Cool Random Tech Stuff

Random ramblings of a tech enthusiast

Category Archives: Opinion

Consumer Electronics’ Purpose

I love technology! But who doesn’t these days? Are you on Facebook and Twitter? Have your smartphone linked to your email and constantly texting friends instead of calling someone? Me too.

Technology can be great but you must not lose site of its purpose. That’s why I’m taking some time to write down my thoughts and hope that it helps someone decide on technology they may want to purchase.

I believe consumer electronics have three basic functions: 1) Communicate, 2) Consume entertainment, and 3) Produce content for school/work/organizations/etc.

Number one is a basic human necessity. Everyone communicates in some fashion, and technology helps communication. It could be between friends or groups of friends. It could be a major advertising firm trying to communicate a message to consumers. It could be someone posting their thoughts about technology on a blogging site. Here are a few technologies I would say are primarily for communication: Email, SMS/MMS, IRC, AIM, Facebook, Twitter, Phone Calls, Skype, Flickr.

Number two is the times you sit back and observe. Watching some TV or a movie. Listening to music or learning a foreign language. Consuming entertainment and other content can be a primary function of some electronics. Examples are: DVD’s, Cable Boxes, TV, MP3’s, iPod, Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, YouTube, family videos and slide shows.

Other electronics will focus on producing content instead of communication or consuming it. Everything that is in the communicating and consuming categories can be produced on a device. There are also other tools to produce content like Office products and movie editing. Plenty of content needs to be created electronically, or at least edited. Examples are: Budget/Expense reports, typed letters, movies, mixing songs, writing resumes, your coffee maker that has coffee ready at a certain time. (The last one isn’t a digital content production, but I thought it was worth mentioning).

Most devices or software are going to be used for more than one of the primary uses, but I think it is a pretty good way to think of basic functions. Everyone gets carried away with the excitement of new stuff, but try to remember the basics of the device or software you are purchasing or using. If you do that, you will probably feel better about the purchase in the long run.

Google to Buy WebOS to Combat Android Fragmentation

Okay, that is a completely false statement in the headline. It most likely got your attention though, otherwise you’re just too smart for me.

Imagine, though, a WebOS interface in Android. This would certainly be more appealing than the current stock Android interface. Not only is WebOS a completely different platform, it would also require lots of programming to make the changes needed. Google already snagged the WebOS designer, Matias Duarte, last year when HP was acquiring Palm. He has started to work on improving the interface of Android, which is seen in Honeycomb’s slightly more appealing look.

The fact is Android still has a lot to improve upon with looks. Every update seems to “drastically” improve the performance of the OS (Dalvik VM) but what about appearance? Remember how Windows started losing market share to Mac because the Mac system became so much easier to use with a more appealing look? I do, because it’s evident in Windows 7 now and how Microsoft finally made Windows more appealing.

Right now it is the major smartphone OS (going forward) that sucks on the UI front. Tons of people love their iPhone’s looks, Windows Phone 7 looks pretty awesome and just different, and WebOS was very well received by tech journalists but just failed to catch on in the consumer market. BlackBerry is pretty questionable on the UI front as well, but I do not see them as a primarily consumer device. They have always been about corporations, let alone their market share shrinking as time goes on.

The only question I have is when is Google going to drastically improve appearances of Android. Will we see some improvements in Ice Cream Sandwich with a year of WebOS’s designer working at Google? Time will tell. Hopefully people will give them more time than 49 days that killed of the HP TouchPad.

Thoughts of Mobile Roaming

Verizon announced that its phones will not be able to roam on AT&T’s LTE network. This is a sad moment for me.

The ultimate dream in mobile phones is that you can take your (unsubsidized) phone to any carrier you wish. This would theoretically force carriers to compete more on price and quality of service instead of relying on contract lock-in. Most of Europe is like this with GSM.

The limitations in the US has been frequency differences compounded on top of network architecture and software differences. There is no difference with new LTE either. With the ITC allowing 12 frequencies for LTE this means international roaming may be long gone.

Carriers would like nothing better than to force you to buy a completely new handset in order to switch providers because your personal business case then weakens and you are more likely to stay on the network.

Even with LTE technology looking like the unified 4G technology of the future, each carrier licenses different buckets of spectrum. Thus the only way to get a phone that might possibly be able to roam will be if chip manufacturers include the various frequencies into one chip.

We’ll have to wait and see for the technology to mature but I don’t see a big push to allow us consumers to roam or switch carriers with ease.

What Apple Does Exceptionally Well At

I’ve been a critic of Apple’s policies and practices at times but I want to take some time and write about what I think Apple does well, because there are a lot of those things. Chief among them are getting people excited about technology through marketing and the ease of use compared to other computing devices.

Please feel free to add your comments about anything I may have missed in this post.

System Integration

If you want to buy products from a single company that will integrate with one another, choose Apple. Apple makes products that just work, at least work with other Apple devices. Want to stream content from your iPhone to your Apple TV? Done, easy! Music management to your iDevice? Done, easy to use without confusing file browsers.

iTunes can sync to your iPod or iPhone and back it up. This can be done over the cloud after iOS 5 is released. AirPlay is a service Apple created that works to stream content to other Apple products and does a better job at it than DLNA does. These technologies are in no ways an easy thing to pull off with such good integration and I think that has to be part of the reason they only release them for their own products. They control the experience and make the tight integration possible.

Industry influence not seen before

Apple as a company has incredible influence over other industry players. This includes the music industry, the wireless carriers, and hardware manufacturers.

Music Industry

Apple presented the music industry a way to capitalize on the digital music craze of the early 2000’s. The music industry welcomed this change from the common practice of illegal file sharing which began with Napster. The music industry was losing a lot of money because people stopped buying their $20 CDs, so when Apple came in and started selling digital copies of music singles the industry did not have a lot of choice. This also gave the common people a lower cost alternative to acquiring music than those expensive CDs, and an avenue away from the RIAA lawsuits for illegal file sharing.

The music industry may not be completely happy that Apple has such a large market share in digital music, but the connections to that industry provide Apple advantages in other ventures. The fact that Apple secured the cloud music licensing when Google and Amazon could not shows that advantage. Google and Amazon are very large companies with plenty of money to through around, but Apple is the one to secure the deals first. Google and Amazon have cloud music storage based on uploading instead of scanning music and storing a single copy for multiple users. This will provide a major advantage in reducing server space and network usage on the server side of these technologies.

Wireless Carriers

The American wireless carriers are notorious for controlling the devices that work on their network. Prior to the iPhone, carriers would add their software offerings on devices such as Verizon’s VCast as well as have handset manufacturers adjust designs to the carrier’s likings. When Apple was looking for a carrier to put the iPhone on, they wanted complete control of their handset. There was no AT&T logo, there was no added bloat-ware on the phone, and it was originally sold only through Apple stores. This shift of control was reported to be the reason Verizon declined having the iPhone originally.

I applaud Apple for their success here. It’s still a place where Google Anroid gives up control to manufacturers and carriers. If you have bought an Android phone with all those fun apps that you cannot remove, such as CityID, purchased an Android phone with Bing as the search engine, or seen the carrier logo on the handset then you know what I mean.

If Apple were to release an unlocked iPhone 5 that supports CDMA for Verizon and Sprint as well as GSM for AT&T and T-Mobile in one device, it will be a monumental achievement for wireless handsets. Purchasing an unlocked phone off contract will provide you a phone you can take with you to any carrier without being locked into a contract or having to buy a new phone when you do switch. This has been a dream of many for years. Even with the current system, an off-contract phone will not allow you to easily transfer to another carrier because of communications limitations. It is something that most of the rest of the world is a bit more familiar with.

Product Usability

Apple has stated that it wants to hide the technical and confusing details of computing from the user. This is great for usability to common users. I studied designing computers in college and some of the stuff is still confusing to me. This is where Apple is hands down better than other developers of operating systems.

Conventional PCs running Windows have increased functionality and utility over a Mac device, but at the cost of complicated menus and command lines to access the options. Mac OSX is much easier to use. Uninstalling a program is simple and does not involve removing files after uninstall. Apple’s iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) are simplified as well. Compared to Windows Mobile (prior to Windows Phone 7) and Android phones, Apple far outpaces them on ease of use by simplifying options and even hiding the file systems from the user. This is not good for power users, but I think there are millions of iOS users that are okay with not seeing the file system.

The animations and overall design of Mac OSX and iOS made Microsoft and Google aware of the need to simplify designs for users and make them more eye-pleasing. Windows Vista and subsequently Windows 7 were vast improvements to how Windows looked and felt. These were probably improvements focused on because of the increased popularity in Mac products. Google is also heading improvements to its Android OS to compete with other mobile operating systems. Android is still a power user’s interface and not simple to navigate, and thus Google hired an ex-Palm user experience expert, Matias Duarte.

Marketing

There is nothing else like it. Honestly, Apple has one of the best marketing strategies in the entire world. If you study marketing in college, you will probably study something about Apple. The choice in words they use is remarkable as well as the fact that everyone presenting at their grand product releases stick to the company line and use terminology to extract emotion from everyone watching.

Commercials are designed to make viewers happy and excited. They use light colors for the feeling of “good” as well as the music selection being upbeat. They are usually simple, with iPhone and iPad commercials showing someone’s fingers touching and navigating the screens. Simple, clear, and concise. If you are in a bar with loud music and see an Apple commercial, you can still get the point that navigating on your iPhone you can get the latest app out. It is also no coincidence that the very successful Mac vs PC television spots showed two characters in a white background with the Mac being hip and the PC being old with glasses. They also used humor very well to reach audiences.

Apple has tremendous brand recognition in the market. I previously mentioned something about an iDevice in this post. There is no coincidence that Apple names most of their products using the “i” before it: iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, and iCloud. These “i” originally meant that the devices were Internet devices, but now they mostly serve as brand recognition.

The closest naming scheme I have seen in the mobile industry is the Verizon branding of Droid. They have branded high-end devices as Droid so as to allow people an easy way to categorize their phones. Apple has a much better brand recognition because the user experience across the different iDevices is more consistent than on Droid phones. A Droid Incredible 2, a Droid 2, and a Droid Charge have completely different user interfaces let alone from factors.

Final Thoughts

For as much as I disagree with some of Apple’s policies, I do realize that their products are top notch in usability and the company can be innovative in both consumer electronics and software as well as marketing and business deals. I am a big fan of their push in separating mobile handsets from carriers as it provides a cleaner user experience to me. I do not think Apple will be going anywhere with these strengths.

Thoughts On Openness

Recently I have read more about what open means in the technology world. In the last week, HTC has said they will no longer lock down the bootloader. This probably means nothing to a vast majority of users, but to power users and those who tweak their experience it can mean a lot.

There are theories in this world that seem to be a perfect system on paper but the real world application proves to not be perfect. Government systems such as communism and democracy can both be ideal solutions on paper but might not work in real life. The reason things like this happen is mainly because no one can think of every variance or fork in the road possible.

This applies to the tech industry and openness of products. The idea of an open product or software is that everyone can contribute and not be controlled by a closed door corporation. Also, loopholes and flaws in the code can be analyzed by anyone, which gives a power in numbers approach to fixing problems.

In reality things don’t work that perfectly. Corporations like to lock software down for many reasons: user experience, security, revenue protection, and various other reasons.

A company selling a handset typically provides a level of customer support for problems, thus locking down unauthorized changes reduces that monetary cost of support.

Carrier revenues are also protected by locking down the software. Certain features of phones are billed based on system settings that are locked down so that you are properly paying for usage. With unlocking software it may be possible to circumvent said lock downs. Also, carriers and phone manufacturers make deals to pre-load software on phones. Yes, someone is making a lot of money to have Bing as the default search engine instead of Google on an Android phone. A lot of times these software additions are locked down so you can’t uninstall them without voiding a warranty.

Finally, the thought of more security through locking down a system or having open source to fix a problem.
Open source does provide a way for the good people to fix problems, but it provides the source to the criminals too. No software is perfect, thus it is a race to see who will find the flaw first. The other school of thought is to not release source code. This does not mean a system is more secure. Microsoft Windows has a closed source approach but has security flaws, as does Apple Mac OSX.

With the argument over mobile platforms being open and closed, there is no clear answer on what is better. Engineers and business leaders make decisions on what they think is best for their purposes and so should consumers. Apple locking down the iPhone and Appstore while pushing for an open HTML5 standard, and Google claiming to be open while working with carriers to lock down the software; keep in mind that there are not black and white sides to “open.”

Any solution, tech or otherwise, is not perfect but the solution used must be a compromise for all involved. Corporations are in business to make money and consumers want some freedom in their products that they spend the money on.

Competition Brings Innovation: Bing Bar

My first impressions of the new Bing Bar (v7) for Internet Explorer are positive. I know that it is 2011 but there are just some things that browsers don’t do well at or that not everyone needs. One way to address these shortcomings have been toolbars that usually slow down the browser. This Bing Bar seems faster than other toolbars and is fairly minimal with IE9.

Some things available for the Bing Bar are Facebook integration of news feed, messages, and notifications. It also has integration with Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and Gmail with multiple accounts for each type available. Check the weather at a glance from the toolbar. I think it’s worth a shot, especially for those not already using an alternative browser such as Firefox, Chrome, or Opera.

Try now for IE7+ http://www.discoverbing.com/toolbar/

Now to my thoughts on why this is a good move for everyone. Competition gets companies to get away from a comfortable environment and change the way they think. Microsoft was, and in most ways still is, the leader in browser usage. They stopped advancing their browser and focused on other core features to Windows. As other browsers such as Firefox and then Chrome started taking market share, it forced Microsoft to analyze what was missing from their browser (mostly, it was extremely slow). Internet Explorer 9 is close to release and improves speed substantially.

This Bing Bar is another product of competition where Microsoft wants to gain some market in search while offering a compelling reason for computer users to switch to Bing. It provides functionality in a different format than other browsers provide. Chrome does has notifications for Gmail messages, but it done through Gmail settings. Microsoft taking a step to include other companies’ mail services indicates to me that they realize that they aren’t the choice of everything for everyone, but maybe they can be the key to integrating everything.
A note on the Bing stealing results from Google: the Bing Bar is probably the cause for this but is something you agree to when you say “make my experience better.” If it bothers you then make sure to uncheck that option. This goes for everything including Google.

What 4G Means to You (Besides more money)

You may be wondering what 4G wireless means. All four of the major U.S. wireless carriers are marketing a 4G service. 4G simply means “fourth generation,” which is the next generation after 3G.

As the Best Buy Buy Back Program Super Bowl ad with Justin Bieber and Ozzy Osbourne points out, these terms can be very confusing with technology moving quickly. Hopefully after reading this article you will have a better understanding as to what they mean. (This article is intended to be a general overview; links to more in-depth reading are at the end of the article)

Summary

All 4G services will be an improvement on 3G services of the past. You will need a new phone or tablet to use these services. These devices will need to be approved to work on your 4G network of choice. Be careful of service pricing as most carriers add on fees for the advanced 4G networks.

My personal rankings of 4G services based on average speeds, combined with the roadmap of 4G services.
1. Verizon (LTE)
2. T-Mobile (HSPA+)
3. Sprint (WiMax)
4. AT&T (HSPA+) [I recommend waiting for LTE on AT&T]

The most important factor when choosing a 4G service is the coverage in your area. It won’t matter how good the network is if you don’t have the coverage in your home or work.

Theoretical Definition

There is an agency of the United Nations called The International Telecommunications Union that helps define certain technologies. They have come out and said that no wireless network operates a 4G network today. Part of the standard set out in the past was that 4G networks would have speeds of 100 Mbps. In comparison, most cable internet providers have somewhere between 5-20 Mbps to your home. That being said, carriers such as T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon all have services that they brand as 4G. Here’s why.

Most of the 4G services offered by carriers today are going to be much faster than the 3G services of the past. A 4G service by the old definition of the ITU is trivial and only affects the engineering back-end of things.

Carrier Implementation

Sprint has offered a 4G service for some time now. It is actually ClearWire’s WiMax service. It provides fast data, where available. Sprint’s 4G service has average download speeds of 3-6 Mbps where their 3G service has average speeds of 600 Kbps-1.4Mbps. That means their 4G is about 5 times the speed of their 3G service. Sprint does post a theoretical maximum speed of 10 Mbps, but this is not expected for extended periods. Sprint will likely be moving to LTE in the long-term scope of things, but not in the near future.

T-Mobile is currently branding their HSPA+ service as 4G. HSPA is a 3G service and HSPA+ is based on that technology with improvements on speed. This service should be incredibly fast, where available. T-Mobile’s 4G service will be slightly faster than Sprint’s offering. They post a theoretical maximum speed of 21 Mbps, which is more than Sprint’s service. T-Mobile has not announced an upgrade path to LTE, but these speeds will likely suffice for a while.

AT&T now also brands their HSPA+ service as 4G. It previously marketed it as a 3G service, but were forced to market it as 4G when T-Mobile started to. AT&T says that their HSPA+ networks are seeing a maximum of 6 Mbps. This is only the maximum and not the average speeds. These speeds are notably slower than T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network. AT&T has not spent the same investments in upgrading to HSPA+ as T-Mobile because they are going to be rolling out LTE networks beginning in June of this year (2011).

Verizon is the last of the four major networks with a 4G service. They are also the closest to a true 4G service that we have. Verizon’s 4G network uses LTE, which simply stands for Long Term Evolution; creative, huh? Verizon says that LTE will get about 5-12 Mbps average when on a loaded system. Current testers are experiencing numbers in the 20 Mbps, with a maximum peak of 50 Mbps. These speeds are pretty good.

Closing Thoughts

If I were to be buying a 4G device this year, I would choose one that runs on LTE. The protocol is designed to handle network traffic better; yes, this means all that smartphone data. It also provides the best signal with distance from a cell tower. It is also the standard that most international entities are going with.

More Reading

Why I think the Apple iPhone first became popular (and why Android OS has taken over market share)

This article is intended to be a commentary of my personal opinions on the market success of smart phones. My opinion and knowledge comes from following industry news over the last couple of years as well as talking with every day people. I realize I leave out a worldwide favorite Nokia, but I am not familiar with their phones.

Summary

In this opinion piece I talk about Apple’s consistent user experience and a break from carrier tie-ins as the reason for its success. I also talk about user choice and US iPhone exclusivity as a reason why Android OS was able to grow in market share. A healthy level of competition is needed to keep these phone makers innovative, which will typically benefit the consumer.

Full Opinion


The iPhone came out and had one of the biggest changes in hardware seen on a phone. Before it, you had your BlackBerry and Windows Mobile of the world in the smart phone market. The BlackBerry market was, and in most part still is, around because of enterprise needs. It is the best phone for data encryption and remote wipe as well as corporate email. As soon as an email is received at a company it is on the BlackBerry device. BlackBerry also had BBM, which is still very popular amongst BlackBerry users. Windows Mobile was a simple smart phone OS that primarily used keyboard and a stylus to interact with it. You could also open up office documents on your phone on the go and get email sent to the phone. [The successor to Windows Mobile was the re-branded Windows Phone 7, which was completely re-designed and engineered.]

The theme that I see with smart phones prior to the iPhone was business functionality. When the iPhone came along, it brought with it a different way to interact with phones: the touchscreen. A touchscreen was not a brand new idea but Apple left out the need for a stylus and left out the physical keyboard. This new approach to the user interaction was part of the appeal of the original iPhone.

The iPhone also brought with it a new idea of removing all carrier-branding. Previously, carriers would brand the hardware that you bought as well as loading software that they got paid to preload on your phones. They would also impose hardware requirements and rules for phones, i.e. no Wi-Fi on a non- smart phone. When the iPhone came around, Apple wanted complete control of its platform, which included no carrier branding or bloat-ware on the iPhone. That means you didn’t have to see AT&T’s logo on your brand new phone and no Need for Speed demo game preloaded on the phone.

The reason Apple’s iPhone then expanded and took off as a mass-market phone was because of the App Store, which wasn’t launched until a year after the original iPhone. The iTunes stronghold also helped the phone in sales, as well as the simplicity of syncing your phone to iTunes. The iPhone took off as a casual gaming device when companies developed the easy to use gaming applications only for iPhone. It provided a consistent experience across all of their iPhone devices, as the different generations are basically similar with slight improvements from year-to-year.

The success of the iPhone made carriers realize that they cannot strictly control the high-end handsets anymore and still be a leader in the industry. This was particularly a wakeup for Verizon. They had the opportunity to have the exclusive iPhone contract but turned it down because Apple demanded such freedom from the carrier. After they saw the success of the iPhone on AT&T, they opened up to pushing Google’s Android OS. Initially, they spent over $100 million on the Droid Does ad campaign that targeted the weaknesses of the iPhone OS. This ad campaign combined with the AT&T exclusivity agreement for the iPhone helped Android OS take off on other carriers.

Android then took off because it provided a good user experience with the touchscreen interface. Handset makers also have the option to differentiate between models by changing the hardware. Some models have physical keyboards while others only have touchscreen. You can get different screen sizes on your device. The front-facing camera came out on the HTC EVO 4G before it was available on the iPhone 4, and someone else doesn’t need another Apple product to video chat with.

Some critics call this fragmentation, but it is similar to the PC market. There is freedom of choice from hardware makers to implement the software in unique ways. It provides the ability of the end user to decide what is right for them, where as Apple creates an entirely closed ecosystem where they control the user experience to the fullest; well, besides the mass complaints of AT&T service in highly populated areas that Apple can’t control.

Android has its own problems, too. The music experience can vary on different devices and there is no easy iTunes-like syncing software from Google. Some features are hidden in the operating system and can be tricky to find. They can definitely improve the user experience in Android. This is something they are trying to address with Honeycomb where they hired former Palm VP Matias Duarte. I will admit that the Honeycomb tablet demos looked very promising.

These are different philosophies from the two most popular smart phone OS makers in the United States. Apple has a closed system that has one of the best and consistent experiences across its platforms while Google has a more open system where handset makers provide choice to consumers. There are some other possible contenders in the long run of the game (Palm/HP and Windows Phone) but they have yet to prove that US consumers are interested.

In the end, I think competition is natural and good to have. I don’t know when Apple would have implemented multi-tasking in iPhone OS (now called iOS) if it weren’t for the constant barrage of Droid commercials touting that specific feature. There is plenty of room for improvements in both iOS and Android OS, which will hopefully benefit the consumer in the end.