Pepper Pad vs Microsoft Origami

Apparently quite like the Microsoft Origami, the Pepper Pad is different in the respects that it runs MontaVista Linux (the most widespread embedded Linux variant) and also that it is a real product, available on the market now, and not only a marketing video. Like the Microsoft Origami, and unlike the Nokia 770, it is rather large so you won't be inclined to carry it with you everywhere you go. Nevertheless, Mobile Tech Review has a nice review of the Pepper Pad (see the link above). Its advantages are the good display, performance, ease of use, security, etc. Also very interesting is the remote control application which is organized by context: in the cable TV watching context it can remotely control all the devices you need for watching cable TV, while in the DVD watching context it would control all the devices you need for watching DVD, and so on. It seems that the Pepper Pad has been met with moderate success already as there is an upgraded model in the works.

More info on the Origami is available here

These are too large devices to be classified as pads, but would better go into the bulkier category of tablets, together with with tablet PCs. With Apple and Intel probably working on their own products in similar vein, the product space around pads and tablets will be vibrant in the near future.


Enter the pad computer

I am about to describe something which, ten years from now, could be the most important computing platform. It is a radical vision of the ultimate, optimal, all-in-one mobile device, but it is neither a new nor an original vision. Largely it is just taking our internet- and PC-centric experience of computer use and realizing it in a mobile format.

However, what makes this vision interesting is that it has become possible with current technology - and even current products already on the market. I will describe the key characteristics of this device, let us call it a pad computer or simply a pad:

Convergence The pad is not for a single purpose, but provides multiple functionalities. Telephony, video, audio, communication, data. It will run applications which represent and combine these fields - pretty much everything a user might want to do with a computer.

Capability The device will perform many of these functions extremely well. It will have processing power and storage capacity. The user interface will be enjoyable, efficient and convenient. No little buttons to punch multiple times in order to write a single character. No tiny screen to view just a fraction of what you want to see.

Customizability The device will not run a stripped-down, constrained, limited, difficult "mobile OS" but a full-blown modern operating system. Application development will be easy and powerful. Instead of putting the developer into a proprietary sandbox, the software stack provides well-documented layers, each with an exposed, open API for additional or alternative development of the system.

Connectivity Today, no computer is really useful if it doesn't connect to other devices. The most important connection on the pad is its connection to the Internet via a radio link, eg. Wi-Fi. In addition, it can use a secondary radio connection, cables, ports, and slots to transfer data and to use various mobile or stationary devices and little gadgets.

Portability The pad is small, but no too small. You can always carry it with you - it fits conveniently into your handbag or into the pocket of your coat.

This vision is based on my experience that cell phones - even today's smart phones - are very limited. They are nice as phones and (alarm) clocks, but almost useless for other tasks. Communicators are a bit better, but still rather lackluster devices for most mobile use cases. So, why not make a versatile mobile computer instead, and have the telephony functions as just one of the applications? It seems the creators of some mobile devices have thought along the same
lines, for example we have:

Sony Vaio U-series is a handtop PC which supports regular peripherals like external displays. It comes with the Windows XP Home Edition preinstalled.

OQO is another handtop PC which supports external displays etc. It comes with the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, but like the Vaio, could probably be retrofitted with Linux.

Nokia 770 is a low end pad (at just $350) best suited for web browsing and internet communication. It comes with Linux preinstalled and is based on the Maemo platform, which has been developed by Nokia but is entirely free software. This device has been met with considerable enthusiasm from the open source community as well as pad users.

I could have listed many other devices with some similarity: portable media players, game consoles, etc. None of these and none of the above devices fulfill the complete vision. Instead, they cater to different users and different markets. For example, some users may only really need a camera or some form of entertainment in the mobile context. Or they may actually prefer a separate phone device. Price will also structure the markets, for example into the following:

High end, 1200+ eur Full-blown handtop PCs, like the OQO and the Vaio U-series. These will do almost everything your desktop PC might do, and a bit in addition. They might have built-in data projectors and could interface with a full set of standard PC peripherals. All in a convenient, portable form factor.
Mid end, 400-1200 eur The true carrypads and interweb players. More limited in capacity, but still suitable for a plethora of mobile applications. They would have enough power for good multitasking, smooth full-resolution video and graphic-intensive, fast paced games. They might have gigabytes of internal storage for your mp3 collection.
Low end, 200-400 eur The simple thin clients, internet tablets and surfboards like the Nokia 770. They would be capable of running PC-style software, though web-based applications would work best on them. Web browsing and other forms of less performance-intensive forms of communication would be their domain.

Some of the above slots can be more or less filled with current products, but there is still room for many more. All current markets are niches, as our culture needs to embrace mobility more fully before users will see the need for these kind of complex devices. I would think the markets would most easily start at the low end, since price can be prohibitive for the hesitant early adopters. However, current users of the Nokia 770, for example, are asking for features that would be better embodied in the mid end products. In any case I would expect the pad computer markets to start substantially growing in the next 1-2 years, and we are going to see products at all levels of the market from multiple vendors.

Linux would be the operating system of choice for these kind of devices, due to its many advantages. Because of its scalability, flexibility and openness it fits perfectly into our vision. If mobile or desktop Windows can improve in these areas and provide decent levels of security, it can be a strong player on pad markets as well, in view of its adoption in today's communicators and desktops. Symbian might also develop to meet the pad computing challenges, but in its current state I deem it to be too limited and too difficult for the developer to be a good choice for pads, and one must consider that it does not have a desktop equivalent. MacOSX could be a viable choice, if Apple decides to develop it for mobile devices. However, even though Apple would be stupid to ignore pad markets, it could be better served by the existing mobile versions of Linux, and allowing it to concentrate on device/UI design and branding. iPad, anyone?

In the form factor, there is a bit of room to play, but not much. The Nokia 770 measures 141 x 79 x 19 mm with its 5", 800x480 screen, and the OQO is almost identical in these respects. It should be possible to shrink these devices a little bit without touching the screen. A bit larger device could easily have 6" screen with 1000x600 resolution. (Like the upcoming Vulcan Flipstart.) The Vaio U-series measure about 170 x 110 x 25 mm, which I think is the absolute maximum for this kind of a device. Why? Because this is the size that fits more or less conveniently into the pockets of any of my jackets. A device of this size could be operated with just one hand, or carried comfortably in hand. Any larger, and you will need a separate carrying bag for the device. At that point you could just as well go for an ordinary laptop, which would provide a more powerful user experience. It would no longer be your trusted, handy, carry-everywhere device.

For some applications, such as internet communications or document writing, you will need a keyboard so having an integrated mini-QWERTY keyboard can be a good choice. However, web browsing, video and picture viewing, etc. are more convenient with just a stylus and a few buttons. And you could always use an on-screen keyboard or handwriting recognition. In my mind the best approach would be to just enable external keyboards - eg. foldable bluetooth keyboards comparable to laptop keyboards. This way the user could always choose to use a proper keyboard or just to carry the bare essentials. But like so many things here, users will be different so the available pad models should be different as well.

The term "carrypad", referring to a mid-end pad with a keyboard, was coined by Chippy in his excellent blog, titled Time for the Carrypad ? Chippy's blog fleshes out the capabilities of a carrypad in detail.


Will mobile Linux become dominant?

The OSDL Analyst/Strategist Bill Weinberg writes in a recent, very interesting whitepaper: "Linux is coming to a phone near you, and coming soon. In your product lines -- on your networks, or in your pocket, Linux-based mobile phones are changing the mobile-wireless industry -- and offering new opportunities for value-added." (See the link above.) The somewhat badly commented graphs in this whitepaper give maybe a bit too rosy picture of the current embedded Linux markets (eg. Windows share of embedded markets according to the graph is 23% but only Linux with its 25% share is given a combined, distinctively coloured graph). However the whitepaper is correct in the trend that is becoming evident otherwise: Linux is rapidly gaining market share in mobile devices.

The whitepaper provides good reading for anyone that is working with embedded Linux. Embedded versions of Windows may face lackluster performance on the embedded markets because the solution provided by Microsoft is too complete, and leaves little space for operators and OEMs to differentiate their devices - instead each sold device will primarily be a Microsoft device. Linux in contrast offers great flexibility with the plethora of provided solutions: mobile vendors can do as much of their own R&D as they choose, starting from the level of the software stack they choose, to differentiate their offering in the eyes of the consumers. However this recreates the age-old "unix is fragmented" problem, as each vendor will have to maintain their in-house created software. Hopefully some vendors will find ways to cooperate with the greater Linux community and push their achievements in embedded Linux technology to the upstream codebase. With the smart mobile devices becoming the new battleground for OS dominance in the future, the Linux community might be well advised to make major effort for embedded development in both the kernel and the distributions. This is a process in which it would be ideal for both the commercial vendors and the community to seek engagement from each other.

Perhaps it is true that the best place for Linux is not the desktop - a market that the Linux community has been waiting to really pick up for many years. Instead the most lucrative area could be the smart, feature-rich, ubiquitously connected, mobile embedded devices. Why not run the free, reliable and flexible OS in our mobile phones, internet tablets, media players and handtop PCs?


ALP prototype in action

PalmSource has demonstrated its ALP platform at the recent 3GSM 2006 conference. Mobile-review has a few comments on this with photos of some applications on the platform (see the link above). Mobile-review points out that in practice applications for the various mobile Linux distributions will be incompatible, because vendors like to replace system libraries and develop their own middleware.

I can see that this can limit the adoption of Linux in tomorrow's smart mobile devices. However it may be that some of these platforms are not planned for a plethora of applications from 3rd parties. For example a smart phone or a communicator could be just fine for most of its users with the bundled applications, or applications developed by the network operator, used with the operator's services and generating revenue for the operator. (Quite a few operators are not that enthusiastic about 3rd party applications and services which don't send the cash streams their way.) Time will show if mobile application developers will flock to one or two of the Linux platforms, helping it rise into dominance. Nokia's Maemo platform is likely to have an advantage here, as it can easily share the application pool with traditional desktop/PC Linux (with probably tens of millions of users - see The Linux Counter).


OK, blog established, what next?

So, I decided to keep the blog here and I gave it a sexy new name, icct (Internet, Communication, Civilization and Technology). Blogspot service I find to be very good for a new blogger - you have good looking templates and the user is given almost total control over them, you can edit the CSS/HTML code for the template that your blog pages are made of. Livejournal on its side would have some community features but I think you can replace them with many other, and more powerful means, like simple web links, the bloglines.com service etc. On the other hand if you know some other nice blog service providers, I could try them out as well (vuodatus.net could be one candidate).

What is this blog about? Well I have a strong background not only in unix, but a bunch of humanities as well, so time to time this blog would contain philosophical ponderings and overviews. In addition to that there would be market analysis and speculation, and then the usual techno stuff about new gadgets, software and projects I have some connection to. Plus maybe some more personal stuff. I plan to cover at least the Internet as a communication medium (www, blogs, irc...) and various mobile devices (the Nokia 770 being all the buzz right now). This all will be pretty much unix-oriented. But needless to say, I have not yet identified my own blogging niche and things will evolve.

Blogging by its nature is a social, two-way thing. This blog will involve friendships through IRC, other blogs, web forums, IRL/work... and I will write about a few things that all these people - that is, you, the readers of this blog - also find interesting. If you have any ideas about this, please leave a comment below!

This blog is not a news site, in other words my purpose is not to follow the day's latest buzz. For example I did not report this rumour about a successor to the Nokia 770 being made with a QWERTY keyboard, as this was not substantiated, did not contain much information and was just to be expected anyway... Instead I see the blog as more like a magazine, containing detailed discussion and analysis, and trying to interpret the various nuggets of information and to tie them together. I plan to keep udpating the blog 2-3 times a week, but only if I have something worth saying, so time will show :-)


ACCESS and PalmSource Announce the ACCESS Linux Platform

PalmSource has previously announced that they will concentrate on developing middleware and will adopt the Linux kernel. Today they poured more water to the mill by announcing details of their Linux platform (see the link). ALP will be able to run on different mobile Linux distributions, and existing PalmOS applications should run on it with very little changes. Java is supported as well. They are intending to support Linux on smart phones in addition to PDAs and they promise to keep contributing back to the open source community at various points. This means that Linux will grow stronger as a mobile platform and there will be millions more of new Linux devices sold with the PalmOS software.

It's a very nice move, but the approach is not ideal. PalmOS no doubt will remain proprietary software, and even though ALP will use Gtk+, existing GUI applications for Linux won't work out of the box, but have to be ported on top of PalmOS. (Gtk+ and gstreamer are also used in Maemo, but ALP apparently is not a Maemo clone.)

This is a natural move considering the trends: Linux as a mature open source OS provides a low-cost, high-quality platform, which already supports existing Palm hardware. With diminishing PDA markets and this new competition, PalmSource could not afford to run its own OS development. Linux supports various mobile hardware, so PalmSource can easily tap into the market segments that are migrating to smart phones and communicators from PDAs.

A picture of the ALP architecture is available.

In other news, Maemo-related development is progressing step by step ;-) Collin R. Mulliner today announced that wlan monitor mode works, so tcpdump is usable on 770. You can get the tcpdump, dsniff and Wireless Tools packages via the Maemo applications wiki under CLI utilities. Also on the Maemo developers list there was one user whose 770 mysteriously powered on exactly at the same time each day, so maybe we can now hope that RTC-alarms can be set on the device, providing very useful for calendar applications ;-)


PDA markets, communicators and the 770

Old news, but Mobile-review provided some rather interesting predictions for the year 2006, see link: http://www.mobile-review.com/pda/articles/2006-forecast-en.shtml. According to IDC's Worldwide Handheld QView, shipments of PDAs dropped by 20.8% from 2Q04 to 2Q05. The reason is clear: many users have migrated to the more attractive smart phones and communicators. A communicator offers all the same capacities as a PDA in everyday use: calendar, contacts, notes, messaging, web browsing - and you don't need to carry around a separate phone in addition. Just under 60% of the smart phone and communicator markets consists of Symbian devices, Nokia being the only serious Symbian player with its series 60 platform. Only a small fraction of mobile phone sales consists of smart phones and communicators, and Nokia is seen as the clear technology leader in this market, so one could conclude that Nokia is in a very nice position, business wise, to benefit from this market where rapid growth is to be expected.

However I think users could migrate into other directions in the years to come. The technology for mobile devices has matured greatly, and also markets for different devices have developed greatly from what they were only 5 years ago. Consider digital cameras and mp3 players for example. Users will soon own multiple portable devices which can communicate and transfer data via memory cards or bluetooth (WLAN seems also very popular in upcoming communicator models). This ground is fertile for further innovation and mixing of different capacities into differently positioned packages.

A communicator may be the current holy grail of our times - it provides for just about every major mobile use case. However it does nothing really well: it's big for a phone, constrained in display and software for PDA use or web browsing, the audio quality may be lacking and storage capacity will not scale too far. The camera may be pretty bad. A good many consumers will have a certain killer use case in their mind and opt to rather carry multiple devices with them, at least occasionally. Mp3 players are a good case of this. Another case could be internet tablets like the Nokia 770 - they would allow for much more powerful and convenient internet communication than communicators.

However markets for internet tablets did not develop at the turn of the century despite associated hype. Perhaps mobile technology was not ripe at that time, or there just was no serious attempt by a major vendor to make a really popular tablet. Or it could have been that there was no connectivity available - it would seem that Nokia has timed well its recent launch of the 770 internet tablet, as many homes and public locales will nowadays have WLAN connectivity, and a number of 3G phones have been introduced, providing possibilities to use the 770 as a device connected to the Internet.

In other words, the Nokia 770 is trying to restart a practically barren market. Given the current importance of the Internet in everyday life, one would expect the market to be there, but it just isn't. Considering the decline in PDA markets, it might seem that there is not much demand for mobile internet browsers. Or then the PDAs just aren't good enough for internet browsing - the high end is at the basic VGA resolution, 480x640, and the browser software may not be that stellar. Contrast this with the 770's excellent display in 800x480 resolution and the very good Opera browser.

Nokia has made some very good choices with the 770. The version of Linux is very similar to what one would run on a desktop PC, so it is very easy to port, develop and support software. Combine this ease of development with the reliable and adaptable nature of the Linux OS, and you can see that Nokia may just be creating a mobile platform that has a distinctive edge over its competitor platforms, Symbian and Windows. Currently Linux is making its way into mobile platforms in other directions as well, for example Palm recently announced they are moving to the Linux kernel, Flander is developing its own smart phone platform on Linux, Motorola already sells some Linux phones... Linux and mobile enthusiasts are going to see some interesting stuff.

As an open platform the Linux running on 770 could be easily adopted by other mobile vendors. Initial development costs would be low, but it would be likely the other vendors would develop it further, as it's good to keep one's platform living, and the open source community can give a good response to your efforts. The 770 is fairly affordable, so it could take its place as one's 3rd computer. Or it could be one's primary computer in the emerging market countries, where interest in the Internet exists, available funds are low, and little infrastructure is in place (so the only connection could be via WLAN, for example). I wouldn't be surprised if some of the best hackers on 770 would come from Poland, Russia, or India.

In addition to communicators and internet tablets, there would be a few more paths for migration from PDAs. One option could be some kind of a media player or generic purpose computing device. This device would be slightly larger, with better performance and storage capacity, and of course more expensive. Palm's Lifedrive I think goes into this direction with its 4 GB hard drive. It will be interesting to see if Nokia will try to pursue this path with a beefier successor to the 770 - the open approach to the Linux platform could provide the perfect mobile general purpose computing device.


Blogging 4tw

For the world is changing: i feel it in the water, i feel it in the earth, and i smell it in the air. --Treebeard, The Lord of the Rings

Last night we had a discussion on the IRC channel #tolkien about how bloggers are exhibitionist, modest at best writers to whom discussing details of their sex life in their blog is a way to feel accepted. I guess that's just the characteristic of obscenity in the postmodernity - like noted by some philosopher or deconstructionist, was it Baudrillard or Lyotard maybe - the private becomes public. Of course, getting comments in one's blog is a good way to feel important for anyone. I don't know if blogging is cool any more now that it is moving to mainstream, some say it's cool to think that blogs aren't cool. Anyway, as a result of this encouraging discussion I finally mustered the courage to start my very own and very first blog!

The background runs deeper, though. I first was introduced to computer mediated communication (CMC) in the very late 80's with the day's BBS world. Already at that time I was quite hooked to CMC. A few years after that I enrolled at the university and gained access to Internet with Usenet news, e-mail, the web, IRC, MUDs and so on. A few years before I graduated from Theoretical Philosophy and behavioural sciences I started working in the booming IT sector. After a somewhat problematic phase of trying to work on Windows, Lotus Notes and ASP, I had an opportunity to put my long love for Unix and freshly gained Linux skills into productive use.

Things have rolled on since those years, and sometimes it feels us old farts have been left behind, not having been a part of the growing cultures of IRC galleries, mobile services, instant messaging services, VOIP, RSS feeds, and blogging. The recent introduction of the Nokia 770 internet tablet may be seen symptomatic as it appears to be squarely targeted for heavy users of these services. As much as us Finnish IT sector old timers like Linux, we have not adopted these new means of communication, which I think can lead us to underestimate the importance of internet tablet devices in current markets. We live in a complex, dynamic world, where the socially and professionally most succesful individuals will be the ones that make the best use of the available means of communication and social networking. For a person that has a strong background in the humanities, experimenting with these new forms of communication is then a logical step.