Will an HP PC Spinoff Make a Stronger Competitor?

I have been having conversations with key executives around the industry about HP’s decision to explore spinning off their Personal Systems Group, which is the group that makes their business and consumer PC’s. An interesting question that has come up is whether or not spinning off PSG will make for a stronger or weaker competitor in the PC industry?

The logic goes that PSG was so tied up in big company atmosphere, who as of late was prioritizing software and services over hardware. Knowing how large companies often move slow and conservatively I can see how this could be an issue for a group who wants to act more like a startup.

So the real question is if HP does decide to go ahead and spin off PSG, will this move put them in a better position to compete?

I certainly can see and sense the desire from my PSG colleagues to move and innovate faster. The PC marketplace is changing rapidly and competition is getting fierce. But PC’s are not going away and can still be a legitimate business if managed well and they innovate in a more timely manner. So it makes a fair bit of sense to build a case that if spun out they could innovate, create and compete in a fast moving market.

It is also very difficult in today’s changing technology landscape to run a business with a successful enterprise and consumer division. Both require very different mindsets, strategies and leadership.

The fact of the matter however is that whether or not an HP spinoff can make for a stronger competitor in the industry will depend on the leadership and the talent that goes with it or is acquired as a new organization.

If the spinoff is approved by the board and moved forward with, this new entity would start its life as a Fortune 60 company with over $40 billion in annual revenue and it would be the #1 PC manufacturer (if you dont’ cound tablets).

That is not a bad way to start off. However the real test of the leadership will be not just to maintain but to grow their percentage of market share in all the areas they choose to compete.

Although execution will be critical and will be what others affirm as the challenge, what may be even more important is the right vision.

HP’s slogan has been the “PC is personal again.” However the real challenge of the companies who aren’t Apple is to make the “PC interesting again.”

Intel is hoping they can assist makers like Dell, HP, Acer, Samsung and others with their UltraBook initiative. Will UltraBooks Make PCs Interesting Again?

If HP does decide to spin off PSG what we will look for is their vision. What categories will this new entity focus on? Where do they believe the growth areas are? How will they compete, differentiate and add value?

Those questions and more will be what we look for as analysts in order to come to an opinion on how successful and competitive this new business will be in the marketplace.

Why non- iPad Tablets Aren’t Selling Well is Fundamental

So why aren’t non-iPad tablets selling as well as the iPad? I read a very interesting article Wednesday from James Kendrick at ZDNet. His contention is that one of the biggest issues is competing with Apple’s “consistent marketing experience”. I agree that’s a big issue, but I think there’s an even more basic core issue here and it starts with consumer risk, the considered purchase process, the influencers and the product experience.

Tablets are a Risky and “Considered” Consumer Purchase

Consumers, regardless of demographics and psychographics, share some common behaviors. When they are posed with a risky, considered purchase, they are looking for reasons to reject products and not look past their warts. And tablets are a risky, considered purchase. For a time, tablets started at $499, well above the starting prices of a notebook, desktop, or smartphone. Tablets don’t run programs or content like the PC that consumers are familiar with. And they are very fragile when compared to other devices.

Consumers Research to Mitigate Risk

As I said above, when posed with an expensive, risky purchase, it is “considered”, meaning they will research it or find a brand which “buffers” the risk. By researching it, I don’t mean doing a master’s thesis. I mean doing a few web searches, going to a recommended tech site, asking a few “geek” friends and tossing a few questions out on Twitter or Facebook. What consumers heard back were some positive and some negative things about non-iPads. Even more importantly though, is that very few if any negatives ever came back from their iPad research. Worst thing you might hear back about the iPad is that it doesn’t run Flash, it doesn’t have SD memory upgrade, and it’s expensive.

So was it some conspiracy that the negative things were being said or were they just the facts of what actually shipped at launch? The fact is, the clear majority of non-iPad tablets at their launch suffered from many issues as it related to the iPad, which established the bar of a successful tablet.

Tablets Lacked Convenient, Paid Content at Launch

Many media tablets launched without a whole lot of media:

  • Lack of video services like Netflix, Hulu, movie rental, or movie purchase capabilities
  • Lack of music services like Pandora, Spotify, or music purchase capabilities
  • Lack of book services like Kindle or BN Reader

This issue is being slowly solved, but the damage had been done at launch.

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Tablets Lacked Stability and Responsiveness at Launch

Many tablets launched with multiple application crashes, hangs and were intermittently unresponsive. When apps would become unresponsive, the users would get a message asking them what they want to do, similar to the way Windows alerts the user. The iPad 2 launch experience was responsive and stable. Yes, the iPad 2 does still experience some app crashes, but it’s less frequent and when it does, it just closes the app.

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This issue has been solved for all non-iPad tablets with OS updates, but again, the damage was done at launch.

Tablets Lacked Premier Applications at Launch

I don’t believe consumers are fanatical about the 100’s of thousands of apps that should be on a tablet. I do believe that they want to have the most popular applications that they care about, though. Most non-iPad tablets launched without premier apps, like premier news, sports, and social media apps. One tablet even shipped without a built-in email and calendar client and research shows that email is the #1 tablet application. Android tablets shipped at launch without a Twitter app.

Only Android 3.2 tablets have addressed this issue so far, but again, the perceptual damage was done.

Tablets Shipped at Launch with Hardware Challenges

Not only were there software issues at launch, but hardware as well. Tablets shipped with inoperable SD card slots and USB ports that didn’t work properly. Even competing with the physical iPad 2 design was a challenge. Some tablets were nearly twice as thick as the iPad, used plastic design versus aluminum, and one tablet even shipped with a case that blocked major ports like power, USB and HDMI.

Some of these issues have been addressed, but the damage was done.

Should Everyone Else Just Quit?

With all of these issues at launch and challenging sales so far, should everyone except Apple just quit and concede to Apple? Absolutely not! This is the first inning in a nine inning game, and the game hasn’t been lost. In short order, every tablet will be thin and light enough and power efficient enough until it’s inconsequential. Most apps will move to web apps virtually eliminating the app barrier, and everyone will have the right paid content. Apple obviously won’t stand still and I agree with Ben Bajarin when he says, “success will only come to those who want to compete with the iPad by thinking fresh and taking bold and innovative risks.” I have had the honor to work for companies who slayed goliath and I have been slayed myself, so I have seen both sides. It takes courage and conviction and I believe the tech industry can and will do that.

Pat Moorhead is Corporate Vice President and Corporate Marketing Fellow and a Member of the Office of Strategy at AMD. His postings are his own opinions and may not represent AMD’s positions, strategies or opinions. Links to third party sites, and references to third party trademarks, are provided for convenience and illustrative purposes only. Unless explicitly stated, AMD is not responsible for the contents of such links, and no third party endorsement of AMD or any of its products is implied.

See Pat’s bio here or past blogs here.

Follow @PatrickMoorhead on Twitter and on Google+.

Android is Finally Ready for the Tablet Market

Over the last few weeks, Android for Tablets (aka Honeycomb) 3.2 started rolling out to tablets like the Asus Transformer and the Motorola Xoom. While the announcement of Android 3.1 was met with great fanfare at Google I/O 2011, Android 3.2 didn’t receive a lot of attention as it started actually rolling out to systems. Ironically, I believe that with the rollout of Android 3.2, the operating system is finally ready for tablet prime-time.

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Background

Android 3.X, aka “Honeycomb”, is Google’s operating system for tablets. It was first shown at CES 2011 and the first product it rolled out on was the Motorola Xoom. After its launch, the firestorm ensued and Honeycomb was viewed as having significant issues:

  • Sluggish performance even while having superior hardware specs.
  • Lack of stability and reliability as evidenced through repeated application crashes.
  • Lack of apps. Even as of July 1, 2011, NY Times David Pogue reported that at the most, 232 apps were optimized for Honeycomb. The iPad had 90,000 optimized apps. To make matters worse, Android phone apps ran in a tiny window.
  • Lack of external SD card support. Just do a few Google searches on “SD card” and “Xoom” and you will know what I am talking about.
  • Limited USB connectivity. Keyboards, mice, digital cameras, card readers either didn’t work at all or were very inconsistent.

Needless to say, this didn’t exactly equate to a very good experience, as I have personally experienced on three separate 10” Android Honeycomb tablets.

Improved Performance, Stability and Reliability

Between Android 3.0 and 3.2, my Honeycomb experience is like night and day. Single-tasking responsiveness is close to the iPad 2, although the iPad 2 is still faster. Honeycomb does outperform iPad 2 on multitasking though.

When I use a tablet, I use it as a primary device. I load around 20-30 apps, and I do set up the background tasks and widgets as they are differentiated features versus the iPad. Where I previously experienced between 10-20 application crashes a day, with Android 3.2, I may get one a day. This is a huge breakthrough. And yes, I do get application crashes on the iPad 2. iPad 2 crashes are less pronounced and “hidden” as the app just dies and you are taken to the home screen. In Android, a dialogue box pops up on the screen and you are given the choice to wait, kill, or report the crash.

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Improved Application Support

Android 3.2 added the capability for users to better tap into the library of approximately 300-400K applications. Applications come in three forms that are somewhat transparent to the user:

  1. Tablet optimized apps: Resolution, layout, fonts, content are optimized for the tablet.
  2. Stretched phone apps: Phone applications are stretched to tablet dimensions keeping phone layout, fonts, and content. In some apps this is automatic; in others it requires the user to toggle a menu icon in the apps bar.
  3. Zoomed phone apps: Fixed-size phone applications are zoomed in like the iPad phone apps. In some apps this is automatic; in others it requires the user to toggle a menu icon in the apps bar.

If a user runs across a a manually scaled-app, they are given the option to stretch or zoom. Many of the apps, though, were automatic and stretched properly into place.

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Here is how some of the top Android phone apps look on Android Honeycomb 3.2 tablet.

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As you can see, some of the phone apps look really good and others could be improved. The net-net is that Android Honeycomb tablet buyers just got 300K-400K more apps to run on their tablets.

Conclusion

Like the first Android phone OS, the Android tablet OS has quickly undergone a massive overhaul and improvement in a mere 6 months. The most recent improvements in Android Honeycomb 3.2 were virtually unnoticed by many in the press, but ironically, the update improved the experience to the point that Android is finally ready for prime-time.

So does a massively improved experience guarantee success? Of course not. Android still has to deal with its IP challenges, fragmentation, spotty paid video services, and some “me-too” hardware designs, BUT, if you don’t first have a responsive, reliable experience with lots of apps, you have nothing. And Android finally has that for tablets.

Have your say in the comments section below.


Android Is at A Critical Junction

I believe that the next six month’s will be the defining point in the future for Google’s Android platform. Whether this future is bright or gloomy will depend on the next six month’s.

It seems right now like Android is riding the big wave reaping in success left and right. The reality is however that there is truth to the Android success but there are also walls still standing in the way.

The report from Nielsen relased yesterday that I opined on shows the meteoric rise of Android in such a short time to garner 39% of US smart phone OS market share. This is truly remarkable success in such a short time. However the question that we have to investigate is how defendable Android is as a platform or is it vulberable at a fundamental level.

If we conclude that Google plays their cards right and builds the right “moats” around the Android castle then it is strong at a fundamental level. However if we conclude that their “moats” are not that strong or deep then it could be vulnerable at a fundamental level. If the former is true Android remains a viable force in the market. If the later is true Android could encounter market volatility and market share could sweep back and forth.

Google’s Hardware Partners
At this stage of the game Google depends on hardware partners to develop devices that take advantage of their software and services. This is a strength as long as your hardware partners stay commited and loyal to you.

There are challenges however with hardware partners. First off there are other companies competing for their business. In the case of smart phones and tablets, Microsoft is Android’s competition. If HP ever wised up and licensed Web OS then there would be three very good options for hardware partners to build products upon.

Android is still the obvoius choice for OEM’s looking to bring a smart phone or tablet to market. Consumers understand the value proposition and there is a large enough app ecosystem in their market place to appease the market.

The question is six month’s or even one year from now will Android still be the obvious choice? I know many people will quickly say yes but I still have concerns. One major reason is the now over 50 law suits facing Android in some capacity. Right now Android is free for most OEM’s to take and implement. However if some of the key lawsuits go against Google we could see license fees from between 15-30 dollars depending on the OEM.

If this happens Android is no longer free. I wonder if that happens whether manufacturers would re-consider their commitement to Android.

App Store Economics
Now you may argue that no other licensable or free platform has the developer ecosystem that Android does. This of course is true but again continuing to develop and maintain that ecosystem will be key.

App developers want to get paid. And as BlueStacks CEO Rosen Sharma pointed out in his column on “How the App Store Money Flows;” there are still issues facing the economics of the Android market that many developers we talk to do not want to deal with. Believe it or not among the larger app developers and as well as some of the more savvy ones, there is heavy consideration still for Windows Phone and for WebOS.

Google must continue to develop a robust economic system that works for everyone who wants to write software for the Android platform. If developers see no economic growth or ROI of their allocation of precious resources to Android they will go elsewhere.

There is a lot I like about Android and I want to see it continue to develop and flourish. Google however will have to navigate and maneuver the waters of the next 6-12 month’s extremely strategically in order to preserve the moats around their castle. Android @Home for example has a great deal of potential I believe and could add real value to the Android platform and ecosystem if done right. Chrome OS is another strength that can be leveraged and assets can be shared across Chrome OS and Android.

As Tim pointed out this morning Amazon could come in and change the game. There are a lot of un-answered questions around Amazon’s tablet strategy from pricing model, to proprietary app development etc, but so long as Android is the underlying platform i’m assuming Google will benefit still in some way.

Android is still behind in tablets and this is another weakness that needs to be addressed. Tablet sales of Honeycomb devices have been less than lackluster. If the Android Honeycomb activation dashboard is any indicator there are between 1.2 and 1.5 million Honeycomb tablets in consumers hands. Motorola released that the XOOM sold 440,000 units; we are yet to see Samsung’s Galaxy Tab sales, Acer’s Iconia sales and Asus Transformer sales.

What we need is a truly break out Android tablet that can excite the mass market. From what I know is possible with hardware and from what I am seeing from the semiconductor companies I know it is possible, i’m just not sure when or who will deliver it to the market.

We will have to wait and see but I have to say I am extremely excited about the next 12 month’s.

How Amazon Could Own the Android Tablet Market

One of the first marketing classes I had in college discussed the concept of razors and razor blades. Sell the razors cheap and then sell men blades over and over. The profit would be in the blades, not the razors. In our tech world, we have our own version of this. It is called printers and printer cartridges. The printer companies sell their printers at a very low price, perhaps even under cost, knowing full well that they will sell users expensive ink cartridges over and over. The profit is never in the printer. It all comes from the ink cartridges and companies like HP and Epson make billions of dollars a year from their ink business.

With this in mind, if I were Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, I would really go to school on this concept and see if it could be applied to tablets. This model would never work for the PC vendors at this stage of the PC game. Although their PC’s are getting cheaper, they are not tied to an eco-system of software and services in which they could derive additional revenue tied to the PC and earn recurring revenue this way.

But I believe that the tablet is the first PC like device where this could be possible. So, Jeff, if you are listening, here is my suggestion to you. Sell your tablet at a price that is really cheap. Perhaps you sell it for 20-25% below cost. I know this sounds crazy and radical, but you actually have the recurring revenue ecosystem to potentially pull this off. It would take some serious guts to do this but if any one could do it, Amazon could.

In this model, think of the tablet as the razor. And in Amazon’s specific case, their Android Store, UnBox movie service and music service would be part of the “blades” they sell to users over and over again. And add to that the profit they could get through their Kindle bookstore as well as items you might buy from the Amazon store. And then add any Amazon cloud service revenue tied to the device that could also be part of an amortized profit pool over perhaps a two-year accounting period.

With info I have on components from my contacts in Taiwan, I was able to do some back of the envelope calculations to see how this could work. Bill of material costs along with manufacturing costs, shipping and tariffs most likely would put the device cost around $300 depending on its specs. For sake of argument, let’s use this as the baseline. But let’s say Amazon discounts this by $51,00 and sells it for $249.

Now, they do some research and determine that over a two year period, a person who has that tablet would buy or rent 15 movies, stream or download 50 songs, could buy 18 books and might pays $5.00 a month for cloud storage from Amazon. And, they purchase let’s say five items through the tablet’s Amazon store that can be counted against a 2 year amortized profit curve. And lets throw in some advertising in this mix as well. Although the prices of the books, video, music, etc would vary, by my guestimates, they would make back the lost “cost” of that $51.00 within six months and realize a profit of anywhere from 20-35% on the tablet over the last 18 months of the devices accounting period.

Amazon already has the trust of over 200 million users as well as their credit cards. And their “one click” buying model would make it quite easy for an Amazon tablet user to buy often through both the Android store and the Amazon store in general. Of course there are a lot of variables in this model, but you get the idea. The tablet is the razor and all of these apps and services are the blades.

Now imagine how this could affect the other Android vendors making tablets. Amazon would provide a product that if sold under cost with the goal of making up the rest of the cost and profit from apps, services and even advertising, it could give all of the other Android vendors a serious run for their money. And, given their deep eco system, other Android vendors would find it very difficult to compete with them. This could make Amazon, measured by units shipped, the king of Android tablets very quickly. In fact, I would go as far as say that they could “own” the Android tablet market.

For Apple, this would be a competitive threat but they have a pretty big lead and their own rich echo system of apps and services that could continue to keep them a market leader in tablets. And given their history of riding down prices of the iPod once it gets to scale, you can imagine that Apple will also be more aggressive with the iPads pricing over time and, as they are today, use their apps, services and the upcoming iCloud to deliver high margins for a long time.

But as radical as this idea might sound, it could make a lot of sense for Amazon to go to market with their tablet with this business model. As I stated earlier, it would take guts, but the impact on the market for tablets could be significant if they did this right and the consumers bought into their version of the old razor/razor blade school of marketing.

PlayBook Wins Government Security Certification

Under the right circumstances, a bug really can become a feature.

Research In Motion announced today that its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet has been certified under Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2, meaning it is approved for nonclassified communications by U.s. government agencies and contractors who must comply with the Federal Information Management Standards Act. It is the first tablet to win this certification.

This speedy approval appears to be a direct consequence of what nearly everyone considers the PlayBook’s greatest weakness. The tablet has no email, contacts, calendar, or task program of its own, but instead serves as a sort of dumb display for a paired BlackBerry handset. Potentially sensitive information is never stored on the PlayBook, making it easy for the tablet to piggyback on BlackBerry’s existing FIPS certification.

The approval does give the slow-selling PlayBook a leg up in the government market. Unfortunately for RIM, a tight budgets and the ponderous federal procurement process make an imminent flood of government orders unlikely.

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The Need for Smarter Mobile Notifications

Push notifications on our smart phones and tablets are shaping up to be a central part of our experiences with those devices. The concept itself has many benefits, particularly where it lets us get information quickly and choose how to respond to that information. I have however recently had an experience with a notification that not only frustrated me but in turn forced me to conclude that we need smarter notifications.

The experience was several weeks back and it was with the CNN app. Tennis is among many of the sports I enjoy watching on TV. I especially like the major tournaments where 3 out of 4 are held in other parts of the world. The most recent major tournament was Wimbledon held in England. I watched many of the big match’s leading up to the championship between Rafael Nadal and Novak Jokovic.

Because of the time zone difference between the US and England the time for the championship match was on a Sunday morning. We had family things to do that morning so I set my DVR to record the finale. Perhaps you know where this story is going. Later that morning as we are driving around and I heard my phone alert me of a notification. Responding quickly to nearly every sound my phone makes, I quickly pulled it out to see a message from CNN saying Novak Jokovic had defeated Nadal and won Wimbledon.

Given that I was recording this match I would have loved to watch it without knowing the outcome. However the CNN app gives me no options to tell it not to send me any alerts related to sports or in even more detail which sports. Therefore the outcome was spoiled for me entirely and thus frustrating.

Perhaps deeper personalization of our phones would give apps the information necessary to know more about us and craft notifications that way. Or perhaps some level of context awareness could be used to dictate which notifications I receive and when.

Notifications are needed but they should also be smarter. However we solve this problem there needs to be a way for us to tell our smart devices which bits information we would like to be notified of and which ones we don’t need to be bothered with. This level of app personalization needs to be a key part of how we think about software in the future.

The Revenge of Pen Computing?

I’ll admit, when I heard about HTC adding pen capability to its tablet, I rolled my eyes and wrote it off. Then I watched HTC’s promotional video on the HTC Flyer and read comments from respected journalists and analysts and knew then I needed to try it out for myself. You see, I have been involved with pen-computing for 20 years, and I have the scars to prove it. Will the HTC Flyer usher in a new generation of mainstream, pen-based tablet usage models?

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Cycle of Mainstream Pen-Computing

Over the last 20 years, the industry expectations of mainstream pen-computing have risen and fallen like a scary roller coaster at Six Flags Texas. Don’t confuse this with successful vertical pen-computing in medical, transportation, construction, military, and retail industries.

The mainstream pen cycle has historically gone like this:

  1. Pen-computing is knighted the “next big thing”
  2. The entire high-tech value chain including semi’s, ISVs, ODM, OEM, and distribution invests heavily
  3. Products get shown at CES, PC Expo, and Comdex
  4. Products emerge with very few pen-centric applications
  5. Product sales-in to channels meet minimum expectations
  6. Product sales-out of channels fail to meet expectations and get blown-out at rock bottom prices
  7. The industry retreats, folds its tents, and chases another shiny new thing
  8. In five years, go to step 1 and repeat.

This cycle has repeated itself many times, over and over again.

HTC Flyer Overview

The HTC Flyer, even without its pen capability, is the best 7” tablet I have used and that says a lot, given my affection for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.

It’s very peppy and I attribute a lot to HTC’s decision to go with a single core 1.5 GHz CPU versus a lower frequency dual core CPU. That makes sense now because of the infancy of the OS and its application multithreading. Android 2.3.3 (Gingerbread) is VERY stable, light-years more stable than Android 3.X (Honeycomb). The 5MP camera is the best I have used with the exception of the iPhone 4.

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HTC Flyer Pen Features

The HTC Flyer is impressive even without pen input, but what about the specific pen features? Essentially, if you see anything on the screen, you can annotate on it. Also, HTC pre-installs a multimedia notes program as well.

· Annotations: If you are viewing anything on the HTC Flyer, click the pen to the screen and it takes a screen shot. This included web sites, applications, and even photos.

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· Notes Program: HTC preinstalls the “Notes” app, a program that can take notes with the pen, text, voice, videos, and even attach files. I believe this is a re-skinned Evernote app with the added pen-inputs as it syncs with Evernote. As you can see on the far-right, it doesn’t improve my handwriting at all.

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· Multiple Pen Types: I could choose from multiple pen types, colors, and sizes, all by tapping the pen to an icon in the lower right hand corner of the Flyer. As you can see on the far-right, it doesn’t improve my handwriting either.

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User Interface Modality

With pen-computing, the user has three modes: pen, touch, and virtual keyboard to do most of their input. I found it difficult to go back and forth between pen and finger, but found a way to do both without having to place the pen down.

Future of Mainstream Pen Input

The pen capabilities of the HTC Flyer are the best I have ever experienced on any mainstream computing device BUT I do not see pen input using a specific pen getting popular outside specific vertical industries. Why? The modality between switching between finger and pen will be an issue for many people. There are solutions, though.

The Problem

If a pen is an impediment to pen computing, what would allow for precise input without the pen? The iPhone only partially solved it with the “finger”. Finger input has two major problems:

· The palm: No other body parts can touch the display, like a palm. Try drawing on any iOS device with your palm resting on the display. Come on… try it.

· Fat finger: On a 7” display, unless you have fingers as skinny as a pencil, they are too imprecise.

Technologies That Can Solve This

· Object recognition: If the tablet can recognize that an object that it “sees” as a pointing device is getting closer and touches the tablet, any object, finger, feather, or ball point pen cap could be the “pen.” Object recognition combines an input sensor and software that identifies what the object is. PixelSenseTM from Microsoft is just one example. Objects could also theoretically be captured and recognized accurately with stereoscopic cameras. Below is a picture I took at CES 2011 of PixelSense object capture in action. This is an image of what the pixels in Microsoft Surface® 2 are seeing.

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· Improved touch algorithms: Object recognition is a difficult task but doesn’t solve everything. You identify what something is, but you then need a decision engine that triggers a response. Improved touch algorithms can determine what to do with the finger and ignore the palm of your hand. Or, if it’s a larger display and a painting program, it knows what to do with the palm and the finger simultaneously.

Conclusion

Pen-computing has undergone a roller coaster of ups and downs and has only been successful in vertical industries and specific usage models. Could the HTC Flyer usher in a new revolution of mainstream, pen-based computing devices and consumer usage models? Well, I don’t believe so, and not because the HTC Flyer isn’t an awesome tablet, as it’s the best 7” tablet available right now. The biggest impediment to pen computing is the pen itself, and until the right technologies enable any finger or object to “be the pen”, the usage models won’t take off. The good news is that technologies like object recognition, improved flat panel sensors and algorithms are on their way.

The Asus PadFone is a Glimpse of the Future

As a part of my work as an industry analyst I do a great deal of thinking about the future. Many of the projects we get pulled into and asked to add analysis on are related to the distant not the near future. This happens to be one of the things I love most about my job, thinking about the future and imaging what the world of technology will be like 5 years out.

Pat Moorhead wrote an article yesterday highlighting Why Convertible PC’s Are About To Get Very Popular. I agree these product designs have a place in the market and we will likely see a good deal of hardware experimentation through 2013. I however think another product idea may have much longer staying power.

Without going into too much detail on things I can’t go into much detail on, I want to use the Asus PadFone as an example of a future I think is highly possible. This future is one where the smart phone is the center of our personal connected ecosystem and in essence becomes the brains that power all the other screens in our lives.

We talk a great deal about the “smart screens” which will invade consumers lives and homes. Although it certainly looks like we are heading in this direction, I sometimes ask: “if the smartest screen is in our pocket why couldn’t that device power the others.” Thus eliminating the need to have a high performance CPU in all my screens.

The Asus PadFone is an example of this concept. In Asus’ solution the smart phone is the most important device in the ecosystem because it is the device with the brains. The smart phone has the CPU, the OS and the software. In the PadFone solution the smart phone slips into the tablet thus giving you a two in one solution.

The Motorola Atrix 4G employs a similar idea where the Atrix can be docked with a laptop shell. The laptop shell simply has a battery and a screen and the Atrix provides the rest of the intelligence needed to have a full laptop.

Both of these designs highlight something that I think gives us a glimpse of how our future connected gadgetry may come together. The biggest indicator for this future reality is the trajectory every major semiconductor company is heading in. Namely very small multi-CPU cores performing at very low power consumption levels.

We can envision a future where we could have an eight core processor in our mobile phones. An eight core mobile chipset would be more than adequate to power every potential smart screen we can dream up. In this model you would simply dock your phone into every screen size possible in order to make every screen you own “smart.” Docking your phone to your TV would create a “smart TV” for example. Docking your phone with you car would create a “smart car.” You could also purchase laptop docks, desktop docks, tablet docks, smart mirror docks, smart refrigerator docks, etc.

What’s also interesting about this model is that your phone can also power devices that don’t have screens. In this scenario you would be able to use your smart phone to interact with all your appliances without screens like washer, dryer, coffee pot, and others. We call these specific interactions “micro-experiences” where you use your phone to have experiences with non-screen appliances.

It is obviously way to early to conclude when or if the market could adopt a solution like this. None-the-less it is an interesting future to think about.

Why Convertible PCs Are About To Become Very Popular

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Convertible computers are those that can serve as a standalone media tablet and, when attached to a keyboard, can serve as a notebook. I believe that in 2013, these will be immensely popular. This is aggressive for many reasons, primarily because a convertible PC has never been widely successful. I’d like to share a few reasons why I believe this will be true.

 

 

Opposing Logic

First, I’d like to share with you the reasons people have told me convertible PCs won’t be successful.

  • “Never worked before”: Convertible PCs have been around for a while now and have sold into targeted vertical markets like healthcare, education and sales, but haven’t sold to wide-spread audiences in mass volumes.
  • “Can’t be all things to all people”: This line of logic says that a device cannot be a good tablet and a good clamshell notebook. This makes sense at face value, especially when you look at examples like Heelys. They don’t make great shoes or a decent pair of roller skates you would take to the roller skating rink. Other examples are why all cars aren’t convertibles and all jackets don’t have zip-off sleeves.
  • “Too chunky and heavy”: People point to designs with non-detachable displays that are, in fact, thicker compared to a thin a light notebook.
  • “Too expensive”: This line of logic says that you will need to pay a major premium to have this functionality.

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So those are the reason people have given me for why convertible tablets won’t be successful. Now let’s turn to why I think they will.

Purchase Justification

Everyone who buys something that’s a considered purchase has some justification, emotional or data-driven. Sometimes reality equals testing, sometimes it doesn’t. When I researched consumer PCs in the mid-90’s, consumers said they bought them for “children’s education” but they were used for that only in single digit percentages.

I believe consumers and IT will justify convertibles for similar reasons. They will say:

  • “I/my company’s users want a tablet because they are cool, but I need a notebook, but I don’t want both.”
  • “I/my company’s users want a tablet and need a notebook, but I/we cannot afford both.”

Buyers will justify the purpose in this way and buy a convertible.

Future Mechanical Designs

How thick and bulky does a convertible PC in the future really need to be? Consider the thickness of a few modern devices:

  • Mac Air: 17 mm at its thickest point on an 11.6” display design
  • iPad 1: 13.4 mm
  • Asus Transformer: 12.98 mm thick, without keyboard
  • iPad 2: 8.8 mm at its thickest point
  • Apple Wireless Keyboard: ~5 mm thick

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I am not a mechanical designer, but it certainly seems possible to have:

  • tablet (10mm) +
  • keyboard (5mm) +
  • torsion control and connector adder (3mm)
  • ~18mm total thickness

So conceivably someone could design a convertible that mechanically makes a nice tablet and notebook when connected to the keyboard.

Future Operating Systems, Applications and Multi-Modality

Over the next few years, operating systems and application environments will undergo dramatic changes and will most likely impact the uptake of convertibles. Let’s take a look at a few signposts:

  • Windows 8: At D9, I personally witnessed the new OS incorporating elements of tablet and notebook in the same platform. Yes, the multi-modality created some discussion and controversy, but it is coming.
  • Android: My Asus Transformer, albeit having Honeycomb OS challenges, delivers a decent tablet and clamshell experience today. It can only get better from there, right? Judging from some of the news to come out at Google I/O in May, Ice Cream Sandwich will incorporate elements of tablets and clamshells. Imagine a single .apk for phone, tablet, and clamshell device.
  • Apple: If OS/X and iOS share a common kernel, is it impossible to imagine unification on a convertible device? I certainly noticed many common UI elements between Lion and iOS 5, did you? Check out Lion’s Full-Screen Apps, Launchpad, Preview, and Multi-Touch Gestures.  This looks familiar to any iPad user.

Improved GPU Capability

Today on my Asus Transformer, when I toggle between tablet mode and clamshell mode, I get the same exact UI. But I could do a lot more, especially when I have a mouse attached. The mouse is a precision HCI device providing the ability to control more data and information.

Here is the interaction I really want:

  • Clamshell mode (tablet + keyboard): Fonts, bars, and buttons get smaller and more appropriate for a precision UI environment.
  • Tablet mode: Fonts, bars, scale larger for an imprecise, finger-driven UI environment

This would not only take awesome programming, but improved GPUs for tablets, which we know is on its way from AMD and others.

Additionally, we cannot forget about the emerging OpenCL standard supported by AMD, ARM, Intel and Nvidia which will leverage the GPU to drive compute cycles which are today executed on the CPU. With future GPUs better leveraging OpenCL and their corresponding apps, this will enable a much better experience on convertibles.

Conclusion

Convertible PCs have been around for years, but never took off in big volumes across mass markets because they didn’t deliver on the promise of making a good tablet and a good clamshell. Between now and 2013, enhancements in design, operating environments, improvement in GPU capability combined with buyer’s purchase justification will make convertibles extremely popular.

 


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A Sure Sign of Real Trouble at RIM

The senior Research In Motion executive who chose to vent his (or her) frustration in a open letter to Boy Genius Report may not have chosen the most graceful way to make those views known. But the writer may well have exhausted other means of communications. Certainly, RIM’s response suggests strongly that the increasingly troubled company’s leadership still isn’t hearing what it needs to hear.

The fact is that the open letter was an accurate analysis of the challenges facing RIM and was full of generally very good advice. The response is dismissive and described RIM’s current situation as a time when it is “necessary for the company to streamline its operations in order to allow it to grow its business profitably while pursuing newer strategic opportunities” after “a period of hyper growth.”

Streamlining and, above all, focus is exactly what the letter writer argued for. Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie should give it another read with more open minds.

The Many Screens of Our Digital Lives

A few months back, my friend Harry MaCraken of Technoligizer wrote a piece entitled “Hey, they are all just screens.” in which he echoed something I have been writing about for the last five years in many of my PC Mag columns. It is a good read and I suggest you take alook at what Harry says here, but in essence, both of us are identifying a rather important trend that will drive the next generation of personal computing.

If you look closely at our smartphones, tablets, laptops and even Internet connected TV’s, they represent different screens that become gateways to local as well as cloud based apps, content and information. Below is a slide I use to actually explain this.( In it you see out on the periphery are a whole host of “screens” like the normal one’s we have today in our smartphones, Internet TV’s, tablets and PC’s as well as new ones that are emerging such as screens in our cars, refrigerators and even in our appliances.

All of these screens are just gateways to the next layer, which I list as apps and services. And sitting at the center is the cloud, which hosts these apps and services. From an industry standpoint this slide really represents the topology of the way we should view this trend. Each screen now has intelligence thanks to an OS, smart UI and connections to apps, services and eventually the cloud. But if you look long and hard at this diagram, you can easily see that we are in the early stages of understanding that these devices are just “screens” and that we are in dire need of creating next generation standards that let all of these screens work together and interact with each other seamlessly.

Today, each has their own OS and UI and in some cases proprietary architectures that helps them differentiate. While this heterogeneous approach is admirable, the reality is that we ultimately need to create a level of commonality across all devices in order for all of these screens to deliver on their stated promise of giving us the applications, content and services we want and need on demand.

While apps tied to individual operating systems work today, as bandwidth increases and devices become more powerful and battery efficiency goes up, the common denominator between all of these devices needs to be the Web browser and more specifically, these same apps delivered in Web App forms via HTML 5 and future versions of HTML standards that deliver cross device functionality.

This needs to be the goal of those working on devices, standards and cloud based services and infrastructure. If they can grasp this idea that all of these devices just represent screens that tap into these services and the cloud and that ultimately all of these screens need to work together and talk to each other seamlessly, the faster we will see the promise of the Internet and the cloud fulfilled.

Wacom Bamboo Stylus for iPad Review

I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again, I am a fan of the stylus. I love touch computing don’t get me wrong but there are certain use cases with tablets where I believe a stylus accessory makes sense.

When I reviewed the stylus implementation of the HTC Flyer I noted that it was the best implementation to date and I still believe that. Primarily because the stylus was integrated well into the whole of the tablet. What Wacom has done with the Bamboo Stylus for iPad is the best stylus implementation on the iPad I have used.

The Stylus


When you first hold the Bamboo Stylus in your hand you will note that it is very well balanced, much like a nice pen. The official weight of the pen is 20g. The feel is solid and sturdy and sits nice in the hand like any fine writing instrument.

What sets the Bamboo Stylus apart is the width of the tip. Which is 25 percent narrower (6mm vs. 8mm) in diameter than other Stylus on the market. This allows for not only more precise accuracy but also a smooth pen on paper feel while writing on the screen.

The challenge of any stylus is to create a feeling as similar to writing on paper. The narrow tip and texture accomplish as close a feeling to paper i’ve used yet.

The App

What the folks at Wacom did, that was brilliant, was they included a free app that goes along with the stylus. This way they could include specific things to make their accessory work even better. This app is called Bamboo Paper.

Its a very simple app that lets you create a book of notes. You can change the color of the book as well as choose from blank, ruled or grid style paper.

Inside the app is where some of the great work Wacom did with the software shines. For example pressing and holding on the screen brings up the pen options to change width and color of the stroke.

There is a menu at the top of the app that gives you quick buttons to email the current page or the whole book, undo and redo, change pen options, choose eraser, create a new page and bookmark the current page.

Writing

As I stated earlier, the challenge of any tablet + stylus experience is to mimic as closely as possible writing on paper. Too often when writing with a stylus on tablet screen it feels slippery or glossy. Which makes being precise more difficult. Writing with the Bamboo stylus was as close to writing on paper as i’v experienced. The tip length and the rubber texture add just the right amount of resistance and in the process mimic a pen-on-paper feel.

The pen was also very precise and I felt my writing was very similar to what my handwriting looks like on paper. Normally this is not the case with tablets and stylus.

What was equally as important, which must tablet + stylus implementations fail at, was the software’s ability to distinguish between my palm or hand and the stylus. Too often writing becomes difficult if the app recognizes the palm and either doesn’t let the pen write or makes small dots everywhere the palm touches.

With the Bamboo paper app I could confidently rest my palm on the screen to write and focus on writing and taking notes.

Wrap Up

If you are looking to use your iPad to take hand written notes I highly recommend this setup. I would obviously like to see they stylus work with more iPad apps. For example marking up documents, web pages, presentations etc.

Wacom does state that the Bamboo Stylus does work and has been tested with a few other apps, check out the full list of supported apps here.

GoodReader is one of the supported apps that will let you mark up images, PDF documents and more. One way I did find to mark up websites, images, documents, and more was to take a screen shot on the iPad then open the image in GoodReader to use the Bamboo Stylus to make markings. It is a little bit of a hack but it suffices for the time being.

Ultimately I may be in the minority but i’d love to see Apple make a stylus accessory for those of who want to use our iPad to draw, handwrite, mark up important documents and more. But for the time being the Bamboo Stylus will be my go-to solution.

Tech Patent Fights: What’s at Stake

Recent days have been filled with news about patent disputes. Lodsys, a company that claims fundamental patents on in-application purchases, fired off another batch of suits against alleged infringers. Apple and Nokia resolved a complex legal fight over smartphone patents. Dolby Labs sued Research In Motion. And the U.S. Supreme Court told Microsoft to pay up on a judgment that technology in Office infringed on a patent held by tiny i4i LP. Continue reading Tech Patent Fights: What’s at Stake

BusinessWeek for iPad Review: Best Magazine App So Far

I’ve been using the Bloomberg BusinessWeek iPad App for about a month now and I have to say I prefer it hands down to reading the physical magazine. Mostly because BusinessWeek did not simply try to re-create the BusinessWeek experience on the iPad, instead they re-invented it.
Continue reading BusinessWeek for iPad Review: Best Magazine App So Far

2012: A Year of Innovation?

One of the things I look at in order to get an idea of what the next years worth of innovations will bring is the semiconductor industry. Given what I am seeing from the various ARM vendors like NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Marvell and TI as well as from Intel and AMD, I am encouraged.

The primary industry that stands to gain from new semiconductor innovations is the mobile industry. Namely the hot category of tablets and smart phones. That is not to say that the PC will be left out, for example Intel brought attention to the concept of “Ultra-Books” at this years Computex.
Continue reading 2012: A Year of Innovation?

Microsoft Has A Chance to Compete With Windows 8

It’s way to early to count Microsoft out. Just look at history. Microsoft has a fighting chance with Windows 8 because they are Microsoft. We can argue and debate whether they understand the consumer. Or whether the market has passed them or not but the simple truth is they are still a force in the computing landscape.
Continue reading Microsoft Has A Chance to Compete With Windows 8

The Amazon Tablet Opportunity Could Be Huge

I have fielded a lot of questions recently regarding the rumors of Amazon making a tablet of their own to bring to market. Right off the bat there is enough data out there to support this rumor, so I am certain Amazon is bringing a full featured tablet to market.

I make the distinction of full featured tablet because of the rise of the term “feature” tablet. The current Kindle as well as the B&N Nook Color are examples of feature tablets. A feature tablet is a tablet that focuses just on certain features like e-reading, navigation, gaming etc. Where a full featured tablet is a more general purpose than feature specific device.
Continue reading The Amazon Tablet Opportunity Could Be Huge