Size Matters – Some thoughts on mobile form factor

I’ve recently acquired my 7th mobile device in the last 12 months or so. I started out with a Nexus One, Points gave me a BlackBerry Bold 9000, picked up the HTC Desire Z, explored the ExoPC but didn’t like it. So I bought an Asus EEE Pad (EP 121) which I LOVE. Upgraded the BlackBerry Bold to a newer version and then recently picked up the HTC Flyer. The only other device I’d look to get this year is something with NFC. Truthfully, I hope to be done with mobile purchases this year. There were some lessons I learned over that time and the conclusion is that size matters when it comes to devices. OS matters as well bit to a lesser degree than size.

4 inches (aka the phone)
This is probably one of the more familiar form factors. It started with PDAs which evolved into smartphones. It is small enough to fit into a pocket and travels everywhere with me. It’s extremely versatile because of its size and the amount of computing power you can fit into that package these days.

At 4″, the screen is big enough to read things if you have at least a 6pt font and stripped away graphics to remove the clutter. However, given its small screen, reading a lot of text can be tedious at times. It doesn’t do well for managing information because in order to truly manage information, you often need other pieces of supporting data to do the job adequately. However, it is great for quick updates such as checking off tasks and creating reminder type notes.

Because of its constant availability, it’s usually where a lot of personal data is created and is likely the data master for this type of data. Some examples of this kind of data include information like credit card info, passwords, appointments and contact info. This is one device that you want extreme security with.

7 inches (aka the Playbook)
While there are many other 7″ device, I deem the Playbook to be the most prolific because they started this idea although the Samsung Galaxy Tab launched first. I remember hearing about the 7″ form factor and didn’t find myself interested in it until playing with the Samsung Galaxy Tab last year. It was naturally more phone then tablet and was surprisingly usable. It’s small enough to fit into the back of most of my jeans pockets bit has a large enough screen to read a lot of information efficiently. This makes the device quite portable but not portable to bring it every where with me like a phone. For instance, I can bring it with me to a meeting but not likely to bring it with me if I were stepping out with the guys for coffee, for instance.

Creating information on this form factor is a pleasure. I can opt to hold it with both hands and type or hold it in one hand and peck away at it. Two thumb typing (not to be confused by two hand typing) is actually quite great and ends up being the primary way I enter data. I like that I’m fast and have enough real estate on my screen to read and keep context of my data. This is also the average size for an e-book reader making it the natural device to do most of my reading from.

I like it because it’s versatile due to its size. I find myself using this device frequently whenever I think I’m going to consume information. This is the primary device I use when I’m not working or walking. So my main uses are at home, in transit to work or even travelling.

10 inches (aka the iPad)
I remember the fanfare that followed the launch of the iPad. It was yet another revolution for Apple. Yes, tablets have been around for almost 5 year’s at this point. Apple revolutionized the use of the device more than anything else.

The 10″ form factor is an awesome media consumption device. The screen is large enough where it’s often like reading a magazine. Watching movies on such a size is also quite the treat because it is large enough to see the important details. At 10″, most web pages will render legibly although just a little bit more dense than normal making it a very natural web driven device. One of the things that was recognized early is that an app created for a 4″ device doesn’t scale that well to a 10″ device. However, apps created for a 12″ device actually renders decently for a 10″ device.

Content creation for a 10″ device can be cumbersome that is similar to the 4″ device for portable information creation. It’s too long (and quickly becomes too heavy) for two thumbed content writing. It is actually quite comfortable to two-hand type on the device in portrait mode if you can place it down. However, in portrait mode, you quickly lose the real estate space for context which is personally quite important when considering content creation. You could attach a mouse and keyboard to the device but at that point, it is less functional than a desktop or laptop because of the small screen limitation. Although no hardware supports a digitizer today, I suspect using it as a pen input device would actually be a decent experience. The surface is large enough where you can write an adequate amount of information per screen on it.

This is an awesome form factor for travel and personal use. I like it for when I’m sitting around and want to peruse the internet but don’t really want to do a lot of work on it. Newer uses for it are as a cash register or sales tool which makes sense in a number of scenarios.

12 inches (aka the Asus EEE pad)
There are actually only a handful of devices in this form factor and none of them are particularly cheap. This is perhaps the original tablet form factor. The only OS so far available for it really is Microsoft Windows. You could put Ubuntu on it but even at Natty, Ubuntu is not ready for multi-touch use.

Like the 10″ device, it is an awesome media consumption device. If 10″ is nice, media on a 12″ is so much nicer. All web sites render like it should for this form factor. One thing to note though, a 12″ device as you’d expect would be the heaviest of all these form factors. So reading it would entail cradling the device on one arm and swiping screens with the other.

Content creation on a 12″ has many of the same challenges as the 10″ device. No one even thinks about two-thumb content creation on a 12″ device and you have the same challenges although it is slightly better with two-handed typing on a 12″ device. Writing on a 12″ device’s a joy. It is quite possible to hook up a mouse and keyboard to generate content on a 12″ device for an extended period of time.

The reality is that the 12″ device is often a full-blown notebook/laptop without a keyboard. So it has all of the hardware advantages and limitations of one. They often have powerful processors, gobs of RAM, lots of connectors and unfortunately also chew through battery. The power consumption is even more of an issue when the form factor limits the size of a battery that you can put on the device.

Hopefully if you’re looking for a new device or writing software for one, this helps with thinking about how form should factor into that decision making process

Asus EEE Pad EP 121 – Two month review

I’ve always been a fan of Asus and always felt that Windows 7 would make a great tablet for me. I first experimented with the ExoPC but quickly felt that it was quite under powered making it’s use to be cumbersome. I used it for a few weeks but quickly realized that it wasn’t meeting my needs. When Best Buy in Canada announced that it had devices in stock, I quickly ordered it and picked up the device the very same day.

Asus EP-121 with all accessoriesPower Supply

Here are my general thoughts for it:

Handwriting
The Asus EP 121 has a built-in Wacom digitizer on it allowing for very fine grained writing. The handwriting recognition is quite mature on Windows. It does a number of things really well. Windows has a handwriting bar where you can write and it does OCR to translate it to something legible quickly and fairly accurately which is nice. It is more usable then the soft keyboard that comes with Windows 7 which is an absolute disaster in comparison to other OSs like iOS and Android

Windows 7
Having Windows 7 is both a strength and a weakness. It’s great because it is a rich OS. Apps like OneNote and Outlook which I love are available for this device. A number of apps like Kindle and IE support multi-touch really well. Where it fails miserably is that multi-touch is not supported by the OS but rather it’s a bit of an afterthought. Most apps get confused with the multi-touch input. Other things that is a detriment is that Windows isn’t a fast boot up device and it tends to burn through power really quickly. I can probably only get through a couple of hours before runnint out of batteries.

12 inches
The size is actually massive for a tablet in general but it’s a perfect notepad size. I like having all of the real estate on the screen to write efficiently. A 10″ feels cramp to write on in general.

No compromises on performance
It’s an i5 processor that is quad-core with 4 GB of memory and a 64 GB hard drive. It can run most productivity apps that I can throw at it without any lag most of the time. It’s a full blown notebook with USB ports, Bluetooth, WiFi and HDMI capability. When needed, I can dock the tablet to attach a wireless keyboard and mouse and it acts like a real notebook

Wacom digitizer
Unlike many tablets, this is one of the few that has both a digitizer as well as multi-touch capability which means it supports touch as well as pen input. It does both really well from a capability perspective however, it’s multi-touch is limited by the Windows OS in terms actual usability. Hopefully Microsoft will solve this in Windows 8. Another thing about Wacom tablets is that I’m able to buy third party pens from Cross.

Asus
This is my 5th Asus device and Asus has had yet to let me down. I love the build quality of it and traditionally Asus has a worry-free warranty for a year. Short of losing it, they will fix anything for free. Another thing about Asus is that they make very nice looking devices and their build quality in general is simply fantastic.

Upgrading and Accessorising
The Asus EEE Pad EP 121 comes with a case, pen, spare nibs for the pen and power supply. The case makes it look like a proper portfolio and it comes with a slot for an extra pen. The case also allows you to prop the tablet in either landscape or potrait mode. The power supply is extremely slim and has a port for USB charging. I love the little things that Asus does to make their devices stand out. There are a few things that I would probably like to do over time. The first is of course to upgrade the hard drive. After the warranty is over, I’d like to open up the casing to put in at least 120 GB of hard disk space. A stand would be nice too. I have one from the ExoPC and it’s great to use when I get home. I also have a Logitech MX550 keyboard and mouse attached when I’m at home.

Tips and tricks
This really is more about RTFM then about tips and tricks. If you’re like me, reading manuals are always quite optional. The Asus EP-121 is actually quite intuitive but there were two things that I found useful to know. The first is that when in boot up mode, the volume rocker buttons act as up and down navigation which is intuitive enough but I didn’t realize that the base button also acts as the enter key. This is useful when recovering from a bad reboot. The base button activates the Aero program scrolling which is very useful especially in Windows 7 where touch navigation is a bit cumbersome. Another really useful feature is that holding down the base button also acts like Ctrl-Alt-Delete which really helps to lock your screen

I’ve had the Asus EEE Slate for a few months now and I have to say that I love it. It has made my job so much more productive and I can’t imagine functioning any other way. I had always envisioned in going to meetings with an electronic notebook. I love my Asus EP 121 for this because it runs Windows and by default runs OneNote. OneNote is by far the best note taking tool I’ve ever used. Evernote comes a close second. I like that I can handwrite my notes quickly. I also like that I can organize my thoughts in Notebooks, Section Groups and Sections. It’s allowing me to combine multiple notebooks in one. Although it is pricier than most other tablets, the conclusion is that it is quite worth it. At approximately $1200, it combines a full blown notebook (and not a netbook) and tablet in one.

HTC Flyer – First Impressions

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I didn’t think the wi-fi version of the HTC Flyer would be available today but good friend, @karatedan, mentioned that it was so I went out to pick it up while I was in the New York state on a short vacation. Here’s a picture of it sprawled all over the floor of my hotel room after I got it this evening. I managed to spend around 30 minutes with it and thought I’d write about my first impress

Some quick specifications of the HTC Flyer

  • Android 2.3 OS(Gingerbread)
  • 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor
  • 7-inch capacitive multi-touch sensitive TFT screen with 1024 X 600 resolution
  • 1 GB of RAM , 16 GB of internal storage and Micro SD memory card support
  • 5 megapixel camera with auto focus on back side and front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera
  • 4000 mAh Lithium – ion battery
  • Bluetooth 3.0 with A2DP for wireless stereo headsets
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
  • Internal GPS antenna with navigation system
  • GPS Sensors, Ambient light sensor, G-Sensor Digital compass, Accelerometer
  • HTC Sense Pen API

My initial impressions about the HTC Flyer is a positive one unlike how I felt about the ExoPC. 7 inches is a really nice form factor for a tablet. Large enough that reading on it is a pleasure but small enough to carry around with you. Android is a much better tablet OS than Windows because multitouch is supported by the entire OS and not only by certain applications. The HTC Reader app is quite nice and is linked to Kobo and Adobe. I suspect it’s actually the native Kobo Android application. Other than that, I haven’t had the opportunity to play with anything else on the device. I will write a more detailed blog in a month or two after getting a chance to use it some more.

NFC – It’s about the e-wallet

I’ve been really excited about the NFC technology since it’s been announced an have been reading quite a few articles about it. Over time, it has made me re-evaluate why I’m as interested in the idea as I am. After the soul searching, I came to the conclusion that for me, NFC is a means to an end. It’s really the e-wallet idea that really intigues me.

I don’t know when the idea first intrigued me. Perhaps it was being in HK and watching others use the “Octopus” card but it wasn’t until Dexit came to Toronto that it became more of a reality. Dexit failed but Mastercard introduced PayPass and provided a broader infrastructure and it is still being actively used. To me, the idea really sunk in when I was part of the beta group for a Zoompass initiative. The idea of being able to wave my phone at a device to pay was great. Almost everyone who saw me do it enquired about it. Most were disappointed when they couldn’t be part of the program that enabled them to use paying by their mobile device.

There have been a few concerns about the concept that are interesting that I’d take the opportunity to discuss:

Low Volume of Adoption
For the most part, the segment of people that would benefit most from this technology are people with smartphones. Although there have been discussions about embedding the NFC chip into the SIM card to enable older generation phones to have this capability, I suspect that anyone who would be really interested or will benefit from the technology would likely own a smartphone to begin with.
It’s hard to dispute that the volume will be low initially. Smartphone usage still represents the minority of users in the world. While this number is growing, it is still not there. However, the one thing that should be compelling for payment providers is the segment that they represent – affluent because these devices aren’t cheap. It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable

One of the major concerns have been that it is not convenient to pay with a phone as most people already are comfortable with paying with a credit card. This is probably true if you look at the population as a whole. However if you focus your market segment to people who own smartphones, the argument can be contested. A smartphone to most people is more than a device to receive phone calls. For most smartphone users, the phone is either out in hand or readily available. It is at worst as convenient as trying to access your wallet.

Another argument I’ve read is that it is cumbersome to look for a payment app on your smartphone which is a bit of an absurd argument. Most smartphone users arrange their apps to optimize their usage where the most used apps are also the most accessible. The other thing that the argument doesn’t account for is how modern smartphones work. These apps can be programmed to run on the background and come to the forefront when required.

It’s not secure
One of the more intriguing things about NFC is that it is short range and more importantly, can (and should be) implemented as a two-way communication device. This makes it possible to do a secure handshake to allow for a secure transmission of a financial transaction. I often imagine that you could mimic the workflow of entering your PIN of your payment card on a payment terminal with your smartphone to ensure the security of every transaction.

Consumers don’t care for it or don’t understand it
I would agree that NFC doesn’t mean anything to the general consumer. However, I would argue that smartphone users get the idea of a smart wallet. Back in the day of PDAs, exchanging business cards via infrared was acceptable. Today using Bump to exchange information is not uncommon. There were 10 million instances of the app downloaded in March of 2010. Companies like Paypal have partnered with Bump to facilitate peer-to-peer payment. Starbucks has reported that payments from their mobile app represents 22% of their total payments.

The thing that I like about NFC is that the infrastructure already exist. In Canada, Mastercard PayPass, Shell EasyPay and Esso all use some form of NFC technology. Given that it is based on radio frequency, scanning for an ID would be a lot easier than trying to scan a barcode off a device. NFC could be game changing.

One of the reasons why I think it will be particularly interesting to follow is The Apple Factor. It is public knowledge that I am not a fan of Apple mobile products to date. I don’t find them technologically innovative. The one thing you can’t deny, however, is no one innovates consumer experience like Apple. They have been able to make something nerdy like mobile phones to be cool and socially acceptable. If they release the capability on the iPhone, there’s a good chance for rapid user adoption.

Then there is also the The Google Factor. Google is really interested in NFC but I suspect it’s not for payment reasons. Google had a product called Tag that was associated with their Google Local product line. Tag was basically giving merchants a QR Code for users to scan. I suspect Google will use NFC to beef up it’s Local product to give users a richer and more proactive localized and targeted ad experience. QR Codes was pretty reactives and so are check ins. With NFC, Google could potentially identify where an individual is within a relatively close range outside of GPS coverage and serve up ads within a close proximity of a location.

Another interesting thing about NFC and the eWallet is that it should cause some changes in the industries. Some of the beneficiaries will be:
Mobile payment vendors like Paypal and Zoompass will definitely be the big winners in this space. NFC could represent the ability to bypass credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard and be another legitimate financial vendor. It’d be easy for small companies to use their phones as a credit card device. While technologies like Square already does it but you need an attachment to do receive payments.

Credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard would definitely benefit from NFC. Paypal would likely be able to target segments that larger credit card companies would consider not as lucrative. NFC could influence higher micro transactions and it be an area of increased revenue.

Loyalty programs could definitely be huge winners with products line NFC. Unlike credit cards where consumers are only inclined to carry one, an e-wallet would enable a consumer to carry as many loyalty cards as they deem necessary without bloating their wallet. Loyalty programs should be really interested in an e-wallet not only from the ability for them to better understand their members but also be able to send very targeted promotions to members therefore providing a much better service and incentive to merchants who use their products.

Vlingo 2.60 Update – Hey Vlingo

I’ve been using Vlingo since their beta stages and even paid for it after it first launched. However, it was never one of my favorite apps. I even had uninstalled it for a while as I found it was crashing my phone. While the initial features at first launch were good, they weren’t overwhelmingly great. The feature that was most useful to me at that time was the applications ability to read incoming emails aloud; they call this feature SafeReader. While I don’t remember much, I do remember it being a bit cumbersome to use.

Vlingo has grown up a lot since then. Along with SafeReader, the app now also sports other features such as InCar, Vlingo Control widget and Action Bar while maturing the voice launcher feature all the while. Some of the improvements they made on the launcher include the ability to launch native and third-party apps, provide social media updates to Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook and integration to third-party services that enable searches to hotels and movies as well.

The Vlingo Control widget is similar to the native Power Control widget. It allows you to access all of the Vlingo app features quickly from the home screen. This is quite powerful if you’re using the native Android home screens or HTC Sense where you have limited options as to what you can put on the dock bar. What I use it for the most is to turn off Safe Reader quickly.

The Action Bar is a new feature and it allows you to type the voice commands that you’d otherwise speak to Vlingo. Think of it as a macro launcher. You could either find the SMS application, click the “Menu” button, click the “Compose” button, type “John Smith” in the “To” field followed by “Are you coming to dinner?” or simply type “Text John Smith; Are you coming to dinner?” The idea seems like a good one although I have to admit quite unintuitive. I never think to use it because typing is not a natural way for me to navigate around a smartphone yet.

The feature that I really love is InCar. It allows for your phone to be an integral part of the driving experience and it is based on the inobstrusive but brilliant feature that is called word watch. When you turn on InCar, the app is constantly waiting for the term “Hey Vlingo” for you to give you access to all of Vlingo’s voice command functionality. One nice added feature in 2.60 is the ability to listen using your bluetooth device instead of the phone’s default mic. If your phone has a built-in car dock profile capability, you could replace the default Android Car Dock profile with Vlingo. This worked well with my Nexus One but isn’t as useful with the HTC Desire Z

In terms of performance, I haven’t done a thorough test yet but by unquantified observation, it seems to work just as well as Google Voice with some additional features making it one of my must-install Android applications today.

Windows Phone 7 – Should we care?

Microsoft release Windows Phone 7 (WP7) a couple of weeks ago with a lot of fanfare. I personally haven’t delved that much into it. I had once written that I didn’t think that WP7 will save Microsoft’s mobile strategy but much of what I wrote in that article is no longer true. I’ll start off by saying that I’ve always been a big fan of Windows Mobile. In my opinion, it was a far more flexible platform whose largest drawback was that it wasn’t exactly user friendly and the users punish Microsoft greatly for it by abandoning them when Apple came up with the iPhone. There are so many “innovations” that were released recently that have long been on Windows Mobile phones. Front facing camera was available on the HTC Tytn II in 2007. Skype for Windows Mobile has been available for Windows Mobile 2003 and because there were no constraints given by the provider, it’s been working over mobile networks since then. Evernote for Windows Mobile supports drawing while that feature is not supported by any other mobile platform. All in all, the strength of Windows Mobile was also it’s weakness. It is essentially a desktop platform ported over to a mobile platform with minimal changes.

So did Microsoft learn from it’s lesson over the past few years? I’ve never played with any Windows Phone 7 devices yet but from what I’ve read recently, it looks like they’ve had. For the sake of this entry, let’s assume that they have. The question is will it be enough for it to be a differentiator. Only time will really tell. However, I do have a few observations.

The general population is OS agnostic 

Outside of a small percentage of us that qualify as fanboys of sorts, very few people actually are even aware of the relevance that the OS has on a device. Most people are looking for a device that works to solve only a handful of requirements that they have. For some it’s an integrated PIM with a phone, for others it’s the integration of a music player and a phone, and for others it’s having productivity tools. As long as people can do what they need to do without many major changes to the way they do things, the OS for the most part doesn’t matter.To reinforce that idea, the Android platform has recently overtaken the iPhone in terms of popularity among new buyers.

I think what most people care about (if they care at all) is the availability of solutions which are represented in apps. While there are still more apps in the Apple App Store than there are in the Android Marketplace, the reality is that all of the major apps are being released to the Android Marketplace as well. From what I’ve read, development seems to be more straightforward than it’s traditionally been with WIndows Mobile in the past.

Microsoft is familiar with coming from behind

The one thing that Microsoft is familiar with is coming from behind. They came behind in the browser wars and they came behind in the PDA wars. While it’s true that they used their ability to influence some of these outcomes through their dominance of the desktop OS, they still shouldn’t be counted out. 

Learning from past mistakes

The one thing that seems to be true is that they seem to be learning from their mistakes. For one, they have created more hype about Windows Phone 7 which in the past has been relegated to manufacturers to tout it as part of a product release. They’ve made developing apps significantly simpler which should attract a larger development base and lastly, they are attempting to be more involved on how Windows Phone is implemented by the manufacturers (and hopefully providers). 

The end results should be more choice for the consumers. I am curious to see what the uptake of Windows Phone 7 would be like. In all honesty, I’m not sure if I’ll desperately try to switch to Windows Phone 7 anytime soon. For me personally, I’m yet to see how it’ll be better than Android.

Location Based Services and Tracking

I remember coming across a blog entry shared by Louis Gray that kick started a number of thoughts on the topic of check-ins. The point that stood out the most was the idea that check-ins are like coupons and that eventually you’d have to pay people to check in. I strongly believe that the hype around LBS will die down a little but check-ins will still happen. The reality is that check-ins really are the geospatial version of tweets, reviews and wiki articles.

There are lot of pragmatic use cases for LBS services especially in the social setting. A check-in is a lot like the “what did you do on the weekend” question except that you can do it in real time. Often times, it’d be interesting to see where people had lunch and it serves as a recommendation of sorts. One of the bigger dilemmas for LBS will be privacy. I don’t always want everyone to know where I am. For example, when my mum was not well, it would have been nice to be able to check in to the hospital as a means of letting my siblings know that I was with her but given that I’m quite a private person, I would probably have wanted to limit it to just my family and friends.

A number of apps allow you to constantly broadcast where you. Google Latitude and BuddyMob come to mind. I would seriously only limit this kind of access to my life to my family and a handful of really close friends. These type of functions are most useful if you have young children and tracking them can be useful. It’s a bit creepier when it comes to adults. The only person I can see having the need to track me is my mum. To my mum, I’m still a young child and so I can live with it.

Foursquare and Gowalla are the two more renown check-in apps today although I think BrightKite is the grandaddy of check-ins. FourSquare made check-ins cool and acceptable. However, I think what makes it most useful is that you can see trending information in a location and that you can leave tips or comments about a place. Some people have made a business out of the mayorships but its pragmatism ends there. Gowalla, on the other hand, has functions like adding pictures on top of leaving comments. You can also build trips and that makes it quite useful and interesting as well.

Plancast really isn’t a location based service in the traditional sense. What it is though is provide you with the ability to tell people where you’re going to be. Still quite useful as it let’s you advertise for an event and try to gauge interest before you go.

The big thing for me is that LBS is really still in its infancy. There’s still so much room to grow and so much more capability to be built on top of this capability.