Archive by Kevin Fitchard

Jobs keynote: A second look at the iPhone’s configurable interface

I take back my initial reaction to the iPhone’s new configurable interface after digging into a few of the details–and some chastisement from Telephony Senior Editor Rich Karpinski. Said Rich:

“The ‘re-arrangeable’ home screen isn’t all fluff but a nod to the still-to-come iPhone SDK, which will let third parties build applications which now — at the user’s choice — can apparently bump Apple apps to the background. At first glance at least, Apple is moving from a locked-down apps and deck to something fairly user-configurable.”

As Rich points out, Apple seems to be doing more than just rearrange icons. It’s allowing iPhone users to tailor the interfaces of their phones, initially allowing them to turn a bookmarked Web site into a Webclip that can be pasted as an icon on the iPhone home screen. It’s a nifty feature, but as Rich points out, its true potential lies in what the user can do when the SDK comes out and suddenly hundreds of Safari and Mac OS apps become available for the iPhone. Like Mapquest instead of Google Maps? Well, supposedly you can replace the latter with the former on the interface.

The significance of this may not be readily apparent, but anyone who has ever downloaded a third-party app onto a feature phone or smartphone knows how hard it is to find your pet application afterwards. It’s usually buried down in the applications folder among dozens, if not hundreds, of icons. One of the primary reasons the iPhone is so successful is because of its ease-of-use and the sleekness of its interface. The reason it’s so sleek, though, is Apple now controls every application on the deck. Once you start introducing third-party apps (like the ones Google is now offering) the seamlessly organized interface of the iPhone suddenly begins to look like a touch-screen mess. Apple is obviously trying to get ahead of that problem–so much so that it is actually creating the ability to have up to nine home screens which you can flip through with the flick of finger. I assume that means you can have a gaming home screen, a navigation home screen and an e-mail screen, if you like. Whether the average iPhone user takes advantage of all of these new functions is anyone’s guess, but Apple seems to be doing as much as it can to let people bring their own content to the forefront–something the carriers and even the more innovative handset makers like Nokia have really failed to do.

Want the update? Chances are, you already have it. Apple is automatically updating the iPhone software during synchronization to iTunes 7. A Quicktime Demo of the the new configurable interface is available on the Apple iPhone site as is an MPEG-4 or Quicktime video of Jobs’ keynote (why Apple doesn’t webcast it live, I have no idea).

As for the location-based services hoopla, I still stand by my initial assessment. As you may recall, Google introduced this element to mobile versions of Google Maps across the board a few months backs after it grew impatient with the lack of GPS penetration in phones. Jobs demoed the app on the iPhone at MacWorld, but I–and a lot of other people–suspect that Jobs had his coordinates pre-programmed for the network to pinpoint him so quickly in Moscone Center in San Francisco. The network triangulation Google uses is handy, but it’s not exactly the most accurate means of determining location. Don’t get me wrong–it’s an incredibly handy feature–but Jobs might be selling us some false expectations again just like he sold us on the lightening-fast browsing speeds of the iPhone.

Jobs keynote: New laptop but no WiMAX

Apple CEO Steve Jobs dispelled the anticipation of a second major wireless announcement at MacWorld: the prospect of WiMAX-embedded Apple notebook computer. Apple did release a new laptop, and it has a new radio interface, but the new eco-friendly MacBook Air comes embedded with an IEEE 802.11n chip, the new high-capacity, long-range Wi-Fi solution that has yet to become fully standardized.

While the new laptop is definitely a win for Apple’s environmental critics (mercury- and arsenic-free in the housing, with caustic chemicals removed from the circuitry) as well as for the Draft N sector, the WiMAX industry might be a bit disappointed. (For more details about the Air and other up-to-the-minute updates and photos from MacWorld check out Gizmodo’s live blog.) But then again, the likelihood of Apple releasing a WiMAX laptop anytime soon was pretty slim. So far Sprint has only two live networks up and running and not a single commercial subscriber online while Clearwire still hasn’t migrated its networks to WiMAX. Apple supports new technology (well, with the exception of 3G), but it also has to have a market. So we can just chalk this one up to overly high expectations.

The iPhone is another story. Jobs announced that Apple has sold 4 million of these suckers now. That’s an impressive feat, and as long as he can keep milking the EDGE device for all its worth, he probably has little incentive to come out with the highly anticipated 3G version of the iPhone. Stay tuned for Associate Editor Sarah Reedy’s podcast with the Yankee Group’s John Jackson about the wireless implications of Apple’s new wares. Also, check back with Telephony Unfiltered for more analysis of the new configurable aspects of the iPhone.

Jobs keynote: Customizable iPhone screen–big whoop

Instead of unveiling the next iPhone, Apple CEO Jobs used his MacWorld pulpit to tout new iPhone features, none of which are that earth-shattering and many of which, agruably, should have been included in the initial iPhone launch.

1) SMS: Sending messages to multiple recipients. Come on….

2) Location: The iPhone has no GPS, but it can use the mobile network to triangulate a user’s approximate position. Nifty. Apple, however, announced this capability months ago for the Java and OS versions of Google Maps. Nothing new here.

3) Lyrics Support: As Telephony Senior Editor Ed Gubbins said “So it can be like a portable, handheld karaoke [device]? My God, it is a great time to be alive…”

4) Customizable Interface: Here’s the big one if you can call it big. You can move the iPhone icons around by “shaking” the device, bringing your content to the forefront and maximizing applications you use most. Nifty, but again not earth-shattering.

Looks like there’s no new iPhone on the plate today, but we’ll see what else Jobs has in store.

Apple expectations

The Apple store is officially down for maintenance. That can only mean one thing: CEO Steve Jobs keynote, beginning as I type, will reveal new Apple products. The question is, will we just see a batch of new iPods or is today the fateful day Apple releases the 3G iPhone? The iPhone isn’t the only anticipated wireless product. Rumors have been circulating that Apple will release laptops embedded with WiMAX chips, a move that could be of massive significance to Sprint and Clearwire. Updates to come.

CES: Intel and Moto’s WiMAX ride

When I climbed into the SUV in the Las Vegas Convention Center parking lot, Motorola Networks CTO Dan Coombes asked, “Got your laptop? Well, pop it open.” Moto and Intel had set up a demo WiMAX network around the convention center and Las Vegas strip, and they aimed to show it off. But instead of passively watching the typical demo, they invited me to try to push the networks to its limits while they carted me around the city. I love a challenge.

To set up some context, Motorola and Intel were taking a bit of a risk of here. We all know the rules of demos. Half the time they don’t work. Wireless demos are particularly cantankerous–which usually explains the Ethernet cord that snakes out from under the counter. So, to do a live demo in a moving vehicle during rush hour traffic in one of the most congested areas of the U.S. took some chutzpah.

Motorola and Intel have done this kind of thing before. In Chicago at WiMAX World, Motorola rented out a tourist boat and cruised it up and down the Chicago river, running two dozen WiMAX devices at full tilt in the process. There, however, they had a base station every quarter to half mile, each pointing directly at the wide-open murky expanse of the river. There was no way that setup wasn’t going to deliver. In Vegas, though, the situation was a bit more tenuous. Moto decided to set up a temporary network using Clearwire spectrum six weeks before the Consumer Electronics Show, and according to Coombes, they had to rig an awful lot of stuff together at the last moment.

The access points were installed about a mile apart in rough circle around the convention center. There are no 25-story casinos sticking out of the Chicago river, so in Vegas Moto and Intel had to show that MIMO really works. The modem that Moto used was its newly announced MIMO home gateway, a device that really isn’t supposed to be moving around at 40 MPH leaping from sector to sector, Coombes explained. To get it to work, Coombes’ engineers yanked off the MIMO antennas, and taped on two large plastic flanges that looked as if they had been just cut off the Venetian blinds in his hotel room. This contraption along with a Wi-Fi router was mounted behind the backseat, while the rest of the car was packed to the gills with Intel-powered gadgetry all connected to the WiMAX modem through Ethernet cables and Wi-Fi.

My hosts warned there would be dead spots, and dead spots there were. As we passed under the towering steel curtain of the Wynn Hotel–where we stayed trapped for 10 minutes–in gridlock traffic, the Internet radio stream cut off, the onboard navigation system stopped remapping and everyone’s browsers popped up error screens. Meanwhile the WiMAX modem went haywire desparately searching for a signal. But after passing out from under the Wynn’s shadow–and quick reboot of the modem–the network worked impressively.

Admittedly we were one of the only three cars on the network so capacity wasn’t much of an issue, but I did my damndest to overtax the bugger. I simultaneously played YouTube videos on my Wi-Fi enabled phone, previewing songs from the iTunes store on an iPod touch, and downloading the biggest honking files I could find on my laptop. Meanwhile the Internet radio was blaring, the in-car navigator was chirping away and live video feeds from the other vehicles were streaming over a peer-to-peer connection on another computer (Coombes, who I suspect was a bit bored after a full day of reliving same demo, was also checking his e-mail via Outlook). And during all this IP commotion, I managed to navigate my way TelephonyOnline.com without the slightest hiccup.

I figured it was time for a real test, though. YouTube is for bandwidth-challenged sissies. Could the network handle a DVD-quality stream of a feature-length movie? So I went to Netflix’s movie-on-demand page and selected a good three-and-a-half hour long movie for our in-car enjoyment. This may have been a little more than I bargained for. My computer didn’t have the proper software, so Netflix began downloading all 25 MBs of Windows Media Player 11, updated my codecs and made me restart my computer. But as we pulled in to the parking lot of convention center, the opening credits of Les Miserables began playing full-screen on my computer. I admit, I was impressed.

CES: After keynote No. 9, Gates calls it quits

Bill Gates CES 2008LAS VEGAS – Yep, after delivering the keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show eight times since 1994, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is giving up his annual role as technology seer for a life focused on his charitable foundation. If you hadn’t heard, Bill Gates is retiring from Microsoft, and he’s going out with a little humor. At CES he spoofed his rather eccentric and geeky personality with a video in which he called everyone from Bono to Hillary Clinton looking for some activity to occupy his time (to see the keynote Webcast see Microsoft’s Press Pass page).

Starting next year, we’ll have to listen to someone else’s vision of technology at CES. Maybe it’s blasphemous to say, but I think it’s for the best. Gates and Microsoft haven’t exactly been on the cutting edge of innovation of late. The company sells an awful lot of software, but the average person on the street stopped getting excited about the newest release of Windows in about 1995.

Frankly the most spectacular jumps in consumer electronics in recent years have not come from Microsoft. Apple gave us the portable digital music player. Microsoft gave us the Xbox, but only after Sony and Nintendo turned the game console into a massive global market. And in a technology closer to home, Microsoft’s probing into the mobile space has been mediocre at best–Palm invented the smartphone, while RIM and Apple perfected it for the enterprise and the consumer, respectively.

Sound like I’m Microsoft bashing? Perhaps I am a bit. But I’m not criticizing the company or its business model. It makes great products (well, some are greater than others) that people buy by the boatload. But it’s been quite some time since Microsoft came up with the next big thing. Just look at what Gates and Microsoft cohorts preached from the CES pulpit: social media, home networking, even video sharing. It looks neato, but it’s hardly a new gospel. We’ve been seeing the same stuff presented at conferences for years.

Maybe that’s the value of Gates’ keynotes. Just as Microsoft’s software might allow it to turn a cutting-edge innovation into a mass-market phenomenom, maybe Gates’ keynotes validate those innovations to the industry at large. If you saw Bill talk it up at CES, then you know the technology has legs. But maybe it’s time the keynote was delivered by a true visionary in the technology world instead of the industry’s most successful reactionary.

Keep tuned to Unfiltered this week. Associate Editor Sarah Reedy and I will be making daily updates to the blog.

Let’s try it on Helio

Helio LogoLet’s face it. If we want to get a sneak peak at what our mobile phones and services can do a year or two in the future, we just have to look at the Helio content deck today. Since Helio launched as an MVNO over the Sprint EV-DO network, some of the biggest names of the Internet and gaming have looked to the company as a testbed for their future mobile apps. This week YouTube added its name to the list.

MySpace signed on first with a native app for Helio’s handset line that allowed the obsessed social networking masses to access their profiles. That app appeared eight months later on Cingular/AT&T’s content deck (albeit with a $3 a month a charge). Last November, Helio was the first operator to begin embedding Google Maps and integrating it with GPS on its handsets. A few weeks later, Google released Maps along with mobile versions of Gmail as Java downloads, but Google Maps didn’t appear again in an out-of-the-box handset until the iPhone was released this summer. The iPhone was supposed to give Helio a run for its for money, but the operator showed this week it can still outfox Apple.

YouTube made the Helio Ocean the showcase for its new revamped video sharing portal. It’s not that Apple hasn’t gotten any love from YouTube–the YouTube portal went live on the iPhone just as it did on the Ocean and several other smartphones around the world. But unlike Apple’s implementation, the Ocean allowed customers to upload videos to the site. And this week, Helio pulled off another coup: the majority of YouTube’s 10 million-plus video libraryis now available for viewing on the Ocean’s YouTube portal, as well as customization, community and tagging functions that were previously enabled only on the online YouTube site. I’d venture to say that this isn’t just a marketing shenanigan. Gizmodo was impressed with the service’s new functionality, and they have a special place in their hearts for the iPhone.

If you’re not familiar with YouTube’s current offering for the mobile Web, let me assure you it sucks. Try pointing your phone browser at m.youtube.com. If it works at all in your browser or on your media player, you’ll get a list of pre-sorted videos for your consumption. Try search for the “Flight of the Conchords” and you’ll get squat (Now search the Conchords through YouTube on the PC browser–you won’t be sorry I promise). The problem is YouTube renders all of its videos in the Flash format. Since Flash video isn’t supported on any current phone, YouTube has to transfer its content to another format, which it clearly wasn’t about to do to every video of a drooling children on its site. For the Helio platform, however, YouTube just did that. I’m not sure how they did it. The Ocean may be supporting Flash, though I doubt it–Adobe just released this fall the version of Flash Lite supporting video. Perhaps they’re just converting every YouTube video into alternate formats. If you know, I’d like to hear from you (That’s what the comment section is for…)

Test driving the handset

For every customer who wants to fiddle with a phone before buying, Mobile Complete may have the answer. It launched an online handset simulator today that allows you to run your intended purchase through the motions before you shell out your cash and sign your contract–or even visit the store for that matter.

Mobile Complete is launching its beta site tryphone.com with four devices, including the iPhone, with the idea of getting its simulator embedded into retail sites, review publications and even carrier online portals all over the Web. To the right is the new Sprint LG Muziq. Try hitting a few buttons (it moves!). Admittedly it isn’t the same as tinkering with the real thing. You can’t prank call your ex-girlfriend, and not all of the functions are active, but it’s a tolerable substitute. And it certainly beats hiking down to the Sprint store and staring at powered-down phone with a cardboard mock-up of the idle screen.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mobile Complete, it runs a remote device-testing lab that allows application developers to test their products on a handset virtually, not through an online simulation, but through a sort of tele-testing engine that lets a developer interact with a live phone thousands of miles away. Controls linked to a Web portal interact directly with the phone interfaces, and the phone’s voice and data connections come from the same wireless connections as a device on the street. All the action is beamed back to the developer by wireless video feed.

The consumer test site isn’t the same service Mobile Complete is offering to developers–renting time on a specific phone in the lab ain’t cheap. But it’s an interesting approximation. Mobile Complete isn’t trying to present the phone in its marketing glory. Instead it shows the devices, warts and all. It has created a phone-version of a crawler that goes through and maps the functions of each device. It then records each interaction on digital video and renders them on the Web whenever a user hits a button. So you know just how many steps it takes it access your contacts or download a Web site. Try going to its mock-up of the iPhone and downloading one of the Web sites available in the Safari browser: There’s some waiting involved–just like the real iPhone on AT&T’s edge networks.

So is this the end of the carrier store? Will customers now eschew the pushiness of sales people and the hassle of crowds if they can both test and buy their handsets online? Well, probably not just yet. There’s no approximating the real device in your hands, and Mobile Complete has a few kinks to work out. Not all of the phone functions on the four devices on TryPhone.com appear to be mapped out just yet. But it is a beta, after all.

Mobile Complete CEO Faraz Syed said his company plans to quickly populate the site with all makes and models of phones and pair them off with the connections of their appropriate carriers. Syed’s goal, however, isn’t to create an independent review site or Mobile Complete’s own retail portal (though TryPhone.com will start collecting referral fees when it launches commercially). Rather he wants to license this technology to online retailers like Amazon and ultimately to the operators themselves, who could definitely use something more than a low-rez photo and list of specs to market their devices online. Syed even envisions the platform as a post-purchase tutorial application carriers and vendors can use to educate their customers on the increasingly complexity of their phones.

The Green Phone

Nokia 3110 EvolveNokia is following its offspring down the path of feel-so-good environmental conciousness. Last month Nokia Siemens Networks revealed its green base station efforts, and now Nokia is complementing it with a green phone platform. (Also check out our Podcast with NSN’s Sue Schramm.) At its annual customer and analyst hootenanny, Nokia World, the vendor took the wraps off the 3110 Evolve, a device housed in 50% recycled material with a power supply that actually drains no electricity–or at least 94% less–from the wall socket when the phone is not connected (If you didn’t know, that charger you keep so callously plugged in 24-7 is actually spewing wasted power into the ether–for shame!)

If you’re hoping to get the new phone to match your Toyota Prius and compost heap, don’t hold your breath. A tri-band phone with no cellular radio, U.S. carriers aren’t likely to pick up the 3110 anytime soon. But according to Nokia, this isn’t a theme phone designed for tree-huggers; it’s just the first release in what will be enhancements to its entire product line. The charger, for instance, eventually will be shipped with all of its phones. And as for its covers, Nokia is already working on the next step. Nokia research head Bob Iannucci said the labs are developing injection-molded plastic made from polylactic acids. Not only would they come from 100% renewable resources such as cornstarch, but they’d be 100% biodegradable. You can toss your phone right on the compost heap–well, the covers at least.

Don’t give Nokia the Nobel Peace Prize just yet. Greenpeace let the company have it last week, accusing it of only paying lip service to environmental issues. It found that Nokia hadn’t implemented the phone recycling program it had touted around the world. Though not that many people will buy their phones on Greenpeace’s recommendation, it doesn’t exactly boost the Finnish manufacturer’s green reputation. Greenpeace, however, did give the vendor credit for eliminating a lot of the harmful chemicals in its phones.

Playing the carrier game

It looks like equipment and applications vendors aren’t the only ones interested in mobile advertising. Today Vodafone and Telefonica teamed up to buy Amobee Media Systems, a mobile ad platform provider based in San Francisco. Admittedly ad companies are a hot commodity: Nokia scooped up Enpocket in September, and AOL landed Third Screen Media in May. The remaining ad platforms out there are considered fair game, but what are two carriers doing in the hunt?

It’s both surprising and not surprising to see Vodafone and Telefonica stake off their claim to this potentially huge market: Surprising because carriers don’t usually buy infrastructure and platform companies. Not surprising because carriers just can’t be carriers anymore.

Nokia didn’t just buy Enpocket to offer an ad solution to its operator customers. It also bought Enpocket to serve up ads to its blossoming Ovi portal and its future mobile Web service platforms, just as it bought Navteq to gain access to map data for Nokia Maps and Loudeye to power its mobile music store. Infrastructure providers are suddenly service providers, and that’s not the end of it. Look at the world’s biggest ad platform, Google—an obvious partner for the carriers, right? Well, Google is becoming a carrier, bidding on spectrum even. What’s more, Google has created its own handset OS, and might even become a hardware vendor (remember the Gphone? It still hasn’t ruled that out).

When your vendors become your competitors and partners become your competitors and suddenly everyone has it in their heads that they can do the services game just as well as you, then, yeah, we’re going to see a lot more carriers buying up applications vendors and even content companies. Don’t expect this purchase to be the last.

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