Archive for April, 2011

Lesson of the Week

Posted: April 21, 2011 in cooking
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When the box says “stir continuously” it means just that and not “stir, empty the dishwasher, then stir some more.” That’s my lesson of the week for any would be cooks out there.

Xoom

Posted: April 21, 2011 in Motorola, Tablet
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I played with the Motorola Xoom the other day. It’s a nice device and not to be taken lightly. Apple may dominate tablets right now but the Xoom shows that the Android threat is real. The UI feels more advanced than he iPad without having the scattered and cluttered feel of Windows. Operation was smooth and the tablet felt fast. My take away isn’t that the Xoom is the ultimate tablet but rather that Android tablets will get traction and dent the present iPad monopoly.This is in contrast to the Blackberry Playbook which I don’t see gaining traction. I was, however,  taken aback by a comment form a friend. He pointed out that the UI is different from an Android phone and lacks some of the simplicity of iOS on the iPad. I found the Xoom UI great but I am not your typical general public user. Moving from the iPhone to the iPad is transparent to the user. Hmm, I think that’s a big deal. The problem isn’t too many devices (phone, tablet, TV, PC) but rather too many user interfaces.

When most people talk about device convergence they are talking about the smartphone. There are actually parallel convergence trends at play and they will eventually run into each other. I mentioned the TV having the potential to pull the media player into the set itself. Now I want to step back just a little and look at that physical ecosystem surrounding the TV. There is the cablebox, the game console, perhaps a media player and maybe even a Slingbox. My system has a TV with a DVR (cable box), Wii, PS3, and a Slingbox.At one time there was also a Netgear media player but that was a less than positive experience. There are two things that immediately stick out with respect to my setup. First there are a lot of wires. Secondly, a lot of capability exists only in one place. The cable box in the bedroom lacks a DVR. I can’t play content recorded on the living room DVR in the bedroom. U-verse would solve that issue but I would have a slower internet connection. I can’t play Wii or PS3 games in my bedroom; nor can I watch Netflix or stream movies off my file server. The tough question is how all of this can be merged into one device, the TV, that can be replicated in each room and networked together. The path is going to be jagged and have many different paths along the way. This means it is a major trend. Let’s outline some potential pathways to my goal. I’m going to start by throwing some things out. The first is the DVD player. As streaming gets better, services like Netflix will diminish the importance of the DVD player. I’ve already discussed the media player merging into the TV. AS for the DVR that’s more difficult because of resistance form companies like Comcast together with Hollywood. I can dream of a Comcast box that resides on my network and serves up video to all of my TV’s while also being my cable modem.  Eventually there will be a single high bandwidth connection to the internet and all movies and TV shows will be streamed to your TV. What about gaming on the Wii and PS3? That’s harder. There is a path but it happens in a couple of stages. Look at how iOS devices are attacking portable gaming. Now look at Apple TV. Why oh why can’t it run apps? It cries to be a big screen version of the iPad.  Well, your TV won’t take touch input but it could take input from your iPhone or iPad. Apple TV doesn’t have to be a great system for the serious gamer. The PC is the serious platform for those guys. The PS3 and the Xbox 360 fit somewhere between the Wii and the PC. Similarly, Android or Google TV could perform the same function running on a or a media box. Once Apple TV has games the only remaining step is to integrate it into the TV. The same is true for the Google platforms. Oh yeah, I haven’t covered the Slingbox. Once your media streams over the internet when you want it rather than on a fixed time schedule, the Slingbox becomes superfluous. It feels weird to write that because, right now, I love my Slingbox and can recommend it highly. However, times keep changing and I don’t see it surviving.

From the earliest days of the PC we have hooked our computers to the TV. Originally the main display device for the personal computer was the TV. As inexpensive, high resolution monitors became available we divorced the computer form the TV. However, there has been a constant pull to reconnect the two. Microsoft made a major push in this area with Windows Media Player. I thought this would be a big hit. I played with the software and found a lot to like. However, I never quite got around to a Media PC. They were either noisy or expensive or lacked certain features. The cable industry dragged its feet on cable tuners and the CableCard and helped to kill off the media center. Rather than enabling a new technology the old guard stood in the path of progress.  This was sad. I liked the Microsoft Media Extender idea. An inexpensive device would allow your Media Center device to ship music, pictures and video to another TV elsewhere on your home network. Today few owners know or care that their Xbox 360 can be used as a Media Extender.

In another attempt to bring media to the TV we have the stand alone media player. There have been numerous devices in this space. The Tvix devices were the first I ran into. Later there were devices from Netgear and finally Apple. Today Apple TV is the best know device but also one of the most limited in functionality. For all of the myriad devices out there, nothing has really taken off. Yeah, Apple sells a lot of Apple TV devices but the numbers pale compared to iPad sales. Yet, there must be something there. People keep trying to get it right.

A related group of devices is the network enabled DVD player. Many of the newer DVD players can stream Netflix and YouTube. This is an easy way for someone to get some media connectivity. Hey, you were going to buy that Blu-Ray player anyway. You might as well be able to stream Netflix. Just click here to check out a nice Pioneer model.

The next group of devices are the network enabled game systems. Netflix is a major item on all of them. The PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii are all Netflix enabled. For a lot of people this is their first and easiest introduction to media streaming. Some like the the PS3 are much more capable than others such as the Wii. Currently I use a PS3 to play movies off of a central file server. The limitation is that I only have one PS3 so I can only stream to one TV.

There is still yet another group. This is the group of network enabled TV’s. Here the TV is connected directly to the network and is able to go on the web or view content off of a file server without an external device. Examples include Viera Connect and Bravia Internet Video. A problem with these devices is that the TV update cycle is very long. Unlike smartphones, people don’t update their TV’s every two to four years. It’s one thing to buy a new $99 Apple TV and quite another to upgrade a $3,000 big screen TV. Still, I suspect this is the winning approach. People want fewer boxes. Convergence says people want devices to merge. Just like the amp, preamp and tuner merged to make the stereo receiver the dominant form factor so I think the game system, media player and TV will merge. In addition, they want connectivity on every TV and not just the big one in the living room. This process will be slowed by several hurdles. Some TV manufacturers, including Panasonic, are going their own way. This will limit the size of their application ecosystem. Those going with Google TV will run into fragmentation as Google has trouble bringing new features to new hardware without making older systems orphans. Apple will want to be controlling. Yeah, what else is new. They will offer TV’s but that means the ever present Apple tax i.e.high prices. They will also face the issue of rapid obsolescence. I have a solution to Apple’s problem but I doubt they will listen to me. Apple should define a small form factor card that holds the Apple TV and allows it to be embedded in the TV and upgraded later. You would buy your LG large screen TV branded with “Apple TV inside!” and upgrade the card for $99 every two or three years. That would keep your experience fresh. It would preserve that unique ability Apple has to make Apple fanboys feel anything older than two years needs to be thrown out after a trip to the Apple store.

A good friend disagrees with me when it comes to the media box getting consumed by the TV. He owns two Apple TV devices. He says they are small and cheap. He feels the difference in the upgrade cycles will keep the devices separate. We’ll see. What do you think?

Why the iPad is Like Texting

Posted: April 15, 2011 in Apple, iPad
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I have an iPad. I love it. When i was thinking of getting one my son said “But Dad, it’s just an iPhone that costs more and can’t make phone calls. “ He’s right. So why do I love it? Why do millions of people love it? The answer is because it’s like texting. Think of texting. What purpose does it serve? If you need immediate communication then call. If you want to write something then email. By just about any same bit of logic few people should ever text. But, people do. The answer lies in balance. Texting is more immediate than email but less intrusive than a phone call.  The iPad is like that. It’s more portable than a laptop but with a bigger screen than a phone. Neither texting nor the tablet should be popular but they are because of balance. Texting is the perfect compromise between a phone call and an email. The tablet is the perfect compromise between a phone and a laptop. Just a thought.

Did Apple Win by Being Wrong?

Posted: April 15, 2011 in Apple
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I was looking at some of the limitations of iOS one day. Wait, the fact is I was cussing out the limitations of iOS, when I realized that Apple may have won by being wrong. It is apparent that Apple had no idea that the iPhone would turn into the computer platform it is. There were a few pages to hold the few extra apps an owner would want and that was it. There were no folders (since fixed) and no shared directory structure among apps (not fixed). I mentioned in an earlier post that Microsoft was more correct on this as far as where we will ultimately wind up. Maybe the public needed a dumbed down simple interface in order to accept the device. Once accepted it is easier to modify things and lead the public along. Apple was wrong about how the iPhone would be used. They had little idea people would place hundreds of apps on an iPhone. But… maybe this is what was needed. Now that the public mindset has been changed we can move forward and have a more feature rich operating system. At least I hope that is what will happen.

That sucking sound you here is the phone sucking in other devices. As the phone becomes your computer it isn’t content to stop there. More and more devices will get pulled in. Pity the poor PND. What, you don’t understand the acronym? It stands for Personal Navigation Device. You know those. That’s what you used to own before you realized your smartphone did an entirely adequate job as a GPS device and was always with you.

It isn’t just the PND. In the US, Apple iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) and the Nintendo DS have about equal market share. Apple’s market share is increasing. Sony is finding it necessary to merge the PSP into a phone. It gets worse. Microsoft hopes that merging Xbox games and Xbox Live into Windows Mobile 7 will help its mobile platform. Portable gaming is being taken over by smartphones and the related spinoff devices such as the iPod Touch.

Do you need some other devices? Let me add two more – the movie camera and the still camera. Dedicated devices are much better than using a smartphone. However, smartphones are becoming good enough for most day to day use. When news breaks worldwide the first video is usually shot from a phone.

Now do you see the scope of convergence or are you saying “Ok, but that’s pretty much it.” Think broader. With near field communication, NFC, the phone will become your wallet. You won’t need to carry credit cards. Your phone will serve that purpose. Just “swipe” your phone near a reader and you are done. It will become a controller for your home and a remote for your TV. This clip says it all.

The computer is merging with the phone. The circuitry to do this is easy. Ouch! I can hear my colleagues in the semiconductor industry yelling at me already. What is being accomplished at the chip level is truly amazing. Processor speeds are hitting 1.5GHz and we have dual core processors with quad core just around the corner. Graphics are now 3D capable and 1080P playback is supported. Storage is 32GB or better. 512MB of RAM is common with 1GB on its way. Wow! That’s a nice laptop from a couple of years ago and a nice desktop from four or five years ago. Still, this is easy compared to the human factors issues.

The transition from desktop to laptop was easy with relatively simple human factors issues involved. The difficult part was the hardware. Software changed very little. Human factors involved things like making the screen thinner and the keyboard better. The smartphone brought basic issues to be resolved. Some, including whether to have a physical keyboard or not, are still being played out in the marketplace. As capability improved, Microsoft went down the “featuritis” path. Windows Mobile started to generate the first batch of application content for phones. But.. it took Apple to blow the doors wide open with the iPhone and its associated app store.

Why Apple won when Microsoft had such a huge head start involves many things and will be the subject of a future discussion. It is a fascinating topic. The simple answer is that Apple used the emerging power included in smartphone hardware to reinvent the user interface. In hindsight, everything prior to the iPhone either feels limited or clunky. With the iPhone we finally got a pone OS that understood it was on a phone rather than trying to be a mini laptop. The success of the iPhone user interface is illustrated by a friend of mine. He said that after getting an iPhone it was frustrating to use his Garmin GPS. He kept wanting to swipe the screen. That’s the sign of a good UI. It quickly becomes natural and you get frustrated when similar devices don’t operate the same way.

Today we have iOS, Android, WebOS, Windows Mobile 7 and several other contenders in the phone/tablet computer arena. We have phones with keyboards and phones without. There are big screens and small screens. With Android there is a mini battle of who can best customize the Android UI. The take-away is that this is a major trend. The path is not clear and is rapidly developing. The winning formula today may not be the winning formula tomorrow. The take-away is that this is a major trend.

According to IDC, there were more smartphones sold in 2010 than PCs. Think about that. Let it sink in. The phone is becoming the dominant computing platform. In the future the laptop will be secondary to the phone. It will augment the phone rather than the smartphone augmenting the laptop. As the phone takes on this new role it will have to evolve way beyond its present state. As this happens the phone will consume more and more devices. Convergence will expand well beyond computer and phone. In addition, a second trend will move to the forefront. That trend is transparency. This includes both transparency of use, i.e. the UI extending across many devices, and transparency of data.

The merging of the PDA and the phone is a done deal. We have moved on to the smartphone that can run apps beyond those of the classic PDA. Still, for many, this is their view of convergence. The Palm Treo showed the way but success led to myopia and Palm is no more. OK, it’s still there and WebOS is being pushed by HP. We’ll see. Call it a dark horse in a tough race. For too long Palm thought that merging the classic PDA with the phone was where convergence would end. They were wrong and by the time they realized it they were way behind. Myopia resulted in opportunity and market position being lost.

Microsoft saw the need for the smartphone. They should be the big winner today. They aren’t. Like so many in the high tech area they thought it was about feature count. They took the merging of the computer and the phone too literally and thought the smartphone should be a smaller laptop. They were wrong. In reality the computer and the phone are moving to a merged but very different use model.  Understanding convergence without understanding transparency can lead to failure. It has for Microsoft. By any rational, technical feature count analysis they should be a big winner. For many years they have had a small version of Office on Windows Mobile phones. They have a real directory structure. Of all of the smartphones they are the closest in feel to a traditional computer. Yet, the iPhone blew them away.  Interestingly, in the end, Microsoft will turn out to have been more right than wrong. Smartphones will gain a directory structure. Trust me on this one. Even Apple will eventually succumb to this. Already the iPhone has Office type apps that sort of work with MS Office files. Microsoft is the loser who gets to say “But I was really right!” With Windows Mobile 7 they stand a chance but they are number three in a tough race.  We’ll have to wait and see if they can get away from “featuritis” and understand both convergence and transparency.

Next up in the success leads to myopia crowd is RIM and the Blackberry line. What a great success story. The push mail capability brought by RIM has revolutionized the phone. Back when email was an afterthought on phones, RIM made it primary and did it with innovation, insight and excellent execution. Just as importantly, RIM courted the IT community and insinuated themselves into the fabric of business life. Today we take mail on our smartphone for granted. RIM is the gold standard for mail connectivity and Blackerry phones are known for their keyboards that make texting and email easier than on other phones. Surely RIM will be a winner as convergence proceeds. Well, in the words of Leslie Nielson in Airplane, “Don’t call me Shirley.” As smartphones have moved from email device to small, app running, computers, RIM has been left behind. Do you see a pattern? RIM left the door open for Apple and Google. Not only did these companies take the developing space RIM ignored but they are now attacking RIM at its core. Just read this article to see how the corporate world, including financial companies, is opening up to Apple. Yes, Apple! The company that was ostracized from the corporate environment and ridiculed by IT departments everywhere is being warmly accepted into the corporate world. Times are changing. The corporate walls that protected RIM have been breached with the iPad leading the way. RIM’s PlayBook is too little too late. If it had hit the market place two years ago it might have secured the corporate world from attack and had IT departments still recommending RIM. Yet again success and lack of vision have led to stagnation.

All of this is what I call classic convergence. The phone merged with the PDA and then became the premier email access device. It would be easy to think that we are nearly done. In reality it has just started.  That’s because convergence is much, much bigger than calendars, address books and email. Stay tuned as I explore the many areas making up convergence and how this ties in with transparency.


I have mentioned convergence and, to a smaller extent, transparency. Both of these are much bigger in scope than what is commonly written about in the media. The trends are broader, stronger and deeper than is generally discussed and will have far ranging impacts on both software and hardware. Our lives are in the process of being transformed.   Hardware devices will come and go.  Some of the near term trends are but intermediate steps destined to be footnotes with our children telling their children “I remember when…”   In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy we are told “The universe is big. Very, very big.” I am telling you that convergence and transparency are big. They are very, very big. How big? Big enough to transform our lives rather than being just a small shift. Big enough to cause hardware and software to be created and then to fade away. Big enough to have major companies fight for supremacy or, in some cases, survival. There are companies today wasting precious engineering resources designing yesterday’s products because they are looking so near term that they miss where things are really headed.