May 17, 2013
How Motorola Solutions made two mobile computers condensation- and freezer-proof
Good phone conversation today with the PR folks from Motorola Solutions. The occasion was the introduction of two interesting new products, the Omni XT15f industrial handheld, and the Psion VH10f vehicle-mount computer. The key here is the "f" in both of the names. It stands for "freezer" and that's what the two new devices are all about. Big deal?
Actually, yes. At least for workers who use their computers in and around freezers. That includes storage of perishable foods, the strictly temperature-controlled environments where medications are stored, and numerous other places for goods that need to be or stay frozen. So what's the issue? You just get devices that can handle the cold and that's it, right?
Yes, and no. While the environmental specs of most rugged computing devices include their operating temperature range, the range only tells the temperatures within which the device can be used. In the real world, and particularly when working around freezers, temperature alone isn't the whole issue. What matters is how a device can handle frequent, rapid changes in temperature. The real enemy then becomes condensation, and not so much temperature. Extreme temperatures remain an issue, of course, but one that must be addressed as part of the larger issue of rapidly changing temperatures.
So what exactly happens? Well, if you go from a hot and humid loading dock into a freezer, the rapidly cooling air in and around a device loses its ability to carry moisture, which then becomes condensation. That condensation then freezes, which can cause frost on displays, rendering them illegible, frozen keys on the keypad, and possibly internal shorts. When the worker leaves the freezer environment, the frost quickly melts, again affecting legibility of the display and possibly causing electrical shorts. It's quite obvious that extended cycling between those two environments not only makes the device difficult to use, but it's almost certainly going to cause damage over time.
Now add to that the slowing down of displays in extreme cold and the general loss of battery capacity, and it becomes obvious why this is an issue for anyone using mobile computers in those environments. And hence the new "freezer" versions of those two Motorola Solutions products (Omnii XT15f on the left, Psion VH10f on the right).
So what did Motorola do? Weber Shandwick's ever helpful Anne Norburg suggested I talk to the source and arranged the call, and so I had a chance to ask Amanda Honig and Bill Abelson of Motorola's media team. The overall challenge, they said, was to provide reliable "frost- and condensation-free" scanning. In order to do that, they had to address a number of issues:
Since the scan window can fog up, they used internal heaters to automatically defog the window, thus facilitating accurate scans under any condition.
Since external condensation can quickly freeze around keys and make the keypad difficult or impossible to operate, they designed special freeze-resistant keyboard layouts with larger and more widely spaces keys.
Since the airspace between the LCD display and the touchscreen overlay can fog up from condensation and make the display unreadable and imprecise to operate, they optically bonded layers to eliminate air spaces and used a heater to eliminate internal display fogging.
Since battery capacity tanks in very low temperatures and standard batteries can get damaged, they used special low temperature batteries with higher capacities and minimized performance loss at low temperatures.
And to make sure this all worked transparently and without needing any worker involvement, they included environmental sensors and heater logic circuitry so that the device automatically handles the rapidly changing temperatures and humidity. There are, however, also ways to do it manually.
Finally, since it makes no sense to overbuild, they offer two versions. One is called "Chiller" and is considered "condensation-resistant," with an operating temperature range of -4 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The other is called "Arctic" and is considered "condensation-free." That one can handle -22 to 122 degrees. The Chiller and Arctic versions add US$700 and US$1,100, respectively, to the cost of the basic Omni XT15 handheld computer. If it means fewer equipment hassles when getting in and out of freezers, that's a small price to pay.
There's another interesting aspect to all this. Changing and upgrading existing equipment is never easy, but in this case it was made easier because Psion, even prior to its acquisition by Motorola Solutions, had given much thought to modular design as a means to quickly and easily adapt to special requirements, easier maintenance, and also to future-proofing. At the very least this means much of the repairs and maintenance can be done in the field. And I wouldn't be surprised if it also made it easier to come up with these special versions
May 14, 2013
Handheld: Pursuit of a vision
I had a chance yesterday to meet over dinner with Sofia Löfblad, Marketing Director at Handheld Group AB, and Amy Urban who is the Director of Marketing at Handheld US. I hadn't seen them since I presented at the Handheld Business Partner Conference in Stockholm three years ago, and it was a pleasure catching up in person.
The Handheld Group (not to be confused with Hand Held Products, which is now part of Honeywell) is a remarkable rugged mobile computing success story. Having its origins as a distributor of vertical market mobile computers from the likes of Husky, TDS and others, Handheld went on to establish its own identity with its own distinct product lines. In fact, they call themselves a "virtual manufacturer."
What does that mean? Well, while it is not unusual for larger distributors to resell OEM products under their own name, Handheld went one step farther. They not only have their own brands (Nautiz for rugged handhelds, Algiz for rugged tablets), but also their own design language and color scheme (Sofia even knew the precise Pantone color numbers), and they often have exclusive arrangements with their OEMs. So in addition to having a very cohesive brand identity and consistent look, Handheld products are less likely to immediately be identified by industry followers as rebranded versions of a common design.
How has that worked out for the Handheld Group? Apparently quite well. They now have ten facilities all over the world, as well as several hundred authorized partners. And they've been able to score impressive wins like a contract for 10,000 rugged handhelds with Netherland Railways against much larger competition.
They also proved their knack for coming out with the right product at the right time with devices such as the Algiz 10X (a rugged but light and handy 10-inch tablet), the Algiz XRW (a super-compact rugged notebook), and the Nautiz X1, which they call the toughest smartphone in the world. On the surface, that doesn't sound all that terribly exciting, but it really is, and here's why:
I am on record as bemoaning the demise of the netbook, those small and handy notebooks that used to sell by the tens of millions. Then they disappeared due to a combination of being replaced by consumer tablets, and, even more so, an unfortunate industry tendency to keep netbooks so stunted in their capabilities as to render them virtually useless for anything but the most basic tasks. Well, now that they are gone, many wish they could still get a small, competent Windows notebook that's tough and rugged, but isn't as big, expensive and bulky as a full-size rugged notebook. And that is the Algiz XRW. I've liked it ever since I took an early version on a marine expedition to the Socorro islands a couple of years ago (see Case Study: Computers in Diving and Marine Exploration. And the latest is the best one yet (see here).
The Algiz 10X likewise is a Q-ship (i.e. an innocuous looking object that packs an unexpected punch). On the surface, it's just a rugged legacy tablet, albeit a remarkably compact and lightweight version. And while that is mostly what it is, the 10X hits a sweet spot between old-style rugged tablet and new-style media tablet. One that will likely resonate with quite a few buyers who still need full Windows 7 and full ruggedness on a tablet and also some legacy ports, all the while also wanting a bright wide-format hi-res screen and a nice contemporary look.
Then there's the Nautiz X1 rugged smartphone, and that's a real mindblower. By now there are quite a few attempts at providing consumer smartphone functionality in a tougher package, but none as small, sleek and elegant as the Nautiz X1. It measures 4.9 x 2.6 inches, which is exactly the size of the Samsung Galaxy S2 (the one before Samsung decided to make the displays almost as big as a tablet). At 0.6 inches it's thicker, and it weighs 6.3 ounces, but for that you get IP67 sealing (yes, totally waterproof), a ridiculously wide -4 to 140 degree operating temperature range, and all the MIL-STD-810G ruggedness specs you'd usually only get from something big and bulky. Which the Nautiz X1 definitely is not.
In fact, with its gorgeous 4-inch 800 x 480 pixel procap screen, Android 4.x, and fully contemporary smartphone guts, this is the tough smartphone Lowe's should have looked at before they bought all those tens of thousands of iPhones (see here). Don't get me wrong—I adore the iPhone, but it's devices like the Handheld Nautiz X1 that belong in the hands of folks who use smartphones on the job all day long, and on jobs where they get dropped and rained on and so on.
I don't know if Handheld is large enough to take full advantage of the remarkable products they have. They've done it before with that big contract in the Netherlands. But whatever may happen, it's hard not to be impressed with their fresh and competent products that go along with their great people, and their fresh and competently executed business plan.
April 24, 2013
Last week, as I came to a stop at a red light, a police car stopped in the lane next to me. What immediately caught my eye was an expertly mounted rugged notebook computer, angled towards the driver. It was a GD-Itronix rugged notebook, probably a GD6000 or GD8200, with an elegant matte-silver powder-coated insert on top of the magnesium alloy computer case that prominently featured the "General Dynamics" brand name. The officer perused the screen, then looked up, and briefly our eyes met. He had no idea how well I knew that computer in his car, and the one that came before it, and the one before that.
I began following Itronix in the mid-1990s when their rugged notebooks still carried the X-C designation that stood for "Cross Country." Around that time, Itronix purchased British Husky and with that came the FEX21, and since Windows CE was starting to come on strong in smaller rugged devices, Itronix also introduced the tough little T5200 clamshell. I remember a call with Itronix in 1996 or so when I was watching my infant son in the office for an hour or two while his mom was shopping. The little guy was not happy and screamed his head off the entire time I was on the phone with Matt Gerber who told me not to worry as he had a couple of young kids himself. I remember hoping he didn't think we were running a monkey operation.
Around the turn of the millennium, Itronix in a clear challenge to Panasonic's rugged, yet stylish Toughbooks, launched the GoBook. It was a clean, elegant, impressive machine with such cool features as a waterproof "NiteVue" keyboard with phosphorescent keys, and seamless, interference-shielded integration of a variety of radio options. I was impressed.
That first GoBook would quickly evolve into larger, more powerful versions and then spawn a whole line of GoBook branded rugged notebooks, tablets and interesting new devices such as the GoBook MR-1 that measured just 6 x 4.5 inches, yet brought full Windows in a super-rugged 2.5-pound package to anyone who needed the whole Windows experience in such a small device. On the big boy side came the impressive GoBook II, then III, and then "Project Titan," the incomparable GoBook XR-1. At the time we said that it had "raised the bar for high performance rugged notebooks by a considerable margin. It has done so by offering a near perfect balance of performance, versatility, ruggedness and good industrial design." High praise indeed, and totally deserved.
Itronix also branched out into the vehicle market with the semi-rugged GoBook VR-1 and into tablets with first the GoBook Tablet PC and then the GoBook Duo-Touch that combined both a touchscreen and an active digitizer into one small but rugged package. But even that wasn't all. With the introduction of the GoBook VR-2 came DynaVue, a truly superior new display technology that just blew my mind. Tim Hill and Marie Hartis had flown down from Spokane to demonstrate DynaVue on the new VR-2, and both could hardly contain their excitement. DynaVue ended up revolutionizing rugged systems display technology with a very clever combination of layering of filters and polarizers, and its approach became the basis of outdoor-viewable display technology still in use today.
I'll never forget a factory tour of the Itronix main facility in Spokane, meeting and speaking with some of the most dedicated engineers, designers, product planners and marketing people in the industry. I visited their ruggedness testing (I always called it "torture testing") lab which rivaled what I had seen at Intermec and at Panasonic in Japan. I spoke with their service people, the folks on the shop floor and with management. What a talented and enthusiastic group of people. The sky seemed the limit. (See report of the 2006 Spokane factory tour)
But change was brewing. Itronix's stellar performance had attracted suitors, and giant defense contractor General Dynamics, then a US$20 billion company with some 70,000 staff, felt Itronix would nicely complement and enhance its already massive roster of logistics, computing and military hardware. The sale had come as no surprise. Everyone knew it was eventually going to happen. Equity investment firm Golden Gate Capital had purchased Itronix in 2003 from former parent Acterna with the intent of prepping Itronix for a sale. Within just two years, Itronix prospered enough to make it a lucrative proposition for General Dynamics. Within Itronix, the hope was that the sheer mention of the name "General Dynamics" would open doors.
In our GoBook VR-1 review we cautiously offered that "the change in ownership will be both a challenge and a tremendous opportunity for Itronix."
Turns out we were right about the challenge part. The "GoBook" was quickly dropped in favor of a GDxxxx nomenclature, and with it the laboriously earned GoBook brand equity. There were attempts to somehow merge another GD acquisition, Tadpole, into Itronix, and that turned out to be difficult. No one seemed to know what to expect. And then the hammer fell.
In early 2009, General Dynamics announced it would phase out the Itronix computer manufacturing and service facility in Spokane, Washington and operate the business out of Sunrise, Florida where the company's C4 Systems division had an engineering facility instead. It was a terrible blow for Spokane, where losing Itronix meant the loss of almost 400 jobs. And the cross-country move meant Itronix lost most of what had made Itronix the vibrant company it had been.
It was never the same after that. On the surface things continued to look good for a while. There seemed a cohesive product line with GD2000, GD3000, GD4000, GD6000 and GD8000 rugged computing families. But from an editorial perspective, we were now dealing with people who didn't seem to know very much about the rugged computing business at all. And there no longer seemed a direction. Some of the final products were simply rebadged products from other companies. Eventually, there was mostly silence.
In January 2013, I was told that "after in-depth market research and analysis, we have determined that it is in the best interests of our company, customers and partners to phase out a number of our General Dynamics Itronix rugged computing products." In April 2013 came the end: "Itronix has phased out all products."
That's very sad. A once great company gone. Could it have been different? Perhaps. But Itronix was often fighting against the odds. Even in its heydays, Itronix primarily worked with Taiwanese OEMs whereas its major competitors at Panasonic and Getac controlled their entire production process. In addition, while its location in Spokane was a calming constant, Itronix ownership was forever in flux. Itronix was started in 1989 as a unit of meter-reading company Itron to make rugged handheld computers. It was spun off from Itron in 1992, then sold to rugged computer maker Telxon in 1993. In 1997, telecom testing gear company Dynatech Corp. bought Itronix from Telxon for about $65 million. Dynatech changed its name to Acterna in 2000, but fell on hard times and sold Itronix to private equity firm Golden Gate Capital in 2003 for just US$40 million in cash. Golden Gate held on to it for a couple of years before General Dynamics came along. -- The band Jefferson Starship comes to mind here, with Grace Slick charging "Someone always playing corporation games; Who cares they're always changing corporation names..."
Perhaps there could have been a management buyout. Perhaps the City of Spokane could have helped. But that didn't happen, and though in hindsight it seems like a natural, there are always reasons why things happen the way they happen.
As is, there once was a superbly innovative company called Itronix, and they did good. I will miss them, and so probably will everyone interested in rugged computing equipment. I bet the police officer I saw with his Itronix laptop will, too.
March 27, 2013
Xplore adds Common Access Card reader-equipped rugged tablet for military and government
This morning, March 27, 2013, Xplore Technologies introduced a new version of their ultra-rugged tablet computer, the iX104C5-M2. In essence, this is a specialized model for military and government personnel that require additional hardware security on top of the various security hardware, software and firmware measures already inherent in modern computing technology. What the new M2 model adds is an integrated common access card (CAC) reader. With the reader, in order to get access to critical data, a U.S. government issued ISO 7816 smart card must be inserted.
Why is the ability to read such cards and to provide data access only with such a card important? Because it's mandated in directives and policies such as the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12) that requires that all federal executive departments and agencies use secure and reliable forms of identification for employees and contractors. A chip in the CAC contains personal data, such as fingerprint images, special IDs and digital certificates that allow access to certain federally controlled systems and locations. As a result, both Federal agencies and private enterprise are now implementing FIPS 201-compliant ID programs.
But what exactly do all those card terms mean? What's, for example, the difference between a CAC and a PIV card, and how do they relate to Smart Cards in the first place? Well, the term "smart card" is generic. It's simply a card with a chip in it. The chip can then be used for data storage, access, or even application processing. A CAC is a specific type of smart card used by the US Department of Defense. A PIV (Personal Identification Verification) card is also a FIPS 201-compliant smart card used by the Federal government, but it's for civilian users. Then there's also a PIV-I smart card where the "I" stands for "Interoperable," and that one is for non-Federal users to access government systems.
The way a CAC works, specifically, is that once it's been inserted into the CAC reader, a PIN must be entered and the reader then checks via network connection with a government certificate authority server, and then either grants or denies access. The CAC stays in the reader for the entire session. Once it's removed, the session (and access) ends.
What this means is that only computers that have a CAC reader can be used for certain military and other governmental work. And the new Xplore iX104C5-M2 provides that reader. It's built directly into the chassis where it is secured and protected.
I had a chance to talk with Xplore Technologies representatives prior to the release of the new model. They said they created this new version specifically to meet the requirements of the Department of Defense, the Air Force, and Homeland Security. According to them, the potential market for CAC-equipped ruggedized tablet is 50,000-100,000 units. Considering that a rugged Xplore tablet lists for over US$5k, that would value that market at between half a billion and a billion dollars. Xplore's competition, of course, will step up to bat as well, and not all CAC-equipped computers will require the superior ruggedness and portability of an Xplore tablet,. But it's easy to see why Xplore, a company with roughly US$30 million in annual sales, would throw its hat in the ring. Even winning a small percentage of the estimated value of this market could have a sizable impact on Xplore.
While I'm at it, let me recap what Xplore Technologies is all about and what they have to offer. Unlike the flood of Johnny-come-latelies attempting to grab a slice of the booming tablet market, Xplore has been making tablets for the better part of two decades. Starting in the mid-1990s, the company began offering some of the finest and most innovative rugged tablet computers available. They were at the forefront with integrating multiple wireless options into a rugged tablet, offering truly outdoor-readable displays, and providing dual mode digitizers that automatically switched between active pen and touch. We reviewed their current iX104C5 tablet platform in detail a couple of years ago (see here) and declared it "one of the best rugged tablet designs available today." In the meantime, Xplore has broadened the appeal of the platform with a number of versions targeted at specific industries and clienteles, and this latest M2 version continues that tradition with a very timely product.
See the Xplore iX104C5-M2 product page.
March 06, 2013
When the fire chief wants iPads instead of rugged gear
The other day I was engaged in a conversation at a party. Turns out my conservation partner was the fire chief of an affluent community of about 120,000. We talked about our respective jobs and soon found we had something incommon: rugged computing equipment. They use Panasonic Toughbooks, but the fire chief said something that has been on my mind for a while now. He said they liked the Toughbooks just fine, but he considered them much too expensive and they'd just buy iPads instead. He said he doesn't care if the iPads break, they'll just replace them with new ones because consumer tablets cost so little.
I can see that rationale. It's one thing if a professional tool costs 50% more than a consumer grade tool. But another if the professional tool costs five to ten times as much. Over the past few years I've seen large chains buy massive numbers of consumer smartphones and tablets instead of the rugged industrial-grade handhelds and tablets they used to buy. Sometimes it seems like the rugged computing industry is missing out on a great opportunity to benefit from the boom in smartphones and tablets by staying with older technologies and very high-end pricing instead of offering ruggedized versions of what today's consumers want.
February 07, 2013
Not your father's Celeron
In my last blog article I wrote about the needless demise of netbooks, and how that demise was due more to the fact that people loved the rock-bottom price of netbooks but then found them too small and lacking in performance, so they asked for more size and performance. The industry complied with larger, more powerful netbooks, but that meant they cost more and netbooks weren't netbooks anymore. So people stopped buying them. I also wrote how, in my opinion, Intel's inexpensive Atom processors both made the netbook by making the low price possible, but then contributed to the demise of the netbook with their often unacceptable performance. Unfortunately, the unacceptable performance level of Atom processors also affected a lot of other industrial and vertical market devices based on Atoms.
So we have this unfortunate situation: Atom processors (of which there are by now about 50 different models) don't cost a lot, usually well under US$100, with some in the US$20 range. But they are also very marginal performers, so much so that not only netbook vendors abandoned them, but also a good number of vertical market manufacturers which quietly switched to "real" Intel Core processors. Unfortunately, even the low-end mobile Core i3 chips cost in the low US$200 range, and mobile Core-i7 chips usually closer to US$400. Those are huge price differences with major impacts on low-cost consumer electronics (though one would think far less impact on much higher priced vertical market computers where the processor makes for a much lower percentage of the overall purchase price).
What that all means is that there's an unfortunate gap between the inexpensive but rather underpowered Atom chips, and the beefy but much more expensive Core processors. (Oh, and while I'm at it, here's basically the difference between the by now three generations of Intel Core chips: First gen: good performance, but power hogs with insufficient graphics. Second gen: good performers with much better gas mileage but still sluggish graphics. Third gen: good performance, economical, and much better graphics.) But now to get back to the big gap between Atoms and Core processors: there's actually something in-between: Celerons and Pentiums.
Celerons and Pentiums? But weren't Pentiums old chips going back to the early 1990s and then being replaced by Core processors? And weren't Celerons bargain-basement versions of those old Pentiums? Yes that's so, but there are still Celerons and Pentiums in Intel's lineup, and they are NOT your father's Celerons and Pentiums, they are now slightly detuned versions of Core processors. They should really call them Core-i1 or some such.
But let me explain, because those new-gen Celerons and Pentiums may well be one of the best-kept secrets in the processor world. If you go to the Intel website and look up their mobile processor lineups, you'll find them neatly organized by generation and then by Core Duo, Core 2 Duo, i3, i5, and i7. Celerons are still listed as either Celeron M Processors or Celeron Mobile Processors. The Celeron Ms are old hat and many go back a decade or more. The Celeron Mobile processors, however, include many models that are much newer, with the Celeron 10xx low and ultra-low voltage models launched in Q1 of 2013, i.e. as of this writing. I would have never noticed this, and probably would have continued thinking of Celerons as obsolete bargain processors, had it not been for an Acer mini notebook I just bought as a replacement for my vintage (2008) Acer Aspire One netbook.
You see, my new Aspire One has an 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 pixel screen and is really still a netbook, with netbook looks and a netbook price (I bought it as a refurb for US$250), but it has a Celeron instead of an Atom processor. The 1.4GHz Celeron 877, to be exact, introduced Q2 of 2012, and an ultra-low voltage design with a thermal design power of 17 watts. It uses the Sandy Bridge architecture of the second gen Core processors, and reportedly costs about US$70, no more than a higher end Atom chip, and only about US$25 more than the Atom N2600. Now how would that work, a real Sandy Bridge, non-Atom chip in a netbook?
Turns out very well.
The Celeron-powered little Acer ran a 1,261 PassMark CPU score compared to Atom-powered devices in our rather comprehensive benchmark database reaching from a low of 163 (Atom N270) to a high of 512 (D510). The Celeron ran CrystalMark memory benchmarks between two and five times faster than the Atoms, and CrystalMark GDI benchmarks between three and five times faster. The Celeron 877 netbook also powered through most other benchmarks much faster than any Atom-based device. As a result, by netbook standard this new son-of-netbook absolutely flies. And it handles HD video, a big sore sport with early netbooks, without a problem.
But what about battery life and heat? After all, most of those mobile Atom chips have minuscule thermal design power of between two and five watts (with the exception of the D510, which is at 13 watts) whereas, though designated a "ultra-low power" chip, the Celeron's TDP is 17 watts. Reviews on the web complain about insufficient battery life of this particular Acer Aspire One (the AO756-2888). Well, that's because to keep the price low, Acer gave this netbook only a wimpy 4-cell 37 watt-hour battery. Most earlier netbooks had beefier 6-cell batteries.
In real life, our benchmark testing always suggested that Atom power management was relatively poor whereas ever since Sandy Bridge (second gen) Core processor power management has been excellent. So the difference between Atom and Core-based power consumption can be a lot less than one would assume based on TDP alone. And that was exactly what I found with the Celeron in this new Acer netbook. BatteryMon power draw (with WiFi on), was as little as 6 watts. That's actually LESS than what we have observed in a good number of Atom-powered devices (and also less than my old 2008 Atom N270-powered Acer netbook). Sure, the top end of the Celeron-based machine is so much higher that it can draw down the battery quicker than an Atom device, but under normal use, the Sandy Bridge guts of the Celeron handle power management very, very well. As for heat, my new little Acer has a quiet fan, but it actually stays cooler and the fan comes on less often than that in my 2008 Atom-based netbook.
I am not an electric engineer and so my conclusions about relative processor performance come from benchmarking, real life experience, and perusing Intel's tech specs. Based on that, I'd have to say the Pentium and Celeron versions of Intel's Core processors deserve a whole lot more attention in the mobile space. I don't know what it actually looks like at the chip level, but it feels like Intel starts with essentially one design, then adds features here and there (like all the extra Intel technologies in the Core i7 chips) and omits or perhaps disables those them in lower level chips. As a result, the inherent goodness and competence of an Intel Core chip generation may be available in those little-known Celeron and Pentium versions, if not all of the features of the more expensive SKUs.
What does that all mean? Obviously, for those who need to run the latest and most 3D-intensive video game at insane frame rates, only the very best and most expensive will do. And the same goes for those who absolutely need one or more of those extra features and technologies baked in or enabled in i5 and i7 chips. If that is not an issue, the Celeron versions may just be a very well kept secret and a terrific bargain. The Celeron 877 sitting in my lowly new netbook absolutely runs rings around any Atom-based device, and it does so without even trying hard and while treating battery power as the precious commodity it is.
So.... if I were a designer and manufacturer of vertical market industrial and rugged devices, I'd think long and hard before committing to yet another underpowered Atom chip that'll leave customers underwhelmed before long, and instead check what else Intel may have in its parts bin. There are some real bargains there, good ones.
February 04, 2013
The needless demise of the netbook
Three or so years ago, netbooks sold by the millions. Today, they're gone, replaced by tablets and larger, more powerful notebooks. What happened? I mean, it's not as if tens of millions of people wanted a netbook a few years ago, and today no one wants one.
What's not to like about a small and handy notebook computer that runs full Windows and costs a whole lot less than even inexpensive larger notebooks? So much less that the purchase price of a netbook was close to making it an impulse buy.
The problem was, of course, that while the price was right, netbooks themselves weren't. Slowly running Windows on a very small display with marginal resolution quickly turned the netbook experience sour. The very term "netbook" implied quick and easy access to the web, an inexpensive way to be online anytime and anywhere. Well, netbooks were so underpowered as to make that browsing and online experience painful. It didn't have to be that way, but market realities painted the netbook into a corner where it withered and died.
It's not that the technology wasn't there to make netbooks fast and satisfying enough to become a permanent addition to what consumers would want to buy. And it wasn't even that the technology required to make netbooks as powerful as they needed to be without disappointing customers would have been too expensive. It's just that making such products available would have cannibalized more profitable larger notebooks. And consumers who demanded larger, more powerful netbooks at the same low price also weren't thinking it through.
There's a reason why compact technology demands a premium price. An unsubsidized 3-ounce smartphone costs as much as a 50-inch HD TV. A loaded Mini Cooper costs as much as a much larger SUV or truck. And ultra-mobile notebooks have always cost more than run-of-the-mill standard ones. It's the MacBook Air syndrome that dictates that sleek elegance and light weight costs extra. Netbooks broke that rule by promising the full Windows experience in an ultra-compact device at an ultra-low price.
You can't do that in the Wintel world. Something had to give. And that was acceptable performance. I would not go as far as declaring Intel's entire Atom project as a frustrating, needless failure as there are many Atom-based products that work just fine. But the whole approach of making processors not as good and fast as they could be but throttled and limited enough so as not to interfere with sales of much more expensive processors is fundamentally flawed. It's like promising people an inexpensive car, but then they find out it can't drive uphill.
So netbooks were flawed from the start in infuriating ways. The 1024 x 600 display format endlessly cut off the bottom of just about everything because just about everything is designed for at least a 1024 x 768 display. And that was the least of netbooks' annoying traits. Performance was the biggest problem. The Atom N270 processor in almost all early netbooks had painfully insufficient graphics performance, and was completely unable to play the HD video that people could generate on every cheap camera and phone. The endless wait for a netbook to complete any task beyond the very basics quickly turned people off. Yes, the small size and weight, the low cost, and the good battery life sold tens of millions of netbooks, but their inadequacy soon relegated them to the dustbin. In my case, I quickly realized that a netbook did not replace a larger notebook with standard performance; it just meant I had to take with me both the netbook AND the real computer.
So people demanded more. The original netbooks had 7-inch screens, but that quickly grew to 8.9 inches for all those Acer Aspire Ones and Asus Eee PCs. And then that wasn't large enough and so the netbook vendors switched to 10.1 inch screens. And then to whatever new Atom processors Intel introduced. Then tablets came and it was just so much easier, quicker and more pleasant to use a tablet to browse the web that the netbooks' shortcomings became even more evident.
With netbooks' fortunes waning but the iPad's tablet success turning out to be frustratingly difficult to copy, netbook vendors gave it one last shot. 11.6 inch screens with full 1366 x 768 720p resolution. AMD processors instead of Atom (short-lived and unsatisfactory). And finally ditching the Atom in favor of Intel Celeron and Pentium chips, which had little to do with the Celeron and Pentium M chips of yore but simply were wing-clipped version of Intel's Core processors. By doing that, netbooks ceased to be netbooks. They had become smallish notebooks with decent performance, but without the endearing compactness, small weight and rock bottom prices that once had given netbooks such allure.
And battery life suffered as well.Try as anyone might, it's just not possible to run a 11.6 inch screen and a 17-watt Celeron or Pentium for nearly as long on a battery charge as an 8.9-inch screen with a 2-watt Atom. So that quality of netbooks was gone, too.
Where does that leave all those folks who wanted a cheap and simple little notebook for when space, cost and weight mattered? Nowhere, really. Tablets are wonderful and I wouldn't want to be without mine, but they are not full-function computers. Not as long as real productivity software isn't available for them, and not as long as tablet makers act as if something as simple and necessary as being able to do or look at two things at once were the second coming. Fewer dropped calls, anyone?
So for now, if you peruse Best Buy or CostCo or Fry's ads, you either get a tablet or a notebook with a 14-inch screen or larger, or you spring for an expensive Macbook Air or an Ultrabook.
That leaves a big void, and a bad taste in the mouth. For the fact is that there could be totally competent netbooks in the impulse buy price range if it weren't for the reality that Intel makes all those pricey Core processors that all by themselves can cost several times as much as a basic netbook. Which means the myth that you need a real Intel Core processor to run Windows and not just some wimpy ARM chip must be upheld. Personally, I do not believe that for a second, but the financial fortunes of two major technology companies (Microsoft and Intel) are built upon this mantra, and that won't change unless something gives.
So what did I do when my little old 8.9-inch Acer Aspire One finally gave out? First despair because I couldn't find a contemporary replacement, then grudgingly accept the reality of the netbook's demise and buy a new Aspire One, one with an 11.6-inch 720p screen and a Celeron processor. I got a refurbished one from Acer because it was cheaper and comes with Windows 7 instead of Windows 8. So there.
But what if a low, low price is not the issue and you want something really rugged in the (former) netbook size and weight category? Then you get an Algiz XRW from the Handheld Group. It's small and light enough, runs forever on a charge thanks to using a little engine that for the most part can (the Atom N2600), and has a 720p screen good enough for real, contemporary work. And it's for all practical purposes indestructible.
January 14, 2013
On the Microsoft front ...
Well, on the Microsoft side of things, a couple of areas are becoming a bit clearer. Not much, but a bit.
At the National Retail Federation (NRF) Annual Convention & Expo in New York, Microsoft issued a press release entitled "Microsoft Delivers Windows Embedded 8 Handheld for Enterprise Handheld Devices." That title is a bit misleading as those handhelds, prototypes of which were shown by Motorola Solutions, are not available yet, and Microsoft won't even release the Windows Embedded 8 Handheld SDK until later this year. However, after having stranded the vertical and industrial market with the by now very obsolete Windows Embedded Handheld (nee Windows Mobile 6.5) for a good couple of years, at least now it looks like Microsoft will offer a vertical market version of Windows Phone 8 for all those who want a handheld with a Microsoft OS on it instead of Android.
There will, of course, not be an upgrade path from Windows Mobile/Embedded Handheld to Windows Embedded 8 Handheld, just as there wasn't one from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone 7, or from Windows Phone 7/7.5 to Windows Phone 8. Still, at least having the prospect of soon getting an up-to-date mini Windows OS that's reasonably compatible with Windows 8 itself should be a huge relief to all those rugged handheld manufacturers who've been under increasing pressure of offering Android-based devices. Then again, Microsoft once again pre-announcing a product that doesn't even ship its SDK yet will also further perpetuate the uncertain vertical market handheld OS status quo, and likely lead to more customers deciding to simply get readily available consumer smartphones instead of waiting for the vertical market smoke to clear.
On the tablet side, we have the, by most accounts, less than stellar reception of Windows 8. Microsoft will likely correct the situation with Windows 8 over time, but as far as tablets go, it's pretty easy to draw some preliminary conclusions: Like, no matter how good the Windows Surface RT tablet hardware was/is, without being able to run what most people will consider "Windows" for many years to come, Windows RT is simply not going to fly. If the Metro interface were a runaway hit and there were tons of Metro apps, perhaps. But as is, anyone who needs to use any "legacy" Windows software is out of luck with Windows RT. So it's a Windows CE situation all over again: Windows RT must not be too powerful or else it'll eat into Windows 8 marketshare. And there can't be a perception that ARM-based tablets are capable of running "real" Windows, or else there'd be no reason to spend a lot more for Intel-based tablet.
January 04, 2013
Big changes at General Dynamics Itronix
Eagle-eyed RuggedPCReview readers may have noticed something missing from the front page of our site: the General Dynamics Itronix logo in the site sponsor column. Yes, for the first time since the launch of RuggedPCReview, Itronix is not among our sponsors anymore. That's sad as Itronix was our first sponsor, and prior to that we had covered all those rugged Itronix GoBooks and other rugged mobile devices in Pen Computing Magazine since the mid-1990s.
What happened? We're not sure, but an email exchange with Doug Petteway, General Dynamics C4 Systems director of product management and marketing yielded that the company is "restructuring its portfolio of rugged products to focus more on high value targeted solutions rather than the mass commodity market" and that while they'll continue selling the GD6000, GD8000 and GD8200 rugged notebooks through early 2013, the entire rest of the lineup of Itronix rugged mobile computing products is discontinued.
Petteway made the following statement:
"At General Dynamics C4 Systems, we have a set of core capabilities that we are leveraging aggressively to expand and grow in key markets. To maximize our potential for success, we must continually assess and refine our portfolio, investing in critical gap-filling capabilities that enable us to deliver highly relevant “must-have” solutions while also phasing out offerings that are no longer in high demand, freeing up valuable investment resources.
After in-depth market research and analysis, we have determined that it is in the best interests of our company, customers and partners to phase out a number of our General Dynamics Itronix rugged computing products. This decision may affect the solutions customers buy from us today. Please know that General Dynamics C4 Systems’ management team wants to assure you that our customer needs remain our first priority.
As always, customer satisfaction is paramount and we will continue to ensure our customers receive the service and support in full accordance with our warranty commitments.
We remain focused on being an industry leader with proven, high value communications, computing, security and mobility solutions for our customers.
Additional announcements will be made in the near future."
That doesn't sound very good, and not having all those rugged Itronix notebooks and tablets available anymore is a big loss. We wish Itronix all the best, whatever course General Dynamics has in mind for them.
November 30, 2012
Surface with Windows 8 Pro pricing contemplations -- an opportunity for traditional vendors of rugged tablets?
On November 29, 2012, Microsoft revealed, on its Official Microsoft Blog (see here), pricing for its Surface with Windows 8 Pro tablets. The 64GB version will cost US$899 and the 128GB version runs US$999. That includes a pen but neither the touch or the type cover. They cost extra.
So what do we make of that?
Based on my experience with the Surface with Windows RT tablet, I have no doubt that the hardware will be excellent. With a weight of two pounds and a thickness of just over half an inch, the Pro tablet is a bit heavier and thicker than the RT tablet, but still light and slim by Windows tablet standards. The display measures the same 10.6 inches diagonally, but has full 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution compared to the 1366 x 768 pixel of the RT tablet. That's the difference between 1080p and 720p in HDTV speak. There's a USB 3.0 port and a mini DisplayPort jack. Under the hood sits a 3rd Gen Intel Core i5 processor as opposed to the nVidia Tegra 3 ARM chip in the RT model. And both RAM and storage are twice of what the RT tablet has. All that certainly makes for an attractive tablet.
What customers of a Surface with Windows 8 Pro get is a modern and rather high performance tablet that can be used with a pen or a mouse in desktop/legacy mode, and with touch in the new Metro mode with all the live tiles and all. You can use the pen in Metro mode, of course, but Metro wasn't designed for that. And you can use touch in legacy mode, but as 20 years of experience with Windows tablets has shown, legacy Windows does not work well with finger touch. Still, this will most likely be good hardware that makes full Windows available in a tablet, and also allows evaluating Metro in its native mode.
But let's move on to the ever important price. And here Microsoft faced an unenviable task. Microsoft tablets had to be price-competitive with the iPad, and the Surface RT tablets are. Except that so far they have not been accepted as "real" Microsoft tablets because they cannot run legacy Windows software. The Windows 8 Pro tablets are real Windows tablets, but they now cost more than iPads. Sure, they have more memory and ports and a memory card slot and an Intel Core processor, but the perception will still be that they cost more than iPads and are thus expensive. That's somewhat unfair because the i5 processor in the Microsoft tablet alone costs costs more than most consumer Android tablets. But this is an era where you can get an impressive, powerful and full-featured notebook for 500 bucks or so, and a sleek Ultrabook for well under a grand. That makes the tablet look expensive.
Price, in fact, has always been a weak spot with Windows-based tablets. Witness a bit of tablet history: the first pen tablets in the early 1990s cost almost $4,000. Even in an era where notebooks cost much more than what they cost today, that was too much, and it was one of the several reasons why early pen tablets failed in the consumer market. Tablets did remain available in vertical markets throughout the 90s, albeit usually at around $4,000.
In 2001/2002 Microsoft tried again with their Tablet PC initiative. The goal there was to bring the tablet form factor, beloved by Bill Gates himself, to the business and consumer markets. The price was to be lower and to make that possible Microsoft initially mandated the use of inexpensive Transmeta processors. When they turned out to be too slow to drive the WIndows XP Tablet PC Edition at an acceptable clip, everyone turned to Intel and the average 2002-style Tablet PC ran around US$2,000. Which was still too expensive for the consumer market where customers could pick up a regular notebook for less.
Unfortunately, while two grand was too steep for consumers, the side effect was that companies like Fujitsu, Toshiba, and everyone else who had been selling tablets in the 90s now had to offer theirs for half as much as well, losing whatever little profit came from tablet sales in the process. What's happening now is that the Surface for Windows 8 Pro again halves the price people expect to pay for a tablet. And again there may be a situation where the public considers Microsoft's own Windows 8 tablets as too expensive while the verticals have to lower their prices to stay competitive with Microsoft itself.
And that won't be easy. Vertical market vendors have done a remarkable job in making business-class Windows 7 tablets available for starting at around US$1,000 over the past year or so. But those tablets were almost all based on Intel Atom processors which are far less powerful than what Microsoft now offers in their own Windows 8 Pro tablets. So we have a situation where Intel pushed inexpensive Atom processors to make inexpensive tablets possible, but Microsoft itself has now upped the ante for its licensees by offering much more hardware for less.
It's hard to see how this could possibly leave much room for the traditional makers of business-class Windows tablets. Unless, that is, they find a way to compellingly answer the one question we've been hearing ever more loudly over the past couple of years: "we need a tablet like the iPad, but it must run Windows and be a lot more rugged than an iPad." Well, there's the niche. Tablets that match the iPad's style and Microsoft's newly established hardware standard, but a whole lot tougher than either and equipped with whatever special needs business and industrial customers have.
That ought to be possible. The traditional vertical market tablet makers and sellers already know their markets. And unlike the designers of consumer market tablets, they know how to seal and protect their hardware and make it survive in the field and on the job. What that means is that Microsoft's pricing for their Surface tablets may well be a glass half full for the rugged computing industry, and not one half empty.
Anyone for a sleek yet armored ULV Core i5 or i7-powered, IP67-sealed tablet with a 1080p dual-mode and sunlight viewable procap/active pen input display, a 6-foot drop spec, dual cameras with a 4k documentation mode, 4G LTE, and integrated or modular scanner/RFID/MSR options?
November 21, 2012
Windows RT: how suitable is it for vertical markets? (Part II)
I had planned a quick follow-up on my first impressions of the Microsoft Surface RT tablet and Windows RT in general. But now it's almost a month later, so why the hesitation?
It's not because of Microsoft's hardware. I am as impressed with the Surface RT tablet as I was when I first took it out of its box. It's a truly terrific device. If after a month of use about the only gripe is that you still can't easily find the on-off button, you know the hardware itself is good. So no issues there. It never gets hot or even warms up. Battery life is practically a non-issue, like on the iPad. It's plenty fast enough. Honestly, the argument that for real performance and real work you need an Intel processor is pretty thin. What it really feels like is that Microsoft is in the difficult spot of having to artificially hold ARM hardware back via Windows RT so that it won't compete too much with Intel hardware, but at the same time Microsoft doesn't want to come across as being uncompetitive on ARM platforms. Tough position to be in.
And then there's the whole concept of Windows 8. I really did not want to get into a discussion of operating systems, but Microsoft makes it hard not to. Especially if you've been covering Microsoft's various mobile and pen/touch efforts over the years.
One giant problem is that Microsoft still does not want to let go of the "Windows on every device" maxim. So Windows 8 is on the desktop, on notebooks, on tablets and on phones. With Microsoft claiming it's all the same Windows, though it's really quite unclear to most whether it's really the same Windows or not. So from a practical perspective, what exactly is the advantage of the tile-based "Metro" look on all those very different computing platforms when you really can't run the same software anyway? Yes, the fairly consistent look is probably good for brand identity (as if Microsoft needs more of that), but it's inconvenient for users who have to deal with this one-size-fits-all approach at best.
And there are some other issues.
For example, what's the deal with the "flatness" of everything in Windows 8 and RT? Not long ago everything had to be 3D and layered, and now everything has to be completely flat? There is simply no good argument for that. 3D components on a screen always help making things more manageable and more obvious (let alone better looking), so complete flatness for complete flatness' sake seems weak.
Then there's the peculiarly low density of almost everything I've seen so far in Metro. Maybe that's just because Metro is only getting started, but between the Kansas-like flatness and very little on the screen, it feels strange and empty, and it means a lot of panning left and right.
And by far the biggest beef: why try to shoehorn everything into one operating system? It is very abundantly clear that traditional Windows apps, the kind that hundreds of millions use every day, are simply not for touch operation and may never be. Just because it's simple to touch here and there and use touch to consume information on small media tablets doesn't mean touch is the way to go with the much more complex interactive software most people use for work. Pretty much all of the creative work I do, for example, requires the pinpoint accuracy of a mouse: editing, image processing in Photoshop, layout in Quark Xpress, etc., etc. I cannot see how that can be replaced by just tapping on a screen.
So from that perspective, it does seem like Microsoft has simply done what the company has done every time in the past 20 years when new and disruptive technology came along -- it paid lip service by putting a fashionable layer on top of Windows. That's what happened with Windows for Pen Computing (1992), the Pen Services for Windows 95 and then 98, and the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (2002). Only this time the disruptive technology (tablets) has found widespread enough acceptance to really get Microsoft's attention.
And a couple of personal peeves in Windows RT:
First, I find the live tiles annoying. I find all the constant moving on the screen distracting, and in corporate environments it's certainly a constant distraction, with people getting sidetracked into consuming information. Let me make the decision what I want to do next, rather than have a screen full of tiles vying for my attention like a wall of alive pictures in a Harry Potter movie.
Second, if Metro is indeed Microsoft's interface and operating environment of the future, does that mean we'll have come full circle from having just one app per screen to task switching to, finally, software that allowed as many windows as we wanted, just to get back to task-switching one-thing-at-a-time? That, given the right apps, may be good on small tablets, but it's definitely not the way I'd want to work on the desktop or even on a laptop.
Oh, and a third... if Microsoft is concerned about being so far behind with available apps in its store, it really doesn't show. If they were concerned, why would the store be as ultra-low density as it is, with no way of quickly finding what you really want? The store interface seems minimal beyond a fault.
But on to Windows RT and its suitability for vertical markets. That actually might work, although there are several big ifs.
Windows RT for vertical markets: PRO
Economical hardware -- Judging by the initial Surface RT tablet, ARM-based Windows RT-powered tablets could be a perfect solution for numerous vertical market deployments. They are light, simple, quick, don't heat up, get superior battery life, and they cost less.
No virus/malware -- User don't have to worry about viruses and malware because a) the main focus of the bad guys will remain Windows 8 proper, and all software must come from the Microsoft app store. That could be a big argument for Windows RT.
Device encryption -- There's device level encryption In Windows RT. That can be done in Windows 8 also (via BitLocker and other utilities), but in Windows RT it's in the OS itself.
Custom stores --From what I hear, vertical market vendors will be able to have their own showrooms in the Microsoft store that only users of that vendor's hardware can see. That would/will be a great benefit for both users and vendors.
Microsoft Office -- Microsoft Office comes with Windows RT. I haven't done a feature by feature comparison with "real" Office and there are those who says Office RT is a dumbed-down version of Office. All I can say is that Office RT will meet the needs of a whole lot of users. If it's dumbed down, it's infinitely less dumbed-down than Office on Windows CE and Windows Mobile was. There are, however, some licensing issues as, at least for now, Microsoft considers Office RT not for commercial use.
Legacy and leverage -- Microsoft has always used the leverage argument ("your users and programmers already know Windows, and this will fit right in") , and Windows RT will probably benefit from that as well. It's curious how much of the age-old Windows utilities and apps actually run on Windows RT, and Windows RT will probably fit much more easily into a corporate Windows infrastructure than Android or iOS.
Windows RT for vertical markets: CON
Confusion -- You'll forever have to explain (and wonder) what exactly works and what doesn't work on Windows RT compared to Windows 8. Some may decide it's easier to just use Windows 8 instead.
Still not pure tablet software -- Unlike with Android and the iPad, Windows RT users still have to fall back into desktop mode for Office and perhaps other functionality (settings, configurations, etc.) where touch just doesn't work well and you really need a mouse. You can use any USB mouse with Windows RT, but it's frustrating to never know if you need a mouse on your new tablet or not.
Artificial limitations -- Since Windows RT is not to compete too much with the Wintel side of Windows 8, there are hardware and software limitations to deal with in Windows RT, whether they make sense or not. Users are the victims here.
Vendor predicament -- How is a hardware vendor to make the call on Windows 8 versus Windows RT? Offer both? Make cheaper RT versions? That's exactly the kind of predicament vendors used to have with Windows versus Windows CE (CE lost).
So for now, as far as the suitability of Windows RT for vertical markets goes, I'll have to give an "A" for current Windows RT tablet hardware. It's really excellent, and ARM-based hardware could really be a boon for integrators and vertical market vendors; a "B-" for Windows RT itself, because for now Metro is too limited to be of much use; and a "D" for clarity of concept as it's totally unclear where Microsoft is headed with RT.
October 27, 2012
Windows RT: how suitable is it for vertical markets? (Part I)
Though as of this writing, October 27, 2012, Windows 8 and RT were just officially unveiled a couple of days ago, reams have already been written on Windows 8 and to a much lesser extent, Windows RT. We got our Surface RT tablet on October 26 with the intent on reporting on the Surface hardware and RT software in some detail. However, our emphasis will be on their suitability for vertical and industrial markets.
So what about Windows RT? The general word on it has been that it's a special version of Windows 8 for devices with ARM processors. A special version that will not be able to run any legacy Windows software, one that does not offer users the legacy desktop to go about their Windows business, and one where you cannot install software other than download it from the official Windows store. Engadget clearly stated in its review of Windows Surface: "Windows RT can't run legacy programs written for traditional, x86-based Windows systems."
Is this all so?
Yes, and perhaps no.
So here's what we found so far on our Surface tablet.
It comes with Microsoft Office 2013, and you run those versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote on the Windows RT desktop. We took screen shots of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and here's what the apps look like (click on the pics for full-size versions):
Note that Office RT isn't final yet. It'll be a free download when it is. From what I can tell (and I am not an Office expert), even what comes with Windows RT now is a full version of Office, and not some micro version like Windows CE/Mobile used to have. This is the real thing.
Anyone who expected Office to be totally touch-optimized for Windows RT will be disappointed. It's not. You can use it with touch, but it can be a frustrating experience. And the touch keyboard doesn't help. Fortunately, you can simply plug in any old mouse or keyboard or mouse/keyboard combo and it works with Windows RT right off the bat.
Below is a screen capture of an Excel presentation. (and yes, I picked the slide that shows Alan Kay predicting it all back in 1968, and the original IBM Thinkpad tablet from 1993 on purpose).
If you take a closer look at our Word and Excel screen captures, you'll notice that not only are they in their own windows, we also have legacy Windows apps like Paint, Notepad, Calculator, the Math Input Panel, a system shell and the old performance monitor running. Interestingly, they do run (and many others, too, like Remote Desktop, Windows PowerShell, the whole Control Panel, etc.), and you can even pin them on the old Windows task bar. In fact, there's a lot of old legacy Windows stuff down in the basement of Windows RT. And much of it seems as functional as ever.
I am not sure what to make of that. After all, Windows is not supposed to run on ARM, yet a good number of the old programs do run. There's probably a good explanation for that.
Unfortunately, that doesn't mean you can simply install and run other old software. If you do, there's a message that says you can only install software from the Windows store.
So what's our preliminary impression of Windows RT on a Surface tablet? Quite positive. The 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU has plenty enough power to make RT tablets perform well. The Nvidia setup doesn't need a fan and the tablet never even warms up, at all. And it seems to run almost ten hours on a charge.
Check back for more commentary on the suitability of Windows RT hardware and software for vertical markets.
October 16, 2012
Windows Surface tablets will be here shortly
Now this should be interesting. On October 16, 2012, Microsoft announced more detail on its upcoming Windows Surface tablets. And though labeled as a "pre-order" with limited amounts, customers could actually order the Windows Surface RT tablet of their choice from the Surface page on Microsoft's online store. For delivery on or before October 26th, i.e. within ten days.
So the pricing of the Microsoft Windows RT tablets is no longer a secret. The basic 32GB tablet without a keyboard touch cover is US$499, the touch cover adds a hundred bucks, and the 64GB version with touch cover is US$699. That gets you a Microsoft-branded tablet that's as slender as the iPad, though it weighs a tiny bit more (1.5 vs 1.44 pounds). The Microsoft tablet looks wider because its 10.6-inch screen has a wide-format 16:9 aspect ratio compared to the iPad's 4:3.
There's a standard USB port (which the iPad doesn't have) and a standard microSD card slot (which the iPad also doesn't have). There's a capacitive touch screen of course, and two 720p cameras, meaning the Surface tablet is for video and not so much for taking pictures (for that you'd want higher res). The 1366 x 768 pixel resolution is more than the original iPad and the iPad 2's 1024 x 768, and it's also what's called 720p in HDTV and video speak, so it should be good for video playback.
All the expected sensors are there: ambient light, accelerometer, gyroscope and compass, meaning the Surface will be able to do the same tricks customers have come to expect from modern apps. And speaking of apps, the Surface RT tablet comes with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT (see here). It's not the final, final version, but it'll be a free update when that becomes available.
There's WiFi and Bluetooth, but no mobile broadband, so these initial versions of Microsoft's RT Surface tablets will need to be within the reach of a WiFi access point to be online. The processor is of the Nvidia Tegra variety, i.e. the type that has been powering the majority of Android tablets out there.
What's new and different is Windows RT, a version of Windows that runs on ARM processors and doesn't need the presumably more complex x86-based hardware required to run full Windows. What exactly that means remains to be seen. It's said that the Surface RT tablets are aimed at the consumer market, but the iPad was, too, and now it's used almost everywhere. How exactly will Windows RT work? How will it resonate with customers who have come to expect elegant, effortless simplicity from tablets? No one knows just yet.
And how will it all relate to Surface tablets with full Windows 8, tablets that will, at least the Microsoft Surface versions, look very much like the Surface RT tablets, but have beefier hardware (anything from the latest Atom to third gen Core processors), higher resolution (1920 x 1080), and more storage? Will the two co-exist, with users selecting one or the other depending on their needs? The Windows 8 Pro versions will inevitably cost a good bit more, but how much more can a market bear where consumers have been spoiled with very inexpensive, very powerful notebook computers for years? Much will probably depend on how Windows 8 pans out.
Finally, what will it all mean to vertical and industrial market tablets? Will there be rugged tablets running Windows RT? Or will the ever-important leverage factor dictate that most enterprise and industrial tablets remain x86-based and compatible with legacy Windows? No one knows.
So for now I ordered a Surface RT tablet, just to see how it works and what it's all about.
October 02, 2012
Motorola Solutions' acquisition of Psion: Good, bad, or ugly?
Well, it's done. Psion is now part of Motorola Solutions. On October 12th, 2012, Ron Caines and Frederic Bismuth of Psion and Mark Moon of Motorola Solutions sent out the following note to their customers:
Dear Psion Customer:
We are writing to let you know that today Motorola Solutions completed the acquisition of Psion PLC.
Motorola Solutions is a leading provider of mission-critical communication systems and a pioneer in enterprise mobility solutions. The company has always been focused first and foremost on how to best serve its customers and chose to acquire Psion because of its complementary enterprise mobile computing products and its talented people who understand this highly specialized business. We are excited about what this opportunity brings you as a valued Psion customer. Bringing the Psion family of products onboard allows Motorola Solutions to extend its portfolio and better serve customers by delivering solutions in expanded use cases, especially in warehousing, cold chain, ports, yards and specialized modular applications.
Integration of the two companies has only just begun today. There will be no immediate changes to your account management, the partners that serve you or the products and services you receive from Psion. Customers who previously purchased or will purchase Psion products can be assured their products will be fully serviced and supported for the full duration of the contracts. All customer support numbers also remain the same.
Furthermore, Motorola Solutions is committed to investing jointly around its and Psion's technical strengths and capabilities to deliver compelling solutions for the various applications and markets that both Motorola Solutions and Psion have served.
Once we have worked through the details of the integration, we will share those plans with you. You can be assured that throughout this process we will remain focused on building on Psion's relationship with you and serving all of our customers.
If you have any questions, please contact us or your Psion representative. Thank you for your continued loyalty and support.
With many of the smaller, independent manufacturers of rugged computing equipment being swallowed up by larger companies, this was perhaps inevitable. To many rugged computing enthusiasts and insiders, also inevitable is the question "why?" as there is rather substantial product line overlap between the two companies. In an informal conversation, a Motorola source said that the acquisition of Psion was adding complementary handheld products and vehicle-mount terminals that complement Motorola's offerings. The acquisition, the source said, also supports their international growth strategy by providing an attractive, global-installed base.
That's certainly true, by if the history of such acquisitions has shown anything, it's the latter reason rather than the former. As is, purchased product lines almost inevitably get absorbed. They may live on for a while, but in the longer run it makes no sense to carry duplicate lines. That's too bad as Psion was really on to something with their modular approach to rugged handheld computing platforms. What will become of the innovative ikôn, Neo, and Omnii? The tough WorkAbouts? The panels that still have the old Teklogix' DNA?
So for now, we reflect on what was. Through Pen Computing and RuggedPCReview.com we covered Psion for a very long time. First those really terrific little clamshell handhelds that were better than anything based on Windows CE at the time, then the acquisition of Teklogix in 2000 (I was at the press conference in Chicago when it was announced), the Psion netbooks way before the world bought tens of millions of "netbooks," and always the rugged handhelds. We had a close relationship with Psion most of the time; at some point we even had a "Psion PSection" in Pen Computing Magazine (with some of the columns still online at pencomputing.com/Psion/psection.html).
So here's hoping that Moto Solutions will aim for, and succeed in, creating the synergy that is always given as the reason for an acquisition. After all, Moto's own for Symbol Technologies is well aware of the good (its own flourishing after being acquired by Moto), the bad (Intermec > Norand), and the ugly (Symbol > Telxon).
August 31, 2012
"The Windows Marketplace for Mobile for windows mobile 6.x devices is closing"
"The Windows Marketplace for Mobile for windows mobile 6.x devices is closing" -- that was the title of a March 8, 2012 entry at answers.microsoft.com. In it, it said among other things, "Beginning May 9, 2012, the Windows Mobile 6.x Marketplace service will no longer be available. Starting on this date, you will no longer be able to browse, buy or download applications directly on your Windows Mobile 6.x phone using the Windows Mobile 6.x Marketplace application and service." Signed The Windows Phone Team (with "Ready for a new phone? Explore the latest Windows Phones -- now with over 60,000 applications and games available!" in their signature). I mean, the fact that the announcement was made by the Windows Phone team, whose job it is to replace Windows Mobile, and not whoever is responsible within the Windows Embedded contingent tasked with presiding over Windows Embedded Compact speaks volumes.
What was Microsoft thinking? The one saving grace of what's left of Windows Mobile or Windows Embedded Compact, or whatever it's called these days, was the Windows Marketplace from which you could download apps directly into the device. Whenever I got a new Windows Mobile device for testing, the first thing I always did was download a few essentials, such as Google Maps, Bing, Facebook, Handmark's ExpressNews, a couple of utilities and converters, etc. Now you can't even do that anymore.
It's as if Microsoft (or whatever feuding faction within Microsoft presides over the demise of Windows Mobile these days) had dropped even the last ounce of pretense that they intend to maintain Windows Mobile as a viable contender to iOS and Android. Windows Mobile never was that, of course, but the nicely done Marketplace at least let long-suffering users personalize their devices to some extent. No more.
That is truly regrettable. I don't think anyone ever loved Windows Mobile, but fact is that even today, in 2012, the vast majority of industrial and vertical market mobile hardware still runs one version of Windows Mobile or another. By ditching the Marketplace, Microsoft now has made sure that Windows Mobile devices are truly usable only via 100% custom-designed software that mostly avoids the OS interface altogether.
That is not a happy situation for all the rugged hardware vendors who have faithfully designed, manufactured and marketed innovative, reliable, high quality devices for all those years, and now are saddled with an ancient software platform that is neither supported properly by Microsoft, nor competitive against newer platforms, even those incompatible ones from Microsoft.
August 11, 2012
Performing under pressure
As I am writing this, the London Olympic games are coming to an end. What two weeks of intense competition proved again is that winning means meticulous preparation, at times a bit of luck, and always the ability to perform under pressure. The latter made me think because rugged computers are all about the ability of a piece of equipment to perform under pressure. Pressure as in heat, cold, dust, rain, sun, and whatever else may keep a system from running at peak efficiency.
Ruggedness testing is designed to determine if systems hold up under pressure, but are the tests really meaningful? Many probably are. If, for example, a system is dropped a number of times from a certain height and still works afterwards, chances are it'll survive similar drops out there in the field. But are all tests as meaningful?
A while ago a manufacturer of rugged computers challenged us to test computing performance not just in an office environment, but also over the entire listed operating temperature range. We did, and not surprisingly, the machinery supplied by that company passed with flying colors, i.e. it ran through the benchmarks as fast at freezing and near boiling temperatures as it did at the 72F we usually have in the test lab.
But, as we subsequently found out, that seems to be the exception. We've been doing benchmark testing on some other rugged devices under thermal stress, and the results are reason for concern. If a rugged handheld, laptop or tablet is supposed to be used out in the field, it's reasonable to assume it'll be asked to perform at peak efficiency at temperatures one might likely encounter outdoors or on the job. Depending on where you are, that might easily include temperatures well over 100 degrees. Such work may well include prolonged exposure to the sun where it may heat up beyond ambient temperature. If it is 105 degrees outdoors, temperatures may easily reach 115 or 120 degrees or even higher if you sit the device down somewhere, or even if it's left in a car. So what happens to performance then? Can the device perform under pressure?
Turns out, not all can.
Running our standard benchmarks after leaving rugged systems out in the California summer sun showed performance drops of 50 to 80%. That's pretty serious. Is it acceptable that a piece of equipment that's supposed to be used outdoors then runs only at a fraction of the speed or even at half speed? I'd say not. Think of the potential consequences. Tasks may take between twice to several times as long, potentially affecting critical decisions.
Is it reasonable to expect full performance under extreme conditions? Not necessarily. Extreme conditions can have an impact on electronics, and there may be justifiable, reasonable precautions to limit performance so as to safeguard the equipment and its life. But is it acceptable to see performance drop to a fraction at the limits of a listed operating temperature range? It's not. Customers should know what level of performance they can expect when the going gets tough.
Like at the Olympics, performance under pressure separates the rugged system winners from the also-rans. This really needs to be addressed.
And it's not a simple issue. Complex electronics such as processors have sophisticated internal power management. Boards have sensors that report temperatures to control mechanisms that then may throttle system performance. Firmware and the OS may also monitor environmental situations and then engage fans or throttle performance. The hardware itself may have inherent design limitations. Variables such as Glass Transition Temperature, or Tg, come into play. Tg is the temperature at which polymer materials go from a glassy state to a rubbery state. The types of capacitors used matters. Conformal coating can protect boards. HALT testing can predict real life reliability better than the simple mean time between component failures. And so on.
All of this is standard practice in embedded systems design. It should be fully and universally adopted in rugged mobile system design as well.
June 26, 2012
Microsoft's entry into tablet hardware a result of partner failure?
Ever since Microsoft provided a glimpse at a couple of "Surface" tablet hardware prototypes, some in the media are describing Microsoft's apparent entry into the hardware market as a result of Microsoft hardware partner failure. As if, somehow, the combined might of the world's computer manufacturers failed to come up with tablet hardware good enough to do Windows justice.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The reason why Windows-based tablets never were a major commercial success lies squarely in Microsoft's corner, and not in that of the hardware partners. For stating the very obvious: Windows has never been a tablet operating system. It was designed for use with a keyboard and a mouse. It does not work well with touch, and it did not work well with pens.
If anything, hardware partners went out of their way with innovative ideas and products to make Windows work in Microsoft-mandated tablets. And let's not forget that it was Microsoft itself that, well into the lead-up to the 2002 Tablet PC introduction, began pushing convertible notebooks rather than tablets. Apparently, the company had so little faith in its own Tablet PC project that it seemed safer to introduce the Tablet PC Edition of Windows XP on a notebook with a digitizer screen rather than a true tablet. That of course, made tablet PCs bigger and bulkier and more expensive.
Let's also not forget that Microsoft mandated an active digitizer for the 2002 Tablet PC because active pens better emulated the way a mouse (and with it, Windows) worked. Touch was definitely not part of the Tablet PC.
Microsoft's hardware partners did the absolute best they could within the great constraints of the Windows OS. In the 1990s, companies like GRiD, Fujitsu, Toshiba, NEC, IBM, Samsung, Compaq and many others came up with numerous tablet computer solutions trying to somehow make Windows work in smaller, lighter, handier platforms without physical keyboards. In the 2000s, a whole roster of hardware partners came up with tablet and tablet convertible hardware when Bill Gates proclaimed that by 2006, tablets would be the most popular form of PCs in America. They (Motion Computing, Fujitsu, Acer, Toshiba, Panasonic, etc.) invested the money and they carried the risk, not Microsoft.
Add to that the unsung heroes of the tablet computer form factors, the companies that made all those vertical market tablets for applications where it simply wasn't feasible to carry around a big laptop. They made do with what they had on the operating system side. And they did a remarkable job.
To now complain about "partner failures" is simply asinine. And given that even now, hardware partners will have to decide whether to bet on x86 Windows 8 or ARM Windows RT, will they again be blamed if one or both flavors of Windows 8 fail to make inroads against the iPad and Android tablets?
June 21, 2012
Windows Phone 8...
Sometimes I wish I could be a fly on the wall to listen in when Microsoft's mobile folks make their decisions.
I mean, a few years ago they found themselves in a position where, against all odds, their erstwhile omnipotent foe Palm collapsed and left Windows Mobile as the heir apparent. So did Microsoft take advantage of that? Nope. Instead, they failed to improve their mobile OS in any meaningful way, all the while confusing customers by endlessly renaming the thing. And handing leadership over to the phone companies.
Then Apple comes along and shows the world how smartphones are supposed to be. Well, apart from grafting a Zune-like home screen, Microsoft did virtually nothing to advance Windows CE from its mid-1990s roots. Then they come up with Windows Phone 7, which is a whole lot better, but completely incompatible with any earlier Windows CE/Windows Mobile devices and software.
While Phone 7 and the Phone 7.5 update were billed as the future, apparently they weren't as now there will be Windows Phone 8, which is.... completely incompatible with Phone 7/7.5. And why? Because Phone 8 will supposedly share the same Windows kernel that "real" Windows has (though presumably not the ARM versions). So if Windows 7/7.5 still had Windows CE underpinnings, why were those versions not compatible at all with earlier Windows CE/Windows Mobile versions? It's just all so confusing.
And about the shared Windows kernel: Wasn't the very idea of Windows everywhere why Windows failed in so many areas that were not desktop or laptop?
In this industry, one absolutely never knows what's going to happen. Palm was considered invincible, Transmeta was supposed to succeed, Linux was to be the next big thing, the iPhone and then iPad were widely derided as lacking and a fad when they were first introduced, and Android was certain to quickly challenge iOS in tablets. So perhaps Windows Phone 8 will somehow become a success, but then why baffle the public with Windows 8 for the desktop, Windows RT, which isn't quite Windows, for ARM tablets, two versions of "Surface" tablets, and then Windows Phone 8 devices that share the Windows kernel but are somehow separate anyway?
May 30, 2012
Android finally getting traction in vertical and industrial markets?
Just when Windows 8 is looming ever larger as perhaps a credible competitor to iOS and the iPad, we're finally starting to see some Android action in vertical market tablets and handhelds. It's timid, exploratory action still, but nonetheless a sign that the industry may finally break out of the stunned disbelief as Apple was first selling millions and then tens of millions of iPads.
What has changed? Perhaps it's the fact that it's becoming increasingly harder to argue against Android as a serious platform now that Google's OS dominates the smartphone market. Though it seems more fragmented than ever, Android is now on hundreds of millions of smartphones, and all of them are little mobile computers much more than phones. The fragmentation is certainly an issue as is the large variety of mobile hardware Android runs on, but it's also a trend and sign of the time. Cisco recently published the results of a study which showed that 95% of the surveyed organizations allowed employee-owned devices, and more than a third provided full support for them. It's called the "Bring Your Own Device" syndrome, and for Cicso it was enough to ditch its own Cius tablet hardware. What it all means is that people will want to use what they own, know and like, and in tablets and handhelds that's iOS and Android.
There's also been movement on the legal front. Oracle had been suing Google for patent infringement over some aspects of Android, and since Oracle is a tenacious, formidable opponent in whatever they tackle, this cast a large shadow over Android. Well, Google won, for now at least, when a jury decided Google had not infringed on Oracle's patents.
So what are we seeing on the Android front?
Well, there's DRS Tactical Systems that just announced two new rugged tablets with 7-inch capacitive touch displays. They look almost identical, but they are, in fact, two very different devices. One runs Android, one Windows, and DRS made sure the hardware was fully optimized for each OS, with different processors, different storage and different controls. That's costly, and it shows that DRS sees Android as having just as much of a chance to be the platform of choice in mobile enterprise applications as does Windows.
There's Juniper Systems which revealed that its unique 5.7-inch Mesa Rugged Notepad will soon be available in an Android version called the RAMPAGE 6, courtesy of a partnership with Pennsylvania-based SDG Systems. The Juniper Mesa is powered by the ubiquitous Marvell PXA320 processor. If the Android version uses this same chip, we'd finally have an answer to the question whether the PXA processors that have been driving Pocket PCs and numerous industrial handhelds for a decade can run Android (we asked Marvell several times, to no avail).
The folks at ADLINK in Taiwan have been offering their TIOT handheld computer in two versions since late 2011; the TIOT 2000 runs Android, the identical-looking TIOT 9000 Windows CE. Here, though, the Android model runs on a Qualcomm processor whereas the Windows CE model has a Marvell PXA310.
General Dynamics Itronix has been playing with Android for a couple of years now, demonstrating their Android-based GD300 wearable computer to military and other customers. Panasonic introduced their Toughpad to great fanfare at Dallas Cowboy Stadium in November of 2011, but though the rather impressive tablet seemed ready back then, it actually won't start shipping until summer of 2012. Motorola Solutions also announced an Android tablet late in 2011, but I am not sure if the ET1 Enterprise Tablet is in customer hands yet.
Mobile computing industry veterans may recall that there was a similarly confusing era several technology lifetimes ago: back in the early 1990s the upstart PenPoint OS platform came on so strong that several major hardware companies, including IBM, shipped their tablets with PenPoint instead of Microsoft's unconvincing pen computing overlay for Windows. Microsoft, of course, eventually won that battle, but Microsoft's "win" also demoted tablets back into near irrelevance for another decade and a half. Will it be different this time around? No one knows. Microsoft dominates the desktop, as was the case back then. But unlike PenPoint which despite its hype was known only to a few, hundreds of millions are already familiar with Android.
The next six months will be interesting.
May 02, 2012
The widening gulf between consumer and vertical market handhelds
Almost everyone has a smartphone these days. Smartphones are selling by the tens of millions every quarter. In Q1 of 2012, Apple and Samsung sold over 30 million smartphones each. Smartphones have become part of modern life. Everyone is tapping, pinching and zooming. Everyone except those who need a rugged smartphone. Because there isn't one.
Now to be fair, there are rugged smartphones and any number of ruggedized handhelds that add phone functionality to a handheld computer that can also scan and do all the things people who work in the field need to do on the job. Except, they really aren't smartphones. Not in the way consumers have come to expect smartphones to be. Why is that?
Because ever since 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone, there's been a widening gulf between consumer phones and the devices people use at work. Before the iPhone, cellphones had a bit of rudimentary web functionality and a number of basic apps. Nothing was standardized and everyone rolled their own. Professional handhelds almost all ran Windows Mobile, which had had very good phone functionality as early as 2002. But Windows Mobile never really took off in the consumer market.
Why did the iPhone change everything? Because it introduced a fluid, elegant way of using and interacting with the phone that resonated with people and made total sense. Almost no one wants to first pull out a plastic stylus to then operate a clumsy mini version of a desktop OS. But just lightly tapping at a screen, drag things around, and effortlessly zoom in on what was too small on a tiny phone display, that's an entirely different story. One that Google quickly copied with Android, and one that Microsoft did not, or not until it was too late.
As a result, smartphones took off on a massive scale, one much grander than anyone had anticipated. And it was the sheer, simple elegance and functionality of just having to lightly tap, swipe, pinch and zoom that did it. Which, in turn, came from Apple's primary stroke of genius, that of using capacitive multi touch.
The rest is history. Since 2007, Apple's sold hundreds of millions of iPhones. And there are hundreds of millions of Android smartphones, with vendors selling Android-based smartphones combined having a larger market share than Apple.
With all of this happening and perhaps half a billion handhelds being sold in just five short years, how did the vertical market respond? How did it benefit from the riches, the opportunities, the breakthrough in acceptance of handheld technology that the vertical market had been waiting for?
Ruggedized handhelds still run Windows Mobile in a form virtually unchanged from the days before Android and the iPhone. There is no multi-touch. There is no effortless tapping and panning and pinching and zooming. There is no apps store (there was one, but Microsoft closed it).
And worse, there is no upgrade path. Windows Mobile, which Microsoft merged into its embedded systems group a while ago, seems frozen in time. But isn't there Windows Phone 7, that's now Phone 7.5 and is currently heavily promoted with the launch of the Nokia Lumina 900 smartphone? There is, but Windows Phone is totally different from Windows Mobile. There is no upgrade path. And even if there were, it's a market where there are already half a billion iPhones and Android smartphones, and people who know how to use them and who expect nothing less. Not in their personal lives, and not on the job.
That is a definite problem for those in the market of making and selling ruggedized handhelds. And the problem is not demand. With the world now pretty much convinced that handheld computing and communication devices are tremendously useful and will only become more so, no one needs to be sold on the merits of handheld technology on the job. Everyone knows that already.
The problem is that the business market now wants smartphones that are a little (or even a lot) tougher than a consumer phone, and perhaps can do a few things consumer phones don't do so well, like scanning. But the market wants that extra toughness and those extra capabilities without giving up the elegant, effortless user interface, the bright high-res displays, and the ability to take pictures and HD movies so good that consumer smartphones are now replacing dedicated digital cameras.
And that's why it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell handhelds that offer technology and functionality that is by now very dated by consumer smartphone standards. Sure, the technology and functionality of most ruggedized handhelds are as good and better as they were six years ago, but the world has changed. Sure, the vaunted Microsoft leverage argument ("You use Microsoft in your business, so Windows Mobile fits right in and you can leverage your existing investment") still applies. But that is no longer enough. Businesses who need to equip their workers with rugged handhelds now want more.
But isn't the mere popularization of handheld technology enough to make rugged technology vendors make a good living? Perhaps. It all depends on the type of business and its inherent profitability. But is basically standing still a good business strategy in a technology boom measuring in the hundreds of millions of consumer handhelds? And are the largely flat financials of rugged handheld makers not a warning sign?
There are many possible scenarios. For example, perhaps we're seeing a total separation of consumer and vertical markets, one where consumer handhelds get ever more powerful while much more rugged vertical market computers pursue a small niche where they simply won't ever be challenged by consumer technology. And perhaps Microsoft will manage to somehow leverage a successful unified Windows 8 Metro-style user interface into handhelds that can become the true successor of Windows Mobile, with whatever benefits customers see in remaining within the Microsoft fold. And perhaps there really is an insurmountable challenge in making capacitive multi-touch suitable for rugged applications (this is often voiced as a reason, though I can't quite see it).
But there are also darker scenarios that bode less well for the verticals. If consumer phones aren't tough enough or don't have certain peripherals, third parties may simply make rugged cases and enclosures to make them tough, and sleeves and caddies to add whatever functionality business customers want. Without losing the performance and capabilities of a consumer smartphone. In that case, what could and should have been a golden opportunity for vertical and industrial handheld makers might simply vanish as consumer technology eats their lunch.
As is, it's become somewhat painful to see vertical market companies struggle, companies that know so well how to make products that hold up under trying circumstances, products that don't leak, products with displays that can be read in bright sunlight, products that will last years rather than months, and products that are tailor-made so well for very specific needs. Those companies have a lot of valuable expertise and so much going for them.
But will all that be enough to mask and make up for an increasingly wider gulf between vertical market and consumer market technology? Only time can tell, and it may be running out.
April 24, 2012
e-con Systems executive explains the reality of cameras in rugged computers
A little while ago I had an email conversation with the folks at e-con Systems. They are an embedded product development partner with significant expertise in camera solutions in the Windows CE and Windows Embedded space. The company offers a variety of lens and camera modules that can be interfaced with most of the common handheld processors from TI, Marvell, FreeStyle and others. My interest was, as I discussed in earlier RuggedPCReview.com blog entries, why at a time when every new smartphone includes a superb camera capable of full HD 720p or 1080p video, the cameras built into rugged devices lag so far behind.
Here is what Mr. Hari Shankkar, co-founder and VP of Business Development of e-con Systems had to say:
"We have worked with several rugged handheld manufacturers and they use our device driver development services or our camera modules. Based on this experience and our interactions with them, here are our comments:
- There is a big difference in the way rugged computers are constructed and devices such as digital cameras or smartphone are built.
- The bulk of the NRE effort goes to making the device rugged and only a very small percentage is left when it comes to the camera. In the case of a digital camera or a cell phone this is not the case as the cameras are given higher importance.
- These devices are sold through tenders and it is mostly B2B (business-to-business) and not B2C (business-to-consumer) like the cell phone cameras and the digital cameras. The request for quantities is low, like a few hundred per month or per quarter. We have personally not seen these tender documents but from what we have been told, the emphasis is given more to the ruggedness than to the camera side. The camera is needed but customers are more concerned about the resolution of the pictures and whether they can capture 1D/2D barcodes with it.
- Some of the cameras with ISPs (image signal processors, for backend digital processing) don’t work at very low temperatures; only raw sensors work at such low temperatures. This means you have to have an external ISP on the board. But some of the manufacturers prefer to have the ISP developed in software and not have any hardware ISP. The digital cameras and the cell phone cameras have ISP integrated externally for high resolutions. This is one of the reasons you don’t see a rugged computer with a 8MP or a 14MP very often. Currently, the 8MP and the 14MP are raw sensors and no one has a ISP built in.
- The image captured by the camera from a sensor can vary between the lens choices. A glass lens will give better quality than the plastic lens. However, we see most of the vendors going with camera modules having plastic lenses which of course affects the quality of the images you are capturing.
- As long as the end customer demand is not that great for cameras, this will be like this. We see that integration of global shutter cameras (required for capturing stills when you are capturing a fast moving object) or integration of a glass lens not in the immediate future."
So what Mr. Shankkar is saying is that a) rugged manufacturers concentrate on the basic design to the extent where the camera is usually an afterthought (and our internal examination of most rugged designs confirms that), that b) there are some image signal processing issues that complicate matters for rugged applications, and that c) in the absence of higher customer demand, the quality of imaging subsystems in rugged designs is going to remain as is.
Those are certainly logical reasons, and as a provider of imaging solutions for handhelds and other devices, Mr. Shankkar is familiar with the thought process and priorities of rugged equipment vendors. And e-con Systems certainly has a roster of very competent camera modules (see e-con Systems camera modules).
Nonetheless, I cannot help but see a widening disconnect between rugged computer manufacturers and the digital imaging industries here. Integrating the imaging quality and functionality of, say, a US$200 GoPro Hero 1080p hybrid video camera into a high-end rugged data capture device simply ought to be doable. And if I can take superb high definition pictures and 1080p HD video with a 5-ounce iPhone 4s, the same ought to be doable in a rugged handheld or tablet. Yes, it would add cost, but these are not inexpensive devices, and the precision data capture requirements of many vertical market applications deserve no less than what any smartphone camera can do.
April 18, 2012
The nature and potential of Windows 8 for ARM devices
Well, Microsoft announced in its Windows Blog (see here) that there will be three versions of the upcoming Windows 8. For PCs and tablets based on x86 processors, there will be plain Windows 8 and and the more business-oriented Windows 8 Pro that adds features for encryption, virtualization, PC management and domain connectivity. Windows Media Center will be available as a "media pack" add-on to Windows 8 Pro. A third version, Windows RT, will be available pre-installed on ARM-based PCs and tablets. Windows RT will include touch-optimized desktop versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
That, mercifully, cuts down the available number of Windows 8 versions from five in Windows 7 (Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate) to just three, if you don't count additional embedded and compact varieties.
While Microsoft's April 16 announcement on the versions was interesting, what's even more interesting is a long entry in Microsoft's MSDN blog back on February 9. It was called "Building Windows for the ARM processor architecture" (see here) and provided an almost 9,000 word fairly technical discussion of the ARM version of Windows 8. That one shed some light on how Microsoft intends to implement and position the next version of Windows, and make sure Windows won't be irrelevant in what many now term the "post PC" era.
As you may recall, Microsoft's initial Windows 8 announcements were a bit odd. Microsoft called Windows 8 "touch first" and made it sound as if Windows 8 were a totally multi-touch centric OS. While that certainly sounded good in a world awash in iPads, it seemed exceedingly unlikely that all those hundreds of millions of office workers would suddenly switch to touch devices. One could really only come to one conclusion: Windows 8 would most likely work pretty much like Windows 7 and Windows XP before it, but hopefully also somehow incorporate touch into the vast Microsoft software empire.
The MSDN blog goes a long way in explaining much of what we can expect. It's difficult to condense the very long post into some of the important basics, but it goes something like this:
Windows on ARM, which was originally called Windows WOA but was then renamed to Windows RT in the April announcement, should feel as much as standard Windows 8 as possible. To that extent, while the ARM version cannot run legacy Windows software, there will be a Windows desktop with the familiar look and feel, and also a lot of the familiar Windows desktop functionality.
Microsoft also emphasized that Windows RT will have a "very high degree of commonality and very significant shared code with Windows 8." So why can't it run legacy Windows software? Because, Microsoft says, "if we enabled the broad porting of existing code we would fail to deliver on our commitment to longer battery life, predictable performance, and especially a reliable experience over time."
That, however, doesn't mean there won't be Microsoft Office on the ARM version of Windows. In fact, every Windows ARM device will come with desktop versions of the new "Office 15," including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Will the ARM version of Office be different? Microsoft says that they "have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption, while also being fully-featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility." What that means remains to be seen. After all, the Windows CE/Mobile "Pocket" versions of the Office apps were also called Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, but with just offering a small fraction of the desktop versions' functionality.
From a cost point of view, x86 Microsoft Office runs between US$119 (Home and Student) to US$349 (Office Professional). Considering that Windows RT devices will likely have to be very price-competitive with iPads and Android tablets, including Office will put an additional cost burden on Windows ARM devices.
Now let's take a broader look at Windows RT and how it'll differ from standard x86 Windows 8. First of all, you won't be able to just buy the Windows RT OS. It only comes already installed on hardware. That's really no different from Android, and the reason is that the operating system on ARM-based devices is much more intertwined and optimized for particular hardware than x86 Windows that pretty much ran on any x86 device.
Microsoft also stated that it has been working with just three ARM hardware platform vendors, those being NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. There are, of course, many more companies that make ARM-based chips and it remains to be seen whether other ARM vendors will remain excluded or if they, too, will have access to Windows RT. As is, while Windows has always predominately been x86, Microsoft occasionally also supported other processor platforms. For example, early Windows CE was considered a multi-processor architecture. Back in 1997, Windows CE supported Hitachi's SuperH architecture, two MIPS variants, x86, the PowerPC, and also ARM.
Another difference between the x86 and the ARM version of Windows 8 is that "WOA PCs will be serviced only through Windows or Microsoft Update, and consumer apps will only come from the Windows Store." So while x86 versions of Windows 8 application software will likely be available both through a Windows Store or directly from developers, Windows 8 ARM devices will follow the Apple app store model. That, of course, has significant control and security implications.
A further difference between Windows 8 x86 and ARM devices will be that while conventional x86 hardware likely continues to have the traditional standby and hibernation modes, ARM-based Windows devices will work more like smartphones and tablets that are essentially always on.
Now for the big question: How does Microsoft intend to bring Windows to such wildly different devices as a desktop PC and a tablet without falling into the same traps it fell into with earlier tablet efforts that were never more than compromises? In Microsoft's vision, by adding the WinRT, a Windows API that handles Metro style apps. From what I can tell, if a Metro application (i.e. one that only exists in the tile-based Metro interface) completely adheres to the WinRT API, then it can run both on ARM devices and also on x86 devices under their Metro interface.
What does that mean for existing software that developers also want to make available on ARM devices? There are two options. First, developers could build a new metro style front end that then communicates with external data sources and communicates through a web services API. Second, they could reuse whatever runtime code they can within a Metro environment. Either way, the old Windows leverage argument ("staff and developers already know Windows, so we should stay with Windows") won't be as strong as the WinRT API and Metro interface are new. How that will affect business customers who simply wish to stay with Windows instead of using iPads or Android tablets is anyone's guess.
I must admit that having gone though Windows for Pen Computing (1992), the Windows Pen Services (1996), and then the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (2001), I am a bit skeptical of Microsoft's approach to Windows RT. It still feels a lot like hedging bets, cobbling yet another veneer on top of standard Windows, and claiming integration where none exists.
In fairness, the iPad has the same issues with Mac OS. The iPad is fundamentally different from a desktop iMac or even MacBook, and I am witnessing Apple's attempts at bringing the Mac OS closer to iOS with a degree of trepidation. But the situation is different, too. Microsoft's home base is the desktop and it now wants (and needs) to find ways to extend its leadership into tablets and devices, whereas Apple found a new and wildly successful paradigm that flies on its own and only loosely interfaces with the desktop (where most iPad users have Windows machines).
Bottom line? For now, while Windows 8 will undoubtedly do very well for Microsoft on the desktop and on laptops, it remains far from a certain slam dunk on the tablet and devices side. As I am writing this, Microsoft, AT&T and Nokia are on an all-out campaign to boost Windows Phone with the Nokia Lumina 900, but considering the massive head start the iPhone and Android have, nice though it is, Windows Phone remains a long shot. Windows RT will likely encounter a similar situation.
One possible outcome may be that Windows RT will lead to a resurgence of the netbook syndrome. Netbooks sold on price alone, though they were never very good. Low-cost Metro devices might pick up where earlier gen netbooks left off, with multi-touch and lots of post PC features, but still nominally being Microsoft and having Office.
April 16, 2012
Will GPS drown in commercialism?
There are few technologies that have changed our lives and work as fundamentally as GPS. Not so very long ago, if you needed to know where to go, you used a paper map. Today we simply punch in where we want to go, then listen to directions and monitor our position on the GPS display. And industry, of course, has taken wondrous advantage of GPS, using it to optimize and manage transportation and location-based services to a degree never thought possible. GPS, by any account, is totally crucial to our modern world and society.
That's why a couple of recent observations worry me.
The first was when I left for San Francisco International Airport for a recent trip to Europe and my Garmin GPS did not find San Francisco Airport. Flat out did not find it. Not even in the transportation category. What it did find, though, was a hotel close to the airport. And so, since I was already underway and needed to concentrate on traffic, that's what I had to choose as my destination. Which promptly meant that I missed an exit. I have to believe that a Garmin GPS ought to find San Francisco International Airport, but mine didn't. All it coughed up was a hotel nearby.
After I returned from Europe, I needed to take my son to a local high school for a college orientation. I looked up the location of the college on Google Maps on my iMac and committed it to memory. In the car, I used the Maps app on my iPad, which is by Google, and the iPad drew the route from my home to the school. Except that it wasn't to the school. It was to a "sponsored location" nearby. Yes, the official Maps app on the iPad guided me to a "sponsored location" and not to where I wanted to go. Without telling me. It did place a small pin where I actually wanted to go, but the route it drew was to the sponsor location.
That is a very dangerous trend. Project it into the future, and you might see a situation where GPS might be as utterly unreliable and frustrating as email is today. Just as we drown in commercial spam, what if GPS apps likewise will drown us in "sponsored locations," making users sift through commercial GPS spam in order to find what we really need? That would make GPS not only useless, but potentially dangerous.
That, Google, would be evil indeed, and it's already evil that I am guided to a "sponsored location" instead of the clearly defined location I wanted to go to.
How does that relate to rugged computing? It's pretty obvious. What if commercial hooks begin hijacking routes? What if even official addresses are drowned in sponsored spam locations? Think about it.
And below you can see the routing to the sponsor location instead of the requested location marked by a pin (click on the image for a larger version).
March 08, 2012
The new iPad -- both challenge and opportunity for rugged market manufacturers
If you want to sell tablets it's tough not to be Apple. And on March 7, 2012, it got that much tougher. For that's when Apple introduced the next version of the iPad, setting the bar even higher for anyone else.
Why do I even mention that here at RuggedPCReview.com where we concentrate on computing equipment that's tough and rugged and can get the job done where a consumer product like the iPad can't? Because, like it or not, the iPad, like the iPhone, sets consumer expectations on how computing ought to be done. It does that both by the elegance and brilliance of its execution, and by the sheer numbers of iPads and iPhones out there (Apple has sold 315 million iOS devices through 2011). That pretty much means anything that doesn't at least come close to offering the ease-of-use and functionality of the Apple devices will be considered lacking, making for a more difficult sell.
Unfortunately for anyone else out there trying to sell tablets, it's been tough. Somehow, while the iPad is simply a tablet, a way of presenting, consuming and manipulating information, it's been remarkably difficult for anyone else to convince customers to select them, and not Apple. Remarkable because Apple, despite its mystique, never managed to even make a dent into Microsoft's PC hegemony, and remarkable because of the number of vocal Apple opponents who shred whatever Apple creates seemingly on principle.
But let's take a quick look at Apple's latest version of the iPad, called not, as expected, iPad 3, but once again simply iPad.
No one ever complained about the resolution of the iPad display (1024 x 768), and everyone else stayed around that resolution as well, with lower end products perhaps offering 800 x 480, many using the old 1024 x 600 "netbook" resolution, and higher end products going as far as 1280 x 800 or the wider 1366 x 768. Well, with the new iPad Apple quadrupled resolution to 2048 x 1536, making for a superior viewing experience. Such high resolution is not necessarily needed, but if it's available for as comparatively little as Apple charges for iPads, everything else now looks lacking. And I can definitely see how the super-high resolution could come in very handy for many vertical market applications.
The new iPad also has two cameras. The new iPads we ordered will not arrive for another week and so I don't know yet just how good they are, but if the iPhone 4s is any indication, they will be very significantly better than what anyone else in the rugged arena has to offer at this point. I've long wondered why expensive, high quality rugged handhelds, tablets and notebooks come with marginally acceptable cameras, and the new iPads will only widen the chasm. The iPad cameras aren't only capable of offering fully functional video conferencing on their large screens, they can also snap rather high quality stills, and they can record 1080p full motion HD video, with image stabilization. And the iPad has the software to go with it. Few could claim this wouldn't come in handy for professionals in the field.
Advances on the technology side include a faster dual core Apple-branded ARM processor with quad core graphics and 4G LTE wireless broadband. Unless some rugged hardware we've seen over the years, iPads were never underpowered, and with the new chip they'll be snappier yet. And while 4G wireless isn't ubiquitous yet by any means, having it built-in certainly doesn't hurt. And then there's battery life, where the iPad, even the new improved one, wrings about ten hours out of just 25 watt-hours. And the whole thing still only weighs 1.4 pounds.
Now, of course, the iPad isn't rugged. It's durable and well built, and if you use it in one of its many available cases, it won't get scratched or dented, but it's not rugged. Its projected capacitive multi-touch screen famously cannot be used with gloves, you can't use a pen for when pin-point accuracy is required, and it's not waterproof.
None of which stopped the iPad from scoring some remarkable design wins in areas and industries that once did not look beyond rugged equipment. The FAA granted American Airlines permission to use iPads to replace inflight manuals and such, and American is deploying 11,000 iPads. Others will follow.
What does that all mean for companies that make rugged tablets? That the market is there. In fact, I believe the surface has barely been scratched. But it has to be the right product. Apple showed the way with the iPad but, with all due respect to those who've tried so far, few followed with more than a timid effort. It's been mostly wait-and-see, and now Apple has set the bar higher yet. That doesn't mean it's over for anyone else, but it's gotten tougher yet. The new iPad will boost acceptance of the tablet form factor and functionality to higher levels yet, and that still means opportunity for everyone else.
I am convinced that there's a large and growing demand for a more rugged tablet, and that whoever comes out with a product that doesn't just approximate but match and exceed expectations will win big.
January 26, 2012
A conversation on imaging in rugged handhelds
Recently I received an email from someone in the industry that concluded with the question: "Wouldn't a conversation on imaging in rugged handhelds be interesting to your readers?"
The answer, of course, is "definitely," and so I responded as follows:
"I recently wrote two articles on the general state of imaging in handheld/mobile systems, so you basically know where I stand. In essence, given the very rapid advance in HD still/video imaging thanks to a convergence of CMOS, tiny storage formats, and H.264 compression technology (Ambarella!), it's now possible to generate excellent high resolution stills as well as near perfect 1080p/30 and better video in very small packages, packages that are small enough to fit into handheld and mobile computers.
"Yet, while we see tiny $200 GoPros and such, and advanced still/video capability in virtually every smartphone, the imaging technology we find in almost all rugged computers, even high-end ones, is lacking. Though we review and examine numerous mobile computers every year, we have yet to find a single one that has hybrid imaging capabilities that come close to what is possible today, and most are, in fact, barely usable. It is inexplicable to me how a $4,000 ruggedized notebook computer or tablet does NOT include competent imaging subsystems. There is room, there is a need, and the costs are not prohibitive.
"What enables me to make those statements? First, I have been reviewing rugged mobile computing technology for almost 20 years. For the past ten or 15 years, imaging in mobile computers has barely advanced. Second, I co-founded Digital Camera Magazine in 1997 (as the first magazine anywhere to concentrate solely on digital cameras). I continue to follow digital imaging closely and we also do digital imaging reviews as time allows. Third, as an enthusiastic scuba diver (see my scubadiverinfo.com), I have done many underwater imaging product reviews, including a couple on the GoPros (see here). Fourth, in working with several embedded systems vendors, I know what's possible in terms of integration. What I do see is an almost total lack of communication between computer and imaging people.
"I was not familiar with your company, but I see that you are in part concentrating on camera modules. Which means that you are probably painfully aware of the situation. What must happen is much better integration of much better imaging capabilities into mobile computers. At a time where I can produce near Avatar-quality underwater 1080p 3D video with two GoPros, and where world events are routinely reported on smartphones, mobile computers are woefully out of touch with imaging. A professional who pays $4,000 for a rugged computer (or even just $1,200 for a rugged handheld) should expect no less in terms of imaging quality and ease-of-use than you can get in a cheap digital camera (i.e. sharp pictures, a decent interface, HD video, and speed). Instead, what we currently have in most mobile computers is simply not nearly good enough. You could never rely on it even for quick, reliable snapshots in the field, let alone quality imaging.
"Think about it: businesses spend a lot of money to equip their personnel with expensive mobile computing equipment. Much of that equipment is used for data capture, sight survey, recording, reporting, etc. It makes zero sense to me to have vast computing power, a great outdoor viewable display, great communication and data capture technology, .... and weak rudimentary imaging that is in no way suitable or sufficient.
January 20, 2012
Who's Using Rugged Tablet PC Systems
Just as tablets have become indispensable to consumers, rugged tablets are becoming more integral to business.
At first, Rugged Tablet PC systems were used by the military, where they had to be able to withstand very hostile environmental conditions. But over time, they've found uses in a number of other industries, including:
- Field Service
- Manufacturing and Warehousing
- Transportation and Logistics
- Field Sales and Service
- Food and Beverage Distribution
- Military and Public Safety
Meanwhile, new studies show that tablets and other handheld devices are now outselling laptops 2-to-1. With such widespread adoption, many companies are likely to find that rugged tablets make business more efficient, seamless, and ultimately more cost-effective.
When Should I Start Using Rugged Tablet PCs?
Rugged tablets are ideal for companies that typically deploy laptops to their field workers, or those that issues PDAs and other handheld devices to their mobile workforce. Other companies find that rugged devices are especially useful for their warehouse operations.
But not everyone is immediately sold on rugged tablets. A lot of people still don't know if their features and benefits justify the up-front cost. Answers to a few key questions can help them decide:
- Is the device exposed to water and shock?
- Is it likely to be dropped?
- Does the user travel often, or work off-site?
- Will it have to work in extreme temperatures?
- Does it need a long battery life?
- What functions does it need to perform?
- Will it be used during most of the workday?
But how rugged is rugged enough? Tell us about your application.
January 18, 2012
Test to see use of entry categories.
November 21, 2011
Ruggedized Android devices -- status and outlook
As far as operating system platforms go, the rugged mobile computing industry is in a bit of a holding pattern these days. Thanks to the massive success of the iPhone and iPad there is a big opportunity for more durable handhelds and tablets that can handle a drop and a bit of rain, yet are as handy and easy to use as an iPhone or iPad-style media tablet.. On the tablet side, a lot of enterprises like the iPad form factor and ease of use, but they need something a bit tougher and more sturdy than an iPad or a similar consumer product. On the smartphone side, hundreds of millions use them now and expect the same elegance and functionality in the handhelds they use on the job. But again, those professional handhelds need to hold up to abuse and accidents better than your standard consumer smartphone.
So with dozens and perhaps hundreds of millions of Android smartphones sold, and tens of millions of iPads, why are the likes of Lowe's home improvement center equipping their employees with tens of thousands of iPhones instead of presumably more suitable ruggedized handhelds (see Bloomberg article)? And why do we see iPads being sold into enterprise deployments that used to be the exclusive province of rugged tablets? There isn't one easy answer.
On the tablet side, it almost looks like the enterprise seems to want iPads and nothing else. Which is a problem for anyone who isn't Apple as the iOS is proprietary and Android-based tablets simply haven't caught on yet. That may be due to the perception that Android is really a phone operating system, or potential customers are befuddled over the various versions of the Android OS.
On the handheld side where Android has successfully established itself as the primary alternative to the iPhone, it would seem to be easy to offer Android-based ruggedized smartphones and handhelds. But there, too, the majority of recent product introductions still used the by now ancient Windows Mobile, an OS that looked and felt old nearly a decade ago.
So what gives? A few things.
With tablets, the almost shocking lack of success of Android and other alternate OS tablets has had a cold shower effect. If neither Motorola Mobility (Xoom) nor RIM (Playbook) nor Hewlett Packard (TouchPad, Slate 500) can do it, who can? And then there's Microsoft's promise to finally getting it right on tablets with the upcoming Windows 8. That's far from certain, but in a generally conservative industry where almost everything is Microsoft, the usual Microsoft leverage/investment/integration arguments carry weight.
With handhelds and smartphones, it's harder to understand because non-Microsoft platforms have traditionally been far more successful, and in the era of apps, software leverage hardly matters anymore. Perhaps it's Microsoft's heavy-handed forcing Android vendors into paying them, and not Google, royalties. Perhaps it's some sort of fear not to stray too far into uncharted waters. It's hard to say. Almost everyone I talk in the industry admits, off the record, to keeping a very close eye on Android developments.
So that all said, where do we stand with respects to Android-based products in the vertical/industrial markets where durability, ruggedness and return-on-investment and total-cost-of-ownership matter?
In tablets, there have been two recent introductions. One is the Motorola Solutions ET1, a small 7-inch display ruggedized enterprise tablet. It's based on a TI OMAP4 processor and runs Android 2.3.4, i.e. one of the "non-tablet" versions. The ET1 was said to be available in Q4 of 2011. RuggedPCReview reported on the device here. The other notable introduction is the Panasonic Toughpad, introduced in November of 2011, but not available until the spring of 2012. The Panasonic Toughpad is a Marvell-powered device with a 10.1-inch screen and runs Android 3.2. Both devices seem to be what a lot of enterprise customers have been waiting for: more durable versions of consumer media tablets, fortified for enterprise use with beefed-up security, service and durability without sacrificing slenderness, low weight and ease-of-use.
On the handheld side, we've also come across some potentially interesting products. The first is the ADLINK TIOT2000 (see our report), a conventional resistive touch handheld with a QVGA display. What's interesting here is that ADLINK offers a visually identical version, the TIOT9000 (see here) that runs Windows CE, with the Android version using a Qualcomm 7227T processor and the Windows CE version a Marvell PXA310. Winmate just introduced its E430T, an industrial PDA with a large 4.3-inch display that uses capacitive touch. This machine uses a Texas Instruments DM3730 processor and is said to be able to run Android 2.3 or Windows Mobile 6.5. I've also seen Android listed as an alternate OS on some of Advantech's embedded modules, including the TI OMAP 3530-based PCM-C3500 Series (see here).
On the surface, it would seem to be almost a no-brainer to cash in on the great public interest in tablets/smartphones and the opportunity a new-era OS such as Android provides. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems.
For example, there's a big difference between traditional rugged tablets that usually either have very precise digitizer pens or a resistive touch screen (or often both), and iPad class devices that use capacitive touch that lets you do all that tapping and panning and pinching, but generally doesn't work in the rain or under adverse conditions. The same issue exists on the handheld side where the traditional Windows Mobile is clearly designed for use with a passive stylus and cannot easily take advantage of capacitive multi-touch. That has, however, not stopped Casio from introducing the IT-300 that has a capacitive multi-touch display, yet runs Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 (see our report).
So it's all a bit of a mystery. The transition to new operating platforms is never easy and often traumatic, and there are good arguments for being cautious. For example, in addition to leverage, one of the big arguments for Windows CE/Windows Mobile has always been the wealth of existing software. True, but in a world of tens of thousands of often very slick and sophisticated iOS and Android apps, it's hard to believe developers wouldn't quickly come up with the appropriate versions and apps.
With tablets, the situation must be quite frustrating for manufacturers of rugged mobile devices. They undoubtedly see a great opportunity to cash in on the tablet boom, but they are to a degree caught between needing to support the existing Windows XP/Windows 7 infrastructure and deciding what to move to next. Microsoft is cleverly dangling a (for them) no-lose carrot in the form of Windows 8's Metro interface where ARM-based devices would only run Metro and have no access to "classic" Windows whereas for X86-compatible devices, Metro would just be the front end. So there are three potential success strategies: Android, Metro-based ARM devices, and X86 tablets that run Metro and classic windows. No one can support all three.
So for now, as far as rugged tablets and handhelds go, it's the best of times and it's the worst of times.
November 02, 2011
Windows 8: a bit of fear, uncertainty and doubt
In mid-September 2011, Microsoft showcased a preview of the next release of Windows at the BUILD developer conference. After reading up on it, I wrote the below in the days following the preview, but held off putting it in the RuggedPCReview blog until I had a bit more time to let it sink in and contemplate the likely impact on rugged mobile computing manufacturers and users. My thinking hasn't changed, so below is pretty much what were my first impressions.
Essentially, Microsoft is offering a touch-optimized front end on the next version of Windows. For ARM devices, the new front end is mandatory, for X86 devices it is not. That's probably not to expose itself to charges that even on ARM devices, classic Windows just doesn't work very well.
What's a bit puzzling is that Microsoft called Windows 8 "touch-first." I have to assume that refers to the Metro interface only because having all of Windows touch-first would make most existing hardware essentially obsolete, as touch is neither available nor feasible on most desktops and notebooks. If all of Windows 8 would be touch-first, how would people take to a user interface designed for touch when they are sitting in front of a desktop?
So Microsoft is basically hedging its bets in the tablet space, just as it has before when rival platforms began getting to much attention. Witness...
In 1991, Microsoft grafted pen extensions on top of Windows 3.1 and called it Windows for Pen Computing. It was a miserable flop, but created enough FUD to stall and kill rivaling efforts (remember that even the original ThinkPad ran PenPoint and every major computer company had a pen tablet).
In 1995, Microsoft grafted the Pen Extensions onto Windows 95, but essentially left it up to hardware manufacturers to make them work and support them.
In 2001, Microsoft grafted pen functionality onto Windows XP and called it the XP Tablet PC Edition, forcing most hardware manufacturers to create products for it.
In 2009, Microsoft added a bit of touch functionality and made it available in Windows 7, proclaiming the OS -- successfully marketed as a rock solid new platform when it to most users it really looked like Vista done right -- as touch enabled.
In each case, Microsoft's effort created enough FUD to either derail efforts or at least drive OEMs to support them to some extent.
Now there'll be Windows 8 and once again Microsoft is attempting to ward off a challenge and remain relevant by integrating rival technology with just enough independent thinking to declare it its own.
So what is Microsoft doing? Think about it. Would Microsoft gamble its still commanding market position on suddenly converting everything to touch? When touch really only works on tablets? When almost all work is still done on desks sitting down? When billions use keyboards and mice? When even Apple is not suggesting touch is the be-all and end-all, and all of OSX and all Macs now work with touch only? When Microsoft just managed to convince the public that Windows 7 is new and solid? When unpleasant memories of Vista still linger? When almost everyone still remembers New Coke? When the idea of having tiles that summarize info from other apps has been tried (in WinMo) years ago? When the last thing IT wants is everyone having Facebook and Twitter built right in?
Let's be realistic here. What Microsoft is doing is nothing more than trying its Windows Everywhere approach one more time. By promising a new Windows that is so marvelous that nothing else is needed, not on tablets, not on the desktop. That hasn't worked in the past, and it will not work now. What Microsoft so far has shown is an updated version of Windows 7 with a new optional interface. The only new thing is that the interface will be mandatory on ARM-based devices. So that Microsoft won't get criticized again if the touch layer doesn't work well on tablets or just isn't enough to run Windows. This way Microsoft can always refer those who need "real" Windows to an X86 tablet and relegate or even abandon ARM devices should that not work out. If it does work out, great. If not, no big deal.
Now let's look at tablets specifically. Microsoft's primary argument for Windows on tablets is the leverage, legacy and compatibility proposition that says that corporate IT runs on Microsoft, all the software and software tools are Microsoft, developers know Microsoft, and there are trillions of Microsoft apps. Therefore, Windows based tablets will fit right in. Even if they are a little hard to operate.
Using the leverage argument, if Metro is indeed a mandatory new interface on ARM-based tablets, then out goes the legacy application argument for tablets. It'll have to be all new apps. And that transition will be as hard or harder than what Windows Mobile users encountered when it was end of the road with WinMo 6.5, and the was only the vague promise of an eventual move to a Phone 7 style system that was not backward compatible.
So then why not just stay with X86 and the option to run Windows Classic where all the software is and will be? That is going to be the big question. Also, it's been suggested that since developing for both ARM and X86 requires using the Metro UI, that means Metro will be the preferred environment. Will that mean Windows 8 users have to go back and forth between environments? Will we see "compatibility boxes" again?
There is, of course, always the chance that Microsoft will indeed be able to put forth a credible effort, just as it did with the Windows 7 follow-up to Vista. The Metro interface may just be so compelling that it can stem and turn the tide of what by its introduction may be several hundred million iPads and perhaps Android tablets. A tall order indeed.
So for now it's Microsoft generating a degree of fear, uncertainty and doubt among hardware manufacturers and corporate customers. It's wise move that was to be expected. And in time-honored Microsoft fashion, it's also a riskless bet where Plan B (Windows classic) is the safe perpetuation of the status quo.
What does it all mean to makers of mobile and rugged devices? It depends on how serious Microsoft is with the Metro UI and ARM hardware. At this point, mobile hardware either uses Windows Mobile, or Embedded Handheld whatever, or it's using Windows XP or Windows 7 on Core or Atom powered devices. It's hard to see much of a future of Atom powered hardware if ARM-based tablets and handhelds can run Metro faster with fewer resources. In fact, the only reason would be to be legacy compatible, and that is a rather major reason.
The next issue is touch. It's hard to imagine a next gen Windows not supporting a multi touch interface that uses projected capacitive technology. And that is precisely what the vertical market mobile computing industry currently says it doesn't want because capacitive touch can't handle rain, gloves, or other adverse conditions. And then there's the pen functionality for signature capture and such, or even handwriting recognition. How will pens work in a touch interface (remember, touch has never worked well in a pen interface)?
For a bit of testing, we installed Windows 8 on an older HP 2710p convertible Tablet PC. The install was easy and pretty much everything worked. From a cold start to Metro takes just under a minute. The HP tablet doesn’t have touch, but the installer recognized the pen just fine. All the swiping has to be done by pen. Clicking on the Start menu brought up Metro with its flat tiles. It all can be made to work somehow, but at this point I think the real question is whether Android can establish itself on tablets or not before Microsoft is ready with Windows 8.
August 08, 2011
Do you have "Grandpa Boxes" in your lineup?
Unlike Gary Trudeau whose "Doonesbury" strips can be personal and mean-spirited (remember his relentless unfair mocking of the Apple Newton?), Scott Adams' "Dilbert" presents a lighthearted, humorous, yet keenly insightful commentary on the corporate and technical issues of the day.
In a recent strip (August 3, 2011), Dilbert's working on his computer when a young colleague approaches and asks, "Are you getting a lot done on the Grandpa Box?" "The what?" Dilbert asks. "The people in my generation do our work on our phones and tablets," is the response. "I also have a laptop," Dilbert objects. "I'll text the nineties and let them know," the young gun says (see the strip here)
This made me think. Is this really happening? Are we really seeing a shift from the computing tools as we know them to a new generation of devices that we didn't really think could do the serious jobs? While it seems almost unthinkable that a smartphone could replace a "real" computer, 30 years ago almost no one thought PCs could ever challenge mainframes or minicomputers, and yet PCs went on to revolutionize the world and doing things no one ever thought they could.
It also made me think of my own changing pattern of using computers. I use my own smartphone and tablet more and more, and my laptop less and less. I described the syndrome in a serious of lengthy blog posts entitled "iPad on the Road". On my own latest intercontinental business trip, I didn't take along a laptop at all, just my smartphone and tablet.
I also thought of a period in my life about three years ago where texting was my preferred means of communication, and how immersed in it I became. I got to a point where the shortcuts on the tiny keypad of my phone and its T9 predictive text entry became second nature and I could bang out messages with hardly looking at the keypad at all. I remember thinking that hundreds of millions of people, and perhaps billions, text every day. To them, T9 and similar text entry is second nature. And yet, makers of rugged tablet computers hardly ever include any of those text entry methods. I even suggested it to some, but there never was follow-up.
Can phones and tablets really do the job of computers as we know them? And is the young generation really doing its work on phones and tablets? I can see it to some extent as I am using Apple's Pages wordprocessor on my iPad, and also FTP, SSL, blog and remote login programs. And that's on top of what media tablets do best, like browsing, email, entertainment, research, etc. And on my most recent trip, Skype on my tablet actually replaced even my phone.
Does all of that make conventional computers "Grandpa Boxes"? The way I see it now, yes and no. Just like PCs replaced some of the conventional computing of the day and added a huge amount of new and previously unimaginable ways of using computers in everyday life, smartphones and tablets will replace some of the things we're now doing on desktops and notebooks, and add a huge amount of new functionality that we never really thought of.
This means we may be at the threshold of a new era with both challenges and opportunities. The challenge will be to figure out what all will inevitably be replaced by these emerging computing platforms. The opportunity will be to take advantage of the new platforms.
For the mobile rugged computing industry this means thinking long and hard which of their products are "Grandpa Boxes" and which continue to fill a real, rational need. And also what part of the smartphone and media tablet revolution to embrace and employ for their own purposes.
So far, the industry has been timid. The are a few ruggedized smartphones and a couple of "new style" tablets, but no one's really much ventured past the cozy confines of the Wintel world. And the new realm of apps has not yet been discovered by the verticals. What this means is that a giant opportunity remains unexplored, and there's also a danger of simply missing the boat by waiting too long, with new players coming in and taking over.
That won't necessarily happen as there's much expertise in this industry, but what if suddenly there are apps that can handle business processes on inexpensive yet durable smartphones and tablets the way hundreds of millions already use their smartphones and tablets?
Do you have Grandpa Boxes in your lineup? If so, does that make sense, or is it time to move on?
June 29, 2011
It's fashionable these days to say that something's "in the cloud." The cloud is in. Everyone's moving stuff to the cloud.
Which is really annoying.
"The Cloud," of course, isn't a cloud at all. In fact, it couldn't be farther from a cloud. It's the same old server farms somewhere in a warehouse. That's all. So why the sudden fixation with "the cloud"? Probably because centralized storage and applications can be huge business and because it presents an opportunity to regain control over users and their data, control that has largely been lost ever since the PC revolution took it away from centralized mainframes in the 1980s.
But isn't it really great not to have to worry about where stuff is stored? And that it'll all be there for you when you need it, wherever that may be? In theory, yes. In practice, not so much. Because it may, or may not be there.
I learned that lesson yet again when my Amazon account somehow got compromised a little while ago. For all practical purposes, Amazon is in "the cloud" as far as their customers are concerned. Customer data is there, wish lists, old transactions, and all the archived Kindle books. So when Amazon suddenly didn't accept my password anymore I tried to reset it three times, exhausting in the process the passwords I can easily remember.
A call to Amazon yielded that the account had indeed been compromised, and I was guided through setting it up again. I wasn't told how and why the hacking might have happened, and moving my data was a manual process that had to be done by Amazon. But even Amazon, stunningly, was unable to move my Kindle book library. Instead, they said they'd send me a gift card so that I could purchase the books again. The card eventually arrived.
Then I found that my Amazon affiliates account was also linked to my main Amazon account, and also no longer worked. Amazon once again changed my password and gave me instructions on how to regain access.
Bottom line: if even Amazon (or Sony or the government, for that matter) cannot guarantee that your data is safe, or explain what happened when it's compromised, why should I trust "the cloud"? Companies come and go, and some who are now presenting "cloud" services will undoubtedly soon be gone. Others will, in the software industry's inimitable fashion, act as if their service was the only one that matters and make users jump through hoops. And it'll all add to the rapidly growing number of logins and setups and passwords that we are pretty much forced to entrust our lives and financials with.
While experiences like what happened to my Amazon account are simply annoying and worrysome, what happens if and when it'll all come crashing down? Or if you wake up one day with amnesia, or the cheat sheet with all your access data is lost. The cloud -- poof! -- will be gone, and with it all of our data. That alone is a darn good argument for local storage and backups. Having one's head in the cloud will almost inevitably turn out to be a bad thing.
May 24, 2011
Another conversation with Paul Moore, Fujitsu's Senior Director of Product Development
I don't often do phone interviews with product managers or PR people when a new product is announced. That's because, for the most part, whatever they can tell me I already know from the press materials. And what I really want to know they usually can't tell me because PR folks, by and large, need to stick to a script and company line. Which means I might as well save the time of a PR call to examine things myself, Google this and that, and then form my own opinion.
That said, there are industry people I enjoy talking to on the phone. Paul Moore, Senior Director of Product Development at Fujitsu is one of them. Conversations with Paul are always value-added because he not only knows his stuff, but he also has opinions, answers questions, and does not shy away from a good debate over an issue. Like all professionals in his position, Paul must present and defend the party line, but with him you always get a clear and definite position and explanation, and I respect and appreciate that. I may not always agree, and at times it must be hard for someone in his position to argue a point that seems, from my perspective, rather clear. But that's what a good PR person does, and Paul is among the best.
The occasion of our conversation was the availability of Fujitsu's new Stylistic Q550 tablet, a "business class tablet" first introduced back in February (see my preview). The Q550 represents Fujitsu's initial effort to grab a slice of the tablet market popularized by the iPad, and expected to grow almost exponentially. So far that's turned out to be much more difficult than anyone expected, as Apple's product and pricing are very good, main contender Android just doesn't seem quite ready yet, and Microsoft doesn't have anything specifically for tablets.
The overall situation is odd. Many millions love the iPad and its effortless elegance, but for certain markets the iPad is lacking. It's not particularly rugged. It's an Apple product in a still largely Windows world. And there's no pen for situations where a pen is needed (signatures, etc.).
So Fujitsu comes out with the Stylistic Q550 with a nice 10.1-inch screen, and running regular Windows 7 on a 1.5GHz Atom Z670 processor, one of the newest ones. It has multi-touch like the iPad, but also a pen, thanks to N-trig's DuoSense technology. It also has an SD card slot, a Smart Card slot, a fingerprint reader, higher resolution than the iPad (1280 x 800), a brighter backlight, outdoor viewability, and optional Gobi 3000. And it starts at just US$729, which isn't much for a business class machine.
Paul starts the conversation with reminding that Fujitsu has some 20 years' worth of experience in the tablet market (true, they are the pioneers). That taught them a thing or two. Like that removable batteries are a must; business can't send in product just to replace a bad battery. Then there's all the security stuff corporations need, like biometrics, the TPM module, bitlocker encryption, and compatibility with all the other gear companies already have. And there's also an HDMI port for presentations, a handstrap, dual cams, the Gobi 3000 module so you can use AT&T, Verizon or Sprint, or whatever you want. Business needs all that.
And that is why when Fujitsu created a next-gen tablet for commercial markets, they based it on Windows 7. That was just a given. "For us, this is a market expander," Paul said, "not just another product."
That makes sense, even though the market researchers at IHS iSuppli just predicted that iPad-style media tablets will outsell PC tablets by a factor of 10 to 1 through the next four years or so (see here). Paul doesn't debate that point. "Let's face it, Apple owns consumer," he says, "We've always been vertical. We concentrate on usability, screens, ports, security, compatibility, ..." and he adds a half dozen more items and features that separate glitzy consumer electronics from the tool-for-the-job professional stuff.
Why not Android then? There's allure, and Fujitsu is rumored to introduce a smaller Android-based tablet. Paul quickly cuts to the core of that issue: "No one likes to pay for an OS," he says, and that's certainly an Android attraction. "But Android is basically a phone OS. There are security challenges, different marketplaces, and if all my software is Windows-based, do I really want an Android device?" Good points there, and especially when a business uses custom software. And as for the iPad, it's a "want" device, Paul says. Theirs is a "need" device. All net on that one.
Then I am pressing on an issue that I consider very relevant. While I have serious doubts that Windows, as is, is well suited for tablets, the compatibility argument is valid. I think Microsoft's leverage-across-all-platforms mantra is not as strong as it once was, but for now it still stands. However, if you make a business class machine, it really should be considerably tougher than a media tablet. Yet, the Q550 is listed with a rather narrow 41 to 95 degree operating temperature range and nothing more. No drop spec, no sealing spec against dust and water, no altitude or humidity specs, nada. Why? Especially when Motion introduced the CL900 which does offer a decent degree of ruggedness.
Paul says their tablet does not compete in the same class as Motion's. The Motion tablet is heavier and more expensive and really more in the class of an Xplore tablet or such. I cannot agree here. While the Q550 is indeed a bit lighter and less expensive than the Motion tablet, both are essentially Windows-based business class media tablets starting at under US$1,000 whereas fully rugged hardware like the Xplore tablets weigh and cost a whole lot more. I definitely believe commercial markets would like to see a degree of ruggedness, but Paul won't concede the point. Besides, they do have protective cases and such. And Paul's argument that Fujitsu has a long record of building tablets that hold up well is most definitely valid. Paul also pointed out that the Q55 is indeed MIL-STD-810G tested, meeting nine military standard tests for various demanding environmental conditions including transit drop, dust, functional shock and high temperature. I hope they soon add this to the specs.
Now the conversation moves beyond the new tablet. I ask Paul why Fujitsu, the pioneer in tablets, appears to have discontinued their larger Stylistic slates, a storied line of tablets that went back, uninterrupted, a good 15 years or so. Well, they did stop the last of that line, the Stylistic ST6012, over a year ago because everyone seemed to be transitioning to convertibles, and Fujitsu has many years' worth of experience in that product category, too.
Why the switch? "Convertibles are less expensive," Moore explained. It's simple physics: having the LCD in one case and the rest of the electronics in another means less complexity, fewer thermal issues, and thus less expensive components. So convertibles turned out to be less expensive, but more powerful and more reliable. Years ago, Fujitsu sold more tablets than convertibles, then the ratio switched. Good information and reasoning. I still think that Microsoft is as much at fault as physics, but in this instance the marketplace spoke, and Fujitsu followed.
Then I get on a high horse on cameras. The Q550 tablet does have two of them, a front-facing VGA webcam, and a rear-facing 1.4mp documentation camera. I haven't tried out the Q550's cameras yet, and I have no problem with a VGA webcam. But a 1.3 megapixel documentation camera is meager in an era where digital cameras with 14-megapixel sensors and 1080p HD video can be had at Walmart for less than a hundred bucks. Paul says he's had that discussion with his engineers, so no real argument there, other than that true digital camera guts can't easily be built into a slender tablet. I think they can.
I've been on the phone with Paul Moore for almost an hour and it's time to let him go so he can get ready for his next call. I had a lot of fun. I learned things, I got some good information. And I hung up with the feeling that I had talked to someone who really likes his work and the products he represents. That makes all the difference.
Thanks, Paul. And thanks, Wendy Grubow, for always keeping us informed about Fujitsu's latest.
May 09, 2011
The problem with benchmarks
When we recently used our standard benchmark suite to test the performance of a new rugged computer, we thought it'd be just another entry into the RuggedPCReview.com benchmark performance database that we've been compiling over the past several years. We always run benchmarks on all Windows-based machines that come to our lab, and here's why:
1. Benchmarks are a good way to see where a machine fits into the overall performance spectrum. The benchmark bottomline is usually a pretty good indicator of overall performance.
2. Benchmarks show the performance of individual subsystems; that's a good indicator for the strengths and compromises in a design.
3) Benchmarks show how well a company took advantage of a particular processor, and how well they optimized the performance of all the subsystems.
That said, benchmarks are not the be-all, end-all of performance testing. Over the years we've been running benchmarks, we often found puzzling inconsistencies that seemed hard to explain. We began using multiple benchmark suites for sort of a "checks and balances" system. That often helped in pin-pointing test areas where a particular benchmark simply didn't work well.
There is a phrase that says there are three kinds of lies, those being "lies, damn lies, and statistics." It supposedly goes back to a 19th century politician. At times one might be tempted to craft a similar phrase about benchmarks, but that would be unfair to the significant challenge of creating and properly using benchmarks.
It is, in fact, almost impossible to create benchmarks that fairly and accurately measure performance across processor architectures, operating systems, different memory and storage technologies, and even different software algorithms. For that reason, when we list benchmark results in our full product reviews, I always add an explanation outlining the various benchmark caveats.
Does that mean benchmarks are useless? It doesn't. Benchmarks are a good tool to determine relative performance. Even if subsystem benchmarks look a bit suspect, the bottomline benchmark number of most comprehensive suites generally provides a good indicator of overall performance. And that's why we run benchmarks whenever we can, and why we publish them as well.
Now in the instance that causes me to write this blog entry, we ran benchmarks and then, as a courtesy, ran them by the manufacturer. Most of the time, the industry's benchmarks and ours are very close, but this time they were not. Theirs were much higher, both for CPU and storage. We ran ours again, and the results were pretty much the same as the first time we ran them.
The manufacturer then sent us their numbers, and they were indeed different, and I quickly saw why. Our test machine used its two solid state disks as two separate disks whereas I was pretty sure the manufacturer had theirs configured to run RAID 0, i.e. striping, which resulted in twice the disk subsystem performance (the CPU figures were the same). A second set of numbers was from a machine that had 64-bit Windows 7 installed, whereas our test machine had 32-bit Windows 7, which for compatibility reasons is still being used by most machines that come through the lab.
The manufacturer then emailed back and said they'd overnight the two machines they had used for testing, including the benchmark software they had used (same as ours, Passmark 6.1). They arrived via Fedex and we ran the benchmarks, and they confirmed the manufacturer's results, with much higher numbers than ours. And yes, they had the two SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration. Just to double-check, we installed the benchmark software from our own disk, and on the 32-bit machine confirmed their result. Then we ran our benchmark software on the 64-bit Windows machine, and... our numbers were pretty much the same as those of the machine running 32-bit Windows.
Well, turns out there is a version of Passmark 6.1 for 32-bit Windows and one for 64-bit Windows. The 64-bit version shows much higher CPU performance numbers, and thus higher overall performance.
Next, we installed our second benchmark suite, CrystalMark. CrystalMark pretty much ignored the RAID configuration and showed disk results no higher than the ones we had found on our initial non-RAID machine. CrystalMark also showed pretty much the same CPU numbers for both the 32-bit and the 64-bit versions of Windows.
This put us in a bit of a spot because we had planned on showing how the tested machine compared to its competition. We really couldn't do that now as it would have meant comparing apples and oranges, or in this case results obtained with two different versions of our benchmark software.
There was an additional twist in that the tested machine had a newer processor than some of the comparison machines that scored almost as high or higher in some CPU benchmarks. The manufacturer felt this went against common sense, and backed up the conjecture with several additional benchmarks supplied by the maker of the chips. I have seen older systems outperform newer ones in certain benchmarks before, so I think it's quite possible that older technology can be as quick or quicker in some benchmarks, though the sum-total bottom line almost always favors newer systems (as it did here).
The implications of all this are that our benchmark suites seem to properly measure performance across Windows XP, Vista and 7, but apparently things break down when it comes to 64-bit Windows. And the vast discrepancy between the two benchmark suites in dealing with RAID is also alarming.
It was good being able to use the same exact benchmark software to objectively measure hundreds of machines, but I am now rethinking our benchmarking approach. I greatly value consistency and comparability of results, and the goal remains arriving at results that give a good idea of overall perceived performance, but we can't have discrepancies like what I witnessed.
May 06, 2011
Conversation with Ambarella's Chris Day about the state of still/video imaging in mobile computing devices
In a recent blog entry I wrote about the generally low quality of cameras built into rugged mobile computers compared to the very rapidly advancing state-of-the-art in miniaturized imaging technology. It doesn't seem to make sense that high quality, costly tools for important jobs should be saddled with imaging hardware that ranges from only marginally acceptable to quite useless. Still and video cameras are now in tens of millions of smartphones and many of them now can take very passable high res still pictures as well as excellent video. I would expect no less from vertical market mobile computing hardware.
Why is that important?
Because the ability to visually document work, problems, situations or details is increasingly becoming part of the job, a part that can dramatically enhance productivity, timeliness and precision, as well as enable quick problem solving by consulting with home offices, etc., and it also helps create documentation trails. Add technologies such as geo-tagging and mapping, and the presence of high quality hybrid imaging functionality has an obvious and direct impact on return on investment as well as total cost of ownership. However, that only applies if the computer's still and video capturing capabilities are at the same high quality and performance level as the computer itself.
Over the past several months I have asked several of my contacts in the mobile computing world why the cameras aren't any better, especially since many of them highlight those cameras as productivity-enhancing new features. Which they can be, but generally are not, or not yet. The cameras are slow, produce unacceptable pictures (low resolution, artifacts, color, compression, sharpness, large speed delays, interface), and video is generally almost useless (very low resolution, very low frame rate, etc.). I did not receive any compelling answers, just tacit agreement and somewhat vague references to space and cost considerations.
So I decided to seek opinions from people at the forefront of today's miniaturized image processing solutions and get their side of the story. Molly McCarthy of Valley PR was kind enough to arrange a call with Chris Day, who is Vice President, Marketing and Business Development at Ambarella and has one of those very cool British accents.
Why did I seek out Ambarella? Because when we took apart a video scuba diving mask I had been testing, I found Ambarella chips inside. The product was the Liquid Image Scuba Series HD mask that has a high definition still/video camera built right into the mask. It can shoot 5-megapixel still pictures and also 720p HD video (see our review). The mask including the camera costs less than US$250 and it records on a microSD card. We also reviewed another tiny sports camera that includes Ambarella technology (the ContourHD), and that one can do full 1080p HD video.
What is Ambarella? It is a Silicon Valley company that was formed in 2004 to be a technology leader in low power, high definition video compression and image processing semiconductors. Chris explained that their main thrust is H.264 video compression, a technology that generates very good video at file sizes much smaller than conventional formats. Their largest market is what's called consumer hybrid cameras, the rapidly expanding segment of small cameras that can do both high quality, high resolution still images as well as superb high definition video. Ambarella is probably the leader in that area, and also the first to truly merge high-res video and still imaging.
Ambarella's hottest market right now is sports cameras, the kind that generate incredible HD video of skiing, skydiving, car racing, and all sorts of extreme sports (including, of course, scuba diving). They also do cameras for security and surveillance where the days of the grainy b&w low-res video often shown in "the world's dumbest criminals" type of TV shows is rapidly coming to an end. Ambarella also supplies other markets that rely on high compression but also high quality in their sophisticated imaging and forecasting systems.
About 400 people work for Ambarella these days, 100 of them at the Silicon Valley headquarters. For the most part, Ambarella makes chips, but they are also getting closer to providing full products, and already offer hardware/software development platforms.
I told Chris of my puzzlement over the primitive state of cameras built into most current mobile computers, especially considering that the professionals using those expensive high-quality computers could definitely use reliable, high-res cameras built into their equipment. Chris said that Ambarella did have discussions with several notebook manufacturers three to four years ago, but nothing ever came of it, primarily for cost reasons.
Now it must be understood that a good part of Ambarella's value-added consists of the chips that do very fast, very good video compression, and general purposes processors can do some of that, so perhaps consumer notebook makers simply didn't see the need for the extra speed and quality when most notebook users don't ask for more than basic webcam functionality.
Notebooks are one thing, of course, and tablets and smartphones another. Also to be considered is the fact that there are really two types of cameras used: vidcams for video conferences (increasingly referred to as "front-facing" cameras), and the much higher resolution documentation cameras (generally called "rear-facing") used like regular digital cameras. Most better smartphones and tablets now have two cameras, one for each purpose.
To that extent, Ambarella created their iOne smart camera solution that brings full HD camera and multimedia capabilities to Android-based devices. The iOne's SoC (System on Chip) supports live video streaming, WiFi upload of video clips, and full HD telepresence applications. It also has multi-format video decoding for playback of Internet-based video content up to 1080p60 resolution (i.e. better than HD TV). Chris felt that sooner or later one of the media tablet makers would truly differentiate itself with a superior built-in camera.
Ambarella also offers full development platforms for digital video/still imaging that contain the necessary tools, software, hardware and documentation to develop a hybrid DV/DSC camera functionality (see Ambarella consumer hybrid camera solutions here).
The bottom line, Chris Day said, is that "it is possible to have a mobile computing device that is also a world-class camera." We're just not seeing them yet. I am convinced that the first professional mobile computing product that offers the still/video recording capability of an inexpensive consumer camera will have a definite strategic and marketing advantage.
But what about the size and cost? As is, there are any number of imaging modules for those handy smartphones that are getting better all the time. They are tiny and inexpensive and light years ahead of what we now see in actual vertical market mobile handhelds and tablets.
A step up are the imaging modules that go into standard digital cameras. Those are larger and more complex, but judging by the tiny size of today's consumer point & shoot cameras that often offer 14 megapixel and 1080p video, those electronics should also easily fit into many mobile computing devices. They cost more, of course, but given the fact that many consumer cameras are now under US$100, it should be possible. Consider one product that uses Ambarella technology, the Sony Bloggie Touch. It can do 12.8mp stills, 1080p video, has 8GB of memory and a 3-inch touch LCD, yet it's hardly thicker than half an inch and costs under US$150. The guts of this in a rugged tablet or handheld would make an extremely attractive combination.
So the experts have spoken. It's doable. And it wouldn't even cost that much.
Video/imaging integrated into cellphones has changed the world. A lot of reporting now originates from smartphones before CNN ever gets there. And there's already talk that smartphones may essentially replace the conventional low-end camera market. The technology is there.
State-of-the-art DV/DSC Video/imaging could bring great value-added to rugged mobile computing hardware. Being able to document work, situations, conditions can be invaluable and truly open many new possibilities to get jobs done better and faster. But the pictures must be good, and users must be able to rely on the camera. Current camera modules cannot do that. HD video, likewise, could change everything. And it is truly lightyears ahead of the slow, grainy QVGA and VGA videos that most current computer cameras are limited to.
April 26, 2011
Is the race for tablet supremacy already over? Many developers think so.
Who could forget Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stomping around the stage and yelling "developers, developers, developers!" at conferences in the mid-2000s (see Balmer's developers on YouTube)? Well, according to the Appcelerator/IDC Mobile Developer Report, April 2011, the developers have spoken and the news isn't at all good for Microsoft, and not even that good for Android.
What Appcelerator and IDC did was survey a total of 2,760 Appcelerator developers on their perceptions regarding mobile OS platforms, feature priorities and development plans. The survey essentially showed that while Android smartphones have passed the iPhone in terms of sales and market share, developer interest in both Android smartphone and tablet apps has stalled and reversed, with both being behind interest in iPhone and iPad development. According to the report, this is due to "an increase in developer frustration with Android. Nearly two-thirds (63%) said device fragmentation in Android poses the biggest risk to Android, followed by weak initial traction in tablets (30%) and multiple Android app stores (28%)."
I think that's worth a lot of thought. Despite frustration with Microsoft, Apple's market share in computers was in the low single digits for many years and not even the Vista debacle and Apple's great momentum in iPhones and such managed to lift the Mac OS to more than 10% or so (in Switzerland it's highest, with 17.6% according to StatCounter Global Stats, Feb. 2011). Yet, the situation is completely different with media tablets where the Apple iPad continues to be virtually unchallenged a year after its initial release. Apple still has a commanding market share. In 2010, it was 83.9% according to Gartner, which predicts that Apple will still hold an almost 50% share in 2015, still beating Android by several percentage points.
Such market dominance of a single company is almost unheard of, and certainly not in a market that has a good percentage of customers who are against the company on principle, as is the case with Apple. Then again, there's precedent: No one else managed to come close to Apple in MP3 players either. Even though MP3 players can be considered commodities and hardly cutting edge hardware, the iPod continues to reign supreme with a ridiculously commanding market share whereas Microsoft got absolutely nowhere with its Zune.
But can this happen again with tablets? On the surface it seems impossible. Hardware is a commodity, and there are certainly more than enough critics of Apple's very controlled approach to the whole development and sales process. But here we are, a year later and there just isn't anything else out there to challenge Apple. Why is that?
There are several reasons. First, Apple not only created a great product with superior battery life (a huge factor), but it also really aced the pricing. After having been known as a premium-price player for almost all of its history, the iPad is pretty much the low price leader. Sure, you can pick up an Android tablet on eBay for a hundred bucks, but those tablets are so poorly made and of so little use that they have actually hurt the Android cause rather than helped it. And like it or not, but the Apple app store simply guarantees a good user experience. Knowing that there won't be inappropriate content, viruses, frauds and cons is invaluable. And having so many more good apps than anyone else is invaluable as well. As is having one source, and not having to figure out what store to have to go to.
But back to pricing: Motorola and others learned quickly that pricing any media tablet higher than the iPad was simply out of the question. But pricing it lower is also pretty much out of the question if there is to be any profit potential at all. Remember that unlike Apple, any other hardware vendor does not have the built-in income from their own dominant app store.
So what can the rest of the industry do? Make better tablets, for one thing. As is, the surveys says that "while 71% of developers are very interested in Android as a tablet OS, only 52% are very interested in one of the leading Android tablet devices today." No surprise here; everyone else has essentially been copying Apple's look and features: Capacitive multi-touch? Check. Slender, glossy, black slate? Check. Nice icons, zooming, pinching, panning, etc.? Check. 3G? Check. Long battery life? Check (mostly). Simply beating Apple in a spec here or there won't make a difference; that's like Hyundai claiming they beat Mercedes Benz or BMW in this stat or that.
I am fairly sure Android will be doing well on tablets anyway, but as of now, the issues the platform faces are very real. According to the Appcelerator/IDC survey, by far the biggest concern is Android's fragmentation. Only 22% of the polled developers feel that the problem is that iOS is simply better, but almost two third cite fragmentation. Too many tablets, too many versions of Android, too much needed customization. In that sense, it's a bit like the difference between developing for a game console where the hardware and software are constant (iPad), and developing for the PC where there are a million processor/OS/BIOS/storage/display permutations (Android tablets).
But what of the Microsoft factor? Microsoft simply has got to know that a leading presence in mobile is mandatory if the company is to remain relevant as it's historically been relevant (i.e. being #1 in every market it enters). But well into year 2 of the tablet era, Microsoft remains in the same deer-caught-in- aheadlight gridlock over what to do. The issue is always the same: how to tie a non-PC platform into the PC-based Windows platform. Windows CE/Windows Mobile never really succeeded the way it could have because Microsoft intentionally dumbed down those platforms, fearing they might compete with the almighty Windows proper. In tablets, that attitude just won't do. Anything that looks like it's really just an adapted version of mouse Windows is not going to work. Not now, not ever. If Microsoft does not get over that mental block, Microsoft will not be a factor in tablets.
As is, the polled developers already feel, by roughly a 2/3 majority, that no one can catch up to Apple or Android. The developers-developers-developers have spoken here, and so Microsoft finds itself in the odd position of having to hope that a hardware partner will pull a rabbit out of the hat. That has never worked too well for them in the past, with the sole exception of the original IBM PC deal. And even that meager assessment by the developers is probably based on the respectable early showing of Windows Phone 7. Microsoft's still amorphous tablet effort may be an even longer shot.
Then there's the next issue. Are we perhaps entering an era where people abandon the web as we know it and simply turn to apps? It seems unthinkable and the web certainly won't go away any time soon, but let's face it, the web has become a big pain in many respects. Websites are jam-packed full of ads and commercial messages. More websites than not are simply nearly content-free decoys to lure AdSense and other ad click traffic. There's danger waiting everywhere. Often, the web today feels like running the gauntlet in a seedy neighborhood full of panhandlers and worse.
Now compare that with the structure and safety of apps. They do exactly what you want them to do. They've been tested and certified. They are clean. And you are in command. That's why a growing number of companies now offer their own apps in addition to their websites. Yes, it's a bit ironic that we may all return to the gated communities that we had in the past (remember AOL and CompuServe?), but that's the way things seem to go. Already, developers interested in building apps outnumber those interested in the mobile web by 5:1.
Does that mean the race is run? Not at all. Momentum can change very quickly. While it's unlikely that Apple or Android-based tablets will crash and burn, you never know if Microsoft or perhaps even HP with the WebOS will come out with something so awesome that the momentum shifts. Decades ago IBM found that they could not profitably compete in the very PC market they had created. Netscape was defeated by Internet Explorer, which initially had looked like a woefully inadequate competitor. Unbeatable Palm lost its mojo and vanished. It can all happen.
As is, from the vantage point of a product reviewer and publisher, I am surprised by a number of things.
First, I wonder why everyone simply copies Apple instead of taking advantage of Apple's weak spots. Yes, the almighty iPad has some weak sides, and none worse than its ridiculously glossy, ridiculously smudge-prone display. Any major tablet vendor who comes out with a product that does not turn into a mirror outdoors has an instant, massive advantage and selling point.
Then there's the vaunted leverage. "Leverage" has been Microsoft's main argument for decades, and it goes something like this: since 90% of all computers use WIndows and everyone knows how to use Windows and there are so many programmers who know Windows development tools and languages it only makes sense to "leverage" that investment into other platforms. That was always the argument for Windows CE/Windows Mobile, and in the vertical markets, which is still almost 100% Windows Mobile, it worked. Now Google doesn't have any leverage, and Apple doesn't have much. In fact, it's amazing that Apple managed to build so much around arguably its weakest point, iTunes.
Point is, if Microsoft came out with some way to truly leverage its Windows position into tablets and smartphones, things could change in a hurry. It's not clear how that could happen, but there simply has got to be a compelling way to truly extend the commanding position Microsoft has on the desktop (and on the lap) to tablets and smartphones. And no matter how positively surprised I was with Windows Phone 7, we're not talking just a Zune interface and automatic updates from Facebook and Twitter.
And where does that leave HP and RIM? HP recently made noises about offering WebOS on a whole range of devices. The HP TouchPad will run WebOS, WebOS has had mostly good reviews when Palm introduced it for its smartphones a couple of years ago, and HP certainly has deep enough pockets to make an impact. Palm/HP never sent us a Palm Pre or Pixi for review and I wasn't about to sign up for a 2-year telco contract just to review a Pre in detail, but from what I can tell, WebOS excels at something that is just a pain on the iPad--multitasking. The lack of useful multitasking is the one thing that keeps me from using my iPad for more than I already use it for, and the sole reason why I still take my MacBook Pro on business trips.
RIM, they have more of a problem. For RIM, the question really is whether lightening can strike twice. RIM rose to prominence based on one single concept, that of providing secure, totally spam-free email in a pager-sized device. That worked for many years, but RIM struggled with adding some pizzazz to their BlackBerry devices, and going it alone on tablets seems undoable. In the Appcelerator/IDC survey, developers were somewhat excited over RIM's announcement that their PlayBook tablet would support Android apps. That's really no more exciting than Apple's claim that you can run Windows software on a Mac back when no one wanted a Mac. That said, it's almost impossible to figure out what does and does not make business sense, and so we may see some seemingly weird niche products.
As far as the situation at hand goes, the developers-developers-developers have spoken. For now. Developers go where the money is, and even massive incentives go only so far against the lure of a successful app store and tens of millions of tablets sold. An awful lot is at stake here and it's a war, one that seems pretty clear right now (Apple strong, Android gaining), but also one where things can still change in a hurry.
April 22, 2011
So I'm getting to the next machine in the review queue, charge it, then start it up, just to get nagged by Windows to activate the OS. Would I like to do that online, right now? Huh? Huh? I didn't think that was going to be possible since the machine didn't know the password to my WiFi network yet. But Windows wanted to try anyway and so I let it. Of course, it didn't get anywhere.
So then I am in Windows 7, but there's this nasty message at the bottom right that says, "This copy of Windows is not genuine." Well, that's bad news as the machine is a prototype from a well-respected rugged computing manufacturer.
I let Windows get access to my WiFi and tried the activation again. No go. I get a ominous message that says "You may be a victim of software counterfeiting." Oh, oh. So I accepted the option to "Go online and resolve now."
Well, Windows then said that "Windows validation detected and repaired an activation exploit (used to prevent Windows Vista built-in licensing from operating properly)" and that I had to activate Windows in order to "complete the repair process and be able to use the full functionality of Windows Vista."
Dang, and there I thought I was on Windows 7 on this brand-spanking new machine.
Windows offered: "Not to worry, we can help you with that."
The help consisted of offering me to buy genuine Windows, the professional version for just US$149.
Now, first, I wasn't on Windows Vista. Second, I didn't have a non-genuine version of Windows. And third, I most certainly wasn't going to pay $149 to upgrade my brand-new Windows 7 to Windows 7.
So I rebooted, and then rebooted again. Now Windows decided that my software was genuine and just wanted to activate it. And this time it worked.
Go figure. And go figure how Microsoft can be in business.
March 29, 2011
Why are cameras in mobile computers not any better?
When I founded the original Digital Camera Magazine in 1997, almost no one thought that digital photography would ever seriously challenge film. At best, digital cameras were thought to become novelties or peripherals for computers. Yet, just a decade later, digital imaging had surpassed film and, in one of the quickest major technology upheavals, quickly made film irrelevant. As a result, digital cameras, which initially had carried a steep price premium, became more and more affordable. Today you can get a very good and incredibly compact 14-megapixel camera for less than US$100. In essence, digital imaging technology has become commoditized.
Which makes one wonder wonder why cameras integrated into mobile computing equipment aren't any better.
It's sad but true: cameras built into mobile computers are simply not very good. Some are getting better, but virtually none are within a lightyear of even the most basic dedicated digital camera. And, worse for those why rely on top quality tools for the job, cameras in consumer products such as smartphones and media tablets are generally much better than what is used in vertical market equipment. That is hard to explain.
Why is it important to have a good camera in a mobile computer? Because mobile computers are expensive tools for important jobs. Image capture is quickly becoming a must-have feature in the field. Field workers must document all sorts of things out there, like accidents, conditions, extraordinary events, repair status, etc., etc. And those images must be good enough to be of value.
As is, most cameras integrated into mobile computers cannot do that. The cameras are low res (hardly ever more than 3-megapixel), slow (often unacceptably slow), basic (few come close to the features even the cheapest dedicated camera has), and thus simply cannot do the job they're supposed to do. There are probably all sorts of explanations as to why that is, but I just can't buy them. If a cheap, tiny consumer camera can take award-winning pictures, the guts of such a camera can and should easily fit into a much larger mobile computer. Why this isn't happening is beyond me, but it just isn't.
This stunning lack of cross-fertilization between two major technologies actually goes both ways. Cameras have progressed immeasurably over the past decade, yet to this day, digital cameras come with the same tiny 30MB or so of internal memory they always have. You can buy a generic MP3 player with 8, 16, 32 or even 64GB of storage for a few bucks, but even the most advanced consumer digicams have essentially no internal storage. Which is always a REAL pain when your card gets full or you forget to put one in. And let's not even talk about compatibility. In the camera world, every company has their own standard and almost nothing is ever compatible.
That really needs to change. Customers who pay $2,000 or more for a rugged mobile computer should be able to take superb pictures with it, and shoot HD video, just as you can with a little $100 camera. There is simply no excuse, none, to put sluggish, insufficient imaging technology into expensive computer equipment. It cannot be a cost issue either; missing ONE important shot because a field computer's camera is so unwieldy and incapable can cost more than the entire device.
So let's get with it, mobile computing and camera industries! Camera guys: You need some real storage in your product, and no, going from 30 to 100MB won't do. And give some thought about compatibility. Computer guys: Do demand and insist that the camera guts inside your wonderfully competent mobile computing gear is not an embarrassment. It should work at least as well as that brand name $79 camera you can pick up at Walmart. And that includes good video and a real flash!
February 09, 2011
How we get news
A big part of the work here at RuggedPCReview.com is getting and spreading the news on what's going on in the rugged and mobile computing world. How do we do that? And how can manufacturers help get the news out?
In the past, it was pretty simple. We went to trade shows to see what all was new, loaded up on glossy brochures, attended press conferences, and left behind a bushel of business cards so we'd be in the rolodex of everyone who mattered in the rugged computing industry. That pretty much ensured a steady supply of news via mailed press kits and such, plenty enough to fill a print magazine every other month back in the day when we published Pen Computing Magazine. For a while after that era, it was a hybrid thing, with part of the news coming the old-fashioned way, and part gleaned from websites.
It's all changed now. We still go to the occasional trade show, and they are always fun and helpful. And you get to actually see the people there. But shows are also expensive and a time waster, what with all the traveling, cabs, airports, hotels, waiting in line, and then the rush at the show itself. So for the most part, trade shows are a (bitter)sweet memory now.
Today, news comes from numerous sources, through numerous channels, and I get it all sitting in front of the big display of my iMac27 with dozens of windows open. That, for me, is news central, and here's where it all comes from:
BusinessWire PressPass -- a daily email with headline news on the topics I subscribe to. The cool thing is that they show the company logo next to the headline. That makes it easy to very rapidly scroll down the (looong) email and stop when my eye catches a familiar logo. Seems like a little thing, but in this day and age of massive information overflow, we need all the filters and help we can get.
PR Newswire for Journalists -- these are individual emails that include a paragraph that describes the news, and also links directly to a full press release. These are quite useful.
Marketwire Newsletter -- another daily email with items of interest for me, but this one is all text, and the headline is accompanied by paragraph. That increases the chance that I can search for keywords like "rugged" and catch things of interest. But it's also tedious to sift through a hundred paragraphs of news.
Google alerts -- yes, Google does it again. I have Google alerts set up for pretty much all the companies I follow, and also some on beats I cover. They are typical Google minimalist, and, like Google searches, they tend to include stuff I really don't need, but it's a great way to keep track of all mentions of a topic or term. Very useful.
PR folks and agencies -- yes, they still fill a purpose. I get emails from dozens of agencies and individuals. Some are very useful and I couldn't do without them. Others seem to simply pad their mailing lists. Overall, a good PR agency contact is invaluable. And good PR people assigned to the same account for a long time? Gold.
Websites -- company websites are still the definite, authoritative source of information. Problem is, many are falling behind the news. Some sites only seem to get updated when they have a web designer re-do their site. Then it eventually falls into near disrepair. That's the exception, of course, but even large companies with good sites often issue press releases without having the info up on their own sites when the news breaks. That is frustrating.
Social media -- honestly, far less useful than what the in-crowd wants you to think. I just don't have the time to be a "fan" of every company I need to cover, be that on Facebook or Twitter or what all.
Communities, Web 2.0, etc. -- the first time I saw a company "community" site was cool. I think it was the Sanda agency that did it for Trimble. It was well done, fun, informative. And the overall recipe has been copied by many others. This can be a nice way to foster a community spirit between companies and users, sort of like an ongoing user conference. But it's far too time-consuming for us media guys. We just don't have the time to stop by for a chat and looking around. So for news, not good. Overall, nice concept and useful.
Pounding the street -- yes, we still do that. Not really the street, of course, but the web. That's because we inevitably miss news and things fall through the cracks. So periodically I go check websites to see if something happened that we missed. But we can't do that often enough for this approach to do anything but fill gaps.
Too much news? Not enough news? -- Overall, of course, the world's drowning in news. And sifting through all that news takes a major chunk of my time every day. That, and then converting worthwhile news into our own, very targeted news items, product pages, and, eventually, the detailed reviews RuggedPCReview is known for.
However, there seems very little consensus on how much news is right.
There are companies that announce something practically every day, and that's often too much of a good thing. I am also not fond of news that really isn't news at all, but just a way to get in the news.
On the other hand, there are companies that seem to avoid news like the plague. I look at their websites and find a news item from last summer, then one from the winter before that, and that's that. Not good enough. Every company that sells stuff has news, and that news needs to get out. It doesn't always have to be a new product announcement; news about updates, upgrades, partnerships, contract wins, successful deployments, tech primers, white papers; they are all news.
Because, after all, news is about being in the news, being on top of the page, getting attention. That sort of exposure makes buyers think, "Hmmm... I just read about that company the other day. Let me look them up."
And that's what it's all about.
January 18, 2011
Bye-bye PXA processors? Probably not just yet.
There was a time, around the year 2000, when Microsoft essentially decreed that Pocket PCs were to run Intel XScale processors. That was a big change, and a rude awakening for some of the Windows CE hardware vendors who had been promised that Windows CE was going to be a multi processor architecture platform. But Intel XScale it was, and the Intel PXA became the de-facto standard processor for virtually all vertical market handhelds for a decade.
So product specs for all those handhelds of that era weren't very exciting. They either had an Intel PXA255 or a PXA270 processor, with slight variations in clock speed. Considering the demise of the once high-flying PDA industry in favor of telco-controlled smartphones, those vertical market handhelds were a rather successful niche, with the occasional massive sale to parcel carriers, field service organizations, postal services, and so on. However, despite the virtual monopoly of the PXA processors, those industrial handhelds were not a lucrative enough market for Intel to remain interested. So in 2006, Intel sold the PXA business to Marvell for a modest US$600 million.
Marvell, a silicone solutions company intent on cracking the emerging smartphone market, initially scrambled to find someone to make the chips for them. They then quickly launched the PXA3xx series of application processors, including the high end 806MHz PXA320. When we tested the first handheld with the new PXA320 chip (the TDS Nomad), we were blown away by its speed and responsiveness.
However, Marvell apparently did not have the reach and marketing power of Intel. Sure, Marvell PXA270 and even the older PXA255 chips continued to power numerous handhelds, but the powerful new PXA3xx chips had trouble gaining traction. There was a new design win here and there, but we also started seeing defections. And those who stayed with Marvell often chose the older PXA270 chip over the newer and more powerful PXA310 or 320.
Of recent releases, Motorola stayed with Marvell for their new MC75A0 (PXA320) and MC55A0 (PXA320), but used a Qualcomm MSM processor for their ES400 enterprise digital assistant. Psion Teklogix chose a Texas Instruments OMAP3 processor for their Omnii XT10, GD-Itronix an ARM Cortex-A8 for their GD300, Datalogic did stay with Marvel for their new Elf (PXA310) and Falcon X3 (PXA310) handhelds but combined them with ARM Cortex co-processors. DAP Technologies stayed with Marvell with their new M2000 (PXA270) and M4000 (PXA270)Series. Getac stayed with Marvell for their PS236 (PXA310) handheld, but not their PS535F that uses a Samsung S3C2450. And then came the most recent blow for Marvell when Intermec based its new line of likely rather high-volume 70 Series handhelds on the TI OMAP 3530.
The situation doesn't appear to be critical for Marvell yet, as the majority of handhelds out there continue to run on its processors, and there have been some good recent design wins for the PXA310 and PXA320. But the PXA3xx series is now also already over four years old, an eternity in processor terms. It's also not quite clear how Marvell's ARMADA family of application processors relates to the PXA chips. Marvell recently explained to me how ARMADA processors target various markets ranging from consumer display devices like eReaders and tablets to high-end HD TVs, but the name AMADA never appears in vertical market handhelds, and while the PXA 3xx processors are listed with the ARMADA chips, there also seems to be an ARMADA 300 Series with 300/310 chips. Confusing? I'd say so.
A little wordplay anecdote here: two or three years ago, Marvell introduced its own "Shiva" CPU technology and announced it'd be used in upcoming SoC (system-on-chip) products. The PXA processors were then considered part of the Shiva family. So where's the word play? Well, turns out a year before, the Marvel Comix had released a comic book with armored Shiva robots that could not be defeated the same way twice. Apparently Marvel Shiva and Marvell Shiva was too close for comfort, and so the Shiva name is gone from Marvell.
Anyway, no, I don't think the Marvell PXA chips are going away anytime soon, but unless Marvell has some plans up its sleeves that were not aware of, they also don't seem to be going anywhere. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much where vertical market handhelds are in general, sort of in a holding patterns until it becomes clear whether Microsoft can be counted on to provide a true next generation mobile operating platform, or not. And whether the fundamental changes in user interface expectation brought upon by the iPhone/iPad and Android smartphones will lead to pressure for similar functionality and ease-of-use in vertical market devices, or not.
January 07, 2011
Microsoft announces.... nothing. Google follows suit.
Well, the much anticipated Las Vegas CES is shedding no light on how the industry will react to Apple's monster tablet home run. Yes, there were some tablets here and there, but really nothing that we didn't know already, and certainly nothing earth-shattering.
Microsoft, stunningly, showed nothing. Nada. No product, no strategy, no plan. The whole situation was remarkably similar to a time several years ago when erstwhile handheld champion Palm was in the ropes and Microsoft had an opening a mile wide to finally get some traction with Windows CE. What did they do then? Nothing. Well, they came out with Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC 2nd Edition. But even that was better than simply nothing at all. And back then there was nowhere near as much at stake.
If there is one single saving grace in this stunning inactivity, it's that Google, too, missed a giant opportunity to pull it all together and present to the world -- voila and ta-da -- the definite Android OS for tablets, the one that will do battle with Apple, the one that will make Microsoft irrelevant in tablets forever after. Didn't do it.
So those who stuck by Microsoft will now have tablets that really don't work very different from the old Tablet PCs. And those who meekly tried Android or something else missed a golden opportunity to put themselves on the map.
This is as close to forfeiting a game as it gets. By the time Microsoft may finally have something, Apple will have many tens of millions of iPads in the field. And after the virtual Android no-show at CES, the notion that Google seems unable to provide a cohesive tablet platform may get stronger.
So 2010 was the year of the tablet, for Apple, and 2011 will again be the year of the tablet, and no one's playing other than Apple. No one, I should say, of the big guys. There have been some nice new products. Motion Computing's new CL900 tablet is a thing of beauty and we really liked the little Samsung Galaxy Tab we had here for a few weeks.
But overall, Microsoft's apparent inability to figure out what to do in tablets and Google's ongoing spreading itself too thin is eerily reminiscent of CE devices from the likes of HP, Compaq, IBM, LG, NEC, Casio, Philips and others combined fail to gets as much as 25% handheld marketshare against the little Palms. Eventually, of course, Palm defeated itself, but that's not likely going to happen to Apple.
So the tablet crystal ball remains as milky as ever.
January 02, 2011
Motorola, and the corporation names, corporation games thing
So on January 4, 2011, Motorola will complete its separation into two companies. The way it actually works is that what used to be Motorola will separate Motorola Mobility Holdings, or Motorola Mobility for short, from Motorola proper, and Motorola will then change its name to Motorola Solutions. So technically it looks more like Motorola jettisoned their phone business to concentrate on the much more stable and predictable vertical market offerings developed and sold via Motorola Solutions. From a stockholder's perspective, they'll get one share of Motorola Mobility for every eight shares of old Motorola stock. The old Motorola stock will then undergo a reverse 1-for-7 stock split so that seven shares of old Motorola stock becomes one share in Motorola with its new Motorola Solutions name (see how it works).
Sure reminds of the lines in that old Grace Slick We-Built-This-City song: "Someone always playing corporation games, who cares they're always changing corporation names."
While the spun off cellphone business will have about the same number of employees as the solutions business (both about 20,000), annual revenue of the cellphone side is expected to be US$11-12 billion and on the solutions side about 8-9 billion. However, the cellphone business is exceedingly unpredictable compared to the much more linear solutions side. For example, who'd have thought that cellphone world leader Nokia would completely miss the smartphone wave? Who could have predicted the iPhone? And wasn't Motorola itself on top of the world with its RAZR (over 120 million sold), and then practically fell off the map when the follow-ups didn't catch on? And who could have predicted that the Droid would catch on as it did. It's a wild ride there in cellphones, feast or famine.
Things are much different on the solutions side. Everyone needs "solutions," and solutions helped IBM and HP quietly not only remain relevant, but become bigger than ever despite diminished emphasis on hardware. IBM ditched its PC business (to Lenovo) and printer business (spinning off Lexmark), and while HP is huge in hardware, buying EDS (Electronic Data Systems) also made it one of the largest solutions providers, which now contribute a third of HP's revenue. Compared to those two giants, each with revenues over US$100 billion, Motorola Solutions will be small, but the business model sure looks promising.
What is Motorola Solutions? Company officials have always struggled with communicating that clearly. In essence, they leverage established lines of two-way radios, network equipment, scanners, and handheld computers into solutions for just about any vertical market. The scanners and handheld computers, of course, come from Symbol, which Motorola acquired in 2007. In a sense, with the former Motorola now being Motorola Solutions, and Symbol being a large part of Motorola Solutions, it almost looks like Motorola merged into Symbol, though I am not sure what part of the Motorola Solutions revenue comes from Symbol and what part from the two-way radio and related equipment side. I am also not sure who packages and manages those solutions that rely on Symbol's scanners and handhelds, and the radios, and whether Symbol will be just a hardware shop or be more involved in the solutions process.
Overall, one cannot help but wonder what Motorola had in mind with Symbol and its very considerable brand equity. After the acquisition there were a good two years where some Symbol products continued to have the Symbol name and logo before gradually getting the corporate Motorola logo. In the new Motorola Solutions, Symbol remains by far the most prominent brand, and I really do wonder what it all looks like from the inside.
One almost wonders why they didn't just go back to the Symbol name. There's precedence for such a move: Motorola Solution's biggest competitor in mobile hardware is Intermec, and Intermec once was just a subsidiary of Unova, and not a major one at that (though they swallowed Norand, just as Symbol swallowed Telxon). Yet, under the dynamic leadership of former CEO Larry Brady, Intermec established itself as a successful and driving force in the mobile/wireless industrial market, to the extent where in 2006, Unova changed its name to Intermec.
Oh, and then there is the weird thing with the operating systems: Motorola Mobility (strange choice of name, actually, considering that the actual mobile computers went with the other side) totally depends on Google's Android now, whereas all of Symbol's handhelds use Windows Mobile. Yet, given Windows Mobile's rather tenuous position and uncertain outlook, Symbol/Motorola Solutions simply has to have much more than a passing interest in Android itself. But the Android expertise is now in the other Motorola company. Go figure. And that's before the looming possibility that the Oracle/Google lawsuit over Android may put a monkey wrench in the works, or that Samsung or HTC take over the Android phone business.
Yes, they're always changing corporation names, and at times it's hard not to see it all as corporation games. In our fast-moving world where companies grow and buy each other, those games and struggles have become the norm, and sometimes one really wonders if all the overhead was worth it.
I was reminded of that while following the course of action of another mobile computing conglomerate over the past three years or so. What happened there was that Roper Industries, a very diversified almost US$2 billion company added three mobile computer companies to its roster, those being long-established Canadian DAP Technologies, start-up Black Diamond, and JLT Mobile Computers. The three companies were put together under the "Roper Mobile Technology" name, with DAP, Black Diamond, and Duros (the former JLT models) being its brands. Roper Mobile Technology was then renamed to RMT, Inc, with a nice and modern logo. That seemed to make much sense, but then the whole effort was shelved, with DAP Technologies absorbing the Duros lineup and renaming everything, retiring both their old "MicroFlex" brand name as well as the impressive-sounding "Duros" in the process (and also the somewhat contrived-sounding "Kinysis" name). Black Diamond is once again on its own as a subsidiary of Roper Industries. This probably all makes sense, but from the outside it looks confusing and like a few year's worth of lost opportunity to establish a force in the mobile/rugged market.
No one has a crystal ball, and every decision is (hopefully) the result of careful consideration, but sometimes it's hard to figure out why things are being done a certain way when there appear to have been much more logical courses of action.
December 22, 2010
"10 tablets that never quite took off"
This morning, one of my longterm PR contacts brought to my attention a feature entitled "10 tablets that never quite took off." It was published by itWorldCanada, which is part of Computerworld. Now Computerworld is one of the world's leading resources of excellent IT reporting, and has been for decades (I used to contribute it in a former life as a corporate CIO), but the "slideshow" was disappointing and missed the point by listing some older tablets and mocking them.
Unfortunately, we're seeing a lot of this sort of stuff in the media now. Most younger editors seem to believe that Microsoft invented the Tablet PC in 2001 when, of course, tablets were around a good decade before that. Older editors who did not specialize on rugged vertical market hardware often have a distorted memory of what those pioneering efforts meant. While it's undoubtedly true that earlier efforts at commercializing tablets for the consumer market were met with little success, those tablets did succeed in many important vertical and industrial markets. Mocking older, pioneering technology for not being like the iPad is a bit like mocking the military Humvee for failing to succeed as a suburban SUV; different purpose, different time, different technology.
The slideshow presents some interesting benchmark products that were ahead of their time (such as tablets from Motion, Acer, ViewSonic, Xplore, etc.), but the commentary seems oddly uninformed/flippant for a respected entity like ITWorld. They mentioned "a firm named Wacam" and diss it for not being multi-touch. well, first, it's Wacom, not Wacam, and second, Wacom's electromagnetic digitizer technology has successfully been used for about 20 years (and remains part of Wacom's G6 input technology that combines capacitive multi-touch with an active digitizer).
The whole slide show seems ill-informed and condescending, sort of like a cheap potshot that disqualifies earlier, pioneering efforts as nothing but technological pratfalls. That is hardly true as what Apple eventually came up with, and what everyone else is trying to emulate now, stands on the shoulders of those pioneering efforts. If anyone is to blame for a lack of consumer market success it's Microsoft which, in its insistence on "Windows Everywhere!," never made more than a token effort to provide an OS suitable for tablets. In the light of this, the relative success of a ruggedized, special purposes tablet computers for industrial markets is even more impressive. A publication like IT World Canada ought to know and appreciate this.
December 16, 2010
The tablet wars: background and outlook
This whole tablet thing is really interesting.
Despite getting soundly trashed by a good number of industry experts when the iPad was first announced by Steve Jobs on January 27, 2010, Apple ended up selling about ten million of them in 2010, and the same experts now predict that a lot more will be sold in the coming years. Everyone is scrambling to also have a tablet. Tablets are hot, tablets will demolish the netbook market, tablets will eat into notebook sales, Microsoft will gag and wither over having blown it with tablets, and so on and so on.
So let's take a look at what's really happening. First, tablets are not new. I often see references in the tech press on how Microsoft invented tablets back in 2001 when they introduced the Tablet PC. That's not true, of course. Tablets go back at least another decade, and more if you count such concepts as the Apple "Knowledge Navigator" that was introduced in 1987, or earlier yet, Alan Kay's DynaBook of 1968. What's also mostly forgotten is that almost 20 years ago, the computing world was all hyped up over tablet computers that you could write on, slates that were sort of like "smart paper." None other than Microsoft's own GM of their Pen Computing Group stated that "the impact of pens on computing will be far greater than the mouse," and that was in November of 1991.
See, back then, the buzz was building of pen computing as the next big thing, and pen computers were nothing other than tablets. Microsoft felt the heat because GO Corporation got a lot of press for its PenPoint OS that, unlike Windows, was totally designed for pens. GO released PenPoint in 1992, a company named Momenta released its own tablet interface, and a good number of tablet computers chose PenPoint, including the first IBM ThinkPad (yes, almost two decades before pundits made fun of the term "iPad," there was the ThinkPad, and later the WinPad). Microsoft battled back with Windows for Pen Computing, a version of Windows 3.1 that added a layer of pen functionality. An OS war took place in the early 1990s on such earlier tablets as the NCR NotePad, the Samsung PenMaster, the Fujitsu Point, the Toshiba DynaPad, as well as pen computers made by GRiD (courtesy of Jeff Hawkins who later founded Palm) and a gaggle of long-forgottens such as Dauphin, TelePAD, Tusk, and several others.
Microsoft won that war back in the early 90s, and they did it the way they always do it, by sheer, brute force. Windows for Pen Computing outmuscled PenPoint on the major platforms via some highly publicized sales, but it was a Pyrrhic victory as tablets went nowhere, in part because Windows just wasn't suitable for tablets and in part because the hype was about (underperforming) handwriting recognition as much as it was about tablets. One by one, the majors dropped out -- NCR, Compaq, Toshiba, IBM, NEC. Some hung in there long enough to see the complex and limited pen version of Windows 95, but tablets were done for the 90s. When Palm showed that pens could actually be quite useful, Microsoft launched Windows CE, but the small CE-based handhelds built by all the major Windows licensees were just too limited to excite anyone.
But those early tablet efforts were not entirely wasted. A small but resilient tablet computer industry survived and kept developing specialized tablet solutions for vertical market clients.
The next big tablet push came in 2001 when Microsoft, mostly on Bill Gates' belief in tablet computers, directed the world's computer makers to support its Tablet PC project. There was a widely publicized build-up with all sorts of tablet prototypes that culminated in the unveiling of the Tablet PC platform in the fall of 2002. At Pen Computing Magazine (which spawned the present RuggedPCReview.com) we reviewed all those early tablets, including the Acer TravelMate C100, the HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000, the Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000, the Motion Computing M1200, the Toshiba Portege 3500, and the ViewSonic V1100, and we summarized it all in Pen Computing Magazine's detailed 2002 Tablet PC specification table. What's immediately noticeable is that most of those marquee tablets were actually what came to be called "convertible notebooks" or "notebook convertibles."
What had happened was that Microsoft had gotten cold feet about the mainstream appeal of tablets in mid-stream, and ordered Acer to come up with a convertible notebook design. By the time the Tablet PC was actually and officially unveiled, the emphasis was clearly on notebook convertibles. The media was only cautiously optimistic about the outlook for the by now not-so-tablet-anymore Tablet PC, and the market quickly decided it didn't make much sense to pay extra for pen functionality on convertible notebooks that made thick and clumsy tablets, if they were used as tablets at all. So that didn't go over too well.
There were plenty of parties to blame for the 2001/2002 Tablet PC concept's lack of success. Microsoft's midstream switch to convertibles pretty much killed the belief in the tablet-only versions. Tablet products cost more without offering tangible benefits. Microsoft's marketing support was lacking, to put it mildly. By far the most important problem, though, was that Microsoft once again tried to put an only slightly adapted version of Windows on tablets. That approach didn't work in 1991, it didn't work with Windows 95, and it didn't work with Windows XP in 2002.
Then nothing happened in the tablet market for a good many years. Nothing, that is, than a few vertical market vendors eeking out a living offering various vertical market tablets for special applications. After all, if you have the right software and you have to walk around on the job, it IS easier and faster to just tap on a tablet than setting up a notebook and crank up Windows.
So then the iPhone happens in 2007 and dazzles the world with a smooth, elegant, effortless user interface, one that lets you tap and pan and swipe with just the slightest touch, and where you can use two fingers to smoothly zoom in and out or rotate things. What made it all possible was Apple's use of a capacitive touch screen, a technology that neither needed a special pen like the preferred digitizer technology of the Microsoft Tablet PC, nor a stylus like most handhelds and PDAs. Capacitive touch, while hardly new, made using the iPhone fun and easy, but no one anticipated what would come next, and that was the iPad.
As stated in the opening paragraph, there was much criticism when Apple first announced the iPad. It wasn't computer enough, you couldn't run real software on it, it was just a big iPhone without the phone, and so on and so on. What those critics didn't realize was that the only reason the tablet form factor hadn't worked before was because the software hadn't worked before. Or more precisely, because Microsoft's insistence on "Windows Everywhere" was a big, colossal failure. One more time: Windows was designed to be used with a mouse. A mouse. Not a pen, and not fingers.
So what's the first thing Microsoft does when capacitive touch is starting to look like a real good thing? It adds touch to Windows 7. Which meant that the few Windows-based computers that also have a projected capacitive touch screens could be operated with touch. Sort of. Sort of, because Windows 7 is no more a touch-optimized OS than any other version of Windows before it.
The sheer predicament Microsoft was facing became evident during 2010. As millions of iPads were sold, Microsoft had nothing other than Windows 7 with the usual bit of pen support. This left the door wide open for Google, which had opportunistically positioned the Android OS they had purchased and developed as the platform of choice for iPhone rivals. Despite the flop of their own Google phone, the surprise success of the Droid helped Motorola get back on the (phone) map and quickly established the Android OS as the primary alternative for most non-Apple smartphones.
Not surprisingly, while Microsoft waited out 2010, it became apparent that Android, like the iOS, could easily scale up to larger tablet form factors. This realization apparently caught Google somewhat by surprise as their Android development efforts remained firmly concentrated on smartphones. This didn't stop a growing flood of bargain basement priced Chinese iPad copies to use (or maybe abuse) Android in cheap hardware with resistive digitizers that made them almost impossible to operate. This certainly didn't help Android look good, but the software platform's ascension into tablets is a done deal nonetheless.
Interestingly, despite lots of tablet announcements, nine months after the iPad went on sale, there's really only one halfway credible Android tablet out there, and that's the Samsung Galaxy Pad. I say "halfway" because the Samsung tablet only has a 7-inch display, thus placing it into a different category from the iPad.
So where does that leave the booming and seemingly unstoppable (experts predict many tens of millions sold in each of the next few years) tablet market? In an interesting situation for sure. Let's look at some of the forces at work:
First, almost no one wants to truly alienate Microsoft, and so Android may well find itself getting the "PenPoint treatment," referring to the situation almost two decades ago where a better-suited OS was muscled off tablet hardware by Microsoft. However, Google is an entirely different class of opponent than the underfunded PenPoint movement was back then. But Microsoft is different, too, and though Microsoft has lost a great deal of momentum, it still controls the desktop and most of the notebook market.
Second, even if Microsoft were to somehow prevail against Android, they still need to face themselves. For decades now, Microsoft has been its own biggest enemy with their dogged determination to use the big old Windows OS everywhere, whether it was suitable or not. Sure, they deviated a bit here and there, but whatever they tried elsewhere (Windows CE, Auto PC, special versions of Windows, etc.) always was sort of half-hearted and primarily designed not to encroach on Windows proper. So I just cannot see how a version of Windows 7 or 8 retrofitted to sort of fit onto tablets would meet with much more success than Windows for Pen Computing or the Windows Tablet PC Edition.
Third, there's a digitizer predicament. From the very dawn of pen computing, starting with the earliest tablets, virtually all serious tablet computers used an "active" digitizer, i.e. the kind that lets you write smoothly and accurately onto the surface of the display as if it were a sheet of paper. Active digitizers allow for very precise drawing, writing in "digital ink," and also for handwriting recognition (which really works much better than most give it credit for). Active pens do not need actual physical touch for the digitizer to know where the pen is, and that makes them great for popping up pulldowns or explanatory balloons and such before committing to a touch that might trigger an action. Problem is, capacitive touch cannot do that. Sure, you can write with your fingers, but not in any meaningful way. For that you need a pen.
And the digitizer predicament doesn't end there. A lot of the tablets (and convertibles) sold into vertical and industrial markets are going to be used outdoors where there are pesky things like bright sunshine, all sorts of reflections, rain, snow, dust, physical impact, and people wearing gloves. Capacitive touch displays can handle some of those, but not all. Possible answers are offering a variety of optional digitizers, or a combination of them. Both approaches increase costs, and they have their limits. And the underlying OS platform determines what kinds of digitizers make sense. For example, you can operate Windows quite well with a resistive digitizer, but Android really needs capacitive touch. Anyone who needs to write or draw on a tablet needs either an active or a resistive digitizer, and won't benefit from the wonders of touch-based zooming, panning and swiping, unless touch is combined with either active or resistive technology.
The final, and greatest, problem is that the iPad has irrevocably changed what users expect from a tablet. If you give someone a tablet these days, they simply expect to be able to quickly zoom in and out in a browser, and they use two fingers to do it. If that doesn't work, or only works poorly, well, why doesn't this work like an iPad? This, then, is the danger facing everyone who makes a tablet that looks just like an iPad: it must also work as well as an iPad. Or almost as well.
We'll probably have some answers soon. We'll soon know if Microsoft's answer to the iPad will simply be putting Windows 7 on tablets, or if they've learned from past mistakes. We'll soon know how successful Android will be in making major vendors truly commit to it. And we'll soon know whether HP will seriously try to add another option with the WebOS they got when they bought Palm.
It should be interesting.
September 03, 2010
What are discrete graphics, and why would you need them?
If you follow the mobile computing beat, you've probably come across the term "discrete graphics." What that generally means is a computer's graphics display capabilities that are a separate sub-system and not part of the motherboard or, more recently, processor. Why should you care?
Because as with almost everything else in life, one-size-fits-all only applies to a certain extent. Most computers take the one-size-fits-all approach, offering a set of features and performance that is good enough for most intended applications. Most, but not necessarily all. In graphics, that means that your standard mobile computer can handle all the usual functions such as communications, browsing, office apps and most media. However, the one-size-fits-all graphics capabilities that come with a system may struggle with more demanding applications such as advanced 3D graphics, CAD, GIS or other graphics-intensive tasks.
Discrete graphics, while uncommon in mobile systems, are a standard part of almost all desktop and many notebook computers. Starting with the earliest IBM PC, computers had separate graphics cards that handled the moving of pixels on a display. When users wanted more resolution on their IBM PCs to run Lotus 123 than standard 640 x 200 CGA, they popped in a Hercules graphics card that boosted res up all the way to 720 x 348 pixel and made charting faster and more impressive.
Over time, graphics "cards" became increasingly powerful graphics subsystems that provided a very significant boost in capabilities and performance. Top of the line graphics "cards" can cost as much or more than the rest of the computer combined, and they often have their own cooling sinks and fans. Graphics subsystems in notebooks are usually less conspicuous and they can even be integrated into boards, but they are still often differentiators between low-end and high-end versions of the same computer.
Now who needs "discrete" graphics? Not everyone. In the past, separate graphics subsystems or cards often offered higher resolution than standard built-in graphics. That's because old-style CRTs were able to support multiple resolutions. LCDs are different in that they are designed as a matrix of so and so many pixels, and that is the "native" resolution that results in the crispest picture. Most integrated graphics are more than capable of running a LCD in its native resolution, and since the LCD doesn't support higher resolutions, there is no need for a graphics card that can drive more pixels.
However, resolution isn't everything. Over time, computer graphics have evolved into a science with numerous standards and technologies. That's especially true in the areas of shading, rendering and manipulating 3D objects. This goes way beyond simply making pixels appear on the screen in a certain color and brightness. Games, for example, can require huge amounts of graphics computing power to make objects and 3D action look as lifelike as possible. 3D modeling and visualization likewise can require vast amounts of graphics computing power.
How does all of this affect mobile computing? Well, mobile systems cannot possibly accommodate top-of-the-line graphics for the same reason that they cannot provide top-of-the-line desktop performance: power and heat. So just like mobile systems must have a carefully designed balance between performance, weight, size, cost and battery life in their choice of processors, the same goes for their graphic sub-systems. Up to now, for the most part, the processor handled processing and its complementing chipset handled graphics. And the graphics part of those chipsets came from third parties that specialize on graphics, such as nVidia or ATI.
Up to recently, the situation was that most mobile systems made do with the "integrated" graphics capabilities inherent in their chipsets. These designs share system RAM and have some limitations. Some higher end or specialized devices had more powerful graphics to speed up certain applications.
With the advent of Intel's 2010 Core processors, the game changed somewhat because Intel integrated the GPU (graphics processing unit) right into the CPU package. Intel claims this improves efficiency, speed and stability while graphics chipmakers probably view it as an Intel land grab designed to assert even greater control without, however, being able to provide the graphics performance some customers require. Both sides have their points, but one thing hasn't changed: a separate "discrete" graphics sub-system will still outperform one-size-fits-all integrated graphics, and may also provide graphics functionality not included in a standard integrated system.
But what does it all mean in the real world?
RuggedPCReview.com recently had a chance to benchmark test two mobile computers that offered discrete graphics on top of whatever came integrated into the chipsets. One of them was the General Dynamics Itronix Tadpole Topaz, a high-end "COTS" (Commercial Off The Shelf) notebook designed primarily for military applications. It came with an nVidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics sub-system. The other was a Panasonic Toughbook 31 equipped with discrete ATI Radeon HD5650 graphics. Both machines ran Intel chips at a clock speed of 2.56GHz. However, while the Topaz uses an Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 processor without integrated graphics, the Toughbook employs an Intel Core i5-540M with integrated graphics that can either be turned on or off via BIOS settings.
The two machines are not directly comparable as they address somewhat different markets. However, when comparing the GD-Itronix Topaz with a GD-Itronix GD6000 that runs the same processor but does not have discrete graphics, the Topaz substantially outperformed the 6000 both in 2D and 3D graphics benchmarks, and absolutely blew it away in an OpenGL benchmark, by about a factor of 12:1. Now, OpenGL (Open Graphics Library) refers to a cross-language, cross-platform API for 2D and 3D graphics and is widely used in CAD, simulations and visualizations. If a customer has applications that use OpenGL code, then having OpenGL optimized graphics is absolutely mandatory.
While the Topaz used its nVidia graphics full-time, the Panasonic's discrete ATI graphics can be switched on and off. Why would one want to switch off presumably superior graphics? For the same reason why in a vehicle you wouldn't want four-wheel-drive or a turbo engaged all the time when you don't really need it. Such performance boosters for special purposes can have a very negative impact on fuel mileage, and that, for now, is no different with discrete graphics. Panasonic quotes up to 11 hours of battery life with the discrete ATI graphics off, but only 5 hours with them on. That is a big difference.
So what do discrete graphics get you in a modern Core i5 machine like the Toughbook 31? Not surprisingly, in day-to-day use, you probably would hardly ever notice the difference. But as soon as you get into 3D graphics and such, the ATI boosted performance by about a third, a very noticeable difference. The real payoff, again, comes in with OpenGL, where things happen more than four times as fast. That's the difference between barely tolerable and actual, real work.
Bottom line? For now at least, if your application requires speedy 3D graphics or includes a lot of OpenGL code, discrete graphics is almost a must. It's a bit of a dilemma as Intel is clearly trying to eliminate third party separate graphics and probably doesn't pay much more than lip service to easy integration of external GPUs. This uneasy relationship may or may not contribute to the steep drop in battery life with discrete graphics engaged, but if battery life is an issue, it's certainly good to be able to engage discrete graphics only when needed, or when the machine is plugged in.
August 19, 2010
New Intel Atoms, and how Oracle is helping Microsoft
So Intel has added two more processors to its ever growing family of Atom processor products with all its many branches and suggested applications.
The new chips are the single-core Atom D425 and the dual-core Atom D525 both of which run at 1.8GHz, representing a small step up from the existing 1.6GHz D410 and D510. Thermal Design Power remains at 10 and 13 watts, and the stated quantity prices of US$42 and US$63 is also the same as that of the earlier chips (which, however, enjoy "embedded" status). There is one notable difference: the two new chips support DDR3 SODIMM, and Intel is promoting them for home and small business network storage devices.
To put things in perspective, unlike the Atom N270 that made the netbook explosion possible and accounts for tens of millions sold, and unlike its N450 (and N455/N475) successor, the Atom "D" processors are the ones Intel targeted for "nettops," i.e. really inexpensive desktop PCs. From what I can tell, that strategy didn't pan out as there aren't too many desktop PCs that used the D410 or even the dual-core D510. Why? Perhaps desktops and notebooks are so inexpensive these days that consumers see no reason to get a machine with anything less than a "real" Intel chip (i.e. a Core 2 Duo or one of the new Core i3/i5/i7 chips). So one explanation for the new D425/D525 is that Intel is trying to salvage the Atom "D" by giving it DDR3 support, even if it's only for SODIMM, and targeting the chips at network storage systems, whatever exactly that is in real life.
A bit more commentary about the current Atom situation: there are now no fewer than ten versions of the Atom "Z" processor, ranging from the anemic 800MHz Z500 to the considerably more powerful 2.13GHz Z560. On the market side, the vast majority of Atom "Z" processor-based products we're seeing are using the 1.6GHz Z530, which, after all this time, still seems to be deployed pretty much interchangeably with the Atom N270 (there are products that offer both N270 and Z530 versions, and there are some which switched from one to the other and vice versa). In real life, I've never actually seen a product that uses the Z550 or Z560, which is odd as even the Z540 gives the one Z540 product we benchmarked (the Panasonic H1 medical market tablet) a small but noticeable performance edge over the competition).
But what about the new Atom "Moorestown" chips, a next iteration of the "Z" processors that should finally allow Intel to be competitive in the smartphone and such market? Well, apart from their announcement in May of 2010, we haven't heard another thing whereas ARM et al get all the publicity.
So it's hard to figure out what to make of Intel's Atom efforts to-date. On the one hand, there are the millions and millions of netbooks sold, but while everyone loved the low, low prices of netbooks, few were ever dazzled by netbook performance, especially in the graphics area. With the iPad showing what all can be done with a nominally much slower chip (the 1GHz A4), and netbooks getting ever closer to low-end notebooks, it's hard to see where that's headed.
Anyway, so what about Android? It's interesting to see what difference a week can make, and in this case the difference is the lawsuit Oracle threw at Google over Android. The suit is arcane and I am not even going to try to present details (it has to do with Oracle now owning SUN, which owns Java, and Android is supposedly using part of Java in a way Oracle does not approve of), but the mere fact that one 800-pound gorilla sues another 800-pound gorilla over a platform that up to that suit had almost unprecedented momentum is reason for concern. I mean, if you're a developer, you'd probably stop work and watch while Godzilla and Mothra duke it out. And while you're taking a breather, you may have time to cool off a bit over Android and realize that for now at least it's really little more than a smartphone OS, and that's it's already awfully fragmented. And also that businesses may find it difficult to trust things that come out of the current implementation of the Android App store.
This may all blow over and the two may come to an agreement, but let's realize that Oracle is in an entirely different class than SCO who a few years ago tried to claim exclusive ownership of all things UNIX and Linux. It's hard to see everyone all of a sudden stopping to make Android phones, but if this escalates, you'll see a lot of the companies that announced Android-based "iPad killers" delay their plans.
So who may be laughing all the way to the bank? Microsoft. Nothing could please Microsoft more than seeing Android derailed. Microsoft's own mobile plans are a mess at this point, at least as far as outsiders are concerned. There may at some point again be some sort of cohesive Microsoft mobile strategy and attractive product lineup, but there isn't one now. So the more time Microsoft has to communicate a clear plan and show some real products, the more likely it is to get back into the mobile game.
And HP has a dog in the race as well. HP is already the mightiest computer company in the world, and its immediate fate is not affected by what happens to Android. However, HP is also the company that fumbled away the iPAQ brand and today has essentially no presence in the mobile/smartphone market. But they bought Palm and all of Palm's cool IP, and so if there ever was a time to make a strong push for WebOS, it's now.
We'll see what happens, both with the Atoms and with Android. Who needs reality TV shows with all this stuff going on?!
August 11, 2010
Off the cuff, the way I see it is that Android has a better than even chance of becoming the OS of choice for tablets and other mobile devices. Android is really nothing more than another Linux distribution, but one backed and sort of run by Google. Microsoft, of course, will make the usual argument of leverage and security and integration into other Microsoft products, but the fact is that Linux itself can be at least as secure as anything Microsoft makes. Just look at the Mac OS which is also Unix-based, and Unix is the basis of Linux.
As is, Android is still very much a smartphone-oriented OS. But since it is just a shell on top of Linux (Google might object to that simplification), it can very quickly be adapted to almost any platform. For example, I simply downloaded a stable version of Android, created a bootable version on a USB key, and then booted some of the tablets and netbooks in our lab with it. The hardware never knew the difference and almost everything worked right off the bat, including WiFi. Adapting touch drivers and a few other things would be very simple.
The argument against Android is the same that people use against Linux: it's in the public domain. The program you need most may have been written by some guy from Leipzig or Buenos Aires, and that guy may have decided to ditch the code and move to Nepal. The reason why Microsoft has a stable platform is because they control it all, and the reason why iPhone/iPad apps are so very cool and polished is because you ONLY see what Apple examined and approved.
So Android's (and thus Google's) challenge will be to create the semblance of a strong, unified PRODUCT called Android, something people can rely on, and not something where a poorly written manual tells you that you first need to rebuild the kernel with the -fxuOie switches turned on for the app to run. That will be a challenge.
However, none other than General Dynamics Itronix has just released a handheld running Android. That would indicate that Android may be ready for prime time. And even if it isn't, and many questions remain, there's so much buzz and there's Google behind it. That alone will give anyone who offers Android or talks Android a strategic advantage.
Oh, and manufacturers offering both handhelds and tablets/notebooks would finally have the advantage of running the same OS both on hall their platforms, and not a mobile and a full version of an OS as has been the case with Windows and Windows CE/Mobile.
June 17, 2010
Handheld Group Business Partner Conference 2010, Stockholm
Much to my surprise, the Handheld Group invited me to do a presentation at their annual Business Partner Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The Handheld Group is an international supplier of rugged mobile computers, including handheld terminals and tablets, and they've carved themselves a nice niche with a lineup that includes specialty devices as well as tailored solutions for variety of uses. The annual conference is meant to provide a venue to socialize with business partners and inform them on products, outlook and opportunities.
I've always liked these sorts of conferences as they provide a great way to talk with executives and product managers, and see the latest lineups all in one place. So I accepted Handheld's invitation and prepared a presentation on "Trends and Concepts in Mobile Computing."
Getting flights these days is a real pain. The standard fares are outrageously high and apparently geared towards business travelers with unlimited expense accounts. I have low fare alerts for most of the destinations I potentially travel to, but those can be an exercise in frustration as those low, low fares are hardly ever actually available. I ended up paying several times the teaser fares, and that was with long layovers and a schedule convenient for the airlines, but not for me. In an era where a web page in London, Tokyo or Stockholm loads as quickly as one next door, we tend to forget how very far away those places actually are.
After landing at Stockholm's nice Arlanda airport I booked a ticket on the super-fast bullet train to downtown Stockholm, then, since it was a glorious morning, walked the 5K or so to the Elite Hotel Marina Tower where the conference was held. That was fun, though I was quite addled with jet lag, and the little wheels on my carry-on probably didn't like the cobble stone of old-town Stockholm much.
Much to its credit, the hotel let this weary traveler check in at 10:30AM, and so I took a long nap in my nice hotel room that looked like right out of an Ikea showcase. Then it was off to registration and meeting my hosts. They were all friendly as can be, and I noticed that most Swedes indeed are blond. I met Sofia, my main contact at Handheld HQ, then Jerker Hellström, CEO and Chairman of the Handheld Group, and Thomas Löfblad, not blond, and thanks to a course of study in the US possessive of less of an accent in his English than I am after 30+ years. The two welcomed the assembly to the conference, introduced the business partners, and kicked off the cocktail party mingling.
The Handheld folks did a great job making everyone feel at ease, and so I soon had interesting conversations with the mostly European attendees as well as some from as far as Australia. I found quite a few veterans of the old Husky Computers that was later bought by Itronix -- not surprising, as I learned, since the privately held Handheld Group had once gotten its start as the Scandinavian representatives of Husky. I got a chance to meet Daniel Magnusson and Nina Hedberg of RAM Nordic AB, which had the patented RAM Mount solutions on display; the Sacci folks with their numerous bags, harnesses and other clever ways of carrying around and using handheld computers; SIGMAX with their law enforcement and ticketing solutions; Brodit with their very clever mounting solutions; I got a demonstration of the impressive mobile device management solutions by The Institution, and spent time with all the other cool stuff there. I also had a chance to finally meet the HHCS Handheld USA team, including Mike Zelman, Dale Kyle, and my ever-helpful contact, Amy Urban.
Given the 9-hour time difference compared to California, I slept remarkably well and woke up refreshed and ready for a day of conferencing. CEO Hellström gave an overview of the company, its total and exclusive dedication to rugged computing, and its pride in being the fastest growing IT company in Sweden (Handheld actually grew during the difficult year of 2009). Hellström described Handheld's "virtual production model" where the company's engineers generate specifications and design, then have the products made by a production partner, and launched either alone or with a partner. He highlighted the company's products and special solutions, as well as the newly introduced Algiz 7 rugged tablet.
Following was an excellent presentation by David Krebs, who is the director of mobile and wireless research at VDC and a frequently quoted authority on all things mobile as well as a compatriot who grew up a few short kilometers from my original home in Zurich, Switzerland. David described the current mobile technology market as "in a state of rebound" after a serious setback in 2009. He pointed out that technology penetration in many mobile areas is still only 20, 30 or 40%, leaving plenty of potential opportunity, and predicted annual handheld revenue growth of 7.5% through 2014. David also highlighted the significant advantage of rugged versus non-rugged handhelds and tablets in terms of failure rates, resulting in substantially lower TCO (total cost of ownership), certainly a big selling point in the road to recovery.
I had decided to go out on a limb and run my presentation on my iPad via Apple's iPad dock-to-VGA adapter. This worked just fine, using Apple's US$9.95 iPad version of Keynote, which is Apple's equivalent of Powerpoint. In my presentation I discussed some of the concepts and trends in mobile computing, ranging from processors, to outdoor viewable displays, to digitizers, operating systems, and emerging new technologies. Murphy's Law struck when, stunningly, the frame of my reading glasses broke right in the middle of my presentation, forcing me to continue using one hand holding up my gasses and the other hand to operate the iPad. Fortunately, I had a clip-on mic or else I'd have needed a third hand.
After that Thomas Löfblad discussed the Handheld Product line that by now includes over a dozen state-of-the-art handhelds and tablets, as well as printers and accessories. All of the newer products are carrying Handheld's own Algiz (tablets) and Nautiz (handhelds) brand names.
After lunch, Mr. Hellström discussed the product roadmap for the year ahead, with the full rollout of the newly introduced Algiz 7 tablet, a second generation Algiz 8, and a glimpse at an upcoming new product that will extend Handheld's line into a new class of devices. The company took the opportunity of the partner conference to get feedback and commentary on the new form factor, the proposed features, functionality and price.
After face time with the new product, we heard about Handheld's plans on moving forward. Sofia Löfblad talked about how the company can support its partners with case studies, advertising support, loaners, product reviews, a special support website, and several other programs. Service and Support Manager Max Dahlbom then did a humorous, energetic presentation on service, warranty, care levels and support, all geared towards helping and supporting customers and stressing the importance of good service as a differentiator. Thomas Löfblad then addressed issues such as the impact of the weak Euro, the company's MaxFreight service, insurance issues and also some product updates.
The final presentation came from Dean Lindsay, a motivational speaker and best-selling author (everyone attending got a copy of Dean's highly recommended book "The Progress Challenge") who, engagingly and entertainingly, talked about common sense concepts of attracting and fostering business and sales.
What followed was an absolutely delightful four-hour cruise of the Stockholm waterways aboard the M/S Riddarholmen. We were greeted onboard with champaign, GPS-equipped Algiz 7 tablets were mounted in several locations and provided mapping and navigation data, food and drink were delicious, as was the varied scenery passing by.
There was again ample opportunity to mix and mingle, compare notes, and talk with people from the Handheld Group as well as partners and customers. The weather played along with bright sunshine all conference long (which apparently no one expected), and then some dramatic clouds at dusk. Unusual for those of us not living in northern latitudes, it didn't really get dark until way late into the night, and daylight remained even after we got back to the dock at 11PM.
I missed out on Stockholm sightseeing the next morning as I had to grab a cab to the airport for my trip back to California. Long though the flights back were, and the 8-hour layover at Chicago O'Hare, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on a side of business we often forget or take for granted, the people side. There are lots of great products out there, all able to do amazing things. But it takes people with vision and drive and competence to form companies that can pull it all together, picking a lineup of compatible products for a well-defined purpose, then marketing, selling, supporting and servicing those products. In the end, that's what it's all about, dealing with people you know and trust, folks who've been there and will be around, and who know their business. That's the impression I got from the Handheld Group. Good company, good people.