Dell: Mini 5 is a Category Killer, iPad Great for Dudes with Murses
It’s the most important product launch for Dell this year. Maybe in the company’s history. And if you ask Neeraj Choubey, general manager of tablets within Dell’s Communications Solutions Group, the Mini 5 isn’t just another slate. He uses words like “category killer.” And that’s because the device that he’s bringing to market will be the first 5-inch Android tablet in the U.S. that can also make calls. Yes, the Mini 5 is a phone, as well as a mobile Internet device, camera, camcorder, GPS navigator, and media player. You could call it a tabletphone.
Choubey, who spent five years at Motorola and created Yahoo’s mobile search product before becoming a VC, also feels pretty strongly that the Mini 5 won’t be swept away by the iPad hype. And that’s because the two devices have different target audiences. In fact, Choubey told us flat out that the iPad isn’t really a mobile device, saying that it’s best for those who “have a handbag or a murse or whatever.”
Here are just some of the other highlights of our interview:
- Dell is working with AT&T to bring the Mini 5 to market (even though no official carrier partnership has been announced).
- The Mini 5 will access the Android Market, a big differentiator versus devices like the Archos 5 and bigger screen Android tablets, and the front-facing camera is designed for peer-to-peer video calls.
- Dell is working on a portfolio of devices that includes Android tablets with larger displays.
- The company will be rolling out a service that will allow customers to buy content once and have it be available on multiple Dell devices. (Reminds us a bit of iTunes, but Choubey used Amazon as his example.)
Even with all of these tidbits there’s still a lot of other great stuff Choubey shared during our in-depth conversation. So dig in and tell us if you think the Mini 5 has what it takes to be a hit.
Do you think consumers are ready for a device that sits between a traditional smart phone and netbook?
I think we had the same conversations about netbooks a few years ago. Do you really need a netbook if you have a laptop? And the netbook was pretty disruptive because of the price points. How successful it was for long-term productivity gains I'm not sure, but here was a lot of chips sold on it. I think the tablet device coupled with some of the innovative things that carriers are thinking about as far as pricing, it will be something we'll continue to look at. Right now my users are saying this is interesting enough, please tell me more about it. And once we get the device out there we'll continue to listen to them, and if they say we don't like this or we do like this, we'll take that feedback and put it into the product development process.
Why are you calling the Mini 5 a Tablet if you can use it as a phone?
Yes, there's a phone in the device. We're working with AT&T and when you get this device you stick a SIM chip in it and make phone calls the normal way. And, yes, you can hold it up to your head or use Bluetooth. But the flip side is that we're trying to make a device that developers will get excited about.
Other than the screen size and Market support, what features will make the Mini 5 stand out?
The number one thing a lot of developers have told us that's a unique feature for this device is that we have a front-facing webcam on it. We'll be able to do peer-to-peer video conferencing, and we're talking to a number of partners about that right now. There are probably a bunch of people out there thinking about augmented reality and different things you can do with a person and their face and how to present that in a mobile context. My job as a general manager is to make sure that I stay on the forefront of technology, listen to my users, and make sure that I not only keep my users happy but make a platform that developers are going to be excited to develop on.
What is the target market for the Dell Mini 5?
I'd say it's definitely a more tech-savvy generation of people that understand the value of using alternate devices. There's a use case that says my phone is really good at making phone calls, but in order to get the true Internet experience, being able to see a website in the shape and form that the original content publisher meant you to implicitly means you need a larger screen device. We've listened to customers and customers are dissatisfied with how they're experiencing the Internet on their devices.
If you're Apple, Apple would say go make an app for every service you have. The New York Times, traffic, whatever it is, which fits their business model great. But there's a lot of developers out there doing Web-based content, flash-based content, and asking them to go do an iPhone app is kind of an onerous thing, whether you're a mom and pop shop up to a large publisher. We're all about bringing Internet content as it's meant to be to a form factor that doesn't require you to squint at your device. It's a much more realistic and natural way for you to view the content.
Doesn't that also mean that the Mini 5 might appeal to an older demographic, too?
There is bifurcation that we found in the research. Ostensibly there is this quintessential soccer mom, and she has an e-mail device, a cell phone and a PND device for the car and she also has a video camera and a point and shoot. You can consolidate all those devices into one device. This device is better than a Flip video camera, it's better than a lot of the point and shoots out there, it's better than the GPS navigation device that's probably in the car, especially if it's an in-dash one. In the use case that you're in the car this has Bluetooth, it'll connect, you can use a headphone, you don't have to hold the device up to your head. When you’re walking you can hold it in your hand, and while you're on the call you have a great device that you can do other stuff on as well.
Can you tell me if the Dell Mini 5 will be able to access the Android Market?
Yes, we are compliant. The initial device that we have has been blessed by Google and will have Google Mobile Services. You'll have Gmail, you'll have Marketplace, and you'll have all the stuff that you would normally expect.
What percentage of the apps in the market do you expect the Dell Mini 5 can handle?
We're in the middle of testing and I can't share what that testing has shown but my expectation is that if it's in the marketplace, it should work. Mind you, some apps may not be written to Google's coding guidelines, and they may break for whatever reason. But if we find those apps and work with the developers, I'm sure that there's no reason why that everything in the Google mobile marketplace will not work on the device.
What are the developers telling you so far?
Every carrier we've spoken to and every partner we've spoken to, they look at the device and they make the joke about holding it up to their heads and say "Hello, Hello." But once we put the device in their hands, they don't want to give it back. We've not gotten a device back from anyone.
Are you confident that AT&T’s network can handle two-way video calls?
AT&T knows that they've been very successful with the number of devices they have. I think that AT&T will continue to invest in their network and some would say that they're behind in investment. But I think AT&T will do the things they need to do to make sure that they maintain customers. Not only Dell, but all device manufacturers. They need to go and really think about how do I support multiple carriers, but multiple regions, and things of that nature. Users will go to where they get the best experience, not just on the device but the best end-to-end experience.
What sorts of software and services is Dell bringing to the table with the Mini 5?
We've done a lot of primary research, and we're looking at how the user is interfacing with the device. At a very basic level, the device is skinned differently. I can't go into the extreme details of our roadmap but I would say that Dell makes multiple devices. As a user, why do I need to choose what device I need to use based on the content. If I bought something from Amazon store on my tablet and I downloaded it, why should I have to choose my tablet over my netbook? When I was at Yahoo they always talked about your content, your way, when you want it, how you want it. It's something that everyone in the mobile space has embraced. You shouldn't have to make decisions based on where your content is.
So you think you might be able to tell a better-together story for those who buy multiple Dell products? If you buy an MP3 once you can listen to it anywhere?
Absolutely, the mere fact that you have a Dell computer and a Dell tablet, there should obviously be an advantage there. That being said, Android is an open operating system. Dell has embraced open source and you can go to our site and download various flavors of Linux. We will maintain openness as part of our strategy going forward. We're a member of the Open Handset Alliance. We're not going to do anything that's closed or limits choice. We want to make sure we give users more choice and not eliminate choice.
Speaking of choice, what can you tell us about Flash support on the Mini 5?
Adobe is one of our partners. We're working with them. It's something we're looking at and users have said they want it and we want to give users what they want.
Can you tell us about content partnerships you might be exploring? For example, Android doesn’t yet offer premium video content.
I can't comment on partnership discussions. I would nominally expect that if there are content types that users want on this device, we will find solutions for them.
Does that include eBooks? Amazon doesn't have an Android app yet.
Yeah, I know, that's kind of odd, isn't it? They support Mac, and PC, and BlackBerry, and I'm just like, wow, all the platforms you wouldn't want it on.
Although the Mini 5 and iPad have obvious differences, you still might be competing for some of the same customers. What argument would you make for your device over Apple’s tablet?
They're different beasts. The iPad, which I'm sure will be great device, and the Dell Mini 5 serve different needs. Ours is a portable device that you can realistically carry with you. If you have a handbag or a murse or whatever, you can put an iPad the bag. If you're a gentleman, you can stick it in your sports jacket. Aside from Stephen Colbert pulling it out of his tuxedo, I don't really see the iPad as a transportable or mobile device.
What do you think about Android on even larger screen tablets?
We like Android quite a bit. Google has been supportive with larger screen sizes. We're very happy that Google thinks that Android on larger screne sizes is also an important thing. When you look at the 5-inch device it really screams "Hey I'm a multimedia consumption device." One of the things that we're thinking about here at Dell is how do we move the device from being something from being purely media consumption to something that gets into the productivity aspect of your day. The simplest thing would be a note taking application. You would use a stylus, take notes on the tablet and eliminate having a notebook. So we're thinkng about what are the productivity applications we can have on Android or other alternate operating systems that would make this more into a tool, not only just when you want to consume multimedia and content.
But stylus input isn’t something that's been implemented well on Android yet.
Stylus input is an interesting thing. You have this great capacitive screen and it kind of limits you on what you can do. You can't use your gloves on top of it. And with resistive, I've seen some very interesting technologies like these transparent conductors. They're getting to the level of being able to do multitouch and being able to use a stylus as well as your finger and have really high quality.
Are you also looking at Google Chrome as well for tablets?
I can't comment on any future product plans that we have not announced. But I can say that you can go to Dell.com today and download a copy of Chrome for your Dell Mini. It's certainly something Dell has looked at.
Do you feel like Windows 7 is overkill for a 10-inch slate? Presumably the battery life wouldn't be as good on an ARM-based device that runs Android. And it's hard to separate the processor and the OS, at least for now.
Intel is working at it and they're doing a good job. A couple of years from now they'll close the gap, but not completely. ARM will continue to innovate. We'll get smaller and smaller process nodes, and things of that nature that will enhance the mobile computing experience. You really need to think about Windows and what they bring to the story that you normally wouldn't have with an Android based device. When you're talking productivity applications, enterprise applications, and things of that nature, then there might be an argument to go do that. But we've had devices of that sort for years, and maybe this is the time where things have just moved and the costs have come down that it could be successful. I'm not going to stand here and predict whether (Windows) will be successful or not. It would be foolhardy to predict this space.
We've already seen in-depth hands-on impressions of the Mini 5 posted. How different might the user experience be in the final shipping product?
One of the great things about Android is that you can change a lot. You can skin it and include your own framework. And we are using all the bells and whistles, hooks, and leverage points within the OS to really make the device something users want to use. Dell is a company that's focused on user design. We have an industrial design group and a user exfperience group, and everyone's had input in making sure we're doing things that make it more appealing. We've certainly listened to our users and looked at the use cases that people would be using the device in and incorporated that feedback into our product development process.
Do you agree that the Mini 5 is the important product launch for Dell this year, and how important is its success to you and the company?
Everyone at Dell on an exponential scale is very excited about this product. It shows the innovativeness of Dell. It shows that we can enter a market effectively. This is a great step forward for us in a new space, and we're defining it. Dell has traditionally been called the fast follower. That's the Dell strategy. In this case we're going out on our own, putting our neck out there, and really defining a new space. And we think based on the feedback, speaking with carriers, speaking with consumers, they're going to love the device. There's lots of pride across the corporation, all the way up to Michael (Dell). This is a device the CEO shows off.
If you were a VC again and Dell was a startup coming out with the Mini 5 as its first product, would you invest?
If you're looking at Dell and this product and its innovation, I would say, "Hey, there's something here that's definitely worth digging in to." The history of venture capital, though, of supporting companies that made devices and been successful has been very limited. If you look at it from that perspective, and you look at the economics, and look at the industry, VCs have really turned off the spigot on things that sell through or sell to carriers. But when you look at this device and it has the potential of being a category killer, I'd say "Yeah."