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

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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.