31 December 2009

Windows Phone (aka WinMo) is there any hope for the New Year?

WinMo hasn’t caught any breaks recently… the latest version of the operating system is just a minor improvement on what came before, all of the main competition has implemented technology such as capacitive touch displays (e.g. finger touch) that is built into the OS, the next version of the OS is terminally late, the application store was late to the platform, etc.  On top of all that “snapdragon”, Qualcomm’s newest and most powerful mobile chipset is getting deployed mostly on competitors’ OS where speed and intense new graphic experiences rule and where it appears many at Microsoft had hopes that this chipset would help to dramatically improve the flailing perception.

Of course all is not lost; HTC (arguably Microsoft’s best friend in the hardware business) created a beautiful if not large phone in the HD2 with all of the bells and whistles that aren’t in the current phones.  HTC however has spent a lot of their own time and effort on WinMo not only in pushing the bounds of the hardware (e.g. by implementing a capacitive touch display) but also by including “Sense UI” which is an almost complete shell of the standard interface.  Both of these were absolutely necessary since the standard interface for WinMo is dated, not suited for touch based interactions (most of the controls are too small) and is overly complex!

The real issue for WinMo is that was designed as a general purpose computing platform capable of doing whatever the developer envisions as long as it fits within the generalized UI framework and the generalized functionality of the device.  Thus every road leads to the mediocre center unless an extraordinary effort is made to create a new experience.  HTC had lead the way, but Sony, Toshiba and Samsung have also followed to some extent by creating new UI on top of the OS.  For Apple, RIM and Android (to some extent), this is an unnecessary activity which saves these OEMs a large amount of expenses.

Does it have to be this way?  Unfortunately if the OEM wants to differentiate their product, they will want to customize the interface and offer specific applications to create value-add then this requires some level of a generalized platform on which to do this.  Think of it this way, in the ideal situation, Microsoft provided the plumbing for a city, most of the buildings and some blue-prints for how to build the city.  But Microsoft had to go a little bit further and create an example completed city, so that others could see how it was done.  Unfortunately the task of “creating a new city” from the blueprints is just too hard for most and thus you get the generic example over and over again.  Some OEM/ODMs have been able to follow the blueprints to add a little bit of functionality here or there and to provide a new veneer, but it’s mostly superficial.

But there’s yet another complexity… the carriers.  There’s a not insignificant cost for supporting a new handset and when the handset is highly customized, the cost is obviously increased since some commonality between handsets can be lost.  This of course leads to attempting to standardize on phones either from specific OEMs who have created an experience of their own or on generic devices that all share the same user interface. 

This is a problem of perception – an iPhone is an iPhone is an iPhone; just as all Blackberries or Palm devices are virtually the same from an OS perspective.  The only real OS comparison for WinMo is Android since like Microsoft, Google only creates the OS and not the particular phones on which it is implemented.  As more OEMs create more devices based on Android, there will be greater differentiation in the operating system as a result.  The core difference WinMo and Android is mostly around the infrastructure “plumbing”.  WinMo is much more general purposed and robust compared to Android (which is really just the Dalvik Linux distribution with a special Java Runtime application environment).  However the Java functionality that is built into Android actually allows for rich graphic interactions to be created more easily plus there are fewer built-in features in the operating system so each of those areas are tightly built and relatively modern.  In addition, for many developers, Android is sexy since its new, open source and being distributed by everyone’s darlings – Google.

So can Microsoft ever hope to regain in this space?  Yes, but it’s a long road that will require a lot more partnerships with OEMs and ODMs to create excitement, innovate and capturing the OEMs (and carrier) requirements into the overall development of the Windows Phone project (rather than bolting them on afterwards).   In addition there needs to be a more cohesive story to the press, bloggers and analysts that really highlight the hard work that is being involved and what it means to the Microsoft’s partners and not just to Microsoft since unlike Apple, Microsoft is just one piece in the overall handset solution.

If you’re interested in competing or steering a course through this space or want more details about the particulars of what’s necessary; feel free to contact me and we can discuss how I can help out.

26 December 2009

iSlate or how all these rumors of internet tablets could be solved

I have a very strong pedigree with both Tablets and consumer devices.  Long ago (in the early/mid 90’s) at Compaq I was involved with pen-based computing and mobile devices.  While the Concerto was finishing up when I joined, there were plenty of efforts afoot that were looking at new devices such as the General Magic’s Magic Cap, Microsoft’s first foray into a PDA with WinPad, the EO and a few other devices that have been lost to time.  Then in the late 90’s, I switched groups at Microsoft to become one of the founding members of the TabletPC team.  I later moved on to AOL where I was orchestrating AOL’s digital assets, audience, technology platform and mobile assets to create a mobile consumer entertainment platform.  This work led to the formation of Varia Mobile where we combined the technology (minus all of the AOL assets) into a portable media player and some demonstration cellular phones.  Had AOL stayed the course with their investments in content (and content solutions) or if Varia had been able to sell a larger visions and get funding, I’m willing to bet that we would have launched a product that would have been similar to the rumored mythical “iSlate” or Apple Tablet.

Over the course of this post, I’m going to layout the basic ingredients that are necessary for a successful product in this space.  And as you might know, I am available to be hired if you want to know how to actually mix the ingredients!  But before I can start, I need to make a clarification about Tablets.  There are several different types of Tablet devices and each were designed for specific niche needs – Microsoft TabletPC was designed for the knowledge worker and was first and foremost about capturing productivity while in meetings and other mobile situations.  UMPCs are about miniaturizing Windows and leaving it up to the user to figure out what to do with it.  MIDs or Web Tablets are generally being built as web devices that let the user connect over broadband (cellular, though some are WiFi) so that they can get access to the websites and data that they want regardless where they are at).  “Consumer Tablets” don’t exist quite yet, but the best examples of devices that are close to this space are the iPod Touch and the ZuneHD.  It’s from this Consumer Tablet space that iSlate or next great device will be born. 

The ingredients:
-         Killer hardware
Most of this is obvious, but the key factor is to make sure that the overall weight to power consumption ratios is balanced.  Today this probably means a screen between 7- 11” utilizing an ARM-based processor rather than an Intel Atom or similar x86 platform.

-         Purpose built user interface and OS
The OS for this device needs to be thoroughly optimized for both performance of the particular hardware and for ease of use for the main tasks.  Generic Windows or Linux shell (including Android as is) aren’t robust enough at creating the ease of use experience necessary.  This device needs a world class interface!

-         Engaged developers / partners
Steve Balmer chants “Developers, Developers, Developers!” and Steve Jobs does as much as possible to entice and excite development partners to build custom applications.  This is absolutely necessary for the device to move forward – it doesn’t, however need 100,000s of applications, but rather it needs an interface that allows the techno-geeks to build some strong and compelling examples of what can be done (and get paid to do it!).  The good and great applications can come later (as long as there are a few to begin with).

-         A media ecosystem
Just having access to a media library such as Amazon on Demand, NetFlix, EpicHD, Hulu, Flickr, YouTube, iTunes, Rhapsody or Zune isn’t enough.  These services need to be built directly into the user interface of the device in compelling fashions. A link to them isn’t sufficient; the user needs to have the experience of the media be not only seamless but effortless.  And of course media isn’t just music, movies, TV and photos, it encompasses a wide breadth of the entertainment (and communications) users enjoy – Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, AIM, etc.  And of course all this media needs to be deliver to the device with an intelligent and efficient architecture.

-         Intelligent utilization of other network devices
Just because you built this one device you can’t ignore all the others that the user may have!  Content, data and other important information exists throughout the technology sphere of the user.  Their phone, their home PC or Media Center has a role to play with this device.  If you don’t capitalize on it, than you’re missing out on the role that can be played here.

-         Marketing pizzazz!
If you build it, they won’t come unless you’re ready to spend some cold hard cash to market this device to those who don’t realize what they’re missing.  It’s an obvious fact, but often times the inventor or manufacturers think that just getting it into the market is enough.  Plenty of great devices have been built over time, but have never succeeded since they weren’t marketed to their audience

-         Willingness to wait until the ecosystem is ready
Even if you build the absolutely-most-insanely great product of all time, if the market isn’t ready, if the technology isn’t ready, if you’re ecosystem partners aren’t all there or if you’re not ready to market the device properly – then for this class of device you should wait.  Releasing without all of these factors ready is likely to backfire since the purpose and greatness of the device will be lost on the majority of people for whom it was destined.

Guess what?  Apple already has or knows how to do all of these things and already has the fundamental building blocks to execute.  They clearly have the hardware, software and developers already primed.  Their integration of media is beyond most with not only access to iTunes, but all of ABC/Disney’s content plus all of the rumors of talks with magazine publishers and other studios.  Apple has devices in the living room with which to integrate – wouldn’t this product be a great control/companion to an AppleTV product?  Does anyone know marketing better than Steve Jobs?  And finally Steve clearly understands about not releasing products until they are completely ready!

Does anyone else?  Microsoft can get pretty close to most of these things, but clearly doesn’t own or control a media empire nor is it within Microsoft’s DNA to wait on a project – usually it will keep iterating in the market place until it gets it right.  This leads to some great ideas failing prematurely (e.g. the market wasn’t ready) and others floundering around and getting marginalized by others who can do it better.  This isn’t Google’s forte, but they seem willing to take lots of risks if the overall rewards are worth it in the end (e.g. increase the advertising revenue).  Intel, Acer, Asus, HP, Dell?  No, no, no, no and no.  Sony could be an interesting entrant in this space, but for one reason or another they don’t appear to be willing to take the large risks lately.  What about companies like Nokia, HTC, Sagem or Archos?   Nokia outside of the US might be able to get pretty close to this ideal, the N900 is pretty good and their entry of a netbook while expensive was also well executed – they do have all the raw ingredients, but definitely don’t get much credit in the US.  HTC is interesting and clearly has the design capability and is a quick learner whose recent marketing efforts were quite well done, but they lack the developer reach and media ecosystem.  Sagem has a lot of the relationships to get it done, but again no one in the US knows how they are.  And finally Archos has a small name brand presence and has been trying to dabble into this space, but I believe they lack the creativity to pull this off.

This isn’t to say that someone can’t take all of the ingredients mix them together properly and execute on it, they can and I’m available to help!  If you want to learn more about what it takes to succeed in this space, feel free to contact me and we can go from there.

24 December 2009

input versus price

I was reading today Kevin Tofel's post on jkOnTheRun where he's totally dismayed by the fact that the Archos 9 net tablet runs Windows Starter Edition and thus doesn't have any of the functionality that is included in all of the other SKUs of Windows where there is built-in input mechanisms for pen (ink) and speech.  The result is that Archos had to bundle in a bunch of additional 3rd party tools to give some set of rudimentary functionality for things like a soft keyboard.  For those that don't know, all of the TabletPC functionality exists in EVERY version of Windows except the Starter Edition.  The TabletPC bits gives the end user a whole lot of functionality:

  • Soft keyboard
  • Text input panel (handwriting and single character)
  • Natural speech input
  • Gesture support 
  • Touch input improvements
  • Handwriting optimization tools (let's the system learn your handwriting!)
  • Plus more...
So why would anyone who's building a PC-based tablet that is going to ship a version of Windows choose the Starter Edition?  One word ...  "Price".  Microsoft makes the Starter Edition extremely attractive to OEMs since this version is being used as a hedge against Linux -- e.g. Microsoft wants to make the Starter Edition as close to $0 as possible since that's the price an OEM would pay for a Linux distribution.  While this may make sense for those that are marketing a $250 or less netbook, to me this makes no sense at all for a device that's retails for over $500.  The additional cost of the upgraded license for the device is of so much more user benefit than trying to market at the lower price point.

Of course this is just my opinion, but I'm also willing to bet that the majority of practitioners out there who run focus groups or other marketing surveys of users would come to the conclusion that Archos should save the money and get a couple of 3rd party tools rather than paying for the more expensive license.  What?  After having spent a long time with the Tablet PC all the way from the beginning and looking at user value, usability, marketing, technology and the competitive features, the key issues facing adoption of the technology is around recognizing the long term value add.  While there is an initial "wow" around the technology, it's more the subtle things that over time actually provide the unique experiences that users appreciate.  The 3rd party tools also give a lot of the initial "wow" but are relatively superficial and don't have that much behind them.  Thus if I were to say give a demo of the Archos tablet with some 3rd party tools and a demo with the built-in tools from Microsoft, users probably wouldn't monetize the difference enough to justify the more capable version of Windows.  On the other hand, if I found key target users and let them both use the device for an extended period of time (maybe as few as 8 weeks), I'm willing to bet that the users who had Starter Edition would be significantly less satisfied.  I'd also be willing to bet that this wasn't in the research plan or budget of Archos :-) 

However I think this is all a moot point since I'm not relatively bullish on this or any particular UMPC, consumer Tablet, net-Tablet, MID or whatever you want to call them on taking off quite yet (soon, but not now).  I alluded to the reason in this post.  And in the near future I'll talk more about the problem in detail, but in short, it comes down to lacking the necessary services and infrastructure for content delivery and management to make this into a truly compelling consumer experience.  The solution here requires a lot of coordination, but its simplicity will not only benefit users, but make the device a hit.  

23 December 2009

1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.1 - gee can't we all get along?

In the world of Android phones there sure are a lot of versions out there in this very short period of time that the OS has even been released!  And Google's Android OS has only been out for about 15 months, it's no wonder that critics and some of the developers are relatively perturbed by all of these different versions.  Plus to top it off some of the phones are not getting the latest and greatest builds. This is either due to a lack of resources on the carrier's side to perform complete testing of the OS updates on handsets they've already shipped to make sure that they perform appropriately on their network or it's simply a means to force users who want the latest and greatest to upgrade to a different handset model.  (It's more the former than the latter, but where carriers are concerned, anything is possible!)  For most developers who are sticking to the core functionality within the Android SDK and not trying to build anything other than a vanilla application the multiple versions are a minor nuisance.  For those developers who are really trying to weave many of the complex features in new and exciting ways, the fragmentation and introduction of new core features in the OS at this rapid pace can really be maddening.

But this isn't the real problem.  To me, the bigger issue is the fragmentation of Application Stores.  In this, I don't mean that you'll have applications that are built for one version of the OS and not another, but rather Google's application store is only available to the handset if and only if you meet certain device requirements set forth by Google.  For example, the Archos 5 which is a portable media player that runs Android not only doesn't have the Google Market but is also missing the other Google specific applications (GMail, Google Maps, etc).  This is a result of particular licensing requirement by Google that are in place in theory to make sure that the user isn't confused by some random application that wants functionality that isn't present.  For example, there is no camera on the device, so Google doesn't want the user to be able to install ShopSavvy which uses the camera to scan barcodes since there is no camera.  However it's an all or none proposition - don't meet the Google specs no Google Market nor other applications.

Just this morning there were posts about further fragmentation of the application store and this was from some of the providers who have Google's blessing!  So why would manufacturers want to get into the Application Store business?  Obviously it's about money.  When a handset is sold either to a retailer or a carrier, the manufacturer gets paid.  They never see another cent for that handset ever again (excluding repairs).  Where as Google, the carrier and the application provider are making "easy" money.  At least that's the view that Apple provides with the Billions and BILLIONS of apps served message.  There definitely is truth in the fact that Apple does see a fair amount of income from the apps.  However their applications aren't competing against one another on multiple different networks with different manufacturers over a range of handsets.  Wow, that's a mouthful!

In the Android world, you have Motorola, HTC, Sony Ericcson, Samsung and a bunch of others manufacturers all competing across all of the different carriers.  Everyone wants to not only differentiate their handsets with services and offers, thus we have lots of different versions of Android from official sanctioned ones from Google to one-offs.  Since everyone is competing and there isn't necessarily a standard across all of the carriers and manufactures (partially to Google's own dismay), the revenue opportunity becomes much more limited since it has to be split in multiple ways with everyone wanting to get a piece of the action!  

And then of course you have Google and some other smart developers simply giving away cool new applications for free just to help move the Android application along.  For example Turn-by-Turn navigation in the 2.0 release (and it was brought back to the 1.6 release as well!). Lots of application value given away for the chance to attract more people to the platform which in turns strengthens the advertising revenue and position of Google.  Not a bad gig if you can get it!

Unfortunately the users are going to have to continue to suffer while the ecosystem sorts itself out and when Google matures to the point where the platform isn't undergoing so many major shifts and modifications in such a short period of time.  It's easy to iterate all the time when there is only one device on which this all lives, but once you get multiple manufacturers and carriers each with their own set of requirements ... well you get what you've got now!

22 December 2009

content mobility

Is your content mobile?  Do you store all of your data locally and have it replicated to the cloud and formated in a way so that you can access it on any device at any time in any location?  I'm sure that there are some people who can answer "yes" to this question but I've yet to meet anyone who can really live this dream all the time.

There are a lot of limiting factors that make this difficult:

  • Formatting content
    • Does it size to the screen appropriately?
    • Does it need to be re-encoded (e.g. video format and size)?
  • Permissions
    • Is it DRM protected?
    • Can the DRM be transferred or does it need to be removed?
  • Storage
    • Do you have a service that allows you to maintain storage?
    • Do the costs of storage make sense?
  • Retrieval
    • Can your content be retrieved quickly?
    • Is the cost of retrieval economical?

In our household, all of our television content (and most of the movies we watch) are available to any PC and some smartphones - and what's not readily available is usually available to be streamed via services like Hulu.  In this case there are 2 pivotal products that help to make this type of content mobile.  First a DVR (e.g. a TiVo or in my case an older piece of tech called a ReplayTV).  This allows for time shifting of your content.  I'm sure everyone is familiar with these type of devices by now, so I don't need to extol the virtues here.  The second piece of technology is a Slingbox.  While they have been around for at least 8 years now, they're not as widely known as you might suspect.  These devices basically act as a TV but instead of putting the wires to a physical display, it transmits the signal over the internet to your laptop or iPhone or other device.  Thus you're basically watching the content from your TV (or DVR) as if you were sitting in front of it and changing the channels etc.  When combined with the DVR you can now not only time-shift but also place-shift which to me is the ultimate ability to for getting your TV content on the road.  

Okay so in my house, I happen to have 2 ReplayTVs (DVRs), one of them is hooked up directly to the Slingbox and nothing else.  Since the ReplayTV device can network with each other, I have the ability to record and view the content from either of the boxes.  In addition at one time, I set up a server in my garage that contained all of my other media and ran a software program that emulated the ReplayTV which let me network the server with the DVRs and thus have oodles of available content anywhere and anytime I wanted.  Of course this was long before the days of Hulu, Fancast and the others and I wanted to be able to entertain my kids with the shows they liked when we were travelling so it was a good solution at the time.  In addition, there was a 3rd party program I ran that allows me to extract the content from the ReplayTV so that it can be downloaded onto any of the device in my household, thus letting me either stream any of my content in real-time or transfer the content for later viewing.

Just this morning there's rumors that iTunes is going to offer a subscription service for ABC and CBS content.  The number being floated is $30 a month - but in typical Apple fashion, I'm sure it's going to be wrapped in Quicktime which means that for a mobile device it's got to be an iPhone or iPod Touch -- no other phone or portable media device will do.  And of course you don't have NBC content and some of the other producers so it's only a partial solution.

I'd be happy to give up cable and just get my content directly through my internet pipe whether it's on my phone, laptop or desktop - but I have to be able to view that content when I'm not connected (e.g. sitting on a plane) and I don't want to have to pay outrageous prices per month or per MB in order to get it.  Today I'm already paying for my phone, a data connection surcharge on the phone, cable monthly bill and  internet monthly bill.  It all adds up real quick.  Wouldn't it be great if I could get more for less?  After all much of my content can come over the internet, but if I'm having to pay multiple providers to get it and can't move it to the mobile devices of my choice, then my content really isn't mobile!  Plus my home solution while elegant in the abstract isn't something that most people can setup effectively nor is it something more than a hack to make do with what we've got...

And of course there are other types of media too...  Think about all of the NPR/CBC shows that I and my family listen to -- Car Talk, Marketplace, Vinyl Cafe, Says You!, etc.  For those that have podcasts, I need to have an active podcast client to pull them down automatically; yet some shows still don't podcast so I have to listen live or put together more technology for time-shifting radio shows (RadioShark never worked for me).  Then there are photos, documents, etc -- everything locked away in it's own space with it's own technology and issues.

While I'm not advocating to move everything out to the cloud nor do solutions like Pogoplug seem like the right long term path; this entire space has to be rationalized and made simpler for everyone involved.  It's way too complex and everyone is focused on the technologies, bundling or point solutions...  If we were to focus on delivery of personalized content directly to the devices desired by the user (no device limitation), in real time or cached, and without any unnecessary extra fees, I'm willing to bet that users would happy flock to this kind of service.

19 December 2009

it's portable, but is it really mobile?

So far I've been talking about mobile phone mainly since they represent one of the largest segments of devices and because there is just so much that can be done to improve the situation, that you could easily spend your entire career just on that one portion of mobility.  However the mobile PC arena is just as fascinating especially with all the hype that Netbooks have received as well as the ill-named Smartbooks. 

First a small primer out there for those who don't follow the tech world as closely as I have...

Laptop/Notebook - A small PC with an LCD screen that can be folded up and carried around.  Since it's a PC it has an x86 architecture which means it's main processor is from Intel, AMD or in the rare case VIA.  The main distinguishing factor of this device is that it generally has both a hard disk drive (though it can be flash) and a built-in DVD drive with a screen that is usually 12.1" and above.  There are a few exceptions of relatively high priced devices that don't have an HDD and have a Flash memory instead and also don't have the DVD drive - e.g. the Macbook Air and the Dell Adamo. 

- Runs Windows
- Fast processor so not only runs Windows but can run it quickly (e.g. can play rich games)
- Less of a learning curve (works the same as every other Windows machine)

- Larger, bulkier and heavier than the other 2
- Well designed, lighter weight ones are $$$
- Runs Windows ;-)

Netbook - An even smaller PC with an LCD screen still running an x86 architecture which most definitely doesn't have a DVD drive.  Through some licensing agreements for Microsoft Windows and for Intel Atom chipsets these devices are not suppose to have screens that measure larger than 12.1" and generally have 10" screens with lower resolution.  The main key to this class of device is what the "tech geeks" and press indicate as underpowered processors.

- Light weight, easy to transport
- Can run Windows
- Less of a learning curve
- some have Integrated 3G/4G supports allows to be always on-line
- Cheap $$

- Small size keyboard on many is hard to use for some
- Slower processor makes it not suitable for some applications
- Need the bigger/bulkier battery to get extended usage on battery
- Requires more technical skills (e.g. watching DVDs w/o a DVD drive)
- Very few Windows PC applications or websites tailored for netbooks!
- Windows doesn't do a great job at optimizing itself for running in low power environments
- 3G/4G data plans are expensive!

Smartbook - Basically netbooks that don't have an x86 architecture but instead utilize an ARM (Qualcomm Snapdragon and Freescale iMX) or MIPs based chipset.  Basically these devices won't run Windows and utilize chips that are in the same family as those that inhabit Smartphones.   For an operating system, you'll generally run a stock Linux environment with a comprehensive shell (Wait! Didn't I talk about this yesterday?)  However there really aren't any of these out in the general market yet.

- Can have a complete customized and integrated experience
- Generally more power efficient than x86 netbooks
- Integrated 3G/4G support allows to be always on-line
- Really cheap $

- Small size keyboard on many is hard to use for some
- Requires constant connectivity to be really useful
- Very few websites tailored for smartbooks sized screens
- Need constant connectivity
- 3G/4G data plans are expensive!
- Local applications and services may be sparse

Here as with all technology, the question is what is it that you (the user) want to accomplish?  What is the environment in which you're going to use the technology?  What are the other technology resources you have? How much you're willing to spend? How many devices are you willing to have to meet your needs?  What is your tolerance for disposing one solution for another?

I think an example is in order to help...

A couple of years ago, I wanted to get something for my wife so that she would be able to keep up with her friends online, work on the finances for the school, do a little document editing etc.  In our home at the time, I had my work laptop, we had a desktop pc with dual monitors and we had another older computer that we let the kids play games on.  So why would we need something else?  I guess in all reality, she didn't really need another PC, but she did want something she could take with her when she was working at school or sitting on the couch and watching TV.  She also wanted something she could take with her when she went on vacation - thus wanting something capable of entertaining her during long flights. Finally since she's lugging around our 2 kids and all the assorted luggage, weight and size was a consideration.   Some might have argued that a 13 or 14" laptop would be a great choice since she'd have a full size keyboard, nice large monitor and a DVD drive where she could pop in a movie for herself or the kids.  (Have you recently tried to open up a large screen laptop in the back of coach class on a plane lately?)  However it was clear to me that ease of carry was clearly a more important aspect to her.  In addition, getting movies, tv shows and other entertainment media onto the hard drive of a device is ultimately more efficient than having to carry around a bunch of movies on DVDs.  And if you have the right tools, it's a relatively easy task, but it's not something that is mainstream (and then there is the legal question).   A couple of years ago, the Linux implementations on netbooks lacked truly rich shells (e.g. the Asus' EEE PC wasn't very deep) and my wife is relatively proficient in Windows so a netbook was the winner.  Today the netbook is pretty much constantly hooked into the power outlet by the couch and lots of couch surfing takes place :-)

Today however I might be ready to pick a different solution but they're not yet ready for primetime.  For a couch PC that isn't going to leave the home, a Linux solution that is connected online all the time via WiFi to get to rich media, surf the web and even use online office tools for when the need for productivity arises would be a good solution.  Thus a smartbook might really suffice for this task particularly if the rumors of a Chrome OS smartbook come true or some of the other OS ventures like Moblin truly integrate all the mainstream services onto the device (e.g. HTML 5, Flash, etc.)  However once you get out of the home, it's going to need a variety of tools in order to work offline.  Sure I'd love an ubiquitously connected device, but I also don't relish paying an arm and a leg particularly if I'm eventually paying that rate for multiple devices (data service for a phone, data service for my laptop, data service for my wife's phone and on it goes).

So a "smartbook" definitely has long term potential to make a difference particularly as more and more tools are available online via browsers.  After all, even Office now has a set of web tools for document creating, editing etc that has probably more functionality than the majority of users will ever use.  So really the change in the game is exactly what many have been trying to accomplish by moving the processing and content to the web.  Remember the "nc" or network computers?  Or how about all those mainframes and dumb clients from way back when?   Have we really gone full circle and thus smartbooks are really "dumb"books?

Of course the story is a bit more complicated since some of the processing is done locally and can be done offline, but the essence really is that the "cloud" is it.  While this vision is coming to pass, we really should learn the lesson of the PC itself and the power and need to act locally and always connected to the network - thus having the best of both worlds.   Bridging this divide elegantly is completely up for grabs -- who's up for the challenge?

18 December 2009

oh yeah this is me too..

For those who really are paying attention, I have blogged before - wanted to cross link back from there to here, but seems I can't do that... so if your curious ...


It's pretty old stuff, so I'll just move on from here :-)

the confusing world of phones

When did phones stop being phones?  There are plenty of phones where making a phone call isn't the easiest thing to do.  Some modern phones don't even have physical call and end buttons any more!  You can even get phones with cameras in them that rival some of the best point and shoot cameras (okay, not really, but they do claim the same megapixel count!).  Just look at the list with some well known examples...

  • music phones
    • LG Chocolate/Sony Walkman Phones
  • camera phones
    • Samsung 12MP
  • navigation phones  
    • Nuvifone (didn't say it was any good
  • social networking phones
    • Sidekick or INQ
  • personalization phones
  • safety phones
  • Windows XP phones
  • advanced feature phones
    • Samsung Instinct or Nokia Series 40
  • green phones
  • TV phones
    • anything with MediaFLO

    And of course there are smartphones in various flavors that can do just about anything you can imagine - remember "there's an app for that!".  Right now the war of the blogsphere and PR is all about the latest and greatest features, functionality, industrial design and services that can be offered on the device.  If the discussion isn't about the latest features on the iPhone or what new crazy feature is in the upcoming build of Android or how Palm is going to re-re-invent the market, then it's about the trouble of Windows Mobile and how it's loosing market share like crazy.  The funny thing is that for the majority of people these phones can already do pretty much anything that they want. 

    The question REALLY should be -- do people know what they want to do with their phones?

    Some research from a few years ago on how people use technology in a mobile environments, came away with a particular finding that many users want to a) communicate and b) be entertained.  Obviously a phone should be all about communicating - whether it's voice or text.  With the addiction to email, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, the desire to stay in touch is clearly desired.  Entertainment on the other hands is a mixed bag.  For some it's about reading posts on Facebook, for others it's listening to music, watching a TV show, reading blog postings or playing games.  Since user's desires can often change and they are different from one user to another, most smartphone architectures simply allow users to pick and choose from a large (generally overwhelming) library of applications that can enhance their experience by providing them with the "entertainment" options they might desire.  While this provides the greatest flexibility for the manufacturer (OS provider) and lots of flexibility for the end user, it also make it harder to have a great customized solutions.  At the end of the day, the user has lots of little uncoordinated applications (different UIs, data sets and capabilitites) to deal with.  Many users will be absolutely delighted since they've never had these capabilities before, but for the mass of users, they don't want to spend all the time tinkering with their mobile device to get the applications they desire. 

    One way to address this issue is to create shells.  HTC has done this with TouchFlo and Sense and Motorola has created Blur.  These shells with tie together a variety of different features that users often desire and can be great.  In the past however, particularly on Windows Mobile, the cost of adding a shell was performance and depth.  Many of the devices suffered from performance problems and were just too slow when the shell was running on top.  Also the shell generally doesn't go deep enough.  It covers maybe 80% of what the user might generally encounter, but then they get dumped into the core of the OS for the last 20% which can be an even worse situation than not having the shell at all - since the interface constructs can be widely different.  

    Perhaps the optimal way is to allow the device to become self-configuring with a rich user interface that can adapt to the different functions that an individual user desires while integrating those functions.  For example if I'm listening to music on my phone and want to share the song (or information about the song) with my friends, why not make the ability to post that information to Twitter directly available from the song?  And if my friend responds to that posting wouldn't I want to have that information available with the song as well?  If instead of thinking about each individual application as a separate item, they could be combined into meaningful activities that span the entire usage of the device, wouldn't that change the way we interact in a positive manner?

    There's a lot of work to do in the phone market -- you have to start somewhere...

    17 December 2009

    feature phones, smart phones, smarter phones, oh my!

    If you're in the market for a new phone or even curious about phones in general, there are lots of choices on each of the major network operators to choose from.  However while each carrier appears to have it's "signature" (or Hero to use the appropriate vernacular of the handset and carrier world) smartphone (e.g. iPhone for AT&T, Droid for Verizon, Palm Pre for Sprint, etc).  They also carry a lot of other phones where the bulk of the purchases occur.  Sure there are the really simple Nokia, Samsung and LG phones that have some cool features but are lost somewhere between the ability to make phone calls and the ability to efficiently browse the web and the really basic phones where you need a PhD or tons of time on your hands to do anything other than making calls or sending text messages.  I'm sure if I spent the time to find a link to the appropriate research, I could clearly show you a chart of market share for smartphones and that of non-smartphone and how globally the bulk of purchases are non-smartphones (e.g. phones not designed for surfing the web and installing 3rd party applications), but you'll just have to trust me and your intuition.

    And then there are RIM devices...  interestingly they are one of the few phone manufacturers that is available in some shape or form on every network and are technically classified as a smartphone.  The reason I think that Blackberries are different is simply because traditionally the consumer product value is not evident.  After all what are these devices really good at?  Short email correspondences.  Eight years ago when they were first really bursting onto the scene,  they were the accoutrement of the corporate road warrior and then quickly to the general knowledge worker.  Big, bulky and worn on the belt - a status symbol that you were important and had to remain in touch at all times.  Honestly relative to the latest offerings (outside the Pearl and the Storm) not much has changed.  The software has gotten gradually better, but still has plenty of legacy implementations tied to contextual text menus; and the UI and interaction model is relatively plain compared to modern OS implementations.  

    The Pearl was different for 2 factors - size and keyboard entry.  First off it was finally a Blackberry that could be placed into the pocket and was not much different in size from many of the candy bar phones.  Second the introduction of SureType (is that how it's capitalized?) allowed for the form factor to be successful.  While just about everyone in Europe and Asia were using T9 text input, SureType allowed for quicker text entry while only requiring a slightly larger space for the keys.  Thus since the general US population never took up T9 for the most part and wanted a Blackberry that could fit into the pocket, this became the must have phone for those who had to have a Blackberry or were long time Blackberry users who now thought this would be an acceptable device for their significant others.  And of course RIM did a good job with the carriers promoting the device to the youth and general consumer market which helped the device become successful.

    Storm wasn't a success at least not in comparison to the other touch screen smartphones that were launched in the last couple of years.  The first Storm had a horrendous interaction model that felt like it was grafted on top of an aging platform that wasn't built in the first place for touch screen devices.  Then there were lots of bugs and issues with the touch screen itself to boot. Most of these were figured out after launching the device and the second generation Storm is a lot better.  The interaction model is a little bit different from the rest of the devices of this class and the software is improving greatly.  A lot is being done to really take this type of device to the next level and I believe RIM has the talent and desire to do so.  Storm's potential success really relies somewhere else, and is worthy of a blog entry of it's own.

    Now to what I consider the shocking secret of RIM phones - The Curve.  As a self admitted technology geek who spends time playing with any and all new phones and gadgets I can get my hands on (it's a lot less now that I'm not gainfully employed), I dismissed the Curve outright.  Honestly, it felt like a cheap entry level version of the high-end Blackberries of the past.  Why would people go out en-mass and purchase one?

    From what I can gather, here's my short list:
    - The vast number of Blackberry users who received one from work over the past decade is quite large.  Many of these users have become addicts and crave to continue to own a Blackberry even if they have to pay for it.

    - Those users who are addicted to them, inflict that pain to their significant others (just kidding!).  Users who have spent a large portion of their career with a Blackberry and continue to use one are very likely to induce their spouses, children and friends on the virtue of always being in touch.

    - The wide spread use of Facebook and Twitter along with email access is highly desire-able to a large portion of users.  Plus the ability to use a full QWERTY keyboard reinforces the notion that text entry would be quicker on that style of device than any others.  [The entry speed argument is debatable, and also worthy of an entire post].

    - Social acceptability of checking and texting in public has clearly changed.  When Blackberries first arrived on the scene, the common joke was of the "Blackberry Prayer" - when someone would lean down and start typing away on the Blackberry under the desk so as not to be seen.  Nowadays people simply start interacting with the mobile devices in almost any situation without being perceived as overtly rude.  Just look around you at all the people playing games on their iPhone or tweeting the latest thought!

    - One of the few corporate perks that still exist is that some companies may pay your cellular bill or at least part of it.  For those that want their corporate email on their device, there are few choices that work as well as a Blackberry thus helping to contribute into the uptake of the device.

    - Finally, the price is right.  Just go to any Walmart and you'll be able to pick up the Curve on the carrier of your choice for a song and a dance.  And with some marketing you can get 2 of them for next to nothing.  Thus keeping the Blackberry in the family.

    I'm sure there are other really good reasons for the Curve's success which I'd love to hear about.

    The bigger question is why did I spend all this virtual ink talking about RIM devices, their consumer push and the Curve in general?

    The phone market is changing.  The high-end smart phones are getting ridiculously bloated with lots of converged functionality that makes geeks (like myself) happy until the next cool gadget comes along.  The gap between small tiny PCs and the phone is rapidly disappearing and the focus is on which "Apps" are available on which platforms and how much you can charge for them, generate mobile advertisement revenue, or brand new experiences.  The parallel with the model of PC usage and business models are growing closer every day.  However the biggest market is not in the coolest, hippest most sought after phone in the market; rather the phones that have the most impact on general consumers.

    Obviously "winning" isn't necessarily about shipping the most handsets or having the highest revenue per handset; rather it's about creating a brand loyalty with an experience where the user not only wants to interact with the device, but the interaction is highly usable.  In the emerging "middle space" between the low end feature phones and the higher end smartphones there is a huge opportunity for creating a new and exciting experience for the general mass market.  It's simply about building out the infrastructure for the device to allow it to have the proper features and functions that clearly meets the needs of this market in a unique, cost effective and productive manner.  

    To me the Curve is an example of a device that comes really close to this ideal for a particular set of customers, but I'm willing to bet that someone who really decides to focus on this market can do a lot better!

    16 December 2009

    to blog or not to blog...

    As many of my friends know, I have been looking for my next great career move since the end of July.  Given that it's now December and I still haven't found anything, I realize that perhaps sharing my knowledge (and my struggle) might help to boost my visibility to the outside world.

    However, this isn't the topic or even the rationale for this particular blog entry, rather it's the question of whether to blog about the incidentals and innuendos of information that I've gleaned over the past several months while interviewing, reading and pondering some big questions.  I wouldn't say that I've heard anything earth shattering, but some of the small pieces of data that I picked up have challenged at least some of the pre-conceptions that I have had about particular items.  So in that vein and before I get down to the serious task of actually creating substantive blog posts here are a few particular gems to ponder:

    - Blackberry Curve is the best selling "consumer" device sold by RIM.  To me this was somewhat shocking, not because I thought that the Blackberry Storm was any big success (I knew it wasn't) but rather I never viewed the Curve as a direct to consumer type of device.  In my previously view, I really only thought about the Pearl and the Storm as the two main consumer devices in the Blackberry stable.  Both of these were heavily marketed to consumers and have a better consumer facing proposition (IMHO) than the Curve.  Yes, the Curve retails often for $0 with contract, but somehow I just didn't see the consumer mass market wanting to buy a full QWERTY device with software that is mostly antiquated.  I can understand "Sally" the knowledge worker buying one to deal with both personal email and communication as well as being able to keep up with the company email etc, but to do that out of her own pocket seems a bit odd.  Of course there may be more going on here than meets the eye... Sally may be getting some sort of reimbursement from her employer either in terms of the purchase price of the device or possibly the cost of the data service or even the entire phone bill, but obviously that's not something that would be "tracked" relative to the consumer purchase point data.  Regardless, it is an interesting factor that deserves some more consideration; in fact I've got some ideas as to why this might be the case, but will save those for a later post.

    - Windows Mobile is in more trouble than you can imagine.  The eye opener here isn't all of the stuff that you typically read on the blogs and it's not that they are losing market share like crazy to Android, RIM and Apple as the key operating systems in the mobile OS space.  Part of the problem is a result of Microsoft feeling like it has to compete head on with Apple and RIM who both produce not only the hardware but the software for the device.  As anyone with any experience in the industry can tell you, the best consumer devices always have the hardware and software designed in coordination. This factor led Microsoft to create some specifications for "ideal" devices - which Microsoft was than going to use to build out software that matched those particular specs.  While a decent plan in theory, it creates problems when hardware manufacturers have other ideas about what features, functionality and timing of device launches need to be included in their device offerings to the carriers who end up purchasing the devices; and the manufacturers are trying to react quickly to market changing conditions.  The rest of the problem is most likely in how Microsoft is organized, the structure, size and responsibilities of the organizations involved.  I will say however, that you shouldn't count Microsoft out, but there is a lot that needs to be done to get back on proper footing.  Something that can definitely be saved for future discussion...

    - Netbooks are everywhere and while a strong growth category (for the time being), many users are still hung up on needing that good old DVD drive.  For the average home consumer a netbook or similarly spec'ed cheap laptop is more than adequate for the task.  Sure it won't play the lastest and greatest graphically intensive first-person shooter, but the vast majority of gamers are casual gamers who want to play Bejeweled or MouseHunt on Facebook in which case these little computers are perfectly suited for the task either in the home or on the go.  Obviously connectivity is still an issue and the data plans or subsidized devices from the carriers are available (in my opinion a terrible option for general consumers), but what is really missing is rich content specifically geared to these devices.  You could stream NetFlix or Hulu directly to the device, set up Boxee, etc, but on many the playback quality isn't all that great and you need to stay constantly connected.  Amazon does have a movie download service and there are a few others out there that allow for content to be acquired, but the cost is prohibitive, the amount of content is lacking, and the awareness to the general consumer of these services is laughable.  Improving this situation for these consumers isn't that difficult and I'll share some ideas for this space...

    - The fight for the living room continues... I think this is one area where there is a lot of technology floating about, but no one has really come up with a solution that is appropriate for the mass consumer in a way that really makes sense.  And of course just about everyone is playing in this space, but today there still is no winner because I think from a consumer stand-point, the winning solution shouldn't be a compromise, but something that is customized to their needs.  After all in the living room there are gaming consoles, HTPC (home theater PCs), remote network devices (Sling, Roku, Boxee device, etc) and you now have web-tablets such as Tabbee (haven't seen it yet? Sagem made this for Orange and it's pretty cool, though brush up on your French first), Tap 'n tap, Chumby and of course the mythical Apple Tablet (if it ever becomes real).  Honestly it's a mess out there, not because of the dearth of solutions, just that it's hard to have one that makes sense.  I have some ideas...

    - Finally, everything comes down to the user experience.  From portable media players to custom consumer electronic devices to smartphones to PC software, how the customer interacts with the device has to be met with three key components - usability, usefulness and need.  This is pretty standard knowledge to many, but what most forget is that these aren't static traits and the software needs to evolve and change with the end user.  Ideally all of your devices are capable of self-updating and thus you always have the latest and greatest.   This ensures you're able to give your users the best possible experience since you can make critical changes in functionality and usability to better meet those needs.

    Over the next few months, I'm going to continue to explore these ideas and share my thoughts and experiences as I continue to look for the next great career opportunity.  Hopefully I'll be able to continue, but when you like working on the bleeding edge of consumer offerings its can be hard to provide meaningful details :-)