A Tech Ecosystem for the Rest of Us

The choice buzzword since the February 11 Nokia-Microsoft deal (satirically tagged on twitter as #NoWin) is ecosystem.  Stephen Elop’s vision apparently stops short of a Linux-powered mobile solution.  Either the newly-minted Nokia CEO can’t see how to monetize it or thinks it hasn’t happened fast enough for him– pick your choice of pundit assessments here.

The strategy that Nokia had originally described when migrating their Maemo efforts to the joint MeeGo venture with Intel was that the added value for their corporate bottom line would come from a combination of lower internal OS development costs along with a customized user experience on top of the MeeGo core… one that was promised at one point to “knock our socks off”.  Who could reasonably argue with such a concept?

Obviously, Nokia’s board of directors and their recent replacement for Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo.

Which begs the question: did Nokia actually mean any of the prior positive statements on MeeGo’s prospects?  And by extension, Qt?  There were some pretty strong words supporting the latter.  Was it a lie?  Misdirection?  Or speaking to a very limited timeframe? I don’t want to put the main focus on the past  So let’s look at one possible future… after addressing the present.

Status Quo

Tech consumers have made it clear they either prefer or are willing to live in (often captive) ecosystems catering to their lifestyles (see Michael Mace’s excellent “It’s the Ecosystem, Stupid”).  Apple is cited as the best practice in this regard, with their mobile and desktop experience revolving around iTunes as their content management system.  RIM has enjoyed the same sort of loyalty in the business world with its Blackberry line.  Microsoft has its Store and Xbox Live, the latter enjoying steady improvements and high promotion.

Nokia’s product fragmentation, on the other hand, has gotten in the way of building a compelling ecosystem.  Their Ovi brand has languished, despite being launched with much fanfare and invoked with random, sincere-sounding corporate statements of support.  Now it looks to be carved into some shape that can plug into Microsoft’s solutions.

What Users Want

As much as many may deride Apple’s closed iTunes-centric customer environ, it works.  iTunes is the hub of a popular wheel.  Those enjoying the service don’t care what detractors say about it.  But what about those detractors?  What are they asking for?

Last year at Akademy 2010 I presented a talk that was admittedly heavy on marketing, something a bit at odds with my KDE-oriented audience.  But the main point I pushed, and still believe in, was the concept of an open ecosystem, one with MeeGo (or something very like it) at the core.  One that supported a seamless entertainment and information discovery experience.

Quoting from my own presentation:

So, why do we need an open, mobilized feedback ecosystem?

  • we want to be fully engaged in internet activities
  • we need to cut through search engine noise to get to what interests us
  • a mobile internet is the future
  • we are more interested in the opinions of friends than strangers
  • information wants to be free

Of course an ecosystem is about more than just feedback, but it is certainly about connecting a participant’s experiences in ways we’ve just begun to make real.  And the last bullet is key: information does “want” to be free… and walled garden ecosystems limit the experience to only those willing to lock themselves in.

Conversely, an open ecosystem would take a less intrusive approach to membership (while at the same time ensuring privacy where desired) and be built with a fully transparent framework.  There would be no restrictions, other than legal ones, on how a participant could discover, consume and share services and media.  The user experience would span any domain willing to participate.

What I Envision

A while back I spoke about my desire to have devices and services that were highly aware of my immediate and projected needs.  This would go beyond foursquare checkins and cloud calendars– in fact, the scenario I’m dreaming about would connect the two, and go even further.  I envision wireless connectivity between every piece of computerized hardware I own, so that each is informed when I begin using another and that particular device becomes the sole focus of my activity… until I switch to something else in my personal ecosystem.

I want a settop box that acts as my home server and much more.  It should even manage roaming profiles so that family members can sign onto any local device and be rewarded with their content and context of choice.  I want it to be aware of every aspect of my home environment, from weather to emergencies (imagine dialing 911 and directions to the nearest emergency center automatically appear on your phone and car’s GPS, and paramedics are given your phone’s GPS coordinates if you’ve allowed) to things I have not even conceived.  I would have a home cloud that could join bigger formations on the internet at large… without proprietary impediments.

An open ecosystem would support this.  Linux and services like diaspora would enable this.  I don’t imagine any of the current competive solutions would… or even could.

The Fourth Horse of the Elopocalypse

The conventional wisdom since Stephen Elop stunned us with the Microsoft partnership is that the world only has only room for “three horses” in the mobile solutions race.  The two with a seemingly secure spot at the starting gate are Android and iOS.  Under this scenario, WebOS, Blackberry or Windows Phone 7 are expected to fight to the death for that theoretical third track.

But one would have to be asleep at the switch to not realize Linux has the momentum these days.  Its status as an OS relegated to running the Internet is growing to include a big place in a mobile future.  Even though Android has wrapped it in a formidable Java cloak, the importance of that Linux core cannot be denied.  And WebOS also has Linux under the hood.

Intel is still betting on MeeGo, but maybe it’s time to broaden the scope.  Perhaps it is time to look at parallel mobile Linux activity, identify synergies and possible partnerships.  Make a bold move to ensure we can at least talk about open ecosystems without eliciting cynical retorts.

I don’t think we need to settle for just three options.  I believe there’s room for whatever the market will bear.

Your thoughts?

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26 responses to “A Tech Ecosystem for the Rest of Us

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Tech Ecosystem for the Rest of Us « Tabula Crypticum -- Topsy.com

  2. Steve Barker / @NokTokDaddy

    Communities may Dominate Brands, but ultimately we allow brands to dominate us all individually through our short-term avarice.

    How many times do we make purchases at all levels of our consumerist existence that are more focussed on our short-term needs than the long-term good of our community? This is Human nature – we should not be suprised to see the same pattern with the heavily OS-ecosystem driven market.

    Everybody wants open-ness, but until someone big and influential enough comes along and puts it the right wrapper and sells it to us, we’ll keep on buying what suits us NOW because, as a species, we are too lazy to be concerned with driving the market as an individual.

    It is easier to buy into a certain brand and allow it to dominate us; as a recent convert to linux and Maemo5 I am aware of the hard work require to immerse one’s life in open-ness. I love it, but I am in a minority of massochists, it seems.

    Nokia are certainly not the manufacturer to sell an open ecosystem, easily accessible to all – they can hardly blow their own well-built, hard to play trumpet as it is.

    Ironically, I think the only force big enough to sell a truly open mobile ecosystem is someone like MicroSoftor even Apple – now is that an oxymoron or an iDeal?

    • I’m certainly not surprised by the dominance of restricted ecosystems, but I do think open ones are still possible.

      You’re right: Nokia didn’t have the fortitude to champion such a thing after all. But maybe hardware vendors further up the chain do. Intel insists it benefits from openness (at least, where customers are concerned)– maybe they or some company like them will be the one to make this sort of scenario manifest…

      • Steve Barker / @NokTokDaddy

        I don’t think the doominant OS’s have become so for anything other than the strenth of their marketing and their ease of use.

        The irony of an ‘open’ ecosystem and OS is that to date they are all more restrictive than the ‘closed’ systems. Even in the more established world of desktop, laptop and now tablet computers the closed OS’s offer more tools that can be used more easily to be more productive so the user can have more control over their life.

        This is magnified in th e world of mobile ecosystems where iOS offers more useable apps to integrate with more alien devices and non-Apple services than anything other than Android (to the average user, that is – hackers and geeks are anomalous)

        I too believe in the potential of a truly open OS and ecosystem, but I am concerned that those workng hard to achieve this are not understanding the needs and wants of the average Jo or Joanne.

        I believe that in order to be successful an open OS will not only have to be more compelling and enjoyable to use, but will also have to be simple to personalise and maintain. Currently, a noob to Ubuntu (and Maemo) will have to be prepared to get their hands dirty, read up and discover much for themselves. Whilst I embrace this personally, I am in a minority. Most users will not be prepared to commit to this degree of technical engagement and will gravitate to something that empowers them rather than intimidates them.

        I am increasingly coming to the view that unless an open OS can be made useable and accessible from the get-go it will not gain sufficient traction in the market. Inmturn this will discourage developer engagement whih in turn will fail to attract the masses necessary to ensure its success.

        And I am increasing reaching the conclusion that only a large player could develop and market such a system on the scale required.

        No, Nokia were not up to the job. But who is?

  3. Absolutley. If we believe the ‘there is only room for three’ argument that means we accept the lack of progress we have seen elsewhere with the same ‘this is all your choice’ areas such as on the desktop.

    Would you out there be really happy if we had fallen for the argument that we can only choose between Windows XP or Apple? Of course not!

    Would we in Europe have been happy with the argument that we can only have Ericsson or Nokia phones? Nope!

    Choice has pushed development as new brands often have to push the development slightly further to ensure they have a different offer and that is good news.

    Ask this another way. Would Microsoft ever have developed a fancy as phone as they have done (and it aint that good!) without lots of competition…no way! they know they have been playing catch up all the way.

    The decision makers at Nokia used to have a reputation for innovation. Elop has in one statement ended that reputation for me.

    • The really interesting part about “there can only be three” is something I didn’t even touch on: the view is very US-centric. If I was anyone mentioned in this article, I’d be worrying about what’s brewing in Asia… ;)

  4. Thanks for this thought-provoking comment, as usual. I think there is an underlying contradiction between the way Linux/Open source works and a ecosystem. As the excellent article in the link you posted states quite clearly: an ecosystem exists to make money. Developers are attracted in the hope that millions will download their software for the app store, with a company taking its dime in the middle. I do not see how you can translate that in open source. It is possible for a company to base its business profitably on an open source model, there are enough examples. But I fail to see how this could translate to such “ecosystems”. N900 users did not visit the Ovi store. True there was nothing worth downloading, but the main reason is that everything you need and much more is available in the maemo.org repository. In an open source model the ecosystem is the community.

    • I think the hangup here is we tend to think in very limited, traditional terms. Monetization simply comes from adding value for customers, and given that upfront costs are reduced dramatically when adopting an open source solution, that frees a provider up to be more creative and explore alternatives. Here’s where I challenge everyone to shrug off typical thinking and explore the possibilities. The ecosystem isn’t just the community; it’s what they want.

      And consider: Android is Linux-based, and fairly open. Google will no doubt profit… just not the way Apple, Nokia and Microsoft currently expect to.

      • Perhaps it’s worth looking at the Ubuntu Software Center, which aims at adding features beyond simple package management to enhance the user’s experience.

        OTOH, I beg to differ about Android’s openness. Getting access to a command line, installing anything outside Google’s Market, are way too difficult tasks. Not to mention the ads everywhere. It is very far from what I expect of a Linux-based system.

  5. I do a agree that we need such an »ecosystem«, but first and formost in a much more limited sense of the term: http://www.micuintus.de/2011/02/12/the-death-of-the/

    Notice: I believe that one main reason for Apple’s sucess is its code ecosystem / it’s code sharing: One common code base for the iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and Mac OSX! Windows Phone, Mobile, 7 or whatever — these are all based on more or less distinct code bases and that sucks.

  6. Mozilla’s Add-ons system works quite well as an open ecosystem, perhaps it’s a good idea to take a look at it when working on a “Linux” solution like you describe it?

  7. I love the idea of an open eco system because it allows me to have a say in the end result and participate on my own terms. On the other hand, I don’t know if I want to own a product supported by an open eco system if it is going to be painful to use.

    I love linux, but let me be frank. There is a difference between open eco system and technology religion. Say anything critical of an open system, for instance Ubuntu, and you get a slew of hate mail. At the same time, if my only choice was ubuntu, then I would be running Windows exclusively. It is not friendly in the way of Windows or a Mac. I want the iPhone experience and I am not the only one. I work for a linux centric company, and lately the hard core developers have been requesting Macs as their next computer to replace their ubuntu Dells. When they need linux, they have VMWare or virtualbox. if you wonder why, just try to develop a document or presentation in OpenOffice.

    From what I can see, Nokia would embrace an open eco sytem if it could sell them phones in any volume. I am guessing that the trials and tribulations of getting a MeeGo based product out the door has been difficult. But I see no signs of Nokia abandoning Qt and one can image that they will have some card up their sleeve to either extend Symbian or supplement it. Maybe MeeGo will live on.

    • Great points, Gregg, and thanks for contributing.

      As one who straddles the open and closed source worlds, I find the zealotry of either to be counterproductive to their own goals. Ironically, open source advocates can often be the most protectionist!

      I think that as current revenue drivers like apps continue to drive toward free, sooner or later monetization will come largely if not completely down to service. The only thing keeping that from being the status quo now is the collective fear of too many middlemen who resist change. Sooner or later though they will adapt or die.

  8. I had hoped that on the 11th Elop would announce partnerships with RIM and/or HP to use Qt as their SDKs.

    Both WebOS and QNX (used on the playbook) have Qt available. I still think that Qt would offer the best way to build an ecosystem that could rival if not exceed iOS and Android what is missing is the leadership to follow this path.

    What would it take to build a site/store that built on QT and offered versions for any and all QT compatible devices?

  9. No arguments needed; in a few upcoming posts, I banter a bit more about ecosystems that should add to the discussion.

    I will say this:
    MeeGo doesn’t equal Apple. When its (MeeGo’s) evangelists can speak towards the experience of living in that ecosystem in a way that compares to the perception of living in Apple’s, then there’s clear choice. Until then, experience in MeeGo comes off as a by-product of using it, not as its selling point.

    • MeeGo will certainly have to gain significant functionality, and then traction, to even be comparable to what Apple can offer. So far the tech landscape is littered with the bones of failed open solutions, especially in media. I’m afraid that monstrosities like DRM are going to keep that persisting…

  10. Pingback: Experience Shouldn’t Be A Surprise Benefit « Blog.AntoineRJWright

  11. Pingback: Intel and the Open Ecosystem « Tabula Crypticum

  12. “Stephen Elop’s vision apparently stops short of a Linux-powered mobile solution. Either the newly-minted Nokia CEO can’t see how to monetize it or thinks it hasn’t happened fast enough for him”

    I think both of these are fundamentally part of the reason not to go with Linux. Linux has promised to become the open/free alternative since its birth but these promises have really never materialized – at least not among normal consumers. Encouraging examples of utilizing open solutions just do not exist. But there are a lot of examples of pure failures. The possibility of success is there but the risks just seem too high. And we have to remember that for Nokia speed is of the essence. Betting on an open Linux based solution would be a noble thing to do, but when what you’re really after is speed, execution, determination and a tried and tested way to monetize – well – you go with Microsoft.

    Good article!

    • Thanks Ville.

      A large part of why that Linux consumer acceptance hasn’t happened yet (at least overtly) is successful FUD by competitors like Microsoft (Ballmer is notorious for it). Another contributor is, admittedly, zealotry on the part of hardcore Linux proponents. But on the other hand, there’s Android– java wrapped around Linux as a closed/open hybrid. At least a step in the right direction.

      I wrote after this that open makes more sense for Intel than it does Nokia, given their different business goals (http://tabulacrypticum.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/intel-and-the-open-ecosystem/). But that could yet change.

      I still think an open ecosystem particularly built around Linux is possible, and even inevitable. There are disparate pieces out there supporting the idea that are heading for convergence. I’ll be writing on that soon!

    • having just watched the mossberg interview with elop (july 3rd, http://allthingsd.com/20110703/nokias-stephen-elop-jumps-off-burning-platform-onto-d9-hot-seat-the-full-interview-video/), here are two things i noticed:

      1. neither one talked much about linux or meego and why meego supposedly couldn’t be the third ecosystem (if buying elops assumption there can only be three). sure, they mentioned symbian and its legacy and how symbian couldn’t change to become competitive. but that was, afaik, never the intention – the opportunity was to make a linux-based OS with nokia proprietary layer on top, but way more open than android and java. now why was that worse than partnering with microsoft?

      2. partly may explain above: the software makers (apple, google, microsoft/nokia) relationship with carriers. elop said about apple: they’ve got a certain attitude. about google: they take most of the revenue. about nokia & microsoft: we will make a better deal with the carriers. and that may very well be easier than with meego. without knowing comprehensively all the details, the perception at least may well be that with linux/meego, user circumvention is much more likely than with microsoft – carriers want control over what users can do on their network, thus being able to charge them more. carriers do not want to be “dumb pipes” for network traffic. with android they probably are to a larger extent than they would desire, and with meego, well, what’s in it for the carriers?

  13. Pingback: Could/Should Nokia abandon Windows Phone and get back to MeeGo? : My Nokia Blog

  14. Good post, and I agree: the “market” (i.e. us consumers) really have not so far been given the option/possibility to go with a truly open platform, thus making any claims that “open won’t work” just speculation.

    http://www.mobileinfoplanet.com/2011/06/17/what-nokia-should-learn-from-the-n900/
    http://www.mobileinfoplanet.com/2011/06/27/what-the-rest-should-learn-from-the-nokia-n9/

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