Sprint, WiMAX and the Nokia N800

Interesting news from Sprint/Clearwire that they will be launching a WiMAX enabled Nokia N800 sometime in 2008.

It’s great that Sprint is pushing the envelope by launching this new wireless network, as I think the wireless marketplace in North America needs someone to shake things up a bit. Unfortunately with such new network technology the need for devices to support it does provide a significant barrier. The Nokia N-Series devices do provide a place to start in advance of the technological advancements required to fit WiMAX onto more mobile phone sized devices or until it is more readily available in laptops. Though with the practical use-cases for devices such as the N800 and other Ultra Mobile PC’s still hard to pinpoint I wonder if this might be a bit of a case of the cart before the horse for Sprint? or will the availability of this network and the existing developer support for this lineup of devices lead to the discovery of a home for this device and thus broader adoption? Maybe it is stroke of genius from Sprint that we just can’t see yet!

As an aside, I think the Linux based N800/N770-series devices are a fantastic example of the potential for individual innovation and platform development. I don’t know the exact figures (lets be honest, I can’t even offer a ballpark figure) but for arguments sake I would be surprised if Nokia has sold more then 100,000 of these things (anyone have any idea?). Despite this, the amount of development, and experimentation going on with this platform is staggering when you compare it to the state of things on the other more closed platforms mentioned previously.

All in all a job very well done by Nokia to provide the framework and encouragement which has fed the fire of the open source development community. If only the same effort/investment was put into creating a similar open development platform for mobile phones one can only imagine the excitement, innovation and community involvement that would erupt all over the world.

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The Good and Bad of the Blackberry

More ‘smart’ devices are coming out every week now, but I wonder, have their designers actually sat back to ask themselves what makes the Blackberry as good as it is, and why people who have them are so vehemently against giving them up? On the flip side, while the Blackberry seems to have so much going for it, are there things that are holding it back?

Here’s my perspective:

What’s good

Store and Forward
The device and service takes into account that despite the mobile operators’ best efforts, wireless coverage is not ubiquitous and thus the device and network must be smart about when data is sent and received to maintain a reliable user experience. This is why Blackberry users can consistently and accurately carry on instant messaging conversations even while they move in and out of wireless coverage, never dropping a single message.

Less Data Usage
The device and service takes into account that the wireless channel is not infinite, and passes data back and forth intelligently. For example – rather than sending an entire Powerpoint presentation all at once it sends a single slide, and further it is transcoded to reduce the amount of data consumed.

Device Usability
The device has been designed to create an experience that allows users to accomplish a remarkable amount on a very small device. Everything from the keyboard, scroll wheel (or newer “pearl”), software design, and the footprint of the device contributes to a very positive experience that is unrivaled in the other devices I have seen on the market thus far.

Java
The Blackbery development platform has its roots with Java, so arguably it brings along with it an immense community of developers who have the requisite skills needed to build new applications for the Blackberry platform.

What’s bad

Development Community
For whatever reason the size of the development community, RIM sponsored or otherwise, is very small at the moment. Legal mumbo-jumbo like this:

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as the first page to show up when you enter the “Community” section of the Blackberry developers website is not a great start (are we entering the “community of lawyers”?), and simply providing access to a forum is hardly the way to build a thriving open community. Where are all the RIM bloggers? Podcasters? Joint community and RIM application development projects? Community online application hosting?

Development Platform
I should preface this with the fact that I have never developed an application for the Blackberry so I cannot speak to detailed limitations of the API, but from a high level some issues I currently see are the following:

  • RIM requires you to have applications signed if you use certain API’s. This, by itself, is a limitation on the fluidity of open application development, and the additional burden of a $100 administration fee puts up additional roadblocks.
  • Many of the clever parts of the Blackberry platform, including many of the tools needed to easily integrate with web services, all require MDS which in turn requires a Blackberry Enterprise Server.
  • RIM development tools all require Microsoft Windows. No doubt the community of developers that might want to build applications could just as easily be using Linux or OSX. This introduces yet another barrier.

The consumer market for Blackberry devices is growing, and just as we have seen massive amounts of development on web based platforms such as Google and Facebook, the possibility is also there that this same group of people will jump onto the opportunity to build new mobile applications. But given the few issues outlined above, I would argue that the barrier is too great for the same level of enthusiasm for development to be applied to the existing Blackberry development platform.

Yet it is the members of this existing development community who are likely to be the ones who will want to build a Blackberry mobile Twitter application, for example. Given the limitations above, how will they be able to accomplish such a thing without some open public infrastructure in place for them to leverage? And will they be willing to send a cheque out for $100.00 just to start a small project for their own interest to ensure they have access to all the necessary API’s? I know the solution to the infrastructure problem currently provided by RIM is simulators, and no doubt RIM’s answer for the $100 signing fee is that the average developer won’t need those specific API’s anyway. Unfortunately I believe that in reality if a developer can’t test and use their application for real (and be sure all the API’s they might need are available to them) then chances are they won’t bother – after all, isn’t one of the main reasons for development often to ‘scratch your own itch’?

“Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch” – Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

There are more great web services popping up every day, and many Blackberry users are wanting to use their device for more then just email now. If RIM doesn’t start creating a platform by which developers can leverage these services to build new applications for their mobile device then no doubt someone else will. RIM has a great head start with their excellent devices and reliable service infrastructure, but some critical pieces of the puzzle remain missing and without them the availability of new applications will suffer despite the potential offered by the platform. Of course, the carriers themselves have a part to play in creating an environment that encourages application development – actions like this from AT&T forcing RIM to limit the capabilities of their devices sold on the AT&T network doesn’t help anything and proves the carriers desire to control what development happens as much as possible.

RIM has grown into being the flagship mobile business device, though to some extent I think they need to start to try and shed the stodgy business persona, let loose, have some more fun, open up, and encourage experimentation. With the right support and infrastructure in place, the same drive and curiosity that has led to things like Panoramio, Walkscore, etc will ultimately drive similar novel applications on a platform that can reach you wherever you are.

Mobile Applications vs. Facebook

Noticing the ever increasing number of new Google based applications being developed, and browsing through the immense catalogue of new Facebook ‘applications’, has made me consider why we don’t have anything even remotely close to this type of development happening for mobile devices around the globe. Both the Google and Facebook API’s have been open to the public at large for only a fraction of the time that these data capable mobile devices have been on the market, yet these API’s have stormed through the internet while mobile application development has progressed at a snail’s pace.

It makes you wonder, where are the mobile social networking applications? Why has no one tried to adapt some of the Facebook content to a mobile application? Why are there no decent tools to blog from a Blackberry? How come we can’t do internet banking from our mobile device? and the list goes on and on.

The carriers haven’t exactly encouraged this type of mobile innovation – barriers such as demanding digital signing of applications, blocking certain types of traffic (e.g. SIP), and high data tariffs that impede significant mobile data device adoption by the consumer market, all hold a portion of the responsibility for the lack of a flurry of mobile application development.

Looking at the application production on Facebook vs any of the mobile platforms over time outlines the discrepancy clearly:

Facebook Applications:
– The applications section of Facebook lists no less than 2431 available applications. On a platform that has only been fully opened up as of May 2007.

Blackberry applications: 1,808
– This number includes applications for all devices going back 8 years to the RIM850.

Palm applications: 10,606
– This number includes applications for all devices going back 9 years to the Palm III

Windows Mobile Smartphone: 2,836
– Includes applications for all devices going back approximately 4 or 5 years to Smartphone 2002

Windows Mobile Pocket PC: 13,455
– Includes applications for all devices going back 7 years to the Compaq IPAQ 3600 Series

* Data from Handango.com:

From these numbers it is easy to see that the only devices that actually have a significant number of available applications are those that have been around since the veritable days of the caveman. The Blackberry numbers are particularly obscene in that only a total of 1,808 applications (based on Handango data) have been generated in 8 years, on what is probably one of the most powerful wireless platforms on the market today – I will cover this in a separate post in a few days. In contrast to these numbers, the Facebook development community has come up with over 2000 applications in just over 3 months!

Currently, I am not convinced that there exists an open enough mobile development platform (right from the network up to the application layer) that could spark such immense growth in mobile applications to rival what we have seen with things like the Facebook platform. Perhaps this is what Google has in mind to be the catalyst of next?

It is likely that at this stage of mobile data device adoption it could in fact be better to look at Facebook and Google as examples of what could be if an equally open development platform were created for mobile devices, and a network operator were to emerge with the willingness to let the users at large experiment and tinker however they wish. The amazing thing about this is that the number of mobile users around the globe will pale the number of PC users, so the impending opportunity for mobile applications should go far beyond anything we have ever seen in the PC space.