September 2007 Archives

Nice little curve-ball thrown at a Rolling Stone writer on CNN this evening (aah, the delights of conferences overseas). Anthony DeCurtis was hauled in to talk about the Led Zeppelin reunion concert. It's not the first time that this type of question has tripped someone up publicly - although PM Gordon Brown claims he was railroaded into pretending to like the Arctic Monkeys - but the "what's your favourite Led Zeppelin song?" knocked over DeCurtis.

After a long pause and digression - "um, there's so many..." - guess which one he named.

If the one Led Zeppelin track that someone can cite as their favourite is "Stairway to Heaven", the chances are they're not a fan. I'm with the Wonder Stuff* (and the guitar shop in Wayne's World) on that particular offering. Give me the Bonham-driven battering of "When the Levee Breaks" any day.

* Good Night Though on Hup! (I didn't want to link to some dodgy, popup-ridden lyric site).

The iPod Touch is a machine with a missing identity. It's the machine that nobody at Apple dare speak its true name. Steve Jobs presented it as a high-end iPod: a high-end iPod with 10 per cent of the capacity of the top-end iPod Classic. That's mainly a factor of technology. Based on the iPhone - I wouldn't be surprised if the PCB looks like the one on an iPhone with a couple of chips missing - the Touch uses flash memory instead of the Classic's hard drive to store music.

Give it five years or so and the flash memory makers will be knocking out chips so cheap that Toshiba will have to start thinking about what markets it can find for small hard drives. But, in the meantime, nobody in their right mind is going to ship an MP3 player with 160GB of flash memory in it. Not unless they plaster the case with cubic zirconia and market it as the iBling to stupid people.

Apple could have taken the decision to alter the innards to take one of the Toshiba hard drives, but that would probably have made the case a lot thicker, the design far less sleek. Which left Apple with a quandary: you have a sexy looking iPod that actually isn't all that great for holding music.

But it's got WiFi. It's got a browser. It happens to play music. That makes it sound more like a personal digital assistant (PDA) than a music player. It has a calendar and an address book. It seems to be missing an email client, but there is a lot of space for icons on its main screen. It's by no means the most capable PDA on the planet, but it fits better in the range price and featur-wise as one than as a music player with a hotline to the iTunes store.

There are, however, very good reasons why Jobs would go a long way to emphasise the fact that it's more iPod than anything else. One is the curse of the Newton. The minute anyone says Apple and PDA in the same sentence, it's hard not to think of the doomed product that Jobs put out of its misery when he rejoined the company.

Then there is the parlous state of the PDA business itself. It's the product category nobody loves. Sales are getting trashed by high-end phones, like the iPhone itself. IDC's mobile device tracker paints a dismal picture of a product category that once was seen as the future of the PC. Compared with the same period in 2006, sales of PDAs slumped by 40 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Palm, HP, Sharp and others saw sales plummet. The only company in the top five to see growth was Mio. The reason? They make a PDA that is also a satellite-navigation unit. HP makes one as well - the version with the European maps is pretty good value if you look at it as a Tom Tom and PDA rolled into one. However, the rx5915 does not seem to have compensated for declines elsewhere.

But Mio's relative success, and the positioning of the iTouch perhaps, points to the future of the PDA: hidden away. People will buy these products, but they want a major feature as the main draw - GPS, music player, whatever. The idea of a general-purpose tool just doesn't cut it.

Quechup: the DIY email virus

7 September 2007

Like a lot of people, I was a bit surprised to get several requests from people to join their Quechup network. Surprised because they were largely from one-off contacts who managed to not send out similar invitations for things like Facebook. I looked at them and, as I had some things to do, decided to put off investigating what Quechup was all about. By the time I got back to it, you could see how popular Quechup had become in the space of less than one day. These people seem determined to piss off every blogger on the planet, it seems.

I'd link to a bunch of them but you'd get the same effect by plugging 'Quechup' into Google's blog search (well maybe one, someone who seems more than a little irritated by the episode). It seems that, when people did the usual trick of plugging in their address books to the site to see who was also on the network, Quechup simply sent an invitation email to everybody in the address book. Those people using Gmail probably then found that meant everybody who they had ever exchanged emails with.

To see what would happen, I just tried creating a fake account on Quechup with a sacrificial email account and one address in its book that comes straight back to me. In one box, Quechup claimed that the address book would only be used Facebook-style - look at who was already on Quechup and invite only them. But in another one alongside, it said that non-Quechup users would be invited. With the fake account, I wasn't taking any chances. I got zero matches on the search, which was the right answer. And I haven't seen an invite turn up from Quechup, so it's possible that the programmers have made a quick fix or have realised that pretending to be an email virus was not the greatest idea they had this week. Or they might be backed up on outgoing emails.

Curiously, for a MySpace-like social networking site, I can't actually find an official Quechup blog where you might find various people vainly apologising. However, at iDate's corporate site, the slogan is "stand out from the crowd". Mission accomplished, I'd say.

One clear casualty of the decision by Palm to axe the Foleo is embedded operating system supplier Wind River. Less than a month ago, Wind declared to the world that its Linux distribution and development tools were to be at the heart of the Foleo. Palm did not plan to use its own firmware in the stripped-down laptop.

Now that plan lies in tatters. Although the deal was unlikely ever to make Wind rich, Palm CEO Ed Colligan made it clear that the software supplier is unlikely to feature in any of the smartphone and PDA maker's products any time soon:

"Foleo is based on [a] second platform and a separate development environment, and we need to focus our efforts on one platform. Our own evaluation and early market feedback were telling us that we still have a number of improvements to make Foleo a world-class product, and we can not afford to make those improvements on a platform that is not central to our core focus. That would not be right for our customers or for our developer community."

Even if Palm revisits the Foleo - Colligan claims that is the case although I have my doubts - it will not be based on Wind's "platform for consumer devices":

"When we do Foleo II it will be based on our new platform, and we think it will deliver on the promise of this new category. We're not going to speculate now on timing for a next Foleo, we just know we need to get our core platform and smartphones done first."

The problem for Wind in all this is that its pitch for selling into consumer devices is that moving to its environment speeds up development, because it is all supported by a third party. Palm basically said that it was too much like hard work getting the Foleo ready using that third-party environment and that it would be better off sticking with the roll-your-own software used in the rest of the company:

"I would also like to thank the developers who have supported our Foleo efforts. They have been loyal to Palm and have worked hard to deliver some compelling solutions on the Foleo platform. I know that they will understand that the right thing to do for the long run is to focus on one platform that will live for years, rather than invest energy in a one-off solution."

In the olden days, Palm made a pretty good stab at a PDA with limited resources. Then they got big and found that they were launching more dogs than winners. Then came the Foleo: a product that didn't have to be put on the market for everyone to know that it was a dog. It was killed before even hitting the warehouses. At this rate, Palm is going to be killing off projects before anybody has thought of what to call them.

CEO Ed Colligan tried to pretend people were interested in having a crippled laptop with only slightly longer battery life:

"I would like to thank our customers for their interest in Foleo. I know there will be disappointed folks who were looking forward to carrying a Foleo for all their mobile computing needs."

Who were those people? Executives looking to trade up from an Etch-a-Sketch?

Colligan claimed the company has to focus on smartphones. That's all very well and good. The problem he has is that many of the improvements needed to make the Foleo at least semi-viable are still needed in the smartphone area. More than anything else, interoperability was the fundamental weakness of the Foleo plan; it will be the fundamental weakness for Palm's Treo unless the company gets a grip on what users actually want from its core products.