RIM/HP/Microsoft Battle Coming, Are You Ready for a Home Server?, Product of the Week

It is hard to get around the fact that smartphones are incredibly hot right now, and while the iPhone appears to be suffering from vendor-induced trauma, Research In Motion’s financials were impressively good.

However, the whole enterprise phone market is about to go through the most massive change since the introduction of the private branch exchange (PBX), and few are positioned as well as HP is to benefit from it. Meanwhile, RIM may be on a road reminiscent of Palm’s PDA path of the last decade.

I spent a good deal of time with the new Microsoft Home Server and had to send my test unit back in preparation for the product’s ship date. Also, I got to judge an event covering software for the platform. I’m now in deep home server withdrawal, but still I wonder how many know what one of these things is, let alone are ready to buy one in a few weeks.

Finally, we’ll chat about this week’s product of the week — a whopping 30-inch monitor that makes the 27-inch model I’m currently using look small and turns games, videos and even day-to-day work into an incredible experience.

The Evolution of the Office Phone

We started working on the idea of a converged PBX/Computer phone system for companies back in the early 1980s. By 1985, there were a number of products on the market and in the labs that did things that we can’t even do today — more than 20 years later.

That is about to change, and the folks that will likely be hardest hit are those who didn’t see this change coming, though you could hardly blame them, given how much time it has taken.

Over the last five years, we’ve seen RIM fight its way up past Palm (which successfully executed, at least for a time, on Apple’s old Newton vision) to create what has become the most successful smartphone currently in the market: the BlackBerry.

However, the vision wasn’t just to create convergence at the device, and the current generation of the smartphone isn’t particularly well integrated with either existing PBXs or back-end computer systems. That is about to change.

Doing the device itself was relatively easy, because a company like RIM could do it all and create a complete solution. For true PBX and computer convergence, however, it takes getting two groups of people who historically don’t work together to start talking.

This required two companies we often don’t think of when we think of phones to get involved: Microsoft and Cisco. Moving forward, the market will likely favor companies that can partner over those that can’t because no company — not even Microsoft — can go it alone.

Microsoft has been in the phone market since the mid-’90s, working on both handsets and computer-based PBXs with an eye on convergence. Cisco started out building a converged PBX targeting the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) opportunity and moved aggressively into a market that had historically been dominated by a few very large vendors.

Microsoft offered a solution that most probably wouldn’t have taken if it weren’t for Cisco creating the very obvious risk of displacement if the legacy PBX vendors didn’t step up their games.

This has set the stage for a truly converged offering, one that doesn’t yet exist, where the client device is a cell phone and the back end is a converged PBX allowing employees to get a consistent telephone/data experience regardless of whether they are inside or outside the office.

Two other companies are positioned to take advantage of this.

HP, which has a RIM-like telephone line, has relationships with both Cisco and Microsoft, coupled with the necessary services to make it all work. HTC, which has the strongest line of Microsoft-based smartphones, doesn’t compete with Cisco or Microsoft in anything and has a relationship with Google, which will also be playing in this converged space with a hosted solution that will be coming later.

I don’t know enough about the Google solution yet to even have a sense for whether Google is on the right track yet, but it clearly plans to eventually be a player here.

AT&T is evidently hedging its iPhone play with the new HTC Tilt, a phone that basically addresses each shortcoming the iPhone has. Features include 3G, Global Positioning System, a removable battery, keyboard and tilt screen, and it supports RIM and Microsoft Exchange and has a lower price. Unfortunately, it is a lot thicker but it is also a vastly better value.

While it will take until 2015 for the majority of us to see the resulting converged solution tying all of this together, by the end of this decade we should be well on our way. Neither RIM nor Apple have the partnerships they need yet to transition with the market, nor do they even have the necessary partnering skills.

I doubt any of us fully realize how much change this convergence will mean to the industry and our lives, regardless of who eventually benefits — it could even be Google. We are getting closer to Gene Roddenberry’s idea of a global communications device, and I expect we’ll all largely have one by 2015. The only question is which one of RIM’s — or Apple’s — competitors will have sold it to us.

Home Server: Ready or Not, Here It Comes

I was one of the judges for the Code2Fame contest Microsoft had two weeks ago in Redmond, Wash.

We chose between three products mostly developed out of someone’s home to enhance the new Microsoft Home Server platform, and the experience got me thinking. I don’t think any of us truly realize what a difference having a server in our homes that is reliable, secure, and running 24/7 will make in our lives.

For many of us, leaving our PCs on 24/7 is a huge waste. If we do use things like media extenders or want to access our stuff remotely, chances are our personal PC is either off, or crashed, or otherwise unavailable. Yet increasingly, we want to access our music, pictures, videos, documents and other stuff from wherever we are, and wherever that is, it isn’t currently where our PC is.

In the office we have servers to address this, but IT frowns on us putting the family pictures on company servers, and the whole process of getting into the darned virtual private network makes the experience less than ideal in most cases.

Now add to this the possibility of having our own full-on Web server where we can create a personal presence on the Web outside the capability of any of the online services.The unit can act as a staging backup server so that our stuff is not only backed up locally, but put on a backup service like EMC’s or Amazon’s. It can become a content aggregator, which could then pass that content — like YouTube videos, movies, or television shows — to TVs, laptops and cell phones. Now you have the beginning of an idea of what this could become.

The competition for the home server will likely mostly come from online services that will try to provide the same things, but with the limitations associated with a cable or DSL connection. Meanwhile, the Home Server will support Gigabit networks and even optical networks in some cases.

The funny thing for me is that the Home Server pulls a fraction of the power of my four- and eight-core desktops, and I just feel better about leaving it on all of the time. That turns out to be one of the most compelling parts of the deal for me.

Product of the Week: Gateway 30-inch “Big Momma” Monitor

I’m a big fan of extreme products, and this latest monitor, the Gateway XHD3000, is in this class. Gateway has for some time been the top choice for a number of us because features like Faroudia up-converters and HDMI/HDCP support are tossed in, making these monitors ideal if you are doing a lot of product testing or want to use them as more than just a PC monitor, such as for HD movies or video game consoles.

Up until now, they have been kind of dull, but this latest product breaks that trend with a combination of gloss black and silver trim to create a really striking product. This monitor uses a Silicon Realta HQV up-scaler and will even push 1080p content to the monitor limit of 1600p; full resolution is 2560×1600 pixels. It even has its own unique remote control.

Very strong specs and an ultra-wide viewing angle, coupled with eight very nice-sounding speakers and a six-port USB hub make it clear this is a premium product — even if the $1,699 price tag didn’t give you a strong clue.

Worried about someone stealing it? Don’t — this is one of the first monitors to include software that hard-links the monitor to one PC so that anyone stealing it won’t get a working monitor.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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