Why HP’s take on WebOS could be a very big deal

February 10, 2011 | 4 comments

Jon Rubenstein introduces new HP TouchPadYesterday, HP finally delivered an iPad competitor I can get excited about, not just by creating an elegant piece of hardware, but by taking a step back and outthinking their competition. Unlike the iPad, the TouchPad is part of a seamless technology ecosystem that also encompasses smartphones, PCs and printers, all running the same operating system and sharing through the same wireless infrastructure.

Printing, file-sharing, synchronization and even charging just work without cables or configuration. It’s clever stuff, and only a company like HP – with well-accepted products in virtually every technology market segment – could have pulled it off. Not only does the TouchPad run their recently-acquired WebOS; so do their Palm Pre phones, and so will their desktops and laptops.

Before the iPad, tablets were a jokey afterthought in the gamut of home devices, largely governed by Bill Gates’s pen-bound vision for how those devices should behave, and Apple’s previous failure with the Newton. With the iPad, Apple turned them into a must-have accessory that made most domestic computing tasks easier. The 3G version beat expectations by eschewing contracts, making mobile Internet use both more attractive and affordable. As soon as it launched, it seemed like a wonderful progression. I love mine: it’s been used to write code, fix servers, write and read articles, read entire novels, watch movies and kill time on the plane. It’s not that I couldn’t do without it. I wouldn’t want to – even despite the crashing applications, slow sync times and horrible iTunes user experience.

But competition in the market is healthy for consumers. It drives prices down, quality up, and gives us all choices. But for some reason, nobody’s managed to provide a satisfactory competitor to the iPad. This may relate to the app store model: because Apple takes 30% of all app store sales, it can sell its devices at a lower margin than its competitors. Android tablets, on the other hand, really need to use the Android Market, which is shared between them – and while cellphone carriers get a cut, tablet manufacturers don’t. That means, for example, that the Motorola Xoom will cost $799 – $300 more than the cheapest iPad. Because everyone expects the Apple device to be at the top end of the market, Android offerings need to be priced below it, particularly when they’re directly competing feature-for-feature. It’s beginning to seem like this might be impossible.

What’s cool about the HP offering is that it doesn’t just create competition: it actually makes the iPad look clunky, which is something nobody else has managed yet. What’s more, they have an Apple-like advantage in their homegrown App Catalog, and by including printers, they’ve brought ink cartridges into the pricing ecosystem, so the up-front cost should be low. The seamless wireless integration between devices makes it perfect for business as well as home use, and WebOS’s reliance on web technologies makes it attractive to developers like me.

That’s the key. It’s not just that I’m excited to use them; HP have made me excited about developing for WebOS devices. Taken in conjunction with Android’s growing dominance, not to mention the rumor of two new iPads before December, it’s going to be a very interesting year.

Photo: Jon Rubenstein introduces new HP TouchPad, by Robert Scoble. Shared under a CC license.

2011: happy new year

January 3, 2011 | 5 comments

sydney habour bridge & opera house fireworks new year eve 2008I’m a little late to the party for end-of-year wrapup / start-of-year prediction posts. Instead, I thought I’d write about some of the things I’m looking forward to playing with this year.

Vanquishing piracy through better business

First, though, I do have one prediction: this will be the year that traditional content producers finally get to grips with piracy. They won’t do it using restrictive DRM and other counter-productive tactics that have been shown not to work; instead, they’ll do it by allowing anyone to buy their content in a convenient way.

The BBC is already talking about broadcasting Doctor Who simultaneously in the US and the UK; they are also planning to release their iPlayer on-demand service internationally. Its US counterpart Hulu, meanwhile, is also planning an international release. All of this is a tacit acknowledgement that a great deal of piracy is the direct result of artificially enforced border restrictions, but it’s also a bigger, more general change: the realignment of incumbent media companies around the Internet, instead of treating it as just another conduit. Just in time to save their businesses – maybe.

The year of the tablet?

Last year, the iPad shook everyone up. It’s a great device, which somehow makes computing a more intimate, human experience – I bought one, and it gets far more use than any other computer I own. (This Christmas, it’s got at least a couple of hours every day from Celia playing Angry Birds.) It’s so good that everyone’s prediction posts for 2011 have been colored by it. Wired; Leonard Lin; Technorati; The Times of India; The New York Times; GigaOm; etc etc etc. I’ll be at CES in Las Vegas next week, and I fully expect tablets to dominate the talk of the town. (Most interesting tablet advice I’ve heard lately: buy a Nook Color and root it to turn it into a fully-featured Android tablet. Not bad for $250, if it works.)

After a rocky start with the operating system, I’m looking forward to developing Android apps. Although I’m still not sure what the platform’s developers were thinking in the early years, the 2.2 release was a major one, and the 3.x previews look pretty good. It’s got a very good chance of being as popular as Microsoft Windows for non-PC devices. Either way, the devices are now exciting enough for me to want to kick the tires and play with some new kinds of social interaction.

Here, my obsession with decentralized models continues. I believe that WikiLeaks represents the Internet beginning to fulfill its true potential, but the furor over it illustrates how dangerous building an information outlet or essential service around a single point of failure can be. The web is decentralized; social, content and information applications should follow the platform’s example.

The couch potato is dead; long live the couch potato

But it’s going to go beyond interaction. With the advent of consumer-friendly devices like the iPad, and living room web clients like Google TV, I think we’re going to see more web apps designed for the couch potato set: people who want to sit down and passively consume content after (for example) a hard day’s work. Right now, even products like the Roku require a fair amount of clicking around before you watch something. Nothing quite has the ease-of-use of television – but apps like Flipboard come close.

Just how do you filter the hundreds of millions of content streams the Internet has to offer so that I see just the right thing when I collapse into my armchair at the end of the day? Could channels, one day, be individually curated content streams, with the content itself sold directly from the producer to us? That would make companies like Apple the new Viacoms and Universals, and make our friends into our TV Guides, with the net result that we will have a much larger range of content available to us, and content producers will have a much easier route to market. I will certainly be playing with this in 2011, from a number of angles.

Getting paid

Ultimately, I think this is the year that analogue content producers – filmmakers, writers, musicians, artists, animators and so on – find a model that really pays for their work online. Once that’s happened, the decentralized, monetized web will be our mainstream source for all content. That means fewer gatekeepers, better content, and a much better information environment for consumers and democracy.

Photo by Hai Linh Truong, released under a Creative Commons license.