Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Android tablet or iPad or wait some more?

The buzz is all around the iPad 2 (for once, mercifully launched by Apple in India in a timely fashion) and now, around the upcoming iPad 3, which is rumored to have a high resolution display, akin to the Retina Display on the iPhone 4. Time after time, reviewers have compared upcoming Android tablets to the iPad and concluded that the iPad is ahead of its rivals in useability, GUI and of course, the sheer number of apps available for the tablet (100,000 and counting). So, do you close your eyes and buy the iPad, or do you look at the very attractive Android alternatives that are coming into the market? Or do you wait?

If you don't really have a need for a second handheld device in addition to your mobile phone, it might be a good idea to wait. For the iPad 3, or for subsequent upgrade of Android from Honeycomb to Ice Cream Sandwich. Or you might figure that a high end smartphone can serve your needs much better. A phone can still offer all the functionality of a tablet and then some more, and in a compact, always-on form factor. A tablet is still only an add-on to that.

I bought the iPad 2 because my Samsung Wave could not keep up with my browsing needs. I looked at a netbook first, but the category has been pretty much stagnating for some time.

If you are keen to get a tablet, be prepared that it is still primarily a content consumption device. Great for browsing, movies, music, even as a part time ebook reader. Easy to power up and start using anywhere, anytime. Nowhere near a PC substitute. And if you plan to do a lot of typing, keep in mind that you might want to invest in a bluetooth keyboard. Those are expensive (Rs. 3500 plus) so factor it into the cost.

The iPad 2 is currently available in India at a price range of approximately Rs.30,00 to Rs.40,000 for the wi-fi only model and Rs.37,000-48,000 for the 3G+wi-fi model, depending on the storage capacity. Until recently, iPad 1 was still available at a reduced price range starting from Rs.25,000, but I was told that this is only till stock lasts. In any case, when you are spending so much money, I would not recommend the iPad 1 in a category where specs are growing leaps and bounds. And the iPad 3 is due before the end of the year. So if it's an iPad you're eyeing, wait. It's a content consumption device, so it is worth waiting for a better screen. And it will most probably be at the same price as the iPad 2.

From my own experience of the iPad, I would say buy it if;
1) You don't like to mess with your devices and just want a simple, no-fuss, consistent and reliable user interface and experience.
2) You are mainly looking at browsing, reading, social networking, email and any other form of content consumption
3) You are excited by the prospect of using multiple apps. Especially for a gaming experience, the iPad is unparalleled. I have played Angry Birds on an iPhone, an Android phone and in my web browser, but the iPad just takes it to another level. It's a fantastic casual gaming device and the selection of free and paid games is amazing.

Now let's look at Android tablets. The pick of the market currently is the Acer Iconia A500 (Approximately Rs. 26,000 for 16 GB and Rs.31,000 for 32 GB - prices from Ebay India). Both models are wi-fi only.

(Image from CNet)

And the other option is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It was expected to launch in India in June according to
pluggdIn, but does not seem to have hit the market yet. Expected pricing for the 10.1 inch version is Rs.35,000 and above (16GB/32GB/64 GB)  and all models are 3G+Wi-Fi enabled.

Both tablets have good reviews and similar hardware specs and their downsides trade-off against each other. The Acer Iconia A500 is heavier than the Tab but it has great inbuilt speakers. Also it has great connectivity - a USB host drive, Micro SD Card slot, mini HDMI out -  and therefore allows added functionality to view content. It is also very competitively priced against the iPad. The Samsung Galaxy Tab has a good display and the distinction of being thinner and lighter than even the iPad 2. In terms of hardware, both have pretty similar specs. Unless you need the 3G connectivity, the Iconia seems to have an edge between the two.

Now, irrespective of which Android tablet you are considering, the hardware is not the limiting factor. In fact, hardware specs are ahead of the iPad 2 on paper. It is the limitations of Honeycomb as a tablet operating system that makes reviewers time and again rate the iPad as superior to any Android offering. These limitations will obviously be overcome in subsequent updates from Google. But meanwhile, I believe that you should buy an Android tablet if;

1) You are ready to be adventurous. If the occassional bug or crash does not unnerve or irritate you. If you are ready to root your device. In fact, rooting is what I would recommend for an Android tablet today. It adds flexibility to the usage which offsets the limitations of Honeycomb. And rooting a tablet is (at least for me) a relatively peaceful proposition compared to rooting your phone. I would be nervous of bricking my phone, but a tablet is a toy and its meant to be played with. Rooting will uncover the full potential of the hardware which the current OS is not yet tapping into. I do not recommend jailbreaking iOS devices as it takes away the selling point - the user experience. But with Android devices, rooting enhances the functionality and flexibility of use. My friend Sanjay who is a real techie unlike me, has reported positive results from rooting both the Iconia and his Dell Streak.

2) If your usage is more oriented towards consumption of media (movies, YouTube etc.) rather than other content. Full HD out to your TV is a cool proposition! Being able to browse Flash content without disruptions  is another strike for Honeycomb.

3)If your usage behaviour is more oriented to browsing and less app centric. Do not look to Honeycomb yet for apps - tablet optimised apps in the Android market place are still few in number. And while all Android apps will run on Honeycomb tablets, they may not run optimally. This PC World article explains the app problem in depth.

I guess this analysis answers why the iPad continues to be the top selling tablet. Most users (and in this case, I count myself) use them as passive devices and are not really prepared to experiment. But for the select and adventurous few who are ready to experiment in order to harness bleeding-edge hardware, Android tablets maybe the answer.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Going post paid is easy, going pre-paid is hard!

I converted my MTNL pre-paid Triband connection to a postpaid one last week. I had observed some time ago that going pre-paid pays, but MTNL has made it rather difficult for me. They have discontinued the online re-charge facility for Triband, forcing me to visit the nearest MTNL office to get a re-charge voucher/ scratch card. Since I prefer to manage all my utilities online, I took the decision to switch to a post-paid connection. The procedure was extremely smooth. I visited the MTNL office, submitted an application and next day, I got a call to confirm that it had been done. Of course, I lost the remaining value in my pre-paid account, but I did not have to go through any down time. MTNL does not permit post-paid Triband users to switch to pre-paid and I was informed that only recently, they have created the ability to convert pre-paid to post-paid. In fact, mine was the first case.

Once more, I am impressed with MTNL's speed and efficiency and the high quality of customer service. Of course, with the shrinking number of landlines, the state owned telco has had to pull up its socks.

It obviously makes sense for companies to encourage users to switch to post-paid connections as it increases their ARPU (average revenue per user). However, while on the topic, I want to mention that when I converted my Reliance Net Connect account from post to pre-paid, I faced a lot of difficulty. I had to visit the Reliance office three times - to collect a form, submit the form with ID proofs and then to pay a pending bill for 5 days (the 5 days that the company took to convert the connection were charged to me as pro-rata monthly rental. Smacks of unfair practice to me, as I believe that my post-paid meter should stop running from the day I submit my application). Further, I was called by customer service, not to solve my problems but to convince me to continue my post-paid connection.

I have heard from some other people about how difficult it is to convert a post-paid to a pre-paid connection. And MTNL is certainly lowering their service standards for pre-paid, forcing me to make a shift. Maybe it is time that TRAI looks into this aspect and regulates telcos.

Is the Web dying?

Recently, George Colony,  CEO of Forrester Research, predicted the future of what he calls the "App Internet" in this blog post. To quote he says "In this model, powerful local devices (PCs, smartphones, tablets) run applications that simultaneously and seamlessly take advantage of resources in the Web/Cloud. If you want to see this model in action, check out iPhone and Android applications." He goes on to declare, somewhat controversially that the "The Web, as the dominant software architecture of the Internet, is dead". Colony also casts a doubt over the future of the cloud internet, while declaring that Microsoft's device-centric software approach is already dead.

There are figures that back up Colony's prediction. This report by Nielsen indicates that in the US, iPhone  users have downloaded an average of 48 apps, while Android users have downloaded an average of 35. Also users on both platforms report using  apps multiple times in a day. Given that these are the dominant smartphone platforms, it is a no-brainer that the majority of smartphone users are already on the "App Internet". Steve Jobs is betting on the App internet, noting that iPhone consumers are spending all their time on apps today, rather than on search. The worldwide smartphone application market is touted to reach 15 Billion dollars in 2013. 

While today the term Apps is synonymous with Apple's App Store and the Android marketplace, it is easy to forget that there was life before the iPhone! Nokia's Symbian platform was the market leader through the first half of 2010, and a wide variety of third party apps developed for the platform (Snaptu, anyone?) supported both the smartphones and the feature phones that ran Symbian. Both Palm and Microsoft also offered apps. But it was Apple who best leveraged the potential of apps to maximise the usage potential of a smartphone. Apple recently announced the latest app store statistics and the they are impressive. 425,000 Apps till date, 15 billion downloads across 200 million consumers of iOS devices. Android Marketplace is rapidly closing the gap, with over 200,000 apps and growing.

In the simplest sense, an app is just a piece of software designed to run a certain program on your phone. In some cases, the program is already downloaded onto your mobile device (games, productivity) and in some cases, the app accesses the internet to fetch or refresh content (news, a website etc.) In the latter case, apps become your gateway to access the web - rather than open the browser, you would directly go through the app. It's easy to see why we prefer the app route - typing is something we try to minimise on a handheld device, and the app ensures that content is rendered smoothly in a viewer-friendly format. 

Coming back to Colony's point, is the app the future  of the internet? Here are some of my thoughts;

1) Can apps keep up with our browsing behaviour?
Apps work very well for a certain type of browsing behaviour called mission specific or task oriented browsing. As the name implies, this suggests that on our mobile devices, we tend to look directly for what we want (news, stock update, cricket match score etc.) rather than spend time browsing. In this scenario, apps are the answer, as the user is focussed on saving time, and this is exactly what an app does. It guarantees a consistent and reliable output for a specific task you wish to perform.

But I do not believe that all browsing will become mission specific. A lot of browsing will remain exploratory as we increasingly use handhelds to substitute, rather than supplement our PCs. As I write this blog post, I have 7 tabs open on Google Chrome to point to links, and I am simultaneously Googling information and checking my facebook and twitter accounts. The browser allows me unparalleled flexibility and width of access which I cannot imagine substituting with an app. Apps require a linear/ vertical usage - by definition, an app has to perform a focused function and my brain does not work that way all the time. Even multi-tasking with several apps running cannot really re-create the experience of lateral browsing. Sure, mobile devices today have inherent hardware and software limitations that prevent them from behaving like my PC. But the barriers are melting away fast as processor speeds have already approached netbooks and RAM has surpassed them! And with a tablet form factor coming in, I believe that operating systems will also accommodate better browsing.

So, rather than more or better apps alone, I would look for better and more powerful browsing experience on a mobile device.

2) The price of usage
Apps have created an ecosystem of third party developers who write for one, or multiple platforms. It is obvious that you expect and deserve to earn money for writing apps! However, monetising apps continues to remain a struggle, and as a user, I see why. I am used to paying for a handset and yes, even an operating system and basic software, but I am not used to paying for specific tasks that I want to do. For instance, let's take an expense tracker app. It's cool to have, but rather than pay extra for it, I would use the Excel spreadsheet on my PC I have already paid for. I want to note that this does not hold true for content like music, movies etc. which I would have to pay for either ways. But if it comes to paying for replicating a function that I can already do on my PC, either free, or with a paid software, I would not purchase a standalone app for a mobile device. The web model operates here and companies like Google have a thrust towards providing a lot of stuff free on a web-based structure. If I can open a website for free, would I need to pay for an app to do that? Maybe, maybe not. This 2010 survey by Pew Internet seems to support my theory. 

In a nutshell - for apps to thrive, there has to be a thriving ecosystem to earn money from them.  If paid apps don't take off, the industry will have to explore how apps can be monetised. And till this happens, the app ecosystem could well develop into a bubble that bursts. Or it would remain stunted, with a variety of free (but maybe not so necessary) apps and a few money spinners. Apps need to take off beyond gaming, for the app internet to become a reality. Or maybe a Snaptu type approach (bundled apps) would work. 

3) The winner decides
There are a number of stakeholders in the mobile and handheld industry. Different operating systems, handset manufacturers, operators, developers. As with all cutting edge technology, the industry will decide where to take consumers. And each player (at least today) seems to have different stakes as to where they want to take consumers.

Apple has the biggest stake in the app internet, and very little in the Web, or the Cloud. This is not only because the app-store based model is profitable for them. It is because the app based model streamlines the user experience which is paramount for Apple. 

For Google, the web and the cloud are the foundation of their business model. Apps are a means to this end, therefore my bet is that Google will ensure that all three are furthered. Google defines themselves  as a search, ads and apps company and the definition implies that they have a stake in your browsing, as much as in the app space.

Microsoft is making a transition from boxed software to the cloud. While the company is trailing in the mobile stakes, they have a reputation of coming up from behind to reclaim market dominance. 

Apple is currently the world's most profitable technology company, Google's Android is the largest smartphone platform and leading analysts predict that the Microsoft-Nokia combine could garner upto 20% of mobile operating system share by 2015. 

Colony's prediction of an app driven internet comes as a timely reminder to corporates to move beyond a web based model. But I am not sure that the App Internet is the only future. Going ahead, the app, the cloud and the web will all play a role and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Sources : Forrester Research, NielsenSoftpedia

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Apple iOS vs. Android : the feature vs. user experience paradigm

Last month, Apple slashed the price of the iPhone 3GS in India to an affordable Rs.19,990. This was a logical move by Apple, given that the iPhone 4 has just been launched here. The iPhone 3GS is now a two year old handset and its specs have long since been outdated. Yet I was surprised to see how much interest  the news generated among some of my younger friends, who thought it was a solid bargain. For them, it was not about owning the latest phone with the best specs; it was about getting onto the iOS platform. It was about accessing the world's largest app marketplace. And above all, it was an opportunity to realise their dream of owning an iPhone at last, at an affordable price.

Obsolescence is here to stay. Intel created it in the world of PCs and now Android OS and handsets (especially from HTC and Samsung) have created it in the smartphone category. It's not a new thing, but what's new is that the cycle of obsolescence is shorter than ever before. It takes only a few months for hardware to get upgraded and Android is in perpetual beta. Unless you own a Nexus, you are dependant on the handset manufacturer to roll out an update - few people are intrepid enough to root their handsets and load custom ROMs. In effect, if you own the world's greatest smartphone, it's a tenuous title. You may be lucky to retain it for 3 months and then something better will come up.

But the Apple ecosystem exists in a little time warp. Yes, there are updates and upgrades, but they come at reasonable intervals. Older iterations and handsets are supported by Apple. If you have an iPhone 3GS, you are still way better off than someone running Android 1.6. The user experience on an iPhone remains a smooth and consistent one, even as features, processor speeds and hardware improve. That's why my friends can still see a value in a two year old handset with a tired spec sheet.

Android manufacturers have created this new paradigm of constant upgradation as a counter to Apple's paradigm of consistent user experience. Both are valid paradigms and both have a market. Android has leveraged it better because of a choice of handsets and price points. Today the iPhone 4 cost approximately Rs.34,000. For a slightly lesser price you can get the super-powered Samsung Galaxy S2 or the HTC Sensation. Both trump the iPhone 4 on specs. Both carry the aura and buzz of being the best smartphones on the planet. And for a substantially lesser price, you can get Android handsets that match the iPhone head-on in specs. But then people who buy the iPhone 4 are not buying specs, they are buying the iOS experience. You will pay for what you value.

And it's not as if Android does not offer a great user experience.  It does, and with Google's cloud venture taking off and Google Plus coming up, the user experience is only going to get better, with a tighter integration of personal data, and a strong native social interface built into the operating system. But it's very telling to me that when we talk Android handsets, we compare hardware specs. And when we compare iPhone with Android handsets, we compare user experience. This goes to prove my point that both operate with different paradigms.

And both paradigms require different conditions to exist and flourish. For Android handset manufacturers, constantly raising the bar on hardware is a must. This creates excitement, the image of a market leader and of course, generates sales. Remember the buzz around Samsung Galaxy S, only last year, and around Nexus S, only six months ago? First it was a 1 gig processor, now it's a dual core. First it was an AMOLED screen, then a Super AMOLED, now SAMOLED Plus. Hardware is what drives the excitement around the Android platform and sustains its market leadership status. It's easy to manufacture and upgrade hardware specs, so cycle times are shorter. And as newer hardware is introduced, it devalues the older hardware, so you can have products at multiple price points. It's a pricing structure that consumers can easily comprehend - you pay the most for the fastest, biggest processor, best screen etc. and less for lower specs. And in this paradigm, the Android OS simply rides on the better hardware which makes the user experience smoother, faster, better. Manufacturers do not rely on sales of Android apps for their own sustenance (though they may be earning money on app sales). Independent of the Android marketplace, the hardware itself facilitates so much - whether its an 8 megapixel camera, or HD video or super-fast browsing. You could enjoy the sheer plethora of features without needing to spend money on apps. This again probably explains why the developers in Android marketplace face a much bigger fight to be profitable.

With Apple, the focus is on building an interface that meshes tightly with the App Store - Apple makes a one time profit from sale of hardware but sustained profit through the lifetime of the handset comes from your purchase of content and apps from them. Therefore, the emphasis is on creating a smooth and reliable user experience which is enhanced through apps and services. In this paradigm, hardware ceases to be the central focus - indeed, post launch, Apple does not emphasise on it at all - though they emphasise on design. As long as your phone runs smooth and fast and does not crash, why would you look at the specs?

Also in this paradigm, to maximise your experience of any iOS device you would need to eventually purchase apps, content and services. If you use an iPad or iPhone you would know what I mean. There's no free lunch on an iOS device, though there are tantalising snacks to whet your appetite. The paradigm created by Apple has proved vastly profitable  - you pay a premium for the handset and then you pay to use it!

Each paradigm has its advantages and disadvantages for us as consumers. With Android phones, the constant flux can lead to confusion, and in my case, decision paralysis! An overload of constantly changing specs can make it hard to take a call. And you have to be prepared for everything to change, tomorrow. For some, that's exciting - for others its a cause of irritation, or even an entry barrier. And yes, there is huge freedom to customise, root, do exactly what you please. What's freedom for me, may be anarchy for someone else!

And with Apple iOS, there is the fabulous user experience - at a price. The decisions as to how you will browse, what will work and not work, have already been taken for you (Flash video? Easy transfer of files?). Speaking from a two month experience with my iPad, I would like to draw an analogy. It's like being in a luxurious, five star hotel room. Beautiful furniture, great food. You want something extra? It will be added to your bill. Sorry, the windows are hermetically sealed and you can't open them, but isn't there a fabulous view? You see the guy lurking below in the street? He's a jailbreaker. Talk to him and he will throw up a stone and crack the window. But we are not responsible for what happens if you let in the atmosphere :)

Which paradigm do you belong to? Or do you feel comfortable with both? I don't mind living in Apple's gilded cage for brief periods. In fact, I was so happy that initially I forgot about my laptop. But now I am re-discovering the freedom and flexibility that it offers, with relish. I think I like both - I like the freedom to mess around and then I like to spend some time in my five star room. And that's an honest answer!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The cloud is here, and it's real

For years, we have heard the term 'cloud computing'. While it tends to be described by the tech world in very complex jargon, it's really a pretty simple concept.

In today's scenario most of your stuff - like the operating system, productivity software that you use, and your personal files like movies, music etc is stored in your hard drive, external drive, or on other storage media like pen drives, discs etc.

Chances are you are already using some cloud based services. Email services like Gmail, video or photo sharing services like Picassa and YouTube, filesharing services like Dropbox and blogging platforms like Blogger, and of course, Google Docs, store your stuff on remote servers, so you and your friends can access them from anywhere, on any device. Most of the apps that we run on smartphones also access and run data off the cloud.

 But when we talk about the cloud today, the term has expanded in its scope and vision. The Office software that you use would run off a server on the Net, your entire music, movie and picture libraries would reside on a server. It's like a hard drive, but it's all in a virtual space, sitting on a server. You would probably pay a small sum for this service, but you would enjoy the great convenience of being able to access stuff anywhere. You would not need to physically sync, transfer or dump files from one device to another.

The growing base of mobile devices has made the cloud a reality. Gartner has predicted that 387 million PCs will ship in 2011, but they also claim that 468 million smartphones will be sold in the same period. On top of that, many more tablets will also ship in 2011.

Smartphones and tablets lack the huge storage space, and the processing power that we have on our PCs. You would not be able to load and run an Office Suite on your phone, and you certainly would not be able to store all your music, movies and files. But you would be able to use Google Apps or Google Docs, off pretty much any mobile device, and this is what makes the cloud compelling.
So if you are interested in starting to use cloud services, you have a lot of choices coming up in the near future

1) Cloud services for music storage and streaming
iTunes and Amazon are both retailers of music and the first cloud services they have offered are a facility to store your music on their secure servers and stream it onto any device. Amazon launched Cloud Drive and Cloud Player in March, and followed up with separate apps for iOS and Android platforms. Apple's iCloud, will be part of the upcoming iOS 5 update due in September. Apple has also promised that with iOS 5, you will be able to sync and update your iOS devices wirelessly to iTunes. Both Amazon and Apple's iCloud will operate as 'freemium' services with a base 5 GB of free storage - in addition, you will get free storage for music purchased from their own stores. And you can buy more storage incrementally, according to your needs.

Google Music works on the same premise, allowing users to upload their music to a Google server and then stream it onto an Android phone, or through the web.

2) Productivity software and office suites
Google Docs has been a successful effort in this direction, and now Microsoft has bit the bullet. A couple of weeks ago, Microsoft launched Office 365, an upgrade on their existing cloud bundle. Targeted at enterprise and small business, the package includes Web Apps which are the web counterparts of Excel, PowerPoint etc.

Of course, cloud services have raised many questions, notably around the security of data. With music storage on the cloud, record labels have demanded licensing fees from Apple and Amazon. And in a country like India, till we see wider deployment of 3G or at least better availability of Wi-fi networks, cloud services will take off slowly. But they are here to stay, and I am sure we will be using them more and more in the days to come

Thursday, July 7, 2011

If you buy an Android phone, Microsoft earns money

It is said that as consumers, we vote with our wallets, but in the emerging mobile phone economy, it appears that your vote can benefit the rival candidate too. If you have been following the patent wars among mobile phone manufacturers, you will begin to see the patent (sic) absurdity of the situation. Microsoft already has a patent licensing deal with HTC that earns them $5 for every Android phone sold by the Taiwanese manufacturer. Now the latest buzz is that MS is planning to extract a $15 licensing fee per handset from Samsung. The company has also been on a spree of signing licensing agreements with smaller manufacturers such as Wistron, Velocity Micro and Itronix.

For Microsoft, there is big money to be made from these transactions. According to the latest Comscore figures, 1 in 3 Americans now owns a smartphone and Android with 38.1% market share, is the dominant operating system. Globally too, the picture is rosy for Android, with research firm Gartner predicting  that Android will dominate the global smartphone market with 50% share by 2012. This article in Businessweek predicts that Microsoft could stand to make as much as 1 billion dollars just by collecting royalties from the 36-odd Android licensees who make upto 310 Android devices. Barnes and Noble (Nook) and Motorola are holding out against forking out money to Microsoft, but given the precedent, it appears that some settlement will be reached with them also.

And of course, Microsoft has their own mobile OS, WP7, which currently has a negligible market share. But analysts at companies like Gartner and IDC are predicting that on the back of the tie-up with Nokia, Microsoft could secure as much as 20% of the global smartphone market by 2015. Looks like they have their strategy sown up at both ends. If the competitor gains, they gain. If their own operating system takes off, they gain even more.

Ironically, Google, which developed Android, does not make any money off the operating system directly - the platform is open source. They make money however, from advertising on the platform, and in the future, through closely integrating their cloud services with it. Also note that Google is not obliged to pay Microsoft any money, as Android is not a direct source of profit for them. Probably that was a smart pre-emptive strategy by Google?

In another ironic twist, last month Apple and Nokia settled an ongoing patent litigation, with Apple agreeing to pay an undisclosed lumpsum, and royalties to the Finnish company, as part of a licensing agreement. So effectively, Nokia will make money for every Apple phone which is sold.

It's easy to become righteously indignant at Microsoft, or any other company for making money off their rival's success. But the issue is not a simple one to judge. Bear in mind that all the companies paying royalty to Microsoft are large, reputed and in some case, multinational giants. Most importantly, all of them are profitable, and they have quietly and pragmatically settled the licensing cases rather than choosing the costly litigation route. There is business in the market and money to be made, today, and why not just settle and get on with it, instead of taking a righteous position?

What is more disturbing is the trend of companies whose core business is acquiring patents on technologies which they have not developed themselves (known as patent trolling) and then using this patent portfolio to arm-twist companies into making financial settlements. Neither Microsoft nor Nokia can really be called patent trolls - both companies have invested over the years in building products and software based on patents which they either hold themselves, or acquired. By virtue of long existence in the market, they have built up large patent portfolios and to my mind, they are justified in recovering their investment through licensing agreements. It may not be a great thing for the company image, and it may not be the most admirable way to make money, but they are within the law. If we don't like what's happening, we should change the patent laws.

What disturbed me more was the recent auction of nearly 6000 patents by bankrupt Canadian company Nortel. The patents were acquired by a consortium of tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, RIM and Sony Ericsson in a $4.5 billion deal - Google was left out. (Incidentally, you should read the hilarious story of how Google's bids for the patent portfolio comprised strange figures like pi and Brun's constant. I love their sense of humor!) Nortel's patent portfolio could well be used by Google's competitor's to check their growth - had Google succeeded in acquiring the patents, it might have given some protection to Android from further litigation. This large scale purchasing of patents may be an attempt by these companies to protect themselves, or it may be an attempt to check competition. Either way, it signifies that a large portion of resources are being devoted to aspects other than the core business - R&D, innovation, retailing and marketing of world-class devices and services. It would be a pity if the pure excitement and joy that comes from innovation in a dynamic market got hijacked by an all-enveloping patent war.

If you look at it from the perspective of Apple, RIM, Nokia and Microsoft, you might take a different stance. The HTCs and Samsung's of the world are essentially device manufacturers, riding to fame and fortune on operating systems developed by other companies. Their innovation is curtailed to the hardware - and in some cases, the hardware itself is dangerously imitative of others (Apple is suing Samsung for copying its hardware designs in the popular Galaxy series). Whereas the companies which develop both hardware and software, or only software, invest much more to develop proprietary and license-free technologies. When companies like HTC and Samsung make big money, maybe exploiting and riding on some of these technologies, it is only natural that they should be expected to pay some money for it.

Ultimately, as consumers, any additional costs incurred on royalties, licenses and patents will be passed on to us. Maybe it's time that we consider re-looking the rules of patenting, after understanding how innovation really works in today's times.