Forward into the past

For New Year’s 2012, a look back at the state of the mobile industry in 2002, when things were so much different, and so much the same.

nokia 7650

In November, 2002, The Economist heralded the first “smartphones” from the two dominant players at the time, Nokia and Microsoft. They predicted a “fight for digital dominance” between the two, concluding that “the firms are sure to become opponents in what promises to be a long and bitter fight.”

Of course, nobody, not even The Economist, could have predicted the iPhone revolution that re-defined the smartphone in 2007, or the alliance of the two early opponents that followed. Despite that, at least one of the predictions from 2002 still holds true, even if it applies to different “camps” than in 2002:

“…the collision of the computing and mobile-phone industries seems likely to lead to a surge of innovation, as the two camps fight it out to create a truly personal computing and communications device, with far wider appeal than the misleadingly named personal computer. And as these titans slug it out, it will be consumers who emerge as the winners.”

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and successful 2012!


Good QR, bad QR

I wasn’t going to write about barcodes, and QR codes in particular, because there are already plenty of articles on the subject. I was moved to write this anyway, though, after reading this quote: “As soon as the consumer scans that barcode, you’re getting an engagement.”

No, I thought, when a consumer scans a barcode, they’re entering a URL. Real engagement depends on what happens next.

I found some sensible guidelines on the Xcite Media Group site; they recommend that the barcode scan “should provide the consumer with a brand experience that is exclusive, dynamic and interactive.” They also point out that since barcodes are targeted primarily at users of smartphones, they should deliver “instant results” that those consumers expect. A colleague at Vodafone told me once that their metric for mobile experiences was “five seconds to enjoyment”; if your consumers need to wait longer than that for something interesting, you may lose them.

One more feature I would add is a clear call to action; it makes sense that if someone is already motivated enough to scan your code, you can build on that motivation by offering an opportunity to do something concrete, beyond just looking at a web site.

With these guidelines in mind, I went out in search of barcodes in downtown Washington, DC, to see how they are being used in real marketing campaigns. Here are three examples, which, in the spirit of Hanukkah, I rated on an eight-candle scale, with two candles each for four categories, based on the guidelines mentioned above:

  • Ease of scan and response time
  • Clarity of call to action
  • UI quality and interactivity
  • Exclusivity
Please let me know what you think. What good (and not so good) campaigns have you seen around your town?

WWF: Be The Voice

This campaign was the best one I saw in my little survey. The QR code was a bit hard to scan while standing, but the scan led quickly to a mobile-optimized page with a clear call to action and several engaging options (including “Donate”). I can’t be confident of this, but the page looks like exclusive content. It was well-matched to the poster and contained content specific to this campaign.

I also liked how the WWF turned the code itself into part of the design. Those codes can be ugly, so anything that makes them more attractive is a big help.

My score for this one: Ease of scan and response time: 1 (-1 for the placement of the code), Clarity of call to action: 2, UI quality and interactivity: 1 (static page), Exclusivity: 2.

Total: 6 candles

Focus Features & Landmark Theaters sweepstakes

I found this next campaign inside a movie theater downtown. The display described a sweepstakes campaign linked to two new releases from Focus Features, and included both QR and Microsoft Tag codes. The scan led to a non-optimized site that offered more information about the sweepstakes. What’s more, the site asked me first to choose which movie I was interested in. Why not create a separate code for each film, that leads directly to the microsite for that production?

I can see the appeal of a barcode campaign for the sweepstakes, to encourage customers to sign up right away, while they’re in the theater. That earns some credit for exclusivity.

My score for this one: Ease of scan and response time: 1, Clarity of call to action: 1, UI quality and interactivity (static, non-optimized page that requires another click to get to the real destination): 0, Exclusivity: 1.

Total: 3 candles

TSA: Secure Transit

The TSA has plastered QR codes on trash cans in the DC Metro as part of its campaign to encourage greater awareness of security among subway passengers. Call it “If you see something, scan something.”

The scan leads to the generic web site for the TSA Secure Transit campaign, not optimized for mobile devices, and with no specific call to action for mobile users (besides the call to “say something” that is already written on the trash can)

My score for this one: Ease of scan and response time: 1, Clarity of call to action: 0, UI quality and interactivity: 0 (static, non-optimized page), Exclusivity: 0. Total: 1 candle

WebOS goes open source: here we go again

When HP announced earlier this month that it will “contribute the webOS software to the open source community,” my first reaction was “here we go again.”

If you follow the mobile platform field, you may remember that Nokia followed a similar path with the Symbian OS back in 2008, buying out the private company that developed the then-proprietary platform, and releasing the platform as open source. Nokia went a step further than HP, creating an independent, non-profit Symbian Foundation to manage the evolution of the platform and deals with device vendors. By the end of 2010, however, after failing to attract new device partners, and losing most of the existing ones, the Foundation was “transitioned to a licensing body“, bringing to an end the ambitious plans for building an open source community around Symbian. Nokia still makes and sells Symbian devices, but is phasing out the OS in its devices in favor of Windows Phone.

In all fairness, WebOS is a much different animal than Symbian, which puts HP in a better position to make it a success. By 2008, Symbian was way behind the times in terms of features and user experience, and the developer offering was limited and incredibly complex compared to what Apple and Android were offering. By contrast, developers like WebOS, and the (few) consumers who bought WebOS devices were generally satisfied with them.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that HP just “dumped” WebOS to open source, but it will take more than just an open source structure to give the platform a fighting chance in a very competitive market. What I’ve learned from the failed Symbian experience, and the success of iOS and Android, is that a high-quality platform by itself does not guarantee market success. What really matters is the rest of the “ecosystem” around the platform. At a simple level, this includes four critical components:

  1. Strong governance and management of platform evolution
  2. Integration into successful devices
  3. Competitive distribution channel for apps and services
  4. Dedicated developer community

The details of governance are still being worked out, but even if HP decides on a solid governance model, it will take continuing investment by HP (at least at the beginning) to execute on that model and keep the community going. Running an open source community is not necessarily cheaper than running a closed-source one, and may require even more resources to manage partners and the pressure to fragment the codebase. The most successful open source projects, like Webkit, work because a small number of companies invest lots of people and time into improving the code and managing the community.

The device plans may be a weak spot. It’s not clear if any manufacturers want to take on the cost of integrating WebOS to their hardware, considering HP’s own vague commitment to device development. Device integration is not easy or cheap, whether or not the platform itself is open source or proprietary. The real potential for WebOS may be found not in phones and tablet, but, as InfoWorld suggests, in other consumer, medical, and even industrial devices.

On the distribution side, HP can build on its existing App Catalog, and can presumably encourage WebOS integrators to include that channel in their devices.

The success of WebOS as a developer platform may depend on the success of the other three factors. The platform may be cool and easy to work with, but if there are no devices in the market, and no reliable distribution channel (or governance), there won’t be much incentive for developers to invest in the platform. (For WebOS, it’s also possible that the appeal of the open web will be stronger than a particular web OS).

So in conclusion, HP has a chance to make this work, but it’s not going to be easy. Even if WebOS does succeed, it’s not clear (to me at least) how HP makes any money from it, unless they follow through on their promises to make and sell WebOS devices. I don’t see app store and professional services revenue being enough to make back the $1.2 billion they spent on Palm in a reasonable amount of time.

I can’t resist a personal note here. I worked at Nokia as a developer platform evangelist during the Symbian open source adventure, when I found myself in the position of promoting the Symbian open source strategy in the face of strong competition from the up and coming iPhone and Android platforms.

In other words, I have been there, done that…

Sanfran- Oren  Levine, Nokia

…and (literally!) got the T-shirt(!)

MWC 2009: Symbian-powered truck

Web vs. native isn’t a battle, but…

I had to comment after reading yet another article about the “competition” between web and apps on mobile platforms, this time on GigaOM. As I wrote there (and in an earlier post here), this doesn’t need to be a battle. Different use cases and requirements require different technologies on different platforms; this isn’t likely to change for a while.


There is, however, one clear advantage to the web or web app approach; when your content resides on the server, you don’t need to write and distribute updated versions of your apps, and your customers don’t need to install those updates. This makes life easier for you and your customers.

Another benefit of the web approach is the confidence that all of your customers always see the most updated version of your stuff.

Let the debate continue…

Nokia N9 on sale in the US (almost)

It’s “Mobile in PR” this week; we’re on a short vacation in Puerto Rico, where I was surprised to see a billboard advertising the Nokia N9, from the local Claro operator. Odd to see that “superphone” on sale in the US territories (yes, Puerto Rico is part of the USA) and not in the rest of much larger (and richer) US. I am assuming that Nokia allows more room for experimentation in these smaller markets, particularly ones where Nokia may be already more popular. I also saw billboards for the Nokia E55; when’s the last time you saw an ad for a Symbian phone elsewhere in the US? (By the way, this is my first attempt to post from my Kindle Fire. The text entry works OK, but I was only able to insert an image from a URL.)

Web vs. Native is a Federal case

If you’ve been following the mobile software space, you will know that there has been more than enough material written about the “battle” between web & native for mobile apps and services. The issue has now reached the Federal government, in the form of a webinar I attended earlier today, organized by the GSA team. They set up a debate on the subject, with two presenters, from the departments of Homeland Security (pro-web) and Labor (pro-native), taking deliberately extreme positions on the advantages of one approach over the other.

I don’t understand why this subject needs to be presented as an either-or battle, but if that’s what it takes to get technical and non-technical people to realize the benefits of mobile engagement and explore the options, then it’s not such a bad thing. Any of these debates, like this one, goes through the advantages and disadvantages before reaching the inevitable conclusion “it depends”.

So I see this debate, then, as a fun way to reinforce the importance of mobile as a critical channel for citizens to access government services and information. After the “battle” was over, both presenters described their approaches to developing mobile solutions, stressing the need to understand users and their needs before diving into specific technology choices.

I admit that I have one small nit to pick with this debate, and with much of the other discussion of mobile apps & web. Both presenters talked about the “mobile web” as opposed to just “the web”. With the wide range of devices in the market, I think it’s increasingly clear that there is no mobile web. Follow that link (or this one) to see why, in a more direct and complete way than I can write here.