If you’ve never heard of the word “showrooming,” you might not be aware of one of the most fundamental shifts in retail. Heck, you might even have showroomed and not even known you were doing it.
Here’s how to tell: If you’ve ever been in a store and pulled out your smartphone to see if another retailer or online store has the product you’re looking at for a better price, you’re a showroomer. It’s a growing trend and it has retailers rightfully worried.
The biggest benefactor of showrooming is Amazon.com. eBay, Kijiji and Craigslist pick up a lot of business this way too, but the sheer size of Amazon’s catalog paired with a high degree of customer loyalty means they win.
You’d think that the company would be doing whatever it could to facilitate showrooming. The most obvious way to do so would be to create iOS and Android apps that let you scan the UPC barcode of the product in question, to trigger a quick lookup on Amazon’s website. What could be easier? Companies like CNET have had this functionality built-in to their apps for years.
And yet, rumour has it that Amazon has bricks and mortar ambitions of their own.
Now while I have tremendous respect for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his team, this strategy – if indeed real – seems out of sync with the company’s strengths. Considering that the company only makes a single product line – their highly successful Kindle readers and tablets – they aren’t in the same game as Apple, Microsoft or even Google who arguably have strong reasons to give consumers a physical place to experience their products.
Would these rumoured stores be a new take on the book-seller? That also seems odd. Let’s face it, if they simply added a barcode scanner to their Kindle app, every single bookstore on the planet would become an Amazon bookstore. Prefer e-reading? Buy the book immediately and have it delivered to your chosen device before you can pass by the physical cash register on your way out. Want a physical copy? You’ll probably get a better price on that too.
The current belief is that these stores will sell high-end devices like laptops and tablets in addition to Amazon’s own Kindle line.
If this is true, Amazon might need to watch their backs…. Showrooming could just as easily turn the tables on them too.
Update, Feb 21: Well lookee here… Amazon.ca announces new shopping apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Phone. I guess that dollar store crystal ball I bought might be working better than I thought ;-)
Image credit: LuxuryLuke via Flickr.com
RIM’s PlayBook is without a doubt, one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated devices ever launched.
From its poorly planned debut and lacklustre feature set, to the dearth of available apps (compared to other platforms) and a lack of cellular data at launch, the PlayBook has had a rough ride.
But RIM isn’t giving up on the PlayBook – as evidenced by the newest 4G/LTE version – and neither should folks who want to use their tablet for work and play.
Despite its shortcomings, which incidentally are fewer and fewer as time goes by, the BlackBerry PlayBook possesses two features that make it unique in the tablet landscape. One of those features is the ability to tether your BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook, giving you full access to your BlackBerry’s features but on a much bigger screen.
The second is BlackBerry Balance. Balance lets you create a complete separation between work and personal tasks on the PlayBook, a truly outstanding feature that neither Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android platforms have been able to deliver.
Sure, you can enable parental controls on these devices, but these restrictions disable apps completely instead of creating a virtual wall between work and personal apps. It’s the baby-sitter or nanny approach to control.
With BlackBerry Balance, once you’ve indicated that you want to create a “work” container, you can lock the Messages, Contacts, Calendar and Work Browser with a single password. Once locked, these applications are no longer accessible, but the rest of the tablet’s apps remain available – even a secondary instance of the web browser for personal browsing.
This ability to put all of your sensitive work-related info behind a locked door is a boon to families and anyone else who finds that their tablet ends up being passed from one person to another. RIM’s realization that our tablets – even more than our phones – are becoming shared devices, is a brilliant insight.
It’s not without flaws, however. The first being that in order to use BlackBerry Balance, you need to connect your PlayBook to an enterprise email account which is running RIM’s proprietary software on the back-end. If you just use a blackberry.net email address, or a POP email account like the one give to you by your ISP, the feature isn’t available to you.
Balance also plays somewhat heavy-handedly with your locked apps. For instance, if you have a work account and a personal account set up in the Messages app, once locked, you can’t access either. RIM needs to (and claims to have plans to) find a way to only lock that which is work-related, leaving all personal data accessible.
These limitations notwithstanding, BlackBerry Balance is easily the most compelling and unique feature on the PlayBook. I doubt it will be long before Google and Apple catch up, but in the meantime, RIM has a killer app on their hands.
At a time when the company is holding its breath for the next 4-5 months until it can release the promised line of BlackBerry 10 devices, it needs all of the help it can get.
We’ve all heard
too much plenty about the 3D revolution taking place in our homes thanks to the new generation of HDTVs and Blu-ray players, but more needs to be said about how another TV technology is going to have a much more profound impact on our living rooms.
The technology is generically known as “Connected TV” and each manufacturer has its own brand name for the feature. “SmartHUB”, “SmartTV”, “VIERAConnect” – the list goes on. But they all pretty much offer the same thing: in conjunction with your existing home network (either wired or wireless) these TVs connect you to a host of internet content ranging from weather forecasts to Facebook and from general web-surfing to full-fledged video games.
In some cases – the Panasonic Viera shown in this video is a perfect example – these games are just as good as anything you can find in Apple’s App Store or in the Android Marketplace. And just like those other app services, many of the Connected TV apps are free.
Now I’m not saying that playing Asphalt 5 as an app on your TV is the same as playing GT5 on a PlayStation 3 – they aren’t even in the same universe – but for a whole range of casual gamers who aren’t interested in dropping $350 on a console and another $60 on a game, these inexpensive TV-based games might be just the ticket.
And because these games can be played with a variety of Bluetooth accessories, you’re not limited to the TV’s factory remote. That would be awful.
Sync readers, are you ready to ditch your console for this new breed of TV games?
In this week’s Sync Up segment, we try to define what a “superphone” is and why you should care. We also review Pick & Zip, a new tool that lets you download entire photo albums from Facebook directly to your PC. Finally we discuss an app launching later this month called “SceneTap” that promises to give bar-goers the inside-track on which establishments have the male-to-female ratio that they’re looking for.
We also chat about Baby Monitor, a $4.99 App Store purchase for your iPhone or other iDevice. If you have an iPhone, it can place a call to any phone number you like so you can listen to what’s going on in the room. One thing to keep in mind though: You need to reset the app after every “call”.
Finally we describe Google’s social network ambitions with their just-released Google + product.
Last week, the buzz was significant. Rumours were flying around concerning what Apple was planning for the 10th anniversary of its first retail store. Some suspected Apple might suprise us with the next iPhone, while others guessed at a massive re-design of the stores themselves.
Today, if you had walked into any Apple store in Canada or the U.S. the world you would have seen the change right before your eyes. And yet, unless you were very familiar with Apple’s usual merchandising, you might have missed it completely.
The clean, wood-veneered tabletops which display the latest gear from Cupertino, now include something new to look at: The Smart Sign.
In effect, the Smart Sign is nothing more than an iPad 2 encased in a lucite block, giving you access to the touch screen and the home button, but nothing else. On the iPad’s screen runs a single app. The app is programmed to give shoppers more information on the product they’re looking at, be it an iPhone, iPod or yes, even an iPad. The concept is bindingly simple, and not even original: select restaurants have been using iPads to enhance the meal and drink ordering routine almost since the device’s debut a year ago.
What makes Apple’s implementation of the Smart Sign different is the way the app is tied into the rest of the Apple Store systems. One of the buttons that is always available at the bottom of the app’s interface is labeled “Specialist.” Tapping this button gives you the option to immediately add yourself to a queue to speak face-to-face with one of the stores many associates. Think of it like that flight attendant button you used to see in every airplane. Except, in this case, when you press the flight attendant button, it tells you where in the queue you are.
Behind the scenes, the store’s system then behaves like taxi dispatch service, sending out a message to the store associates via their customized iPod Touches which dangle around their necks. Associates can then accept the call, at which point the system shows them where in the store the requested originated.
Once you see the whole system in action, you can’t help but wonder, is Apple merely using their own stores as a test-bed for new retails technology before rolling out a similar offering to other retailers, big and small? If you ask an Apple associate they’ll simply smile politely and tell you they have no knowledge of Apple’s plans for the future of Smart Signs. But you can tell they’ve been thinking the same thing. By the way, in case you were thinking you might just buy a bunch of iPads and download the Smart Sign app… sorry, it’s an Apple-only app… for now.
The Smart Sign wasn’t the only improvement Apple stores received this week. They’ve also added a new section – well actually two tabletops – dedicated to a service called “Personal Setup.” It isn’t much to look at. Just a table with a few MacBook Airs tethered to it. But this is where a store associate will take your brand new Apple purchase out of its box and get you up and running on it so you don’t have to spend your first minutes with your new device all alone. The tech-savvy amongst us might very well mock the need for such a service, but it’s really handy even if you do know exactly what you’re doing. It turns out I got a sneak preview of Personal Setup when I bought my iPad last year. When I left the store, my brand new tablet was already synced with my Apple account and I was able to surf, watch YouTube and anything else I wanted to do. Normally, I would have had to do this sync myself at home on my PC. For a device like an iPad or iPod, it’s not a huge time-saver, but imagine going home with an iMac that had already been configured for you by an expert. Now stop chuckling and imagine you’re someone who has hardly ever used a computer, let alone a Mac running OS X. Ah, now you get it :-)
So while neither the Smart Sign nor the Personal Setup are nearly as exciting as say a new iPhone or a brand new addition to the Apple ecosystem, today’s Apple store enhancements might well prove to be yet another way in which Apple has set a standard to which others will one day hold themselves.
Screen real-estate is a lot like money, there’s really no such thing as too much. So if you’ve every gazed at the screen of your iPad and thought, “it would be so awesome if I could use this thing as a secondary monitor,” you’re not alone.
The good folks over at Avatron have, in fact, been secretly reading your mind via Wi-Fi, and have come up with a brilliant solution: their Air Display app.
In truth, it’s more than an app. It’s the combination of an app that runs on your i-device and program that you install on your PC or Mac that runs invisibly in the background. The magic happens in the communication between these two chunks of code, over your home Wi-Fi network.
When everything is setup and configured correctly, you can extend your desktop onto the target device with a couple of clicks. As long as your gadget is running the Air Display app – zap – there’s your background wallpaper from your computer magically rendering itself on your iPad, iPhone, etc.
If this was all that Air Display could do, it would be worth the price of admission right there. But wait – as I wade dangerously into infomerical territory – there’s more…
Air Display automatically recognizes the orientation of your secondary display and rotates the contents of the screen to match. You can also – via the server software on your computer – designate where in space, relative to your primary monitor, you’ve placed the iPad. If you’ve ever used dual (or multi-) monitor mode in Windows or in Mac OS, this will be completely intuitive for you.
Finally, and possibly the coolest part of the whole package, you can actually interact with the content being displayed on the i-device. Browser window? You can scroll and click with your finger. Calculator? Tap those number buttons. Painting program? Paint away my friend.
The first time you try it out, you’ll get that same giddy feeling you probably got the first time you surfed the web on your laptop via Wi-Fi without a single cord restricting your movements. It’s really that great. At least, it is when it works. Keep in mind there are several things that can influence the performance of Air Display, such as the number of apps running in the background of either your i-device or your computer, the network activity on your Wi-Fi network and other factors.
If there’s one thing I’d change about Air Display – and this is going to sound a little silly given the app’s name – I’d like the option to connect my device via the USB cable for a truly bullet-proof experience. I don’t know if this is even possible within the limitations of the iOS SDK, but it would be a welcome upgrade.
So if there’s an iPad owner on your holiday gift list this season and you’re looking for an inexpensive gift that will elicit a disproportionately large amount of gratitude, I humbly suggest Air Display. It should fit the bill nicely.
On a somewhat related note, readers, do you find app reviews like this one valuable or not? We’re thinking of making it a regular feature here on Sync, but not if you think it’s a waste of pixels. Please take our poll below, or just leave us a comment.
If you’re an app developer and you think your work is so ridiculously awesome that the whole world (or at least the Canadian part) should know about it, drop us a line and we’ll be sure to check it out.
Some of you might recall a few years ago, a little device made its way onto the gadget scene that let you wirelessly connect to the web so that you could see stuff. All kinds of stuff. It had a touch screen and even a “squeeze sensor.” It was called the Chumby. It was 2008, the iPad was still 2 years away and the Chumby was a bizarre but charming hybrid between an iPod Touch and a beanbag.
Based on open-source software with an embedded version of Adobe’s Flash, the Chumby runs apps that appear on its diminutive screen in a never-ending slideshow of information. If you’ve ever looked up at one of those elevator screens that show you headlines, weather etc., you’ll get the concept. I was immediately taken by the idea and hounded the folks at Chumby to send me one. Sadly, they wouldn’t do it since the Chumby wasn’t eligible for sale outside of the U.S. In the end, I gave up on ever getting my hands on a Chumby and moved on to other things.
It’s now 2010 and here’s what’s been going on with the Chumby in the intervening years…
It seems I wasn’t the only one who saw lots of potential in the cuddly little web-viewer. It ended up being named by Wired Magazine as a top gadget for 2008. In 2009 Chumby Industries created the Chumby One – a cheaper version of the original Chumby encased in hard white plastic instead of the Italian-leather exterior of its older brother. The Chumby One lacks the original’s squeezable form factor but introduces a large volume knob on the side and an FM radio. But perhaps more interestingly, Sony took notice of the Chumby platform and began development of their own internet appliance, the HID-C10, otherwise known as the Sony Dash, which they debuted at this year’s CES show in January. If the Chumby One is retro-looking clock-radio with a touch-screen, the Dash is a thoroughly modern wide-screen HDTV. Yet both devices run the Chumby widget platform, and now – for the first time – both devices are available to Canadians which means the time is ripe for a comparison.
Before we dive in though, here’s how the Chumby/Dash devices work, in case everything I’ve written to this point has left you wondering what I’m rambling on about. Feel free to skip to the specs if you’ve heard this before…
Chumbys and Dashs use your Wi-Fi network to connect to the web. After some minor configurations steps on the devices themselves, you use your PC or Mac to customize the content that the gadgets display through a dedicated website. The site lets you choose from amongst the 1000+ Chumby apps that are freely available, which you can then organize into “channels”. Think of Chumby/Dash channels as TV channels – you choose the kind of programming you want on each channel. Once set, you can “change channel” anytime from the device itself. Most folks will likely stick to a single channel, but having the choice to view others is handy.
Each app comes with its own set of customizable features. The Picasa widget lets you choose a URL with your photos, while the Weather Channel lets you choose your city and preferred temperature display (Celsius or Fahrenheit), and the Facebook Newsfeed app lets you “like” or comment on your friends’ updates – the latter via an on-screen keyboard. Others only let you choose how long they will remain on the screen.
App content runs the gamut from News to Travel and everything in between, but some categories are more populated than others. “Clocks” for instance has over 200 apps, which I suppose isn’t surprising given that these devices are primarily intended as desktop or bedside table companions. There are even some games you can play using the touch-screen such as “Reversi” or “Pinball” but frankly neither the Dash nor the Chumby One are especially good gaming gadgets.
Personally, I’ve gotten the most out of a combination of news, Facebook updates & photos, and humour. That’s the channel I keep running during the day. But I’ve also got a channel that runs a single app: Flickr. It runs continuously and turns the Chumby into an ever-changing digital photo frame. It’s also a great way to discover new photos as the app lets you see public photos by keyword – my suggestion: use seasonal terms like “autumn.”
Okay now that you know a bit more about how these Chumby-driven devices work, let’s get back to the comparison with a look at the specs…
|Sony Dash||Chumby One|
|Price||$229 CDN||$119 USD|
|Video Playback|| Windows® Media Video 9 (up to MP@HL 1080p)
Microsoft VC-1 (up to AP@L3 720p)
MPEG 4.10/H.264 (up to MP@L4.0 1080p)
|Audio Playback||MP3, AAC, WMA||MP3, OGG, WAV, FLAC and M4A|
|Audio-out||Headphone jack||Headphone jack|
|Speakers||Stereo, 1W+1W||Mono, 2W|
|Power||A/C adapter||A/C Adapter with travel plugs or optional Li-ion rechargeable battery|
|USB||1 USB 2.0 port||1 USB 2.0 port|
|Ethernet over USB||No||Yes|
A few things jump out at you when you look at this list.
First, the Dash is twice the price of the Chumby One. Actually it’s a little less than that since the Chumby One is priced in US$ and you’ll have to pay for shipping and possibly duties, whereas you can drop by your local Sony Store and buy the Dash – or via SonyStyle.ca. The Chumby One can only be bought online through their web store.
This price difference brings us to the other big difference: the screens. The Dash’s screen is likely the biggest reason for the extra bucks. It’s nearly twice the diagonal size and more than double the resolution. And though Sony doesn’t publish the details on its processor, I’m guessing it’s more powerful than the Chumby’s. That said, it is a very nice screen. Not razor-sharp like you’d find on an iPad or a laptop but still very good to look at.
Why the larger, wider screen on the Dash? In a word: video. Although Sony has chosen to “wrap” the Chumby experience in its own themed dashboards, the main reason the screen has 16×9 ratio is to facilitate video playback, something the Dash does much better than the Chumby. Most of the video-watching options are via a menu of streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix, but the unit can also play compatible video (and audio) files off of an attached USB key – at least that’s the plan. Currently the video portion of this feature is listed as “coming soon” when you try to use it. To be fair, Sony doesn’t promote this aspect of the Dash on their website but it’s tormenting to be offered the menu item and then not be able to take advantage The video quality is surprisingly good and while I didn’t try streaming full movies on the Dash (not quite sure why you’d want to) I did watch several of the movie trailers, some of which were in HD, from Flixster and the stream quality was rock-solid. Sound from the Dash’s internal stereo speakers is, as you’d expect from such a small device, on the tinny side but the volume is enough for the 2-3 feet experience.
The other video options on the Dash include: FIFA World Cup, blip.tv, Wired, Syle.com. FordModels, DailyMotion and many others. But the big omission from this list is Sony’s own Crackle.com free movie service, which launched in Canada earlier this year.
Video playback isn’t Chumby’s strong suit, but that’s not a deal-breaker and given the smaller size of the Chumby One’s screen, you probably won’t find yourself wishing it could handle more video.
Instead, the Chumby focuses on audio. The audio options include playback of several audio formats (see list above) from a connected USB storage device, various streaming services such as ShoutCast, podcasts from NYT, Mediafly and CBS, the ability to playback content from an attached iPod, or a collection of internet streams known as “Sleep Sounds” (rain falling, white noise, waves crashing etc.) – kind makes sense for a bedside gadget right? Makes you wonder why the Dash doesn’t have it. But the Dash does have native support for Slacker Radio, which for those who subscribe to the streaming service, will be a big plus.
While it’s true that the Chumby One only produces monophonic sound from its internal speaker, don’t let the cheap-looking plastic exterior fool you. Much like the Tivoli Model One – a mono desktop radio with a huge cult following – the Chumby One manages to pump out surprisingly rich sound. You can’t crank the volume very high, but it doesn’t matter; the sound that you do get is great.
The ironic thing here is that the Dash is arguably the natural heir to the Radio-Alarm-clock experience given Sony’s age-old domination of the category via their omnipresent Dream Machine product line. And yet the Dash lacks a built-in radio which has been a mainstay of the alarm clock for decades. The Chumby One on the other hand, has an FM tuner complete with an external wire antenna that tucks into the battery compartment when not in use. Speaking of batteries, shouldn’t all modern alarm clocks contain at least a back-up battery? The Dash has one that keeps the clock time from needing to be reset, but you’re still without functionality in the event of a power-outage. The Chumby One doesn’t have a backup battery but you can add one yourself and it not only helps in the event of a power failure, it lets the Chumby One operate completely cord-free for up to an hour.
Another great feature on the Chumby One is the ability to assign a timer to your audio playback. You can choose from 5 to 240 minutes in 5-minute increments before the timer shuts off the sound – great for people who like to fall asleep to music but who don’t want their dreams to have a soundtrack.
By now, some of you have noticed that the microphone – a feature of both devices – doesn’t appear to have a purpose. You’re right. So far, none of the Chumby apps or the Dash’s proprietary functions make use of the mic. I’m probably not alone in hoping that a Skype app will surface sooner rather than later… how cool would it be to chat via one of these gadgets from the comfort of your bed without needing a PC or smartphone?
Alright, it’s bottom-line time. Which of these devices should you buy?
My overall recommendation goes to the Chumby One. The cheaper price, great sound, uncluttered interface and retro-appeal make the Chumby One a very attractive choice. The more expensive Sony Dash doesn’t offer enough extra features in my opinion, to justify the extra dollars. That said, there are bound to be some who feel the premium is worth it in order to get the Sony brand name and reputation, the sophisticated dark-wedge design, the superior video playback and the larger, wider screen. If, for instance, you need a device like this for the kitchen, the Dash’s larger display would be a distinct benefit. Likewise, if you plan on using either of these gadgets as a serious digital photo frame replacement, the Dash wins again. However, after having used both devices – and given the plethora of options I have at the home and office for watching video and looking at photos, I feel the Dash’s extras are nice-to-haves but certainly not need-to-haves.
When you edit a consumer technology website, it’s often as easy to get jaded about advances in technology as it is to get excited by them. Will yet another digital camera change the world? Does it matter that netbooks now account for nearly 25% of all laptop sales? As I’m fond of saying, it ain’t life and death.
But now and then, you’re reminded that advances in technology do contain the power to change the world, and sometimes these changes do mean the difference between life and death. The big surprise is when these advances are ushered in not by a think tank or a PhD student working at MIT or a Fortune 500 Big Pharma Co, but by an inexpensive consumer gadget put to use in new and creative ways.
One such example is ThinkLabs’ Stehoscope app for the iPhone. When used in conjunction with their Digital Stethoscope, this app can display what the user is hearing. It lets a healthcare worker record wave-forms and spectrograms in real-time, and then compare these results to a database of matching medical conditions. If that isn’t sufficient for an accurate interpretation or diagnosis, the recording can be emailed to a colleage along with notes to get a second opinion.
A similar app is being launched by Nuance, the makers of the popular Dragon family of voice recognition software packages. Dragon Medical Mobile Recorder is mobile voice capture app that lets physicians (or anyone else) record their thoughts and have the transcription presented to them immediately for editing, approval and of course forwarding to an email recipient.
Nuance estimates that by the end of 2011, 81% of physicians in the U.S. will be using smartphones. Currently the BlackBerry is the phone of choice with this community, but the iPhone is gaining fast and could easily become dominant – largely based on the appeal of medical apps.
If the iPhone is a good companion for healthcare professionals, the iPad is going to be a great companion. Its larger screen opens up a whole new world of imaging options while its built-in Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity make it the perfect clipboard replacement. One of our readers wrote in to let us know that the nursing profession is already benefiting from the iPad. Teresa Jackson just posted “20 Incredible iPad Apps That Will Revolutionize Nursing” to her blog and it includes such titles as Blausen Human Atlas – a full visual field guide to human anatomy, which will not only help as a quick reference but could also be used to explain medical conditions to patients in a way that goes beyond mere words.
The medical app world is exploding. According to Scientific American, there are over 1,500 apps just for health care professionals alone (patients have access to these and many more geared just for them). But along with this enormous growth comes concern about quality and accountability. Recently the FDA decided to look into the question of whether medical apps should face some sort of regulation or be left to develop unfettered. There have already been several instances where apps have demonstrated the potential to negatively influence patient outcomes:
Because of a programming error, allergy information for a patient failed to display on a clinical decision support app […] In another instance, results of a nuclear medicine study were saved in the wrong patient’s file when accessed using health care management software.
Despite these stumbling blocks, the future of medical apps for the iPhone, iPad and a host of other connected devices promises to move the healthcare field in a positive direction.
So the next time you see someone wasting time with an iBeer or Lightsaber app and start to despair that these new gadgets are responsible for the dumbing-down of an entire generation, remember that the same device might be used to save someone’s life.