Showing all posts tagged mobile:

Living in the Future

So far this week my phone got me on a plane:

Around London by Tube and train:

Got me coffee, dinner and some light shopping:

Let me summon a car to my exact location, and pay for the trip:

Oh, and I wrote and published this blog post on my phone.

And I think I also made some phone calls, all while keeping on top of email, using social media, reading books and magazines, listening to music and podcasts, and finding my way around.

Tell me again how phones are overpriced and boring? 🤔


You may have noticed that none of those images are of my actual phone, or of my own boarding passes and credit cards. That is because I am not a complete idiot. Yes, people really do post pictures of those online. No, it is very much not a good idea.

Talkin' Bout a Revolution

Once again, the seemingly unkillable idea of modular phones rears its misshapen head.

The first offender is VentureBeat, with a breathless piece entitled The dream of Ara: Inside the rise and fall of the world’s most revolutionary phone.

record scratch

Let me stop you right there, VentureBeat. Ara is not a "revolutionary phone" at all, let alone "the world's most revolutionary phone", for the very good and sufficient reason that Project Ara never got around to shipping an actual phone before it was ignominiously shut down.

"Most ambitious phone design", maybe. I’d also settle for "most misguided", but that would be a different article. Whatever Ara was, it was not “revolutionary", because otherwise we would all be using modular phones. Even the most watered-down version of that idea, LG’s expandable G5 phone design, is now dead - although in their defence, at least LG did actually ship a product somewhat successfully.

Now Andy Rubin, creator of Android, is back in the news, with plans for a new phone… which sounds like it may well be modular:

It's expected to include […] the ability to gain new hardware features over time

This is a bold bet, and Andy Rubin certainly knows more about the mobile phone market than I do - but here’s why I don’t think a modular phone is the way to go.

Take a Step Back - No, Further Back

The reason I was sceptical about Project Ara’s chances from the beginning goes back to Clayton Christensen’s Disruption Theory. I have written about disruption theory before, so I won’t go into too much length about it here, but basically disruption states that in a fast-developing market, integrated products win because they can take advantage of rapid advances in the field. Vice versa, in a mature market products win by modularising, providing specific features with specific benefits or at a lower cost than the integrated solutions can deliver.

Disruption happens when innovation slows down because further innovation requires more resources than consumers are willing to invest. In this scenario, incumbent vendors continue to chase diminishing returns at the top of the market, only to find themselves undercut by modular competitors delivering "good enough" products. Over time, the modular products eat up the bulk of the market, leaving the ex-incumbents high and dry.

If you assume that the mobile phone market is mature and all development is just mopping up at the edges, then maybe a modular strategy makes sense, allowing consumers to start with a "good enough" basic phone and pick and choose the features most important to them, upgrading individual functionality over time. However, if the mobile phone market is still advancing rapidly and consumers still see the benefit from each round of improvements, then fundamental upgrades will happen frequently enough that integrated solutions will still have the advantage.

Some of the tech press seem to be convinced that we have reached the End of History in mobile technology. Last year’s iPhone 7 launch was the epitome of this view, with the consensus being that because the outside of the phone had not changed significantly compared to the previous generation, there was therefore no significant change to talk about.

The actual benchmarks tell a different story. The iPhone 7 is not only nearly a third faster than the previous generation of iPhone across the board, it also compares favourably to a 2013 MacBook Pro.

That type of year-over-year improvement is not the mark of a market that is ripe for modular disruption.

What Do Users Say?

The other question, beyond technical suitability, is whether users would consider a product like Project Ara, or LG’s expandable architecture. The answer, at least according to LG’s experience, is a resounding NO:

An LG spokesperson commented that consumers aren’t interested in modular phones. The company instead is planning to focus on functionality and design aspects

Consumers do not see significant benefits from the increase in complication that modularisation brings, preferring instead to upgrade the entire handset every couple of years, at which point every single component will be substantially better.

And that is why the mobile phone market is not ready for a modular product, instead preferring integrated ones. If every component in the phone needs to be upgraded anyway, modularisation brings no benefit; it’s an overhead at best, and a liability at worst, if modules can become unseated and get lost or cause software instability.

At some point the mobile phone market will probably be disrupted - but I doubt it will be done through a modularised hardware solution in the vein of Project Ara. Instead, I would expect modularisation to take place with more and more functionality being handed off to a cloud-based back-end. In this model, the handset will lose many of its independent capabilities, and revert to being what the telephone has been for most of its history: a dumb terminal connected to a smart network.

But we’re not there yet.


Images by Pavan Trikutam and Ian Robinson via Unsplash

Head in the Vapour

In news which should surprise absolutely nobody, Google - I mean, Alphabet - have killed their ridiculous “Project Ara" modular phone.

Here’s why this was a stupid idea from the beginning. Description from the Project ARA homepage:

The Ara frame is built with durable latches and connectors to keep modules secured. Ara modules are designed around standards, allowing them to work with new generations of frames and new form factors.

All of that means bulk - increased size and weight. Also, you’re still going to be constrained by what can fit on that chassis; there would be a spot where you could fit a camera, but if you want a bigger camera or don’t want a camera at all, this architecture doesn’t help you. It also sounds fragile, with many points of failure. These modules could easily become dislodged in your pocket, so you pull your phone out to take a picture and realise that you need to reconnect the camera module to the phone, but now the OS doesn’t recognise it, so you have to do a hard reboot - and now the sun has set or the child has run off, and you have a handful of modules and nobody to throw them at.

The real problem, though, is the goal of this project. The only attraction of modular systems is if you are going to upgrade components piecemeal: instead of buying an entire new phone every 18 months or whatever your replacement cycle is, you can judiciously upgrade just the screen or add a fingerprint reader or an NFC antenna, or so the theory goes.

In practice, nobody wants to do that. First of all, even on desktop systems where the bulk and weight are less of a factor, the market has moved decisively towards fully integrated all-in-one systems. People have voted with their pocketbooks for integrated convenience over flexible modularity. And that's in static desktop applications. When we’re talking about something people carry around all day, bulk and weight are an even bigger factor.

Secondly, most upgrades require many systems to be upgraded at once - at which point you might as well just buy a new phone anyway. This isn’t PC gaming, where you can get measurable benefits from upgrading your video card. Mobile phone hardware is still evolving far more rapidly than desktop hardware, and the benefits of full integration far outweigh the benefits of modularity.

We used to talk about the notion of a Personal Area Network, back when meaningful computing power was too heavy to hold in one hand. The idea was that you would carry a PC in a backpack, and a screen in your hand, an earpiece in your ear, maybe something like Google Glass, and so on. By the time the tech would have been there to enable that vision, it was already obsolete, because you can hold more computing power than you can use in the palm of your hand.

We may get back to that vision if wearables take off in a meaningful way, but the idea of modularising the phone itself was a pointless detour.

What it is, is typical Google - I mean Alphabet. Announce some random blue-sky project, let nerds everywhere geek out on how it could work without ever considering whether it should be done in the first place, and then kill it off once it hits the real world. The annoying thing is that Google actually gets credit for doing this over and over again, instead of ridicule for not thinking things through. Yes yes, fail fast and let a thousand flowers bloom and all that, but some adult oversight in the planning phases would not go amiss.

I forget who initially suggested the position of VP of Nope, but I think Google needs one. The idea is that this is an exec, senior enough that they have to be taken seriously, who just sits in the back of the room, and when someone proposes something obviously idiotic, they just clear their throat and say “nope". Their salary would be very well earned.


UPDATE: Just noticed that John Gruber pointed out back in 2014 that the emperor had no clothes, and before that in 2013:

you’d still be throwing out old components on a regular basis, and the march of progress is such that it won’t take long until your base board is outdated too.

Exactly.


Images from the Project ARA homepage while it lasts.

People, not places

An interesting observation from the reliably-fascinating Ben Thompson at Stratechery:

In other words, while the old Dish Service – and every other pay-TV service – was delivered to an address, Sling TV is delivered to a person. It is Mobile First.

This reminds me of an observation I read a few years ago: before mobile phones, you called a place and hoped that the person you were looking for was there. Now, we have the ability to call the person directly. It is a fundamental shift.

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People who moved around a lot would regularly call back to base - home, office, or wherever - to check who had called for them. Travel meant creating a contact schedule: "from the 15th to the 17th I will be at Grand Hotel de Oooh La La, then from the 17th to the 19th I move to the Dump Motel", and so on. Less organised travel meant being entirely out of contact for days or weeks at a time.

I am barely old enough to remember these days. For my high-school graduation, I went interrailing with a good friend. If you're not familiar with the concept, an InterRail pass grants unlimited travel across Europe1. Then and now, summer equals scruffy yoofs with huge backpacks zigzagging their ways across the continent.

The difference is that today they mark their progress with social check-ins and photographs uploaded from café wifi along the way, commenting on each other's trips and planning rendezvous in this city or at that music festival. Back in the Pleistocene when I was on my own InterRail trip, neither of us owned mobiles, so plans were extremely vague and communication back home almost entirely limited to occasional postcards. A key part of our itinerary was literally telling someone "we'll be in Kiel some time in the second half of August, set up something cool" several weeks beforehand and then just showing up, with no further communication or even knowing whether we had anywhere to sleep.

I'm not going to wax nostalgic about "living in the moment" (that time we slept in the squat in Prague powered by an illegal tap off the street lights?) for fear that my children might read this one day and use it against me. I just wanted to point out how different it is that today we can call up a person wherever they may be, without knowing or caring about their precise location.

"Mobile first" is all about this shift away from connecting places to one another, and instead connecting people with each other. I think we have another generation to go before we truly understand what has happened - and indeed, is still happening to us.


Image by Aurélien Bellanger via Unsplash


  1. At the time of my trip, Europe was divided into "zones". Now, it seems to be either pan-European or per-country. 

Security Theatre

There are many things in IT that are received knowledge, things that everyone knows.

One thing that everyone knows is that you have to manage employee's mobile devices to prevent unauthorised access to enterprise systems. My employer's choice of MDM agent is a bit intrusive for my personal tastes, so I opted not to install it on my personal iPad. The iPhone is the company's device, so it's their own choice what they want me to run on it.

Among other things, this agent is required to connect to the company Exchange server from mobile devices. You can't just add an Exchange account and log in with your AD credentials, you need this agent to be in place.

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But why the focus on mobile devices?

When I upgraded my work and home Macs to Yosemite, I finally turned on the iCloud Keychain. I hadn't checked exactly what was syncing, and was surprised to see work calendar alerts turning up on my home Mac. My personal Mac had just grabbed my AD credentials out of iCloud and logged in to Exchange, without any challenge from the corporate side.

So how is that different from my iPad? Why is a Mac exempt from the roadblock? A Mac is arguably less secure than an iPad if it gets forgotten in a coffee shop or whatever - never mind a Windows machine. Why is "mobile" different? Just because?

Many enterprise IT people seem to lose their minds when it comes to mobile device management. I'm not necessarily arguing for just dropping the requirement, just for a sane evaluation of the risks and the responses that are required.

Phone features

So1 I'm in a corporate strategy exercise. A fellow participant was searching for an analogy to make his point, and took the iPhone as an example. So far so normal - the iPhone is now deeply embedded in the enterprise, to the point that there was only a single BlackBerry holdout in the room.

The interesting thing is that my colleague went on to list ten features of the iPhone - and did not include voice calling! POTS2 is no longer the most important feature of these devices, or even the most frequently used one. I know I use Phone.app an order of magnitude less than Skype and Lync even for voice communications. FaceTime still lags slightly, because I mainly use that for video calls and those are not always appropriate.

When is a phone... not a phone?


  1. Don't you hate people who begin stories with "So..."? I know I do. 

  2. Plain Old Telephone Service, in case you didn't know - because you hardly ever use it any more. 

Android as Windows

I have commented before about how Android handset advertising resembles the worst sort of PC advertising.

Now it seems Samsung has gone all the way and infests their phones with crapware - I mean, “valuable software pre-installed for your convenience": Samsung Galaxy S5 Comes With Premium App Subscriptions.

Whoever at Samsung thought this was a good idea should be used as target practice for the company’s autonomous guard-bots (no, really, those are a thing). One of the factors driving people away from Windows is the fact that most “civilian" installations come loaded down with all sorts of horrors: unkillable system tray cruft, toolbars cluttering up every window, a brace of expired trials for vapourware security products, and various broken installs of different versions of antivirus tools. Corporate Windows images are not much better, with encryption watchdogs, twenty passwords required, and disk audits and mandatory reboots happening at the most inconvenient times.1

Faced with this sort of user experience, most people run away screaming - often to Apple. Now Samsung wants to bring this same dynamic to mobile?


  1. Android purists will no doubt point out that it possible to install clean Android here. In the real world, I suspect that about as many people will do this as already reinstall clean Windows to their consumer boxes - i.e. only us weirdos.