An X-ray of Mobile Software: The 11 vital organs of mobile

[Sales of mobile phones remain healthy, but can the same be said of the software designed for them? Guest author Morten Grauballe offers a biological metaphor to check the pulse and visualise the evolution of the mobile software business.]

The app store “Long Tail” has recently dominated strategy discussions in the mobile industry. The Long Tail is a captivating and inspiring notion that challenges companies to think beyond mass production and mass retailing. The mobile software market is, however, far from mass production and mass retailing. Tight coupling of software and hardware, combined with platform fragmentation, have created a mass market for mobile phones, but not for mobile software. Hence, the tail is wagging the dog (and its organs) in the mobile software strategy discussion.

I ‘d like to use a biological metaphor – the notion of the 11-Organ System – to represent the core value-adding elements in mobile software and discuss how Apple, China Mobile, DoCoMo, Google, Nokia and RIM have utilised these core organs to their benefit. The 11 Organs interact to create the mobile software.

The Long Tail App Store
The Long Tail concept was coined in a 2004 article by Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson to describe the notion that a large share of consumer needs rest within the tail of a statistical normal distribution. From a marketer’s perspective, this means you need to sell large quantities of unique items – each in small quantities – often combined with large quantities of a few very popular items.

The idea was coined to describe phenomena in online retailing where companies such as Amazon for books and eBay for auctions were able to cater – profitably – to very small, unique segments of the market. The digital economy allows these retailers to decouple stock from purchase. Later, the notion was proven to apply to some of the most successful business models today, namely Apple’s iTunes music store and Google’s search advertising model.

Lately, the Long Tail has been used to describe and propagate one of the biggest hype waves in the mobile market, namely the app store. Apple recently passed 200,000 applications in its store; fanning the enthusiasm for all major players to develop their own app store strategy.

Whereas books, auctions, music, and to some extent search are well-understood businesses with relatively straight-forward Long Tail effects, the essence of the mobile software business is generally not well understood and analyzed. So, before we pin the app store Long Tail on Eeyore, it is worth taking off the blindfold in an attempt to understand the essence of mobile software.

The Organ Systems of Mobile Software
Like biological systems, the software on mobile phones has value-creating subsystems. The Long Tail app store is like the tail on mammals. It does not have a function without being attached to a healthy body full of strong and interconnected value-creating systems. Apple knows this. Google knows this. Nokia knows this. DoCoMo knows this. They all have strategies in place for these value-creating systems.

Mammals generally have 11 organ systems (see note at the end of the article for a biology refresh). To stay true to my metaphor, I break down the most advanced smartphones into 11 organ systems – five core infrastructure systems and six application level systems. There are of course many more ways these systems can be broken down (see VisionMobile’s Industry Atlas for examples).

The five infrastructure core systems are:

  • Operating system: On a high level, the key value of an operating system is to be found in the abstraction of the hardware into a set of APIs against which applications can be written. More fundamentally, this process of abstraction has a significant impact on the characteristics of the system, including usability, battery life and privacy. There is a long discussion taking place within the industry as to whether the OS is a commodity or not – I believe not, but I ‘ll leave that debate is for future article. Let’s instead list the current choices available in the mobile market: Android, Bada, Blackberry OS, Brew Mobile Platform (BMP), iPhone OS, LiMo, Maemo, MediaTek OS, Nucleus, Series 40, STE OS, Symbian, Web OS and Windows Phone OS.
  • Application Execution Environments (AEEs): Most phones have one or more AEEs that attract developers and hence enhance the ability to “wag the tail”. The list of AEEs is long, but should include Java, Flash, widget and and web runtimes. AEEs and operating systems are generally complementary, but as the recent spat between Adobe and Apple has shown, these value-creating systems do not always coexist peacefully.
  • Software Management System: From a strategy analysis perspective, this is probably one of the fastest developing value-creating subsystems. Software management addresses two ‘bodily functions’:
    • The in-the-hands user experience. Apple has made 22 versions available for its phones since June 29, 2007. That is one release every 6 weeks. Most of the features released have addressed the user experience by enhancing features or the usage of features. In the end, this generates revenue and builds an ongoing relationship with the user.
    • Repair and correction. The ability to protect the phone depends on the strength of the security system (see below), but also on the system’s ability to respond to issues in the system, whether malware or not. Software Management allows us to respond with new pieces of software when needed.
  • Security System: The security system is very similar to the integumentary and lymphatic systems in humans. It protects the system from external threats. Parts of the security system should be built into the operating system, but other parts are application-level components, such as lock and wipe of the device.
  • Business Intelligence System: Similar to the nervous system, the business intelligence system allows you to understand what is going on in the entire organism. This ranges from understanding usability issues over performance problems to actual defects in the system. You want to know what works and what does not work for the particular user, which apps are used the most, which services work and which not, how does service usage vary across devices, etc.

The six core application systems are:

  • Peer-to-Peer Communication: Voice communication is often overlooked in strategy discussions of mobile software, but it is one of the most used applications on any mobile phone. It might be a baseline feature, but it needs to be done well. Integration with other value-adding subsystems is quite important too.
  • Peer-to-Peer Messaging: This includes everything from SMS over instant messaging to push e-mail applications. Similar to peer-to-peer communication, it is generally not considered sexy at this stage of the market. It is however the second largest revenue generator after voice communication and thus should not be disregarded.
  • Search: Most phones already have Web search functions. However, the future of search is in the location-based services (LBS) area, where digital search is combined with the physical presence of the user. Advertising is a part of this subsystem as it connects sellers with buyers of products and services.
  • Content Creation: The biggest craze in the market is social networking. Every new phone has social networking capabilities galore closely integrated into the contact manager. Content creation, however, also includes pictures, video and other types of media produced by the consumer. Most of the data produced by the consumer needs to be shared somehow. That is where the key value creation of the mobile phone comes in.. sharing!
  • Content Consumption: Compared to creation, content consumption is so yesterday. The consumer expects easy access to a catalogue of games, music, video, etc.
  • Browsing: This is such a crucial application that I have classified it as a system of its own. The browser is used as the basis of many of the other systems. Actually, most of the other applications can run via the browser and hence it is even possible to classify the browsing subsystem as an infrastructure subsystem.

Choose your Organs before Pinning on the Long Tail
There is no need to have the perfect business model for each of the mobile software organ systems above, but you need to have considered all of them and, if possible, have three or four strong organs to support an independent software strategy that can then carry a Long Tail app store. Let’s consider a few examples:

  • Apple has been the most aggressive on the OS side, publishing native APIs to developers and building a large developer community. Apple’s software management strategy is well-synced with its OS development and is a real strength. With iTunes Apple also is very well placed in media consumption. Apple’s weaknesses are in the areas of AEEs and search.
  • China Mobile has recently put its weight behind the OPhone, which is running a completely customized branch of Android. The OPhone version of Android is managed by a company called Borqs. At launch, handsets were available from Dell, HTC and Lenovo with plans for further handset models from Samsung, ZTE, Phillips, Motorola and LG. By having Borqs in between Google and themselves, CMCC achieves greater ownership of the operating system and its APIs. This is, of course, expensive as Borqs need to track new versions of Android and migrate China Mobile-specific changes across to the new versions of the OPhone OS.
  • DoCoMo has traditionally been focused on content-consumption and browsing with its i-mode services. i-mode nicely mixes Java, Browsing, Flash and e-mail into a very strong application suite. Customers know what they are getting. These services are built on top of two different operating systems, namely Linux and Symbian. So far, DoCoMo has not exposed native APIs to developers, but has focused on Java. The content market is therefore very strong in Japan, but the software application market is not well developed. Recently, DoCoMo has released its first Android handset, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, which gives it access to the Android market. This is the company’s first experience with an application market.
  • Google has combined the introduction of the Android operating with a strong suite of applications (Gmail, Google Maps, GTalk and Android market). While on the surface Android is an open source project, you only get access to the application suite if you agree to Google’s commercial terms.  There is no surprise that Google’s strengths come from its applications – it has less control of the core infrastructure components.
  • RIM has full control of its OS and has used Java as the AEE to create a third-party community of developers. The real strength in the RIM offering, however, is peer-to-peer messaging and this is the subsystem that ties RIM to its users. Over the last three years, RIM has made improvements to the subsystems that are more focused on mass-market consumers, such as content consumption/creation, but it is not considered to be its strength.
  • Nokia is active in all the subsystems above. Focus is probably one of the weaknesses of the Nokia offering. Traditionally, Nokia has been focused on peer-to-peer messaging and communication, but recently it has moved aggressively into search and content consumption, which are emerging as their new areas of strength.

Taking inspiration from Blue Ocean Strategy, it is possible to create an Organ Map. I have included an example below. (Each area included in this map warrants its own discussion, so please take it as an educated view rather than a universal statement of truth).

Getting started on your own Organ Map
Any serious player looking at the app store Long Tail needs to look at the organ system above and decide how to build a serious software strategy first. Some companies, like HP with their Palm acquisition, are at a cross-road and should make tough choices up-front. Others are in the middle of executing on their software strategy and need to evaluate progress. In both cases, key questions to answer are:

–        Which organ systems are the focus of my strategy?

–        What is the right mix of core organs to application organs?

–        What level of control do you want to exert over each organ system?

–        How will the chosen organ system allow me to build a relationship with my customer?

–        How do the organ systems interact to realize value for the customer?

–        How are my organ systems mapping against the competition?

Through the discussion around these questions, you should document the criteria by which you and your organizations determine the scoring of each organ system. That will answer questions like, what is a high-end offering in the browser space and who is offering this in the market.

To have a truly independent strategy, the choice of organ systems need to include at least one core organ system over which you can exert a high-degree of control. This does not have to be complete ownership of the organ system, but you should be able to determine the roadmap and direction of the organ system.

The Long Tail as a Greenhouse for New Organ Systems
Once you have a nice set of organ systems up and running, the real point of the Long Tail app store is to act as a greenhouse for new organ systems. By monitoring the sales statistics and trends on your app store, you get a very good view (from your business intelligence system) as to what the next organ system might be.

It is no coincidence Apple just added iAd to iPhone OS v4. They are on top of their business intelligence game and have been tracking advertising in their app store for a while. As apps or features develop into viable businesses, they get promoted from the tail to the body. They become new organ systems for the value-creation machine called Apple.

What are your own thoughts on strategy as a biology metaphor? What other examples of use of software-based organ systems have you come across? What Organ Systems does HP currently have that would render Palm as successful business? Which new ones should they build?

– Morten

[Morten Grauballe is EVP Marketing at Red Bend and ex VP Product Management at Symbian, and has been in the mobile industry long enough to boast both scars and medals]

Note 1: The 11 major organ systems of the body are:

(1) The integumentary system is the organ system that protects the body from damage – it includes nails, skin, hair, fat, etc. This is the largest system making up ~16% of the human body.

(2) The skeletal system is the structural support system with bones, cartilage, ligaments and tendons.

(3) The muscular system is the anatomical system of a species that allows it to move.

(4) The nervous system is an organ system containing a network of specialized cells called neurons that coordinate the actions of an animal and transmit signals between different parts of its body

(5) The endocrine system is a system of glands, each of which secretes a type of hormone to regulate the body. The endocrine system is an information signal system much like the nervous system. Hormones regulate many functions of an organism, including mood, growth and development, tissue function, and metabolism.

(6) The circulatory system is an organ system that passes nutrients (such as amino acids and electrolytes), gases, hormones, blood cells, etc. to and from cells in the body

(7) The lymphatic system in vertebrates is a network of conduits that carry a clear fluid called lymph. It is used to fight diseases and transport fluids from the cells.

(8) The respiratory system’s function is to allow oxygen exchange through all parts of the body.

(9) The digestive system is the organ system responsible for the mechanical and chemical breaking down of food into smaller components that can be absorbed into the blood stream.

(10) The urinary system is the organ system that produces, stores, and eliminates urine.

(11) The reproductive system is a system of organs within an organism that work together for the purpose of reproduction.

The inner secrets of the 100 million unit club

[ever thought how hard it is for mobile software companies to penetrate the mobile space? guest blogger Morten Grauballe introduces the ‘100 million unit club’ of successful mobile software firms and spins a tale of myth and reality for making it big in the mobile phone industry]

2007 became the year when mainstream Silicon Valley decided to attack the mobile phone market head-on. With over 1 billion mobile phones shipped every year and the market moving towards 3 billion mobile subscribers, you can understand why.

Apple started the year by announcing the iPhone. Half way through they started shipping and quite successfully too. The incumbent players took notice believe me. Then to make 2007 a real year of change, Google announced Android a new platform meant to change the dynamics of the value chain. It is free (in a royalty sense) and with a strong focus on allowing internet applications and services (to make money). Apple has also announced that it will open up the iPhone for native applications in 2008. It is a complete onslaught on the mobile phone market.

So, if you are a large software player in the PC or internet space, then 2008 seems like the perfect year to penetrate the market and get onto those 1 billion units. You can easily envision the following conversation taking place in well-establish software players from San Francisco down to San Jose:

CHoM (Clever Head of Marketing): Over 1 Billion mobile phones every year that is too good to be true!….How do we penetrate this market? How do we get to the biggest installed base of users?
RAG (Resident Architect Genius): Not sure
CHoM: Java seems to be a good option there are millions of java-enabled phones in the market
A little later .
RAG: I had a look .Java ME does not give good access to a broad set of APIs. Also .there is significant Java fragmentation across handsets complete nightmare, if you ask me!
CHoM: I got it! We will move to native programming – Smartphones are taking off!
RAG: Hmm .Symbian OS, with the largest installed base, is on single digit percentage market share.
CHoM: But if we add Brew we will get a few more percentage points! [in denial!]
RAG: We are still nowhere near 1 billion units!
CHoM: What about adding Windows Mobile? Or the new Android thing? [Now completely in denial!]
A few hours later
CHoM: So in summary, we need to port to 8-12 different operating systems to be successful!
RAG: Yep and most of these operating systems do not have publicly available SDKs! [clearly enjoying himself]
CHoM: What ? [Almost crying!]
RAG: Finally….you should know that there is no distribution method for getting software onto phones! [Big grin!]
CHoM: ..! [in tears]
A few more hours .
CHoM: So what you are saying is ..we need a relationship with the handset manufacturers to get the SDKs and to get our software embedded into their phones! [with a hardened sense of realism!
RAG: Spot on, boss!

In a world like that, it might be surprising to newcomers (like CHoM and RAG above) that there are successful software players in the mobile phone industry. There are in fact quite a few. When your software is on 100 million phones globally, then you have joined the 100 million unit club . Some of the leading members of this club are:
Adobe (formerly Macromedia) provides the Flash Lite execution environment
Access provides a successful mobile browser
Beatnik provides the polyphonic ringtone engine on most mobile phones
Packet Video provides the audio and video technology, i.e. for the Verizon V-Cast music service
Opera provides a successful mobile browser
Red Bend Software provides the majority of Firmware updating Over-The-Air (FOTA) software
T9 provides the predictive text engine found on a lot of phones
The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) provides the graphics engine that drives a lot of UIs in the wireless industry

By studying the approach of these companies, newcomers can learn a lot about how you tackle the world of mobile. What do they do right?

First of all, they all have excellent products that excite not only the mobile operators, but also bring true value and benefits to the consumers around the world. Without this, you should not even try to enter the mobile phone market.

Secondly, these companies embrace complexity, rather than trying to ignore it or wait for it to disappear. Most, if not all, members of the 100 million units club have ported their software to the 8-12 leading operating systems in the industry. Where applicable they will have a Java version (like Opera Mini) and a native version (like Opera Mobile). They have also invested in the art of software optimization (something not always needed on a PC), which allows them to move into the mid-tier and low-tier segments of the market. They also understand the complexities of software distribution. When appropriate they will have relationship with the handset manufacturers. At other times, the will use the portals for the mobile operators or independent service providers to distribute their solution.

Thirdly, these companies understand the market dynamics of the global mobile phone market. Some markets are operator-led, while other markets are more OEM-led. If, for instance, you have managed to get your software embedded on some of DoCoMo s MOAP-S based handsets in Japan, then your next port of call should probably be the S60 or UIQ licensees in Europe. If you manage to get on these handsets, then you have an opportunity to move to the proprietary operating systems of these licensees. Gradually you expand your market to more and more platforms across the various markets in the global mobile industry.

Finally, all of the above companies have participated actively in standards work. To get acceptance for your solution, it important for all the players in the value chain (mobile operators as well as handset manufacturers) that your software or service is based on open APIs and protocols that other people can add value to and support.

(In coining the term the 100 million unit club , I have ignored web programming. In our brave new world of web 2.0, that is admittedly a crime which I am sure web 2.0 fanatics will nail me for. The fragmentation and appropriateness of web programming for mobile phones is however a big topic in itself and is probably better left for a separate blog posting).

Lessons in a changing market
Basing recommendation on extrapolations from the past is always dangerous in a dynamic market. Let’s therefore also look at some of the changes taking place right now. These trends could determine who will and who will not be members of the 100 million unit club in the future.

Open operating systems are definitely gaining market traction. Linux, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and a few others are now responsible for close to 10% of the market. There is still an ongoing debate in the market as to whether they will make up 20% or 50% of the market someday. Whatever your view point, it is not going to happen overnight, and in the short term, Apple’s OS X and Google s Android platform are two new operating systems that need to be taken into consideration. Platform de-fragmentation is clearly not a trend to bet on in the next 2-3 years. In the 5 year time horizon, it might be.

The good news about the increased competition in the platform market is that SDKs, tools, and support from the large platform providers are improving rapidly. It is therefore becoming easier for the software players to embrace the complexity as described above. Software is becoming more portable.

If we move from the world of software platforms to the world of software distribution, there is more help to be found. The Open Mobile Alliance ratified the specification of Device Management (DM) in early 2004. At the heart of the OMA DM standard, there is a well-designed protocol which enables the service provider to query any handset for its basic characteristics (like model number, firmware version, and settings). According to Ovum (Nov 2007), there is now an installed base of 235 million handsets with OMA DM support. This will grow to 50% of all handsets by the end of 2008. With both handset manufacturers and mobile operators actively using this protocol to provision settings and new software to handsets, it is becoming possible to distribute software post-launch. All of a sudden, you know which handsets are attached to the network and you can offer new features and services. For those software players who are already comfortable with the complexity of the platform market, this is an opportunity to accelerate time-to-market and up-sell new software or services once you are on the handset. The completion of SCoMO (Software Component Management Object) with in the OMA will further accelerate this trend.

2007 was a very exciting year for software providers in the mobile market. Players, who understand how to navigate the new world of mobiles have a lot to gain. Good luck and Happy New Year to all new candidate members of the 100 million unit club!

– Morten

[Morten Grauballe is EVP Marketing at Red Bend and ex VP Product Management at Symbian, and has been in the mobile industry long enough to boast both scars and medals]