Review: Pebble Smartwatch

ConTECHxtual Review: Pebble SmartwatchA few weeks ago, my Pebble watch finally showed up and I’ve been using it practically non-stop. With ample time to see both the good and the bad, I thought it was time to share my thoughts.

For those unfamiliar, the Pebble Smartwatch was one of the first Kickstarter darlings, raising over $10 million from over 68K backers. I happened to be one of those backers, and in mid-July my Pebble made its way to my doorstep.

The setup was relatively easy and I’ve had little to no issues with it. So far I’ve only used it for the text and calling feature, but it’s been great for that. In fact, I can leave my phone charging in the bedroom when I’m out in the living room and not miss any texts. The only downside is that I can’t reply to messages, but it’s nice being able to keep up with incoming texts.

The integration with Runkeeper is impressive as well. The app automatically pairs with the Pebble and displays run time, distance, and pace on the watch. I haven’t been able to test it much yet, but I think it’ll work well.

The only thing I wish they’d change is the lack of apps. It’s really difficult to install anything beyond the 5-6 apps in the Pebble store. However, from the sounds of it, iOS 7 should allow for a much broader range of app integration. That being said, I’ve still been able to find workarounds to create custom watch faces like the Minion one pictured above.

Pros:

  • Easy setup
  • Delivers on Kickstarter promises
  • Runkeeper app integration is solid

Cons:

  • Limited app selection
  • iOS functionality is limited to texts, calls, and emails
  • Pebble only acts as a display mechanism for calls and texts

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m a big fan of my Pebble watch. Yes, there is room for improvement, but the Pebble absolutely follows through on what was promised to the 68K backers who originally pledged money towards the project. Most importantly, the Pebble has been making some great partnerships, has a lot of developer support, and has a ton of potential moving forward.

ConTECHxtual Conversations: Nintendo’s Mini a Mighty Miss?

Update: Nintendo spoke to Polygon on 12/6 about the Wii Mini’s lack of features and Canada-exclusive release. Nintendo is targeting two markets with the device. One, families that haven’t bought any Wii hardware or games yet. Second, Wii owners who are in the market for a second console and don’t need the online functionality. No elaboration was given to the Canada launch or if/when it will be available globally.

Earlier this week, the Internet was buzzing with the leaked announcement of a Nintendo Mini console. Even better, the leaked device was listed at the magical $99 price point.

However, that excitement was quickly replaced by confusion and frustration when more details became available. The device not only lacked Gamecube support, but had no online functionality whatsoever. Further dashing the hopes of budget-minded gamers was the revelation that the Nintendo Mini is exclusive to Canada.

After posting a link about the Nintendo Mini from PandoDaily, I had an interesting conversation on Google+ about the new device and the implications its lack of Internet might have. That being said, here’s the latest installment of ConTECHxtual Conversations.

Me: A $99 Nintendo console could’ve been huge, but they cut way too many features.

Response: Everyone seems to skip over the fact that this isn’t launching in places with well developed internet infrastructure.  It’s launching in Canada.  We might not ever see it in the U.S. or Japan.

Me: That’s a valid point, assuming it does stay a Canada-exclusive product. I think the bigger question is whether or not people still want to game if there isn’t that online community to play with?

Personally, I’m more of an old-school gamer so the lack of GameCube support bugged me more than the lack of Internet (even though I know Nintendo nixed GameCube support with the updated wii and Wii U).

Response: I don’t think it will stay exclusive to Canada.  They might try to market this to alternate markets like South America.  The Wii doesn’t really have many games that are substantially improved by online multiplayer.  It’s primarily a single player and local multiplayer experience.

As for Gamecube support, the kind of people they’ll be going after with this won’t have GameCube games.

Me: There’s definitely potential as alternative market product. I just think there’s the opportunity to market the Nintendo as a supplementary product to the higher-powered and higher-priced Wii U, much like the rumored Xbox set top box expected to hit next year. This “Xbox Mini” has already gotten a lot of buzz, despite the suspected lower specs and casual gaming focus.

Instead of playing catch-up with Microsoft, Nintendo could try and fire the first shot. While I have no problem with Nintendo having the Internet-less Mini they have now, releasing a different Wii Mini with a tweaked feature set could prove successful.

Nintendo could clear up much of the confusion surrounding this launch by simply stating their plan with this Wii Mini. Is it aimed at families and consumers who can’t afford other Nintendo consoles? Is it a test run for a larger release? Will it ever get online capabilities or see a global launch?

There are so many unknowns accompanying this strange, unexpected release. Maybe Nintendo didn’t foresee this Wii Mini getting as much attention as it has the last few days, but that doesn’t change the opportunity that has now presented itself. I guess the world will just have to wait and see what happens…unless you’re in Canada, of course.

Windows 8: The Point and Click Review

As a twenty-something working in digital marketing, it’s safe to say I’m well-connected. And I’m not talking about networking or the contacts I have, I’m speaking strictly in gadget terms. My iPhone is on me at all times, my Macbook Air is always on during the workday, and my e-reader keeps me occupied during the lunch hour every so often.

Once I’m home, it’s straight to the Windows laptop to check a few things before plopping myself down on the couch with my Asus Android tablet. My point is that while I grew up with Nintendos and flip phones, I’m clearly a product of the touchscreen age.

This touch-centric view is one that Microsoft took to heart with the development and release of Windows 8, a stark departure from the Windows OS we’ve known for decades. The live tile interface on the Start Screen isn’t a slow wade into designing for touch, but a headfirst dive into the deep end.

And while Windows 8 has already been reviewed again and again, most of those reviews are also focused on touch. However, many users are upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 8, and few of those systems are likely to be touch-compatible.

Having lived with Windows 8 Pro since its late-October launch, I wanted to share my thoughts on using it the way many people will be forced to; with a mouse, cursor, and no touchscreen.

The Start Screen

The first screen the Windows 8 user encounters is also the screen most accommodating for a touch interface. Sure, the live tiles are better suited for a tablet or touchscreen laptop, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not suited for a mouse or trackpad.

Something to keep in mind with the Start Screen is that the purpose is to do as little touching and clicking as possible, hence the entire live tile concept. Built for the quick glance, the Start Screen allows you to quickly see the status of your apps without having to click into each one.

Windows 8: The point and click review

Furthermore, I felt like having a mouse and cursor actually made the initial Start Screen setup much easier. Right-clicking the tiles allowed for quick and easy re-sizing or removal.

However, if the Start Screen isn’t your cup of tea, you’re always a click away from a more traditional computing experience with the Desktop app.

The Desktop

Those who are wary of the Windows 8 world will likely be spending a lot of time in Desktop mode. The Desktop mode lets you hang on to those fond memories of Windows 7 and operating systems past. Here you have full access to your programs that don’t have Windows Store apps of their own.

Much ado has been made about the removal of the Start button in Desktop mode, although I feel it doesn’t limit the overall usability of this area of Windows 8 with the right tweaks. Pinning the most-used programs to the Taskbar is an easy workaround. Then, once you get the hang of leveraging the Search Charm (discussed later), you won’t miss the Start button.

Using Windows 8

Most programs will open on the desktop in different windows, much like they would in every previous iteration of Windows. There are, however, some exceptions that I’ve noticed. For instance, Google Chrome will open as its own program. It’s as if Chrome is treated like a Windows Store app separate from the Desktop mode.

This is probably my biggest complaint with Windows 8. The issue with this new way of running Chrome is that you don’t have the option of having multiple windows, instead you forced to open an array of tabs. This goes against the side-by-side window capability that was so popular in Windows 7. Other than that, the Desktop mode performs like the old friend PC users have grown to love over the years.

Hot Corners

There has been a lot of talk about gestures in Windows 8, with tech geeks like myself debating their value and usefulness. But as I near my first full month with Windows 8, I can honestly say I’ve never used any of these gestures. What I have used, and what every Windows 8 user needs to learn to use, are the hot corners. By dragging the cursor to one of the four corners of the screen, you get quick access to different features. Getting the hang of these hot corners does wonders for improving the overall Windows 8 experience for non-touch users. Here are the hot corners available:

  • The lower left corner gets you to the Start Screen, or to the previous app if you’re currently on the Start Screen.
  • The upper left corner lets you access all of the apps and programs that you have open. This is an easy way to jump between programs, while right-clicking allows you to delete those that you want to close out.
  • Both the upper and lower right corners access the Charms feature.

These Charms have also been the focus of many reviews and debate among Windows users. The Charms available are Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. The premise is that you can access those features from within any app and execute them in an app-specific manner. See an article in the Sports app that you want to share to Facebook? Use the Share Charm and share it right from the app. Trying to find a file while in Desktop mode? Use the Search Charm and you’re good to go.

If you think about it, it’s a novel approach to standardizing these types of actions. The only drawback is that because it’s such a radical shift in the way Windows has worked in the past, it comes off as confusing and difficult for the end user.

Verdict

Is Windows 8 an operating system that focuses more on your fingertips than your mouse cursor? Absolutely.

Are there growing pains when setting up and initially using Windows 8? Of course.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my weeks using Microsoft’s latest offering, it’s that Windows 8 is still a worthwhile upgrade for those of us who point and click rather than touch and tap.

ConTECHxtual Conversations: A not-so-sweet Jelly Bean

Update: TechCrunch reports that, at the Mobile World Congress on 2/28, a Google engineering exec hinted that Android Jelly Bean could start being pushed out around November of this year.

As you’ll read in this article, I think that this wouldn’t be a smart move for Google. They need to give OEMs time to update their devices and unify the Android ecosystem more. Rushing Jelly Bean into the market is only going to further the already-troublesome fragmentation.

Last week, I came across an article on Digitimes about a rumored 2012 release of Jelly Bean, which would be the next version of Google’s Android OS. However, the guys over at Android Central doubted the legitimacy of the rumor, and I posted their rebuttal on Google+ (yes, the fact I actually still use G+ every now and then is a story in itself).

This led to a very interesting back-and-forth with a friend of mine on Google+, Nate Pickett. The following is the full conversation that he and I had, covering all sorts of Google-related issues from fragmentation to open-source systems:

NP: This just smacks of false-plant rumor. ICS rolled out, what…2 weeks ago? It’s only on 4 devices right now, tops. Fanboy speculation aside, there’s no reason Google will, or should, pump out the next iteration. They even said that they’re going to slow their roll once ICS came out so manufacturers can get on the ball about sending updates to their phones.

I think they’re just grasping at straws, trying to be relevant and first. All it ends up doing, though, is make them look desperate and silly.

Me: Exactly. I mean, I’m sure Google has a general date that they’d like to roll out future updates to the OS, but with about 1% of devices running ICS, there aren’t going to be any specifics available yet.

NP: Honestly, ICS is such a huge step up from Gingerbread in just about every way. No one’s even tried to tap the full potential of ICS yet. I’d imagine that there won’t be a next major iteration until 2013, probably in the spring.

Me: Yeah, I’ve had ICS running on my Transformer Prime for a few weeks now and I’ve been impressed with it overall. If Google can continue to unify the smartphone and tablet experience (and get it on to more devices), there’s a lot of potential there.

NP: I think that’s less Google’s problem than the manufacturers’. Unfortunately, providing open-source software means that people trying to make money off of it feel obliged to mod it. If HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG, and Sony Eriksson pushed out a vanilla update first, then an optional Sense/Motoblur/TouchWiz/etc update later, the people would be much better served.

Me: Agreed. I think now that Android is well-established and has reached its maturity with ICS, it may be time for Google to consider closing up Android and licensing it to suppliers. Companies like HTC and Samsung that heavily skin their versions can either go along or switch to webOS or even Linux maybe.

NP: I think it would be unwise to close Android. In fact, I’d argue that it needs to be opened more. I think all Android devices should be rootable out-of-the-box, there should be an easy, one-click method to load custom ROMs (or vanilla Android versions), and all capabilities of a device should be available for everyone (I’m thinking things like wireless tether capabilities that Verizon was blocking for a while and still might be). Openness drives innovation, especially in the userbase, and one of the reasons I love Android is that it’s so dynamic.

Me: I completely agree that there needs to be some completely open source systems for developers to independently drive innovation. However, most people don’t have the knowledge or access to make the most of those rootable devices and open operating systems. Most consumers have to settle for what the big companies provide, and unfortunately right now that means slow updates and carrier gouging.

I don’t know if Android is the right system to play the open role. Both Apple and Google have marketed themselves as complete ecosystems that market towards a broader consumer base.

As tech knowledge becomes more commonplace and more people learn to code, root, and hack, then I think a larger company could maybe become that go-to source for providing resources to the developer community.

NP: I think that openness factor is already there in the mod community. Closing Android will only turn people off to it. And what would the payoff be? More carrier control? That’s the absolute last thing I’d want to see. The whole mobile phone scene in America is messed up, and it’s cool that there’s this platform out that anyone who feels inclined can whip out their own version of it.

As much as I’d like to see it happen, there will never be a critical mass of people who know how to code, root, and hack a mobile phone OS especially as those systems get more intricate and complex. Let the kids and moms who want to look cool for their friends have their iPhones (not that it’s a terrible OS by any means), let the kids who want to exercise their geek muscles play with Android.

It sounds kind of silly, but if the corporations involved stopped caring about the Bottom Line and cared more about putting out a great product that’s the greatest for the greatest number of people, then we’d have unlocked bootloaders and one-click roots on every phone. Sigh, if only.

Obviously, he and I are taking very different paths up the same mountain. I was trying to look at the issues from Google’s standpoint and what they would need to do to gain market share in the mobile world. On the other hand, Nate brought up some great points about the principles of open-source software.

I do agree that openness leads to innovation, and in an ideal world the carrier gouging and slow manufacturer updates that are so rampant right now wouldn’t be a problem.

However, I do think that the recent open-sourcing of webOS could become that open resource for developers to play with, which would free up Google to close up and license Android without as severe of a backlash as they would’ve faced if they were still the only open source platform available.

Either way, the increase in manufacturers and product lines have undoubtedly legitimized Android in the mobile discussion.

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What are the next steps for Pinterest? [Part II]

This story continues from Part I, which was posted last week.

A PinPad tablet?

Given Pinterest’s meteoric rise and high usage rates, it begs the question of whether or not Pinterest should get into the tablet business.

I know, I know. The tablet market is already flooded with devices scrambling to dethrone the iPad, with the closest competitor being the Kindle Fire. However, that fact plays into my theory that Pinterest should launch a tablet of their own.

The Kindle Fire has been a success because Amazon was already established online, and the Fire integrated that service. Likewise, a Pinterest tablet could integrate and streamline the Pinterest experience.

Furthermore, tablets as a whole are largely media consumption devices, and Pinterest as a service is based on consuming media. On that fact alone, a Pinterest tablet seems logical.

Size matters

Assuming Pinterest would want to build a tablet,  the conversation has to move to the specifics of such a device. History has proven that hardware is still a key component. That being said, one aspect of this tablet discussion is the size of the device. But instead of the 7″ vs. 10″ debate that has raged since the Nook Color was released, I think Pinterest could make a splash by splitting the difference with an 8″ tablet. Having played around with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 tablet, I can tell you that I believe that is the sweet spot in terms of usability.

Also, keep in mind that it only takes one marquee tablet to make a particular tablet form factor seem legitimate. The iPad made 10″ tablets the norm, but the Kindle Fire led to a slew of 7″ tablets. If Pinterest could make a popular tablet (and right now they have the clout to do so), they could use that non-traditional tablet size as part of its selling point.

Taking it one step further, a Pinterest tablet with a non-traditional tablet shape could differentiate itself in the increasingly crowded tablet market. Sony did this with their Tablet S and its folded-magazine shape, and was able to capitalize on tablet buyers who didn’t like the basic rectangular slate tablet shape that is so commonplace nowadays.

The first major player in the niche tablet market

The main concern about the idea of a Pinterest, aside from the obvious financial issues, is that most people already own iPads or other tablets.

Yes, regardless of size/shape differences, a Pinterest tablet would go head to head with the iPad. That’s not just because of that tablet designation, but because the people that use Pinterest are more likely to already own iPads. Competing with the iPad is a daunting task, but I think we will begin seeing a shift in consumer purchasing habits that bodes very well for a Pinterest tablet.

Right now, tablets are marketed as devices that can do everything and be brought everywhere. They are aimed at being on us practically at all times, much like smartphones are. Part of the reasoning behind this is the high price tag most tablets come with. More importantly, that utility factor was necessary to overcome the objections that tablets would never replace laptops or have any big selling point.

But now that prices have dropped and it’s clear that tablets have a place in our technological lives, I believe the next few years will shift tablet focus away from do-it-all devices like the iPad or the existing Android tablets to niche tablet devices.

Most tablet use falls into two broad categories: personal/media consumption and business/productivity. A lot of tablets either end up sitting on the coffee table in the living room or on the bedroom nightstand, or stay in briefcases or purses as they are brought to work or school and back.

Tablets are proving very capable of helping to solve individual problems and tasks, which I think will lead to more tablets built to serve specific purposes. The prime example I can think of here is the Qooq tablet, a device made for the kitchen. I did a video blog on Daily Axioms a couple weeks ago about this tablet.

If it weren’t for the Qooq’s high price, I’d say it would have a shot at success. More importantly, a tablet like the Qooq shows that this niche tablet strategy might start to become more prevalent as tablets continue to saturate the market.

A Pinterest tablet would be a great “coffee table tablet” that would fill that lounging-in-the-living-room role that tablets are starting to fill.

Assuming Pinterest could come out with an affordable (sub-$400) tablet that integrates the popular desktop experience,  I think there is a major opportunity for them to make a massive impact on the tech and social media world.
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What are the Next Steps for Pinterest? [Part I]

For weeks now, we’ve been seeing article after article about the explosive growth of Pinterest and its title of  the “Next Big Thing in Social Media.” And while I have no doubts that the personal curating service has firmly cemented itself in that role, I believe that the future of Pinterest hinges on its ability to look forward to maintaining and expanding its rapid growth.

But what are the next steps for Pinterest?

Before we can answer that, here are the issues I think Pinterest faces moving forward:

  • Fortifying its servers for the massive increase in new users
  • Better mobile integration
  • Injecting new content into the site instead of a constant stream of repins
  • Attracting more males to the site (currently, Pinterest’s audience is 97% female)
I’m sure Pinterest is planning to take care of that first one, if haven’t already done so. Site crashes and blackouts can quickly lead to a user backlash, and I’m positive Pinterest wants to avoid that kind of a mark on its currently spotless record.
A bigger app-etite
The next thing Pinterest should work on right away are their mobile apps. Right now, they only have an iPhone app, and it’s not nearly as engaging as the desktop experience. The iPhone app needs to integrate the tiled layout from the “Explore” section into the “Following” section. The biggest draw of the desktop site is that collage-like, pin board layout that Pinterest in based upon.
How Pinterest hasn’t released an official iPad app yet is beyond me, but they need to get one out ASAP. I believe that they also need to release an Android phone app, a tablet-optimized Android app, and a Windows Phone app to strengthen its mobile presence. Pinterest has so much momentum right now, and that could easily be increased by expanding its app lineup.
The other problem I’ve had with Pinterest from a mobile standpoint is that pinning new pictures on a mobile device is almost impossible. Sure, repinning is a breeze, but Pinterest thrives on introducing new content into the ecosystem and it’s incredibly difficult unless you’re on a laptop or desktop computer.
If I were Pinterest, I would reach out to an existing mobile browsing developer like Dolphin Browser to work on a Pinterest plugin for their popular tablet/smartphone browser to allow pinning pictures from the browser itself. There is a similar plugin for Evernote, and it’s the main reason why Dolphin Browser is my default service on my devices. Having that kind of plugin would not only entice more Pinterest users to use Dolphin Browser, but would lead to a lot more new content on Pinterest. It’s a win-win for both sides.
Bring developers on board
Speaking of both Evernote and developers, Pinterest would be wise to take a page from the note-taking service and open themselves up to the developer community. Evernote has an entire section of its website dedicated to various complementary apps and services that developers have created, and it’s been a big success.
Considering what opening up to developers did for Facebook sharing, imagine the boost a similar move could have for Pinterest sharing and generating new content.
Having that developer support would allow Pinterest to expand to new territories if and when it chooses to do so, because it will have established that internal Pinterest ecosystem that has made Apple, Google and others so popular.
Look for Part II of this post later this week…

Why RIM should look to Lenovo, not iPad, for tablet inspiration

After another year of slow sales and lost market share, RIM has a new CEO in Thorsten Heins and is hoping to make up for years of stagnancy.

Obviously, there are a lot of holes in the sinking boat of Blackberry. They came late to the smartphone party…and then became a wallflower when they got there.

This has led to a whole host of tech blogs offering ways for RIM to try and fix itself, so I’ll glance over the major ones.

  • Getting the Blackberry 10 OS out ASAP is of course a must.
  • Enticing more developers to Blackberry’s app ecosystem is also key.
  • RIM also needs to focus on creating a marquee smartphone. Blackberry doesn’t have that headliner smartphone like the iPhone or Nokia Lumia 800/900, and that could be a big first step in regaining legitimacy for the Blackberry brand.

But things get a little more interesting when it comes to tablets.

First and foremost, RIM needs to decide what they want the Blackberry brand to be.

For the past few years, we’ve seen RIM try to straddle the line between serving the enterprise and consumer markets. The result is that they’ve spread themselves too thin and have completely failed on the consumer end, which in turn has weakened their corporate market. And although the enterprise and corporate markets are still strong, we’re seeing more and more companies switch to other platforms due to the lack of innovation.

The bottom line is that RIM has been trying  to please everyone, and in the end has pushed everyone away. It is for that reason that I think RIM needs to refocus solely on their strengths in the foreign and enterprise sectors. As the brand equity returns, RIM can maybe consider getting back into the consumer market in a couple of years.

Once an overall direction has been established, the next step is deciding what (if any) tablet to develop. Research has shown that demand is continuing to grow for tablets in the workplace, so there’s undoubtedly potential there. And while most of the corporate tablet use is centered on the iPad, that can mostly be attributed to a lack of worthwhile options from other tablet manufacturers.

RIM’s first foray into the tablet market was a rushed attempt to capitalize on the tablet boom. But if RIM can retool their tablet strategy and deliver a quality product focused on the enterprise and corporate sectors, I think they have a shot at climbing out of the deep hole they’ve dug themselves into.

RIM needs to look to Lenovo, not iPad, for tablet inspiration.

Specifically, I think the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet should be the device that Blackberry tries to outdo, not their Playbook and definitely not the iPad.

The ThinkPad was a business-minded tablet made for business-minded corporations. It featured a slew of pre-installed productivity apps, networked printer syncing, even handwriting-to-text conversion. The ThinkPad was also packed to the brim with security software, data encryption and remote access and freezing capabilities.

Although the tablet didn’t make much of an impact, that was largely due to its high price and lackluster Android software. Those business features were something unique that Lenovo brought to the table, and that approach was applauded by tech pundits and product reviewers.

RIM could take that same approach and deliver a quality enterprise tablet device with those types of features that businesses want in a tablet, and make it the marquee tablet device for Blackberry 10. If RIM can create that kind of device with competitive pricing (around $400 or so), they’ll open themselves up to 2 key demographics:

  1. Businesses on the fence about utilizing tablets in the workplace, but aren’t happy with the lack of enterprise features available on the iPad or Android tablets.
  2. Current corporate RIM users who are looking to Apple and other companies because of the lack of quality Blackberry devices.
The bottom line is that tablet computing in corporate settings is a growing trend, and the only viable option right now is Apple. However, Apple doesn’t have the type of security or other enterprise features that a lot of more tech-centric companies require. It’s a market that s not only is desperate for a device made for them, but it’s the one demographic that has stuck by Blackberry through the years.

Why Nokia controls the fate of the Windows Phone OS

Microsoft struggled for years under the scrutiny of pundits and being bullied by post-PC era giants like Apple and Google, who shoved the design-challenged company into the proverbial locker like the nerd it was thought to be.

While ruling the PC and desktop computing world, they faded from the minds of consumers as programs, styluses and monitors were replaced by apps, smartphones and tablets.

This post-PC era ushered in a time when media consumption became more important than productivity, and concepts like “operating system” and “user interface” became more important than the specs of the devices that ran them. Even then, Microsoft didn’t fare so well. Their ill-fated Zune mp3 player was laughed right off the market after coming late to the party.

But in 2011, Microsoft made itself over with the launch of its Windows Phone OS and re-emerged more hipster than tech dweeb, determined to shed its visually-impaired past and become trendy once again.

And unlike with the Zune, they may have gotten it right this time. Those same critics who mocked Microsoft’s lack of design acumen have gone head over heels for their Windows Phone OS, nearly all of them saying it’s superior to Android and some even going so far as to say it’s better than iOS.

Despite the critical acclaim, sales of Windows Phones have been weak, and that’s putting it lightly. But this year, Microsoft is looking to change that.

A Blue Chip Device

Many have argued that the biggest factor holding Microsoft back has been the lack of of a flagship phone. Android had the Motorola Droid and Apple had the iPhone. Both of those devices had the build quality and the marketing muscle to gain a foothold in the market (or in Apple’s case, take over the market).

With the Lumia 800 and the newly-announced Lumia 900, the Windows Phone OS finally has a quality device that can attract new users to the platform. The Windows 7.5 OS (Mango)-powered Lumia 900 features a 4.3-inch AMOLED ClearBlack display and the distinctive, soft-touch black or cyan polycarbonate shell that the Lumia 800 made popular. It will be exclusive to AT&T, with support for 4G LTE connectivity.

Under the hood, it’s got a 1.4GHz single core processor and 512MB of RAM. Those specs themselves aren’t going to blow anyone away, but Nokia has been smart about the marketing here. Instead of trying to engage a spec war with the Android devices, they’ve been showing off the speed of the phone in real-world scenarios. It’s an effective way of appealing to a broader consumer base, which is who Microsoft and Nokia desperately need to bring on board.

No OS can succeed without the right hardware, and thanks to Nokia, Microsoft is finally covered on that front.

If these new Nokia phones can finally get carriers enough to start promoting them, then more consumers will start using them. If more consumers are using them, then more developers will be willing to bring quality applications to the Windows OS ecosystem. That will, in turn, lead more consumers to start choosing Windows OS phones over the likes of Android and Apple, and Microsoft will finally gain a foothold in the smartphone market.

Microsoft has declared its entry into the mobile war, armed with a nuclear warhead in Nokia. There’s no doubt about it, 2012 is going to be a pivotal year for Microsoft.

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Who will write the next chapter for Barnes & Noble? [Part III]

Important side note: Barnes & Noble announced on 1/5 that they are examining the Nook side of their business, saying the Nook line has built up a lot of value over the past year or two and that “it’s the right time to investigate our options to unlock that value.”

Most pundits are saying that this is company-speak for wanting to sell the Nook line, and I’d agree. Obviously, no decisions have been made yet, but it does validate exploring these buyer options. This also throws an interesting wrinkle into the valuation and pricing for a possible acquisition.

Update: B&N CEO William Lynch told CNBC on 1/6 that the Nook “will continue to be Barnes & Noble’s e-reader.” Whether this is a firm stance or simply a bargaining move has yet to be seen, but it’s a quickly evolving story nonetheless. 

This post continues from Part II of “Who will write the next chapter for Barnes & Noble?” that was posted on 1/5, and Part I that was posted on 1/3.

The last potential Nook buyer is a little bit of a left field option, but I think it’s a company that could radically shake up its place in the tech/mobile industry should they choose to act on it. Like all of the previous options I’ve laid out, the reasoning lies in the potential to bring existing online services to a quality hardware device to facilitate those services and promote heavier use.

Evernote

Okay, maybe Evernote isn’t that much of a left field choice. I mean, the note-taking and personal curating service was named Inc. Magazine‘s Company of the Year in 2011.

However, Evernote has made it clear they want to move beyond simply note-taking and personal curating. CEO Phil Libin is very public about his desire for Evernote to become a 100 year company, and has gone to great lengths to making that happen. Evernote has been buying up several smaller companies, and still has hundreds of millions of dollars from investors.

Money and startup acquisitions aside, there are two bigs reasons Evernote could and should look into buying up B&N’s Nook division.

The first reason revolves around Evernote’s stance on developers. The company has embraced the developer community practically from the beginning, not only allowing, but encouraging them to find new ways of implementing Evernote into more and more facets of our online lives. Evernote even has an Evernote Trunk section on their site dedicated to the Evernote-related apps and services that developers have created.

That’s why a Nook acquisition makes sense for them, because the Nook gained a lot of fame in early 2011 as a “hacker’s tablet” since it was a cheap and solid device that could be easily rooted. Pairing that kind of a device with the developer-friendly service is still largely just symbolic, but it would reinforce that 100-year strategy and the innovation that it requires.

The second reason Evernote needs to look into buying the Nook line is the potential that Evernote software has already shown when integrated with the hardware.

Case in point: The HTC Flyer. Granted, the 7-inch tablet never made waves in the tablet market and was recently discontinued. However, most critics lambasted the Flyer for its high pricing, not because of the device itself. And what was so special about the Flyer? Aside from the ability to unlock more features with a specialized stylus, the Flyer was also integrated with Evernote. In fact, ZDNet called the Flyer the “magic Evernote tablet.”

By signing in with your Evernote account to the device itself (similar to signing in with a B&N account on the Nook), you can quickly and easily take screenshots or write notes with the stylus and automatically save them to your notebooks. Audio notes have built-in time stamping, and that same time-stamping feature allows you to attach notes to calendar events.

Evernote was a perfect software complement for the Flyer, but the Flyer’s $500+ pricing killed any chances of it catching on.

This is where the Nook provides an excellent opportunity for them. They could take the time to build a device that fully integrates Evernote into the entire user experience (an EverNook if you will), taking the features that worked so well with the Flyer and streamlining additional integration.

For instance, the Flyer had the ability to save and copy passages from its HTC e-book app, a feature that could easily be transferred and improved with the more robust Nook e-book library.

Evernote could also build upon B&N’s aforementioned Nook Friends social network, keeping the reading recommendations aspect and integrating Evernote’s notebooks. Although, given the overall lack of utilization of the network as it is now, Evernote may not want to try and save that sinking ship.

However, social sharing aside, if Evernote can get its hands on quality hardware and deeply integrate its software (without the need for a Flyer-like stylus), there is plenty of opportunity for Evernote to make good on its promise and become the 100 year company it wants to be.

Where do we go from here?

Naturally, these last 3 posts have been nothing but conjecture. However, should B&N choose to part ways with the Nook line or the company as a whole, whoever swoops in and snatches it up could make a strong push and shake up the market like Amazon did with the Kindle Fire in 2011.

The common thread here is clear. The market has spoken, and has shown that a competitively-priced device that facilitates existing online services and can get through the day to day media consumption will be a popular option.

Now all that’s left to do is wait and see what Barnes & Noble chooses to do, although I doubt that book will be finished anytime soon.

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Who will write the next chapter for Barnes & Noble? [PART II]

Important side note: Barnes & Noble announced today that they are examining the Nook side of their business, saying the Nook line has built up a lot of value over the past year or two and that “it’s the right time to investigate our options to unlock that value.”

Most pundits are saying that this is company-speak for wanting to sell the Nook line, and I’d agree. Obviously, no decisions have been made yet, but it does validate exploring these buyer options. This also throws an interesting wrinkle into the valuation and pricing for a possible acquisition. You can revisit Part I to see who I see (and still see) as the most likely option, and I’ll try to keep you updated on any further developments.

Update: B&N CEO William Lynch told CNBC on 1/6 that the Nook “will continue to be Barnes & Noble’s e-reader.” Whether this is a firm stance or simply a bargaining move has yet to be seen, but it’s a quickly evolving story nonetheless. 

This post continues from Part I of “Who will write the next chapter for Barnes & Noble?” that was posted on 1/3.

There are other companies that might make good candidates to buy Barnes & Noble. I think all of the following companies could benefit from the content boost and solid hardware. I don’t necessarily see these as likely options, but I think there’s a case to be made.

Facebook

Obviously, Facebook has the deep pockets and financial muscle to make an acquisition like this a reality. For the past year, there have been rumors of Facebook getting into the hardware market with an official Facebook phone.

The social networking giant came close with a dedicated Facebook button on the HTC Cha Cha smartphone, but that’s as far they’ve gone with hardware implementation.

But aside from gaining the hardware resources from B&N with the Nook devices, Facebook could use the e-book content as well.

Facebook’s new Seamless Sharing feature has been both lauded and criticized, but regardless of your thoughts on the idea of automatic updates about what you’re reading, you can’t argue that the feature is being used. I’m constantly seeing updates and news stories about what my Facebook friends have read, but the feature is currently limited to news articles.

This is where the Nook e-book store could come in handy. If Facebook can bring the massive Nook library into its portfolio, it could quickly and easily integrate e-books into its frictionless sharing system. That way, you’re friends would be able to see what books you’re reading, comment, and offer suggestions. B&N has tried to do this on their own with their Nook Friends social network, but frankly, the support just isn’t there.

Facebook wants to expand beyond simply being a social network, and a move like this would definitely bolster that strategy.

Box.net/Dropbox

I’m grouping Box.net and Dropbox into one category, because they are both cloud storage companies with similar reasons for pursuing B&N.

After having used both services on multiple different tablets, I can tell you that the biggest drawback to both of them (Box.net especially) is the clunkiness that arises when trying to download, sort and play multimedia files.

Just like what Amazon did with their Kindle Fire, having full control over a hardware device allows you to streamline how your online services are utilized. If either company could get their hands on the Nook line, they could entice new users to your service with the solid hardware. And if people are already using your service, history has shown that they’ll flock to a device that integrates them.

Amazon Prime members flocked to the Kindle Fire, iTunes and Mac users flocked to the iPad, hardcore Google Services users flocked to Android devices, and the Nook Color/Tablet made a dent in the crowded tablet market because of how many people had already been buying NookBooks.

I believe there is an opportunity for a cloud storage company like Box.net or Dropbox to take a big step forward and join this group. However, given Dropbox’s integration into more and more Apple devices, I’m not sure that they’d want to risk angering Tim Cook and company by breaking into the hardware business.

On the other hand, Box.net may not have the financial means of making a move of this magnitude happen. A recent Fast Company post shows Box.net sitting at about $162 million in funding. However, given today’s announcement that B&N may just sell off the Nook side of the business, it is more likely that the asking price would be reduced.

Neither of these two companies are the likeliest buyers for a possible B&N buyout, but it’s interesting to think about how heavy hardware integration could change the file-sharing market.

Look for Part III of this post soon, which will conclude with a final under-the-radar company that should consider buying B&N’s Nook line.