Operating Systems

AOL's Platform A Optimizes Ads for the iPhone

AOL's consolidated ad serving and technology unit, Platform A, has introduced ad optimization for the iPhone. According to a press release out this morning:

When an iPhone user is browsing sites within the Third Screen Media mobile network, the Advertising.com web network, or any of AOL’s leading media properties, Third Screen Media’s targeting technology will serve an ad specifically optimized for viewing on an iPhone. In addition to optimizing ads for the iPhone, Third Screen Media can redirect iPhone users to special versions of marketers’ sites that are optimized for the iPhone experience.

If I understand this correctly it addresses the issue and challenge of viewing ads on "full HTML" mobile browsers, in this case Safari. But there are also Opera, Skyfire, Opera Mini, the forthcoming mobile IE and Firefox, as well as Android's browser. We've written in the past that if these browsers become the dominant gateway to the mobile Internet, instead of WAP or, to a lesser degree, apps, then it creates problems for mobile advertising because ads are small and/or maginalized on the page. 

Platform A may have just solved the problem. 

Competing mobile ad network AdMob has created special, optimized ad units for the iPhone and iPhone applications.

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I spoke with AOL after writing this and confirmed that my reading of the press release was correct. Here are examples of conventional advertising (from the Internet) presented in the Safari browser and the same unit optimized for the iPhone. 

Before:

iPhone ad a

 After:

iphone optimized ad 

AOL also said that it can do this for other, similar browsers: Skyfire, Opera, Android, etc. However the company said that this capability would only be available to advertisers participating in its network and not a stand-alone technology or capability it would otherwise license or make available to publishers and advertisers not participating in one of the Platform A company networks. 

AOL also will optimize landing pages or microsites in similar fashion for the iPhone. 

Chrome and Android Browser Share Elements, Code

At this point only those living under rocks are unaware of Google's new Web browser Chrome. So I won't go into a long discussion of its features or my impressions of the browser.

At the press event and demonstration on the Google campus yesterday a question was asked about the relationship between Chrome and Android. The answer was "The Android team has developed its own browser. They both share WebKit [the rendering engine] and code." But the browsers are distinct. WebKit is the same open-source engine that is at the core of Safari (online and mobile).

Chrome is analogous to Android in another way. While Android may be a somewhat bigger and bolder play by Google to move the entire mobile infrastructure forward in terms of user experience, Chrome has some of the same ambitions. Google wants to move "Web applications" (SaaS) forward and sees an improved browser as the way to do so. Google believes that "richer Web apps" will be built as a result of Chrome.

The company also believes that by making the browser faster, more stable and secure, from a consumer point of view, it will indirectly reap benefits because of the strength of its brand and market position. That's almost the identical thinking behind Android. 

Android Developer Challenge Winners Announced: Lots of Local There

Google announced the winners of its Android Developer Challenge contest. There were two categories: $275K and $100K winners. And 50 finalists were competing for the prizes. Twenty developers are dividing the cash awarded.

Among the 10 companies awarded $275K, six have location as a core or significant element. Only one of the $100K winners falls into that category. Among the other announced finalists, 14 out of 30 feature location or have location as a core element. When the iPhone Apps Store initially launched in late July, we surveyed the location-based applications (.pdf file).

Developer challenge apps

Among the more intriguing location-based Anrdoid applications are two that allow users to scan product barcodes in local stores and do price comparisons, as well as determine other stores that may have the product nearby. GoCart and Compare Everywhere offer these capabilities. 

Here's the description of GoCart:

GoCart informs the shopper. It bridges the gap that exists between shopping online and shopping at the store. GoCart is your shopping cart on-the-go. Users can scan the barcode of any product using their phone’s built-in camera. Once scanned, it will search for all the best prices on the internet and through the inventories of nearby, local stores.

Slifter offers local story inventory information in mobile (WAP, apps), as does TheFind's application for the iPhone. In addition, there have been camera-phone-based search tools before, but nobody has elegantly put it all together in the way suggested by these new Android apps. 

Among all the forthcoming iPhone clones with apps stores, etc., software applications will be a critical success factor in the market. For example, without much software to accompany it, Sprint's Instinct looks like a pale imitation of the iPhone.

Given that Android phones still aren't commercially available yet we can tell how these apps will actually perform. But they certainly look and sound good. And if the actual hardware works as promised, Google/Android will have a probable hit on its hands.

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Apparently the HTC "Dream" (Android) from T-Mobile is coming quite soon. Engadget has images

HTC Dream

Don't Call It a 'Store': Android Announces 'Content Market' for Developers

Google/Android quickly adopted the Apple Apps Store concept as a way to showcase and distribute content and applications developed for the Android platform. However Google is taking pains to distinguish its distribution efforts from Apple's iTunes Apps Store:

Developers will be able to make their content available on an open service hosted by Google that features a feedback and rating system similar to YouTube. We chose the term "market" rather than "store" because we feel that developers should have an open and unobstructed environment to make their content available. Similar to YouTube, content can debut in the marketplace after only three simple steps: register as a merchant, upload and describe your content and publish it. We also intend to provide developers with a useful dashboard and analytics to help drive their business and ultimately improve their offerings.

Google is positioning itself as a much more open (read: friendly) environment for mobile developers accordingly. It's going to trust the user community to identify the good apps and weed out the mediocre ones, in contrast to Apple's more "top-down" approach.

iPhone for 'the Rich,' Android 'the Masses'

A day after I likened Android phones to Honda and the iPhone to Mercedes, I stumbled upon this interview with the young, German founder of an Android developer community:

Knowingly over bending I can say “Android is for the masses, iPhone for the rich." There will be a great variety of Android devices all over the world, where there will always be just the iPhone.

This is Google's hope: a thousand Android phones. That's both a strength and a weakness of the strategy -- more phones but less quality control.

So far there has been no phone to compete with the iPhone (notwithstanding the claims). But "good enough" experiences could in fact be competitive over the long term. Arguably the key to the iPhone's differentiation is the Apps Store. Presumably however Android will be able to match that with a similar range of functional and appealing applications.

TheFind Readies iPhone Application

We met with Siva Kumar, CEO of TheFind yesterday. He discussed the company's forthcoming iPhone application (in the approval process now), which we haven't seen in action but appears impressive. It's trying to bridge the gap between the desktop and mobile.

Perhaps most importantly, it brings TheFind's local shopping capabilities to mobile. TheFind is working with Krillion and NearbyNow for local inventory information. It's also crawling and matching online inventory with store locations.

Product search, inventory lookups and price comparisons are all going to be very popular use cases for mobile sooner rather than later.

Google CEO Touts iPhone Benefits

Even though Google's Android is a competitor to the iPhone Google has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the visibility and success of Apple's device. Fortune captured some of Schmidt's remarks about mobile and the iPhone in particular during his one-on-one interview at the Fortune "Brainstorm Tech" conference in Half Moon Bay, California:

“It shows you the power of a device that is a step forward,” said Schmidt in an interview Wednesday at Brainstorm Tech with Fortune senior writer David Kirkpatrick. “The iPhone has a fully functional browser. We can show desktop ads, not mobile ads. That’s a huge change from our perspective.”

Google would prefer to have mobile and the Internet be more unified than separate for advertising purposes. But there are challenges with "full HTML" browsers: desktop ads are less visible and therefore much less effective on the smaller screen.

As we wrote earlier this year:

Even though Android was in the works before the launch of the iPhone there’s a way in which they’re “connected at the hip” or Android is the direct beneficiary of the iPhone in a certain way. There might not have been as much carrier and OEM interest in Android had their not been an iPhone to show the benefits of a better mobile user experience.

It's almost certain, because of the ways that it can be configured, that the Android phones and experiences that show up in version 1.0 will not be as "good" as the iPhone. But if they become as widely available as Google hopes they'll help push the mobile Internet forward on a larger scale. In many ways Google hopes to become Honda (less flash, more unit sales) to Apple's Mercedes (more prestige, fewer sales).

Will Blackberry Steal the iPhone's Thunder?

Many handsets have claimed to be the iPhone killer. None have come close to living up to that label. However, the forthcoming all-touch-screen Blackberry Thunder, while not an "iPhone Killer," could provide the first truly viable alternative to the iPhone for loyal Blackberry fans.

Here are some screenshots, which make the device look impressive. What will increasingly separate the iPhone from its competitors, however, is the universe of software developers bringing rich, "native" applications to the device. Blackberry is aware of this and has launched its own fund to encourage software development.

However, as the leading U.S. smartphone many developers bring out Blackberry apps first (e.g., Google Maps with voice) to gain the broadest distribution they can as quickly as they can.

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Related: Does O2's UK experience suggest massive "pent up" demand for the iPhone for next week's US launch? There also appears to be real traction for the iPhone in the enterprise, which is a market share threat to RIM.

Wired on Android

Wired Magazine goes long (as in long article) on Android. There's nothing new in the article but it's all in one place for those who want the history and speculative outlook for the platform.

Google has sought to keep its brand somewhat at arms length from Android. The Google brand is both an asset and a liability for the initiative; it creates credibility but also inspires fear. It appears, however, that Google may not need Android to succeed in mobile (if these Nielsen numbers are accurate).

But like the iPhone, Android is helping accelerate the development of the mobile Internet by affecting and motivating competitors (see Nokia's acquisition and open-sourcing of Symbian). This ultimately, potentially plays into Google's hand because of the brand equity that Google enjoys.

When they start showing up, theoretically in Q4 of this year, the first Android phones will almost certainly not be as "good" as the iPhone. Over time they may equal the device (or beat it) in selected ways. But Android is a long term play and it will almost certainly pay dividends for Google.

The only question is how much?

How Microsoft Could Rid the World of Telephone Numbers

Last week, long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Joe Foley opined that Microsoft has a “grand plan to eliminate phone numbers.” She cited direct quotes from speeches that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have made among the international carrier community. Foley refers to a new software “platform” called Echoes designed to enable telecom service providers to sync diverse address books, seamlessly send messages between IM and SMS and assign a local telephone number to people using Windows Live Messenger.

The coverage has provoked skeptical responses from just about every quarter of high-tech punditry. Within three days there were more than 160 responses to Foley’s blog posting, compared to a mere four that are associated with the original post in which she described Echoes. Overall, commentators doubt Microsoft’s ability to carry it off (where “it” means the elimination of phone numbers). They see the efforts as too grandiose, in that it ties many diverse software elements together, or totally unnecessary, given that synching services have been around forever as a “local” function and that telco’s have been largely ineffective in marketing their own flavor.

As for generating a local number associated with Live Messenger namespaces, it’s an idea that closely resembles the initial intent of Grand Central (now owned by Google), which provides a single number through which people can reach a recipient’s office, home or wireless phone (or voicemail service) according to rules established and maintained by the Grand Central subscriber.

The pithiest and most scathing critique came from Om Malik who criticized Microsoft both for lack of originality and for blind adherence to its long-standing business practices, noting that “…there is nothing new here, except for the need of being tied to Microsoft’s platforms. Echoes’ outlines Microsoft’s biggest challenges: the inordinate amount of time they spend on developing products that are either a platform or a suite forces them to make too many compromises.”

This Shouldn’t be About Phone Numbers
Telephone numbers are largely passé. People with wireless phones dial from their contact list. The most common protocol for wireless phones is to enable subscribers to automatically associate inbound phone numbers with the name of the individual. Efforts for both fixed line and wireless carriers to market a “network address book” have been largely unsuccessful.

Rather than concentrating on Echoes, Microsoft would have a better chance of eliminating phone numbers with “voice dialing”. It would involve speech-enable the contact list, associating multiple “namespaces” (meaning phone numbers, IM user names, aliases on social networks, etc) with an individual’s identity and then replacing dialtone with a spoken prompt like, "what's up?". Users could respond by saying “call Dan” and have it look up "Dan" in a local or network-based directory and then prompt you through any disambiguation that you might require (e.g. "Do you mean 'Dan Miller’? Do you want to call him at work, home or on his wireless?...).

By the way, this is a major part of Tellme’s long-standing vision of Dialtone 2.0. It provides a model for using telephones (including softphones embedded in IM clients or Web browsers) more like a voice portal, capable of carrying out searches, delivering information or connecting with friends or businesses. No need for telephone numbers.

Whose Idea was the "One Number for Life?"
Single-number service is almost 10 years old. For instance AccessLine Communications (now owned by Telanetix) has been plying its Find me/Follow me service since 1998. There are many others, including One Box, ephone and single number offerings from incumbent phone companies, like Bell Canada, Telus and even Comcast.

It has garnered a certain amount of appeal with geeks and road warriors, but not mass appeal. Number portability has proven to be more important. Rather than fostering yet-another-personal-phone-number, people like to keep the numbers they already have. They are less apt to change to something else without a specific benefit. I, for instance, signed up for a Grand Central number when it first launched. I still have it. But I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what it is, even though single-number access to me at home, mobile, office or VM would solve a lot of problems in my life.

The Challenge: Speech-enabling Self-maintained Metadata
Microsoft’s approach with Echoes assumes that a carrier will maintain "network address book" (NAB) with rules and protocols developed to ensure that it contains the most recent listings from multiple sources. Sprint PCS, for one, has long offered a mechanism for subscribers to upload and “sync” their contact information, without too many takers. Meanwhile almost every social network and search service provider has figured out how to mine contact information from multiple address books on a person’s PC. It’s all transparent.

It seems to me, and I’ve heard Bill Gates say as much, that an approach that speech enables simple commands for e-mail management (read, forward, delete…) as well as for initiating phone calls would go farther toward eliminating phone numbers (and email addresses for that matter) than establishing a platform in the cloud that aggregates and syncs metadata from multiple sources. That being said, a truly useful platform for command and control of such “unified communications” will have to do both.

Yahoo! Go 3.0 Now Available for Windows Mobile

Here's the list of supported phones for Yahoo Go 3.0, which now includes some Windows Mobile phones. Go 3.0 is a dramatic improvement over 2.0 and I've been waiting to use it on my HTC Windows Mobile phone.

More on 2D Barcodes and 'Mobile Response'

Dan Miller and I met with Atlas (now a division of Microsoft) to get a look at the company's new "engagement ROI" model and related tools and tracking. It was very interesting and will be the subject of another post at some point somewhere . . .

But one of the several digressions we pursued was the issue of mobile handsets being used to track and extend traditional media. This is one of my favorite topics these days. And iMedia today has piece providing an overview of the area. It's primarily about 2D barcode technology.

However, SMS provides comparable functionality without the necessary downloads and/or "infrastructure." We would expect that eventually most traditional media (TV, print, outdoor, newspapers) will feature some direct response component using mobile devices -- call it "mobile response."

iPhone Making the World Safe for Android?

We and everyone else have written fairly exhaustively about the iPhone and its impact on the competitive dynamics of the market. However, on the cusp of MacWorld, three articles appeared today that cover Google, the iPhone or both.

Miguel Helft at the NY Times discusses how Google saw a surge of traffic on Christmas (presumably after a bunch of activations) and how the iPhone drives mobile traffic to Google at levels second only to Symbian phones. As Helft points out that's somewhat remarkable, given the iPhone's recency and tiny market share compared with Symbian.

The topical "hook" for the article is a suite of Google services optimized for the iPhone (Gmail, Calendar, Reader, iGoogle, etc.). A new version of this suite (dubbed "Grand Prix") will apparently be released today. Elinor Mills at CNet writes similarly about the new release of these mobile apps and suggests that Google Gears (the ability to work on applications when not connected to the Internet) is coming to the iPhone at some point in the near term.

And USAToday covers a small company in San Ramon, CA, A La Mobile, which has reportedly developed a suite of apps for the Android platform. The article goes on to confirm (via Google's Andy Rubin) that an Android phone will be out by Q2. (Dan wrote about an Android prototype sighting at CES.)

Even though Android was in the works before the launch of the iPhone there's a way in which they're "connected at the hip" or Android is the direct beneficiary of the iPhone in a certain way. There might not have been as much carrier and OEM interest in Android had their not been an iPhone to show the benefits of a better mobile user experience. Indeed, as the NY Times article makes clear, a better user experience results in more usage and traffic and, ultimately, monetization -- this is pretty much our mantra at LocalMobileSearch.

Google is seeking to take that learning and expand it beyond a single, proprietary device to the entire industry and hopes that the OHA and Android will be the vehicle to do so. The disruption and fear that the iPhone has caused arguably has driven many to embrace Google's initiative, which might not have otherwise.

iGoogle Optimized for iPhone

Google Operating System points out that an iPhone optimized version of iGoogle has shown up. Here's the URL where you can basically see what iGoogle looks like on the iPhone (sort of).

Yahoo!'s new mobile homepage is supposed to similarly link to a user's MyYahoo! feeds/preferences and help bridge the gap between the desktop and mobile. But, so far, it hasn't shown up yet.

AOL mobile has a similar personalization capability that also leverages the desktop.

Going the other way, Nokia started the Ovi site, recognizing the strategic importance of this desktop-mobile connection and the advantages of allowing users to manage mobile content on the desktop.

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I was speaking with someone at Shopping.com, on an unrelated topic, who attended CES. He said that, in his opinion, none of the mobile handsets at the show were remotely as good as the iPhone. In particular he held and used the LG Voyager (an "iPhone ripoff") and said that it didn't measure up.

And here are some interesting screenshots of designer mockups of a hypothetical Starbucks ordering application on the iPhone.

An Early Android Sighting at CES

An article by Forbes.com's Evelyn M. Rusli provides first-hand experience with one of the first wireless handsets that will ship running a flavor of Android. A Taiwan-based ODM called Wistron NeWeb had a prototype device, called the GW4, with a touchscreen and a full-QWERTY keyboard. It also touted easy access to a number of applications, including Web search.

Rusli was decidedly underwhelmed. She observed that, while the device made it easier to carry out routine interactions, the GW4 lacks the multi-touch controls that make the iPhone so easy to use. She also seemed disappointed to learn that the phone would not be offered "free". Her assumption is that it will carry a $200 retail price which, of course, could be subsidized by a wireless network operator.

She finishes by calling the device "a nice phone," but adding dismissively that "nice doesn't clobber competition." So it is clear that, in spite of the fact that Android will be a platform for developers to introduce a myriad of new applications and ways of doing things with a wireless device, prospective buyers are being primed to accept nothing less than an iPhone killer. From the point of view of encouraging local mobile search, that's missing the point. We should be gratified that an initiative like the Open Handset Alliance is encouraging development activity up and down the solution stack so that an ODM can pack the GPS, Web search and high-speed data links that will make local search and e-commerce applications easy-to-invoke and intuitive to use.

It shouldn't be about clobbering the competition. We'd settle for a better user experience.