The Unbundling of Mobile

I happily pay Ben Thompson to read his daily thoughts on Stratechery. Not only do I enjoy seeing his thought process unfold, but I also have a really soft spot for someone who has been able to get direct to his customers, finding a niche that allows him to just do his thing, and be successful along the way. This is one of the great enablers of the Internet era. Because we have broken many of the borders, or distribution friction, we are able to see niche areas go deep and do well. This unbundling is fantastic for diversity. Without this we need to aggregate and then popularism naturally forces the hand on what content gets shared the most and touches people.

Ben talks a lot about this topic itself, and often points to Marc Andreessen’s old chestnut that there are “only two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is unbundle”. The pendulum swings, and those who get to the other side quickly can benefit from that momentum.

We are currently witnessing the unbundling of mobile, and it is fascinating to see people try to understand how deeply the pendulum will swing and where to get ready to add value to the ecosystem. I feel like a broken record when I remind myself and others how long mobile took to take off. It was The Big Thing tm at JavaOne for many years before it was.

You remember when…

  • the networks were slow and atrocious (and WAP? nuff said)
  • screens were tiny and low quality (and when we got to touch screens they were far from feeling like they do today)
  • input was often painful (as great as T9 was for those who assimilated it, and as great as hardware keyboards were).

We could keep going on, but man, it was bad. It just took time for all of the evolution to get good enough, and when it did, it clicked.

I really enjoyed seeing yet another view of just how big it was, and is. Just compare it to the other revolutions in computing:

Mobile is up up up up up and to the right

We bundled computing, communications (phone, texting => social), entertainment (media) and the hitch hikers guide to the galaxy (The Web) all together. You can carry it all around in your pocket with a usable screen and input that keeps getting better.

This is a popular bundle and it is still growing. We are also seeing attempts to unbundle again, in a phased way.

Remember when the desktop was the “digital hub” in the home? iTunes on a computer was the source of truth, and other devices could tether and untether. This has now been taken over by either mobile devices or the cloud itself. The most literal example here is with watches. The first version of watches required your mobile device, and over time this changed (NOTE: Wear 2.0 just launched!) This is critical. One of the great uses of wearables is fitness, and you don’t want to have to run with a watch AND your device.

So, what are we unbundling here?

  • Compute: it makes sense to have a system that can do “enough” itself, but can also use compute from other parts of the system (watch using mobile, mobile using desktop, everything using cloud 🙂 A really important part of this is bringing the power of ML to where you need it to be. As our best experiences all use ML somewhere, we need progressive ML enhancement, including being able to run some of this offline (e.g. TensorFlow crunching in the cloud => run detection locally on device)
  • Network: not having to go through your mobile device only, and also using the power of P2P (you see amazing examples of this in areas of the world with really weak and expensive networks)
  • Input and Output: This is huge. We are breaking out of touch screens of a certain size and virtual keyboards to include voice (including ambient), wearables, and optimized form factors.

After platforms have done the heavy lifting to break the bundle apart it unleashes even more opportunities. As you build product, your constraints are changed and the levels of context compound to let you do amazing things. Sometimes this comes via quick access for power:

  • “Hey Google, if you notice that I fall asleep can you pause my media?”
  • “… please reset my ad id once a month”
  • “… make sure my garage door is closed after 10pm”
  • “… how often did Wendy come over in February?”

At other times it is joining multiple modes together (I have talked about this in the past) and being able to naturally morph between voice and screen access. We do tend to use our senses together. One of my complaints about some voice UI is that it forces me to close my eyes and put my hands behind my back, and surely we will be able to do better.

The platforms need to be broken up to allow for this, and this brings us to hardware and software…

Hardware Unbundling

How do we enable breaking up the phone into various pieces, and also allow bundling up those packages? This is where IoT comes to play. With Android Things I get to see teams morph and bundle in front of my very eyes, and it is exciting to see when they stick. I know that it is early days, but this is an area that in aggregate will clearly scale massively on the Internet.

Software Unbundling

We talk about unbundling and bundling in software all the time. With the desktop Web we bundled experience delivery where one web app could reach a massive audience. But then, when it came to unbundling with mobile, many companies didn’t have nice APIs with the web clients sitting in front. This allowed for translation engines such as usablenet and moovweb to come in to offer the quick fix to get you going with mobile. This allowed many of us to have a beer and laugh about the old times…. “do you remember when we went in and had to hack a layer of Struts Actions to output JSON instead of HTML? Man that was a brittle POS!” There was a lot of pain and a lot of money to be made as the industry tried to turn a tight corner as quickly as possible, and the long tail is probably only half way through that corner!

As we lean into the unbundling, do you have the right pieces in place to enable high quality experiences to be built for your users in short order? Do you know your business and use cases well enough to know which context are king for you, and how to best reach them all?

We may not know the exact details of the future graph. How large will the overall ecosystems become? It is hard to compare to mobile, but your niche may still be a massive opportunity. It is also humbling to realize that on one side the numbers that we considered to be massive hits were tiny back in the day (millions vs. billions) and on the other, global mobile growth is still far from done.

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