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Monday, June 14, 2010

Why cell phones should think big

Apple, which has dominated music player and cell phone markets for years now, has received great fanfare for the introduction of the iPad.

This technology is nothing new. Tablets and e-readers have been around for years. Amazon and Sony have been fighting in the e-reader market for years now, with relatively little interest from consumers. More advanced multi-function tablets have been around for years too. Anyone still have their Palm Pilot from the 1980's? Even Apple was doing this 20 years ago (anyone remember the Newton?).

Why then is the iPad being seen as the greatest new invention since the PC? In part, this is due to Apple's well earned reputation for coming out with cool cutting edge technology popular with young people. Part of the reason is also customer confidence in being able to purchase and download interesting media with relative ease. But the other big reason is that Apple is filling a consumer demand that just isn't being met by any other major product.

Until the development of wireless 3G networks, portable streaming video was not a viable technology. The other problem has been that most large media networks are so afraid of piracy that they have been reluctant to much of any content available. While there have been some other attempts at portable video, they have been too small to gain much notice, and have not had access to much digital media of interest.

All that is changing now, and Apple is clearly the first major player out of the gate. It is a wake up call to the rest of the industry to get out there and make something happen.

E-ink readers such as the Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader are seen as the future, but these sorts of devices really fill a different consumer need entirely. They are ok for reading a book straight through, but if you want to jump around pages in a reference book, or store hundreds of documents for reference, these devices fall woefully short. Further, the slowness in updating page changes and inability to move beyond monochrome, makes them look pathetic next to the iPad. Yes, e-ink has great potential because of its ability to use much less electricity than an LCD screen, but if it cannot keep up in performance, it is like comparing an electric golf cart to an SUV. Until performance can meet that of LCD, e-ink is going to be relegated to people who want a very limited use device. They are only going to do that if the cost is much cheaper. Until we see devices selling for well under $100, these will not be of much interest since consumers can read books, and much much more buying a similarly priced iPad.

The technology to take on Apple, however, does already exist for a number of companies. They are called Smartphones. Apple simply took its iPhone OS and put it in a device with a bigger screen. Other companies, Blackberries, Palms, Androids, already exist on phones and are capable of streaming video, organizing documents, playing games, and just about anything else available on the iPad.

Their only major failure? You cannot get one with a screen bigger than about 3". Phone manufacturers have tried to keep their devices pocket sized. There is a large market for these small phones, but many others would be more than happy to carry around a larger device if it had a screen size that let the read documents, watch shows, or play games without having to use a magnifying glass. There is no reason these cell phone makers could not keep pocket sized devices for customers who want that, but put basically the same OS on a 9" screen for customers who want larger screen size. Given that the OS already exists, such a device could be on the market in a matter of months. They could even still work as phones using a head set to the tablet.

Come on cell phone manufacturers - the cell phone market is hugely competitive right now. The tablet market is wide open. You already missed being first into the market. Better to be second than tenth.