Mobile Tech


Droid Lurches to Life

Today is the day of the Droid. The Motorola smartphone touches down today in what’s shaping up to be one of the biggest handset launches in recent memory. Of course Verizon is going all-in as far as advertising is concerned, but there’s more to the Droid’s story than a marketing campaign.

First, there’s Motorola. Droid is it’s big jump back into the smartphone market, a place where it’s been at best lame and at worst absent over the past few years. It’s got a lot of chips on the table with this one. Will this phone make Motorola a player again?

The whole Android platform is also counting on it. Droid will usher in Eclair, a more mature version of the operating system.

And as far as Verizon is concerned, Droid represents Big Red’s arrival on the Android bandwagon. Sprint and T-Mobile are already on board, but Verizon is the biggest player on the block, and even though it has lots of customers, it’s seldom been known for having cool, high-profile phones. Now it has one.

So this brings into question all that talk we were hearing a few months ago when AT&T users were steaming mad about their network coverage, about how the iPhone should do itself a favor and hook up with Verizon eventually. Does Droid make that move less likely? Is Verizon big enough for two superstar phones?

Listen to the podcast (15:29 minutes).

Sneak Preview

Motorola is not the only phonemaker that’s been lost in the wilderness, plotting a return. There’s another company looking to the Android platform for salvation. Too early to say whether either will successfully re-enter smartphone society — but each has definitely been approaching the matter very differently.

The way Motorola’s going about introducing the Droid, it almost looks like it’s known what it was doing all along. It managed to make its phone the debut handset for Android 2.0, it made a gutsy marketing move with its iPhone challenge, and it was all well-timed: You want to build excitement for a couple of weeks, but don’t make people wait too long to get their hands on one. Droid’s arrival today hits the mark. Then I guess there’s the matter of actually making a good product, too. I haven’t used a Droid, but early reviews are pretty positive.

Then we have Sony Ericsson’s strategy. It just dropped a bunch of details about the Xperia X10, an Android handset that puts the emphasis on social networking functions. That’s not exactly unique — seems that every phone out there now wants to help you manage all those friends you have — but it does have a pretty nice camera that can automatically recognize your friends’ faces and tag them in your address book accordingly. And it has a Snapdragon processor that’s pretty beefy as far as smartphone chips go.

What the X10 doesn’t have is a launch date. It’ll come sometime in the first half of 2010 — anywhere from January 1st to June 30th. Maybe Sony Ericsson’s telling us about it now so we’ll save our pennies, but anyone in the market for a smartphone right now is probably drowning in three or four flavors of temptation, so good luck holding out six months.

Also, the X10’s operating system will be obsolete at birth. Droid is ushering in Android 2.0, aka “Eclair,” but all the X10 will get is a Donut — Android 1.6. Exactly how stale that Donut will be when X10 finally comes along depends on when in the first half of 2010 it will arrive. Of course, all will be forgiven if the phone’s easily upgradable the second you take it out of the box — or Sony Ericsson could do its customers a favor and, you know, do the upgrade itself before selling it to you. Just as a courtesy.

WiFi Woes

Speaking of awkward launches, Apple had one of its own recently as well. Usually, when Apple introduces something new, its marketing team handles the whole thing like a comando assault. Steve Jobs spills the beans, site goes live, press releases get emailed, coming in a week, yes there will be lines, yes you can see it, no you can’t touch it, no you can’t have an interview unless your name is Pogue or Mossberg, no we’re not saying anything about version 2, and … goodnight.

It wasn’t such smooth sailing in China, where Apple recently opened an official channel for the iPhone through China Unicom. That wasn’t China’s introduction to the iPhone — the country’s been lousy with gray market units since 2007. It was just the first time you could get it through a certified vendor.

Not too many Chinese buyers decided to go that route, though — only a few thousand units moved in the first week. It’s not that the Chinese hate Apple — judging by estimates of the number of hacked phones over there, it’s the opposite. But to get a legit iPhone in China, you have to pay something like US$730. That’s expensive even by U.S. standards — then consider the fact that average income in China is a small fraction of the U.S. average. Plus, you can get a gray market iPhone for half that price.

Still, China has over a billion people, so some of them must be rich, right? Why aren’t they buying these things? Well it looks like the model being sold in China has also been forcibly crippled. Apple had to kill the thing’s WiFi in order to appease the Chinese government. So it started getting together a big shipment of no-WiFi iPhones to send over, when all of a sudden back in May, Chinese officials reportedly called up and told Apple, “Hey, uh, never mind on that whole WiFi thing. WiFi is okay now.”

Instead of melting them down or dumping them into the sea or shooting them into space, Apple decided to bring the WiFi-free iPhone to the Chinese market anyway, apparently believing they could compete with the cheaper, WiFi-equipped unlocked iPhones available from friendly street vendors. No evidence of Apple’s usual brilliant strategizing there. Presumably future shipments will be full-bodied units. Hey, it could be worse. At least they didn’t have that idiotic indented headphone jack. That’s good.

Real AppleTV

When Apple goes out to wrestle with media companies, it’s like watching Mr. Spock take down a 400-pound monster by pinching it in the neck. It knows all the right pressure points, and it’s already had its way with the music industry. There’s lots of talk that it’s taking a similar approach to the publishing industry. And now it seems it may be putting TV networks in a chokehold.

iTunes already sells TV show downloads for a few bucks per, but now Apple’s in talks with networks to launch a $30-per-month iTunes subscription service that would compete with cable companies, according to a post on All Things Digital by Peter Kafka. Of course, there’s no confirmation or details from Apple. But the fact that Apple just updated its Apple TV software is a convenient side fact.

TV content owners know full well what happened to the music industry when it knuckled under to iTunes. But they probably also have a pretty good idea about what might have happened if it hadn’t. It’s all speculative fiction, but here’s one scenario: Each major record label may have eventually tried to set up its own music site, with its own DRM, its own format and maybe even its own media player. What a wonderful world that would’ve been.

On the one hand, TV companies don’t want to screw up all the various complicated relationships and subscription revenues they’ve already secured. But on the other hand, iTunes revenues might be very attractive, and with the whole entertainment industry going through so much uncertainty with digitization and consumers who want it all and want it now, iTunes may be a relatively solid rock to jump onto.

Hackintoshes Spared?

The inability to leave well enough alone is seriously one of the most powerful forces driving the advancement of technology. Sometimes true necessity is the mother of invention — fire, the wheel, the lightbulb, sanitation, etc. But just as often, people are driven to futz and tinker with perfectly working systems in order to solve very trivial problems, like the fact that Apple does not make a netbook, and even if it did, it would probably be a few hundred bucks more than the cheapy little minis from Dell and HP and Acer.

The solution to that one is to make a hackintosh. Buy a copy of Leopard or Snow Leopard, then find one of many how-to guides out there on the Web telling you how to install Apple’s OS onto a tiny little netbook PC.

Is this OK with Apple? Not at all, so if you’re the kind of person who obeys end-user licensing agreements, do not do this. Apple only allows its software to go on Apple machines. But if you’re the kind of person who voids warranties, fast-forwards through commercials, and sings in the shower without giving ASCAP a dollar, then don’t worry about it. Really, what’s Apple gonna do?

Answer to that: It’s going to make its software not work on your hackintosh anymore. Maybe. A hacker who goes by the handle Stellarolla has been playing with a developer build of Snow Leopard’s next update, and this person says it will make the OS unable to run on computers using the Intel Atom processor — meaning, just about every netbook on the market. So, party’s over … perhaps. Later, an update to that post revealed that a subsequent build restored Atom compatibility, so sleep soundly, Mac hackers. I guess what this proves is that even though it could smash Atom, it decided not to this time. Still, after that little iPhone bricking incident a few years ago, I wouldn’t put it past Apple to try and kill off all its misbegotten little bastard netbook children out there with a fatal cyber-aneurism one of these days. Oh well, there’s always Karmic Koala, right?

Aw, Snap!

The art of the riff is not lost on whatever ad agency is handling Verizon Wireless’ TV commercials. After Apple graciously drilled that “There’s an app for that” slogan into our heads all summer long, Verizon turned it around to rip on the iPhone’s carrier, AT&T: “There’s a MAP for that!” Get it? Burn!

iPhone fanboys, please sit back down, this was not a knock on the handset, it was on AT&T. In the ads, Verizon shows two maps of the United States. One’s totally covered in red dots. It sort of makes the U.S. look like it has some kind of disease, but it’s really meant to display Verizon’s extensive 3G network. The other map has a smattering of blue dots, and that’s supposed to show AT&T’s 3G coverage, which doesn’t appear nearly as widespread.

But AT&T says the ads are dirty pool, and it’s suing for a permanent injunction and damages. It’s not disputing Verizon’s claim that it has way more 3G coverage than AT&T; it’s more irked about the way Verizon goes about showing it. AT&T thinks those maps can mislead customers into thinking that AT&T has absolutely no coverage in certain large portions of the U.S., which isn’t true — it just has no 3G coverage in those areas. Its other cell technologies may work in those places just fine.

AT&T says it’s very worried about how that perception might hurt its holiday sales, and the fact that this is all going on while AT&T is spending many billions of dollars to improve its much-maligned 3G network probably just irritates them all the more.

Native Domain Language

People who live in places where the language of the land is normally written in the Latin alphabet have always had a sort of cultural advantage online. Until recently, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has required top-level domains to be registered in Latin letters — no Korean characters, for example, or Chinese or Arabic. Other kinds of writing could be used all over the Web site itself, of course, but when it came to the URL at the top of your browser, it was Latin only.

ICANN recently changed that rule, in line with other moves it’s made to become a less Ameri-centric body and internationalize the Web. Soon new Web sites will be able to have URLs incorporating all kinds of different letters and figures.

The Web’s already pretty fragmented, and adding thousands of new characters to the mix will probably stir things up a little more. Even if you know how to do it, it’s not exactly convenient for users with keyboards designed for English to type non-Latin characters into a URL bar. But through this action, ICANN may have prevented an even deeper schism.

The first — and sometimes only — language of most Internet users is not based on Latin characters. If ICANN had not moved to accommodate greater diversity, the desire to generate URLs in other alphabets might have led to the emergence of a separate Internet — one connected by root servers that would allow Web addresses in Chinese, Russian, Arabic and a host of other languages.

Tina Dam, senior director for international domain names at ICANN, explained it this way: “If alternate root-servers are set up around the world because we don’t allow international domain names, it will mean that users on the Internet will no longer be connected, and that would be a serious fragmentation of the Internet.”

Price War

Microsoft has long hated Google with chair-tossing zeal, but the exact nature of that hatred has perhaps changed over the years. No longer does it see Google as this mouthy little rookie that could maybe pose a threat someday down the line. The threat is here now, and Microsoft knows it needs to act. The moves Redmond just made with its SaaS email product and its business productivity suite are just a few things its trying to do to stay competitive.

Those Microsoft offerings compete with the paid enterprise version of Google Apps, but it seems Microsoft didn’t really believe they were in the same league until recently. What changed? A lot of things, but one of the last straws may have had to do with the city of Los Angeles. The city government there recently opted to use Google Apps for its 30,000 employees, a five-year, $7.25 million deal. The main loser there was the city’s previous vendor, Novell, but it may have also been a big eye-opener for Microsoft: Large operations are taking Google seriously, and its prices are more attractive.

So Microsoft is cutting some of its prices pretty drastically. Exchange Online standalone goes from $10 per user per month to 5, Business Productivity Online Suite is down from 15 to 10, and storage space per user quintuples to 25 GB, same as what’s offered by Google Apps. And just to drive the point home, Microsoft emphasized that it can make new high-profile friends too, like Aviva, McDonald’s and Lions Gate Entertainment.

Check Yourself

It’s all too easy to let Google seep into every little private nook and cranny of your life. It starts with a Gmail account. Then, hey, why not use Apps as well — no need to sign back on. YouTube’s fun, and now that you already have a Google account, you can get around easier. Might as well do Picasa and Calendar while you’re at it.

That makes for a lot of various activities, and Google being what it is, every little thing you do is tracked and saved. It sometimes means jumping through a lot of hoops to see exactly what Google knows about your account activity. So the company’s introduced Dashboard. It’s not a change in Google’s privacy policies or procedures. It’s just a centralized location where users can go to find out what info is being kept on their Google accounts and get some easy links to places where they can adjust certain privacy controls.

But there’s other information that Dashboard does not cover. That would be info not associated with your user account specifically — instead, maybe it’s your IP address or all those cookies banging around in your system. Dashboard doesn’t let you see or control any of that stuff. As always, if you want real privacy, try living in the forest.

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