Monthly Archives: June 2011

Skype brings video calls to select Android devices

Skype, still in the midst of being swallowed up by Microsoft, just announced that video chat is finally coming to Android devices, though only to a limited selection of devices so far. The feature is part of a big update for the Android app that includes a UI redesign that adds usability to the app.

The video chat feature will only work initially on Nexus S, HTC desire S, Sony Ericsson Xperia neo and Sony Ericsson Xperia pro. If you have one of those devices, you can two-way video call with other Skype users on other platforms such as iOS, Mac or Windows. That is, at least in theory. I had trouble connecting an iPhone 4 with a Sprint Nexus S for a video call. As on iOS, it works over both cellular and Wi-Fi (when it is working). You can toggle between cameras and camera views, position your preview window and mute the video.

With the app redesign, you get a new menu and the ability to update your status right at the top. By syncing your Skype contacts with your phone, you can make a video call from your phone contacts list. It’s too bad that the Skype service is limited to so few Android devices right now. But video calling will get more useful as support expands to more Android phones.

This is another important step for Skype as it aims to become a ubiquitous communications service. It’s got a solid service on iOS, including a new iPad app, and it’s working its way into the living room. But Android is the fastest-growing smartphone platform, and it represents a big opportunity, especially as people look to make more cross-platform video calls.

Rivals such as Tango, Qik, Oovoo and Fring have already been doing cross-platform video calls, and Fring and Oovoo have started pushing group mobile video chats. Google is also pushing the edge on its new Google+ service, which makes video conferencing easy with its Hangout feature, which could eventually make its way to mobile.

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Apple’s iPad app advantage over Android tablets continues to grow

Apple has just passed the 100,000 mark for apps available that are tailored specifically for the iPad, according to the App Store itself. That’s up from 50,000 at the end of 2010, and 2,000 at the iPad’s launch. By contrast, Google’s Honeycomb Android operating system launched with just 16 optimized apps according to Kevin Tofel, and now has only around 170 according to recent counts, after four months on the market.

To say that this is bad news for Google’s tablet hopes would be an understatement. Apps are increasingly the method of choice for consuming content on mobile devices, and the sale of apps is on pace to become a $38 billion industry by 2015, according to Forrester Research. It’s becoming apparent that app libraries drive tablet sales, not the other way around.

The iPad is winning in this respect by such a wide margin that it’s hard to call it a competition. Even by its own standards, the iPad App Store is doing well. The iPhone App Store took 17 months to reach the 100,000 app milestone. The iPad version achieved it in less time, passing the mark after 15 months. The Android Marketplace was already doing pretty well by the time the iPhone App Store hit 100,000 titles, with 20,000 apps available just a month later in December of 2009.

If the disparity in app libraries is anything to go by, the tablet battle between Android and iOS won’t mirror the one between the two platforms on the smartphone front. As some have suggested, it’s likely that Apple’s dominance in the tablet market will have more in common with the iPod’s performance among portable media players, which is very good for the future of iOS in general.

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Town finds iPads make paperless painless

The town of Cornelius, Colo. has found that a new pilot program replacing paper with iPads is saving the administration money, time and helping the environment along with increasing government transparency, according to the Huntersville Herald. Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte and the town’s five commissioners were each issued an iPad 2 recently, paid for by the town, which they premiered at the town’s board meeting on Monday, June 20.

The iPads all plug into the town’s NovusAgenda software, providing commissioners with all necessary meeting materials, including budget worksheets, zoning maps and PowerPoint presentations, which once comprised 210 pages of printed materials each. These packages used to be distributed in paper form to 19 members, which meant a whole lot of time spent copying, and money spent leasing and maintaining copy equipment, in addition to the cost of supplies.

Town Manager Anthony Roberts says he’s amazed with how much sense it makes to use iPads and digital material instead of paper. “It’s just a no brainer,” he told the Huntersville Herald. “We used to print all those agenda packets and people threw them in the recycling bin after the meeting.” Plus, Roberts says, going digital helps transparency, since “the beauty of this system is you have everything online. It’s there forever and a day, and the general public sees everything.”

There’s an initial expense associated with the system, but the NovusAgenda software is a one-time fee that should last years, and the iPad 2s are actually relatively cheap, since only the 16 GB Wi-Fi versions are required. Roberts says the city spent between $700 and $800 on each laptop it was purchasing anyways, so the iPad is a much more economical solution. With a gradual rollout, there’s no reason to think the savings wouldn’t scale for larger cities, too.

The iPad is winning fans in government, business and education because it’s easy to use for almost anyone, and because it’s very flexible thanks to its support of custom apps that plug into third-party systems and server software. Cornelius is a good example of how it can have an impact at the municipal level, and Roberts points out a very good reason why we might see other cities (many of which are facing budget crunches) follow suit: “People ask why? To save money. They’re cheaper. That’s why.”

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Flipboard wants to be the newsstand of the future

Flipboard, one of the first iPad applications to really take advantage of the new device’s touch interface to create a kind of digital magazine, released a series of updates and new features Thursday that turn the app into even more of a tablet newsstand. As newspapers and magazines continue to try to capture readers with their own site-specific apps, Flipboard is making it easier for users to create their own constantly changing iPad magazine — one that pulls from hundreds of sources, and has social feeds and signals built in. As we’ve argued before, this looks a lot like the future (or one version of the future) of digital publishing.

Among the new features in the updated version of the Flipboard app is the ability to pull in an unlimited number of RSS feeds from websites or content publishers you want to follow through the app (readers were previously limited to 21 feeds). When you can aggregate and then browse hundreds or even thousands of sources — from RSS feeds to magazine publishers like The Economist, one of Flipboard’s new partners in this version — one of the big issues is finding content, so there’s a new “content guide” built into the app that allows users to search across all their sources, and also recommends content.

In addition to the content guide, Flipboard has added a number of enhancements aimed at using social signals to filter content — including a new tag or banner that says “popular on Flipboard” to highlight articles that have been read or shared by a lot of app users (popular articles will also be featured in the content sections that Flipboard sets up such as Art Design, Technology, etc.). And the way tweets with links appear has also changed: The article that’s linked now shows up expanded with the tweet in a small strip at the bottom, which highlights the content being linked to rather than the tweet itself.

The content guide — which isn’t driven by an algorithm but involves Flipboard staff highlighting content from various sources — is obviously the kind of editorial function newspaper and magazine editors used to perform. But they did it within their own publications, whereas Flipboard is doing it by drawing from a vast and growing selection of digital sources (content from LinkedIn and its LinkedIn Today social news platform is also included in the new update).

In an era when anyone can become a publisher — thanks to what Om calls the “democracy of distribution” phenomenon created by social-publishing tools like blogs and Twitter and Facebook — the ability to search, aggregate and filter hundreds of sources from different platforms is a crucial function for a media outlet. It’s one that Flipboard, and other similar apps such as News.me from Betaworks and Pulse, are currently doing a lot better than any existing mainstream media entity. In fact, they’re doing it better than Google News too.

While Flipboard’s new features add a lot of utility to the app, they still don’t include one of the big elements that a digital-content service should theoretically allow, which is personalization — in other words, recommendations and filtering based on a user’s actions and social graph. While some apps such as Zite (and services such as the Washington Post‘s Trove) have made steps towards what some call “The Daily Me,” no one has really come up with a killer offering in that area yet.

If anyone is well positioned to do this, it’s Flipboard, since one of the company’s earliest acquisitions was The Ellerdale Project, which was working on exactly that kind of smart recommendation technology. According to comments made by CEO Mike McCue after the latest release, Flipboard is close to releasing a new version with personalization built in. Having recently landed a $50-million funding round, the company certainly has the runway to move forward with it — and that will extend the gap between Flipboard and the majority of the mainstream media even further.

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RIM on the brink of losing its last asset: its employees

Research in Motion’s  declining fortunes have been well documented. It’s losing momentum in sales as consumers drift to other platforms like iOS and Android. More recently developers have started to back off the platform, saying it’s not worth their effort. And now there are signs that the workforce is restless and concerned, potentially on the verge of losing hope.

In an open letter sent to BGR, an unnamed senior exec lays out in painstaking detail where the company has gone astray and what it needs to get back on track. Though the post ends on a hopeful note, it is littered with doubt and fears, alternating with anger at the squandered opportunities the company has had.

It is not surprising given the state of the company, but it shows how precarious things have gotten for RIM. RIM responded with a statement that questioned the veracity of the letter and provided some general upbeat talk about the company’s efforts to weather its transition. But it doesn’t address the major points raised by the letter, simply reiterating that RIM is addressing the situation and is still in a strong position to tackle the challenges ahead.

It’s a bland response and doesn’t do much to get at what I see is the real issue: keeping up morale at the company. While missing customers and developers is obviously a huge problem, RIM can’t afford to lose the trust and confidence of its employees. These are the only people who can engineer a turnaround for the company. But they need a reason not to lose hope.

Here’s a look at some of the points raised by the letter:

  • RIM’s culture doesn’t support open communication and criticism and doesn’t hold people accountable. And executives are too dismissive of competing products instead of learning from them.
  • The company took too long to understand the disruption brought by iPhone and Apple’s commitment to the end user and instead built devices based on strategic alignements and partner requests or in an effort to achieve “feature parity.”
  • RIM hasn’t focused enough on its developer community, offering them inadequate tools that have resulted in sub-par apps. And it hasn’t prized software enough, failing to recruit the kind of talent that can go up against Apple, Google and Microsoft.
  • The marketing message around BlackBerry is muddled and unfocused, latching on to features like Flash or multitasking instead of clearly defining what the company stands for.
  • RIM’s structure with two co-CEOs needs to be rethought because it’s not efficient. The company hasn’t been able to move quickly in its response to the iPhone or in its transition to QNX. That has led to too many products, some that were not ready for launch. The writer suggests that they step down with both still involved but no longer carrying the CEO title.

But more than the individual points, there’s an undercurrent of frustration about where the company is going and how well positioned it is to recover. The writer starts off by stating, “I have lost confidence,” saying the company has fallen further behind during the “chaotic” transition. Later, he says “we are demotivated,” when talking about the state of RIM’s software and said the culture of the company needs to change so people who fail are let go. But most importantly, there is a sense that all is not well at the top. The writer said the company’s overconfidence clouded its decision-making, leaving it flatfooted when Apple came with its iPhone.

“We missed not boldly reacting to the threat of iPhone when we saw it in January over four years ago. We laughed and said they are trying to put a computer on a phone, that it won’t work. We should have made the QNX-like transition then. We are now 3-4 years too late. That is the painful truth… it was a major strategic oversight and we know who is responsible.”

I have no doubt that co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis have read this note. But the real issue is what they do with it. It seems apparent to me that employee trust is wavering, which tends to happen when you announce layoffs. But the bigger issue is that the rank and file want some direction, some sense of purpose from the top, something to keep them from bolting when the headhunters come. The writer pleads explicitly for that, saying “We need an injection of confidence.”

I’ve said that the smartphone game is still being played out and so RIM can afford to see its sales dip for a time. Developers will come back when the user base demands it, though better tools would help. But it’s all dependent on getting back to putting out a top notch product. And for that to happen, RIM needs to engage its employees and get more out of them than just long hours. It needs to open up those channels of communication and show that it knows how to listen while still being disciplined in setting a course of action.

This is a very pivotal time for RIM, and from the sound of the last quarterly earnings report, patience is necessary as deadlines get pushed out and the forecast gets more hazy. Taking this letter to heart could show that management is prepared to do battle again. But if it’s just business as usual, I have little confidence in any turnaround taking root.

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Using Google+ on Android works, Huddle less so

I’ve been playing with the Google+ service on my Android handset to get a sense of what it has to offer on Google’s operating system.  I’ve been especially interested in Huddle, the group texting app that is currently only available to those on Android handsets. The verdict: Google made some thoughtful decisions for mobile users for the Google+ service overall, but Huddle isn’t as intuitive as other group texting platforms.

First, the good stuff. Google tries really hard to explain what you will be sharing on your phone and offers you the ability to instantly upload your images and videos to Google+ if you so desire. While that’s a nice ad hoc backup, I didn’t feel comfortable doing so, so I turned that off. Still, sharing an image was as easy as clicking the menu, tapping share and then selecting Google+. I even had the option of sharing location at a varying levels of specificity ranging from not at all to down to my street address. This was cool, but the constant GPS access while I was playing with the service was a real battery suck.

However, if I had elected to instantly upload my photos and videos, Google put some real thought into making sure the process didn’t come back to bite me when my bill arrived. It offers me a lot of options on when and over what networks those uploads should take place as shown in these images.

The Google+ app for Android makes sharing really easy and it’s a nice experience overall. But then there’s Huddle, the group texting app. First, because you must have an Android handset in order to access Huddle, it can be a bit of effort to find some folks to group text. And while it’s easy to find people in Google+ to add them to your Circle (a self-defined group of contacts) and it’s also easy to find them to start a Huddle, once a Huddle exists it’s not fun to add new folks to it. For existing groups, to add new people, you need to scroll through a long list of contacts to find people.

Thus, my group maxed out at three until I randomly invited someone in that I didn’t know thanks to the clunky scrolling and adding contacts feature (or my butterfingers). Then I couldn’t figure out how to delete them. In general the Huddle app works as advertised but I enjoyed using Beluga more as a group text option or even GroupMe. The UI for those apps are much nicer and the entire act of joining and organizing groups was more intuitive.

Those difficulties aside, if you’re going to spend a lot of time playing with and optimizing Google+ the Android app is a great place to start and makes it easy to keep updating while on the go. For those with sharp eyes and a desire to know, I was using an HTC Incredible, and the screenshots are taken on a T-Mobile myTouch 3G Slide by my colleague Janko. Check out the gallery below for more.

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Opportunities still exist for femtocells

Informa Telecoms Media recently reported that a mere 2.3 million femtocells are in use worldwide, which is a laughably small figure compared to the sky-high forecasts from just a few years ago. Our consumption of mobile data is surging, but at the consumer level, femtocells are merely treading water. Nevertheless, there are opportunities in other areas for femtocells.

Femtocells have not been successful with consumers for three major reasons:

1. Price: ATT charges $150 for its MicroCell, and Verizon Wireless’s Network Extender will run you $250. Network operators incur back-end costs in deploying femtocells, of course, but it’s no mystery why customers have balked at the thought of paying what amounts to a double dip.

2. Wi-Fi: Home-based femtocell technology is squaring off against Wi-Fi, which is supported by nearly every data-friendly smartphone on the market.

3. Advancing cellular technologies: Femtocell development has lagged behind the advancement of cellular build-outs; for example, Verizon didn’t offer a 3G femtocell until last October. And new technologies like LTE and even HSPA+ provide more capacity as well as faster network speeds. Capacity has been an important selling point for femtocells.

While the window for consumer-targeted, in-home femtocells is closing quickly, there are still segments in which they could thrive. As the Register noted earlier this week, manufacturers such as Picochip and Ubiquisys have begun unveiling public access products dubbed “metrocells” that fill network gaps where blanket coverage with traditional cell towers is difficult. Meanwhile, the market research firm Maravedis has predicted that public-access femtocells will fall from $100 to $70 or so this year and will continue to slide into the $50 range next year. Those colliding trends lay the foundation for long-awaited growth in the femtocell market.

Further opportunity also lies in the enterprise, where femtocells can be used to deliver better indoor coverage and multiple connections to smartphones, tablets and other connected devices. They can be a low-cost alternative to picocells or DAS (distributed antenna systems), for instance, and can route calls through an enterprise PBS to deliver them to four-digit office extensions or mobile phones. If carriers can integrate femtocells in a way that makes it easier and cheaper for businesses, the technology will see substantial adoption in the enterprise.

For more thoughts on why opportunities still exists for femtocells outside the residential market, please see my weekly column at GigaOM Pro.

Image courtesy Flickr user jtjdt

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The iPhone Effect: How Apple’s phone changed everything

Apple’s iPhone debuted four years ago, and we sometimes take for granted how much has changed since then. The phone altered the smartphone landscape and ushered in the modern era of intelligent, connected devices. Apple hasn’t cruised easily to the top; in fact, it continues to trail nemesis Google’s Android in smartphone market share. But it shook up the industry and forced changes and upheaval among many competitors.

Here’s a look at some stats on how things have changed over that period, both for Apple and for other companies operating in the same space.

Shifting stock fortunes

  • Apple’s stock price at the close of June 29, 2007, the day of the iPhone launch: $122.04 a share. Tuesday: $335.26 with a market cap of $310 billion.
  • Research In Motion’s stock price on June 29, 2007: $66.66. Tuesday: $28.24 per share with $14.7 billion market cap.
  • Nokia’s stock price on June 29, 2007: $23.63. Tuesday: $6.11 with $22.7 billion market cap.
  • HTC’s stock price on June 27, 2007: 361.01 Taiwan dollars ($12.49 USD), Tuesday: 1040.

Worldwide smartphone market share shifts since 2007

  • Second quarter 2007: Symbian 65.6 percent, Windows Mobile 11.5 percent, RIM 8.9 percent, according to Gartner.
  • First quarter 2011: Android 36 percent, Symbian 27.4 percent, iOS 16.8 percent, RIM 12.9 percent.

Notable changes since the introduction of the iPhone

  • Google introduces the Android operating system on Oct. 21, 2008.
  • HP announces acquisition of Palm on April 28, 2010.
  • Nokia announces partnership with Microsoft  to run Windows Phone 7 on upcoming smartphones on Feb. 11, 2011.
  • Motorola spins off Motorola Mobility Holdings on Jan. 4, 2011.

Effect on carrier competition and data use

  • In 2006, Verizon Wireless had 7.7 million new subscriber additions compared to ATT’s 7.1 million. After the iPhone launched, ATT outpaced Verizon in net subscribers adds for the next three years, according to FCC figures. By 2009, ATT had 8.1 million new adds while Verizon had 5.9 million.
  • ATT’s earnings before interest, taxes, debt and amortization went from 34.4 percent in fourth quarter 2006 to 40.7 percent by fourth quarter 2009, outperforming all the other major carriers.
  • ATT’s postpaid integrated 3G devices have grown steadily since the launch of the iPhone. It went from 8.5 million in fourth quarter 2008 to 29.7 million by second quarter 2010.
  • Data revenue in 2006 for all carriers was just 7.5 percent of total revenue. By 2009, it was up to 26.8 percent.

The rise of smartphones

  • Smartphone adoption in first quarter 2008 was 10 percent according to Nielsen. Nielsen predicts smartphones will outnumber feature phones by the end of this year.
  • Worldwide smartphone sales will hit 468 million this year and reach 1.1 billion by 2015, according to Gartner.

Smartphones open the door for tablets

  • Apple has sold about 19.5 million iPad through the first quarter of this year.
  • Gartner estimates there will be 294 million tablets in 2015.

App ecosystems thrive

  • Apple’s App Store now boasts 425,000 apps, with 14 billion app downloads and $2.5 billion paid to developers to date.
  • The Android Market has 200,000 apps and has had 4.5 billion downloads as of May.
  • IDC now expects 182.7 billion mobile app downloads by 2015 across all platforms.
  • Canalys estimates mobile app revenue will hit $14.1 billion next year and rise to $36.7 billion by 2015.

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Autodesk Inventor Publisher Viewer app brings 3-D instructions to Android

Setting up a new home in New York, I’ve had to blaze through a bunch of projects that have included assembling all manner of furniture using old paper instructions. Though the work got done, I’m hoping that it won’t be long before we see products come with 3-D instructions supplied by programs like Autodesk Inventor Publisher, which made its debut Wednesday on Android.

The program allows companies to take their CAD designs and turn them into 3-D instructions and documentation users can view on their phones and tablets using a free Inventor Publisher Mobile Viewer app. Using it, a user can pan around a product, see the step-by-step process of assembly and view animation that can help tie steps together. Most people can get through 2-D paper instructions just fine, but they’re very static and often rely on too much text, which can introduce comprehension problems. 3-D images, on the other hand, can get a user through a project faster and with more confidence.

The program has been available on iOS since last September, and now with the Android release, it will hopefully encourage more companies to use it to share instructions. Companies who use CAD programs for design can easily import their work into Inventor Publisher, and start building out 3-D instructions to complement traditional paper documentation. Ikeafans, an Ikea forum; Engineering.com; and BicycleTutor have all started releasing instructions through the Inventor Publisher Mobile Viewer App, helping double downloads of the iOS app in the last month.

I think this is one of the areas where smart devices can really help bring an old piece of information to life. We’ve already seen the way media is being changed and disrupted by smartphones and tablets. Instruction manuals don’t get the same amount of use, but they can really show off the power of touch and 3-D on a device. There aren’t that many directions on the iOS app right now, but I’m hoping it starts to pick up soon. I still have a lot of projects ahead of me.

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Could webOS be the third major mobile platform with Samsung’s help?

As a platform, webOS has impressed nearly every reviewer who’s touched it, but it faces a few hurdles. One of those hurdles, the device’s hardware choices, could be cleared if the licensing talks that Hewlett-Packard CEO Leo Apotheker says are underway bear fruit.

Bloomberg reports Apotheker said HP is “talking to a number of companies,” many of which “have expressed interest,” but declined to name any names. Three people familiar with the negotiations say Samsung is among those involved in the talks, according to Bloomberg. Samsung declined to confirm whether it was involved in any discussions.

Samsung has done extremely well using licensed Android software to power its mobile devices, including the Galaxy line of smartphones and tablets. It has more recently built devices running Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 7 operating system and it also runs its own Bada mobile OS on certain phones. Adding webOS would add a fourth mobile operating system for Samsung, which could be a daunting undertaking.

But a partnership with HP could make a lot of sense for the Korean smartphone maker. A deal with HP might allow Samsung greater control over OS personalization options, one of the sources who spoke to Bloomberg suggests. It would also allow Samsung to hedge its bets if Android cools or WP7 fails to take off. And webOS is, as mentioned, regarded highly by those who’ve used it.

Of course, Samsung licensing webOS doesn’t address the lack of quality third-party apps available for the platform, which is probably its greatest weakness. But a big name partnership with a company that has shipped as many phones as Samsung has is sure to attract more developer interest, even if Samsung only initially puts webOS on a small number of devices, like it has done with Bada. HP doesn’t necessarily have the mobile hardware reputation to attract smartphone buyers, but Samsung does, and it has managed to do so with an OS that isn’t nearly as slick and refined as webOS.

Just slapping webOS on Samsung hardware isn’t a guaranteed home run, but if it does happen, and it brings developers to the platform, it stands a good chance of offering RIM and Microsoft a solid race for the smartphone bronze.

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