Ten things about the BlackBerry PlayBook

31 08 2011

The PlayBook shows potential, but has a few weaknesses. (Image taken by me).

Wow, it’s been over 18 months since I last wrote anything here! Must’ve been busy! My brain space has been mostly dedicated to learning some new coverage areas, and moving my life halfway around the world. I’ve also been toying with changing the way I approach this blog, but in the mean time here’s something utterly conventional.

I recently attended a RIM analyst event in Sydney, where they gave attendees a PlayBook to evaluate. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks, so here are some thoughts. Generally I quite like it, but I hope the next version is  better. It just feels rushed, and I think it will take RIM a couple of iterations to get it right, but the platform certainly has a lot of potential. There are “big trend” issues raised by the PlayBook related to the role of tablets in the enterprise, the “consumerization of IT”, whether tablets will “kill” this or that category, and all of those buzzwords, along with RIM’s market position and strategy. I’m deliberately not going to address them here – that stuff is for paying clients of my employer. This is just some tips about what it’s like to use the PlayBook as an ordinary person.

Five good things about the PlayBook

  1. The hardware is pretty good. It feels solid in the hand, the screen is bright and sharp, and it feels fast enough. The design is functional, not aesthetically triumphant, but definitely no eyesore. The touch-sensitive bezel gives it an uncluttered look and works well with the OS design. The speakers are loud enough and clear. It’s a good piece of kit.
  2. The QNX operating system seems like a platform with a lot of potential. The UI is simple and intuitive (*ahem* especially if you’ve used WebOS) but the real screamer is that it feels fast. QNX must be incredibly efficient, because the PlayBook can multi-task better than any comparable device I’ve used, and its dual-core 1GHz chipset is nothing special compared to the top-end competition. I tried playing Need for Speed Undercover (preloaded on the PlayBook), with a 720p video playing, a browser window with three tabs open, and the Photo Browser showing some of my holiday snaps, and the PlayBook didn’t drop a single frame. Even when flipping between apps, it’s smooth as silk. RIM made a very sensible acquisition when it ingested QNX.
  3. The web browser is excellent, and renders pages as if you were using a laptop. Including Flash content, which is handy, although sometimes Flash sites get confused by the screen resolution.
  4. It’s the right size to carry around and it even fits in some of my pockets. But the screen is still big enough for browsing, reading and watching video. Tablet size is about personal preference, though.
  5. HDMI out. This should be on every tablet and smartphone.

Five  things about the PlayBook that need to improve

  1. No native email app. This is the surly elephant in the PlayBook’s dining room. Just because I can check my web-based email in the browser, doesn’t mean I should have to. If RIM couldn’t build an email client to support BES/BIS servers in time for launch, it should have at least included a decent standards-based email app. Sure, if you have a BlackBerry phone you can pair it up via Bridge, and then you get calendar and email and contacts, and it’s more secure etc etc… I’ve heard those arguments and I think they’re inadequate. Those applications are part of the core experience on every other tablet and smartphone for a reason.
  2. App World has tumbleweeds rolling through it. The tardiness of the native SDK probably hasn’t helped, but there should be plenty of developers out there capable of building apps in Adobe AIR or WebWorks. However, most of the action is happening on iOS and Android. There is a real risk for RIM that what remains of its developer community, forced to re-tool to support QNX on the PlayBook and (in the not-too-distant future) on BlackBerry handsets, will decide they’re more likely to make a living on the more popular platforms. At the moment there are a few good apps scattered around App World, but it’s pretty sparse compared to Android, and especially the iPad. Apparently there’s an Android Player coming soon, which will allow Android apps to run on the PlayBook. If this feat of technical wizardry is accomplished (and I confess I am sceptical) it should improve things for users in the short term, but I worry that it will leave the PlayBook’s native SDK to the role of “unpopular kid who is clever but has no friends”.
  3. The initial set-up process was horrible. It forced me to complete a mandatory software upgrade, which required a 361MB download and couldn’t be skipped. It failed multiple times and re-started from the beginning. I had the same experience while setting up a colleague’s PlayBook. It was a pain in the arse. It took me over 24 hours to get my PlayBook up and running. This is not the user experience you’re looking for – indeed it’s a great way to harsh what should be the buzz of a new purchase.
  4. The BlackBerry Desktop software needs a major upgrade. It really is a poor man’s iTunes, and I don’t like iTunes. Media management is really clunky (it doesn’t let you copy albums!), it only seems to recognise my PlayBook some of the time, and it’s ugly – in fact it feels like travelling back in time to 2002. You can transfer media without using it, so I recommend you do that.
  5. No MicroSD slot makes it less valuable as a media player. This is less of a problem than some of the other negatives, but I like having the ability to load up a memory card with movies and music, especially when I travel. I miss it. It means the PlayBook  (I have a 16GB version) can’t replace my ancient iPod on trips away. Although the sound quality through the headphone jack would also need a boost for that to happen – it’s definitely not an audiophile device. Video codec support is only “OK” as well (H.264 and some DivX/Xvid files seem to work, but the MKV container is not supported). All in all it’s an adequate media tablet, with some weaknesses.

So, this is in no way meant to be an exhaustive review, but it highlights some of the salient traits, positive and negative, of this device. Some carriers are bundling the PlayBook with a BlackBerry handset and pricing quite aggressively, so given the PlayBook’s reliance on the BB handset for various important functions, that’s probably the way to play it if you’re considering a purchase.

N.B These comments are based on the PlayBook running version 1.0.7.2942 which was the latest update at the time of writing.





HTC Hero review

23 11 2009

One of the best Android handsets yet

What: HTC Hero

How much: Varies, but Orange and T-Mobile both have the Hero for free on a £30/24-month contract (rebranded as the G2 Touch on T-Mobile). Or you can buy it outright (SIM-free) for about £370 from a number of online retailers.

To my long-suffering Aussie friends: you should be able to buy it outright from an online retailer for about A$580 (seeing as no carriers have picked it up).

In the US there are two CDMA versions of the Hero platform: Sprint offers it in a different (blander) shell, and Verizon offers yet another mild variant renamed the Droid Eris.

The good: HTC Sense UI adds a lot of polish to Android OS; excellent usability; access to thousands of Android applications; solid hardware design; aggregation of contacts and linking to Web services is good; build quality is excellent.

The bad: The launch firmware was buggy and slow (make sure you update to the latest version from HTC); same basic hardware platform as the cheaper Magic; no Mac OS support for HTC desktop software; contact aggregation doesn’t give enough options for managing contacts or choosing which to sync; the customised version of Android means HTC takes longer to keep up with “official” Android platform updates.

Buy it if: You want one of the most polished Android devices on the market, or one of the best smartphones.

Don’t buy it if: There’s no real deal-breaker here, unless you want to wait for one of the new Snapdragon-based Android handsets, or you prefer a proper keyboard.

Summary: HTC has been steadily improving its Android handsets with each iteration, and the Hero is easily the best so far, eliminating most of my quibbles with the Magic and adding a huge amount of polish through its Sense UI. The software is the highlight, offering loads of customisation options, excellent usability and expandability through the Android Market. As I write this, with the latest firmware version the Hero offers one of the best smartphone experiences available. In fact, I was really sad when HTC asked for the loan version I was using back. However, you’ll need an unlimited data plan, because like all Android handsets it’s constantly transferring information over the network.

Software

There has been a real proliferation of Android handsets since I reviewed the HTC Magic a few months ago, and it’s become much more difficult for manufacturers to differentiate their devices from their competitors’. HTC has done so by customising the Android UI with its own Sense UI, which I think is a significant improvement on the standard Android build (as seen on the Magic). The Hero I reviewed is running on HTC’s modified version of Android 1.5, but the work HTC has done is a really impressive demonstration of how much Android can be improved: it’s very pretty and the extra functionality really makes the Hero stand out from its competitors.

Sense ties all of your Google contacts and Facebook contacts together, and can link to Flickr profiles. What this means is that you can easily see all of your interactions with a person, check their status, contact them or view their photos all from one place. It’s a good idea and works well for the most part, although it does take some time initially matching some contacts with their Facebook profiles. I would really like to see better control of which contacts are imported from Google: the Hero insisted on downloading all of my Google contacts, resulting in dozens of random email addresses in my phone contact list – it would be better if I could select a group of contacts to download to the phone.

I also had trouble when adding new contacts to the phone: the Hero saved them as “phone contacts” on the handset and wouldn’t sync them to Google. You can select this when creating a new contact, but you can’t change them after the fact. There is also no ability to merge duplicates on the device, so contact management is all done on the web.

These are my main complaints about the Hero’s software. Otherwise the experience is almost seamless, whether it’s downloading and installing apps from the Android Market; taking and uploading photos to Facebook, Twitter or Flickr; setting up email addresses; using the Calendar; Google Maps; installing widgets on one of the seven (!!) homescreens… it all just works.

In fact, it’s pretty much the smoothest phone user experience I can think of (bearing in mind I am not an iPhone user). It’s won a few awards from gadget magazines and industry groups, so it seems I’m not alone in thinking so.

The Hero is slightly larger than a BlackBerry Curve 8900

Hardware.

The Hero has all the standard specs you would expect on a phone at this price point: Qualcomm 528MHz CPU; A-GPS; HSDPA; WiFi; 5.0MP camera with autofocus; capacitive touchscreen; 3.5mm headphone jack (yay!!). It doesn’t stand out from the crowd in terms of specifications, and in fact the Qualcomm MSM7200 chipset is starting to look a little long in the tooth compared to the Snapdragon and Cortex A8 chips starting to appear (HTC’s flagship WinMo device, the HD2, runs a 1GHz Snapdragon chipset). But the hardware does the job, running nice and smoothly for the most part.

The industrial design and build quality are both rock solid. I really like the angular shape of the Hero, and the form factor sits comfortably in the hand or in the pocket. The screen is not huge, or especially bright and colourful, but it does the job.

The 3.5mm audio jack is a really welcome addition, as it means you can use the Hero as a media player without fumbling around with a pointless adaptor. The music playback software is excellent on the Hero, and sound quality to my ears was adequate (though not mind-blowing, it is good enough to stop you carrying a dedicated media player in most situations).

The camera is… ummm… well, it’s useless in low light because it lacks even an LED flash. In broad daylight it’s good enough to snap the odd pic, but not replace a dedicated camera (there are many better camera phones on the market).

Images taken with the Hero are usable on the web, but dynamic range, colour and sharpness could all be better.

Battery life is quite respectable compared to equivalent handsets. you will still need to recharge every 24 hours, but that’s not bad considering how much data the Hero sends and receives.

I guess that’s about all there is to say… I really like the Hero and have recommended it to a few friends who have also been very happy with it. By no means is it perfect, but it’s definitely one of my favourites at the moment.





Palm Pre review

20 10 2009

pre-black-sprint-02-main

What: Palm Pre

How much: Available exclusively through O2 in the UK (also Germany, Ireland and Telefonica in Spain). UK prices start at £96.90 on an 18-month/£29 contract, or free on a 24-month/£34 tariff.

The good: Slim and sleek like a river stone; neat “deck of cards” user interface; excellent email client; Synergy contacts management/aggregation.

The bad: Lack of decent applications; weak battery life; keyboard is cramped; 8GB of memory is a bit stingy without an expansion slot. It just feels a bit bland compared to its competition.

Buy it if: You want a smartphone but don’t want to carry a brick.

Don’t buy it if: You want to play games or download stacks of third-party applications. The Pre isn’t yet a “fun” phone, and it hasn’t proven that it can attract enough application developers to change this.

Summary: The Pre generated an unbelievable amount of hype before its launch in the US in June 2009, and the European launch finally gives us a chance to compare it to some of the heavy hitters available in GSM markets. Unfortunately for Palm, much of the Pre’s thunder has been stolen by competitors with better hardware, equally innovative software and stronger applications. While I found the Pre to be mostly pleasant enough to use, it’s a phone that seems to be waiting for something.  I also found the constant hand-holding of the UI too often led to frustrating usability failures which undermine the experience. It’s not a bad phone, but it’s just not that exciting to use, and I often found myself holding it and desperately trying to think of something interesting to do with it.

Software

The Pre is the first handset to run Palm’s new generation webOS, which is exciting for a couple of reasons, not least because it means Palm can stop producing boring Windows Mobile handsets and start making interesting products. The Pre is certainly interesting, with its applications all written in standard Web technologies (CSS, JavaScript and HTML) which is intended to make it easy for Web developers to design webOS apps without too much difficulty.

In use, webOS is simple and fairly intuitive. There are very few on-screen distractions, and the use of swiping gestures is clever. One of the coolest features is multitasking: you can have heaps of applications open at once and by pressing the single button at the bottom of the screen they all slide into the middle of the screen presented as a series of cards. You can swipe between them, re-order them and flick them off the screen to close the application. Closing applications has never been this fun!

Syncing my contacts and email with my Google accounts and Facebook was fairly painless, but not quite as easy as on Android. The Pre made a valiant attempt at reconciling my Google and Facebook contacts to avoid duplicate entries, but there was still a significant amount of manual tidying to do. Palm calls this ‘Synergy’, and when it was announced at CES it was a new idea, but using it now it just doesn’t go as far in integrating web services with your contacts as I would like. HTC and INQ have both managed to do more impressive things with contacts and web services: to be honest Synergy is a bit of a letdown. It also occasionally stuffs up: while trying to call a colleague the Pre refused to dial his number (he has it entered in Facebook as ’44…’ rather than ‘+44…’, which confused the network) and I simply couldn’t work out how to dial the number stored in my Google contacts entry for him.

The Pre’s email client is almost great. It handled my two Gmail accounts easily, displaying mail in full HTML with images and wrapping the text to make it easy to read. My only gripe – and it’s not a minor one – is that it doesn’t group messages into discussion threads. This feature is especially important on a mobile client as you really don’t want to be going back and forth to follow a conversation, and even the generic Gmail Java app can do this, so it’s a frustrating omission from the Pre.

The Webkit-based browser is good, and has the multitouch pinch-to-zoom gestures that people seem to love. It reflows text to fit the screen width, which makes it easier to read without having to scroll horizontally (as does the excellent Opera Mini 5). The browser doesn’t support Flash, which means web video is out, but the Pre does have a built-in YouTube app which works beautifully over a WiFi connection. Overall, the Pre’s browser is on par with its main smartphone competitors.

The built-in Google Maps application is – as with most features of the Pre – good but nothing we haven’t seen on other platforms.

The Pre does have a preloaded app store client, but to be honest it needs to grow incredibly quickly, because at the moment there are very few interesting apps. This is a major weakness of the Pre, as it is well below par (if we consider the Android Market, BlackBerry App World or Nokia Ovi Store as roughly scoring par). Compared to the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the iPhone App Store (perhaps unfairly, but this is what consumers are choosing from) the Pre’s selection of apps is like a bread queue in Soviet Russia. Hopefully Palm can conscript a few legions of web developers to improve things, and quickly.

Hardware

pre-black-sprint-15-main

As soon as you pick up the Pre, you notice it is significantly smaller than an iPhone, Magic or BlackBerry Bold. It’s sleek and black and shiny. It has a very nice and responsive capacitive touchscreen, a sliding qwerty keyboard and all the standard features that you expect from a handset at this price point. The specs aren’t amazing, but they are good enough to compete with the likes of HTC’s Android line-up and Apple, for the most part.

The Pre has GPS, WiFi, 8GB of built-in storage (but no slot for an expansion card). It has a 3MP camera with LED Flash. It charges and syncs via micro-USB. All thoroughly standard. It has a 600MHz ARM Cortex A8 processor, which is one of the fastest currently on the market.

I don’t like the Pre’s qwerty keyboard. The keys are tiny, and difficult to press accurately. Coming from a BlackBerry to the Pre is a significant backward step in typing usability. The keyboard also has an uncomfortably sharp ridge around its rim, which was pointed out in very early US reviews, but Palm hasn’t resolved in the GSM version of the hardware.

Conclusion

What else is there to say? The Pre meets expectations? It provides a decent browser, a good email experience and some neat UI tricks? It’s worth a look if you’re in the market for a new smartphone? This is all true, but if it sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, you’re understanding my feelings about the Pre. It’s inoffensive but unexciting, and when it’s competing at the same price point as much more exciting phones like the iPhone 3GS and a fleet of handsets from HTC, Samsung, Acer, RIM and others, unfortunately it’s difficult to see it rocking too many European or Asian customers’ worlds.

Disclosure: Palm loaned my team a Pre for a limited-time trial duration.





HTC Magic review

29 04 2009

The HTC Magic is the second phone to be released with Google’s Android mobile OS, and I was lucky enough to have a few days to play with one just before its launch, supplied by Vodafone UK. The Magic uses the latest version of Android (1.5) which adds support for an onscreen keyboard, better video handling and a bunch of other tweaks and improvements. There is plenty of interest in Android, both from geeky consumers and from industry people. This is partly because anything Google does is pretty interesting (and potentially game-changing and scary) and partly because it looks like a genuine challenger to the iPhone, but with a more open philosophy. I found the Magic to be a real joy to use, and I think it does a great job of showing Android’s potential as a consumer mobile OS.

Slimmer and prettier than the BlackBerry Storm

Slimmer and prettier than the BlackBerry Storm

What: HTC Magic
How much: Vodafone UK is initially offering it for “free” on a two-year, £35 a month contract (including data), with a variety of other more expensive options available. It is also on other European carriers at launch, including in France, Spain, Italy and Germany, so check your local market.
The good: Awesome integration with Google applications; easy set-up; great user interface is very fast and intuitive; web browser is the best I’ve seen on a mobile; form factor is slim and feels good in the hand.
The bad: Lacks a 3.5mm stereo jack (requires a separate adaptor); camera pretty much sucks.
Buy it if: you’re a Google fan and already use Google apps; you want a web-centric phone with plenty of third-party apps; you want a touchscreen phone that isn’t an iPhone but offers a comparable user experience.
Don’t buy it if: you think Google is evil; the thought of carrying a headphone adaptor fills you with rage; you’re using it for corporate stuff.
Summary: I liked the Magic more than any phone I’ve used lately, and I think that Android is really exciting from a consumer point of view. The Magic is the best Android phone currently available, but you might want to wait until Samsung launches its first Android device in June 2009 (it has a headphone jack AND a 5MP camera!) for comparison. Apple will also have a new version of the iPhone out, probably around July (educated guess, not inside information). The Magic goes to the top of my “most wanted” list… for now.

Software

Home screen is pretty basic, but effective

Home screen is pretty basic, but effective

Android 1.5 is pretty awesome to use, especially if all your stuff is already on Google. I use Gmail, Calendar and use Google Sync to sync my contacts so they are all already in Google’s system (being able to sync contacts to the web is pretty handy when you change phones as often as I do). I use Google Maps most days (GPS + gmaps = cycling around London without getting lost). So being able to type in my Google password and have the phone automatically sync all my information with a couple of button presses is, well, ace. This is nothing new to Android users and those who have been paying attention, but for the people up the back it’s worth pointing out that it really is very, very easy to set up.

Using it is also a breeze, flicking through menus is intuitive and applications all launch fast. This is the easiest phone I’ve used for ages, possibly ever (I don’t have an iPhone). I had fun playing with it, and found myself using it for things that are awkward and off-putting on other phones. I wanted to use the web, to send email, to check the weather… all of these things that “smartphones” are supposed to enable are executed really well in Android 1.5.

The web browser is stonkingly good – I would say it is the best mobile web browser I have seen, because it renders pages perfectly and really quickly, scrolls around like butter on greased teflon, and doesn’t actually feel much like a mobile browser at all, more like a desktop browser on a really tiny screen.

The Gmail application is similarly impressive, rendering full html email beautifully. It actually made me want to send emails.

The media player looks nice, and works well

The media player looks nice, and works well

The media player is good, if not as pretty as Apple’s version, and apart from the headphone jack thing (not the software’s fault) the Magic is a competent music player. It picked up all the album art, and seems to support playlists (but I ran out of time to test this properly). It does support AD2P stereo Bluetooth, so if you have a set of Bluetooth headphones you may not care about the audio jack (in case you haven’t noticed, I do care).

The Android Market is picking up momentum and there are plenty of cool apps available on it (also plenty of crap, but that’s not exclusively Android’s problem). I particularly liked the Shazam app, but I didn’t have time to download and test a huge range of apps.

Android will continue to improve as the development team chips away at adding features and polishing the UI, but with this release it has gone from an impressive novelty to being a genuine alternative for many people. Of course, owners of the G1/Dream will also reap the benefits of Android 1.5 when the software upgrade is pushed out to them, but the Magic is a much prettier and smaller phone, so I’m sure it will prove popular.

Hardware

Yep, I even switched it on!

Yep, I even switched it on!

The critical change that HTC has made to its line of Android devices is the lack of the physical keyboard on the Magic, which makes it slimmer and sleeker than the G1. Version 1.5 of the Android OS is the reason, as it has support for a soft onscreen keyboard. So the form factor of the Magic is really the main reason to favour a Magic over the G1 (which will receive the 1.5 software update and have all the same software features as the Magic).

The onscreen keyboard, luckily, is damn good. It is accurate and provides haptic feedback (vibrates) when you press it, and it works in portrait or landscape view (although landscape is much easier to type on). I like physical keyboards, and after using a BlackBerry Bold swore that I would always prefer real buttons over virtual ones (the Bold is a great device, btw). The Magic nearly changes my mind – it really is excellent.

You might ask why a touchscreen device needs a trackball as well. The answer is because some things really benefit from the extra precision a trackball provides – things like hitting small links in web pages not designed for a mobile screen and touchscreen interface, and editing typing errors (RIM, are you listening? The next Storm should have a trackball, we both know you do trackballs well).

Err... where do I plug my headphones?

Err... where do I plug my headphones?

The only port on the device is the proprietary HTC extUSB jack on the bottom, which combines all the normal things that a mini-USB jack is used for, but makes it a slightly different shape (although you can still plug a standard mini-USB cable into it) and adds a couple of pins for audio output. To use headphones with the Magic you need to purchase a special adaptor that plugs into the extUSB jack, and then plug your headphones into the adaptor (for the sake of argument I’ve ignored the bundled headphones, as bundled headphones are generally not worth the effort of unwrapping them). I think it’s a terrible omission to not have a standard audio jack, and if HTC is going to insist on doing it then the box really should include an adaptor.

The camera, well the less said the better, but it’s pretty ordinary. It has autofocus, but the images are soft and noisy. There are no real options for adjusting settings like white balance or night mode, and there is not even an LED flash. The good news is Android 1.5 supports video recording, but if you really want a phone with a half-decent camera, get a Nokia N-Series.

So that’s about it. As you can probably tell I’m a big fan of the HTC Magic, and I would probably buy one if I wasn’t allergic to long contracts. Thanks for reading, and please ask any questions in the comments.





Nokia Home Control Center: are we finally ready for the ‘smart home’?

22 12 2008

Full comment was originally published on Ovum’s Straight Talk Daily, 19 December 2008, and republished on theplatform on 4 February 2009.

On 27 November 2008 Nokia announced that it is developing a new product for controlling and linking together existing ‘smart home’ products from third-party manufacturers. The Home Control Center is based on a standard home gateway, and provides an open Linux-based platform for developers of smart home solutions to build on. Customers will be able to control their in-home systems via a single user interface on a mobile phone or Web browser.
 
Is now the time for the smart home?

The promise of a ‘smart home’ has been a long time coming, due partly to a lack of standard protocols for coordinating the various solutions on the market. Smart home technologies allow for remote monitoring and control of heating, lighting, home security, garden watering systems, configurable set-top boxes and many other uses, but existing solutions have had difficulty integrating the many possible products and use cases into a single point of control. The advantages of a smart home include significant potential savings in energy use (and associated costs), improved security and convenience for the user.

Nokia sees that the ability to monitor and control the home environment from a mobile device as an unfulfilled opportunity, and may well have picked the right time to launch this product. The combined effects of the credit crunch and climate change awareness give a powerful moral and financial incentive to cut home energy use. Better monitoring and control systems are one method of achieving this.

Ovum’s most recent consumer survey found that 68% of people rated energy efficiency as their main environmental concern when buying devices, ahead of products being made of recyclable materials, at 20%. Clearly there is consumer interest in products that improve household energy efficiency.

The ubiquity of home wireless networks lowers another barrier to the smart home, by eliminating the need for expensive custom in-building wiring, saving installation costs and increasing the flexibility and modularity of smart home systems.

Additionally, the rising popularity of open mobile platforms (not least Nokia’s own S60) and fast 3G devices means that handsets powerful enough to run such a control interface are reaching mass-market status. We expect this trend to continue as open mobile platforms become even more widespread in 2009.

Nokia wants its platform to be technology-agnostic
 
Nokia’s strategy for integrating the many proprietary third-party solutions is to provide a ‘dictionary’ that can translate the various technologies available into a standard language and provide a simple control interface. It is doing this by building an open Linux-based platform for third parties to build their own solutions onto (although the Home Control Center platform is not open source, rather it provides a number of open APIs). Gaining the support of existing product developers will be absolutely crucial if this platform approach is to be successful, and Nokia is investing in partnership programmes to encourage third-party support.

Nokia’s platform uses open APIs on top of a Linux kernel, which Nokia claims is largely technology-agnostic and allows for future expansion as new technologies emerge. This makes sense: Nokia is building a platform – not just a single solution – and needs to be able to adapt to future technologies, both standards-based and proprietary, if it wants to achieve its aims.

Although the Home Control Center gateway device is not yet ready for release, Nokia has announced some basic specifications: a router with WiFi (802.11n) and multiple Ethernet ports, 6GB of built-in storage and an SD card slot, and several USB ports. Expandability and connectivity are the key features. It can be configured with embedded cellular or vendor-specific radio access (including the common Z-wave home automation wireless standard), and Nokia is willing to explore dual-branding opportunities with partners.

Nokia’s experience with open platforms leaves it well placed 

Despite Nokia’s lack of experience in the smart home space, the company has good experience managing open platforms, which should stand it in good stead. The Home Control Center platform joins Nokia’s existing Linux-based Maemo platform (which runs on the N810 Web tablet) and the Symbian-based S60 platform, which runs on Nokia’s mid- to high-end mobile phones (and which will be made fully open source in mid-2009). Clearly Nokia sees value in building open platforms rather than closed proprietary solutions.

Nokia’s strong brand and existing channels to market, combined with this experience building platforms and managing developer communities, gives it a good chance of realising the smart home vision. Nevertheless, weaving together the many tangled threads of existing solutions will be a huge challenge.





Gadgets are destroying our environment (and must be stopped)

1 12 2008

Our purchases can badly damage the environment

Our purchases can badly damage the environment


Greenpeace has released its regularly-updated report into the green credentials of leading PC and CE manufacturers. The report ranks companies based on criteria including:

  • Elimination of toxic materials in manufacturing
  • Offer free global recycling of products
  • Provide energy-efficient products
  • Push for a low-carbon economy

While Nokia is top, it seems that cuddly, family-friendly Nintendo is ranked the worst of all the companies surveyed. Ouch. According to Greenpeace:

“Nintendo remains in last place with a pitiful 0.8 points out of 10, scoring zero on all e-waste criteria. The company has banned phthalates and is monitoring use of antimony and beryllium and although it is endeavouring to eliminate the use of PVC, it has not set a timeline for its phase out. Nintendo discloses carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from its own operations and commits to cutting CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases by 2% over each previous year. However, Nintendo admits that an increase in business led to a 6% rise in CO2 emissions in 2006.”

This is not a good PR look for Nintendo, and in this new more responsible era (greed and waste are definitely out) the company will need to pick up its game.

It’s depressing to think that buying tech and gadgets is destroying the Earth, but that doesn’t make it any less true, and I think it’s really important that consumers consider environmental issues when making purchasing decisions. After all, economic sticks are a good tool to convince companies to change.

I encourage you to read the Greenpeace report and consider it next time you make a technology purchase.





BlackBerry Storm – a damp squib?

27 11 2008
BlackBerry Storm looks good on paper, but early reviews have been disappointing

BlackBerry Storm looks good on paper, but early reviews have been disappointing

At the beginning of November I wrote a comment piece for Ovum’s Straight Talk daily email bulletin, discussing RIM’s hot new Storm touchscreen handset. At the time, I hadn’t had a chance to play with the handset first hand, but I was careful to emphasise that a quality user experience would be vital for the Storm. The Storm has now launched in the UK and US (on Vodafone and Verizon networks respectively), and early reviews have slammed the handset for sluggish software, poor battery life and shoddy touchscreen performance. These are not good things for users’ experiences! Whispers of rushed firmware contributing to the problems have been circulating around the Intarwebz, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the carriers have pushed RIM to release the Storm before it was truly ready.

Anyway, I thought it would be a good time to look back at my comments, now that I’ve seen the Storm and other people have had a chance to play with it and review it properly. I’ve copied some of my initial comments in red, my new responses are in black below.

“RIM is particularly excited about the Storm’s clickable user interface, which features a capacitive touch screen under a mildly dome-shaped glass layer, allowing the user to press the screen like a button to make menu selections or when typing text. RIM claims that the technology gives the user better feedback and reduces errors common to other types of touch screen. As with any new UI technology, we will reserve judgment until we’ve had a chance to try out the device first-hand.”

Well, it looks like the news isn’t good for RIM on this one. When I was playing with the Storm, I didn’t have too many problems with it, but obviously it takes longer than a few minutes to find issues. Most reviewers don’t like the new screen, which is the central selling point of the device. I think a clickable screen is a good idea for menu selections and low-frequency presses, and in my brief test I found the clicking motion to be quite satisfying. But many reviews complain that typing long emails is tiring, slow and no more accurate than using a conventional capacitive screen. Given that typing emails is the main reason for owning a BlackBerry, this is not a good look.

“The Storm has the usual feature set for current mid- to high-end handsets: GPS, a 3.2MP camera with LED flash, an accelerometer for rotating the display, and expandable storage through a microSD card slot. The lack of WiFi support may deter some buyers, although if the device is offered with unlimited data plans this will soak up some of the complaints.”

This is what happens when device manufacturers let network operators design handsets: features get left out. There is no technical reason why the Storm doesn’t include WiFi, it’s a commercial decision designed to increase data traffic (and revenues) on carrier networks. Frustrating for power users and roamers, and for those who live or work underground (or out of network range). The other features are resoundingly bog standard.

“On the software front, Storm has an updated version of the BlackBerry software (4.7), which adds support for the touch screen and accelerometer, and adds on-the-fly spellchecking and correction – to iron out typing errors caused by the touch screen. All the standard BlackBerry features are present: email, messaging, social networking, web browsing – and the all-important enterprise support that will make business users and IT managers sit up and take notice.”

From the reviews I’ve read, and from talking to people using the Storm, the new software sounds half-baked. Bugs, poor accelerometer calibration, slow reactions and – unbelievably for a BlackBerry – no “all-important enterprise support” for BES servers (the BlackBerry server technology that sits behind the company firewall in enterprise deployments). This means that many enterprise users, the bread and butter of RIM’s business, simply can’t use the Storm on their office mail servers.

This tells me two things: the Storm is definitely pitched at consumers (duh!); and it was definitely rushed out before it was ready. RIM is usually so careful to support enterprise users, it beggars belief that they’ve failed on this one!

Releasing buggy software might be ok if it’s a new PC browser or media player, but for a critical device like a BlackBerry handset there are really no excuses.

“With the Storm, RIM is now realistically competing for similar demographics to the iPhone, at least in the consumer space: youngish, tech-savvy ‘Gen-Y’ or ‘transitioners’ who want the latest gadgets and have the discretionary income to afford them. This segment is as much about technology as fashion, but success also requires advanced functionality and an outstanding user experience. These users need multimedia features, ‘connectedness’, social networking, expandability and the ability to customise their devices.”

The multimedia features of the Storm are strong, there’s no doubt. One thing I really like about RIM is the company’s willingness to support popular codecs like Xvid, on top of the standard MPEG4 and H.264 that Apple supports. The ability to play back the most popular video formats on the Internet without messing around transcoding and wasting time really is good, and contrasts with Apple’s insistence on only supporting video codecs that it sells through iTunes. The Storm’s screen looks great for video, the music player is good and displays album art very nicely, all in all this is solid.

The Storm also has integration with Vodafone’s music store. I’ll be honest, I’m unlikely to ever use such a feature (I’m not a fan of low bitrate DRMed pop music and most mobile carriers are not fans of un-DRMed high bitrate niche music), but some people will be desperate to get the latest Leona Lewis single quickly on the bus home, so fair enough.

As for social networking, I haven’t experienced RIM’s Facebook app or the IM clients, but this isn’t rocket surgery, so I hope they work as expected.

“This segment is becoming crowded with powerful multimedia touch-screen handsets… The Storm looks like a solid competitor to these devices, but the overall user experience will be critical if it is to be a real success in this market, as its ‘enterprise qualities’ will be less of a factor.”

A bad user experience is just about the worst mistake a handset manufacturer can make, especially in a competitive market. This means having good reception, decent battery life, applications that don’t freeze, responsive handling and intuitive design (both software and hardware). A big part of Motorola’s problem now is that millions of people bought a RAZR when RAZRs were cool, and the user experience was so shockingly bad that they swore never to buy a Moto again and ran straight back to Nokia. The iPhone (love it or hate it) has raised the bar on user experience, and the G1 doesn’t do a bad job of it either (even though it’s really a beta OS). Poor user experience is an EPIC fail.

If people hate using their phone, they will come to hate the company that made it. RIM needs to sort out its software problems very quickly, before millions of people buy Storms and decide that they’re a pile of steaming shit (read the reviews, or ask Steven Fry) while running off to trade for an iPhone or G1. If the Storm doesn’t yet work with a BES, most of the device sales are going to be consumers, whose handset choices are a lot more flexible than enterprise users.

If business customers are going to have to carry a work handset, they are increasingly likely to insist on a device they actually enjoy using… The Storm is a good compromise for business people who want a touch-screen device (like an iPhone), but need a BlackBerry (for all the reasons BlackBerry is ubiquitous in enterprise markets).

We wouldn’t want to bet that the Storm will blow away the (healthy) competition, but it is positioned nicely on the intersection of consumer and enterprise devices – this is potentially a device that can go from boardroom to nightclub – and this is perhaps where the Storm’s success will be.”

As I said weeks ago, I didn’t want to bet that the Storm will be a killer device, but I did have high hopes for it. I have a soft spot for the plucky Canadians at RIM, but it looks like this time they’ve bitten off a little bit too much and might be choking on the networks’… ummm… demands. Apparently the Storm is selling well so far, despite the negative reviews, but I really think that releasing unfinished products is a quick way to destroy any credibility RIM has.

Hopefully a swift software update improves the situation, because at the moment it looks like the Storm is seriously under-delivering on its potential.