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Fighting the next mobile war

Recent moves by Apple and Google could ignite the external accessories space.

It’s arguable that with the arrival of touch displays, the current form factor for the smartphone is going to be with us for some time to come. You can’t get much simpler than a solid block of glass and aluminum with a button. Unless you remove the button. Thinking about it, that’s probably a solid suggestion — I’d look for that next.

If things aren’t going to change very much on the surface, underneath the glass things might not be much different either. Oh, the devices will be faster, and they’ll have more cores, better displays, faster network connections, and the batteries will last longer. But fundamentally, they’ll still be the same. The device won’t provide you with any new levers on the world. With the exception of NFC, which admittedly is a big exception, there are no new sensory modalities on the horizon that are likely to be integrated into handsets. You’ll interact with your smartphone tomorrow in much the same way you interact with it today, at least in the near term.

That said, it’s quite possible that your smartphone will interact with the world in a very different way. That’s because the next mobile war has already begun, and you’ve seen nothing yet.

The phoney war

It began quietly, with little noise or fanfare, just over two years ago with Apple’s announcement of iOS 3, the External Accessory Framework, and the opportunity for partners in the MFi program to build external hardware that connected directly to the iPhone.

For the first time, it was easy, at least for certain values of easy, to build sensor hardware that connected to a mass-market mobile device. And for the first time, the mobile device had enough computing power and screen real estate to do something interesting with the sensor data.

Except of course, it wasn’t easy. While initially the External Accessory Framework was seen as having the potential to open up Apple’s platform to a host of external hardware and sensors, little of the innovation people were expecting actually occurred. Much of the blame was laid squarely at the feet of Apple’s own MFi program.

There was some headway made using the devices as sensor gateways, mainly in the medical community, which Apple had initially pushed heavily during the launch. But in the end, the framework was used to support a fairly predictable range of audio and video accessories from big-name manufacturers — although more recently there have been a few notable exceptions.

Opening a second front

Things stayed quiet until earlier this year when Google announced the Android Accessory Development Kit (ADK) at Google I/O in May.

While there was a lot of criticism of Google’s approach, it was justifiably hailed as a disruptive move by Google in what had become a fairly stagnant accessories market. Philip Torrone hit the right note when he speculated that this might mean the end of Apple’s restrictive MFi program.

I’ve talked about the Arduino here before. It allows rapid, cheap prototyping for embedded systems. Making Android the default platform for development of novel hardware was a brilliant move by Google. Maybe just a little too brilliant.

The counterattack by Apple

Around the middle of the year, right in the middle of Apple’s WWDC conference, I was approached by Redpark and sworn to secrecy. Apple was on the brink of approving a serial cable for iOS that they would let Redpark sell into the hobbyist market.

I’d known about the existence of the cable since the preceding November with the release of the SkyWire telescope control kit. I’d begged Redpark for developer access to their cable, and after signing a thick stack of NDAs, I got my hands on one around mid-December. At the time there seemed little chance of Apple ever approving the cable except for specific use cases where the cable and an accompanying iOS application were approved together as part of the MFi program — exactly as Apple had for Skywire for telescopes and Cisco had for networking gear.

The news that the cable might soon be generally available to hobbyists was surprising. Despite Apple’s beginnings — and the large community of indie developers surrounding its products — the hobbyist market isn’t something Apple is known for caring about these days. Quite the opposite: Apple is notorious for keeping its products as closed as possible.

Controlling an Arduino with an iPhone.

Close on the heels of Google’s ADK announcement, Apple’s sudden enthusiasm was suspiciously timed. Someone high up at Apple had obviously realized the disruptive nature of the ADK and this was their response, their counter-attack. Despite the Android ADK actually being an Arduino, it was now easier to talk to an Arduino from iOS using Redpark’s cable than it was to talk to an Arduino from Android.

The long war

The Android ADK board is only now appearing in large numbers as the open hardware community gears up to produce compatible boards cheaper than Google’s ruinously expensive initial batch of “official” developer boards. The Redpark cable also faced supply issues, with the initial production run selling out on the Maker Shed within a few days. We’re only now seeing it in larger volumes. So, despite appearances, it’s still the early days.

Discussing the Redpark cable at OSCON 2011.

I think the availability of both these products is going to prove to be amazingly disruptive in the longer term. After spending two days at the recent World Maker Faire in New York, I know there’s a lot of enthusiasm inside the Maker community for that disruption — and Apple may have the edge.

Because of Apple’s policy restrictions, you can only develop applications that work with Redpark’s cable for your own personal use or for distribution inside an enterprise environment without going through the MFi program. The ease of use and popularity of the iOS platform with developers means there will still be a big uptake, and after a few people struggle through the process, I think that, with time, the cable will spell the end of the MFi program.

Over the next couple of years, we’ll be seeing some real innovation in the external accessory product space. Rapid prototyping combined with ease of access to increasingly powerful mobile platforms means that the next mobile war, and the next big thing of a real ubiquitous computing environment, is just around the corner.

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