Holding off from buying iPad 1.0; eager to buy iPad 2.0?

I think I qualify as an Apple fan. I bought an iPod in 2004, back when it was still black and white displays. I also have bought two different generations of iPod nanos, an 2nd gen iPod shuffle, a 1st gen iPod Touch, and I finally made my first MacBook purchase last year. I’ve also bought an iPhone 3G and now use a 3GS. I have an iMac at home back in Beijing; my dad is thinking of buying an Apple server for his office (though I strongly discouraged him about it).

When the iPad was first announced, I quickly made the decision that I wanted one, and I justified my decision by telling myself that it would be an laptop replacement for school. I’m pretty big on paperless, and prefer reading cases on my laptop instead of printing them out; so the dream product for me (for this purpose) would be a tablet with a stylus to take notes. The iPad doesn’t support a stylus, but from the original announcement, and the fact that there’s plenty of iPhone apps that support PDF viewing, I thought I could justify splurging $500 on the iPad. (And yes, I decided fairly early on I only wanted the $499 version. I don’t need 3G access and from my previous usage statistics I don’t need big storage.)

However, when the iPad reviews came out last Friday and the product shipped last Saturday, I realized that this 1st gen device does not pass as a laptop replacement, even for the relatively lightweight usage of school (email, PDF, and some basic Office apps). Then again, I’m thinking of using the device in the sense of a traditional computing paradigm, whereas from the onset Apple was looking at the device as an iPhone-esque paradigm, a closed system and a tightly controlled user experience.

The tradeoffs are numerous and huge in implications. Jobs and Apple criticized netbooks for being a device of compromise which doesn’t really excel at doing anything; they claimed that the iPad is “magical” and “revolutionary” in that it sets out to accomplish what netbooks were originally intended to do – convenient access to basic computing tasks (email, web, video) – without sacrificing the user experience. What was sacrificed was an open file system; multi-tasking; flash; multiple channels to access and purchase software. To state the obvious, the iPad copies iPhone’s user environment, rather than that of the MacBook.

This makes the iPad, as it is, primarily an entertainment device. There is nothing wrong per se with this positioning; Jobs’ hyperbole that the product is “revolutionary” still has some merit, in the sense that the device is beautifully intuitive to people with little prior experience with computers. The iPad to computing is akin to the Flip to video recording, or compact cameras to photography. It’s an entry level device (albeit a luxurious one) designed for the mass consumer.

Interestingly, this design philosophy has sparked a philosophical debate among heavyweight bloggers: Doctorow from Boing Boing fears that the iPad era means an era of stifled grassroots innovation and creativity (users are “infantilized” – kids can only play with it, but are restricted from exploring it and programming it – unless you hack it first), while Gruber argues that there will still be creative kids. I’m more inclined towards supporting Gruber’s position. The proportion of users who are interested in programming may decline, but that’s more due to computing becoming accessible to all rather than there being fewer aspiring programmers. I would even argue that the App Store, closed and arbitrary as it is, has leveled the playing ground a lot more for new programmers (ease of distribution and access to users), and therefore there should be more aspiring programmers than ever before.

That being said, the geek in me craves for a more open product than the iPad. I want the flexibility of having access to the file system, of having more than just the App Store to go to find software, and I need multitasking. I need to be able to type up a word document while also doing some web search. Apple has a pretty good history of improving its products – just look at the 1st gen iPhone and see how much it has improved (no 3G, no App Store – in hind-sight can you imagine people actually bought it?) – and give it ten months and I might be seriously tempted to get a 2nd gen iPad.

Will Flash ever work on mobile?

There’s been a couple of interesting posts on implementing Flash on mobile devices in the last few days. First, An Adobe Flash developer on why the iPad can’t use flash looks at the issue from a UI perspective – namely how some of the UI design elements we take for granted on desktops / laptops, such as mouse hover-over, are not native to the touch paradigm, so that even if Flash can run on the iPad / iPhone, a lot of Flash usages still would not function properly. Instead, either the mobile OSes come up with ways to emulate a mouse interface (or introduce a lot more complicated input methods), or existing Flash apps have to be redesigned with the mobile audience in mind. The first route goes against the touch paradigm, while the second route means a lot of work for developers (so it can almost be argued they might as well forego Flash altogether).

The second post shows a fairly slick youtube video of Flash on Android, through a Farmville demo:

If you look closely enough, you can see that 1) there is an issue with mouse hover-overs; 2) for a intensely interactive Flash app, there is “money left on the table” in the sense that it is not customized for touch and the controls feel clumsy (or maybe it’s just the demo person…).

Which leads me to the provocative title of this post. The whole demand for Flash on the iPhone and other mobile platforms is based on how it gives consumers the “real web.” However, if you think about the main uses of Flash, which is 1) video 2) games 3) ads, I would say that consumers don’t care about whether ads can be displayed, and as the above example illustrates, games (and other forms of highly interactive Flash usages) probably need to be redesigned anyway (which calls for custom apps). Which leaves video – and this is where the competitive landscape plays an interesting role. The biggest video site, Youtube, is owned by Google, and Google is definitely going for HTML5 + H.264 and moving away from Flash. (Tangent: Google is also getting some criticism for not truly supporting the open web, as H.264 is a licensed technology.)

So the bottom line is, while Flash has dominance on the web now, it definitely faces the danger of becoming completely irrelevant in the mobile space. This may not be a terrible thing – moving to a unified standard such as HTML5 and away from proprietary codecs – except of course for Adobe.

Haas MBA Google Trek and initial impressions of the Droid

Last Friday, a group of 50 Haas MBA students visited the Googleplex. During the 3-hour afternoon visit, we had an enjoyable tour of the campus, and engaged a panel of Googlers (many of them Haas alums!) from various products and functions in a lively round of discussions. A big shout-out for my classmate and former Googler Lauren Gellman for organizing this spectacular trip!

Haas MBA Google Trek 2010

Besides having a great time talking with the Googlers, I was also lucky enough to win one of the 5 Droids handed out in a surprise lottery (you can see the winners showing off their gear in the photo). The phone, targeted for developers, comes with a one-month free trial from Verizon, as well as a nice discount for a 1 year or 2 year contract.

This is the first Android handset I have used, having been a loyal iPhone user since January 2009. There are things I immediately like about the phone, and it really is almost a completely different experience from the iPhone. I know there are plenty of Droid reviews out there (since this device has been out for a quarter now), but here are some of my first impressions:

  • Great support for Google products – really, no surprises here. The turn-by-turn navigation, a coveted app by many, could well be one of the killer apps for this device. (I am curious how well that works on the road, especially in areas with patchy reception – this was a key differentiation point Nokia was trying to emphasize for its Ovi Maps, where the maps are stored locally and require less data transmission – and therefore less dependence on reception – on the go.) And of course the Google Voice app is great, but it does make you wonder how Verizon feels about it.
  • Background apps – Pandora while surfing? No problem. However, it’s not apparent what apps are running in the background, which could both be a drain on your battery and also a potential nuisance – I realized I was always on Google Chat, even though that wasn’t my intention.
  • Poor support for business users. This is not a phone ready for corporate America. It supports Microsoft Exchange, but apparently the “corporate email” app doesn’t support search. That’s right. No inbox searching. That alone is enough for me to hold on to my iPhone. (I could, in theory, forward all my emails to Gmail, but I’m sure there are plenty of users like me out there who prefer to keep their work-email and gmail separate)
  • Very slow charging on USB? I have a habit of carrying only the USB cord, and not the adapter, for my iPhone. For some reason, the Droid charges at a very slow pace via USB – something like 15% an hour, which is not satisfactory.
  • The physical keyboard is redundant. Yes. I’ve gotten used to typing on virtual keyboards. Having to actually push down feels painful, and there is no auto-correct. In this regard I’d probably like the Nexus One a lot better.
  • App market. Good number of apps already, most of the web2.0 services are present, but much less presence of old-school stuff – e.g. WSJ, FT, NYTimes etc.

Reading through the points above, it’s interesting to note how many of them are talking about consumers’ habits. For example the point about the keyboard – if I came from the blackberry world I probably would love the physical keyboard (remember all those people who hated the virtual keyboard on the iPhone when it first launched?), but I’ve grown accustomed to virtual keyboards. Same for the email search – my work-around would solve the problem, but it is asking me to change my behavior, so I have a strong distaste for it.

One final point – I want to comment on how fundamentally different the Droid is from the iPhone. I felt it was a phone for geeks and engineers. The UI was less polished, but there was much more that the user could customize (menus, widgets etc…) You need to spend time to play around with it. The iPhone, on the other hand, is a device ready for mass adoption. It’s frustrating for geeks who want to do all kinds of things (but can’t), but perfect for everyday users who can just use it intuitively. Very different philosophies, and therefore potentially a sharp divergence in consumer segments going forward.

The Strategic Implications of Chrome OS

Excuse me for the grand title, but I’ve been writing too many marketing papers recently…

Google held a press release for Chrome OS today. All the major tech blog properties are covering it. Just check out the first page on techmeme and you’ll get a good rundown of all the discussions going on.

What I’d like to talk about is how Chrome OS might impact the computing market. Google has taken a page from Apple’s playbook by deciding that Chrome OS will be available only pre-shipped with certain devices (netbooks, at this point), as opposed to being an OS that you can get and install on whatever machine you have.

This is actually a big deal. By doing so, Google is moving away from the traditional PC hardware / software paradigm and moving towards a model more typically found in other consumer electronics – the future Chrome OS devices will be more similar to your TV or other home appliances than to your laptop or desktop, in that its feature-set is pre-defined and not customizable (unless you are a hacker). It will be a simple, straight-forward user experience – when you boot it up, all it shows will be the Chrome browser window.

Commentators are divided over the OS, but the differences really are due to very different vantage points. The infoworld article boldly titled “why Chrome OS will fail – big time” focuses on how Chrome OS is not a substitute for Windows or Mac, and thus claims it fails. Robert Scoble on the other hand focuses on how Chrome OS is really about low cost supplemental access to the web, and a competition over web standards and tools – HTML5 vs. proprietary frameworks like Flash or Silverlight.

My concern with Chrome OS is really about the bigger picture of netbooks – having never bought one myself (though quite tempted at one point when the EeePC first came out), I am still not a big believer. Netbooks are a niche category on a rapidly converging field, squeezed between ever-more powerful smartphones one the one end and laptops on the other. In one sense there’s a definite value proposition for it – a $100-200 device that you can just boot up and google a recipe while you’re cooking, or just do some casual browsing while you’re on the couch does have some marginal benefit, but the emphasis here is really on “marginal”.

For Chrome OS and netbooks to succeed, Google is really betting on a couple of big industry trends. One is that HTML5 adoption will be smooth and major web properties will convert to it, instead of running on proprietary platforms such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. Of course in this aspect Google does have some control, since it owns Youtube, so at least it can ensure that the biggest video site on the web will be compatible.

The second big trend is the wide-spread availability of wi-fi, since the device is Internet only. Google and its hardware partners can opt for 3G capabilities, but that’s a harder sell because of the additional telecom fees. In one sense, wi-fi is pretty widely available, but it’s far from ubiquitous, and while the device will still sell, people will talk about it less if they don’t use it on the go that conveniently. To a certain extent, this point is more of a technical issue, but Google and friends will have to come up with some solutions to make the device more usable.

In sum, Chrome OS is perhaps just the beginning of the future – a future where every device is a thin client to access the web and everything is stored in the cloud. It may be too early for its own good. Only time will tell.

PS3 levels the Netflix playing field with Xbox 360

The announcement yesterday the Ps3 now also supports Netflix streaming to the TV just made the console wars a little bit more interesting. Xbox 360 has supported Netflix streaming for the past year, but the caveat was that you needed a Xbox Live Gold account, which costs $49.99 a year (or $39.99 on Amazon right now for a 20% discount). The Ps3 deal doesn’t include that – though there is the awkward technical requirement of having to put in a special Netflix blu-ray disc into your Ps3 when you want to stream.

That’s really a small annoyance, if you are already a PS3 console owner. So from one perspective the PS3 has just “one-upped” the Xbox. However, for Xbox owners, the Netflix deal is really just an additional reason to buy the Gold account. I got my Xbox 360 Elite yesterday, while my b-school roomies got Rock Band. I think the services on offer for the Gold membership is already quite compelling, and as an existing Netflix user, I would be willing to pay the additional $40-50 for a yearly membership.

Career advice from Qi Lu, President of Microsoft Online Services

Qi Lu, President of Microsoft’s Online Services Division, was at Berkeley this evening to have a casual talk with students. He gave a very interesting recap of his own career so far, why he joined Microsoft last year, and what he envisions his division to accomplish. And he shared plenty of career advice.

Qi gave two reasons on why Microsoft, which are essentially his core career principles: first, to be in a position where he can have profound and enduring impact; second, to be able to work with and learn from great people. As for his vision for Online Services, he says their mission is to “computationally understand user intent,” or, in plain-speak, to “build a human mind reader” (so that we don’t need to tell the computer what we want to search, the computer will be able to read our mind and know what we need). It is an extremely ambitious and perhaps “geeky” vision, but Qi’s passion comes across so strongly that I can’t help but also become excited at this vision.

As for career advice, Qi was like an encyclopedia of idioms and metaphors-

  • Chance favors the prepared. (Always work hard.)
  • Opportunities are like buses – if you miss one, there’s always the next one. (So don’t worry and always look ahead!)
  • No bus will take you straight to your end goal. Think about “will this bus get me closer?” instead of “will this bus get me there?” (Think about your career in phases, and work towards intermediate goals which will help you get closer to your long-term goal. I really, really liked this metaphor.)
  • Keep your head above the cloud, and your feet on the ground. (Have the big vision, and work hard consistently.)
  • Make yourself uncomfortable. (Push yourself out of your comfort zone – if you’re comfortable, you’re not learning.)
  • Be good at letting things go. (Be willing and open to sharing.)

These bullet points don’t do him justice. He is such a great speaker and it seems as if he just oozes intellect and wisdom. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

Surprise: Sohu leads the copyright attack on Youku

The Chinese online video space has long been dominated by a number of local youtube clones, among which youku.com is a leader. Like so many other web spaces, the international players have not been able to beat their local Chinese clones, mostly due to cultural differences (and therefore quality of localization) and often policy issues (government interference, in the case of Google). In the online video space, the local players have also been much more lenient with copyright infringement. Usually these sites just turn a blind eye (for example I just did a quick search and found episodes of Prison Break on Sina’s video site, the Chinese crowd-sourced bootlegged version with Chinese subtitles), while for PR purposes they may claim to have sophisticated systems to take down infringing material as soon as possible.

Well, headlines today are certainly a surprise (at least for me – I haven’t been following this space closely). Sohu, who has just led the formation of a “Online Video Anti-piracy Coalition” (my translation) with some other web partners, has decided to sue Youku.com 50-100MM RMB (about 8-15MM USD) for copyright infringement. A quick google search shows that lawsuits in this space have been heating up – earlier this year H.Y. Brothers, the leading local private film studio, sued a bunch of Internet properties (including Sohu and Youku); and before that Youku had also sued competitor Tudou.

While it’s clearly obvious that these lawsuits are tactics to pursue vested interests, I feel they are helping to push the industry towards a more mature stage where laws and regulations are properly enforced. One reason businesses like Netflix and Hulu don’t exist in China is because the cost of piracy is so low. Of course, Chinese consumers are spoilt in the sense that they have become accustomed to the fact that almost all forms of home media entertainment are free or very cheap (thanks to piracy), so any movement to enforce adequate copyright laws will be met with consumer resistance. But it should be clear that real businesses shouldn’t be founded in the hope that they will thrive due to the piracy environment – free may be a business model, but piracy isn’t.

Vinod Khosla Speaks at Haas

This evening I attended the Dean’s Speaker Series at Haas. Tonight’s guest speaker was Vinod Khosla, who was, among other titles, one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, and the founder of Khosla Ventures (his bio here).

Mr. Khosla’s speech is lengthily titled “The Innovation Ecosystem and Its Role in Shaping Our Renewable Future” (or, elegantly titled “Punditry / Invention” on the presentation deck, made by Mr. Khosla’s daughter who was also present). The presentation material had a distinct marketing flavor to it (think Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth slides, or Steve Jobs’ keynote slides, as opposed to conservative consulting / banking slides), with most slides containing only a few words or phrases in massively-sized fonts.

And Mr. Khosla’s argument was as concise as the material he was using. His core argument is that the advancement / adoption rate of technology will always be substantially underestimated – there is simply no accuracy in any forecasts of what will happen 10-20 years in future (examples presented: computer and mobile penetration rates, compared to expert forecasts in the past). He therefore implies that while clean-tech appears cost-prohibitive and unfeasible for massive adoption, there will almost certainly be technological breakthroughs (“black swans”) that completely transform the industry outlook. The conclusion – instead of trying to predict the future through extrapolation of the past (which is a futile exercise), we should simply invent our own future. In Mr. Khosla’s case, he is very optimistic in clean-tech will continue to invest in this area.

I think the takeaways for me from this one-hour presentation are three-fold. One is the concept that Mr. Khosla was selling, the mindset of optimism about change, which in other words is a call for action. Second is perhaps some observations on soft-skills, through his style of delivery and general on-stage presence. Probably the third takeaway is a reminder to myself to be always open to new ideas – personally, I’ve been somewhat of a skeptic on the clean-tech trends, and if Mr. Khosla is such a firm believer in it (he is certainly putting his money where his mouth is), I should probably re-examine my own thoughts and beliefs.

Apple’s major releases today

There’s an Apple event today, and as expected all the major tech blogs have been flooded with coverage from the iPod-only event. I skimmed through the coverage on Techcrunch, Engadget, VentureBeat, Silicon Alley Insider, TUAW etc. The gist of the announcements are these:

Hardware side:

  • New iPod Touches. Pretty expensive at $399 for the 64GB ones. Besides the memory bump, the CPU has also been upgraded to the one used in the iPhone 3GS, which should make this a serious gaming / networking device (Apple made comparisons with the PSP and NDS). The letdown, at least from the tech press perspective, is that the new iTouch doesn’t have a camera. Rumors are flying this is because of a engineering issue, not because of a conscious design choice.
  • New Nanos, with a video camera and FM radio (besides other new features), making this a general purpose portable entertainment device. This is probably the biggest hardware release of the day.
  • New Shuffles. More colors, cheaper.
  • New iPod Classics. Improved storage, same price. This is really more of an afterthought.

Software side:

  • iPhone / Touch OS 3.1. I’ve done my upgrading already. Wondering if it breaks tethering on AT&T, as rumored.
  • iTunes 9, with some new features. Perhaps the most important one for iPhone users is the ability to manage / organize apps on iTunes instead of on the phone (so less dragging apps across screens)

For the details on any of those bullets, just head over to any major tech blog or Apple’s own webpage.

Some thoughts:

The iPod lineup is certainly diversifying and evolving from just music to all entertainment. Apple has been marketing the gaming abilities of the Touch; now the Nano seems to be aiming at Flip’s niche. But really, at this point, the gamers / amateur video directors who will switch to the Apple camp from PSP / NDS and Flip respectively are the casual players. The iPhone and iTouch are great for games, but for a different breed of games – the gaming experience is drastically different (just think of the Wii vs. the Xbox 360 / PS3). It almost feels like that Apple has too many opportunities to explore right now, and needs to make some conscious choices about what to pursue and what not to pursue.

Take gaming as an example. Positioning itself as a serious player in the space is very different compared to a hardware maker which also supports some games. If Apple is actively and seriously considering this space, it needs to be courting developers, and possibly peripheral makers (or consider some hardware functionality add-ons itself, like an external game-pad) – as opposed to just acting as the gate-keeper for apps.

And for the new Nano, if it does turn out to be a major competitor to the Flip, and Apple does care about taking a stake in that niche market, then Apple will have to make customizations and modifications of future models that put much more focus on the video-making aspects of the device.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say, and perhaps repeating myself here, is that I’m a firm believer that any device should have a focused purpose (despite the convergence trend). It’s fine for the PS3 / Xbox 360 to be able to support Netflix, web-browsing etc., but at the end of the day, the device’s main purpose is to play games. In the case of Apple, the iPod line-up is now converging with several other markets (portable gaming / video-making). Apple can either continue its current path of including these extra functionality as additional value propositions, or really start diversifying and entering these separate categories. This is a big strategic choice, and it’s perfectly fine to remain focused on music as the core proposition. Personally I think it would be a challenge to be competing in so many different markets where Apple has little experience. Regardless, it would be very interesting to observe how this develops.

Why the Palm Pre has been subpar

As the inaugural post for this blog, I wanted to summarize some thoughts on why the Palm Pre has not lived up to the hype. There has been recent discussions how the Pre is far from meeting Sprint’s sales targets; earlier back there were also some talks of Palm cutting back on production. This is of course in sharp contrast to the fanfare we’re used to of recent iPhone launches (long lines, stock outs etc. – from personal experience, I had to trade up to the 32GB version of the 3GS as the 16GB were out of stock at the local AT&T).

So what went wrong for a product that, if you recall, had pretty impressive hype just a few months back? Below are my two cents.

  • Poor marketing execution. This is obviously the easiest target of all, since everyone has been talking about these ads that makes no sense (see Fake Steve Jobs’ ranting analysis here). Like Fake Steve says, these ads show that Palm and Sprint seem to be confused about who their target consumer is (female smartphone users? That’s a tiny market), and the execution itself is creepily effective at driving negative PR.
  • Lost PR momentum. Somewhat related to the previous point. The Pre was announced at the CES 2009 in January, and was definitely the hit product of the show. (I remember at the time being very hyped about the phone, and wanting to buy one immediately. The phone and its UI just looked very sexy.) However, as time passed, people’s interest gradually waned – the smartphone industry is extremely competitive with lots of players vying for consumer eyeballs, and Palm is not Apple, with a loyal base of media support (e.g. TUAW). With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it would have been better if Palm kept Pre under wraps until very close to the launch date (of course there will be info leaks, but that would just help fuel the PR). And certainly it didn’t help that Apple announcing the iPhone 3GS two days after Pre launched in the US.
  • iPhone’s first mover advantage. Namely, installed user-base and scaled up App Store. This is actually a huge advantage for Apple, and appears to indicate a winner-takes-all end-game – the more users, the more developers, and therefore more quality apps, which in turn attracts more users. The primary and only reason that I again bought an iPhone upon arriving in the States (and bearing with AT&T) is the App Store. This is the equivalent of the Windows eco-system on PCs. Competing OSes just lack the richness of the applications available, and for a computing device, it is all about the apps.
  • But most fundamentally, unclear target consumer and value proposition. The Pre’s most innovative feature is the webOS, which supports concurrent applications – a key feature that the iPhone has not yet opened to 3rd party developers. However, the only people who would seriously care about this feature are smartphone power users – i.e. the millions of iPhone users – who can appreciate its benefits. But to convince iPhone users to switch, the Pre is lacking one major dimension: the App Store. There is no point in being able to run multiple apps if there are no apps. So in effect, the Pre’s most talked-about feature was a no-feature.

So what are the things that Palm could do to alleviate the situation?

  • Build up the developer eco-system. It’s cliched, but it has to be done. Palm needs to have quality apps on its phones. This is an uphill battle, but one which must be fought nonetheless. One thing that Palm can do to attract developers is to have an open platform for developers to publish their work (as opposed to Apple’s draconian control on apps).
  • Re-think its marketing strategy. And not just in terms of marketing communication – the entire marketing strategy, i.e. which geographic markets and which consumer segments. We should remember that the US is not the only mobile market in the world (Nokia, which has almost no share in the US market, is still the global leader in every mobile category, including smartphones). It’s probably an wild idea, but if Palm can focus on certain markets where the iPhone has not had such an impact, it could build up some user-base scale. (Again, while Nokia is heavily entrenched in most global markets, their smartphone eco-system – or the lack thereof – leaves plenty of space for newcomers to attack. In such markets as China, it’s more about the hardware and the UI, rather than the apps, and the Pre would probably fare better?)

It’s certainly not going to be a smooth revival at Palm. But they do have a quality product, they just need to realize who to sell it to.