Scrabble Flash is giftable, not yet Siftables.

SCRABBLE Flash GameThere’s the flash Apple supports and the Flash Apple doesn’t. But regardless of where you stand on the dispute between the once famously-friendly companies,you may well enjoy Scrabble Flash if you are enjoy word composition games. Even though the game is branded Scrabble Flash, the game mechanics are more akin to Boggle minus the 16-letter grid. Indeed, it is branded Boggle Flash in the UK.

Indeed, in contrast to Scrabble, Scrabble Flash isn’t played on a board at all. Rather, it consists of five chubby battery-powered tiles with monochrome displays. There are three main modes of play but all involve arranging the tiles to form words within a short amount of allotted time. It’s fun, at least for a while, and even includes a neat plastic travel box.

Perhaps more significantly for technologists, however, is that Scrabble Flash looks like an early implementation of technology in development by MIT Media Lab spinout Sifteo. It is dubbed Siftables, which the company calls the future of play. Unlike the Scrabble Flash tiles, the Sifteo prototypes have color screens and USB ports and are capable of working together in far more sophisticated ways, but there’s a big gap between what goes on in the halls of academia versus the aisles of Toys R Us. Until that time, Scrabble Flash can provide a fun taste of the future of physical interfaces.

For more on Siftables, check out this page on developer David Merrill. It includes a video of his presentation at TED.

Whither WUSB? (was Warpia)

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom around Wireless USB. Certainly from a video perspective, it seems that there are more robust choices entering the market although the folks at Veebeam seem to have gotten Ultra Wideband working cross-platform doing 1080p for less than a Benjamin.

Still, I haven’t had a lot of luck trying out the Warpia EasyDock, a WUSB-based solution. When I tried it a few weeks ago with a Core 2 Duo PC, I saw lags in the video performance that was supposed to be set to a relatively low resolution anyway. Trying it this week with a beefy Core i7 laptop, I got blue screens. Some of this may be Warpia’s support. When directed to download the latest driver, I saw two choices that looked like the product I was trying, but the model numbers didn’t match either of them, and there was a stern warning about using the wrong driver potentially causing damage. Oh, just forget it.

I look forward to catching up with the USB Implementers Forum at CES Unveiled next month to hear more abut what’s on tap for WUSB, an approach I still think is interesting for certain kinds of peripherals such as printers (although these, too, are now being addressed with standards such as Wi-Fi Direct) 2011 should be the year for USB 3.0, but failing a dramatic change, it could be the last gasp for Wireless USB.

Google wants to have its Gingerbread and eat it, too

image As it did with Eclair (Android 2.1), Google has taken the occasion of a new version of Android dubbed Gingerbread (Android 2.3) to bring out a new handset offering a “pure Android experience.”  This time around, that purity is brought to you by Samsung rather than HTC, which produced the original Nexus One, a handset that stole some thunder (but few sales) from the Motorola Droid juggernaut.

Google has used the Nexus handsets for experimenting with distribution outside the carrier channel, even if it made the original Nexus somewhat of a sacrificial lamb. The superior distribution of Best Buy should certainly help with the push of the device.

However, the improvements in Android 2.3 may not do much to drive consumers to the Google-branded handset, at least for a while. Unlike recent Android enhancements that brought improvements such as more home screens, dramatically faster operation, and mobile hotspot capability, .most of Gingerbread’s improvements are under the hood. The marquee feature, NFC, could yield some compelling new applications, but the one most popularly considered – enabling payments – is hardly a magnet.

The “S” serving as the device’s surname refers to the Samsung Galaxy S family that is the foundation for not only the Nexus S design, but defines many of the key hardware characteristics for the Samsung Focus, which many consider “the Windows Phone to get.” With the Galaxy S, Samsung has pursued a strategy of ubiquity versus exclusivity, and so the Nexus S will compete with similarly priced and specced siblings at all four major carriers, including the Vibrant (as well as the faster G2 and MyTouch 4G) on T-Mobile’s own portfolio. Even though the Nexus S is an unlocked device, its (partial) optimization for T-Mobile’s network all but assures that it will be most appealing to customers using the smallest of the national facilities-based carriers.

The Nexus S may be less “a Nexus to perplex us,” but Google’s vanity handsets still seem like a bug in its diversification strategy, one that must be generating considerable head-scratching among Android licensees, particularly those that are not anointed to build a Nexus in a given cycle.. Google is still staying clear of going head to head with OEMs at major carriers, but while it is providing more serious competition this time around, the carriers are better armed as well.

I came, I typed, Iconia

Right before the Thanksgiving break, Acer was in town to talk touch. Android slates of various sizes and a 10” Windows tablet with keyboard dock were announced along with a 10” Windows tablet that will be accompanied by a keyboad dock.

But the signature product was Iconia, a dual-screen 14” Windows notebook that follows in the footsteps of such dual-screen devices as the Kno tablet and the Toshiba Libretto W105 that I got to try for a bit earlier this year. As with the Libretto W, I found typing on the Iconia’s lower display to be surprisingly comfortable. Of course, I didn’t get to type anything of great length on it, but even from my initial trial, I’d likely rather use its keyboard than the iPad’s keyboard for even a few hundred word. in fact, I didn’t make a single typing error. The one caveat was that I needed to take a moment to orient my fingers on the lower screen, but from there it was smooth sailing, as I imagine it would be for most touch-typists.

There’s still much that isn’t known about the Iconia, such as what its battery life will be or how much it will cost. Going with a 14” main display puts it in the heart of screen size volumes, but I still think that the limited nature of a display-based keyboard lends itself better to a smaller screen size — not as small as the Libretto W105, but something closer to a mainstream netbook.

Accessory Sunday: RCA travel charger

imageAt the recent CES Unveiled show in New York, Audiovox was mostly showing off its forays into mobile electronics with hints of some cool new stuff to be released at the January show, but the home to all that is RCA this side of TV sets was also showing off a few accessories. Among these was a travel charger with an integrated shelf for a handset, portable media player, a different spin on an idea we’ve seen before.. I gave it a spin with the idea that it might replace my go-to traveling surge protector, the cleverly designed Monster Outlets To Go.

Like some of the more recent Outlets To Go products, the RCA has USB ports (two of them, in fact) in addition to three outlets. Ad you probably won’t be surprised to learn that it can be found for less than the Monster Cable competitor. However there were a few issues. First, while Audiovox includes a little shelf, it only works if the outlet has the grounding prong on the bottom. Worse, the adapter for slimmer devices didn’t seem to be securely attached to the adapter. More seriously, the USB port would not charge te Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot that I’d brought, and the prongs do not fold in, which makes a product that is already too bulky to be a travel product even more bulky.

Windows Phone 7: The good, the bad, the unknown

image Having had some time to try Windows Phone 7, I can say that Microsoft’s overhaul of its mobile operating system – while far behind in the features and apps race versus iOS or Android – certainly has some points in its favor.

  • It’s hard to find an opportunity that Microsoft passed up to add some engaging animation or transitions.
  • The camera experience is par excellence, an especially welcome makeover from the confusing camera experience of Windows Mobile.
  • The software keyboard and typing experience are really strong, and software-typing on the Samsung’s Focus 4” screen was one the best software keyboard experiences I’ve had on a mobile device. I also like the novel approach Microsoft has taken to adding extra symbols, by providing a slide-in.alternative symbols. It may not be particularly intuitive or time-saving, but it eliminates the need to switch into yet another keyboard mode. In any case, it’s good news that Microsoft has a solid software keyboard since, like Apple and unlike Android, it won’t allow alternative typing systems such as Swype..
  • I also like the way Microsoft has implemented cursor insertion; this is key for devices that lack a separate control for fine cursor movements as present in Android and BlackBerry devices. Apple gets the edge for style, but the Microsoft approach is more effective than those of rivals.
  • While Live Tiles may not provide much more – and in some cases may provide less – at a glance information than widgets, Microsoft makes a statement – and removes some user customization work — by having them as the default display, although Android also allows you to mix and match widgets and launch icons on any home screen, and even iOS and BlackBerry show badges or numeric indicators on information such as how many e-mail messages you have.
    On the other hand, Windows Live Tiles also highlight the simplicity of having a simple list for applications arranged in alphabetical order. Apple has let us scroll through thousands of songs in the past, why not 100 or so apps?
  • Offering Find My Phone for free is a nice value-add that can bring some peace of mind. This is a sleeper feature.
  • This is an OS for avid Facebook users – no apps really needed for the core experience and no cumbersome “social networking” layers . In fact, Windows Phone 7 depends so heavily on Facebook for much of its social plumbing that it’s hard to imagine what the experience would be without it.

My main complaint at this point is the gargantuan font that Microsoft uses to label hubs and other cards. It’s stylish, and may be intended to span the panoramas of Windows Phone’s interface, but it consumes a lot of real estate. Also, while I have not played around a lot with Office, the file fidelity that Microsoft promises in round-tripping documents is offset a bit by the completely foreign user interface for Office apps.

Yes, the UI for Office-like apps is very different on other smartphone OSes as well, but it still seems like more of a departure here. Some of that may be because it’s Microsoft doing the diverging, because there is such a strong association with the interface that makes Office Office (as opposed to something like Documents to Go), or simply the novelty of the Windows Phone UI overall at this point.

And then there are the unknowns. One of the main ones for me is the hubs. On one hand, it is a more visual way to organize related apps and functionality than folders. However, I wonder how well it will scale. That, along with a lack of multitasking, is one of the issues that will be easier to assess as Windows Phone 7 attracts more applications.

Touch: It’s in the way that you use it.

image In previewing some of the features of the next Mac OS, code-named Lion, today, Steve Jobs decried the idea of using a touch screen on a notebook. Apple’s CEO cited the ergonomic burden of having to constantly reach forward to touch a vertically oriented screen and said that the proper orientation for a touch surface is a horizontal surface. Hence, Apple is expanding the multitouch gestures invoked from input peripherals such ad the MacBooks’ trackpad, Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad.

However, the iPad is not generally used in a horizontal orientation — just check any of the Apple Pad billboards. There is a bit more to the story than just orientation. First, despite the iPadian nods to touch manipulation Apple is planning in Lion, desktop operating systems simply are not designed around the same kind of large on-screen UI elements and design that characterize the iPad experience.

This becomes obvious on a touchscreen Windows system long before arm fatigue sets in. (If you don’t have a touchscreen Windows system but do have a Winsows PC and an iPad, you can test this by using the Splashtop Remote Desktop app or any number of screen sharing alternatives.) Apple could, as many PC makers have, tweak the controls, but then the apps would still be a UI generation behind stuck in the traditional paradigm a on Windows

Second, the iPad is far more of a passive consumption device than a Mac.I’m not sure how many touch gestures the average iPad user makes versus mouse movements for a Mac user, but I would guess that the latter number is generally much higher. So even if. Apple were to create a Mac slate and tweak the UI elements, using such a computer would not be the smooth, gentle experience of an iPad.

What’s on Apple’s wish list?

Amid news of stellar financial results this week, Apple announced that it had added another $5 billion in cash to its already teeming coffers fo a total of $50 billion. When asked about returning some of that money to shareholders,, Steve Jobs noted that it would rather keep its “powder dry” (invoking the maxim attributed to Oliver Cromwell..

Apple, though, does not have a history of large acquisitions like its rival HP, which has amassed its own private technology company history museum by scooping up such pioneering companies as Palm ($1.2b), 3Com ($2.7b) and Compaq ($25b). In contrast, Apple’s high-profile acquisition of NeXT, which brought Jobs back to Apple and laid the foundation for the future of the Mac, was only $429m (about $581m today). This begs the question, what would Apple buy that would possibly cost that much?

Not a competitor. Looking across the value chain, Apple already has its own processor. About the only critical delivery piece it does not own today is a network – perhaps a telco or something to deliver landline content like a cable or satellite company (or equivalent). Despite the predictable uptake in Apple TV sales following its price reduction, Jobs has previously bemoaned the “go to market” problem of getting content to the television Of course, the companies that are out there delivering these pipes today are all either regional (like Comcast) or infrastructure-challenged (like Dish Network); it might be more efficient for Apple to build its own network as Google has been doing for some time although I’m inclined to think that it would prefer something wireless.

As I was writing this, I saw that Peter Kafka at MediaMemo has speculated that Apple might buy Facebook. I could see tremendous synergy there. Apple hasn’t cracked the social media nut, and buying Facebook would provide no only a tremendous online hedge against Google, but a fantastic complement to Apple’s mobile, music, games and college businesses. Hey Facebook, how about sweetening the deal by developing an iPad app already?

Accessory Sunday: Moshi Moshi 02

imageI suppose you could loosely file this one under the topic of fixed-mobile convergence. While the wired headset is rapidly giving way to the Bluetooth variety, Native Union has dispensed with portability entirely to create an objet d’art that is intended to provide comfort for a prolonged cell phone call. Of course, one could just use the speakerphone, but he quality is often muffled and, as with Bluetooth, you’ll see your battery run out more quickly.

The moshi moshi 02 is a low-profile, modern handset. While its weight definitely conveys a feeling of quality, though, it might be nice to have something a bit lighter to toss in a travel bag in anticipation of long conference calls from hotel rooms.

Cucku gets clocked with a double-edged sword

image Two years ago, I was briefed on one of the more interesting ideas to come along in a while in consumer backup: Cucku Backup. Instead of sending your backups to a hosted cloud like Mozy or Carbonite, it distributed it to the PCs or one or two “trusted” friends. (Even tough the parties were trusted, the backups were still encrypted.)

Cucku certainly had its issues. For example, like most online backup solutions, it took a while for your first backup if you were doing it completely online. Cucku was also distributed as a Skype Extra, something that the company claimed was an effective means of distribution, but which I always felt was somewhat of a barrier to adoption.

Unfortunately for Cucku, it became a critical barrier to adoption when Skype cancelled its Skype Extras program last month. While there was a fair bit of grousing about the suddenness of this decision, other developers were able to carry on in the face of it.

And perhaps Cucku could have as well, but, as the company frankly explains on its site, it failed to get a critical patent used in a claim against it invalidated. So, unfortunately, Cucku Backup is no more, and the company can’t even recommend a “social backup” alternative. Of course, there are other solid, free backup programs available such as the ones built into Windows 7 and Time Machine, as well as Windows programs that are free for personal use from Paragon Software and Comodo.Security Solutions.