for separately. Most developers and publishers can’t afford to do this – there isn’t a way to write once and cross-compile to many platforms at once. In fact, Apple recently specifically forbade this: if you’re developing an Apple app, you’re doing so natively, or you’re violating that platform’s terms of use.

However, each of these platforms have one thing in common: they support the web.

HTML5 and ePub: a new platform for apps

As you’re probably aware already, the upcoming HTML5 standard revises the web platform to become far more suitable for apps. Improvements include:

  • Methods for offline and cached usage (so interfaces can load immediately)
  • Built-in databases and storage (so web pages can natively store their own data)
  • A paintable canvas element and WebGL 3D graphics functionality (so web pages can display interfaces more like real applications; the 3D shooter Quake II has already been ported to native HTML)
  • Native video and audio support (no Flash required)
  • Websockets (a more efficient way to connect to Internet data from web pages)
  • Built-in support for advanced functionality like geolocation

This is a big deal. Compliant browsers like Firefox, Safari, Chrome and even the upcoming Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 will be able to run applications that look and feel like native software but are powered by web standards. Between those browser engines, that’s most of the mobile platforms covered: those that don’t have an HTML5 browser built in by default should have one available to download. What’s more, both Firefox’s Gecko HTML rendering engine and the WebKit engine that powers both Chrome and Safari are open source, so anyone can pick them up and build software around them.

So sites on the wider web can be more like applications. That’s fantastic news in itself, but what about the app store model? A lot of people depend on that for revenue, and there’s no reason why that should be incompatible with using web standards.

Luckily, it turns out that ePub – the ebook standard – is really just a bunch of XHTML 1.1 pages drawn together in a specialized way and bundled up in a modified zip file. There are already established best practices for buying and selling ebooks.

If the ePub standard was updated to allow HTML5, it would evolve into a format for self-contained, multi-platform apps that could be sold in the same way as ebooks, music, videos, or apps in something like the iTunes App Store. Except app publishers would only need to build once to support many different kinds of mobile platform, thereby reducing the barrier to entry and allowing their budgets to be concentrated on building just one really awesome piece of software instead of spread across multiple devices.

This would be in a lot of peoples’ interests: app publishers, device manufacturers, browser vendors and consumers alike. There’s a lot of money tied up in a venture like this. The only question is, will the International Digital Publishing Forum, which controls the ePub standard, be foresighted enough to see this opportunity?

Update: Steve Jobs weighs in

Apple’s CEO has written a little about why HTML5 is the future of mobile apps (albeit in the context of his platform’s refusal to support Flash):

HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others, lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash). HTML5 is completely open and controlled by a standards committee, of which Apple is a member.

[…] Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.

[…] New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

Make no mistake: HTML5 is the platform to bet on.

Charging for software in the age of web apps

November 15, 2009 | 2 comments

Google was an advertising company.

Back in 2005, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber described Google’s business as follows:

Judged by their profits, Google is an advertising company. They don’t profit from search, they don’t profit from software. They profit by selling ads. This isn’t to belittle them — I think Google is a terrific company, and they are profiting handsomely from ad revenue ($369 million last quarter). […] If Google has a platform, it’s an advertising platform, not a developer platform. I’m not even saying Google should have a developer platform — I’m just saying they don’t.

Fast forward to 2009, and Internet advertising is beginning to fail, declining slightly during the first half of the year. Sites like TechCrunch were quick to herald its demise with articles like Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet, which declared:

My basic premise is that the internet is not replacing advertising but shattering it, and all the king’s horses, all the king’s men, and all the creative talent of Madison Avenue cannot put it together again.

It’s become clear that for a lot of purposes, advertising is not a viable or useful business model. Although it may still be suitable for very high-volume, mass-market sites and applications, it’s almost impossible to make money through advertising with niche or specialized content in most areas. (Some areas, like real estate, remain relatively lucrative.) Additionally, targeted ads require the advertising software to track your activity and store data about you, which more consumers are becoming concerned about. And perhaps most importantly of all, nobody actually wants to see ads – and advertisers are having to become more creative and invasive in order to compensate.

Similarly, if you want to make headway in the enterprise or educational spaces, targeted ads are inappropriate or impossible, for legal and policy reasons. For publicly-funded organizations like educational institutions, allowing commercial companies to track users is an ethical nightmare. For private enterprise, the data collection required for ad targeting is unacceptable, and the visual presence of advertising threatens their brands.

However, they are willing to pay for software, to the tune of $222.6 billion worldwide.

Boldly going to the enterprise & paid software.

The web is fast becoming a viable platform for applications: rather than visiting websites, we are increasingly using applications that happen to use the web as an interface. Google is at the forefront of this change.

On November 11, Google announced SPDY, an “embrace and extend” version of the HTTP protocol that underpins the web (it’s how browsers and web servers talk to each other). This new version has numerous tweaks that result in pages that load up to 55% faster – important if you’re trying to build responsive applications with web interfaces. Google have also been betting big on HTML 5, which extends the web’s UI infrastructure to provide support for a much richer experience without falling back on plugins like Flash. Two of the most important requirements for enterprise applications that use a web-based interface are offline capability (the ability to use the application with no Internet connection) and support for concurrent processes (allowing your web interface to perform more than one task at once). HTML 5 has both.

Google has evolved from a consumer search and advertising company, into one that provides enterprise infrastructure applications. Its plan is clearly to dominate Microsoft’s leadership and become a bona-fide software power. Recently, Microsoft has been playing catch-up, by including web-based versions of its applications in its enterprise Sharepoint intranet offering. It has also be moving against the tide by planning on offering advertising-supported versions.

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, told the Garner Symposium last month why it was charging for their enterprise applications:

"Enterprise is a huge priority for the management team and me personally […] It’s the next big billion-dollar opportunity after our display (ad) business. […] We looked at ad-supported enterprise applications and decided most corporations would not be comfortable with random ads showing up on somebody’s desktop."

The web is moving away from advertising.

It’s not just Google that is moving away from a purely ad-supported, consumer strategy. Markus Witte, co-founder of the language learning portal Babbel, wrote on their blog about adjusting their business model:

Our plan, in fact, was to partially finance Babbel with advertising. We intended to provide a “freemium” product that would have a basic version that was public, while providing additional premium content for those who might want to dig deeper. But now we see this just doesn’t work. It simply is not possible to build a high-quality online learning environment while simultaneously selling ad space effectively. We tried to bring these two objectives together. But ultimately we had to accept that a business model appropriate for social networks and news services is plain wrong when applied to online education.

The numbers speak for themselves. The US paid e-learning market has been estimated to be worth $16.7 billion in 2009 and has a relatively small number of players; the US advertising revenues for the Internet as a whole were estimated to be $10.9 billion for the first half of 2009. (That’s $10.9 billion to the advertising companies, rather than the amount content and site owners see, which will be a subset of that amount.) When you run a startup company, you can either put your trust in display advertising and number of eyeballs looking at your site, or you can employ a sales team and ask for cash. Entranced by the model that Google originally promoted, Babbel tried the former, and discovered that it didn’t work; recognizing that they were a software company rather than a mass-media outlet, they then reverted to traditional business methods.

Using a centralized software service for non-core activities like language learning is probably fine. However, enterprise organizations can be uneasy about trusting software hosted by third parties (in what’s almost ubiquitously called “the Cloud”). Blog posts and photos are one thing, but it’s quite another to place your internal strategy documents, confidential discussions and financial data on servers owned by another firm with no real guarantee that they’ll remain unseen by prying eyes. It’s also insecure on a technical level: by using the Cloud, you’re outsourcing the fidelity and availability of your data. A much more preferential option would be to gain the ease of use of web applications, but store them securely on local infrastructure.

Open source software is commercial.

Later in Markus Witte’s post, he discusses some of the things that are successfully given away for free on the Internet; among them is open source.

In contrast to Open Source software and Creative Commons, where developers and authors often work for free, ad-sponsored services are designed to make money – and they do. […] But there is another, more insidious, drawback of ad-sponsoring that is less visible to the naked eye: the true customers of these ad-sponsored services are not the users but rather the advertisers. And as everywhere else, the Customer is King.

His remark about open source developers is a misconception: most open source development is done for profit. For example, over 70% of Linux kernel development is done by paid professionals, with a commercial goal in mind. This may be the basis of directly commercial activities like support; a market-based goal, for example to diminish Microsoft’s share; or it may be to ensure the longevity of the infrastructure that a company relies on. (More web servers are powered by open source than not; Netcraft reported this month that 55.33% of active websites are running Apache.) Make no mistake: open source is a business model – one that marries the free ethos of the Internet with paid commerce.

The most common open source business strategy is to use your “community edition” – the unadulterated open source software – as a loss leader that brings users to your commercial products and services. Releasing your software under an open source license theoretically means you gain a community of developers; if your software doesn’t work in a particular set of circumstances, they will often contribute back a fix for the problem. They may also contribute plugins and extra code that extends the functionality of your product. They get software that works for them (and the security that they can always use and modify the code to fit their needs); you get a wider market that you can sell commercial services to, using a wider, more solid set of functionality. Whereas, as Markus points out, the advertiser is king in ad-supported software, in open source the user is king.

Here are some examples you’ve probably heard of:

  • The database software MySQL is released for free under the GNU Public License. Unusually, you’re allowed to mix and match it with software released under other open source licenses (but not closed-source software): they really want their product to spread. This is because they’ve got commercial options based on training, certification, partner agreements and consultancy services, as well as extra features for power users that aren’t available in the community product. (See the article MySQL’s Quid Pro Quo.)
  • Ubuntu is a version of Linux designed with ease of use in mind; it riffs on the interfaces of operating systems like Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X. Canonical, the company behind it, make money through extensive commercial support and partner services. The partner ecosystem is their main bread and butter; the more companies pay, the better access they get to the core Ubuntu team and project strategy, marketing materials, rights to use Ubuntu branding and so on. In turn, those things help the partner companies earn more through their downstream Ubuntu services.
  • Android is an open source operating system sponsored by Google. Although it’s mostly been used on mobile phones so far, it can actually run on a much wider range of devices; Android-powered netbooks are beginning to appear. This has the benefit of holding back Microsoft’s market share – Google is positioning its application suite, which is paid software, against Microsoft Office. (Windows 7 is said to run well on netbooks, and Google will soon have two open source netbook operating systems out: Android and Chrome OS.) There is also a directly commercial component: although Android is open source, it has direct links to Google’s consumer applications like Gmail and Calendar. Those applications, both within Android and on the web, are not open source, and must be licensed.

There are many more. Check out Network World’s list of 10 open source companies to watch, and note that one thing links them: they are all providing services aimed at the business market.

Charging for web-based software.

Google and Microsoft have both demonstrated that the market is ready for web-based business software: products that have the benefits of the web (you can access it from anywhere, on any compatible device) but are designed with the needs of enterprise organizations in mind. It must be secure, have the ability to be installed on an organization’s own infrastructure, and have a solid business model that ensures longevity of the product.

I also strongly believe that an open source development and licensing model, when coupled with a strong commercial strategy from the outset, is a great way to build a product’s feature set, userbase and reputation on the kinds of budgets that web startups are used to. It also makes it easily available to students, as well as a vast talent pool in places where buying software at western license prices is a trickier proposition; two groups that can be invaluable for promotion, feedback and involvement.

Finally, the commercial open source model for web-based applications allows you to easily create an ecosystem: if you create a compelling application that really does have a solid business model, other companies will be very interested in taking a cut. The more people who have an interest in your product succeeding, the better. If you give them a solid commercial reason to invest upstream, and create a great product that makes end-users’ lives easier, everyone wins.

Geolocation in HTML 5 and Javascript

July 13, 2009 | 3 comments

HTML 5 – as-yet unreleased, but shaping up well – contains a specification for finding the current location of the user. The API, if your browser supports it and you grant the web application access, returns your latitude, longitude, elevation, speed and some other details. (If your web-capable device doesn’t have GPS, these details will be estimated using your IP address and other factors.)

A couple of weeks ago, I created a page to test this feature. If your browser is geo capable, this will reveal exactly what data about your location is being sent to web applications that ask for it.

If you’re a developer, here’s how I created the page.

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