Welcome to ZenUnwired; a blog dedicated to tracking developments in technology and strategy, and to deciphering the impact of these developments on wired and wireless ISP's, device manufacturers, OS and application developers, and most importantly - you.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Is it time for Carrier-branded Tablets?

Recently, while playing with a Galaxy Note (and contrasting it with a Kindle Fire), I began wondering - is it time for carrier branded tablets? 

Conceptually, a CE manufacturer could create a tablet that is customized to a carrier's needs, where the customization goes beyond the presentation layer. For example - instead of a Galaxy Tab running TouchWiz with Sprint bloatware, can Samsung make a SprinTab - where the entire UI and CX is Sprint controlled/managed? Just like how the Kindle Fire is completely Amazon controlled/managed?

At a purely conceptual level,
  • Developing a customizable service layer means that the CE manufacturer can tweak the service layer to any carrier's requirements. So a SprinTab will look and feel completely different than a VZPad. This "customizability", if achieved, should help the CE manufacturer sell abundantly more devices, at a higher margin than in the cut-throat open market. At the same time, carriers could be - at least theoretically - more willing to subsidize their own custom-tablets (maybe even in the form of bandwidth-built-in- "comes with 1GB of wireless data per month"), especially if the OS'es are locked-down.
  • The CE manufacturer could create an ecosystem of vendors behind the tablet. For example - the CE manufacturer could partner with Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble for books, with Amazon, Spotify or Pandora for music, with Netflix, Hulu or Vudu for video, with Google Play for paid apps, etc. The CE manufacturer then could give carriers the optionality to use their own vendors or services (e.g.: Sprint Music on the SprinTab), or let them choose from a list of preferred vendors. 
  • From a carrier's perspective, the tablet becomes the customer's central gateway to the internet, and results in additional revenue streams, with minimal required oversight . Depending on the quantum of digital content purchased, the tablet could become a sticky product too (migrating digital content like books might be difficult). Of course, carriers could position this tablet in myriad ways like - subsidize the tablet for higher tier subs (i.e. incent customers to buy up), enable any/all carrier-services on the tablet and integrate them into the main interface (vs. into one app, in a sea of apps), etc. Therefore, a well thought out approach could have the potential to mitigate the dumb-pipe scenario.
  • From a consumers perspective, a deeply discounted tablet could be just too tempting to pass up.

I admit, this concept needs a lot more thought and refinement. But that said, carrier-branded tablets might be a concept that warrants a second look.

P.S.: If you havent guessed already, SprinTab, VZPad, etc. are just hypothetical products with no basis in reality, implied or otherwise

Why did Samsung buy Boxee?

As a (frequent) Boxee user, I am fairly confident that the intent behind Samsung’s Boxee acquisition is more than just the Cloud DVR functionality. Of course, how all of this plays out depends on how Samsung integrates Boxee into its own SmarTV platform, but here is my list of why Boxee is probably a great buy for Samsung, especially for a price tag of <$30M

  • Cloud DVR: The obvious. Connected TV + Inbuilt TV Tuner + Boxee = Great solution for cord cutters/shavers. However, it looks like Boxee just shut down its Cloud DVR service.
  • Galaxy Effect: Firstly, If Samsung gets the Boxee Cloud DVR to play nice with the Kies platform, then taking recorded content on-the-go, might become tremendously easy, especially on the Galaxy line of devices. Secondly, Boxee has airplay support – meaning you can play pictures, video, etc. on your iDevices, on your big screen – a feature that Samsung has tried unsuccessfully to replicate with DLNA. Boxee’s experience in this space might come very handy.
  • Multi-Format Support: Video formats and their compatibility with connected devices is tricky business. For example - Roku, Google TV and Apple-TV won’t play MKV files (unless you really tinker with the files, or use PlayOn, etc.). The Boxee Box handles any file format like a champ (I can’t say the same for Boxee TV, which is a failed product by any stretch of the imagination). Even though Boxee has stopped supporting both the Boxee HTPC software and the Boxee-Box, I think Samsung will find some very useful stuff in the archives.
  • Apps/Repositories
    • Boxee already has official apps for most of the recognized content providers out there – Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, Vudu, Spotify, Pandora, etc. 
    • It has a built-in browser that lets you access any video out there on the net (Boxee’s browser isn’t blocked like Google TV’s). However, Flash support is abysmal. 
    • You can also add XBMC repositories to Boxee (e.g. Navi-X, Fuzzthed).
    • You can browse/use HTML-5 based “enhanced for Google TV” sites (e.g.: Epix) just like on Google TV.
    • You can run home-server applications like PlayOn and Plex on any PC or Mac to play anything that plays on a PC-browser, on your TV screen (transcoding on the fly).
  • Interface: Boxee’s user interface is much like Apple-TV’s. Boxee’s remote for instance, works almost exactly like Apple TV’s remote except that it also adds a full QWERTY remote on the back of the remote (much easier to use than having to navigate to each alphabet before selecting). The UI too is very intuitive. For example – on the Boxee Box, once you pick your favorite shows, you can scroll down a beautifully illustrated list of shows. Selecting a show to watch, brings up a list of options – “CBS – Free, Vudu - $2.99, Netflix – Free with Subscription, etc.”. Once you select one of these options, Boxee handles the rest – playing the content within an app, a browser (with auto full-screen), etc. – seamlessly. 
  • Brand/Legitimacy: Boxee might be a fairly unknown brand among the general public. However, among current and potential cord-cutters/shavers, it is likely more recognizable (as a cord-cutting solution, given its XBMC roots) than Samsung is.

Samsung has a lot to gain here. Lets hope they don't pull a Boxee and mess things up.