Uncommon Wisdom

May 17 2010   4:27PM GMT

Grand unified market theory: How ubiquitous broadband affects everything

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

We’re confronting several classic “forest and trees” problems in the marketplace today. We have sweeping changes in handsets, apparent power shifts in the software that will be used on tablets, revolutions in wireless broadband and a seismic change in the service provider business model. Because these issues impact different spaces in different ways, we tend to think of them as being separate things.

They’re not.

Ubiquitous broadband wireless service means that you can carry devices with you and get more from them than the mere ability to make and receive phone calls. But just the fact that you can get, say, 4G service at 10 Mbps doesn’t mean you’d lug a 30-inch monitor around or watch HDTV movies while driving. We live our lives accommodating constraints on our behavior, and making broadband ubiquitous doesn’t remove all the other constraints that operate on our mobile or “migratory” (moving between a series of semi-fixed locations where you expect to exercise broadband services) behavior. Broadband ubiquity empowers us non-traditionally; that empowerment then impacts some of the other things that constrain us.

You can’t do meaningful rich media on a smartphone, and most who try it understand that. You can’t do much, in fact, which is why labor-saving applications are so valuable. You could look up restaurants online with a smartphone and browser and no applications at all, so why do so many buy restaurant apps? Because it’s easier.

So one impact of broadband ubiquity is to enhance our ability to do complicated things from simplistic devices. Another impact is to encourage devices that are less simplistic, which is how tablets like the iPad came about. A tablet (as opposed to a tablet PC) is a gadget that is easy to migrate with, and that supports the kind of lighthearted social stuff we’re likely to do while sitting in a café. It’s not intended to be a computer; it’s a social appliance.

If you want a social appliance rather than a computer, you probably don’t want a computer operating system. Microsoft didn’t kill off Courier because they were afraid to compete with Apple (ditto for HP’s Slate). Both, in fact, are working on successor concepts. They killed off tablet PCs based on Windows 7 because that’s not what users expected. A social appliance is a window on the web, where social behavior is focusing. You need a very web-oriented OS for optimum capabilities, and that would be something more like a smartphone OS than a PC OS.

But not exactly a smartphone OS, perhaps because a tablet has to be better at media and social computing, because it has a bigger display and because it will be used by people who are at rest and focusing on their online social interactions — whether content or Facebook. Android from Google was always more than a phone OS — it’s essentially a lightweight Linux. Intel has a similar plan for a Linux appliance OS. Apple’s later versions of the iPhone OS will add multitasking and elements that make it better as a broad appliance OS.

Which brings us to HP and Palm. HP knew Windows 7 was the wrong tablet OS, and it also knew that you couldn’t expect a single device, whether smartphone or tablet, to support all of the behavioral models that ubiquitous broadband would create. So HP has this concept of the “HP experience” — a branded social framework to be used on any gadget that’s intended to be carried around and used when convenient. Palm’s WebOS is HP’s approach to the solution.

An “HP experience” that crosses multiple platforms starts to look like Rich Internet Applications and maybe Adobe Flash and Adobe AIR. Could it be that the Apple/Adobe flap over Flash is being created because a platform-independent approach like Flash could compromise how appliance vendors like Apple can exploit their markets? Wheels within wheels.

We’re already seeing other reactions to this from even further afield. Norton is preparing for a move into the appliance space. SAP wants Sybase in part for its mobile capabilities. These developments are going to involve different companies and technologies, but they all stem from one central source — ubiquitous broadband.

There’s only one market, in the end.

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