Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Nokia N9, MeeGo, and Who the Hell Would Buy One of These?

I have long been an admirer of Nokia’s hardware. Over the years I’ve owned a number of Nokia phones, from the awesome 6210 back in 2000 (wow, only 11 years ago!), through to the more recent classic, the 6300, and Nokia’s first touch screen, the 5800 XpressMusic. Build quality has always been beyond reproach, and Nokia’s position as market leader was well deserved.

Unfortunately for Nokia, the only constant in the tech industry is change, and they were too slow to react when the iPhone was launched with its revolutionary touch screen back in June 2007. They originally dipped a toe in the water with the above mentioned 5800 XM, and followed up with a series of flagship models like the N97, all running versions of Symbian S60 5th Edition. The latest version of the OS, Symbian^3, was first used as recently as Q4 2010, when the N8 was launched.

On 11 February, 2011, Nokia announced that it would migrate away from Symbian to Windows Phone 7, and the first devices from this collaboration are expected in Q4 2011.

Simultaneous to their work with Symbian, Nokia was also developing the Maemo OS, which eventually made an appearance on the N900 in late 2009. In February 2010 Nokia entered into partnership with Intel to merge Maemo and Intel’s Moblin project. And so MeeGo was born. Nokia eventually launched a device running the MeeGo OS, the N9, and have hailed it as their newest flagship. However, the press releases don’t say that Nokia has already turned its back on MeeGo, and more recently the Linux Foundation announced that MeeGo will be totally replaced by Tizen, a new collaboration between Intel and Samsung.

The Nokia N9 will be the only MeeGo device, ever!

Nokia certainly know how to make decent hardware; the N9 is a gorgeous looking device. The front face is almost all screen – no untidy buttons to detract from that beautiful, minimalist design. The screen is 3.9” of Gorilla glass, and it has a 1GHz processor and an 8MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics, and it comes in a range of different colors. It certainly ticks all the right boxes. The UI is simple and elegant, involving a Home Screen and 3 main views: app launcher (Apps view), history (Open Apps view), and notifications. Navigation is a simple process of swiping between these screens.

But I don’t care! This OS may be the best thing since sliced bread, but why would anyone buy a smartphone when the OS has already been abandoned?

Nokia have made a big deal about the fact that the N9 supports the Qt framework, enabling apps built for Symbian smartphones to be ported easily to the N9. However, if you’ve already grown accustomed to the seemingly endless supply of new apps available in Apple’s App Store or the Android Market, the miserly selection of available apps will be a huge disappointment. What is the point of having all that great hardware, a great UI, and no apps to run on it? And don’t expect any developers to be burning the midnight oil dreaming up the next big thing. With only one device available in the market, and no plan for additional models, what would be the point?

Sadly, this appears to be an effort from Nokia to recover some of their development costs, and to keep their brand in the public eye. They have little regard for the damage that launching another dead-end device will do to their already flagging reputation. I am looking forward to seeing what Nokia can do with Windows Phone 7. The marriage between the very well thought of OS and Nokia’s great hardware could bear some interesting fruit, but Nokia could be losing a lot of potential customers with a poorly supported phone like the N9.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amazon's Kindle Fire Will Rock the Tablet Market!

The Kindle Fire was the star of the show, but Amazon launched 2 other new Kindles today: the $79 Kindle and the Kindle Touch in Wi-Fi only ($99) and 3G ($149) versions. As great as they are the Kindle Fire was what everyone was interested in.

First off, price. At $199 this is game changing. Amazon Prime is free for the first 30 days, but after that will cost the normal $79/year. The Fire has a 7" display and will have access to all of Amazon’s services including AmazonMP3, Amazon Prime, Amazon Kindle, Amazon Instant Video and the Amazon AppStore. The tablet is powered by a dual-core processor and weighs 413 grams. This compares to the the iPad at over 600 grams, albeit with a 9,7" screen. Customers can pre-order the Kindle Fire today and it will ship November 15 2011, just in time for the holidays!

The Fire runs on the Android 2.3, but you won't see much sign of it. Amazon have built their own UI on top of Android, and it looks pretty good. One of the great features Amazon have built in is Whispersync, which not only automatically syncs your library, last page read, bookmarks, notes, and highlights across your devices, but on Kindle Fire, Whispersync extends to video.

Amazon also introduced their own browser for the Fire, called Amazon Silk. From their own description: "Amazon Silk is a revolutionary, cloud-accelerated browser that uses a "split browser" architecture to leverage the computing speed and power of the Amazon Web Services cloud. Supports Adobe® Flash® Player." It will be interesting to see how it shapes up against the established browsers.

With access to the Amazon AppStore, getting access to and running your favorite apps shouldn't be a problem, but I must point out that there is no camera. An email app is included, or you can download one from the AppStore.

For those that like to know the numbers, the screen is a 7" multi-touch with IPS (in-plane switching) technology and anti-reflective treatment, 1024 x 600 pixel resolution at 169 ppi, 16 million colors. There is 8GB internal memory, which is apparently enough for 80 apps, plus either 10 movies or 800 songs or 6,000 books. However, there is also unlimited free cloud storage for anything you purchase from Amazon. The battery offers up to 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback, with wireless off. These numbers will vary depending on how much web browsing you're doing.

If the device looks familiar, that's because the hardware is essentially the same as the Blackberry Playbook, without the cameras and microphone.

Amazon have taken a leaf out of the Apple playbook (no pun intended). They have focused their effort on offering a service. This is where every Android tablet has come short. If you visit the web site, or watch any of the video from the launch, you will be left in no doubt what this device is meant for. It is for downloading (or streaming) media content from Amazon, and it offers you the convenience of access to all the apps you're familiar with. There is very little detail of the technical specs - they offer a device that is designed to do a job, and it will do it well.

The Kindle Fire, at $199, compared to the cheapest iPad at $499, is an incredible bargain. Tablets have just been opened up to the mainstream - this is no longer an elitist device. To quote Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos: "These are premium products at nonpremium prices". If you thought the iPad was selling well, watch this one fly of the shelves! The only downside: it's US only for now.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Amazon's Tablet - Is This The Next Big Thing?

It is widely believed that Amazon will launch its 7" Android 2.1 based tablet at this event on Wednesday. While many see this as a competitor to the Apple iPad, it is actually aimed at the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, and most people expect it to be priced accordingly; around $250-$300. The difference in pricing might be to do with whether Amazon Prime is included or not, but this was not confirmed. Sources are also suggesting that it will carry the Kindle branding, and be known as the Kindle Fire.

So why is this so important? The iPad owns the 10” space, as other manufacturers have discovered to their detriment. However, as the market grows there will be opportunity for other form factors to find their own niche. In my personal opinion, the size and weight of the iPad make it a little awkward to use outside my home environment. Samsung’s original Galaxy Tab was 7”, but only enjoyed minor success in the market. However, this was more because of the poor experience with Android Gingerbread, which was meant for bigger screens, and the lack of available apps, than because of the screen size.

Part of the success of both the iPhone and the iPad can be attributed to the ease of access to apps and media through iTunes. Amazon is better suited than anyone else to offer a similar experience – they are the world’s  biggest online retailer, and already have a large digital store in addition to physical goods.

If Amazon can offer a tablet that is more portable than the iPad, can be held comfortably in one hand (great for reading), has apps available through the Amazon Appstore, and comes in under $300, then they have a great chance at success.

However, Amazon need to concentrate on the advantages of their tablet, and not market it as an alternative to the iPad. Instead, I believe they will market it as a top of the range Kindle, with the added advantage of a color screen (better for magazines) and the ability to run apps.

I am looking forward to tomorrow’s announcement to see exactly what Amazon will present, but I am already lusting over another new gadget!

Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Which Mobile OS?

When you look at the dozens of phones available to you, what do you look for; the physical device, with it's mirror-like screen and brushed aluminium finish, or do you consider what makes each phone perform the myriad tasks you intend performing? If you haven't thought in these terms, you should. You're about to lay down a sizable chunk of your hard earned cash, or tie yourself into an expensive 24 month contract, and you should really know what you're buying.

To me, it's all about the software. These days, the main manufacturers are all capable of making exceptional devices that vary little from each other in terms of hardware. However, the software is constantly evolving and improving, and if you pick the right phone, you'll continue to get updates and upgrades that will improve your experience, and even after 2 years, you won't feel like you're stuck with old technology.

As can be seen from the graph of worldwide 2011 Q2 smartphone sales to end users by operating system, according to Gartner, Android has clearly captured the lion's share of the market, up 13,3% since 2010, with its multiple manufacturer support from Samsung, HTC, Motorolla, LG and Sony Ericsson. However, Google's purchase of Motorolla could spell trouble for Android if the other manufacturers feel like they're not getting equal treatment and start looking to other OS's for their premium models. Android has another problem, and that is despite regular update to the core OS, these often aren't rolled out to every device, and it's left to the manufacturers, and then the carriers to decide which phones should get upgraded. Google are trying to address this problem, and it may improve with their newer phones.

Symbian may be in 2nd place, but don't be fooled. Symbian is in freefall, losing more than 10% in the last year, and down from complete market domination just 4 years ago, when they held 63,5%.

Apple's iOS takes 3rd place, and considering they essentially only have a single, premium handset (plus a discounted previous generation model) available, that's pretty good. iOS is actually still gaining market share, and I expect continued growth as the next generation is made available to more carriers in the key US market. The launch of iOS5 and the next generation iPhone will also see renewed demand for the iconic device. Where Apple really scores is that they release software updates directly to the customer, so everyone gets to run the latest version all the time, and Apple continue to make their software backwards compatible for several generations.

RIM hold on to 4th place with their Blackberry range, but they're down nearly 4% since a high of nearly 20% in 2009, and despite popularity with text hungry teens, management problems continue to plague the company that was once considered the trendsetter. Their OS is dated; the newly released Blackberry 7 is too little, too late. Blackberry QNX might save them, but launch timing has been pushed out numerous times, so don't hold your breath. 

The dark horse is Microsoft's Windows Phone 7. While it hasn't captured much share yet, Nokia will launch a range of phones before the end of 2011, which may turn things around for the software giant. They've also recently launched a preview of Windows 8, which will use a common format, borrowed from Phone 7, across all devices, from desktops to tablets and mobile phones. This is huge - who wouldn't want a phone that looks and acts just like all their other devices, and sync up seamlessly via the cloud? The jury is still out on whether the UI is suitable for non-touch screens, but regardless, the tie-up with Nokia will be sufficient to see some substantial growth over the next 2 years.

So where does this leave us? There is room for 3, maybe 4 OS's in the market. Why not more? Key to the success of any modern OS is the availability of apps to run on these devices, and developers will not support an infinite number of systems. Android and Apple currently rule the roost, so it'll be between Phone 7 and Blackberry OS to take 3rd. My money would be on Phone 7, because Microsoft have too much money to let it fail. That will leave Blackberry to battle on in 4th place, with a shrinking market share.

So when you're confronted with all those shiny new phones that promise so much, think about where those brands will be in a years time, because you don't want to be stuck with a device that is no longer supported.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mobile Messenger Services Are A Mess

The IM sector is red hot again these days, as people turn to these services to replace the ridiculously overpriced SMS services offered by the carriers. RIM have managed to do this very successfully with their BBM messaging service, despite the fact that BBM is limited to Blackberry devices. For many, this is the number one reason to purchase a Blackberry. In the teen market this is currently the phone of choice.

Seeing the success that RIM has had with this strategy, Google and Apple have rushed to bring similar products to market.

Google's strategy is a bit confusing. Google Chat (or is it Google Talk?) has been developed into a great IM package that works across desktop and mobile, and includes video, SMS, group chat and more. Then along comes the Google+ mobile app and now we have Huddle, a very simple group chat app, built into the G+ app. Now I'm not technical, but why didn't Google just incorporate their existing IM package? Huddle has now been updated to include photo sharing, and simultaneously changed its name to Messenger. The problem with this service is that it's mobile only. For me, turning away from my desktop, with it's large ergonomic keyboard, to reply to a message on my phone, with it's tiny keyboard, is very frustrating. It makes no sense at all!

In early October (hopefully) Apple will release iOS5 into the wild, and one of the new features is iMesenger. I believe it will work across mobile and desktop, but will unfortunately be limited to Apple devices, which makes it pretty useless. I understand that the strategy is to turn each iPhone user into a salesperson: "Get an iPhone like mine and we can chat for free!" It hasn't worked with Facetime, and it won't work here. Really Apple, am I only allowed to be friends with people that also use Apple products? C'mon!

I'm not a Facebook fan, but at least they got this right. Well almost. Facebook Messenger works in the browser and in their mobile app, and now Facebook have launched a separate Messenger app for smartphones, which is a great idea, as you don't have to open the main app first. Are you listening Google? The problem: you can only chat with people you have friended on Facebook. I don't want all my work colleagues following my social activities on Facebook, but it would be useful if I could text them!

A number of startups have also attempted to gain some traction in this sector. Beluga was gaining in popularity, but Facebook bought them out, and created their Messenger service. Whatsapp has a big following, and it's not OS specific, but there is no desktop version available, so it's mobile only.

So what's the answer? Currently, I use Google Talk/Chat, Google+ Messenger, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and when iOS5 comes out I'll also use iMessenger. With my Blackberry carrying friends I feel a bit left out, and have to hope they use Whatsapp. Of course, in an emergency, good old SMS is still available, but I would love to be able to move away from SMS entirely. Until one of these companies can build all this functionality into one app, I'm forced to keep using a combination, depending on whom I'm chatting with. What a mess!

And who owns the rights to the Messenger name anyway?

Thanks for reading.