Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tax Scare

Somehow I manage to scare myself every year by counting my stock options income twice while doing taxes, which I did again minutes ago. So let this be a reminder to former co-workers: Apple already includes your stock options income complete with withholdings, right on your W-2 form.

In other news, I'm starting to wear incredibly expensive shoe insoles in the hopes of correcting my slightly flat feet. My feet had been limiting me to about 5 miles per hike, and I start compensating for the soreness underfoot by somehow stressing my calves out, too. It's not bad in daily life, but I certainly won't mind being less tired at the end of the day. It'll take some breaking-in as it remolds my feet, so we'll see how well this works in a few weeks.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Challenging the iPhone

Shortly after the iPhone burst onto the scene, there was a rush to copy its innovations. However, these had mainly been superficial imitations, such as adding a touch screen onto software that doesn't really support touching, or simply ripping off the Springboard user interface. Some of the worst copycats couldn't even scroll a photograph smoothly across the screen.

Obviously, it's not easy to compete with the iPhone in 2007 or early 2008. The thing is a technical marvel, cramming what is essentially a ~500 MHz processor computer into a thin box the size of a palm. This power in turn allowed it to run desktop-class software like the game-changing Mobile Safari.

But it's no longer 2007, and we're beginning to see real competition arrive. Unlike the first wave of copycats, these are big, thoughful competitors who had the chance to analyze the iPhone's hardware and software, as well as observe the market's reaction to it. They are definitely not to be laughed off like the initial bunch of wannabes.

Google struck first with the G1. I've played with it a bit, and my impression is that it is more of a prototype board than a production phone. It has a keyboard, a touch screen, and a trackball. Unfortunately, this means that the Android developer would probably have to deal with a variety of different input devices when phones with different hardware arrive. The software seems a bit less responsive than the iPhone. However, Google has very good people who know everything I know and then some, so a "1.1" software release in six months or a year would be well worth watching for.

Palm - which I considered working for after Apple - threw its hat into the ring last week. The Pre looks like a nice device, but not being actually market-ready suggests they have some serious work left to do. I'll probably try hard to get my hands on one to play with. Less obviously than Google, Palm also has very good people right now, and they're actually in charge.

One advantage that Apple continues to hold is the App Store. While third party applications for phones is no news, most of them are painful endeavors. (To borrow an expression from JBQ, you know you're in embedded systems when the tools are lousy.) I've dabbled in Symbian, Windows Mobile, looked briefly at BREW, and of course Geos-SC, and they were all just annoying for various reasons. Although Objective-C is an unfamiliar programming language for many, it is a real desktop-class development environment, and there are some serious apps being released for the iPhone.

Android's allure to third parties is theoretically better than Apple's. Google opened up everything, in stark contrast to Apple's annoying secretive stance. However, if Google is not able to restrain its device manufacturers to produce common handsets that Android programmers can target broadly, then Android may in reality fragment into multiple platforms because some Android software would not work on various Android phones. Apple has internal discipline to enforce this, Google doesn't actually make the phones.

Palm's problem as Number Three is to convince people to develop software for it. The iPhone OS and Android are both good development environments, but making big software is still no picnic. Palm's chicken-and-egg problem is that you can't sell phones without apps, and you can't get the apps unless you sell lots of phones. The iPhone overcame this awkward stage in a time when the PalmOS and Windows Mobile were both dated and stagnant. Palm would have to do it against an attentive Apple and Google...

...which brings us to Microsoft. There's no question in my mind that Microsoft is developing an answer to the iPhone OS, if not directly to the iPhone. They have some internal experience in small mobile systems with the Zune, but it wouldn't surprise me if a separate team was assembled to meet this challenge. I think the question is whether they try to improve the Zune platform, or dig out the old source code of Windows NT 4.0.

I don't know much about BlackBerries, but I get the impression that they are stuck with a software or hardware platform that will not be able to run something like Safari smoothly. If so, they're in trouble. Rebuilding your platform at this important juncture is very dangerous, just as Netscape proved by ditching their version 4.7 code base. Not biting the bullet, on the other hand, would make them just like the PalmOS that was used well past its prime.

At this point, I don't think that 2009 will be a year of serious threats to the iPhone. However, 2010 might be very interesting.