What if the war is over?

According to analyst figures, Android is hovering at around 80% of mobile device shipments worldwide. iOS accounts for most of the remainder, with about 15%, leaving roughly 5% for everyone else to fight over. And fighting they still are, but at some point everyone else has to ask themselves: is there any justification for continuing? It’s looking more and more like future technologists will recall this decade and say of some particular date, “That’s the point when the mobile platform war was won by Android.” Like how we can now look back on, say, World War II, and make pronouncements like, “The Allies had essentially won by the time of the Normandy invasion in June 1944. Germany just hadn’t admitted it yet.”

My hypothesis is that, right now, early 2014, that point in mobile has already passed. We’re just too close to the battle lines to see it.

This hypothesis may be wrong, of course, but here are a couple of indications that it may be right: The most successful tablet platform after Google and Apple is Amazon – and it’s Android. The most interesting, talked about, up-and-coming mobile platform of today (in my opinion) is Cyanogen Inc. – and it’s Android. In other words, the platforms lining up after Android and iOS… are Android. That’s not proof, sure, but for the rest of this article I’m going to explore some of the consequences that I would foresee if the hypothesis were true.

If my hypothesis is true, it means that we’re moving into a place – or rather, realizing that we’re already in a place – where it can be safely assumed that any mainstream mobile device (not made by Apple) is running Android. Because, what else would it be running? Think of the PC market any time after about 1992: there was never any question that a given Dell, Gateway, or Compaq would be running Windows. Sure, Apple was doing their own thing, and there were any number of niche platforms, but for the real mainstream, there was only one. Forget competing ecosystems, that’s a fantasy.

I’m certainly not the first to draw a parallel between the mobile platforms of today and the PC platforms of decades past, with Google filling the role held by Microsoft in those days, and Apple as, well, Apple. But that’s the dynamic that always gets the attention, Apple-as-underdog vs. The Establishment. Apple’s got experience in that role, and is apparently happy with it, that’s what they do. We don’t need to worry about Apple. But what about everyone else?

Everyone else, in this case, falls generally into two camps. First, there will always be niche platforms nibbling at the periphery, filling the needs of some particular corner of the market. Like how the various Linux distros do on PCs – and sure enough, open-source analogs to those are appearing in mobile, like Ubuntu and Firefox. It’s always possible that one of these may break out into the mainstream, but for now, I think we can safely call them niche platforms. And by definition, they don’t affect the big picture very much.

The second camp contains the dinosaurs, the platforms which were big players in the pre-iOS world and which didn’t evolve quickly enough to stay competitive. Nokia has already fallen, sold itself out, admitting that it had lost the battle. The others that are still holding on are BlackBerry and Microsoft, of course: both have lost the large market share they once had, both have reinvented their platforms as “modern” alternatives – and both have completely failed to get any significant traction. And both are still in denial about having lost the war, both still think that they can claw their way back to relevancy.

If my hypothesis is correct, it’s already too late for either of these contenders, and has been for some time.

The writing has been on the wall for BlackBerry for years now, and although they’re hemorrhaging money and employees (not to mention CEOs), they still talk like they can win this thing. Does anyone outside – or even inside – of Waterloo actually believe that any more? BlackBerry 10 is a fine OS, and its current hardware is more-or-less competitive, but that’s like saying “Germany could still win in 1945 because they built good tanks.” I’m not going out on a limb at all when I say that BlackBerry, as it was, is finished.

What can this particular dinosaur do to avoid complete extinction? The first step is to admit defeat, and ring down the curtain on the BlackBerry OS. Then bring the quality BlackBerry hardware over to Android – it’s the only option now, remember – and work to leverage whatever other strengths BlackBerry Ltd. has left. I’ll bet it still has good supply chain connections, and some lingering relationships with carriers. If necessary, it could build an emulation layer to run legacy BlackBerry apps on Android (they’ve already done the reverse), as a bridge for existing customers.

Beyond that, a good strategy would be to play the security card that BlackBerry was once renowned for. Deserved or not, Android has a reputation for being wild and insecure – BlackBerry could conceivably build a locked-down ‘droid that would offer execs (and others) a secured experience. Better yet, BlackBerry could buy that expertise: Geeksphone has recently announced its Blackphone project along those same lines. Even the name’s a good fit. I’ll bet BlackBerry has enough left in the bank to aqui-hire Geeksphone, kick-starting Waterloo’s Android conversion and even picking up some long-lost geek cred in the process.

The other dinosaur in the room is Microsoft… and it’s complicated. They’re too diversified to get dragged under by the failure of their mobile platform; they can keep it on life support indefinitely if they so choose. But on life support it most certainly is: in the last quarter of 2013, sales of Nokia’s Windows Phone handsets fell by 7% – in the quarter that includes the Christmas buying season. And Nokia is almost the only one making these phones any more; if it wasn’t for Microsoft buying Nokia’s hardware division, there’d hardly be any Windows Phones at all these days. You can be certain that this battle is lost if the oft-rumored Nokia Normandy, running Android, comes to pass – a sure sign that Microsoft has admitted their defeat. [Did you say Normandy? What was that about WWII earlier?]

But that’s not happened yet. Right now Microsoft is also in the search for a new CEO, and the direction that the new leader takes will tell the tale here. S/he might double down on Windows Phone, and make a last shot at relevancy with a big shakeup. Buying T-Mobile might just do it (think about that one for a minute).

But probably not. My thesis is that the war’s already over, right – and if so, what’s Microsoft’s place in the post-war world?

One option is to just get out of the phone business entirely. Sell off the remains of Nokia (who’d probably go on to build some great Android phones) and fall back to the businesses that Microsoft knows, and more-or-less dominates. Take their ball and go home.

If we’re truly moving into a post-PC era, though, Microsoft won’t want to sit that game out. So again, the first step is admitting defeat, and learning to live under the rule of the victors. Let the Nokia division build those great Android phones, and build its own place in the Android market – a place that’d probably be significantly larger than its Windows Phone market is now.

As for Microsoft proper, well… At its core, Microsoft is a software company, and you know something? Its software could actually run on someone else’s operating system. Here’s a plan: Release Office (and other apps) for Android. Retool its server products to work well with Android clients. Build Android integration into XBox. Better yet, do all of these things for iOS and MacOS too: Apple and Google could be its partners instead of its competition. There’s no intrinsic reason that Microsoft has to control the whole software stack, it’s just done that for so long that everyone (especially in Redmond) expects that’s their rightful place in the world.

Which brings us to the big opportunity here: if the war is over, the combatants can stop fighting and start cooperating. Can build great things together. Think of it as a mobile platform peace dividend.

Afterword: Through most of this article, I’ve been drawing parallels between the mobile market of today and the PCs of yesterday. But it hasn’t escaped my notice that the PC market is still around (if shrinking), and may be undergoing a real shakeup for the first time since Microsoft established their dominance. To wit: I wrote this piece on Chromebook… indicating that it’s never too late to introduce a new platform contender.


What’s Next for Wearable Tech

The news out of CES last week highlights the growing profusion of wearable devices: smartwatches are the most widespread, but there are also smart glasses, earphones, bracelets, rings, and more. It’s a real “wild west” time for these devices; nobody really knows where they’re going, or what the best use cases are.

For developers, the situation is especially acute, because essentially every device is siloed right now. If you have a good idea for a wearable app, you need to write it for Pebble, rewrite it for sony_sw2Sony’s Smartwatch, again for Google Glass, and so on. It’s true whether you’re building primarily for the device itself, or even just trying to interface your existing phone app with a wearable display: each device has its own little ecosystem. Some of the more shortsighted manufacturers haven’t even opened up their devices to outside devs (I’m looking at you, Samsung).

It’s not dissimilar to the state of the phone business circa 2005. Most phones of the time supported apps, and there were even a few smartphones around, but they were all siloed in this same kind of way. If you wanted to deploy a phone app to a good-sized audience, you had to write it for Blackberry, then rewrite it for Windows Mobile, JavaME… and don’t get me started on Symbian, where Nokia couldn’t even maintain compatibility within their own product line. It was a mess.

Even within each of these platforms, there wasn’t a good, low-friction way for devs to sell and deploy their wares. The different silos may or may not have had “stores”, but those that did were all pretty small, and app discoverability and monetization was a real challenge. And again, this is mirrored in the current state of wearables: Sony’s Smartwatch pairs with Android phones, so they’ve piggybacked off the Google Play store. Pebble, on the other hand, is just opening a store of its own. Glass has a small selection of officially-sanctioned apps curated by Google, but it’s far from easy to break into, and (as of right now) you can’t charge for your apps there. And so on… it’s a mess.

The first thing that changed in the phone business, of course, was the introduction of the iPhone. Apple was the first vendor to really nail it, not just the device, but the app store too. And for the devs, it was a veritable gold rush. This is one route that the wearables market could take: one vendor could “get it right”, have a device that’s a breakaway success, and build a big enough silo to be self-sustaining. You get a definite sense that most of the current players are hoping for this kind of outcome, but don’t know how to get there.

But there’s another route, one that we’ve seen before in the phone business. I’m talking about Android, of course: although it was released over a year after the iPhone, and took another couple of years to really pick up speed, it’s become the dominant ecosystem in mobile. And it has done it in large part by not being siloed to a single vendor; its openness has unified the vast majority of phones and tablets onto a single platform. The wearables market doesn’t just need something like Android to unify it, it needs Android. And essentially all the pieces are already in place, if you know where to look…

To start with, Google already has one of the leading wearables – Glass – and it’s running full Android on board. Google has also bought one of the pioneers of the modern smartwatch era – WIMM Labs – and rumors about a forthcoming “Google Watch” have been rampant for a couple of years now. It’s not really a secret that Google is moving into wearables, but I’ve seen little analysis about the bigger picture of that move – not just about Google selling a smartwatch or Glass to the general public, but about the broader ecosystem play. So here’s how I see that playing out.

Sometime this year – most likely at I/O – Google will take the wraps off Android 5.0, let’s call it Licorice. Licorice will give Android full, native, first-party support for wearables, in much the same way that Honeycomb brought first-party tablet support to what had previously just been a phone OS. [Sure, there were Android tablets pre-Honeycomb, but they were half-baked, not-overly-successful forays into unsupported territory. Remember the original 7″ Galaxy Tab, back in 2010? That’s what the Galaxy Gear is now.]

The wearable support features introduced in Licorice will include:

  • A new screen size bucket, for screens less than 2″ in size, which will extend the lower end of the existing small-normal-large-xlarge Android screen size range. Alternatively, Google could extend their newer minimum-width-and-height resource selectors with maximum-width-and-height descriptors, but that seems clumsier to me.
  • A set of new UI conventions and development paradigms appropriate for small, glanceable displays without keyboards. Want to see a preview? Look at the Glass Development Kit (GDK) introduced last month. It’s all there, and most of it would work equally well on most any wearable, not just on Glass.
  • New low-power optimizations, quite likely in cooperation with one of the major ARM vendors. This actually already started with support for Bluetooth LE in Android 4.3.
  • Wearable-specific extensions to the Play app store, analogous to the improved tablet support that Google brought to Play in 2013.

The point here, of course, is to extend the Android phone-and-tablet ecosystem to include wearables as first-class citizens. And this will enable a whole new generation of Android wearable hardware. Glass is the forerunner, but for everyone speculating about of “the public release of Glass” or “the Google watch”… you’re thinking too small. We need to be thinking about a whole range of such devices, from a variety of manufacturers. Some will bear the Google name, but certainly not all.

I expect that the first of these devices (after the current Glass XE) will arrive at the same time as Licorice, probably also with announcements at I/O. We’re getting further into speculative territory here, but I think we can make a good conjecture from Google’s past hardware ventures – essentially, projecting Google’s known hardware tendencies into the this next realm. There are some definite patterns to the hardware Google has used to introduce other new ventures – phones, tablets, and laptops (Chromebooks) – that will likely also apply to wearables.

  1. The pioneer hardware, designed and built with Google’s close supervision, defines Google’s role in a new space. This is essentially a public hardware beta, whether or not it’s openly acknowledged as such, and is usually a bit clunky and prone to widespread criticism as “an unfinished device, for early adopters only”. Well duh.
    • Phone: G1
    • Tablet: Moto XOOM
    • Chromebook: Cr-48
    • Wearable: Glass XE
  2. The second wave is populated by other OEMs, producing variations on the original hardware, more or less independent but still running Google’s OS. This crop of devices begins the move into the mainstream, and historically, has included the early Android and ChromeOS devices from all the major manufacturers.
  3. After a year or two of this, Google weighs in again, producing a device that “sets the standard” for where the big G thinks the ecosystem should be going. The Nexus One, Nexus 7, and Chromebook Pixel all fit this description.
  4. Everyone iterates, of course, Google and OEM alike.

The first thing to notice in the Android wearable space is that we’re still in phase 1 of this progression. Glass is the only official-Android wearable device we have so far, and the Explorer program is nothing if not a public beta – we’ve got a long way to go. I think Google’s Web DNA includes a strong “release early” tendency, and that applies to hardware too.

And if other Android wearables follow the same sort of pattern, then they’re even further behind. The first “Google watch” we see is likely to be a hardware beta comparable to the G1 or Cr-48: clunky, unpolished, with just a glimmer of its true potential. As I said, it’ll probably be announced at I/O 2014 – hell, it’ll probably be given away to attendees – but don’t expect it to be an instant game-changer. Google plays a longer game than that, and wants you to be a part of the process.

Ready for another gold rush?

AFTERWORD: What about Apple?

Apple doesn’t play the same game as Google, of course, but the introduction of the iWatch is at least as eagerly anticipated. The thing is, Apple thinks different: it develops its hardware in strict secrecy, and doesn’t release until it’s been polished within an inch of its life. Compare the G1 to the original iPhone, the XOOM to the iPad, the CR-48 to the Macbook Air. A Nexus or Pixel can go toe-to-toe with its Cupertino counterpart, but that’s only after a couple of years of public hardware iteration.

The point being, Apple won’t release an iWatch until it’s good and ready. Could be anytime, could be years down the road.

The other thing about Apple is that it doesn’t tend to join a rough-and-tumble, free-for-all market like wearables are in right now. It tends to let other companies make the early mistakes, learn from them, then release a product that overcomes the widespread issues affecting the first generation. If this pattern holds, Apple might not release its iWatch for some time yet. You can bet they’re watching the space closely, though, and refining their own plans all along.