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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.

Posted by conradb212 at 12:11 AM | Comments (0)

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.

Go figure.

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.

Posted by conradb212 at 08:47 PM | Comments (0)

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.

Posted by conradb212 at 02:16 AM | Comments (0)