Tech Update: Google Phone, ESPN In 3-D

The Consumer Electronics Show starts Thursday, and Google's highly anticipated smartphone is due. Also, ESPN announced that it's launching a 3-D network, and rumors swirl about Apple's tablet computer. Slate's technology columnist Farhad Manjoo brings us up to date.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

It's a busy week in tech world. Just an hour ago, Google unveiled its highly anticipated smartphone. This morning, ESPN announced that it will launch the industry's first 3-D television network. And now there's all kinds of buzz about, well, whatever it is that Apple plans to introduce later this month.

If you have questions about Nexus One, ESPN 3-D or Apple's whatever it is, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And as we do from time to time, we turn to Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, who joins us today, as usual, from the studios of member station in San Francisco, KQED. And Farhad, happy New Year.

Mr. FARHAD MANJOO (Technology Columnist, Slate.com): Hi. Happy New Year to you, too.

CONAN: And first off, I guess the Google phone is just about an hour old.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. The Google phone, which we've been hearing about for about a month now, Google just finally, officially unveiled it. Although people of - some Google employees and others in the press have had access to it for a little while, it's a pretty interesting device. And it's not a revolutionary phone compared to - it's sort of stacks up there with other phones on the market today: the iPhone, the Motorola Droid. But what's interesting about it is this is the first Google-branded phone. It's the first phone that is sort of - that Google is putting out by itself and selling directly to computers. So it represents kind of a new strategy for Google in the phone business.

CONAN: Yeah. The first Google-branded hardware.

Mr. MANJOO: Right. So up until now, Google has been producing this operating system for mobile phones called Android. And the strategy has been to give the operating system to as many phone manufacturers as possible. So Motorola has Android phones and HTC, another manufacturer, has Android phones. And you can get these phones on a number of different carriers. But now, Google seems to want to kind of promote Android in a much bigger way. And so it's creating its own kind of Android experience with this phone called the Nexus One.

CONAN: And when we first heard about this, there were a lot of buzz that this was going to be an unbranded smartphone that, in other words, you wouldn't necessarily have to tie it to one particular, you know, provider or another.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. That seemed to be kind of big push that Google was making. It's going to sell this phone directly to consumers. And so today, the main way you buy a phone is you buy it with a contract. You - if you want the iPhone, you go to AT&T, you sign-up for two years of service, and then you get a phone at a discounted price. Google is offering that you can get the Nexus One with T-Mobile service and soon - next year it says, with Verizon. And you can get a discount on the phone, get the phone for about $200. But you can also buy it directly without signing up for service for $500 and then use it on any carrier that you want that the phone is compatible with. So it represents a slightly different strategy, but as I said, the phone without a contract is $500.

CONAN: That's a lot.

Mr. MANJOO: So it's a huge amount you're paying for getting it unlocked. And I think that most people are sort of opt for buying it with a contract just kind of in a traditional way we buy phones.

CONAN: So if it's not a revolutionary device, what's Google up to here?

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. It's kind of puzzling, because there is a danger here in that Google has been trying to partner with other manufacturers to create a lot of different Android phones, and now it seems to be competing with these manufacturers. Now, it has the Nexus One, which competes directly with this Motorola Droid phone, which is also running Google's operating system. So there's a question about whether all these other manufacturers might get upset at Google kind of entering this business much more directly. But I think what Google wants to do is create kind of the flagship, the standard bearer for the Android phone and then all the other Android phones will get pretty much the same functions. And so it might be that Google is just kind of providing, let's call it like the concept car�

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. MANJOO: �for the industry and then other people who are building similar phones will just kind of build - try to build the same thing.

CONAN: On our Web site, Laura Sydell did a review of the Google phone, the Nexus One, and said - that's All Tech Considered, by the way - and said one thing that it does have over the iPhone, it's got a great battery.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. That is a huge complaint about the iPhone that, you know, I have an iPhone and it's - if you forget to charge it for one day, you're pretty much out of luck. You have to charge it up every day. So that's one thing the Nexus One has for it. It also has a pretty good camera on it.

But, you know, these - all these different devices have different advantages and disadvantages. The iPhone has a great multi-touch interface, which means you can use multiple fingers to pinch to zoom in to a Web page, for example, and you can't do that on the Nexus One.

CONAN: And it connects you to the iTunes store, which the Nexus One will not.

Mr. MANJOO: That is another big advantage of Apple's system, yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Farhad Manjoo about the week in electronics and gadgetry, which it's a big one. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's turn to Drew(ph). Drew's calling us from St. Louis.

DREW (Caller): Yeah. Hi. Good to be on the air.

CONAN: Nice to have you with us.

DREW: All right. I'm really excited about tablet PCs. I've always had an interest in them. And - but I really prefer Windows over Macintosh. I personally think the interface in Windows is a little bit better. I know I'm going to receive hate mails for that.

CONAN: You will.

DREW: But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DREW: But I'm interested in the iSlate because I'm hoping that it's going to inspire a lot of competition among PC makers.

CONAN: And for - by the way, a donation to your public radio station, we'll send you Drew's email so you can complain to him directly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DREW: Oh, I hope not. But - so what I'm thinking is I need to get a computer, like, right now because my computer has broken. So I'm wondering whether I should just get something really cheap, you know, to hold me off right now until the iSlate comes out - and not just after the iSlate comes out but after it inspires competition, you know, among PC makers.

CONAN: And the iSlate, I should say, is the rumored device coming from Apple later this month.

DREW: Yes.

CONAN: All right. Farhad?

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I think that's a good strategy: to wait to see what's going to happen. And buy - if you need a computer now, buy something now and just wait. Because - so the iSlate, we don't even know if that's the real name. I kind of imagine that it's not going to be the real name. But, basically, it's this mythical device that no one knows about that Apple is probably going to be unveiling this month, but we have no idea. We don't know what it is. We don't know exactly what it will be - what it'll do and we don't know how much it's going to be.

But, basically, it's - what we think it's going to be kind of like a big screen iPhone, like it's going to be a touch interface, a computer that's basically all screen, no keyboard, and it'll be portable. But we aren't sure what it'll be mainly used for. If there's no physical keyboard, it could be kind of a device that you use mainly to surf the Web. And you kind of wouldn't necessarily write your novel on there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANJOO: So we aren't really sure. And we also don't know whether it'll be a success. Computer makers have released tablet PCs in the past. There were several Windows versions of tablet PCs earlier this decade, and they didn't really take off partly for this reason. It was unclear kind of what their purpose was, where you would use them. So we'll see. I have no doubt that if Apple releases a tablet PC, it'll be full of innovative - it'll be very innovative, it'll do things like no other tablet PC has in the past. But - I -we just don't know anything about it. Yeah.

CONAN: Let me just ask. For those of us who hear the word tablet and think, take two and call me in the morning, what's a tablet PC?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANJOO: So, yeah. It's just - it'll basically be like a screen. A flat, you know, think of the - let's say the Amazon Kindle, a very flat device that's basically pretty much only a screen, and you would navigate it using your fingers. You would touch the screen to load applications...

CONAN: So about 8-by-10, something like that?

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. The theory is that it'll be around 10 or 11 inches, you know, diagonal screen size.

CONAN: Okay. All right. Drew, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

DREW: Thank you. Do you know whether it's going to run the final - the full Mac OS or will it be a strip-down?

Mr. MANJOO: The speculation is - the rumors are that it'll run some kind of hybrid. Not full Mac OS but, you know, something like what we see on the iPhone. But no one knows again.

CONAN: Okay. Drew, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to Gabriela(ph), Gabriela with us from Highland Heights in Kentucky.

GABRIELA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

GABRIELLA: Well, my question is because I've read recently an article on Japanese cell phone technologies. And friends are international students at my school, also bring in their Japanese cell phones with - which, of course, don't work here. But I was wondering if Google was thinking about partnering in with the Japanese cell phone companies that are juggling to bring in their cell phones to America and other parts of the world and if they like their technology.

CONAN: Yeah. We keep hearing how much better Japanese cell phones are than the stuff that we have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, Google is trying to partner with lots of manufacturers so it's possible. I - there's no real sort of news on that to announce. And they're also trying to get this Nexus One. They're trying to push that out internationally, too, so it probably won't be for America only.

But I think Google's sort of strategy here, its larger strategy, is to get -Google makes all of its money from advertising. From advertising on the Web, on - and we access the Web through computers mostly right now. But it wants to be kind of a mainstay on mobile devices as well. So as many different devices as it can get on and show ads on, that's Google's master plan.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much, Gabriella.

GABRIELLA: You're welcome. Thanks.

CONAN: Email from John(ph) in Milwaukee. Could you ask your guest, all of the phones and cameras on the market today are very bad at recording audio, is this device any better at recording audio?

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I'm not really sure. I don't - and I don't even know if that's necessarily true that all of the devices are bad at recording audio. I have a...

CONAN: A lot of people are bad at placing microphones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANJOO: Yes. I mean, compared to the kinds of stuff you record here at NPR, I'm sure it wouldn't be that good. But I use my iPhone and my digital camera to record audio pretty often, to record interviews and things like that, and they work well enough. I think that, you know, it's not going to be as good as a dedicated audio recorder, but it - for most tasks, it'll probably work, you know, pretty well.

CONAN: We're talking with Farhad Manjoo who is technology columnist at Slate.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Pat(ph). Pat with us from Westchester in Pennsylvania.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

CONAN: And Pat, you've got a phone call.

PAT (Caller): Oh, hi. How are you doing? Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

PAT: My question is, actually, I don't know anything about the 3-D you're talking about with ESPN, but my only question is has there been any information about a lot of people get headaches or something watching 3-D television for extended period of time? And I would imagine, you know, watching 3-D movies in the movie theater, I get a headache, and I know a lot of other people have problems with their, you know, with their eyes and a headache. And is there any problem�

CONAN: Pat, how can you say people get headaches watching 3-D TV, when there is no 3-D TV?

PAT: I'm sorry. I meant to say movies.

CONAN: Movies, okay. All right...

PAT: I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's all right.

PAT: What I was just wondering - is there any information about what the effect would be for long-term periods of watching 3-D television. That's all.

CONAN: Okay.

PAT: And I'll take my question off the air.

CONAN: Thanks, Pat.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, I think that's a big problem. And, you know, they've changed the technology from kind of the early days of 3-D, the, you know, back in the '50s. And so the projection technology and the glasses that you use to watch 3-D TV or movies, they're better. They're more improved than they were. But it's still not an entirely comfortable experience.

And, you know, I think that after...

CONAN: Especially if you wear glasses already.

Mr. MANJOO: Yes, that's true. Then, it's just not physically comfortable. But, yeah, it - and so after watching, you know, a movie for two hours, I think many people report feeling a little woozy and having headaches. And I imagine that that would be true on TV as well.

I don't - I think that, you know, all of these TVs that are coming out and the TV networks, the 3-D networks that are planned, for all of them you will need to wear some kind of eyewear to kind of get the experience. And so because of that, I imagine it will be kind of an intermittent thing. You would put on the glasses to watch, you know, a football game that's being broadcast in 3-D or perhaps a specific movie that has 3-D in it, but you wouldn't be watching TV with 3-D all the time. I imagine that would be...

CONAN: But the Disney-owned three ESPN says they're going to broadcast 85 sports events in 3-D starting next year. And of course you're going to have to get a new TV too.

Mr. MANJOO: Yes. And these TVs are - they're being pushed by electronic manufacturers. They're kind of the talk of the Consumer Electronics Show, which is occurring in Las Vegas right now. They're going to be a little more expensive. The prices I've seen have been $2,000 or more. But they are kind of seen by many manufacturers as kind of the next big thing. I wonder whether it'll take off because, again, because of the reasons the caller mentions. And also, you know, I've never watched anything on TV and said, boy, I wish that was in 3-D. And I bet that's true of many people.

CONAN: It's possible. It's possible. Let's see if we could go next to Jack(ph). Jack with us from San Antonio.

JACK (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I actually wanted to go back to the Nexus conversation. I actually have a G1 phone from T-Mobile that has been routed so I have administrative access basically. And I've loaded on it a custom ROM which is a CyanogenMod. And it pretty much trumps the Android operating system - just a little bit. It's got a lot of cool extra features. And actually it does have multi-touch available, so I can do the pinch, zoom and...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JACK: ...you know, swipe out to zoom in and out. So I'm just wondering if the Nexus One, if anybody mentioned whether it was going to be able to be unlocked in the same way or routed, or if Google has pretty much blocked that type of access so that you have to use their operating system rather than the custom operating systems that people make out in open-source community.

CONAN: And if you could, Farhad, could you translate as you answer?

Mr. MANJOO: So, what he's talking about is, you know, you buy the - you buy a phone with the operating system preinstalled. Some people who are quite technically adept can try to put on a new operating system to give the phone more functions and do the kinds of things that the caller is talking about. I haven't heard that this is possible on the Nexus One, but I would imagine it is. And I would imagine if it hasn't already been done, it's only a matter of time until someone figures out a way to do so on the Nexus One.

CONAN: Jack, Good luck.

JACK: Cool. Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And Farhad Manjoo, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MANJOO: Great. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and joined us today from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.

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