Electric dreams

Never mind whether androids conjure electric sheep as they sleep, the Google-backed mobile phone platform has inspired some very big dreams indeed. Tech event CES always ensures the year starts off with a bang, drawing a big crowd. But the Informer finds Las Vegas no easier to stomach than its culinary equivalent (a big bowl of refined sugar with half a bottle of gin poured over it), which is the reason he's holed up in snowy London watching the flurry of product announcements as they settle inches deep on the highways of the internet. That and the absence of a travel budget.

January 8, 2010

12 Min Read
Electric dreams

By The Informer

Never mind whether androids conjure electric sheep as they sleep, the Google-backed mobile phone platform has inspired some very big dreams indeed. Tech event CES always ensures the year starts off with a bang, drawing a big crowd. But the Informer finds Las Vegas no easier to stomach than its culinary equivalent (a big bowl of refined sugar with half a bottle of gin poured over it), which is the reason he’s holed up in snowy London watching the flurry of product announcements as they settle inches deep on the highways of the internet. That and the absence of a travel budget.

And a good number of these announcements surround Android. The Open Handset Alliance’s platform certainly seems to be picking up some momentum, and handset manufacturers and operators are so keen to get their hands on it that they’ll let Google get away with pretty much anything. Even if that means the internet outfit set up shop on their turf.

Mountain View’s finest this week announced plans to open up its own consumer sales channel, selling the debut ‘Google phone’ direct to punters. The first Google-branded device, the Nexus One, will be manufactured by Taiwanese Android specialist HTC and features a 3.7″ OLED display, five megapixel camera and a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset. It runs on Android 2.1, the newest version, also known as Eclair, and boasts features like a voice-enabled keyboard allowing users to speak into any text field. (Pedant’s uprising: Once it’s voice-enabled, doesn’t it cease to be a keyboard?) It also comes with a bunch of popular Google applications, including Gmail, Google Voice and Google Maps Navigation.

On its own, the phone retails for a laughing-in-the-face-of-the-economic-downturn $529, or $179 with a T-Mobile USA ‘Even More’ plan (and subsidy), which starts at $39.99 per month. But the only place interested parties can buy the phone is Google’s online store. You can’t purchase it at T-Mobile USA’s site – a marketing decision which has set a few heads scratching, including the Informer’s.

IDC‘s John Delaney takes the question a step or two back: “So let’s say, at least, that this looks like the best Android phone to hit the market so far. That begs an important question: why would Google produce the market’s best Android phone, at the risk of annoying its licensees who are also producing branded Android phones? More generally, why is Google entering the phone business so directly at all?” Delaney said.

The analyst believes that Google sees phones as a means to an end. And that end is to build a large user base for Google’s mobile service offerings; to expose that user base to advertising; and to collect the data its user base generates. In other words, Google wants to be everyone’s starting point when they use the mobile internet.

But that’s what Android was designed to do anyway, with other companies shouldering the burden of handset production. This latest manoeuvre suggests Google feels that existing Android phones are not effective enough in this regard and has resorted to the old maxim that if you want something done, do it yourself. But if Google’s entry into the handset space represents a public raspberry at its licensees’ efforts so far, does it not risk upsetting them? Android leader HTC obviously doesn’t mind, having built the Google device anyway and Delaney reckons Android’s other licensees are sufficiently reliant on the platform to swallow whatever bile Google’s move into the driving seat might cause to rise in them.

If they are annoyed, the main Android licenses are keeping quiet, unlike Isa Dick Hackett, daughter of the late Philip K Dick, acclaimed science fiction writer and author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Hackett, who now seems to be responsible for squeezing as much out of her father’s estate as possible via her production company Electric Shepherd Productions, has been venting spleen in the US press over Google’s use of the moniker Nexus One. She claims the term ‘nexus’ has been lifted from her father’s novel and is a trademark infringement on ‘Nexus 6′, the model number of the renegade androids in the story. In response, and perhaps not unreasonably, Google is claiming to have used the term nexus in its original sense – as a connection or means of connection.

Whether Google’s plans converge on success is another question, and the biggest drawback in the Nexus One announcement is price. At $529, peanuts it ain’t. For its plan to work, Google needs to get as many of these devices into users’ hands as quickly as possible. So the forthcoming announcements from other operators such as Vodafone and Verizon will be key to the venture’s success and it will be interesting to see what future Google-branded devices cost as a standalone purchase.

What future devices look like is anyone’s guess. Back to CES where hardware manufacturer HP unveiled the first smartbook to run the Android operating system. The forthcoming device, which nestles in the, probably very small, space between the smartphone and netbook, uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon QSD8250 chipset platform with integrated Scorpion central processing unit delivering speeds up to 1GHz with a ten inch display.

Smartbooks, which as a niche-within-a-niche were invented last year by Qualcomm, seem popular at present, and earlier this week, electronics firm Lenovo claimed to be first to showcase another Snapdragon-based smartbook running a different flavour of Linux.

Android, meanwhile, also made an appearance on a dual screen e-Reader announced at CES. The Alex (odd name for such a device), made by US-based Spring Design, makes use of Android to provide full-fledged web browsing capabilities, as well as email access and a number of other applications available to the operating system. It also features a 3.5″ colour LCD screen with virtual keyboard as well as a paper-like 6″ EPD screen. Connectivity is provided via wifi, GSM and EVDO/CDMA. The Alex (the name gets odder the more you see it) will go on sale at the end of February for $399 and will later be available in bookstore Borders. Presumably, like the Amazon Kindle, a cellular contract will not be required. Instead the cost of connectivity will be rolled in to the price of downloadable ebooks.

The appearance of such devices is interesting in that it shows that a wireless product can be a revenue generator even if the end-user is not a direct subscriber to the mobile network that serves the device. It opens the door to advertising-supported mobile services and many more business models under which customers can enjoy the benefits of mobile connectivity without having to pay a subscription fee.

Back to handsets though and Motorola has announced another device in its Android line-up in the shape of the Backflip (stupid name but, let’s face it, better than ‘Alex’), which will be available in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia during the first quarter.

Trying hard to differentiate itself, Motorola has given the Backflip a “reverse clamshell design,” which means the phone, when closed, has a QWERTY keyboard on one side, and a screen on the other. Open it up and you can see them at the same time, and use a trackpad on the back side (on the inside when it’s closed), so you can navigate around the touchscreen without getting your fingers in the way of what you’re looking at. You only have to do this, though, if you’re daft enough to buy one. Years ago the Informer heard a Motorola handset executive concede that the firm had a written policy of designing away from proven UI strategies taken to market by sector leaders in a bid to differentiate itself. It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now.

Once again, Motorola has skinned the OS in its own style with the interface known as MotoBlur that focuses on social networking and streams all contacts, posts, messages and photos from sources such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Gmail in once place on the home screen.

Motorola has also been working in conjunction with Adobe, as part of the Open Screen Project, to develop Flash Player 10.1 so it works on Android. Integration of Flash browser extensions in Motorola’s Android devices is expected in the first half of 2010. Motorola said it will be deploying the full Flash Player broadly across its Android product portfolio going forward and will also release Flash Player updates for existing devices such as the Droid once Adobe releases the software.

Flash is increasingly seen as an essential part of the web experience, and Flash Player 10.1 has been designed to work on smartphones, smartbooks and netbooks as well as PCs and other internet-connected devices to extend this experience. Yet its absence has long blighted the iPhone’s spec sheet.

The closest the iPhone will get to Flash is as a native application rather than the in-browser player. Developers will be able to use Flash Professional CS5 to export applications for the iPhone, but this only means they can create standalone applications that can be downloaded from the App Store and not incorporate Flash into websites for display in the iPhone’s Safari browser.

Maybe it’s just coincidence, or maybe it’s a sign of the increasing rivalry between Apple and Google, but on the same day the Nexus One was announced Apple upped its own game on Google’s home turf; advertising.

On Tuesday, Apple confirmed rumours that it has acquired mobile advertising firm Quattro Wireless, something of a competitor to Google-owned Admob. Terms of the deal weren’t released but Apple is thought to have spent in the region of $250m and $275m on the purchase.

The Quattro advertising network offers display advertising, SMS/MMS/shortcodes, rich media, video and custom programs including in-app advertising. The company has its own Q Deliver ad server, Q Elevation targeting platform and Q Analytics analytics engine, which may suggest that Apple has plans to encroach upon Google’s territory in the mobile advertising space.

In another bid to take the shine off the Nexus One announcement Apple was also blowing its trumpet about the fact that more than three billion apps have been downloaded from its App Store in the 18 months since the shop front opened its doors. Android Market and the other app stores have their work cut out for them in order to reach these kinds of numbers.

The explosive growth of mobile subscriptions in the emerging markets might offer some hope here, however. Indian operator Aircel this week tapped up application services firm Infosys to build it an application store catering to Aircel’s almost 30 million mobile subscribers. Infosys will use its white label app store platform Flypp to power the shop front, which will host mobile applications drawn from an Infosys-managed ecosystem of independent software vendors.

But it’s unlikely that the types of applications in Aircel’s store will be anything like those now common to the iPhone and Android app stores, seeing as all of Aircel’s subscribers are still equipped with 2G GSM handsets and generate a monthly ARPU of $2.36 according to Informa’s WCIS database. Instead we can expect to see mobile money and SMS-based m-payment applications, which are already driving data revenues in the emerging markets.

Soldiering on with its attempts to crack the more mature markets this week was US handset vendor Palm, which announced the expansion of its webOS developer programme to Europe. Following the launch of the programme in the US, which has seen about 600 new paid-for apps available for Palm devices in the last two months, the firm is bringing it developer initiative to Europe, starting with the UK, Ireland, Spain and Germany from March. As of the start of 2010, Palm has just over 1,000 applications available in its App Catalogue, which caters to webOS-enabled devices such as the Pre and the Pixi – both of which got an overhaul this week.

Palm has doubled the storage and increased the application processing power on both the Pre and the Pixi, suffixing in the new models with ‘Plus’. That’s all well and good but the most interesting thing about the new models is their ability to act as mobile broadband hotspots allowing up to five wifi-enabled devices to make use of the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus’s 3G connection for backhaul.

This is a concept which seems to be winning interest in the operator community at present, something the Informer finds a little strange given all the recent noise about femtocells and moving traffic off the macro network.

But some carriers seem intent on using wifi-enabled devices to shift traffic on to the macro network, including Palm’s partner Verizon Wireless and rival US provider Sprint, which on Wednesday unveiled a 3G/4G mobile broadband hotspot made by Sierra Wireless.

The Overdrive allows up to five wifi devices to be connected at any one time and backhauls the connection over Sprint/Clearwire’s WiMAX network, defaulting to the provider’s EV-DO network when out of WiMAX coverage.

The WiMAX connectivity is the selling point in this case and Sprint’s not shy about telling users what they can do with that bandwidth, referencing such connection intensive applications as HD movie streaming, mobile TV, music streaming and gaming.

The Overdrive will be available from January 10 for $99.99 after a $50 mail-in-rebate with a two-year service agreement.

Back to Europe now and back to operator basics, where Orange UK is planning to improve the quality of users’ voice calls. The mobile operator has revealed plans to launch High Definition Voice on its mobile network in 2010. HD Voice promises superior sound quality by capturing a greater range of the caller’s voice, the hitch however, is that a new handset will be required.

Now there’s an upgrade proposition if ever the Informer’s heard one. Never mind upgrading to get fancy new data services and apps, how about crystal clear voice. HD Voice uses the WB-AMR (Wideband Adaptive Multi-Rate) speech codec, which benefits from a wider speech bandwidth of 50-7000Hz compared to the current narrowband speech codec of 300-3400Hz. The WB-AMR codec also delivers significantly enhanced sound quality while utilising the same network resources, Orange said, “making it sound as if callers are actually in the same room.”

Orange said it is already working with leading handset manufacturers on the development of devices to be rolled out later this year. The operator said the launch of HD Voice in the UK follows two years of investment in the operator’s mobile network, which has resulted in 3G coverage to more than 93 per cent of the UK’s population.

Far be it from the Informer to burst the Orange bubble but, given the ups and downs the O2 UK network has been experiencing as a result of increased data usage lately, the Informer reckons Orange would be better off concentrating on getting its network to cope with the influx of data traffic first.

Happy New Year,

The Informer

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