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Tablet Wars Begin in Earnest

Tablet Wars Begin in Earnest

Just days after Motorola let fly with the Xoom tablet, Apple revealed its second-generation iPad. These two and many others will duke it out for tablet supremacy over the coming months, and consumers will have to wade through a confusing quagmire of prices, plans and features. Meanwhile, Gmail flopped, Android security fizzled and content farms flailed.

By Paul Hartsock TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
03/05/11 5:00 AM PT

The iPad 2 has made its entrance, and by next week it'll go up for grabs. There's been a lot of anticipation for what Apple would do with its next tablet now that rivals have showed up with their own tablets that beat the original iPad's specs -- granted, they were mostly demo units.

Steve Jobs himself showed up to kick off the proceedings. They opened with a reference to iBooks and how Apple just signed on Random House as a participating publisher. Could be a bid to reassure customers who are worried that its strict purchasing rules will squeeze Kindle out of the App Store. Or maybe I'm just paranoid.

Anyway, the new iPad's chassis is lighter and thinner than the previous model's, and Apple finally included a couple of cameras, front and back. iPad 2 also does 1080p HD video output, but not through an HDMI port on the body. You actually have to plug an auxiliary cord into the standard dock to do HDMI out. Cord goes for 40 bucks.

As for the its guts: There's a new dual-core A5 chip, which Apple says doubles its CPU speed over that of the original iPad and offers nine times the graphics processing abilities. And its power usage should be about the same as the old A4.

The iPad 2's price range also stays the same as before. It starts at $500 for the 16 GB, WiFi-only model and goes all the way up to $830 for 64 GB and WiFi plus 3G. There are six options in all, and they all land on March 11.


Listen to the podcast (16:03 minutes).

Where's the WiFi?

Not all of them are actually here quite yet. There was a lot going on in Barcelona at MWC last month, but most of that stuff won't be ready until summer.

One tablet that is ready to go right here, right now, is the Motorola Xoom. It's a Honeycomb slate that more or less matches the iPad 2 in size, power, number of cameras, so forth. And it actually went on sale about a week ago, so it has a bit of a head start on iPad 2.

If you're a big spender, Xoom vs. iPad might be a tough decision. They're both latest-generation tablets with very similar guts. As always, Android is the more open and freewheeling OS; Apple's iOS is more rigidly controlled but tidier. And price-wise, when you're talking about top-end models -- maximum memory and full wireless data abilities -- it only comes down to a difference of $30. Tough choice.

But say you aren't such a big spender. Maybe you don't want to pay a monthly cellular data bill for your tablet, and you also don't want to pay extra for a model that has a cellular data chip you're never going to use. You're a prime candidate for a WiFi-only tablet, and you're not alone. According to analyst Rob Enderle, about two-thirds of iPad buyers have bought a WiFi-only model, and of the third that ponied up for the more expensive 3G iPads, only a third of them have actually turned the cellular data services on. They only bought the 3G pad in case they decided they wanted to use cell data sometime down the road. A bit of future insurance.

Point is, WiFi-only is apparently in demand, but if you're part of that crowd and you happen to live in the U.S., it's currently very unclear what you might be able to get from Motorola. Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha has said that a WiFi-only Xoom will arrive eventually, but the company has declined to confirm when, if ever, such a model will come to the states.

At the moment I'm recording this, all we have to go on are clues. On Friday the Blog Droid Life put up some photos depicting signs inside a Sam's Club retail location advertising a 32 GB, WiFi-only Xoom for $539. That might be a more attractive offer for the WiFi crowd -- it doesn't beat Apple's absolute lowest price, but it does outprice an iPad with the same amount of memory.

Still, even if that Sam's Club sign is accurate, it leaves a lot of open questions. Unnamed Sam's Club insiders have reportedly said the WiFi-only model will arrive in April, but will it only be available at Sam's Club? Does that price only apply to Sam's members? These warehouse stores are known to sometimes carry just one of several product models, so are there really a lot of different Xoom configurations on the way? Unless Motorola comes through with some solid promises and confirmations, budget-minded tablet buyers may stick with what they know for sure and pick up an iPad.

Return to Sender

But let's now turn attention to the high-rollers -- the ones who really do want on-the-go wireless data. The Xoom is actually going to be able to use the newest kind of wireless networks: 4G LTE. Apple only talked about 3G when it introduced iPad 2, but before the year's half over, Xoom will be able to use Verizon's newly launched 4G services. Even if you've already bought a Xoom that right now only does 3G, you'll still have the option to step up to 4G for no extra charge.

But that's where things get a little weird. In order to get LTE data services, you're going to have to send the tablet back to home base. Motorola has this whole system set up, complete with prepaid FedEx envelopes and instructions on how to encrypt the data in the tablet so nothing creepy happens to it. The Xoom has its little hardware operation, and a few days later it comes back to you, good as new. Just like getting a puppy.

Motorola says the process will take six business days, so adding in shipping and weekends, users will be without their Xooms for the better part of two weeks. A no-extra-charge upgrade to 4G sounds nice, but this business of having to send it in is definitely not the norm. It doesn't seem to put the user in a very good place. The ones who really, really like their Xooms are the ones who are going to be the most frustrated as they're waiting all that time to get them back. And all this back-and-forth shipping combined with another visit to the factory to get cut open and re-gutted sounds like a lot of opportunities for something to go wrong.

Also, if this is something Motorola's willing to do for no extra charge, why not ship all Xooms with the 4G hardware already in place? Motorola said the upgrade will be available in the second quarter, so it isn't as though this is a free boost to an aging product that really needs a second wind to start looking interesting again. This is an enhancement to a product that's going to still be very new, and it makes you wonder why it wasn't just built that way when it shipped.

Perhaps the hardware's not quite ready yet -- Verizon's 4G LTE network did just get off the ground a couple of months ago. It seems Motorola wanted to get there first with a 4G tablet, and it also wanted to beat iPad 2 out of the gate. Apparently the only way to accomplish both those goals is ask buyers to send the product back after a few weeks so the company can finish building it.

Toxic Apps

The Android platform's main application storefront is the Android Market, and it's growing to be quite large -- might even catch up with Apple's App Store one of these days. With so many tens of thousands of apps out there it's no surprise to learn that some of them are awful, don't work, and are best described as complete rip-offs. It can happen in any app store, Apple's included.

But a recent incident has raised concerns about apps that don't just rip you off by taking your money and giving you a lousy product; they actually install malicious software deep within the phone's brain stem that could allow a hacker to do all sorts of things with your phone without your consent, or even knowledge.

Google had to suddenly pull dozens of applications from its Android Market after it was reported they installed Trojans into users' phones. Many of the apps were actually copied from legitimate developers, fitted with Trojan-injecting claws, then re-uploaded to the Market, where they were downloaded by anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 people in all.

So what titles are we talking about? Oh, you know, the usual stuff. "Bowling Time," "Piano," "Screaming Sexy Japanese Girls," "Hilton Sex Sound." All must-have apps, I'm sure. And until lately, all of them were available in the mainstream Android Market, not from some back-alley app distributor.

Google's taking heat in two ways on this one. First off, Android may be the more open platform compared to its biggest rival, Apple's iOS. But this incident makes it look like open means that anyone can build and distribute toxic, malware-ridden software and get it out to tens of thousands of users before being caught. Critics say Google needs a better security guard on patrol in its store.

Secondly, Google's been accused of being a little dull in its response when told about what was going on. It's been reported that a developer was trying to bring the issue to Google's attention for a week before the blog Android Police learned about it through a user post on Reddit and got on the company's case about it. After that, the apps were taken down almost immediately.

Be warned, though, that simply deleting the malicious apps won't necessarily solve the problem. Some of those things were designed to gain root access to the phone and then let even more malicious code in through a back door. Killing the app doesn't necessarily kill that code. Google said it's working on that part of the problem.

Dead Letters

Just like any other online service, Gmail is known to have its hiccups every now and then. It's never been a regular occurrence, but every once in a while, some users in certain parts of the country can't access it for whatever reason. A bit annoying for most -- but possibly damaging to a business if that business relies on Gmail to get its work done.

During the half-decade Gmail spent in beta nursery school, Google might have been able to shrug it off and say, "Hey, it's beta! C'mon!" And things would usually return to normal within a few hours. But now Google's online services -- Gmail and a suite of other Web apps -- are full-release products, and they even have paid versions for businesses, complete with SLAs.

That's one of the reasons last weekend's Gmail fail was so troublesome; the other reason was that it wasn't just a matter of not being able to log onto the service. Some users were able to log on just fine, but when they got there, they found their in-boxes empty. No mail, nothing saved. No contacts, either. Their personal database of correspondence and contact information had disappeared.

Angry users started slamming Google's support boards, and the company went into overdrive to figure out what exactly happened and how to fix it. It started looking like Google was about to repeat the Microsoft/T-Mobile Sidekick fiasco from a couple of years ago.

Finally, mid-week, Google offered up an explanation of what had happened: A storage software update went haywire and wiped out a big chunk of user data. The company asserted that just .02 percent of Gmail users had been affected, though a spokesperson declined to outline for us just how many users Gmail has overall. The number who got hit likely amounts to many thousands of users.

But all is not lost, not completely. At the same time Google explained what exactly had happened, it also revealed its plan to restore users' data: Tape backups. Yep, those old reel-to-reel spools are still spinning away somewhere far beneath Google's data centers, recording your data using old-school tape.

Google expressed confidence it would be able to resurrect users' emails and contacts, but it might be a while. One reason tape backups are relegated to last-resort status nowadays is the that it takes longer to grab the data from them and get it back into use.

Blighted Farmland

If you didn't know anything about the term, calling a website a "content farm" might have kind of an appealing ring to it. Farms are good -- they make food, I like food, and I'd rather eat something from a farm than a factory. And content's good too. I like seeing content when I go online. Beats staring at nothing. So content farms make the wholesome, fresh, meaty online stuff, the kind of stuff you get at whatever the webby equivalent of a farmer's market is. Right?

No, not really. The term "content farm" actually means a place that makes nothing but online manure. It's a site that creates nothing of real value; its only reason for existence is to use a special combination of words and layout to catch the eyes of search engines' automated algorithms. A content farm will grab a way higher page rank than it deserves, people start wandering in from Google thinking it might actually give them what they're looking for, and the site uses that traffic to justify ad pricing. Sure, most users leave as soon as they figure out the place is crap, but there will always be more where they came from.

Content farms are the bane of Google searchers, and in order to make its engine more useful, Google says it's implementing new algorithms that knock content farms down the food chain. They won't necessarily be banned from search results, but they'll definitely have a harder time making their way to the front page.

But Google's going to have to be very careful in deciding what sites to label as "content farms." The term is sometimes hard to nail down. Obviously, a site that just cuts and pastes in all its content from other sites is probably pretty worthless, so knock those down. Same goes for these nonsense sites literally written by machines that just string a bunch of words together. That might look really hot to an algorithm, but they're useless to people, so thanks for getting that off my search results.

But sometimes the term "content farm" is also applied to sites that actually produce original, readable content, written by humans.

Critics say that these kinds of sites pay workers low wages to write whatever worthless crap they can think up, as long as they use certain word combos known to woo the algorithms. The goal isn't to provide useful information; it's to chase a Google rank and rake in ad revenue.

So yeah, sounds like they mostly produce a bunch of garbage, and Google's probably doing most users a favor by knocking them down the page rankings. But check out Wikipedia's entry on content farms and you might get the idea that any kind of overarching rule on how to treat them might be standing on shaky ground. It all sounds very subjective.

For instance, content farms that employ actual writers are said to offer low pay, but by who's standards? And what does rate of pay have to do with the relevance of the material? A lot of reporters who work for real newspapers consider themselves to be poorly paid, yet they'd throw a pot of hot coffee at you if you called what they do content farming.

As far as producing irrelevant content, what is that, exactly? Irrelevant to whom? For instance, Demand Media is a company that got a lot of attention after Google announced its campaign against content farms. Demand publishes sites like eHow, Cracked and GolfLink, and its stock took a hit right after Google's plans were revealed because it's often criticized as being one of the biggest content farms in the business.

Let's look at some of eHow's content: How to field strip a Colt Mustang .380. Making a homemade tattoo gun. How to wear tights with boots. Relevant? Not to me. But neither is anything TMZ reports on, and it doesn't look like it's going to get smacked down by Google's new rules. And who knows, maybe someone out there has all these boots and lots of tights and no idea what to do with it all. If not the Internet, where is this person going to turn? The library?

Finally, there's the part about how the main goal of a content farm is to generate ad revenue. Can you seriously say any privately owned publication isn't actively chasing ad revenue and trying to climb to the top of the Google heap?


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