A pit stop in the Android tablet race to the bottom

Leaving the Surface RT in Microsoft’s shiny new Surface 2 lineup lets Microsoft offer a product that is closer to the price range of the iPad 2 and iPad mini. It also helps the company save a bit of face after the RT’s dramatic price decline in the wake of flagging sales. What it doesn’t do, though, is enable Microsoft’s first-party tablet efforts to play in the fastest-growing segment of the tablet market, products that are small (7″) and cheap (sub-$200). Apple isn’t playing in each of those subsegments, either, but it’s closer than Microsoft in both. I’ve written before about how the breakneck price compression in the small Android tablet market has forced manufacturers such as HP and HiSense to cut prices at or shortly after introduction. The latter’s Sero 7 LT is now available for well under $100 at Walmart while the Tegra 3-equipped Sero 7 Pro has hovered close to a double-digit price tag on sale. But two announcements last week hit pause on the 7″ price avalanche.

Monster, which knows a thing or two about competing in — and even begetting — oversaturated categories, introduced its own M7 7″ tablet in eight different colors with a rounded top right corner that, in a bit of inside baseball, resembles the left half of Monster’s logo. It becomes yet another exclusive for Walmart, which has shown a voracious appetite for inexpensive 7″ Android devices. Not surprisingly, Monster really hopes to differentiate based on the quality of its audio output,. This is a proposition that, at a basic level, hasn’t enabled HP to command much of a pricing premium with its Beats-enabled tablet. Monster will follow up with a 10″ tablet.

Speaking of HP, its second Android tablet, the Slatebook X2, has been early to support NVIDIA’s Tegra 4. But it will soon see some speedy competition from a number of smaller, mostly regional, distributors selling NVIDIA’s Tegra 4-equipped 7″ Tegra Note distributed via NVIDIA’s GeForce card brand companies. The tablet supports NVIDIA’s DirectStylus technology for improving passive stylus performance but — here again — stylus support hasn’t translated into strong market performance for tablets such as the Surface Pro and Galaxy Note tablets.

The M7 has debuted at $149 while the Tegra Notes are coming in at $199 . The way things have been going, though, they may be priced considerably less before long.

Substandard Wi-Fi in the subway

In stark contrast to the thriving wildlife one sees in the tunnels (and occasionally platforms) of the New York City subway system, they have historically been dead zomes when it comes to wireless access and thus a prime candidate for Wi-Fi installations. We’ve now started to see just that happen via the involvement of Boingo, and with a free option even. It sounds like a winning idea, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

Bear in mind that consumers often don’t have a lot of time waiting on the subway platform. They probably just want to catch a last e-mail or send off a last text before before being consigned to 15 to 60 minutes of engaging in the saga of crushed candy. But the free Boingo option requires the user to engage in a task such as watching a video (good luck hearing it without headphones if a train passes by). The last time I tried it, it asked me to download an app I already had and no amount of switching into it could convince Boingo that I wasn’t trying to cheat my way into two precious minutes of Wi-Fi access before the train arrived. Dismiss this as a local rant, but it’s a case study in poor user experience design.

Ideally, it would be great to see a system where you pay for Wi-Fi access when you buy the MetroCard that offers you access to the trains. You would pay a premium on top of the normal fare rate and the MetroCard would include some passcode or QR code — maybe even NFC if we were getting fancy — that grants access. But the MetroCard dispensers would have to be upgraded and I dare not fathom the billing work that would need to happen in the background. It just makes a New Yorker even less patient for the arrival of cellular access.

The local hotspot has suddenly become crowded

In the early days, the three main battery-powered local wireless drives with integrated hotspots were from AirStash, Kingston (WiDrive) and Seagate (the Wireless Plus, nee GoFlex Satellite). And they all nicely fit a market requirement. The AirStash had the flexibility of using SD cards, the WiDrive had integrated flash, and the Seagate product used, unsurprisingly, hard drives for the largest capacity.

Now, however, it seems everyone is jumping in. SanDisk launched a pair of products as did Macally (including one that can accommodate a 2.5″ hard drive or SSD). Kingston introduced a companion to the WiDrive with the pretty obscure name MobileLite. And we recently saw Escort — yes, the radar detector guys — just released its own SD-based model called the MediaFlair complete with a stylized logo that highlights the “air” in the name.

One interesting aspect of these products is that, like their portable cousins, mobile hotspots, they should be able to be handled by a phone app. Of course, phones are often thought of as clients for these kinds of products, but then again some of them (from AirStash, MacAlly and SanDisk) utilize memory cards, and so can phones. The key would be making what’s on those cards more easily shareable, perhaps by making a folder optionally shareable through the personal hotspot feature..

The passing of the mobile pure play

As Palm introduced its failed candidates for salvation, webOS and the Palm Pre at its press conference at CES 2009, the company talked about what it perceived as an advantage versus Google, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. Palm had mobile in its roots and Palm was a mobile-only company. That perceived advantage went out the window when the company was purchased by HP. Then Motorola — or at least Motorola Mobility despite its now-divorced cable equipment ties — was acquired by Google and now Nokia is en route to being absorbed into Microsoft. That leaves the white knight-seeking BlackBerry, which expects to wrap up a transaction by November. Who knows how much of its business may be left intact by then?

Mostly likely, that will be it for the handset pioneers, but there will still be one major handset maker that isn’t substantively in any other device categories: HTC, which is facing its own struggles and volatility. Blame the demise of the mobile pure play on the rise of ecosystems and the scale of a few industry giants such as Apple and Samsung. But mobile pure plays were also a victim of their own success. The revolution that they helped to usher in became so important to consumers that it sprouted ties to other devices in their lives, devices that sometimes had dramatically different design requirements, distribution and cloud-based ties from the smartphone experience.

Talking the Toq with a clever name

The surprise smartwatch announcement of early September was not the broadly anticipated and, well, just broad Samsung Galaxy Gear, but Qualcomm’s Toq watch. In fact, Qualcomm even introduced accessories for it before its release — a charging case and a set of stereo Bluetooth headsets recreating a personal area network like the kind we saw with the Motorola MOTOACTV.

There’s much that remains to be seen of Toq in terms of its final feature set beyond its signature Mirasol display. But Qualcomm has gotten off to a good start with the short device name. Of course, it evokes “tock,” which is fitting for what you’d expect from  a device rooted in time display. Qualcomm also managed to work in the distinctive Scrabble-prized “Q” that begins its corporate name. But it even worked in a secondary pun on “talk,” which is appropriate for a communications product.

While the company emphasizes that Toq is an example of the kinds of products  it wants to primarily build with partners, it’s not a complete stranger to its own consumer devices of late. Its Snaptracs group was behind the Tagg pet tracker. (While it sold off its majority stake, it’s still an investor.) That product requires a subscription, which is always tough at retail. But at least from the name, it’s off to a great start with its smartwatch.

What we lost with TransferJet

Sony continued its momentum in digital imaging with a particularly strong digital imaging portfolio at IFA. One of the highlights was the $399 “Honey-I-shrrunk-the-DSLR” Alpha A3000 for $399. However, the product that certainly raised the most eyebrows were the $250 QX10 and the $500 QX100 phone accessory cameras, which give new meaning to what is considered a “back.” The cameras, which appear to be just lenses, include the optics and sensors of an average 10x zoom or the superior imaging of Sony’s Cyber-Shot RX100 model. They can attach to Sony’s own XPERIA Z1 with a special case or to other smartphones with a spring-loaded bracket. (Interestingly, though, they support their own storage.)

From there, they communicate with the host smartphone using theiir own Wi-Fi hotspot, which allows for nearly universal compatibility, but which creates many tradeoffs — lag and theinability to connect to another Wi-Fi hotspot among them. This, might say fans of superhero cliches, would be a job for TransferJet. TransferJet enables high-speed data transfers between objects by touching them together, kind of a USB 3.0 cable replacement initiated via NFC. The standard is actually under active development, but updates about it are rare and it hasn’t been seen since finding its way into the palm rests of a few Sony Vaios a while back. And since it’s so marginalized, implementation is expensive, making it impractical to include in a smartphone by Sony, perhaps its biggest champion.

10″ iPads are minivans

In a particularly poignant analogy at the D8 conference in 2010, Steve Jobs compared tablets to cars and PCs to trucks. As the market for tablets has matured, we’re seeing more differentiation between different sizes of tablets. Clearly, Apple started with the 9.7″ iPad, which still retains the main iPad branding proper with the smaller iPad being dubbed the mini. That latter device competes with a host of inexpensvie 7″ Android tablets that grow in number while shrinking in price.

Starting with a 10″ device allowed Apple to significantly differentiate from the iPhone in terms of size and the MacBook in terms of user experience. Had Apple started with the mini, it would have been harder to encourage developers to create more robust apps, something that Android tablets continue to struggle with. But, among users, the temptation is strong to turn the iPad into a faux PC, the new netbook. And indeed, this is the main thrust of the approach — encouraged by Microsoft’s positioning — that PC vendors pursue.

The adoption of smaller tablets has been driven in large part by lower prices, but also by greater portability and practicality. They have replaced e-readers for books in many cases, and are large enough to handle the recreational tablet staples of video, games, maps and books. They haven’t been as great with the Web, but higher resolution is helping with that as well. They are becoming the sedans of the Web while larger tablets are the minivans; they can be pressed into service to haul a bunch of cargo and get things done, but they’re not built for industrial duty.

DataViz restores faith in the iPad office suite

Longtime Mac users may be acquainted with DataViz, founded in 1984, which in the years before OS X offered great utilities for the Mac. Its flagship product, MacLink Plus, allowed one to transfer and translate files of different file formats between Macs and PCs. Its technology was even licensed by Apple via Claris to open a wide range of obscure file formats right from the Open and Save dialogs in its apps. In mobile, the company began jumping in with software for viewing and producing office documents.before much of it was acquired by Research in Motion. Documents to Go was one of the handful of great apps — mostly first-party — for the BlackBerry PlayBook. Under RIM’s ownership, there may have been concerns that the company would neglect other platforms, including those that go back to its roots.

But, perhaps now because BlackBerry 10 is out the door, DataViz has turned its attention back to the Mac for a major update of DocsToGo for iPad. The mobile office had fallen behind QuickOffice, which has also been in something of its own limbo since being acuired by another mobile OS vendor, Google. Both suites had cluttered, cartoony designs, but the DocsToGo refresh has a great, clean look and feel that looks like a modern Google app while integrating nicely with popular cloud storage services. It’s a little slow going through file lists on those cloud services, but perhaps that will become more optimized. There’s even a store for more funcitonality. Wouldst that Blogsy looked this inviting.

Nintendo admits 3D is a gimmick

Nintendo’s products have long had the mysterious power to make unpopular technologies successful. This has been particularly true since the advent of the DS, which saw great success in implementing dual displays (many have failed) and a stylus, and in a portable landscape-oriented clamshell that’s been outré since the days of the LG enV.  What’s even more surprising is that Nintendo generally hadn’t tried to reinvigorate the technologies with a better implementation, as Apple did with capacitive touchscreens.

But things were a little different for the 3DS. I was at its introduction at the Best Buy store in Union Square, where Reggie Fils-Amine poked fun at the glasses required for 3D televisions. (Best Buy people didn’t seem to appreciate the joke.) The 3DS would become one of the most successful 3D products in any category. But there was never any real gameplay dependencies on the 3D. It was just dimensional ornamentation. Indeed Nintendo’s lack of faith in the technology’s universal appeal was embodied in the 3D effect slider (the equivalent of which is common in many 3D products). And now, with the introduction of the wedge-shaped 2DS, Nintendo has basically shown that the emperor has no clothes and that 3DS titles are really little more than graphically advanced DS titles.

Sony, of course, has also bid a hasty retreat from marketing 3D with the PlayStatino 4, — justifiable given the TV dependency, although at least that console still supports it. Nintendo’s willingness to cut the stereoscopy was surely driven by cost, but it makes one wonder how many 3DS users have been keeping that slider turned down all the way since the console’s debut.

The Courier’s path not taken

As I predicted, news of Steve Ballmer’s impending resignation has ushered in a series of articles looking back although the real deluge will no doubt begin when he finally steps down. Tom Warren at The Verge invokes the Courier digital scrapbook/organizer as a missed opportunity:

But perhaps no Ballmer-led decision has gotten more attention than that shelving of the Courier, which had been spearheaded by forward-thinking Microsoft designer J. Allard, back in 2010. The move has served as a rallying cry for Microsoft detractors ever since, a microcosm of a corporate culture where delays — often driven by internal politicking — have put the company behind.

Courier was a daring and differentiated device initiative from Microsoft, the kind that would have created a new category. In that way, it was like the original Surface, the legacy of which is germinating the name for Microsoft’s also-ran but successor-destined tablet. At least the addressable market for Surface has been established by the iPad and been eaten into by cheap 7″ Android tablets such as the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire. But of course, that doesn’t mean everyone has been successful with smartly designed, low-priced and decently distributed tablets.

Courier, unlike the original table-based Surface, was a consumer product, or at least a personal one, and I guess that it would have cost somewhere between $500 and $1,000. I wonder why detractors have adopted it as a rallying cry, though. Innovative as its user interface was, its use case was simply too limited, at least from the videos of it that leaked. Even iPad apps that mimic its design as repositories have failed to attract much buzz. Really the only way to justify Courier is as a statement product like , Courier may have been worth pursuing. Certainly, people were intrigued by it. Assuredly, it couldn’t have done any worse than the ill-conceived Kin..

Obviously, a company does not ship products expecting that they will fail. Assuming that Courier lived up to the promise of its videos, perhaps Microsoft should have shipped the Courier even if it knew it faced an uphill battle. From its ashes, it could have picked up experience that could be repurposed in other products, and enhanced its reputation as an innovator. In the long-term, it is better to fail with a Newton than with a Kin.