Hearts and Mobiles

Are Microsoft and Apple using the mobile web to dictate how we use technology? And, if so, what does that mean for us?

Last week, John Herlihy, Google's Chief of Sales, made a bold prediction:

“In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant."

Herlihy's argument was based on research indicating that, in Japan, more people now use smartphones for internet entertainment and research than desktops. It's hard to dispute that the long predicted "year of the smartphone" has arrived in the U.S., with iPhones, Blackberries and Android devices hitting record sales figures, and Apple's "magical" iPad leading a slue of mini-computing devices out of the gate.

We've noted Apple's belligerence in allowing applications on their mobile platform that don't pass a fairly restrictive and controversial screening process. It's disturbing that big corporations like Playboy get a pass from a broad "no nudity" policy on iPhone apps that a swimwear store doesn't. But it's more disturbing that competing technology providers, like Google and Opera, can't get their call routing and web browsing applications approved either. It's Apple's world, and iPhone owners have to live in it (or play dodgeball with each upgrade on their jailbroken devices). And now Microsoft has announced their intention to play the same game. Windows Mobile 7, their "from the ground up" rewrite of their mobile OS, will have an app store, and you will not be able to install applications from anywhere else.

iPhone adherents tell me that the consistency and stability of Apple's tightly-controlled platform is better than the potentially messy open platforms. You might get a virus. Or you might see nudity. And your experience will vary dramatically from phone to phone, as the telcos modify the user interface and sub in their own applications for the standard ones. There are plenty of industry experts defending Apple's policies.

What they don't crow about is the fact that, using the Apple and Microsoft devices, you are largely locked into DRM-only options for multimedia at their stores for buying digital content. They will make most of their smartphone profits on the media that they sell you (music, movies, ebooks), and they tightly control the the information and data flow, as well as the devices you play their content on. How comfortable are you with letting the major software manufacturers control not only what software you can install on your systems, but what kind of media is available to them, as well?

The latest reports on the iPad are that, in addition to not supporting Adobe's popular Flash format, Google's Picasa image management software won't work as well. If you keep your photos with Google, you'd better quickly get them to an Apple-friendly storage service like Apple's MobileMe or Flickr, and get ready to use iPhoto to manage them.

If your organization, has invested heavily in a vendor or product that Apple and/or Microsoft are crossing off their list, you face a dilemma. Can you just ignore the people using their popular products? Should you immediately redesign your Flash-heavy website with something that you hope Apple will continue to support? If your cause is controversial, are you going to be locked out of a strategic mobile market for advocacy and development because the nature of your work can't get past the company censors?

I'm nervous to see a major computing trend like mobile computing arise with such disregard for the open nature of the internet that the companies releasing these devices pioneered and grew up in. And I'm concerned that there will be repercussions to moving to a model where single vendors are competing to be one stop hardware, software and content providers. It's not likely that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google or anyone else is really qualified to determine what each of us want and don't want to read, watch and listen to. And it's frightening to think that the future of our media consumption might be tied to their idiosyncratic and/or profit-driven choices.