Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lenovo's plan to take over the world...eventually

LAS VEGAS--Lenovo wants to be the No. 1 personal-technology company in the world, but it plans to get there on its own time.

At this year's CES, the Chinese maker of laptop and desktop systems debuted more than 20 new products: There were plenty of more traditional systems, an Android smart TV and a pair of ultrabooks. But most interesting are the new IdeaPad Yoga tablet/laptop hybrid designed with Windows 8 in mind, and an Android smartphone--the K800--with Intel's Medfield Atom processor and enough power to rival Samsung's Galaxy Nexus.

There's just one more thing--we won't see the most notable of these devices on store shelves here in North America anytime soon.

The K800, a snappy but thick phone running Lenovo's Clover UI on top of Android, has garnered plenty of attention in the last 24 hours here in Las Vegas, but it's actually the flagship phone of a half-dozen models rolling out in China next month. Lenovo's product people wouldn't even begin to speculate about when any of the phones might migrate across the Pacific, saying only that it was "important to learn in China first."

Indeed, although China might not be the best place to learn about dealing with North American carriers.

The Yoga, which folds itself inside-out to convert from a thin laptop to a de facto tablet running Windows 8--you might call it the Redmond salutation pose--is destined for these shores, but the timing is contingent on the release of Windows 8. Lenovo Vice President Luis Hernandez told me the Yoga is compatible with Windows 7, but clearly designed for the integrated touch-screen experience promised in Windows 8.

World domination via multiple screens
Lenovo has built a reputation for making solid systems for business, but Hernandez says the company's goal is nothing short of becoming "the number one personal technology company in the world." For now, the IBM descendant seems eager to re-pave a path to such world domination by rolling out a cloud strategy and every imaginable screen to access it.

Lenovo's take on the cloud involves lots of syncing between devices and a remote control feature that easily "throws" content between your phone, tab and TV. Nothing groundbreaking, but the execution is nice.

"We understand our users need more than just the traditional keyboard and screen for a truly satisfying digital experience. Our Personal Cloud vision integrates all devices, from tablets to TVs, for a comprehensive mobile Internet experience anytime, anywhere," Liu Jun, senior vice president, said in a statement released at the start of CES.

Lenovo isn't yet prepared to make all those screens available in this hemisphere just yet--the smartphones and smart TVs are China-only for the time being--but perhaps there's no hurry. As anyone who's ever played Risk knows, the game is never won in one night, and you've gotta have control of China and Kamchatka to have a prayer of taking over the world.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Microsoft exec: iPhone prompted Windows Phone redesign

The Microsoft executive who oversees software design for Windows Phone admitted that the mobile operating system was redesigned in response to Apple's iPhone.

"Apple created a sea change in the industry in terms of the kinds of things they did that were unique and highly appealing to consumers," Joe Belfiore told The New York Times. "We wanted to respond with something that would be competitive, but not the same."
Despite being an early player in the smartphone sector, Microsoft's effort was hobbled by software that featured complex on-screen menus that borrowed design cues from its desktop cousin. As insiders tell the newspaper, once the iPhone appeared on the scene, Microsoft executives knew that their OS would not be able to compete as designed.

After a seven-hour meeting called by mobile engineering chief Terry Myerson to discuss the fate of its mobile OS, the management team for the mobile group decided there wasn't much in Windows Mobile worth saving.

"We had hit bottom," Myerson, who was recently promoted to run the company phone business, told the Times. "That frankly gives you the freedom to try new things, build a new team and set a new path."

The team concluded that it was necessary to start over from scratch, a decision longtime Microsoft manager Charlie Kindel compared to hiker Aron Ralston's decision, depicted in the movie "127 Hours," to amputate his own arm after a boulder fell on it.

"This boulder comprised of Apple and BlackBerry rolled on our arm," he said. "Microsoft sat there for three or four years struggling to get out."

The time it would take for Microsoft to redesign its mobile operating system would prove costly, allowing Google to gain huge market share. In the third quarter of 2010, when Windows Phone 7 handsets were introduced, Microsoft's mobile OS held 9 percent of the smartphone market, behind RIM's BlackBerry (33.5 percent), Google's Android (26 percent), and Apple's iOS (25 percent). A year into Microsoft's turnaround effort, its share of the mobile OS market has dwindled to 5.2 percent, while Android now controls 46.9 percent.

Microsoft hopes to recapture some of that lost luster with the expected launch of the Nokia Lumia 900 at CES this week. The two companies are reportedly planning to spend $200 million on marketing in the U.S. to promote the upcoming lineup of Windows Phone 7 handsets.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why 3-D TV still hasn't caught on

3-D television was heralded as the breakthrough technology of the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. Hot on the heels of James Cameron's eye-opening Avatar, 3-D HDTVs were everywhere on the show floor.

One year later, at CES 2011, 3-D was back again -- this time iterating. We saw bigger 3D HDTVs, 3-D displays that didn't require special glasses, and camcorders that captured 3-D content.

But where is 3-D now? It's certainly not showing up big on our CES 2012 radar, and now looks like over-hyped technology in hindsight -- especially to those of us who always thought 3-D's natural home was in the movie theater, not the living room.

Indeed, a variety of obstacles -- high prices, a lack of 3-D content, and uncomfortable viewing experiences -- have kept 3-D TV adoption in the single digits nationwide. Manufacturers and content providers are working to address these issues, but one has to wonder if 3-D was nothing but a flash in the CES pan -- a technology story rather than anything consumers actually wanted.

In 2010, consumers purchased a paltry 1.1 million 3-D TV units, and although sales have grown in the two years since, the widespread 3-D fervor that TV manufacturers were anticipating never took root.

According to a January Display Search report, just more than 23 million 3-D TVs were shipped in 2011 worldwide, with only 3.6 million shipped in the U.S.

Display Search analyst Paul Gagnon says that U.S. household penetration for 3-D TVs is at about 3%. "To be fair, 3-D TVs have only been available for sale in a significant way for about 18 months, so that's why the penetration is so low," Gagnon says. "That said, it's still lower than what many in the industry had hoped for."

Markets like China and western Europe are seeing far more enthusiasm for 3-D TV than in North America, but worldwide adoption is still likely less than 2%.

So what's to blame?

The content, for one.

"We have disappointed our audience multiple times now, and because of that I think there is genuine distrust -- whereas a year and a half ago, there was genuine excitement, enthusiasm and reward for the first group of 3-D films that actually delivered a quality experience," Dreamworks animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

After "Avatar," a string of unsuccessful, rushed-to-market 3-D flicks -- we're looking at you, "Clash of the Titans" -- zoomed to theaters hoping to cash in on the craze. Moviegoers were left with a bad taste in their mouths (and oftentimes headaches, too, as 3-D viewing can cause eyestrain). Since then, better-quality 3-D films like "Tron: Legacy," and, more recently, "Tin Tin" and "Hugo," have tried to improve 3-D's image. Meanwhile, small-screen content providers have branched out to provide live and on-demand 3-D offerings.

Currently, there are 55 3-D channels worldwide, including ESPN 3-D. Another 35 channels offer 3-D content on-demand.

If content and a disillusioned audience are the biggest problem, that's bad news for manufacturers: They have zero control over the content side of the equation.

To this end, 3-D TV manufacturers are doing whatever they can to make the 3-D viewing experience as pleasing and trouble-free as possible. This includes doing away with uncomfortable, unattractive 3-D glasses, which have also been cited in studies as barriers to consumer adoption. LG, for one, has announced it's making 3-D glasses that are lighter and more stylish.

But even handsome 3-D specs can't mitigate the headaches and fatigue suffered by some viewers of 3-D content, or the high prices of 3-D TVs.

So, yes, 3-D TVs are expensive. And they can cause headaches. And they aren't supported by a lot of quality content. All of which begs the question: Who's buying these things at all?

The existing sales, however paltry, can be attributed to consumer desire to purchase high-end TVs. Consumers don't really want 3-D specifically, but if they want that priciest, top-of-the-line unit, they'll receive 3-D capability whether they like it or not. "Sometimes consumers are even unaware [that they're getting a 3-D set] at the time of purchase," Futuresource Consulting's Fiona Hoy said.

Whatever the reason for purchase, the most recent studies indicate consumers are slowly warming up to 3-D. An October report from the Digital Entertainment Group found that the majority of 3-D TV owners say the experience is positive: 88% of those surveyed rated 3-D picture quality positively, and 85% of those 3-D TV owners prefer to watch more than half of their programming in 3-D.

As prices come down, more content becomes available, and 3-D glasses improve (or are replaced by glasses-free technology), 3-D TV adoption will only increase. Whether we reach the near 50% adoption rates that have been projected for 2014 and 2015 is yet to be seen. But whether you like it or not, 3-D does not appear to be in its death throes just yet.

Yes, we'll see new 3-D displays and accessories at CES next week, but you can rest assured the manufacturers' over-reaching hype campaigns are over.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Verizon doubles iPhone sales over last quarter

Verizon had a happy holiday thanks to the Apple iPhone.

The company's wireless unit sold 4.2 million iPhones in the fourth quarter, Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo said during an investor conference. The figure was more than double the number of iPhones sold in the previous quarter.

The figure underscores the enduring popularity of the phone and the importance of the device to each of the carriers, even if it is available now on three national carriers. Verizon considers it an important tool for convincing basic phone users to upgrade to a smartphone and pricier data plan.

The sales jumped thanks to the introduction of the iPhone 4S in October. Prior to the launch, Apple saw disappointing iPhone sales figures as consumers held off on buying the device until the new model arrived. Verizon said it ended the year with a backlog of 120,000 iPhone orders.

Adding the fourth-quarter figure, backlog, and sales from the rest of the year, and Verizon said it sold nearly 11 million iPhones in 2011.

As with the other carriers, the success of the iPhone comes at a cost to Verizon. The more iPhones it sells, the larger hit it takes on the upfront subsidy it must pay to Apple to keep the phone at $199. Shammo said the iPhone would cut gross margins by 500 to 600 basis points.

The carriers have been largely happy to take the margin hit because it leads to customers who pay more and stay with the service longer.

Verizon Wireless is jointly owned by Verizon and Vodafone Group.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Rumored three iPad model lineup could cut entry price to $299

The rumored expansion of iPad models this year may reduce the price of entry for owning an Apple tablet, if a new report is to be believed.

Despite having its report on Apple planning to triple its iPad lineup this year firmly rebuffed by many onlookers, Taiwan-based tech site DigiTimes today reiterated that assessment, also claiming that the change could bring big price cuts at the low end.

In a research report issued earlier today, the site once again asserted that Apple plans to expand its lineup of iPads by adding models that serve the "high-end segment" and "the midrange," while continuing to offer the iPad 2.

"With the existing iPad 2, the Apple tablet series may cover all price segments--from entry-level to high-end. Apple's pricing strategy for its iPad series is crucial to the tablet market. It remains to be seen at what price level Apple will set its entry-level iPad. For Wi-Fi-only models, U.S. $299, U.S. $349 or U.S. $399 may all be possible," the outlet said.

A $299 iPad has been available before, but there were caveats galore. It was Apple's first-generation device, and it only sold at fire sale prices through third-party carrier stores following the introduction of Apple's second-generation model.

Since then, competitors have emerged, including and its Kindle Fire, which made waves near the end of last year, selling for $199. While not sporting as big of a display, and missing a handful of hardware features found on the iPad, it sells for less than half the price of Apple's current entry-level iPad, with reports pegging sales at 1 million units a week during December.

Apple has maintained the same pricing structure since the introduction of the iPad in 2010, offering Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 3G models of the tablet at different pricing tiers for its 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB models. The entry-level 16GB model with Wi-Fi starts at $499, with each additional tier of storage, plus optional 3G networking, tacking on costs scaling up to $829.

One important consideration is the cost of producing the iPad. A teardown of the iPad 2 by IHS-owned iSupply last year estimated the total cost of Apple's two 32GB models to start at $326.60, with manufacturing costs pushing that total north of $333. iSuppli lists the LCD screen as the most expensive part of the tablet, at $127. Costs could have certainly come down between then and now, but Apple is expected to be utilizing panels with considerably higher pixel density in the next iPad, something that does not come cheap.

Apple has been known to make considerable price cuts on its products, though such moves have been few and far between. The shortlist includes the $200 price cut on the original iPhone, a move that came a little more than two months after its introduction and infuriated early buyers, leading to Apple offering iTunes gift cards as an apology. There was also the $500 price cut on the solid-state version of its first-generation MacBook Air.

The suggested iPad price cut comes alongside price reductions on two high-profile tablets in recent days, with Sony knocking $100 off the price of its S series tablet over the weekend, and Research In Motion dropping the price of its entire line of PlayBook tablets to $299, down from its $499 starting point.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Hackers get iOS apps to run full-screen on Apple TV

While you were buying the New Years bubbly and party horns, hackers were busy this weekend figuring out how to run iOS apps natively on Apple TV--and in full screen.

Dublin-based hacker and iOS developer Steven Troughton-Smith--known for getting Siri to work on an iPhone 4 and iPod Touch and even somewhat on an iPhone 3GS--says over the past couple days he and a fellow hacker have managed to get a jailbroken second-generation Apple TV to run iOS apps in full screen at 720p.

The hack, first reported by 9to5Mac, isn't publically available and is considered more of a proof of concept at this time. He says it was done using a custom springboard written by Nick@TheMudKip on a jailbroken Apple TV.

"Nick had written this amazing window manager for the iPad that replaced the entire homescreen, allowing you to run multiple apps side by side, and I realized this could enable iOS apps on the AppleTV for the first time," Troughten-Smith told CNET, adding that he hasn't heard a thing from Apple. "We've spent the past 2 days modifying everything to work really well on the AppleTV screen size, etc, and getting apps to run."


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sony slashes Tablet S price, signaling trend

Sony has knocked $100 off the price of its S series tablet, another sign that non-Apple tablet pricing is trending downward.

The 16GB Tablet S is now $400, reduced from $500, while the 32GB model got cut to $500 from $600.

Specs include a 9.4-inch 1280x800 display, front and rear cameras, Android Honeycomb, 1GB system memory, and eight hours of rated battery life.

Sony is by no means is the first to wield an ax on pricing. RIM's BlackBerry Playbook is the most extreme recent example of tablet price deflation. The PlayBook has been selling--depending on the week--for $300 off its original price.

But Android tablet (the PlayBook uses the BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet operating system) prices are also trending downward from their rarified $700-$800 price tier 2-year-contract-only beginnings.

Consumer 10-inch Android tablets like the 16GB Lenovo IdeaPad K1 Tablet (Wi-Fi only) and 16GB Acer Iconia (Wi-Fi) are priced relatively low from the get-go, now listed at $319.99 and $359.99, respectively at Best Buy. And the 16GB Toshiba Thrive (Wi-Fi) and the 16GB Asus Eee Pad Transformer (Wi-Fi) are both $400.

Is that low enough to trigger significant consumer demand for a 10-inch class tablet? Only the tablet suppliers know for sure but Amazon and Barnes and Noble are not making it any easier by releasing 7-inch tablets for $199 and $249, respectively. The Kindle Fire, in particular, is seeing very strong demand.

Alas, Apple, so far, is pretty much immune to the price pressure impacting mere mortal tablet makers. Ranging from $499 to $829, Apple still sells over ten million tablets per quarter.

Verizon apparently didn't get that memo, though. The carrier just released the Motorola XyBoard priced between $529.99 and $729.99 with a two-year contract (and as much as $899.99 without a contract).