Post Open Android Asset Check

As you’ve no doubt heard by now Google has been making moves behind the scenes recently to constrain Android development to changes that it approves. This is no doubt in reaction to the threat that competitors such as Amazon and Facebook may come along and effectively hijack the platform out from under Google. From Google’s perspective this decision makes sense. From the perspective of the hardware makers and others who have bought into the “Android is Open” meme this is terrible news.

With that as a background let’s do an asset check on the players in the field:

Apple. They’re laughing. Honestly, probably literally laughing at this news. They own their own hardware stack and they own their own software stack and as Matt Drance pointed out in his brilliant inaugural Apple Outsider piece — Apple loves to control its own destiny.

Google. They’re feeling defensive. They set out to make an open platform and I’d bet they’re feeling the sting of all that rhetoric coming back to bite them in the ass. Of Google executives John Gruber writes, “Andy Rubin, Vic Gundotra, Eric Schmidt: shameless, lying hypocrites, all of them.”. I think that’s too harsh. It implies a premeditation I’m not sure is obvious from the facts. I think they’ve ended up throwing out their (they claim) principled stand on being open once it was apparent it wasn’t going to be totally in their benefit. It certainly calls into question their trustworthiness but I don’t think, in this case, that malice trumps stupidity or self-preservation.

HTC, Samsung, LG, et al. They’re pissed. They own their own hardware stack but do not control their software stacks. This turns them into commodity vendors that will be played against each other in order to gain the favour of their software platform provider. They’ve become the Dell, HP and friends of the smart-phone space. Google now wants to make each of them its bitch. If they’ve got any sense tonight their execs are having a stiff drink and re-watching Oz.

Microsoft. They’re laughing. They’re probably actually quite giddy right now because this means that Windows Phone 7 will be on a more even footing with Android in terms of licensing. If Microsoft can manage their relationships with hardware suppliers better than Google can then they stand to gain some real traction. This plays in Microsoft’s favour — they’ve been managing relationships with hardware vendors for decades, albeit often abusively. Still, experience counts for something.

Nokia. I don’t think anyone at Nokia laughs much anymore. I’d guess they likely feel relieved. They took a lot of heat for electing to go with Windows Phone 7 just a few months ago and now that decision doesn’t appear quite so suspect. Perhaps they are still a commodity hardware vendor for Microsoft but you can bet they’re the preferred commodity hardware vendor. If, say, Facebook cut a deal with Microsoft for Windows Phone 7 customization then Nokia is in a good place to be the hardware partner there.

RIM. Despite being laughed at constantly today, RIM laughs too. They own their own hardware stack and they own their own software stack and as I pointed out previously — they are maintaining control over their own destiny. Which they’re doing like a drunken sailor on three day shore-leave but, still, that “2 CEOs & 4 Eva” tattoo is their choice.

It seems I’ve adopted RIM as the player I’m going to stick up for. Whether that’s because I’m Canadian or because I’m a contrarian I’m unsure but I do feel more positive about them than pretty much anyone else I see commenting on the situation. When I first expressed my thoughts on RIM my argument was essentially the following: they were caught flatfooted by iPhone and they know it; they are talking to remain relevant in the eyes of their major purchasers; they are buying or adopting technologies they believe will give them a better footing in the future; they are doing so without ceding control over their own destiny through adopting a third party software stack. I predicted their end game would be a controlled exit from the smart-phone and tablet space and I suggested that they were looking for ways to gracefully cede that space to Apple while squeezing a few more bucks out of it.

Since I wrote that piece in early January there have been more changes. First, the news came out that it appears that RIM is turning away from the smart-phone market. Also, RIM has said even more dumb things. The latest news is that they’ll be throwing in a Java runtime atop their PlayBook OS in order to support running Android apps. Their waffling, obvious lack of a vision for the PlayBook product and the fact that they’ve got two CEOs and three COOs are all indicative of a company truly in trouble. Yet today we’ve seen these poorly communicated and arbitrary seeming decisions leave them unaffected directly by news that has changed the fortunes of everyone in the industry other than Apple.

Hey, I hear Facebook and Amazon are looking for platforms to customize. I hear that QNX has (I’ll say this as politely as possible)had a few partners. I hear that RIM makes some pretty good hardware and knows their way around the telecom industry. Oh, and Exchange. And I hear Facebook knows Facebook pretty well. Maybe integrating with Exchange and having their own device and doing Facebook chat over BBM would be something Facebook would be interested in? Who knows?

Obviously, that’s speculative but it’s the sort of thing that you get to walk up to the negotiating table with when you control your own destiny. These other clowns that are taken seriously for a month or so at a time, the “hardware partners” that ship a slightly higher resolution screen with an advance copy of an OS that’ll be available everywhere (though won’t install on most hardware) a few weeks later — they’re of little interest. They have no potential to invent anything and after today that’s just even more obviously true.

I hate to keep referencing the same few articles over and over but Matt Drance points out:

Here are some big takeaways for your next slide deck. RIM has:

Very little cash

Weak Q1 guidance

No clear management structure

No clear product strategy

Drance is not wrong that RIM is in very bad shape and it’s not clear where they’re going. I don’t think they’re clear where they’re going. I do think they’re doing what they can to seize upon whatever opportunities come their way. I believe they’re in a better position than most to do so. I don’t think they need to be rescued, I think they’re up a creek without a paddle but they’re splashing their own way to shore and not taking any help from that creepy looking dude with the camera wearing a Google TV t-shirt.

Regarding Multitouch Multitasking Gestures on iOS 4.3

They’re a bad idea.

If you have an iOS developer account then you can enable multitasking gestures which allow you to quickly move between applications or back out to the Springboard. Neven Mrgan argues that they’re essential. I disagree.

I’ll agree that they’re very helpful, that they provide a natural way to navigate between application contexts and that they’ve made switching between tasks feel less of a mechanical affair (involving, literally, pushing a physical button) and fit more neatly in the mode of the smooth interaction model of the iPad. They’ve even got cute effects when you’re zooming back out to Springboard or if you reach the very last application while swiping sideways.

These gestures are activated by using four or five fingers on the iPad screen at once. Left and right swipes with four fingers change applications to the previous and next applications as visualized in the task switcher along the bottom. A four finger swipe upwards brings up the task switcher while a four finger pinch will shrink the application window back down to nothing while bringing Springboard back up. In a particularly nice effect you can zoom in and out and control Springboard scattering the icons. So, nice work on that, Springboarders.

This all sounds wonderful but I still think they’re a bad idea and shouldn’t ship enabled by default. The problem isn’t that they’re not handy (zing), rather that they break what I feel is one of the key wonders of iPad — it becomes the application that is running. These multitasking gestures add a set of interactions that relate not to what is on the screen but to an abstract higher-level of functionality. The touch screen is now an input into two systems: the application and the operating system. Despite the utility I believe this is a step backwards and certainly a trade off I’d be hesitant to make so early in what will undoubtedly be a long-lived product’s life cycle.

Enabling this functionality for all applications will break a few (indeed, right now this includes Apple’s own brilliant GarageBand) and limit many others. Games, especially, I can imagine being limited by making these a system wide gestures. What about a game where you and a friend grab a bunch of objects and need to slide them into a bin on the left side of the screen? You grab two, she grabs two, you drag left and find yourself task-switching to Mail. Or even just a GarageBand style keyboard UI where sliding up and down will bend the note as you hold the key down?

There are a few possible solutions. First, design your applications around only allowing for an extremely limited set of touch inputs. The hardware on iPad can support up to eleven simultaneous touches. Now, sure, odds are you’ve got about ten fingers but thinking of iOS being limited to iPad size devices is silly. What’s stopping a Cintiq style iOS device a few years down the road? The second solution to enable these multitasking gestures is to allow applications to opt out. For a number of reasons this is an awful idea, not least of which is you’ve added a meta-command layer to the whole operating system except in a few cases where it won’t do what users expect it to do and they’ll need to work out for themselves where it applies and where it doesn’t.

A third solution is less elegant than the current implementation but presents fewer issues. Keep all these multitasking gestures, enable them by default, but require the Home button to be pressed while performing them. Now, obviously, this breaks some of the magic of the gestures in the first place but it has the benefit of telegraphing the input mode change to the user (nothing but the system ever deals with the Home button), doesn’t break any software and doesn’t limit any future designs.

Ultimately I think bezel gestures or some other style of extra hardware support would be a great match for this sort of functionality. I’m just not with Neven on this one. Cementing something nifty now is too limiting for the future, even if it does have a great visceral and natural feeling.

The Value of WWDC

It’s too late, WWDC has sold out in record time. Estimates put it at under ten hours. For the first time ever a friend sent me an SMS to let me know that tickets had gone on sale so that I could make sure I’d get one. On the spectrum of immediacy an SMS is right below a phone call and, even better, I’m less likely to ignore it because I can’t be bothered to talk to that asshole.

WWDC has become very popular. Just like the Mac and iPhone, WWDC is sitting in a spotlight. Remember the halo-effect? No one talks about the halo-effect anymore. The reason is that the halo is too blinding to distinguish these days. We’re staring into the burning singularity of a tech-fetsh-SEOish-gold-mining singularity unlike we’ve seen since the ’80s. Back then the scales were so small that everyone would be staying in the same hotel anyway so there was no need to worry about who was going to stock the minibar. (It’ll be me. SMS me for details)

Attending WWDC has been essential to my integration with the community. Rogue Amoeba, my Mac-Indie alma-matter, first sent me in, I suppose, 2006 or 2005. It’s been long enough that the facts don’t matter but the lasting sentiment does. For years before that I’d longed to attend WWDC (especially when they stuck mice under the chairs at the keynote) but could never justify it financially or with regards to my career. Being invited to join Rogue Amoeba changed that and I was chuffed when I was told they’d be sending me to San Francisco to participate. I had finally left behind my life of working on making a Super-Spy Assassin hang from the ceiling only to strangle someone to death and all my work in making the Star Wars universe more realistic by limiting the number of Wilhelm Screams by balancing them with an equal number of “Wait. What was that?”s. By attending WWDC I had finally made it to the big time — I was ready to bitch about how the baseline of a custom button in some poor bastard’s app was one pixel too low. LOL. What a fucking loser he was!

I never LOL. That was for your benefit, asshole.

That first WWDC I met a lot of people who have become the corner-stones of my involvement in the community. Attending further events has only cemented my appreciation for these individuals. Over the years, despite the brief amount of time spent together, many of us have become good friends.

And therein lies the value behind deciding to spend $1,600 as soon as the opportunity is presented to you. Just, do it. Trite and a re-call of a great advertising campaign? Yes, very true. It’s also good advice.

There’s an old true-ism that is generally accepted that states that, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. That’s garbage or, at least, doesn’t properly capture the abstract-mathematics of the situation. I propose the following:

value = What_YouKnow x Who_YouKnow x Affability.

What_You know ranges from zero to one on the scale of completely understanding the subject. Who_YouKnow ranges from zero to one on the scale of the community (but, some members are of more value, additively, than others). Affability. That seems, mathematically, like it should be a real, and very valid, (between 0 and 1) multiplier to that equation. But I find myself suffering from an utter contempt for anyone having read this far. So – 0.001 Affability for you.

The point, asshole? Lean more. Know more people. The more you know, the more people you meet will respect what you know and the more you will learn from them.

WWDC has sold out. So what? There’s a glut of conferences that address iOS or Mac OS these days. Attend them, buy a ticket, meet interesting people who will change the path of your career. Learn things and meet people — it’s your best shot because we both know you’re the most in-affable person breathing the air our dear God in Heaven has granted us.

love, Guy

(If you’re looking for a link to send me hate mail about that last line — gotcha, you inept asshole)