Archive for September, 2008

T-Mobile G1 – The First Google Android Phone

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

The big news in the technology press today is the announcement of the T-Mobile G1, the first cell phone to run Google’s open-source Android operating system.  It is an intriguing product and it looks to me like Android could turn into a major player in the cell phone business, although I can’t say that I’m ready to jump on board just yet.

Generally, I like the design of the phone itself.  It is made by HTC and, in a number of ways, it resembles the HTC Touch Pro, which I’ve previously mentioned as my most-likely next phone.  I suspect that the combination of a large touch-screen and a slide-out keyboard is going to be a pretty common and popular design among those of us that aren’t as enamored with the iPhone’s touch-only interface.  I’ve seen a few comments online complaining that the G1 isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing phone to come along, but I generally think it looks ok.  Admittedly, it does seem to be designed more for functionality than as a style accessory, though.

While the screen shots and descriptions of Android look pretty good, my immediate impression is that this is definitely a very immature platform and I just can’t see jumping on board before it becomes a bit more established.  Today’s announcement actually did a pretty good job of hammering that home as they openly admitted that such features as Microsoft Exchange and stereo Bluetooth support would not be available at launch but could be made available later via third-party applications.  With the open-source nature of Android, I would bet on those features becoming available sooner rather than later, but it is anyone’s guess as to how long it will really take as well as how soon those features will have the stability and maturity of their equivalents on other platforms.

Sometimes, I am interested in being an early-adopter on new technologies and platforms, but I do also have to look at utility as well.  The G1 is a pretty attractive product and I suspect that Android could have a significant future.  The way that the cellular industry works with the subsidized phones in exchange for extended contracts, I expect that it will be at least 2 years before I give Android any serious consideration.

HTC Touch Pro – Probably My Next Smartphone

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

My current contract with Sprint expired at the beginning of this month, meaning that I am now eligible for the best-available discounts on an upgrade for my aging Palm Treo 700P.  Over the last few months, I have been looking at a number of cell phone options and have largely settled on the HTC Touch Pro as my next phone. 

I have been a long-time Palm OS user, so I admit that it is with a little bit of trepidation, and even sadness, that I make plans to switch to a Windows Mobile device.  The simple truth, though, is that development on the Palm OS has essentially stalled for several years and it is now severely behind in almost every aspect.  While updated versions from either Palm (which is promising a new, compatible OS) or Access (which ended up with ownership of the code base) or both are promised in the next year or so, these are still vaporware and I just don’t see continuing to live with yesterday’s technology while waiting around.  I do hope that I can ease the transition just a bit by getting StyleTap to allow at least some of my old Palm OS applications to still run.

While the HTC Touch Pro has been available outside the US for a while, it has only been available here as an expensive ($800 or more), unlocked GSM import that would work on AT&T or T-Mobile, although not always with full compatibility with the highest-speed networks.  Fortunately, the first official US version of the phone was announced today for availability via Sprint on October 19th.  Their press release describes it as follows:

HTC Touch Pro: HTC Touch Pro is a professional workhorse that enables mobile professionals to easily balance their professional and personal lives. Along with the features available on HTC Touch Diamond, HTC Touch Pro adds a five-row, slide-out QWERTY keyboard for easy data entry, expandable storage capabilities with a microSD card slot (1 GB card included) and a business card scanner application to automatically capture and convert business card information to contacts using the built-in 3.2 MP camera/camcorder. Additionally, with Windows Mobile 6.1, users have access to security and device management capabilities desired by most business customers when used with Microsoft’s System Center Mobile Device Manager solution. HTC Touch Pro will be available Oct. 19 for $299.99 with a two-year contract and after a $100 mail-in rebate.

The price really sounds right to me for a fairly high-end phone and its availability through Sprint is appealing as I’ve been satisfied with their service over the last couple years and I’m happy to avoid the hassles involved with changing carriers and porting my number. 

Here are a few of the key points about this phone that appeal to me over some of the key competitors in the same basic category:

  1. Keyboard: Every time I have purchased a portable computing device that did not have a keyboard (i.e. Palm VII, Palm LifeDrive, TabletKiosk eo v7110), I have replaced it within a year or so with one that did.  At some point, I feel like I have to accept the lesson and stick with what works best for me.  If Apple had an iPhone with a slide-out keyboard, I’d give it some serious consideration, but that just doesn’t exist now.  This is also the reason why I immediately sparked to the Touch Pro instead of the otherwise nearly-identical Touch Diamond.
  2. Large touch-screen: I really like the approach of retaining a large, VGA-resolution touch-screen via the use of a slide-out keyboard.  Sure, it adds a little bit of bulk to the phone (the Touch Pro is still smaller than my Treo), but I feel it is worth it to avoid compromise.  This is a big reason why I have decided against Palm’s latest Windows Mobile Treo models, despite otherwise impressive feature sets.
  3. Price/Network: As I said, I’ve been happy with Sprint and am willing to accept another contract in order to get the much lower subsidized price.  While conceptually I like the SIM card approach used on GSM phones, it didn’t make much difference to me back when I had AT&T (or Cingular) and I don’t think it would matter much now.  I just don’t need to switch phones often (especially at the unsubsidized prices) and I very rarely travel outside the US, something I don’t anticipate changing in the next 2 years.
  4. Overall feature set: Right now, the Touch Pro is pretty close to being the top-of-the-line for Windows Mobile phones and it really does seem to be the one model out there on any OS that seems to have just about every feature that I want.

Since the phone won’t be available for a little over a month, I do still have some time to look around at other options as well as to see if anyone announces something else that might be a better fit.  I pretty strongly suspect, though, that this blog will start featuring postings about my experiences with my new Touch Pro come mid-October.

Tablet PC and Over-sensitivity

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

I’m definitely a big fan of the Tablet PC concept.  Both of the UMPCs that I have used as my primary laptop computers over the last few years have had touch-screens and Tablet capabilities, so I am very aware of the value of those features.  I suspect it to be a feature that I will look for whenever I purchase laptops or UMPCs for myself going forward.

As useful as Tablet PC functions are, I also know that they haven’t really caught on all that widely.  It still isn’t a top-priority for most people when picking out a laptop and the number of models that feature it are still fairly low.  I do think they are starting to become a bit more mainstream thanks to the sudden surge in popularity for touchscreens in the wake of the iPhone, but there is still quite a way to go.

This has led to a justifiable paranoia within the Tablet PC user community about the future of the feature.  While I do think it is a concern that is based in reality, it also can result in some occasional major over-reactions.  The case in point was a posting by lead engineer Steven Sinofsky on Microsoft’s Windows 7 Developer’s Blog that included the following quote during a discussion of features being considered for modularity:

Some examples are quite easy to see and you should expect us to do more along these lines, such as the TabletPC components.  I have a PC that is a very small laptop and while it has full tablet functionality it isn’t the best size for doing good ink work for me (I prefer a 12.1” or greater and this PC is a 10” screen).  The tablet code does have a footprint in memory and on the 1GB machine if I go and remove the tablet components the machine does perform better.

This is a basically harmless, and completely reasonable, statement.  Certainly, there is no reason to have the Tablet PC components in place on a computer that doesn’t need them.  Obviously, this should apply if the necessary hardware (a touch-screen or active digitizer) isn’t present, but I can understand Sinofsky’s point that one might even want to remove all or some of the features when you do have the hardware.  To be honest, I don’t really use the inking features on my Vye S37.  The screen real-estate is very small and the touch digitizer just isn’t overly well suited for it.  I love having the touch screen as a navigational tool, but that doesn’t really require that all the other Tablet features be active.

Sinofsky’s fairly mild comment generated a minor uproar in the Tablet community, in what generally struck me as a knee-jerk reaction.  This quote generated rather intense responses from very communitybloggers such as Lauren Heiny and James Kendrick, among others.   Both Heiny and Kendrick are bloggers that I respect very much and their articles are worth reading, as are the rather varied and sometimes heated responses in their comment sections.  Sinofsky even responded directly in the comments section of Heiny’s article, basically saying that he was reading too much into it.

I’m not going to rehash those articles or the responses (I do recommend going and reading through them) here as the discussions do go down an interesting path.  The one point I really want to comment on is that I worry that this reaction might be falling a bit into "boy who cried wolf" territory.  At their root, these articles responding to Sinofsky’s posting seemed to be keying off of a concern that the Tablet features may be deemed unnecessary and ultimately dropped from later versions of the OS.  The problem is that Sinofsky never even remotely hinted at that in his statements.  He wasn’t talking about features that can or should be cut from the OS and he never said that the Tablet features weren’t useful.  He simply, and rightfully, pointed out that usage scenarios vary and Windows should be flexible enough to adapt.

I think that evangelism of the value of Tablet PC features is something that is still needed, but I worry that the message can be blunted some by overreacting to what should be pretty much non-controversial statements.  This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen prominent members of the Tablet PC community go on the defensive like this and I tend to think this kind of thing is a lot less useful than articles that work hard to explain the value of the features.