There’s been a lot going on in the world of tablets, everything from the success of the iPad to Computex to most major vendors promising something on their road maps. Unfortunately, I’ve been a bit busy of late with my new job at T-Mobile to provide a lot of color commentary on the situation. For those who are wondering, I’m working as a Senior Manager, Product Management which is really the equivalent to a General Manager since I’m responsible for the end-to-end business for my products.

I’m hoping to free up some time and provide a summary of what’s been going in the mobile world and maybe share some general insights from my new perspective. Stay tuned!

There is no doubt that the iPad can be a success. Apple’s great execution on a mobile platform is accomplished by having a complete ecosystem approach: device, applications and content services. Today’s news brings the possible cancelation of two devices that gathered some attention from the blogsphere – Courier and the HP Slate. While the cancellation news may be rumor for either of the devices, it’s probably a good idea for both.

Running Windows on a “slate” as a consumer device can be less than ideal. Late in 2004, I was part of a group that worked on taking Microsoft’s Tablet PC concept (which was geared to knowledge workers) and adapting it as a lower cost solution for general consumers. To help make this a reality, Project Origami created a new user interface that would provide easy access to programs thus making it easy for users to launch applications without having to deal with the “base” of Windows. For those of you familiar with mobile devices, this is much the same case as HTC’s Sense UI that sits on top of Windows Mobile. In both cases it provides a simplified and cleaner user experience for 80% of the experience. Once you get outside that 80% you have to deal with the operating system with all of its warts. Origami not only had this issue, but also suffered from the lack of developers willing to produce applications specifically tailored for the device. Had Microsoft been able to excite developers in the same way that Apple had then maybe Microsoft would have been willing to commit more resources and further develop the experience. Instead, the Tablet PC bits have faded into obscurity having had only minor refinements in Vista and Windows 7. HP’s Slate is basically a re-introduction of what was started in Project Origami. Intel’s processors have gotten better, Windows 7 added capacitive touch capabilities, plus the Tablet PC legacy adds the missing capabilities for text input and control. And from the videos that have surfaced about the device, there is a shell (HP TouchSmart) on top of Windows to create a friendly environment. HP also has partners with several content providers such as Rhapsody and Pandora so in theory, it has everything it needs. However just like Origami, the shell only provides so much insulation from the core OS; plus unless there’s a large developer program that has been hidden from the public view, then no one has signed up to create additional compelling experiences. At the end of the day, if HP is cancelling the project, it is probably a good thing for them in the short-term – however it is disappointing since the ability to have a portable device that can run standard PC software still can be useful.

Microsoft’s Courier is a different case. From my analysis of the situation, the biggest concern was cost. Having dual screens with digitizers and other interface controls in a well-designed folding enclosure is going to have some significant costs. Even if all the parts are commodity parts, there are still some more costs than the iPad. In addition, both the operating system and interaction model are new. Microsoft already has to drum up development support for Window Phone 7 and adding yet another platform for developers is a substantial ask since both are brand new. I’m willing to believe that Courier was shelved for costs and as an attempt to keep the focus on getting developers onto the new phone platform.

There’s a lot to like in both the Slate and Courier, but both companies clearly want homerun products out of the gate rather than experimenting in the market place. Apple is the dominant player currently in this market, but there is still plenty of room for competitors who are can deliver a full experience at the right price.

5 minutes with an iPad

15 April 2010

Earlier today, I had a chance to play with the iPad. I could have spent an hour or more with it, but instead elected to spend only 5 minutes. Spending this little bit of time absolutely confirmed what I was thinking and gave me a good idea about what I might do with one if I had one and it also exposed a surprising issue – poor ergonomics from a few simple design decisions.

Travel (Entertainment)
Starting in the mid 1990’s I travelled frequently. This continued well into my last job. The majority of my travel was either direct flights to a US city (at least 3 plus hours) or international flights to either Asia or Europe. I remember buying my first portable DVD player. It totally changed how I travelled since now I could be entertained during those long flights. Generally I would pack one or two batteries, half a dozen movies and my trusty Bose headsets. When I took trips with my kids, we purchased another portable DVD player for flights. As technology progressed and I was able to procure super light-weight laptops and/or ultra portables (prior to the netbook craze), I used those to entertain me by watching movies and TV shows that I had saved to the hard disk. I’ve been doing this for the past 8 years and until today, didn’t envision changing my habits. From my brief time with the iPad, it’s clear that this is a great maybe even phenomenal entertainment device for travelling. Taking one on a long trip and having a large collection of media available as well as games and other forms of entertainment (books) is very easy to imagine. In fact, it fits in with exactly how I’ve used technology in the past.

There are however a few barriers to entry:

    Encoding. Today my media (and I have a lot of it) is encoded in a specific codec that is not native to the iPad. In addition, most of the media is encoded at high bit rates so that the overall image quality is maintained even things that have been stored years ago when the device playing it back wasn’t capable of fully rendering the content in the best form. While I could re-encode the content, the storage capacity of the iPad is limited and the ability to transfer content to the device isn’t always available since I need to always hook it up to a PC in order to transfer my own content. Over time, I see this as less of an issue as I can always switch my initial encoding scheme and with the appropriate cloud based software I could re-download content to the device.

    Cost. There is an initial cost for the device and I’m not yet in the position to have enough disposable income to justify the purchase. When and if I have the need to replace one of the portable computers in the home (or even one of the portable DVD players), then maybe this might be a consideration. In addition, once you buy all the necessary applications and accessories, it adds up pretty quickly.

The surprising issue is ergonomics:

    Edges. The screen of the device is obviously gorgeous, but the detailing on the edges of the device are sharp. The front face of the device is flat. Around the edge of the device there is about a 15 degree slope for an eighth of an inch before the transition to the side edge. This final transition between the front surface and the side is very sharp. The edge of the device is all one piece, but this transition really is much rougher than it needs to be. Apple’s design sense for the last several years have been full of straight cuts and sharp angles, but on a device that is meant to be held in the hands this is a big mistake. The corner should be rounded so that it doesn’t scratch the palm and fingers that are holding it. In my brief time in evaluating the device in the store, I scratched my hand pretty well.

    Weight distribution. As many have mentioned the device is heavier than might initially be expected. (Of course with all that necessary battery life, it’s actually lighter than many other designs.) For a long period of time, holding the device without support from either on the back or bottom edge is not a feasible solution – this is to be expected. However the device is really unwieldy when you try to hold it with a single hand – particularly when in portrait orientation with the right hand. From my quick usage, I found that the device is slightly biased to the left side. Given the overall interaction model for the device, I would have expected the weight to be distributed evenly to allow for multiple approaches to holding the device. The result for me is that a simple one-handed usage even for a short period of time is going to be very limited unless the user rests the device on their fore-arm by wrapping their arm around the back of the device. In which case you’d want to bias the weight in the other direction (for a right-handed user) if it’s not going to be distributed evenly.

At the end of the day, while I can longingly desire the device, it doesn’t quite hit my threshold for replacing a currently working solution for travel entertainment; and with some simple poor ergonomics design elements, I’m even less inclined. Of course it’s not all that hard with the right knowledge to build a solution with other technologies and get the design/ergonomics right – If you’re interested in doing that, I can definitely point you in the right direction.

Microsoft launched 2 new phones this morning which are more social networking devices rather than phones. I have to say, that I was mostly impressed with the functionality that was presented, though I think that some of the user interface is rather cluttered and looks confusing. Of course without having a hands-on, it’s a bit difficult to determine how intuitive the interface will be once it’s loaded with my own personal data rather than watching someone navigating their own data.

Many of the concepts that were shown in Kin were along the same line of what I was trying to accomplish at AOL in 2006 (and later at Varia – our management buyout of the AOL assets) – integrate your social network, media and communication as your primary mobile device. When I joined AOL, the opportunity was phenomenal. AOL at the time had a video service, a subscription music service, pictures and instant messaging plus they owned Tegic (T9 text input company) and had recently acquired a smart phone software/hardware platform company. My job was to research, plan and execute a new strategy to create an easy to use experience for the mobile internet (AOL wanted to replicate its success with bringing users on-line from their desktop in the mobile space). There were several devices that I had planned and the first up was a portable media player that accessed all of AOL’s content services wirelessly. Later on the roadmap was the integration of social services to further enhance the experience and allow easy sharing and communication between friends. These were the primary assets and plans that carried over to Varia.

Community Phone Concept

However the plan that I championed was the “Community Phone” and seeing Microsoft’s Kin products reminds me of what I had envisioned. If you think about a phone, it’s a communication device – but as people move more and more into social networks keeping in touch with your community becomes the primary mode of communication. Thus having a phone capable of understanding not only how to communicate with people but also threading the information about your community throughout the phone experience. In July of 2006 I presented some ideas on what this concept could include. Obviously the mobile phone space has changed a lot since then but the core concepts are still valid and similar in nature to Microsoft’s ideas for Kin.

Core Ideas:
• Expand Contact Details

    o Static info (e.g. name, addresses, blog location, IM info, etc)
    o Dynamic info (e.g. presence, recent posts and activity, recent media viewed, photos taken, etc)

• Server enhancement of contacts and comments

    o Aggregates feeds from multiple sources
    o Keeps up to date data on activities
    o Holds comments information for personal communities (particularly sites that don’t have their own)

• Ability to view “live” information about your contacts
• All content on the phone treated equally
• Ability to share, comment and blog any content
• Presence, location awareness
• Community features available to users w/o phone

I removed a couple of innovative ideas that could take this type of phone to the next level. If you want to know more… feel free to contact me.

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Decision Making

25 March 2010

From Brian Briggs comes this humorous chart to help with the decision process for buying an iPad.

Making a purchase decision is generally difficult — the value for the purchase should be self-evident – Is it needed? Is it useful? and the one that most don’t actually ask… Is it usable? And if the answer to most of these is affirmative then as a purchaser we have to consider if these justify the asking price. Of course since no one is always that rational we often buy things on whim and because the aspirational messages are appealing.

Apple is starting to work overtime to make sure that their message gets out!

Is an iPad needed, useful and usable?
Will we be rational?

Over the past 2 weeks, I have had a few interviews where the question was “How did someone with a background in psychology get involved with product marketing?” or “I don’t understand how you made the leap from human factors to product marketing?” For me this is a funny question since I would assume that someone who is doing (inbound) product marketing has a strong background in understanding the user, since the core of their job is determining the overall product requirements for the current and future products. Obviously if you’re not specifying the product with the end user in mind as well as the business, technical, and competitive environment, you’re not going to have a successful product.

Many of my peers in this field build a career from a technical background and then attend business school to round out their knowledge and capabilities. Some simply leverage their technical backgrounds, time and insight with the company to take on this role. While these traditional routes have merit, I find that many of those with whom I’ve interacted, generally don’t have a super strong passion for the user. This isn’t to say that they don’t care about the user, but rather they are not able to place themselves into the user’s situation and understand the constraints, interactions, and environments that may influence or dictate how the user will interact or approach a given product.

At one interview I was asked my opinion about an upcoming product. To me, the user interface looked relatively cluttered by having a particular function appear in at least 3 different locations in the user interface. I immediately started to ask the interviewer about why this particular design was chosen, and then proceeded to ask questions about the user’s behaviors, trends and other details. It was clear to me that the organization did not have a clear sense of the “how” the average user might approach the functionality since the answers behind the design were geared more to exposing all the functionality in all the places and being at feature parity with a competitor – common flaws particularly when you don’t “really” understand the user.

The transition from doing user research was never truly a transition since I understood from the earliest days in my career, that simply understanding the user was only half the equation – you need to be able to project, recommend and provide the tools and insight that would potentially benefit the user. The more informed I was relative to the capabilities of the team, the business goals, the competitive landscape as well as new technologies – the more I was able to influence and drive the direction of new product development.

Thus I differentiate myself from my peers by having a rich background which mixes both quantitative analysis with qualitative observation and insights. This coupled with an inclination for technology, a research background, and practical experience in business provides a well rounded mix for providing robust, useful, needed, usable and marketable solutions.

Wow. Some new details on Microsoft’s Courier project. A couple of details that are surprising: Size and Operating System. Both have some positive as well as potentially problematic issues.

In terms of size, when closed it’s suppose to be around the size of a 5×7 photo and about 1 inch thick. In terms of screen size this would put the maximum screen size of 8” screen assuming no border which really means that each screen is probably a 7” display. For a portable device, this is a good compromise. Assuming from the screen and interface shots that are on Engadget, the display appears to be capacitive + active digitizer. While I’m a firm believer in this combination of technologies, there are 2 particular issues at play with this device that will require a good deal of engineering and innovation. First is the glass for the display. The best capacitive displays have a very smooth coating. This allows the finger to glide effortlessly across the display. The best displays for a tablet with an active digitizer have a slightly textured display which provides more grip and friction for the stylus so that the feeling is more like writing on paper than writing on a glass surface. Thus there is a bit of a conflict between the best possible implementations for the screen. A textured surface also provides a secondary benefit which allows the users more acuity in their writing and thus can write smaller and neater on the display. Thus in order for the user to write at the scale shown in the photo above, the user would have had to zoom into the drawing and what is being shown is a zoomed out image of their notes. Therefore to get a “page” of notes at a reasonable scale it will require a bit of work for the user during the generation stage.

The OS is an interesting choice by Microsoft. It’s clear why they would want to go with a CE kernel rather than using Windows since Windows simply doesn’t have the same type of power saving potential and architecture that is found in ARM based processors. This is the same strategy as Apple with the iPad relative to the iPhone. The main issue here for Microsoft is that while Apple already has a ton of applications for their platform, Microsoft is starting with NONE. Of course if Windows Phone 7 Series takes off and the applications are “portable” to this new platform, there will at least be some critical applications that won’t have to be created from scratch. Regardless, Microsoft still has to get developers excited about the new platform.

All in all, I’m excited by the possibility of Courier and hope to get the chance to play with one and evaluate it in person.


2 March 2010

There has been a lot of buzz about the Notion Ink Adam. It’s basically an Android Tablet with a PixelQi display. The premise is that it will allow the device to have a very long run time with a relatively small battery. While some of the blogs have indicated that this will be an extremely competitive device with the iPad, after watching this video I was left pretty underwhelmed. There is some great technology in the product, but there is no clear differentiation from a software or content ecosystem. Thus those who want to tinker and build some interesting application have a platform on which to do so, but there’s nothing here to recommend to the average user.

If you really want to build solutions in the consumer electronics middle-space between the cell phone and the notebook, then you need to provide more value to the end consumer than a set of raw technologies. The clear differentiators needed are device software, services and a rich content ecosystem. iPad has these, what about your solution?

The iPad really is Magical!

28 February 2010

Steve Jobs proclaimed it, so is it really? Alan Kays, one of the fathers of modern computing and the visionary behind the Dynabook has indicated that Apple may have it right with this latest device. Even before the announcement by Apple, people have been asking my opinion of the product and I’ve been a bit guarded on making any prognostication. After reading the thousands of articles about the device, talking with some people who have hands on experience and others who are building competitive devices, it has become clear that the device is magical, but in an unexpected manner.

While Apple is traditionally viewed as a hardware company and still generates the vast majority of their revenue from hardware sales, services like iTunes have given them a gateway into selling digital merchandise. The iPad allows for a greater transition into a digital service provider with on-going revenues from a loyal “subscription base” ALL without charging a subscription fee! Let me deconstruct this.

Apple sells unique hardware devices – iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad. Each of these runs the same proprietary operating system which is plugged into a proprietary content, application and media ecosystem. For these 3 devices, you can only purchase application approved by Apple (who receive a 30% cut) and for any content that you want on the device, Apple has provided a low friction manner in which to acquire content whether it’s movies, audio and now e-books. And of course Apple also receives a percentage of these transactions as well. In aggregate the amount of money Apple makes from each of these transactions may be low on a per user per item basis, the cumulative effect is two fold.

Apple recently sold its 10 billionth song – even if Apple’s profit on this entire transaction is a penny. That would result in $100 million dollars since iTunes Music Store was launched in 2003. For a company of Apple’s size, that isn’t a tremendous amount of revenue, but it’s also not insignificant. Remember that the majority of media purchased from iTunes is only playable on a device or in software made by Apple.

Perhaps the most interesting factor has more to do with the ability of Apple to monetize this new relationship with their consumers. In any projection of future business, a company assumes some percentage of existing customers will continue to purchase their products (e.g. customer loyalty). With this number and a projection of product obsolescence, you can determine the replacement rate. Apple has historically had the highest level of customer loyalty and replacement rates simply because of the way it provides this set of ecosystem value. With the latest product, Apple is able to not only leverage the past success of their product, but also leverage the unique applications and ecosystem. Since users continue to purchase via the Apple online “store” for their Apple products, these users are in essence no different than subscribers of the service in the same way that users pay an on-going fee for their cable or cell phones. Instead of paying a monthly bill, the users are paying up front for the cost of the hardware plus paying for each transaction that takes place.

This small on-going relationship is critical to Apple’s success, particularly since no other hardware or software company has mastered this concept. Amazon’s Kindle is similar, but doesn’t yet have the same economy of scale and Microsoft’s Zune and upcoming Windows Phone 7 will attempt this strategy, but with a multitude of hardware OEMs the overall success is necessarily diluted by the potential for encouraging users to maintain and engage in the long-term ecosystem.

The iPad is magical simply because it helps to extend the ecosystem and on-going subscriber base to the Apple vision. Any product that Apple releases that leverages their ecosystem will be magical simply because it helps Apple to generate a long term relationship with their customers. As to the particular implementation as a “Tablet or Slate” for the consumer, it’s a good approach and may resonate well with consumers, but from a technology standpoint, the device could have been utterly transformative if it had included more natural user interface elements – e.g. Handwriting, Inking and Speech.

At Mobile World Congress, Broadcom showed off their chipsets with a new tablet ecosystem they’re calling PERSONA. At the core of this strategy is ICE – Information, Communication and Entertainment. The key concept is that all of these assets are shared across all devices in the consumer’s home. Thus the tablet is able to talk to the TV, PC, phones, home security system, etc in order to control, monitor, route or view. Netbook News captured a great video that explains Broadcom’s strategy in more detail.

In this previous post, I described my vision for a consumer tablet and Broadcom is clearly thinking along the same lines. The only issue for Broadcom is that they are only a chip provider and thus create reference designs and not commercially available products – In order for this to take off, they are going to need a major OEM to buy into this vision and integrated it across the line. This is a task for Samsung or Sony since they have a wide range of products in which they can embed this technology. Outside of a traditional OEM with the marketing clout and install base to make this a reality, the ability to deliver pervasive technology is difficult. There is one new dark horse who could get in the role of dictating new technology standards across separate hardware platforms – Wal-Mart. That’s right, Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart recently purchased VUDU. I was an early adopter of the VUDU platform and highly enthusiastic over their original premise of utilizing peer-to-peer technology for delivering high quality movies directly to the home. In my last startup, I advocated and planned for a future mobile media product that would utilize similar technology. While VUDU was not able to create a profitable venture with this product, they were able to create a streaming video service to deliver the same movie catalog directly to internet-enabled TVs. This capability was the primary purchase intent for Wal-Mart. Imagine that Wal-Mart could now require all of the TV sets sold at Wal-Mart to be compatible with the VUDU streaming service – e.g. all of their vendors would have to build or license the VUDU technology. If Wal-Mart takes this step, it becomes an easy leap to imagine a case where they leverage this relationship to require other technology that allows for a particular style of interoperability between consumer devices they sell. Should Broadcom and others be courting Wal-Mart to provide a new integrated experience for their customers? And if someone did, would Wal-Mart be receptive?