Every now and then this blog veers off path to talk about tech, not that surprising I guess as this is not only an outdoor community but a tech-savvy one.
A recent discussion on computer mapping has focused, once again, on the challenges faced by the kind of small but innovative companies who tend to produce the applications that are designed to support outdoor activities. I have been asked to create a new post to concentrate discussion and the challenges posed by competing hardware platforms, so as to keep the mapping discussion discreet.
The problem with this is that it beings me to the dreaded discussion (amongst other things) of the Apple v. Android debate. I just hope I am not going to regret this!
First off I should declare that I am a user of both Apple’s desktop and mobile products. I wouldn’t describe myself as an ‘apple fanboy’ particularly. I have used Apple computers for a long, long time now and their mobile products just dovetail superbly into my own work environment and workflow. It is the computer environment that make the difference for me and I have one or two critical programs that I have used for many years, that are only available on Apple platforms. If I wasn’t in this position I would probably be quite happy to explore one or other of the Android platforms.
The issue for us in this place is how hardware and OS impact on the provision of specialist software. It is always worth remembering that the outdoor world while big in some ways is a relatively small niche in terms of mass market. The sales of Angry Birds will always annihilate the sales of any outdoor orientated app.
My interest in mapping software — as reflected in these pages — is in no short measure due to using Macs. Jump back a few years and Mac users have very few choices when it came to mapping software. The big players in the game back then, MemoryMap and Anquet both declared that they had no intention of supporting Apple platforms but the dramatic rise of the iPhone and the popularity of Apple’s laptops and iMacs has changed that a little. This is the sole reason that I follow the development of Routebuddy so closely. While Routebuddy is now genuinely cross platform it still has few peers in the Apple desktop world. I don’t have a great deal of experience in using a big range of products. I have Routebuddy and Anquet for Mac installed on my computers (the Anquet program being a third party implementation that uses Anquet data and maps from their servers). On my phone and tablet devices I have installed Routebuddy Atlas, Viewranger and the recent Ordnance Survey App — and I have tried a few others over time. Into this mix I ought to throw in Viewranger’s web based services which allow the platform to work on a cross platform basis through a web browser. I do use Viewranger in this way from time to time but in general do not like serious project planning using a browser. So, declarations out of the way, let’s move on.
Our mapping providers are in the main small companies and as such are finding life as difficult as many niche companies in the current economic climate. One major company has recently begun making senior staff redundant. Another I know of has not updated some of their maps for a long time and are effectively selling (from new) map data that is seven years old or so. Institutional finance and debt also seem to be significant issues. The worst product that I have used — with by far the worst customer service — is one which has been ported to my platforms by a specialist third party. Rumours suggest that the ‘parent’ provider is very unhappy with the state of affairs but they have a contractual relationship to work with. Worries about these kind of third party deals are what niggle me about the OS App. In my direct experience once the initial fire has gone out of these agreements software remains static over long periods of time and even mapping data becomes out of date.
Of course, nobody sets out to be in this kind of position. But we should recognise that anyone playing in this market is dealing with low margins, high development costs and are selling to a public that continues to be extremely cost conscious. So — and this is getting to the point — the choice of hardware platform may be significant, especially when it comes to mobile.
I suppose we have to rehearse the basic arguments. Let’s start with Apple.
Before Apple there were smartphones it’s just that they didn’t look and work as they do today. Apple’s iPhone has been an extraordinary success story and one of the few products that has genuinely transformed a market. Apple’s IOS is an extremely profitable and useable platform. Apple may not be the biggest handset seller but it’s IOS dominates by far internet usage and is also the most profitable cash cow in the mobile world by a long way. But, maybe, Apple has lost its way. Is the company really innovating in terms of its software platform at a pace that we want to see?
I was recently talking about this with Phil Sorrell from Social Hiking. Phil said that he used to look forward to new Apple mobile announcements with a real sense of excitement but over the last few years there has been little that has excited him or caught his eye. We talked about the new iPhone 5 which is incredibly powerful in terms of speed and battery life. It seemed to me very unlikely that Apple wouldn’t make use of this power in an update soon but then of course they have to also ensure that new OS software runs acceptably on legacy devices (more on this below). Some are frustrated by the lack of customisation for IOS. I tend to be happy with standard implementations as I just want things to work but of course any tech-savvy community will have members who want to be able to customise their equipment and there is a very healthy market in jail break products for IOS devices that allow people to explore the world as it is decreed by Apple.
This level of customisation is one of Androids selling points but also one of its problems. Android has come a long way in a short time and the latest implementations of this OS are as least as good as Apple’s. Perhaps, Android Apps on tablets still leave a lot to be desired but the gap is closing quickly. Android’s success is a vindication of Google’s open community philosophy. When I was talking to Phil he found it interesting that people didn’t seem upset yet with Google, that they still trusted it where they were suspicious of others — remember that company called Microsoft? But I am often reminded that Google is not a charitable body. As the Guardian recently observed Google’s decision to kill off Google Reader is areal reminder of how difficult it is to build a consistent platform using web 2.0. I do wonder about Google. Much of what we enjoy as free is effectively the result of their research and development phase. If a user base begins to slow — or if a product cannot be explored financially — like Google Reader it will be cut off regardless of how many people are relying on it. New developments like Google Glass may be exciting but they are primarily designed to drive more commercial income. But, at the moment, Google has managed to develop Android into a very impressive mobile platform.
But what about these development costs? Are they that significant and will they effect the future of our products?
A recent twist has shown that the much maligned Apple Maps Software Development Kit (SDK) is not only easier to use for developers but is in some ways more powerful than the Google equivalent. Of course, Apple’s offering will always compare badly in the field of search where Google seem without any prospect of real competition. Apple has to rely on a host of third party developers to deliver what Google can do in house. A recent article by tech site Gizmodo has shown that Android’s fragmented hardware base makes for significantly slower development time for new versions of the OS.
Android can of course claim to genuinely be a platform for the people. Android can run on the most highly specified devices but also on some of the most modest. But this is a platform that exists on cheap subsidised carrier programmes and perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is nowhere near as profitable as IOS.
In our previous debate Neil Wilson Harris of Routebuddy weighed in. Currently his company is IOS only with its mobile Routebuddy Atlas offering. There was some doubt as to whether Routebuddy aim to develop for Android. Neil has confirmed that Routebuddy is developing for Android but he also seemed to hint that development was slow. More controversially I guess Neil questioned the long time future of Android, which I have to say surprised me.
Neil pointed me to this article on e.businessinsider.com which looks at Samsung’s amazing growth but also notes Apple’s continued domination in terms of income generation. Neil’s view is that for consumers IOS is the safer bet and safer buy at the moment.
The launch of the new Samsung Galaxy has give tech journalists a lot to think about. During the launch Samsung never once mentioned Google or Android. While many traditional Android apps still work on the Samsung phone it seems the company is intent on developing more and more Samsung specific applications that won’t be shareable across the Android world — a general feeling seems to be that Samsung are eying up Apple’s mobile generated revenues and see their future as more of a unique platform, based on Android yet but increasingly specialised around dedicated apps and OS front end, reminding me that Apple’s own OS sits on top of a unix core.
So, over to you? I genuinely have no real ideas or insights in to how things will develop. But in our specialised world where margins are everything these issues may well have a real resonance.
What does the team think?