Donate

Categories

Advert

XHTML

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

On Burning Platforms

Nokia is in the news for it’s CEO announcing that they have a “Burning Platform”, Jeff Waugh gives an interesting analysis of the situation [1].

What is a Platform for Phones?

This whole scenario makes me wonder about what a platform should mean in terms of mobile devices. Wikipedia says “A computing platform is some sort of hardware architecture and software framework (including application frameworks) that allows software to run. Typical platforms include a computer’s architecture, operating system, programming languages and related user interface (run-time system libraries or graphical user interface). [2]

I think that Nokia’s problem was that it didn’t leverage it’s strength in making great phone hardware. Nokia used to have a commanding share of the market due to simply making better phones. They had phones that were upwardly compatible (the same UI and used the same chargers), their phones were always very solidly constructed, and they had some good design features such as having the battery comprise part of the case – which allowed a replacement battery to be physically larger for longer battery life. Even now they have hardware features which are better than the rest – such as the N8 which is widely regarded as having the best camera of any phone. Nokia also did some smart things like releasing their N800 series of phones with more open software than most companies used, they supported running arbitrary Linux applications.

While they kept the platform as the API interface on a phone OS and maintained several different OSs (with multiple versions in production at any time) they made a less desirable platform for developers and a lot more development work for themselves.

Nokia fragmented their own market. There is no technical reason why they couldn’t manufacture a phone that is capable of running a choice of their own OS as well as Android (or alternatively their own OS or the Windows Phone OS). There may be technical issues that prevent designing a phone to run either Android or Windows phone, but they could have got two out of three options available.

On top of a hardware phone platform we could have multiple software platforms, Android, Windows, Meego, etc. The users could then decide which one to use.

A Hardware Platform for Phones

I think that it would be ideal if a phone company offered phones with a choice of OS and allowed the user to change the OS. The N8 is a great phone and the hardware is really appealing, I would have definitely bought one for my wife if it ran Android. Also the resale value of phones can be improved if they can be re-purposed. If someone knew that people on ebay were paying good rates for an old phone because it could be re-programmed then they would be more likely to buy it. As phones are essentially free for most people due to telco deals, a phone that has a resale value of $200 is a lot more desirable than one with a resale value of $100 if all other things are equal.

I would like to see the mobile phone as a platform just as the IBM PC compatible was a platform. Imagine if IBM had sued Compaq into oblivion when they first cloned the PC, if that had happened I don’t think that I would be using an IBM PC (Thinkpad) right now. The early IBM PCs really weren’t great systems for home use, for pretty much anything you might want to do the early PCs didn’t compete well with CP/M systems and systems from Commodore and Apple. It was only when cheap clones flooded the market that the “PC” platform took off. Modern PCs can boot from disks that were created 20 years ago. At every time during the PC’s history there has been a choice of OSs available that work with the standard BIOS boot loader and expect certain essential hardware (such as a BIOS interface for video, keyboard, and storage). This choice increased the market allowing economies of scale in production. It also allowed competition between vendors which forced the margins to be low and resulted in PCs becoming cheap – over the last 20 years every aspect of a PC apart from Intel CPUs and Microsoft Software has steadily dropped in price.

I would like to see phones designed with a common boot loader, a common core set of CPU functions (I believe that with ARM CPUs a lot is optional), and common interfaces to the touch-screen and the GSM system. The boot loader would ideally have support for booting multiple OSs, in a typical end-user case the store would provide the phone configured to quietly only boot one of the available OSs – but it would be trivial to offer the user a choice of OS at boot time for advanced users. The process of installing a custom ROM image in a phone is regarded as dangerous at the moment and most people who would like to do such things are hesitant due to the risk of “bricking” their phone. If booting the last good OS was an option then more people would try new OSs. With the current situation I am a little hesitant to re-program my new phones (and I’m braver about such things than most people).

One of the many problems with the current situation is that the phone vendor has to officially support every phone OS. One example of the problems with this is the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 which is a fine piece of hardware that has been saddled with an older version of Android for it’s entire life, Sony has stated that they won’t produce any more updates and thus the demand for this phone is a lot lower than it might be. I believe that this is why the Xperia X10 is significantly cheaper than any other phone with similar features. Sony is losing money because they have a closed hardware platform and don’t support the recent versions of Android!

Ways of Booting the OS

It shouldn’t be a technical challenge to have support for basic touch-screen IO and 3G Internet access in the boot loader of the phone. Then an OS such as Android could be loaded from the network before being booted without needing an older version of Android running. 80386 systems with a few megs of RAM used to be able to boot from a LAN, a modern phone has much more powerful hardware and a network connection that’s at least as good as 10base2 networking so it should be able to do the same.

Modern phones have micro-SD cards for local storage. There’s no reason why the OS couldn’t be loaded on micro-SD card. Fixing the OS on a phone that was “bricked” could be achieved by putting the micro-SD card in a PC and then copying the files across – just as I often fix PC OS problems by installing the hard drive in a working system.

Changing the OS of a phone should be easier than changing a PC between Ubuntu and Fedora (the Linux distributions that seem to have the most usage by less technical users).

Conclusion

If Sony had made their platform the hardware then they could have spent their effort on what they do well (making great phone hardware) and delegated almost all of the work related to creating the OS to other companies (Google, MS, telcos, etc).

If the entire industry moved to a hardware platform for phones then the result would be lower prices and some thin margins for manufacturers. This would be good for users and OK for manufacturers. The current situation however is quite bad for users who can never get phones to do exactly what they want and not so good for phone manufacturers such as Nokia (and everyone else who does business with Microsoft) who find themselves on the wrong side of market forces. The phone as a hardware platform shouldn’t be too bad for Microsoft either, they did OK on the PC hardware platform.

17 comments to On Burning Platforms

  • Had Compaq not been careful with clean room reverse engineering, I’m sure that IBM would have been pleased to sue.

    The PC platform was a happy accident and I wonder how it can be replicated. Maybe the hardware part of the Android Compatibility Definition Document could for the basis for such platform : the generic non-Android Linux distributions targeting it would be guaranteed a critical mess^H mass of compatible devices.

  • etbe

    Jean-Marc: I’m pretty sure that IBM could have sued if they really wanted to. They have so many patents in so many areas of computers that no-one can avoid infringing them.

    IBM tried to replicate the PC platform with PREP, the PPC REference Platform. It didn’t work out unfortunately, mainly because Apple decided to use their own incompatible PPC implementation.

  • Daniel Sandman

    The Nokia N900 that runs on Maemo (pre-meego). Does have the ability to boot from SD-card. You just need to install a boot loader and the OS on the SD-card. And then you can run Ubuntu, Fedora, Android e.t.c. from it. It is not as simple as on the PC but it works.

  • The IBM “Smart Computing” vision for city-state management depends on a plethora of not-yet-invented hardware devices participating in mobile machine-to-machine (M2M) communication.

    While cloud computing does return IBM to historical strengths in centralized computing, the secure cloud depends on the integrity of mobile sensor data (garbage-in, garbage-out). This will include human review and routing (a.k.a. “social”) of sensor data, on devices that today are called phones.

    Having tried and failed to displace Microsoft on the desktop with OS/2 and Linux, perhaps IBM could lead the way on open standards by defining a mobile device hardware platform for cloud sensors (phones, energy, health, etc).

    The alternative is a world of Apple/Google/Microsoft compatible doctors, hospitals, energy suppliers, cars, buildings, schools, employers … as the number of mobile devices grows to exceed PCs by orders of magnitude.

  • etbe

    http://www.electronista.com/articles/10/11/23/apple.may.pass.on.embedded.sims.only.on.iphone.5/

    Dotpeople: The above article which I discovered while reading your twitter stream is interesting. It seems that the phone vendors may be trying to commoditise the Telcos. If Telcos could be easily switched by software and the OS could be selected by dual-boot then the users would be free to choose what to use and how to do it.

    Of course this would mean that we wouldn’t get phones subsidised by Telcos, but that would be OK. The fact that economies of scale currently mean that the only economical way to buy a good phone is to sign up for a 24 month contract isn’t a good thing.

    Daniel: That’s very interesting. It’s a pity that they don’t promote that.

    Also can you get an adapter to run a VGA monitor from such a device? A pocket computer that can be connected to a regular keyboard, mouse, and monitor would be really handy. I could have a complete archive of all my lecture notes on a computer that’s capable of displaying them in my pocket at all times!

  • N900 can output NTSC/PAL composite video via the 3.5mm headphone jack. N8 can output HDMI video through a dedicated mini-HDMI port.

    In theory, you can go from HDMI digital to VGA analog via a small external converter, but only for exactly 720p or 1080p resolutions. HP sells such a converter for their Envy netbook. Also in theory, you can use an external converter to go from N900 composite video to VGA, with a bit more flexibility on the output resolution.

    Finally, the N8 has USB host mode support which has been confirmed to work with external mass storage, mice and keyboards. It probably won’t work without an OS driver, but one can dream of a USB wireless video adapter that plugs into the phone and transmits to a small base that can output VGA or HDMI. The Motorola Atrix 4G supports external KVM, but only with a custom dock that costs as much as the phone.

  • rdb

    Maybe they could run on top of OKL4 Verified or the like so the phone companies could be happier they get their pound of flesh. Would requiring some mesh-networking capability help push this along too?

  • ssam

    Have you had a look at the openmoko phones. you can install many different linux distros on them. The GTA04 (new hardware) project is kicking off.

  • Adrian Bunk

    One thing we technical people often forget is that in a market economy the one and only purpose of a company like Nokia is to maximize the profits for their shareholders.

    “If the entire industry moved to a hardware platform for phones then the result would be lower prices and some thin margins for manufacturers. This would be good for users and OK for manufacturers.”

    Nokia is the biggest manufacturer in the world, often selling more phones than the 2nd, 3rd and 4th manufacturers combined. Your suggestion of minimizing margins for manufacturers sounds like a nightmare for Nokia.

    “As phones are essentially free for most people due to telco deals …”

    An important point to be emphasized is hidden here: The main customers for phone manufacturers are not end-users but carriers. If the carriers don’t like a phone it’s dead.

    “Nokia used to have a commanding share of the market due to simply making better phones. … There is no technical reason why they couldn’t manufacture a phone that is capable of running a choice of their own OS as well as Android (or alternatively their own OS or the Windows Phone OS).”

    There’s no technical reason, but a very clear economical reason:
    When you make the best hardware then people using your superior hardware should buy their apps in your store, not in the store of some other company.

  • Indeed, Nokia does not want to loose control over the software running on their phones (but then they are partly resigning on it by dropping their own platforms Symbian and Meego and going with Microsoft).

    However Google seems to want to make mobiles a platform. Their main business is advertising, so their interest is that web- and gps-enabled phones are cheap. That’s why they created Android and while the store might generate a bit of extra revenue for them, I think they would be happy with alternative OSes being available if it’d push the prices down a bit more.

    On the other hand Microsoft wouldn’t like it. They did good business on PC, but mainly because there wasn’t any good, free alternative, but now Android is free and gaining market share quickly, so people are unlikely to separately buy an OS for mobiles now. For Microsoft the deal with Nokia is probably the last chance in mobile market.

  • Adrian Bunk

    Jan, any revenue Google gets through Android is due to the user using Android and not any other OS.

    Google wouldn’t spend much money on developing two different mobile OS’es if they wouldn’t care what OS a user is running.

  • etbe

    dotpeople: That’s interesting, it’s a pity that these things never get promoted. If I knew about those functions years ago I’d have told people I know that they could choose a Nokia phone if they wanted to sell it to me for $100+ after they had finished with it, which is better than most mobile phones that end up in e-waste recycling.

    rdb: That’s an interesting theory, but no-one seems to care much about such things. The Apple model of letting people crack the phone and then to patch the holes seems to be well regarded. :(

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Openmoko

    ssam: Yes, the Openmoko provides some of the benefits that I desire. It’s a pity that it doesn’t seem to have become popular.

    Adrian: Nokia are making an epic failure in their efforts to make a profit. They have discarded a lot of expensive engineering work and adopted the MS phone OS which has not been well received by the market. Also if MS are true to form they won’t leave much profit for anyone else. Nokia has a nightmare no matter what they do. That’s why they had the “burning platform” speech.

    As for the hardware vendor owning the app store, that only happens for Apple. The Microsoft and Android stores are not controlled by phone vendors and I think it’s safe to assume that little of the app profit goes to the hardware vendors or Telcos.

    Jan: There’s no reason that other OSs couldn’t use the Android store. Firstly it’s not impossible to make another OS run the same applications (think of Windows 3.x programs running on OS/2 and NT, DOS programs running on OS/2 and various versions of Windows, Wine, etc). But more importantly you could have the store recognise what OS the client is running and offer a list of applications to match. The core functionality of the app store is to allow searching a list of applications, process payments, and support sending apps to phones. That isn’t platform specific.

    Google should make the Android app store support NT applications, I’m sure that would make them some good money!

    Let’s hope that the Nokia deal is the last chance for MS. While having only two players in a market isn’t a great thing, it’s a lot better than having MS involved IMHO.

  • Adrian Bunk

    Russell:

    “Nokia are making an epic failure in their efforts to make a profit”

    The current strategy appeared to be best available option to the board of Nokia in September, and the board is led by the guy who as CEO turned Nokia from a producer of products like boots and car tyres into the biggest mobile phone manufacturer in the world. It’s hard to judge from the outside (the only thing I’m sure about is that I consider it too big a risk for Nokia) and we’ll have to wait 2-3 years to know if this move was one of the biggest blunders in history, or if it will be seen as a brilliant move.

    “As for the hardware vendor owning the app store, that only happens for Apple.”

    What about Nokias Ovi store and the BlackBerry App World?

  • etbe

    Adrian: A guy who is good at turning a low-tech company into a high-tech company isn’t necessarily going to be good at turning an ailing high-tech company into a newer and more successful high-tech company.

    I think it’s already established that the Nokia platforms are all burned. The number of people who write for such platforms is bound to be diminishing right now.

    I wasn’t even aware of the BlackBerry store, I’ve seen a lot of discussions of the merits of BlackBerries for corporate use but not need a mention of that. I guess it can’t be that important to users. Anyway for app stores it’s now Apple and Google who are in the serious fight and a few minor players on the side.

  • Adrian Bunk

    Russell:

    “A guy who is good at turning a low-tech company into a high-tech company isn’t necessarily going to be good at turning an ailing high-tech company into a newer and more successful high-tech company.”

    I don’t think your basically saying “Because they didn’t hava a clue.” is fair. Look at the enormous resources Nokia spent on it’s platforms – Nokia had to improve in that area for delivering faster and with lower costs. As you surely know Nokia has already restructured itself quite frequently in the past. I see outsourcing to one of the most successful software companies as a valid option when you’ve given up hope of becoming much better yourself. And faced with the choice between becoming yet another company using Android and a very premium treatment at Microsoft the latter makes much more sense to me.

    We really have to wait 2-3 years for seeing how the results of this move by Nokia will be.

    “I wasn’t even aware of the BlackBerry store, I’ve seen a lot of discussions of the merits of BlackBerries for corporate use but not need a mention of that. I guess it can’t be that important to users.”

    I guess you look too much at the hype around everything big G does, and too few at numbers. ;-)

    BlackBerry App World had in 2010 60% more revenue than the Google Android Market.

  • etbe

    Adrian: Betting a company on a software platform that has been failing in the market isn’t a sign of clue. Betting a company on MS is also a dangerous sign, they never want to share, MS always seem to get most of the revenue and partners end up with almost nothing. If MS get their way then phones will become like PCs, cheap hardware that runs expensive MS software.

    http://www.softsailor.com/news/59823-apple-app-store-vs-blackberry-app-world-vs-nokia-ovi-store-vs-google-android-market-revenue-comparison.html

    The above URL has a revenue break-down of the app markets, I was surprised to discover that the Android market made less revenue than any of the other three. However in the 2009-2010 period the Android market increased it’s revenue by 861.5% which is more than any of the others.

  • Adrian Bunk

    Russell:

    “Betting a company on a software platform that has been failing in the market isn’t a sign of clue.”

    Windows Phone is different from Windows Mobile (and Windows Mobile was not exactly a failure either – it once had nearly a quarter market share in the smartphone market).

    “If MS get their way then phones will become like PCs, cheap hardware that runs expensive MS software.”

    I’m not sure about the “cheap hardware” part, I’d expect the hugely profitable Apple to be the role model for the Nokia+Microsoft partnership.

    “However in the 2009-2010 period the Android market increased it’s revenue by 861.5% which is more than any of the others.”

    You can easily achieve extremely high growth when you start near zero…