Life With Android, 1 Year Later

A little over a year ago I turned off my iPhone 3 and fired up a new HTC Evo Android handset, the initial experience I wrote about here. I recently upgraded my handset from the Evo to the just released Samsung Epic Touch and wanted to share some thoughts about Android after having lived with it for a full year.

As you might surmise given that I just upgraded my handset, I’m pretty happy with Android but first let’s get some of the negative comments out of the way. Power management is a huge issue with all of these handsets, especially the ones with 4.3″ displays and lot’s of network options. Apple has done a remarkably good job of reconciling hardware and software power issues, Google needs to do better on power management in the platform and providing reference material to hardware providers in order to maximize the consumer experience in this area.

The Android UI is one which only an engineer can truly love… lot’s of icons, buttons, menus, and gestures. I know that this has been an area of focus for the Android team and they have brought on board some significant talent to lead the way to a new and improved user experience. While the current UX is not bad or in any way impairs my usage, improvements can’t come fast enough.

The Android marketplace is very noisy, a function of the explosion of applications that have become available but also a result of an interaction model that favors the carrier’s desire to feature apps of their choosing. It’s time to revamp the Android market(s) by moving away from the category navigation model to a strong search function where someone can use the search facility to find apps by stacking up metadata strings (e.g. category, keyword, rating, free/paid, etc.).

That’s really the sum total of complaints and shortcomings I would point out. Android is, today, a remarkably mature mobile platform and ecosystem and benefits greatly from hardware innovation and a highly extensible core operating system. The HTC Evo I had was one of the best phones I have ever owned and the Samsung Epic Touch is quickly proving itself as one of the best handsets on the market.

Despite being really large the handset is also very thin and light, which is probably a function of the highly evolved AMOLED display which fuses the glass and the display components together in a compact package. It’s also worth pointing out that the display is manufactured by Samsung so they clearly benefit from having a degree of verticalization in their design and manufacturing operations, something few other hardware manufacturers could boast of.

Battery life on the Epic Touch is far better than the Evo, even when the bluetooth, GPS, and wifi networks are spun up. This is a large battery at 1800 mAh, which gives a reported 10 hours of talk time, but time will tell because new batteries always perform admirably… it’s when you have been using it for 6 months that a true representation of battery life emerges.

The display quality is nothing short of fantastic, and when coupled with a very crisp 8 megapixel camera makes for pleasing experiences while taking images and video. I also noticed that the camera is very speedy in terms of reducing latency and lag, a welcome addition.

I could go on about the hardware but this isn’t intended to be a hardware review so let me close by simply saying that the Epic Touch is a significant achievement in hardware design. One of the reasons why I went with Android in the first place is that I didn’t want to be limited exclusively to what Apple decided I should have for hardware and software… Google has done a commendable job of recruiting great hardware partners and the array of handsets that are available meet a wide range of consumer requirements.

On the software side the portfolio of Android apps is deep and broad, the only application that I would like to have which is not available is Instagram. I like the ability to have additional items in my share menu, which was always a pain point for me on the iPhone and the integration of Google Apps is rich, as would be expected.

All things considered, I am glad I switched over to Android and look forward to getting a tablet later in the year when new devices are expected.

Read My Lips: We Are Not Walking Away from WebOS

Today comes news leaked from an internal HP all hands meeting that the company is not abandoning WebOS, 15 months after acquiring it for $1.2 billion. This is how we get all our news about HP these days, leaked memos and meeting soundbites.

Watch for two main arguments being presented, the first by the tech pundit community and the second by HP itself in an effort to salvage whatever dignity remains after spending a lot of money on an acquisition that many people, including myself, said makes sense but then completely failing on the follow through.

First the tech pundits, who are centering on the IP is the main asset argument. In light of Googola that’s all we have been talking about for 2 weeks, right? So this simply has to be a no brainer for why WebOS is worth buckets of money… well maybe buckets of loose change.

It may well be that the remnants of Palm are sold off as a patent library but I have an impossibly hard time believing they will salvage even a symbolic victory from this. Estimates put HP’s acquired patent library at about 1,700 and for the sake of argument we can assume that they are predominately in the smartphone arena given Palm’s history.

Let’s say that 25% of those patents are coming up on end of life and another 25% are highly specific to Palm’s early devices and no longer relevant. So we’ll discount it by half and using Google per-per-patent benchmark of $550k per patent we arrive at a valuation of $467m, which is really dependent upon there being some competitive bidding for the assets otherwise it’s a complete fire sale. Not chump change but certainly a black eye for HP considering how much they paid for Palm last year, and then supported it through where we are today.

We also hear talk of licensing the WebOS… really? HP expects us to believe that HTC and Samsung are going to license an OS for which there is little app support, runs on hardware they don’t use (Qualcomm), is directly competitive with their other partners, predominately Android and Microsoft, and for which no hardware market success has been demonstrated? That’s the strategy?

I’m going to go out on the limb and just say right now that we have seen the last of WebOS (and when they go on clearance at Best Buy I am going to be in line to get one!).

Lessons in Marketing – HP TouchPad

Today comes news about disappointing HP TouchPad sales numbers and I am not surprised given the weak marketing they have exhibited for this product. Like RIM’s failed PlayBook the HP devices suffers from a marketing initiative that fails to connect with what consumers want in a tablet.

HP and RIM both seem to believe that selling a device on the merits of technical dimensions matters to consumers… like multitasking and “plays Flash”. Who gives a shit?

Consumers want apps, fashion, and a tablet that is perceived as fun. The TouchPad is none of these and on the app front their efforts are particularly weak with no app store and a claim of “thousands of apps” yet the ones they feature are less than inspiring. For example, their social networking category has Facebook, WordPress, and two SMS apps… SMS and WordPress as social networking? Really? No Twitter?

If they don’t have a large app catalog then so be it but don’t focus on it as a feature which only serves to demonstrate the deficiency. Go all in on HTML5 and feature web apps that negate the need for downloadable apps but even then stay away from the technical discussion that consumers really don’t care about.

What is especially irritating about the TouchPad is that it actually looks like a really slick tablet and with aggressive pricing, a carrier strategy, and a less sucky marketing campaign they could probably do pretty well with it.

Google Going All In on Mobile

The tech media, and general media as well, is all a flutter about Google acquiring Motorola Mobility (note that this is one part of Motorola, the other being their Solutions group which is 2x the size of Mobility in terms of revenue).

Henry Blodgett thinks it will end as a disaster for Google and my good friend Larry Dignan provides 6 reasons why it makes sense.

I’m with Larry… this is about IP and what Google is doing is acquiring a massive IP war chest that they can use as currency for access to other people’s IP as well as protect their hardware partners with. If I’m HTC and Samsung this will ultimately be a good thing because the IP equivalent of the Allied Powers has just been formed.

Sure the hardware business is very different than software but Microsoft has proven they can co-exist so why can’t Google pull it off? Channel conflict will exist and the onus is on Google to demonstrate to key partners that they are not favoring Motorola but at the end of the day it’s not like these companies were competing on the basis of access to Android features, their competitive position is solely a function of their hardware and integration innovations.

In the end, I like this acquisition for Google and now all attention shifts to Microsoft and RIM.

 

HTML5 – A Wonder Drug

I was reading up on some of the commentary surrounding Amazon’s release of an HTML5 reader, one of the best comes from Constellation’s Charles Brett:

Amazon’s announcement of its Kindle Cloud Reader, based around HTML 5, is a wonder of irony. Apple has successfully been taking 30% of purchases made via anything bought through an app that was installed through the iTunes Store. In parallel it has denigrated Adobe’s Flash (albeit with some justice) as being insufficient for purpose while establishing a pro-HTML5 position as the ‘best’ way to move forwards. Many have been irritated by this ‘Apple knows best’ approach – but that is hardly new.

Looking beyond the immediate benefit for publishers of iOS apps as a result of Apple’s steep 30% cut of the action, HTML5 brings real and sustained benefits to anyone providing a consumer or business application.

  1. A single presentation layer that delivers mobile and web experiences… in other words, unification of the codebase which greatly simplifies application development and the capability to deliver a highly tuned user experience which is great for consumers.
  2. The “real estate” problem is satisfied through evolution of the “home screen web app” feature in iOS that will surely show up in Android. The two primary benefits of a downloadable app are the platform specific UX and the placement of an icon on the mobile desktop… HTML5 delivers the former while mobile platform enhancements are delivering the latter.
  3. The benefits for subscription businesses are evident, you don’t have to give Apple or anyone else their 30 pieces of silver, but for applications like Get Satisfaction that are a network of sites (we host over 60k communities) HTML5 is really the only practical way to deliver a mobile experience… otherwise we would face the impossible task of publishing thousand of mobile apps to support communities that demand a mobile experience.
  4. Hardware acceleration for media playback without having a wrapper plugin as a requirement.
  5. A bunch of other stuff opens up, like geolocation and local data storage, plus the code is cleaner because div codes are replaced with new structural elements and the spec has improved semantics which improves the ability for machine access.

There are disadvantages but most of those are a function of the language being a spec subject to ongoing development, and for media publishers the lack of a DRM framework imposes additional burden and media licensing issues forces compression in many formats to support multiple browsers.

I guess we should thank Apple for forcing the Flash vs. HTML5 issue and then imposing a punitive licensing scheme on their app store… both of which have conspired to catapult HTML5 into the foreground for developments of applications which have web and mobile experiences.

Services I Like

Lately I have been trying a wide spectrum of personal productivity tools, mostly out of curiosity for what is out there but also because I need some efficiencies.

Diigo:

I have a lot of bookmarks but I’m not very organized about them, and in addition that problem I regularly let my browser overflow with tabs that “I’ll get to later”. Instapaper doesn’t work for me and Delicio.us is a question mark given the change in ownership; after asking around I settled on Diigo and so far it’s proved to be quite useful. The Chrome extension is really useful and I just set up a rule to draft a blog post once a week with all my bookmarks tagged with a keyword.

Lookout Mobile Security:

This is a really neat mobile app for Android that scans applications for malware and provides additional features like phone location, backup, lockout, data wipe, and more. This was an easy $30 (the premium version has some nice extras) to fork over given how effortless the app is.

Imo.im:

I’m not sure I like this fully like this app yet but the integrated messaging client that runs as a Chrome app is pretty nice. Time will tell if it is better than Adium but I have been using Skype more so that may end up being a  defining feature.

Skype and Google Voice:

Okay this is two apps and neither are exactly new but I recently bought a Skype number and about the same time I switched by Google Voice number to my Sprint wireless number. The latter is very slick because it fully integrates Google Voice with Sprint, and on my Evo the combination is pretty much everything you could want.

I couldn’t figure out why my Skype app was ringing with my cell phone and then realized I had added my Skype number to GVoice and my cell phone was ringing both at the same time… which turned out to be really useful when sitting at my computer. It gets a little wonky when you have the Android Skype app running and your cellphone rings through your Skype number but I don’t find myself using the mobile Skype service that much.

I have had Google Voice since the Grand Central days and have always struggled with the extra phone number aspect… but now that my Sprint number has ported over I feel that I can finally integrate GVoice into my daily routine in a very useful manner.

 

Sprint Needs to Step Up: Android/Evo Error Messages

Back in July I dumped my iPhone for a new Evo from Sprint. I have enjoyed the phone (yeah the battery life sucks) and services (LOVE the mobile hotspot functionality!) however there has been a single persistent problem that has been causing me grief and it’s time for Sprint to step up and fix it.

When Sprint made the Android 2.2 update available I installed it on my relatively new Evo… I had it just a few weeks. Immediately following the update I started getting “android.process.acore” error messages and a force close message where the app I was using would, well, force close (how very Mac). Sprint replaced the handset 3 times and each time following the upgrade I started getting error messages.

The last time it was replaced I told the Sprint store to just update the software and provision the handset and I would pick it up… still generating the error messages. Clearly this is not a problem with apps I may be running as the last update was done on a virgin handset by Sprint and it’s still happening.

The local Sprint store told me today that a software update that has not been previously disclosed and for which no details are available would resolve this issue, however, not surprisingly I guess, a date has not been made available.

Out of frustration I called Sprint technical support and an indignant support rep told me 2.2 was “defective” and nobody should update to it and if I hard reset my phone it would go back to the old version. Anyone who has done the hard reset knows it does not roll back the ROM to a previous system software update, and to my knowledge the only way to do this would be to root the phone and install the earlier RUU file with the appropriate utility. Irrespective of technical details, an unpublished fix that consists of going back to an earlier version of the software really isn’t a fix at all.

Sprint needs to step up, there are other people having this error messages post 2.2 and it does render the phone impaired, for example if when writing an email you get this message the email app is shut down and your message is gone with it.

PS- Apple hardware/software has problems but the defining aspect of their customer support response is that they take ownership for fixing what isn’t right.

UPDATE: My friend @mmasnick had a Google engineer look at this problem and they determined that the HTC Facebook app is the culprit. I could not remove the app as it is a default app and deleting it requires rooting the handset, however, I removed the Facebook account attached to that app and the android.process.acore error has stopped.

Leaving iPhone for Android

This week I picked up an HTC Evo to replace my trusty iPhone 3G. My reason for doing this is twofold, featuring a technical and a philosophical reason.

I should also take a paragraph to explain that this post isn’t about what device is better because better is an entirely subjective quality but more significantly the reality is that the delta between the devices coming out of Apple, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung is so narrow that it is of limited value to determine that one device edges out another. The meaningful difference between Apple and everyone else is that Apple alone decides what, when and how you can use your phone and that is the major reason why I am leaving Apple (I also have no love for AT&T and find Verizon to be expensive when all the extras are added in).

The iPhone 4 is a really impressive device, probably best in class, but the incremental advantages it offers over the Evo simply can’t overcome the the complexity of Apple’s relationship with me as a consumer, whether it be their iron grip on the app marketplace or restriction of features at the behest of their carriers, like tethering. I’ll still buy Apple’s computers as long as they exist today, multi-use pieces of hardware free of unreasonable restrictions on usage but when it comes to Apple’s mobile devices I am done with them.

One of the most subtle of shifts in how Android is different than the iPhone is the relationship the device has with my laptop computer, which is to say none at all. In order for an iPhone (and by extension iPad) to be truly useful it has to be synced with a computer at some point, whether for syncing contacts and address book or more significantly the ability iTunes provides to manage apps.

Android devices exist completely outside of my traditional compute experience, to date I have not needed to connect the device to my laptop for any function. Everything happens over-the-air (OTA) and you don’t appreciate the significance of that shift until you actually live it. There are times when I want to get my files from one device to the other but Dropbox’s service makes that a fairly trivial process.

The Evo comes with an 8gb microSD card, which I am assuming can be replaced with a larger capacity card. I particularly like the microSD card approach because it makes moving photos and media from Adobe Lightroom, my preferred solution, into the device an easy process. The card itself isn’t conveniently located though, it’s under the battery which means you have to turn off the device in order to retrieve the card, but you can also use a standard micro USB cable to connect it to your laptop, mounting it like an external drive, just like the iPhone. It used to be that moving files from devices to your computer was a hassle, but today it’s a a breeze.

Speaking of batteries, the Evo does have crappy battery life however the one thing I can do with Evo that I can’t do with an iPhone is replace the battery and I picked up 2 spares for $12 each which ensures that even on a long flight I will have ample battery life. I’m pretty confident that the battery life will improve once I finish geeking out over my new gadget and use it sporadically throughout the day like I did with my iPhone.

Last year I wrote a Droid review based on a phone my wife came home with, at the time I dinged the Android app marketplace for not having my favorite iPhone apps. What a difference a year makes, and this is perhaps the area where Android is rapidly achieving parity with the iPhone and potentially surpassing Apple… every iPhone app that I relied on is now represented in the Android market and these apps are not quick and dirty knockoffs but fully developed versions that take advantage of the many features that the Android platform provides.

As I look at Android right now I see a portfolio of well engineered devices that are by any measure on the very forward edge of mobile technology, an app marketplace that is equivalent to Apple’s, and most significantly a sense of momentum that is closing the gap with Apple in every possible dimension, and all of these factors make me excited to experience the wave of Android tablet devices that developing.

iPad Revisited

I’m ready to concede that my prediction that the iPad would be a dud is flat out wrong. I will, however, couch my concession with the observation the iPad has, at least not yet, fundamentally changed the way we use the Web but rather it has added a very powerful new way to use the Web. The iPad has been additive to the market, and while strongly disruptive it is not transformative, but whether Apple sells 10 million iPads next year or 25 million, even though the limited time in the market makes it difficult to predict, it is safe to say the number will be very big.

The iPad does not appear to be cannibalizing Mac sales, according to recent sales statistics released by Apple, however it is evident that the device is depriving Apple of additional iPod sales, which on balance isn’t a bad thing considering the disparity in price points. The fact that iPad users are also a robust Mac segment underscore two important points, the first being that an iPad isn’t very useful without a computer to tether it to from time to time, and iPad consumers are so far loyal Apple consumers who have multiple products from the company.

One area that Apple is seriously impairing competitors in is the netbook category, which I predicted would not happen. Clearly we see a shift in netbook consumption going in favor of the iPad, which confirms something we already knew about netbooks which is that they are compromised devices that serve as something people use in addition to a desktop or laptop computer, and something we didn’t know about the iPad, which is that the market has accepted the iPad as a true multi-purpose device rather than just a better way to surf the web or take advantage of mobile apps.

I will offer a cautionary note on the netbook numbers, which is that this market moves in relation to the school year so before we call the ball on netbooks vs. iPads we should wait until the back-to-school shopping season gets fully underway to see how the price differential impacts device sales in each category. I think we will ultimately see that iPad sales accelerate as the new school year approaches but in this economy it’s worth waiting until the numbers actually start coming in.

Perhaps the most powerful contribution that the iPad has made is that it has broken the Curse of the Tablet and unleashed a new generation of devices that embody many of the most significant characteristics of the iPad, the form factor and application characteristics. Cisco’s recent product announcement, along with the many Android tablet announcements underscore how influential the iPad has become in shaping competitive product plans.

During the demos of the tablet, the most remarkable aspect was how interactive the Cisco tablet experience will be, compared with the hottest tablet out today, the Apple iPad. Cisco is building a device around collaboration, not consumption, which makes sense given how collaboration is a big focus point for Cisco and for getting work done.

[From Cisco Crams Its Broad(band) Ambitions Into an Android Tablet]

Lastly, no I am not an iPad user and I don’t plan on becoming one, in fact I am even ditching my iPhone for an HTC Incredible (as soon as Verizon ships it to me). Apple is no longer the company I used to love, their business practices are increasingly vindictive and petty, examples of both aspects very well documented. While I will remain loyal to their laptop computers because they are hands down the best available but I really hope the company devotes engineering cycles to overhauling this product line as it’s getting a little long in the tooth. I will buy a tablet at some point but will look first to the many Android offerings that are in the pipeline, and I am very interested to see what HP does with the PreOS in a tablet offering.  

More on this topic (What's this?) Read more on Apple at Wikinvest

Traffic or Device Sales, What Matters Most?

James wrote something yesterday that included this graphic:

admob_feb10_US_share.png

What caught my attention, as was the intention of the graphic, was the Android traffic number climbing from effectively zero to more than 40% in just a year and a couple of months. Obviously this was the intention of the graphic (note the green color of the line… designers use green to symbolize wealth) but given that it is published by Admob, which is being acquired by Google, I think you would have to take this chart with a healthy dose of skeptically driven “show me” before you accept it as fact.

The reason I suggest we have some skepticism about this is not because the data is fabricated but because it suggests something very specific that is different from showing Android is beating Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Palm (although it is believable on the latter) in one statistic that matters, device sales, but rather that application usage on Android is achieving parity with Apple.

I downloaded the Admob Mobile Metrics Report and it is very clear, this chart is derived from an analysis of Admob’s network traffic, not mobile network traffic by device or by carrier. Admob, which serves ads into 15k websites and apps on iPhone and Android, analyzes their traffic and trends it according to the type of OS and type of handset (smartphone or feature phone), but also internet devices like the iPod Touch and the upcoming iPad.

Admob claims 10 billion monthly impressions, which no doubt provides a snapshot of trend data but one subject to a lot of interpretation as it does not include meaningful traffic from Windows Mobile or Blackberry devices as those markets have demonstrated less tendency to browse websites with their devices. Let’s set aside for a moment the strategic implications of this observation by agreeing that Windows Mobile and Blackberry have squandered a big headstart in this market which enabled Apple to brilliantly exploit web browsing as a core competency of the iPhone… and later apps (although as I have pointed out before, Apple was originally hostile to external developers building apps for the iPhone).

This leads me to the main point of this post, which is to ask the question what matters more, how many devices are sold or how consumers use them? There is no denying that the device sales underpin everything for handset manufacturers because that is what carriers respond to and where the handset manufacturers generate revenue, but there is no denying that despite impressive sales numbers by RIM and Microsoft (which isn’t a handset manufacturer but should be considered one for the purpose of this analysis) but at the same time each of these platforms has become less important in the consumer space as the iPhone and Android have dominated the consumer mindset.

I don’t have hard numbers to back this up but I think anecdotal observation is undeniable, consumers use the iPhones and Android devices in a fundamentally different way than their Blackberries and other smartphones. I do recall a statistic that I read recently which said the average iPhone user has 11 installed applications versus 3.5 for the average Blackberry user, and I suspect the divide is equally stark against Windows Mobile devices, and it’s clear that Android was developed to mimic the iPhone in this regard.

If we accept that the iPhone/Android markets are doing more than just reading their email and making calls, does this reflect better capabilities of the devices or a far more simple process for acquiring and installing apps on the iPhone/Android? The answer is clearly yes because the app marketplaces and extensive third party developer capabilities, as well as the unique aspects of the handsets, have resulted in a massively more extensive and vibrant market for mobile applications than on the Blackberry and Windows Mobile counterparts. No denying this.

Now here is where things get interesting. Carriers price their wireless plans with voice and data components, with data predominately offered as all you can eat pricing so with data consumption growing at over 100% annually the carriers are seeing growth in the one part of their network they can’t monetize while at the same time incurring significant capital expenditures for network build out. That data traffic has been surging creates a range of problems for carriers who by all accounts cannot expand their networks fast enough (or afford to when they can’t charge subscribers $60 or $70 a month for data), including degrading voice capability (which is profitable) to add to data network bandwidth.

The other problem that data presents is that it erodes a business that is super profitable for carriers, SMS which generates about 20% or $200 billion of global telco revenues. As apps increasingly provide notification capability and instant messaging, carriers will be put in a real quandary and I suspect we will see them throttle apps that infringe on their core businesses (like voice and SMS), as well as apps that are bandwidth hogs (like Slingbox for mobile).

There is a fellow by the name of Andrew Odlyzko that you should take the time to read up on if you are interested in these topics. Andrew is a Professor in the School of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota and by all accounts one of the most accomplished researchers who specializes in the economics of network consumption. Odlyzko believes that voice is seriously underrated as a market and carriers are making a strategic error by not improving the quality of voice and seamlessly integrating voice with data, but he also asserts that data traffic rates will fall from their aggressive growth rates to somewhere around 30%.

Where this brings us is full circle, if mobile network traffic does trend down then the lines on the network traffic graph provided by Admob would converge, or put another way, normalize. It’s not to suggest that Admob is wrong, only that you have to look at their data with a complex set of filters that put into perspective the limited solar system they are measuring. The other implication of all this is that all you can eat data is likely a phenomena that consumers will not enjoy in perpetuity, or access to mobile apps will be filtered according to the bandwidth they consume. I think it is also plausible to consider that mobile data pricing plans will be tiered according to the device the consumer is using, as in Blackberry users typically use less data therefore have a cheaper data plan than iPhone users.

Whatever the eventuality, one this is clear and that is the wireless market is getting much more complex.