Thursday, August 02, 2007

While I wait for a better iPhone

Well, I finally played with an iPhone (that's right, despite all my posts about it, I didn't queue to buy one, and didn't even visit an Apple Store to see one for weeks after the release). Mainly, I wanted to see if my video ad serving technology worked on one (it does, but since the iPhone only supports a limited range of video options, most of my test videos wouldn't play). My conclusion is that I won't buy one until it has a ton more storage (preferably with removable media as an option) and better bandwidth.

Assuming that what you basically want from a phone is (a) a pretty good phone, and (b) something to surf the web, and (c) that you already have an iPod ... the missing component for me -- and I suspect a lot of people -- is the web browser. And given that you probably find surfing the web via EDGE to be pretty unbearable, what you really want is a Wireless web browser with decent battery life that is rugged and fits in your pocket. Ideally it will be cheap enough that if you lose it you won't be shattered psychologically and financially.

Well, Nintendo has released a web browser cartridge for the DS (it's Opera, of course). Darn it, I wish they'd simply add a physical keyboard and an IDE.

So, I now have my 5G iPod, Motorola Razr, and for $30 I can convert my $130 DS into a browser. Downside of course are significant: (a) three gadgets vs. one; (b) no cellular internet (well I could have it on the Razr but why bother?); (c) smaller screen; (d) no spiffy touch interface (the DS's touch interface is kind of pedestrian); (d) web mail is the only email option (and it's not cellular); (e) no integration: if the phone rings you need to turn something else off to talk; (f) none of the really great functionality you get from synergies (e.g. camera + email, web + email + phone); (g) the Razr, on its own, even with Bluetooth enabled and set up, is more of a pain to synch than an iPod, and the DS can't synch at all; (h) and it's even geekier than having an iPhone, and some folks will think you're infantile for using a DS in public.

Upsides are (a) each device individually has more battery life than the iPhone (although with every house, office, and vehicle I have access to festooned with iPod docks, cradles, and chargers, iPhone battery life seems like a minor issue); (b) the DS browser arguably has a better keyboard (pen-based); (c) the DS is insanely rugged and doesn't look that great to start with, so I won't get worked up over nicks and scratches; (d) far more storage (30GB in my case); (e) you can, apparently, play games on the DS.

When you weigh the pros and cons, the iPhone is definitely better overall than the iPod + Razr + DS combination, and the base model is even cheaper ($499 vs. $249 + $99 + $129 + $29). On the other hand, the marginal benefit of paying $29 to let my DS surf the web will allow me to wait for MacBooks with iPhone functionality or an iPhone with decent storage capacity, better broadband, and the 1.0 kinks worked out.

The gPhone

Google is, apparently, working on its own phone. Google isn't exactly a stranger to the hardware world -- they do all kinds of hardware work internally (ranging from building their own infrastructure, to cargo containers that contain a decentralized server hub that can be shipped anywhere and plugged in, to immense, highly optimized server farms) and even sell some hardware products (enterprise search engines that can be installed on a corporate LAN and remotely administered). But Google is a stranger to consumer hardware.

Alan Kay once famously remarked that if you're really interested in software, you build your own hardware, but the more I think about this, the less it makes sense to me for Google to release its own phone hardware (except possibly as a reference platform).

Economics 101 dictates that you want your complements (products that help consumers use your product) to be free or cheap and ubiquitous (makes sense) and competing products to be expensive and rare. For Google, web browsers are their ultimate complementary product. If FireFox and Safari didn't exist, Google would have had to invent them.

So what Google really wants is for every cellphone out there to be a web browser with full "Web 2.0" support -- i.e. basically an iPhone. But to do this it needs to make them good, cheap, and very common -- something Apple can't or won't do.

It seems like the best way to do this would be do produce a great cellphone OS and license it for next-to-nothing. This would simultaneously help push Microsoft out of this space and turn lots of cell-phones into Google-friendly web-browsers. Rather than having to figure out how to manufacture and sell phones at a profit, Google would simply help existing phone companies to do this, and make more profits the way it already does: via web advertising.

Google would probably be just as happy if every cellphone became a standards-compliant web browser without their help. The question is whether Google needs to do anything (now that Apple has essentially raised the bar for cellphones across the board) except wait.