Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Strategy to gain market share with low cost tablets

After deciding to end support for the webOS software, HP dropped the price of its TouchPad tablet to $99 for the 16GB version and $149 for 32GB and within a short span of time, the existing stock was sold out. Now, the company plans to manufacture at least one more limited run of tablets to meet the overwhelming demand. When it was priced competitively to the iPad there were no takers, but at the new price, people are apparently prepared to invest, even without the promise of a future ecosystem. Efforts are on to release an Android port for the TouchPad, which would link it to the Android marketplace, and that would make the TouchPad an attractive buy. But the story of the TouchPad makes an interesting case study about how to fuel mass adoption for a new alternative platform. Discount the hardware, create a large user base in a short time span, and then automatically the developer community will step in to build applications. It's a viable market strategy for a company with long term ambitions and deep pockets. Sadly, HP has not chosen this route.

Now Amazon seems prepared to walk this path too, with plans to launch two Android tablets by Q4 2011. Analysts at Forrester Research have predicted that Amazon could sell as many as 3 to 5 million tablets if they are prepared to sell the hardware at a much cheaper price than Apple, even if they lose money in the short term. In any case, the device will be a platform to integrate Amazon's services like Kindle Books, Cloud Drive and the App store, which the company will make money from. And they will be cashing in on the Android boom while upgrading the Kindle ebook reader, which was becoming obsolete as tablets move to touch based technology. Amazon has already promised that their tablets will be 'hundreds of dollars cheaper' than the iPad.

So far, Android market expansion has been driven by hardware manufacturers like Samsung, who have no incentive to discount that hardware. In the tablet space, this has prevented them from making much inroad against Apple. Let's put it bluntly, when Apple and Android tablets are priced equivalently, people incline towards Apple because of its head start in apps, and the useability, refinement and stability of the interface.

The story has been different with Android phones, where budget offerings from HTC, Samsung and others have expanded the Android user base. People are keen to invest in budget offerings to sample Android, get access to the marketplace, and do the same things that people do on high end smartphones. In fact the success and growing market share of the Android platform has been based on rapid adoption across price points. Surely the same paradigm can apply to the tablet segment also.

Do note that this argument only holds when the basic hardware and operating system is sound, and when the future holds some promise of an app ecosystem and/or cross platform migration. It's early days yet to say whether TouchPads will end up becoming obsolete, or whether Amazon will enjoy the same success with their new tablets as they did with the Kindle. But if I were Google, fresh from buying out Motorola, I would take a good look at the potential of low cost tablets as a means to end Apple's dominance.

Source : Ars Technica

Monday, August 29, 2011

BlackBerry's 2011 line up

BlackBerry is currently in the thick of a huge launch and re-vamp of its product line - a measure that the company must be banking on to stem the eroding mind share and market share in the smartphone segment. India is a important market for BlackBerry, and one where the company has lost less momentum compared to the US, so we can surely expect the latest releases to land early on our shores.

First of all, the new BB range debuts with BB 7 OS, the newest RIM mobile software. Preliminary reviews suggest that it represents in terms of user experience modest upgrade over OS 6, though not changing the way the operating system looks and behaves - that's probably a good thing. But BB 7 still lags behind iOS and Android in two critical areas - the browsing experience and the app ecosystem. This should not be of concern to loyal BlackBerry users, who will be welcomed to a new OS that runs way faster (especially on the top-end Bold), offers NFC, HD Video recording, better graphics support and more.

What should concern the BB User is that OS 7 cannot be upgraded on older devices. Which means that the Torch and the Bold 9780 will now be obsolete. Do keep in mind that OS 7 is also a temporary fix and RIM proposes to shift to the all-new QNX OS next year. Effectively, that would probably make this year's crop of BlackBerry's obsolete? The first QNX handset, the BlackBerry Colt, is expected to debut in Q1 2012. Do note that QNX phones will likely feature a software update that supports Android apps. So you would be able to overcome the limitations of BB App World by gaining access to the better-equipped world of Android apps.

1) BlackBerry Curve : 9350 (CDMA)  and 9360/9370 (GSM)

(Image Source : BGR )

The refreshed entry-level Curve range will be launched globally over September-October. The Curve 9350, 9360 and 9370 feature the brand new BlackBerry OS 7, 5 Mega Pixel Camera, slim design and support for NFC and GPS.

It will be unusual to see phones of this calibre without the mandatory touch screen that now comes on even sub Rs.5000 handsets, but that is RIM's differentiator and fans of RIM's QWERTY keyboard will have no problems.

No word yet on pricing, but I would expect BlackBerry to price it on par with the current Curve line-up.

2) BlackBerry Bold 9900 (GSM) and 9930 (CDMA)

(image source : Techradar )

It has drawn attention as the 'best BlackBerry ever', replacing the flagship Torch at the top of RIM's smartphone Pyramid. RIM has updated the phone with a 1.2 GHz processor,  2.8 inch hi-resolution capacative touchscreen, HD video camera - all packed into a svelte, exceptionally good looking body measuring 10 mm in thickness. In reviews, BlackBerry geeks have praised the physical keyboard as the best yet on any BB device and that's saying a lot, given that BB has always featured the best keyboards.

Again, we have yet to get a pricing for India, but looking at pricing of 250 USD plus on US networks, I would imagine that Indian pricing would at least touch the Rs.30,000 mark. That's what most Indian tech sites also seem to be suggesting.

3) BlackBerry Torch 2 9810 (GSM) 

(Image Source : Techradar )
Physically, the Torch retains the looks of its predecessor with a sliding QWERTY + touchscreen, but processor speed has been ramped up to 1.2 GHz, 768 MB RAM, and it has been equipped with a higher-resolution display - the 3.2 inch screen gets an upgrade from HVGA to VGA.

While it is faster and smoother in operation than its predecessor thanks to the upgraded OS and hardware, it does not represent a major refresh on its predecessor. It also yields place to the Bold 9900 as the RIM flagship.

Letsbuy is currently listing the Torch 9810 at Rs. 30,000 (approximately) The original Torch (9800) is already being heavily discounted, deservedly so, since it cannot be upgraded to OS7.

4) Blackberry Torch 9850 (CDMA) and 9860 (GSM) 

(Image Source : the  BlackBerry Website )

The all new touch-only version of the Torch evokes memories of the ill-fated BB Storm but thankfully, things are much improved.  The yet-to-be released phones feature a 3.7 inch (BlackBerry's largest) WVGA screen and other features including HD Video recording, digital compass etc.

Let's wait for the pricing which should be in the range of Rs. 28-30,000.

Sources : BGR, the official BlackBerry Blog

Friday, August 26, 2011

The handy must-read guide to buying a Nokia phone (Symbian only)

Nokia has been off my radar for sometime now, but they have gotten my attention again with a slew of launches. While most of us are pre-occupied with the world of Android and iOS, the Finnish phone maker has quietly been adding budget handsets and mid-range smartphones to their vast range, offering great functionality and solid build quality as always. The dropped prices make the purchases a little sweeter.

So I spent some time poking around Nokia's new launches and here's the deal - the current Nokia range is bafflingly complex to figure out. Full of nomenclature like C5-03, X1-01 and stuff like that - you get the idea. There is a mix of touchscreen, 'touch and type' and QWERTY/physical keyboard across price points. So this is an attempt to present my own categorisation, based on my understanding of the prices and features on offer. It would be handy to read this if you are considering buying a Nokia phone right now.

This post will only deal with Symbian phones, which still constitute the bulk of Nokia's range.

Here's an overall perspective:

1) Symbian

Different handsets run different versions of Symbian, Nokia's ubiquitous operating system. The lowest models in the range (100 and 101) run the basic S30. Some of the budget phones run S40, while most run S60. The latest top-end  phones from Nokia run the highest version, Symbian 3, which debuted on the Nokia N8.

What is the difference for you? Lower versions of Symbian (S30, S40 and S60) will offer less advanced features than Symbian 3, which tries to match Android and iOS. However, S60/S40 will be adequate for standard push mail, Facebook and internet usage. Both S60/S40 and Symbian 3 have an app ecosystem too.

With S30 phones, you get the older and more basic versions of Symbian which power basic call and messaging features.

Nokia has made Symbian 3 a fully upgradeable OS, like Android and iOS. In fact the company has already started rolling out the first update for S^3, called Symbian Anna. A subsequent update called Symbian Belle, should be deployed by Q4 2011.

Nokia's CEO has announced that the company will support the Symbian platform till 2016. So it's really quite safe to buy a Symbian phone given the short lifespan of mobiles today.

2) Phone Series

Nokia follows an alphabetic nomenclature, with 4 series - C, E, X, and N. Within each series, there are model numbers from 1 to 9 eg. C2, C3, C5. The numbers signify both functionality and price, with 1 being the lowest, and 9 being the highest.

Broadly the alphabets define the functionality of the Series. E series consists of phones for enterprise/ business and they typically tend to have QWERTY pads though some may also offer touch functionality.

N series refers to top of the line flagship Nokia phones with mobile computing and advanced multimedia capability. But there  is a bit of a confusion - the older Nokia 900 and the yet to be launched Nokia N9 both feature the MeeGo platform and not Symbian 3. Since Nokia is discontinuing MeeGo, later N series releases will all feature Symbian 3.

The C Series is widely viewed as one of the most solid line-ups of Nokia handsets, encompassing budget to mid-range offerings. The C Series emphasises easy communication options through push mail and enterprise mail connectivity. It mostly runs S60, but C6-01 and C7 both run Symbian 3 and are currently receiving the upgrade to Symbian Anna.

The X Series features phones optimised for download and playback of music, and takes off on the earlier Xpress Music series. X series spans the gamut of budget, features and iterations of Symbian, from S40 at the lower end to Symbian Anna on the X7. It also includes handsets with only physical keyboard, with 'touch and type' screen and pure touch.

Here is another spin - a purely numeric series has also been launched. At the bottom end, it consists of the recently announced budget handsets - 100 and 101 running S30. It includes the Nokia 500, the first  S^3 phone to feature a 1 GHz processor. Also count in the recently announced Nokia 600, 700 and 701 which will run Symbian Belle. Go figure.

Now let's move on to my classification of the entire range. I have provided a recommendation in each section

1) Bargain Basement (X1-01, X2-01, C2-00, C2-02, C2-03, C2-06) : Rs. 1500 - Rs.5,500

Targetted at the low income consumer in developing markets and aiming to compete with white box and local manufacturers, these are spartan phones with basic call and messaging, sans 3G connectivity. You can identify them by the number 1 or 2 appended to the series (eg. X1-01).

Recommendation  : The C2 series stands out in this category, offering a decent browsing experience and a new version of Nokia maps. With C2-03 and C2-06, you will also get Nokia's unique touch and type interface. Nokia C3 has the distinction of being the first QWERTY phone running S40 and also features wi-fi support.

2) Dual SIM (Nokia 100, 101, X1-01, X2-01 C1-00, C2-00, C2-03) : Under Rs.5000

This is actually a sub category of bargain basement phones, but warrants its own section, because Nokia has finally jumped into the dual SIM game. The recently announced Nokia 100 and 101 will possibly be sub Rs.1000 phones. Currently the X1-01 is the entry level phone in this category.

Recommendation : The S40 based C2 series (C2-00 and C2-03), feature dual standby (two active lines) and an easy swap feature that lets users change SIM cards without rebooting the handset. The handset remembers the settings for upto 5 SIM cards. 

(The Nokia C2-03. Image Source : GSMArena )

3) Touch and type phones  (C2-03, C2-06, C3-01, X3-02) : Rs.4500-7000 

Touch and type is Nokia's novel addition to budget phones, offering a resistive touchscreen paired with a numeric (not QWERTY) keypad.

Recommendation : The X3-02 is currently Nokia's touch and type flagship. It's slim, well designed, good looking and the resistive touchscreen still offers a decent experience, while the numeric kepypad is large and easy to type on. It's also 3G enabled and has GPS.It also offers USB On the Go support, meaning you can connect it directly to a flash drive using the data cable.

(The Nokia X3-02. Image Source : GSMArena )

4) Budget range (C5-03, C6-01, C7,  Nokia 500, 600) : Rs.9,000-15,000

Nokia offers an attractive budget range with a mix of QWERTY and resistive touchscreen phones that suit a range of needs. If you are not hooked onto Android, these are the best handsets you could pick up on a modest budget. For me, the key selling point of these phones is that since they run the mobile-optimised Symbian software, even with lower hardware specs, they are fast and they have a great battery life.

Recommendations : The C5-03 is a bargain under Rs.10,000. It comes with a touchscreen, and the fastest processor for an S60 device (600 MHz) which makes it very zippy. 

(The Nokia C5-03. Image souce : GSMArena )

Increase your budget by a couple of thousand rupees and you will get the newest Nokia 500, which would be my top pick for the feature set on offer at the price. You get a capacitive touchscreen, a 1 gig processor (the first on a Nokia phone) and it runs Symbian 3. 

(The Nokia 500. Image source : GSMArena )

5) Mid Range (Nokia C7, E6, 700, 701) : Rs.15,000 - 20,000?

The Nokia 700 and 701 phones are just announced so I do not have price information, but the feature sets suggest that they may be upwards of Rs.15k. If they cost less than that, great!

I want to point out that there is a gap in the Android segment for phones priced in this range (15-20k). I usually buy in this price range and I assume that some of you might want to as well, so these phones seem decent options.

The display gets a bump to nHD AMOLED which is Nokia's top display, and the phones will be launched with Symbian Belle on board. There is also a 1 gig processor.

The Nokia 701 is touted to have the brightest smartphone screen till date, using LCD with Clear Black Technology. Obviously, it will feature a fast processor and bigger RAM for faster speeds.

The E6, clearly a successor of the E72, is a great QWERTY business phone for the price tag it carries, running Symbian Anna and combining a capacitive touchscreen with a QWERTY keypad.

Recommendation : While you could wait for the 700 or 701 to be launched, the C7 (Rs.16,000 approx.) is a phone which stands out as a more affordable version of the flagship N8, minus the phenomenal camera. It has a 3.2 inch screen, a 680 MHz processor and 256 MB of RAM and with the latest Symbian Anna update, it is also equipped with NFC (Near Field Communication)

(The Nokia C7. Image Source : GSMArena )

6) Flagship phones (X7, N8, E7) : Rs. 20,000 plus

These phones have superlative design and build quality and match up to many features of Android, but they equally compete head-on with some of the best-selling and most-desired Android handsets from Samsung and HTC. If you want to operate in this budget and are a Nokia fan (I am), I would suggest you wait for Nokia's Windows Phone range to start rolling out.

Sources : GSMArenaThe Nokia Blog

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The real future of tablets

As far back as 2001, Bill Gates predicted that tablets would become the most  popular form of PC sold in America. It's not yet happening, but the tablet segment is poised to grow rapidly - research firm In-Sat estimates that 250 million tablets will ship in 2017, with the number reaching 100 million by end 2012. It's perhaps a little ironic that the pace of growth is driven by not by Microsoft but by arch rival Apple.

Today, it seems like everyone has a theory about the future of tablets. And these predictions have value as a measure of the decisions that companies will take, which will ultimately shape the future of the market. In that sense, the tech sector is similar to the fashion industry. It decides what will will be the 'next big thing' and we as consumers just follow it. Today we have a choice between Android and Apple, but that's just a fallout of the industry leaders' decision that mobile phones would become mini-computers and browsing devices rather than plain calling and texting devices.

Most recently, JT Wang,  Chairman of Acer has suggested that tablet fever is a fad which is on the decline and people are already shifting their interest back to notebooks. Intel concurs in this theory, supporting the concept of an Ultrabook  (a super thin high performance notebook with a solid state drive, but priced like a notebook) and predicts that Ultrabooks will constitute 40% of PC sales by end 2012. The first ultrabooks will ship by end 2011.

On the other hand,  Microsoft has repeatedly insisted that tablets are the future of PCs, keeping in line with Bill Gates' stand in the past. In other words, tablets will run Windows 8 (a PC OS) rather than Windows Phone and essentially do the same things that a PC does, with the new touchscreen based form factor. So tablets will replace our PCs?

Let's hear Steve Jobs' theory - after all, he is the modern-day architect of the tablet revolution. Steve believes that tablets will usher in the post PC era and the PC form factor will rapidly get outdated. He also admits to the limitations of tablets today as content creation devices but believes that these will sort themselves out in a matter of time. So it appears that Apple and Microsoft are on the same page - tablets are  the future. There is however a major difference in the way the two companies are viewing the future of tablets.

Steve Jobs thinks that they are 'Post PC devices'. This is reflected in the tablet experience from Apple which is significantly different from the PC experience. We are being shifted to a new paradigm, which transcends issues such as hardware specs, use of touchscreen input etc. These are enablers of the experience, but do not define it. And with the release of OS X Lion, and maybe even earlier, Apple has been re-working the PC experience to be more tablet like than ever before. For instance the usage of apps as a gateway to the Net. Hypothetically, in the future one can see productivity software running as an app on the cloud - on your tablet and on your PC.

Microsoft's approach has a subtle difference. If the tablet will replace the PC, running a desktop OS rather than a mobile OS, then it must take on the mantle of what the PC does. So Microsoft's approach will probably consist of engineering the tablet to deliver an experience that's as close to the PC as possible. Maybe you will dock your tablet into a productivity centre consisting of a printer, keyboard, external hard drive. Maybe a Kinect-like technology will replace the use of a mouse with hand movement.

What will be the role of Android tablets in this party? There is no single spokesperson on what Android tablets will due in the future. Google's stake should be clear, if one looks at what they did with Android as a mobile phone OS - Google wants to be the platform of choice on the maximum number of devices, to retain their monopoly as a search, ads and apps company. To this end, Ice Cream Sandwich aims to be a unified OS working on all Android devices, very much as iOS works across Apple's mobile devices. As for the hardware manufacturers of Android, their scramble to gain market share will do for tablets what they did for mobiles - democratisation of the market. I believe that the thrust of Android manufacturers will be to introduce affordably priced tablets with great specs (hardware based innovation) to deliver iPad alternatives. Of course, the flexibility and freedom that the Android platform offers will be an added incentive to buy into these devices. But the real potential of Android tablets will be unleashed when the operating system is exploited to transcend the boundaries of just content consumption or creation. For instance, an Android tablet could sit in my car, controlling the music, air-conditioning, navigation etc. and it could be used to remotely control my security system at home when I am travelling. The open code of Android can be adapted to huge uses that the closed Microsoft and Apple systems may not allow.

What's your take on the future of tablets?

The mobile landscape is changing rapidly, but not through innovation

The last month and especially the last week, have been eventful for the world of mobile devices. The hot topic today is Steve Job's resignation as CEO of Apple, but several other top business stories have been foreshadowing the shape of things to come.

The big shocker was HPs decision to move out from its Web OS (tablets and smartphones) business - just 16 short months after purchasing Palm and just a few months after launching the HP Touch Pad, Veer and Pre 2 smartphones. WebOS received a lot of positive feedback from the tech community - a rare occurrence in a world ruled and defined by iOS and Android. But sales did not inspire confidence : until HP discounted the TouchPad to prices starting at $99 two days later. HP did not wait or persevere but inexplicably decided to give up. And what's more, the company has also announced that it will move out of the personal PC business. Horace Dideu beautifully analyses the demise of HP in this post on Asymco.

Then there was the announcement that Google would buy Motorola's mobility division for $12.5 billion. Motorola's 17,000 strong patent portfolio was clearly a big motivator for Google's biggest acquisition yet, but the purchase also raises questions about whether Google would gain unfair competitive advantage over other Android handset manufacturers after staying neutral all these years.

And the tech publications are regularly reporting on the woes of RIM, once the smartphone leader, now a struggling contender increasingly losing its glamor to high end Android and Apple products. It has been regularly rumored that competitors like Microsoft were planning to buy RIM, while shareholders and the press have been critical of top management at the company and their ineffective response to competitive pressure. Even if RIM does not decide to sell out, their  announcement that the next generation of QNX BlackBerry phones would support Android apps, speaks volumes about their outlook.

Nokia's marriage to Microsoft earlier this year and the jettisoning of the MeeGo and Symbian platforms has drawn lots of coverage (mostly critical) in the tech press.

Put together, all these pieces of news point to an obvious but important conclusion - not only is the mobile landscape changing, it is changing at a pace that is frighteningly fast. And it is not innovation that is setting the pace - it is corporate decisions to ditch products and software that were created over years, with huge R &D investments. Consolidation, acquisition, mergers are the order of the day, as companies play safe, put revenue and bottomline first.The pace of failure of long standing innovations is faster than ever before, and I wonder if companies are also giving up faster than they used to.

Web OS was unveiled by Palm in 2009, before the company was acquired by HP. It took just a few months after launch of the first Web OS products in 2011 for HP  to decide to jettison the entire project.

For Nokia, one could argue that innovation had become an overkill over the years, with a bloated budget that ate into bottomlines. Horace Dideu points out that Nokia spent 10.2% of its budget on R&D in 2010, while Apple spent just 2.2%. Bloomberg reported that Nokia's R&D budget was $4 billion in 2010, higher than Samsung, Motorola or RIM. Small wonder that Eelop lost little time in transitioning to Microsoft's Windows Phone platform that would cut down on associated development costs and improve profitability. It is a different matter that the move gave short shrift to Symbian and the work-in-progress MeeGo platform.

Being in the phone business for years, both Motorola and RIM also hold considerable R&D expertise (as well as hard patents) which they have invested heavily in over the years. While Motorola has sold out, RIM does not seem to be leveraging its next gen QNX platform or its BB OS effectively.

In short, many promising mobile platforms, developed by former industry leaders, have gotten killed off in the last few months, or are in their death throes. Maybe they were guilty of spending too much time and money, not taking enough risk, not having enough of vision, offering too little, too late. But the disturbing fact remains that in a still nascent and rapidly growing smartphone market, there remain almost no alternatives to Android, iOS and Microsoft. And failure is making news more consistently than innovation.

It is still possible that an entirely new entrant may come in out of the wild, but this will obviously take more time. It would have been easier for alternative platforms to evolve on the basis of what already existed, than for someone to create something out of scratch.

It's not that I don't welcome change, or believe that its necessary for the old to shift to make way for the new. But such rapid change comes at a cost. I don't see any of the smaller players being willing to invest in R&D for a new platform when there is so much possibility that it could become a costly mistake.

And we as customers will be the ultimate ones to suffer from a lack of competitive stimulus in the market. Does the mobile phone OS market have to go the way of the PC market (only 3 major alternatives between Windows, OS X and Linux?) Not necessarily. There is a much bigger audience base for mobiles which could easily accommodate more platforms.

With the uncertainty over Apple's future after Steve Job's resignation, the mess of lawsuits that Android handsets are attracting and Microsoft's glacially slow pace of movement, we desperately need a fresh injection of vision, passion and excitement in mobile innovation. I just wonder who wants to, or will, provide it!

Budget Android Phones in 2011 : part 2

As the buzz about Android grows bigger, more and more people are keen to sample it. The good news is that Android handsets are getting cheaper and more accessible thanks to initiatives by HTC and Samsung. And there's more good news - you are getting more bang for your buck with the latest flavor of OS available on at least a few phones.

There are some disclaimers for budget Android phones. Today top-end smartphones today are becoming like powerful mini-computers with dual core (and soon, Quad Core) processors, huge RAM and large displays. You can think of budget smartphones as being like netbooks in comparison. They will be underpowered, the interface will be slow and gaming may be a less enjoyable experience. The display will not be the best. To the best of my knowledge, these phones will also not play Flash video due to lower processor speed and performance. You could get a workaround for YouTube videos, but you might have to forego other sites with flash content.

 If you are prepared for this, then there are lots of decent budget options in the market.

I am featuring phones priced between Rs.10,000 and Rs. 15,000 here. I already did a round up of some sub Rs.10,000 handsets. Of course, there are many more now. But in that price range, you would get more mileage from some of Nokia's excellent feature phones or even the BlackBerry Curve sans 3G.

1. Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini (Gingerbread)

Sony's new sweet little Android package offers the best spec set that you can get in the budget range, at a modest tag of only Rs.13,000 on FlipKart. It features a 1 gig processor, 512 MB RAM and an LED capacitive touchscreen - solid smartphone specs. The only catch here is the 3 inch screen. If you love the small, compact dimensions of the phone, you will embrace the screen. But in an era when the screen size is  normally 4 inches or more, you may struggle with this, especially with the keyboard. I don't think it might be a problem if you have small hands (Women, take note - and the Xperia Mini is very much a feminine phone in its styling and aesthetic)

This is the only phone which stands out among the budget set, because of its features. But as I mentioned, the small screen can be a deal maker or breaker. Check it out and try to type some SMS on it.

(The Sony Xperia X10 mini : Image from GSMArena )

2.. Samsung Galaxy Ace (Android FroYo)

(Image from Techradar )

Samsung has released a confusing array of phones under the Galaxy branding, (they have recently made a complicated attempt to rationalise it) but the one which stands out by far among their budget offerings is the Galaxy Ace. At Rs. 13,900 on Flipkart, it's a good entry level Android handset. As an added bonus, reviewers have noted a passing resemblance to the iPhone 4 in appearance (I'm not sure how long Samsung may continue to create such resemblances though, given the bitter lawsuit with Apple).

The Galaxy Ace has a 3.5 inch capacative touchscreen, a 5MP camera with flash and expandable memory. The processor is only 800 MHz and can get slow and choppy and the display is only low-res TFT, but what more can you expect at this price? I would rate it a little better than the Widfire S featured below as it at least runs a faster processor.

The Galaxy Ace officially runs FroYo but Samsung selectively rolled a Gingerbread update for it last month. No news yet when it will reach India, but you can update it unofficially through Android forums.

3. HTC Wildfire S (Android Gingerbread)

( Image from TechRadar )

The successor to the wildly popular HTC Wildfire, it runs Gingerbread out of the box and features a better display and 5MP camera with flash. The 600 MHz processor is slower than Samsung and the 3.2 inch screen is smaller, but the popular feature-rich HTC Sense UI compensates for this. There is no front facing camera, so no video calls are possible.

The Wildfire S retails for Rs.13,399 on Flipkart.

4. HTC Salsa (Android Gingerbread)

You pay a little more than the Wildfire S (approximately Rs.14,500 on Flipkart) but you get much more.  Notably an 800 MHz processor which improves the browsing experience hugely over the previous two phones, tight Facebook integration and a large 1520 mph battery which gives it a solid battery life. Like its sibling HTC ChaCha, it also features a dedicated Facebook key for social networking buffs.

I would pay the difference and buy this over the Samsung Galaxy Ace.

5. HTC ChaCha (Android Gingerbread)

(Image from Techradar )

This is a phone for a different demographic, the rapidly receding QWERTY keyboard using population (Blackberry users?). Tech Radar puts it nicely in their review - 'body of a BlackBerry, mind of an Android."

For me QWERTY Android phones are a contradiction in terms - Android, like iOS, is designed as a touch interface and over time, touch keyboards have improved vastly. I started out as a hardcore fan of a physical QWERTY but over time, I have settled in with a touch-based input.

This is a cute looking phone with a funny 'bump' or curvature in its shape, which may or may not appeal to you aesthetically.

The ChaCha provides a great QWERTY keyboard, but seriously under-delivers on the screen - it's just 2.6 inches and compromises not only the browsing experience but even the app experience and the default home screen. Like the Salsa, it features a dedicated Facebook key. It has the same processor as the Salsa, but a smaller battery. However, owing to the smaller screen size, the ChaCha also optimises its battery life to last longer without a charge.

The ChaCha is currently retailing at Rs. 14,499 on Flipkart.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

threebudget ultraportable notebooks - finally

(This post has been edited to include a new ultraportable entrant, the Dell Inspiron 13z)

Sometime ago, I was struggling to find a decent ultraportable at a reasonable budget, and now it seems that there are three available in the market. The heartening news is that they carry the latest specs, and have been launched pretty much in line with international launch dates. Maybe Sony and Dell will inspire Asus and Toshiba to follow suit and launch their top of the line ultraportables in India too!

1. Dell V131 (13.3 inch)

The Dell V131 is a successor to the one year old V130, a slick ultraportable which suffered from poor battery life, underpowered ULV processor and finally a non-replaceable battery which drove the last nail into its coffin as far as I was concerned.

This time round, Dell has refreshed the V131 with a large 6 cell removeable battery promising upto 9 hours of battery life, and given options of a second generation (Sandy Bridge) Intel Core i3 or Core i5 processor. Overall, it has good reviews for battery life, keyboard and touchpad. But it does poorly in graphics performance and has a subpar screen resolution which puts it at a disadvantage compared to the Sony Vaio S series. Also the extra large battery protrudes to create a bump at the base of the laptop which you may find unappealing from an aesthetic point of view.

The Dell Vostro V131 is part of Dell's Vostro range and can only be ordered directly from Dell or an authorised Dell reseller. According to Indian sites, prices start from Rs.30,000 onwards, but I doubt if an ultraportable, even from Dell, would be so cheap. I would peg this at Rs.40,000 plus. I have placed a query with Dell and I will update this post with the exact price when I hear from them.

2) Sony Vaio S Series

Announced in May 2011, the Vaio  S Series is a praiseworthy attempt from Sony to offer high end performance at an affordable price in an ultraportable form factor.  At approximately 1.7 kg, the Vaio S series will pack in a second generation i3 or i5 processor and trumps Dell V131 by offering an optical drive, dedicated graphics card and superior display.

There are a number of models listed under the Vaio S Range on the Sony India website. The entry level offers 3 models under Rs.60,000 - 2 of these have Core i5 processors.

3. Dell Inspiron 13z

I have edited this post to include the newly launched Inspiron 13z, an exciting product as it is the lowest price (yet well spec-ed) portable in India till date (under Rs.40,000). Weighing approximately 1.76 Kg, the Inspiron offers 2 or 4 GB of RAM, a second generation Core i3 processor, 320 GB Hard Drive and a 13.3 inch screen. No customisation is possible. Apparently this model has been launched for Asian markets only.

At that price, it should certainly pick up volumes.  However, I would like to take a look at the keyboard, the build quality and the trackpad. I have found the Inspiron range to under-deliver on these aspects in the past compared to the great quality of the Vostro or XPS range.

I like the Vostro range a lot for its reliability and level of customer support which is ideally suited for a home office/ small business user. And I don't have very pleasant memories of Sony laptops based on the performance of two units in my last workplace. In one, we had to replace the keyboard and in the other, the battery and optical drive were dead within a year. Of course, it does not mean I will not check out the new Sony laptop!

And apart from these two candidates, I am also interested in the future 'ultrabook' announced by Intel at this year's Computex. Coming as a response to the tech pundit's predictions that we are in a Post PC tablet era,  Intel has trademarked the name ultrabook to describe an  ultraportable SSD based notebook, similar to the new MacBook Air range which has replaced the traditional MacBook lineup this year. And now AnandTech reports that Intel has also put its money where its mouth is by creating a $300 million fund for innovation in hardware, software and design of the ultrabook. According to AnandTech, Asus will be launching the first series of ultrabooks as early as September this year.

As my current laptop (XPS M1330) has turned 3 this year, I am definitely in the market for a replacement. Until these laptops showed up, nothing I saw in my budget was exciting me. Now it looks like I have some viable options to explore. I will post back on my impressions after buying one!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Are BlackBerry and Nokia truly dead?

The writing on the wall keeps getting bigger. Till last year, the doom and gloom predictions for Nokia and RIM were restricted to the tech publications. For Nokia, it all started after the launch of Nokia N8 featuring Nokia's upgraded Symbian 3 experience, which was touted as a response to iOS and Android. And for RIM, the launch of BB OS 6.0 on the Torch heralded the beginning of the end. The hardware of  both devices was excellent - critics found the operating system and user interface to fall behind iOS and Android.

And now, what was restricted to critic's remarks has spilled over into consumer sentiment in a big way. For the fist time, iPhone sales (at 20 million) have overtaken Nokia's smartphone sales in Q2 2011. Yes, the iPhone outsold Nokia's entire smartphone range in this period. This is not such surprising news considering that Nokia has been scaling down their smartphone portfolio and has had few major smartphone launches after the N8. But it's still a sobering reflection of how much Nokia has fallen behind in the smartphone race, in two short years. Apple and Samsung have displaced Nokia to the position of third largest smartphone maker. 

RIM is not in a much better position. In the US market, the company has faced an eroding market share. Separate studies by Nielsen and ComScore show that BlackBerry is down to fourth position among handsets and third position as an operating system. 

On the flip side, both RIM and Nokia enjoy good success rates in the developing markets. RIM has recently reported adding a million subscribers in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) in just 3 weeks. And the company still attracts new users, especially budget conscious students, thanks to its BBM service.

Nokia still has a strong share of the feature phone market and commands a strong share in countries like India.

But this may not be enough. This post by Horace Dideu at Asymco indicates that the low-end non-smartphone market is not growing at a strong pace. Further more, it is under pressure from the so-called 'White Box' manufacturers like ZTE and Huawei. And very little innovation is taking place in this sector. It cannot be a sustainable basis for Nokia's future. Enter the tie-up with Microsoft to vie for a position in the smartphone segment. Notwithstanding all the criticism of Nokia's moves, I honestly do not think they had any other choice available to revive their fortunes.

The reason for the fall in Nokia and RIMs fortunes can be summed up very simply. Mobile phones are moving away from voice/ text devices to mobile computing devices. It is not a co-incidence that that both iOS and Android are from companies that understand the computing/ browsing space and transferred their expertise from the PC domain to mobiles. RIM and Nokia have traditionally been phone companies who extended the capability of phones through innovation. When Apple launched the iPhone, they envisioned transferring the capabilities of a PC to a phone, using apps as the gateway. And Google has been working at re-creating the web browsing experience on  mobiles, using apps and widgets. Both companies approached the task from the other end, compared to the phone manufacturing giants, and created disruptive innovation in the phone market.

So is the writing on the wall for RIM and Nokia? 

I would say that Nokia's tie up with Microsoft is a good bet for the long term. The problem is due to the fact that the announcement to exclusively make Windows Phones was premature and has been largely misinterpreted. Nokia has promised to support Symbian till 2016, but people are acting like it's already dead! And till date, not a single Nokia phone running Microsoft OS has been released in the market. This explains the short term losses.

The research firm IDC has predicted that by 2016, Microsoft's Windows Phone will have 20% market share. While this will be way behind Android's 40%, it will catapult Microsoft to the position of the world's second largest smartphone OS. If the partnership with Nokia endures till then, they will reap the benefit along with Microsoft. But they may not return to their original position of dominance.

Source : CNet

For RIM, the picture is not so rosy right now. The problem is that unlike Nokia which has at least taken a stand, RIM has not indicated where they will go in the future. QNX or OS8? Will they redesign their handsets? Will they provide a better touchscreen experience? Will they keep up with the blistering pace of innovation set by Android or will they create a consistent user experience that at matches up to iOS? Can they create a better flagship than the Torch? Questions abound and the company is yet to answer them. Meanwhile to the corporate/ enterprise audience that makes up the bulk of RIMs user base, the iPhone and the iPad is looking like an increasingly attractive option.

So would I advise people to not buy a Nokia or a BlackBerry? Frankly, a large number of people don't want to buy a top end smartphone at obscene prices. A large number of people are comfortable with a certain user interface and don't want to shift. And most people are still comfortable with using their phones for push email, messaging and some Facebooking and mobile uploads.  Both Nokia and RIM offer this adequately, do it well, and the lowered price of handsets from both companies make them an attractive budget option. The much reviled N8 was still a fantastically built phone with a superb camera and at its revised price of Rs.22,000, it's a decent buy. So I would say if you want a budget phone, a BB or Nokia is still a good option. But it's also an ominous sign that non-geeky people are also dipping a toe in the Android world with its budget offerings from HTC and Samsung. There is a buzz about Android that attracts people to it, and increasingly when people ask for reccos on phones, I hear a chorus "Don't buy a BlackBerry or a Nokia, they're dead." Both RIM and Nokia urgently need to do something to create a positive aura. And it's not easy right now to see what that could be.