Monthly Archives: February 2010

Indian company shows off impressive iPad competitor built with Google’s Android OS

Notion Ink’s Adam, an Android-based iPad competitor

I’m indebted to friends in India – and to the Technoholik technology blog of Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan of the Economic Times there, for this sneak preview of what some are already hailing as “The iPad Killer”.

It’s a classic “David and Goliath” story. Tiny startup, Notion Ink of Hyderabad, enters the ring this week against the Mighty Apple, when it showcases its “Adam” Android-based tablet at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Although when David is using an operating system developed by Google, the odds don’t seem quite so sharply stacked against it.

The Technoholik website has lots of pictures of the new device, plus video interviews with the Notion Ink founders. It’s an interesting device, which uses the low-power PixelQi color display developed for the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC). The transflective display is said to allow the Adam 16 hours of battery life – and 160 with the backlight turned off.

The Notion Ink founders announced that the device will ship in the USA in June or July, priced between $327 and $800 (there are two screen options: one PixelQi, one LCD…)

The Adam touch screen

There’s no question that this is the tablet the geeks will love. Flash support. Integrated videocam. Open operating system. Multi-tasking. Firefox and Chrome browsers. Plenty of them will write applications for this device.

Of course, that’s not the market at which Apple is aiming with the iPad. It’s unashamedly a consumer device, building on the phenomenal success of the iPhone.

There are two open issues which will decide whether the Adam can really mount a challenge against Apple in this space. The first is User Interface. Apple is unquestionably the master of easy-to-learn, easy-to-use UI. And it has decades of experience. I’d expect Apple to win this one hands-down.

The second is marketing power. Apple has one of the best brands in the business, if not the best. It has a user base which is loyal, bordering on fanatic (with quite a few who crossed that border a long time ago…) And, of course, it has its own chain of hugely-popular Apple stores.

On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious that Google will put its weight behind any device using its Android OS, and is bound to go head-to-toe with Apple here as well as in mobile phones.

It’s going to be interesting. Competition is great!

I certainly hope Notion Ink has some measure of success. India has some of the smartest programmers on the planet, and it’s about time some Indian companies emerged as global players in the device market.

Technoholik’s iPad v. Adam spec comparison


Changing How You Comment, To Defeat Spam…

Over recent months, I’ve seen a big increase in the number of spam comments submitted to this blog by people selling everything from Viagra to cheap software. I’ve been catching them during comment monitoring – so you don’t see them.

However, it’s become a chore to keep weeding them out. So I’ve added a “word recognition” box to the comments page, which you’ll have to fill in before your comment appears in my email Inbox for moderation. That should prevent automated spammers from trying to post.

I apologize for having to add this extra step to your comment process, but it can’t be helped. Please keep those comments coming!

iPad: Dodging The "Doonesbury Bullet"…

Doonesbury cartoons flayed the Newton to death for its (dreadful) handwriting recognition…

Here’s a little story I’d like to share on why I believe Apple’s iPad will succeed where Microsoft Windows-based TabletPCs have failed to gain more than a tiny niche-market share. I believe it offers a classic illustration of “geek” versus “consumer” thinking…

I happened to be having an online conversation several months ago with a former colleague who had been one of the Handwriting Recognition (HR) experts on the Microsoft TabletPC team. His view was that Apple would have real trouble launching a Tablet device – because Microsoft holds a number of key patents in the area of handwriting recognition, and he could see no way in which they’d be able to get around those to create a usable device.

It’s true that Microsoft has indeed done some great work around handwriting recognition. My wife Tanya wrote the first draft of a 400,000-word book using it, on a Windows TabletPC. It wasn’t absolutely perfect. But it was perfectly usable. And I’m sure MSFT has a ton of patents around it.

Apple, of course, has been seriously bitten in the past by handwriting recognition – or lack of it. The Newton was launched in 1993, as the first in a new category of device – the Personal Digital Assistant. Theory was, you’d write on the screen with a stylus, Newton would recognize your writing, and turn it into typed text on the screen. Newton might not do a perfect job at first, but it would “learn” your handwriting as it went along, and rapidly improve.

It was a disaster. Newton’s recognition mistakes were so legendary that the widely-syndicated Doonesbury cartoon strip poked fun at them for months, at the end of which time Newton was a laughing-stock. It eventually died a well-deserved death.

I bet Steve Jobs vowed at that time that the company would never again ship a device which depended on handwriting recognition for its success. Anyone on the iPad team who suggested putting it in would be given The Glasgow Farewell. (Pick a window – you’re leaving!)

Classic. If there’s an obstacle, go around.

To the geeks at Microsoft, though, handwriting recognition was one of The Last Great Problems of Computing – a really interesting and complex area. Lots of languages, too! They tackled it head-on.

And, you know what? By applying brute force, effort, huge investment, and some really smart people – they solved it! I’ve never tried Windows HR with any language other than English – where it does work really well. But I’m sure it does a great job on other languages, too – even Chinese and Japanese.

And you know what else? It won’t matter! Because when you pack a tablet device with enough power to run Windows and Office, do handwriting recognition, full-screen video, and everything else, you end up with a machine that is too thick, too heavy, uses too much power, and runs too hot. And it doesn’t help that the hardware manufacturers who’re building them all get off on a 16:9 aspect ratio video trip at the same time.

You’ve built a fleet of Hummers, when the market just wants a Prius…

iPad: It’s definitely not a Newton…

Steve Jobs knows how to hook consumers. The first Macintoshes had 128K of RAM, and only a 400K floppy disk – no hard drive at all. But they reset people’s expectations of what a computer should look like, how easy it should be to use, and what you could do with one. As they got better, people just kept upgrading, with no resentment. Today, Macintosh laptops and desktops are better than Windows machines. You pay more, for sure. But if you can afford it, it’s worth it.

The Windows TabletPC philosophy was: “If we can build it, they will come”. It’s a valid gamble, if you have deep enough pockets. Occasionally, it even comes off.

Apple’s philosophy, on the other hand, is: “First, we get them to come. Then we can take them with us.” If you create a market with enough customers, they will tell you what they want next. They’ll tell you what’s missing. You build on a relationship with a LOT of customers. And you make a LOT of money while you’re doing it. And oh, by the way – there’s a new business model that goes along with it so you make more money AFTER you’ve sold the device.

I would not be in the least surprised to find that in a few years there’s a high-end iPad that is a powerful computer used for many tasks other than media consumption. I’ve already speculated elsewhere that we might see a stylus for the iPad sooner rather than later. Apple’s website says the iPad’s touch-recognition capability is high-precision; so a stylus ought to give a lot more precision than a finger for applications like drawing, for example.

Geeks have been complaining since the launch: “It doesn’t do multitasking!” “There’s no support for Flash!” “It’s not an open environment!”

All I have to say is this: It’s a Prius, not a Ferrari – yet. And you’ll see plenty on the road…

iPad: No egg freckles on its face…

iPad: Apple Upsets The eBook Apple-cart…

iPad: Will truly upset the Apple-cart…

It’s been a while since I posted a blog here. I’ve been pretty busy with other projects – but that wasn’t the reason. At least two blogs I had in draft form for months were based on the rumors filling the Internet and the business press that Apple was about to launch a Tablet device. Like everyone else, I had lots of information that could end up being either true or false – like the story that Apple had taken delivery of a quantity of 9.7-inch displays, which ended up being true. I decided against publishing, because I felt another dose of speculation added nothing.

Here are a few of my pre-launch speculations, though – copied and pasted from draft blogs:

  1. “Apple could easily create a really elegant Tablet which looked just like a larger iPhone. With the iPhone, it already has a keyboardless UI which millions of users have found easy and convenient to use.
  2. “With a Tablet device, Apple could enter both the NetBook and eBook markets at the same time.”
  3. “Apple has shown with each of its devices – PC, phone and music player – that there are millions of people who’d happily pay a premium price for a great user experience.”
  4. If Apple can get reasonable battery life from an iPhone-like Tablet, it’s going to make the Amazon Kindle screen unacceptable.

Well, as the whole world now knows, Apple did indeed launch a Tablet. It does look like a giant iPhone – even runs the iPhone operating system. It’s set its sights on the growing eBook market. And it has succeeded in getting a reported 10-hour battery life from a color screen which also supports video.

Apple’s PR department must still have sore hands since the launch, from high-fiving each other. When was the last time the launch of a new computer made the front page of all the major newspapers – with a huge color photograph? (Answer: Never!)

I predict it will be a huge success. It will cause the same kind of mayhem among TabletPC and eBook manufacturers that the iPod and iPhone did in their respective market categories.

It’s a great-looking device. It’s sleek and elegant – exactly what you’d expect from Apple. But that isn’t why it will dominate the Tablet category. It’s because Apple understands that computers have made a transition from “computing devices” to “consumer devices”. Apple has built its huge success in recent years by becoming a company which creates great end-to-end consumer experiences.

The arrival of the iPad is bad news for the Kindle. Even though I’ve owned Kindles since the first one shipped, I’ve always described it as a “transitional device”. It was simply the first device with a screen good enough to enable reading text for long periods, with long battery life – and an acceptable book-buying experience built in.

The trouble with the Kindle is that for all its vaunted modernity, it’s really a backward-looking device. So is the eInk technology at its heart. Both are aimed at creating an experience close to paper. But that’s not the Future of Reading. The future will be created by first equalling, then going beyond, paper. It is books with full color, books with video, books which update through the Web. Kindle was good enough to jump-start the digital book market. But it’s not good enough to keep it. eInk was acceptable only until the appearance of a color screen with acceptable battery life. And the iPad’s 10 hours is more than enough to knock it off its pedestal…

iPad is also bad news for Microsoft, which has been pushing TabletPCs for years. It pioneered the genre, and my good friend Bert Keely has been at the heart of its efforts.

The trouble is trying to innovate at Microsoft, which is a company of geeks, run by geeks, and dominated by Windows.

When TabletPC began at Microsoft, it was a research effort – outside of the regular Windows organization. Once it was re-organized into Windows, that was the kiss of death. I never really thought much about this while I worked there, but it’s my belief that despite all the lip-service paid to end-users, the only Windows customers with any real power are the Windows Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).

They’re the customers Windows really has to care about – because most people get their OS upgrades when they change machines. And the Windows OEMs never seemed to get what TabletPCs should really be about. Most of them shipped machines which were basically conventional laptop PCs with Tablet functionality implemented like an add-on. They all had keyboards, and converted to tablets by swiveling a standard screen.

There were some true keyboard-free tablets in the early days – NEC shipped two models (version 2 shipped in Japan only, though!) They died the death by being ahead of their time, and suffered from poor battery life. So we ended up with TabletPCs like Toshiba’s M7, for instance, which were neither one thing nor the other, and wound up being terrible at both. I ran one for more than a year – using it as a conventional laptop because as a Tablet it was just too big, too heavy, too awkward and ran far too hot to be used more than occasionally. Even as a laptop, it suffered from the unreliability all-too-likely in any device whose hardware and software are designed by different companies.

My M7 was replaced by a MacBook Pro, which turned out to be the best Windows laptop I ever had (until I left Microsoft and bought a 133ppi MacBookPro to replace it…) As a result of that experience, my wife Tanya replaced her Windows laptop with an iMac desktop with a large screen and an internal 1Terabyte hard drive. It’s wonderful.

I run Mac OSX when I’m doing page layout or working on high-resolution scans using Adobe InDesign, PhotoShop and Lightroom. But I spend most of my time in Windows. So I run Vista using BootCamp. This MacBookPro is the most trouble-free Windows machine I’ve ever had. I could never get a Windows laptop to Sleep and Wake instantly. Even if it would sleep when brand-new, inevitably the Sleep capability would fail within a few weeks, and I’d be forced to use Hibernate instead. My MacBook Pro still Sleeps and Wakes reliably, months later.

Vista is a great OS – provided you are running it on a fast and powerful machine. I know it’s the fashion to dump on it – even inside Microsoft. Hey, it’s the old story – blame all of your mistakes on the guy who just left. There’s no question that it took waaay too long to build, and that when it first shipped it lacked so many drivers that most people had problems getting their existing equipment to run. I knew plenty of people who had problems running it on Macs using BootCamp back then. But once Apple had released all the drivers the problems went away. I like Vista, and so far I’ve seen no compelling reason to upgrade to Windows 7.

After a few months, I still find text on MacOSX too blurry for my taste, even on this 133ppi display. ClearType was one of the things we did get right at Microsoft – even if it took ten years to get it into the hands of most customers.

I’m not revealing any confidential information here. Anyone who saw Bill Gates’ keynote speech at Comdex in 1998 saw me on stage demonstrating ClearType. And they heard Bill say – in pretty emphatic terms – that it would ship in Windows.

Well, it shipped in Windows XP, right enough. But the Windows team buried it so deeply that most users never even found out it was there, or how to turn it on. It wasn’t until Vista that it was turned on by default for all users. And that shipped in 2008. Ten years after we first showed it before we truly got it into the hands of our customers!

Apple implemented its own version. However, they turned it on for everyone the instant they shipped it. It’s a pity they took a more simplistic approach, and that’s the only question-mark I still have against the iPad.

At Microsoft, we invented ClearType specifically to solve the problems of creating highly-readable text at normal reading sizes (between 9 and 13 point). There’s a lot more technology going on than simply utilizing the RGB sub-pixels on LCD displays. Apple’s clone creates text whose characters look more like the original print fonts at those sizes than ClearType does – but the price they pay is a lack of sharpness and clarity, and text that’s slightly blurred at the edges. That means I still prefer to do all my reading on Windows, with “genuine” ClearType – even on this great 133ppi display.

My only misgiving about the iPad is that its screen is 122ppi. If Apple implements its current ClearType clone on it, we might end up with text that’s slightly blurry, and could cause problems reading for sustained periods. That’s only speculation, though. I can’t say for sure until I’ve held one in my hands and tried to read on it for several hours.

When the merits of different operating systems are discussed, people – especially at Microsoft – have always trotted out a standard argument: “It’s much easier for Apple, they have control over both the hardware and the operating system, they don’t have the same number of different processors/screens/mice/devices to support”.

That argument was logical enough when comparing Macintoshes running MacOS with Windows PCs. But my BootCamp experiences led me to ask the question – publicly, in this blog: “How can Apple make a better Windows machine than any Windows PC maker?” (That turned out not to be such a good career move for me at Microsoft. Take my tip – never tell the Emperor he’s butt-naked, unless you’re sure he’s big enough to see it as an opportunity to buy new clothes).

If you install Vista on a Mac using BootCamp, and run the Windows Experience Index diagnostics which rate its capabilities, you end up with better scores than the vast majority of Windows machines. This machine rates a WEI of 5.3 – and I’ve never seen a score higher than that.

Apple’s had its failures in the handheld device area before, of course – anyone say Newton? But in my opinion they’re a long way past that, and haven’t put a foot wrong in years.

Newton’s “Achilles’ Heel” was that reliable Handwriting Recognition was critical to its functionality, and we all know what a Doonesbury Disaster that turned out to be! iPhone was built without that dependency, and thus dodges the “Doonesbury Bullet”.

Even in these tough economic times, Apple has proved there are plenty of people who’ll pay a premium for a great device. It has been creating winners for years now. There were plenty of cheaper MP3 music players available long before Apple’s iPod appeared. Yet the iPod owns the market – even though it was both later to market, and more expensive. Checking out eBay recently, there were only 3 used iPods for sale (and over 1000 Zunes…)

iPod, therefore I am…

There are plenty of mobile phones around. But Apple’s much more expensive iPhones (both the phone and the service) have been flying off the shelves. I’ve had a Windows Mobile phone for years. But compared to the iPhone it’s a complex, fussy, unfriendly brick. I had been meaning to get rid of it for a long time, but I don’t use a mobile phone that much, and I still read books on it using Microsoft Reader, so I’ve been hesitant about making the switch.

However, last week I dropped my Windows Mobile phone in the water. It was DOA when brought back to the surface. So now I need a new phone. No way am I buying a Windows Mobile replacement. I really grew to hate that phone. I’ve checked out the new Google phones, and I don’t like them much either. No, I want a great customer experience – so I’ll go with Apple.

iPhone: Now I have an excuse to buy one…

I’m not an Apple Fanboy. But you have to give credit where it’s due. From being browbeaten into a mere 2-3% PC market share several years ago, Apple has parlayed its expertise in “consumer computing” into astounding success. I expect the iPad to continue that success.