Google and Yahoo! are both doing a range of things in mobile that connect the PC experience to the handset more directly. I've recently written about this with Google's local results in mobile. But there are other examples as well. Yahoo! does ad targeting from PC to mobile if users are signed in on the Yahoo! mobile site.
This bridging between mobile and PC is consistent with a "one Web" (Opera's phrase) vision that both companies are explicitly promoting. To that end, yesterday Google enabled its recently introduced PC "search options" in mobile, allowing users to refine or fliter search results as one can on the PC. Here are some screen images from the Google Mobile blog:
While this may be helpful in select situations it doesn't represent a big enhancement to the mobile search experience on Google in my view. It's more important as another example of the PC-mobile crossover and attempt to leverage the PC experience to build mobile user loyalty by providing familiar tools and capabilities.
Yahoo! isn't exactly duplicating the PC experience in this way but it is seeking to build a familiar experience in mobile. Yesterday Yahoo! announced some changes and upgrades for its mobile homepage. It's now available on 1,900 mobile devices and there are a range of improvements (including more video) for smartphones:
Yahoo! has built a terrific mobile experience. The "My Favorites" functionality in a way conceptually duplicates the personalized homepage experience that Yahoo! introduced on the PC, although it's not a direct crossover. My guess is it will eventually become that.
Stepping back, Yahoo!, Google (and Microsoft) are seeking to take their massive audiences online and port them to mobile (especially smartphone) devices. This is also true of Facebook. In the mobile traffic reports we see how the brand strength of these companies (Microsoft to a lesser degree) is translating into mobile user behavior and loyalty. As they continue to invest in mobile the PC-mobile connect becomes stronger and harder for companies that don't have that strength to get attention. Witness, for example, how Facebook and MySpace (to some degree) are starting to squeeze out all the mobile-only social networks because they have no brand or usage presence on the PC.
We're waiting to see the Bing upgrade of Microsoft's mobile search client app. The old Live Search app offered speech and was very good. It didn't get the recognition it deserved. But Bing is higher profile and has an opportunity to grab more attention and usage. The screenshot to the right is a preview of the look of the client.
Separately Tellme is integrated, from what I understand, pretty deeply into WinMo 6.5. Nobody really discussed this in the reviews I saw yesterday of the updated OS. However Clint Boulton at Google Watch offers a video demo of Tellme running on the new Samsung Intrepid (a Windows Phone). Tellme's capabilities extend beyond just search into other functions on the device (e.g., dictating SMS messages).
Tellme (and maybe Bing) are assets that can potentially differentiate Microsoft's OS, mobile services and experience from Google. But that's contingent on the user experience and degree of integration. It has to be broader and more holistic; in other words not just a search box and list of search results. I've long believed that Tellme is an asset that's under-exploited by Microsoft.
I'm eager to test out 6.5 and Tellme on the new devices. I'm also eager to see what the updated Bing search client will be like. I like the last one but I no longer own a Windows Phone. Accordingly, the company needs to think about making a Bing app for the iPhone, RIM and Android as well as Windows Mobile -- it needs to reach the users where they are today.
Windows Mobile is officially out today, though we haven't yet held a device with one and used it. Looking across a wide range of reviews out this morning the consensus is that it's an improvement over 6.1 but ultimately "disappointing." On the favorable side is the following from Venture Beat:
But the software is really what is useful here. Microsoft markets the experience in a clever way. It says it’s a “smartphone that’s smart enough to bring all the parts of our lives together,” striking a balance between business life and personal life. You can get all sorts of communications apps: voice, email, instant messenger, photo sharing, and social networks . . .
Overall, Windows Mobile 6.5 moves Microsoft into a somewhat defensible position compared to its rivals. But observers are eagerly awaiting better things from Microsoft when Windows Mobile 7 launches sometime next year.
Yet the language there is tepid ("somewhat defensible"). On the negative or more critical side are the following from Gizmodo ("There's no excuse for this"):
It's a superficial update, and not a very thorough one. It's an interim product, and a vain attempt to hold onto the thinning ranks people who still choose Windows Mobile despite not being somehow tethered to it until the tardy Windows Mobile 7 comes out, whenever that may be. And it won't work.
And then there's this one from ZDNet's Matthew Miller, normally a Windows Mobile fan:
I’ve had the chance to use both an AT&T HTC Pure and Pharos Traveler 137 running Windows Mobile 6.5 and I have to say Microsoft disappoints me greatly with this release. We have seen more leaked than what was released today so maybe there will be some upcoming updates, but I am disappointed by the lipstick Microsoft gives to us with WM 6.5.
The implication here is "lipstick on a pig." Ouch. Miller offers a video tour of 6.5.
I had seen videos of 6.5 and thought it would be a dramatic improvement over 6.1, which I owned and used daily for over a year. Overall from these reviews it does not appear to be the needed reinvention of the Windows Mobile OS.
However I'll withhold final judgment until I get a chance to form my own impressions. But if these critical reviews are accurate then Windows Mobile will be in trouble. Windows Mobile 7 is due out at some point next year. But in the meantime, the competition continues to intensify -- to put it mildly.
In conjunction with the WinMo updgrade debut, Microsoft has simultaneously launched its app store competitor, Marketplace for Mobile, and its My Phone cloud back-up service as well. One area where Microsoft does seem to have made a solid improvement is mobile IE 6, pre-installed on WinMo 6.5. It provides full flash support as well. CNet offers a positive review and video of the browser upgrade.
Related: Former rivals Google and Verizon (for the 700 MHz spectrum) plan an announcement later today, which is probably the first Android handset launch on Verizon. Google may have timed this announcement consciously to steal some of the PR thunder from Windows Mobile.
There's a good deal of news this morning and not a lot of time to expand on it. I will if I can later. Right now, here are the headlines and a few comments . . .
T-Mobile in its bid to become the US carrier most closely associated with Android, said that it would carry the Samsung Behold II, the Korean OEM's first Android handset. In addition the company is trying to boost enterprise visibillity with a big WiFi push.
Google joins the Adobe Open Screen Project to put flash on mobile devices. Now Adobe has secured flash on everyone's handsets/platforms but the iPhone. We'll see if Apple eventually is forced to roll out flash by virtue of its coming availability on competitive handsets. The Android Hero already offers flash support, and so does mobile browser Skyfire.
Tomorrow is the big WinMo 6.5 launch day but AT&T's HTC Pure and Tilt 2 are already on sale (the Pure for $149) with Window Mobile 6.5. Note the aggressive pricing: smartphone pricing is coming down and the more it does the more adoption there will be. The more adoption, the more mobile Internet engagement . . .
VoIP provider Vonage is releasing BlackBerry and iPhone apps.
Update: the iPhone will get flash after all:
The next version of Flash Authoring will enable developers to create stand-alone iPhone applications using Flash technologies (including ActionScript 3). These applications are just like any other iPhone application and can be distributed via the Apple iTunes Application store. Indeed, there are already a number of applications created with Flash on the store today.
One thing I want to stress is that this is for standalone applications, and is not the Flash Player for mobile Safari (which is something we continue to work on). The end result is a native iPhone application, and not a SWF that runs in the browser.
People in the analyst community and in the technology press are pretty polarized when it comes to Windows Mobile. One narrative is that Window Mobile is now fatally flawed, hopelessly behind and Microsoft should buy Palm (or otherwise dispose of WinMo). I was more or less in this camp until I saw some of the demo video of 6.5, which seems like a big improvement over 6.1 (which I owned for over a year). However I haven't been "hands on" with 6.5, let alone 7.
On the other side are WinMo fans and boosters who tout Microsoft's global relationships with OEMs, strong position on the PC, software assets and general balance sheet as evidence that the mobile OS will be a strong player and not an also ran in the smartphone space. In that latter camp would appear to be iSuppli, which published a forecast that argues Windows Mobile will be the number two (after Symbian presumably) player in the smarpthone market on a global basis.
Here's the company's chart showing the anticipated growth:
I would argue that neither the detractors nor the boosters are entirely correct. The future cannot be truly predicted. There is no "Windows Mobile" brand that the public knows, hence the "Windows Phone" rebranding. But that has yet to be established. Unless or until it gains traction in the public mind, Microsoft is partly dependent on third parties to succeed:
For its part, Microsoft can (and must) improve the OS and tie it to online services; it can also develop its apps ecosystem to be competitive. However, right now, there are fewer WinMo smartphones in the world in operation than iPhone + iPod Touch devices (30M vs. 50M). So iSuppli's forecast is optimistic in my view.
There's is a lot of work that Microsoft must do, both on the OS and the Windows Phone brand before it will be able the market share numbers iSuppli is predicting.
There's an emerging sense of what might be described as "app best practices," although the rules aren't entirely clear. This extends to pricing and update strategies. One thing that's hard to estimate is how much people will use a particular app or whether people will simply download and discard it after some initial curiosity.
What types of apps do people hold on to and use with any frequency? In my case there are scores of apps on my iPod Touch but I only use a handful with regularity, let alone daily. These questions were examined by mobile analytics provider Flurry in a 90 day study of 19 categories of apps from the iTunes store. The most retained categories of apps over 90 days were the following, in order:
But these weren't all used equally. Medical is long retained, though infrequently consulted, while news drives both usage frequency and loyalty. Here are two views from the company of retention and usage frequency:
Related: Business Insider reports iPhone gaming stats (e.g., 65% of apps downloaded are games, which seems to directly contradict the above data). See also Mobile Marketer on how mobile advertising drives mobile app downloads.
Independent, cross-platform app store GetJar launched what it calls a App Download Page, which enables publishers and developers to consolidate their apps and drive more downloads through their own sites (as opposed to the app stores). Essentially this is a hosted, white label offering that enables a mobile site to detect a user's phone and offer the correct version of a mobile app to download (BlackBerry vs. iPhone vs. Android vs. Windows Mobile vs. Symbian vs. Java). Hence the headline of the press release "GetJar Launches Service to Convert Mobile Visitors Into Application Users."
According to research by comScore and AdMob (n=1,117 US users, 8/09), there are a range of ways that apps are discovered (word of mouth, apps stores, ads, etc.) But the proprietary apps stores and their rankings are the principal way:
GetJar CEO Ilja Laurs told me that with the App Download Page GetJar's initial partner Facebook was driving "a million downloads a day" through its site during the trial period. Now that has tapered off to a million a week reportedly.
Apps have become strategic for many publishers to offer a better mobile Web experience and drive higher levels of engagement and loyalty. In a future webinar we'll feature an apps vs. mobile Web debate with GetJar.
Lots of people are writing the obituary for Windows Mobile. Here's the latest piece to do so: "Does Microsoft Windows Mobile Have A Future?" I was in that camp too, arguing that Microsoft should ditch WinMo and buy Palm, etc. I was a pretty harsh critic of the OS (and had been a 6.1 user for a long time). Compared to the iPhone or Android it was really lacking.
But upon seeing 6.5 in video demos (though not in my hand) I changed my tune. To me Windows Mobile 6.5 looks much improved and as though it has a fighting chance when combined with elegant hardware. And if Redmond can continue to innovate and improve the user experience it will be competitive. After all there are 30 million users of Windows Mobile handsets today. Those folks presumably would stay with the platform if it continues to improve.
A big challenge for Microsoft is how to position "Windows Phones." Are they for business users (vs. RIM), are they for consumers (vs. Palm, Apple, Android)? Microsoft says both. But Microsoft doesn't control the user experience and hardware integration as fully as RIM, Apple and Palm. It's most like Android in that regard.
An improved user experience and competitive pricing (especially the latter) will drive sales of 6.5 phones while we wait for a stronger experience in Windows Mobile 7. But I now believe it's much too soon to count Microsoft out in mobile. It would be somewhat different if Microsoft were in denial and not aware of its challenges in mobile, but the company seems to be (behind the scenes at least).
Also, the OneApp "platform" for feature phones could see some great success. Recall that feature phones constitute more than 80% of the market.
At Apple's "Music" event today a number of things were announced, notably video cameras for the iPod Nano (and not for the iPod Touch). But of interest here is the expansion of the "Genius" feature of the iTunes store to iPhone apps to facilitate discovery and more revenue. In the next version of the iPhone software (3.1) a new Genius button will offer apps recommendations to users.
Steve Jobs, making his first event appearance since his Liver transplant surgery, ticked off some new usage and sales figures:
The more I think about it, the more I think that Palm has just sealed the fate of the Pre with its new Pixi -- assuming that its pricing is going to be below the newly reduced Pre (now $150).
If the Pixi sells for $99 (as anticipated) it will effectively kill Pre sales. There are a few apparent differences between the phones: the lack of WiFi on the Pixi, the smaller screen and the "always out" keyboard. Both have the WebOS (and related apps). Most people aren't going to care about the lack of WiFi. And most people are going to go for the lower-cost device.
The people that are wiling to pay more for handsets will buy an iPhone or an Android device. The Pre is not sufficiently better than Android (though more refined in some respects) and it's clearly not better than the iPhone, despite its mutiple apps capability.
The Centro had the guts of a Treo 750 but a $99 price tag. And that appears to be what Palm has done again with the Pixi. The question the Pixi raises is: Why buy a Pre?
Two "top-tier" mobile apps previously missing from the Android pantheon are now available: Facebook and Pandora. Though not as complete as its iPhone cousin, the Facebook Android app is pretty functional. Here's a video demo of how it works.
In hardware news, Palm has now launched the Pixi (formerly EOS or Pixie). It promises to be cheaper (maybe $99) than the Pre, which is coming down in price to $149 to boost sales. Here's a "hands on" video of the new Pixi from Engadget:
It uses the WebOS like the Pre and in some ways appears more functional than its more expensive sibling (you don't have to slide the keyboard open to enter characters or queries). It also reportedly has a better keyboard. If the price is $99 it's going to be a much bigger hit than the Pre for sure. The big differentiator is that the Pixi has no WiFi; however that's not going to be an issue for most buyers who jump at the lower price point.
The larger point here is that smartphone prices are creeping downward amid intensifying competition. The new Android Hero (from Sprint) is going to come in at $179. The Pre is now $150 and the Pixi may be $99. The iPhone 3G is $99 and Verizon was clearing out the Storm (in anticipation of Storm 2) for $50.
These kinds of prices will drive big smartphone sales, which drives mobile Internet usage.
Video: Google improves the Android Market. Right now it's a pretty mediocre experience and not very conducive to discovery of new apps.
Nokia is the dominant handset maker in the world. But it has seen that position erode, especially in the smartphone market. For example, Symbian saw its global market share decline from 62.3% at the end of 2007 to 47% at the end of 2008. That number further declined to 45% as of the most recent (Q2) Gartner handset numbers.
Now an article at MarketWatch, playing off a report from investment firm Goldman Sachs, reflects that Nokia may be stumbling at a critical time:
Nokia has also taken too long to upgrade its main software platform, the Symbian Series 60, which is now deemed too bulky and complex by many users, in particular when it comes to the touch interface.
"Our experience with the N97 has convinced us that Nokia needs to start almost from scratch to create an attractive user experience, rather than following the complex menu structure of Series 60," Goldman wrote.
Nokia, however, has said that it remains "strongly committed" to Symbian. According to Dow Jones Newswires:
Nokia Corp., the world's biggest maker of cellphones by volume, said Wednesday it remains "strongly committed" to the Symbian mobile operating system.
The statement comes after the German edition of the Financial Times reported citing an unnamed source that Nokia will abandon the Symbian platform for its smartphone devices in favor of the Maemo operating system.
"We remain strongly committed to our current open OS software strategy for cellular devices, which is based on the world-leading Symbian OS...," Nokia said in a statement.
World leading indeed; but for how much longer?
Some time ago I wrote a couple of posts arguing that Microsoft's best way to get back in the game in mobile -- notwithstanding the 30 million installed Windows Mobile phones -- was to buy Palm. Others have also argued this or some version of this as well. Most recently an opinion piece appeared in Business Week contending that Microsoft is falling farther behind with Windows Mobile and characterized WinMo 6.5 as a "minor release" -- a stopgap until WinMo 7 could come out late in 2010.
That was the line I was essentially pushing until I saw the video below demonstrating 6.5, which impressed me with its apparent improvements over 6.1.
There had been rumors of a "Zune-phone" and effectively that's what Microsoft has created. It has taken the Zune interface and moved it onto phones. Meanwhile, Zune HD boasts Internet access via WiFi hotspots.
When you step back and look at all the elements coming together here, along with the Zune HD as a mobile Internet device and the Mobile Marketplace (works I believe on Zune HD) what you have is Microsoft's iPhone, iTunes and iPod Touch equivalent. I'm sure the folks in Redmond would cringe at that characterization but it seems pretty clear. The company has gone from ridiculing the iPhone and its prospects in 2007 to emulating its strategy in 2009.
On a recent call for analysts about the state of Windows Mobile, during the Q&A session, the two repeated themes were: "How was Microsoft going to compete with or beat the iPhone?" and "How would Microsoft compete with or beat RIM in the enterprise?" The answers were flip sides of one another: the new Windows Phones (re-branded) would be offer better consumer experiences than BlackBerry and be a better "business phone" than the iPhone.
If Microsoft were to produce a truly great mobile OS and user experience, combined with great hardware, it could gain consumer attention and adoption. It's not clear that 6.5 will be that experience -- I haven't used 6.5 first hand -- but after seeing the video I no longer think that Windows Mobile is a lost cause. It appears to be downright competitive in fact.
And, finally, in an "enemy of my enemy is my friend" moment, last week Nokia and Microsoft announced an alliance to bring more productivity software to handsets -- to steal business users from RIM. In the US the prospects for Nokia are dim, absents some radical changes and/or innovations (which could include pricing). Nokia is being effectively shut out of the market in the US.
Since the resignation of Google CEO Eric Schmidt from Apple's board, the new "competition narrative" among tech journalists is Google vs. Apple (nice change from Google vs. Microsoft). As representative of the new "angle," BusinessWeek discusses why Apple now has a larger market cap than Google. Similarly, Forbes discusses the growth outlook for the respective companies' businesses.
Obviously in mobile the two companies compete and contrast in their strategies: iPhone vs. Android, closed vs. open, software decoupled from hardware, etc. But one of the more interesting questions raised by the juxtaposition is one we've addressed before: is the user experience going to be centered around apps or the browser? The answer is of course, both. Actually there are a continuum of experiences: native apps, "web apps" and PC rendering through the browser.
We don't know yet how all this will play out -- if we did it would be boring. But there will be both native apps and "web apps" (where Google is now focused) going forward; apps are not just an interim step toward true 1:1 experiences on PC and mobile via the browsers.
The "Google vs. Apple" narrative is thus a stand-in for the debate about the focus and nature of the mobile user experience.
In something of anti-climax (because Google previous gave out the phones causing a lot of early reviews), the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G is finally here (it's been out in the UK for many months as the Vodafone Magic). It's much improved over the clunky G1 -- sleeker and without a physical keyboard.
I've been using it fairly heavily for the past couple months. And today I finally downloaded Sherpa from Geodelic and got a chance to play with it a bit. But before I talk about Sherpa, here's my quick rundown on the MyTouch experience:
Overall it's a terrific phone but falls short in a couple of areas because of comparisons to the iPhone.
Sherpa, by Geodelic, is one of the "marquee" apps being promoted by T-Mobile to help differentiate the phone from smartphone competitors. In my very preliminary usage I'm relatively unimpressed however. The app has a novel carousel interface that shows nearby businesses and attractions across listings categories. Users can "search" using a query box but the app is intended to offer up listings based on handset location and usage history/preferences over time.
Colorful icons allow users to find restaurants, cafes, banks, shopping and so on at the touch of a button. Profile pages initiate calls and map lookups. There are also map and list views of places.
I recognize this is "version 1.0" but the offering at a high level, and in terms of some of the interface elements, is not very different than Where, AroundMe, Places Directory, Earthcomber, MapQuest and a few others.
Many companies, including Geodelic, Aloqa and MobilePeople, among others, are now vying to be a kind of all-encompassing local search (or discovery) tool on the mobile handset, not to mention Google Maps, Yahoo mobile (app + mobile Web) or the Microsoft mobile/Bing smartphone client.
To succeed in this local-mobile segment, companies need to bring together rich and complete data, solid intuitive functionality and then some differentiating feature or combination of elements. It's a very tough challenge in a crowded arena. Companies need to think also about voice and the camera as auxiliary input mechanisms -- if they make sense for the application.
I look forward to the Geodelic iPhone app and subsequent versions of the software.
Skyfire announced that it had hired Travelocity CMO Jeffrey Glueck to run the company. The key thing to know about Skyfire is that it runs Flash (though Android will soon too). On the PC side of things, browser competition is getting more intense with IE, Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera. In the mobile smartphone segment, there's Safari, Opera, Palm's Pre browser, Firefox, Skyfire and Android's browser (although you can download any browser for Android).
The battle for third party browsers on smartphones will play out on Windows Mobile, Symbian and BlackBerry primarily (though maybe on Android too). Opera owns the browser experience on feature phones.
Let me just say affectionately that the BlackBerry browser experience is not up to par and the company will need to do something there quickly. The new Skyfire BlackBerry client is coming some time later this year. When that goes live the company said it will be available for "90% of smartphones worldwide." Though critically well reviewed, the actual market share Skyfire enjoys is quite small by contrast. Glueck will attempt to change that obviously.
The chart below shows current global mobile browser market share according to StatCounter:
Related: VentureBeat says the following about Glueck's ambitions for the company:
Glueck said he has three main goals: Continue innovation around the product, bring Skyfire to even more smartphones (it’s currently on Nokia, Samsung, LG, HTC, Palm, and Motorola phones, with a BlackBerry version still in testing), and start partnering with other companies to develop mobile versions of their websites. That third goal, which Skyfire hasn’t really explored yet, could be a big opportunity, Glueck said.
“Skyfire has built the best mobile browser, but I also see it potentially as the world’s best branded mobile app platform,” he said.
Re "mobile app platform" . . . this is part of Firefox's vision as well for Fennec. Opera also has apps. But it's a long-shot strategy as a mainstream use case for the browser.
Related: BlackBerry App World now has about 2,000 apps according to the company.
Google was rumored to be developing an operating system. Then we got Android (an OS for mobile devices) and Chrome (a browser that is like an OS in some respects). Everybody forgot about the alleged Google OS. Well last night Google in fact announced an OS: Chrome (not to be confused with the browser). From the Google Blog post:
Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010. Because we're already talking to partners about the project, and we'll soon be working with the open source community, we wanted to share our vision now so everyone understands what we are trying to achieve . . .
Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips and we are working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of netbooks to market next year. The software architecture is simple — Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel. For application developers, the web is the platform . . .
Google Chrome OS is a new project, separate from Android. Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks. Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web, and is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems. While there are areas where Google Chrome OS and Android overlap, we believe choice will drive innovation for the benefit of everyone, including Google.
In his remarks on the most recent Google earnings call, CEO Eric Schmidt said:
There are announcements happening between now and the end of the year that are quite significant from operators and new hardware partners in the Android space, which I won’t preannounce except to say that they really do fulfill much of the vision that we laid out more than a year ago.
On the netbook side, there are a number of people who have actually taken Android and ported it over to netbook or netbook-similar devices. So we think that’s another one of the great benefits of the open source model that we’ve used. We’re excited that that investment is occurring. And again, largely outside of Google, which we think is great.
He must not have exclusively been referring to Android. Although the company says that Android and Chrome OS will overlap, the latter is explicitly for netbooks. We already have one Android netbook and Acer's announcement of a Q3 netbook release. Other hardware OEMs may want to wait for Chrome. But they will wait until 2010 for it to become available.
Chrome the OS will also be able to power full-sized PCs. Most of the PC market however is migrating from desktops to laptops and netbooks. The fact that it's a free OS will attract hardware OEMs in the same way Android has in the mobile space. With margins getting ever thinner in the PC-netbook world and a de-facto price ceiling for laptops starting to emerge, OEMs will be looking for any margins they can retain -- or, conversely, to compete more aggressively with new low-cost devices.
All of this represents a potentially huge problem for Microsoft (and to a lesser degree maybe Apple), depending on how good the new OS is.
Nokia, the globe's largest maker of handsets, seems to be struggling for direction. The company paid $8 billion for Navteq to boost LBS and Nokia Maps. Maybe there's long-term strategic value in that asset but so far the purchase hasn't paid dividends commensurate with the price. Nokia has also not been (so far) able to transcend its hardware OEM identity, which it was presumably trying to do.
The much hyped Nokia N97 -- the company's best "answer" to the iPhone -- went on sale in the US without a carrier subsidy at a price of more than $700. In other words, it's DOA. Despite this strategic blunder, the Finnish company says it's trying to find its way back into the US market, where it lags rivals badly.
(The company also recently announced a long-term strategic alliance with Intel for devices. We'll have to see what that relationship yields; certainly there is considerable potential.)
In terms of software, compared to other smartphone platforms, Nokia's Symbian is off (per Gartner's FY08 numbers):
Nokia is understood to be developing a mobile phone that runs on Google's Android software platform in a strategic U-turn for the world's largest mobile phone manufacturer.
The new touchscreen device will be unveiled at the Nokia World conference in September, say industry insiders, as the Finnish handset giant tries to revive its fortunes in the smartphone market . . .
Analysts at HSBC reckon Nokia had 47% of the global smartphone market in 2007; that was down to 35% last summer and 31% at the end of the year.
It's too early to say that Nokia is backing away from Symbian but it will be interesting to see if it does actually produce a phone using Android, rather than simply another non-phone hardware device (like the prior N810 Internet Tablet). Given that Symbian is losing momentum it's probably smart to experiment with Android, especially in the US market.
The company could produce an inexpensive Android-based handset (say $99) and use that as a wedge to get back in. In my view that's Nokia's best way to effectively "return" to the US market.
Update: Nokia denies the Guardian's report about developing an Android phone:
"Absolutely no truth to this whatsoever," said a Nokia spokesman . . . "Everyone knows that Symbian is our preferred platform for advanced mobile devices."
Gizmodo writes a very critical review of the N97:
If this really is the best Nokia can do, the giant is doomed to die a slow death, propped up for a while by the cheap handsets that it sells by the tens of millions.
This morning the Google Mobile Blog announced a software update for Android's version of Google Maps:
You can now search Google Maps for Android using your voice, making it easier than ever to look up places while on the go . . .We also added transit and walking directions to Google Maps for Android. You can now get directions using public transportation in over 250 cities, including New York City and San Francisco.
[Google Latitude:] You may also notice a new experimental feature called Updates that lets you communicate with friends and post messages. Start Latitude and click the "Updates" tab to shout out updates at friends when they're at interesting locations, start a conversation when you're at your favorite restaurant, or just add more details to your Latitude location for your friends to see . . .
Taking the Latitude update first. There were some bug fixes in the new release of Google Maps for Android. However, the "updates" feature is quite significant. It's a Twitter-like feed that anyone in your network can see with location. When you open Latitude (from within Google Maps) on Android, you see two tabs: Friends and Updates, Friends is your Latitude contacts list and allows you to:
Clicking over to Updates provides a real-time conversational feed from active contacts using Latitude. This is essentially Twitter with location. But it's only within Latitude for Android right now so usage is going to be small.
Back to Voice Search for Maps. What Google has done here is imported its voice search capability into Maps. Google now says Voice understands and works with British, Australian and US English accents.
Once you launch Google Maps, you are able to call up the search field. It gives you the option to manually enter a query or speak one (the search field is also similarly presented on the Android home screen). The query results (if they're understood) appear on the map. Tapping or selecting an individual business/result then brings up three tabs: "Address," a details or profile page with contact information (including the option to see the business on Street View), "Details," which may include web links (e.g., to OpenTable), payment information and other data, and "Reviews" (if they exist). The reviews tab offers a nice graphic of the distribution of reviews by star rating on a horizontal bar chart.
While a number of searches came back with results that were less than satisfying (because of the underlying data) the overall user experience is quite powerful. The use of voice on the front end for queries, integrated with all the Maps and directions information, as well as reviews, on the output side, makes for what used to be called a very "sticky" app. Google is trying in various ways to eliminate mobile barriers to searching. Voice is one of the key strategies.
I would assume that most of this will make it to the iPhone in the near term.
The media survive on drama. Accordingly they are playing up competition in the smartphone market: Pre vs. iPhone vs. Android vs. RIM (with little mention of Windows Mobile or Symbian lately). For example, Fortune's Jon Fortt writes:
[T]he [smartphone]landscape has changed dramatically. Suddenly Palm appears to have a potential hit with its new Pre, and Google is showing off slimmer second-generation (G2) Android phones. (I've used both the Pre and the G2, and they're pretty darn nice.) All of this new competition is good for consumers, but probably not for Apple's profit margins.
Also the NY Times writes:
But smartphone shopping has suddenly grown more complicated. BlackBerry’s new app store, App World, is good, and growing. Virgin Mobile and Boost recently debuted smartphones good enough to serve budget-minded technophiles. And Palm’s new Pre is very nearly the iPhone’s equal . . .
For people in the market for a high-end phone and willing to bear the payments, the market really isn't that complicated. It's true that Apple now has rivals that offer devices better than they once were -- and perhaps "good enough" for those who want to remain with Verizon or Sprint. However, the Pre, the G2 and BlackBerry at this point don't rival the iPhone's total user experience. They don't.
The "I want a keyboard" objection that one hears, favoring the Pre or the G1, is based generally on perception and not experience. (The BlackBerry is almost in a category by itself on that front.) As I've said in the past I had that bias until I got used to the virtual keyboard on the iPod Touch. Now I wouldn't return to a physical keyboard and find it awkward. Indeed, while it may facilitate texting, the prospect of using the keyboard to enter search queries or URLs on the Pre is very awkward (as was flipping the phone into landscape mode for the G1 before the cupcake update).
Very heavy text messenging users and those who have become habituated to BlackBerrys through their jobs will probably still prefer a physical keyboard, but that's not the bulk of users out there. The G2/Ion, HTC's successor to the G1, eliminates the physical keyboard entirely. I have one and have been using it daily. It's a very nice phone but it's still no iPhone. For example the virtual keyboard on the iPhone beats the HTC virtual keyboard on a number of fronts.
A valid objection to the iPhone (beyond price and AT&T-related objections) is the fact that more than one app still can't run at one time. You can't listen to Pandora while answering email, for example. We could also critically discuss battery life (now improved) or the poor quality of the iPhone's phone. And one could go down the list of phones comparing them feature by feature. Each one has its selling points but none holistically matches the iPhone user experience. I don't have an iPhone and I won't switch to AT&T, the weak link in the overall iPhone experience. But I've been using the iPod Touch for well over a year as well as other devices side by side.
While the competition is getting better -- good news for users who don't want to move to AT&T -- the marketplace still isn't that competitive or confusing, despite what the press may be reporting.