Possible, Powerful, Popular and Practical: Mobile Thoughts at 3 a.m.

I'm back on a Series 60 phone now after about a week with the Motorola A845. It was incredible to actually get to use a 3G phone on a daily basis and grok what the future holds for mobile data services, but I eventually couldn't live without a more powerful Symbian phone. But man, when I connected my PC over Bluetooth and got 256kbps (around 36KB/s) download speed? I was completely blown away and stil am. Suddenly 3G which seemed far off and far away was real to me.

The problem of course was the phone. The standard Moto UI, as I mentioned about the other day, is a mess and the phone itself is *huge*. But still, it took decent pictures and video, I was able to have the real MP3 version of U2's A Beautiful Day play as my ringtone instead of the MIDI file I have on my S60, and the download speed was incredible. It really affected some uses of the phone in drastic ways.

The A845 allows you to set up your POP3 or IMAP mail to update every few minutes, and because of the speed of the connection, many times my *phone* would alert me to a new message before my PC would while I was at work. Wow. Now I know how the Blackberry people must feel about their email. I mean, using that email client was just as fast as using my PC. Reading, editing, deleting was just as seamless. On a Series 60 phone over GPRS it's definitely not nearly as comfortable - part of the problem being the creaky messaging app, the other just the speed of the network itself. Yeah, you can get the headers over IMAP - but 1) even that isn't very quick and 2) the wait for the actual message itself can take what seems like forever. Using the 3G phone it wasn't like that at all.

However, where there was some obvious work put into the email client, the default WAP/XHTML minibrowser on the A845 really sucks, so I ended up using a demo of the Java-based ReqWireless WebViewer. MAN, did that app fly! Not only is the content being proxied, but the network speed made it as quick and smooth as a PC on a broadband connection. It really made you not worry about going back and forth between pages at all. It definitely isn't perfect, and the ReqWireless UI could use some work, but the fact it worked so quickly was amazing to see from a demo perspective.

And the phone has 64MB of RAM storage, which is plenty for quite a lot of Java apps, snapshots and quick videos, though really not enough to make any practical use of the integrated MP3 player and stereo output. If there was some place to insert a memory card, this phone would improve 100%, but sadly 64MB is all you've got.

The one thing I was disappointed at was the the video-calling functionality just doesn't work yet for us. I got some comments saying that it'll be nothing special because of the slow uplink (only 56kbps), but it would've been nice to see and use. Hopefully AT&T Wireless will get the kinks out eventually.

Anyways, I mention all this not only as a followup to my 3G post before, but because it made me realize the massive gulf that lies between the cutting edge consumers out there like myself, and the millions who still hold on to much, much less powerful phones out there. As a mobile technologist I want to make sure I know about everything that's possible so that I can take that future into account while thinking about possible applications I can develop. But then there's the reality of the market, and the phones that are popular are potentially years behind what's possible.

So which do you target? I was *amazed* at Dodgeball when it was launched and got all the press it's getting. An SMS remailer? Are you kidding me? Those have been around for ages. Okay, so this has some social networking lingo thrown in, woop-dee-doo. I send off a message and it gets copied to my friends. Same stuff I've seen on European TV for years now. And the senders don't even pay a Premium SMS rate, so god knows how these guys plan to make money. But still, even though this service may not be inventive or even innovative, it's a service that's targeted at the baseline of phone functionality: SMS. Say what you want about Dodgeball (or let me say it. ;-) ) but the fact is just about anyone can sign up and use it today.

SMS is both Popular and Practical. Believe it or not, WAP 1.x also fits into this category. It was slow and unusable without GPRS, but now with a decent connection, WAP services can be quite handy. I've mentioned my coworker Justin and how he checks ESPN scores before, and my Boost Mobile i730 is incredibly fast. When I first used the WAP menuing system, I thought it was cached locally... but it was just simple text over GPRS - more than enough to provide a good user experience. The increasing numbers of WAP page views in Europe show that this is proving to be the case.

But what about all the nifty tech?!?! What about the camera phones and the video and the neat Java games and Brew and XHTML-MP and 32 bit OSes like Symbian and location services and insanely high cellular data speeds like UMTS/3G? Aren't these the target markets? Well, yes and no. Yes, this functionality is where the future of mobile apps and services will be heading in the next year or so, but no because the huge variance in support among carriers and manufacturs.

This is the real problem: Finding that common denominator. Once you go from Popular and Practical to the Powerful and Possible, the numbers start to fade. Yes, companies like BlueLava has sold millions of Java games, and yes TextAmerica has 100,000 members, and yes verizon sold 34 million Brew apps in the first six months of the year. But as an app developer and business person, where to put your bets is a real dilema. Java? Right now it's write once, pray, and debug everywhere. MMS interop is pitiful, data services are relatively expensive and varied across carriers and countries, camera phones are super popular but still only represent about 15% of the total phone base. And none of that takes into account capabilities of smart phones either. What seemed a straight forward question, in truth much more chaotic.

Mobile technologies are just all over the board and impossible to predict. What do you do as a developer, target a phone or two, push the envelope and hope the users make the same bet you do? Do you pick a baseline level of functionality, then work like a bastard to make sure that any phone with something like those features works? Do you choose a carrier or two, make a big long list of their phones, figure out a baseline and develop to that? Or do you just develop to the lowest-baseline functionality (SMS and WAP 1.x) that's available now, and then grow with the market.

You can see some carriers choosing that lowest-common-denominator route. The problem is that the guys who bet on the new technologies will already be there by the time you've slowly evolved your product. They literally could have patents in place, or just a user base that has no desire to switch. A that point, you're now just competing based on brands and not on functionality any more. The bet is simple: Can you build enough customers or subscribers in the beginning with your "low-powered" application so that as you add more features you can capitalize on your base. Or do you do an end-run, launch a service which may only work on a small subset of phones, but then use the low-numbers of potential users as a buffer to work out bugs and other details that may be inherent, but not obvious, in that new technology in preparation for when the market catches up to you.

It may seem crazy to be writing all this in 2004, when 625 million new phones are projected to be sold, the vast majority of them with color screens and higher-powered versions of Java. But it's still a very relevant question, especially here in the U.S. where the mobile market isn't nearly as mature as in other places around the world. There's nothing more frustrating than showing someone a neat new app you're working on, but only works on your phone and not theirs. And when I'm asked about the future of Symbian and Brew and MS and Palm and Linux and where to place the bets on the future of mobile functionality, I think that *all* of these platforms are going to be niche players. Some are going to be much larger (Symbian) or smaller (Linux) than others, but the fact is that none of these platforms are going to ever really reach the critical mass that lowly SMS has.

I really believe in smart phones OSes like the Series 60. Having used Symbian daily for well over a year now, I can tell you that it's a mind-changing way to use your mobile phone. Not being able to multi-task on a phone to me now is completely unacceptable. Not being able to browse the regular web, play 3D games, check email, take video and connect to IM/chat when I want are no longer features that I can overlook. Seriously. And I'm positive that as these phones get into more hands and mobile users become more sophisticated, they will feel the same.

But even though I feel strongly about that, the future is far from certain because there's so many roads to arrive to that destination. J2ME phones are packing more and more power into them every day, and more and more JSRs are opening up the native functionality. Seeing the 3D tennis game on the K700i makes everyone's jaw drop and really shows how powerful mobile Java can be. But then there's Symbian and S60: Honestly, there's not a Java app I use regularly on my phone - they're all native apps I use because right now they have a better feel, more responsive and in general more powerful than their J2ME equivalents. Will this change, or will native apps always be better? If so, which smart phone OS will win the battle? Will Symbian hold on to its lead? Will Microsoft make inroads, will Linux surprise us all or will Brew become the defacto CDMA standard base? All of these questions are impossible to guess. So yes, I see increased functionality on the handset as a definite. But what the most popular way of getting that functionality will turn out to be is *still* up for grabs in my mind.

So back to my main point. Reconciling the proper future strategy knowing what's Possible now (3G networking), what's Powerful (my Series 60 phone), what's Practical (WAP 1.x) and what's Popular (SMS Messaging) is incredibly difficult. There's got to be a tipping point where Powerful or Possible technologies become the Practical day-to-day items. I think camera phones are just about there, don't you? People have them and are using them. That's a good start, but what's next? When is that point of no return when we can forget about 160 characters forever? It seems to me that might be a long ways away, as they haven't *stopped* making text-enabled handsets yet, so even though the numbers of other technologies is getting bigger, SMS support will always be even bigger still. It makes divining the future all the more muddy.

*Yawn*, okay, time for bed. Maybe I should start playing poker, the odds might be easier to guess there. :-)


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