Archive for June, 2011

HP TouchPad: a polished contender to the iPad

June 29, 2011 2 comments

The world of tablets is getting downright crowded, with seemingly every tech company worth its salt looking to get a piece of the booming market launched last year by Apple’s iPad. The newest entry is Hewlett Packard’s TouchPad, which comes out in the United States on July 1 and in Canada and other countries on July 15.

I’ve had a TouchPad for just over a week and have been comparing it to the other top three tablets available (iPad 2, Motorola Xoom and BlackBerry Playbook). Let’s start with a review of the TouchPad, with some thoughts on the other three following afterward.

The basics: The TouchPad has a 9.7-inch display and runs webOS 3.0, the latest version of the web-based operating system developed by Palm, which HP acquired in 2010. It’s the same well-received OS that runs on Palm’s line of Pre smartphones. The tablet has one front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera, a light sensor, accelerometer, compass and gyroscope, with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It doesn’t have 3G but rumours suggest that might be coming later this year. The tablet also doesn’t have a GPS, but its map functions do work with Wi-Fi. Under the hood, the tablet packs a 1.2-gigaherz Snapdragon processor and comes with two storage options: the 16-gigabyte model is $499 in the U.S. while the 32GB one is $599. The Canadian versions sell for $519 and $619, respectively. Full specs can be found here.

The good: As with the Pre phones, the webOS is a slick operating system that makes handling the TouchPad fun. The tablet is capable of multitasking, which means it can run multiple applications at once, so you can have a video open while surfing the web at the same time. Open apps are represented by “cards,” which are similar to windows on a computer. Navigating between cards is done by flicking left and right, while closing an app is done by an upward flick off the screen, which I have to admit is quite fun.

One of the TouchPad’s strong points is its deep email app. The device aggregates multiple email accounts and displays them in three columns - the left-most displays accounts, the middle one shows headers from the account currently selected and the right-most shows the email. The size of the columns can be easily adjusted with swipes, so an individual email can be blown up to full screen. Emails can then be replied to and forwarded, printed wirelessly to an HP printer or filed into folders.

Typing on a touchscreen is never fun, but HP has tried to ease this by eliminating some unnecessary steps. The on-screen keyboard has a numbers row above the letter, for example, while the size of the keys can also be adjusted. These are some small, nice touches - no pun intended - that make typing a little easier.

The TouchPad also boasts a similar “Synergy” feature that aggregates contacts and information from across several apps into single points of reference. The chat app, for example, can pull in contacts from Skype, Google, Yahoo and other instant messaging services and display all of them in the same place. The photo app, meanwhile, aggregates pictures from the device itself and blends them with those in a Facebook, Photobucket or Snapfish accounts. These are all neat features that take a little getting used to, but once they’re mastered they save the user from having to constantly sign into and flip between different apps.

The tablet also has a powerful universal search function called “Just Type.” The feature not only looks into search engines and folders on the device, it can also comb supported apps and web sites. Rather than opening the web browser, going to Wikipedia and looking for a topic there, the site can be searched from the Just Type field on the home page.

Notifications are also handled nicely on the TouchPad. Rather than popping up in the middle of the screen and interrupting whatever it is you’re doing, like what happens on the iPad, notifications are stacked unobtrusively in a bar at the top of the screen. So, whenever you get an email or someone comments on your WordPress blog, a short line pops up to let you know. Touching the notification takes you to the relevant app while swiping gets rid of it.

The device also has a few accessories to go with it, sold separately, including a cover and a Bluetooth keyboard. The coolest is the Touchstone, a wireless charger similar to the one used by the Pre. The Touchstone charges the tablet through magnetic induction and activates exhibition mode, which can display a clock, calendar, photos or any other app that has such a function built in to it.

The bad: At 1.6 pounds, the TouchPad is fairly heavy. The iPad 2, billed as the lightest and thinnest, is 1.35 pounds, yet those extra grams seem to make a significant difference. The TouchPad feels bulky in comparison.

HP’s tablet is also somewhat slow at launching apps, particularly Word documents and the like through its Quickoffice feature. Apps usually take a second or so to open, which seems like a lifetime compared to the instant launches found on other tablets. It’s not a huge issue, but it does run counter to what has become the norm with such always-on devices.

While the TouchPad does have a forward-facing camera for video conferencing, it lacks the sort of outward-facing one that is now standard on rival tablets. Truth be told, the case for why tablets should have such cameras has yet to be made, but nevertheless, its absence seems like a potential limitation.

Where the TouchPad is limited is in the all-important apps category. Apple and Google’s Android boast hundreds of thousands of apps for their smartphones, with more and more of those being optimized for tablets every day. HP’s device is launching with about 6,200 Pre apps and about 300 tablet-optimized apps. Developers now have four major tablet operating systems to contend with, but they only have so much time and resources. Whether they can be lured to create apps for the TouchPad, not to mention Research In Motion’s PlayBook, remains to be seen. In HP’s defense, the company says one of the reasons it bought Palm was to get webOS, which is easy to create apps for because it is web-based.

There’s one other negative about the TouchPad and it’s something that all of the iPad’s rivals have been touting: Flash. Much has been made about Apple’s refusal to use the popular multimedia feature, which enables a good portion of the web’s video, on its mobile devices. Rivals, including HP, see this as a weakness and have played up their tablets’ ability to run Flash and therefore display all of the web. The only problem is, I have yet to see a tablet that can run Flash smoothly and reliably. Many of my efforts at doing so on the TouchPad resulted in the tablet crashing outright. While the iPad can’t run Flash, in this respect Apple has been right so far.

Final thoughts: The good outweighs the bad on the HP TouchPad and after an albeit short week or so of playing with it, it seems to be the second-most polished of the four major tablets available. The iPad 2, being a second-generation device, is obviously ahead of the curve and has all of the best apps, including a host of great games. Its inability to run Flash is looking like less and less of a weakness every day as more and more websites convert to HTML5, which is compatible with Apple’s mobile devices. As such, Apple’s dominance in tablets is sure to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Motorola Xoom packs impressive hardware, such as high-definition video output, and is well positioned to take advantage of Android apps as they inevitably become optimized for tablets. As it stands though, many of the apps that are available for it seem hastily assembled and aren’t much to look at. The same can be said for its overall haphazard organization - navigating through the tablet is a bit like looking for something in a messy teenager’s room. I’m sure Android tablets are going to get better and start taking market share from Apple, but the Xoom just doesn’t seem quite there yet.

The BlackBerry PlayBook similarly has great hardware, but it’s clearly still a work in progress. RIM has the same app challenges as HP, but its tablet still doesn’t have some basic, necessary functions, such as standalone email. The PlayBook is promising, but it needs a lot of fixing before it can be a contender.

The TouchPad is the first non-iPad tablet I’ve used that didn’t seem rushed out the door. It does have a few organizational and navigational advantages over the iPad, although I’m not sure these are enough to warrant picking it over Apple’s device. Nevertheless, it’s a nice start for HP.

Categories: apple, Google, ipad, RIM

Lessons from Hollywood on vertical integration

June 29, 2011 5 comments

I was working on something related to movies the other day and came across an interesting slice of history I was not aware of that could have some bearing on a particularly contentious debate going on today. Last week, I wrote about how regulators should go ahead and allow free reign to so-called vertical integration, where large internet and telecom companies also own broadcasters. In Canada, the CRTC is in the midst of hearings on whether such a situation could turn anti-competitive.

My argument was to let ‘er rip - as long as consumers have fair access to the internet and a good chunk of monthly data usage, there will be tons of competitive options that will keep the vertically integrated companies from abusing their customers.

However, it does appear we’ve been on this ride before. Back in the 1940s, the U.S. courts struggled with a similar situation. Under the so-called studio system, Hollywood itself was thoroughly integrated for much of the first half of the 20th century. The likes of Warner Bros. and Paramount not only produced films, they also owned the theatre chains that showed them.

Theatres were thus required to take part in a process called block booking, where they had to purchase a bunch of crappy movies if they wanted the good ones. Not only that - they also had to buy a lot of these movies without first seeing them.

The parallels to today are obvious. In the first instance, television subscribers today commonly have to get a bunch of channels they couldn’t care less about in order to view the ones they actually do want. Many viewers would prefer to get their channels a la carte, where they only have to pay for the ones they want. Of course, many poorly viewed channels would go under if this scheme were put into effect. Once again, I say let ‘er rip - but that’s a debate for another time.

The more important parallel is that of the vertical integration. While the two situations - of yesterday and today - are not exactly alike, the similarity in both  is that the content owners also control the means of distribution.

The studio system was eventually smashed, first by the Paramount decision, which forced that studio to limit its block booking, and then by Howard Hughes who was the first to split off theatres from his RKO studio.

This structural separation, a term that is increasingly getting tossed around these days in regards to telecom companies, took a huge toll on Hollywood’s profits. Actors were laid off and fewer films were produced, but the industry of course recovered as it settled into a newly competitive paradigm.

While the court’s antitrust moves were probably wise at the time, they may not have been necessary in hindsight because of the inevitable encroachment of technology. The court cases started in the 1930s, when no one could have predicted what the arrival of television in the late 1940s and early 1950s would eventually mean. Indeed, television caused movie attendance to plummet and took almost as big a chunk out of Hollywood’s revenue as the end of the studio system.

Studios were thus forced to compete, which is when they came up with their own new technologies, such as widescreen movies, 3D and, of course, Smell-O-Vision.

That’s where the big difference is between yesterday’s film integration and today’s telecom/broadcast situation. While courts and regulators couldn’t see that technology would eventually make their interference unnecessary, today it’s already very obvious, which is another reason to allow vertical integration to go ahead unhindered.

Categories: movies, telecommunications

Harry Potter and the illogic of the book business

June 28, 2011 5 comments

I can’t help but read stories about authors and their self-publishing efforts with great relish. The bigger the better. That’s why, when I saw the news over the weekend about Harry Potter writer J.K Rowling going the self-publishing route, all I could think was, “You go girl!”

When a big-name writer such as Rowling - who, let’s face it, is the biggest there is - goes solo and decides to sell her own ebooks independent of any publisher, that contributes to two things. First, it continues to take the stigma off self-publishing and secondly, it sends further much-needed shockwaves through the already rollicking book business.

On the first point, it’s true that Rowling isn’t exactly taking a huge chance. Her Harry Potter books are already established commodities and she will doubtlessly do very well selling her own books. People know who she is and will seek her out. Nevertheless, her move is a huge step toward quashing whatever negative connotation might still be associated with self-publishing. If the biggest author in the world isn’t too vain to publish her own books, then no one else can be, right?

The second point is considerably more important, though. How Rowling is choosing to sell her ebooks is almost as important as the fact that she is doing so in the first place. Rather than going with an established middle man ebook retailer, such as Amazon or Apple, Rowling is choosing to sell her goods via her own website. That means she’ll be keeping 100% of the proceeds, rather than giving up 30% to the middle man.

That’s pretty amazing because if other big names follow suit, the whole book-selling dichotomy will change dramatically. Amazon, Apple, Kobo and the like will have to work at attracting and keeping such big names. In other words, they’ll have to actually do something to earn their 30%, other than just sitting there. Whether that’s some sort of promotional agreement or whether the 30% gets dramatically cut to say 5%, ebook retailers are going to have to add some kind of value to what they do.

That brings us to traditional publishers. Exactly what do they do to earn their 90% cut? They seem to be left holding the short end of the stick - and deservedly so.

Speaking from my limited experience, the book business is more illogical and messed up than the music industry ever was, and we all know what happened to them. My own Canadian publisher, Penguin, has been fighting with Amazon over ebook pricing and generally trying to resist the digital revolution completely. In the meantime, Penguin authors are suffering from a healthy dose of illogic, like grossly overpriced ebooks. There is no sane reason why an ebook should cost more than a hardcover, but lo and behold, that’s the case with my Sex, Bombs and Burgers.

What’s the result of this? It’s non-existent ebook sales. I wouldn’t pay $22 for the best ebook in the world - and obviously no one else will either, if my sales reports are anything to go by (and yes, although Sex, Bombs and Burgers is a veritable thrill ride, it probably isn’t the best ebook in the world in anyone’s mind besides my own).

The most poignant part of the Wired story is about how Rowling’s move may be a “kick up the arse” to the publishing industry:

Publishers need to radically rethink their remuneration structures in order to ensure that their cash cows don’t all follow Rowling’s suit. To this day, publishing remains a B2B business - publishers sell to retailers and not readers.

To that, I’d add that publishers have a new set of customers - their authors - and they need to start making them happy. Otherwise, writers might start doing similarly illogical things, like directing potential readers to sites like these.

Categories: amazon, apple, ebooks

Cisco’s broadband bikini revisited

June 27, 2011 4 comments

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the latest internet usage report from Cisco and how it would inevitably be misconstrued by some folks.

Some of the issues I identified with the network equipment maker’s Virtual Networking Index included the unlikelihood that Canadians use the internet more than Americans; Japan’s similarly head-scratching low usage; the unexplained projections of how traffic is expected to grow in different countries; and why internet leaders such as the Nordic countries were grouped into a generic “Western Europe” category that may have skewed the entire study.

Of course, the data was indeed misconstrued by some pundits, including The Economist and Duncan Stewart in The Globe and Mail, who claimed that “Canadians are the third biggest consumers of gigabytes on the planet.” A few days ago, I spoke with Thomas Barnett, senior manager of service provider marketing for Cisco and Arielle Sumits, lead analyst and prime architect of the VNI about some of the issues I raised. Here’s an abridged version of that conversation, which was marked by some illuminating information, followed by some concluding thoughts.

The Economist’s chart showed that Canadians use more data than Americans. Is that correct, and if so, how so?

Sumits: That was actually a per capita chart. They didn’t exactly make that clear in the captions, they said per person. Per capita does change the results. I think the way you did it in your article, looking by households, is more accurate. If you look at per user and not per capita, then Canada ends up below the U.S. It’s still higher than you might expect but there is some other evidence that Canadian usage is pretty high. Comscore has been measuring Canada versus the U.S. for some time and they claim that Canadian usage is twice that of elsewhere in the world. Higher video minutes, particularly.

Americans have considerably more and better online video options with Hulu and deeper selections on Netflix and iTunes. How is it they end up using only slightly more than Canadians?

Sumits: It is a little bit surprising. A lot of the sites that are driving traffic in Canada don’t appear to originate in Canada. There are a lot of video sites particularly in Asia that provide a lot of video content that do appear to be driving quite a bit of traffic in Canada. Even though the legit content availability is lower, users [in Canada] do appear to be finding other ways to get content.

Barnett: Canadians, from an internet perspective, have been some of the most prolific users of Facebook and YouTube. One of the things we found this year is that the Netflix phenomenon is having an effect on traffic. That sort of long-form video is driving three times more traffic than the short form, which are the YouTube clips. That said, Netflix has recently been offered in Canada but YouTube is still a huge resource, as well as people posting videos on Facebook, which could be one of the big drivers for the Canadian traffic growth. We have 16 countries that we cover in detail and that’s based on the data we’re able to get. While we do look globally by region, there are 16 countries that we’re featuring in our report in some detail and that may be one of the reasons that of the countries that we cover, Canada comes up where it does in the rankings.

How do Canadians fare in peer-to-peer usage? Are they disproportionate users of things like BitTorrent?

Sumits: I wouldn’t say so. By far the highest number of peer-to-peer users are in Asia, followed by Europe. The U.S. is the lowest percentage, below 25% [of traffic]. Canada is higher than the U.S. but not as high as Asia. I looked at that and thought it might be contributing to the higher amount for Canada but other things [apply]. There does actually seem to be a correlation between cold weather and internet use.

Japan ranks pretty lowly in internet usage in your report, but that’s because wireless isn’t counted. Is wireless accounted for separately in the Virtual Networking Index?

Barnett: Yes, we actually do. Japan, for some of the reasons you mentioned in your article, there definitely is a different culture and usage of mobile technology there. One comparison for example that shows the stark difference between Canada and Japan specifically is that in 2010, mobile data traffic represented just 1% of Canada’s total IP traffic. In Japan, mobile data was 2.8%. Even though we’re only talking about 1.8 percentage points, the difference was huge. If we extrapolate that out over the forecast period, by 2015 mobile data traffic will be just 3% of Canada’s total IP traffic but it’ll be 12% of Japan’s. The use of video is obviously a huge driver of mobile data traffic, but particularly in Japan based on the networks and speeds they have available. That’s happening much more in Japan than not only in Canada, but in the United States and Europe.

Can you explain how you forecast traffic increases? Traffic in Canada is expected to triple while in the UK it is seen quadrupling by 2015.

Sumits: Historically, growth rates tend to hover around 30 or 40%, so tripling or quadrupling is consistent with that. Some of the drivers are broadband speeds in particular, and that’s something that may be contributing to some of the country trends that you see. Deployment of super high speeds with fiber significantly contributes, the number of connected devices are expected to double worldwide. All of these are drivers of the growth rates. Another reason is that lot of the video traffic in particular is also migrating from one medium to another. If it’s going from TV, which is very efficiently delivered and just sent across the network once and then split out at the last minute, if they’re moving to an on-demand or internet platform, that all becomes unicast traffic. It may all be the same from the user’s perspective, but it’s contributing to the traffic growth.

Why do you group Western Europe together in your reports? The Nordic countries are generally thought of as internet leaders - wouldn’t including them change your stats considerably?

Barnett: We start by having a model and we feed into that a variety of syndicated research forecasts from a variety of vendors. To some degree, while we can have reasonable information, the countries that we’ve selected represent the countries where we can get detailed information on those countries through some of our syndicated third-party research sources. Part of it is just a coverage perspective of what we’re able to get.

Sumits: It’s no judgement on the importance of those countries. It’s sort of like Asia, where South Korea is generating so much traffic. The same thing could happen for Europe. When we can get solid enough data we can include them. We just decided to start with the G8 plus five and we’ve added a few as we’ve been able to get more data.

Barnett: Just this year, because of the demand we had from Australia and New Zealand, we were able to go out and find… it’s not just finding data, it’s finding credible data. As we’re able to add new countries, we certainly will. Given the feedback you’ve given us on this particular conversation, we may look at Scandinavian countries for a number of reasons to see if we can’t include them in future forecasts.

How should people read the VNI? What should they take from it and what shouldn’t they?

Barnett: One of the major shifts we see is that Asia-Pac with its larger population and its rabid willingness to adopt a variety of different consumer devices will by 2015 be the largest traffic contributing region. We’re seeing a changing of the guard from that perspective. I wouldn’t say it’s a kind of sky-is-falling projection. We’ve seen over time service providers continue to innovate, transition and transform their networks. There will be challenges to support all of this traffic, but it is just an evolution.

Bottom line: I think there was a lot of good information in that interview, with a couple of key points to take away. Firstly, while U.S. entertainment companies claim that Canada is a piracy haven, the numbers seem to indicate that things aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be. On the other hand, with peer-to-peer file-sharing being higher in Canada than in the U.S., that would seem to reinforce the notion that having legal content easily and inexpensively available seems to be the best counter to piracy.

More importantly, the conversation reinforced what I concluded in my original blog post - that while Canadians are indeed prolific users of the internet, they certainly are not the “third biggest consumers of gigabytes on the planet,” as claimed elsewhere. They are, in fact, projected to land middle of the pack of a select group of countries that is, at this point, fairly limited.

Categories: cisco, internet

Burger King woos women with less beef

June 24, 2011 1 comment

This week’s funny comes, once again, via my man Tom Megginson. Where he gets this stuff, I have no idea. Well, I do… he attributes it properly, which means today’s blog post is something like fourth- or fifth-hand information. What can I say, it’s been a busy week and I’ve become a little bit lazy.

The news is that Burger King has decided to try and woo women customers in Asia with an unusual-although-probably-obvious idea: smaller burgers. The BK Shots, or tiny shots of beef to the mouth (that’s what she said), are essentially sliders. Or, as Burger King is pitching them to women in Singapore, they’re: “Petite and girl-friendly, it’s the burger that women have been wanting all along.”

Check out the ad, featuring beef of the cow kind and of the male stud kind (and click here if you can’t see it below):

Burger King’s strategy is of course in direct opposition to those employed by burger restaurants of all stripes when aiming their products at men, who like their beef as ample and grotesque as possible. I’m fairly sure there aren’t too many women who eat at the Heart Attack Grill or Dangerous Dan’s.

Categories: Burger King, burgers

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