Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Surface Effect: OEMs Aren't Building MacBook Clones Anymore

 
At IFA this week we've seen a whole host of new PCs from different OEMs, each with a slightly different take on what a desktop, hybrid or laptop Windows 10 device should look like. And whilst they are all different in very obvious ways they also share one, not so obvious, similarity.
 
They draw no inspiration from Apple.
 
After the launch of the MacBook Air (in particular) it seemed like every PC manufacturer went out of their way to incorporate as many design cues from the lightweight Apple portable as they could.
 
It has taken three iterations, but Microsoft has shown that by ploughing its own path the Surface line could become every bit as successful as Apple's portables. It seems like other OEMs are getting the message and being a bit more adventurous with their consumer products at least.
 
Highlight so far have been Acer's Revo Build modular PC, Asus's PC on a stick and a massive growth in the range of Lenovo Yoga PCs packing different capabilities and form factors.
 
Whether this will be enough to stabilize the PC market remains to be seen, however it does mean that when you next set out to replace your PC you're much more likely to find something that fits your specific requirements.

Xperia Z5 Premium Arrives Sporting 4K Screen, Probably Pointlessly

 
QuadHD screens have hardly become the norm since first appearing on last year's premium handsets, however Sony has decided that even 500ppi+ screen resolutions aren't good enough and have equipped the Xperia Z5 Premium with a full 4K display. That equates to around 800ppi.
 
Whilst its a mind boggling achievement I wonder whether its actually of use for anything other than bragging rights. After all the G3's 5.5" QuadHD screen viewed against a 1080p screen didn't really offer the order of magnitude improvement that the numbers would suggest.
 
Don't under-estimate the value of bragging rights, especially to Sony, who have long struggled to gain recognition for some very good premium phones. If the flashy screen is enough to encourage US networks and discerning buyers to give the phone credibility which then reflects well on the more standard members of the Z5 family (the Z5 and Z5 Compact) the Premium won't necessarily have to sell all that well.
 
Which as just as well, because at £699 it almost certainly won't.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Sony Crowdfunding Effort Just Isn't Right

 
Sony has been showing off its Wena smartwatch at IFA today. Actually its not a smartwatch, instead Sony have integrated a traditional watch with a watch band that sports LEDs / vibrations for notifications and supports NFC wallets (well in Japan at least).
 
I'm not convinced its a winning idea, being less useful than a separate wearable. The smart 'band' might be a winner if all you want are notifications, but the NFC component is integrated into the watch itself.
 
Sony doesn't seem to be overly confident in its product though, choosing to fund its development by crowdfunding. That doesn't seem right to me. Is Sony telling us that its financial situation is so dire that it isn't prepared to back its own products with its own development money?
 
Perhaps its has the same opinion of the product's limited appeal as I do?
 
Either way there is the spark of a decent idea here, even if the technology isn't quite ready for it. Deliver me a watch band with an AMOLED screen tightly integrated, make it no more intrusive than a traditional watch buckle and make it available with a choice of straps that suit traditional watches and you may just have overcome some of my smartwatch apathy...

Acer Jumps Into The Windows 10 Mobile Game With Style

 
Whilst we've been concentrating on what Microsoft has in the pipeline for the launch of Windows 10 Mobile, Acer snuck in on the blindside and gave us the first look at a Windows 10 Mobile.
 
The Jade Primo sports two high spec cameras - 21mp back and 8mp front - a 5.5" screen and full support for Windows 10 Mobile's Continuum feature, which means a dock will be available when the phone arrives, presumably as a launch partner for Windows 10 Mobile sometime next month.
 
So it appears that Microsoft's decision to wind down its flood of Lumias may just be tempting other OEMs into the game, which can only help Windows 10 Mobile's chances of improving its market penetration.

Why The Amazon Fire Phone Failed Hard

 
Amazon isn't the world's worst hardware designer, its Kindle / Kindle Fire ebook readers and tablets are actually pretty good at what they are intended to do. Yet when it launched the Fire phone it missed the target by such a wide margin you had to wonder where it was aiming.
 
There are many reasons why the Fire Phone failed but the primary reason was that it confused what was good for the customer with what was good for Amazon and as a result delivered a phone that nobody in their right mind would have paid the asking price for.
 
The Fire Phone clearly had one design consideration when it was making its way to market - to make it as easy as possible for a Fire Phone owner to spend more money at Amazon.
 
Now I might be wrong here but I don't imagine that many people, when asked what they wanted from a smartphone, responded 'make it easier for me to buy from Amazon'. Not even the most ardent Prime user.
 
Given the product they built Amazon should have been giving the damn thing away to Prime customers. And probably throwing in a few months of line rental too. The payback would have been immense.
 
The value to Amazon wasn't in the phone, rather in what it could have enabled. Imagine a one-click for real life. See a product (anywhere, not just in a shop), scan it and accept Amazon's offered price. Have the product arrive at your home. Rinse and repeat.
 
With frictionless purchasing potential, unlimited free delivery and competitive pricing Amazon would have had a real winner of a service on its hands.
 
Instead it tried to sell its customers a dud and ended up blowing the whole concept by executing it poorly.
 
There's a lesson in there somewhere.

How Well Would A $99 iPhone Sell?

 
Apple has spent all of its eight year life selling iPhones at the premium end of the market. Even when the much heralded iPhone 5C arrived - the 'cheap' iPhone - it was an upper mid-range phone, in price at least.
 
What if Apple wanted to shake up the market? Could it play in the slim-profit / high-volume market if it wanted to? And what would the effects be on the smartphone market if it did?
 
A low end iPhone - sold outright for $99/£99/whatever sounds cheap in your local currency - could sweep away hoards of low end devices, effectively wiping away the bulk of Android's sales in the process. In fact there's even an argument to say that Apple would benefit from subsidizing this sort of low end phone itself in order to severely damage the viability of Google's mobile platform.
 
Given how much money Apple makes from its current iPhone operation this probably isn't even a consideration. However if Apple were able to add a 100m sales per annum and net $10 profit per phone it adds a billion dollars a year to the bottom line. That's the least it could expect to achieve.
 
That's doesn't account for the potential income from app and media sales that such a growth in Apple's customer base would bring.
 
Would it harm Apple's premium device sales? No I don't think so. The iPhone could be retained as a premium brand and the new line branded the ePhone - in the same way that the eMac and iBook represented entry-level Apple devices in the past.
 
Apple's ability to control the supply chain, buy big on components and manage third party OEMs guarantees that it could deliver not just a profitable $99 iPhone, but a whole range of profitable phones at every price point.
 
It's the same logic which has driven car makers like BMW and Mercedes into the smaller car market to boost profits and suck up young, thrifty buyers before they become older wealthy buyers.
 
Considerations like average selling price and per device profit margins make this an unlikely scenario, but were it to happen the carnage amongst the competition could be truly awful.

Surface Pro 3 Discounts Hint At Release Date For Surface Pro 4

 
The Surface Pro 3 amounted to something of a turnaround in Microsoft's fortunes as a hardware manufacturer. Taking the interesting yet ignored Surface line to the front of the mobile device desirability queue with new capabilities and a new design that resonated with buyers.
 
At approaching 18 months old the SP3 has stood up to the test of time well, its certainly not been overshadowed by devices that have been more recently announced.
 
However time and tide, as they say, which means that rumours of an incoming Surface Pro 4 have started to be too loud to ignore, and Microsoft may just have dropped a pretty big clue as to when such a device may appear, with a new offer for potential Surface Pro 3 buyers in the UK.
 
Various version of the SP3 get up to £200 discount in the offer and, for those looking at the i7 powered version, an additional £50 voucher to be used with a subsequent purchase (the Touch Cover for example).
 
The offer runs through until October 5th, which strongly suggests that this is the date the new SP4 will land on stockists shelves. Its a good offer as it stands, however the wait is short enough that if I were in the market (and was blessed with even the smallest amount of self control, which I'm not) I'd probably wait until the SP4 has at least been announced before deciding to rush out and buy.
 
The offer is available in the Microsoft Store, however if you do want a Surface Pro 3 and can't wait, John Lewis is undercutting even Microsoft's discounted price, as well as throwing in a three year warranty.
 
One way or another its a good time to be picking up a Surface Pro.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

JP Montoya Hams Up The Role Of Loser


JP Montoya, a legend in his own mind, managed to throw away the Indycar series lead at the final round of the season, losing the championship to now four time Champion Scott Dixon. That's a JPM losing streak that runs to sixteen years now, in one category or another.

Post-race Montoya ranted, saying that Dixon had endured a 'shit season' and suggesting he wasn't a worthy champion. Montoya laid the blame for his championship loss at the door of the double points scoring final race. Which wouldn't sound so rich if he hadn't lapped up the bonus of winning the double points scoring race at Indianapolis.

Ultimately the guy who won more races won the championship, that sounds like a pretty good result to me.

Tech Writers Give Apple An Easy Ride Because Apple Fans Do


The Next Web writer Mic Wright had a bit of a public blowout after a savaging by The Macalope and declared that he was quitting tech journalism. Instead of making good on his promise he carried on pumping out articles anyway, disappintingly (just kidding).

The original article which drew the response from the Macalope was a piece about the way the tech press fawns over Apple's announcements and build a whole industry based on the little glimpses that Apple gives of what's coming. This is how the hype builds.

The Macalope is right to respond to the original article - how dare the tech press cover upcoming technology events. Imagine if Wright had replaced Apple and the tech press with the FA Cup Final and the sports press.

There is an important and valid point that doesn't really get discussed though - how lightly Apple gets off on scrutiny of its mis-steps and mistakes. Yes there's a brief round of shock horror, how could they, closely followed by shock at the over reaction, and then it all fades into the background noise. 

There are two reasons for this as I see it. One: tech sites are terrified of upsetting Apple. It's a great way to exclude yourself from early test device programmes and information from the company. Two: Apple users, who are prepared to put up with just about any indignity in the name of defending the company's good name.

I've had a couple of examples of this second thing in the last week or so. Two friends, one in the UK and one here in Auckland called me out on my complaints about the Apple Cloud issues. Both are deeply rooted Apple fans, both work in the technology industry. Both claimed that I was outrageously exaggerating the scale of the problem. "I don't know anyone who has had any problems" scoffed one, "it must be the way you use it". Sound familiar?

Anyway when I pointed out that there was plenty of evidence that I wasn't the only one having the problems and then described issues I'd personally had with iCloud and way that photo management works (or didn't work) for me both responded that they too had the same problems and found them really annoying.

So to my question: is it fair to castigate the tech press for towing the Apple party line when most people who buy the products are blind to problems even when they are experiencing them? Apple news sells, articles praising Apple sell and building hype ahead of Apple launches sells. 

Is it any wonder that the tech press publishes, bloggers blog and tweeters tweet. Its what the world wants and getting frustrated isn't getting you anywhere.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Google Makes Android Wear Cross Platform - Desperation Or Genius?

 
Going forward all new Android Wear watches will function with iPhones running iOS 8.2 or later, starting with the just released LG Watch Urbane. It's a move of dubious merit and one which will serve only a tiny portion of the wearables market.
 
That is, iPhone buyers who must have a smartwatch and don't want the Apple Watch with all its hooks into the system and ability to run apps, respond to notifications and do all those things that Apple likes to put into adverts but no-one sane does in real life.
 
The functionality of an Android Wear device with the iPhone will be limited. Google Now will work, as will notifications. That's about it though.
 
So how big do we think this potential market might be for Google's OEM partners? Outside of the devices that will be given away or bought for review I'd imagine there could be 10 or 11 people that are jumping up and down with excitement at this moment.
 
It's like playing a game of diminishing returns. Take all the people who own an iPhone and want a smartwatch. Cross them off because they undoubtedly have already bought an Apple Watch. Now take the remainder, who don't want a smartwatch at the moment and hope that a less functional device will win them over by being cheaper. Now cross off the ones who'll be happy with the functionality of a fitness band. And those who wouldn't even consider a smartwatch.
 
After that there's not many buyers left.
 
If anything this move suggests that Android Wear has been a complete flop (backing up last week's wearable sales numbers) and Google and its OEMs are casting around for some way of boosting numbers.
 
But if the legions of Android phone users out there haven't been tempted, what path of logic suggests that iPhone users will be any more so?
 
Personally I've found no merit in any smartwatch, Apple, Android or otherwise. As a technology junkie that suggests that smartwatches are going to be a difficult sell for some time to come. However many platforms you make them compatible with.