If a phone is launched in the forest, does anyone hear it?

This is a bit of a rant (I do that a lot, don’t I?) Partly it is a rant about Microsoft and its Windows Phone 7 launch. It is also partly a rant about our local Bell Mobility retailer, and their complete lack of customer service or sales skills.

I am in the market for a new smart phone. My current phone is a 3 year old HTC touch, which I like, but it beginning to show its age. Over the past few weeks, I have been looking at both the iPhone 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S. I like the iPhone, but am pretty much anti-Apple because I do not really approve of either the undeserved hype around their products, or their obsessively controlling attitude towards developers and users alike. The Galaxy S looks like an interesting option, however.

For the sake of completeness, however, I wanted to wait and have a look at a Windows Phone 7 device. I am tied to Bell, so unfortunately my only choice would be the LG Optimus Quantum. I am not a fan of slide out keyboards, but I thought I would give it a chance.

I have been faithfully watching the Bell Mobility site for news of the launch. That was a waste of time. Even now, on launch day, there is no information, just a form to fill out to “get more information when it is available”. Last night (November 7) I did get an email from Bell saying the device would be available in their stores today.

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So today I go to my local Bell partner retailer (Sounds Fantastic in Moncton). Actually, I tried calling Sounds first to save myself a wasted trip, but three calls over the course of a couple hours all went unanswered. I figured they must be really busy. So, I decided to visit the store on my lunch break. Not busy at all – in fact, no one there. So I was able to very quickly get the attention of a helpful sales parson. After a brief sequence of questions and one-word, grunting responses, I learned the following.

They do not have any Windows Phone 7 devices.

He does not know when/if they are getting any.

No, he does not know if anyone else in the area is getting any.

No, the guy who might know if they are getting any is not in today.

Not very helpful. He could have maybe taken my name, or tried to find out the information I needed. But he was too busy (even with no other customers in the store).

So that is my rant about Sounds Fantastic. I was very disappointed by the service, but not surprised. It sort of matches all my other experiences there (on the mobility side, anyway – they seem to be completely different business).

Now to talk about Microsoft, and the Windows Phone 7 launch in general.

How can a major tech corporation manage to launch a major new product, and yet generate no hype whatsoever. I have commented on this before. It seems to me that Microsoft’s biggest weakness right now (and for most of the last decade) is its marketing department. Microsoft makes some very cool technology. In my opinion, they are at least as innovative as Apple, and probably more so (at least they are innovative across a much broader spectrum of technologies and solutions).

But lets looks at Microsoft’s marketing track record (especially marketing to the consumer market – their marketing to the enterprise seems pretty good).

  • Tablet PC: Microsoft launched the Tablet PC back in 2002. Since about 2005 it has been a viable platform. I have been using productively that entire time. And yet, even up to about a year ago, I would have people see me in airports, on airplanes, and many other places, ask me what they device was I was using, and be surprised that anything like that existed. Microsoft completely and utterly failed to communicate the existence of this technology outside of the hard-core techie community. And even within that community, they failed to communicate the power of the platform, or to entice developers to develop for it.
  • Windows Vista: Where to begin on Windows Vista? To be clear here, Windows Vista was far more of a marketing failure than a technology failure.  Yes, Vista had its problems. The vast majority of them (in my opinion) were due to third party driver and application updates or lack thereof – this is of course a marketing/product management issue as well. Vista’s biggest problem was public opinion, and failed marketing. For how long did Microsoft sit back and watch while a certain competitor raked them over the coals with very popular and effective TV commercials? When Microsoft marketing did respond, what was the best they could do? Seinfeld and Gates in obscure, bizarre skits? Please.
  • Microsoft Surface: Ok, this is not a consumer-oriented device (yet), but it is an example of Microsoft coming up with really cool technology and then actively hiding it from the world. Until a year ago, it was very difficult to get any information about it at all. Buying one was damn near impossible. Even now, people look at it and say “hey, that’s copying the iPad” – not knowing it has been around for 3 years.
  • Windows Phone 7: Major new launch, and no hype or energy at all, outside of hard core Microsoft circles. A few articles here and there. Even mobile service providers carrying the devices have almost nothing on their web sites about the devices, and then it is buried. And then I go to a store to look at one, and there are none.  Not “we had some but they are sold out”, just “we have none”. I realize I live in a backwater of the world, but it is amazing to me to see how little attention Microsoft has generated for this launch.

This to me is indicative of what truly ails Microsoft right now. In the enterprise market, they are very healthy. But in the consumer market, they cannot generate any hype. As everyone in this business (or any business) knows, you can have the best products and technology on the planet, but if you cannot get the word out, get people excited, and manage consumer perceptions of your products, you will fail!

Update: After my experience trying to look at a Windows Phone 7 device at Sounds Fantastic, I decided to reply to the above Bell email, asking why there were none at my local Bell dealer. Yes, I know it would bounce because that message was obviously form an auto-mailer. I did get an automated response, though:

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Good enough. I happily click through the l;ink to voice my concerns – only to see the following page:

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Just not my day for talking to Bell Sad smile

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Bill Buxton: “NUI – What’s in a name?”

Recently (early October) Bill Buxton gave another talk nominally about Natural User Interfaces. For those who don’t know, Bill is Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and has a 30 year involvement in research, design and commentary around human aspects of technology, and digital tools for creative endeavour, including music, film and industrial design (and a lot of other things, but I am not going to copy and paste his whole bio!).

The presentation, given at Microsoft Development Center Copenhagen, covers a lot more than just current ideas around NUIs. It looks back at the history of efforts to develop natural and touch user interfaces going back to the early 70s, as well as looking at what exactly we are trying to accomplish with these UI paradigms, what natural really means in a UI, and what makes good design in general.

While I highly recommend taking the time to watch the entire video, here are a few points I found really interesting:

  • The “Long Nose”: the concept of the “Long Tail” turned around, indicating that technologies (even successful ones) have a very long lifetime before they get on anyone’s radar, and in fact are usually in existence for about 20 years before they become major industries. This interesting implication of this, is that if you are looking for technologies that will be game-changers (can’t believe I used that term – I hate it) 10 years from now, you need to be looking that technologies that have been around for 10 years already.
  • Ask what your idea is worst at: Every idea is best at something and worst at something. It is just as important to be able to identify what your idea is least suited for as what it is best at.
  • You do not succeed in spite of your failures; you succeed because of your failures.
  • There is nothing all that new or revolutionary in the iPhone, iPad, Surface, or any other tablet-like devices. Most of the technology they rely upon has existed for 20-30 years or more).
  • Many people are stunned by how far technology has come (smart phones, touch interfaces, etc.), when really it is surprising how little progress has been made, given where things were in the 70s and 80s.
  • Most of us still carry around paper notebooks of some sort in order to scribble notes, sketch ideas, etc. We were getting to the point of replacing them with Tablet PCs. Unfortunately that is going away now with the current  generation of smartphones and slates, since they have done away with the stylus because marketing people have told us (so it must be true) that we do not want to take notes or make sketches.
  • The next generation of natural user interfaces need to be context aware. Not software context aware, but real context – where am I, what is the environment, what are the constraints.
  • Why the buttons on women’s clothes are all wrong!

Those are just the things I found interesting. The video is about 90 minutes long (60 minutes of presentation, 30 of Q & A), but it is well worth the time it takes to watch.

 http://channel9.msdn.com/posts/TechTalk-NUI-Whats-in-a-Name

HP EliteBook 2740p Review

As you may have noticed if you follow my ramblings, I am a big Tablet PC fan. Recently, my favourite computer died (well, its batteries died). While Motion Computing took get care of me and helped me get some new batteries, this pointed out that I really need to start looking for a replacement.

Enter the HP EliteBook 2740p. This is the newest in HP’s ongoing series of convertible Tablet PCs, and features an updated processor, support for more RAM, and support for both stylus/handwriting input and multi-touch. I recently (about a week ago) received a new 2740p to use as my main work computer, and to evaluate for my employer. So, lets talk about this machine…

Configuration

I got pretty much the base configuration:

  • Intel® Core™ i5-540M Processor (2.53 GHz, 3 MB L3 Cache, 1066 MHz FSB)
  • 4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 SDRAM (2D)
  • 250 GB 5400 rpm 1.8-inch hard drive
  • 12.1-inch diagonal LED-backlit WXGA UWVA with Digitizer & Touch (1280 x 800)
  • Intel Centrino® Advanced-N 6200
  • Bluetooth
  • TPM+FS
  • 2MP Webcam
  • HP 6-Cell 44 Wh Li-Ion Battery
  • Windows® 7 Professional 64

First Impressions

My first impression of the laptop when I unboxed it was that it felt very solid. Not heavy, but with a sturdy feeling to it. The case is aesthetically pleasing, and looks like it should be able to stand up to wear and tear. Placement of ports, switches and buttons seems logical, and nothing seemed overtly "cheap” About the only thing I was not impressed without of the box was the stylus – it is quite small for doing a lot of writing.

One good thing I note is that there is not a lot of heat coming of the machine. I was a little worried about this, as I have used HP’s TouchSmart consumer convertibles in the past, and they run really hot. The 2740p seems to stay nice and cool, however.

Performance seems pretty good, but I have not really done anything heavy on it yet.

Battery Life

I had seen numbers for the battery life of the 2740p in 5 hour range. I have not so far seen anything close to that – I see 3 hours, maybe 3 and a half at a stretch. Not bad, but not 5 hours. Also, the 3-3.5 hours is in power-saver mode, wireless off, etc. in “normal” working mode, I see something around 2-2.5 hours.

I suspect that I will definitely be buying the secondary battery for the 2740p if I want to use it on the road.

Display

I really like the display. It is nice and bright when I want it to be, and also looks good when I turn the brightness down. I like the fact that it is a matte finish, especially for handwriting and for reading documents it is much easier on the eyes than a glossy screen.

Ink Input

Ink input seems pretty good. I use Ink a lot – mostly in OneNote and in MindJet MindManager. Initially, I had trouble in OneNote as the accuracy of the stylus seemed really bad. Once I set the tablet settings properly (left-handed) and calibrated the digitizer, however, the handwriting in OneNote worked well.

Using the stylus to navigate is not without issues, however. Even after setting the tablet for left-handedness as well as calibrating the digitizer, I find there is significant parallax in the positioning of the cursor relative to the stylus tip. This is especially true near the edges of the display. It is better than on the Acer tablet MS gave out at PDC09, but far worse than it is on, say, my Motion Computing LE1600.

I was also disappointed in the coexistence of ink and touch on the 2740p. I still find that when I am  trying to write, the computer is recognizing touch events and confusing the process. There is a way around this – you can configure the machine to not automatically switch from ink to touch and back, but to rely on a double-touch gesture to switch modes. A little clunky, but at least it works.

Multi-touch

Multi-touch is, in a word, disappointing.  As I stated above, it does not coexist very well with stylus input. Once you are in “touch” mode, basic operations seem to work ok (scrolling, gestures for things like “back” or “forward”, etc.), but there seems to be a significant lag in touch response. I have not really had much success with multi-touch interactions at all – for example using a pinch type gesture to zoom in or out in IE or Word. The latency involved makes it not useful.

Quirks

There are a number of quirks (other than the ink/touch coexistence I mentioned above) that I have yet to resolve on the 2740p:

  • I cannot figure out how to make it use the fingerprint scanner for Windows logon. It is using it for BIOS-level authentication, and I can make it work for logons once I am inside Windows, but not for the actual Windows logon.
  • I cannot make the screen rotate automatically when I rotate the computer in tablet mode. It switches when I go from laptop to tablet mode or back. But when in table mode, when I rotate the machine, the display does not rotate.
  • I have had a lot of difficulties with BlueTooth. I have a BlueTooth mouse that pairs quite nicely with all the other computers I use, but the 2740p does not even see it (BlueTooth is working however, as I have successfully used it to connect to my phone).
  • Power cord: ok, this is a bit picky, but it has also been a problem on every tablet I have every used. The power cords are not designed to work well in tablet mode, they stick out way to far, and they put unnecessary stress on the connector. Seriously, is this the best they can design?

Summary

Overall, it is a nice laptop. Performance is good, battery life is good (and there is the option to add more), and the machine seems very solid and well made. I am still disappointed in both the handwriting and multi-touch capabilities, but maybe I will get used to them (though I should not have to get used to them, they should wow me out of the box!)

RIP to my favourite computer

Well, it has finally happened. My favourite computer (the best I have ever used, actually) has finally died. As I have noted before, for many years now my Motion Computing LE1600 slate has been the centre of my computing toolkit. About the only thing I do not use it for is programming – pretty much everything else I do (or did) on my tablet.

Sadly, after 5 years, the batteries have all died. While I will try to get new batteries, I am not hopeful that I can get them at a reasonable cost.

What is really disappointing to me is that there is nothing out there which which to replace it. Motion Computing has discontinued the LE1600/LE1700, and the only similar product is the J3400 which is overkill for my needs. The offerings from Fujitsu and others in the slate space are all several years old, and far over priced for what they now offer.

And then there are the many new and pending products in the slate space – the iPad, as well as offerings from HP and many others. As slick as some of these new devices look, and as attractive as the pricing is on them, it appears that my worst fears have been realized and most of the new generation of slates are dumbed-down consumer devices, with no real support for ink input which is, as I have said before, crucial to my use of the platform.

Ah well – time to search for batteries. 

The Wonder Of Apple’s Tablet – washingtonpost.com

The Wonder Of Apple’s Tablet – washingtonpost.com

Well, well, well….yet another “hype” article for the rumoured (though probably real in some form) Apple Tablet. I must admit, that I am of two minds on the the Apple Tablet (what ever it is will be called). On the one hand, I am very interested in seeing what Apple does with the idea. Will it be a real tablet, or will it just be a big iPhone? Will it run the iPhone OS or a real operating system?

I am mostly concerned simply because it comes from Apple. I personally find Apple to be one of the most troubling companies on the planet. Their closed systems and closed attitude towards the rest of the computing world bother me. Even worse are Apple fans. I dread to see the Apple Tablet merely on the grounds that 6 months later all of Apple fandom will be declaring loudly “how brilliant Steve Jobs is – he invented the Tablet!”.

Back to the article in the Washington Post. The author rightfully asks the question “Why would anyone want a tablet computer?” I personally love them. I have been using them for years (remember this for next Christmas kids – APPLE DID/WILL NOT INVENT THE TABLET PC). I have written several other posts about why I like them, and where I would like them to go in the future. Right now I have two Tablets – one is a slate model which I love. The other is the convertible Tablet given out to attendees at Microsoft PDC . This one has a great multi-touch interface running Windows 7. Its only weakness is pour handwriting support due to interference between touch capabilities and handwriting. In the house we also have two HP Touchsmart convertible tablets. These both support multi-touch and handwriting extremely well, and are well priced at just under $1000 (in Canada).

(Note here that MS already has a multitouch interface that supports gestures, handwriting, and runs a real OS, so is useful beyond just being another gadget.)

Now for the stupidest statement in the Washington Post article (possibly the stupidest tech statement made this year):

“The truth is that most of us don’t understand the allure of a tablet computer because they’ve all sucked up until now.”

Ok, the author just revealed himself to either be a moron, woefully uninformed, or just completely lacking in objectivity (perhaps stemming from the Crunchpad association). There are a number of very good tablets out there (and have been for a number of years). Any of the tablets from Motion Computing are great, though they are not consumer oriented (I have been using an LE1600 personally for 4+ years). The HP tablets have been consistently good. I have also heard great things about Toshiba, Fujitsu, and Dell tablets. The one complaint I have about all of them (except maybe the HP Touchsmart) is that the prices are way too high, but that is improving.

I will say I really want more out of a Tablet, as I said in a previous post. But that does not mean that all of the existing devices suck. Such a broad generalization, is well, just stupid.

Here is another statement from the article:

We’ll be living in a future with Minority Report, Star Trek, and Avatar interactive technology

it is interesting to note that the user interface in Minority Report was actually inspired by another non-Apple device – the Microsoft Surface.

The last quote I will take from this article is

Part of it is that Apple has a sterling record with consumer-oriented products.

Well, seems to me that Apple has failed a few more times than the author mentions. Seems the Mac Book Air didn’t do so well. Going back much further, anyone remember Steve Job’s Newton? Going back even further, Apple could be the dominant desktop OS right now if not for Job’s immeasurable ego back in the 80s (has that changed at all?).

My big concern here is how much of the consumer community reads and believes unsubstantiated drivel like this, and so dismisses anything non-Apple without even looking at it.   

A big part of the blame for this has to go to Microsoft, as well, and their atrocious marketing department. Tablet PCs have been around since 2002, and yet I still get stopped everywhere I travel by folks asking what my tablet is. How is that for getting the word out on one of your coolest technologies? It does not help that the press does not like to write about anything Microsoft because it is not “cool” to support MS.

So please folks, remember this – multi-touch, gesture-based computing is real and available today, and it is not from Apple. In addition, it runs an OS that lets you use everything you have been used to using, and does not lock you in to buying everything you ever want through Apple. And, you can even replace your own battery, unlike most Apple devices 🙂

PS – More hype for the “Apple saves the tablet” community is here. Also there is an older article Why Have Tablets Flopped? Here Are Five Reasons referenced. Of the five reasons quoted, only one is valid – price. Note also that the only pictures they use are of the Newton – the only real failure of the bunch. It is really sad that all of the media writing about tablets seems to have drunk the Apple Koolaid.

What Should a Slate Tablet Look Like Today?

I was sitting in a meeting today, and I got thinking about my computer. I have 4 right now. The one I had with me was my Acer convertible tablet from PDC. I also have a Dell XPS laptop, a Motion Computing LE1600, and from work I have a pretty standard HP laptop.

I use all of these for different things.

Right now I am using the Acer a lot, just because it is new and I am experimenting with multi-touch.

Mostly I use my XPS for gaming (which I don’t do much anymore) and for programming. It has 4 gb of RAM, so I have enough room to run a VM for development environments.

My favourite is still the LE1600, however. For day-to-day none programming work I love the slate form factor. Many people crap on the tablet because of handwriting recognition. Personally, I have always found handwriting recognition Windows XP to be more than satisfactory. In Windows Vista it is even better, and even better in Windows 7. That said, I really do not do a lot of handwriting recognition. Mostly, I use OneNote to take notes and leave them as handwriting. I also use applications to mark-up Word and PDF documents (in ink).

My LE1600 is 4+ years old now, though, and it is starting to show its age. It only has 1 gb of RAM, and a 60 gb HDD. I could upgrade the HDD, but it does not seem worth it.

I would like to replace my slate, but there is nothing out there in a reasonable price range that really strikes my fancy. It does not seem that the slate tablet has progressed much at all in the last few years – and there does not seem to be much interest in slates in the marketplace.

There is a lot of interest right now in eBook readers, and while I think they are cool, I cannot see carry yet another device for nothing but reading.

So I got thinking today “what would the perfect slate tablet look like for me.”

Here is a list of what I came up with:

  • A form factor similar to the Kindle DX (maybe a larger screen, but similar thickness);
  • A real back-lit screen – maybe with the ability to turn off back light to conserve power. Without backlight, should look as good as Kindle;
  • Ink input – and maybe touch;
  • Running a full OS – a light version of Windows or a Linux distribution (I do not want just an eBook reader);
  • Software support: Reader for PDF and Office, etc., eMail, Browser, OneNote-like app, Media support;
  • No extras: no modem, no optical drive, minimal ports, no video out, no web cam;
  • No HDD – maybe an SDD, maybe the OS in ROM or something;
  • No keyboard except maybe by USB or Bluetooth;
  • Maybe assume that most applications I need will be in Browser (cannot believe I said that lol);
  • Price point around $500

So that is my quick and dirty wish list – can anyone add anything more?

Kindle 2 not coming to Canada? Who Cares?

 

Kindle 2 not coming to Canada | Quill & Quire

So, Kindle 2 is coming to 100 countries worldwide, and Canada is not one of them. Certainly not surprising. From the quote in the above post, it would seem that most of the issues preventing Kindle form coming to Canada involve digital publishing rights and negotiations with wireless carriers (isn’t that what held up the iPhone from coming to Canada for a long time?).

For me, it is really a non-issue. I cannot imagine spending that much money (it will probably be $500 in Canada, even with the favourable exchange rate) on yet another single-purpose tool.

I read eBooks on my slate Tablet PC. Google Reader and other tools in full screen mode provide a great reading experience. I can also use tools like PDF Annotator to mark up, red line and highlight  to my heart’s content. I can take pieces of text and print them to OneNote to consolidate research on a subject. Then on top of that, I have an actual PC so I can do all of the PC things I want to do.

Why on earth would I want to downgrade to a Kindle?

UPDATE:

Also reading this article on CNN. I notice the statement:

Apple is working on a tablet computer that is expected to launch in the coming months and which includes all the functionality of an e-reader.

Either the author did not do any homework, or is purposely biased (as most of the tech media is) towards the uber-coolness that is Apple (note extreme sarcasm here). Microsoft has had Tablet PCs for 7 years which also includes all of the functionality of an e-reader (I know, since I have been using it for that purpose for most of those 7 years).

It must be nice to be like Apple and Google, and have the so-called press do much of your marketing for you.