HP’s WebOS TouchPad: Someone tell me what’s the differentiator?

February 19, 2011

imageI went through a couple passes on this TouchPad announcement and I’ll probably do some more research on this later but basically, in a phrase:  I’m very skeptical.  It wasn’t as bad as Blackberry’s PlayBook mind you which appears to be a disaster and no one in the press seems to have figured that out yet, but frankly, the TouchPad doesn’t look terribly promising.

There’s not much here that demonstrably differentiates this device from the rest of the pack – iOS, Android, and yes, to a lesser extent, Windows. 

Bottom line:  Show me something that this device does that’s better than what might otherwise be done on iOS, Android, or Windows?  Now, is that capability ‘revolutionary’ enough to compel people to halt their iPad purchase?

Meanwhile HP is losing a huge source of marketing support by going with the non-Intel, non-Microsoft TouchPad. 

I have a philosophy – and I’ll bet you do too – that you need a killer feature to break out of the pack with any ‘secord-to-market’ product, especially when you’re a company like HP that’s “going it alone” against Android, iOS, and Windows-Anything without partners building their own devices & generating their own customer base’s interest in the platform.  (Remember:  This is a Palm/Qualcomm device.)  If you don’t have ubiquitous coverage to get the device to the people, you need to be able to compel the people to come to the device… and I don’t see that.

Remember HP’s going without co-marketing funds from Intel or Microsoft  – where, by the way, most of today’s advertising dollars comes from for OEMs like HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, etc.  Have you ever wondered why that Intel “DumDum,DumDUM!” logo keeps popping up in TV ads for HP, Dell, or Lenovo?  Or you see those “HP recommends using Windows 7 Professional” blurbs in the magazine ads?  That’s because Intel & Microsoft pay a significant amount of the costs of those ads to co-market HP’s products. 

This lack of co-marketing becomes a “big red warning light” to me when you realize that HP’s gotta grab consumers – not just business folk, with their TouchPad offering, meaning broad marketing & advertising is critical to getting market recognition and thus penetration.  But even with the Enterprise business set, remember that WebOS has no realistic Enterprise programmability, manageability & security strongly weakening WebOS’s position in this space.  Even Apple & Google still haven’t figured out that last bit and they’ve been around for a while.

After some thought, I came up with the following considerations as to what I think is absolutely essential as a baseline for this form factor:

  • Form Factor Utility/Price Ratio – How useful is the design relative to the price?  At what point does someone just say, “Wow.  I might as well just get a PC” versus “It’s cheap but it’s kinda useless.”
  • Practical Application Set – Does it have the most important applications, instead of “Angry Birds”?  And are they full-featured and are there decent alternatives to their desktop counterparts?
  • Palatable End User Experience – Will people like the experience?  Is it enjoyable instead of frustrating?  Does it work the way one would expect it to work?

Now here’s the technical specs:

  • WebOS w/ Activity Card interface
  • “PalmBrowser” – HTML5, Adobe Flash
  • 8000 apps
  • 1.2Ghz dual-core ARM Snapdragon
  • 512MB RAM
  • 16/32GB Storage
  • Gorilla Glass
  • 1.3Mp front facing camera
  • A-GPS
  • Stereo speakers
  • Gyroscope/Accelerometer
  • WiFi, Bluetooth
  • Mobile broadband SIM slot
  • MicroUSB port
  • Special features:
    • Touch-to-share – Share URLs by “touching” the Pre to the TouchPad. 
    • Text message sync – Synchronize text messages between the Palm Pre & the TouchPad

What stands out to me?

  • WEBOS:  The experience is good.  I’ve used it.  It’s fast and quick however it can tend to bog down just like Windows does as a multitasking OS.  The thing is, can you think of any software HP has produced or bought that’s turned out well?  I don’t mean that in disrespect – it’s a legitimate question.  Name one software product that they churn out that’s been ‘great’?  On top of that, it’s going to have no ecosystem around it other than HP providers.  They’re not partnering with anyone.   Again – NO ONE ELSE is using this OS – only HP.  No 3rd party enhancements, no non-HP designs.  I don’t even know any HP folks that own Palm Pre’s so I find it really hard to believe there’s going to be community around this device.
  • PALM BROWSER:  Yup.  Another browser to support.  Of course they highlighted HTML5 & Flash support… because from a compatibility perspective, WebOS wasn’t particularly friendly with corporate sites – witness what happens when you attempt to us it for SharePoint or moderately complex AJAX sites (A: Stuff doesn’t layout correctly, render on the screen at all, or just plain won’t drag & drop) – so they do indeed need to look ahead.
  • 8000 APPS:  And none of them are optimized for the Tablet form factor.  I’m highly skeptical about this 8000 app quote because the market’s been stale for so long on WebOS.  Meanwhile, Windows Phone 7’s marketplace is about to pass WebOS in the number of apps available.  This is after they’ve been dumping seed money into the community to create apps for the launch – what does that tell you?  Yes, they have titles like Angry Birds… but then again, the Palm Pre’s been around for a LOT LONGER than Windows Phone 7 – almost 2 years – so I’d expect better marquee titles.  But I don’t see them.
  • TOUCH-TO-SHARE:  This TouchStone gimmick is DOA as far as I’m concerned being that it requires a Palm Pre to use and only shares URLs between the two devices.  Seriously – how niche can a feature be?  This reminds me of Zune’s wireless-sharing feature which only worked with other Zunes and only shared music – not videos, podcasts, audiobooks, pictures, etc.  – and even then, the music was DRMed for 3 plays only. 
  • TEXT MESSAGE SYNC:  Again, another niche feature that’s DOA because it requires a Palm Pre.  And even if it did work with other phones over – say Bluetooth – if you’re a kid, this might be practical – going back and form between Phone & Slate.  However if you’re a kid, you won’t own one of these.  It’s not a PC replacement.

Questions I have:

  • PRICE.  Gorilla glass, dual-core processor, custom firmware on non-commodity hardware.  (No, it’s NOT a commodity.  HP’s the only one’s using this design & config.)  This doesn’t look cheap and HP’s trying to break into a market that is already got players with commoditized hardware, ecosystems, additional added income from volume revenue streams. (Android Marketplace & iTunes) A lot of their success is going to depend on if they decide to “give away razors to sell razor blades”:  If the TouchPad is priced rock bottom to make money on WebOS marketplace sales… alright, I think it’s got a chance, but HP’s gonna need a long term war chest like Microsoft’s to weather the storm like we did with Xbox, which took 8 years & $10B in investment to become persistently profitable.  (Which we will likely make up in the next 2 years alone, if you can believe that.)
  • APPS CATALOG.  After 2 years, of existence, Windows Phone 7’s total app count is going to pass WebOS’s total number of apps available this next month.  What does that tell you?
  • DEVELOPER COMMUNITY.  Unless they’ve got a program – and remember that HP isn’t a software company – that assists people in porting apps to WebOS, they’re in a world of hurt because we’ve spent a mint on this process for Windows Phone 7 and we have the most widely used development tools in the world.  WebOS uses its own IDE and it’s own application development libraries – which no one’s used before.
  • SDFLASH.  Or the lack there of.  Really?  No slot on a Tablet?  Designed for movie playback?  Photo display/collages?  Really?
  • EXCHANGE ACTIVESYNC.  It was crappy on the Palm Pre.  It’ll be interesting to see how this goes on the TouchPad.  I won’t go into the details but Palm’s support for Exchange was lousy.  For example:  You couldn’t create meetings on your calendar.
  • BATTERY LIFE/REMOVABLE BATTERY.  The reason people haven’t used dual cores is because battery life historically gets cut in half on mobile devices when you do.  Not surprisingly, there was no mention of battery life in the announcement or the press materials.

“Just my opinion.  Now, I could be wrong.  I’ve been wrong before.  I’m good at being wrong.  But I don’t think I’m wrong.”  – Jim Rome

Q: Why didn’t Steve Ballmer attend the Tech Summit? A: Because he just met with Obama last month.

February 19, 2011

Much has been made about Steve Ballmer not being a the Silicon Valley Tech Summit coordinated by President Barack Obama.  The media, in their everloving verve for headlines and advertising impressions, ask the question, “Why?  Why was Steve Ballmer snubbed by the President?”

I think the answer is best summarized by this ZDNet article:

IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano was invited. 
HP’s CEO Lee Apotheker wasn’t invited. 
Jeff Bezos CEO of Amazon wasn’t invited. 
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff wasn’t invited. 
…and yes, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft wasn’t invited. 

Because it was a regional event.  Plain and simple.

But I think another reason was best expressed by Ed Bott on Twitter:


Basically, while this opportunity is truly a rare opportunity for some, Microsoft’s leadership & founders meet with President Obama on a variety of topics on a somewhat regular basis.

For example:

Contrary to what the media wants to spin this as – this was not a “snub”.  It’s important to understand that Microsoft leadership meets with US leadership relatively frequently – and one-on-one.  There’s no need for us to participate in a tech meeting when Microsoft has individual meetings with President Obama and his cabinet.

For those wondering, “Why”… it’s pretty simple:

  • Steve Ballmer has a strong understanding of what US businesses are spending on and what their drivers are.  He has his hands on the pulse of America’s ever changing workforce and, being one of America’s biggest exporter of products to International markets, he has a keen eye on International relationships from an economic standpoint.
  • Bill Gates is worried about public education, vaccinations, the oil crisis, foreign policy, the economy. 

Software Copy Protection… the cat & mouse game from the 80s/90s continues into 2010 (Part 1)

February 6, 2011

imageWhen I was a kid, one of the greatest things in the world to me was the challenge of breaking DOS copy protection of the time.  And yes, this implies that I pirated software when I was in Junior High.  I fully admit it.  Hey – I had an allowance of $3/week.  What do you want?

While I sometime leveraged tools like CopyIIPC & the Central Point Option Board, I’m dead certain I spent far more time in DEBUG.EXE searching machine code for INT 13’s than actually using any of the software that I pilfered… and with good reason:  I had copies of products like “Multimate”, “dBase III”, “Cornerstore”, “Lotus 123”, “WordStar”, “Framework”, & “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing”.

…what 13 year old kid is interested in any of that?  (Especially the Mavis Beacon product:  I already typed 80 words per minute back then)

Much like how a hacker’s goal isn’t necessarily to do anything with the computer system they’re attempting to infiltrate but rather simply to see if they can break in, the wondrous goal of cracking copy protection was simply the knowledge of being able to subvert the protection.  Nothing bored me more that some company that just used lame copy protection that could be subverted with a single machine language instruction change.

You have to understand that this was a cat & mouse game:  Breaking copy protection was like puzzle solving and the challenge was delicious.  Creating copy protection however was the art of making the puzzle & I to this day, greatly admire those that create these techniques.

Y’see every copy protection is a bit different but the underlying principle is the same:  Make it very difficult for a piece of software to run if it’s a copy of any original.  How this is done varies greatly using some very clever techniques however, it does follow a similar framework:

  1. Run application (via boot or executing a program)
  2. Check for some attribute of the disk/software that is very difficult to duplicate
    1. If the attribute is verified – the software is an original legal copy… continue execution
    2. If the attribute is not verified – the software is an illegal duplicate… halt execution

Very little of this appears to remain documented on the Internet but I hope that some day someone will write a documentary about this back & forth that continues to this day.  I’m going to blog a few of the techniques & their names that I remember off the top of my head in subsequent posts.

Children speak the truth… even when they don’t speak.

February 2, 2011

imageWanna see the quintessential “tell”?  Today, Torian White, a Scout.com 4-star Offensive Tackle recruit announced on FOX Sports that he was going to USC. 

Why is this a big deal?  Torian originally committed verbally to UCLA.  Here’s the video:

Putting aside any biases toward either school, this video you tells everything you need to know about how his family felt about the surprise announcement and is otherwise a case study in “facial tells”.   Take a look at some key moments:

  • :48 His brother Jason White cracks a grin, then slyly looks down.  You can see his cheeks puff a little as Torian’s ready to pick a cap – this is a smile.
  • :56 Jason looks up with obvious surprise as the FOX Sports broadcaster says the words, "You’re going to USC?".  Take a close look here:  Eyebrows suddenly raised. forlorn cheeks, loosened mouth muscles.  The expression on Jason’s face is unmistakable:  Surprise & disappointment.  
  • 1:26 At the biggest moment in Torian’s life to date, Jason is faced 180 degrees away and won’t even look at him.  Crossed arms, he looks up suddenly at his Mom.  (Who is clearly ecstatic, while his father is not.  More on that later.)
  • 2:00 After looking up at his Mom and saying something, he faces the camera and unconsciously shakes his head, his bottom lip pursed in pout.

…there’s a ton of other tells but you get the picture.  And speaking of tells, Joe White made a comment that you can read in UCLA forums about "people pushing Torian toward USC" but didn’t disclose who those people were, but if you listen to the uncontrolled female squeal of delight at :59, and I think you’ve got your answer as to who those people were.  Need more?  Watch the following minute after :56 and there is only one person on camera that’s smiling, and it’s not Joe, Jason, or Torian.

(Epilogue:  Later that day, Torian White changed his mind and reversed his decision.  He’ll be suiting up for UCLA this fall.  Go Bruins.)