Nokia’s tough acts to follow

The past few weeks have been an incredible time for smartphones. Apple launched its iPhone 4S, sticking with its successful iPhone 4 design and repeating a play that the company used before when it launched the 3GS as a follow-up to the 3G. The move bespoke a confidence in its approach, focusing efforts on where the company thinks it matters while resisting temptations such as a larger display or LTE.

And if the introduction of the iPhone 4S was classically Apple, what happened the following week was classically Android. Within 24 hours, two Android licensees announced bleeding-edged phones. The Motorola Droid RAZR packed LTE into a .71 mm splashproof, Kevlar-coated, stainless steel-supported profile. And the other side of the globe, Google and Samsung teamed up to reveal the first Ice Cream Sandwich phone, boating a 4.65” AMOLED display, NFC to enable Android Beam, and face recognition-based unlocking. Both handsets are headed toward Verizon, the high-end Android cup of which seems like it will overflow this holiday season.

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Why RIM needs the impact of a Siri

Some recognized that HP’s decision to exit the handset market was a small boost for RIM, Not only was HP thought to be more aggressive in going after RIM’s enterprise customers with a vertically integrated offering, but the scuttling of the Pre 3 left the Torch as one of the few vertical sliders in the market.

However, separate from the recent BlackBerry network outage that we’ve seen before, there’s at least two reasons for the lack of enthusiasm around  the company. The first is the challenge in getting people excited about its latest developments in BlackBerry 7. RIM has focused on finally tackling the BlackBerry’s generally lagging animation and greatly accelerated its browser. They were likely the moves that would have yielded the best return on effort and RIM has been effective on both fronts, but these are catch-up maneuvers.

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Droid 3: First Impressions

The first Motorola Droid set off a wave of high-end Android handsets that came in rapid succession as Verizon rolled out the red carpet for the Google-backed operating system. It had a strong specification sheet but its slide-out keyboard was a disappointing tactile experience as Motorola sought to keep the device relatively slim. The Droid 2 improved the keyboard, but it still wasn’t great.

The Droid 3 is a big step forward. Not only does the keyboard offer a vastly improved typing experience including a luxurious number row, but the screen has been expanded to four inches, which I believe is the “sweet spot” for a touchscreen handset (although requires a little adjusting to after using the Samsung Infuse extensively for a while. Consistent with reviews of the Atrix 4G, the user interface is silky smooth and Motorola includes a 3Dish animation effect (swiping in a concave manner as opposed to HTC Sense’s convex one).

The bottom lipped industrial design is more akin to the stacked slabs I preferred on the original Droid as opposed to the curving slope on the Droid 2, but the bottom slab is now at a diagonal. Critics angered that Motorola switched the button order between the original Droid and Droid 2 will likely be glad to know that Motorola has kept the Droid 2 button order intact. Motorola has even improved the on-off button, which I sometimes found difficult to trigger on earlier Droids; the Droid 3 blanks out with a cute CRT-like power down animation. The case is a much more pleasant soft-touch texture than the Droid 2’s rubbery back. And finally, the whole package, while a bit imposing in the hand, is a bit thinner than the Droid 2.

I tried Google Navigation on it last night and it worked great on the trip out although took a while to pick up signal coming back when it was admittedly a bit cloudier. In the next few days, I’ll be trying out the Droid 3’s full HD camcorder complementing its 8 MP still capabilities. I’m not as much of a fan of Motorola’s visual style in general versus some of its Android competitors. (The browser icon is terrible.) However, it makes good use of the device’s high-resolution (QHD, 960 X 540) display and text, while small, is easy to read. Alas, it is a 3G-only device. Overall, though, it seems like a much bigger leap forward from the Droid 2 than the Droid 2 was from the original Droid, and without question the best QWERTY device in Verizon’s lineup.

Beginning to hear the light

I can now say that MusicLites, the networked speakers that think they’re light bulbs (because they are), put out some very nice audio (certainly suited for more than ambient soundtracks and better than other “whole home” systems I’ve tried) from an ingeniously discreet and fairly effective source location over your head. This is not too surprising given the audio was engineered by Artison, a high-end speaker manufacturer that would not want to compromise its brand in the name of audio novelty. While they are impressively small for quality speakers, though, the MusicLites are rather large for light bulbs. For example, each MusicLite speaker weighs about 1.75 lbs. Compare that to a compact florescent bulb that weighs about six ounces.

Before you jump in, know that MusicLites were designed for ceiling lighting wells (making them one of the rare high-tech products explicitly designed to get screwed in a recession). This isn’t to say that they won’t fit into other lamps and ceiling fixtures, but the first three fixtures I tried putting them into were all too small, and the helpful YouTube videos that Artison has put up regarding MusicLites note that even some recessed wells may have challenges accommodating MusicLites. The designers of many of these lighting products simply never anticipated anything like the product. The system has some other imitations, but as retrofits go, it seems to be a promising approach.

OnLive on everything

Following my recent post about the evolution of the amorphous iPod brand, this week provided a great opportunity to look at another brand with a potentially foretelling malleable moniker – OnLive. The company showed off its service running on the iPad and HTC Flyer. Support will come in two phases. The first will overlay touch controls onto the games, perhaps suitable for use with your Fling or ThinkGeek Joystick-It. And while that may be the more portable option, the better game experience will happen once OnLive enables its controllers to work with tablets.

To see OnLive branch out from the PC where its content largely originates, beyond the TV where many of its games would likely be ported, and to the tablet where many of its games might not be technically feasible, clearly improves the value of the service for OnLive’s game partners. But OnLive’s other recent announcement – that it would partner with Juniper Networks to host remote PC applications – demonstrates the true versatility of the service. If OnLive has been able to remotely deliver games with good performance, the interface of the average Windows app will be child’s play. The next stop on the world conquest tour would be apps delivered via set-top boxes to TVs, which would put OnLive on a collision course with ActiveVideo.

Seesmic sees BlackBerry later

Last week’s announcement that Seesmic would not discontinue support for its social network client for BlackBerry demonstrated the challenges that RIM has faced competing for developer attention. With iOS and Android far in the lead, Microsoft pushing hard for Windows Phone, and HP seeking to attract developers to as it evolves the webOS multi-device platform strategy, few developers have the resources to create quality omnipresent work, and something has to give.

The news was not as bleak as it seems on face value, though. First, Seesmic was competing against RIM’s own well-designed (as BlackBerry apps go these days) Twitter client. Second, third-party Twitter clients are in a precarious position on several mobile platforms. Apple, Microsoft and others are integrating Twitter into their mobile operating systems. And Twitter the corporate entity has scooped up TweetDeck, the most prominent competitor to the Seesmic software, following its previous acquisition of Tweetie, now the official Twitter client for Apple devices.

Nevertheless, while RIM has done what it can to smooth the road to the promising Playbook by supporting AIR and Android apps, it’s going to be a harder sell until a native BlackBerry tablet OS SDK is available and – more critically — until it can bring that QNX-based platform to its smartphones.

Seeking a more omnivorous Omni

When I wrote reviews for MacWEEK magazine in the mid-‘90s, some of my favorite productivity applications (not apps, thank you) included QuicKeys, Now Up-to-Date, PopupFolder,  PopChar, TypeIt4Me, FreeHand, TypeStyler, Typestry, ClarisImpact, ClarisWorks, Stacker, PageMill, SendExpress, SttuffIt (for which I paid the original shareware fee in person), Common Ground, Arrange and a number of utilities from Now Software, AlSoft and Connectix.

But perhaps the one that was my favorite was In Control by Attain. (A competitor, Fair Witness by also-defunct Chena Software, had more features, but for some reason  I liked In Control better.) In Control was a multi-columned outliner, kind of a cross between an outliner and a spreadsheet, and I found it an incredibly helpful tool for organizing a wide range of personal and professional projects.

For those exclusively on Apple platforms, OmniOutliner is the heir apparent to In Control and has taken the concept to the next level while preserving the elegance of that classic Mac program. Unfortunately for those who use multiple platforms,, the software – like other Omni Group products —  is staying on Apple platforms. Developer Ken Case cites his devotion to producing the best software possible as a justification for not moving onto other platforms, and yet the company has had great success with its iPad app, selling 100,000 copies in the first three weeks (which is particularly impressive given its $20 price tag, about the same as, for example, Pages and Numbers combined).

I find it hard to believe that Omni Group couldn’t scale up to produce high-quality software on multiple platforms. Apple, for example, has cited the excellent, cross-platform Evernote (not a bad modern-day substitute for Arrange) as an example of a product that has had great success in its Mac App Store.  Also, if Omni Group’s idea is to service Apple users, it should keep in mind that, increasingly, more of them – particularly iPad owners – are living in a cross-platform world. But it is certainly the company’s prerogative to stay on the Apple platform, which has rewarded it greatly for its support since the days it was one of a handful of NeXT developers.

So, my search continues for a cross-platform, cloud-synced alternative to OmniOutliner. It is the One Mac App I would most like to see on Android and particularly on Windows although I realize I probably won’t find anything as elegant or capable. (The One Windows App I would most like to see on the Mac is Live Writer.) I would certainly be elated to see multi-columned outlines supported as an Evernote note type.  Until then, suggestions via comments or Twitter are of course welcome.

The iPod brand comes full-circle

When Apple debuted its portable digital music player that would interact with iTunes, it named it iPod. This left many scratching their head iPod? Why not iSongs or iMusic, particularly since Apple was almost exclusively focused on that content at the iPod’s debut. Over time, though, Apple added support for more media types to the device, including photos, videos and games.

Years later, Apple introduced the iPhone, claiming that it was the best iPod it had ever produced. In fact, the app that played back music and videos was called “iPod” to play upon the familiarity with the blockbuster portable device. This always seemed a bit odd to me, though – assigning what had previously been a hardware brand to software. Indeed, the metaphor fell apart when Apple introduced the iPod touch, and renamed the “iPod” app Music to avoid recursion.

Now, a decade after the debut of the iPod, and as Apple may finally leave the iPod classic behind this fall, it’s all becoming almost completely logical and consistent. Apple still has the fixed-function iPod shuffle, but the flagship iPod touch is indeed a container for many seeds; the floodgates have been opened completely with a rich app library. And the iPhone’s “iPod” app will disappear with iOS 5, being replaced with separate apps for music and video. This move signals that – as much as the iPod has been synonymous with music – its brand and capabilities have grown into things more consistent with its name.

A hand and a stand for iPad musicians

One sign that an ecosystem has momentum is when products from separate companies serendipitously complement each other. Such has been the case for the iPad this month. Today, on Les Paul’s birthday, Avid announced Scorch, a companion product to its Sibelius suite of music notation products for the PC. Scorch can perform such handy tasks as transposing or editing music or showing the fingering of a section on a piano keyboard.

Since the app reads and edits Sibelius files, full resolution is preserved regardless of the resolution, and Avid claims that zooming in and out is as smooth as jazz. The app also includes a sheet music store with hundreds of thousands of downloadable scores, many of them free. A few features I’d like to see would include conversion of PDFs into editable scores, and being able to simplify scores for leaning songs. (The app can already adjust tempos as a learning aid.)

The app is debuting at $4.99, but will eventually go up to $7.99. It also has a Music Stand mode that presents sheet music with minimal distractions for performances. Now, if only there were an easy way for performers with something a bit more portable than a piano to take the iPad on stage with you.

Well, what do you know? There is! Earlier this month, IK Multimedia started shipping the iKlip, which allows you to attach your iPad or iPad 2 to a microphone stand, where it can be a complement to the company’s iRig microphone. iKlip is $39.99 direct and can work with an iPad or iPad 2, although some adapters are required for the latter and could cost extra depending on when you bought it..

What I really like about both these products is that they really show off the advantages of the iPad form factor. The iPad’s sleek profile makes it almost perfect for use on a piano, for example (although a larger screen would be helpful for scores).

A second Looxcie

When I had a look-see at the first Looxcie last October, I couldn’t overlook many of the disadvantages of the innovative Bluetooth camcorder headset. It was large – ostentatiously so – and had poor video quality. Well, it looks like the company has made significant progress in less than a year. While still no HD rival to a Kodak Playfull or GoPro, the Looxcie 2 looks small enough to pass for a reasonable headset and the video quality has been upped to VGA (yes, I just wrote “upped to VGA.”).

Perhaps more importantly, and taking a cue from GoPro,, the Looxcie 2 now offers a variety of mounts so that you can tune your level of conspicuousness. It remains a unique product, and at $200, comes in significantly below the HD wearable cams for capturing cheap thrill even as video capture options are coming to capture even cheaper thrills.