Category Archives: Android

Sputnik: Rising Above the Air

Apple has achieved success in large part because it created expectations rather than satisfying them. This marketing strategy paid off for Apple; for example the iPhone wasn’t compared to existing smartphones like the Blackberry, which would have highlighted its relative shortcomings (no copy-and-paste, inferior battery life, AT&T-lock-in, etc.). It was viewed as its own entity that targeted a different market altogether.

And, to an extent, that market segmentation was initially true – the iPhone caught on quickly among demographics that weren’t using Blackberries for enterprise and personal use. According to this narrative, RIM and Palm sold “personal organizers” with phone functionality, whereas Apple sold “touchscreen smartphones”. If you’d tried to predict iPhone sales by demographic based on Blackberry and Palm devices, you’d have been way off, because the devices targeted very different markets.

Criticisms of the iPhone based on comparisons to Blackberries and Palm devices didn’t hold up as well, because the target iPhone users didn’t have the same expectations as existing PDA + phone users – many of the first iPhone most passionate users had never owned a smartphone or PDA before. When the iPhone finally got some of these missing features, they were a nice surprise, but they weren’t deciding factors for the first generation of users. iPhone users didn’t complain about the lack of voice control and drop-down notifications (available in Android since very early versions), but they still celebrated the release of Siri and iOS5 notifications without comparing them to the devices that had offered this support for ages.

I was excited to hear yesterday that Project Sputnik was coming out of beta. As a beta tester, I can testify that the computer, a Dell XPS13 supporting Ubuntu out-of-the-box is excellent – in fact, it may be the single best laptop I’ve purchased.

I fielded a number of questions all day yesterday about the laptop on Hacker News. Most people were asking questions about how it compared to the Macbook Air in the predictable ways: display resolution, keyboard feel, touchpad, suspend support, etc. While I’ve been happy on all of these counts – the Sputnik keyboard, for example, is clearly superior – they’re far from the most important things I look for in a laptop.

Many of the components of the “Apple touch” sound fine in theory. It’s just that, when you get down to brass tacks, I’d gladly trade a metal vs. plastic chassis for tiling window management, focus-follows-mouse, and a Caps Lock key that isn’t hilariously incompatible with Vim. (Not to mention the underlying operating system itself: unified package management, tmpfs support, etc.) And have – I’ve run Linux on other hardware (Samsung, HP, etc.) for some years now as my main computers/laptops.

People who criticise the XPS13 in comparison to the Macbook Air for feature $X are missing the point, just like the Android users who laughed at Siri for implementing a fraction of the voice commands that Android had provided for years. Siri wasn’t made to compete with an Android feature; it was made to compete with previous versions of iOS and targeted at those who would never have considered buying a non-iOS phone.

In the same vein,, I don’t like the Sputnik laptop because the Macbook Air is “good enough” and the Sputnik laptop is better. I like it because I dislike the Macbook Air, and Sputnik just so happens to borrow the few appealing aspects of an otherwise unappealing laptop and adds that to the existing models I know and love.

Android has four times the market share as iOS, but for many iPhone users, switching isn’t even a possibility. The iPhone has transcended the realm of competition for a small minority of the market by competing with nobody but itself. It’s not even close to the dominant mobile platform, but nobody’s complaining about its profits.

Similarly, while Linux may never gain the majority share of the Ultrabook market – even among developers – it doesn’t need to in order to be indispensable for a smaller, but highly profitable, minority of the market.

Not surprisingly, Sputnik’s price bothered some Apple users. While I was fortunate as a beta tester to receive a 20% discount on the Sputnik model I currently have, I would easily have paid the sticker price ($1,549) if I were getting it today. The price compares favorably to the Macbook Air, spec-for-spec2, but again, that misses the point. I would easily pay more for a machine simply because it provides out-of-the-box support for a better OS. Linux may be free-as-in-freedom, but I’d still prefer it even if it weren’t free-as-in-beer as well!