Category Archives: nokia

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ITWriting.com awards 2011: ten key happenings, from Nokia’s burning platform to HP’s nightmare year

2011 felt like a pivotal year in technology. What was pivoting? Well, users are pivoting away from networks and PCs and towards cloud and devices. The obvious loser is Microsoft, which owns PCs and networks but is a distant follower in devices and has mixed prospects in the cloud. Winners include Apple, Google, Amazon, and Android vendors. These trends have been obvious for some time, but in 2011 we saw dramatic evidence of their outcome. As 2011 draws to a close, here is my take on ten happenings, presented as the first ever ITWriting.com annual awards.

1. Most dramatic moment award: Nokia’s burning platform and alliance with Microsoft

In February Nokia’s Stephen Elop announced an alliance with Microsoft and commitment to Windows Phone 7. In October we saw the first results in terms of product: the launch of the Lumia smartphone. It is a lovely phone though with some launch imperfections like too short battery life. We also saw greatly improved marketing, following the dismal original Windows Phone 7 launch a year earlier. Enough? Early indications are not too good. Simply put, most users want iOS or Android, and the app ecosystem, which Elop stated as a primary reason for adoption Windows Phone, is not there yet. Both companies will need to make some smart moves in 2012 to fix these issues, if it is possible. But how much time does Nokia have?

2. Riskiest technology bet: Microsoft unveils Windows 8

In September 2011 Microsoft showed a preview of Windows 8 to developers at its BUILD conference in California. It represents a change of direction for the company, driven by competition from Apple and Android. On the plus side, the new runtime in Windows 8 is superb and this may prove to be the best mobile platform from a developer and technical perspective, though whether it can succeed in the market as a late entrant alongside iOS and Android is an open question. On the minus side, Windows 8 will not drive upgrades in the same way as Windows 7, since the company has chosen to invest mainly in creating a new platform. I expect much debate about the wisdom of this in 2012.

Incidentally, amidst all the debate about Windows 8 and Microsoft generally, it is worth noting that the other Windows 8, the server product, looks like being Microsoft’s best release for years.

3. Best cloud launch: Office 365

June 2011 saw the launch of Office 365, Microsoft’s hosted collaboration platform based on Exchange and SharePoint. It was not altogether new, since it is essentially an upgrade of the older BPOS suite. Microsoft is more obviously committed to this approach now though, and has built a product that has both the features and the price to appeal to a wide range of businesses, who want to move to the cloud but prefer the familiarity of Office and Exchange to the browser-based world of Google Apps. Bad news though for Microsoft partners who make lots of money nursing Small Business Server and the like.

4. Most interesting new cross-platform tool: Embarcadero Delphi for Windows, Mac and iOS

Developers, at least those who have still heard of Embarcadero’s rapid application development tool, were amazed by the new Delphi XE2 which lets you develop for Mac and Apple iOS as well as for Windows. This good news was tempered by the discovery that the tool was seemingly patched together in a bit of a hurry, and that most existing application would need extensive rewriting. Nevertheless, an interesting new entrant in the world of cross-platform mobile tools.

5. Biggest tech surprise: Adobe shifts away from its Flash Platform

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This one caught me by surprise. In November Adobe announced a shift in its business model away from Flash and away from enterprise development, in favour of HTML5, digital media and digital marketing. It also stated that Flash for mobile would no longer be developed once existing commitments were completed. The shift is not driven by poor financial results, but rather reflects the company’s belief that this will prove a better direction in the new world of cloud and device. Too soon and too sudden? Maybe 2012 will show the impact.

6. Intriguing new battle award: NVIDIA versus Intel as GPU computing catches on

In 2011 NVIDIA announced a number of wins in the supercomputing world as many of these huge machines adopted GPU Computing, and I picked up something of a war of words with Intel over the merits of what NVIDIA calls heterogeneous computing. Intel is right to be worried, in that NVIDIA is seeing a future based on its GPUs combined with ARM CPUs. NVIDIA should worry too though, not only as Intel readies its “Knight’s Corner” MIC (Many Integrated Core) chips, but also as ARM advances its own Mali GPU; there is also strong competition in mobile GPUs from Imagination, used by Apple and others. The GPU wars will be interesting to watch in 2012.

7. Things that got worse award: Spotify. Runners up: Twitter, Google search

Sometimes internet services come along that are so good within their niche that they can only get worse. Spotify is an example, a music player that for a while let you play almost anything almost instantly with its simple, intuitive player. It is still pretty good, but Spotify got worse in 2011, with limited plays on free account, more intrusive ads, and sign-up now requires a Facebook login. Twitter is another example, with URLS now transformed to t.co shortcuts whether you like it not and annoying promoted posts and recommended follows. Both services are desperately trying to build a viable business model on their popularity, so I have some sympathy. I have less sympathy for Google. I am not sure when it started making all its search results into Google links that record your click before redirecting you, but it is both annoying and slow, and I am having another go with Bing as a result.

8. Biggest threat to innovation: Crazy litigation from Lodsys, Microsoft, Apple

There has always been plenty of litigation in the IT world. Apple vs Microsoft regarding graphical user interfaces 1994; Sun vs Microsoft regarding Java in 1997; SCO vs IBM regarding UNIX in 2003; and countless others. However many of us thought that the biggest companies exercised restraint on the grounds that all have significant patent banks and trench warfare over patent breaches helps nobody but lawyers. But what if patent litigation is your business model? The name Lodsys sends a chill though any developer’s spine, since if you have an app that supports in-app purchases you may receive a letter from them, and your best option may be to settle though others disagree. Along with Lodsys and the like, 2011 also brought Microsoft vs several OEMs over Android, Apple vs Samsung over Android, and much more.

9. Most horrible year award: HP

If any company had an Annus Horribilis it was HP. It invested big in WebOS, acquired with Palm; launched the TouchPad in July 2011; announced in August that it was ceasing WebOS development and considering selling off its Personal Systems Group; and fired its CEO Leo Apotheker in September 2011.

10. Product that deserves better award: Microsoft LightSwitch

On reflection maybe this award should go to Silverlight; but it is all part of the same story. Visual Studio LightSwitch, released in July 2011, is a model-driven development tool that generates Silverlight applications. It is nearly brilliant, and does a great job of making it relatively easy to construct business database applications, locally or on Windows Azure, complete with cross-platform Mac and Windows clients, and without having to write much code. Several things are unfortunate though. First, usual version 1.0 problems like poor documentation and odd limitations. Second, it is Silverlight, when Microsoft has made it clear that its future focus is HTML 5. Third, it is Windows and (with limitations) Mac, at a time when something which addresses the growing interest in mobile devices would be a great deal more interesting. Typical Microsoft own-goal: Windows Phone 7 runs Silverlight, LightSwitch generates Silverlight, but no, your app will not run on Windows Phone 7.  Last year I observed that Microsoft’s track-record on modelling in Visual Studio is to embrace in one release and extinguish in the next. History repeats?

Windows 8 Tablet in June 2012? If so, I am betting ARM not Intel x86

An interview with Paul Amsellem, new boss at Nokia France, includes this remark:

Et en juin 2012, nous aurons une tablette fonctionnant sous Windows 8

which even my schoolboy French can translate:

and in June 2012 we will have a tablet running Windows 8

Now, that is sooner than I had expected based on what we saw at the BUILD conference in September, and on past experience of Windows beta cycles. Windows 7, for example, was previewed in October 2008 and went into public beta in January 2009. A release candidate arrived in May 2009, and the gold release (the first production release) was towards the end of July 2009.

Although that does not sound much different from September 2011 to June 2012, bear in mind that the gold release is the moment when PC manufacturers can test their hardware with the production code. They still have to manufacture, package and distribute the machines, which is why the first machines with Windows 7 pre-installed did not arrive until October 2009. Hence the “general availability” date for Windows 7 of October 22 – three months after the gold release.

In order to achieve a June release for Windows 8 then, you would expect Microsoft to be done by March 2011. We have yet to see the first beta (the BUILD version is a preview) and a gold release for the x86 Windows 8 in March seems to me most unlikely. Of course it could be done, but only by compromising quality. The quality of the Windows 7 first release was excellent, and Microsoft is smart enough not to jeopardise its Windows 8 launch with a sub-standard product.

Is the Nokia man then either mis-informed or mis-quoted? Either is possible; but I also wonder whether Windows 8 on ARM will play by different rules. Microsoft said little about the ARM release at BUILD, though it was on show in the exhibition.

My impression is that the ARM release will be locked-down and that the only way to install apps will be via the app store. It will also be designed for specific hardware, unlike Windows x86 where people may grab an install CD and set it up on any old PC they can find; it is not guaranteed to work, but often it does.

That means Microsoft has much less to do in terms of compatibility testing, both for hardware and applications.

It follows that, despite being a new platform for Windows, the ARM release might actually be quicker to build than the x86 release. I can just about believe that Microsoft could be ready to hand over a gold build to Nokia in March 2012.

If that is the case, then the big risk is that apps will be scarce. It would give developers little time to create apps for the new platform, and it would also be interesting to see if the Office team at Microsoft could deliver something of real value by then.

Microsoft is under intense pressure from Apple’s iPad as well as Android competitors in tablets. Although it will want to get to market quickly, the company must also realise than a botched first release makes recovery hard. This will be interesting to watch.

Developing for Windows Phone: what’s new

One thing that is easy to overlook in all the talk about Windows Phone, Nokia, and Microsoft’s prospects against iPhone and Android, is that the Windows Phone developer platform has substantially improved with the 7.1 SDK – the phone is 7.5 but the SDK is 7.1, just to confuse you.

Here are a few highlights from the list of what’s new:

Multitasking. Apps still do not continue to run when they do not have the focus. However, Microsoft has implemented several features to make it look as if they do. This includes background agents, background audio (another kind of agent), scheduled tasks, background file transfers, and fast application switching. Although apps do not execute in the background, they do stay in memory if free space allows, so that resume is near-instant.

Silverlight 4. The version of Silverlight implemented in Windows Phone is now Silverlight 4, though there are some differences between Silverlight on the desktop and Silverlight on the phone, including the fact that there is no Silverlight in the browser.

Apps that combine Silverlight and XNA. You can now render both XNA and Silverlight content in a single combined Windows Phone app.

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Visual Basic and XNA. XNA was C# only in the initial release. No longer.

Better sensor support. You can now access the compass and gyroscope, and use a combined motion API.

Socket support. Use TCP and UDP socket protocols.

Network information. This is actually critical to creating well-behaved apps. New network information classes let you get network status and capabilities. You can also register for network availability change events.

Two-sided Live Tiles. Live Tiles in Windows Phone have two sides and flip automatically, effectively giving more space to show information.

Advertising SDK. Sign up to include ads from Microsoft Advertising in your app.

IE9 WebBrowser Control. You cannot embed your Silverlight app in the browser, but you can embed the WebBrowser control in your Silverlight app, now with IE9’s fast Javascript and HTML 5 features.

Local Database. A local database API is now included in Windows Phone. Sadly this is not Sqlite; I’m guessing it is a variant of SQL Server Compact Edition. You access and manipulate data with LINQ to SQL – no Entity Framework ORM (Object Relational Mapping) on the phone, though LINQ to SQL is also an ORM framework. There is no way other than LINQ to execute SQL locally.

New Launchers and Choosers. Launchers and Choosers let your app present picklists from data stored elsewhere in the phone. You can now choose an address, invite players to a game session, show a location on a map, or show map directions.

Read-only access to Contacts and Calendar.

Encrypted credential store. This enables you to store login details securely using a built-in API.

Programmatic access to the camera. This includes real-time access to the raw frames so you can create apps that use the camera.

Pictures and Search Extensibility. This lets your app interact with the Pictures hub and with the built-in search. Users who search Bing can launch your app from the results if there are matches.

New on-screen keyboards. There are now specialist keyboards for numbers and formulae.

Additional language support including East Asia. Overall there are 16 additional cultures available including font support.

Overall it adds up to a major update for developers. If you tried the first Windows Phone SDK and found too many annoyances, it might be worth a second look.

Is this the best mobile developer platform? I had this discussion today with Keith Varty, developer evangelist for Nokia. After rather enjoying a brief go with Xcode for iOS, I am not sure; there is no simple answer. It is certainly a candidate though: you get the excellent C# language, the mature Visual Studio IDE, and strong frameworks for both form-based and gaming applications. Then again you may miss those beautiful iOS controls.

Nokia’s Windows Phone gamble

At Nokia World in London on Wednesday, CEO Stephen Elop presented the new Lumia range of Windows Phones. You can watch the keynote here – I was impressed by Elop’s clarity and conviction, and also by VP Blanca Juti who talked about the Asha range of nearly-smartphone feature phones.

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The demonstration of the Windows Phone OS and apps seemed to me weaker and you could sense a struggle in energising the audience. I suspect this is because Windows Phone has already been out for a year and has failed to meet expectations; clearly it takes more than live tiles to make a success of a new Smartphone.

Elop is aware of this which is why he made the following widely quoted remark:

[Lumia is] the first ever instantiation of the windows phone platform that properly embodies, complements and amplifies the design sensibilities of windows phone … more simply stated, Lumia is the first real Windows Phone.

I have yet to handle a Lumia but I believe Elop, in that the other Windows Phone 7 devices are no more than ordinary in their design, whereas Nokia has done something distinctive.

I was impressed by the demo of turn by turn navigation; this does look like an attractive and useful app.

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I was also impressed when Elop talked about the marketing effort which Nokia and its retail partners are putting behind Lumia. He said that there are 31 operators and retailers in size countries which:

…have each committed to significant levels of marketing investment which includes unprecedented retail exposure and three times the level of total marketing investment compared to any other single Nokia launch.

He added that Nokia will be distributing seed devices widely among retailers so that they really know (and, Elop claims, love) the Lumia Windows Phones.

My immediate reflection is that Microsoft needed Nokia a year ago; Windows Phone has never before received this kind of backing. I am not sure that I have ever seen a Windows Phone for sale in my local small town centre, which has several mobile phone shops.

The tough question: is the OS good enough to compete with Apple and Android? I think it is a reasonable alternative, though I personally find the 20 beautifully designed icons I see on the first screen of the iPhone 4 more appealing than the seven chunky, flickering tiles I see on a Windows Phone. That said, I can see that the Windows Phone makes a good Facebook phone. I also like the Office apps and their read-write support for SharePoint, which is useful to me as a SharePoint user.

Where Windows Phone falls short is in the quality and availability of apps. There may be 30,000 in the Marketplace, but most of them are rubbish, and if you have a niche interest it is less likely to be represented than on an iPhone. I play Bridge, and on the iPhone I can enjoy FunBridge among others; on Windows Phone, nothing yet.

I have also found the data in Local Scout, a location-based index of places to see, shop or eat, too poor to be of much use where I am, though it may be better in London or other big cities.

If Nokia can win significant market share through its new range, problems like these will solve themselves as more people will care about them, and more apps will be developed.

It does need early success though, and this will not be easy bearing in mind that the general public are not really discontented with what is already on offer from others.

Nokia seems to have the right marketing ideas though, and the prices look reasonable. Watch this space.

Google is now a hardware company as it announces acquisition of Motorola Mobility and its patents

Google is to acquire Motorola Mobility, a major manufacturer of Android handsets. Why? I believe this is the key statement:

We recently explained how companies including Microsoft and Apple are banding together in anti-competitive patent attacks on Android. The U.S. Department of Justice had to intervene in the results of one recent patent auction to “protect competition and innovation in the open source software community” and it is currently looking into the results of the Nortel auction. Our acquisition of Motorola will increase competition by strengthening Google’s patent portfolio, which will enable us to better protect Android from anti-competitive threats from Microsoft, Apple and other companies.

What are the implications? This will assist Google in the patent wars and perhaps give it some of the benefits of vertical integration enjoyed by Apple with iOS; though this last is a difficult point. The more Google invests in Google Motorola, the more it will upset other Android partners. Google CEO Larry Page says:

This acquisition will not change our commitment to run Android as an open platform. Motorola will remain a licensee of Android and Android will remain open. We will run Motorola as a separate business.

It is unlikely to be so simple; and the main winner I foresee from today’s announcement is Microsoft. Nokia’s decision to embrace Windows Phone rather than Android looks smarter today, since for all its faults Microsoft has a history of working with multiple hardware vendors. The faltering launches of HP’s TouchPad and RIM’s PlayBook have also worked in Microsoft’s favour. I do not mean to understate Microsoft’s challenge in competing with Apple and Android, but I believe it has a better chance than either HP or RIM, thanks to its size and existing market penetration with Windows.

Microsoft will be clarifying its mobile and slate strategy next month at the BUILD conference.

Today’s announcement is also a sign that Google takes Android’s patent problems seriously, as indeed it should. The company’s policy of act first, seek forgiveness later seems to be unravelling. Oracle has a lawsuit against Google with respect to use of Java in Android that looks like it will run and run. FOSS patent expert Florian Mueller argues today that Android also infringes the Linux license, and that this is a problem that cannot easily be fixed. Samsung’s latest Galaxy Tab has been barred from the EU; not entirely a Google issue, but it runs Android.

Note of clarification: Google is acquiring Motorola Mobility, not the whole of Motorola. In January 2011 Motorola split into two businesses. Motorola Mobility is one, revenue in second quarter 2011 around $3.3 billion. The other is Motorola Solutions, revenue in second quarter 2011 around $2 billion.

Android only 23% open says report; Linux, Eclipse win praise

Vision Mobile has published a report on what it calls the Open Governance Index. The theory is that if you want to measure the extent to which an open source project is really open, you should look at its governance, rather than focusing on the license under which code is released:

The governance model used by an open source project encapsulates all the hard questions about a project. Who decides on the project roadmap? How transparent are the decision-making processes? Can anyone follow the discussions and meetings taking place in the community? Can anyone create derivatives based on the project? What compliance requirements are there for creating derivative handsets or applications, and how are these requirements enforced? Governance determines who has influence and control over the project or platform – beyond what is legally required in the open source license.

The 45-page report is free to download, and part-funded by the European Union Seventh Framework Program. It is a good read, covering 8 open source projects, including the now-abandoned Symbian Foundation. Here is the result:

Open Governance Index (%open)
Eclipse 84%
Linux 71%
WebKit 68%
Mozilla 65%
MeeGo 61%
Symbian 58%
Qt 58%
Android 23%

The percentages are derived by analysing four aspects of each project.

  • Access covers availability of source code and transparency of decisions.
  • Development refers to the transparency of contributions and acceptance processes.
  • Derivatives covers constraints on use of the project, such as trademarks and distribution channels.
  • Community structure looks at project membership and its hierarchy.

What is wrong with Android? I am not sure how the researchers get to 23%, but it scores badly in all four categories. The report observes that the code to the latest “Honeycomb” version of Android has not been published. It also has this to say about the Open Handset Alliance:

When launched, the Open Handset Alliance served the purpose of a public industry endorsement for
Android. Today, however, the OHA serves little purpose besides a stamp of approval for OHA
members; there is no formal legal entity, no communication processes for members nor frequent
member meetings.

By contrast, Eclipse and Linux are shining lights. MeeGo and Mozilla are also praised, thought the report does mention Mozilla’s “Benevolent dictators”:

In the case of conflicts and disputes, these are judged by one of two Mozilla “benevolent dictators” – Brendan Eich for technical disputes and Mitchell Baker for non-technical disputes.

Qt comes out OK but has a lower score because of Nokia’s control over decision making, though it sounds like this was written before Nokia’s Windows Mobile revolution.

WebKit scores well though the report notes that most developers work for Apple or Google and that there is:

Little transparency regarding how decisions are made, and no public information provided on this

Bearing that in mind, it seems odd to me that WebKit comes above Mozilla, but I doubt the percentages should be taken too seriously.

It is good to see a report that looks carefully at what it really means to be open, and the focus on governance makes sense.

Windows Phone “Mango” shown, looks good but still no Adobe Flash

I attended the London press briefing for Windows Phone “Mango”, also known as Windows Phone 7.1. This will be on new phones in the Autumn, and will be a free update for all existing Windows Phone 7 devices.

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Microsoft showed a bunch of new features, including Internet Explorer 9 – which, we were told, is built from the same code as the PC version – improved social media integration now including Twitter and LinkedIn as well as Facebook, Hotmail, Exchange, Messenger and Gmail; and multi-tasking support.

Hold down the back key for a moment, and all running apps appear in a tiled view. Just tap the one you want.

We also saw text-to-voice and voice-to-text demos. The presented spoke the reply to a text message, though admittedly he chose to do a one-word reply, and sent it successfully.

Microsoft also announced three new OEM partners, Acer Inc., Fujitsu Ltd. and ZTE Corp.

It looks good; but I did have a sense that Microsoft is ducking the hard questions. One of those concerns Adobe Flash support. At a separate developer briefing, I asked developer relations guy Brandon Watson about Adobe Flash support, observing that when Windows Phone was shown in detail pre-launch at the Mix 2009 conference in Las Vegas, it was clearly stated that Flash would be on the phone, and that Adobe was being allowed to build the Flash runtime in native code, but that it would not be included at launch.

“It does not run on the phone”, said Watson. Then he added, “It does not run on the phone.” Finally, he said, “It does not run on the phone.”

Silverlight does not run in the mobile browser either, so perhaps the problem is with mobile IE – clearly not all the code is included. Or maybe Adobe is hanging back; I asked Adobe about this at Mobile World Congress earlier this year and got an answer that was warmer but no more informative. Or maybe Microsoft is thinking, Apple does not need it, so we do not need it either.

It is a shame though, because there is a perception that Flash is one of the advantages of not going the Apple route.

On the developer side, the beta tools for Mango were released today. You can target either Windows Phone 7.0 or 7.1 with the tools, so if the beta tag does not put you off you can get going straight away. There is a ton of good stuff for developers, including the SQL Server CE local database, and the ability to mix XNA and Silverlight in a single app. We saw an app from British Airways that makes use of this to show a 3D view of an aircraft cabin when choosing a seat; I am not sure how much real value this adds but it demos nicely.

The new emulator includes accelerometer support, so you can simulate movement to test your app’s response.

There is also a profiler which shows your app’s performance in various views. Code that you wrote is highlighted in blue in the graphical view, so you can tell what you can optimise, as opposed to slow system calls that are outside your control.

The developer tools are great though, and having played with a number of mobile developer toolkits I would say that Microsoft’s is among the best and above average, though I would like to see an option for native code development. “We hear that a lot,” Watson told me.

The problem though: developers want a big market, and so far Windows Phone has not delivered it. It is almost invisible on the high street, and all the current operators and manufacturers have other phones that they are more concerned about. That will change when Nokia devices appear, but in an intensively competitive market (not forgetting HP WebOS and RIM Blackberry/QNX/PlayBook) it will not be easy for Microsoft to gain ground.

After the event I discussed this with some of the Microsoft folk. Maybe the company can better exploit the Xbox link, and sell the phone to that community. Maybe Nokia will save the day. Maybe when Microsoft comes out with a fully professional iteration of Windows Phone, tightly linked to Active Directory and group policy, and with additional developer features aimed at line of business apps, maybe then it will take off.

One positive thing I heard today was an anecdotal report that returns on Windows Phone 7 are among the lowest because users like the device so much.

The social features in Windows Phone are already good and will be better in Mango – though bear in mind that by the time Mango phones appear in the Autumn, Microsoft will likely have iPhone 5 and many tempting new Android devices to contend with.

Years ago it used to be said that Microsoft had average products (or worse) but excellent marketing. With Windows Phone, the product is good but either the marketing is lacking or the task is too great. Of course there is still time, and this industry is full of surprises, but it will take more than Mango to make Windows Phone fly.

Developers and mobile platforms: lies, damn lies and surveys

I’ve been reading the IDC/Appcelerator developer survey about their attitudes to mobile platforms. The survey covered 2,760 Appcelerator Titanium developers between April 11-13, so it is certainly current and with a sample just about big enough to be interesting.

The survey asks developers if they are “very interested” in developing for specific platforms, with the following results, and with comparisons to 3 months ago:

  • 91% iPhone (fractionally down)
  • 86% iPad (fractionally down)
  • 85% Android phones (down from 87%)
  • 71% Android tablets (down from 74%)
  • 29% Windows Phone 7 (down from 36%)
  • 27% Blackberry phones (down from 38%)

The survey is titled:

Apple shines, Google slows, and Microsoft edges RIM in battle for mobile developer mindshare.

Is that a fair summary? It is not what I would highlight. I cannot read the exact figures from the chunky graphic, but it is clear that the iOS figures are also fractionally down, maybe by just 1%, but hardly much different from the Android figures on a sample of this size. Both are pretty much flat.

The figures for Windows Phone 7 and Blackberry are more dramatic; though we should at least note that Appcelerator Titanium is a cross-platform toolkit that does not currently support Windows Phone 7, and that its support for Blackberry is only in preview. That was true last time round as well, but I’m not sure that asking developers about their plans for a platform which the toolkit does not currently support is the best way to gauge overall interest.

Another question that interests me: is developer interest a cause or an effect of a mobile platform’s success? A bit of each, no doubt; but personally I think the “effect” model is stronger than the “cause” model. Developers pick a platform either because they have immediate customers for apps on that platform, or because they think they can make money from it.

Nurturing a strong developer community is definitely important for a platform provider; but I doubt it ranks as highly as other factors, like building a strong retail presence, delivering excellent devices at the right price, and focusing on usability and a good end-user experience.

If you are interested in Appcelerator Titanium you might like to read my interview with the CEO at Mobile World Congress; and this discussion on whether Titanium really builds native apps.

Windows Phone at Mix 2011: what Microsoft said and did not say

Yesterday Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore (phone VP) and Scott Guthrie (developer VP) took the stage at the Mix 2011 conference in Las Vegas to tell us what is new with Windows Phone.

The opening part of the keynote was significant. Belfiore spent some time talking about the “update situation”.

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This is all to do with who controls what ends up on your phone. If you buy a Windows PC or laptop, you can get updates from Microsoft using Windows update or by downloading service packs; the process is between you and Microsoft.

Not so with Windows Phone. The operators have a say as well; and operators are not noted for delivering speedy OS updates to users. Operators seem to have difficulty with the notion that by delivering strong updates to existing devices that have already been purchased, they build user loyalty and satisfaction. They are more geared to the idea of delivering new features with new hardware. Updating existing phones can cause support calls and other hassles, or even at worst bricked devices. They would rather leave well alone.

When Microsoft launched Windows Phone it announced that there would be regular updates under Microsoft’s control; but this has not been the case with the first update, codenamed “NoDo”. The update process has been delayed and inconsistent between operators, just like the bad old days of Windows Mobile.

Belfiore went on about testing and phones being different from PCs and improvements to the process; but in the end it seems to me that Microsoft has given in:

Mobile operators have a very real and reasonable interest in testing updates and making sure they’re going to work well on their phones and on their network. Especially if you think about large operators with huge networks, they are the retailer who sells the phone, so they have to deal with returns, they take the support calls and they have to worry about whether their network will stay up and perform well for everyone … From our point of view, that’s quite reasonable, and our belief and understanding is that it’s standard practice in the industry that phones from all different vendors undergo operator testing before updates are made available.

That “testing” label can cover any amount of prevarication. It appears that Microsoft is unable to achieve what Apple has achieved: the ability to update its phone OS when it wants to. That is a disadvantage for Microsoft and there is no sign of improvement.

More positively, Microsoft announced a number of significant new features in the first major update to the OS, codenamed Mango. This is for existing devices as well as new ones, though new devices will have enhanced hardware. He focused on what matters for developers, and hinted that there will be other end user features. A few bullet points:

  • Internet Explorer 9 is on Mango – “The same exact code that has just shipped and is now getting installed on tons and tons of PCs is the code base that will be on the phone” said Belfiore. No, it is not built in Silverlight.
  • Limited multitasking for third-party apps. This is in the form of “Live agents” which run in the background. Full apps cannot multitask as I understand, though they can be suspended in memory for fast switching. Currently apps appear to do this but it is faked; now it will be for real, with the proviso that a suspended app may get shut down if its memory is needed by the OS.
  • Multiple live tiles for a single app.
  • Fixed marketplace search so that music does not appear when you search for an app.
  • Apps can register with search so that Bing searches can integrate with an app.
  • There will be a built in SQL Server CE database with programmatic access using Linq (Language Integrated Query).
  • Full TCP/IP socket support
  • Access to raw camera data for interesting imaging applications or barcode  processing
  • 1,500 new APIs in Mango
  • Performance improvements including a better garbage collector that apparently gives a significant boost
  • Improved tools with the ability to simulate GPS on the emulator, capture performance trace log from phone

It adds up to a decent update, though more Window Phone 7.5 than Windows Phone 8 (I do not know what the official name will be). Belfiore also mentioned new apps coming to Windows Phone 7, including Spotify, Skype and Angry Birds.

But what was not said? Here are a few things I would like to have heard:

  • When will get Adobe Flash on Windows Phone? Not mentioned.
  • What about Silverlight in the browser? You would think this would be easy to implement; but I have not seen it confirmed (let me know if you have news).
  • When will Nokia ship Windows Phone devices? Nokia’s Marco Argenti appeared on stage but said nothing of substance.
  • The Mango update is coming “in the fall” but when will current users get updates?
  • Will Windows Phone 8 move away from Windows CE to full Windows, so the same OS will work across phone, tablets and desktop PCs?

Above all, I would like convincing news about how Microsoft intends to get Windows Phone better exposure and fuller support from operators. I still hardly see it in retailers, and it seems a long way down the list when you talk to a salesperson about what new phone you should buy. I do not have a Windows Phone at the moment, but when I tried it for a  couple of weeks I mostly liked the user interface – I found the soft buttons on the Mozart annoying because they are easy to press accidentally – and I also like the developer tools, though I would like to see a native code development option. In the end though, it is no use developing for Windows Phone if your customers are asking for Apple iOS and Google Android.

Microsoft shared the following figures:

  • 12,000+ apps
  • 35,000 registered developers
  • 1.5 million tool downloads

It is a start, but these are not really big numbers, and the proportion of tool downloaders that end up delivering apps seems small so far.

A lot rests on the Nokia partnership and how that plays out.

It now appears that we will need to wait until September and the newly announced PDC (Professional Developers Conference) in Anaheim 13th-16th September before we learn more about the long-term mobile strategy.

Update: Microsoft’s Phil Winstanley tells me that the Windows Phone OS is just called “Windows Phone” regardless of version; but that the Mango update is referred to as “Windows Phone OS 7.5” when it is necessary to differentiate. If that sounds confusing, do not blame me!

Nokia’s Elop fears mobile duopoly, but it is already here

It is day two of Mobile World Congress here in Barcelona; and everyone is pondering the implications of Nokia’s Windows Phone partnership with Microsoft. It is a pivotal moment for the industry, but not necessarily in the sense that the two partners hope.

Let me state the obvious for a moment. This is not good for Nokia, though it might be “the least bad of all the poor choices facing Nokia”, as Mikael Hed of Rovio (Angry Birds) put it yesterday. Nokia has huge market share, but it was already falling sharply, as these figures from late last year illustrate. Nokia’s total market share declined from 36.7% in Q3 2009 to 28.2% in Q3 2010; and its Smartphone (Symbian) share from 44.6% to 36.6%. These are still big numbers, but will inevitably decline further.

Following last week’s announcement, though, Nokia will transition from a company which formerly commanded its own destiny with Symbian, to one that is an OEM for Microsoft. The savings will be substantial, as CEO Stephen Elop noted at the press event here on Sunday evening, but it is a lesser role.

Why has Nokia turned to Microsoft? It is not a matter of Microsoft planting its own man in Nokia in a desperate effort to win market share. On Sunday Elop said he was no trojan horse, and also laid to rest rumours that he is conflicted thanks to a large Microsoft shareholding; he is selling as fast as the law allows, he said, and his shareholding was nowhere close to what was alleged in any case.

Rather, the Nokia board brought Elop in specifically to make tough decisions and likely form an alliance with either Google or Microsoft. I am not sure that former Nokia exec Tomi Ahonen is the best source of commentary – he is unremittingly negative about the alliance – but I like his piece on the choices facing the board last year, when it must have decided that MeeGo, the mobile Linux co-sponsored by Intel, could not deliver what was needed.

Elop chose Microsoft, his argument being that the choice was between Android and Windows, and that going Android would have created a duopoly that was good for Google but bad for the industry. By going Windows Phone “we have created a three horse race,” he said.

It is a fair point as far as it goes – though maybe he takes too little account of RIM, especially in the enterprise market – but whether Nokia can really break that duopoly is an open question. It is not a question of how the duopoly can be avoided: it already exists.

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Given the absence of Apple, this Mobile World Congress could almost be called the Android World Congress, such is the dominance of Google’s mobile OS. It works, it is well-known, it is freely customisable by manufacturers and operators. Android is not perfect, but it is a de facto standard which nicely meets the needs of the non-Apple mobile industry.

This morning three significant far Eastern manufacturers announced new Android devices; none announced Windows Phone devices. The three are HTC, Alcatel Onetouch (which claims to be the fastest-growing handset provider in the world), and Huawei. At the Alcatel Onetouch press conference I asked CEO George Guo why his company was focused on Android:

Why Android? Android is a phenomena. It is what every operator wants and also what the consumer is looking for. The iPhone is great but just has one type, and also it is highly priced. People want something different so are looking for variety. Android-based phones provide that opportunity. With Android phones you can range from $100 up to several hundred. Also we can make customisations based on the Android system. We can fit different kinds of customers’ needs. That’s why, from the whole ecosystem point of view, because recently (laughs) people talk about this a lot, we think that Android does provide quite an ecosystem.

Note how Guo (unprompted) makes reference both to the other member of the duopoly, Apple, and the new pretender, Microsoft/Nokia.

However good their products, rivals such as RIM with its new QNX-based OS and HP with WebOS will struggle to compete for developer and public attention.

Does Windows Phone have better chances? If Nokia could easily translate its Symbian sales last year to Windows Phone sales next year, then sure, but that would take a miracle that beleaguered Nokia is unlikely to deliver. Windows Phone 7, launched last year, demonstrates that despite its desktop dominance Microsoft cannot easily win mobile market share, and that partners such as HTC, Samsung and LG are focused elsewhere. Nokia’s commitment will greatly boost Microsoft’s market share in mobile, but to what percentage is frankly hard to guess.

There are a couple of other unanswered questions. One is about differentiation. In order to compete with Apple, Microsoft has made a point of locking down the Windows Phone 7 specification, despite its multiple manufacturers, requiring Qualcomm Snapdragon for the chipset, specific hardware features, and a relatively unmolested GUI. If Microsoft continues along these lines, it will be hard for Nokia to be truly distinctive. On the other hand, if it abandons them, then it risks spoiling the consistency of the platform.

Another big question relates to tablets. Microsoft has no announced tablet strategy, except insofar as it is not using the Windows Phone 7 OS for tablets and has hinted that the next full version of Windows  will be tablet-optimized. By contrast, both Apple and Google support both smartphones and tablets with a single OS; indeed, it is hard to define the difference between a small tablet and a smartphone. Here at Mobile World Congress, Viewsonic told me that a 4” screen defines it: less than that, it’s a smartphone; more than that, it’s a tablet.

What are Nokia’s tablet plans? Will it change Microsoft’s mind, or wait for Windows 8 following meekly in Redmond’s footsteps, or do something with MeeGo?

Elop has also in my view made a mistake in shattering Nokia’s Qt-based developer community. Qt was the unifying platform between Symbian and MeeGo, and could have been the same for Windows Phone 7. Why? Here’s what Elop told us on Sunday:

What is happening to Qt: “Will Nokia put Qt on Windows Phone? No that’s not the plan. Here is the reason. If we, on the Windows Phone platform, encourage a forking between what natively is provided on the Windows Phone platform and Qt, then we create an environment where potentially we could confuse the developers, confuse the consumers, and even create an environment where Windows Phone could advance slower than the competition because we are carrying two principal development platforms.

I respect Elop; but I think he has been sold a line here. Developers are not easily confused – how patronising – and Windows Phone already has a native code SDK, available to operators and manufacturers. Many of Microsoft’s own applications for the phone are native rather than Silverlight or XNA. In principle, there is no reason why consumers would be able to tell the difference. I think Microsoft is protecting its own development stack and sacrificing Nokia’s developer community in the process.

On a more positive note, I do not forget that Elop is a software guy. I think he recognises that unless you are Apple, hardware commoditisation is inevitable whatever OS you choose. Asked about Windows Phone, the Huawei exec at this morning’s briefing said his company would consider it when the next version comes out. What he means is: if the demand is there, they will make it. If they make it, then Nokia is competing with the same economies of scale and labour that apply to Android.

Elop sees an answer in apps, ads and services: the ecosystem about which he constantly reminds us. On Sunday he noted that the partnership with Microsoft includes an advertising platform, and that this is potentially a significant source of future revenue. The new Nokia may be a lesser company than the old, but one that is better able to survive the challenge of making money from handsets.