Thursday, 30 October 2014

Microsoft's Band Looks Mighty Impressive

Microsoft didn't launch a smartwatch today, as many had expected, rather it showed its own take on the fitness band, showing an insight into the market that has bypassed many.

However like its only real direct competitor - the Samsung Gear Fit - battery life is going to be a big friction point for those who buy this over a more traditional fitness band.

In truth both Microsoft and Samsung have delivered something that sits in the middle ground between smartwatch and fitness band. Not quite the full smartwatch experience, but more than a plain fitness band. The big problem with this is battery life. The Gear Fit can stretch to three days without charging, but you're more likely to want to juice it up after two. Microsoft claims two days for the Band, but we'll have to see what it's like in the real world before taking that as gospel.

Two to three days without charging just isn't long enough to be better than a smartwatch - with the LG G Watch R already claiming two days battery life, whilst its so much less than the Fitbit and Jawbone fitness trackers which promise around seven days of battery life as to make the extra features a little bit pointless.

The Band does promise to make for an impressive fitness tracker though. It's loaded with sensors, including GPS for mapping runs without carrying your smartphone, and a UV sensor which could useful here in ozone layer-challenged New Zealand. Windows Phone users will be able to use voice control via Cortana on their phones, although I don't see any reason why Siri and Google Now couldn't be activated too, should Microsoft have the desire to do so.

Microsoft Health makes an appearance here as well, with the Band integrating nicely into the service, as well as supporting other exercise tracking services like MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper.

I like the look of the new Band, as I do the Gear Fit. They're both devices I might be tempted to wear as well as my watch, and if that was the category I was considering the Band outdoes the Gear Fit by being cross platform compatible.

Other than the LG though, I'm not seeing a smartwatch at any level that offers the looks and features that would persuade me to replace my traditional watch.

News Publishers Don't Understand How The World Works Today

The Verge is reporting that Spanish publishers have succeeded in getting their government to pass a law requiring news aggregators to link to their articles. In terms of stupid decisions it ranks up there with the worst of them.

This comes less than a week since German publishers, who secured a similar ruling, backed down and allowed Google a free license to publish extracts from their news articles.

It appears that those who publish news on the web don't really understand which side their bread is buttered on.

Google's News search tool takes their content to a wider audience, generating more clicks and page views and ultimately more advertising. If Spanish news sites follow the Germans in demanding a licence for republishing extracts from their content, Google will stop listing them in search sites and the drop in traffic will hurt them significantly more than they understand.

For news producers, as for the music industry, the world has changed. The democratisation of the content creation process means that print and broadcast media don't have the exclusive ability to generate and control the news. Monetising the content creation business is difficult and the returns will be lower than in the 'good old days'. It can be done, and done well - but only if you're prepared to play by twenty-first century rules.

The Spanish - as with the German - publishers didn't understand this and it is for this reason, not Google, that they struggle in the modern marketplace. Perhaps they should spend some time studying the successful models of British publishers who have turned, for example, the Guardian and Daily Mail websites into steady income streams.

Tablet Market Still Growing As iPad Sales Slow

The iPad used to be the tablet market, but it looks like that star has passed. Last week we heard how Apple's sales of it's various iPad range had tanked by nearly 13% year on year; and today we have another market report, this time from IDC, showing that the overall tablet market had grown by 11%. Most of that growth has come in the US, where year on year sales are up by more than 18% - and the big winner has been Samsung, whose global sales are up by 6% and is now selling almost as many Galaxy tablets as Apple sells iPads.

Apple has traditionally eschewed market share for profits, but seeing sales fall in a growing market is much more worrying than, for example, the smartphone market where the iPhone is losing market share but increasing sales.

Samsung will be looking over their shoulders at both Asus - whose growth was driven by sales of Windows tablets, a market that Samsung has all but abandoned - and RCA, whose near doubling of sales in the bargain basement promises the same assault on Samsung's volume as it is seeing in the smartphone market.

The IDC market report can be found here.

How Samsung Can Build Profits From Commodity

Samsung's disappointing financial results point to a significant challenge to its current business model and unless it carefully reviews it business goals it faces the same slide from relevance as Nokia and Sony have before it.

Samsung is currently the number one Android phone and tablet OEM in the world, and Android is the largest smartphone and tablet OS in the world. So you would think that things are peachy for the business. However another disappointing set of financial results shows that things are sliding at Samsung and, as we've seen in the past, once things start sliding it's very hard to arrest.

The first problem that Samsung has to address is how it target its business, because it's not competing with Apple in most markets. Samsung's competition is coming from Chinese OEMs like Huawei, ZTE and Xiaomi. In the low and mid-range of the Android market phones have become commodity items, on commodity hardware and running commodity software there's no real option to add value (and hence profit) to these phones. The Samsung name has no leverage here and as a result it's share of the high volume / low profit market will fall.

At the high end of the Android market Samsung faces a different challenge. Samsung's device business has been built around being the 'Anti-Apple'. Something that has worked very well for the business until now. However Samsung isn't competing with Apple any more, it's battling LG, Sony, HTC, Motorola and even Google itself for the premium slice of the Android market. Those adverts bashing Apple? They might be fun and score a few cheap points, but they aren't relevant to Samsung's business anymore.

If Samsung intends to remain relevant in the volume Android market it needs to decide how it's going to do this. Either it competes on price and offers a range of handsets pared down to the bone in order to compete with other price led OEMs. Or it can decide to compete on value-add and offer a premium experience at a value (but not basement) price. It can't continue to try and mix the two as it does now. Whichever route it takes it's going to see a fall-off in volume and profit, a result of the growth of competition in these market segments.

At the high-end, Samsung needs to do a better job of positioning it's handsets. For the majority of users buying a premium smartphone the Galaxy S5 is the best choice in terms of features, flexibility and capability. Look at the media stream though and you'd be hard pressed to know that.

Going for the premium market by changing the materials it makes its phones from is a strategy doomed to failure. Look how well it's working for HTC and Sony.

Samsung needs to change its advertising message from targeting the shortcomings of Apple (who it's no longer competing with) to one which demonstrates the advantages its handsets have over competing Android OEMs.

The Galaxy S5 is the only handset that offers water resistance, replaceable battery and a fingerprint reader in a single device. Its replaceable back panel allows you to customise the ownership experience to an unprecendented degree (wireless charging, wallet, S-view) and it's various power saving modes plus external battery charger give you independence from the power socket that verges on the fantastic. Pushing these unique advantages and turning them into factors in the buying decision has been Samsung's biggest failing.

For all that Samsung gets (unfairly) accused of copying Apple, there's one play that it needs to steal from Cupertino's playbook - the advert that pushes positive buying messages.

The First Smatchwatch You Might Actually Wear

This is the LG G Watch R. Clunky name, anything but clunky watch. Nothing else that has been announced before has had the wrist-appeal of this device and LG could be onto a real winner here.

The GWR features a true round screen (unlike the Moto 360 which has a punctured tyre motif, thanks to its 'chin') and looks like... a watch. In fact until you start doing smartwatch type things on it people around you will be unlikely to even notice it.

That's a big plus point for me. As are the two day battery life (as tested by TechRadar) and the always on watch face - a benefit of the OLED screen.

In all respects this looks like the smartwatch to beat. From the first round of Android Wear releases anyway.

There have been rumours that Google would like to make Android Wear compatible with iOS. It would certainly be interesting to see how many customers would take the GWR over the Apple Watch, which for all its hype promises to have disappointing battery life and doesn't have anything approaching the design of the GWR. Somehow I think that Apple will prevent this from happening though.


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Smartphone Market Share Still Tipping Android's Way

Kantar WorldPanel has released its sales numbers for the third quarter of 2014 - and the news continues to be excellent for Google, so-so for Apple and disappointing for Microsoft.

Apple's release of the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus produced a bump in sales for those markets where it was available, yet in every one of those countries (except Spain) Android grew faster and added more sales.

In the US and Japan Apple's year on year market share fell by 3.3% and 15.9% respectively. I have to assume that in both countries this was as a result of constrained supply, combined with an explosion in the number of smartphones sold (up 35% in the US).

For Google the news was as good as it could get. Excluding China (where growth was enormous, but probably relates to AOSP phones rather than Android with Google phones) Android market share now stands at better than 70% in every market measured bar the USA (62%), GB and Australia (58% in each).

For Microsoft, Windows Phone market share was down everywhere bar Italy - despite recording record numbers of device sales, the third mobile platform was unable to match growth in smartphone sales as a whole.

Apple's big sales quarter is the year end one and with the huge number of pre-orders reported for China - which won't show until the next financial reports are in - I'm expecting Apple to post record iPhone sales and a significant bounce back in market share.



Apple Watch: Tim Cook Sets Battery Expectations

Will this watch need to spend more time
off your wrist than on it?
Tim Cook's appearance at WSJ.D yesterday produced some interesting titbits, none more so than his comment on the Apple Watch battery life: "You're going to wind up charging it daily".

I suspect that the plan is for the Watch to juice up overnight on your bedside table - no doubt with some form of bedside clock screen saver so that you can tell the time without having to touch it. However Apple has recently been guilty of over-promising and under-delivering, especially with battery life, more so with recent releases. As a result I'm not convinced that it can deliver a device that matches the use cases it has suggested and still gets a full day on a charge. Historically, iPhones (barring the 6 Plus) have been unable to go dawn to dusk without juicing up, never mind wake to sleep.

Taking your Watch off to charge it could become part of the afternoon routine for early adopters and that doesn't sound like the sort of watch I'd be happy to use.

Apple has left itself an open-ended window before its watch goes on sale. Hopefully it will use that time to optimise the Watch for battery life.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Metal Is A Dumb Choice For Making A Smartphone


Building a smartphone out of metal introduces all sorts of compromises - not least the way that metals block the very wireless signals that are the lifeblood of a smartphone. People will tell you that the metal feels premium in the hand and that's worth the compromise.

The Verge has an article today on an NPD report that says that 75% of smartphone users and 87% of iPhone users have their phone wrapped up in a case. Personally Id say those figures are on the low side. Other than my own, I can't remember seeing an iPhone that isn't wrapped up in one sort of case or another.

HTC's Dot Case is plastic, but at least it adds some
functionality. Apple's silicon case is just awful.
So most of those users who bang on about the premium materials in their Apple and HTC smartphones never see or feel them from the moment of unboxing and installation into a case until the day they sell them to the next user, who presumably does exactly the same thing. All that effort in creating a metal design, ensuring a perfect finish, making the aerial lines look anything but ridiculous (okay, maybe no-one has managed that last one) goes out of the window the second you stick that case on it.

HTC's best phone (as far as materials and design is concerned) is the HTC One X. Nokia's all polycarbonate bodies have been superior to iPhones since the N9 arrived, and the iPhone 5C is probably the nicest iPhone in the hand ever. Samsung's thin plastic backs offer a degree of flexibility that you just don't get in most other premium smartphones, they can be removed, replaced, swapped out for ones with more features (e.g. wireless charging) or ones designed to accomodate even larger batteries.

So, enough with the 'premium build' nonsense. That metal case gives you much, much less, and chances are you'll never know it's there apart from the two minutes it takes you to unbox it.

New iPad Screens Slammed, Samsung Galaxy Tab S Still Tops

If you're after a tablet one of these is probably
your best option.
The great thing about DisplayMate's screen testing is that it is completely quantative, there is no emotion or objectivity involved, it's all about numbers, testing display parameters and rating displays based on the observed results.

Last month the iPhone 6/6 Plus failed to knock Samsung off the top of the perch when DisplayMate tested them - the Note 4 and Galaxy S5 were rated superior to the new iPhones.

Now the new iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 have received the DisplayMate treatment and the results look very bad for Apple.

The iPad Air 2 was praised for its new anti-reflection coating, but otherwise it was a disappointment - DisplayMate rated it lower than Amazon, Google and Microsoft tablets and it was nowhere near as capable as the class leading Galaxy Tab S. In fact other than the anti-reflective coating the iPad Air 2's screen was rated behind the original iPad Air as well.

If the results for the iPad Air 2 were disappointing, those for the iPad Mini 3 were disgraceful for a premium priced tablet. DisplayMate called it a 'Major Disappointment' with a display that is 'washed out, under saturated and (has) distorted colours'. It summed up the iPad Mini 3 as 'embarrassingly mediocre and way overpriced'

Ouch.

Right now I really can't see any valid reason for buying an iPad. And in a market where Apple's market share and actual sales numbers are falling that can't be good news.

You can find the full report at DisplayMate here.

Rewards In Sport Come From Marketability, Not Gender

If no-one's paying to watch is it a
surprise that the rewards are small?
This article on the BBC discusses research that finds an inequality between men and women's prize in 30% of professional sports. Apart from the fact that this hardly seems like the most pressing topic for the time of the UK Government, it's a rather nonsensical study, which vastly misunderstands the concept of prize money as a reward for earning money for a sport's promoter.

Of the sports identified the really big differences occur in the areas of Football, Cricket and Golf. These sports are hugely popular - or at least the men's versions are. Men's professional football is the most popular spectator sport. Women's football isn't. By a really long way. Not that this means the women are any less capable of playing the game, or it's any less entertaining. But the money that can be earned from sponsors, gate receipts and television deals is several orders of magnitude larger for the men's games and as a result the rewards are higher. I can't see how anyone can make this out to be a gender issue. Bring in the crowds, reap the rewards. Of the other sport's where this is the case, I see no problem.

For the sports where there is no income generation difference between the men's and women's sport I see no excuse for there being a difference in the prize money on offer. Surely though, that is down to the athletes themselves to take up the matter with their sport's governing body?

In reality, the BBC have carried out a study which amounts to a complete waste of the taxpayer's money. By having then involved an untold number of (highly paid) civil servants in crafting the Minister's response they've then compounded that error.

Not one of The Beeb's more memorable efforts...