Mar 26

Snatch and grab smartphone theft in Tel Aviv provokes re-think on smart device eco-system lock-in

On a pleasant spring day in Tel Aviv I was indeed surprised to have a moto with 2 young men aboard drive up behind me, grab my earphone/mic cable (attached to an iPhone 4) and disappear down the street at speed with their snatched treasures.  This iPhone’s theft, however, has started a process of reflection about the new lock-ins that come from eco-systems like iTunes, the Android Market (now Google Play), etc.  Initial conclusions are uncomfortable for those who lose, have stolen or merely wish to change smart device OS, a factor that may yet dent Microsoft’s aspirations for Windows on smart devices.

Despite the iPhone/iCloud’s self-locating capabilities, my iPhone 4 is not likely to reappear (if it does that will be entirely to the credit of the Tel Aviv Police, who were courteous and helpful).  After the usual processes of checking backups, changing passwords, etc. an uncomfortable awareness dawned — the simplest  replacement solution would be another iPhone (albeit expensive).  Why?  With a new iPhone one should be able easily to replicate the old iPhone environment via iTunes onto a new iPhone – apps, data, everything (assuming that iTunes works as Apple promises, though you only discover whether this is true the hard way).

But is a new iPhone still appropriate?  The iPhone 4S does not really add anything special in capabilities (sorry, Siri) over the iPhone 4.  Whereas the previous iPhone 3G had been an eye opener for its time (4 years ago) and swiftly became indispensable as a tool, the arrival of tablets changed the device of choice. Tablets are so much more usable that they have reduced the need for a super-smart phone (which is a profound justification why the combination ASUS Padfone — including smartphone, tablet and keyboard — may yet become a big hit when it eventually arrives).

Yet switching to another smart device OS has a cost — the app and content foregone cost.

This is where mobile device eco-systems are delivering the new lock-in (in much the same away that IBM, HP, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and others have ensured so well over the past 50 years for enterprise software).  Apps and content, whether for Android, iOS or Windows Phone, may cost a fraction of enterprise software but their investment adds up.  I was genuinely surprised to find that my purchased iOS apps and content for the iPhone over 4+ years, when totaled, was roughly as much the device itself.  The new eco-systems introduce a powerful financial incentive to remain with the OS you have.

The difficulty is that, although many apps have equivalents on iOS and Android (and this will probably happen for Windows), you need to purchase them again if you change OS.  This is the lock-in and contrasts with, say, Amazon — where its Kindle Reader is available on multiple platforms (Android, iOS, OS X, Windows, Linux, etc) and your content (though not apps) can then move around irrespective of platform.  Such flexibility has real benefits, and even more so in an enterprise environment.

Early 2012 was probably not the time to ‘lose’ a smart phone.  The mobile device world is in a state of flux:

– Android and iOS, unless you root or jailbreak, bind you to Google and Apple

– the Windows Phone/Windows 8 (for all of smartphones, tablets and PCs) is imminent ; already Windows 8 on a Fujitsu Q550 looks great

– there are signs of Linux coming to smart devices (tablets and phones)

– other ecosystem players are around (of which Amazon is only the biggest one so far).

Changes are going to be significant.    If 1Q 2012 was not the time to ‘lose’ the iPhone, mid-2012 may be the time to replace it.  Early candidates are for either for a Padfone (because of the combination of capabilities) or a Windows Phone device or just a simple mobile phone that does little more than be a phone.  A new iPhone is the least likely — because of that lock-in.  Better to bite that bullet sooner than later (and not allow it to happen on Android or Windows Phone in the future).   That said, Microsoft has an additional hill to climb with its next generation of software — the more that people have invested though iTunes or the Android Market (Google Play), the less likely it is that they will consider another option — irrespective of how attractive or good any alternative might be.

Watch this space.

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