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.





Some thoughts on BBC iPlayer and Virgin Media

13 05 2009

I’ve been thinking admiring thoughts about BBC iPlayer quite a lot lately, and pondering a bit about how the BBC deploys it to all the various devices it supports. The BBC has an excellent blog about iPlayer which I highly recommend you read for some background.

Yesterday my friend Andrew Pascoe wrote a great blog post exploring the terms under which Virgin Media offers BBC iPlayer content to its pay-TV subscribers. I suggest you head over and read what Pascoe has to say, but he triggered a few little thoughts which I emailed him and he suggested I write them up properly.

Conspiracy, or technical reasons?

Pascoe asks some interesting questions about why Virgin is the only pay-TV provider that has direct access to the iPlayer service, given the BBC’s remit to distribute its content as widely as possible. Where some might be tempted to smell a conspiracy, I started thinking about some of the technical barriers that might inhibit other providers from deploying iPlayer. Take these suggestions with a grain of salt, they are my guesses only and I haven’t had a chance to confirm these with anyone at the BBC or any of the ISPs mentioned.

  • The BBC supports about 14 different video formats for iPlayer, according to this interview with ZDNet, including MPEG-2 and h.264 in various wrappers.
  • Virgin probably gets its iPlayer in an MPEG-2 stream, which is the native format of its set-top box and the same as Virgin uses to deliver its standard TV and VoD content over its cable network.
  • MPEG-2 requires relatively high bandwidth (standard definition video typically requires something around 4Mbps).
  • Virgin has a big cable pipe into customers’ homes, which can deliver HD video, multi-stream SD video or 50Mbps Internet, but other ISPs that rely on ADSL to deliver data don’t really have enough bandwidth to guarantee a good quality MPEG-2 stream to a wide enough audience.
  • The next option for streaming video in bandwidth-constrained situations is really using h.264 encoding, which compresses video more efficiently than the older MPEG-2 codec.
  • BT Vision uses Microsoft Mediaroom to deliver IPTV, using h.264 but wrapped in a proprietary format. I don’t know a huge amount about the Mediaroom platform, but I suspect that it packages its video in specific DRM and content management stuff, which would require a significant amount of tweaking for the BBC to support. BT Vision does have some BBC content available in its catch-up TV service, but it is not the full iPlayer service.
  • Sky does not have a true IPTV solution, and I doubt that the Sky set-top boxes actually support h.264 (perhaps the newer ones do but not across the whole customer base). Sky prefers to deliver video over satellite, naturally.
  • The BBC does format most of its iPlayer content in some flavour of h.264 depending on the intended destination device, but usually wrapped in Flash, WMV or 3GP containers, which the BT Vision box probably can’t play because it’s built around proprietary Mediaroom software.

Nope, it’s not a conspiracy

What this boils down to is that the other big video-centric ISPs in the UK probably just don’t have the ability to support iPlayer (in its current form) on their STBs, through a combination of not enough bandwidth and not supporting the right video codecs. Customers of these ISPs can still access iPlayer content through a standard web browser or other device (iPhone, games console etc) where codec support is not a problem and they can take advantage of lower-bitrate streams.

The BBC may judge that reformatting its content to suit the BT Vision platform would take too much effort given the size of BT Vision’s customer base. The BBC doesn’t have the resources to support every platform instantly, and must prioritise where it can easily reach the maximum audience – pick the low-hanging fruit, if you will. The BBC is probably happy to give them iPlayer, but there isn’t a cost-effective way to do it.

Of course, the other ISPs may not want to deploy iPlayer for their own commercial or strategic reasons, such as avoiding cannibalising their own VoD revenues by offering too much free content too easily. That’s for others to discuss.





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.





Twitter, or how I fell out of love

10 03 2009
Is the fail whale jumping the shark?

Is the fail whale jumping the shark?

Twitter. It’s suddenly everywhere. In the tech media, the mainstream press, TV news reports, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, politicians twittering from parliament, Johan Bruyneel twittering from the Astana team car during major cycling races, Steven Fry being trapped in a lift, lost adventurers twittering asking for help… the list goes on.

Twitter is not news to me; I’ve been using it for about two years with varying degrees of commitment as my interest waxed and waned, gradually racking up just over 3,400 updates. I’ve really enjoyed using it, too, and I’ve met some interesting and intelligent people (and some twisted and funny ones). It’s been helpful numerous times as people shared news, links and answers to questions. It’s been useful for keeping in touch with friends since I moved my life halfway around the world, it does provide a sense of involvement in my friends’ lives without having to find a time to arrange a phone call with each of them (an 11-hour time difference is not an easy thing to negotiate). It’s an easy way for me to share links to articles or blog posts I’ve written, interesting stuff I’ve found online, or just for venting my amazement or frustration at some of the idiotic things people sometimes say and do.

When I first started using Twitter, I was just some guy. I wasn’t working in the tech industry, and there was no real point to using it other than having a bit of fun. Nobody had really worked out that Twitter could be more than a curiosity, nobody could see how to make money from it, in fact most people had never even heard of it. Hell, this was true until quite a while after I started working for an analyst firm (first as an editor, now as an analyst). I was explaining Twitter for months! Twitter was unimportant, a bit quirky, and fundamentally useless. I didn’t give a crap about attracting followers, and I didn’t go out of my way to find new people to follow, being more content to just add people who seemed to be having interesting conversations with people I already followed.

When Twitter was unimportant it was much more fun.

Recently, Twitter has exploded in popularity. Part of this is fuelled by media interest and people suddenly wondering what “this Twitter thing” is all about, which is great. But a big part of it is the rise of the “social media expert” and “social marketing”. The realisation that brands and companies could use Twitter to reach an online audience spawned a new category of marketeer, intent on finding ways of connecting brands with audiences. Experts appeared out of the woodwork promising to drive traffic and optimise things. Twitter found a purpose, and it was marketing.

At around the same time as Twitter really started picking up, I became a tech industry analyst, and people started to follow me because of my profession. I don’t write about social networking or the Web, but I do have to know about them and have a personal interest. It still flatters me that people are interested in what I have to say (hey, the newspaper psychologist told me we’re all narcissists on Twitter), and I started using Twitter to promote comments I’d written, highlight press interviews and generally improve my visibility. I am responsible for some of the ways that my Twitter experience has changed.

I now have followers who are only really interested in my professional tweets. This is tricky for an analyst because our business model is based on having insight, but restricting it to paying clients. Giving away my insight to anyone on the web is not a good idea for me or for my employer. I try to walk a line between giving away enough to be interesting and not be thought of as an idiot, and giving away too much. It’s not easy, especially for someone as new to the industry as I am, who is still finding his feet and building contacts and profile. I want to share my best ideas with as many people as possible, but I can’t!

I also can’t post as freely as before, constantly feeling like I should curb my openness and not reveal so much about myself. I don’t like this, because it makes me less interesting to real people. Twitter was not supposed to be stressful, and I’m not convinced I did the right thing turning Twitter semi-pro, but now it’s too late, for better or worse.

Spam, random follows and parasites.

Twitter’s spam problem has become annoying. Now, if I mention that I cycled to work, I get followed by owners of bike shops in Buffalo. If I mention running, it’s someone selling books on how to improve my half-marathon time and find the tao of running. I’ve been followed by anyone, anywhere, most of whom have no chance of ever getting any of my business. Why would I be interested in a local bike shop 10,000km away? It’s a waste of everyone’s time!

I’m also rapidly becoming sick of the dodgy “social media experts”, “web gurus”, “online marketing consultants” and other 2.0tards who add nothing to the Twitter experience beyond inane posting of links to their cookie-cutter blogs about “harnessing the power of the web” and “connecting with audiences”. Too often these are not real people. They are shallow imitations of the thin slice of personality that most people can squeeze onto Twitter. Here’s an example of a follower I collected today:

Bio: chief Sales Evangelist & Lead Generation Expert nothing happens until someone sells something. Certified Marketing Automation Coach.

No shit. He’s a sales evangelist! And a certified marketing automation coach! Fuck knows what that is, but I’d better get me some! I could be generating leads all over the place! Twitter is now swarming with these scammers, hoping that enough people will follow back and click through to their website for some ad clicks, and maybe pay for a seminar on using Twitter to attract attention. It’s EASY to generate clicks on Twitter, if you add every person you see you only need a few naive n00bs who follow back because they think you’re a real person. The numbers stack up real quick! Don’t get me wrong, there are many clever people on Twitter who know a whole lot about social networking, the web and all that. It’s just that there are far too many retarded imitators and no quick way to assess who is selling snake oil.

Twitter is now perilously close to jumping the shark, partly because it is spitting out cheap self-appointed experts and bullshitters 2.0 on a hapless online populace. This is not how Twitter should be used, and it certainly isn’t what being a social media expert should be about (if such a thing truly exists, and I’m not convinced it does). This is not good marketing, it’s spam. It’s not a conversation, and it’s definitely not fun.

I’m on the point of deciding whether Twitter is still worth my time. I love the real people, but I don’t know if the bullshit is worth it. I’m also not sure if it combines the professional and the personal in a way I’m uncomfortable with. In the meantime, I’m off to tweet a link to this post. Hehe.





INQ1 review

9 03 2009
INQ1. I like it.

INQ1. I like it.

In my job we often get sent devices to try out, to understand the products and technology and see how it all works, and hopefully form good impressions. While we obviously write about these products, we’re really not in the business of writing reviews. However, it would seem a shame not to write the odd review of interesting gadgets that come across my path, and so here I have a review of one of the most interesting mobile handsets of the year so far, the INQ1.

The INQ1 is the first handset from INQ, an independent handset company wholly owned by the giant Hutchison Whampoa telecoms corporation. It has created quite a splash already, winning “Best Mobile Handset” at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the beginning of February. I’ve been using an INQ1 supplied by the 3 network (which has exclusive rights to the INQ1 in the UK) for several weeks, and while I certainly don’t think it’s perfect, I am very impressed by what it can do. It takes a unique approach, bringing popular social networks, messaging and web services to a cheap handset available on a cheap tariff. The whole idea is to attract mass market users to the idea of using their mobiles for Internet and mobile data use, and I think it’s a good idea.

General performance

The INQ1 is a fairly conventional slider handset, but it feels good in the hand. It’s compact and solidly built, but not too heavy. The brushed metal finish gives a sense of durability, and the sliding number pad is satisfying, sliding positively and with big, well-spaced keys that are easy to press. The screen is smaller than I’m used to (but I’ve been spoilt by a succession of high-end handsets).

You can take pictures with the 3.2MP camera and with a couple of button presses upload them straight to your Facebook profile page over the 3G network, and go and write an email while the image uploads in the background, which I really like.

One of the key applications installed on the INQ1 is Skype, and calls work perfectly well, as does the webmail client (it works with all the major services: Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, as well as POP3 mailboxes). The software is reasonably fast, it looks nice and colourful (if a little bright) and is mostly fairly simple to navigate using the application carousel at the bottom of the home screen. Occasionally there are awkward UI incidents, where a button press produces unexpected results, but these are not too jarring.

The web browser works, but it looks a bit dated and doesn’t render all pages properly. But for a phone this cheap and with relatively limited hardware grunt, it’s a good enough effort. It’s unfair to compare the browser with an iPhone, because the hardware is much cheaper and less powerful. The browser-based Facebook application is as good as the Facebook application for Nokia’s S60 handsets (although I don’t think as good as the BlackBerry or iPhone versions). It does have some excellent Facebook integration though, which I will explain shortly.

It has simple widgets on the home screen, displaying weather information, BBC news feeds and a world clock.

You can plug the INQ1 into a Mac or PC using a standard mini-USB cable, and use it as a USB modem for mobile broadband over the 3G network. This worked really easily with my Macbook, as the drivers for the modem are stored on the device itself, requiring nothing more complex than dragging the connection launcher application into the “Applications” folder. Then it was a matter of a couple of clicks, and I was online. The supplied software is simple but effective.

Social web makes the INQ1 special

Now that I’ve done the mechanical review bits for the people with a short attention span, we can get onto a more detailed description of why I think the INQ1 is interesting.

I think it won the MWC award because it was designed from the outset to deliver web content and services to mobile users, and to do this at low cost. The software has been built from scratch with the intention of integrating the most popular social networking and communication applications at a deep level into the handset. What this means in practice is that the INQ1 does Facebook, Skype, email and instant messaging far better than it has any right to do; in fact it does some of these things far better than any other phone on the market, at any price.

The integration of all of these services is focused primarily around the phone’s contacts list. The INQ1 ties all of your various ways of contacting a person together neatly, and integrates them with your Facebook contacts list. When you first activate the handset, you enter your Facebook login details and the phone automatically downloads all of your Facebook friends into the phone’s contact list, displaying their profile picture and current status message. Cool, huh?

Well the next bit is even cooler. You then log in to Skype by selecting the icon on the side-scrolling carousel menu at the bottom of the screen, and your Skype contacts are added to your contacts list. Now email: you click on the mail icon, and the handset lets you choose between a standard POP3 mailbox, Hotmail, Yahoo mail or Googlemail. You enter your login details, the handset activates the account, and you’re away. The same goes for your MSN or AIM accounts.

The next step is to merge your contacts, so that you have a single contact for each person, containing the person’s phone numbers, Facebook profile, Skype ID, email address and IM accounts. This can be fiddly if you have a lot of friends, but when it’s done you’ve got the greatest mobile phone contact list ever!

You can open a contact in the contact list, and from a single menu you have the following options for contacting them:
– Call: voice or video
– Send message (brings up an SMS panel which lets you insert pictures or sounds, making it an MMS)
– Facebook: view profile, poke, message, write on wall
– Windows Live Messenger: initiate a chat
– Skype: voice call or text chat
– Email: from any activated account.

That’s a lot of ways to get in touch with someone! I’ve played with plenty of handsets, but I’ve never seen anything that has this sort of powerful integration out of the box. It’s great!

Things I don’t like

I would really like to be able to easily add new applications to the INQ1, such as a Twitter client or a Flickr uploader. But perhaps this is an unreasonable expectation, and I’ve just become too used to using Symbian or BlackBerry phones which specialise in this.

The quality of the camera is disappointing – corners have been cut here – but photos are adequate in broad daylight. There is no LED flash for low light snaps.

Not the greatest phone cam ever made.

Not the greatest phone cam ever made.

Poor colour balance and dynamic range makes for flat pictures

Poor colour balance and dynamic range makes for flat pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a music player application which includes scrobbling to Last.fm, but as the INQ1 commits the cardinal sin of not having a 3.5mm stereo jack I didn’t bother testing it – this phone is not quite ready to be a serious music player.

It would be a killer device if if had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, given how many of its key applications rely on heavy text input. I think INQ is well aware of this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next release from the company adds a slide-out QWERTY keypad.

Conclusion

This is not a handset for everyone but it does a lot of things far better than you would expect from a phone at this price point, and I think it shows how much you can achieve on relatively low-end hardware, with some clever software integration. If you want a cheap handset that gives you really good Facebook and email access and lets you make cheap Skype calls, the INQ1 is definitely worth checking out. I’m really looking forward to seeing what INQ comes up with next.





Is Motorola’s handset business dead?

4 02 2009
A true icon

A true icon

Motorola has announced its financial results for 4Q08, and the headline figure of a $3.58 billion loss for the quarter is not a good look.
Motorola has lost most of its market share, its shipments fell over 50% year-on-year, it’s haemorrhaging cash and its recent product launches have proved underwhelming.
Co-CEO Sanjay Jha has stated that the company will focus on mid-range and high-end handsets, after deciding not to spin the handset division off into a separate company. Why is Motorola in such dire trouble, and is this the correct strategy to save the company?

Not enough innovation

Motorola has made some of the most iconic and successful handsets in the short history of mobile telephony, including the StarTac and the RAZR, which sold a metric shitload. There is no doubt that Moto once had the talent and vision to produce great products, but it seems that for the last few years the company has been  unable to keep up with the rest of the industry in terms of innovation.
Moto’s software became slow and unintuitive, its handsets lacked the cutting edge hardware features of Nokia and Sony-Ericsson in Europe, or RIM and Apple in North America. Its industrial design became stale, relying for too long on the RAZR look and feel long after the rest of the industry had moved on. Motorola customers moved on to more intuitive and better-looking handsets from competitors, usually with features such as better cameras or music players (Sony Ericsson), better software and reliability (Nokia), better email (BlackBerry), more cool factor and better UI (Apple) or lower price (LG, Samsung).
More to the point, Moto’s new handsets too often just look stale, pumping up ‘features’ that were fresh on its competitors’ devices 18 months ago – an eternity in mobile phone terms.

New strategy is high-risk

According to the FT, “Mr Jha… said Motorola would focus on expanding the data capabilities of mid-tier handsets costing between $100 and $200, and on the market for high-end smartphones.”

I think this is a risky strategy for Motorola, for the following reasons:

  • The high-end of the market is saturated and has intense competition. The fiercest competition in the market is for high-end “smartphones”, with intense jostling between the heavyweights Nokia, Apple, RIM and to a lesser extent HTC, Sony Ericsson and perhaps a resurgent Palm. Motorola’s reputation in this space has taken a beating, and although it plans to release phones based on the Android platform (which I think is the right option for Moto), they will not come to market until late 2009 at the earliest. Moto is already late to the market, and I’m skeptical as to whether it will ever catch up, because its competitors certainly aren’t standing still.
  • The global recession will flatten sales of high-end devices. The timing is awful to be pushing aggressively into the high end, as people cut back on extravagant spending. Motorola needs the cheapest Android devices they can build, and as quickly as possible. The end of 2009 might not be quick enough, if Motorola continues to bleed.
  • Moto would do better to push hard into offering lower-specced handsets with more advanced software and data features. Jha mentioned this in his results call, and I think the opportunity for cheaper handsets with better data capabilities is massive – but Android needs a certain level of hardware grunt, and probably will not run well on cheap hardware. Moto has shown few signs of having a solid back-up platform that can run data-intensive apps on low-end hardware (nothing to compete in features and ease-of-use with Nokia’s Series 40, for example), and it takes time to develop a platform like this.
  • Most global handset sales growth will come in emerging markets. Pulling out of low-end devices means that Moto will have more difficulty reaching serious volumes. This strategy is fine for Apple, which commands market- and mind-share in many developed markets and can sell iPhones at a premium, but Motorola has neither of these advantages, and should be looking for rapid growth wherever it can find it. High-end Android phones and mid-range phones with Facebook aren’t really going to fly off the shelves in India, China, Africa and Latin America.

How much cash and morale are left?

Motorola’s handset division has been steadily losing cash for several quarters, and thousands of staff have been sacked. Those remaining must feel like death row inmates, and many of the talented ones will surely be seeking opportunities elsewhere before the axe falls. How long can Motorola continue to bleed, before it collapses? Hopefully it has enough time to bring its plans to market and save an iconic brand, but hope doesn’t save companies.





iTunes drops music DRM, life goes on as normal

6 01 2009

The inevitable has happened: Apple has managed to convince its record label partners to drop the DRM from the iTunes music store, effectively killing DRM in the digital music market.

Apple had been selling music DRM-free for several months under the iTunes Plus brand, but the selection of music was limited to EMI’s catalogue. Apple has now announced that the remaining major labels will be adding their music to iTunes Plus.

The real sense of inevitability comes from the recent launch of Amazon’s competing MP3 store, which I wrote about at the beginning of December. Apple’s move is really just playing catch-up to Amazon, it offers music in the same bitrate (256kbps), at slightly higher prices (Infected Mushroom’s Vicious Delicious album costs £7.99 on iTunes, or £6.99 on Amazon). The main difference is the AAC format, which in my opinion sounds better at a given bitrate than MP3, but plays on less devices.

Vicious Delicious on iTunes Plus

Vicious Delicious on iTunes Plus

Of course, Apple also has the massive advantage that is its GINORMOUS base of iPod and iPhone owners, who will find iTunes music much easier to buy and sideload than Amazon’s service. Every time an iPod owner plugs a shiny Apple gadget into a USB port, buying the tunes from the hippest bands will be only a couple of clicks away. Hell, Apple now even allows iPhone owners to buy and download music directly to their iPhones over a 3G data connection. It simply doesn’t get easier to buy music and listen to it immediately. It’s tough to see Amazon stealing too many customers from iTunes, which has apparently now sold 6 billion tracks worldwide.

So am I going to start buying digital music from the iTunes store?

Nope. The cost still doesn’t reflect the value of digitally downloaded music. I can buy Vicious Delicious on CD from play.com for £6.99, rip it in FLAC (or any other high-quality format I like), keep the CD on my shelf and be safe in the knowledge that I can re-rip it to a format that suits any future device I might purchase. Oh, and I get a tangible product to hold. The appeal of having my music download instantly really doesn’t compensate for the loss of utility a digital download brings, especially when the cost is equivalent (or even greater).

Why should I pay the same amount (or more) for a digital download as a much more useful and future-proof CD that sounds better? Where is the money saved on disc production, warehousing and distribution going? To the artists? I doubt it.

I’m sure Apple will continue to sell music at a scary rate, but I’m not going for it until the price drops, the quality improves and the future-proofing can be guaranteed. At any rate, at least the world’s largest music retailer has taken another step towards what digital music really should be about – DRM will not be mourned by many.