Analysing the state of mobile right now

In last year’s State of Mobile I predicted that the pace of innovation and disruption in the mobile market would mean the world would be very different today. The mobile world is continuing to change at a rapid pace, so here are my top picks for what’s important in where we are today.

iOS vs Android

If one thing hasn’t changed, it’s that you can hardly read a technology website without finding at least one article predicting “victory” for one ecosystem or the other, but fortunately the reality is more nuanced and far more interesting. Firstly, mobile is not a “horse race”: the first over the line doesn’t “win” mobile, and there isn’t even a finishing line in the first place. Instead, we have two of the world’s largest and most innovative companies developing competing visions of the future, but the battle is to provide the product and services that users will prefer to use.

Google taking Android back from the OEMs?

What is interesting, however, is that in the last year the Android side has changed significantly, possibly linked to the removal of Andy Rubin from the Android project (which happened just prior to my previous State of Mobile). Here’s a quick rundown:

Samsung disappointed its bulls with the release of the mediocre Galaxy Gear smartwatch, a product that appeared rushed to market to prove that Samsung could be the segment-creating innovator it craves to be, but reinforced the notion that it is best as a fast follower that perfects existing products, which after all is where most of its corporate history lies. There should be no shame in perfecting rather than inventing (though doing so without infringing so much IP would be nice) but the Korean giant lost some of its lustre this year.
Google has stepped further into the fray with an apparent perspective that nothing should matter apart from the services the user interacts with. The Moto G and Moto X smartphones, as well as the Nexus 5, are all lower-specced than many Android competitors, but consistently receive praise from reviewers for their ease of use, lower prices and better than expected performance. For years, buying a mid- or low-tier Android phone has mean subjecting oneself to a frankly dreadful user experience but there are welcome signs that this could all change, allowing a broader spectrum of users to enjoy the benefits of true smartphones. With data indicating that many use Android phones as feature phones, this can’t come fast enough.
Following years of frenetic Android version releases, each one seeming to fragment the ecosystem further, the much-heralded version 5 “Key Lime Pie” was dropped in favour of the more incremental version 4.4 “KitKat”. KitKat is of particular interest because it will run on older devices (subject to the OEMs getting their updates out, of course) and is making Android look more of an operating system that runs the device and the services you actually interact with, rather than the be-all and end-all of the device.
The release of the Chromecast TV streaming dongle, which actually runs an OS more akin to Android without the applications layer than ChromeOS, further suggests that for Google, it’s all about the services. Note also that the words missing from any discussion of Google Glass are “Android” or “Chrome” and it’s not a big leap to suggest that Google is going back to the future with everything being about “Google [Product]” rather than something that can be easily taken over by competitors.

iOS in safe hands

Apple also disappoints some of its bulls, year after year, despite consistently high performances. The reason is that many analysts hope that Apple will continue to open up new market segments with smartwatches and “iGlasses”, forgetting that the reason Apple is so successful is its unwavering focus on creating a device consumers will love. Rather than trying to create new product categories, Apple appears to be focusing on making existing ones as effective as possible and this approach is itself creating some revolutionary products, such as indoor navigation powered by the iPhone5S’s motion co-processor and low-energy Bluetooth iBeacons.

Apple’s insistence on targeting the top end of the mobile market is clearly paying off with very high profitability which is continuing to grow year-on-year, and while the iPhone5C hasn’t been as popular as hoped, most of the bad press it attracted seems to have come from journalists and analysts who couldn’t see past their fantasy of a mid-market iPhone. Instead, it’s a premium product with a very different aesthetic to the existing range, and as such it will probably find a home with a slightly different audience, once consumers have got over their shock that it’s “different”.

It will be interesting to see what Apple brings out this year, and how they progress with their indoor navigation technologies. You can probably tell that I’m very excited about this development, and both from an enterprise and user perspective I feel this is a great entry to mobile Big Data as well as opening up new ways for us to get around.

Whither Windows?

Regardless of whether you look at desktop Windows, tablets or smartphones running Windows Phone, the sound and fury panning Windows 8 last year has died down into something closer to apathy. Perhaps that’s unfair, after all this time last year people were looking for their Start buttons, and hoping that Microsoft would give them back if they made enough fuss. In fairness, Microsoft did give back the button…

Now, Windows 8 users (who still represent only a small proportion of the PC market) have either learned their way around the new OS (which isn’t that hard) or found their preferred mix of workarounds (such as Start8 to recreate the Start menu, or ModernMix to run Windows 8 apps as traditional desktop windows). Instead, the fuss has moved on to the impending Windows XP end of life and how Microsoft will treat customers who refuse to upgrade.

Personally, I hope that the acquisition of Nokia will breathe new life into both companies in the mobile space, and that the new CEO will make fixing the “empty app stores” issue a top priority for the Windows teams. The news that OEMs and even Intel are making plans for a non-Windows future suggests time may be running out unless Microsoft can make a significant change. I believe the company is capable, but will they execute?

Content remains king at Amazon

I’ve written before that Amazon could become very successful in mobile because we’re used to searching and making purchases through its website. Amazon has gone from simply being a provider of content to recording its own TV series, and the next step is to become the automatic place to go online, by providing streamed news and entertainment content. There’s also the fact that the Kindle Fire tablet makes an excellent portable media viewer with a decent price. It won’t replace your other “serious” mobile devices in the same way that the iPod didn’t replace your home hi-fi system; but that won’t prevent it from being the ideal holiday device or “second screen” companion.

Not everyone made it…

Looking back at last year’s State of Mobile, what really makes it feel a long time ago is the importance I attached to Blackberry and Tizen. A year ago Blackberry had just launched BB10 which looked very promising, but was never taken up by enough consumers to turn the company around, again partly due to a lack of apps, although concerns about Blackberry’s longevity at this point must have played a part. Tizen, Samsung’s home-grown Android alternative, looks like Samsung’s way to cut Google out of its profit margins, but hasn’t become widespread yet. On the other hand, Tizen is still in relative infancy and Samsung may simply feel that the time is not right to launch it widely.

2014 promises to be a very exciting year in mobile, with further developments in wearables, the continued rise ofmobile messaging apps and no doubt many things that we’ll never see coming until they’re already here. In enterprise mobile, I think the rise of real-time analytics and process-based multi-channel applications has the potential to change how we go about our daily work lives while ensuring that decisions can be based upon real data rather than assumptions and extrapolations.

It looks like the big players are consolidating before launching the next round of innovations, and it will be very interesting to see what happens next. Whether the next big thing is in wearable technology, the Internet of ThingsBig Data or just being a better version of what we have, I’ll be writing another of these pieces in the second half of 2014, and I expect the picture will be very different.


By David Akka, Managing Director at Magic Software Enterprises UK.

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