There were many promising and intriguing technology projects that AT&T showed off at a Labs event last week. One of the ones that caught my eye was called Ambient Communications (not that kind of ambient). Sort of a hybrid between surveillance (without the negative connotation) and video chat, the system offers a screen of cameras placed around a workplace. A remote worker can check in to see what kind of groupings are forming in a work area. and jump into a video chat with the people there. One question I had was what if the coffee klatch is gossiping about the remote worker! (There are some basic privacy controls.)
It might not be enough to stop the crusade against telecommuting at Yahoo! But it seems like a good potential way to extend the value of videoconferencing beyond desks and allow teleworkers to participate more in the kind of spontaneous discussions that can boost — and inhibit — productivity as a part of office culture.
The HTC First is the first device sold with Facebook Home as the default UI. Normally, when a manufacturer is selected to produce something, it’s called a “design win,” but I wonder how much, if at all, HTC wins by having the First in its portfolio.
The First has been announced just as the HTC One — by far, the most sophisticated phone HTC has ever produced — is coming to market. Unlike when HTC released the One X, there is no lower-end compement (the One V), at least for now, so all the eggs for HTC’s user experience will be in the One basket. HTC will be promoting its flagship via a multi-city tour that will let consumers wrap their hands around the phone’s exceptional design and hear its BoomSound audio system.
And yet, the First seems to be the antithesis of everything HTC is trying to create with the One. It lacks the One’s design, its audio improvements, and of course the refocusing of Sense on Blinkfeed, which is something of a competitor to Facebook Home. In fact, there is almost nothing distinguishing about the First except that it runs a launcher environment that will be available on other phones.
It just gets difficult to reconcile HTC taking ownership of its future with devices like the One as it hearkens back to its origins as a contract manufacturer with something like the First. Perhaps HTC was compensated adequately for its rule in the First’s rollout, but at some point it will be time to pass the baton for things like this to Huaweii or ZTE.
Since Apple stores rose to become the money-printing machines that they are today, several of the company’s competitors have tried to replicate its success. Microsoft has been the most direct of these, often opening up its stores very close to those of Apple. Sony, which operated its own stores years before Apple entered retail, revamped its stores’ layout and sales strategy to focus more on revenue generation. Nokia tried flagship stores in a few cities that flopped. Even Palm for a time had its brand affixed to a number of small airport stores; the format persists today.
But what of Samsung, which many see as Apple’s closest hardware rival today? For years, the electronics giant operated a showcase at Columbus Circle. A museum of modern art and science, virtually all of Samsung’s products were on display there, but you couldn’t purchase any of them. Its closure in the face of Samsung’s surging sales could only be prelude to a bigger retail move in the U.S.
Last week, Samsung’s intentions became manifest as the company decided to partner with Best Buy to open stores-within-a-store at Best Buy and Best Buy Mobile stores, much as Apple has done. The move will help demonstrate Samsung’s tightening ties among its various products, but ultimately is not enough. Samsung has invested enough in its brand over the past decade and now has enough momentum in the U.S. to have its own branded retail experience. It doesn’t need to be at the scale of Apple’s, but there are gains to be made having a consumer’s full attention at a destination.
At TechCrunch, game developer Jawfish Games creative director and game design blogger Tadhg Kelly responds to early reviews of the Ouya game console, particularly one from The Verge. Kelly notes that products such as the Ouya and GameStick should not be compared with the likes of the PlayStation 3 and
(Ouya has also responded and I sympathize with its position that Kickstarter backers received preview editions of the console. That said, and without getting into the semantic rabbit hole of what constitutes a proper “review,” you have to be prepared that someone is going to review it.)
Netbooks were always something of a misnomer. Sure, they could surf the Web like any PC, but there really wasn’t much about them that was cloud-centric. Today’s tablets, with their host of cloud services surrounding their apps, are far more net-centric than netbooks ever were. Netbooks just weren’t great content consumption devices that microconsoles that supposed to be. Kelly notes that nobody would fault a netbook for doing a poor job running Photoshop. Ah, but what if it couldn’t run Office? Or Windows? Or one of the three leading Windows browsers? These were the real killer software franchises for a netbook, their Call of Duty, their Madden football.
And then, of course, there’s the simple and eternal battle for real estate. Fortunately for Ouya, the space around a television is more forgiving of redundancy than that inside a pocket. But consumers must make choices. Is a cheap MP3 player designed to compete with the iPhone 5? No. But have sales of those products suffered in light of iPhone 5s and other high-end smartphones? They have, just as owners of smart TVs and Blu-ray players are less likely to buy a Roku box.
Even if the comparison were more accurate, comparing these products to netbooks isn’t exactly high praise. Netbooks, of course, had a moment in the sun in 2009 after they began shipping with Windows as opposed to custom Linux variants. But all PC vendors have abandoned the category, moving on to ultrabooks that are even less of a faux subcategory than netbooks were. Indeed, microconsoles may be like netbooks in the sense in that they both will likely face tough competition from tablets.
T-Mobile made much ado about the value of its new plans’ simplicity at its Uncarrier event last week. It’s a topic I’ll be writing more on soon but the bottom line is that, despite progress, there’s still room for improvement in that story. One of the complications of the plan come with the usage of mobile hotspot regardless of whether it is created via a separate product or with a smartphone. Consumers must pay an extra $20 for 500 MB worth of hotspot data and can then add 2 GB increments for $10.
When asked about why mobile hotspot is treated as such a black sheep in the flock of simplicity, T-Mobile represnetatives noted that it came down to usage and drew comparisons to caps that are imposed by cable companies that are in the hundreds of gigabytes per month that would put too much strain on the network. But that is not how most people use mobile hotspots. Indeed, they are most inclined to use them when they are outside the home, not as a home broadband substitute.
The solution to this seems pretty simple. There are a host of ways to figure out where a phone or mobile hotspot is being used (GPS, cell tower triangulation, Skyhook-like Wi-Fi hotspot detection). Why not just build the data hit into the plan as long as data usage happens outside the home or some other central locaiton. This could all be done automatically and would not only help T-Mobile improve its plan’s simplicity but make it a smarter user of technology that would further differentiate it from competitors it is trying to portray as behind the times.
I’ve been somewhat cynical of Live Tiles, the quadrilateral user interface centerpiece of Microsoft’s current user interface thrust that includes elements of notification and app launching. Live Tiles’ idea of bubbling up a window into an application’s functionality can also be provided by Android widgets, reducing Windows Phone’s differetiation. Furthermore, the tiles’ scalability isn’t any better than the grid of icons or at least shortcuts (of which they’re a superset) that they seek to displace. This may be one of the drivers behind the smaller tiles that were introduced with Windows Phone 8. Microsoft’s focus on Live Tiles as the primary launcher has relegated the app list to being just that although its alphabet-driven navigation is a great navigational aid.
Android widgets can still do a lot of things Live Tiles can’t do, but Google’s operating system treats them as an extension of the program. Indeed, that’s how they’re acquired. In contrast, Windows Phone and Windows 8/RT support deep pinning, which is the ability to take files or even things like contacts and put them alongside apps on that topmost user interface. This came in handy recently when I needed to reference a rehearsal song that needed to be played bak over and over o different occasions. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that there is some media player for Android that supports making a playlist widget and I could have made a playlist with just that song, etc., but with Windows Phone it was easy — long-tap on the song, in the default media player, choose Pin to Start, and done.
Fueled in part by earnings announcements, the past two weeks have brought in a flurry of news regarding the home networking device world. Linksys will leave the enterprise-minded Cisco to become part of Linksys. Its competitor Netgear will scoop up Sierra Wireless’ personal hotspot business, joining its acquisition of the Vuezone line of networked cameras via Avaak last year. And Logitech will leave the networked camera space in which it competed with the Alert system, formerly the Wi-Life offering from Lukwerks that it acquired a while back.
For Logitech, the divesting or dismantling of the Alert and Harmony lines represent a Waterloo in what had been a long string of successful acquisitions. In particular, the company had executed well in building the Harmony business after purchasing its originator Intrigue. The logic flowed that the remote control would be to the television what the mouse and keyboard — Logitech’s original core business — was to the PC.
As for Alert, it is a well-designed system, but one that just requires a bit too much work and expense for the average consumer. To its credit, Logitech sought to decrease the reliance on a PC server to simplify its operation, but an unmonitored solution is a relatively tough sell for something aimed squarely at security. In contrast, the VueZone product that Netgear has picked up — like the Wi-Fi-based Hive product –has more of a sporadic check-in/social angle.
But Logitech will still rely heavily on at least one relatively recent and somewhat unusual acquisition for growth. With Ultimate Ears, it picked up a professional in–ear monitor brand after a lackluster first effort in the premium headphone market under its own brand. Not only has it entered the headphone horserace along with countless others (but relying on acoustic cred rather than celebity endorsement, but it has expanded the brand to wireless speaker products as well. Logitech is also getting back to its input periperhal roots in making up for a late start in tablet accessories. While its best-selling Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad was well-received out of the gate, it has been the closest response to the Surface click-in keyboards to which iPad users had access, at least until recently.
The subscription music space doesn’t seem to stray far from its state of equilibrium. Services such as Yahoo! Music and Napster 2.0 get absorbed into Rhapsody, or MOG disappears, and a Rara.com comes on the scene keeping variations on the theme intact. Nokia Music has long been a particularly strong offering as a free service, providing a key part of the of Slacker Plus caching functionality for free.
Now Nokia is looking to monetize the offering with a $3,99 per month fee that brings unlimited skips, on-demand downloads and multi-screen access. It represents aggressive pricing for on-demand mobile access to tracks when compared to, say, Spotify or Rhapsody. Nokia will still likely keep the offering exclusive to Windows Phone and out of the hands of the Android infidels, but perhaps we’ll see elements of it migrate to iOS the way that the Nokia Here app has.
Dan Pallotta at the Harvard HBR Blog Network enumerates many points that demonstrate investor irrationality regarding Apple’s recent stock slide. The piece is well-supported, but I’d take issue with one point. In pointing out how Steve Jobs (after his return), like Tim Cook, did not introduce any disruptive products in his first year as CEO. Pallotta notes
[B]ear in mind that four years elapsed from the time Steve Jobs took back the reins until the iPod was introduced.
That’s true, but if Pallotta considers the iPad mini disruptive, then he must also consider the iMac, introduced soon after Jobs’ return in 1998, disruptive. The first iMac was a bold design. It retired the floppy drive and it jump-started USB. It’s also surprising that one who is such an astute student of Apple history fails to mention that Apple did, in fact, invent a Time Machine.