Keyboard input: right from RIM’s playbook

Clearly, a $120 keyboard add-on for RIM’s PlayBook won’t be enough to immediately reverse the fortunes of RIM’s tablet, a product that now bears the burden of carrying RIM from the glory days of the BlackBerry 7 legacy to its future of BlackBerry 10.

Indeed, the peripheral, at best, brings the PlayBook closer to par with integrated keyboard offerings designed for products such as the iPad and ASUS Transformer line. Nonetheless, the PlayBook keyboard in its neat little netbookesque shell, should appeal to RIM’s core; many of these folks are QWERTY junkies. It always struck me as a serious omission that RIM did not provide a keyboard companion for the PlayBook. Of course, its 7” display creates design challenges in terms of making an effective input device that matches the width of the device.

But in case you were hoping that RIM had shifted its marketing focus away from the enterprise, a decision that led to shipping the device with the consumer-unfriendly first version of BlackBerry Bridge, there’s little to report. The video showing off the accessory demonstrates… Citrix client.. It’s not even clear from the video if the keyboard works with the kind of native Playbook apps that RIM is so ardently seeking to woo, much less RIM’s own, recently upgraded Docs to Go suite that is a nice differentiator for the device.

For want of an app…

Earlier this month at CNET, Jay Greene wrote a wonderful two-part story about how Microsoft killed the Courier project. Arguably the most fascinating paragraph describes a meeting in which Bill Gates, judging the device’s prospects, questions its champion J Allard about Courier’s e-mail capabilities:

“At one point during that meeting in early 2010 at Gates’ waterfront offices in Kirkland, Wash., Gates asked Allard how users get e-mail. Allard, Microsoft’s executive hipster charged with keeping tabs on computing trends, told Gates his team wasn’t trying to build another e-mail experience. He reasoned that everyone who had a Courier would also have a smartphone for quick e-mail writing and retrieval and a PC for more detailed exchanges. Courier users could get e-mail from the Web, Allard said, according to sources familiar with the meeting.”

The article then describes how Gates had “an allergic reaction” to the idea that the Courier would not be able to tap into Microsoft’s Exchange franchise. And while linking the death of Courier directly to its inability to handle e-mail (ironic given the product’s name), is likely an oversimplification, it is also a bit difficult to swallow that it could have even been an accessory to the murder.

Now, I somewhat sympathize with the idea that the world does not need another way to get e-mail. But to quote the Seth Meyers Weekend Update catchphrase, “Really?” From the leaked videos of Courier, e-mail did not seem like such an outlandish thing to have in the product. Surely the team could have thought of a way to “Courierize” an e-mail experience, perhaps by filtering messages relating to a specific creative project.

If Courier was killed to provide a clear path for Windows 8 tablets, then it was axed for the wrong reason, but ultimately it was probably best that it was not pursued. As engaging as Courier appeared to be, I always wondered about the size of its addressable market. We may yet get a taste of that, though, and at a much lower price than what Courier would have cost, as the Kickstarter-funded engineers behind Taposé bring their app to the iPad.

Setting a Fire under the Nook’s app selection

The Magic 8 Ball (or its gaudy iOS app) may not be as high-tech as Siri, but if the toy were to respond honestly to the question of whether Barnes & Noble will reveal an upgraded version of the Nook Color tomorrow, it would indicate “Signs point to yes.”

The announcement comes not long after Amazon has created a lot of excitement around the Kindle Fire, which has been anointed this holiday season’s #2 tablet behind the iPad before it has even been released. For all the Kindle Fire enthusiasm, though, there’s little that the e-tailer has created with that product that Barnes & Noble would not be able to answer. The Instant Video that Amazon throws in with a Prime subscription, for example, could be countered by a partnership with again Qwikster-less Netflix.

The main exception, though, is in the app selection; this would be magnified as Barnes & Noble stepped up its tablet branding efforts. Neither bookseller can match the breadth of apps offered by Google’s Android Market. Amazon, however, has chosen to offer standard Android apps via its own store whereas Barnes & Noble has chosen to launch its own developer program, resulting in a small collection of optimized Nook apps..

The Nook, though seems to be traveling down the same path that defined how the iPod developed – from fixed-function media consumption device to limited media platform to broad convergence device with the iPod touch. To best compete with the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble would have to greatly accelerate its developer program, and even then it would be far behind. There are no other viable third-party Android app stores that come close to even Amazon’s limited selection at this point.

Nokia’s tough acts to follow

The past few weeks have been an incredible time for smartphones. Apple launched its iPhone 4S, sticking with its successful iPhone 4 design and repeating a play that the company used before when it launched the 3GS as a follow-up to the 3G. The move bespoke a confidence in its approach, focusing efforts on where the company thinks it matters while resisting temptations such as a larger display or LTE.

And if the introduction of the iPhone 4S was classically Apple, what happened the following week was classically Android. Within 24 hours, two Android licensees announced bleeding-edged phones. The Motorola Droid RAZR packed LTE into a .71 mm splashproof, Kevlar-coated, stainless steel-supported profile. And the other side of the globe, Google and Samsung teamed up to reveal the first Ice Cream Sandwich phone, boating a 4.65” AMOLED display, NFC to enable Android Beam, and face recognition-based unlocking. Both handsets are headed toward Verizon, the high-end Android cup of which seems like it will overflow this holiday season.

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Why RIM needs the impact of a Siri

Some recognized that HP’s decision to exit the handset market was a small boost for RIM, Not only was HP thought to be more aggressive in going after RIM’s enterprise customers with a vertically integrated offering, but the scuttling of the Pre 3 left the Torch as one of the few vertical sliders in the market.

However, separate from the recent BlackBerry network outage that we’ve seen before, there’s at least two reasons for the lack of enthusiasm around  the company. The first is the challenge in getting people excited about its latest developments in BlackBerry 7. RIM has focused on finally tackling the BlackBerry’s generally lagging animation and greatly accelerated its browser. They were likely the moves that would have yielded the best return on effort and RIM has been effective on both fronts, but these are catch-up maneuvers.

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Droid 3: First Impressions

The first Motorola Droid set off a wave of high-end Android handsets that came in rapid succession as Verizon rolled out the red carpet for the Google-backed operating system. It had a strong specification sheet but its slide-out keyboard was a disappointing tactile experience as Motorola sought to keep the device relatively slim. The Droid 2 improved the keyboard, but it still wasn’t great.

The Droid 3 is a big step forward. Not only does the keyboard offer a vastly improved typing experience including a luxurious number row, but the screen has been expanded to four inches, which I believe is the “sweet spot” for a touchscreen handset (although requires a little adjusting to after using the Samsung Infuse extensively for a while. Consistent with reviews of the Atrix 4G, the user interface is silky smooth and Motorola includes a 3Dish animation effect (swiping in a concave manner as opposed to HTC Sense’s convex one).

The bottom lipped industrial design is more akin to the stacked slabs I preferred on the original Droid as opposed to the curving slope on the Droid 2, but the bottom slab is now at a diagonal. Critics angered that Motorola switched the button order between the original Droid and Droid 2 will likely be glad to know that Motorola has kept the Droid 2 button order intact. Motorola has even improved the on-off button, which I sometimes found difficult to trigger on earlier Droids; the Droid 3 blanks out with a cute CRT-like power down animation. The case is a much more pleasant soft-touch texture than the Droid 2’s rubbery back. And finally, the whole package, while a bit imposing in the hand, is a bit thinner than the Droid 2.

I tried Google Navigation on it last night and it worked great on the trip out although took a while to pick up signal coming back when it was admittedly a bit cloudier. In the next few days, I’ll be trying out the Droid 3’s full HD camcorder complementing its 8 MP still capabilities. I’m not as much of a fan of Motorola’s visual style in general versus some of its Android competitors. (The browser icon is terrible.) However, it makes good use of the device’s high-resolution (QHD, 960 X 540) display and text, while small, is easy to read. Alas, it is a 3G-only device. Overall, though, it seems like a much bigger leap forward from the Droid 2 than the Droid 2 was from the original Droid, and without question the best QWERTY device in Verizon’s lineup.

Beginning to hear the light

I can now say that MusicLites, the networked speakers that think they’re light bulbs (because they are), put out some very nice audio (certainly suited for more than ambient soundtracks and better than other “whole home” systems I’ve tried) from an ingeniously discreet and fairly effective source location over your head. This is not too surprising given the audio was engineered by Artison, a high-end speaker manufacturer that would not want to compromise its brand in the name of audio novelty. While they are impressively small for quality speakers, though, the MusicLites are rather large for light bulbs. For example, each MusicLite speaker weighs about 1.75 lbs. Compare that to a compact florescent bulb that weighs about six ounces.

Before you jump in, know that MusicLites were designed for ceiling lighting wells (making them one of the rare high-tech products explicitly designed to get screwed in a recession). This isn’t to say that they won’t fit into other lamps and ceiling fixtures, but the first three fixtures I tried putting them into were all too small, and the helpful YouTube videos that Artison has put up regarding MusicLites note that even some recessed wells may have challenges accommodating MusicLites. The designers of many of these lighting products simply never anticipated anything like the product. The system has some other imitations, but as retrofits go, it seems to be a promising approach.

OnLive on everything

Following my recent post about the evolution of the amorphous iPod brand, this week provided a great opportunity to look at another brand with a potentially foretelling malleable moniker – OnLive. The company showed off its service running on the iPad and HTC Flyer. Support will come in two phases. The first will overlay touch controls onto the games, perhaps suitable for use with your Fling or ThinkGeek Joystick-It. And while that may be the more portable option, the better game experience will happen once OnLive enables its controllers to work with tablets.

To see OnLive branch out from the PC where its content largely originates, beyond the TV where many of its games would likely be ported, and to the tablet where many of its games might not be technically feasible, clearly improves the value of the service for OnLive’s game partners. But OnLive’s other recent announcement – that it would partner with Juniper Networks to host remote PC applications – demonstrates the true versatility of the service. If OnLive has been able to remotely deliver games with good performance, the interface of the average Windows app will be child’s play. The next stop on the world conquest tour would be apps delivered via set-top boxes to TVs, which would put OnLive on a collision course with ActiveVideo.

Seesmic sees BlackBerry later

Last week’s announcement that Seesmic would not discontinue support for its social network client for BlackBerry demonstrated the challenges that RIM has faced competing for developer attention. With iOS and Android far in the lead, Microsoft pushing hard for Windows Phone, and HP seeking to attract developers to as it evolves the webOS multi-device platform strategy, few developers have the resources to create quality omnipresent work, and something has to give.

The news was not as bleak as it seems on face value, though. First, Seesmic was competing against RIM’s own well-designed (as BlackBerry apps go these days) Twitter client. Second, third-party Twitter clients are in a precarious position on several mobile platforms. Apple, Microsoft and others are integrating Twitter into their mobile operating systems. And Twitter the corporate entity has scooped up TweetDeck, the most prominent competitor to the Seesmic software, following its previous acquisition of Tweetie, now the official Twitter client for Apple devices.

Nevertheless, while RIM has done what it can to smooth the road to the promising Playbook by supporting AIR and Android apps, it’s going to be a harder sell until a native BlackBerry tablet OS SDK is available and – more critically — until it can bring that QNX-based platform to its smartphones.

Seeking a more omnivorous Omni

When I wrote reviews for MacWEEK magazine in the mid-‘90s, some of my favorite productivity applications (not apps, thank you) included QuicKeys, Now Up-to-Date, PopupFolder,  PopChar, TypeIt4Me, FreeHand, TypeStyler, Typestry, ClarisImpact, ClarisWorks, Stacker, PageMill, SendExpress, SttuffIt (for which I paid the original shareware fee in person), Common Ground, Arrange and a number of utilities from Now Software, AlSoft and Connectix.

But perhaps the one that was my favorite was In Control by Attain. (A competitor, Fair Witness by also-defunct Chena Software, had more features, but for some reason  I liked In Control better.) In Control was a multi-columned outliner, kind of a cross between an outliner and a spreadsheet, and I found it an incredibly helpful tool for organizing a wide range of personal and professional projects.

For those exclusively on Apple platforms, OmniOutliner is the heir apparent to In Control and has taken the concept to the next level while preserving the elegance of that classic Mac program. Unfortunately for those who use multiple platforms,, the software – like other Omni Group products —  is staying on Apple platforms. Developer Ken Case cites his devotion to producing the best software possible as a justification for not moving onto other platforms, and yet the company has had great success with its iPad app, selling 100,000 copies in the first three weeks (which is particularly impressive given its $20 price tag, about the same as, for example, Pages and Numbers combined).

I find it hard to believe that Omni Group couldn’t scale up to produce high-quality software on multiple platforms. Apple, for example, has cited the excellent, cross-platform Evernote (not a bad modern-day substitute for Arrange) as an example of a product that has had great success in its Mac App Store.  Also, if Omni Group’s idea is to service Apple users, it should keep in mind that, increasingly, more of them – particularly iPad owners – are living in a cross-platform world. But it is certainly the company’s prerogative to stay on the Apple platform, which has rewarded it greatly for its support since the days it was one of a handful of NeXT developers.

So, my search continues for a cross-platform, cloud-synced alternative to OmniOutliner. It is the One Mac App I would most like to see on Android and particularly on Windows although I realize I probably won’t find anything as elegant or capable. (The One Windows App I would most like to see on the Mac is Live Writer.) I would certainly be elated to see multi-columned outlines supported as an Evernote note type.  Until then, suggestions via comments or Twitter are of course welcome.