The Battle for Tablets is not over

Somehow people have associated the death of WebOS as the final victory of Apple in the Tablet War. I believe that the war has hardly begun. It wasn’t so long ago when Android phones were greatly lagging Apple’s iPhone and today it accounts between 40% to 60% of the smartphone market share depending on whose data you use. I’m by no means suggesting that Android will repeat the same success; just merely that history shows us that it is too early to tell.

I suspect what we’ll see is that Apple will continue to be a big part of the entire market but other manufacturers will erode a pretty big chunk of that share; Apple sits at 80% of higher of the share of tablets today. This will be driven largely because people want choice and have different needs. Apple has one way of solving people’s needs; other manufacturers will find solutions for other needs. I am hoping that the patent issues will be resolved without the sacrifice to innovation. Otherwise countries like the US will be the poorer for it.

Google, Motorola and other madness this week

This has been a pretty mad week in technology starting with Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility for $12B followed by HP announced the folding of their PC business including their newly launched tablets featuring WebOS. There have been some articles about the Motorola purchase which I really enjoyed and some that I thought seem a bit short-sighted for various reasons. So here are some scattered thoughts about the events this week.

It’s all about defense
It’s really hard to imagine why Google would buy Motorola outside of its patents. While I wouldn’t second guess what Google’s patent defence would be or if I think it’s better or worse after the purchase, Google does believe that it’s worth $12B. Android is important to Google – not because of it’s $11M revenue through the Android Marketplace but it’s really important for their ad business. It’s the main reason why they got into it and then continues to give it away for free. The Android, Chrome and ChromeOS strategy all have the same goal which is really about further reach and control over how a user interacts with Google. It’s not difficult to recognize that the browser is quickly replacing the desktop when users aren’t mobile and users are consuming information on their mobile devices more and more each day. Outside of Microsoft’s accusation that Google intended to purchase Nortel’s patents to attack others, I haven’t been able to find an instance where Google attacked anyone based on patents outside of protecting others.

Strength in numbers
Android’s strength is in its ecosystem which is made of the OS, the manufacturers that use them, the software and the developers that develop the software. Android is important to Google and I would imagine even more important than Motorola. It is in Google’s best interest to keep the ecosystem they have in tact. If Google intends to get into the handset manufacturing business as an additional business, HTC would have been a much better buy. Google does not have the in-house expertise to turn around Motorola as a handset business. While I agree that Google may use the opportunity of owning Motorola to build phones in the way that they envision the phone, it by no means equate to other OEMs from creating other phones that are equally or are even more successful. That Nexus program to date proves that. The Nexus series are phones that are built very closely by OEM manufacturers to date starting with the Nexus One followed by the Nexus S but rarely are these phones the overwhelming favourites in terms of number of handsets purchased. In fact, the Nexus One was a complete flop. It is also the Nexus One experience that should indicate to both the market and OEM manufacturers that Google buying Motorola is unlikely a threat to their business. Building a business is much more than building a successful technical product – it’s also about marketing and partnerships. Google does not know how to do either well in the handset business and unfortunately (as I snakily remarked in my Google+ post) neither does Motorola.

Changing the game but not really
The OEM reaction of Google’s purchase of MMI is reminiscent of a two-year old child welcoming a newborn sibling into the family for the first time. The OEMs are tentative and cautious; they’re waiting to see what Google will do with MMI. On one hand, they’re a bit optimistic because the 25K odd patents could land an extra hand in protecting their Android investments. On the other hand, they’re also worried that Google might play favourites with Motorola by giving them special privileges. For Google to really protect Android, it will need the OEM support. Without OEM support, the number of Android handsets sold will plummet and likely resulting in the loss of developer interest and hence equating the demise of Android altogether. Motorola is nowhere near the top in terms of total number of Android handsets sold. It is in Google’s best interest to treat all their OEMs well if they intend to protect the Android platform. I think HTC recognizes this.

There’s plenty of room for everyone
For OEMs to compete with Apple, the only realistic choice is Android. No one is going to out-Apple Apple however the good news as the market has shown, not everyone wants an Apple. There are other factors that people look at when purchasing a phone including price point and form factor. While no one Android phone is dominant in market today, many companies, especially HTC and Samsung, have been able to make successful Android products that compete one another and make each of their parent companies money. Google is very interested in the number of devices activated; it is a metric they actively track. It is quite easy to imply that their own revenue is based on these activities and not so much from the revenue generated by manufacturers or from the marketplace.

I don’t get patents
I have to admit this – I don’t get the patent wars that we’re in. It’s obvious that it isn’t working and that it’s hurting innovation in the US especially at a time where innovation is one of the longer term answers to US economic success in the future. Some of the patent disputes are silly. I remember seeing this article and thinking to myself that yes, all tablets look like iPads but the author seem to also have missed that most devices look similar to each other long before the iPad. The Lenovo PC tablets look very similar to the Dell Latitude tablets that look very similar to the Asus tablets. It’s the nature of the beast. I’d hate to imagine if someone in home building patented open-concept homes or that cars have 4 wheels in the 1920s. Imagine how much further we’d be as a civilization.

WebOS is a failure of HP, not a failure of WebOS
Launching (or in this case re-launching) any new platform is hard. Even when Google first launched Android, it took many a year before it became the success that it is today. WebOS is a decent enough OS. While I read that HP spent a lot of money in terms of marketing it, I don’t think I’ve come across any ads for it. I suspect that HP marketed it like it was 1999 with tactics such as in store marketing, etc. The market has changed but HP hasn’t. I sincerely hope that someone else (even HTC) picks up WebOS. It deserves a much better fate than it got.

HTC Flyer: Two months later

I thought I’d start this blog entry by jumping to a bit of a conclusion – I’ve given up on the HTC Flyer and am now using an Acer Iconia A500. Although I’m not using the HTC Flyer, I have to say that it is probably one of the best devices that I’ve used to date. A big part of why I really like the HTC Flyer is because of the form factor. WIth those things being said, let’s jump into the review of my fabulous HTC Flyer

Just a quick recap about the HTC Flyer – it’s a 7″ tablet from HTC and is pre-loaded with Android 2.3 or commonly known as Gingerbread. The hardware specs aren’t spectacular – it’s a single core 1.5 GHz processor, front-facing and rear-facing cameras, wi-fi only and weighing 420 grams. It is only one of a handful of 7″ Android tablets out there; the other notable ones are the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Dell Streak. From a software perspective, there are a few software that it comes with – HTC Sense, Kids Mode, Reader, Notes Watch and Car Panel that are worth calling out.

The most unique feature of the HTC Flyer is the built-in N-Trig layer which combines a digitizer along with the standard capacitive screen allowing for very fine-grained writing with a stylus. Although the device comes with a weird connector, a standard micro-usb can be used to adequately charge the HTC Flyer. While this may not seem like much, in comparison to the other tablets, this is a really useful and desired hardware feature on any device. Although it doesn’t have a dual-core processor, the device works really well. There aren’t any moments when I feel like the HTC Flyer is under performing. There are a few really nice touches such as the buttons automatically lighting up depending on how you orient your screen.

There are a few things that irk me a little. One of them being that with a larger screen surface, I’m finding that the screen is smudging much more and that for some reason, the wi-fi tends to drop after a few days regardless of which wireless router I connect to. Also, like most HTC devices I’ve used to date, the camera leaves lots to be desired. However, one thing to note – it is not always the most convenient thing to take photos with a 7″ tablet.

While I’ve always felt that the HTC Sense software has always been mediocre at best for phones, I found myself liking it a lot for the HTC Flyer. I found it for some reason more usable than either ADW Launcher or Go Ex Launcher which I love on the HTC Desire Z. At the time I was using the HTC Flyer, the unlock screen was pretty unique – you could drag a ring towards one of 4 app icons to launch it directly from the lock screen. The one thing that HTC Sense has always been known for is their gorgeous widgets and the HTC Sense for the Flyer really is no different.

Notes is a bit unique – it’s an HTC-written app that integrates directly to Evernote. What is unique about this app is that it supports handwritten notes which is otherwise not supported by the standard Android Evernote app. It does some things really well including doing offline synchronization with Evernote but it also does some things really poorly such as it lacks the ability to display shared notebooks and the way it organizes notebooks isn’t exactly intuitive. Overall though, the application works well. One feature that would really differentiate it would be the ability to sync with other note taking apps like Spring Pad. Reader is like Notes from the perspective that it is written by HTC and synchronizes with a third-party service. In this case, the third party service is Kobo. Just like Notes, it would make itself a killer service if it could synchronize with other services like Amazon as well.

Car Panel is really a GPS app that is provided by Route 66. I have to say that I am a bit mixed about my experience with it. The features are surprisingly limiting especially given the maturity of GPS software today. It provides the most basic of features such as being able to search for a destination and routing to it. Some features that I would have loved to use would have included multi-destination and being able to edit my favourite destinations. Car Panel does well to integrate to the HTC Flyer but would have been nice to see it integrate with the Android ecosystem a bit better.

The very best thing about the HTC Flyer really is the form factor. I found myself loving that it was small enough to be portable but large enough to expand on how I use a mobile computing device. I would describe how I use the Flyer is that it is truly a mobile computing device for me. It is intentionally not a phone; I never feel compelled to lift it to my face to make a call. I would, however, happily and productively communicate with others through IM, email and DM. I would never feel compelled to take photos on it but it is quite a pleasure to view photos, movies and music on it. It is definitely a pleasure to write and read blogs on it. The most typical use case for me is to listen to music while reading or writing on it in transit. I also find it convenient to carry it in my back pocket of my jeans around the house although oddly enough I wouldn’t do the same with my phone. Another thing to consider about the form factor is that apps written for a 4″ device tends to scale really well to a 7″ form factor.

Overall, the HTC Flyer is my favourite tablet to date because of the form factor. I do like my Asus EEE EP-121 but it is limited to OneNote usage largely because Windows is still not yet a touchscreen friendly operating system. The HTC Flyer is the first Android device that I haven’t felt the need to root as it works really well out of the box. Also, HTC has promised to upgrade the Flyer to Honeycomb in the very “near” future.

I’ll post pictures of the HTC Flyer in a few days