Congratulations, you’ve won a Switchie. What is it?

image Since 2005, I’ve written a year-end column called The Switchies in which I’ve highlighted some of the most significant, innovative, or best products of the year. The recognition is real. However, the criteria and even categories, in which there are never other nominees but sometimes runners-up, are completely arbitrary. Call it my “best of the year” if you will.

On occasion, representatives from companies that have had products mentioned in the column have sent me a note thanking me, understanding that the column is simply a bit of a tongue-in-cheek shout-out and not a formal award. I even created a hokey contrived expansion to fit the acronym Switchie — the Saluting Wares Improving Technology’s Contribution to Humanity awards. And this time, I even joked that the awards were hastily distributed behind the Engadget trailer at CES, evoking an image of a fence operation, and that the rise in gold prices had forced a cutback in statuettes. And, of course, as it says at the end of every Switched On column, views expressed in the column are my own (and by extension not those of Engadget’s editors).

But for 2008, the Switches hit prime time for some reason. One PR representative asked me (and Engadget apparently) whether there was a logo that her client could use for winning a Switchie. I explained the deal to her. And then another company put out a press release promoting that it had won a Switchie, awarded by “the experts at Engadget.com” and quoting “the judges” yet making no mention of me or the Switched On column. Engadget, in fact, does have its own awards, which are Reader’s Choice awards.

I notified the company that the Switchie is not a formal award and is certainly not awarded by Engadget’s editors but is simply a reflection of my opinion. However, the press release is still out there. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to promote that you’ve “won” a Switchie (or just noting that you were mentioned in the column would be even better), but it’s misleading to characterize it as an Engadget award. I suppose I’ll have to take stronger measures next year to avoid any confusion.

Windows 7 gets SKU(were)d

image I finally installed the Windows 7 beta on a (low-end) PC this week and so far the improvements look promising. I also became aware of a new feature in the ATA architecture that Microsoft will support in the OS called TRIM that should help with performance of SSDs. But, as I’ve often said, it isn’t the feature set that has been responsible for Windows Vista’s criticism. it’s been performance and compatibility.

Or maybe it’s simply a curse. Since the watershed that was Windows 95, every other consumer operating system that Microsoft has released in the past 10 years has been received poorly:

  • Windows 98: positive reaction
  • Windows ME: negative reaction
  • Windows XP: positive reaction
  • Windows Vista: negative reaction

In any case, Microsoft was raked over the coals this week for announcing that Windows 7 will be available in six different flavors, ranging from Starter to Ultimate. This will certainly leave the company open to the barbs that Apple has slung at it, including the “wheel of operating systems” commercial that is part of the Long-Hodgman “Get a Mac” ads as well as the joke at WWDC that Mac OS “standard version” and “professional version” are the same price (because they are, of course, one and the same).

But, despite the longstanding rivalry and multiple points of competition, Microsoft’s business is very different than Apple’s, and Microsoft has major consistencies that Apple does not have to focus on as much or at all, including PC manufacturers, enterprises, and retailers. Therefore, Windows 7 Enterprise, for example, shuld be available only to customers only on Microosft’s enterprise license plans. Starter wlll have hardware constraints so that it runs only on netbooks (and, as I mentioned to Gene Steinberg yesterday in his Mac Night Owl podcast, allowing users to run three apps at once is two apps more than the iPhone allows).

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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.