On crowdfunded iPad carrying and propping accessories  ʦ

Manatee looks like it could be a great aid to those with limited mobility or the bed-ridden. However, while Realize says that the product was named after the parts that grip the iPad since they resemble a manatee’s arms, there is a fair possibility that some would begin to resemble the endangered sea cow with prolonged supine use of the product.

 My latest Backed or Whacked column at TechCrunch discusses three products that can be used to support the iPad while standing, sitting and even lying down.

OLPC in the real (developing) world  ʦ

Orth has never seen a pile of laptops sitting unused because of a lack of teacher buy-in or Internet access. She described what she has seen to me instead: Fourth and fifth graders are reading “Tom Sawyer” and “Voyage to the Center of the Earth” on their computers, who never would have had access to the physical books any other way. Kindergarteners learning their numbers, colors, and letters on the computer, and first graders using them to design machines and later build robots. In her team’s experience, the computers not only get more out of class, they motivate kids to keep coming to class in the first place because they view the exercises as games.

Great reality check by Sarah Lacy.

Stitcher launches desktop Web app  ʦ

Looks nice. Been waiting for Slacker to do something like this for some time.

The next 75 years of HP  ʦ

Om Malik is, of course, right that it’s silly to try to anticipate what the next 75 years will look like, much less plan for them. But what I think Meg Whitman was going for was drawing a contarst between HP’s history — which stretches nearly 75 years — and its future, much like one would wish a couple another happy 25 years at their 25th anniversary.

The dwindling case for the iPad 2

(No, this post is not about a new protective cover that wraps around Apple’s second-generation tablet ever more tightly.)

Breaking a bit with tradition at the debut of the iPad mini, Apple did not keep the previous version of the iPad 3 in the lineup with the release of the fourth-generation iPad. Instead, it eliminated the third-generation iPad and instead left the slower, second-generation (iPad 2) product in the lineup. About the only possible explanation for this was that Apple couldn’t get the price of the third-gen iPad down to the $399 price point it was seeking to address competition in the 10″ Android tablet category. Costs have also likely come down more on the iPad 2 components so that that product can now be more profitable at $399.

However, it also puts the older iPad 2 closer to the new iPad mini that shares its processor and resolution. This begs the question, what is the case for the iPad 2 given that the iPad mini is 80 percent of its size and identical in most other respects. In fact, the iPad mini’s cellular models can connect to LTE networks whereas the iPad 2 is limited to 3G.

As smartphone trends clearly show, there is a large group of consumers that will flock to the larger screen. There’s also something to be said for having a product below a pricing milestone ($350) and another below $400. But, all things being equal, and most are in this case, the iPad mini just seems a bit too close to the 10″ iPad’s price and capabilities. The lineup would have been a bit cleaner with either the iPad mini at $299 or the third-gen iPad between Apple’s latest tablets.

Acer updates Surface competition view

Who can really say what has led Acer to become Microsoft’s problem child with regard to Surface? The 85% tablet/15$ laptop hybrid represents a relatively high-end tablet offering (but not a particularly high-priced PC offering) that isn’t where Acer’s brand has been. Perhaps the PC manufacturer is miffed because it sees Surface occupying an aspirational position. But so would all of its competitors.

Still, Acer has now made a point of saying that it will sit out Windows RT until it sees how Surface (at least the current Surface RT flavor) is doing. That represents a somewhat more conciliatory tone that we’ve seen in the past, given that Acer had been more opposed to Surface after it had been revealed. It hardly signals an embrace. Perhaps, now that Surface is out there, Acer has moved into the “acceptance” phase of the death of the traditional OS vendor/hardware partner relationship. But, again, why say anything at all. HP, for example, is also holding back on Windows RT devices ;it’s just not publicizing that it’s doing so.

HP, though, seems like it would have taken the wait-and-see approach regardless of Surface wheras Acer had been ready to jump in. Postponing product plans is painful, but at least Acer will now have the benefit of some free market research courtesy of Microsoft.

I touched a Surface and I liked it.

At today’s Windows 8/Surface launch, I got to lay my hands on Surface and its two keyboards. If you are considering picking one up, I’d recommend you visit your local retailer and do the same. It’s a very solid device although its lightness or kickstand feel didn’t immediately stand out. As the ads clearly show, this product is about the keyboards, so that’s what’s worth zooming in on.

It is easy to look at the reported overall inferiority of the typing covers’ suitability for a fast typist and dismiss them, but the controversial touch cover is a pretty impressive achievement. The keys require a bit of natural pressure to activate., but it’s a far better experience than mushy membrane keyboards. Contrary to what some reviews have reported, I had almost no learning curve and felt no discomfort. My immediate accuracy could have been improved, but it was still far beyond and far more comfortable than typing on glass. Speaking of which, the trackpad is comically (even compared to a netbook) small and oddly proportioned, but it will mostly be used for tweaking broad navigation on the touchscreen

That said, for a small premium in thickness, a relatively larger one in thickness, and some jeopardy of gunking up the space between the keys, the tactile touch cover offers an even more improved typing experience,

Also, one word on the hold between the cover on the cover and the Surface. I tried several times to forcefully shake the Surface loose holding it by its cover and could not. That said, it’s good to know that the Surface can survive a spill if dropped.

Marketing a mid-sized mini

Apple devoted a good chunk of the iPad mini introduction doing a direct comparison with the Google Nexus 7 (by ASUS as everyone has clearly forgotten). It was at once necessary and wasted, depending on the audience. For those open to comparing the two, the less convincing focus on the increased screen real esate and the more convincing (if oft-trotted out) focus on tablet app superiority helps to justify the 65 percent price step-up from the baseline. But for many, the availability of a capable $200 tablet is basically the end of the story. Apple’s messaging is of the iPad mini in of the smallest, least expensive iPad, not a relatively big and expensive “small tablet.”

The sad truth for Android tablets is that there have already been two tablets from major manufacturers released at close to the size of the iPad mini — the well-received Galaxy Tab 7.7 and the Motorola Xyboard 8.2. Neither was priced close to the $200 asking amount for the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7. In fact, most or all distribution of those models was through carrier stores, which have not been successful in moving tablets to date.

Surface RT: Microsoft should have waited

The first reviews for Surface RT are in and, while there seems to be an appreciation for its hardware features, including its various keyboard covers, most reviewers are disappointed with its software selection, advising readers to wait or at even pass. As I noted in my most recent Switched On column, Windows RT is the tougher test of the appeal of the Windows 8-style environment as it lacks backward compatibility with most desktop-style apps.

Surface RT is making the same mistakes the HP Touchpad and BlackBerry PlayBook did.

One way to look at Surface is Microsoft trying to get ahead of the market and making a validation statement: “Windows RT is viable, and here is how we’re supporting it.” But perhaps Microsoft really expects Surface RT to have an impact this holiday season. In that case, the Surface RT paradox is that Microsoft, far behind in the tablet market, needs to make up ground quickly and that Surface RT is not yet a compelling option from a software perspective. Arriving before Windows 8 has an opportunity to build volume, Surface RT is making the same mistakes the HP Touchpad and BlackBerry PlayBook did.

The difference is that things won’t stay that way. Had Microsoft held off, say, a year on releasing an ARM version of Windows after allowing enough time for a critical mass of “Windows 8-style” apps to build on Windows 8, then Surface RT would be a much more compelling product; that will surely be the case next year.

For MacBook, thinness is the new screen size

Yesterday’a revamping of Apple’s MacBook product line resulted in a product portfolio curiosity. Apple’s notebook lineup now varies about as much by girth as it does by screen size. MacBooks remain available in three screen sizes but the 13″ model is also available in three thicknesses — the ultrathin MacBook Air, the slim MacBook Pro with Retina Display, and the classic MacBook Pro with SuperDrive (unbranded as such). Of course, there are other differences among these models such as storage options, ports and screen resolutions. Still, the MacBook line now can be thought of as having three sub-lines: Air, Pro and Pro with Retina Display.

Making them even more like product lines,  they tend to have similarities across the screen sizes. While the Air and Retina lines both lack optical drives, the former is obviously engineered for the ultimate in portability and a cloud-friendly lifestyle while the latter is for the leading-edge power user, with the non-Retina Pros playing very much in the mainstream. As Phil Schiller noted, the 13″ MacBook Pro is Apple’s best-selling notebook and seems likely to remain so after its Retina-equipped sibling.