The phonification of Galaxy tablets

A while back on my old blog, I wrote about the role of fixed navigation buttons on smartphones. Looking back to that time, the convention was:

  • Android: most commonly four buttons on phone, no button on tablet (though there were variations)
  • iOS: one button, still unchanged despite rumors to the contrary
  • Windows Phone three buttons, also unchanged
  • webOS: one button, made somewhat redundant by swipe gestures on the Touchpad
  • Playbook OS: no buttons, which held up for the BlackBerry 10 OS.

MeeGo, in its cameo moment upon the smartphone stage, had no fixed navigation buttons. And from what I can see of Sailfish or Firefox OS, it is also true for them in their initial implementations. More significantly (at least for the U.S. market), Windows 8 and RT tablets have one Start (home) button, which means that, unlike with Android, the user interfaces are subject to de jure discontinuity Over time, the Search button has waned on Android phones, and most recent flagships support either three (Droid DNA) or no buttons. The trend seems to be toward the latter with the Sony XPERIA Z Ultra, Moto X and LG G2.

Samsung, though, has taken an interesting hybrid approach on its most recent handsets such as the Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S4, centering a physical “Home” button between two capacitive ones (that I still count that as three overall). More curiously, though, and starting with the Galaxy Note 8.0, Samsung ha shifted from no buttons on its tablets to the same kind of button layout on its tablets. Indeed, the Galaxy Note 8.0 looks very much like a large Galaxy S4.

Including the button on a smaller tablet makes sense as it enables more screen real estate to be used by apps. This may be especially true for an S-Pen-enabled device where there’s some presumption of use in portrait landscape a la notepad. And this is particularly true for Samsung, which of course wants to reinforce industrial design and user interface across phone and tablet as Apple has done. Still, three buttons seems like too much on a tablet, and the placement gets increasingly awkward with larger sizes such as the latest Galaxy Tab 10.1. I think Samsung would do well to revert back to the buttonless design on at least that tablet, even if it takes a differentiation hit.

Acer’s Aspire R7: a pad too far

While nearly all of its PC rivals with the exception of Toshiba had been experimenting with all kinds of clamshells that contort  and break apart in both Windows 8 and RT flavors, Acer has been playing it pretty close to traditional clamshell form factor. That all changed when the company released its Aspire R7 and P3. The P3 takes a page from any number of Bluetooth keyboard cases for iOS and Android tablets; both the keyboard and the tablet can be removed from its rubbery encasing.

The Aspire R7, is more of a unique offering. In some ways, it is similar to other devices with novel hinges such as the Dell XPS Duo 12 (carrying on the tradition of the Inspiron Duo, a 10″ netbook that itself took some cues from the old Windows CE-based Vadem Clio). However, unlike the Clio, which lacked a trackpad, and the Duo, which has it where you’d expect it, the Aspire R7 puts the trackpad behind the keyboard.

Now, its not unheard of for pointing devices, particularly on a space-constrained notebook, to be in odd locations, but there’s ample room for a full-sized trackpad on the R7. Acer claims that it did this so you could move the touchscreen closer to the keyboard for a more intimate experience, but that blocks the touchpad entirely. Perhaps using the distant trackpad isn’t as awkward as it looks, but it’s surprising that Acer didn’t put in a trackstick or some kind of bundled Bluetooth trackpad like the ones that come with Vizio all-in-ones or a pop-out one reminiscent of the pop-out mouse on the HP OmniBook 300.

The design of the Aspire R7 highlights the conflict between touchscreen and pointing device that we’ve seen played out in smartphones. Several BlackBerrys and the T-Mobile G1 as well as other Android phones had separate trackballs and later trackpads to add complementary precision to the touchscreen. I was personally a fan of the BlackBerry thumb trackpad (probably the best UI feature of tortured early touchscreen BlackBerrys). However, perhaps due in part to higher resolution displays that allow easier selection, they have faded away like smartphone keyboards.  It is but one more way in which the value of Windows 8’s legacy support must be questioned.

A big week for ecosystems

In the lull following the shipment of the Galaxy S4 and before Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference in June, two former market share leaders will reveal their next move in contending for establish the #3 smartphone ecosystem. I’ve written before about the contrasts between Nokia and BlackBerry, nee RIM, in their battle for the bronze.

BlackBerry has already says that its Z10 and Q10 will be their flagships for some time while it fills out the lower end. This would be in keeping with the R10 rumors that have been circulating. However, at the launch of those handsets, the company said that it was committing to the screen resolutions on those devices to facilitate development and that it wants to aspire to be an aspirational brand, so it will be interesting to see where the cuts go downmarket.

On the other hand and from half a world away, Nokia will be throwing its own party rivaling the BlackBerry Live confab being held in Orlando this week. Given that it has been nine months since Nokia’s last flagship, the Lumia 920, was introduced In New York, and that the company has just rounded out the low-end with the 520 series, we may be seeing a new assault on the high-end.

Both companies barbs against the current shortcomings of Android may be short-lived, however, as Google will almost certainly reveal details about Key Lime Pie, the next version of the world’s most popular mobile operating system, later this week.

MiiPC gets a double-memory configuration option

What OUYA has been to game consoles, MiiPC has been to desktops — a small, inexpensive Android device that is looking to take on the giants of their industry with disruptive business models. MiiPC sprang from an established company whereas OUYA was forged from little more than an idea, but both benefitted from successful Kickstarter campaigns offering the boxes for $99 to early adopters (MiiPC’s final price hasn’t yet been set in stone.) However, with a week left to go in the campaign, MiiPC will be adding a double-memory option for $15 more, creating a fittingly minimalist CTO option.

MiiPC is squarely targeted at monitoring the Internet activity of kids from about age 7 to 14. (Nowadays, after that age, kids are migrating to smartphones and all parental monitoring bets are off in some cases). But this summer, the company will be unleashing its interns on the little underlit Android box, which should result in some fun Internet appliances.

When the buzz is music

It should not be much of a surprise that Twitter Music has landed near the top of the iOS free app charts. With its immense audience, Twitter can easily be a kingmaker and is riding a wave of success coming off its quirky video segment app Vine. Vine strikes at Twitter’s roots as a consumer-driven communication tool, abbreviating video as tweets abbreviate text to create a new form communication.

Twitter Music, however, capitalizes on Twitter’s role as tastemaker and news breaker. It is a digital Billboard rankings with samples — except we already had such a thing in the iTunes store. The difference is that iTunes allows only purchase via Apple whereas Twitter Music allows listening to full songs via Spotify or Rdio. Today, it’s not a compelling offering, but it’s out on the open Web. As was the case with Facebook’s push into music via Spotify, Rdio and others, it adds more push to those services whereas Twitter gets to flex its muscles in more structured use of its data as well as continue its long practice of capitalizing on celebrity usage of the service.

Galaxy Mega narrows the last phablet gap

Since the launch of the first Galaxy Tab, products marketed as tablets have been at the 7″ floor, with some Windows tablets going to 11″ and beyond sizes. Meanwhile, phone sizes have progressively broken larger and larger barriers,  With Samsung’s announcement of the 6.3″ Galaxy Mega, the big-screen phone pioneer leapfrogs Huawei’s 6.1″ phone announcement at CES to reclaim the ergonomic threshold crown at 6.3″. This narrows the gap between phone and tablet to a mere 0.7″, with nothing inhabiting the 6.5″ to sub-7″ range. However, Samsung leads in representing the range, having debuted entries at 5.3″ 5.5″, 5.8″, 5.8″, 6.3″, 7″, 7.7″, 8″, 8.9″ and 10.1″.

Kobo recently released an e-reader at 6.8″ and it would be nice to see a tablet dip under that range for a slightly less product for a breast pocket.

AT&T’s water cooler video chat

There were many promising and intriguing technology projects that AT&T showed off at a Labs event last week. One of the ones that caught my eye was called Ambient Communications (not that kind of ambient). Sort of a hybrid between surveillance (without the negative connotation) and video chat, the system offers a screen of cameras placed around a workplace. A remote worker can check in to see what kind of groupings are forming in a work area. and jump into a video chat with the people there. One question I had was what if the coffee klatch is gossiping about the remote worker! (There are some basic privacy controls.)

It might not be enough to stop the crusade against telecommuting at Yahoo! But it seems like a good potential way to extend the value of videoconferencing beyond desks and allow teleworkers to participate more in the kind of spontaneous discussions that can boost — and inhibit — productivity as a part of office culture.

HTC’s split personality

The HTC First is the first device sold with Facebook Home as the default UI. Normally, when a manufacturer is selected to produce something, it’s called a “design win,” but I wonder how much, if at all, HTC wins by having the First in its portfolio.

The First has been announced just as the HTC One — by far, the most sophisticated phone HTC has ever produced — is coming to market. Unlike when HTC released the One X, there is no lower-end compement (the One V), at least for now, so all the eggs for HTC’s user experience will be in the One basket. HTC will be promoting its flagship via a multi-city tour that will let consumers wrap their hands around the phone’s exceptional design and hear its BoomSound audio system.

And yet, the First seems to be the antithesis of everything HTC is trying to create with the One. It lacks the One’s design, its audio improvements, and of course the refocusing of Sense on Blinkfeed, which is something of a competitor to Facebook Home. In fact, there is almost nothing distinguishing about the First except that it runs a launcher environment that will be available on other phones.

It just gets difficult to reconcile HTC taking ownership of its future with devices like the One as it hearkens back to its origins as a contract manufacturer with something like the First. Perhaps HTC was compensated adequately for its rule in the First’s rollout, but at some point it will be time to pass the baton for things like this to Huaweii or ZTE.

Samsung’s retail compromise

Since Apple stores rose to become the money-printing machines that they are today, several of the company’s competitors have tried to replicate its success. Microsoft has been the most direct of these, often opening up its stores very close to those of Apple. Sony, which operated its own stores years before Apple entered retail, revamped its stores’ layout and sales strategy to focus more on revenue generation. Nokia tried flagship stores in a few cities that flopped. Even Palm for a time had its brand affixed to a number of small airport stores; the format persists today.

But what of Samsung, which many see as Apple’s closest hardware rival today? For years, the electronics giant operated a showcase at Columbus Circle. A museum of modern art and science, virtually all of Samsung’s products were on display there, but you couldn’t purchase any of them. Its closure in the face of Samsung’s surging sales could only be prelude to a bigger retail move in the U.S.

Last week, Samsung’s intentions became manifest as the company decided to partner with Best Buy to open stores-within-a-store at Best Buy and Best Buy Mobile stores, much as Apple has done. The move will help demonstrate Samsung’s tightening ties among its various products, but ultimately is not enough. Samsung has invested enough in its brand over the past decade and now has enough momentum in the U.S. to have its own branded retail experience. It doesn’t need to be at the scale of Apple’s, but there are gains to be made having a consumer’s full attention at a destination.

Microconsoles are not netbooks

At TechCrunch, game developer Jawfish Games creative director and game design blogger Tadhg Kelly responds to early reviews of the Ouya game console, particularly one from The Verge. Kelly notes that products such as the Ouya and GameStick should not be compared with the likes of the PlayStation 3

(Ouya has also responded and I sympathize with its position that Kickstarter backers received preview editions of the console. That said, and without getting into the semantic rabbit hole of what constitutes a proper “review,” you have to be prepared that someone is going to review it.)

Netbooks were always something of a misnomer. Sure, they could surf the Web like any PC, but there really wasn’t much about them that was cloud-centric. Today’s tablets, with their host of cloud services surrounding their apps, are far more net-centric than netbooks ever were. Netbooks just weren’t great content consumption devices that microconsoles that supposed to be. Kelly notes that nobody would fault a netbook for doing a poor job running Photoshop. Ah, but what if it couldn’t run Office? Or Windows? Or one of the three leading Windows browsers? These were the real killer software franchises for a netbook, their Call of Duty, their Madden football.

And then, of course, there’s the simple and eternal battle for real estate. Fortunately for Ouya, the space around a television is more forgiving of redundancy than that inside a pocket. But consumers must make choices. Is a cheap MP3 player designed to compete with the iPhone 5? No. But have sales of those products suffered in light of iPhone 5s and other high-end smartphones? They have, just as owners of smart TVs and Blu-ray players are less likely to buy a Roku box.

Even if the comparison were more accurate, comparing these products to netbooks isn’t exactly high praise. Netbooks, of course, had a moment in the sun in 2009 after they began shipping with Windows as opposed to custom Linux variants. But all PC vendors have abandoned the category, moving on to ultrabooks that are even less of a faux subcategory than netbooks were. Indeed, microconsoles may be like netbooks in the sense in that they both will likely face tough competition from tablets.