Differentiation and the non-changing face of innovation

Last week at the Rutberg Summit in London – an event dominated by senior mobile industry executives – one of the more interesting topics for me was differentiation. How will the new Microsoft/Nokia relationship impact the mobile OS ecosystem? What does the proliferation of Android mean to the many handset manufacturers bundling it with their phones? In a world being increasingly dominated by just a small number of mobile operating systems, how does one smartphone manufacturer differentiate themselves from the next?

Of course, the operating system on a phone is just one part of it. Not only is our choice of OS becoming increasingly limited, so is our choice of “look”.

Take this image – a small cross-section of the handsets on the market today. We’re almost at the stage where you can have any smartphone you like, as long as it looks like one of these. Spot the difference? Not much.

This week, Apple took out another law suit – this time against Samsung – accusing it of stealing/borrowing/using its iPhone design for it’s latest range of phones. (Apple also claim the Galaxy is a little too close to looking like an iPad). The Register has a good article on all of this.

If being a consumer really is all about choice, then there’s certainly less of that today than there used to be. It will be interesting to see where all this goes – court battles included – and where the growing tension between innovation and differentiation ultimately takes us.

Open or not open? That is the question.

For many of the open source “purists” in the ICT4D field, there is only one (relatively rigid) way to run an open source project. For others – usually those who have had to actually work through the many challenges and complexities of open sourcing a piece of software – things are rarely that clear-cut. Being “open”, and “openness” in itself, can mean many different things.

Three bits of news from the past fortnight highlight how difficult and controversial being truly “open” can be.

1. Twitter

In an attempt to “ensure users can interact with Twitter the same way everywhere”, the company announced that they were considering restricting – and even blocking – access to their API for third party applications. Although this may make sense from a business or user-experience perspective, it was arguably the very explosion of these third party Twitter clients which accelerated the growth of the service. Twitter’s decision to be more strategic with their API, rather than let anyone anywhere build applications around it, is a clear attempt to regain control of the micro-blogging service. The full story is available on the BBC Technology pages.

2. Android Marketplace

Right from its inception, Apple have been heavily criticised in some quarters for the way they control every aspect of the running of their App Store. Applications are vetted and quality tightly controlled, meaning that not “any-old-application” makes it into the store. While this may be problematic for application developers, end-users (such as iPhone and iPod Touch owners) get a largely guaranteed experience – apps that work, apps that have a reasonable and familiar UI experience,  and apps that are malware and virus free. The Android Marketplace is everything that the App Store isn’t, and whilst it’s fully open and community-managed approach may make the purists purr, for the end user the experience can be much more of a challenge. You can read more on the BBC here, where the open nature of the Android platform is described as a “boon and a danger”.

3. Android Honeycomb

“In the great mobile-device wars, Google has portrayed itself as the open-source crusader doing battle against the leaders in proprietary software—Apple, Microsoft, and Research In Motion”. This argument held up strong until a couple of weeks ago when Google – again in the “interests of the user experience” – decided to delay releasing the source code of its latest Android operating system. This has caused something of a shock in the mobile world, but for others it comes as no surprise.

Problematic as they may be, these little nuggets of news confirm one thing – that the mobile industry is in a constant state of flux. Two things we can be sure of, though, are that even seemingly unambiguous terms such as “open” can never be taken for granted, and that open can never be assumed – by default – to be better than closed.

Students to debut FrontlineSMS on Android?

CS210 is a project-based Computer Science Innovation & Development course at Stanford University where students work with faculty and staff to build on the spirit of innovation and excellence at Stanford and the larger Silicon Valley area. As part of the course this year, Karina Qian and David Gobaud are working with the Computer Science Department and the Haas Center for Public Service to create Masters and Senior project classes. Here, Karina talks about one project which hopes to create a Google Android version of kiwanja’s FrontlineSMS system

Students in CS210 usually collaborate with corporate liaisons on software challenges presented by global corporations that require innovation. Teams take projects from concept to completion, which includes defining requirements, iterating through ideas and prototypes and, ultimately, producing a finished work product. To reflect the growing importance of collaboration with the NGO sector, David Gobaud and I are working on allowing students to collaborate with non-profits on software challenges that require innovation, and would expose a new generation of programmers to the possibilities available in applying technology to social problems.

In CS210, a team of 3+ creative, bright Stanford Master’s level Computer Science (CS) students tackle one project over two quarters – for a total of six months – starting in January. The final product will be showcased at the Stanford Software Faire held in June.

Right now a group of students are interested in a project that would build a comprehensive all-mobile mass text-messaging program on Android. (For those of you interested in the technical detail, students would essentially impose a REST architecture on top of SMS, basically using SMS as a form of HTTP. Each SMS message would represent a 160 character mini-webpage that would serve as an information architecture for any kind of project, from election-monitoring to rapid disaster relief).

As a first step the project would involve porting FrontlineSMS and other, existing mass text-messaging platforms (like InSTEDD’s GeoChat) onto Android. The program would then be expanded to create a larger suite of features that would also allow users to process, manage, and respond to data using different software and display data using varying web-based interfaces. It would be open source, allowing users to adapt the program by mashing in other applications as needed.

This project would create a cheaper, more flexible, and more adaptable platform for managing SMS by virtually eliminating the need for computers, and even Internet, in the field. Large chunks of crowd-sourced data can be aggregated in a server in the urban areas, and uploaded onto the web for dissemination and/or further parsing. Crucially, users will no longer need computers to set up a mass SMS platform, only an Android-enabled phone and a phone plan with (unlimited) text messages. The decreased cost of operating SMS-based networks would have a significant impact on non-profit mobile projects.

The class is a great opportunity for a team of 3+ software engineers to devote themselves to the completion of this project for twenty weeks. Students would work in consultation with InSTEDD and FrontlineSMS. However, despite being a non-profit project, the class is primarily directed toward industry and this requires an unrestricted donation of $75,000. We are actively seeking funding to cover this. Thank you.

Karina Qian is co-founder of techY, a Stanford on-campus initiative which aims to engage students in global NGO technology issues

If you, or anyone you know, is interested in helping fund this innovative and exciting project, please contact Ken Banks through the kiwanja.net website. (FrontlineSMS has already been integrated into a human rights monitoring system in the Philippines – blog post pending – and work continues on its integration into the new Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform. Further work is pending on a number of other projects, including with the team at InSTEDD)

Battleship Google fires its new gun

The smoke has finally begun to settle. At times it reached almost fever pitch. Rumours that this was going to be the big shake-up the industry needed were followed, as reality set in, by sobering recognition of the challenges that lie ahead (and a scratching of heads as people tried to fill in much of the missing detail). Yes, this week Google decided time was right to officially show its intent, setting its sights squarely at the mobile industry and announcing not the much-hyped GPhone but Android, a new open mobile platform. As mobile continues to hot up, one of the biggest guns of them all has joined the battlefield and fired an early warning shot.

It’s been interesting to read through some of the comments over the week, both on international news sites and in the blogosphere. All is not well. Not only are we starved of some crucial detail but this has created a secondary problem of contradiction. On the detail side, for example, the SDK (Software Development Kit) isn’t being released until next week, and then it’s only an initial tentative sneak of what’s to come (“Comments welcome”, as the website says). The SDK is going to be rather important since it will dictate the nature of the open development which Android will live or die by. On the confusion side, we have headlines such as “Will GPhone kill off the iPhone?”. As far as I can tell, there really isn’t going to be a GPhone as such – Android is a software platform, an operating system, and environment. Unless we find out to the contrary (and let’s be honest, we don’t really know a huge amount yet) Google aren’t going to be branding any phones and certainly not designing any. As things currently stand Google will have as much control over the hardware their platform runs on as Microsoft do over the design of PC’s and laptops – in other words, not much. I doubt the iPhone has much to worry about quite yet. (Recall: Wasn’t Zune meant to be the iPod killer?).

Announcements about Linux-based open mobile initiatives, which Android is, are not new. There have been a number this year already, and Android joins a growing list which includes the likes of LiMo, OpenMoko and Qtopia. Analysts do seem to agree that Linux has a huge role to play in the future of mobile, but whether Google’s approach is going to be the breakthrough they believe is needed only time will tell. Yes, they may have an impressive list of around 30 partners, but many of these either aren’t doing particularly well right now, or are bit-part players in the mobile space. Nokia, the company with the dominant market share, and a vested interest in its own Symbian platform (technically an Android competitor) is conspicuous by its absence.

In the area where I spend most of my time – the use of mobiles for social and environmental benefit in the developing world – I have seen similar excitement at the announcement, with hopes that Android will open up a new world of opportunity for the community. Again, few people are being particularly specific about what this opportunity is, what it might look like and what problems it might end up solving. There is just a general hope that something good might come out of this. I wonder.

What is it, for example, that we can’t do now? What is it that we want to do which can’t be done with a combination of some of today’s tools, such as – say – SMS and Java? (Interestingly, Java is slated to play a key role in the Android platform). They’re pretty powerful and, although restrictive to a degree, many of the great things that have been going on in the “mobile for good” space lately have centred around one or the other. They’re both widely available, too – every phone out there can handle SMS, and a reasonable number of those can also run Java applications. Text messages are being used for all manner of communication – health messages, education, job postings and election monitoring among many others – and Java-based applications are enabling data collection and educational game development. Sure, we need to “think out of the box” and, more often than not many of the best ideas emerge that way. But we can think out of the box at any time, and should certainly never do it from a technology perspective. We shouldn’t approach this from the “What can Android do for us?” angle.

As far as I’m concerned, you start with an understanding of a ‘problem’, an understanding of the users and the environment, and consideration of the technology comes at the end. And, if it turns out that there’s not a viable, sustainable, appropriate technology-based solution to that problem then so be it. There won’t always be.

Android is only likely going to run on high-end devices such as smart phones. If we’re thinking about putting socially and economically empowering applications in the hands of the masses – and in this context I mean the couple of billion people at the bottom of the pyramid – then they’re going to need to have one of these phones. That might be a problem for quite some time to come, maybe even years. If, however, you have a nice control group – say fifty nurses who travel to remote clinics on a weekly basis – it’s not going to be too much trouble equipping them with a bunch of these handsets and running a neat health-based application on them. This is already being done in a number of countries and in a number of areas outside health, too.

We’re still about a year away from seeing anything running on an Android-powered device, and it may be at least another year or more before people sitting at the bottom of the economic pyramid start to own them in any significantly useful numbers. In the meantime there is plenty we can be getting on with.

Let’s face it, we’re only really beginning to scratch the surface with the tools we’ve already got.