Tuesday, April 29, 2008

SofCon 2008 - The Mobile Future

Being the predictable Mobile Addict that I am, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to attend the SofCon 2008 convention in Santa Clara, California.

The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the future of Mobile Technology, and the panels of speakers were chosen for their relative expertise in this field.

Many of the panelists were celebrities in the Communication world, such as former Chief Technologist for the FCC Dave Farber, and Senior VP of Nokia Bob Iannucci.

The topics were interesting, the speakers often colorful, however the real fun began when the floor was opened up for questions and the panelists got to talk to each other.

I have to admit, there was a LOT I wanted to say at this event. Sometimes I felt that the information being discussed was flawed, sometimes the panelist didn't understand the question, and sometimes I feel that the panelist was just plain not up to date. However, while the floor was open to questions, it was NOT open to comments. One person tried to make a comment during one of the Q&A sessions, but was met with an almost rude "Do you actually have a question?" before he could finish his statement.
I found myself whispering comments to the person next to me, but was often shushed by others sitting around us. There were so many things I would have liked to have added, but had to keep it inside.

Well, that is at least until now. Isn't that the beauty of blogging? I get to decide what is allowed to say here. So, I'd like to share with you some of the highlights of this event, and perhaps some of my own opinions on it as well.

Apple Fanboys/Girls

At first I found myself presented with an abundance of iPhone fans. Most of the talking seemed to be about how Apple revolutionized the industry with its technical prowess and industry changing innovation.
I'll admit, the iPhone did break all kinds of new ground, but I wouldn't say because of technical prowess. Rather, the iPhone is as news-worthy as it is because of the way Apple has become such an aggressive marketing machine. They continue to convince people that nothing like this has been done before, and that everything to come out after this point is just a carbon copy of their concepts.
As someone who follows the industry, it bothers me immensely when people actually buy into that hype.

Madeline Duva, who is the president of 3rd Eye Consulting and a panelist at this event, mentioned that the iPhone caused more people to use the mobile internet today then ever before, and also caused the carriers to introduce flat-rate data plans, which apparently barely existed before its introduction according to her.

During the following Q&A session, someone asked why the iPhone isn't as popular in Europe as it is here in the states.
She answered "because of the lack of 3G networks here". Overseas, she says, 3G is almost everywhere, whereas here in the US we're just starting to see 3G data populate. So, if you've been using 3G data in Europe, a 2G iPhone isn't as attractive as it is here.

At this point I found myself digging my fingernails into the tabletop. Sitting in the front row, at least I was able to make eye contact and cast her an glaring look. I think she may have noticed.
But a glare alone could not possibly convey what I wished to share.

Mrs. Duva, I don't even know where to begin. I'll start with this, though:
1) Apple did not cause more flat rate data plans to emerge. Flat rate data plans have been around in the US for nearly as long as the mobile web has been. I know because I've had data from almost every carrier, and always had an affordable flat rate option. Almost a decade ago, even AT&T, who carries the iPhone, gave me a flat rate data plan for my Ericsson TDMA phone. In fact, I've NEVER had a metered data plan for as long as I've been using data in the United States.
Europe, on the other hand, seems to be too squeamish to allow many unlimited data plans. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that people will actually use them more there. Most Americans are pretty clueless when it comes to mobile phone tech, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that THAT's why the iPhone is popular here.
Apple targetted people who didn't know how to use Symbian, or found Palm and Windows Mobile OS to be too complicated. I feel like in Europe and the rest of the world, people aren't afraid to use a "real" smartphone, and thus there is very little appeal for the iPhone since it is severely limited in comparison.

2) 3G is alive and well in the US. In fact, the 2nd generation of 3G is already being rolled out, and 4G (WiMax?) is already in the works.
I left T-mobile this past year because they seemed to be the last on the bandwagon for 3G data. With Sprint (who isn't even considered a leader in wireless technology), I have a reliable EVDO signal almost everywhere I go, and often getting the even faster recently updated RevA when travelling to major cities, and only switch to the older 1x data when roaming on Verizon or someone who doesn't have an EVDO roaming contract.
Last I checked, AT&T was rolling out a solid 3G coverage map as well. I travel a lot from coast and coast, and I have yet to find any major area that lacks 3G coverage. Sure, there are places less densely populated that still lack 3G, but they also lack cell phone towers at all!

Many of the other panelists, including Stuart Card expressed agreement with Madeline's view on the subject, and the iPhone continued to come up in general conversation.

The Apple Critics
That's not to say that everyone was an iPhone nut. A few people there did seem to see past all the hype, and were actually some of the more entertaining speakers at the event.

MIT's Ted Selker (who is credited with inventing the Thinkpad's pointing device among other things) brought some interesting inventions to show off to the crowd as examples of using sensors in unconventional ways.
In fact, instead of using the regular microphones for the Q&A sessions afterwards, Ted threw me a beach ball (another perk of sitting in the front row) with a wireless mic embedded inside to talk into. Very entertaining to listen to, and very creative. I'll share more about my conversation with him in a future post if I have time.
My personal favorite line, however, was when he picked up his Nokia N95 and exclaimed "and by the way, this beats the pants off of any iPhone!". There was a small applause at that point, which I think I may have started.

Another entertaining speaker was Funambol creator Fabrizio Capobianco who actually bought one of the first iPhones when they came out (I may have seen him in that line in front of AT&T in Palo Alto that friday evening actually). Fabrizio was refreshingly down-to-earth, very funny, and well, I've used Funambol myself so I must admit I'm a fan even before I met him.
Funambol is multi-platform, and is actually credited as being one of the first solutions for iPhone users who wish to sync their PIM with other services, such as Outlook, Exchange Servers or the standard Linux SyncML system.
Fabrizio, however, opened one of his statements with "the iPhone browsing experience sucks", which was met with some murmuring since the moderator of his panel mentioned being an ipod-touch fan.
When discussing the current state of the art, he mentioned that people like Funambol because it brings blackberry-style features to other devices, including standard phones. "People used to come to me with their Razr and Blackberry and say, can you converge this so I only need to carry one device?".
He then continued to say that nowadays, people come instead with an iPhone and a Blackberry and ask the same question, except now its worse because there is no keyboard on the iPhone. "They want an iphone with a keyboard, which just doesn't make any sense at all".

In case you're wondering, I found out later Capobianco is currently using a Windows Mobile device.

As always, Apple fanboys, this is nothing personal. I just think that people give the iphone too much credit and its nice when people who know what they're talking about seem to see through it.

Well, there's much more to say, but I'm going to have to continue this in another post. Until next time...