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Tools and practices for working virtually

Messy Desk, Dec 2010

I’m always fascinated by how people work – the every day practices, tools, and behaviors they end up employing. So this Quora question about tools and practices to use for a “virtual office” (no one works in the same office, let alone time zone) attracted me. I wrote a quick answer covering some of what RedMonk does (with some additional polishing here):

RedMonk has no real central office (and, even more funny and “virtual,” while our mailing address in Seattle, no one actually lives there – we use Earth Class Mail) and are spread out over 4 different cities in the US and Europe. I’ve been at RedMonk almost five years, and we’ve gone through a lot of options when it comes to “work middleware.”

Here’s a quick grab-bag of tools and practices that we consciously use and that have emerged over time:

  • Google Apps – we use Google Apps and the combo of email, calender, and Docs is great. None of them (except GMail, in my opinion) is at the top of the heap (in fact, GCal and Docs are pretty piss-poor, actually), but the SaaS nature and simplicity go a long way towards making collaboration easy. We actually use Google Docs for “production documents” and while the look and feel is limited, once you settle on a template (as we have kind of done), working within those rude constraints is nice: I don’t spend much time at all futzing with styling docs…and it shows…meaning I spend time writing.
  • Communication – there’s instant messaging, of course, but with us email is still king. Every few months, we try to do something other than email and it just fails flat. As another answer to the Quora question put it: “Email will always be the central hub of information, history and communication in nearly every organisation. That’s the only tool that needs to be used from day 1.”
  • Twitter – while RedMonk uses Twitter as part of external facing communications, to collaborate with people, and for some of the types of “research” we do (getting a sense of what developers are interested in, or hate), we also use it in novel ways for “internal” collaboration. We rely on Twitter a lot as well to simply keep up with each other. James Governor is particularly active at this, for example, broadcasting that he’d peer-reviewed a write I did this morning in Twitter instead of emailing me (the savvy among you will notice how he at the same time advertised a topic we were looking into, valuable for the analyst world). While we can’t go out to lunch with each other to catch up socially, we more or less know what’s going on in our personal lives enough (but by no means in-depth) to benefit when we’re doing work, mostly because of Twitter.
  • Shared calendars – I can’t speak for the rest of the RedMonk, but I find the shared (and fully readable when it comes to details) calenders we all have valuable for collaboration. They’re nice for scheduling meetings, sure (we use Tungle more or less for this which gets mixed reviews), but what’s more valuable is for me to be able to see who my colleagues are talking with, what kinds of topics they’re discussing, and so on. With as little emphasis on meetings as we have, it’s a nice “information radiator.” While we’re not internal-meeting oriented at RedMonk – due to the nature of our job – there’s probably analogs (like change logs, or more advanced versions of them in programming) in other lines of work.
  • IT hardware and services – a good practice is to let employees buy their own IT and manage it (reimbursing them, of course). Even when we do make IT decisions (Google Apps), they tend to be open enough that you could still use whatever else you wanted (Google Docs would fall flat here). The important thing here is to install a responsible sense of budget (see below) – so long as you can trust your employees not to go wild, they should really buy whatever IT they need to help the organization make money. I’ve spent a lot of money on video and audio equipment, but it pays for itself quickly. And being an Apple person, my computer budget is a bit higher. But, if you’re going to benefit from employees managing their own IT (not having to pay an IT person, having your employees use the tools that make them most productive), you have to let them pick their tools. Other than web applications (like Google Apps, etc.), I’d try to limit any IT requirements.
  • Phone – I like Google Voice a tremendous amount. As with many “for work” Google offerings, it’s notable for it’s cheapness (here, free) and the efficiency that it’s simplicity brings (versus a full voice exchange system or whatever). The ability to screen calls and read transcripts of voice mail is valuable. Using it as a last ditch way to record a podcast has come in handy several times as well. Also, having the complete record of my call history is nice: if you search over your email all the time to get to people, imagine being able to do that with your voice (and txting!) history. I’m a bit miffed that Google Voice doesn’t integrate with our Google Apps instance very well – a typical, annoying example from Google. A land-line is really valuable, despite all the promise of VoIP, Skype, or whatever. If you’re a virtual shop and on the phone a lot (as I am) you’ll notice that Skype fails a lot. Whether that’s the fault of Skype or the network, I don’t care: it doesn’t work well enough if you expect to use the phone a lot. Until it’s rock-solid, get people land-lines if possible.
  • Internet – be sure to provide high speed Internet, (probably) paying for it. If you can get mobile Internet for everyone, that’s better. I use Clear for mobile Internet and for the connection at my office (see next).
  • An actual office – you might consider budget for offices for remote employees. I worked at home for many years, and loved it, but once I got a baby, that didn’t work out. I work in a building full of startups and tech people, which is great for me professionally given the focus on practitioners that RedMonk has. Also, if you’re in an external facing role like I am (partly, at least), it’s good to be able to meet someone at an actual office instead of yet another Starbucks. Personally, I like having “my own space” versus sitting on the couch at my home, cluttering the house with my work crap. All that said, my dream would be to have a shed-office in my backyard, esp. now that I have a son that I’d like to go visit during lunch and breaks.
  • Meetings – I’d really like the idea of having a weekly RedMonk status meeting with to work out, but we never keep up with the practice, despite how much we usually get done when we’ve had them. If you’re virtual, meetings are good: more important is making sure people actually do the work that comes out of meetings, or any group collaboration.
  • Make everyone responsible enough to make decisions – the operational thing you want to do is instill principals and best practices in your people so they can think and act on their own. If you’re co-located, it’s easy to ask how to do simple, every day things (“what template do we use for XYZ,” “what should I try to sell to this prospective customer?”). Even with IM and such, it gets annoying to do all that “virtual.” Instead, establish practices and frames: principals. At RedMonk, we have a lot less internal policies, engagement process, and overall “how we do things” than you’d expect. Instead, we try to very specifically say what we don’t do and make sure that we avoid that. If something new comes along that we’re not sure about, we just discuss it with each other – or sometimes an individual just decided to do it, to be frank ;> For example, we don’t do paid, branded white papers, but we occasionally will write a section for a paper a vendor is doing if it’s a neutral enough setting for us: Stephen’s collaboration in a 2009 Ubuntu survey is a good example. Much of this boils down to something Stephen O’Grady says a lot when it comes to things that you’d think need management approval: “be reasonable.” Instilling principals in your people so that they can do that on their own is key. In addition to budgeting, spending, and customer interactions: if your employees will be booking their own travel, you really need to instill that sense of what’s reasonable.
  • Business Forms – if you have any contracts, forms, or other “artifacts” you deal with clients with, centralize those and make sure everyone knows about them. Centralizing where you store executed contracts, statements of work, and forms is critical as well (and something we still struggle with sometimes). Google Docs, if you put up with it’s “just a dumb document store” is pretty good at this.
  • An admin – a little while ago, we hired Marcia, who’s our “does everything we don’t (want to) do” person. I like to think of her as our operations manager. Having someone you can email to take care of most anything not related to your core work is awesome and very helpful. Among other things, she’s part of – is – the most important part of our business (versus our “work”): invoicing clients for work we do.
  • – it’s too early to tell as we just now started using for filing expenses, but I really like it so far. We used to use spreadsheets and email resulting in (at least with me) long cycles between expenses. is so quick and easy that it’s almost fun to file expenses now. Some sort of expense filing solution will be key. Distributed employees end up buying stuff a lot more than you’d expect. Along with that, we got company credit cards a little while ago, and those are fantastic.

In addition to the above brain-dump, there were a few items from other answers I really liked and that we use:

  • Time Zones

    From Ben Hanna:

    Time Zones: Prioritize tasks based on time zones. If something needs to happen first in an early time zone, get it to the person responsible there. Good timing can make a project literally zip around the globe with work being completed 24 hours a day.

    With all of us at RedMonk living in different time zones (US central, US eastern, London, Central European Time), being aware of who’s working when is key for meetings and collaborating. If I want do something with James, who’s in London, I need to make sure to do it my morning, for example.

  • Asynchronous conversationsAnton Johansson rubs up against what I call “asynchronous conversation” in his advice: instead of having real-time conversations, you have what would otherwise be a 20 minute talk (for example) spread out over hours. This is terrible in some circumstances, but if you’re working with remote people, it’s a good tool to have at your disposal. There’s also a certain cult of “not getting interrupted” that’s good to cultivate in white-collar work (“knowledge work,” I think they call it) that asynchronous conversations enable. Instant messaging fits well here, and email of course. As he puts it: “That’s the problem with phone despite the effectiveness of the talk – the receiver can’t decide when to answer.”

Categories: Uncategorized.

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Tea Lattes at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, with @mattray

There was a special today at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf next to our office: free tea lattes. So Matt Ray (@mattray) and I decided to test two of them: the English Breakfast Latte and the Scottish Breakfast Tea Latte. Matt Ray tries each, and tells us which is best, if any of them.

You can download the video directly too, or subscribe to the RedMonk Firehose feed in iTunes, or whatever you like, to get it downloaded automatically podcast-style.

Categories: Uncategorized.

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AT&T MicroCell

AT&T MicroCell

After having a terrible time with AT&T cellphone reception at home for my iPhone, I purchased an AT&T MicroCell the past October which has pretty much eliminated dropped calls and “can you hear me now” reception problems. For the amount of money paid, if you can get over the fact that it should work in the first place (so why pay more), the MicroCell is worth it. In addition to being affordable to anyone who has the budget for an iPhone, the thing just works and only needs to be rebooted about once a month.

Why get it

Reception on AT&T iPhones is notoriously bad in the US. Talk to anyone, and they’ll tell you a tale of woe. As one person put it, “I’m on Verizon because I believe I should have a phone that makes calls.” For love of the iPhone, my wife and I suffered with near non-working reception in our home for a little over a year. If you wanted to make or receive a call, going to the back porch seemed the best option, and even that was dicey.

This poor reception covers voice and texting, as well as the 3G data network. If you have wifi at home, the 3G network is less important, but not being able to use your phone and txt people is stupid, esp. when you look at that $60-80 iPhone bill each month.

Buying the MicroCell

For some reason, the MicroCell isn’t available everywhere. I’d been checking my area for awhile, and once AT&T’s Uverse became available in my neighborhood, I figured the MicroCell would too: sure enough, it was. Once I hooked up AT&T’s Uverse (maxed out the top speed, of course), I also picked up a MicroCell. It was actually really easy: just go to the closet AT&T store and buy one. Having a physical store where you can actually do things like this is nice (in contrast, beyond initial setup, try doing “complicated” things like trading leased equipment at a Clear store).

After rebates and promotions at the time, I ended up paying $100 for it. One thing AT&T does that I loath is giving rebates in the form for “gift cards” instead of just cash or a credit – as long as you go and transfer them to some more general gift card (I bought Amazon Gift Certificates for myself), it’s no big deal, but it’s tedious and the cards never worked at stores I tried.

By default, voice minutes are deducted as normal. You can pay a small fee to get unlimited voice when you’re making calls on the MicroCell. But, since both my wife and I already carry an absurd number of roll-over minutes (read: we don’t use all the minutes we buy each month, the absolute minimum), we didn’t need unlimited voice. And that’s with us using our phones as our primary phone.

Setting up the MicroCell

Once you unbox it, you plug the MicroCell into the wall and then plug in an Ethernet cable to its port – with the new AT&T Uverse 2Wire modem with a gaggle of Ethernet ports, this was easy.

Then to activate the MicroCell, you log into the web admin console, setup some basic info like the address (due to some FCC regulations, I believe, you have to register the location of the device – you can move it around but have to re-register it) and the phone numbers of the phones that can use the MicroCell. I added my wife and I’s and a few of our friends who I knew had iPhones and would be over frequently. You can add up to 10 numbers, and 4 can be used at the same time.

Then it’s just the usual matter of waiting some unspecified time for it to “finish” cooking. The manual said it could take up the 24 hours, but it was pretty quick.

And then it starts working, you’re ready to go.

Daily Use

AT&T MicroCell

Once you have it hooked up, you’ll see “AT&T M-Cell” as your carrier on your iPhone. You should have 4 to five bars coverage as well. Mine fluctuates, as the above picture shows.

The MicroCell doesn’t fix reception issues 100%. Every few weeks, a call will get dropped and more frequently, dialing out will take a noticeably long time. I haven’t really kept track, but anecdotally it’s just fine. The reception we get now is leaps and bounds above what it used to be.

When you’re leaving your house, you can stay on the phone and your call will jump to the normal network (which in my neighborhood means it goes down in quality). If you’re arriving home, you’re call won’t jump to the MicroCell. I’ve had a few crappy moments leaving as my network quality goes down, but I don’t come and go chatting on the phone that much.

With these box-with-cords home devices, you’re always on cold-reboot watch. Inevitably, the magic box stops working and you need to reboot it to restore service. For the most part, the MicroCell is set-it and forget-it. Occasionally, once every 1-2 months, I have to hard reboot the device because my phone isn’t connecting to it. This is the standard box-with-cords procedure: unplug the power, wait a few seconds, and plug the power back in. Then things are back to normal for the next 30 to 60 days. I’ve had to restart my 2Wire AT&T router/modem more often.

Overall: worth it

The MicroCell is worth it if you’ve had reception problems at your home. It’s frustrating to have to pay more (just a one time charge though) for something that should work in the first place, but, as they used to say: wish in one hand and spend money on Apple-related products in the other and see which one fills up first.

Categories: Carriers, Smartphones.

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Google’s Cr-48: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

From Screenshots

Oddly, I found out that I was receiving one of the Chrome OS equipped Cr-48 test machines not from Google, but from a site that started at the UPS API and worked backwards. After applying for the pilot program, someone in Mountain View apparently saw fit to include me in the rumored 60,000 wide hardware distribution, which I appreciate. In return for the device, Google asks only that you provide them with feedback on it. This review is my attempt to satisfy that request.

The Good

The most controversial idea behind Chrome OS is the fact that the OS is, in fact, Chrome. Gone is the traditional userland and its application catalog (with one exception, which we’ll talk about shortly); what’s left is just a browser. This will be a non-starter for a subset of the addressable market, of course, and would be for me if the Cr-48 was my primary computing device. As a secondary device, however, I found it useful. A majority of the time I sit in front of a computer is spent in a browser, so an operating system offering just that was less problematic than you might otherwise expect. In a vacuum, then, I think Chrome OS has a role to fill. Whether that role is sufficiently large from a revenue perspective to justify continued investment from both Google and its hardware partners is, at this point, less than clear. But for those that bought netbooks, for example, a Chrome OS device would likely be more than sufficient.

Other strengths:

  • Design:
    The design of the Cr-48 isn’t likely to collect awards, but its understatement is appreciated in an era where brand placement has reached epidemic proportions. The hardware is black matte, soft and vaguely rubbery to the touch, and absent any external signage. Aesthetically, I don’t love the design, but I do like it.
  • Flash:
    The Cr-48 comes with Flash preloaded, so sites like Amazon Video On Demand and Hulu work out of the box, full screen included. In the two weeks or so I’ve had the device, Flash has crashed three times.
  • Suspend/Resume:
    Most modern laptop operating systems – Linux included – offer credible suspend/resume. The Cr-48 betters most implementations I’ve seen, Mac included, by activating instantly and reacquiring its wifi connection in seconds.
  • Terminal:
    Kudos to Google for recognizing that sans at least a basic terminal, Chrome OS would be irrelevant. Control-Alt-T activates the one non-browser application on board, the crosh shell. Granted, crosh defines basic, but it at least includes SSH for maintenance and setup.

The Bad

It’s early, but nonetheless evident that Google has yet to identify its target market. Is this a dumb terminal replacement for the enterprise, as has been rumored? Or an optimized netbook for consumers? At present, the user interface declines to choose, but it will likely have to in order to be successful. For example, on resume the Cr-48 drops immediately back into an authenticated session. For consumers, this is the appropriate behavior, unless you’ve been Christmas shopping for a family member. For the enterprise, this may be highly problematic. Many require reauthentication on resume, via a password or biometric identification. As nearly as I can determine, the Cr-48 has provisions for neither.

Other frustrations:

  • Chat:
    Google has apparently baked Google Chat directly into the operating system. I say apparently because I was surprised when a window popped up one night with a note from a friend. While I was happy to speak with this person, I hadn’t intended to be logged in and would have been less happy to be interrupted by someone else. It’s not obvious how I would inform the Cr-48 that I’d like to be offline, though.
  • Crash:
    After the initial login and setup process, my Cr-48 crashed and I was forced to repeat the setup. The good news was that, apart from the login process, no data was lost because nothing is stored on the machine. The bad news is that the crash came on the second day of usage. The cause was not apparent.
  • Keyboard:
    The keyboard on the Cr-48 is, at best, adequate. The key action is acceptable but unsatisfying, though my standards may be unreasonably high thanks to my long term usage of Thinkpads. More problematic, however, are the actual keys available. Much has been made of Google’s choices with respect to the keyboard. On the Cr-48, the traditional caps lock key has been replaced by one for web search (though this is configurable), while the function keys that have lined the top of keyboards for years have given way to device specific alternatives (browser forward/back, reload, full screen, etc). Generally, I found these changes welcome. What was difficult, however, was the Apple like absence of delete and page up / page down keys. The latter, in particular, are acceptable omissions if the machine in question has a credible touchpad, but the Cr-48, as we’ll discuss in the next section, does not.
  • Tab Switching:
    Google devoted one key to switching between separate browser windows – a UI convention that is non-intuitively implemented. This key effectively duplicates the functionality offered by the Alt-Tab key combination. No keys or key combinations I’ve discovered, however, allow a user to switch back and forth between open browser tabs – a far more common task in my usage. You can use Control-1 etc (thanks to Corey for that tip) to summon specific tabs, but there’s no non-specific navigation that’s available that I’ve discovered.
  • Web Store:
    As an answer to the iTunes App Store, Chrome OS is likely to lean heavily on the Chrome Web Store. Natively integrated into the browser’s new tab experience, the idea of the Chrome Web Store as a centralization of existing web applications has its utility. It has two challenges, however. First, by artificially branding mere websites as Apps, Google risks both customer confusion and satisfaction. More specifically for the Cr-48, Google also risks angering customers by offering “Apps” that are unsupported on the Chrome OS platform; QuakeLive is one, for example, that will not run on Chrome OS.

The Ugly

The touchpad on the Cr-48 is effectively unusable. Even with a less ambitious functional scope – unlike Apple’s touchpads, it doesn’t support three finger swipe or multi-touch – the device’s touchpad is unable to execute even simple tasks. Two finger right click is inconsistent, scrolling has no concept of momentum so navigating longer pages is laborious, and the pad is hypersensitive and prone to picking up stray actions.

While this is obviously an implementation specific complaint rather than an indictment of the operating system, I am mildly surprised that Google shipped a device to early adopters with a fatally flawed interaction mechanism.

The Extras

One thing that my usage of the Cr-48 has driven home is the extent to which Dropbox is becoming my de facto filesystem. Dropbox already handles tasks like ensuring configuration files are seamlessly pushed to my different machines and making non-market Android applications available to my various handsets. Even without a navigable filesystem on the Cr-48, I am able to browse my music library and play items directly from the web (no support for video yet) via Dropbox. Cloud based music playback is on the horizon, and Dropbox is the shape of things to come.

The Net

Reactions to the device will depend, in most cases, on expectations. Users who expect a laptop experience will be disappointed, those looking for a more basic browsing device, less so. As a proof of concept, the Cr-48 has done nothing to dispell my belief that there is room for a browsing specific device, particularly as streaming options for music and video become more capable. From an execution standpoint, however, the Cr-48 leaves much to be desired. I would not buy or recommend the purchase of a device with this touchpad. Bigger picture, Chrome OS shows promise but also an observable lack of focus. It will be important for the Chrome OS team to decide – soon – where they believe they’ll have the most traction and focus on that.

Categories: Laptops.

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I Don’t Want a Tablet, So When Can I Get One?

Samsung Galaxy Tab Tape

I didn’t want a tablet. No, seriously, look it up. It has never been at all clear that the form factor will work for me. And yet here I am, in the market for a tablet. What happened?

A number of things. It didn’t help that Lenovo killed off the device that I actually wanted, the Skylight, which was essentially a tablet-like piece of hardware in a netbook form factor. Not that I can blame them, not when its chip manufacturer Qualcomm is running around admitting that Apple’s iPad obsoleted smartbooks before they even arrived. Probably because I wanted one, the smartbook category died a quiet, unacknowledged death. The reason I wanted one, however, remained.

The simple fact is that a modern laptop is more machine than I need while traveling. Even my underpowered Thinkpad X301 and its ultra-low-voltage chip represents a surplus of computing capacity. What do I really need while I’m on the road, after all? A browser, a text editor, a terminal application and some form of MLB At Bat, be it native or Flash. For that I just don’t need much machine. I wouldn’t mind the excess so much if the costs weren’t so high. But for the power that a laptop affords, you trade weight, battery life and size. I’m aware that the new Macs, for one, can get better than five hours to a charge. But I’m also aware that five hours does not a full day make, and that even the MacBook Air tips the scales at three pounds.

What I want is a machine I can carry sans briefcase on a day trip to New York or Boston. More specifically, this:

  • Battery Life:
    I don’t want to have to walk into a room at a conference and look for a charger. Actually, I don’t even want to bring a charger on a day trip. Which means I need seven or eight hours to a charge, at a minimum.
  • Connectivity:
    Wifi, obviously. Ideally, I’d like 3G (EV-DO/HSPA) or 4G (LTE) connectivity on a non-AT&T network, simply because I can already turn the Nexus One into an AT&T hotspot so an alternate carrier would give me more options.
  • Cost:
    Anything more than the iPad is too much, given the quality of that device. Less is better, obviously.
  • Display:
    Basically, it needs to be at least twice the size of my Nexus One (3.7″). There are just some things it’s easier to do on a full sized – or nearly so – display.
  • Size:
    This one I’m unsure about. Would the Galaxy Tab’s 7″ display be sufficient? Or would 10″ be better? Probably I’ll have to use them to find out; I hope the carriers make their tablets available under the same 30 day return policies as their handsets.
  • Weight:
    Can’t weigh much more than a pound. The Galaxy Tab’s .84 lbs is just about right.

What about the software, you ask? Funny thing: it’s juts not the priority for me – I’m far more concerned with the hardware. Any of Android, Chrome OS or webOS would probably be acceptable as a tablet operating system. For me, anyway. Google’s Director of Mobile Products, Hugo Barra, was unequivocal in his belief that Android isn’t ready for that device type, which while technically true probably isn’t going to help Samsung’s marketing efforts.

Even the iPad’s iOS would be workable were it not for the fact that it’s tethered to iTunes, and thus to a Mac or Windows desktop. I’m excluding primarily desktop oriented operating systems such as Windows or Ubuntu because they’re not quite there for these form factors, in my opinion.

Add it up, and I’m probably getting a tablet, in spite of their unfortunate lack of a keyboard. The question is which one? The answer to that is as much timing as anything else.

For reasons that I cannot fathom, we are nine months post-the iPad announcement without a credible alternative on the market. This, in spite of the availability of obviously workable alternative operating environments in Android and webOS, and possibly Chrome OS. Whether the massive latency is due to difficulties in design, market factors and uncertainties, or something else, the fact is that the would-be challengers to the iPad are massively late to market. To the point that many have not only missed the Back to School rush, but might not make the holiday shopping season either. In theory, we’ll see Samsung shipping its 7″ Galaxy Tab on a variety of carriers in the near future, but most of the rumored arrival dates for tablets are a quarter to two quarters away.

It’s baffling.

The choice before me then is to wait, or do what I did with the iPhone: tread water using the Apple product until such time as its competitors are sufficiently compelling. The majority of the private feedback I’ve received about tablets encourages me to wait: those who’ve seen or held the forthcoming iPad competitors consistently say nice things about them. But that means putting up with a laptop during one of the two busiest portions of the year for me in terms of travel. Suboptimal.

What do you think? Do you have interest in a tablet?

Categories: Tablets.

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The Problem with AT&T’s New Data Plans

AT&T Data Usage

Like a lot of people, I reacted to the news that AT&T was dropping its unlimited data plans with alarm.

You could see this coming from a mile away, of course. AT&T’s brand has been so massively damaged by its ongoing network issues – I was dropped five times during a single phone call from Denver this week – that it’s actually worth asking whether the iPhone exclusivity has been a good or bad thing for the carrier. All of which helps explain why I, like Rafe, had no problem in principal with the decision to stratify data plans.

I had even less problem with it when I discovered that the plan actually wouldn’t impact me, at least in the short term. I was shocked, frankly, when I discovered just how little data I actually consumed. Even with the assistance of MLB At Bat and its gameday streaming audio and on demand video highlights, I haven’t managed to crack even the 1 GB plateau in the past six months. So the 2 GB plan, which is actually cheaper than my current unlimited plan, would theoretically work for me.

But for how long? I’m quite happy, the above discovery notwithstanding, that I locked in my unlimited data plan days before the plan’s expiration. Why? Because AT&T’s pricing works for what I’m using now. It’s far less likely to be reasonable for what I want to use in future.

It was a bit ironic, in fact, that news of the demise of unlimited data plans predated the announcement of NetFlix for the iPhone by mere days. I’m not aware of the bitrates for what they’re going to pipe down to handsets, but I can’t imagine that streaming movies and TV isn’t going to dramatically increase some customers data consumption. For those of us on Android, meanwhile, there’s the forthcoming FroYo feature allowing handsets to stream music from a home library. Which DropBox, incidentally, has already launched support for. And what would happen if MLB ever got around to fixing its asinine TV broadcast blackout rules, and legions of MLB At Bat users began watching the games, daily, on their handsets?

The simple fact is that AT&T is removing the unlimited data plans just as they’re actually going to become useful for mainstream users. Which is their prerogative, because their network is so awful they clearly had to do something. But it can’t really be defended as a positive development for customers, because even if they don’t need unlimited today, they are likely to soon.

Categories: Carriers, Mobile Data.

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So You Want to Switch to Android…One Man’s iPhone to Nexus One Migration


It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my tenure as an iPhone user. It was easily the best designed piece of electronics I have ever owned. Imperfect, yes, but as close as I’ve seen.

But perfection comes at a cost, and over time it just became too high for me. Frustrating as it was being a Linux user with an iPhone (the two platforms, unsurprisingly, don’t get along although Linux can see and play audio off the device), I could live with the one to one dependance on a Mac or Windows machine because I have both around at the office, at least. Absurd as I find Apple’s self-righteous censorship of its application store, the material impact of this filtering on my personal usage was pretty much neglible. The lack of Flash was a pain in the ass, but enough sites have retooled that it wasn’t a deal breaker. As for the hermetically sealed operating system, well, I must admit that my appetite for tinkering with my phone is significantly less than for my desktop. I was even fine with AT&T as a carrier: where I happen to live in Maine, they’re pretty much it for coverage, on land and especially on the water.

Like many iPhone users, I could live with all of the above issues, frankly, because the alternatives were less than compelling. I love the Palm software, but I didn’t love the hardware. Blackberry held zero appeal because email isn’t why I own a mobile device. And until its recent reboot, Microsoft’s Windows offering was not even a consideration.

Which left Android (yes, the Symbian omission was intentional). Google’s mobile operating system may have taken the market by storm in the last 18 months, but my limited time on the early versions of the platform did little to sell me on it as an iPhone replacement. Parts of it were compelling, but as you’d expect from an engineering-centric organization like Google – or indeed any company that’s not Apple – the user experience left much to be desired. Still does, in fact. Seeing as this is a post about switching to Android, however, you’re probably curious as to what tipped me over the edge. Besides the above Apple and iPhone frustrations, of course.

First, and most importantly, MLB ported its At Bat application to Android. I’m not joking when I said this was a must have for me. The value of being able to watch (graphically) and listen to a ballgame when I’m walking down Third Street in San Francisco cannot be overstated for this Red Sox fan.

As it was for Dan Lyons, it was FroYo, however, that really sold me, that convinced me it was time. Which is funny, because Google hasn’t yet shipped it to my Nexus One, and I haven’t seen fit to find and apply it myself. Nor is it clear when that will happen. Nevertheless, everything Gizmodo said about it is true. Sitting in the audience at I/O, watching the demos at Google I/O, I began to explore how I might make the jump. The first step was obtaining a handset. Conveniently HTC and Sprint solved that one for me. As we’ll see. On to the review.

The Hardware

As Ars’ Ryan Paul documented earlier today, HTC and Sprint were kind enough to issue every attendee of Google I/O – even us press/analyst types – a brand new HTC Evo 4G. Take every feature you’ve ever wanted in a phone – huge perfect screen, WIMAX, even HDMI out – and that phone has it. Sure, the battery life is awful, but you just have to see this thing in action. It’s legitimately incredible. Possibly even more so than the HTC Incredible, though I can’t say.

The only problem for me, besides the battery life, was that the HTC was a.) locked to Sprint and b.) compatible with CDMA/EV-DO networks only, i.e. not AT&T. Which is the only network I can use. So I set about finding a trading partner. Which after some fits and starts, I did via Twitter. A very nice gentleman who I won’t out here agreed to trade me his brand new AT&T compatible Nexus One for my mostly-brand new HTC Evo. Which was what Tim Bray – see his review of the device here – had recommended to me at the House of Shields after hearing I was pretty much stuck with AT&T. Even off a red eye that morning, I managed to stay awake just long enough last Friday to greet the Fedex guy who delivered my would-be iPhone replacement. So I’ve had a long weekend to play with the device, the software and the network.

While there are differences in the implementations of Android from device to device – the HTC Evo I had, for example, featured their custom “Sense” UI which I actually found rather perplexing – the following may be useful for others considering a switch to Android.

As for the handset itself, I actually prefer the Nexus One to both the Evo and – surprisingly – my iPhone. The form factor of the Nexus One is, to me, superior to both. It’s about 4 mm longer than my iPhone 3GS, but it’s thinner and less wide. It fits in the hand very well, and the pocket acceptably. Better, it feels solid and well constructed.

Other observations:

  • Battery Life:
    The published numbers claim longer talk time than the iPhone 3GS; it’s seemed relatively comparable to me. That is to say that it sucks roughly as much. I love smartphones – can’t live without them, in fact – but their battery life is just abysmal if you use the network services heavily. Like its predecessor, I have to nurse the Nexus One through the day by letting it sip on my laptop’s power regularly. Speaking of the power cord…
  • Power Cord:
    Unlike the iPhone, which uses a proprietary connection, the Nexus One uses a Micro USB cable for connectivity to a PC. Importantly, this means you can purchase extra cables on Monoprice for about a dollar, which beats the hell out of Apple’s $19 connector cable. Of course this is even more important since there’s virtually no aftermarket for Android device parts, but let me come back to that.
  • Screen:
    The screen on the Nexus One is absolutely tremendous…as long as you’re not outdoors. Outside, in bright sun, the screen is not quite unreadable, but it’s close. Sitting down on the dock this weekend, I could read Gmail, Twitter et al, but I had to squint or create some shade. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the display otherwise puts my iPhone’s to shame. It’s bigger, brighter, and I really haven’t noticed the rumored oversaturation. The touchscreen is mostly fine, probably a shade less responsive than the iPhone’s.
  • Camera:
    The camera crammed in a few extra megapixels, apparently, so the pictures appear a bit better. The real surprise for me was the flash; I had no idea it had one, and was shocked when it went off taking the first indoor shots. It’s certainly not a professional class device, but it’s really not that bad. All the pictures from the Memorial Day parade here were taken with the Nexus One, to give you an idea of the camera quality.
  • Bottom Buttons:
    Tim says he hasn’t had any issues with the hardware buttons that line the bottom of the screen, so apparently he is a better man than I. They work for me, but not always, and occasionally not even on the second try. I appreciate having a back button, as Steve Jobs’ manical one button focus never made any more sense to me on the phone than the desktop, but the execution here could use some work in my opinion. [Update: Corey Gilmore writes in to say that this is actually a manufacturing issue. The silk screened buttons are simply lower than they should be by about .5 mm. And when pressing slightly above the button, it works as expected. Thanks Corey!]

The only other hardware-ish note: the headphones included with the device are simply awful. They’re as bad as those included with the iPhone, and that’s saying something. Why manufacturers can’t come up with something that’s at least comfortable, if not high quality, is beyond me. I get that you don’t want to step on your aftermarket’s toes, but seriously, the default headphones are borderline worse than nothing.

The Software

Android – whether it’s HTC’s flavor or Google’s – cannot match the user experience of the iPhone. Let’s just get that out of the way up front. Apple is the best in the world at what they do, and Android, while much improved, still has a way to go to match the seamless quality of the Apple experience front to back. That said, the Android is far more usable than I anticipated. There’s a bit of a learning curve involved, but once you figure it out, it’s relatively easy to navigate, and there are some nifty features that even Apple could stand to learn from.

The details:

  • Multitasking:
    Everyone talks about the multi-tasking, and it mostly lives up to the hype. Being as big a fan of the MLB At Bat application on the iPhone as I am, it was constantly frustrating to have to exit that completely to check email or Twitter, then navigate all the way back to the game after I was done. Even understanding, via Robert Love, why Apple might have done things that way, it was a pain in the ass. It took me a little while to get used to navigating between open applications in Android – hold the home button down to access those recently used – but once you get it, it’s killer. I can have MLB At Bat up and running, pop over to check Twitter, and pop back over when I’m done. In this, Android is clearly superior to the current Apple experience.

    Still, Android could use some work here. The fact that I have to download an application to kill other applications I don’t want to run anymore is what we in the business call “supoptimal.” I have yet to figure out how to turn off Google Talk, and as a result I keep getting IMs directed to my phone when I’m not paying attention.

  • Browser:
    The browser on the Nexus One at present is fine. It’s reasonably fast, but otherwise undistinguished. The usability is slightly worse than the iPhone’s, in my opinion: it’s two clicks to get to the browser windows menu, versus one on the iPhone, and the bookmarks are likewise less acceptable. All of that’s bad.

    The good news is that whatever they’ve done to the browser in FroYo is working. As Alex King and I have discussed, the browser in FroYo is that fastest I’ve seen. Not the fastest mobile browser, the fastest browser, period. The benchmarks I’ve seen don’t support that claim, but the experience really has to be seen to be believed, in my view. Better, FroYo adds experimental support for Flash, so all of those sites that are currently opaque to the iPhone will become just another site to Android.

  • Music:
    The thing that Android sucks worst at relative to the iPhone, in my opinion, is being an iPod. For many users, I’ve found, this isn’t an issue as they don’t use the iPod functionality. For me, it’s core, as my iPhone replaced my iPod after about a month. I simply can’t be bothered to keep two devices a.) charged and b.) loaded with music, and I’ve really come to appreciate having my music on me all the time, so the huge delta in iPod-like functionality between the iPhone and my Nexus One is a gaping hole. Maybe I’ll find something suitable in the Market, but the stock Music player on the Nexus One is barely adequate. Big win for the iPhone here.

    The wildcard here is the pending music streaming feature. The idea is that you don’t load your entire music catalog to your phone; the latter simply accesses it over the network. If this works even marginally well, it will be an absolutely killer feature. You have to think the carriers are terrified of this from a bandwidth perspective, however.

  • Screenshots:
    A small feature I miss is the iPhone’s native ability to take screenshots. Hold down home and hit the power button, and the iPhone drops a screenshot into your picture gallery. As nearly as I can determine, Android offers no similar function. There’s an app for that, as they say, but it should be native, IMO.
  • Google Integration:
    Ask anyone about their Android device, and guaranteed one of the first things to come up will be the Google integration. Put simply, if you’re a consumer of Google services – Gmail, calendar, etc – Android is not only magic, but probably the best device for you. On activation, the phone asks you for your Google account credentials, and with those it transparently populates the email app, your calendar, etc. And yes, Google Apps accounts are supported. I’ve got my Apps account integrated for email and calendar, while my contacts are pulled instead from my regular Gmail account.

    If you hook up Google Voice, you can let it replace your provider voicemail. Or at least you can on AT&T; Sprint didn’t allow this when I was using the HTC Evo they issued me. The tight if not exclusive integration of their email, calendar, IM, and voicemail services makes for a very compelling experience from an application perspective.

The Phone

How does the device perform as a phone? Fine, I guess. Frankly, I use this functionality as little as possible, so I can’t really comment here. Hasn’t dropped a call yet, though, so I suppose that’s a positive.


Android’s market is obviously well behind Apple’s from a volume standpoint, but it’s also outclassed from a UI perspective. Not that Apple’s store is perfect, but the Android market’s categories are limited, its reviews tend to be sparse, and discoverability is extremely subpar. The commerce functionality also needs some serious TLC. After about a half dozen failed attempts to buy my first application – MLB At Bat, of course – in which I kept being asked to login to my Google account over and over, I finally discovered that you can’t purchase items using Google Checkout from a Google Apps account. It has to be Google Checkout attached to an account. Someone might want to fix that, or at least warn users ahead of time. The Market’s got some areas for improvement, in other words.

Still, I’ve wasted no time loading up my Nexus One with apps. Here’s what I’m using at present:

  • Advanced Task Killer
  • (MLB) At Bat ’10
  • ConnectBot (SSH terminal)
  • DropBox
  • Facebook
  • FlightTrack
  • FourSquare
  • PayPal
  • Shazam
  • SMS Migrator
  • TaxiMagic
  • TripIt
  • Twitter for Android
  • USAA (my bank)
  • WordPress
  • Yelp

Other than At Bat, not obvious favorites yet. Just the regular suite of apps that keep me productive, happy or both.

One other observation on the Market: it’s not obvious to me why there is no clear aftermarket supplier for Android accessories. Presumably Google expects the carriers to satisfy the bulk of such requests through their retail outlets, at a substantial markup, as is traditional. But there are surely a great many folks like me that need accessories for their phone, such as replacement headphones, extra power cables, car chargers and so on. At this point, however, I’m not sure where I’d get those as the Nexus One isn’t sold by my local carrier.

Seems like an odd customer need to ignore.

The Setup

My Nexus One setup actually could not have gone more smoothly. At least once I found out how to insert the battery. Word to the wise: the little slot on the back of the device is not for prying the back cover off, it’s the speaker. Simply press the back with two fingers and slide up. As an aside, it would have been nice if that was in the documentation somewhere.

Anyway, after figuring that out, it was pretty straightforward. I pulled the SIM card from my iPhone, inserted it into the Nexus One, followed with the battery and the booted it up. Everything pretty much just worked. The phone powered up, found the network, and had no issues whatsoever. I could make and receive calls, texts and browse the interweb. [Update: couple of folks wrote in this morning to warn me that not informing AT&T about the new device would eventually cause me problems, particularly with the awful new plan changes about to hit. So I called them, and after getting the IMEI (Settings: About Phone: Status), they confirmed me on the same data plan as I had previously. Hold time with customer service was approximately 3 minutes.]

A couple of issues I had, however:

  • Contacts:
    The Nexus One will sync your contacts with various Google accounts, Facebook, even Twitter. Which sounds like a great idea, until you consider just how many contacts that is. In my case, it’s a lot. More problematic was the fact that many of my contacts weren’t in any contact database except my iPhone. Not having people’s phone numbers was a slight problem.

    Initially, I thought I could fix this by enabling Google account synchronization on my iPhone. As far as I can tell, however, that doesn’t sync, it merely replaces your iPhone contacts with what’s in Google. Which was exactly what I didn’t want.

    What I ended up doing was opening the Address Book in Mac OS on the machine my iPhone is tied to, selecting all of my contacts, and exporting them to a vcard. I then uploaded that vcard to my Google account, merged the info with existing accounts where necessary, and – at least in theory – I have all of my prior contacts synced.

  • SMS:
    Only slightly less important to me are the hundreds if not thousands of text messages that have accumulated on my iPhone. I was loathe to leave these behind simply because I was making the jump from one device to another. So I looked around and found a solution. At least I think I did. Here’s the process:

    1. Step one was buying SMS Migrator (~$1) from the Market and downloading that to my Nexus One.
    2. While that was in process, I plugged my iPhone into my Ubuntu laptop. As usual, it mounted cleanly and displayed the filesystem. After a bit of research, however, it became clear that in their infinite wisdom – and out of their concern for me, I’m sure – Apple has chosen to hide the SQL Lite database containing all of my text messages from me. Instead, I turned to these instructions.
    3. Based on those, I spun up my Mac, navigated (on the command line, the Finder didn’t display the folder) to ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup/. In there, I had two directories: one that was updated today (I backed up my iPhone before attempting any of this), and another updated last June (presumably my old iPhone backup). I moved into the second one, and located a file called 3d0d7e5fb2ce288813306e4d4636395e047a3d28.mddata. I copied that over to my Linux machine.
    4. Over on the Linux machine, I downloaded iphone-isms-free, a Java app for exporting the SQL Lite database into a format SMS Migrator could import.
    5. To do the export, I ran the following: java -jar isms.jar -csv "sms.csv" -sql "3d0d7e5fb2ce288813306e4d4636395e047a3d28.mddata" -backup
    6. From there, I copied sms.csv to the root directory on my MicroSD card on the Nexus One.
    7. I then activated SMS Migrator, told it what program I’d used (iphone-isms-free), what the file was called (sms.csv) and let it do its thing. Which it’s been doing for over seven hours at present, where it’s 96% complete. It seems to be working, though I’ll have to report back on the good, the bad and the ugly later.
  • Roaming:
    One bit of weirdness: my Nexus One, which has in theory the same network capabilities as my iPhone, was unable to connect to the network in my fiancee’s hometown, while her iPhone showed a normal AT&T signal. After activating Data roaming (seriously, when was the last time you heard about “roaming” in the US?) under Wireless & network settings: Mobile networks, the phone connected as normal and displayed a signal strength equivalent to that of the iPhone on AT&T. But it insisted it was roaming, not on AT&T. This one, I still haven’t figured out.
  • The Net?

    Android is ready for prime time. It’s not going to beat the iPhone – not yet – but it’s ready for mainstream users. Which is probably why they’re shipping 65,000 of them a day. FroYo will only make this readiness more evident. The hiring of Matias Duarte, formerly of Palm, only underscores Google’s commitment to improving the UI.

    Apple will undoubtedly reset the bar with its forthcoming iPhone 4GS, but Google’s catching up fast and has some sustainable advantages to exploit, not least the lack of a client dependency. Apple seems to have something of a blind spot with respect to the cloud, as Dan Lyons asserted, and whether that’s an artifact of its Mac desktop investments or a larger strategy, it’s going to have them playing defense. Soon. But as I said back at Google I/O, the great thing about fierce competition like we’re now seeing between Apple and Google is that customers are the ultimate winners. We’re going to see even faster rates of innovation moving forward, and I for one am looking forward to what the competition yields.

    In the meantime, I’m happy having made the jump to Android, and hope the above might help those of you with questions about the process. Questions? Other suggestions? Feel free to chime in below.

    Categories: Smartphones.

    Tags: , , , , , ,

    Debating the Travel Machine Question

    It’s true. I really did encourage Cote to think about getting an iPad. Not because I’m a fan of the machine; I haven’t seen fit to purchase one myself. But I do think that the iPad, and the inevitable wave of devices that will follow it, herald a real change in the computers we travel with.

    Look around the room at an analyst conference and you’ll see this at work, already. Desks will be littered with machines, and you’ll see a few netbooks sprinkled in with the laptops. Ever so often, the former will actually outnumber the latter.

    Why? Because analysts don’t really need much computing power on the road. And the more you travel, the more you come to resent the extra pound or two that even ultralight laptops represent, not to mention the comparatively terrible battery life.

    My primary laptop at this point is a Thinkpad X301, which while underpowered with an ultra-low voltage chip that runs at 1.6 Ghz, will still run Ubuntu and a separate instance of Windows. More and more, though, I’m asking myself why – and whether – even this minimal computing power is necessary.

    I’m fairly confident that I could get away with nothing more than a tablet while I’m on the road. Between the T7500 workstation that Dell sent me for the office and outboard storage and compute from Amazon, it’s not clear to me what the benefits are to traveling with a real computer rather than a jumped up phone.

    There are doubtless drawbacks to traveling light. One that Cote and I discussed was our tendency to work on slides up to the last minute, which is probably more of a challenge on a tablet style device. As are, I’m sure, other tasks yet to be identified. The question is whether or not these are sufficient to justify a full laptop.

    I suspect that, at least for me, the answer is no: that I no longer require a full machine. That the X301 is, for better and for worse, my last laptop for a while.

    Considering the following:

    • The overwhelming majority of my day to day applications – document editing, email, IM – are cloud native (coverage), meaning that they are operating system independent. The work that isn’t – like the testing that we do in virtualized images – doesn’t need to be done while I’m on the road.
    • The battery life on my X301 is average, at best. With a substantially dimmed screen, I can make the two batteries (I swapped out the DVD drive for a second) last around four hours. Contrast this with the 10+ hours you can expect from an ARM driven tablet/smartbook.
    • The weight difference is quite substantial. My X301 weighs in at around 3.5 pounds with the second battery. A Skylight, Lenovo’s forthcoming smartbook entry, would shave better than a pound and a half off of that at 1.95 pounds. An iPad would better even that, with the 3G model tipping the scales at 1.6 pounds. If you don’t travel, a pound and a half doesn’t sound like much. But if you travel, you know that’s a big difference, and a big advantage.
    • Most of the sub-netbook class of devices are going to have dramatically revamped interfaces, and within a year or two all will probably be touch enabled. I’m unconvinced this is an advantage relative to a physical keyboard, but in all other areas of usability it’s likely to be an improvement. If I’m doing simple things like using a browser, touchscreens can offer a much better experience.

    I’m having a hard time building the case for anything but a tablet or smartbook for a travel machine.

    But which device would I pick, if I do indeed go that route? Apple’s iPad is the obvious choice for many at the moment, but I’m not much of an Apple fanboy and that device is going to have quite a bit of competition soon. Google and Verizon have their own Android-based response coming, Dell’s reportedly got a spate of machines on the way, and HP may actually have some plans for the billion plus dollars they spent on Palm (coverage). There’s also the oft-forgotten Chrome OS (coverage) lurking just over the horizon. It’s very interesting to me, as an aside, how dominant ARM has become in this space, virtually overnight.

    Anyway, the market’s clearly not going to lack for choice. What I will actually choose is open to question right now, but if you’re looking for my business, I suggest you talk to MLB about getting a version of At Bat for your platform. Nothing is more likely to increase your chances than letting me watch or listen to the Red Sox while I’m on the road.

    Whatever I end up doing, however, change is coming. Mobile is the new desktop, and the stakes are high.

    Categories: Laptops, Tablets. Not a Reason to Buy an iPad Blackout Restrictions, originally uploaded by sogrady.

    They announced the iPad yesterday. Dude, have you seen it? Large capacative touchscreen, 1.5 pounds, wifi, 3G: it’s everything you could want in a mobile media device. Which the folks at MLB have clearly figured out, as they, with but a scant two weeks lead time, cobbled together an application designed expressly for the device. The iPad and are the perfect combination to watch every team but your favorite.

    Wait, what?

    Yeah, it’s a fact. You can’t watch your hometown team, unless you find yourself far from home. Look it up. Undoubtedly some baseball fan somewhere is going to get suckered into buying an iPad, at least in part, to watch games when they’re out and about. That’s certainly why I would buy one. Unfortunately, after they get home and have paid, they’ll discover that unless they root for a team in a different region, they can’t actually watch the games they want. Thanks, MLB Blackout rules.

    You know, the same blackout rules that are an artifact of the 60’s, that the commissioner himself said he didn’t “understand,” and that Bob DuPuy was going to fix back in 2008?

    If they fixed it, it’s certainly not obvious. So while there are undoubtedly many good reasons to buy an iPad, is not, as far as I’m concerned, one of them. Regardless of what they showed on stage yesterday, because you won’t be able to watch what you want, just what those who gerrymandered the map together fifty years ago want you to.

    Technology’s a wonderful thing, but it’s no match for decades of broadcasting fear and protectionism. Which is sad because man, did you see that app?

    Categories: Apps, Tablets.

    Tags: , , ,

    Androids, Tablets and Skylights, Oh My: The Q&A

    Lenovo Skylight_red, originally uploaded by lenovophotolibrary.

    Before I proceed, let me concede up front that Apple is going to sell a ton of tablets, Google quite a few phones. Even if the products were mediocre, and the one we’ve seen isn’t and the one we haven’t won’t be, the brands alone effectively guarantee relevance. Witness Tuesday’s breathless coverage of the new Android handset, which is more notable for the way in which it is sold than for anything the device itself is capable of.

    But I’m not just not that into them. Not like I am the Lenovo Skylight. Here’s why.

    Q: Before we begin, anything to disclose?
    A: I don’t think so. None of Apple, Google or Lenovo are RedMonk customers, although the latter has in the past provided us with review units which were returned.

    Q: What has been announced?
    A: Two things, officially, and the third has been upleveled from pure speculation to the reported rumor stage. Tuesday, Google held a press conference to announce the availability of the Nexus One, a new Android based handset that is being sold directly to consumers, either unsubsidized or subsidized with a carrier agreement. Lenovo, earlier that day, had announced a few new products, among them what they are terming a “smartbook,” the Lenovo Skylight. One day prior, meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is planning to ship a tablet in early March.

    Q: Let’s take the Nexus One first: what’s the deal?
    A: The latest and greatest Android handset, the long anticipated Gphone is evolutionary, not revolutionary, as they say. Tim O’Reilly’s got a nice piece looking at its strengths and weaknesses, while the Times’ David Pogue was a bit harsher in his assessment. Neither gentleman issued it a ringing endorsement, or characterized it as a must have device.

    Q: So why all the coverage?
    A: In part, because it’s Google, but to be fair, the Nexus One does represent change. Not the hardware, the model. It’s a (sad) testament to how tightly the carriers have controlled the wireless industry that the idea that you could purchase an iPhone somewhere other than an AT&T retail outlet and – gasp – activate it at home was viewed as earth-shaking. With the Nexus One, Google’s pushing the carriers even further, not only selling direct to consumers, but offering a handset that is – at least in theory – not tied to a specific carrier. Even Apple didn’t get that from AT&T. As AllThingsD’s John Paczkowski put it:

    The key point here is that Google is trying to make a fundamental change in the way the mobile business works, particularly in the U.S. The company wants you to buy the phone first, then pick a carrier and plan. If it works, it will “further weaken the power of the carriers,” as Walt Mossberg notes in his review of the Nexus One.

    True, as Pogue noted, the network compatibility issues – the current GSM flavor of the Nexus One will not operate on Spring or Verizon networks, for example – complicate the dream of true carrier independence. But the Nexus One is a step in the right direction. And more importantly, this is a door that will be difficult, if not impossible, for the carriers to close.

    All of which is good for the market, but less relevant for me personally. When it comes time to pick a phone, I’m more likely to select one that I want to use; meaning one that the reviewers more than half-heartedly endorse.

    Q: Ok, I can see why you don’t care as much about the Nexus One. But what about the Apple Tablet? Isn’t everyone going to want one?
    A: It being Apple, probably. And it being Apple, probably for some good reasons. Gruber, one of the better Apple forecasters out there, is predicting big things for the tablet:

    If you’re thinking The Tablet is just a big iPhone, or just Apple’s take on the e-reader, or just a media player, or just anything, I say you’re thinking too small — the equivalent of thinking that the iPhone was going to be just a click wheel iPod that made phone calls. I think The Tablet is nothing short of Apple’s reconception of personal computing.

    Apple certainly gets the benefit of the doubt here, because after listing a whole mess of reasons why I would not buy an iPhone I have a difficult time now contemplating life without one.

    But the iPhone is, ironically, part of the problem: with it, I already have a really solid mobile browsing device. What oxygen is there left for a tablet?

    Q: So you’re with Joe Wilcox, who said “The world doesn’t need an Apple tablet, or any other.”
    A: Not quite. Most obviously because Apple has done a consistently excellent job of anticipating consumer needs, but also because there will inevitably be use cases for which the tablet is not only appropriate, but optimal. I’m just not sure what they would be for me.

    Q: Why not?
    A: Assuming that it does not have a physical keyboard – which could of course be a faulty assumption – I’d have a hard time justifying the device. I need a phone, I need a larger, more capable machine with a keyboard, which leaves what market for the tablet? It’s unclear. Apple isn’t dumb; they’re not going to build a device just for browsing IMDB while you’re watching movies. But unless it’s got a keyboard, I’m not sure where it fits. True, there are times when I need a bigger browser than mobile Safari. But those are frequently the times when I need a keyboard as well, and while Apple’s done a commendable job with the touch keyboard on the iPhone, it’s certainly not comparable to a physical alternative. I’m all for a mobile, lightweight device with a 10 inch screen.

    But I need it to have a keyboard.

    Q: Enter the Lenovo Skylight…
    A: Exactly. Ten inch screen, weight under two pounds, wifi and wwan connectivity, ten hour battery life, and most importantly – has physical keyboard.

    Q: What would you use it for?
    A: As I’ve written recently, I appear to be transitioning away from a single machine – laptop only – model. Part of it’s the ascendance of SaaS applications, part of it’s the ability to seamlessly push my data and application settings around, and part of it’s the improvement in the hardware. Hell, maybe I’m just getting too old to lug larger machines around. Either way, I’m far more open to a workstation / browsing-oriented mobile device paradigm than I would have been two or three years ago.

    Q: Isn’t the Skylight just a gutted netbook?
    A: No, it’s pretty significantly differentiated. Netbooks are on a trajectory – both in features and in price – to become little more than cheap laptops. Many are heavier, in fact, than my 13 inch X301. They’re cheaper, certainly, but pricing wasn’t the only driver for netbook sales: there’s legitimate demand for portability. The Skylight clearly rejects the trend towards laptop-minus-a-few-features, to the extent that it employs an ARM chipset originally designed by Qualcomm for phones rather than the PC standard x86.

    Q: What does the choice of ARM over x86 mean in practical terms?
    A: Well, it affects the software selection, most obviously. Most Linux distributions’ support for the ARM chipset is minimal: Ubuntu, for example, only supports two flavors of ARM chips, and the known issues list is grim reading. Which is likely why Qualcomm (who’s been hiring for this), Lenovo or both seem to have created their own flavor of Linux, with “widgets” and a task oriented interface.

    Q: Is that a good idea? Do these guys really want to be competing with the likes of Apple on user interface and design?
    A: The short answer is no, they probably don’t want to be competing with Apple. Any more than Asus wanted to be competing with Ubuntu with its original Eee-specific distribution. But given the dearth of off the shelf ARM-compatible alternative distributions, this is probably a necessary interim step.

    Q: Interim step to what?
    A: To whatever the optimal user experience ends up being. Given the fact that I’ve been looking forward to demoing bare bones, Chrome OS equipped hardware, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s eventually the direction these machines go. The ARM camp certainly found Chrome OS fascinating, and Mozilla has documented interest in ARM based devices. So is the current Moblin-like Linux based UI the once and future UI of Skylight? I doubt it, but I’ll have a better read on that once I see it.

    Q: What are the takeaways from all of this news?
    A: There are dozens, but let’s consider five. First, mobile is an area of massive focus at the present time. The space will see accelerating investments in both hardware (various form factors and device types) as well as software (both infrastructure and user interfaces) in the months ahead. Second, the carriers face an uncertain future: decreased control over their customer base on the one hand, and exponential growth in network demand on the other. The good news, however, is that with that demand comes additional revenue, because unlike cable or DSL which can easily be shared amongst multiple machines, most of these mobile internet devices have dedicated WWAN connections, each with its own price tag. Third, Tuesday’s news included, the growth of Android is accelerating. The Nexus One is going to be available for multiple networks, and AT&T – whose relationship with Apple has been rocky at times – is planning on releasing five Android handsets. In the first half of 2010, no less. Fourth, the mobile market – smartphones aside – is going to be the center of much experimentation, because nobody quite knows what form factor(s) the market wants. Well, maybe Steve Jobs does, but he’s not talking until late January. Last but not least, it’ll be a good time to be a consumer: accelerating device innovation and competition for customers should mean a lot of cool new toys for the gadget obsessed among us. And one bonus: ARM is getting a lot more interesting, to the extent that it should see increasing software investments from commercial and open source communities alike.

    Categories: Smartphones, Tablets.

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