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Category Archives: Devices

Windows Phone and “Communication”

I went to an AT&T store today to get my Nexus 4 fully activated. The experience ended up being much more positive than my admittedly low expectations had prepped me for. Along the way, the tech savvy clerk and I discussed his experiences with some of the devices in the store, specifically the HTC One X and the Nokia Lumia 920.

I won’t bore you with reviews of these phones, both of which are fantastic pieces of hardware that are flagship devices for their respective platforms. But in justifying his abandonment of the 920 in favor of the One X, he said that Windows Phone was good for “communicating” but not “much else,” with much of said “much else” being apps.

It reminded me of a recent TechCrunch piece about Nokia’s decline, in which the author argued that the Finnish giant lost its way when it became obsessed with improving the phone functionality of its services and not foreseeing that data would become more important than voice. Ironic then, that is partnership with Microsoft would end up bringing it back to the same behavior that necessitated such a partnership in the first place.

Microsoft and Nokia either fail to see that there is more value in data than voice/traditional comms or they simply can’t compete when it comes to data. I expect that the latter is true, primarily due to their tardiness in entering mobile with Windows Phone 7/8 (three years after the first iPhone, two years after the Android G1), but at the same time I think that they’ve failed to compete in part because they failed to see the value of data.

Windows Phone is in a way the software equivalent of Nokia’s current hardware: beautiful, totally different from anything in the mainstream, and barely used. As a “phone” – something that can make high-quality calls, sort thru contacts, and perform basic tasks, it’s fine, but when you try to do something as simple as peruse Twitter, it stumbles early and often.

If it’s not enough to simply “communicate” anymore, however, then the carriers themselves ought to be just a bit wary of the smartphone market’s vitality. While hoary institutions like SMS and cellular data are not shuffling of this mortal coil any time soon, the notion that the “phone” is the default communication device could be in trouble.

iMessage and Snapchat, whose combined scale is still small, are nevertheless two excellent examples of lightweight apps that would be right at home on a wearable device like Google Glass or the increasingly mythical iWatch “smartwatch.” And while such services would allow for “communication,” they would be data hogs first and foremost, with features like cellular calls and SMS likely taking a back seat to the various in-app walled gardens, or to some aggregation service like Google Now.

One could argue that we are already there with smartphones. I know people who have moved the iPhone Phone app to the dreaded junk folder along with defaults like Videos and Reminders. But the elite status of the iPhone is still seen in the huge prestige gap between it and the iPod, the latter of which has no competitors and is more about fun than a full mobile experience.

Oddly, the lackluster status of Windows Phone as a glorified feature phone could open the doors for Microsoft and Nokia to simply leapfrog the smartphone paradigm and release a must have wearable computer. This is what Apple did with the iPod: lagging badly in the CD burning race (the first iMacs shipped without one), it decided to just change the game rather than play catchup. The same can be said of what it did to netbooks with the iPad.

In any case this seems to confirm my ongoing pessimism about Windows Phone, its opportunities in China notwithstanding. “Communicating” isn’t enough, which of course is obvious in the smartphone era – but though the phone is still king for now, this decline in the value of traditional “communication” means that it is already losing ground to the very things (data, apps, services) that is so perfectly enables (via cellular networks).

Paradoxically, by not seeing that, Microsoft et all may be best positioned to exploit the shift – they could just throw in the towel when it comes to smartphones, and try their luck at something else. But I expect at some level that they do not so much “not see” that a smartphone’s value has more to do with data than call quality and specs, but that they instead have just not competed, in large part because they just don’t get what users want.

– The ScreenGrabTeam

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Samsung Chromebook

For a few weeks now, I have been using an ARM Samsung Chromebook as my primary PC. Initially, I was skeptical that it could fulfill all of my needs. After all, it’s a $250 machine made of plastic and equipped with Google’s minimalist Chrome OS. But its overall capability has surprised me, and it has given me what I feel like is a glimpse of a truly futuristic casual computing experience.

Chrome OS is exactly what it sounds like – an operating system based on Google’s popular Chrome browser. Technically, it’s a Linux distribution that features only one native app, the titular browser which is integrated with a file manager and a media players. All of its “apps,” downloaded from the Chrome Web Store, run in the browser as Web applications.

Google has guided its OEM partners in the design of Chromebook and Chromebox devices, but until this year both parties struggled to create a cohesive software/hardware experience. Older Chromebooks were either test-grade machines or Intel-based power hogs whose old school internals seemed ill-fitted to their quirky software. This new Samsung device hits a sweet spot, however. It’s too bad that the term “Zenbook” is used to market an Asus ultrabook, since this Chromebook is the most Zen laptop I have ever used. It runs on a low-power ARM chip related to the Exynos line of processors that power the Galaxy Note II and the Nexus 10. It runs completely silently, emits no heat, has no fan (Apple III-era Steve Jobs would be proud) and barely has a hard drive in the form of its modest 16GB SSD. But it does one thing extremely well – access the Internet.

Samsung obviously made a huge number of compromises so that they could ship such a cheap PC. They made the right ones, by ditching Intel, massive hard drives, glossy/touch screens and metal (the chassis is plastic). At the same time, the Chromebook makes the most of its shoestring budget. The plastic chassis is painted to look like aluminum, an imitation that it pulls off nicely, especially from a distance. The redeemable offer for two years of free extra Google Drive storage (100 GB) similarly makes up for its slight onboard storage. The mobile ARM chip (which at one point confused Yahoo! into thinking I was accessing the site from a phone) doesn’t scream like an Ivy Bridge processor, but it keeps the whole package completely silent and cool.

Most importantly, this sleek Chromebook highlights something that many users feel but perhaps do not mention aloud: that their laptops are increasingly just doorstops whenever they aren’t connected to the Internet. The latest release of OS X is so iCloud-intensive so as to discourage almost any offline work – even its iWork suite boasts, as its killer feature, its ability to keep documents in iCloud. Similarly, Windows 8 provides Metro/Modern UI-optimized apps thru its new app store only. Rather than keep on with the illusion of a somewhat-usable offline device that nevertheless should be connected to the Internet, Chrome OS simply surrenders to the Internet, running all of its functionality thru the browser.  It’s simple, honest, fast and surprisingly robust, and it will change your life.

Word is that Google itself is working on a touchscreen Chromebook, which would further integrate mobile sensibilities into the laptop PC space. This convergence has long seemed inevitable, and we’ve seen steps in that direction, even if some of them have seemed odd, such as Apple’s introduction of skeuomorphic iOS mainstays like Notes and Game Center to the Mac. Google’s seemingly niche, hobbylike Chromebook project may never be a smash success, but I think it achieves an important end. Specifically, it succeeds in radically reinventing the laptop even after 30 years of iterative change, and it demonstrates that, with a few tweaks, “mobile” devices can operate much like vastly improved and simplified versions of the productivity devices we’ve been using for decades.

-The ScreenGrab Team