10 Oct 2010

Yet another mobile phone

Those of you who know me know that a little over six months ago I started a new job at HP working on their Web Print Solutions team. Leaving my previous job at a startup meant giving up my old phone (Motorola Droid). It was a great phone. One that I’d only had for about five months. During the transition, I temporarily bought an old HTC T-Mobile G1 with a month to month plan. I had that for two months until HP got me a phone on their corporate plan. Working for such a huge company has many differences vs the average startup. First, they actually produce equipment that you use. Rather than buying everything from other companies, you can order many things from yourself (internally), and save a bunch of money. Because of this, if HP makes a version of something you want to buy, it’s usually expected that you get the HP version. Usually this doesn’t matter, as I don’t really care if my computer monitor is made by HP or someone else. There aren’t going to be too many differences. But, in the case of a mobile phone, the differences are huge. I was only given the option of one phone on one network. Unfortunately for me, the options were both bad. It uses the worst smartphone operating system (OS), on the nation’s least reliable network. The reason for the lack of choice? HP builds their own phones, and have only released them for AT&T. It would obviously look pretty bad if HP employees didn’t use their own phones.  Now, as I’m sure you’re wondering, why can HP force you to get a certain type of phone! Obviously they can’t force you to buy a certain type of phone, but they can restrict what types of phones they give their employees. Due to my job, HP pays for my phone (and plan), so it’s only fair that they choose what it is. Thus, my only choice was to get an HP iPaq Glisten on AT&T.

I am a current HP employee, so I probably shouldn’t be too critical. But I’ll say one thing. They’re using Windows Mobile 6.5, and I believe Windows Mobile 6.5 to be truly terrible. HP, being mostly a hardware (and services) company didn’t have their own mobile OS. Most mobile OS’s aren’t for sale. Apple and RIM won’t licence out their OS for use on HP hardware. So really, there were only 3 options:

  1. Build their own OS
  2. Ship with a licensable OS, such as Windows Mobile (or, more recently, Android and Symbian)
  3. Buy a phone company that already owns its own mobile OS

Which did HP do? Well, they started out doing #2. The problem here is that they were entirely reliant on Microsoft to do a good job for them to have a successful product. As we all know, the iPhone came out a little over 3 years ago, and blew Windows Mobile out of the water. So HP was left with a huge problem. They had an inferior product because Microsoft had dropped the ball. By only controlling the hardware, HP could only do so much to compete against the iPhone (and more recently, Android), so it wasn’t their fault they had an inferior device. The solution? Either switch to Android, or buy a phone company. In July 2010 HP purchased Palm Inc. for $1.2b, thus giving them the very capable mobile OS named webOS, along with a whole bunch of useful patents. Now HP controls both the hardware and software.

So, what does this all have to do with me? Well, since HP now owns Palm (and webOS), Palm phones are now on the approved list of devices for HP employees. This means that I’m now able to get a Palm prē + (in doing so, I’m also able to switch to Verizon Wireless, the best national carrier! hooray for no more dropped calls!). The choice was really a no-brainer. I was given the choice between the Palm Prē or Palm Pixi on either of the available carriers (Verizon, Sprint or AT&T). Obviously Verizon is the biggest/best carrier, and the Prē is clearly Palm’s flagship device (having a significantly superior CPU/GPU over the Pixi). Also worth noting is that the Palm Prē came out first on Sprint. 6 months later, it arrived on Verizon and AT&T with double the RAM and flash memory (512MB RAM and 16GB Flash), redubbed the Palm Prē plus. So by choosing Verizon I not only got the best network, but also the best version of the Prē.

So, how do I like it so far? While it’s obviously miles better than Windows Mobile, I do admit I’m still a fan of Android. Having said that, webOS is an extremely capable OS. To be honest, my major gripes with the phone are actually hardware (read: all easily fixable). The main issues I have with it are screen resolution (480x320, which is very last-gen), and the small screen (3.1", also last-gen). With all recent Android devices being 3.7" or bigger, with at least 800x480 resolution, this screen feels a little cramped. Also, the CPU feels a little underpowered. It’s the same CPU as in the original Droid (though it’s underclocked to 500Mhz). And the Droid has obviously since been replaced with the Droid 2. All recent Android smartphones have been coming out with 1Ghz CPUs, and having just a 500Mhz CPU is noticeable. Still, two great things are the RAM and Flash storage. Both are as good as any other device on the market (with the exception of the $300 iPhone 32GB). The keyboard is decent, and usable despite being of the small portrait variety, rather than the more common landscape kind. Another downside is the fast that the touch screen is plastic (versus almost all modern smartphones that are now hardened or Gorilla glass).

I actually don’t have too many complaints for webOS. It’s an extremely polished OS with a great user interface (UI). It has clearly been designed to compete with the iPhone. In many ways it trumps it. Multitasking is perfect, and there are a number of great ideas and keyboard shortcuts. Cut/Copy/Paste is great, as is Synergy, webOS’s way of combining contacts from numerous sources such as Gmail, Facebook, Exchange and Yahoo.

The obviously downside to not having sold too many devices is the fact that the Palm App Catalog has only a small fraction of the apps that Android and iOS users have, but, if HP can deliver great hardware in the coming months, users with flock to it, which will in turn bring developers.

The biggest loser in all of this is of course Microsoft. They’re had nothing good to compete with the iPhone for 3 1/2 years, and because of it they’ve lost HP, Motorola and most of HTC, as customers. Microsoft’s new mobile OS, Windows Phone 7 is set for release this month, which will be the first time Microsoft officially supports capacitive touch screens (disgraceful huh?). Honestly, how does a company with a research and development budget the size of Microsoft’s take 3 1/2 years to catch up with Apple?

I’ll tell you why. Some companies, such as Apple and Google are creative companies. They create something better because they can. Microsoft, being the dominant player in most markets doesn’t need to take such risks. They merely need to maintain what they have without taking too many risks. Then, if a competitor releases a significantly superior product, Microsoft has time to play catchup. Obviously this isn’t good for the consumer, as we’re all reliant on the Apples and Googles of this world to provide innovation. I’m getting off topic here, but just ask yourselves why Microsoft fired the Internet Explorer team after they released Internet Explorer 6. Why? Because there was no competition, Netscape was dead. Why did they bring them back to create Internet Explorer 7 (many many years later), simply because Firefox was released. If Firefox had not been released, Microsoft would not have improved Internet Explorer 6. Ever. Ironically, I remember when Internet Explorer 7 was released. Mozilla (creators of Firefox) made the statement Internet Explorer 7 is the best release we’ve ever made (obviously implying that the only reason IE 7 was released was because of the competition they’d created with Firefox).

Will Windows Phone 7 be good? Probably; but it had better be after almost 5 years in development. The problem is, I don’t want to use Microsoft products because you then become tied to a company that only innovates if they have to, rather than because they want to. I really believe that if the iPhone (and Android) had never been released, WP7 would never have existed in its current form. They’d probably still be using a stylus. If WP7 is good, it will all be thanks to Apple and Google.