Developers Glimpse Windows 8

At a recent developers’ conference, Microsoft handed out 5,000 sleek Samsung tablet computers running a test version of Windows 8. The early sneak peak at Microsoft’s next OS caused a stir among developers and analysts. Windows 8 incorporates the “Metro” user interface with a start screen that displays live application tiles like Windows Phone 7. Apps can run in full screen mode, and can be downloaded from Microsoft’s App Store. Windows 8 features a redesigned Windows Explorer which includes a ribbon style interface. It has a significantly smaller footprint than previous versions, and includes a version that can be installed on a USB Flash drive, so users can boot their own Windows environment from any computer.

Like Apple OS X and Google’s Android operating system, Windows 8 seeks to unify operating systems across PCs, tablets, and smart phones for a common user experience across all three. Some analysts wonder if Windows 8 doesn’t cater too strongly to tablets, sacrificing PC usability. However, the sneak peak of Windows 8 provided last week has found favor with the vast majority of users who have explored Microsoft’s new vision. Microsoft hopes that when Windows 8 launches sometime next Summer it will improve Microsoft’s street cred. Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer stated that he is “rethinking, rebuilding, and reimagining Microsoft.”

More adventurous listeners can try Windows 8 themselves, provided they have a compliant computer, by following the instructions in the show notes.

CES 2011

CES made all the tech headlines this week. Here are some of the highlights:

The Buzz on Google Buzz

This past week Google unveiled its own social network: Google Buzz. This isn’t Google’s first attempt at being social, Google Orkut, Open Social, and Latitude, are previously released applications designed to support online social engagement, but none have garnered much attention. Google Buzz, on the other hand, has made quite a splash in its first week, and is looking like a contender for social network giant Facebook.

Google Buzz works hand in hand with Gmail. Like Twitter tweets, and Facebook status updates, users post comments and share information, links, photos, and videos throughout the day. Posts can be directed at a specific person, groups of people, or the general public. Like Facebook, Google Buzz provides a user profile page to tell the world all about who you are and what you like. Like Twitter, Buzz users have followers and follow other users. Posts from those that you follow stream into your Buzz window. Posts that are directed specifically at you, and responses to your own posts are delivered to your gmail account so that you are aware of their arrival. Buzz also includes posts that it thinks you may be interested in from users that you are not following. Over time, Buzz gets to know your interests and provides more relevant information.

Buzz is also accessible from smart phones, where it can use GPS information to let your friends know your current location. As with anything posted to buzz, you control who can access it.

Google Buzz has been fairly successful in its first few days of operation with millions of people trying it out, posting more than 9 million comments, and hundreds of posts per minute from mobile devices. However, many people were quick to point out some serious privacy issues with Buzz. Fortunately, Google was quick to react to those concerns and implement improvements. Buzz no longer forces all gmail users to use it – now there’s the ability to turn off Buzz. Buzz no longer automatically assigns friends to follow based on your gmail buddy list, but instead it makes suggestions. Buzz no longer automatically shares your public Picassa photos and Google Reader articles with your friends. Buzz no longer provides all of your friend’s email addresses to the general public.

With these corrections, and Google’s apparent willingness to address its user’s concerns, Google Buzz has some promise. There are still a few issues that may hold it back. First, Buzz is integrated with Gmail, so people that don’t care for Gmail, probably won’t want to use Buzz. Secondly, while Buzz can connect with Twitter feeds, it cannot connect with Facebook, so users will have to decide to use either Facebook or Buzz, it’s doubtful that anyone would want to use both. And finally, Buzz still requires users to take extra steps to keep their data private. By default, everything you share on Buzz become public, with the exception of GPS location data. The “opt out” approach is one that shows little respect for user’s privacy, and a lot of interest in advertising dollars.

Introducing the iPad

After months of speculation and anticipation, Apple’s latest creation is finally unveiled. Last Wednesday, with a packed amphitheater of journalists poised on the edges of their seats, Steve Jobs and colleagues showed off Apple’s new tablet PC, the iPad. Since then bloggers and journalists have been filling pages with there impressions of the iPad ranging from ecstatic to skeptical. Here’s a short overview of the iPad and the world’s reaction to its arrival.

The iPad is a 9.5 by 7.5 inch, half-inch-thin tablet PC, with an aluminum case, and a 10-inch LED multi-touch display. It has a custom-designed 1 GHz processor for high performance and a long 10 hour battery life.

Not unlike a giant, thin and sleek iPhone, the iPad has the same button and port configuration as an iPhone, and runs all of the iPhone apps at a larger, higher resolution. It also runs software specifically designed for it including Apple’s iWork word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications. The iPhone OS and interface that runs on the iPad has been updated to take advantage of the large display.

The iPad has most of the features of an iPhone 3GS including an accelerometer, Assisted GPS, Bluetooth, portrait or landscape viewing modes, and a software keyboard. Users can purchase a regular external keyboard which connects to the iPad dock. The iPad can then act like a notebook, utilizing the touchscreen in place of a mouse. There is also an optional case that doubles as a stand for convenient movie viewing, and laptop computing.

The iPad connects to the Internet over Wi-fi networks or over AT&T’s 3G cellular network. Unlike the iPhone, there is no subscription plan required. Two prepay options are available. One provides 250 MB for $14.99/month. The other is unlimited data for $29.99/month. Users are free to use the iPad exclusively over Wi-fi to eliminate monthly fees altogether.

Wi-fi-only models of the iPad range in price from $499 to $699 depending on the size of the hard drive, while iPads that support both wi-fi and 3G start at $629 and run up to $829. Wi-fi only models will be available at the end of March with Wi-fi+3G models arriving a month later.

What distinguishes the iPad from previous Windows-based tablets is the user interface and software. The iPad comes instantly out of sleep displaying the home screen. Swiping across the display reveals pages of applications. Apples implementation of the multi-touch user interface looks very elegant, intuitive, and easy to use. While the iPad runs all iPhone software, it’s large hi-def display will serve some applications better than other. Movies, books, newspapers, magazines, and photos look beautiful on the iPad display even at extreme angles. This makes it easy for two or three people to view simultaneously. Maps and GIS applications are sure to be popular on the iPad. Games will take on a whole new aspect viewed on the iPads large display and controlled via the accelerometer. Apple’s iWork software supports more productive activities while the Web browser and social network applications provide user’s favorite online activities. Without doubt, software developers will be using the iPad’s software development kit to design many applications that take advantage of the iPad’s unique form factor. There should be many more enticing apps available by the time the iPad hits the market.

The reviews of the iPad are mostly favorable, with some well known silicon valley journalists practically gushing over it. However, there are points of dissatisfaction as well. The iPad has no camera, and is unable to function as a phone over AT&T’s network. The iPad does not support multitasking to the level where multiple applications can run in multiple windows. So when switching between applications, the user must always return to the home screen and relaunch the application. The iPad does not support Flash, so some Web content will not be viewable. The iPad is extremely limited on ports. Besides its headphone jack, it has only its one Dock connector for connecting to a PC. Perhaps the largest concern expressed over the iPad is it’s lack of open standards. It appears that all media content on the iPad will be locked down with digital rights management. Movies, television programs, books, magazines, and newspapers will have to be purchased from Apple partners. DRM is the norm for ebook readers like the Kindle, and video services like netflix. However, an iPad-like tablet based on Google’s open Android or Chrome OS platforms, could garner a fan base of users who feel Apple commands too much control over its users.

No matter what level of success the iPad achieves, its impact on the market will be considerable. While the iPad doesn’t have enough power or features to compete with regular notebook computers, it is likely to make life difficult for ebook readers like the Kindle, and netbooks. It’s lower-than-expected price, is already causing other tablet manufacturers to drop their prices in order to better compete when the iPad hits the market. Just as 2008 was the years of the smartphone, and 2009 was the year of the netbook, it is likely that the iPad will make 2010 the year of the tablet.

CES Review

The Consumer Electronics Show has concluded in Las Vegas, launching a number of new technologies and providing insight into important technologies of 2010. The three product categories garnering the most attention were 3D HD television, tablet and slate computers and ebook readers, and smartphones and superphones.

Last year’s CES saw the introduction of the 3-D TV, and this year saw its proliferation. Nearly every television manufacturer at CES was demoing what they claimed was the best 3-D Hi-def TV. 3-D TVs perform like regular hi-def televisions, but have additional 3-D capability. When in 3-D mode, viewers are required to don 3-D glasses to enjoy the immersive viewing experience. Cable TV companies are rushing to deliver 3-D channels and content to watch on this new generation of television. For example, both ESPN and Discovery are in the process of launching 3-D TV networks. Manufacturers are hoping that the introduction of 3-D technology will spur television sales, while analysts are wondering if the public is even interested. The Panasonic TC-PVT25 series 3-D TV won the best in show award in the TV category at CES.

Most everyone knew that ebook readers would be hot at this year’s CES, but I doubt anyone anticipated how hot. Dozens of ebook readers were launched last week at CES, including four from Samsung, two from Interead, six from DMC, 2 from Jinke, and others from Fujitsu, iRiver, Entourage, Spring Designs, Skiff, Plastic Logic, Hanvon, and others. Two ebook readers distinguish themselves from the crowd. Both the Que from Plastic Logic and the Skiff Reader from Skiff are marketed as ebook readers for business professionals. They feature large touch sensitive e-ink displays for viewing newspapers, periodicals, and business documents in both Microsoft Office and Adobe PDF formats. The Que will also connect to Microsoft Exchange servers for viewing email and calendars.

Slate PCs have emerged as the headline grabber in the personal computer category. While these devices were being referred to as Tablet PCs just a few weeks ago, the Apple rumors about a new iSlate device has everyone referring to their tablet as a slate – including Steve Balmer, who introduced Windows 7 running on a Dell “slate” computer. The slate design is much like an ebook reader, such as Amazon’s Kindle, but utilizes an LCD display rather than e-ink, and includes PC and Internet functionality. Lenovo took the Best in Show award in the Computer category for its IdeaPad U1 Hybrid. The U1 looks like a sleek Windows 7 notebook, until you remove the display, which functions as a slate computer running Linux.

Last year, Palm earned most of the attention at CES with the unveiling of the Palm Pre. This year, Palm once again wooed the audience with new versions of the Palm Pre and Pixie, a partnership with EA Games to develop mobile games for its devices, and a new software development kit for the Palm Web OS that should generate a lot more applications for its devices. Palm handsets are available to Verizon and Sprint subscribers, and AT&T announced that it will soon carry two handsets running Palm’s Web OS. AT&T also announced the adoption of five new smart phones based on Google’s Android operating system, including one from Dell. Many are seeing this as an indication that the iPhone may soon be expanding beyond AT&T’s network. Just Prior to CES, Google unveiled its own handset named the Nexus One. The Nexus one is a high-end Google Android phone, with the distinction of being sold and supported directly by Google at www.google.com/phone. The Nexus One is currently designed only for the Verizon network. Google refers to the Nexus One as a superphone, rather than a smartphone, due to its powerful processor and applications. Analysts and vendors are picking up on “superphone” and using the term to describe other powerful handsets on the market.

Other technologies getting attention at this year’s CES include:

  1. An in-dash touchsceen computer system from Ford named Mytouch
  2. Touch enabled computers and netbooks like the new HP Mini 5102
  3. Smartbooks, smaller than netbooks but larger than smartphones; these tiny Internet-connected notebooks typically run a Linux operating system on an ARM processor
  4. The first devices utilizing the new USB v3.0 – now external drives can be as fast as internal drives!
  5. And Samsung’s notebook with a transparent see-through 14 inch OLED display

While many new and exciting devices were unveiled last week at CES, tech companies and enthusiasts are waiting expectantly to see what Apple will unveil at its January 27 press gathering.

Tech Trade Show Take-Aways

The Palm Pre
The Palm Pre

There is no shortage of tech news this week thanks to two big Tech Industry shows that drew thousands of tech analysts and enthusiasts to San Francisco and Las Vegas: MacWorld and the Consumer Electronics Show or CES.

It was at Macworld that Steve jobs made headlines with his introduction of the iPhone two years ago, and again with the unveiling of the Macbook Air last year. This year Steve canceled due to health problems, and his replacement Phil Schiller had no major news to announce, according to most journalists. The news that was announced, included new versions of ilife and iwork, a new 17″ Macbook Pro that utilizes Apples new unibody construction technique that includes a long-lived battery, and at long last, the retirement of DRM from iTunes music altogether, and a variable pricing scheme.

MacWorld was overshadowed by new innovations unveiled at CES in Las Vegas. As expected there were all kinds of new television technologies demonstrated including super-thin OLED televisions, and 3-D televisions. There were many, many new netbooks at the show. The one that created the most buzz was the Sony Vaio P, a very stylish netbook that fits in a purse of large jacket pocket. It includes a large keyboard and a display with a wide-screen aspect ratio perfect for movies and media. Thin and sleek was also in style at this show, stealing perhaps from the Macbook Air. Dell’s Adamo and MSI’s X-Slim fall into this category. LG gets the prize for novelty, with its new wrist watch phone that includes a media player, and text messaging capabilities.

Microsoft’s Steve Balmer used his time as Keynote speaker to sing the praises of the soon-to-come Windows 7. The Beta was released to developers this last Friday, and will soon be available to a million users to try out as well. The company that got the most notoriety from CES this year was Palm. Yes, Palm, the company that many analysts had written off, unveiled an impressive new smart phone and new operating system. The Palm Pre includes a multitouch display like the iPhone, plus a slide out QWERTY keyboard (see photo above), the Palm WebOS that runs on it includes all of the iPhone features and then some. Reviewers are very impressed and excited about this handset which will soon be available on Sprint’s network. For photos and reviews of the Palm Pre and many of the other technologies unveiled at CES, check out my news notebook.

Some take-aways from the tech shows:

  • While Apple didn’t blow everyone away this year, it’s past successes are carrying it through the lull. The iPhone and Air are still best in class.
  • Apple could benefit from adding a small low-priced netbook to its line. The new netboooks, especially the Sony Vaio P are tempting enough to make it almost worth tolerating Windows. I wonder how Linux would run on it? Hmmm.
  • Apple needs to get into the cloud, and now! Google, Microsoft, Adobe and others are investing billions in our cloud-based future and Apple seems to be looking the other way. If Mobile Me is Apple’s cloud, I’m worried for the future of the company.
  • Netbooks  are hot, hot, hot, but I predict that this trend will be short short, short. People can’t seriously enjoy typing on tiny keyboards and viewing half pages hunkered over tiny displays. As soon as regular notebooks come further down in price, the netbook craze is bound to end – except as a novelty or a casual accessry.
  • While CES saw some new Windows Home Server  computers, I don’t think the public is ready. It’ll be another year at least before these gain an audience.