Is Palm about to introduce a web browsing tablet?

Despite all the recent punditry and pronouncements of Palm’s impending sale, the company continues to chug along on the smartphone front, while preparing to unveil a new product line. Could this new product be like the ‘Firefox Computer’ that I wrote about earlier this year? Will it compete with the Nokia N800 that I wasn’t overly enthused about? Jeff Hawkins, the brains behind Palm, has been dropping not-so subtle hints over the last few months about ‘a third line of business’ – traditional PDAs and smartphones being the other. Combined with the introduction of a new Linux based operating system (supposedly PalmOS retro-compatible) and the recent Opera announcement, it looks like Palm is poised to move up the productivity device chain from smartphone to some sort of ‘smart tablet’. Ed Colligan, Palm’s CEO, stated that this new device would not be dependent on wireless carriers, but have wi-fi connectivity. All of these factors point to a device that will compete head to head with the N800.

Palm has much to gain at this mid-tier, the spot between a cramped smartphone and a bulky laptop. Microsoft’s UMPC (Origami) devices haven’t yet lived up to the hype of being portable laptop replacements, but Palm may be able to drive the space. Building up from a the architecturally restrictive environment of PDAs and smartphones, one would hope that Palm’s engineers know how to keep bloat out of this type of product line. Third party developers for the PalmOS have already shown how powerful the decade old operating system can be, despite tight memory and performance restrictions. Palm has also learned that, even in the smallest devices (like smartphones), there really isn’t a replacement for a real keyboard. As I said in my review of the N800, the on screen keyboard is an inelegant solution for real productive use. Hopefully these realizations have inspired the engineers of the new product line.

Obviously price-point, battery life, and ubiquitous connectivity will play a key factor it this product line’s success as well. I could put another dozen or so things I’d like to see from this product line, but for starters I just hope that the operating system is open enough that Firefox can be readily installed on it (unlike the N800). Maybe then I’ll have my ultimate portable Firefox computer!

Omnidrive connects Excel files to Zoho Sheet

Back in January I wrote about the rich Word file integration between online storage company Omnidrive’s service and Zoho’s word processor. Well, to follow up on that, Omnidrive has now successfully integrated Zoho’s spreadsheet application to Omnidrive giving you a feature rich read/write/edit capability for Excel files on the cloud. As I mentioned before, this is really powerful stuff. Excel files that are stored online with Omnidrive can be accessed and edited on Zoho, and then saved back to Omnidrive – all without downloading the file onto a client desktop. How many times have you wanted to quickly check a figure on a spreadsheet, but were afraid to download it onto someone else’s desktop? I know I’ve had this issue from time to time. This is one scenario where this integration eliminates the ‘fear factor’ of leaving behind data on public computers. As these integration points onto online productivity tools continue to grow, the most adaptive online storage services have the best chance of creating a unique foothold in the market – and maybe even outmaneuver the Googleplex.

MindMeister takes mind mapping online

Just a couple of days ago I wrote about a new online brainstorming tool called bubbl.us. That application seemed a little too simple and off the standard mind mapping approach to be of much use to many. A commenter left a note about an online mind mapping application that was closer to traditional tools, known as MindMeister. I signed up for access to the private beta, and was approved within a few minutes. The online tool is still in that private beta stage, but I can tell you that it looks spot on when compared to traditional mind mapping tools.

Mind maps generated inside MindMeister are easy to setup and manage. Maneuvering inside MindMeister is similar to FreeMind and MindManager, although keyboard shortcuts aren’t as intuitive (or similar) to either offline application. Dragging nodes around is identical to offline applications. In fact, it’s easy to forget that MindMeister is an online application. There is version control, allowing you to revert back in a fairly granular fashion.

Like nearly all online applications today, one of the core features of MindMeister is to enable collaboration on maps. A map can be shared in a true collaborative environment or as view only. Another powerful feature of MindMeister is the ability to import FreeMind or MindManager files. This feature alone makes MindMeister incredibly useful. In the private beta, text formating, icons, and fancy layouts of maps are lost during the import process, but all text nodes are retained. Exporting, at the moment, is not as evolved as the application only lets you export as a graphic file or as a bulleted text file in RTF format.

MindMeister is in early stage beta, so I’m sure there will be many improvements along the way. The developers are looking to offer a standard and premium version of the tool at some point, as the ‘my account’ page indicates. Most of the premium features of MindMesiter are available in this beta phase. Overall I’ve been very impressed with the way it handles and feels, and can’t wait to see this application evolve into a full blown mind mapping tool.

IT|Redux and ThinkFree offer up a free USB drive with ThinkFree preloaded

If you think you may be interested in weaning yourself off of Microsoft (or Apple) dependence, check out this post from Ismael Ghalimi over at IT|Redux.  I’ve signed up, and plan to do a thorough review of ThinkFree’s portable edition when I get the drive.  I’ve done some work with the ThinkFree Suite online, but not enough to do a substantive review.  I guess this USB drive will be the incentive to dig deeper into ThinkFree’s offering.

Nokia N800: Not really for the rest of us (yet)

In my quest to become totally platform agnostic and mobile, I decided to give the new Nokia N800 internet tablet a spin. The N800 is an interesting and hard to classify device manufactured by Nokia, purveyor of mobile phones. Dubbed an ‘internet tablet’, this second generation device is primarily aimed at the mobile user who is looking for a feature rich internet experience while on the go. The N800 is NOT a phone, it is also NOT (yet) a fully fledged PDA…but it has the potential to be both. Fitted with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities, the N800 can access the internet via Wi-Fi connections as well as through Bluetooth enabled phones. There have been several excellent reviews done on the device already (MoblieCrunch and Spicy Gadget Roll), instead of reiterating much of the same, I’ll suggest you read those posts to get a good perspective of the device’s strengths.

My Experience

I’ve had my N800 for three weeks now, and have used it in many locations, including at home, at my office, and on the road at airports, hotels, and nearly everywhere in between. Three weeks is not an awfully long time to run a comprehensive test of a new ‘category creator’ device, but I’m pretty comfortable in saying that the N800 is a wonderfully built device that isn’t really for the rest of us, yet. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that Nokia is on to something here. I just think that they are a generation, or two, away from achieving mass appeal for the internet tablet genre.

What works

Nokia has built a rock solid, elegant device in the N800. Having learned from its predecessor, the N770, Nokia polished not only the look of the N800, but also improved the usability of the form factor by adding touches like the integrated stand and a much improved stylus. The addition of a built in, rotating, camera has made possible to have a mobile video messaging tool right in your pocket. Speaking of pockets, the device is reasonably small, certainly bigger than my Treo 700p, but it can fit in a coat pocket or a pair of cargo pants with ease. Besides for improving the form factor, Nokia also integrated stereo speakers that are surprisingly good. After retracting the camera and stand, the only protrusions on the outer shell are four small buttons on the top of the unit. Three of these buttons are squarely focused on the browsing experience. While web surfing, you can expand the built-in Opera browser to full screen mode, and further zoom in or out on a page with these buttons. Other applications, like the music player, take advantage of these buttons for volume control. A fourth button is the power on-off switch. The N800 is an ‘instant on’ device, which makes it incredibly useful when you’re on the go.

The built in software, for the most part, works quite well. Being a connected device, the most important software elements are the ones that let you connect without hassle. The N800’s Wi-Fi connection software works very well, connecting you to trusted Wi-Fi locations almost the instant you turn the device on. Bluetooth connections to my cell phone also were quick. There are several core applications pre-loaded on the system that also are nicely designed. A simple RSS feed reader does the job, as does a media player that can stream music from the web. There is also an email client included that provides pop3 or IMAP access to email. Chat is another core function that Nokia delivers out of the box. Using either Google Talk or Jabber, you can chat with friends in a standard text mode, or with the feature rich video and sound mode. Both modes work as advertised. As I mentioned above, Nokia chose to go with the Opera browser for this unit. Opera is functional, however it doesn’t work with many popular websites (I’ll discuss that in the next section).

Along with the online applications mentioned above, Nokia also ships several offline utilities, a very basic contacts manager, a calculator, a world clock, a note taking application, a simple sketching tool, and a PDF document reader (there are several games as well). These applications are simple, arguably too simple, for extensive use.

What doesn’t work

While there is a lot to like about this device, there are enough frustrations with it that I can’t find myself using it all that often. First, and this is a problem for us left handed people, the control buttons are clearly positioned for right handed users. The natural way to interact with the tablet is to hold a stylus in your right hand (to type or point on the screen) and use your left hand to click the navigation buttons while holding the tablet. The device buttons are on the left side of the N800, which is a natural configuration for right handers…not so much for us lefties. Given the landscape style layout of the N800, I’m really not sure what Nokia could have done to remedy this problem, but it does make it difficult to use for an extended period of time. I suspect this design consideration would have forced Nokia into a portrait layout, much like the Palm or Microsoft PocketPC devices. By going to a portrait layout, Nokia would have compromised browsing usability – the key functionality of the device. I’m not sure how much of a hindrance this will be for wide user adoption, but it certainly makes it more difficult to use for left handers.

Second, Opera (or the current version of Opera on the N800) is awfully buggy. Ok, it may not be that Opera is buggy, rather many of the websites that I visit on a regular basis do not behave well with Opera. There are some sites, most notably Google Calendar (and Google Docs & Spreadsheets), that just do not work with Opera. There are other sites that cause unpredictable lockups and other behavior when accessed via Opera. When I first got the N800 I was particularly excited about being able to access my deployment of SugarCRM on the fly. Unfortunately, Sugar tends to gum-up the browser to the point that Opera locks up. Based on a recent interview with the head of Nokia’s N800 software effort, Opera compatibility issues will be addressed sometime this year. Let’s hope they expand compatibility to include the major Ajax/Lazlo centric websites that we’re becoming more reliant on. The real fix would be to move over to a Firefox (Mozilla) based browser.

Third, and has been extensively written about, many flash enabled sites – including YouTube – grind the N800 to a halt. From what I gather this may just be an issue of optimizing Flash for the N800, so this may be fixed in short order.

Fourth, I know that the N800 is not really a PDA/Smartphone, but the inability to synchronize my key contacts, calendar, and task information makes this device much less useful that I expected. Dr. Ari Jaaski heads up the Nokia software effort and is quick to point out that the core concept of an internet tablet is to have access to online applications, and not necessarily for extensive offline use. In a totally connected world, I would agree to this premise. We are however, not yet in a totally connected world. Given the modest battery life, 3-4 hours while connected, total online dependence on this device is anyway impractical. Also, with limited pocket space and a need to have access to key information, the device needs to have solid PIM capabilities if I’m going to carry it around all day.

Finally, the lack of a built-in keyboard really makes extended text entry difficult on the N800. Like others, I have had success using my Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard to craft lengthy emails on the device, but trying to thumb in more than an sentence or two on the on-screen keyboard is not easy, nor is it accurate. I think this is inherently a problem of keyboards that lack tactile feel. To be sure, the touch screen itself is not to blame here, it is as responsive as you’d want it to be on a device like this. It is just awkward to use on a regular basis. By the way, I think will be the biggest issue with Apple’s iPhone too. Nokia may have built a better device if they had incorporated a slide down keyboard. Given the ‘bump’ on the backside that accommodates the camera and stylus, adding incremental depth to the unit by adding a slide down keyboard would have made it much more useful.

Open standards will transform this device

Arguably the best decision that Nokia made while designing the internet tablet platform was to build it on open standards, not on some locked (Apple iPhone) or proprietary system. Nokia could have crippled adoption of this device had it chosen its own Symbian platform. By choosing Linux, Nokia has tapped into a strong developer base that already is cranking out some great software. Nokia has clearly made a commitment to this platform, and I’m sure that the developer base will take the platform’s functionality far beyond what Nokia has envisioned. As I mentioned before, I hope this means that we’ll see a solid PIM and Firefox sometime soon for the device.

Final thoughts

The N800 reminds me of two other devices I’ve used in the past. The first was the original PalmPilot. I bought one of those within a month of its release and could immediately tell that it would be a transformational device. Palm, in all of its incarnations, nurtured a developer base that helped Palm change the future of mobile computing. Palm’s hardware was simple, and operating system easy to design for. Both of those factors made for a killer combination. It has gotten stale of late, but the PalmOS still remains a juggernaut in the Smartphone world. The N800 has the ingredients of being a truly transformational device, too.

The other device I’m reminded of is the Sharp Zaurus. Like this Nokia, the Zaurus platform was designed with a Linux core. Like the N800, the Zaurus had a solid group of early-adopter developers designing useful applications. Hopefully, unlike Sharp with the Zaurus, Nokia’s internet tablet platform will continue to grow and prosper in a manner that resembles Palm’s trajectory, not the now-discontinued Zaurus.

In the end, I’m not sure that the N800 will be a ‘runaway’ success. I don’t even think that Nokia expects it to be a runaway success. All that Nokia needs to do is to nurture the developer community, much like Palm, and continue to update the hardware with things like better battery life and a real keyboard option. Until the Microsoft UMPC based systems shrink in size, Nokia will have the internet tablet space to itself. With the rapid expansion of ubiquitous internet connectivity, the internet tablet, or computer, concept is here to stay.

Googlified posts about Google’s possible PowerPoint killer

One of the prominent Google watcher weblogs out there posted this morning about a possible Google online presentation program called Google Presently. Details are sketchy at the moment, but it’s not surprising that Google has a presentation application in the works given that most people have come to expect a true ‘office suite’ to include word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation capabilities. My hope is that Google begins the daunting process of tightly integrating all of their applications sooner rather than later. With the guys at Zoho setting a torrid pace on the integration front, Google has some catching up to do.

Zoho Notebook takes Microsoft OneNote’s appeal online

As you know, I’ve been steadily moving my work habits toward an Office 2.0, work anywhere, approach. One of the more difficult habits to wean myself off of has been using the free-form note-taking capabilities of Microsoft’s OneNote. Zoho’s Notebook, announced today, may make this transition a no-brainer. Jump over to the link to take a look at a great sneak peek video on the site. From the site, here are some highlighted points:

  • Intuitive user interface with white boarding and custom layout capability
  • Quick “add” buttons for adding text, graphics, photos, audio, video, RSS feeds and documents
  • Combine and add Notebook pages from other applications such as Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheet
  • ”Content level” sharing and versioning providing fine grain control of what is shared with others
  • Firefox and IE plug-ins for instant web clipping
  • Real-time, simultaneous editing and sharing of content
  • Skype integration for instant chat and IP telephony

Zoho expects the Notebook to be available to the public by March.

UPDATE:

Marc Orchant and Ismael Ghalimi have had private beta access to Zoho Notebook for a few days.  Both concur with my first thoughts that Zoho is quickly becoming a game changer in the Office 2.0 space.

Web Worker Daily has a great tipsheet for conference calling

We all have our favorite mobile gadgets and gizmos that we’ve come to rely on. The added mobility they bring allow us to function anywhere, anytime. And, despite the fact that we feel like lone wolves out there, every so often we have to connect back with our colleagues or clients. While teleconferencing is not a new concept, it has evolved over the years. GigaOm network’s Web Worker Daily has published an excellent post on effective conference calling.

When I’m teleconferencing from home, I prefer to use the SE-220, which is the top of the line 2-line speaker phone made by Polycom. It is rather expensive, but if you lurk around on eBay, you can often find it below $115. Along with a Plantronics headset, I can spend hours on the phone and never get ‘phone fatigue’. The speaker on the SE-220 is the best I’ve ever heard.

When I’m mobile, I fall back on my Treo 700p and a Jabra C250 wired headset. I’m not a big fan of bluetooth headsets mainly because I’ve yet to find one that feels comfortable and has good speaker/mic sound quality, not to mention that a bluetooth headset adds another charger/cable that I would have to carry around.

For Skype, I’ve been looking for a decent headset, and have recently ordered the one that Jason Calcanis uses.

Open Word document attachments in Gmail via Google Docs

Having enabled Excel spreadsheets to open directly from Gmail accounts into Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google has now closed the loop with Word documents as well. Appearing in the last few days, as reported by the Google Operating System weblog, you now have the option to open Word documents directly to Google Docs. This seems to work quite well, as can be expected, however there have been several reports of issues with graphics laden files or larger documents (in excess of 500k) not opening correctly.

In my tests of this new feature, I was pleased with the ability to edit documents right on the Google platform. The push over to Google Docs from Gmail is pretty seamless, but it only works one way. Strictly from a workflow perspective, if I open an attached document to edit, I would like to be able to send the edited document back as a ‘reply’ email. Google Docs lets you send documents as attachments, and also establish a collaborative connection to each document, but I get many documents from users that don’t use Gmail or aren’t sophisticated enough to use the sharing feature of Google Docs (stuff like that confuses them…for whatever reason). I know I could make my edits, and send a ‘new’ email back to those on the original email chain, but this then defeats the purpose of the conversations feature of Gmail. Also, unless you choose to “cc:” yourself when you send a file from Docs & Spreadsheets, the edited document falls out of the Gmail tracking system…you can’t see the sent email in ‘sent’ on your Gmail account.

I may be the only one who notices this break in the Docs & Spreadsheets integration, but I hope Google is listening. The cleaner the workflow, the more time I (and most likely others) will spend inside Google’s platform.