January 6, 2013

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Nearly all smartphones today are optimized to do three things for you:

  1. Run apps
  2. Speak to other people
  3. Make you dependent on a phone company

The first two are features. The third is a  bug. In time that bug will be exterminated. Meanwhile it helps to look forward to what will happen with #1 and #2 once they’re liberated from #3.

Both features are personal. That’s key. Our smartphones (or whatever we end up calling them) should be as personal as our clothing, wallets and purses. In other words, they should work as extensions of ourselves.

When this happens, they will have evolved into what Martin Kuppinger calls life management platforms, good for all these things —

— in addition to the stuff already made possible by the zillion apps already out there.

What kinds of smartphones are in the best position to evolve into Life Management Platforms? The short answer is: open ones. The longer answer is: open ones that are already evolving and have high levels of adoption.

Only one platform qualifies, and that’s Android. Here’s what Wikipedia says (as of today) about Android’s open-ended evolutionary position:

Historically, device manufacturers and mobile carriers have typically been unsupportive of third-party firmware development. Manufacturers express concern about improper functioning of devices running unofficial software and the support costs resulting from this.[81] Moreover, modified firmwares such as CyanogenMod sometimes offer features, such as tethering, for which carriers would otherwise charge a premium. As a result, technical obstacles including locked bootloaders and restricted access to root permissions are common in many devices. However, as community-developed software has grown more popular, and following a statement by the Librarian of Congress in the United States that permits the “jailbreaking” of mobile devices,[82] manufacturers and carriers have softened their position regarding third party development, with some, including HTC,[81] Motorola,[83] Samsung[84][85]and Sony Ericsson,[86] providing support and encouraging development. As a result of this, over time the need to circumventhardware restrictions to install unofficial firmware has lessened as an increasing number of devices are shipped with unlocked or unlockable bootloaders, similar to the Nexus series of phones, although usually requiring that users waive their devices’ warranties to do so.[81] However, despite manufacturer acceptance, some carriers in the US still require that phones are locked down.[87]

The unlocking and “hackability” of smartphones and tablets remains a source of tension between the community and industry, with the community arguing that unofficial development is increasingly important given the failure of industry to provide timely updates and/or continued support to their devices.[87]

But the community doesn’t just argue. It moves ahead with implementations. For example, Ubuntu for Android and custom ROMs for Google’s Nexus 7.

The reason there is an aftermarket for Nexus hardware is that Google intended for Android to be open and generative from the start, pointedly saying that Nexus is “unlocked and contract free.” This is why, even though Google does lots of business with mobile phone company operators, it is those operators’ friend only to the degree it helps lead those operators past current customer-entrapment business models and into a future thick with positive economic externalities. Amidst those externalities, phone companies will still enjoy huge built-out infrastructure and other first-mover advantages. They will wake up and smell the infinity.

While Apple deserves huge credit for modeling what a smartphone should do, and how it should work (Steve Jobs was right to see Android as something of a knock-off) the company’s walled-garden remains a monument of feudality. For a window on how that fails, read Barbara Lippert’s Samsung vs. Apple: Losing My Religion in MediaPost. Barbara is an admitted member of the “cult of Cupertino,” and is — along with droves of other Apple serfs — exiting the castle.

Samsung, however, just happens to be (deservedly) the maker of today’s most popular Androids. The Androids that win in the long run will be true life management platforms. Count on it.

For a window on that future, here are the opening paragraphs of  The Customer as a God, my essay in The Wall Street Journal last July:

It’s a Saturday morning in 2022, and you’re trying to decide what to wear to the dinner party you’re throwing that evening. All the clothes hanging in your closet are “smart”—that is, they can tell you when you last wore them, what else you wore them with, and where and when they were last cleaned. Some do this with microchips. Others have tiny printed tags that you can scan on your hand-held device.As you prepare for your guests, you discover that your espresso machine isn’t working and you need another one. So you pull the same hand-held device from your pocket, scan the little square code on the back of the machine, and tell your hand-held, by voice, that this one is broken and you need another one, to rent or buy. An “intentcast” goes out to the marketplace, revealing only what’s required to attract offers. No personal information is revealed, except to vendors with whom you already have a trusted relationship.

Within a minute offers come in, displayed on your device. You compare the offers and pick an espresso machine to rent from a reputable vendor who also can fix your old one. When the replacement arrives, the delivery service scans and picks up the broken machine and transports it to the vendor, who has agreed to your service conditions by committing not to share any of your data with other parties and not to put you on a list for promotional messages. The agreement happened automatically when your intentcast went out and your terms matched up with the vendor’s.

Your hand-held is descended from what they used to call smartphones, and it connects to the rest of the world by whatever ambient connection happens to be available. Providers of commercial Internet connections still make money but not by locking customers into “plans,” which proved, years ago, to be more trouble than they were worth.

The hand-held itself is also uncomplicated. New technologies and devices are still designed by creative inventors, and there are still trade secrets. But prototyping products and refining them now usually involves actual users at every stage, especially in new versions. Manufacturers welcome good feedback and put it to use. New technology not only evolves rapidly, but appropriately. Ease of use is now the rule, not the exception.

OK, now back to the present.

Everything that I just described can be made possible only by the full empowerment of individuals—that is, by making them both independent of controlling organizations and better able to engage with them. Work toward these goals is going on today, inside a new field called VRM, for vendor relationship management. VRM works on the demand side of the marketplace: for you, the customer, rather than for sellers and third parties on the supply side.

It helps that Android is already huge. It will help more when makers of Android devices and apps squash the phone company dependency bug. It will also help that the “little square code” mentioned above already exists. For a pioneering example, see SquareTag.com. For examples of how individuals can program logical connections between other entities in the world, see Kynetx and Iffft. (Kynetx is for developers. Ifttt is for users.)

As for investors, startups and incumbent big companies, it will help to start looking at the world from the perspective of the individual that each of us happens to be. The future is about liberating us, and equipping us with means for managing our lives and our relationships with other entities in the open marketplace. Personal independence and empowerment is what the PC, the Internet and the smartphone have all provided from the start. Trying to rein in that independence and empowerment comes naturally to big companies, and even some startups. But vector of progress to the future has always been along the line of personal freedom and empowerment. Free customers will be more valuable than captive ones. Android’s success is already starting to prove that.