April 12, 2012

imageIn a recent Switched On column about the iPad, I talked about how Apple can lavish “a level of favoritism that Google and Microsoft can never have for any given device running its licensed software.” Keeping the software consistent has been one of the hallmark’s of Apple’s iOS device appeal, but there is also something to be said about keeping the industrial design relatively consistent as Apple has done between the iPhone 4 and 4S and now between the iPad 2 and third-generation iPad. I don’t expect that this will be the last form factor revision for either device although Apple has stayed very faithful to the current designs of the iMac and Mac Pro line for years.

Particularly for these mobile products, keeping a consistent form factor amplifies the advantage that Apple has versus competitors in the accessory-rich tablet and smartphone markets. Obviously, every case-maker breathed a sigh of relief when it saw the dimensions of the latest iPhone and iPad did not stray from the previous generation. But there are also a large number of keyboard clamshells, stands, mounts, clips, docks and all manner of other accessories. By preserving continuity across iDevice generations, Apple may forfeit some excitement that comes at the differentiated shape of a new thing, but it gains in preserving the consistency of the platform (in the broadest sense) with a device that hits the ground running in a ready-made accessory ecosystem, one where the hardware may even be optimized ahead of the third-party software.

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March 23, 2012

Clearly, a $120 keyboard add-on for RIM’s PlayBook won’t be enough to immediately reverse the fortunes of RIM’s tablet, a product that now bears the burden of carrying RIM from the glory days of the BlackBerry 7 legacy to its future of BlackBerry 10.

Indeed, the peripheral, at best, brings the PlayBook closer to par with integrated keyboard offerings designed for products such as the iPad and ASUS Transformer line. Nonetheless, the PlayBook keyboard in its neat little netbookesque shell, should appeal to RIM’s core; many of these folks are QWERTY junkies. It always struck me as a serious omission that RIM did not provide a keyboard companion for the PlayBook. Of course, its 7” display creates design challenges in terms of making an effective input device that matches the width of the device.

But in case you were hoping that RIM had shifted its marketing focus away from the enterprise, a decision that led to shipping the device with the consumer-unfriendly first version of BlackBerry Bridge, there’s little to report. The video showing off the accessory demonstrates… Citrix client.. It’s not even clear from the video if the keyboard works with the kind of native Playbook apps that RIM is so ardently seeking to woo, much less RIM’s own, recently upgraded Docs to Go suite that is a nice differentiator for the device.

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November 28, 2011

Earlier this month at CNET, Jay Greene wrote a wonderful two-part story about how Microsoft killed the Courier project. Arguably the most fascinating paragraph describes a meeting in which Bill Gates, judging the device’s prospects, questions its champion J Allard about Courier’s e-mail capabilities:

“At one point during that meeting in early 2010 at Gates’ waterfront offices in Kirkland, Wash., Gates asked Allard how users get e-mail. Allard, Microsoft’s executive hipster charged with keeping tabs on computing trends, told Gates his team wasn’t trying to build another e-mail experience. He reasoned that everyone who had a Courier would also have a smartphone for quick e-mail writing and retrieval and a PC for more detailed exchanges. Courier users could get e-mail from the Web, Allard said, according to sources familiar with the meeting.”

The article then describes how Gates had “an allergic reaction” to the idea that the Courier would not be able to tap into Microsoft’s Exchange franchise. And while linking the death of Courier directly to its inability to handle e-mail (ironic given the product’s name), is likely an oversimplification, it is also a bit difficult to swallow that it could have even been an accessory to the murder.

Now, I somewhat sympathize with the idea that the world does not need another way to get e-mail. But to quote the Seth Meyers Weekend Update catchphrase, “Really?” From the leaked videos of Courier, e-mail did not seem like such an outlandish thing to have in the product. Surely the team could have thought of a way to “Courierize” an e-mail experience, perhaps by filtering messages relating to a specific creative project.

If Courier was killed to provide a clear path for Windows 8 tablets, then it was axed for the wrong reason, but ultimately it was probably best that it was not pursued. As engaging as Courier appeared to be, I always wondered about the size of its addressable market. We may yet get a taste of that, though, and at a much lower price than what Courier would have cost, as the Kickstarter-funded engineers behind Taposé bring their app to the iPad.

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November 6, 2011

imageThe Magic 8 Ball (or its gaudy iOS app) may not be as high-tech as Siri, but if the toy were to respond honestly to the question of whether Barnes & Noble will reveal an upgraded version of the Nook Color tomorrow, it would indicate “Signs point to yes.”

The announcement comes not long after Amazon has created a lot of excitement around the Kindle Fire, which has been anointed this holiday season’s #2 tablet behind the iPad before it has even been released. For all the Kindle Fire enthusiasm, though, there’s little that the e-tailer has created with that product that Barnes & Noble would not be able to answer. The Instant Video that Amazon throws in with a Prime subscription, for example, could be countered by a partnership with again Qwikster-less Netflix.

The main exception, though, is in the app selection; this would be magnified as Barnes & Noble stepped up its tablet branding efforts. Neither bookseller can match the breadth of apps offered by Google’s Android Market. Amazon, however, has chosen to offer standard Android apps via its own store whereas Barnes & Noble has chosen to launch its own developer program, resulting in a small collection of optimized Nook apps..

The Nook, though seems to be traveling down the same path that defined how the iPod developed – from fixed-function media consumption device to limited media platform to broad convergence device with the iPod touch. To best compete with the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble would have to greatly accelerate its developer program, and even then it would be far behind. There are no other viable third-party Android app stores that come close to even Amazon’s limited selection at this point.

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June 9, 2011

One sign that an ecosystem has momentum is when products from separate companies serendipitously complement each other. Such has been the case for the iPad this month. Today, on Les Paul’s birthday, Avid announced Scorch, a companion product to its Sibelius suite of music notation products for the PC. Scorch can perform such handy tasks as transposing or editing music or showing the fingering of a section on a piano keyboard.

Since the app reads and edits Sibelius files, full resolution is preserved regardless of the resolution, and Avid claims that zooming in and out is as smooth as jazz. The app also includes a sheet music store with hundreds of thousands of downloadable scores, many of them free. A few features I’d like to see would include conversion of PDFs into editable scores, and being able to simplify scores for leaning songs. (The app can already adjust tempos as a learning aid.)

The app is debuting at $4.99, but will eventually go up to $7.99. It also has a Music Stand mode that presents sheet music with minimal distractions for performances. Now, if only there were an easy way for performers with something a bit more portable than a piano to take the iPad on stage with you.

imageWell, what do you know? There is! Earlier this month, IK Multimedia started shipping the iKlip, which allows you to attach your iPad or iPad 2 to a microphone stand, where it can be a complement to the company’s iRig microphone. iKlip is $39.99 direct and can work with an iPad or iPad 2, although some adapters are required for the latter and could cost extra depending on when you bought it..

What I really like about both these products is that they really show off the advantages of the iPad form factor. The iPad’s sleek profile makes it almost perfect for use on a piano, for example (although a larger screen would be helpful for scores).

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April 27, 2011

Most of the reviews of the BlackBerry PlayBook remind me a lot of the first reviews of Motorola Xoom. “It’s no iPad.” Yes, we know, and so do RIM and Motorola and Google. You don’t need to turn on either device to know there would be a significant app and feature gap deficiency versus Apple’s pioneering slate that has since had a year to mature. Yes, the PlayBook lacks e-mail and calendaring for the moment. Oh, by the way, the Xoom and PlayBook both multitask out of the box. Did the first iPad? No, buyers had to wait half a year for that feature.

But the PlayBook is far more significant for RIM than the Xoom was for Google. Honeycomb is a major new release of Android, no doubt. But while the user experience of Android had room to improve (and still does), it didn’t have nearly as far to go to become a satisfying user experience as the BlackBerry OS does. That’s more on the scale of the leap that Microsoft took from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone 7.

And, based on that burden, it seems that RIM has nailed the basics, taking some of the UI concepts in BlackBerry 6 and making refining them while adding the visual thumbnails from webOS. The user experience of the BlackBerry Tablet OS (OK, still some refining left to do on the naming) is as slick, simple, responsive and engaging as anything on the market. Bezel gestures strike me as far more intuitive than webOS’s gesture bar. And despite RIM’s decision to go with the BlackBerry Bridge option before developing native PIM apps, the OS itself is more feature-complete than, say, the first version of Windows Phone 7.

I’m not sure how well it will all translate to handsets, but it is exactly what the BlackBerry needs to stem the tide of its user exodus. If RIM can execute on that fusion, it is back in the game.

RIM’s also done a solid job with the PlayBook hardware. I prefer the vertical orientation of the iPad and Galaxy Tab, and (of course) Nook. The PlayBook, though – and most of the bigger Android tablets — seem to be going for a horizontal orientation by default. Of course, this is more of a curiosity than anything else. Yes, the on button is a little hard to press, but even with the paucity of apps, RIM has the best 7” tablet on the market right now.

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March 19, 2011

imageMy Switched On column discussing the potential benefits of Microsoft using Windows for tablets garnered over a whopping 1.100 comments. many of which were positive. As I noted in the column, though, Microsoft still has a lot to prove in basing its tablet strategy on Windows as opposed to the currently more touch-friendly if feature-strapped Windows Phone OS.

Following a tweet in which I groused about the still unsatisfying state of driver update management on Windows, that challenge became a topic of conversation on Twitter a few days ago when the question was posed as to whether Microsoft needed to have an app store – like Apple, Google, or itself on Windows Phone – in order to compete in the tablet market. If so, the app store would presumably also be available to the next version of Windows. This leads to a number of hypotheticals. Would Microsoft include an app store in desktop Windows even if it were using Windows Phone for tablets? And is an app store even necessarily for tablets?

My answer to the latter is that it is, at least to be competitive with Apple and Google, and it’s a good idea regardless. for desktop Windows, which is under seige not be any particular operating system (OS/2, Linux) as in the past, but the idea of OS insignificance, a battle that Apple is also trying to fight via its app stores both on the Mac and iOS.

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December 13, 2010

In my recent two-part column about the forthcoming Kno tablet – as well as the follow-up regarding the Acer Iconia, I mentioned the heft of dealing with a single 14” tablet, expressing concerns about how potentially awkward it might be for two. Kno, however, noted that members of its preview beta program were more than twice as likely to say that they wanted the dual-screen version of the Kno tablet versus the single-screen version

Kno recently followed up to let me know that, according to its pre-sales data, customers are choosing the larger, heavier Kno versus the single-screened version by a 2.5 to 1 ratio. I suppose it’s not too surprising given that these are the earliest of Kno’s early adopters, and most likely to embrace the more expensive, richest experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them already have an iPad as a lighter alternative.

Of course, that will change over time. The larger (or is that smaller?) point expressed in the column still holds true, though. Kno will be operating in a world of tablets of many different screen sizes. If the company follows its stated model for success as a software play, there will likely be a lot more Kno’ing going on on smaller screens barring dramatic display advances.

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December 12, 2010

Since the iPad was released, there’s been much excitement about add-on keyboards using either Bluetooth or its dock connector. (So far, only Apple’s Keyboard Dock has taken the latter approach, and it’s not a particularly travel-friendly item.) The iPad helped inspire me to write an ode to to the old Stowaway keyboard originally developed by ThinkOutside.

So far, variations of most keyboard-case combos have met with pretty poor reviews due to the mushiness and membrane-like quality of the keyboard. The ZAGGmate, though, offers individual keys. They would also be mushy enough to earn the ire of any reviewer if they were on a notebook, but they’re an improvement over most of what’s out there as well as, of course, the existing screen-based keyboard . While I’ve seen some people sail along on its smooth surface, I find myself making at least as many errors as I do on the iPhone’s keyboard. Perhaps that is due to less frequent use.

The ZAGGmate allows the iPad can be stored  inside its aluminum housing to protect the screen. However, this leaves the back of the device unprotected. ZAGG, of course, will be happy to sell you an Invisible Shield to fix that problem, but you can also throw the combination in a standard 8” netbook slipcase for further protection. The makers of the ClamCase have updated their site to note that its product will be shipping soon. At least until then, though, the ZAGGmate is a great companion for the iPad, which I have taken to use at conferences due to its long battery life and variety of note-taking applications.

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