Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Will We See Vertically Integrated Google+MMI Products?

First, my apologies for the long hiatus here – have been focusing on other things…
I end up getting into lots of conversations about what Google is going to do with Motorola Mobility (MMI).  Have talked about it on conference calls, in briefings and in discussion threads.  I have a pretty strong opinion about it that seems pretty obvious to me, but does not align with what a large number of my colleagues are thinking, so I thought I would put it out here and see what kind of feedback I would get.
I agree with what seems to be the majority opinion – Google wants MMI’s IP.  There is a bit of knife fight going on in the IP space and Google is smack in the middle of it, so they clearly want to be well armed (and armored).  But, I do not think that IP was the primary driver in this deal.  Could they have found a better acquisition with an eye towards improving their patent position?  Perhaps, but that is not really what this piece is about.  BTW – if you really want to read up on who’s suing who over what, found this great blog called Foss Patents –
My opinion is that in order for Google to really drive success with Android on tablets (the Kindle Fire aside – it runs a version of Android that Amazon maintains from the Open Source codebase), they will have to vertically integrate on MMI devices.  I do not think that there will be a spread of Android tablets coming from the OEMs that can successfully compete with the iPad, because they have one critical stumbling block – fragmentation of Android.  Each OEM feels that they must have value-adds to compete on the store shelf successfully – and those value-adds drive differences in hardware and software on each device that makes everyone’s implementation of Android somewhat different.  If the OEMs did not each add features and functions that differentiated their tablet from others, then it would be a commodity market driven solely by cost (and perhaps strength of brand/brand loyalty to a much lesser extent).
Where fragmentation is a killer is in the app space – developers need to test on (and perhaps do special development for) every tablet they want to support.  If they code and test on only one vendor’s tablet, then they run the very real risk of their app being feature crippled or even crashing on other tablets in the market.  I have talked to hundreds of developers and they (virtually) all have to deal with this.  Does not matter if the developer is a big media brand with a team of mobile developers or one guy coding in his basement, the developer has to make ROI decisions regarding every Android tablet that their app will run on, because each tablet dictates coding and testing resources.  So, some developers pick tablets from the big brands and cross their fingers while others take a wait and see attitude and let the market tell them which devices to support.
In addition, we have all seen Android behave differently on different tablets – video is dropping frames on one and scrolling is a problem on another, etc.  Another byproduct of fragmentation of Android due to differences in the underlying hardware.
Well, on iOS this is not an issue – you write an app for an iPad and it runs, period, and iOS behaves/performs the same on every iPad (of the same version, of course).  I am not a big iOS coding guy, so it would not surprise me to learn that a software update occasionally breaks an app, but an iPad is an iPad is an iPad as far as apps are concerned.  Makes a developer’s decision easier from a supportability and cost perspective.
And, of course, there are the design and fit-and-finish issues that Apple nails every time and which several of the OEMs have struggled with more than once in the rush to get to market.
So, if Google wants to see a killer Android tablet in the market that performs well across the board, is rock solid on apps and looks amazing, then I believe that they have to control both the hardware and the OS , which, in my opinion, points towards a vertical integration on MMI hardware.  In the past, they have picked tablet partners to be the “chosen” provider of the first device that is supposedly well integrated with a new Android release, but none of those devices have been very successful in the market for a number of reasons.  They need to control the entire stack.
If Google does vertically integrate with an MMI tablet, then they are in a position to field a device that competes well head-to-head with the iPad in the market - they control the entire stack and it would be entirely up to them to build the killer Android device.  Unfortunately, going this route creates an unavoidable problem with all of their OEM partners building tablets, because this Google/MMI tablet would be “the” Android tablet and the OEMs become 2nd class Android citizens who are still struggling with what I think is an intractable fragmentation problem.  If the MMI device becomes the reference design to “unfragment” Android, then any OEM that adheres to the reference becomes a commodity product.  It is an interesting dilemma...
MMI has handsets and set top boxes as well - both additional targets for Android vertical integration.
If Google does go the vertical integration route with MMI on tablets, then what can the OEMs do?  Migrate to Windows8?  Ask HP to fire webOS back up?  Go to Samsung and partner to license Bada?  I think that answering each of these requires its own blog entry, as this one is running long already.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lower end tablets have to get this right.

So, Notion Ink - not my intent to pick on you guys in particular, but this illustrates my point today...

Maybe I am a bit late to the game here and just piling on, but I don't get the Adam tablet.  Sure, they did some things right (e.g., chose a solid CPU and a cool transflective display option from Pixel Qi), it is priced competitively and on the outside it looks like a reasonable product, but they made some fundamental mistakes, several of which were pointed out by others long before I got here... 

So, here's my problem - you HAVE to release product, not prototype.  OTAs cannot fail - you have to design well test the hell out of them (been there, done that).  Your hardware cannot look like it was thrown together in haste.  These issues and more have been laid bare before you all in more blogs, reviews, teardowns, forums, etc than I could possibly enumerate.

But, what I have not heard people talking about, and my point today is:  that in order to have a viable consumer product in this space, you have to have apps.  When I was at Chumby, we used to remind ourselves of this by saying "it's the content, stupid!"  I believe it really is.  Actually, I know it really is.  I have been on this soapbox before and imagine that I will be again.

Companies that get caught up in rushing to market and/or making a cool piece of hardware, but forget that the apps are what the user really cares about, what sets the tone of the out of the box experience when the user first powers up their new device and what enables a brand to build compelling consumer marketing around their product are clearly not paying close enough attention to the ads for iOS-powered and Android-powered devices - those ads are mostly about the apps.

If you know me, you might think I am biased, since app acquisition is big part of what I have been doing for the last several years, but all you have to do is to look at what is going on in the market and you will nod your head and say, "yep."

I know that getting apps for pre-load is not easy - it is hard work - but just like getting your OTA solid, and passing your FCC certification and having engaging ID and all the other things you need to do in order to launch your product in this space, you need to get it done and get it done right.  And not just any apps - no, no, no...  the apps have to be the apps that people use and people want, the ones they talk about, the ones they show their friends.  It is pretty easy to build that list of apps by sitting down in front of your computer (or tablet or whatever) and spending a few minutes, if you can't just rattle them off the top of your head already.

I will have lots more to say about apps in the coming weeks.   For all of you folks working hard to launch your tablets, get it all right...and figure out how to get those apps.  Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Here we go! Welcome...

Hi friends, colleagues and those just curious about (or even better, interested in) what I might have to say.  For those of you who do not know me yet, here's a brief intro...

I have been in high tech long enough to know better, yet here I am still.  Suffice it to say that I started on the software dev side of the business, worked my way up to CTO and then made the transition to the business side of the house (or as my developer friends like to call it, the Dark Side).

Over the last 7 years or so, I have been marinating in the mobile/connected device and app space.  Started as one of the co-founders of chumby, where I did a little bit of everything in the beginning and then settled (mostly) into a business development role.  Worked with players across the rapidly growing connected device ecosystem - ODMs/CMs, chip companies, OEMs/CE companies, carriers/operators. retailers and, of course, all kinds of companies in the nascent "apps" space.  Openpeak lured me away from chumby to build their app ecosystem, so that is what I did, from the ground up.  Since last summer, those activities were focused entirely on Android tablet apps.

I have spoken about devices and apps at conferences in the US and EU, spoken to investors regarding trends and opportunities in the market and advised Fortune 100 companies regarding their app/mobile device strategies. And, of course,  I have done lots of deals in this space. 

In my travels I have talked to hundreds and hundreds of people in and around the device/app space.  I have learned lots of things from very smart people and I have formulated lots of opinions - about things ranging from who is building devices to the viability of the various application ecosystems to the pros and cons of Android to ... well, don't want to give it all away in my first blog entry., so you will just have to tune in for more.

I plan to talk about that stuff here - you may find it interesting, informative and/or useful, OR you might think that I am full of crap.  Hopefully, more of you will fall into the first camp.

Just a random comment - cannot escape this stuff - my wife is watching TV and there was just a *really* bad tablet commercial - we can talk about that at some point too - who hires these marketing guys, anyway?

So, I plan to post every week and then see what folks have to say.  I have several weeks worth of subjects already picked out, but feel free to make suggestions and I will do my best to respond.

So, my first "real" post will be in the next week, give or take.  The next post may take a bit longer - for those of you that know me, my mom just passed a few days ago, so getting through that, still.

Hope you opt to join me here and that you find it worth your time.  Back with you soon.