Jun 10

Missing the point: The real stakes in the smartphone wars

The responses to my last several posts on the smartphone wars (The iPhone 4: Too little, too late; More dispatches from the smartphone wars; Steve Jobs’ Snow Job; Flattening the Smartphone Market; Now’s a bad time to be an Apple fanboy…; Android Rising) demonstrate that many of my readers continue to miss the real stakes in the smartphone wars and the real point of my analyses of them.

It’s not about whether or not Apple will be crushed. It’s not about who makes the “best” products, where “best” is measured by some interaction between the product and the speaker’s evaluation of the relative importance of various features and costs. It’s about what the next generation of personal computing platforms will be. Down one fork they’ll be open, hackable, and user-controlled. Down the other they’ll be closed, locked down, and vendor-controlled. Though there are others on each side of this struggle, in 2010 it comes down to whether Apple or Android wins the race to over 50% smartphone market share; after that point, network effects will become self-reinforcing until the next technology disruption.

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Jun 07

The iPhone 4: Too little, too late

As I write, the announcement of the iPhone 4 at WWDC is just a few hours old. See the Engadget coverage for details. The bottom line? This is too little, too late to stop the Android deluge.

There are some very cool individual features on this phone, no doubt. The two that stand out the most to me are the onboard gyroscope and the “retina display” – yes, 960 x 640 at 326ppi will be damn nice, and if I were writing apps I would seriously lust for that six-axis motion sensing. But the improvements are mainly in the hardware; Apple has conspicuously failed to address the areas where it has fallen behind Android 2.2 in software. There’s no progress on voice recognition, Flash, or WiFi hotspot capability. And even the hardware falls short of where it needs to be; while 802.11n is nice, the “G” after that “4” is conspicuously missing.

If I were an Apple marketing guy, I’d be asking “How the hell can I compete against the EVO 4G with this?”

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Jun 04

More dispatches from the smartphone wars

Well, it was fun carrying the most advanced smartphone on the planet. For a whole 32 days. But the Sprint EVO 4G launched today and its specs – especially the larger OLED display and WiMAX capability – put the Nexus One in the shade.

The bigger story today, though, is the ripple effects of AT&T consigning its unlimited-data plans to the dustbin of history. Gizmodo’s take, AT&T Just Killed Unlimited Wireless Data (and Screwed Everybody in the Process), is pretty representative.

Because I understand how network costs scale I’m more sanguine about the longer-term prospects than Gizmodo is. Unlimited flat rate will return when someone – probably Sprint, given the nature of their network buildout – decides it’s a useful competitive weapon. That will force others to follow suit; the market-equilibrium condition will be all flat rate, same as it is in voice calling today and for exactly the same reasons.

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Jun 01

AIS “security” considered harmful

One Kelly Sweeney is publicly advocating that public access to AIS ship information should be prohibited in order to foil pirates and terrorists.

I must respectfully disagree with the premise of this article. I’m the lead of GPSD, a widely-used open-source GPS/AIS monitor daemon, and I am thus both a domain expert on AIS and a systems architect who is required to think about data security issues all the time. Attempting to “secure” AIS data would harm the public and have no security benefits. In fact, the second-order effects would be seriously bad.

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May 28

I am twitter-enabled, mainly for gaming purposes

Those of you who wish to follow me on Twitter can now do so.

You’ll find much of my Twitter content a bit strange, as I am using it mainly to play an on-line game called EchoBazaar. All the tweets labeled #ebz are game stuff.

EchoBazaar has an interesting business model: you play for free, but can buy Fate Points useful in game. I understand this has been done before, but it’s the first time I’ve encountered it.

(Someone else has twitter ID “esr”, alas.)

May 26

The Iron Laws of Network Cost Scaling

The shape of the cost curves that show up as we build and run communications networks have properties that seem counterintuitive to many people, but that have been surprisingly consistent across lots of different technologies since at least the days of the telegraph, and probably further back than that.

Herewith, the Iron Laws of Network Cost Scaling:

1. Upgrade cost per increment of capacity decreases as capacity rises.

2. Network costs scale primarily with the number of troubleshooters required to run them, not with capacity.

3. Under market pressure, network pricing evolves from metered to flat-rate.

When you learn to apply all three of these together, you can make useful qualitative predictions across a surprisingly broad set of real-world cases.

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May 25

Flattening the Smartphone Market

Common cellphone operating systems like Android, WebOS, and Maemo are depriving cellphone carriers of one of their most treasured means of keeping customers in the dark and feeding them bullshit. They’re making smartphones comparable to each other, and by doing so brutally intensifying the competitive pressure on the carriers.

Before these common platforms, one of the ways carriers had to quell customer demand for features like tethering was simply that the feature sets of different phones were difficult for customers to compare in meaningful ways, and there was no real benchmark for what a cellphone could or should do (I mean, other than make phone calls).

That’s all changed now. To see how, consider the impact of the Froyo announcement – Android 2.2. This was a feature list of what upcoming cellphones would be able to do that wasn’t censored by a carrier. Every actual Android phone offering from now on will be compared against the Froyo feature list and against all other Android cellphones. And if any come out with an Android feature disabled or available only at extra cost, the pressure won’t be on Google – it will be on the carrier.

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May 23

Now’s a bad time to be an Apple fanboy…

It’s an unhappy day for Apple fanboys. Dan Lyons Newsweek’s tech correspondent just ditched the iPhone for Android, slamming the phone and Steve Jobs’s control-freak strategy in very harsh terms.

It might be tempting to dismiss this on the grounds that Dan Lyons is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fool whose confidence in his own judgment is in inverse proportion to its quality; his gullibility about SCO’s allegations in their lawsuit against IBM became legendary, and some of the stuff he’s written about blogging is hilariously stupid. Given his track record, betting directly against his technology and market projections would be smarter than betting on them.

Yes, but…Newsweek is an awfully big megaphone. And the larger news isn’t the bad stuff that pushed him away from Apple, it’s the good stuff the pulled him towards Android. The Android 2.2 feature list is a body blow from which the iPhone, already trailing Android devices in unit sales, may not be able to recover.

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May 19

Software licenses as conversation

An article published yesterday, I could license you to use this software, but then I’d have to kill you calls out some odd outliers in the open-source licensing space – odder, actually, than any I ever reviewed when I was the founding president of the Open Source Initiative. I wonder, though, if the author actually gets all the levels of the joke.

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May 11

Android Rising

The news comes to us today that in 1Q 2010 Android phones outsold Apple’s iPhone by a significant 7%. As it said on the gunslinger’s gravestone, “I was expecting this, but not so soon.”

Business Week and the Wall Street Journal are on the story, but the most interesting version is from the story they’re apparently deriving from at All Things Digital, because it includes a graph showing recent market share trends that conveys a lot more information than the present-time numbers.

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May 10

Summer sword training is coming up

This year I will once again be going to Michigan for summer sword training. I wrote about this back in 2008 in a series of posts beginning with “And So, It Begins…”. Should you make the opportunity for it, this is an amazing summer adventure vacation that will teach you much and probably leave you with lifelong friendships. I’m posting a heads-up because I think many of my regulars would find it interesting.

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May 04

How many ways can you get Android wrong in one article?

One of my regulars pointed me at Is Android Evil?, an article by one Andreas Constantinou which purports to be a brave and hardhitting contrarian take on Android.

I read this, and I’m asking myself “Wow. How many different ways can one guy be wrong in the same article?” Particularly entertaining, and the main reason I’m bothering to rebut this nonsense, is the part where Mr. Brave Contrarian Guy claims that the success of Android has nothing to do with open source and then lists three “key factors” of its success in every one of which open source is critically involved.

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May 02

G-1 to Nexus One: an informal comparison

It’s been an eventful week here at Eric Conspiracy Secret Labs, what with robot submarines busting out all over and a “Disruptive Innovation Award” from the Tribeca Film Festival (!) landing on my somewhat bemused head (possible topic of a later post). And I’m writing from Penguicon, where in about an hour I’m going to be starring in an event billed as “Jam Session with ESR – Ask Him Anything!” Whoever scheduled this for 9AM on the morning after Saturday night at a convention needs to be found and seriously hurt, but I figure anyone with enough willpower to show up at that unGoddessly hour of the morning deserves the best of me.

Which is all, in this case, a lead-in to observing that I’ve now been using a Google Nexus One under field and travel stress for about a week. The differences from the G-1 I had been carrying are, I think, suggestive about how Android-based smartphones are evolving and their competitive posture against the iPhone, Symbian, and Windows Mobile.

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Apr 29

Sheep from Goats: the rise in long-term unemployment

The graph in this article is most interesting. The feature that fascinates me is not the huge crossover from short-term (0-14 week) to long-term (27 weeks or more) of employment, it’s the purple time series describing 15-26-week employment. It has spiked but is now dropping again.

I think I know what this means. It’s the statistical face of the phenomenon I described in Marginal Devolution.

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Apr 28

The Nexus One has landed: telecomms companies, beware!

Google sent me one of the unlocked developer Nexus One phones. It arrived today. And, in the wake of recent news about Verizon not after all carrying the Nexus, stimulated some interesting thoughts in my mind about where the cellphone market is going. The balance of power is changing fast in ways that are going to be very good for consumers.

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Apr 27

My open-source project is cooler than yours

Yes, GPSD is way cooler than your project. You know how I can tell?

Because my latest feature request is from a scientist who wants to use GPSD as part of the control software for an autonomous robot submarine. That’s how I can tell.

No word yet on whether the robot submarine will have a frickin’ laser mounted on its frickin’ head. But I’m hoping.

Apr 22

Apple, postmodern consumerism and the iPad

It’s not very often that I feel impelled to quote someone else’s blog post in its entirety, But Ann Althouse says of the iPad

I have it, and I feel like I could be using it. But I don’t really use it. Maybe I think I’m going to be using it. But I also think it’s possible that I’m never going to use it. I seem to have a need for it, but I have other things that fit that need that I go back to instead over and over again. And yet there it is, over there. I think I’m going to be going there, maybe later. Maybe tomorrow.

Amazing. The iPad is the ultimate Steve Jobs device – so hypnotic that not only do people buy one without knowing what it’s good for, they keep feeling like they ought to use it even when they have better alternatives for everything it does. It’s a triumph of style over substance, cool over utility, form over actual function. The viral YouTube videos of cats and two-years-olds playing with it speak truth in their unsurpassable combination of draw-you-in cuteness with utter pointlessness. It’s the perfect lust object of postmodern consumerism, irresistibly attractive but empty – you know you’ve been played by the marketing and design but you don’t care because your complicity in the game is part of the point.

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Apr 21


For any of you who happen to be in Southeast Michigan or its environs, Cathy and I will be attending Penguicon from April 30th to May 2nd.

A&D regular Ken Burnside will be there as well, sharing a room with us and hawking his excellent 3D space games – Attack Vector: Tactical, Squadron Strike and others. He’ll be teaching those games too, possibly with me at the table.

A&D regular Jay Maynard will be attending as well. Probably in full Tron Guy drag, at least part of the time.

Join us for a weekend of “You got your Linux geekery in my science fiction convention! Yeah, well, you got your science fiction stuff in my Linux convention!” Two great tastes that taste great together.