ThinkGeek April Fools’ store spans pop culture, popsicles

As usual, the gang at ThinkGeek did a great job with this year’s selection of mock geek products (although nothing as brilliant as last year’s iCade). The retailer seemed to know it had a winner with the Playmobil Apple Store Play Set, for which it made its own Apple product introduction parody video showcasing the “optional line pack” that depicts the iconic Playmobil people waiting in line for the hot new iDevice..

But if I had to pick the product most likely to actual become available for sale, it would have to be the Star Wars Lightsaber popsicles. The price tag of $35 may be a bit high for four molds, but ThinkGeek is already wise to the fees required to create a Lucasfilm-licensed product.

“Out of Office” is out of date

I’ve long felt that the “out of office” message is ambiguous. Does it signify that someone is physically not present or does it mean that they are on vacation or have time off for some other reason. For example, I know some diligent folks who update their voice mail message every day, but I’ve never seen anyone who updates an e-mail autoresponder with a daily expectation of response time to e-mail or who activates their “out of office” on the weekends. Furthermore, I bet I’m not the only one who has received an “Out of Office” message from recipients saying they are unavailable only to get a follow-up e-mail shortly thereafter from that person. Truth be told, I’ve been guilty of such mixed messaging myself.

In an age of mobile communications, the “out of office” e-mail has often become an anachronism. This became clear during CTIA when I e-mailed several people who had the autoresponders on but were at the show fully equipped with the most capable mobile e-mail clients to date. That doesn’t mean that mobile handsets are as well-suited to composing the kinds of replies that one would compose on a PC and there may well be situations such as international flights, sky-high data roaming charges, and travel to remote regions  that genuinely preclude response. However,I think the expectation has changed to a shorter or more variable delay more driven by choice as the technological barriers fade.

A more complex Time Warner Cable recalls a simpler time

When I wrote about the short-lived FLO TV, I was struck by the juxtaposition between the selection of “cable” channels that did not exist decades ago and the ease of navigation that recalled a simpler time devoid of electronic programming guides (even though the MediaFLO service did indeed have a basic one). Having checked out the Time Warner Cable iPad app, I’m struck with what Yogi Berra would describe as déjà vu all over again.

The app’s access to 30 basic cable programs delivers some of the same but a greater selection of channels than was available on MediaFLO, However, the app doesn’t even have an electronic programming guide, just a simple column of program listings, each with a smaller bit of text describing what’s on next. I’m sure the Time Warner Cable app will expand to offer, at minimum, better integration with its DVRs, but for now the experience is providing some amusing nostalgia.

Gogobeans: When Bump met Dropbox

As longtime readers know, one of my longtime areas of interest are proximity-based sharing, a topic I most recently discussed in the context of AirDrop.. At CTIA, though, I got a chance to meet with Gogobeans, which is combining the notion of a Dropbox-like locker for personal content with Bump-like (or perhaps Color-like) – cloud-based detection of proximity. In Gogobeans’ case, rather than bumping together handsets, they are simply shaken at the same time. One advantage to this is that it facilitates one-to-many transactions; a speaker could share a presentation with an audience. Like Dropbox, Pogoplug, and others, Gogobeans also allows you to share based on e-mail addresses even if the recipient does not yet have the app, and then files shared show up in their locker once their account is claimed.

Gogobeans seems like a smart mashup of two kinds of services that are gaining popularity right now, but the personal cloud space is starting to get a bit crowded and the client-interaction space is a race for viral distribution. In terms of potential competition from either side, I’d see Dropbox introducing proximity-based sharing as an extension of its service more naturally than Bump introducing cloud-based storage.

Out of the Box turns five years old

Let’s all wish a slightly belated birthday to Out of the Box, which had its first post on March 17, 2006 about a simple Sony radio simply dubbed “the radio.” Indeed, even today, with all the excitement around Internet radio services such as Pandora and Slacker on the PC, televisions, and smartphones, FM continues to rule the roost in vehicles. While Sirius XM may now be half the number of companies they once were, that had little to do with competition from Internet radio in the car although the forces of IP are mounting there.

In any case, I won’t go through all the stats on this anniversary. There have been hundreds of posts, and I’ve blogged every month, if sometimes just barely, particularly in the era of microblogging. The record month was March 2008, when I blogged 35 posts, in part to see if I could blog more than an average of once per day for such a period. If you’re ever feeling deprived, feel free to check out my columns Switched On, Tech on Deck, Volume Up and Reserve Power, read me on the NPD Group blog, or catch the odd post on Out of the Box’s even less frequently updated companion blog . And thanks to all my readers.

Windows’ app store litmus test

My Switched On column discussing the potential benefits of Microsoft using Windows for tablets garnered over a whopping 1.100 comments. many of which were positive. As I noted in the column, though, Microsoft still has a lot to prove in basing its tablet strategy on Windows as opposed to the currently more touch-friendly if feature-strapped Windows Phone OS.

Following a tweet in which I groused about the still unsatisfying state of driver update management on Windows, that challenge became a topic of conversation on Twitter a few days ago when the question was posed as to whether Microsoft needed to have an app store – like Apple, Google, or itself on Windows Phone – in order to compete in the tablet market. If so, the app store would presumably also be available to the next version of Windows. This leads to a number of hypotheticals. Would Microsoft include an app store in desktop Windows even if it were using Windows Phone for tablets? And is an app store even necessarily for tablets?

My answer to the latter is that it is, at least to be competitive with Apple and Google, and it’s a good idea regardless. for desktop Windows, which is under seige not be any particular operating system (OS/2, Linux) as in the past, but the idea of OS insignificance, a battle that Apple is also trying to fight via its app stores both on the Mac and iOS.

Internet Explorer’s ninth life is off to a good start

Kudos, Microsoft, on Internet Explorer, going from the laggard of the browser wars to being neck-and-neck with Chrome (which I switched to form Firefox only a few months ago as a default browser) in everyday usage. I actually do have a few sites I rely on that require IE, so IE9 has won me back. Privacy advocates have hailed the Do not track option, and I also have already pinned a few sites to the taskbar. In fact, I thought iIE9 might become my only browser, but that didn’t last long since IE9 didn’t work with a date selector on Rail Europe’s Web site.

IE9 still has a few annoyances and a few areas where I just prefer Chrome’s approach. While I the new less modal notifications at the bottom are an improvement, I’m somewhat dismayed to see that it still prompts by default to display fully the many pages that mix secure and unsecure content, so that required a trip to the still-overwhelming Internet Options dialog. Why not just have an option to not warn about this again?

While I’m not a huge fan of Chrome’s tabs-on-top, I’m still not sold on having tabs on the same line as the address bar and don’t see a way to put them on separate lines. I also prefer how Chrome shows downloads at the bottom of the window. with a visible link to download history. And, of course, Chrome’s networked bookmarks work across platforms where IE doesn’t play at all. Finally, I’d also like to see other browsers take on Safari’s ability to collect tabs on many windows onto one, but a least IE shows all open tabs in Aero Peek regardless of their window, the way it should be..

T-Mobile’s turnaround

There can be no doubt that T-Mobile’s branding of its HSPA+ network as 4G was the best marketing move in the wireless industry in recent history. Sprint may have had the first 4G network and Verizon Wireless may have the fastest, but HSPA+ has allowed the fourth largest U.S. carrier with challenging spectrum holdings to go from a constrained 3G portfolio to marketing three 4G devices (the G2, myTouch 4G, and a 4G version of the popular Samsung Galaxy S design) with a a fourth announced (the Sidekick 4G).

In contrast, despite a long head start ,Sprint has just three 4G handsets on the market and Verizon Wireless just shipped its first 4G handset. That device – the HTC Thunderbolt (much like its similar predecessor, the EVO 4G) – impresses in all but battery life Here again T-Mobile has an advantage as its HSPA+ handsets deliver better battery life than WiMAX or LTE devices while often scoring closer to Verizon’s speed benchmarks than Sprint’s.

Sprint has a big event lined up for CTIA and the onus is on the company to roll out some more WiMAX products. Hopefully, the revamped Overdrive, for one, won’t suffer from the shoddy design that resulted in the USB connector breaking loose, the fate of the unit I tested.

LifeTouch Note has some noteworthy touches

Before netbooks came on the scene, it was very rare to see an ultraportable laptop make its way to the States from Japan, and those that did could easily cost more than $1,500. There are still a good number of these Japanese-exclusive designs that can be perused and purchased at Dynamism, but the disparity isn’t nearly what it once was. The U.S. even gets to partake in such unusual designs as Sony’s Vaio P, an sleek but pricey reinvention of the traackpadless, low-profile clamshell Sony pursued with the originally Transmeta-based PictureBook.

However, much of the Vaio P’s form factor appeal has been captured by NEC’s LifeTouch Note, which uses a Tegra 2 and Android on a 7” display (slightly smaller than the Vaio P’s). For now, it’s being made available only across the Pacific in NEC’s home market. However, there are a few reasons I’d like to see it come stateside sporting Android or perhaps webOS under the HP brand.

  • It’s even smaller and weighs less than the average netbook
  • Unlike tablets, it could have a usable touch-typable keyboard
  • It boasts nine hours of battery life, which represents great longevity for something so thin.
  • Its low profile is less obtrusive when taking notes in meetings, and is a dream on an airline tray in a cramped coach seat
  • The form factor is differentiated from those of Windows netbooks.
  • It’s affordable as a second PC, residing in the high-end netbook/midrange tablet price range at $500
  • At least for HP, it would be a nice update to the market that was once served by the Jornada line of Windows CE clamshells..

I particularly like the BlackBerry-style finger trackpad below the keyboard, but it might not be necessary depending on the operating system. Also, there doesn’t appear to be any buttons that flank it, although that could be added.

Alas, the LifeTouch Note has a resistive touchscreen; I’d see stylus input – and perhaps even touch itself– as less important for this form factor. Still, with the right apps, it could be a dream machine for light productivity on the go, filling a niche between tablet and notebook.

The battle of the buttons

The iPhone distinguished itself with a single home button for returning from an app to the launch screen. While its functionality may have been strained a bit as the platform has progressed. e.g., having to tap twice to bring up the app switcher, its single UI depression concession made a statement about minimalist simplicity that few platforms (webOS may be one example) have answered.

In contrast, Android launched with four major UI buttons (Home, Menu, Back and Search) and Windows Phone launched with three (Windows/Start, Back, and Search). Exactly how many – if any – buttons is optimal can be debated by user interface experts or considered personal preference. As is the case with much of what I consider Android variation, the media has jumped upon the tendency for different vendors to implement the Android button order in a different way, even in different handsets from the same manufacturer.

I don’t see that as such a major issue, but the Search button, in particular, always struck me as gratuitous. Yes, we know Google is a search company, but that doesn’t mean I need a search button omnipresent on my device. And I was somewhat disappointed that Microsoft followed suit (since, of course, Bing is really important, too).

Now Google, if not having so much seen the error of its ways, will give licensees the option to forego any and all buttons in Honeycomb tablets and presumably Ice Cream handsets. Perhaps this was due to the influence of Matias Duarte, a notion that buttons are trickier to place on a tablet versus a generally vertically oriented handset, or simple feedback from partners.

The drawback is that now, in addition to potentially having different button layouts, Android devices may now have different combinations of buttons and gestures for the same task. Regardless, these devices now have the potential to look cleaner and more streamlined because of the change. Perhaps that’s one of the liberties that Nokia will feel free to take as it balances its unique customization privileges against compromising the consistency in the Windows Phone ecosystem.