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Dubinsky Podcast: The Evolution of the Smartphone

As we all know, it is often difficult to get anyone at Palm to publicly speak freely and openly.  It was therefore surprising and refreshing to listen to a recent podcast interview with Palm co-founder Donna Dubinsky hosted by Dan Bricklin (who I had the pleasure to meet in Zaragoza a few months ago) and John Sviokla.

This is one of the most interesting podcasts relating to Palm and our Treo that you’re likely to find in quite some time and if you’re curious to learn more about why things are currently the way they are and where they’re likely to be in the future I highly recommend that you listen to its 40 minutes – on your Treo of course .  Below are some of the major points that spiked my interest:

Smartphones are from Mars.  Carriers are from Venus.
As you might recall, a post that I had written back in June commented on how wireless carriers are increasingly creating a barrier to innovation for the continued development of ‘superphones’ such as our Treo.

In her interview, Donna highlights how this is primarily due to the fact that the wireless industry is used to operating under ‘closed’ systems while the computer industry at large and Palm specifically have embraced an ‘open’ community.  The two industries must now work together as both their futures are inextricably bound but naturally there will be a period of adaptation.  For her part, Donna believes that the wireless business “will become an open business very much along the lines of the computer business but it’s going to take a while”.

She goes on to explain that “carriers are from a different world and the carriers are really not from a computing world and a platform world at all.  What we're seeing in smartphones is a merging of communications and computing environments and it's a colossal shift and a colossal change and it’s something that carriers really don't have any heritage in or any experience in.  Furthermore, it was something that was detrimental to them in the past.  They needed to control the network to deliver a good voice experience. You had to deliver 99.9 or whatever it is on the phone network and you certainly can't have people having phones that crash, that have to be reset, that have bugs and so it's a very scary world out there – the computing world.”

Managing Carrier and Consumer Smartphone Expectations
Donna’s next statement perfectly answers a question that I have had to deal with on numerous occasions when people ask me how I can tolerate resets on my Treo – something which is nearly unimaginable to people with normal mobile phones.

She states: “Let's face it, consumers have different standards for [the computing and wireless] worlds.  We have, unfortunately, trained them in our industry and the computing industry to actually tolerate these problems – crashing computers and bugs and so on – and people haven't had to tolerate that in the phone world and so now you see these worlds coming together and you see the carriers taking a little bit of the view of "Hey, these things have to work out of the box.  Our customers are not going to be satisfied to be calling Tech Support and the only way we can deliver that high quality experience is in a very closed environment.”  Frankly, some of that's true.  Our smartphones have much higher quality problems than the old handset business does and a good deal because of the openness and the complexity that openness delivers.”

I almost feel like this statement should be printed on every Treo box and other marketing material so that people are able to realign their expectations when they purchase one.  At the same time, the pressure that carriers will continue to place on Palm will help to ensure that our Treo becomes better and more stable faster.

Things that need to happen
Acknowledging the above smartphone realities, Donna comments: “First of all the products have to get better – they are clearly in an early stage still.  The getting better is a complicated thing because there’s obviously a big hardware element, there’s device side software and then there’s integration with the network which is extremely complicated and by the way different from carrier to carrier.  So no longer can you produce one standard off the shelf device like the early Palm Pilots that work everywhere you have to create a version for [each carrier] around the world and that creates enormous complexity and enormous testing challenges.”

However, to balance things, she notes that: “All that being said, the devices have to get better, the networks have to get better and customers have to grow a little more tolerant of the understanding of the tradeoffs of robustness and complexity for a somewhat reduced quality of service.”

The Value of Early Adopter Tolerance
It’s evident that the people who are buying smartphones today – Treonauts in particular – are the ones who understand the tradeoffs that will  need to be made.  Donna comments that: “[] the people who are buying smartphones today.  You’re not finding people down the adopter curve buying smartphones [instead] it’s a very, very tiny segment of an absolutely massive wireless phone business and that tiny segment are the early adopters who will tolerate a little more quality issues and who by the way give us fabulous feedback on on to make these things better as we get farther down the adoption curve in the future.”

Voice Over IP (VOIP)
Donna briefly discusses her thoughts on the future convergence of traditional wireless communications with VOIP.  She states that “VOIP is going to play a role – there’s just no doubt about it.  How much of a role though is a little hard to tell at this stage.  You can’t cover the world with WiFi today – in fact we all know that it’s hard enough to cover the world with wide-area networks.  I think the key is, could you evolve to a position where when you are in a WiFi coverage you can use VOIP and then when you roam to the wide-area network then you go under the tariff network – there’s certainly a lot of people working on that and I think that eventually it will happen.”

We’ll have to wait and see just how soon our Treo will have a) built-in WiFi capabilities and b) a reliable VOIP application such as Skype that we can actually use.

Future Innovation
Responding to a question about how the “thing that we carry in our pocket is going to evolve”, Donna comments that: “I think that things are going to continue to innovate, we’re really at the very beginning of this space – it’s very exciting.”  She sees two main areas of innovation that will lead to better future devices 1) components (such as better and cheaper screens); 2) wireless networks (better and faster broadband data connectivity) which will “open a whole realm of opportunity on the content and application side – now you’re looking at more audio and video and more collaborative applications.” 

There are amazingly and sadly very few developers at present who are fully exploring and exploiting this ‘network advantage’ that Donna speaks about – an area that I will write/complain about more in depth in a separate post.

Treo650pctv_1 Smartphone as a Computer
One of the things that greatly spiked my interest follows on a train of thought that I had outlined in August last year and which by and large has gone unnoticed in other reports of Donna’s podcast.

Namely, the ideas that 1) our Treo may in the future become our main PC and 2) the opportunity to bring computing (with a smartphone instead of a PC) to a whole new community in 3rd world countries around the world.

This is very much along the lines of what my friend Rajesh Jain is attempting to do with his company netCORE in India.  In his vision statement he explains that:

Currently about 600 million users, mostly in advanced industrialised countries, can afford and use PCs and the Internet. There are an equally large number of potential users mostly in emerging markets who cannot afford the current PC-centric solution.

Our Treo could become the ideal “non-PC-centric solution”.  All that would be needed is a high-speed broadband wireless data network connecting to a ‘grid’ (a centralised server-based computing platform which hosts a wide range of software applications and content) and the addition of a separate large monitor and keyboard which would plug into the data and A/V out port on our Treo.

In much the same way that Palm developed the affordable Zire line of PDA’s it is logical that the day will come when the company is able to manufacture a low-cost Treo which could be used across the third world and sold in tens or hundreds of million units.  Having said this, the solution is undoubtedly elegant enough that it could similarly be applied in first world countries – particularly in a business environment. 

I would strongly argue that this model is very much the future of computing and Donna adds that “to me this is one of the most exciting, compelling things that’s going to happen here”.

The Long Tail
Very briefly Donna and Dan exchange thoughts about “The Long Tail” (a must read for everyone) that has fast become one of the central concepts fueling new thinking in the digital economy.

The phrase was first coined by Chris Anderson in Wired Magazine in which he observed that “products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, if the store or distribution channel is large enough [Amazon and Netflix for example]”.

The relevance within the context of our Treo is that the typically ‘closed’ philosophy of wireless carriers strongly limits the potential for such Long Tail businesses to emerge in the future and the innovations that they often create.

Donna Dubinsky Podcast [DiamondCluster Wavelengths]
Treo PC & TV: The Race is On [Treonauts]
Wireless Carriers: A Barrier to Innovation? [Treonauts]
The Long Tail [Wired Magazine]
The Computing Solution for the Next Generation [Emergic]

Treonauts are always very close to the future

Posted by Andrew on September 2, 2005 at 11:40 AM

Treo Opinion

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» El futuro de los «smartphones» from Microsiervos
Donna Dubinski, una de las fundadoras de Palm, habla con Dan Bricklin y John Sviokla del futuro de los teléfonos inteligentes en este podcast que dura unos 40 minutos. Resulta muy interesante, sobre todo porque plantea la necesidad de que... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 2, 2005 3:38:48 PM

» El futuro de los «smartphones» from Microsiervos
Donna Dubinski, una de las fundadoras de Palm, habla con Dan Bricklin y John Sviokla del futuro de los teléfonos inteligentes en este podcast que dura unos 40 minutos. Resulta muy interesante, sobre todo porque plantea la necesidad de que... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 2, 2005 3:44:00 PM

» Donna Dubinsky y el futuro del smartphone from CanalPDA
Como todos sabemos, acostumbra a ser difícil que alguien de Palm hable en público libre y abiertamente. Por eso resulta tan sorprendente como refrescante escuchar el podcast de la reciente entrevista realizada por Dan Bricklin y John Sviokla a Donna Dubinsky... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 4, 2005 4:05:54 AM

» El futuro de los smartphones from Microsiervos
Donna Dubinsky, una de las fundadoras de Palm, habla con Dan Bricklin y John Sviokla del futuro de los teléfonos inteligentes en este podcast que dura unos 40 minutos. Resulta muy interesante, sobre todo porque plantea la necesidad de que... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 6, 2005 2:24:13 AM


by s.elements | Sep 2, 2005 11:34:19 PM

This is great stuff. I love the idea of using a future Treo as my main PC. It's a great idea. A nearly full functioned PC in your pocket, and then when you take it home you just throw it into your docking station, and boom: desktop replacement.

I hope that the Treo 700 comes with integrated wi-fi, as I'm almost always near a signal, and it would be awesome to use an app like Skype for improved voice quality and to help save some of my precious daytime minutes.

by Mojo | Sep 3, 2005 3:53:03 PM

Seriously, how DO you live with the resets? I've wanted to get a Treo for quite a while, but no Wifi and the horrible resets I hear about have held me back. I guess Windows users are accustomed to poor quality, maybe? Are you a Windows user (I'm assuming you are from some of the things you've written on your site)? My wife and I have Powerbooks (12" and 17" respectively) and have literally never had a crash and we've both had our Powerbooks for over a year now. Maybe we just have high standards, but when we buy something we expect it to work.

Again, I just can't imagine buying one of these phones and having it crash all the time or having to reset it periodically. Unacceptable.

by Cripple | Sep 4, 2005 8:25:52 AM

I'm actually quite amazed how Palm/Handspring has been able bring out such functional PDA/Phone devices with how strict and expensive traditional Carriers are.
Some US Cities are now being deployed with City-Wide WiFi. How long will it be before Palm can dump the Ball and Chain of Carriers and just rely on ISPs and VoIP?
In Australia, Intel has just injected US$28 million dollars for an ISP to provide City-wide WiMAX within 2 years. http://www.intel.com/pressroom/archive/releases/20050824corp_b.htm
I can't wait. Palm should scare the pants off the carriers by making some Treos with only WiFi or WiMAX with built-in VoIP. In a few years there won't be any need for GSM or CDMA or even 3G.

by Diane Ybarra | Sep 6, 2005 4:54:13 PM

Pleae note you have Donna Dubinsky's last name spelled incorrectly.

Thanks for correcting it.

by Andrew | Sep 6, 2005 5:06:58 PM

Diane - Ooooops... Apologies Donna!

Cheers, A.

by Andrew | Sep 7, 2005 9:33:05 AM

Re: Living with resets

Mojo - like many, I am prepared to accept certain current limitations of the Treo because the 'overall' value that it delivers is worth it.

It is nothing but a natural evolutionary path - repeated across countless industries and products - that over time will get better and better.

Some people like me will be happy to jump in early while others will prefer to wait for 'perfection'. This is normal and part of the 'adoption curve'.

Cheers, A.

by Mojo | Sep 7, 2005 10:18:31 AM

I guess I'm a total Apple whore then, because that concept is so alien to me. For instance, I purchased the very first iteration of the iPod (and have owned several since including the latest). I never dealt with an iPod that crashed or refused to work as advertised. I suppose I just expect a company to release a product that has been through a FULL cycle of development testing and NOT release it until it is free of Showstopper Bugs (which this is a case of - I know, I used to be a dev tester at Cisco Systems).

I can appreciate the fact that you and other are willing to put up with such a problem. I just don't know that I could. Thanks for your insight though.

by Andrew | Sep 7, 2005 11:14:42 AM

Mojo - I really think that you should take a Treo for a spin and experience it for yourself. We are talking about some very minor issues here and even the Mac/iPod are not perfect ;-)

Cheers, A.

by Mojo | Sep 7, 2005 1:08:49 PM

I'm seriously considering getting one. I'm a med student and everyone at the hospital has Palms. I really need Wifi though (we have hotspots all over the hospital and on campus). I could certainly use it. I just don't want to have to deal with crashes and resets at inopportune times (or at all really). I know Apple isn't perfect, but I have yet to deal with this type of showstopper bug with Apple hardware or software. Sure, there's always little and minor stuff though. I just don't classify resets or crashes as such.

Thanks again though. I appreciate your candor.

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