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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The War Of Mobile Platforms: Building Bridges

7:26 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
I closed my last blog (War Of Mobile Platforms) by briefly mentioning cross-platform mobile frameworks. I found that topic interesting and worthy of further investigation, hence this blog. Before we move forward, a disclaimer. I am not a programmer and all my research is based on the websites and articles available on the internet. You can find various good sources of information evaluating cross-platform mobile frameworks that are much technical and detailed in analysis (e.g. here and here). 

The cross-platform frameworks and tools can be divided into two main camps, developer frameworks (for developers) and do-it-yourself services (for users). Needless to say, developer frameworks are very technical in nature and require good knowledge of programming and languages, and hence give you better control over your apps; while DIY services are like simplified step-by-step guides to help non-technical users develop their own apps, trading control for ease of use. 

Developer Frameworks 
There are many mobile development players and frameworks available in the market. I explored a few and found the following three to be the most impressive among them. 

RHOMOBILE 
  • RhoMobile, recently acquired by Motorola Solutions, provides [following] tools and services to develop mobile apps. 
  • Rhodes Platform - A free and open source software (FOSS) platform for developing mobile apps for different smart phones (iPhone, Android, RIM, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7). It is Ruby-based and is open sourced under the MIT license
  • RhoConnect - An application integration software that connects mobile apps with backend systems. 
  • RhoStudio - An Eclipse-based plugin to facilitate development of mobile apps. 
  • RhoHub - Cloud-based service for developing mobile applications online using RhoMobile's tools and frameworks. 
  • RhoGallery - A mobile app management solution that comes along with RhoHub and allows enterprises to administer app distribution and management. 

APPCELERATOR 
  • Appcelerator allows web developers to develop applications for multiple platforms (smartphones, tablets and desktops). It provides following tools and services to develop cross-platform applications. 
  • Titanium Platform - Allows developers to develop native (mobile and desktop) apps using web technologies. It is free only for personal and non-commercial use
  • Titanium Studio - An Eclipse-based IDE to build, test and deploy apps. 
  • Open Mobile marketplace - A marketplace for buying and selling Titanium mobile app components. 
  • Titanium+Plus - A set of value-added modules (for commerce, analytics, communication, etc.) to extend the existing functionality provided by Titanium SDK. 
  • Titanium+Commerce - A library that allows developers to add commerce functionality to their mobile apps so that they can support features such as accepting mobile payments or implementing loyalty programs. 
  • Titanium+Geo - Allows users to visualize real-time, geo-tagged data from mobile devices. 
  • Titanium Analytics - An application analytics solution to provide insights into app usage and performance. 

PHONEGAP 
  • PhoneGap provides platform and tools to web developers for developing mobile applications. Its parent entity, Nitobi, has been recently acquired by Adobe. It provides the following platform and tools for developing cross-platform apps. 
  • PhoneGap - A FOSS platform for developing mobile applications using web technologies. The platform supports a wide range of mobile platforms. It is open sourced under MIT license. The PhoneGap platform has been submitted to Apache Software Foundation for running it as an Apache project
  • PhoneGap Build - A cloud based service to build mobile applications online, which is free for individual developers, but requires fees for team use

My personal favorite amongst these frameworks is PhoneGap, because of the industry support and thriving developer community around it. Though, Appcelerator Titanium probably is a more powerful and easier to work with framework, the fact that it is not open brings it down a bit. In addition to that, if and when the PhoneGap is accepted by the Apache Foundation it will be a huge win for the framework. 

Do-It-Yourself Tools 
While the frameworks listed above are targeted towards developers, these cannot be used by regular users. These regular users/organizations mostly hire programmers or outsource app development to a specialist company. Even developing a simple app can cost organizations tens of thousands of dollars. There are several Do-It-Yourself services available on the net that can help non-technical users build their own mobiles apps without writing any code, while paying out relatively little money. 

The best DIY services I found were freemium and did not cost anything till you used their basic functionality. The best ones I found were Red Foundry, AppMakr, MobileRoadie (paid) and Appscend. These services allow app creators to create apps, manage them, analyze app usage and even monetize them. Amongst these, Red Foundry provides a very clean interface and gives more control to its users by providing its Red Foundry Markup Language (RFML). However, AppMakr is considered to be the leader of this segment, as it has been used a lot by large organizations as well. I believe the key reason for AppMakr's popularity is the fact that it allows users to create mobile apps for free and allows them to do more in that basic package. 

Overall, the mobile platform wars have allowed this cross-platform mobile app segment to grow and thrive. Though the mobile industry has transformed radically in the last few years, it is still early to declare the winner of this war. No matter how this battle turns out to be, as long as there are multiple players in the mobile devices market, the need for such cross-platform application development platforms will always be there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The War Of Mobile Platforms

11:03 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , 1 comment
I believe there have been three mega-breakthroughs in the field of computers that have completely changed the way we live and work. The first was the computer itself and the second was the Internet. Now we are witnessing the third mega-breakthrough - mobile devices (smart phones and tablets).

"Smartphones" have been around for quite sometime now, but the iPhone changed it all in 2007 - the device, the industry and the consumer perception. What iPhone did to smartphones, iPad did to tablets. While tablet market has been completely dominated by the iPad since its launch, the smartphone market has been very dynamic. The industry revolutionized by iPhone is now dominated by Android. Even though there are more players in the market, iOS and Android pretty much have ~70% of the market amongst themselves. 

Both of these players (Apple and Google) understand the importance of establishing their products as platforms. They also understand that in order to establish their products as sustainable platforms, they do not just have to please the consumers, but the developers and partners as well. The reason for doing so is that it is these developers and partners who are going to create an ecosystem of products and services around their platforms, and whichever platform has the richer ecosystem will have more chances of winning. 

I have been hearing and reading a lot about this whole iOS versus Android platform debate and how one is better than the other, for quite some time now. I thought of doing my own analyses of mobile platforms to find out which one is better for the developers and partners, though there already are many such comparisons on the internet. The table below compares iOS and Android on various categories - green means that player is better in that category, red means that it lacks behind and no color means that both platforms are close.

Market Share (Q2 2011, Global)
19% 48%
68% 27%
Vendors and Models Apple iPhone (3GS, 4, 4S) and iPad (1 and 2) Highly fragmented (HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG, Sony, etc.) One of the key disadvantages of Android, as developers have to test their apps for multiple models
Payment System Praised for its simple and intuitive interface which is linked with user credit card Payment system varies by app store. Google Checkout for Android Market
Distribution Apple App Store.
Apple authorization required for publishing apps. A lot of developers do not like this gatekeeper role, but many also agree that this helps in keeping the app store free from spyware, malware and other unauthorized stuff
Many.
Publication process varies for app stores. The openness of Android app stores makes it an easier target for spywares, malwares and other "junk"
Cost Of Development and Distribution Developer program annual fee is $99. Enterprise program annual fee is $299. 30% of sales revenue to Apple Varies for app stores; for Android Market (one time registration fee of $25; 30% transaction fee
Programming Language Objective C - higher learning curve for programmers Java - huge pool of experienced programmers

And The Winner Is...No One..Yet
We are still in the early stages of this mobile revolution, and as the comparison above shows, it is hard to declare a winner yet. Both, iOS and Android, platforms are very strongly placed, and this can turn out to be anyone's game. Having said that I am more comfortable with a duopoly than a monopoly, as the competition between these two platforms will force them to improve, which in effect will prove to be better for users and developers.

Apple's greatest strengths in this war are its brand, integrated approach and lead in tablet market. However, Google's greatest strength here is the "open" nature of Android. The fact that multiple vendors are pitched against Apple can go both way - work against or for Apple. Two weeks ago I would have inclined in the favor of Apple, but the loss of Steve Jobs is definitely going to make things harder for them, at least in the long term if not now. 

There are technologies and players in the market that help developers bypass the mobile platform debate. HTML 5 is the frontrunner and the key technology in this category. However, using HTML 5 instead of a particular platform, would require extra effort in making an app with good user experienceIn addition to HTML 5, there are cross-platform development frameworks that allow developers to develop mobile apps that can be run on more than one platform. Needless to say, these frameworks are new and require more refinement.

Overall, the jury is still out on the winner of mobile platform war. It is difficult to announce a winner yet, as it is a very close competition. The technology and players are still evolving. No matter how this war ends, I hope that we do not end up with a monopoly like we did in the desktop PC market.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Here is to the crazy one. RIP Steve Jobs.

7:47 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal 2 comments
When I logged into my Apple Mac Pro on the morning of 5th Oct, the first thing I saw were a lot of videos and pics of Steve Jobs on TweetDeck. I was afraid that my and millions of other people's fears have come true. And then I read the news article that confirmed it - Steve Jobs had lost his fight against cancer. I broke the news to my wife right away. It was hard for both of us to believe that Steve Jobs is not alive anymore. We felt so sad and low that morning that we hardly said a word to each other while getting ready for that day. I saw many updates on Jobs' death on Facebook and Twitter and wanted to share my thoughts as well, but then I stopped because I did not want to post a passing comment on the death of my idol. The [unfortunate] event called for more. 

My wife and I are not the only ones who felt sad that day. Millions of people around the world felt the same. In my entire life, the only other time that I saw internet and media gone this crazy over someone's death was when Michael Jackson died. And he was a pop star. Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur, just doing business! 

If greatness is measured as the number of lives one has touched positively, Steve Jobs sits amongst the greatest of the greats. I cannot think of any other person throughout history who has had such a deep impact on so many areas on a global scale. He is most famous amongst many Apple fans for the products that he has launched over the years. But his 'insane greatness' goes beyond that. His work has actually revolutionized many industries: computers (Macintosh), movies (Pixar), music (iPod and iTunes), telecom (iPhone and App Store) and tablets (iPad). The only other person that I can think of who had considerable impact on such a wide array of topics was Leonardo Da Vinci. Steve was the Leonardo of our times, or may be Leonardo was the Steve of his time. 

Steve Jobs impact on people is not just limited to the products and industries. It goes beyond the tangibles. He showed the world the beauty, importance and power of simplicity and design. His stories have long inspired people to push the limits of what can be achieved. His superhuman ability to have the grandest of the visions while caring about the minutest of details has fascinated the business world and common people alike. 

Sometimes it is incomprehensible to even imagine how a person, you have never met or talked or even heard speaking live, can have such an impact on not just yourself but millions of people all over the world. Steve Jobs' words and actions have forced people to think and encouraged them to act. I remember watching his famous Stanford commencement speech for the first time in 2007. I must say I was deeply moved by that and had started to question my daily routine. That and many speeches and presentations of Steve Jobs till date have made me [at least try to] think big and different, to focus on my goal and work towards it. He had that affect on people, even the most successful ones - Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and John Chambers to name a few. 


It is very saddening to know that such a strong and inspirational personality is not amongst us anymore. That we will not see him talking or presenting anymore. That he will not be able to come up with "insanely great" products anymore. I guess I am one of those hopefuls who wish that in the next Apple presentation there will be "one more thing" and Steve will suddenly show up on stage. Unfortunately, this is one wish that will never come true. 

Steve might not be with us anymore but his ideas and work will always stay with us and keep touching our lives for eternity. We are very lucky to have lived in his time. Here is to the king of pirates, the leader of rebels, the greatest entrepreneur, visionary and innovator. Here is to the crazy one. RIP Steve Jobs.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Consumer Technology Camp Disrupting The Enterprise

10:51 AM Posted by Deepak Nayal , 2 comments
The world of technology seems to be divided into two major camps: consumer and enterprise. Enterprise is like the older brother who wears suit and tie. He is serious, talks less and is more interested in getting the job done than having fun. Consumer on the other hand is like his cool younger, jeans and T-shirt wearing, brother. He is charming, ready to try out new things that make his life easier, and likes to have fun. These two technology camps are very different in nature. 
  • Consumer tech is the talk of the town, even though, the enterprise technology market is much bigger in size 
  • Consumer technology players frequently try out new things that can enable better processing or user experience, whereas, enterprise market waits for technologies to mature before adoption 
  • Consumer side focuses more on user experience, design and intuitiveness, while enterprise focuses on features and robustness 
  • Oracle, SAP and IBM are the poster children of enterprise technology, while Apple, Google and Facebook are the icons of consumer tech 

Influence At Various Levels 
Consumer technology camp has gained more attention in recent years due to success of platforms - such as smartphones, tablets and social networks - and companies - such as Google, Facebook, Zynga and Twitter. The changes and technological improvements triggered by these platforms and companies are disrupting the status quo. While leveraging these changes and improvements can add to an enterprise's competitive advantage, ignoring these can prove to be dangerous for its existence. These disruptions are happening at various levels, and vary in their intensity, impact and adoption levels on the enterprise side. 

DATA LEVEL
These disruptions are occurring at the data level in two ways. First, the increased adoption of mobile phones, tablets and social networks has led to generation of massive amounts of [structured and unstructured] data in the form of location tags, connections, texts, images and videos that can provide companies with incredibly useful information on consumers, competitors and markets. Second, consumer technology companies have led the innovations and adoption of big data tools - such as Hadoop, Cassandra, MongoDB and Rainbird - that can be used to store massive amounts of data and process it (even in real time) using inexpensive technology. Enterprise software players and customers have started to realize the importance of these disruptions at data level and are trying to find ways of riding this wave.


APPLICATION LEVEL 
Various disruptions have been and still are occurring on the application level. Cloud computing is probably the most profound of them. Many consumer side companies such as Zynga and FourSquare run their applications on cloud. These companies have been able to scale fast and cheaply by leveraging cloud computing - even with millions of active users spread across the globe - thereby improving its credibility amongst the enterprise users.

Analytics is another area where consumer tech players are leading the way. Consumer tech companies are user focused and most of them are web based, allowing them to be able to track complete user journey and provide better service by analyzing the user behavior. Analytics can help enterprises in two ways: understand their customers better and track and improve their operations. Though there are software packages available for enterprises as well to monitor and analyze their systems and processes, they either do not use those tools properly (if at all) or do not leverage that data. Analytics is certainly one of those areas where enterprises can catch up faster, however, are not able to due to non-technical reasons, such as unwillingness, ignorance and bureaucracy.

Consumer tech (the web in particular) practices short release development cycles. This means that unlike the long development cycles (spanning months, sometimes years) that you see on the enterprise side, consumer web usually releases changes much more frequently (weekly, bi-weekly or monthly). This leads to quick bug fixes and new feature rollouts, improving the user experience. Though enterprises have been trying to implement such development methods (e.g. Scrum), many fail to do so or end up somewhere midway. The reason for failing to implement such development processes is that implementing such methods require not just technological but cultural changes as well, which have to be initiated at the top. And usually enterprise CTOs and CIOs are either not willing to take that risk or have other priorities or do not realize the benefits of this practice.

Nowadays, consumer applications generally are available for all devices allowing users to use these applications anytime and anywhere. Apps such as the ones provided by Google and Twitter are good examples. These can be used from your PC, tablet or mobile phone. Enterprise applications can also be made available on different devices so that employees and customers are not bound to their desktops for getting work done, leading to increase in level of satisfaction.

One of the best things about the consumer side of technology is that players in this camp are more willing to integrate with existing services out there. They extend their APIs and use the ones extended by other players. They understand that open is better than proprietary, as it leads to better integration hence better user experience. [Note that we are talking about open here, not open source - these can be two separate things.] The enterprise camp historically has not been good at this aspect and has been very closed in its approach. Though there are integrations in enterprise world these are usually within the organization and ones with partners are on a one-to-one basis. 


PRESENTATION LEVEL 
The disruptions on the presentation layer have been the most profound and, obviously, visible ones. The reason that consumer camp has a huge lead over its enterprise counterpart in this area is that users of consumer technology choose the products they use and if that product is hard to use, they will just stop using it or will switch to an alternative. Enterprise users, on the other hand, are not that fortunate. They pretty much have to stick with what they have got. This leads to the consumer side trying out new things in order to improve the user experience and the enterprise world being happy with what they have in most cases as long as it gets the work done.

User experience and design is given a lot of importance in the consumer camp. In order to improve the end user experience on the web and make it more fluid, the consumer side has been heavily using lightweight web technologies, such as Javascript, CSS and, more recently, HTML 5. Enterprise software, on the other hand, generally bloated and heavy, as user experience is not that high on priority.

Social networking has added to this user experience by enabling people to connect with other people and follow interesting topics. In fact, it has turned into more of a movement led by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Even though enterprise camp has using collaboration software for a long time, the concept of connections and interactions complimented by fluid and intuitive user experience has been missing from those products.

The biggest disruption caused by consumer technology camp, that the enterprise side cannot ignore, has been in the field of mobile devices, led by Apple. The smartphones and tablets have ushered us into a new world of computing, beyond the desktops. The unbelievable and phenomenal growth in user adoption of these devices has forced enterprises to stand up and take note. One of the primary reasons for this huge uptake is that these are not just devices but are part of a platform which also consists of application stores that provide desktop quality applications. This combo of powerful mobile devices and easy to setup and use applications has allowed users to do almost anything on their smartphones and tablets that they can on their desktops. This disruption has forced enterprise camp to think of ways it can use these devices to engage and empower its customers and employees.

New Breed of Enterprise Players 
Even though the enterprise camp has been trying to learn from its cooler brother and understand ways and benefits of adopting these disruptions, the rate of adoption has been slow. There are various reasons for this slow adoption. These impressive disruptions and the less impressive responses from existing enterprise software players have led to two kinds of new entrants in the enterprise camp. First are the existing consumer side players which are trying to sell their consumer side offerings to the enterprise customers. This includes behemoths such as Apple and Amazon and startups such as Box.net. And second are the new entrants in software market who are leveraging these disruptions to serve enterprise customers. Companies such as Cloudera, Twilio and Zendesk are examples of such providers. 

A lot has changed in the enterprise camp over the last few years, but a lot more has yet to be changed. There definitely is a lot of potential in "consumerization of the enterprise". However, like many other things in the technology world, it is much easier said than done.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Santa (Apple) Will Get Us The Gift (iPhone 5) Next Year

11:01 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , 4 comments
The web is buzzing with "lackluster" iPhone announcement from Apple today. 

The whole world had assumed - with not a single word from Apple's side - that iPhone 5 will be released today. To be honest, I was one of them. The only reason I have been resisting the lure to replace my current three year old Nokia phone with a smartphone is that I am hoping to replace it with iPhone 5. That dream is definitely down the drain this year. I am amongst millions of fans world over that were disappointed by today's announcement, at least initially. In fact, I was expecting to have 'One more thing...' in today's presentation. But nothing happened. 


I can understand that people and Wallstreet are not happy with Apple today. But this event actually shows the impact this company has on the world, and that it still continues to do the right thing, without getting affected by market emotions. The online reactions during and after the event made me realize that Apple is like Santa Claus, and the rest of the world is like a kid. We want to believe in our Santa Claus so much that we start dreaming of things on our own, expect them to be fulfilled, get too happy when we get our presents, but then also get very disappointed if we have nothing by our bed side the next morning. There is no other company in the world that is so much loved by customers, envied by competitors and admired by everyone. 

Apple must have had its reasons to not releasing iPhone 5 this year: production issues, adding more features or awaiting competitor moves. One thing is for sure though, it definitely is not resting on its laurels, even with 5% global phone share

The reason people are disappointed is that Apple did not do what they wanted it to. But then, it does not have to. If the nay-sayers look at today's announcement more closely they will realize that Apple has actually done a lot of improvements, internally. With the new CPU, camera, iOS 5 and, off course, Siri (the intelligent voice assistant!), iPhone 4S has definitely become the best smartphone out there. While the investors do not approve of no-show of iPhone 5, I think it is a smart move from Apple's side. The company would definitely like to squeeze the juice out of version 4, before they release version 5. It is the same they did with 3G version. iPhone 3G was introduced in 2008, then 3GS was released in 2009, and then - only after two years of iPhone 3G in market - did Apple release iPhone 4 in 2010. This event actually shows that Apple has still held on its nerves and is not buckling under the pressure of expectations of investors and millions of customers - especially after its beloved founder's retirement. It shows that Apple has a clear product roadmap, understands its market and moreover understands its competitors really well. In fact, this event can even be a reflection of where Apple sees its competitors - no where near itself. (for those who want to throw that Android argument in my face, are you really serious? That is tens of vendors and many more times handsets put together against just one Apple and its iPhone.) While Google is busy adding features to our cellphones that we might not require for the next couple of years (read NFC), Apple is working on the ones that we can use today.

So my message to those super smart fund managers or investors who started dumping Apple shares today is - please have a broader perspective, and think before acting like a small child who did not get the christmas gift he had asked for. Do not worry, Santa is going to get your gift next year.