Technology of the future…

I’ve been reading some of the coverage in the tech press about the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR, including the always excellent insights from Michael Mace in his Mobile Opportunity blog. One thing that’s clear from the commentary and the acquisition itself is a shared belief that there’s a virtual reality “killer app” out there beyond gaming, the (so far) primary use case for the Oculus Rift headset and other similar VR gear. As Mace puts it:

Isn’t it interesting how companies impose their own mental paradigms on technologies? Google looks at glasses and sees a way to search and consume web services on the go. Facebook looks at goggles and sees a new means for social communication.

Investors, I imagine, see dollar signs, and hope that one of those big smart companies figures it all out. Meanwhile, as Mace notes, the fans of Oculus just want a great gaming experience, as the founder of Minecraft explains.

What if, though, there is no “killer app” for VR? I’m not convinced that there is another compelling use case for immersive virtual reality (as opposed to “augmented reality”, of which more below) beyond games and specialized engineering and simulation uses.

I write this based on some experience, having been very active in the last round of the VR “revolution” in the late 1990’s. True, the technology was far inferior to what we have now, and the resolution of the headsets was poor, but as we discovered at the time, there are many limitations to 3D immersive computing that are human, not technological.

VR demo, 1994

The last VR “revolution”, circa 1994

Mace disagrees, predicting a new age of “sensory computing” that includes 3D displays, 3D interfaces, 3D gestures, and 3D printing. This prediction is based on an assertion that humans are comfortable in a 3D environment:

In the real world, we remember things spatially. For example, I remember that I put my keys on my desk, next to the sunglasses. We can tap into that mental skill by creating 3D information spaces that we move through, with recognizable landmarks that help to orient us.

In fact, we humans are very much 2D creatures. Gravity keeps us constrained in the Z-axis, as it were, so we mostly move around in two dimensions (X and Y, to continue to metaphor), and so (I believe) relate better to two-dimensional concepts and interfaces. To Mace’s example, you put your keys on the desk (a 2D space) next to your glasses (and not above them). This “3D” model takes place on on a 2D plane.

In addition to the cognitive limitations, there are other limits to the immersive VR experience, at least today, starting with the odd experience of being able to look around you but not see your own body.

Of course, I may be completely wrong, and not able to see the true potential of immersive virtual reality. I am, though, much more excited about augmented reality (AR), where instead of removing yourself to a virtual world, you add information and interactivity to the real one. This is a case where better technology will make for a completely different experience. Current AR “browsers” like the Wikitude app are cool but cumbersome on a phone. A more seamless AR experience will require more seamless hardware. Google Glass (for better or worse) is one big step in that direction, supported by AR software like Wikitude, Metaio, and many others to come.

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Some predictions (not mine)

Worth a look: some predictions for the mobile world in 2012 from GetJar founder and CEO Ilja Laurs. Ilja knows a thing or two about the mobile app space; he founded GetJar in 2004, when mobile apps meant mostly Java apps (delivered as .JAR files, hence the name) for feature phones, plus some apps for the dominant smartphones of those pre-iPhone days: Nokia/Symbian, Windows, and Blackberry.

I don’t agree with all of these predictions, but a few of them seem to be spot on. The most interesting items for me are at the bottom of the list: “Paid apps continue to fade out” and “Mass migration to cloud“. I think these are related. News and information apps are already dependent on data from the “cloud”; the app mostly renders them in a convenient and pleasing way. As the number and variety of screens increases, I expect service-based apps to get more “cloudy” as well.

This has become clear to me ever since I got my Kindle Fire in December. I now move back and forth among phone, tablet, and desktop, and want to use the same apps and services from every screen. Products like Evernote and Astrid can meet that need, as they are available on all of those devices, in web (Chrome) and native forms.

So what does this have to do with paid apps? When apps and web apps expose cloud-based data, it makes less sense (to me at least) to charge for the app itself. After all, the app doesn’t have intrinsic value; the service and data do. As Ilja predicts, this suggests a move away from charging for the app (on every device!) to charging for or otherwise monetizing the the data or service, through ad-based and/or subscription-based models.

Please let me know what you think!

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

Looking ahead

I came across a timely question from Rob Woodbridge in one of his Daily Mobile Minute videos last week: Is a tablet a PC? The iPad and other tablets certainly support many of the functions of desktop “personal computers,” but on the other hand, as Rob noted, calling them “PCs” just seems old-fashioned.

Nokia 7650

by Coleccionando Camaras from flickr

My response to Rob (on LinkedIn) was that even though tablets like the Pad (and my new Kindle Fire) are certainly “personal computers,” the term PC indeed doesn’t fit, because of the rest of the historical baggage that “PC” carries with it. Taking that a step further, terms like “PC” and “mobile telephone” are like “horseless carriage,” defining a new technology in older, familiar terms.

The iPad is already blurring the distinctions between laptops and “mobile devices”. Now the Fire and other smaller tablets are helping to “sketch out the place in between iPads and phones,” according to Linda Holmes from NPR. And then there are devices like this...

It’s clear (to me at least) that we’re moving towards a world of indispensable, seamless mobility, that we don’t have the vocabulary for yet. Any candidates?

photo by Coleccionando Camaras from flickr
Update: Corning claims that the future is all about the glass