Smartbooks need the iPad

imageLong before the launch of the iPad or the introduction of the smartbook concept, a client asked me what I thought about the idea of netbooks that didn’t run Windows. Versions of the ASUS Eee and HP Mini had been available with Linux distributions, but were ultimately cancelled in the face of consumers’ overwhelming preference for Windows on those devices. If it walks like a mouse being used on Windows, consumers expect to use it with a mouse being used with Windows. Now, SlashGear notes that Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs says that the iPad has delivered the concept of “always-on, all–day devices” that smartbooks had originally promised.

I read that comment as potential validation, but SlashGear frames it as a concession. If Jacobs has indeed taken up the white flag from Shantanu Narayen, It’s oddly timed given the barrage of ARM-powered Android tablets that are in the works. Archos, for example, just announced a whole family of Internet tablets (if you can call a device with a 3.2” screen a tablet as they do) and Samsung has announced the highest-profile iPad competitor to date in the Galaxy Tab (more on that name later).

So perhaps the term smartbook, like netbook, implies a keyboard – something that wasn’t the case in concept videos shown early on by Qualcomm. The Lenovo Skylight (pictured) was shelved, but promised to return one day running Android. Challenges abound. Not only is Android is not optimized for larger screens, but it needs a staple of applications to fill in the gaps with Windows (something Linux actually had for productivity in OpenOffice). Furthermore, channel, task and usage scenario overlap with Windows becomes more pronounced.

Over time, though, consumers may be more accepting of a keyboard-equipped smartbook. As the SlashGear post notes, HP and Toshiba have dabbled in the market. The paradox is that consumers need more successful non-Windows tablets like the iPad to understand such a device with a keyboard. Apple probably won’t produce one, but has opened the door to accessory makers to create an equivalent, and others will. The key for these vendors is to show consumers that even keyboard-enabled smartbooks are not neutered netbooks, but supersized smartphones.

Samsung appears to recognize that in using the “Galaxy” brand across its smartphones and the Tab, but it is both a new brand and one that has been subdued (at least in the U.S.) under the monikers that various carriers have given it. In any case, consumers have of course accepted physical keyboards on smartphones (with at least one successful clamshell feature phone that may be Android-bound).

Adobe turns a triple into a walk

Following a trend of relaxing restrictions in its app acceptance policy, Apple on Thursday announced that it would no longer ban iPhone applications written in other languages from its app store subject to certain provisions (which would exclude Adobe AIR). While Apple made a strong case as to the risks that third-party development tools made to the platform, I argued that, for many Flash developers, the choice was probably between using Flash or no app, as opposed to Flash versus Cocoa. And, of course, there’s nothing about Apple’s tools that prevent developers from making a bad app. The now more-transparent review process can be the point of quality control in either case.

In any case, it’s a win for Flash, and that means a win for Adobe, right? In its response to the announcement, Adobe reminds that Apple still does not allow Flash to run natively on iOS devices. No, the allowing of apps with the Flash cross-compiler is ultimately not the native Flash home run Adobe really wants. But, had Adobe kept in there, swinging away and pledging to continue to work with Apple to address the issues Apple has with Flash and the cross-compiler (regardless of the realism of that prospect), it would have a better story to tell now. It could have shared some level of responsibility in helping to convince Apple of the cross-compiler’s value (Adobe is, after all, an iOS developer), which opens up the the three (installed) bases of iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad to Flash developers.

But that’s not what Adobe did. In April, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch blogged that Adobe was moving forward from iOS. And in August, frustrated by the impasse, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen noted in reference to Apple, “They’ve made their choice. We’ve made ours and we’ve moved on.” Adobe was too eager to close the door when, clearly in hindsight, it had a chance to be reopened. Apple has cracked the door open to Flash developers a few months after Adobe decided it wouldn’t even drive them to the party.

Now, of course, Adobe is resuming work on the Flash cross-compiler for iOS. But can you imagine if Microsoft was so quick to shrug its shoulders when trying to advance its platform? “Sorry, guys. Mobile’s been a tough nut for us to crack. Android seems to be getting pretty popular now, though, so maybe you should consider casting your lot with that.”

New iPod line goes back to basics and forward to the future.

image Prior to this week’s iPod announcement, it was a bit inconsistent that the midrange iPod nano could capture video (but not stills) and the high-end iPod touch could capture neither. With the new lineup, hough, the iPods’ capture capabilities have been rationalized. The iPod nano has no image or video capture capabilities whereas the iPod touch now has both – including high-definition video — even though the stills are of a lower resolution than those the iPhone 4 can capture. Of course, video capture is a better fit for the touch than the nano anyway. Not only can it now take advantage of the remarkable iMovie app, but video can be uploaded via Wi-Fi (which the nano lacks) and used by third-party developers.

Indeed, while the new nano boasts a novel and fun form factor, Apple’s new lineup has a sort of retro feel to it, with the shuffle reclaiming its buttons and the nano focusing more on music and a smaller screen. Why, the dock connector on the nano even returns to the center of its bottom, where it was on the third-generation nano. Both the shuffle and nano show that Apple thinks it’s hip to be square.

Paradoxically, the iPod touch, which looks most similar to its previous generation, really has an opportunity to spawn a whole new category of products – the consumer videoconferencing appliance. For less than $500 and a Wi-Fi connection, you can now set up a simple point-to-point videoconference, one that will be able to tie into more users as Apple enables FaceTime over 3G. Not only is the device now, more than ever, a contract-free smartphone, it’s a contract-free videophone.

The Droid X is large and holds a decent charge

While Apple commanded the attention of the media this week by offering a bumper crop of cases free to iPhone customers as a goodwill gesture, the Android camp was not resting at all. Verizon Wireless continued its Droid assault by releasing the Droid X, the big-screened rival to Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G. Motorola has matched many of the specs of HTC’s largest Android device, but the Droid X lacks the EVO’s front-facing camera, kickstand, and of course WiMAX radio compatibility. And for all those looking to get more than their starting basketball lineup using their phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, the EVO 4G can accommodate eight devices to the Droid X’s five.

At today’s Apple’s press conference, Steve Jobs weighed in on his thoughts regarding devices with 4’” or larger screens. I acknowledged their disadvantages while being somewhat more positive about their long-term prospects in my most recent (and last for this rotation) RCR Wireless Analyst Angle column. The larger screen makes it one of the more comfortable Android devices for typing in portrait orientation.

I’ve been using the Droid X since its announcement on a daily basis and like the device. I’ve found that the battery life — a concern on the EVO 4G — has been good enough to last into the evening with moderate usage. This was about what I was seeing with the iPhone 3GS, but the iPhone 4 has trounced that by a significant margin. Of course, the Droid X — like most other handsets — has a removable battery. Among my favorite software features have been the Mobile Hotspot app and the DLNA capabilities, both unsupported features in iOS (although there are several third-party DLNA apps). I also liked Motorola’s suite of widgets (the new, more understated MOTOBLUR).

But the Droid X has its weaknesses. The bottom row of buttons are quite narrow and a bit stiff and the camera button is a bit inconsistent and mushy. The device’s display led me to dread traversing the display’s length for the ever-necessary Back button, which I preferred to the far left as on the original Droid (and not just because of the convenience when using the slide-out keyboard).  The Droid X pays an unwelcome homage to the RAZR by including a camera-hosting hump behind the top of the phone that resembles the infamous “chin” of Motorola’s once best-selling feature phone.

As I noted in my RCR Wireless column, the 4” display of the imminent Verizon Fascinate — based on the Galaxy S platform — will be a more agreeable compromise between screen size (and its screen is indeed extremely impressive) and portability. But the Fascinate will lack a few key specs that the Droid X can claim, including HDMI out and — more curiously — an LED flash. Speaking of which, despite having a higher megapixel count than the iPhone 4, Apple’s handset produces brighter photos with more saturated colors.

The Droid X is certainly a handful, but it’s fairly manageable, at least when you get used to it, at least for those with larger hands.

Nitro-burning PDFs

image The most significant and enduring product I ever reviewed for MacWEEK in the early to mid-Ô90s was the first version of Adobe Acrobat (sorry, Samir and Dave). It was far from my favorite, though. (That would probably be Attain’s In Control, succeeded very well by today’s OmniOutliner. Other favorites included the still-kicking QuicKeys and its once fellow CE Software property Arrange, first offered by Common Knowledge.) At the time, there were a number of products vying to become the lingua franca for document exchange and I actually preferred a competitor called Common Ground, which was eventually buried by Hummingbird, now part of Open Text.

At launch, Acrobat lacked the ability to embed fonts whereas Common Ground could create a 300 dpi bitmap of a document. That of course was unacceptable for pro use, but I liked the concept for consumers. What’s more, the Mac version of Common Ground could generate a Windows executable with the document embedded. That was a pretty slick trick in the day, but one that would be unworkable today with all the fear regarding virus and malware.

Nowadays, the competition among formats has been replaced somewhat with the competition for readers and editors for PDF. I’ve been using Foxit Reader on machines where Acrobat Reader is either too slow or has been buggy (and yes, Acrobat Reader has gotten better.) There’s a promising new entrant, though, and that’s Nitro PDF Reader. Like the Foxit reader, Nitro’s reader is available only under Windows, but it looks and feels more like a modern Windows program, taking full advantage of Aero conventions and blending right in visually with Office. For fellow Evernote users, Nitro Software signed up as a partner for Trunk, an in-app app store that will offer products that can flow all kinds of content into the multi-platform multimedia note repository.

Uniquely among free Windows PDF readers, Nitro’s PDF Reader includes a print driver to generate PDFs, something that is of course built into Mac OS X and is handled well under Windows by free products such as PrimoPDF and CutePDF Writer, but it’s nice to have the option of one-stop shopping. Alas, if you’d like to combine multiple PDFs into one document, though, you must step up to Nitro Software’s full, professional package. Still, if you’re a Windows user, it’s worth considering as your main PDF reader.

Bringrr tackles phone separation anxiety

image In the past year or so, I’ve seen several Bluetooth products that sound an alarm if they are separated from the device with which they are paired. The idea is to alert you in case your phone becomes misplaced or stole. But at the CEA Line Shows last week, a company called Bringrr (which gets a few points for ending its name with my initials) is taking a different approach.

The Bringrr device sits in your cigarette lighter and checks to see if your phone is nearby when you start the car. While the means are similar to those employed forget-me-not phone devices such as the versatile Zomm, the purpose is to notify you when you’ve forgotten to bring your phone rather than that you’ve left it behind. Bringrr also comes in a version that includes a USB charger for said phone or other device.

I have left my phone behind when I’ve meant to bring it in the vehicle on occasion, but it’s been a pretty rare occurrence, perhaps even less often than when I’ve left hone on foot. That said, car trips tend to be longer, of course, making it more of a hassle to hurry back for your personal radio-infused computer, and there aren’t a lot of pay phones on the open road.

Modlet makes light bulbs go off

imageIt takes a lot to out-cute Doxie, the socially savvy sheet-fed scanner strewn with pink hearts, but the Flash animation on ThinkEco’s site for its Modlet product may have one-upped “her.” One of the products I saw at the CEA Line Shows last week, Modlet plays on the interest in green electronics. It consists of a simple pair of electrical outlets which turn on and off based on a schedule that is set in advance. Modlets communicate with PCs using the Zigbee protocol via a small USB dongle; it seems like an inexpensive and .

Whenever I see products like the Modlet, I get to thinking about lighting and why it has been so difficult to get that part of the amorphous home automation market to take off. A huge part of it is, of course, the difficulty in doing retrofit installations. However, Zigbee radios are small. Isn’t there a way to embed them in the base of light bulbs themselves? If heat is an issue, I would think compact fluorescents or certainly LED lighting would alleviate that. While LED bulbs may be expensive, they are a pittance compared to the labor cost for an electrician to come in and install Zigbee controls in every wall switch.

My guide to the stars of the Galaxy S

This week, Samsung, which noted that it has the highest market share in the U.S. for cell phones overall according to “several analyst firms” (ahem), gave notice that it is now getting into the smartphone market for real with the launch of the Galaxy S. Samsung is indeed making a big splash with this device. Unlike similarly specced devices that are exclusive to one carrier, different flavors of the Galaxy S will launch on all four major U.S. carriers. This should work to Samsung’s favor when it comes to gaining smartphone market share, but may also reflect the phone’s arrival date, coming in after Sprint and Verizon are making big bets with their 4.3” Android devices in a bid to fend off the iPhone.

But the branding of the deices will go beyond the model numbers used for the BlackBerry Curve on multiple carriers. Rather, they will each have distinct names and, in most cases, distinct industrial designs. On the verb camp are the Verizon Fascinate and AT&T Captivate while Sprint and T-Mobile have adopted adjective names with the Vibrant and Epic 4G. Yet they are all identified as Galaxy S smartphones.

Having checked out the phones for a bit earlier this week, I have a few early thoughts. First, the screens are very bright and do well in direct sunlight, although they are not significantly brighter than that of the iPhone 4. That said, the extra resolution and screen size of the Galaxy S’s screen enables it to  display more of a Web page without striking one as overwhelming the way the Droid X and HTC EVO 4G do.

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iPhone 4: First impressions

Black and white iPhone 4 models at 30-degree angles.Apple says that the iPhone 4 is much more than just an incremental tweak from previous iPhone. And while it can defend that claim, the arrival of the iPhone 4 reminds me quite a bit of the arrival of the iPhone 3GS in many ways. First, a large part of the value lies in the release of new software, in this case the newly renamed iOS 4. Second, much as the iPhone 3GS ushered in video capture to the platform, iPhone 4 has added video (and stills) capability to the front of the device, providing the key hardware for the FaceTime videoconferencing.

Software

The three most significant new features in iOS 4 are multitasking (albeit Apple’s limited flavor of it), folders, and the universal threaded e-mail discussions, and they all improve the efficiency of working with the iPhone.Multitasking is particularly helpful when you need to switch among more than two apps and especially if those apps were located on different home screens (a scenario that folders also ameliorates). Apple’s approach has its drawbacks. For example, when you return to the e-mail client or a Twitter client, those apps will only then connect to the network and start downloading new messages. So if, for example, you haven’t remembered to switch to that app before entering a place with no coverage, you won’t have access to the latest updates. The upside to limitations like this is enhanced battery life, which I’ll discuss later.

In a release that has done much to alleviate the repeated swiping to move among home screens and e-mail inboxes, the task switcher seems like a throwback. While swiping to the left to access media controls is a good idea, Apple need not have so many screens of recently opened apps, and removing them from the selection row takes too much time and is potentially confusing. Also, it’s not clear why Apple preserves so much of the screen to the near-useless space of the active app when you are in task switching mode. These could all be addressed with simple fixes – devite, say, half or even 3/4 of the screen to task switching and implement WebOS-style flicking away of icons (or, even better, preview screens) to remove them from the app switcher.

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