Birth of a buzzword. The Smartbook is here

May 28, 2009

News from Qualcomm today that they’re working on a platform for a new class of devices called “smartbooks”. Think of the best attributes of a phone, such as instant on, always connected and the best parts of netbook hardware like 10” screens and larger keyboards. No word on OS, other than it *won’t* run Windows so it’s too early to call success or failure without at least seeing some hardware doing something. I will say it’s an uphill battle.


I’ve talked a lot in the past about how hard it is for ‘tweener devices to sell in the market. It’s been tried a lot of times before and nearly every product that’s straddled the line between phone and laptop failed.

Mobile devices are following two contradictory trajectories. One class is fragmenting in terms of core functions, creating new markets for stand-alone devices such as dedicated cameras and media players. The other, which includes such devices as smartphones and mobile Internet devices, is taking on new features and functions, rivaling stand-alone devices in terms of functionality through convergence. Neither approach is universally correct, and vendors more than ever need to understand the contextual factors that influence consumer device usage. They have to focus on providing the sorts of core features that will lead users to include these devices among the three that they’re willing to carry.

Devices that can’t displace one of those three will simply not be purchased.

A quick “Pre-view” one week before launch

May 28, 2009

For months there’s a been a lot of speculation going on about the Pre. From launch date to full feature specs and a host of other rumors about follow on devices, like the mythical Eos.

I tend not to engage in a whole lot of rumor speculation but here’s how I see the Pre and WebOS as we stand a week before the formal launch. While lots of folks still talk about how late Palm is to the game, I think we’re still pretty early in terms of the mass market smartphone. Sure, folks like of us have been using devices for years but for the mainstream consumer, it’s all about moving from a feature phone to high end device for the first time.

In terms of Web OS, Palm Synergy remains the real story here. Palm really understands the nature of how information has evolved and where it lives and how users desire to have their mobile device intersect both their business and personal lives. Palm understood this in the day of the Palm Pilot and they get it now. Personal information management is still the table stakes that the mass market will look for in these devices and Palm’s got something at the moment that no one else really has, even Apple. Yes, there’s support for corporate use for Exchange but that’s not where the magic lies. At the core of Web OS is the equivalent of an object oriented file story under the covers that makes the magic happen (something Microsoft’s been looking to do since the Cairo days, one could actually call Web OS Cairo Mobile).
Synergy, if it works as demoed, will be one of the major things that drives device adoption. It shows a fundamental understanding that users don’t just have their information neatly organized at the desktop but in the cloud as well in places like Facebook and allows users to unite them in a single store of information. The ability to sync that information into one common store is as important today as Outlook sync was a decade ago. Perhaps even more so. For me, it’s a killer feature that will define the platform.

I had been concerned about desktop sync for both media and personal information. Given that Palm hadn’t really discussed sync, except for cloud based solutions, I was concerned that we’d be faced with another G1 scenario with no links to the PC. Today, Palm alleviated those issues for me. While the Pre’s, media functions look fine one still needs to get content on the device. Even enterprise focused RIM offers a sync solution for getting iTunes content to a Blackberry. The good news is Palm offers three modes of USB connection including media sync from iTunes. This is excellent. Along with that, Palm has worked with MarkSpace and Chapura to make sure there are good sync option’s available for getting PIM information across and an option for a one time transfer of data (and then using the cloud from then on) As I’ve said many times. Control Sync, Control the World. Palm’s done a good job with covering the basis here, better than I had expected when they first started to discuss sync.

But there’s one potential weakness well and here’s the downside. I still hear from App vendors concerns about limits in what they can do as Palm’s not exposing the full Linux layer. I’m of mixed mind here. Yes, that might mean high end 3D games are not going to be in the first mix of apps. But will that matter? There’s plenty of games and other apps Palm developers could do to make the platform attractive enough for most users purposes. We’ve already seen apps like Pandora can be done rather well and even run as a background task. This one’s a wait and see and a lot will depend on Palm capturing developer mindshare. I’m a little skeptical but then again, Palm doesn’t need every app vendor, just enough of the good ones, done in a way that make them stand out. Oddly, this is exactly the argument Apple used to make against Microsoft about the PC desktop.

The smartphone market has changed dramatically over the last eighteen months. It’s a nascent market that’s still dominated by the early adopter. All that’s changing and changing fast. Palm has a major opportunity to carve out some space here. Now, all we need is that launch date and a roadmap for the devices beyond the Pre. I should have a device here shortly, so look for my first take soon.
So, what do you think? Are Palm’s efforts (at least what we know) appealing to you? Would you make the leap to Pre? Why or why not?

Announcing LG DTXTR

May 27, 2009

We’ve had the privilege at Interpret to work with LG on a project that’s being unveiled today called LG DTXTR. The site’s an application that allows parents  (or anyone else for that matter) to translate over 2000 words that are often texted by teenagers. If a word’s not there, one ask that it be included in the glossary.

In addition to the site, the LG also announced the results of the "LG Mobile Phones Survey on Parents, Teens and Texting" which queried 1,000+ parents of teens who text and 1,000+ teens/tweens on their texting habits. Interpret conducted the research and the results are simply amazing. The survey revealed that teens and their younger counterparts–tweens–are sending 20,209 texts every second, or more than 1.2 million texts every minute, in the U.S. Pretty amazing.

The survey, also revealed that there is a privacy issue for teens when it comes to their text messages. For teens, text messages rank higher in privacy than diaries or emails: 52% of teens say a parent reading their text messages is worse than if they read their emails or diaries. One of the reasons may be that about a third of teens feel more comfortable speaking freely over text: 32% of teens feel like they can say things in a text message that they wouldn’t have the nerve to say otherwise.

While teens may dread their parents reading their text messages, the reality is that parents – especially younger parents with teens in their household – are checking their teens’ messages. According to the LG Survey, 31% of teens think parents check their texts, but the number is actually higher with 47% of younger parents having actually read their teens’ texts without consent.

You might have seen yesterday’s article in the times about teens and texting. Every generation has a language of their own, today’s generation’s is firmly rooting in text messaging. If you’re a parent who has a child with a cell phone that is texting, you’ll want to check LG DTXTR out and see what’s being said. Perhaps you’ll even join the conversation.

Zune HD – First Take

May 26, 2009

Last week I wrote about some of the things Microsoft needed to do with Zune to succeed. This week, they’ve taken some of the first steps and announced the new Zune HD today.

The specs are pretty impressive with a 3.3-inch, 480 x 272 OLED capacitive touchscreen display, built-in HD Radio receiver and HD output. Microsoft’s also talking about much better Xbox integration with Zune marketplace replacing the Xbox branded content. We’re told there’s more to come at E3. I’ll have more to say once Microsoft tells the full story to the public but there’s a lot here that MSFT is doing well, especially when it comes to the hardware.

One ongoing challenge will be for MSFT to finally get all the pieces together and tell a proper, holistic story that showcases the things that the Zune eco-system brings to the market. We’ll see how well they do next week in LA.
Bottom line? Microsoft is not giving up on Zune’s hardware story just yet. More to come next week… and more to say at that time.

3G Phone Battery Life

May 26, 2009

I use a lot of phones on a regular basis, probably more than the average user. Or perhaps even more than the non average user.

One thing I’m always looking at is battery life. While I don’t formally test battery length, my standard test is simple. Can the phone get me through my toughest day of use without dying or make it through two casual days of use. That’s a typical usage scenario for me. Often, the answer is no and that’s why I’ll often use many 3G devices with EDGE turned on and not 3G.

I think there’s two reasons for this. First 3G radios inherently use more power to a greater degree. Second, the added functionality of 3G leads to increases in usage models and the battery drains faster. Let’s face it, when you browse the web and it’s a good experience, you tend to do it more. Add in things such as streaming audio or video and driving the screen even more and you’re going to take a hit on overall battery life over the course of the day.

Eventually battery life will get better as both chipsets and software  improve to handle increased usage models. As for today, Most of the time I have found no problem getting through a day on the road but find I mostly have to recharge most devices at night. As for a really heavy voice and data day? There’s only a couple of devices I’ve found that can handle that load with 3G turned on. So, what’s your 3G experience?

Time for Microsoft to tell a better Zune tale

May 25, 2009

Latest Engadget column is live.

The pen is the platform

May 25, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of Pen computing, i’ll have more to sat about in in the future. In the meantime, one of the most interesting products I’ve been using for the last is year is a digital pen but one that works quite differently from the devices I’ve used in the past. You see, one of the most compelling uses of a TabletPC was when you added in the OneNote application. In addition to taking notes, OneNote could also record meetings or lectures and link the audio text with your notes. It’s cool and works really well. The downside is you needed a TabletPC and OneNote.

A company called LiveScribe introduced a new digital pen offering a year ago called the Pulse that mimics this trick and more. It’’s pen computing but not tied to the computer. LiveScribe’s leadership has a history of these devices, their founder designed the popular children’s offering for Leapster. I spent some time with the system last night and I can say, it works really well. The pen is well designed with a nice OLED display to let you know what’s going on. Interaction is entirely with printed materials on special paper. Click on a printed calculator, and the pen displays the results. Click on a Piano keyboard (or draw one) and the pen plays. Click record and the pen records the spoken word and links it to whatever you write. The system works and it works well.

In order to work its magic, like most devices in this category, the Pulse needs special paper printed with microscopic dots so the camera built in the pen can track what’s going on and record it. The unit ships with a large spiral notebook and I been using a Moleskin like notebook that was a little more professional in appearance. This is the probably the system’s greatest weakness. No special paper, no digital magic. LiveScribe plans on releasing a template so you can laser print your own paper but at the moment you need to order from them. Worse, each notebook is sequentially numbered and you need to keep using the next notebook in the series or the pen gets confused.

While there’s plans longer term for more pen applications to emerge (the unit comes with a demo of a translation program, the Piano player app and the calculator) there’s still a lot of value in the core experience. The idea of adding the flexibility of digital note taking along with audio capture without the need of a PC at the time of capture is compelling. The 1 or 2gb of memory on the different models offers more than enough storage. In addition to storing notes on your PC, you can also sign up for a LiveScribe account to share your stuff on the web. LiveScribe offers 250mb of storage of each user, again, adequate enough for most users needs.

While there have been other devices with similar function, none have the small form factor and tight integration with the written and spoken word that LiveScribe has and that makes for a compelling experience. If LiveScribe can further evolve the system and fix some of the glitches that still plague the system, there’s a potential mass market product here. While pen computing has failed to capture the current consumer, perhaps the answer to digital pens lies in paper and ink.

In the meantime, this is the system I’m recommending for folks who want a pen computing experience.

Off to Seattle

May 15, 2009

I’m off to Seattle next week for HTC’s analyst event. Should be most interesting. Posting will be light for the next few days.

TC-Oh No

May 13, 2009

Back in the late 90’s, I worked on some of Gartner’s Total Cost of Ownership studies for PCs in the Enterprise. Back then, Gartner’s TCO numbers were the benchmark of the industry and were taken quite seriously. (Microsoft was so concerned about Gartner’s numbers as they related to Windows, they devoted a whole team to come out to Stamford to fully understand the model. At the time, I think there were only two people on the planet that really understood our model. One worked for Gartner and the other worked for Microsoft). TCO, of course, is a pretty important business issue but as with other things in this age of the “IT-ization of the consumer” things that were once the purview of only business users have now become consumer issues as well. Therefore, it didn’t surprise me to see that Microsoft has commissioned a TCO study recently on the cost of Windows vs. Macintosh. (Shockingly, the commissioned study found that PCs were less expensive to own). Let’s face it. Numbers are numbers and most of you reading this could build models that show how just about any platforms could theoretically come out ahead. I was tempted to do my own analysis of the two platforms but I think it’s more important to explode two big myths of TCO.

A vendor’s TCO numbers matter. No! Mileage varies and savvy consumers should use vendor cost models as a starting point to perform their own analyses. Don’t take someone else’s numbers as being valid for your family. It’s a good time to remind everyone that there are no standards for consumer TCO that matter, except the specific costs to you and your family. No one can tell you your costs except you. Remember that models are valid for creating assumptions, not final costs and many of the assumptions you see probably don’t apply to you.

The platform with the lowest price is always the best choice. Never! As an analyst, I am often asked what platform has the lowest TCO. My answer is always the same, “a yellow pad and a pencil.” The cost of a given platform might very well be expensive, but it needs to be balanced against the notion of return on investment. Yellow pads and pencils are cheap, but not when you need to communicate with someone on the other side of the world or create a movie or any of the things a modern PC can do. The platform with the lowest price may not be the best match for real world requirements. It’s not just about price, it’s about value and getting what you need done.

At a time when consumers are sensitive about costs, the idea of introducing the concept of TCO makes sense but only up to a point. There are no shortcuts or magic associated with numbers. Consumers who are thinking about making the change to a new or updated platform should consider their own assumptions, avoid the myths and ultimately, buy into the eco-system that best meets their needs and provides value and quality. Price alone is never the right answer.

Odd Kindle error

May 13, 2009

Just got a Kindle 2 and it is quite nice but with one small bug. Not all my content is showing up. It’s actually just one book but it’s on my Kindle v1 and shows up on my iPhone and iPod Touch client. Anyone else seen this? Working with Amazon to fix.

MiFi is a mobile broadband game changer – First Look

May 8, 2009

I had a little surprise waiting for me this morning, the folks at Verizon were kind enough to send over their new MiFi device, built by Novatel. The MiFi is about the size of a credit card and acts like a portable hotspot providing a mix of 3G and WiFi allowing any WiFi enabled device to be broadband enabled wherever you might be. It goes for about $100 with a two year contract and comes with service plans ranging for daily pas as you go, 250mb for $40 and $60 for 5gb.

Once you activate the unit over USB, you simply connect to it over WiFi as you would any other WiFi router. I’ve been testing it for a few hours here and so far it works flawlessly. At the moment I’ve got the Slingbox client playing on my Macbook, Tweetie running in the background and I’ve stopped to make a few Skype calls, using the Skype client on my iPod Touch. Using my WiFi Skype phone, I had no problems making and taking Skype calls in the car. Up to five devices can connect at one time which makes it perfect for sharing on the road. I’ll post a more detailed look next week, in the meantime, if you have questions, please post in the comments and i’ll answer them over the weekend.

For now MiFi is now a ubiquitous part of my mobile toolkit. There’s actually a lot more to the MiFi story that Novatel has coming but that’s for another day.


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