I still think that many of the smart TV technologies will lie fallow when it comes to usage, if you want to know how to build interaction for the lean-back user context then services like teletext but faster aren’t necessarily going to be revolutionary.
I wrote a bit about my experience speaking with a consumer electronics salesperson on a post I wrote for PR Week.
It was this conversation where I heard the phrase clone used. In this context it meant a piece of consumer electronics badged with the brand name of, and sold by a famous Japanese brand that has been made in China by an ODM (original device manufacturer), and where many of the critical components were not sourced from within the industrial group of the Japanese brand. It was a negative term implying that the product was in many respects counterfeit or unauthentic.
The concept in itself isn’t a new idea, some 30 years ago it was well-know that Ferguson’s Videostar machines were re-badged JVC models or Grundig and Philips sharing a similar relationship back in the 1980s.
What is interesting is the corrosive effect that the clone accusation must have a brand, particularly when it comes from a figure like the sales person I spoke to who would be considered by the consumer to be a domain expert. I gnaws away at reputations based on quality and design over decades and explains how globalisation and digital convergence has destroyed giants like Panasonic, Sony, Pioneer and Sharp.
This contrasts sharply with the perception of Apple, which uses a similar ODM-based supply chain yet has managed to grow from strength-to-strength.
The easiest way I had to think of the Werkbench application was imagine if Roger Linn designed a steam-punk version of the Akai MPC60 and it was transformed into an iPad application.
It has an intuitive interface like early drum machines. If it took MIDI instructions it would be an ideal way of building tracks. The product demonstration video is on YouTube so may not be available to all readers.
When I started off having an interest in DJing I went around to a a friend’s house whose older brother was into audio engineering. As well as having one of the first set of Technics 1200s I had ever seen he had a Revox B77 tape recorder. He used to record tracks on to the tape reels and then splice the tape to make tracks longer by extending breaks, or extend the breakdown or vocal hook of a track into staccato repetitions; which sounded like Max Headroom-esque stutters of vocal hook or ‘machine gun’ drum breaks.
Splicing tape took patience, practice and a modicum of skill to achieve. At the time however it was the tape machine itself that I fell in love with. These machines were made in Switzerland and felt like they were hewn from aluminum. Even the buttons were solid, giving positive feedback through a satisfying clunk when pushed and the VU meters glowed with a warm light and needles danced as the sound levels went up and down. As interfaces went, the analogue controls of the tape machine have yet to be beaten by anything that Apple has come up with. All of this belied the complex engineering that happened inside.
All of this engineering expertise turned out machines that were about the best recorded sound that money could buy. Many artists today record digitally, transfer on to an analogue tape machine like the B77 and then master back to digital for CD manufacture and iTunes reproduction because of the way analogue treats sound.
Revox was a consumer facing brand of Swiss professional audio manufacturer Studer (now part of Harman International) and much of that professional engineering went into the Revox products. The Revox tape machines were professional ‘wolves’ in consumer electronics ‘sheep’s’ branding.
The B77 series of machines came out in 1979 and sported full logic controls (which made things smoother) and direct drive motors (which meant that everything got up to speed faster), but otherwise improved on the A77 of the late 1960s. The machine used 10 1/2 tape spools to make its recordings on with a tape throughput of 15 inches per second on most models which was the professional master recording standard and one could vary the speed up to over 20 inches per second if you wanted to – this operated a bit like pitch control on a Technics SL-1200 turntable.
The B77 series came in a number of guises:
The LS ran at low speeds for radio stations and call centres that needed to log everything that happened
The basic model which ran only at consumer speeds
The HS which ran at professional tape recording speeds
The PR99 (Mk I, II and III) which were designed to be more edit friendly and had less knob controls which could get in the way of the manual tape splicing process
All of this engineering came at a cost and weighed a proverbial ton (actually closer to 20Kg for the machine itself plus whatever you carted it around in, like a studio rack or a flight case)
Quarter inch tape recording isn’t dead, the tape is still made around the world by Quantegy, RMGI, ATR Magnetics and Jai Electronic Industries. Otari Inc still makes an analogue studio master machine and Denon still sells a similar machine for broadcast purposes in Asia.
In addition, high end studios still use multi-track digital reel-to-reel machines when you want to record to 48 tracks as the time code technology and audio encoding technology used in them is superior to more modern computer-based solutions.
Hong Kong-based independent mobile industry analyst Tomi Ahonen is one of the most prominent critics of Nokia. One of the points that Ahonen makes is that the Nokia N9 (based on the MeeGo operating system; parts of which has now been incorporated into Samsung’s mobile operating system Tizen) is more attractive than the equivalent Nokia Lumia phones.
Nokia has been suspiciously ambiguous about Nokia N9 sales numbers. Mr Ahonen has made some guesses that put the N9 selling in broadly the same numbers as the Lumia range; despite not being sold in many developed world markets and not being backed by a $150 million advertising campaign. These are just estimates so I was curious to to see what the relative interest was for Lumia devices versus N9 when they are sold side-by-side.
I decided to look at Expansys.com. Expansys is the place to go for early adopters to get the kind of handsets that UK carriers, Phones4U and Carphone Warehouse don’t want to sell. In common with many sophisticated e-commerce websites Expansys has a search function that has an auto-suggestion function based on popularity to help get consumers to the item they want as fast as possible.
In this unscientific study the N9 is more popular than all the Lumia models – when the products are sold side-by-side, which is probably why Nokia has taken care to minimise the amount of market competition between the Lumia and the N9. This still doesn’t give me any idea on differentiation between the N9 and the Lumia models.
I decided to have a look at the different Lumia models and the N9 on Google Insights for Search. What this shows is an overall decline in interest on all the premium Nokia brand phones I looked at over time. Whilst the Lumia 800 has been the most popular on the chart, the gap between it and the Nokia N9 doesn’t merit the fact that Nokia blew an estimated $150 million promoting the Lumia 800 – their biggest ever budget and didn’t for the N9.
One could argue that Nokia has been handicapped in its carrier relations because of Microsoft’s Skype acquisition, and reviewers have given the handsets themselves mixed reviews. But what I found most disturbing is that it seems that the evidence suggests consumers have failed to be sufficiently excited the Lumia phones; that an unpromoted, unsupported handset running an operating system that Nokia has killed off is giving the Lumia range a run for its money – despite the Lumia range having Nokia’s largest ever marketing campaign behind it.
Nokia still has a stretch of runway to make its transformation complete, but it doesn’t fill one with confidence, perhaps RIM will be the third mobile eco-system?
In common with the 701, Sony’s C1 impressed me with its product design. In a pioneering design for 1998, the C1 included a built in web camera above the screen that could be rotated to try and ensure an optimum camera position.
Sony made a small modular computer. What was important was what they had left out in their device case and instead relied on a set of outboard peripherals so the user could bring or configure their computer set-up to suit their needs. The PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) slot was equivalent of the USB socket today and used to connect a wide range of devices including both fixed-line and GSM wireless modems.
The beauty extended on to the inside of the devices with some of the range using a Transmeta Crusoe processor. The Crusoe was the Intel Atom almost a decade before the Atom; it used a combination of software techniques and hardware innovations to reduce heat output and improve power consumption. This had some benefit in terms of battery improvement, but battery life relies on a combination factors such as screen power, hard drive power and other parts on the circuit board.
This device is even more remarkable when you realise that the Sony Vaio C1 was launched some seven years before Steve Jobs went on stage at Apple’s Worldwide Development Conference in 2005 to announce the move to Intel processors because of a new focus on computer power per Watt. You could consider the MacBook Air that I am typing this post out on as a spiritual successor to the Vaio C1.
I’ve been a Mac user for almost all of my computer-owning adult life and there have only been a couple of devices that have ever given me PC-envy. The first one was the IBM ThinkPad 701, my friend at college Jouni whom I lived in halls with at the time had a 701 and the product design blew me away.
Surprisingly for a computer manufacturer, IBM turned out laptops that had interesting industrial design. They used magnesium alloy shells, titanium and carbon fibre in different model designs over the years and got less credit than they deserved for it.
Richard Sapper, a German product designer based in Italy came up with the design language for the ThinkPad which he modeled on the traditional black lacquer bento box. An ex-automotive engineer with Mercedes Benz Sapper was better known for his work with Alessi and the Tizio lamp for Artemide. Sapper has kept a connection with the ThinkPad brand and is involved as a design consultant for the current ThinkPad range made by Lenovo.
What made the 701 special was the butterfly keyboard designed by John Karidis solved the problem of making a portable computer with a full-size keyboard. It was delicate the way it folded into place as one opened the lid on the laptop and robust enough to cope with travails of mobile working.
Preamble – I decided to write this post after careful consideration. On one hand I didn’t want the companies involved to suffer because one executive had a loud mouth, on the other hand it raised interesting questions about the state of the Android eco-system. So I decided to thinly veil the identities of the different parties.
March 14: I was sat down in the main dining room of the JW Marriott in Seoul having breakfast and minding my own business when I found myself sitting the next table along from a rather loud discussion of a proposal that a US start-up wanted to make to a major Korean Android handset and tablet manufacturer in a meeting scheduled that day for 2pm.
The crux of the pitch was this: the start-up can help the Korean company sell more devices if they pay for the start-up to develop their software software (currently a prominent RSS and social network aggregation as magazine-type reader on iPhone and iPad) specifically for the Korean company’s Android devices. Said Korean company should also spend a bit more to offer on a new phone or tablet – a three-month free subscription to a publication like The New York Times, Vanity Fair or People magazine – given the media connections that the start-up partnership development person had: they could broker the deal to make this happen.
I also gathered that a similar pitch had already been made to a Taiwanese handset manufacturer; but not much progress had happened, though this may change as they had a good idea that the start-up was in discussions with this Korean competitor.
Now ignoring the lack of common sense in having this discussion in a public place with colleagues when your voice carries across the room I was struck by two things:
The economics of major applications on Android seem to require major financial incentives if this guy had flown half-way around the world to pitch this offer at the same time that SXSWi was on in Austin
Android device differentiation / hyper-competition is becoming an issue, if the head of marketing at a large corporate would spend time to do this meeting and seriously consider the start-up’s proposal. The market must be seriously commoditised and there must be little ‘value-add’ benefits between devices
Now I don’t think that a free three-month subscription is going to move the needle that much, particularly if one looks at how Nokia’s Comes With Music initiative failed to arrest the decline of the world’s largest phone maker. And the implication about the economics of high-quality Android application development was something that concerned me, particularly when I look at the increasing demand for mobile work from clients.
I have been using my iPod down the gym and found my present headphones inadequate for my needs. I was looking for a set of headphones that were gym friendly, that didn’t completely seal me off from my surroundings, but at the same time stayed in my ears.
I looked at a number of designs and read reviews that put me off every alternative that I found. Eventually I remembered the old headphones that came with my Sony Discman in the early 1990s, these were an iconic design in their own way. The headphones were lightweight and the degree of articulation that was in the headband to make it foldable and fit different head sizes made them ideal.
The speakers pointed backward in the ear canal to give a more realistic sound by bouncing it around the ear like you hear normal sounds. The fact that it wasn’t fully closed made it ideal for me to be aware of what was happening around me in the gym.
The real surprise I got was when I found out how much these headphones now go for on eBay: £30. It seems I wasn’t the only one that wanted these design features and the headphones still work well partly because they were made to a more exacting standard in a Sony factory in Japan.
So what do they sound like? Well the MDR-A10 with it’s ‘turbo’ circuitry was designed to work with Sony’s premium Discman range of the early 1990s which have a superior performance in terms of audio output compared to Apple’s iPod. You can only get so much out of headphone drivers this small, but the headphones are good enough to show the limitations in the iPods sound.
One of the things that I had been thinking about for a while was the way the smartphone handset market; in particular the Android eco-system had had the value hollowed out of the business for the manufacturers. In some ways this process seemed to mirror what happened in the PC market through the 1990s and into the 2000s.
But let’s go back to where it all began. Back at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, home computing meant having a ‘dumb terminal’ connected to a mainframe or mini-computer at a large corporation or university via a telephone line. Due to the price of local calls in the US versus Europe; it was natural that should develop first in any meaningful way. Even then it was used by a very small number of early adopters.
However there was a latent demand for personal computing, you had a few geeky counterculture types who had an old mini-computer in a building and provided terminals and accounts to members of the public and community groups free of charge. Outside San Francisco however this latent demand wasn’t being met. The Homebrew Computer Club that held most of their meetings in an auditorium attached to the Stanford Linear Accelerator had a different idea.
In essence they looked to reinvent personal computing by using simpler less powerful hardware. This unleashed a wealth of innovation from the first spreadsheet to at-home stock-trading and eventually World of Warcraft.
Mobile devices are a similar point of reset in personal computing. Many of the tasks that we do from word processing to entertainment don’t necessarily need the amount of computing power that we have. Secondly even this Mac that I am writing the post on probably has lots of unnecessary code that isn’t really required by me. For people who don’t create a lot of content mobile devices from tablets to smartphones are ideal for their needs in many respects.
Beyond this moving forward through simplicity there is another aspect to the the rise of mobile devices that mirrors the PC world; like the Windows Intel eco-system before it – the Android ARM eco-system is becoming commoditised; defined by specification (processor, Android version and screen dimensions). This is what Nokia was afraid of when they decided not to go down the Android route; though the level of control that Microsoft has over Windows Phone hardware specification and and user experience could be argued make the lack of differentiation amongst Android competitors a mute point.
HTC looks as if they have been trying to do something about this, in terms of hardware: purchasing a majority stake in fashion audio brand Beats Electronics LLC and S3 Graphics. This was matched by a similar effort in software with their HTC Sense interface skin with some productivity and communications applications.
Technology marketers haven’t been doing themselves any favours with co-marketing budget type ads like these ones that I took a picture of last year for different Motorola phone models.
In reality, the HTC Sense interface isn’t the differentiator that one would have thought, they haven’t yet used the Beats audio brand in any meaningful way, nor has the S3 graphics come into the marketing mix. Sony Ericsson and Motorola have fared worse and Samsung has come out on top.
Why has Samsung been successful?
I think that this is down to a number of factors:
Samsung like Nokia has built up an extensive effective global logistics and channel network
An extension of this would be Samsung’s relationships with wireless carriers
Samsung can sweat the supply chain largely because it owns the supply chain: it makes LCD screens, memory, ARM procesors for instance. Thus allowing it to compete on price/performance points that many of the other players couldn’t match
In this respect, Samsung’s operational efficiency and effectiveness is similar to Dell in it’s prime (the main difference is that Dell wasn’t a vertically-integrated component manufacturer). Samsung’s head marketer Younghee Lee wants to turn Samsung into an emotional brand rather than a rational one. Historically consumers have known Samsung as making reasonably good products; but many didn’t even realise that the company is Korean rather than Japanese.
The company has a modicum of product design smarts that has allowed it to make in-roads in the television and brown goods markets at the expense of Panasonic and Sony – but it still isn’t operating at the same level of design acclaim as Apple.
Ms Lee’s aspiration for people to feel something about the Samsung brand is at odds with the adverts that the company has been running in the US.
(The embedded video is on Tudou, so will need patience whilst it loads).
The adverts generally follow a pattern:
Attacking iPhone customers as foolish zealots
Demonstrate a Samsung | Android feature
Finish on a rational message
It is the advertising equivalent of the Japanese phrase that ‘the nail that stands up must be hammered down‘. The problem for Samsung is that you don’t get a consumer to switch brands by berating or insulting them; those kind of motivators tend to only work as a line management technique in command-and-control companies (a la Apple).
Secondly, the rational reason doesn’t give a reason to switch from Motorola or HTC to Samsung with the disdain of iPhone customers as a common bond.
If Samsung wants to become a brand that consumers feel passion for, it won’t come through these attack adverts, but from the product design outwards in every part of the customer experience. In this respect Ms Lee’s hands are tied – as the product design and customer experience would need to be raised consistently across the Samsung product range; not just smartphones to make this happen effectively.
It takes years to get this right in an organisation of the scale of Samsung, whilst that is happening Samsung can consider how it can do more appropriate consumer marketing and advertising – I’d suggest by thinking about how to encourage and empower existing Samsung customers to become passionate advocates of the brand.
Early January means CES in the tech calendar as the media gives its full attention to the consumer electronics sector. With some 2,600 exhibitors there was a lot of news coming out of the event. But I was more interested in some of the more macro trends that you could see from the coverage and hear from friends that attended the event. Here’s my three big things:
Size zero design – Motorola was responsible for move towards size zero design and Apple has turned it into a must-have design feature in smartphones and computers. It was only natural that up and coming young Turks like Huawei with their Ascend P1 smartphone should demonstrate their technical prowess with the current thinnest phone.
I also found it interesting that Fast Company wrote an article pointing out the design rabbit hole that size zero design is for device manufacturers and consumers. Pretty good, and only almost two years after this blog (^.^)
Austerity designs – a general observation from a couple of the people I knew had gone to CES was that manufacturers generally had a lower average ticket price on the items that they were displaying. There was less aspirationly priced items than in previous years, probably as manufacturers look to deal with the current economic climate. CES products are not only about drumming sales for the coming year, but also setting the tone for a next few years ahead. This pricing strategy indicates that many of the manufacturers probably aren’t expecting a huge economic bounce back in the West.
Smart everything – one of the things that struck me about CES is the way that technology was been shoehorned into every facet of life from the car, to the wall thermostat and the wall plug. The only thing is I am not convinced that the electronics will last as long as the useful life of the car or the electro-mechanical Honeywell wall thermostat that would have been used previously. Secondly do you really want your home heating or your car dashboard to need rebooting every so often so that it keeps working?
I currently have two mobile phones, an iPhone 3GS for all that stuff that smart phones do and texting. My second phone is a Samsung B5702 DUOS phone that does my voice calls. Its a great phone with a week long battery life and a space for two SIMs.
With the Samsung Galaxy Y DUOS, it looks like I’ve been finally given a reason to upgrade. On the specifications the phone is a basic Android smartphone. But unlike the vast majority of dual SIM phones available it supports UMTS networks which gives you more options when you are roaming abroad on networks. It should be available early next year, but you will need to trawl Google and Amazon (I’d advise Amazon Germany) to find it as the mobile phone carriers won’t like it. More information on Samsung’s press room – the press release doesn’t give an exhaustive breakdown of the technical specifications and too much meaningless marketing platitudes.
Here are the notes I made from a panel discussion on the benefits of the mobile web versus a native application.
Things broadly split down with the technical rationale for the web; applications seems to be much more about what consumers want. There seemed to be an assumption that mobile network access is of a reasonable quality and ubiquitous in nature which is a world away from the real world.
I got an email from eBay promoting that it was selling 500 Samsung Galaxy tablets at a discount. It was an interesting tactic probably being used as part of a wider campaign to try and get a critical mass of tablets out there and hopefully build a bit of buzz in the face of Apple’s iPad.
At the end of the day, it’s just a pretender. Just in the same way that nothing can make up for having the wrong brand of shoes in the playground; the Galaxy is no iPad.