App stores are not enough for mobile platform providers

June 27, 2010

This week’s Engadget column look at the efforts mobile platform providers have put into creating app stores for their eco-system. That’s a good thing but ti’s going to take more than an app store to be competitive going forward.

There’s a battle going on for mobile platform supremacy, and right now there are simply too many platforms to succeed long term. And the old rules simply don’t apply any more, as the criteria for mobile platform success in mobile reaches beyond simply having a well-stocked app store. It will take much more than an app store to drive success — the key factor between success and irrelevance will increasingly be the cohesive application story each platform provider can tell. Look for the platforms with the out of-the-box and core experiences that also allow developers to best leverage and monetize their apps to make the cut long term. The wise vendors will figure this out sooner, while the others will begin a long slide into irrelevance.


iPhone 4 – Hands On

June 24, 2010

It’s the fourth revision of Apple’s smartphone, and Apple says it’s the biggest set of changes we’ve seen since the original device was introduced three years ago. The first day’s pre-launch orders were over 600,000. That’s a staggering number for a device few consumers had even seen and even fewer had spent actual hands-on time with. As more users get to see the device up close and personal, I expect Apple is going to break previous sales records by a very wide margin, but does the latest revision of the iPhone stand up to the hype? My embargo is over so read on.

I took a first look at the device when Apple first announced it at their developers conference earlier this month. I’ve now spent some more time with a final production device and my experience largely matches Apple’s claims. Comparing the iPhone 4 with the original is like looking at an iPod touch next to the original—a lot of the heritage is there but it’s a very different and a much better experience. This is what next year’s technology will look like, except it’s at last year’s prices.

The first thing you notice is the design. Taking elements of the first and second generations of the device, Apple has come up with one of the most striking phone designs that has ever come to market. The glass and steel construction begs to be touched and there are few products that have ever come to market with this degree of caressability. Once you get over the design aesthetics it’s hard to miss what Apple calls the iPhone’s “Retina Display.” With a very high resolution and a pixel density well above 300 PPI, it’s going to be very hard for most users to see the individual pixels of the display. The result is the most paper-like display I’ve ever seen on a mobile device. Content that was just too hard to read with my 40+-year-old eyes without zoom is now easy to read without strain.

The second thing that leaps out is performance. Thanks to the A4 chip that powers it, the iPhone 4 feels noticeably snappier than prior devices. Combined with the new OS’s capabilities for multitasking (apps continue to get updated seemingly on an hourly basis) it feels like there’s less and less that this phone can’t handle in terms of tasks. (I personally can’t wait until we start seeing this OS on the iPad).
Third, there are the new features added with iOS 4 which address many of the minor issues that plagued the iPhone from day one. Things like a unified inbox view, the ability accept CAL DAV invites, and support for multiple Exchange accounts make for a much more refined usability experience. New applications like iMovie for iPhone show the powerful possibilities when both hardware and software are tightly integrated into one holistic experience.

Finally, the big show-stopper is FaceTime. Taking advantage of the iPhone 4′s front-facing camera, FaceTime is mobile video conferencing done right. Though it works iPhone 4-to-iPhone 4 only and is restricted to Wi-Fi for 2010, it is undeniably simple. There’s no setup, there’s no configuration, there’s no lag. Audio and video are fully in sync. In short it just works. We knew there might be this sort of capability from some of the leaks, but the truth is, until you see it in action, it’s hard to appreciate. Even cooler, it’s an open standard, so developers can easily add this functionality to their apps. Skype, are you listening? Apple isn’t the first to market with video conferencing on a phone but they’re the first to get it right. It’s not a feature unless the mass market uses it and I expect FaceTime will drive a lot of sales. That said, while I understand the need for Wi-Fi only at this time, it does detract somewhat from the experience to not have the feature everywhere. It also would have been nice to see some integration with the desktop (even at the expense of some added setup) or the ability to send video to non-iPhone 4 users. Hopefully, we’ll start seeing some FaceTime applications that adhere to the protocol for both the desktop and other platforms, solving this issue.

What’s missing? Well, a few things. First, iPhone 4 is still AT&T only here in the US and the new micro-sim makes it even harder to move your SIM from device to device. While Apple talked about the combination of form and function in the device’s new antenna system, I couldn’t see much of a difference in reception or call quality over the iPhone 3GS. Places where I had problems with AT&T were still just as problematic. As much as I like the iPhone, AT&T’s network still leaves lot to be desired. Rumors aside, I don’t expect to see another carrier anytime soon. I’d also like to see a 64GB SKU. In the past, Apple matched the prior year’s iPod touch capacity with iPhone. 32GB just feels a little too cramped for a phone with the capabilities iPhone 4 has. iOS is also starting to look a little dated. Rows of apps or folders feels very 2007. There’s no support for widgets or the kind of glanceable information that has become a standard UI enhancement on Android, Windows Phone 7, and Symbian. In an age of social ubiquity, iOS still treats social networks as discreet entities with little integration between applications such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. While some users might prefer that silo approach, more users are looking for ways to integrate their social graph into a holistic view of their personal, business, and public networks.

Bottom line? Apple has raised the bar for both handset vendors and platform providers with the release of iPhone 4. The tight integration of hardware and software provides a unique experience that once again raises and sets the standard for the rest of the industry. With strong visible differentiation, iPhone 4 is going to capture the hearts and minds of both existing iPhone users and new users entering the purchase funnel for their next phone. Nevertheless, the gap between other vendors and Apple is not nearly as huge as it was as recently as a year ago. Later this year new versions of Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry and Symbian are all expected to come to market, and no vendor is prepared to cede this market to Apple. With a rate and pace of innovation never seen before, expect to see more challengers to the iPhone and vendors who will seek to raise the bar even further. It’s too early to judge how successful those efforts will be, however. For now, iPhone 4 is the gold standard other devices will be measured against.

Update – Special thanks to Bill Fisher for taking the time to edit properly :)


Apple becomes a company for “the rest of us”

June 23, 2010

My latest Macworld column explores how Apple has finally become a company “for the rest if us” not just the Apple faithful. I think that’s a positive trend, not everyone agrees.

Sadly, folks, it’s time to move on. Apple isn’t building products just for you, and Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller aren’t members of your family. I have no doubt Apple respects and even admires those of you in the tens of thousands who have been long-time supporters. I also know that Apple, like any company, would dump tens of thousands of die-hard fans for tens of millions of happy consumers any day of the week. So while you might bemoan the great unwashed masses who now use Apple products but can’t name five Apple employees beyond Steve Jobs, remember that if it wasn’t for them, that cool new Apple device might not have made it to to market and you just might be using a Windows 7 PC. In the end, that original tagline became a reality. Apple products truly are for “the rest of us,” and will continue to be so as long as Apple continues to deliver and raise the industry bar.


What does Generation Upload think of technology?

June 21, 2010

Get the answers directly from the demographic directly. Vendors and marketers should check out GenUpload


Times change. Is your IT department changing along with them?

June 21, 2010

My latest column for Computerworld explores the issue of Bring Your Own PC and whet it’s a good idea for businesses. What do you think? Should IT departments start approaching PCs as they do smartphones?

A well-organized BYOPC program can help IT make users happy, no small thing for a department in constant danger of reorganization and outsourcing. Properly done, it can be an easy way to make friends and win internal support. BYOPC programs generally subsidize laptops, with the policy being that users can also make personal use of the machine (which only makes sense, since we all know that users already commingle their business and personal information on their devices). If a lot of your users are now restricted to desktop machines, the change could provide a boost in productivity, since laptop users are more likely to work beyond business hours.


In the Aftermath of E3

June 19, 2010

Few things in the tech industry bring out the devoted fanbois enthusiasts like the console wars. From the early days of Atari 2600 vs. Intellivsion and Colecovision the debates go on endlessly. While I’m a gamer at heart, I share no allegiance to any one system (except perhaps a fondness for my Vectrex). That said, this weeks’ Engadget column provoked a lot of emotional responses and a lot of emails. (special thanks to those who emailed me their wishes to be fruitful and multiply, even if you didn’t use those words. In my view, Microsoft came out ahead, followed by Nintendo and Sony. But lurking in the shadows, I think there’s another player that might emerge over time.

Bottom line? It was a pretty impressive E3, arguably the most interesting show we’ve seen in years. Gamers have some really nice choices ahead of them, and all three major players have a chance to gain some ground over the holidays and pick up some new users. But there’s a wildcard here — Apple’s recently made some big moves into gaming with their iOS platform, which has taken mobile game marketshare from both Sony and Nintendo. Will iOS make it to the TV screen on a new Apple TV, and if it does games come with it? The gaming market might change dramatically if that happens.


Some advice for Android tablet vendors

June 16, 2010

In this week’s SlashGear column I take a look at some of the challenges facing vendors building Android tablets and offer some advice. It’s great to see that’s there’s going to be competition in this space but too many of the early efforts are missing the boat with some pretty obvious stuff. The biggest problem is Google isn’t supporting this form factor just yet and while Android is open and Google won’t stop you from building a device, they’re not getting behind most of these early efforts and that’s going to set things back for a bit. So, would you buy an Android based tablet at this point? Why or why not?

I think it’s good that we are seeing some heated competition in the tablet space. Apple’s iPad has set the bar and that functionality is now the table stakes for the industry. Vendors must build devices that at least equal the iPad experience, offer clear differentiation and features or exceed what Apple has delivered. Let’s see who will step up to the game and raise the bar.


Wired or tired? Tired I think

June 13, 2010

In this week’s Engadget column, I take a look at the state of magazines on the iPad. Feels way too much like CD ROMs of the 90s and way overpriced.

Even worse, the price point is hard to swallow. Charging the full cover price for a digital magazine makes no sense when I can subscribe to the paper edition of Wired for a year at a much lower cost per issue — especially given that there’s no paper, ink, shipping or distribution charges. Given the lack of flexibility, I’d assume there would at least be some incentive to get me to make the digital purchase, and even more so in light of the fact that the bulk of the content is already available online at Wired’s website for free. It’s ironic that Editor-in-chief Chris Anderson famously wrote a book called “Free” — the Wired iPad app is the perfect case to try out some of those business models.


iOS and life beyond the PC

June 9, 2010

There were quite a few numbers tossed out this week at Apple’s developer con fence but perhaps the most important one was 100 million, the total number of iPhone OS devices in the market as of this month. In fact, Apple renamed iPhone OS to simply iOS. This week’s SlashGear column looks at this in depth and how Apple is taking the platform battle beyond the PC.

“While Microsoft talks about multiple connected screens, Windows is a PC platform and Windows Phone a smartphone platform. There’s no unified model, architecture or evangelism to tie those products and services together just yet. Google on the other hand has articulated a similar strategy for Android, a platform for phones, tablets, TVs, netbooks and every other non-PC device. Expect to see more clashes in the months ahead between Cupertino and Mountain View and more companies to look to Microsoft as the new Switzerland for alliances and partnerships (Apple in fact did announce a Microsoft partnership at WWDC and the Bing search engine is now an option on iOS and Safari) I think we’re seeing a bold strategy in play. A recognition that the PC vs. Mac is a battle for the last century not this one. By marginalizing the personal computer, including Macintosh, Apple sets the stage for where the real battle of the future is and what life might look like in a post-PC world.”


Apple Introduces iPhone 4 and iOS 4 – First Take

June 7, 2010

It’s been a busy morning for Apple with lots of iPhone news and what’s now called iOS news. Lots of important stuff so let’s break it all down. First, Apple announced that the app store now has 225,000 apps with 5 billion downloads. That’s all in just under two years. I can’t quantify this for certain but that would make Apple’s mobile platform the fastest growing platform in history. Period. In a market driven by the value add of third party apps, that’s extremely important. What’s more important isn’t the number. I don’t need 225,000 apps. You likely don’t either. What you do get are the subset of apps that are right for you and that’s why the overall number is more important than you might think. Apple also shared that it’s now taking 28 percent of the US smartphone market, somewhat behind RIM but well ahead of Android’s 9 percent but again, perhaps more importantly, 58 percent of the mobile browsing market. Considering that three years ago iPhone wasn’t even on the market yet, that’s a major and important accomplishment. The big news thought was the launch of iPhone 4. Apple’s latest effort in the smartphone space. Apple talks about seven core features of the device and I’ll go into them here as well as what they mean.

1. Design. The new phone is nothing short of stunning. I know you think you might already know what the device looks like but trust me, it’s not even close to seeing the device up close and in person. It’s super thin at 9.3mm which is a shrink down of 24 percent. It’s got a solid feel and heft and the metal trim (which are also the antennas) gives it a very elegant look. You’ll know immediately it’s an iPhone but this is Apple’s best effort in design yet.

2. Retina Display. Again, this has to be seen to be appreciated. Apple has upped the ante on the phone display market with a new design that’s now 4x greater in terms of pixels than previous iPhones. That means that text and graphics take on a stunning new clarity. At 326 pixels per inch, Apple has now hit the magic threshold above 300 where the retina simply can’t see the individual pixels anymore. Web pages, email, photos all have a stunning new clarity. Using the same screen tech as the iPad, it’s far superior to AMOLED in terms of use in bright sunlight and has a very nice wide viewing angle. This is now the new benchmark for all devices to follow. Despite the smaller screen size, iPhone now has 78 percent of the pixels of the iPad. For me, this alone would be worth the price of admission. Because Apple uses a full multiplier, older apps will scale very well to the new format and will not be pixelated, in addition apps that use text or Apple controls will see scale automatically. Apple’s own apps are now Retina enabled and I expect most developers to take advantage of the new screen immediately.

3. It’s running an A4. Just like big brother iPad. Suffice to say performance is excellent. There’s a degree of fluidity that’s fantastic across the board. Apple’s also added some fun stuff like a larger battery for the best claimed battery life of an iPhone, 7 hours of 3G talk time, HSDPA/HSUPA and 80211.n. Apple’s also tossed in a set of dual mikes for noise cancellation.

4. There’s a gyroscope. Yep, the iPhone now does pitch/roll/yaw. Add in the accelerometer and there’s now six axis support. I don’t have to explain what this will mean for next generation games and other apps. It’s not a killer feature by itself but it’s going to allow a lot of cool stuff to happen.

5. There’s a new camera. It’s now a 5mp lens, with LED flash and 5x zoom. There’s also updated video to 720p with full editing and sharing. Even cooler, there’s now a full version of iMovie for iPhone 4. Themes, transitions, movies are all here. It’s an extra $4.99 but looks like it’s easily worth it. It’s really a small movie studio that goes in your pocket. Super cool.

6. As mentioned, Apple has consolidated the platform for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad under one name. It’s now called iOS. Apple says it’s on track to ship the 100 millionth iOS device this month. This is extremely important as the battle in mobility isn’t just about phones. With an Apple platform of connected screens at 100 million there’s huge incentive for developers to further embrace the platform. This is the classic positive feedback loop that Microsoft so successfully exploited at the desktop level. I’ve talked about most of the iOS 4 features in the past so I won’t go into more depth here except for one thing. iOS now supports Microsoft’s Bing as a search option. No, it’s not the default… yet. One, however, can clearly see how the competition between Apple and Google is leading to strange alliances. I’ve questioned Google’s approach in the past about creating a rift with Apple (and Google’s recent language at i/o made it clear who they are taking shots at). There’s an important message being sent today. Keep your eye out for what comes next.
iBooks.

7. Some more detail about iBooks for iOS 4. There’s sync across devices and like other Apple content, books can be downloaded any number of times to any number of devices. That’s nice change from some of the restrictions of the KIndle platform and how many times books can be downloaded. Apple now boasts 150 million accounts and credit cards making one of, if not the largest commerce sites. Overall the combined three stores have seen 16 billion downloads which shows how strong Apple is relative to the competitive landscape.

One more thing. It’s been awhile since Steve said those words and today it’s all about FaceTime. Taking advantage of the iPhone 4′s front facing camera, FaceTime is mobile video conference done right. It works iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 and it’s WiFi only for 2010. What it is though is simple. There’s no setup, there’s no configuration. There’s no lag. Audio and video are fully in sync. In short it just works. We knew there might be this sort of capability from some of the leaks but the truth is, until you see it in action, it’s hard to appreciate. Even cooler, it’s all open so developers can easily add this functionality to their apps. Skype, are you listening? Apple isn’t the first to market with video conferencing on a phone but they’re the first to get it right. It’s not a feature unless the mass market uses it and I expect FaceTIme will drive a lot of sales.

The new devices hit on June 24th and iOS will drop just before that. Good news is iOS 4 is a free upgrade for both iPhone and iPod touch users. Memory configs will match last years 3Gs devices at the same price point. The 3Gs drops to the old 3G slot as an entry level $99 device.

Bottom line? Apple has raised the bar for the phone market once again. With a combination of new hardware and software features, iPhone sets the standard for what the state of the art smartphone experience is. While 3Gs users can console themselves that they can take advantage of core features in iOS 4, I expect many will want to upgrade. Look for a full hands on in the near future when it’s released on the 24th.


On Market Caps

June 6, 2010

In this week’s Engadget column, I take a look at what’s going on in the world of Microsoft’s E & D group. The same week that Apple’s market cap surpassed that of Microsoft was also the same week that saw some high level departures from the Entertainment and Devices division. It was an interesting set of actions but I don’t think they were as important as some people did.

“I believe Microsoft will and must continue to stay in the consumer market. I also believe that Microsoft has the fundamental core ingredients needed for success in these spaces. What the company needs is the will to execute and the belief in its own convictions to drive new initiatives forward. To do this, it’s going to require a break from known to the unknown. Even as Microsoft has learned that mobile devices shouldn’t have little task bars and Start menus to make them look like Windows, Microsoft needs to go beyond the idea that everything needs to be tied to Windows — or worse, built on Windows. The leaked and ultimately abandoned Courier project showed great promise because it did not look like a Windows device — it looked like something that was designed and optimized for the tablet form factor. Xbox succeeded because it wasn’t a just another PC with a splashy UI on top of a Windows core.”


Apple WWDC coverage

June 6, 2010

I’ll be Twittering live tomorrow starting at 10am PDT. Feel free to follow the action on twitter.com/gartenberg I’ll also be available post keynote for any press media looking for comment. Feel free to email or give me a call at 201.862.0443.


OLPC or OTPC it still isn’t a good idea

June 2, 2010

My latest SlashGear column looks at the latest news from the OLPC folks, the promised $75 tabelt due at CES. We can debate whether you think the whole concept is a good idea or not. At this point though the OLPC folks have shown little capability to do what they set out to do. It’s classic over promise and under deliver.

It’s hard not to appreciate what the OLPC folks are trying to do. It’s aspirational. It’s inspirational. It’s noble. They’re not in this for fortune, fame or glory but the desire to help people. It’s hard to criticize that. It is, however, perhaps time to realize that this is turning into a tremendous waste of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere. I’m tired of the press reporting on one more initiative and program reboot as if there was something of substance. Perhaps I’m wrong and we’ll see come January, but as far as I’m concerned it’s time for the OLPC organization to be quiet for a change. When you’ve really got something real to deliver, let’s talk. Until then, this is just more hype and vapor of the worst kind.


Is Google TV Web TV part II?

June 1, 2010

The topic of Google TV is the subject of my latest Engadget column. While I agree TVs need an overhaul and there’s an evolution of that screen that is indeed happening, I’m not convinced that Google’s approach is the correct one. If you need to invoke an IR blaster to make it work, that’s probably a good sign you’re moving in the wrong direction. It’s also hard to see what’s in this that isn’t already for the most part in other platforms such as TiVi Premiere or Media Center PCs. One can’t ignore a Google effort, if for not other reason than it’s Google, but this doesn’t feel on target to me.

I get why the TV is important to Google — it’s a great opportunity for even more ad revenue. But the TV is not a phone or a PC. Consumers are looking for a different type of connected experience in their living rooms, and it’s one that so far has defied every attempt to merge the TV and PC. GoogleTV just feels like the latest in a long line of niche products more likely to appeal to the enthusiast than to the mass market. An old joke has a consumer lamenting for a phone or PC that’s as easy to use as a TV. Google can’t succeed making the TV as complex as your other devices.


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