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?