Four and a Half Years On

People often come up to me in the street and say, “Stephen, why don’t you pop some clothes on, there’s a good fellow.” Another thing they will ask is, “How many phones have you got with you today?” And it’s that second common question we’re going to concentrate on in this blessay.

I have blogged many, many times about smartphones: you can follow the trail here by scrolling down and clicking on “Older Entries” at the bottom – “older entries at the bottom”? There must be a more appetising way to phrase it than that. Oh well.

The trail leads all the way back to a posting called Devices and Desires in which I wrongly claimed that the virtual keyboard on the new Apple iPhone was a bad idea, but rightly asked for 3G and downloadable third party apps. I also mourned (more than mourned: I stamped my foot and frothed with rage) at the asininity and maddening, moronic, stubborn, suicidal stupidity of Nokia and Palm and Sony in their inability to come up with anything close to the ‘iPhone killer’ that the industry (and I) were demanding. Not because we wanted Apple to fall (at that time they were a far smaller company that Sony or Nokia, let alone Google, HP or Microsoft) but because we wanted the whole sector to rise and meet the challenge. To pick up the gauntlet that Apple had flung down.

Things move so desperately fast in the digital world. That blog was written just four years and a half ago, before there was Android or App Stores, before the iPhone was even available in the UK. Now we live in a world where Apple, as a company, has the highest market capitalisation in the world and is worth more than its rivals combined. It’s worth more than … well there’s a whole site dedicated to telling you what it’s worth more than.

2007

If you read that blog of mine now you can see me trying hard not to gloat about the fact that I had managed to get hold of an iPhone. Today my Facebook timeline (no I shan’t tell you my FB ID, but it isn’t Stephen Fry, and I fear I very, very rarely use it). If you’re befriending or have been befriended by a Facebook Stephen Fry, it isn’t me.

So proud....
myPhone, fryPhone - iPhone!

For one anxious day it was just an expensive brick as I parlayed and finagled and finessed my way through to someone at AT&T in America who would grant me roaming rights on this alien new device. This finally came through on July 7th

Finally...
It's alive!!!

It’s interesting to reread that blog (interesting for me at any rate) because it reveals just how ahead of its time the iPhone was. Let’s have a look at their rivals and see how they’re doing. In fact let’s take a look at the whole idea of the future of this field as it might be understandable from a look at the past. I’ve just read Dan Gardner’s Future Babble so I’m well aware of the futility of prophecy. Nonetheless…

Microsoft

In mid to late 2007 the Redmond Behemoth had just come up with Windows Mobile 6 for Pocket PCs, as they charmingly called their absolutely fucking dog of an operating system. Pardon the language, but nothing else will do. CEO Steve Ballmer and others at MS were the first to admit it when they launched Windows Phone 7 a year and a half ago (with my help as it happens).

This slick, smooth, slidey-tile operating system is now established and flourishing enough (weedy in its proliferation compared to iOS and Android, but flourishing nonetheless) to be called simply Windows Phone.

Microsoft are bringing out a new Windows 8 system soon that, much like Apple’s Lion and upcoming Mountain Lion, will move towards converging the smartphone and PC ‘experience’ as people like to call it. The tail of the mobile is wagging the dog of the desktop: plenty have predicted this for some time as more and more power becomes available in your pocket, according the ineluctable certainties of Moore’s Law. It’s worth taking a look at this fascinating proposition.

Moore is more

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s famous axiom states that the number of transistors you can fit on a chip will double every two years. Now, I expect you are familiar with the grains of rice on a chessboard image which is often used to explain the staggering rise that occurs when a number is doubled in series – a geometric progression leading to exponential growth. In case you aren’t I’ll just run over it again so that you get some idea of the monumental meaning of Moore’s Law.

Rice n Easy

The story goes that an Emperor (or a Rajah) many, many years ago declared that if someone could invent a game which ruled out the element of luck he would grant them any wish. A brilliant sage devised the game of chess which (so long as each player gets an equal number of goes at playing white) is indeed wholly a game of skill. The delighted ruler demanded of the sage that he name his reward.

“Simply this,” said the sage, “I should be pleased if, on the board that I have designed for this game, one of your servants could place a grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on until the last square is reached.”

The emperor clapped his hands delightedly and called for a sack of rice – what a let off!

Ah, but do the maths, or ‘math’ as Americans like to call it. A chess board is eight squares by eight, and 8 x 8 = 64. By the time you have reached the 21st square, doubling as you go, you will have to put down over a million grains on it, by the 32nd, which is only half way, you’re planking down 2 billion grains, just on that square.

By the end the number has rocketed to more grains of rice than any kingdom could grow. On the 64th square alone there would be 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains. When the Emperor’s CFO and senior number crunchers had told him how much he owed, the story goes that he had the sage’s head cut off as a warning to smartarses everywhere. Other versions of the tale say he made him his new vizier. Viziers are like Prime Ministers, only less stupid.

Moore’s Law was first propounded in 1970, which has allowed for 21 iterations of the principle since then, which tells us that more than a million transistors can be fitted into the space that held one in 1970. That number will double in 2014. And double again in 2016.

Enter a fine man

Is there an end in sight? One of my great heroes was Richard Feynman. He was everybody’s great hero if they love science and especially perhaps if like me they are too stupid to understand it without the help of a great communicator, a passionate and brilliant advocate. But of course Feynman was a hero to scientists too, a Nobel Prize winner, a teacher of astonishing brilliance and possessed of an exuberant and acute mind that ranged freely over all the great questions.

Physical limits

In 1985 he gave a startling lecture in Japan on the size limitation of future computers. Later he gave a series of talks at Caltech, the university at which he had done most of his work, also on the subject of the physical limitations of computing, but raising too the possibility of what is now called “quantum computing.”

This was not the first time he had caused a paradigm shift in the way people thought about science and engineering. As early as 1960 he had astonished an audience by predicting and describing what we now call nanotechnology. On that occasion he offered a prize for anyone who could make a working electric motor no bigger than one sixty-fourth of a cubic inch (roughly .4 mm3). He offered another prize for anyone who could take the information from the page of a book and reduce it down to an area 1/25000 smaller “in such a manner that it can be read by an electronic scanning microscope”. The scale he was demanding was equivalent to being able to read the whole of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin.

He paid out on the first bet less than a year later, but the second challenge took longer. Feynman paid out on this in 1986, just two years before he was struck down with cancer, an untimely death that left the American scientific community in a deep mourning from which it has barely recovered.

For the story of those lectures, download or read online this excellent article by Tony Hey, published in Contemporary Physics in 1999. The Japanese lecture has been printed up, I have it somewhere, but not here in New Zealand where I am writing this. It’s the third one in this list of his publications and is well worth reading.

For more on Feynman, simply look up his interviews on YouTube. You might as well start with this one on waves, it’ll give you an idea of his charisma, his passion, his restless curiosity and the pleasure he takes in the complexities and anomalies of … everything.

Parallel and Quantum computing

Anyway, what Feynman first suggested was that computers could move away from the “Turing model” of registering and addressing sequentially and look to what is known as “parallel computing”. This has never really taken off, perhaps as a result of computing getting stuck in its own way of doing things and there being three decades worth of bloated ‘legacy’ from which there is no chance of escape.

But Feynman went further and proposed the possibilities of quantum computing. At a subatomic level. Please don’t ask me to explain something I don’t understand. I’ll ride in the jet, but don’t ask me to build it. I don’t mind telling you that I’m wa-a-a-ay out of my depth in all of this. I just repeat what someone I trust tells me. And then I check with my father and get the real truth as he is pretty close to being a Feynman himself.

Boil in the bag rice with chips

I suppose what it all boils down to is this. Moore’s Law has plenty of years left in it and its ever more steeply growing rice-on-the-chessboard curve will give rise to chips, integrated circuits, that will drive computational devices of such speed and power that they will in turn help engineers construct new kinds of machines that mimic what Schrödinger called the “entanglement” of activity at the quantum level.

Down to business

All that is fascinating and probably no more or less believable than any other prediction. If it achieves nothing more than introducing the world of Feynman to anyone who had been previously unfamiliar with it, then this blessay will have done an absolute good.

Meanwhile let’s descend to the rather more banal level of the consumer devices that I have spent the best part of my adult life slavishly following, loving, hating, dreaming of and desiring.

The latest intel…

Talking of Gordon Moore (my mother occasionally used something called Gordon Moore’s Cosmetic Toothpaste, I don’t think he can have been responsible for that as well?) the great man will be pleased to see, no doubt, that the company he helped found has just entered the smartphone market. A deal with Orange should see Intel phones in Europe in a month or so. Intel will make the silicon, Android will provide the operating system. At the moment it looks like they’ll be launching with the 2.4 Gingerbread version of Android, rather than the exciting new 4.0 release, which is called Ice Cream Sandwich. As you probably know Google and the Android people like to name their distributions after desserts and cakes. Well, why not?

Microsoft, of course, are not much in the hardware business, save for their highly successful Xbox and its super-duper-hooper-whooper successful Kinect accessory. Whether Windows 8 will help revive the somewhat flagging fortune of Dell and other PC manufacturers remains to be seen. But doubtless Intel, who provide the CPUs for Macs and PCs alike will do well in either case. Perhaps it is the success of Apple’s design and construction of their own A class chip (now at A5+ in the new iPad) that has caused Intel to realise that being an OEM, an original equipment manufacturer, isn’t such a bad game to be in after all. So welcome, Intel.

Forehead palm smack

Goodbye my beloved Palm. In May 2007, a month before the launch of iPhone 1, they made the disastrous error of announcing the launch of a lightweight wireless laptop, essentially a dumb terminal to service their Treo line of smartphones, which they called the Foleo. They might now claim it was a forerunner of the MacBook Air and other subnotebooks, but even if it we kindly agree that it was ahead of its time, there’s no doubt it was a huge disaster for Palm.

The Big Blue lesson

There was an old saying back in the 70s: “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”. What this meant was that if you ran the IT (or Data Analysis as it was called back then) department for a medium to large company you bought from IBM, or Big Blue as they were known (this was the colour of suit their salesmen and executives were obliged to wear. Oh yes, and there were schools where IBM told you to send your children too) – anyway, the point was that no matter how shite the machine you bought, you could say to your complaining Chairman, CFO and MD, “Don’t blame me, I bought IBM,” and everyone would murmur, “Oh well, that’s alright then… IBM. Mm. Fine company. Must just be bad luck.”

IBM of course, famously didn’t see Bill Gates coming and in what seemed like the blink of an eye they had slipped down behind the speccy upstart and were selling off their consumer business to a Chinese company, Lenovo. I told you the digital world moves fast.

Sinking without trace

Well now, Palm made the same mistake. Their wonderful proprietary Palm OS was aging and rather than spend R&D dollars reinventing it for the modern, post iPhone world, they assumed that everything would be alright if they chugged along with it (they produced the Centro in late 2007) and continued to concentrate their energies on producing Windows Mobile compatible devices. How could they lose? MS was the biggest company in the world. Their operating system accounted for over 96% of all computers sold. Everyone was always going to need a smartphone that synched to a PC , weren’t they? It was a cinch.

It took them almost two years to repair this mistake and decide that they should tackle Apple head on and produce a new operating system for touchscreen devices that might compete with the ever more frightening success of the iPhone.

Pre come…

Had they decided on this a year or so earlier when they still had the wind in their sails, they might not have been too late. As it was in 2009 the woefully underpowered and maddeningly undersized and plasticky Pre devices were launched, running their new Web OS, to the sound of rolling sagebrush and tumbleweed and the tolling of a great bell.

StephenFryHoldingGalaxyNote

Such disastrous strategic, commercial and software engineering miscalculation and lack of vision brought the company down. Palm collapsed, the pieces were picked up by Hewlett Packard for $1.2 billion. HP promised to develop the OS and release tablets and smartphones running it. In fact, two years later they effectively dropped all such plans and announced that they were licensing the technology for others to play with and bring to market if they wished or dared.

Sony make believe

Farewell Palm and farewell too, Sony Ericsson. As of February 16th this year, Sony reacquired the whole joint venture from their Swedish partners and renamed it Sony Mobile Communications.

In my view Sony is the company that has most to blush about in terms of its performance in this sector of the consumer hardware market over the last two or three decades. Their brand image just couldn’t have been higher or better in the early eighties when their Walkman was cock of the walk. The company and its brand image seemed unassailable. The Apple of their day, they were known for fine design and innovation and for wit, elegance, desirability and finesse in their product range. Their Trinitron displays stood out in an area of cathode ray tube TV sets and monitors and their whole range of consumer equipment from My First Sony to camcorders more or less rocked in exactly the way that today almost everything they make in this arena sucks or remains incapable of standing out from the crowd. And don’t get me started on Vaio notebook: contemptible and contemptuous to the customer, there rarely was a more repellent and deceitful object put before an unbelieving public.

Missing the bus

A legendary moment in modern geekery was the day in 2001 when Apple’s chief engineer Jon Rubinstein went to Toshiba’s HQ in Japan on a routine courtesy visit. Earlier in the year Steve Jobs had demanded a small music player of him and Rubinstein had replied that the components for such a thing didn’t exist. At the Tokyo HQ Rubinstein was shown a 1.8 inch hard drive that Toshiba engineers had developed but which they couldn’t see a use for. They had no idea that it was exactly what Rubinstein had been missing. As it happened, Steve Jobs was in Tokyo for a different reason the same day. At dinner that evening Rubinstein said to him, ““I know how to do it now. All I need is a cheque for ten million dollars.” Jobs coughed up and the rest is history. And the rest of the Apple’s competitors were history, so far as music players were concerned.

The question I would ask if I worked, especially for Sony, is why the hell didn’t we make the iPod? Sony were not only in the same country as Toshiba but they were, unlike Apple, in the music business. Sony Music and Sony Pictures, Sony Walkman, Sony industry standard video cameras and recording equipment. Sony computers. Talk about a perfect fit. Talk about missing the bus. Talk about being outmanoeuvred. Just as he was to do in the world of tele-communications six years later, Steve Jobs took Apple from a standing start into the position of the most important music company in the world. From right under the noses of Sony.

Their phone business JV with the Scandiwegians was going south too. In the year 2009-2010 alone Sony Ericsson fell from being the world’s fourth biggest seller of mobile phones to the sixth biggest. The writing had been on the wall for two years, ever since the iPhone arrived and SE produced that shocking disgrace of a Symbian UIQ monster, the P1i that I railed against in my first techblog. That monstrosity was more or less a tomb stone.

They gave up on Symbian UIQ (which I actually really liked but which just couldn’t perform the tasks asked of it without crashing or overheating) and produced and are still producing a line of overpriced and wildly underwhelming Xperia smartphones which at first ran Windows Mobile long after the rest of the world knew it was a dead duck. When they finally saw which way the wind blew, the Scandanese combine panicked into rushing out the X10, which no one bought because it ran an out-dated version of Android and couldn’t do anything as well as a cheaper and better HTC phone.

It is hard to believe this, yet sad and true: Sony can hardly be called a trusted name or big hitter these days. Always skating to the puck, never to where the puck is going to be, to borrow Wayne Gretzky’s winning image.

All that can change of course, and let’s hope it does. No one would want to see a mighty and once loved colossus like Sony come crashing down.

Nokia, Nokia – Who’s There-ia?

Nokia, then undisputed number one in mobile phones were, back in 2007, producing low and medium end phones of great usability and huge global popularity. Using power efficient flavours of Symbian and a reliable and simple menu driven interface, hundreds and hundreds of millions were sold and That Ringtone was heard in every corner of the land. Restaurants kept Nokia chargers by the front desk on the off-chance that a diner might need a top up in the evening.

At the higher end, they chugged out silvery plastic oblongs so ugly that it gave one diverticulitis and the squits just to look at them. No one seemed to mind as high end phones weren’t their ‘core business’. But what they didn’t seem to be able to see was that smart phones would soon be the only business to be in. Which is strange because they can be regarded as the pioneers of the smartphone every bit as much as Palm or Handspring.

As I say in that damned blog, I owned just about every model of Nokia Communicator through the Nineties and Noughties. I was sending emails from my phone in 1996 using the first Communicator model, the 9000. To put things in perspective, this was five years before the iPod came into being, a longer period of time than exists between now and the first iPhone. Since Nokia knew what smartphones could do, it can only have been a misreading of the road ahead not to see how quickly the future would slam into their windscreen.

The lumbering, slumbering giant awakes…

The redoubtable Finnish giant, which started life in lumber and loo-rolls has rebooted itself as a manufacturer now of Windows Phone devices, while still producing the cheap and affordable handsets that, through M-PESA, more or less power the Kenyan and other African economies. I own a Lumia 800 and am very pleased with it, although for my taste it’s a little too small and I can’t wait for their up-coming larger 900. It’s pleasing and, I am sure a huge relief for Nokia and Microsoft, to see such enthusiastic pre-ordering and buzz for this device, running an operating system on which the futures of CEOs Ballmer and Ollila may well depend.

Blame the Berry…

I think it highly probable that the wrong turn Nokia took was due to the phenomenal success of the BlackBerry, a triumph whose shadow looms large over this past ten or so years. Like Palm, Sony and Nokia in their heydays, this giant seemed unassailable and impregnable, setting the standard that everyone else must follow. It defined the second age of Yuppyism. The ubiquitous Crackberry entered dictionaries and became a metonym and synecdoche for the corporate beast of the first decade of this century: eyes forever locked on the screen, urgently rolling up and down the thumb-wheel or tapping the keyboard. So much so indeed that newspapers, which have never exhibited the strongest understanding of the real meaning of evolution, postulated the wildly impossible Lamarckian future of children being born with stronger and more flexible thumbs …

Storm Clouds Loom

And then, again as a result of misjudging the meaning of the iPhone, the unthinkable happened. Research in Motion, the Canadian makers of the BlackBerry began to lose the plot. RIM had produced the wondrous Pearl, the magnificent Bold … how would they respond to Apple? Oh God help us with the Storm? This haptically clicking touchscreen monster was a disaster of almost unparalleled dimensions. The sound of them being thrown from office windows competed with the screaming down the landlines to their network providers of the outraged middle-management honchos who had “upgraded” to this cataclysmic failure. No one could be found who had anything but contempt for it.

The Bold and the Desperate…

Another attempt at Storming the citadel was made before, in desperation, RIM tried again, dropping the name Storm forever and attempting a kind of halfway house called the Torch which, while better, was still nothing to email home about, and nothing like what the market wanted in either direction. It annoyed the core BB faithful and had little to offer the young and the restless. So last year they had a shot at reviving the happier Bold brand, with a model that combined the by now de rigueur touchscreen and accelerometer with the original virtues of their finest, mid-season form candy-bar physical keyboard devices. That Bold, (I am fondling a 9790 as we speak) marks the last hurrah for RIM in the consumer market.

RIM’s leakage of millions in losses, the drop in share price from $140 to $14 in under three years, their desperately unhappy foray into the tablet market with the shame-makingly wrong and mismanaged BlackBerry Playbook (launched without an email app, god help us) has proved too much for founders Mike Lazarides and Jim Balsillie (yes that really is his name, what a childhood he must have endured) They have ‘stepped down’ as joint CEOs, and replacement Thorsten Heins has announced “A plan to refocus on the enterprise business and leverage on its leading position in the enterprise space” – and if you can understand what that means, then you’re just the kind of suck… just the kind of customer they’re after.

Even under the rim?

Whether Research In Motion’s name has been forever blackened and whether their once omnipotent push emailing services can survive the damage done their name and reputation by the failure of their consumer devices and the cripplingly embarrassing outage of their core services last year only time can tell, and time – as I keep repeating – rushes by so fast in this digital world. The mills of God may grind exceeding slow, but not the mills of Silicon Valley. IBM, Compuserve, AOL, MySpace, Alta Vista, Yahoo, Palm … these were names that our grandchildren and grandchildren’s grandchildren would whisper in awe until the crack of doom, surely? And as for Nokia, Sony, RIM and Microsoft – only a moron would ever connect their name with disappointment or accuse them of sipping at the last chance saloon. Who could doubt their eternal mastery of the universe?And the winners are…

Apple of course. I say that (and I always have to repeat this) with no especial pleasure. I am not wedded to the company and have no shares in it. I admire them so long as they are admirable and admirable they have been for a long, long time. They have made mistakes, but no fatal or even wounding ones. Each error is blown up hugely because no company on earth attracts such headlines. They are accused of hype and simultaneously of an obsession with secrecy, but the fact is that those who hate them are the obsessed. Ha! Their antenna doesn’t work if you hold your hand in a certain way. That’ll destroy them. Oh, alright. Look! This iPad sounds like sanitary-wear and is only a big iPhone, they’ve really goofed this time. No? OK, Ha! They’ve deceived Australia about 4G! And Feel! They’re overheating! I’m not as good at this as the supreme leader in the field, the Macalope, a genius at teasing the Applephobes of the world. Tip of the antlers to you, Macalope, old thing.

The Big G

Google of course can also count themselves as winners. They had the foresight and muscle to come up with a much better answer to Apple. In cahoots with 83 other companies they formed the Open Handset Alliance at round about the time I was writing that first blog. The first Google phone, the G1 came out in October the following year. I reviewed it, along with the fateful BlackBerry Storm and loveable BlackBerry Bold here.

As it happens Google makes more money from the advertising revenue creamed off Apple iPhone and iPad use than it does from the ever increasing market share that Android is achieving. Four times more money! Nonetheless Android has shown that Apple’s iOS and its walled garden and tightly fenced APIs aren’t the only way. The always open everywhere APIs that Android allows can of course result in some malware, flaky and downright deceitful apps as well as being a headache for developers. Try being an x-platform website author, for example: arbitrarily different handsets and tablets that use physical buttons for forward and back would make you tear your hair out. Surely manufacturers must stick to what should be an obvious industry standard: onscreen touch arrows for navigation. Random physical buttons make it all but impossible for developers to produce sites that work on all platforms. They have to buy every device to test their site on and build extra routines for each one that has a different dumb physical button. Enough already.

Nonetheless, there’s an exhilarating quality to the Android ecosystem. Much of this has been due to the third winner in the recent phone and tablet wars. If you’ve got a ribbon…

Taiwan on…

HTC, the OMG of OEMs. They were swimming about in the shallows making WinMob phones like the HTC Touch and the 3600 that I much preferred back then in 2007. But they reacted so swiftly, imaginatively and positively to the Apple threat that they could be renamed RRF – Rapid Response Force. Cheerfully and smartly produced, they sometimes sail close enough to the wind to rouse the ire of Apple’s patent lawyers, but I’m afraid I just can’t be doing with all this patent nonsense. It should stop now and everyone will benefit. Except the lawyers. Boo hoo.

Aaaannnyway… HTC made the first Android phone, that G1 that arrived at the arse-end of 2008, and have come up with some of the best Android phones over the intervening three and half years, the Desire, the Sensation, the XL (available with Dr Dre Beats) and now the quad core 1.5 GHz 1080p HTC One X (there’s a dual core S version too) which I hope to review soon… not available in New Zealand yet. It obviously won’t be the One as despite its high specs, it’s still 3G. What will they call the 4G model? The This Really, Really, Really Is The One, Promise?

Sometimes HTC (which rather endearingly stands for High Tech Computer) can be maddening. How the hell do you get the back off this one without tearing your nails? How come the Rhyme has run out of storage memory when all I’ve downloaded are Evernote and Dropbox? And must they offer a silly proprietary Twitter client? But all in all, their rapid response, their neat and zippy designs, their “skinning” of Android with HTC Sense, their server-side Hub and their competitive pricing and constant new launches have kept them very much in the game. And sometimes they come up with something so original and silly you have to clap your hands (while giggling) – The Charm – you can watch the whole gloopy film or start at about 1’ 13″ – daft but sweet.

But no one is safe in this sector — no one. HTC’s Q1 profits are down 70% this year. Analysts are less pessimistic about their future than they might be, but there is no doubt a huge amount is riding on the One and their other new launches. If anyone is going to be squeezed out of the OEM game, Nokia and a certain other company are determined it won’t be them…

Which leads us to our next winner.

Samsung Agonistes

(That’s a really neat reference to a Milton poem by the way, so laugh, damn you) – Samsung, the South Korean powerhouse seem to have emerged from the last four years in better shape than any of Apple’s major hardware rivals. They’ve experimented with and advanced the cause of OLED and AMOLED displays, they’ve pushed the hardware in all kinds of directions, they’ve aggressively stalked the iPad since its release, to the point of plagiarism some would argue, and they have survived. They’ve done more than survive, they’ve thrived. Thriven. Throve. Threft. Thrivvled. Thropwindled. Wa’evz, girlfriend.

Galaxy Quest

The Galaxy tablet is generally agreed to be the best response to the iPad that anyone has yet managed to come up with. It has hardly had the same kind of seismic impact on the worlds of publishing, journalism, design, medicine and education, and can only be regarded as a follower not a leader, but if your heart is hardened against Apple you could do a lot worse.

A review! At last, an actual review!

I have spent the past week trying to use and trying to love the Samsung Galaxy Note GT-N7000. This device, you might remember, caused quite a lot of hoopla in October 2011 when it was announced and released. Is it a pad, is it a phone? No, it’s a Note.

Samsung Galaxy Note GT-N7000 © Samsung

Size sighs

The 5.3 inch screen, which is exactly yay big by yay big, notably (notably!) falls between the size of an iPad and iPhone, though it’s closer to a phone than a tablet. You can exactly fit two Notes next to each other on an iPad screen and another will lie on top lengthways. I would say the display is a third bigger than an iPhone and three times smaller than an iPad. I’m sure if I was better at geometry I could work out the difference exactly, but that will have to do. Interestingly enough, everyone is predicting the new iPhone 5 will have a bigger screen, but not this big, you can be certain.

Unwrapping the Galaxy Bar

Personally, I find the size annoying. I can’t type as quickly on it as I can on either an iPad or an iPhone (despite Swiftkey, of which more later) or the HTC XL, Lumia 800 or BlackBerry (bless) Bold that are my current PIUs, Phones In Use.

It certainly comes with a top spec. 1.4 GHz Dual Core processor, 1080p video (full HD in other words, like the iPad version 3), two cameras (8 MBP on the back, 2MBP on the front for face-to-face calls) video and photo editing apps, any number of the dreary, useless and annoying “hubs” that everyone except us, the users, thinks we need – apps that ‘unify’ contacts, events, reading habits and notes between Facebook, Twitter and Google accounts for example. They all lead to confusion and annoyance and duplicated or maddeningly overstocked address books and they must stop it at once.

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The Super AMOLED display is gorgeous. At 1280 x 800 it’s not up to Apple Retina’s 2048 x 1536 resolution standards, but still marvellous with 285 pixels per inch, which gives a smooth warm highly engaging (or ‘immersive’ as we are forced by law to say these days) experience. The Note boasts the loveliest opening lock screen in history. And…

Woah there!!!

It has a stylus!!!! What? Have they run mad? Don’t they know what Steve Jobs did when asked why the iPhone didn’t offer a stylus? He raised up his two hands and said, “Nature took millions and millions of years to provide us with ten perfect styluses. Why insult her by adding another, less efficient one?” He may have said ‘styli’, but I doubt it…

The stylus is styleless…

Well Samsung is having none of this. The Galaxy Note offers a stylus with a tiny (and almost completely inaccessible and scream-inducing) button on it that uses Wacom pressure-sensitive touch-pad technology in order to add … what exactly? Complicated and elaborate ways of screen-capturing (something Android is really, really bad at) and performing other mundane tasks that would be better done by fingers and little menus or gestures. I quite see that an artistically aware stylus would be useful on the odd occasion one is moved to write beautifully or to sketch and draw, but otherwise – forget it. Perhaps Samsung are just desperately trying to add their patented ways of doing things to avoid all this hideous, upsetting patent lawyering that is making us all so cross and unhappy.

Another of their unique ideas is “tip to zoom” – fortunately this hopeless and deranged idea is not the only way, good old pinching is still available, otherwise the whole apparatus would be hurled into the sea.

It got better

At first I was going to write an absolutely blistering attack on this piece of kit because within two days of using it, it was telling me that I had run seriously low on storage memory and that I must move everything onto an SD card. There was a 4GB SD fitted and all the apps I’d downloaded from the Android Market (now called Google Play) were already there. This was baffling and maddening. Eventually I bit the bullet and did a factory restart. Since then I must confess things haven’t been so bad.

Hmmm….

Not so bad, but not so great either. The screen goes black and unresponsive every five or six attempts I make to access an app. It refuses to sync Twitter or Facebook through its hub, so I have downloaded the official apps at the risk of incurring another “memory low” warning. The Mail app, as it always is with Android, is inferior to Google’s Gmail web app.

The device cost a shedload of money – £700 to be precise, though of course it’ll cost nothing like that if you lock yourself into a deal with a network provider.

But…

The screen is gorgeous.

The notebook app is so cute. You can do nice drawing and everything, so long as your thumb can find the tit on the bloody stylus.

It looks lovely when it works. Ravishing.

Bundled up…

It comes loaded. Polaris office suite, photo and video editing software – the works. The excellent Kies Air allows you impressive and intuitive wireless file management through your web browser. Although infuriatingly it doesn’t seem to recognise the Java on any Apple browser. I tried with Safari, Chrome and Firefox and in each case Kiese Air told me that I couldn’t batch upload to the device unless I installed Java. Java is already installed and waiting to be commanded, so that is something Samsung and Kies should look at. To move any amount of music or pictures singly is not an enterprise lightly to be undertaken and I don’t see why one should shell out on a specialised Mac to Android syncing programme. Lord knows I’ve spent enough money on Mark Space and the Missing Sync over the years… usually at the cost of hair, nails and sanity.

Also, as usual with Android, all the navigation, mapping, ebook and news reading, note recording and voice control (which won’t give Siri sleepless nights) apps that you could want have been thrown in, together with FM radio and more toys and gismos that I could list here.

Judgement?

Despite all that Samsung’s offering is – as my old history teacher used to say – a long way far short of being good enough. The Note runs the Gingerbread distribution of Android although Ice Cream Sandwich is expected soon. To be fair, down here in NZ my reliable HTC XL hasn’t got round to ICS yet either, but the XL remains much less prone to hanging apps with apologetic notes or just going black and vacant than the distinctly neurotic Galaxy, which has all the glossy good looks of a racehorse, but unfortunately behaves as if it has some of the more highly strung and uncontrollable characteristics that go with thoroughbreds too.

I, I – it’s Swiftkey

I really hope Apple and others don’t think this form factor is the future, because it has taken me back to frustrated one finger prodding. This despite using the excellent Swiftkey, an absolutely essential add-on for any Android device. It is noticeable that Swiftkey’s installation routine decides that the Note is a tablet, not a smartphone and bids you install its (one dollar pricier) tablet version. I wouldn’t call the Note a tablet at all, it is quite clearly a large phone.

Swiftkey, incidentally, which speeds up the typing process by very impressive heuristic techniques and neat semantic guessing and disambiguation, teaches one the lamentable lesson that most English speakers start most sentences, phrases and sub-clauses with “I”. One does not use the word often oneself and it therefore strikes one as a little unfair that one’s texts and emails so often end up littered with implications of egocentricity. One types away not noticing that the app is opening almost every clause with that rude word, ‘I’.

That aside, Swiftkey is a great British success story. 6 million downloads and counting. Of course its interference with the keyboard API isn’t something Apple would allow, nor MS with Window Phone at the moment. So one of them will probably end up buying the company.

To go back to the beginning…

Each morning then, to return to the second question that opens this inexcusably long blessay, I rub my chin and ask myself this question. The Note or the HTC XL?

As a matter of course, the iPhone goes in one pocket; the Lumio or HTC HD7 Windows Phone into another (I can interchange happily there, whichever is charged and simmed up will do); the BlackBerry (bless) Bold into one more and then I have to choose an Android handset.

Samsung or HTC?

Lately I’ve been using the Note more and more and, as so often happens when you give a worthy device time, you start to like elements that before were an annoyance.

Alternating between both can be a bit like alternating between two cars which have indicator stalks on different sides of the steering wheel, causing you to switch on the windscreen wipers when you want to turn left. The HTC and Samsung have the volume rockers on opposite sides, so I’m always messing up there. But these are minor things. Android is a perfectly viable alternative to iOS as is Windows Phone and these two devices have plenty to recommend them.

Post 2007 trauma

The aftershocks that rippled out when the iPhone was launched are still being felt. Palm and Sony Ericsson have ceased to be. BlackBerry has effectively bowed and left the stage, billions of dollars poorer. Nokia and Microsoft are making a recovery after a very, very rocky few years in this sector. Google thrives off everything, off the Apple ecosystem and its lion’s share of the Android world. HTC and Samsung continue to lead the field as original equipment manufacturers, with Sony Mobile Communications, LG and Motorola as blips on the OEM screen that may be fading or growing. It is hard to tell. As mentioned, Intel has now staked a claim in the territory too.

Ding Dong Dell

It’s worth risking a nasty taste in our mouth as we stop for a sidebar on the unsavoury topic of Dell. The Emperor of Ugly and King of Customer Disservice, Dell has now entered the market as a manufacturer of both Windows Phone and Android devices. That’ll be the company founded by the same Michael Dell who in 1997 thought Apple should be shut down and and then five years later in 2001, when Steve Jobs opened the first Apple Store, stated that he “saw no future” in such a move: “Physical stores have been tried by a number of our competitors, and generally, actually I would say universally, that strategy hasn’t panned out.”  Over 360 Apple Store openings later, with sales exceeding $4,000 per square foot (as against US tech supermarket giant Best Buy’s $930 psf) this characteristically useless statement from the Beigemesiter seems more than a little embarrassing.

Control • Alt • Dell

He has since back-pedalled on that infamous 1997 comment, saying that he what he meant was that if he, Michael Dell, were in charge of Apple he’d have closed it down, because he, Michael Dell, only wanted to be in charge of Dell Inc. Yes, we’re convinced that’s what you meant at the time, Michael baby, of course we are, and it could just as easily have been Microsoft or McDonald’s as Apple you made the remark about, couldn’t it? Hmm? Naturally it therefore follows that your other proclamation was prescient too. Because if you had been in charge of retail for Apple, it absolutely wouldn’t have “panned out”. It would have belly-flopped like the Dell shopping centre “kiosks” that were installed in US malls in 2002. Every one of these has since been closed down.

Dell boy

Profit is all this hopeless prophet seems to care about, it certainly isn’t innovation, and the reward for his obsession with the bottom line? He produces the bottom line of devices. But then, I dare say he’s happy with his $15 billion and his place in the history books only as a dreary cut-price re-badger and knocker-off of boxes and a master of tax breaks, campaign palm-greasing and not noticeably patriotic offshoring. For more information on this almost uniquely unappetising ornament of the digital world, ask Mother Jones.

Here’s a sample:

“2005 — Michael and Susan Dell give $250,000 for President Bush’s second inaugural celebration.
2006 — President Bush: “It’s tough in a time of war, when people see carnage on their Dell television screens.”

 

The Future

So what, at the risk of making a Dell-like arse of myself in the prognosticator stakes, does the future hold?

In another four and half years, the power, memory, capacity and functionality of the computers in our pockets will have transformed these fascinating devices yet again. Near Field Communication and other forms of interactivity will doubtless cause a revolution in the way we work, play and shop in the real world. For I think the next step, as we continue to reap the rewards of Moore’s Law, will involve integrating small devices, quite as powerful as today’s most top-spec smartphone, into elements of cars, fridges, shop counters, airports, railways stations, art galleries, sports arenas and restaurants, whether through NFC or biometrics, which will mean that we will be able to take our Cloud with us and our bank account too, wherever we go.

But what do I know? I thought I’d never type as fast on a virtual keyboard as on a physical one. I thought that green shirt would look good on QI. I thought so many things…

Toodle-pip,

 

 

 

 

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