There is little argument that Apple has revolutionized the wireless industry. The iPhone and App Store have turned the industry on its head. Yet despite Apple’s achievements, there are still important areas where its business model and technology lag. Areas where many handsets from competitors Nokia and Sony Ericsson, and platforms including Symbian, LiMo and Android are a generation ahead. Here are four improvements Apple should make:
Software inventory: New technology being widely adopted by the other phone manufacturers enables the service provider to know what apps and software components are installed on the mobile phone. Service providers can then see behavioral patterns and build market intelligence about consumer’s preferences. The key is understanding not only what consumers have downloaded, but more importantly, what apps are actually installed. Installed applications are more valuable. They show how consumers are personalizing their devices over time. This information lets service providers deliver more targeted and timely apps and updates to meet the evolving needs of consumers, making the user experience with the service provider better and more likely to last. OEMs that enable operators to access this intelligence are far more valuable partners, versus manufacturers and platform providers that try to lock them out from understanding the mobile consumer.
Software updating: There should be one wireless process for all types of device updates. Apple requires iPhone users to connect to a Mac or PC to download firmware updates. However, when an iPhone is receiving an update, the consumer is unable to make or receive calls, surf the Web or send text. Firmware over-the-air (FOTA) technology enables mobile software updates to be done OTA anywhere at any time — without wires or downtime. On a mobile phone, firmware updating and app downloading shouldn’t be seen as separate actions from the consumer’s perspective; they should happen in the same way and even at the same time if needed.
Consumers only care that their software is updated, and they want it done conveniently and immediately. Other handsets that use FOTA perform all updates within a single process, so every type of software update is performed over the air in one fast step. Instead of performing firmware updates as a separate action, the software can update firmware with an app download. Apple, in contrast, requires additional steps, which start with requiring consumers to connect their phone to their Mac/PC and check iTunes for an available firmware update. There’s nothing automatic, fast or convenient about that process. And, in order to sell the iPhone to emerging markets where PC penetration is lower, Apple will need to untether its mobile devices.
Push and pull updates: Consumers should be able to pull the software updates they want, when they want them. And service providers need the ability to push updates to the device on-demand. For example, if there is a security update to the Web browser, the service provider should be able to push the update immediately, not wait for users to eventually sync with their PCs. Updates that positively benefit the consumer should be done in the foreground. Once a consumer agrees to install a suggested update, it should be performed unobtrusively in the background. Hundreds of millions of netbooks, feature phones and smartphones today already use FOTA to manage both push and pull updating. The iPhone isn’t there yet.
Bandwidth optimization: Apple’s updates are too large to send over wireless networks economically. Until it fixes this issue, Apple will never be able to make the updating process truly mobile and it will burden the networks of mobile operators. Other handsets that use FOTA can conserve resources, including the operator’s bandwidth and the consumer’s time (and money, if they pay for data). Many Symbian devices, for example, leverage technology that can update images over the air with a highly compressed delta file that contains only the data that needs to be changed, thus avoiding bandwidth strain. The best FOTA solutions save up to 97 percent of bandwidth. Many operators are still building out their 3G networks, never mind 4G.
While Apple is now the largest consumer technology company in the world and the iPhone is an incredible device, its technology is not truly mobile nor will it have mass-market potential until Apple can take its PC-based iTunes handcuffs off.
Morten Grauballe is executive vice president of products at Red Bend Software. Prior to that, he was vice president of product management for Symbian Ltd.