The Software Era of Mobile

Mobile phones are no longer just about the hardware. Now, it’s the Software.

Earlier this month Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 Series, an new version of their Mobile OS along with new handsets. These new handsets look nice and well designed. The feature list is impressive, enough to generate high interest with the enthusiastic gadget freaks. While all these slick shiny handsets are really cool, phones are not about hardware anymore. The real news in this Microsoft launch is the software – the Operating System.

The hardware has to be good. The hardware is what defines the capabilities and the coolness of phones. The way it is designed and how it feels holding it. The design is also important in impression and image of the owners. But adding to a cool phone, inferior and poor software seems to defeat the purpose. If there are any lessons from the iPhone effect, it is that the defining factor today is the software in the phone.

Hardware improvements are mostly incremental as the product performance increase is steady. Capabilities such as microchip clock-speed, memory and data bandwidth capabilities follow a reasonably predictable curve. This is a good example of sustainable innovation. Even the iPhone was not the first full-screen phone to the market and it was not the first touch phone. But is was a great improvement with elegant design, and lots of hype. However, what made the iPhone successful was the software packaged in to an elegant device.

The touch screen of the iPhone is awesome. It was a ground breaking experience to use and set the standard. But touch screens only work if the software works. It is not the hardware, the feedback comes from the software. Also, it is no surprise that the Apple App Store is so successful that it is five times larger than all other apps stores combined. In the 2010 NetSize survey respondents valued convenience as the most important factor of an app store. Device “coolness” was not a factor. Again, software.

With WP7S comes a new OS that breaks with the old legacy Windows Mobile. When Microsoft announced Windows Mobile 6.5 last autumn, it was clear that something was missing. However, Windows Phone 7 is a new operating system. It may not be based on Windows 7 but on Windows CE, still a huge improvement for Microsoft and for those who develop mobile apps for Windows phones.

The phone business has changed. It is no longer a closed business where few players dominate. It’s becoming more like the PC business with more openness. Mobile phones are now platforms for applications. In just few years a whole new industry has emerged where software developers write software for these devices.

While this openness creates new opportunities, compatibility issues will surely come up. Both Android and Windows will be deployed to multiple devices. Anybody who has developed for J2ME can tell you horror stories of getting different handsets to run the same application. But Android and Windows are operating systems and the applications developed for them are native. Compatibility issues will be a problem but as the development tools mature these will fade away as they have with the PC.

The walled garden has crumbled down.