Android and the Challenges of Choice

I like my Android phone. It was the first phone on the market to use Android, and might be a bit outdated, but so far it always served my needs—at a fraction of the price of an iPhone. And I'm not the only one; in May, Android's first quarter US sales surpassed that of Apple's platform. However, Testfreaks argues an excess of choice could cripple Android's future potential: a variety of phones with an increasingly fast product cycle is causing "hardware envy". Moreover, all these different devices run several Android versions (from 1.5 to 2.2) which makes it difficult for developers to create apps which fit them all.

As the article points out, given that all manufactures have access to the same Android OS, in order to stand out in a crowded market place, they must tweak it, with either hardware refinements, operating system supplements, or both. This leads to increased competition, even within some companies; can you actually name all of HTC's Android phones?

On top of that, this already confusing competition is made even more complicated by the phone carrier ecosystem it is tied to. Once you buy a phone, you're locked into a contract and have to keep it, at the same time new devices are coming out that you can't have (unless you break the contract).

The smartphone maker, if they do want to update their device lineup, has to work with the carriers to determine who gets which device. The drive for each manufacturer to shine in the market creates a short device turnover period, and this is in contrast to wireless carrier contracts. The end result is that each new Android phone “style”, if you will, needs to be tweaked for each carrier.

The result is even more confusion on the customers' part and a watered down brand. The Nexus One for example was not "the" Google phone but just another Android device. Moreover, developers find it increasingly difficult to develop apps, because each tweaked phone potentially means an incompatibility issue.

Google is aware of this. They ask developers to accurately list their apps' requirements, and then try to make sure that the app won’t be accessible to a device on which it won’t run properly.

That certainly makes things easier; however, as the Testfreaks piece continues, a lot of apps rely on taking advantage of new features to achieve popularity (e.g., a higher screen resolution). Games are a good example, and so far the choice of games for Android phones has been pretty slim.

The iPhone, on the other hand, managed to establish itself as a major player in the mobile game sector. It is, more or less, like a console, offering standardized hardware and software. Of course there were changes, but compared to the multitude of Android devices, they were rather minuscule.

Apple's phone is just one flagship product, which in a lot of countries was only available with one carrier. There is the AppStore and its near-infinite offerings over which Apple rules with an iron fist.

Yet consumers love it.

It is a smartphone that is successful because it breaks with the technicity of a smartphone. It reduces choice to a point where it can't even multitask. I've used the comparison before with the iPad, but the iPhone is the Wii of the smartphone world. Your two-year-old kid can use it, not because she's so smart but because of a break with a technicity that previously made smartphones appeal mainly to competent males.

To stretch the comparison a bit further, the PC used to be a successful game platform, but lost most of its momentum to consoles. Games on PCs are cheaper, they can easily be modified, etc., yet consumers stuck to consoles. Why? Because on the dedicated platforms, the games just work, there's less choice, less hassle, less confusion.

However, the PC also offers a very good counter-argument to the claim that a plethora of hardware can cause problems in the marketplace. Microsoft was able to establish Windows as the market leader despite it being available on a variety of devices with a variety of processors, RAM choices and peripherals.

Steven Johnson quotes New York Times writer Robert Wright:

The more models of Windows computers, competitively priced, the more people would buy Windows computers. And the more Windows computers people bought, the more programmers would write their software for Windows, not Apple. And the more Windows software there was, the more attractive Windows computers would be. And so on.

And even though the changes in variations of the operating system are faster with Android, Google ensures that it works by adding forward compatibility (apps written properly for older versions also run on the newest versions) and asking developers to list their app's requirements.

At the same time you also have to ask yourself what choice Google has. This is a company that, within the constraints of a corporation, is committed to democratic conduct and, as such, fuels innovation. This innovation is furthered by Android's self-competition and a less esoteric app policy.

I believe that this is a model that can work. As a more "classic" tech consumer, I feel at home with Android; I appreciate the choice, the fact that (potentially) there's something on offer for all sorts of consumers, and the chance to use a physical keyboard. I'm also pretty confident that if I bought a premier Android handset today, like the HTC Incredible, I won't really need another device for the next two years.

What do you think? Where is the phone market heading? And what will Microsoft's role be with their new Windows 7 phone platform? (Which handset manufacturers won't be able to personalize to suit themselves or their customers.)

Google's Console?

As John "Wardrox" Kershaw observed on his blog: Google is about to release Google TV, a software platform for set-top boxes and HDTV. It will also feature a browser, remote control, and keyboard interface.

Google also released an app shop which allows you to play PC games in a browser.

The interesting question is:

Does this mean Google is entering the console race in the same way the iPhone entered the hand-held race?

Details on the app shop and the integration of games are still light. In any case, this will have huge implications for the industry; here we have Google getting behind cloud gaming with its own console.


Off the Couch, On the Couch: Consoles' Future

There're two trends in video-gaming I've noticed lately: First, a shift towards more peripherals and consoles taking over more functions of computers—a development confirmed by the latest E3. One of the first companies to successfully introduce accessory-enhanced games into the mainstream was Sony with its Singstar and Buzz franchises.

Then there was the final breakthrough: Guitar Hero, first just being bundled with a plastic guitar, later even with a drum set. This step was a huge risk: Bemani games were pretty much relegated to a niche existence in the West, no one knew if people were willing to spend significantly more on a game with a toy guitar, and the competition for scarce retail space was intense.

The risk, however, paid off: People loved the new interfaces, which allowed them to immerse themselves in the gaming experience deeper than before. Dreams of a rock star career were easier to pursue with a plastic axe than with a joypad.

Apart from appealing to people who never might have played video games before, another advantage is obvious: Games can be pirated, peripherals can't. You want to play your Pirate Bay Rock Band with a controller? Sure, bore yourself to death.

We had also better get used to the thought of these new interfaces. Kids these days often play their first games on the Wii. As this generation grows up, it won't understand why it can't control FPSs in a similar, active way. The couch will be deserted, that's for sure.

But then again, a second trend might keep people right there: Increasingly, consoles take over the functions of computers.

Think about the Xbox, for example; it was basically introduced because Microsoft wanted to carry the dominance it had in the office environment over into your living room, a space which at that stage was mostly in the hands of the PlayStation.

Soon you'll be able to access your Facebook profile with it, update your Twitter status and listen to These are very significant developments. Microsoft might have won, we just haven't realized it yet.

This Offworld piece makes some very good points:

"The announcement that I thought was missed was the opening of the Xbox Live Dashboard interface to the internet," [industry analyst Michael] Pachter told Gamasutra. "Later this year, Microsoft will allow members to access and to select music, to access Netflix and instantly watch films/TV shows, to access Facebook and interact with other friends, and to access Twitter and post/read tweets."

Pachter argues that the gaming media entirely missed the significance of this announcement, which puts the 360 firmly in the same territory as Apple's AppleTV, only with a library of awesome games. With so many 360s already installed around the world, MS have a good chance to become the default choice for web media on your TV.

The author adds:

If the 360 does start to support all these things (there's no confirmation as to whether Last.FM will be able to run in the background as a soundtrack to your games), it'll become the kind of gaming machine that I want to spend my time with for more reasons than just because it has some games that my PC doesn't.

It will become a device that has more of the networked infrastructure, and more of the media tweaks and toys that I take for granted as part of my desktop computer.

The thing is: This development does not only apply to stationary consoles: Just think of the iPhone and its growing success as a gaming device. People play on it because they always take it with them and it combines pretty much everything you can ask for: wifi, email, surfing the net, games, etc. Before my iPod Touch was stolen (donations welcome!), I totally neglected my DS, simply for the fact that the iPod combined all my entertainment needs.

The PSP is taking the same direction; its new incarnation, the PSP Go, will come with an app shop (albeit without a touch screen).

When thinking about these developments, keep in mind the falling price of the 360. As the Offworld piece points out:

Rather than having to release a new console, the 360 just gets cheaper, and makes more sense, to more people, because it does something that it didn't do before: Guitar Hero, Last.FM, Twitter, motion-tracking control... A spiralling feature list, a net that gets bigger and drags in more people.

The Xbox indeed develops back to its PC heritage and becomes increasingly flexible. It fulfils a PC's functions, but with the convenience of a console. Sony does have a lot of competition on their hands, and yet they don't seem to do much about it. In view of the PS3's impressive hardware architecture, it's difficult to say if they are able to lower its price, but that would be a first step in the right direction.

All this doesn't even take into account the effect of cloud computing. Maybe the 360 will be the last console you ever buy, because the rest will be done in the cloud. Not only would this apply to applications but also to gaming.

This demands the questions: Will one platform be obsolete one day? What will happen to the PC? Surely it won't disappear, but it will suffer. Eventually you might simply end up with another Microsoft product.

What do you think? Are consoles the future of computing?


A Swan Song For USB

usb I think that USB is a pretty awesome little technology.

I love it because for the most part, the cables  are standardized. The same cable can be used to transfer photos from my camera to my computer, charge my BlackBerry or transfer data from computer to my external hard drive.

I also think that there are some ways that they can be improved.

The way most USB cables work is that they have a larger end that plugs into computers and a smaller end (I've heard it termed "mini USB") that plugs into devices. However, not all devices use the same mini-USB on the other end, and that means that I end up having to use a bunch of different cables.  I'm able to use a regular USB cable to transfer data to and from my phone (a Nokia 6301) but am unable to charge my phone via USB. In order to even get the above photo onto my computer from my camera (a Sony Cybershot), I had to use another, non-standard USB cable - the one that can be seen in the top left of the picture. That meant that I had to unplug my iPod, a device that uses still another type of USB cable.

At least it seems like those Europeans are doing something about standardizing cables. According to BoingBoing, the European Commission is going to make all phones be manufactured so that they can use a standardized charger, and it would be great if they settled on USB as the standard.

I also think it would be great if someone developed a USB cable that also functioned like a memory stick such that you could use it to transfer data between devices, simply use it to store data. I think it would also be a great idea to have these cables work more like standard electrical cables, with a "male" end and a "female" end. That way, cables could easily be extended.

475px-usb_iconsvgAnother option would be to have both ends the same so that it would be easy to transfer data between two devices without using a computer in the middle. For example, a short USB cable like the one in the photo above with both ends the same could be used to transfer all of the photos off of my phone onto my friend's USB memory stick.

Alas, I fear that advances in wireless device charging and data transfer might render the underrated USB cable obsolete.

If you still want to read more about USB, be sure and check out the in-depth Wikipedia article about it.