Pondering the post-Palm Pre iPhone

image Predictions that we would see an iPhone nano at Macworkd Expo this year turned out to be wrong but rumors persist nonetheless. There’s no indication that this alleged new iPhone is cheaper or smaller, but that’s a direction that would be in step with how Apple evolved the iPod. And if you really want something iPhone-like but smaller with multitouch and a keyboard, that’s coming soon.

Given the relatively big font size used throughout the iPhone display, Apple could probably get away with a somewhat smaller screen, perhaps 3.2”, but I couldn’t see it getting much smaller than that. It’s just that other technologies in the device seem so intrinsic to its operation that it’s difficult to see where Apple would reasonably cut corners. Flash memory is one variable and we’ve certainly seen Sony and Microsoft experiment with different storage capacities to diversify their fixed videogame platform.

I’m actually more interested in what Apple will do to advance the iPhone in the next generation or high end and that is an even bigger quandary. The iPhone 3G nailed the two biggest targets in faster data and GPS and I’d expect the next iPhone to have a higher-resolution camera with autofocus. That’s an easy win.. Video capture would of course be nice especially for early adopters who use Qik and similar services. It would be great to see the iPhone be a more active contributor to iLife content.

But the other hardware gaps seem like things that Apple purposely wants to avoid – a physical keyboard, a memory card slot, and stereo Bluetooth. Perhaps, though, Apple will finally open the dock connector to third parties. It would probably take about three days for companies to announce add-on keyboard cases that turn the iPhone or iPod touch into a clamshell device, which would be a godsend for composing anything longer than a paragraph on the go.

The other big opportunities are software improvements. There are three that top my wish list:

  1. Just as the original Mac moved from single-tasking to multitasking, so must the iPhone. Apple displays Safari pages in a manner similar to the way Palm isplays applications and could extend that system to applications. If Apple isn’t going to embrace true multitasking yet, at least use a tile metaphor to streamline application launching. But true multitasking seems like an eventuality to me as Moore’s Law continues to reign.
  2. Organizing icons around the home screen gets unwieldy with many applications and screens. Screens should have names like folders. While we’re at it, how about a setting to automatically update applications?
  3. Universal – or at least e-mail – search. This is the killer Blackberry feature.

Subway Now relies on silicon. Sand? Which?

image This post is a bit off the menu, if you will, but I harbor some doubt about how popular Subway Now, the sandwich chain’s online and wireless pickup service, will work. As anyone who has ever been to a Subway knows, the sandwich is made before you by the eatery’s “sandwich artists.” I’ve long had a pet theory that people – at least abused Manhattanites – enjoy going to Subway in the middle of a work day because it provides an opportunity for them to bark orders interactively at somebody else – “Not too much sauce! More lettuce!” It’s the opposite of Seinfeld’s famous “Soup Nazi” experience. Once, I had to contain myself as a woman in line ahead of me– delighted that the perparer had finally accurately gauged that she wanted enough mayonnaise on her sandwich to enable the top layer of bread to float above the vegetables drowning inches below — purred in anticipatory self-reference, “Yeah, that’s how she likes it.”

Such immediate feedback and nuance will be hard to recreate in the asynchronous bit stream that is online sandwich ordering – just three easy steps. (It shouldn’t be a quiz, no?) And Subway is bringing back an expedited version of its former long-running Sub Club loyalty program for a limited time. Oder three sandwiches via Subway Now and your fourth is free. In any case, even if you order via Subway Now, you still have to get yourself to the store to pick up your order. Be sure to walk there and make Jared proud.

Crunch time for the CrunchPad

image This week, TechCrunch took the wraps off the second milestone prototype of what was to be the $200, MacBook Air-thin browsing tablet now being called the CrunchPad (not a bad name, actually). The good news is that, even though this latest prototype is a little beefy, the team still believes that the final design, should it be made, would be about 0.7”. It’s far easier for a “pure” tablet to achieve such a slim profile than a clamshell.

The bad news is that the $200 price point indeed has proven unattainable and the final product would be closer to $300 in price. Who would have thought? Even at $300, the VIA Nano-based tablet would be far more capable than the RDP-based Smart Displays Microsoft launched back in 2003 and at a third of the price. But something else has changed since those days, too – the advent of the iPhone and iPod touch, which provide a decent Web experience for even less. Unlike those products, the CrunchPad can handle Hulu and other Flash video, but those are longer usage scenarios that are well-suited to netbooks that can run native apps beyond a browser and have a real keyboard.

There are some interesting usage scenarios around the CrunchPad. It could idly serve as a digital picture frame until it’s needed or be nice raw materials for custom installers, but in general the market likely does not extend far beyond the Web-obsessed TechCrunch reader, who can use it to manage their Chumbys.

Capping off more accurate white balance

imageThose who hold reverence for RAW cite as one of its advantages the ability to compensate for poor white balance in Photoshop after the shot is taken without destroying the integrity of the photo. Fair enough, but it’s still less of a pain in the aperture to capture it correctly the first time, and important to do so if you’re shooting JPEG.

Well, adorable online photo boutique Photojjojo is selling an interesting alternative to the gray card called the White Balance Lens Cap. Set your camera to capture custom white balance with the cap on and it supposedly perfectly captures the white balance of the lighting in front of you. The cap includes domes for neutral or warm color. At $45 to $65 depending on the size of the lens, it’s certainly cheaper than a gray card, but looks like a nice accessory purchase or gift for the more discerning photographer.

Slacker iPhones it in

imageNot long after the release of the iPhone, I pleaded for a version of Slacker for the device. The application has arrived but, unfortunately without the feature that motivated me to want it — offline listening. According to Slacker, implementing offline caching of Slacker radio stations of the iPhone would require significantly more development. However, the feature is available today for Blackberry Bold users and some have got it working on the Storm even though an updated version officially supporting the touchscreen Blackberry is in the works..

While there are a number of fine Internet radio applications from Pandora, FineTune, last.fm, Deezer and others already for the iPhone, the Slacker Radio application will at least allow users of the service to access their favorite channels. Slacker has certainly been belying its name, churning out versions of its service that runs on the new Audiovox Internet radio and Sony Bravias, but those are home products that have limited need for offline access the iPhone version could really use.

slotRadio is not a radio. Discuss.

imageAs my column discussing some of the contrarian products launched in 2008 focused on startups, I didn’t mention slotMusic, but it certainly would have qualified had I expanded the column to bigger companies.

SanDisk’s first slotMusic player was about as basic a digital music player as there has ever been and today at CES, SanDisk is launching a follow-on bundled with 1,000 songs on a microSD card for $100. The spin is that there is so much music that the consumer is enjoying a radio-like experience. Outside the content angle, though, this could be considered a step-up slotMusic player. with a 1.5″ OLED screen (and still presumably no USB). I wonder if SanDisk will also make the music card available on its own for use with other products that might fit the bill, such as its own Fuse.

If 1,000 songs for $100 sounds too good to be true, the songs are tied to the card (unlike most slotMusic albums that are DRM-free). slotRadio has been announced a day after latecomer Apple has finally announced that its market-leading iTunes store will go DRM-free by the spring. slotRadio has also appeared as more Internet radios continue to appear in the home and elsewhere.

SanDisk deserves credit for trying to make digital music more accessible and available through distribution that hasn’t been able to capitalize well on the transition (at least from the content side). And maybe this is all a ploy to get more microSD players in the market, but I thought that that SanDisk had given up for good on DRM-protected memory cards with Gruvi. Revisiting protection  risks clouding the DRM-free messaging around slotMusic.

Update: After a bit more investigation, it turns out that the first slotRadio player from SanDisk can indeed receive FM radio, but that seems even less of an incidental feature as it is on the Zune.  It also has a USB port. slotRadio cards can be played only on the player for now, but SanDisk has plans to expand support, including via a firmware update to the Fuse.

After Chrome, Safari faces getting lost in the woods

imageThis isn’t one of those Macworld Expo predictions posts that will inundate the blogosphere in the coming weeks. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple announce Safari 4 at Macworld Expo as Google’s Chrome browser has left beta.

Chrome has mostly been portrayed as bad news for Firefox, particularly given Google’s previous support for the Mozilla browser, but it may also serve to blunt the impact of one of Apple’s most recent — and most questioned — Windows software dalliances. As folks who have had their cars damaged as they drove through jungle parks will tell you, a safari and chrome don’t mix, and the competitive browsers are yet another case of Apple and Google making for strange bedfellows.

Speaking of Safari (and for that matter, iTunes) for Windows. using Apple applications for PCs reminds me of the bad old days of Microsoft Office for the Mac when Microsoft would ponderously overlay the Windows user interface onto its software in the name of preserving cross-platform consistency (as opposed to today where it simply asks Mac users to use software with the name Windows in it). It was as user-hostile move for Microsoft as it is today for Apple, which should change the button designs, fonts, window styles and controls to match Windows conventions better.

The fast and the fragmented

imageThe spotlight shone on the three largest US carriers who will drive 4G adoption in the U.S. as executives spoke at conferences held by their partners and vendors this week  First, there were comments by AT&T’s Roger Smith at a Symbian conference  that AT&T would seek to standardize on one smartphone operating system. Many observers chortled that it was at best uncharacteristic for the operator that has pursued a handset strategy of broad selection and exclusives to do so, or that it was even unrealistic to think it could.

However, the key phrase was “AT&T-branded,” and subsequent dialog implied that this this would include handsets such as, say, the AT&T Tilt, but not devices that included brands such as Nokia and Samsung. In my further discussion with AT&T, they’ve backed off even this position, which seems to have been more of a wistful musing stemming from the frustration of developer fragmentation and support headaches.

Verizon, of course, has also felt that pain, and is seeking to offload some of that support burden with its open development initiative while expanding its handset choice via LTE. At a Cisco conference, CTO Dick Lynch said that it would have LTE “in service somewhere.. probably” at this time next year. That sounds a lot like operator-speak for a trial. Even so, if Verizon can get to mass deployment by the middle of 2011, it would mitigate the time-to-market advantage of Sprint and Clearwire. Lynch also made the bolder prediction that “broadband capabilities will be found in virtually every electronics product out there.” That’s rich fodder for another discussion.

And speaking of Sprint and operating systems, Google’s Rich Miner is slated to speak at Sprint’s developer conference hot off the momentum of attracting 14 new members to the Open Handset Alliance, including Sony Ericsson, which has dipped its toe deeper into the U.S. smartphone market with the XPERIA X1. Sprint Nextel, which has been supporting three network deployments (WiiMAX, CDMA and iDEN) and a variety of business models (Sprint post-paid, Boost pre-paid, and aggressive MVNO leasing in their brief heyday), has he most complex business among the four major carriers.

While the Open Handset Alliance is trying to mitigate Android’s fragmentation within its own ecosystem, the bottom line is that it’s impossible to embrace openness without additional complexity as operators must let different ecosystems compete. This is particularly true when, as Lynch said at the Cisco event, carriers are trying to move away from bundling the phone and service to where consumers — advanced ones for the near-term — will mix and match devices and data and the business looks progressively even less like the cable industry. As consumer choice expands, carriers will need to move toward more of a partnership support model as more traffic will be coming from devices outside of their handset portfolio. Take, for example, the early example of the Amazon Kindle. Consumers don’t call Sprint if they have a problem with it.

In a saturated market like the U.S.,and faced with the Internet chameleon, carriers have no choice but to diversify. By and large, only humans have a need for voice communications on a wireless network. But while Lynch’s prediction of universal broadband enablement may lie far in the future, devices — and the ways in which consumer use them — have nearly infinite usage permutations.

A Kensington cable reaches across the aisle

image At the launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft promoted Belkin’s Easy Transfer Cable, one of a number of cables that can connect two PCs via USB but require the advance installation of software (in this case, LapLink Software’s PCsync). Data Drive Thru, on the other hand, has long been making is own versions of such cables that require no separate software as it is integrated into the cable electronics. Data Drive Thru calls this “No Software To Load” technology and uses the initialism “NSTL” (not that NSTL) to brand it. The company’s earlier product, apparently named in an homage to Hank Williams, was the Move It On Over cable. It was later upgraded to the more meteorologicaly-themed The Tornado. Both featured retractable USB cables.

Data Drive Thru has long promised a cross-platform version of The Tornado and has one featured on its site called iTornado, but it still apparently won’t be ready until the first quarter of next year. So Kensington has stepped in with the more awkwardly structured and named Kensington Media Sharing Cable.

Still, it works quite well, bringing up a two-paned user interface for easily dragging files back and forth across platforms with a two-paned window similar to The Tornado’s user interface. Placing the rectangular bulge near the cable’s middle would provide more flexibility around the port and possibly easier visibility for its LED. It t would also be nice if there were the option to have one computer hard drive mount on the other computer desktop, but that’s why there are crossover Ethernet cables.

Belkin has also recently jumped back into the fray with the “Switch-to-Mac” cable that ships with software that enables a Windows PC to be used with the Mac’s migration assistant. I’m looking into whether it can also be used for more ad hoc data transfers.

Meet the parents, iPhone edition at Gizmodo Gallery

The pictured Cidco iPhone, one of the last gasps of a company that had made its name in Caller ID boxes and part of a class of information appliances called “screenphones” in the mid-’90s, may have predated Apple’s sleeker 3G version by a decade. But among the technoddities on display at Gizmodo Gallery last night, I was far more interested in some even older vintage tech than he 103″ Panasonic plasma TV since I will be seeing my fill of freakishly large televisions next month.

Among a 19th Century vintage portable typewriter, the first Sony Walkman, and the Bell Labs’ videophone used at the 1964 World’s Fair, there were also two Frog Design prototypes of an Apple tablet Mac and an Apple screenphone. You could almost hear all the iPhones packed in the room whispering, “Mommy?”

There’s a gallery of the gallery after the break.

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