Mobile Ends Year With A Whine And A Whimper

Dec 09, 2010 (05:12 AM EST)

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Two sure signs that the mobile industry is taking a break: The major ecosystem players speak at a mobile conference and reveal nothing; and the only interesting announcement comes from a BlueTooth headset manufacturer (not to demean an excellent product evolution). Everyone from HP/Palm to Microsoft to RIM to AT&T and Sprint at The Wall Street Journal's All Things D: Dive Into Mobile event earlier this week equivocated, defended or dodged questions; in that, there was entertainment, and enough winks and nods to help gird for an exciting 2011.

Given the exciting dynamics of 2010, that will be no mean fete. Sprint, Clearwire and Verizon have started lighting up cities with 4G, Apple introduced the iPad and Samsung the Galaxy Tab, while smart phones have become smarter, bigger, faster and more reliable. Entire mobile application industries have arisen. Near Field Communication is . . . well, near.

Apple's iOS and Google's Android are now the mobile platforms to beat, and HP, Microsoft and RIM are jostling to reinvent themselves; Nokia and Symbian, long the leaders, are slip-slliding away, although Nokia has at least one last mobile gasp left.

Next year will be the year of . . . mass 4G introductions, tablet proliferation, mobile collaboration, dual core processors, and a re-emergence of at least one of the following: RIM, Palm, Microsoft.

4G Or Thereabouts

Clearwire and Verizon have started to provide 4G dongles; I've used the former with some success in the Bay area, and at least one person at the All Things D event was successful connecting to Verizon's recently lit LTE network. While T-Mobile has turned what is essentially 3.5G (HSPA+) into its version of 4G, AT&T seems non-commital on the specifics of its 4G plans. Glenn Lurie, the company's Emerging Device President told the audience AT&T was building its HSPA+ network, but still hadn't finished upgrading its backhaul infrastructure.

Unlike Verizon, which announced the cities it would light up and a timeframe for doing so (kicking off with service in 38 cities earlier this week), Lurie would only say that AT&T's 4G would roll out in 2011. He also insisted that customers don't care about 4G and HSPA+, just the ultimate experience.

Lurie, who said he talks to Apple CFO Tim Cooke daily, said that statistics showed marked improvement in AT&T's network; he noted the company's 97 million customers (he also said 93 million, but let's not quibble), a record number of new devices added and a record low in customer churn. He also mentioned that AT&T invested $18.5 billion in its network this year. But after getting spanked by Consumer Reports readers and being last to market with 4G, it's difficult to understand how it spent the $18.5 billion.

Platform Race To Number 3

Google has clearly leapt into the top tier of mobile platforms, and while it still has to address the issue of fragmentation, it is starting now to execute like crazy. Android chief Andy Rubin talked at All Things D about the recently-announced Nexus S, the growth in Android phones (there are 172 different phones across 15 countries now, he said), and how the Android division, if it were broken out as a separate unit, would easily be considered profitable.

Rubin even showed off an unannounced Motorola Android Tablet (bigger than the Samsung Galaxy Tab; almost iPad-like in form factor) he said was powered by a 3D Nvidia dual core processor running Honeycomb, the next version of Android (version 3.0) optimized for tablet form factors. Rubin said that the tablet is a computing experience in which people will immerse themselves. "When is the last time you did that with your laptop?" he asked. He compared today's tablet creation work with how car manufacturers have to make little adjustments to the placement of console functions to make them more natural extensions of the driving experience.

One of the applications he demonstrated on the Motorola tablet was a vector-based version of Google Maps (for Mobile), which not only lets users download and cache more map data, but also traverses maps in more interesting ways, including a more three-dimensional and realistic top-down view. This application will be available before the end of the year, Rubin said.

Rubin took his lumps, especially about how difficult Android has been for the average consumer to use. "I would categorize Android as an early adopter platform," he admitted.

While it may have seemed as if Rubin was on the hot seat as the conference's first speaker, he came off far better than most.

RIM may want to rethink having co-CEO Mike Lazaridis speak at public events. Where most of the audience began listening to Lazaridis concerned about RIM's recent competitive struggles, it left still concerned, but also now confused.

Lazaridis made a baffling distinction between smart phones, super smart phones and Playbooks and seemed to be saying that RIM believes the tablet market is where true mobile computing will happen. Those, he said, need operating platforms like QNX. He also said that as smart phones like the Torch and its offspring gain functionality, they too would require QNX . . . leaving many to wonder what would become of the BlackBerry OS that RIM has touted nearly all year, and which still runs slowly on the underpowered Torch.

Only weeks ago, RIM's other co-CEO Jim Balsillie took the stage at Web 2.0 Summit to talk about how the mobile world would soon be overtaken by web-based mobile applications. Lazaridis never spoke once of this. Someone may want to introduce Lazaridis and Balsillie and get them to co-agree on the company's direction. For a look at what RIM must do in 2011, read here.

HP/Palm's Jon Rubenstein also recently spoke at Web 2.0 Summit, admitting that Palm had lost its way. That confession over with, he talked at All Things D about all of the wonderful things the company put into WebOS 2.0 -- some 50 or more features, like Flash support, Skype support, multitasking, universal search (called Just Type), Synergy and more. WebOS, he said, will be on many devices, like all HP printers. He just wouldn't say which mobile devices. He did say Palm's products would be evolutionary -- in other words, it's not planning to scrap WebOS, and it's clear the OS will power tablet devices in 2011. (For thoughts on Palm's future, read here.)

Microsoft, on the other hand, started from scratch. Google's Andy Rubin made sure the All Things D crowd knew that some Windows Phone 7 code wasn't new at all; that part of the kernel had 20-year-old code. Microsoft's mobile chief, Joe Belfiore owned up to this, and made no apologies for Microsoft's new beginning.

It is still baffling that third-party apps are not privy to the platform's multi-tasking or that developers cannot access native phone features unless they work through device manufacturers or carriers. Belfiore talked incessantly about innovations like making the phone's camera function "above the lock" (in other words, if the phone is locked and you want to take a quick photo to capture a moment, you can do so in one click). That's fantastic, but that can't be the big trick.

Belifiore said that Microsoft's mobile offerings had been good at productivity, but not lifestyle, and that Windows Phone 7 is trying now to bridge that gap. Leaving out copy/paste is, then, an almost symbolic omission.

(By the way, Joe Belifiore and Rod Stewart separated at birth?)

In the battle for number three, then, the company who wins will be the one least screwed up.

Surprising Innovation From Surprising Players

Surprisingly, traditional audio companies delivered the innovation at All Things D. Plantronics demonstrated a nifty BlueTooth head set called the Voyager Pro UC. It has sensors, and knows when it's on your ear and will route the call to the headset when you put it on. Its mobile presence capability will send a "busy" message to Skype or Microsoft Communicator when it knows you're on a mobile call; it also works with VoIP calls. And when you're listening to a podcast and remove the headset, it will pause the podcast.

Plantronics Bluetooth Voyager Pro UC
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Plantronics Bluetooth Voyager Pro UC

Voyager Pro UC includes "whisper alerts." This is for when you rudely carry on an in-person conversation with your headset on; but in this case, perhaps you're waiting for an important message, so it whispers an e-mail sender address and subject line into the earpiece for those contacts you directly specify. The company will be demonstrating these more widely at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January. (What's next? Whispered Tweets and Facebook Status updates?)

Jawbone Thoughts
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Jawbone Thoughts

Jawbone also demonstrated a new product, called Thoughts, available for the iPhone starting December 9. It's a little bit like audio instant messaging: dictate a voice memo and send it to people in your network, including groups. It can work within the Thoughts application, or even with recipients not using Thoughts. It will work with or without a headset, but the company says it is integrated with Jawbone's devices. You can watch a demo here.

Finally, RealNetworks demonstrated Unifi (it will also showcase this new technology at CES next month). Unifi is one of the most elegant personal cloud services I've seen. It backs up, syncs and manages all your media (music, photos, videos and documents) across all your devices (PCs, Macs, Android and iPhone in the first quarter of 2011, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7 in the second quarter).

It does this by cataloging everything, but it doesn't automatically pull it all up to the cloud -- until you need it, say, on another device. You can even queue data for cloud upload at a later time. Essentially from any device you can browse all of of the data on all supported devices without really knowing (or having to care) what device it's on or if it's in the cloud.

RealNetworks said that its "librarian" feature will work in the background, polling for updates every five minutes; and in the future, it will even do things like transcoding media types. Pricing is based on storage use; there will be a free, limited-use version as well.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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