MiiPC gets a double-memory configuration option

What OUYA has been to game consoles, MiiPC has been to desktops — a small, inexpensive Android device that is looking to take on the giants of their industry with disruptive business models. MiiPC sprang from an established company whereas OUYA was forged from little more than an idea, but both benefitted from successful Kickstarter campaigns offering the boxes for $99 to early adopters (MiiPC’s final price hasn’t yet been set in stone.) However, with a week left to go in the campaign, MiiPC will be adding a double-memory option for $15 more, creating a fittingly minimalist CTO option.

MiiPC is squarely targeted at monitoring the Internet activity of kids from about age 7 to 14. (Nowadays, after that age, kids are migrating to smartphones and all parental monitoring bets are off in some cases). But this summer, the company will be unleashing its interns on the little underlit Android box, which should result in some fun Internet appliances.

When the buzz is music

It should not be much of a surprise that Twitter Music has landed near the top of the iOS free app charts. With its immense audience, Twitter can easily be a kingmaker and is riding a wave of success coming off its quirky video segment app Vine. Vine strikes at Twitter’s roots as a consumer-driven communication tool, abbreviating video as tweets abbreviate text to create a new form communication.

Twitter Music, however, capitalizes on Twitter’s role as tastemaker and news breaker. It is a digital Billboard rankings with samples — except we already had such a thing in the iTunes store. The difference is that iTunes allows only purchase via Apple whereas Twitter Music allows listening to full songs via Spotify or Rdio. Today, it’s not a compelling offering, but it’s out on the open Web. As was the case with Facebook’s push into music via Spotify, Rdio and others, it adds more push to those services whereas Twitter gets to flex its muscles in more structured use of its data as well as continue its long practice of capitalizing on celebrity usage of the service.

Galaxy Mega narrows the last phablet gap

Since the launch of the first Galaxy Tab, products marketed as tablets have been at the 7″ floor, with some Windows tablets going to 11″ and beyond sizes. Meanwhile, phone sizes have progressively broken larger and larger barriers,  With Samsung’s announcement of the 6.3″ Galaxy Mega, the big-screen phone pioneer leapfrogs Huawei’s 6.1″ phone announcement at CES to reclaim the ergonomic threshold crown at 6.3″. This narrows the gap between phone and tablet to a mere 0.7″, with nothing inhabiting the 6.5″ to sub-7″ range. However, Samsung leads in representing the range, having debuted entries at 5.3″ 5.5″, 5.8″, 5.8″, 6.3″, 7″, 7.7″, 8″, 8.9″ and 10.1″.

Kobo recently released an e-reader at 6.8″ and it would be nice to see a tablet dip under that range for a slightly less product for a breast pocket.

AT&T’s water cooler video chat

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.

HTC’s split personality

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.

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

(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.