Friday, June 27, 2008

HTC @ Digital Experience!

*For those that weren't aware, has recently asked me join their team. I'll still be posting more of my personal opinions and more technical thoughts here, but much of my writing will be posted in both places. So, in case you see an identical article under someone named "Mordy" over there, yes... it's THAT Mordy.

Thanks to my recent connections with and its creator Justin Oberman, I was invited to attend the "Digital Experience!" technology showcase in NYC this past week.

I was particularly excited to hear that HTC was showcasing some of their new handsets at this event, especially since the “underground” Pocket PC community has already aquired the unreleased rom for the new cdma Diamond and extracted the software. I was playing with some of the unreleased apps on my handset, and I wondered what HTC would think of that if I showed them...

So, the day of the event I flashed my phone with the latest "bleeding edge" firmware (at the time, the rom I chose was no2chem's 5069k from, expecting to wow the HTC reps with what the underground development community has done with their hardware.
Instead of shocking the HTC reps, however, I was thrown off guard by actually recognizing the rep behind the table- It was Eric Lin of Phonescoop review fame.

I've actually seen Eric's mug on many youtube phone reviews, sometimes posting my own counter-video to comment on something he said. I wasn't exactly expecting to meet this guy in real life, much less find out he now works for HTC!

A sample phone scoop video with Eric, maybe some of you recognize him:

Eric knows his phones, but since he's only been with HTC about 6 months, he didn't seem to be able to offer much more than the normal "scripted/canned" answers that I knew and expected to my questions. In fact, when I pointed to the Sprint Mogul on display and called it the Titan, he wasn't familiar with the name.
For those that don't know, HTC creates OEM devices that get repackaged under various names and outer guises, yet are often the same phone under the hood. For example, the Sprint Mogul, Verizon VX6800 and P4000 are all really the HTC Titan, only resold with different names and often modified outer casing. The development communities tend to call devices by their internal HTC name since its the easiest way to keep track.
At first he thought I meant the Tilt on display, offering to correct me in calling it the Kaiser, or TytnII, sucessor of the original HTC Tytn.
Being the mobile enthusiast that I am, however, I pointed out that yes, the Tytn is an older GSM device, but the Titan is a current CDMA phone, closer to the Kaiser in generational hardware, although often confused with the Tytn due to name similarity.
HTC devices get rebranded all over the market, so its not surprising that people get them confused or that even HTC employees can't keep track. But I would have thought they'd know their own internal names of hardware.
But enough about Eric, he's a great guy and I hope to bump into him again soon.

Meanwhile, I got to play with the REAL HTC Diamond instead of just using parts of its software on my device. I gotta say, its pretty. If you're a Windows Mobile fan, you've already heard about its new touchflo3D eye candy, fabulous VGA (640x480) screen, touch-scrolling d-pad which can be used as zoom controls, and gyroscopic level sensors (which apple calls "accelerometers") that not only detect orientation, but can be used to play a nifty little virtual labrynth-style marble game, where you tilt the phone to navigate a marble with simulated gravity. That's cool.
The phone is actually smaller than it seems in pictures, has a nice glossy finish, and a crisp screen.

However my personal opinion is that the HTC Diamond seemed to lag a bit in its responsiveness. Sure, it was pretty and full of eye candy, but it wasn't as smooth and quick as I would have hoped, in fact the Sprint HTC Touch next to it seemed to be faster despite being previous-generation hardware.
Now, in defense of this device, it WAS a demo unit, and it appeared that someone had already loaded up a pop3 email address with over 200 new emails waiting. Floor models always get a bit abused, so its possible (especially with Windows Mobile) that the lag and slow downs were caused by someone messing around a bit.

I would like to share one more thing that Eric told me. Before I moved on to see more of the show, I asked him about the HTC Dream and the conceptual Android devices.
He wasn't allowed to share much information with me, but he did tell me that he played with one, and that it WAS in fact very cool. He seemed pretty enthusiastic about that, so here's to hoping HTC cranks out a real winner when Android launches...

For more of my take on the Digital Experience! show, check for an entry on this coming week.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What makes a smartphone “smart”?

(The following is a copy of something I wrote for another blog. -Mordy)

What makes a Smartphone "smart"?

The term Smartphone is thrown around a lot in current marketing, but how many people can actually peg a definition to it?
Personally, coming from a background in Windows CE development, I usually hear the term Smartphone to refer to the following:

A low-profile Windows Mobile device that incorporates a phone module and does not include a touch screen.

These devices, which originally resembled standard phones with numeric keypads (such as the HTC Tornado, HTC StarTrek, and Motorola MPX200) ran an OS Microsoft called Smartphone Edition, which was optimized for key navigation as opposed to touch screen input. They were for people who wanted a “phone first, and a PDA second”, or rather a PDA that looked and operated like a phone.
Microsoft’s full blown touch screen handsets that resembled a PDA were referred to as Pocket PC Phone Edition in contrast.
(I say this in past tense because MS decided recently not to call them Smartphone and Pocket PC Phone anymore. They are now Standard Edition and Professional Edition, respectively)

On the other side of the playing field, however, Palm refers to their Treo line of handsets as “Smartphones”, despite the fact that they all have touch screens and look like PDAs, including even their wx models (which run Microsoft’s Windows Mobile)!

Clearly Microsoft’s definition of a Smartphone is not shared by the rest of the industry.

So, perhaps a Smartphone refers to the marriage of a well known PDA (such as Palm or Windows Mobile) with phone components?

Most people in the market for a “Smartphone” want to be able to replace their tried-and-true PDA and phone with one device. So, perhaps the term refers to a familiar PDA Operating System merged with a phone?

This can’t be the case since there are many devices on the market called Smartphone, many of which are not running Palm or WM.
Nokia, who offers a wide variety of handsets for various markets, calls their high end phones running the open Symbian OS Smartphone. The belief is that the term actually originated from their Communicator line of handsets, which was marketed as being “a Smart Phone”, since it offered smarter features than the rest of their handsets at the time.
Nokia’s Symbian handsets, which run on non-touch screen devices that resemble phones, seem to agree with Microsoft’s definition of the term. They are phones that look and work like phones, however underneath the hood they have the power of a full blown portable operating system.

To complicate matters, you must also consider Sony Ericsson with their P900 series of phones that runs Symbian… but with a touch screen!
These SE devices are also called “Smartphone”, despite looking like a full blown touch-screen PDA.
Clearly the definition needs to be less specific.

Perhaps a Smartphone refers simply to a phone with PDA features?

That may have been in the case in the late 90’s, when phones that carried the title Smartphone clearly had features which differed radically from standard features phones of their time. The problem now, is that most modern phones have PDA features.
I used to sync my Sony Ericsson T610 with my outlook calendar and contacts, send and receive email, and browse the mobile web as well as play games. The T610 was a fairly standard feature phone in Sony Ericsson’s lineup, yet only the P900 series was worthy of the term “Smartphone”.
Same story with Nokia phones, with some of their low-end s40 handsets offering roughly the same set of features out of the box as their Symbian counterparts.
So what, in the eyes of Nokia and SE, is the difference between devices labeled “smart” vs. the others?
Perhaps a Smartphone refers to a phone with an Operating System that allows third party development?
This is the definition that always made the most sense to me, and the one I used to live by.
A standard feature phone has a limited set of features that it can do out of box (for example: music player, calendar, contacts, java games, email, etc).
A Smartphone is a phone with an open architecture OS, which allows third party applications to add new features or even change the very user interface. These devices can grow and evolve with the user’s needs, therefore it makes sense to call a phone that can learn new tricks “Smart“, or at least smarter than the average handset.

But don’t all phones these days allow you to download and install little programs?

Yes, average phones such as even the Motorola Razr can have some degree of third party development, in the form of Java applications installed that add new features. The difference is that they run in what is referred to as a “java sandbox”, that is, it has to play within the confines of the limited control Java gives the developer. The Java environment does not allow the feature-altering power that a real development API offers.
You don’t get access to the hardware features within Java, instead you get a limited set of commands such as drawing graphics on the screen, playing tones, interpreting keys, etc…
The result is that simple applications that can run inside the sandbox, such as games or shopping list calculators, are available but you can’t change the user experience of the phone (for example, a new voice command to control how you dial contacts) or develop code that takes control of the hardware (for example a VOIP application like Skype).

Although this definition makes the most sense to me, sadly, it doesn’t fit with all the devices currently being marketed as a Smartphone.

RIM’s Blackberry, the LG Instict, and the first edition iPhone (before being opened up with the new SDK) were all touted as “Smartphone” even though the development support was severely limited, if existent at all.

So, then perhaps the definition of a Smartphone is simply a phone that has high-end computer like features (email, html web browsing, etc)?

The problem with this is that most of those “Smart” features are now available on even standard fare phones!

Applications such as Opera Mini, which despite running inside the Java sandbox, can be installed on almost any standard device supporting Java, and manages to deliver full blown html web pages on any size screen. In fact, many users claim that Opera Mini is better than the browser that comes with their Smartphone.

Then there’s Funambol, an open source startup that focuses on data synchronization across any platform and device. So you can synchronize your PIM with your home computer, office computer, and many common phones. It even has a system to support Push email on almost any device, something the Blackberry is famous for.

If Blackberry style email and iPhone style web browsing are what make those phones “Smart”, then all current phones can be considered Smartphones!

Sadly, the conclusion is that there is no industry standard definition of a Smartphone.

The term appears to have changed with the times, and is now sadly lost to marketing jargon. Whereas once upon a time “Smartphone” implied certain features, now you can have two phones with identical features yet only one is marketed as a “smart” device.

If I wrote the book on the mobile industry, I’d have clearer suggestions for device titles:

Smartphone: A phone device that has an open platform Operating System that allows full development to create and change the software, similar to a full blown mini computer. Examples: Palm Treo, HTC’s WM lineup, OpenMoko, Symbian OS, and the upcoming Google Android.

Advanced MultiMedia Phone: A platform that offers glitz and glam high end features, especially multimedia, while not offering the full flexibility of a Smartphone. Examples: iPhone, LG Voyager, etc.

Portable Internet Messaging Device: Devices that offer smart features such as web browsing, push email, and other business class capabilities. Examples: RIM Blackberry.

I think that would solve a lot of the confusion, such as “Why can’t my blackberry run skype like that WM phone” or “how come the iPhone doesn’t have a keyboard?”.

Sadly, for now we’ll just have to make our own definitions.