John C. Abell John C. Abell's Profile Sat, 11 May 2013 00:00:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Samsung Galaxy S4: Size matters, but isn’t everything Fri, 10 May 2013 19:30:02 +0000 The Samsung Galaxy S4’s tagline — “The next big thing is here” — is a telling pitch. The Galaxy is the world’s second best-selling phone, behind the iPhone.  And the latest version unabashedly claims that bigger is better. But considering the S4 in a different light, maybe we shouldn’t think of it as a big phone. Maybe we should treat it like a very small tablet and leave our real tablet home.

While narrower than Samsung’s Galaxy Note by about a half-inch, the S4 strongly evokes a miniature but very serviceable tablet. And since making calls is one of the things we seem to do least with our phones, marketing a connected device like the S4 as a very small tablet that also makes calls might not be a bad idea.

As a “tablet,” the S4 delivers. Screen resolution is amazing.. It runs fast and smooth, which is not a given when you don’t own both the hardware and software. The S4 runs the latest version of Google’s Android mobile operating system, Jellybean 4.2.

The S4 has a larger screen — 4.99 inches versus 4.8 for the S III. The case is narrower by .03 inches. But that push to increase screen size without increasing the footprint makes it a more sensitive device. The context menu and “back” below the screen are just too easily tapped inadvertently while merely holding the phone while doing a task, like typing. These buttons were vexing in another, smaller way as well: They light up whenever you touch the screen.

The S4 also prompts reflection on the range of devices and how they’ve positioned themselves five years into the smartphone revolution. One of the biggest dividing lines is whether a mobile device is optimized for consumption or production — whether it’s a good working tool or a media hub.

As a productivity tool, the S4 left me wanting more. It fared poorly while typing, which is the baseline for me. For all the screen space the keyboard feels cramped. There is too much space around the keys. Auto-correct — offering three predictive word choices above the keyboard as you type — seemed almost out of reach. I got better at it but it never felt natural.

But the S4 is a playful device, resplendent in bright colors inside and out, with all the features you’d expect when it comes to taking pictures and enjoying media. In fact, I had three — count’em three — stores from which to choose: Google Play, of course, but also Sprint (the carrier) and Samsung itself.

Most phone picture taking is serendipitous. Check your Facebook or Instagram feeds if you have any doubt. So any feature that needs to be accessed before you take a picture is won’t get a lot of use. One that should never be used is picture in a picture — a way to photobomb yourself into the shot, which seems especially hedonistic. For all the potential to jazz up your future memories, even the trained demonstrators showing off advanced features for reporters found do-overs necessary. Not many of those in real life.

The S4 has taken some guff for its plastic — Samsung calls it polycarbonate — case. I’m not in the chorus that finds “cheap” materials a problem. Indeed, it’s a benefit because so much of the weight is in the case. And face it:Your phone is disposable. We never keep our smartphones for as long as they will work. There is always a $200 alternative and all of your data is in some cloud somewhere. But the S4 does not have a cheap feel. There is more than enough heft and balance to know you are not handling a toy.

With the S4, Samsung is outdoing Apple at Apple’s game: a modestly improved piece of hardware that loyal users of the SIII will want as an upgrade. The question is whether they can capture any new business from the business set. Doubtful.

The S4 is a fine consumer-oriented phone, delivering a familiar and robust Android experience. But even though it might find its way into a road warrior’s home, I doubt many will end up in any road warrior hands.

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Blackberry Q10: The key is the keyboard Fri, 26 Apr 2013 19:00:31 +0000 Not so long ago Blackberry made phones that set the bar. They were avatars of serious cool among the power set, a visible token that you had arrived. Then came the iPhone, and there went Blackberry’s cachet.

Now Blackberry is back with a two smartphone phones running a new operating system — both the phones and the OS are dubbed “10.” The rebooted line is a gambit — some think Blackberry’s last — to recapture the cool.

The Z10, released in the United States in March, was an attempt to join ’em: it’s a full screen, multi-touch rectangle with a pop-up, software keyboard — sound familiar? But the Q10, due in the U.S. at the end of May, is a spit-in-your-eye attempt to beat ’em: An unapologetic central feature is a physical keyboard, and this defining Blackberry touch makes the device an  intentional outlier in the smartphone world.

Some smartphones coming to the market are more like small tablets than phones. Some have more apps, like the iPhone. But all have access to a plethora of streaming content, e-books, games, cloud storage, push e-mail and browsers that “undesign” web pages, making them easier to read.

One has a keyboard. This feature is not a pander to the Blackberry faithful or a half-hearted attempt to get back to some company roots. Blackberry has made the hardware keyboard essential again. The Q10 is at the same time different, familiar, exciting, comfortable. The key is the keyboard.

The key is the keyboardEver since the iPhone debuted, the keyboard tradeoff has seemed one-sided. Full-face screens begat even bigger screens and led to the infantilization of phones.  They’re great for watching movies and playing games, but they don’t make handling e-mail, editing or reading a document a vastly superior experience. When you have a portable tablet like the iPad Mini, why would you choose to watch a movie or play a game on an even smaller screen?

The Q10’s keyboard takes up 33 percent of front face real estate. It measures 3 centimeters vertically and is situated below the 6-centimeter-high multi-touch screen. The keyboard is the main way you access content. Typing a letter or two from any menu page instantly calls up an app, a contact, or a calendar event. You don’t have to organize a darn thing. Sure, you can arrange app icons and gather them into folders. You can create contact favorites. But in the week I’ve used the Q10 I didn’t once access an app or a contact by looking for where I left it. I used the keyboard, typed two letters, and there it was.

This is only possible on a phone with a physical keyboard which, by definition, is always on. On my iPhone 4S I can also find apps in a device search, but that requires first going to the search page. And the iPhone search isn’t as smart: Type “te” (or “me”) on the Q10 and among the hits is the messaging app. Type “te” on the iPhone and “Messages” is nowhere to be found. On the Q10, “me” got me not only “Text Messages” but “BBM,” Blackberry’s proprietary messaging system. It understood that my intention was messaging.

For typing, the keyboard is great. And with predictive words — for some reason, this feature is off by default — you have a best-of-both-worlds scenario.

This Q10 is a winning combination of well-thought-out ideas in other ways as well. The contacts function aggregates “activity,” social gestures and even news stories about the company where contacts work, with “updates,” the exchanges you’ve had. This “all-in-one-place” approach is like a mini profile of anyone you put in your address book.

When connected to your computer, the Q10 is recognized as an external drive whose contents are accessible on your desktop through the latest version of Blackberry Link — no syncing intermediary like iTunes.

The iPhone only recently added a To Do app — Reminders. But Blackberry’s To Do leaves it in the dust with an Evernote-like ability to add voice note and attachments to a task.

Navigation, transitions and animations are all spot on. This seems to be as quick and responsive an OS as I’ve seen, perhaps because Blackberry (like Apple) does both the hardware and software.

There are still ways the Q10 could inch closer to perfection.

Apps availability isn’t ideal. Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, LinkedIn and Skype were installed on the AT&T branded unit. There was no Google Maps app, but Blackberry’s version worked just fine for me on four, hour-long car trips to unfamiliar destinations. But Pandora, Spotify, Netflix were all absent.

Without a Google Drive app — and uncertain prospects for one — you can’t work directly on a collaborative document. Blackberry is up against three powerhouses that allow collaboration in the cloud with widely used Google and Microsoft (SkyDrive) apps. That said, some of the available productivity tools are impressive: Docs to Go, Dropbox and Box.

There is no horizontal orientation (you can’t use a sideways keyboard), so video and game play is on a squarish screen. This is a gamble for Blackberry but not a big one in my view. I see a smartphone as a device of last resort for such activities anyway – a small tablet is better for those types of utilities.

Finally, I’m still not the biggest fan of how the 10 series handles notifications, which I mentioned in my review of the Z10. The Hub concept is fine, but there are no verbose, peek-a-boo alerts about received messages, just that you have new messages and what accounts they are in. E-mail in the Hub can’t be filtered by default to show only unread items, so unread items are sometimes hard to find. It is possible to filter out read items ad hoc, but that takes four keystrokes each time. You can’t even mark all items read without opening them, which you might want to do based on the subject line alone.

(Maybe we can prevail on the people at Pebble to reconsider their decision to ignore the new Blackberry line so we could outsource verbose alerts to our wrists where they belong? After all, Pebble’s CEO cut his teeth on Blackberry version in 2008, with the InPulse watch. Or, hey Blackberry — How about a smartwatch of your own?)

There are a few software upgrades in the Q10 (that will also soon roll out for Z10 handesets). Most of them will delight the Blackberry faithful — and mean nothing to anyone else. They include pin-to-pin messaging, a proprietary means of texting which doesn’t use your data plan or the Internet, and can only be done between Blackberry phones. It’s one of those quirky differentiators that Blackberry had abandoned but loyalists missed. The “T” and “B” shortcuts are back, scooting you to the top and bottom of pages.

Since 2007, I’ve owned nothing but iPhones, but the Q10 is the first phone to make me question that loyalty. Carrying one for about a week feels like I’ve put on my big kid pants. At this moment in time, the Q10 is my next phone.

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Building the perfect smartwatch Fri, 19 Apr 2013 19:37:14 +0000

In my tech predictions of 2013 I somehow missed that this would be the year of the smartwatch. But now the most established names in tech are realizing the future may be all in the wrist.

Smartwatches are shaping up to be the Next Big Thing about a decade after they were offered to the public and met with a collective shrug. Timing can be everything in tech. Microsoft marketed a stylus-enabled PC in 2001, but the tablet concept was a nonstarter until the iPad. Even the e-reader had a first life as The Rocket — before the dot-com boom. But it was Amazon, in 2007, that reimagined the device and took the brass ring.

There is still essentially no smartwatch market, but at least one analyst is asserting that more than a million could be sold this year. That astonishing — and dubious — claim would amount to one-third of the anticipated 2013 sales of netbook (which I did predict would surge in 2013).

The renaissance began last year when a startup called Pebble began a Kickstarter campaign to build an eponymous smartwatch. Pebble’s small team raised the $200,000 it sought two hours into its 30-day fundraising period. Pebble stopped taking seed money when it reached $10 million.

Behind schedule, Pebble has finally shipped to all 55,000 backers (I was one of them). The wait to now buy one is two-three months. So the project was a rousing success. So good, apparently, that it got the attention of big tech companies — which is to say it stoked their competitive impulses to leave no, er, pebble unturned to tap into a new market.

Now everybody seems to know what time it is. The bidding began with Apple, which is said to be working on an iWatch. Samsung quickly jumped in as well. The next rumor was that Google, which is going in all sorts of directions these days, is also getting into the act. The latest company that reportedly wants a piece of the action is Microsoft. 

Like tablets and e-readers before them, smartwatches are now much better poised to fill an actual need because of how other tech has evolved. Just as events conspired to make tablets practical — cloud computing, stylus-free touch screens, ultra-portability — the smartwatch era approaches because smartphones have become ubiquitous. Microsoft was one of the earliest proponents of the smartwatch, but its 2002 SPOT smartwatch went nowhere fast. Others, from Fossil and Timex, also served as mini personal information managers in a bid to rival Palm. 

It would be five years until Apple would introduce the iPhone, so there was still a market for portable, Internet-connected devices that served up weather and other real-time information. But the proto-smartwatches tended to be expensive — as much as $300 — and Microsoft required you to subscribe to its MSN service for about $60 a year. Expensive equipment and recurring fees made no sense for things that were essentially toys (but, ironically, are exactly what we willingly pay for smartphones).

Now smartphones do all the heavy lifting; the demands on the watch are fewer. All a good smartwatch has to do is be in constant contact with your phone, serving as a gatekeeper and controller.

As I noted in my Reuters review of Pebble, the watch doesn’t do much. But by relaying messages and alerts to my specifications it frees me from checking on my phone’s flood of notifications. I’m reaching for my phone so rarely that Pebble’s creators should have called it “Pocket Protector.”

None of us, of course, have any idea of what the unreleased smartwatches will be. This makes it the perfect time to speculate on what they should be. So here’s my nobody-asked-for-it list of what smartwatches should do and not do.

  • Key among the features of these unicorns is that they work well with any phone, even if they work best with their own kind. Undoubtedly all four companies allegedly entering the fray will design watches that leverage their own phones — Apple is especially good at this sort of gentle bondage to its ecosystem since it controls both the hardware and software. But a smartwatch can also be a gateway gadget: This is an opportunity to both strengthen loyalty and introduce new customers, with what could be an entry-level device, to phones they might not have otherwise considered.
  • Maximizing battery life is essential. We tolerate watches because they are relatively maintenance free — nobody wants to wind a stem every day. So sacrifice nice-to-have but battery-intensive features for endurance. Already Pebble has crossed that line by making available two games, snake and Tetris. No games. Please.
  • On charging: Make it wireless. If there ever was a candidate for wireless charging, it’s the smartwatch. The technology hasn’t caught on much with smartphones, which are easy to dock and for which we are particular about cases, including not wanting to use a case at all. But a watch is the classic “lay it on the table” device. Companies like PowerMat have been trying to mainstream so-called inductive energy transfer by creating cases that would draw power to a device from special surfaces. All you have to do is set it down.
  • Navigation on a tiny wrist device is one of the biggest challenges. The Pebble has four buttons, which seems just about right. But multifunction watches can drive a person crazy since they require particular button-press combinations to access certain features. And spare me a touchscreen interface — not enough screen to touch, or too big a screen for your wrist. But there is a mechanical design feature that would help with navigation: screen switching by pressing the watch face. My bicycle computer does this with a feature CatEye calls ClickTec. The smartwatch need is similar: You only have one free hand. Buttons are nice and essential, but click to switch would make it easier to scroll through pages, which makes multiple screens offering different data a feature rather than a tease.
  • There’s opportunity in the watch band. You wear a watch exactly where you want to take you blood pressure and pulse, and those of us who should often don’t. Several companies, including FitBit and Nike, already market bands, so it’s just a matter of agreeing to some simple sizing specifications.
  • Near Field Communication (NFC) is also a natural component. The small NFC chip emits radio signals over a very short distance, making it a relatively secure way to wirelessly beam payment information, for example, to NFC-enabled point-of-sale terminals. NFC is built into many phones — notably not the iPhone, which is what would make it an especially intriguing addition to the “iWatch.” Why in your watch? As convenient as it is to produce your phone so you can wave your hand to pay at the cash register, it’s even easier to wave your hand without the phone.

Smartwatches may not be the next iPad, but I can’t imagine a world without them. In the perfect world I’m imagining, we’ll have several to choose from. And then we can start moving on to more body parts.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Pebble.

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How tablets can save the PC Thu, 11 Apr 2013 20:58:45 +0000

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

‑ Winston Churchill

These are tough times for the personal computer: The 30-something device that everyone used to covet is being crowded out by younger objects of our affection. Time for a makeover.

Visionaries like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs started a revolution by imagining that computers — at the time, massive, room-filling machines that basically just did arithmetic — could become indispensable tools for the masses. PCs led to a world filled with powerful electronics we could take anywhere: Desktops became laptops, phones became mobile and then smart. And now there are tablets.

PCs aren’t going to disappear, but they are no longer the most important computer we use. Many people carry three computers now: smartphone, tablet and laptop. The laptop is becoming the one we use least. Even some of our enduring PC use is reflex and habit. If we lost the use of a laptop, would life grind to a halt? Not with all these other options.

PC sales had their worst quarter ever in the first three months of this year, down almost 14 percent over the same 2012 period and the first full quarter when computers shipped with Windows 8. Analyst Bob O’Donnell from top research firm IDC connected these dots. Per Yahoo News:

At this point, unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market,” O’Donnell explains. “While some consumers appreciate the new form factors and touch capabilities of Windows 8, the radical changes to the UI, removal of the familiar Start button, and the costs associated with touch have made PCs a less attractive alternative to dedicated tablets and other competitive devices. Microsoft will have to make some very tough decisions moving forward if it wants to help reinvigorate the PC market.

There was a time when bad computer hardware or software were mere bumps in the road. But the problem for PCs now is that there are hardware alternatives. Great ones.

Chief among the alternatives are the computers we are never without — the smartphone and tablet. My own habits have changed dramatically over the past few years, and especially in the last year with the advent of Siri, which I use to take dictation constantly. I haven’t been without a laptop since my first iPhone and iPad, but I am increasingly inclined to do anything I need — work or play — without one.

The reason is simple. Laptops have few unique features, and some of those they do have aren’t important to most consumers. People don’t need them to edit video or pictures ‑ two of the heaviest lifts in consumer computing. People don’t need them to store pictures or videos or documents ‑ that is what Google Drive, SkyDrive and Dropbox are for.

PCs also have acute disadvantages in battery life and true portability; it isn’t possible to use your laptop standing in line or waiting in traffic. But check out the people around you in line and at the red light. They’re immersed in mobile devices.

Because we have steadily increased our use of smartphones and tablets we’ve learned that we can rely on them a lot more than we expected. Opportunistic use — tapping away while standing or walking — has in a very short time conditioned us to realize that mobile devices are full-fledged tools we don’t have to resort to but would choose first.

New things don’t necessarily kill old things. Television was an enormous disrupter of the movie industry, but Hollywood adapted with improvements in audio and video that could not be matched on the home screen. In the TV era, movies and theaters didn’t wither and die. TV improved the movies.

Tablets can do the same for PCs.

The challenge for PC makers is to tap into the compelling reasons why traditional computers are still relevant, not perpetuate what has become an outdated commodity business. That’s already happening in a couple of ways: Netbooks are being tossed into the mix again, primarily thanks to Google. These offer a low-cost, full-keyboard experience at disposable prices (Chromebook Pixel notwithstanding).

At the high end, there should be premium models, just as there are with other consumer goods: overpowered and over-featured machines some people just have to have. Touchscreens are being slowly introduced as a new laptop interface — enabled in large part by the new functionality in Windows 8. And we’ve only begun to see the possibilities of hybrid devices — offering the promise of the best of both the tablet and laptop world — despite the poor showing so far for most, notably Microsoft’s Surface models.

But the fight for the middle is over. PC powerhouses such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard are struggling to reinvent themselves. Apple, meanwhile, thrives in the tablet and smartphone business.

There is little value proposition for a bad $400 computer versus a great $400 tablet. Children and tech-phobes take to tablets like ducks to water because the learning curve is so slight and the possibilities limitless.

So as Churchill might have said, this isn’t the end of the PC. But it is the beginning of the end of the PC as we know it. As it should be.

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Home is where the phone is Fri, 05 Apr 2013 20:58:35 +0000

It hasn’t yet been six years since the start of the smartphone revolution and we’ve already become an “always on” culture. At least, that’s the temptation. Those who submit can be called The Immersives: checking e-mail, keeping tabs on Facebook “friends,” debating on Twitter, snapping photos of food for Instagram. It would be rare if any of us didn’t have at least one toe dipped in the stream.

We are all Immersives sometime: We bury our faces in the small screen while we walk, or come dangerously close to driving blindly into traffic. We can’t get through a meal without virtually leaving the table. We keep our phones on permanent silent to conceal the depth of our addiction. If we even momentarily lose track of our phone, we are as anxious as new parents whose toddler has dipped out of sight.

Immersives are the target audience for Facebook Home, a new version of the social network’s app that was announced this week. Home lives on the front side of the lockscreen — it’s the first thing you see when you pick up the phone. It’s a major release that reveals the extent to which Facebook needs us to stay Immersives to help it meet its bottom line. This decade’s major technological question is:  Who’s in control — our phones, or us?

Facebook is the flagbearer of the former. In a press event Thursday to unveil Home, CEO Mark Zuckerberg sought to position this app as a breakthrough for “us.” Smartphones, he said, are designed around apps and not people. This is clever messaging: A smartphone’s customization is all in its apps. We have little control, on any platform, of what our phone serves up for us the moment we pull it out of our pockets.

Facebook Home is perhaps the first of what Wired’s Steven Levy has already coined as the  “super apps” — always on, always current, and the first thing you see. Super apps come with an easy sell:  If you are immersed in one thing more than others — Zuckerberg says we spend almost a quarter of our time on smartphones on Facebook — why shouldn’t your phone give you the option to put that app on a virtual pedestal. 

Facebook’s play for this valuable real estate is a shrewd move — yes, ads are coming — but it comes as a bit of smartphone fatigue has already begun to set in. It ups the ante from an earlier play by Microsoft to open up the lockscreen to user customization: First introduced under Windows 7, Microsoft’s “Live Tiles” are real-time updates to a variety of feeds users can choose and position. But they still fall short of what Facebook is introducing: a fully immersive version of the app itself.

Choice is always nice, but silence can sometimes be golden. Because our phones demand so much attention, many of us are reaching a saturation point. Some of us are becoming Selectives — even taking a vacation from our phones. We are becoming more discerning about what we want to know, and when we want to know it.

Selectives are beginning to make themselves heard. They are the backers of the Pebble smart watch, which puts distance between user and phone. They are fighting for a pair of Google Glasses, a development which pushes the phone even deeper into the background. The wearable tech movement is all about leveraging the power of a smartphone, and making you less a slave to brandishing it.

The stakes are very high — not only for the hearts and minds of those teetering between Immersive and Selective lifestyles but for which of the now four mobile operating systems will dominate. Indeed, Apple, which owns the most closed mobile operating system in the world is even seeking to patent the very notion of lockscreen apps.

For now, the battle to win the attention of Immersives will almost certainly be fought entirely on Google’s Android platform — the most receptive to customization from developers and already the most popular — Apple’s iOS is a close second, with Blackberry and Microsoft lagging far behind.

Google’s and Twitter’s own lockscreen customization is only a matter of time. There’s no reason Twitter can’t “skin” Android phones to be an interactive dashboard. And how far can Google itself be from making its own social network — Google + — the basic infrastructure of phones running its own Android operating system. Of course, for those too impatient to wait, there’s always Microsoft’s middle ground.

The good news is, unlike most wars, everyone can emerge victorious Immersives can choose to drown in their favorite apps, and Selectives can push the phone further and further away. Both types will be in their element.

PHOTO: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive during a Facebook press event to introduce ‘Home’ a series of applications that integrates the Facebook platform into the Android operating system, in Menlo Park, California, April 4, 2013.  REUTERS/Robert Galbraith 

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The future of search only cost $30 million Wed, 27 Mar 2013 21:17:26 +0000

On the surface, Nick D’Aloisio’s story is the kind tech lives for, and sometimes regrets. It’s the tale of a kid selling an obscure startup for an inflated price, and then it becomes as irrelevant as Netscape, and its buyer’s remorse is part of the company’s enduring legacy.

But the story of Summly, a startup whose app appeared in the Apple Store only five months ago and was purchased on Monday by Yahoo for a reported $30 million, isn’t part of this trite arc.

This isn’t a boilerplate tale about a youngster hitting the jackpot, a former Internet giant trying to buy a relevance makeover, or even about an intriguing programmatic way to summarize news. It is about the future of search. 

D’Aloisio’s youth – he’s 17 – and windfall are interesting data points, even if all the work behind the magic algorithm isn’t the sole product of this high schooler’s brain. Like all really good ideas, Summly’s is simple: Anything can be summarized, but by having a computer do it,  the number of things you can summarize — and the speed with which it can be done — are massively increased. As an app, it filtered news stories and — Presto Chango! — spit out the CliffsNotes version, optimized for a smartphone’s tiny screen (and our infinitesimal attention span).

If nothing else, D’Aloisio put together a company with serious backers — the first was when he was 15, and then some eyebrow-raising names like Yoko Ono and Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher followed. These investors were either captivated by this young man or captivated by his idea, despite him.

Summly got off to a decent start in downloads, but it was a free app without an obvious business model other than charging publishers to be featured on the app, or selling ads, neither of which are exactly a slam-dunk.

And that’s because, however cool it sounds to have an automated way of summarizing the news, it really isn’t all that exciting. In defense of my profession, that’s pretty much what the  first 2-3 paragraphs are meant to do, no matter how long we ramble on. Taking long stories and making them shorter because smartphone screens are small sounds like the cover story.

The real value in Summly: Not summarizing the news. Summarizing the Internet.

Here’s my wild speculation: Summarizing news stories was Summly’s proof of concept. It was never meant to be a consumer item but was field tested with its true purpose concealed: As a potentially game-changing search engine layer that could dramatically improve the relevancy and coherence of results.

View Summly as part of something, The Semantic Web, just taking form. The Semantic Web is one in which we can “ask” questions any way we want, and know that we’ll be understood. We’d communicate with the Web the way we communicate with each other, without any special rules about syntax or grammar apart from the common language we share.

Siri, Apple’s celebrated iPhone personal assistant, is part of this nascent trend to “humanize” our relationship with computers and data — I likened it to a poor man’s Watson in my tech predictions for this year. Siri’s a good listener — I use it to transcribe all the time — but it’s not very intelligent even though it works with some excellent databases like Wolfram Alpha, IMDB and Yelp, and defers tp Google search when all else fails.’s Kevin Haney sees this too:

Summly is to Watson what a Hot Wheels toy car is to a real Indy race car. But still, there’s a link. The kind of thing Summly can do on a cell phone over the network will get more and more powerful—more and more Watson-like. The kind of thing Watson can do will, similarly, get packaged in ever smaller, cheaper, easier services, until it’s available on a cell phone over the network.

Imagine a world where something like Siri interpreted your command, Summly ran across the Internet collecting information, came back in fractions of a second and gave you a perfect reply? No more hits based on a single word in the comments. Content farms could more easily be weeded out. SEO as we know it might be rendered obsolete.

We’d be closer to the data. The methods by which we access the medium wouldn’t matter nearly as much. It would be like living on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

What price would you put on that?

Search is a golden plank in the Internet platform, and refinements are always being made by the big three — Bing, Yahoo and especially market-leader Google, whose “Panda” algorithm tries to keep up with the constant need to refine results.

I’m betting that Summly itself develops into a powerful weapon to help search results stay relevant. If that happens, we’ll be laughing at what a bargain it really was.

PHOTO: Nick D’Aloisio, aged 17, who developed the smartphone news app Summly, poses for a photograph at offices in central London March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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What is Google doing? Fri, 22 Mar 2013 18:15:01 +0000

A few years ago, web thinker Jeff Jarvis published an homage to the world’s most successful Web search and advertising company titled “What Would Google Do?” These days, the question seems to be, “What is Google doing?”

Google won us over with a revolutionary approach to Web search that made its predecessors seem archaic. It quickly toppled Yahoo as the coolest company on the planet based solely on its efficient and fast way of finding everyone else’s content. Now, though, Google is something entirely different.

What is Google doing? I’m not sure. There may well be a great, bumper-sticker answer. But Google’s actions are too chaotic to come up with a grand, unified theory. It’s toying with apps, mobile software, mobile hardware, mobile phones – and, oh yeah, still dabbles in Web services it decides with zero discussion to terminate with extreme prejudice. It’s one thing to be pulled in all directions as a dance partner, it’s another to have it happen on some carnival ride.

Search has turned out to be only Google’s opening gambit. It still owns just under 70 percent of search market share, and because of that reach about 40 percent of online advertising. For some companies that would be enough, this one, near-perfect service. But Google had bigger ambitions than merely imposing order on the Internet’s chaos.

We got a hint of Google’s plans in 2006, when it paid $1.65 billion – what was its largest acquisition to date – for YouTube. It also gave us Gmail and Google Docs, which dramatically changed users’ attachment to the cloud and boosted their own productivity. A bunch of honest tries, like Wave & Buzz, followed – early misfires in collaboration and social networking. But for all of Google’s innovation and experimentation, it started to feel like Lucy and the football. Rather than keeping what resonated, Google seemed to abruptly end services we had found useful, and had even come to depend on. It shuttered Google Health, a service that maintained all your medical information, and Google 411, a voice-activated directory service.

Part of the problem is our own unhealthy addiction to “free” software. Who doesn’t want a free service like Google Docs? But another issue is that Google has been not so much using the crowd as abusing it. It goes public with too many things and, even worse, gives up on some that worked, could have worked and did exactly what Google presumably wanted: cultivating dedicated users who grew to depend on them.

And that is where cultivating and banking goodwill come in. The trick when you’re disrupting yourself is to bring everyone who loves you along for the new ride without making it seem like you’re a shadow of your former self – even if you are. Facebook managed it, reversing course from the most exclusive network in the world to the least. Apple did it, moving from the “something for everyone” model before Steve Jobs came back from exile to “Think Different.”

The last straw for many was Google’s surprise decision last week to kill Reader, the seven-year-old RSS service that brought RSS into the mainstream. James Fallows makes the case for becoming wary of Google’s very reliability. How, he asks, can you allow yourself to possibly trust Google when the company is so cavalier?

After Reader’s demise, many people noted the danger of ever relying on a company’s free offerings. When a company is charging money for a product …  – as Evernote does for all above its most basic service, and same for Dropbox and SugarSync – you understand its incentive for sticking with that product. The company itself might fail, but as long as it’s in business it’s unlikely just to get bored and walk away, as Google has from so many experiments.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 39 times, shame on me. (My Reuters colleague Jack Shafer also has thoughts on Reader.)

So what is Google up to? Is it a forward-thinking company that embraces its customers as partners or uses them as focus groups it later ignores? 

In recent years, Google has started doing things that aren’t very Google. It flopped in an attempt to market a mobile phone – the Nexus One – but then purchased Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. Why? It has nothing to show for it except shedding more than 5,000 employees. If it intends to mount an NFC takeover with a slew of iPhone-killing, Google Wallet-empowered Motorola Phones, then Google is better at keeping secrets than Apple. 

It has partnered with a number of hardware manufacturers to kick-start the netbook business with their bespoke Chrome operating system. (I positively reviewed both the low-end and high-end models.) But the Chromebooks are selling worse that Microsoft Surface hybrids (which I didn’t like) – and that’s saying something. Project Glass, Google’s entry into Minority Report eyeware, gets lots of attention – and frankly seems very cool – but as a mainstream consumer device it seems eons away at best.

When did Google become a hardware company? I missed that memo.

Change is scary, but necessary. But explaining the changes that are going to come is a necessary part of doing responsible, do-no-evil business. Google has never been particularly good about customer relations – seriously, did you buy a Nexus One? What it also isn’t good at is bringing us – the users – along. Without projecting a clear idea of what it is really up to – and what’s in it for us in the long run – the company risks the onset of Google Fatigue, especially when there are good or better alternatives to almost everything Google does.

Google’s best move would be to define itself, bringing order to its chaos. There’s a perfect opportunity right around the corner: Google I/O, the company’s annual developer’s conference, in mid-May. I’m saving the date to my Google Calendar right now.

PHOTO: Google co-founder Sergey Brin speaks with attendees following the Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize announcement in San Francisco, California February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

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Pebble: This smart watch is a rock star Fri, 15 Mar 2013 19:00:55 +0000 When Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in 1970, even that legendary futurist could not have predicted the flood of data that drowns today’s road warrior. E-mails from multiple accounts, instant messages, texts, iMessage and Google Voice — and, oh yeah, phone calls — all clamor for attention from our smartphones.

Enter a new solution: The smart watch. Pebble, a Kickstarter project now being delivered to its first backers, uses the power of your smartphone instead of competing with it. Pebble is still in development and a little rough around the edges, but it is the first to get the smart watch formula right. It could become a big deal. It’s easily the most important thing I’ve added to my go bag since the tablet.

Pebble is an e-paper* wristwatch that displays messages and caller ID on a crisp display that is always an arm’s length away. This allows you to leave your phone in your pocket or across the room instead of constantly reaching for it or leaving it face up at arms’ reach (Eliminating this custom at every conference and restaurant table would alone earn Pebble a place in heaven). It is a one-way device: you still have to use your phone to answer messages, or talk on the phone.

The impact, however, is powerful. By reducing the friction of vetting messages, life becomes simpler. You are no longer at your phone’s beck and call. The “hate” part of the love/hate relationship that you (and the people around you) have with your phone disappears.

Pebble was immediately useful in every context, and I became increasingly dependent upon it over the several days I used it to research this review. I was far less distracted — and better informed. When driving, a look at my wrist — both hands still in the wheel — kept me from dangerously reaching for my phone at the sound of a new message. I could charge my phone on one side of the kitchen and check messages on the Pebble, without running across the room to retrieve a message that wasn’t important anyway. In the rain, I could expose this waterproof (5 ATM rated) device to the elements instead of my delicate smartphone.  While writing this paragraph on my iPad I only had to glance at my wrist so a spate of unimportant e-mails (that are still flying by) didn’t interrupt me a half-dozen times as I finished this sentence.

I used Pebble with my iPhone 4S, and it is available for Android as well (No Windows or Blackberry versions). Setup is very straightforward. The watch communicates with the phone via an app under Bluetooth. The app loads software updates and the few extras that exist, such as your choice of seven alternative watch faces (my favorite: Fuzzy Time, which displays the time as “quarter to ten” and updates the time in very laid back five minute intervals).

Pebble claims seven days of use on one full charge, which probably varies a bit from use of the backlight and, like all battery claims, is probably wishful thinking. Pebble charges with a proprietary USB cable, so you need to make sure that’s always in your go bag too because you won’t be picking up a spare on the fly anywhere.

Pebble does not yet support many app notifications. Only SMS, iMessage (on the iPhone), and caller ID are fully implemented, although Calendar, Twitter, Facebook work most of the time with a some occasional cajoling. CEO Eric Migicovsky said “full email notification” was perhaps a month away. A number of apps are in the works, but the first one, Runkeeper, is one-to-two months away, he said. Other advertised features, like shaking your wrist to dismiss a notification aren’t there yet. The most serious limitation is that every new message obliterates the previous one. So if you get two in rapid fire, the first is gone.

But these are details, easily addressed and perfectly understandable in what is a brand new product for the earliest of first adopters. That said, there is no reason not to pre-order this smart watch now; you won’t be getting yours for two to three months anyway.

Full disclosure: I was a backer of Pebble on Kickstarter, where the project reached its funding goal of $100,000 in two hours and stopped raising money when it reached $10 million (I paid $115; you’d have to pay $150 now). That didn’t give me a stake in the company, just a watch.

Pebble is so liberating that one is tempted to imagine all the other things it might do. Toss in a home key shortcut, and you are commanding Siri. Throw in some stock phrases, and you could do quick replies. Add a message stack even only three deep and you could more flexibly review incoming messages.

Still, Pebble would be wise to extend this platform slowly and thoughtfully. While it’s easy to see how they’d turn this into a two-way device, multifunction watches, whose many features are accessed through a combination of buttons, get tedious quickly. So far the only two-way functions are sending a call to voice mail, and playing your iTunes music.

As functional as Pebble is, it could still fail to catch on for the most mundane reasons: Watches (for those of us who still wear them) are fashion statements. Pebble is attractive in a MOMA kind of way, but that’s not for everyone.

But this is the best time for Pebble to exist. Smart watches of the past were too limited to be taken seriously. And it solves the biggest problem created by smartphones: Message control is a big deal and will only get bigger. It’s the reason veteran tech writer Mathew Ingram ditched his iPhone for an Android-powered Nexus 4, and what I identified as the major shortcoming in my generally positive review of Blackberry’s Z10.

Smartphones exacerbate information overload. Being in touch all the time is good problem to have, but with devices like Pebble, you don’t have to take the bad with the good nearly as much. The Pebble is the device we need – a watch that both tells time and gives you more of it.


* An earlier version of this article referred to e-ink. In fact the technology being discussed is e-paper.


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Paying the piper for privacy Fri, 15 Mar 2013 17:51:39 +0000

Three privacy stories caught my attention in the past week:

1. Google is paying a token $7 million fine for sniffing out private information as its roving Google Maps cars gathered images for Street View.

2. A new study has found that seemingly innocent disclosures on Facebook can be used to form highly accurate predictions about whether you are a genius, drug user or gay.

3. If you use certain porta-potties at the Austin, Texas, tech confab South By Southwest, passersby know if you are … standing or sitting inside, and for how long.

Is all of that what we signed up for?

Privacy is a huge issue — too huge for a single, brief column. But I’m going to make a prediction. I don’t know when or how it will happen, but before too long there will be a jarring, transformational event that will cause us to question our online behavior. Some horrendous breach of privacy, well within the parameters of some service’s Terms of Service, will spark mainstream outrage and cause companies to scramble with damage control.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

We’ve had plenty of warning. Facebook’s business model is entirely based on members expressing preferences on just about everything – it was in part the volume of information that allowed the researchers to find the correlations I mentioned earlier. Google’s business model is arguably less invasive but is also based on the relinquishment of online privacy to one degree or another.

So far, most people are content with the deal they have struck with nearly every Internet service – or just blithely unaware of it. Even the ubiquitous Web-browser cookies provide sites with information about where you’ve been — and, marketers hope, may want to go. Ever see an ad for something you looked at on one site on another? You haven’t opted out of a Google tracking option.

Google makes it easier than (say) Facebook to trim your online exposure — every Google account has a dashboard that clearly shows all the data associated with it, and simple ways to control it. But the Internet still imposes a growing burden on each of us to do just that. We have been conditioned to expect “free” services, but everything has a cost. It’s become a truism: If you aren’t paying for it, you are the product.

Here’s an idea. Let’s stop with the “free” service nonsense.

When Instagram alienated users last December, The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal made an important point about making money. In a piece headlined “Why You Should Want to Pay for Software, Instagram Edition,” he noted that the company would gross $100 million a year if only 1/5 of its users agreed to pay $5 a month — not a bad revenue stream for a company that sold itself to Facebook for about $700 million — and still needs to make money.

I’m aspiring to change the balance of power and the compact we have with the most important business relationships in our lives. Trying to “reform” Google and Facebook isn’t the point. But how nice would it have been if Google had decided not to kill its Reader RSS service and ask us to pay something for it instead? What would the reaction be if Facebook offered a “premium” service that made it easier not to be seen, but to still see just as well? 

Big changes can come from small initiatives. Culture can be changed just because we want it to change.

So here’s a call for startups, and for the rest of us. 

For entrepreneurs: Avoid doing a deal with the devil. Consider the possibility of — horrors — charging for your service. Try to work with angels and VCs who share your vision and won’t push you to make the big, quick score. Follow the thinking behind 37Signals’ David Heinemeier Hansson, who counsels to find peace and contentment in a life that nets you a few hundred thousand bucks a year. 

For the rest of us: Lobby for paid versions, or premium accounts. Know what you’re getting into, and say “no thanks” every now and then. For years companies like Flickr, Simplenote and XMarks have been suppressing ads or offering premium services for small payments.

We need to reset our relationship with Internet companies, and it won’t happen overnight. But common sense now will avoid — or at least mitigate — the privacy train wreck I’m sure is in our future otherwise.

PHOTO: Google Street View cars are parked in Riga August 26, 2011. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

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Go Bag grab bag: SXSW survival sundries Fri, 08 Mar 2013 17:30:09 +0000


Attending a multiple-day event that covers a lot of ground, like South By Southwest, makes your go bag even more indispensable. Whether you’re on your way to SXSW or already running around downtown Austin, you need to take extra precautions that your bag is properly stocked. All the basic rules apply (you’ll find those external batteries to be a godsend), but here are my recommendations for that 20 percent buffer in your go bag.

These simple sundries could help you survive SXSW:

  1. You’ll need some sort of food item in your bag for that moment you realize you’ve been panel hopping for 16 hours straight without a barbecue break. Both Pure Protein and Clif Builder’s have 20 grams of protein, which provides great slow-release energy and fewer empty calories. Builder’s is closer to candy; 20 grams of sugar to Pure’s 2g. It’s also bigger: 64g to 50g. For more fat, quicker energy and carbs, I go with Kind. Most other bars I’ve tried or looked at seems to be candy masquerading as health food, or inedible heath substances masquerading as food.
  2. I love having fruit available, but it bruises easily. The best portables are clementine oranges: They are small, seedless and can take plenty of punishment. They are also messy, so you’ll need …
  3. MSR PackTowl. Cleaner, smaller, more environmentally friendly than tissues or paper towels. Could make you a hero in the event that a keyboard has an unfortunate meeting with a margarita. Launder it in your hotel sink and it’ll be dry by morning.
  4. Gum and/or mints. They help stave off hunger in the morning and keep people from recoiling from that taco you wolfed down after lunch. Packs of gum will weather any go bag abuse. I prefer rolls of Newman’s Wintergreen to mints in metal or plastic containers because the packaging disappears along with the contents. And you don’t rattle.
  5. A refillable water bottle. One of the smartest is the Clean Bottle, which unscrews top and bottom to make it easier to clean. I carry a Platypus collapsable because it’s flat and — like that roll of mints — takes up less space as you use the contents.
  6. Eating utensils. Plastic utensils are terrible, and a terrible waste. The placesetting-to-go market has gone from bulky camping item to slick accessory, like Sigg’s Folding Clip Cutlery Set, so there is plenty to choose from these days. My personal choice is a little eccentric: Snow Peak travel chopsticks. They are made with excellent materials and are beautifully designed, down to the squared-off top half which prevents them from rolling around.
  7. A collapsible bag for all the SWAG you’ll pick up. My choice is a MiniSax. It folds as small as my pack towel, opens to 8 x 9 inches and can carry more than 20 pounds.
  8. Comfortable shoes for when you have to hoof it back to the Convention Center from way across the river. Consider a pair of unisex Timberland Radler Trail Camps, which slip on and off quickly and zip up into virtual nothingness. For heel-wearers looking for a more stylish option, I’ve heard foldable flats work well.
  9. There’s an easy trick to carrying around extra outerwear — wear as much as you can, and carry as little as possible. Layer! The three-shirt rule — t-shirt, overshirt, outershirt —  keeps your bag emptier. Based on the last few Austin deluges, you might want to throw a foldable plastic poncho. My pick is the Sierra Designs Microlight, which packs up into it’s own sack.
  10. Don’t forget your paper business cards – they were all the rage at TED. They are still the coin of the business meet-up realm — a physical reminder of having encountered you that Bump cannot match. It’s a quick, easy way to communicate your information when the decibel level in the room is too high to hear. And, “Here’s my card, let’s connect after SXSW” is quite possibly the best way to conclude a dragging conversation and hop on over to the next party.

None of these items will add much to your burden, but any one might just save the day.


Photo credit: REUTERS/Adrees Latif 

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