Too Many Gadgets?

Can we possibly have too many gadgets? Over the past dozen years, as a product reviewer, I’ve seen so many new products that offer the promise of helping us to be safer, healthier, richer. Yet frequently, they required a lot more work than was expected to set up, maintain, and deal with unexpected issues. The result was often disappointment and waiting for a better gadget.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of home technology specifically, the Internet of Things. Products have become more complex with the addition of WiFi, Bluetooth, and user interfaces. They often depend on working with an app, the phone’s operating system, and the cloud, any one of which can lead to time-consuming problems we never thought about before buying.

The Nest thermostat was a brilliant product when it was introduced. it utilized our home WiFi network, our home environment, and information retrieved from the cloud to control our home’s temperature and to save money.

I was one of the first to get one and my enthusiastic reviews for the product likely sold many more. Yet as time passed, there were some issues, including non-compatibility with my heating system, failed downloads, and intermittent drops from the WiFi network. Nest addressed each one over time, but it took my attention and time.

I recently reviewed a Canary home security camera that’s designed to monitor unusual activity in my home and send an alert to my phone when it detects motion. But it invariably sends false alarms, apparently triggered by reflections of light reflecting off of a wall.

This past week, I installed a really clever product — the Ring Video Doorbell that’s intended to alert me to a visitor at the front door and allow me to greet the person from wherever I am, at home or away. But I found the device makes my door bell ring on its own. I’m now working with the company to figure out the cause.

At times I think it might be just me with these unexpected issues, especially since I tend to be an early adopter. Clearly the ads and product descriptions never talk about the time and attention it takes. But the more I read the online reviews and discussion boards, the more I find I have plenty of company. These experiences are common and there’s often a large community helping other users to solve the problems.

And from the perspective of a product developer, it’s not surprising we should experience these difficulties. Everything is becoming more complex and the odds of problems are much higher.

It’s really hard for product companies to anticipate all of the various circumstances that their products will encounter once they start shipping. In spite of lots of testing, only after the product gets into the hands of thousands of users, each with their own unique situation, do they really have a good understanding of what the real problems are.

That’s why return rates for new products are often in the double digits. Not because of defects, but because of their complexity contributing to buyer’s remorse.

What’s ironic is many of these new devices are replacing tried and true products that have existed for years, doing their job perfectly well. A $125 connected smoke detector replaces a standalone one costing $20, a $100 smart band replaces a $15 pedometer, a $100 connected scale replaces a $25 one, or a remote door lock controlled by the cloud replaces one with a key.

But, in spite of these problems, there’s an attraction to many of us, a need to be first in line to try and buy that new gadget to do something that might only be an incremental improvement.

I should talk. I’m drawn to new gadgets like a moth to a light bulb. After reading Walt Mossberg’s review, it took a lot of willpower for me not to get excited about the new iPhone, described as being the best phone ever. I almost upgraded my 6 Plus to a 6S Plus, even though it was less than a year old and working perfectly well. Fortunately, my Apple store didn’t have one when I felt the urge.

With the Internet of Things exploding, the complexity is just going to increase. The number of gadgets in our home connected to the cloud is going to increase exponentially. Even if they all work as designed, we’re going to need to figure out a way to manage them, to know when to react, and to know what to do.

I suspect that will mean another level of technology to solve this. Perhaps a gadget with an app that sits between us and our other gadgets to monitor, fix, and report the important information to us. Yes, something else that needs to be maintained!

Why the Fitness Trackers Days are Numbered

I had the privilege of being involved with a wearables panel at the Flash Summit held this week in Santa Clara, CA. As you perhaps know, flash memory of some type is used in all wearables to store data collected as it tracks and analyses the various functions on smart watches, Fitbits, Jawbones and pretty much any wearable device in the market today.

But as this panel looked at the actual fitness trackers and their link to healthcare, it become clear to me that, while fitness trackers blazed the trail in connecting wearables to health monitoring, as a standalone dedicated fitness tracking device, its days may be numbered. Fitness trackers as we know them fall under the category of application specific devices. That means they have a fixed set of applications embedded, such as step counting, heart rate monitoring, calories burned, etc. However, John Feland, the CEO of Argus Insights, pointed out their research shows around 60% of those who bought a dedicated fitness tracker stopped using them within 6 months of owning them. He likened them to being mini treadmills — people buy treadmills but soon after being excited about running or walking on them, they stop using them and they become expensive clothes hangers for many.

If I was a company that had only dedicated fitness trackers, I would be concerned with this research. I have no doubt fitness tracking and health monitoring is going to continue to be an important set of applications for millions of people. I just don’t know if a fitness tracker that only does these set functions alone has long-term legs.

What I believe will happen is the majority of the market for fitness wearables moves to using a smart watch to deliver this functionality. These watches will build in the kinds of sensors needed to handle the basics and eventually, even more complex health monitoring tools to make health monitoring a major application area that can be delivered on a smart watch. The key reason the watch becomes the vehicle for these fitness monitoring apps is smart watches are based on an OS platform that is very versatile and allows it to be many things to many people instead of only being a single focused device.

Today, smart watches are much more expensive than dedicated fitness trackers, which means that, if a person really needs to track steps, calories, etc, a fitness tracker is a better buy. But, over time, smart watches will come down in price and be much more attractive due to their ability to do many things instead of a single set of functions. What is more interesting to me is these watches are based on an OS and an SDK that allows third party software developers to create a plethora of applications and services well beyond fitness tracking. As a result, they can present to a user a richer set of applications that can be used on a smart watch that goes well beyond the set functions of just health monitoring.

Of course, we are in the early stages of smart watches but even with slow growth at first I suggest you do not write these products off. With the Apple Watch, we are already getting important glimpses of usage models where notifications, health monitoring and multiple levels of communications are functions people like. In June, at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, the company introduced the first full Watch SDK. I expect to see a lot of innovative apps that, over time, will strike the fancy of many people. But the key thing to understand about the watch is it is a wearable platform for developers to create apps that can make these products highly versatile. You can’t get that with a dedicated fitness tracker today and it is not a platform play so you won’t get it from these apps in the future either.

Think of it this way. Smart watches are a Swiss Army knife and fitness trackers are pocket knives. In my own way of thinking about this, I see a fitness tracker as being training wheels for smart watches. Over time, smart watches can still handle all of the health tracking features anyone wants but, in the watch, they get ten’s of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of other apps that make it more useful and highly personal. I don’t know how long dedicated fitness trackers will be around but the way I see it, their days are numbered.

First Rule Of Homebrew Drone Club Is There Are No Rules For Homebrew Drone Club

Drones are the next revolution, the next insanely great thing, the pirate, the multi-billion dollar business, the integration of the physical and the digital, the device that will fight our wars, provide web access to the poor, deliver our pizzas in way under 30 minutes, ensure the air is safe, expose dictators, and turn us all into Hollywood-style directors, even if just for some grand selfie.

I don’t make, I write. If I made, I would make drones.

If I was that guy in The Graduate, my one word would be: “Drones”.

If I were the next Steve Jobs, I would dream of drones. If I were the next Bill Gates, I would envision software empowering drones built on every kitchen table.

You know what’s going to power the DeLorean back to the future? Drones.

Not since the launch of the iPhone and possibly not since I first used Mosaic have I felt about a technology as I do about drones. The market for drones is expected to reach $91 billion by 2020. I think this radically understates their impact, even considering the current muddled legal environment.

Drones are the next ‘stack’ of the global internet, and will radically re-make our perception of location, privacy and commerce. They are as if the PC and the Internet launched together. In 1988.

Not surprisingly, everyone wants in on the action.

  • Mark Zuckerberg is funding efforts so drones can “beam internet to people from the sky.”  
  • The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to re-tool aircraft to serve as a “flying fortress” filled with drones able to carry out all manner of missions in any region of the planet.
  • Amazon is “doubling down” on drones for delivery.
  • Skycatch is already building a sort of Uber for drones, linking drone “pilots” and makers with those who need drone-based services.

Despite all this, it is hobbyists who are advancing drone development even more than government or business.

There is a thriving community of drone builders and enthusiasts at,which has created an open source platform for drones. The nonprofit OpenPilot hopes to make drone technology more affordable, more accessible — and optimized for improving humanity’s lot.

DIY Drones claims to be the world’s largest community for drone hobbyists. DIY Drones was also instrumental in the development of the Dronecode Project, which aims to “bring together existing open source drone projects and assets under a nonprofit structure governed by The Linux Foundation”. Drones just had their Tim Berners-Lee moment.

Yes, the rules for drone use in the US are in flux and clearly lagging the technology.

“After years of waiting, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official said the agency was close to releasing a ruling that would give commercial entities greater access to fly small unmanned aerial system in the domestic airspace.”

It’s not just the FAA. The Office of Management and Budget is also involved. Then there’s the FCC and the Government Accountability Office. All are working to enact Congress’ 2012 “FAA Modernization and Reform Act,” which is meant to bring a clearer legal framework for the commercial operation of drones (unmanned vehicles weighing less than 55 pounds). In addition, several states and cities have enacted their own rules. Businesses don’t know what to do, other than do nothing or operate in secret.

For hobbyists, the rules are essentially that drones must remain within line of sight and away from airports and below 400 feet.

Don’t fear, I know a secret: This will all get taken care of — because, just as with PCs and the Internet, the spread of drones cannot be stopped.

It’s a drone world after all….and the best is yet to come.

The FAA expects more than 30,000 drones in commercial use by 2020. These will be used by law enforcement, military, logistics companies, businesses, and tech giants. The potential, however, is limitless. Witness: The nonprofit Drone Adventures sends drones to impoverished areas of the world, assessing air quality, agricultural impact, promoting conservation and archaeological efforts.


Conservation Drones uses drones to map sections of the planet and assess local environmental challenges. Matternet is using drones to deliver lifesaving medicines where they are needed most.


How is all this possible? Smartphones.

Smartphone-optimized technologies, including GPS, accelerometers, gyroscopes, mobile cameras, a litany of sensors, mobile battery power, lenses and more, have all become widely available, shockingly affordable — and are transferable to the drone industry.

Then there’s the rapid drop in price. The new Lumia 535 is available for $137 — inclusive. Only a few years ago, such a price for so much technology was unthinkable. A similar phenomenon is happening in the drone industry. Consider this is what you can get now for the price of an iPhone 6, off-contract: the Phantom can fly 22mph and reach an altitude of 1,000 feet. GoPro optional.


You were not part of the original Homebrew Computer Club. You’ve just been given a second chance. Nowhere to go but up.

Why Do All Of You Hate Windows Phone So Much?

I have used mobile phones for two decades. I have tried nearly every single platform. I consider myself a good judge of functionality, durability, usability and value. I have spent the past six months using a Windows Phone — a Lumia 1520 — as my primary device. It is big, beautiful, intuitive, powerful. The battery, more than double the iPhone’s, actually lasts me all day long. Cortana knows my voice better than Siri. Live Tiles provide information at a glance better than any iPhone app and all my iPhone notifications. Nokia’s HERE Maps are more responsive than Google’s. The display is magic.

People stop me in public and ask me if they should buy one.

I always say yes.

A few, however, ask if I can recommend it over their iPhone or Android phone.

For this, I have no answer.

For better or worse, iPhone and Android are good enough for, well, nearly every single smartphone user on the planet. I have no reason to believe this will change soon.


Sales data, mostly. Management shifts inside Microsoft, partly. Plus, I ask people. I ask actual human beings both online and in physical space. I ask why they chose the iPhone or an Android phone. I also ask, and this is always more insightful, why they did not choose a Windows Phone.

But before that, let’s take a look at the numbers. They are unforgiving.

No One Is Using Windows Phone

The smartphone wars are far from over. The near term addressable market for smartphones is in the billions of units.

Global smartphone growth
Global smartphone growth

And yet…

As smartphones become more vital to our lives, as prices drop, as the technology spreads, as smartphones link to more devices, wearables and services, Windows Phone remains barely a blip. Tech.pinions estimates the Windows Phone install base at a mere 2%.

Smartphone install base
Smartphone install base

Love your Windows Phone? Love Nokia design, imaging, sound quality, build quality? Happy with how Windows Phone offers a clear UI alternative, a uniquely innovative means to group contacts, superior music streaming versus Beats?

It does not matter, apparently.

The market has spoken — a billion times over. It can find no valid set of reasons to choose the Lumia Icon or Lumia 920, 1020 or 1520, or any other Windows Phone instead of an iPhone 5c or every model of Android.

It gets worse.

As the Tech.pinions analysis reveals, smartphone sales are dominated by the usual suspects — Apple and Samsung, plus numerous Chinese-based vendors. Nearly all of these are exclusively focused on Android.


Lest you think Tech.pinions numbers are an outlier, Tomi Ahonen aggregates data from several manufacturers and industry groups. His smartphone market share numbers align closely with Tech.pinions.

Spoiler alert: Almost nobody wants Windows Phone.

Smartphone share
Smartphone share

Bad, yes. Worse — the most recent quarter offered little hope, with market share for Windows Phone actually dropping:

Smartphone share

By next quarter, Microsoft’s newly acquired Nokia division, which is responsible for the vast majority of Windows Phone sales, may not even crack the top 10:

Smartphone share

Coolpad/Yulong? Ever heard of them? They sold millions more smartphones last quarter than did Nokia. To be fair, their Samsung Galaxy Note flattery is quite nice. 


How can this be?

Why Is No One Using Windows Phone?

I want Windows Phone to succeed. I want yet another great American company to be a central part of our global, mobile, highly technological future. Plus, Microsoft can offer users a rather stunning array of uniquely valuable services and platforms. Skype, identity, Xbox, Office, OneDrive, Yammer — an unmatched range of corporate, productivity and connectivity tools that may be peerless in the computing world.

Why, then, are their phones so thoroughly rejected?

I said above I asked people why they did not choose a Windows Phone. That is a somewhat misleading statement. Because as it turns out, almost everyone I asked had not even considered a Windows Phone. They could give me no answers.

A few, however, had considered a Windows Phone. Or at least revealed awareness of its existence. Their responses to my informal survey are telling.

1. Microsoft Derangement Syndrome

If I were to state here Microsoft saved Apple from bankruptcy, the vitriolic comments would never end. Should I remark Apple is a great artist — “and great artists steal” — it would generate far more heated, angry response than could ever be justified.

And yet people have no qualms about openly hating Microsoft. The ancient slights, real and perceived, have not healed. I confess I was surprised by how many people made it clear to me they would have nothing to do with Microsoft. Ever. Whenever they have a choice.

I find this Microsoft hate odd and unproductive. I presume a change in perception will occur now Steve Ballmer, the physical manifestation of all that rage, no longer has a lead role at Microsoft.  

2. Live Tiles

In theory, live tiles should flourish on our mobile devices. They deliver timely, desired information direct to the user’s screen, available at a glance.

In reality, the static app won.

Users I spoke with prefer the pull of static apps to the push of live tiles, even if they could not fully explain why. They also did not care for the look (design) of live tiles, how they twinkle and spin, nor did they express any desire to pin an app, a site, or other information to their home screen. 

When it comes to smartphones, the look and feel of Apple’s iOS is what people expect, no matter who provides it.

3. No There There

Whether out of vision or necessity — or more likely both — Apple made the iPhone the center of our computing world. Microsoft continues to place the Windows PC at the center of our computing world.

This is not the future.

This snapshot of the US browser market is telling. On mobile, Microsoft is nearly non-existent.

mobile browser share

Should anyone still think PCs will ever again be the center of our world, take note of this Mary Meeker graphic which reveals time spent in front of our various screens.

screen time

Those I spoke with viewed Microsoft as a PC company, not a mobile one (or a cloud one, even). Satya Nadella’s “mobile first, cloud first” strategy sounds exactly right, but his words have not resonated with end users.

4. iTunes

Of course, iTunes. Children use iTunes. Grandparents use iTunes. We all use iTunes. Over and over again, people tell me — and this includes Android users — that without iTunes, or seamless access to their iTunes content, they won’t even consider the alternative device.


5. There’s An App For That (But Not Really)

It’s been stated a million times and it cannot be overstated. The Windows platform desperately desperately desperately needs more and better apps.

There are far fewer apps for Windows Phone, and most of those do not offer the robust experience found on the iPhone.

It is now far easier to buy far more software and content for Apple devices than for Windows devices. This is a stunning reversal. Every person I asked brought up the ‘app gap’.

6. By Any Other Name

Do customers want a Nokia? Do customers want a Lumia? Is Windows Phone high-end, low-end? Is it a premium, integrated device or an OS licensed by unknown entities such as BLU Products, Yezz, BYD, Wistron and Prestigo?

The Nokia XL, which I consider to be an amazing device for the price, runs atop Android. But it looks like a Windows Phone.

What is it?

In my regular discussions with non-technical people, primarily in the US, a smartphone is:

  • iPhone first,
  • Samsung second,
  • Android third

in that order.

Microsoft’s marketing team must gain significant traction within our already crowded heads if it hopes to ever sell Windows Phone.

And We Continue…

Now, my personal experience.

7. Separate But Unequal

I have walked into dozens of carrier retail stores in the United States. Until recently, it was difficult even to locate a Windows Phone.

It gets worse.

At multiple retail stores, as I am examining a Windows Phone, a helpful salesperson has steered me toward Android. Microsoft needs to fix this problem stat.

8. No Self Control

What can I control with my Windows Phone?

My smartwatch? My thermostat? My television? My PC? My Xbox?

The smartphone is the center of our computing world. To succeed, Windows Phone must become this. While no one brought this up, I think the lack of an obvious, flourishing ecosystem centered around Windows Phone continues to limit adoption.

9. The iPhone Box

As much as I love the beautiful, colorful, brilliantly designed polycarbonite Lumia 1520 for example, perhaps Microsoft should focus on making devices that much more closely resemble the squared, austere iPhone. This seems to be what the market wants.


Ditch the colors, the curves and the unapologetically plastic design. The Lumia Icon mimics the boxy, metallic design of the iPhone. Perhaps that is how all Windows Phones should look. I hope I am wrong, but the world says otherwise.

10. Continuity

Apple made a splash at WWDC by promising “continuity.” That is, creating a seamless experience across devices — iPhone, iPad, Mac. Microsoft needs to show me and all its customers how Windows Phone can or will offer a seamless, integrated, multi-device experience. 

Nowhere To Go But Up

It no longer matters whether Windows Phone is better, just as good, different, or some combination of these. The iPhone and Android are everything users need, which leaves Microsoft on the outside. 

What happens next is up to Microsoft, not the public.

Apple once faced this exact same situation. They were forced to become something other than what they were, despite their abiding belief they offered a superior, or certainly equivalent, product. After a long, difficult slog, it worked out rather well for them. I hope the same for you, Microsoft. I know it will not be easy.

Back To The Past With Oculus Rift

The pundits tell us Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR is proof virtual reality has arrived, at long last. The future is now.

Except all I can think about is the past.

That’s what I mostly want from Oculus, or from Sony’s Morpheus or any similar device: the past. Not virtual reality or virtual presence, but a virtual time portal, a way to explore — to feel fully a part of — the events that shaped this world, this country, my life.

I was there with Jobs and Woz when they first started Apple!

Full disclosure: I was not there with Jobs and Woz when they first started Apple.  

Imagine putting on your Oculus headset and instead of playing the most amazing, immersive game of Halo, you are tasked with parachuting onto a Normandy beach. It’s D-Day. You are there as it happens. Understand, this is not at all to diminish anyone’s effort or sacrifice, or confuse reality with imagination, but to enable each of us to viscerally, visually behold great moments in history in all their nasty, sweaty, dull, grinding, vicious glory.

Let’s explore not just the building of the Great Pyramid but the discussions on its construction. Watch the burning(s) of the library of Alexandria. Witness our own birth.

With the amount of documentary video evidence now at our disposal, and all our computing power, social media data, location-based tweets, check-ins and other information, soon we will be able to reconstruct the momentous events of our present in such a way our children really can use VR to transport themselves back to today’s equivalent of the founding of Apple, or, yes, go inside the deadly flights of 9/11.

Imagine how much better we might understand people and cultures, events, greatness, failure and chance if we focused the development of Oculus not on virtual realities but on very human ones.

Oculus Rift

We have arrived at a point that is, for real this time, only a short distance from making virtual reality a reality. Let’s not blow this chance.

I’m not that old. Despite what my son thinks, I’m not. My parents are still alive. My grandmother died a few years ago — after being struck by a car. I can remember what it was like pre-iPhone; hell, before everyone had a PC in their home. It’s taken a long time to get here, to a future we expected would happen by the 1990s, which makes me uneasy that nearly all the focus and all the cash behind VR is centered on gaming.

This is exactly what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stated when he bought Oculus:

When you put (Oculus) on, you enter a completely immersive computer-generated environment, like a game or a movie scene or a place far away. 


The (Oculus) Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there’s a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform.

Ugh, gaming.

It’s not just Zuckerberg, of course. The computer industry seems intent on constructing virtual reality mostly for gaming. So much, in fact, the tech press accepts this vision without comment. The Verge:

Nothing delivers a feeling of immersion better than VR. VR has been a dream of many gamers since the computer was invented. 

In discussing their VR headset, Sony Studios president Shuhei Yoshida noted it was the “culmination of our work over the last three years to realize our vision of VR for games, and to push the boundaries of play.”

Explaining the amazing potential of virtual reality, Wired similarly focused almost exclusively on gaming.

In a traditional videogame, too much latency is annoying—you push a button and by the time your action registers onscreen you’re already dead. But with virtual reality, it’s nauseating. If you turn your head and the image on the screen that’s inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick.

Videogame pioneer John Carmack is CTO of Oculus.

Oculus received major venture backing from Andreessen Horowitz, after the product was demoed at a gaming conference.

Really, I could not care less about games or gaming.

Imagine, instead, being ‘there’ the very first time the Beatles performed at the Cavern Club. Or witness a father watch the last of his six children die as the plague sweeps across western Europe.

Is it wrong to embrace the future yet be so utterly fascinated by the past?

How can any game compete with actual human history?

The pace of VR technology is accelerating. Delivering sight, sound, motion have nearly all been solved. But let’s not have the potential of this technology become so limited.

I have hope. Many developers are working on building immersive non-gaming experiences for Oculus and similar devices. Though not currently practical, this large-scale D-Day simulation points, ironically, to a rather stunning future.


Can such efforts succeed? That’s up to us, I suppose, and what we desire from our very best technologies.

Zuckerberg has also said “one day, we (at Facebook) believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.” I believe him. But instead of billions of us being entertained, which I understand is enticing, what if we could (almost literally) experience the reality of someone thousands of miles away, a person we will never otherwise meet, one who is so much unlike us?

Or, perhaps, following a nasty spat at work, HR makes us (virtually) experience the demands, deadlines and plainly different personal outlook of the boss we think we can’t stand because she refuses to understand our situation.

Virtual reality could soon become the very best way for businesses, clubs, universities, and start-ups to tell if you are the right ‘fit’ for their organization: “your resume is amazing, Mr. Hall, but let’s see how you interact with our staff and customers first before we make our decision. Here, wear this headset for the next 60 minutes.”

Call someone a forbidden word at school and the principal may require you don the VR headset to better understand how those slings and arrows do wound. Messy? Yes. But also transformative.

The Oculus Rift headset

I am not sure we can even begin to fathom how ontologically disruptive this technology will be, even though it is on the cusp of becoming our new actual reality.

With virtual reality, we will connect with people in profound new ways. We can also connect with times and places. Ecotourism is a massive industry but I am far more excited about historical tourism — visiting a specific place not because it’s restful or beautiful but because of who was once there and what the place once meant.

I completely understand why Oculus and the others, including Microsoft’s Project Fortaleza, are starting first with gaming. Yes, I know there will be porn. But there can be so much more, and that’s what I most look forward to. Keep your high score. Take me to where and when our today was made possible.

The Computer Chronicles

Why are you here? Why are you even reading this?

Me? I know why and am grateful for the odd, stirring, mostly unplanned path that brought me here.

My father spent over 30 years working inside an auto factory, the first 20 “on the line”. When he heard “computers were the future”, he saved up, found one at a garage sale and proudly brought it home. It was a Commodore 64I loved it from the start.

Confession: I have never cared much for coding, programming or building my own computer. I was however — and still am — acutely interested in what I could do with a computer. In the case of my 64, I was a kid, so mostly gaming. Lucky for me, dad’s garage sale booty included a “floppy drive”, several games and various “educational” programs.  

In short time, I became reasonably expert at H.E.R.O., Fort Apocalypse, and Summer Games. There was a time when I engaged in far more virtual Raid(s) over Moscow than any of today’s most capable generals.


The Commodore 64 cost far more than my parents could reasonably afford. So from the start they made it plain it was very important, not at all a toy (despite how I used it), and repeated this to me like grace before dinner. Computers, they insisted, are the future. Be a part of that.

That’s why I’m here.

Intel Inside. And Maybe Hopes & Dreams.

Of course my native Detroit was far away from Silicon Valley, the fast beating heart of the computing revolution. It didn’t matter. The 64 carried me here. For all the machines that followed, the used Mac, the shiny new Mac LC, the Toshiba laptops and many more, it was that first 64 which shed a light on my future, a future where people and data and machines and ideas and random musings are all connected.

The Commodore 64 lured me down the rabbit hole that was online bulletin boards, which led me to Prodigy, Dialog, Compuserve and others. From there, I discovered Mosaic, then Netscape. By then I had a career in computer tech, almost without planning it; my parents’ intentions realized.

I can’t stop now. I don’t want to stop. It’s not just there’s more to come. More is coming faster, and it’s even more amazing.

Consider the scary-exciting merger of healthcare and computing. Acknowledge the rapid rise of Facebook and global messaging, from nothing to vital in a few short years. Reflect upon the astounding functionality of the iPhone, the utter pervasiveness of Google, how giant Microsoft is morphing before our eyes. We have new media, mobile payments, crypto currencies and experimental forms of retail. Global connectivity has dethroned the sovereigns of time and distance. Yet, both real time and precise location are now more critical to more of what we do and say (and even think, see and feel) than ever before. I did not see that coming.

I am here as well because the visions, proclamations and inspired work of the early computing pioneers really did come true. Their words, their mad tinkerings quickly spread far beyond Silicon Valley, where the shrouded potential of their creations seeped into our computer-less consciousness, found their way into the local news and duly informed my parents who went straight out and acquired for me everything they were told I would need to become a part of the future.

I am pleased to still be part of this long running serial.

Yes, our industry failed at much. The endemic spread of pornography, the utter devaluation of personal privacy, our rather casual silence at how the latest waves of computing technology are displacing good, smart, hardworking people by the millions, leaving them with little to do but hope self-employment, freelancing and the sharing of labor and tools can somehow enable them to get by. There is much to fix.

Random Access

The arrival of that Commodore 64 led to another serendipitous find. We could afford only one television in those days, no cable, and when home, my father religiously watched the local news and all sports. Big-ticket purchases like the 64, however, demanded he work on Saturdays — time and a half made those 8 extra hours of work equal 12 hours of pay, which mattered dearly. Which led to him being gone one particular Saturday. Which led me to gleefully run through all 9 channels. Which is when I stumbled upon The Computer Chronicles.

“the amazing palmtop computer”

The Computer Chronicles documented, almost from the very beginning, the rise, the spread, the incredible innovation of personal computing. It proved to me — because it was on television — a career in computers was viable, no matter where I lived.

I am more excited, more convinced of the transformative power of computing tech and its ability to achieve net good than ever before. This is one reason why I never play favorites. It’s why I can’t suggest you buy Bitcoin, no matter how hyped it has become, or why I cannot recommend the iPhone 5c, no matter how greatly I admire Apple. It’s why my posts cause numerous CEOs and VCs (and several editors) to immediately block me from their Twitter feeds, and limit my access.

All worth it. This stuff matters to me and I fully appreciate how it impacts you.


We are the screen. The screen is the world.

Whatever the reasons you are here, I am glad you are. Now hang on tight.

As Google and Facebook appear to buy up everything that was only yesterday considered cutting edge, as venture capital becomes, somehow, even more of an insider’s game, with not even scraps available to the rest of us, I nonetheless stay positive. I know money, computing power, networking, software, the creeping of technology into all aspects of our life and into every personal and business endeavor, and the random, very human mutations that takes hold inside this swirling glorious mix will continue to create still more and larger revolutions, more big and bigger bangs, more insanely great.

We are rapidly transitioning from the era of personal computing to an era where each person is a computer — with eyewear, wristbands and clothing all capturing who we are, what we do, and how, when and where. Then sending this data floating off, joining up with 7 billion similar nodes.

We are the screen. The screen is the world.

I say this all not because I have a product to sell you or because the larger, more pumped the market, the greater the return on my quickie investments. I say this because it’s true: The computer chronicles have only just started.

Better For The World? Apple Or Google?

Arguably, Apple and Google are the largest, richest, most powerful, most influential technology companies on the planet. Across many markets their products, services and technologies directly compete with one another. Yet, in countless endeavors, each benefits the other, enabling both to earn more, reach more, do more, grow ever larger, their creations touching nearly all of us.

Which begs the question: which company creates more good in this world? Apple or Google?


I think the question a valid one. Despite their many similarities, the companies have profoundly divergent strategies when it comes to the development, release and spread of technology. Seeking the answer to this question might help us better understand how we should construct future tech companies, offer insights into what we should value most and whose methods we should help foster.

Pay To Play

As both Apple and Google continue to extend their reach deeper into our lives, the more obvious differences between the two begin to peel away. Once, Apple was hardware and Google was software. Now, both are mobile devices, cloud computing, entertainment, maps, apps, payments, productivity, music, messaging and — even if poorly — social media. We have to look deeper.

Start with pricing. Apple, whose products no one is required to purchase, is regularly blasted for ‘premium’ pricing. Google, whose products are mostly free, generates no such acrimony.

Is it better to demand customers pay for a product, to enter into a covenant where value is promised at a specific price, as Apple requires? Or is offering services for free the superior model? Certainly free seems better, but the price of free in today’s world is constant advertising, payment of which is continuous mining of our personal data. Does the Google way — pulling off tiny pieces of ourselves, bit by bit, moment by moment, and then selling these off to an unknowable coterie of people and businesses — better serve humanity?

I want to be in favor of free, but in its current form, the price of free seems too steep for me. For the rest of the world, I think in pricing Google trumps Apple, whether I wish it so or not.

No Product Before Its Time

Another core difference: product development and release.

Is it better to release products only when they are ready, as Apple does, or as soon as they reach sanctioned beta stage, as Google does, allowing anyone to experiment with their creation, make it better, expand its reach? Again, this seems to favor Google.

While we wait for the next insanely great product from Apple, a hyperfast-moving Google is — right now — helping us understand the pitfalls and benefits of driverless cars. Google Glass is forcing us to consider our views on personal privacy in public spaces and it must be acknowledged, pushing the technical boundaries and design limits of wearable technologies.

Google is meeting with city leaders, exploring methods to offer cheaper, radically faster broadband. They are unleashing ‘balloons‘ to bring the Internet to all points of the world. Push, push, push, now, now, now. The Google Way seems more right for our world.

Meanwhile, Apple…what, exactly? An iWatch likely few can afford once its finally released?

Tim Cook recently tweeted:

“Remembering Steve on his birthday: ‘Details matter, it’s worth waiting to get it right.'”

Is this true? Is this best for the 7+ billion of us on the planet? To wait?

Consider Android. Android is now the most widely used operating system in the world in part because Google unleashed it, for free, even while its business model remained in flux, and without waiting for agreement from potential stakeholders like Java’s Oracle. Nor was it perfect, by any stretch. Our gain.

We are rapidly connecting with one another, linking to astoundingly low-cost information resources whose total value is nearly incalculable, thanks in large part to this essentially free, freely available and extraordinarily robust mobile operating system. Humanity has been aided by Android, clearly.

Step back. Did Apple’s deliberate plodding make all this possible?

Look at an Android device pre-iPhone: it is an evolutionary dead-end. Think of all the apps, services, knowledge, entertainment and productivity we garner from all the phones that came only after Apple and the iPhone cleared the way. Consider the rather glaring limitations of Android, pre-iPhone. Had Apple launched iPhone before it was ready, before all the “details” were just right, the entire smartphone industry, now over a billion users strong, may have taken a completely different path – and died on the vine.

Might the same thing happen in wearables — likely the next iteration of the ongoing personal computing revolution? As wearable technologies abound in type and quantity, we await Apple’s entry.

Yet it may be wearables can only achieve their fullest potential for improving our health, our fitness, our connectedness to our minds and bodies only after the details are exactly right. That is, only after Apple clears a broad, lasting path just as they did with Mac (PCs), iPhone (smartphones), and iPad (tablets).

We have significant evidence Apple’s entry into a category has disproportionately, even radically re-shaped all that came before and all that follows. Perhaps we are better served in our analysis if instead of viewing Apple as sitting atop the ‘high end’ or ‘premium’ segment of a market, we acknowledge their products as a sort of official start, or a big bang of a new product category, unleashing and enabling the full potential of such technologies.

Apple and the big bang

Thus, it may be that Apple better serves humanity even as their products are viewed by many as the tools of the wealthy. Apple made possible the very revolutions Google has seized upon. I think when it comes to the development, creation and release of products, Apple does humanity better.

Origin Myths

While I harbor suspicions regarding some of Google’s actions, I deeply admire their speed and scale, along with their willingness to try, to fail, to push. Google’s fast, expansive focus seems much more aligned with our nature and certainly more aligned with our times. Google’s beliefs include:

  • fast is better than slow
  • democracy on the web works, and
  • great just isn’t good enough

Thanks in part to such beliefs we most likely will have faster broadband, more bandwidth, radically cheaper smartphones connecting the world, tablets everywhere, a nearly infinitely scalable and mobile-optimized real-time web, all manner of affordable information and content, search, driverless cars, and whatever else Google is cooking up in its labs or scouting for acquisition.

That’s a substantial list.

It took Google for us to have YouTube, free maps, real-time-anywhere search, and the ability to live our lives within a fully digital realm. Yes, this comes at the creeping and rising cost of advertising everywhere and aggressively lobbied laws that do not necessarily favor our privacy interests. Almost seems fair.

Apple’s mission, by contrast, is shockingly prosaic:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.

That’s it? No move fast and break things? No do no evil? Not even a computer in every purse?

In vision and purpose, I say Google bests Apple.

I suspect that despite their overlapping business interests, core differences between the companies are inextricably linked back to their founding — the mad, beautiful and deceptively detailed vision of computing borne inside the mind of Steve Jobs, versus the youthful, audacious and limitless grandiosity of Page and Brin. 

Apple and Google are a mere five miles from one another, yet the difference in their work and world views appears an impassable chasm. I do not know who does more for humanity. I am greatly proud, nonetheless, that these two giants of innovation are American-born, American-led, and are both, separately and together, creating a better world.

Apple To Dominate The Wearable Devices Market

I have written much about “wearables” — wearable computing devices such as the Nike FuelBand, Fitbit Force and Google Glass. Wearables are set to invade consumer markets, healthcare, logistics and other industries, delivering a combination of personalized data, real-time notifications, and analysis of various human outputs, all stylishly wrapped inside the explicit promise of empowerment, enhancement and efficiency.

Whether these devices will actually improve personal fitness, lead to a healthier society, make for better-performing professional athletes, dramatically increase worker productivity, or even systematically violate our privacy are all questions I’ve explored.


One question not explored: who will dominate the bourgeoning wearables revolution?

The answer seems obvious: Apple.

Apple’s design skills, highly integrated ecosystem, apps market, retail footprint, customer support staff, computing prowess, touch-based OS and global manufacturing scale are peerless — and every one of these are critical for success in the wearables market.

Indeed, I have a hard time conjuring scenarios under which Apple will not crush the competition in wearables. For the moment, I can envision only three, and none I put much faith in:

1. Wearables Are Not Real Computers

Though unlikely, I can at least imagine Apple Inc, with its finite resources and very obvious talents in building high-end personal computing devices, simply abdicating the wearables market.

Tim Cook and company may decide to continue their focus on “real” computers — smartphones and tablets — and cede wearables and sensors to others. Then, as wearables, their apps and services all become so popular and so pervasive in our lives that they eclipse today’s computing market, Apple is relegated to the margins.

Given Cook’s poaching of key people from Nike, Burberry and elsewhere, this scenario seems extremely unlikely. Much more likely is my earlier Techpinions prediction: that Apple rolls out a line of premium-priced computing jewelry.


In fact, I think most analysts are missing the big story from Apple’s recent signing with China Mobile. It’s less about the number of new iPhones Apple will sell — let’s not play the smartphone market share game now, after all. Rather, it’s that a nation of a billion plus people, hundreds of millions of whom are transitioning into middle class, may ravenously desire beautiful, simple, and highly functional jewelry, watches, sensors and other wearables. Apple can provide all of these.

2. Apple Mistimes The Market

The “Apple copies” meme is partly true, at least on the surface. Apple works on a great many technologies, gadgets, form factors. However, the company typically does not release these until they believe both the product and the market are  ready, oftentimes long after competitors have their product collecting dust on retail shelves.

Apple may have a grand solution ready in, say, Q2 2015, only to lose out if wearables explode in popularity in early 2014.

Or, the market may radically veer onto a path Apple has no response to, and no strength to bear. After all, the accepted trajectory of such devices is that they become nothing more than computerized ‘tattoos’ placed on the skin, or tiny capsules we swallow. Perhaps a biotech company will ultimately prevail in the wearables market, or some uber-geeky Maori entrepreneur revolutionizes our very notion of a computer. As we well know, the best laid plans of giant tech companies are often complete failures.

3. Tim Cook Is Steve Ballmer


My final scenario, and the one I think most likely — though still unlikely — is that Tim Cook is the Apple incarnation of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. Baller delivered massive profits, global scale, and as Microsoft grew to unwieldy heights, Ballmer somehow kept the trains running on time. Innovation, however, was suffocated.

It may be that the path of the wearable computing market usurps the need for high-margin iPhones and iPads. In response, Cook might hamper Apple’s long-term potential by attempting to corral the wearables market inside the high walls of Apple’s highly profitable iOS ecosystem. Just like Ballmer attempted to force everything through Windows and Office, this also will fail.

Similarly, for all the potential of Apple computers in the enterprise, Apple can’t seem to pull away from the high-margin, high-profit, easy-money consumer market. Perhaps wearables revolutionize the enterprise, just as smartphones upended it, and Apple has no adequate response. Cue the return of Microsoft.

Lastly, I suppose Apple could also simply whiff on wearables entirely, the way Microsoft, for example, struck out on touch screens. All possible, all unlikely.

The Next Evolution of Apple

The competition should be wary. When I examine Apple’s talent, skill set, ponder its brand, analyze its active customer base, assess its growing retail operation, test the integration of its many products, proprietary technologies and devices, it is  difficult for me to see how the company fails to win the wearables computing market.

Though Samsung beat them to market, and their Galaxy Gear ad is sublime, long-term I see no company that can bring to the wearables market what Apple already has. Namely, the chips, the design chops, the OS, the integration across devices, the commitment to intuitive function, voice and touch controls, cloud support, media partnerships, carrier relationships, broad appeal across borders and demographics, battery expertise, AirDrop, their own video chat service, the best designed notifications service, the list goes on.

The scale of each new computing revolution is far bigger, far richer, spreads far wider than the one that came before. I expect this with wearables. These will eclipse smartphones and tablets, just as those devices eclipsed “PCs.” Thus, if I am right, Apple is about to get much, much bigger.

Where I Save Windows Phone

My name is Brian and I use Windows Phone.

Confession: I want Windows Phone to succeed. I want it to succeed because I believe users will benefit from Microsoft innovation and renewed market competition. I want Windows Phone to succeed because as Android increasingly takes over the computing world I am increasingly fearful of the success of an OS whose very existence is to track and record user behavior across the world.

I want Windows Phone to succeed because I want great, American companies to continue to dominate the global tech market.

I am not at all sure Windows Phone will succeed.

This has nothing to do with the silly, breathless rumors about a Nokia Android device. Rather, even given Microsoft’s money, brainpower and massive “Windows” install base — and 10+ years of fruitless R&D — the world continues to reveal that it is quite happy choosing between Android and iOS.

My hope, thus, is cruelly crushed by market reality. Must be doubly bad for Microsoft, I suspect. Therefore, I offer the following advice to help save Windows Phone.

1. Fewer Apps

Yes, this is counterintuitive, but absolutely necessary. You lost the app battle, Microsoft. It’s over. Accept defeat. We now live in a world where there are far more software applications for Apple products — and they are much easier to buy.

Stop pumping bad apps through the system in a futile attempt to make the actual numbers look not so awful. Instead, focus on offering the absolute best apps of any platform.

I have spent the past 4 years using iPhones as my go-to device. I have spent the past several weeks using the Lumia 1520 almost exclusively. In nearly every case, I’ve found an app equivalent for Windows Phone to match my iPhone. Unfortunately, nearly everyone is awful. Limited functionality, poor to no integration with web services (or iPhone apps), bad design. Indeed, the vast majority of apps in the Windows Phone store appear to me as little more than high school projects. End this anti-user behavior. Ensure that any app offered from your store is absolutely awesome and in no way a pale, brittle facsimile of what’s long been available for iOS and Android. Reject far more apps than you accept.

Fifty thousand great apps is better than 150,000 awful ones.

I also recommend you pledge every single of the many billions of dollars you receive from Android patent scofflaws to fund app projects with the very best app development houses. Bonus: offer huge cash windfalls for successful tie-ins with your very best mobile offerings (Skydrive, Bing, Office, Skype).

2. Fewer Devices

Windows Phone, the platform, will not be widely embraced by OEMs the way Windows was back in the 20th century. Android has won that war and its presence and pace throughout the world is accelerating. Your best hope is to focus on your own great devices. Luckily, you now own Nokia, which makes the most beautiful, best designed smartphones in the world.

Nokia’s problem is its insistence on offering as many variations of devices across every possible region, industry and demographic. This is no longer a viable strategy in a world where we are all connected. Worse, it increases manufacturing and marketing costs, generates user confusion and capitulates to self-serving carrier demands.

This is what you should offer:

  • Student model — for children, students, grandparents and those of lesser means.  The Lumia 520 is amazing for the price. Does the target market even know this?
  • Business model. Your premium offering. The Lumia 920 (or equivalent) with Office, Outlook, Skydrive and Skype included is a powerful combination.
  • Globetrotter model. The Lumia 1020 with 41mp camera is the baseline device for artists, photographers, creative types.
  • Gamer model. Your “gamer” phone fully leverages Xbox and the beautiful large-display Lumia 1520. Maybe offer Xbox credits with every purchase.

Next, you must give each of these devices comprehensible names. 520, for example, means absolutely nothing to absolutely no one. 920 is (obviously) less than 925, which obviously has lesser hardware than the 1020. Right? Nobody knows. Stop such nonsense.

3. Be Mobile First – Really

From this day forward, the role of Office and Windows is not to maximize shareholder value. Rather, it is to maximize profits to fund the future. The future is mobile.

You’ve bravely taken a few baby steps in this direction, and have now evolved from believing smartphones are mere satellites revolving around the PC sun to your current belief, where you appear to grudgingly accept that smartphones and PCs can be equivalents. Still wrong. The smartphone is the center of the computing world. Until you accept this your giant company will continue to flounder.

I fear this will not be an easy fix. Your Surface ads reveal that you, dear Microsoft, can’t even conceive of a “computing” device that is solely and purely touchscreen and mobile. In the second decade of the 21st century you still promote computers and “slates,” such as your Surface, as devices that work best when there is a physical keyboard attached and the user is seated. This is a profound misunderstanding of the future of everything.

Focusing on non-mobile, non-touchscreen devices is like if Android is the Death Star, iPhone is Ben Kenobi and you are Aunt Beru. Don’t be Aunt Beru, Microsoft.

Change your strategy. Radically improve touchscreen responsiveness. Offer a movie store. Make multitasking really work. Fix the (virtual) keyboard. Mobile first — really.

It’s not all bad, of course. Your instincts are sound. Note that the much-lauded Jony Ive continues to parrot what Windows Phone and Nokia have been doing for years: “Unapologetically” plastic devices. Bright colors. Polycarbonite-like feel. Flat design. Lots of white space. He knows.


4. Start A War With Apple

Android is good enough for most of the world. For what it offers, for its price, availability and ecosystem, you aren’t going to convince many to choose Windows Phone over Android, particularly at the low-end. You must prove your worthiness by taking on Apple. Fortunately, that’s where most of the money may be found.

Focus your marketing on a Mac vs PC-like campaign.

  • Your live tiles versus their static icons
  • Skype versus FaceTime
  • 20mp and 41mp cameras with Zeiss lenses and Nokia imaging controls versus iPhone’s 8mp camera
  • Office versus iWork
  • Outlook versus Apple Mail
  • Nokia Maps and real-time transit data versus Apple Maps
  • Xbox versus Game Center
  • Mock Siri. Belittle Touch ID.

Pay no attention to the Apple echo chamber. Ignore what people may say on Twitter. “In marketing, what looks new is new.”

A relentless assault against the iPhone earns you respect, customers, and helps focus your company. If possible, hire the “PC” guy to do the ads.


Reminder: not one moment of these ads, not one image, may include a keyboard or a person seated. Commercials advertising a “real keyboard” to do “real work” is my grandfather insisting that music used to be so much better. Probably, he’s wrong and if he’s right, it’s irrelevant.

Having spent the past month with a Nokia Lumia 1520, and having used every iPhone, several Android devices, BlackBerry, Palm, Symbian, Asha, MeeGo and others, I know that your odds are slight. Your potential remains great, however. Go forth. No excuses — you’re Microsoft. The time to line up your pawns has long since passed. These are the smartphone wars. Ball so hard.

Is Chromecast Really Android’s Attempt at an Apple TV?

I have been connecting compute devices to my TVs for nearly 20 years, the first being a Compaq Presario hooked to a massive RCA 35” tube TV via an NTSC converter. Back then, there wasn’t online audio or video content worth streaming, but there were games like “You Don’t Know Jack” that were a lot of fun.  My, how times have changed.  I now have three Apple TV’s and an Intel-based WiDi base station connected and also a few retired Google TVs that currently sit in boxes.  I just picked up a Chromecast, and after using it for a week, I wanted to share my thoughts and impressions, and out of those, see what insights I found.  One thing in particular I have a lot of questions about is exactly what Google is trying to do strategically.  Let’s start with the product.

My first impression after I opened the package was just how small it was.  It’s really small, thinner than my Kingston 32GB USB3 stick, but wider at the end.  I was thinking, “What a great thing to travel with”, or that I could move it from room to room between my 4 HDTVs. It appears at the outset that Google is trying to “one-up” Apple as it relates to size.  I do need to point out a few things, though.

What the pictures never show is that Chromecast requires USB power, either from the TV or from a charger.  I first thought that it supported the MHL standard where HDMI is powered, but it doesn’t.  While Apple TV beauty shots never show power cords it still bugged me because the expectation is that Chromecast is drawing power from the port.

Let’s talk setup.  It’s really easy.  You just plug the Chromecast into the HDMI port, plug it into your TVs USB port and the hardware is setup.  WiFi setup is a lot easier than any other connected TV device as there’s no painful pass-code entry with a T-bar remote like on the Apple TV.  With Chromecast, you download the Chromecast Android app, Wi-Fi connect to your phone, enter the pass-code on your phone, it hands off to Chromecast to your router, and you’re connected.

One other thing I need to point out is Chromecast’s visual style points.  There’s never a black screen when it’s connected.  What you see are stylish, full screens of nature and cityscapes.  So Apple-esque….

One potential setup issue will occur wherever there is a logon screen to connect.  Like An Xbox or Apple TV, there is no way to sign into a hotel or work WiFi screen to put in a special access code.  That’s disappointing, especially if you wanted to use it while traveling.  This limits Chromecast’s utility a bit and somewhat defeats the purpose and value of its small size.

Let me move to content.

Chromecast currently supports Android app-based YouTube, Google Music, Google Play TVs & Music, and PC and Mac Google Chrome browser content.  I watched four movies via Android Google Play and the experience, on the whole, was good.  The video and audio was high quality.  My only complaint was fast forwarding and rewinding.  If you miss something and want to go forward or back a few minutes with any degree of precision, it’s really difficult.  I attribute this to WiFi latency.  Someday, the industry need to get with the WiFi direct program and remove the router from this usage model equation, but not now in this case.  Android Google Music and Android YouTube worked well, too.

The PC/Mac Google Chrome mirroring experience, albeit in Beta, worked really well for me.  There is a lot of noticeable latency, much more than Airplay, but for most music, movies, video, and even doing a slide presentation, it will be just fine.    There are three of classes of content on the Chrome browser: 1) those that use Google’s API and have a seamless and full screen experience,  2) those that you must set manually to full screen and, 3) those that don’t run video at all.  YouTube and Netflix use the Chromecast API. Super Pass, Hulu and Vimeo don’t use the API, but work just fine.  Finally, Amazon and Time Warner Cable, probably because they use Silverlight, won’t play any video.

One thing that I find most interesting is to think what Google may do down the road with Chromecast.  I find it interesting they used 3D graphics from Vivante.  3D graphics sure make menuing and overlays nice, but why add the same Vivante GC1000 graphics that’s inside the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3?  Theoretically, this could run OpenGL ES 3.0 games, and the user could use their smartphone as the controller.

All in all, Chromecast is Android’s impression of the Apple TV.  It follows the Android philosophy- it costs a lot less, doesn’t do as much but does enough, and the experience isn’t as smoothe (in this case driven by WiFi latency).  This equation has worked well for many players in the Android ecosystem, and I expect Chromecast to sell well, certainly better than the failed Google TV attempts.

Korus: A Superior Multi-Room, Wireless Audio Solution

For the last few years, casual home speakers have seen a resurgence, proceeded by the popularity of high-end headphones used on smartphones and tablets.  Sonos has run away with the wireless, multi-room consumer speaker system market, but the volume driver has been Bluetooth-based wireless speakers from brands like Bose and Jambox.  Like we’ve seen in many other segments of high-tech and consumer electronics, a new company called Korus and their V-Series speakers could be on their way to disrupting Sonos, Jambox and Bose.

Through the course of doing research with Korus, I have had the distinct pleasure of testing many versions of their new line of speakers.  I can say that I’m very impressed with Korus when compared to Sonos and of course, the litany of Bluetooth-based speakers I have used from brands like Bose.  Specifically, I got to test two different versions of near production-level speakers in their family, the V600 and V400 and I wanted to share my experiences with you.  The first thing I want to go into, though, is one core technology that really differentiates the speakers, called SKAA.

SKAA Wireless Standard

Wireless speakers on the market today typically use two standards for their wireless functionality- Bluetooth or  WiFi.  Each has their pros and cons as I have outlined in detail here.  Bluetooth is built into every phone, but can only support one speaker, is unreliable, difficult to pair, low bandwidth, low range, and high latency.  WiFi, used as the basis for AirPlay and Sonos, is very pervasive, long range, supports 5-10 speakers, high sound quality, but it requires a network, has very high latency, low battery life, mid-grade reliability, and takes a long time to pair.

SKAA, on the other hand, utilized in the Korus V600 and V400, takes the best features of WiFi and Bluetooth and combines into one standard.  SKAA is high bandwidth at 480kbps, long range at 65 feet, very reliable and not as susceptible to interference, has low 40ms latency, 20 hours battery life with an iPhone, and is easy to pair and re-pair. The only thing someone can question is that it requires a “Baton” or wireless audio transmitter, in the device that has the music.  I’ve thought a lot about that and as I survey different devices like Logitech mice and keyboards and even a FitBit used with a PC, they all require dongles to get the highest reliability. Both Logitech and FitBit use a dongle because Bluetooth is hard to pair, unreliable and is susceptible to interference. Let’s get onto the speakers themselves.       

Korus Setup

As I outlined above, the Korus speakers use “Batons” to connect to your phone, tablet or PC.  Here’s how I setup the V600 and V400 with my iPhone for the first time: 1/ play the music on the device and 2/ plug in the baton.  That’s it.  While there are just as many steps to setup as Bluetooth, you never have to setup that baton up ever again.  Also, you are never “contending” for control of the speaker like Bluetooth as whoever has the baton has control of the music. 

Korus Reliability

Once I setup my Korus speakers, the connection just stuck.  I got between 30-75 feet of range in my house, and of course your mileage will vary given house build.  Also, when I got out of range, it wasn’t a gradual AM-radio style interference; the speakers just turned off.  That may sound like a nit, but it’s very annoying at a party when the host who uses Bluetooth speakers gets out of range and the room starts crackling.

Korus Flexibility

When I walk into the homes of most of my geeky colleagues, I usually see a Sonos speaker system somewhere inside.  With a Sonos system, you get a wireless speaker system that can have up to 5 speakers playing the same song simultaneously, controlled by an iOS or Android app.  This is great, but comes with many limitations.     The first limitation with Sonos is that you must have their application to play the audio.  That’s great for supported services, but what if you wanted to play the new Google Play Music All Access, a game or a movie?  You’re out of luck.  Even if your favorite service is supported today, given the finnicky nature of content, you may find in the future Sonos doesn’t support it.

The Korus speakers can play any audio content on any player on iPhones, iPads, PCs and Macs. It plays all music, all game audio, and all movie and video audio.  You see, the batons are essentially just a wireless extension of your audio port.  Try doing all of that with your Sonos.  It won’t.

The final example of Korus flexibility I really enjoyed was what I like to call “party-mode”.  This is when you have a bunch of friends over, you’re having some drinks, and listening to some music.  Undoubtedly, someone will say, “have you heard that new song”?  Someone will reply, “yes, I have it on my phone”.  With Korus, I just needed to hand the baton to the one with the song and it just plays.  Try that with Bluetooth.

Korus Multi-Speaker Capabilities

Korus can play the same song or audio on four speakers simultaneously.  This is really nice when you are having a party or just hanging around the house.  You can adjust the volume via the Korus volume control app, the program’s app, the phone’s device’s volume control, or you can do it manually on the speaker.  There isn’t any lag after pressing play either, when the music starts playing, unlike the WiFi lag you get with Sonos or Airplay.  Needless to say, the multi-speaker capabilities are something no Bluetooth speaker system has.

Korus Speaker Quality

I will say this right now; I’m no audiophile.  What I do know from working on so many speaker development projects in my career isV600_inside_1 that everyone is different in what they consider great audio.  I personally like a very rich, bassy sound.  Audiophiles  don’t like any special effects and can notice highs that my ear doesn’t.  What I can do is vouch for my friends and family who thought the Korus speakers sounded great.

The Korus V600 is a larger 11lb unit and has a frequency range between 80Hz and 20kHZ and include side-firing tweeters which I thought provided a lot of “width” to the audio experience.  The Korus V400 is a smaller 4.4lb unit and has a frequency range between 125Hz and 20kHZ

My Bose wireless speakers were never used again after the Korus came into the house.

Korus Fine Points

The Korus speakers had some softer, fine points I wanted to share with you.  As Apple has demonstrated so many times, some of the softer adders really make the difference and I think they did as well for Korus.  The first are the handles.  These speakers are designed to be moved around the house or taken with you to someone’s house or even to the beach.  The V600 can also be powered for 90 hours by 6 D batteries.  Even the power cords were thought through well.  They remind me of a much softer and flexible version of an Apple TV cord.  The power cord can be wrapped around the handle to move or to remove cable clutter on a counter-top.  Finally, we have the buttons for power, volume etc.  You touch them, there isn’t a lot of side to side travel, which says “quality” to me.  I think consumers notice these fine points and are more important than people think.  Just ask Apple.

Pricing and Availability

The Korus V600 and V400 aren’t cheap knock-offs; they are feature rich and have a price tag that corresponds to it.  The V600 including three batons (30-pin/Lightning/USB) are $449, and the V400 including three batons are $349.  This corresponds quite nicely versus Sonos Play 3 at $299, Sonos Play 5 at $399 plus the Sonos Bridge at $49.  My Bluetooth-based Bose Soundlink was $299.

Wrapping Up

It is always fun to see potential disruptors in markets where you think the innovation is gone.  Korus has demonstrated that there is still a lot of room left in consumer speakers to innovate and disrupt.  When the speakers become available in the fall, I highly recommend checking them out if you are considering Sonos or one of the many Bluetooth-based wireless speakers.

Nvidia’s Shield Was Built for Folks Like Me

I’m right in the sweet spot of Nvidia’s target demographic for Shield. I’m a hard core gamer, I play mainly console games and not as much PC games. Life and career have taken more time and its been harder to find the time to play video games like I once did. This is why the promise of a true mobile console experience has always interested me.

This is why I was very interested when Nvidia announced Shield. I was skeptical I’ll be honest, and a bit surprised. But I remained optimistic because of what I know about Nvidia and how hopeful I am that someone will actually deliver on the mobile console promise.

I’ve been playing with Shield for a while now and I have to say I am impressed.

Some Thoughts on the Hardware

First off the hardware is excellent. The controller feels very much like an XBOX controller, which I would argue is the best controller around. ((This is subjective of course, but the overall feel in my hand and the “just right” stiffness of the joysticks is perfect for me)). If you have spent many hours gaming with the XBOX controller, you will feel right at home with the Shield controls.

Second, the screen is fantastic. I’ve used all the latest and greatest Android devices and the screen on the Shield and although its resolution and PPI isn’t has high as devices like the Galaxy S4, to the naked eye it feels extremely close. Which means the games and whole visual experience are top notch.

Android Gaming

The biggest question here is games on Android. Nvidia chose the Android operating system to run Shield because of Androids open nature. There is no question in my mind that more immersive games will come to mobile devices, but I’ve felt for some time that a controller experience was necessary for this to fully happen. Now that Nvidia has released Shield and that Shield delivers a truly mobile console experience in my opinion, the ingredients are there for console game developers to start taking mobile more seriously.

There are already a handful of Shield Optimized Android games, and like all new console launches I anticipate this number to grow and because Shield is built on Android, I expect the amount of Shield optimized games to grow faster than any other mobile gaming console to this point.

Interestingly, although there are about two dozen Shield optimized games already there are many more in the Android market that work already given their support for third party game controllers.

One last point. In using Shield, I have had the most positive expereince with Android yet. Not only is it a pure implementation running stock Jelly Bean, but In the many of the entertainment use cases Shield is focused on brings to light some of the best of Android. Android is great on Smartphones and tablets, but in my opinion, its even better on Shield.

A Bit of Nostalgia

Although, there is a fair amount of content already available to play on Shield, being built on Android has its advantages. Namely that given its open nature there are very good Nintendo and Super Nintendo Emulators for Android. I downloaded my favorite, SuperGNES, and loaded up the games I have been using on the Galaxy S4 I have. Namely, Super Punchout, Street Fighter II, Mario Kart, and Super Mario World. Low and behold, right out the gate every one worked with the Shield controller with no modification or customization. So here I am now playing Street Fighter II and Super Punchout with the glory of using a game controller.

Having access to all the Nintendo games I know and love, and grew up with, and being able to use a game controller with them, was perhaps the most eye opening experience for me in using Shield.

Powerful Accessories

Beyond the games, there are other benefits for being built on Android that showcase a device like Shield’s advantage over a more closed mobile console gaming experience. Being built on Android opens the door for other unique hardware accessory expereinces to benefit Shield. One in particular I want to highlight. And that is using Shield to fly my Parott AR Drone.

Yes, I have one of those drones, and it is one of my favorite gadgets / toys. You may not know this but the AR Drone has a number of augmented reality games available for it. Games where you use the camera to shoot digital objects in the air or the ground. Or games where you race through a digital course in the physical world. All of these experiences through a touch screen are possible but made all the better using a physcical game controller. To say that Shield has profoundly impacted my flying ability with my AR Drone would be an understatement.

This brings up a broader point. We are seeing a number of electronics like this, whether RC cars, planes, etc., come with software for smart phones. Being able to use Shield as a game controller with some of hardware expereinces like these may open up some doors that were not possible before.

Things to Consider

For us gaming enthusiasts we are faced with a difficult holiday season. This is the first time in a while when the holiday season will feature simultaneous avaialablity of the two top gaming consoles in their launch year. Most of us can’t afford them all this holiday season.

However, if a mobile console gaming experience is a priority for you then strongly consider Shield. It is the best mobile gaming console experience I have encountered. And as I stated there is a big potential upside being built on Android. I strongly believe it is only a matter of time before console first game developers shift to a mobile first development focus. This does not mean they will only develop for mobile device, only that they will embrace the mobile first strategy. Android will clearly benefit from this move and inevitably so will Shield.

Shield may be the most future proof mobile gaming console to hit the market yet. And as I pointed out, playing Nintendo games, using to fly drones, etc., are all icing on the cake.

Pebble: The Nerd’s Watch

Ben Bajarin wrote a nice piece last week entitled “The Challenge of Wearable Computing”, where he talks about the challenges of wearables and offers some suggestions to developers to improve their chances for success. In this column, I want to share with you my early, personal and specific Pebble watch experience and extrapolate some of thoughts to the general consumer market.  Let’s start with a little background on Pebble.

The Pebble watch started as a Kickstarter project  that exceeded their $100K funding goal by over $10M over a year ago in May, 2012.  The watch is currently shipping directly from Pebble and you can also buy it at Best Buy for $149.99.  Pebble supports basic peer-to-peer functionality for Android and iOS phones and sports a low res e-ink style display. Built into the core Pebble OS, it supports notifications for calls, texts, calendar events, email, Google Talk, and Facebook notifications.  So basically, whenever your phone gets a notification, Pebble gets one.  Through 3rd party apps I installed, I could control my phone’s music player, extend RunKeeper, see Twitter and Facebook feeds, see the weather, view photos, view calendar, page my phone, and respond to texts.  Sounds robust and valuable, right? Well, not really.  The best way to go through the experience is discuss highs and lows.

Pebble Highs

  • Battery life: I have had Pebble for over a week, use every notification and the backlight but only have had to charge once.
  • Reliability when connected: When the watch is connected to a phone, the apps are super-consistent.  This must be partly because they do one single task, like alert you of an email or text.
  • Notifications with phone tucked away: There are times when having a phone out isn’t socially accepted or inconvenient, like during dinner or when in the airport line.   With Pebble, I can get nearly all my notifications and it was sometimes reassuring that I wouldn’t miss something.
  • Display: When you hear of a 144×168 black and white resolution in a world of Retina displays, most would laugh it off as a joke.  I was very surprised just how quickly I got accustomed to the backlit, e-ink like display.  I rarely had an issue in full sunlight and literally a flick of the wrist, the backlight turns on.
  • Exercise: While the RunKeeper integration is extremely limited, it does provide the basic information like pace, distance, and time run eliminating the need to look at my phone.

Pebble Lows

  • Limited utility via limited apps: Pebble is severely limited by a very low number of apps that support the platform.  Does “mobile device lacking apps therefore delivering low value” sound familiar?  It’s the issue for Windows RT, Windows Phone, BB10 and was one of the death blows for HP’s webOS. Sure it’s early, only a year into development, but getting notifications, having a second screen for a few apps, and controlling a few things on the smartphone just isn’t enough.
  • No App Store: There currently isn’t an official app store for Pebble, making finding apps a chore.  Users can either search the Android store for “Pebble” or go to the many non-Pebble supported websites via Google search.
  • Unreliable BT connection: Bluetooth inherently is unreliable, as we have all experienced at one time or another.  This is a real back breaker because Pebble is limited without the phone connection.  To make matters worse, Pebble doesn’t have a visual indicator that it is successfully connected, so you are left wondering if you were missing notifications. To add insult to injury, my phone often said Pebble was connected when it really wasn’t
  • Nerdy: My wife nailed it when she saw me with Pebble and asked, “so is that the nerd watch”?  As I recovered from the “nerd slap”, I thought about it, and the watch really isn’t very stylish. In fact, it’s nerdy.  It is shiny and feels cheap and plasticky, like a watch you can win as a prize in a machine in an arcade.  At the end of the week, I missed some of my watches.  I’m no watch collector, but I have some that are a few hundred bucks and a few that are a few thousand dollars.

Pebble right now is a classic “tweener”.  Let’s look at fitness devices as an example.  Pebble is not like a FitBit One, FitBit Flex or Jawbone UP that tracks sleep, movement, calories yet inexpensive, stylish or easy to hide. Nor is it like the $249 MotoActv that has a color display, heart rate monitor, embedded GPS tracker and built-in music player.  Pebble is smack dab in the middle of the devices while trying to get developers to do more. A tweener is never a good place to stay for long as it usually ends in death.

Pebble needs to be more “general purpose” like a phone, tablet, PC or more “focused” like a sports watch or game console.  To do this, I believe Pebble will need to change dramatically. To go more “general purpose”, Pebble needs a complete overhaul in UI that would enable a lot more input functionality via, let’s say, voice.  Even with added features, it would take a lot to get over the “nerd factor”.  I could see non-nerds getting comfortable with Pebble functionality if it somehow embedded into their favorite Omega, Breitling, TAG Heuer, Citizen, or Burberry watches.

To get more “focused” Pebble needs to identify a unique problem for a unique audience that only it can solve…. and then go solve it.  I could see a customized “Pebble-like” device solving some very unique living room gaming challenges with a multi-axis (more than 3) accelerometer.  I could see specialty watches for firefighters and policemen, too.  The list goes on and on, but unfortunately, this is just not what Pebble is.

Until Pebble and other devices like Pebble are semi-concealable or get more focused on solving focused problems, it will remain the nerd’s watch.  The world needs and loves nerds, but I don’t think it’s a very large market in the near future.

Will Gen 3 Chromebooks Finally Hit the Mark?

Now on their third generation, Chromebooks have taken a deserved perceptual and business beating samsungover the last few years. Generation one and two were flawed in many basic ways, with high prices, sluggish performance, and lack of robust off-line capabilities. This makes Lenovo’s and HP’s latest entry into the category all that puzzling. Is their entry into the market an indication that the third generation of Chromebooks will be a success?

When Google introduced the Cr-48 Chromebook prototype in late 2010, hopes were high that the industry would see a viable alternative to the PC notebook. In 2010, most notebooks sold were thick, heavy, with around three hours battery life, and were sold between $499 and 599. The Cr-48 prototype got 9 hours battery life, weighed 3.8 lbs, was less than an inch thick, and came with integrated 3G. Chromebooks promised an inexpensive, enjoyable and simple, connected experience with very fast start times. That’s not exactly what was delivered.

What was delivered was way short of delivering on the value proposition. Prices were as high as a PC at $499, performance was sluggish, had limited storage, limited battery life, and didn’t operate well or at all offline. As expected, the first two generations were only embraced by Samsung and Acer, and only a few consumers actually bought them.

The third generation Chromebook experience is a positive step forward. Compared to the promise, here is how it stacks up.

  • Instant on: almost immediate
  • Google offline capabilities: Drive, Mail, Calendar, Docs, and Slides
  • Prices: between $429 and $199
  • Battery life: between 4 and 6.5 hours
  • Storage: 16GB SSD to 320GB HDD
  • Weight: as low as 2.5 pounds
  • Thickness: as low as .8 inches high

The “feel” is hard to characterize, but generally, with simple apps like Docs in one windows, the experience felt very snappy. Get on a complex web site with lots of J-script, videos and ads, and the experience starts to get very sluggish. It gets even worse as more tabs are added to the experience. Oddly, SD videos purchased off Google Play were very choppy on the Samsung Series 3 but HD YouTube videos were fine. Keyboards have remained solid and some models have even added the caps lock key. I wish there were a delete key, though. With 95% of the world on Windows PC’s this make a lot of sense.

Will all these improvements turn the tides for the Chromebook? No.

The challenge for Chromebooks as a category is that as they are improving their value prop, so are tablets and PCs and the “feel” is compared to a phone. The biggest of these issues is that PCs are improving.

For nearly the same price, consumers can buy a Windows 8 PC that’s nearly as thin, with mores storage, and similar battery life that can run millions of apps. No, you don’t get the crapware or malware, but consumers don’t think like that. Tablets are an issue, too. If a Chromebook cannot replace the PC then it is an add-on to the experience, which then becomes a question of tablet versus Chromebook. Chromebooks are too much like a PC form factor and consumers will choose the tablet.

Chromebooks have improved their value proposition over the three generations but it won’t be enough to significantly provide the boost that it needs to become a credible category. Chromebooks need to make a much more significant jump in utility or a lower price to do that. By adding better performing processors and graphics combined with more offline capability, it could do that, but that’s for the future.


NVIDIA’s Project SHIELD Connects Disparate Gaming Worlds

Even before CES 2013 officially began, NVIDIA announced a new product that rocked the gaming world.  NVIDIA announced Project SHIELD, an NVIDIA-branded mobile gaming device that connects different world of gaming, across modes, displays and content.

My first visual impression of SHIELD when I saw it was that it looked like a high end portable game controller used with an XBOX with a 5”, fold out display. The user holds it with both hands, pistol-grip style, with access to all the different kinds of buttons you would expect.  While the controller does look very cool, what is most interesting is the gaming flexibility it provides.

Connects Small and Large Display Gaming

Gamers can display their games on two displays, the integrated display and to an HDTV.  The integrated display is 5”, 1,280×720 resolution, and is adjustable for optimal viewing angle.  When not gaming, it folds down to protect itself.  Gamers can also display on the big screen, too, up to a 4K display.  This can be done wirelessly or via an HDMI cable.  Wireless display is accomplished via a dongle that connects into the HDMI port of the HDTV.  Essentially, the gameplay is encoded into a an H.264 video stream and sent to the TV in a similar fashion as Apple  AirPlay.

Connects Android and Windows PC Gaming

One of the biggest differentiators in gaming is that players can play Android and Windows PC games.  Android gaming is very straight-forward.  Just download a game from Google Play and you play it.  If you ever had an Android device like a Nexus 7 or HTC One X+ Android phone and purchased a game there, you can also play that same game on SHIELD.

SHIELD also plays Windows PC games, too, which is very distinct, something no other portable game device can do.  NVIDIA’s desired PC experience is straight-forward, while the technology behind the scenes is complex. In SHIELD-mode, the gamer slides the carousel to “PC” games where they are presented with a list of PC games.  They click the game and they play it, it’s that simple. The user never sees Windows Metro or the start screen or anything that resembles a PC.

Behind the scenes, the game is actually being played on a remote PC in the house and images are being transmitted to SHIELD or the HDTV.  It uses technology similar to that used on remote desktop applications, where the image is encoded into an H.264 video. The games are screened by Nvidia to make sure that they work well on the HDTV so the quality of service is better.  Small text could be a bit of a challenge in some games, but as devs realize they can expand their gameplay to SHIELD, they will accomodate by scaling the text to be used on the 5″ display.

I very much hope that the experience is as smoothe as NVIDIA desires, because if there are a few hiccups, gamers will stop using the Windows PC gaming function, one of SHIELD’s biggest differentiators.

Connects Portable and Console Gaming   

Finally, when you add up the fact that SHIELD can operate on the small screen, big screen, can be used as comfortably in the living room as it is in the car, it really is as, as NVIDIA’s Jen-Hsung says, a “portable console.”  While first designed as a portable gaming device, it really does beg the question on why you would need a gaming console as long as SHIELD works as planned and has access to the best titles.  Many hard core gamers will have both SHIELD and a gaming console, but where money is tight or consumers want just one device, they may choose SHIELD.

NVIDIA’s SHIELD a Success?

SHIELD is undoubtedly a major disruptor, but there are many things we don’t know yet, like price and distribution, to yield a market verdict.  What I can say is that if the experience is as good as presented, there will be very high levels of interest across “gamers” and consumers who really like to play games.  Nvidia plans to ship SHIELD in Q2 of this year and as soon as I get my hands on one, I will let you know about the quality of the experience.

Microsoft Pulls it Together (Almost) for Windows 8 Launch

I attended Microsoft’s launch last week for Windows 8, Windows RT, and Surface. While launch day is only one milestonephoto 1 (3) in a string of milestones, launch day is the one day that everything must come together, the day where some make their final judgment. So how did Microsoft do?

Importance of Launch Day

Launch days is one day in many important days that a product or service goes through in its lifecycle. I believe it is one of the most important days, though, as it pulls together all the hard work of the previous years into just a few hours. The value of launches differ between consumer and commercial products, too. In the commercial world, buyers like IT managers don’t expect and quite frankly don’t believe that everything would be together on day one. They’re a skeptical bunch, due in part to just how many times they have seen products and services not live up to their promises in the past. Maybe they even lost their job or got reprimanded for making what ended up being a tech mistake that cost their company time or money.

Consumer product launches are different, in that those product and services get measured by press and reviewers based upon what it can do on launch day, not at some point in the future. There are some exceptions that consumers make, where if they trust a brand and they make a future promises the company is believed, but for the most part, what is launched on that one day sticks for a very long time.

One final important piece about launch day is “permanence”. What gets written by press and analysts on launch day is rarely updated if something changes. With most consumers checking out the internet before they buy, this is vitally important. So how did Microsoft do?

Windows 8 Launch Day Plusses

Looking holistically at the day, I have to give credit where it is due. Microsoft did a very good job pulling everything togetherimage on game day. Microsoft made a good case that Windows 8 was the best Windows yet, good for older and the newest systems. On almost every metric, Microsoft showed that Windows 8 is better than Windows 7. They didn’t address the lack of a Start button or the potential confusion, but I don’t think this was the right place to do that. That is best demonstrated in the marketplace.

The demos were some of the best I’ve ever seen from Microsoft as Mike Angiulo and Julie Larson-Green did their magic. They made a pretty good case for why consumers would want Windows 8, particularly on touch-based devices. I particularly thought they did a good job showing and talking about how Windows 8 works with other Microsoft-based properties. Angiulo and Larsen-Green also did a very good job in showing the absolute breadth of designs supporting Windows 8 and Windows RT. The device onslaught was impressive, from notebooks, to hybrids, tablets, convertible flippers, convertible swivelers, to all in ones. They showed devices from all the big brands at prices ranging from $499 to $2,499.

Steve Ballmer was in rare form too, with a good balance of his famous passion and facts. He was there to put the final stamp on the event by showing just how committed Microsoft is to the Windows 8 ecosystem and experience by outlining just how many Microsoft apps and services have been developed to support a seamless Windows experience.

The launch wasn’t perfect, though.

What I Wanted to Hear More About

Microsoft demonstrated their best launch I have ever seen, but it could have been better, had they made a stronger case on a few items.

I have been a bit critical previously on how Microsoft has handled the rollout of Metro-based apps in the store. Without having enough high-quality apps, Windows 8 could have been compared to the webOS Touchpad or 10” Android tablet ecosystem, which would have been disastrous. Microsoft definitely came through on video streaming services by adding Netflix and Hulu within weeks of launch. They also showed up with many key new site apps, even though CNN is still MIA. What Microsoft missed at launch were key social media apps. While I understand that the People app has some good connections to services, it does not replace a native social media app for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Google+. One example is Twitter. I, like many, have Twitter lists they want on their primary start screen. Not a single Metro Twitter app supports this. I would have at least liked for Microsoft to address this head-on and give a date when some of these apps are committed. In Surface reviews, the number of high quality apps was on key criticism in every single one of them. It didn’t have to be like that and was avoidable.

I would have also liked for Microsoft to address any hardware incompatibilities with Windows RT as opposed for users to find out on their own. Microsoft stated that Windows RT “works with 420,000,000 devices” but how do I know if that one Neat scanner or HP scanner that is so important to me works well? Microsoft has done a ton of work testing, but I would have at least liked to see accessible resources for consumers to check if their special peripheral works well. By not disclosing this, it made them appear to be hiding something.

Finally, there is the commercial PC and tablet market. Enterprises are currently shifting from Windows XP to Windows 7 on standard form factors like notebooks and desktops and therefore Windows 8 for the most part is irrelevant to them. Tablets are another matter altogether. Tim Cook routinely announces the extremely high per cent of enterprises rolling out or evaluating iPads, the latest figure pegged at 92%. Given Microsoft makes 75% of their profit from the commercial market, this seemed like an oversight. Given the competitiveness of the Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro tablets, many enterprise IT people would be hard pressed to justify an iPad purchase, Microsoft should have at least given a tip of the hat to Windows 8’s applicability to the commercial market.

Where We Go From Here

Many consumer reviews have been written and there will be many, many more in the future for Windows 8 and Windows RT. For the most part, the die has been cast and the Microsoft marketing and ad machine are in full swing, all which will make a difference on perception. The Windows 8 launch was the best Microsoft launch I have ever seen or attended, and I have personally attended many. While Microsoft didn’t address everything they needed to in order to seal the deal, they absolutely got Windows 8 and RT off to a solid start. Now it’s time to see if that translates to sales.

My Favorite Things About iOS 6

Having used every version of iOS and Android since inception, I am always very excited to jump on the latest and greatest smartphone operating system.  You see, operating systems say as much about a company and about the future as it says about what’s important now.  While this isn’t a deep analysis on OS mind reading, I wanted to share with you my initial thoughts on Apple’s iOS 6 for the iPhone and iPad.

There are elements about  Android and iOS that I like.  None of these operating systems is perfect, but each has things that I really like and is valuable to its different kinds of users.  iOS 6 is no different in that there are certain things I really like about it.

  1. Do Not Disturb: Ironically, my favorite thing about iOS 6 isn’t about what it enables me to do, but what it enables me not to do.  My phone is my alarm clock and it was very annoying at 2am when it would start buzzing due to someone in China posting on my Google+ wall or getting other notofocations.  Well, no more.. one button means bliss.
  2. VIP inbox: This is a special sort on important people.  Like many, I get about 200 emails a day but refuse to let it run my life.  The VIP mail “sort” enables me to instantly see the most important messages from the most important people, like my wife.  And clients, of course.
  3. Improved Message Sync– I have two iPads and my iPhone so iMessage synchronization is key.  iOS 5 was a bit spotty, but iOS 6 has been spot on so far.  Thank you Apple.
  4. Reply with Message: Like many, my work day includes bouncing between calls, desk time, and driving.  When I’m on a  call and a client calls, I want them to know that I will get right back to them.  With “Reply with Message”, its only two presses and I can SMS and message I like.
  5. Facebook Integration: Instead of opening the Facebook app to share something, it is now built into the core of the OS. This means saving time, clicks, and contacts integration.  Even though Android and webOS had this for a long time, it still doesn’t diminish it as a good feature.
  6. Shared Photo Streams- This will be huge in my family as almost everyone in the family has an iPhone or iPod and we love sharing pictures.  I will probably use this for more personal photo sharing versus pulling me away from Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.
What about Maps, Siri, Camera, and Passbook?
Apple made some changes to Maps, Siri and added a new app called Passbook.
  • Maps- I use both an Android and iOS phone (sometimes Windows Phone) at the same time to always compare and contrast the experiences.  I’ve always been happy with the maps on Android devices as it had turn by turn directions that were very accurate.  The Apple maps function so far has worked so-so (my kid’s school missing) in my little town of Austin and I have a heard a lot of chatter about others having some issues. Steve Wildstrom does a good job of covering some of the Apple maps challenges here.
  • Panorama Mode- I’ve been taking panoramic pictures for a long time.  Before adding the feature ti iOS 6, I just used Microsoft’s Photosynth app that’s been available in the App Store  for a long time.
  • Siri- There has been a lot of research done that says on the whole mainstream consumers are happy with Siri.  In my n=1 research, I have never been thrilled with Siri’s ability to determine what I am saying.  I haven’t yet noticed a sharp improvement in this capability, either, but others, like Tim Bajarin, have.  My bar is set quite high as I am in the car over two hours a day and want to do a lot of voice texting and dictation. Because of Siri’s lack of accuracy with my voice, I am not planning on using the additional database capabilities like sports score, movie times and restaurant reservations.  But I am sure others will love it.
  • Passbook- Think of Passbook as the one digital place for all those annoying paper items or bonus and discount cards that I always manage to misplace.  Apple says you can put airline tickets, movie tickets, coupons, loyalty cards and more.  I am very excited about this feature as I am paperless.  Unfortunately I cannot get it to work, and as of this writing, I keep getting error messages.  I’m not the only one with this challenge as I have seen many Twitter posts on the same thing.I have researched this and don’t have a fix yet, but will update this as soon as I do.
All in all, I am happy with iOS 6 on my iPhone 4s.  No, it’s not “swing me around the room” amazing, but it didn’t have to be for me to still like iOS.  I prefer Android’s open content sharing mechanisms, notifications, and live pages more than what iOS has to offer, but not enough to switch my primary device off of my iPhone.


Without Metro Apps, Innovative Touch-based Windows 8 Consumer Hardware is Meaningless

Last week at IFA in Berlin, Germany, HP, Dell, Samsung, and Sony announced some very unique hardware designs for Windows 8.  They included touch notebooks, convertibles, sliders, flippers, hybrids, and tablets that can take advantage of Microsoft’s Metro touch-based UI. The hardware was very impressive and it was obvious that a lot of thought and effort went into the design.  Will these be successful?  It’s impossible to say at this point because two huge questions have yet to be answered: device price and the number of high quality Metro applications.  Device prices will be announced by Windows 8 launch on October 26, but I want to dive into the applications question.  Without many high-quality Metro-based application details on the horizon, it’s hard to get excited about the hardware.

Let’s first look at the diversity of products.

Touch-based Hardware for Windows 8

There were many innovative devices launched at IFA to take advantage of Windows 8 touch for the Metro environment.  Here are a few that appeared innovative:

  • HP SpectreXT TouchSmart– Premium 15.6″ HD touch display Ultrabook with Intel Thunderbolt technology.
  • HP ENVY x2– Ultrathin notebook whose 11.6″ HD display can be removed and used as a tablet.
  • Dell XPS Duo12– Premium Ultrabook  with 12″ touch whose screen flips around to be used as a tablet while in Metro-mode.  The design includes use of machined aluminum, carbon fiber, and Gorilla Glass.
  • Dell XPS One 27–  Premium All In One with a 10-point touch enabled, Quad HD (2560×1440) 27″ display.  The all in one will lay flat as well, enabling multiple users to use it at the same time.
  • Sony VAIO Duo 11– Slider with an 11″ display that operates as a notebook and a tablet when the HD display is slid onto the keyboard.
  • Samsung ATIV Tab– Windows RT tablet with 10″ touch display.  It’s thin at 8.9 mm and light at 570 grams

As you can see, the diversity of Windows 8-based touch devices was very wide, which, given a wide variety of high quality apps, would usually mean that something would stick.  The problem is, few really know the true state of Metro-based touch apps, including most PC and chip makers.

Ecosystem Losing Confidence in Metro Application Delivery Timing

Nearly ten months ago, Microsoft held its BUILD conference for Windows 8 software and hardware ecosystem partners.  Microsoft also launched their development platform for Windows 8, called Visual Studio 11.  Every attendee went home with a robust Samsung developer tablet and keyboard with Visual Studio Express Beta, intended to spur development of Metro-based applications.  As of April 2012, six months later, 99 applications were available.  As I outlined here, this was way behind where Apple was but far ahead of where Android was.

So where does that leave the state of Metro apps?  Microsoft is now seven weeks away from launch and virtually no one has much of a sense for how many compelling Metro apps will be available at launch.  Here were some key milestones that Microsoft has anounced:

  • April 18, announces developer submission locales from 5 to 38 markets, but limited to select partners; app catalog at 21 markets
  • May 31, “hundreds of preview apps in the catalog-including the first desktop app listings”; app catalog increases to 25 markets; Share contract added
  • July 20, Microsoft outlines how to monetize and get paid for apps
  • August 1, RTM Windows store opens; “qualifying businesses can submit apps”; 54 new markets and 24 app languages added

As of today with my version of Windoes RTM, I can only see 844 Desktop + Metro apps in the Windows 8 store.  I do not see most of my favorite apps, including Facebook, Path, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon Video, HBO Go, ESPN Video, Time Warner Video, CNN, Flipboard, Pulse, Nike Running, MyFitnessPal, Pandora, Flixter, or E*trade.  I am concerned and many ecosystem executives are telling me that they are very concerned with the state of Metro-based applications.  Should we really care about how many Metro applications will be available at launch given Windows 8 is a five year investment?

Why Should We Care About Apps at Launch?

Having microscopically observed and participated in the launch of the Motorola XOOM, HP TouchPad and the BlackBerry PlayBook, there were some common threads that led to their failed launches and quick retreat.  These issues included:

  1. Incomplete hardware: hardware features did not work or were not available, including SD cards, and LTE support.
  2. Incomplete paid content: lack of support for paid movies, music, games and books.
  3. Sluggish and buggy: experience was slower than expected and/or included many bugs
  4. Lack of high quality apps: few applications were available that consumers recognized or were compelling.  In some cases, basic apps were missing like calendar, mail and contacts.
  5. Priced at iPad: tablets even with issues above were priced on top of the iPad, an already known and successful product with a great consumer brand

Many of these issues were addressed shortly after launch, but it didn’t make a difference.  The damage was done and in most cases, irreparable.  What developer wants to write apps for an ecosystem or platform that just got slaughtered by the press, analysts and consumers?

What about post-launch? Some issues still exist even for 10″ Android tablets.  Android 10″ tablets have come a long way with ICS, Jelly Bean and paid content, but still suffer from a lack of high quality apps, which still number in the 100’s.  Remember, part of the the success of the Google Nexus is that it leverages the Android phone applications, not those designed for tablets. And, let’s not forget it is priced at half of the iPad. I believe Windows 8 will launch with #1 complete hardware via PC makers, #2 paid content via XBOX Live, Netflix and Kindle and so far it looks that even #3 Windows RT will have acceptable performance.  As for #4 and #5, well no one know yet and if we can learn anything from Android tablets, a robust supply of touch-based applications are required for success, which eludes them almost 2 years later.

I’ll say it again…… innovative consumer hardware for touch-based products is meaningless without thousands of high quality, compelling and popular apps.

Apple vs. Samsung: What Doesn’t Compute

I’m not a lawyer, but I am an analyst who unfortunately has participated in some of the largest corporate legal battles, has two immediate family members who are IP lawyers, and has had to decide on industrial design for consumer electronics. None of this qualifies me to give legal advice, but I am able to spot some very interesting things in technology lawsuits.  The Apple-Samsung lawsuit was no different, as it was full of opportunity and oddities, and I wanted to share just a few observations.

The first thing I want to be clear on is that it is apparent to me that based upon the evidence and common sense, I believe Samsung infringed on at least few of Apple’s patents.  Just looking at the Samsung phones before and after and hearing about the need to be like Apple was enough for anyone would to arrive at that conclusion that some phones were made to look like Apple’s.  What I am not saying here is that I agree with everything that the jury came back with either; I don’t.  I am not a lawyer and I did not see every shred of evidence that the jurors saw.

With that off my chest, let’s dive into some of these things that I found unique or odd about the trial.

I’ve Seen That “Aligned Grid” Before

Two of the patents under scrutiny dealt with the way iOS icons are set in a grid with a lower bar situated at the bottom for apps.  Specifically, these were patents USD604,305 and US 3,470,983.  It was funny, the first thing I thought of was my Windows desktop where I have icons aligned in a gird with my most used icons pinned to my taskbar.  I remember old versions of Windows where it would “Align to Grid”, too.  So really, what is so unique or special about this patent?  Is it the fact that I am using it on a PC and the patent is on a phone?  I find this one odd.

iPhone Icons Aligned to Grid With Dock
Windows Icons Aligned to Grid With Dock

I’ve Seen That “Pinch and Zoom” Before

I remember getting an early preview of Microsoft’s original Surface table, now called PixelSense.  It could recognize over 50 simultaneous touch points as it was designed for more than one person and entire hands.  One of Surface’s special features was to pinch and zoom in on photographs…. almost exactly like the iPhone.  Apple’s two finger pinch and zoom is covered under US 7,844,915. I am certain that Microsoft and Apple are dealing with this in one way or another behind closed doors, and I speculate that based upon Microsoft Research budget and amount of years they had been working on Surface, they have the upper hand.  Remember, Apple was not the juggernaut it is today with more cash and market cap than anyone, therefore putting Microsoft in a better position to patent pinch and zoom.

surface picture
Microsoft Surface (2007)

I’ve Seen Those Curves Before

One of the other key patents Apple was fighting in court was related to the rounded corners. Apple had two design patents related to the corners.  The two patents, USD504,889 and USD593,087 were both patents related to many physical elements combined, including rounded corners.  Those curves are specifically 90 degree curves related to the same curvature in Apple’s legacy icons which date back over 20 years.  I ask, does it make sense that someone can patent a curve?  It does to the USPO, but in other designs like cars, you see related curves all the time, yes?  I mean, really, do curves seem like something that is patentable?  On the top is the Compaq T1100 sold in 2003 and on the bottom is Apple’s patent filed in 2004.

Compaq TC1100 (2003)
apple 504889
Apple USD504,889 (2004)
apple 504
Apple USD504,889 (2004)


Would You Confuse an Apple and Samsung Phone?

One very prominent scene inside the courtroom was when Apple icon designer Susan Kare testified even she confused the Galaxy for the iPhone.  I’ll give Mrs. Kare the benefit of the doubt, as maybe she was just looking at the icons, but I doubt anyone else on earth would confuse the two phones.  Every Galaxy S has a “SAMSUNG” and “AT&T” logo on the front of the phone and you certainly wouldn’t make the mistake of buying the wrong phone as the carton is clearly labeled Samsung.  So if consumers wouldn’t confuse the two and wouldn’t mistakenly buy the wrong phone, how damaging is the similarity, really?  Have you ever heard even a rumor of someone mistakenly buying a Samsung phone and thought it was an iPhone?  If you have, please let me know in the comments below.


s2 packaging    samsung s2


iphone 3gs packaging iphone 3gs


So What?

So I have brought up some possible inconsistencies or “horse sense” that may go against what the jury said and potentially even against patent law, so what?  I think if we cannot look at ourselves in the mirror, be honest with each other on what violates a patent or if there even is a patent to violate, the U.S. patent system itself will lose credibility and is doomed.  If reasonable intelligent people can’t even make sense of it, then what does that say about the problems we will face in a few years as companies become even more litigious as they file patent after patent just so they don’t get burned down the road?  I hope more good than harm comes out of this patent spat.  The big picture is really about continued innovation.  We should all pay heed to what Ben said so well yesterday“The key to the future will be to seek out new opportunities with fresh thinking and innovative ideas. To those that think innovation is dead I pose this question: Have all the problems of the present and the future been solved? Until the answer is yes, there will always be room for innovation.” Let’s not let the patent system stifle that innovation and let’s use some common sense as we approach it.

Why do Products like the Google Nexus Q Launch?

At Google’s I/O developer conference in June, Google boldly announced the Nexus Q, a $299 streaming music sphere.  Last week, Google stopped selling the Nexus Q and cancelled all consumer pre-orders, saying buyers would get the unit for free.  It appeared obvious to just about everyone except Google that the Nexus Q value proposition was incredibly weak.  So how does one of the most powerful companies in the world allow a product so obviously not ready get to market?  It happens for many reasons and more often than you might think.  I’d like to characterize the many reasons products like this make it this far as I experienced it through my 20 years of product management and product marketing.

The Google Nexus Q Value Proposition

While I detail out the Nexus Q value proposition here, let me provide a small sample.  For $299, consumers get a cool looking black sphere for music and video streaming that can only pull content from the Google Play cloud.  To control it, you must have an Android phone or tablet, and if your friends want to add tracks to the music list they must have an Android device. The Q also came with a high quality, built-in amp and speaker jacks.  Net-net, it was $200 or 3X more than an Apple TV or Roku device if you are looking at it as a content streamer.  If you are audiophile, you will be comparing it to a Sonos, which while comparatively priced, can also stream from multiple cloud services, and be controlled by iOS and Android devices.

The press gave it the expected response.

The Press Reaction

The press reaction was brutal.   The best way to show just how bad it was is with the headlines:

Google I/O was a smashing success.  They launched a great Nexus 7 tablet with Project Butter and Google Now, some cool social and search features, and who will ever forget the Google Glass demo?  Google didn’t need to launch the Q to have what I would characterize as one of the more perfect developer conferences.

So why and how exactly do products like the nexus Q make all the way through the ideation, planning, execution, and launch phase without someone putting the brakes on?  There are many ways and reasons this happens that I outline below, and product managers need to pay heed to all of these potential pitfalls.  I am generically speaking about products, not specifically about the Nexus Q.

Don’t Solicit Outside Opinions

Some companies don’t solicit outside opinion by design.  Outside opinions can be via market research, consultants, tech analysts, etc.  The project is so secret that they put the team members in another building with limited access and have them sign NDAs.  This is done, obviously for security, and there are hundreds of examples of this that the industry finds out about after the fact.  This week in the Apple-Samsung trial, we all heard that the iPhone development was treated like this.  This secret method obviously works well for Apple and a handful of companies, but for other companies, not so great. Some other companies don’t solicit outside input because they just don’t see value in it.  Some say it’s too time consuming or too expensive.  That’s just code for “I don’t see the value”.  They figure they are the experts, have all the answers, and any outside inputs could lead to having the project derailed.

Living in an Alternate Universe

Sometimes, companies will solicit external input on a concept or product but don’t listen to the advice or heed it.  Many times you will hear the phrase, “well that’s only one piece of input we’ll incorporate.”  This usually means the outside input won’t be used or even heeded, because, quite frankly, the company “knows” more than the outsider giving the input.  Or so they think.  These kind of folks get outside input because the rule book says they needed to get it and once they did, it becomes a filled-in check box versus valued input.  The product planner may believe the input, but just not heed the outcome.  The end result is the same as not soliciting input.

Underestimating the Downstream Impact

Many times, a product will successfully make it down the gate process only for the PM to be surprised down the line by a cost over-run or an internal team missing a delivery date.  This could very well have happened to the Nexus Q.  I can imagine the Q had a very long list of required features and nice to have features.  Judging by what launched, the “must-have” features didn’t even ship.  I can see just a few features that could have been added to make the Q the must-have party device.  What happened next was where the damage was done.  So what is a product leader’s reaction if their product is hit with a significant cost overrun or schedule slip?  In the case of the Q, the impact was most likely minimized.  Look at many Google products that get sent out as “Beta” at Google.  Most of them do.  Google News and Shopping were betas for years and cost the consumer nothing but time to use.  The difference is that the Nexus Q was $299 and it was more like Alpha stage if you gauge on feature completeness.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

When I have been privy to post-mortems of train-wreck projects, many times it comes down to a lack of leadership.  The entire team had a decent vision, knew the customer and what they wanted, solicited external input, listened to it, and knew the downstream impacts of issues that existed if they trudged forward.  But the leader in charge felt they had to meet the date at all costs or didn’t listen to the team members.  The leader made a commitment to someone, whether it be to their VP, SVP or board of directors to deliver something by a certain date and they were going to do it come “hell or high water”.   Leaders are trained to listen, be decisive and stick to their guns, sometimes at big costs.

What’s Next for the Nexus Q?

I believe the team managing the Nexus Q had a deadline to hit with Google I/O , they got in over their heads on features and just couldn’t deliver.  And no one stopped the project.  The Nexus Q name and Google brand has been damaged, but I think it’s recoverable.  To maintain the Nexus Q price, Google will need to add a ton of features.  I am envisioning the “ultimate party device” where everyone who comes to the party can play videos, music and games from their own device and the cloud.  I can also see “party mode” where every picture, video clip, and social media post  taken at the party is shown on a large HDTV. If something like that is a bridge too far, then Google will need to pull the price lever.  The BOM cost cannot be over a $100 with the built-in 25W amp, so they have a lot to work with.   Whatever Google does, they need to make some decisive moves if they hope to be successful with living room devices.

How Android Raises the Experience Bar with Nexus 7

As a technology insider who has actually planned, developed, and launched products, I have always believed it was important to spend inordinate amount of time living with new and emerging technology products.  Only this way, can you get the “feel” of a product; where it is and where the category is headed.  With regards to Android tablets, I have lived with every version of operating system since inception on 10” and 7” tablets. For every Android tablet version, I added every single personal and business account and used it as I would expect general and advanced users to use it.  While I had experienced some very positive things about each Android tablet version, whenever I held it to the iPad, it just didn’t compare.  Either my preferred apps weren’t available, the content I wanted was missing, or it just didn’t “feel” right.  After using the Google Nexus 7 for a few days, I can say the experience is solid and a lot of fun, something I have never before said about an Android tablet.

Why Non-iPads didn’t Sell Well

We must first understand Google’s previous missteps with Android tablets to fully appreciate how far they have come with the Nexus 7.  While I penned this post a year ago outlining why Android tablets weren’t selling well, let me net it out for you.  Non-iPads haven’t sold well over the last year because:

  • tablets were sold with incomplete collections or no available movies, music, TV, books, and games
  • tablets were sold with minimal applications optimized for the platform
  • tablets were released with unusable features like LTE, SD cards, and USB ports
  • tablets didn’t “feel’ good as there were stutters and sputters
  • with all the issues above, most 10” tablets were sold at the same price as the iPad

Think about the horrible stories consumers who paid full price for an HP Touchpad, Motorola Xoom, or BlackBerry PlayBook tell their friends and colleagues today.  Given tablets are a new category and still a “considered” purchase, everything other than the iPad was considered risky, particularly for the non-techie consumer.

So why will the outcome for the Nexus 7 be any different? Well, it’s all about its integrated and holistic experience.

Nexus 7 is a Big Phone with Access to 600,000 Phone Apps

No one doubts that Google’s Android has been successful in smartphones.  They’ve been so good, in fact, that Android even eclipses iOS in market share.  This is why it’s so important to understand the implications of Google choosing the phone metaphor for the Nexus 7 as its it’s all about apps.  Even today, Android tablets apps are counted in the hundreds and iPad tablet apps are in the hundreds of thousands.  Apps and content are to tablets as roads are to a car, and consumers have access to at least 600,000 of these Android apps.  It’s not only about leveraging the phone app ecosystem as the HTC Flyer were phone-based 7” tablets and didn’t exactly set the world on fire in sales.

Nexus 7 Uses State of the Art Hardware and Software

I liked my Kindle Fire when I first got it, but in reality, I was most impressed with the price versus the iPad than the experience. Over time, my Kindle just sat in my drawer at home and I used my iPad 2 then the iPad 3.  I stopped using my Kindle because the web and mail experience were just so pathetically slow, and quite frankly I got tired of staring at pixels as I am very near-sighted.  I attribute this to the cheaper hardware, a much older Android 2.3, a slow browser for complex sites, and a lower resolution display.  I must reinforce, though, it was at less than half the price of the iPad 2 when it shipped and millions looked the other way as they were just happy to have a tablet.

The Nexus 7 uses state of the art hardware and software and at least for 6 months, buyers won’t have too many levels of remorse. The two main drivers of the experience are Android Jelly Bean and the NVIDIA’s Tegra 3. Jelly Bean, the latest Android OS, adds a tremendous amount of new features but, in short, enable:

  • Project Butter which doubles the UI speed to 60fps so Android finally feels responsive
  • fully customizable widgets at any size the user chooses
  • voice search and dictation that actually works, as Google moved much of the logic and dictionary back to the client and off of the cloud
  • fully customizable notifications, to see just what you want to see and very little of what you don’t want to see
  • Google Now, their first intelligent agent

The NVIDIA Tegra 3 SOC is just as impressive as it has:

  • quad core processor clocked at 1.3Ghz which speeds up tabbed browsing, background tasks, widgets, task switching, multitasking, installing apps, etc.
  • 5th battery saver core which operates in idle mode, which saves battery life
  • GeForce graphics with 12 cores clocked at 416MHz to play the highest-end Android games and HD video

When you add these features to the 7”, 1280×800 (216 PPI) display, you get a very solid experience that just “feels” good.

It’s All About the Experience

As the rest of the phone and tablet industry has painfully learned from Apple, it is about the delivering the holistic and integrated experience between software and hardware, not the ingredients that make it up.  The Nexus does deliver a good, holistic experience, and not just at a certain price point.  While what defines as “good experiences” are very personal, here are many of the experience points I believe will be universally appreciated:

  • light enough to comfortably hold in one hand and small enough to put in a coat, cargo pant pocket or purse
  • the UI “feels” fluid and very fast
  • cannot see any pixels which can distract from the visual experience, particularly when using in bed or with near-sighted users who hold the tablet near their face
  • the tabbed browsing is very fast, focuses well on desktop-sized sites, and bookmarks sync with desktop Chrome
  • the apps and content users want will be available, at least in most countries
  • email is full-featured and very fast, with no lag to delete, create, or linking to web sites
  • notifications are subtle, non-invasive, and speedy to resolve
  • live tiles are fully customizable and save time to see content, even eliminating the need in many cases to open an app like email or calendar
  • with multiple apps running in the background with data feeds updating, it still feels smooth

The holistic experience is greater than just the sum of its piece parts, a first for Android tablets.

Nexus 7 Significantly Raises the Android Tablet Experience

As Ben Bajarin pointed out here, usage models will differ between 7” and 10” tablets. One thing I must add is that like the Fire, the Nexus 7 will pull some potential sales away from the iPad if Apple does nothing.  This is an element that many fail to recognize.  The analogy I will use to show this is between sedans and minivans.  If minivans had never been introduced, sedans would have sold more.  In parallel, without a Nexus 7, Apple would sell more iPads, even if they aren’t the same exact usage models or price points.

Will Apple roll over and let Google and Android slow down its march toward digital dominance?  Probably not, as I do expect Apple to introduce a 7” tablet for many reasons and also as Apple laid out at WWDC, iOS 6 is very compelling, especially when connected with other Apple devices.  Today, the broad tech ecosystem and investors see Apple as invincible, understandable as they have plowed over many of the largest companies in tech.  If Google and Android start to gain credibility in the tablet space, what message will that send about invincibility?  Apple needs to stop Google in their tracks and remove all of the oxygen during the holidays to maintain its dominant status.

One thing for certain is that the Nexus 7 and Jelly Bean significantly raise the bar for the Android tablet experience, something that has been absent for 18 months.

Human-Computer Interface Transitions will Continue to Drive Market Changes

As a former executive and product manager for end consumer products and technologies, I have planned and conducted extensive primary research on Human-Computer Interfaces (HCI) or Human Machine Interface (HMI). A lot of this research was for the industrial design of consumer products and their mice, keyboards, and even buttons. I conducted other research for software and web properties, too. Research was one input that was mixed with gut instinct and experience which led to final decisions, and in those times and companies for which I worked, were #1 in their markets. Only recently have innovations in HCI come to the forefront of the discussion as the iPhone, iPad and XBOX Kinect have led in HCI and in market leadership. I believe there is a connection between HCI and market leadership which needs more exploration.

For years, the keyboard and mouse dominated in HCI. For the previous deskbound compute paradigm, the keyboard was the best way to input text and perform certain shortcuts. The mouse was the best way to open programs, files and also move objects around the desktop. This metaphor even impacted phones. Early texting was done on 12 keys where users either forced it with one, two, or three strikes of a key to represent a different letter which was then improved with T9 text prediction. Thankfully, Blackberry popularized the QWERTY phone keyboard for much improved texting and of course, mobile email. Nokia smartphones then popularized the “joystick”, which served as a mini omni-directional pointer, once the industry shifted to an iconic, smartphone metaphor.

Then Apple changed everything with the iPhone. They both scrapped the physical keyboard and the physical pointer and replaced it with the finger. We can debate all day long if it were the capacitive touch screen, the app ecosystem, or something else that drove Apple to its successful heights, but we can all agree that Apple needed both to make a winner. Just use on of those $99 tablets with a resistive touch screen and you will know what I’m talking about.

The touchpad has gone through many noticeable changes as well. Remember when every notebook had a touchpad and two, sometimes three buttons? Now look at Dell’s XPS 13, the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. We are now looking at a world with giant trackpads that can recognize the multitudes of gestures with minimal effort.

Then Microsoft changed the game with the XBOX Kinect. Interestingly enough, like Apple, Microsoft eliminated physical peripherals and replaced with a body part or multiple body parts. Nintendo reinvented gaming with the Wii and its bevvy of physical controllers, and then Microsoft removed them and replaced them with major limbs of the body. In the future, Microsoft could remove the gaming headset microphone, too, once Kinect can differentiate between and separate different player’s voices.

Voice is of course one of the most recent battlegrounds. Microsoft has shipped voice command, control and dictation standard with Windows PC for nearly a decade but has never become mainstream. They do provide a very good “small dictionary” experience on the XBOX Kinect, though. Apple has Siri, of course, and Google has Voice. Microsoft may look like the laggard here based upon what they’ve produced on PCs and phones, but I am not counting them out. They have mountains of IP on voice and I wouldn’t doubt it if the industry ends up paying them a toll for many voice controlled system in a similar way OEMs are paying Microsoft every time they ship Android. This is just one reason Apple licenses Nuance for the front-end of Siri.

We are far from done with physical touch innovations. Just look at Windows 8 notebooks. Windows 8 notebooks are experiencing a dramatic shift, too, with their multiple gestures using multiple fingers. Just look at all the innovations Synaptics is driving for Windows 8. Their Gesture Suite for Windows 8 “modern touchpads” adds supports for the eight core gesture interactions introduced with Windows 8 touch, specifically supporting the new edge swipes to navigate the fundamentals of Windows 8 Metro experience. Interestingly, with the addition of all of the Windows 8 gestures on the trackpad, for certain usage models, the external mouse actually starts to get in the way of the experience. I can see as touch displays and advanced touchpads become commonplace, this could eliminate the need for a mouse. This would be interesting as in previous HCI shifts, it resulted in the elimination of a physical device to improve the experience.

The long-term future holds many, many innovations, too. I attended this year’s annual SIGCHI Conference in Austin, TX, which I like to describe as the “SIGGRAPH for HCI” and it is truly amazing what our future holds. Multiple companies and universities are working on virtual keyboards, near field air touch using stereopsis (2+ cameras), improved audio beam forming for better far-field and a bevy of other HCI techniques that you have to see to believe.

What can we take away from all of this? One very important takeaway here is to realize that those companies I cited who led with major HCI changes ended up leading in their associated market spaces. This was true for Blackberry and Nokia during their haydays, and now it is Apple, Microsoft and maybe Google’s turn. It doesn’t always stand true, though in commercial markets, but in many cases, stands true for consumer companies. Just look at SAP. In the future, it is important to keep your eyes on companies investing heavily in HCI technologies; companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, and innovators and enablers like Synaptics who I believe will continue to surprise us with advanced HCI techniques which will lead to market shifts.

Are Wearables the Next Wave of Computing?

Two weeks ago at Google I/O, Google thrust wearable computing into the mainstream, public eye by performing one of the most incredible stunts I had ever seen on the technology stage.  Wearing Google Glass and communicating via real-time voice and video, daredevils jumped out of a blimp, landed on the Moscone Center roof, rappelled down its side and biked into Google I/O to throngs of cheering participants.  Is wearable computing great for “show” but making no sense in reality, or is this technology truly the future of computing?

We need to first define wearable computing.  This may appear simple in that it’s “computing you can wear”, but it’s a bit more complicated than that as I have seen some very confused news articles on it.  Let’s start with what they aren’t.  Wearables are not computing devices that are implanted into the body.  This may appear at first glance to be an odd thing to even discuss, but over the next ten years there will be very many compute devices implanted to help people with their medical ailments to help with sight, hearing, and drug dispensing.  Related to this, wearables are not implanted into prosthetic limbs either.  Wearables are compute devices embedded into items attached to the body.  Some are hidden, some are visible.  Some are specific compute devices; others are embedded into something we view today as something totally different like glasses, contact lenses, clothing, watches and even jewelry.

So now we know what wearable computers are, let’s look at the current challenges making them more than a niche today.  For all wearables, input and output are the biggest issues today that keep them from being useful or inexpensive.  Today, keyboards and pointing devices (fingers included) are the most prevalent input methods for today’s computer devices.  Useful voice control is new and gaining popularity, but isn’t nearly as popular as keyboard, mouse, and touch.  For wearable input to become popular, voice command, control, and dictation will need to be greatly improved.  This has begun already with Apple Siri and Google Voice, but will need to be improved by factors of ten to use it as a primary input method.  Ironically, improvements in wearable output will help with help with input.  Let me explain.  Picture the Google Glass display that will be built into the glasses.  Because it knows where you are looking by using pupil tracking, it will know even better what you are looking at which adds context to your command.  The final input method in research right now is BCI, or brain control interface.  The medical field is investing heavily in this, primarily as a way to give quadriplegics and brain-injured a fuller life.

Output for wearables will be primarily auditory, but of course, displays will also provide us the information we want and need. Consumers will be able to pick the voice and personality as easy as they get ring-tones.  Music stars and even cartoon character “agent voices” will be for sale and downloadable like an app is today.  Some users will opt for today’s style earphones, but others will opt for the newer technology that fits directly into the ear canal like a mini-hearing aid, virtually unnoticeable to the naked eye.

Display output is the most industry-confused part of the wearable equation.  The industry is confused on this because they are not thinking beyond today’s odd-looking Google Glass’s glasses form factor.  Over time, this display technology will be integrated as an option into your favorite’s brand of designer glasses. You will not be able to tell what are regular glasses and ones used for wearables.  Contact lenses are being reworked as well.  Prototypes already exist for contact lenses that work as displays, so like all emerging tech, will make it into the mainstream over time.  The final, yet most important aspect to the wearable display is that every display within viewing distance will be a display.  Based on advancements in wireless display technology and the prevalence of displays everywhere, your wearable will display data in your car, your office, the bathroom mirror, your TV, your refrigerator…… pretty much everywhere.

So if the input-output problem is fixed, does this mean wearables will be an instant success?  No, it does not.  Here, we need to talk about the incremental value it brings versus the alternatives, primarily smartphones.   Smartphones may actually morph into wearables, but for the sake of this analysis, it helps to keep them separate.  On the plus side, wearables will be almost invisible, lighter, more durable, and even more accurate for input when combined with integrated visual output.  New usage models will emerge, too, like driving assistance.  Imagine the future of turn-by-turn directions with your heads-up-display integrated into your Ray Ban Wayfarers. On the negative side, wearables will be more expensive, have less battery life, less compute performance and storage, and almost unusable if a display isn’t available all the time.  This is a very simplified view of the variables that consumers will be looking look at as they make trade-offs, but these same elements will be researched in-depth over many, many years.

So are wearables the next wave of computing?  The short answer is yes but the more difficult question is when and how pervasive.  I believe wearables will evolve quicker than the 30 years it took cellphones to become pervasive.  The new usage models for driving, sports, games and video entertainment will dictate just how quickly this will evolve.  I believe as technology has fully “appified” and Moore’s law will still be driving silicon densities, wearables will be mainstream in 7-10 years.

Google Nexus Q: A Confused Product

Wednesday, Google kicked off their annual developers conference in San Francisco.  Dubbed Google I/O, the conference is targeted at developers in the Google ecosystem.  It is meant to woo them so that they keep developing for the ecosystem and if Google had their way, leave the Apple and Microsoft ecosystems.  Many positive things came out of I/O including the Nexus 7 tablet and a spectacular demonstration of emerging technology with Google Glass.  Technology aside, I have never seen such an awesome demonstration like this that went from blimp to rooftop to rappelling to BMX bikes, and all in about five minutes.  That will be talked about in the valley for a while and I pity the next major company who does an announcement as it will be compared to Glass.

All was not good, though at Google I/O.  Amidst all the successful rollouts of products, technologies, and advanced prototype demonstrations was one of the most confusingly-positioned products I have seen in a while.  The Google Nexus Q is a real head-scratcher as it isn’t positioned well against anything that will be looked at as a competitor.  Bad positioning never ends well, as it typically results in deep price cuts or discontinuation, and that is exactly where I see the Nexus Q headed.

The current state of living room electronics has segmented Smart TVs, set top boxes, OTT adapters, and game consoles.  Sure there are gray areas and overlaps, but that’s how consumers segment them today in their heads.  The Nexus Q and Apple TV are examples of OTT (Over the Top) Adapters that take digital content from the cloud or from local devices.  So if the Nexus Q is an OTT Adapter, how well is it positioned?

Compared to the Apple TV, the Nexus Q does less and priced at $299 is three times more expensive.  That’s not very good positioning.  Both products can take content from the cloud, but the Apple TV can play almost anything from an iOS device, including games.  The Q does have an amp so you can directly plug speakers into the device.  Is that worth the extra $200?  No it is not.

Compared to the $199 XBOX 360 S, the situation gets even worse.  Today’s 360 does nearly everything the S can plus plays thousands of the top games.  According to market data of media sales, the XBOX 360 is a formidable media hub with users buying huge amounts of movies.  Users can also play content from their mobile devices if they are “PlayTo” certified or support the latest DLNA standards.

Compared to Sonos, the price gets within range, but here is where Google lacks experience, a fully segmented line-up, cross-compatibility, a brand, and mass distribution.  Sonos is the gold standard today for distributed digital audio in the home.  Sonos supports the Android, iOS, and Amazon ecosystems, not just Android like the Q.  Sonos also offers a full line of bridges, speakers, amplifiers, and OTT adapters.  The Q offers one adapter and one set of speakers.  But the Nexus Q does have lights that glow around the ball like disco lights…..

I am not down on Google or Google I/O, I am frustrated that Google blew an incredible opportunity to have a flawless Google I/O.  The industry needs a new champion and Google had a shot a proving they were the one.  Instead, Google reinforced that nagging description of not getting the end user or buyer.  So for now, Apple keeps that title and over time as the Nexus Q reduces in price and gets discontinued, Google will get another shot next year.

Why Apple is Wrong About Convertibles

On Apple’s last earnings call, CEO Tim Cook responded to a question on Windows 8 convertibles by saying, “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those aren’t going to be pleasing to the user.” At first glance, this makes total sense, and from the company that brought us iPod, iPhone and iPad, this has wisdom. But as we peel back the onion and dig deeper, I do not believe Apple is correct in their assessment. As I wrote here, I have long-believed that convertibles would be popular in 2013 and I still believe convertibles will be a thriving future market, albeit not as large as notebooks or tablets.

Mashups between two devices are rarely successful, particularly in mature markets like PCs. I have researched, planned and delivered 100’s of products in my career, and very rarely have I seen two purpose-built products combined to create something real good. The problem becomes that by combining two products, the result becomes good for no one. The primary reason this becomes the case is that you have to make tradeoffs to make the combined product. By combining most products, you are sub-optimizing the separate product and what they uniquely deliver to their target markets. Convertibles have that possibility, but if designed appropriately as I outlined previously, this won’t happen.

Cars give us a few examples to work from. As the car industry matures, we see more and more specialization. There are now sedans, coupes, mini-vans, SUVs, mini-sedans, sports cars, trucks, truck-hybrids, etc. Specialization is the sure sign of a mature market as consumer’s tastes have gotten to a point where they know exactly what they want and the industry can profitably support the proliferation of models. Industry support is a very important in the industry must be able to afford all this proliferation. The auto industry supports this through common parts that are shared like chassis, engines, and electronics.

What does this have to do with convertibles? Ask yourself this question: If my SUV could perform like a Cayman Porsche, would I like it? Of course you would; it is called a Porsche Cayenne. The problem is, you could pay up to $100,000 for it. Want your sedan to drive like a Cayman? Just get a Porsche Panamera. The problem, again, is that is around $95,000. The expense isn’t just about the brand. Porsche invested real R&D and provides the expensive technology to make these “convertibles” perform well.

There are similarities and differences between the Porsche Panamera and Windows 8 convertibles:

  • Price: Buyers will only need to spend an extra $100-200 more than a tablet to get a convertible. Many will make that choice to have the best of both worlds. The average U.S. car is around $33,000 while the Panamera is around $100,000, three times the average. One argument Apple could have is that if future, full-featured tablets become $299, the added price could be too much to pay for the added convertible functionality.
  • Low “Sacrifice Differential”: This is Apple’s strongest point, as in many mashups, combining two products results in something that isn’t good for any usage model. “Fixed” designs will need to be less than 13mm thick and the “flexible” designs (ie Transformer Prime) need to be less than 18mm thick with keyboard. Otherwise, the convertibles will be too thick to serve as a decent tablet at 13mm or thicker than an Ultrabook over 18mm.
  • Transformation capabilities: Convertible form factors like the Transformer Prime can convert into a “notebook” with an add-on peripheral, but cars cannot. I wish there were a 30-second add on kit that could turn my Yukon into a 911 Porsche but there isn’t. Related to PC convertibles, if you have ever used the Asus Transformer Prime, you know what I am talking about. It is one of the thinnest tablets, and when paired with its keyboard, is only 19mm thick. One of the great features of the Prime is that the keyboard provides an extra 40-50% battery life boost that actually adds utility. Windows 8 for the first time supports the lean-forward and lean-back usage models. As a tablet, the users uses it with Metro. As a “notebook” clamshell form factor, the users can use Metro and then use Windows 8 Desktop with the trackpad and keyboard. This has never existed before and Apple doesn’t have this capability in iOS or OSX.
I do believe that convertibles ultimately will have space in the market as they serve to eliminate, for some users and usage models, redundancy of having two devices. OEMs must be particularly careful in how thick they make them. The original iPad was around 10mm and that was pushing some of the boundaries, particularly with reading books. The thicker the designs, the less desriable they become as they will not make a very good tablet. Flexible designs like today’s Asus Transformer Prime, when connected with Windows 8, could be a lethal market combination as it combines a thin tablet and a keyboard when you want it. Gauging by how much shelf-space is devoted to iPad keyboards, I must conclude that consumers are snatching these up in high volume.
I believe Apple is wrong about convertibles, but on the positive side, Apple’s warning gave the entire industry pause for thought. Interestingly, it provided the opposite effect of what I believe Apple intended, which was to freeze the market. Instead, it indicated that Apple was not going to do it, which motivated more OEMs to build, given they wouldn’t have to worry about Apple. While the volumes for convertibles won’t be as large as tablets or notebooks, I do believe they have a place in the market in the mid-term.