RIM’s lost opportunity – Instant Messaging?

Years ago, RIM made a very important realization about data on mobile networks – it was dynamic. It came, went, ebbed and flowed with an individual’s movement in and out of tunnels, elevators, and underground parking garages. From this realization they developed devices and a network designed with this understanding at its core. This understanding led to what has been, without question, the most reliable and immediate mobile email delivery mechanism on the market by way of RIM’s often replicated but rarely duplicated ‘push’ service. The RIM push mechanism opened the door for new services to be provided reliably over a naturally unreliable link, however as time passed I believe this stroke of innovation may be slowly entering into the realm of a lost opportunity for RIM.

Instant messaging is an example of a service that suddenly became incredibly reliable on a wireless device because of RIM’s push service. Previously this had been an application so unreliable on a mobile that the typical user experience was to try it once, have a conversation with someone, realize you missed some critical piece of information due to message loss, and then proceed to discard the messaging application. RIM sorted this out, in fact RIM perfected it. You could now go in and out of coverage as frequently and as rapidly as you wanted and be sure that you’d never miss a beat. Conversing through this means suddenly became as reliable as SMS but also as convenient as we have all come to expect from instant messaging. User presence was managed properly, messages were queued, you could tell when messages had been delivered, and you could even know when those you were chatting to were typing – this was, and has remained, an experience unmatched on any other platform to date.

Seemingly the demand for instant messaging on a mobile device is something that has gone largely un-noticed (or perhaps ignored) by handset makers and mobile phone operators. However, as of the Apple WWDC event this may have changed, and with it so too has RIM’s position as the sole provider of such a powerful capability. While details remain scarce it seems as though the Apple push based notification system will maintain a persistent connection with the device and in turn allow for reliable distribution of things like instant messages. There has been no definitive announcement of messaging applications using this system for the iPhone yet, but with the SDK being readied to allow developers access to this service, and ongoing rumours of things like iChat, AIM, and Jabber support as part of the new iPhone OS, it is safe to say that the world of mobile instant messaging is quite likely about to change.

While RIM definitely pioneered the concepts to enable such services as instant messaging to a mobile device they surely never put much emphasis on this unique ability. Apple’s announcement got me thinking how much this could have been an enormous differentiator for the Blackberry. Instant messaging is now used widely in enterprises around the world and the seamless mobile experience offered by the Blackberry platform on Yahoo!, Google Talk and their own Blackberry Messaging had been unmatched. Perhaps a new competitor has now arrived, a new competitor that has realized the value of such functionality and will exploit it as a key product differentiator. Is this another case of being first to market not making any difference?

The Side Effect of Five 9’s (or almost Five 9’s)

A few days back I went and picked up the phone, a rather ordinary thing to do. However, for the first time in my life when I picked up the phone there was no dial tone. So weird was this that I spent the next hour running around looking for other phones to try since my immediate thinking was ‘it can’t possibly be the phone line, it must be the £10.00 phone’.

After trying three different phones and a fax machine I was finally convinced – the phone line was dead. In 29 years of my existence this was the first time this had ever happened. While it doesn’t quite measure up to the much sought after 99.999% uptime (otherwise known as “five 9’s”) it is relatively close when calculated over the duration of my life at 99.9976%.

It is interesting however, that because of the incredible reliability of the telephone systems and the precedent set by 29 years of uninterrupted service my negative reaction to the outage and expectation of the speed at which it should get resolved was greatly amplified. I had no immediate critical need for the phone at the time but it suddenly became very important that no matter what it be rectified as quickly as possible. You’d think that having had 29 problem-free years of service you’d be willing to throw them a little break here and there, apparently not!

What is up with Windows Mobile 5 Video?

So, Microsoft made an Operating System for this phone..

The standard Windows video recording software on the phone lets you take small videos by way of the camera on the back. By default it stores these videos in this format..

Unfortunately, this format cannot be viewed out of the box by this..

Having tried this..

and this..

it was moderately amusing to find out that the only software on my computer that could play the video with no problem at all was this..

Of all the digital video formats available, why in the world would Microsoft have ever released a mobile product that took videos which could not play on their own desktop operating system out of the box?

Oh – If only there was a format Microsoft had access to that worked on their desktop and could even be played by Windows Media Player by default …oh wait…

Waiting for wireless high speed data in Canada, means waiting for competition

Why does Canada lag so far behind places like the UK in terms of mobile high speed data adoption? The obvious answer is that it is a lack of competition, but when you really dig into “lack of competition” what is the actual impact? Looking at the mobile high speed data market in Canada provides a front-row seat view into what happens when there is no competition.

You do not need to examine Bell, Rogers and Telus’ mobile data offers for very long to realize that none of these guys have had much luck figuring out how to sell this service in Canada. They’ve gone ahead and built these tremendously expensive wireless networks and yet they continue to have seemingly no idea who in the marketplace wants to actually buy access to this network! They have continually shown that they believe the only possible buyers for this service is high-end business customers who can justify a minimum of $60/month over and above their existing mobile services bill. This message comes out loud and clear in both their marketing and in the outrageous prices they charge for the service. Is this really the best they could come up with? Where is the imagination and drive to get people using this network they spent so much money on? Have they done any market research, or do they really just not want anyone using the network (for that matter, try even finding the service on the Rogers website!)?

In many ways it seems like there is someone in these companies saying “Unless we make this much profit per user on this service we’d rather have the network sit there un-used”. This attitude has all but killed off the carrier controlled WIFI (Hotspot) networks in Canada as well. These WIFI networks have been priced so high that they are also only accessible to high-end business customers while the entirety of the rest of the market (all laptop users with WIFI cards) are completely ignored. Sorry, this service is not for you despite how much you want it. Oh, you would pay $5.00 more per month to have access to it? Sorry, that means we can’t get business users to pay $9.95 for 24 hours of access!

Now, for comparison purposes lets look at how things are done in the UK.

If we take the Three UK offer as an example – For business customers this service becomes a quite reasonable £10/mth add-on to whatever services they already have, and meanwhile for consumers this would be simply moving money from one hand to another by way of offering a replacement for their home broadband service. The carriers average revenue per user (ARPU) goes up for the business users and the mobile operator stands to gain new customers from the consumer space that perhaps they never had before and who may now be more inclined to join the same company later for mobile voice services.

These figures are interesting in that they paint a picture of a carrier going after a broad market with many multitudes more potential customers for this service then the Canadian carriers could ever dream of having within their tiny target market of ‘high-end business customers’. Without question, the UK has more business customers then the Canadian market could even imagine – the population is 2 times as big, it is the dominant business centre in Europe and one of the major financial centres in the world. But despite all of this, companies such as Three UK, made a decision which shows that at some point someone realized that going after only high-end business customers would not provide a big enough return on the investment made in building out these networks. So I have to ask the question, if these companies can’t do it here in the UK with just high-end business customers, how do the Canadian carriers ever expect to do it? Maybe I am missing some great piece of strategic information that the Canadian carriers know and I don’t but for the time being this seems like a plan built on very shaky ground.

Over the years I have of course tried to come up with a logical explanation, and to be honest I’ve only ever come up with two potential rational explanations for the Canadian Carriers apprehension to move beyond the safe harbour of their tiny market segment. The first being that they are not actually prepared operationally to handle large numbers of subscribers of a service like this, and the second that the networks themselves are not yet built to withstand the inevitable increased usage. With either of these reasons, the unfortunate truth is that these might have been acceptable answers 3 or 4 years ago but they are surely not today. If this is still the case then we simply have a case of a bunch of complacent monopolies driven by nothing but the safety of doing things the way they have always been done. Never reaching beyond, never striving for more.

Bell, Rogers, and Telus – It’s time to wake-up, start listening to your customers, give them what they want, stop letting the dust gather on that expensive network you built, and begin moving forward again. If you don’t do something soon, perhaps the newcomer will.

Google Maps for Mobile

The updated version of Google Maps for Mobile is awesome.

One of the new features of this version is “My Location” which works remarkably well and definitely makes getting this updated version a must-have. You can download it here.

Here is some more info on the My Location feature.

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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Any users of this web site who state that they work for Research In Motion Limited or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates (collectively, “RIM”) are deemed to be doing so solely for identification purposes. All information, data, text, software, music, sound, photographs, graphics, video, messages, or other materials (“Content”) posted to any Communication Services (as defined in the Terms and Conditions of Use) by any users are the sole responsibility of those users. RIM does not guarantee the accuracy, copyright compliance, legality, integrity, quality, or decency of such Content. No intellectual property or other proprietary rights relating to the Content, including without limitation patents, designs, trademarks, copyright or trade secrets are transferred to You.

You agree not to access, and not to provide any third party with access to, any page of the discussion board that would allow you or such third party to view, download or upload Content from, or otherwise use, the discussion board without first having to view and accept this legal disclaimer.

ALL CONTENT IS AVAILABLE AS IS. TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, RIM MAKES NO REPRESENTATIONS OR WARRANTIES, AND THERE ARE NO WARRANTIES, CONDITIONS OR COVENANTS EITHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE CONTENT, ITS PERFORMANCE OR ITS FAILURE TO PERFORM.

TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, IN NO EVENT SHALL RIM BE LIABLE TO YOU FOR ANY DAMAGES WHATSOEVER BE THEY DIRECT, ECONOMIC, COMMERCIAL, SPECIAL, CONSEQUENTIAL, INCIDENTAL, EXEMPLARY OR INDIRECT DAMAGES ARISING OUT OF THE USE OF OR INABILITY TO USE THE CONTENT, AND WHETHER BASED UPON BREACH OF WARRANTY OR CONDITION, BREACH OF CONTRACT, TORT, INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE, STRICT LIABILITY, OR ANY OTHER KIND OF CIVIL LIABILITY, EVEN IF RIM HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.

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.

Local, Wireless, Social Networking

Living in a small flat in London and being a home worker has resulted in spending a fair amount of time at the local coffee shops. This helps give me a change in scenery; something different from sitting in my uncomfortable wooden Ikea chair that has driven me to the brink of irreparable back trouble. One day while sitting in a Starbucks I got to thinking about how the local wireless networks within these venues could enable what I would call a ‘local social network’.

First off, I would go out on a limb and say that many of the people working at coffee shops in the middle of a weekday are likely to fall into one (or more) of the following categories:

  • A professional traveling for business and requiring a place to work
  • Home workers
  • Small business owners or independent consultants

If we assume this is true for the sake of argument, then it is also fair to say that at any one time there is a lot of people with varying skill sets sitting in one of these stores. Unfortunately I don’t have any real statistics on this, but I suspect that these people are also likely to be using the available wireless networks.

Taking this a step further, what are the chances that these people might be interested in seeking out new expertise in a particular field? For instance, it seems possible that some sort of IT consultant might be in need of a graphic designer, or that a small business owner is interested in finding someone with web design experience. Of course anything is possible but this thought process led me to wonder what if, when you logged into the local WIFI hotspot, you could choose to identify your personal area of expertise or small business’ market? Further, anyone already at a particular location, and any new people signing into the network, would be able to see who was there and what field of expertise they had. At Starbucks, at least, where T-Mobile operates the wireless network, they already have the information about your location so the data presented to users would be specific to the shop you were at and could automatically update when you disconnected and left the store. This mechanism would allow the seeker of a service/product to meet face to face with a potential supplier in an informal environment to quickly assess whether the person’s offerings match up with what they are looking for. In many ways this doesn’t seem all that different from the markets and bazaars of historic cities, where anyone with products and services could go to the city market to share their wares with the public, in the hopes that there were people looking for precisely what they were offering. In this case, the idea of the public market has simply been transformed to a different venue, where the trade is more of knowledge based services than physical objects, and where the initial connections are made in a different manner.

Interconnecting people in this way is really just another form of a Social network, much like the ones we all know: LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. In a few ways however, it is fundamentally different. For instance

  • Geographical dispersion of the participants. This idea is focused on a local venue, members of the network are virtually within eyesight as opposed to having a global reach.
  • Knowledge of the people on the network. Here you don’t actually know any of the participants whereas in most other networks you are either connected directly or through others.
  • Type of communications. This is more ‘live’ networking in that you could actually interact with the person immediately compared to other types of social networks where the communication is more asynchronous.

No doubt, this idea could be taken many steps further with various ‘Web 2.0’ish mash-ups such as linking the data into LinkedIn profiles, Google Maps to map out the instantaneous location of certain expertise, or perhaps a link into IM networks to help establish initial communication. So if anyone at Starbucks or T-Mobile is out there listening, perhaps you should be considering a joint venture – who knows maybe you’ll sell more coffee and get more WIFI subscribers!

Open access

Here’s a quick update on what Google is requesting of the FCC to encourage growth of an open access platform. This would definitely make things interesting! Is it possible that it could actually happen? and would Canada be willing to follow suit?

  • Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
  • Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
  • Open services: Third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  • Open networks: Third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee’s wireless network.

Google’s entry to wireless?

I never really intended to write so much on spectrum but the topic seems very timely right now. We have the incumbent carriers vying to shore up their monopolies, new companies seeing new mobile opportunities and a prime piece of spectrum real estate up on the auction block in early 2008.

Recently some news broke about Google both disclosing their interest in potentially buying some spectrum rights but also, and more importantly, their intention to lobby the government towards releasing this new 700 MHz band as open access. The specific details of what they see ‘open access’ as meaning is not completely clear but the promise, at the very least, is that any device will be allowed to access and use this bandwidth – perhaps more akin to the way we use the 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum today.

I believe it is important that Google, a large company with such a unique perspective on the world, is getting involved in this dialogue about spectrum utilization. For too long we’ve had to put up with our existing telecommunication carriers whom are more interested in staking claim and protecting their existing investments as opposed to leveraging new investments for future growth and innovation. I don’t mean to be so “pro-Google” but this industry desperately needs someone, anyone with the ideas, drive, and financial capital, to challenge the incumbents who have just simply become lazy and uninterested in building new services. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether it is Google or someone else that comes to the table to prove that innovation in the wireless world is still possible, so long as the status quo is disrupted and we can finally make progress.

A few quotes from Verizon and AT&T representatives provides a painfully obvious view into how truly out of touch these guys are:

“The one-size-fits-all mentality that characterizes open access regimes for the wireless industry would begin the process of stifling innovation and creativity in our industry,”

Verizon Wireless general counsel Steven Zipperstein

“…open-access network would deprive taxpayers of billions of dollars, and inhibit the growth of wireless broadband in the country.”

Robert Quinn, AT&T’s senior vice president for federal regulatory.

I guess they somehow missed, or chose to forget that the internet itself could be considered a platform of “open access” and because of this its usage has grown to over 1 billion people worldwide and spawned an immense global economy building new technology to leverage this platform. Mr. Quinn’s attempt to claim that an open approach will deprive the taxpayers of billions of dollars is ludicrous in the face of the far greater economic benefits gained from the internet in the form of jobs, scientific advancement, global collaboration and an increasingly knowledge based economy. I suppose however, that in the end I am missing the point, as god forbid we open up the wireless world too much and empower more people to become potential competitors to AT&T and Verizon.