» Archive for September, 2007

The Industry is Always Looking for the Next «G»

Friday, September 28th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

Verizon Wireless and part-owner Vodafone’s recent decision to move in lockstep towards 4G networks may surprise some and move others to believe that this foreshadows a global standard for the telecoms industry, but it’s really just business as usual in an industry that loves having multiple “standards” at the same time.  Many questions remain, namely what, if any, current operability will remain with other “standards,” what will happen to the mobile operators’ core networks, and what technology will consumers feel comfortable with and adopt.

Things in the telecoms industry move far more slowly than most people realize.  Just because new mobile phones are introduced every three months doesn’t mean that there are any new technologies hiding within them.

The industry has been down this road before, moving from analog (1G) to digital (2G), a point upgrade with 2.5G (not a defined standard but a legitimate stepping stone on the path to 3G), and finally to 3G.

We’ve heard the promise of the next generation of mobile services before, although not necessarily from these two players (Verizon Wireless and Vodafone).  2G, no, 2.5G, no, wait, it’s 3G, no, now it’s 4G that will be the great unifier.

What happened to 3G?  We had not one, but two standards, namely W-CDMA and CDMA EV-DO.  Japan’s NTT DoCoMo was the first to launch a 3G network in 2001 (WCDMA), followed later in the year by South Korea (CDMA EV-DO).  3G services in Europe started in 2003 but progress was slowed greatly thanks to the high cost of additional spectrum license fees (3G services in the U.S. use the same spectrum as 2G, so spectrum was not an issue in the U.S.).

One reason 3G caught on in Japan and Korea (both countries built out sufficient network infrastructure at the very beginning) was because there was no need to include roaming capabilities to older networks.  The devices were small and lightweight.  In Europe and the U.S., given limited network infrastructure, multi-mode devices were required, supporting 2G and 3G networks, making the devices themselves larger and heavier, hence less attractive to the consumer.

According to the GSM Association, there are ca. 200 million people using 3G worldwide, mostly in Europe and Asia.  Out of 3 billion subscribers, this is less than 7% of the total.

It makes sense, of course, for companies with as close a corporate relationship as Verizon Wireless and Vodafone to use the same high-speed 4G data network.  They now use the mutually incompatible CDMA (Verizon) and GSM (Vodafone) protocols although there was much speculation that their 4G platforms would also be different.

But 4G will not necessarily bring the industry closer together.  Sprint has already announced plans for its 4G-speed XOHM service, based on WiMAX, and trials are planned for later this year.  Sprint has hinted that this network will be open to any device that supports WiMAX, a wise decision in order to build network revenue.  One thing is certain: 4G will attract many players from outside the traditional mobile telephony industry, such as Google, a company that sees having its own network as a better way of getting new wireless applications to the masses.

As for me, I’m already looking forward to 5G as the platform that will (surely) unify the world.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

What to Do If Your Competition Has 95% of the Market

Friday, September 21st, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

If you are in the enterprise software business and your competition has a major product that not only has 95% of the market but is so standard that many think no work can be done without it, what would you do?  If you are IBM and the competitive product is Microsoft Office (which is second only to the Microsoft Windows operating system as a profit maker for the company), you would create a free, open-source suite of applications backed by IBM.  In a move reminiscent of IBM’s support of Linux, which it began to support in 2000 and which now competes with Microsoft’s Windows server software in the enterprise market, IBM introduced IBM Lotus Symphony, a word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation suite.  IBM executives encourage this comparison, which is likely to cause some companies to rethink their plans for deploying Microsoft Office 2007.

IBM has tried to compete with Microsoft before, most notably with its OS/2 operating system and the Lotus SmartSuite office suite.  This week’s introduction was different even though some observers (myself included) had a sense of déjà vu given Lotus’ 1985 launch of a similar product with the Symphony name.  (Lotus Symphony, an MS-DOS-based integrated suite that combined word processing, spreadsheet, business graphics, data management, and communications capabilities.  Lotus Jazz was its Apple Macintosh sibling.)

Free office productivity software is nothing new.  Indeed, Lotus Symphony is based on open-source software developed by a consortium known as OpenOffice.org, whose code goes back to Star Division, a German company that was giving away Star Office, which included a word processor, database application, drawing software, an e-mail client, and a spreadsheet, available in seven languages and for the Windows, Macintosh, OS/@, Linux, and Sun Solaris operating systems.

Sun Microsystems, which purchased Star Division in 1999, and Google, already offer free desktop productivity tools based on OpenOffice.

Lotus Symphony, ca. 2007, is not just for processing words and crunching numbers.  The new offering supports OpenDocument Format, or ODF, which is based on XML, a protocol that enables information exchange between computers.  Using ODF, Basex could publish reports that update automatically by being linked to databases that we would keep current.

Microsoft also supports XML, but via its own document format, Office Open XML.  Regular readers will recall that, earlier this month, Microsoft’s bid to have Open Office XML ratified as a standard by ISO failed.  The OpenDocument Format, the one backed by IBM, Google, and Sun, among others, was approved by the ISO in 2006.

Let the music begin.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

The Best Phone in the World?

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

The good

  • Stunning display
  • Full technical compatibility with BMW’s in-car Bluetooth telephone interface
  • Uses iTunes to manage music content
  • Thinner than the Motorola Razr
  • Replaces several devices (great for travel)

The jury is out

  • “Innovative” multitouch user interface (slow for typing)
  • Only uses iTunes to manage music content

The bad

  • Wi-Fi from iPhone causes in-car interference
  • No 3G
  • No stereo Bluetooth
  • Limited storage for a music player
  • $399 price with two-year AT&T contract (was originally $599)
  • “Locked” to a single mobile operator (AT&T)
  • No flat rate international data plan
  • No insurance available

What’s missing

  • Cure for in-car interference from Wi-Fi (besides turning off Wi-Fi)
  • Multimedia messaging
  • 3G

Even before the iPhone was introduced at Macworld 2007, the world (not limited to Mac aficionados) couldn’t contain the excitement. What would the iPhone look like? What features would it have? How much storage? What would the interface be like?

One thing was not a secret: the iPhone combines a mobile phone, widescreen iPod with touch control, and a PDA in one lightweight handheld device – and it would be different from anything previously available.

In launching the iPhone this past June, Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, told the world: “iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone. We are all born with the ultimate pointing device — our fingers — and iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse.”

BMW: MEET THE IPHONE

BMW quickly got on the iPhone bandwagon, sending out a news release announcing full iPhone compatibility with Bluetooth-equipped BMWs a few days after the iPhone’s launch. BMW promises compatibility on “most” BMW Assist-equipped models with Bluetooth handsfree calling manufactured starting in October 2004 (for the 7er as of March 2005 production). In addition, BMW promised compatibility for the “6FL” factory iPod/USB interface (http://www.bmwcca.org/node/7241) but was silent on the dealer-installed MOST bus interface for the iPod.

BMW was the first auto maker to offer an iPod connection in its cars as well as the first to offer Bluetooth for in-car handsfree calling.

In the car, the phone itself is easy to use, both as a phone and a music player. The driver can make and receive phone calls from the MFL (Multifunktion Lenkrad or steering wheel) as well as from iDrive or the MID (Multi-Information Display), depending on how the car is equipped. If the car has Voice Command functionality, this can be used to place calls as well. The iPhone clearly differentiates between home, work, and mobile numbers by displaying “home,” “work,” and “mobile” on the car’s display. Drivers in BMWs with iDrive and a CCC (Car Communication Computer) can utilize the car’s speech-to-text conversion and specify the location by saying either “Dial Franz Klammer home” or “Dial Franz Klammer mobile.”

To use as a music player, simply use the iPod adapter cable, which provides full integration. The cable has an iPod docking connector on one end and separate cables on the other end for connection to the vehicle’s AUX IN jack and USB connector. This permits full control via the iDrive display or MID. BMW owners will find the iPod experience far more satisfying with iDrive because the Bordmonitor provides full information and makes navigation through the iPod’s music content that much easier. We haven’t tested the iPhone with the MOST bus adapter but we will do so shortly and report.

REVOLUTIONARY?

The iPhone, as revolutionary as it appears, is not the first touchscreen of its kind. LG and HTC beat Apple to the punch with the Prada and Touch respectively (curiously enough, Apple introduced the iPod touch a few weeks ago, no word yet from the trademark attorneys on this). But the iPod wasn’t the first music player either; it just turned out to be the coolest, easiest to use device with better infrastructure (iTunes) behind it. The iPhone ups the ante in the mobile phone multi-function space, with optical-quality glass and a 3.5″ display, and software that allows users to control the iPhone with a tap, flick, or pinch of the fingers. However clever this may be, the lack of a real (thumb-operated) keyboard may be a glaring weakness, as more and more users see such devices as e-mail and SMS appliances. Although some claim lightning speeds, I have found that I can type out a message much faster on a BlackBerry or Palm with full keyboard and that I only make errors when using the iPhone.

Apple isn’t the first to provide visual voicemail, either. A quick search using Google revealed that dozens of companies already offer what Apple calls an “industry first”; in fact, I have been using SimulSays, a free, downloadable visual voicemail application for newer BlackBerry devices, that provides functionality virtually identical to what Apple delivers with the iPhone.

The iPhone, introduced with a choice of four or eight gigabytes of storage (the four gigabyte model was discontinued recently), won’t replace most people’s iPods, since many users have filled their 30- or 80-gigabyte drives with favorite music.

And the corporate world isn’t quite rolling out the welcome mat either. Many companies and government agencies don’t like iPods to begin with, since they see them as just another external storage device that could allow a person to walk out the door with gigabytes of confidential information.

CAVEATS
Many drivers, myself included, experienced significant interference and poor voice quality when using the iPhone in the car. This was largely resolved by turning off the iPhone’s Wi-Fi radio, which apparently causes the interference. However, because Wi-Fi is an essential piece of the puzzle, having to turn it on and off is inconvenient and Apple should come up with a better solution to eliminate such interference.

Many purchasers of the iPhone may not realize the ins and outs of how the phone works, especially when it comes to the data side. The media (for one example, see the New York Times) is full of recent reports that Apple iPhone customers found thousands of dollars of data roaming charges on their bills when they traveled internationally, even though they didn’t use the phone to check mail (it checks mail automatically). BlackBerry users can sign up for a flat monthly rate for international roaming; this is not available to iPhone users. Disable your e-mail feature if you don’t want to see a bill that would eat up half of your European Delivery savings on a new BMW.

The iPhone is only available with a two-year AT&T contract and comes locked to that mobile operator. [There are ways of unlocking it, both via hardware and software , which would allow its use with other mobile operators, but these are not sanctioned by Apple or AT&T and could void the iPhone’s warranty.] If you are not an AT&T customer, you may incur penalties if you terminate the contract with your current mobile operator before it is over.

THE VERDICT

Apple is likely to introduce cheaper, faster, iPhones with more storage in the coming six months. If you love the interface and can’t wait, it will mate with your BMW quite nicely. Just remember to turn the Wi-Fi off.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

When Time Stood Still

Friday, September 14th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

In the knowledge economy, it is hard to imagine the concept of time standing still.  E-mail, instant messages, phone calls, voice mails, text messages, social networks – these all move time ahead at twenty-first century speed.

But time standing still?  That couldn’t happen.

12 days ago, I found out it could indeed happen.  Some of it played out in slow motion, and some of it happened very fast, so fast I barely recall it, and some of it disappeared into a void.

As many of you know from the obituary written by David Goldes last week, my father, S. Franklin (Fred) Spira,  passed away on September 2 at the age of 83.  (See also the New York Times obituary and a remembrance by Burt Keppler, Siegfried Franz Who?).

Nothing prepared me for this even though my father had been ill for several years.

E-mails piled up, my presence/awareness in Sametime continuously indicated “away” and my phone was permanently forwarded to voicemail.  I remained oblivious to all of this.

For ca. ten days, I stepped out of the knowledge economy (during this time my use of e-mail was limited to correspondence with friends and relatives about my father – if I haven’t gotten back to you yet, I will shortly but I sincerely appreciate all of the kind notes and expressions of sympathy I have received).  For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel the need to check e-mail or worry about meetings.  Instead, there were many hours with friends and family, just talking.

I’m back in the knowledge economy now.  I think about my father (who was known to be a workaholic) a lot but I know that he would want me to be back at work and in the thick of things.  After all, that’s what he would have done.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Foleo II

Friday, September 7th, 2007 by David Goldes

This past May, with great fanfare, Palm unveiled the Foleo, a laptop that included a paradox at no extra charge.  Palm billed the Foleo as a “smartphone companion.”  Indeed, at its launch, Palm co-founder Jeff Hawkins explicitly acknowledged the shortcomings of the smartphone form factor for doing intensive e-mail.  With a 10.2″ color screen and full-sized keyboard, the Foleo would allow mobile knowledge workers to edit and view e-mail and Microsoft Office documents that reside on a smartphone (and eventually on non-Palm devices).  The Foleo also was to come with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless support, making it capable of accessing the Web (without a Palm) as well as browser-based e-mail.

This past Tuesday, Palm announced it was pulling the plug on it – at a point where the company was nearly ready to ship the product.

So what happened?

First, the reaction to the Foleo’s launch in many quarters was a collective yawn.  There was much that was good about the machine (incredible industrial design according to Jonathan Spira, who had a brief opportunity to use one, plus a lightweight, perfect form factor for working on a plane in tight quarters) but much that was not (not particularly fast and its functionality was limited because of Palm’s emphasis on making it a peripheral first and networked computer second).

Palm CEO Ed Colligan, in a message announcing the company’s decision, wrote: “Our own evaluation and early market feedback were telling us that we still have a number of improvements to make Foleo a world-class product, and we can not afford to make those improvements on a platform that is not central to our core focus.” Palm is “working hard” on its next generation software platform and the Foleo was based on a second platform and separate design environment.

Its potential, however, was unlimited.  The Foleo had been Jeff Hawkins’ “brainchild” for many years.  (Hawkins is also the inventor of the Palm Pilot.)  Hawkins and Colligan still are said to believe in this market category and already are talking about Foleo II, which will be based on Palm’s new platform.

But by then, whenever then may be, Palm will certainly not be alone in this category, the ultra lightweight diskless portable.  Others, perhaps Apple or even IBM (imagine a ThinkPad as light as a pad), might fill the void.

The Foleo, albeit a costly design exercise (Palm is taking a ca. $10 million charge to its earnings), demonstrated the potential of such devices.  Hopefully, someone has taken notice.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

In Memoriam – S. F. Spira

Friday, September 7th, 2007 by David Goldes

S. F. Spira, born Siegfried Franz Spira in Vienna, Austria in 1924, passed away September 2nd.  Everyone knew him as Fred but also as the founder and CEO of Spiratone, a company that started out as a small photographic laboratory in the 1940s and grew to become the largest supplier of photographic accessories in the U.S. by the 1980s.

Fred was the father of Basex’ CEO Jonathan Spira.  As a trusted advisor at Basex, he was always the voice of reason.

Fred was the retired founder and CEO of Spiratone, until the late 1980s.  He was also an eminent photo-historian and created The Spira Collection, which many experts considered to be one of the world’s finest collections of photography-related items.  He was the principal author (along with Jonathan as co-author) of The History of Photography, published by Aperture, and which the New York Times named a best book of the year in 2001.

Spira left Vienna  with the Kindertransport, having placed an advert in the Manchester Guardian stating “Austrian boy, age 14, with affidavit for America, needs temporary home in England.”  Although he left his parents behind in Vienna, they were reunited a year later and started a new life in the United States.  His first accomplishment was graduating from high school in New York as the class valedictorian.

The family had gone from a very comfortable existence in Vienna, where his father had been a bank executive and later the owner of a camera shop, to almost nothing.  To survive, they started a small photo-finishing laboratory operating out of their apartment.  This grew into a fairly substantial business (the lab’s customers included many Austrian emigrés, including members of the Habsburg family, the former rulers of Austria).  In the late 1940s, Fred saw opportunity with the Japanese and became one of the first if not the first to open up the U.S. market to quality Japanese photographic goods.

Among his many innovations, he invented the first Through-the-Lens (TTL) metering system for still cameras and is credited with many other innovations in filters, lighting, darkroom, and other areas of photography.  He also created the concept of interchangeable lens systems, which allowed one lens to work with multiple cameras such as Canon and Nikon, simply by changing an adapter mount.

John Durniak, former picture editor of the New York Times and Time magazine among his many titles, had written the following about Fred in a feature article in the 1980s:
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile and Fred Spira did not invent photography, yet, both these men have had almost as much influence on their respective fields as the original inventors.  What Ford did to our economy and culture with the concepts behind the Model A and Model T, Spira has done to photography with his accessory lenses, close-up attachments and processing machines.

The funeral service, held this past Tuesday, was longer than usual because of the number of people who eulogized Fred.  In addition to a touching eulogy by Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein (who had worked for Modern Photography briefly as a free-lance writer before going to the Seminary), Jonathan and his brother Greg spoke, as did our v.p. and editorial director Basilio Alferow, who prior to his life at Basex, was vice president of R&D under Fred at Spiratone.  The photographic industry was represented by Herbert Keppler, who ran both Modern Photography and, more recently, Popular Photography, and Bernie Danis, who started working for Fred in 1946 and ended up as a lifelong friend and colleague at Spiratone.

Several people, Michael Pritchard, Managing Director of Christie’s, a friend of Fred’s since 1986, where distance precluded their attendance e-mailed in brief eulogies which were read at the service,

I’ll close with an excerpt from comments by Joe Pompeo, a former manager at Spiratone.

“Fred left his mark on me and on society. Fred was always fair, patient and helpful. Working for Fred remains one of my most memorable experiences.

Fred inspired me and I learned so much, especially common sense and modesty.

Today those wonder years working with SFS remain my fondest memories.  Hardly a day goes by I don’t flash back to Flushing and hear Fred’s words of advice.  In my mind Fred will always be that hyper man in the gray business suit huddled behind his typewriter knocking off letter after letter.”

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.


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