Monday, October 26, 2009

First Look: The World's Thinnest/Lightest Laptop

Until you have seen the new Sony Vaio X laptop, you haven't seen anything at all. This just blows your mind away. It will be delivered to consumers November 20, and you can pre-order it from Sony now.

This laptop is the thinnest, lightest and most battery-efficient thing on record. When you pick it up, you're asking: Where is the battery? It's so light you have to be careful to not throw it up in the air by mistake. With the small battery, it's 1.6 lbs. With the bigger battery, I think it's 2 lbs or slightly more. The battery life is 2.5 hours with the small battery, and 12 hours with the big battery. And yes, both batteries are included, so for a long flight you're covered for 14.5 hours even without a power cord.

This is a 2 GHz Atom with 2 meg RAM and a 128 gig SSD. The color is "gold" which sounds bad, but doesn't look bad at all in reality. It's a pale gold bordering on silver, but at a minimum it just doesn't look bad at all. For connectivity, it has 802.11n by Atheros and Gigabit Ethernet -- an amazing feat on a device this thin.

The screen is 11.1 inches, which is a little smaller than my normal minimum acceptance of 12 inches. The keyboard is 17mm pitch, which is also smaller than a typical 12 inch laptop. Not ideal, but not terrible either -- compared to other ultra-light netbooks.

The device oozes quality. It seems strong as a rock, similar to the MacBook Air. Yet it weighs essentially half of the MacBook Air. It's not as rounded as the MacBook Air, but with these dimensions and weight, it still makes the MacBook Air seem like a total hog from ancient pre-history. The keyboard feels high-quality, despite being a shade too small.

The price is $1,500, or $300 less than the MacBook Air with a similar 128 gig SSD. As is typical of these prices, they don't include 3-year warranty ($200) and Microsoft Outlook/Office ($450).

The best competition I have seen against the Sony Vaio X are, at the low end: the MSI L2100, which has a 12 inch screen and sells for $400. No SSD or ultra-thin or ultra-light, but still as small as any comfortable laptop has been otherwise. The keyboard is very good. On the high end, the Toshiba R600 is nearly as thin and light as the Sony Vaio X for $3,500, but that includes an industry-first gigantic 512 gig SSD and a faster non-Atom Intel dual-core processor. The weight is 2.5 lbs, battery life 7.5 hours, and it includes a 3 year warranty -- had better be, at that price!

Bottom line: The Sony Vaio X is an outrageously compelling laptop, unlike anything else. It's so thin and light, that one feels transformed to a future science fiction world just by touching it and lifting it up. Some people may find it too small or lacking in CPU power to be a primary office computer, but for everyone else it is only a matter of whether they can spend $1,500 (or $2,150 equipped with 3 year warranty and Microsoft Office).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Microsoft's Debacle – and Google's Challenge

Microsoft’s (MSFT) recent debacle with its Sidekick device is the ugliest user experience we may have ever seen in wireless. The Sidekick device was the first one to backup and synchronize over the air (the “cloud”) to a central server starting already several years ago. The company behind the device was acquired by Microsoft 18 months ago, and after that point the Sidekick platform fell behind the competition – Blackberry (RIMM) and iPhone (AAPL) to begin with, and more recently also Palm/WebOS (PALM) and Google/Android (GOOG). Yet, the remaining Sidekick users appear to have lost all of their data as a result of Microsoft’s server failure.

What this saddest of technology sagas illustrates is that while cloud sync may be convenient, it is no replacement for making your own daily local backup on your own PC at home. Supplement, yes – replacement, no.

What that in mind, how will the typical consumer fare if he migrates from a Sidekick device to a Google/Android device made by HTC, Motorola (MOT) or Samsung, just to mention the manufacturers that will be in the market on T-Mobile and Sprint before Thanksgiving this year, according to their recent press releases? In particular, consider the following use case: An average consumer has a Microsoft Vista PC using Microsoft Outlook for his calendar and contacts database, or the equivalent on the Apple platform. He is not connected to an enterprise environment such as Microsoft Exchange. He may or may not be fine with any form of cloud sync for reasons of security and/or reliability, but in any case he just wants to do a local backup on his own PC, presumably using a simple USB cable.

This is what every consumer Blackberry user on a Windows OS has been doing for over 5 years. It works as simple as plugging in the cable and pressing “Synchronize” on the desktop utility. It synchronizes and backs up. You could have tens of thousands of calendar and contacts records, and it “just works” in a matter of a couple of minutes.

So does it work on Android phone? As it turns out, in every case except one, it does not. It fails this most basic requirement of security and reliability. Let’s go through the devices one by one:

T-Mobile USA offers two Android devices today, with a third on the way in a matter days or weeks. HTC makes the G1 and the MyTouch, and neither offers local sync to your non-Exchange Microsoft Outlook. If you trust Google to sync over the air, or if you have Microsoft Exchange, you’re fine. As far as Google’s cloud sync goes, how accurate is it for calendar and contacts? Does it still work if you have many tens of thousands of entries?

Hitting the T-Mobile USA stores supposedly on November 2 is the Motorola Cliq, announced on September 10. It works much the same way as the HTC devices, except it adds its own cloud sync software called MotoBlur. I asked several Motorola representatives at last week’s CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association) trade show in San Diego , where Motorola focused almost exclusively on this device, and the answer I received was that this service only handles 2,500 entries. That makes it essentially useless certainly for me, and just about everyone I know.

In addition, they described a complicated procedure for uploading one’s contacts/calendar data from Outlook to the MotoBlur cloud service for the initial set-up. What about getting this data out of the MotoBlur service if I change my mind and want to move to an iPhone on AT&T, PalmPre on Sprint or Blackberry on Verizon, I asked? They told me once the data has been sucked into the MotoBlur service, I can’t get it out. Ouch.

Samsung announced its first Android device for the US market, to be available on Sprint November 1. I asked several Samsung reps at the CTIA event if it can sync locally with Microsoft Outlook, and they all told me that it can’t. Basically, same story as with the two HTC devices currently offered by T-Mobile USA. Fail, fail, fail, fail on all these four Android devices.

This brings us to the fifth and final Android device in the US market this month, having just become available on Sprint October 11 – the HTC Hero. Guess what? It actually comes bundled with software that accomplishes this vital task required by most consumers.

So there we have it: 4 out of these 5 current or imminent Android devices are unsuitable for the average US consumer who has a local PC contacts/calendar database such as Outlook, and wants to keep it that way. Cloud sync has been showed to be potentially unreliable (to say the least) and may not even handle larger databases for those of us who have many thousands – or tens of thousands – of entries.

This should be an easy problem for companies such as HTC, Motorola and their current and future carrier partners to fix. It doesn’t require a change to any device hardware, and doesn’t add any noticeable cost. Let’s hope they see the light, or they will find themselves with many unhappy customers, poor reviews and a high return rate.

In the meantime, products such as the iPhone and Blackberry look very good in comparison – at least when it comes to this most basic and essential functionality. I see a marketing slogan for one of these companies in the near future: “Security and Reliability.”

Why Government Regulation for Internet Service Providers Is Bad News

Our government has settled on a new formula for regulating industry, and they are applying it to one industry after another. While they haven’t yet made it to the restaurant business, at this pace we may not have to wait too many years for the following to happen: Every restaurant is mandated to only offer food in the form of an all-you-can-eat buffet. The government decides on what needs to be served on this buffet, at a minimum, in order to be compliant. No restaurant is allowed to deny a customer service, and all customers must be charged the same price. After all, eating is no longer one half of an exchange of private property, but a “right” entitling a consumer to his neighbor’s property.

What would happen to the restaurant industry if it were regulated this way? 300 lb people would pay the same as 100 lb dieting models, all while abusing the buffet’s contents. The restaurant owner, unable to discriminate or restrict, would have to raise the uniform price to reflect the heaviest consumer, at which point the price becomes unacceptable to the lighter consumer. Unable to reduce cost because of the requirement to provide a minimum level of content, the restaurant would under-invest in other areas such as kitchen and furniture; yet profitability would suffer despite the higher price. Eventually the government steps in to limit the price restaurant charges for the buffet. Cost then exceed revenue. Bankruptcy follows.

Crazy, you may say. Of course it is! But now apply the mad scenario of the government-regulated lunch buffet to two other industries: Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ), and the health care industries, including insurance companies. Let’s take these two industries in turn.

Internet Service Providers (ISP): The drumbeat is on from the FCC and Congress to force companies such as AT&T and Verizon to “open” their pipes to positively anything that any user wants to do. Think the streets of San Francisco, where lawlessness and filth have become rampant. According last week’s AT&T management presentation at the CTIA in San Diego, 3% of its wireless users consume 40% of the bandwidth. Unless AT&T can charge these people more – the more you eat, the more you pay – its economics will collapse under its own weight. Casual users don’t want to pay for the investments necessary to keep a high level of service for those who use the most resources.

Charging people for usage can be a good thing, but for Internet bandwidth it can make for a tough consumer proposition. Most people have no clue how much they just consumed by clicking on a web page. I sure don’t. As a half-measure and compromise, AT&T and Verizon want to “traffic-shape” the consumption by having computers monitor user behavior and throttle down extreme usage scenarios. By doing so, they believe they can maintain flat-rate pricing for at least a bit longer, instead of having to charge per bit. This attempt at establishing order between those who take advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet, and those who just eat “normal” or even little, is at a bare minimum a property right of the service provider.

Under many so-called “Net Neutrality” proposals, the government would deem such a “traffic-shaped” consumer offer illegal. You see where this is going: The government (FCC and Congress) passes a law proclaiming Internet-In-Your-Pocket a “right”, mandating a uniform level service that must be offered to all, and denied to none. Telcos and ISPs are then forced to invest to meet the demands of high-intensity users paying the same low flat rate as my grandma. Unable to raise prices, profitability falls, turns into losses, and bankruptcy follows. In the end, the government takes over AT&T, Verizon and all the others, offering a taxpayer-subsidized one-size-fits-all Internet that brings us to the level of Cuba’s consumer welfare. That’s the government-regulated lunch buffet applied to Internet service.

Then let’s apply the same principle to health care and related insurance. States and soon the Federal government impose mandates as to what a health insurance policy must cover: Thousands of details for all sorts of procedures, dramatically driving up cost. Because these are state rules, they almost automatically outlaw inter-state competition, in direct defiance of the commerce clause of the Constitution. While all normal insurance companies – car insurance comes to mind – price customers individually based on perceived risk and past behavior, the government forces health care insurance to charge only one price for customers, whether they appear super-healthy or a likely multi-million dollar liability. Put aside the emotion for a moment: As a businessman, would you ever knowingly agree to do business with a customer who you think is likely to lose you money? Of course not. That’s the fastest road to bankruptcy. Yet that’s the essence of the health care “reform” now making itself through Congress.

In the old days of The Cold War, we used to define Communism and Socialism as ownership of the means of production – banks, car companies, etc. The current plans to mandate a one-price lunch buffet for Internet access and health care insurance don’t directly confiscate the shares of the companies providing those services. Rather, the government seeks to use regulation to smother rational economic behavior, forcing the inevitable bankruptcies, surely swiftly followed by a massive bailout of all of those companies. Think Citibank (C), Chrysler and General Motors.

If there is a serious objective to maintain a free enterprise system, all efforts to regulate services and products must be rejected. All price controls must be rejected. And finally, the core principle at the heart of this country’s 220 year legacy – private property, which implies freedom of contract – must be vigorously defended. With the government attacking the Internet service provider market and the health care industry market with mandates and price controls, the opposite is now happening. If the US government now gets its way, profitability in these companies will be dealt a body blow, most certainly leading to lower stock prices on an inflation-adjusted basis.