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February 2011

HP's First webOS

Sunday, February 13, 2011 0

If I had to list my favourite computer companies of all time, I’d have to say Microsoft for software and HP for hardware. If you ever needed any further proof of that, just look back through the history of this very blog; it’s absolutely littered with examples. The reason for my love of these companies is similar to my love of all things Ferrari; they both have a long successful history, passion, and littered with commitment to being the very best.

H
P is the one I want to write about today. Reading back over the history of Hewlett Packard from the days of Bill and Dave’s start up in their Palo Alto garage in the 1940’s from their humble beginnings in oscilloscopes, their rumoured involvements with Disney and the first portable calculator. The foray into the many personal computers, printers, servers, storage and strive for excellence has turned HP into what it is today; the worlds number 1 computer manufacturer.

Even Apple’s Steve Wozniak designed the first ‘Apple 1’ computer whilst working for HP!

More recently I’ve been captured by their purchase of another legendary company within the handheld computing market; Palm. When Palm announced their rebirth and new product at CES 2009 with the “Palm Pre” and the hype was started to take on Apple in the mobile market space, I knew I had to have one.

Let me set one thing clear right now, webOS is a fantastic operating system, even though it doesn’t have majority market share; it’s slick, clever, clean and in my opinion the best looking mobile phone operating system on the market today (iOS doesn’t do it for me, Android is too cluttered, Windows Mobile 7’s tiles look too simple as blocks of colour). The original Pre was let down by a bad keyboard; which I’ve never had a problem with, until very recently which makes me think I’ve just been lucky enough to have one that’s been well built and a quality issue was more to blame than ‘bad hardware’.

When Palm failed to match the hype and the company spiralled and put up for sale, I thought it would be the end of a great company. Not so, the purchase of Palm by HP was the perfect fit in every respect. Not only would HP be able to address the hardware problem, but they’d be able to revitalise webOS and push it beyond only a smart phone.

Thus in turn, the recent “Think Beyond” event set the stall for what HP and Palm can achieve together with webOS. Three new products announced and a rallying call for developers to adopt the platform. First the HP Veer, a credit card sized phone running a full version of webOS for those who wish to carry a device and have more room in the pocket, the Palm Pre 3, the first HP built Pre hardware running the latest webOS 2.1 software and finally the HP Touchpad, the first webOS tablet device designed to go head-to-head with Apple’s iPad.

HP Pre 3

Just by looking at the photos of the Pre 3, it visually looks like a much more solid and better designed device than the original Pre (I’ve never seen a Pre 2, so I’m unsure just how much of a shift there is in build quality between version 2 and 3). I’m under no illusions that this improvement in hardware quality has HP’s signature all over it; the keyboard looks a million times better, the slide movement appears to be better designed although the device does appear to have lost some of its distinct curved shape (which I’ve always admired). The hardware looks like it has been addressed.

Version 2 of webOS doesn’t appear to be a vast departure from version 1 and is more of an evolutionary step forwards, much like Apple’s iOS improvements and releases with every new iPhone. There are some really funky improvements though; grouping cards together is an interesting one allowing much easier and manageable multi-tasking, but the biggest change seems to be in its “Just type” feature; simply type and you’ll be given a selection of choices from ‘Synergy’ allowing you to find emails, websites, applications and the ability to post directly into those applications such as Facebook, email and even SMS messaging.

'S
ynergy’ has been the backbone to webOS since the beginning and it’s a well put together part of the product. Bringing localised search into the OS and making it smart is very clever indeed and with the improvements in version 2 seem to strengthen it’s involvement in the OS and provide a smart way of working and navigating through the device – this could easily be most used feature of the phone, especially if you use your device to the maximum.
HP Touchpad

I’ve been scathing about the Apple iPad for some time – having never used one – but I’ve always maintained that to buy one, in my opinion, you need to buy it for a specific reason. I’ve still not managed to come up with that reason, but I am strangely tempted and for one reason only: HP’s Touchstone technology.

Touch a Pre and Touchpad together and suddenly the two devices become one, allowing them to work completely in sync with one another. Two excellent examples of this are web browsing and text messages;

Browse a webpage on your phone and start reading – if the time comes that you need the bigger tablet screen to carry on reading, simply touch the devices together and the webpage jumps from your phone directly onto your tablet as if by magic. I love anything like this and have secret hopes that Microsoft will develop similar technology to allow me to do similar things between my laptop and my media centre; start a film, YouTube clip or webpage on your laptop, click the “send to TV” button and it should magically appear on my TV screen.

But my technology fantasy from MS aside, HP have actually gone and done it! I can see this being great for reading, especially for ebooks and with an Amazon Kindle app on the horizon, this sharing of screens between devices is going to be perfect for reading with.

When using your tablet, it’s unlikely that you will be using your phone at the same time. Touch the devices to pair and create the partnership – any SMS messages that then appear on your phone are then also instantly delivered to your tablet too!

Apps

Whilst all this is very well and good, the webOS platform and hardware is nothing without an active developer community and support from web companies. I was therefore pleased to hear that HP have also appointed former Apple and Lucasfilm CTO, Richard Kerris – who according to this article by MobileCrunch
was the guy who persuaded these very companies to write apps for Apple.

The Microsoft Factor

Ok, so here’s my dilemma. I’m excited by all of these improvements from HP and the webOS platform that I’ve devoted my past 18 months to preaching its significance at every opportunity, but at the back of my mind there are three very important factors in the back of my mind:

Windows Mobile 7 is without doubt an equally attractive proposition right now, improvements are coming all of the time it seems and Microsoft will undoubtedly get developers behind the platform and grow the concept at an incredible pace if they can attract a significant user base. This, in my mind, puts it in direct competition with HP’s efforts to recruit users and developers to its platform.

Secondly, if Microsoft manage to get Windows 7 onto a workable tablet, this makes any Microsoft tablet much more valuable than any tablet offerings from any other company because it already fits into my existing infrastructure (read; Microsoft Media Centre, Xbox, network attached storage, etc), and I have a bunch of applications for Windows already (read; Microsoft Office).

Thirdly, Microsoft does what no other company is doing at the moment – allowing other devices to connect to each other and connect to any service of your choosing. For example, Microsoft allow you to connect to network shares, they allow you to plug your Apple iPhone, Android, HP or other phone into their operating system (admittedly sometimes using some third party connectivity suite such as iTunes or a device driver). Apple and HP’s approach with their smart phone and tablet strategy is that they expect you have both devices from one company.

This locks the user into their platforms directly – I’m not a fan of this. If I wanted to buy a HP Touchpad, is HP going to provide support for me to connect a Windows Phone 7 to the device using its Touchstone technology? Whilst I can’t think of any reason they couldn’t by providing some sort of application or device driver installed onto the phone, my feelings are that this is extremely unlikely. This also probably means that a Touchpad isn’t going to support Microsoft’s cloud based services such as Live Mesh or even allow transfer of the screen from webOS to Windows 7/Media Centre/etc.

This isn’t a grumble directed purely at HP webOS, it’s a problem across the board (Apple, Android, Dell, etc), with all device manufacturers right now who fail to provide that level of interoperability across platforms; only Microsoft seem to have anything close to support for multiple manufacturers.

All of this closed platform, device interoperability and ‘lock-in’ to specific manufacturers in my opinion isn’t good for the next generation of technology as it shifts into cloud based services and more needs to be done by all involved to agree to some basic standards on interoperability. The problem is, no one can ever agree standards, which worries me that we’re heading towards a fragmented device/software/manufacturer reality with no open standards or interoperability.

And that is a very bleak future indee
d.


Find The Best

Sunday, February 6, 2011 0

Stumbled across a website today called “FindTheBest.com” which is in beta mode at this time, but I believe has huge potential as a concept and I thought it was definitely worth a mention on a blog post.

The site basically aggregates and ranks products or items against each other and shows you the best of the best based on your search criteria.

For example, which are the best smart phones;
http://smartphones.findthebest.com/ within this ‘application’, you can see which smart phones are currently considered the best in the market, but then using the sliders down the left hand side of the page, you can drill down to specifics, such as price, region, network provider, etc. The main page then updates according to the selections you’ve made and filters out the results.

This is very similar to Microsoft Bing’s Visual Search feature (which is also in Beta), and I’m sure there are others who do similar things in this space. What I like about FindTheBest.com is that they refer to each of their search as an ‘apps’ and they cover a broad range of subjects. They also show a summary at the very bottom of the page which helps the user to understand exactly what the ‘app’ does and where the data is pulled from.

Whilst I love Bing’s Visual Search, the added information on ranking products is a huge bonus and something I like very much, especially as I often like to compare products closely and read up on reviews before I buy. This visual comparison approach is extremely attractive for doing exactly this.

I especially like this app -
http://whiskey.findthebest.com/saved_compare/Top-10-Irish-Whiskeys

Goolge On A Downward Spiral?

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Are Google spiralling downward out of control? Since Microsoft launched Bing a couple of years ago, I switched my ‘search’ needs to them; I don’t really know why I did this, more out of curiosity of a new search engine than anything more than likely, but the site with its glossy and interesting background photos has really drawn me in big time over Google’s plain white page.

Functionality wise, I haven’t seen much of a difference at all and search results have been more or less vaguely similar for some time. Whilst everyone mocked Microsoft for calling the service “Bing”, I find myself typing bing.com far more easily than I do typing google.com, perhaps its the four letters verse six thing, but its just that little bit easier.

But my search engine preference is not what I wanted to write about today; today I wanted to write about the war that is erupting between Google and what seems like the world.

Google Vs Apple

Those with a good memory will remember the punch and counter-punch that occurred when Apple decided to block the Google Voice applications/service from its beloved iPhone. At the time I fully supported Google, an application and/or service shouldn’t be blocked simply because Apple felt it didn’t fit with them. Google moved in on the mobile phone market with Android and then the ‘thou shalt not poach employees’ agreement between Google and Apple to be broken and Eric Schmidt to exit stage right from Apple’s board.

Google Vs Apple was definitely on! Rumours that Apple would shortly ditch Google in favour of Microsoft’s Bing were then plastered all over the Internet and with Microsoft’s moved to position Bing as the mobile search engine of choice, as well as writing a few iPhone applications, these rumours were certainly believable.

That’s not where it ends however, Google’s Chrome browser gained a lot of traction, very quickly and it seemed everyone downloaded a copy to replace their current browser. Now, I’m not going to defend Microsoft too much, as it was their own doing that they started to lag behind in browser technology – something they managed to address with IE8 and shortly with HTML5 enabled IE9.

Knowing all of this, Google went in for the kill and wrote a rather cunning, sneaky (‘do no evil’), plug-in for Microsoft Internet Explorer that essentially turned it into Chrome. It was designed for those in the workplace who weren’t able to install or select their own browser software; I’m not sure how popular the plug-in became, but it was a tactical move none-the-less by Google to rile Microsoft.

It seemed that Google was executing a remarkably clever strategy and it was all working for to their advantage. Google Wave, Buzz, newer versions of Chrome and Android were released and even their OS was planned and on its way to ride the netbook hype.

But then something unexpected happened; the Wave crashed with thunderous roar across the Internet, the collaboration suite hadn’t been successful and users weren’t ready or able to understand what it was all about. Buzz failed to match the hype of other casual social networks (read; Twitter). Google had failed to enter the ‘social’ space, the US Government has had them under the spotlight and things were starting to stack up against them as they were off focusing on self-driving cars.

H.264

Then came the H.264 issue; for years Google have preached from up high about open source software and employing coding Internet standards – namely HTML5. Apple started the fight with Adobe over Flash and took a fair amount of abuse over it, whilst Google quietly sat back and continued to push forward on a HTML5 mission.

Personally, I don’t have any problem with Flash technology, for years it’s been the underlying lynchpin to the web and jazzing up websites no end with video, animation and the visual appealing functionality it has provided. Similarly, I have no issues with Microsoft Silverlight; their alternative to Flash, its lightweight, clever, brings additional functionality to the web, etc.

HTML5 standards seemed to be gelling nicely and the big three had all managed to agree and get on-board with HTML5, even Microsoft after a bit of a foopar by announcing and then retracting its stand on Silverlight technologies in favour of HTML5.

But then something drastic and totally unexpected happened, Google withdrew its support for the HTML5 video standard known as H.264 in favour of “WebM”, which as far as I can make out from the number of reports I’ve read are partly based on Adobe Flash and therefore not completely open source as they claim. The reason cited by Google for this is that H.264 has some licensing agreements attached to it, but have no closed or active licensing or costs associated to it; which essentially makes it ‘open source’, but not open source enough for Google it seems.

Microsoft and Apple continue to support the H.264 video standard and have stated that they will continue to support it. This puts Google in an isolated, yet interesting position; YouTube (which is Google owned), is undoubtedly still the biggest and wildly used video site on the Internet and is where most users will go to view video content online. Is it likely that an alternative could take over this mantle? I’d say no, but then looking at how video online is changing; streaming media and content sites such as Hulu, NetFlix and LOVEFiLM, the video landscape could very well change and be dictated by these players rather than Google.

My favourite part of this story is that Microsoft, perhaps as a revenge tactic against the Chrome plug-in for Internet Explorer, has written a plug-in for Chrome which re-enabled H.264 video encoding. It’s the perfect counter-punch reply if that’s what was intended.

Google Vs Microsoft: hiybbprqag

Few days ago Google, Microsoft and search engine Blekko were at attend the conference; “Farsight 2011: Beyond the Search Box”, to talk about the next generation of search (http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/03/how-google-ambushed-microsoft-and-changed-the-subject).

What happened though was something very different; Google chose this moment to out and out attack/accuse Microsoft of copying their search results within Bing (‘Do no Evil’). A supposed sting operation had been set up by Google on the random search term “hiybbprqag”; Google would bring back a certain set of sites and confirmed that Bing brought back a different set. They then did the same test a month later and lo-and-behold, the returned results from Bing magically matched those from Google.

Microsoft’s explanation for this was that from searches performed via Internet Explorer and their Bing toolbars for users who had opted into sharing such data, they were able to tweak the returned results for searches for “hiybbprqag”. Hence, Bing is able to improve its search results directly from users finding the results that they expected and ranking the more successful ones near to the top, etc, etc. Much like Google does with their own secret algorithm “PageRank”, learning from user’s clicks and feedbacks.

For Google to so publicly announce/accuse Bing of plagiarism is in my mind, out and out wrong especially for a company so intent on not doing any evil; the quick repost from Microsoft on how these results are generated seems to verify their story (I don’t think anyone could have came up with that explanation, under the pressure of the stage lights, if it wasn’t true).

The whole incident has divided the Internet though; those in the Google camp who accuse Microsoft of continuing to play with questionable tactics (of old), and those in the Bing camp who claim that what Microsoft do with the data they collect from their users and leads to ‘better’ search results then so be it; lots of Internet companies collect statistics and behaviours of their users, its hardly anything new and Google employee the same practices (their entire ‘Adwords’ platform is dependent upon it!).

Is this Google in a bit of a panic or on the defensive on search? Has a trend reversed and they are feeling a little bit of pressure from Microsoft in their own back yard on their core search product? I don’t know, but it’s certainly fun to think about.

CEO Change

Also, quite recently Google shocked the world with the announcement that CEO Eric Schmidt would be stepping down as CEO, to be replaced by co-founder Serge Brin. It was an unexpected turn of events, especially as Schmidt has headed the company for the past decade. Whilst I don’t want to make too much out of it, after all Schmidt has stepped up as Chairman and is still very much a part of the company, it’s a worthy enough change to talk about.

I do believe that this change was always planned and to be expected, the Google co-founders never really wanted a CEO and only really appointed Schmidt to be a figure head and leader when they took the company public.

But the old adage “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” comes to mind here. Why move Schmidt and Brin’s role around if there wasn’t any reason to change them – especially as Google has grown a lot over the past decade from search into this company with projects in pretty much as many aspects and businesses as they dare venture into.

Brin isn’t due to take the CEO role until April I believe, but with the sudden course-corrections in H.264 and the public accusations of plagiarism; has Brin taken over or influenced these decisions and actions to be taken earlier than many expected. Has the rot started to show at Google, has the pressure got to them, are the tides about to turn and change is on the horizon?

We’ve seen it many times before; the success of Microsoft only for them to fade, same with Apple and it was only a matter of time before Google fell into the same downturn cycle. Watch out Facebook, your time will come…

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