Thursday, August 25, 2011

Good bye, Hello, Good bye

In the last few weeks we have seen three major events happen with three of the most powerful corporations in digital information appliances (we used to call them PC's).

Many may miss the rationale for Google's purchase of Motorola. It has to be understood that Motorola has struggled since their heyday with the Razr. They were never able to make a killer followup product with the same kind of iconic styling. It was a breakthrough product that was quickly copied, just as the iPad is being copied now. Their Android handsets were pretty good, and had some name recognition (Droid), but it wasn't the industry dominating device - because the market was flooded with Android handsets.

The assumption is that Google simply wants to be Apple - build the whole ecosystem of device/service. They would make killer smart phones and tablets, tie it to their services (aka Chromebook - who actually bought one of those?), sell them cheap, and people will flow to their service.

But Google doesn't have a good history with building great user interfaces or consumer products. GoogleTV was a big mess from day one - an ill-defined product that offered no compelling reasons to buy it - given there were cheaper/better products already available that were more focused and worked better. Logitech can't give them away.

Android itself is a mess. Ask any developer that develops for both the iPhone and Android - which has the better store - which is easier to write for - which one makes the developer more money. There isn't a truly consistent guideline for application UI design, and what is there is was patently lifted from Apple, and then changed a bit (often for the worse). What is worse than plagerism? Ripping off and not even appreciating what has been ripped off - just a cut and paste job. There is a reason why Apple's iPhone only has one button on the front - they designed their smart phone for people who have never had a smart phone - or even a mobile phone at all. Android handsets have lots of buttons, with little cryptic symbols on them. Application user experience is largely hit or miss. The device manufacturers themselves can't even agree on a standard on how a keyboard should be handled in software - developers have to write for more than one handset. Insane.

So....I have no inside knowledge obviously. I don't work for any of these companies. But....if I was Google.....I would be building reference platform devices with nailed down UI's that were damned nice and easy to use. Make developers and handset makers mad who want freedom to design their own user experience. Instead, let the device manufacturers focus on feature sets, form factors and cost. Treat the remnants of Motorola's handset division as a big bundle of patents and expertise.

If Google does get into the handset will be a downward spiral. It isn't in their DNA to build consumer devices. They bought Google Docs, and have done nothing of note with it beyond some modest feature enhancements. It doesn't talk to any of their other services - Picasa, Maps/Earth, etc. They just don't have that vision, although they have had some of the pieces all along.

Instead - I believe the part of the business they really want to emulate is Apple's cloud services and online retail services, which are tied to their handsets. This is the business that is perfect for Google - they can afford to almost give the handsets away - if you will let your handset only work with their services, let them data mine you, etc. You get a rich set of tools and access to media services. This could be very successful.

Moving on - Oh, no HP. You killed your WebOS devices. Shoulda never bought Palm to begin with. Let it die because it deserved to die. Palm was horribly run, and by the time they finally got decent management, they were underfunded and a distant forth or fifth in the smartphone market. WebOS was the equivalent of a Hail Mary Pass - that was almost caught.

If any lesson can be learned from the $99.00 Touchpad frenzy - is that HP had it all wrong. They should give WebOS away. Make it an alternative to Android without the ties to Google. Focus instead on media partnerships - see a trend here? Make nice, affordable devices - and let other companies have at it too (just like Android). WebOS has a pretty interface trapped in underwhelming hardware - but that can be fixed in a jiffy. It is a case of what could have been.

Last - Steve Jobs resigns. This day had to come. He is dying. I heard an analyst say today that Apple now has about three years of products in the pipeline - and that Apple can be thought of as a company that has well programmed robots that will be running out of orders by then. Then - what happens?

The problem with this is that this analyst has been asleep for the last couple of years. The iPhone has been in development for a very long time - some estimate as much as 6 - 7 years. There were many false starts.....but they stuck with it and took a long view. Many companies would have given up.

Around the edges we have seen the rise of people inside of Apple who are talented and bright people, who have left a stamp on what Apple does. Jonathan Ive, Scott Forstall....many more. Apple is awash with talent, and a culture that puts design above everything. It is why the iPhone doesn't suck, and Android handsets do. There is nothing wrong with the technology in an Android handset - and that is all that Android handset owners can talk about - is the features  - but they are often a series of compromises that normally would make sense for a consumer product - but that doesn't wash any more - you can't cut corners - use a slightly lower grade plastic - or make the phone just a little fatter because the skinny batteries cost more. Every extra button is another area of frustration - a lesson Camera manufacturers learned - cheap digital cameras are more automatic and have fewer buttons.....because that is what people want in an inexpensive digital camera. The Sony I have here has a setting that is automatic everything  - and I bet it is where most owners leave it.

Apple and Google are both innovators in their respective areas - and now seems to be a time where their paths will cross. Google has a lot of talent and a culture that others admire. They are a big cloud based data mining and advertising company that would love to get into some new markets. And they will.