Developing for TV: Crossing the chasm between screens

[The bright cross-screen future is creeping ever closer, with handset manufacturers and consumer electronics giants competing over the next connected screen; the TV. But what about developers – how easy is it to create apps that work across screens? Guest author Ben Hookway discusses the nuances of cross-screen development and the challenges and opportunities ahead for the smart TV market]

Imagine for a moment a world of apps where there are more than 10 platforms to choose from – and where most of these platforms are closed to developers. A world where only a few applications have been developed. A world where no one is using these apps anyway.

Continue reading Developing for TV: Crossing the chasm between screens

The Android UI Dilemma: Unify or Differentiate?

[The UI of Android mobile devices is at the epicenter of a conflict between Google and the OEM struggle for differentiation. Guest author Ben Hookway analyses why Google’s UI strategy will be paramount to its proliferation as Android moves to multiple screens]

The Android UI dilemma - unify or differentiate?

The topic of User Interfaces always solicits strong views. It’s a bit like TV – everyone is an expert on it because everyone uses it. Those who have been in the mobile industry a while have seen the tide of UI control flow in and out.

In 2002 operators are demanding custom UIs from handset OEMs in the form of Vodafone Live and Orange SPV. Naturally, most OEMs resist, trying to capture consumer loyalty to the handset, not the network.

[poll id=5]

Three years on, and OEMs are opting to customizing Windows Mobile and Symbian powered handsets rather than creating all-out new UIs. At the same time, network operators are seeing poor returns from UI customization and are dissolving their teams.

With the iPhone big bang in 2007, the UI is back to being the hottest topic in mobile. Post iPhone, almost all tier-1 OEMs are developing their own UI layers, namely HTC Sense, Motorola Blur, Sony Ericsson Rachael, Samsung TouchWiz and LG S-Class. In parallel, network operators are building bigger teams to attempt more control over the UI again; Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile have 100+ person teams working on ‘signature’ applications and UI definition, while the trend seems to have spilled over to the other side of the Atlantic with Verizon and AT&T opening up multi-million software development centers. Behind the scenes there is also a good deal of demand for UI technology and expertise such as TAT’s Cascades and Mentor’s Inflexion products.

The latest development in the UI saga is the rumoured tighter control being exerted by Google on the Gingerbread release of Android. The aim of this appears to be to reduce API fragmentation issues caused by custom OEM UIs and deliver a more consistent UI brand across different manufacturer devices.

This is not going to go down well with Google’s partners. There is a core commercial conflict on how Google wants to take Android forward. Google wants an Apple-like level of control over the device appearance with their Android handset compliance definition encompassing hardware features, software performance, and service bundling (see the recently published CTS and CDD documents).

However the Apple and Google business models could not be more different.

–       Apple controls the semiconductor, hardware, and software make-up of the iPhone all the way to ad services, branding and retail pricing, whereas Google only controls the software.

–       Apple makes its own devices (at a rate of 1 new model per year), whereas Google relies on partner OEMs to produce 100s of new models per year.

–       Apple spends big advertising dollars in communicating a consistent brand experience across products, while Google co-markets its Experience handsets but puts no money (or effort) in partner handsets.

Most importantly, unlike Apple, Google relies on OEM partners to bring these devices to market.

In the OEM world of survival of the fittest and thinning margins, there are two differentiating factors: price and UI. Yet, both of these factors are being constrained; price is continually declining (standing at 100 GBP unsubsidized for Android handsets) thanks to ODMs willing to sacrifice margins; and the UI is apparently being locked down by Google in the Gingerbread release.

The economic model of handset OEMs necessitates UI differentiation and Google is taking that away. For Google to expect Apple-like control on a fundamentally different business model is just unrealistic.

And it’s only getting worse.

Battling across 4 screens
The next battle (if we are not already in it) is going to be about platforms for your whole life – not just your mobile, TV, PC in isolation, but as one joined-up world; Experience Ecosystems made up of multiple screens where experience can easily roam from one screen to the next.

Browsers are already bridging the gap across laptops, phones, tablets TVs and cars, while the ‘app’ paradigm is taking this further.

To have mobile, TV and PC seamlessly join up requires consistency of the user experience. Apple is the obvious role model here. The Mac, iPhone, iPad, all use similar gestures and interactions, come with similar application design guidelines and are connected to the same centralized service cloud of iTunes and MobileMe. Apple is again the role model in creating the first Experience Ecosystem.

In the Android camp, Google recently announced Google TV. A consistent user experience across mobile and TV is going to be not just important but paramount. Don’t be surprised to see mobile handset OEMs to extend use of Android to other consumer electronics from picture frames and DECT phones to set-top boxes and hi-fis.

But how is Google going to achieve this consistency without an Apple-like hardware control? Hardware control gives you complete user experience consistency in terms of UI responsiveness, screen quality and more. In the next release of Android (Gingerbread) the UI is apparently going to be more locked down; an attempt by Google to gain more control without resorting to hardware manufacturing.

Imagine browsing content on your BrandX Android based tablet and then synching it to your BrandX TV set for viewing over the air. Consistency of experience between the 2 devices will be key. The web browser provides this consistency of interaction and is the best lowest-common denominator right now. But the app phenomenon is outperforming the web by leveraging on location, micropayments, personal user information and intuitve discovery. As one of the main engines behind the app phenomenon, Android could well be powering the battle of the smart living room.

The industry tension over the UI customization of Android is not going to go away anytime soon – rather its going to amplify as more and more manufacturers leverage Android in creating smart, connected and differentiated consumer electronics devices.

OEMs need to plan for their differentiated UI to span multiple devices. Having a familiar experience across devices can be a key driver of brand loyalty and is strategically important to each OEM in creating their own Experience Ecosystem. Competitive pressures make this a key pillar of differentiation that cannot be wasted. It cannot be done half-heartedly. There need to be clear benefits to consumers and clear continuity across as many devices as possible. But the benefits of the larger Android community also need to be maintained, for example having unrestricted access to the Android Market and consistent consumer marketing as to the differentiation offered by the OS itself.

Google needs to accept that UI differentiation is a strategic requirement for its partners, offer alternative differentiation strategies or fundamentally change how it brings Android to market.

Question is, does Google see this as a challenge to the proliferation of Android, and if so, what will they do about it?

– Ben

[Ben Hookway is the CEO of Vidiactive, a company bringing web video to TV, using an open and multi-device approach. He consults on user experience technology and trends, having been founder and CEO of Next Device, which was acquired by Mentor Graphics. Get in touch with Ben: ben.hookway (at)]

Low cost Android: crossing the $100 barrier

[Where’s Google’s Android going? Guest blogger Ben Hookway uncovers the race for low cost Android taking place behind the scenes of the mobile industry, and how this may change the face of Android as we know it]

Low cost Android devices have been forming a large part of R&D activity for some time now. Behind the scenes of the mobile industry all major players – including semiconductor vendors, software vendors, software services companies, ODMs, OEMs, and network operators – are putting considerable resources into rolling out low cost Android phones. It’s a silent revolution in the making that, once set in motion, should see Android shipments lift off from the single-digit millions.

So how low is ‘low cost’? Reports of $75-$110 reference designs are emerging from Asia; these are fully featured touchscreen devices, albeit with an EDGE (2.75G), rather than a 3G baseband chipset.

Why the interest in low cost Android? Low cost means volume which in turn means market share, and a consistent platform for the provision of services. There are multiple parties with a compelling interest in having a low cost Android device.

Semiconductor companies are under pressure to better address the market for  Android platforms. Qualcomm is the overwhelming leader in 3G chipsets for Android phones in Western markets. Their competition such as ST Ericsson, Broadcom and Infineon are responding and a low cost Android niche may be a way for them to break into the current Qualcomm dominance.

The majority of handset manufacturers are investing heavily in Android. With so much effort going into a single platform, there is an inevitable pressure to be able to scale that platform on as wide a range of phones as possible. While the lion’s share of press coverage is on ‘smartphones’, the mass volume still is in lower end devices.

Network operators are already developing and deploying ‘operator packs’ comprising of specific operator applications and service enablers, designed to run on Android devices. Longer term, Android may end up affording operators the standardised  platform for devices they have been craving for years; a standard platform they can consistently deploy their own ‘pack’ on. That’s assuming operators can gain access to low cost, mid-range Android devices on which they can deploy standard operator packs on and therefore extend the operator experience to the mainstream consumers.  Moreover, with subsidies widely practiced in the mobile industry, it is in the best interest of the operators to reduce the cost of Android phones.

Continue reading Low cost Android: crossing the $100 barrier

Feature phones and the RTOS – the ignored 85% of the market

[Is mobile technology all about Android, Apple and Symbian? Guest blogger Ben Hookway explains why the other 85% of the market is far more important and dishes out the facts to prove why the death of feature phones and the RTOS has been greatly exaggerated]

Nobody seems to write about feature phones these days. The subject is not very sexy, not very well understood, and the people who contribute products and services to the building of feature phones tend to keep a low profile. The same applies to RTOSes (real-time operating systems) which power most feature phones. On the contrary, the mainstream tech publications breathlessly talk about open OS like Android, Symbian, Apple and WebOS and the smartphones that they power.

RTOS vs OpenOS

I work in business development for Mentor Graphics, maker of the Nucleus RTOS which makes it into 100’s of millions of phones per year. I’ve spent the last 6 years (incl. as CEO of NextDevice, now Mentor) immersed in the business of mass market phones at all levels of the software stack.

Real-time operating systems have low processing and footprint characteristics which make them ideal for powering baseband chips. As a result, RTOSes were for along time the only operating system found on phones and quickly became a key part of the mobile phone technology stack. The key RTOSes today are Mentor Graphics’ Nucleus and ENEA’s OSE, followed by WindRiver’s VxWorks.

Feature phones though are obviously a very large and very important segment of the mobile handset space and reports the death of the RTOS have been greatly exaggerated. Most publicity is around the open OS space at the moment, which tends to eclipse the fact that feature phones and basic phones are the major volume players in this industry. Around 200m smartphones were shipped in 2008 which leaves nearly 1 billion feature or voice phones. Nucleus and OSE are each installed in circa 1.5 billion phones, or circa 32-34% of the devices sold. (see VisionMobile’s 100 million club).

So how did these feature phone software platforms come to be?

Some important facts on the history of feature phones and RTOSes:

– OEM legacy. Feature phones from the big 5 handset OEMs are usually powered by in-house application frameworks which have been developed over 5-10 of years (and over a decade in some cases). They originally ran on the baseband chip of the mobile phone and therefore are designed to run on the real-time operating system (RTOS) which baseband chips run.

– Feature creep. As available processing power on baseband processors increased, the sophistication of the feature phone platforms increased with them. The internal platforms gave birth to additional, more sophisticated features to take advantage of the increased resources.

– The leap to application processors. Today, mid to high end feature phones run separate application processors in order to enable advanced multimedia capability, touchscreens, and so on. We now have feature phones adopting the same chip architecture as smartphones, and this explains why many application processor vendors are keen to have RTOS support on chips previously designated as only supporting high end OSes. The internal feature phone platforms the manufacturers use were designed to run on RTOSes, and therefore you need an RTOS to run on application processor chips so you can run your feature phone platform. Clear?

Indeed, the RTOS based feature phone is far from dead and far from basic. Just consider one of the best selling phones in the UK in 2008 – the Samsung Tocco. Feature phone, touchscreen, advanced multimedia and good pricing and marketing made it a wild success. Indeed there are more and more touchscreen feature phones coming out. The Samsung Jet is a great case in point. It runs an 800MHz processor but is based on a Samsung proprietary OS.

You can also look at the LG Voyager, Neon, Dare, Vu, and the Samsung Behold, and Instinct as top selling feature phones: they are all advanced touchscreen phones powered by OEMs’ in-house RTOS platforms. These Samsung and LG phones make up 5 out of 10 top-selling touchscreen  devices in the US, according to a Nielsen survey.

As it turns out, manufacturers are not using open OSes, but RTOS platforms for their best-selling high-end devices. The death of the feature phone has been greatly exaggerated indeed.

So what is going to keep the RTOS and feature phone important? Why is Android or Symbian not going to overwhelm the market as many analysts predict ?

1. Predictability. OEMs know these platforms inside and out. As a manufacturer, predictable model refresh rate is key. If you are releasing 100 models a year (as some OEMs do) you need to be very, very sure that you are going to hit release dates, otherwise your marketing and financial model breaks down. Internal feature phone platforms are not the greatest software platforms available, but they are far from poor, and crucially they are very, very well known by the internal device development teams building the phones.

2. Cost. RTOSes need less resources – and result in cheaper phones. A feature phone requires less hardware and resources than a smartphone. The BOM is smaller and low cost is important when your main customer is an operator who subsidises the phone for the consumer. For example, Digitimes reports that the overall production costs, including royalty payments and resources, for smartphones are 3-4 times higher than those for high-end multimedia handsets, while smartphones require 3 times more components (link – subscription required)

3. The ubiquity of the Application Environment. Historically, the weakness of the feature phone has been the inability to have a broad set of application available and good post-sales application download experience. App Stores and open APIs has been a key focus for the industry and the high end OSes (Android, OSX, Symbian). However, with the proliferation of application environments like Java, Flash, Qt and web runtime environments, manufacturers and operators can hope for both a diversity of applications – and a first-class App Store experience, thanks to solutions from Qualcomm Plaza, Comverse, Amdocs, Sun, Everypoint and many others.

The hype / shipment paradox
There is an obvious inverse ratio between OS hype and shipments; the high end OSes are commanding the lion’s share of media attention but don’t really ship in big volumes, comparatively speaking. The feature phone application frameworks running on RTOSes get almost zero coverage but are the mainstay of the industry. Behind the scenes, the economic drivers for RTOS based feature phones remain strong for the foreseeable future.

RTOSes and feature phones may indeed emerge as a platform for true mass adoption of mobile services for consumers.

– Ben

[editor’s note: see VisionMobile’s side-by-side comparison of 16 operating systems and application environments, incl. ALP, Flash Lite, Montavista, Nokia S60, BREW, Qtopia, UIQ and Windows Mobile. A stark reminder of how radically has the mobile software landscape changed in the last 3 years]

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