Smart Thinking Destroyed By iPhone Gold Rush

There are a couple of trends in mobile software development that I don’t understand: 1) the over-focus on iPhone and 2) the over-emphasis on locally-running (native) applications.

iPhone or Die
On point #1, don’t get me wrong. I use an iPhone, it’s a great product and platform and clearly has mental share in the market. But it’s 10% of the smartphone customers. RIM has twice the market share with BlackBerry; Symbian four times that sell in plus a large installed base.

Maybe Yahoo! isn’t the best example, as it’s a consumer-oriented service, but apparently they have stopped developing a BlackBerry app to focus on their iPhone app. Is that a reasonable decision? Maybe. If I’m deciding, though, I look at who my customers are first. Making an enterprise or government sale? Better focus on BlackBerry first. Apple’s App Store isn’t even set up to handle large corporate purchases. Are your customers mainly in Europe? Better focus on Symbian, which is dominating the EU.

What’s a Website?
The second trend that’s bothering me is the plethora of websites pretending to be applications. The most amazing thing about the iPhone is the web browser. And yet all these sites are making native applications that are nothing more than a web site. The data still has to be downloaded to make them work, so it’s not like “offline” has any meaning to them.

Do I really need a Wikipedia app? A Google app? A Netflix app? All they do is connect me back to the web site anyway. Heck, if Twitter had a half-decent interface then I’d use their website instead. I’d much rather see time spent on making these websites really mobile-enabled. For a great example, check out ESPN’s mobile site. They’ve done an incredible job of making it look-and-feel iPhone while keeping it on the web.

Waiting on a Winning Streak: Infinity Softworks Closes a New Funding Round

I don’t like to gamble so don’t usually play cards. Since I don’t play, I haven’t developed some amazing strategy for winning nor do I have the kind of memory that allows me to count cards/play odds and offset my inexperience. But I found myself in a card game anyway. There were six of us playing and I kept drawing lousy hands. I kept folding early and often, before I could lose much money. We played round after round, with me folding with small or zero bets and my chip pile dwindling slowly.

Finally, the cards changed in my favor. With only a handful of chips left, I bluffed my way to a solid pot then started drawing good cards. Before I knew it I reeled off seven or eight winning hands in a row, riding them to a nice pile of chips, and putting everyone else at the table on the defensive.

It dawned on me recently that I have been running Infinity Softworks the same way the last few years. As with cards I didn’t play this strategy on purpose. Instead, my cautious nature led me to it, going after small pots, biding my time for the right opening, staying in the game. Waiting. Other companies were betting all in — on mobile, on the web — and I was starting to wonder if I’d lost my nerve, if I’d be able to see the big opportunity when it hit. And frankly, I almost missed it.

This past summer and fall turned into what I thought was going to happen in 2001: the mobile software market is finally becoming a reality. Amazing hardware powered by Apple, RIM and Google is coming to fruition. The innovation curve is accelerating. Reasonable software distribution is coming back. And all of these devices are web-enabled, connecting our customers to the world.

I have found kindred spirits, people who also see great opportunities and have stuck with me for years. Years of caution finally paid off. Infinity Softworks closed a round of funding that will kick start our FastFigures and FastFigures Mobile efforts, giving us a solid foundation to build from and the ability to power through these tough economic times. (Read the release here.) This, the first winning pot in the latest of Infinity’s card games. I smell a streak coming on.

The New Palm. Same As The Old Palm?

It appears in early January that Palm will announce their new operating system, devices and direction. It is believed that the new Palm will also be the only Palm operating system used by the company, dropping the old Palm OS and Windows Mobile in favor of this new platform. (They’d keep supporting WinMo for its corporate clients only.)

I’m skeptical that Palm can survive this transition. It isn’t 1996 any more. The mobile market back then had no major players. Palm was able to build every thing without having direct competition. Now all parties — customers, carriers, developers — have huge expectations. And there may be too much history with all three for Palm to woo them back into the fold. A brief explanation for each:

Customers have spent the past six years hearing how Palm is bringing out their next operating system. Most seem to have migrated to Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and iPhone at this point. Let’s face it, the Palm OS is antiquated, looking and feeling like yesterday’s technology. And with the company on the ropes financially, there is a big dis-incentive to acquire one of their devices.

Apple was in a similar situation when Palm was coming into existence ten years ago. Apple, though, had a legendary founder back in the fold and a new deal struck with Microsoft to ensure its survival. Palm will need some similar move to live through this one.

There’s an interesting alignment occurring among the carriers here in the States. Exclusives are all the rage. Apple partnered with AT&T, RIM launched its BlackBerry Storm exclusively with Verizon, and Google launched Android exclusively with T-Mobile. On the surface we are returning to a world where if you want a certain device you have to switch carriers to get it.

It makes sense for carriers and companies to partner like this, of course, as developing hardware for one specific carrier platform is a lot more efficient than doing it for all of them. And the carriers can push one major product, differentiating themselves from everyone else. But if this trend holds true, it also has the effect of locking out new participants in the market. Where does Palm go? Sprint, a distant number four in the carrier races? Well… they did with the Centro. But this doesn’t necessarily get them the exposure they need to be successful. And what happens when Nokia comes calling? Does Palm get back-burnered for the next latest and greatest? It’s a vicious cycle: Palm comes out on a smaller carrier, doesn’t get huge sales, the carrier then feels they wasted time and money and doesn’t promote the product, which then supresses sales even further.

Excuse my bluntness, but Palm screwed their developer community. In 1999-2000, Palm used to talk in terms of the Palm Economy. But when the chips were down rather than doubling down on its community, the company decided it was easy enough to make a quick buck off of us. Palm, who spent years wooing developers to its vertical markets, suddenly dropped those vertical markets leaving its developers to hold the bag. Resellers went from charging 20-30% of each product sold in 2000 to 65-70% in 2008 (for reference, the world’s largest online reseller Amazon charges 25% and holds physical inventory). In addition, they added restrictions on what we could do with customer information and required our own web sites to be removed from our products, meaning we had to develop a special version of our software for each reseller.

There are great alternatives out there now on other platforms. With Apple, RIM, Google, Microsoft and others, there is a direct marketing channel (or soon will be) that reduces our support costs by eliminating installation issues and charges a reasonable 20-30% of our retail price.

Given that, all will be forgiven if Palm can sell enough devices. At the end of the day, developers will gravitate toward any platform that sells lots of units and makes it reasonable for us to sell our wares.

But with the markets working against them on all three fronts, it will be quite a challenge to do so. If nothing else, Palm will have an intellectual asset that could be a catalyst for company acquisition. A year ago, with one outdated operating system and another licensed, Palm had nothing to sell. At least now, it might.

We’ll all find out the first week of January.

Economic Downturns Are Good For Business

A few years ago, at the end of Infinity Softworks’ second act as an education company, we decided to raise a round of funding. To make a long story short, I concluded early in the process that that was not possible and abandoned the idea. But two years later, as I watch the news wires for funding deals, a whole bunch of education companies have raised money. While the timing didn’t work out for Infinity Softworks’ education plans, here’s hoping it does for FastFigures and our re-focus on business customers.

Well, that left me thinking. Some of our biggest markets for FastFigures include real estate, financial and investment services. Could we have better timing? Let’s see. A busted real estate bubble, the banking system struggling, and Dow Jones sinking like a lead balloon… great time to sell to those folks!

But the truth is it is a great time to start this business. These problems won’t last forever, and when these problems fade then we will be in a great position to grow with our customers. When everything was easy — when a house sold in a day — no Realtor needed to care about educating their customers about mortgages. The only expertise they needed was to get the offer in fast. Now, with Realtors fighting over a small collection of buyers, education and experience will be the key.

Seth Godin wrote in his post “Looking For a Reason To Hide” a very interesting piece of information: a large chunk of the Inc 500’s fastest growing companies were born in the days following 9/11. From the darkest moments springs new life. It’s true with the tech companies I have watched all my life, too. Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, Google, just to name a few, all born in the dark days of recession.

So we start slow, we put the pieces in place, we learn and listen and take action on that. And then when the market shifts, if we’ve done a good job of learning and listening, then we will be ready and waiting to grow!

Dear Microsoft

Steve Ballmer
1 Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052-8300

Dear Mr. Ballmer:

I am concerned about Microsoft. The last decade has not been good to the company. Sure, it still owns the desktop operating system business, dominates the office suite and makes big money on servers and development environments. But there is something missing. To be honest with you, I think Microsoft has lost its way, it mojo so to speak. And I can tell because the developer community is no longer afraid of you.

Your business is assaulted from every direction. Linux has grabbed hold of IT departments. Google has become the thought leader on the web, destroying you on search and starting to challenge you in office suites. Open source is providing a bevy of development environments, all for free. Firefox is eating away at your dominant browser position. Apple has wrestled design and thought leadership away on mobile devices and laptops. Amazon is winning the race to be the web’s “operating system.” Nintendo outplayed you in game console systems.

Once upon a time, Microsoft was a visionary company. You took a concept like email and incorporated it as one piece in a grand vision to organize and manage personal information. That changed the game and wiped out Eudora, the market leader at the time. I think you can do the same kind of thing now, change the rules of the game and bring computing power to the masses, only this time on the web.

The strategy I am proposing here is perfect for Microsoft as it all relates to your existing businesses. Only this time, it’s on the web:

1. It’s about data. I am end-user and have data everywhere. I have it on cell phones used by everyone in my house and business, I have it on multiple computers, I have it on a personal server, I have it across the web. What I need is someone who knows how to extract all this information, put it in one secure central place so it can all be accessed on the web and on all the devices. Microsoft can do this. And it just so happens that you have a head start: you already have the technology to do this. Exchange works with all kinds of computers, servers and mobile devices. But what we need is not Exchange for IT pros but Exchange for the rest of us. I want to be able to enter an appointment on my BlackBerry and see it appear on our family’s web site calendar and my business calendar and on my business partner’s BlackBerry so she knows not to schedule that phone meeting then. And I want to buy a new song and have it appear on my wife’s laptop without having to think about it. And the same for pictures and video and every other piece of personal information. There’s plenty of money here. And that should make your shareholders happy.

2. It’s about developers. What was amazing about Windows is that it made operating systems useful for all of us, not just the nerds in the IT department. I don’t have to remember obscure keystrokes to make it work, it just works. This time it is not about end-users, though, but about people with ideas, whether they are developers or bloggers or just need to promote themselves. The web is still a bit like DOS. I have to know how to set up a server, databases, load balancing, run-time environments and such. It’s a real pain. And, of course, then I have to keep it running and make sure I don’t run out of server space or bandwidth or… I think you get the idea. I don’t really want to deal with this stuff. I want to create amazingly cool web apps. I want to share my ideas. I don’t want to be a systems administrator, as the current web provider’s require me to be. Microsoft could be the infrastucture for the world wide web, providing a platform for developers who wish to pay (think monthly fees) or don’t (think search placements).

3. It’s about business. It used to be that when you needed an application to run your business, you turned to Microsoft. But this is going to change as apps move online unless Microsoft moves too. Let’s face it, today this web-only approach by Google and others doesn’t work all that well. It’s slow and a little painful to use and I have to worry about working on my spreadsheets on the airplane. What they are really good at, though, is getting feedback on something as the web makes a great place for collaboration. You are uniquely positioned to offer online and offline versions of the products every business relies on. I know you risk cannibalizing your business, but for $50 a year you could charge for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, giving users both an online account and the software to load locally on their Windows or Mac computer. Anything I do locally automatically syncs to the server and others — with permission of course — can review and make changes and share their thoughts, wiki or subversion-style, all of which gets synced back locally. Now, I never have to worry about being out-of-date on my software and you have taken a big headache out of my daily life: sharing and soliciting feedback happens automatically.

One thing Microsoft has been amazing about in the past is re-inventing itself. It did this with operating systems, dropping DOS line entry system for a Windows interface. It did this with browsers. This, of course, is a bigger transformation than what the Company has done before. But it’s time, before we in high-tech start thinking about Microsoft like the rest of the country thinks about General Motors.

I hope you will take my suggestions seriously. After all, the last thing we need now is only one behemoth, destroying innovation and taking advantage of small companies. With both you and Google at each others throats, fighting like Mothra and Godzilla over dominance of the web, we’ll all be a little better off.


Elia Freedman