Category Archives: tablets

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What is in BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: new universal inbox and remote control

Here at BlackBerry Devcon Europe attendees were shown the key features of PlayBook 2.0, an update for the RIM tablet that will run on the existing hardware.

Aside from new runtimes for developers and some usability tweaks, the main changes users will notice are a new universal inbox and PIM (Personal Information Manager), and deeper integration between the PlayBook and BlackBerry smartphones.

The PlayBook 2.0 PIM offers a single inbox for Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as well as email.

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The PIM includes an embedded web browser so that you can view HTML messages without leaving the application.

The application also covers calendar and contacts.

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If you look in detail at a meeting, you can see the other attendees, presuming that the information is available.

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One of the aims is to aggregate information drawn from social networks and from the internet. It is a compelling idea, and one that Microsoft has also used. For example, when you view an email the Outlook Social Connector automatically looks up status messages from FaceBook and LinkedIn from the author. Windows Phone also aggregates information from multiple social networks in its People hub.

RIM talked about adding web information. We were given the example of getting an email from someone and viewing recent press releases from their company within the PlayBook 2.0 PIM. If this is well implemented, it does make sense, giving you useful background without the need of a manual web search. A contact record is no longer just name, address and company, but a portal into that person’s story and current activity.

The other big new feature in PlayBook 2.0 is remote control. You can use your BlackBerry SmartPhone as a controller and input device for the PlayBook.

What is the point of this? A good question, to which the most obvious answer is that you can use the physical keypad on a BlackBerry to type on the PlayBook. This drew applause when demonstrated.

I asked for other use cases on Twitter. The main other suggestion was using a BlackBerry as a remote when your PlayBook is plugged into a screen as a media player or presenter.

The concept goes beyond this though. Here is new CEO Thorsten Heins speaking in the keynote:

Just take this idea a step further. Think about BlackBerry 10 being a platform, for mobile computing, for smartphones, so it really shows the deep integration of the BlackBerry platform. Think about having your PlayBook somewhere on your desk at your home, and you can control everything just from your BlackBerry, I think that is fantastic

Incidentally, RIM’s operating system naming is confusing. This is how it goes. BlackBerry OS up to and including 7.0 is the old smartphone OS that is being phased out. The new OS is based on QNX and first seen in the PlayBook, which runs Tablet OS 1.0. Version 2.0 of this OS, due out later this month with the features mentioned above, is called PlayBook OS 2.0.

BlackBerry 10 is the next iteration of this QNX-based OS and will run on SmartPhones as well as on the PlayBook. BlackBerry 10 is expected later in 2012, probably towards the end of the year.

RIM’s future depends on wide acceptance of BlackBerry 10. The uncomfortable question: how many mobile operating systems can succeed? It seems that Apple iOS and Google Android are well established, but the future prospects of new entrants such as BlackBerry 10 and Windows 8 is open to speculation.

Update: I visited the exhibition here and spent some time hands-on with the version of the PIM that is installed on the PlayBook devices. It is disappointing, though bear in mind that it is not, I was told, the final version (though if the final version is coming this month you would have thought it is not far off).

Some key points:

  • The embedded HTML rendering in the email client is just for the message itself. If you tap a link, it takes you into the separate web browser app.
  • In order to get social network status updates from the author of an email message, you have to be logged into that social network and the author must already be one of your “friends”, or so I was told. I hope this is incorrect, as it seems largely to defeat the purpose of this kind of integration. Outlook’s social connector retrieves status updates from anyone irrespective of whether you are logged into that network or have them on your friends list.
  • I asked about SharePoint integration and received the vaguest of answers. A SharePoint app is in preparation but there is no word on when it might appear, and it may be dependent on some sort of Microsoft input.
  • There is no official cloud storage service from RIM. You can use third-party services like Dropbox. Enterprises are expected to use internal file shares, via VPN if necessary.

It seems to me that RIM is in danger of missing an important market for PlayBook here. Many RIM customers use Microsoft’s platform because of the link with Exchange. A tablet with excellent support for SharePoint and Office 365 would have obvious value, and Microsoft can be expected to tap into this with Windows 8. BlackBerry could get there first with PlayBook but it looks like this will not be the case.

What will it take to make RIM’s Playbook sell?

I am at RIM’s Blackberry DevCon in Amsterdam (where it is so cold that the canals have frozen). Attendees have been given a free Blackberry Playbook, the neat 7” tablet running an operating system based on QNX, acquired by RIM in 2010.

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The Playbook was launched in spring 2011, and sales have disappointed. Exact numbers are hard to find; the Guardian estimated that RIM ordered 2.5m devices, while Crackberry.com says 5m. How many sold? In the three reported quarters, RIM said 500,000, 200,000 and 150,000 were shipped. Prices have been falling, naturally, but it seems that there are plenty left.

Nevertheless, this is an attractive device. The operating system is smooth and the size is convenient. Why has it failed?

One factor is that the device is designed as a companion to a Blackberry smartphone. Email does not work unless you have a Blackberry, or can get by with a web browser client. RIM thereby reduced the market to existing Blackberry owners, a mistake which should be rectified when version 2.0 of the operating system is released – expected later this month.

The second problem is the the extent to which Apple owns the tablet market. When you buy an iPad you know you are buying into a strong ecosystem and that every app vendor has to support it. That is not the case with the Playbook, making it a riskier choice. RIM’s fix is to introduce support for Android apps, though there are a few caveats here. Perhaps the biggest is this: if you want to run Android apps, why not just get an Android tablet and avoid any compromises?

The Playbook is a delightful device. The big question – for RIM and other new entrants into the tablet market – is what will make it sell, other than pricing it below cost?

Amazon found an answer for its Kindle Fire: low price, Kindle brand making it an e-book reader as well as a tablet, and a business model based on its retail business. Amazon can sell the device at a loss and still make a profit.

It is not yet clear to me what RIM’s answer can be. The most obvious one is to make it truly compelling for the large market of Blackberry smartphone users, but not if that means crippling it for everyone else as with the 1.0 release.

Another factor is that the device has to be nearly perfect. On the conference device, it took me 10 minutes to send a tweet. The reason was that the supplied twitter app is really a link to the twitter web site. That in itself is not so bad, but I found the soft keyboard unwilling to pop up reliably when twitter’s tweet authoring window was open. Making a correction was particularly frustrating. A small thing; but one or two frustrations like this are enough to make a good experience into a bad one.

Version 2.0 of the operating system does promise numerous improvements though, and watch this space for a detailed review as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Apple iBooks Author aims at school textbook market, but beware the lock-in

Apple claims to “Reinvent Textbooks” with the introduction of iBooks 2 for iPad, along with an accompanying free authoring tool for the Mac.

iBooks Author is already in the Mac App Store and I had a quick look. It is template based, so the first thing you do is to make your choice.

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I picked Contemporary, whereupon the authoring screen opened and I started to make some edits. If you divide Desktop Publishing (DTP) tools into those that are more oriented towards longer books, and those more oriented towards shorter but more graphically rich titles, then iBooks Author is in the former category. You can write the text in Pages or Word, and then import to iBooks Author. You can also add images, charts, tables, hyperlinks, and a variety of widgets including HTML, Keynote presentations, 3D models and more. The format of some of the widgets seems to be Dashcode, as used by the Dashboard in Mac OS X; certainly that is the case for the HTML widget.

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I got a bit stuck on one point. I did not want the astronomy images in the template, but was not ready with an alternative. However I could not delete the image placeholder. It seems that the templates are somewhat restrictive.

Once your work is ready you can preview it. This is interesting. In order to preview, you attach an iPad, open iBooks on the iPad, and then select it in iBooks Author. A nice touch: the book appears on the iPad marked Proof.

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There is also an animation as the book opens. In the grab below, you can spot the busy icon: this is because the smart cover disappears automatically so you have to grab it on the fly.

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What about publishing? You can export your work in one of three formats: iBooks, PDF, or plain text.

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Apple emphasises the licensing agreement right there in the Export dialog. You can only sell your book through the Apple iBookstore. Note also that the book is only for iPad. You cannot read it on a Mac, let alone on an Amazon Kindle, unless you choose PDF and make it available for free.

Here is the agreement in more detail:

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

I exported the book in iBooks format and took a quick look at the contents in an editor.

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On a quick look, it seems to have a lot in common with a standard epub, but is nevertheless a proprietary Apple format.

Finally, a few observations. I have no doubt that eBook usage will grow rapidly in education as elsewhere, and the iPad is a delightful device on which to read them, though expensive.

I do have nagging concerns though. In typical Apple style, this is an only-Apple solution for authors or publishers who need to charge for their work. Does it really make sense for schools and colleges to recommend and use textbooks that can only be read on Apple devices? Of course publishers can repurpose the same underlying content for other formats, though they will have to be careful how they use iBooks Author to avoid falling foul of the licensing clause quoted above.

Is there no way to reinvent textbooks without an Apple tax and locking knowledge into proprietary formats?

How many clouds is too many? AcerCloud announced in Las Vegas

Acer has announced its AcerCloud in the run-up to CES in Las Vegas. This is a service that spans mobile devices, PCs and the internet, the aim being that pictures, documents and multimedia are available from any device. Take a picture on your smartphone, and it appears seamlessly on your PC. Download a video to your PC, and view it on your tablet. Play music stored at home from your tablet while out and about.

The press release is short on technical details, but does say:

AcerCloud intelligently uses local and cloud storage together so all data is always available

That said, it is more PC-centric than some cloud services. It seems that Acer considers the PC or notebook to be the primary repository of your data, with the cloud acting as a kind of cache:

Professionals can update sales documents on a PC and save them, and the documents will be put into the personal cloud and streamed to other devices. They can then go to their meeting with their notebook or tablet PC and have immediate access to all the updated files. The files will be temporarily accessible for 30 days in the personal cloud and on the devices, or they can choose to download the files on to other devices for long-term storage.

One of the features, which failed in the CES demo, is that a PC which is in hibernation can be woken up through wi-fi to deliver your content on demand:

As long as the main PC is in sleep (standby/hibernation) mode, Acer Always Connect technology can wake it up through Wi-Fi® so media can be retrieved via a mobile device.

This whole thing would work better if the cloud, rather than the home PC, were the central repository of data. A PC or notebook sitting at home is unreliable. It has a frail hard drive. It might be a laptop on battery power, and the battery might expire. The home broadband connection might fail – and most home connections are much slower uploading to the internet than downloading from it.

Another question: if you one of the professionals Acer refers to, will you want to put your faith in AcerCloud for showing documents at your business meeting?

Acer wants to differentiate its products so that users seek out an Acer PC or tablet. The problem though is that similar services are already available from others. DropBox has a cloud/device synchronisation service that works well, with no 30 day expiry. Microsoft’s SkyDrive is an excellent, free cloud storage service with smart features like online editing of Office documents. Google Music will put all your music in the cloud. Apple iCloud shares content seamlessly across Apple devices, and so on.

The problem with this kind of effort is that if it is less than excellent, it has a reverse effect on the desirability of the products, being one more thing users want to uninstall or which gets in the way of their work.

We will see then.

Finally, I note this statement:

AcerCloud will be bundled on all Acer consumer PCs starting Q2 2012. It will support all Android devices, while future support is planned for Windows-based devices.

Android first.

An Apple iPad Christmas

The Apple iPad had a stunning Christmas – at least, it did in my part of the world.

A key factor was that EA Games decided to offer a range of classic board games adapted as iPad apps for 69p ($0.90)  each. So for less than the cost of a takeaway pizza I downloaded Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk.

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The games are not perfect – Scrabble accepts all sorts of odd words and US spellings, for example – but they are official licensed versions, nicely implemented, and a lot of nostalgic fun, which is the idea after all.

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Trivial Pursuit supports in-game purchases for extra questions, so that could work out more expensive eventually, but nobody could complain about the value.

It is not quite the full board game experience, with wine spilt on the pieces, junior tipping over the board in disgust, and game abandoned early because it is time to visit grandma, but the changes are mostly for the better.

One thought: this is another example of how well a tablet substitutes for physical things. A book, a board game, a photo album: the iPad is a better replacement than a PC or laptop, easily passed round, long battery life, no flapping screen, and a more natural user interface.

I am not sure what are the economics of selling games at 69p, but no doubt EA has drawn the graphs. Currently EA 69p games occupy four of the “Top Paid iPad Apps” category slots in the UK store.

Of course I am interested in the big picture. Looking at user reviews of Android equivalents like Monopoly I get the impression that there are more bugs, partly because EA has a dedicated iPad verson for these games whereas the Android versions are universal across multiple screen sizes, and partly because there are more OS versions and hardware differences to accommodate.

What about other tablets or new entrants to the market like Windows 8 in 2012? Prising users away from their Apple devices will not be easy, though I still think Microsoft has chances if it plays to its strengths in business applications.

Running Windows on an Apple iPad

I love the convenience of the iPad but there are times when I miss Windows apps. It is not just for work; there is nothing on the iPad to rival Jack Bridge, for example.

The solution is to run Windows on the iPad via remote desktop.

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Most versions of Windows have remote desktop built-in, though you do need to install a client on the iPad. I have tried several and settled for the moment on Mocha RDP. If you tap the up arrow at bottom right, you get a toolbar which controls the on-screen keyboard, extra keys useful for Windows, and a menu with options including a macro of pre-defined keystrokes. It even works with my cheap iPad keyboard.

The downside of this approach is that Windows needs to be running somewhere on your network. However Mocha RDP supports wake on lan, so you can turn it on remotely; note that this normally needs to be activated in the PC BIOS.

In my case I already run a Hyper-V server, a free download. I have installed Windows 7 on a VM (virtual machine), so it is always available.

The iPad also supports VPN (Virtual Private Network), so given a decent broadband connection I could connect to Windows while out and about. Alternatively there are systems like LogMeIn which do not require a VPN, though you have to install the LogMeIn agent on the target PC.

The general approach makes a lot of sense to me. Technically it is a hybrid thin/thick client approach. An iPad or other tablet is smart and has its own local apps and storage, but does not attempt to provide the full capabilities of a PC or Mac. When you need that, you can log into a remote desktop.

It is another example of how the mobile revolution is making us rethink how we do computing. The thin client concept is nothing new, but it is only now that it is becoming compelling for users as well as administrators, giving them the convenience of a tablet as well as access to rich applications like Microsoft Office.

Microsoft no doubt has its own plans for combining tablets with desktop-as-a-service. I would guess that it involves Windows 8 on ARM; but it will take some effort to tempt users away from their iPads.

Asus Transformer Prime looks great – but I would rather have it with Windows 8

Asus has announced the Transformer Prime, a quad-core tablet which comes with a mobile dock. The tablet looks like this:

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but it docks with a keyboard to become more like a laptop:

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The dock includes a keyboard, USB port, SD card slot, and an additional battery. Asus claim a battery life of 18 hours for the tablet when docked, or 12 hours for the tablet alone.

Specs for the Transformer Prime include 32GB storage, 1GB RAM, micro HDMI port, front and rear facing cameras (the rear camera can take full 1080p HD video), light sensor and gyroscope, GPS, combined audio and mic-in jack, and of course wi-fi and Bluetooth.

The real star of the Transformer Prime though is NVIDIA’s new Tegra 3 SoC (System on a Chip).

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Tegra 3 includes a quad-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU and a 12-core GeForce GPU, compared to its predecessor the dual-core Tegra 2 with its 8 core GPU. It also supports double the amount of RAM: 2GB rather than 1GB. Anand Lal Shimpi has a great overview here.

The Transformer Prime is set to arrive in the UK in early January with a recommended price of £499 inc VAT. It will run Android Ice Cream Sandwich.

Perhaps I have spent too much time with the Windows 8 preview over the last month, but I cannot help thinking that this would make an excellent Windows 8 tablet. I like the idea of the keyboard/dock which also forms protection for the tablet screen; with Windows and Office this might be the only device I need when travelling.

If the laptop had been invented after the tablet …

I attended a press briefing for a new kind of portable computing device which its inventors are calling a “laptop” and have been trying out a review sample.

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Unlike today’s one-piece slate form factor, the laptop has a hinged top which when open forms the screen. The lower piece, called the keyboard, has physical buttons representing the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and other useful inputs, more or less matching the on-screen input panel we are used to.

The makers claim that a keyboard is faster to use than an input panel, but I am not convinced. One of the problems is that you are either looking at the screen, or the keyboard, and it takes a lot of practice to type without looking at the keyboard and missing what is appearing on the screen.

The real benefit is that without an input panel, there is more space on the screen for the application. Still, bearing in mind that the input panel disappears when not in use, this is not really such a big deal.

The downside of the laptop is that the two-piece design makes it bulkier and potentially more delicate than a conventional tablet. I also found that while it works fine on a desk, in a constrained space such as in an aeroplane seat the hinge design is awkward to use, and on several occasions I gave in to the frustration and used my normal tablet instead.

If you are standing up, the laptop is horrible to use, whereas a tablet works fine: you can hold it in one hand and control it with the other.

Laptops will be more expensive than tablets because of the more complex design, though we were shown a cheaper variant that has a passive screen which does not respond to touch.

This is odd to use; at first you find yourself constantly stabbing at the screen by mistake, but eventually you can train yourself to do everything with the keyboard. Just make sure you do not ever switch back to a tablet, otherwise when you come back to the laptop you will find yourself stabbing the screen again!

In order to mitigate the lack of touch control on these low-end devices, the designers have added an on-screen pointer which you can think of as a virtual finger. A small area in the centre of the keyboard is touch-sensitive, and moving your finger there moves the on-screen “finger”. You can then tap or click a button to simulate a finger tap.

It is a clever idea, though operating at one remove from the screen itself takes some getting used to. In the end though, it feels like a step backwards and for most users the extra cost of the normal touch screen is well worth it.

My view: for certain specialist tasks the laptop may catch on, but I cannot see it succeeding in the mass market.

Inspired by Ten failings that will check the tablet’s rise

Amazon Silk: fast cloud-powered browser, or a new way to mine your data?

Amazon announced its new range of Kindle devices today and the web is buzzing with debate about the impact of the new Android-based Kindle Fire tablet on Apple and others.

Amazon knows how to pile high and sell cheap, and can make money from content even if it gives away the hardware, so it is a strong contender in this space.

The real innovation announced today though was in the web browser. Amazon announced Silk, which splits the browser between your Kindle Fire and EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud).

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Amazon’s point: it can hold a massive cache of web content on EC2, as well as performing common-sense optimizations like scaling images to an appropriate size before sending them to your device.

Is this really new? Much of it sounds familiar, if you know about caching and proxies. Nevertheless, Amazon is in a strong position with its large cloud resource, and can design the web browser specifically for its cloud proxy. In addition, it knows the exact size and capability of the device. And perhaps its smart engineers have come up with better ways to cache. One feature is predictive caching – sending down the page it things you will visit next, before you actually go there.

There are some hard problems, as I have found in trying to optimize my own web site. Caching dynamic content, so that PHP script does not get executed by every browser request, is an obvious thing to do; but web pages draw content from multiple sources, including scripts that serve ad content that is meant to be targeted for the specific viewer. Optimizing that is harder.

It does also occur to me that a side-effect of Silk is that every single bit of browsing you do will go through Amazon and could potentially be mined for data about your browsing habits. Amazon, naturally, is well-placed to send you related ads from its own retail site. Amazon has not mentioned this aspect, but I am sure it has been thought about.

Android tablets ahead of Apple iPad on Amazon

Following Gartner’s report on the expected dominance of Apple’s iPad2 in the tablet market throughout 2011 I took a quick look at Amazon’s sales and user ratings.

My guess is that Apple stores and direct sales online account for a large proportion of iPad sales, so no doubt the iPad is ahead overall. Even so, I was interested to find  the iPad at number 7 on Amazon.co.uk, not only below three cheap 7” cheapies from little-known brands, but also below the Asus EeePad Transformer and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, both of which are at iPad-like prices.

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Buyers on Amazon.com seem to have less enthusiasm for the cheapies. At the time of writing, bargain prices have pushed HP’s discontinued TouchPad to number 1, followed by the EeePad and the Motorola XOOM. Apple iPad is at 4, with Galaxy Tab 10.1 at 5 and 6.

When you see nearly 500 user reviews and a four star average rating, as for the Eee Pad, it shows that these things really are selling and being enjoyed.

Of these I have only properly tried the TouchPad and the iPad. I did not much like the TouchPad, though apparently firmware updates have considerably improved it.