Friday, December 31, 2010

Video Conferencing and Chat on Tables

Seemingly one of the most valuable uses of a tablet computer has only recently come into the consciousness of many consumers. Video conferencing, not available yet on Apple’s iPad (though highly likely on the 2011 iteration) and available in limited form on the Samsung Galaxy Tab, is making the rounds as the next big tool that all tablet owners should be oohing and ahhing over.

And recent news from the world’s largest video chatting service for consumers – Skype – has me thinking more about the role that video conferencing will actually have on the industry as a whole. Skype’s newest iteration on the iOS for iPad and iPhone now allows users to switch from audio only to video chat (iPhone only for now) and rumors of an Android powered version are strong and likely to come to fruition very soon, alongside the current Qik, OoVoo Mobile, and Fring video chatting apps for Android phones.

Some tablets and phones already offer native video chat. The iPhone’s big new feature in 2010 was Facechat – a real time video chatting tool that only worked between iPhone 4 owners on WiFi networks. It was good looking software but very limited by Apple and AT&T’s current partnership. However, Skype has found a way to circumvent that with their 3G enabled video chatting feature, quickly spreading on other phones, and likely to any tablets that offer a front facing camera.

This, of course, comes after Skype suffered severe outages, with nearly 40% of worldwide users suffering downtime due to a variety of bugs. We’ve learned since then that the outage was not caused so much by overload as by a bug in the newest software version of Skype, but the question still arises as to what the networks, including Skype can handle.

That will likely become less of an issue as Skype starts severely expanding its services in the next few months to handle the demand of mobile video chat. Additionally, we have companies like Verizon and Sprint rolling out their 4G networks already and others announcing 4G networks to come in 2011. To those 4G networks there are likely to go a number of new tablets, including the as-of-yet unannounced Motorola 4G tablet expected in Q2/Q3 in 2011.

To put things simply, video chat is a very important part of tablets. It just fits the needs of the format. Think about how small a phone is versus a 7 or 10 inch tablet, and yet how much more convenient a tablet is than a netbook or laptop when chatting at the airport or in a cab. I am not big on lofty predictions, but in 2011 I think we will see a huge surge of interest in front facing cameras, high speed mobile networks, and video chat, as well as all the secondary uses and ideas that go right along with the technology.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Looking Forward to CES 2011

Right now a lot of people are waiting anxiously for the 2011 edition of the big Consumer Electronics Show. In recent years, the show has been pared down a bit by the exclusivity of many announcements made by companies at their own events. However, this year with the boon of the tablet market in 2010 and so many companies hoping to get off to a strong start in 2011, I’m expecting quite the laundry list of interesting news out of the US in a couple weeks.

I’ve already mentioned the potential announcements that Microsoft has up its sleeve. No one is entirely sure if Ballmer will show off a revamped Windows 7 or if he has something entirely new on the docket. One thing is certain, though. After 2010’s CES, he needs to come out swinging and show off an OS that will truly compete with iOS, the upcoming Honeycomb from Android and possibly even RIM’s Playbook OS, all expected sometime  in spring/summer 2011. I love Windows, but I just don’t think it can compete with the touch-oriented operating systems that everyone else is working with right now.

But, then we have Intel’s recently released documents showing that many major manufacturers including Toshiba, Lenovo, Dell, Fujitsu, and Asus are all working on Windows tablets for release in 2011. It will be interesting to see what comes of all these new projects and how many of them we will see at CES 2011.  

We’re also seeing some snippets of news leak out from a variety of companies that will likely be announcing new products at CES. A Sony device recently won FCC approval for Bluetooth and Wireless connectivity as a tablet – not much is known about the device yet, but it looks to be a hefty device both in size and specifications. We won’t know for sure until January.

Other known announcements we will see include a Motorola Honeycomb tablet (likely with 4G) recently teased at in an internal event for the company. The new device has been referred to as the Everest and Motorola is already whipping out the quips against Apple’s iPad Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and their pared down computing experiences. Will we get to see exactly what kind of horsepower the Honeycomb tablet OS actually holds or will Google continue to hold back details further into the year?

And then there is everyone else. NEC is slated to show their dual screen tablet, while Notion Ink will hopefully give everyone a chance to actually lay hands on the Adam and ensure it is in fact the real deal. And there are always surprises. If 2010 was the year of the tablet, CES 2011 looks to be the celebration with almost every major consumer electronics company in the world bringing its A-game to Las Vegas. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cloud Apps that Made News in 2010

Cloud computing isn’t new by any means, but in 2010 it took off in a way that a lot of us have been waiting for a good long time, largely because of the massive surge in popularity of tablet PCs and smartphones. In the past, cloud computing was a convenience factor for people who used multiple PCs or who collaborated with their fellow workers extensively.

Now, however, cloud apps are essentially required if you want to get any real work done on your mobile device. With flash storage of between 16 and 64 GB, tablets are severely limited in what they can hold. To top it off, if you’re working on anything remotely confidential, a lost device could be disastrous if you store files locally. So, cloud apps have suddenly become the norm and companies are getting very large very fast as a result.


Dropbox has been around for a couple years now and in that time it has grown from a relatively small service that provides on the fly cloud storage of key files and easy sharing with users of your choice to the defacto cloud tool for anyone on a tablet PC running Android or iOS. Some technology writers have joked that Google or Apple should just buy Dropbox as it is as necessary as any of the built in apps on either operating system.

The real value of Dropbox is just starting to develop too. Many apps for both Android and iOS have developed ways to share files directly through Dropbox. You can even set automated folders on your hard drive at home that will process, share, or upload files that you create on a tablet, effectively streamlining tasks you cannot complete when on the road. And this is all with Dropbox just now reaching 1.0 status. It will be interesting to see what these folks come up with in 2011.


I could have chosen any number of note taking applications, and I personally use One Note on my Windows tablet because it is more efficient in handling handwritten notes and Microsoft’s attempt at cloud computing has, thus far, gone very well for me.

However, Evernote is the clear winner in 2010 in terms of raw user stats and saturation. Most of that is due to their desire to provide a stable platform on every possible operating system. Evernote can be used on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android, and just recently enjoyed an update to 4.0 on desktops, finally speeding it up enough to stop chewing up memory. And while its support for handwriting on a tablet is still lagging, many hand writing apps integrate with the Evernote or Dropbox apps to quickly store notes on the cloud.

There are of course dozens of cloud computing apps that have been important in the last year. Google continued to develop its arsenal of tools with Google Documents, both on Android and non-Google systems. Microsoft’s Live Office was a success in many ways as well. But, as is often the case, the real test of saturation comes in consumer apps, and both Dropbox and Evernote registered massive growth in the last year, thanks largely to cloud hungry consumers. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Effect of eBooks on the Tablet Arms Race

If you’ve been in the tablet business for a while, the whole “eBook reader” debate probably seems like a strange impetus for a massive surge in sales, but nonetheless it seems to have had a big impact. For sure, the sheer volume of Amazon Kindles and Barnes and Noble Nooks that were sold in 2009 definitely changed how Apple initially introduced and marketed their tablet, particularly with the inclusion of iBooks, which admittedly hasn’t done that great compared to Kindle and Nook apps.

And no, most people who bought an iPad or Galaxy Tab in 2010 didn’t do so because they wanted to have a really pricey eBook reader, but buried down in there is the fact that a lot of people who would have bought a Kindle or Nook changed their mind when they saw how amazing a tablet could be.

In effect, the tablet market grew faster in 2010 because a lot of people were already considering buying an eReader and decided it made no sense to spend more than $200 on a device that only did one thing. With some careful marketing and the eventual support of the two major eBook distributors, Apple and later Android devices took advantage of this to provide products that did a lot more than an eBook reader for a slightly higher price.

These days I’m seeing a lot of discussions about color eReaders and whether the screen of an LCD device can match digital paper. However, the real issue here is how many people really need a device to read books compared to a device that will allow them to write email, watch movies, surf the web, and read books. More importantly, is it fair to the medium to compare what could be a full-blown computing solution to a gadget like the Kindle?

Is there a future for eReaders? Of course. Amazon figured it out very fast and dropped the price of their WiFi only Kindle to less than $150, well below the entry level prices of most tablets. Unfortunately for them, however, that probably still won’t convince tablet owners to buy yet another device. Despite the battery life, weight, and e-ink display, it just isn’t as flashy and spending another $150 for something that duplicates a feature on their tablet is a tough sell.

That’s why the move by Nook to produce a color unit for $250 is interesting. It partially bridges the gap between the clunky button interface of a Kindle and the super slick touch screen of a tablet. We’ve still yet to see a tablet truly replicate the eReader experience. They are heavier, experience lots of glare problems and are generally more expensive, so people who don’t need or don’t want all that extra technology will shy away.

If Notion Ink’s Adam with Pixel Qi is the real deal, it might be a good solution, as might other future devices rumoured to be considering Pixel Qi. For now, however, there is an oddly symbiotic relationship between eBooks and tablets. Neither side can quite figure out if they are competitors or complementary formats. When they do, it will be interesting to see what happens. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Microsoft’s New Take on Tablets

The other day, rumors of Microsoft addressing the growing tablet market were circulated, discussing a major announcement at the upcoming CES in January. Presumably at the Microsoft Keynote, Ballmer will showcase some of what we’ve already seen from a recent New York Times article about Samsung’s newest Windows 7 tablet. There are, of course, rumors that Ballmer may throw a curveball our way with an unveiling of Windows 8 functionality on tablets, especially with the expected Apple announcement of the iPad 2 probably coming sometime in January or early February.

With all that said, I find the news from Microsoft interesting, but not necessarily as encouraging as I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong. I love my Windows on tablets and have for many more years than most consumers were aware tablets existed. However, right now the tablet industry is growing rapidly and while hardware is a big reason, the software interfaces of iOS and Android are what make these devices so accessible to their users.

So, when details leaked that Samsung’s newest device, the Gloria, will have a touch-centric portrait interface and a traditional Windows landscape interface, I wasn’t sure what to think. The idea of convertibility in business tablets isn’t new by a long shot. The TegaV2 did it in another way, with dual-boot Android/Windows while other devices like the Inspiron Duo converts from netbook to tablet PC on the fly.

And then there is RIM which has been making hefty claims recently about how their tablet will “redefine what a tablet should do”. I can’t see them producing anything that completely revolutionizes the approach that Apple seems to have forced so many other developers to take, but while consumer tablets are starting to look very much alike, there is still a very wide open field for the business market – arguably the much harder group to placate.

And that brings me back to Microsoft, because frankly, this is a company with the largest business user install base in the world on traditional computers. But, they’ve fallen behind in all things mobile and it’s partially because of a lack of innovation. They continuously play catchup, as can be seen in their recent Windows Phone 7 launch which doesn’t seem to be doing as well as they had hoped (despite a slick interface and solid reviews). Right now, a company that pretty much had the tablet OS space to themselves for the last 8 years has been marginalized as most new tablets are sporting Android or some other non-Windows interface.

Yet, Windows 7, while decent on a tablet, is not designed for tablet use alone, and powerful software tools like Microsoft Office still cannot stand alone on a tablet without some upgrades like InkGestures or Thinix – great tools but necessary add-ons for full tablet functionality.  

I don’t know what Microsoft will show to us in three weeks, but I’m hoping it’s something new and exciting. They really need to blow people away with something that allows for the kind business use that many tablet owners have been waiting for or they’re looking at yet another market that they cannot quite catchup to. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tablets and the Learning Factor

I often talk about the many different ways a tablet PC can be used for businesspersons in need of heightened productivity. However, one of the most intriguing aspects of the technology behind a tablet PC to me is how educators and parents will use the devices in spurring development in children.

Whichever device catches your eye, you must admit that Tablet PCs are perfect for the tactile, brightly lit learning that children enjoy so much. Picture books and educational software for old Macs have been the staple of many classrooms for decades, but today parents can get started much earlier with applications on Android (and yes iOS) that help their children learn to read and do figures, as well as enjoy the wonders of the natural world.

The Role of Technology in Education

I am not an educator but as a father I have many thoughts on how we can use technology in educating our children. I am aware that not all parents can afford to invest money into expensive tablet PCs for a three year old preparing to learn how to read. I am also aware that most children will become addicted to the intuitive touch and manipulate nature of most tablet devices.

But, I am still excited by the prospect of providing a device that can actually stimulate an interest in learning through fun, easy to use hands-on interaction. It’s something that will appeal to a much larger majority of children as well. Sure, some kids like to play with computers and some like to read books, not all.

Tablet PCs are an extension of a child’s creativity. From colouring book apps to tracing letters and being coached through simple sums, our children can be fully engaged with an electronic device without getting frustrated by not understanding how it works.

There are dedicated tablets starting to come out from manufacturers who see the promise of a touch screen education for our children. I don’t know if dedicated devices are necessary. Surely, if your budget better incorporates a $200 device with limited features for a child, that may be the only option, but I encourage parents to consider a different route. When considering a new PC that a child will have access to, think on whether a full-featured tablet is a good alternative. Not only will it allow for the same web access and homework assistance that a PC would, it will allow for fun, interactive learning experiences.

Already, we’re seeing some school districts and universities buying up tablets for use by students. They see the value of this kind of interaction with technology. It’s going to be an interesting next couple decades as they fully integrate into our lifestyles, and I hope to see my children poking, sliding, prodding, and best of all, learning the entire way. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Notion Ink Adam Problems - What's Really Going On?

The tech industry has never been an easy one to get into. There are high barriers of entry in funding, ideas, and distribution, and then there are the pundits. Every product created gets dissected, analysed, and reviewed over and over again, sometimes to the joy of a new company and sometimes to its downfall.

So, it’s always interesting and occasionally painful to watch someone attempt a feat like Notion Ink – the India based tablet manufacturer who burst onto the scene at CES last January with a whole lot of promises in their Adam tablet.  

Yet, even before their first tablet, the Adam, hits store shelves, Notion Ink is having a horrific time with their presale. Visitors to their site are finding limited information about the tablet, high shipping fees (or low depending on where you live), limited payment method options, requests for personal data they should never need, hiccups with shipping addresses, and a very short return window. Some are yelling “Scam” while others are simply waiting to see the device in question.

The tablet itself has not been shown outside of very limited tech demos that don’t showcase many of its announced features and as a result is severely lacking in the kind of hands-on buzz needed to alleviate these growing pains. Of course, Notion Ink has promised a reveal on January 6th at CES, but why then are they preselling so early if no one has actually used the device, and in some cases regulatory approval hasn’t even been acquired.  

We don’t know for a fact if this is a case of an unscrupulous company or a very messy preorder process gone horribly awry, but the whole debacle got me thinking about the barrier to entry in this industry. Right now, there are roughly two dozen companies attempting to follow the path that Apple blazed last spring with major tablet launches. Some of them will succeed and many will not. But, most of them are major tech companies with diverse product offerings that can afford to test a new niche.

However, in my eyes, the really good ideas tend to come from the smaller manufacturers – the guys with something to prove and creativity to spare. If you want to succeed out of nowhere, you need to bring something over the top and brand new with you, not just another iPad or Tab replicate. So, I get excited when companies like Notion Ink come along. And a lot of people are with me on this. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean those companies will follow through with good devices, or even with a functional device.

I’m willing to wait out the preorder problems and accusations to see what the actual device looks like, though I do recommend you hold off on ordering until these issues are worked out. However you look at it, though, small manufacturers bring big ideas to this industry and as a tech enthusiast, I want to see each of them succeed.

If this is just a case of poor planning and Notion Ink bit off a little more than they can chew with a global launch on their first product, I will keep an eye on this thing in January because you never know when the little guy will come through with something impressive. If, on the other hand the Adam is DOA or simply never arrives, it will be a blow for small manufacturers everywhere who work hard to gain the public’s trust with their first product. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Risk of Missing the Boat

Yesterday, I caught an article about an upcoming video game console release from Sony. It has not yet been announced, but it’s widely expected that Sony will announce its followup to the Playstation Portable (PSP) for release sometime next year, and yet many analysts are already calling it a DOA device because of the prevalence (and affordability) of touch devices like phones, iPods, and tablets.

Then, this morning Google finally unveiled a full functional version of their Chrome OS, announced a little over a year ago as a super lightweight OS solution for netbook computers. And yet, many people are saying that this development is also coming just a bit too late as many companies start pushing to sell off their netbook stock and replace it with Tablet PCs.

Now, we all know that the tech industry is a very fluid machine. At any given point, a development in technology or a swing in consumer interest can tank one product and raise another to multi-million selling status. And while I wouldn’t call the current trend toward touch technology a full on revolution, it is definitely having an impact on the way business is done.

Specifically, people are getting used to sleek, technically advanced devices and simpler, single-access solutions for multiple problems. They don’t necessarily want gaming devices anymore when they can use their phone to check email, make calls, and play games. They don’t necessarily want a netbook when they can have a tablet, which looks so much nicer and is even more portable.

And while companies like Sony and Google are not exactly going to bite the dust because they released a device or technology that is past due, there are other companies that need to be careful. It can and probably should make some developers at least a little nervous. The risk of getting so excited that they throw all of their eggs in one basket only to watch the basket get knocked over a couple months later.

I wished I had advice for manufacturers and developers on how to avoid this trap, but honestly I am excited by what it represents. We’re seeing more new ideas, developments, and opportunities opening up every week right now than we saw in personal computing for years last decade, and that means more efficient options not just for the average consumer, but for developers, businesspersons, students, and health care professionals.

What do you think? Are there devices or technologies currently in development that risk being overshadowed by what the tablet or smartphone industries are currently doing with touch? What can the big boys (Microsoft, Dell, Sony, etc.) do to stay ahead of the curve and help revolutionize the personal computing industry instead of trying to play catchup? It will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of years. One thing I can be sure of, though, is that the consumer will win out in the end.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Always Searching for the Next Big Feature

Now that more than a handful of new tablets have hit the market in 2010, the shift in talk has turned from X vs. Y discussions about which tablet is better (usually with the iPad involved somehow) toward how the next generation of these devices will stack up against their current iterations.

We all know the iPad is a runaway success, despite it’s less than ideal standards. The Galaxy Tab is also turning out impressive numbers, especially in the US where it has sold more than 1 million units as of a couple days ago. Other devices like the Dell Inspiron Duo, HP Slate and Viewsonic G are all hitting the market before the holidays and more are prepping for release early next year.

But, you know as well as I do that when it comes to technology, the hype for a new device only lasts as long as it’s unavailable. After release and a few weeks of sales tracking, the talk turns to when the next version of that device will be available and how much it will add to blow away all previous models.

Of course, most of the conversations right now seem to focus on what Apple will do to compete with the onslaught of competitors. Sure, Apple has sold more than 4 million iPads, but how will they maintain that industry lead in the iPad 2? Not much is known (other than the highly rumoured camera and a probable processor upgrade), but I’m sure we’ll see more of the same halo-device style upgrades that Apple is known for.

But, what about the rest? What major features are on the horizon in this industry that smaller companies are willing to experiment with in a bid to carve out a share of this market? In 2010, we saw the release of a dual-boot Windows 7 and Android tablet in the Tega V2, something that changed how many people think about the functionality of a tablet PC. The Dell Inspiron Duo is offering a dual mode netbook/tablet experience for those that still feel the urge to type on occasion – definitely not a new idea in touch technology, but a welcome one in the current tablet arms race.

In 2011, Acer has announced its 10 inch and 7 inch tablets with dual core processing, front and back facing cameras (a feature I think we’ll see serious traction on), HDMI out, and multiple form factors (as Samsung has discovered, not everyone wants a 10-inch tablet). Other devices are touting potential phone service, and the first wave of 4G enabled tablets is likely to start popping up by the end of 2011 with most major network upgrades starting to go into effect.

What do you think? What major upgrades and technology introductions do you think will drive the tablet industry in the next 6-12 months? Will we actually see game changing set of features from the iPad, or more of the same closed off iOS environment we’ve grown used to? And will devices with bigger and better features get a foothold in the industry any time soon?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Essence of an Effective Enterprise Tablet

Right now, there are more new tablets and smartphones prepped to hit the market than at any point in my recent memory. And one of the big points of contention I’m seeing is the “pro” version of some devices. Despite the huge surge in popularity of iOS and Android devices, the BlackBerry format remains a top seller, largely because of its enterprise uses and the fact that IT departments like how easy it is to set them up and provide support to hundreds or even thousands of users.

So, it’s no surprise that companies like HTC are aiming to release “Pro” versions of hot devices like the Droid smartphone. What does this have to do with tablet computers? More than many people think. For sure, mobile phones are by far the most universal technology being discussed today. In the United States for example there is nearly one mobile phone for every man, woman and child by volume.

So, with the surge of tablet computing in recent months heating up and with the enterprise uses of a tablet PC so obvious, it’s likely that we’ll see a wave of “Pro” devices hitting the market soon that are designed specifically for enterprise users. RIM has already started the process with their forthcoming PlayBook device – due out in Q1 or possible Q2 in 2011.

But, my question, and one that has been asked repeatedly of different smartphone brands is what kind of features does a device need to have for it to be considered “enterprise ready”?

Android and iOS devices are best known for their expansion abilities – they can grow based on the needs of the marketplace with new apps. However, Apple has a firm grip on its approval process and doesn’t necessarily provide the easiest platform for mass security measures or data sharing in a corporate environment. If a company wants to create their own, proprietary App for use on an iPad, they either need to jailbreak their devices or go through Apple’s approval process.

With Android, there are no issues with control, but security represents a major hole. There are many versions of Android out there right now and each of them has different features. Which one should IT choose and how can they secure it in a way that ensures long term data security?

So, RIM has the right idea – bring out a tablet that can compete on a field that current devices don’t have a handle on just yet. But, can a new OS on a new device from a company that has admittedly floundered quite a bit recently really pull it off?

Personally, I see massive potential in tablet computers as enterprise devices. With 4G networks and WiFi overlays becoming more common, and with more and more executives and businesspeople taking their work on the go, a device that can double as a PC in any situation is a gift and one that I’m sure thousands of companies are looking into. Of course, you can’t overlook the value of a Windows tablet – a familiar platform with dozens of security devices already devised for standard desktops.

What do you think? What format will eventually catch on most effectively in a corporate setting and what features will provide the “killer apps” for businesspeople on the go. Will there be a BlackBerry of tablets or will it continue to be a mishmash of multiple formats like the smartphone market that has developed in the last four years? 

Monday, November 29, 2010

The App Mentality

Right now, when talking about tablet computers and their functionality, we usually discuss apps and how they expand the platform. Apple and Android devices alike access massive app stores that offer third party developers chances to offer dozens more tools that don’t come with the device naturally. In fact, for some manufacturers, the allure of the Android App store has made (or broken) their devices.

But, for those interested in more powerful applications or for specific enterprise functionality, Apps don’t always get the job done, at least not right out of the box. The iPad for example has been available for the better part of 8 months and is still gaining functions that its original users have long wanted, and almost all of them rely one or more third party apps.

Android tablets are now in the same place as Apple when its device was first launched. There are more than a hundred thousand apps available on the Android Marketplace, but they are almost all exclusively developed for smart phones. The resolution is lower and interfaces are designed for smaller screens, but with time that will change as the Android Marketplace share for tablet PCs continues to grow.

I’m largely restating the obvious though. What exactly should apps provide that the OS does not and does every passing week make it that much harder for anyone not named Apple or Google to provide a viable operating system for a tablet?

To start with, it depends on your perspective on touch screen computing. For many users, tablet PCs should come with native touch applications. And because those apps can be single access tools with low development costs, it’s not surprising that App stores are thriving. But, that doesn’t mean the Windows model won’t continue to work.

Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more robust advancements to the Windows operating system for touch computing, especially as Windows 8 grows in development between now and 2012. But, even with the current iteration of Windows 7 on a tablet (which I think works great), combined with third party tools like Thinix, you still need applications.

Office is good, as are a number of standard third party tools for Windows, but for a device to be truly effective as a tablet, it needs to be optimized for touch – not the on-the-fly OS tools used to interpret touch input as standard input. Devices like the TegaV2 are attractive for this very reason – the opportunity for dual OS operation (Android and Windows 7) gives owners both options.

If Apple didn’t have such an exclusionary policy about how apps are developed and approved in the App store, I think this conversion would be a lot more interesting. As it is, however, developers are essentially forced to develop iPad versions of their software first, then explore Android alternatives before looking into third party app stores. How will other devices like RIM’s PlayBook or rumoured Nokia devices compete? It remains to be seen, but the App model isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What Was NEC Thinking?

It’s not every week that I have two tablets I can point at and say “that’s how not to do it” but after Monday’s post about the Toshiba Folio 100, I have another device I want to point out that just plain gets it wrong.

And while Toshiba at least had good intentions with their Folio design, NEC has completely missed the boat when it comes to their newest tablet entry – the LifeTouch. The device, which on paper doesn’t sound bad with Android, 3G, USB, SD Card reader, and 3 megapixel camera, all running on an ARM Cortex, is just a bit clunky if you ask me.

Here’s the problem. As you can see from the image above, not only does the LifeTouch eschew the increasingly standard silvers and blacks of modern tablets for a bright, glossy white, it is loaded with clunky buttons, a whole lot of extra material and a 7 inch touch screen that looks smaller than it ought to.

Just after receiving news that in the US alone, Samsung has sold 600,000 Galaxy Tabs, we now know that there is a huge market for Android tablets, but devices like this aren’t designed to capture that audience.

To be fair, it’s not like no other devices look like the LifeTouch. Only three years ago, many devices still sported buttons and had thick, heavy bodies for carrying. The difference is that back then touch screens simply lacked the responsiveness and flexibility they have today. And Windows on tablets was still being done with modified XP installations – it wasn’t nearly optimized for touch screen yet, so you needed buttons.

But, today’s devices are sleeker and more efficient than ever. Touch screen has moved forward at rapid speed and Windows is now a hot commodity for enterprise tablets (which is the market the LifeTouch is aiming for). And, this isn’t even a Windows device. It’s Android which means it was built for touch screens – definitely no reason for buttons.

In the end it all comes back to one question – what exactly was NEC thinking? Not only will this device launch at the tail end of the biggest year for tablet computers ever to date, but it will be immediately hobbled by questionable design, an older version of Android (2.1), and no clear market.

The last two years has been an amazing time for anyone who follows tablet computing. The speed with which the market has moved forward still astounds me and the new technology and sleekness of some devices being announced is downright impressive, but every now and then someone gets it wrong. It’s not to say a future device from NEC won’t adopt a sleeker design and a more intuitive layout, but for now we’re getting one more lesson in how not to build a tablet in 2010.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Did Pricing Fail Toshiba or Did Toshiba Fail the Public?

Right now it seems like every manufacturer on the planet is churning out a tablet PC to compete with the iPad. All those new tablets are sleek, stylish and generally considered quite popular with most consumers – especially when they are in the realm of affordability.

Yet, there is one company that is already finding itself in the dog house with customers over an inferior piece of tech. Now, there are a lot of problem tablets out there, many of them derided for being cheap and cashing in on the tablet craze. But, for the most part, those poorly made tablets are inexpensive – they are bad because they are cheaply made.

However, Toshiba’s Folio 100 has no such excuses. The device, which retails for €399 for most models (and as much as €529 for 3G models) and was released in Europe just two weeks ago, has already been pulled from at least one major retailer’s shelves (PC World). 

At first, there was some speculation that price might be an issue. After all, screenshots had surfaced of the Folio 100 with a £999.99 price tag. That was an internal blunder by the retailer, but the device itself had enough problems to push a removal anyways.

What Went Wrong?

So, what went wrong with the Toshiba tablet and how could a company always at the forefront of mobile technology and tablets in particular make such a pronounced blunder? To start with, they rushed a product to market.

In their hurry to compete with Apple and other upstarts like Samsung, Toshiba created a product with inferior integration of Android, a mushy LCD with poor viewing angles and low pixel density, and a plastic case. The device simply doesn’t feel or look like the highly touted, sleekly designed tablets that have been making other companies so successful.

Since the Folio doesn’t have access to the Android Marketplace yet (a big sticking point for many rushed Android tablets) and because the built-in Toshiba Market Place app is so buggy, expansion of basic usability on the tablet is very limited – making it even harder to recommend the device.

This is a problem I think we’re going to see a lot more of. There are hundreds of companies out there frantically rushing to get a device on the market – not wanting to fall behind a burgeoning industry that will revolutionize computing like nothing since the laptop was developed. And because there are other devices already providing optimal user experience, companies that rush something out of the factory will not be rewarded, especially if the price is so high that it doesn’t allow them to forgive technical flaws.

Toshiba probably learned a valuable lesson here, one that cost them dearly. One hopes their next attempt at a tablet does more to highlight their long history of quality and durability in their devices, and that other companies currently rushing their own offerings out the door will learn as well – not all tablets will be successful. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Power of Embedded 3G

These days, whenever a new device is announced, the first thing I find myself doing is sifting through the small print to learn whether it will be WiFi only or support both WiFi and 3G connectivity. For sure, 3G seems to have an impact on how the public both perceives and discusses the usefulness of that device, so what does the future look like for this often times overlooked feature?

To start with, it’s obviously a cost issue. Adding embedded 3G to any device costs more money. With the iPad, the price jumps by over $100 and for some devices it goes up even more. However, having a 3G embedded device also creates a natural partnership between mobile carriers and tablets, allowing users to signup for a two year service plan and receive subsidized pricing on the tablet – as is the case with the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

What Does 3G Bring to the Table?

Think of it this way – a WiFi only device is no better than a laptop. Yes, you can carry it with you more comfortably, but you’re still stuck looking for WiFi signals wherever you go. That means paying extra fees in airports and hotels, hunting for hotspots when out of town, and having to simultaneously use the phone for any on-the-go communications.

On the other hand 3G allows you to greatly increase productivity. Just having a 3G transceiver embedded in a tablet, you’re immediately more likely to carry your tablet with you everywhere you go. It becomes more like a phone in its 24/7 mobility than a laptop which you must sit down to use in set areas – there’s a big difference.  

Beyond simple access, imagine being able to quickly and easily jump onto the Internet and check a video when on the train or look up an important fact or figure in your email. Imagine being able to work on a file and send it while in a cab. These are things you cannot do with WiFi.

Going Beyond Simple Access

Beyond simple Internet access, there are a lot of manufacturers out there pushing the implementation of voice features on devices with embedded 3G. The Galaxy Tab is again a great example. While not available in the US, the European models of the Tab sport voice that can be paired up with Bluetooth to use your Tab like a giant phone.

On one hand it helps the mobile carriers to sell contracts, but one has to wonder if it is a bit of a distraction. You already have a mobile phone most likely – do you need a voice connection to make your tablet useful? I don’t think it’s necessary, but at the same time the fact that it’s possible is yet one more point in favour of 3G connectivity.

Right now, we’re in the transition between 3G and a series of faster, more direct mobile technologies like WiMax and other 4G technologies. Devices that are willing to explore mobile access to the Internet beyond WiFi are going to not only be more useful, but eventually be more desirable (regardless of cost). 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Finding Room in the Tech Market for Tablets

This morning as I was reading through a handful of my favourite blogs, I came across a number of new stories discussing how the tablet market is cutting into other long established markets. We’ve already discussed a few times the claim by some executives that the iPad is cutting severely into netbook sales, but this is not the only cannibalization in the technology race according to more than a couple analysts.

What interests me most about the growing argument over consumer focus and the effect it has on existing industries is that this is not a rare event. Whenever new technology becomes available, there is inevitably a shift in consumer spending. Most people don’t need a netbook and a tablet. They don’t need cable TV, Netflix, and a Hulu powered device. That’s not to say that some won’t have those devices, but for the most part, many people will stick with what works best in their day to day life.

It’s happened before. New technologies frequently supplant old ones. If you visit your local electronics store, you’ll surely find far more laptop computers on display than desktops. That’s not to say that desktops do not sell, but laptops are used in almost every facet of society – from education to enterprise and beyond while desktops are generally used at home and in the office. When laptops became more powerful and affordable they cut into that market sharply.

The same is now happening with the iPad and soon other devices of the same style and form. These devices are new and consumers do not yet know how they will use them, but we can be sure that many daily activities will be moved to the mobile space, simply because it is more convenient. Already, mobile smartphones are becoming a replacement for many tools such as phone books, maps, and portable gaming devices. So too will tablets gouge out their own space.

There are a few things that I find especially interesting in this new technology push, however. For sure, the demise of netbooks has been prematurely proclaimed. Just look at the sharp push of Macbook Air sales since the newest model was announced or Dell’s soon to be released Inspiron Duo – a hybrid of the tablet/netbook aesthetics. If a netbook can offer superior performance and a sleek design to rival a tablet, it will still sell.

But, on the other side of things, there are more technologies than just computing that will take a hit thanks to tablets. What about books? Or toys for children who are becoming increasingly tech savvy at very young ages? What about entertainment systems for the car? Who will need to spend thousands of dollars for a backseat DVD system when a single tablet with a Disney movie downloaded to it could easily do the same job.

This is an exciting time. All around us, people are innovating and developing new ways for mobile technology to take over certain tasks we perform using existing tools. That shift is only going to intensify as this technology matures – and while some people will be very nervous, I will be watching closely because there are so many avenues yet to be explored. It might harm one industry, but it will definitely provide value to the consumers driving these changes.

Friday, November 12, 2010

How Big Do People Really Want their Tablet Devices?

With so many new tablets being announced seemingly every week, it got me thinking – what are the newcomers doing to stand out from the industry leaders (i.e. the iPad)? There are a lot of engineering decisions that help the competitors in my books – open OS platforms are instantly more flexible while expansion slots for memory cards are a big plus in my book.

But, one of the many variations I’m seeing that a lot of companies are betting on is the screen size – there are quite a few devices on the market that are offering a 7 inch display rather than a 10 inch – effectively cutting down on the screen real estate available for computing.

While, this might seem like a cost cutting measure, one look at sleek new devices like the Galaxy Tab or the Viewsonic Viewpad shows you that they might have something else to offer entirely. Specifically, a smaller tablet is more mobile, and that is the point, after all.

What Apple did with the iPad is blow their iPhone display and OS up to the point that it could be used interchangeably for media consumption and some basic typing. Let’s face it – no one is going to type a novel on an iPad. But, at the same time, the device is a little bulky. It’s too heavy to carry in one hand and takes up a decent amount of space in a bag – even if it is far less than that of a laptop.

So, a 7 inch device does make sense if you want something that could theoretically fit into a large jacket pocket or go into the front flap of a backpack or messenger bag. Smaller devices can also be held easily in one hand, something that the 10 inch devices don’t allow.

Does the Size Matter?

In the age of hyper analysis of every new tablet announced, I’m wondering what role the size will play in the expanding market. Obviously the iPad is number one and will stay there for some time to come, but do people really want a 10 inch tablet, or is it that the most desirable device on the market (due to marketing and the ever-present Apple “hipness” factor) just happens to be 10 inches?

It really depends on who you’re talking to. To start with, cost plays a role. Smaller tablets can be sold for lower prices without necessarily sacrificing horsepower (something that severely short changes users – see my post on the $200 Gentouch tablet). Another thing that might come into play here is what the tablet will be used for. If someone merely wants a device for watching movies, playing games and checking email, do they need a 7 inch display? For me, the larger display devices are perfect for enterprise applications through Windows 7 but are not necessary for simple entertainment consumption.

As people start to ask whether Apple will introduce a smaller screen version of their uber-selling iPad and others wonder if companies are spreading themselves too thin with multiple sizes of their own first-time entries, it bears considering what role the size of these devises will ultimately play in the market. 

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Who is the Ideal Audience for a Tablet?

When reading a number of blogs I enjoy this morning, I noticed a press release that was making the rounds. The release in question was for a new tablet designed explicitly for children from Isabella Products, who has partnered with children’s publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

For a while now, I’ve kept a keen eye on whether tablets will ever expand to provide children’s only options. It’s been downright fascinating in recent months to follow the development of touch technology and how it relates to children. Toys have been working with touch screens for some time now, including Nintendo’s DS platform – a portable video game handheld designed primarily for children (though not exclusively).

Plenty of other toys have made the attempt as well. Children are generally very tactile. They learn through touching and doing and tablets offer just that level of interactivity. But, as anyone out there with a little one of their own knows, children are also mildly destructive. Handing over your new Galaxy Tab or Droid 2 for them to play with is not exactly the safest or most affordable option.

But, they love the things. Recent stories in the New York Times have catalogued the addiction of some toddlers to iPhones and tablets while plenty of parents I know use the devices to substitute for a pacifier or favourite toy when in public. It works like a charm.

So, a child-oriented device like the Fable sounds like a wonderful idea. This particular device comes in three child friendly colors, allows photo sharing, gaming, drawing, and books your children already like to read.

And yet, after reading the small print, the Fable seems more like a toy than a true tablet for children. The device allows the download of new games and books, but only through the portal – the Isabella based portal for applications and software they offer on various mobile devices.

On one hand, it allows parents to severely limit what their children have access to, but on the other hand, what if you want access to non-HMH published books or games produced for Android devices? The level of support needed by a device with a closed environment may not mean much to a child of 3 or 4, but what about when they get a little older? Will the device retain any value at that point? Let’s face it – children are incredibly tech savvy. They will know by the time they reach primary school that they are using a limiting piece of technology.

All that said, I’m one-hundred percent for devices designed specifically for children. Yes, some children are calm and careful enough to sit down with a Tab or iPad and use a colouring book application or read a Dr. Seuss book, but others would rather use it to hammer blocks into place. So, a sturdily designed, heavy duty tablet with plenty of parental controls and kid friendly interface is just what the doctor ordered. Now, we just need one that can scale with our children as they grow older – allowing them to use a device that challenges them as they become increasingly tech savvy. 

Saturday, November 06, 2010

How People Use Tablets Now and Soon

One of the number one factors that holds many people back from buying a tablet is the big question of why. They want to know what a tablet PC will offer that a netbook or laptop could not. And while I personally believe that a Tablet PC can offer all of what a netbook or laptop offer and more, I have been thinking lately about what specific features of a more traditional keyboard based machine users might miss in the conversion to a mobile touchscreen.

For example, the flexibility of the keyboard – touchscreen keyboards are hit or miss. Some work far better than others, but across the board, it depends on the screen and the software behind the screen. Devices like the TegaV2 use EyesBoard to provide a tremendous amount of flexibility in how they function, while other devices have their own proprietary keyboards that are regularly being updated.

Another big issue is touch screen input. Right now, a lot of software developers are still thinking in terms of how to provide input that is adapted from existing software. Business users think “Word and Excel are hard to use on a Tablet” largely because the interface is adapted for touch use, not build around it.

In time, I hope to see more native touch applications that rethink the most intuitive way to enter data. Where keyboard shortcuts and mouse input make the biggest difference in traditional apps, what about multi-gesture inputs or voice input for a tablet? These are the types of problems I think software developers will turn their attention to as tablets increasingly become a viable part of the computing market.

Right now, though, a lot of companies are bridging the gap with hardware solutions. Apple has their Keyboard Dock for the iPad and many devices come with styluses or outside attachments for more traditional input.

For a long time (before the iPad or Galaxy Tab came along), tablets were often hybrid devices, converting from touch screen to standard keyboard input. While most devices have strayed from that in favour of the sleek, attractive body of the iPad and Android devices, some companies are still eager to push the boundaries of convertible devices. The Inspiron Duo from Dell is a great example of a netbook/tablet hybrid that doesn’t result in excess bulk, though it remains to be seen how the device will function in real world circumstances (i.e. weight and profile).

Already, we are seeing processors, screen technology, games, and the future of not a few manufacturers building off the tablet trend. That makes it very interesting to see where we might be headed with the development of new software and even new hardware that makes a tablet PC more intuitive and downright easier to use.

I use a tablet every day for much of my computing; how long until it’s possible for even the most traditional users to follow suit?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

How Big is the Tablet Market?

It’s November and that means we are getting closer to the end of the year, the time when companies scramble to follow through on promises, make new promises, and ensure that their devices are in the public conscious, even if they won’t be available before the holidays.

While a recent Bloomberg story cites data from Strategy Analytics showing that Apple now has a 95% stranglehold on the tablet market, there are dozens of companies scrambling to get in on it. Obviously, very few manufacturers had a product on the market when Apple released the iPad last April, so numbers like that are not surprising.

So the big question, for me at least, is where’s the cap? How much of a market really is there for products in the tablet space? Obviously Apple has a good head start, but smart companies with new products should be able to make headway if they can capture a solid chunk of market attention.

Take the Samsung Galaxy tab, which is making the rounds right now on many of the major tablet review sites. It’s finally hitting the market this month and has edged out the iPad in a number of areas, though no one is sure if it will have the kind of splash many people were hoping for. It remains to be seen how the device is marketed as to whether it will have an impact. (You can read reviews of the Galaxy Tab on Engadget, jkkmobile, Slashgear).

Then there are the newcomers. Every couple days it seems like another company announces their entry into the tablet market. In fact, I’ve mentioned at least a half dozen in the last month alone. Since my last blog post, Michael Dell announced more Dell tablets on the way next year, ViewSonic (the monitor producer) announced their ViewPad offering with a release date for Q1 of its 7 inch and 10 inch offerings (both with Dual Boot Windows 7/Android like the TegaV2), and Creative’s announcement of the Ziio tablet – being released in Europe very soon.

Each device has its merits (and downsides), but one really does begin to wonder just how many devices the market can support. No one seems able to agree on how big the tablet market will be over the next 2-5 years with some analysts seeing moderate growth and others seeing exponential growth on par with PCs in the mid-1990s.

One thing is for sure though – not every company is going to come out of this on top. Many manufacturers will see great success with only a fraction of the sales Apple records, but others will not be able to support adding a new wing to their tech offerings if they can’t really break into this market.

Very soon we will see which features, options, and aesthetics work best in the market, and as a result ,which devices thrive. 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

What Tablet PCs Mean to Mobile Providers

For the better part of a decade, mobile phone carriers have made money by enticing users into long term contracts in exchange for subsidized pricing on cutting edge technology. At first it was all mobile phones, then smart phones, and in recent years the burgeoning netbook computer market.

So, it’s no surprise that many mobile carriers are concerned about the recent trend in computing – with iPad sales having a direct impact on netbooks, devices that are traditional sold as a third or even fourth computing option.

If it wasn’t so frustrating to see the tablet space completely dominated by the iPad (for now), it might be amusing to see the flip flopping done by netbook manufacturers like MSI and Acer, who at first were okay with the growth in the tablet market, but now are seeing it affect demand for their products.

Just yesterday, reports surfaced that Acer is concerned about the telecom demand for Tablet PCs. In the last two years especially, netbooks have been a primary way of selling the MiFi and mobile Internet packages which can equal or even exceed the monthly fees charged for just telephone service. Those fees represented the largest single growth opportunity for the telecoms.

But, the iPad has cut into that tremendously. We may never know how much the iPad has actually cannibalized those sales (estimates range from the extreme of Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn claiming 50% of netbook/notebook sales were being devoured, to more reasonable estimates of 15% from industry research groups), but we do know that the rush is on to tap into that market and no industry has a more vested interest than the telecoms who are intent on offering Internet access for mobile devices with their 3G and recently developed 4G/WiMax networks.

What’s interesting in all this is the fact that, in truth, there are not that many devices yet on the platter for telecom release. The Samsung Galaxy Tab is finally hitting store shelves in a few weeks, and Acer plans to have  their Tablet PC available by the end of November, but even Acer is foregoing Android in its first batch in favour Windows– not a bad trade off, but not the ideal solution for consumer devices either.

Right now, I think anything that helps spread tablet computing into the mass market is a good thing, provided that the devices being produced are not rushed just to meet telecom demand. I’m not insinuating that Acer’s first tablet outing will be a poor one, but it feels like they’re a little late out of the gate and I hope it doesn’t sour consumes on the potential of more powerful tablet PCs.

There is room for growth throughout the tablet market, and while there is some room to worry that Apple will continue to dominate the fledgling market, cooler heads and more powerful devices will hopefully prevail – telecom companies will get their contracts and users will have their mobile devices. The question now is how ill provide them.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What’s in a Tablet OS?

Right now, with a slew of new tablet releases making headlines around the globe, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the TegaV2, as well as a number of still planned releases from netbook giants Acer and MSI, the bulk of discussion has been about how this new consumer demand will play out over the next five years or so.

And while the hardware being manufactured is increasingly powerful, allowing people to do things never before possible with mobile devices, I’m interested in what an effective tablet OS really looks like. Can a tablet be truly effective for enterprise users, or even advanced household users, if it’s just a ramped up version of an OS developed for mobile phones.

The iOS is a perfect example – a software system that, while deemed restrictive by many iPhone users, still provides a decent user experience, and yet on a tablet seems much more stifling. But, there are more than just “closed OS” issues on the tablet market right now. Recent issues have developed with the open model used by Google for their Android OS.

Since Android is available for licensing and free use for any manufacturer that meets technical requirements with their devices, the OS is appearing on a wide array of devices – including advanced devices like the Galaxy Tab and extremely budget devices like the GenTouch Latte being sold for less than $200.

But, most consumers don’t know the difference between the different versions of Android, leading to issues between Google and manufacturers when devices make it appear that users will have access to the Android Marketplace and clearly do not.

What Should an OS Offer?

So, the big question now is what an OS needs to offer to be effective for a tablet device. What does a tablet need that a smart phone does not? To start with, it should be flexible. It should allow users to type naturally, input data manually (with or without stylus) and access the same software they are used to using on their desktop.

The iOS does not do these things and right now Android is working on it. With Gingerbread recently announced and a handful of tablets on tap from Motorola and Acer this November or December, we will soon see how the 3.0 OS from Google handles more advanced applications. Of course, we must remember that this is still an OS developed first and foremost for phones and while tablets are becoming more common and are likely figuring into the equation, Google knows where the demand is at the moment.

So, what is the solution? Honestly, I don’t think anyone knows just yet. For me, having access to advanced applications through Windows is a must on a tablet, and software like Thinix can make it more intuitive on a touch screen. It remains to be seen how the new RIM operating system will handle the PlayBook or how Gingerbread will perform, but we know one thing for sure – tablets are becoming more mainstream and whether these OS developers realize it or not, their software will need to cater to more than just casual users and entertainment apps in the very near future if they want to remain successful. 

Interestingly one solution that is sparking interest comes from Tegatech in the newly released TEGA v2. It is the first Tablet in the world to offer both Windows 7 and Android in one device. It's called “dual-boot” and while it's not quite perfect, it provides a solution for many users. On the Windows side users have access to all their preferred Microsoft Applications, and on the Android side battery life is optimized and the touch experience enhanced through Android. Again I don’t know if this is the perfect choice but it sure opens the TEGA v2 to a breadth of usage scenarios not available prior to its release.