The 8,523rd sign that Blackberry is dead

Quick — what’s the fourth most populous country in the world, behind China, India, and the United States? It’s gotta be Russia, right? Maybe Brazil? Pakistan? France? Nope. It’s none of those. The fourth most populous country in the world, with a quarter of a billion people is… Indonesia. It’s the largest Muslim country in the world by population and it was the last bastion of Blackberry in Asia.

Until now.

Android has reached 51% adoption rate in Indonesia, and now it looks like RIM’s last big user base is going the way of the dodo, much like the platform itself. To understand why it was ever popular in the first place, you need to know three letters — BBM. In the days before unlimited texting plans and the proliferation of Facebook and Twitter, BBM was the soul of social networking. It was texting, but more immediate. You could send attachments and pictures as well as group chat. And at a time when texts cost 10-25 cents a pop and the only alternative to add $20/mo plans for 500 texts, unlimited BBM was included in your BB plan for free. What is happening in Indonesia is the same thing that happened in the United States – unlimited texting plans disrupted the one feature Blackberry users had found indispensable. And once one domino fell, the rest started to follow – BBM was a Blackberry only feature, and as more people left Blackberry, the number of people you could BBM with started shrinking. On the consumer side, the only reason left for anyone to own a Blackberry is the physical keyboard — the platform has nothing left to offer. And with foreign characters easier to implement and customize on software keyboards, this isn’t even a big advantage overseas.

As the telcos in emerging markets also start offering unlimited texting plans, this shift away Blackberry will leave its parent company with nothing more than a patent portfolio and enterprise software. Which is to say, pretty much what it’s like right now… except even worse.

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Maybe it’s $29 for a reason

The Verge is reporting that Apple says the Lightning port adapter supports analog audio out. If that’s the case, there must be an audio DAC built into the adapter. So the $29 price tag might not be so outrageous. Still, there’s no need to force people into splurging on a $29 adapter if all you want to do is charge and sync.

We’ll see how this shakes out.

Q: How do you kickstart a stagnating accessory market?

A: By screwing over your entire user base

Apple unveiled a new connector for the iPhone 5, called the Lightning Port. It replaces the older and ubiquitous 30 pin connector, the same one that has been the interface for iPods, iPhones, and iPads since 2001. As you can see, it is significantly narrower than the older cable. And with the limited amount of room inside of any modern smartphone, each square millimeter is precious. So okay, I buy that Apple needed to redesign the port and the cable to shave the thickness of the iPhone 5 below 8mm. But here come the dubious issues.

CA-CHING!

First off, if you want another cable, it will cost $20. For a cable. So, okay, maybe all you need is an adapter for your existing cables. Yes, you can buy those. For $29. The again, who ever said Apple was consumer friendly? Do you think they’re the most profitable company in the world because they charge reasonable prices for their goods? The bedrock of the company is built on wallet rape. Sadly, they will probably sell out the day they’re released… which is a couple of weeks after the iPhone is released. Have fun, early adopters!

But wait, there’s more. One of the things that popped out at me during Apple iPhone unveiling yesterday was the first point in the Lightning Port presentation: “All-digital”. I mean, what the hell does that even mean? I assumed all of these cables were digital already. It sounded like something cooked up by the marketing department, like “High Quality” — it’s meaningless. But as it turns out, “All-digital” has a real impact and isn’t simply marketing-speak. Because “All-digital” means they removed all of the analog outputs. In other words, you’re getting less from the Lightning port than you did from the 30 pin port.

If you have an iPhone speaker dock, check the spec and look for “digital audio input” or “built-in DAC” or words to that effect. Because many docks use the analog sound pins on the 30 pin connector. To use the digital pins, the unit would need its own digital to analog converter (DAC). If you have an older or inexpensive speaker dock, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to hook up the iPhone 5 to it, even if you buy a $29 adapter. Your only recourse at that point is to use a plain old mini stereo cable assuming your dock has that input as well.

So who wins here? Apple & accessory manufacturers.

Who loses? Well, it’s all how you look at it, I guess. If you want the iPhone 5 and don’t care about cost, then I guess everybody wins. But if you are on a budget and you did invest in speaker docks and cables with 30 pin connectors, well… you lose.

It’s taller.

After all is said and done, and after you push away the Android catch-up features, the iPhone5 is a collection of spec bumps whose most noticeable change is the screen size. Maybe if Jobs were alive today he could sell it better, but I’m not itching to call my carrier to pre-order based on today’s presentation. On the whole, an incremental change from the iPhone 4S other than, you know, the market fragmentation.

BTW, 64 GB iPhone5 is $399. 16GB Galaxy S3 + 64GB microSD card? $260. Of course, if you get it through Amazon’s $99 deal, it’s $160. For 82GB total. Now that’s “different”.

 

Why Taller is not Bigger

Had he lived, he could have been the spokeman!

One of the largest issues confounding Apple owners these days is the tiny screen they’re forced to use. While 3.5” was considered comically big when it was released in 2007 (at a time when the race was to create the smallest functional phone), the 3.5” screen nowadays is pint sized relic. When HTC released the 4.3” Evo in 2010, Steve Jobs called it a Hummer. But people got very excited at the screen size – where Apple decided to stick with 3.5” and increase the resolution, Android decided to see just how big the screens could get before they had to increase the resolution. Incidentally, 2010 was also the year the Dell Streak was released with a 5” screen. It was considered unusable and a completely niche product because it was too big. In the past year, the Galaxy Note sold 10 million units with a 5.3” screen. The upcoming Galaxy Note will likely sell even more. It has a 5.5” screen. And even the Evo’s 4.3” screen has been dwarfed in the pure phone category– the Samsung Galaxy S3 has sold 30 million units in three months. It sports a 4.8” screen.

So screen sizes have been going up in lockstep with Android’s popularity. So where does that leave Apple? First let’s take a look at the reasons why Android has been able to get so large while Apple trapped itself at 3.5”. This will be a bit dray and technical, so go drink a cup of coffee first.

Okay. The central issue of the screen size problem is the iPhone operating system, iOS. Unlike Android, which was built from the ground up to scale to all sorts of resolutions and screen ratios, iOS can only scale arithmetically. That’s why the iPhone4 went from 480 * 320 pixels to 960 * 640 pixels. But this pixel density increase allowed Jobs to seize a marketing opportunity – the Retina Screen. It was a nice screen, but it was an even better marketing move. While resolution is a factor in the perception of detail, it actually places fourth behind contrast ratio, color saturation, and color accuracy. That is why some people like the SAMOLED+ screen on the Samsung Galaxy 2 over the iPhone4S screen even though it lags in resolution and pixel density – the Galaxy S2 blows away the iPhone in the areas of contrast ratio and color saturation. Be that as it may, Jobs was able to link pixel density with quality, and this was a savvy move on two fronts – first, it gave the iPhone4 screen the reputation for being the best, and secondly, it created a situation where it was impossible for Android manufacturers to catch up. That’s because pixel density is calculated by both resolution and size. The real reason the iPhone had such a high pixel density was because it was so small – even if Android manufacturers matched the iPhone on resolution, their larger screens would, by nature, have lower pixel densities. It’s math and shit.

However, Apple was about to be hoist by its own petard. One of the problems with wrapping yourself in the Retina Screen cloak and sneering at inferior pixel densities is that you can’t go any lower without looking like a hypocritical douche. And this is where they were trapped. Any attempt at making the physically screen larger at the current resolution would disrupt “Retina Screen” density. The only way increase the screen size without dropping below “Retina” would be to move up the resolution arithmetically to 1440 * 960, but no one makes panels with 494 ppi. There was only one way to get out of the 3.5” trap they set themselves in. And it was the same solution that the cities builders figured out – if you can’t grow out, grow up.

Since there was no way to make the iPhone5 screen actually bigger without disturbing the pixel density basket they put all their eggs into, the solution was to tack an extra 176 rows of pixels at the top of the screen. This preserved the “Retina Screen” pixel density while putatively offering a modern-sized, 4” diagonal screen in a 16:9 HDTV screen ratio. In other words, this is the bigger screen you were looking for.

Except it’s not.

So back to the title of the article. The reasons people want a “bigger” screen is to make fonts easier to read. To make the keys easier to tap on the keyboard. To make links in the browsers easier to touch. Basically, the graphic elements in the iPhone’s 3.5” screen are too small for many users. That’s why they were looking for a “bigger” screen. The iPhone 5’s taller screen does nothing to resolve any of those complaints. The only way for the graphics to truly grow is to increase the height and width. By merely elongating the screen, they have done almost nothing to catch up to the larger, more involving and more productive Android screens.

So you can watch HD video without the letterboxing now, and there’s an extra row of icons. That’s about it. In return, you get letterboxing on many of your apps and pretty much all of your games, until the time their developers update them to fill in useless information on the sides. And it is indeed useless – they have to make one app to satisfy both iPhone5 owners and iPhone4S owners, which means the info on the sides can’t be integral to the app without making separate widescreen versions (which, if it happens, means there’s the possibility that you’ll have to rebuy those apps). Of all the things myriad Apple copied from Android, who knew fragmentation would be the number one feature in the iPhone5.

I have firsthand experience with these issues – I had a widescreen TV back in 2000-2005 when there was no actual HD programming. Everything on TV had black bars on the side. But it was nice for DVDs. When HD programming finally came, the shows were still composed for square TVs, which meant anything on the sides was extraneous. But it was still a good tradeoff for me because my rear projection TV was so much bigger than the square tube TVs at the time. You won’t get this trade off with the iPhone5 screen, which is .6” shorter than the one on the Galaxy S3.

So that, in about 1,000 words, is why the newest “big” screen from Apple is anything but. Happy marketing!

The AOL of Smartphones?

The iPhone is increasingly falling behind other smartphone manufacturers in areas of customization and features, as Apple’s stubborn insistence on a “one size fits all” phone is starting to show its cracks. The lack of choice in the iPhone market has fueled Android to overtake the iPhone OS as the number one smartphone operating system worldwide, and the  Samsung Galaxy S3 actually outsold the iPhone in the U.S. last month, a feat that no single smartphone model has accomplished since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007.

Like AOL, the iPhone’s simple and easy to use interface is what made it attractive to newbies when it launched. But five years later, a lot of people find it too simple. Like AOL, the iPhone will have its place in the market. Technophobes and people who just can’t let go will still want the newest iPhone when it’s released. But unless Apple is willing to move to truly bigger screen sizes and more (any!) user customization, it will eventually become what AOL is today — once monolithic and ubiquitous, but now a sure sign of being unhip and out of touch.

Hey, maybe these two titans will merge into one company and we’ll see ads like this:

One More Essential Android App

I noticed that I overlooked one important app in my list of 15 Essential Android Apps. So here’s number 16.

Oovoo

Price: Free

What it does:

It’s video chat software. But the hook here is that it’s a completely cross platform video chat solution. It runs on Android, iPhone, PC, and Mac. So I can video chat with my sister’s iPad, my sister-in-law’s netbook, and my niece’s Macbook. I haven’t actually tried the 4 way feature, but I someone told me that they successfully conducted their fantasy football draft through Oovoo. The only other app that features cross platform video chat is Skype, but it’s quite buggy on Android. When you throw in the 4 way chat, it’s really a no brainer.