John C. Abell

Back in Blackberry

Jan 31, 2013 18:58 UTC

With a brand-new smartphone – and a new brand – BlackBerry (neé Research in Motion) has embarked on a critical reboot aimed at restoring the fortunes of the company that sparked the mobile revolution.

RIM has been left for dead. For years it hasn’t been able to shake off the stink of irrelevance as the iPhone proved that apps were more important than a physical keyboard, and that mobile “push” e-mail wasn’t rocket science. It endured brand-damaging outages to its private network while competitors crowed that their reliance on a public network was far more stable.

Now the company is reinventing itself in a last-ditch effort to survive. In a press conference yesterday, it announced that it had changed its corporate name to “BlackBerry” to better identify with its iconic product. Meanwhile, it has dramatically upgraded that product after a two-year effort that resulted in new phones designed from scratch and powered by what would be a major mobile operating system: QNX.

BlackBerry’s new smartphones, the multi-touch Z10 and the Q10 – which retains that keyboard some people still swear by — may be the company’s last best hope. I’ve had the Z10 for only a few hours, but if anything can rekindle our romance with RIM, this is it. These BB10 phones are a gambit – not a gamble. (I’ll be doing a full “Go Bag” review with the road warrior in mind in the coming weeks).

Most of the attention is being heaped on the Z10, as demand for smartphones with physical keyboards is the exception rather than the rule. If it manages to make a dent in a world now run by Apple and Samsung — which together had 51 percent of the world’s smartphone market share in the last quarter of 2012 — it will mark one of the great turnaround tales in the history of tech, comparable even to Apple’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes in the late 1990s.

Hotspots and have-nots

Jan 25, 2013 19:54 UTC

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte announced an audacious goal: He was going to put a laptop in the hands of every child in developing countries. With his “One Laptop Per Child” project, the futurist and marquee Wired magazine columnist was looking to close the widening gap between the world’s haves and have-nots. His underlying premise: In the computer age, there should be none of the latter, because the PC was the ultimate equalizer.

OLPC was greeted with great acclaim among the Internet’s 1 percent, many of who were highly motivated to empower the other 99. It was backed by a host of blue-ribbon tech companies and got the perfect coming-out party at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, where the UN Development Program announced it too would support the project. OLPC’s machine, the XO, was tailor-made for the developing world: It had a hard plastic shell to survive outdoors, where it would see a lot of use, and a screen that could be read in direct sunlight. It used 1/10th the power of contemporary laptops and could be recharged with solar energy. And at $200, it was incredibly cheap by laptop standards back then.

Seven years later, OLPC is still grinding away—by the end of 2011 it had given away 2.4 million XO laptops—but to say that the program hasn’t changed the world would be a kind understatement. The irony is that Negroponte’s project didn’t fail because the world was resistant to change. It failed because the world changed too quickly. OLPC was a well-intentioned moon shot that fell short because it solved a hardware problem that all but evaporated. The seemingly quixotic XO had only a two-year head start on the greatest leap forward in mobile computing, the iPhone.

Touchfire: All keyed up and ready to go

Jan 25, 2013 17:30 UTC

Go Bag LogoApple’s iPad could be the perfect device for a road warrior, but it has one glaring shortcoming — the lack of the perfect keyboard. The built-in onscreen keyboard is workable, but no tactile feedback means that you look at your fingers as you type, instead of the words on the screen. That makes typing on a tablet slower than on a laptop, and that means you avoid your iPad for typing-intensive tasks, even though in every other respect it might be the perfect choice for communicating on the road.

Touchfire solves this problem in a novel way: It’s an extremely thin, clear plastic overlay with raised keys that rests on top of the onboard keyboard, mapping to each onscreen key. Unlike other aftermarket keyboards, it doesn’t add weight, bulkiness, or require batteries to recharge. This little piece of plastic doesn’t look like it would make much of a difference, but it does.

All hail the Kim (Dotcom)

Jan 24, 2013 20:20 UTC

Piracy means never having to say you’re sorry.

That might as well be the mantra of Kim Schmitz, better known as Kim Dotcom, the most flamboyant internet character this side of John McAfee.

For those who’ve missed this story so far, until about a year ago Kim Dotcom ran a wildly popular site called Megaupload from his New Zealand mansion. Megaupload allowed people to upload massive files – you know, like movies and TV shows the uploaders don’t own and don’t have the right to share. Which probably explains both the site’s wild popularity, and the Justice Department’s prosecutorial zeal.

Things were going great until local authorities raided the joint, arrested him and shut down the site on behalf of the United States, which has charged him with 13 criminal counts of conspiracy, infringement and wire fraud. The upshot of the indictment is that those uploads amounted to piracy, and Megaupload was enabling it.

Small is Big: the iPad Mini

Jan 18, 2013 17:30 UTC

Go Bag LogoSmall tablets are tailor-made for road warriors. They’re easy, light, portable, and have all the power you need to access the internet or write an email on the go. More functional than smartphones, less bulky than laptops, they’re quickly becoming a must-have in every go bag. Now the only question is: Which smaller tablet should you carry? For me, there are two serious contenders — the Nexus 7 that’s already in my go bag and the iPad Mini Apple shared with me to review.

The iPad Mini comes with a legacy advantage. Apple is the market leader in tablets, selling more than 100 million iPads in fewer than three years. By one recent analysis, iPads account for 98% of all web traffic originating from tablets — and 54% from all mobile devices, including smartphones. It’s not as if no other tablet comes close: It’s more like every other tablet combined doesn’t come close.

Still, the iPad Mini was only introduced last October, which meant that competitors could beat it to the small tablet market. The Nexus 7 was released earlier in 2012, and, for all intents and purposes, introduced the category*. Cheaper worthy tablets like the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook also joined the fray, creating need for Apple to create the iPad Mini, and the appealing chance for price pressure on the iPad premium.

Facebook’s search has been found

Jan 16, 2013 21:04 UTC

With “Graph Search,” Facebook’s newsearch engine announced Tuesday, the world’s largest social network has finally begun to index a trove of Big Data that’s been piling up for years. Even Facebook probably doesn’t know what’s been deposited in by its 1 billion members. Suddenly there is a way to find out. 

For all its popularity, Facebook has lacked something that could be described as “purpose.” For co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, sharing isn’t a platitude ‑ it’s world-altering. As he once said: “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” Yet Facebook is, for the most part, fun and games. It’s also, in the opinion of some, including me, a Faustian bargain that gives the company valuable information with which to make money, and its members the ability to do things they can do any number of other ways. 

For all the information Facebook members share with one another — pictures, opinions, “likes,” preferences, the companies and celebrities they follow — none of it has been searchable. So if you have friends who like science fiction and live nearby, you wouldn’t have known it (unless you, you know, knew it), and that Avatar movie night wouldn’t have happened – or, worse, would have happened alone, like always.

Surface with Windows RT: The prettiest thing you’ll never want to touch again

Jan 11, 2013 18:00 UTC

Go Bag LogoMicrosoft’s Surface with Windows RT is a gorgeous device that under different circumstances might have been a gloriously unexpected mutation in the evolution of hardware. But beauty can’t conceal the blemishes beneath. The promise of the Surface, and hybrids in general, is that they can credibly replace both a laptop and a tablet. Surface disappoints as either.

Much of what isn’t right is due to the operating system on the device. This version of Windows 8 dramatically changes the user experience by co-mingling a traditional Windows desktop with a separate universe dominated by “live” tiles that allow access to information and apps.  The interface doesn’t impress, complicating appreciation for the hardware itself. For whatever reason, the OS seems slow and unresponsive. And the “full” desktop is crippled: It’s not possible, for example, to install desktop software — like a different browser or software you might need for a 4G dongle — even in the “desktop” mode. It feels like a device that was dreamed up to have one revolutionary new interface instead left the factory with two broken ones. Surface RT with the "type" keyboard

Surface RT with the “type” keyboard

Further, in the one place where the design is spot on, Microsoft’s marketing and sales pitch is out of sync: Surface’s keyboard-as-cover is truly innovative, which makes the significant extra cost for this “option” a bit insulting. As questionable as Surface is, it is outright incomprehensible without it. I tried both the “touch” — which doesn’t have raised keys — and the “type” version which can be used to touch type. Only the “type” makes any sense, and Microsoft seems to be driving us to this patently superior model by charging only $10 more for it than the touch model (MSRP $120 vs $130). I didn’t use my touch keyboard enough for it to come apart at the seams, but there were early reports that it does.

Choosing the ‘just right’ go bag

Jan 9, 2013 17:50 UTC

Go Bag LogoBefore you can properly stock a go bag, you have to, well, have one to fill. For a while, I tried to mix it up — one go bag for the weekend (fewer things needed) and another for the week. Dumb. Trust me: You’ll always forget to decant. You’ll need some obscure dongle or cord you didn’t anticipate. So aim for the Go Bag Golden Rule: Have only one.

The bag itself is the most visible decision you’ll make, so you’ll want it to reflect your style, just keep practicality in mind. Thin and streamlined is sexy, but too small invites overstuffing. Nothing that looks good still looks good if it won’t close neatly. Too big is can become bulky and might lead to extraneous items. You want it to fill out just right.

Don’t be afraid to pay for quality and invest in a bag that feels right and looks good on you. I paid nearly $200 for the messenger bag I use now, but have paid as little as $50 and everything in between. Above $200 you are likely paying for cachet rather than carry, but who am I to object?

Stop the CES madness

Jan 7, 2013 17:40 UTC

NEW YORK – That dateline is right: I’m not at the Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I’m in good company: Apple, Amazon, Google – global superpowers in tablets, the dominant tech of our time – aren’t there this year, and have never been any other. Microsoft gave the primary keynote last year, but that was its swan song at this relic in the desert. Somebody else will have to take its space on the convention floor this year.

Truth is, I’ve never made the Hajj to CES. Nevertheless, an estimated 150,000 people are attending (if there’s a God in Heaven CNET’s editorial team of 90 is the most representatives from any single publication). They’re gathering to be dazzled by 33,000 exhibitors there to make sure you understand they are about to revolutionize [their industry here]. Everything from self-driving cars to fast USB sticks will be touted.

The journalists who are there are hoping to press some flesh and discover something in the vast ocean of minutia that that they alone will recognize as truly amazing. But that’s foolish. We no longer need to go anywhere to keep up with technology. Technology ensures everything keeps up with us. When nearly every tech blog on the Internet is flypaper to tech companies, why commute to the hype?

Cache and carry: Why you need a go bag

Jan 7, 2013 17:30 UTC

Go Bag Logo

You’re supposed to have one when you’re awaiting your orders. When you’re having a baby. When you think you might need to outrun a zombie herd. Full of essentials, and a few goodies, a Go Bag is what you grab when you need to get gone, fast. The thing is, natural disasters and life-changing events aside, most of us already carry go bags, without calling them such, just to do our daily jobs and live our lives.

Whether we choose a sleek shoulder bag or bulky backpack, we stock our go bags with the technology tools (and yes, toys) to get our jobs done, stay online, and maybe watch a movie or listen to a book on the commute home. We make sure they have the right apps downloaded and enough juice to last the day. The right devices can handle our business in any environment, and in all the spaces in between them, whether it be the Metro North, the Subway, a passenger seat on I-95, or the JFK-SFO direct.

Properly stocked, a good go bag can help us realize our wireless dreams — letting us work, play and travel from nearly anywhere in the world, making us feel just a little bit in the future. But a bad, poorly thought out, or, heavens, slapdash go bag is less mobile office than modern-day albatross. What should be in a good go bag? That’s the question this new column was born to tackle.