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Griffin’s Gadgets has been quiet for an unacceptably long period of time by blogging standards – over a month! I’ve nevertheless been busy on some creative projects, at least one of which will hopefully bear fruit in the coming months. In the meantime here’s a wrap of some of the stuff I’ve been writing in the “mainstream media”. Ironically, my last post was on the eve of the iPhone’s debut in the US. So much has happened since then…

The gPhone is in the works


by Peter Griffin | Tomorrow’s World in the Herald on Sunday

If there was any doubt that internet search giant Google has its heart set on dominating the mobile phone industry the way it has the internet, it was well and truly snuffed out last week.

Not only was Google instrumental in winning concessions in the rules of an upcoming auction in the US of radio spectrum that will guarantee that any device or service can be used on that spectrum, but Google has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into developing mobile phone designs.

Whether Google will, in the next few years, go head to head with AT and T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile to construct a mobile network in the US is far from clear. To do so would be horrendously expensive, even for a cash-rich behemoth like Google. It would need to be successful in grabbing a slice of the airwaves in the upcoming auction, and it hasn’t indicated yet whether it will participate.

Last week I reviewed Apple’s iPhone which, with its touch screen and intuitive user interface, is a game-changing device. By as early as next year, if rumours of Google’s tie-ups with Taiwanese hardware makers are correct, the gPhone could be on the market, offering even more compelling functionality.

After all, applications like Google Search, Maps, Talk, Gmail and Documents have been adopted by millions of web users around the world. While many of those people are using Google on their mobile phones, a handset designed to deliver the best Google experience would be very powerful. (The image left is a leaked pic of what is reported to be a mobile phone user interface designed by Google engineers).

If the risk of over-extending itself in the mobile space is a real one for Google, the rewards for going mobile are also very real. The US mobile phone advertising market was worth US$1.5 billion last year and is expected to reach US$14 billion by 2011, says research company eMarketer.

I very rarely click on adverts displayed on the Google search engine or to the right of my messages in Gmail, Google’s free email service. But I’d be much more likely to click on an advertising link on my mobile phone that throws up results based not only on what I punch into Google’s search engine, but also on my physical location. Maybe I could type in “movie sessions” and a group of links to movies showing in the next few hours at inner-city Auckland theatres would appear, because I am standing on Queen St. That would be very useful.

I use Gmail on my Harrier smartphone, but if I could use a phone to have Google Talk chat sessions and to access Google Documents in a nice way, I’d consider switching.

While Google has prototypes of its own phones in the works, it also appears that it is developing software and hardware standards that it will encourage mobile handset makers to adopt. If early reports are accurate, the standards have a heavy weighting towards mobile internet access, with recommendations that handset makers build Wi-fi and 3G high-speed data access into their phones. Google is also said to be working on an internet browser for mobile phones.

Google’s business model has always rested on free services, but supporting them with advertising is a highly lucrative strategy. Would a “gPhone” allow free calling and internet access but require you to listen to or watch adverts? It’s not out of the question and would turn the existing mobile billing model on its ear. Will Google and Apple steamroller the traditional mobile heavyweights Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson? Unlikely, but they’ll certainly get a run for their money in the next couple of years if the gPhone comes to life.


APPLE IPHONE FIRST LOOK REVIEW – 8/10

by Peter Griffin | Tomorrow’s World in the Herald on Sunday

I’ve finally had some decent hands-on time with the Apple iPhone, the music player cum phone released on June 29 in one of the most anticipated product debuts in history.

Much of the hype has turned out to be true. The iPhone is simply a fantastic little gadget. I probably wouldn’t be inclined to buy one myself, having recently acquired a stand-alone iPod, but I’m excited about what the gadget, selling for NZ$653-$818 depending on storage allowance, means for the mobile phone design of other companies now clambering to catch up.

My reservations about the iPhone’s touch-screen, the only form of interaction with the phone (there being very few buttons to push) began to evaporate as I started tapping icons and punching in web addresses on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. I’ve been a keen user of touch screens for years, from the Palm Pilot, to a range of Windows-based smart phones, to the likes of Sony Ericsson’s P800.

All those phones required a little plastic pen to tap on the screen with precision. Not so the iPhone. The icons on the menu screen are big enough to be tapped with your finger and the keys on the virtual keyboard enlarge as your finger hovers over them allowing for surprisingly easy typing.

The iPhone is really an entertainment device first and foremost. It will appeal to people who want good messaging options, the ability to do some light web browsing, listen to music on the move and make phone calls.

You can’t now use the iPhone with a Vodafone or Telecom mobile account as American network operator AT and T stitched up an exclusive deal for the iPhone’s release in the US. Instead, people have hacked the iPod to unlock all of its functions bar the mobile calling. That means you can surf the web on the iPhone using its wi-fi connection, if you are in range of a wireless hotspot. That’s a surprisingly seamless experience.

The iPhone uses the Safari browser Apple Mac owners will be familiar with and has a couple of great features that make surfing the web on the iPhone better than on any other phone I’ve used. You can navigate full-sized web pages simply by dragging your finger around the screen and by pinching your fingers together or spreading them out, zoom in and out. The iPhone senses when you tilt it on its side, so will change the layout of the screen to landscape, automatically giving you a better view of web pages and pictures.

The email suite is pretty smart, allowing you to set up inboxes for multiple email accounts. The fonts and icons look crisp on the large screen and the camera takes reasonable-quality digital photos as long as there is good light.

Then there’s the music player function, which has been cleverly adapted for the phone. Again, your finger does the navigating. You can skip through your songs and albums quickly, just by tapping the screen.

The real test of the iPhone will be how it ages, how, after constant fingering over months or years, that touch screen holds up. I know people who are still happily using first and second generation iPods. Will the iPhone have that staying power and, therefore, the value for money?

What I’m looking forward to is the response from the traditional mobile heavyweights to the iPhone. Apple has proven that the touch screen can act effectively as the sole form of interaction with a phone. The mobile phone makers are sure to follow.

I should point out my Herald blog posting on the iPhone which I wrote in the lead-up to the iPhone launch and suggested that people should forget about the iPhone and look at some of the other decent smartphones on the market. That piece, which sparked a pretty big mailbag of responses from readers (which is always good) was in response to the unbelievable hype that had built up around the phone and was meant to be slightly antagonistic. Still, my advice remains the same, given the iPhone’s absence from our market.

Google muscles in on mobile

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

We have a little Government radio spectrum auction coming up in December that will sell access to some highly sought-after radio frequencies so new services such as wireless broadband can be offered.

That will raise a reasonable sum for the Government, maybe tens of millions of dollars.

But just wait for the frenzy the auction of 700Mhz radio spectrum in the US will generate.

Payments for that spectrum – seen as the “last beachfront property” in the US wireless space, as most of the other appropriate frequencies are already in use – are expected to total upwards of US$15 billion ($19.9 billion).

We haven’t seen that sort of money on the table since the European 3G auctions, which sent more than one mobile player bankrupt.

And if there wasn’t enough competition for the airwaves from traditional US mobile players such as Verizon and Sprint, internet giant Google has also given a strong indication that it will join the bidding.

That has no doubt struck fear into the mobile industry, whose collective pockets are nowhere near as deep as Google’s, with its US$160 billion market capitalisation.

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday bowed to the lobbying of Google, which was demanding that a good portion of the spectrum sold in the auction be used to support any device or service desired by the consumer.

Traditionally, the successful bidders in spectrum auctions have been able to tightly control what their customers can use.

This has largely determined over the past 15 years what mobile operator a customer chooses to sign up to.

Now Google, whose allegiances lie not with the network operators but with the consumers who use its search engine, wants mobile phone networks to be treated with the flexibility the internet offers.

Bring along any compatible mobile phone and, in theory, you’ll be able to use any service on offer.

On the web, you can pretty much do this now.

Internet providers sell access to the pipe that connects you to the internet but unless you’re illegally downloading thousands of movies or albums, making you what’s known in the industry as a “bandwidth leech”, you are generally left to your own devices.

Contrast this with the mobile operators, which do their best to keep you in a walled-garden of content offerings.

Vodafone Live is the best example of this approach.

While most mobile operators now sell straight internet access, they also package up services to make it more attractive to buy what they decide to offer – whether that be ringtone downloads, streaming TV feeds or news alerts.

Google is trying to offer better access to the services its business relies on, and in this area it sees the wireless providers and their walled gardens as the enemy.

The hostility between Google and the mobile industry was no more obvious than at the 3GSM mobile industry show in Barcelona this year, where several mobile operators said they’d rather work together to build their own alternative search engine for mobile phones than use Google’s.

The tension springs from the fact that everyone knows that mobile search is the next major form of advertising revenue.

The location-sensing power of mobile phones mean search engine results can be tailored to your actual location, giving more targeted results than you would get from using the Google search engine on your home computer.

With those location-based services in mind, Google has been building a free city-wide Wi-Fi networks in San Francisco and Mountain View, California, to give people in those areas better, unimpeded access to the internet.

It also struck a deal with mobile operator Sprint to offer Google applications on Sprint’s WiMAX wireless broadband service.

With its acquisition of the YouTube video-sharing website, and already the biggest search engine provider in the world, Google’s success depends on its customers being able to gain access to enough bandwidth to use its services, and preferably from mobile devices.

For that reason, an increasingly realistic scenario would see Google buy radio spectrum and build its own mobile network.

On the other hand, it may be a bluff to extract better co-operation from the mobile industry.

Either way, the mobile landscape is irreversibly shifting and Google, with its desire to take internet search mobile, is driving the change.

KIWI BUSINESSMEN SUM UP THE IPHONE

by Peter Griffin | from the New Zealand Herald

New Zealand
‘s first iPhone owners are globe-trotting technology entrepreneurs who see business opportunities for themselves in Apple’s sought-after gadget.

Tech sector veterans and regular visitors to the US, Steve Simms and Derek and Geoffrey Handley, picked up iPhones after the combined phone and music player was launched last week.

While the three share an interest in gadgets, their iPhone purchases also fall into the category of market research – they may soon be tailoring services to meet the new gadget’s requirements.

The three will not be able to use their phones on the local Telecom or Vodafone networks as they signed up to exclusive contacts with US operator AT andT.

Hackers are already working on ways to bypass the exclusivity deal so that the iPhone can be used on any GSM network.

Simms is the founder of Wi-Fi hotspot service provider Tomizone, which allows you to turn your wireless internet connection into a commercial service, selling access to others with Tomizone providing the back-end billing functions.

The iPhone has Wi-Fi connectivity built into it, allowing users to surf the web from wireless hotspots.

Derek Handley’s (pictured left) company, The Hyperfactory, designs and hosts internet-based advertising and branding campaigns for companies with a focus on the mobile internet delivered to phones.

If his clients take an interest in the iPhone, Handley will have to adapt services to suit its format and the Safari web browser that is used by iPhone owners to access the internet.

Still in their honeymoon phase with the most desired of gadgets, Simms and Handley suggest the iPhone lives up to much of the hype.

“It has a really slick interface, beautifully silky,” said Handley, who was also impressed with the iPhone’s suite of applications.”There’s a nice Google Maps function, you can get directions to go places. There’s a very cool YouTube widget for streaming YouTube videos.

“It’s not some old stylus thing or one-touch wonder. I’m talking Minority Report styling. Touch the screen with one or more fingers, pinch or expand photos and websites. It’s cool,” said Simms, who was given his iPhone by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The pair share a passion for the geeky sport of Segway Polo.

But it’s not all praise from New Zealand‘s first iPhone owners.

Simms (pictured left) picked out Apple’s “dumb exclusivity deal” with AT and T which limits use of the iPhone to one mobile network in the US. The model is likely to be replicated around the world, with Apple rumoured to be in the final stages of negotiating a worldwide deal for the iPhone with Vodafone.

“The keypad is crap, it will never replace the Blackberry,” said Handley.

“The browsing experience is designed for Wi-Fi and Edge, not 3G.”

Handley admits that Hyperfactory’s philosophy for how the mobile internet should be presented to users differs from that of Apple boss Steve Jobs.

“He thinks that the [regular] internet 100 per cent on the go is the way forward, but no one goes from Wi-Fi spot to Wi-Fi spot. Things need to be designed for the mobile internet,” said Handley.

“When you get to a mobile internet site on [the iPhone], it treats it like a web page, which is completely unworkable,” he added.

With his business case resting on the availability of Wi-Fi internet hotspots and devices that can connect to them, Simms naturally has a different view.

“Wi-Fi is massive on this, a great call by Apple not to get painted into a corner with the 3G argument,” he said.

“The ease of use for Wi-Fi in the iPhone is a dream and in the field its faster and cheaper than 3G any day.”

Both Simms and Handley saw plenty of opportunity to develop their offerings for the iPhone.

“Our opportunity is to take advantage of their stubbornness and their view of the mobile world and render content in a much smarter way, recognising the Safari operating system,” said Handley.

“We are looking for a widget for the iPhone that will auto-detect and log in to a Tomizone hotspot or any other hotspot you are registered with,”said Simms. “My guys will be figuring that out shortly.”

Locked out

- Apple’s iPhone cannot be used on the Vodafone or Telecom networks, but can be used outside the US where AT and T has roaming coverage. International charges apply.

- iPhone owners have to sign up to mobile plans starting at US$60 ($76) a month, locking them into a service contract for two years or more.

- Hackers are working to crack the lock-in technology that prevents the phones from working with sim cards from other mobile network operators.

- No date has been given for the iPhone’s arrival on the market here, however Apple is rumoured to be in discussions with Vodafone for a worldwide partnership to launch the iPhone where Vodafone has subsidiaries.

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