2017: just where is it all going?

We are entering a period of turbulence in much of the world and I suspect that there are going to be more changes over the coming years.

Smart watches still won’t be as big as fitness trackers. Fitness trackers will peak.

  • Smart watches are struggling for a reason to purchase. Apple’s Watch 2 was the product that they should have realised the first time around. It was fixing the bugs in the first version. But there is still no reason to purchase
  • Android Wear supporters seem to have laid off on development. Huawei Watches are now available for half the list price. Lenovo has laid its Android Wear ambitions aside.
  • Fitness trackers seem to have done a very good job at reaching health fanatics. However the market will soon become driven by replacement devices. There is a constant tension between buying a cheap device which requires low amounts of purchase consideration versus moderately expensive devices that competes agains the smartphone doing the job. It is interesting that Jawbone could not find a buyer and Pebble was sold to Fitbit

If there is a common content format and a rise in content (beyond brand marketing) then VR could take off (and hammer TV sales in the process – at least in single user situations. I still think that VR googles could act as a TV substitute for single person households, shared living and student dorms. When content is time-shifted or binge streamed you can get by without a TV tuner.

The key driver would be the high cost of housing. If you are a hipster living in a small bedsit, having a large TV is a waste of your precious space.

The ‘next billion’ smartphone users in the developing world won’t get their handsets as fast as everyone thinks. Why?

  • Much of the supply will come from small no-name brands. These brands currently are on razor thin margins. Smartphone manufacturers are being shaken out
  • Razor thin margins are crushing key component manufacturers, those that are left will prioritise big customers first
  • The Hanjin Shipping meltdown will hit small suppliers with valuable cashflow tied up in containers that can’t move. Hanjin is expected to precipitate failure in other shipping businesses as the industry still has massive over-capacity and financial institutions will be less interested in helping out distressed businesses. Mearsk’s acquisition of Hamburg Sud is a further sign of this
  • Increasing nationalism in key markets like Indonesia and India is requiring local investment in production lines and component sourcing. This will take the focus away from addressing other markets and likely temporarily rise manufacturing costs
  • Declining economic outlook in mature markets including China, the US and EU will affect the capital available to fund speedy expansion

Leaks about Uber’s finances and rising interest rates are likely to drive increased scrutiny of Silicon Valley businesses. Uber’s finances sound eerily like the investment money pits prevalent.

Media investment is going to pour into the Alt-Right at a VC level. Its been a void that they’ve left up to now. Given that many of the markets that they’ve tried to disrupt are going nowhere, expect Breitbart and Co. to start seeing VC funded competition.

China is making a product that Apple should have done

Trawling eBay gives access to a cottage industry of predominantly China-based suppliers. They take iPod Classics and remanufacture them. They get new cases and new batteries.

Real trick is in the new component put in the device. Out goes the Toshiba micro-hard drive of 120GB or 160GB and in goes a 256GB SSD. Apple had abandoned production of the iPod Classic because it couldn’t get the right parts any more. Technology had moved on and flash memory had replaced micro hard drive’s as storage technology of choice for portable consumer devices.
iPod ClassicSwapping out the hard drive for an SSD provides an iPod with a number of advantages:

  • Its a third lighter than Apple’s version of the iPod Classic. This changes dynamics in usage. It no longer has the same heft, you feel less conscious of it in a pocket or jacket
  • The battery lasts longer. I now get about 30 hours of listening from the iPod. By comparison I get 18 hours out of my smartphone. If I used the smartphone as a music player as well, that battery time would drop further. If I used a streaming service, that would sound worse, hammer the battery life and mobile phone bill even further
  • It holds more music. At 256GB up from 160GB in the last model of iPod Classic it makes the difference between being able to hold all of my music library with me or not. You don’t have Spotify when you have 15,000+ tracks to choose from
  • The same great iPod experience. iTunes still syncs with the device. It has a good quality DAC (digital-to-analogue convertor) chip. With the right headphones and a sufficiently high sample rate it is indistinguishable from CDs. Under normal circumstances it sounds better your typical smartphone – which is trying to do lots of job well
  • It is quieter than the original iPod Classic. There is no longer the noise of a hard drive spinning up and reading the music data from the disk
  • Vigorous movement is not a problem. Apple had done a good job with the original iPod Classic songs were cached in RAM to iron out temporary stoppages due to movement affecting the hard disk. An SSD had no moving parts so it isn’t an issue any more

What becomes apparent is that Apple wouldn’t have had to make that much effort to make the product itself, but for no known reason it didn’t want to.

I suspect that part of this is down to:

  • The law of big numbers. The iPod Classic revamped in this way would be a decent business for most companies, but just isn’t as big as Apple is used to
  • A modified iPod probably too simple a design solution. Apple likes to take a big step forward (even when it doesn’t) – there are no plaudits or design awards in an iPod Classic with a solid state drive

The reimagined iPod is a development in sharp contrast to Apple’s new product developments:

  • Loved products bought by key Apple advocates have not been updated or ignored: the Mac Pro and the Apple Display (which Apple has abandoned)
  • Moving out of entry level products. With the MacBook Pro and MacBook line-ups, the entry device is now a secondhand laptop rather than the 11″ MacBook Air or the non-Retina MacBook Pro
  • Big bets that aren’t resonating with the marketplace: the Apple Watch has been a best selling smart watch; but is in a category which lacks a compelling reason to purchase. The iPad is a passive content consumption device for most consumers. It has a replacement cycle that would be more familiar to television manufacturers than a computer company

 

The internet of hacking or WTF is happening with my smart home?

Mirai – is a bot network that is powered by a range of devices including infected home routers and remote camera systems. It took over these systems by using their default passwords. The network of compromised machines is then targeted to overload a target network or service. Last week the Dyn DNS service was targeted which restricted access to lots of other services for users on the east coast of the US.

DNS is like a telephone directory of internet destinations, if no one knows where to go it becomes a lot harder to get in touch.

DDoSing
Mirai didn’t spring miraculously out of thin air. It finds its history in passionate gamers who used distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to slow down or even kick opponents off online gaming platforms. Eventually the gaming companies got hip to it and went after the cheaters, not to be outdone the cheaters went after the gaming companies.

Taking a service offline using DDoS became a source of extortion against online banking and e-commerce services. Attacks can be used as a form of ‘digital hit’ to take out opponents or critics like online security commentator Brian Krebs.

Computing
Moore’s Law meant that computing power has become so small and plentiful that it is surprising what we often have in the palms of our hands. The first Cisco router was built on the circuit board of a Sun Microsystems workstation. Home routers now are basically small computers running Linux. A CCTV camera box or a DVR are both basic PCs complete with hard drives.

Back in 2007, BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis described the iPhone as

“They’ve put a Mac in this thing…”

The implication being that the power of a sophisticated PC was essentially in the palm of one’s hand. The downside of this is that your thermostat is dependent on a good broadband connection and Google based cloud services and your television can get malware in a similar manner to your PC.

Security
For a range of Chinese products that have been acknowledged as part of the botnet; the manufacturer acknowledged that they were secured with a default admin password. They fixed the problem in a later version of the firmware on the device. Resetting the default password is now part of the original device set-up the first time you use it.

The current best advice for internet of things security is protecting the network with a firewall at the edge. The reality is that most home networks have a firewall on the connected PCs if you were lucky. The average consumer doesn’t have a dedicated security appliance on the edge of the home network.

Modern enterprises no longer rely on only security at the edge, they have a ‘depth in defence’ approach that takes a layered approach to security.

That would be a range of technology including:

  • At least one firewall at the edge
  • Intrusion detection software as part of a network management suite
  • A firewall on each device
  • Profile based permissions across the system (if you work in HR, you have access to the HR systems, but not customer records
  • Decoy honey post systems
  • All file systems encrypted by default so if data is stolen it still can’t be read

Processes:

  • Updating software as soon as it becomes available
  • Hard passwords
  • Two-factor authentication

Depth in defence is complex in nature, which makes it hard to pull off for the average family. IoT products are usually made to a price point. These are products as appliances, so it is hard for manufacturers to have a security eco-system. The likelihood of anti-virus and firewall software for light bulbs or thermostats is probably small to non-existent.

The Shenzhen eco-system
Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong has been the centre of assembly for consumer electronics over the past 20 years. Although this is changing, for instance Apple devices are now assembled across China. Shenzhen has expanded into design, development and engineering. A key part of this process has been a unique open source development process. Specifications and designs are shared informally under legally ambiguous conditions – this shares development costs across manufacturers and allows for iterative improvements.

There is a thriving maker community that allows for blurring between hobbyists and engineers. A hobbyists passion can quickly become a prototype and then into production . Shenzhen manufacturers can go to market so fast that they harvest ideas from Kickstarter and can have them in market before the idea has been funded on the crowdsourcing platform.

All of these factors would seem to favour the ability to get good security technologies engineered directly into the products by sharing the load.

China
The European Union were reported to be looking at regulating security into the IoT eco-system, but in the past regulation hasn’t improved the security of related products such as DSL routers. Regulation is only likely to be effective if it is driven out of China. China does have a strong incentive to do this.

The government has a strong design to increase the value of Chinese manufacturing beyond low value assembly and have local products seen as being high quality. President Xi has expressed frustration that the way Chinese manufacturing appears to be sophisticated, yet cannot make a good ballpoint pen.

Insecurity in IoT products is rather like that pain point of poor quality pens. It is a win-win for both customers, the Chinese manufacturing sector and by extension the Party.

More Information
WSJ City – Massive Internet Attack Stemmed From Game Tactics
Your brilliant Kickstarter idea could be on sale in China before you’ve even finished funding it | Quartz
Asus lawsuit puts entire industry on notice over shoddy router security | Ars Technica
Europe to Push New Security Rules Amid IoT Mess — Krebs on Security
Why can’t China make a good ballpoint pen? | Marketplace.org

Thoughts on the Apple event of September 7

Style

  • The presentation was telling a hard story to an audience that were likely to be underwhelmed. Phil Schiller rather than Tim Cook carried the most difficult parts of the keynote.
  • The piano finish device was an obvious attempt to provide a style angle to the new iPhone and mask the aerial sections. However it is a class action waiting to happen as it will dull over time with micro-scratches
  • The story that the audience was told didn’t feel right. Lets talk about the headphone jack. The double camera only appears in the Plus, so the requirement for room isn’t a credible argument on its own, other vendors have managed to waterproof handsets with headphone jacks. I suspect that Apple isn’t sure that its backing the right horse. Its the least aggressive change they’ve made in a while. The inclusion of an adaptor shows that their user aggression still isn’t as high compared to when they got rid of: SCSI, Apple Desktop Bus (ADB), iPod 30 pin port (still pissed about that one), AppleTalk, floppy disks or optical disk playback and storage – I suspect that they are fearfully waiting to see what the pre-order numbers will be like and they should be. A straw poll of AdAge readers (core Apple user demographic) showed overwhelming disappointment
    AdAge readers on new iPhone
  • There is a lot of really nice features in iOS 10 – I’ve been using it for a while, why didn’t they make more of this and macOS Sierra?

Substance

  • Innovation in the smartphone category has flattened out. The iPhone 7 provides reasons for laggard iPhone users to upgrade, but nothing for 6 and 6S series users. There are few if any innovations for the likes of Huawei to ape in their new models
  • Innovation in smartwatches has plateaued. Apple is coalescing around fitness and dedicated products are much more cost effective for consumers. In China Xiaomi’s fitness band sells for about £15, for many consumers it would be enough. Fitbit is doing well – Apple’s wrist computer (alongside Samsung Gear etc) looks like a sledgehammer to crack a nut
  • Apple have done nothing to address the latent demand for new laptops amongst consumers (I am still happy with my 13″ Retina MacBook Pro). There was no replacement for the Cinema display (again, I am happy with my current set-up, but where is the pro-user love)
  • Apple abandoned its flirtation with luxury by discontinuing the gold Watch. They are still holding out to be viewed as stylish by doubling down with Hermes and a white ceramic device – it would work on the opposite wrist to a Chanel J12
  • It was curious that Apple moved away from talking about security and privacy; the collaborative document working using iWork which could be seen as a potential attack vector on to the desktop. The Air Pods that sync seamlessly with a device without visible security precautions.  iPhone security was addressed in the James Corden car karaoke skit at the beginning of the show rather than woven through the materials.
  • The speech about the app store was to try and bolster developer support, I suspect that services will shore up the Apple financial numbers over the next 12 months
  • The Nike branded Apple Watch was part of a broader move reposition the Apple Watch 2 as a fitness device.

Currently reading….

I have a couple of books on the go at the moment:

  • Smartphones and beyond: Lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian by David Wood. Wood was a senior executive at Psion and Symbian. A combination of an extensive email archive and electronic diary allowed him to produce a blow-by-blow account. Much of it is in the weeds, interesting, but tough to tease definitive answers out. I keep reading it in spurts and then going away. A more details review will come once I work my way through this.
  • The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin’s book has been applauded as a science fiction classic in both Chinese and Western circles. Liu has won a Hugo award for this book and is the recipient of the Galaxy award (China’s Hugo award, but with a better name) on nine occasions. I have just started on the book but it seems to have contrasting narratives, the first of which is a shocking portrayal of how intellectuals suffered during the cultural revolution. This is my go to book for commuting, expect a full review soon(ish).

WWDC – what did it all mean?

I watched the few hours of keynotes at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. I also read some of the resulting analysis and wondered if we’d been watching the same event.
Cómo ver la WWDC 2016 en vivo en iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV
So thought I would think about the event carefully and come up on my take of what it all meant. This is a bit later than I originally planned to publish it.

Firstly, there was no change in direction for Apple from a strategic point-of-view. Apple has been clear about its direction, it is the ‘how’ which is the mystery.

Over the past few years, Apple has focused on the integration of its devices. The reason why there isn’t one OS*, a la Windows 10, is that the different form factors have different contexts. Cross-pollination of services only takes place where it makes sense, which is why Siri has taken a while to roll out.

The first big thing is APFS – a new file system for all of Apple’s devices. This builds on upon a feature set of ZFS which was a file system developed by Sun Microsystems for its Solaris UNIX operating system. Solaris runs on large enterprise computers where the prevention of data corruption and handling a large amount of file changes simultaneously is very important. Like ZFS, APFS supports encryption, granular time stamping, fast file management and has improvements in data integrity. When it’s fully finished it should make encryption on devices easier to manage and provide the user with more control. It should also help with syncing data across devices and the cloud.

The interesting thing is how this technology will scale over time handling multiple devices and form factors working seamlessly from a common database. Like many of there other technologies this is an extension of Apple’s Continuity offering and future integration with a wider IoT offering.

When Steve Jobs launched Mac OSX 10.0 in 2001 he described it as being the OS for the next 15 years. At the time the original MacOS was showing its limits. The UI was colour but hadn’t really moved on that much since System 7.5. The operating system wasn’t multi-tasking. The internet felt kludgy even though it performed well on the hardware at that time. Looking at OSX / macOS now, the operating system it feels fresh. The tweaks and changes under the hood keep the performance hub and the features comparable with the rest of the Continuity eco-system. macOS also doesn’t seem to be seriously threatened by iOS ‘pro’ devices.

iOS 10 was important to me for its embrace of messenger-as-a-platform. Apple innovates within its own Messages apps with some UI gimmicks. More importantly, notification real estate that was once the exclusive preserve of the Apple dialer. This allows you to accept calls from the likes of Skype, WeChat or Slack from the lock screen. This follows Apple’s model of using it’s own apps to work things out and then open up the function once it is mature. Apple’s own Messages app includes a number of features including:

  • Simple chat bot-like functionality
  • Swipe to read on messages to prevent shoulder surfers from reading messages
  • Messages app takeover emotions
  • More emoji / sticker like icons

Apple Pay roll-out – continued geographic roll-out makes sense. Apple Pay isn’t about building a rival payment system a la PayPal. Instead, Apple is trying to build more touch points with the user. The level of usage doesn’t matter too much from that perspective. Geographic roll-out to Hong Kong and more European countries makes sense. The more exciting development is two-factor authentication for e-commerce payments on compatible sites using the Apple Pay infrastructure. This is big for shopping on both Mac and iOS-powered devices.

Thinking differently about intelligence. Unless you have been living under tech industry equivalent of a stone, you’ll be aware of cloud companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google or Baidu using artificial intelligence techniques to drive device function. Apple hadn’t been as visible in this space up to WWDC. The reason for this is due their rigorous approach to user and device privacy.  There were two approaches to this:

Having the mobile devices GPU to perform relatively simple neural-network computing. This can learn user preferences or intent over time and be more helpful

Making Siri more intelligent by looking at the behaviour of users encrypted, salted with false data and aggregated up. Differential Security is the process of acquiring this data. In the second world war, the Allies cracked the cryptography derived from the Enigma machine. But that was only the first part of the challenge. In order for it to be useful the Enigma team used statistics to hide any usage of the intelligence hiding reactive activity in the midsts of statistically expected ‘normal’ behaviour.

Differential security is kind of similar to this. All the data is encrypted, the phone sends a mix of false data and real data. When Apple looks at aggregated data they can see the false data as being false, but can’t tell which users data is false at a given time.

Apple’s WatchOS 3 is interesting because of the performance boost it gives the wearable. The difference is really noticeable. The boost in performance is due to Apple having more memory to use than it had originally allowed for. This provides a more refined experience. Much of the UX enhancements were focused on fitness.

From a developer perspective there were a few things missing:

  • Apple had no new pro-level hardware announcements
  • Apple later walked away from Thunderbolt displays, saying that 3rd parties were now making great displays. This reminded me of when Apple stopped making printers, it felt permanent, though there is a lot of speculation about a forthcoming Apple 5K display – we’ll see
  • Apple still needs to do more work on integrating its Swift programming language throughout its OS’
  • Given Twitter’s peak in growth, Apple didn’t show how Siri would cope in a post-Twitter world

Finally the two-hour keynote was a love letter to China. At every opportunity Tim Cook mentioned the Chinese market, support for China-specific items like language and called out Chinese apps like WeChat.

* From a technical point-of-view; tvOS, iOS, and macOS all share underpinnings based on NetBSD and a Mach micro-kernel.

More information
Apple Pay supporting banks | Apple Support Documents
Apple finally opens Siri to third-party developers | TechCrunch
Apple rolls out privacy-sensitive artificial intelligence | MIT Technology Review
What is Differential Privacy? A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering
Digging into the dev documentation for APFS, Apple’s new file system | Ars Technica
Apple File System Guide | Apple Developer documentation
Mac & iOS Continuity | Apple

Throwback gadget: SnapperMail

At the end of 2001, I started to prepare of leaving my job at Edelman. This meant upgrading my home IT set up. I picked up an iBook. The iBook was Apple’s consumer-orientated laptop made from 1999 to 2006. Mine was a second generation ‘Snow’ laptop with a G3 processor, dual USB sockets and a combo drive which allowed me to watch DVDs and burn  CDs.

I used the move to go on the first version of OSX. The move also meant that I got a new email account, my default account to date. It had two key attributes:

No adverts, so it looked professional in comparison to having a Yahoo! or Hotmail email address and it wasn’t tied to an ISP.

IMAP support which allowed me to use my email account across different devices that all sync across the devices. POP3 downloads the  emails from the server to the device

My iBook was my only source of email access whilst I left Edelman and then eventually joined Pirate Communications. My first smartphone was a Nokia 6600, which I used alongside a Palm  PDA – l got this sometime around the end of 2003. The 6600 supported IMAP out of the gate, it was slow, but I was connected.

The 6600 was eclipsed by Palm’s Treo devices which were a better device. I moved from the 6600 and a Palm Tungsten T3 combo to a Treo 600 smartphone in January 2005.

The process wasn’t smooth. The Treo was sufficiently fragile that I got a translucent silicon jacket that worked surprisingly well with the keyboard and screen protector to look after the touchscreen. Software wise the Treo 600 was a step back from the Tungsten T3 PDA. The screen was smaller and the software felt sluggish in comparison. I had deliberately chosen the 600 over the 650 because I had previously worked agency side on the Palm account and been a long-suffering device owner so knew how crap they were at bug fixes.
snapperfish limited
Unfortunately Palm had not been as progressive in comparison to Nokia with its default email client. The software didn’t support IMAP. Fortunately I used to follow Mitch Kapor’s blog and he had recommended an app from a small New Zealand company SnapperFish.

SnapperMail was a compact modern email client. It has a number of features that we would expect now:

  • It supported IMAP
  • It supported SSL client to mail box encryption*
  • it was really easy to use
  • You could work with attachments including zipped files**
  • There was no restriction on the file size of attachments, the only restriction was your email account rather than your email client

This looks like the kind of technology you would have thought Palm should have done. At the this time Palm were competing against Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003, BlackBerry 6200 series, 7100 series and early 8700 series. Yet the default email client was back in the 1990s.

*The full-fat application cost US$39.99

**SnapperMail came bundled with HandZipper Lite which handled the compressed files and JPEGWatch Lite image viewer

I used this alongside MetrO – a public transit directions app and QuickOffice Pro – to read Office documents as part of my modern smartphone experience. It wasn’t just me that loved SnapperMail, it was praised by Walt Mossberg back when he wrote at the Wall Street Journal.

SnapperMail won two Palm Source (Palm’s software licence business) Powered Up awards in 2003. It was recognised as Best Productivity and Best of the Best Solution.

More information
SnapperMail Has Solid Software For Savvy Mobile E-Mail Users | WSJ
QuickOffice
MetrO – open source mass transit application
PalmSource Welcomes Developers with Awards, New Tools; Announces New Licensees | PalmSource press room

I/O and Google’s viewpoint on technology

Google I/O happened on May, 18 – 20.  There had been a lot of pieces of coverage about the different products and services released. But I wanted to spend a bit of time reflecting on what I/O tells us about Google’s viewpoint on technology.

Giving apps a second chance

Google knows as well as anyone that the app moves towards a maturity model where consumers stick with the core apps that they want and then don’t go any further.
apps
Data shows that consumers use their top five apps 88 per cent of the time. So why would Google care when it knows that 60 percent of the top apps on the Android platform?

The reasons for an expanded app usage include:

  • A proportion of Google’s advertising (like Facebook) is derived from the promotion of app downloads
  • Android devices are reaching market maturity in many markets, growth is likely to come from new uses – at least some of which will be derived from third party platforms
  • Google has staked its ambition in the PC sector on its Chrome operating system being able to run apps from the Android eco-system. In order for that to happen there needs to be a healthy community of developers
  • In the same way that DoubleClick’s ad network greatly expanded the inventory of Google’s advertising business, third party applications offer Google an additional source of usage for its own services. If you want to see the future of Google Apps look at the the way the likes of Baidu and Tencent allow third-party integration with their own tools

Streaming or ‘instant’ apps is part of Google’s efforts to encourage consumer trial of new apps and enhance relationships with developers. Firebase, it’s new analytics platform for mobile developers helps them have a better relationship with their installed user base allowing them to use data to target notifications and campaigns.

More faith in wider area networks (WANs) than personal area networks (PANs)

Android Wear’s updates were interesting. Put simply Google has more faith in data being delivered in a timely manner over cellular or wi-fi networks than it does for inter device transfers over variants of Bluetooth. Both the Apple Watch and Android Wear products suffered from performance lags when the watch was a thin client of a phone. Having a cellular radio on board the phone presents challenges with battery life, but speeds up real world performance.

The original design failure wasn’t down to network performance, but is likely to have implications for personal area network technology like Bluetooth in its different variants or ZigBee. These technologies are all about scale, lose a scale advantage and it poses a problem for future adoption by others. This can happen in a virtuous way. Apple’s adoption of USB benefited the standard greatly and drove interest in peripheral development for both Mac and PC. Apple’s abandonment of FireWire and the 3.5″ diskette marked their decline.

Lots to be concerned about from a privacy point of view?

Google Home moved yet another pair of Android powered ears into our environment. It was obvious from Google’s description of services that a paid marketing model to be the ‘car booking’ or equivalent service of Home could be very lucrative for the search giant. How this device could be used for market research, tracking brand mentions or government surveillance also poses some conundrums moving beyond smartphones to brown goods.

Android N features file based encryption rather than treating the whole device as an encrypted disk. This raises questions around the comparative ease of access from a privacy perspective. Secondly, SafetyNet allows Google to reach into a phone to remove pre-existing applications without user permission. There is no explanation if they also have write privileges to the phone as well. If so, expect law enforcement and intellectual property owner interest. From the way it reads this would affect apps and content that have been side loaded as well as got from an app store.

Android is giving the high ground to Apple on privacy presumably because it considers its own customers don’t care about it that much.

Reference designs in VR to drive adoption and commoditisation 

Google’s Daydream project looks to provide standardisation in hardware. By going down this route, Google hopes to spur on the sensor market required for improved AR experience and drive uptake. These will likely be a very different experience to the computer workstation powered Occulus Rift. Driving this technology into the smartphone market may combat the current stagnation in phone sales growth.

More information
Google I/O 2016 event page
A16hz on Google I/O 2016
Everything Google just announced at its I/O conference
Palm, Apple, Google and the whole mobile device thing
The Limits of Google
If Google’s right about AI, that’s a problem for Apple – Marco.org
ISIS’s Mobile App Developers Are in Crisis Mode | Motherboard

The New Nokia

Microsoft finally let go of its licence for the Nokia license on May 19, 2016.
Slide03
There is a lot of logic to this move:

  • Microsoft has already written down the full value of the business acquisition
  • It has got the most valuable technical savvy out of the team and moved it into the Surface business
  • It removes problematic factories and legacy products

For the businesses that have acquired the rights to use the Nokia name and the factories the upsides are harder to see.

The factories may be of use, however there is over supply in the Shenzhen eco-system and bottlenecks aren’t usually at final manufacture, but in the component supply chain.

There is still some brand equity left in the Nokia phone brand. I analysed Nokia along with a number of other international Greater China smartphone eco-system brands using Google Trend data.
Slide06
There has been a decline in brand interest over the past 12 months for Nokia of 37%
Slide07
Nokia still has comparable brand equity to other legacy mobile brands such as BlackBerry and Motorola
Slide08
The brand equity is comparable to other value mobile brands. Honor; Huawei’s value brand has had a lot of money and effort pumped into it to achieve its current position.
Slide09
But it’s brand equity doesn’t stack up well against premium handset brands from Greater China. The reason for this is that smartphone marketing and fast moving consumer goods marketing now have similar dynamics – both are in mature little differentiated markets. Brands need to have deep pockets  and invest in regular advertising to remain top-of-mind across as large an audience as possible. Reach and frequency are more important than social media metrics like engagement.

In addition to advertising spend needs to be put into training and incentivising channel partners including carriers.

They are entering a hyper-competitive market and it isn’t clear what their point of advantage will be. Given the lock down that Google puts on Android and commoditised version of handset manufacture, the best option would be to look for manufacturing and supply chain efficiencies  – like Dell did in the PC industry. But that’s easier said than done.

Garnering the kind of investment required to seriously support an international phone brand is a hard sell to the finance director or potential external investors.

Slide13
Growth is tapering out.
Slide14
The average selling price is in steady decline
Slide16
This is partly because the emerging markets are making the majority new phone purchases.
Slide15
Consumers in developed markets are likely holding on to the their phones for longer due to a mix economic conditions and a lack of compelling reason to upgrade.
Slide12
All of the consumers that likely want and can afford a phone in developed markets have one. Sales are likely to be on a replacement cycle as they wear out. Manufacturers have done a lot to improve quality and reliability of devices.

Even the old household insurance fraud standby of dropping a phone that the consumer was bored with down the toilet doesn’t work on the latest premium Android handsets due to water-proofing.
Slide20

More information

The answer to the question you’ve all been asking | Nokia – Nokia’s official announcement
Gartner highlights a more challenging smartphone sector for Nokia than when it “quit” in 2013 | TelecomTV
Nokia is coming back to phones and tablets | The Verge
So the Nokia brand returns.. with a Vengeance | Communities Dominate Brands

Supporting data slides in full

Huawei’s expansion into smartphone market

Huawei released their annual results for 2015 last week. By going through their press release library and annual reports I have tried to piece together a picture of their consumer business and how it has grown over time.

Huawei isn’t like other businesses you might be used to in terms of corporate structure. It is based around worker participation in profits with Chinese colleagues benefiting from profit share. It is a private company so it’s numbers don’t have the same level of disclosure requirements as public companies. It’s books are audited by a reputable accounting  firm.

I found some inconsistencies in the way information is disclosed. For a number of years Huawei used to quote US dollar equivalents to its numbers, but has stopped doing so in the 2015 report.

Other inconsistencies:

  • High-end device sales are only listed for the past three years as the company started to focus on the premium marketplace
  • Honor sub-brand device shipments were disclosed for 2014 and 2015 as the brand filled the low-to-mid market segments Huawei’s range had previously extended down to
  • I only have two years worth of revenue numbers from Western Europe, if I get more I can then start looking at trends over time
  • In 2014, they disclosed the proportion of sales from e-commerce and the number of Huawei branded stores. In 2015, they disclosed the total number of retail outlets worldwide that sold Huawei phones

Between the currency fluctuations and the slight changes in information there may be some errors in my numbers – please bare this in mind.

I have outlined my charts below as JPEGs and have embedded a presentation at the bottom for convenience.
Consumer devices shipped
Consumer average revenue / device
Huawei consumer business growth over time

What does 2016 and beyond bring?
Overall sector outlook
Looking at forecasts from market analysts and The World Bank Huawei will experience tougher market conditions with lower growth forecast across major markets like China. Smartphone market maturity will mean lower exceptions of sector growth as well.
Macro economic data
As a presentation

The viewing habits of millennials according to Havas Media

Havas have put together a nice collection of statistics on the media habits of millennials (18-34 year olds). Television holds up really well on live content, recorded shows (think TiVo) and Blu-Ray or DVD content. But it falls down streamed content, which indicates that smart TVs aren’t in as good a place as one would expect. Especially when one thinks that the likes of Netflix would be leanback content similar to live TV or recorded content.

MWC 2016 as a case study on talkability, brand mentions and brand performance

Mobile World Congress (or in industry parlance MWC 2016) is where the telecoms industry goes to set out its stand. It has gradually changed from being a conference where the big issues of the day are hashed out, to more of a trade show a la CES or CeBIT.

From a brand point of view, it was of interest to me for two reasons:

  • It offers largely culture neutral brand discussions, many of which occur online
  • I have an interest, having worked on a few mobile brands during my agency career (Palm, Ericsson, Verizon Wireless, Samsung, Qualcomm, Telenor Myanmar and Huawei)

I pulled this slide ware together for a talk I am giving at an internal event at an agency.

The first data that I have put together is looking at the amount of mentions that occurred regardless of the channel. It is a relatively easy data point to pull out of monitoring systems very quickly.

Obviously the value of mentions will depend on how many people view them, what is the context that the mention appears in. What was the content around it? Who said it, are they expert or trustworthy? So looking purely at the number of mentions would be crude, offering little value apart from nice PowerPoint slides.

Breaking the mentions down by platform gives an idea of relative marketing communications competencies of brands. So looking at Huawei and Xiaomi shows contrasting approach to building talkability and conversations. Huawei focuses on traditional media channels where as Xiaomi focuses on social.

By comparison LG and Samsung seem to have a more holistic approach.

I then moved on beyond the mention data to try and look at relative authority of whoever mentioned the brand and looking at the relative distribution by brand and channel.

I had done some initial analysis on the event in general here. These numbers showed how well brands had built high authority communities and the discussions around them.

What was quite surprising was the polarised authority of mainstream media sources. Newswire syndication had destroyed authority of many online traditional media channels. A second cross brand observation was the relatively low authority of the blogosphere.

These slides only start to delve into understanding talkability and are time consuming to create in comparison to looking at raw mention numbers, but offer superior strategic insight for both earned and paid media approaches for future launches.

I did some broad profiling of online conversations around MWC here.

Generational user experience effects

This post fell out of a conversation I had about mobile applications in particular SnapChat. My experience of consumer electronics has crossed over from unwired and analogue devices through to the present day, which provides me with a wide perspective on how things have changed.

My parents grew up in an environment where the three most complex devices they would have been exposed to as a child were a watch or clock, a sewing machine owned by the local seamstress and the piano or organ in the parish church.

Form follows function
I was just old enough to remember electricity coming to the family farm. The 1960s vintage Bush TR82C radio still ran off a battery until the mid-1980s.  This provided the agricultural mart price changes and weather forecast, as well as the musical entertainment on a Saturday night.

My Dad saw electronics enter industry, where previously electro-mechanical systems and pneumatic circuits had driven simple processes that would now be governed by a microprocessor.

They were fine with new appliances and even the new 1970s Trinitron TV with touch controls; hi-fis and kitchen appliances usually had neatly labelled buttons that may have had logic controls rather than the physical ‘clunk’ behind them.
Sony Walkman DD

Modal interface design The problems started to come with digital watches and VCRs (video cassette recorders).  The user experience in these devices were different than anything that had gone before. VCRs and digital watches were like the computers of their day modal in nature. You had to understand what mode a device was in before you could know what pushing a given button would do.  In my case this wasn’t an intuitive experience, but I got there by reading the manual. If you own a G-Shock or similar Casio watch, you still experience this modal experience, this is the reason why a G-shock comes with a user manual the size of two packs of gum. g-shock modal nature
My Dad had the head to deal with these technologies but didn’t have the time to go through the manuals. In the late 1980s / early 1990s Gemstar launched a simple way of programming the video with the correct time and channel with a PIN number for each programme that was between six and eight digits long. It was known by different names in different regions; in Europe it was called VideoPlus. And it was easy enough for anyone who could use a touchpad phone to grasp. Panasonic launched a rival system based on scanning barcodes that wasn’t successful, though programming sheet still goes for £10 or so on eBay.

VideoPlus allowed me to skip duties as household VCR programmer. But I didn’t get away from modal interfaces. Menu driven interfaces where all the rage with friends digital synthesisers. None more than the Yamaha DX-series, which not only had a complex way of creating sounds and a byzantine menu system of accessing them. Knobs and dials in interfaces were expensive, menus driven by software were virtually free once the software was written – and the microprocessors to drive them continued to drop in cost. This was one of the main reasons why albums from that time often credited someone with being a ‘MIDI programmer’. From a manufacturing point of view robotic pick-and-place machines that automated the manufacture of consumer electronics (until the rise of the hand built Chinese electronics from Foxconn) were an added driver for having ‘dial-less’ circuit boards.

During the day, I worked with a range of computers at work and my first email account was on a DEC VAX as part of the All-In-1 productivity suite; think of it as a Google services type application on a private cloud with a ‘command line’ like interface that operated on the same modal principles as the VCR or digital watch.

All-In-1 had a simple email client, word processor, a ‘filing cabinet’ – think of it as Google Drive and the front end of business applications – we used VAX for stock management and to order supplies.

Given the spartan interface, it seemed appropriate that I learned how to touch type on an application for the VAX – mainly because after you had read the newspaper cover-to-cover there wasn’t much to do on a night shift.

We had a few other computers in the labs for running test equipment, usually some sort of DOS, a couple of Unix-variant boxes (HP, SGI and a solitary Sun Microsystems machine), an Amiga (because they had handy features for video) and  Macs.

WIMP
I naturally gravitated towards the Mac. Once you got the hang of the relationship between the movements of the mouse and the cursor on screen, the interface of Windows Icon Mouse Pointer (WIMP) was remarkably similar to the form follows function design of analogue consumer electronics. Interface design aped real-world button designs, folders and filing cabinets, even waste paper baskets. Even the spreadsheet mirrored a blackboard grid used at Harvard University to teach business students.

Once one you had got used to the WIMP environment it was remarkably simple. More complex devices required menus but for many applications, once you knew some basic rules you were up and running. Part of this was down to Apple laying down interface standards so cmd Q meant quit an application, cmd C meant copy, cmd X meant cut and cmd V meant paste in any programme.

This was something that Microsoft took as a design lesson for themselves when making Windows, however it was interesting that they started to break these rules in applications like Outlook.

Things became more complex with applications like Adobe PhotoShop which became so feature rich, it meant that there was more than one right way to achieve a particular task, so instruction manuals tend to be of limited value.

The leap from WIMP to hyper-media was a small one, the act of clicking on a link was relatively easy. What one didn’t realise at the time was the new world this opened up. We went from interlinked documents to surreal worlds created in Macromedia Flash and similar authoring tools on CD-ROMs and eventually the web. An immersive experience was promised that was never fully delivered mainly because we expected William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy to be our manifest destiny.

Icons under glass
MessagePad :: Retrocomputing on the green

In the early 1990s Newton had pioneered a simple version of the icons-under-glass metaphor that consumers would really take to heart with the iPhone and later Android devices. The Newton was too ambitious for the technology available at the time. The Palm series of devices pointed out the potential of icons-under-glass as a metaphor. The Palm V can be scene as a conceptual model for the modern smartphone. Please wait...

With a metallic case, slim lithium ion battery that was not removable and a bonded construction were all eerily reminiscent of the industrial design for the iPhone models rolled out some eight years later.

The launch of the iPhone marked a sea change in consumer adoption if not technology. Apple built on the prior generations of touch screen devices and improvements in technology to update the experience. They made one choice that made the iPhone stand out from its competitors, dominant player Nokia made devices that were designed to be used one handed – phones with a computer inside. Apple flipped it around so that it was selling a computer that happened to do phone things as well. When you went into a shop, it had a bigger screen and a more polished interface so was great for sales demonstrations.

Eventually the technology started to appear everywhere. The coffee machine at work has an iOS like interface complete with skeuomorphic icons for buttons.
Icons under glass

Social interfaces
In some ways, mobile interface design aped existing analogue devices. But things started to change within applications. Designers started to build applications that focused on a particular use case, which made sense given the software feature bloat that had happened on desktop applications and even web experiences like Facebook. Most social app designers haven’t managed to squeeze as much functionality out of their real estate as WeChat/Weixin. You then started to see the phenomena of app constellations where non-game single purpose apps deep linked to other applications.

Designers started to take a minimal approach, to cut down ono the screen real estate taken up by controls.

Instead controls only appeared in what might be broadly termed a contextual manner. The only difference that applications which have contextual menus tend to ‘telegraph’ the options and offer a help section in the app.

I am not sure when it started but Snapchat is a prime example of this phenomena of the ‘social interface’. Their interface features are not explained by a design or manual but are more like cheat codes in a game, shared socially.  It feels like a fad, minimalism taken to an extreme, a design language that will move on yet again.

More information
VCR Programming: Making Life Easier Using Bar Codes | LA Times
Quick History of ALL-IN-1 | The Museum of Email & Digital Communications
Jargon watch: app constellation

Jimmy Kimmel on Back To The Future Day

Whilst its a great bit of nostalgia, it makes great points on how technological progress hadn’t occurred in ways that were beneficial to society. Doc Brown is correct in describing a smartphone as a tiny supercomputer: in the cold war that’s what devices of equivalent computing power would have been. I guess the future is generally more vacuous than one generally predicts.