Monday, January 28, 2008

Nokia to acquire Trolltech

Of course, I read the press release from Nokia. I even noticed that my fellow FN Champion, Paul Todd, was faster than me to write about it. Never mind, I knew it in advance that I can't be faster than AAS, nor Simon Judge, either.

What comes as a surprise to me, though, that no-one has pointed out to an important aspect of this announcement: am I alone to think that this is Nokia's answer to Google OHA?

Nokia already had a mobile Linux platform, called Maemo, but with this $153M acquisition it has now joined LiMo, too. See brief comparison between LiMo and OHA here. It's interesting to see how mobile phone manufacturers are committing themselves to different "open" mobile operating systems (e.g. Nokia to Symbian/S60, Maemo, LiMo; Motorola to LiMo, OHA, Symbian/UIQ) just to find the ultimate revenue source. If there is such, since who said that multiple mobile OSes cannot happily co-exist? Anyway, for us, developers, it might easily become the ultimate hell.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Touch(less) UI + Accelerometer

We all know iPhone. Even though it's not available in Hungary as of yet, I've already had the chance to hold it in my hands and play with it. It's simply great. People say that it's because of the touch UI, but I don't believe that. It's not that simple. Lots of other manufacturers have already made phones with touch support, but for some reason the success of their products is not even comparable with iPhone's. I think it's because of Apple's approach to user interface, more importantly to user experience. They made it as simple as possible and it will be very hard for phone vendors to compete with it.

Motorola announced their ROKR E8 phone at CES 2008. It's a touch-driven phone, needless to say. The coolest feature that I found is that it doesn't have a physical keyboard, but it dynamically shows always the relevant keys based on what feature/program is being used at the moment. I remember of a patent that I have read about over at IntoMobile: Nokia had patented their invention of a dual-screen phone with touch support. My first reaction to seeing the drawing from the patent that the keyboard layout could be displayed on one of the screens and it could be dynamic: sometimes QWERTY, sometimes ITU-T, sometimes something else, something relevant. I'm very happy to see it to come true.

You might have already heard about that Nokia was planning to add tactile feedback support to their future phones, which means a little buzz when user presses one area of the (touch)screen. Very interestingly very similar to what Motorola has just come up with. You know, one of the biggest constraints of using a mobile phone instead of e.g. a laptop is screen size. And the size of the screen has so far been limited 1: by the device size (it must fit into one's pocket), 2: it had to have a keyboard. It seems that the trend for 2008 is that there will be no keyboard on smartphones at all. Ehm, I mean no real, physical keyboard - as opposed to virtual.

Have you heard that Nokia recently submitted another patent application for touchless UI? See Unwired View for more details. The basic idea described in the patent is that there would be sensors arrayed around the perimeter of the device capable of sensing finger movements in 3-D space. The user could use her fingers similarly to a touch phone, but actually without having to touch the screen. That's cool, isn't it? I think the idea is not only great, because user input will not be limited to 2-D anymore, but that I can use my thick, dirty, bandaged, etc. fingers as well (as opposed to "plain" touch UI). I'm a bit sceptic, though, how accurate it can be, whether the software will have AI or the user will have to learn how to move her fingers. We'll see hopefully very soon!

Finally, there is one more thing I'd like to mention here. It's the built-in accelerometer. I'm pretty sure that most readers have already heard of that the newest Nokia smartphones have built-in accelerometer. It's sort of a motion sensor that actually hasn't got so much publicity so far. I was always wondering why Nokia has not announced, advertised, etc. this piece of gadget. I mean at all. I can't remember if I have ever read any articles, blogs, etc. from Nokia about that they have put this extra hardware in their phone. You know, an accelerometer in a mobile phone is unusal. Not only to me, but to other people as well.

Why did Nokia not advertise this? If it's expensive, it doesn't make any sense not to advertise it. If it's cheap (I bet it is), then it doesn't have to be advertised, but then why add it to the phone at all? Just to see what the (developer) community thinks about it? What kind of applications can they make out of it? Although it's a good idea, I don't think it's a valid business reason. And you know, it was also unusual that Nokia published an API for developers to use this feature - but it was an R&D API! Knowing Nokia and using their SDKs for ages, I would say it's, again, very unusual. It's like "Let's publish this API so that we can see what others can find out with it, but doing it so that we don't have to announce it".

I wouldn't be suprised if the accelerometer eventually had something to do with the touchless UI. I have the feeling, since I'm a programmer, that even with the array of transducers (see the patent) it's not trivial to figure out what the user has done with her fingers. For example, it might be very important to know in what angle the user's hand is to the device ... and this is the point where the accelerometer comes in handy. It helps to know how the user's one hand holds the phone while making gestures with the other. And this altogether is the new thing.

Can't wait to read your comments,


Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Predictions for smartphone industry in 2008

I've read the recent blog of my fellow Forum Nokia Champion, Paul Coulton, with great interest. Similarly to Paul, I'm not an experienced fortuneteller, but after reading his article I thought I would give it a try, too. You know, what can I lose other than being not right? :)

Let me comment some of his findings, first. Although I can't foretell how ad-driven content will work out in mobile space (since it's simply not trivial how to advertise on mobile devices), I can say the biggest supporter of this model (their name starts with G if somebody didn't know) largely depends on operators' support. If operators (aka carriers) do not make it cheaper for customers to download data from the Internet than it is today, then the success of this model is very questionable. And actually this mostly applies to widgets as well: although they can work with local data, too, the most popular use case of widgets will still involve transferring data over the net.

As to NFC (short for Near Field Communication), although I strongly believe in the future of this technology, it's still in its infancy and I don't think 2008 would bring the break-through in this area. NFC-enabled mobile devices might appear in people's hands in 2008, however, it would only be one part of a larger ecosystem: the wide-spread use of RFID tags in various places (movie posters, business cards, etc.) + the introduction of accompanying services (such as a bus ticketing service) will still be the question of later years. I think.

Paul's list could be completed by the following things in my opinion:

  • Touch UI: it's a MUST HAVE feature for every serious phone manufacturer in 2008. We have seen lots of patents from various manufacturers that had something to do with screens, how they will look like and we can guess how they will work. There's already lots of effort put into working out the ultimate touch-based user interface and the success of iPhone has already shown us that it's not something in vain.
  • Java: the language and its development environment will be more and more popular again thanks to the introduction of Google-phones. As we all know, the programming language and libraries used in Google's public SDK is not Java (neither ME, nor SE), but something else that allows Java developer to re-use their existing knowledge in a slightly different environment. Anyway, I believe Java will only profit from this thing.
  • Awakening of (North-)America to the world of smartphones thanks to iPhone + gPhone. It seems that American companies can convince American people more easily that they need smartphones. And you know the reason why Nokia is happy seeing the huge success of iPhone? That's why.
  • Most innovative players in mobile phone industry (Nokia, Apple, Google, others?) will introduce their internet services designed for (their) mobile phones. Google is an internet company and just about to enter the mobile market (700 MHz frequency auction, gPhone, etc.). Apple has had very popular internet services (e.g. iTunes) for years by now and they now feel the taste of success on mobile area as well. Nokia has always been a mobile company, but they've decided to open to internet services and have already introduced a few popular services (MOSH, Ovi, etc.). Why do they do this? Because pulling money out of customers' pocket once (i.e. when they purchase mobile phones) is not enough - why not getting more money from them? Who will suck from this? Of course, the operators. I would even call it "double-suck", since not only will they suck thanks to people using e.g. VoIP over WiFi (in other words, not using operators' network), but they will suck because people will turn to internet services provided by others (e.g. Nokia, Apple), not their operators.
I'm sure that I've missed a few things that could have been added to the list. Could you help me?