Torn between two ecosystems

Google impressed at last week’s I/O conference. They demoed Android 2.2, “Froyo”, which is already available for Google’s own Nexus One phone. (It’s coming “soon” for carrier-branded handsets like Verizon’s Droid Incredible and Sprint’s EVO.) They showed mSpot, a new service that does a lot of what LaLa.com did before Apple bought it and shut it down: allow people to upload their entire music libraries and then stream them to any Mac, Windows PC or Android handset. The bar, it is raised.

In particular, Froyo is over twice as fast as the previous version of Android (2.1, or “Eclair”), the webkit-based browser—basically Chrome-lite—is faster still, and it supports a fully functional implementation of Adobe’s Flash 10.1, meaning it can display all those web pages where Safari on the iPhone and iPad just show you that silly little blue Lego. Add to that the nearly standard specs for this generation of Android phones—480×800 AMOLED screens, removable batteries, 5MP or better cameras, with flashes, microSD card expansion—and the still expanding Android Marketplace—where you can find office suites like QuickOffice and Documents To Go, EPUB ebook readers, Skype, and well, a functional equivalent to just about anything in the iTunes App Store—and we got ourselves a ball game!

A lot of people compare the iPhone to a phone like the HTC Incredible and just look at the hardware. But the game is really much bigger than that. You’re not buying a phone. You’re buying into an ecosystem. It’s like marrying into a family, and bears just as much forethought and caution. You’re not just looking at an Android-based smartphone. To get the most out of it, you’re going to want to couple it with all the other parts of the Google ecosystem. Gmail for your email and contacts. Google Calendar for your scheduling. Amazon and MSpot for your media. Google bookmarks. Google Chrome as your desktop browser. Google Reader for your RSS feds. I won’t suggest your switch from Twitter to Google Buzz for social networking, but it’s there.

Right now I’m about halfway submerged in the shiny, multicolor Google lifestyle. I do use Gmail, Calendar, Reader. I’ve used Chrome as my default browser. I’ve kept my documents in Google Docs. It wouldn’t be hard at all for me to walk into a Verizon store, plop down a couple of Benjamins—and pay AT&T their Early Termination Fee, since I’ve only been with them just over a year—and walk out with an Incredible. (I’d have to wait to play with it until I got it home, though, since AMOLED screens are nearly useless in sunlight. Hell, even vampires do better these days.) The Android, it calls. Plus, just look at this list of five reasons to be afraid of Apple. Why wouldn’t I want to go all in with a company whose motto is “don’t be evil”?

But Apple. Ah, Apple. There’s a reason the apple features as the symbol of temptation in everything from Genesis to Snow White. Mister Jobs knows him some pretty when he sees it. iPhone owners have a more emotional, visceral connection to their phones than even other smartphone owners. My iPhone 3G is damn near grafted to me, and the iPhone HD due out just two weeks is even more gorgeous.

Where Google preaches open and flexible, do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, Apple tells us not to worry our pretty little heads, they’ll make everything all right. As long as you agree with His Steveness—and why wouldn’t you, he has impeccable taste—you’ll get everything you need.

And Apple, if they do as expected, is set to bring the ecosystem to play too. We—yes, that is a mouse in my pocket—expect Apple to announce more than just the new pretty iPhone HD at WWDC on June 7th. We expect them to announce that email, calendar and contacts syncing components of MobileMe will be free to any iPhone user. We expect them to announced iTunes 10 with the new “iTunes Live” feature to allow syncing your whole iTunes library to Apple’s new ginormous datacenter in North Carolina, from whence you can stream it all to your iPhone HD (and maybe 3GS, but probably not the older, RAM-challenged original iPhone and 3G). Basically, we expect them to at the very least match Google feature for feature. And maybe up the ante with Steve’s “one more thing.”

And it would just as easy for me to fall into the welcoming sleekness of the Apple ecosystem. I already buy my music and movies from iTunes, so why not my books as well? iBooks will be built into iPhone OS4. I could move my calendar, contacts and email into MobileMe. My email address, jeff@kirv.in, already redirects to Gmail, so I’d just have the redirect point to MobileMe instead. Same with iTunes Live. My media collection is in iTunes already, so this is a no-brainer. And from there, I could switch to Safari as my desktop browser so I can sync my bookmarks, and eventually just buy a shiny 27” iMac as my new media center. And hey, at least Apple is the devil I know. Look at this list of five reasons to be afraid of Google.

But wait a minute. I’m supposed to be a Buddhist, also known as “the middle way.” I’m bipolar. I’m a Gemini. I’m a gorram registered Independent. Why can’t I have both?

This is, after all, the true strength of the cloud. And the cloud is bigger than Google. It’s bigger than Apple. I can keep my bookmarks in Xmarks. I can buy my books from Google Editions, which will sell ebooks sans DRM so they can be read anywhere, on anything. I’ll keep buying media from iTunes, because Apple’s just made it so darn easy, and at least the music is DRM-free. I use Firefox as my desktop browser, Thunderbird and Lightning for email and scheduling. Seesmic for social networking, Evernote for random data, Instapaper for saved articles, Dropbox for my files and manuscripts, Bing as my default search engine. And of course, a jailbroken iPhone that has all the features of OS4 on OS 3.13, synced to Google for contacts, email and calendar.

This might not work forever. As the rivalry between Google and Apple heats up, they might not interoperate—a fancy word for “play nice”—as well as they do today. I might be forced into MobileMe if I want to keep push synchronization on my iPhone HD. But for as long as I can, I’m going to avoid going “all in” with any one company. Because really, I’m afraid of them all.

Microsoft out in the cold again

John Gruber has some interesting thoughts about the odd-man-out at Google’s I/O conference this week:

The big loser this week, though, was Microsoft. They’re simply not even part of the game. RIM looms large, as BlackBerrys continue to reign as the best-selling smartphones in the U.S. But Microsoft? They’ve got nothing. No interesting devices, weak sales, and a shrinking user base. Microsoft’s irrelevance is taken for granted.

Google’s competitive focus on the iPhone at I/O was intense and scathing. But it’s Microsoft’s lunch they’re eating. Apple’s and RIM’s game is selling the integrated whole — their own devices, running their own software. Google is playing Microsoft’s game — licensing a platform to many device makers.

Daring Fireball: Post-I/O Thoughts

This is the way I’ve seen the mobile market shaking out for quite some time now. Google’s Android fills precisely the same niche that used to be filled by Windows Mobile, but it does so with New Hawtness that Microsoft just can’t seem to match. The Kin will never be the hit the Sidekick was, because the market is different now and app-based smartphones are the norm, not the exception. Yes, the Kin line is supposed to merge with Windows Phone 7 eventually, but by the time it does, Android 2.2, with all its speed and Flashy goodness will be the norm, if not replaced by Android 2.3 or later. Microsoft is caught between a rock (okay, an Apple) and a hard place (a shiny, cheerfully multicolor hard place). They’ll never have the kind of market share needed to make their $8-15 mobile OS license business model pay off.

So the real question is this. Microsoft can see the writing on the wall. They know mobile is the Next Big Thing, as big a shift in personal computing as the advent of the GUI over command line interfaces. Not participating would be corporate suicide. But what they’re doing with Windows Phone 7 can’t possibly succeed. Google gives Android away for free. They can’t beat free. So what do they do?

Microsoft’s only hope is to merge the Kin, Zune, Xbox Live and Windows Phone 7 into a single platform, and do it now. Release a kick-ass smartphone with Zune and Xbox integration and a ready to go app store this year, before the holiday shopping season. And make it pretty. Oh, so pretty. They can’t compete with Google on price, so they have to compete with Apple on user experience and integration.

(Now might be a good time to sell those shares of MSFT you’re still hanging on to.)

One carrier to rule them all?

From engadget:

Think you’ll have to wait until June 6th for all the Pre surprises to emerge? Think again. A breaking Reuters report has just dropped one of the biggest cellular bombshells of the year: Verizon Wireless, America’s largest mobile operator, will soon be carrying Palm’s Pre. Oh, that’s not enough? No worries — it’ll also be selling a “new version of the touchscreen BlackBerry Storm,” which is obviously the Storm 2 that we’ve been toying around with. The report makes clear that both phones would be cleared for shipment in around six months, which certainly jibes with whispers we’ve heard about Sprint’s mighty short exclusivity period. The news came from the company’s Lowell McAdam, the top executive for the venture of Verizon Communications and Vodafone. To quote: “Over the next six months or so you will see devices like Palm Pre and a second generation Storm.” First Sprint, then AT&T, and now Verizon? T-Mobile, where you at?
[Thanks, E]
Update: Seems Mr. McAdam continued on by noting that VZW would get the Palm Pre “and a cousin.” Hmm, Eos, anyone?

So Verizon is getting the Palm Pre, the Palm Eos, the Blackberry Storm 2 (now without inherently limiting click screen) and we keep hearing rumors from trusted sources about Verizon getting some variant of the iPhone. Probably not just a CDMA version of the 3G, as that would potentially violate their contract with AT&T, but I’ve heard rumors that Verizon may be getting either or both the iPad tablet and the iPhone Mini.

Admittedly, this is all speculation, but I’ve pointed out before that each major US carrier seemed to have a standard bearer smartphone platform. Verizon pushed Blackberry, Sprint had the Pre, AT&T had the iPhone and T-Mobile had the Android G1. Now it seems Verizon might be moving to consolidate everyone else’s marquee phones under their own banner. Anyone got any good Android on Verizon rumors?

Palm Pre is close, but no cigar

Don’t get me wrong. Palm’s keynote at CES was impressive (I wasn’t there, but thanks to liveblogging from gdgt, TreoCentral and cnet, I feel like I was). Palm’s webOS platform and Pre smartphone take the best of the iPhone and Google Android, mix them together and fix all their flaws. It’s an excellent smartphone.

And a year ago, maybe even six months ago, that might have mattered.

The mobile market is crowded and getting more crowded. The line between smartphones and feature phones is blurrier than ever, and might be eradicated entirely if Android fulfills its promise to become the dominant “feature phone” OS. Here in the US, the battle lines are drawn, with each major carrier having a preferred smart platform. Verizon has Blackberry, T-Mobile has Android, AT&T has the iPhone, and now Sprint has the Pre. And even there, Palm is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, hitching their wagon to a carrier that is best known in the last few years for hemorrhaging customers and money alike. The Pre doesn’t even support Wimax.

See, here’s the problem. The Pre doesn’t fit. It’s a great smartphone, but that’s not enough anymore. You have to plug into a whole ecosystem to make it work. Palm’s intent is for the Pre (which comes with Exchange OTA sync out of the box) to plug into anything, and it might work, but it’s a longshot.

I’ll be sticking with Windows Mobile for my smartphone needs at least for another year or so. Because I use Microsoft Office on my other PCs, sync my files with Live Mesh, manage my media with Windows Media Player, email with Exchange, manage my photos with Live Photos, etc. I use a Microsoft smartphone because I’ve already bought in to Microsoft services. And services are coming to drive device selection, not the other way around. And Palm, as cool as their new platform is, doesn’t supply services.

Maybe this is where their partner announcements will pay off. Facebook featured prominently in their keynote, as did Google. But can someone other than Google make a better Android than Android? I wouldn’t put money on it. Palm’s last fight will be a good one, they’ll go down swinging, but the ending is not in doubt.

Google Android kill switch no big deal?

As you may have heard, Google has a “kill switch” feature in Android that allows them to remotely remove software they deem malicious from Android-based cell phones. While some potential end users are up in arms about this feature, the reaction from the developer community has been much more mild.

Some of the application developers for Google’s Android platform said they weren’t aware of a kill switch feature the vendor reportedly has put into its mobile operating system, but they weren’t too surprised either. "We’re not too concerned. We’re not making malicious apps. It should be fine and I totally understand why they’d want to do it," said Jeff Kao, co-founder of Ecorio, a Toronto-based developer.

Google Android Developers Not Surprised By Kill Switch – The Google Channel – IT Channel News And Views by CRN and VARBusiness

Josh Curry and I discussed this on the latest Maximum Geek (Episode 28, just posted), and we came down squarely on opposite sides of the issue. Josh sees it as an abomination, yet another way Google can get corrupted by the power they wield. Personally, I don’t see it as much different from Microsoft’s Malicious Software Removal Tool, which is installed with every copy of Windows that has automatic updates turned on. It gives Google a way to remove software that poses a real danger to phones or networks, but users have to trust that Google will use it only as a means of last resort. Most users and developers seem willing to give Google the benefit of the doubt on this, where the same people were much more alarmed when the secretive and heavy-handed Apple was revealed to have the same feature on the iPhone (it’s probably worth mentioning that while the iPhone kill switch was a secret uncovered by code inspection, Google spilled the beans on the Android kill switch themselves).

Go ahead and read Josh’s take and then let us know where you stand on the issue. Can Google be trusted to use this feature benevolently?