This is a conversation on the Internet of Things I recorded with my colleague Chris Moore as part of his podcasted lecture series on cyberculture. As interviews go this is quite organic, without a set script of questions and answers, hence the rambling style and side-stories. Among others, I discuss: the Amazon Echo [Alexa], enchanted objects, Mark Weiser and ubiquitous computing, smart clothes, surveillance, AI, technology-induced shifts in perception, speculative futurism, and paradigm shifts.
Prezi from my lecture last week on the battle between Apple and Google for the future of the mobile internet. I am drawing short histories of both companies, and then concentrating on the importance of the mobile internet, and the strategies of both companies for dominating it. I discuss Apple’s closed garden model, and Google’s attempts to keep Android an open system; the short OODA loop of open networks and why this will always be an overwhelming advantage; and the pluses and minuses of both systems in terms of security, user comfort, and freedom.
Prezi from my lecture on the emergence of smartphones and the key battle for the future of the platform between Apple and Android. Some nice stats and infographics thrown in.
The 4th quarter sales figures for the worldwide smart phone market in 2010 just came out and according to Canalysis Google Android is practically destroying the competition. As the graph below illustrates, the Android platform seems to have attained a market leader position with roughly 33% market share globally (to Apple’s 16%). Whatever the current market share, the most impressive figure is the year-on-year growth in the last column – this is just phenomenal growth considering that Android is barely 2 years on the market and has had minuscule advertising compared to the iPhone. The growth generated by the Android clones should be the final proof that open access platforms beat closed gardens, and the impending explosion in Android-based tablets should make these figures even more one-sided.
As I discussed in my last post on cloud computing, Google’s strategic decision to release Android as an open source platform, therefore granting complete hardware freedom to vendors and complete app freedom to geeks, has resulted in something resembling a blitzkrieg on Apple’s Maginot line around the iPhone. Apple’s iThings are still shiny, and they might still release another household appliance masquerading as a computing/communication device, but it seems the droid army has made them irrelevant. Consider:
Google’s Android leapfrogging over iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows – Mercury News on the latest Android sales figures, provided by Gartner market research. Why is this important? In the context of cloud computing the key battle to be waged (correction, the battle is already raging in earnest) is about the platform from which users will access the cloud. At the most basic spec level this platform will have to be mobile, always-on, and malleable enough to allow a near-unlimited number of services running through it. It is this last bit which makes the Android a key development – the platform is open for a theoretically unlimited number of apps and Google has relinquished control over certification. Crucially, the most important actor-network in the app business – the developers – seem to agree:
“The developers tell us they love Android. It’s easier to learn; it takes less time, and one of the complaints we hear quite a bit about is (Apple’s) app certification process as a real thing that costs them time and money”
The key bit not mentioned in the article is that the iPhone had a two-year head-start on Android, and an army of carefully cultivated cultist followers ready to buy anything the company deigns to release. This makes the following graph all the more amazing:
India’s $35 Android 7-inch Tablet to Hit in January – Tom’s Hardware, Engadget on the upcoming release of a dirt-cheap Android-based cloud-tablet-for-the-masses in India. The price tag suggests this is a a heavily-subsidized device (unless they have achieved some mind-boggling economics of scale), which in turn suggests this may be part of a long-term strategy by the Indian government to leapfrog their infrastructure deficiencies. As I’ve already mentioned, governments have two possible ways to deal with those – either invest heavily in the established technology (for example fiber networks), or forget about the established tech and concentrate on the upcoming one. Australia seems hell-bent on going the former way, while India seems to be going with the latter. From the perspective of cloud platforms, this of course is a major win for the Android. An entire generation will be growing up using open source as their main net platform.
The future of the internet. A virtual counter-revolution – The Economist on the developing ‘secret garden’ trend online, and the many possible repercussions for the internet as we know it. The article is long, detailed, and covers everything from censorship and the Great Firewall of China to the Apple app store and net neutrality. Why is this important? Crucially, the article suggests that fragmentation is inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing. When most people spend the majority of their time online on Facebook, and are there entirely of their own volition, it is a bit rich to bemoan the evil corporate takeover of the net. In this context the key issue seems to be not net neutrality but platform openness. The cloud is all about always/everywhere-on access, and while different protocols might still be treated differently depending on the carrier, the connectivity will be there. Given the already-happening fragmentation of common content into fiefdoms (Facebook, Apple app store), the strategic question concerns levels of access and open vs closed platforms in the cloud. In other words, Android vs iPhone.
The web’s new walls. How the threats to the internet’s openness can be averted – An article from The Economist related to the one above but discussing in more detail the issue of net neutrality. Why is this important? Probably one of the key fronts in the battle for cloud dominance will be about access levels and the related price structures. The heated debate around net neutrality is quite superficially based on concerns about content discrimination (access providers censoring content through pricing), while the underlying issue is of course about competing access levels. In other words, about open markets and competition. The article rightly points out that the whole net neutrality debate is actually a distraction based on a misunderstanding of how markets operate (I am sorry to say this is arcane knowledge for most academics). The best example comes from the Apple app store – what good is net neutrality when the user is locked in a walled garden filled only with content blessed by the high priest himself? The last three paragraphs of the article provide a nice summation of the overall argument.
Five billionth device about to plug into Internet – Network World on the explosion of permanently connected mobile devices. According to the author, today there are around 1 billion computers (PC’s, laptops) with regular net connectivity. The remainder of that 5 billion from the title is comprised of mobile devices and all sorts of peripherals such as cameras, TV’s, picture frames, etc. The key development is that the number of networked objects is growing at such an astonishing rate, that fixed-place connectivity (the venerable personal computer in other words) is soon to lose its raison d’etre. Accordingly, the most important developments seem to be in the area of machine-to-machine connectivity.
The next billion geeks: How the mobile internet will transform the BRICI countries – The Economist on the Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia mobile revolution. According to the article, there are 610 million regular internet users and 1.8 billion mobile-phone users in the BRICI market as a whole. Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, due to very poor to non-existent copper/fibre infrastructure in places like India and Indonesia mobiles have leapfrogged the PC as the main internet access interface in these countries. Only 81 million Indians have regular net access through fixed lines, but there are 507 million mobile phone users paying as little as $o.oo6 per minute, and more and more of these mobile users are also starting to surf the net through their phones. These numbers are incredible because they illustrate how a deregulated market based around a new technology can rapidly develop and leapfrog an established technology. This is also interesting in the context of Australia’s national broadband network plans which will eventually deliver a tragically outdated technical solution to a problem which can be solved rapidly as India’s example demonstrates.
How Google is Looking to Cut Apple’s Margin and How the Sell Side of Wall Street Will Enable This Without Sheeple Investor’s Having a Clue – Boombust Blog analyzing the cloud strategies of Google, Apple and Microsoft. Some very interesting analytics of earnings numbers and market share, but above all a clear spelling of the probable long-term strategy of Google with the Android phones/tablets. Google seems to have taken Apple entirely by surprise with its strategy to not only give away Android for free but to make it entirely open-source which in turn makes the platform an instant favorite with every real tech geek out there. This of course means that Google doesn’t have Apple’s fat margins from sales, but on the other hand it allows Google to not only expand rapidly (they have already achieved larger market share then Apple – an astonishing achievement), but to also undercut the future margins of the iPhone. Significantly, Apple has to compete on the software front with Google and its legion of geek volunteers, while simultaneously competing with all the hardware companies out there – HTC, Samsung, Motorolla to name just a few. On both of these fronts Apple is terribly outplayed in terms of innovation cycles – i.e. how fast can it research, release, update new products. Because of its cultist philosophy and total-control business model Apple has been maneuvered by Google into reacting in either of two ways:  cut prices, which will result in lesser margins and less resources for future development, or  break down the cult and open its metaphorical walled garden, which will go against the very core of what Apple and Steve Jobs stand for. Either way leads to doom, and Google has achieved that by completely embracing the open source movement. How is that for ‘Don’t be Evil!’?
Charlie Stross has a great piece on his site commenting Apple’s strategy with the iPad and Steve Jobs’s vicious antipathy towards any cross-platform apps not originating from Apple. Plenty of material to discuss there, but for me the interesting part is  the notion that cloud computing is going to displace the PC in a controlled walled-garden way. By walled-garden I mean a total-control platform like iTunes – or anything else from that nightmarish company for that matter. I suspect that Stross is right, at least when it comes to Apple – their strategy after all is easy to deduce, but I just don’t see how walled-garden platform is going to dominate the cloud-space when you consider the relentless pressure for interoperability applied by a constantly emerging market. One could argue that Microsoft’s success with the PC platform has been solely due to their complete openness to hardware and third-party soft. Google seem to go down a similar path and if anything it is their already developing cloud platform that would probably dominate the early decade of cloud computing. Stross sums it up nicely:
‘Because you won’t have a “computer” in the current sense of the word. You’ll just be surrounded by a swarm of devices that give you access to your data whenever and however you need it.’
Apple’s and their ilk ‘success’ would be to maintain the cult by porting to a cloud platform, but the sheer necessity of total interoperability related to broad market penetration will prevent them from dominating the cloud. Finally, the comparison between Apple and BMW/Mercedes ‘high-end’ cars doesn’t work for me – I see Jobs’s cult as a Saab.
With the iPad openly poised to attack the Kindle in the e-books business, the clash is not only between two major players, but between two astonishingly diverse philosophies. Apple is all about total control, Amazon is all about the long tail. More than that, Apple is all about inserting itself in and enlarging the margin between its customers and their desires – with the omnipresent ‘i’ in front of your pod, pad, computer, mouse, earphones, keyboard, screen, operating system, etc. You shall desire only the iThing. The paradigm for Apple is the top-down guru-led religious cult. Amazon on the other hand is about extending the channel of distribution as far as the customer’s most insignificant desires – they have built that into their core company DNA. You read as a kid a long-forgotten pirate book by Sabatini and suddenly feel the urge to re-read it? Yes, it’s out of print, but not only are we going sell you that book, we can offer you these 5 other books which people like you recently bought. The paradigm here is the Damascus souk. You want a jade necklace? I don’t have them but my cousin’s brother in law knows someone who has, and I will sell it to you for a discount, together with this rose-wood box (you need to keep them somewhere).
So, back to the iPad and Kindle, a recent article in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta describes nicely the situation the publishing business will have to face in the near future. E-books are the future – judging by the massive sales Amazon is doing through the Kindle – but are publishers part of this future? Apple wants to lock in customers and publishers into the cult – no doubt practicing iReading. Publishers would still get their cut, which sure beats not getting anything. Amazon wants to eliminate the publishers altogether and deal directly with authors and readers. One obvious result will be that the barrier to author publishing will fall drastically.
Needless to say, publishers are not too warm for the Amazon future. The best summation of the issue – publisher control over authors, content, and readers – comes from Tim O’Reilly: “They think their customer is the bookstore,” he says. “Publishers never built the infrastructure to respond to customers.”