iPad pricing: An ounce of perception

Over at Technologizer, Harry McCracken has a great post comparing some of the early skepticism around the iPad to that of the iPhone; it was a topic that came up in the TUAW Talkcast that I participated in last night. Personally, while I certainly remember some skepticism regarding the lack of a physical keyboard or 3G (the latter ultimately addressed) in the original iPhone, I remember the overall reaction as far more positive than that for the iPad. Most people were impressed by the iPhone, but turned off by its pricing whereas the iPad pricing has been perceived as quite reasonable or perhaps even aggressive.

But is it? Over at The NPD Group Blog, I’ve provided my take on its value versus standalone electronics, but let’s look at more directly competitive products. The answer is yes if you compare it to Tablet PCs or Apple’s notebooks, maybe if you compare it to netbooks, and not so much when you compare it to some of the other large tablets introduced by startups in the past year, at least on the face value of hardware.

Take, for example, the embattled Joojoo by Fusion Garage, which also intends to debut at $499. It has a 12” capacitive touchscreen as opposed to the iPad’s 9.7” screen, and it can handle Flash and Hulu, albeit with only half the battery life of the iPad. Then there’s Always Innovating’s Touch Pad with an 8.9” touchscreen and a keyboard attachment that turns it into a functional, albeit non-Windows-based, netbook. Like the iPad, it boasts ten hours of battery life and costs just $299 or $399 with the keyboard.

Neither of these products blow away the iPad in terms of absolute pricing or value, but remember that they are from small startups with no brand and are producing limited volumes compared with the millions of units that the iPad will likely ship in 2010. The iPad’s price is a breakthrough judged against the fictional rumors that preceded it, rumors that may have been based on features and added cost it did not have. Not to take anything away from the engineering that went into offering the iPad at its price, but it’s pretty easy to hit a bullseye when the rest of the world is giving you the side of a barn on which to paint it.

PAN-fried Apple

image While they clearly add value to Apple’s products, it doesn’t appear as though Apple is too enamored of the emerging category of devices that use Wi-Fi to imbue products with capabilities they were never designed to include. Examples include Novatel Wireless’s MiFi (and Sprint’s 4G Overdrive by Sierra Wireless), the Tivit product for serving free over-the-air mobile digital television to Wi-Fi-capable devices, and the AirStash SD card-based server-in-a-stick.

Take the oldest of these, the MiFi, which helped pioneer the category. It’s become somewhat of an in-joke among iPhone users that the MiFi is the best way to address poor AT&T cellular coverage. It is a great accessory for iPod touches and MacBooks, particularly given that Apple doesn’t offer integrated 3G on its notebooks. Yet, you won’t find them at the Apple Store even though I’m sure Sprint or Verizon would be happy to have the Apple Store sales machine pumping them out to affluent customers. Perhaps it comes down to a contractual agreement with AT&T that Apple can’t offer products by rival carriers, but I doubt it.

Tivit is an even more interesting example. It would appear to be a great companion particularly for the new iPad, turning it into a large-screen mobile television perfect for, say, cars while avoiding taxing of the AT&T network. But it also stands to cannibalize Apple’s iTunes TV download business and, unlike MiFi, requires client software. I’m sure the iPhone and iPod touch are high on the target client list; we’ll see if the software passes Apple’s approval process.

This got me thinking about Apple’s continued reluctance to put Adobe Flash on its iPhone OS-powered devices, including the iPad, where its absence challenges the credibility of Apple’s claim that the iPad provides a better Web experience than a notebook. What if someone created a device, or an app for a device such as the MiFi, that would transcode Flash on the fly, similar to the way the Skyfire browser for Windows Mobile works. Would Apple block it, assuming it could? It could be some developer’s covered wagon ride to Apple’s touted gold rush.

Segway too slow to escape mocking

image Earlier this month, San Jose Mercury-News columnist Chris O’Brien provided a great retrospective of Segway, Inc., which was recently acquired by a UK company after burning through more than $160 million. O’Brien reminded that the Segway was introduced to great fanfare in 2001 as the greatest advance in transportation since the automobile, but ultimately became a pop culture joke, a comic relief prop in movies such as “Paul Blart, Mall Cop.”

This got me thinking about two of the Segway’s other supporting roles — transporting the Wikipedia-editing, Klingon-speaking geek played by “Weird Al” Yankovic in his “White ‘& Nerdy” parody and as the signature ambulatory aid of incompetent playboy magician GOB (pictured) in the sorely missed TV series Arrested Development. In all of these examples, the Segway is the product associated with a buffoon. Often, companies pay to have their product placed in movies so they can be associated with heroes such as Jack Bauer or James Bond. But what if any recourse do companies have for having their products associated with dolts?

By the time Arrested Development debuted in 2003, the writing may have already been on the wall for Segway, at least as a consumer product. Unfortunately for the company, the enthusiasm for the transportation aid by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak likely helped to inspire “Weird Al” Yankovic to use the Segway in his video, which goes to show that unpaid endorsements by the “wrong people” can have adverse effect. And it was Segway’s own target market of security personnel that may have led to the product being so prominently featured in the Kevin James vehicle. Perhaps Segway even saw this as an opportunity to promote to business customers, but the cumulative effect was to knock the product down in a way that no gyroscope could right.

Tivit is the MiFi of mobile DTV (sort of)

image The results of the multi-year effort to bring over-the-air digital broadcasts to mobile handheld devices will bear fruit in 2010 as we see the first devices that support MDTV. As I noted in a recent Webinar, the addressable market for mobile DTV includes tens of millions of devices with screens, including cell phones, notebook PCs, portable DVD and flash-based media players, rear seat entertainment systems, tablets, e-readers, portable game consoles, maybe even portable navigation devices (outside the car, of course) and digital picture frames.

But one of the more intriguing devices that can receive the new MDTV standard, as it will be called moving frorward, is the Tivit. In an interesting contrast to FLO TV, which recently rolled out its own dedicated Personal Television, the Tivit has no screen at all, but rather acts as a personal “DTV server” (or “rebroadcaster” to use terminology less palatable to the broadcasters) that can send video to nearby Wi-Fi devices such as cell phones, notebooks, and he iPod touch. Assuming MDTV lives up to its reception claims, this should be an attractive product for use in a vehicle.

Tivit’s operation is very similar to how Novatel’s MiFi delivers 3G access to Wi-Fi devices, with two key differences. The bad news is that,, unlike with the MiFi, client devices will need specific client software to support its output. The good news is that, unlike MiFi, Tivit won’t have a charge for the service it delivers.

Down the line, the two devices may be more competitive than complementary, though. Novatel has built the MiFi to be a platform, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason why Novatel couldn’t deliver a MiFi equipped with an MDTV tuner that subsumed the functions of Tivit.

How to bring DirectLife to a direct halt

imageThose planning to start 2010 on the right foot connected to a healthier body may have been interested in one of the accelerometers married to a monitoring Web site such as the Fitbit or the Philips DirectLife. However, only one of those is currently available as production delays have plagued the Fitbit and the pre-order backlog is scheduled to start shipping again after the end of January.

Enter the DirectLife, which lacks the OLED display of the Fitbit but is waterproof; Philips claims you can even swim with it. The company has also integrated the services of human coaches to help motivate buyers to keep using the DirectLife device.

But their services cost $12.95 per month. What if you want to keep using the DirectLife without their counsel, simply uploading your activity and self-monitoring as you would with the Fitbit, or share the information with your own fitness counselor or coach or doctor? Too bad. If you stop paying the subscription price beyond the four months of service included with the price of the device, the little white gadget turns into a (rather ineffective judging by its bantam characteristics) paperweight, and you lose the ability to upload data.

It’s unfortunate that Philips didn’t take the Fitbit route and enable self-monitoring for free as the Nike+ site also offers, particularly in this emerging device category that faces competition from smartphones and particularly for a target customer who has no problems finding excuses.. If the counselors are good – Philips says they are pre-qualified and they’ve gotten some good early reviews – then their value should be manifest for those who want to take advantage of them after a trial.

Out of the Box is in some good company

imageOnce again, Out of he Box has been named a top analyst blog by Technobabble 2.0. The site held up pretty well in the rankings considering that Jonny Bentwood now lists the top 400 analyst blogs, that there have been far more blogs launched since the last ranking, and that the ranking now takes a more liberal definition of what an “analyst” is. (And based on at least one spot check, may take a somewhat liberal definition of what a blog is as well.)

Out of the Box was ranked #125, exactly one ahead of DisplaySearch Blog, which captures the thoughtful output of my colleagues. I’m also represented elsewhere in the rankings. The NPD Group blog, to which I am a frequent contributor, came in at #108.

Congratulations to my colleagues at The NPD Group and DisplaySearch, and thanks to all Out of the Box readers, subscribers and fans.

The curious case of the CrunchPad collapse

It looks as though my early skepticism about the CrunchPad has been validated. The device has been declared dead due to some bizarre wrangling over intellectual property and freezing out a partner.

Michael Arrington describes Fusion Garage’s gall in trying to sell the CrunchPad without his involvement:

This is the equivalent of Foxconn, who build the iPhone, notifiying (sic) Apple a couple of days before launch that they’d be moving ahead and selling the iPhone directly without any involvement from Apple.

Yet, three paragraphs later, he admits, “Neither we nor Fusion Garage own the intellectual property of the CrunchPad outright.”

I can assure you that there is no confusion at Foxconn about who owns the intellectual property behind the iPhone.

That’s not the only strange paradox. Arrington downplays the financial aspects of the CrunchPad, saying he never expected it to be “a huge business” and that it wasn’t “really about money.”. But he had hired accomplished Silicon Valley talent that had assembled a team, and was clearly cavorting with some big potential partners. These included Intel, possibly Google, and an unnamed national electronics retailer that sounds like it might offer consumers a buy that is best.

Even contracts that are thought to be ironclad are challenged. But the most surprising part is that Arrington, an attorney by trade, would be so careless as to leave so much of the IP in a gray area as to produce the squabbles that took down the CrunchPad — and yet so determined to file lawsuits regarding a product that will never ship and was not expected to drive much revenue. I’m certainly no attorney, but any episode of Judge Judy will teach you in a hurry to make sure you iron out details of any business relationship.

If this is such a dream, why no just find another design and manufacturing partner? There are plenty out there that create products instead of drama.

Designed for cameras, deployed with coffee

image I’ve always gotten a kick out of how folks find that a case or container designed for one object works well for another, particularly when it’s a tech product, of course. I remember, for example, how someone discovered that small zippered book protectors (apparently no longer) sold at Barnes & Noble offered scratch protection (if not much cushioning) for the old NEC MobilePro handheld PCs. More recently, of course, there were the Altoid tins that could hold three UMDs. And I came across one myself a while back when a case designed for an old Palm VII was a great fit for the chunky Archos 5 portable media player.

Well, at the local Starbucks, they’ve been selling these packets of Via instant coffee in a nice little Neoprene pocket done up in seasonal red and green for about $13. It turns out that the pocket is a decent case for a small camera or iPhone, which is not surprising as it’s actually a slim “Hoodie” camera case by Built.  I suppose it’s not a bad deal. You also get some bundled “ready brew” coffee, which is what the case will smell like.

As AirTunes did, Play To must separate source and control

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Comedian George Carlin recognized that necessity is the mother of invention in a comedy routine (Warning: adult language) on the origin of flamethrowers:

“[A]t some point, some person said to himself, ‘Gee, I’d sure like to set those people on fire over there, but I’m way too far away to get the job done. If only I had something that would throw flame on them.. .””

The observation applies to less violent tasks that have driven home technology since the advent of the TV remote control . Indeed, the Windows 7 feature that probably received the most attention at the launch event was Play To. Play To simply enables one to “push” content such as music as photos to compatible DLNA receivers, and Microsoft used it to show how Windows 7 could simultaneously serve ten video streams (over wired gigabit Ethernet,)

But with Play To, unlike as with a flamethrower,  it’s far more likely that you want to “pull” the output from a source than push it. Any serious media receiver around the home such as Sonos, a Logitech SqueezeBox or Apple TV provides a way to navigate sources remotely. This was a usage problem when Apple introduced AirTunes. Another shoe needed to drop and finally did once Apple finally released the Remote software for the iPod touch and iPhone years later.

Microsoft or its partners need to plug the Play To remote hold in similar fashion via iPhone software, Windows Mobile software, or some dedicated device because, in the world of DLNA, the same device can serve as server, renderer and controller, making things very confusing for the consumer. I’ll have more to say on the demands of this level of remote control in the near future.

WPS helps WDS, but not enough

image U.S. households have grown to include digital cameras, multiple digital music players, multiple cell phones and multiple PCs. But, they only need one base station, right?

Maybe. Years ago, a standard called WDS (Wi-Fi Distribution System) was approved that enabled access points to act as bridges or repeaters to extend a Wi-Fi network. Vendors should have heaped love on WDS because it suddenly opened up households to having multiple access points. And even better (from their perspective) WDS was most likely to work if the base stations came from the same company.

But lack of interoperability was only one of the problems of WDS, which could also involve a serious performance hit. WDS has become less relevant in an age of 802.11n networks with superior range. And WDS has been hard to configure. You have d to enter the MAC addresses of both the “server” and “client” WDS nodes and there has usually been little to no feedback that the access points were linked.

Not surprisingly, Apple got around this by using Bonjour to link WDS access points with two simple check boxes in the AirPort Utility. But now, other companies should be able to approach that level of ease by using Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which uses a button on the router to more easily connect other network products. Even if WPS works for adding WDS repeaters, the tradeoffs and arcane nature of the standard will prevent it from being more of a mainstream consumer phenomenon, though. What we really need is true Wi-Fi mesh networking. I know standards have been kicking around IEEE for a long time, but as far as I know one has yet to be approved.