Google Is Committing Heresy..

…with Play Store search. Google’s founding principle was not to encumber search with graphics-intensive pages, attempts to be sticky, or tampering with the results. Of course they succeeded splendidly. To adapt a phrase, search “just found”.

Fast forward a decade, to the overhauled Play Store. When I search it, 100% of the time, I am searching for an app, not a book. But the results are hugely polluted with matching book titles–especially when my original search finds no apps. It sometimes takes me a few moments to realize I am looking at book results.

This is dumb, this is annoying, this is just so clearly a “strategy tax“. We all know where that approach has gotten Microsoft.

Some thoughts on T-Mobile’s UN-carrier Makeover

T-Mobile is branding themselves as the UN-carrier. The core of their strategy is to move away from contracts, away from subsidized phones, with lower, simplified pricing.

I am a long-time Tmo customer and, as the low-cost and most disruptive of the 4 big U.S. carriers, I have always wished them well, but mostly in vain. I really hope they get some traction with this new approach, but I have some skepticism about whether they have the marketing skills and deep pockets enough to carry it off. Here’s hoping…

Where the new pricing really shines is Family plans. 3rd, 4th, 5th lines are only $10 each, and they come with 500 Mb of data. 500 Mb is not bad, if you are just reasonably careful you can mkae it through the month, and if you do go over, for just $10 more you get 2 Gb additional data. So there is no horrible cliff you fall off when you exceed your cap. 

For those in the know, what makes the value plan approach especially appealing is the ability to buy a top-of-the-line, Nexus phone for $299. That is an amazing price. When you add in the carrier’s upgrade fee, it isn’t all that much more than the price of a subsidized phone.

The question I have: is the low Nexus pricing going to be sustained? Or will it creep upward over time? If sustained, the Value Plan case is compelling. If not, it is still a good case, but a much harder sell.

But back to Marketing. I would really like to have seen Tmobile and Google do some cooperative advertising. But probably that would have alienated both the other Carriers, and the Handset manufacturers. Not to mention Tmo’s new friend, Apple.

There is a strategic problem for Tmo. In a sense, they have engaged in “unilateral disarmament”. If it were easy for Verizon customers to switch to TMobile, then TMo’s value proposition might gain a lot of switchers. The problem is that it is not easy for contract customers to switch, even if they would be interested. But in the meantime, Tmobile has made it easy for their customers to leave without a moment’s notice.

I have made my bet on Tmo. I am mid-way through a contract, so I need to wait a few months for the math of switching to work for me. But for my two recent phone purchases (family of 5), rather than use upgrades, I bought Nexus 4s. So good luck, Tmo.


Teens, change, fickleness, and Apple’s iMessage

Teens’ technology habits change fast. It’s becoming well-established that they are indifferent to Facebook, even as Facebook becomes mainstream with adults of all ages. Now the same thing is happening with texting. Texting’s core advantage has been its lowest-common-denominator status–any cell phone sold in the last 7 years, even the dumbest dumbphone, supports it. But now smartphones have achieved critical mass among teens, and they are using all kinds of apps, containing various social networking elements, not only instead of Facebook, but increasingly, instead of texting.

As an Android enthusiast and parent of teens, I have only just become aware of this trend. I’ve become accustomed and inured to my teens complaining about Android and T-Mobile, and wanting iPhones and Verizon. Until now, I have written off these complaints as mostly superficial, simply a case of wanting the same thing their friends have, just for appearance’s sake (we live in a prosperous suburb where family budgets, for better or worse, often cover not only smartphones, but the top of the line). But in the past weeks, the discussion has shifted. Their friends are increasingly using the iPhone’s iMessage app. It combines a set of novelty and genuinely useful features in a way that cleverly fosters platform lock-in:

  • “Emojis”–specialized emoticons in proprietary encoding that plain-vanilla texting doesn’t render
  • Group messaging
  • Instant-messaging’s continuous conversation and presence, but leveraging the universal and established “address” of a cell-phone number, rather than requiring yet another ID
  • Read receipts
  • Works over wi-fi (especially clever for this set, since they may not have data plans)

Are there Android apps that do these things? Probably. But network-effects are absolutely crucial here. Instantly, every iPhone and iPod user is part of this network. Android should have the advantage, given that its market share is larger than Apple’s. But the iMessage trend seems to have caught Google napping. They need to to something about this, and sooner rather than later. Android needs an iMessage competitor to be a built-in Google App, just like Maps and Gmail.

Once again, Apple is managing to leverage their walled-garden to strategic advantage. The beauty of texting, like email before it, has been its openness. Once again, Apple shows itself to be the sworn enemy of openness. Android needs to move quickly to stanch the bleeding.

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Smartphones Approaching Mature, Commodity Phase?

I think smartphones are getting close to being a mature, boring, useful, inexpensive commodity hardware product. Similar to where desktops were 10+ years ago, and laptops within the last 5-10 years.

I have been an Android user for 3 years now. I am on my third, soon to be fourth, phone. I have a Sensation, first-generation dual-core. It definitely has room for improvement. But my wife has a Galaxy S2, late second-generation dual-core. Whenever I use it, it still feels like a great, up-to-date, blazingly responsive device with a huge, beautiful display.

The newly-released Samsung Galaxy S3, at 4.8″,  seems to be getting as large as anyone would want (I know, could be famous last words. 🙂 )

Display resolutions are fantastic, and maxing out what the human eye can discern. The top phones exceed 300 dpi, which is the standard for high-quality print.

Processors seem to have gotten faster than needed, other than for gaming.

Phones now come with tons of memory–even before you factor in the SD card. I have not run out of memory on any of my 3 Android phones.

Cameras are getting extremely good–especially combined with powerful software–making point-and-shoot obsolete. Seems like any barrier to major improvements involves lenses, which may be a physical fact of life.

Mobile data speed has not really been that big a driver of phone upgrades, but at any rate, as that hits 21-42 Mbps, it is also maxing out…far faster, already, than home internet. That’s fast enough. Let’s work on making coverage better, and service cheaper.

The Android OS is getting mature and stable. I have ICS on my current phone. It is marginally nicer than Gingerbread, and mostly in an eye-candy way. I think it’s bigger impact is on app design, but even that isn’t such a big deal. The prior Gingerbread upgrade was even less of an event. Like Windows XP–anything Froyo or beyond is fine for most people.

Of course there are areas for incremental improvement:

  • Notably, battery life/capacity
  • I would also put wireless charging high on the list
  • Novel features and protocols, such as NFC and S-beam
  • Ever-thinner–but they are getting pretty thin
  • Ruggedizing

I also think the same maturing is true with tablets. In fact, the two most exciting recent tablets have been exciting not for their specs or features, but for their price point of $199. I am speaking of the Kindle Fire, and the newly-announced Nexus tablet.

Another Android Differentiation Idea: Take A Smaller Cut, Google

Apple established the proposition that the platform vendor deserves a 30% cut off apps sold through its store, and Google has behaved as a “good competitor”, at least in this regard, by simply matching Apple’s precedent.. I can squint and convince myself that 30% is fair and reasonable. What I find ridiculous is that they think they deserve a comparable cut of all business transacted through their platform. Tried to buy a Kindle book on Android? Have you noticed that Amazon flips you over to their website? They make the transition almost seamless, minimizing the pain, but it does seem kind of silly, doesn’t it, to go to all the trouble of building an app, and then having to switch to mobile web for serious business?

The reason is to evade the 30% platform vendor tax. That would obviously destroy Amazon’s business model. Or take Pandora–if you want to move from the freemium app to the paid service, you have to do it through their website–they don’t want to give Google 30% of their hard-won subscriber dollars.

So instead of getting 30%, Google is getting nothing. Wouldn’t it be smarter to change the model, and make it more reasoanble? 30% of the initial app sale–fine. But for in-app purchases and subscriptions, they need a different model. Probably in some cases, such as Amazon, it would have to be custom-negotiated. In other cases, particularly subscriptions like Pandora, maybe they do down to 5 or 10% of the first 12 months, and then after that, all they get is 2-3% they are going to get as the payment clearinghouse (same as Visa would take).

Android Tablet Idea: Multiple Users

Both among techies and the buying public, the consensus seems to be that there is little reason to buy an Android tablet at roughly the same price as an iPad. And further, that it will be very difficult for Android to catch the iPad in the tablet space. I generally agree.

So here is an idea for Android. Support multiple logons, so one tablet can be shared by family members. If they could beat Apple in delivering that functionality, they would have a nice differentiator. (I have no idea how hard it may be to do–since it hasn’t been done, either by Apple or even the Android modding community, as far as I know, I am guessing it has to be difficult.)

The cell phone is like a really big Swiss Army knife: it bristles with utility, but that can cause a bit of lag when trying to whip out the right function at the right time. So what I am after hear is 1-click ease of invoking the right function at the right time. To this end, I think smartphones should have, at a minimum, one physical button that can be accessed by apps. I want to make that physical button easily configurable. This is how I think it should work: each app should expose named actions, giving the user the ability to select one or more default actions that will be invoked by the hard button, when that app is running.

Some use cases:

  • Starting the camera, and putting it in your chosen mode
  • Starting to record a track in MyTracks, and making sure the GPS is on
  • Invoking Navigation, to the pre-defined default destination (e.g. to home, to work)
  • Mute button
  • Starting the stopwatch (physical button should be much more precise than the touchscreen)

I know, this sounds a lot like what you can do with Tasker. The big, obvious difference is the physical button. The other difference is ease-of-use: let’s face it, very few people are going to mess with Tasker. I dabbled with it, but lost interest. This needs to be simple, obvious, painless.

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