BlackBerry 9670 shows RIM won’t clam up

imageOne of the less successful handsets RIM has launched in the past few years was the BlackBerry Pearl Flip. The phone seemed like a throwback to a form factor from which American consumers – at least smartphone consumers – had moved on. But if the documented rumors from Boy Genius Report are true, RIM may be mounting another attack on the clamshell with the 9670. RIM would be demonstrating a continued commitment to push into other form factors beyond its classic QWERTY candy bar of the Curve and Tour.

Putting a full-QWERTY keyboard onto a squarish device that opens in some way has been tried by several manufacturers. There’s been the Verizon Blitz (by PCD), the Motorola Hint and Karma, the Nokia Twist, and the forthcoming Microsoft Kin One. The 9670, though, looks like a longer device, perhaps more akin to the Samsung Propel Pro or Palm Pre.

But I still like the idea of a QWERTY device in a clamshell, like the LG Lotus offered exclusively at Sprint. Some consumers simply prefer ending calls by closing the phone. And compared to sliders, clamshells let you have an exterior display while controls and perhaps the touch screen are protected from accidental activation without having to lock the phone, and may be a more comfortable upgrade for consumers who have spent years with clamshells like the Motorola RAZR..

The WIRE: Week of April 12, 2010

There’s another new feature being debuted at Out of the Box that’s being dubbed The WIRE (It’s an acronym, but I’ll let you guess what it stands for.)  The idea is to track other writing I’ve done around the Web. I’m getting a bit of a late start on the first one, but will shoot for same week coverage moving forward. In case you missed them, here were the two columns I wrote last week:

Engadget:: Switched On: Kin dread spirit
image Following Microsoft’s criticism of Google competing with Android handset makers with the Nexus One, this Switched On column examined Microsoft’s decision to offer its own branded handsets, the Kin One and Kin Two, and how they compete with their OEMs more directly than Google did.

ABCNews.com: Portable Scanners Blaze a Paper Trail
image Surprise, in the era of multifunction printers, there’s still a market for scanners, particularly portable ones  that focus on a particular purpose. My Tech on Deck column covers scanners from The Neat Company, Plustek, and Apparent’s Doxie, which recently started shipping after being launched at Macworld Expo.

13″ MacBook Pro matches iPad battery life

I had a chance to chat with some of Apple’s MacBook team this week to talk about the new MacBook Pros, which look exactly like the old MacBook Pros. One interesting note, though, is that the battery life of all models have been improved thanks to the good work of Apple’s on-staff battery chemists, and those looking for a portable computer that can yield 10 hours of battery life need not carry their screen and keyboard separately as the 13” model has answered the iPad’s challenge.

The battery life on the 13” model’s larger-screened siblings is also quite good, clocking in eight or nine hours. But these products also have faster processors, larger screens and discrete graphics, all of which take their toll. While I’ve always understood that smaller devices need to have smaller batteries, which affect battery performance, the paradox was that smaller smaller, more mobile notebooks more likely to be used away from a plug. Score one for the little guys this time.

Don’t blame Sprint for Palm woes

Now that Palm is apparently up for sale there seems to be as many alleged reasons for its struggles as there are people serving them up. One of the most popular ones is that Palm should not have

Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein has expressed some regret that Palm couldn’t launch on Verizon earlier and vie for the kind of promotion that the Droid received. Even if Palm had had the Pre for only three months, though, it’s doubtful that Verizon Wireless would have jumped in with as much support after Sprint had the opportunity to debut Palm’s handsets, even with the “Plus” enhancements.

Sure, it would have been better to ride the twin horses of AT&T and Verizon to higher market share, but Sprint was the best deal Palm could get. It believed in Palm and the platform, and offered strong marketing support. Sprint is still the third largest U.S. carrier. Its 50 million customers were more than an ample base into which Palm products could be sold, and its 3G network generally has good coverage and very good speed.

The strongest argument against blaming Sprint for disappointing WebOS volume, though, is to contrast it against the launch of the T-Mobile G1, which launched on a carrier with fewer subscribers, lower ARPU, and (at the time) an embryonic 3G network, but which still managed to sell a million units in its first quarter of availability and set the stage for continued Android growth throughout 2009.

Microsoft Kin: First Impressions

It was called Project Pink, a name so embedded in the team’s head that the Microsoft team that spoke to a small group of media gathered for a satellite launch event in New York City couldn’t avoid mentioning it. However, the accent color and default user interface are green. Forked off from the core Windows Phone 7 team, the Kin One and Kin Two explore a question that Microsoft claims it painstakingly researched: what do 15 to 25 year olds obsessed with social networks want from their handsets?

Their answer is a Windows Phone that doesn’t run apps, but instead has social networking integrated into its user interface and has solid imaging capabilities. The Kin One has a five megapixel camera whereas the less visually distinctive Kin Two has an eight megapixel camera and 720p video capture capabilities. With the exception of that HD video, the Kins will send nearly all of their information up to the cloud for review in an impressive, but potentially visually scale-challenged, Silverlight Web site called Kin Studio. Microsoft was not shy about coming up with catchy names for different parts of the Kin experience.

The Kin’s user interface is also like no other. Rather than the lines of text like many feature phones or a grid of icons like many smartphones, it takes Windows Phone’s “Metro” design of tiles and blows them out to large squares featuring items to share and people to share them with A small circle on the screen called “the spot” sends them off to be shared. Kin can also share via social networks, but still requires that you manually pick which of the three social networks supported by Kin – Facebook, MySpace and Twitter – receives the update. A classic 1.0 deficiency, sharing photos via Twitter is not supported, which leads me to think that Twitter is planning to launch its own photo sharing service.

Kin faces a number of challenges, but without yet knowing the price of the device, and how it will compete with capable, inexpensive smartphones such as the iPhone, Palm Pixi and Droid Eris, much will come down to how Verizon Wireless –– Microsoft’s exclusive launch partner in the U.S. – prices the service. I take it as a good sign that Verizon representatives did not say at launch that the standard data pricing plan would apply. On the other hand, Kin will be shooting a lot of data up into the cloud all the time, and is a much more mobile device than the iPad on which AT&T offered Apple special pricing.

The second, longer-term challenge will come from the quickly evolving nature of social networks. It is a challenge to keep up with rising stars in social networks and their related services. For example, the Kins support neither Foursqure nor Gowalla, Perhaps Microsoft is waiting to see which one rises to the popularity of Twitter. Or that might spell bad news for the company, as it currently offers its own Bing Maps to convey location information with the handsets.

Opera mini hits the high notes on the iPhone

imageIts hard-line stance against Flash (how come no one ever talks about Apple banning Silverlight as well?)  notwithstanding, there have been steady signs that Apple is being more open to different kinds of apps that once perhaps would not have passed muster in its iTunes app store. Examples include MapQuest competing with Google Maps and Slacker, Rhapsody and others offering alternatives to iTunes purchases (although really representing “coopetition”). Indeed, if Apple is, at its heart, a platform company as Steve Jobs says, then that’s the way it should be. And both Apple customers and the company benefit.

Regardless of why Apple approved Opera mini, it is an asset to the platform, perhaps a parting gift to first-generation iPhone users stuck on an EDGE network. Due to its proxy architecture, Opera mini is much faster than mobile Safari. It also offers great Web site fidelity, and (somewhat less efficient than in the desktop version) tabbed browsing, but can’t work around the prohibition of Flash content. On the other hand, it doesn’t use the universal pinch and zoom gestures, and there are times I wish it allowed greater levels of zoom although I found the text to be quite readable. It’s somewhat counterintuitive that Apple allowed this “commodity” browser – so widespread in its availability on not only smartphones but many feature phones – onto the app store. But I’m sure customers won’t be complaining.

iPhone OS 4.0: First impressions

image If you’re asking whether Apple implemented multitasking in iPhone 4.0 (and you’re not a developer), then you’re asking the wrong question. Multitasking headlined the seven “tentpoles” that made up the major new features of iPhone OS 4.0. Apple is bringing the benefits of multitasking through a clever mix of new system features that extend the benefits of multitasking that Apple pursued with push notifications.

Covering such major bases as background location tracking and extending background music playback from the iPod app to Internet services such as Pandora, there are now very few multitasking needs that won’t be met with Apple’s approach that, according to the company, preserves the keys of security – an approach that Apple maintains will preserve the keys of security, simplicity, performance and battery life.

The task switching in iPhone 4.0 complement other changes that used to require a seemingly endless series of swipes to get at information. These include a unified inbox and folders for grouping apps. (It would be great if the app store let you designate an app upon downloading). indeed, these should even free up more screen real estate for another new feature – custom wallpapers beyond the lock screen.

In the Q&A following the announcement, Apple was asked about widgets, a feature available on the Mac and on Android, but not on the iPhone. Apple seemed open to implementation at some future time, particularly with the iPad and took a step toward more lock screen functionality with music playback controls. All in all, the update should go a long way toward removing many user interface inefficiencies that Apple had begun to attack in the platform, as well as make using the iPhone a smoother and less frustrating experience on a daily basis. But since at least some of these features – especially the headlining multitasking – have been available from major competitors, it begs the question whether iPhone OS 4.0 is enough to beat back not only the imrovements of the core Android operating system, but what others are building on top of it.

Accessory Sunday: Apple iPad case

image From the positive reactions, you might think that nothing could drive a wedge between iPad owners and their new Apple devices. But one of the first Apple accessories for its slate puts a wedge under or behind it. Typically understated but atypically absurdly functional at the expense of form, Apple’s rubbery iPad case does triple duty. When its cover is folded back on itself into a tab, it allows the iPad to be be oriented vertically for presentations. Or if its laid flat, it dramatically improves tying on the device since the user has a much better view of the screen. And it does this all without adding much bulk to the iPad’s sleek profile.

What’s not to love? First, the iPad is a little tricky to get in and out of the case, although that seems to be getting a bit easier as it may be wearing in a bit. Second, the perforation on the cover leaves the top a little floppy as its bent back. So, while the case is practically a must-buy today, I suspect that third parties will soon be introducing superior options, perhaps even that integrated keyboard model I’ve suggested.

Apple iPad: First impressions

imageThe iPhone was really something of a talking dog. It was so amazing that Apple had brought such functionality to something that was so omnipresent that it was relatively easy to forgive the cramped interface and incessant swiping that sometimes seemed required to get things done. In a form of geek noblesse oblige, advanced users accepted these limitations understanding that it was part of the platform’s overall gestalt that brought new users into the smartphone ecosystem.

But you’ll find less of that feeling of compromise with the iPad. Yes, technically the iPad is very similar to a large iPod touch. But it is also an unbound iPod touch – unbound by the constraints of screen size, limited battery life, cramped keyboard, and a user interface that lacks some of the efficiencly boosters Apple has now implemented.

As I noted in a recent Laptop Magazine article, I put the iPad closer to a notebook on the smartphone-notebook continuum in terms of functionality and usage scenarios. And yet, the iPad is not a netbook, nor do I think it aspires to be one even though at least some of the tasks — most notably, e-mail and Web access — can be managed pretty well on it. But a BlackBerry handles e-mail pretty well, too. Furthermore, I think it would be the wrong path for Apple to try to make the iPad more netbook-like; this would work to the detriment of the device experience and would of course risk cannibalizing Apple’s Mac business. So far, the lack of multitasking is even less of an issue on the iPad than on the iPhone as you’re far more likely to be engaged with the device as you use it, and there is less need to have geolocation apps running in the background. Lack of Flash is being addressed by video providers — perhaps even Hulu — working on their own iPad apps.

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The iPad will need more mileage with MPG

Two of the most acute editorial minds in the business used this final week before the introduction of the iPad to weigh in on its impact. Lance Ulanoff says that the iPad, while successful, won’t be a game changer whereas Mike Elgan characterizes the iPad as a paradigm shift and the dawn of the era of “MPG” (Multitouch, Physics, Gestures) computing.

in fact, the perspectives are not irreconcilable. Lance discusses the iPad as a product standing on its own merits whereas Mike discusses it more as a symbol of what the future of computing could hold. There is a certain approachability and natural quality about “MPG” that I believe helped the iPhone broaden the smartphone market even before apps came on the scene. However, that doesn’t mean that the difference is necessarily enough to force a new device class into consumers’ hands, particularly when there is significant and well-understood quasi-competition such as netbooks..

Indeed, Mike characterizes Microsoft’s Surface table as an “MPG” device, but price size and other factors have prevented Surface from cracking the mass market or even the consumer market. That said, I believe Microsoft is working on ways to make at least part of Surface available on smaller LCDs

I found it an interesting coincidence that, in a recent Laptop Magazine piece, fellow analysts Tim Bajarin, Roger Kay, and Michael Gartenberg – all long-time Apple watchers – agreed with me that first year estimates for the iPad are in the five million unit range. As I noted in that article, it’s an auspicious start, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the iPad will displace anything or becoming so much of a need-to-have that it becomes firmly established as the elusive “fourth screen.”