Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Not Your Father’s AT&T

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

I’m enrolled in the MBA program at Oklahoma Christian University. (It’s about time, huh?) I’m also serving there as Entrepreneur in Residence. I’m having a blast.

For one of my classes this term, we had a team project and presentation where we had to analyze a company in the Fortune 100. My team chose AT&T. For part of what I presented, I quickly gave a historical overview of the company. While there are lots of twists and turns and details, in general there wasn’t really anything new for me. But for some reason, as I thought about how to organize the history for presentation to make it easy for the audience to get it in a sticky way, I realized something I hadn’t really realized before…

My father’s generation thinks of AT&T as Ma Bell – everything having to do with the telephone, from the device in your kitchen, to the local and long distance networks, to the friendly operator, to the phone book. I remember when we were doing our first Internet startup, Digital Frontiers, back in 1995, one of our early customers was a local publishing company. As we were interacting with their CIO, we asked him who he used for local connectivity to the Internet. This was in the days when many CLECs were popping up to compete with the RBOCs. He answered by saying “AT&T.” So we said, “you mean Southwestern Bell?” To which he said, “yeah, that’s what I said, Bell.” Despite the fact that I know he knew that AT&T had been broken apart about a decade before, in his mind, they were all still parts of the same Ma Bell, even if they were operating as separate companies. (Of course, if he said “AT&T” today, he’d be perfectly and precisely correct, but that’s another story…)

My generation thinks of AT&T as the Long Distance company. Ten cents a minute, if you call after 10pm. Not telephones. Not local. Just long distance.

My audience in my MBA class is roughly my son’s generation. To them, AT&T is a mobile operator. Sure they’re still in local and long distance and they even have AT&T branded telephones, but the ads running during timeouts in the ball game are all about mobile.

What will my grandson (if the Lord blesses me with one) think of AT&T as? A video company? A Mexican company? An IOT company? Time will tell…

When I used to speak frequently to Sprint customers visiting the headquarters in Kansas City, I would be asked to give the corporate overview. I would usually start by saying that part of my job was to cut through the “fog of familiarity.” When we’ve been doing business for a long time with a company, we tend to think of them as the company they were when we first encountered them. Sometimes it’s healthy to step back and get a new perspective on the companies you think you know.

What Might Google Really Do?

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Google’s entry into any market is cause for existing players to pay attention and potentially be alarmed, so it’s no surprise that the news that Google will become an MVNO and provide wireless services has many forecasting doom and gloom for the existing mobile operators. Before we can jump to those conclusions, I think it’s wise to consider the different scenarios that, given what Google has said, and what they’ve historically done in mobile/telecom, have some level of credibility.

Let’s start by reviewing, briefly, the challenges that MVNO’s have traditionally had to solve. I think they fall into four buckets: distribution, customer service, devices, and brand. I think Google is in a very different place than the vast majority of MVNOs when it comes to these four topics, given their objectives and their starting point.

For distribution, Google’s original Nexus web-based distribution experiment failed, I doubt they’ll try that again. They might try using their physical “stores” in Google Fiber cities, although this isn’t likely to get them enough customers to provide meaningful scale and impact. They might also strike a distribution deal with big box retailers, like Best Buy or WalMart.

However, given Sundar Pichai’s comments, I wonder if Google isn’t actually negotiating with the mobile operators to sell the service in their own stores or through their distribution channels. This would be unusual, but not unprecedented.

When it comes to customer service, mobile operators employ tens of thousands of service reps in both owned and outsourced call centers around the world. I doubt that Google has a desire to establish that kind of customer care infrastructure. Again, it’s possible that they may limit this experiment to Google Fiber markets, in which case, they may be able to leverage the care resources they’ve put in place to support Fiber, or, perhaps, they are going to leverage the mobile operator’s existing customer care infrastructure, as with distribution. Again, this isn’t typical for MVNO’s, but I imagine the operators would seriously consider the potential incremental revenue this would generate.

MVNOs have often struggled to get deals with OEMs for devices because they can’t commit to enough volume to make it work. In recent years, Sprint, for one, has tried to help MVNOs overcome this challenge with their BYOD program and their custom-brand, white label program, but if Google wants to innovate in software, hardware, and connectivity, this won’t be an option. Of course, for Google this also isn’t the same problem as it is for other MVNOs, since they will likely pair the service with a new Nexus device, which gives them a unique position with OEMs. This likely is easily solvable for Google.

Most MVNOs in the market are new brands that must invest significantly to establish a position with a narrowly targeted segment. Google doesn’t have this problem. If anything, Google’s issue will be ensuring that only the right customers for their experiment are the ones that choose their brand for wireless.

Second, I think we need to clarify Google’s objectives with this experiment. Google wouldn’t be investing in this experiment if they didn’t think it would create direct or indirect value for their business. That being said, I doubt that Google believes they can make money competing with Verizon, AT&T, and the others with traditional cellular service.

As with Google Fiber, they may believe that Mobile Operators are constraining use of the Internet and applications and that they can introduce “innovations” that the existing players need to respond to, changing the overall trajectory for the industry.

Net neutrality, or to use the Google Fiber terminology, providing openness and choice, managing the network in an open, non-discriminatory, transparent way and giving users a choice of multiple service providers, may be an objective. Clearly Verizon and AT&T are going to resist the FCC’s new rules and Google may want to have market pressures to combine with regulatory pressures to ensure that the operators adopt “open” policies.

Another target may be the strong trend away from unlimited plans. The FCC’s new rules actually are likely to accelerate the move away from unlimited since it takes away the option for Mobile Operators to throttle unlimited plans. Any customer that doesn’t have unlimited has to stop and think about whether or not to watch that YouTube clip while on the go, or before they do just about anything bandwidth intensive when not on WiFi. This constrains use of the Internet and therefore impacts Google’s core business.

Finally, let’s not ignore what Pitchai presented as Google’s objectives during the interview. Although improving WiFi to cellular interworking and making problems like dropped calls less painful are noble goals, I don’t think that pressuring Operators to implement those types of improvements would truly justify Google’s attention. I think, more likely, as Pichai hinted, maybe this isn’t about traditional cellular service at all. Maybe this really is about the Internet of Things – clearly a space that Google is investing in at the device and software level. Maybe Google wants to make sure that the beyond-WiFi connectivity is being developed in a way that serves Google’s objectives.

So, with that as a framework, let me propose three different potential scenarios for what Google might really do.

First, this really could be like Google Fiber – disguised as an “experiment” but really a new business, competitive entry into the mobile service space. The biggest challenge with this scenario is that Google will be dependent on the mobile operators for at least network capacity, and that’s never the position you want to be in when you’re trying to disrupt the operator’s business (just ask the CLECs of the late 1990s who tried to resell RBOC service under the Telecom Act of 1996). Next, if Google were to pursue this approach, at least all operators not providing Google’s underlying service, would drop or deprioritize Android devices in their portfolios, seriously hurting Google’s momentum and leadership in the smartphone OS space. I can’t imagine that Google would see enough potential upside from this approach to offset the serious downside it would have on their core business.

As a second scenario, let’s take Pichai’s comments at face value and assume that this truly is a smartphone- and/or tablet-centric experiment, working closely with the operators. In that case, it would look a lot like Nexus. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google rely heavily on their operator partner(s) for distribution and customer care. I also would expect the scale to be limited, meaning it would have relatively limited retail impact on the operators. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Google want to move it around, so maybe each new Nexus device launched is a new MVNO on a different operator or set of operators. Google would effectively be proving out new/unconventional approaches to connectivity offers (e.g. unlimited) in a way that proves out to the operators that there’s market demand (enough to be a threat) and that the economics can work (so that it’s attractive).

The third scenario is that this really isn’t about smartphones and tablets at all, but it’s really all about IoT. Google obviously is making big investments in hardware and software for IoT, so it would be natural for them to invest to get the “beyond-WiFi” connectivity to work for them as well. AT&T has had meaningful success with IoT, and I think Verizon still has serious hopes for the space, so they might not be the first to open the door to Google’s entry into being a connectivity service provider here, but I think other operators may be more than happy to have Google’s wholesale business and to help define the de facto standards that others likely need to adopt.

Of course, all of this is pure conjecture. I have not been privy to any discussions between Google and mobile operators. There’s more that we don’t know than we know, at this point. However, I think these three scenarios outline a solid framework for anyone to consider the impact on the industry as a whole, or their particular business.

This should be fun to watch!

What Did Google Really Do? – A Historical Perspective

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Just as Sundar Pichai did, I think it makes sense for us to look historically at Google’s forays into mobile and connectivity. I think there are three historical precedents to consider: Android, Nexus, and Google Fiber.

Android
Google followed Apple into the smartphone market. You can either say that, together, they created the smartphone market, or you can say that they significantly disrupted an existing market dominated by RIM (Blackberry), Microsoft, Palm, and Nokia (Symbian). Google had virtually no meaningful relationships with any of those four, but Android was a key element in the destruction of what had been a very strong relationship with Apple.

Including Apple, four of the five market leaders all had an integrated hardware/software approach to the market. Google chose an “open” or “ecosystem” model, similar to Microsoft’s successful approach to the PC market. In fact, the initial announcement of Android was made by the Open Handset Alliance, made up of 34 companies including OEMs, Operators, Developers, and Chipset companies.

Today, by far, Android is the dominant smartphone operating system. In his talk last week, Pichai claimed that 8 out of every 10 phones shipping around the world are running Android. Google has built a strong relationship with OEMs and, somewhat less directly, with Mobile Operators, to get Android to market. It is important to remember how critical Android was for Operators to have a competitive response to AT&T which had the exclusive on the iPhone. Verizon particularly rode the Droid horse hard until they gained access to the iPhone.

It is also important to note that Google’s Android play has always been focused on their core business model – increasing how much time each of us spends online, with Google providing web-based services and enabling monetization by 3rd party developers that ultimately drive advertising dollars for the company. (Advertising represented $59B of their $66B in 2014 revenues.)

Nexus
In January 2010, Google partnered with HTC to launch the Nexus One smartphone running the latest release of Android. The phone introduced some new features, but mostly it was an attempt by Google to demonstrate how strong a “pure Google” device could be. At least to some extent, it was an attempt to get the OEMs to stop modifying the Android platform. As you may recall, at the time, there was a fair amount of noise in the marketplace about fragmentation in Android (multiple operating system versions, different screen sizes, user interfaces, etc.) relative to the monolithic iPhone.

With the Nexus One, Google also tried to introduce a new approach to the market, selling an unlocked phone at full price, only available for purchase via a website, and with customer service only available via online support forums. None of these experiments were successful and undoubtedly contributed to the lack of success for the phone itself.

The second Nexus handset, the Nexus S (based on Samsung’s Galaxy S platform) was more successful. It introduced the Gingerbread version of Android (2.3) and had hardware specs that were impressive, including NFC. In fact, the Sprint version of the Nexus S became the launch device for Google Wallet. For this second Nexus device, Google stepped back from selling only on the web, selling as a full price unlocked device, and providing support through forums. Instead, they adopted the traditional industry models – sales and support primarily through the Mobile Operator channels.

Google has continued to partner with OEMs to introduce new Nexus phones, often using each new model as an opportunity to introduce new capabilities that perhaps the OEMs and Operators weren’t yet ready to place a bet on otherwise. It’s important to note that Google had to work hard to make sure that this program didn’t alienate the OEMs and Operators on whom the company was dependent. With each Nexus, Google partnered with a different OEM, and made sure that versions were available for the major operators.

To some extent, Google has used the Nexus devices to continue to push openness and capabilities that can enable mobile devices to be used for more and more applications, ultimately driving their core business.

Google Fiber
On February 10, 2010, Google announced plans to build an experimental fiber network, delivering 1GBPS, which they characterized as “100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today”. In their press release, they said “We’ve urged the FCC to look at new and creative ways to get there in its National Broadband Plan – and today we’re announcing an experiment of our own.”

As with Nexus, they made a big deal about the scale being not too small and not too big, saying that they would deliver the service to as few as 50,000 and as many as 500,000 people. They said their goal “is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone” and they specifically called out enabling developers to come up with next generation apps, test new deployment techniques that they would share with the world, and provide openness and choice, managing the network in an open, non-discriminatory, transparent way and giving users a choice of multiple service providers.

They seemed (at least initially) to not want to offend existing broadband providers, saying “Network providers are making real progress to expand and improve high-speed Internet access, but there’s still more to be done. We don’t think we have all the answers – but through our trial, we hope to make a meaningful contribution to the shared goal of delivering faster and better Internet for everyone.”

With that initial announcement, they invited communities to express interest and more than 1000 did, with many doing crazy things to try to win the network for their community. I live in the Kansas City area (the winning city), and although Google Fiber is not yet available in my neighborhood, it has been a big catalyst for innovation across the metro area.

As has been well documented, Google’s entry into broadband also forced the existing broadband providers to improve their offers (speed, capabilities, and/or price). As Google Fiber has pushed into new neighborhoods and suburbs, the competitors have had to respond. Google is coming to my neighborhood this year and that has caused AT&T to expedite construction on their GigaPower infrastructure and for Time Warner to build out outdoor WiFi using streetlight mounted antennas. Everyone is offering special deals with multi-year commitments. We’ve seen similar competitive responses as Google has announced Fiber projects in additional cities.

Of course, Google Fiber is no longer a friendly, sub-scale experiment intended to help the broadband providers. In December 2012, Eric Schmidt said “It’s actually not an experiment; we’re actually running it as a business,” and he announced expansion to additional cities.

As with Google’s other telecom initiatives, the primary focus continues to be the core business. Google Fiber, both directly and indirectly, is driving more overall Internet use, and that helps drive Google’s services and advertising revenues. It’s also important to note that Google has traditionally not had a strong relationship with broadband providers, so they likely felt free to take a more disruptive approach to the market than with Android and Nexus.

In my next post, we’ll take this historical perspective, combined with Pichai’s comments, and combined with an understanding of the challenges that MVNOs traditionally face, and try to speculate on what a Google MVNO might actually look like.

Zoomin Market Revolutionizing Grocery Shopping

Friday, March 6th, 2015

This week, in my Kauffman FastTrac class, our guest speakers were John Yerkes and Matt Rider, the founders of Zoomin Market. John literally grew up in the grocery industry, while Matt cut his teeth optimizing and redefining logistics and reverse logistics processes for multiple companies across the wireless industry ecosystem. Together, they saw the opportunity to fundamentally redefine how Americans shop for groceries.

While drive-in grocery stores are popular in Europe, Zoomin is the first drive-in grocery store in the United States, and it’s all enabled by mobile technology. The disruptive threat is so significant that WalMart has been watching the company’s every step.

So, what is a drive-in grocery store? The process is fairly simple. You shop online, filling your virtual cart with groceries. You pick a time you want to pick them up, then you complete the transaction and drive to the store. A server brings your groceries to your car and, in minutes, you’re on the way home.

For Zoomin, more than half of their orders are coming from mobile devices, and all of their employees are using tablets to fulfill the orders. Like any grocery store, Zoomin has four environmental zones for foods ranging from frozen to fresh produce, but unlike walk-in stores, the company doesn’t need to keep shelves over-stocked and decorated to appeal to the shoppers eye. They’ve studied Amazon’s stocking system for efficiency (Matt says “let the geniuses be geniuses” and focus on what you’re great at). They use the same wholesalers as their traditional competitors, so their selection and their cost of goods are comparable. However, they can operate in a much smaller building, with much less inventory, and significantly fewer employees than the stores they’re competing against. They’ve chosen to price competitively with no pickup fees (unlike European companies), using their cost advantage to drive richer margins.

Speaking of employees, company culture is very important to both John and Matt. Delighting customers is important to them and they gave a number of examples, from surprising a customer with a product she wanted and didn’t think they had (for free), to greeting the dog of a regular customer with his favorite treat (set aside just for him) each time they pull in for their pickup. All of this, of course, is enabled by the mobile technology that makes it easy for employees to make notes so that each time you pull in they know you better and can serve you better. When asked about their hiring practices, John smiled and explained that they hire “pickers” and “grinners.” “Pickers” are detail oriented perfectionists who make sure that the order is filled correctly and with the quality that delights customers. “Grinners” deliver the order to the customers and establish that strong connection that makes them feel special and appreciated. But to fit in to the Zoomin culture, all the employees have to know how to have fun!

I happened to have a meeting near their store on Tuesday, so I set my wife up with their website and offered to pick up her groceries. She found it easy to place the order. If you want to get your food as quickly as possible, Zoomin says it will be ready in 30 minutes, but we picked a future timeslot after my meeting and I got a notification well in advance that everything was ready whenever I could arrive. When you pull in to Zoomin, you either text them to let them know you’ve arrived, or you enter your 5 digit order code to a touch screen kiosk. Either way, you are then assigned one of the 10 covered pull-through stalls. One of the Zoomin staff rolls out a cart with your shopping bags and loads your car for you, and you are on your way. John and Matt said that the average in and out time for customers is about two and a half minutes. Because of that, the store is drawing customers from a much broader geography than a typical grocery store (customers trading dramatically less time in the store for a little more driving time).

In class, I had asked John and Matt about produce. They said they love that question because everyone’s first reaction is that you’ll never buy produce that you can’t pick yourself. In reality, produce is their top selling category, so in our order, we bought a lot of produce. My wife loved the fact that she could order bananas as either green, ripe, or spotty and she could order avocados as ripe or firm. Most of what we got was fine, but some of the items, although not technically “bad” – probably are different from what we would have picked. (For example, we bought a potato and what we got was the biggest potato I’ve ever seen – a bargain since the price was 79 cents no matter the size – but actually almost a bit scary and not one we would’ve picked.) Also, when the groceries were brought to my car, the Zoomin employee explained that when they went to pull the white organic mushrooms that my wife ordered, they didn’t look good, so they could instead give us white non-organic (and credit the price difference) or brown organic ones instead. I picked the brown ones – and proved that even when I’m just picking up the groceries, I can still buy the wrong item. :) Which reminds me of another of the benefits that reviewers have identified with Zoomin – the elimination of impulse buying of unneeded items. (Ever since our son and I came home with the purple mustard and green ketchup that we thought was so cool, my wife has hesitated to send us to the store together…)

But back to how disruptive this concept can be to the grocery industry. As I mentioned above, Zoomin’s costs are dramatically lower than their competitors in key areas (real estate, inventory, head count). In Europe, many retailers have had to add a drive-in option for their customers, but this requires them to ADD to their building and hire MORE employees, while still maintaining all of the costs for their continuing traditional customers. If this model is successful in the U.S., it will be hard for existing grocers to respond. Which explains why WalMart is so interested in what Zoomin is up to. The week they opened, a handful of WalMart executives showed up with hopes of studying their operation (John and Matt met with them in the church next door instead). A few months later they found a local engineer poking around outside of their building with a clipboard and flashlight. He said that WalMart had hired him to figure out how Zoomin had implemented their refrigeration system. Last Fall, WalMart opened a test concept drive-in store in Bentonville, Arkansas.

It seems to me that John and Matt have thoughtfully implemented a defensible strategy. Convenience, friendliness, and a dramatically better cost structure will be tough, even for WalMart, to match.

If you want to try out Zoomin, be sure to use the coupon code FIRSTZOOM to save $5 off your first order.

Net Neutrality: The Anguish of Mediocrity

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

It is rare for me to be on the same side of an issue as AT&T and Verizon and on the opposite side of Sprint and T-Mobile, but I think the new Net Neutrality rules that the FCC adopted this week are a mistake that will hurt consumers and the telecom industry.

I won’t take the time to go point-by-point through the various elements of the new rules. Plenty of people smarter than me on regulatory topics have written about that elsewhere. The two aspects that really have me concerned are:

  1. the inability to prioritize paid traffic
  2. the inability to impair or degrade traffic based on content, applications, etc.

I believe that these restrictions will lead to networks that will perform much more poorly than they need to.

The Importance of Prioritization

Thirteen years ago, while I was chief strategist for TeleChoice, I wrote a whitepaper using some tools that we had developed to evaluate the cost to build a network to handle the traffic that would be generated by increasingly fast broadband access networks.

In the paper I say “ATM, Frame Relay, and now MPLS have enabled carriers to have their customers prioritize traffic, which in turn gives the carriers more options in sizing their networks, however, customers have failed to seriously confront properly categorizing their traffic. There has been no need to because there was no penalty for just saying ‘It’s all important.’”

With the new rules, the FCC ensures that this will continue to be the case.

Think about it. If you live in a city that suffers from heavy highway traffic, if you’re sitting in slow traffic and you see a few cars zipping along in the HOV lane, don’t you wish you were allowed into that lane? Of course you do. Hopefully it even gets you to consider making the change necessary to use that lane. Why do HOV lanes even exist? Because it was deemed a positive outcome for everyone if more people would carpool to reduce the overall traffic. Reducing overall traffic would have many benefits including reducing the amount of money needed to be spent to make the highway big enough to handle the traffic and at the same time improving the highway experience for all travelers.

Continuing the analogy, if you’re sitting in slow traffic and you see an ambulance with its lights flashing driving up the shoulder to get a patient to the hospital, do you consider it an unfair use of highway resources that you aren’t allowed to use yourself? Hopefully not. You recognize that this is a particular use case that requires different handling.

Finally, extending the analogy one more time, as you’re sitting in that traffic (on a free highway) and you look over and see traffic zipping along on the expensive toll road that parallels the free highway, do you consider whether you can afford to switch to the toll road? I bet you at least think about it.

Analogies always break down at some point, so let me transition into explaining the problem that the new rules impose on all of us. Networks, like highways, have to be built with enough capacity to provide an acceptable level of service during peak traffic. Data access networks, unlike highways, have traffic levels that are very dynamic with sudden spikes and troughs that last seconds or less. While all telecommunications networks have predictable busy hour patterns, just like highways, unlike highways, the network user experience can be dramatically impacted by a sudden influx of traffic. This requires network operators to build enough capacity to handle the peak seconds and peak minutes reasonably well rather than just the peak hour.

Different network applications respond differently to network congestion. An e-mail that arrives in 30 seconds instead of 20 seconds will rarely (if ever) be noticed. A web page that loads in 5 seconds instead of 4 seconds will be easily forgiven. Video streaming of recorded content can be buffered to handle reasonable variations in network performance. But if a voice or video packet during a live conversation is delayed a few seconds, it can dramatically impact the user experience.

Thirteen years ago, I argued that failing to provide the right incentives for prioritizing traffic to take into account these differences could require 40% more investment in network capacity than if prioritization were enabled. In an industry that spends tens of billions of dollars each year in capacity, that’s a lot of money.

Why The New Rules Hurt Consumers and the Industry

Is the industry going to continue to invest in capacity? Yes. But the amount of revenue they can get from that capacity will place natural limits on how much investment they will make. And, without prioritization, for any given level of network investment, the experience that the user enjoys will be dramatically less acceptable than it could be.

Let’s just quickly look at the two approaches to prioritization I called out above that the new rules block.

Paid prioritization is a business mechanism for ensuring that end applications have the right performance to create the value implied by the end service provider. This is the toll road analogy, but probably a better analogy is when a supplier chooses to ship via air, train, truck, or ship. If what I’m promising is fresh seafood, I’d better put it on an airplane. If what I’m promising is inexpensive canned goods with a shelf life of years, I will choose the least expensive shipping method. Paid prioritization enables some service providers (e.g. Netflix or Skype) to offer a level of service that customers value and are willing to pay for that requires better than mediocre network performance, and for the service provider to pay for that better network performance to ensure that their customers get what they expect. The service provider (e.g. Netflix or Skype) builds their business model balancing the revenue from their customers with the cost of offering the service. This approach provides additional revenue to the network operators enabling them to invest in more capacity that benefits all customers.

Impairing or degrading traffic based on content or application is a technical mechanism that enables the network to handle traffic differently based on the performance requirements of the content or application. An e-mail can be delayed a few seconds so that a voice or video call can be handled without delay. This allows the capacity in the network to provide an optimized experience for all users.

Obviously, these mechanisms provide opportunities for abuse by the network operators, but to forbid them outright, I believe, is damaging to the industry and to consumers, and a mistake.

Observations: Devices – February 28, 2011

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Standard disclaimer: don’t take from my selections, ordering, headlines, etc. any indications of the interests or plans of my employer (if you do, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed when they don’t play out.)

HP Unveils new WebOS Devices

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

This week, HP finally introduced some interesting new products based on the WebOS platform that came from the Palm acquisition. The company is certainly being aggressive, taking the platform in a number of different, and even surprising, directions.

I want to thank all of you who have e-mailed me encouraging Sprint to commit to the WebOS platform and asking whether we were going to have any of these new devices on our network. (Thanks Tom. :))

As I’ve said here many times, any Sprint employee sharing information on unreleased devices is subject to termination, and I enjoy working at Sprint, so even if I knew details of Sprint’s plans for upcoming devices, I wouldn’t share those plans.

However, I can say that Sprint values the long relationship it has had with Palm (now HP) and you can be sure that we will continue to discuss with HP/Palm the types of devices we’d like to see on our network and to evaluate the new devices HP brings to the table.

I also can say that we certainly expect to see the new WiFi-enabled WebOS devices on our network thanks to the great MiFi and Overdrive products that we already have in our portfolio, as well as the Hotspot feature available in an increasing number of our handsets. For those that love WebOS, I encourage you to consider HP’s new products paired with the great 4G experience that Sprint can deliver today through these hotspot capabilities.

Observations: Devices – January 31, 2011

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Standard disclaimer: don’t take from my selections, ordering, headlines, etc. any indications of the interests or plans of my employer (if you do, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed when they don’t play out.)

Observations: Devices – December 19, 2010

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Standard disclaimer: don’t take from my selections, ordering, headlines, etc. any

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indications of the interests or plans of my employer (if you do, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed when they don’t play out.)

Does Tablet Computing Really Matter?

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

I’m back to writing about topics with mobility interests at Christian Computing Magazine.

I’ve just started a new series called “Tablet Time” and the first column in the series is about the iPad. Future columns will talk about how I use the Hotspot feature of my Samsung Epic 4G phone to keep my iPad connected and about Android tablets, specifically the Samsung Galaxy S Tab.

I recommend you read the entire article at the Christian Computing website, but here are highlights from the article:

The iPad is one of the most disruptive product launches in the history of computing. Analysts believe that the success of the iPad is impacting the entire industry.

The first victim was Netbooks. Netbooks were the hot new category in 2008 and 2009, with monthly year over year growth figures ranging from 179% to 641% throughout the second half of 2009. The iPad was announced in January and launched in April of 2010. By April, Netbook growth had fallen to 5% and has since gone negative. Given Netbook limitations, many people considering buying a Netbook realized that the iPad could do everything they wanted from a Netbook, in a more convenient package, with a simpler user interface, and, to be honest, a “cooler” image.

The next victim was Notebooks. Many people who were considering buying a Notebook were less convinced that the iPad could be a credible replacement. But, as iPads reached the market and users gained experience (“technology lust” took hold), many of those Notebook customers decided that the iPad was the choice for them. For the second half of 2009, Notebook growth had mostly hovered in the 30% range. Between the iPad announcement and its launch, Notebook growth stayed in the 20-35% range, but in April, Notebook growth was cut almost in half, and by August it had gone negative.

Interestingly, unlike the iPhone, competitors have been quick to launch very credible alternatives to the iPad. Apple sold a million iPads in the first month of availability. Samsung announced and launched the Android-based Galaxy S Tab in September. It took Samsung about two months to reach the 1 million sales mark. RIM, the maker of the popular Blackberry smartphone line announced their PlayBook tablet in September, but the product has not yet launched to market. Early reviewers, however, are comparing it very favorably to the iPad, and given the loyalty of Blackberry users, I would expect sales to be brisk following launch.

Despite the sudden success of tablet computers, this is not a new concept.

I bought my first Tablet computer early in 2006. Since I wasn’t convinced that a pen-based interface (state of the art for tablet computers at the time) was going to meet my needs, I went with a convertible model – the Toshiba Portege M405. By flipping the screen around, it could either be used as a tablet or a fairly standard notebook computer. This compromise made it pretty big, bulky, and heavy to use as an actual tablet, and the Windows XP Tablet edition operating system wasn’t overly effective either. I used it almost exclusively in Laptop mode.

Microsoft took another shot at a more effective tablet form factor and operating system with the “Origami” concept, which became the UMPC (Ultra Mobile Personal Computer) upon official launch (also in 2006). Unfortunately, the concept never really translated into meaningful sales. I summarized the challenges in a blog post at the end of 2006, which I summarized with this plea: “Will anyone be able to bring a UMPC product to market in the $500 range, with long battery life, the power of ‘real’ Windows (XP or Vista), usability, portability, ubiquitous network connectivity, and contextual relevance? I sure hope so!”

Well, it may have taken Apple 4 years, and of course they didn’t deliver a Windows-based system, but I think the iPad delivered on these criteria – finally resulting in market success for tablet computers.

I’m often asked what devices I’ve been able to replace with my iPad.

For starters, I’ve replaced my iPod with the iPad. You can’t stick the iPad in your pocket, but I’m not the type to go running with an iPod anyway. I mostly used my iPod in my office at work and when traveling (on the plane and in the hotel room). The iPad works perfectly well for those locations. The iPad has all the capability of the iPod interface, but with the feature richness of desktop iTunes.

I’ve also replaced the Kindle with the iPad. The Kindle App for the iPad makes all of my Kindle books available and even synchronizes where I am in each book between my Kindle and my iPad. Since I’m already taking my iPad with me, there’s no longer a need to take the Kindle as well.

For e-mail connectivity when traveling, the iPad has replaced my laptop. While I often would travel with just my smartphone, the e-mail experience on a phone is still a bit limited compared to the laptop. The iPad mail application is a beautiful thing, making it easy to connect to all of my e-mail accounts and to have confidence I’m seeing all of my messages in all their formatted glory. Composing and replying to messages is a step up from most smartphones, but I’m still not a

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total fan of on-screen virtual keyboards. I’ve had my eye on the iPad cases that have a built in Bluetooth keyboard to overcome this limitation, but I’m not sure yet whether that’s going to make the combination bulky enough to be a problem.

The calendar on the iPad is also a beautiful thing, with reliable connectivity to my Exchange calendar for work and Google calendar for personal use.

The iPad has also replaced my notebook – the paper kind. I now take the iPad into meetings where I previously would always take an ink and paper notebook. I use the Notes application and thumb type notes from the meeting. I then can e-mail the notes to myself and others on my team, as appropriate.

So, is the iPad a perfect replacement for notebook computers?

No, it’s not. I’ve already mentioned the lack of a physical keyboard, but probably the biggest challenge for me is the kludginess of doing simple cut-and-paste on the iPad. Yes, you can do it, but the process is much more difficult than it is using the trusty mouse and keyboard shortcuts. This one limitation keeps me from using the iPad for many of my everyday tasks, including serious writing (like this article – written on my laptop), keeping up to date on blogs I read, and updating my own blog (which relies heavily on cutting and pasting headlines and links from other blogs).

The tablet is clearly changing the face of computing, but it’s not yet a perfect replacement.