Xoom: Honeycombed

The busy engineer bees at Motorola have come up with a sweet tablet

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for "This Week in Technology." If I could just rant for a bit: Motorola's January Super Bowl ad for its upcoming Xoom tablet was a bit strange. A young man travels to work amidst a sea of hooded commuters, carrying a tablet computer that shows the date, 1984. It was a reference to Apple's famous Super Bowl ad that year launching the Macintosh on national television, and so only indirectly a reference to the famous book by George Orwell. But that's not what's strange.

The young man sees a beautiful young woman. He buys some flowers. He photographs them with the tablet computer. He creates, again on the tablet, an animation of a boy giving the flowers to a girl. Using the tablet, he e-mails the animation. Then he walks over to her glassed-in cubicle to see her playing the animation—instead of just handing her the actual flowers, which presumably remain on his desk, wilting. If the idea is, if the woman of your dreams would prefer an animation of flowers to the actual flowers, then the Xoom is designed for you, then I guess it's an effective commercial.

Anyway, the Motorola Xoom came out this week, and to see if the company's engineers did a better job than the marketing department, we have on the phone today the aptly named Brian Proffitt, which by the way is spelled with two f's and two t's. He writes for ITworld.com and teaches at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. He's also the author of Take Your iPad to Work, which was published last October, and which will come in handy when we grill him about the latest rumors about the much-speculated-upon second-generation iPad.

Brian, welcome to the podcast.

Brian Proffitt: Good morning, Steven.

Steven Cherry: Brian, a lot of people are excited about the Xoom, and not just because of the Super Bowl commercial. Why don't you tell us what they're excited about?

Brian Proffitt: Well, I think a lot of people are excited because this is going to be the first big tablet play that's come out post-iPad. And they're excited for that. Everyone's really kind of liking the form factor and the platform upon which the Xoom is built. So those things are kind of making people get excited because, you know, especially in the technology media side, because everyone loves a good conflict, and I think they're sort of setting this up as a "battle royale" between Xoom and iPad.

Steven Cherry: The Xoom is the first tablet to run Honeycomb. This is a major new version of the Android operating system—I guess it's considered Android 3.0. How big a deal is Honeycomb?

Brian Proffitt: From the technology side, it's a huge deal, because Android has made great strides both with hardware manufacturers and also with its development community and the people who are building in the application space. It's a good platform to use, it's easy to learn, the barriers to entry from a technical standpoint are really low. From a licensing standpoint, getting an application onto the Android platform is way easier and a lot less rigmarole than you would over on the iPad's IOS platform. When you come down to it, a platform's success or death really hinges on how rich that application ecosystem is.

Steven Cherry: Now, I guess there's some reason to think that Motorola rushed things a little bit here. For one thing, the Xoom won't initially run Flash—Flash is a way of encoding Web pages especially with video. Apple is famous for the iPhone and iPad not running Flash, and so one of the big selling points of Android, whether it's smartphones or tablets, is running Flash. The Xoom won't run Flash at first, but it's expected to be able to in a few weeks. Is that right?

Brian Proffitt: That's right. The indications are—and if you kind of read the fine print on their marketing materials—that they've said that the Flash won't be available until spring of 2011, which is a little vague. So I think you're right. I think they did rush it to market a little bit. Everybody knew the iPad 2 was coming out soon, and I think they wanted to make that first big play and get out there before the iPad 2 and also get out before the Playbook and HP's offering as well, because being first to market like that is important.

Steven Cherry: I want to ask you about all these other tablets as well, but one more question about the Xoom. The Flash thing is going to be a software update, but the Xoom also won't connect to 4G cellular broadband networks at first, and I gather when it does you'll need a hardware update, you'll have to get the chip set changed. Is that a big deal?

Brian Proffitt: I think it is. I think that probably more than the Flash is really problematic, because from what I've been reading on the reports on the Web, you're going to have to take your Xoom device, and you're going to have to send it in to the manufacturer, and they're saying it could take up to six business days to get 4G capability on your Xoom. Given what I believe the target market is for the Xoom, I don't think this is going to be a major obstacle that you have to send it in. I think that people will be willing to do that, if I'm right about what the intended customer base for the Xoom is.

Steven Cherry: And that would be…?

Brian Proffitt: Well, I think it's really not going to be geared towards the general consumer. Based on its price point, I really believe that the Xoom is probably shifting towards the enterprise user market, and I think it's actually trying to get ahead of BlackBerry, and trying to, you know, bust into that market. That's a very lucrative market to get into. The price point certainly suggests that they're looking at enterprise and business customers more than the average consumer, because it is quite a bit more expensive than comparable iPad devices.

Steven Cherry: How much is it going to be?

Brian Proffitt: Well, it's $800 straight off the shelf, and then if you get a two-year contract with Verizon in the U.S. as that carrier, it's $600. So you know it's kind of a pricey little device, and that sort of suggests to me they're saying, OK, we're going to hit business users with this. And what it's really going to come down to is that application space I mentioned—what applications are going to be developed for the Xoom so business users can capitalize on that. If there are a lot of business-oriented applications that get developed quickly, I think the Xoom will be a very good fit for the enterprise customer, and it will be much more competition for BlackBerries and then the new BlackBerry tablet that's coming out, versus the iPad device.

Steven Cherry: So it sounds to me like you're expecting this kind of bifurcation in the tablet world of business and consumer devices, and I guess we haven't seen too many business ones yet. You mentioned a couple of tablets that are coming out soon—the HP was one; I don't think you mentioned the Samsung Galaxy is expected to have a new version coming out, and then of course, there's the potential for an iPad 2. So maybe you could just take us through the upcoming tablet releases.

Brian Proffitt: Well, the Galaxy, as you said, is already out and is expected to be updated to the Honeycomb platform soon, although I haven't heard a defined time about when that's going to be. The HP has their Touchpad; indications are that it's going to launch probably late spring to early summer. The rumors about that are targeting around June and around $700, so a slightly lower price point than the Xoom. And then of course there's BlackBerry's Playbook, which is even a little bit more ambiguous as far as the release date. They were saying spring—sometime in the first quarter of 2011, actually—and that both the Playbook and the Touchpad will be very similar in terms of specs to the Xoom. And then of course, the big megillah is going to be the iPad 2, which curiously enough, there is an expected launch announcement coming on March the 2nd. Curiously enough, that was announced right as the Xoom was coming out, so I'm sure there was a little marketing battle there. So the iPad 2's coming out, and I really do think that everybody would love to get to the business space; I think that there is going to be a bifurcation with any of these devices. But really right now because of its price point, I think the iPad and the iPad 2 will probably fit more with a general consumer market.

Steven Cherry: We've talked about price a couple of times already. Even the iPad—which you say is a little less expensive than the Xoom—it's not that hard to spend five or six hundred dollars on an iPad, which is actually more than an awful lot of laptop computers. I think people have been really surprised about how expensive tablets are, and I wanted to ask you about one other device, which is the Barnes & Noble Nook, the color version. It runs Android, it does quite a few things that a tablet does, it also serves as an e-reader, and it's hardly more than $100. What do you think of the Nook here?

Brian Proffitt: It's not terribly good as a general-purpose device. You're right that it does more than just read books, and I think that if it can expand upon its Android platform a little bit, if Barnes & Noble can figure out how to monetize that a little bit better, I think that it would be an ideal, you know, consumer tablet and fit really well. The problem is, I'm not 100% sure Barnes & Noble is going to be able to pull that off, because at the end of the day they're still going to want to sell books, and I'm not sure they want to get into the tablet market and push out general-purpose tablets. There's no technical reason why the Nook couldn't be a great general-purpose tablet. I've heard very good things from people who have used them, and when I've gone into the store and played with them myself, it's a very, you know, attractive little device.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, Brian, thanks. The tablet train seems to be moving at Grande Vitesse speeds, and if you're amenable, I think we'll have you back—I guess it'll be some point between March and April for the iPad 2 when it comes out.

Brian Proffitt: Right. I think a lot of the rumors will be settled next week. We'll have to see, you know, how everybody's crystal balls have been working, but I expect some pretty good improvements on the iPad 2, and I think that the tablet market is going to be really interesting to watch in the first half of this coming year.

Steven Cherry: Excellent. Well, we'll talk to you again about that then.

Brian Proffitt: OK, thank you.

Steven Cherry: We've been speaking with tablet expert Brian Proffitt about the Motorola Xoom, which has just come out, and the upcoming next generation of tablets, including the next Samsung Galaxy and the iPad 2. For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology," I'm Steven Cherry.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.

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