Daddy, Where's Your Phone?

I met recently with Vic Gundotra, formerly Microsoft’s head of platform evangelism, and now VP of Engineering at Google, responsible for all their mobile efforts outside of Android. We were talking about Google’s mobile strategy and the insanely cool new voice-activated Google search in the Google Mobile Application for iPhone. But what I really want to share is Vic’s story about why he left Microsoft. It was one of those “wake up, the future is staring you in the face!” moments that we all experience from time to time, but often ignore.

The story goes something like this: Vic was out for dinner with family and friends. The adults were on one side of the table, the kids on the other. The adults were debating some issue, and Vic said, in response to a question from one of his friends, “I don’t know.”

His four-year old daughter Samantha, whom everyone knows as “Tiger,” piped up from the other side of the table: “Daddy, where’s your phone?”

“What do you mean, where’s my phone?” She explained that she’d overheard the question. Why wasn’t he just looking up the answer on his phone?

Out of the mouths of babes. Vic said that he realized in that moment that the era of the PC was over, and that the future belonged to cloud applications accessed via phones.

Kamla Bhatt was busting my chops about the same subject when I did an interview with her last week for Mint, the Indian business site. “Tim, you don’t talk enough about mobile!” she said. “In India and around the world, there is a whole new generation that accesses the internet, and they have never seen a PC. To them, it’s all on their phone.”

It’s not entirely true that I don’t talk about mobile. On Radar, we talk about not just mobile, but all kinds of distributed sensors all the time. And “instrumenting the world” has been a major theme in my talks.

But I plead guilty to Kamla’s charge: I think about the web as experienced on a PC, and then about mobile as an add on. The tipping point has come; that notion has to flip: if we’re trying to get ahead of the curve, we need to think first about the phone, and then think about the PC browser experience as the add-on.

In short, to borrow Accenture’s slogan: “Be a Tiger!” She is the next generation. Always remember her question: “Daddy, where’s your phone?

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  • Erik

    Excellent post, but I do have one objection. We shouldn’t think mobile web over PC web (or vice vesa). There is only The Web and mobile and PCs are just enablers for the same service.

    We shouldn’t design websites that are exclusively for either type of device.

  • I worked for Vic for a couple years, and distinctly remember him exhorting his team members at Microsoft that we were really turning things around and that we had solid leadership, vision, etc. He likened it to the lesson he learned from his father about investing in the stock market — “Buy when there’s blood in the streets.”

    Then he quit a couple months later. Must have been too much blood at Microsoft.

    Maybe he had an epiphany, but it left a lot of his employees, who believed in his enthusiasm, feeling very cold, hurt, and, well, deceived.

    Microsoft has/had a mobile vision. Whether you think MSFT is going the right way or not, the reality is that Vic probably could have taken his enthusiasm and verve to the mobile side of Microsoft and he would have been welcomed. Indeed, one could say that, had he taken his epiphany another step further inside Microsoft, perhaps that playing field would be different now.

    Don’t take this as bashing against Vic. Personally, I wish him the very best of luck, and I truly enjoyed working with him.

  • AB

    Don’t forget that Vic was offered a promotion from an equally stable company. That’s already a sufficient explanation.

    Vic was hired by Google to do exactly what he was doing at Microsoft.

  • AB

    To complete my comment. In my knowledge, Microsoft did not offer him to match Google offer by offering him to make a VP. So it is more like Microsoft found him too expensive for the service he delivered.

  • Tim,

    Does the mobile device have the enough real estate to support the expansion of an advertising based revenue model? How does this impact the current business models of internet advertising companies?


  • “I think about the web as experienced on a PC, and then about mobile as an add on. “

    I’m surprised by this comment and agree with Erik about the Web and mobile. I think it has become evident to anyone who works away from a fixe office that the web is just something that is accessed from anywhere. I use my iPhone as a web device more than as a phone, which I believe is commonly the case. I can’t count the times when I “consult the oracle” to check a fact or look something up in a conversation. The rapid rise of “netbooks” like the eeePC reinforces my belief that mobile devices are where the center of gravity has shifted, whether phones or tiny PCs.

    Although both my teenage kids have desktop computers, I see them being more comfortable with the small screen of the iPhone for web browsing possibly because of all those years using portable video game players like the Nintendo DS.

  • continued cookie tests…. just to also comment, on a recent trip to a family reunion, I was on a boat on the colorado river, and there was a discussion where some obscure name or fact was disputed, and when I looked it up on the phone, the act of looking things up on the phone became the main topic of conversation and we forgot what we were looking up.

  • To add to the point about the experience of the PC vs. mobile…assuming the transition to mobile takes hold, and we become more reliant on mobile apps and sites for our day to day business, we’ll need to start taking the uptime and performance of mobile sites very seriously. The fact that there are a number of different networks to deal with (e.g. ATT, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.) will make this problem trickier. That’s something that I feel deserves some attention in the near term, before we realize that the success of our mobile initiatives are at the mercy of the cell network providers.

  • Paul –

    I think you make a mistake in thinking that screen real estate for advertising will be a limiting factor. What is the model when you just ask your phone a question, and it gives you the best answer? One organic result, one paid result. If that paid result is calculated like adwords to be the best combo of price and likely to click, it’s a huge business.

    Alex –

    I bet you’re not being completely honest with yourself. Yes, it’s obvious that the phone is another access device, but do you really think of it as the primary device when you design an info service? I bet you don’t. See Erik’s comment at the beginning of the thread, and my response to Erik just below.

    Erik –

    I think that it’s a mistake to think “We shouldn’t design websites that are exclusively for either type of device.” An awful lot of people went down that road in the early days of the web. Consider this statement: “We shouldn’t just develop content for the web. We should develop content that works equally well in print and on the web.”

    We can see in retrospect what a dead end that was for many publishers. The big wins on the web came from searching out what made it unique. The same will be true of mobile.

    What *is* true is that it’s the data that matters. But the phone and the PC will use it in very different ways, primarily because the phone is a mobile device. What you need to know, when you need to know it, and how you’re going to consume it, all change.

    Speech recognition will be more important; location will be more important; social networking will be both local and personalized in deeper ways. Lots more.

  • No way! I don’t think browsing the web with a mobile device with a small screen will ever be such fun as browsing it with a PC and a big monitor.

  • msilver

    Stefan, I agree that it isn’t always as fun, but I think that it’s the fact that I can be at dinner with a group of people arguing about whether or not it was Nick Nolte or Gary Busey as the grumpy partner in Point Break, and settle such a ridiculous argument without going back home and using my desktop computer to settle it, which makes using my phone to browse a web page more fun.

  • This isn’t news. It’s been obvious, at least to me, for more than five years that small devices – PDAs and phones – combined with WiFi and similar high-bandwidth un-wired connections have a massive potential as a highly mobile portal to stored information from the web to the corporate database.

    Screen size is a constraint, not because of advertising per se, but because of the narrow view in which the PC and its large screen dominates the design of interfaces. In particular a graphics heavy, information dense screen just doesn’t scale down. Focus on either PC or mobile exacerbates the problem – at least in the short term.

    The second problem is that RIAs – flex and silverlight – are not lightweight protocols. Designers love them and users seeking information at speed on a low power device with a small screen hate them.

    I believe that we are now further from the tipping point than we were five years ago.

  • bowerbird

    we might be at a “tipping point”,
    but we haven’t even _begun_ to
    figure out the ramifications of an
    anywhere/anytime web experience.

    and until we have an infrastructure
    that gives “always-on” to _everyone_,
    it’s premature to think in that manner.


  • Tim: “…it’s obvious that the phone is another access device, but do you really think of it as the primary device when you design an info service? I bet you don’t.”

    That is a good point. Clearly PCs with larger screens are used differently from phones. I use an iPhone which is more of a convergent device. But phones are much more numerous than PCs, growing at a faster rate and are much more likely to be used in a mobile situation. In that sense, I see them as already the dominant communication device and I fully expect them to be the dominant web device in due course. I wouldn’t use a phone for word processing (I tried with PDAs when they were in vogue) but I do increasingly use it for data lookups and even Amazon when I see I book I am interested in (their mobile interface isn’t bad at all).

    My sights are set on a mobile application as one of my next software products and thinking about how to present information on a small screen without a good keypad is an interesting challenge.

  • Mike, the fact that you’re even thinking that Flash and Silverlight are somewhere in the proposed solution set is a demonstration of the “old” mindset that needs to change.

    Go download the new Google Mobile App for iPhone, try the voice search, and ask yourself if that isn’t a breakthrough app showing the way to a whole new application paradigm on the phone.

    The point of this story is that with this app, Google has taken a step into the true mobile arena in a way that people trying to somehow straddle both PC and web experiences just will not be able to do.

    A cloud-based application triggered by an accelerometer, taking input from a microphone, and delivering results on a screen, is a suggestion of the way the new world will work…

  • bowerbird – too early? Was it too early for Tim Berners-Lee to release the WWW, even though the majority of users were still accessing the internet on slow dialup modems? Breakthrough technology always comes before the majority of users and the majority of devices are ready for it.

  • Tim,

    In India for example, the phone is still used in a large extent for:

    1. Conversation (Voice, SMS)
    2. Transactions using Conversation (Call an agent or a friend to buy tickets)

    The large population knows how to SMS but don’t know what search is. They also know Nokia, Motorola but don’t know who Google is.


  • P.N.John

    If the mobile phone screen could be expanded when required into something bigger, it would a fascinating device for browsing.

  • Ted Cohn

    Been doing this for years with my
    Smartphone. Googling from it is a great
    way to settle arguments.

    I say I read paper (books) and glass (phone)
    The width of the phone is the same width
    as a column in most newspapers – so it really
    is not a stretch to read on the phone.
    (New York Public Library has a growing
    selction of ebooks which I read on the phone)

    Isn’t what most people do on computers is
    READ?? (like reading this blog)

    btw – a pc is an accessory to my smartphone
    That ‘a-ha’ moment hit me years ago

  • I remember last weekend, when a friend and I had a discussion about “Dead Man’s Hand” at about 4 o’clock in the morning (no need to tell you that we were drunk) and we couldn’t get to a point.

    Then I suddenly realised that I could use my phone, go to wikipedia, and search for information.

    Well, I lost the discussion, but I won experience ;)

  • Through this story of Tiger, I realize in that moment that the era of the knowledge research is over, the next generation will do only fast food style knowledge obsorbing.

    We have been doing research through Web in last 15 years. The screen size of mobile phone is simply not big enough to do research which need efficient comparison and analysis between info obtained from different sources.

  • Ted

    Andy, I have to respectfully disagree.
    Searching on a phone will lead and/or force
    people to expand their search using a pc.
    Exposure to searching on a phone can only
    lead to more thorough searching via a full
    scale browser on a pc (and tabbed browsing).

    The best analogy of this is that txt msging
    actually leads to better literacy.

    An interesting analysis:

    “Despite doom-laden prophecies, texting has
    not been the disaster for language many
    feared, argues linguistics professor
    David Crystal. On the contrary, it improves
    children’s writing and spelling.”

  • bowerbird

    tim said:
    > bowerbird – too early?

    not too early to start doing the research, no.
    in fact, i’d say we’re rather late on that part…
    if we had a solid handle on all the benefits,
    it would give us motivation to build a system.

    > Breakthrough technology always comes
    > before the majority of users and
    > the majority of devices are ready for it.

    it’s not that the “users” aren’t ready for it.
    it’s that our _infrastructure_ isn’t ready…

    and no, i don’t mean our devices either…

    i mean i still can’t get wifi inside my house,
    and sometimes not even a cell-phone signal,
    and i live in the middle of west los angeles…

    we need to make sure the system will work,
    for everyone, in every place, all of the time…

    when we push the leading edge out to where
    the trailing edge has no way of keeping up,
    we only exacerbate the digital divide, and
    that’s no way to proceed with general policy.

    part of the reason the telephone system was
    such a huge success was because we had a
    very strong commitment to universal service.
    without that, it would’ve been a big disaster.

    so, will we be sowing the seeds of discourse?
    or sowing the seeds of discord? it’s a choice.


  • Awesome to hear you talking like this about mobile Tim! I’ve been part of a team running a conference in San Francisco focused on emerging trends in mobile services ( We intentionally schedule it around Web 2.0 because of the massive influx of smarts you draw in with that conference. A bunch of folks at O’Reilly have already helped us greatly with promoting the event, but always happy to do more. Let us know if you’re interested in working together next year to plan some additional mobile sessions for the web crowd.

    – Mike

  • I’ve written more about why the mobile web is not an “add-on” in my blog article: “Web 2.0 Sensorium”. In essence the phone is better suited to accessing collective intelligence wherever you need it, compared to PCs.

  • Great post, Alex. Everyone ought to read it!

    I’ve also just posted a followup myself: Voice in Google Mobile App: A Tipping Point for the Web?

  • > we need to think first about the phone, and then think about the PC browser experience as the add-on

    Well done that man.

    I’d thought you were a bit behind the curve until recently, but you’ve caught up fast!

    Our kids will think it hilarious that we used to have to sit at a lonely desk and screen to participate online.


  • yes, yes, yes… the mobile handset is indeed the future of personal computing and those who don’t realize that will miss a huge opportunity…


  • bowerbird

    > Our kids will think it hilarious that we used to have to
    > sit at a lonely desk and screen to participate online.

    i’ve been dealing with that mentality for decades now,
    with people who think that “reading an e-book” means
    a person has to be sitting at their desktop computer…


  • @Tim

    1) I don’t think that Flash and Silverlight are part of the solution. Quite the opposite. I do think that they dominate current design thinking and will do so for some time to come.

    2) I don’t think that the iPhone has quite the market penetration that you think it has. I don’t have one, and I’ve never met anyone that has one. In fact I don’t think I’ve even seen one in the flesh. And, I work for a global IT services company and have a mass of gadget hungry friends.

    3) A voice activated app may be a breakthrough, but it wasn’t the subject of your original post; voice activated phone books (a type of search) have been around for years; and it’s a long haul from one app loved by a handful of nerds to the transcendence of the mobile device over the PC.

  • mark McCormack

    i think people fundamentally believe that technology adapts to people. In fact, I believe we adapt to technology and accept the trade offs. A few examples:

    1) We trade landline telephone reliability for less reliable wireless mobility
    2) We trade desktop screen size and power for laptop portability
    3) We trade the simplicity and speed of computer search for slower mobile web search
    4) We trade the ability to communicate richly with people via email for the immediacy of IM, twitter, etc.
    5) We trade the electrical appliances / computers / phones for battery operated ones.

    These trade offs, change our expectations. Think about this:

    – What if your TV required as much support as your computer?
    – What if your cable box crashed as much Vista?
    – what if your home phone (note, i don’t have one) only worked some of the time? or better yet, you only had a few hours of battery life?

    I think we do this for a number of reasons but largely it is about convenience and connectivity.

    This is what mobile devices bring and why we are obsessed with them.

  • Wow…interesting post :)…True that the younger generation in India, as Kamla said, do know internet and google but dont bother PC…its all mobile…two main reasons that drive this are
    its easy to afford mobiles than pc’s and infact taking a mobile serves two purposes.
    second one is ease of access as it is for everybody else!

    but , I think mobiles can have technology but we cant just shift from pc’s to mobiles….there is an overlap but not replacement!

  • Great Post..But to be fair, mobile web has still not picked up.

    It will pick up the day, there are some great third party networks that will help advertisers make as much money from mobile as they do on web. But for that to happen, there have to be more mobile internet users; which will only happen along with there being more mobile internet sites..It’s all catch-22 right now!

  • Interesting story – and I think this “problem” will increase in the future.
    Until the beginning of this year I only used my PC for the internet, and the phone only for calls (ok, and for emails, cause it’s a blackberry).
    But – thanks to umts – today i can surf with my phone with quite good speed and low costs, so in the future there will be even less personal computers for the daily informational surfing. And that story goes on in big big steps…

    I’m a bit afraid about that fast progress…

    kind regards,

  • Great post, I think that the mobile handset is indeed the future of personal computing and Internet access. We all use mobile phones more frequently today than PCs so it is only question of time when everyone will surf the Web with cell phones.

    I’m personally looking forward for that time…


  • John Bloggerty

    Top post!
    We wish all a merry christmas.

    God bless you