“I just flew in from Taipei and boy are my arms tired…”

I wrote that line a month ago when it was hoped to be at least slightly true…So the “just” has now become a distant memory and I’m only now getting to this blog, but better late than never right?

Taipei 101The whole point of this article is to give a report on what I saw at Computex which was in Taipei (as always) June 1-5. Now in the spirit of full disclosure I should say right off the bat that I was only in Taipei because I was invited to go by a large semi-conductor outfit you’ve no doubt heard of. And since I really never read those NDAs I sign I really don’t even know if I can mention then by name here…but you’ll read between the lines no doubt (where Google will not). Anyway, it’s worth saying that these folks were very generous to lil’ol’ Soma Games, took great care of me and didn’t EVER stop feeding me! I swear I ate 13 times a day over there…which was a good thing.  I stood atop the 2nd highest building in the world, the Taipei 101 and was shocked to see that a Starbucks in Proto-China looks exactly like a Starbucks in Seattle – I just couldn’t really read the menu. But who cares right? ’cause I just know where “Americano Maximus Quad Shot” is on the menu anyway and everybody understands a pointing finger.

Moving on…

Let me start off with a big scoop of lame sauce. The moment I got to Computex there was this whispering campaign suggesting that tablet PCs were the hot product at the show. People were talking about the iPad of course and looking to see how the competition was shaping up. At that point I’d only just barely even seen an iPad and we’d given it away in a contest so I didn’t have a lot of firest hand info on what the Tablet Killer was really like. That’s just to say that it’s not as though my expectations were super high. But this is what I saw at the Microsoft booth:

These jokers had 15-20 tablet PCs on display which seems good. But almost every single one was locked away in a little lucite box. And folks, it wasn’t because they were afraid of Strongbad walking away with the lot of them, they were in “I-got-no-features-you’re-allowed-to-juke-with” jail. Either they were all silly mockups masquerading as real hardware or they were way-buggy betas that would make the OEMs looks more  like iPad gag gifts than iPad also-rans. The effect in my mind was to make Microsoft look painfully unprepared or desperate to appear relevant, neither of which was good on the “image” end. Still, it wasn’t only the MS booth. The vast majority of tablet style things I saw at the show were the same lame slates we saw and hated in 2003. OEMs pay attention – what really works for the iPad is that the whole experience is built around the touch interface. Simply adding a touch screen to Windows doesn’t cut it and I didn’t see a single tablet that was even ready for market, much less anything that was ready to seriously compete.

(If there was one exception to this it would be the Asus Eee Pad. It’s still Windows which isn’t great from my perspective but the product was actually functional which is saying a lot given the competition. )

Cool Tech on Display:

In the cool-tech category, the neatest single thing I saw was a 3D camcorder from DXG Tech that was filming and transmitting real-time 3D images to the showroom floor. These folks had several people out and about the convention center with these cameras that are about as big as a Norelco razor. Somehow they were transmitting the signal back to their booth where you could put on the special polarized glasses and see the whole thing in beautiful 3D. It was a fantastic effect. I never determined what the price was, but the size was perfect for the Everyman and in my mind the product I’m most likely to actually buy. I can’t find the same camera on their website but I suspect that’s because the camera isn’t publicly released yet.

Other neat gizmos were a heads-up display from Springteq that you can stick on your dash that projects turn-by-turn onto your windshield, a lot of variations on the Smart Board concept targeting education, all manner of very cool USB drive disguises like jewelry, matchbox cars and modern art. There was an on-line game portal called iRadio Pop that sold some kind of USB dongle that unlocked their library of games – not super compelling technology but something I was interested in for Soma and our distribution. Oh – another thing I saw and really liked was a car-mirror-mounted video DVR device from Vosonic that captured something like the last 48 hours of video. The idea was that the footage could be used in the case of an accident or something as evidence of your guilt or innocence – I thought that was pretty slick.

Also look up an outfit called Aibeleive Co. These folks were showing off a software suite that basically turned your iPhone into a Wiimote. It was really pretty cool to play Wii Tennis with an iPhone…for about 20 seconds. I daresay the novelty wore off pretty quick but my gut tells me there might be something really interesting here once some developers get past the gimmick of it all.

Ode to Netbooks…

I’ve heard several people in the last few months suggest that netbooks are somehow old news and dead wood. I can’t understand for the life of me where this concept comes from. Netbooks were everywhere, and not only on display. The swarming throngs of attendees carried netbooks everywhere I looked. And everywhere I’ve read, netbooks continue to outsell iPhones and iPads with a much larger installed base.  Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not a huge netbook fan but that’s largely a matter of form factor and I’m not the typical demographic. But as a developer of software who needs hungry consumers to buy my games…netbooks remain a gumuntrous opportunity just based on how committed the hardware manufactures are to the system. (added 7/9: Am I prescient or what? – Samsung + Netbooks = kapow)

Sidebar: in the last section I complimented Asus for having a functional tablet, here I need to chide them for having what in my mind is the silliest application of form factor in a “laptop” that was about as big as a horse. Guys – what are you thinking? Who wants to put a 40 pound heat sink on their lap?

About the booth babes…

When we were at CES in January there was a marked decrease in the number and trashiness of the booth babes. Certainly they were still there, but not everywhere…I think they moved to Taiwan. There had to be an average, AVERAGE, of seven women to each booth and a shocking number of them were mysteriously dressed as nurses – don’t ask me why. And I found it interesting that there was little connection between the girls, who were clearly there to be gawked at, and whatever product they were associated with. It was not uncommon to have a row totally blocked by a half dozen photographers all snapping pics of pouty-faced nurses with nothing to indicate what young lady was from which vendor. Honestly I found it kinda strange. Weirder still was a raft of unidentifiable mascot things. I mean, what is this guy? The broccoli doctor who fixes your WiMax? There must have been a cultural disconnect here. Not really anything more to say on that point except it was…how do I put this knowing my wife will read this…it was noticeably different from the US.

About Intel and MeeGo

Without reiterating why YoursTruly was at Computex, there was a gigantic and impossible to miss presence of Intel who wrapped whole buildings in 10 story banners, a huge booth and a 3 hour, very cha-cha presentation+lunch at the Grand Hyatt. I’m sure there are other contenders for “biggest news” but as I reflect back on the whole show, I honestly think Intel’s presentation was the biggest thing of the week. Specifically an invitation-only sit-down where Peter Biddle and others from Intel laid out a very long-sighted, comprehensive and I’d say compelling picture of where they plan to go in the coming years.

Central to their future is something they call the Computing Continuum. A concept where a wide range of devices like smartphones, standalone vehicle and home systems plus networked appliances, do-dads and thingamajiggers all share a common chipset, instruction set, and OS – namely the Atom processor and the MeeGo OS. Atop this foundation is a flexible, skinable app store where all manner of software is purchased, managed and distributed. (Intel has their own version here and at Computex we saw Asus roll out their own OEM version of the store.)

MeeGo was (to my knowledge) a new variable. At CES in January, Intel was talking about a Linux flavor they were calling Moblin but it seems they hooked up with Nokia to create this new MeeGo thing. To be honest, dueling OSs is just not my thing. In fact, I’m of the mind that an OS can never be a selling point, only a hinderance. The best OS is the one you never notice because it never gets in your way.  That said, I was impressed with what I saw regarding MeeGo and I have a sense that it has some genuine legs under it. (Check out a cool YouTube video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqeeQd-YNL0&feature=player_embedded)

Other people have done good reporting on what this announcement meant on the technical end so I won’t try to chime in there, but I am very interested in the strategic implications for the market and of course for Soma Games. While we’ve been really happy to get our feet wet in the AppUp Center it’s been unclear to me where it was all going. The idea of “another app store” was questionable in many minds and seemed a tad awkward coming from a company that is so solidly known as the hardware inside other hardware…what was Intel doing hawking casual games?

To those folks, including Wired, It’s The Distribution Stupid! The app store concept is not a gimmick, it’s not even a product. It’s the way all software will be distributed in the coming years. We’ve been talking to a number of retail outfits lately who seriously do not get this and they simply cannot understand why we don’t want to burn CDs for our games. Let me count the reasons: printing, chargebacks, shipping, storing, designing, returning, inventory, packing…hello!!! Intel seems to be the first outfit from what we might call the old-guard of PC hardware to see what a paradigm shift the app store model represents. As an independent developer, the cost and hassle of physical distribution is a gigantic nut to crack and it makes per unit prices necessarily higher. At every step I’m faced with onerous challenges to bringing my product to new states, new companies, new countries – it’s a massive barrier to entry that is totally over and above all that goes into the creative and technicla process of making a good game. But an embedded OEM virtual store that  simply exposes my product to every person around the world with a web connection…baby that is like gold!

As cool as that is, at Computex I think I got a glimpse of an even bigger picture. I really have to take my hat off to Peter Biddle here who spoke candidly and plainly to several pieces of the puzzle that had so far been sort of euphimized. For one – this plan lives or dies on customers. It’s kind of a “no duh” thing yet he’s the first official person I’d heard mention the fact that the sales numbers mattered…a lot. Particularly to small developers like myself who will come when they show us the money and convince me the opportunity is real. But there was a lot more in his presentation that convinced me that at least this guy was genuinely tuned into the kinds of things that were important to a shop like mine deciding if they wanted to invest the effort needed to make an app for AppUp.

I’m working on a much bigger article about my own impressions of what the AppUp Center will need to do to really soar so I wont blow that all here but the point I really captured at Computex was this:

Intel was in this game for the long haul. They were serious about it, they were investing heavily in it and they had a long term game plan instead of a short-sided “me too” thing that some folks saw with the AppUp launch in January. That alone would have been a big deal. There are few companies that I would believe had the resources to really dive in here but Intel would be on the short list. But what’s more is that they seem to have had significant success in getting other big players to come alongside. So Intel is making the chip but the whole initiative is also backed by folks like Nokia, Novell and the Linux Foundation. So there is a lot of money and smart people who are participating at one level or another. The Computing Continuum (at least as far as I could see) was a significant shift in general strategy aimed at the future and specifically at mobile technologies. (To all this, Microsoft was conspicuous for their absence…)

Thor! God of Gaming Rigs!OK, wrapping up now:

  • Computex was a great experience and I had a great time.
  • I saw some cool tech but nothing really ground shaking (save a 30 foot tall statue of Thor)
  • Most of the tech could be catorgorized as gadgets or incremental improvements on something I’ve already seen.
  • The “buzz” of  Computex was supposed to be all these tablets. Eee Pad aside, they all were deeply underwhelming.
  • Don’t eat pork Jello…just trust me.
  • Intel, Nokia and others dove into this Atom+MeeGo thing with both feet and lil’ ol me felt like I finally get more of the game Intel has been playing – and I like it.

I’m glad to be back though and I came home to this. Not sure why I ever leave…

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