Will the Software Stack Make the Market for Mobile Internet Devices?

By Jason Whitmire

I love the mobile industry because everyone, even my cat, has somehow turned into an industry sage, predicting that just about anything can and will happen in mobile as the dark clouds collect on the economic horizon.  Are there any bright spots (to use an overused analogy this week) left in mobile after we hear of precipitous drops in chipset sales and phone volumes, slackening subscriber demand, and workforce "adjustments?" Well, while talking to a group of executives from a large global operator recently about "killer" things (the talk was about signature applications) I had an epiphany: isn't the recent creation of an entirely new device category that every single ISV, consortia, chipset vendor, consumer electronics company, OEM or ODM, and service provider are starting to coalesce around something to take note of? Clearly making a market and getting an entire technology industry to move on a dime is no easy trick, not even for companies like Google and Intel.  Yet over the past two years, these companies have started to change the face of the mobile industry (I am not a sycophant in either camp so please reader, take heart).  Indeed, Intel's creation of the MID category has turned on a perpetual motion machine that especially mobile network operators can no longer ignore given the enormous role that new devices play in adding new subscribers. Given that the MID software coming out is truly next generation (I have seen it), my view (pundits aside) is that MIDs will be the bright spot of 2010, as terminals with 4" screen diagonals fully cannibalize the ancient meaning of high-end smartphones and cause everyone from Apple to Orange to Nokia create slots for this device type. 

The MID take-up issue is complex as no one (not even the 3G device fortune tellers in 1999) can predict anything these days with a high degree of accuracy.  Nevertheless, as desktop sales rates slow we see categories of mobile devices below 7" screen diagonals gaining slots at major operators that are not so much about a new play to open new markets, but rather a new way to focus on consumers that are increasingly acting like investors – i.e., after emerging from the dark age we now have heightened expectations for mobile devices and expect these to continuously improve and evolve.  Until now however most of us using a mobile device have been sorely disappointed.  Let's face it:  we are not talking about the iPhone with a brilliant industrial design (even if the business model did not disenfranchise the operator), nor the Blackberry (disregarding the alarming recent statements out of Waterloo that buggy software is a fact consumers will have to live with), nor Symbian phones (after 10 years still known among developers as the buggiest software on Earth).  Thus it is no surprise that the quest to find the best next-generation software stack has centered on Linux (for reasons that will not be addressed here).  If we dive down a few hundred meters its does not take a rocket scientist to see why a market around MIDs is being created with Linux at its heart – to take just one example, I stood in front of a terminal EVP recently who explained to me how Microsoft refused for nine months to allow a splash screen to be modified for that operator's regional variant.

As a result of years of thought into how to improve the user experience, I believe that the software stack will make the market for MIDs. The brilliant part about being able to architect a new software stack from scratch is that lessons learned from previous endeavors can be avoided.  This is exactly what Google did with Android, what Intel is doing with Moblin 2.0, and what LiMo Foundation members did when creating their platform technology strategy in 2007. In all of these stacks, a specific focus on performance, capability and user friendliness (i.e., the reduction of the buggy experience) have been high on the list of prerequisites for the world-class concept engineering teams.  While raised to some level of context these next generation stacks are all extremely advanced, each has a specialized focus depending on the target form factor device.  If we take Moblin 2.0 as an example, a team of illustrious concept engineers managed to avoid the software limitations of previous smartphone generations by enabling a "smart experience system" engineered to display high-end graphics and video for a media and 3D visual experience that users from the tethered Internet age can actually understand and no doubt benefit from (this software can be seen for the first time at the Intel booth at the Mobile World Congress this week in Barcelona).

Yet even without the hand of companies like Intel and Google guiding next-generation software stack projects that will be consumed by a broad base of manufacturers, application developers can take heart in the fact that these solutions already stand a chance of mass market acceptance because of the sheer inertia for change at the mobile network operator. Operators know that the industry can do better than devices currently available and, as they seek to reduce churn by offering more reliable handsets that attract "device investors,” they are willing to take advantage of the MID future at their fingertips by offering slots that paint a MID century ahead. Thus, as the software stack takes center stage in consumer expectations for a better device, it will be the hidden force making the market for MIDs. 

Jason Whitmire has more than 15 years of executive marketing and management experience in semiconductor and system software. He currently serves as General Manager of Wind River’s Mobile Solutions business. Previously he was a managing director of FSMLabs, where he headed the worldwide wireless and EMEA businesses, and he was head of business development for wireless software at Infineon Technologies for four years. Additionally, Jason has held senior product management, marketing and business development positions at two European mobile network operators. Jason got his start in the wireless arena in 1993 while representing the US government in international spectrum and privatization negotiations.

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