Category Archives: Technology

Tablets and E-readers will be killed off by Notebooks

4607c57e4b473460400x1You heard it here first: despite the fact that they were all the buzz at CES this year, tablets and e-readers are destined for obsolescence.  Sadly, the fax machine may outlive them.

Here’s why:

E-readers:

The only reason e-readers exist is because it’s hard on the eyes to read text on a computer screen for long periods of time. You could argue that e-readers were invented to save paper or reduce printing and distribution costs, but if that were the main reason, then people would have been reading their books, magazines, and newspapers on their computer a long time ago.  You could go read War and Peace right now, but you won’t because it would make you feel like someone is hammering rusty nails into your eyes after the first hour.

So e-readers exist because they have cool e-ink screens that are easy on your e-eyes.  Great.  But what is an e-reader really, besides a tablet PC with a nice e-ink screen and no web-browsing?  In time, tablets will be developed with screens that are similar to e-ink, or perhaps with an “e-ink mode” that can be turned on if you want to read for a while.  And then after you’re done with War and Peace you can go back to watching the latest Lady Gaga video.  Cool.  If I had a tablet like this, I wouldn’t have a need for an e-reader.

So, looking into my crystal ball, I see a tablet with e-ink mode killing off e-readers…so how does the tablet get killed off?

Well, let’s look at the problem that tablets solve – tablets exist because people want something small, portable, and comfortable for casual use while sitting on the couch.  Yes, that’s pretty much it.  The PC industry has been trying to make tablets for years, but they’ve always failed for two main reasons:

  1. The reason everyone acknowledges is that fully-functional PCs have always been too heavy.  Only recently have we started seeing small PCs with enough horsepower to run regular old Windows, Office, Outlook, and have a few web browsers open at the same time
  2. The reason everyone has been ignoring (particularly on the CES show floor) is that the tablet form factor just isn’t all that functional.  If you’re sitting on your couch, it’s okay to use your touchscreen tablet to web browse a little, play MP3s, watch your videos, or use Facebook.  But if you’re doing any serious work on your PC like writing a letter, manipulating files, configuring complex software, using Photoshop…you will want a keyboard and mouse.  The tablet form factor is great for fun stuff, not for serious stuff.

And yes, the device that solves both of these problems is the notebook.  Notebooks have keyboards, pointing devices, and are getting lighter, smaller, cheaper, and more powerful by the minute.

We are already seeing people merge notebooks with tablets – HP has a pretty cool notebook called the TouchSmart tm2 (that’s right, I said “HP has a cool notebook”), which features a foldaway screen.  (Not a new idea, but theirs is very slick.)  Lenovo (formerly IBM) unveiled at CES a notebook with a detachable touchscreen (shown above.)  The writing is on the wall, guys – notebook/tablet combos will make pure-play tablets pointless.  And notebook-tablets with e-ink screens will make e-readers pointless.

The only question is how long this will take.  I give it 3 years.  I think the fax machine will still be around by then.

Google Wave’s Fatal Flaws

So I got my Google Wave invite a couple weeks ago.  I have been fairly skeptical of all the Wave hype lately, but I was still intrigued and very much looking forward to seeing what it had to offer.  I logged in, and…didn’t know what to do.  I felt like the first guy in the world to have email – it sounds like a cool idea, but there’s nothing to do until you know other people who have email, too.

Wave allows you to send invites out to 9 friends, so I sent some out.  And waited.  A week later, finally they started showing up, and I could really see what Wave had in store.

Wave is slick, and pretty, and for the most part fairly easy to start using, but it has too many flaws that will keep it out of the hands of mainstream users and limit its adoption to tech-savvy user groups.  My biggest issues with it are:

  • No email integration. This is supposed to be the communication tool for the next century, but it isn’t backwards compatible with the communication tool(s) for the last century.  Surely someone will write an extension to allow it to interface with email, but at that point you’ll lose all the cool Wave features, making the whole exercise moot.
  • Nothing to do until you know people who have it.  Adding an email extension would alleviate this.
  • Built by programmers, for programmers. As Lifehacker points out, “the first search command every Wave newbie needs to know (is): with:public” which will allow you to see public waves and is very useful when you have no friends using Wave yet. Really guys?  Resorting to cryptic command lines in a supposedly mainstream web app?  Let me guess, was this documented somewhere in your man pages?
  • No notifier application. If you’re not in Wave, there’s no way to know you have new Waves waiting for you.  There is a third-party app to do this, but it’s annoying that I have to have a notifier for my email and Wave.
  • Watching people type in real time. Internet “old-timers” will remember that the original tools for instant messaging over the Internet (like “talk”) worked like this.  Surprisingly, it’s not much fun to watch other people type and correct their own typos.  Really.  ICQ and AIM popularized the “wait until they’re done to send the message” model, and no one looked back (until Wave.)
  • Editing other people’s messages. If I want to collaborate on something with my friends, I’ll tell you.  Don’t just let other people edit my messages willy-nilly.  It’s fun for a few minutes to edit what your friends said, but threads can quickly become chaotic and impossible to follow.  There’s a reason message boards don’t have this feature.
  • Google Wave

    Click for larger image

    Un-novative thread presentation. In a giant leap back to 1997, Wavelets are organized by thread first and not by date.  This means that responses to any message within the wave get indented directly below that message rather than showing at the bottom of the Wave, so new messages end up located all over the place within the thread.  In long threads, you may have to scroll up and down for several pages to find the new messages.  For ‘net old-timers, you may remember that many of the first, primitive online forums were arranged like this, but somewhere along the lines everyone discovered that it was easier to follow a conversation by always posting new messages at the bottom and just quoting the message it was in response to.  It’s not as elegant from a purist perspective, but it’s much easier for the user to follow.

  • Replay. The only reasons the Replay feature needs to exist are 1) the flawed thread presentation mentioned above and 2) the fact that anyone on the thread can edit any message.  Using replay isn’t fun or interesting – it’s tedious, and it’s there to compensate for unintuitive UI and unnecessary features.
  • Worst offense: Too many things in one. Wave seemingly tries to replace your email, your IM, and your Google Docs, but doesn’t do a great job on any of them.  I much prefer using my IM client to talk to my friends, so I’m not giving that up.  Gmail is a better email client, and Google Docs and Spreadsheets are pretty great for collaboration, so I’m not giving those up. (Gmail and Docs already have messaging built-in, and it’s executed rather nicely, btw.)  By trying to do so much, it doesn’t do anything well.

I should have known we were in trouble when this was the first line of the “Getting Started” wave: A wave can be both a document and a conversation. For how many users would a statement like this make any kind of sense?  For someone like myself, that’s a pretty deep statement and worth some pondering, but how would that help my mom figure out what’s going on?

Wave is truly a technical marvel, and the fact that it works as well as it does is impressive.  It’s easy to see why the room full of developers at the Wave unveiling was in awe.  But, you must do more than impress developers to build a tool that the mass market will adopt.

Ultimately I think Wave will find some fans within tech-savvy organizations because it could be useful for collaboration and communication in situations where everyone in the company is using it (competing with Yammer), but it won’t gain any significant market penetration compared to email or IM.

Related posts:

Adobe buys Omniture…why?

So as you may have heard, Adobe has bid to purchase Omniture for $1.8B.  For such a steep price tag, you’d expect the synergies to be more obvious.  I’ve heard various reasons for the deal…

  • “We will enable advertisers, media companies and e-tailers to realize the full value of their digital assets” - Shantanu Narayen, chief executive of Adobe
  • “May help offset declining revenues from the company’s Creative Suite of software” - Trip Chowdhry, managing director of equity research at Global Equities Research
  • “The deal will help it “transform” e-commerce by combining its content creation tools with Omniture’s online measurement and optimization technologies to help “increase the value Adobe delivers to customers.”"

To get to a little more detail, one pundit posits:

video developers and agencies will build Adobe Flash creative with Omniture tracking codes implanted from the beginning. This will enable them to track the views and virality of that creative across the web, and perhaps begin to micro-charge for every view, partial view or forward of their content.” – Advertising Age

I’m afraid I don’t get it.  There are already analytics solutions that can be implanted from the beginning, such as Google Analytics, or even Omniture as it is now, so why would they need to buy Omniture to make this happen?  I don’t see HTML coding tools buying up analytics providers…why would the makers of Flash coding tools need to do so?

Not to mention, Omniture’s solutions are extremely expensive, and not accessible to most developers anyway.  Even if you can afford to use Omniture, you then need to hire consultants to set it up for you because it’s a bear to get the reporting you want out of it.  How is this going to help Adobe?

If anyone out there has a clear idea of how this integration would work and what real advantages it would have for Flash developers, please leave a comment.

HP attempts relevance with Dreamscreen, fails

294hp09-main_tab2_tab3_764x220Mashable this morning reports that HP is releasing a digital picture frame called the Dreamscreen.  At first glance this thing looks like a tablet PC or perhaps even an e-reader, each of which would be great, but…it’s really just a big iPod.  Not even an iPod Touch.

The Dreamscreen will show pictures, play music, and show movies, all things that digital picture frames already do.  It will connect to the Internet over your wifi, so you can…no, no web browsing…so you can use Facebook, Snapfish, or check weather reports.  Who doesn’t need another way to get weather reports?

HP boasts that the Dreamscreen has “touch-enabled controls” which fooled Mashable into saying it has a touchscreen, but really this just means the controls are dark and hidden until you touch them, but they’re just regular old buttons.  The lack of a touchscreen means that the virtual keyboard they provide is navigated using their remote control – you have to scroll to each letter you want to type and hit “okay”.  If tiny little phones can have keyboards, why can’t this 10″ tablet?  I am NOT using Facebook with a hunt-and-peck keyboard I control with a remote.

Ultimately, I have no idea why HP would release this thing.  The Dreamscreen just doesn’t fill any gaps in the market.  It isn’t as useful or versatile as a Netbook or tablet PC, and it’s more expensive than a digital picture frame.  The glossy UI is still quite clunky, so the approach of targeting entry level users with ease-of-use isn’t going to work.  It definitely won’t attract many buyers at $249 for the 10″ or $299 for the 13″.

If HP was paying attention to the market, they’d give us a touchscreen wifi device with almost full PC functionality (or at least web browsing and media playback), ideally with an e-reader built in, all for $250.  Many netbooks aren’t far off from this spec already, save the touchscreen.  A product like that would sure scare the Kindle team, but for now they can breathe easy.

I hope the Dreamscreen is just HP’s way to dip its toe in the water and get its manufacturing line set up for a real tablet PC…we shall see.

I love Dropbox

dropbox_logo_homeI admit it, I’m in love.  Joel and Dropbox, sitting in a tree…yadda yadda.  I am in love with Dropbox (getdropbox.com).  If you’re not familiar with it, Dropbox is a little program that lets you sync a folder on your computer with 1) a drive online in the “cloud” and 2) any number of other PCs you own.  You get 2GB of online storage for free, and can pay for more if you want.

With Dropbox, I can plunk files I’m working on into my “My Dropbox” folder, and at the speed of the Internet all my other PCs at home and at work will have that file available.  If I delete it off one, it’s gone from all of them.  If I accidentally delete it (and clear my PC’s Recycle Bin), I can find the file on the web interface.

One of the coolest features I’ve found is the ability to share folders with others.  Here at the office we have a shared Dropbox folder that we can all edit.  If I need a file for a presentation, I just put it on the shared folder and it’s available on the conference room computer or on anyone’s else’s PC in the building.  It’s like having a file server, but much, much easier.

A related program that I’ve been using religiously is Sugarsync.  Sugarsync works in much the same way as Dropbox, but it allows you to sync multiple, existing folders on your PC.  I’ve set it up so I have my “Music”, “Pictures”, “Videos”, and “Documents” folders all sync’ed separately, so I can choose which folders to sync to which PCs – for instance, I don’t need to have all my media on my work PC, so I only sync my Documents folder to it.  If I need a video or picture, I can always download it from the Sugarsync website.  I upgraded my Sugarsync to the 100GB plan so I can sync every file I have to the remote server.  Awesome benefit of doing this – no need to do backups anymore.  I can get my files on any of my PCs, and I don’t have to backup any of them.  Computing nirvana! (Yeah, I’m a geek.)

The only thing I’ve had trouble with on SS is when you delete large numbers of files – SS puts these into a Recycle Bin of their own, and those files contribute to your storage quota.  I once deleted 30GB of files just to move them somewhere else, and I went over my quota because those files were still in the online Recycle Bin.  And, unfortunately, there’s no “Empty Recycle Bin” feature…hopefully they will address this soon.  UPDATE: Sugarsync contacted me after this blog post, and let me know that: “In the desktop client, you can right click on the Deleted Items folder and select Empty Deleted Files.”

So currently I use Dropbox for the small number of files I need to work on all the time or just for transferring files between computers, and Sugarsync for my comprehensive file backup and sync solution, and it’s been working great.  I don’t worry about PCs crashing or accidentally wiping my hard drives anymore.  Let me tell you, it’s a very freeing feeling for those of us paranoid about losing years of our digital history.  Kudos to the product folks at both companies, and I’m sure both will do well.

What syncing or backup solutions have tried?

The real meaning of the Google OS (sans hype)

It’s always fun to see a trailblazing product get announced and then watch the press run around trying to figure out what it is, what it means, and why it’s important.  The latest occasion for this kind of tomfoolery is Google’s announcement yesterday of the Chrome OS.  Here’s my take on it:

What it is

Chrome OS is the Chrome browser plus a version of Linux that is built to run a single application: the Chrome browser.  The “applications” that run on Chrome OS are what we have traditionally thought of as web sites, pages, or services, things like Google, Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, Delicious, or pretty much anything else that starts with http.  These include services like Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets.

What it isn’t

A traditional operating system.  You can’t install Photohop, MS Office, iTunes, Yahoo messenger, AIM, or any other OS-based application you’re used to.  If you want to play MP3s, you’ll have to find a site or service that will do that like Pandora or Orb.  If you want to IM, you’ll need a web-based IM like Meebo.  If you want to edit pictures, you’ll need a web-based photo editor like Aviary’s Phoenix.

What we don’t know

  • It’s unclear if Google will build hooks into Chrome to allow it to manipulate local files.
  • It’s also unclear how much access web applications would have to peripherals.  I don’t know if I can just plug it into an iPod, webcam, or external hard drive and have it work.  Google claims that Chrome apps would run on any standards compliant browser, and that functionality just isn’t part of the current browser model, so I’m guessing these peripherals would not work.

What it means

Chrome OS, at release, will be built primarily for netbooks.  It will let you boot the netbook quickly and browse the web within seconds.  It’s good for people who want access to the web anywhere and aren’t doing heavy-duty computing like hardcore PC games, Photoshop, or even complex Excel spreadhseets or Powerpoint presentations. It definitely isn’t going to be useful as a media center.

A netbook with Chrome OS is what used to be known as a thin client or a Network Computer, but with real graphics capabilities.  It’s meant for mobile computing, and it will only threaten Microsoft’s Windows OS in the ultra-portable netbook space for the foreseeable future.  Windows 7 need not worry.

As for the press’ coverage, it’s largely regurgitations of the Google Press Release with a dash of analysis and a double helping of “maybe it’ll be important…you decide.”  But then…we have TechCrunch, which is getting harder and harder to describe as a “news outlet.”

Today Michael Arrington brags about how he predicted the Google OS in September of ’08, despite the fact that rumors have been flying since at least ’06 admittedly without the “Chrome” moniker.  In his “prescient” article, he claims

Chrome is nothing less than a full on desktop operating system that will compete head on with Windows.

Not true at all.  As Google made clear in their latest announcement, Chrome OS will still require Linux as the traditional OS it runs on top of.  He goes on to grandly pronounce

Expect to see millions of web devices, even desktop web devices, in the coming years that completely strip out the Windows layer and use the browser as the only operating system the user needs.

Firstly, the browser still needs Linux, and let’s not forget our history – the pioneers of computing have been talking about the thin client since 1993 and the similar Network Computer since 1996, both of which follow the same model as the Google OS, so he wasn’t exactly going out on a limb there.  Why he felt the need to brag about his tardy prediction again today, I can’t say.

Certainly there are still questions to be answered about Chrome OS and I don’t think it will be a game changer in the next couple years, but it is a step forward in making mobile computing cheaper and more convenient.  We’ll still need our PC’s with real OS’s to do real work, but this could indeed take a big bite out MS’s dominance in the low-end PC market, particularly when wireless data plans become more affordable.  Of course, don’t expect MS to be silent – they’re working on their own browser-based OS as well.

Update: 3:19pm

By way of Valleywag (bravo VW), I noticed Dave Winer’s summation of the Chrome OS, and he almost gets it right.  He says:

Let’s be dispassionate. Before yesterday’s announcement: 1. Chrome ran on Linux. 2. Linux was an operating system. 3. Linux ran on netbooks.  However, most people want XP on their netbook, not Linux. That was true yesterday and it’s still true today.

I think this is mostly accurate, but I think Google is trying to create a different class of device that is actually different from today’s netbooks and therefore, it isn’t a question of Linux vs. XP.  A Chrome netbook will boot directly to a browser window, and everyone knows how to use a browser, so it avoids the typical Linux geekiness.  The fact that it only runs a browser clearly makes it much less feature rich than XP, but it’s also much faster and cheaper.  Maybe it needs a new name to signify its limited abilities – micro netbook or browserbook or something…but I agree with Dave that calling this an OS is really just a marketing maneuver.

Microsoft finally innovating in the Games space

screenshot1243968273If you haven’t already seen Microsoft’s so-called ‘Project Natal’ in action, check it out here.  The original Xbox and the 360 were essentially me-too products that thrived due to an easy-to-learn development platform and a solid online component, but with Project Natal MS is actually pushing technology, gaming, and even user interface forward.  If the final product works as well as it does in the video (which frankly is a little hard to believe), they’re really on to something.

Kindle 3 – Now THIS I would buy

CollegeHumor.

Kindle will be history within a year

As sick as I am of hearing about the underwhelming Wolfram Alpha, I’m even more sick of hearing about the product-that-shouldn’t-be, Amazon’s Kindle.  This machine is destined to be obsolete within a year, so Amazon should quick-like get back to ecommerce and leave hardware to companies that know something about it.

Here’s my problem with the Kindle: when I look at it, I think “that’d be cool if I could also browse the web on it, watch movies on it, play music on it, or use it as a digital picture frame,” but despite it being essentially a small computer, it won’t do any of those things.  A netbook can do all of these things, and it costs less.  

For a few laughs, let’s look at Amazon’s pitch for their latest model, the Kindle DX:

  • Holds up to 3,500 books, periodicals, and documents - Amazon downplays the fact that this is only 4GB of storage, a pathetic number for any modern netbook.
  • Beautiful Large Display: 9.7″ diagonal e-ink screen reads like real paper; boasts 16 shades of gray for clear text and sharp images – Are you kidding me?  16 shades of gray?  Sure, that’s better than the Newton, but this isn’t 1992, guys.  Any modern netbook offers 32 bit color, giving millions of colors.  If I want to read a text book or a blog post on my Kindle DX, you better believe I want color.
  • Auto-Rotating Screen: Display auto-rotates from portrait to landscape as you turn the device so you can view full-width maps, graphs, tables, and Web pages – We’re only down to the third bullet point, and this is the best you can do?  This is truly trivial, and easy to do on a netbook
  • Built-In PDF Reader: Native PDF support allows you to carry and read all of your personal and professional documents on the go – PDF readers are free to download on any PC.  Just because this is better than the original Kindle doesn’t make it cool.
  • Wireless: 3G wireless lets you download books right from your Kindle DX, anytime, anywhere; no monthly fees, no annual contracts, and no hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots – if you really need to download a book while you’re outside of wi-fi range, apparently this is the device for you.  If you don’t have a Kindle, just download the book to your smartphone, then transfer it to your PC.  
  • Books In Under 60 Seconds: You get free wireless delivery of books in less than 60 seconds; no PC required – You can also download an ebook to your netbook in less than 60 seconds, no Kindle required.  Fail.
  • Long Battery Life: Read for days without recharging – Who reads for more than a couple hours at a time, anyway?  Non-problem solved.
  • Read-to-Me: With the text-to-speech feature, Kindle DX can read newspapers, magazines, blogs, and books out loud to you, unless the book’s rights holder made the feature unavailable – Now you can have A Brief History of Time read to you in the author’s own voice.  Awesome! 
  • Big Selection, Low Prices: Over 275,000 books; New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases are only $9.99, unless marked otherwise – This has nothing to do with the device and will surely be available on any PC very soon.
  • More Than Books: U.S. and international newspapers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, magazines including The New Yorker and Time, plus popular blogs, all auto-delivered wirelessly – Again, I have a PC and a cool new thing called a “web browser” for this. 
The only things that make the Kindle superior to a PC for the purpose of reading are:
  • It’s lightweight with a super-compact form factor
  • Um…that’s about it.  I guess this isn’t much of a bulleted list.

And Amazon wants $489 for this piece of…technology.  For that kind of money I can almost get two netbooks, each of which have 9″ full color screens, 1GB RAM, 160GB hard drive, built-in webcams and mics, wifi, memory card slots, 3 USB ports,  and weigh in at 2.5 lbs (2 times the weight of the Kindle DX.)  With the Kindle, I can read an ebook.  With two netbooks, my wife and I could video conference with the in-laws, watch movies (chick flick for her, dude flick for me), organize our photos, play online games against each other, or…we could read ebooks.  Where to spend the money is pretty obvious to me.

 

Asus Eee Top PC with 15 touchscreen

Asus Eee Top PC with 15" touchscreen

So, I’m calling it: within one year, someone else will have an ebook platform that will be far more robust and versatile, and it will be cheaper, and Amazon will exit the game to focus on selling ebooks.  Perhaps the Kindle-killer will be Apple’s rumored iPad, perhaps Microsoft will get their Tablet PC act together, or perhaps Asus will mate their Eee PC with their Top PC to create a Kindle-beating love child.  I don’t know who’s going to do it, but the PC industry is going to put the Kindle out of our misery, and the sooner the better.  

Tivo: Add an App Store NOW

Sorry for the hiatus, kids.  It’s been a wild ride the past year or so as I’ve changed jobs, gotten married, and bought an iPhone, but I’ll get back to those topics later.

Today I want to reach out to Tivo, the makers of one of my favorite devices, and ask them to please, please open an app store.  I don’t ask this only for myself, but also for the sake of the Tivo Company, as I believe an app store could save it from the subscriber stagnation and lackluster financial performance that have plagued it lately.  Here are just a few of the wins they could realize:

 

  • No other major DVR offers an app store, so it’s a perfect time to break new ground and put even more ground between themselves and other hardware-based DVRs.  We’ve seen what app stores have done for other platforms like Facebook and iPhone.
  • Newer software-based DVRs and media centers are catching up to your functionality, so let third-party developers help you stay ahead of the game.  If you give them a compelling revenue model, they will innovate and keep your device on the cutting edge, so you don’t have to.
  • As a DVR that is offered on a standard hardware platform, it should be relatively easy to give developers kits that will let them leverage the hardware.  The PC software-based media centers can’t compete on this because they need to accomodate a plethora of hardware types that users could have.
  • In the Tivo, owners already have a functioning computer sitting right there plugged into our TVs, so let third-party developers help us take advantage of its full pontential. 
If Tivo enabled such an app store, it wouldn’t be long before they would absolutely own the living room.  Here are some things I’d like to see my Tivo do…can you think of more?  
  • Stream my live and recorded shows so I can see them on other PCs or devices that aren’t connected to a Tivo (who needs a Slingobox?)
  • Email
  • Web browsing
  • Instant messaging
  • “Widgets” similar to the Yahoo/Samsung offering that could offer sports scores, stock quotes, etc.
  • More robust ways to show my media hosted on other devices on my Tivo (current Tivo methods are kludgy)
  • And of course…games
Now that’s something I’d pay for, and considering Tivo already bills me monthly, it’d be easy to add a few charges onto the bill for all those extra features I ordered.  So how about it, Tivo?