There Is No “i” in Phone

by Dave Michels

What to do if you need a new phone right now. There is really only one choice, and I’m not sure it is a good one. The gap between the Apple iPhone and the competitive offerings continues to grow wider. But what I find really frustrating is that this gap even matters; it shouldn’t.

I am grateful to Apple for changing the cell phone market. But I don’t think Apple’s motivations are in my best interest. I think back to the PC/Mac wars – which are still continuing on an emotional level, but not really from a functional level. Functionally the war ended, and the browser won. I use a PC, it is slightly more practical for my needs, but the reality is I run Office and about 20 browser windows. If I had a Mac, it would be the same. Macs offer a superior experience, but the overall functionality remains comparable. The Netbook’s rapid success provides a great example of the liberation the browser provides.

A friend of mine suggested the Killer-App of the iPhone is true Internet experience; I wish that was the case. It seems the killer-app is the Apple App Store. The iPhone is not the first cell phone to support third party apps (nor was the iPod the first MP3 player). Apple created a groundbreaking device, but restricted it so applications can only be sold/installed via their store. Somehow Apple turned this into a benefit – they censor the applications, take their time approving them, and charge 30% for their “value”. There is no legal way around it. But it doesn’t stop there – consumers are buying App Store apps at an amazing rate, creating multiple millionaires $1 at a time (Soon Apple will be announcing 1 billion app downloads). With each purchase, not only does Apple make money, but the consumer strengthens their commitment to the iPhone platform since their licenses are only valid on current and future iPhones.

I don’t deal with any such “Mozilla Store” or “Internet Explorer Store” or similar concept on my desktop – why should I on my cell phone? Internet apps run mostly within the browser in JAVA – some require Active X. Some new ones require Adobe Air – but few Internet apps require specific hardware or even OS. On the desktop, the browser is the killer-app – why not on the cell phone?

The App Store is a cute model, but I think the end game will more likely be similar to the desktop; a browser based Internet model. There are glimmers of hope. Two weeks ago Google released a new version of Gmail Mail Mobile, but the improvements weren’t the story. Google released the upgrades for iPhone and Android devices – and did so through the browser; bypassing the Apple App Store. Google created a web application built and distributed through the web/browser instead of the store. Just like Mom and Dad do on their desktops. This will liberate both the software developers and the users from the “value-add” chokehold of the App Store.

The iPhones and Android phone utilize a web technology called Canvas. Similar in concept to Adobe Flash, it allows developers to create graphics in their programs similar in quality to Adobe Flash. Canvas is part of the HTML 5 standard (in process) which also enables offline storage similar to Google Gears. Ironically, both Chrome and Safari use the same framework for their browsers, so Google and Apple together will likely continue to be the driving force in the mobile Internet. Plus net chatter suggests Android may be a popular platform in a variety of consumer electronics (in 2010).

The Android team recently released the 1.5 SDK which offers a glimpse of what may be. For example the AppWidget framework allows for third party widgets to be dropped into the home screen. There are also new APIs for new features such as live folders, speech recognition, and video recording.

But today, the model is the Apple App Store. Rim now has one, Google now has one, Nokia now has one (Ovi), and Microsoft is working on one. Each one incompatible with the others – a recipe that ensures Apple will continue to win as they are the smart phone leader. When developers have to choose and prioritize the iPhone wins.

Our wireless market is feudal. We have incompatible carriers and frequencies with incompatible phones and exclusive handset agreements resulting with enormous inefficiencies. As the mobile Internet takes the pole position in tele-tech innovation, we force developers and consumers alike to make commitments based on artificial criteria. Internet based applications should not lock you into a carrier or hardware brand. The web based model is far superior and evidently coming.

If I had to buy a new phone now, it would be an iPhone. But two years is eternity in this industry, so I continue to wait for a 2nd generation Android as I am partial to their architecture. But my current WM6 phone is getting tired.