The new batch of Veer reviews are coming out and I think there will be a race to the bottom to see who can write the most scathing criticisms of HP’s new diminutive smartphone running webOS 2.0. The Veer is billed as the smallest HP smartphone ever. It might as well be called the smallest smartphone ever. One review particularly annoyed me and I let the reviewer Josh Topolsky, the former editor in chief of Engadget. We had a brief exchange on Twitter regarding the review.
First thing first, I will admit is those short and brief comments on Twitter can seem abrupt and overly critical. With 120 characters, there’s little one can say about some else’s review while not sounding harsh. I apologize for these brief statements in Twitter while expanding on them here. I'll also add that this article is not a personal attack on Topolsky. He's a seasoned pro and I usually admire his work. But I didn’t like his review of the Veer. Like other tech reviewers and even comic book reviewers, he can sometimes make his existing views, expectations and opinions, the center of the piece he’s supposed to focus on, instead of reviewing the unit he was asked to review. I know exactly about this issue. As the publisher of The Comic Book Bin and its editor in chief for many years (nine), I know all about bias and colouring the article you’re writing with your own personality and – hum – agenda to right a perceived wrong. I do it all the time and I try to avoid it. There’s a lot of power when you write those reviews. You can break or make a product and really there’s nothing the poor merchant can do about what you write. They’ll always try to stay on your good side. It’s the professional way to act. Tonight, there’s a couple of Palm engineers and designers that aren’t sleeping well and feel their work has been unjustly smashed by a reviewer more focused on his own agenda, than on the device he was offered an opportunity to review.
Obviously, I have no Veer, so I can’t possibly review the little bugger, although I’ve played with it live at the Palm event in February 2011. I like it the moment I touched it. It’s a small phone. A very small phone. I wasn’t interested in the Veer until I picked it up and it just bonded with me, the way babies, puppies and kittens do. You just fall for them like an idiot. What use do I have for such a small phone? It would be my going to a party or a bar phone. The one I would take with me on a Friday or Saturday night on the town. Easy to carry, but not expected to be my main device. Yet, if I need to check something quickly online or answer an email, the Veer can suffice. A lot of other people, including several friends who have heard about this phone have echoed my view. The HP Veer, for a current smartphone owner is not meant to be a main device. It’s that little phone that’s stylish and sexy that you take with you on casual rounds and to turn heads. Everybody has an iPhone when you go to a bar. The Veer has that chic touch that’s perfect on a meat market. Although it has the power of a full smartphone and possibly a mobile office replacement, the Veer’s cramped keyboard is not meant for extensive typing. I get that. Others don’t.
There is this myth that the Veer is intended for the feature phone crowd that hasn’t moved to a smartphone yet. It can be such a phone but it doesn’t have to be. The Veer is that secondary accessory used as a status symbol. It’s not meant to be your main phone. I mean, a phone that comes in white is super small and runs a sexy mobile operating system is not meant to be a walking mini tablet. What HP is doing is creating a new category of devices that are really accessories. The Veer will be popular with the “in” crowd. I expect a lot of people to buy the Veer not because of the power it packs, but because it’s like one of those tiny dogs (called Chi Chi) that divas and pop stars like Madonna, Cher, Paris Hilton or the Queen of England like to carry near their purses. It’s a piece of attire. Tell me that the white Veer was not created for that purpose. For guys, it’s a date magnet to look different and practical, instead o lugging a giant piece of hardware with you all night. It’s a toy that packs a lot of features. And that’s where I let go of my geeky genes and start to take on metrosexual ones. The Veer is not meant for the nerds of this world. It’s meant for the jocks, the preppy folks, the yuppies, the cute girls and the popular crowd. What HP is doing with this product is creating a new product category that allows people to own a secondary smartphone, that happens to be a webOS device that can run powerful apps, but might be a complementary device to an Android or an iOS owner. HP is betting that if early adopters get hooked on this bite-sized webOS device, that they’ll explore bogger devices like the Touchpad tablet or larger phones like the Pre3. It’s also betting that people are ready to adopt a secondary smartphone used for non essential function and thus try out an alternate mobile operating system like webOS. Reviewing this device as something else and from a typical geeky perspective misses these points entirely.
There are particular details about Topolsky’s review of the Veer that I disagreed with and found misinformed. For example, he wanted to search for the name of a contact by typing the first three letters of the person’s name. webOS users know that to search for a person’s name in your contacts, you should use their initials. Palm, the smartphone unit of HP, which makes these phones even, has a patent on that dating from several years back. This is a common Palm feature, like Graffiti.
Topolsky had issues deleting emails, because the email app kept refreshing the IMAP server used by his Gmail account. I use seven email accounts on my Palm Pre 2. I know exactly what behaviour he’s describing. The email app can hang sometimes if you’re deleting several emails at once by swiping from left to right or vice versa, as it’s trying to update the webmail server of your email account. That’s not a bug I encounter often. I call it a trade off for being able to handle seven email accounts through IMAP one the same device within the same app. You can’t do that as easily on Android or iOS. The fact that I can’t create multiple emails and read past ones within the same app as seamlessly as I would on a computer on Android and iOS is more a bug and an inconvenience for me than an email app trying to update the server in real time while I’m deleting 20 emails one after the other. Topolsky criticized the email app, forgetting that Palm is hard at work with a new version that will be compatible for webOS 3.0 for June and that will replace the one that comes on the Veer once the device gets its webOS 3.0 in time for the launch of the Touchpad tablet due in June 2011.
Some of the criticisms were about the camera that doesn’t include a flash. It’s a bit ironic that Palm was the first smartphone maker to systematically include a flash on all its early webOS devices while the iPhone lacked one until the iPhone 4 came out in June 2010. The Veer for very understandable reasons has limited supports for some of the perks found in other smartphones. The camera flash is one. The odd magnetic charging and headphone port is another. Sacrifices were made to keep the phone small. If one remembers that this phone is meant for people partying in a bar on a Friday night, its less of a worry.
Some of Topolsky’s criticisms, which he says are based on a slow operating system I blame squarely on network. He says the load time of webOS apps can be slow. Since replacing my Palm Pre 1 with a Palm Pre 2, this has not been an issue at all. Lagging only occurs when the network around has a bad connection, including WI-FI. The other thing to remember is that webOS apps tend to load stuff in the background and serve a spinner icon to users whereas Android and iOS apps tend to open the app, but elements take a while before they fully load within apps. It’s a shift of loading priorities. I do have to add that AT&T’s network, from my frequent visits to the US pales in comparison with the HSPA network in Canada. Last time I was in San Francisco, my Nexus One running Android was at pain to load anything. The experience in Canada is light and day.
One of TopolskY’s criticisms which I found unwarranted was about how some apps are not available for the Veer. Let me explain. Developers can create apps for webOS using two frameworks. They can program apps using Web technologies similar to those used for Website developments. Or they can use a development framework used to make apps that use the core of the device and elements such as its graphic card. Most 3D video games are created using option #2 and access the core of the device’s functions. These apps are scaled in a specific screen ratio and the HP Veer doesn’t use that ratio. To make the app compatible with the Veer, developers have to specifically adjust the screen ratio of their apps. Many choose not to. Other apps using Web development technologies scale automatically in most case. Topolsky used that against the Veer which I found unfair. If the app is not compatible with the screen ratio of the device, it isn’t. Although the Veer’s internals can support hardcore 3D gaming, it’s such a tiny device that it makes no sense to even try to play a complex game on such a small device. Topolsky would have liked Palm to rescale apps automatically, ignoring that unlike apps using the Web development framework from Palm, each 3D game is really unique and should be customized individually for best result. I have a problem with criticisms like that because they assume that one size fits all solution is desirable. I’d rather trust each development team to rebuild their apps for the smaller screen ratio of the Veer.
Speaking of screen size, one thing that annoyed me the most about Topolsky’s review was how he criticized the small size of the device. When HP introduced the Veer on February 9, 2011, they made it clear that this was a small phone with a screen as small as your average Blackberry device. The physical keyboard is expected to be small. Saying a device is too small when it’s entire purpose for being is to be small is redundant. Anyone who buys this device knows it’s incredibly tiny. It’s not a secret. Criticizing the device for being so small when it’s intended to be small becomes ridiculous. It’s small, get over it.
Josh Topolsky is an experienced reviewer and has some well-formed opinions. However, in the case of the Veer, he clearly focused more on expressing his disenchantment with HP’s smartphone strategy rather than focusing on reviewing the unit he was sent. The faults he found with the device are not the ones I would have levelled against HP. His article did not focus on the good things and whether the phone could fulfill the needs of a typical user. Can it send text messages? Can it receive and send emails? Can it be used as just a phone? Can it be used to send a quick Facebook update? How easy is it to install an app? I think the review would have been more beneficial to readers had the editorializing about HP’s business strategy had been split in a second article instead of colouring the review of new device and using it to vent against the Hewlett Packard’s smartphone strategy.
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