Google’s operating system for cellphones has overtaken Nokia’s Symbian system as the market leader, ending the Finnish company’s long reign, a British research firm said Monday.
The bad news just keeps on going for Nokia. It’ll be most interesting to see what they’ll announce at their press event next week on the 11th, but unless it’s a stellar strategy with some great partners, the next revolution won’t be a Nokia one.
“The beauty of Android is that it's completely open,” said Marcelo Claure, CEO of Brightstar, a global mobile phone distributor. “All the equipment manufacturer has to do is slap a skin on top of it and market the phone.”
Because all really great user interfaces are just “skins” on top of a framework.
Remember when Microsoft used to do this with Xbox 360 sales?
In early December, Samsung announced it had sold 1 million, declaring that sales were going “faster than expected.” Then, in early January, Samsung announced sales of 2 million.
But during the company’s quarterly earnings call on Friday, a Samsung executive revealed those figures don’t represent actual sales to consumers. Instead, they are the number of Galaxy Tab devices that Samsung has shipped to wireless companies and retailers around the world since product’s formal introduction in late September.
Korea, start your copiers.
Anecdotal Evidence Spells Epic Doom for Android; iPhone to Win World Championship of Everything
A little while ago I conducted two polls among my Twitter followers, asking the same question—what their phone model, operating system and carrier is—but separating my U.S. followers from the non-U.S. ones. It was by no means intended as valuable research data, as I knew up front that my audience is a largely iPhone-centric one, and in no way representative of the public at large.
The only demographic I feel is represented well among my audience is that of cutting-edge web designers & developers. I had responses coming from just as many household names in this industry as from people I’ve never heard of, but exploring those respondents’ Twitter bios it became clear that almost all of them are heavily into designing/building modern websites and applications (native and web). They are also very often early adopters when it comes to electronics—even if only because of the nature of their work requiring them to.
It’s safe to assume that such an audience has high expectations of the User Experience of the products they use, which explains why the vast majority (85–90%) of all respondents use either an iPhone or an Android phone. Blackberries were represented better in the non-U.S. crowd (8%) than in the U.S. one (2%), which actually surprised me a bit, especially considering that Android was also better represented amongst non-U.S. responders (18% vs. 16%).
iPhone users took 67% of non-U.S. responders versus 74% in the U.S.; Windows Mobile scored 3% in each, and the spoils were split between WebOS, Maemo and Symbian.
A lot of recent discussions online surround the impact the iPhone will have on competing phones and phone platforms now that it’s about to launch on Verizon, marking it the first time iPhones are available on two carriers in the U.S. But the anecdotal evidence from my polls suggests that carrier choice is far from a major factor. I think that it’ll matter more that the iPhone will be available in over 2200 Verizon stores across the U.S. than the fact that the logo on the store says Verizon. Now, I don’t mean to dismiss the latter aspect—Marco Arment’s remark about it being “iPhone versus Verizon” among regular people, rather than iPhone versus Android, holds quite true in my own experience—but I suspect that the iPhone has so much stronger brand awareness and selling power among non-tech people that it affects buying patterns more than people’s reluctance to switch away from Verizon.
Anecdotal evidence #2:
My friend Erika from California had major iPhone lust since the day it was announced, but AT&T has horrible service in both her own and her parents' home area. Also, they were on a Verizon Family Plan which got them much cheaper deals across the whole family. She stuck with Verizon and was somewhat satiated that Christmas by an iPod touch. Still, three years later she went and bought an iPhone anyway, being unsatisfied with the LG enV phone she had before it. AT&T is still no better in her area, but Erika knows she’s moving in a not-distant future. The iPhone eventually won over despite the Verizon argument.
This example supports both Marco’s claim of it having been iPhone-vs-Verizon, as well as my own claim that the iPhone has such strong selling power and brand awareness that it matters even more than the iPhone-or-Verizon determination.
This makes sense: there is only one iPhone to think and talk about: the iPhone. Period. That’s not true at all for Android, which is spread so thinly across a plethora of devices that its independent brand awareness exists almost entirely among geeks. It also doesn’t help that Android is “open” and thus sports various different operating systems across its devices. The marketing of Android devices rarely even mentions Android itself, which means that each individual device is competing with the iPhone on its own terms, and not so much all Android devices together. That may be true in sales, but it’s not true in consumer’s minds.
Anecdotal evidence #3:
Last week I asked my mom how many people at her office—the town’s had an iPhone, that she knew of. Three people, she said. And how many an Android phone? “What's that?” I told her it was a different kind of smartphone. “Oh, what [my dad] has?” No, well, sort of. My dad has a Blackberry.
After I elaborated further, she did recall reading something about Google “getting a telephone license?” but she'd not heard of or knew anyone in particular who had an Android phone, or even just a non-iPhone smartphone other than my dad.
This is in the Netherlands, where the iPhone is available on multiple carriers, but consumers are very cost-conservative. The Dutch don’t grok the value of design when it comes to hardware or software. For a country so rich in artistic and creative history, it is a remarkable contrast to see the price of a product have a significantly greater influence on the buying behavior of its citizens. The tide is slowly turning as people, one by one, are realizing not only that Apple’s products are just plain easier to use than most of their competitors’ products, but that this ease of use actually has value and offsets a slightly higher purchase price. This trend has been going on in many Western countries for a while, but is only just now emerging in the Netherlands. That bodes well for Apple, and not so well for Android.
Anecdotal evidence #4:
Finally, the usability of Android. Chris, the non-geek founder of a company I worked for several years ago, was recently in need of a new phone. The CTO and SysAdmin at the company both have Android phones; the two other employees with a smartphone have iPhones. The question of “what phone should I get?” was thus answered with votes spread equally between platforms. Being co-founder, the CTO wound up helping Chris to an Android phone. Already on day one, the usability gap for non-techies became clear, with lots of “how do I…” questions answered by the iPhone users which turned out to require a lot more steps (and complexity) on the Android device.
The iPhone’s “Just do [x]” is rarely “just” on Android. But more on that another time, when I lament Android’s greatest problem: the menu button.
But what does it all mean, Basil?
Absolutely nothing. Just like the title of this post, and just like the analysis of countless of websites, blog posts and “analyst reports” that use similar phrasings. There isn’t going to be any device that is “the iPhone killer” (same for the iPad), and the iPhone is not the holy grail of consumer electronics either. Both of these platforms are selling really well, doing really well with consumers, and have a very healthy eco-system built around them.
However, the same cannot be said about Windows Phone 7 (yet?), and unless RIM and Nokia change course dramatically, even less so for Blackberry, Symbian and Maemo. WebOS may have a future if HP/alm’s upcoming tablet is a runaway hit, but I’ll await their February 9 event before making any comments on that either way.
The main reason I wrote all this is because I am tired of the extremes in language. It seems these days that the larger the publication is, the crazier their message has to be. Turns out, there’s remarkably little “killing” happening among consumer electronics. Change is constant, and great products slowly but surely will phase out all mediocre and bad ones. No single product is so much better than all others of its kind that the very vast majority of people will buy it. Meaning, a lot of these (competing) devices that we see are here to stay. That has a huge impact for my audience, a.k.a. you, dear reader, because it affects what we can do and have to do as we design and build interfaces for the Web and native apps. More on that another time, too.
But to not leave you in the dark on all this industry stuff, here are some suggested sites: for great industry analysis on electronics, read Asymco. For best-available news reporting on all things gadget-related, read Engadget. For Apple– or Apple-competitors related news, or just plain interesting things, read Daring Fireball. If something truly worthwhile ever gets written by PC Magazine, Fast Company, ZD Net or any similar large publication, it will be linked to by one of these sites. The scarsity of links to them on any given day should tell you that a lot of their stuff isn’t really all that good anymore.
And that’s a whole topic in and of itself.
I use the word “plethora” consciously, because I truly feel the number of different Android phones is not “many,” but rather “too many.” ↵
I’ve been a steady Quicksilver user since getting my first Mac, so I was sad when development on it ended and the project was essentially left for dead. I’d tried alternatives such as LaunchBar, but they never satisfied my needs. When Mac OS X Snow Leopard came out, breaking some aspects of Quicksilver, I went looking for alternatives again, but again to no avail. Also, don’t even mention Spotlight.
Enter Alfred. This new app has the same speed, power, performance and usability I’ve come to rely on so heavily with Quicksilver, while adding several improvements. It’s still in beta and thus misses some features compared to Quicksilver—like Address Book integration—but those are reportedly coming soon. The most crucial thing for me was my first use of it: I’d forgotten I quit Quicksilver and launched Alfred, and for the first two uses of it I didn’t even notice. And after that, I started using it in ways I couldn’t with Quicksilver.
If you’re a Quicksilver holdout like myself, I encourage you to give this app a try. It probably won’t appeal much to the Launchbar fans, but I honestly think that Alfred will permanently replace Quicksilver for me, at long last.
What adds injury to insult is that Toshiba calls their promotional site an “interesting place” on the Internet, and then pompously finishes with their marketing slogan: “Leading Innovation.”
I’ve already vented some of my frustration on twitter (no, really, I have), but thought I’d take a few more words to describe why this has bothered me so much. Three main reasons:
1. The hypocrisy
I get that a marketing slogan is just that: a piece of marketing. But Toshiba’s “Leading Innovation” is now so antithetical to their accomplishments in technology that it makes you wonder if they really believe any of that themselves anymore. “Pursuing Innovation,” while useless as marketing copy, is at least somewhat applicable.
Toshiba have attempted to do something worthwhile in the tablet space for many, many years—never without more than a modicum of success. For instance, in the past decade I’ve known only three people who have had or expressed desire for a Toshiba Tablet PC. I had more people express such desires for the iPad just the day it was announced. Now that’s just a purely unscientific, anecdotal example of course, but sales statistics reveal very similarevidence.
But the hypocrisy isn’t even remotely as annoying as:
2. The bad use of Flash through and through
I’m probably known fairly well for my general dislike towards Flash, though I find it incorrect and inappropriate to say I am “anti-Flash” in a sweeping generalization. It’s not that I am against Flash at all times, it’s just that I am against bad use of Flash at all times. The sad reality is simply that most use of Flash on the Web is bad.
Toshiba’s Tablet website is another shining example of this bad use of Flash. It is completely exclusive—meaning, if you don’t have Flash installed, you’re out of luck and are unable to access any content. Minus 1 point for accessibility. Then, even if you do have Flash, you cannot navigate the site using the keyboard. Another -1 for accessibility. Want to select some text from the site? Well, you can’t. Another -1 for accessibility. I could go on, but the point is made. If this is what constitutes an “interesting place” on the web, then count me in the “square and boring” standards camp.
It’s all downright insulting. Even the All Things D headline labels it as such. You may disagree with Apple’s walled garden ideology, or its “anti-tinkering” direction, but it takes a twisted view of reality to describe Apple’s marketing of its products as insulting. I don’t know what kind of customers Toshiba hopes to attract, but I don’t think this kind of attitude will help them either way.
I wish Toshiba good luck selling their tablet with “long battery life” (without mentioning what that actually means) and no known price or release date, because based on what I’m seeing from them, they’re not even really competing with the iPad in any way. Instead, they’re competing with the 44 other tablets shown at CES. And among that mix, Toshiba’s tablet has very few differentiating factors.
Dan Benjamin and I talk about the life and culture at Apple, Google, the Experience Disparity of the Android Platform, and more on 5by5 Studios’ The Daily Edition. If you enjoy this talk and would like more such discussions, please let Dan and myself know via Twitter. I’m thinking of trying to make this a weekly thing, if there’s enough interest in it.
2010 was a big year for Modernizr, culminating with being awarded Open Source Application of the Year at the .net Awards. But 2011 is going to be big for Modernizr, starting with a beta of Modernizr 2.0 allowing you to customize your own download. Check it out.
Yesterday, Google set the modern web design & development world on edge by announcing that they are dropping support for H.264 from Chrome. I’ll next elaborate on what H.264 is; if you’re well familiar with the details already, skip to the heading “What this means.”
H.264, for the uninitiated, is one of three main web video codec standards (technology used to compress video to make it usable on the Internet), the other two being Ogg/Theora and Google’s own initiative, the brand-new WebM. Unlike the latter two, H.264 is not “open” in that it is patent-encumbered and comes with licensing fees depending on how you distribute it. If you’re any bit serious about distributing video on the Web using the H.264 codec, you’ll likely have to pay some fees.
The organization you pay those fees to is MPEG LA, and represents a huge pool of companies that all contributed technologies, innovations and patents (or patent rights) to make H.264 a video codec standard. All the fees you pay to MPEG LA get distributed amongst all those companies, based on how much they contributed respectively to the codec. All in all, a messy, entangled situation, one which your average video-enthusiastic individual really doesn’t want to get involved in.
Contrast that to “free” web video codecs like Ogg/Theora and WebM whereby the video-enthusiast doesn’t have to worry about a thing… so far. There are lingering concerns—mostly among bigger companies—that the MPEG LA/H.264 license pool of companies will go after someone making a good chunk of money using Ogg/Theora or WebM. Until we see Google stating on the record that they will shield any company using WebM from patent litigation, this concern remains valid to some extent.
What this means
So what does this mean for you? The answer obviously depends on what you are: are you only a web video consumer, or (also) a web video producer? In the first case, you’ll be affected if you browse the web using Chrome as your browser. Thus far, Google has not said that they are removing H.264 support from the Android platform, so this move will only affect Chrome users on desktop computers. Will it affect the newly-released ChromeOS netbook (prototype) that has started shipping to some people last month? Who knows. As for how your browsing experience will be affected remains to be seen, but it’s not going to be better.
Now if you’re a web video producer, this move affects you mostly depending on how ideological you are. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that you have a need to serve video to as many visitors as feasibly possible, e.g. you work for or run a company that doesn’t plan to tell its customers “Screw you, no video for you!” just because they don’t align with you ideologically. This means having to support:
Mobile devices, mostly iOS and Android based ones but probably also Blackberry, webOS and perhaps even Symbian
Modern desktop browsers that have HTML5 Video support
Older desktop browsers that don’t have HTML5 Video
This table shows you which of those support which video codecs once Google drops this change into Chrome:
Note that the desktop browsers listed are the latest releases of each, with Desktop Chrome’s adjusted to represent their announced version wherein H.264 is dropped.
Pre-HTML5 Video support versions of each browser have the H.264-via-Flash fallback support in all cases, and some also support Ogg/Theora.
Flash is expected to support the WebM codec the same way it currently supports H.264, but it is a huge unknown when that support will actually ship.
Android supports WebM as per 2.3, but it’s a software renderer, not a hardware decoder. This has huge repercussions on battery life, hence the “(no HW)” value for it.
So the question to you is: in which codec(s) should you encode your video for the web? Well, that brings us back to how ideological you are. If not very ideological, or if you are too constrained by time, storage and/or money, H.264 allows you to support all devices and browsers with a single encoding. If you charge your visitors for the videos, you’ll have to pay royalty fines, but if you offer the video for free you won’t have to worry about that, ever. Ever? Yes, ever.
However, say you are (quite) ideological, and so you don’t want to force Firefox, Opera and future-Chrome users to use Flash instead of cool native HTML5 Video. In that case, you can choose to encode in either Ogg/Theora or WebM. The main problem with Ogg/Theora: that codec alone will exclude the entire mobile market, as well as IE (and Safari). The main problem with WebM: support for it is extremely minimal right now and for the short-term future as it was only released 8 months ago, and it doesn’t have any hardware decoders in shipping devices (nor in any of the >300 million devices in consumers’ hands already). Those WebM hardware decoders are currently being developed and tested and will be available sometime in Q1 2011, meaning the first consumer devices with these HW decoders will not ship any earlier than Q2 2011. By that time, there will be somewhere upwards of 350 million devices in consumer hands around the world that all have a hardware H.264 decoder in them, offering great video playback performance.
So, this means that if you want to properly support the mobile market and offer them usable, hardware-accelerated video, you will have to use H.264 on top of your ideologically preferred codec. Same if you currently want to support IE in any realistic way.
Furthermore, while WebM is supposed to be patent-free, that has yet to be proven. Google has not made an official statement that it will shield companies from being sued over using WebM, so if you choose to use it and it turns out that WebM does violate some patents somehow, you’re on your own. Good luck.
What this means, other side of the coin
Why did Google make this announcement? Their stated reason is for the sake of “openness” on the web, but that’s a ridiculous claim because they embed the not-open-at-all Flash player inside the browser, and will continue to do so. If openness was such a hugely important thing for them, they never would have embedded Flash in the first place.
It also is not beneficial to its users (directly), because neither WebM nor Ogg/Theora offer a better experience than H.264 and even if they did, how does taking a support feature away help users? It just creates the risk they might encounter some video on the Web that they won’t be able to play back. So this move is directly harmful to consumers, albeit with a small risk.
What does Google have to gain from dropping H.264? Nothing at face value; it’s all to do with preventing H.264 from becoming the de facto standard for “Video on the Web”, not realizing that it already is. Perhaps Google made this move to try and dethrone H.264, but to that end, I have but one question:
Why do it in a way that hurts your users when time itself would sort that out automatically?
I have no vested interest in H.264 at all, and would be perfectly happy to see WebM become the open standard (or codec) for video on the web, but the thing is: not right now. Time will take care of this by itself when hardware decoders for WebM are found in millions of devices and Flash has added support for the WebM codec. Google’s move might put some pressure on this, but I sincerely doubt that pressure was needed: Adobe, Google and the manufacturers all have an interest in a royalty-free video codec and hardware decoders in devices for it. Taking H.264 out of Chrome will hardly speed up that process, if at all, so the only thing I can imagine that they wanted to (and might) accomplish with this move is this: to encourage web video producers to start encoding in WebM today, rather than tomorrow.
If that’s really why they did it, and that’s all it is, then harming users in the process is a poor decision in my opinion. Especially since that very same goal could have been accomplished with just a little waiting.
As a side note, it would be great if MPEG LA would simply open up the licensing terms for H.264 and make it royalty-free forever for 1: browsers to implement it, and 2: people on the Internet to produce & sell video with it. They could still charge license fees for camera manufacturers and software producers that deal with video production, e.g. Final Cut Pro. I’m undecided on manufacturers and H.264 hardware decoder chips. Either way, by opening up H.264 this way, MPEG LA would lose out on some royalties and license fee incomes in the short term, but they would almost guarantee the long-term usefulness of H.264 from which they would at least have some lifetime income. As it is today, H.264 is bound to one day be supplanted by WebM, perhaps after a many-years-long litigation process and some huge settlements, but ultimately it is doomed to die unless they adapt it to be compatible with the spirit of the Web.
“Android shows up on a car, you’re gonna see the same kinds of improvements, the same design philosophy, the same usability improvements, the same new paradigms, new tools… they’re all gonna be a part of that.”
The above quote is by Matias Duarte of Google, in an interview with Engadget at CES, and coincidentally captures a big part of why I’m concerned about Android. Mainly, many of those “same” kind of fundamental design patterns and principles don’t apply equally to all these diverse devices, screens and use cases. The design patterns for a car’s navigational interface are very different to the ones used on a handheld tablet in your living room, and so forth.
Google’s goals with Android seem too Microsoftian to me, with their huge emphasis on “get Android on every device” rather than actually focusing on the end user’s experience and use case(s) first, and seeing how Android can fit in to that second.
Google is building Android not so they can make great mobile devices and sell them to consumers. Rather, they are making them for these two simple reasons: (1) to disrupt Apple’s growing dominance of mobile devices, both so Google doesn’t have to rely on Apple for access to their users and to eliminate their paid-for application model; and (2) so Google can control the mobile industry and thus secure advertising from it.
Read the full post (highly recommended) for more context, but that snippet adequately captures, in a nutshell, what Google’s approach to Android is. The interview with Duarte and the previewed Honeycomb / Android 3.0 platform have, to me, just reinforced this view of Google’s Android plans.
My concerns as outlined above may be of less concern to you or other people, but the problem I see is that these concerns do keep people like myself away from investing time and money to build apps for Android. The experience disparity on that platform is only getting worse, not better, and that keeps me at bay. If I want to build an app and make it a fantastic user experience (or at least try to), knowing the context of the user experience on the platform is crucial to doing so. Knowing that the context of the user experience on a platform is perversely disparate just gives me headaches before I’ve even started building the app.
Duarte later on explains that manufacturers using the Android platform can build on it to make it a more ideal software platform suitable for the device they’re selling it with, which is of course a good thing. That’s kind of ideal for some cases, even. However, as the smartphone segment of the Android space has shown us, some restrictions on this freedom are necessary. Android comes with virtually no restrictions, and that can seriously hamper the user experience. Why? Because left to their own devices (excuse the pun), each individual manufacturer only has their own company’s gain in mind, along with hopefully the user’s overall experience. But clearly, none of them have their competitors’ customers in mind, as evidenced by the disparate button placement on Android (not even getting into the huge problems caused by there being more than one button anyway, but that’s for a later post).
This is not unexpected: Samsung should not have to be mindful of LG, and neither company should have to make some sort of agreement with each other on UI consistency whilst actively competing against each other with what they’re selling to consumers. That’s just two companies; the Android ecosystem comprises dozens. Obviously, all these competing companies won’t be working together with each and every one of them whilst at the same time trying to steal customers from one another. However, Google, with its Android policies and approach, has completely failed to live up to the much-needed role of arbiter in this market.
Amusingly, Microsoft is now doing the right thing and decreeing certain user experience and technological aspects of the Windows Phone 7 platform, to ensure that competing manufacturers don’t fragment the market from a User Experience point of view on their own platform. Perhaps Google will continue in their quest to mimic almost everything Microsoft does, and one day wisen up and enforce a couple of rules for the benefit of the Android platform as a whole. Until then, Android users are guaranteed to suffer through conflicting user experiences if they ever switch to an Android phone from a different manufacturer. And that may just be the least of their hassles.