Samsung’s retail compromise

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.

Microconsoles are not netbooks

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.

Putting the “mobile” in mobile hotspot

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.

Live Tiles’ deep-pinning redemption

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.

Keeping Chrome and Android separate is the right move

SiliconAngle reports on Eric Schmidt’s debunking of the notion that Google’s two operating systems — Android and Chrome — would be converging any time soon in light of both teams now reporting up to the same executive, Sundar Pichai. And, no, he’s not bluffing. The three big ecosystem players today each have two operating systems that are split either on optimization for keyboard and mouse or form factor.

Google’s line in the sand is not as defined as its competitors. It has recently added touch capability to Chrome (on its own hardware, no less) and supports keyboard and mouse input well enough to inspire a kid-friendly desktop.) But while Chrome will probably one day support native code as HTML 5 evolves to accommodate it, Chrome OS is a statement in the belief of the power of the Web and that it is the ultimate destination for app functionality. While the temptation to infuse it with Android’s market momentum may be great, Android plus Chrome OS is essentially the Chrome browser on Android. And that’s already here.



A little less of Logitech

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.

Nokia Music+ still a strong competitor

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 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.

The first iMac was disruptive

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.

With GameStick, game console controllers come full-circle

The hottest tech product in Kickstarter’s Tech section right now is the GameStick, which has already blown past its $100,000 funding goal in the second day of its campaign. Its fast start, software and business model look similar to that of OUTA, which recently shipped its developer version with the consumer products expected to ship in March. GameStick claims it will be right behind it in April. (Sure.)

Whereas OUTA had an attractive industrial design, the GameStick’s is more practical and compact, docking the USB stick-sized “console” into the controller itself. Classic home videogame console aficionados may remember that consoles such as Intellivision and Colecovision had controllers that “docked” (fit, really) inside the consoles. Now, of course, the limiting factor on the size of the controller is ergonomics, but as gesture-based interfaces such as Kinect or that from Leap Motion gain sophistication and popularity, it may be possible to minimize that considerably as well.

Home networking central at CES

In 2014, CTIA will combine its two annual conventions into one, but that isn’t the only sign of smart trade shoe consolidation activity. Groups representing four significant standards organizations will have a unified presence at CES, an alliance of alliances. They are the groups that reign supreme for home networking over coax (MoCA), powerlines (HomePlug) and wireless LANs (Wi-Fi) as well as DLNA, the group that most everybody except outside of Cupertino, CA uses for routing personal (and increasingly premium) content around these networks.

In particular, the groups focused on the media (powerlines, coax, wireless) have come a long way from the days they would argue about which approach was best. Wi-Fi, of course, has emerged as the most popular consumer choice but the home networking boom has offered opportunity for multiple topologies. That’s not to say that all home networking standards will be represented at the CES love-in. Notably absent is HomeGrid, the HomePlug and MoCA rival. Still, this should provide a great glimpse of home networking applications from multiple perspectives.