App stores are not enough for mobile platform providers

This week’s Engadget column look at the efforts mobile platform providers have put into creating app stores for their eco-system. That’s a good thing but ti’s going to take more than an app store to be competitive going forward.

There’s a battle going on for mobile platform supremacy, and right now there are simply too many platforms to succeed long term. And the old rules simply don’t apply any more, as the criteria for mobile platform success in mobile reaches beyond simply having a well-stocked app store. It will take much more than an app store to drive success — the key factor between success and irrelevance will increasingly be the cohesive application story each platform provider can tell. Look for the platforms with the out of-the-box and core experiences that also allow developers to best leverage and monetize their apps to make the cut long term. The wise vendors will figure this out sooner, while the others will begin a long slide into irrelevance.

iPhone 4 – Hands On

It’s the fourth revision of Apple’s smartphone, and Apple says it’s the biggest set of changes we’ve seen since the original device was introduced three years ago. The first day’s pre-launch orders were over 600,000. That’s a staggering number for a device few consumers had even seen and even fewer had spent actual hands-on time with. As more users get to see the device up close and personal, I expect Apple is going to break previous sales records by a very wide margin, but does the latest revision of the iPhone stand up to the hype? My embargo is over so read on.

I took a first look at the device when Apple first announced it at their developers conference earlier this month. I’ve now spent some more time with a final production device and my experience largely matches Apple’s claims. Comparing the iPhone 4 with the original is like looking at an iPod touch next to the original—a lot of the heritage is there but it’s a very different and a much better experience. This is what next year’s technology will look like, except it’s at last year’s prices.

The first thing you notice is the design. Taking elements of the first and second generations of the device, Apple has come up with one of the most striking phone designs that has ever come to market. The glass and steel construction begs to be touched and there are few products that have ever come to market with this degree of caressability. Once you get over the design aesthetics it’s hard to miss what Apple calls the iPhone’s “Retina Display.” With a very high resolution and a pixel density well above 300 PPI, it’s going to be very hard for most users to see the individual pixels of the display. The result is the most paper-like display I’ve ever seen on a mobile device. Content that was just too hard to read with my 40+-year-old eyes without zoom is now easy to read without strain.

The second thing that leaps out is performance. Thanks to the A4 chip that powers it, the iPhone 4 feels noticeably snappier than prior devices. Combined with the new OS’s capabilities for multitasking (apps continue to get updated seemingly on an hourly basis) it feels like there’s less and less that this phone can’t handle in terms of tasks. (I personally can’t wait until we start seeing this OS on the iPad).
Third, there are the new features added with iOS 4 which address many of the minor issues that plagued the iPhone from day one. Things like a unified inbox view, the ability accept CAL DAV invites, and support for multiple Exchange accounts make for a much more refined usability experience. New applications like iMovie for iPhone show the powerful possibilities when both hardware and software are tightly integrated into one holistic experience.

Finally, the big show-stopper is FaceTime. Taking advantage of the iPhone 4′s front-facing camera, FaceTime is mobile video conferencing done right. Though it works iPhone 4-to-iPhone 4 only and is restricted to Wi-Fi for 2010, it is undeniably simple. There’s no setup, there’s no configuration, there’s no lag. Audio and video are fully in sync. In short it just works. We knew there might be this sort of capability from some of the leaks, but the truth is, until you see it in action, it’s hard to appreciate. Even cooler, it’s an open standard, so developers can easily add this functionality to their apps. Skype, are you listening? Apple isn’t the first to market with video conferencing on a phone but they’re the first to get it right. It’s not a feature unless the mass market uses it and I expect FaceTime will drive a lot of sales. That said, while I understand the need for Wi-Fi only at this time, it does detract somewhat from the experience to not have the feature everywhere. It also would have been nice to see some integration with the desktop (even at the expense of some added setup) or the ability to send video to non-iPhone 4 users. Hopefully, we’ll start seeing some FaceTime applications that adhere to the protocol for both the desktop and other platforms, solving this issue.

What’s missing? Well, a few things. First, iPhone 4 is still AT&T only here in the US and the new micro-sim makes it even harder to move your SIM from device to device. While Apple talked about the combination of form and function in the device’s new antenna system, I couldn’t see much of a difference in reception or call quality over the iPhone 3GS. Places where I had problems with AT&T were still just as problematic. As much as I like the iPhone, AT&T’s network still leaves lot to be desired. Rumors aside, I don’t expect to see another carrier anytime soon. I’d also like to see a 64GB SKU. In the past, Apple matched the prior year’s iPod touch capacity with iPhone. 32GB just feels a little too cramped for a phone with the capabilities iPhone 4 has. iOS is also starting to look a little dated. Rows of apps or folders feels very 2007. There’s no support for widgets or the kind of glanceable information that has become a standard UI enhancement on Android, Windows Phone 7, and Symbian. In an age of social ubiquity, iOS still treats social networks as discreet entities with little integration between applications such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. While some users might prefer that silo approach, more users are looking for ways to integrate their social graph into a holistic view of their personal, business, and public networks.

Bottom line? Apple has raised the bar for both handset vendors and platform providers with the release of iPhone 4. The tight integration of hardware and software provides a unique experience that once again raises and sets the standard for the rest of the industry. With strong visible differentiation, iPhone 4 is going to capture the hearts and minds of both existing iPhone users and new users entering the purchase funnel for their next phone. Nevertheless, the gap between other vendors and Apple is not nearly as huge as it was as recently as a year ago. Later this year new versions of Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry and Symbian are all expected to come to market, and no vendor is prepared to cede this market to Apple. With a rate and pace of innovation never seen before, expect to see more challengers to the iPhone and vendors who will seek to raise the bar even further. It’s too early to judge how successful those efforts will be, however. For now, iPhone 4 is the gold standard other devices will be measured against.

Update – Special thanks to Bill Fisher for taking the time to edit properly :)

Apple becomes a company for “the rest of us”

My latest Macworld column explores how Apple has finally become a company “for the rest if us” not just the Apple faithful. I think that’s a positive trend, not everyone agrees.

Sadly, folks, it’s time to move on. Apple isn’t building products just for you, and Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller aren’t members of your family. I have no doubt Apple respects and even admires those of you in the tens of thousands who have been long-time supporters. I also know that Apple, like any company, would dump tens of thousands of die-hard fans for tens of millions of happy consumers any day of the week. So while you might bemoan the great unwashed masses who now use Apple products but can’t name five Apple employees beyond Steve Jobs, remember that if it wasn’t for them, that cool new Apple device might not have made it to to market and you just might be using a Windows 7 PC. In the end, that original tagline became a reality. Apple products truly are for “the rest of us,” and will continue to be so as long as Apple continues to deliver and raise the industry bar.

Times change. Is your IT department changing along with them?

My latest column for Computerworld explores the issue of Bring Your Own PC and whet it’s a good idea for businesses. What do you think? Should IT departments start approaching PCs as they do smartphones?

A well-organized BYOPC program can help IT make users happy, no small thing for a department in constant danger of reorganization and outsourcing. Properly done, it can be an easy way to make friends and win internal support. BYOPC programs generally subsidize laptops, with the policy being that users can also make personal use of the machine (which only makes sense, since we all know that users already commingle their business and personal information on their devices). If a lot of your users are now restricted to desktop machines, the change could provide a boost in productivity, since laptop users are more likely to work beyond business hours.

In the Aftermath of E3

Few things in the tech industry bring out the devoted fanbois enthusiasts like the console wars. From the early days of Atari 2600 vs. Intellivsion and Colecovision the debates go on endlessly. While I’m a gamer at heart, I share no allegiance to any one system (except perhaps a fondness for my Vectrex). That said, this weeks’ Engadget column provoked a lot of emotional responses and a lot of emails. (special thanks to those who emailed me their wishes to be fruitful and multiply, even if you didn’t use those words. In my view, Microsoft came out ahead, followed by Nintendo and Sony. But lurking in the shadows, I think there’s another player that might emerge over time.

Bottom line? It was a pretty impressive E3, arguably the most interesting show we’ve seen in years. Gamers have some really nice choices ahead of them, and all three major players have a chance to gain some ground over the holidays and pick up some new users. But there’s a wildcard here — Apple’s recently made some big moves into gaming with their iOS platform, which has taken mobile game marketshare from both Sony and Nintendo. Will iOS make it to the TV screen on a new Apple TV, and if it does games come with it? The gaming market might change dramatically if that happens.

Some advice for Android tablet vendors

In this week’s SlashGear column I take a look at some of the challenges facing vendors building Android tablets and offer some advice. It’s great to see that’s there’s going to be competition in this space but too many of the early efforts are missing the boat with some pretty obvious stuff. The biggest problem is Google isn’t supporting this form factor just yet and while Android is open and Google won’t stop you from building a device, they’re not getting behind most of these early efforts and that’s going to set things back for a bit. So, would you buy an Android based tablet at this point? Why or why not?

I think it’s good that we are seeing some heated competition in the tablet space. Apple’s iPad has set the bar and that functionality is now the table stakes for the industry. Vendors must build devices that at least equal the iPad experience, offer clear differentiation and features or exceed what Apple has delivered. Let’s see who will step up to the game and raise the bar.