I enjoy surprises, and discussions that seem to contradict the conventional wisdom. Take netbooks. For a while, computer companies were selling millions of those tiny PCs, which were generally available for $300 or less. Major PC companies couldn’t wait to jump in, until the iPad arrived. Suddenly a $300 note-book seemed too much for what was clearly a subpar product with a subpar user experience. Netbooks were fated to crash big time.
Well, people don’t buy as many netbooks as they used to, but according to Kim Bradford from GottaBeMobile, who was a guest on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, the market remains healthy. The quality of the core components, such as keyboards, have improved, and those in search of a really low-cost portable computer are being well served. I’m not ready to buy Kim’s conclusions, nor would I ever consider buying or recommending one of those things, but the discussion was nonetheless fascinating. And, yes, I reserve the right to be proven wrong.
We also covered such topics as using dictation software on your Mac, the ongoing problems with iTunes Match and matching songs already in Apple’s music library, some network issues at Verizon Wireless, and the known problems with the Google Android user experience.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris welcome long-time cryptozoological researcher Loren Coleman. Loren has recently expanded his International Cryptozoology Museum, and is prepared to talk about the latest research into reports of strange creatures around the globe.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt — Now with New Design! We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
HP is in search of direction these days. After buying Palm for $1.2 billion, HP produced the TouchPad tablet but, in the face of poor sales, disappointed customers, and tepid reviews, killed the product within a few weeks. They managed to sell a ton of them with a $99 fire sale, and, at the same time, decided to ditch CEO Leo Apotheker.
But before Apotheker was shown the door, he also announced that HP was looking to spin off or sell their popular PC division, because of slim profits. Don’t forget that, by volume, HP is the number one PC maker on the planet, at least for this year. If they can’t make it work who can?
Well, in the rush to find a replacement, HP’s board chose one of their own, Meg Whitman, famous for being President and CEO of eBay from 1998 to 2008. During that time, although she stewarded the growth of eBay into an online auction powerhouse, she also green lit the acquisition of PayPal and Skype. The former decision has had debatable results from a customer standpoint; the latter proved a disaster. These days, Skype is a division of Microsoft.
Although a seasoned executive — and I won’t consider her failed stab at public office — Whitman’s recent experience has been with services rather than products. However, she also served executive positions with DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro, so it’s not as if you can say she can’t handle the latter.
Now after a sort of stay-the-course introductory speech, Whitman’s influence at HP has begun to be felt. The PC division won’t be shed, but the Palm platform, known as WebOS, will be made open source, shades of Google’s Android.
As to tablets, Whitman said HP is four-square in favor of building Windows 8 tablets next year, but will probably take another stab at a WebOS tablet the following year. That will probably be too late, even if the WebOS does well for other potential licensees. To me, it comes across as another corporate dart game, where they just shoot their load in different directions, hoping a few will reach a bullseye.
But what about the WebOS? Is that a potential Android killer? Certainly, speculation will grow in the weeks to come, but a little reality check is in store. We all know that the WebOS is a failed product. Palm couldn’t make a go of it independently, HP’s attempt with the TouchPad was an egregious failure. Do they honestly expect handset companies to be willing to invest millions into building WebOS gear instead of Android?
Sure, there may be incentives. It’s not as if Apple was flooding HP with intellectual property lawsuits over the WebOS. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily free and clear, but you have to think that having to pay royalties to Microsoft, and fighting Apple’s lawyers too, would combine to tempt Android handset makers to look elsewhere.
Certainly, Android has been successful from a volume standpoint. Although Google’s gain is indirect, generated by the people who click on targeted ads, tens and tens of millions of Android smartphones have been sold. You have to think that the more successful players, such as Samsung, are making decent amounts of money from the handsets, even though the potential for tablets is less certain.
But knowing that the wolves are circling might also cause handset makers to seek alternatives. Microsoft has yet to demonstrate the potential for the Windows Phone platform. Samsung has been considering some home-grown operating systems. The WebOS certainly looks good, although a Web-based app development scheme may deliver less compelling products. Since the public has already said no, would it make sense to try again?
Then again, maybe HP is playing a no-risk game. It doesn’t really cost them much to make WebOS open source, and if it happens to catch on, even if the possibility is slim to none, it will only give HP credibility if they choose to build a flagship tablet that rights the wrongs of the TouchPad. But it may also be that HP reached their decision because there weren’t any potential buyers.
As to Google, I kind of think they are safe for now. The risks to Android lie elsewhere, such as the still ragged user experience, unstable performance, the ongoing malware threat and, of course, the fact that Apple won’t give up suing handset makers building products using the Google platform.
On the other hand, if a free WebOS encourages software developers to do the work and raise its potential, maybe Google will have something to fear. Right now, though, it seems more likely that, a year from now, there will be very few, if any, WebOS products to be found. It’ll still be just another failed platform.
So a close relative had been using an old CRT-based TV for 25 years. It had worked just about perfectly, despite being on all day to serve the needs of a handicapped child. Well, one day, the power supply evidently failed, for the set began to send smoke from the rear vents.
The fire department was summoned, but the only damage was to that aging TV set, which was promptly deposited in a nearby trash bin. Faced with the dilemma of being unable to entertain their child, they rushed to the discount stores in search of a cheap replacement.
I got an urgent phone call as they were searching for on-sale items at Walmart, but I sent them to the Sam’s Club outlet right next door, since they had a membership and could save a few dollars. They located a 40-inch Hitachi LCD TV, L40A105, for a mere $349. Was the picture decent, I asked? Yes, the relative told me, although his real concern was price. He’d put up with mediocre performance if the thing held out for a few years without self-destructing. I assured him that Hitachi was a responsible brand, and it should survive, but it would be unrealistic to expect the same longevity as his original set.
Would I be able to fit the box into my Honda, he asked? I was skeptical at first, but the sales clerk assured him it would be no problem, and, if the trunk wasn’t sufficiently spacious, I could easily place it in the rear seat. How easily? The set weighs a mere 33 pounds according to the label on the cover, plus a few more for the slimline case. But it just made it into the trunk, and I was surprised at how light the box felt.
Before I left my home, I spent a few minutes examining the specs, just to see what $349 can buy these days. It appears that Hitachi’s spec masters understood all the buzz words. Picture resolution was rated at 1080p, with options to set from three color temperatures and pseudo surround sound. There were also a handful of picture enhancement features, including digital noise reduction, along with three HDMI ports, plus a USB input for software updates.
Once at their home, I placed it on the tiny pedestal, tightened a few screws and left. The cable person was due the next day to install an HD box. I actually didn’t bother to turn the thing on, since there the existing cable box would only deliver standard definition fare, and the relatives were preparing dinner.
Understand that I didn’t expect much from that set, and haven’t returned to their home since that home delivery visit, but I did spend a few moments checking out the set during my next visit to Sam’s Club. What I saw was a bright, crisp picture, with relatively decent response when trying to configure the set with the onscreen menus. Tech critics will probably examine how the set fares with action scenes, the viewing angle, color accuracy, and other performance criteria, probably concluding the set is merely average. At the same time, it’s good enough for most families, assuming, once again, that it doesn’t self-destruct in a year or two.
I also recalled the very first flat panel set I ever saw, years ago at a local consumer electronics store. I don’t recall if the product, a plasma design, sported a 40-inch or 50-inch display. The picture looked great, but the price was near $20,000. I would also be willing to bet that picture quality of that cheap Hitachi is very much in the ballpark of that original set, which was, in fact, originally demonstrated in prototype form.
In the larger scheme of things, getting decent picture quality with a cheap TV is a given nowadays. Into that environment, you have to wonder what Apple might come up with should they enter the TV game big time. With perfectly good flat panel TVs costing just a few hundred dollars, and premium sets costing less than $1,500, where would an Apple entry fit? Would there be enough well-heeled customers willing to spend a little more to get what I would presume to be state-of-the-art image quality, along with the slick performance and elegant interface typical of an Apple product?
Sure the PC world is rife with cheap products that are, in the scheme of things, good enough, and Apple is doing quite well, thank you, with premium products. But TV sets are supposed to be set and forget devices. You shouldn’t expect a malware infection, or any of the interface and stability ills that inflict a Windows computer. Is there room for Apple there too? I remain skeptical.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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