The tech world was all abuzz about Phonebloks just over a month ago with many hailing it as the next logical step in the smartphone revolution. Whilst I liked the idea since it spoke to the PC builder in me it was hard to overlook the larger issues that plagued the idea, namely the numerous technical problems as well as the lack of buy in from component manufacturers. Since then I hadn’t heard anything further on it and figured that the Thunderclap campaign they had ended without too much fuss but it appears that it might have caught the attention of people who could make the idea happen.
Those people are Motorola.
As it turns out Motorola has been working on their own version of the Phonebloks idea for quite some time now, over a year in fact. It’s called Project Ara and came about as a result of the work they did during Sticky, essentially trucking around the USA with unlocked handsets and 3D printers and holding a series of makeathons. The idea is apparently quite well developed with a ton of technical work already done and some conceptual pieces shown above. Probably the most exciting thing for Phonebloks followers ;will be the fact that Motorola has since reached out to Dave Hakkens and are hoping to use his community in order to further their idea. By their powers combined it might just be possible for a modular handset to make its way into the real world.
Motorola’s handset division, if you recall, was acquired by Google some 2 years ago mostly due to their wide portfolio of patents that Google wanted to get its hands on. At the same time it was thought that Google would then begin using Motorola for their first party Nexus handsets however that part hasn’t seemed to eventuate with Google leaving them to do their own thing. However such a close tie with Google might provide Project Ara the resources it needs to actually be successful as there’s really no other operating system they could use (and no, the Ubuntu and Firefox alternatives aren’t ready for prime time yet).
Of course the technical issues that were present in the Phonebloks idea don’t go away just because some technicians from Motorola are working on them. Whilst Motorola’s design is quite a bit less modular than what Phonebloks was purporting it does look like it has a bit more connectivity available per module. Whether that will be enough to support the amount of connectivity required for things like quad core ARM CPUs or high resolution cameras will remain to be seen however.
So whilst the Phonebloks idea in its original form might never see the light of day it does appear that at least one manufacturer is willing to put some effort into developing a modular handset. There’s still a lot of challenges for it to overcome before the idea can be made viable but the fact that real engineers are working on it with the backing of their company gives a lot of credence to it. I wouldn’t expect to see any working prototypes for a while to come though, even with Motorola’s full backing, but potentially in a year or so we might start to see some make their way to trade shows and I’ll be very interested to see their capabilities.
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.
I used to think I wasn’t your typical consumer, what with my inclination for all things tech especially those with a dedicated modding community. Pretty much every device I have in my house has been modified in some way so that I can do things that the manufacturer didn’t intend for me to do, extending the life of many of those devices considerably. Whilst consumers like me used to be small in number, especially when compared to the total market, it seems like ever since Android exploded in popularity that the modding community is now a force to be reckoned with. So much so that even handset manufacturers are beginning to bow to their demands.
I started thinking along these lines back when some of my close mates were talking about Motorola’s super handset, the Atrix. Feature wise its an amazing phone with enough processing power under the hood to give netbooks a good run for their money. A few of my mates were wholly sold on getting one once they were released however reports began came in that the boot loader on the Atrix was locked, removing the possibility of being able to run custom ROMs and some of the more useful features. It really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise since Motorola has a policy of locking their devices (which is why the Xoom’s unlocked bootloader was odd) but still many people were sold on the device prior to finding out its limitations. The modding community didn’t just vote with their wallets this time around however, they made sure Motorola was aware of just how many customers they were losing.
Motorola, for reasons unknown, decided to put up a poll on their Facebook page asking their fans what apps they’d most like to see their developers working on next. The response was overwhelming with nearly every request being for them to unlock the bootloader. Not a week after these poll results went viral did Motorola issued a statement that they’d be changing their policy to allow users to unlock handsets, as long as the carriers approved it. Whilst that’s yet to happen for any of their current handsets (they’ve alluded to late this year) it did show that the modding community has become very important to the handset manufacturers, more so than I had ever thought they would.
HTC, long known for there awesomely hackable handsets, seems to be going in the opposite direction to Motorola seemingly ignoring the lessons to be learned from them. Whilst they had never made it as easy as say the Google Nexus lines of phones they were always able to be unlocked should you be willing to take the risk. Back in march I wrote about how their Thunderbolt handset was by far the most locked down device we had seen from HTC ever, warning that doing so would be akin to poisoning the well they drink from. More recently it came to light that two of their newest handsets, the Sensation and EVO 3D, would also come with locked bootloaders similar to that of the Thunderbolt. They have since come back saying that they’ll be working to make their handsets more hacker friendly once again, although many are quick to point out that they might not have much say in that matter.
You see the unfortunate truth is that all handsets are at the mercy of the carriers as without them they’re basically useless. Google encountered this very problem when they released the Nexus One as they had to offer both the subsidized version through the carriers as well as their original vision of selling it just through their online store. Indeed they had originally wanted to sell the Nexus One for as little as $99 unlocked paying the subsidy themselves. That plan didn’t last very long once they started talking to the carriers and the best option they could offer was the $179 version with a 2 year contract, a far cry from their original vision. So whilst I applaud Motorola and HTC’s commitment to keeping handsets hacker friendly the carriers could very well scuttle the idea long before it hits implementation, but only time will tell with that.
Honestly I’m very surprised at the recent turn of events that has led to these quick about faces from the big handset manufacturers. Sure I believed that the modding communities were catalysts for the success that they had enjoyed but I didn’t think they had enough sway to get a corporation to change its wicked ways. It shows that a decent percentage of people are committed to the idea of openness and freedom to use their devices as they see fit and whilst it might be an uphill battle against the carriers we at least have some powerful allies on our side, maybe even enough to make Google’s original Nexus vision come true one day.
I’m not what you’d call a big traveller, the longest trip of my life was done just last year and only lasted 4 weeks, but I’ve still been to more places than both my parents combined. I have the commoditization of air travel to thank for that and it’s the reason why many Australians of my generation spent their early twenties in other countries. Like any traveller I’m always keen to dive right into the culture of the place I’m visiting and always want to bring back a momento that’s distinctly from that country. Since I have a distaste for useless things and a heavy interest in tech my options are usually pretty limited though, especially when I go to places that are supposed to be tech centres.
Most recently I saw myself in Singapore for business and thought this would be a good opportunity to grab some of the gadgets I hadn’t bought yet (I.E. a Motorola Xoom). I knew I could get it online for just under $600 so I figured if I could get it for that or within 10% more it would be worth it so I set out to 2 of the biggest technology malls in search of one. The first one I tried was Sim Lim Square, and whilst the number of IT shops there was astounding I failed to find anyone willing to sell me the tablet for less than SG$900 (~AUD$684). It was also a bit of a challenge to find one in the first place since most places didn’t stock it, favoring instead the new Acer Iconia. My frolic through the Funan DigitalLife Mall prove to be equally as irritating, so I ended up leaving there empty handed.
I had similar frustrations looking for some distinctly Singaporean gifts to bring back from my travels. This could be due to the heavy amount of westernization that Singapore has undergone but even trolling through local markets had me finding the same items I could either get online or back in Australia. It’s not just limited to Singapore either, any business running in a modern country is more than likely going to have some kind of web presence which will allow you to get their products without having to enter the country. Thus the actual value of travelling to a location to get things that you can only get there is somewhat diminished, especially if you’re someone with particular tastes like me.
My wife and I had the same trouble when travelling through the USA. We struggled to find anything that they couldn’t get elsewhere and indeed many of the gifts we ended up bringing back could have easily been acquired with 10 minutes on the Internet and a credit card. Sure people are still appreciative of things that have made the journey from faraway lands (especially if you carry them yourselves) but it just seems unnecessary when you could have the package make that same journey without taking up space in your suitcase.
Perhaps its just a result of my particular tastes and chosen travel destinations but the more I travel the more I get the feeling that the world is becoming far more homogenous thanks to the communication revolution of the Internet. It’s also just good business on the part of the multi-nationals who can afford to have a presence anywhere they choose which explains why I continue to see the same products and brands nearly everywhere I go.
Maybe I’m just pointlessly ranting about the diminishing value of travel or perhaps I’m getting crotchety in my old age, not wanting to travel because I like what I’ve got back at home. Both are valid points and looking over this post it does seem kind of a silly point to make. Still though I think there’s something in the idea that the world is becoming more homogenous thanks to the better flow of information and that one of the flow on effects is that the idea of bringing gifts back from overseas is now a quaint notion that could soon be seen as an outdated custom.
Or maybe I’m just shit at finding good places to shop, that’d work too 😉
So I’m sold on the tablet idea. After resisting it since Apple started popularizing it with the iPad I’ve finally started to find myself thinking about numerous use cases where a tablet would be far more appropriate than my current solutions. Most recently it was after turning off my main PC and sitting down to watch some TV shows, realizing that I had forgotten to set up some required downloads before doing so. Sure I could do them using the diNovo Mini keyboard but it’s not really designed for more than logging in and typing in the occasional web address. Thinking that I’d either now have to power my PC or laptop on I lamented that I didn’t have a tablet that I could RDP into the box with and set up the downloads whilst lazing on the couch. Thankfully it looks like my tablet of choice, a wifi only Xoom, can be shipped to Australia via Amazon so I’ll be ordering one of them very soon.
Initially I thought I’d go for one of the top of the line models with all the bells and whistles, most notably a 3G/4G connection. That was mostly just for geek cred since whenever I’m buying gadgets I like to get the best that’s on offer at the time (as long as the price isn’t completely ludicrous). After a while though I started to have a think about my particular use patterns and I struggled to find a time where I’d want to use a tablet and be bereft of a WiFi connection, either through an access point or tethered to my phone. There’s also the consideration of price with all non-cellular tablets is usually quite a bit cheaper, on the order of $200 with the Xoom. It then got me thinking, what exactly is the use case for a tablet with a cellular connection?
The scenarios I picture go something along these lines. You’re out and about, somewhere that has mobile phone reception, but you don’t have your phone on you (or one not capable of tethering) and you’re no where near a WiFi access point. Now the possibility of having mobile phone reception but no WiFi is a pretty common event, especially here in Australia, but the other side to that potential situation is you either can’t tether to your mobile phone because its not capable or you don’t have it on you. Couple that with the fact that you’re going to have to pay for yet another data plan just for your new tablet then you’ve really lost me as to why you’d bother with a tablet that has cellular connectivity.
If your reason for getting cellular connectivity is that you want to use it when you don’t have access to a WiFi hard point then I could only recommend it if you have a phone that can’t tether to other devices (although I’d struggle to find one today, heck even my RAZR was able to do it). However, if I may make a sweeping statement, I’d assume that since you’ve bought a tablet you already have a smart phone which is quite capable of tethering, even if the carrier charges you a little more for it (which is uncommon and usually cheaper than a separate data plan). The only real reason to have it is for when you have your tablet but not your phone, a situation I’d be hard pressed to find myself in and not be within range of an access point.
In fact most of the uses I can come up with for a tablet device actually require them to be on some kind of wireless network as they make a fitting interface device to my larger PCs with all the functions that could be done on cellular networks aptly covered off by a smartphone. Sure they might be more usable for quite a lot of activities but they’re quite a lot more cumbersome than something that can fit into my pocket and rarely do I find myself needing functionality above that of the phone but below that of a fully fledged PC. This is why I was initially skeptical of the tablet movement as the use cases were already aptly covered by current generation devices. It seems there’s quite a market for transitional devices however.
Still since nearly every manufacturer is making both cellular and wireless only tablets there’s got to be something to it, even if I can’t figure it out. There’s a lot to be said about the convenience factor and I’m sure a lot of people are willing to pay the extra just to make sure they can always use their device wherever they are but I, for one, can’t seem to get a grip on it. So I’ll put it out to the wisdom of the crowd: what are your use cases for a cellular enabled tablet?
So here we are 1 year and 1 month after the initial release of the iPad and Apple has, to no one’s surprise, release the newest version of their product the iPad 2. As anyone who knows me will tell you there’s no love lost between me and Apple’s “magical” device that filled a need where there wasn’t one but I can’t argue that it’s been quite successful for Apple and they arguably brought tablets into the mainstream. Still Apple has a habit of coming late to the party with features that have been part and parcel of competing products and the iPad 2 is no exception to this rule.
The iPad 2 is mostly an incremental hardware upgrade to the original iPad as the technical specifications reflect (cellular model specs shown):
Most notably the iPad 2 is 33% thinner and 15% lighter than its predecessor. To put that in perspective that makes the iPad 2 thinner than the iPhone 4, which is pretty damn slim to begin with. Additionally the iPad 2 comes with a dual core A5 processor (not to be confused with the ARM Cortex A5) as well as front and rear cameras. Rumoured features of a Retina-esque type display for the iPad 2 were just that it seems with this device retaining the same screen as its predecessor. Additionally although Apple is going to be offering the iPad 2 on the Verizon network it will not be capable of accessing their 4G LTE network unlike other tablets like the Motorola Xoom.
In addition to announcing the iPad 2 Apple also announced the upcoming update to iOS, version 4.3. Amongst most of the rudimentary things like updates to AirPlay and Safari Apple is also enabling all 3GS handsets and above the ability to create a wireless hotspot using the 3G connection on the phone. Tethering has been available via bluetooth and USB cable for a long time now but if you wanted the hotspot functionality you were relegated to the world of jailbreaking so its good to see Apple including it in an official release. There’s also iTunes home sharing which allows you to view your entire iTunes library without having to sync it all to your phone which I can see being handy but not really a killer feature.
Like the vast majority of Apple products many of the features that they are releasing today have been available from competitors for a long time before hand. Wireless tethering has been around for quite a long time, hell I even had it on my Xperia X1, so it makes me wonder why Apple omits features like this when they’re so rudimentary. The same can be said for the original iPad being bereft of cameras as many who saw the device instantly recognized its potential for being a great video conferencing device. In all honesty I believe that the lack of cutting edge features on most Apple products is not simply because they want to make everything perfect, more its about keeping enough features up their sleeves in order to be able to release a new iteration of their iDevices every year. If they included everything they could for the get go their scope for future upgrades narrows considerably, along with their potential profit margins.
It should really come as no surprise then that the iPad 2 doesn’t come with a Near Field Communications chip in it. Now no one was really expecting that, all the rumors point to the iPhone 5 being the first Apple product to have it, but Apple could have had a huge advantage in driving the technology had they have included it in their latest offering. Heck I’d probably even be lining up to grab one if it had NFC in it just because I’ve got a couple start up ideas that need a NFC tablet and phone but I guess that will have to wait until the next generation, if that.
Apple has also redesigned the cover that they’ll be selling alongside the iPad 2. The original one, which drew the ire of some Apple fan boys, was a more traditional case in the sense that it covered up the entire iPad. The new case is more of a elaborate screen protector but it has some novel uses thanks to its sectioned design letting you prop up the iPad in landscape mode. The cover also makes use of the new proximity sensor on the iPad 2, turning off the screen when you close the cover.
Honestly the iPad 2 is everything we’ve come to expect from Apple, an incremental improvement to one of their now core products. Even though I’m starting to come around to the tablet idea (I don’t what it is but the Xoom just tickles my fancy) Apple’s offerings are just never up to scratch with the competition, especially considering how good Android Honeycomb is looking. Still it will be interesting to see how the first hardware refresh of the iPad fares as that will be telling of how large the tablet market is and whether Apple can continue to hold dominance in the space they helped to bring into the mainstream.