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.

The phonification of Galaxy tablets

A while back on my old blog, I wrote about the role of fixed navigation buttons on smartphones. Looking back to that time, the convention was:

  • Android: most commonly four buttons on phone, no button on tablet (though there were variations)
  • iOS: one button, still unchanged despite rumors to the contrary
  • Windows Phone three buttons, also unchanged
  • webOS: one button, made somewhat redundant by swipe gestures on the Touchpad
  • Playbook OS: no buttons, which held up for the BlackBerry 10 OS.

MeeGo, in its cameo moment upon the smartphone stage, had no fixed navigation buttons. And from what I can see of Sailfish or Firefox OS, it is also true for them in their initial implementations. More significantly (at least for the U.S. market), Windows 8 and RT tablets have one Start (home) button, which means that, unlike with Android, the user interfaces are subject to de jure discontinuity Over time, the Search button has waned on Android phones, and most recent flagships support either three (Droid DNA) or no buttons. The trend seems to be toward the latter with the Sony XPERIA Z Ultra, Moto X and LG G2.

Samsung, though, has taken an interesting hybrid approach on its most recent handsets such as the Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S4, centering a physical “Home” button between two capacitive ones (that I still count that as three overall). More curiously, though, and starting with the Galaxy Note 8.0, Samsung ha shifted from no buttons on its tablets to the same kind of button layout on its tablets. Indeed, the Galaxy Note 8.0 looks very much like a large Galaxy S4.

Including the button on a smaller tablet makes sense as it enables more screen real estate to be used by apps. This may be especially true for an S-Pen-enabled device where there’s some presumption of use in portrait landscape a la notepad. And this is particularly true for Samsung, which of course wants to reinforce industrial design and user interface across phone and tablet as Apple has done. Still, three buttons seems like too much on a tablet, and the placement gets increasingly awkward with larger sizes such as the latest Galaxy Tab 10.1. I think Samsung would do well to revert back to the buttonless design on at least that tablet, even if it takes a differentiation hit.

Acer’s Aspire R7: a pad too far

While nearly all of its PC rivals with the exception of Toshiba had been experimenting with all kinds of clamshells that contort  and break apart in both Windows 8 and RT flavors, Acer has been playing it pretty close to traditional clamshell form factor. That all changed when the company released its Aspire R7 and P3. The P3 takes a page from any number of Bluetooth keyboard cases for iOS and Android tablets; both the keyboard and the tablet can be removed from its rubbery encasing.

The Aspire R7, is more of a unique offering. In some ways, it is similar to other devices with novel hinges such as the Dell XPS Duo 12 (carrying on the tradition of the Inspiron Duo, a 10″ netbook that itself took some cues from the old Windows CE-based Vadem Clio). However, unlike the Clio, which lacked a trackpad, and the Duo, which has it where you’d expect it, the Aspire R7 puts the trackpad behind the keyboard.

Now, its not unheard of for pointing devices, particularly on a space-constrained notebook, to be in odd locations, but there’s ample room for a full-sized trackpad on the R7. Acer claims that it did this so you could move the touchscreen closer to the keyboard for a more intimate experience, but that blocks the touchpad entirely. Perhaps using the distant trackpad isn’t as awkward as it looks, but it’s surprising that Acer didn’t put in a trackstick or some kind of bundled Bluetooth trackpad like the ones that come with Vizio all-in-ones or a pop-out one reminiscent of the pop-out mouse on the HP OmniBook 300.

The design of the Aspire R7 highlights the conflict between touchscreen and pointing device that we’ve seen played out in smartphones. Several BlackBerrys and the T-Mobile G1 as well as other Android phones had separate trackballs and later trackpads to add complementary precision to the touchscreen. I was personally a fan of the BlackBerry thumb trackpad (probably the best UI feature of tortured early touchscreen BlackBerrys). However, perhaps due in part to higher resolution displays that allow easier selection, they have faded away like smartphone keyboards.  It is but one more way in which the value of Windows 8′s legacy support must be questioned.

A big week for ecosystems

In the lull following the shipment of the Galaxy S4 and before Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference in June, two former market share leaders will reveal their next move in contending for establish the #3 smartphone ecosystem. I’ve written before about the contrasts between Nokia and BlackBerry, nee RIM, in their battle for the bronze.

BlackBerry has already says that its Z10 and Q10 will be their flagships for some time while it fills out the lower end. This would be in keeping with the R10 rumors that have been circulating. However, at the launch of those handsets, the company said that it was committing to the screen resolutions on those devices to facilitate development and that it wants to aspire to be an aspirational brand, so it will be interesting to see where the cuts go downmarket.

On the other hand and from half a world away, Nokia will be throwing its own party rivaling the BlackBerry Live confab being held in Orlando this week. Given that it has been nine months since Nokia’s last flagship, the Lumia 920, was introduced In New York, and that the company has just rounded out the low-end with the 520 series, we may be seeing a new assault on the high-end.

Both companies barbs against the current shortcomings of Android may be short-lived, however, as Google will almost certainly reveal details about Key Lime Pie, the next version of the world’s most popular mobile operating system, later this week.