MWC 2012 - Apps & Devices: Telco 2.0's tech highlights
This entry in our mini-series on this year's Mobile World Congress covers smart devices and the apps that love them. The key organising concept, for us, was a comeback for the mobile Web, and we'll be looking in depth at future device strategies at our Silicon Valley Executive Brainstorm at the end of March. The article covers:
- Mozilla and Telefonica;
- Google Gadget Watch;
- Nokia Resurgence;
- Deep Web Development;
- and Telco 2.0's Tech 'Shiny of the Show' award.
Mozilla & Telefonica
I know what we need - another mobile OS! Came the cry. But Mozilla's Open Web Device (impressively, they are working with Telefonica on this - another score for one of the world's most innovative telcos) is actually quite cool.
It is an effort to create a purely web-based mobile device, which strips out any software that attracts a royalty in order to squeeze down costs. A minimal Linux kernel loads a headless version of the Gecko web rendering engine at the core of Mozilla Firefox, which then loads a suite of Web widgets that comprise the phone's user interface. (Mozilla has a very clear explanation of the system architecture in their Wiki.) On the demonstration devices, you can hit the "view source" option on everything.
Having tried it out, it was remarkably snappy for a 600MHz CPU, pretty ho-hum in these days of quad-core gadgetry. Telefonica's interest probably has something to do with getting low-cost smartphones out into its Latin American markets, while Mozilla is both historically committed to a Web fundamentalist world view, concerned about the direction of mobile platforms, and excited about providing a unified user experience across different machines.
One of Mozilla's biggest funders is of course Google, which is therefore now supporting no fewer than four operating systems, in this case at one remove. That would be ChromeOS, Android, Boot to Gecko, and the specialised Linux server distribution they use internally - or as many as IBM supported in its pomp. Is Google spreading itself too thinly? We'll be discussing this in a forthcoming Google analyst note.
Google Gadget Watch
Much of the hottest gadgetry running Android is powered by NVIDIA's Tegra chips. We couldn't help noticing that Asus's new Tegra-driven tablet-with-a-keyboard (don't call it a netbook), running Android 4.0, is both very shiny and used by many, many Googlers. Almost as if they had been issued by Google's IT shop. Are they trying to tell us something about Asus?
The mood in the Nokia stand was better than last year - it could hardly have been worse without getting into lashings of cyanide-laced KoolAid - even if the jury is still out on the Lumias. Like everyone and their dog, we went to play with the shinies and were suitably impressed. However, the Metro UI takes some getting used to and we wonder if it might work better in Shoreditch than in consensus reality.
But perhaps this was a distraction from the increasingly powerful and impressive Asha phones - not only do they look very much like the classic E71, they're rather further on functionality (Moore's Law is collapsing the distinction between featurephones and smartphones into one between the very latest smartphone and one from 18 months ago) and have a less hostile UI. Expect the investment going into HTML5 in mobile to save a new generation of developers from enjoying the Symbian experience or the joy of J2ME.
Speaking of Symbian, it was a surprise to see it used as the base for Nokia's Pureview 41-megapixel super-cameraphone. To be honest, it's more of a camera that happens to make phone calls and surf the Web than a smartphone with a really good camera, which may be why they did it that way. Did anyone expect that the GSMA's best-in-show award would go to a Symbian device, though? Looking at the phone is missing the point, in a sense - you can see some photos taken with it here
In general, photography is a Nokia strength and one they've never really capitalised on - Anssi Vanjöki was always keen to push it, but it got caught in the confusion as everyone ran for the lifeboats off the burning platform. Beyond that, they seem to be preparing a push on media of various kinds, especially music. (Compare RIM's BBM Music, which their stand didn't even demonstrate beyond having a sign saying BBM MUSIC.)
Deep Web Development
Further projects are trying to provide a united and standardised view of all the device's sensors - at the moment, developers need to build alternative versions of their applications depending on what sensors a given device offers, a royal pain as more and more Android devices of all sorts roll out. The term of art for this is apparently "magical awareness", or alternatively the disturbingly military "sensor fusion".
Telco 2.0 Tech 'Shiny of the Show' Award
Our award for shiny-ness goes to Canonical and 'Ubuntu for Android'. Install the app, plug your Android phone into a monitor, and it launches Ubuntu Linux, giving you instant access to a full desktop environment, with your Android apps. Unplug it, the Linux session is suspended and you can walk away with your 'droid. If you use Ubuntu One, their cloud storage, you could even sync it with another machine.