People will not adopt a technical solution that serves to replace a manual task, if that solution is less efficient than the manual task it replaces. How could we think that QR codes for marketing would work any better than CueCat? Did we not learn the first time?
How HP’s Surrender Changes the Game in Mobile and Computing
Note: This article also available to read at TechVida, perhaps a new joint project moving forward.
Everyone was shocked in 2005 when Lenovo purchased IBM’s PC division, signaling the withdrawal of the company from the market it helped to create. A week ago, one of the original IBM PC team members declared the PC to be dead. Dell reiterated earlier this week that they are moving out of the PC market. Today, HP announced that they’re surrendering, too, as they look to spin off their PC business and plan to shutter the WebOS division entirely. It’s no coincidence that Apple was today named the #1 manufacturer of personal computers, when tablets are included in the mix.
IBM’s exit from the PC market was a shock in its time, but doesn’t hold a candle to today’s announcement by HP. When IBM dealt its PC division to the Chinese, only its Thinkpad line held any strength, and almost exclusively in the business market. IBM’s PCs had long ceased to be relevant to the home market. HP, on the other hand, has represented the Last Great Hope to many industry watchers looking for anyone at all to emerge with a relevant alternative to Apple’s essentially unanswered coup of the past five years. Its purchase of Palm was hailed by many, including me, as a chance for HP to plot its own future rather than allow Microsoft to determine its future success or failure. Now, that hope is extinguished, only two months after the release of the Touchpad, HP’s answer to the iPad and the first major WebOS release by the company since its acquisition of Palm. Touchpad sales were abysmal and reviews were tepid; even after lowering the price by $100, reports emerged that the sell-through rate at Best Buy hovered around 10%, or about 25,000 units, not factoring in returns and exchanges.
The future of WebOS now is clouded. HP claims that it will work to identify how to most effectively utilize the OS moving forward. It appears the company will seek to find other hardware manufacturers interested in licensing the OS, which is a mild victory for the mobile world. After all, despite its issues, most industry watchers agree that WebOS exhibits a style and sensibility an order of magnitude beyond most Android offerings. WebOS has had the most potential as a legitimate threat to the iPhone and iPad moving forward. Even so, potential OEM partners must certainly be wary of licensing the OS. If HP wasn’t able to sell its tablets, even with significant buzz and marketing leading up to its release, why would they be able to do any better? And how can HP exhibit a legitimate intent to actively update the platform when they shut down their own hardware operations only a year after its acquisition?
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that there isn’t a tablet market at all, but simply an iPad market, as Android models similarly continue to founder. Many say that this will change when Google releases its next version of Android, but the same empty speculation has preceded every Android release, and every major Android tablet release, to date. As for Windows-based tablets, you’re more likely to find a unicorn playing Duke Nukem Forever in your grandmother’s living room than you are to find a Windows tablet that’s sold more than a dozen units in the past year.
While WebOS’s future is clouded, Google’s acquisition of Motorola makes Android’s future no clearer. The search giant spent more than two years’ worth of profits on a company with less than stellar mobile sales, a staff almost as large as its own, disastrous investments in the home media hub space via Google TV and no discernible trajectory leading to future growth. Such a move surely makes other Android manufacturers feel threatened, facing the specter of an in-house Motorola receiving favors and special treatment. Google insists that Motorola will operate independently, however, and that they acquired them explicitly for their patent portfolio, out of fear that patent “aggressors” like Apple, Oracle, Microsoft and others might have a real case against its Android OS. This case became stronger when a consortium of not-Google mobile companies including Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and others purchased the Nortel Networks patent library.
Apple has already been granted injunctions against Samsung, the most egregious Android offender, in the EU and elsewhere. Oracle’s ongoing suit against Google for improper use of Java in Android is on the verge of exploding onto the scene, as emails from Android head Andy Rubin and others show that Google made the decision to use Java first and deal with the consequences later. Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to silently suck dry smaller Android device manufacturers as it extracts licensing fees for the patents of theirs that are being violated, as well. Many believe that Microsoft is making more money on Android right now than Google thanks to such fees. Google believes that it can use Motorola’s patent library offensively to force Apple and others to the negotiating table for a cross-patent licensing agreement, but such an agreement is far from guaranteed. If the case were so strong against Apple, for example, why did Motorola not pursue action prior to the acquisition?
Also, to discount the bloodlust felt by Apple– and Steve Jobs in particular– against Android is to misunderstand Apple. Eric Schmidt served on Apple’s board of directors when the iPhone was in development and the shift in Android’s trajectory from a Blackberry lookalike to an iPhone competitor was unmistakable during his tenure. Jobs feels personally betrayed, much as he did when he discovered that Bill Gates had appropriated many of the Macintosh’s features for Windows in the 1980s. That betrayal led to Apple’s downfall, Jobs’s ouster from the company he co-founded and the near bankruptcy of the company. Expect no mercy and no negotiations from Apple in its war against Android.
Still, none of this truly accounts for the sea change in the PC sector or the implications of HP’s exit from the market. With Dell focusing elsewhere, IBM out of the game and HP looking to rid themselves of what was a core part of their business, the PC market has essentially dwindled down to a handful of specialty gaming manufacturers, Acer, Toshiba, the empty husk of Gateway and a pile of Chinese also-rans. Aside from Apple’s Mac line, the personal computing space has been reduced to an exercise in commodity economics. PC manufacturers have simply been unable to find compelling differentiation techniques since they all run on Windows and use much of the same hardware. This has led to a consistent and comfortable stream of profits for Microsoft which have allowed the company to brush aside its many strategic blunders in the past decade. Hardware makers, however, were left to fight with the only real weapon they had– price– until now. At this point, the margins are so razor-thin on PC sales that the market has simply become unprofitable for companies like Dell and HP.
This leaves Microsoft in a serious quandary. The company doesn’t manufacture its own hardware, so it is deeply impacted by its critical partners starving to death. To whom will they profitably license Windows 8? Under Steve Ballmer’s reign in Redmond, the company has become more reliant on Windows and Office as revenue sources, not less. Although Windows Phone 7 is finally a semi-respectable showing in the mobile space, Microsoft’s incompetence there thus far has left it chasing single digit marketshare in the mobile phone market and single unit share in the tablet space. Microsoft can’t afford to jump ship on the PC market or allow it to dwindle; it’s the company’s very lifeblood and one it is poorly positioned to replace.
There are no easy answers for Microsoft. Few use Windows by choice today the way one chooses to use Mac OS X or iOS. Windows users use Windows because their company licensed it or because they always have. These are not the sort of active sales points a company needs to maintain hold of a market. Perhaps the boldest strategy for Microsoft would be to purchase HP’s PC business and try to muster a direct rebuttal to Apple’s software/hardware tandem. But how will Microsoft set apart self-branded PCs strongly enough to compete with its own Chinese licensees? Will it give them exclusive features or first access to new versions of Windows? If so, is it possible that licensees could look to ship PCs with a Linux build, small package of net apps or simply no OS in retaliation? Microsoft seems ill-prepared to answer such questions, but must seriously consider acquiring HP’s PC division if only as a tool to improve the repute of Windows in the marketplace.
Meanwhile, Apple continues to slowly devour the fuel that allows the industry to persist: profits. Apple’s profit-share is at an all-time high in the mobile and computing markets as the company continues to make most unique, highest-quality products on the market. Apple has long been criticized for being a premium contender, far more expensive than other choices. Yet that’s no longer the case. Apple’s success and COO Tim Cook’s logistical genius have allowed the company to make supply deals for critical components like flash storage, RAM, displays and more that no one else can match. Apple simply devours the supply for such components at a bulk rate, leaving everyone else to fight over what’s left at a higher price. That’s why no one has been able to match Apple’s price on the iPad or Macbook Air and why the iPhone 4 remains a dominant competitor in a mobile market that shifts daily despite being more than 14 months past its initial release. Apple makes more money on each product it sells than any of its competitors, and it does so while charging an increasingly competitive price.
While the PC market is continuing to shrink, Apple’s sales and share continue to increase as they offer the only compelling answer to mainstream users trying to judge the effectiveness of the Pentium 4 box they bought five years ago versus a newer model. For the majority of tasks common users undertake on PCs– word processing, image editing, web browsing, etc– there’s little reason to move past Windows XP. In the past five years, on the other hand, Apple has progressed from Panther to Tiger to Leopard to Snow Leopard to Lion while continuing to improve upon iLife and iWork. The Mac today looks drastically different than it did five years ago; the same cannot be said of PCs.
Apple continues to march on as its competitors find new and innovative ways to implode. With Android scattershot, WebOS on life support and Windows Phone 7 yet to make much of a dent, Apple’s competition in the mobile sphere becomes less credible by the day. The same is true in the PC space, a fact irrevocably confirmed by HP’s announcements today. Unless leaders in both fields find a way to leapfrog– not simply match– Apple in terms of spurring consumer demand, the component supply advantage Apple has will grow almost too large to surmount. HP saw the task before them and decided that surrender was the best course. If even they cannot chart a worthwhile way forward, then who will?
On HP’s Touchpad
I got the chance to play with an HP Touchpad at Best Buy today for about a half-hour and wanted to share some of my thoughts about the experience. I’ve been eager for many months to finally get my hands onto a WebOS tablet. After my experience, I will repeat what I have posited before and even go a step further: WebOS is certainly the most legitimate competing platform to iOS in the tablet space and, in some ways, has the potential to outdo even iPad.
Unfortunately, “potential” remains a key qualifier, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First, I’d like to discuss what, to me, is perhaps the key usability battle in the tablet space, and the one in which WebOS is strongest: app switching.
Allowing only one app to run on screen at a time makes a great deal of sense for the tablet market for several reasons. First, screen size, resolution and the need for fairly wide tap spaces for fingers would make it difficult to run multiple apps (and certainly more than two) on a tablet screen at a time. If you need any proof of this, look toward the VNC apps out there and try to control your Mac or Windows PC purely by touch; it’s doable but not efficient.
Secondly, running only one app on the screen at a time helps to cap the necessary resources to power a tablet experience. Running at most, say, one app actively, one music stream in the background and a few lightweight notification threads in the background is the constraint that allows tablet battery life to be so remarkably good on average, especially compared to laptops that are much larger. Software is efficient and operating systems (or at least iOS) are cutthroat, prizing every kilobyte of RAM as if it were 1990.
Despite the logic, full-screen apps aren’t how most people are used to working with a computer. The idea of having a browser window, chat window, Word document and Twitterstream going on the same screen on a Mac or PC is commonplace; on a tablet it’s almost heretical. Because of this, app switching is an incredibly important part of the tablet experience; people need to be able to get in and out of the apps they’re using quickly and accurately.
In iOS, users select apps by tapping on one of the icons on the home screen, known as the Springboard. Up to six of these icons may be placed on the dock at the bottom of the screen. All others are stored above; the user can swipe back and forth to browse their collection of apps 16 at a time. Folders can also be used to help categorize things, and expand to reveal their enclosed apps when tapped on, each capable of holding a dozen apps of their own.
iOS 4 introduced multitasking, whereby a new, underlying set of app icons appears when double-tapping the home button; these represent active applications. With iOS 5 comes 4-finger gestures. A pinching motion will close out to the Springboard while swiping left or right will jump immediately into other apps. However, this method is flawed in that there’s no way for the user to reorder the apps that are brought up by swipes. Rather, they appear in reverse-order of how they were opened. This can often be problematic.
For example, say you’re browsing the web and realize your Wi-Fi connection is acting up, so you jump to Settings before going to Mail as you initially planned. You wanted to reference an email and a website, but now you have to wade through the Settings screen to get between Mail and Safari unless you once more leave Mail manually and reopen the browser. This may be the epitome of a first world problem, but it’s also a serious issue for iOS because it breaks the magic of the system, if only for a fleeting moment.
Compare this to the WebOS, card-based system. Once again, a dock exists at the bottom where popular icons can be stored. To the right side of this dock exists a “more” button, in which all other apps are hidden. They are categorized by tabs into Settings, Favorites and All Applications. This leaves the default screen largely empty, leaving a hole where iOS would simply put more icons. It’s in this newly-liberated area that the WebOS card system takes hold. WebOS shows active previews of each active application and allows users to swipe between them, like they might with a deck of cards. To quit an application, one merely swipes up on the card, spinning it out into the universe. To enter an application, a tap will bring it to full screen. To return to the deck of cards, one swipes up from the bottom of the screen while in an application.
This is old news to anyone that’s used a WebOS device like the Pre or Pixi but is a revelation for the tablet market. WebOS relies– correctly– on a visual model of navigation, rather than the mental model required for the iPad. With WebOS, you’re looking at slightly-smaller versions of the screens you wish to choose from. With iOS, you’re either get no visual cue (four-finger swipe) or can only navigate based on recalling which icon represents the content you’re trying to view. This can be surprisingly problematic. For example, let’s say that you were reading a PDF document this morning but played a few games since then. You remember only that it was a PDF and what it looked like, without being able to recall how you received the document. Were you viewing it in Mail or in Safari? Perhaps it had been imported into iBooks already, or you were previewing it in Dropbox? With WebOS, you see the document, you tap it, you’re back in business. With iOS, it might take a while to figure out where you were at last.
The card system is absolutely, as I’ve hoped for quite some time, a better solution than the icon-based navigation offered by Apple, especially on a 9.7” screen. WebOS loses some of its advantage on smaller screens, where an icon might be an easier visual cue than a 2 inch version of a full page document. But in the tablet space, I have no doubt that the WebOS implementation is superior, especially given its speed of execution.
However– and this is the heartbreaking part– the Touchpad itself is simply not a good device at the moment. It feels sturdy in the hand and not too heavy, although I did notice an almost anti-gravity type experience when picking up an iPad 2 right after holding a Touchpad for a half-hour. The hardware is generally not an issue. But the software remains critically broken in many places once the user leaves the excellent navigation area.
Many are small issues in the greater scheme of things: I had some difficulty connecting to Wi-Fi at first, the Bing Map software was fussy about my location and provided uninformative error messages and the spellcheck is woefully lacking, missing simple things like contractions (cant to can’t, wont to won’t, etc). But the greatest issue is the screeching halt that the Touchpad will often come to when performing the simplest of tasks. For example, switching from landscape to portrait mode took over ten seconds while loading DaringFireball.net, an exceptionally lightweight website. The mail client took a good 3-5 seconds to boot up for the first time. Resizing window panes in mail (another neat UI technique similar to Twitter on iPad) would trigger at least a split-second wait time and again.
These sort of issues are simply unacceptable and were never present on the iPad, even on day one. What’s both good and bad about these issues is that they’re so blindingly obvious– and the performance of the hardware so incredibly good in spurts– that it simply must be the software to blame, and not a lack of horsepower from its 1.2GHz, dual-core Snapdragon processor or 1GB of RAM. This means that the issues can– and probably will– be fixed in short order. But it raises the question of why they didn’t wait to launch it until the 1.0.1 patch was already in place. In a way, I’m afraid that HP has squandered the opportunity to immediately leap into second-place for overall quality in the tablet space because they didn’t want to delay the Touchpad anymore.
Aside from performance, the lack of a solid music or movie store on the device certainly doesn’t help matters, and for the platform to launch with only 300 or so apps on the day the iPad surpassed 100,000 is challenging, to say the least. But these issues can be resolved. The app catalog will take care of itself if HP can solve improve performance and garner hardware sales, and Amazon’s MP3 Store would feel right at home here. Indeed, the only glaring issue is the maturity of the platform.
Speed must improve, and not merely on the next Touchpad but on this Touchpad. Truly competitive platforms can’t survive on the promise of the next iteration, because Apple will simply leapfrog them again. The Touchpad must be brought up to, or close to, parity with the iPad 2 in terms of performance before a Touchpad 2 or iPad 3 ship, period. As it stands, the Touchpad shows us two things: how very excellent WebOS can be as a tablet OS, and how very far ahead of everyone else Apple truly remains.
Take a half hour this week, when you’ve nothing else to do, and watch this. I think most people have no idea what it is IBM actually does. Because they no longer produce ThinkPads or PCs, IBM does not perceptibly touch many lives. But the fact is, IBM advancements touch every American’s life on a daily basis.
This short film is an outstanding recollection of some of IBM’s greatest achievements in the 20th century and provides a peak at what they’re working on now. It is, in turns, truly touching and at times a bit awe-inspiring.
Other companies that produce wonders the public doesn’t really understand, like Siemans, SAIC, United Technologies, Oracle and others would be wise to take note, and release similar works about their accomplishments.
whim·sy |ˈ(h)wimzē| (also whimsey)
noun ( pl. -sies or -seys)
playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor: the film is an awkward blend of whimsy and moralizing.
• a whim.
• a thing that is fanciful or odd : the stone carvings and whimsies.
• the curiosity accelerant present in Apple announcements; the essential element for making innovation appreciable; contained by that which exists simply because it can, and in so doing causes its observers to smile in spite of themselves.
Merry Christmas, one and all.