The Semiannual Mobile Devices Rant (Updated)

Up Against The Wall

In my audit of my 2009 predictions I’d overlooked that I mistakenly implied that Speed would be the high point of Sandra Bullock’s career. I found out recently that she went on to win both the Oscar for Best Actress and the Razzie for Worst Actress, apparently the first time anyone has won both awards in the same year. While I certainly concede that I was incorrect, I also don’t see how anyone could possibly have seen that one coming.

There’s been a lot of grim news in the portable space since I last mentioned it, and since free software in the portable space is kind of important to me and this is my blog and you’re not the boss of me, let’s review.

The big surprise a few months back was that HP bought Palm for a bucket of money. Which whoa, a billion sounds like kind of a lot, and also briefly a source of optimism as the rumors of a WebOS tablet made the rounds, which to be frank I would buy the hell out of. But then nothing happened, and it turns out nothing is expected to keep happening until sometime in mid-2011 at which point WebOS will have been out of contention for at least a year.

You may if you are familiar with HP’s products find this optimism bewildering but let me explain.

I’ve used this analogy a lot recently, but HP makes the fleet vehicles of the computer world. They make Crown Vics and Impalas; individual humans don’t want or care about them, but corporate purchasing types buy them in batches of 1000 or 100,000 for people who aren’t them to use. And there’s room in the world for that, don’t get me wrong, but that room is a parking garage full of Crown Vics and Impalas and shelves of their spare parts, and unless you’re looking directly at a bottom line with large numbers on it they’re basically impossible to love.

But it’s the strangest thing; if you have an HP PDA in a drawer somewhere, try this: pull it out and turn it on. By modern standards it’ll be a pretty pokey, irritating experience in that eponysterical way WinCE always was, but here’s the thing: modulo a bit of battery life it will almost certainly work exactly as well as it did the first time you turned it on. When they’ve set their minds to it HP can make clunky, kind of inelegant but (provided they’re aiming at businesses, not consumers) absolutely rock-solid portable hardware. And every now and then (some of the later Jornadas, for example) a flower will unexpectedly poke out of the concrete of their keep-the-industrial-in-industrial-design process; despite their unambiguously crappy consumer hardware, despite their horrific website (the worst thing about which being, a friend of mine notes, that the prize at the end of it is HP’s products) there may still be some people working there who remember how to build things that actual humans not only covet, but care about.

And not coincidentally, we’re now on the verge of the time when mobile devices, like desktops and laptops before them, are just getting past the point where line-item hardware features are a discriminating factor and software design, functionality and integration are going to carry the future. The hardware is all just about good enough, so now is a fantastic time to make up your mind and figure out if you’ve got the talent and the resources to compete on software and design. And if Apple has made one thing painfully clear here it’s that tight vertical integration will carry that day and a lot of the days afterward, and if you want to own the user experience you also need to own the OS.

Relatedly, that’s also why you should take HP’s buying Palm as a billion-dollar signal that they thinks Windows Phone 7 is doomed, an albatross they’d rather not have around the company’s neck.

On the other side of that coin Motorola, in an atypically sensible move for them, has looked around and finally come to the (likely painful, for the creators of the once-prized RAZR) realization this isn’t a game they’re good at. They made a decent run at it, and built some pretty good hardware, but somehow despite getting an upgradeable, Marketplace-equipped OS brought to them on a platter, Motorola made some classically Motorola decisions, took Android and added so much value to it that it could barely stand up to call the cops afterward.

I’ve claimed before that this bad behavior was one of Google’s prime motivators for selling unlocked Nexus Ones directly to consumers, but I’m going to take that a step further here and claim (without a ton of supporting evidence) that Google’s selling the Nexus One led directly to Motorola’s decision-slash-realization that they can’t compete in mobile telephony.

Can’t say I’ll miss you, Moto. You guys squandered better opportunities than most companies will ever see.

So their mobile division will get sold to Nokia, or maybe Siemens? Not RIM, who have their hands full with QNX. Sony/Ericsson are all about the not-invented-here-even-it-kills-us, a process that’s moving predictably along, so not them.

LG, maybe? They’re one of the bigger manufacturers of pretty-but-not-all-that-smart phones, and might be looking for a quick in to that market.

Anyhow, the upshot of all this is that if you’re shopping for a phone you should know that Motorola hardware will never do anything more or better than what it does the moment you open the box. Even if it says “Android” on the side they’re working hard (and apparently successfully) at keeping you from upgrading, and won’t be around long enough to change their minds anyway.

But if you’re in the market for a good phone built on free software the options are (as usual, I guess) slim and grim right now. The N900 is still not shipping in quantity, and is still not a great device anyway. Nokia has this glorious five year plan wherein they ship progressively-less-crappy devices year over year until they finally get it close to right sometime in 2012, and that’s been working out as well as you’d think against competition hell-bent on shipping something great this quarter. Worse yet, the latest news out of the Meego (Intel/Nokia) camp is that their open-source efforts are currently hamstrung by their dependence on PowerVR hardware from a patent-licensing company that’s only available under NDA. And Google just stopped selling Nexus Ones, boo-urns. They’ve said they’ll start up again, selling them through retail channels sometime in the future, but they haven’t said when. Maybe we’ll see that in a couple of months with new hardware and a Nexus Two.

Did I mention I was really optimistic about HP and Palm? I really was. Because right now, the short game for a competent open source phone is Intel/Nokia, and unless they can get away from PowerVR and Nokia’s habit of deciding that something not great today is good enough to ship as-is in six months, then that’s that. The long ball is HP, an unlikely maybe, but still enough to hope.

And, really, there’s nobody else.

UPDATES: Three things. First and second, my loyal cult following has hit the ground running, noting that there will in fact be no Nexus Two, and suggesting a possible purchaser for Moto’s stuff that I had overlooked, HTC. To which I reply, “that makes me very sad” and “I don’t understand why they’d do that, what’s in it for them that they don’t already have”, respectively. My loyal cult following rarely disappoints, let me tell you.

Thirdly, and hitting the wires at the same time I was finishing off my little diatribe here, HP announces WebOS 2.0 running on new hardware this year. Which: woo! I’d like a front-facing camera, Skype and a pony.

12 Comments

  1. Posted July 22, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    I have been waiting for probably 1.5 or 2 years to buy a mobile device, and what you’re describing is what I’m feeling. I hate that so many of these companies are not playing to win, and others, having gotten a taste of winning, are hell bent on destroying all other teams. I really want to get one at some point, but it’s less and less clear to me that now is the right time, and who to go with, etc. I hate that feeling, and it is keeping me on the side lines.

  2. Joe
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Sadly, there will be no Nexus Two.

  3. Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    HTC.

  4. Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Given the carriers’ mandate for locked-down hardware, the reality of it is that if you want a genuinely open source phone, one that you can fully use without having to hack anything right out of the box, you’re going to have to buy an Android Dev Phone. (Which used to mean an unlocked G1, but right now is a Nexus One; presumably in the future it’ll be an unlocked HTC of some other variety.)

    This is going to be a small niche market mostly consisting of Android OS developers and a couple of rich open source fanatics (“rich” because unsubsidized phones are ridiculously expensive), and the rest of us will just use HTC phones that are moderately crackable. I think most people really don’t see a lot of benefit to being able to load on custom firmware.

  5. Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Also, I think you’re being optimistic about Palm. They were already struggling, obviously, and then the HP thing stopped everything. Since that deal was announced, there hasn’t been a single .1 release. And given that WebOS is brilliant, but rough around the edges, it needs a lot of .1 releases.

    They’re saying 2.0 comes out “in 2010,” and maybe that’ll finally give the phone the performance boost it badly, badly needs… but it’s certainly not going to draw in people with lots of new capabilities or whatever. It’s just a doomed platform, no matter how nice it is.

    (And also, it’s not really open source despite being very hackable, and I’d be shocked if HP didn’t tighten it up more than it’s historically been.)

  6. mhoye
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Oh, man, forgot about HTC. It’s not exactly clear what they intend to acquire from Motorola that they don’t already have, though.

    Joe: Oh, man. That sucks.

    Koz: When 2.0 comes out, the “performance boost” it will certainly get will from running on completely different hardware. I think you can assume that the Pres and Pixies of the world will be left out in the cold.

  7. Ted Mielczarek
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Suck it up and buy an iPhone.

  8. Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    They haven’t actually announced new hardware. It’d make sense that they’d come out with some — but even if they do, they need major performance improvements to the OS to be competitive. The Pre is already a 3GS-class piece of hardware, but it feels subjectively slower than the iPhone 1G for non-3G things (like scrolling or general responsiveness).

    This should be doable — just look at what’s been done with the Javascript execution engines on browsers in the last 18 months — but they have to actually DO it.

  9. mhoye
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Suck it up and buy an iPhone.

    You can get Firefox on an iPhone now?

  10. Posted July 24, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Firefox as a shell around a Webkit rendering engine, apparently. Which… why?

    Anyway, I still mostly love my Pre, despite its infelicities. It’s a terrible phone, but a great computing device. (Today, for instance, my phone rang. I went to answer it, and it paused, chugged, and then informed me that I had too many cards open and that I should close one before I opened another one. So I couldn’t actually answer my ringing phone. I rebooted it, and now it’s fine again.)

  11. mhoye
    Posted July 25, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Which… why?

    Well, because browser state is a hugely useful thing to be able to carry around, and the only available way for the Mozilla people to let their iPhone userbase carry that state around is via the weave client. I totally understand that.

  12. Posted July 25, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Ah, that makes more sense.