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.