Browser Wars Ignite Again

Major news about core web browser technology is not very frequent so it was quite a surprise that there were two big stories this week on the topic. Both of which can have a serious effect on how we browse on mobile devices in the coming years.

Blink

Google announced on the Chromium blog that they moving to a new rendering engine called Blink. Blink is a fork of Webkit, the engine that powers Chrome and Safari today. Their reasoning is that the changes they need to make for Chrome are too difficult to roll back into Webkit and this is slowing down the pace of their development. At some point soon Chrome on desktop OSes, ChromeOS, and Android will be running on this new codebase.

This is an important development because Google has been a major contributor to the Webkit project and the loss of their efforts to the project will certainly hinder Webkit’s progress. This will likely have negative effects for other platforms using Webkit, most notably Safari on both iOS and OS X. Apple will likely need to increase staff dedicated to Webkit to keep Webkit modern. Apple tends to like to be in control of strategic pieces of functionality of its platforms so I find it unlikely they will move away from Webkit any time soon.

Servo

In other web engine news this week, Mozilla announced it is developing a new web browser engine called Servo. Servo’s design goals are to be secure and support the latest hardware (e.g. multicore processors).

To develop Servo, Mozilla is developing a new programming language called Rust. Rust is a C like language with an emphasis on security. I find it interesting that Mozilla decided it could not rely on any existing language and had to go to the bother to create something new. Rust should be available to developers by the end of 2013. No word on when Servo would be available but I would guess it wouldn’t be until late 2014 at the earliest.

Who would be a potential customer of Servo? Interestingly, Samsung. Samsung is working with Mozilla to get Servo working on Android on ARM processors. Samsung’s relationship with Google has been called into question as Samsung gains more power in the smartphone market. Having their own browser engine is another way Samsung can break its dependency on Google.

Servo is an important project for Mozilla as it tries to stay relevant as the market is increasing moving to mobile devices. Firefox Mobile has negligible market share and the future of Firefox OS is hardly certain. Servo could help keep Mozilla on the map.

Conclusion

I have heard many web developers openly wish that all browsers would standardize on Webkit so that it would be easier to write web pages that would work better across browsers. Even though supporting multiple browsers is a hard problem, I never supported that position. Having only one engine would be a bad thing for the evolution of the web. Having multiple competing products is what forces progress. Remember the IE6 days? Multiple browsers may make writing pages harder, but browser technology will likely move ahead at a faster pace which is a good thing for everyone.

Just as Webkit stole Mozilla’s and Microsoft’s thunder several years ago, Blink or Servo may take over as the dominant browser engine in the coming years. If nothing else, this will force the Webkit project to take a look at itself and do the hard work to keep up with the competition. It is good to see work going on to advance the state of the art in browser technology. With competition, everyone benefits.

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Is the iPad mini Too Expensive?

After months of speculation Apple has finally unveiled a smaller iPad, the iPad mini. Like the iPhone 5’s release, there were few surprises about the hardware as most of it had been leaked well in advance. The only shock was the price. Starting at $329, the iPad mini is much more expensive than other similarly sized tablets which start at $199.

Why is it so much?

First of all, Apple cannot price match Amazon and Google at $199. The Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 are sold at (or pretty close to) cost as each vendor intends to make money selling content and displaying ads. Apple makes its money on the hardware so they cannot sell at cost. You can argue which business model is better, but Apple’s model seems to have been working out pretty well so far.

Even if Apple has to charge more to make a profit, $329 seems like a lot more more and needs to justify it. I think the pricing comes down to who is Apple selling this product to. The iPad mini is marketed to people who want an iPad (note I said an iPad, not a tablet) but think the 9.7″ device is too big, or too expensive. If you wanted an iPad and size or price was your issue, then Apple now has a solution for you.

If you were looking for the least expensive tablet around, then Apple can’t help you and appears to be willing to lose you as a customer.

Hardware differences aside, the big difference between these tablets comes down to the ecosystem behind it. Apple, Amazon, and Google each have their own stores of apps, music, movies, TV shows, and books. Apple’s offering is unique in that it offers 275,000 apps which is way beyond Google’s or Amazon’s. I believe this is why they feel they can charge such a premium.

Is the price too close to the iPad 2?

Another issue brought up is that at $329 the mini is only $70 less than the 9.7″ iPad 2. If you’re spending over $300 anyway, why not just spend a little more and get the larger tablet?

John Gruber points out that it is interesting to compare the iPad mini to the iPod mini introduced eight years ago. The iPod mini was introduced a couple of years after the iPod but was smaller, had less storage capacity, and cost $50 less than the full sized iPod. Pundits complained the iPod mini was too expensive for what it offered and too close in price to the full iPod to be attractive. But customers loved it and it went on to be a big success. Form factor is an important selling factor. Also, $50 or so dollars can be reason enough to influence a purchasing decision.

Is the price of the iPad mini ever going to fall?

This report at Business Insider says that Apple is having a hard time getting the new 7.9 inch displays. Speculation is that the high price is a way to control demand until supply can catch up. So can we expect a less expensive mini in 2013? Possibly. Apple did famously drop the price of the original iPhone from $599 to $399 three months after its introduction (grrr…), so there is precedent for a price drop shortly after a product’s introduction.

Any price drop will have to do with product demand. If the mini is a huge hit and Apple can’t keep them on shelves, then why drop the price? If demand starts to fade then a drop down to $299 may be in the cards.

Conclusion

The iPad mini looks like a solid product but the $329 price may be a deal breaker for bargain shoppers. Apple is taking a gamble on pricing the mini so much higher than similar products. There is a saying that “customers don’t want tablets, they want iPads”. Apple is banking on that being true.

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Is the iPhone Only For Old People?

I have always thought of Apple’s products as being cool. Because of this, in addition to being easy to use and great looking products, they’re also status symbols. This has been true for iPods, MacBooks, and iPhones. People didn’t want music players, they wanted iPods. People didn’t want phones, they wanted iPhones. Recently, I’ve been hearing things that indicate that this may no longer be the case. Three times within the last week or so I’ve come across references that young people do not want iPhones anymore. This is not because other phones are easier to use, more functional, less expensive, or look better but for a far more important reason. iPhones are the phones used by their parents.

The first I heard this was in episode 42 of Andy Ihnatko’s podcast, “The Ihnatko Almanac” (Listen here at about 32:00). Andy asked a teenager he knows who recently bought a smartphone why he didn’t buy an iPhone and was told “my Dad has an iPhone”. It’s not that his phone is better, just that it is different than his Dad’s. I thought it was funny, but didn’t think much about it until a few days later.

I next encountered the same theme while reading Brian S. Hall’s hysterical (and profane) piece recounting the horror of his son’s decision to buy an Android phone and not an iPhone. While they argue about which phone his son should purchase Brian says “But iPhone is better!” to which his son replies “I’m not getting the same phone my father has.” There it is again. Better has nothing to do with it.

Then I saw Samsung’s latest Galaxy S3 commercial and saw it happen again. As you may be aware Samsung likes making fun of the Apple faithful waiting in line for the latest iPhone and this commercial is another in that tradition. At one point in the middle of the ad, a young person in line reveals he is not actually waiting to buy the iPhone but is holding the spot in line for his parents. Again, the iPhone is for parents, not the cool kids.

All of this evidence got me wondering about some things.

First, did this just phenomenon occur naturally or was it the result of marketing? Samsung is pressing this in their commercial but is that just a reaction to something that is already happening or did they do something to help it? Natural or not, it certainly makes sense for them to take advantage of it.

Second, is this something Apple needs to be worried about? Apple’s stock is at an all time high and they sold 2 million iPhone 5’s the first 24 hours they were available so I wouldn’t worry too much about them right now, but could this be the kind of thing that can hurt them a few years down the road? Are Apple’s days of being cool over? When my kids reach their buying years will they consider Apple like I consider Buick – a nice product but for the previous generation?

Last, and most importantly, does this mean I’m old? Actually, don’t answer that. Just get those darned kids with their Android phones off my lawn!

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Thoughts on Amazon’s new Tablets

In early September Amazon hosted an event introduce its new line of Kindle devices. I won’t dive into all of the devices and features as you can see the specs on Amazon.com. I’ll discuss what I think is interesting and important about the products.

eInk eBooks Readers are Not Dead

Although the Kindle Fire devices took up the majority of Jeff Bezos’ time on stage, the presentation started off showing their new eInk based readers. Amazon has reduced their line to two models: the Kindle and the Kindle Paperwhite.

The Kindle is the same as the entry level Kindle of last year except its price is now $69 instead of $79. The barrier for eBooks continues to go down begging the question of when will the reader be free? Maybe next year they’ll throw one in with a Prime account?

The “Kindle Paperwhite” replaces the Kindle Touch and Kindle Keyboard. The Paperwhite is a touchscreen device with a sidelit screen for viewing in low lighting conditions. The lighting system is unique and quite sophisticated, again showing Amazon’s commitment to eInk readers by putting significant engineering resources behind them. In addition to the lighting, the screen itself is improved with faster refresh rates, more contrast, and more pixels for a better reading experience.

One thing that has not been carried over from older Kindles is an audio system. There is no speaker or headphone jack anymore. Amazon must have decided that so few people use this feature it is not worth the cost to include the hardware. It is a bit curious though as they later made a big deal about how audio and reading can sync on the Kindle Fire.

At $119 for the wifi version and $169 for the 3G version, the price of their top of the line eReader stays low enough to make it an impulse buy or an inexpensive gift.

Low Price Does Not Have to Mean Low Quality

Many considered the first Kindle Fire to be “good for the price” meaning it didn’t perform well but you didn’t expect much for only $200. With new Kindle Fire HD, Amazon has clearly given a good deal of thought to the hardware and want it to be “the best device at any price.” Both the 7″ and 8.9″ tablets have leading edge hardware technology including superior displays, better wifi performance, and high quality audio. LTE is also available as an option with the 8.9″ tablet. Considering that Bezos started by saying that people don’t care about gadgets, they want services, he spent a good deal of time talking about the advanced features of the hardware so it is clearly important to them that people know these are high quality tablets. They are clearly squarely competing with iPad.

With the 7″ Fire HD starting at $199 and 8.9″ model starting at $299, they are looking to undercut the competition (specifically Apple) on price.

Amazon Understands Its Customers

Amazon showed that they understand what its customers want.

Good product at a low price. It sounds like they are they aren’t cutting corners on hardware but they are selling at very low prices. What’s not to like?

Good content viewing experience. Amazon invested a lot in superior screen and audio capabilities for watching TV shows and movies. Fast wifi ensures smooth streaming.

Lots of content. Amazon’s content selection is their big advantage over Google and maybe even Apple. The weakest area is the their app selection.

Internet use. In addition to content consumption, the Fire HD can be used for other computing tasks. It features a rich email client (with Exchange support), a Facebook app, and a decent web browser. This should keep many people happy.

Family/Kid controls. The FreeTime feature to manage how children use the device is brilliant and will be a selling feature to families. iPad has no such feature.

Amazon Wants to Move Product

Amazon is offering the high quality hardware at bargain prices. Fire devices range in price from $169 to $499. At $169 they can undercut Google’s Nexus 7, and at $299 they undercut Apple’s iPad 2 by $100. On the high end, the $499 tablet with LTE undercuts the LTE iPad by $229.

With LTE devices, Amazon is offering a $50/year subscription which gives 250MB per month. For light wireless usage this undercuts everyone. Although, anyone who really wants to use wireless data will find the 250MB data cap woefully inadequate.

How can Amazon sell these products for these low prices?

1) Amazon is not looking to make money on the device. Jeff Bezos said this himself: “We don’t make money selling devices, we make money when people use our devices”. They are selling these at or below cost and looking to make it up on selling content. If they sell an Amazon prime account for $79 to each Fire user I’m sure they’d be back in the black.

2) Advertising. Something not mentioned at the event was that all Kindle devices will now show ads on the lock screen. That has to be offsetting some of Amazon’s costs but how will users react? Amazon has been offering their eInk Kindles with and without advertising for the last year. I would presume their data shows that people are choosing lower prices over an ad-free experience. I don’t doubt that but I can’t imagine Apple ever doing the same.

Amazon is in it to Win

It is clear Amazon has taken great care to create a good product at a good price. If they were able to take 22% of the US tablet market with the original Fire, they should take a much bigger chunk with the Fire HD line.

The presentation itself make it clear how seriously they are taking this space. They provided live demos (indicating the products were done and not still in development), prices, and availably. All things potential consumers need to know. In fact, some of the devices were available within a week while there was still buzz around the event. The whole presentation was carefully crafted with Jeff Bezos singlehandedly making the entire presentation. Steve Jobs would be proud.

Amazon’s Weaknesses

Amazon’s product line and strategy look great. What can go wrong?

Amazon has to deliver the goods (so to speak). The tablets sound terrific on a spec sheet, but how will they actually perform? Early reviews are not so great as there are reports of sluggish performance. That might not hurt them too much as people may have a “well it only costs $xxx” attitude but it certainly won’t help move product.

Amazon also has to be able to keep up with demand. The Fire HD line is rolling out in time for the holidays and if they sell out in October it will be a big problem. There will be big demand and they had better be ready for it. Managing the supply chain is one of Apple’s core strengths. We’ll see how well Amazon does in this regard this fall.

One of the Fire’s biggest weaknesses is in its app selection. Only certain Android apps run on a Fire so they do not have the full selection other Android devices do. They also do not have near the collection that iPad offers. This can keep the Fire from being used for all sorts of applications. Maybe if the Fire is successful it will lure developers to create the apps.

Winners and Losers

Clearly Amazon users are winners. If you’re invested in the Amazon ecosystem, you have some great choices for devices at great prices. Hell, even if you’re not an Amazon user, these are still a bargain.

Who are the losers? 

Samsung, Sony, Motorola, and anyone else selling an Android tablet. Selling Android tablets is already difficult and the Fire HD tablets with their low prices is going to make it harder for anyone trying to make a profit on selling a device. Amazon can sell the tablets at cost, the others cannot.

Google. Even though the Fires run Android, Google gets none of the benefit as all of the Google services are stripped away by Amazon. Even the default search engine is Bing! So Google picks up a lot of the development costs and gets none of the benefit.

Microsoft. With Amazon selling an 8.9″ tablet for $299, it is going to be hard to sell Windows RT tablets at $499 (which is what I am assuming they will cost). Microsoft desperately needs momentum at launch in late October and this certainly doesn’t help.

Apple. Apple’s strong app and iTunes ecosystem will continue to sell lots of iPads so don’t short Apple stock yet, but they may have a real competitor that can significantly undercut them on price. The keys for Apple are to make sure that iPad’s performance and experience remain superior. Apple should be looking to fill the gaps on features that that Amazon offers that iOS is lacking such as FreeTime. As a parent of kids who are addicted to our iPad I see that as a killer feature.

Conclusion

Amazon showed us that it is committed to building its own devices to support its business of selling content (books, music, movies, etc.). They have spent considerable dollars in engineering to build a family of devices from eReaders to full sized tablets. Their aggressive pricing depends on buyers using these tablets to purchase Amazon content, preferably Prime accounts. Customers who only use these tablets for web surfing and email reading do no good for Amazon.

As they go head to head with Apple, it will be interesting to see which business model comes out on top; Amazon’s (selling devices at cost to make money on content), or Apple’s (providing content to sell expensive devices). So far it has been working out pretty well for Apple, but Amazon has a compelling story now.

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Thoughts on the iPhone 5 and new iPods

Apple introduced the iPhone 5 and new iPods on September 12. I haven’t had a chance to play with them yet (they won’t be in stores until next week), but I have seen the introduction event and read reviews of the pundits who have had an opportunity to play with them. I’d like to share my thoughts about Apple’s next generation of iDevices.

iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 has an all new design from the iPhone 4S but it is an evolutionary design, not revolutionary. Everything is better (e.g. faster CPU, LTE, bigger screen, thinner, less weight) but nothing is radically different than earlier iPhones. And that’s fine. Current iPhone owners upgrading to iPhone 5 should feel at home. The layout of the phone is the same (except for the headphone port being on the bottom). iOS 6 doesn’t have a different look and feel from earlier versions. So, anyone familiar with using an iPhone can just pick up an iPhone 5 and use it. It should be a better experience as the phone is faster (2x processor speed), has LTE (for ridiculously fast wireless speeds), and a larger screen.

Many pundits have described the iPhone 5 as “boring” and “safe”. That may be true, but why is that bad? Millions of people are familiar with iPhone and are, more importantly, very happy with it. I’m sure Apple will sell a bazillion of them (give or take a jillion) and it will become the most successful smartphone since the iPhone 4S.

The Hardware

The new phone is thinner and lighter than previous models. From the specs it doesn’t sound like a big difference, but almost everyone who has handled one says it is noticeably thinner and lighter. A frequent comment is that it is almost too light as if feels like it is hollow. I’m sure it is something you get used to quickly.

I’m glad the new design does not have a glass back like the 4 and 4S. The glass looks nice but shatters easily if the phone is dropped. The 5 has an aluminum back. I’m curious to see how prone it is to denting and scratching though.

The Screen

The most noticeable new feature of the phone is its new screen. The iPhone 5 has a 4″ screen compared to the 3.5″ screen every previous model has had. The new screen is the same width as earlier ones but is longer giving it a 16:9 aspect ratio. Not only is this good for movies, which are 16:9 formatted, but apps should be able to display more information. Apps will need to be updated to take advantage of the space, so look for updates to come out soon as developers rush to change their code. Older apps will function as before but with black bars on the top and bottom.

The screen is not only larger but is one of the reasons the phone is so thin. There is a new process that bonds the touch sensor to the glass which reduces thickness. That’s great, but I’d like to know how durable it is. I’m sure we’ll see drop test videos as soon as the device is available. Previous iPhones did not survive these tests well. (See here.) I’m hoping iPhone 5 is more durable.

Battery

Another important issue is battery life. The iPhone 5 has a faster CPU, bigger screen, and LTE, all things that usually require more power yet Apple claims the 5 has slightly better battery life than the iPhone 4S. I think we’ll have to wait and see if that is actually true. As I recall, the iPhone 4S had battery life issues when it was introduced, and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear similar things with the 5.

Wireless Networking

Unlike the iPhone 4S, there are separate versions of the iPhone 5 for GSM (AT&T) and CDMA (Verizon & Sprint) networks. You will not be able to move a device between carriers like you could the 4S. Verizon and Sprint owners should know that even though the phone supports LTE, you cannot use voice and data at the same time meaning you cannot web surf while making a voice call. This not true of all LTE phones, but is a result of compromises made in the iPhone 5’s hardware design. (See here for a detailed explanation.) It is disappointing this wasn’t handled in the 5. Is it a deal breaker? Some pundits think this a big deal while others do not. Personally I don’t think so but it would be nice to be able to use the net while on the phone. In practice I very rarely had to do that.

Speaking of networks, travelers should know that the iPhone 5 uses a new type of SIM card called a nano-sim. The nano-sim is (as you probably guessed) smaller than the micro-sim in the iPhone 4 and 4S. This means you will not be able to easily find SIM cards for the iPhone 5 and you cannot swap cards with other phones. This may be an issue for travelers who rely on this to get connectivity in foreign countries. Nano-sim is a standard so it will eventually become less of a problem.

The iPhone 5 introduces a new smaller dock connector called “Lightning”. This port replaces the 30 pin port that has been used for about 10 years. The new port is much smaller and has the benefit of allowing the cable to be plugged in either way. The downside is that all of your old cables and accessories won’t work with the new devices. Apple will sell an adapter (for $29!!!) but it won’t work for all uses. Power and syncing will work, but audio may not. Be prepared to re-buy accessories. This new port will be on all new iOS devices going forward. (see below)

iOS 6

The iPhone 5 comes with iOS 6. The latest version of iOS will be available for older iPhones (and iPods and iPads) starting September 19. iOS 6 has many new features, but is not radically different from iOS 5. Two things people should know about iOS 6 are the new maps application and the loss of the YouTube app.

Maps. Apple’s relationship with Google has deteriorated since the release of Android, and Apple has been looking for ways to stop supporting Google services. Apple’s new maps application does not use Google maps but their own data. How good, bad, or otherwise is hard to tell right now. Matching Google Maps functionality is no small feat as mapping is one of Google’s strengths.

For the first time Apple’s map application will provide turn by turn navigation (sorry Garmin!) so iOS users will finally have a feature that Android users have had for years. Missing from Apple Maps is transit information (trains, buses, etc.). City dwellers will miss this feature. Apple Maps features an API so that third parties can provide this information with extensions to Apple Maps but it will be up to the individual to get these extensions. This may be an advantage at some point as Google is having a hard time securing this information in some markets as cities are refusing to provide it. If you cannot live without Google Maps, take heart as it is rumored that Google is preparing its own Google Maps iOS app so you will be able to choose which mapping solution works best for you.

YouTube. Apple has removed the YouTube app from iOS 6. The YouTube app has not changed much (or at all?) since the original iPhone in 2007. Again, Apple is trying to get away from Google services and  dropping this app is a natural result of that. YouTube addicts don’t have to worry though as Google has already released to the AppStore a new YouTube app which is much better than Apple’s in many ways. The UI is better and it plays videos the old app could not. The price for that is that you now have to view ads.

What was missing from the 5?

So now that we know what iPhone 5 is, what did it not have that I expected or hoped for? There were two things I was hoping for but didn’t really expect.

NFC support was the one I really wanted but it looks as if we’ll have to wait at least another year for that. NFC is usually associated with mobile wallets and mobile payments, and I can understand why Apple would want to stay away from that mess right now but NFC has lots of other uses too and Apple could have done some useful things with it. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S3 lets you trade contact information and pictures by bumping phones.

Wireless charging was the other feature I wanted. Although not crucial it is a neat feature more and more phones have (e.g. Galaxy S3 and Lumia 920). I would love to put my phone on a pad next to my bed as opposed to having to find a loose cable and plug it in.

No Surprises

To those of us who follow the tech industry, and especially mobile, the biggest surprise about the iPhone 5 was how accurate all of the leaks were. We’ve beens seeing pictures of the case, screen, motherboard for weeks now. It is too bad as it made the whole event a lot less interesting. Earlier this year Tim Cook said they were “doubling down” on security at Apple but that must be like how HP doubled down on webOS I guess. Pro Tip: whenever a CEO says they’re “doubling down” on something it means the opposite.

As for the software, iOS 6 was introduced publicly at Apple’s developer event, WWDC, in June. There wasn’t anything that was shown on September 12th that was not shown back in June so there were no surprises here either.

Price and Availability

Pre-orders for the iPhone 5 started on September 14. The device will be available at retail on September 21. Pricing for the iPhone 5 is the same as it was for the iPhone 4S (and 4, and 3GS, and 3G). The two year on-contract price is $199/$299/$399 for 16GB/32GB/64GB versions. The off-contract, full retail price is $649/$749/$849.

If you’re reading this and didn’t order one yet you missed your chance to get one delivered by September 21 as Apple, AT&T, and Verizon have already sold out of stock. Deliveries are now estimated at “two weeks”.

RIP iPhone 3GS

With the introduction of the iPhone 5, the previous models move down the line pushing the iPhone 3GS into history. The iPhone 4S with 16GB will be $99 with 2 year contract (which is a pretty good deal) and the iPhone 4 with 8GB is now free on contract. That the iPhone 4 is on the bottom is significant because, unlike the 3GS, the 4 is available with GSM and CDMA. This means Verizon and Sprint can offer the iPhone for free. Verizon said they are only selling LTE devices, so I wonder if they will offer the lower end iPhones at all?

I do want to take a moment to comment about the 3GS now that it is no longer being sold. The 3GS was first released in June 2009 and was a cutting edge device at the time. That phone was sold for four years and received four iOS upgrades. By today’s standards it is a very low end smartphone, but how many other phones have sold for more than one year? How many received more than one OS upgrade? It was a truly remarkable device.

Should I upgrade?

As always, the answer to that question has to do with where you are in your current contract. If you’re in the middle of a contract you will not be update at the $199/$299/$399 cost. AT&T and Verizon have early upgrade fees depending where you are in your contract but they are $200 more than the new contract fee making a new phone $399/$499/$599. That’s a lot to upgrade.

If you are eligible with your carrier for an upgrade I’d say go for it. The 5 is the best iPhone yet. If you’re in an area where you can get LTE service with your carrier then you really do want update. Web surfing, downloading apps or music will be noticeably faster. The speed of LTE is amazing.

iPods

The big surprise of event to me was to see how much attention Apple is still spending on iPods seeing how it is a shrinking business. Apple showed off an all new iPod Touch and an all new iPod Nano indicating they think it is still a significant business.

iPod Touch

The new iPod touch (the 5th generation) is essentially an iPhone 5 without the cellular radio in a different case. This is a welcome upgrade as there was no upgrade to the Touch last year when the iPhone 4S was introduced. The iPod Touch always seemed like the crippled sibling to the iPhone, and that’s still true, but with the 5th version the differences aren’t as severe. I expected it to have the same screen as the iPhone 5 (it does) and a better CPU (the dual core A5 is much better than the the single core A4 of the old Touch, but not as good as the A6 in the iPhone 5) but I was happy to see the camera get a significant upgrade. The cameras in the 4th gen iPod Touch are… well… just horrible. Just good enough to remember where you parked but not for taking real pictures. It sounds like the new Touch gets the same optics as the iPhone 4S in front of a 5MP sensor. That’s 3MP less than the iPhone 4S and 5, but 5MP is still decent for photos to print. The Touch now comes in colors which is much better than the chrome back of earlier models that were very prone to scratching. And, of course, the Touch uses the new Lightning port.

This is all great, but it comes at a cost. The new Touch starts at $299 for a 32GB version. Yow! That’s a lot of money for a device marketed primarily to kids as a game system. You can still buy the 16GB 4th generation at $199 but that is two year old technology.

The iPod Touch has the potential to be an important game machine. With the CPU upgrade and AirPlay capabilities, the Touch has necessary software and hardware to compete in this area.

iPod Nano

The iPod Nano got a complete makeover too. The square nano that people were wearing as watches is gone and replaced with what looks like a tiny iPhone. The $149 device sports a 2.5″ touch display. FM radio is included with the ability to skip back, which I always thought that would be a great idea. (I should have patented it!) The nano also has a pedometer built in which should make it a hit with joggers. The Nano uses the new Lightning port for charging and syncing.

Conclusions

The iPhone 5 is a worthy upgrade to the 4S. It is not a major change to the platform, but a solid incremental update improving the hardware and software. It also catches the iPhone up to the competition by adding features other phones already offer such features as LTE, larger screen, and turn-by-turn navigation. If you want one, you shouldn’t wait very long as they will be hard get for a while as demand will be very high.

The 5th generation iPod Touch appears to be solid device for those who want an iOS device but do not want a cellular contract, but the $299 price seems prohibitively high to me. It puts it out of impulse buy range, and seems like more than you would want to spend on a device your kid will lose or break. You could get a Kindle Fire HD or a Nexus 7 and still have $100 left over for that price.

The new iPod Nano appears to be a decent media player for those who aren’t interested in apps. The radio and pedometer features indicate that Apple sees a market in those who exercise and wants to provide a solution for it.

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Apple vs. Samsung Thoughts

The technology trial of the century (Apple vs. Samsung) is over and has concluded with a pretty big victory for Apple. Considering the stakes (Apple asking for $2.5 billion) the trial was quite short at only about three weeks and the jury only took three days to decide that Samsung did violate Apple’s patents and trade dress and owed Apple $1.049 billion in damages.

Now that it is over, here are my thoughts about the trial, the decision, and what it means to the industry.

Was the jury’s decision right?

Samsung got slammed in the decision, but was it the right one?

This all gets down to “did Samsung deliberately copy the iPhone with its Galaxy products?” After the trial the jury foreman said “the evidence was overwhelming” so it seems that they sure thought so.

I believe that the decision came down to two key points. First, the Galaxy S looks very much like an iPhone in terms of hardware and software. In terms of hardware, the Galaxy S looks very much like an iPhone 3G (and 3GS). Despite Samsung’s arguments that Apple cannot patent a black rectangle, there are ample examples of other touchscreen phones that do not look just like the iPhone 3G. In terms of software, Samsung’s TouchWiz interface makes Android look more like iOS than other Android flavors. Even the icons were remarkably similar.

Second, Samsung internal documents were presented showing that Samsung wanted to modify their product to be more like iPhone to the last detail. I think this really hurt as it showed Samsung very deliberately and willingly copied iPhone. (As a side note, I am amazed that companies email such information knowing it could later be used as evidence.)

Interestingly, the jury decided that Samsung tablets did not copy iPad designs. That surprised me because just after Apple unveiled the iPad 2, Samsung pulled their thick Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet and re-released it shortly afterwards to be as thin as the iPad 2.

Another interesting note is that the jury did not find Apple in violation of any of Samsung’s patents. Since Samsung owns a patent on key technology for 3G cellular communication, it seems unlikely that Apple could have skirted around it. I do not know why the jury discarded this.

So the jury did believe that Samsung copied Apple’s designs but how did they assign damages? Apple used 20 people and spent $1.75M to compute the $2.5B figure they asked for so how did the jury get to $1B in just three days? It sounds like the jury had a checklist of products and went through each to see if each one violated each contested patent. It also sounds like they didn’t do a great job as there are several inconsistencies throughout the decision (which I’m sure will be the basis for Samsung’s appeal). When that much money is on the line you’d think extra caution would be used.

So I don’t really know if the damages was correct or not but it is a large enough value to send the message that Samsung was in the wrong here.

How does the ruling affect Samsung?

Samsung took a pretty big risk letting this trial go to jury. Samsung’s lawyers must have been confident the result would help Samsung negotiate future agreements with Apple meaning they expected to win outright, their counter suit would cancel out any loss on Apple’s claims, or that the penalty would be so small that it would be inconsequential. It looks like they bet wrong.

Obviously, this puts Samsung is a bad position. They will certainly appeal the decision so they don’t have to write that big check just yet, but an appeal hardly guarantees future victory. They may lose an appeal or maybe the appeal won’t be heard at all. In fact, since the jury found that Samsung willingly copied Apple’s designs they may be liable for triple damages, but that’s unlikely.

Although Samsung and Apple have tried to work out a licensing agreement before the decision (and several times during the trial at Judge Koh’s request) Samsung now needs that agreement to prevent future cases from ending with similar results. And there are future cases already scheduled. Unfortunately for them, they are now in a much weaker position to negotiate than they were before. Samsung has not agreed to Apple’s terms before because Apple is asking for a very hefty fee (on the order of $30) per phone shipped. Since margins on these devices are thin, $30 per device would require a significant price hike passed on to consumers. I think we can expect more expensive Samsung phones in the future.

With the decision Apple is now moving to ban sales for eight Samsung devices. Most of these devices aren’t on the market any longer, but the Galaxy S II is still being sold and Samsung will need to do something to keep them on the market. That means either a licensing agreement or software changes.

The news isn’t all bad for Samsung. Even if they do have to pay Apple $1 billion and they have to pay Apple a licensing fee, that can be considered a good investment for making Samsung the largest smartphone maker in the world and establishing its brand. It can be argued that if they did not copy the iPhone they would not have risen to their current status. Not only do they ship more smartphones than any other rival (including Apple) but they make more profit than any other (except for Apple).

How does this affect other smartphone OEMs?

With this win Apple is empowered to tell all other smartphone OEMs “It isn’t worth it to copy our designs. Sign a licensing agreement with us.” While Samsung can surely afford the millions to litigate and pay $1 billion in damages, not every smartphone maker can. I expect every Android phone maker is evaluating what they need to do to avoid being sued by Apple.

Overall, I do think this will force more innovation as the cost of duplication has now become very high. That’s good for consumers as we will have better products to choose from. However, in the meantime we may see higher prices as companies are forced to pay expensive licensing fees until they can create new products. That’s bad for consumers.

There has been speculation that this decision was particularly good for Microsoft as Windows Phone is protected by a cross licensing deal with Apple and therefore is immune to legal attack. Could this lure OEMs toward Windows Phone and away from Android? It is unlikely in the short term but I expect conversations will be had as it may end up being financially advantageous in the long run. Many Android OEMs already make Windows Phones (Samsung, HTC, LG) so there shouldn’t be a technical issue but in the end I think sales will determine changes in strategy. If Windows Phone continues to not lure buyers the lower cost will not matter.

Why didn’t Apple just sue Google?

Why go after Samsung if Android is the problem? I don’t think Apple was confident enough in a victory to take on Google yet. Suing smartphone makers, such as Samsung, is a less risky and less expensive tactic. Also, a loss against Samsung would be less costly than a loss against Google, and a victory gives them a stronger position against Google.

Now that Apple won, will they go after Google and fulfill Steve Jobs threat of thermonuclear war?

Well, it looks like Apple’s and Google’s CEOs are now talking, and that’s a good sign. I do not think that an iOS vs. Android trial will do a lot of good for either company regardless of the outcome (unless you are on Apple’s or Google’s legal staff, of course). It’s clear to me that Android’s visual design was inspired by iOS, in their current forms iOS and Android are sufficiently different that there should not be any customer confusion. People who buy an Android phone today know they are not buying an iPhone and vice versa. Spend the money on innovating and beat your competitor in the market, not the courtroom.

The trial itself

With the importance of this trial, the amount of money on the line, and the amount of money each legal staff was being paid (which I’d guess would easily be in the tens of millions of dollars), I would expect some degree of professionalism in how the trial was handled. From the start this trial was a circus, almost like you’d expect from some bad TV drama.

Samsung’s defense didn’t waste much time going off the rails. At the very beginning of the trial they released to the press evidence the judge had banned. This naturally angered the Judge and Apple’s lawyers demanded sanctions and immediate judgment in their favor. (they got neither.)

During the trial Samsung’s lawyers confused their own products during cross examination of Apple’s executive management (see here at 11:13). They accused Apple of doctoring photos, and then submitted their own photo instead which the judge noticed was altered and threw it out. This is just sloppy work for a very expensive legal staff.

Worst of all they had to know that the most damaging of Samsung’s internal documents (like a 132 page comparison of iPhone and Galaxy phones) would be made public. How could they let these documents out? Why didn’t they advise Samsung to settle before trial?

Apple’s counsel wasn’t without their own craziness. You knew this when the judge asked Apple’s attorney if he was “smoking crack” as he tried to squeeze in 22 more potential witnesses.

Although entertaining, I was hoping that a matter this important would be settled in a decisive manner without the sideshows.

That’s about it. For more detailed information you can find full coverage of the trial at the Verge.

 

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Mobile Update – August 6, 2012

Hi mobile followers! Here are some of the interesting recent stories in mobile industry along with my unique commentary.

Mobile News

Making Sense of Mobile Browser Marketshare Numbers

I’ve been seeing all sorts of different data about mobile browser market share that didn’t seem to make sense. Lets see if we can sort it out…

According to NetMarketshare (a well known source for browser marketshare numbers), Mobile Safari usage is 66% of all mobile browsing and Android Browser is at 19%. How can this be? We know that Android has over 50% of the smartphone market, and iPhone has about 30%. How can Mobile Safari be used over three times as much as Android?

Then I thought, does that include iPad too? According to Chikita, iPad has 91% of tablet browsing traffic. If that’s true, that could be bringing Mobile Safari up on NetMarketshare’s numbers but 66% still seems high.

Then I saw that Daring Fireball had a link to some other interesting information. According to analysis of Akamai traffic a huge portion of iOS web traffic is over wifi. For cellular traffic iOS and Android are almost the same. This is consistent with other analysis I’ve heard claiming that iOS users use their devices at home (on and therefore on wifi) more than Android users.

So, when you include iPad and wifi usage, iOS web usage appears to be much higher than Android. The lesson here is that any one piece of data is not enough to understand the whole story.

Will the Tablet Replace the Smartphone?

GigaOm’s Kevin Tofel seems to think that tablets will replace smartphones in the coming years. His argument basically is that the larger screens on tablets make they so much more useful than smartphones that we will find a way to carry these devices around instead.

While I do agree that you can do things with a tablet that are difficult with a phone, I think both devices have a place in our future for two reasons: Portability and the Cloud.

Portability: Simply put, tablets are just too big to take everywhere. Tofel compares tablets to day planners which can be big and bulky but people did not take them everywhere we went as we do smartphones. People carried their day planners around the office, but did not carry them out to dinner or while running errands. In the last few years we have grown accustomed to always being connected and I don’t think we’re willing to give that up. Unless clothing styles change radically or men learn to carry purses we are not going to always be able to always carry a tablet around.

The Cloud: We used to have to choose which device was going to hold our data and that was the one we needed to have with us. PDAs let us sync data with our PCs, but that was a manual process and only certain data could be synced. With cloud computing (whether it be Google, SkyDrive, iCloud, or whatever you like) all of our devices will automatically be kept in sync with each other. That allows us to use whichever device is most convenient at the time without worrying about where the data is. When you’re going out to dinner a phone may be better than a large tablet. When you’re going to a meeting, the tablet may be the better choice.

In conclusion, instead of becoming a tablet-centric world, I think we’re headed for a multi-device world where people will use whichever device is most convenient. With 25% of smartphone owners also owning a tablet, we’re already well on our way.

Source: BusinessWeek

Romney Campaign Uses Smartphone App to Announce VP

Who will Mitt’s VP be? If you want to be the first to know, download the “Mitt’s VP” app for iOS or Android and you’ll get a push notification as soon the selection is public. You’ll have to create an account and provide some personal info but that’s a small price to pay for political junkies who want to be first to know, right?

My Take: This is an interesting way to collect information about supporters. Politics has made the leap to mobile! God help us all!

Google News

Google Wallet Gets a Major Update

Google has released Google Wallet 2.0 which is a major update to their NFC payment application. Wallet 2.0 brings the ability to use any credit card or debit card with your wallet. Wallet 1.0 only worked with Citibank MasterCard or the Google Debit MasterCard.

Being able to use any card makes the product much more useful, but it does not work as you would expect. Instead of making deals with the credit card companies and banks to support Wallet, Google is tying Wallet 2.0 to your online Google Wallet account. Google Wallet Online, formerly Google Checkout, acts like PayPal in that lets you make payments at online retailers that support the service but the actual payment is made by whichever card you associate with your online account.

With Wallet 2.0 on Android, Google uses their debit MasterCard to make the purchase at the retailer and then charges your Wallet Online account so the actual payment comes from whichever card you associated with your online account. The catch is that purchases made from your phone will appear on your credit card statement as “Google Wallet”, not the name of the retailer where the transaction occurred. This can make managing your statement more difficult.

Source: CNN

My Take: This is a clever move on Google’s part to get some desperately needed life into this product. Being locked into one credit card from one bank made Wallet useless to most people. This will open the service up to many more users.

This solution is basically what I expecte Apple to do if they release a payment system, except that Apple would charge your iTunes account instead.

Will this bring life to Google Wallet? There is still a long way to go, but they just removed a major restriction to the product. The mobile payment space continues to be interesting!

Ice Cream Sandwich Is Up to 16.7% of Android Usage

According to Google’s statistics, Android 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich) now represents almost 17% of all Android usage. This is a big jump from the 7% it had back in June.

Source: GigaOM

My Take: Most new Android phones are running ICS and ICS upgrades are starting to hit last year’s phones and we can finally see that in Google’s numbers. This is important as Android 4 is a huge leap over 2.3 which is still running in the vast majority of Android phones. Hopefully soon Android 4 will have enough marketshare that developers can take advantage of its features without fear of abandoning a big part of their potential market.

Apple News

Next iPhone to be Announced September 12?

The current scuttlebutt being reported is that Apple will announce the next iPhone on September 12 with a release date of September 21.

My Take: It sounds plausible to me that the next iPhone will come out in September. The iPhone 4S came out last October so the time is about right. Whether there will be an iPad  mini or not is anyone’s guess.

If you were thinking about buying a new iPhone, you may want to wait. You’re going to have to live with it for two years, so you might as well get the latest model.

The rumors about the next iPhone include:

  • a new taller 4.0 inch screen
  • a redesigned case with a smaller dock connector and headphone jack on the bottom
  • 4G LTE support

Apple/Samsung Trial Kicks Off

Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung for copying Apple designs went to trial this week and not without some drama. Samsung disclosed evidence disallowed by the court to the media. The judge was not pleased, but did not grant Apple’s request to sanction Samsung.

Source: the Verge

My Take: It is really interesting that Apple is willing to expose itself to the extent it has for this trial. They are even exposing secret market research data (even though they tried to supress it.) Then again, they are asking for $2.5 billion in damages so I guess that is worth the risk.

Other than the entertainment of the petty bickering between the two mobile titans, the trial has been a rare glimpse into Apple and how it created the iPhone and iPad. Pictures of rejected prototypes let us see what types of things Apple was thinking about.

One of the funnier moments of the trial was when Samsung’s own lawyers mixed up their own devices (see 11:13am). Pays to hire the best, huh?

I don’t know how this trial will end, but whatever the result it will have to put more strain on the Apple/Samsung relationship. This is an important relationship as Apple buys many of the components for its iDevices from Samsung.

Get some popcorn! More drama ahead as Samsung continues questioning Apple executives.

Microsoft News

Analyst Calls the Microsoft Surface the Next Zune

According to InformationWeek, Canalys analyst Tim Coulling said that “the information available to date suggests the prices of both will be too high to capture significant market share, and a direct sales approach will prove inadequate” and that “we expect the Surface pads to have a similar impact on the PC industry as Zune did in portable music players.”

My Take: I continue to find it amusing how bent out of shape analysts are about the Microsoft Surface. They analyze, criticize, and make predictions about a product that NO ONE HAS USED and that no pricing or availability information has been offered. (BTW, this is especially true of the pro-Apple sites.)

Surface may be wonderful, or may be terrible. It may be a great deal or a lousy one. I have no idea. I haven’t used one. NO ONE ELSE HAS USED ONE EITHER. How about we let them ship the thing and let people actually use them? Then we can judge how good or bad the product is. Or is that just too crazy of an idea?

Source: Yahoo! News, InformationWeek

Microsoft Dropping “Metro” Name

Microsoft is dropping the name “Metro” to describe the UI used in Windows Phone 7/8, Windows 8, and Windows RT and is advising software vendors to not use the term when naming or describing their products. This is because Metro AG, a large German retailer, is threatening to sue Microsoft over copyright.

Source: the Verge

My Take: I do find this whole affair curious. Metro AG is a large powerful company, roughly the German equivalent of WalMart, but Microsoft has been using the name Metro since 2010 when Windows Phone 7 was introduced and has been using it extensively since. Asymco points out that in the Windows 8 keynote last September the word “Metro” was used 81 times.

Why is this a problem now and not months ago? And why couldn’t Microsoft work out a deal with Metro AG? Apple has worked out deals for the names iPhone and iPad.

One other note. Microsoft has not yet named the term to replace Metro. A memo from Microsoft legal asked employees to use the term “Windows 8 Style UI” until a new term was named. The last part of the request was somehow lost on the media and pundits started beating up Microsoft for adopting the less than catchy term “Windows 8 style UI”. That is not the case. As much fun as it is to bust on Microsoft and their marketing department, let’s do that when they actually deserve it.

And that’s the news. Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow!

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