Mobile Tech


Nexus One: You Can Look, You Can Buy, but You Can’t Touch

The 2009 holiday spirit seems to have faded for Google and Apple, who didn’t waste much time getting back to the business of giving each other the stinkeye. First up was Google, which gave its Nexus One smartphone its first official public appearance.

It’s a phone manufactured by HTC, and it runs on Android 2.1, which is .1 better than the version on the Verizon Droid. It has a 1 GHz processor, and for a smartphone today, that’s pretty powerful. I think my 24-pound desktop from 2002 had the same stats, and I thought it was just so cool. Nexus has a nice-looking AMOLED screen, lots of Google apps, of course, and voice input built into just about everything.

It’s available immediately, and Google set up a new Web site to handle orders — yes, now it has a new e-tail operation. You can’t go into a store and handle one; instead you can look at a bunch of videos and Web apps that try their best to simulate a hands-on experience.

Availability goes like this: If you want it on T-Mobile, it’s $180, but I hear only new T-Mobile customers get that price, so screw your loyalty; T-Mobile only feels pleasure when other carriers suffer. If you want it on Verizon, you’ll have to wait a while — Google says that deal isn’t ready yet. If you want it unlocked — no carrier contract — it’s $530. Google says it works on GSM networks, so in the U.S. that basically leaves just AT&T. But if you must have it on AT&T, apparently you’re going to have to use the slower EDGE network, not 3G.

Slower network notwithstanding, is this going to be The Phone that convinces us silly Americans to give up our habit of buying devices on the cheap in exchange for a two-year promise to a carrier? Not likely, according 451 Group Research Director Chris Hazelton. He pointed to Nokia’s luck in the U.S. when it comes to smartphones. The company does fine with cheap, dumbphones that Americans can snap up practically for free with a signed contract, but how often do you see their nicer models in the States? Not very.

IDC’s Al Hilwa had a slightly different take: It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but soon the prices on unlocked phones will probably go down, and when smartphones are free with a contract and something like $200 unlocked, that’s when America might be able to kick its subsidy addiction — and when that happens, carriers are going to have to get their services in gear.

Like the Droid, though, the Nexus is relatively limited in the number of applications you can store — no putting apps on the SD card; they can only go on the built-in half-gig of memory. That’s been something of a pain for both users and developers. Can’t sell people apps when their tiny little pockets are already full. But Google says sit tight, that’ll change soon.

Listen to the podcast (10:55 minutes).

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Just as Google was giving the iPhone a new rival, Apple planted its own tree in Google’s backyard. This week it bought Quattro Wireless, a mobile ad company. No dollar amount was named, and not a whole lot of details were disclosed — just that Apple now owns it. This is a mere few weeks after Google bought AdMob, another mobile ad company. Rumor is that Apple tried to buy that one too, but it got outbid.

Before now, Apple’s relationship with advertising was basically limited to just spending a lot to advertise itself. Now that it’s in the content delivery business with the iPhone, it only makes sense to open a shop in that market. If there’s this flow of content constantly streaming through your platform to your customers’ eyes, really the only logical thing to do is to try and get your finger in that pie to some degree.

But it’s hard to say what exactly it intends to do with Quattro. Making an ad platform for third-party networks would be a pretty big departure from its current way of making money. If it focuses mainly on the content going through its own devices, like the iPhone and an expected tablet, it’s going to have to step carefully. Ads on a phone are very different from ads on a desktop computer — you’re usually dealing with a smaller interface and a slower connection, so anything even resembling an ad has to go down smoothly, put a warm feeling in the stomach without burning the throat, and leave a soft, oaky aftertaste. That’s not easy to do.

Hanft Unlimited CEO Adam Hanft is skeptical of a lot of the approaches companies are currently trying with mobile phone ads. He told us, “It’s a jarring intrusion that poisons the experience. And it’s too easy for consumers to ignore. The cliche of sending someone a message for a discount on a latte when they’re passing a Starbucks has encouraged many tens if not hundreds of millions of misspent assets, of which the Quattro and AdMob acquisitions are two recent examples.”

Beaten Browser

The tit-for-tat between the two once-chummy companies didn’t stop there. Google also delivered a lesser tweak to Apple’s ear this week when Net Applications arrived with its year-end browser market share data. IE still rules with nearly 63 percent, and Firefox is No. 2 with over 24 percent. But Google’s Chrome has just edged out Safari 4.63 to 4.46.

Not a bad growth rate for such a relatively new browser, so how was it able to surpass Safari? Well, Apple hasn’t been all that big on spreading the Safari religion, according to Pund-IT analyst Charles King. It ported Safari to Windows a few years ago, so it’s available to a larger market, but Apple doesn’t seem to push it very hard outside the Mac crowd.

Meanwhile, Google’s plastering TV channels and Web sites with Chrome advertisements. When you’re advertising something that’s a) new and b) free, then it’s not hard to convince a lot of people to download it and try it out — for a while, at least. There are many choices in browsers out there, and since most of them are free, users are empowered to try them any time they want, then change their minds on a whim without any risk. The browser market’s becoming a very fluid place, according to King.

Slate Slides In

The Consumer Electronics Show has once again overtaken Las Vegas with its mixture of over-the-top hype, sore feet, Vegas-caliber hangovers, lots of diseased handshakes, and of course, tons of really cool gadgets that you’ll want RIGHT NOW but won’t be able to get for five months. Sorry, Veruca.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was back to deliver one of the show’s main keynotes, and there was talk before it kicked off that he’d have with him a Courier. You might recall that back in September, a bunch of leaked photos made their way to the Web, and they depicted what looked like a dual-screen, touch-enabled tablet computer from Microsoft named the “Courier.” Looked very interesting.

Well, whatever it was Ballmer showed on stage Wednesday night, it didn’t look much like those photos. He did show a handful of tablets, but the closest any of them got was a model by HP that he simply called the “Slate.” It was running Windows 7 and acting like a well-mannered PC, but there was definitely no dual-screen going on. Of course, it was just a prototype — no prices or dates figured into the demo. Hey, if everyone else around you is waving around their tablets, why not join in?

There was also more talk about Project Natal, the Xbox technology that won Microsoft a lot of attention last summer. Natal is this camera assembly you put on top of your TV. It watches your body’s motions and lets you control video games without touching anything. Shadowboxing 2.0. Microsoft said Natal will be an add-on for the Xbox, not a completely separate system, and it will be ready for the 2010 holiday season.

Everyone’s Gone to the Movies

Movie theater box offices had a good end to a good year over the holidays, massive recession be damned. In fact, box office sales for 2009 outpaced movie DVD sales — theater proceeds jumped 10 percent to nearly US$10 billion while DVD revenue dipped 13 percent to under $9 billion, according to Adams Media Research. Those figures don’t take into account sales of stuff like TV-series DVDs or other non-feature film disc sales, but it was the first time in seven years that Figure A overshaddowed Figure B.

One reason for the reversal of fortune is that movie theaters are really trying to play up the movie-going experience, and audiences are responding. With giant HDTVs on the market for only a few hundred bucks, theaters can’t just show movies and sell nine-dollar tubs of popcorn anymore if they expect to get anyone to leave the house. They’ve got to have IMAX, 3-D, huge video arcades, fully stocked bars. They’ve got to smash people’s faces in with a sledgehammer of pure entertainment. The theaters able to do that are the ones leading that 10 percent surge.

Also, those who’d rather stay home to watch a movie have a growing number of options besides physical discs — namely high-definition downloads, and somewhat less than high-definition streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

Keep Talking

I don’t know whether or not cellphones give you brain tumors, but I do shudder just a little every time the thought crosses my mind while I’m on the phone. Well, even if cellphones are destroying our brains, it’s possible they may be fixing them at the same time.

University of South Florida researchers have found that long-term exposure to the electromagnetic waves associated with cellphone use may actually protect against Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, they may even work to reverse the condition.

So far, this has only been shown with lab mice. The scientists started with 96 mice, most of which were genetically engineered to develop beta amyloid protein deposits in the brain, which is one of the main things that happens to human who have Alzheimer’s. Some were “non-demented” — in other words, normal. For a period of seven to nine months, for two hours a day, all the mice were exposed to about the same level of cellphone waves you’d get if you held one up to your head.

The results were that old mice with the protein buildups saw a reduction in beta amyloids. Basically, they got better, and their memory function was restored. Young mice engineered to collect beta amyloids did not experience the build-ups. Among the normal mice, memory actually improved. Not sure how you test a mouse’s memory, but that’s why I’m not a scientist making potentially life-saving discoveries.

Don’t get too excited yet, though — William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, called the study “interesting,” but stressed that the results are very preliminary and that a lot more work needs to be done. Then there’s that whole thing about how the very same radiation might cause brain tumors — so best not to try to self-medicate on this one, especially if you’re driving.

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