Slowly, the wheels are turning in the tech world. For 5 years Apple has been on an ascent that can hardly be believed - leapfrogging over Microsoft to become the world's largest tech firm, and then approaching ExxonMobil levels of corporate domination. Their phones sell, their computers sell, they're the most valuable retailer in the world, they control a multi-billion dollar development ecosystem around iTunes and the App Store, and most impressively, nothing about their rise has been proscribed. Microsoft was the first enterprise software giant. Google's radically simple approach to information collection made them a standout in a fractious, hobbyist world. But Apple's major breakthrough was in mobile phones, an utterly saturated market if ever there was one. Apple has arguably developed the most impressive lineup of unbeatable tech in history, and all of that with numerous low-cost alternatives. Their domination has been embarassing
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Most of the competition have fallen into the early stages of collapse. Nokia and RIM (makers of the BlackBerry) are being discussed mostly as acquisition targets, in as much that anyone wants to discuss them at all. LG will probably give up on phones soon and stick with appliances and TVs. Sony's phone division is only doing badly compared with a healthy company; compared with the rest of Sony, they're merely normal. HTC is hanging on by its fingernails with the One X, an outstanding handset that will hopefully pull them back. Only Samsung is healthy, and even then only on the relatively low-margin handset business; they have no software or app business, which is where the high margins are made.
Google and Microsoft are sitting relatively well. Microsoft makes money hand over fist despite itself, and even with Windows Phone in 2nd gear, their announcements last week of a Windows 8 ' Surface' tablet and a new Windows Phone 8 operating system have at least generated some encouraging buzz.
Google, meanwhile, continues its cozy dominance with Mail, Maps, Search and online advertising. They've been surprisingly level and innovative under CEO Larry Page, the co-founder who took the reins back from Eric Schmidt in 2011. With this week's I/O developer conference, Google appears to be taking ever bolder steps into hardware.
Android 4.1 'Jellybean'
Android is currently the world's most widely used mobile operating system, but far from the most profitable. It suffers from deep fragmentation; there are over 4000 handset models out there, and about 100 different configurations that develoeprs have to account for. Its open source model also attracts the very cheap end of the market, meaning that non-tech savvy people are a huge part of the user base, and these are the people least likely to take advantage of its power. Some interesting problems, but ones that Google seem to have put on the shelf for the time being; Android 4.1 Jellybean is all about new features, not fundamental fixes.
Faster - Google's Project Butter to seriously update the often clunky look of Android looks solid. New software and 60fps animation helps to make it look as fluid as iOS. For now.
Text Dictation - Part of an overhaul of Google's voice command software, Text Dictation works offline - a major advantage over Siri, which is useless with no 3G signal.
Google Now - This is clever. Google Now will grab location metadata in the background, and when activated, will throw out helpful suggestions. When the next train is coming, Weather forecasts. Good places to eat.
Nexus 7 Tablet
For a long time, Microsoft relied on partners to make all their hardware, particularly PCs. The bits of hardware it did make, like mice and other peripherals, were sturdy and decent. But it wasn't until the Xbox that people noticed that Microsoft could conceivably become a design and manufacture powerhouse. With their own Surface tablet designed and built in house, it's reasonable to suggest that Microsoft have turned a corner and will engaging with the nuts and bolts that integrate its software.
Google, it seems, is still testing these waters. Its Google Nexus Tablet, a 7-inch, $200 mini powerhouse, is built by Asus. But as with all things in the Nexus family, it has been designed by Google, with the internals built to spec to suit Android.
It looks good. Like the BlackBerry Playbook, it's solid and comes with a nice rubberized back. Unlike the Playbook, it has apps and might not be useless. And it's bloody cheap. This is more of a competitor for the Amazon Kindle Fire, which to date has been the absolute best selling Android tablet, than it is to the iPad. But if it succeeds, we might be seeing more of a tablet play from Google soon.
Fortmerly the Android Market, Play has gotten a big boost in terms of content. Books, Magazines and dozens of shows will be added to the lineup soon. Still short of Apple and Amazon's offerings, but hey- still good.
Uh yeah, it does 1080i
Frankly, ugh. This multimedia orb (yep, orb) is suppsed to be Google's answer to Apple TV. It's $300 and does most of what the $110 Apple TV does, but much uglier. It does YouTube and Google Play content and whatevs. It has flashing lights. It appears to be made by Google. It's $300. Also, $300 is the price, apparently.You also have the option of not buying it.
It's a big day, and there's presumably more to come this week. The Nexus Tablet looks good, and might make it down here in Australia where the Fire is not easily available. But Google should probably look to acquire some hardware companies and get to work directly in that arena. The Nexus Q just will not sell. I'd be willing to bet several coconuts on that.