Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Why I Don’t Have a Palm Pre Yet

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

June 6th was the launch date for the Palm Pre, the heavily hyped new smartphone from Palm and Sprint.  What I really want in a phone is something that matches the elegance and simplicity of the user interface on Apple’s iPhone, but still includes a physical keyboard and multitasking capabilities.  The Pre appears to be a very close fit, almost certainly much better than the Windows-mobile based HTC Touch Pro that I bought last year.

I definitely tend to be an early-adopter on new gadgets, so it certainly wouldn’t have been surprising if I had run out to buy a Pre last weekend.  In fact, I would have very much liked to have made that purchase.  Unfortunately, I’m already a Sprint customer and, as I mentioned earlier, I purchased a new phone last year.  Because of this, I am not currently eligible for upgrade pricing, which means that any phone purchased now would cost me considerably higher than the new or upgrade eligible customer pricing, which, of course, is the pricing that Sprint and Palm are advertising publicly.

I am, of course, under a 2-year contract with Sprint that was a necessary condition for the purchase of my last phone.  I completely recognize the validity and legality of that contract and that it is the underlying reason why I am not eligible for upgrading without a price penalty.  My purpose in this post is not to argue that my situation is somehow unfair or that I am being denied an entitlement.  I never had any expectation of being able to upgrade early and I don’t believe that there is anything unethical, much less illegal, about the system.

What I do question pretty strongly is whether or not the current business model used by the cell phone industry is a correct one in today’s marketplace.  Particularly since Apple has turned the smartphone into a much more mainstream product with the iPhone, the industry has entered a phase of extremely rapid growth and enhanced competition with frequent introduction of new models with desirable new features.  I strongly question whether customers are going to continue to be willing to accept a system that requires a 2 year wait between upgrades.

I had initially started thinking about this as subject for a blog post after getting into a Twitter discussion of it during the day of the Pre launch.  I got busy with other things and didn’t find time to start working on it until later.  In the meantime, this became a very hot subject generating a lot of coverage both in blogs and the mainstream press after Apple announced the third-generation version of the iPhone and AT&T revealed that the lower pricing would not be available to current iPhone owners that are still under contract.  This is a change from the approach taken with the last version of the iPhone, which was offered at the new-customer price to owners of the previous version, regardless of contract status.

The central idea behind current business model used by the cell phone industry is that the carriers subsidize a portion of the purchase price for the phone in exchange for the customer committing to a service contract, generally for 2 years.  If the customer chooses to switch carriers before the contract is up, he/she is obligated to pay a fairly substantial fee to buy out the contract.  Most carriers offer the customer the option of a smaller discount on an a new phone half way through the contract.  After the contract expires, the customer is generally eligible to again get the same subsidy offered to a new subscriber.

The contract system eliminates a lot of the need for carriers to expend much effort in customer retention, outside of the discounted phones offered at the end of the contract.  This likely saves the companies a lot of money, but is also almost certainly the biggest contributor to the industry’s reputation for poor customer service.  I have found that no matter which of the big cell phone carriers is mentioned, it doesn’t take long for someone to start telling stories about their horrible experiences.

It is in the best interest of the cellular carriers for most phones to have non-subsidized prices that are prohibitively high for most people since, otherwise, it is a safe bet that most people would forgo the contract.  This would make it much easier for customers to switch carriers at will and, thus, would greatly increase the cost and effort that the companies would have to expend towards retention.  I have little doubt that this would dramatically improve the quality of the customer experience, but it might or might not have a negative impact on profitability.

The big question is whether or not the non-subsidized prices really reflect the true cost of a cell phone or if they are kept artificially inflated by the cell phone manufacturers as a result of the subsidy-based sales model.  I admit that I have no direct knowledge, but my educated speculation is that the subsidized prices are probably more realistic.  The non-subsidized prices for phones (especially smartphones) simply seem way out of proportion with the pricing for other portable electronics.  In most cases, those prices are pretty close to what you would pay for a full-featured laptop computer and considerably higher than netbooks, stand-alone PDAs, or portable media players, any of which would seem more comparable technology.

The most obvious direct comparison would really be between the iPhone and the iPod Touch, which is basically an iPhone without the cellular radio or camera.  The pricing information for the 16GB version of the new iPhone 3GS has indicated that it costs $199 fully-subsidized (the price widely advertised), $399 for customers 1-year into their 2-year contract, or $599 un-subsidized.  The suggested retail price of the 16GB iPod Touch is $299 and it can be found in the $260-$275 range if you shop around.  I can certainly see where the added features of the iPhone would justify a higher price, but does it really make sense that they would double it?

In all fairness, my instinct looking at those numbers is that the $399 price offered after 1-year is probably the most realistic one.  While I suspect the price on the iPod Touch is also a bit inflated (it doesn’t really have direct competitors), it really does look like the $199 price probably brings in a pretty thin profit margin, if there is any at all.  The same is probably true with the similarly priced Palm Pre, although it does also have somewhat lighter specs, including only 8GB of memory. Even if the subsidies do push the prices down below the actual cost of the phone, I can still see justification for why the carriers might want to subsidize even for existing customers still under contract in order to prolong their contract and help to ensure loyalty.

I think that they might want to look to the satellite TV business as a possible example.  I’ve been a DirecTV customer for a number of years and they also use a system of contracts and subsidized equipment.  The big difference from the cellular business, though, is that DirecTV lets current customers upgrade their equipment (such as going to a DVR or hi-definition) at the fully subsidized price no matter how far they are into a contract.  The one catch is that doing so will reset their contractual start date to the date of the upgrade.  This helps to accommodate any need that the customer might have to move up to something better or different, while also pushing further back the date at which he/she might be able to switch to a competitor.

I do imagine that the cellular industry would probably prefer to stick with the current fairly customer-unfriendly system for as long as possible, but I do seem some recent signs that they may very well be changing their approach.  The recent publicity over AT&T’s prices for iPhone upgrades hasn’t been very good for them, even if they are pretty clearly within their rights.  A fan base as loyal as the more vocal iPhone owners, particularly when they are so willing to spend more money to make sure they have the latest and greatest, really does need to be cultivated and protected.  Policies that seem to directly target those loyal customers may not be in the company’s best interest, even if they appear to be the most financially prudent on the surface.

Another interesting development is Sprint’s recent introduction of the Sprint Premier loyalty program.  Customers that have achieved high longevity (10 years or more) or have one of the higher-end service plans (priced over $69.99/month, a fairly common price point for a smartphone with both a voice and data plan) are automatically enrolled in that program.  While the program offers a number of smaller benefits, the big one is that those customers are eligible for the fully-subsidized upgrade price at the end of the first year of a 2-year contract.  While Sprint’s recent issues with customer retention probably made this more necessary for them, it still is a pretty clear acknowledgement that higher-end customers are increasingly unwilling to wait 2 years between upgrades.

Never heard of Slate Tablet PCs?

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

I came across an odd post by Jason D. O’Grady entitled Would you buy an all-screen notebook computer? on the in the "Apple Core" blog at ZDNet.  This really short post centered on the proposed concept for the second-generation OLPC, which is expected to have a lower screen that can be used as a virtual keyboard (with haptic feedback) instead of a physical keyboard.  O’Grady then went on to provide a poll asking if readers would be willing to buy an all-screen notebook.

The strange thing about this post was that there was absolutely no mention of slate Tablet PCs and UMPCs.  O’Grady was instead treating the idea of an all-screen notebook as if it were a completely original and radical idea as opposed to simply a new example of something that has existed for several years.  The poll question only had "yes" or "no" options and didn’t even have the obvious "I already have one" as a choice.

This was posted on an Apple-centered blog, which is almost certainly the key explanation for this.  Slate notebooks to date have mainly been Windows-based (although there are a few Linux models out there too) and Apple focused bloggers have a definite tendency to pretend that the Windows world essentially doesn’t exist, particularly when it comes to innovative features that haven’t shown up in Apple products.  I’m even a tad surprised that the OLPC caught this author’s attention considering that it isn’t an Apple product.

The no-keypad design of the iPhone and iPod Touch has also generated a fair amount of posts and articles from Apple bloggers and journalists that seem to suggest that the concept was completely new or that only cite the Apple Newton as a precedent.  Of course, there have been numerous slate PDAs and phones in the Palm OS and Windows Mobile world for years, but I guess they don’t really count since they aren’t Apple products.

I really don’t have anything against Apple (I actually recently got my wife a MacBook), but the extremely myopic viewpoint of some Apple enthusiasts has always been an irritation to me.

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.

Windows and Performance

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Microsoft recently launched a blog dedicated to the engineering of Windows 7, the current code-name designation for the next major release of the OS.  Earlier this week, they put up a post that introduced the team’s approach to performance, an issue that I believe to be a vital concern regarding the future of Windows.

For the most part, I don’t subscribe to the fairly harsh criticism that some have leveled at Windows Vista since its launch early last year.  I installed it both on my home desktop computer and my UMPC right after its public launch.  I have never given serious consideration to going back to Windows XP on my desktop system (which I have even upgraded to the 64-bit version of Vista) and even stuck it out on my under-powered TabletKiosk eo v7110 UMPC until I eventually upgraded to the must faster performing Vys S37.  I think the improvements in the overall user interface and feature set (particularly when it comes to Tablet PC functionality) do make Vista a worthwhile upgrade.

That said, I do also very much feel that the overall performance of the operating system falls short of what it should be.  I don’t have any huge complaints about the performance on my pretty heavily souped-up desktop system, but it definitely is pretty sluggish on the Vye and I’m certainly well aware that it would be much snappier with XP and that I’m unquestionably making a choice to compromise performance for features.  On the old eo, it was really pushing the edges of tolerability and I suspect that I probably would have eventually gone back to XP had I not just upgraded altogether.

Most of the Microsoft blog post was a high-level overview of the key factors involved with performance optimization (memory, CPU, and disk utilization; start-up, shut-down, and stand-by/resume speeds, base systems, and disk footprint) and is a decent read if you aren’t already highly familiar with all these concepts.  I think the most interesting part of the post, though, was the following quote regarding the overall issue of feature trade-offs versus performance:

On the one hand, performance should be straight forward—use less, do less, have less. As long as you have less of everything performance should improve. At the extreme that is certainly the case. But as we have seen from the comments, one person’s must-have is another person’s must-not-have. We see this a lot with what some on have called “eye candy”—we get many requests to make the base user interface “more fun” with animations and graphics (“like those found on competing products”) while at the same time some say “get rid of graphics and go back to Windows 2000”. Windows is enormously flexible and provides many ways to tune the experience. We heard lots on this forum about providing specific versions of Windows customized for different audiences, while we also heard quite a bit about the need to reduce the number of versions of Windows.

I think that these are completely valid points, but I am left with some uncertainty about whether or not they are yet coming at this subject from quite the right perspective.

I do recognize that there are a lot of differences in individual needs, but I also hope that Microsoft remembers that Windows is, in fact, an operating system.  In the constant need to add lots of new features and capabilities to the system in order to justify both the upgrade charges and the promotional push behind major new releases, it does often feel like there is an attempt to bundle too many features that stray quite a bit away from the core role of an OS.  Photo galleries, music/video players, video editors, and other similar applications all are becoming pretty major components of Windows (as well as Mac OS and major Linux distributions) and I can’t help but feel this is all leading to a serious loss of focus.

The concern about the number of versions of Windows strikes me as a situation where the company frequently tries to apply a marketing solution to what should be a technical problem.  I absolutely agree that they need to reduce the number of versions of Windows.  In fact, I think there should only be two current versions of the OS: Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008.  I think Vista has been hurt quite a bit by the confusion over all the different "editions" of Vista and which features are in which version.

For Windows 7, I think Microsoft’s goal should be to have only a single version of the OS that includes a robust system to allow the end user to easily add or remove features based on his/her needs and system capabilities.  The installer should do an on-the-fly hardware evaluation and identify a "best fit" feature set for any given system.  I also think they should spend some time carefully designing an installation wizard that would essentially interview the user to help determine a recommended configuration based on what features the user is likely to actually use.  It should also be easy to later add or remove features as the user’s needs change or as hardware is upgraded or removed.

Finally, I think they need to start backing away from the overall bundling concept.  I recognize that a lot of the reason for the various editions of Vista was to try to avoid the view that one is paying for unneeded features, such as Media Center for an office workstation or Remote Desktop for the typical non-networked home PC.  I simply think they picked the wrong approach.  What Microsoft needs to do is to recognize that the ubiquitously connected nature of PCs today makes an ala-carte solution for features such as these both feasible and probably preferable.  Basically, everyone should get the same core functionality and then should be allowed to pick and choose, and pay separately, for these types of add-on features. 

I really believe that Microsoft needs a bit of a shake-up in their overall focus and marketing approach for Windows if they are going to get past the shortcomings that seriously crippled the Vista launch.  While it was reassuring to read on their blog that performance issues are a key focus for the next version, I’m discouraged by the suggestions that they may not really be deviating much from the basically failed approach that they took with Vista.

Microsoft Updates Anti-Piracy System on Windows XP for Some Reason

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Yesterday, Microsoft announced a number of updates to the anti-piracy features of Windows XP Professional (as well as Tablet and Media Center editions).  They indicated that Windows XP Home was not included since it apparently isn’t pirated as often.

This announcement was made via a post to their Windows Genuine Advantage Blog, which described the updates in some detail.  In addition to some routine validation updates intended to detect more pirated keys, they also apparently made a number of more substantial changes to the user-experience on non-validated systems as well as some changes to make future updates more automatic.  The post summarized the reasons for the update as follows:

I’m excited about how this release balances our goals of providing a great experience to those who have genuine Windows and at the same time creating a compelling experience for those who have non-genuine copies to get genuine Windows.

The various items in this update seem that they might have made some sense as anti-piracy measures if they were part of the out-of-the-box product or included as part of a major service pack (such as the recently released Service Pack 3), but they seem like a colossal waste of effort as a basically optional update to a product that is officially discontinued at this time.

In all their paranoia about piracy, I really wonder if anyone at Microsoft actually did any analysis into the likely return on this investment.  Do they really believe that enough people will somehow have their minds changed about using pirated copies to generate enough additional income from new licenses to justify the cost of developing, testing, and deploying these updates?  This seems especially unlikely when the update is optional and, presumably, could probably be uninstalled (or at least defeated by reinstalling the pirated copy of the OS) if the new nag screens are too bothersome.

I’ve worked in the software industry long enough to know that piracy is a real concern and I do understand why company’s like Microsoft keep looking for better ways to deal with it.  I do also think that many companies get seriously carried away in that effort.  Microsoft’s current operating systems (and other software) have enough problems that it really seems that there should be far more important tasks for their developers to be focusing on than this.

Macintosh Clone Maker Counter-Sues Apple

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

A few months ago, a small company called Psystar introduced a fairly generic Intel-based PC which they were offering pre-installed with Apple’s Mac OS X.  Apple’s official End-User License Agreement (EULA) for the Mac OS indicates that it is not permitted to run it on hardware that isn’t made by Apple.  From the start, it appeared to me that this company probably existed largely to provoke a lawsuit.  Not surprisingly, Apple did file suit against them claiming copyright violations and the news came out today that Psystar is counter-suing with a claim of anti-trust violations.

In a cnet.com article reporting the counter-suit, Psystar outlined their case as follows:

Psystar argues that its OpenComputer product is shipped with a fully licensed, unmodified copy of Mac OS X, and that the company has simply "leveraged open source-licensed code including Apple’s OS" to enable a PC to run the Mac operating system.

I’m pretty unsure of how strong Psystar’s position really is, but I think this could be a fascinating and fairly ground-breaking test case, assuming that Psystar has the financial backing to go the distance on this case.  This could end up having a substantial impact on the strength of EULAs and the degree to which they can restrict how a customer uses a piece of software after purchase. 

Although they appear to be citing a number of different issues in their defense/counter-claim, the two main items that Psystar’s case appears to hinge on are the fact that Apple sells boxed-copies of OS X in stores separate from the hardware and whether or not the EULA’s restrictions that the software only be installed on Apple hardware are really legitimate.  

While I’m uncertain of what the legal finding will be, my own view is that Psystar’s argument represents the way that the situation should work.  Basically, if a customer goes into a store and purchases a piece of software, I believe that he/she should be free to install and use it as the purchaser sees fit.

That isn’t to say that I don’t think Apple should be required to make it readily available or easy for customers to run the software on non-Apple hardware.  I’m perfectly fine with them putting technological barriers in place that are designed to prevent unintended use.  I just don’t think that there should be any legal restrictions that will prevent the legal purchaser of the product from bypassing those restrictions, assuming he/she can find a way to do so.  Along the same lines, I also don’t think there should be any legal restrictions against someone publishing, or even selling, that solution or offering to perform that service for the customer.

My view is that this is how it should work in a free-market system.  I essentially see this as a matter that is between Apple and their customers and I believe that the legal system should essentially stay out of their way.

Slow-down should be fixed

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Over the weekend, I migrated my sites to a new hosting company.  On the advice of a couple friends, I went with Dreamhost, which offers a good mix of features for a pretty reasonable price.  In fact, this service generally seems more feature rich and an overall better value than iPowerWeb was, even when it worked well.

I went with Dreamhost despite the fact that they had suffered a pretty serious billing problem that got a fair amount of attention back in January.  While researching them, I found that it did cause a fair amount of consternation and that they made a few mistakes in dealing with it (most notably, trying to be too lighthearted in their initial apology), but they did pretty quickly make good on the problem and never attempted to deny or excuse it away.  My overall view on this kind of thing is that any company can make mistakes and what I really care about is whether they are resolved quickly and satisfactorily.

That pretty much sums up my frustration with iPowerWeb.  Even as I sent in the request for them to formally transfer my domain to Dreamhost, they included a note in their response promising that fixing the MySQL issue was a top priority and that they expected to have it resolved soon.  They still didn’t really define "soon", although this morning’s email claimed that they have already added the additional space to the server.

Even if the problem is fixed tomorrow, I’m still glad to have changed over as I no longer trust iPowerWeb.  The only information that I have received from them was through direct responses to my inquiries and I’ve had to often ask multiple times.  Since this was a known issue, why weren’t they keeping all affected customers informed?  Also, this problem has lingered way too long.  Since this blog is just a hobby, I let the problem go for a few weeks before taking action.  If I were running a business or otherwise making much revenue from this site, I certainly would have jumped ship weeks ago.

Hopefully, Dreamhost will now truly earn my trust and I won’t end up regretting the change.  For now, I’m just glad that my site finally loads in a reasonable amount of time again.

Thoughts on the MacBook Air

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

I’m going to take a short break from my ongoing reports on my new Vye S37 to write a bit about the mobile computing device that is getting the most attention right now.  I’m referring to Apple’s MacBook Air ultra-portable, which was announced with quite a bit of fanfare during Steve Jobs’ annual keynote speech at the MacWorld Expo.

I’m certainly not a big Apple fan and the MacBook Air definitely wouldn’t fit my own personal needs (its footprint is way too big, for one thing), but I do think it looks like a reasonably decent device that should be a good fit for some users.  It has received a fair amount of criticism from some quarters, but I think most of its shortcomings are just examples of the types of compromise that has to take place when portability is a primary focus for the device.  Every such design has to require a fair amount of give and take.  Some potential customers will not be able to get by with the compromises that Apple chose to make, but those same concerns will be less important to others.

The key issue with the MacBook Air is really one that is inherent to Apple’s computers in general: the Mac OS remains a closed platform inextricably tied to a single manufacturer’s hardware.  Competition is one of the main things that makes the compromises on mobile PCs tolerable.   As noted in my recent post outlining the factors that led to my decision to purchase my Vye S37, there were all kinds of factors that led to my rejection of other decent systems in favor of the one that most closely matched what I wanted.  This was made possible by my preference for using an OS that woks on hardware from a wide variety of companies.

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Inevitable iPhone Post

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

It is tempting to leave this site as possibly the only technology-oriented site on the web not to post anything about the Apple iPhone, but I just can’t quite resist the temptation to throw in my 2-cents worth. As tomorrow’s official release approaches and the press coverage grows more breathlessly excited, I can’t help but feel that this is one of the strangest and most puzzling major product releases I’ve ever seen.

Apple fans understandably bristle at the suggestion that their devotion seems to be directed to the brand more than the irproducts’ capabilities and value. As I see reports of people lining up for hours or even days on end to be the first to get their hands on an iPhone, though, it is hard to escape this perception of an almost cult-like devotion. If Nokia, Motorola, Palm, or pretty much any other company released a phone with this feature set and pricing, I truly doubt much attention would be paid to it, other than to note the clear disparity between the price and feature set. Since the iPhone is Apple, though, we have the mainstream press essentially going nuts over the product and members of the general public lining up for it as if they were buying tickets to a major one-night-only concert. It really makes very little sense.

From the early reviews, the iPhone looks like a pretty decent first-generation product. The user-interface looks inventive and the feature set sounds decent, although not spectacular. I strongly suspect that the iPhone would easily be one of the very best $100 phones on the market and would at least be competitive in the $200-$250 range. That overall range would put it in the company of other consumer-focused, media-centric phones, particularly those designed for slower, pre-3G data networks. The iPhone isn’t coming out in that price range, though. It is going to cost $500 for the lower-end model and $600 for the version with more storage. In addition, the phone is going to be locked to only work on AT&T’s cellular network and customers are going to be required to commit to a 2-year contract, starting at a minimum of $60/months. Requirements like this are pretty standard for heavily-discounted phones with their cost partly subsidized by the carrier, but that seems highly unlikely to be the case at the prices being charged.

Apple’s attempts to justify the high price have been laughable, and it is disheartening to see some fans echoing them. One frequently repeated official explanation has been that the price makes sense because it is roughly the same amount you would pay to purchase both an iPod and a smartphone. The big problem is that pretty much every Palm, Windows Mobile, and Symbian smartphone released over the last few years already has media playback capabilities that rival any iPod and even many low-end cell phones (in the less than $100 price range) today have music-playback.. For audio, my Palm OS Treo can play MP3, WMA (including “Plays-for-sure” DRM tracks), AAC (unprotected), OGG-Vorbis, WAV, and Audible. The only thing the iPhone will really add (besides Apple’s user-interface design) is DRM-encoded files from iTunes, but that’s at the cost of losing support for WMA and OGG-Vorbis (and possibly Audible as well). Video capability is also widely available in many current devices, although I do give the iPhone a slight potential advantage for having a screen that is above average in size and resolution. Other phones on faster 3G networks will certainly be better suited for streaming audio and video than the iPhone is likely to be.

Another excuse given for the price has been to point out that iPods were also much higher priced when they came out than they are today. The iPhone launch really isn’t comparable to the iPod launch. While neither is the first device of its kind, the iPod was entering a very immature market and was not priced substantially higher than similar devices available at the time. It certainly wasn’t priced $200 or more higher than many devices with substantially more features, as is the case with the iPhone.

Much of the coverage for the iPhone is depicting it as being completely revolutionary. Even my initial impressions from the same day coverage of Steve Jobs’ presentation introducing the phone were that most features really should only seem revolutionary to those that do not have much familiarity with current smartphones and, especially, UMPCs. This may actually be the real story here. The iPhone appears so revolutionary to many people simply because Apple is much better at getting the word out about their product than the current players in the mobile technology space. Apple has long been very successful at cultivating attention from the mainstream press and at using their loyal fanbase to spread the word.

In the long run, skillful marketing and promotion may be the one true revolution that the iPhone is going to bring to the industry. Eventually, the major shortcomings of the iPhone are going to fade into the past as prices come down and later generations add missing features and refine those that fall short. The whole industry is going to have to become better at telling the world about what their products are capable of if they truly hope to compete. Hopefully that will happen and Apple will eventually be pushed to bring the pricing and feature set of their product into a more realistic territory.

Site Changes

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

I have recently made some changes to this site, primarily centered around a switch from Blogger to Wordpress as my publishing tool. Switching to Wordpress gives me a lot more control and flexibility. Unlike Blogger, the publishing tool itself is hosted on my own web space (rather than just the content), thus allowing much more customization as well as access to a large library of plug-ins.

One big advantage is that Wordpress supports the open-standard blogging protocol called Movable Type, which expands my options when selecting blogging tools. I never had much luck getting an effective work process in place with Blogger to allow me to do work on posts via my Treo smartphone. I found tools that would let me write and publish a post entirely from the Treo, but I tend to spend a long time crafting my posts and really need the ability to keep posts in “draft” status and work on them from any of my devices.

There is an open-source Palm OS blogging tool called Plogit that fits my needs rather well. While it was compatible with Blogger at one time, I could not get it to work, probably due to changes made to Blogger by Google since the last Plogit update. With Wordpress, it works fine. Adding the ability to work on posts-in-progress from my Treo in addition to my UMPC and desktop systems will hopefully lead to more frequent updates, although I admit this technology improvement still won’t do much to overcome procrastination…

The other significant change has been to the name of the site. It is now called “Bigbeaks UMPC and Mobile Technology”, indicating an expansion of scope. I still anticipate keeping much of the content compatible with the site’s origin as a UMPC site (thus the retention of “UMPC” in the name), but I decided that I want to add the ability to discuss other mobile technologies without straying too far from the charter. I particularly want to avoid the temptation to stretch the definition of a UMPC beyond reason, such as lumping smartphones, PDAs, or internet appliances under that term.

I started this site fairly soon after Microsoft announced their “Origami” concept for a UMPC and I had purchased one of the first units shipped. Now that the initial wave of excitement has passed, my focus is now more on incorporating the UMPC into my arsenal of computing tools. I was a long time Palm OS user before I got my UMPC and a bit of a shift in my viewpoint came a few months back when I realized that some tasks, particularly quick mobile access to email, calendar, and contacts, were still better suited to a Palm than a UMPC. I ended up buying a Treo 700p. It and my eo v7110 make a pretty potent combination.

I don’t really expect the types of posts that I write to change that dramatically with the new title and slight shift of focus, as I generally expect my current (and any future) UMPC to generally be the centerpiece of my mobile computing experience. Having had a little time to reflect and develop my approach to mobile technology in the nearly a year since I have been a UMPC owner, I simply recognize that writing about my mobile experience is necessarily going to extend beyond UMPCs.