Apple’s iOS subscriptions: Online, offline and the hard line

At PCWorld.com, Brennon Slattery has a good rundown on the terms of Apple’s new in-app  subscription service, which seems to invoke the most controversy since Apple’s decision not to allow apps created with tools other than its own, a policy that Apple eventually reversed. The policy seeks to give Apple credit for initiation of subscriptions via its iOS products while allowing subscription providers the flexibility to also bring to the iPhone subscriptions initiated off the device. The tension is around the idea that app developers who offer subscriptions from sources other than the device must also offer them from within the device, and must do so for the same (or lower) price while giving Apple a 30 percent cut of the transaction.

It’s not unreasonable for Apple to want to monetize a transaction for which it has offered exposure (and in doing so, it can create a user experience of not economic equation that is customer-centric.). It is, however, somewhat of a leap to think that just because a consumer activates a subscription on an iOS product that that the iOS product drove that subscription; this ignores much of the promotion that providers of these services do in other media. Providers of subscription products might try to get around the requirement by obscuring the ability to sign up in the app or offering some bonuses for offline activation.

But why encourage these games? Apple could compromise and still save face simply by making in-app subscription activation optional. Then, if the subscription provider feels as though the iOS audience is worth it, they can pay Apple the share. If not, then they risk losing out on that customer until she goes to a Web site, calls a phone number, or engages in some other delay that may risk losing out on the subscription. If Apple holds its ground, we may at best see subscription providers pushing customers to competitive platforms. Making in-app activations optional offers a cost-effective customer acquisition mechanism for companies that aren’t spending a lot on off-device promotion while recognizing the investment of those that do.

During the Adobe CS5 development tool controversy, I argued that Flash developers were more likely to simply abandon iOS than switch, and that would be even more true for subscription service providers that found customer acquisition unprofitable on iOS devices.

This is simply another situation where Apple must decide between iOS devices being a platform versus being a sales channel. By allowing services that compete to an extent with iTunes such as Rhapsody, Slacker, Hulu Plus and even Netflix – the latter of which Apple has embraced on its own closed AppleTV product – it has done much to silence critics that complain about the closed nature of the platform and continue to attract best-in-class and exclusive applications. Apple has historically leaned to the platform end of this debate to the benefit of its customers and its products.

Good things come in Pres

Will the third time be a charm for the portrait slider form factor that was the vehicle for webOS’s debut? The competition has gotten a lot tougher and the app gap remains webOS’s biggest challenge. Still, I think there’s cause for optimism.

As HP was not shy about pointing out at its Think Beyond event last week, the trend in the market has been toward jumbo screen sizes; CES was rife with announcements of 4.3” and 4.5” handsets. The original Pre and Pre 2, however, simply had too limiting a canvas. The bump to 3.6” puts HP in iPhone range. While I’ve said on a few occasions that I think 4” is perhaps the ideal balance between reachability and real estate, 3.5” is pretty usable and HP has put the extra width to good use by adding a larger keyboard..

But even screen size wasn’t as horrible an impediment with the first Pre as the experience-crushing lag. HP has addressed that in two ways, by bumping up the maximum processor clock speed to a roaring 1.4 GHz and by many optimizations in webOS 2, which I awarded the Switchie for most improved smartphone OS. I’m hoping those two improvements combine to make the fluidity of using a webOS handset consistent with the fluidity of the user interface’s design.while providing competitive battery life.

Sense versus sensor on the Nintendo 3DS

I’ve written here and there about how 3D is not the only intriguing capability of the Nintendo 3DS and the components of the system generally work well together and complement each other. But two in particular can be at odds with each other – the 3D screen and the gyroscope.

One tradeoff of the 3DS’ autostereoscopic display is that the 3D effect needs to reorient if the viewing angle moves too far from its sweet spot; this causes a dark wave to pass over the screen. Of course, gyroscopes invite such reorientation since they respond to it to enhance gameplay.

Recently, I discussed this challenge with Greg Galvin, CEO of Kionix, a company that produces accelerometers and gyroscopes, and he held out hope for its reconciliation. The key, he self-servingly notes, is that the sensors in many of today’s products – while a step up from the early efforts that are in the original Wii controller – aren’t nearly as sensitive as they could be. Higher-end components, though, are more precise and require far less of a tilt to produce the same effect.

There must be a fine line, though, between subtlety and the natural tilting and shaking that could be a normal byproduct of playing a handheld game. It seems similar to the kind of intelligence Synaptics and others are addressing with palm or wrist detection on touchscreens to differentiate purposeful contact from a resting part of the hand.

3D is just one part of the Nintendo 3DS experience

It would seem that the 3D capabilities are the most important part of Nintendo’s 3DS. After all, it’s right there in the name. However, after getting some hands-on time with the system this week, it’s important to remember that 3D is by no means the only critical part of Nintendo’s latest foray in portable consoles just as the dual screens — or even touch capabilities — told the whole story of the original Nintendo DS.

A great example of this is Steel Diver, a prototype of which appeared around the launch of the DS. Taking advantage of the 3DS’ sensors, you can use the 3DS like a periscope, rotating your person to see a 360° view of a sea and the various targets. The lower touch screen control the speed of the sub’s engines and when and how deeply it dives. Playing it brought back fond memories of playing the arcade game Sea Wolf.

Yes, it’s also in 3D, and as with most of the 3DS games I’ve tried, it enhances the experience, at least initially, even though moving about with the handheld risks exiting the sweet spot that can cause a shift in the display. However, in contrast to the game-defining mechanic, Steel Diver’s 3D effects can be reduced or turned off completely, just as they can be for any 3DS game.

Nintendo may have scooped just about everyone else on a portable autostereoscopic display. and that is clearly the showstopper feature, but the "DS" part of the 3DS is at least as important as the "3D" part; it’s success will be determined in large part by the way Nintendo has integrated 3D, not just that they have implemented it.

Entering the Atrix

By itself, the Atrix was but one of the dozen or so large-screened Android smartphones that invaded CES 2011, but what really set it apart was its lapdock accessory. This clamshell combination of a full-sized keyboard, screen and battery allow the Atrix to function more like a Linux smartbook.

Extending the processing and connectivity of a smartphone to notebook proportions is, of course, not a new idea. The pre-Elevation Palm sort of tried it with the Foleo, which was a mostly independent device and in some ways a closer ancestor to the BlackBerry Playbook. Celio implemented it with the Redfly, although that product was tied to the unpopular Windows Mobile OS and later BlackBerry, where it was poorly integrated. Rather than a dock, both solutions were able to use bandwidth-constrained Bluetooth to pair the input and output enhancement to the phone. In the case of the Redfly, a cable could also be used.

The Atrix 4G lapdock solution seems like it will work better than those approaches, but in the excitement over a smartphone that can apparently transform into a laptop, I think we’ve been too quick to overlook the lapdock’s strange design, in which the Atrix is docked behind the screen. This allows for easy connection and disconnection of the smartphone, but it doesn’t allow for use of both screens simultaneously. More importantly, it doesn’t allow you to easily transport the docked Atrix within the lapdock. I’d be surprised if a competitor taking a crack at this didn’t make it so that the phone is inserted securely inside the clamshell, allowing for sufficient ventilation, of course.

When there’s an app for that… hardware

I recently had an interesting discussion with a company hat is planning un releasing a useful iPhoneiPad accessory at CES that works with, of course, an app. The company was wondering whether it should charge for the app. Certainly, while most apps  — particularly first-party ones – that work with iPhone-related devices have been free, e.g.,, the Sonos Controller, the Monsoon Multimedia Vukano app, and the Peel application – some have charged separately. A good example of the latter approach is the outlandishly priced Sling Remote app. Logitech also mysteriously has left Squeezebox control to two strong third-party apps.

This company, though, wasn’t looking to gouge. Rather, it was concerned that if it made the app free, that those who didn’t purchase the hardware would be scratching their heads and give it a low rating. This raises some interesting questions. For example, should Apple enforce those who rate an app that requires hardware to have purchased that hardware? I’d argue yes. Alternatively, manufacturers should have the option to make iPhone apps available only with a code that is obtained with the purchase of the product and is then linked to their Apple ID.

Cricket’s Muve Music is pre-paid, not pre-pain

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Smartphones put Pandora on the mainstream map and is also helping the fortunes of paid music services such as Rhapsody and Rdio, which has created an iPhone music app that is a viable alternative to purchasing music a la carte with iTunes. Indeed, a subscription music offering is also integrated into Windows Phone 7 with Zune.

But what about the rest of consumers, particularly the millions who use prepaid handset services and feature phones, and pay their monthly cell phone bill in cash? Cricket has developed an intriguing music service for its customers called Muve Music. The basic proposition of Muve is similar to those of other music renal services. One can download all the DRM songs one wants for a monthly fee. Stop paying the fee and the access to the music goes away.

But rather than dealing with a PC and sideloading, Muve downloads music right to the handset over 3G, saving time and bandwidth by heavily compressing audio with a new “good enough” Dolby encoding method. The service will launch on a single Samsung feature phone with more to come, including smartphone implementations.

Cricket has addressed concerns about navigating such a large music library on a handset by offering a Web portal into the service that allows customers to pick songs and designate them to be sent right to the handset. And while it is a relatively focused service, it has also integrated automatic playlist creation and song identification.

Muve Music also lets customers use any available track as their ringtone or ringback tone. It’s about a $10 premium on top of the bill, or about what a monthly subscription to Rhapsody or Napster would cost that allows unlimited downloading. However, it is simply another part of the bill rather than paid to a third-party music provider.

The service is the best effort to date to tie music access into the carrier offering mix, which is the best shot of them becoming mainstream. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Sprint, for example, could roll the service as is into a Simply Everything plan. More post-paid customers would care more about music access on the PC itself, and there could be issues around discounts for family plans. Cricket has leveraged the simplicity of its phone service to deliver a simple on-demand music service for a customer base that it describes as passionate about music and flustered as to the best way to access it on what is their primary music-capable digital device.

Accessory Sunday: Mophie Juice Pack for iPhone 4

imageThe Mophie Juice Pack Air was an accessory that received praise for the iPhone 3G and 3GS. And while the iPhone 4 has good battery life in general, there are always those who will want more, particularly since – for all the nice, extra access touches for things such as screen orientation lock that we’ve seen in iOS 4.2 – it’s still a hassle to turn off features that drain the battery such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

I was a bit disappointed when I checked out Mophie’s new Juice Pack  Reserve and Boost for iPod and iPhone. They felt cheaply made, particularly the dock interface extension which sometimes would stick. butt the company has returned to form with its flagship iPhone charging case. The Juice Pack Air complements and can charge the iPhone 4 from a standard microUSB connector. It also includes a four-LED battery meter.

I still have a few quibbles. I’d like to see the cutouts for the buttons at more of an angle to make them easier to press even though this might sacrifice a bit of protection. Also, the top part of the enclosure can come loose if you are trying to grab it out of a tight pocket. Still, the Juice Pack Air is a great option to provide abbot 70 percent more battery life to he iPhone 4 and a great choice for those who are willing to trade its svelte profile for going the extra mile.

Kno sees big interest in big screens

In my recent two-part column about the forthcoming Kno tablet – as well as the follow-up regarding the Acer Iconia, I mentioned the heft of dealing with a single 14” tablet, expressing concerns about how potentially awkward it might be for two. Kno, however, noted that members of its preview beta program were more than twice as likely to say that they wanted the dual-screen version of the Kno tablet versus the single-screen version

Kno recently followed up to let me know that, according to its pre-sales data, customers are choosing the larger, heavier Kno versus the single-screened version by a 2.5 to 1 ratio. I suppose it’s not too surprising given that these are the earliest of Kno’s early adopters, and most likely to embrace the more expensive, richest experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them already have an iPad as a lighter alternative.

Of course, that will change over time. The larger (or is that smaller?) point expressed in the column still holds true, though. Kno will be operating in a world of tablets of many different screen sizes. If the company follows its stated model for success as a software play, there will likely be a lot more Kno’ing going on on smaller screens barring dramatic display advances.

Accessory Sunday: ZAGGmate with Keyboard

Since the iPad was released, there’s been much excitement about add-on keyboards using either Bluetooth or its dock connector. (So far, only Apple’s Keyboard Dock has taken the latter approach, and it’s not a particularly travel-friendly item.) The iPad helped inspire me to write an ode to to the old Stowaway keyboard originally developed by ThinkOutside.

So far, variations of most keyboard-case combos have met with pretty poor reviews due to the mushiness and membrane-like quality of the keyboard. The ZAGGmate, though, offers individual keys. They would also be mushy enough to earn the ire of any reviewer if they were on a notebook, but they’re an improvement over most of what’s out there as well as, of course, the existing screen-based keyboard . While I’ve seen some people sail along on its smooth surface, I find myself making at least as many errors as I do on the iPhone’s keyboard. Perhaps that is due to less frequent use.

The ZAGGmate allows the iPad can be stored  inside its aluminum housing to protect the screen. However, this leaves the back of the device unprotected. ZAGG, of course, will be happy to sell you an Invisible Shield to fix that problem, but you can also throw the combination in a standard 8” netbook slipcase for further protection. The makers of the ClamCase have updated their site to note that its product will be shipping soon. At least until then, though, the ZAGGmate is a great companion for the iPad, which I have taken to use at conferences due to its long battery life and variety of note-taking applications.