Hedging your bets

EXE Magazine, August 1999

Two obvious marketing strategies are to go after a large share of a small niche market or a small share of a much larger market. Considering the time it takes to define a product from both a technical and a marketing point of view, and then implement these decisions, there is a need to predict the future, especially what the dominant platform will be. For quite a few years it has been obvious that if you want to attract a large number of users, you'd better target Windows in one flavour or another. According to our last Salary Survey (What are you really worth? EXE, April 1999) you have followed that route, since 88% of you said that you are developing for Windows. That doesn't mean the death of other platforms: Unix attracted 34% of responses and, somewhat surprisingly, DOS still had 25% developing for it.

Going back to nearly ten years ago, targeting Windows was far from an obvious choice. In May 1990, Will Watts, then editor of EXE, wrote the following words (which have since haunted him): ‘Windows, although it has enjoyed more success recently, and is about to be upgraded again, has always had a slight smell of death to it: Windows is, after all sitting on top of MS-DOS, and it has been drilled into us that MS-DOS is doomed. [...] And so comes the dismal realisation. It's not that GUI hasn't really happened for PC-class machines; it is the feeling that it is never going to happen; we are always going to have factions of users backing diverse systems, with the majority using text-based systems.’

We have quoted these very same words recently in our humour column (Ctrl-Break, November 1998) but lets be honest who at that time was ready to bank on the Windows platform? The likelihood of a flop was great. Remember how underpowered PCs were at the time? The difficulty of deciding which platform to target has been compounded by the increasing swiftness of product lifecycles. Time was not the same when some of us were developing for mainframes – it shortened with the arrival of PCs and now we're talking about ‘Internet time’.

There has been a move from thinking purely in PC terms to the Web, but even this evolution is still firmly rooted in the PC world. The current approach is to have some kind of backend – which might very well be some legacy system, some middleware (ideally an application server), and a browser – which is too often thought of as a PC.

I believe that the days of Windows as the dominant platform are numbered. But if you expect me to start a eulogy of Linux, you've missed the point. Linux is already a significant platform, but what I have in mind is a more radical change. The next end-user terminal will be an embedded device, something like a smartphone and there will be two major platforms to target for software developers: one is the device itself and the other is the network from which services can be delivered to the device (ie the mobile telephone networks).

At a recent Epoc conference, the Symbian partners (Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Panasonic, and Psion) announced that they have revised their prediction of 1 billion mobile phones by 2005 to 1 billion by 2003. Even if you take the initial prediction and apply a reality factor to it, you probably still end up with a number that dwarfs most predictions of the PC market's growth. All the requirements for this to happen are in place, ready for the first generation of products to be in the market just before Xmas.

If you want to hedge your bets on which platform is likely to become dominant, you have to find out what type of applications and features you want to deliver and how. For the what question, only your imagination is the limit. Don't restrain your options by just thinking of straight ports of existing apps. To quote Brenda Laurel, from her (now rather old) book Computers as Theatre (updated last in 1993, ISBN 0201550601): ‘The recapitulation of previous forms seems to be intrinsic to the evolution of the media as it is to the development of human individuals in the womb: human embryos have gills and tails before they assume uniquely human shape; television emulated theatre, vaudeville, radio and film. The emergence of a new medium is a dance between the evolutionary pattern of recapitulation and the force of new creative visions.’ As for the how, your app can live in the smartphone or in the network. There is a broad consensus from smartphone manufacturers for the device to run Java, the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), and Bluetooth. That's what you can rely upon.

As a reality check, during a conversation last month with Laurent Séraphin, European Product Manager for Enterprise Products at Inprise, he admitted the inclusion of Corba support in smartphone as likely, and indicated that work and negotiation for inclusion of a small footprint version of VisiBroker is in the works. Since it not yet part of an announced strategy he wouldn't be more precise, but it shows that this vision is shared by some of the traditional PC development tool vendors. And worldwide mobile phone networks are announcing support for WAP. One of the latest announcement in the UK is from Orange, which promises a WAP phone and WAP services for the fourth quarter of this year.

As you decide how to hedge your bets, remember the following classical pitfall described by Brenda Laurel: ‘All new media begin with visions – fantasies, desires, and ideas about new kinds of experiences that people might have. As development progresses, these visions can be overshadowed by the more immediate concerns of technology development. Too often, the technological perspective comes to dominate not only the process of development, but also the shape of the emerging medium itself. The visionary impulse fades away as technological progress becomes the sole focus. Some of the powers that a medium might have had are lost in the rush to find near-term solutions.’ If you haven't done so yet, investigate this new platform. If you want to be an early adopter, start developing for it today. And in all cases keep your mind open.

David Mery

(C)1999, Centaur Communications Ltd. Reproduced with the kind permission of EXE Magazine.