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The Empire Finally Strikes Back

If long lines on day one are the mark of a hit, Microsoft’s got one at last. But the Surface Pro may not be exactly the kind of blockbuster Microsoft wanted…












Maybe this isn’t an iPhone-sized line, but the product they’re seeking costs twice as much. The Microsoft Surface Pro, running full-on Windows 8, starts at $999, and the one you want may easily come to $1200.

I call that impressive. Look, I realize Microsoft Stores aren’t common. I know the inventories at Best Buy and other locations may have been skimpy. And I suspect Microsoft purposely kept their inventories lean, fearing a flop, haunted by heaps of unwanted Surface RTs.

Nevertheless, in the middle of launch day, Microsoft proclaimed a sellout for the 128 GB Pro – and by 5:30pm EST, they announced that 64GB models were gone online.

A business exec in my Twitter feed may have spoken for many who didn’t get one. “MS blew it today” he posted, “turning away clients w/ $ in hand.” All the same, when I asked him if he still intended to buy, he responded yes. In fact, he intends to order a major hardware refresh for his company.

He wants all his sales teams to have the Microsoft Surface Pro instead of the MacBook Air.

Hear that, Apple? In your eagerness to keep iPads and Macs distinct – iPads for touch, Macs for power-users – you may have lost a big piece of the business pie. WHY? Well, I asked the same guy why he wanted the Surface Pro:

“1 Device, Pen actually works, software loads fast, design, amazing resolution…”

Let’s take his points one by one, because they neatly describe where the Surface Pro wins big.

1 device. This is Apple’s soft underbelly. I own both a MacBook Pro and an iPad. WHY? Because Apple doesn’t make anything that does everything, that’s why. I know their argument, but it doesn’t stop me from shaking my head every time I pack an iPad on top of my MacBook Pro with Retina. With a Surface Pro, I could have my touch, a movie screen, a reader, and a VERY serious computer that competes very well with the MacBook Air. Granted, it doesn’t match the speed of my 15” MacBook Pro. Yet.

Pen actually works. This gets my vote for best-kept secret about the Surface Pro. It’s a jaw dropper. It doesn’t just “allow stylus input.” IT LITERALLY READS YOUR HANDWRITING. I tried out a Windows 8 Samsung Ativ with a similar feature and was blown away. I dashed off my pathetic scrawl across the screen – instantly, it turned into text. It actually works, and much, much better than any iPad or Android app. You can write and draw better than on paper. It does for writing what Kindle did for reading. This feature is revolutionary and appallingly under-promoted. You’re used to hearing this about Apple, but on properly equipped Windows 8 devices, writing works. And I adore it. Unless Apple wakes up very soon, I’m going to buy a Windows 8 device this year for this feature alone.

Software loads fast. iPad, MacBook Air and Ultrabook users take this for granted, but it’s important. If you don’t have an SSD, you’re deprived. Combine one with an Intel core i5 processor, and there’s no going back.

Design. It’s gorgeous. It feels great. Apple territory.

Amazing resolution. Hear that, MacBook Air? For the same price, Surface Pro runs just as fast and delivers full HD. Don’t underestimate this advantage when business users comparison shop. Hey look! Suddenly, the 11” MacBook Air’s 1366 by 768 screen looks fuzzy…

Well, maybe by now you’re thinking “this may be better for me than a MacBook Air”…

But you’re probably not going to give up your iPad Mini for a Surface…

So I’m thinking, finally Microsoft has the Windows 8 hit that it sought for so long. But it’s not what they dreamed. Not an iPad killer. Instead it’s a PC Killer. And perhaps not an MacBook Air killer, but maybe a make-you-think-twice device.

So. A bit of a bitter victory. Microsoft Surface is here to stay, but not-quite-good-enough partners like Acer may fall by the Windows 8 wayside.

Digesting one day’s Twitter feed, my gut informs me strongly that Windows 8 has scored a big win in the business market, but not with iPad-toting consumers.

Not yet. Early days.

Will the Surface Pro change the tech landscape? No, but it’s still day one. Yes, MacBook Air may go Retina this year, but I’ll bet you lunch it won’t go touch. And I’ll wager dinner that Surface Pro will be back in the fall with 10-hour-battery-life, adjustable kickstand, thinner body and other improvements to make me run off to my near-enough Microsoft Store – and buy.


Is the iPhone no longer cool?

I'm reading a lot of heated discussions about Samung Galaxy replacing iPhone as the Cool Brand.

In fact, however, any product that attracts so much heated discussion is already not cool.

I still like my iPhone. I still like my Samsung Galaxy SIII, although, it must be said, a bit less.

But there simply comes a time when a brand becomes so successful that it stops being cool. Even if it's incredibly and consistently excellent.

It just is.

The iPhone has arrived at "just is" and Samsung's Galaxy line will get there by June.

The truth: iPhones have gone from being cool to being the standard. Like blue jeans or Rolex watches or Herman Miller Aeron Chairs. This doesn’t mean it's outré to own an iPhone. It's just outré to imagine that owning an iPhone makes you cool.

Samsung has successfully played against
iPhone’s success to appear cool, but...

In 2013, this tactic will fail of its own success. The time is close when Samsung is, if not your Dad's phone, then your uncle's. It is destined to be Pepsi to iPhone's Coke.

Samsung will, as before, cultivate a young-at-heart image and pack its phones with flashy-but-usually-useless novelties.

The iPhone will -- or had better -- Just Work.

Both phones will still have their fanboys, but the fanboys will not be insiders. More like football or sitcom fans. Jane and Joe Average.

Android's presence in Samsung phones will shrink into the small type. If Samsung's agile marketers have their way, average Galaxy owners will not be aware they’re running Android and may in fact not be running Android.

Heavy Android branding will be relegated to cheap phones that have no other cachet.

Exception: rooted and modded phones
of any stripe will always be cool...

CyanogenMod will remain ultra-cool and obtainable only by dedicated acolytes.

But Android itself will become like Scotch Tape. Ubiquitous, opportunistically cloned, continually improved, sometimes appreciated and heavily consumed, but not cool.

Is Windows Phone 8 cool? Yes, very, but...

Windows Phone 8 devices are still too expensive for high schoolers to cult-ify and too obscure to be aspirational.

Will BlackBerry 10 become cool? I’m hoping desperately. Love the software. But it really depends on the hardware and, I’m sorry, sliders will never be cool. Problem is, BlackBerries must have hardware keyboards. Must. And now they must have large touchscreens too.

I can imagine a long, tall, Hershey Bar BlackBerry 10, the size of an iPhone-5-plus-10mm. BlackBerry, over to you.

Meantime we who crave cool gear will have to look beyond phones and tablets.

And The Pebble ain't it.




Has Android jumped the electric fence?

Reports from CES have it that Android is everywhere – not just in phones, tablets, TVs and even cameras, but inside the proto-brains of refrigerators and yes, toasters. This is not unexpected, but it does raise the question even higher – how will Google make money from this?

Google won’t, of course, The Android releases powering these appliance-brains include open-source variants of Honeycomb, possibly the most harebrained of recent Android spawn. I have trouble imagining them including Maps or the Play Store or Google Plus.

And this evening, as I was contemplating the eruption of Android Everywhere, it struck me that we’re seeing something straight out of Jurassic Park The Android dinosaurs have jumped the electric fence, and they’re replicating whenever they damn well please, wherever they please, which is anywhere and everywhere.

And Google’s response to this is seemingly to applaud! Last year, they poured their talent and treasure into two different Nexus tablets, priced so low as to be irresistible to consumers – and deadly to Google’s responsible Android manufacturing partners. It’s almost as if they WANT to destroy the only companies who have signed onto the Open Handset Alliance, promising to install Google goodies inside their Android variants, so that Ma GOOG can extract at least a small bit of ad revenue from her children.

Another way to think of it. There are parasites—like the one-celled organism Toxoplasma gondii – which take over the brain of their host. These organisms will basically zombify you – making you do nutty stuff to spread the parasite, even if that stuff is NOT in your interest.

Mice infected with toxoplasmosis will lose their fear of cats, and may even be attracted them. WHY? Because the parasite wants to be eaten, and invade the brain of the cat! In the words of Christoph Koch, writing for Scientific American It sounds like a cheesy Hollywood horror flick, except that it is for real.

Might this be happening to Google? Will there someday be a freaking enormous phenomenon called ANDROID ruling us all – including a Xerox-like has-been called Google?

Consider that Google makes many times more money from each iOS device than from each co-equivalent Android entity. Then ask yourself WHY Google seems dedicated to wiping out its greatest source of mobile ad revenues.

Has Android jumped the electric fence? It’s not all that weird a question, is it?


The Nexus Effect

How Google is squeezing the stuffing out of manufacturers, by fielding magnificent new machines with nearly no profit margin.

Long ago, I worked for a company that was convinced its future depended on selling a collection of gardening books. 

Trouble is, nobody wanted them. Near desperation, we hit on the notion of giving the first book away for free. At this we succeeded handsomely.

What then? We had no idea, but daydreamed that we did. Just put our product under people's noses, we told one another, and the quality of our amazing gardening books will do the rest.

We were idiots of course. The new "customers" we acquired by giving our product away weren't buyers, but freeloaders. They took the freebies and ran.

Laugh away! But tell me now, what separates my own clueless crew from the geniuses at Google?

They're just as obsessed with selling Android tablets as we were with gardening books. They haven't quite made them free yet, but they're edging close with their Nexus line. 

Nexus is Google's own signature brand. There have been quite a few Nexus phones,and we'll discuss them elsewhere. But what fascinates me right here and now are the first two Nexus tablets -- the 7-inch Nexus 7 and the Nexus 10, whose size you can guess. 

Both tablets are cutting-edge, both have devastatingly low price-tags, and both appear to be winning market share from Apple.

Yay Google! You beat up the iPad! But as the smoke clears, something else floats into view...

And that "something else" is called the law of unintended consequences.

These two dreadnought tablets are also blasting the entire, emerging economy of Android tablets to smithereens.

The Nexus 7 and 10 have both won widespread acclaim. They have set the new standard by which all future Android tablets will be measured. Which means that, from now on, anything more expensive than these murderously cheap machines will be perceived -- and described by reviewers!-- as bloated and overpriced. 

I'm calling it The Nexus Effect. And you can't stuff this genie back into its rainbow-hued Nexus box.

The Nexus Effect may have dented Apple's dominance, but it's also flattening tablet prices like a MOAB daisy cutter. Henceforth anyone except Apple who dares field more expensive fare is going to get their heads handed to them. 

I'm talking about you, Acer. And Asus better worry too, even though it makes the Nexus 7 itself. HTC too. And just about every other Android partner except Samsung. (Watch Samsung. You too, Google. Pat your pockets after you meet with Samsung.)

WHY? Well, let's take a close look at the armaments of these Nexus tablet juggernauts. First, in June of 2012, we were dazzled by...

NEXUS 7: razor-sharp and breathtakingly cheap

The 7" Google Nexus 7, made by Asus, debuted with a base price of $199.99. And six months later, that's still a droolworthy price for an HD tablet with quad-core, Tegra 3 processor. Comparisons with the new iPad Mini are tough, for reasons I'll get to later, but Nexus 7 scores big on at least one important feature.

THE BIG DEAL: Nexus 7's 216 dots-per-inch (dpi) display easily out-specs the new iPad Mini's 163 dpi screen.

How big is this advantage? Theoretically, it's immense. I mean, if there's one thing I hate even more than small type, it's fuzzy small type. And Nexus 7 is indisputably unfuzzier than anything else of its kind. Weirdly, it's not such a huge deal after you play with both tablets for a couple of weeks, whereupon you discover that iPad Mini has richer blacks, truer colors and brighter everything, but for the purposes of selling the tablet to family gurus and trend setters, Nexus 7's 216-dpi him display is absolutely killer.

Plus, Nexus fun to use, which could not be said of previous Android tablets. So let me repeat, at 199.99, Nexus 7 remains a breathtaking deal. I bought one for myself immediately and then purchased two more as gifts. Sales aren't even close to the iPad,  but Google says it's been selling close to a million a month. All this with practically zero advertising and and chaotic distribution. Try Best Buy, Newegg or Google itself and good luck.

NEXUS 10: spec'd and priced to leave iPad 4 in the dust

Made by Samsung, the 10.05-inch Nexus 10 will set you back $399.99, a hundred smackers less than the 4th generation iPad.

Now, $399 ain't dollar-store pricing, but in context, it's a jaw dropper. Barely more than two years ago, Samsung introduced its first Android slate-- the 7" Samsung Galaxy Tab -- starting at $599. That was $100 more than the first-generation iPad. Critics wondered how it could possibly sell, and it didn't. Lesson learned.

By contrast, the new Nexus 10 was evidently engineered to kick the iPad's aluminum butt. And that it does...

For starters, it boasts a breakthrough 2560 x 1600 pixel display.

How amazing is that? Really, truly. This is actually more pixels than Apple's new flagship DESKTOP computer, the 27" all-in-one iMac!

To be sure, some argue that Samsung's 300 dots-per-inch (dpi) screen doesn't really trump the iPad 4's "mere" 246 dpi Retina display. Apple's marketing hype might have been correct; as tech-journal-of-record Ars Technica notes, your retinas really can't tell the difference. Under magnification, however, the Nexus 10 definitely rules and you can't deny the screen is an absolute stunner, second to none.

Then there's Sammy's Exynos 5 processor. In-freaking-credible. By at least one set of measurements, it beats the bits off the iPad 4 cpu. My favorite tablet testbed -- Geekbench 2.3 -- crowns the Nexus 10 engine king of 'em all. Yes, even with the Android handicap. Apple's iOS 6 tablet software is more efficient than Android Jelly Bean 4.2, but Geekbench takes this into account.

And the Nexus monicker seals the deal,
making both  incontrovertibly godlike.

Specifically, "Nexus" not only means reference-quality hardware. You also receive latest and greatest version of the Android operating system pretty darned close to release -- in pristine, unskinned condition -- maybe not forever, but for two years, which is close enough to eternity in tech reckoning.

So what? SO EVERYTHING. I kind of suspect most Nexus buyers don't have a clue what Nexus means, and if they did, nine out of ten might view the entire upgrade thing as a nuisance. But for Android true believers like yours truly, this is the holy grail. 

You must understand that, unlike mollycoddled Apple-fanboys, we Android geeks are a band of digital orphans. Receiving near-zero support from the jerks who made our amazing devices, we are forced to rely almost exclusively on one another. We huddle together in ragtag forums with unadorned names like "Android Forums."

Here, like Fagin's Boys, we teach one another the tricks of "rooting:" breaking into our own machines, because it's the only way to keep the danged things up-to-date...

So just imagine! A tablet that updates itself without rooting! For we, the Google-forever faithful, Nexus devices therefore occupy a sacred space at the dizzy tippy top of the Android acropolis.

So consumers are getting a great deal for sure, and I want to be clear that I love, love, love both Nexus machines. LOVE 'EM! My dear spouse gave me a Nexus 10 for Christmas, after considerable hunting...

But what about manufacturers? What exactly is in it for them?

The way I imagine it, Google talks a manufacturer into making a Nexus device by promising fame and glory.

You'll be a NEXUS player, they promise, high above the common riffraff. Your machine will be the Princess Kate of tablets, photographed endlessly, gossiped about on thousands of blogs, envied and longed for by millions -- literally torn apart by iFixit -- fondled on YouTube for month after month. And then comes the pitch...

"Of course, you will make no money on this, BUT AFTERWARD..."

Well, what about afterward? Maybe you're thinking "Lots of companies sacrifice short term margins for longterm market share." And they do.

But what happens to them? In particular, what's happened to PC makers? Once the world's biggest PC maker, HP nearly quit the business after years of 5% margins. Dell's been in the same hell. All they've been getting in  return for their own thin margins is broke.

Mind you, I'm shedding no tears for Samsung. Apart from Apple they're the one outfit big enough to survive this and grow even bigger in the after-burn, like a Giant Redwood after a forest fire.

But Asus? Acer? Toshiba? HTC? Not so happy. Is Google buying market-share for Android tablets at their expense?

You bet they are. And I'm not so sure who will still be in this business a year from now. 

Except Samsung. And watch out for your own skin, Samsung. Google has been noticing that "Android," for many consumers, is just another word for Samsung. Word is that Google-owned Motorola is readying an "X-tablet" to snatch the whole business away from Samsung. But that's rumor.

Meantime? Enjoy the war, consumers. Heck, I'm writing this on a Nexus 10.

Like the folks who took those free gardening books from my poor old employer -- now all-but-defunct -- I too took the goodies and ran.