First, a disclaimer. I use a $20 Samsung as my day-to-day phone. It does text messaging. It has a lame WAP web browser. It makes phone calls. It has a few games. That's about it. I'm a bit of a Luddite around smart phones, for a variety of reasons.
That said, I'm as interested in getting a smart phone device as anyone. I carried a Palm V for years, until it would no longer hold a charge. I'd like to have instant access to my schedule, address book, and time management tools--which are now all online. I miss carrying a tide prediction tool in my pocket to know when there's the right amount of sand to swim our Labs at the local beach.
The mobile landscape is a mess. There's tons of one-off devices, each locked down with a small set of software, and most offering few options for adding new applications beyond what's available through tightly controlled vendor channels. For its entire history, the mobile industry has done its best to control everything, charge for everything, and lock in their customers. But cracks are starting to appear in the armor.
Stephen J. Vaughan-Nickels misses the point in a recent article about the new Google Android phones coming out next month, The Android phone is here! So what?. He writes:
Now, what does Android have to offer that's different [than the iPhone]? Well, it's an open platform and open source so it will be easier for developers to write program for it. But will they?
After all, it all comes down to how many people will actually buy Android-powered phones. If you don't have enough users, it's not worth a developer's time to make applications for them.
The point is that Android may be the first platform ready for prime-time, ready for general non-technical users, that is not locked to a single vendor on either the hardware or telecom level.
You can argue that the Apple iPhone has created a revolutionary platform, and with all the 3rd party applications now available through its store, that anything else is just a Johnny-come-lately to the party. But the Apple iPhone store is successful only because there's no competitor--yet--that is ready for prime time. That changes with the release of Android, and again if/when the OpenMoko project gets its legs, and again if they add cell phone capabilities to the Maemo platform.
The problem with the iPhone is that it hasn't changed a thing about vendor lock-in. There's only one manufacturer for the iPhones, Apple. And there's only one carrier (in each country) for the service--AT&T in the US. While people have hacked the iPhone to use it with other carriers, the new iPhone 3G makes you pay for AT&T anyway. While the iPhone may have provided better access for developers to create new applications than they've had in the past, that's not saying much. And they haven't done a thing to break down the vendor lock-in issues. And developers are chafing at Apple's control over its iPhone store, with many useful applications getting rejected because they compete in some way with Apple's own software, especially if they do a better job. This cartoon expresses the sentiments of many iPhone developers.
To paraphrase Jim Zemlin, Apple is like a 5-star hotel you can never leave.
Most interesting mobile platforms
So what are the alternatives? Skipping the one-off devices like the LG Dare, the T-Mobile Sidekick, the obsolete Palm Treos and the reviled, buggy, Pocket PC phones, there's several platforms to consider, either now or on the horizon:
- Blackberry. Blackberries are still doing quite well, and have quite a bit of power. While they are offered through many carriers, there is still only one manufacturer. I don't know that much about their technology, but if you're writing an application you need to consider them. I do think they're a solid choice for consumers looking for a do-it-all mobile device.
- Apple iPhone. In spite of its anti-developer stance and its extreme vendor lock-in, the iPhone is quite cool and very usable. I won't buy one because of these reasons--I have no interest in supporting the monopolistic practices of Apple--but I can understand why people do, and if you're developing an application, having a good story for the iPhone may get you a bunch of technophile users
- Google Android. While the name on this package is Google, what's new about this effort is the number of vendors participating in the effort. Google created a consortium of a few dozen manufacturers and carriers to create a common standard they could all use. Since Google is behind it, it's particularly well integrated into Google applications--Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, etc. While not all of the stack is open, much more of it is open than the iPhone. Developers will be able to release their own applications. Users can install any application they want, without having to go through a single central store. And while the first device is coming out from T-Mobile, you can get an unlocked phone, and in a very short time, have choices of hardware and carriers all supporting the same platform. Much like the IBM PC overtook the Apple Mac in the 80s by democratizing manufacturer access to the design, I think the iPhone will quickly get eclipsed by a more open standard.
- OpenMoko. I'm an early follower of OpenMoko, watching them for nearly 2 years now. I purchased the first public release the day it was available. It has all the promise of Google, and more, because the entire stack is open. The problem is, they didn't get a solid working stack created before shipping. So for the past 14 months I've had a pretty slick GPS that could sometimes make phone calls but never last longer than 4 hours without a charge. I think they'll eventually eclipse the iPhone, too, though Android will be tougher competition with all of that industry backing. The OpenMoko folks have been making great strides lately, and I'm still hoping my device will be usable as an everyday phone before next year. If they can create a usable enough device for mainstream users, it will become a contender.
- Maemo. Maemo is another Linux-based platform, designed for Nokia Internet tablets and available for their N770/N800/N810 devices. These devices have Wi-Fi, a touch screen, and depending on which, GPS, FM radio, slide-out keyboard, and other niceties. They ship with Skype and standard VoIP clients, you can do video calls on them, and there's a huge developer community making great applications for them. What they don't have is a cell phone connection, though there are rumors they may release one soon.
So what should I buy?
Those are the exciting platforms on the mobile landscape these days. What do I recommend? Depends a bit on what your needs are, but for people who are looking for a cell phone with PDA functionality (appointments, calendar, tasks), mapping, web browsing, and email, here's what I'd suggest today:
- Get a cheap phone and a Nokia N810, and carry two devices. Do you really need your cell phone to do everything? The Internet tablets are small, slick, powerful, and usable, and work great today.
In a month, when the first Android phones hit the market, that might be a great alternative, and slightly cheaper, though the first one won't have a GPS and is missing some other features.
What about developing applications?
By far the most cost effective strategy for making an application to reach the most people, is to simply make it a web application. 4 or the 5 platforms above (all but Blackberry) ship with a web browser. In fact, those 4 all can use the same browser engine, WebKit, which also powers Apple's Safari browser and the new Google Chrome.
Make a web application, and you don't have to choose which device to support, you can support all of them.
What have I missed?
I'm no expert in the mobile space. These are just my observations, based on reading and hearing reviews of various devices and helping clients connect to our email services with them. If I'm overlooking some major area, or you disagree with something I've written, please add a comment!