mobile phone-puters

A few times a semester I write for the Robins School of Business MBA Blog. I try to focus on the intersection of technology and business since that’s my background, and I had a few thoughts about those little portable computers we carry with us every day:

With the advent of powerful mobile operating systems such as Google’s Android, Apple’s iPhone OS, Palm’s WebOS, and Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Phone 7, you can say that your mobile phone does everything on this list as well. Oh yeah, and all of these devices let you make and receive phone calls, too.

Forgive the long setup to get to the point. I hope it’s at least food for thought.

Who’s gonna buy it?

So a few days ago HP posted a video to their YouTube channel. It’s on HP’s channel, but the video is basically Adobe selling HP’s “Slate Device” for them.

Yesterday Apple premiered their television ad for the iPad during the Oscars.

It struck me, as it did John Gruber, that the iPad commercial is quite a bit like many iPhone ads. End users are the focus and we hear no explanations of what you’re seeing or how it works or why it’s there. You just hear a rock song and see people in comfortable, informal situations using the iPad with ease.

In Adobe’s demo video for HP’s “Slate Device” (I hope they come up with a better name than that. Or at least better than “iPad.”) the focus seems to be on the content providers rather than content consumers. Sure, there are references to real people using the device. But there’s a saturation of seller-oriented themes in there about content publishers, developers, content distribution channels, and “branded site experiences.” A user likely won’t mind opening a separate video player to watch a clip if the transition is executed well. But MTV doesn’t want you to miss those Flash ads “in context of the site.”

Adobe also uses Alexa metrics to indicate how many top websites use Flash and how much web video is served up using Flash. Users don’t care about these numbers, sellers do. Users might want Flash video, but with so many people unaware of what a browser is they probably don’t know that they want Flash either. They just know they want to see that skateboarding dog on YouTube.

I noticed a specific ding against iPhone’s/iPad’s lack of flash in Adobe’s video when they mentioned the ability to consume content without the need for downloading a separate application. This is pure conjecture (though I’d love some real numbers), but I bet that’s not a real problem for end users. Not all downloads from the App Store are fart apps and games.

Okay, so it’s not a completely fair comparison. The Apple ad is a TV spot and the Adobe video is a demo spot and not necessarily a commercial. It should also be noted that I haven’t used either device and, if it wasn’t already clear, I hope you know that I’m not commenting on the quality or performance of the gadgets – merely the messaging and my perception of each message’s audience.

It just seems strange that one of the earliest demo videos for this device would focus on content suppliers/sellers. Maybe it’s because Adobe doesn’t have to convince users to buy the “Slate Device.” That’s HP’s job. Adobe wants to sell Flash to content creators. Last I checked, though, content consumers outnumbered content creators, so I hope HP has another partner company lined up to shill this thing to the people who are supposed to use them.

The Unrestricted Flow of the Internet

It appears that the FCC is on the cusp of implementing Net Neutrality regulations that would prevent Internet service providers, or ISPs, (like Comcast or AT&T’s mobile broadband) from charging more money to serve bandwidth-intensive content like video and other media. The ISPs don’t like this, and these choice quotes underscore a fundamental problem of letting some industries run unchecked (all quotes from the BBC’s coverage):

“…a new set of regulations that will limit customer choices and affect content providers, application developers, device manufacturers and network builders…” – Verizon

“…so it’s still fair to ask whether increased regulation of the internet is a solution in search of a problem.” – Comcast

“We are concerned the FCC appears ready to extend the entire array of net neutrality requirements to what is perhaps the most competitive consumer market in America – wireless services.” – AT&T

This reminds me of a fantastic article I read on Rands In Repose back in March about the Brooklyn Bridge. I think this describes the ISPs fairly well:

When Brooklyn and New York’s population was booming at the end of the 19th century, the best way to get to and from Brooklyn was via ferries. As solutions were considered, I’m sure there were those who simply thought, “More boats!” These ardent defenders of the status quo were not engineers — they were the business. Their goal was not to build something great, but to make a profit.

AT&T and other wireless carriers will only increase their data capacity as much as they have to. Perhaps the FCC’s new rules will light a fire under their collective butt.

Ejection

Something that might seem like a small detail about my iPhone that still makes me quite happy is that fact that I don’t really have to “eject” the device before I unplug it from a computer. This probably seems like no big deal to the average user since most devices we plug in to our computers can be unplugged as simply as we plug them in. Devices which store data, however, are another story.

Whether on Windows or OS X, you’re often warned of possible data loss when you simply unplug a memory card, external hard drive, media player, or smartphone. You’re supposed to go to the Finder (on a Mac) or My Computer (in Windows) and eject the device before unplugging it. My hardware and operating systems knowledge are steadily fading into oblivion from disuse, but I believe this eject action essentially attempts to cease communication with the device in question by wrapping up any data transfer or use by software programs. This is particularly helpful, nay, crucial, when you’re copying files on to an external hard drive or syncing a smartphone so you don’t damage a file by only transferring a piece of the whole.

Now I’m not in the habit of unplugging my iPhone in the middle of syncing or copying, but I’ve known since it was discussed at launch and since I’ve used one myself that, generally, you can just pull the sync cable right out of the phone without having to worry. This, as I understand it, is to allow you to take a phone call without having to bring iTunes into focus to eject the device or wait for syncing to complete.

I think, though, that the real benefit here is removing a needlessly confusing step from day-to-day use of the iPhone. Why can’t we do this with other data storage devices?

I hadn’t considered this for years because I’d wager that if you were the sort of person who used an external hard drive or a card reader on your computer, you were savvy enough to understand why you don’t yank those out in the middle of use, and the process of logical ejection wasn’t likely to confuse or get in the way. It made technical sense and seemed like a safe way to protect data. But it’s not just the nerds making use of these devices anymore.

Many computers come with built in card readers, there are consumer-level external hard drives gaining broader use for media storage and back-up, and there is the omnipresence of digital media electronics like the iPod. The people who are using these products often have enough knowledge of computers to use Microsoft Office and surf the internet. They might not understand that simply unplugging that external hard drive might corrupt the iTunes library file stored therein if they hadn’t closed iTunes first and/or ejected the drive. The gist of the issue, as I see it, is that the current process of device ejection requires the user to be active about handling device communication closure. The way the iPhone is handled, on the other hand, allows the user to ignore this while a software layer handles this. The computer…um…gets out of the way.

I’m not sure how, exactly, iTunes handles this functionality. Perhaps there’s something in the software on both sides – the phone AND the computer – that only keeps complete files. Whatever the case, I wonder what barriers exist to implementing the same ability for other devices. It sure would be nice to be able to yank a memory card out of the computer mid-transfer so you could stuff it back into the camera and get a picture of your kid goofing off. It would be nice if you could simply take your laptop and go without having to close a bunch of programs and eject some hardware.

This is, for sure, a trivial element of a user’s interaction with a computer. But as more non-technical people continue to use computers for an ever-increasing variety of tasks we should consider those little hindrances that, while on their own pose little problem, collectively add up to a steeper learning curve.

VOUG. Strike a (nerd) pose.

So I’m back in Richmond as of last night, but posting is likely to remain sparse today and tomorrow while I attend a conference for VOUG – the Virginia Oracle Users Group. The pluses, other than the intense and educational sessions I’m sure to encounter? Plenty of catered food included, carpooling with my wife (she works five blocks from the Omni downtown where the conference will be held), and not having to go back to the office until Monday.

I may post some updates during the breaks, but if I do they’re likely to be saturated with nerd-speak.

myPhone

An iPhone, I has one.

Sure, I’m excited about having the internet in my pocket, location-aware applications, the ability to easily access my Gmail account from my office, et cetera. But mostly I’m happy to be able to put my phone in my pocket again and get rid of that HTC Brick.

Oh yeah, and the iPhone plugin for Mint is fan-freakin’-tastic.