February 13, 2011

Kinoma to Bring Sleek App UI to Smartphones and Beyond

Near the end of 2010, Marvell Electronics, the San Jose-based silicon manufacturing firm, quietly made an acquisition of a software company called Kinoma, making mobile media browsers and other software for smartphones on Windows Mobile and Palm. This odd couple of sorts has pulled away the curtain today at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, promising to bring a new, elegant software platform for practically any digital device, designed for the new world of touch interfaces, bringing simplicity out of the domain of geeks, but all the way down to embedded devices. The idea? That Marvell ships a ton of silicon - billions of dollars a year worth, leveraging ARM processors that promise high performance and thrifty power consumption... but that don't have a strong UI to match. Kinoma now has a practically infinite playground, to take one of the slickest touch-based interfaces I've ever seen, pointing it first at smartphone and tablets, and later, taking it downmarket to practically every screen you've seen that begs for an overhaul.

The pedigree of the Kinoma team is a lofty one, filled with names you probably don't recognize, but whose products you use often. Peter Hoddie, who cofounded Kinoma in 2002, and is now VP of the Kinoma Platform at Marvell, spent nearly a decade at Apple working on the Quicktime platform. Brian Friedkin and Michael Kellner, also cofounders, similarly hailed from Apple, working with QuickTime and the development authoring platform Carbon.

Kinoma Play - the First Kinoma App

The trio's time at Apple delivered two primary focuses evident in today's unveiled product - a focus on multimedia, and a top quality user experience. That they spent years coding for underpowered computers also prepares them well for a world of feature phones and embedded devices in line for a UX fix. Last week, I sat down with Peter for a demo of the new Kinoma interface, and to talk about his vision for a world of proliferating devices. His story was one of applications that could speak to one another, actions that took a single click instead of multiple commands, and delivering resources to developers who want to leverage a consistent user experience.

The initial offering, called Kinoma Play, is essentially a new smartphone launcher that starts with 40 native applications, from social media to location and search. Kinoma's underlying foundation will be open sourced, and Marvell can then focus on optimizing the software layer for the company's chipsets.

The Kinoma Dashboard in Action

"What we can do as part of Marvell is bring sophistication from the smartphone market down to embedded devices," Hoddie told me. "Think of it as an evolution. There were computers which became phones, and we adapted. Some of these lower end devices are stretching it another direction. Bringing a great user experience to these devices is a big deal."

Unlike many software manufacturers, whose hardware demands continue to increase with seeming incremental solutions, Kinoma's expectation is to run with small amount of code for even the simplest of devices - and the the product's SDK is intended to make new platforms accessible to a broader audience than has typically been available from offerings such as Android and iOS, which require languages like Java and Objective C.

The Kinoma interface is incredibly sleek, centered around a new experience called a Dashboard, which brings features and events from an application to a single place, described as being both "infinite" and "self-organizing". There is even an application called History which shows all activity across all applications in a single place.

"The whole experience becomes the baseline for people to build on top of," said Hoddie. "Apple brings design to the party, but makes it challenging for people to achieve to their level. Google brings an open platform, but not the thoughtfulness to user experience. We are the right solution at the right point in time that the market needs right now. Smartphones and tablets aren't the only game in town."

One of the more intriguing aspects of Kinoma is the capability for applications to interact and link to one another, rather than their trying to do all tasks or being solely limited. While they can speak to one another, Kinoma acts as the glue to bring a consistency in the operating system and applications. One can see the Kinoma launcher sitting atop Android phones and Windows 7 phones or other smartphones in the future, even as the smart UI travels downstream to devices most of us might not use every day.

So why Marvell? Kinoma's no babe in the woods, with 8 years of history, and they recognized they needed a big partner to provide the business muscle, developer resources and OEM relationships to gain serious traction.

"As a small company, we could be innovative and controlled our own destiny, but it wasn't enough to be small and clever," Hoddie said. "We were going to need more resources. In parallel, Marvell was seeing how important software was to what they were doing. Being close to the hardware is important, but also getting closer to the ecosystem, which will be a huge deal for Marvell and lift the entire industry."

Kinoma goes live at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, and it won't be long until you can try out their unique interface on smartphones near you.

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