BlackBerry OS 10, BlackBerry Z10: First Impressions

Yesterday, I attended the worldwide launch of BlackBerry 10 (the Toronto instance). I was impressed by the way the event was handled, by the PR moves that were announced, and most of all by the new OS itself. I think BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion) has done everything right. I sincerely hope the often-fickle marketplace rewards them for it.

Since yesterday, I’ve had a chance to spend an hour or so with the new BlackBerry Z10. Here are a few early impressions.

BlackBerry Z10 default apps    BlackBerry Z10 minimized apps More…

CES 2013: Why Should Consumers Care?

The annual Consumer Electronics Show is about to kick-off in Las Vegas, and the tide of hype is in full flood. But this year the show is under a shadow. A number of the major participants are seeing ten- or eleven-figure cash problems, and other companies — such as Microsoft — won’t be attending. Industry response to these fundamental concerns boils down to: “What — me worry?”

Reuters has just predicted the major trends at CES 2013:

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas promises a new generation of “smart” gadgets, some controlled by voice and gestures, and technology advancements in cars, some of which already let you dictate emails or check real-time gas prices.

ZDnet speculates along similar lines as to what will be The Next Big Thing. Of course, we all have a vested interest in this, and a strong temptation to offer the most optimistic outlook. But the reality is that this year there may be no “Next Big Thing.” This could well be the year that the whole consumer electronics industry runs out of steam. More…

Obnoxious Office

It’s amazing that Microsoft Office still manages to dominate the world of ‘productivity’ applications. The feature set is good (though stuck firmly in the 1990s), but the under the hood it’s the worst-programmed mess I’ve ever encountered. What’s particularly galling is that a lot of the problems are there not by accident, but by design. Case in point:

  • I need to install holidays in the Outlook calendar for 2013. No can do. Outlook 2007 only goes up to 2012.
  • Is there a simple fix? A tiny download, perhaps? No. You need, at minimum, a Microsoft executable ‘hotfix.’
  • Can you just download it? No. You need to request a link to be sent to your email address.
  • Can you just install it? No. You need at least Outlook SP2.

More…

Auto-updates: Is It Just Me…?

I just came across yet another security discussion, in which at least one poster emphasized the importance of auto-updates as a means of keeping a system protected. Here’s the response I added:

I couldn’t agree less. Auto update is a huge vulnerability. It’s literally a welcome mat for some third party to shove software into the bowels of your system. That third party may be both trustworthy and technically competent… but there is no guarantee that it will remain so over time, and no likelihood that you’ll know if and when it becomes untrustworthy or incompetent.

More…

Tell Apple to Bring the Jobs Home!

I just got a press release from Apple, reporting that it sold 5 million units of the iPhone 5 in that product’s first weekend. At the same time, I noticed an item on (some) news sites, reporting that, despite Apple’s assurances that everything is now hunky-dory at its oriental manufacturing arm, riots have broken out at the Foxconn plant in China. Apparently, a “personal dispute” led to clashes involving 2,000 employees, with some 40 people injured. Clearly, all is not completely rosy.

But whether the labor problems are fixed or not, the fact remains that Apple is having all its gear made in China. It’s hard to see any cost savings being passed on to the consumer; the iPhone 5 tops out at almost $900, assuming you pay cash rather than sign up for the indentured-servitude telco contract. But more fundamental is the fact that major American companies, such as Apple, really should be supporting their American home economy, not that of China.

The Apple announcement didn’t break down sales by geography, but it’s safe to assume that the number of US buyers was in 7 figures. All those millions of iPhone purchasers should feel not happy, but ashamed that they’re supporting low-paying jobs in China, that could have been decent jobs for their neighbors at home. If only they’d put just a little pressure on Apple, and other companies that have been eager to export jobs overseas.

Apple is by all accounts the richest company in the world. It has taken a leading stance on ‘green’ electronics. And it really could afford to take a leading stance on rebuilding the US manufacturing base. By the same token, Apple fans like to think they’re a hip, literate, discriminating bunch. They should be more than hip enough to see the logic of insisting that their favorite companies support the American economy. Of paying a bit extra, if need be, for products made ‘over here,’ and shopping around for alternatives to products that aren’t. Or abstaining entirely, in the case of obvious luxury items, if none of the available products makes the grade.

Everyone loves a nifty new toy. But it’s high time we started looking past the shiny surface, at some of the intangibles. And to realize that we are voting with our dollars, whether we think about it or not. Companies like Apple will always take the path of least resistance, highest profit… unless we tell them, in the only way that matters, that’s no longer good enough.

Surface: Who’s It For?

I’ve just been looking at some NPD stats. I probably shouldn’t quote them in detail, as NPD does like to sell these reports. But I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I mention that the percentage of tablet owners currently using wireless or docked keyboards is  just over 10%. In other words, with Surface, Microsoft is gunning for not more than one-tenth of the tablet audience.

Of course, you could argue that the people who really want keyboards are all holding out for something better than the current iOS/Android devices. In marketing terms, that kind of argument is called “wishful thinking.” It’s not necessarily false, but it’s unhelpful at best, and dangerous at worst. (My own theory is s equally likely: that most people like tablets exactly because they lack a keyboard.)

My prediction is that Surface Pro will do modestly well, but that sales will be almost entirely cannibalized off the existing Windows laptop and Ultrabook business. (Surface RT will, of course, fail miserably, given that it doesn’t run Windows applications, has a zero base of it’s own Metro apps, and offers no particular advantage over existing Android or iOS devices.)

Elections

It’s hard to ignore the insane election race underway in the US, awash in ‘dark money’ and over-the-top rhetoric. I can’t say how I’d vote, if it was my choice. But I do have this bit of general advice for all elections:

As long as you vote for the lesser of two evils, you will always have an evil government.

Also: I know there are billions being spent on advertising and propaganda. But you don’t actually have to listen. You could use your own eyes and ears and brain. You could look around, investigate, educate yourself. You could think for yourself. Propaganda only works if you’re too lazy to seek other sources of information.

The Dual Irony of Windows 8

I’ve been writing about the upcoming Microsoft Surface, and studying the keynote presentation describing it. It has struck me that with Windows 8, Microsoft has managed to screw up not once but twice, in a single release:

  • Windows 8 RT looks like a pretty good tablet solution. But, apart from the highly misleading name, it offers absolutely no continuity whatsoever with the 30-year-old Windows ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Windows 8 Pro breaks violently with that same 30-year tradition. Yet it fails to deliver a touch-based solution for existing Windows applications, with not even a token effort at making the desktop mode more finger-friendly.

This really is the worst of both worlds. Microsoft has belatedly launched a brand-new mobile OS, that’s going to have to catch up in stability and app support with two huge contenders, iOS and Android. (Even the BlackBerry OS has more of a track record at this point.) Yet it’s squandered its one undeniable advantage, by not playing off of the huge success of Windows on the PC. As Microsoft has pointed out, the potential audience for a truly Windows-like mobile OS was on the order of a half-billion users. The audience for brand-new MetrOS, dramatically less Windows-like than any of its competitors? Who knows.

At the same time, Microsoft has launched a new desktop OS without adding much-needed touch support. Windows 8 slaps on the goofy new Metro mode like a coat of paint… but, astoundingly, offers no improvement whatsoever in touch facilities for existing applications. Simply enlarging the red X ‘close window’ button might have been a start; how hard would that have been??? Microsoft has done so pathetically little to make the desktop more usable by touch that you simply can’t help thinking the company plans to kill it entirely. Thereby discarding its own most important asset: the continuity of applications, skills and user acceptance that Windows has built up over three decades. Microsoft has ensured that Windows users looking for a touch-based solution will find more continuity by switching to a competing OS.

Nice work. It’s not all that rare to see a big company shoot itself in the foot. But both feet with one pull of the trigger? That takes real genius.

Metered Internet in Canada

The CRTC set off a powderkeg, when they ruled to allow big service providers to force smaller resellers to impose usage caps and overage fees on their end-users.

Now that the issue has been opened up for debate, it’s time to re-examine Internet pricing in general. As Netflix has pointed out, the big Canadian ISPs are charging overage rates of about $1 (I’ve seen as high as $2.50) for a gigabyte that costs them something like $0.01 to deliver. That’s quite a markup. (My own conversations with smaller ISPs roughly confirm this math. For example, last summer I was told that the average cost per gigabyte is “below 3 cents.”)

Much of the pro-metering argument has hinged on vague, emotional talk about “making the bandwidth hogs pay.” This assumes that the cost of that extra bandwidth is actually significant. At $0.01 per gigabyte, it’s clearly not. The difference between the mythical ‘light user’ and ‘bandwidth hog’ simply isn’t enough to argue about. We need to recognize this reality: that the cost of bandwidth today is insignificant compared to the cost of simply maintaining a connection.

Let’s say the heaviest user grabs 350 gigabytes in a month. (Not easy, even over the fastest Canadian connection.) Total cost: $3.50. That’s what we’re arguing about: $3.50 a month. Given that the ‘bandwidth hog’ is almost certainly on a higher-speed plan, he’s probably already paying more than enough to cover the extra usage. But never mind. Just add the $3.50 to their bill, and we can all move on.

Clearly, the argument isn’t about metered or non-metered billing. It’s about fair pricing.

It’s also not about a few ‘bandwidth hogs.’ Very soon, we’re all going to be ‘bandwidth hogs.’ As services like Netflix open up streaming video, monthly caps of 25GB are going to seem ridiculous. In fact, there’s a general agreement that all television may be shifting to the Internet: ‘IPTV.’ Right now, you can leave the soaps running while you cook. Do that with metered billing, and you’re going to have a very nasty shock at the end of the month.

With digital technology, prices should be going down, not up. Yes, digital is better. But it’s also cheaper. A CD sounds better than an LP (get over it), but it’s also cheaper to manufacture. Digital TVs are better than analog, but are also cheaper to make. DVD players (or digital video recorders, in so far as they’ve been allowed to exist) are better, simpler and cheaper than VCRs.

Unfortunately, the markup on delivery of traditional TV services (cable and satellite) is much, much larger than anything ISPs can ever hope to make on Internet service. The big ISPs who are in both businesses are going to be reluctant to abandon their role as gatekeepers of content, in favor of one as vendors of commodity connection services. But that’s where things are headed, and Canada needs to keep up.

One way to help is to speak up.  The Internet is vital to our entertainment, our livelihood, our democratic process. Canadians don’t mind paying our way, but the price has to be a fair one, not a crippling penalty specifically aimed at holding back the future.

The CRTC has asked for input. We need to give it to them. OpenMedia.ca is the group that’s done most to champion this issue, and they have all the info about how to send comments to the CRTC on this page. Do it now.