Web tablets: When will ViewSonic jump in?

I welcome a tweeting representative at ViewSonic Corp. as one my most recent Twitter followers; I am following him or her as well.. ViewSonic has always been a progressive display company, which I suppose it has had to be as one of the few independent brands in the PC monitor marketplace. Seeing ViewSonic in my followers’ list got me thinking about the company’s various forays to market intelligent displays.

Back when Microsoft launched Smart Displays, tablet terminals that used Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol to access a PC from around the home, it positioned the devices as the future of the monitor. Smart Displays were contrasted against Tablet PCs, which were positioned as the future of the laptop. Clearly, the latter had greater longevity although neither initiative became the future of anything.

Still, I liked the Smart Display concept. If netbooks indicate that price was the main obstacle presenting consumers from buying ultraportables with 11” and smaller screens, perhaps a lower-cost tablet could vindicate the Smart Display form factor (if not its design goals). Certainly that’s what the CrunchPad is setting out to do. In any case, VviewSonic was the leading brand in the doomed category, offering AirPanel Smart Displays in both 10” (pictured) and 15” screen sizes with a USB keyboard.

More recently at this year’s CES, ViewSonic jumped on the netbook/nettop bandwagon, showing a number of PCs such as a backpack PC intended to affix to the back of a monitor, an all-in-one, and a netbook. The challenge, though, is that while the netbook market has raised Asus’ profile, consumers are increasingly thinking about netbooks as little Windows PCs, and in turn are looking to big Windows PC brands, On the other hand, maybe a big “PC” brand like Apple can open up the tablet category.

I don’t know if ViewSonic has it in them, so to speak, but if Archos as well as the CrunchPad and Touch Book teams were able to do it, I’m sure ViewSonic could as well. Maybe it could embed Android (which would probably be the way to go despite large-screen Android misgivings), or one of the “instant on” operating systems such as SplashTop or HyperSpace. In any case, ad at the risk of damning it with faint praise, the Web tablet is probably the best opportunity since Smart Display for a monitor manufacturer to really differentiate itself technologically.

Imagine there’s no iPad. It’s easy if you try.

Since my last Switched On column postulating that the rumored Apple tablet could be more of an Apple TV successor than an iPod touch with a glandular problem, I’ve heard some fantastic unpublished rumors about the device from a pretty credible source — at least one of which I believe. It’s easy to say that at $599 or more that the Apple tablet is a nonstarter but let’s remember that the iPod started at $399 and the iPhone launched at $599. But the Apple tablet could be… could be…

…just a rumor. Of it could well exist in prototype form and for whatever reason Apple could decide not to ship it. It’s happened before.

The CrunchPad, which I predicted could not be sold for $200 and has now seen its predicted price swell to netbook range, had received a lot of attention as an Apple tablet alternative, but if you’re primarily interested in surfing the Web and are willing to shell out that much, it may be worth looking into Always innovating’s Touch Book, which I’ve written about previously.

Its screen is smaller than the CrunchPad’s. But with its add-on keyboard, open source operating system, and unorthodox hardware, it’s the Chumby of netbooks, and I like its “convertible” approach more than those of Tablet PCs where the screen twists and folds over the keyboard, leaving a fat tablet. Since it must house a battery in its screen for independent tablet operation, the Touch Book’s lid is a bit thick as well, but I think it could be the stronger niche offering if its software can carry the day.

What Eye-Fi has its eye on

imageSwitched reports that KDDI is showing microSD cards that have embedded Wi-Fi, a natural evolution of a long-running trend in network-enabled memory cards. SanDisk had Wi-Fi-enabled Compact Flash cards back in the Pocket PC era and, of course, Eye-Fi has marketed a variety of Secure Digital cards with embedded Wi-Fi. Since digital cameras have a particular purpose and don’t use a standard operating system, Eye-Fi has focused the cards’ functionality on uploading photos to PCs and various photo and video services. While its prices have always been uncompetitive with the rapid dips in flash memory price-performance Eye-Fi now faces more difficult challenges as both units and average prices shrink for digital still cameras. Eye-Fi’s “Pro” 4 GB card with Wi-Fi costs $150, $30 more than an entry-level Canon A480 at MSRP.

So, Wi-Fi-enabled microSD certainly would have appeal to Eye-Fi, which could use it to expose the company to a much larger market of cell phones. Software would be more of a challenge as Eye-Fi would likely want to create client applications on multiple operating systems. Software, though, could enable new applications beyond uploading to one of my long-running bugaboos, in-the-field sharing of photos (and other media).

But while the Switched piece points out that some smartphones don’t support Wi-Fi, that’s becoming the exception these days with even Verizon Wireless warming to the LAN technology somewhat. Eye-Fi might be left to recreate its current wireless photo transfer service on feature phones  that can connect wirelessly, but relatively expensively and slowly.

PocketSurfer could please the palmtop-passionate

image In the early mid-‘90s, I worked with a group of Wall Street technologists who were doing some early business applications with wireless data. The team included several fans of the HP DOS clamshell palmtops such as the 95LX and the 100LX. EPOC, the precursor to the Symbian operating system, spent its formative years on devices like this from Psion, such as the popular Series 5. And asHP flirted with Windows CE in its Jornada line, it experimented with various combinations of keyboard usability and screen size, even creating a netbook-sized product with an 8” screen and trackpad called the Jornada 820.

But I’ve seen little since those days to capture the combination of utility and portability of those early HP handheld computers updates for the Internet era. We now have tons of smartphones with keyboards, some of which are quite usable, but nearly all are designed to be used standing up. (The HTC Touch Pro 2 is probably the one that comes closest for tabletop usage). Other mid-screen devices such as he Nokia N810 and Samsung Mondi have sliding keyboards and are designed similarly.

Along with others, I have been wanting for some way to connect a keyboard to the iPhone to simulate a clamshell, but that would require Apple adding Bluetooth or dock connector input support. Most MIDs or UMPCs focusing on the 4” to 7” screen size are tablets although something like the UMID mbook M1 looks intriguing, but it’s clear that there are a too many compromises stuffing Windows XP onto a 5” screen.

By using a proxy server and what some have deemed too-aggressive compression, the DataWind PocketSurfer devices delivers fast Internet access. While its no platform, changes to its historically unpopular pricing and refreshed hardware, it could become an alternative for those who want simple Net access on the go.

Who needs a wireless PC speaker? Bose knows.

Boste SoundLinkA few weeks after Yamaha upgraded its capitalization defiant MusicCAST multi-room Sonos competitor, Bose – which has been another “traditional” audio manufacturer that has dabbled in multi-room functionality – has trotted out the SoundLink wireless speaker for extending PC audio. As is customary for Bose, few details regarding specs are available but it has acknowledged that the system uses a proprietary wireless connection. My guess is a 2.4 GHz signal like those used by by Sony in its S-Air systems or EOS Wireless in its multi-room system. Having used some of these proprietary PC-based point systems in their early days, I wonder if Bose has done anything to filter out system sounds from the PC since the system comes without software.

In any case, using the PC as the audio source certainly brings some advantages, such as great choice in audio selection, but more systems are tapping directly into Internet music sources. Even some iPod speaker docks without integrated networking can now take advantage of the iPod touch’s Wi-Fi access to stream at least half a dozen Internet radio selections. I suppose the market for this is bedrooms where consumers are already using a laptop as the main audio source but want more flexibility in the placement of the speaker.

In defense of the iPhone 3G S

I’ve seen many reactions to the WWDC keynote that characterize the iPhone as something less than a compelling upgrade (while bemoaming the price of said upgrade) and pointing to the new $99 price of the original 8 GB iPhone3G as the bigger news out of WWDC. The entry-level iPhone is poised to be an aggressive challenger to many competitors, but some argue that it may be too aggressive against the iPhone 3G S.

I agree that the improvements in the iPhone 3G S are not as dramatic as the ones we saw in the move to the iPhone 3G, but the app ecosystem will add value to video capture on the new model. The extra $100 for the 16 GB 3G S is not a lot when amortized over the cost of a two-year AT&T agreement. And then there is AT&T’s 7.2 Mbps network upgrade, which could make the iPhone 3G S much faster at network operations in addition to local operations.

Regardless, Apple does very well with premium products. The 16 GB nano does quite well despite there being 8 GB models; it’s long been that way with higher iPod capacities. And especially with the iPhone, it’s in Apple’s long-term interest to accept some cannibalization of the high-end now in the name of extending the platform. I was surprised, for example, to see that there were already 5,000 Android apps and that the platform is accounting for 9 percent of mobile Web traffic according to charts that were presented at WWDC. Apple may lead in the smartphone app race, but it’s a long way to the checkered flag.

First Impression: Palm Pre shows polish and promise

Prior to the first reviews hitting the Web, there had already been some backlash against Palm and the Pre with Mike Elgan presuming that the Pre wouldn’t be able to top the iPhone with consumers and David Coursey offering five reasons the Palm Pre would not prevail. (While I share some of David’s concerns about the long-term high competitive stakes, though, I don’t think it would be realistic for any true “startup” to land a coveted hero smartphone slot at a major US carrier).

Palm was also somewhat notorious throughout the Pre’s development cycle about not letting people get much hands-on time with the device, leading some to suspect that it had something to hide.

Well, if it did, it has sure fixed it by now. The Palm Pre is a compelling handset, and easily the strongest competitor to the iPhone to date. It is good enough to attract consumers to Sprint based on its merits, but may not be as successful in that as the iPhone has been for AT&T due to Palm’s lack of brand cachet relative to Apple and the relatively limited exclusivity window that was revealed by Verizon Wireless recently.

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Windows 7 Starter Edition gets a fresh start

Earlier this month, I wrote a Switched On column for Engadget that discussed how Windows 7 Starter Edition’s three-app limit left Microsoft wide open for jibes from Apple and detractors. Today, the company announced that it is lifting the three-app limit. Instead, it will rely on features such as personalization and streaming music support to distinguish the Starter Edition from Windows 7 Home Premium, which will be the default edition for developed economies.

Removing the three-app limit, which was arbitrary in this day of Web applications that Google Wave has so aptly demonstrated, will remove potential frustrations that consumers of value-targeted PCs would have experienced while still providing enough of an incentive to induce consumers to upgrade. The losers here are Apple’s commercial writers, who will now have to dig a little harder to find something to ding Windows 7 on, and Linux, which, as I’ve noted, has increasingly had trouble justifying its presence in netbooks. But the potential of other “gaptop” devices such as Qualcomm’s SmartBook initiative, may offer new hope, It’s starting to look, though, that the opportunity is more around the smaller screen size than a lower price point.

More of a view into the Avaak Vue

I had a chance to catch up yesterday with Avaak, the Demo-launched company that wil be bringing the Avaak Vue system to market later this year. One part of the company’s messaging that I hadn’t heard was the focus on its “peel and stick” cameras to encourage ad hoc webcasting.

The company acknowledged as i suspected that the first-generation Vue will be focused more on telepresence than security applications per se. That’s a bit of a strike against it as security seems to be the best justification for buying a bunch of networked webcams. Avaak also talked about social networking aspects of the system, which I think will be even more of a niche. But if it can be done securely, perhaps there’s opportunity to bring in remote relatives to a ceremony in a home and I can certainly see commercial applications. However, as PogoPlug is showing in relation to the NAS market, secondary applications (in its case, file sharing) can emerge as a viable alternative to a primary application (backup).

As to the Vue’s incredible battery life, I finally got an estimate on what the company considers to be the “typical use” that will enable a year’s worth of usage – ten minutes a day, which I think is more than fair. Some quick math, then, reveals that Vue should be able to broadcast straight for about 2.5 days from a full charge.

I also hadn’t seen any announcements from Avaak about pricing or archiving, but the news here was good overall as well. Avaak plans to include the first year of video storage (up to 2 GB) included in the purchase price. For subsequent years, the price would be an incredibly reasonable $19 per year for that amount of online storage. Avaak is also taking a smart approach to heavy users, saying it would welcome an opportunity to structure a tier of pricing to appeal to them. Overall, I remain very keen on this product and its potential to break open the market for networked cameras.

Steve Jobs, prophetic podcaster?

image Steve Jobs’ podcasting run was brief but memorable; Apple’s CEO took to the microphone to demonstrate the podcasting studio features in GarageBand during his Macworld Expo keynote in January 2006. He elicited laughs from the audience by creating a podcast called “Super Secret Apple Rumors” in which he reported, “The next iPod will be huge – an eight-pounder with a 10” screen.” The mock rumor was illustrated by a spoof of Apple’s silhouette iPod ads featuring someone holding a briefcase-sized iPod classic under his arm.

And yet, just a few years later, rumors are indeed circulating that Apple may be working on a media tablet and that the company has ordered a large quantity of 10” touchscreen panels from Wintek. Even Apple’s largest MacBook doesn’t weigh eight pounds (in fact, Apple promotes the 17” MacBook Pro as the thinnest and lightest 17” notebook), but it would be a sublime prank on the rumormongers if Apple foretold of a 10” iPod years in advance right before their eyes.