MediaFile

Building the perfect smartwatch

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.

How tablets can save the PC

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.

Stop the CES madness

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?

In search of Google’s dark side

The Federal Trade Commission Thursday dropped a two-year investigation into allegations that Google was gaming search results to drive traffic to its own sites. In a press conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz allowed that the charges came from a staggering number of Google’s competitors, and at face value they are plausible: Google essentially controls search with something like 70 percent of the market share and, like any company with near monopoly power, might be tempted to use that advantage to slyly divert traffic away from competitors. But in a unanimous vote all five FTC commissioners agreed there was nothing to see here.

Allegations of search bias strike at the heart of what Google purports to be: an honest curator of what’s available on the web. If the FTC ruled that Google was even a little dishonest, it could have altered the public perception of the company. It might have even been something akin to an Arthur Andersen moment.

The ruling could conceivably embolden Google to push the envelope. And it certainly makes it tougher for competitors to weaken the search giant on penalties rather than fight on what the FTC has now declared is a level playing field.

Facebook may yet learn that power does not ensure immortality

Facebook wasted no time acting with impunity by (once again) diluting member privacy protections this week. But it needn’t have hurried. Any semblance of democracy was washed away at noon Pacific Time Tuesday, when a vote to have votes on policy changes went down in flames. It solidified the world’s largest social network’s rule by fiat. This may be good for business now, but in the long-run it could backfire.

On Tuesday not enough Facebook members weighed in on whether they should keep their right to vote down policy changes. The vote didn’t count unless 30 percent of the service’s 1 billion members bothered to vote.

The vote to keep the vote failed to meet the arbitrary threshold — by 299 million votes.

Apple in miniature

This week Apple faces two significant tablet challengers. The first is Microsoft, which is releasing its long-awaited Surface tablet on Friday. The second is… itself.

Yesterday, amidst the anticipation for the Surface and strong sales for the Kindle Fire, Apple announced a slew of new devices, the $329 iPad Mini the most intriguing among them.

The mobile era has been defined by Apple: iPod, iPhone, iPad, you know the drill. Apple ascended largely unchallenged, facing only a few stunned and weak rivals. By the time it got to tablets in 2010, Apple benefited from an unspeakably large pent-up demand for a device nobody had been clamoring for. Since then it’s sold more than 100 million iPads.

The tracks of my fears

Advertisers say that if they can’t track you online, your favorite websites will die. They’re wrong.

There is lots of bad TV, and lots of bad Internet. Reducing either would be a public service of incalculable proportions. But just as some broadcasters raise the possibility of Armageddon if ad-avoiding tech like TiVo proliferates, online marketers are now making the same empty threats about the Internet. They say that rich Internet “content” would disappear if something called Do Not Track became the standard.

Do Not Track isn’t the default setting of any major Web browser, even though all offer the option to “opt-in” to a private life — to send a signal to advertisers that, on this occasion, in this window, at this time I don’t want you to make use of my surfing behavior to profile me for the sole purpose of creating ads that marketers think have greater personal appeal and are more valuable.

Apple and the burden of being a behemoth

In the annals of meaningless milestones, Apple’s latest achievement — surpassing Microsoft, circa 1999, as the largest U.S. company ever — is right up there. I mean, how high is up? How big is BIG? What does Apple win, Johnny!?

But it did get me to thinking again about the lifespan of successful tech and Internet companies. There seems to be a trajectory that grants them life in the fast lane for 10 to 20 years before they are overtaken, made obsolete or dismissed as boring. The general public is a punishing grader that deifies promising, charismatic kids with hoodies and burn rates (at least for a while) but dismisses massive companies — like Microsoft, Oracle, Silicon Graphics and IBM — that print money and arguably control the world but aren’t sexy.

Microsoft is, of course, more IBM than Palm or even Sony on my spectrum. It was one of the original Harvard dropout startups and among the first of them to mint wealthy employees (called Microsoft Millionaires). And in December 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, Microsoft became worth $616.34 billion — more than any U.S. company had ever been. (By one metric it still holds the record: Apple would have to reach a market cap of $842.5 billion, Microsoft’s inflation-adjusted market cap, to be the clear winner of this meaningless milestone sweepstakes.)

Google enters the tablet wars with a small, safe bet

Google took another bite at the hardware apple with the announcement Wednesday of the Nexus Seven tablet. The tablet, very wisely, is not looking to compete with Apple’s iPad – the indisputable leader — but rather the smaller, cheaper tablets from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Outside of the iPad monolith, the Kindle Fire and Nook Color have been the most competitive entrants (albeit modestly) since Apple created the market in 2010.

Google’s Nexus Seven is a safe bet and, especially given Microsoft’s (sort of) foray into tablets, not entirely unexpected from the search and advertising giant.

And that’s why Google is smart to go after a part of the market where Apple doesn’t compete — the iPad is a “full-sized” device of 9.5 inches that starts at $500. There’s no reason to believe Apple is interested in making a 7-inch model, a size the late Steve Jobs derided. But both Amazon’s Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet are 7-inch models that retail for $200, the same as Google’s Nexus Seven. By going after less-entrenched – but still huge! – companies, Google’s success doesn’t have to be measured against Apple’s. It can start small – literally – and see if it makes inroads against two companies still trying to make inroads themselves.

Scratching the Surface: When is a tablet not a tablet?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Microsoft’s huge announcement Monday that it was going into the consumer computer business is a turning point for the Redmond giant – a real gloves-off, damn-the-torpedoes moment. It’s also perhaps a grudging nod to Apple and Steve Jobs’s view that hardware and software need to develop together to get it right. Until now Microsoft has ceded hardware issues to other companies – Dell, HP, Acer, Samsung, etc. Now it will compete with them.

But the notion that “The Surface” – Microsoft’s new tablet PC unveiled Monday but not expected on the market until the end of the year – will take on Apple’s iPad is misguided.