Saturday, August 28, 2010

Six things laptops can learn from the iPad

Apple sold 3.3 million iPads in Q2, the product’s first quarter on the market. That was more than the number of MacBook laptops (2.5 million) that the company sold in Q2. Plus, the two products combined catapulted Apple from No. 7 in the global notebook market to No. 3.
Meanwhile, all of the other top five notebook vendors saw their growth slow during the same period, suggesting that the iPad cut into their sales. Will these iPad numbers be a short-term bump based on the unparalleled hype and anticipation for the product, or will it be amplified even further during the back-to-school and holiday seasons? That will be one of the most interesting trends to watch during the second half of 2010.
Nevertheless, the iPad has already sold enough units to alarm laptop makers and make them contemplate how to react. Nearly all of them are already working on competing tablets, powered by Google Android in most cases.
But, laptop makers should also look at the factors that are triggering the iPad’s popularity and consider how some of those factors could be co-opted into notebooks. Here are the top six:

1. Battery life is a killer feature

When Apple first shared the technical specs of the iPad and claimed 10 hours of battery life, I rolled my eyes. Published battery life numbers rarely hold up in the real world. However, the iPad actually exceeded expectations. I’ve easily milked 11-12 hours of battery life out of the iPad, and others such as Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal have reported the same thing.
This kind of battery performance is huge for business professionals because it untethers them from a charger for an entire business day. Whether it’s for a full day of meetings or a cross-country flight, they can focus on their work without having to worry about finding a place to plug in at some point. I’ve see several business users state that this was their primary incentive for using the iPad.

2. Instant On changes the equation

The fact that you can simply click the iPad’s power button and have it instantly awake from its sleep state and be ready to pull up a Web page, glance at a calendar, or access an email is another major plus. Compare that to dragging your laptop into a conference room, for example. Even the best laptops with Windows, Mac, or Linux take about 30 seconds to boot and then you have to log in and wait some more until the OS is ready.
You don’t always want to fire up your laptop at the beginning of a meeting and leave it on because then you could get distracted or appear as if you’re not paying attention to the other people in the room. But, if something comes up and you want to quickly access your information, then you want it instantaneously so that you don’t have to tell the other people in the room, “Hang on for a second while I pull up that data,” which can break the flow of the conversation and even make you look unprepared.
While some laptops can accomplish something similar by quickly going in and out of a sleep state when you flip the lid open or closed, this can regularly cause problems with wireless networking and other basic functionality, and tends not to be as quick as the iPad.

3. Centralize the software

The feature that made the iPad infinitely more useful for lots of different tasks is its massive platform of third party applications, which are all available in a central repository (that’s the key feature) — the Apple App Store . The App Store also serves another valuable function: All updates for iPad apps are handled there as well.
Contrast that with laptops where you can get software preloaded on your compter, buy software shrink-wrapped, or download it from the Internet, and then nearly all of the different programs have their own software updaters. It’s a much more complicated and confusing process for the average user. There’s no reason why a desktop/laptop OS platform can’t have an app store. I recently noted that Ubuntu Linux 10.04 offers a nice step in that direction.

4. Simple interfaces are best

There’s a classic children’s book called Simple Pictures Are Best where a photographer is trying to do a family portrait and the family keeps wanting to try crazy things and add more stuff to the portrait and the photographer keeps repeating time and time again, “Simple pictures are best.”
It’s the same with a user interface. There’s a natural tendency to want to keep trying to toss in more things  to satisfy lots of different use cases. But, the more discipline you can maintain, the better the UI will be. Since the iPad runs on Apple’s iOS (smartphone) operating system, it is extremely limited in many ways. However, those limitations also make it self-evident to most users because it requires little to no training. People can just point and tap their way through the apps and menus.
Software makers have been attemtping simplified versions of the traditional OS interface for years, from Microsoft Bob to Windows Media Center to Apple Front Row. None of them have worked very well. The question may be one of OS rather than UI. Could a thin, basic laptop run a smartphone OS? I expect that we’ll see several vendors try it in the year ahead.

5. Most users consume, not create

One of the biggest complaints about the iPad is that it offers a subpar experience for creating content. There’s no denying it, and frankly it’s one of the reasons that I personally don’t use the iPad very much. It’s mostly a reader of books, documents, and files for me, because when I go online I typically do a lot of content creation, from writing articles on TechRepublic to posting photos on Flickr to posting tech news updates on Twitter.
However, I’m not the average user. Even with the spread of social networking, which is much more interactive, the 90-9-1 principle still applies across most of the Web. That means only 1% of users are actual content creators, while 9% are commenters and modifiers, and the remaining 90% are simply readers or  consumers. The iPad is a great device for content consumers. But, it’s not very good for the creators and modifiers, who are both strong candidates to stick with today’s laptop form factors, which are perfect for people who type a lot and manipulate content.
That leaves a huge market that could be easy pickings for the iPad. As a result, vendors need to think about ways to make laptops better content consumption devices.

6. Size matters

Being able to carry the iPad without a laptop bag is another huge plus. The power adapter is even small enough to roll up and put in a pocket, a jacket, or a purse. The diminutive size of the iPad can make business professionals feel as if they are traveling very light, especially if they’re used to lugging a laptop bag that included the laptop and a bunch of accessories to support it. On a plane, working with the iPad on a tray table is a much more roomy experience than trying to use most laptops.
The lightweight nature of the iPad can also make it more likely that professionals will carry it into a conference room or into someone else’s office to show a document or a Web page, for example.
There are plenty of ultraportable laptops on the market from virtually every vendor, but these tend to be specialty machines and are often higher priced. In light of the iPad’s success, vendors might want to rethink their ultraportable strategy by looking to make these devices smaller, less expensive, and better on battery life. They may also consider experimenting with a mobile OS such as Android on some of these devices.

QWERTY comparison: BlackBerry Torch vs. Droid 2 vs. Epic 4G

Although most of the momentum in the smartphone world is happening around touchscreen devices, there are still plenty of people — especially many business professionals — who want a hardware keyboard.
There are three new high-end smartphones with hardware QWERTYs that have recently hit the market and I have been doing an old fashioned showdown with all three of them. I’ve put together a set of photos comparing the three devices and I’ve done a quick evaluation of each of the three keyboards.

Photo gallery

See a photo comparison of the three: Keyboard showdown: Droid 2 vs. Epic 4G vs. BlackBerry Torch.

Samsung Epic 4G

The Epic 4G has the most versatile keyboard of the three. It has a dedicated row for numbers and several special keys (search, back, home, smiley, etc.). The keys themselves are chicklet-style, reminiscent of Apple Macbooks and Sony Vaio laptops.

BlackBerry Torch 9800

The BlackBerry Torch has the traditional BlackBerry qwerty that has been around on high-end devices since the BlackBerry 8800 World Edition. It is a top quality keyboard with a nice weight to it and typically has a low error rate. Those who are already familiar with BlackBerry will love the standard feel.

Motorola Droid 2

The Droid 2 keyboard is the worst of the three. The keys are too flat and non-distinct and there are no special keys other than the arrow keys. The Droid 2 keyboard is better than the original Droid keyboard, but that’s not saying much. Most of the people I know who have a Droid bought it at least partly because of the physical keyboard. But those same people report that 90% of the time they never use it, since it’s so bad.

Brain Drain: Real Result of Digital Overload?

Constant use of electronic devices is taxing our brains and hindering our social interactions, a growing body of evidence shows.
But on "The Early Show," CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton suggested steps we can take to mitigate the impact -- and disconnect from digital overload.

It's turning out that juggling the steady stream of e-mails, text messages, online updates and computer use is gobbling up not only much our time, but our brain power, making us less productive, studies indicate. And one in particular, from Ball State University, shows the average American spends more time using media devices such as TVs, computers, cell phones and iPods than doing anything else.

Special Section: Dr. Jennifer Ashton
Dr. Jennifer Ashton's Twitter page

According to Ashton:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ask Maggie: On wireless-contract fine print

Have you ever wondered why it's so difficult to find information about when your wireless contract ends? Or have you ever gotten so angry at a service provider that you threaten to cancel all the services you get bundled from them?
Well, you're not alone. This week in Ask Maggie, I answer one reader's question about finding information on a wireless carrier's Web site as to when a contract ends. I checked in with the major carriers and will walk you through how you can access information about contract expiration and early-termination fees online.
I also answer a question from a dissatisfied Verizon Fios customer and try to help another reader figure out if she should buy an iPad or a Kindle 3.
Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, please send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Deciphering cell phone terms and conditions

Dear Maggie,
One question that I've been thinking about for a long time is why is it so difficult to find out when my cell phone contract expires and how much my early-termination fee would be if I cancel.
It is not something that a carrier will readily provide to you, unless you wait 15 or 20 minutes to speak with an agent on the phone. I have looked for this information on the Web site of my service provider, and I haven't been able to find it. And now, with prorated early-termination fees, I'd like to know in real time what I owe if I cancel early. So why do wireless companies make this so difficult?
Dear Bob,
I reached out to all four major U.S. wireless operators, and representatives from all said their companies provide some information about contract expiration dates and ETF penalties to customers online.
But much of this information is vague or not specific to individual customers, and if specific customer information about ETFs is available, it's not always easy for subscribers to find. In any case, I'd agree that there is a problem.
As a little experiment, I tried finding out this information through my service provider. I am an AT&T subscriber, and I logged onto my account to look for the terms of my contract. I was able to find out when I was eligible for an upgrade to a new phone, but I did not see a specific date indicating when my contract expires or what my ETF would be, if I canceled my service today. (All four major wireless operators now prorate their early-termination fees, so the penalty decreases the longer you are in your contract.)
After getting a response from AT&T about where I could find this information, I was able to see when my contract ends. While the information is available, it still took me clicking on three tabs to find it. So again, this supports my earlier statement that the information may be available, but it's not necessarily easy to find.
You aren't the only one who has questioned how wireless operators communicate service terms and contract issues to their customers. The Federal Communications Commission has been looking into this as well. Earlier this year, the agency sent letters to AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA, and Google, which was selling the Nexus One phone at the time, asking them to detail how they inform customers of their fees in statements on corporate Web sites, in brochures and sales scripts, and in monthly bills.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the time that he was struck by how much confusion there is among consumers regarding ETFs.
The carriers responded to the inquiry defending their ETFs. So far, the FCC hasn't hinted whether or not it will force carriers to change their practices or provide better information. But I think your question goes to the heart of the issue. Carriers may offer this information somewhere for customers, but if it's not easy to find, what's the point?
Here is what representatives from Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile told me about accessing contract and ETF information online.
Verizon Wireless
Verizon Wireless spokesman Tom Pica said "everything a customer needs, they can find online." He suggests going to Click on "Change Plan," and customers should be able to locate that information, he said. He wasn't able to provide specific information for navigating the site.
Pica also said the company is readying a new mobile account system, which will make finding account information from a mobile phone easier.
AT&T spokeswoman Katie Tellier said customers can view their contract expiration date when accessing their account online ( They should click on the "My Profile" tab on the far right of the screen. And then they can click on "User Info." This will show whether the contract has ended or provide a specific date for expiration. Also within this section, customers will see a hyperlink on ETFs--which will direct them to an Answer Center, providing specific details on AT&T's ETF policy and fees. This section also offers a two-page "Customer Service Summary" which is a PDF detailing the customer's service, plan, and support shortcuts.
Since everyone's account is different, and because ETFs vary, based on when someone signs up for a contract, AT&T encourages customers to call for specific information about their ETFs.
Sprint Nextel
Sprint Nextel spokeswoman Roni Singleton said customers are able to view their contract expiration date or whether they are still within contract from "My Sprint" at But the full contract/terms of use are not available for individual subscribers there.
To find when contracts expire, a customer would log into My Sprint, select "My Account," and scroll over the "I Want To" tab in "About My Devices." For each device the customer has on his/her account, there is an "I Want To" tab. Once the box pops up, select the "See My Contract Details" link. When the customer clicks on that link, it lets him/her know when their contract expires.
In order to find out how much you'd owe, if you cancel your contract, Sprint provides a chart that allows customers to calculate what their prorated ETF is in several ways online:
  • A link from the site footer to and
  • A full-page explanation in the services section of the site
  • Via search, type in "termination" or "early termination," and there will be links to detailed info.
T-Mobile USA
T-Mobile USA spokeswoman Kristin Warfield said T-Mobile subscribers can get general information about T-Mobile's ETFs within the "Terms & Conditions" link on the main T-Mobile Web site, at the bottom of the home page. There is also a link to the same general ETF policy details via the "Terms & Conditions" link at the bottom of the "MyT-Mobile" account page, which customers can access after logging into their account.
She said T-Mobile does not currently include details about individual ETFs on the customer's online account site. Instead, customers can estimate their ETFs by reading the terms and conditions online, knowing their contract start date (which is also listed on their contract), and making a general calculation.
Here is the ETF schedule for T-Mobile:
As listed in these Terms & Conditions, the early-termination fee is $200, if termination occurs with more than 180 days remaining on your term; $100, if termination occurs with 91 to 180 days remaining on your term; $50, if termination occurs with 31 to 91 days remaining on your term; and the lesser of $50 or your monthly recurring charges (including any applicable taxes and fees), if termination occurs in the last 30 days of your term.
For exact information about the term of users' contracts and the early-termination fee that would apply if they canceled their account, customers can call Customer Care.