No Compromise: Introducing The Galaxy Note

©SamsungThere are phones and there are tablets, and basically the only difference between them is size. But that difference is not trivial. Far from it; in mobile technology, form factor is everything. Difference in size means difference in purpose. A tablet is as big as is comfortable to use for ‘media consumption’ on the couch, a phone as small and portable as it can be while remaining usable. Anything intermediate is a compromise that falls between stools. Such is contemporary design wisdom.

And it’s wrong. People use their phones more and more for browsing, reading, viewing media and playing games. All else being equal, these will always be better on a bigger screen. So it’s very arguable that the best portable device is the biggest one you can comfortably carry. How big is that though, exactly?

Bigger than you might expect. Samsung‘s view – and I tend to agree with them – is that the upper threshold is what you can easily get in and out of an ordinary jeans pocket (video). In most ways, their new Galaxy Note is just an upgraded version of their popular Galaxy S II. What sets it apart is its simply humongous 5.3″ screen, surely as big as a mobile phone can get and still remain mobile. That’s not a compromise, that’s pushing an idea to its extreme. Seen this way it’s the recent generation of 7″ Android tablets that fell between two stools – smaller than the iPad, but not small enough to be truly portable.

Some reviewers have worried about looking foolish, holding such a large device up to the face. Well yes, maybe this is not the phone for the overly self-conscious. But I suspect it will attract more glances of interest, even envy, than amusement. It’s not merely the size of the screen that makes it stand out. With its resolution of 1280 x 800 – higher than the iPad – and luxuriant saturated AMOLED colours, it’s gaining a reputation as one of the most beautiful ever seen on a mobile device.

©SamsungBut the controversies only begin with the Note’s size. There’s also that pen. How can the addition of an input device somehow be a fault? For this we can blame Steve Jobs. Making a dig at the original Windows Mobile, he said “if you see a stylus, they blew it.” He was wrong too though. If you need a stylus they blew it, sure. Poking at tiny icons with a stick is not cool. But the Note has a touch interface as good as any of its rivals. More than one review has seemed almost to take offence at this. If you don’t need the pen to use the phone, what’s it doing there?

For sure, it would still be a fabulous device without it. You could use the Note merely as a huge-screened Web browser, HD video player and camera, e-book reader, satnav, tablet, gaming device etc. without ever withdrawing the pen from its bay. But for others – myself included – that pen is precisely the reason why we’ll be giving our money to Samsung. This is no plastic stylus. An advanced, sensitive pen would be a brilliant complement to a device big enough to use like a notebook. And once again Samsung has not cut any corners, using gold-standard technology from Wacom, makers of the Intuos and Cintiq tablets found in graphics studios worldwide. The sketching, annotation and handwriting possibilities this “S-Pen” adds put the Galaxy Note into a league of its own. Or would, if its screen hadn’t already.

It may not be on its own much longer though. It’s being joined by a rival product from fellow Koreans LG. Their Optimus Vu will have comparable dimensions and also comes equipped with a pen – rejoicing in the name “Rubberdium”. (No clues as to what the technology is yet, but they describe it as dedicated so it is probably an active device.) And it may be far from the last. The fourth iteration of Android, with its ability to scale to different screen sizes and its inbuilt support for pens, seems tailor-made for devices like this. (The Note does not actually have Ice Cream Sandwich yet, but will get it as soon as it’s ready – possibly next month.) With these features clearly part of Google’s vision, will we be seeing a phablet from Motorola next?

I hope so for the sake of diversity, but speaking for myself it’s hard to imagination any device in the near future improving on the Galaxy Note. Wacom technology appearing on a phone is a long-held dream I seriously thought would never come true. So I want to use this more than any device I’ve seen in nearly ten years. And frustratingly, about anywhere in the world seems to be getting the Note before Ireland. Vodafone has at least have confirmed they will be carrying it though. No details on pricing yet, but if you want you can register your interest here and get notified as soon as it goes on sale.

Just one question remains then – what will we call this new class of device? Phablet seems to be catching on, even if some abhor the word. Well, it’s not as bad as tabphone or phoneblet. I have a different suggestion though. We could take a word that technology has made redundant and give it a new job. Let’s call it the Phonebook.

What Phone Is Right For You? – Index

Articles I’ve written to help you choose a phone.

 

English: Windows Phone 7 powered LG Panther(GW...
The Outsider - Windows Phone 7

1 – The Scene

Why are there so many competing kinds of phone now?

2 – But First…

Remember you don’t have to get a high-end smartphone.

3 – Enter The Gladiators

A quick overview of the types available.

4 – The Business End

Phones for work: Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, and Blackberry.

5 – Apple Changes Everything

It’s the biggest thing to happen to mobile phones – and perhaps even computing – for years. What makes the iPhone so special?

6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

An aside on the present and future of mobile computing, and what the rise of the smartphone really means.

7 – I, Android

Only Google it seems were able to learn from what Apple did and react fast enough. Have they actually beaten them at their own game?

What The Hell Is IPv6?

IPv4 exhaustion
The Red Line Shows Remaining Available Internet Addresses

So did you enjoy World IPv6 Day?

All right, there’s a fairly large chance that you have no freaking idea what I’m talking about. To put it as briefly as possible, the Internet is running out of addresses. The old system (IPv4) could only handle four billion of them. And as every computer, phone, tablet and other device connected to the Internet needs one, we were going to break the four billion mark sometime very soon. So, much like when your local telephone system adds an extra digit to its numbers to make room for new subscribers, the Internet is making its addresses longer. The new system is called IPv6.

We do not talk about IPv5.

But adding one digit to a phone number lets you create only ten times as many. The switch to IPv6 is more expansive than that. Seriously more. It will allow for 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as many Internet addresses as now. This is what mathematicians call a “silly number”.

As an end-user you’re not going to notice any difference. The process started years ago, and will take more years to complete. Yesterday’s “World IPv6 Day” was more or less a publicity stunt organised by some of the Net’s bigger names, Google and Facebook among them, to alert the industry to the necessity of upgrading. IPv6 was tested on a bigger scale than ever before and, well if you’re reading this then I guess nothing broke too badly.

So, a good thing then. We needed more addresses for the Internet to keep on expanding. But… this many? It will mean we could all have a few trillion to call our own. My toes can have a Skype account each. You could Internet-enable every leaf on every tree. It’s hard to imagine how you could ever use that many.

And there may be a downside to that. More anon!

What The Hell Is IPv6?

IPv4 exhaustion
The Red Line Shows Remaining Available Internet Addresses

So did you enjoy World IPv6 Day?

All right, there’s a fairly large chance that you have no freaking idea what I’m talking about. To put it as briefly as possible, the Internet is running out of addresses. The old system (IPv4) could only handle four billion of them. And as every computer, phone, tablet and other device connected to the Internet needs one, we were going to break the four billion mark sometime very soon. So, much like when your local telephone system adds an extra digit to its numbers to make room for new subscribers, the Internet is making its addresses longer. The new system is called IPv6.

We do not talk about IPv5.

But adding one digit to a phone number lets you create only ten times as many. The switch to IPv6 is more expansive than that. Seriously more. It will allow for 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as many Internet addresses as now. This is what mathematicians call a “silly number”.

As an end-user you’re not going to notice any difference. The process started years ago, and will take more years to complete. Yesterday’s “World IPv6 Day” was more or less a publicity stunt organised by some of the Net’s bigger names, Google and Facebook among them, to alert the industry to the necessity of upgrading. IPv6 was tested on a bigger scale than ever before and, well if you’re reading this then I guess nothing broke too badly.

So, a good thing then. We needed more addresses for the Internet to keep on expanding. But… this many? It will mean we could all have a few trillion to call our own. My toes can have a Skype account each. You could Internet-enable every leaf on every tree. It’s hard to imagine how you could ever use that many.

And there may be a downside to that. More anon!

Open Source, Closed Book

Visualization of the various routes through a ...
I Definitely Left That File Here Somewhere

Another really pleasant April day. The last one of course; by the time you read this it will be May, and instead of considering the good days a bonus we’ll see the bad ones as short-changing us. This is why April is the far superior month, it rewards optimists.

But I’m back in the windowless Windows cave, a net café with 17 PCs in various stages of broken. Late last night I defeated a secret second level boss defending them against their own administrators. Tonight I have two cleaned and ready to take the set of applications that the public will want.

If it were up to me of course, the public would get the apps I want. And they’d all walk out of the shop pleasantly astonished at how good open source software is now.

Yeah right. Customers faced with OpenOffice instead of the Microsoft equivalent are just going to react with panic and dismay. Though there isn’t really much to choose between the two, it’s a classic case of the market leader being the market leader because they’re the market leader; office applications are a natural monopoly. The only reason why OpenOffice still even exists is that it’s not for profit.

What I think stands a better chance at competing, in this market at least, is Google’s still-nascent attempt at doing the thin client all over again, Chrome OS, where the computer is running absolutely nothing but a browser, and all the applications and all the documents are out there in what marketeers now want us to call “the cloud”, or what we used to call cyberspace. In other words, a server farm in Indonesia.

Is it crazy? Doing your computing right there in front of you has simply got to be quicker than doing it over a network, however fast. But consider me. It’s six in the morning. I started at one in the afternoon. I am still tweaking the drivers and software and settings of these Windows machines so that I can start to make them ready to be made ready for the public tomorrow.

Just one installed program – and even that kept updated automatically over the Internet? For public situations like this, yes please. For the customer too, the convenience of always having their documents to hand no matter what computer they were made on would be wonderful. No more schlepping them around on flash drives. They’ll learn to love Google Docs.

If need be I’ll pay them to.

What Phone Is Right For You? 1 – The Scene

Image via Wikipedia
It's really time for a new one

As I was saying, it’s never been as hard to choose a phone as it is now. This is far from a bad thing though; we’ve never had so many incredible choices. Phones have changed almost beyond recognition, from fairly straightforward communication devices into something we don’t even quite have a name for yet.

Certainly the term ‘smartphone’ no longer seems adequate. Though there were earlier experiments¹, the smartphone came into its own all of ten years ago now, when the mobile phone and the PDA were successfully merged by companies like Nokia and Microsoft. The magic ingredient: A proper operating system that allowed you to install software.

Since then, other functions have accrued continually. Cameras, Web browsers, e-mail, media players, Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi… Keypads became tiny to make room for Internet-friendly screens. Some – Microsoft in particular – introduced touch interfaces, but made them so crowded that they had to be navigated with a PDA-type stylus. The smartphone seemed full to the point of bursting.

Then Apple made the next great breakthrough, by introducing an interface that was not only sensitive to broad gestures, but which was utterly reconfigurable by whatever program was in use. At a stroke they solved the problem of the smartphone trying to be too many things, by reinventing it as an almost neutral object that could be reconfigured for an endless variety of tasks.

At the same time, they realised that what was essentially an Internet-connected iPod was a fantastic tool for selling things to people; music, video, the software “apps” it would run, and the services those apps could interface with. It was a goldmine. The other main players were slow to recognise this; Nokia and Microsoft so tardy that eventually they had to join forces. Only Google, the one with no previous involvement in phones, could see what was happening and knew what was to be done. They produced Android, now the leading rival to the iPhone.

But far from the only one; there are four or five competing systems, all with their strengths and weaknesses. So though we have great choices, they are real choices. Where once we might have chosen based on fairly trivial factors like appearance, buying a phone now means buying into a system – an ‘ecosystem’ as some call it – of software apps and services. It’s quite a commitment.

By weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of the various offerings however, it shouldn’t be too hard to tell which is the one that suits your needs. These we will look at in more detail tomorrow.

  1. The first real smartphone? Probably the Simon from quiet innovator IBM (pictured above). It may have been an ugly brick, but it was an ugly brick that was years ahead of its time.

Microsoft and Nokia: A No-Win Situation? (Part 1)

This is an article I wrote on the Microsoft-Nokia deal, and to some extent it reworks material in earlier posts. If you’ve read those you could skip this. If you’ve heard enough about the damn deal already, you could skip this. I wouldn’t blame you. I’ll put up something else less techy later.

MacPC CartoonOver the last few years we have enjoyed astonishing innovation in the smartphone field, with competing systems from Apple, Nokia, Google, Microsoft, RIM, and more. A technology market has rarely been so open to all comers, certainly not since the home computer explosion of the early 80s. It’s been an extraordinary time.

And now it’s over. The partnership between Nokia and Microsoft probably signals the end of the expansive phase and the beginning of shake-out. But this may not be a bad thing. In one view they are the dream team to create a credible third force in a vital market. That should improve competition, drive up the creativity and drive down prices. From another it’s a dinosaur wedding: When giants get into bed together, they push everyone else out.

Are we to be offered fewer, better choices – or simply fewer?

A “third ecosystem”, as Nokia CEO Stephen Elop calls it, means a third major platform for app developers, far more likely to succeed where Microsoft and Nokia individually were lagging. Almost certainly, it also means a second giant media delivery system alongside Apple’s iTunes, and far greater penetration for Microsoft services that mainly rival Google’s.¹ Between them, Nokia and Microsoft have just about every angle covered.

Which, interestingly, would put them on a similar footing to Apple. Google suddenly looks like a weaker player here. With no real hardware of its own, and with little control over what people do with its open-source Android OS, they risk seeing their app market become fragmented into various flavours and their name dragged through some appalling hardware. Close integration with the desktop version of Windows should make it a compelling tool in the business segment too, putting severe pressure on RIM’s Blackberry.

This then is the danger: The market shrinking to just three, perhaps only two, real players. It would be particularly sad if those two turned out to be old stagers Apple and Microsoft.

(Continues tomorrow.)

  1. Though on the other hand it means one rival fewer for Google Maps, as both Microsoft and Nokia have products there.

500-pound Gorillas In The Mist

Microsoft is in a tough position, though, too. Win Phone 7 isn’t selling for crap right now, and they have no actual tablet strategy. As computing rapidly moves to tablets and smartphones, Microsoft becomes less and less important. It isn’t hard at all to imagine that 10 years from now — and to a certain extent in just 5 — the only people who will need desktop-class computing will be those in science, engineering, and the people making software for all of the tablets and smartphones and such.

If even they need such things, since tablets (especially down the road) make perfectly great front-ends for truly powerful computers off in the cloud somewhere.

If I owned stock in either company, I’d sell all it tomorrow.

Submitted as comment by Matthew Frederick on 2011/02/13 at 11:01 pm

I think Microsoft have more strategy than you allow, Matthew. While it seems highly unlikely that they’ll ever reattain the dominance they once had, they remain surprisingly nimble for such a vast company. Nobody expected them to come out with something as good as Windows Phone 7 in so little time, and though it isn’t selling yet it is early days, especially considering that there are two established competitors. This deal will certainly make it seem a lot more credible.

It’s not clear to outsiders yet of course, but elements of an integrated desktop-tablet-phone strategy seem to be materializing out of the mist. On one hand, Microsoft has happily been selling software for tablet devices for almost ten years now. OneNote, which I use every day, is actually available for the iPad. (Free for the time being too.) Widows 7 is by far the best OS available for a more heavy-duty class of tablet orientated towards content creation rather than consumption.

It’s the consumption that the new market is all about though, and here Windows 7 devices, with their greater energy demands, weight, and cost, are obviously at a huge disadvantage. It’s a no-brainer to bring out a version of Win Phone 7 tweaked for bigger screens just like iOS or Android was. Some think that Microsoft don’t want to do that because it will compete with Windows 7 on tablets, but I doubt that’s the case. I think we’ll see it just as soon as MS thinks the time is ripe. That is, when there are things ready to sell on it. The phone will lead the way just as with the others.

Alongside that then is the intriguing appearance of Windows for ARM.¹ Whether there will ever actually be an ARM version or this is just meant to galvanize the energy-efficiency efforts of Intel and AMD, expect full Windows 7 devices with much lower power demands.²

I expect that, like Apple with Lion, they will soon mate the two OSes together to make a class of portable computers that get more flexible as more energy becomes available. Using cloud processing on the move, powerful processors in their own right when plugged in. That would be pretty nice.

  1. A microprocessor family designed for extreme power efficiency, used on the overwhelming majority of phone and tablet devices, as opposed to the more general-purpose x86 family that Windows only runs on now.
  2. What’s the betting they’ll be releasing tools to help software makers port their products from x86 to ARM? Though not before their own apps have had a good head start of course.

Tiananmen II?

©LRIUS.org
It says "Thank You, Facebook"

Well it looks like my worst fears didn’t materialize. Things seem… hopeful in Egypt, though I’m almost superstitiously scared of using that word. Hope is after all a game we play with ourselves, almost a form of masochism. Is it crazy of me to see Tahrir Square as Tiananmen 2 – This Time, The Good Guys Win? Even to find, in that crushing of protesters beneath a government truck, a weird reversal of the “Tank Man” incident?

Yeah, that’s pretty crazy.

But our future is being created now, in the streets of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. There’s a choice to be made between the explosive pressures of repression and the release of revolution, and that choice is not ours. About the best we can do is cheer from the sidelines.

But that is not nothing. I’m remembering the role that the Internet has played in this uprising and other struggles like it. One telling event: China has blocked web searches for “Egypt”. Meanwhile our governments move ever closer to a policed, regulated Internet just like they have in these fantastic countries. What can we do about this? Resist, through every legal means.

Today I came across one simple way that everyone can adopt.

Do you get paranoid about the way Google, Microsoft and other search providers record all your searches, creating a frighteningly accurate portrait of your inner life? Well I bet you do now. And not just the terms you used but the sites you chose to visit from the search results, all tied to your computer’s Internet (IP) address – or if you have say a Google account, directly to your name. It’s creepy that it can be used to target advertising at you. What’s worse though is that if some authority like the US Department of Justice happens to want to know about you, Google et al. are quite happy to hand it over. It’s their government after all. Not such a worry for you and me – perhaps. Somewhat more of a concern to a political dissident under a regime that the US might be backing.

What can you do? You can use something like Startingpage. Essentially, this does a Google search for you. It gives you the same results, but as far as Google can tell it was Startingpage that requested them, not you.

Even better though, you can then go to the websites in the results using an “anonymizing proxy”, which hides your address not just from Google but also the site you visit. And if you want to be über-paranoid you can do it all over a secure Internet connection (https), the same as you’d use when making a credit card transaction, so even a third party eavesdropping on your connection can’t tell where you’re going.

There are other similar services available, but I was impressed by how easy Startingpage is. You simply select it as your search engine, the same way as you’d choose between Google, Bing or Yahoo. It works with all the best-known browsers (except the Windows version of Safari for some reason, but who uses that?), and you can search from the address bar in Firefox with it too. It seems to be just as fast as Google, though there is a slight delay if you use the encrypted version. I’m using it for all searching now, and I can strongly recommend it. Such a service is of enormous value to criminals, perverts, terrorists and anyone else who wants to remain free.

Tiananmen