Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

We Need More Mobile First Browsers. Google Needs to Step Up.

Since the app store was released, people have been suspicious of Apple’s commitment to the open, mobile web. Why would Apple push the mobile web forward when web technology may compete with its native apps platform?

I’m not usually an Apple defender, but if you want to beat up on a company for their laggard mobile browser, look in Mountain View, not Cupertino.

Apple continues to add key functionality to Mobile Safari. The rumors are that iOS 5 will include:

  • position:fixed
  • overflow:scroll
  • date input fields
  • Nitro javascript engine in home screen apps
  • Web workers
  • Native scrolling behavior

Who knows if these will actually ship in the final version of iOS 5, but their inclusion wouldn’t be a surprise. Ever since the initial release of the iPhone, each new version of the operating system has included new browser features. Often these features, like geolocation, show up in Mobile Safari before they show up on the desktop.

This is what I call a mobile first browser. Borrowing from Luke Wroblewski’s mobile first thinking, browser makers need to develop their mobile browsers first.

We Need More Mobile First Browsers

Of the browser makers that have both mobile and desktop versions, which ones have shipped new features on mobile first?

We know Apple has. I suspect Opera has as well. The rest seem to be developing for desktop first.

Recently, Dave Winer argued that Mozilla is no longer creating new features for Firefox that people care about.

What I found most interesting about Dave’s article is that mobile specific features are not mentioned in either his post nor in the comments. The Mozilla folks who defend their browser and its features talk exclusively about the desktop version.

Microsoft’s mobile browser also lags its desktop version. The mango update will bring Internet Explorer 9 to Windows Phone 7 later this year.

Mango will be a great improvement over Internet Explorer 7 which is currently being used, but while the Windows Phone team works on integrating IE9, Microsoft has already released two preview builds of Internet Explorer 10.

Google Needs to Step Up

If there was one company that we would expect to lead the charge for the open, mobile web, it would be Google. At Mobilize 2009, I watched Andy Rubin, SVP of Mobile, say that Google saw HTML5 eventually supplanting most native apps.

Given Google’s emphasis on web technology, a leading edge mobile browser seems like a natural fit. The reality is much different. The Android browser lags behind the iPhone in many ways.

At Google I/O 2010, Vic Gundotra demonstrated browser access to the camera, accelerometer, and the microphone. When Read/Write Web asked me about the demonstration, I responded, “Hell yeah, it’s about time”.

Unfortunately, none of these features shipped with Android’s Gingerbread release. Apple shipped browser access to the accelerometer before Google did. It is over a year later, and we have no idea when we will see them.

Shi Chuan recently wrote a provocative post entitled An Inconvenient Truth – Android and the Open Mobile Web. He may have got some of the details wrong, but the overall sentiment is spot on.

The contrast at Google I/O this year between a day dedicated to Android and a day dedicated to Chrome OS made the problems crystal clear.

For some time I’ve been hearing rumors of battles between the Chrome and Android teams. Seeing the two operating systems on stage made it clear that they are competing visions of the future. Should tablets use Chrome OS or Android?

It seems that the things that people accuse Apple of—slowing the pace of the browser in order to give their app platform an advantage—are actually happening at Google. Competition is generally a good thing, but when the competition is between the Android and Chrome teams, it is the users of the Android browser who lose.

Google needs to step up. Chrome is arguably the best desktop browser. There is no excuse for Android’s browser not leading as well.

2011 is not the Year of the iPad 2. It is the Year of the Cheaper iPhone.

Steve Jobs on stage announcing 2011 as the year of the iPad2Yesterday, Apple declared that 2011 is the Year of iPad 2. Calling 2011 the year of anything other than transformation in the Middle East is crazy.

But if we’re going to limit ourselves to Apple products, I think it is more likely to be the Year of the Cheaper iPhone than the iPad 2.

Before the first rumors of a cheaper iPhone surfaced, I’d been talking to friends about demographic and sales information that indicated to me that the tech press was too focused on high-end devices and missing the lower end of the market.

Because of this, I’m bullish on the impact of a cheaper iPhone and what it would mean for Apple’s smartphone market share. Let me explain why.

The Real Reason Why Android is Successful: It’s Good Enough and Cheaper

It seems like I’ve spent most of my life rooting for companies who made products that were superior in design, but lost to products that were good enough and cheaper.

I was flabbergasted that people would buy inferior products that promised headaches instead of joy. I thought people just didn’t understand how these inferior products were going to cost them much more in the long run with the thousand cuts of poor user experience and design.

At some point I realized that I wasn’t giving people enough credit. They knew that Tivo was a better product, but the DVR that the cable company gave them for free was good enough and cheaper. The same has long been true of Windows machines.

The problem for a lot of Apple fans is that they still can’t understand why someone would chose the obviously inferior product. M.G. Siegler of TechCrunch wrote an article entitled, “Is Android Surging Only Because Apple Is Letting It?” His thesis was that Android was only winning because the iPhone wasn’t available on Verizon. In the article, he wrote:

Now, don’t get me wrong, almost all Android phones are a million times better than the phones we had just a few years ago before the iPhone burst onto the scene. And if the iPhone didn’t exist, there is no question that I would use an Android phone and would probably be very happy with it. But the iPhone does exist. And I simply can’t bring myself to use an Android phone when I know a superior device is out there. That’s my only requirement for me to use a product: it has to be the best.

Most people don’t require their phones to be best. They simply want something that’s good enough to get email, text message, and browse the web. Oh and cheaper is better.

BTW, the predictions of big lines to buy the Verizon iPhone hasn’t panned out and sales have thus far been “disappointing.” So much for the theory that carrier exclusivity is why Android passed iPhone in market share.

But Isn’t Android the Same Price as the iPhone?

A common misconception about the smartphone market is that Android phones and iPhones are essentially the same price. Both the Samsung Fascinate (Galaxy S) and the iPhone 4 cost $199 with a two-year contract.

But the Android phones don’t stay at their launch price point. Verizon had a large television campaign last fall that offered a buy one get one free offer for the Fascinate. Verizon’s site currently lists 13 different Android models for under $100.

That’s why the average selling price (ASP) is so important. On average, the iPhone costs twice as much as its nearest rival:

Chart comparing handset ASP

Q2 2007 to Q2 2010 Average Selling Price. Source: Asymco

The lower ASP for Android devices is what allows carriers and retailers to offer steep discounts on these devices. And cheaper phones are important because there is a lot of growth at the lower ends of the market.

Have you heard of the Samsung Freeform?

No? I hadn’t either until I noticed it was the number three phone in terms of impressions in Millennial Media’s March 2010 mobile mix report.

Table of top phones in Dec 2010 on Millennial Media network. Freeform is number six.

Millennial Media’s report tracks the number of ad impressions delivered to a given phone. As you might expect, the top phone is the iPhone and the top ten list contains a mix of Android, Blackberry and iOS devices.

Photo of Samsung Freeform w/ MetroPCS on screen.But amongst those well-known devices is the Samsung Freeform. The Freeform was still the number six phone in the report as late as December of last year.

The inclusion of the Samsung Freeform on this list stood out like a sore thumb. I had to know more about this phone.

It turns out that the Samsung Freeform is one of those feature phones that start to edge into smartphone-like capabilities. It has a keyboard for texting and a reasonably capable browser.

The phone is only available through MetroPCS. Right now, you can get it for $49 unsubsidized.

But more importantly, you can get unlimited voice, text and web on the Samsung Freeform for only $40 per month.

Growth at the Low End of Smartphone Market

Around the same time I learned about the Freeform, a Comscore survey in Europe found that “smartphones are generally seen as luxury devices that come with big price tags and high monthly tariffs, yet the largest segment of the market and the one demonstrating greatest momentum is actually the low to mid tier.”

I haven’t found a similar study of growth rates in the United States, but I have found other evidence that seems to support the theory that significant growth in smartphone market is happening at the low price points.

U.S. Minorities Lead Caucasians in Mobile

Over the last year, there have been numerous studies showing that minority adoption and usage of mobile is outpacing caucasians:

Smartphone Penetration by Race/Ethnicity

Pew Internet Research found that African-Americans and Latinos use more mobile data applications. Nielsen found that a higher percentage of minorities both own smartphones and recently acquired smartphones.

It probably goes without saying, but census data shows that minority populations still have lower household incomes than caucasians. Obviously, lower prices will be an important feature for people with less discretionary income.

Android Growth Due to Lower Prices

As I stated above, I believe Android’s skyrocketing growth can be attributed to being good enough and cheaper. The last comparison of income levels for Android and iPhone owners is from Q1 2010. At the time, 36% of Android owners had household incomes of less than $50,000 versus only 22% of iPhone owners. I suspect the difference is more exaggerated now.

Therefore, Android’s success is further proof that growth is happening at the lower end of price spectrum.

The Rational for the Cheaper iPhone in a Single Chart

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a pie chart from Comscore that clearly explains why Apple was rumored to be making a cheaper iPhone:

Comscore pie chart showing household income of iPhone users

If you read the Comscore blog post that this chart comes from, you won’t find anything about the cheaper iPhone. The post focuses on how valuable iPhone subscribers will be to Verizon compared to other smartphone owners because iPhone owners have higher household incomes.

According to Comscore, 81% of iPhone owners have household incomes greater than the U.S. median household income ($44,389).

TNS Global found similar results in a survey noting that “iPhone users are also younger, but the most highly educated, employed as a manager or professional and earning more than $100K per year.”

Does Apple care about the low end of the market?

When I tweeted about the above chart, I got a lot of feedback from people who were confused about what I thought the chart meant. My friend Jonathan Stark jokingly asked if BMW was going to announce a car for under $10k? The implication being that Apple stakes out the high end and doesn’t care about the low end of the market.

@grigs I think we're in agreement... Apple don't give a crap about the low end of the market (other than perhaps to block competitors) --@jonathanstark

I have always thought that Apple cared about market share, but that it wasn’t the top goal for Apple. Apple seems to value:

  1. Building the best product they can
  2. Selling products with a high profit margin
  3. Gaining market share

In that order. They won’t compromise their design ideals, brand or margins to chase the low end.

But if they can create an cheaper iPhone that lives up to Apple’s brand promise and sustains their margins, I see no reason why they wouldn’t pursue the low end of the market given the growth opportunities there.

iPod Nanos

Until recently when people brought up the idea of Apple pursuing an iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle like approach to the smartphone market, I didn’t think Apple could do it. It didn’t seem like there was enough room to differentiate the iPod Touch from a low end iPhone.

I also had my doubts they could build a product at the low price point without compromising. They can’t decrease the screen size like they did for the iPod Nano or remove it entirely like they did for the iPod Shuffle.

However, I now believe there is a lot of room for Apple to explore the low end market. There are a lot of premium features on the iPhone 4, like the retina display, that could be removed on a low end phone without compromising the quality of the design.

But no matter what I think, we should listen to what Apple COO Tim Cook said about the low end market. Cook recently told an analyst that “Apple did not want its products to be ‘just for the rich,’ and that the company is ‘not ceding any market.'”

Will a Cheaper iPhone Make a Difference? The Biggest Cost of a Phone is the Carrier Subscription

When rumors of the cheaper iPhone first surfaced, many people commented on the fact that reducing the cost of the phone won’t help Apple unless they do something to reduce the monthly subscription cost. I disagree.

The success of Android indicates that even if the monthly costs are the same, that many people will chose the slightly less expensive phone. While consumers in carrier subsidized markets never see the full average selling price of phones, it does seem to make an impact in market share.

Second, if Apple is able create an iPhone that is relatively inexpensive without a carrier subsidy, then people can choose to buy it without a contract or go prepaid. In fact, a cheaper iPhone may be the best way to force lower prices by increasing competition between carriers.

There are nuggets that hint at this strategy in quotes from the recent analyst briefing:

A cheaper iPhone available without a contract and with a soft SIM allowing people to switch networks would force carriers to compete on price. If Apple also expands into the prepaid market and signs up lower priced carriers like MetroPCS and Virgin Mobile, the impact on carriers could be as large as the impact of the original iPhone.

But even if they cannot lower the carrier costs, making a cheaper iPhone is the only thing they have full control over if they want to expand the iPhone and reach people with lower household incomes.

A Cheaper iPhone Will Be a Smash Hit

Those who have followed me on twitter or seen me speak at conferences knows that despite the fact I love Apple products, I haven’t been bullish on its prospects of Apple dominating mobile market share. The main reason for my pessimism had been based on other platforms being good enough and cheaper.

Horace Dediu of Asymco recently wrote that he still holds “that 20% smartphone share is possible for the iPhone.” This was my best guess for where Apple would end up as well.

The news that Apple will be releasing a cheaper iPhone changes my view substantially. If Apple is aggressive about the low end of the market, and it sounds like they may be, then the limitation on their market share will likely be their ability to keep up with demand. My off-the-cuff guess is a cheaper iPhone puts Apple at 30 to 40% of the market when the dust settles.

But we don’t need to look that far into the future to know that a cheaper iPhone is going to be a big hit. It is going to be huge this year.

Freedom Time: Google Voice Letter to the FCC, iPhone App Store & Mobile Gatekeepers

Friday is the day to release news you want people to forget. No surprise then that Friday was when Google released the unredacted version of its letter to the FCC about Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice application.

In case you missed it, the FCC sent letters to Apple, Google, and AT&T asking them about Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice for iPhone application and what role each company played.

Apple and AT&T released the full content of their responses to the FCC. Google asked for portions of its response to be redacted. However, a Freedom of Information Act request prompted Google to divulge the full content of their response.

And yet despite this latest revelation, the he said, she said nature of the follow ups, and word that Google may even have a screenshot proving that Apple is lying, Google Voice is nowhere near the most important App Store rejection.

That distinction belongs to Freedom Time.

Why Freedom Time Matters More than Google Voice

Freedom Application ScreenshotLike many iPhone applications, Freedom Time was a frivolous application. The application displayed a cartoon character of George Bush with arms like a Mickey Mouse watch. But instead of telling time, the application counted down the days until Inauguration Day.

Freedom Time wasn’t one of the more high-profile iPhone App Store rejections. Unlike Google Voice, people barely noticed when the application was rejected.

What is important is the reason why Freedom Time was rejected. Apple’s response to the developer was:

Upon review of your application, Freedom Time cannot be posted to the App Store because it contains content that does not comply with Community Standards. Usage of such materials, as outlined in the iPhone SDK Agreement section 3.3.12, is prohibited:

“Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.”

Defaming, demeaning, or attacking political figures is not considered appropriate content for the App Store.

Can you imagine political discourse of any significance that doesn’t include demeaning or attacking political figures? Like it or not, that’s part of the exchange of ideas that form a democracy.

This policy essentially bans any editorial cartoons—cartoons that have been part of America’s history since its inception.

The idea that political discourse might be rejected from the App Store as a matter of policy surely must be a mistake, right?

Think Different? What’s the Point?

Unfortunately, it isn’t a mistake. The developer of Freedom Time emailed Steve Jobs, and he actually got a reply. Steve wrote:

Even though my personal political leanings are democratic, I think this app will be offensive to roughly half our customers. What’s the point?


I’ve often wondered what the Steve Jobs who attended Reed College during the early days of the Watergate scandal would think of that quote.

Steve Jobs, George Bush, Richard Nixon, and Scott Ritter

These four people—two that I admire and two that broke our trust—have become linked in my mind because of the Freedom Time rejection.

Freedom of speech is easy to defend when the speech is popular, but the real test comes when you have to defend unpopular speech or things that you don’t agree with.

In Fall 2008, George Bush had the worst approval ratings since Nixon. At a time in which we had one of the most unpopular Presidents in American history, Apple didn’t have the courage to approve a simple, stupid application like Freedom Time.

What is the likelihood that Apple would approve a truly controversial and unpopular application during a time when popular opinion makes it difficult to stand up for what’s right?

I find myself wondering what would have happened if former marine and U.N. Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter had tried to release an application in 2002 talking about how there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

When Ritter did speak up in 2002 and told the world that he had been in Iraq and that there were no weapons of mass destruction, popular opinion was so high in favor of Bush policies that despite being known as a patriot, conservative, and a hawk, Ritter was called a traitor by some.

What if the only means Scott Ritter had to share what he knew with the rest of the world had been through an App Store?

Flickr Censorship Pales in Comparison

Censored Obama imageRecently Flickr received a lot of scrutiny and pressure because of perceived censorship of a political image. The image showed a modified version of Obama on the cover of Time Magazine where Obama was made to look like the Joker from the most recent Batman movie.

Yahoo, the parent company for Flickr, later explained that they removed the image from Flickr because they had received a copyright infringement claim.

I don’t care to debate the Flickr censorship case. Instead, I want to ask simply why Flickr got a lot of grief for censoring a single image that they say they removed because of a copyright claim, but Apple has thus far escaped scrutiny for a standing policy that rejects any applications that attack political figures.

The image that Flickr removed would have never made it through the iPhone app review process in the first place.

The Mobile Proposition: Trade Liberty for Security

Apple has good reasons for why it has an App Store review process. It told the FCC that:

We created an approval process that reviews every application submitted to Apple for the App Store in order to protect consumer privacy, safeguard children from inappropriate content, and avoid applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone.

This is a very similar argument that carriers and handset manufacturers have been making for years now. The argument is that mobile phones contain so much personal, sensitive information that applications need to be vetted to ensure that consumers are protected.

This is the same argument that Ben Franklin famously warned us about when he said:

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

And despite the fact that we would not accept similar arguments from our government, we seem willing to give up our freedoms to mobile companies for the sake of our own security.

It’s Not About Apple. It’s About Gatekeepers

While I’ve spent most of my time focusing on Apple, please don’t mistake this as a tirade against Apple. Apple just happens to be leading the way in this area of mobile as well.

The reality is that if mobile is going to live up to its promise, we need a future without gatekeepers.

It isn’t hard to conceive of a future where more people have smartphones than have PCs. In some countries, people get more news from their mobile phones than they do from their desktop computers.

Before we get to the point where mobile phones have become the primary way that people get their news and information, we need to ensure that we have the freedom to publish what we want without restrictions.

For these reasons, I’m encouraged by the work of organizations like the Open Mobile Consortium. They are tackling the difficult work of providing truly open mobile solutions that allow people in repressive regimes to communicate freely.

The Moral Imperative of the Mobile Web

In addition to the Open Mobile Consortium, we need to make sure that there are alternatives to app stores and their gatekeepers. The best alternative is web technology.

This is why I’ve gone from thinking about mobile web technology as a smart business decision for some applications to thinking of it as a moral imperative.

Even if you are an Objective-C programmer who has had a lot of success on the iPhone App Store, it is in your best interest that the mobile web develop into a viable alternative to app stores. It is in society’s best interest.

To get to that point, we need to solve the short-coming of the mobile web. We need the technology to stabilize. We need real browsers on all phones. And we need a reliable and easy way to accept payment for our mobile web applications and services.

I cannot state this strongly enough: we need an open and free mobile web to be a viable alternative to the mobile gatekeepers to ensure that we have the freedom to say what must be said and the ability to have our voices heard by others.

Google Argues for Mobile Web

At the recent MobileBeat Conference, Google VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra told the audience that the Mobile Web will be the larger portion of mobile application development in the long run instead of native applications.

Mr. Gundotra argued the web was the only technology to provide the potential for cross platform development. He said not “that even Google was not rich enough to support all of the different mobile platforms from Apple’s AppStore to those of the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Android and the many variations of the Nokia platform.”

His comments echo those that he made earlier at Google I/O. I recommend reading Tim O’Reilly’s summary of his presentation.

This is very similar to what I’ve been saying in my presentations at Web 2.0 Expo and Web Visions.

I’m not arguing that native applications will not continue to be important. I’m simply arguing that there will be far more mobile web sites and mobile web applications than native applications over the long term.