Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why Blackberry's fall could be bad for business communications

The general consensus is that Blackberry is on it's way down. There is some cheer-leading of this to some degree amongst the tech savvy because of what Blackberry has become: slow to innovate and expensive to use for so few features. I personally hate my Blackberry. It has a large touchscreen which freezes on me regularly and no Wifi built-in because when it came out, phone carriers were afraid of it turning into a VOIP device. So it was neutered. Or so the conspiracy theory goes.
But if Blackberry ceases to exists, we would be losing a key figure in the business communications over the Internet. Like it or not, BlackBerry systems have made Internet mail acceptable for serious business communications.
E-mail is so central to businesses now that it is easy to forget how fragile Internet Mail is. Until the advent of the Blackberry, I could not bring myself to recommend Internet e-mail as a primary means of business communication. Internet was playing a role in e-mail but mostly as cheap way to build VPNs for proprietary e-mail systems to talk to each other. Companies did have Internet mail addresses but these were either untrustworthy or of limited use.
There are too many problems with Internet mail, namely identity and delivery. You can never be sure anybody is who they claim to be unless you verified it through another medium. Internet mail is also notoriously difficult to figure out whether it has been delivered or not. Even standards back then were mainly about confirmation of mail being read. But that information was offered only voluntarily.
The Blackberry addresses these two concerns. First was the notion that a sender sending a message from a BB is really a real person using a phone. Blackberry and the phone company essentially verifies the person using the phone because he is both registered with the BB service and is paying a phone bill. The identity of the person sending can be made certain.
The Blackberry service also unifies the mail client and the mail server, technically known as the mail user agent (MUA) and the mail transfer agent (MTA). In standard Internet mail, the mail client and the mail server are two separate entities whose interactions are largely one way. You either send mail or receive mail at a given time. The MUA can only confirm a message has been sent to the MTA. The MTAs talk to each other to send mail. Blackberry unifies this and provides their customers with a way to confirm a message has been delivered. On BB, the users know when the MTA has sent the message to the recipient because it is one integrated system. So it solves the second problem by provide the person sending the mail, a way to know that the message has been delivered.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What the new WebOS foundation can do to make WebOS a success

HP has done the right thing and is contributing WebOS to the community by making it Open Source. This alone won't guarantee it's longevity. But WebOS fans can take heart at the success of FireFox as proof of how a closed source product can live on as an open source project. The success of FireFox is the success of the Mozilla foundation. The history lesson is best left to Wikipedia. But the model of success is there and should be emulated where possible. Namely
  • establishing a source of income to keep operating in the good times and the bad, fund advocacy and publicity. The deal with Google is where the largest chunk of money comes in
  • creating an framework where all forms of contribution are accepted - too radical or too specific to be rolled into the general application? Create a plug-in!
  • knowing when to rethink things. Firefox was born when they came to a realization that the Mozilla Suite, which included the browser, was too big and slow. By rethinking their goals when it came to the browser and making difficult changes, they made a browser that could compete with Internet Explorer and brought about a large change in the browser market. 
Unfortunately, the tablet OS market is more complex and challenging. While the Mozilla Foundation dealt with software only, the WebOS Foundation has to deal with both software and hardware. The first thing it has to do is establish a reference hardware design. The main purpose here is to stay relevant. By having a reference design that can be copied by the massive factories in China for cheap tablets, it increases WebOS's market share. This in turn will reward the developers who have stuck with WebOS with more potential customers.
Which brings me to the next thing the WebOS Foundation has to do, run an official marketplace. This is where those developers will find customers for apps as well as applications. This can serve, in the future, as a source of income. Right now, it should run it for a very low cut, say 5% for paid apps, to not put off developers. A key success to remain relevant in the consumer space is to have a diverse set of free or cheap apps. Developers are already focused on iPhone and Andriod apps. Windows 8 is on the horizon. While it may not be able to compete on total number of apps, there should be some effort to ensure key apps appear on WebOS too. Other than Angry Birds.
Following on above, it should also establish working relationships with phone manufacturers to build WebOS-based phones. Phone manufacturers will be interested in the royalty-free concept of using WebOS but realize they would need expertise developing the phone. Initially, this will have to be taken up by the foundation or a subsidiary to guide the development process. This could be another source of income for the foundation. But it should be the phone manufacturer's responsibility to develop updates to match updated version of the WebOS. This way, the manufacturers will determine how long they need to support a particular model. The foundation should also act as matchmaker with WebOS developers to provide the key apps that are bundled with the phone.
At a later stage, the foundation can take a step back, allowing developers to work directly with phone and tablet manufacturers. This would mimic the RedHat model where the developers would contribute code to the main OS, while working with their customers to build solutions for them. The foundation will maintain a reference development platform or reference virtual machines for testing and accreditation. This would not be unprecedented as it is much like what android is doing and palm did in the past.

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