The Synology And Symform Partnership: The Future Of Consumer And SMB Storage

Last week, Synology announced a partnership with innovative cloud storage firm Symform. Finally, someone is combining the peace of mind and worry-free connectivity speed of the network-attached storage (NAS) drive with the convenience of cloud storage. Arguably, this is targeted more at small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) — those big enough to have a security and backup policy but too small (or too cheap) to build an enterprise relationship with a commercial cloud provider like Amazon. However, even with my consumer-focused hat on, I see a lot to like:

  • It allows a trickle update of cloud files. As anyone who has wondered what the hell Microsoft’s SkyDrive desktop app is doing as it whirs away for a couple of hours will know that syncing to the cloud is still pretty tedious — especially if your connectivity speed isn’t up to scratch. By adding a central repository of your data on the always-on NAS drive, you bypass this issue while still ensuring your files are available in the cloud.
  • It pairs two technologies that lack sufficient mainstream appeal, creating a compelling hybrid. As I’ve said before, NAS technology hasn’t hit the levels of popularity that I expected it to 5-8 years ago; it will ultimately be replaced by cloud storage — but not for many years yet. I’ve also said that in the long term, cloud storage isn’t really an “application” or a ”service”; it’s a facet or feature of other applications or services. Pairing lots of local networked storage with cloud back-up (or even just key directory duplication) means that you are getting the best of both worlds now rather than waiting for all-encompassing, super-reliable online services of the future.
  • Symform’s business model doesn’t limit the amount you store in the cloud (unlike its competitors). Effectively, Symform works as a coordinator of available peer-to-peer (P2P) storage: Agree to let Symform use some of your space hard disk space (either on a PC, a NAS drive, or a server), and it will give you half of that amount as cloud storage for free (on top of the initial 10 Gb allowance). Symform promises secure, regulatory-compliant, globally distributed cloud storage for little more than the price of adding a new hard disk to your rack/NAS /PC – and that’s if your storage is nearly full. Of course, you can pay as well . . . but that makes the offering significantly less attractive.

But, there are some bridges yet to cross:

  • It still means shelling out at least $500 for the local storage. Cost remains the biggest issue for consumers or small businesses looking at network storage. Why would you pay at least $400 for the most basic 2 Tb Synology NAS set-up (for example, the DS212j plus two Western Digital 2 Tb drives) when you can buy a 3 Tb Seagate external USB3 drive for $135?* Well, there are lots of reasons that a seasoned IT professional would recognise: availability, redundancy, multidevice access, file syncing, and management tools to name a few . . . but none of these resonate with mainstream consumers (oe even the small end of the business world). Let’s not forget that consumers are still failing to manage and back up the gigabytes of unique and irreplaceable content generated by their digital cameras.
  • Symform’s business model is both a blessing and a curse. While I commend Symform for coming up with something different from the largely interchangeable offerings of Box, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Dropbox, there are still some thorny questions that need answering:
  1. Can Symform make money if only a small fraction of users pay for storage? Of course, you could argue that the same can be said of Dropbox or Box; at least Symform doesn’t have to invest in building massive storage capacity to support its service.
  2. Can a P2P solution rival a big honking data center in Texas for reliability and speed? Again, there is a persuasive argument that P2P is more robust and efficient than traditional “client-server” models — just look at BitTorrent technology. As with BitTorrent, redundancy will be the key; its imperative that a user’s files aren’t corrupted if another customer’s storage node drops out of the pool.
  3. Is it legal? This is an argument that could run and run (and I’m not a lawyer…don’t even play one on TV). Government agencies already frown upon cloud solutions which store files/data outside their home geography. Does distributing tiny fragments of files globally make this better or worse? Similarly, can the US government ask for access to customers’ files as they can from other US cloud providers? Incidentally, it’s a myth that the 2001 Patriot Act makes the US the only country able to do this.
  4. Given the above, is Symform a long-term bet? Back-up is, by definition, all about peace of mind. You want your data to be secure both now and for the foreseeable future. This makes Symform a risky bet for businesses — although at least switching to a different service is easier these days than replacing actual physical back-up devices.
  • The security and confidentiality of cloud storage will continue to be an issue, especially given Symform’s business model. When it comes to cloud storage, IT pros rightly point out that file security and confidentiality can be a real issue; you are effectively transmitting your files (usually unencrypted) to a remote data centre protected by a single password. And you could argue that this issue is compounded by Symform then farming out the virtual data center to other individuals’ NAS drives.

Overall, I hope that Symform succeeds — they are trying something different and in theory offering a valuable free-ish service with little downside. The Synology partnership certainly strengthens its hand, while also making its NAS drives more appealing. There is bound to be a shake-up in the cloud storage market in the next 12 to 18 months; too many firms are offering free or low-cost storage with little differentiation. Symform at least has the advantage of a different infrastructure and business model.

* Of course, we’re not strictly comparing like with like here; the 2 Tb Synology set-up is offering RAID redundancy, and it could be configured as a 4 Tb storage option

Wii U: Can Nintendo Win Through With Its (Probably) Final Home Console?

At various points during the past 24 hours, Nintendo has revealed the release dates and prices of the Wii U console in different geographic markets. Two versions will ship: a basic/White Wii U (Japan: ¥26,250; US: $299; UK/EU: around £200 or €250) and a Premium Black Wii U (Japan: ¥31,500; US: $349; UK/ EU: around £250 or €310). For the extra $50, aside from a more traditional console colour, you get four times more Flash memory (32 GB), charging stands for the tablet controller and console, a bundled NintendoLand mini-game collection, and a three-month pass for the “Nintendo Network Premium” online service. Initially, the games won’t support a second tablet controller (which, when purchased separately, will cost a whooping ¥13,440 in Japan — the only market where they are available separately at launch), but this will come over time. The good news is that almost all the Wii controllers, balance boards, and other random bits of plastic you’ve invested in should work with the new console.

Some initial thoughts:

  • Is the pricing right? Putting aside regional variations — Japan has always paid more for its consoles, and Europe has variable value-added tax — the price of the new console isn’t too bad. Sure, it’s higher than traditional Nintendo launch prices, but this was partly forced on the company by the competition. It’s certainly cheaper than the last-generation launch prices from Microsoft and Sony. A more interesting question is whether consumers are still prepared to pony up $350 for a new console when they have other compelling options like tablets, smartphones, and social gaming in which to invest. Incidentally, Gamesutra has a very nice comparison of historic console launch prices, even adjusting for inflation, here.
  • The tablet controller offers some interesting “second screen” game-play opportunities. Many game publishers already complement console/PC releases with companion iPad games or apps (e.g., Mass Effect 3 Infiltrator and Datapad Apps). Nintendo and Sony have also offered console connectivity for their portable consoles in the past. But this is the first time that the second display can be taken as a given for the entire console-owning base. Naturally, the first opportunity is to use the controller screen in a similar fashion to the lower touchscreen on a Nintendo DS. Over and above that, though, developers are pushing the boundaries with asymmetric multiplayer gaming as a real differentiator — i.e., up to 4 ”players” use traditional controllers to interact with the game on the TV, while another player assumes a “God” (or spectator) role with the tablet controller, looking on and driving the overall experience. This effectively takes role-playing gaming right the way back to the original Gary Gygax Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game. Penny Arcade sees some cynical, but probably true downsides to this!
  • This brings second screen TV entertainment to the rest of us. The Wii U TVii functions look nice, allowing social discussion, deeper program engagement (maybe with advertising?), and a more intuitive program guide integrated with multiple providers . . . all for free out of the box in North America. Not that you couldn’t already do this with an iPad (costing from $399) or with an Xbox 360 and “Project Glass” (provided you have Xbox Live Gold for $60 a year and a compatible tablet costing . . . well who knows!) if you were a geek with money to burn. So it’s a much cheaper solution for what looks like a nice experience. All the major US/Canadian networks are on board, along with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. It’s not yet clear how much extra effort these content and distribution firms will invest in generating the required metadata, but at least many of the sports stats, trivia and social connections are pretty much already there to be tapped into.
  • Why is this likely to be Nintendo’s last home console? Even though we’ve watched OnLive crash and burn and Gaikai be absorbed by Sony, this doesn’t mean game streaming is dead — the days of dedicated game consoles are still drawing to an inevitable close. Why? For the same reason that dedicated cable boxes or video-streaming boxes like Boxee will disappear. The technology will be incorporated into other devices; it could be the TV, a wirelessly connected tablet, or eventually a proper functional cloud streaming service. Incidently, Microsoft and Sony also have just one more console in them; by the end of that generation (in five years’ time, perhaps), I’d expect expensive, dedicated console hardware to have run its course.
  • It has the field to itself for a year. Speaking of the competition, it’s clear that we won’t see new consoles from Sony and Microsoft for at least a year, maybe longer. Nintendo will have the ”next generation” to itself — although Sony and Microsoft will argue, with some validity, that the Wii U is only really comparable with their current generation. Another factor that may help Nintendo in the closing months of 2012 is the delay of several key titles (such as Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Alien: Colonial Marines, DmC, etc.) to early 2013, leaving core gamers with extra money to spend; some of that may well head Nintendo’s way.

So, can the Wii U succeed? It’s by no means a slam-dunk for Nintendo. Many dedicated gamers — Nintendo’s old core audience — felt let down by the “casual” games that proliferated on the Wii (ironically, the same games that made the console a mainstream success), along with too many Mario ports (no sign of that changing) and mainstream consumers have long since boxed up their Wiis. Add in the rise of social gaming on PCs and tablets, and the appeal of a dedicated console that doesn’t even play DVDs, let alone Blu-ray discs and with just one (albeit innovative) controller seems tough. But Nintendo needs this to work. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, it doesn’t have a fall-back business model or ”multidevice living-room strategy” from which to recoup its investment. And the additional pressures in the portable gaming space from smartphones and tablets mean that Nintendo really has a battle for survival on its hands.

My take: At this stage, I’m prepared to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt. The hardware looks good; it has strong support from publishers and TV content/distribution owners in North America; and backward compatibility with Wii titles means that there is an extensive collection of games out there in addition to the launch window titles. By the end of Q1 2013, we’ll have a better idea of whether Nintendo will survive as a home console platform owner or follow Atari and Sega down the software-only route.

 

Amazon’s Kindle Fire Raises The Table Stakes For Tablets

As expected, Jeff Bezos announced new Kindle products yesterday in Santa Monica — and what an interesting range of products these turned out to be! While the updated Kindle eReaders offer better performance and a lower price point for those dedicated eBook lovers, it’s the Fire range that really impressed.

In place of the low-powered, fairly low-spec, North America-only original device, there are now three to four devices — running the gamut from version 2 of the original all the way up to the 4G-enabled 8.9-inch Kindle HD with its own data plan. The pricing of the devices is even more intriguing — at $159 for the lower-end 7-inch tablet, $199 for the 7-inch HD tablet, and $299 for the 8.9-inch HD tablet (Wi-Fi only), these represent a new challenge to other manufacturers’ Android devices and Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 tablets. Additionally, European markets (the UK, Germany France, Spain, Italy) will get to see the 7-inch Fire devices (both version 2 of the original and the HD device) at more or less the same time as the US – no sign of the larger device, but that’s probably reserved for the US market while supply ramps up.

What does this mean?

  • Android tablets (aside from the Nexus) are dead in the water. With Google and Amazon both squeezing the price of Android tablets, its difficult to see how Samsung, HTC, etc. can compete in this space, especially given that they don’t have Amazon’s and Google’s alternate revenue streams to supplement loss-leader hardware. The Verge published a very good article on this prior to Amazon’s announcement.
  • Microsoft finds itself at a crossroads. Microsoft now has two options for the Windows 8 RT tablets:
  1. Stick to its “The Kindle Fire and the iPad are just for content consumption; Windows RT tablets will be for so much more” message that has been its mantra for several years and try to price high — a strategy that’s almost certainly doomed to failure if it relies on retail and mainstream consumers to understand the difference.
  2. Price the Microsoft Surface (RT version) competitively to hit Google and Amazon head on and undercut Apple. The downside here is that it means alienating those already-alienated Android OEMs as well (on the ARM platform at least). Also, Microsoft has very little content or advertising revenue to make its money back on hardware subsidies. So as previously mentioned, the $199 Microsoft Surface RT seems unlikely.
  • Apple needs to adjust its medium-term strategy. The iPad, iPhone 5, and (probable) iPad Mini will naturally continue Apple’s policy of premium pricing: Why would it slash margins when the competition hasn’t really made an impact? But it’s more important for Apple now to look at what price its tablets will be in 12 to 18 months’ time — a time frame that allows for Amazon Fire, Google Nexus, and even Microsoft tablets to establish a decent market share and application ecosystem. In a market of similarly designed — lawsuits allowing! — well-built devices with active developer support, Apple will need to adjust its pricing accordingly; consumer ties to the iTunes ecosystem can only be stretched so far.
  • For consumers, it’s win/win (after six months of pain). The upshot of all of this for consumers is that there will be much more choice in the tablet space, more competitive pricing, and a wide variety of capabilities and ecosystems to choose from. This won’t happen overnight, though. To get to this tablet heaven, we’ll need to go through a glut of dismal Android tablets dumped on the market by those OEMs boxed in by Google/Amazon; Windows RT tablets arriving with their confusing “It’s a proper PC, but not really a proper PC” messaging; and endless discussions about poor battery life, built-in obsolescence, and app stores.

What’s next? Apple’s iPad Mini announcement will mix things up again in the next month, and we’re still waiting on pricing details for Windows tablets.

Windows 8 Devices Dominate IFA 2012: They Look Great; Take My Money! (But How Much Are They?)

For once, IFA in Germany was quite interesting, with many OEMs taking the opportunity to unveil their next generation of tablets and smartphones – the majority of which ran versions of Windows 8.

Both Sony and Toshiba offered sliding-keyboard Windows tablets, with Sony also showing a 20-inch tablet. Dell had a good-looking update of its “flip-screen” Dell Duo device — the Dell XPS Duo 12 — along with a 10-inch Windows RT device. .

Samsung labelled its family of Windows 8 devices “ATIV” — announcing both ARM and Intel tablets as well as a smartphone.

Several OEMs also showed touchscreen ultrabooks — HP, Samsung, and Acer among them. Asus revealed a hybrid laptop (the Taichi)  with two screens, effectively putting the tablet screen on the outer lid of the laptop. Samsung has a similar prototype. A bunch of all-in-ones also sported a Windows 8 update, which should be a shoe-in for one of the few PC categories that’s still shown growth over the past couple of years (admittedly from a tiny base).

Of course, while this is interesting to analysts and the kind of obsessive tech fans who read Engadget and Gizmodo, none of this will feel real to consumers until they see devices on sale in Best Buy or Carphone Warehouse.

Naturally, pricing details are still fairly thin on the ground. This is not too much of an issue normally; you can usually guess a price point based on existing products. But the spectrum of potential prices is particularly wide here, especially for the Windows RT tablets; we still don’t know if the Microsoft Surface RT tablet will really be priced at $199, and so the price of the rival RT tablets could be all over the place. Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire come in at $199 (should you manage to find stock of the latter), but these are just mid-level 7-inch devices. Will a 10-inch Windows RT tablet command a premium? Probably, but only $100 to $150 at most. Hopefully, manufacturers won’t make the “same price as an iPad” mistake again! It’s clearer where pricing will go for Intel-based tablets, both the low-power units and the true PC tablets; they are going to come in at around $600 to $800 for entry-level devices and will head up from there as they become hybrid ultrabooks.

Another reason that OEMs (and Microsoft) may be keeping their powder dry on pricing is the impending announcements from the rival camps. Amazon is expected to announce new Fire devices on September 6 — including a rumoured ad-supported tablet — and potentially a wider geographic reach than just the US. And, of course, Apple is on the verge (maybe) of announcing the ”iPad mini.” Nokia may even get in on the Windows tablet action when it announces new smartphones on September 5; after all, it did release a lovely looking premium netbook  (albeit with sales as near to zero as worth measuring).

With the likes of Sony, Samsung, and Lenovo also showing new Android tablets and smartphones at IFA, the tablet war is finally kicking off!