New Small Wonders join Vado in cheapie camcorder market

So, obviously, small notebooks aren’t the only products that are being attacked by low-cost competition. RCA is back in the game with a trio of smaller Small Wonders, two of which are priced for less than $100. I liked the first generation of RCA’s spin on the Pure Digital technology powering the Flip series and have put in a request to see if RCA is still using Pure Digital’s stuff, but my guess is it’s not.

The new RCA generation seems slick and the size and price are certainly in the right direction. As it did with its  MP3 players, RCA is including a weather-resistant model. However, as with the recently reviewed Creative Vado, we’ll have to see if the video capture quality disappoints.

The CNet blog post bemoans that an HD version hasn’t materialized and I am frankly a little surprised that we’re not seeing those at this point. This will likely be the last generation that is not capable of at least 720p. I’m also disappointed that a planned standalone DVD recorder for the Small Wonder never seemed to materialize.

With Creative’s unusual product portfolio now including these low-end camcorders, who’s next? Sony’s already in the game with the GC1. I’d say other good candidates are Samsung and Logitech, maybe even Microsoft, playing off the latter two’s Webcam businesses.

A completely academic guide to ultramobile jargon

OQO model 02OMG, GMTA! Engadget and Gizmodo have both posted mini-treatises (the latter less mini) on terminology for small, inexpensive notebooks, answering the call of a comment on one of my posts a while back.

Analysts love to put things in boxes (and I deal with my share), but I think it’s probably too early to start getting into semantic taxonomies. That may be prejudiced by working at a firm that substantially tracks technology products after they ship and often after they reach a high enough volumes to penetrate retail. Nevertheless, the terms being bandied about for these products are tainted by older contexts that the Gizmodo article doesn’t fully explain, even though they do reference the Libretto, one of the earlier subnotebooks.

Speaking of which, I view ultraportables as a synonym for subnotebooks. The former term began being used by notebook manufacturers who didn’t like the idea of their lightest smallest wonders being referred to as “below” notebooks.

Anyway, here’s how I break down these products using a lot of the vernacular currently being thrown around:

Term

Description

Example(s)

Ultra-thin notebook PC

Way thin notebook PC that manufacturer obsesses over fitting into office supplies, 13″ to 15″ screen. The next generation of “thin and lights”.

MacBook Air, Lenovo X300

Ultraportable/subnotebook (classic definition)

Full-featured 10″ to 12″ screen notebook PC designed to support mainstream PC software. ‘Spensive.

Sony TZ series, Lenovo IdeaPad U110

Mini-notebook/subnotebook (new definition)/netbook

7″ to 10″ clamshell designed for light on-the-go computing. Cheaper than ultraportables but seem to be creeping up to traditional notebook price points. Subclass of this group are the “kiddie notebooks” like the XO and Classmate

Asus Eee, Cloudbook, HP Mini-Note, etc.

UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC) 4″ to 7″ screen, slide-out or other alternative keyboard. Differentiated from mini-note by its intent to be used standing up. As Microsoft coined this one, I’ll insist that it ships with Windows. OQO Model 02, Samsung Ultra,
MID (Mobile Internet Device) 3:” or 4″ screen. Often no keyboard. Designed primarily for media playback or light information consumption. However, is in some sense a platform. Can be thought of as a media player that has branched out or a reticent smartphone. Nokia N810, iPod touch (post-SDK), Sony Mylo, Archos Series 5.

Update: Intel (or parties therein) is now referring to the mini-note category as a “netbook” which people might remember was a name given to the Psion Series 7-type device years ago. I’m not wild about this term because I think it implies too much of a thin client approach, particularly as these PCs are increasingly shipping with Windows. It may be catchier, though, than “mini-note” (which I think has more momentum now, and which somehow has a more European flavor (Minitel?). In any case, I’ve added it as a name to the device class.

The Akimbo lesson: Sometimes rising tides drown you

I was especially skeptical about Akimbo from the first time I saw its set-top box, and things didn’t improve much when I finally got to try it out a while before the company’s last-gasp business model switch. However, I thought it had a chance to cash in on long-tail content in the heat of the YouTube frenzy. It seems, though, that the YouTube brand and breadth of free content drove manufacturers to add that instead of the managed semi-pro Akimbo portfolio.

Indeed, this obituary cites double (and sometimes triple) dipping and thin content as the double-barreled smoking gun that killed Akimbo. One note, though, is that it’s not exactly apt to lump Sezmi in with the likes of Akimbo or especially the Roku Netflix box as Sezmi is designed to compete head-to-head with cable and offer very mainstream programming.

By the way, I started one of my first professional writing projects using an killer (both in features and system requirements) word processor for the Mac called FullWrite Professional that was sold late in its life by a company called Akimbo after once being sold by PC database king Ashton-Tate.. It made Microsoft Word (especially on the Mac) look like amateur hour in its day.

The PC is now the Personal Conduit

Those who say that desktop operating systems are irrelevant because the Internet is the center of the computing universe are too reductive (Using Ubuntu much, Mike?). Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo is, for the foreseeable future, more of a tactical move within the fast-growing and high-stakes online advertising battle vs. Google rather than some panacea.

That said, the other day I noticed that, of the 20 applications in my Start menu, I use 14 to interact with content over a local network or the Internet. The 14 are Internet Explorer and Outlook, Firefox, TiVo Desktop, Trillian, SlingPlayer, iTunes (where I regularly browse the store), Windows Live Writer, Slacker, Twhirl, XDrive Desktop, and VPN, wireless broadband and Wi-Fi utilities, Almost all of them are either available for the Mac or have quality Mac equivalents.

The Mini-Note keyboard keys: they’re real and they’re fantastic

Earlier this week, I got some brief hands-on time with the HP Mini-Note. While I only typed on it for a minute or two, I came away impressed. Without question, the keyboard is a highlight of the product. It feels more than generous at 92 percent of full size. And with its flat profile and thin gaps between keys, it may be best-looking keyboards on any computer.

In fact, HP definitely has an opportunity to either shrink the keys or expand the screen to 10″ as I was surprised at how small the 9-incher seemed. The bezel, while not as big as that on the 7-inch Eee, still looks abnormally large. Also, while the screen resolution on the Mini-Note is very high for a nine-inch screen. I’ve seen some reviewers say that text is too small to read. It’s definitely small, but I wasn’t squinting. Perhaps I would on some Web pages.

While the Mini-Note is only a bit more than an inch thick, its small footprint makes it look a bit chunky. And of course the entire profile is ruined if you add HP’s extended battery, which adds what I call “the goiter effect.” Finally, while the side-mounted trackpad buttons were in an unfamiliar position at first and could turn off some prospects at first glance, using them didn’t seem awkward. I can see a lot of students falling in love with this little guy.

Don’t cross the Beamz

The beamz Music Performance SystemI’m as keen as anyone on the goal of making music creation more approachable. If anything, Guitar Hero and Rock Band have showed the market potential of enshrouding the air guitarist in the delusion of talent. But this apparent holy grail hasn’t seemed to result in anything as effective as the kazoo.

I thought the now-discontinued Mad Waves device had potential even though it succumbed to the same Curse of CES that Moxi did. I even enjoyed Zoundz, the RFID-based interactive music toy with the funky plastic tokens that The Sharper Image offered a few years ago. That was a marginally amusing toy for less than $50, but now the ailing retailer has gone high-end with it using a “laser harp” called Beamz.

Beamz has six lasers that play different sample riffs when you break their beams using your hand or other object. The result is that you look like you’re faking primitive martial arts while you’re faking playing music, which doesn’t at all make you look like a dork. Obviously, Beamz won’t let you play real songs or compositions, just kind of jam along with samples and riffs It also hooks up to a PC to load different instrument sets for musical genres such as classical and metal..

Harmless enough, but the thing is huge, ungainly and expensive. My two favorite parts of the Popular Mechanics video review featured on The Sharper Image’s site are when reviewer Seth Porges notes that it “probably looks a lot cooler if you have a fog machine” and “if you’re just looking to fool around or impress your friends, it’s good fun” right before noting the $600 price tag. If you’re thinking this thing will impress your friends, you’ll have a lot more good fun getting new friends.

HP’s Mini-Note creates a Dell dilemma

image

HP’s much-heralded Mini-note has finally arrived and to favorable reviews.  CRN calls it “a real winner” and says that “the quality and finish is outstanding.” James Kendrick now questions whether his Fujitsu Tablet PC is worth its 3x price premium over the Mini-Note. While I’m no Tablet PC fan, I like the Fujitsu P-series and form factor, and the company will certainly feel more heat in its niche as other notebook heavyweights move in.

This segment will represent a test for Dell, which seems prepared to enter this space before the end of the year. Dell has done well in the education market (for which the Mini-Note was especially designed) with its aggressive pricing while trying to improve its design perceptions particularly as it has moved more aggressively into the hands-on world of retail. It will be challenging for Dell to lowball HP while live up to the 2133’s design expectation.

Notebook vendors seek nine-inch grails

eee_pc.jpgThe Asus Eee was noteworthy for its small size and low price, but it overshot on the former and underperformed on the latter. Originally designed to hit a $199 price point and bring an OLPC-like proposition to a wider audience, the first products retailed for twice that amount. Meanwhile, the 7″ screen, which helped the device reach its low price, proved cramped even for the Linux installation shipped by default.

(Note to companies playing in this space: if you want to reach a lower price point by shipping Linux on a 7-inch screen, take advantage of open source and invest some time in tailoring the applications for a smaller-screen experience. Simplify the user interfaces or buy or develop your own. Think Nokia Internet Tablet.)

In any case, Asus (and others) have clearly recognized that a couple of more diagonal inches can make a world of difference in the user experience. Including Windows for a premium will represent greater competition with budget laptops that typically have larger screens. Even at a higher price, these notebooks are more likely to open up the market for ultraportables, which are currently a very small part of the U.S. market, then set off a race to the bottom. It’s not cheap enough to be a second or third PC for many, but neither is the Eee at $400.

In terms of Asus’ planned revamp, it’s adding potential features that are starting to detract from its “volksbook” proposition. I’m less bullish on the addition of a touch screen and GPS to the Eee, although multi-touch gestures would be welcome addition (if a bit cramped on its small trackpad).

Motorola’s split comes as paths are converging

halfmoto.jpgMotorola’s decision to split itself into a wireless handset company and broadband infrastructure company (after being warned) may be the right move for investors looking to tailor their portfolio, but the timing could not be worse in terms of the strategic potential of having home entertainment and mobile lifestyle technology powerhouses under one roof (not that Motorola had executed on that promise particularly well up until now).

Still, the past few years have brought us the Slingbox, which streams home video over a wireless connection, remote TiVo programming, sideloading entertainment content to cell phones, WiMAX, which promises to deliver video to advanced handsets, HotSpot@Home, which uses Wi-Fi networks to provide a fat voice and data pipe in advance of ubiquitous wireless broadband.

Even today, rumors swirled that TimeWarner and Comcast are looking to up their involvement with Sprint to help ensure the success of WiMAX, and I recently posted (and wrote at further length) about further links that Apple is exploring between its portable devices and potential future DVRs. Business models and competitive landscapes are disparate, but Motorola may soon lose a key advantage in delivering consumer’s holistic digital lifestyle solutions. Bats may fly blind, but they still need both wings.

Sirius, XM have no monopoly, but a tech advantage

sirius-xm-merger.jpgSirius and XM have convinced the Department of Justice that its merger won’t create a monopoly in the radio, or more broadly, music playback, space. While the FCC is expected to follow suit with the DoJ, there is a rush of parties that are looking to add terms and conditions to the merger. Censorship on satellite radio? What would be the point of a premium alternative to terrestrial?

It’s certainly true that there are far more options available for high-quality digital music playback since the time that XM started broadcasting from space. The iPod is frequently brought up as a competitor, but I’ve never really thought of it as a major one. First, the iPod accelerated its move into the vehicle rather late in its rise to popularity and many of the solutions are primitive or awkward.

I’suspect that I, like many MP3 player owners, have music on their players to which they’ve never listened. Mostly, though, particularly for Apple’s ecosystem that has never been as aggressive about music discovery as, say, Rhapsody, iPods are about playing back what you have, not what you don’t. And keeping them fresh requires round-trips between the house and car. So, what satellites really buy the companies better than any competing technology today (save terrestrial radio, which was around at its launch) is direct and unfettered access to the vehicle

Wireless technologies such as 4G and WiMAX have the potential to present a credible no-hassle alternative to satellite radio, but the cost structures don’t support the infrastructure required to deliver it for the foreseeable future. One could argue that they didn’t for XM or Sirius, either. But with a reduced customer acquisition marketing burden, their expenses should become more manageable. In the meantime, the Slacker Portable satellite add-on looks like it will be promising alternative when it arrives.