Getting rid of rodents

Gartner analyst Steve Prentice may just be being provocative if he is saying that the computer mouse will see a demise within the next five years. That is simply too short a window for a convention as institutionalized as the mouse to disappear as well as too short a time for some of the experimental alternatives he cites to go mainstream. Indeed, mouse R&D continues apace and it is the mouse — not the keyboard — that is driving the input peripheral aftermarket.

All that said, I was actually thinking of less dramatic challengers to the input staple a day or so before Prentice’s prediction made the rounds. How will mouse developers respond to multitouch? I suppose they could add buttons that would simulate certain gestures, but the trackpad is rapidly moving from a second-class input device to one that can circumvent many UI elements (such as scroll bars) originally designed for the mouse. Multitouch gestures are more “natural” than many mouse movements, although there aren’t necessarily intuitive.

Of course, neither is the mouse. I have an enduring memory of a computer novice circa 1990 encountering the computing appendage for the first time. She picked it up and tried dragging icons across the screen by touching them with the mouse. I wonder what she would think of a TouchSmart PC these days.

You can build a Web tablet for $200; you just won’t want to use it

Michael Arrington wants to buy some silicon champagne with beer money. The purveyor of posts on Web 2.0 companies, who has built an online family of sites including gadget blog CrunchGear, specs out an Internet tablet at a price point that has eluded some of the world’s largest-scale device manufacturers.

Products that have been roughly comparable have included the iPod touch and Nokia N800 (although this would appear to have a larger screen than those) and Smart Displays (such as those that were made by Viewsonic). Digital picture frames with Wi-Fi might come close, but they generally don’t have a battery and often lack touch screens. Their displays often offer relatively low resolution as well.

As many commenters have pointed out, getting good performance out of Adobe Flash on a low-end computing platform can be challenging, the technical rationale behind why the technology isn’t supported on the iPhone and iPod touch. And speaking of Apple, despite the original iBookish mockup pictured, he wants the device to be as thin or thinner than the MacBook Air. Sorry, but you simply fall off the realism meter when you start making substantive comparisons between your $200 fantasy and an $1,800 premium notebook computer designed by one of the best engineering teams in the business. It looks like this will likely become another in the short history of prominent blogger-designed, open source non-products such as Dave Winer’s podcast player. At least he didn’t expect it to cost $15.

The New York Times noodles the netbook market

acer_aspire_one.jpgIn a piece that casts doubt on the future of the (sigh) “netbook” market, Matt Richtel curiously provides quotes from Sony Electronics and Fujitsu, two of the more successful companies selling high-end ultraportables in the U.S., but doesn’t include any quotes from companies that have actually launched these products here, including HP and Asus.

It’s not surprising that Sony and Fujitsu would be relatively down on inexpensive ultraportables because their products are the most immediately threatened by inexpensive notebook PCs with small screens. Really, though, they needn’t worry, because anyone willing to invest $1,500 or more for a high-end ultraportable isn’t going to downgrade to this product.

In other words, at least in the UI.S., netbooks are about market expansion at a time when consumers are going more mobile. HP at least is thinking about these products in the right way, targeting students and other select demographics who need light computing on the go. Is that 10 percent of the notebook market for the next two years? Probably not. But as Tim Bajarin aptly notes in the Times piece, when you are at the scale of an HP or Dell, you’re not going to surrender shelf space or mindshare to an unknown Asian upstart.

It’s all well and good to pursue margin, but there’s no margin in a market that doesn’t yet exist. While we will see barebones Linux configurations forĀ  $300 or $400, more of the market is going to be closer to $500 or $600 where major manufacturers move plenty of Windows notebooks, many of which have at least some higher component costs.

This fall, we’re going to see a lot of activity in this market.. it’s going to get pretty bloody fast. And to be clear, the space between the smartphone and notebook PC has been a difficult one to fill. But it’s very difficult to ascertain the true potential of this device because their real opportunity is in a world of integrated, affordable broadband wireless access, an evolution of the explosive growth notebooks saw after Wi-Fi became popular.

iPhone 3G drives big numbers for little applications

image Along with the news that Apple sold a million iPhone 3Gs in its opening weekend came the announcement that 10 million applications were downloaded for the iPhone 2.0 software, which runs on older iPhones and iPod touches.

I had agreed with the spirit if not the letter of this Gizmodo post. in that the app store — which will also run on the original iPhone and the iPod touch — is in many ways the biggest difference between the iPhone 3G and earlier versions. However, 3G is an important enabler for many of these applications.

I’d love to hear what the distribution of those platforms were and how many were downloaded off of Wi-Fi as opposed to 3G or EDGE. And of course, how many were free as opposed to paid downloads. Outside of games, it’s still going to be difficult to drive sales of applications simply because the monetization of software has shifted so much in the past few years. But games for the iPhone are an interesting development opportunity, not so much because the iPhone competes with, say, a PSP, but because it does offer console-like platform stability, at least for now.

In any case, the 10 million number — an order of magnitude over the hardware sold during the weekend — is a testament to the appeal of these applications, their overall quality and variety. And a lesson to the whole industry that you can drive consumer interest in native smartphone applications and move the industry past the Java/BREW level of lowest common denominator development. On the other hand, Apple is far more incentivized to drive the platform given the revenue share for paid downloads and no carrier revenue sharing.

One number we’re perhaps more likely to get from Apple is the percentage of OS X iPhone developers who are knew to the platform. It seems to be significant. Last week I met with one of the launch developers new to OS X who was raving about Apple’s developer tools and downplaying limitations, saying what the SDK buys you is worth the limitations (and this is a developer whose application would definitely benefit from background processing.) That said, he acknowledged that the Windows Mobile tools are also pretty good.

Apple blows out the iPhone’s opening weekend

imageSo, what do you know? The subsidization model works and consumers could care less if the phone costs them more in the long-run (the long run in this case being a two-year contract) or if the power management challenges .of a 3G network compromised sealed battery life.

Apple sold one million (must… resist… Dr. Evil… impression) Macintosh 2.0’s, I mean, Phone 3Gs opening weekend, noting that it took them more than two months to move that many of the original iPhones. The media attention around the iPhone 3G, while tremendous, may have been at less of a fever pitch than it was for the original iPhone, because it was more of a known quantity and the new features were more of the “fill in the gaps” quantity, but Apple is clearly accurate in saying that price was the biggest inhibitor among those who wanted but didn’t purchase the original iPhone..

By the way, after swinging by the Apple Store on 59h and Fifth, aka “the cube”, late Friday afternoon in the amazing weather, I popped into the Nokia New York flagship store just a few blocks a way on 57th, just east of Fifth Avenue. There was a lot of excitement on the building’s facade as the store was decked out in promotion for The Dark Knight,, but on the first floor of the narrow three-story edifice there were only four consumers.

HP MediaSmart Connect seeks to reverse the DMA doldrums

Amidst a lineup of new notebooks and desktops under the HP, Compaq and Voodoo brands, HP finally trotted out its MediaSmart Connect Windows Media Extender, that also can utilize its own MediaSmart software solution. I understand HP’s rationale in offering both the simpler MediaSmart and the more full-featured Windows Media Center UI, but having two UIs still seems like a less than ideal compromise.

The MediaSmart Connect is certainly the most stylish of the Vista-compatible MCEs available (and I’ll include the XBox 360 in that set) although the Samsung approach — in which the Media Center Extender is mounted onto the back of the TV — may be the most transparent external device approach yet.

I also like HP’s option of the personal media drive/USB options. However, I’d like the Personal Media Drive option a lot more if it had the ability to sync with a network store such as HP’s own MediaSmart Windows Home Server or NAS product the way Apple TV can sync with multiple PCs running iTunes. I favored this approach before Apple announced Apple TV. Apple may include only a 40 GB drive with the base Apple TV, but it’s still doing so at a price that’s less than that of the MediaSmart Connect.

Initial thoughts on the mini-Inspiron

dellpencil2.jpgI had questioned how Dell would respond to the challenge of the Mini-Note after Michael Dell said that it would, and the preliminary answer seems to be “very well” as it has taken the high-design route. The mini-Inspiron has a lowered hinge like the MacBook Air and HP Mini-Note and the glossy red cover is strongly reminiscent of he Lenovo IdeaPad U110. In at least one picture, though, the Dell logo looks upside down when it is facing others.

Things I immediately like about the mini-Inspiron just from the picture include more traditional trackpad button layout versus the Mini-Note and a better screen to form factor fit. However, my concern is that both of these have come at the expense of the keyboard, which looks smaller than the Mini-Note’s (but hopefully bigger than the Eee’s). It also looks less chunky than other products in the class although that may just be an illusion of the photo angle. The big unresolved questions, of course, include specs (including battery life), and price.

New Small Wonders join Vado in cheapie camcorder market

So, obviously, small notebooks aren’t the only products that are being attacked by low-cost competition. RCA is back in the game with a trio of smaller Small Wonders, two of which are priced for less than $100. I liked the first generation of RCA’s spin on the Pure Digital technology powering the Flip series and have put in a request to see if RCA is still using Pure Digital’s stuff, but my guess is it’s not.

The new RCA generation seems slick and the size and price are certainly in the right direction. As it did with its  MP3 players, RCA is including a weather-resistant model. However, as with the recently reviewed Creative Vado, we’ll have to see if the video capture quality disappoints.

The CNet blog post bemoans that an HD version hasn’t materialized and I am frankly a little surprised that we’re not seeing those at this point. This will likely be the last generation that is not capable of at least 720p. I’m also disappointed that a planned standalone DVD recorder for the Small Wonder never seemed to materialize.

With Creative’s unusual product portfolio now including these low-end camcorders, who’s next? Sony’s already in the game with the GC1. I’d say other good candidates are Samsung and Logitech, maybe even Microsoft, playing off the latter two’s Webcam businesses.

A completely academic guide to ultramobile jargon

OQO model 02OMG, GMTA! Engadget and Gizmodo have both posted mini-treatises (the latter less mini) on terminology for small, inexpensive notebooks, answering the call of a comment on one of my posts a while back.

Analysts love to put things in boxes (and I deal with my share), but I think it’s probably too early to start getting into semantic taxonomies. That may be prejudiced by working at a firm that substantially tracks technology products after they ship and often after they reach a high enough volumes to penetrate retail. Nevertheless, the terms being bandied about for these products are tainted by older contexts that the Gizmodo article doesn’t fully explain, even though they do reference the Libretto, one of the earlier subnotebooks.

Speaking of which, I view ultraportables as a synonym for subnotebooks. The former term began being used by notebook manufacturers who didn’t like the idea of their lightest smallest wonders being referred to as “below” notebooks.

Anyway, here’s how I break down these products using a lot of the vernacular currently being thrown around:




Ultra-thin notebook PC

Way thin notebook PC that manufacturer obsesses over fitting into office supplies, 13″ to 15″ screen. The next generation of “thin and lights”.

MacBook Air, Lenovo X300

Ultraportable/subnotebook (classic definition)

Full-featured 10″ to 12″ screen notebook PC designed to support mainstream PC software. ‘Spensive.

Sony TZ series, Lenovo IdeaPad U110

Mini-notebook/subnotebook (new definition)/netbook

7″ to 10″ clamshell designed for light on-the-go computing. Cheaper than ultraportables but seem to be creeping up to traditional notebook price points. Subclass of this group are the “kiddie notebooks” like the XO and Classmate

Asus Eee, Cloudbook, HP Mini-Note, etc.

UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC) 4″ to 7″ screen, slide-out or other alternative keyboard. Differentiated from mini-note by its intent to be used standing up. As Microsoft coined this one, I’ll insist that it ships with Windows. OQO Model 02, Samsung Ultra,
MID (Mobile Internet Device) 3:” or 4″ screen. Often no keyboard. Designed primarily for media playback or light information consumption. However, is in some sense a platform. Can be thought of as a media player that has branched out or a reticent smartphone. Nokia N810, iPod touch (post-SDK), Sony Mylo, Archos Series 5.

Update: Intel (or parties therein) is now referring to the mini-note category as a “netbook” which people might remember was a name given to the Psion Series 7-type device years ago. I’m not wild about this term because I think it implies too much of a thin client approach, particularly as these PCs are increasingly shipping with Windows. It may be catchier, though, than “mini-note” (which I think has more momentum now, and which somehow has a more European flavor (Minitel?). In any case, I’ve added it as a name to the device class.

The Akimbo lesson: Sometimes rising tides drown you

I was especially skeptical about Akimbo from the first time I saw its set-top box, and things didn’t improve much when I finally got to try it out a while before the company’s last-gasp business model switch. However, I thought it had a chance to cash in on long-tail content in the heat of the YouTube frenzy. It seems, though, that the YouTube brand and breadth of free content drove manufacturers to add that instead of the managed semi-pro Akimbo portfolio.

Indeed, this obituary cites double (and sometimes triple) dipping and thin content as the double-barreled smoking gun that killed Akimbo. One note, though, is that it’s not exactly apt to lump Sezmi in with the likes of Akimbo or especially the Roku Netflix box as Sezmi is designed to compete head-to-head with cable and offer very mainstream programming.

By the way, I started one of my first professional writing projects using an killer (both in features and system requirements) word processor for the Mac called FullWrite Professional that was sold late in its life by a company called Akimbo after once being sold by PC database king Ashton-Tate.. It made Microsoft Word (especially on the Mac) look like amateur hour in its day.