Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

First Signs of SMS Disruption?

The Washington Post is asking if new messaging apps are going to disrupt the carriers’ SMS cash cow. I’ve read articles like this in the past, but two seemingly unrelated news items from yesterday and today make me wonder if we’re finally seeing the first signs of this disruption.

First, Boy Genius Report had an exclusive that BlackBerry Messenger will launch on Android and iOS.

For those unfamiliar with BlackBerry Messenger, it is texting like service that allows you to send instant messages to any other BlackBerry for free—bypassing SMS charges.

BlackBerry Messenger is one of RIM’s greatest assets and is the reason why BlackBerry phones remain popular among youth in Latin America and the Middle East.

Second, Facebook acquired Beluga, a group messaging service. This was both a talent and technology acquisition indicating that Facebook has designs on some sort of mobile messaging solution.

When Facebook Messages was announced, everyone talked about it as a Gmail killer, but my first thought was it could take on SMS eventually. Facebook Messages are intended to be short messages without subject lines and the formality of email. Sound familiar?

More importantly, Facebook is the number one app on nearly every mobile platform which means it has an installed base that likely the nearest competitor to the pervasive presence of Facebook. When you consider that people normally text those they know best and Facebook has the largest social graph in the world, it seems like a natural fit.

Sooner or later someone is going to take on SMS with an alternative service. SMS is just too lucrative and addictive for other companies to stay away.

I wonder if this Blackberry and Facebook news is the first hint of that players lining up their pieces to make a run at replacing SMS.

Declaring Platform Bankruptcy: Does it make sense?

We’ve known for some time that Nokia was having trouble adapting to the post iPhone world, but dismal financial results coupled with Android coming close to or passing Symbian in marketshare caused these issues to come to a fiery head this week. If you haven’t read the burning platform memo from Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, I highly recommend you read it now.

The big question is what happens tomorrow (or tonight if you live in the United States) at Nokia Capital Markets Day where Elop will present the new strategy for Nokia. Will Nokia declare platform bankruptcy and replace Symbian and/or Meego with Windows Phone 7 or Android?

By morning we’ll know what direction Nokia is headed. But before we know the results, I want to ask whether declaring platform bankruptcy is ever a good idea.

I’ve heard pundits argue for months that Nokia and RIM need to ditch their old platforms in favor of a completely new operating system like Microsoft did with Windows Phone 7. There’s no denying that both the Blackberry OS and Symbian are long in the tooth and ill-suited for today’s mobile competition.

But the track record for declaring platform bankruptcy doesn’t look so good. We have four companies in mobile that needed to decide what to do with their legacy platforms. Two of them—Microsoft and Palm—declared platform bankruptcy and shipped entirely new operating systems. How has that worked out?

For Palm, it meant a near bankruptcy of a different kind before they were purchased by HP. For Microsoft, it has seen it’s share of the mobile market plummet from 12% in 2007 to 4.2% in 2010. So far, Windows Phone 7 hasn’t been the hit Microsoft hoped it would be.

To date, RIM and Nokia have pursued a different strategy. They have continued to prop up their legacy platforms (Blackberry and Symbian) while preparing their new platforms (QNX and Meego).

They’ve described how applications will be able to transition from the old platforms to the new old ones. QNX will run Blackberry apps in a compatibility mode and Webworks will work on both. Nokia has championed QT as the cross platform solution that will work for both current Symbian and future Meego devices.

None of this is to say that RIM or Nokia is definitely going to succeed whereas Microsoft and Palm are doomed to fail. But there is an common desire on the part of technologists to declare that something needs to be rewritten from scratch. Resisting that temptation can be difficult especially if you’re in a competitive and volatile market like mobile phones.

But for as much as the pundits declare Nokia and RIM unable to compete with the iPhone, their strategy of gradual transition is the same strategy that Apple employed when making the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X.

Apple bought NeXT in December of 1996. That purchase signaled that its internal efforts to create a new, modern operating system had failed. They needed to move to a completely new operating system based on NeXTSTEP to compete.

Yet, despite buying their new operating system in 1996, they didn’t stop selling computers with the old operating system. In fact, Apple shipped the initial release of OS 9 in October 1999, nearly three years after buying NeXT. They shipped seven updates to OS 9 over the next two years.

The first version of the new operating system, Mac OS X, shipped in March 2001—over four years after NeXT was purchased. But the new operating system included a compatibility layer called Classic that allowed OS 9 applications to continue to run.

The last remnants of the OS 9 platform finally disappeared when Classic was removed in Mac OS X v10.5 released a decade after the NeXT acquisition.

Mobile is moving much more quickly so neither RIM nor Nokia have five years to release a new operating system nor a decade to purge the previous one. But is it really a bad business decision for RIM to continue to ride their current OS as long as possible while readying their next platform?

So long as they continue to sell well in international markets, they would be foolish to ditch their existing platform prematurely.

They can ride out some decrease in market share as long as they are thick skinned when the press tells them they need to deviate from their plans. I don’t know how long they have to work with, but pundits had it in for Apple before it was able to turn it around with the iMac and later OS X and RIM isn’t nearly as desperate as Apple was at that time.

Finally, RIM only purchased QNX in April of last year. Yes, RIM should have acted sooner to develop or purchase their new OS, but the fact that they plan on shipping the PlayBook using a QNX-based OS in Q1 of this year is remarkably fast compared to the time required for Apple assimilate NeXTSTEP.

As for Nokia, they are in a much more difficult situation than RIM. Their profits have diminished. Elop’s memo refers to being put on a negative credit watch. There is a lot of justifiable pressure from shareholders for Elop to take action.

We’ll know soon what Nokia chooses, but we won’t know for some time whether or not it is the right strategy. While Apple’s operating system transition is informative, it doesn’t guarantee that either RIM or Nokia will be able to succeed doing the same.

As a developer, I would love both companies to ditch their legacy platforms tomorrow. Old Blackberries in particular give us nothing but grief.

But as a business strategy, I don’t know that declaring platform bankruptcy makes sense.

In a selfish way, I hope Nokia sticks to its guns on its planned migration from Symbian to Meego if for no other reason than we’d have two companies that chose to ditch their platforms abruptly and two that chose a gradual transition. It would be our very own platform strategy petri dish.

Webkit: The Dominant Smartphone Platform

Based on Q2 sales of smartphones, Webkit-based browsers may soon ship on 85% of all smartphones sold.

Pie chart showing market share for webkit based on smart phone OS

Please keep in mind, this is not the reality right now. This number assumes RIM’s purchase of Torch Mobile really means that future Blackberry Browsers will based on Webkit.

There are some other caveats as well:

  • This understates Opera’s mobile market position. Opera has a large installed base of users.
  • It assumes market percentages will stay the same. We know this won’t be true.
  • It assumes that all of the “other” smartphone OS browsers are not using Webkit currently.
  • Mobile Firefox is just getting started. It is unclear how that will change the landscape.
  • Just because it is Webkit, doesn’t mean that it is the latest version of Webkit.

Caveats aside, you would be hard pressed to find another smartphone development platform with any where close to Webkit’s market share.

More importantly, this means that HTML5 for mobile is looking great. If Blackberry joins the ranks of Webkit-based browsers, that will means Symbian, iPhone, Android, Palm and Blackberry will all be on the path to HTML5 support.

The only laggard will be Mobile Internet Explorer, and even for Windows Mobile there are options like Google Gears which adds some HTML5 support to IE or installing other browsers like Opera or Firefox.

RIM Buys Torch Mobile, Big News for HTML5, Mobile Web

I nearly leapt out of my seat when I saw the news that Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of the Blackberry, has bought Torch Mobile. This is big news for HTML5 and the mobile web.

Last month I wrote about HTML5 from a mobile perspective and noted that “the real barrier to HTML5 adoption is RIM’s Blackberry platform.”

After the release of the iPhone, RIM said that it understood the importance of having a rich browsing experience on Blackberry. It made vast improvements with the latest version of the browser. But even those improvements weren’t enough.

The reality is that RIM needed to change course when it came to its browser. It can’t carry the full burden of browser development and expect to keep up with Apple, Google and Nokia which base their browsers on open source software.

So the big news isn’t the purchase of Torch Mobile, but what it likely means for the Blackberry Browser in the future. Torch Mobile’s browser was built on webkit. This purchase would seem to suggest that Blackberry is going to stop developing its own browser rendering engine and start using webkit.

It’s going to take awhile for Blackberry to incorporate Torch Mobile and update its browser, but things appear to be headed in the right direction.

BlackBerry Browser Bug

One of the more hilarious moments in developing the Mobile Browser Concurrency Test came due to an obscure and undocumented bug in the BlackBerry browser.

As we neared release of the test, we found that a certain set of BlackBerry devices was exhibiting odd behavior. While the user would never see the four rows of images in our test, both the test and that apache logs would report that the images had been downloaded.

After several hours of trying to figure out how our code had gone astray, we were getting desperate. So John drove to a local AT&T store. He found a BlackBerry to test with and called the office so we could change the code while he tested in the store. That phone call was one for the ages.

We stripped every line of code out of our test page until we had simply the html, head, body, and img tag. And the image still wasn’t rendering.

Finally, we removed the height and width attributes from the image tag and it finally worked. But this made no sense because we had an image tag on the other pages that had the height and width set and was displaying properly.

Further testing revealed that a bug in the BlackBerry browser: it will not display images if the height and width are declared and either is 4 pixels or less. Our test images were 4 x 4 squares.

Yes, it is that specific. Less than five pixels and the browser will download the file, but the image will never render on the page. In fact, the rules for when the image will and when it won’t display are even more specific:

  • If the image width and height are set to 5 pixels or greater, the image will render.
  • If either the height or the width is not declared in the attributes, the image will render.
  • If both the height and the width are declared in the attributes and either is 4 pixels or less, the image will not render.
  • The original size of the image does not matter. The only thing that matter is the size of the image declared in the html attributes.

If you have a BlackBerry, we’ve provided a test page to demonstrate the bug.

We don’t know how often people are going to build web pages for BlackBerries with images less than 5 pixels on one side, but we do know that if you do, you better be careful how you code the page or no one will ever see your work. We’re also certain that if BlackBerry wants to compete on the mobile web, it is going have to improve its browser.