HP’s Secret iPhone Killer, Apple Air = HP Sojourn III, the Birth of Flash Drives

I kind of felt sorry for Steve Jobs last week because he got a raw deal. Folks seemed to be expecting an iPhone-like announcement and instead got nice improvements on existing products and a wonderful new laptop.

I personally think the impact of the improvements to Apple TV and seemingly Apple-led move to ultra-thin laptops to be, in combination, potentially just as big as the iPhone in terms of impact, if not revenue.

However, it is interesting to note that the next iPhone-like product may be a secret offering coming from HP in the second half of the year, and it was HP that started the move to these ultra-thin laptops a decade ago. The big limitations for this class of laptop were processor power requirements and heat, display power requirements, and the cost and service life of flash memory.

This last appears to be going away, not only due to the Apple announcement but due to an unexpected announcement by EMC placing flash drives in a high-end data center offering.

We’ll talk about all of this and conclude with the product of the week, which is the Apple TV Take 2 — a product that I think isn’t getting the praise it deserves.

“Oak” 2008’s iPhone

What if instead of announcing the iPhone in January 2007 when it was still basically a pretty brick that didn’t work (a huge risk if they hadn’t been able to fix the product), Apple had instead waited until June and announced the product then?

Certainly, the buzz surrounding the phone would have continued and the risk of being sued for not disclosing that the phone wasn’t even close to viable at the announcement would have been mitigated. This was a huge risk for Apple, which was already under SEC investigation, and while it played out for the company nicely there are few companies that are willing to take that risk.

HP would likely be at the top of the list when it comes to taking risks like this. While HP clearly had the same opportunity Apple had, and its product (based on Microsoft’s Mobile platform) is vastly more complete than the iPhone was last January, it has apparently decided to hold off announcing the offering until later in the year, and the phone is still in the “rumor” stage as a result.

Vodafone, one of the carriers evidently launching the phone later in the year, evidently isn’t that secure, however. Its entire fall line was leaked to the Web. One of those phones was HP’s Oak, and it now takes the place of the iPhone for what is the most anticipated new phone coming to market. Granted, there is still the 3G iPhone and the expected iPhone nano — at least one of which will show up this year (probably both) — but for now the Oak seems to be the product to watch.

The reason for this is it seems to blend the advantages of the RIM Blackberry with the iPhone to create a hybrid product which offers the benefits of both into what could be a bigger product than either. HP’s connections into the enterprise are better than RIM’s, and the company probably has more senior people with Apple DNA than any other company in Silicon Valley.

Granted, there’s no Steve Jobs there to present the product, but remember that it was HP’s iPod competitor that scared Steve Jobs so much he actually tricked HP into stopping it. That won’t work twice. This time HP appears not only to have a great product but to be immune to Apple’s trickery.

MacBook Air = HP Sojourn III

The first ultra-thin laptop to hit the market that was viable was the HP Sojourn, and it came to market back in 1998. With a price approaching 10 grand in today’s dollars, a 233Mhz processor, a 2.1 GB drive, one hour battery life, and a horrid membrane keyboard, it was more of a science experiment than anything you’d actually use, but it was first. In effect, HP plowed the field that Apple is now benefiting from.

One thing was clear, however, when you saw the crowds that gathered around the Sojourn at every event, was that people lusted after this thing like nothing else in the laptop segment at the time, and that the market was waiting for the right product to emerge.

Around five years later, the Sony x505 hit the market as kind of a Sojourn II and enhanced Sony’s reputation as the company that could make this class of notebook work. It was less than half the price in today’s dollars — even in its most expensive graphite form. While it made sacrifices, it was actually usable — but just barely — and its cost was greater than everything else enough that while it also drew crowds, it wasn’t a big seller.

Now, five years after that, we have the Apple Air, which is affordable if you don’t get the preferred flash drive option but clearly designed with this option in mind. This product makes it clear that it is the price of flash memory itself that is the remaining cost barrier for this class of device, now that battery life, usability, and performance have all now been addressed.

Did Apple copy Sony and HP? If it had, Apple likely would have realized that a product in this class either needs an extended battery option of some kind to be fully useful. Since that was left out, I’m thinking it’s not a copy, maybe it should have been.

In any case, the MacBook Air is a stunning product which will likely validate this class and probably wake up companies like Sony to jump back into it.

EMC Helps Push Flash Mainstream

I thought that one of the biggest overlooked announcements last week was EMC’s announcement that it would put ultra-fast flash drives in its Symmetrix storage platform. We generally think of flash drives in things like the iPod and iPhone, and Monday’s announcement from EMC was a wake-up call that these drives are moving like a freight train into the back office as well.

It is now not hard to imagine a time when we will no longer be using rotating media, and while that time is still a number of years away, it does appear to be coming. The advantages of flash, which have a lot to do with low power, low heat, and very high performance, appeal to both desktop and back office products.

It is estimated that one of these high performance flash drives could easily replace 30 15,000 RPM drives and could save some organizations millions of dollars because the resulting systems are more responsive. That should help make flash solutions like this very popular and drive down costs aggressively (not that this hasn’t already been the case). These drives are about as green as we get in terms of power efficiency, and they appeal strongly to folks who are hitting thermal or power limits in their data centers.

It is interesting how much EMC is popping up as a segment leader now, and it appears to be a peer to Microsoft, Cisco, Intel and HP in that regard.

Product of the Week: Apple TV Take 2

Why Apple TV and not the HP Oak phone or MacBook Air? Well, the HP phone isn’t officially announced yet (though it will be on my list for product of the year in 2008 when it does) and the MacBook Air still isn’t quite the product it will become, while the Apple TV now is clearly blazing a leadership trail.

The first Apple TV had a bad selection of really poor quality content, and this “Take Two” offering seems to fix that while not messing with what was one of the market leading interfaces.

Content is the big problem with this class of product and, up until now, the Xbox 360 was probably the best of the offerings in this class. However, it was a game system rather than a focused set-top box.

On the Microsoft side, it is really the IPTV offering that stands out in this regard, but you can only get it through a phone company while almost anyone can get Apple TV.

Apple’s work to free up content for folks to download is almost unmatched and better or equal to efforts by Amazon, Netflix, and Microsoft — all of which are contributing to this overall effort to get content we want to watch into our homes.

The big realization for me, though, is I actually want one of these things now — and for me to want an Apple product is still an unusual event, making this my product of the week.

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