Category Archives: RIM

Why the U.S. excels: sex, bombs and burgers

In thinking about Sex, Bombs and Burgers in an American context - which I’ve been doing a lot of lately given its U.S. launch this week - I’ve been reading up on something called “exceptionalism.” It’s a theory that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and holds that the United States is somehow a special nation in the world. While the term didn’t originally confer a sense of superiority, it has since been adapted by some thinkers to lean that way.

In considering my book, which focuses heavily on the U.S., I think there may be something to the theory, that the United States is indeed a special - and perhaps superior - nation. It’s an abhorrent thought to many non-Americans and especially us Canadians, but in fact, it’s sex, bombs and burgers that are the symbolic roots of this exceptionalism. Some explanation is in order.

Sex (pornography) = freedom. On Wednesday, I wrote about how the U.S. is a porn leader. Like it or not, pornography has its place in a prosperous and exceptional nation. American producers have argued for decades that what people choose to do - or consume - in their own homes is their business and that government has no place in it. For the most part, the courts have sided with them, enshrining free speech as one of the country’s most protected laws along the way. While there have been other tests of this tenet, the right to sex and pornography has essentially been at the vanguard of American freedoms.

Bombs (military) = opportunity. On Tuesday, I outlined just how much money the U.S. military spends every year, much of which has direct ties to corporations and educational institutions. While researching and designing new weapons of war isn’t exactly the most noble of pursuits, the consumer and humanitarian spinoffs are wide, varied and numerous. As such, the military provides a deep funding pool for anyone who is willing to dip into it. Recent examples include some of the most successful companies in the world, such as Google and Apple.

Burgers (food) = surplus. In my Thursday post, I detailed how the United States is the biggest food exporter in the world, a position it has enjoyed since at least the Second World War. Indeed, Americans have so much food that they throw out more than many nations produce. If ever there was a Land of Plenty, the U.S. is it.

When those three things - surplus, opportunity and freedom - are put together, amazing things happen. While some nations may have more of one or the other, no one else comes close to matching the sum combination that is found in the United States. Success is therefore built into the country’s very DNA.

This is especially true when it comes to technological innovation, an area the United States has led for much of the past century. While countries such as China and India are coming up in the world both economically and intellectually, they don’t currently match the right blend of surplus, opportunity and freedom. Moreover, they’re unlikely to any time soon because of long legacies and historical traditions that will be difficult if not impossible to overcome.

It doesn’t apply to just those big countries either - it affects smaller nations such as Canada as well. Here, many are now worrying about a possible collapse by our biggest technology company, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. The fretting is almost pointless because, as I wrote several months ago, the collapse is inevitable. Canada simply doesn’t have the right mix of surplus, opportunity and freedom either (opportunity is our biggest problem). We are a country that excels at producing small businesses, but those companies will inevitably get swallowed up by bigger concerns and our best and brightest will depart for greener pastures down south.

When it comes to innovation, other countries are - and will be for some time - just satellites that revolve around the United States. It’s a tough pill for many to swallow, but there’s no shame in it. Despite American exceptionalism, the world is truly global now and we all have our parts in it.

There’s also the possibility that the U.S. could do something incredibly stupid - like ban pornography, or enact the Stop Online Piracy Act - to sabotage its own specialness. Many people in many other countries are crossing their fingers…


Posted by on January 6, 2012 in food, RIM, sex, u.s., war


2012: The year of pressure

It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for lists, lists and more lists. Some people hate such year-enders because they are quite possibly the product of lazy writers. That’s partially correct - the truth is, many news outlets compile year-end lists weeks in advance as fillers for the holiday season, when their staff is off on vacation. So it’s not that we’re lazy; we’re just not working. Sometimes the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but this time around they probably are. (In my case, I’m actually writing this on Dec. 28, so I’m exempt.)

I kind of like year-end lists. I dig retrospectives because they remind me of things I might have forgotten - a year is a long time, after all. I also like lists that look ahead because they help get me started on thinking about what’s to come. And again, they remind me of things that may not be top of mind heading into the new year.

That said, here’s my very own list of things that are looking likely for 2012 as they pertain to technology in North America, with special relevance for those of us here in Canada. This isn’t so much a list of predictions as it is a “pressure roundup,” since each item seems inevitable because of the associated momentum building around it.

5. The turfing of RIM’s CEOs.

It would be an understatement to say it’s been a miserable year for Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion, also known as the heart of Canada’s tech industry. From the costly flop of the Playbook tablet to delay-after-delay on much-needed next-generation BlackBerry devices to drunken executives on a plane, there simply wasn’t a shred of good news for RIM in 2011. That means things can only get better in 2012, right? Not exactly. As 2011 closed out, reports emerged that a number of high-profile tech companies, including Amazon, had considered buying RIM. With the company’s stock down close to 80 per cent of where it began the year, that’s not a surprise - it’s a veritable steal now. But with founders and co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie still controlling around 10% of the company, a purchase might be difficult to negotiate. The pressure is therefore on the company’s board to oust the pair and either find someone who can turn the company around, split it up or negotiate a sale. Removing the duo from their jobs would make any of these options easier.

Coincidentally, this past year we also learned a great deal about the history and inner workings of one of RIM’s biggest rivals, Apple, through the Steve Jobs biography. The parallels are there - Jobs built a company that got mired in its own success before he himself got turfed for hubris and an inability to work with others. With Lazaridis and Balsillie attracting “worst CEO of the year” honours for their own alleged arrogance (from the New York Times, no less), perhaps the two could also benefit from stepping away to do something else for a while. It clearly did wonders for Jobs, who learned some humility and co-operation skills before returning to lead Apple to new heights. With RIM’s current trajectory, it just doesn’t seem plausible that Lazaridis and Balsillie will be around when BlackBerry 10 devices finally arrive, supposedly in late 2012. That sure would be good news. Read the rest of this entry »


Motorola’s path forward looks easier than RIM’s

As many had speculated, Motorola has indeed dusted off the old Razr name for its new smartphone, unveiled here in New York Tuesday. In the U.S., where the handset maker has licensing rights with the Star Wars folks, the phone actually combines two of Motorola’s most successful brands - it’s called the Droid Razr. For the rest of the world, including Canada, it’s just the Razr.

The new Razr: super-thin and very light.

If you’re into specification porn, Mobile Syrup has you covered. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that the phone is ridiculously light and thin, yet still sturdy, fast and powerful. I played with one briefly and was amazed at how light it felt in my hand. It’s got a steel core and Kevlar on the outside though, so it’s made not to break. Sadly, as a Motorola representative told me, it’s not strong enough to stop bullets (vests apparently have many layers of Kevlar while the phone only has one).

What I found most interesting during Motorola chief executive Sanjay Jha’s presentation was the mention of how the Razr will be aimed at corporate customers as well as the every-day consumer. The device can accommodate secure enterprise email systems and has remote wipe capabilities, which means it’ll probably pass muster with many businesses’ IT departments.

This has bearing on Canada, particularly BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, which counts business users as its main bread and butter. RIM’s recent woes have been well documented here and elsewhere, but its problem ultimately comes down to this very factor: it is much easier for consumer-facing companies such as Motorola to delve into the business world than it is to go the other way, which is what RIM has been trying and failing to do for some time now.

I asked Jha about this afterward and he agreed to an extent, although he isn’t taking RIM lightly. The BlackBerry maker, which was coincidentally showing off its upcoming BBX operating system at a developer conference in San Francisco, is still a very strong competitor, he said:

There is something at the gut level that resonates with consumers about Android, and we know it because we’ve tried something like three or four OSes. To win in this business, the only learning for me so far is that there is not just one factor that gets you a win. It’s a combination of multiple factors that gets you there. It’s not just cheap, it’s not just the best, you have to hit the appropriate [spots]. They have to do that and it’s work in front of them. Can they do it? Absolutely, it has been done before and it can be done again.

Motorola Canada president Michelle Digulla also acknowledged RIM’s position, but she was a bit more specific in the opportunity for her company:

At the beginning it was the CTOs saying here are the three phones you can pick from or that you can use. That whole dynamic is completely changing. People are like, ‘No, no, no, I’ll pick the phone, you just make it work.’ To be honest, iPhone really pushed the envelope for enterprise people to start doing that. We need to start educating the market about Android for business. It’s an uphill battle, especially in Canada where people are entrenched with RIM, but this is exactly what we need to take hold of.

As I put it on Twitter, Motorola’s hip and cool phones (i.e. the Droid and the original Razr before it) seem to be almost the antithesis of business devices, where staid, sturdy and reliable are the watch words. Motorola could therefore have as much of a tough time getting accepted within companies as RIM is having in the consumer space. The difference, however, is that all the momentum is coming from the much bigger consumer market. It’s obvious which side any handset maker would rather be on.

Motorola will likely benefit greatly in this regard once it is absorbed by Google, a topic that Jha also discussed. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

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Posted by on October 18, 2011 in apple, Google, mobile, motorola, RIM


BlackBerry not good enough for Mercedes

This week marks the launch of a new mobile app/game from Mercedes-Benz Canada wherein one lucky user will score a new 2012 C-Class Coupe car. The Drive & Seek app, which was shown off to a small group of us journalists in Toronto last week, is a nifty piece of software that is designed to expose the luxury car maker’s brand to younger potential customers by giving them a game-like contest to take part in.

The way it works is that each week for the next four weeks, the app will unlock 10 virtual “briefcases,” which are randomly generated locations usually within 100 meters of the user. The phone directs users to the location of a briefcase using a compass and distance meter. When the user finds the location, they score some points, get information about the C-Class Coupe and unlock the next briefcase. The more briefcases that are found, the more points the player scores. The more points they have at the end of the month, the more entries they get in the drawing for the car.

Mercedes-Benz says there will be some secondary prizes, such as sunglasses and watches. The company also expects about 125 people to score full points, which means the odds of winning the car look pretty good to anyone who can devote themselves to finding all 40 briefcases. Of course, because the draw is random, the winner could also turn out to be someone who unlocked just one.

What a number of us found most interesting at the presentation was the fact that the app is only available for iPhone and Android devices. Indeed, Mercedes-Benz staff were quite candid about not making the app - which features fluid graphics and animations - available for BlackBerry because it would have taken too long, cost too much and ultimately not have been worth it. “It’s tough to deliver that kind of experience on a BlackBerry,” an executive said.

On some levels, the decision makes sense. After all, the people most likely to own a BlackBerry - power business users - are also the most likely to already own a Mercedes; they probably don’t need to enter a contest to win a free car. Such people are also the most unlikely to spend time on such a game, given that they’re probably tied up in important meetings or running a company all day, and so on.

However, the decision to avoid BlackBerry is also very telling - for one luxury brand to forsake another in favour of its supposedly lower-crust competitors is nothing short of a slap in the face. Mercedes is effectively saying that BlackBerry isn’t worth the trouble, especially if the key message is to spread its brand to young people. Ouch.

It’s no wonder BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is in an absolute freefall. The Waterloo, Ont.-based company reported dismal quarterly results last week, leading many to suggest RIM is done. When some of the most important brands in the world don’t even bother with your devices, that’s not too far from the truth.


Posted by on September 19, 2011 in apple, Google, RIM


HP TouchPad: a polished contender to the iPad

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.


Posted by on June 29, 2011 in apple, Google, ipad, RIM


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