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Tag: Android

Thoughts from Google I/O

Better late than never, but a few weeks ago, I got the chance to attend Google I/O — this time, not just as a fan of the Android platform but representing a developer. Below are some of my key takeaways from the event

  • Google‘s strategic direction – there were three big themes that were emphasized
    • Next Billion – a lot of what Google is doing (like making Google Maps / YouTube work without internet) is around making Chrome/Android/Google Search the platforms of choice for the next billion mobile users — many of whom will come from Brazil, India, China, Indonesia, etc. Its important for us to remember the US/Western Europe is not the totality of the world and that there’s a big chance that future major innovations and platform will come from elsewhere in the world.
    • Machine Learning – I was blown away (and a little creeped out!) by the machine learning tech they showed: Google Now on Tap (you can hold the home button and Android will figure out what’s on your screen/what you’re listening to and give you relevant info), the incredible photo recognition tech in the new Photos app (which you should all try! unlimited storage!), innovations Android is making in unlocking your phone when it knows its been in your pocket and not your desk. Every company should be thinking up where machine intelligence can be used to enhance their products.
    • Everything Connected – it reminded me of Microsoft’s heyday: except instead of Windows everywhere, its now Android/Chrome everywhere: Android Wear, Chromecast, Android TV, Android Auto, Brillo/Weave, Cardboard for VR, Nest/Dropcam for the home, things like Jacquard & Soli enabling new user interfaces, etc.
  • Marketing enhancements to Google Play: Google has taken steps to make application developers’ lives easier — more details here: http://android-developers.blogspot.com/2015/05/empowering-successful-global-businesses.html, but:
    • I sat through a panel on how Google does personalized recommendations / search on Google Play — long story short: keywords + ratings matter
    • Google will now allow A/B testing of Google Play store listings
    • Google Play console now directly integrates App Install advertising so you can run campaigns on Google Search, AdMob, and YouTube
    • Google Play console will also track how users get to Play Store listing by channel and how many convert to install
  • Android M – a lot of tweaks to the core Android app model for developers to pay attention to
    • Permissions: Android M moves to a very iOS-like model where app permissions aren’t granted when you install the app but when the app first uses them; they’ve also moved to a model where users can go into settings and manually revoke previously granted permissions; all Android developers will need to eventually think about how their apps will work if certain permissions are denied (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/features/runtime-permissions.html)
    • App Links: Android will now let apps handle all links on websites they control by default (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/features/app-linking.html)
    • Doze and App Standby: Applications will now have two additional modes that the OS may enforce — one called Doze that keeps all apps in sleep mode to reduce power drain and Standby where the OS determines an app is “idle” and cuts off network access, syncs, and jobs — apps in both modes can still receive “high priority notifications” (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/behavior-changes.html under Power-Saving Optimizations)
    • Auto Backup: Applications will now backup up to 25MB worth of data to the user’s Google Drive (but won’t count against their quota) once every 24 hours; this can be customized (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/backup/index.html)
    • Fingerprint API, Direct Share, and Voice Interactions: universal fingerprint rec API + ability to share specific content with specific favorite users (i.e. send to someone over Facebook Messenger, etc) + new way to build voice interactions in app (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/api-overview.html, starting from Authentication)
  • Other stuff for developers
    • App InvitesGoogle has built out custom share cards / install flows and deep links to make it easier for users to share apps with their friends: http://googledevelopers.blogspot.com/2015/05/grow-your-app-installs-with-app-invites.html
    • Android Design Library: Google now has libraries to help devs build out Material Design elements — now, you too, can make your own Floating Action Button!: http://android-developers.blogspot.com/2015/05/android-design-support-library.html
    • Chrome Custom Tabs: basically lets you embed Chrome in your app with custom styling (rather than having to embed a vanilla webview and do a lot of work styling it), its apparently already out in beta channels for Chrome: https://developer.chrome.com/multidevice/android/customtabs
    • Google Cloud Testing Lab: This was pretty cool (and a product of Google’s acquisition of Appurify). Now, Google will provide two highly useful testing services for Android developers: (more details: https://developers.google.com/cloud-test-lab/)
      • For free/automatically: pound on every button / interface on your app that they can see after launch for 1 min and see how many crashes they can get on a variety of Android devices (which helps given the sheer number of them that exist)
      • Paid: run custom Espresso or Robotium tests on specific devices (so you can get test coverage on a broader range of devices doing a specific set of things)
    • Places API: a lot of talks promoting their new mobile Places APIs (which will let iOS and Android apps have better mapping and place search capability)
    • Google Cloud Messaging: this is basically Google’s push notification delivery engine and they announced support for iOS as well as “Topics” (so devices don’t have to get every notification, just the ones relevant to them): http://android-developers.blogspot.com/2015/05/a-closer-look-at-googleplay-services-75.html
    • Espresso testing framework: this was a ridiculously packed session — but Google has apparently made numerous refinements to the Espresso UI testing framework
  • A lot of cool announcements about new Android Wear functionality (which my Moto 360 is eagerly awaiting)
  • Just cool shit from ATAP
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A Week with the Moto 360

Its hard for a device to get noticed in a world where new phones and tablets and smartwatches seem to come out every day. But one device unveiled back in March did for me: Motorola’s new smartwatch, the Moto 360 (see Motorola marketing video below).

So, being a true Fandroid, I bought a Moto 360 (clarification: my wonderful wife woke up at an unseemly hour and bought one for each of us) and have been using it for about a week — my take?

While there’s a lot of room for improvement, I like it.

  • This is by far the best looking smartwatch out there. Given how important appearance is for a watch, this is by far the most important positive that can be said of the Moto 360 — it just looks good. I was a little worried that the marketing materials wouldn’t accurately represent reality, but that fear turned out to be unfounded. The device not only looks nice up close, especially since its round design just looks so much better than pretty much every other smartwatch’s blocky rectangular designs, it also feels good: stainless steel body, a solid-feeling glass surface, and a very nice-feeling leather strap.
  • The battery life is nothing to brag about but will last you a full day. The key here is that the watch display can be used in two modes: (1) where the display is always on (and, from what I’ve read, will get something like 12 hours of battery life which won’t last you a whole day) and (2) where the display only turns on when you’ve triggered it which, in my experience, will get you something more like 20 hours of battery life — enough to get through a typical day. Obviously, I use (2) and what makes this possible is that turning on the screen is quite easy: you can do it by tapping on the touch-sensitive screen, by pushing the side button, or (although this only works 80% of the time) by moving your arm to be in a position where you can look at it. Now, I’d love a watch that could last at least months with the screen on before needing a charge but since I’m already charging my phone every night and since the wireless charging dock makes it easy to charge the device, this is an annoyance but hardly a dealbreaker.
  • The out-of-the-box experience needs some work. While the packaging is beautiful and fits well with how nice the watch itself looks, the Moto 360 unfortunately ships needing to be charged up to 80% before it can be used. Unfortunately this is not clear anywhere on the packaging or in the Android Wear smartphone app that you’re supposed to use to pair with the device or on the watch display so let me be explicit: if you buy the Moto 360, charge the device up before you download the Android Wear app or try to use it. Otherwise, nothing will happen — something which very much freaked out yours truly when I thought I had gotten a defective unit. Also, while I haven’t heard about this from anyone else, the Moto Connect app that Motorola wanted me to install also failed to provision an account for me correctly, leaving me unable to customize the finer details on the watchface designs that come with the watch. Not the end of the world, but definitely a set of problems a company like Motorola shouldn’t be facing.
  • I’m not sure the pedometer or heart rate sensor are super-accurate, but they’ve pretty much killed any need/desire on my part for a fitness wearable. The fitness functionality on the watch isn’t anything to write home about (its a simple step counter and heart rate sensor with basic history and heart-rate goal tracking). I’m also not entirely convinced that the heart rate sensor or the pedometer are particularly accurate (although its not like the competition is that great either), but their availability on a device I’m always going to be wearing because of its other functionality may pose a serious risk to fitness wearable companies which only do step tracking or heart rate detection.
  • Voice recognition is still not quite where it needs to be for me to make heavier use of the voice commands functionality.
  • The software doesn’t do a ton but that’s the way it should be. When I first started using Android Wear, I was a little bummed that it didn’t seem to have a ton of functionality: I couldn’t play games on it or browse maps or edit photos (or send my heartbeat or a random doodle to a random person…). But, after a day or two of wearing the device to social gatherings, I came to realize you really don’t want to do everything on your watch. Complicated tasks should be done on your phone or tablet or PC. They not only have larger screens but they are used in social contexts where that type of activity makes sense. Spending your time trying to do something on your smartwatch looks far more awkward (and probably looks far more rude) than doing the same thing on your phone or other device. Instead, I’ve come to rely on the Moto 360 as a way of supplementing my phone by letting me know (by vibrating and quickly lighting up the screen) about incoming notifications (like from an email or text or Facebook message), new alerts from Google Now (like access to the local weather or finding out about sudden traffic on the road to/from work), and by letting me deal with notifications the way I would if they were on my phone (like the ability to play and pause music or a podcast, or the ability to reply using voice commands to an email or text). This helps me be more present in social settings as I feel much less anxiety around needing to constantly check my phone for new updates (something I’ve been suffering from ever since my Crackberry days)
  • Android Wear’s approach makes it easy to claim support for many apps (simply by supporting notifications), but there needs to be more interesting apps and watchfaces for the platform to truly get mainstream appeal

All in all, I think the Moto 360 is hands down, the best smartwatch available right now (I’ll reserve my judgement when I get a chance to play with the Apple Watch). Its a great indicator of what Google’s Android Wear platform can achieve when done well and I’ve found its meaningfully changed how I’ve used my phone and eliminated my use of other fitness tracking devices. That being said, there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement: on battery life (especially in a world where the Pebble smartwatch can achieve nearly a week of battery life between charges), on voice recognition accuracy, on out-of-the-box setup experience, and on getting more apps and watchfaces on board. So, if you’re an early adopter type who’s comfortable with some of these rough edges and with waiting to see what apps/watchfaces come out and who is interested in some of the software value I described, this would be a great purchase. If not, you may want to wait for the hardware and software to improve another iteration or two before diving in.

I think the industry still needs a good answer to the average person around “why should I buy a smartwatch?” But, in any event, I’ll be very curious to see how this space evolves as more smartwatches come to market and especially how they change people’s relationships with their other devices.

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Android Bluetooth (Smart) Blues

Readers of this blog will know that I’m a devout Fandroid, and the past few years of watching Android rise in market share across all segments and geographies and watching the platform go from curiosity for nerds and less-well-off individuals to must-support platform has been very gratifying to see.

Yet despite all that, there is one prominent area in which I find iOS so much better in that even I – a proud Fandroid venture capitalist – have been forced to encourage startups I meet with and work with to develop iOS-first: support for Bluetooth Smart.

LogoBluetoothSmart

In a nutshell, Bluetooth Smart (previously known as Bluetooth Low Energy) is a new kind of wireless technology which lets electronics connect wirelessly to phones, tablets, and computers. As its previous name suggests, the focus is on very low power usage which will let new devices like smart watches and fitness devices and low power sensors go longer without needing to dock or swap batteries – something that I – as a tech geek — am very interested in seeing get built and I – as a venture capitalist — am excited to help fund.

While Bluetooth Smart has made it much easier for new companies to build new connected hardware to the market, the technology needs device endpoints to support it. And therein lies the problem. Apple added support for Bluetooth Smart in the iPhone 4S and 5 – meaning that two generations of iOS products support this new technology. Google, however, has yet to add any such support to the Android operating system – leaving Bluetooth Smart support on the Android side to be shoddy and highly fragmented despite many Android devices possessing the hardware necessary to support it.

To be fair, part of this is probably due to the differences in how Apple and Google approached Bluetooth. While Android has fantastic support for Bluetooth 4.0 (what is called “Bluetooth Classic”) and has done a great job of making that open and easy to access for hardware makers, Apple made it much more difficult for hardware makers to do novel things with Bluetooth 4.0 (requiring an expensive and time-consuming MFi license – two things which will trip up any startup). Possibly in response to complaints about that, Apple had the vision to make their Bluetooth Smart implementation much more startup-friendly and, given the advantages of using Bluetooth Smart over Bluetooth Classic, many startups have opted to go in that direction.

The result is that for many new connected hardware startups I meet, the only sensible course of action for them is to build for iOS first, or else face the crippling need to either support Android devices one at a time (due to the immaturity and fragmentation in Bluetooth Smart support) or get an MFi license and work with technology that is not as well suited for low power applications. Consequently, I am forced to watch my chosen ecosystem become a second-class citizen for a very exciting new class of startups and products.

I’m hoping that at Google I/O this year (something I thankfully snagged a ticket for :-)), in addition to exciting announcements of new devices and services and software, Google will make time to announce support for Bluetooth Smart in the Android operating system and help this Fandroid VC not have to tell the startups he meets to build iOS-first.

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Where do the devices fit?

About a month ago, I got Google’s new Nexus 7 tablet, and have been quite happy with the purchase (not that surprising given my self-proclaimed “Fandroid” status). Android’s Jelly Bean update works remarkably well and the Nexus 7 is wonderfully light and fast.

However, with the purchase of the Nexus 7, this brought the total number of “smart internet connected devices I own and use” to a total of 6:

  • Samsung Galaxy Nexus Verizon edition (4.65” Android phone)
  • a Nexus 7 (7” Android tablet)
  • a Motorola Xoom (10” Android tablet)
  • Chromebook (12” ChromeOS notebook)
  • Thinkpad T4o0 for personal use and a Thinkpad T410 for work (both 14” Windows 7 laptops)

nexus-devicesBeyond demonstrating my unreasonable willingness to spend money on newfangled gadgets (especially when Google puts its brand on them), owning these devices has been an interesting natural experiment to see just what use cases each device category is best suited for. After all, independent of the operating system you choose, there’s quite a bit of overlap between a 10” tablet and the Chromebook/laptop, between the 7” tablet and the 10” tablet, and between the 7” tablet and the 4.65” phone. Would one device supplant the others? Would they coexist? Would some coexist and others fall by the wayside?

Well, after about a month of adding a 5th device to the mix, I can say:

  • I wound up using all the devices, albeit for different things. This was actually quite a surprise to me. Before I bought the Nexus 7, I figured that I would end up either completely replacing the Xoom or find that I couldn’t do without the larger screen. But, I found the opposite happening – that the Nexus 7 took over for some things and the Xoom for others. What things?
    • Smartphone: The smartphone has really become my GPS and on-the-go music listening, photo taking, and quick reading device. Its small size means it fits in my pocket and goes everywhere I go, but its small screen size means I tend to prefer using other devices if they’re around. Because it’s everywhere I go, it’s the most logical device to turn to for picture-taking (despite the Galaxy Nexus’s lackluster camera), GPS-related functionality (checking in, finding directions, etc) and when I want/need to quickly read something (like work email) or listen to music/podcast in the car.
    • 7” tablet: I’ve really taken to the Nexus 7 form factor – and it’s become my go-to-device for reading and YouTube watching. The device is extremely light and small enough to fit in one hand, making it perfect for reading in bed or in a chair (unlike its heavier 10” and laptop-form-factor cousins). The screen is also large enough that watching short-form videos on it makes sense. It is, however, too big to be as mobile as a smartphone (and lacks cellular connectivity, making it useless if there is no WiFi network nearby).
    • 10” tablet: Because of the screen size and its heft, my 10” Motorola Xoom has really become my go-to-device for movie watching, game playing, and bringing to meetings. While the smaller 7” form factor is fine for short-form videos like the ones you’d see on YouTube, it is much too small to get the visual impact you want while watching a movie or playing a game. The larger screen size also gives you more room to play with while taking notes in a meeting, something the smaller screen size only makes possible if you like squinting at small font. It is, however, at least to this blogger, too big and too heavy, to make a great casual reading device, especially when lying in bed 🙂
    • 12” Chromebook: What does a Chromebook have that its smaller tablet cousins don’t? Three things: a keyboard, a mouse, and a full PC flavor of Chrome. The result is that in situations where I want to use Flash-based websites (i.e. the free version of Hulu, Amazon Videos, many restaurant/artist websites, etc) or play Flash-based games (i.e. most Facebook games) or access sophisticated web apps which aren’t touch-driven (i.e. WordPress, posting to Tumblr) or which don’t have full functioned apps attached (i.e. Google Drive/Docs), I turn to the Chromebook.
    • 14” Laptop: So where does my 14” laptop fit (and how could I possibly have enough room in my digital life that I’m actively researching options for my next Thinkpad machine)? Simple: it’s for everything else. I track my finances in Excel, make my corporate presentations in PowerPoint, do my taxes in Turbo Tax, compose blog posts on Windows Live Writer, program/develop on text editors and IDEs, write long emails, edit photos and movies… these are all things which are currently impossible or inconveniently hard to do on devices which don’t have the same screen size, keyboard/mouse caliber, operating system, and processing hardware as modern PCs. And, while the use of new devices has exploded as their cost and performance get better, the simple truth is power users will have a reason to have a “real PC” for at least several more years.
  • Applications/services which sync across devices are a godsend. While I’ve posted before about the power of web-based applications, you really learn to appreciate the fact that web applications & services store their information to a central repository in the cloud when you are trying to access the same work on multiple devices. That, combined with Google Chrome not only working on every device I have, but also actively syncing passwords and browser history between devices and showing the open browser tabs I have on other systems, makes owning and using multiple devices a heckuva lot easier.

How do you use the different devices you own? Has any of that usage segmentation surprised you?

(Image credit – GetAndroidStuff.com)

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No Digital Skyscrapers

A colleague of mine shared an interesting article by Sarah Lacy from tech site Pando Daily about the power of technology building the next set of “digital skyscrapers” – Lacy’s term for enduring, 100-year brands in/made possible by technology. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly agree with one of the big takeaways Lacy wants the reader to walk away with: that more entrepreneurs need to strive to make a big impact on the world and not settle for quick-and-easy payouts. That is, after all, why venture capitalists exist: to fund transformative ideas.

But, the premise of the article that I fundamentally disagreed with – and in fact, the very reason I’m interested in technology is that the ability to make transformative ideas means that I don’t think its possible to make “100-year digital skyscrapers”.

In fact, I genuinely hope its not possible. Frankly, if I felt it were, I wouldn’t be in technology, and certainly not in venture capital. To me, technology is exciting and disruptive because you can’t create long-standing skyscrapers. Sure, IBM and Intel have been around a while — but what they as companies do, what their brands mean, and their relative positions in the industry have radically changed. I just don’t believe the products we will care about or the companies we think are shaping the future ten years from now will be the same as the ones we are talking about today, nor were they the ones we talked about ten years ago, and they won’t be the same as the ones we talk about twenty years from now. I’ve done the 10 year comparison before to illustrate the rapid pace of Moore’s Law, but just to be illustrative again: remember, 10 years ago:

  • the iPhone (and Android) did not exist
  • Facebook did not exist (Zuckerberg had just started at Harvard)
  • Amazon had yet to make a single cent of profit
  • Intel thought Itanium was its future (something its basically given up on now)
  • Yahoo had just launched a dialup internet service (seriously)
  • The Human Genome Project had yet to be completed
  • Illumina (posterchild for next-generation DNA sequencing today) had just launched its first system product

And, you know what, I bet 10 years from now, I’ll be able to make a similar list. Technology is a brutal industry and it succeeds by continuously making itself obsolete. It’s why its exciting, and it’s why I don’t think and, in fact, I hope that no long-lasting digital skyscrapers emerge.

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My Takeaways from GTC 2012

If you’ve ever taken a quick look at the Bench Press blog that I post to, you’ll notice quite a few posts that talk about the promise of using graphics chips (GPUs) like the kind NVIDIA and AMD make for gamers for scientific research and high-performance computing. Well, last Wednesday, I had a chance to enter the Mecca of GPU computing: the GPU Technology Conference.

tmp_image_1337198959501

If it sounds super geeky, it’s because it is :-). But, in all seriousness, it was a great opportunity to see what researchers and interesting companies were doing with the huge amount of computational power that is embedded inside GPUs as well as see some of NVIDIA’s latest and greatest technology demo’s.

So, without further ado, here are some of my reactions after attending:

  • NVIDIA really should just rename this conference the “NVIDIA Technology Conference”. NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang gave the keynote, the conference itself is organized and sponsored by NVIDIA employees, NVIDIA has a strong lead in the ecosystem in terms of applying the GPU to things other than graphics, and most of the non-computing demos were NVIDIA technologies leveraged elsewhere. I understand that they want to brand this as a broader ecosystem play, but let’s be real: this is like Intel calling their “Intel Developer Forum” the “CPU Technology Forum” – lets call it what it is, ok? 🙂
  • Lots of cool uses for the technology, but we definitely haven’t reached the point where the technology is truly “mainstream.” On the one hand, I was blown away by the abundance of researchers and companies showcasing interesting applications for GPU technology. The poster area was full of interesting uses of the GPU in life science, social sciences, mathematical theory/computer science, financial analysis, geological science, astrophysics, etc. The exhibit hall was full of companies pitching hardware design and software consulting services and organizations showing off sophisticated calculations and visualizations that they weren’t able to do before. These are great wins for NVIDIA – they have found an additional driver of demand for their products beyond high-end gaming. But, this makeup of attendees should be alarming to NVIDIA – this means that the applications for the technology so far are fundamentally niche-y, not mainstream. This isn’t to say they aren’t valuable (clearly many financial firms are willing to pay almost anything for a little bit more quantitative power to do better trades), but the real explosive potential, in my mind, is the promise of having “supercomputers inside every graphics chip” – that’s a deep democratization of computing power that is not realized if the main users are only at the highest end of financial services and research, and I think NVIDIA needs to help the ecosystem find ways to get there if they want to turn their leadership position in alternative uses of the GPU into a meaningful and differentiated business driver.
  • NVIDIA made a big, risky bet on enabling virtualization technology. In his keynote, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced with great fanfare (as is usually his style) that he has made virtualization – this has made it possible to allow multiple users to share the same graphics card over the internet. Why is this potentially a big risk? Because, it means if you want to have good graphics performance, you no longer have to buy an expensive graphics card for your computer – you can simply plug into a graphics card that’s hosted somewhere else on the internet whether it be for gaming (using a service like GaiKai or OnLive) or for virtual desktops (where all of the hard work is done by a server and you’re just seeing the screen image much like you would watch a video on Netflix or YouTube) or in plugging into remote rendering services (if you work in digital movie editing). So why do it? I think NVIDIA likely sees a large opportunity in selling graphics chips which have , to date, been mostly a PC-thing, into servers that are now being built and teed up to do online gaming, online rendering, and virtual desktops. I think this is also motivated by the fact that the most mainstream and novel uses of GPU technology has been about putting GPU power onto “the cloud” (hosted somewhere on the internet). GaiKai wants to use this for gaming, Elemental wants to use this to help deliver videos to internet video viewers, rendering farms want to use this so that movie studios don’t need to buy high-end workstations for all their editing/special effects guys.
  • NVIDIA wants to be more than graphics-only. At the conference, three things jumped out at me as not being quite congruent with the rest of the conference. The first was that there were quite a few booths showing off people using Android tablets powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra chips to play high-end games. Second,  NVIDIA proudly showed off one of those new Tesla cars with their graphical touchscreen driven user interface inside (also powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra chips).
    2012-05-16 19.04.39Third, this was kind of hidden away in a random booth, but a company called SECO that builds development boards showed off a nifty board combining NVIDIA’s Tegra chips with its high-end graphics cards to build something they called the CARMA Kit – a low power high performance computing beast.2012-05-16 19.16.09 
    While NVIDIA has talked before about its plans with “Project Denver” to build a chip that can displace Intel’s hold on computer CPUs – this shows they’re trying to turn that from vision into reality – instead of just being the graphics card inside a game console, they’re making tablets which can play games, they’re making the processor that runs the operating system for a car, and they’re finding ways to take their less powerful Tegra processor and pair it up with a little GPU-supercomputer action.

If its not apparent, I had a blast and look forward to seeing more from the ecosystem!

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Reaction After a Week and a Half with the Galaxy Nexus

Galaxy Nexus 4G (LTE)

Just before SXSW, I bought myself the latest Android phone (and the first to run Google’s new Android Ice Cream Sandwich): the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. So, after using it for a week and a half, here are some of my reactions, but to make a long story short: this phone is amazing

  • The screen is gorgeous – I had always heard that Samsung’s Super AMOLED screens delivered particularly vivid colors — beats the LCD that I had on my old DROID2 without any question.
  • I will stop making fun of big screens – my previous phone, Motorola’s DROID 2, had a 3.7” screen (more or less the same as the iPhone 4). The Galaxy Nexus? A massive 4.65”! I’ll have to admit: it took a little while getting used to it — and don’t get me wrong, there are still moments when I curse my small hands 🙂 — but the difference in terms of extra screen space, ease of typing, etc is amazing. At SXSW, there was a moment when I had to use my colleague’s iPhone to enter information into a form (because his email client wasn’t working so he couldn’t send me the link). What had once been normal to me felt like the most cramped little device possible. I now begin to understand why my girlfriend wants the Samsung Galaxy Note’s massive 5.3” screen
  • LTE is blazing. I follow wireless news so I had always logically understood the numbers behind Verizon’s LTE – it was one reason I was always irked that AT&T and T-Mobile called their HSPA+ and other non-LTE/WiMax technologies “4G”. But, having never used an LTE device, I didn’t really understand the speed until I had used the LTE on my Galaxy Nexus. The speed is incredible. Its as fast, if not faster than WiFi  (depending on connection strength) – how do I know this? I could point you to a speedtest screencap, but a use case is more illustrative: when the DSL died out in my house, it was my Galaxy Nexus to the rescue as we waited on AT&T (ironic considering I’m on the Verizon network!) to swing by and fix the connection.
  • LTE is blazing part 2: There are two downsides to LTE which are worth mentioning.
    • The first is that it burns up your battery extremely quickly and has a tendency to make your phone extremely hot. On both my DROID 2 and iPhone, it would take prolonged usage of the 3G network before that type of “burn” would kick in.
    • The second is that for whatever reason (I can’t tell if its the modem/RF in my phone or if its the Verizon network or if Verizon is just trying to throttle me 🙁 or some combination), my connection stability has not been great. I get kicked off the LTE network randomly, whereas 3G-only mode (CDMA) has given me much better network stability
  • While I miss the physical keyboard of the DROID2, the combination of the larger screen, faster phone, and combination of Swiftkey and intuitive in-text-field spell-checker makes it work. The larger screen means its easier to hit the right keys at the right time. The faster phone means no more weird latency between keypresses and actual registering of those presses. SwiftKey provides remarkably good autocorrect which is also predictive of next words, and the new in-text-field spell-checker means the words that I misspelled or have obvious grammatical errors on get underlined in the textfield directly, letting me choose between a number of alternatives for the best correction.
  • One thing that took a while for me to get used to was the weird positioning of the notification light. Whereas before, the notification light was, as with the Motorola Xoom, in the upper-right corner of the device – the notification light for the Galaxy Nexus is at the bottom of the phone – which is a little strange in my opinion…
  • Significantly improved performance. That significant UI slickness gap I mentioned in my last post comparing the iPhone 4 to the DROID 2? Basically gone. I don’t know if its the new operating system, the new chip, or some combination – but I no longer have iOS envy when it comes to performance.
  • But, the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t have the greatest camera. While the software interface for the camera has been revamped (and significantly improved in my opinion) and the zero-shutter picture taking is a nice touch, 5MP and the color performance of the camera just aren’t much to write home about. Thankfully, I’m such a terrible photographer, I don’t think it really matters what camera I have 🙂 so this is kind of a wash for me.
  • Ice Cream Sandwich keeps much of what I love about Android (refer to this prior post) and adds to it. I’ve had Ice Cream Sandwich on my Motorola Xoom (Android tablet) for some time as well – but it felt more incremental over the Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system that it replaced than the dramatic change over Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system that was on my DROID2 and on most Android phones today.
    • Better notifications: two major changes from the previous version of Android – the first is that individual notifications can be dismissed with a cool swipe gesture which just works wonderfully. The second is that the settings tool can now be easily accessed from the pulldown notification menu.
    • Resizable and dynamic widgets: With the exception of the occasional buggy implementation of the email widget (which, for whatever reason, stops reflecting the status of my corporate inbox), being able to scroll through my email and calendar or play music without going into the apps themselves or to rapidly turn on/off different wireless features without going into the settings or to create shortcuts to turn-by-turn navigation to specific addresses is amazing.
    • New turn-by-turn navigation has a much more natural sounding voice.
    • The New Chrome for Android browser, while lacking in Flash and the ability to enforce a desktop user-agent (to get the desktop version of a webpage), is not only extremely slick, it brings quick Google sign-in capabilities (saving me a ton of keystrokes when it comes to Google apps or other services which require Google login), instant synchronization with all Chrome browsers across all devices, and a number of awesome gestures to manage tabs. To be fair, I think Safari on iOS still shows a performance advantage in terms of avoiding artifacts (especially while scrolling while the page is loading), but the much improved tab management and the synchronization make it a far better browser, in my opinion, than anything else out there.
    • New multitasking makes it easy to see all the apps that are open, a quick screenshot (so you know what’s going on in those apps), and the simple swipe-to-close gesture that the new notifications menu has.
    • The new contacts app (now called People) and calendar app are significantly improved. Being able to pinch-zoom in the calendar app to shift the viewing frame is very cool and extremely helpful when switching between weekends/days where I have few and long meetings versus weekdays where I have many and short meetings.
  • Battery life is still something that needs to improve. Full context: at SXSW, everybody was charging their phones by the late afternoon: it didn’t matter if you were using Android, iOS, or Windows – everybody was charging up on spare power outlets or on the FedEx guys walking around with phone-charging jackets (no joke!) that you could plug into. But, with that said, there’s no doubt in my mind that the iPhone still wins hands down in a battery life race. I don’t know if this is primarily because of the larger screen & LTE connection on the Galaxy Nexus or if there are some runaway background processes/fundamental operating system limitations that are happening, but if I were Google or some of the Android phone makers, I would focus on tackling probably the last real but still very important advantage that the iPhone has.

Net-net, I think this device is pretty awesome. Sure, the battery life is not where I want it to be, and the camera, weird positioning of the notification light, and lack of physical keyboard are things I take fault at. But, the combination of having Ice Cream Sandwich, great screen, and LTE connectivity make me agree with the Verge’s review of the product: “The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone ever made… it could be the best smartphone ever produced … Since day one, I’ve been waiting for an Android device that lived up to the promise of such a powerful OS. I think I can stop waiting now.”

(Image credit – Galaxy Nexus – Android.com)

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Mr. Tseng Goes to SXSW

Apologies for the lack of blogging these past few weeks. Part of that (although I really have no excuse) is because I got to attend famed tech, music, and film convention South-by-Southwest (aka SXSW).

It was my very first time in Austin, and I had a blast hanging out at the various booths/panels during the day and on Austin’s famous 6th Street in the evening. Granted, I just barely missed the torrential rain of the first half of the conference (and, sadly, also had to miss out on the music and film part of the festivals), but I got to see a fair amount of the tech conference, and had a few observations I thought I’d share

  • A good majority of the companies paying big bucks to market there should spend their money elsewhere. This is not a ding on the conference. Nor am I even arguing that these companies are wasting time sending representatives to the conference. My two cents is that there were many companies there who were spending their money unwisely at best – whether it be on acts of branding heroism (i.e. paying to rebrand local establishments) or holding massive parties with open bars and no coherent message  conveyed to the attendees about who the company is or why they should use the product. I must’ve attended at least three of the latter – and, truth be told, I can’t even remember the names of the startups that held those parties. Bad way to spend marketing dollars, or terrible way?
  • With that said, there were a number of companies there who definitely spent wisely (although whether or not it works is a question I leave for the marketplace). SXSW is a great venue to try to attract the attention of early adopters of consumer internet/mobile products – and it makes great sense to try to blow out marketing there as part of some major product/marketing push. Here’s two companies that I think were smart to spend a lot of money at SXSW (and, in my humble opinion, executed well):
    • nikefuelI think Nike in pushing its digital initiatives like Nike Fuel (which I plan to write a review of :-)) spent quite wisely building its brand. They had an interesting panel on using the product, an outdoors area that looked like a mini-boot camp (no joke!), a digital billboard which alternated between a appropriately color themed and a room decked out like a club where Nike employees sold the fuel band and helped new users get them set up.
    • ncom-lumia-900-cyan-front-267x500-pngI think Nokia (yes, despite my previous post, I mean Nokia) did a great job as well – they set up a Nokia Labs party area which looked like three giant domes from the outside. Right next to the entrance there was a snow machine (I assume to recreate the Finland snow?). The Nokia folks on the inside were all dressed in labcoats (keeping with the “lab” theme) and, like with Nike, there was crazy club music being played. The bar was offering a drink made with Finnish vodka called “Lumia Liquified” (Lumia is the name of Nokia’s new high-end smartphone line). And with this hip backdrop in place, the Nokia party had multiple exhibits featuring the Lumia’s unique design (there was a great display full of the drab black phones we’re used to seeing and the Lumia’s brightly colored phone standing out), the Lumia’s Carl Zeiss lens/optics, and the Lumia’s Clear Black display technology (basically using layers of polarized glass so that the display looks black and readable under direct light). Enough for me to no longer be a Fandroid? Probably not, but I definitely left the party impressed.
  • Like most tech shows, there was a main exhibition floor which I had a chance to walk through. On these floors, companies assemble at booths attempting to attract customers, business partners, investors, and even just curious passerbys. One of the booths I attended was held by Norton, makers of the Symantec security software that might be running on your computer. The reason I point it out is that, through some marketing deal, they were able to capture the heart of this comic loving blogger by co-opting the branding from the coming Avengers movie. The concept was actually pretty creative, if a bit hokey: participants had to play a handful of Norton security-themed casual games (think quizzes and simple Flash games where you use Norton widgets/tools/powerups to defend a machine from attack) to collect a series of badges. At the end of the sequence, depending on how you did on the games, you are awarded a rank and given a prize. One very fun perk for me is the photo below – guess who’s now a superhero? 🙂

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    That picture alone made SXSW worth it :-).

(Image credit – Nike fuel band – Linkbuildr)(Image credit – Lumia – Nokia)

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A “Fandroid” Forced to Use an iPhone 4 for Two Weeks

I recently came back from a great two week trip to China and Japan. Because I needed an international phone plan/data access, I ended up giving up my beloved DROID2 (which lacks international roaming/data) for two weeks and using the iPhone 4 my company had given me.

Because much has changed in the year and a half since I wrote that first epic post comparing my DROID2 with an iPhone 4 – for starters, my iPhone 4 now runs the new iOS 5 operating system and my DROID2 now runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread — I thought I would revisit the comparison, having had over a year to use both devices in various capacities.

Long story short: I still prefer my DROID2 (although to a lesser extent than before).

So, what were my big observations after using the iPhone 4 for two weeks and then switching back to my DROID2?

  • Apple continues to blow me away with how good they are at
    • UI slickness: There’s no way around it – with the possible exception of the 4.0 revision of Android Ice Cream Sandwich (which I now have and love on my Motorola Xoom!) – no Android operating system comes close to the iPhone/iPad’s remarkable user interface smoothness. iOS animations are perfectly fluid. Responsiveness is great. Stability is excellent (while rare, my DROID2 does force restart every now and then — my iPhone has only crashed a handful of times). It’s a very well-oiled machine and free of the frustrations I’ve had at times when I. just. wished. that. darn. app. would. scroll. smoothly.
    • Battery life: I was at or near zero battery at the end of every day when I was in Asia – so even the iPhone needs improvement in that category. But, there’s no doubt in my mind that my DROID2 would have given out earlier. I don’t know what it is about iOS which enables them to consistently deliver such impressive battery life, but I did notice a later onset of “battery anxiety” during the day while using the iPhone than I would have on my DROID2.
  • Apple’s soft keyboard is good – very good — but nothing beats a physical keyboard plus SwiftKey. Not having my beloved Android phone meant I had to learn how to use the iPhone soft keyboard to get around – and I have to say, much to my chagrin, I actually got the hang of it. Its amazingly responsive and has a good handle on what words to autocorrect, what to leave alone, and even on learning what words were just strange jargon/names but still legitimate. Even back in the US on my DROID2, I find myself trying to use the soft keyboard a lot more than I used to (and discovering, sadly, that its not as good as the iPhone’s). However:
    • You just can’t type as long as you can on a hard physical keyboard.
    • Every now and then the iPhone makes a stupid autocorrection and it’s a little awkward to override it (having to hit that tiny “x”).
    • The last time I did the iPhone/DROID comparison, I talked about how amazing Swype was. While I still think it’s a great product, I’ve now graduated to SwiftKey(see video below) not only because I have met and love the CEO Jonathan Reynolds but because of its uncanny ability to compose my emails/messages for me. It learns from your typing history and from your blog/Facebook/Gmail/Twitter and inputs it into an amazing text prediction engine which not only predicts what words you are trying to type but also the next word after that! I have literally written emails where half of my words have been predicted by SwiftKey.

       

  • Notifications in iOS are terrible.
    • A huge issue for me: there is no notification light on an iPhone. That means the only way for me to know if something new has happened is if I hear the tone that the phone makes when I get a new notification (which I don’t always because its in my pocket or because – you know – something else in life is happening at that moment) or if I happen to be looking at the screen at the moment the notifications shows up (same problem). This means that I have to repeatedly check the phone throughout the day which can be a little obnoxious when you’re with people/doing something else and just want to know if an email/text message has come in.
    • What was very surprising to me was that despite having the opportunity to learn (and dare I say, copy) from what Android and WebOS  had done, Apple chose quite possibly the weakest approach possible. Not only are the notifications not visible from the home screen – requiring me to swipe downward from the top to see if anything’s there — its impossible to dismiss notifications one at a time, really hard (or maybe I just have fat fingers?) to hit the clear button which dismisses blocks of them at a time, even after I hit clear, I’m not sure why some of the notifications don’t disappear, and it is surprisingly easy to accidentally hit a notification when you don’t intend to (which will force you into a new application — which wouldn’t be a big deal if iOS had a cross-application back button… which it doesn’t). Maybe this is just someone who’s too used to the Android way of doing things, but while this is way better than the old “in your face” iOS notifications, I found myself very frustrated here.
  • selectionCursor positioning feels a more natural on Android. I didn’t realize this would bug me until after using the iPhone for a few days. The setup: until Android’s Gingerbread update, highlighting text and moving the caret (where your next letter comes out when you type) was terrible on Android. It was something I didn’t realize in my initial comparison and something I came to envy about iOS: the magnifying glass that pops up when you want to move your cursor and the simple drag-and-drop highlighting of text. Thankfully with the Gingerbread update, Android completely closes that gap (see image on the right) and improves upon it. Unlike with iOS, I don’t need to long-hold on the screen to enter some eery parallel universe with a magnified view – in Android, you just click once, drag the arrow to where you want the cursor to be, and you’re good to go.
  • No widgets in iOS. There are no widgets in iOS. I can see the iOS fans thinking: “big deal, who cares? they’re ugly and slow down the system!” Fair points — so why do I care? I care because widgets let me quickly turn on or off WiFi/Bluetooth/GPS from the homescreen in Android, but in iOS, I would be forced to go through a bunch of menus. It means, on Android, I can see my next few calendar events, but in iOS, I would need to go into the calendar app. It means, on Android I can quickly create a new Evernote note and see my last few notes from the home screen, but in iOS, I would need to open the app. It means that on Android I can see what the weather will be like from the homescreen, but in iOS, I would need to turn on the weather app to see the weather. It means that on Android, I can quickly glance at a number of homescreens to see what’s going on in Google Voice (my text messages), Google Reader, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, but on iOS, I need to open each of those apps separately. In short, I care about widgets because they are convenient and save me time.
  • Apps play together more nicely with Android. Android and iOS have a fundamentally different philosophy on how apps should behave with one another. Considering most of the main iOS apps are also on Android, what do I mean by this? Well, Android has two features which iOS does not have: a cross-application back button and a cross-application “intent” system. What this means is that apps are meant to push information/content to each other in Android:
    • android-sharing-500x500If I want to “share” something, any app of mine that mediates that sharing – whether its email, Facebook, Twitter, Path, Tumblr, etc – its all fair game (see image on the right). On iOS, I can only share things through services that the app I’m in currently supports. Want to post something to Tumblr or Facebook or over email in an app that only supports Twitter? Tough luck in iOS. Want to edit a photo/document in an app that isn’t supported by the app you’re in? Again, tough luck in iOS. With the exception of things like web links (where Apple has apps meant to handle them), you can only use the apps/services which are sanctioned by the app developer. In Android, apps are supposed to talk with one another, and Google goes the extra mile to make sure all apps that can handle an “action” are available for the user to choose from.
    • In iOS, navigating between different screens/features is usually done by a descriptive back button in the upper-left of the interface. This works exactly like the Android back button does with one exception. These iOS back buttons only work within an application. There’s no way to jump between applications. Granted, there’s less of a need in iOS since there’s less cross-app communication (see previous bullet point), but when you throw in the ability of iOS5’s new notification system to take you into a new application altogether and when you’re in a situation where you want to use another service, the back button becomes quite handy.
  • And, of course,  deluge of the he-said-she-said that I observed:
    • Free turn-by-turn navigation on Android is AWESOME and makes the purchase of the phone worth it on its own (mainly because my driving becomes 100x worse when I’m lost). Not having that in iOS was a pain, although thankfully, because I spent most of my time in Asia on foot, in a cab, or on public transit, it was not as big of a pain.
    • Google integration (Google Voice, Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Maps) is far better on Android — if you make as heavy use of Google services as I do, this becomes a big deal very quickly.
    • Chrome to Phone is awesome – being able to send links/pictures/locations from computer to phone is amazingly useful. I only wish someone made a simple Phone-to-Chrome capability where I could send information from my phone/tablet to a computer just as easily.
    • Adobe Flash performance is, for the record, not great and for many sites its simply a gateway for advertisements. But, its helpful to have to be able to open up terrible websites (especially those of restaurants) — and in Japan, many a restaurant had an annoying Flash website which my iPhone could not open.
    • Because of the growing popularity of Android, app availability between the two platforms is pretty equal for the biggest apps (with just a few noteworthy exceptions like Flipboard). To be fair, many of the Android ports are done haphazardly – leading to a more disappointing experience – but the flip side of this is that the more open nature of Android also means its the only platform where you can use some pretty interesting services like AirDroid (easy-over-Wifi way of syncing and managing your device), Google Listen (Google Reader-linked over-the-air podcast manager), BitTorrent Remote (use your phone to remote login to your computer’s BitTorrent client), etc.
    • I love that I can connect my Android phone to a PC and it will show up like a USB drive. iPhone? Not so much (which forced me to transfer my photos over Dropbox instead).
    • My ability to use the Android Market website to install apps over the air to any of my Android devices has made discovering and installing new apps much more convenient.
    • The iOS mail client (1) doesn’t let you collapse/expand folders and (2) doesn’t let you control which folders to sync to what extents/at what intervals, but the Android Exchange client does. For someone who has as many folders as I do (one of which is a Getting Things Done-esque “TODO” folder), that’s a HUGE plus in terms of ease of use.

To be completely fair – I don’t have the iPhone 4S (so I haven’t played with Siri), I haven’t really used iCloud at all, and the advantages in UI quality and battery life are a big deal. So unlike some of the extremists out there who can’t understand why someone would pick iOS/Android, I can see the appeal of “the other side.” But after using the iPhone 4 for two weeks and after seeing some of the improvements in my Xoom from Ice Cream Sandwich, I can safely say that unless the iPhone 5 (or whatever comes after the 4S) brings with it a huge change, I will be buying another Android device next. If anything, I’ve noticed that with each generation of Android, Android devices further closes the gap on the main advantages that iOS has (smoothness, stability, app selection/quality), while continuing to embrace the philosophy and innovations that keep me hooked.

(Image Credit – Android text selection: Android.com) (Image Credit – Android sharing: talkandroid.com)

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Motorola Solutions Takes on the Tablet

I mentioned a couple of months ago my recent “conversion” to the tablet: how I am now convinced that tablets are more than just a cool consumer device, but represent a new vector of compute power which will find itself going into more and more places.

One particular use case which fascinated me was in the non-consumer setting, what is mostly “fresh territory” for tablet manufacturers to pursue. But, whereas most manufacturers — like Lenovo and Toshiba — are taking on the non-consumer setting by chasing the traditional enterprise technology market, Motorola Solutions, which was spun out from the original Motorola alongside (but separate from) the consumer-oriented Motorola Mobility which was recently acquired by Google — they build things like hardware/IT systems for businesses and governments, has taken a much more customized approach (HT: EETimes) which really embodies some of the strengths of the Android approach.

111010_rcj_moto_tab

Instead of building yet another Android Honeycomb tablet, Motorola Solutions has built a ruggedized Android tablet called the ET1 (Enterprise Tablet 1 – hey, they sell mainly to industrial and government customers where you don’t need catchy names :-)), with the emphasis on the word “ruggedized”. Yes, it has a 7” touchscreen, but this really wasn’t meant for casual consumer use at home: its meant to be used in the field/factory setting, built with a strengthened case and Gorilla Glass screen (so that it can survive drops/spills/impacts), support for external accessories (i.e. barcode scanners, printers, holsters/cases), a special hot-swappable rapid charge battery pack so that you can re-juice the device without interrupting the device function, and a “hardened” (translation: more secure by stripping out unnecessary consumer-oriented capabilities) Android operating system with support for rapidly switching between multiple user profiles (because multiple employees might use the same device on different shifts).

Will this device be a huge success? Probably not by any consumer electronic manufacturer’s metric. After all, the tablet isn’t meant for consumers (and won’t be priced that way or sold through stores/consumer eCommerce sites). But, that’s the beauty of the Android approach. If you’re not building a consumer tablet, you don’t have to. In the same way that Android phone manufacturers/software developers can experiment with different price points/business models in Africa, manufacturers can leverage (and customize) Android to target different use models and form factors entirely to satisfy the needs of specific market segments/ecosystem players, taking what they need and changing/removing what they don’t. I don’t know for sure what Motorola Solutions is aiming to get out of this, but maybe the goal isn’t to put as many of these devices out there as possible but simply to add a few key accounts with which to sell other services/software. I have no idea, but the point is that an open platform lets you do things like this. Or, to put it more simply, as I said before about Linux/Android: “go custom or go home”.

(Image credit)

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Android in Kenya

I mentioned before when discussing DCM’s Android Fund that Android is a truly global opportunity. While Nokia is probably praying that this is untrue, the recent success of Huawei in Kenya with its IDEOS phone illustrates that Android isn’t just doing well in the First World, its particular approach makes it well-suited to tackle the broader global market (HT: MIT Technology Review):

Smart phones surged in popularity in February after Safaricom, Kenya’s dominant telecom, began offering the cheapest smart phone yet on the market—an Android model called Ideos from the Chinese maker Huawei, which has been making inroads in the developing world. In Kenya, the price, approximately $80, was low enough to win more than 350,000 buyers to date.

That’s an impressive number for a region most in the developed world would probably write off as far too developing to be interesting. Now Huawei’s IDEOS line is not going to blow anyone away – its small, has a fairly low quality camera, and is pretty paltry on RAM. But, the fact that this device can hit the right price point to make the market real is a real advantage for the global Android ecosystem:

  • This is 350,000 additional potential Android users – not an earth-shattering number but its always good to have more folks buying devices and using them for new apps/services
  • It’s enticing new developers into the Android community, both from within Kenya as well as from outside of Kenya. As the MIT Technology Review article further points out:

    Over the past year, Hersman has been developing iHub, an organization devoted to bringing together innovators and investors in Nairobi. Earlier this month, a mobile-app event arranged by iHub fielded 100 entrants and 25 finalists for a $25,000 prize for best mobile app. The winner, Medkenya, developed by two entrepreneurs, offers health advice and connects patients with doctors. Its developers have also formed a partnership with the Kenyan health ministry, with a goal of making health-care information affordable and accessible to Kenyans…

    Some other popular apps are in e-commerce, education, and agriculture. In the last group, one organization riding the smart-phone wave is Biovision, a Swiss nonprofit that educates farmers in East Africa about organic farming techniques. Biovision is developing an Android app for its 200 extension field workers in Kenya and other East African countries.

  • Given the carrier-subsidy model and the high price and bulkiness of computers, this means that there could be an entire generation of individuals who’s main experience with the internet is from using Android devices, not from a traditional Windows/MacOS/Linux PC!

This ability to go ultra-low end and experiment with new partners/business models/approaches is an advantage of the fact that Android is a more open horizontal platform that can be adopted by more device manufacturers and partners. I wouldn’t be surprised to see further efforts by other Asian firms to expand into untapped markets like Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia with other interesting go-to-market strategies like low-cost, pre-paid Android devices.

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HP 2.0

The technology ecosystem just won’t give me a break – who would’ve thought that in the same week Google announced its bold acquisition of Motorola Mobility, that HP would also announce a radical restructuring of its business?

For those of you not up to speed, last Friday, HP’s new CEO Leo Apothekar announced that HP would:

  • Spend over $10 billion to acquire British software company Autonomy Corp
  • Shut down its recently-acquired-from-Palm-for-$1-billion WebOS hardware business (no more tablets or phones)
  • Contemplate spinning out its PC business

hpRadical change is not unheard of for long-standing technology stalwarts like HP. The “original Hewlett Packard”, focused on test and measurement devices like oscilloscopes and precision electronic components was spun out in 1999 as Agilent, one of the tech industry’s largest IPO’s. It acquired Compaq in 2001 to bolster its PC business for a whopping $25 billion. To build an IT services business, it acquired EDS in 2008 at a massive $14 billion valuation. To compete with Cisco in networking gear, it acquired 3Com for almost $3 billion. And, to compete in the enterprise storage space, it bought 3PAR after a furious bidding war with Dell for $2 billion. But, while this sort of change might not be unheard of, the billion dollar question remains: is this a good thing for HP and its shareholders? My conclusion: in the long-run, this is a good thing for HP. But how they announced it was very poor form.

Why good for the long-run?

  • HP needed focus. With the exception of the Agilent spinoff and the Compaq acquisition, all the “bold strategic changes” that I mentioned happened in the span of less than 3 years (EDS: 2008, 3com: 2009, Palm and 3PAR: 2010). Success in the technology industry requires you to disrupt existing spaces (and avoid being disrupted), play nicely with the ecosystem, and consistently overachieve. Its hard to do that when you are simultaneously tackling a lot of difficult challenges. At the end of the day, for HP to continue to thrive, it needs to focus and not always chase the technology “flavor of the week.”
  • HP had a big hill to climb to be a leading consumer hardware play. Despite being a very slick product, WebOS was losing the war of the smartphone/tablet operating systems to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Similarly, in its PC business, with the exception of channel reach and scale, HP had no real advantage over Apple, Dell, or rapidly growing low-cost Asian competitors. It’s fair to say that HP might have been able to change that with time. After all, HP had barely had time to announce one generation of new products since Palm was acquired, let alone had time for the core PC division to work together with the engineers and user experience folks at Palm to cook up something new. But, suffice to say, getting to mass market success would have required significant investment and time. Contrast that with…
  • HP as a leading enterprise IT play is a more natural fit. With its strong server and software businesses and recent acquisitions of EDS, 3Com, and 3PAR, HP already has a broad set of assets that it could combine to sell as “solutions” to enterprises. Granted, there is significant room for improvement in how HP does all of this – these products and services have not been integrated very well, and HP lacks the enormous success that Dell has achieved in new cloud computing architectures and the services success that IBM has, to name two uphill battles HP will have to face, but it feels, at least to me, that this is a challenge that HP is already well-equipped to solve with its existing employees, engineering, and assets.
  • Moreover, for better or for worse, HP’s board chose a former executive of enterprise software company SAP to be CEO. What did they expect, that he would miraculously be able to turn HP’s consumer businesses around? I don’t know what happened behind closed doors so I don’t know how seriously Apothekar considered pushing down the consumer line, but I don’t think anyone should be surprised that he’s trying to build a complete enterprise IT stack akin to what IBM/Microsoft/Oracle are trying to do.

With all that said, I’m still quite appalled by how this was announced. First, after basically saying that HP didn’t have the resources to invest in its consumer hardware businesses, Apothekar turns around and pays a huge amount for Autonomy (at a valuation ten times its sales – by most objective measures, a fairly high price). I don’t think HP’s investors or the employees and business partners of HP’s soon-to-be-cast-aside will find the irony there particularly amusing.

Adding to this is the horrible manner in which Apothekar announced his plans. Usually, this sort of announcement only happens after the CEO has gone out of his way to boost the price he can command for the business units he intends to get rid of. In this case, not only are there no clear buyers lined up for the divisions HP plans to dump, the prices that those units could command will be hurt by the fact that their futures are in doubt. Rather than reassure employees, potential buyers, customers, and partners that existing business relationships and efforts will be continued, Apothekar has left them with little reason to be confident. This is appalling behavior from someone who’s main job is to be a steward for shareholder value as he could’ve easily communicated the same information without basically tanking his ability to sell those businesses off at a good valuation.

In any event, as I said in my Googorola post, we definitely live in interesting times :-).

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Googorola

I would lose my tech commentator license if I didn’t weigh in on the news of Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility. So, without further ado, four quick thoughts on “Googorola”:

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  • This is a refreshingly bold move by Google. Frankly, I had expected Google to continue its fairly whiny, defensive path on this for some time as they and the rest of the Android ecosystem cobbled together a solution to the horrendous intellectual property situation they found themselves in. After all, while Android was strategically important to Google as a means of preventing another operating system (like Windows or iOS) from weakening their great influence on the mobile internet, one could argue that most of that strategic value came from just making Android available and keeping it updated. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me that it would make dollars-and-cents sense for Google to spend a lot of cash fighting battles that, frankly, Samsung, HTC, LG, and the others should have been prepared to fight on their own. That Google did this at all sends a powerful message to the ecosystem that the success of Android is critical to Google and that it will even go so far as to engage in “unnatural acts” (Google getting into the hardware business!?) to make it so.
  • It will be interesting to observe Google’s IP strategy going forward. Although its not perfect, Google has taken a fairly pro-open source stance when it comes to intellectual property. Case in point: after spending over $100M on video codec maker On2, Google moved to make On2’s VP8/WebM codec freely available for others to integrate as an alternative to the license-laden H.264 codec. Sadly, because of the importance of building up a patent armory in this business, I doubt Google will do something similar here – instead, Google will likely hold on to its patent arsenal and either use it as a legal deterrent to Microsoft/Apple/Nokia or find a smart way to license them to key partners to help bolster their legal cases. It will be interesting to see how Google changes its intellectual property practices and strategy now that its gone through this. I suspect we will see a shift away from the open-ness that so many of us loved about Google.
  • I don’t put much stock into speculation that Motorola’s hardware business will just be spun out again. This is true for a number of reasons:
    1. I’m unaware of any such precedent where a large company acquires another large one, strips it of its valuable intellectual property, and then spins it out. Not only do I think regulators/antitrust guys would not look too kindly on such a deal, but I think Google would have a miserable time trying to convince new investors/buyers that a company stripped of its most valuable assets could stand on its own.
    2. Having the Motorola business gives Google additional tools to build and influence the ecosystem. Other than the Google-designed Nexus devices and requirements Google imposes on its manufacturing partners to support the Android Market, Google actually has fairly little influence over the ecosystem and the specific product decisions that OEMs like Samsung and HTC make. Else, we wouldn’t see so many custom UI layers and bloatware bundled on new Android phones. Having Motorola in-house gives Google valuable hardware chops that it probably did not have before (which will be useful in building out new phones/tablets, new use cases like the Atrix’s (not very successful but still promising) webtop, its accessory development kit strategy, and Android@Home), and lets them always have a “backup option” to release a new service/feature if the other OEMs are not being cooperative.
    3. Motorola’s strong set-top box business is not to be underestimated. Its pretty commonly known that GoogleTV did not go the way that Google had hoped. While it was a bold vision and a true technical feat, I think this is another case of Google not focusing on the product management side of things. Post-acquisition, however, Google might be able leverage Motorola’s expertise in working with cable companies and content providers to create a GoogleTV that is more attuned to the interests/needs of both consumers and the cable/content guys. And, even if that is not in the cards, Motorola may be a powerful ally in helping to bring more internet video content, like the kind found on YouTube, to more TVs and devices.
  • There is a huge risk from Google mismanaging the ecosystem with this move. Although some of Google’s biggest partners have been quoted as being supportive of this deal, that could simply be politeness or relief that someone will be able to protect them from Apple/Microsoft that’s talking. Google has intelligently come out publicly to state that they intend to run Motorola as a separate business and don’t plan on making any changes to their Nexus phone strategy. But, while Google may believe that going into this (and I think they do), and while I believe that Android’s success will be in building a true horizontal platform rather than imitating Apple’s vertical model, the reality of the situation is that you can’t really maintain something as an independent business completely free of influence, and that the temptation will always be there to play favorites. My hope is that Google institutes some very real firewalls and processes to maintain that independence. As a “fandroid” and as someone who is a big believer in the big opportunities enabled by Android, I think the real potential lies in going beyond just what one company can do, even if its Google.

Regardless of what happens, we definitely live in interesting times :-).

(Image credits)

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The Prodigal Tablet Convert

lg-android-tabletWhen the Wifi-only version of the first Android Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom, became available for sale, I bought the device, partly because of my “Fandroid” love for Android devices but mostly because, as a Tech enthusiast, I felt like I needed to own a tablet just to understand what everyone was talking about.

While I liked the device (especially after the Honeycomb 3.1 update), I felt a little weird because I didn’t really have a good idea of why I would ever need it. Tablets, while functional and cool, were not as large in screen size or as powerful as a laptop (some of which are also pretty portable: take my girlfriend’s recently purchased Lenovo X220 or the new MacBook Airs for instance), they weren’t as cheap/didn’t have as long of a battery life/didn’t have the amazing displays of dedicated eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle, and they weren’t as portable as a smartphone. I was frankly baffled: just when would you use an iPad/an Android tablet instead of a laptop, eReader, or a smartphone?

It didn’t help that many of my friends seemed to give waffling answers (and no, it didn’t really vary whether or not they had an iPad or an Android tablet – sorry Apple fanboi’s, you’re not that special :-)) or that one of the partners at my fund had misplaced his iPad and didn’t realize it for a month! To hopefully discover the “killer application” for these mysterious devices, I pushed myself to use the tablet more to see if I could find a “natural fit” and, except for gaming and for reading/browsing casually in bed, the whole experience felt very “well, I needed a bigger screen than my phone and was too lazy to turn on my laptop.” So for quite some time, I simply chalked up the latest demand as people wanting the latest gadget rather than anything particularly useful.

ASUS_EeePad_Transformer_-550x412This changed recently when, on a whim, I decided to buy carrying case and Bluetooth keyboard for my Xoom. And, upon receiving it, I was kind of blown away. Although it looked (and still does) a little funny to me — why use a Tablet plus Bluetooth Keyboard when you could just use a laptop –  that was enough to change my perspective on the utility of the device. It was no longer just a “bigger smartphone” – it became the full potential of what the netbook category itself had aimed to be: an easy-to-use, cheap consumer-grade laptop replacement that was not sucked into the “Wintel” dominion of Intel and Microsoft. It was that realization/newfound purpose for the device (as well as a nifty $100 off coupon) which also sucked my girlfriend, a long skeptic of why I had bought a tablet, in to buying an ASUS Eee Pad Transformer and dock (see image to the left).

I know its not the most profound of epiphanies – after all, even in my first comment on the iPad speculations I had suggested the potential risk to Apple of letting the iPad be so good that it starts replacing lower-end Macbook Air/Macbook devices – but suddenly the ability to write longer emails/compose documents made my tablet the go-to device for everything but the most processor-intensive or intricate of tasks, and that, combined with the abundance of tablets I’ve seen in Silicon Valley business settings, has convinced me that the “killer app” for the iPad and the Xoom and the whole host of coming Android tablets will be as computer replacements.

So, (hardware and software) developers out there and folks who want to pursue something potentially very disruptive or who want the venture capital side of me to pay attention to you: find me killer new apps/services designed to help tablets more replace computers (especially in the enterprise – I have become somewhat enchanted by that opportunity) and you’ll get it.

(Image credit – Tablet) (Image credit – ASUS Eee Pad Transformer)

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Streaming Music Lockers

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I was lucky enough to receive early access to Google’s Music Beta service, the new streaming music service Google announced at their recent Google I/O event. It’s a service that’s fairly similar to Amazon’s Cloud Drive and the streaming service which Apple is rumored to be announcing soon. I’ve used the service for about two weeks, and I have to confess I’m confused as to why everyone is so excited about this.

Let me be clear: I think the service works perfectly fine. I, of course, have some complaints. The web interface, at least not to my knowledge, doesn’t provide a simple way to play or queue individual songs without queuing up the next song in the list. There can also be an awkward buffering pause at the start of playback (although I’ve noticed the software intelligently pre-caches the next song in the list) which can also be a little annoying. And, on my super-slow connection, it took two days to upload my music collection (whereas its been rumored that Apple will simply identify the song and pull it from its own collection). But, overall, I’ve been impressed with the quality. The quality of the playback across all of my devices (including my smartphone even when its not on WiFi) is good, and the ability to easily sync playlists across all of my devices is a nice touch. The free music. The instant playlists and integration with my Android devices are also thoughtful touches.

But my confusion has nothing to do with whether or not the service works: its whether or not this service is actually all that valuable to a large swath of users. While I have a relatively large music collection, I (and I’m willing to bet most people) don’t add to that collection all that often. When you couple that with the fact that storage is pretty cheap (as anyone who bought a USB stick and looked at the prices again 6 months later has noticed), it makes it easy to manage your music collection between your computer and your phone with iTunes or Windows Media Player without Apple or Google or Amazon going through the hassle of setting up an elaborate cloud setup.

For someone like me with four separate devices (a personal laptop, a work laptop, a DROID2 smartphone, and a tablet), this becomes a little more interesting as synching between all four can be a pain, but I don’t know how many people fall into that category. And, even if they did, music services like Mog, Spotify, and Grooveshark offer essentially the same thing – streaming music – except without the limitations of what’s in your own music collection.

Obviously, there are things Amazon, Google, and Apple are doing which are better than good-old-fashioned-manual-synching and what the Mogs/Spotifys/Groovesharks of the world have built. And, if its not clear yet, I do think these services are cool and valuable. But my view here is that they’re not so much better to justify all the hype.

Of course, I have yet to see Steve Jobs’ announcement… maybe his reality distortion field will set me straight :-).

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DCM Raises $100M Android Fund: Looking for Great Ideas

Full disclaimer: While I work for DCM, the views expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my current (or past) employer, their employees, partners, clients, and portfolio companies.

If you follow the tech trades about Android as much as this “fandroid” does :-), you’ll have seen an announcement from leading venture capital fund DCM which I found extremely exciting:

MENLO PARK, Calif. – TOKYO, Japan – April 21, 2011

Today, leading Pacific Rim technology venture capital firm DCM announced the launch of the world’s first Android-focused fund (“AFund”). The A-Fund is a $100 million strategic investment initiative that will focus on startups developing compelling solutions taking advantage of Android’s rapid growth.
The A-Fund will be managed by DCM, an investor in early stage technology companies based in Silicon Valley, Beijing and Tokyo. Anchor investors include GREE Inc., Japan’s largest mobile gaming social network, and KDDI Corporation, Japan’s second largest mobile operator. Funding and support will also come from strategic partner Tencent, one of China’s largest integrated Internet services companies. DCM plans to announce additional partners in the A-Fund, including a leading US based semiconductor company, in the coming weeks.

“The rise of Android is a rare and massive opportunity – one that comes only once in a major tech cycle,” said David Chao, co-founder and general partner, DCM. “The A-Fund will seek out the most promising companies enhancing and extending the rich open Android ecosystem—in mobile and beyond – including applications, services, and enabling technologies.”

The A-Fund will create a strong network of top-tier startups and provide access to resources, relationships and business opportunities catered to the needs of Android related companies.  DCM and its corporate partners will provide the capital, global business expertise, business development support, and other value-add services needed to succeed in a rapidly evolving market.

Suffice to say, given my prior blog coverage on Android, it should come as no surprise that I think Android represents potentially one of the largest opportunities ever for entrepreneurs, consumers, and investors, particularly in three categories:

  • Because Android is open source and available for a wide range of device manufacturers, it is becoming one of the fastest growing and most prolific platform plays ever, especially overseas where cash-strapped consumers and hardware guys are turning to Android devices. In the same way that iPhone enabled guys like Evernote, Rovio, and Ngmoco to build sizable businesses, Android’s wide and international reach will create large opportunities for entrepreneurial mobile software and service companies.
  • Android’s greater openness relative to other platforms provides the opportunity for new types of software and services to be deployed that more closed platforms will not be able to enjoy, at least not in the short-term. That translates into my belief that the next BMC/VMWare/Oracle/Symantec/Adobe of mobile will most likely first build on a more open platform like Android.
  • Android is not just a software play – its more open nature lets it function as a hardware enabler too: manufacturers of tablets, TVs, set-top boxes, printers, appliances, cars, medical devices, and even more can benefit from Android as a way to reduce costs/time-to-market or as a way to add application functionality/a consumer-friendly user interface to their design. In the same way that Android helped build HTC into a giant, Android will enable a new generation of hardware and software/applications to run on that new hardware, helping to build “the next HTC.”

So, if you or someone you know has a great Android-related project or idea that fits into any of the categories above, feel free to shoot an email to <first initial-last name (no hyphen in between)>-at-dcm-dot-com. 🙂

For more coverage on DCM’s Android Fund, check out:

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Linux: Go Custom or Go Home

In a post I wrote a few weeks ago about why I prefer the Google approach to Apple’s, I briefly touched on what I thought was one of the most powerful aspects of Android, and something I don’t think is covered enough when people discuss the iPhone vs Android battle:

With Google[’s open platform strategy], you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution.

imageTo me, the most compelling reason to favor a Linux/Android approach is this customizability. Too often, I see people in the Linux/Android community focus on the lack of software licensing costs or emphasize a high-end feature or the ability to emulate some Windows/Mac OS/iOS feature.

But, while those things are important, the real power of Android/Linux is to go where Microsoft and Apple cannot. As wealthy as Microsoft and Apple are, even they can’t possibly create solutions for every single device and use case. iOS may work well for a general phone/tablet like the iPhone and iPad, but what about phones targeted for the visually impaired? What about tablets which can do home automation? Windows might work great for a standard office computer, but what about the needs of scientists? Or students? The simple fact of the matter is neither company has the resources to chase down every single use case and, even if they did, many of these use cases are too niche for them to ever justify investment.

Linux/Android, on the other hand? The open source nature allows for customization (which others can then borrow for still other forms of customization) to meet a market’s (or partner’s) needs. The lack of software licensing costs means that the sales needed to justify an investment goes down. Take some recent, relatively high-profile examples:

Now, none of these are silver bullets which will drive 100% Linux adoption – but they convey the power of the open platform approach. Which leads me to this, potentially provocative conclusion: the real opportunity for Android/Linux (and the real chance to win) is not as a replacement for a generic Windows or Mac OS install, but as a path to highly customized applications.

Now I can already hear the Apple/GNOME contingent disagreeing with me because of the importance of user experience. And, don’t get me wrong, user experience is important and the community does need to work on it (I still marvel that the Android Google Maps application is slower than the iPhone’s or my inability to replace Excel/Powerpoint/other apps with OpenOffice/Wine), but I would say the war against the Microsoft/Apple user experience is better fought by focusing on use-case customization rather than trying to beat a well-funded, centrally managed effort.

Consider:

  1. Would you use iOS as the software for industrial automation? Or to run a web server? No. As beautiful and easy-to-use as the iOS design is, because its not built as a real-time operating system or built for web server use, it won’t compete along those dimensions.
  2. How does Apple develop products with such high quality? Its simple: focus on a few things. An Android/Linux setup should not try to be the same thing to all applications (although some of the underlying systems software can be). Instead, different Android/Linux vendors should focus on customizing their distributions for specific use-cases. For example, a phone guy should gut the operating system of anything that’s not needed for a phone and spend time building phone-specific capabilities.

The funny thing is the market has already proven this. Where is Linux currently the strongest? I believe its penetration is highest in three domains: smartphones, servers, and embedded systems. Ignoring smartphones (where Android’s leadership is a big win for Linux) which could be a special case, the other two applications are not particularly sexy or consumer-facing, but they are very educational examples. In the case of servers, the Linux community’s (geeky) focus on high-end features made it a natural fit for servers. Embedded systems have heavily used Linux because of the ability to customize the platform in the way that the silicon vendor or solution vendor wants.

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Of course, high levels of customization can introduce fragmentation. This is a legitimate problem wherever software compatibility is important (think computers and smartphones), and, to some extent, the Android smartphone ecosystem is facing this as more and more devices and phone manufacturer customizations (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola put out fairly different devices). But, I think this is a risk that can be managed. First, a strong community and support for industry standards can help limit issues with fragmentation. Take the World Wide Web. The same website can work on MacOS and Windows because the HTML is a standard that browsers adhere to — and the strength of the web standards and development community help to reduce unnecessary fragmentation and provide support for developers where such fragmentation exists. Secondly, the open source nature of Linux/Android projects means that customizations can be more easily shared between development teams and that new projects can draft off of old projects. This doesn’t mean that they become carbon copies of one another, but it helps to spread good customizations farther, helping to control some of the fragmentation problems. Lastly, and this may be a cop-out answer, but I believe universal compatibility between Linux-based products is unnecessary. Why does there have to be universal compatibility between a tablet, a server, and a low-end microcontroller? Or, for that matter, between a low-end feature phone and a high-end smartphone? So long as the customizations are purpose-driven, the incompatibilities should not jeopardize the quality of the final product, and in fact, may enhance it.

Given all this, in my mind, the Android/Linux community need to think of better ways to target customizations. I think its the best shot they have at beating out the larger and less nimble companies which make up their competition, and of living up to its full potential as the widely used open source operating system it can be.

(Comic credit – XKCD) (Image credit)

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Droid 2 vs iPhone

If this is the first time you’ve visited my blog, thank you for coming. Feel free to subscribe to this blog with the buttons on the right. You may also be interested in my comparison of Firefox vs Chrome.

imageI recently came out very positive on Google in a comparison of Google’s and Apple’s respective business models and product philosophies, but the post itself was very high-level and theoretical. So, I decided to write another post: this time on how the differences I mentioned before translate when comparing products?

I recently dropped my Blackberry and got Motorola’s new Droid 2 phone (on Verizon). Earlier this month, my company also happened to provide me with Apple’s iPhone 4 (on AT&T). Having played around with the devices and relied on them heavily for over a week, I decided to make a comparison of the two, not only to help myself think through how I’d use the devices, but also to help anyone out there considering a smartphone (warning: this post is LOOOONG):

  1. Neither phone is better, they’re different. In the same way that there is no one “best” car or one “best” significant other for all people, I would have to say the “best” phone for a person is the phone that has the right features/attributes for that person and makes the appropriate tradeoffs. In the case of DROID 2 vs. iPhone 4, each has their share of weaknesses, and each has their share of strengths and they will match different people’s needs and preferences.
  2. There’s still plenty of room for both products to improve. I think the “fanboys” on both sides seem to have missed out on this point – in their desire to tout one as superior to the other, they seem to have forgotten that both devices have more than their fair share of weaknesses. In fact, I’d say my dominant impression of both devices is more around “this needs to improve” rather than “this is awesome”.
  3. I’ve got a lot of more detailed commentary below, but my basic  impression of Android vs iPhone is very much like the comparison I drew in my post on Google vs Apple: the DROID 2 feels like a device where a bunch of engineers decided to cram a ton of “cool features” into a phone whereas the iPhone 4 feels like a device that was architected to support one particular user experience (but not others) as seamlessly as possible. What does that mean in terms of a direct comparison? In order of importance (to how I use the phone):
    1. Typing – Typing is extremely important to me as my main goal for smartphone is to let me write and respond to emails on the go. Given my years with the Blackberry’s famous high-quality keyboard, I was expecting to hate the iPhone 4’s soft keyboard. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, I actually got to be quick enough with it that speed did not become an issue. However, a few things plagued me. First, I absolutely hate the placement of the backspace key – its not where I expect it to be (having been trained by QWERTY computer keyboards) and is just close enough to the “m” that I hit it when I’m typing quickly. Secondly, the iPhone interface doesn’t actually support a landscape interface mode in all applications (i.e. the App Store) – which forces me to use a much more constrained portrait keyboard which slows me down. Finally, as good as the iPhone soft keyboard is, because there’s no good way to position your fingers or to “feel” when keys have been pushed, soft keyboards intrinsically force you to think more about how to type than a hard keyboard than otherwise. Enter the DROID 2. It has a hard keyboard which although not quite as good as a Blackberry’s (the keys seem oddly spaced to me, and they are more stiff than “springy”), still lets me position my fingers and type without thinking so much about how I’m typing.
      imageIn addition to the hard keyboard, the DROID 2 also supports Swype, a very cool (and fast) way to type on a soft keyboard where, instead of typing keys consecutively, you simply drag your fingers to the letters that you’re trying to type. There’s a little bit of a learning curve (in terms of learning how to punctuate and do double-letters), but once you get over that initial hump, I think the average person can get to a faster speed with Swype than they can just pecking at keys. In my mind, the DROID 2 wins hands down on typing.
    2. Exchange support – If you want a smartphone that can function as a work device, you need to support Exchange and you need to support it well. Both the iPhone and Android claim support for Microsoft Exchange with push synchronization. While I have some quibbles with the iPhone’s mail interface, there’s no denying that the iPhone’s Exchange support is seamless and fast. I have never had to think about it. And, on occasion, the iPhone would even notify me of emails before my computer received them! The DROID 2, on the other hand, is a different story. While the Exchange sync works most of the time, there have already been two occasions where the sync was broken and the device would think that a message I had already read was a new message. The sync is also significantly slower – requiring me to wait (sometimes up to 10 minutes) before an email that has already showed up on the iPhone and the desktop shows up through the DROID 2’s sync feature. I don’t know if this is because Motorola/Google introduced some intermediate layer in between the Exchange and the phone, but the iPhone 4 wins hands down on Exchange support.
    3. Google integration – I use a ton of Google services (Gmail, Google Calendar, Picasa, Google Reader, Google Voice, Google Maps, etc.) so integration with Google services is a key criteria when picking a phone. While the iPhone has an excellent interface to Google Maps (which puts the Android’s standard maps interface to shame in terms of smoothness and speed), its inability to do very much beyond basic synchronization with Gmail and Google Calendar and only webapp access to Google Voice makes its integration with Google on par with the Blackberry’s. On the other hand, is it  any surprise that Google services integration works best on a phone which runs a Google operating system? You can make calls using Google Voice as if it weren’t even there. You can easily apply and remove labels on and search through your Gmail seamlessly (without the semi-awkward IMAP interface). You can even access your personal online search history through Google Maps and Google Search. DROID 2 wins this one by a wide margin.
    4. image Attachment file format support – its not enough to be able to access email, a good work device should be able to handle the PDFs, Powerpoints, Word documents, and images that are likely embedded. Motorola had a stroke of genius by preloading the Quick Office application onto each DROID 2. But, while this app does a very good job of opening files, it not being integrated into the DROID 2’s email applications gives it a disadvantage compared to the iPhone’s in-line and integrated attachment viewer. Combine this with the DROID 2’s inexplicable inability to open certain image types in email and there is a distinct, albeit slight, advantage on file format support for the iPhone 4.
    5. Customization – I’m very particular about how I use my devices. As a result, I want to be able to customize the heck out of something. While the iPhone gives you some basic customization options (i.e., do you want to hear a sound when a new email comes in?), it doesn’t give you much beyond that (i.e., what sound do you want to hear when a new email comes in? would you only like to hear a sound if its gmail rather than exchange? would you like to hear a different sound for gmail and exchange?) On the other hand, the DROID 2 provides remarkable customization capability. Granted, some of the choices can be difficult to find, but the ability to customize so many things (including the ability to embed live, functional widgets on your home screen and not just functionless shortcuts) and to install apps like Tasker which let you customize even deeper is a big differentiator for the Android platform.
    6. UI responsiveness/slickness – Smartphones are expensive. They consume a lot of battery power. So when a device feels sluggish, I can get annoyed. The iPhone is, simply put, amazingly slick. No choppiness when you scroll or swipe. Great responsiveness. No odd user interface defects. While Google’s Android has made remarkable strides since its earliest incarnation, it still doesn’t come close to matching Apple’s user interface polish – the most shameful example of which, in my opinion, is the Android Google Maps’ sluggish multitouch support when compared to Apple’s. Come on guys, ITS YOUR OWN APP!
    7. Notifications – I don’t know a single person who likes the iPhone’s primitive notification system. Its overly intrusive. It can only display one particular message at a time. And, there’s no way for someone to get the history of all their recent notifications. And, as a Blackberry user who used to rely on a small LED indicator to unobtrusively inform him when something new happened, the iPhone’s lack of any way of notifying its owner that something has happened without activating the screen just strikes me as stupid. The DROID 2 is FAR ahead of Apple here.
    8. Network – I have mixed feelings here. On the one hand, I would  say that the call quality I’ve experienced on the DROID 2 has lagged what I experienced on the iPhone 4. Furthermore, my DROID 2 seems to have schizophrenic reception – I sometimes amuse myself by watching my signal indicator go from full bars to just one bar, all while sitting on my desk leaving the phone completely alone. The other side to this story, though, is that this experience quality has been primarily driven by an odd pocket of bad Verizon coverage in my girlfriend’s apartment – our calls from almost everywhere else have been very good. Also, despite my DROID 2’s signal indicator fluctuations, I have not yet observed any actual impact on my connection speed or call quality. When you combine this with the fact that my iPhone struggles to get signal where I work and in Napa (where I just came back from a wedding) but my DROID 2 had minimal issues, I have to say that DROID 2/Verizon beats out iPhone 4/AT&T.
      image
    9. Ability to turn off 3G – The two main things that burn out a smartphone’s battery are the display and the wireless connection. While its a pain to reach that particular menu item on the iPhone 4, Apple’s product does make it possible to turn off the 3G connection. Shockingly, despite all the customization, the DROID 2 does not provide this option. The iPhone 4 wins here.
    10. Turn-by-turn navigationThe DROID 2 has it. The iPhone doesn’t. And, believe me when I say this is: it is an AMAZING feature and completely displaces the need for a GPS device. I don’t drive places I’m unfamiliar with often enough for this to be higher in the priority list, but lets just say it saved my butt on my recent trip to Napa. DROID 2 wins here.
    11. Access to Bluetooth – In California, you cannot talk on a cell phone while driving without a Bluetooth headset. So, quick-and-easy access to Bluetooth settings is a feature of considerable importance to me. With the iPhone, the ability to turn Bluetooth on and off and change settings is buried beneath several layers of settings. The DROID 2’s pairing process is not only faster (although this is only by ~10-20 seconds), the ability to customize the home screen means I can embed widgets/links to quickly and easily toggle Bluetooth without diving through settings. DROID 2 wins here.
    12. image Chrome-to-Phone – DROID 2 has it. iPhone 4 doesn’t. This is a very cool browser extension which lets you send links, text messages, and maps to your phone straight from Chrome (or the Firefox clone of it). When I first heard about it, I wasn’t especially impressed, but its become a very useful tool which lets me send things which would be useful while on-the-go (especially directions). DROID 2 wins here.
    13. Absence of pre-loaded bloat – This is something where Apple’s philosophy of getting full control over the user experience pays off. The iPhone 4 does not come with any of the bloatware that we’ve come to see in new PCs. That means that the apps that run on my iPhone 4 are either well-designed Apple utilities or apps I have chosen to install. My DROID 2? Full of crapware which I neither want nor am I able to install. Thankfully, I’m able to remove them from my homescreen, but it annoys me that Verizon and Motorola have decided that preloading phones is a great way to generate additional revenue. The iPhone wins hands down here.
    14. Camera – To be perfectly honest, I hate both the DROID 2 and the iPhone 4’s cameras. With the iPhone 4, I find it pretty awkward to shoot a picture using the soft keyboard to both zoom in and out and take the shot. While the DROID 2 has obvious physical buttons to use for zoom and to take the shot, it has a lackluster flash and I found it more difficult to take steady pictures than I did with the iPhone 4. It also captures video at a lower resolution than the iPhone 4. In the end, though, I’d have to say that awkward use of the camera trumps bad flash photography and poorer video resolution: iPhone wins here.
    15. image Flash support – DROID 2 has it. iPhone doesn’t. This means no more stupid boxes on web pages which haven’t made the plunge into HTML5 video (because Firefox and IE don’t support it yet) or activating another application to watch YouTube videos. Does it burn battery? Yes. But its not like I’m watching it non-stop, and there are definitely some sites which you can’t visit without Flash. DROID 2 wins here.
    16. Voice control – Google recently unveiled its Voice Actions for Android application which allows you to perform all sorts of commands without ever typing a thing. While the Google search app on iPhone and apps like Siri have supported voice-based web searches, they don’t provide access to the wealth and depth of functions like email, text messaging (although, sadly, it does not yet seem to support Google Voice-based-SMS), calling up the map application, or controlling the music player that Google’s does. Granted, Google seems to still have issues understanding my girlfriend’s name is “Sophia” and not “Cynthia”, but the DROID 2’s voice-control functionality is way ahead of the iPhone 4’s and adds a lot of convenience when you are on-the-go.
    17. File management – Apple’s iTunes software works great as an MP3 player. I’m not so sure how I feel about it as the ultimate gateway to my mobile phone for pictures and applications. It also irks me that, because of iTunes, there is no obvious way to access or modify the directory structure on an iPhone 4. The DROID 2, however, looks and acts just like a USB drive when its connected to a computer. It even comes with a file manager app with which you can use to go through its file system innards from within the phone. If you are fine with the inability to specify your own organization structure or to use a phone as portable storage, then this is wash. But, if you value any of those things, then the DROID 2 has Apple’s iPhone 4 beat.
    18. Not proprietary hardware – You cannot remove/upgrade an iPhone’s internal storage. You cannot charge or sync with an iPhone without using its proprietary cable. This is great if you never want to upgrade your device’s storage capabilities, never want to slot its memory into another device, and never lose cables. But, if you ever want to do any of the first two or inadvertently do the last, then you’re better off with DROID 2.
    19. Display – One of the features I was most impressed with during the iPhone 4 announcement was the Retina Display: a screen with a resolution so high it was said to be at/near the limit of human detection. I can honestly say it works as advertised – the resolution on an iPhone screen is incredible. However, as I rarely use applications/websites where that resolution is actually necessary, its value to me is not that high (although the increased contrast is a nice touch). With that said, though, it is a nice (and very noticeable) touch and is definitely something where the iPhone 4 beats out the DROID 2.
    20. Device “feel” – The two devices have comparable screen sizes, but the DROID 2 has significantly greater thickness. The iPhone feels like a crafted piece of art. It feels metallic. Substantial. The DROID 2 feels like a thick piece of plastic. This doesn’t really impact the functioning of the device, but the iPhone 4 is definitely nicer to hold and look at and feels a lot sturdier.

    So where does that leave us? If you’re keeping score, I noted 12 things which (in my opinion) favor DROID 2 and 8 things which favor iPhone 4. As I mentioned before, which device you would prefer strongly depends on how you weight the different things mentioned here. If you value work-horse text entry, customization, and Google integration a lot (like I do), then the DROID 2 is probably the phone that you’ll want. If you value the Exchange/attachment support and UI slickness more, then the iPhone 4 is a better bet. And, there’s definitely room for disagreement here. If you think my assessment of Bluetooth support and notifications are off, then that could be ample reason to pick Apple.

Hopefully this was informative for any reader deciding what phone to get (even if they’re considering something which isn’t even on the list!). I’ll probably follow this post with a few thoughts on where I’d like to see the Apple and Google platforms go next – but until then, happy smartphone-ing!

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Why I Favor Google over Apple

image Many of my good friends are big fans of Apple and its products. But not me. This good-natured difference in opinion leads us into never-ending mini-debates over Twitter or in real life over the relative merits of Apple’s products and those of its competitors.

I suspect many of them (respectfully) think I’m crazy. “Why would you want an inferior product?” “Why do you back a company that has all this information about you and follows you everywhere on the internet?”

I figured that one of these days, I should actually respond to them (fears of flamers/attacks on my judgment be damned!).

imageFirst thing’s first. I’ll concede that, at least for now, Apple tends to build better products. Apple has remarkable design and UI sense which I have yet to see matched by another company. Their hardware is of exceptionally high quality, and, as I mentioned before, they are masters at integrating their high-end hardware with their custom-built software to create a very solid user experience. They are also often pioneers in new hardware innovations (e.g., accelerometer, multitouch, “retina display”, etc.).

So, given this, why on earth would I call myself a Google Fanboi (and not an Apple one)? There are a couple of reasons for it, but most of them boil down basically to the nature of Google’s business model which is focused around monetizing use rather than selling a particular piece of content/software/hardware. Google’s dominant source of profit is internet advertising – and they are able to better serve ads (get higher revenue per ad) and able to serve more ads (higher number of ads) by getting more people to use the internet and to use it more. Contrast this with Apple who’s business model is (for the most part) around selling a particular piece of software or hardware – to them, increased use is the justification or rationale for creating (and charging more for) better products. The consequence of this is that the companies focus on different things:

  • image Cheap(er) cost of access – Although Apple technology and design is quite complicated, Apple’s product philosophy is very simple: build the best product “solution” and sell it at a premium. This makes sense given Apple’s business model focus on selling the highest-quality products. But it does not make sense for Google which just wants to see more internet usage. To achieve this, Google does two main things. First, Google offers many services and development platforms for little or no cost. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Search: all free, to name a few. Second, Google actively attacks pockets of control or profitability in the technology space which could impede internet use. Bad browsers reducing the willingness of people to use the internet? Release the very fast Google Chrome browser. Lack of smartphones? Release the now-very-popular Android operating system. Not enough internet-connected TV solutions? Release Google TV. Not enough people on high-speed broadband? Consider building a pilot high-speed fiber optic network for a lucky community. All of these efforts encourage greater Web usage in two ways: (a) they give people more of a reason to use the Web more by providing high-value web services and “complements” to the web (like browsers and OS’s) at no or low cost and (b) forcing other businesses to lower their own prices and/or offer better services. Granted, these moves oftentimes serve other purposes (weakening competitive threats on the horizon and/or providing new sources of revenue) and aren’t always successes (think OpenSocial or Google Buzz), but I think the Google MO (make the web cheaper and better) is better for all end-users than Apple’s.
  • Choice at the expense of quality – Given Apple’s interest in building the best product and charging for it, they’ve tended to make tradeoffs in their design philosophy to improve performance and usability. This has proven to be very effective for them, but it has its drawbacks. If you have followed recent mobile tech news, you’ll know Apple’s policies on mobile application submissions and restrictions on device functionality have not met with universal applause. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t have the right to do this (clearly they do) or that the tradeoffs they’ve made are bad ones (the number  of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch purchases clearly shows that many people are willing to “live with it”), but it is a philosophical choice. But, this has implications for the ecosystem around Apple versus Google (which favors a different tradeoff). Apple’s philosophy provides great “out of the box” performance, but at the expense of being slower or less able to adopt potential innovations or content due to their own restrictions. image Case in point: a startup called Swype has built a fascinating new way to use soft keyboards on touchscreens, but due to Apple’s App Store not allowing an application that makes such a low-level change, the software is only available on Android phones. Now, this doesn’t preclude Swype from being on the iPhone eventually, but it’s an example where Apple’s approach may impede innovation and consumer choice – something which a recent panel of major mobile game developers expressed concern about — and its my two cents worth that the Google way of doing things is better in the long run.
  • image Platforms vs solutions – Apple’s hallmark is the vertically integrated model, going so far as to have their own semiconductor solution and content store (iTunes). This not only lets them maximize the amount of cash they can pull in from a customer (I don’t just sell you a device, I get a cut of the applications and music you use on it), it also lets them build tightly integrated, high quality product “solution”. Google, however, is not in the business of selling devices and has no interest in one tightly integrated solution: they’d rather get as many people on the internet as possible. So, instead of pursuing the “Jesus phone” approach, they pursue the platform approach, releasing “horizontal” software and services platforms to encourage more companies and more innovators to work with it. With Apple, you only have one supplier and a few product variants. With Google, you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution. A fair response to this would be that this can lead to platform fragmentation, but whether or not there is a destructive amount of it is an open question. Given Apple’s track record the last time it went solo versus platform (something even Steve Jobs admits they didn’t do so well at), I feel this is a major strength for Google’s model in the long-run.
  • image(More) open source/standards – Google is unique in the tech space for the extent of its support for open source and open standards. Now, how they’ve handled it isn’t perfect, but if you take a quick glance at their Google Code page, you can see an impressive number of code snippets and projects which they’ve open sourced and contributed to the community. They’ve even gone so far as to provide free project hosting for open source projects. But, even beyond just giving developers access to useful source code, Google has gone further than most companies in supporting open standards going so far as to provide open access to its WebM video codec which it purchased the rights to for ~$100M to provide a open HTML5 video standard and to make it easy to access your data from a Google service however you choose (i.e., IMAP access to Gmail, open API access to Google Calendar and Google Docs, etc.). This is in keeping with Google’s desire to enable more web development and web use, and is a direct consequence of it not relying on selling individual products. Contrast this with an Apple-like model – the services and software are designed to fuel additional sales. As a result, they are well-designed, high-performance, and neatly integrated with the rest of the package, but are much less likely to be open sourced (with a few notable exceptions) or support easy mobility to other devices/platforms. This doesn’t mean Apple’s business model is wrong, but it leads to a different conclusion, one which I don’t think is as good for the end-user in the long run.

These are, of course, broad sweeping generalizations (and don’t capture all the significant differences or the subtle ones between the two companies). Apple, for instance, is at the forefront of contributors to the open source Webkit project which powers many of the internet’s web browsers and is a pioneer behind the multicore processing standard OpenCL. On the flip side, Google’s openness and privacy policies are definitely far from perfect. But, I think those are exceptions to the “broad strokes” I laid out.

In this case, I believe that, while short-term design strength and solution quality may be the strengths of Apple’s current model, I believe in the long run, Google’s model is better for the end-customer because their model is centered around more usage.

I will leave you with another reason to love Google: Google ads have helped save princesses.

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My Take on Google/Verizon’s Net Neutrality Proposal

If you’ve been following the tech news at all, you’ll know about the great controversy surrounding the joint Google/Verizon proposal for net neutrality. Recently, Google came out with a defense of its own actions, and I thought I’d weigh in.

First, I think the community overreacted. There is a lot to not like about Google’s stance, but I think there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. There are political limits to what strict net neutrality promoters can achieve. Its a fact of life that the telco providers have deep pockets (part of their having government-granted monopoly status) and stand to gain or lose a great deal from the outcome of net neutrality legislation and thus wield enormous influence over broadband legislation. Its also a fact of life that the path towards net neutrality is more easily served by finding common ground which preserves the most important aspects of net neutrality than it is to fight the telco providers kicking and screaming the whole way. What I mean to say is: we should not criticize Google for dealing with a telco or with making compromises on net neutrality. That’s an unreasonable stance typically held by people who don’t have to actually make policy. With that said, we should criticize Google for making the wrong compromises.
  2. I don’t think Android was the issue here. Many people may disagree with me here, but I don’t believe Android has much direct impact to Google’s bottom line. From my perspective, Google’s commitment to Android is about two things: (a) preventing Apple from dominating the smartphone market (and potentially the mobile ad market) by empowering a bunch of phone manufacturers to provide devices of comparable (or better) quality and (b) forcing all mobile phone platforms to have decent-enough web surfing/app-running capability (by providing a free alternative which did) so that Google can provide its services effectively on those platforms and serve more ads. If anything, Google’s incentives here are better aligned with net neutrality than most companies: it benefits the most if there are more people using the web, and the best way to push that is to encourage greater content diversity. While Google TV may change Android into a true profit center, it wouldn’t be for several years, and so I think it’d be a stretch to say it is a big enough deal to significantly impact Google’s political policy moves. I can buy the argument that Google pushed a deal with Verizon because they have a closer relationship via Android, but I think suggesting that Google subverted net neutrality as a concession to Verizon on Android is taking it too far.
  3. I think Google did a good job of emphasizing transparency. The proposal emphasizes that telcos need to be held to higher standards of transparency, something which is sorely lacking today, and something which we definitely want to and need to see in the future.

With that said, though, there are definitely things to criticize Google’s agreement on:

  1. Wireless: I can sympathize with the argument that wireless is different from wired networks and could require more aggressive traffic management. I even went so far as to call that out the last time I talked about this. But, given the importance of wireless broadband in the future, it doesn’t make any sense to exclude explicit protections around neutrality for wireless. The arguments around competition and early development strike me as naive at best and Verizon PR at worst – whatever provisions exist to protect neutrality for wired networks should be applied in the wireless space. Competition and the development of more open gardens make it possible to compromise, but not necessarily throw caution to the wind.
  2. Wording weirdness: I’m concerned that the proposal contains phrasings which seem to give avenues for telcos to back out of neutrality like “prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted” without clearly explaining what are reasonable grounds for rebuttal. Even parts of the compromise which I accept as valid (i.e., letting telcos do basic network quality of service management, prioritize government/emergency traffic, fight off malware/piracy, etc.) were framed in terms of what telco’s were permitted to do, but not without clearly laid out restrictions (i.e., network service quality management must be subject to FCC review). For a document meant to safeguard neutrality, it sure seems to go out of its way to stipulate workarounds…
  3. “Additional online services”: I understand (and agree with) the intent – carriers may want to provide special services which they want to treat differently to meet their partners’/customers’ needs like a special gaming service or secure money transfer. The language, however, is strange and not imminently clear to me that there aren’t “back doors” for the telcos to use to circumvent neutrality restrictions.

Truthfully, I think most of the document rings true as a practical compromise between the interests and needs of telcos (who would bear the brunt of the costs and should be incentivized to improve network quality and provide meaningful services and integration) and the interests of the public. But, I would ask Google or whatever legislator/FCC member who has a voice on this to do two things:

  • Not compromise on content neutrality on any medium. The value of the internet as a medium and as a platform of innovation comes from the ability of people to access all sorts of applications and content without that access being discriminated against by the network operator. Not sticking to that is risking slower innovation and choking off a valuable source of commentary/opinions, especially in a setup where large local players hold enormous market power because of their government-granted monopoly status.
  • Create clear (but flexible enough to be future-proof) guidelines for acceptable behavior with clear adjudication and clear punishments. No squirrely word weirdness. No “back door” language. You don’t need to browbeat the telco’s, but you don’t need to coddle them either.
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