I’m always surprised at how many people I know use Dropbox. It’s not just because I have a lot of tech minded friends either, no a whole bunch of regular people I know use it for backup and to share large files that would be cumbersome otherwise. I personally use it (well used to) to back up my phone’s apps and configuration using Titanium Backup Pro. I don’t have as much use for it now since the integrated sync options from Google do 90% of the work without me having to think about it. Still every so often I’ll find myself needing use of some accessible-from-anywhere type storage and I’ll always come back to Dropbox.
That might all be about to change, however.
Rumors have been circulating for eons that Google would eventually launch some kind of cloud storage service, going head to head with industry heavyweight Dropbox. In fact I can remember hearing rumors about it not too long after they released Gmail all those years ago after someone figured out how to create a bastardized version of it using said service. After all that time it appears that Google is finally about to pull the trigger on providing such a service, giving all new comers to the service 5GB worth of free cloud storage with the option to purchase more should you need it. It seems even the app has made its way into some of the more enthusiastic tech writer’s hands, taking the GDrive right out of the rumor mill.
Anyone who knows something about Dropbox’s story you’ll probably find this announcement both awesome and completely hilarious. Drew Houston, the man behind Dropbox, said when applying to startup incubator YCombinator that it was a very real possibility that Google would announce GDrive early on in his product’s life and that would basically mean the end of it. However for the past 4 years as Dropbox has gained significant market share and momentum Google has been very mum on the subject, not leaking any details of whether or not they’d pursue the idea. Now Google is launching into a market that has extremely heavy competition as Dropbox isn’t the only cloud storage provider out there.
For what its worth I really think that Google has launched 4 years too late here. Back when Dropbox was just taking off Google had a real chance to either launching a competing product and grabbing the market early or simply attempting to buy out Dropbox and re-branding it as their own service. Rumor has it that Apple tried to do just that some time last year but Dropbox turned down the offer and its very possible that Google attempted the same thing only to get the same response. This could be why we’re now seeing a GDrive product finally coming to fruition as they’ve been left with no choice but to compete with Dropbox on their home turf.
So does this mean that the GDrive is a fool’s gambit? Not entirely as whilst Dropbox is the market leader in this space there’s something to be said for Google services. It’s quite possible that GDrive will now become heavily integrated with all of Google’s other products and that’s where they’ll be able to garner a large user base from. If their current Android integration is anything to go by adding in a cloud storage platform that’s natively integrated with the OS will provide some pretty spectacular benefits, much like the ones Microsoft is touting with Azure and Windows 8. Whether their service will be profitable is something we’ll just have to wait to see, however.
It was just over a decade ago now but I can still vividly remember walking around the streets of Akihabara in Tokyo. It’s a technical wonderland and back then when Internet shopping was something only crazy people did (for fear of losing your credit card details) it was filled with the kind of technology you couldn’t find anywhere else. I was there on a mission looking for a pocket translator similar to the one my Japanese teacher had lent me. While my quest went unfulfilled I did manage to see all sorts of technology there that wouldn’t make it to Australia shores for years to come, and one piece in particular stuck in my mind.
There was a row of these chunky looking head sets, each hooked up to what looked like a portable CD player. I remember picking one up and looking at the headset I saw two tiny displays in it, one for each eye. Putting on the headset I was greeted to a picture that seemed massive in comparison to the actual size of the device playing some kind of demo on a loop. It wasn’t perfect but it was enough to make me fascinated with the concept and I thought it wouldn’t be long before everyone had some kind of wearable display. Here we are just over a decade later and the future I envisioned hasn’t yet come to pass but it seems we’re not far off.
Today Google announced Project Glass, one of their brain childs of the secretive Google[x] lab. There’s been rumours floating around for quite a while now that they were working on something of this nature but no one could give much above the general idea that it would be a head mounted display and Android would be powering it. Looking over what Google’s released today as well as the comments from other news outlets makes it clear that Google is quite serious about this idea and it could be something quite revolutionary.
The initial headset designs I saw back when I heard the original rumours were the kind of of clunky, overly large glasses we’ve come to expect when anyone mentions a wearable display. Google’s current design (pictured above) seems rather elegant in comparison. It’ll still draw a lot of attention thanks to the chunky white bar at the side but it’s a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from wearable displays. What’s even more impressive is the concept demo they included alongside it, showcasing what the headset is capable of:
The possibilities for something like this are huge. Just imagine extending the capabilities to recognise faces of people you’ve met before, neatly side stepping that awkward moment when you forget someone’s name. You could even work a barcode scanner into it, allowing you to scan food to see the nutritional value (and then see if it fits in with your diet) before you purchase it. I could go on forever about the possibilities of a device like the Project Glass but suffice to say it’s quite an exciting prospect.
What will be really interesting to see is how these kind of devices blend in to every day social interactions. The smart phone and tablet managed to work their way into social norms rather quickly but a device like this is a whole other ball game. The sleek and unobtrusive design will help ease its transition in some what but I can still see a long adaptation period where people will wonder why the heck you’re wearing it. That won’t deter me from doing so though as it’s this kind of device that makes me feel like I’m living in the future. That’s all it takes for me to overcome any social anxiety that I might have about wearing one of these
7 months down the line and I’m still a big fan of my Samsung Galaxy S2. It’s been a great phone, combining large screen size with a slim, lightweight shell that I sometimes have to check for to remind myself that its still in my pocket. It’s surprisingly resilient as well, having taken more than a couple drops from pretty decent heights and coming out the other end with only minor scuffs and nary a scratch on the screen. Sadly I can’t say much more for the battery life as it seems that the more apps I pile on there the worse it gets, but I can’t really blame the phone for my app hoarding ways.
However I always knew that this relationship would be temporary, I mean how could it not? It started with geek wunderlust and as it is with all relationships that start like that it’s inevitable that my eyes would begin to wander, and so they have with this announcement:
…Ladies and gentlemen, here is the Samsung Galaxy S III:
- 1.5GHz quad-core Samsung Exynos processor
- 4.8-inch “full HD” 1080p resolution with 16:9 aspect ratio display
- A 2-megapixel front-facing camera and an 8-megapixel rear camera
- Ceramic case
- 4G LTE
- Android 4.0
I’ll spare you the photoshopped Galaxy S2 images that are doing the rounds but suffice to say those specs are pretty darn amazing. They’re also fairly plausible as well given Samsung’s research into the component technologies and current trends for both carriers and the Android platform. The detail that caught my eye however was the ceramic case as that’s not a material that you’d usually expect to see on a mobile phone with plastic and glass being the only 2 real choices. There could be reasoning behind it though and if my suspicions are correct its due to the crazy amount of tech they’ve stuffed under the hood.
Traditionally ceramics are pretty poor heat conductors which is why they make for good mugs and insulation materials. However there are quite a few advanced ceramics that are very capable of moving heat just as efficiently as most metals are, some even better. Now anyone who has a dual core smart phone knows how hot the buggers get when you’re using them for an extended period and since most phones are plastic that heat tends to stick around rather than dissipate. The ceramic case could then be an attempt to mitigate the heat problems that will come with the quad core processor and larger screen. This also has the potential to make the phones somewhat more brittle however (ceramics don’t flex, they shatter) so it will be interesting to see how Samsung compensates for that.
With just those few details though I’m already excited for Samsung’s next instalment in their flagship line of smart phones. Their last 2 iterations of the Galaxy S line have gone from strength to strength, firmly cementing themselves as the number one Android handset manufacturer. The Galaxy S3 looks to continue this trend with specifications that are sure to tempt even the most recent purchasers of the S2. I know I’ll find it hard to resist and I’m thankful that it probably won’t be out for a little while longer.
I don’t think my wallet would appreciate buying 2 phones within 7 months of each other
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of my Samsung Galaxy S2, mostly because the specifications are enough to make any geek weak at the knees. It’s not just geeks that are obsessed with the phone either as Samsung has moved an impressive 10 million of them in the 5 months that its been available. Samsung has made something of a name for itself in being the phone manufacturer to have if you’re looking for an Android handset, especially when you consider Google used their original Galaxy S as the basis for their flagship phone the Nexus S. Rumours have been circulating for a while that Samsung would once again be the manufacturer of choice, a surprising rumour considering they had just sunk a few billion into acquiring Motorola.
Yesterday however saw the announcement of Google’s new flagship phone the Galaxy Nexus and sure enough it’s Samsung hardware that’s under the hood.
The stand out feature of the Galaxy Nexus is the gigantic screen, coming in at an incredible 4.65 inches and a resolution of 1280 x 720 (the industry standard for 720p). That gives you a PPI of 315 which is slightly below the iPhone 4/4S’ retina screen which comes in at 326 PPI which is amazing when you consider it’s well over an inch bigger. As far as I can tell it’s the highest resolution on a smart phone in the market currently and there’s only a handful of handsets that boast a similar sized screen. Whether this monster of a screen will be a draw card though is up for debate as not all of us are blessed with the giant hands to take full advantage of it.
Under the hood it’s a bit of a strange beast, especially when compared to its predecessors. It uses a Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 processor (dual core, 1.2GHz) instead of the usual ARM A9 or Samsung’s own Exynos SOC coupled with a whopping 1GB of RAM. The accompanying hardware includes a 5MP camera capable of 1080p video, all the usual connectivity options with the addition of NFC and wireless N and, strangely enough, a barometer. The Galaxy Nexus does not feature expandable storage like most of its predecessors did, instead coming in 16GB and 32GB variants. All up it makes for a phone that’s definitely a step up from the Galaxy S2 but not in every regard with some features on par or below that of the S2.
Looking at the design of the Galaxy Nexus I couldn’t help but notice that it had sort of regressed back to the previous design style, being more like the Galaxy S rather than the S2. As it turns out this is quite deliberate as Samsung designed the Galaxy Nexus in such a way as to avoid more lawsuits from Apple. It’s rather unfortunate as the design of the Galaxy S2 is really quite nice and I’m not particularly partial to the rounded look at all. Still I can understand why they want to avoid more problems with Apple, it’s a costly exercise and neither of them are going to come out the other side smelling of roses.
Hand in hand with the Galaxy Nexus announcement Google has also debuted Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of the Android OS. There’s a myriad of improvements that I won’t go through here (follow the link for a full run down) but notable features are the ability to unlock your phone by it recognizing your face, integrated screen capture (yes, that hasn’t been a default feature for this long), a NFC sharing app called Android Beam and a better interface for seeing how much data you’re using that includes the ability to kill data hogging apps. Like the Galaxy Nexus itself Ice Cream Sandwich is more of an evolutionary step rather than being revolutionary but it looks like a worthy compliment to Google’s new flagship phone.
The Galaxy Nexus shows that Samsung is very capable of delivering impressive smart phones over and over again. The hardware, for the most part, is quite incredible bringing features to the table that haven’t yet been seen before. Ice Cream Sandwich looks to be a good upgrade to the Android operating system and coupled with the Galaxy Nexus the pair will make one very desirable smart phone. Will I be getting one of them? Probably not as my S2 is more than enough to last me until next year when I’ll be looking to upgrade again, but I can’t say I’m not tempted
Voice controlled computers and electronics have always been a staple science fiction, flaunting with the idea that we could simply issue commands to our silicone based underlings and have them do our bidding. Even though technology has come an incredibly long way in the past couple decades understanding natural language is still a challenge that remains unconquered. Modern day speech recognition systems often rely on key words in order to perform the required commands, usually forcing the user to use unnatural language in order to get what they want. Apple’s latest innovation, Siri, seems to be a step forward in this regard and could potentially signal in a shift in the way people use their smartphones and other devices.
On the surface Siri appears to understand quite a bit of natural language, being able to understand that a single task can be said in several different ways. Siri also appears to have a basic conversational engine in it as well so that it can interpret commands in the context of what you’ve said to it before. The scope of what Siri can do however is quite limited but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as being able to nail a handful of actions from natural language is still leaps and bounds above what other voice recognition systems are currently capable of.
Siri also has a sense of humour, often replying to out of left field questions with little quips or amusing shut downs. I was however disappointed with the response for a classic nerd line of “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” which recieved the following response:
This screen shot also shows that Siri’s speech recognition isn’t always 100% either, especially when it’s trying to guess what you were saying.
Many are quick to draw the comparison between Android’s voice command system and apps available on the platform like Vlingo. The big difference there though is that these services are much more like search engines than Siri, performing the required actions only if you utter the commands and key words in the right order. That’s the way nearly all voice operated systems have worked in the past (like those automated call centres that everyone hates) and are usually the reason why most people are disappointed in them. Siri has the one up here as people are being encouraged to speak to it in a natural way, rather than changing the way they speak in order to be able to use it.
For all the good that Siri is capable of accomplishing it’s still at it’s heart a voice recognition system and with that comes some severe limitations. Ambient noise, including others talking around you, will confuse Siri completely making it unusable unless you’re in relatively quite area. I’m not just saying this as a general thing either, friends with Siri have mentioned this as one of its short comings. Of course this isn’t unique to Siri and is unlikely to be a problem that can be overcome by technology alone (unless you could speak to Siri via a brain implant, say).
Like many other voice recognition systems Siri is geared more toward the accent of the country it was developed in, I.E. American. This isn’t just limited to the different spellings between say the Queen’s English and American English but also for the inflections and nuances that different accents introduce. Siri will also fall in a crying heap if the pronunciation and spelling are different as well, again limiting its usefulness. This is a problem that can and has been overcome in the past by other speech recognition systems and I would expect that with additional languages for Siri already on the way that these kinds of problems will eventually be solved.
A fun little fact that I came across in my research for this post was that Apple still considered Siri to be a beta product (right at the bottom, in small text that’s easy to miss). That’s unusual for Apple as they’re not one to release a product unfinished, even if that comes at the cost of features not making it in. In a global sense Siri really is still beta with some of her services, like Yelp and location based stuff, not being available to people outside of the USA (like the above screenshot shows). Apple is of course working to make them all available but it’s quite unusual for them to do something in this fashion.
So is Siri the next step in user interfaces? I don’t think so. It’s a great step forward for sure and there will be people who make heavy use of it in their daily activities. However once the novelty wears off and the witty responses run out I don’t see a compelling reason for people to continue using Siri. The lack of a developer API as well (and no mention of whether one will be available) means that the services that can be hooked into Siri are limited to those that Apple will develop, meaning some really useful services might never be integrated forcing users to go back to native apps. Depending on how many services are excluded people may just find it easier to not use Siri at all, opting for the already (usually quite good) native app experience. I could be proven wrong on this, especially with technology like Watson on the horizon, but for now Siri’s more of a curiosity than anything else.
Whilst Android has been making solid inroads to the tablet market, snapping up a respectable 26.8%, it’s still really Apple’s market with them holding a commanding lead that no one’s been able to come close to touching. It’s not for a lack of trying though with many big name companies attempting to break into the market only to pull out shortly afterwards, sometimes in blaze of fire sale glory. It doesn’t help matters much that every new tablet will be compared to the iPad thus ensuring every new tablet attempts to one up it in some way, usually keeping a price parity with the iPad but without the massive catalogue of apps that people have come to expect from Apple products.
Apple’s got a great game going here. All of their iDevice range essentially made the market that they’re in, grabbing enough fans and early adopters to ensure their market dominance for years to come. Competitors then attempt to mimic Apple’s success by copying the essential ideas and then attempting to innovate, fighting an uphill battle. Whilst they might eventually lose ground to the massive onslaught of competitors (like they have to Android) they’ll still be one of the top individual companies, if they’re not number 1. It’s this kind of market leading that makes Apple products so desirable to John Q. Public and the reason why so many companies are failing to steal their market share away.
Rumours have been circulating for a while now over Amazon releasing a low cost tablet of some description and of course everyone was wondering whether it would shape up to be the next “iPad killer”. Today we saw the announcement of the Kindle Fire: a 7-inch multi-touch tablet that’s heavily integrated with Amazon’s services and comes at the low low price of only $199.
As a tablet it’s something of an outsider. Foregoing the traditional 9 to 10 inch screen size for a smaller 7 inch display. The processor in it isn’t anything fantastic, being just a step up from the one that powers the Nook Color, but history has shown it’s quite a capable system so the Kindle Fire shouldn’t be a slouch when it comes to performance. There’s also a distinct lack of cameras, 3G and Bluetooth connectivity meaning that the sole connection this tablet has to the outside world will be via your local wifi connection. It comes with an internal 8GB of storage that’s not upgradeable, favouring to store everything on the cloud and download it as required. You can see why this thing wouldn’t work with WhisperNet.
Also absent is any indication that the Kindle Fire is actually an Android device with the operating system being given a total overhaul. The Google App store has been outright replaced by Amazon’s Android app store and the familiar tile interface has been replaced by a custom UI designed by Amazon. All of Amazon services: music, books and movies to name a few, are heavily integrated with the device. Indeed they are so heavily integrated that the tablet also comes with a free month of Amazon Prime, Amazon’s premium service that offers unlimited free 2 day shipping plus access to their entire catalogue of media. At this point calling this thing a tablet seems like a misnomer, it’s much more of a media consumption device.
What’s really intriguing about the Kindle Fire though is the browser that Amazon has developed for it called Silk. Like Opera Mini and Skyfire before it Silk offloads some of the heavy lifting to external servers, namely Amazon’s massive AWS infrastructure. There’s some smarts in the delineation between what should be processed on device and what should be done on the servers so hopefully dynamic pages, which suffered heavily in this kind of configuration, will run a lot better under Silk. Overall it sounds like a massive step up for the usability of the browser on devices like these which is sure to be a great selling point for the Kindle Fire.
The more I read about the Kindle Fire the more I get the feeling that Amazon has seen the game that Apple has been playing and decided to not get caught up in it like their competitors have. Instead of competing directly with the iPad et. al. they’ve created a device that’s heavily integrated with their own services and have put themselves at arms length with Android. John Q. Public then won’t see the Kindle Fire as an Android Tablet nor an iPad competitor, more it’s a cheap media consumption device that’s capable at doing other tasks from a large and reputable company. The price alone is enough to draw people in and whilst the margins on the device are probably razor thin they’ll more than likely make it up in media sales for the device. All those together make the Kindle Fire a force to be reckoned with, but I don’t think current tablet manufacturers have much to worry about.
The Kindle Fire, much like the iPad before it, carves out its own little niche that’s so far be unsuccessfully filled. It’s not a feature laden object of every geek’s affection, more it’s a tablet designed for the masses with a price that competitors will find hard to beat. The deep integration with Amazon’s services will be the feature that ensures the Kindle Fire’s success as that’s what every other iPad competitor has lacked. However there’ll still be a market for the larger, more capable tablets as they’re more appropriate for people seeking a replacement for their laptop rather than a beefed up media player. I probably won’t be buying one for myself, but I could easily see my parents using one of these.
And I’m sure that’s what Amazon is banking on too.
It was just under 2 years ago when I wrote my first (and only) post on smartphone virtualization approaching it with the enthusiasm that I do with most cool new technologies. At the time I guessed that VMware would eventually look to integrate this idea with some of their other products, in essence turning user’s phones into dumb terminals so that IT administrators could have more control over them. However the exact usefulness was still not clear as at the time most smartphones were only just capable of running a single instance, let alone another one with all the virtualization trimmings that’d inevitably slow it down. Android was also somewhat of a small time player back then as well having only 5% of the market (similar to Windows Phone 7 at the same stage in its life, funnily enough) making this a curiosity more than anything else.
Of course a lot has changed in the time between that post and now. Then market leader, RIM, is now struggling with single digit market share when it used to make up almost half the market. Android has succeeded in becoming the most popular platform surpassing Apple who maintained the crown for many years prior. Smartphones have also become wildly more powerful as well, with many of them touting dual cores, oodles of RAM and screen resolutions that would make my teenage self green with envy. With this all in mind then the idea of running some kind of virtualized environment on a smartphone doesn’t seem all that ludicrous any more.
Increasingly IT departments are dealing with users who want to integrate their mobile devices with their work space in lieu of using a separate, work specific device. Much of this pressure came initially from the iPhone with higher ups wondering why they couldn’t use their devices to access work related data. For us admin types the reasons were obvious: it’s an unapproved, untested device which by rights has no business being on the network. However the pressure to capitulate to their demands was usually quite high and work arounds were sought. Over the years these have taken many various forms, but the best answer would appear to lie within the world of smartphone virtualization.
VMware have been hard at work creating full blown virtualization systems for Android that allow a user to have a single device that contains both their personal handset as well as a secure, work approved environment. In essence they have an application that allows them to switch between the two of them, allowing the user to have whatever handset they want whilst still allowing IT administrators to create a standard, secure work environment. Android is currently the only platform that seems to support this wholly thanks to its open source status, although there are rumours of it coming to the iOS line of devices as well.
It doesn’t stop there either. I predicted that VMware would eventually integrate their smartphone virtualization technology into their View product, mostly so that the phones would just end up being dumb terminals. This hasn’t happened exactly, but VMware did go ahead and imbue their View product with the ability to present full blown workstations to tablet and smartphones through a secure virtual machine running on said devices. This means that you could potentially have your entire workforce running off smartphones with docking stations, enabling users to take their work environment with them wherever they want to go. It’s shockingly close to Microsoft’s Three Screens idea and with Google announcing that Android apps are now portable to Google TV devices you’d be forgiven for thinking that they outright copied the idea.
For most regular users though these kinds of developments don’t mean a whole lot, but it is signalling the beginning of the convergence of many disparate experiences into a single unified one. Whilst I’m not going to say that anyone one platform will eventually kill off the other (each one of the three screens has a distinct purpose) we will see a convergence in the capabilities of each platform, enabling users to do all the same tasks no matter what platform they are using. Microsoft and VMware are approaching this idea from two very different directions with the former unifying the development platform and the latter abstracting it away so it will be interesting to see which approach wins out or if they too eventually converge.
So last Friday saw the announcement that HP was spinning off their WebOS/Tablet division, a move that sent waves through the media and blogosphere. Despite being stuck for decent blog material on the day I didn’t feel the story had enough legs to warrant investigation, I mean anyone but the most dedicated of WebOS fans knew that the platform wasn’t going anywhere fast. Heck it took me all of 30 seconds on Google to find these latest figures that have it pegged at somewhere around 2%, right there with Symbian (those are smart phone figures, not overall mobile) trailing the apparently “failing” Windows Phone 7 platform by a whopping 7%. Thus the announcement that they were going to dump the whole division wasn’t so much of a surprise and set about trying to find something more interesting to write about.
Over the weekend though the analysts have got their hands on some juicy details that I can get stuck into.
Now alongside the announcement that WebOS was getting the boot HP also announced that it was considering exiting the PC hardware business completely. At the moment that would seem like a ludicrous idea as that division was their largest with almost $10 billion in revenue but their enterprise services division (which is basically what used to be EDS) is creeping up on that quite quickly. Such a move also wouldn’t see them exit the server hardware business either which would be a rather suicidal move from them considering they’re the second largest player there with 30% of the market. More it seems like HP wants out of the consumer end of the market and wants to focus on enterprise software, services and the hardware that supports them.
It’s a move that several similar companies have taken in the past when faced with downwards trending revenues in the hardware sector. Back when I worked at Unisys I can remember them telling me about how they now derive around 70% of their revenue from outsourcing initiatives and only 30% from their mainframe hardware sales. They used to be a mostly hardware oriented company but switched to professional services and outsourcing when they had negative growth for several years. HP on the other hand doesn’t seem to be suffering any of these problems, which begs the question why would they bother exiting what seems to be a lucrative market for them?
It was a question I hadn’t really considered until I read this post from John Gruber. Now I’d known that HP had gotten a new CEO since Mark Hurd was ejected over that thing with former PlayBoy Girl Jodie Fisher (and his expense account, but that’s no where near as fun to write) but I hadn’t caught up with who they’d hired as his replacement. Turns out it is former SAP CEO Leo Apotheker. Now their decisions to spin off their WebOS (and potentially their PC division) make a lot of sense as that’s the kind of company Apotheker has quite a lot of experience in. Couple that with their decision to buy Autonomy, another enterprise software company, it seems almost certain that HP is heading towards the end goal of being a primarily serviced based company.
Of course with HP exiting the consumer market after only being in it for such a short time people started to wonder if there was ever going to be a serious competitor to Apple’s offerings, especially in the tablet market. Indeed it doesn’t look good for anyone trying to crack into that market as it’s pretty much all Apple all the time and if a multi-billion dollar company can’t do it then there’s not much hope for anyone else. However Android has made some impressive inroads into this Apple dominated niche, securing a solid 20% of the market. Just like it did with the iPhone before it no single vendor will come to completely decimate Apple in this space but overall Android’s dominance will come from the sheer variety that they offer. We’ve still yet to see Galaxy S2-esque release in the Android tablet space but I’m sure one’s not too far off.
It’ll be interesting to see how HP evolves itself over the next year or so under Apotheker’s leadership as it’s current direction is vastly different to that of the HP in the past. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing for the company either as whilst they might have any cause for concern now this transition could avoid the pain of attempting to do it further down the track. The WebOS split off is just the first step in this long journey for HP and there will be many more for them to take if they’re to make the transition to a professional services company.
Nothing can create a stir in the technical press more than when one tech giant decides to buy out another one. The last such buy out I can remember is when Microsoft said they were going to buy Skype which spurred a good week of articles from all my usual sources. There was also a whole bunch of people blaming Microsoft for ruining Skype as the service hit some troubles soon after the deal was announced, forgetting that the deal still hadn’t been finalized and Microsoft still had no say in how it was operated. Today’s buyout news has triggered a veritable tsunami of news, blog posts and speculation and this time around it’s not just all fluff.
As it turns out Google is going to be buying Motorola’s wireless division (and what then shall we call them: Googorola, GoogMo or maybe Gotogola?).
The news flooded my feed reader with dozens of articles ranging from simple regurgitated press releases to full blown analysis and speculation of what this will mean for both companies’ futures. I then spent the next hour or so devouring and digesting these articles to see if I could make sense of the massive reaction that this proposed buy out has triggered. From what I can tell it boils down to three key issues: Motorola Mobility’s patent war chest, Google’s desire to be a handset manufacturer and the effect that this is going to have on the Android platform. These are all rather meaty issues and whilst I might not have the cred of the larger blogging institutions I felt like I should throw my hat into the ring anyway.
The issue that everyone seems to mention at least once is Motorola Mobility’s rather impressive collection of patents, with 17,000 granted and 7,500 currently pending. The trove includes such pearlers as the mobile phone itself and patents that already have licenses with some of their biggest rivals (namely Nokia and Apple). On the surface acquiring the vast patent archive of Motorola Mobility seemed to be a reaction to Google losing the recent bidding war for the Nortel patents that were up for sale. Indeed Google did complain rather vocally that the partnership of mega-corps that did get those patents (some direct rivals, some users of Android) were only doing so in order to take down Android. However Google never appeared to be totally serious about acquiring those patents anyway, bidding strange amounts like pi and other mathematical constants. They were also apparently approached by the winning consortium to bid along with them (by Microsoft no less) which they turned down and sparked a rather public flamewar between them.
It then follows that Google, whilst not happy that it could have several companies breathing down its neck, didn’t just up and buy Motorola because of it. In fact it looks like Motorola has been under some pressure to monetize it’s vast patent cache for some time, even courting other big names like Microsoft. In the end they settled on Google as Motorola Mobility will retain some level of autonomy whereas Microsoft, still fresh from minting their deal with Nokia, was really only interested in their patents. Had Motorola gone with Microsoft in that instance it would’ve been a massive blow to the Android platform as a whole, as Motorola commands a respective 29% of that market. Motorola’s patents then are more a defensive barrier than anything else but that’s not the sole reason Google bought Motorola Mobility.
Google’s attempt to revolutionize the handset market, whilst commendable in their own right, has faced some problems when trying to break current industry norms. The Nexus One was meant to be sold unlocked for a mere pittance, as low as $99 outright, but the carriers would have none of that leaving Google handcuffed and the Nexus One made available at industry level prices. Their follow up phone Nexus S, whilst an impressive handset in its own right, suffered the same fate and it seemed that Google’s hope of changing the mobile game was just pure fantasy.
However with their acquisition of the Motorola Mobility section they now get the ability to manufacturer handsets themselves as well as getting all the carrier relationships which, up until now, they have sorely lacked. This means that Google now has a lot more leverage when it comes to negotiating with carriers and they could possibly use this in order to see their original dream of cheap, unlocked handsets realised. I doubt that we’ll see anything like that for a while to come yet (the deal has to pass a lot of scrutiny before it’s official) but the potential for such a thing to happen is far greater with Motorola under Google’s belt than it was without it.
The final issue that everyone has picked up on is what this acquisition means for the greater Android platform. Now you’d be forgiven for thinking Motorola isn’t that big of a deal, I certainly haven’t considered any of their phones and that holds true for my social group anecdotally. However they are indeed a powerhouse when it comes to Android, commanding some 29% of the market placing them second only to HTC at 35%. Google’s acquisition of them then means that they now have a direct influence over a sizable chunk of the Android market and this has had some speculating that this would mean trouble for other handset manufacturers.
For the most part though the other Android handset manufacturers have been positive about the acquisition and Google has stated that it wants Motorola to operate mostly independently. This is probably the best idea for Google as Android’s popularity can be easily attributed to those handset manufacturers and upsetting them in favour of Motorola would do far more harm than good. Many analysts have also speculated that the Googorola partnership will mean that Motorola will get preferential treatment over other manufacturers but I can’t see Google being that short sighted. The Motorola acquisition seems to be more of a defensive move to save the wider Android platform, not Google’s first steps into dominating the platform that others have helped make popular.
The Motorola Mobility acquisition looks like a positive move for Google, Motorola and the Android platform. With Motorola’s extensive patent chest Google will be able to defend the Android platform against any other mobile player that would seek to dethrone it. They also now have enough power to be able to realise their dream of cheap, unlocked handsets for the masses, leveraging off Motorola’s deep carrier relationships. Of course we’ve still got a while to wait before this deal is finalized and we start to see the fruits that this relationship will bear but I’m positive this will lead to good things for everyone involved.
For the past year I was somewhat of an anomaly amongst my tech friends because I choose to get an iPhone 3GS instead of one of the Android handsets. The choice was simple at the time, I had an app that I wanted to develop for it and needed something to test on, but still I copped it sweet whenever I said something positive about the platform since I’d usually be the only one with an Apple product in the area. When it came time again to buy a new phone, as I get to do every year for next to nothing, I resisted for quite a while, until one of my friends put me onto the Samsung Galaxy S2¹. The tech specs simply overwhelmed my usual fiscal conservativeness and no less than a week later was I in possession of one and so began my experience with the Android platform.
The default UI that comes with all of Samsung’s Android handsets, called TouchWiz, feels uncannily similar to that of iOS. In fact it’s so familiar that Apple is suing Samsung because of it, but if you look at many other Android devices you’ll see that they share similar characteristics that Apple is claiming Samsung ripped off from them. For me personally though the Android UI wins out simply because of how customizable it is allowing me to craft an experience that’s tailored to my use. Widgets, basically small front ends to your running applications, are a big part of this enabling me to put things like a weather ticker on my front page. The active wallpapers are also pretty interesting too, if only to liven up the otherwise completely static UI.
What impresses me most about the Android platform is the breadth and depth of the applications and tweaks available for the system. My first few days with Android were spent just getting myself back up and running like I was on my iPhone, finding all the essential applications (Facebook, Twitter, Shazam, Battle.net Authenticator, etc) and comparing the experience to the iPhone. For the most part the experience on Android is almost identical, especially with applications that have large user bases, but some of them were decidedly sub-par. Now most would say that this is due to the fragmentation of the Android platform but the problems I saw didn’t stem from those kinds of issues, just a lack of effort on their part to polish the experience. This more often happened for applications that weren’t “Android born” as many of the native apps were leaps and bounds ahead of them in terms of quality.
The depth of integration that applications and tweaks can have with the Android platform is really where the platform shines. Skype, for example, can usurp your outgoing calls and route them through their network which could be a major boon if you’re lucky enough to have a generous data plan. It doesn’t stop with application integration either, there are numerous developers dedicated to making the Android platform itself better through custom kernels and ROMs. The extra functionality that I have unlocked with my phone by installing CF-Root kernel, one that allows me root access, are just phenomenal. I’ve yet to find myself wanting for any kind of functionality and rarely have I found myself needing to pay for it something, unless it was for convenience’s sake.
Android is definitely a technophile’s dream with the near limitless possibilities of an open platform laid out before you. However had you not bothered to do all the faffing about that I did you still wouldn’t be getting a sub-par experience, at least on handsets sporting the TouchWiz interface. Sure you might have to miss out on some of the useful apps (like Titanium Backup) but realistically many of the root enabled apps aren’t aimed at your everyday user. You still get all the benefits of the deep integration with the Android platform where a good 90% of the value will be for most users anyway.
Despite all of this gushing over Google’s mobile love child I still find it hard to recommend it as the platform for everyone. Sure for anyone with a slight technical bent it’s the platform to go for, especially if you’re comfortable modding your hardware, and sure it’s still quite usable for the majority who aren’t. However Apple’s platform does automate a lot of the rudimentary stuff for you (like backing up your handset when you sync it) which Android, as a platform, doesn’t currently do. Additionally thanks to the limited hardware platform you’re far less likely to encounter some unknown issue on iOS than you are on Android which, if you’re the IT support for the family like me, can make your life a whole lot easier.
Android really impressed me straight from the get go and continued to do so as I spent more time getting to know it and digging under the hood to unlock even more value from it. The ability to interact, modify or outright replace parts of the underlying Android platform is what makes it great and is the reason why it’s the number 1 smart phone platform to date. As a long time smart phone user I feel that Android is by far the best platform for both technophiles and regular users alike, giving you the usability you’ve come to expect from iOS with the tweakability that used to be reserved for only for Windows Mobile devices.
Now I just need to try out a Windows Phone 7 device and I’ll have done the mobile platform trifecta.
¹I’m reviewing the handset separately as since Android is available on hundreds of handsets it wouldn’t be fair to lump them together as I did with the iPhone. Plus the Galaxy S2 deserves its own review anyway and you’ll find out why hopefully this week