Thursday, May 28, 2009

They're reinventing the wheel (again)

There have been a few new product announcements that have really amazed me lately due to their obvious "me-too"-ness where the press have somehow been hoodwinked into believing that there's something innovative going on. All I can conclude is that the computing media are made up of sheltered children who never saw a computer before they graduated and got their current jobs.

Specifically I'm thinking about the eBook reader market. Many years ago, Apple came out with a small tablet computer called the Newton. Palm followed with the PalmPilot. The Newton was revolutionary, in that it sprang fully-formed from the imagination of the designers with all of the necessary features of a touch-screen PDA. However, it was pretty bulky for its targeted purpose... a PDA should ideally fit comfortably in your shirt pocket, along with a pen or two. The PalmPilot solved the size issue, and it was incredibly power-stingy, as well. The Palm III ran on double-A batteries, and mine typically lasted longer than a week. I got similar life out of a single charge of my Palm E2. These devices were very close to being perfect PDAs, in my opinion. Where they fell down was on connectivity. You were still tethered to your computer for synchronization.

Enter RIM and the Blackberry. It was ugly, it was chunky, the screen was tiny, and it lacked the nifty graffiti handwriting recognition of the Palm. But it could connect wirelessly and your email could be "pushed" to you. Based on the email push alone, I watched several large businesses change direction and switch from Palm to Blackberry.

In the meantime, Microsoft created Windows CE, which became Windows Mobile, which became the basis of a number of bulkier and busier and more bloated palmtop PCs and telephones. People expect that the Windows logo would mean quality, and bought them. But wereas the Palm would power up immediately to exactly the same spot you left it last, Windows Mobile devices were stuck with the same sort of startup screens, logos, and sounds that you'd expect on a PC. They were also stuck with the same "Start" menu, which ignores the form-factor of the device and is simply a brain-dead design choice. Add to this the insistence of Microsoft that palm computers should run Word, Excel, and... of all things... PowerPoint, and you've got a recipe for disaster. Microsoft has no idea what a palmtop computer is best at, and they sell to people who have no experience to the contrary, and who are soon frustrated.

For these reasons I credit Windows Mobile with giving palmtop computing a bad name and setting the stage for what was to happen next...

Along came the iPhone and stole RIM's customers. This was definitely a revolutionary device. A phone with no buttons, where the input area was totally dependent on the requirements of the moment. The iPhone one-upped Star Trek. But then a very funny thing happened. Apple released a stripped-down iPhone that lacked the phone. They called it the iPod Touch, although the only thing it really had in common with the previous iPods was the ability to play music. The user interface was changed; and you now had the ability to run "Apps"... basically, what Apple had done was re-introduce the old PDA concept without anyone noticing... it was the Newton all over again, but slimmed down and more useable.

Because Microsoft had so screwed up the PDA market, it was possible for Apple to make a huge splash simply by stepping, if not backwards, then to one side into the parallel reality that would have existed had Microsoft never dipped their incompetent hands into the PDA market to start with. This looked revolutionary, but only if you hadn't been using a Palm device all along. What had changed drastically, though, was that the focus on the Touch was on entertainment, not productivity. Apple took the great idea of the PDA and re-introduced it as a toy. The users are having none of that, though, and are doing their best to fill in the blanks with productivity software.

Also in the meantime, Palm had added Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to the Palm line. They also added telephony with the Treo, but that's not the direction we're going to follow, as the Treo was a "me-too" response to the Blackberry. The Palm T|X is decidedly the classic Palm, in the classic and logical form-factor that the iPod Touch later adopted, the good battery life, and the connectivity, as well as an SDRAM slot. It's a very good PDA. Its color screen takes up almost the whole of the device, leaving only four small buttons and a directional pad. And it supports multiple ebook reader software. I am able to surf the Web, download ebooks, and carry an entire library in SDRAM. PDFs, PRCs, PDBs, plain-text, Word docs, and MobiPocket docs are all readable. And it fits in my shirt pocket. And it's readable in a pitch-black room. In short, it does just about everything you'd expect a Kindle to do, and adds games and applications to the mix.

Which brings me to that Kindle. An oversized single purpose device, whose only saving grace is the e-paper screen (against which I prefer a backlit LCD anyway). They've gone the way of replicating the size and layout of "real" books, having forgotten that effective electronic devices NEVER just recreate physical world; they must improve on it, or fail. Paperback books became successful in the 1930s because they could fit in a pocket. The Kindle can't. It has a superfluous keyboard that's not used 99%+ of the time, and which only serves to bulk up the machine the rest of the time. It requires a subscription, because you get your books on-line, through the Kindle's own cellular connection. It's exhorbitantly expensive. And it's laden with DRM, so what you "buy" you don't "own". For many years the rule of thumb regarding software is that you should "treat it like you treat a book". But the Kindle doesn't even treat books like books. It's an EPIC FAIL in all respects except for the screen.

So I was really pleased to hear about the COOL-ER device. It's thinner, supports more sane formats, doesn't sport that stupid, stupid keyboard, and is just might fit in that pocket. And it's about half the price of the Kindle. But even with all these improvements, there's something still nagging at me...

It's the Palm T|X that is in my pocket right now. It does every single thing I've seen claimed for the COOL-ER and Kindle, supports more ebook formats, has a backlit LCD that's readable in the dead of night, has gobs of applications and games available, and can surf the web and synchronize from anywhere in the world over the Web to my home PC to get emails and appointments. I bought mine at a discount, for $99... less than half the price of the COOL-ER, and less than one quarter of the price of the Kindle. Likewise, it's a fraction of the price of the iPod Touch. (Though in this case, I'd say that the 16GB Touch, with its multimedia and extended storage, is worth the difference). I can't see for the life of me why anyone would buy anything marketed as an ebook reader, most especially the Kindle, but also the COOL-ER, when the superior choice is cheaper.

And this is my frustration. We started with what works (Newton). We moved to what works better (Palm). And then we threw all of that out of the window for ten years while everyone ooh'ed and ah'ed over the Windows mobile crap (and it's crap by any standard) until we could get something that worked again (in the iPhone), that was basically what we started with, with improvements.

And still, people are tossing underpowered, vastly overpriced crap like the Kindle into the market while all the while, the venerable Palm T|X beats the pants off of every single brand-spankin'-new right-out-of-the-factory ebook reader made by anyone anywhere in the world. And the iPhone and iPod Touch are better still. It's enough to make you despair.

But there's hope that some people still "get it". Palm has just released a better-still choice in the Palm Pre, which combines the multi-touch capabilities of the iPod Touch with multi-tasking and telephony. And it's got that nifty TouchStone charger. And Google's Android platform provides a more open solution not just for phones, but for desktops as well, if Ubuntu's parents Canonical have their way.

News flash for the pundits: the Palm Pre isn't a smart-phone... it's a PDA with telephony. It's exactly what Palm does best. They forgot that for some time, but they're back. And now we're hearing whispers of Palm's new OS as the basis of new small tablet PCs.

Here's another news flash for the pundits: Look back over this history. Take a look at what what Apple's done with the iPhone and Touch, which take back the position they once held with the Newton. Look at the Palm Pre, and the fact that it will run both new apps and apps that were written for older Palm devices. Then go eat some crow. The PDA isn't dead, and it never was.

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