Holy crap what a week

by Thomas Brady


There were a few landmark events this week that I really wanted to react to, but schedule and workload didn’t really permit.

I’ll forgo my usual attempts at citing sources and digging in to just say, “Holy crap!”

First off, HP’s announcement on Tuesday was fantastic. The TouchPad looks set to be a real - a real - competitor to iPad. Finally. Granted, it does so by being the closest imitator, albeit with a few novel features (Touch-to-Share, I’m looking at you). The fact that you can receive text messages and even calls on the TouchPad (when paired with a Pre) is genius. I’ve been looking for this feature to hit iPad since it came out.

WebOS has been the only mobile platform to give me device envy since the release of iPhone. And HP is definitely doing the right thing with it. The new phones and the new pad look great, as do the new features. I do wish they would announce pricing and a firm shipping date. I don’t know that I’ll be placing an order, mind you, but things just smack of vaporware without those bits of information.

But the big bang of the announcement, for me, was that HP outed plans to migrate WebOS to laptops. This isn’t shocking news to anyone who’s been paying attention to industry trends (analysts are shouting that tablets will outstrip laptops in no time), but it’s an impressive and gutsy thing to share at an event such as this, if for no other reason than Microsoft could probably have been heard retorting, “Say, what?”

It’s thrilling to see the industry moving so quickly into the next stage. Apple may now feel a bit more comfortable telling customers (and developers) that OS X and laptops as we know them are on the way out, and iOS and iPad-like devices are the replacement. That’s already the plan, and they’ve been slowly preparing us for this, and perhaps now they have a jogging buddy in HP.

All this got me thinking about what it was that made HP and Apple such good environments. And then Nokia slapped me in the face with it. Oh, Nokia. How I, and so many millions, loved thee. You used to be on top. And we’re not talking 20 years ago. I think in some respects, you’re still leading the industry in certain markets. But you’re on your way out. And now, quite swiftly.

Nokia had a bit of a platform problem. They had Meego, S40, and Sybmian (just off the top of my head) from which to choose when building a phone. I think they probably had more. None of those, though, were quite up to snuff, and probably primarily due to the fact that they couldn’t get a developer pool big enough in any one of those to get anything going. So what have they done to solve this problem? They’ve just announced they’re partnering with Microsoft. Windows Phone 7(WP7) is going to be Nokia’s new smartphone OS.

Let me get back to HP and Apple. One glaring difference between those two companies and companies like HTC or Samsung or even Sony Ericsson and Motorola (lately) is that they own the end-to-end product. They build the hardware and the software. Any Apple fan knows this has been key to their differentiation since the beginning. But I think it’s all the more critical to creating an excellent personal device. You can’t make good mobile software without knowing intimately the hardware on which it will run. You can’t make something like Android - wherein the primary design goal is: run on as many different hardware configurations as possible - ultra-personal and excellent from a user experience perspective. You just can’t. I just had a conversation with an engineer in my building the other day about how “Google is just about 6 months behind on the UI stuff; they’ll get there.” Bull. They’re on the wrong path. They’re not headed in that direction. They won’t get there in 6 months, a year, or perhaps ever. That’s not where they want to go.

This is what I think Microsoft WP7 is doomed. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m impressed by its initial release. I think it’s an elegant design, and I think it works pretty well. Microsoft set some pretty stringent requirements for hardware that was allowed to run WP7, thereby attempting to get the same edge that HP and Apple have in knowing exactly what hardware they’ll be dealing with. But that plan just doesn’t work. You can’t keep up. New devices come out with new features and new configurations, and the people building the hardware don’t want the software guys - that don’t even work at the same company - dictating the hardware design. And these days they have options. If you tell them “No,” they can go right to Google. Sooner or later, the scale of supported devices will grow and will outgrow Microsoft’s ability to support with a beautiful, usable solution. Nokia is just a step toward that inevitable end.

And from simply a logical angle, what does Nokia have to offer Microsoft that offers any edge over HTC, Samsung, or the rest? Did Microsoft just basically buy a manufacturing arm, so they can put some pressure on their hardware partners by threatening to do it themselves?

Basically, Nokia’s sinking ship just tied on to Microsoft’s sinking ship, if you ask me. They might as well have tied on to RIM.

The next ten years look strange. The mobile world which was ruled by BlackBerry and Nokia for the last ten years may leave them both behind. HP, which was there at the very beginning of the smartphone era (they had Pocket PC devices that could place calls back in 2000) is back, as - in a way - is Palm. Apple, who scoffed at the whole scene for the first half of the last ten years, is arguably leading the charge.