Mobile is the Future

I read a great article the other day by someone who used to work at Nokia on how the US is so radically different than the rest of the world when it comes to cellular technology. It was really interesting to see how Nokia as a company was driven by research in its own local market, which happened to be a great predictor of how the rest of the world uses mobile phones. What was also really interesting was the impact of SMS on the mobile industry, and more specifically, for carriers in terms of profits. These profits (along with a wildly different geography) also seemed to help with providing better service to carrier customers. For example, no one wanted antenna on their phones because they got in the way of putting it in your pocket. In the US though, an antenna meant better reception and fewer dropped calls. That never happened, so users just assumed the phone always worked.

Articles like this are really interesting as programmer because reinforces the importance gathering data. Nokia’s reel claim to fame in the story is its research. It payed closed attention to its users and acted accordingly. As a result, Nokia sell millions of phones at a really high price all over the world and have customer loyalty. While it is something I’m not very good at, it is a good reminder that being able to gather data can make the difference between tweaking a setting and rewriting an application. A wrong hypothesis can be expensive, and data helps to make better guesses as to what the problem is. It is something I personally want to get better at.

The other theme of the article is the importance of mobile in terms of technology. The author described impact of SMS on the industry, which was enormous. Any company that has a technology focus needs to see the importance of mobile phones as a platform. Also, the platform is not the iPhone. The author made it clear that the iPhone application business model doesn’t work, which is something I have felt for a while now. The numbers just aren’t there. You sell the app for a couple bucks to a million people and you might have made a couple million dollars. But that’s it. There is nothing else to really be done except releasing updates and hope people keep buying it. The problem is that if it gets extremely popular, there is a really good chance Apple will just release its own version and put you out of business. The other tact is to release system services for other companies to use, but again this seems like a bad idea. You’re selling some service to the guy that only make a few million dollars off some application. Some percentage of those sales is pretty weak in terms of revenue and you still have the same problem of Apple simply destroying your business by releasing their own version. Apps just don’t make sense in the long term and doesn’t reflect the rest of the world.

The reason for all this is that defaults rule. SMS changed everything because it was a built-in feature of every phone. There are tons of phones now with data plans, but the reality is that everyone texts. This is not because texts are better than Safari or Twitter, but because interoperability is taken care of. The web flourished because browsers felt the same. The mobile industry gets the same feeling from SMS. The article states that every day users won’t buy apps and after thinking about it a bit, I have to agree. The one thing that could change that would be the iPad. The iPad has the opportunity to change the way people think of computers and it is built completely on the idea of apps.

Before you had a filesystem and there was a disconnect between files and applications. The iPad is destroying that assumption and people seem to appreciate the simplicity. If the new assumption is that applications are the baseline and it is a pattern that naturally works on a phone (which it arguably has), it seems possible that the idea of the app store could become widespread. A person would have their iPad as their computer and their iPhone as their laptop with both synced via the cloud and apps. I don’t know that it will work like that but it could.

The point is that in either case, mobile computing is only getting more important. One interesting side effect is that mobile platforms are only now considering how to handle multiprocessing. This is not even how to mimic threading, but rather how to do two things at once. It is getting solved quickly, but it is interesting because developers have been focused on how to handle the problem of writing apps for more than one processor. It appears it doesn’t matter because while desktops and laptops are getting more cores, people might just stop using them in favor of a different kind of machine. It still means the web and servers are still very important, but we can probably keep punting needing things like functional paradigms in order to handle the multiple processors all our users supposedly will be utilizing in the future.