Sunday, 26 August 2012

The hidden damages to Google

So the news about the damages awarded to Apple against Samsung by the court which has been considering their intellectual property dispute has hit the headlines.  Of course the journalists have to simplify the quite complex arguments and counter-arguments made by each party for the consumption of the masses.  However lets not believe that this is all about using rectangular screens and   touch sensitive control of a phone, which some in the media have portrayed.  You only have to look at the appearance, functionality and user interface design of smartphones (and not just from Samsung) before the iPhone was launched in 2007 and then afterwards.  There is no comparison.  And I do mean compare smartphones ... we are not talking here about simple feature phones or basic cellphones.  Smartphones were being marketed and sold before iPhone, but none of them had the radical differences of the iPhone in appearance, functionality and user interface design (user experience).   I was a professional gadget guru, and even I had to do a double-take when passing the displays in carrier's shop windows at times, to blink and see if they were offering Apple's phone or new competitors in since 2008.  

Lets consider appearance.  Before iPhone it was pretty easy to see the difference at a glance between for example, a Motorola (remember them?) and a Nokia, the latter having a very distinctive shape across a huge range of phones.  The other manufacturers didn't try to make their phones look like Nokia's in appearance.  They innovated their own distinct shapes and designs, placement of buttons, colours etc.  But post-2007, it seemed like everyone's smartphones were beginning to look like iPhone.  One big screen with a similar sized bezel/outline, the same basic shape (ok most were bulkier and thicker but that's only because they couldn't copy that too - few people want a bulky handset), even a single bigger home button in many cases and even buttons and controls placed in similar places around the sides!  Note that most didn't copy the use of materials such as metal and glass, instead replacing these with plastic, which allowed them to undercut on cost/price whilst looking (but not feeling) similar.

Now the functionality.  Before iPhone in 2007, the functions even on "smart" phones were quite limited.  Remember the 'baby internet' using WAP?  No - I never used that crippled attempt at browsing the net either!  Even getting a GPRS data connection was a chore and a worry.  There were very few in-built data plans, so people tended to have to count the cost of their data usage carefully or worry and not use it at all.  And as for seamless connection without user intervention to WiFi when in range - well that wasn't implemented by the existing players because they were afraid to upset their cell-network partners by taking expensive data traffic away from them.  (So actually its not just functionality but business model innovation too).  But after iPhone, it was suddenly much simpler to use data services on a phone - so functionality of the phone was enabled!   But remember, no-one then talked about apps on their phone ... they were another radical step towards the functionality explosion on mobiles.  Yes you could add 'programs' to your phone before mid-2007, but it wasn't easy and the available software was extremely limited.  Apple innovated and made the App store model usable by the masses, (importantly including app developers).

Finally the user interface design or user experience.  Before the iPhone it was all about a fixed plastic miniature keyboard, and awkward little up/down buttons or tiny finger 'joysticks' or a stylus.  (You imagine trying to do a rotate or pinch gesture with a stylus!).  There were inaccurate touch screens using resistive technologies on other devices but not phones.  The capacitive touchscreen on the iPhone changed the experience of smartphones forever.  But even if you discount this innovation, those who copied the touchscreen could have innovated their own behaviour for that touch screen interface.  The rubber banding of the scroll bars when they reach the top or bottom of a selection is one example.  You don't need that behaviour.  It's not essential to a smartphone.  Apple did it first. Others didn't have to copy it.  Notice now I say others ... hence the title of this article.  This is not just about  Samsung (and potentially other hardware manufacturers).  They are only indirectly responsible for the User Interface and how the 'system' works.  They made a choice to go with Android, Google's mobile operating system.  They chose to launch products which rely on Android software.  So who copied the features like rubber banding of on-screen scrollbars (together with an awful lot of other 'behaviour')?  The culprits are somewhat hidden.

The win by Apple in the courts, made simpler against Samsung by both the lawyers and the media, is actually also a more complex case against Google.  The damages awarded (after any appeals etc) are of little consequence in Samsung's case (but send a message to other manufacturers) and Apple will dwarf those amounts by paying Samsung to supply huge numbers of components for current and future mobile products.  Of far more significance to Apple is the damage this inflicts on Google because of Android.  Most of the serious competitors to iPhone use Android software now.  They will be worried.  There are other ways for hardware manufacturers to design the appearance of their phones.  But there are also many more ways that they and the operating systems software players could innovate the design of the functionality and user experience of future mobile devices.  This would benefit everyone.  Let's hope they do.

And of course as technology and innovation moves on, the best ways to do standard things and implement common features emerge.  Those shouldn't be barred from being used on all devices in a particular category across all vendors.  But the answer is to acknowledge who innovated and protected that idea first, and licence the technology from them, not blatantly copy and try to get away with it until you end up in court.  There is an example of this involving the very same players.  Google innovated brilliantly with their online mapping.  Apple, recognising this, licensed Google Maps to use as a very early app on iPhone!  Is it now hardly surprising that in their next mobile operating system release that they will replace Google Maps with their own solution?!  But it isn't copying the idea.  It uses different (vector) graphics technology which has advantages when scaling the map view especially with labels and when an online connection is lost.  This is lawful innovation.

Doing the iPhone was risky, especially for a player who was a completely new entrant in the smartphone market.  Being so radical with appearance, functionality and the user experience was risky.  (I remember the nay-sayers at the time pronouncing how the touch screen keyboard would be too difficult and lots of other criticisms).  It might not have been successful, but it was, and now others strive to emulate it.  Success from risky innovation should be rewarded, not just in the marketplace but by recognition of competitors should they wish to build on it, through licensing or other agreements.  Then perhaps some of the massive amounts used for litigation could be redirected towards further R&D innovation.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

EU Digital Futures Project

Been very busy lately, so not many posts here.  One of many things I have been involved in is the EU's Digital Futures project. More regular postings soon though.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Design as a Mission

Another Jonathan, Mr Ive, the british design guru at Apple HQ, received a knighthood this week.  Like many people, I heard him interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.  In answer to one question, Sir Jonathan was talking about the importance of design and the culture of purpose at Apple, essentially saying it was the driver to making money rather than subsidiary to it.  For most organisations, especially tech companies, such a business 'mission' statement would sound implausible.  

However in Apple, it is not just a sentence on a piece of paper.  Nor is it even just about the products they make, although these are the most visible examples of it.   It is actually demonstrated in many more ways.  Their retail stores are another example, where designs are incredible including glass domes, glass staircases and other distinctive architectural features.  Corporate design finesse is also represented by the new campus they are building, and even their huge data centres.  Together with their internal 'university' re-enforcing the corporate culture, their mantra of 'start by designing the best - the customers will buy it - the company will make money' - is not only plausible but highly successful. 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Consumer Cloud storage misses the point!

There is so much about the Cloud in the computing press at the moment ... it's one of the buzz words of the moment. I still prefer to think of it as distributed networked computing resources, but I admit that 'cloud' is simpler to say!  In the consumer marketplace, we are now seeing offerings of Microsoft's SkyDrive, DropBox, Apple's iCloud and most recently Google Drive.  Google grabbed headlines on the BBC Technology news website by offering free storage and a headline of 16Tb; though reading further you find that free allocations are of course limited to 5Gb, with 16Tb coming in at $800!  But all these offerings bar one emphasise storage even in their name alone (with terms like drive and box).

I don't say that emphasising storage in the cloud is missing the point from my computer scientist purist view that distributed resources should include processing as well as storage.  I say it is missing the point because the race to offer the biggest storage capacity in the cloud is to make the same mistake as choosing a PC by the detailed technology specifications.  Sure Apple's iCloud does offer storage but their strategy for offering the service across device types (computer, iPhone, iPad) is not storage but that old chestnut (discussed in my previous post as well), the user experience.  Consumers need a simple view of how distributed resources on the Internet can just work and make their lives easier.  Providing a secure trusted means for media, documents, online personal information and other data to just be available across all their devices is increasingly useful for people.  If iCloud makes the user experience of Apple's products better, then it will have succeeded.  It's not about selling storage.  Just like the point of my previous post about convergence and compromise, user experience drives the position the Cupertino company takes.

Trust is one thing that people are concerned about in the cloud.  Consumers should be aware of potential differences in the rationale for different providers to offer them "free" cloud resources.   The terms and conditions in the small print may well reveal differences in the motives of different players.  If your main business is search and advertising for example, the chance to store and access consumer data will probably offer different value to you than if your main business is selling consumer electronics or software and services!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Convergence or Compromise?

One of the questions analysts asked Apple's CEO Tim Cook during the financial results call yesterday was for his views on the future for a converged device such as a cleverly designed notebook pc that can also be used as a tablet.  Analysts and many parts of the media just don't seem to understand that it isn't about what it's possible to build (however cleverly).  It is about the user experience.  Time and time again this mistake is made by forecasters and pundits.  Within Apple, it is ingrained corporate understanding.

Yes of course it is possible to make converged PC/tablet devices; indeed some companies are already doing so (defensively as Tim Cook characterised it). And a relative few people will be attracted to such devices and will buy them.  But the mainstream majority will evaluate the converged experience and see so many compromises that it is obviously worse than the experience of either individual device.

It's not just about physical design compromise.  It's also about the way people actually use and interact with devices; that is also very different for the PC and the tablet.  Some people will want and need to work in ways that best fits the notebook PC (however portable, lightweight, high res, etc it may be).  An increasing majority however, who never had a choice before, just want and need to work in ways that best fits a tablet.  And many people who never wanted a PC, find that they do want a tablet and can be extremely productive with it.   And the Apple's tablet, iPad, is finding uses and applications that the notebook PC would never be deployed in (such as electronic versions of flight data for airline pilots).

I was writing papers back in the early 90s when I formed BT's devices research unit in which I then talked about co-operating devices which were excellent at what they individually do, rather than converged kludges which try to be a swiss army knife 'jack of all trades' but are inevitably a master of none.  The reason I gave for my minority view then, although I couldn't have known it was exactly what Tim Cook said yesterday, that it is all about the user experience.

My next article will take another example of how the user experience focus of Apple looks at another popular and topical concept from a different perspective.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The unapparent immaturity of the online world

It was good to meet and discuss technology with people yesterday at a Breakfast Seminar I was invited to give in London. One of the topics that came up many times in the Q&A was the way people use online technology, sometimes well and sometimes in ways that could be improved.

This is a topic that applies to so much technology. But it really isn't obvious to many people. If you talk to Tim Berners-Lee about the World Wide Web, he will tell you that although it is so widely used by so many people for so many purposes and therefore it appears to be a mature technology which we all understand, actually it is not even a toddler on the development scale. It seems as if it has been with us for so long that it must be entirely well understood but in fact that is just not true. We understand very little especially about its development, its effect on people and society and are all still learning a great deal about it.

And this is true of much technology in the online world. Many people have eventually learnt that although anyone can create a website and publish information, it is better if much of that is done by people/organisations who actually have responsibility for the information source ... so I remember in the early days of the web that there were lots of sites where individuals would list what programmes were on tv for example, even though it is the BBC and other broadcasters or schedules publishers that should do this, and are able to do it. It takes people quite a long time for many people to decide what to use Twitter and similar services for. All of these innovations are actually very new. It does take time for both individuals and organisations to understand and decide what to use them for and what not to use them for. And especially to decide where the value is. And in organisations, it is often not the people most familiar with or able to exploit the new technology/services for maximum value that decide the policy on technology use for that organisation!

Email has a particular problem ... and often acts as the fallback for all, rather than being reserved for the best purposes it is suited to. There are millions of messages in emails sent every day that would be better sent as Instant Messaging for example. But this is another example of the innocent ignorance associated with the early stages of life of anything.

While we have to strive to uplift people's understanding of the new technology and help bring some maturity to the use of it, we should also be patient that the mistakes some will inevitably make are simply part of the process of learning and in the case of the online world, we shouldn't forget how young the concepts and tools we have still are.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

CES - driven by the absentee

So CES 2012 has been and gone and each year it seems it is less important for gadget watchers and those who want to bet on innovation success in the technology marketplace. It is increasingly a place that sales folk stand in front of new stuff only to acknowledge later that it is just a technology demonstrator. An example of this last week was Sony's "Simple Wireless Connection (SWC)" which at first seemed to be a market response to Apple's Airplay (found on its shipping iOS devices) but was later admitted to be simply a technology demonstrator.

But it wasn't the top companies at CES that were driving the tech product agenda for this year; it was indeed the Cupertino company that wasn't there. The publicity was all about 'connected televisions' not driven by the what people are asking for or buying and using but by what the rumours say the next market Apple is targeting... TV. All the data says that people who have already bought connected TVs do not in fact connect them to the net and the few that do rarely use it to display web content. Of course that is not the innovation that Apple will bring to television viewing. The companies driven by focus groups are missing the point once again. They need to innovate instead on how the users of a TV can get a proper a la carte choice of channels they want without all the rubbish that they don't and how to interact with the device in the lounge. You only have to compare the standard Apple remote with any other remote control for traditional TV sets. And of course, at CES there were plenty of companies who had TV remote control apps on mini-tablets to show off. CES was their chance to lead on innovation ... I fear that by 2013 they will be chasing from behind once again.