Tuesday, March 11, 2008

iPod and iPhone Stands, and Why Make an iPod Slate

Normally I don't post links to products that I currently have no use for, but these were so cool on at least two levels, that I couldn't resist.

While reading my news articles for Apple rumors and potential products, I saw an ad for these iPod and iPhone stands. Normally I wouldn't care, but the design was pretty neat.

But there is another reason: Part of my hopeful release of a UMPC from Apple (the iPod Slate) would be to have a functional stand so I can use the machine as a regular computer. Tether a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to it, and I'm set. The problem is, I can't see one being functionally added to the case design without making it out of plastic or lightweight thin metal, which will mean it will almost certainly break.

But I see that a third party has already been creating stands for the iPhone and iPod Touch (as well as other iPods), so Apple wouldn't need to design a stand into the case. This would simplify the design (right up Apple's street), and give a third party a great boost.

Does this mean that Apple is going to release the iPod Slate? No, not really. In fact, there is no evidence (outside of wild rumor and a few suggested insider speculation) that such a device will be made available in the near future. But, it's still a great idea, and I hope Apple does think of it.

Why should they even bother, though? What would make an iPod Slate more marketable than the iPod Touch, or even a MacBook Air? Well, let me list the reasons (assuming that my criteria and setup is met):

Laptops and Notebooks have one huge disadvantage in the presentation arena: Their size. They are bulky, even the sub-notebooks. Why? Because of the screen. The clamshell design is great for working on projects, coding, and gaming, but gets in the way when trying to present to a group of people. It stands out, and because it stands out it can distract from the overall presentation.

Ultra Mobile PC's have the benefit of being a tablet, so they lay down flat. They also have the benefit of being lightweight and small, so it can be placed just about anywhere without being too visible. This leads to less distraction (after the initial "Wow! That's soo cool!"), and you can get down to the actual presentation.

There was a time when I thought I could take my laptop into a meeting and take notes. I actually meant to on several occasions, but I didn't. Why? Because it was just too big and bulky. And I have a 12" PowerBook! Instead, I tried to take my PDA (Toshiba Pocket PC), and tried to take notes on that. I didn't have a keyboard, and so I was left to try to use the handwriting recognition or the screen keyboard: Neither worked very well. So that didn't work for me either.

But, enter in an Ultra Mobile PC with a bluetooth keyboard, and tether a Bluetooth Lazer Virtual keyboard to it, and just start typing. The UMPC can even remain in your portfolio (if you are good enough at typing), and never have to be present in the meeting. This takes up less space on the table, and no one is distracted by typing keys (just thumping fingers).

The key to this input device is size and portability. The PDA has been under scrutiny for years because of the size restrictions and processor limits. Voice recognition, Speech to Text, etc. that would make the PDA an almost perfect tool hasn't been available because of the loss of processing power in the interest of battery restraints.

But that's all changing, both with more efficient batteries on the way, and more powerful, but energy wise processors being developed. The PDA could become a full-blown PC without having the need for a huge power supply or fans.

General Computing
The typical computing experience in the past for the majority of those users out there is email, web, and Solitaire. You may laugh at this, but while working for Packard Bell NEC, I learned of hundreds of people that bought a thousand dollars worth of computer just so that they could play solitaire. Any PDA is able to fit this need, and do it well.

But the computer usage has become more specialized, and will continue to specialize. The need for a mobile computer that can do their task and do it well is growing, and the tasks are varied. Some people are convinced that having multiple devices that do their job well and interact is the way to go (i.e., the old UNIX model of programming). Unfortunately, devices are not small enough for that to be really possible. So, we need some devices that can multitask.

Enter in the UMPC. While it can technically take the place of an iPod for entertainment, it needs to do more. It needs to run software, provide presentation media, and allow for specialized software to be installed. It also needs to be reliable and very user friendly.

Why, you ask? Have you ever been in a doctor's office, and watched the doctor try to use a computer to enter in your medical information? Many doctors are moving to a more mobile environment where they can enter in information into a central database, and they need mobile PCs that can do it. PDA's just don't cut it because they are too difficult to enter information, or they are too underpowered to utilize a full program and have to use a watered down program with no features.

But Why Hasn't It Worked In The Past?
You may be saying at this point, "Yes, I get your points. But UMPC's have been around for years as a concept, but never taken off. Why should Apple even think about it?" And you would be right, the platform hasn't taken off quite yet. Some of it has to do with the mentality of the makers of the UMPC, but most of it has to do with the chosen software.

Mentality Killer
Other UMPC developers have had the same vision that I had: A full fledged PC that works like a PDA when needed. But, unfortunately, the whole PDA idea just stuck. The first problem is the idea of more is more: Chuck it full of holes for peripherals, and the gadgets will sell. Unfortunately, that doesn't work, and it drives up cost. So now you have a really expensive device that works like a PDA, and sacrifice size for the adapters.

A lot of PC commentators may argue with me on this, but I still maintain that most people don't utilize most of the peripheral slots that are available for their devices now. What do they use? Mostly USB, Wireless (Bluetooth and WiFi), a PC Card slot for Cellular Wireless (if not built in), a VGA/DVI adapter for presentations, and perhaps a FireWire cable if you are syncing a heavy media device. So what is missing?

1. SD Cards (and other media): While I love SD Cards because of their size, you don't really need a built in card slot. You can get a USB reader for the device for next to nothing on eBay (I did), and use your USB slot. Need more than one USB slot? Use a hub. That's really the reason why USB remains to this day the most popular peripheral platform.

Now, I can see great potential in using SD Card slots as hard drives. the Eee PC is able to boot off of an SD Card, presenting a great option should the SSD drive die on the machine. And perhaps there should be an SD Card slot, but what about Compact Flash? Or MMC Cards? Or all the other possible storage media out there? Should they also be supported? Wouldn't it just be easier to get a USB adapter, and use the storage when you need it? I'll leave it up to other people to debate.

2. Gaming Ports: Joysticks on a UMPC? Well, if you want to make it a truly powerful draw to the 20-somethings, it's almost a given. But do you really need a gaming port? No, not really. Leave the heavy gaming platforms to the Desktops and Laptops.

3. Optical Drives: Many people are screaming at Apple for not providing an optical drive for many of their devices. The Macbook Air has an external drive if you need it, and the Apple TV just doesn't have the option. But, when you think about it, how often (outside of required disks for gaming) do you really use the optical drive? Perhaps you burn backups every once in a while, or burn a CD from your music collection... when else do you use it?

I know that I don't use an Optical Drive much, because it just doesn't hold enough media. Instead I use network drives, or I use a USB/FireWire drive to store and transfer media. The optical drive is used on a main machine for ripping CDs and DVDs, and then I burn a hard copy of the media for backup use. That's it, nothing else. 90% of the time I don't use an optical drive. So why should I have that space taken up? It just doesn't make sense.

Okay, for those of you who are married to your platform and loyal to the end, you can write this off as my Apple Fanboy rant. But, the reality of the failure in UMPCs in general in my mind is because of the software platform (i.e., Windows). Microsoft has a platform that has been riddled with bugs, security holes, and instability. Ultimately I don't blame the code so much as the core platform: It's just not UNIX. But, because of the whole package in Windows, you have an unreliable device.

Now, let's say you replace the non-UNIX platform with a UNIX platform: Which should it be? Linux is still constantly in development, playing catchup with hardware developers. Why? Not because there is a problem with the platform, but rather because Linux developers are making Linux all things to all platforms. It works, but delays the deployment on newer hardware.

Now, let's look at the Macintosh platform. Apple is able to build their machines so well because they only have set hardware specifications. Why? Because anything more would overwhelm the Mach Kernel, and place the development into the same muddy that GNU's HURD has been trying to navigate. Instead, Apple streamlines the code by streamlining their hardware offerings. That means a streamlined user experience with little to no problems with functionality.

Anyway, that is my little rant. I hope someone from Cupertino is listening, because I really think that an Apple UMPC would be a wonderful thing. Add to that the possibility to install software, and you have an even better platform. Don't overload it with too many peripherals, and you have a sleek, functional device that will get the gob done. You want a gaming platform? Get a gaming platform.

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