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How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm?

by Randall on August 3, 2010 · 11 comments

Posted in: Business Strategy,Management,New Media,Randall Howard,Software,Web,Wireless

“How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm” (excerpt) by Andrew Bird

Oh, how ya gonna keep ’em down? Oh no, oh no
Oh, how ya gonna keep ’em down?

How ya gonna keep ’em away from Broadway?
Jazzin’ around and painting the town?
How ya gonna keep ’em away from harm?
That’s the mystery


This week, my 18 month old Blackberry finally bit the dust. Out of this came a realization that led me to the challenge I issue at the end of this post.

Please don’t view my device failure to be a reflection on the reliability, or lack thereof, of Blackberry handsets. Rather, as a heavy user, I’ve found that the half life of my handsets is typically 18 to 24 months before things start to degrade – indeed, mobile devices do take a beating.

The obsolescence of one device is, however, a great opportunity to reflect on the age-old question: What do I acquire next? That is the subject of this posting, which focuses on the quantum changes in the mobile and smartphone market over the last couple of years.

I’ll start with a description of my smartphone usage patterns. Note that, in a later post, I plan to discuss how all this fits into a personal, multi-year odyssey toward greater mobile productivity across a range of converged devices and leveraging the cloud. Clearly, my smartphone use is just a part of that.

I’ve had Blackberry devices since the first RIM 957, and typically upgrade every year or so. I’ve watched the progression from simple push email, to pushing calendars and contacts, improved attachment support and viewing, even adding the “phone feature”. For years, the Blackberry has really focused on the core Enterprise functions of secure email, contacts and calendar and, quite frankly, delivered a seamless solution that just works, is secure and fast. It is for that reason that, up to the present day, my core, mission critical device has been a Blackberry. Over the last few years, I’ve added to that various other smartphone devices that have particular strengths, including the Nokia N95 (powered by Symbian OS), various Android devices and, my current other device, the ubiquitous Apple iPhone.

My current device usage pattern sees a Blackberry as my core device for traditional functions such as email,  contacts and phone and my iPhone for for the newer, media-centric use cases of web browsing, social media, testing and using applications, and so on. Far from being rare, such carrying of two mobile devices seems to be the norm amongst many early adopters. Some even call it their “guilty secret.”

Over the recent past, I’ve seen my expectations of the mobile experience dramatically escalate. In reality, the term smartphone is a bit of a misnomer as the phone function is becoming just one application among many in a complex, highly functional, personal, mobile computing device. The state of the art in converged mobile devices (smartphones and, increasingly, tablets) has indeed crossed the Rubicon. I believe that this new mobile universe is as big a break with the past for the mobile industry as was the rise of the internet (particularly the web) to the older desktop computing industry. Indeed, in several markets, 2010 is the year when smartphones outsell laptops and desktops (combined).

To summarize this new palette of capabilities of this new mobile computing generation, they fall into several areas:

  • rich web browsing experience, typically powered by WebKit technology, which ironically was pioneered by ReqWireless (acquired by Google) right here in Waterloo. With the advent of HMTL5, many such as Google, view the browser as the new applications platform for consumer and business applications,
  • robust applications ecosystem, with simple AppStore function to buy, install and update. iPhone and Android are pretty solid in this regard. Blackberry’s ill fated AppWorld is an entirely different matter. For me, it was hard to find, not being on my Home Screen, application availability seemed to be (counterintuitively) dependent on the Blackberry model I was using, and also the OS memory security didn’t seem up to the applications actually working reliability. (Translation, I found that loading applications onto my Blackberry made the device slower and less reliable, so ended up removing most applications). Whatever the reasons, the iPhone AppStore has 250,000 applications with 5 billion downloads. Android Market has over 80,000 applications and Blackberry AppWorld lags signfiicantly behind this.
  • user friendly multi-media interface, including viewing of web, media, and images, drop & drop and stretch & pinch capabilities. So far, touch screen technologies used in both iPhone and Android seem to have won the race against competing keyboard-only or stylus-based alternatives. Personally, I believe there are still huge opportunities to innovate  interfaces optimized for small screens and mobile usage, so I will remain open to the emergence of alternative and competing technologies. I’m convinced that one use case scenario doesn’t fit all.
  • a secure, modern & scalable operating system on which to build all of the above and to drive the future path of mobile computing. Given my heritage in the UNIX world starting in the 1970’s, it is interesting to me that all modern smartphones seem to be built around a UNIX/LINUX variant (iOS is derived from BSD UNIX and Android from Linux) which provides a proven, scalable and efficient platform for secure computing from mobiles to desktops to servers. Blackberry OS, by contrast, appears to be a victim of its long heritage, starting life less as a real operating system, but more a TCP/IP stack bundled with a Java framwork that morphed over time (it sounds reminiscient of the DOS to Windows migration, doesn’t it?). To be fair, Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS also suffers from its slavish attempt to emulate Windows metaphors on smaller, lower power devices and the translation doesn’t work well.

I want to stress an important point. This is not solely a criticism of Blackberry being slow to move to the next mobile generation. In fact, some of the original smartphone pioneers are struggling to adapt to this new world order as well. My first smart phone was the Nokia 9000 Communicator, similar to the device pictured on the left, and first launched in 1996. Until recently, Nokia with their Symbian OS Platform was the leader in global smartphone market share. Likewise, Microsoft adapted their Windows CE Pocket PC OS, also first released in 1996, for mobile computing market earlier in this decade, and that effort is now called Windows Phone, shown on the right. Both vendors just seem to have lost the playbook for success, but continue to thrive as businesses because smartphones represent a relatively small fraction of their overall businesses. However, respectively, feature phones and desktop OS and applications, are hardly likely to continue to be the growth drivers they once were.

I need to stress another point mentioned earlier. There will be competing approaches to platform, user interface, and design. While it is possible that Android could commoditize the smartphone device market in the way that Wintel commoditized the mass PC desktop and laptop marketplace, I suspect that being ubiquitous, personal and mobile, these next generation smartphones are likely to evolve into disparate usage patterns and form factors. That said, there will be certainly be signficant OS and platform consolidation as the market matures.

At last I get to my challenge. As an avowed early adopter, I have aggressively worked at productivity in a “mobile nomadic” workstyle which leverages open interfaces, use of the cloud and many different techniques. Even I am surprised by the huge enabling effect of modern hardware, communications and applications infrastructure in the mobile realm. Essentially, very few tasks remain that I am forced back to my desktop or laptop to accomplish. However, the sad fact is that the current Blackberry devices (also Nokia/Symbian and Microsoft) fail to measure up in this new world. Hence the comment about Farms and Paris. The new mobile reality is Paris.

My challenge comes in two parts:

  • What device should replace my current Blackberry?
  • Since the above article doesn’t paint a very pro Blackberry picture, what is RIM doing about this huge problem?

I should point out that I have every reason to want and hope that my next device is a Blackberry. RIM is a great company and a key economic driver for Canada and I happen to live and work in the Waterloo area. Furthermore, I know from personal experience that RIM has some of the smartest and most innovative people in their various product design groups, not to mention having gazillions of dollars that could fund any development. Rather, I would direct my comments at the Boardroom and C-Suite level, as I am baffled why they have taken so long to address the above strategic challenges which have already re-written the smartphone landscape. Remember that iPhone first shipped in Janaury 2007 and the 3G version over 2 years ago, so it’s not new news. Android is a bit slower out of the gate, but has achieved real traction, particularly in the last few quarters. And, to be clear, I’m not alone in this – see “Android Sales Overtake iPhone in the US” – which goes on to show the the majority of Blackberry users plan to upgrade to something other than Blackberry. The lack of strategic response, or the huge delays to do so, remains an astonishing misstep.

Therefore, if anyone senior from RIM is reading this, please help me to come to a different conclusion. I very much would like to continue carrying Blackberry products now and into the foreseeable future.

For other readeers, please comment with your thoughts. What device would you carry, and more importantly, why?

[NOTE: this post was written a week before today’s launch of the Blackberry 9800 Torch with OS 6. There are definitely some promising things in this design, but it remains to be seen if, indeed, this device represents the quantum leap that the new marketplace reality requires]

About Randall

Randall Howard is a serial entrepreneur and long term technologist with a passion for social innovation.

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  • CHF

    ” I know from personal experience that RIM has some of the smartest and most innovative people in their various product design groups, not to mention having gazillions of dollars that could fund any development”I can believe that, but much the same could be said about Microsoft, where it still went wrong, in the sense of getting any of that energy out into the market. To judge from the reports from the Danger people, who produced a useful phone/internet hybrid years before others, and were therefore bought by Microsoft; they were then constantly frustrated by the corporate culture, resulting in the abortive Kin. In Microsoft's case there's a big corporate planet that is hard to reposition. I wonder what the real problem is at RIM?

    • Interesting data point from Microsoft, Charles. I'm curious if anyone out there has direct experience of either the Microsoft or RIM situation – regarding why important strategic changes are so slow to materialize? I'm assuming that the innovation at the grassroots is being quashed by more senior people, but that is simple conjecture.

      • Prior to the iPhone, Blackberry and smartphone were synonymous in North America. The U.S. market was stagnant with hostile data tariffs, and virtually no successful value-added services or mobile apps. Few mobile-focused startups faired well.The iPhone generally lagged smartphones already on the market, with innovation only in the screen (touch had been around for years, but not capacitive/finger driven), accelerated graphics and user interface. But Apple leveraged their brand, and succcess with iTunes, to wake North America up to the market for smartphones and services.Now Apple has evolved into a publisher and closed distribution network, locking out cross-platform tools, in-app (non-iAd) advertising, Flash, etc. and monopolizing (and monetizing) the supply of music, video, apps, books, magazines, and now advertisements. (But Apple will have to do something about it's declining smartphone market share.)Meanwhile, it's taken Microsoft, RIM, Nokia, Motorola, etc. (and especially the Operators) a while to figure out what's happened, and why the integrated services model Changes Everything. Google had mobile services already, and along with a platform and similar hardware, offered the only obvious alternative. RIM hadn't appreciated how much of the mobile market is driven by fashion, and while they address a larger market than Apple, they are having a hard time figuring out how to be sexy again, and where to invest in new services – and of course they have one of the weakest of the mobile platforms. Nokia was quietly executing a long shift in mobile strategy, when all of a sudden the U.S. became relevant, critical, and myoptic all at the same time. (Okay, they were already myopic.)Microsoft's mobile strategy hasn't really reacted to the change, and has been split internally, culminating in the spectacular failure of the Kin. And Microsoft really can't figure out how to mobilize it's services. But the Operators can't afford to be reduced to bit-pipes, the content market can't afford to let Apple control distribution, and mobile manufacturers can't afford to let Google suck the margins out of the handset market while keeping the mobile services revenue.All of which is to say…. we're very early in the game and it's set to get more interesting.But you want to choose a phone, and you want to understand where the market is going.So don't choose another Blackberry… choose something that will vary your experience and take you in a direction that you want to learn:Choose an iPhone is you want to experience the evolution of the content/advertising industry…. but try not to drink the water. Choose an Andoid if you want a degree of openness, and you want to understand the economics of the industry (in a painful way), but try take advantage of non-Google services.If you interest is in the evolution of mobile towards multi-screen and the cloud… wait for Meego.And if you want to experience the global mobile market from a perspective outside North America (or you just fancy a great cameraphone), then get Nokia N8 (or the rumored E7).

        • Phil, I'm guessing, from your points, that you're a European, or at least a non-North American.What's interesting to me in the transatlantic mobile divide is that, after a decade of lagging Europe by 3-4 years, North America has suddenly shot ahead. In both US and Canada, data and smartphone adoption curves in the last 3 years have been faster than any other technology. Now, when I go to UK or Germany, I find they seem a bit stalled out, after having led the way for over a decade.I can wholeheartedly agree with one of your points – namely, that the game just just begun and is poised to get interesting. So, in that sense, market leadership by manufacturer, OS, geography is all up for grabs.And, my choice of phone is, as you say,a chance to experience some of this new direction. Given the number of devices (of all types) I've used over the years, this makes my choice, right now, extra difficult. It is truly an embarrassment of riches out there.

          • I'm Canadian, living in Canada 7 of the last 9 years, but before that I was in the U.K. for 10 years, in the mobile industry. I like to think that gives me a balanced view of both North American and European markets.While adoption has increased, penetration still lags, as does the market over-all. North America is still largely behind. (See Tomi Ahonen's amusing tirade directed at Steve Largent President and CEO of he CTIA: http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/20… .)While the importance of the North American market has changed, that doesn't mean it's ahead. Rather, we're at the early days of a (non operator-driven) vertically integrated services model, and the one thing you can count on is that the players won't maintain their current relative positions…. indeed we're likely to see some significant changes.RIM has begun adapting to the changes in device form-factors and interaction models (and thankfully hasn't abandoned keyboards, which represents a larger market than touch-only, and is making them successful in the youth market with Blackberry Messenger), but they haven't adapted their market positioning, service (or platform) strategy yet.While RIM's business still looks healthy, the shine is off, and Blackberry users (much like Nokia users) are looking worriedly for some sign that RIM knows where it's going in this new world. You're close to RIM – if you want to introduce me, I'd be happy to advise them. 😉

  • Mark

    Early adopters don't mind the bumps, in fact they enjoy them. We endure the bumps to gain a marginal, sometimes imagined benefit over the accepted mode of use. We consume in different modes for different categories of products and product experiences. I am an early adopters of technology, however I am a first majority consumer of food and dining. I generally will not go out of my way to try an obscure up and coming chef at a new restaurant. Instead, I rely upon a trusted reference point and I look for a restaurant experience that is seen as a leader. Because you are seeking an outside reference tells me that you have shifted to the next mode of consumption. About a month ago I dropped my Blackberry for the HTC Android, this decision was painful for many reasons (that I will not bore you with). In the end, Android solved a problem that my Blackberry could not do reliably.

    • randall

      Mark, you make a good point that I hadn't considered.Definitely, I'm (often, but not always) an early adopter. And, certainly, part of the perspective of the article comes from my journey to being as productive when mobile as in a traiditional office.However, the majority of this piece was written to talk about the strategy for a market that is moving into early (or even late) majority status. When Android adds 4% US market share in a single quarter (Q2/2010) and the iPhone achieves such a position, from not being in the market at all, in just over 3 years, clearly there is a market discontinuity happening. Each of the major smartphone incumbents appear to be slow to respond to this market disruption, perhaps for different reasons. However, to me the lack of strategic response is frankly, baffling.Of course, incumbency can be important and markets can have inertia in changing. But remember that Smith Corona, in the mid-1990's, went from being the largest and a very profitable typewriter company to bankruptcy in literally 6 months.And, please don't judge Android from the Canadian experience. Just under 2 years ago, Rogers and other operators pushed it aggressively and the products, although rich in features, weren't that mature yet. My sense is that today, offerings available (through the carriers) are now behind the curve relative to the US.

  • “Until recently, Nokia with their Symbian OS Platform was the leader in global smartphone market share.” Nokia still is the leader in global smartphone market share, and has taken market share from Apple for the last 4 consecutive quarters – without having any high-end flagship devices available.Apart from that, it sounds more like you're looking for a market analysis than a recommendation for a specific device. Most analysts look at the smartphone war in terms of OS, UI, hardware spec., or app. market and developers. However, each “manufacturer” needs to be looked at in terms of their approach to the complex mobile value chain, and a unified services story. The iPhone/iPad are first and foremost a (closed) content platform for publishers, music, books, magazines and apps. Google provides mobile search, maps, mail, calendar, IM, telephony and a host of other services which can be adapted for mobile. Microsoft has neither a coherent publisher proposition nor services approach, and is currently nowhere. Nokia has a broad set of services through Ovi (apps, music, maps, mail, calendar, IM, TV, etc.) but so far has had difficulty pulling them together and marketing them appropriately. When you look at it this way, all other smartphone manufacturers or platforms trail far behind. RIM has email, and instant messaging – and an identity/strategy crisis (albeit, a strong position with the value chain, including enterprise.) Only Apple, Google and Nokia can compete from a smartphone services perspective. While Apple and Google have more coherent offerings, Nokia has a more cooperative and complex approach to the mobile value chain (as well as 1.2B existing customers) if almost comical incompetence when it comes to the U.S. market. Palm/hp have no services.So, narrow your platform selection to iOS, Android and Symbian/Meego…. and if you have to choose a device today, choose between letting yourself be monetized by Apple, or the a pseudo-open Android device.

    • Thanks for providing such depth of characterization of the 4 key smartphone ecosystems (Android, Apple, Nokia/Symbian and Blackberry). I realize that in trying to keep my comments high level, they end up sounding like a discussion just of the mobile device.In truth, the ecosystem, it's openness and interconnectivity, are very important. My own bias is to find my own solutions (eg. Exchange or Google Apps instead of MobileMe), but I realize I'm not indicative of the market.You also suggested what I'm looking for. While I really do need to replace my Blackberry, I'm also using that event to understand the strategic and market drivers in the smartphone market. And, yes, in writing off Nokia/Symbian, I'm taking a bit of a North American-centric viewpoint. That said, the trendlines aren't great for Nokia unless they, too, execute a major course correction,

  • Randall Howard

    A month after writing this post, it’s interesting to watch events at Nokia unfold, with the appointment of Canada’s own Stephen Elop as CEO and departure of the executive in charge of the smartphone unit.To me, the sea change in the mobile industry,is an even bigger market disruption than the rise of the web in the 1990’s as articles like “Nokia’s Decline Holds Three Lesson for Europe” in Bloomberg attests. Read the article here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-09-13/nokia-s-decline-holds-three-lessons-for-europe-commentary-by-matthew-lynn.html

  • Pingback: "How ya gonna keep ‘em away from harm?" - The Sequel | Randall Howard()

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