Learning from smartphones

1. Learning from smartphones

Over the last two decades, smartphones have ascended to a position of enormous global impact. These multi-purpose near-miracle devices place into the hands of users worldwide astonishing quantities of real-time information. Increasingly, these devices are major sources of entertainment, utility, and control. As such, they’re profoundly transforming human experience in every walk of life.

Of course, smartphones bring their share of frustrations as well as features; pain as well as pleasure. They often brilliantly anticipate user needs, but sometimes leave users mouthing bitter complaints or shaking their fists. Noticing these complaints, astute innovators and entrepreneurs can devise new smartphone behaviour with the goal of re-establishing user satisfaction. “Simplify this and extend that and curtail the other…” The complaints therefore feed into the next spiral of smartphone progress. And smartphones resume their trajectory of improvement, even as individual companies within the smartphone industry may lose their footing and stumble.

Indeed, every year, smartphones become ever more capable. Their screens are more brilliant, their interfaces more responsive, their inbuilt sensors more intelligent, their processors more turbo-charged, their bundled software more all-encompassing, and their electronic bells and internet whistles ever more numerous. They deliver more, whilst their entry-level prices dip ever lower – making smartphones ever more pervasive as well as ever more powerful.

But where are these steps of smartphone progress taking us? What are the core factors that have propelled all these improvements? And can we re-use some of that underlying improvement engine for potentially even more significant purposes?

In short, these are questions of the smartphone future, the smartphone past, and the wider present. These questions – the three grand questions of smartphones – deserve good answers.

These questions have inspired me to set down in writing my own experiences and reflections from two helter-skelter decades close to the heart of this remarkable industry. Throughout that time period, I’ve been an avid enthusiast for the potential of smartphones, an active participant in many key projects, a futurist and forecaster of what might happen next, and, at the same time, a persistent critic of much of what I saw. I’ve observed at close quarters the maelstrom of the industry, with its rich mix of stunning successes and devastating failures. I’ve lived through a great deal which deserves to be better known.

This book is my response: my attempt to retell episodes from my own experience, in a way that suggests answers to the three grand questions of smartphones.

Approaching the three grand questions

The story of the evolution of smartphones is fascinating in its own right – for its rich set of characters, and for its colourful set of triumphs and disasters. But the story has wider implications. Many important lessons can be drawn from careful review of the successes and, yes, the failures of the smartphone industry.

When it comes to the development of modern technology, things are rarely as simple as they first appear. Some companies bring great products to the market, true. These companies are widely lauded. But the surface story of winners and losers can conceal many twists and turns of fortune. Behind an apparent sudden spurt of widespread popularity, there frequently lies a long gestation period. The eventual blaze of success was preceded by the faltering efforts of many pioneers who carved new paths into uncertain terrain. The steps and missteps of these near-forgotten pioneers laid the foundation for what was to follow.

So it was for smartphones. It is likely to be the same with many of the other breakthrough technologies that have the potential to radically transform human experience in the decades ahead. They are experiencing their missteps too.

I write this book as an ardent fan of the latent power of modern technology. I’ve seen smartphone technology playing vital roles in the positive transformation of human experience, all over the world. I expect other technologies to play even more radical roles in the near future – technologies such as wearable computing, 3D printing, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, neuro-enhancement, rejuvenation biotech, artificial intelligence, and next generation robotics. But, as with smartphones, there are likely to be many disappointments en route to eventual success. Indeed, even the “eventual success” cannot be taken for granted.

General principles about the progress of complex technology emerge from reflecting on the details of actual examples. These details – the “warts and all”, to use the phrase attributed to Oliver Cromwell – can confound naive notions as to how complex technology should be developed and applied. As I’ll show from specific examples in the chapters ahead, the details show that failure and success often co-exist closely within the same project. A single project often contains multiple layers, belonging to numerous different chains of cause and effect.

It is my sincere hope that an appreciation of real-world examples of these multiple layers of smartphone development projects will enable a better understanding of how to guide the future evolution of other forms of smart technology. I’ll describe what I call “the core smartphone skillset”, comprising excellence in the three dimensions of “platforms”, “marketing”, and “execution”. To my mind, these are the key enablers of complex technological progress. These enablers have a critical role to play for smartphones, and beyond. Put together well, these enablers can climb mountains.

The Symbian perspective

To shed light on the growth of smartphones, it is my pleasure to share insights from a privileged perspective: the inside story of the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian. Symbian is the comparatively little-known company that, behind the scenes, laid vital foundations for the present-day near-ubiquity of smartphones. Despite its subsequent untimely demise, Symbian has rich connections with the future, the past, and the wider present of smartphones.

Nowadays few people remember much about Symbian – if they ever knew about it in the first place. It was a company that mainly lived in the shadows, away from public glare. But despite its low public profile, Symbian was the indisputable global leader in the smartphone market for most of the first decade of the 21st century. During that time, software developed by Symbian powered the vast majority of the world’s smartphones, as the smartphone market itself grew and grew in scale. Sales of Symbian-powered smartphones went from millions of units being sold in a year, through millions of units being sold in a month, to millions of units being sold each week.

For much of that time, Symbian appeared to have the potential to become “the Microsoft of mobile computing”, with potential revenues and publicity to match. Symbian’s customers included the world’s top five mobile phone manufacturers, and many other regional leaders.

But sales eventually peaked, in 2010, at 110 million units per annum, and fell into steep decline shortly afterwards. Ask people today about smartphones and the words they’ll mention are “iPhone”, “Android” – and (perhaps) “Windows Phone” or “RIM BlackBerry”. The word “Symbian” is a fast-receding memory.

It need not have turned out this way. With different choices and different actions, Symbian could have fulfilled its vision of being “the most widely used and most widely liked software platform in the world”. As I’ll show, that vision was credible as well as ambitious, and Symbian’s ultimate accomplishment fell far short of what lay within the company’s grasp.

Equally, in different circumstances again, Symbian could easily have crashed and burned at much earlier stages in its history, long before the establishment of any meaningful smartphone market. Symbian’s accomplishment, therefore, was much greater than the lower bound of possibilities.

I explore these diverse scenarios in the pages ahead. Alongside a candid account of what actually transpired (good, bad, ugly, and beautiful), I highlight in this book a series of alternative pathways that Symbian and its partners could credibly have taken, had the winds of fortune blown in a different direction. Some of these near-miss “what if” scenarios involve grand triumphs; others involve humungous disasters. The path actually followed had elements of both.

Telling the Symbian story

I tell the Symbian story from my unique vantage point as the only person to remain on the company’s senior leadership team throughout virtually the entirety of its turbulent, nerve-racking, roller-coaster existence: from its 1998 formation as an uneasy joint venture based around “the big three” brooding giants of the mobile phone industry of that era – Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia – right through to its collapse, a dozen years later, under pressure from faster, nimbler, more inspired competitors from Silicon Valley.

At different times, I held executive responsibility within Symbian for software development, technical consulting, partnering, evangelism, and research. I even spent a while as “Catalyst and Futurist” (still my favourite job title) in the short-lived open-source “Symbian Foundation” whose creation in 2008 coincided with Nokia buying out the other remaining shareholders of the original Symbian Ltd.

It has been my good fortune to witness, from close quarters, the behind-the-scenes struggles and tribulations at the heart of Symbian, as well as the wheeling and dealing of those who tried to bend the company’s evolution for their own purposes. My feelings may have mellowed in the light of subsequent reflection, but my pulse still races when I remember the fluctuating hopes and fears of the various Symbian leadership teams. These hopes and fears, by the way, remain highly relevant for the future of smartphones, even in a post-Symbian age.

Sources: Psion

My analysis draws on an extensive set of notes I’ve taken throughout two decades of leadership positions in and around Symbian – including many notes written in the various Psion PDA organisers that have been my constant electronic companions over these years. These pioneering Psion handheld devices have been close to my heart, in more than one sense.

Indeed, the story of Symbian is deeply linked with that of Psion, its original parent. Psion and Symbian were both headquartered in London and shared many of the same personnel. A total of 160 employees from Psion migrated into Symbian on “Day One” – June 24th 1998. I was one of the 160, having worked at Psion since June 1988, and having laboured hard for several months prior to Day One on a roadmap of plans for forthcoming Symbian technology releases. For a while, the two companies even shared the same buildings, with awkward informal “Chinese walls” constraining discussion between different teams.

The PDAs that Psion brought to market in the 1980s and 1990s were the mobile game-changers of their day, generating (albeit on a smaller scale) the same kind of industry buzz as would later manifest around new smartphone releases. Psion PDAs were also the precursors for much of the functionality that subsequently re-emerged in smartphones, satellite navigation products, and other smart mobile devices.

My own Psion electronic diary possibly ranks among the longest continuously maintained personal electronic agendas in the world. The oldest entry in it is at 2.30pm on Friday 31st January, 1992. That entry reads “Swedes+Danes Frampton St”. Therein lies a tale.

At that time, in 1992, Psion’s commercial departments were located in a building in Frampton Street, in central London, roughly midway between the Edgware Road and Maida Vale tube stations. Psion’s technical teams were located in premises in Harcourt Street, about 15 minutes distance by walking. In 1992, the Psion Series 3a PDA was in an early stage of development, and I was trialling its new Agenda application – an application whose UI and rich set of views were being built by a team under my direction. In parallel, discussions were proceeding with representatives from several overseas distributors and partners, about the process to create versions of Psion PDAs for different languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish… and Swedish and Danish.

And let’s not forget the Netherlands. An entry in my agenda for two weeks later states “Harold (BV)” – for a meeting with Harold Goddijn, who subsequently became one of the co-founders of TomTom. And step forward to 27th February, where an entry states “Corinne+Czech”, referring to Corinne Vigreux, at the time head of Psion’s export team, who was to become another of the TomTom co-founders. (Psion, Symbian, and TomTom evidently share much of the same DNA.)

As the person who assembled and integrated all the files for different software versions, I met the leads of the teams doing the various translations. That day, 31st January 1992, more than 20 years ago, was among my first meetings with work professionals from the Nordic countries.

I recall that we discussed features such as keyboards that would cater for the additional characters of the Danish and Swedish alphabets, like ‘å’ and ‘ø’. I had no inkling in 1992 that professionals from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland (including employees of mobile phone juggernauts Ericsson and Nokia) would come to have such a far-reaching influence on the evolution of the software which was at that time being designed for the Series 3a.

[ SNIP ]

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