Does Thinking About Tablets Make You Stupid?

March 30, 2011

The last few days have seen such amazingly stupid things said and written about tablets. Microsoft’s Craig Mundie questioned their staying power. Dell’s Andy Lark said the iPad is doomed in the enterprise because it’s too expensive. PCWorld‘s Katherine Noyes dismissed tablets as a passing fad. And Cnet News’ Joshua Goldman declared that a Microsoft Zune tablet could whip both the iPad and Android tablets.

I’m going to pick on Goldman. Unlike Mundie, Lark, and open source fan Noyes, he doesn’t appear to have any axe to grind. Rather, his piece displays the sort of sloppy thinking and lazy research that seems to dominate what often passes for analysis.  For example, he seems hopelessly muddled on the question of operating systems. He writes: “… a successful Microsoft tablet will need to be separated from the Windows OS, even if it’s just in name. Any tablet running a version of anything with the words “Microsoft Windows” will be thought of as just another Windows PC. Microsoft needs its own iOS, its own Android OS. It needs to drop “Windows” for its tablet operating system and create a Zune OS. A Zune tablet should not be a full PC, so let’s keep this OS clean and simple, OK?”

First, the problem of desktop Windows on tablets isn’t PR or branding; it’s that Windows as it exists is too big, complex, mouse-and-keyboard dependent, and power-hungry to succeed on mobile devices. Second, Zune OS already more-or-less exists. It’s what runs the soon to be extinct Zune HD. Like Windows Phone 7, with which it shares many user interface elements, it is built on the venerable Windows CE platform. I have thought from the day I first saw it that Windows Phone 7 could become a worthy competitor to iOS and Android on tablets. Unfortunately, Microsoft strongly disagrees and is instead developing a version of Windows 8 as its tablet OS.

But Goldman really gets silly toward the end of his article. He argues that the Zune table should have the same dimensions as the iPad so that it can use iPad accessories. There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t know where to start, but the big one is that Apple has the intellectual property for things like the iPad 2 Smart Cover well locked up.

Then there’s the matter of ports. “Instead of relying on the Zune’s proprietary connector, Microsoft should use three ports: microSD, Micro-HDMI, and Micro-USB,” Goldman writes. I agree that those three are needed, but he fails to explain how this device is going to be powered. The iPad can be  charged through a USB cable with the proprietary 30-pin iPod connector on one end, but only if it is plugged into a non-standard high-power USB port found only on new-ish Macs.

There’s a reason why neither the Samsung Galaxy Tab nor the Motorola Xoom Android tablets attempt to use USB charging. (Samsung uses a semi-proprietary power and data connector; Moto uses USB for data with a separate barrel plug for power.) A USB 2.0 port is rated at a maximum of 2.5 watts. That’s adequate to charge a phone, but it would mean many hours of shut-down charging to fill a tablet, as anyone who has tried to charge an iPad from a standard USB port knows. USB 3.0 raises the power rating by 50%, but that’s still not enough for satisfactory tablet charging, and USB 3.0 ports remain rare.

Finally there’s the matter of Flash. Dreams of mobile Flash, as Dr. Johnson said of second marriages, represent the triumph of hope over experience. We’ve been burned so often by unfulfilled promises of a Flash-y nirvana that everyone should just shut up about it unless and until Adobe delivers a stable and full-featured version of the Flash Player that works on mobile devices and doesn’t such the battery dry.


In Praise of Closed: The Case of Android Honeycomb

March 29, 2011

Google has been drawing a lot of flack, especially in the free and open software community (FOSS), for its decision to delay indefinitely the release of source code for the latest version of Android. “That means that Honeycomb is not FOSS, it is closed, non-free, and available only to licensees under a shared-source style license,” wrote open source blogger Adam Drew.  “This is heartbreaking news. It also sets a dangerous precedent.”

While I understand the outrage, which has been growing as developers and other realized that the Android process was far less open than, say, Linux, I think Google has a good case for holding back on the source code release. With past versions, Google has released Android source to all comers at the same time that it released a version to licensed manufacturers. This meant that anyone could use it, although only licensees had access to certain features, most significantly the Android Market for apps.

For Google, however, the issue is one of quality control. The company already has a lot of experience with unlicensed (and sometimes licensed) OEMs building horrible tablets and smartbooks using versions of Android intended for phones. The only Honeycomb (Android 3.0) tablet actually shipping, Motorola’s Xoom, has a three-quarters-baked feel with some very buggy software. And the software is designed only for tablets and not optimized for handsets. But once the source code is out, Google loses control over how it is used.

“To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs,” Andy Rubin, Google’s Android chief told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.. “We didn’t want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut.”

Android has been a fabulous success in the marketplace. But the user experience of Android phones and tablets still lags far behind Apple offerings. Google has reason to worry about a bunch of really bad Honeycomb products coming to market. And the only way it can stop that, at least for the time being, is to hang on to the source code.

The open-source nature of Android has distinguished it from all its competitors (except the dying Symbian) and I hope tat the Honeycomb code will be available before too much longer. But Google has good and sufficient reason to hold off for now.





Amazon’s Appstore: Just What Android Needs

March 22, 2011

Apple may not think much of Amazon’s Appstore for Android–it has sued claiming the name is a trademark violation–but Android phone and tablet owners have reason to rejoice. Google is good at mant things, but retailing is not one of them and the Android Market has always been one of the weak points of the Android ecosystem. Amazon is very good at retailing and there’s every reason to belie that the store, which went live March 22, will be of benefit to both Android users and developers.

It’s a bit hard to assess the store in its earliest hours. It launched with just under 4,000 apps, a small sampling of the Android app universe, but that is likely to grow fast. It is currently available only in the U.S. And for the moment, folks with AT&T Android phones need not apply; AT&T blocks downloads from any source but the official Google Market though Amazon is working to change that soon.

Key areas where Amazon could improve on Google’s offering are discoverability, curation, and compatibility. Amazon is way ahead of anyone else in the art of recommending related purchases to buyers. While its suggestions are occasionally a bit daft–its inability to distinguish stuff you have bought as gifts from things you have bought for yourself is a weak point– they are often dead on.

The initial recommendations are weak (see screen shot, left.) It doesn’t seem likely that there’s much connection between Angry Birds, Wolfram Alpha, and the Newsweek app. But, of course, Amazon currently has no data on either my personal app purchases or the wisdom of the crowd. There’s every reason to believe these recommendations will get much better as Amazon begins to accumulate purchase data.

Curation is a tricky subject, but a good opportunity. There has to be a big and profitable middle ground between the obsessiveness of Apple’s control of the iTune App Store and Google’s just about anything goes approach tro the Android Market. Google’s lack of curation has led to a vast number of apps ranging from dubious to malicious. If Amazon can walk the narrow path between vetting apps for quality while avoiding heavy-handedness, it should have a winner.

Finally, Amazon could perform a big service by sorting out apps by compatibility.  The Google world is plagued by a variety of versions of its operating system, not all of them compatible. While the core compatibility issues seem to be improving as the older 1.5 and 1.6 versions of Android slowly disappear, there will always be a gap between Android phones and larger tablets.  It appears that Amazon plans to address this, though the feature doesn’t seem to quite be working yet. Every app’s page includes a box labelled “Compatibility with your devices” and a checklist. Unfortunately, every app I looked at–obviously not all 4,000–listed the Verizon Droid X and nothing else. One this feature is working properly, it will be a big help for anyone trying to slog through the swamp of android app compatibility.

Ditch That Remote: Tablets and Smartphones Are Taking Over

March 14, 2011

In my latest post for News@Cisco, I take a look at an important trend in consumer electronics: Smartphone and tablet apps are replacing conventional IR remotes. The apps are much easier to use than either standard remotes or traditional, hard-to-program universal remote and, once you have the handheld, are generally free. Bonus: Tablets are too big to disappear into the couch cushions and if you lose a smartphone remote, you can always locate it by calling it and tracking the ring.

The Challenges Facing Windows Tablets

March 7, 2011

In an Engadget post, NPD’s Ross Rubin argues that Microsoft’s strategy of adapting desktop Windows to tablets just might work. I’m skeptical, but willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. Still, for this approach to succeed, Microsoft needs to do some major reworking of Windows and it needs to do it fast.

Windows on tablets faces two huge challenges. One is the massive, monolithic nature of Windows. The other is a user interface that was born and developed in the world of mice and keyboards. These two factors have made attempts to build tablets based on Windows 7 dismal failures. Making a version of Windows 8 into a true mobile operating system will require Microsoft to do something it has always viewed with horror: Dumping vast areas of legacy support to come up with something original and nimble. The one hopeful sign was the company’s willingness to chuck the whole legacy of Windows Mobile in the design of Windows Phone 7. But Windows Mobile was a loser, while desktop Windows is the company’s  heart and soul.

The sheer bulk of Windows is a problem. A minimal installation of Windows 7 takes 16 gigabytes, the total storage of the smallest iPad. It includes dozens of services, many of which are of no conceivable use on a slate. Unlike Linux,  which is modular and can scale from tiny versions designed to be embedded in very low-cost, low power-devices, to versions used in the world’s fastest and most complex supercomputers, Windows is essentially a one-size-fits-all product. So in addition to being recoded to run on ARM processors, as promised by Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, Windows 8 also must lest tablet designers dump all of that excess baggage.

The user interface is a much bigger challenge. Microsoft’s approach to date has been to add support for touch (or pen input) to the standard Windows UI. This began with the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and advanced considerably with the multitouch support baked into Windows 7. But the result is still a keyboard-and-mouse UI with a thin veneer of touch features. Apps specifically designed for touch work well enough on Windows 7, but the truth is that it is hard to work for more than about five minutes without finding yourself really wanting either a keyboard or a mouse.

When Apple morphed Mac OS X into the iOS mobile operating system (everyone seems to have forgotten that Apple originally tried to pretend that the iPhone’s software was just a variant of the Mac’s) it totally scrapped the Mac design and designed an entirely new set of user interface APIs called Cocoa Touch. Google had the advantage of not having any legacy to worry about in the design of Android.

Microsoft’s course in the past has been the opposite. Windows Mobile and its predecessor, Pocket PC, were crippled from the  beginning by Microsoft’s attempt to build in features, such as the start button, that resembled desktop Windows. Though these features gradually disappeared, WinMo never could escape its desktop legacy.

The UI challenge is the main reasons I thing Microsoft would be better off with an enhanced Windows Phone than a stripped down version of desktop Windows. To make it into a successful slate OS, every single feature of Windows that users see must be redesigned, from the home screen to the most obscure management console (well, actually, there shouldn’t be any management consoles.) And forget about the idea of running existing applications in this re-imagined mobile Windows. If you want Word, it’s going to have to be an entirely new, and much simpler, Word. The paradox is that if you can’t run legacy applications, the strongest argument for building on the legacy code disappears. A tablet OS that supports existing apps might be attractive to some corporate customers, but such a tablet will never have broad consumer appeal.

Microsoft’s biggest problem is time. Designing a user interface is a time-consuming iterative process. If we–and the company–are lucky, Microsoft has a skunk works going somewhere that is already well along in the design of this new UI, but that’s not the way Microsoft historically has worked. Getting a successful UI completed for a 2012 launch is a huge undertaking. But if it slips much later than that, the entire effort might be in vain because the market window for mobile Windows may have closed.



The Internet Has Run Out of Addresses: What It Means to You

February 28, 2011

The internet was created 30 years ago with over 4 billion numerical Internet Protocol addresses. Now there are only a scattered handful left. In my latest post for News@Cisco, I look at what address exhaustion means. Bottom line: It’s going to require some heavy lifting by the folks who run the net’s infrastructure to move the a replacement system that provides trillions and trillions of addresses, but the impact on consumers and small businesses will be minimal.

Wi-Fi, GPS Make Cars Smarter for Less

February 22, 2011

In my latest post for News@Cisco, I take a look at the work of the Vehicle Safety Communications consortium and how the use of inexpensive GPS and Wi-Fi technologies could greatly enhance highway safety–with a video demo.

Apple’s One Size Fits All Subscription Plan

February 15, 2011

Apple has finally brought some clarity to its plans to require publishers who offer subscriptions on the iPad and iPhone to make them available through the iTunes Store. The problem with the Apple announcement is that it imposes a single policy on a variety of business models, and it is not going to work well for some of them.

Apple’s position is simple: As of June 30, if an app offers subscription content, publishers are free to go on selling subscription through their own channels. But the subscriptions must also be offered through the iTunes store at the same price the publisher offers elsewhere or lower. Apple takes 30% off the top on  iTunes store revenues.

That 30% sounds like a lot, but it’s hardly extortionate by retailing standards. Online retailers typically have a gross margin of 25% or more and gross margins for  brick-and-mortar retailers often top 50%. (Gross margin is simply the difference between the cost of goods purchased and their selling price.) But not all goods are equal.

Magazine publishers, while they have other quarrels with Apple, probably won’t mind the 30% too much. They are used to paying a lot to acquire subscriptions, whether through direct marketing, advertising, group sales, or newsstand sales. The much bigger issue for them had been Apple’s unwillingness to share any information about subscribers with publishers, information on which the publishers’ business model depends.

A subscription service like Netflix faces a very different problem. The company sell subscriptions only on its web site, It doesn’t seem to have any desire to sell subscriptions on the iPad or iPhone, but Apple’s rules seem to say that it has to.  Netflix pricing is certainly designed on the assumption that it gets to keep all the revenues and 30% off the top to Apple would almost certainly turn each iPad subscription into a money-losing proposition. But Apple’s rules don’t let Netflix charge more to recoup the cost. Hulu+ faces a very similar situation.

It’s still not clear how the rules apply book readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle app. There are some periodical subscriptions sold for Kindle (and Nook and other e-readers), but mostly the business is books. Because the apple statement refers only to subscriptions, book sales still seem to be in limbo. Amazon’s problem is that it, like Apple, is a retailer. It’s generally believed that Amazon’s gross margin on many Kindle books is significantly less that 30%, so it would likely lose money on every book it sold through iTunes. There just isn’t enough margin  in the business for two retailers to each take a cut.

Apple’s flat 30% cut  was originally designed as a model for developers to sell apps and for them it was a simple an a fair one. But it needs rethinking as goods with varying business models are sold through the store. This is especially true for those who, like Amazon, are selling products they have purchased from third parties, or who, like Netflix, are paying hefty fees to studios.


Taking 3D to the Next Level: Holographic Communications

February 14, 2011

In my latest post for News@Cisco, I take a look at the potential for simple, low-cost holography for 3D communications.

A Supercomputer on Your Desktop

January 31, 2011

In my latest article for News@Cisco, I take a look at how general purpose computing on graphics processing units (GPGPU) is bringing immense processing power to PCs at very low cost and very low energy consumption.