Mobile Tech


Will Verizon’s Gooblet Be a Droiblet or a Chroblet?

When it became clear that the iPad was seriously going to take off, some very important people at some very large companies made a decision: You are going to buy a tablet computer whether you like it or not. It doesn’t have to be an iPad. Might be Windows, Android, webOS, or something not even invented yet, but you’ll have one. They’re the future. Everyone else wants them, companies are getting ready to make a pantload of them, and nobody wants to be the weird guy. Just do it. End of story.

As with just about any other human endeavor, success in the mobile devices world breeds imitation, and that word comes with zero shame when it means selling products. If you like money, you’d be crazy not to imitate — just mind those patents. Now that the iPad has some powerful sales numbers behind it, companies that also want in on the tablet frenzy are being a little more revealing about their plans.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam just told The Wall Street Journal that his company is getting ready to offer a tablet, and its partner will be none other than Google. He didn’t say much else about the project, but when you have the CEO openly talking about it like this, that means it’s probably well under way.

That got a lot of people thinking we’re going to see an Android tablet — a “droiblet,” perhaps. I Googled that a couple days ago, and I think I just invented a word.

Android has proven to be a worthy adversary to Apple devices when it comes to phones, but would it fare so well in the tablet department? It very well could, especially among people who chafe at the kind of tight control Apple keeps over its products. But one thing Android is not is consistent — you’ve got all these different handsets and flavors running around in the phone world; will that work as well in tablets?

IDC’s Al Hilwa told us, “There’s the risk of fragmentation, because these devices may not look alike. In order to be a serious competitor to what Apple is doing, you’ll have to button down these devices and make them look alike. The whole has to be greater than the parts. Every device maker will have its own tweaks to the UI, and that may not be seen as attractive by users.”

But Chris Hazelton at the 451 Group has a different idea about what this Google tablet could be — he’s thinking Chrome OS. So it might be a “Chroblet” (that’s a new one too). Using Chrome OS rather than Android would make a Google tablet behave more like a full-fledged PC, where you operate with a traditional folder and file structure, rather than a smartphone OS pumped up to a larger screen. It might also make the tablet compatible with a wider variety of peripherals via USB. These are just two ways that would differentiate a Google tablet, or Gooblet, from an iPad, because imitating success is one thing, but you’ve also got to make yourself stand out somehow.

Listen to the podcast (13:11 minutes).

Office Annex

For all the nooks and crannies of the tech world that Microsoft has its tentacles in — the OSes and the phones and the video games and the servers and the search engines and the so forth — a full quarter of its annual revenue still comes from Office, the software that makes the little keyboard buttons you press appear on the screen.

Perhaps there’s more to it than that. Anyway, Microsoft is making its big push with Office 2010. Business customers can get it this week; plebes with no business in business get to wait until June, so start planning those release parties and let’s see if we can’t top that blowout we all had for Windows 7.

But why should anyone buy a whole new office suite when Office 2007 still makes documents and spreadsheets and presentations and all other manner of officey things? Well you might not have to buy it at all. The June 15 release also includes a free online version accessible through Windows Live. This a response to Web applications like Google Docs, which may not be as slick as Office, but they’re free and they’re easy to use for collaboration.

Granted, the Live version of Office won’t be as slick as the paid version either, so what does the paid version improve on? That seems to depend on who you ask — some say it’s a million tiny upgrades, some say it’s a complete overhaul. It’s got social media features with the Outlook Social Connector; a refreshed Ribbon, the original version of which you may have just now gotten used to; features for finding documents; new print preview options — even new ways to paste content.

Rise of the Machines

I guess it was just a matter of time. In the first quarter of the year, more Android phones were sold in the U.S. than iPhones. They snagged 28 percent of sales, while Apple took just over a fifth. RIM’s BlackBerry devices still maintained the lead at 36 percent of smartphone unit sales, but it was the first time Androids outscored iPhones, according to NPD data.

Now it’s time to decide whether to be surprised or not. I don’t know if it’s all that big a shocker — I mean, Android is openly distributed, customizable for individual makes and models, and can be found on all major carriers. iPhone is as proprietary as they come, built by a single company, and in the U.S., you have to bow down to AT&T if you want to have one.

Not to mention, every day at sundown, Apple employees pray to Margery, the patron saint of fiscal margins. Discounting products is against their religion. Meanwhile, some carriers will sell you an Android phone for less than the price of the first month’s bill. Verizon even went the IHOP route for a while and did twofer offers.

Yeah, I know, BlackBerry is proprietary too, and they’re No. 1, but RIM had a years-long head start on the other two. And it may soon be in third place if it doesn’t really get something interesting going on for its next big OS update. iPhone and Android, though, were born right around the same time, and they go after very similar sets of users. It’s just that Android’s accessibility to more manufacturers and more carriers means it’s probably the one destined to catch a wider user base eventually.

What was surprising was how soon this happened. Was that the tipping point we just hit — will Android just keep climbing and never look back? Or are we going to be looking at a back-and-forth, neck-and-neck race for a while before one claims a clear lead?

RIM and Apple likely have new phones and OSes right around the corner that’ll give Android a run for its money. On the other hand, maybe now a few key factors are really falling into place for Android that’ll make this lead it has more or less permanent. To Azita Arvani of the Arvani Group, the three factors are Verizon, HTC and Motorola, all of which finally started doing something worthwhile in smartphones after Apple lit a fire under them years ago.

She told us, “As a result, there are many Android phone models available to U.S. subscribers in different form factors, from different manufacturers, and through different service providers. So subscribers have a greater choice with Android phones — and perhaps most importantly, Android phones start at a lower price point. Backflips start at $49, HTC Droid Eris goes for $79.99, while the least expensive iPhone starts at $99.”

But what do unit sales really mean, anyway? Android is a very diverse species — there are lots of different breeds, and when a consumer buys one and pays the monthly bills for it, that money goes to any of several different parties — maybe HTC, maybe Motorola, or anyone else making an Android phone. The carrier that benefits could be any of the big four. Lots of money going in lots of different directions.

With the iPhone it’s more streamlined: The lucre goes to Cupertino and — if you’re a U.S. customer — AT&T.

For operating systems, though, sometimes it really is nice just to have a big, fat installed base, regardless of how many manufacturers and carriers worked together to make that happen. Lots of users attracts lots of developers, and those devs make your platform more attractive. iPhone got a leg-up early in that game, but Android has proven it can follow close behind.

There’s also the matter of mobile advertising. The more eyeballs an OS owns, the more ad opportunities it has, and if Android develops a clear lead over iPhone, it will be the bigger ad player.

But Apple wants to play the ad game the same way it plays its hardware and software game: Be the smaller, premium brand. The price to get into its new iAd platform is apparently quite high.

Let’s imagine that Android does grow into becoming this enormous OS family that dwarfs the iPhone clan in terms of user base. It’s going to have an ecosystem that’s tricky to manage, especially considering the OS is open source and different phonemakers can trick it out as they see fit. You’ve got carriers at odds with manufacturers, developers at odds with carriers, carriers at odds with each other, and Google in the middle trying to keep it all together. Meanwhile, Apple’s running its own show and can whip AT&T into shape with a dirty look.

ABI analyst Michael Morgan told us, “That control that Apple has? I have a feeling that the other guys are getting to be a little bit envious of that. They want to have control over their own smartphone experience that they bring to market.”

Steaming Up the Mac

The Mac platform has never really courted the hard-core gaming crowd, or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s not that Macs aren’t capable of pulling the kind of horsepower needed to run a killer round of “Modern Warfare 2,” it’s just that … well, I don’t know. Two different worlds. I guess porting a big game to a Mac version is pretty expensive, and considering the Mac’s market share … I know, I know, sensitive issue! Cool down!

You can walk into an Apple store and find a quaint little shelf of games, but the selection for Mac users may be getting much bigger soon thanks to Valve, the company that makes Steam.

Steam is a portal for buying, downloading and playing PC games. Users can purchase full titles, both late releases and classics, then play them on their computers without fooling around with game discs. It also inhibits piracy, but as DRM cops go, it’s fairly easygoing — it’ll let you download a game you bought to multiple machines for no extra cost.

Now Steam is coming to the Mac platform, which could up the ante on the selection Mac users have in front of them. It may take a while. Steam for Mac launched with a limited number of titles, though Valve promises new ones will pop up each Wednesday.

Some developers are excited about this — apparently putting your title on Steam for Mac is a whole lot easier than re-engineering the whole game to fit Mac OS X.

Feed Me Till I’m Numb

Back when President Obama won the election, there was much ado about his fight to keep his BlackBerry. Apparently past presidents avoid personal technology like the flu because anything the chief personally types out is a de facto historical document. But he really wanted to keep it, and any other smartphone addict can probably understand why. It’d be like giving up your thumbs.

So it was a little surprising when he spoke this week at a college commencement and advocated against certain kinds of technology — or at least advocated against being plugged in all the time for the constant consumption of mass media.

When he talked about putting down the iPad or the Xbox once in a while, he was not necessarily advocating a return to grub cuisine, cave-dwelling or arboreal lifestyles. He was just saying that information should be used as an empowering tool. When you spend all your time chowing down on the party mix of truth, lies and slant that you find online, throw in a big slice of crap TV, then wash it down with a couple liters of empty-calorie video games, information becomes a diversion, a form of entertainment. There’s a place for that kind of stuff, but go overboard, and it’s like your brain is taking all its meals at Burger King.

But Obama did take some criticism — from people who pay very close attention to these things — for his choice of exactly which devices to name. Video game consoles sure sound like they fit the bill, but smartphones and tablet computers don’t just act as purveyors of intellectual junk food. They do make it very easy to consume media, but they can be tools for creation and communication as well, and if I’m reading Obama’s speech right, that’s supposed to be a good thing.

Sliced Lime

For the blissfully unaware, Limewire is a descendant of Napster — an old-school file-sharing system for swapping all the wonderful and horrible things the Web has to offer. It’s more centralized than your standard BitTorrent client, but it’s still rife with copyrighted material, not to mention malware and other very troublesome stuff.

But even though lots of its users put Limewire to work doing things that could get them sued or worse, LimeWire the company actually has a legit online music store as well that hawks songs for a 99 cents a pop. I do not claim to have a business degree, but the model seems a little shaky.

Anyway, after many years of holding out despite crippling legal blows to cohorts like Napster and Grokster, LimeWire has been torn asunder by the RIAA. A court has ruled that not only is LimeWire liable for copyright infringement, but its creator, Mark Gorton, may be liable as well. Damages haven’t been specified.

The RIAA called it, “an extraordinary victory for the entire creative community.” With this win in its belt alongside those against Napster, Grokster, Morpheus, ISO Hunt, and the Pirate Bay, yet another mole is whacked. It’s like a Chuck-E-Cheese game that you never grow out of.

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