Wednesday 29 September 2010

Dell's tablet approach...

Today, there are numerous media reports of the tablet PCs that Dell has announced. So far we have had the Dell Streak, a 5" model which has hardly set the world alight. This is unsurprising in my view, since it will be regarded by many as simply a bigger heavier smartphone. Now Dell has announced there will also be devices in the 3inch and 4inch range of screen size. If they are trying to compete, as most commentators suggest, with the iPhone and the iPad then this strategy seems flawed in the sense that it just seems to flood the market with different models. It seems as if they neither know what size is optimal for a particular purpose nor understand what people will want. The consequence will be limited sales of all of them.

However the most imminent arrival to join the Streak, is to be a 7inch model in the next few weeks. This is presumably in terms of the USA, which usually means a European and Worldwide rollout sometime afterwards. But I won't be buying one. The iPad is the right size for a tablet and smaller devices as a way of trying to meet a cheaper price point (the screen is a big percentage of the bill of materials for a device) is no way to compete with it head on. The larger screen of the iPad makes a difference, you just have to hold one in your hands to understand that. I believe that Apple will later compete with a smaller model themselves but that the larger existing one will remain the standard device that most people want.

Dell have additionally announced a 10inch model for 5-6 months time. This is an admission that it is the ideal size so why not launch that one first? By then the iPad will have consolidated its leading position ever further than the march it has already stolen.

And on software ... Dell have also announced that their tablets will run Android OS but that they will also launch models with Microsoft Windows. As with screen size, this seems rather muddled. They evidently can't decide which of the two systems will provide the best experience for users. And it will complicate the ability to run consistent apps across the various devices. With Android, we don't know which versions will be available, and once we do, the plethora of Android "open" devices hitting the marletplace will dangle a carrot that the nasty malware and virus creators will find hard to resist for long.

So the whole approach, hardware and software, seems to be muddled and confusing for the average man/woman in the street. Contrast this to the simplicity of iPad which it wishes to compete with. And that is before you even turn the device on. Yes, Dell will sell some tablets, as they have sold some Streaks already, but I remain unconvinced that their approach will compete adequately with Apple's iPad.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Aberystwyth session

Thanks to all those who attended my futures lecture and/or the dinner at Aberystwyth University this week. It was a pleasure to meet you all and to be guest speaker at your event. I hope you enjoyed the talk. Thanks especially to those members of staff there who made all the arrangements for me and made everything run smoothly.

Monday 13 September 2010

Sensitive skin!

The news today is covering a great deal about the US developments at both Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley on artificial skin experiments, as published in the journal "Nature Materials". Such a skin could in future form the coving for robot limbs, whether for stand-alone robots or for prosthetics for humans that need replacement body parts. Robots with sensitive skin like this could literally feel the objects they manipulate, allowing them to work with more fragile items, for example.

Both approaches demonstrate yet another area which could be impacted by nano-scale technology in a few years time. Engineering pressure sensors into special conductive rubber materials at such a microscopic level is just one of a huge potential number of ways that nano-technology could enable. The two approaches use Thin Film Transistors (TFTs) which previously have been utilised in computer display technology.

At the moment this is lab-based experimentation but the teams working on it have also identified a fairly low cost method for industrialising the manufacture of such materials. In the future, artificial skin will not only look like real human skin, but also allow machines to sense the feel of the materials they come into contact with. Once such developments are brought together with other robotic advances, the total capability of robots as we understand them today will be revolutionised.

Friday 3 September 2010

Media Tablet Froth

So with the advent of this year's Berlin IFA tech show (which i don't ever recall making the general news before), the media seem to be going crazy about some tablet competitors to Apple's iPad. However instead of just reporting fully what the new devices are about, they simply indulge in frothy and supposedly dramatic stories about how other manufacturers are about to attack the market leader.

As usual, most of the stories revolve around tech spec comparisons (cameras, memory, flash, etc) and then highlight price differences. Again they miss the point; it seems as if they never learn! As I have said in many posts here: "it's the experience, stupid!" This means it's about quality... the quality of the design, the quality of materials used, the simplicity of use, the level of eco-systems (services, support and accessories) around the product, and the quality way in which the hardware and software blends together. The latter means that the overall experience will always be better than a hybrid product where different manufacturers build hardware and then slap someone else's operating system on top of it. To make matters worse, most of the competitors are choosing various versions of the Android system which is so wide open that it will permit any nasty coder to distribute viruses and malware through un-verified and uncontrolled third party apps. Anyone want to bet against this ever happening? It's bad enough on your PC, but on your phone?

And so about price... High quality doesn't usually come cheap. The media don't make themselves look foolish by comparing a new luxury model of car (say a Lexus) at a motor show with a lower quality Korean model (e.g. Kia), yet they do it with the tech industry. Most commentators in the latter, even the Apple-sceptics, were remarking how affordable Apple had made iPad for what it was at the time of its launch. Of course others will try to join this market, (which is extremely healthy for all, especially consumers) in a standard product marketing strategy of undercutting the leader on price. But consumers (especially those who are in the market for a device such as a new computer form factor), understand that you don't get cheaper prices without losing something.

Finally, we have to remember that some of these competitors tried this market before. Apple didn't invent the tablet; they simply created a new computerised mobile device form factor that people wanted. The other PC manufacturers tried many times before, using ugly interfaces (e.g. styluses), inappropriate operating systems (e.g. Windows), and without bundled content/application eco-systems, and all failed with early tablets. Some of them still seem to believe that positioning their tablet product offerings as a PC or laptop substitute, rather than a new and different type of device will prove successful; these are often the ones who simply try to pack the tech spec with goodies for the lowest price. Unfortunately average consumers tend to care little about tech spec comparisons, and packing in loads of 'stuff' to a price-point tends to result in low quality.

Some of the media should know better. Luckily, their hyped stories will have been long forgotten as the tablet market matures and the real leaders cement their positions in it.