I came, I typed, Iconia

Right before the Thanksgiving break, Acer was in town to talk touch. Android slates of various sizes and a 10” Windows tablet with keyboard dock were announced along with a 10” Windows tablet that will be accompanied by a keyboad dock.

But the signature product was Iconia, a dual-screen 14” Windows notebook that follows in the footsteps of such dual-screen devices as the Kno tablet and the Toshiba Libretto W105 that I got to try for a bit earlier this year. As with the Libretto W, I found typing on the Iconia’s lower display to be surprisingly comfortable. Of course, I didn’t get to type anything of great length on it, but even from my initial trial, I’d likely rather use its keyboard than the iPad’s keyboard for even a few hundred word. in fact, I didn’t make a single typing error. The one caveat was that I needed to take a moment to orient my fingers on the lower screen, but from there it was smooth sailing, as I imagine it would be for most touch-typists.

There’s still much that isn’t known about the Iconia, such as what its battery life will be or how much it will cost. Going with a 14” main display puts it in the heart of screen size volumes, but I still think that the limited nature of a display-based keyboard lends itself better to a smaller screen size — not as small as the Libretto W105, but something closer to a mainstream netbook.

Accessory Sunday: RCA travel charger

imageAt the recent CES Unveiled show in New York, Audiovox was mostly showing off its forays into mobile electronics with hints of some cool new stuff to be released at the January show, but the home to all that is RCA this side of TV sets was also showing off a few accessories. Among these was a travel charger with an integrated shelf for a handset, portable media player, a different spin on an idea we’ve seen before.. I gave it a spin with the idea that it might replace my go-to traveling surge protector, the cleverly designed Monster Outlets To Go.

Like some of the more recent Outlets To Go products, the RCA has USB ports (two of them, in fact) in addition to three outlets. Ad you probably won’t be surprised to learn that it can be found for less than the Monster Cable competitor. However there were a few issues. First, while Audiovox includes a little shelf, it only works if the outlet has the grounding prong on the bottom. Worse, the adapter for slimmer devices didn’t seem to be securely attached to the adapter. More seriously, the USB port would not charge te Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot that I’d brought, and the prongs do not fold in, which makes a product that is already too bulky to be a travel product even more bulky.

Windows Phone 7: The good, the bad, the unknown

image Having had some time to try Windows Phone 7, I can say that Microsoft’s overhaul of its mobile operating system – while far behind in the features and apps race versus iOS or Android – certainly has some points in its favor.

  • It’s hard to find an opportunity that Microsoft passed up to add some engaging animation or transitions.
  • The camera experience is par excellence, an especially welcome makeover from the confusing camera experience of Windows Mobile.
  • The software keyboard and typing experience are really strong, and software-typing on the Samsung’s Focus 4” screen was one the best software keyboard experiences I’ve had on a mobile device. I also like the novel approach Microsoft has taken to adding extra symbols, by providing a slide-in.alternative symbols. It may not be particularly intuitive or time-saving, but it eliminates the need to switch into yet another keyboard mode. In any case, it’s good news that Microsoft has a solid software keyboard since, like Apple and unlike Android, it won’t allow alternative typing systems such as Swype..
  • I also like the way Microsoft has implemented cursor insertion; this is key for devices that lack a separate control for fine cursor movements as present in Android and BlackBerry devices. Apple gets the edge for style, but the Microsoft approach is more effective than those of rivals.
  • While Live Tiles may not provide much more – and in some cases may provide less – at a glance information than widgets, Microsoft makes a statement – and removes some user customization work — by having them as the default display, although Android also allows you to mix and match widgets and launch icons on any home screen, and even iOS and BlackBerry show badges or numeric indicators on information such as how many e-mail messages you have.
    On the other hand, Windows Live Tiles also highlight the simplicity of having a simple list for applications arranged in alphabetical order. Apple has let us scroll through thousands of songs in the past, why not 100 or so apps?
  • Offering Find My Phone for free is a nice value-add that can bring some peace of mind. This is a sleeper feature.
  • This is an OS for avid Facebook users – no apps really needed for the core experience and no cumbersome “social networking” layers . In fact, Windows Phone 7 depends so heavily on Facebook for much of its social plumbing that it’s hard to imagine what the experience would be without it.

My main complaint at this point is the gargantuan font that Microsoft uses to label hubs and other cards. It’s stylish, and may be intended to span the panoramas of Windows Phone’s interface, but it consumes a lot of real estate. Also, while I have not played around a lot with Office, the file fidelity that Microsoft promises in round-tripping documents is offset a bit by the completely foreign user interface for Office apps.

Yes, the UI for Office-like apps is very different on other smartphone OSes as well, but it still seems like more of a departure here. Some of that may be because it’s Microsoft doing the diverging, because there is such a strong association with the interface that makes Office Office (as opposed to something like Documents to Go), or simply the novelty of the Windows Phone UI overall at this point.

And then there are the unknowns. One of the main ones for me is the hubs. On one hand, it is a more visual way to organize related apps and functionality than folders. However, I wonder how well it will scale. That, along with a lack of multitasking, is one of the issues that will be easier to assess as Windows Phone 7 attracts more applications.

Touch: It’s in the way that you use it.

image In previewing some of the features of the next Mac OS, code-named Lion, today, Steve Jobs decried the idea of using a touch screen on a notebook. Apple’s CEO cited the ergonomic burden of having to constantly reach forward to touch a vertically oriented screen and said that the proper orientation for a touch surface is a horizontal surface. Hence, Apple is expanding the multitouch gestures invoked from input peripherals such ad the MacBooks’ trackpad, Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad.

However, the iPad is not generally used in a horizontal orientation — just check any of the Apple Pad billboards. There is a bit more to the story than just orientation. First, despite the iPadian nods to touch manipulation Apple is planning in Lion, desktop operating systems simply are not designed around the same kind of large on-screen UI elements and design that characterize the iPad experience.

This becomes obvious on a touchscreen Windows system long before arm fatigue sets in. (If you don’t have a touchscreen Windows system but do have a Winsows PC and an iPad, you can test this by using the Splashtop Remote Desktop app or any number of screen sharing alternatives.) Apple could, as many PC makers have, tweak the controls, but then the apps would still be a UI generation behind stuck in the traditional paradigm a on Windows

Second, the iPad is far more of a passive consumption device than a Mac.I’m not sure how many touch gestures the average iPad user makes versus mouse movements for a Mac user, but I would guess that the latter number is generally much higher. So even if. Apple were to create a Mac slate and tweak the UI elements, using such a computer would not be the smooth, gentle experience of an iPad.

What’s on Apple’s wish list?

Amid news of stellar financial results this week, Apple announced that it had added another $5 billion in cash to its already teeming coffers fo a total of $50 billion. When asked about returning some of that money to shareholders,, Steve Jobs noted that it would rather keep its “powder dry” (invoking the maxim attributed to Oliver Cromwell..

Apple, though, does not have a history of large acquisitions like its rival HP, which has amassed its own private technology company history museum by scooping up such pioneering companies as Palm ($1.2b), 3Com ($2.7b) and Compaq ($25b). In contrast, Apple’s high-profile acquisition of NeXT, which brought Jobs back to Apple and laid the foundation for the future of the Mac, was only $429m (about $581m today). This begs the question, what would Apple buy that would possibly cost that much?

Not a competitor. Looking across the value chain, Apple already has its own processor. About the only critical delivery piece it does not own today is a network – perhaps a telco or something to deliver landline content like a cable or satellite company (or equivalent). Despite the predictable uptake in Apple TV sales following its price reduction, Jobs has previously bemoaned the “go to market” problem of getting content to the television Of course, the companies that are out there delivering these pipes today are all either regional (like Comcast) or infrastructure-challenged (like Dish Network); it might be more efficient for Apple to build its own network as Google has been doing for some time although I’m inclined to think that it would prefer something wireless.

As I was writing this, I saw that Peter Kafka at MediaMemo has speculated that Apple might buy Facebook. I could see tremendous synergy there. Apple hasn’t cracked the social media nut, and buying Facebook would provide no only a tremendous online hedge against Google, but a fantastic complement to Apple’s mobile, music, games and college businesses. Hey Facebook, how about sweetening the deal by developing an iPad app already?

Accessory Sunday: Moshi Moshi 02

imageI suppose you could loosely file this one under the topic of fixed-mobile convergence. While the wired headset is rapidly giving way to the Bluetooth variety, Native Union has dispensed with portability entirely to create an objet d’art that is intended to provide comfort for a prolonged cell phone call. Of course, one could just use the speakerphone, but he quality is often muffled and, as with Bluetooth, you’ll see your battery run out more quickly.

The moshi moshi 02 is a low-profile, modern handset. While its weight definitely conveys a feeling of quality, though, it might be nice to have something a bit lighter to toss in a travel bag in anticipation of long conference calls from hotel rooms.

Cucku gets clocked with a double-edged sword

image Two years ago, I was briefed on one of the more interesting ideas to come along in a while in consumer backup: Cucku Backup. Instead of sending your backups to a hosted cloud like Mozy or Carbonite, it distributed it to the PCs or one or two “trusted” friends. (Even tough the parties were trusted, the backups were still encrypted.)

Cucku certainly had its issues. For example, like most online backup solutions, it took a while for your first backup if you were doing it completely online. Cucku was also distributed as a Skype Extra, something that the company claimed was an effective means of distribution, but which I always felt was somewhat of a barrier to adoption.

Unfortunately for Cucku, it became a critical barrier to adoption when Skype cancelled its Skype Extras program last month. While there was a fair bit of grousing about the suddenness of this decision, other developers were able to carry on in the face of it.

And perhaps Cucku could have as well, but, as the company frankly explains on its site, it failed to get a critical patent used in a claim against it invalidated. So, unfortunately, Cucku Backup is no more, and the company can’t even recommend a “social backup” alternative. Of course, there are other solid, free backup programs available such as the ones built into Windows 7 and Time Machine, as well as Windows programs that are free for personal use from Paragon Software and Comodo.Security Solutions.

Smartbooks need the iPad

imageLong before the launch of the iPad or the introduction of the smartbook concept, a client asked me what I thought about the idea of netbooks that didn’t run Windows. Versions of the ASUS Eee and HP Mini had been available with Linux distributions, but were ultimately cancelled in the face of consumers’ overwhelming preference for Windows on those devices. If it walks like a mouse being used on Windows, consumers expect to use it with a mouse being used with Windows. Now, SlashGear notes that Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs says that the iPad has delivered the concept of “always-on, all–day devices” that smartbooks had originally promised.

I read that comment as potential validation, but SlashGear frames it as a concession. If Jacobs has indeed taken up the white flag from Shantanu Narayen, It’s oddly timed given the barrage of ARM-powered Android tablets that are in the works. Archos, for example, just announced a whole family of Internet tablets (if you can call a device with a 3.2” screen a tablet as they do) and Samsung has announced the highest-profile iPad competitor to date in the Galaxy Tab (more on that name later).

So perhaps the term smartbook, like netbook, implies a keyboard – something that wasn’t the case in concept videos shown early on by Qualcomm. The Lenovo Skylight (pictured) was shelved, but promised to return one day running Android. Challenges abound. Not only is Android is not optimized for larger screens, but it needs a staple of applications to fill in the gaps with Windows (something Linux actually had for productivity in OpenOffice). Furthermore, channel, task and usage scenario overlap with Windows becomes more pronounced.

Over time, though, consumers may be more accepting of a keyboard-equipped smartbook. As the SlashGear post notes, HP and Toshiba have dabbled in the market. The paradox is that consumers need more successful non-Windows tablets like the iPad to understand such a device with a keyboard. Apple probably won’t produce one, but has opened the door to accessory makers to create an equivalent, and others will. The key for these vendors is to show consumers that even keyboard-enabled smartbooks are not neutered netbooks, but supersized smartphones.

Samsung appears to recognize that in using the “Galaxy” brand across its smartphones and the Tab, but it is both a new brand and one that has been subdued (at least in the U.S.) under the monikers that various carriers have given it. In any case, consumers have of course accepted physical keyboards on smartphones (with at least one successful clamshell feature phone that may be Android-bound).

Adobe turns a triple into a walk

Following a trend of relaxing restrictions in its app acceptance policy, Apple on Thursday announced that it would no longer ban iPhone applications written in other languages from its app store subject to certain provisions (which would exclude Adobe AIR). While Apple made a strong case as to the risks that third-party development tools made to the platform, I argued that, for many Flash developers, the choice was probably between using Flash or no app, as opposed to Flash versus Cocoa. And, of course, there’s nothing about Apple’s tools that prevent developers from making a bad app. The now more-transparent review process can be the point of quality control in either case.

In any case, it’s a win for Flash, and that means a win for Adobe, right? In its response to the announcement, Adobe reminds that Apple still does not allow Flash to run natively on iOS devices. No, the allowing of apps with the Flash cross-compiler is ultimately not the native Flash home run Adobe really wants. But, had Adobe kept in there, swinging away and pledging to continue to work with Apple to address the issues Apple has with Flash and the cross-compiler (regardless of the realism of that prospect), it would have a better story to tell now. It could have shared some level of responsibility in helping to convince Apple of the cross-compiler’s value (Adobe is, after all, an iOS developer), which opens up the the three (installed) bases of iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad to Flash developers.

But that’s not what Adobe did. In April, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch blogged that Adobe was moving forward from iOS. And in August, frustrated by the impasse, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen noted in reference to Apple, “They’ve made their choice. We’ve made ours and we’ve moved on.” Adobe was too eager to close the door when, clearly in hindsight, it had a chance to be reopened. Apple has cracked the door open to Flash developers a few months after Adobe decided it wouldn’t even drive them to the party.

Now, of course, Adobe is resuming work on the Flash cross-compiler for iOS. But can you imagine if Microsoft was so quick to shrug its shoulders when trying to advance its platform? “Sorry, guys. Mobile’s been a tough nut for us to crack. Android seems to be getting pretty popular now, though, so maybe you should consider casting your lot with that.”

New iPod line goes back to basics and forward to the future.

image Prior to this week’s iPod announcement, it was a bit inconsistent that the midrange iPod nano could capture video (but not stills) and the high-end iPod touch could capture neither. With the new lineup, hough, the iPods’ capture capabilities have been rationalized. The iPod nano has no image or video capture capabilities whereas the iPod touch now has both – including high-definition video — even though the stills are of a lower resolution than those the iPhone 4 can capture. Of course, video capture is a better fit for the touch than the nano anyway. Not only can it now take advantage of the remarkable iMovie app, but video can be uploaded via Wi-Fi (which the nano lacks) and used by third-party developers.

Indeed, while the new nano boasts a novel and fun form factor, Apple’s new lineup has a sort of retro feel to it, with the shuffle reclaiming its buttons and the nano focusing more on music and a smaller screen. Why, the dock connector on the nano even returns to the center of its bottom, where it was on the third-generation nano. Both the shuffle and nano show that Apple thinks it’s hip to be square.

Paradoxically, the iPod touch, which looks most similar to its previous generation, really has an opportunity to spawn a whole new category of products – the consumer videoconferencing appliance. For less than $500 and a Wi-Fi connection, you can now set up a simple point-to-point videoconference, one that will be able to tie into more users as Apple enables FaceTime over 3G. Not only is the device now, more than ever, a contract-free smartphone, it’s a contract-free videophone.