The PC is now the Personal Conduit

Those who say that desktop operating systems are irrelevant because the Internet is the center of the computing universe are too reductive (Using Ubuntu much, Mike?). Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo is, for the foreseeable future, more of a tactical move within the fast-growing and high-stakes online advertising battle vs. Google rather than some panacea.

That said, the other day I noticed that, of the 20 applications in my Start menu, I use 14 to interact with content over a local network or the Internet. The 14 are Internet Explorer and Outlook, Firefox, TiVo Desktop, Trillian, SlingPlayer, iTunes (where I regularly browse the store), Windows Live Writer, Slacker, Twhirl, XDrive Desktop, and VPN, wireless broadband and Wi-Fi utilities, Almost all of them are either available for the Mac or have quality Mac equivalents.

The Mini-Note keyboard keys: they’re real and they’re fantastic

Earlier this week, I got some brief hands-on time with the HP Mini-Note. While I only typed on it for a minute or two, I came away impressed. Without question, the keyboard is a highlight of the product. It feels more than generous at 92 percent of full size. And with its flat profile and thin gaps between keys, it may be best-looking keyboards on any computer.

In fact, HP definitely has an opportunity to either shrink the keys or expand the screen to 10″ as I was surprised at how small the 9-incher seemed. The bezel, while not as big as that on the 7-inch Eee, still looks abnormally large. Also, while the screen resolution on the Mini-Note is very high for a nine-inch screen. I’ve seen some reviewers say that text is too small to read. It’s definitely small, but I wasn’t squinting. Perhaps I would on some Web pages.

While the Mini-Note is only a bit more than an inch thick, its small footprint makes it look a bit chunky. And of course the entire profile is ruined if you add HP’s extended battery, which adds what I call “the goiter effect.” Finally, while the side-mounted trackpad buttons were in an unfamiliar position at first and could turn off some prospects at first glance, using them didn’t seem awkward. I can see a lot of students falling in love with this little guy.

Don’t cross the Beamz

The beamz Music Performance SystemI’m as keen as anyone on the goal of making music creation more approachable. If anything, Guitar Hero and Rock Band have showed the market potential of enshrouding the air guitarist in the delusion of talent. But this apparent holy grail hasn’t seemed to result in anything as effective as the kazoo.

I thought the now-discontinued Mad Waves device had potential even though it succumbed to the same Curse of CES that Moxi did. I even enjoyed Zoundz, the RFID-based interactive music toy with the funky plastic tokens that The Sharper Image offered a few years ago. That was a marginally amusing toy for less than $50, but now the ailing retailer has gone high-end with it using a “laser harp” called Beamz.

Beamz has six lasers that play different sample riffs when you break their beams using your hand or other object. The result is that you look like you’re faking primitive martial arts while you’re faking playing music, which doesn’t at all make you look like a dork. Obviously, Beamz won’t let you play real songs or compositions, just kind of jam along with samples and riffs It also hooks up to a PC to load different instrument sets for musical genres such as classical and metal..

Harmless enough, but the thing is huge, ungainly and expensive. My two favorite parts of the Popular Mechanics video review featured on The Sharper Image’s site are when reviewer Seth Porges notes that it “probably looks a lot cooler if you have a fog machine” and “if you’re just looking to fool around or impress your friends, it’s good fun” right before noting the $600 price tag. If you’re thinking this thing will impress your friends, you’ll have a lot more good fun getting new friends.

HP’s Mini-Note creates a Dell dilemma

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HP’s much-heralded Mini-note has finally arrived and to favorable reviews.  CRN calls it “a real winner” and says that “the quality and finish is outstanding.” James Kendrick now questions whether his Fujitsu Tablet PC is worth its 3x price premium over the Mini-Note. While I’m no Tablet PC fan, I like the Fujitsu P-series and form factor, and the company will certainly feel more heat in its niche as other notebook heavyweights move in.

This segment will represent a test for Dell, which seems prepared to enter this space before the end of the year. Dell has done well in the education market (for which the Mini-Note was especially designed) with its aggressive pricing while trying to improve its design perceptions particularly as it has moved more aggressively into the hands-on world of retail. It will be challenging for Dell to lowball HP while live up to the 2133’s design expectation.

Notebook vendors seek nine-inch grails

eee_pc.jpgThe Asus Eee was noteworthy for its small size and low price, but it overshot on the former and underperformed on the latter. Originally designed to hit a $199 price point and bring an OLPC-like proposition to a wider audience, the first products retailed for twice that amount. Meanwhile, the 7″ screen, which helped the device reach its low price, proved cramped even for the Linux installation shipped by default.

(Note to companies playing in this space: if you want to reach a lower price point by shipping Linux on a 7-inch screen, take advantage of open source and invest some time in tailoring the applications for a smaller-screen experience. Simplify the user interfaces or buy or develop your own. Think Nokia Internet Tablet.)

In any case, Asus (and others) have clearly recognized that a couple of more diagonal inches can make a world of difference in the user experience. Including Windows for a premium will represent greater competition with budget laptops that typically have larger screens. Even at a higher price, these notebooks are more likely to open up the market for ultraportables, which are currently a very small part of the U.S. market, then set off a race to the bottom. It’s not cheap enough to be a second or third PC for many, but neither is the Eee at $400.

In terms of Asus’ planned revamp, it’s adding potential features that are starting to detract from its “volksbook” proposition. I’m less bullish on the addition of a touch screen and GPS to the Eee, although multi-touch gestures would be welcome addition (if a bit cramped on its small trackpad).

Motorola’s split comes as paths are converging

halfmoto.jpgMotorola’s decision to split itself into a wireless handset company and broadband infrastructure company (after being warned) may be the right move for investors looking to tailor their portfolio, but the timing could not be worse in terms of the strategic potential of having home entertainment and mobile lifestyle technology powerhouses under one roof (not that Motorola had executed on that promise particularly well up until now).

Still, the past few years have brought us the Slingbox, which streams home video over a wireless connection, remote TiVo programming, sideloading entertainment content to cell phones, WiMAX, which promises to deliver video to advanced handsets, HotSpot@Home, which uses Wi-Fi networks to provide a fat voice and data pipe in advance of ubiquitous wireless broadband.

Even today, rumors swirled that TimeWarner and Comcast are looking to up their involvement with Sprint to help ensure the success of WiMAX, and I recently posted (and wrote at further length) about further links that Apple is exploring between its portable devices and potential future DVRs. Business models and competitive landscapes are disparate, but Motorola may soon lose a key advantage in delivering consumer’s holistic digital lifestyle solutions. Bats may fly blind, but they still need both wings.

Sirius, XM have no monopoly, but a tech advantage

sirius-xm-merger.jpgSirius and XM have convinced the Department of Justice that its merger won’t create a monopoly in the radio, or more broadly, music playback, space. While the FCC is expected to follow suit with the DoJ, there is a rush of parties that are looking to add terms and conditions to the merger. Censorship on satellite radio? What would be the point of a premium alternative to terrestrial?

It’s certainly true that there are far more options available for high-quality digital music playback since the time that XM started broadcasting from space. The iPod is frequently brought up as a competitor, but I’ve never really thought of it as a major one. First, the iPod accelerated its move into the vehicle rather late in its rise to popularity and many of the solutions are primitive or awkward.

I’suspect that I, like many MP3 player owners, have music on their players to which they’ve never listened. Mostly, though, particularly for Apple’s ecosystem that has never been as aggressive about music discovery as, say, Rhapsody, iPods are about playing back what you have, not what you don’t. And keeping them fresh requires round-trips between the house and car. So, what satellites really buy the companies better than any competing technology today (save terrestrial radio, which was around at its launch) is direct and unfettered access to the vehicle

Wireless technologies such as 4G and WiMAX have the potential to present a credible no-hassle alternative to satellite radio, but the cost structures don’t support the infrastructure required to deliver it for the foreseeable future. One could argue that they didn’t for XM or Sirius, either. But with a reduced customer acquisition marketing burden, their expenses should become more manageable. In the meantime, the Slacker Portable satellite add-on looks like it will be promising alternative when it arrives.

Vaio vai is Sony charging $50 to remove trialware?

images.jpegIt’s no surprise that Sony charging $50 to remove trialware from its PCs has gone over like a lead ultraportable. Sony is merely passing along the lost revenue from deals it would ordinarily strike with these providers of software and services. Still, making the tradeoff so explicit is tantamount to admitting that, not only is there no user benefit to these programs, but there is a price on the penalty of having them.

Also, one must question how receptive consumers will be to offers that they absolutely did not want on their PCs, but for which they didn’t want to pay the equivalent of five percent or more of the notebook value. Even at a lower price ($20), Sony would gather far more consumers opting in. It is a thorny time for trialware with Vista’s beefier requirements already making consumers more wary of performance slowdowns. And ultimately, it is in Sony’s interest to have more consumers who are delighted with their notebook experience. Competitive pressure may force its hand toward that.

Update: Reversed. Blogosphere outrage FTW!

Verizon Wireless’ open access must have accessible pricing

logo_vzw1.jpgI certainly agree with Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam that mainstream consumers will be in no hurry to abandon the subsidy model. But in addition to seeing whether more sophisticated customers will shell out $200 or more to run advanced wireless devices on Verizon’s network, we have to see how Verizon will price open access before understanding the impact it will have on new or integrated devices in the market.

McAdam acknowledges that consumers won’t sign up for multiple $50 per month plans, and at Gearlog, Sascha Segan notes that Verizon might offer incremental device access for $5/month. This is the kind of scheme that Sprint has talked about for Xohm as well although Sprint has acknowledged there should be an unlimited access cap.

There are already a number of devices other than handsets that are obvious candidates to work on a high-speed wireless network — portable navigation devices, handheld gaming consoles, MP3 players/Internet radios, and more. Consumers are already buying these devices. Sure, adding WAN modems would add cost, but it’s really the high price of wireless broadband that is holding them back. Verizon needs to offer a cheap tier of service that entails either limited data or limited speed. Such pricing would go a long way toward enabling the kind of creative innovation that Dash Navigation has enabled with only a GPRS connection at its disposal.

iPod hardware music license would recapture Napster magic

ipod-nano.jpgThere’s a pretty exciting report coming from the Financial Times that Apple is negotiating with the major music record labels to build in access to their catalogs into the price of the device. Such a move would be consistent with rumors of an Apple DVR in that it would show that Apple is intent on keeping the value on its hardware products, the roots of the company. As many have speculated, while Apple has sold over four billion songs, the iTunes store hasn’t been a major profit center.

According to the FT, the labels want $100 per device, which would be prohibitive for where popular models such as the iPod nano are today. Also, I’m not thrilled with the idea of the license being tied to a device. That seems like a step backward from the trend of DRM-free music sales; even DRM tracks can be used on an unlimited number of iPods.. Nevertheless, if Apple (or any other company, for that matter) and the labels can pull it together, it would represent a digital music renaissance, taking us full-circle back to the early days of “free” digital music and the explosion in discovery that went along with it.