Saturday, November 10, 2007

Android Will Not Survive Rule #1

There's a lot of talk about Net Neutrality, the concept that networking providers should not throttle or charge differently for accessing different sites of the net, like, say, AT&T deciding that their residential DSL clients will only get Google's search page slower than they get to the search page of AT&T's Internet partner Yahoo, or even never get to Google at all, unless Google pays up, even though Google is already paying its network provider to put its content on the Internet. And then Comcast and Time Warner deciding to make their own deals for who gets preferred access on their pipes. Some people do not take this debate seriously, and think the market should just work it out instead of having the Government mandate that the Internet is the Internet and is too valuable to fracture.

I know what a non-neutral net looks like, where your network provider decides what you get to see and how fast and how it works. I've worked in it. It is why I am considering a change of direction in my career out of mobile. A non-neutral network is what tons and tons of US mobile consumers see on their phones when they start up their mobile browsers, or even their phones themselves. They can't go to the mobile sites they want to because the browser does not allow users to enter a URL so they can only browse sites the operator allows, they can't install new programs unless they are approved by their provider, their phones are locked down so that they have no choice in ringtones or who hosts their pictures except as their operator allows. The network operators, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, et., control their networks, and if I ever make a list of rules of the mobile industry in the US, at the number 1 spot would be "Operators Are Scum".

I am sure they are staffed with nice people, but over all, considering the price and service they deliver, they are scum, with their contracts and horrible customer service and oversubscription and ETFs and crippling of devices. These machines we have in our hands can do so much more than the stupid basic stuff they do now, but it becomes hugely expensive or impossible to do so, because operators would rather keep the market small by getting revenue from every bit of data and having their fingers in every pie, instead of allowing the market to be huge by charging just a reasonable fee for the pipes and not blocking consumers from actually using them. Sure Verizon would be unable to charge a buck or whatever for a subscriber to offload their picture using Bluetooth instead of forcing them to use Verizon's mail solution, but how much more would people pay Verizon in data charges if their users could use new fun services all the time? Say, automatic location-aware Twitter but with pictures, or something new?

(Of course, the nasty little secret here is not that operators couldn't handle the volume of data if all users were actually having this kind of fun. The nasty little secret is that, for a whole host of reasons, operators can't even handle the current amount of voice calls they have actually signed up to handle. Next time your call gets dropped, realize it is not because you entered a dead spot, it could also be because your call got kicked off the cell for a higher priority call like 911, or because, well, the cell tower you were being handed off to as you were driving or walking to a new area simply did not have the empty slots.)

I say this having worked for an operator, Disney Mobile, but we were a 'virtual' operator, a reseller, dependent on the 'real' operator that was managing our pipes. Now, we really did do our own bit of constraining here, after all, we were selling a 'safe' phone service to children. I still remember the Monday morning Product meeting where one of the people managing the browser portal on our service asked if 'The Onion' really should be, as it is called , 'on deck'. In the news section, no less. The look on everyone's face was priceless, 15 people or so looking at each-other with a silent version of What The Fuck? The Director of Product swiftly said no, it should not be on our mobile portal. Then we asked, just to be sure, what the headline was that morning on the mobile version of The Onion. An article about necrophilia. We sold these phones to 9 year-olds. Once again, no. I think the change to our portal was pushed out within minutes of that meeting being over, which is the fastest turn-around to a mobile product I have ever seen.

The explosion of the World Wide Web in the late nineties did give us the Dot Com crash, but even after the party was over it actually had, and still does, create new wealth, government budget surpluses, prosperity, and more access to good and services and information and emotions and news and connections than people have ever had available to them in all social stratas It would not have happened if Time Warner and Comcast would have crippled their networks and made Microsoft cripple their computers like mobile operators do now -- not that they aren't trying, by trying to kill BitTorrent sessions and Trusted Computing and AT&T's latest idea to check everything on its network looking for copyrighted content and then filter it out, and let us hope the people put a stop to it, both as consumers and legislators. But mobile could be even huger and more innovative, and it is not going to happen the way things are now: even the equipment maker with the most clout ever seen globally in the history of mobile telecom, Apple, had to get on bended knee for AT&T and close its machine off. All I can say is thank god it will make AT&T pay through the nose for the privilege, and it seems Apple will open the iPhone for third-party software anyway. But if AT&T decides that people are watching too much YouTube or doing too much chat with their unlimited plans, AT&T will simply throttle that bandwidth on that specific port, if not simply close it down, like T-Mobile did with Real audio and vidoe streaming, and there's nothing a subscriber can do about it, and I doubt Apple has negotiated minimum Quality of Service standards with AT&T either.

This is why I am skeptical of all these mobile software and services start-ups trying to bring new mobile whoo-hah to mobile consumers. First, you ain't getting those applications on the overwhelming amount of phones being sold. Even Windows-based smartphones on operators are often locked-down for new programs and data streams, witness the problems people have with Google Maps or Mobile Opera. Well, as a software maker you can get them installed, but you have to partner with the operator to get them 'on-deck' on the shopping portal where subscribers can shop for programs to install on their phones. This means paying the operator all kinds of fees. And if you want significant coverage, you have to do these partnerships with multiple operators then. The only slam-dunk categories of applications for which this works is games. Now think about start-ups like Plaxo, Yelp, Newsvine; every one having to pay Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T, for the privilege of having their cable & DSL subscribers be able to go to their sites, if not having to outright 'partner' with them, often exclusively. Yet that is exactly where we are in the mobile industry today. The only people mobile services are getting to install their products and viewers and uploaders, at least from the US, are weenies like me who paid 500 bucks for their totally unlocked phones who can install anything they want, and have unlimited data to go with it. That's not many people. The rest they get is people who can browse on their phones were they want -- which also is not everyone -- and thus get mediocre WAP sites to deal with, and lord knows what they can up- or download.

So when a new fabulous mobile start-up calls to recruit me, even if I ovelooked they are all in Silicon Valley, I always go "Eh?" Take the mobile world by storm with your fab new tech? Who is your partner? Did they make you give up 75% of the mobile users just so you could work with them? How deep will they bury you in their shopping catalog? Unless your fabulous innovative service works over SMS. Not MMS, because you will have lost the Apple iPhones right there, and for most people 'picture mail', as MMS gets called, costs a buck or more to send. And if it is SMS, do you have short-code set up yet with all operators? Really?

The mobile service makers have no clout in this market place. This includes Google. I am very happy for them how they announced their new, Open Source, go-play-with-it, operating system for mobile phones, in a huge consortium of 34 businesses. And I want to say nothing than good about it, not just because it is Google, whom I like for everything but their HR department -- future rant forthcoming -- but because a former Nokia colleague seems to be involved with it. Whom I could name-drop (hi David!), but he's taller, nicer, has a sexier foreign accent, and is a better software engineer than me (he could get the whole Symbian thing to work. In fact, he managed to do major architecture in it), so most of the time I do not want any of my friends to know he exists: I can't handle the competition.

I didn't find any major operators in the list of Android partners. It's nice that they already signed up a manufacturer, HTC, but the operators could simply decide not to sell those HTC models running Android, which means they could only be purchased as unlocked on the open market. Adds about $150,- to the what a user would pay for a non-Android phone available through an operator right there, and locks out all of Sprint and Verizon for now. (You can buy a SIM from T-Mobile and get your unlocked GSM phone to work, good luck doing the same on CDMA. Yes, Sprint has announced that they will allow you to unlock your CDMA phone, but did they announe they would let unlocked CDMA phones on their network? )

So, good luck to Google. Good luck to Android. And good luck to me finding a new gig. But now you know why in this corner, when it comes to the mobile industry, and last weeks jubilant ground-breaking announements, and his future...

(moar funny pictures)