Daniel Eran Dilger
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The Future of Mobile Software


Daniel Eran Dilger

The software business is going mobile. That shift will present new challenges but also new opportunities for developers. Here’s how the mobile market has evolved into being today’s promising next frontier for new software models.
Next week, I’ll be discussing the future prospects for mobile software in a presentation at Øredev, titled “The Future of Mobile Software.” Here’s a look at the issues I’ll be addressing; I invite your comments on them. The synopsis of the presentation:

Mobile devices are hitting a critical mass in both sales volumes and in delivering a level of practical utility that can support a viable, profitable mobile software market with the ability to challenge that of the desktop PC. Mobile developers face unique challenges but can also benefit from opportunities that do not yet exist in the desktop software arena. Here’s how the mobile software market is pioneering new models that will impact the future of the software business.”

 Wp-Content Uploads 2008 10 Danielerandilger

Meet me at Øredev in Malmö, Sweden

This segment looks at the software market, what’s new in the mobile realm, and how those differences can be viewed as opportunities rather than just challenging complications, and how mobile platforms have achieved a promising new level of commercial viability.

Mobile Software Origins.

There’s nothing new about mobile computing. In the early 90s the industry promised a range of devices from tablets to mini-laptops to smaller handheld PDAs. Apple’s pioneering offering, the 1993 Newton Message Pad, sought to deliver a sophisticated new operating system and development environment running a unique new platform based upon low power, ARM RISC processors the company codeveloped with Acorn.

While the device itself was ahead of its time, its $700 to $900 price tag relegated it to a very limited audience. Apple also never quite finished many aspects of the Newton’s development tools, including those used to sync it with a desktop computer. Add in the fact that Apple’s development environment required learning entirely new skills and concepts and it becomes clear why there was never a strong third party market for Newton software and therefore even fewer reasons for buying one. It also didn’t help that Apple at the time was hitting the skids as a company.

Other devices fared better, such as the much cheaper Palm Pilot and Psion PDAs in the UK. Their wider installed base and more conventional development tools created the opportunity for developers to sell software, although there still wasn’t big money involved; mobile users weren’t interested in paying the same price for mobile software that they had for desktop titles. Mobile devices also presented new limitations in resources and added a layer of complication in distributing software.

Newton Lessons for Apple’s New Platform
The Egregious Incompetence of Palm
Origins: Why the iPhone is ARM, and isn’t Symbian

The Failure of Licensed Software Platforms.

When Microsoft entered the market, the expectation was that the various proprietary PDA makers would all be displaced by a mobile version of Windows, just as had happened in the personal computer market. Windows CE first debuted on mini laptops, then attempted to rival the Palm Pilot form factor, and has most recently tried to remake itself as a smartphone platform.

However, weaknesses in WinCE’s architecture, together with the differences between the commodity PC market and the handheld mobile market, combined with the marketing problems intrinsic to mobile software that the earlier pioneers had already discovered have all added up to make WinCE and Windows Mobile a rather disappointing failure, too.

Psion’s PDAs turned into the Symbian platform, which rapidly took over the emerging smartphone market in Europe and Japan, carving out a dominant share of the market. However, neither Symbian nor Windows Mobile have replicated the success of Windows analogous to what occurred in the PC market. Instead, those broadly licensed platforms have hit technical limitations and face credible new competition from proprietary vendors including RIM and Apple. Symbian’s share of the market has fallen to 55%, and Windows Mobile is down to 12%.

The Spectacular Failure of WinCE and Windows Mobile
Readers Write About Symbian, OS X and the iPhone
Symbian reports slow growth in front of iPhone 3G launch
Microsoft’s Zune, Vista, and Windows Mobile 7 Strategy vs the iPhone

Mobile Software as a Market.

The lack of any dominant single platform suitable for use across smartphones is related to a number of factors. One is the reference platform model itself. While Microsoft was able to get its software installed on a wide number of PC makers’ commodity hardware, those machines didn’t have the same complex power management, mass and volume restrictions, and the thermal dissipation needs of today’s mobiles. Desktop software also didn’t have to accommodate devices with different screen ratios and resolutions. The PC platform could set a very low bar for the common denominator.

Mobiles can’t. Developers trying to differentiate their software and present real value to users are stymied by phone vendors, who are seeking to offer a broad range of phone styles and types to accommodate different kinds of users. Rather than the standardized software platform that hardware makers needed in the early 90s and which Microsoft provided with Windows, today’s Mobile market needs a standardized hardware platform that software makers can develop for, and which Apple and RIM are providing with their proprietary devices. Symbian, Windows Mobile, Java ME, Flash Lite, Android, and other platforms are seeking to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.

The successful mobile platforms of the future will be the ones that deliver the most value to developers. Broad software platforms, such as Windows on the PC, helped developers target the largest possible market. In the mobile space however, they do not. Their platforms are shattered by hardware differences that prevent developers from actually being able to deliver their software on a wide enough number of devices so that consumers see the value in buying that platform.

Additionally, the two largest broad platforms, Symbian and Windows Mobile, have also not solved the complexity of delivering software to device users. This has led to a shareware-style market where end users are tasked with complex installations, sync problems, and other issues that have thrown a wet blanket over the mobile software market. Those limitations on the viable, addressable installed base of the platform in turn cause software prices to be set high to collect something for the significant efforts required; that in turn further suppresses interest in buying software.

Mobile Disruption: Apple’s iPhone and Third Party Software
Apple’s iPhone vs Smartphone Software Makers
Will the iPhone Meet its Match from a Modern Day DOS?

Evolution of the New Mobile Platform.

Some of these problems have been addressed by Danger, the company that sold the Sidekick. It set up a software store and offered a hardware platform with limited variety so that all apps would work easily across the few numbers of Sidekick models. While popular among its users, the phone was limited to a minority service provider in the US. It never gained broad market share itself, and was recently acquired by Microsoft.

RIM delivered a mobile software deployment solution in signing apps for secure deployment on its Blackberry models. Signed software means controlled distribution, affording the potential for lower priced, higher volume sales. RIM’s phones have also been limited to a small number of similar thumb-centic models, although the company is now branching to to offer a Symbian-like handset, a Palm-style PDA phone, and an iPhone-style touch screen model.

The iPhone pairs the software store of Danger with RIM’s secure signing to deliver a software platform that solves a number of issues for mobile users. Discovering software is easy, installation is simple, upgrades are no problem, and sales are authenticated and protected from piracy. Apple also has very little variety in its hardware platform, from the iPhone to the iPod touch. Additionally, Apple has been able to partner with global providers to ensure that the iPhone has broad international reach and therefore a large installed base.

Myth 10: RIM’s BlackBerry Will Contain iPhone Expansion
Apple iPhone 3G sales surpass RIM’s Blackberry

Chasing Apple.

Contenders hoping to battle the iPhone have a lot of technology and sales acumen to match. RIM, the rival most like Apple today, is splintering its hardware platform to ensure that no segment of the Blackberry market will be as large as the iPhone currently is, tearing its platform prospects between its current broad and simple installed base, and the sophisticated narrow market for its iPhone-like model.

Android seeks to replicate Apple’s success without limiting hardware to a strict reference platform, without using software signing to provide the security and revenues required to induce developers to support it, and without the investment in building a strong suite of custom apps as a foundation. This should prove to be about as successful as Linux on the desktop.

Symbian seeks to provide a balance between Apple and Google’s approach, providing security similar to RIM but also being torn between a variety of different form factors and levels of handset sophistication.

Microsoft is hoping to add touch features to Windows Mobile 7 and set up Skymarket as its answer to the iPhone App Store. However, these aren’t scheduled for release to manufacturing before the end of 2009, meaning that consumers won’t see them until early 2010. By then, Apple is likely to have an installed base of 50 million users and will have sold well more than a billion apps. That’s the same position Microsoft found itself in in 2006 when it tried to take on the iPod with the barely finished Zune. It simply offered too little, too late to catch up to what was by then a cultural icon.

What will happen over the next year? Things currently look very good for Apple and fraught with risk for Apple’s competitors. On top of all this, the current economic recession and credit crunch are conspiring to prevent rivals from being able to achieve the same sales needed to catch up to Apple’s established lead in deploying its viable store the unified hardware platform consumers ask for by name.

Will Google’s Android Play DOS to Apple’s iPhone?
Google’s Android Platform Faces Five Tough Obstacles
Microsoft plans “Skymarket” apps store for Windows Mobile 7 in 2009
Zune Sales Still In the Toilet

New Models for Mobile Software.

Regardless of how things play out, the mobile market promises to offer new opportunities in more general terms. Mobiles promise ubiquitous access to information and their form factors demand a simpler, streamlined user interface. That makes them uniquely valuable as synced applications that manage content between desktop systems and mobiles.

Previous attempts to deliver mobile platforms have been less than successful in adequately supporting desktop syncing technology, starting with PDA platforms such as the Newton and Palm. Phone-centric mobile products, including Symbian and Windows Mobile, have often de-emphasized mobile desktop sync at the bidding of the mobile service provider. The latest series of smartphones are improving in this regard, with the iPhone inheriting the iPod/iTunes legacy and proving the suitability of that digital-hub model.

Google’s Android avoids the desktop-centric sync model to develop cloud sync. Service providers like cloud sync because it means more billable data traffic. This also provides the potential for cloud platforms, such as those being built out by Microsoft and Google. Apple has built its own limited cloud data services in MobileMe, but has the potential to turn this into a development platform as well.

Another model change relates to signed software. Rather than trying to push activation and verification that pains users, signed mobile platforms allow developers to offer their software to a wide audience at low cost and with minimal or transparent license management. This changes the game for developers, so that rather than trying to build expensive apps like those on the desktop, they can now focus on building free or low cost extensions that sell their their desktop apps, or build cloud or web service apps that enhance their online services.

Inside MobileMe: Mac and PC cloud sync and mobile push
Apple’s Mobile Me Takes On Exchange, Mobile Mesh
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone App Store
App Store continues to exceed iTunes song sales growth

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1 KA { 11.15.08 at 7:50 am }

While I don’t think Android will be a great success, I think it will be more successful than desktop Linux.

It is easier to switch smartphone platforms than desktop platforms.
Android comes from a very well-known brand.
Linux is a pain to install on many computers. Android is preinstalled.
I had another point, but I’ve forgotten what it was.

2 John Muir { 11.15.08 at 9:10 am }


That sounds a lot like the reviews and general early adopter consensus about the G1: it *should* be awesome, there’s great reasons behind it, but the trouble is that it’s just kinda not…

The G1 is a geek toy. That’s pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a new product on launch. Today’s geek toy is tomorrow’s dusty old Psion.

3 John Muir { 11.15.08 at 9:12 am }

By the way Daniel: are the market share statistics that you mention global or US in scope? That distinction matters more over here!

4 nat { 11.15.08 at 12:50 pm }

Including the effect(s) mobile software distribution/installation could have on full fledged computer software (laptops especially, as they represent the desktop computers of the future), would be cool. The MacBook Air in many ways offers the future today, so having a Mac section of the iTunes App Store would completely nullify its lack of a disc drive (though there are fewer and fewer programs only installable via disc these days). What limitations and benefits would there be adapting this model to computer software?

5 fatbarstard { 11.16.08 at 7:56 am }

Dan, good overview of where things are at – I see that you subscribe to the notion that predictions are best made with the benefit of hindsight!

@nat – I agree that it would be a great development to buy computer software over iTunes, but I think the sheer size of most application files would be the limiting factor. That might be a short term problem, so it might be possible in a couple of years.

@ John Muir – don’t forget that the PC was once a geek toy too!

6 lemail2moi { 11.16.08 at 9:17 am }

I think that android is different from desktop linux. There is enough players in the mobile industry (hand set makers, operators…) to develop a rich software ecosystem as long as they play the opensource game.

@ fatbarstard The PC was first a corporate toy, the geeks have atari, amiga and appleII.

7 nat { 11.16.08 at 12:08 pm }

@ fatbastard,

Well technically, Apple already has the groundwork for such a thing. Just go to:

At the very least, all Apple would have to do is provide an iTunes interface for this database, similar to how their Podcast section works: they provide the pretty, and easily searchable database, podcasters host their content on their own servers.

Not really sure what size limitations you’re referencing. Right now, people either have to go to Apple’s Downloads page (the one I linked to above) or search through Google to find what they want. Making this process easier and faster via a Mac App Store wouldn’t have an effect on content size for the end user. Or were you saying Apple would have a hard time housing all these app on their iTunes servers? In that case, you might be right, but the podcast model I suggested would solve this.

8 John Muir { 11.16.08 at 1:01 pm }

@ fatbarstard

Despite the “Personal” Computer name, the IBM PC was all about business. They pushed it at corporate buyers, and after a while it did indeed take off in the enterprise, eventually becoming the “so now I can do some work at home” system of choice. There may well have been a few hobbyists who grabbed one at launch – the original Mac team were among them – but the PC wasn’t designed as such a system. In fact, I dare say it was more like the BlackBerry when it started: aimed at the employers of the people who would become its users.


The G1 reminds me more of a consumer focussed tech toy – full of promise but short on delivery – than a serious platform ready to steamroll over the competition, despite its technical shortcomings.

9 Rich { 11.17.08 at 9:55 am }

I believe that Google’s cloud sync strategy will eventually win the day.

The reason why Nokia (i.e. Symbian) has tended to de-emphasize desktop sync isn’t anything to do with the carriers. It’s because they’re a cell phone company and they don’t have a desktop-centric view of the universe. Nokia sell a lot of phones to people who don’t own a computer of their own – people in developing nations, the technologically illiterate/apathetic and teenagers.

In the future, more and more of these people will own a smartphone. They might not own a PC or they might not want to turn it on every time they want to get new music onto their phone.

If companies want to reach out to the wider world, they’re going to need to ditch their view of a desktop PC as the central hub. Cloud computing is the perfect remedy. Let’s hope that Apple can polish up MobileMe before this happens.

10 John Muir { 11.17.08 at 10:33 am }


Good point. For smartphones to become “bigger than the PC” (as I believe John Doerr said they will be at the iPhone 2.0 launch) they will have to become independent of the PC.

Some people – myself included – like to sync with their computer because it’s what they’re more used to and already houses their content library. The only problem, indeed, is that you have to already have a computer. That limits the iPhone in particular in high growth markets where phones are already replacing the desktop as the principle means of access to the Internet.

Over the air iTunes and App Store work well enough that I already prefer them. But you still need a computer running iTunes to sync to on order to update your iPhone firmware, or use it fresh from the box. Enabling future iPhone models to work entirely independently, just as Macs always have done, will be a vital step as the smartphone market really opens up.

It’s just a shame for Google that they leaped too soon and have disgruntled their initial users when it comes to desktop sync. We’re not quite past that yet!

11 JoeCoder { 11.17.08 at 12:49 pm }

By the time Microsoft releases Skymarket, there won’t be any apps to put in it. The Windows Mobile ISVs are all bailing or have already bailed. They’re moving to iPhone and Android as fast as they can. 10 years of no support from Microsoft is catching up with them, and Skymarket will be a huge embarrassment.

12 Dude { 11.17.08 at 11:01 pm }

I just did a six day trip back and didn’t carry my laptop. I totally relied upon my iPhone for all internet access and email. I didn’t regret the decision to leave the laptop behind. The iPhone was so much less hassle to cart about. Mobile software made this possible!

13 greendave { 11.18.08 at 8:57 am }

Rich and John Muir are nailing the point.

Apple’s current model is perfect for today, and perfect for Apple because of their involvement in the desktop and iPod market. But it is not the future.

I run 3 iPhones for the family and the OTA calendar, contacts and bookmarks syncing is just brilliant, also the imap email. But the podcasts, music and videos having to be manually synced by plugging in the phones is a real bind and you just feel like you are waiting for the problem to be fixed – we just cant wait for the phones to sync over WiFi overnight.

I have met several other people with iPhones who simply have no idea what the device is capable of because it still needs them to connect to and operate a computer to get the best out of it. Google has the right idea, but very poorly implemented because of the lack of media (iPod) facilities kills the usefulness of their phone – but they will improve.

Can Apple stay ahead of the game and create a device that can function as a physical stand-alone yet still sync with your computer media files if you want it to? The answer is yes they can, but they will only do it when someone produces a phone that is serious competition for the iphone and drives them to improve.

14 nat { 11.18.08 at 10:44 am }

@ greendave,
“Can Apple stay ahead of the game and create a device that can function as a physical stand-alone yet still sync with your computer media files if you want it to?”

Yes, it’s called the Apple TV. :D They could easily adapt that model to the iPhone/iPod touch. But they’re doing pretty well using tethered syncing as it is.

15 daGUY { 11.18.08 at 12:40 pm }

@John Muir: “…you still need a computer running iTunes to sync to on order to update your iPhone firmware, or use it fresh from the box. Enabling future iPhone models to work entirely independently…will be a vital step as the smartphone market really opens up.”

That’s a very interesting point. They could store the original firmware in a restricted area that doesn’t get overwritten when you do updates (the phone would just boot into the new firmware rather than the old). Then, if you need to restore the phone to factory settings, just press a special button sequence and it boots up to the original firmware instead. Is there any technical reason why that wouldn’t work?

@Greendave: “…the podcasts, music and videos having to be manually synced by plugging in the phones is a real bind…we just cant wait for the phones to sync over WiFi overnight.”

I agree. If you can buy and download songs over the air, you should be able to sync ones you already have on your computer as well.

My hypothesis: Apple makes you use iTunes on purpose because it’s a gateway to the iTunes Store. Music downloads, app downloads, and MobileMe syncing all work completely independently of a computer, but notice also how Apple makes money from all of those.

16 John Muir { 11.18.08 at 12:50 pm }


Think of how a Mac runs a firmware update. As far as I recall (it’s been a long time since the EFI update for my Mac Mini) it’s just like installing any software update which requires a restart … only with a sudden whoosh of cooling fan and a loud tone from the speaker. Macs don’t have a special factory firmware to rely on to boot into for installing updates. Ultimately iPhones wouldn’t need to either.

But it is wise to bear in mind all the tales of having to click Restore in iTunes on a badly behaved iPhone or iPod. I think there’s still a way to go until Apple is confident that these devices – born as satellites to a media hub – can run reliably as independent units for their entire lifetime.

For the moment: it is certainly easier to zap a troublesome iPhone back to normal with an iTunes restore than it is to reinstall OS X on a Mac. (The outcome of both processes are comparable: a return to factory defaults.) Indeed, I wonder if the Mac could learn something from the iPhone for the simplicity in how this can be brought about. How about a “Restore Another Mac” button in iTunes when you hook two together with … oh … not FireWire! Damn…

17 nat { 11.18.08 at 3:01 pm }

@ daGUY,
“I agree. If you can buy and download songs over the air, you should be able to sync ones you already have on your computer as well.

My hypothesis: Apple makes you use iTunes on purpose because it’s a gateway to the iTunes Store. Music downloads, app downloads, and MobileMe syncing all work completely independently of a computer, but notice also how Apple makes money from all of those.”

Keep in mind that Apple doesn’t run the iTunes Store (or App Store) to really make a profit. Also, the next iPhone firmware update is likely to enable over-the-air podcast downloading:

Finally, it might be a better idea to allow users to stream their content by remotely connecting to their computer at home, which is already possible with some third party App Store apps. Doesn’t Apple’s own Remote app do that (in addition to serving as a slick touch screen remote for AirTunes speakers) for a local network? All they’d have to do is expand that into a Back to My Mac type service (or they could simply tie it right into MobileMe, though I’d prefer it to be free of course).

18 daGUY { 11.18.08 at 5:09 pm }

@John Muir: I think you misunderstood what I said. My idea is for Apple to store the original iPhone firmware on the device itself, separate from whatever version of it you’re actually running. So, for example, maybe you’re running 2.1 on your iPhone, but the original 2.0 that it shipped with is still stored somewhere on the device, in a secure place where it can’t be tampered with. If you need to reset the iPhone to factory settings, press a special button sequence and your phone will boot up to the original 2.0 firmware instead. This removes the need to use iTunes.

19 retnuh { 11.19.08 at 11:50 am }

I’ve got two problems with the duel image thing:

1. Space requirements, will be solved in another year or two as storage increases.

2. Best practical joke ever, hey let me see your iphone, oops its reset haha. Chasing and beatings ensue….. And this is the real stick in the mud for me, once you start trying to figure out how to protect against it and what happens to the synced data and whether its still usable after the downgrade you’ll see its not so simple as just plug it in.

Overall it’d be nice to have but the everyday social use might be a bigger issue. Another example was when I saw the Surface table thing and they were showing your bill on it, just place your credit card on the table, figure tip and sign. Except how many people want that info to be visible? It’ll have to be large enough to see, since you cant bring it closer. Tip, how was the service or are you just cheap and don’t want to show everyone else that, but due to the size everyone around you knows. On the surface (pun intended) it seemed neat, except practically and socially its not.

20 The Future of Mobile Software | Daniel Eran Dilger | Voices | AllThingsD { 11.20.08 at 4:02 am }

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21 rdamiani { 11.20.08 at 6:47 am }

I heave been hearing arguments like this around mobile computing for a very long time now. The fundamental flaw that is too-often overlooked is that, no matter how capable a hand-held gets, it’s not going to serve as a long-term replacement for a notebook or desktop system until the input method is as fast and accurate as a keyboard is and the display is large enough to comfortably view whatever it is you are working on. Neither of these are physically possible with anything like current technology in a device that fits into a pocket. Until that hurdle is overcome, handhelds – smartphone or otherwise – will be limited to the kinds of tasks thier limited physical size allows.

For example – the first computer I owned was far less capible than even a modern ‘dumb’ phone. 16MHz CPU, 5MB RAM, 40MB HDD – even a shuffle has more power and storage. It’s still a better platform for general use than any current handheld.

Mobile software is an emerging market that is deserving of close attention, true enough. As handhelds become more capible, that market could expand to billions of units, making even a small market share very valuable. Until mobile devices somehow overcome their physical limitations, however, they won’t replace or even seriously challenge the current desktop/notebook model. At best, they will allow people who otherwise would not have a ‘real’ computer an incentive to acquire one, if only to give thier thumbs a rest.

People *tolerate* the form factor of handhelds. Until that changes, handhelds will always play second fiddle to devices with real keyboards and screens.

22 John Muir { 11.20.08 at 9:46 am }


Change “people” to “people in developed nations with their own computer” and I agree. But most people are not in that position.

The first few computers I used (1980’s hand me downs) didn’t even have hard drives and they would be wholly useless today. Same for your old system: care to run Firefox on that?

Handhelds like the iPhone are all about the Internet. I can’t emphasize it enough. They aren’t taking off as mobile writing platforms (the great iPhone novel anyone?) or for spreadsheet balancing. They are the Internet in your pocket. There have been many mobile platforms before but the iPhone is the first to get the web just right. That is why it is revolutionary and deeply disruptive.

Something you don’t get is that in 10, 20, 30 years time the Internet us going to be like access to clean water worldwide. Its economic power is already opening that right up, and cell networks are already better in much of the 3rd world than we forever hear they are in middle America! People – in Europe, Japan, the US and in poorer places – aren’t going to have desktop PC’s at home or laptops in their luggage. Most people do not write. Most don’t program. Most don’t need a computer for its own sake at all. What they want and need is the Internet. And the pocket sized, permanently connected, iPhone class mobile computer is going to become to the PC what the PC was to the home microcomputer.

Interestingly, the AppleTV could be among many devices ready to complement this fundamental change. A media rich, Internet connected, “smart TV” has strengths where the iPhone is weak (screen size, home theatre experience) and in a few years could be the truly mainstream Apple “desktop” instead of the Mac. I know that’s part of what some of us see in that so far ho-hum hobby of a product. Someday, somebody’s going to do it right.

23 daGUY { 11.20.08 at 1:49 pm }

@rdamiani, @John Muir: I think you’re both right :-P

@rdamiani: “no matter how capable a hand-held gets, it’s not going to serve as a long-term replacement for a notebook or desktop system”

True. Notebooks and desktops will always be more powerful than handhelds, so there will always be new software that takes advantage of that extra power. Thus, “real” computers are always going to have *some* abilities that you just can’t replicate on a handheld device.


(John Muir) “Most don’t need a computer for its own sake at all. What they want and need is the Internet.”

This is also true. What do most people do with their computers? They send email, browse the web, listen to music, watch videos, and work with photos. The iPhone is excellent at ALL of these activities.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that while it’s true desktop computers will always be able to do things handhelds can’t, it simply may not *matter* to most of the public. I think over time, the desktop is going to slowly become more of a niche product – something you only need if you do serious video editing, Photoshop work, extensive typing, etc., or other activities that can’t be reproduced effectively on a mobile device. For everything and everyone else, the iPhone is plenty capable.

24 John Muir { 11.20.08 at 2:20 pm }


Agreed. The desktop and laptop aren’t vanishing into obscurity. Laptops hace been quickly displacing desktops as the mainstream Internet computer – with Apple as always in the thick of it – but desktops will live on as workstations, where their strengths lie. It’s just a matter of maturing into a well adapted niche.

Laptops too are something for the minority who can afford them. (I know NetBooks are the talk of Slashdot an company, but I’ll believe it when I see them outselling smartphones. Don’t count on it!) they will continue to make sense for content creators rather than everybody irrespective. A laptop is overkill for instant messanging, YouTube and web browsing; yet how many of them are in use just for for precisely that!?

Rather than computers being sidelined, I see them as becomming ever more essential to our lives … worldwide. Yet the definition of “computer” will be what’s changing. Once upon a time, they were easy to spot: beige and on your desk. But now they are already hand sized and just as capable. Rather than the world becomming like the US of the 2000’s, we’re all going mobile. The integration will be seamless. And I know one fruity firm is in pole position for a big piece of that.

25 rdamiani { 11.20.08 at 11:22 pm }


“This is also true. What do most people do with their computers? They send email, browse the web, listen to music, watch videos, and work with photos. The iPhone is excellent at ALL of these activities.”

For a very limited value of ‘excelent’. It’s not about what the hardware is capible of, it’s about what the interface keeps you from doing. For example –

Perfectly good old computer:
PowerBook G3 (Wallstreet)
233MHz G3 CPU (a super-scaler RISC design)
10GB HDD (or so)
OSX 10.1

That perfectly good old computer could create playlists and manage them as well as simply play music files. It could crop and re-touch photos, play and edit video, compose music, surf the web, and write a novel (with a little help from the operator, of course).

iPhone 3G
400MHz ARM CPU (also a super-scaler RISC design)
8 or 16 GB flash storage

Twice the speed with half the RAM, it should be able to do the same stuff as the ‘perfectly good old computer’ as long as you were willing to deal with some virtual memory access. It can’t do any of it though. You can kinda create a playlist, sorta. You can look at pictures and send them to people, and you can do quick e-mail replys (as long as you don’t need or want any formatting).

It’s not about the hardware’s capibilities. It’s not even about how clever the software is. It’s about how accessible the features are and how complex an interface you can usefully cram into a 3.5″ working area. Computers far less powerful than even the dumbest of modern phones are nevertheless more useful – even for ordinary tasks – than even the most brilliant of smartphones becasue the human interface they present can support more complex interaction.

That is the unavoidable brick wall every other mobile revolution has run into. Until that interface issue is solved somehow (LCD glasses with virtual keyboards?) the full-sized system will be more attractive than anything you can put in a pocket.

I’m not saying this as some kind of luddite, by the way. My iPhone 3G is my third ‘converged’ device, and something like my 5th or 6th PDA. I’m real familiar with the benefits and limits of hand-helds.

From the late ’80s (when I started working with PCs) to today, ‘mobile computing’ was going to take off next year or the year after that (at the latest). The only things that haven’t changed duirng that time are the sizes of human fingers and how well an unaided eye can see.

26 John Muir { 11.20.08 at 11:49 pm }


And the price of that Wallstreet PowerBook: three grand.

People like you and me (and everyone else here reading RDM) are going to have laptops for years to come. But what about all those who never plunked down the cash for a classy PowerBook or a chintzy Dell? Especially the billions of them across the world at large.

That’s the future. An iPhone to an experienced power user can only feel limiting. But we are not the majority. Not even close.

27 rdamiani { 11.21.08 at 11:40 am }

I should not have used such a specific example. My point is that a cheap computer that is less capible than a current-model smartphone is still a far more compelling choice becasue of the size of it’s display and keyboard. That’s why OLPC didn’t pick a handheld form-factor.

The iPhone is a game-changer for the existing smartphone market. It’s expanding that market and defining the direction new entries into that market are going. All of that is true. What it won’t and can’t do with current technology is morph into a credible PC replacement. Not as long as screen and keyboard sizes are limited by the physical size of the device. Fingers and eyeballs are the limiting factors, not software or hardware capabilities.

28 John Muir { 11.21.08 at 3:00 pm }

The OLPC has also been a notable and unmitigated flop.

We’re actually arguing over two different things anyway. I’m talking about mainstream internet access. In other words: consumption. You’re talking about extended productivity tools. Namely: creation.

There s always going to be plenty of us creating content. And it will take great strides indeed to somehow be able to do that as effectively on pocket sized devices instead of the 15″ laptops and 20″ desktops we’re used to.

But there is a huge audience out there for devices which are all about convenience and consuming content. That’s all that most people want to do most of the time. That’s where I see the iPhone as a standalone platform as it extends beyond the installed base of PC’s in the world.

These are not the same thing. Don’t worry: the powerful and versatile laptop and workstation are alive and well! Just not in vastly greater numbers than they are now.

29 rdamiani { 11.21.08 at 11:03 pm }

OLPC (sorta) flopped for reasons unrelated to the form factor.

Most people, most of the time don’t need to do much more than email and look at web pages. Unless they want to upload stuff to YouTube. Or make a myspace page. Or blog. Or put photos on their blog. Or look at two web pages at the same time. Or tag the family photos to make a photo book. Or cook something using a recipe they found on the internet. Or do some shopping. Or sell stuff on eBay. Some of these things are possible on a handheld. Many aren’t, or are difficult. Clever software won’t make fingers smaller and clever hardware can’t go very far if it is limited to a small physical display size.

Depending or counting on people to make rational choices about what they need or what they want is not really the way to bet. People making ‘rational’ choices about what they need can be found clogging up any freeway sitting all alone in their 8-passenger SUVs.

The idea that handhelds will or can replace larger computers for ‘the masses’ has been around for close to 15 years. It’s no closer today than it was then.

What will bring it closer isn’t clever software. It’s virtual, non-physical displays and input devices. Wearable computers with holographic displays or a HUD projected into a pair of glasses, with gesture-based input or virtual keyboards that will allow accurate 60-100 WPM input. Or maybe roll-up or foldable displays made out of smart paper will be the key. Whatever it is, you’ll be able to tell that the age of the handheld has truely begun because that tech will transcend the limits of fingers, eyeballs, and pockets. It’s not hear yet.

30 Dude { 11.22.08 at 5:27 pm }

My iPhone won’t become my only computer, but it increases the probability of my next system is a desktop machine with a larger screen instead of a MacBook Pro. If I traveled a lot, I would consider having a desktop machine, a MacBook Air, and an iPhone.

31 rdamiani { 11.22.08 at 6:25 pm }


I do travel a lot. I use a Dell mobile workstation with a Verizon AirCard and my iPhone when I’m out and about, and have an iMac as my home desktop. I don’t have or want a desktop for work, becasue I’ve found that having two PCs is pretty much a pain in the butt. I use a docking station at work.

I have to confess I don’t quite get the point of the MacBook Air. It’s really expensive, not very capible, and you have to deal with picking and choosing what you’ll bring with you and what you’ll leave behind, which pretty much ensures that at some point you’ll need something you don’t have. When you are on the road 200 days a year like I am, the chances of that happening are pretty high.

32 nat { 11.23.08 at 11:25 am }

@ rdamiani,

Not sure I understand the “picking and choosing what to bring” part. Maybe on the first gen Air with its piddly 80GB HDD and even smaller $1000 64GB SSD, but now it comes stock with 120GB, with the option of an even larger 128GB SSD for only $500 more (or $300 if you’re a student like me). Now that it has a decent “chipset-on-a-chip” from NVIDIA, there’s also the potential that Snow Leopard could help narrow the performance gap between the Air and the low-end MacBook. Or does your work require CPU or GPU-intensive tasks and/or storing large amounts of data?

33 luisd { 11.23.08 at 3:51 pm }

@ rdamiani,

It is really getting on my nerves by now, I thought it was a typo, but you are consistent:

It is spelled capable, not capible.

34 rdamiani { 11.23.08 at 9:21 pm }


My typos are both frequent and consistent.


My work invovles both CPU/GPU intensive stuff and large amounts of storage. CAD and CAM mostly, plus training and field service stuff (manuals, test suites, ect.). Even with a 320GB internal drive, I still carry a couple of portable drives.

That’s not why I don’t quite get the Air though. A MacBook is less than 1/4″ thicker, about 1lb heaver, and offers more storage and CPU than an Air for several hundred less. And they are durable enough that my brother (who manages to break everything) hasn’t managed to break his yet. Guess I’m not even close to the target market for them.

35 nat { 11.23.08 at 11:55 pm }

@ rdamiani
“Guess I’m not even close to the target market for them.”

Haha, no kidding. With that said, the new aluminum MacBooks have really narrowed the Air’s already niche appeal thanks to the MBs being only 1.5 lbs and less than an inch thick. Where I had been waiting for an Air with adequate storage space (which a 128GB SSD is), now I’m on the fence between the high-end Air and the high-end MacBook. If the carbon fiber rumors come true at Macworld, perhaps the Air will regain its weight advantage and if they can get a 128GB SSD in the base model by summer, that’d set it apart too. In reality, the MacBook and Air are likely to merge in the next couple years as internal disc drives are dropped entirely.

36 nat { 11.23.08 at 11:57 pm }

Ah, and by only 1.5 lbs, I mean only 1.5 lbs heavier than the Air. :D

37 rdamiani { 11.25.08 at 2:50 am }


“MacBook and Air are likely to merge in the next couple years as internal disc drives are dropped entirely.”

I don’t see this happening. I may not be anywhere close to the target market and you may only be a bit closer, but there are lots of people out there who do fit the Air and are willing to pay the premium price for it. Apple would be foolish not to take their money.

38 nat { 11.25.08 at 1:21 pm }

@ rdamiani,

Why? What would keep Apple from introducing a hybrid of the MacBook and the Air in a couple years? CD sales will be even more abysmal, burning CDs isn’t nearly as popular thanks to mp3 players (namely the iPod), and few people watch DVDs on their tiny 13″ to 15″ laptop screens. None of these tasks are generally done on the go at a library or coffee shop or friend’s house or out on the back patio. Why require people who have little or no use for an internal disc drive to pay for something that only adds bulk and weight? It makes far more sense to provide an external SuperDrive as an option for those who want or need it (as Apple already does with the Air).

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40 rdamiani { 11.26.08 at 12:09 am }


“Why? What would keep Apple from introducing a hybrid of the MacBook and the Air in a couple years?”

Profit. Keeping the Air lighter and smaller than a MacBook gives people who value that kind of thing a reason to spend more money. That’s good for Apple, good for people who value the smaller and lighter computer, and good for people who don’t place a premium on that because they get to save some money.

I can see something like the Air becoming a future MacBook if Apple can figure out how to do it for $1,200.00. But I’d also expect to see a future Air that was smaller and lighter than that MacBook at a premium price.

41 nat { 11.27.08 at 12:47 pm }

@ rdamiani,

“I can see something like the Air becoming a future MacBook if Apple can figure out how to do it for $1,200.00.”

Hmm, how is that really different from what I’m predicting? The sentence that follows that is kind of related, but it’s more of a separate prediction. I guess I should have said the Air will replace the MacBook, though I was really envisioning a slightly (emphasis on slightly) more full-featured Air that adopted some of the MacBook’s features like an audio-in jack, better speakers (I believe the current Air outputs in mono), a glass, buttonless trackpad, and (perhaps) a black-rimmed, glass display.

But Apple wouldn’t have to get it down to $1200 from the get-go; the new MacBooks debuted at $1300 and $1600, the high-end config. featuring a back-lit keyboard, yet the lowest advertised price is $1000 because they’re keeping on the last generation, plastic MacBooks until they can drive down the cost of the aluminum models. Apple could repeat this strategy with the Air in a couple years, no problem, using the thicker aluminum MacBooks to present the appearance of a lower starting price.

I don’t see how such a move would necessitate the production of an even smaller Air. Remember, before the Air, Apple was doing just fine selling the MacBook and MacBook Pro. If they had wanted to go smaller, I believe they would have with the original Air, but they didn’t because computer screens smaller than 13 inches can feel cramped/claustrophobic.

42 John Muir { 11.27.08 at 1:01 pm }


No no You’re forgetting the real reason the Air is 13 inch. Steve Jobs is yanking the 12 inch PowerBook crowd’s chains! The 12 inch or less Apple notebook is the new Newton.

My laptop? An original 2003 12″ PowerBook. Hypocrite that I am, I’d give it in for a new MacBook Pro if only I had the cash! 1024×768 is just a little more oldschool than the G4…

43 rdamiani { 11.27.08 at 2:38 pm }


“I don’t see how such a move would necessitate the production of an even smaller Air. Remember, before the Air, Apple was doing just fine selling the MacBook and MacBook Pro.”

The Air exists because there are a substantial number of people willing to pay a premium to get a lighter notebook. If Apple satisfies them with a lighter MacBook, they are leaving money on the table.

@Well-known naturalist with a local high school named for him

A 13.3″ notebook is a 12″ notebook with a wide screen. The current MacBook is less than 1/2″ deeper than the 12″ PowerBook. To go back to the 12″ form factor Apple would need to go back to a 4:3 screen on a new model, and either allow a model with a different screen DPI than all the current models (except for the special-order 17″ HD model) or try to find a market for a notebook with 1024×600 display. I don’t really see any of those happening for a mainstream notebook. For a NetBook, maybe. But Apple doesn’t seem to be interested in that market. Of course, they didn’t seem interested in the phone market either, until they suddenly were.

44 nat { 11.27.08 at 4:59 pm }

@ rdamiani,

“The Air exists because there are a substantial number of people willing to pay a premium to get a lighter notebook.”

Agreed, though that specific segment is still a niche market.

“If Apple satisfies them with a lighter MacBook, they are leaving money on the table.”

That’s one way of looking at it.

But Apple just made the Air even more of a niche product thanks to the new lighter, thinner, aluminum 13″ MacBook. Where I had been near 100% certain my next Mac (to replace the three year old 15″ PowerBook G4 I’m typing this on) would be an Air with more storage and better graphics (which was delivered in the revised Air last month), now I’m on the fence between the high-end Air and the high-end MacBook. I’d guess many prospective Air buyers are in a similar predicament now.

While you’re right about the Air’s current target audience – fairly affluent buyers who are willing to pay more for less – the Air also has mainstream appeal, with its price being the major drawback. If, and again this is a couple years away, the price were inline with the new MacBooks, maybe $1400 at launch, it would broaden the Air’s appeal while still giving pleasing those looking for an ultralight laptop. The new aluminum MacBooks will undoubtedly cannibalize Air sales (if they haven’t started to already) and at the same time Jobs wants to kill off physical discs in favor of digital distribution via the iTunes Store; consumers want thinner and lighter laptops. Dropping the MacBook’s internal SuperDrive to slim it down would eat into Air sales even more, in addition to creating buyer confusion between the two.

What alternative do they have but to retire the MacBook and replace it with the Air?

45 nat { 11.27.08 at 5:00 pm }

Oh, and I agree with the rest of your response to John Muir. :D

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