This Week in Tablets: Is Apple still capable of surprising us?

September 7, 2013
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Traditionally in this space, the week prior to an Apple announcement is rife with intrigue, tension, and speculation. This year’s end-of-summer event, which takes place on September 10? Not so much.

At this point, we’re all very much aware that there will likely be no iPad announcements—Mini or otherwise. Apparently, Apple is going to introduce a lower-cost iPhone (dubbed the 5c) and an iterative iPhone 5s that will probably have built-in fingerprint security and a new processor.

The biggest news appears to be the release of iOS7. This is no small matter, but it’s no surprise either.

In fact, it is highly likely that, while Apple will certainly garner its share of headlines for the announcements it makes next week, the tech-oriented public will still be buzzing a bit about this past week’s Samsung Galaxy Gear announcement.

Because I still can’t fathom an Apple event without some kind of surprise or hook, I’m betting that Apple is going to surprise us all with…something. We’ll hear about at least one product or product feature that no one sees coming. This could be a revised Apple TV that incorporates even more live cable programming via partnerships with cable operators and/or networks.

It could also be the announcement of something I’ve been waiting all year for: the Retina Display version of the MacBook Air. It’s not likely, but a guy can dream.

Finally, Apple could stun everyone by announcing its own take on the phablet form-factor, which it apparently has been considering for some time. Again, not likely, particularly since we're just starting to hear rumors about such a consideration. 

The difference between Samsung and Apple

One thing we know it won’t be is a smartwatch. Samsung (and Qualcomm) have already staked out this turf. Thanks to them, we now know what the first step towards the future of wearable devices—and said integration into the tablet- and smartphone ecosphere—will look like.

Once again, no big surprises here. By the time Samsung announced its smartwatch, which will be released on October 2 for $300, we all knew almost everything about it, and one of Samsung’s executives had literally confirmed it.

Two things about Samsung’s announcement of the Galaxy Gear surprised me.

First and most noticeably, it is tied exclusively to a hybrid tablet device. Right out of the gate, the Galaxy Gear will only work with the Galaxy Note 3 phablet and Galaxy Note 10.1. Updates to the Galaxy S4, Galaxy S III, and Galaxy Note II will come shortly after release, but for now Samsung sees a special affinity between phablet/tablet use and the smartwatch.

There are some interesting implications here. Why does Samsung think the phablet audience is the best fit for a wearable computer? The hybrid nature of both devices is at least partially to blame. And the heightened potential functionality of a phone, tablet, and smartwatch does answer my concerns about how a wearable computer would interact with your phone and your tablet.

Second, there was no true killer app or use case that stood above all others. It’s great that 70 apps—including Evernote, Pocket, and Path—will be available out of the gate, but none of the available software represents a new vector of use or integration with mobile devices.

Is a beta hardware release bad? Only if it’s broken

Given the above, it’s no surprise that analysts and experts immediately pounced on Samsung, naysaying the Galaxy Gear’s prospects for success. One analyst even slammed Samsung for releasing “a prototype masquerading as a commercial product.”

To be honest, I’m not sure Samsung would even argue with this statement. Although the company would likely avoid the word “prototype”, it is clearly in a state of aggressive release and experimentation. This mentality is reflective of one of the fundamental differences between Samsung and Apple, Microsoft, and other mobile competitors.

Samsung is beginning to understand a phenomenon that has already begun to blossom in the PC and video game space over the last year: There are a large number of people who are willing to pay for first or early access to products, even if said products aren't completely baked. For this audience, the word "prototype" is something to get excited about. It's desirable.

On a monthly and sometimes weekly basis in gaming, services like Steam and communities like Kickstarter offer gamers the opportunity to buy into beta programs for both independently published titles, free-to-play experiences, and more. From a game publisher’s perspective, this level of beta or pre-release access is a win-win. The game publisher gets valuable feedback as well as a sense of how players feel about their title. And gamers themselves get the thrill of playing something before almost anyone else.

So long as they don’t release buggy, defective products, this same logic works for mobile device manufacturers. The first release of the Galaxy Gear isn’t likely to singlehandedly sink the product line or the entire category of wearable computers. Even if it doesn’t sell well, Samsung is beginning to activate a base audience with the thrill of being the first to wear such a device, and will learn a great deal from this activation.

At the very least, Samsung will still burnish its image as a company that is aggressive, and willing to take chances on new technology.

This week’s winner: Lenovo

This week at IFA in Berlin, Lenovo announced a slew of new products that reflect a successfully navigated transition from PC to mobile computing. Leading the charge is a new Yoga 2 Pro, a new Windows 8 ThinkPad Yoga, and a new Flex 20 large-format touch computer.

Lenovo has been successful enough that the company is even re-framing the transition itself, referring to its universe as the “PC Plus” world, and “multi-mode” computing.

Runner-up this week: Windows 8 Evernote users, who received a major update that both enhances the design of the native app and the performance as well. 


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