Switched On: Rubber brands

My latest Engadget column looks at how Samsung and Sony are expanding use of subbrands beyond handsets to categories such as tablets and cameras.

For Sony, its Xperia sub-brand hopped across to its tablet while Samsung brought the Galaxy brand to a connected camera. How these companies have stretched these brands reflects their relative position both in terms of where they’ve moved from and where they’ve moved to.

NFC doesn’t need saving

In applauding Apple’s decision to forego NFC in the iPhone 5, Dean Bubley offers what is at times a dual damning of mobile payments and NFC. He maintains that the former – particular carrier involvement therein — is ruining the latter. However, you can launch NFC without wallet support as well as digital wallets free of NFC and with NFC but independent of carriers. Bubley says “tapping a piece of expensive, glass-encased electronics on solid objects is stupid.” And it is less stupid to have to hold up your phone as someone scans a bar code or for that matter fiddle through your wallet to find the right loyalty card?

What comes across from this is that Bubley simply hates having carrier involvement in things, as he’s fine with NFC in a stored value card and also approves of using NFC for checking in and, I might presume, initiating exchanges of personal contact info or transfer of photos between a smartphone and a PC. The best idea Bubley raises — and a good point for not including NFC in phones — is the idea that we should not have to interrupt what we are doing on a smartphone in order to invoke NFC. Indeed, it might make more sense to have NFC embedded in a linked bracelet or smartwatch-like device linked to the smartphone via Bluetooth.

The credit card I used prior to my current one had a chip; my current one does not and I miss its convenience. NFC-based transactions are far more convenient than having to decipher which way to swipe a magnetic stripe — the kind of failure-prone insertion behaviors Apple seems intent on avoiding. Bubley expresses his satisfaction with bacteria-ridden cash transactions the way our ancestors must have accepted paying with salt. In fact, we liked it.

iPhone 5 breaks preorder records at AT&T

With the iPhone’s growing carrier presence and the improvements in both hardware and software, it’s not much of a surprise that the smartphone’s advance orders are outselling its predecessor globally. In particular, one would expect the device to do well at Verizon, where Apple has been late to support the carrier’s now broadly available LTE network. But the iPhone 4S always had an advantage at AT&T, where its support of HSPA+ enabled faster access speeds than it did on Sprint or Verizon, where the iPhone was stuck at the slower speeds of CDMA.

Motorola’s bad mojo

Motorola can’t seem to catch a break with the timing of its event introductions. Last year, the company introduced the incredibly thin (if disappointing from a battery life perspective) Droid RAZR the day before Google introduced Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus. This year, it faced even more direct mindshare competition as Nokia announced its  Lumia 920 and Lumia 820 on the same day in the same city, mere hours before Motorola’s announcement In fact, in a goodwill gesture toward media covering both events, Nokia provided buses from its press conference to Motorola’s, chidng that the buses were equipped with Nokia Drive to ensure the best possible route.

Both announcements were upstaged by Amazon’s announcement of the inelegantly named Kindle Fire tablets. But even with an Amazon phone as a no-show, Motorola’s introduction seemed to grab a lot less attention as the handsets themselves — while certainly looking competitive — don’t excite the way the original Droid did. Motorola, like HTC, is suffering from competition from Samsung, which is putting the squeeze on other Android handset makers, and seems like it is struggling to differentiate.

WSJ on Toys R Us’ Tabeo tablet

The $149.99 Tabeo will be available only at Toys “R” Us, so shoppers won’t be able to try it out in a store and then purchase it for less on a rival retailer’s website.

Not too defensive there.

Amazon’s tortured naming

Over the years, Microsoft had developed a reputation for having bad product names. But its been surprising to see two of the rather rare consumer device success stories burden their tablets with excessive detail about their screen size. The earlier offender has been Samsung, which has appended such designations as 7.7, 8.9 and 10.1 to its Galaxy Tab tablets. There is a case for a bit of numerical detail as Samsung has been the most aggressive in filling in almost every conceivable screen size along the tablet spectrum, but there’s nothing wrong with rounding. Retailers, for example, now offer TVs of similar but perhaps not exact size under a classificaiton such as “55-inch class”)

Clearly a company that is above mere gadgets would avoid such clumsy naming. Well, say hello to the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ 4G LTE Wireless. How can one pare down this beast of a name? First, both “4G” and “Wireless” are redundant to “LTE” although it may e the case that AT&T insisted on the label “4G LTE,” mirroring the phrasing used by Verizon. (At least in AT&T’s case, it practially differentates from 4G HSPA+). Then, of course, one could round up that whole tenth of an inch and just label it a 9″ device. Finally, the “HD” is superfluous since Amazon doesn’t make a 9″ tablet (see how easy that was?) that isn’t HD. What are you left with? Kindle Fire 9 LTE — a device ready to go take on the iPad and not the iPad 9.7″ 4G LTE Wireless.

HP’s base intentions

HP has announced the Spectre One. The all-in-one desktop adds to its new Spectre family that now represents the uppermost echelon of its consumer product line, thus displacing the Envy line, which in turn had replaced such HP brands as Voodoo and Blackbird. What’s different this time? As HP explains it, Envy tried to do too much, straddling performance and design. Now, Envy will focus more on performance whereas Spectre will be the ultimate design expression.

Indeed, the Spectre One may be HP’s best representation of that in the Sepctre line so far. Whereas other PC vendors have taken to largely mimicking the iMac slab, HP has put the electronics in the curved part of the pedestal (No, the motherboard is not curved. It’s just small). This allows the display itself to be thin, a design element embodied in the “Luxo” iMac G4 although that design had the motherboard at the bottom of the computer’s base.

More recently, Vizio has also put the motherboard in the platform base of its first all-in-one desktop PCs. And, like HP, it ships with a similar Bluetooth keyboard and supersized trackpad. True to its TV heritage, though, Vizio, however, has also included a remote control whereas HP has kept a mouse in the box. But don’t label HP as too traditional. It also has included a Windows 8-ready NFC contact point in the base.

Amazon’s usage monetization

In the introduction of the new Kindle products, Jeff Bezos said that it wants to make money when you use the device, not when you buy the device. But Amazon doesn’t make money during the overwhelming amount of time you use a Kindle. That would be closer to the model of a cellular carrier. No, Amazon makes money when you buy content (or rent or watch them as part of your Amazon Prime subscription). And while the comment was a bit of a jab at Apple, Apple also makes money when you buy content.

So, Amazon may have a stronger relative incentive to drive usability, but that incentive is offset a lot by the need to monetize after you’ve purchased the device. Once you’ve bought an iPad, Apple’s design of the user experience is also intended to drive satisfaction. Anything that it makes off the app store is still, at least at this point, gravy.

Apple after atoms

It’s a pundit’s cliché to prognosticate something like “this will be the last generation of game consoles” or “Blu-ray will be the last physical format” (maybe not). If you want to go out quite a bit further into the future, though, you can listen to the likes of OnLive CEO Steve Perlman, who says that, eventually, virtually all computing devices will go away in a world that can take advantage of ultra-high-speed wireless technology like DIDO.

Are these the ramblings of a mad scientist? Not for Perlman’s former employer, Apple, which has traditionally made money from devices supported by software and content. The latter has historically represented relatively little of the company’s revenue when compared to its well-known hardware products.

But that is starting to shift, at least on a relative basis. In a charting of Apple’s YoY third-quarter revenue shares, Stuart Carlson shows the growing  influence of the iPhone and iPad over time. But look a bit further down the Y-axis from those ascendant lines and you will see that revenue form the iTunes store, while down on a percentage basis from a few years ago, now accounts for more revenue than desktops and the iPod, two products that are still strongly identified with the company. This has more to do with cannibalization of these products by notebooks and iPhones than a particular surge in digital sales. I wouldn’t expect this revenue stream to overtake iPhones or notebooks any time soon. Still, it demonstrates that Apple is positioning itself for a world in which bit distribution may pick up growing importance versus devices.

Google’s Quickoffice purchase less about predators, more about editors

It may not be the most glamorous activity, but if you’re going to ship at least a tablet with any credibility, it’s helpful to have a suite available to read and preferably edit Word and Excel files. Microsoft has noted that its leading Office suite will be included with Windows RT and presumably the tablets on which it will run. With its market leadership, Apple has had the liberty of charging pretty handsomely for the pieces of its iWork suite, which still attracts more than its share of customers versus iPad alternatives such as Quickoffice and Docs To Go, which was acquired by RIM and is bundled on the Playbook,

At the tenth All Things D conference, Google executives promised that we would see offline Google Drive functionality in a matter of weeks. As an extension of Google Docs, Google Drive presents links to files on the Web, which is only marginally more convenient than going to the Web page to begin with,

On the surface, Quickoffice puts Google into the local productivity suite business, but Quickoffice will likely simply serve as the software that facilitates offline editing of Google Docs. Without Windows and Mac versions, though, Google may be missing out on important offline platforms. it would be nice to see a simple preference to have popular native ffice suites (or OpenOffice) support Google Docs file types. In any case, it seems  there’s a way for Google to put what is more or less the existing Quickoffice product to work, which is apparently not the case for Meebo Messenger.