Will VR be Too Much for Kids and Their Parents?

There has been quite a bit written about Virtual Reality (VR) and children but the analysis has focused on the risk viewing VR content could have on eyesight. The majority of VR headset manufacturers are setting age limits for users. Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR headsets have a 13+ age requirement. HTC, while not setting an age limit, warns against letting young children use the Vive. This is certainly more of a “better safe than sorry” tactic than the result of any conclusive findings on the impact of using VR on “growing” eyes. Kids, of course, face the same issues as adults when it comes to motion sickness or the risks of hitting objects in real life while moving about in a virtual one. More recently, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario Bros, took a very cautious approach to VR when it comes to kids saying more research needs to be done to make sure the kids are safe and parents do not worry.

Physical Vs. Emotional and Psychological Impact of VR on Kids

While there seems to be enough concern about the physical impact of VR on kids, I am personally more concerned about the emotional impact VR is likely to have. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has been studying VR for more than a decade. In 2009, they published the results of a study that focused on children’s memory and VR. A group of children played with whales under water through VR. A week after the experience took place, they were asked about it. 50% of them said they remembered it as if it actually happened in the physical world.

This weekend I went to the movies with my daughter who will be nine in December. We saw “Pete’s Dragon” in 3D. During the trailers, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” played and, as many times before when a scary scene was shown, the glasses came off and the fingers went in her ears. Thus far, my daughter has only tried child friendly games or educational experiences in VR so she was either able to understand it was fiction or she had experienced something like visiting the Natural History Museum in New York City so she felt like she was visiting somewhere familiar. Our movie experience made me wonder how she would react to a story told in VR.

How is Storytelling Different in VR?

Earlier in the year at the Samsung Developer Conference, I attended a session on VR where Eric Darnell, the Chief Creating Director of Baobab Studios explained the difficulties of storytelling in VR. Baobab created a computer animated VR short interactive movie called Invasion where a bunch of aliens come to take over Earth.

Instead of being populated by humans, Earth has only two citizens: two white fluffy, super cute bunnies — the viewer is one of them. When the storytelling becomes interactive, you sometimes lose control over the pace and composition of the story but the team at Baobab was able to come up with a technique to inspire the viewer, through sound and visual clues, to follow the path they wanted. Interactivity brings an extra layer to the story; this can be good or bad. Darnell talked about a scene where there are aliens in front of the viewer while the other bunny is behind him/her. This was fun for some as they felt they were really in the story as they could “feel” the bunny’s presence behind them. However, others were stressed by the experience as they were not sure whether they should look in front or behind. Even more interesting was how viewers reacted to one tested story ending where the other bunny dies. Killing the bunny triggered much stronger feelings than it would have done in a regular movie. You are in the story; you are the bunny’s companion yet there is nothing you can do to save it. You can see how this must be much harder on children – and adults for that matter, I cried watching Pete’s Dragon! – than a traditional screening, even a 3D one.

VR Experiences might be Virtual but the Emotions It Triggers are Very Real

What makes the emotions even stronger is that the child will be completely “alone” in this world and taking the headset off for a few seconds might not be the first thought. If you think of those instances where you are wearing a VR headset as well as headphones, you can easily see how what we call immersive can turn into a terrifying experience for a child. The quick TV channel switch when something inappropriate comes on, or the burying of the face in the armpit, will not work as parents will be left clueless as to what is happening inside the headset.

Because of this, I believe VR content aimed at minors, young children in particular, calls for more stringent guidelines so that once the concerns for any physical risk will go away, and they will, we do not forget about the emotional and psychological impact VR could have.

Of course, children are not the only segment that could find VR experiences too immersive. Like for many other platforms before VR, sex and violence are big sellers for both games and content. While it might not be down to platform owners to determine what is bad and what is not, I believe there is a duty that lies with app store owners and content publishers not to censor but to warn. Not an easy discussion to have and one I am sure we will hear more about in the future.

A Different Kind of Apple

This week, Fast Company published a series of interviews with Apple’s executives from Tim Cook to Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi and Bozama Saint John and if there was one point that was clear across the board is it’s that Apple is built on the core principle of “making great products” but the way to deliver that greatness might look different from what it used to. This leads many to believe we are dealing with a different company altogether rather than a company that is evolving.

Tim Cook said he does not read all the Apple coverage, which means he is possibly spared the many times the “Steve would not have done this” or “This would have never happened under Steve” sentences appear in a commentary. Aside from the obvious (we actually don’t know what Steve would have done), there is another point many seem to forget — today’s market is very different than it was when Steve Jobs was CEO.

The tremendous success of the iPhone and the consequent inability to duplicate that success has been seen as a leadership failure rather than the fact there will likely be no single product that will impact as many people as smartphones, the iPhone in particular, have done. Steve’s Apple gave us the iPhone so an Apple that deviates from Steve’s must be bad. This is basically what it boils down to for many.

But different is not necessarily bad. Tim Cook has a different personality than Steve Jobs and, as we learned from this week’s interviews, a different management style. We certainly see a more open, humble, inclusive, socially engaged leader that, in my view, has softened, not weakened Apple’s image as a company. As I mentioned, we cannot just look at management and think the Apple we see today has not been impacted by the markets it plays in. Let’s think about some of the things that are different today:
– Smartphones market has capped
– Apple is serving over 1 billion users across its devices
– Apple is present in over 150 markets
– Services grew 19% year over year
– Apple is in enterprise with more than just hardware – IBM, Cisco SAP, the boardroom area in
the revamped stores
– Apple is more vertical than it has ever been: semiconductor, hardware, software, services
– More product categories than ever
– Larger acquisitions/investments: Beats, DIDI
– Focus on new verticals other than education such as health
– Biggest R&D expenditure

Apple is evolving and, in my view, doing it faster than it would have done under Steve Jobs. This is crucial for the long-term play.

Just think how different it is to serve the Mac installed base of less than 100m units vs. 1 billion devices in the overall ecosystem. While you can try and think of everything when it comes to hardware, trying to be as inclusive as possible when you deliver a service or an app becomes more challenging when you are serving so many people in so many countries. To me, this was at the core of the Maps comment made by Cue in the interview:

“To all of us living in Cupertino, the maps for here were pretty darn good. Right? So [the problem] wasn’t obvious to us. We were never able to take it out to a large number of users to get that feedback. Now we do.”

As many indicated, we now have a Beta program for Mac OS X and iOS because of Maps but we also have a Bug Bounty Program. These are instances when being more open makes sense.

Following the interview, people lingered on the “embarrassment” Maps has caused but there were other points made that say a lot about how Apple is thinking and give insights to some of the recent investments or speculations about new directions. Cue said:

“What it causes you to do first is ask, How important is this? We had long discussions at the ET [executive team] level about the importance of Maps, where we thought it was going in the future, and could we treat it as a third-party app? We don’t do every app. We’re not trying to create a Facebook app. They do a great job. We decided that Maps is integral to our whole platform.”

You can see how, in light of this comment, you could explain the Office 365 integration on iPad or how the rumored approach to TV might be with a guide not a TV set or even how the investment in Didi will provide key learning and market opportunity for what is to come.

Another reason why today’s Apple is a distinct variety of the same company rests clearly in the fact Apple remains different in the way it approaches the market and marches to its own beat. While Steve Jobs might have said the reason for that was he knew best, the reality is it all boils down to what the core business is. For Apple, it is to deliver great products, hardware or experiences, and monetizing the high level of engagement the experience generates.

While Wall Street is worried about whether or not iPhone sales will return to growth with the iPhone 7, Apple is also worrying about how to remain a highly valued company for the long run. As Cook said:

“It’s hard to imagine a market defined in units—not revenues—that’s that big.”

Many of these areas offering new revenue opportunitiy will clearly benefit from the installed base of valuable users Apple has built. Users who are highly engaged in the ecosystem and see Apple as a trusted provider.

If Your Computer was an iPad Pro: Apple has Come Full Circle

Apple has a new ad for the iPad Pro asking you to “Imagine what your computer could do…if your computer was an iPad Pro.” With this, Apple has come full circle in its positioning of the iPad.

I have argued before that, when Apple brought the iPad to market in 2010, it tried extremely hard to position it as close as possible to the iPhone and as far as possible from the PC. At the time that made perfect sense. Smartphones were still growing in popularity, we were only three years away from the iPhone launch, and the App Store was in full swing. Drawing the parallel to what consumers wanted and loved was bound to generate demand. At the same time, Apple had to make sure consumers did not think the iPad was a tablet PC and so created a clear divide between the larger iPhone cousin and the Microsoft computer world. The easiest way to mark that divide was to concentrate on the fact the iPad was more about entertainment and content consumption – worth remembering that iOS did not have the enterprise presence it has today. While Apple also talked about content creation with the iPad, the underlying theme, especially in the Windows camp, was that tablets were not as powerful as PCs and certainly not up to the job when it came to productivity.

A Different Market

Six years later, the market is quite different. While smartphone sales have considerably slowed, their functionalities and size have only grown, making them perfect for content consumption on the go. This, coupled with the fact smartphones are always with us, has left little room for tablets to become a more sentinel part of an average consumer’s device portfolio. Most consumers also still do not believe a tablet is as capable as a PC neither do they do not think of it as an alternative to a PC when shopping for a new one. According to a recent study we ran at Creative Strategies, less than 5% of our US panel had considered replacing their PC with a tablet. As replacement cycles for iPad lengthen as many consumers see enough value coming from software upgrades alone, the vast number of PC users out there need to be convinced an iPad, and the iPad Pro specifically, could do what a PC does and more.

I advised before that vendors and Microsoft should stop talking about PC replacements because that does not allow consumers to see what an opportunity the new devices running Windows 10 offer. It seems in its latest ad, Apple is doing exactly that — not just implying the iPad Pro can replace your PC but saying it is actually going to do more than your PC.

But What is a PC Today?

While the iPad Pro has everything from a hardware perspective that allows it to compete with a PC, it seems to me the biggest battle Apple has on its hands remains the preconceived idea of what a PC is. Reading comments on Twitter on the new iPad ad, I saw the same points being made as six years ago: iOS is not a “full OS”, there is no file manager structure, there is no access to a disk, multitasking is not comparable, etc., etc. But the world is not the same as six years ago. Why do you need a disk when you have the cloud? Why do you need a file system when you are using different apps and your work is contained within those apps? Granted, not everybody works like that but more and more people do. Our data shows that, in the US, 80% of early adopters have embraced the cloud and about 30% of mainstream consumers have.

Surface Initiated the Change but Legacy is Keeping it Down

The iPad Pro is, of course, not the first tablet trying to convince you it can do what your PC does and more. Microsoft has been trying to do the same with the Surface. As a matter of fact, many think the iPad Pro is nothing but a “Surface wanna-be”. On the surface, these two devices look very similar but the premise that got them to the market is very different.

There is not a question that, when the Surface came to market – way before anyone was ready for it – it started something bigger than even Microsoft realized at the time. While the focus was on Windows 8 and the fact Microsoft vendors were struggling to both compete with the iPad and fuel PC upgrades, the Surface actually started to challenge the idea of what a PC was. In its 4th iteration and with a much better operating system at hand, the Surface could do more than a PC. Except, not many people actually thought of it in a different way. Yes, it has touch. Yes, it has a pen. But ultimately, most people still see it as a PC. The Surface calls itself a PC: “Your PC is restarting”. So it is not surprising the Surface commercials show people using the Surface in their non-conventional businesses and end with “I could not do that with my Mac.” I see this as a burden for the Surface. One that impacts its ability to convert more iPad and Mac users as well as attract developers to the platform so that you would have more use cases beyond traditional productivity to appeal to a younger generation both outside and inside enterprise. Microsoft is doing a great job in creating its own apps and adding functionality to the underlying OS that benefit the Surface – inking being the best example – but more could be done so that the Surface could be whatever one wants it to be.

It is interesting that, as Microsoft and Apple came to one similar product from two very different perspectives, they are now fighting a battle on opposite fronts but with one common interest — changing how people think of a PC. While the task seems more arduous for Apple because of the millions and millions of PC users there are, I actually think it will be harder for the Surface as Microsoft needs to balance its own desires and goals with those of the partners in the Windows ecosystem.

The New Female Emojis are Our Friends


I have shared stories before of when, at the start of the smartphone market, I would go into meetings with male colleagues and they would be shown the powerful new gadget while I was shown the pink phone with a mirror and very large keys. This did not just happen once and it was not just with Asian-based companies. I remember Research in Motion CEO Mike Lazaridis answering a question about how to sell to women with: “Just paint them pink!”

Last week, Google announced that the emoji subcommittee of the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit organization that develops and promotes software internationalization standards, had agreed to add 11 new characters that portray professional women in every skin tone. Furthermore, 33 existing emojis now have both a female and male version. This is the result of an effort by four Google employees who submitted the changes a few months ago as the debate on women’s equality was impacting, Hollywood, the US treasury and of course tech.

In this post, Google quotes some interesting statistics about emoji usage across the world:

 “Young women are the heaviest users of emoji. According to a September, 2015 SocialTimes report by AdWeek, 92% of online consumers use emoji. Of that user base, 78% of women are frequent emoji users, versus 60% of men. Likewise, age breakdowns of the emoji-active user base reveal that 72% of those under 25 are frequent emoji users, and 77% of users aged 25 – 29 are frequent users. Emoji usage begins dropping at age 30 (with frequent usage dropping to 65% for ages 30-35, and 60% for people over 35.) The nexus of female users and young users reveals that women under 30 are most the frequent emoji users by far.”

Representation matters when it comes to gender and of course it does not stop there or with emojis. If the tech industry wants to have more female engineers, designers, product managers, etc., girls needs to feel they can be one if they want to. And the same can be said about minorities in tech. Aside from the new emojis Google also launched, ahead of World Emoji Day over the weekend and through Made with Code, a new project that teaches coding skills through the creation of emoji-inspired stickers.


As a parent of an 8-year-old girl, I am very aware of using a variety of adjectives to describe her. Adjectives that go beyond her physical appearance and describe her skills, personality, traits. In her education, I make an effort to find books where girls and boys have different ethnic backgrounds and like different things. She is growing up being told she can be who and what she wants to be as long as she works for it.

I thought I had the basics covered. Then, a few weeks ago, she started to text and use emojis. Suddenly, she was using a form of expression I did not feel was comprehensive enough. It blew me away when she picked a “thumb’s up” emoji that was closest to the color of her skin and not just any color. She wanted that emoji to represent HER! But that was where her search ended. She could not find her curly hair or a female vet. As a matter of fact, she could not even find a dog that looked anything like ours (but ours are not mainstream dogs). If emojis are a form of communication, they should be as comprehensive as possible. Think about colors and how ancient civilizations had only names for colors they could make, red being one of the oldest ones. If they could not make the color, that color did not exist, even if it was present in nature. While fortunately, emojis are supplementing our communication rather than substituting it, I would hate to live in a world where the absence of an emoji would be the equivalent of an extinction warning. So, while by no means exhaustive, I do welcome these new emojis so my daughter will know being a bride is not the only career option she has.

The iPad Pro might be Apple’s “Back to School” Dark Horse

The “Back to School” season in the US always offers a good boost to Apple’s sales. Traditionally, Apple launches its Back to School promotions in June or early July and, while 2015 was a bit of an exception with a later date, this year we went back to tradition as the details were shared at the start of June. As always, Apple’s promotions will run in their stores and online.

Apple’s 2015 Back to School Promotion Felt Like an Odd One Out

In 2015, Apple’s Back to School promotion was slightly more restricted than in pervious years. It offered one pair of Beats Solo2 On-Ear Headphones (via an instant credit in the amount of $199.95 that would be applied to your order) or one pair of Beats Solo2 Wireless On-Ear Headphones (also with an instant credit of $199.95 that would be applied to your order). The Qualified Education Individual would be responsible for paying the remaining balance ($100), following the application of the instant credit to the purchase price. Eligible products were iMacs, MacBooks, MacBook Pros, MacBook Airs, and the Mac Pro. The iPhone and the iPad were excluded from the promotion in 2015, also a departure from previous years.

While these omissions seemed odd at first, it is worth reminding ourselves of where Apple was in the summer of 2015. iPhone sales reached 61.2 million units in the second quarter of 2015, a healthy increase over the 43.7 million iPhones sold in 2014. iPad sales had started to decrease with volumes of 12.6 million, down from the 16 million of the second quarter of 2015. But the decline was not yet a real cause of concern.

Apple’s 2016 Back to School reflects the company’s needs

Apple enters Back to School 2016 in a very different market dynamic and the promotions reflect that. In the second quarter of 2016, Apple experienced a ten million unit drop year over year in iPhone sales, down to 51.2 million. iPad sales were down to 10.2 million units. So, iPhone and iPads are back on the list of qualifying devices for the Back to School promotion. Students purchasing an iPhone 6 and 6s or an iPad Pro will get a pair of Beats Powerbeats 2 wireless headphones worth $200. Students investing in iMac, Mac Pro, MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro will get a set of Beats Solo 2 wireless headphones worth $300.

Apple also offers special financing with the Barclaycard Visa.


WWDC 2016 did not bring a new MacBook Pro so what now?

Despite the rumors leading up to WWDC, Apple did not launch a new MacBook Pro which means Apple has no new product for Back to School. Of course, that was enough to jumpstart yet another “Apple is doomed” line of commentary.

Considering that “Back to School” makes for a more pragmatic crowd of buyers, I personally doubt the new MacBook Pro would have been the star performer. The Pro line is always very aspirational and the price tag usually reflects that, making it more a purchase for the holiday season than Back to School.

If the Beats headsets are not enough of an incentive for buyers, there were enough promotions for July 4th to make the existing MacBook Pro and Air worth looking at, as prices drop by as much as $300 across authorized resellers.

iPad Pro Plus Microsoft Office can satisfy both students and parents

If you do what I do (namely, pretend to know about technology), you have pretty much everybody who knows what you do ask you what they should buy. When it comes to Back to School in the past few years, the question has often been: MacBook Air or iPad? The kids want the iPad and the parents want the MacBook, because college should be about work not play! Needless to say, it is not for me to debunk that theory.

On the tech front though, what parents really mean is that students need Microsoft Word and a keyboard. I feel I can safely say there is no longer a choice to be made between work and play if you use an iPad Pro with Office 365. The results of a recent study we conducted at Creative Strategies show college students clearly prefer to use Word for work that does not require collaboration where Google Docs reigns supreme. The full access a 365 Office subscription offers on all iPads allows for that solo work to be done with the preferred tool. And the iPad Pro plus a keyboard combination gives you the same ease of use a MacBook Air gives you with the added bonus of a touch screen.

Of course, if you are in the market for a PC and not a Mac, there are going to be cheaper options that already come with Office 365 as vendors try and clear their inventory during Back to School to prep for the Windows Anniversary Edition devices to hit later in the year. But, if you want to stay in the Apple camp, I think the two iPad Pro models have a role to play for this year’s Back to school buyer.

Nobody puts Siri in a Corner: Why We might not See an Echo-like Device from Apple

The pressure is on for Apple to catch up with Amazon and Google and deliver a dedicated home device for Siri. Or at least, this is what the current narrative would like you to think about how Apple is positioned in the race to the AI promised land.

With Siri soon to be on the Mac as well as on Apple TV, the iPad, the Apple Watch and, of course, the iPhone, Apple is making sure users are never too far from being able to search a file, ask for a movie, dictate a message or inquire about the weather. While all these devices might not have the super power Alexa is granted by having seven microphones all in one place, they are also not meant to be static in our home. Bottom line, Siri is always next to me, no matter if I am at home or not.

I have discussed in the past the challenges Amazon has as it faces taking Alexa outside the home but the key point in my view, as we look at the different approaches vendors are taking with these devices, is to decide if we need a personal assistant or a shared one.

While we have been talking about personal assistants, the level of “personal” they perform seems to vary. In the promotional video for both Echo and Home, the devices, and therefore the assistant within them, are accessed by a family — which makes Alexa and Google assistant look more like Mary Poppins than Jarvis.


When we look at Amazon and Google’s main business and how assistants fit in, a clear distinction between personal and shared does not seem that necessary. Very simplistically, the whole family should shop and the whole family should search! Yet, when we look at Apple, everything screams personal because that is what they make and want to sell: personal devices. Let’s be honest, sharing, specifically from a personal/consumer perspective, has never really been easy on Apple’s devices whether we are talking about forwarding a calendar invite in iCal or sharing a purchase in the App Store. Of course, where there is a will there is a way and users have managed to find ways around most of these limitations to share with other family members. Finally, with iOS 8, Apple made it easy to share content through individual accounts belonging to a family unit. In an ideal world, Apple sees everyone owning their own Apple devices. When I think about it this way, and because of the intense focus Apple has on user experience, I tend to believe they will opt for a very personal “personal assistant” vs a shared one. That personal assistant might draw from others in the home but the value it delivers will be to me specifically.

I do not necessarily think one approach is better than the other. Personally, I think that, similar to how we use calendars, we might want a personal and a shared one. Furthermore, I believe the shared one should have different degrees of access for people who might be present in the home at different times, like a babysitter or a grandparent. When you start to think about the assistant in the context of home access, it is also interesting to see how differently Apple is positioning its devices compared to Amazon. Apple positions the iPhone, the Apple TV and the iPad as home remote controllers that are smart and secure vs Amazon that allows Alexa to be tapped into by different devices. For the user, the final result is the same: switching off the lights, closing the garage and so on. The way they get there is very different and has implications on how consumers will see, not just the assistant, but also the brand behind it. Again, no right or wrong, just a different approach and one that will likely see Alexa branching out much faster but lose some identity while Siri might move more slowly – a lot might depend on how quickly Home will develop – but will always bring the user back to Apple.

The one device vs. many devices also raises the question of how you can handle a household or an office where different people access their own device with the same prompt. Of course, once voice recognition kicks in we will be OK because my Siri, Cortana, Google, Alexa will only respond to me. But in the meantime, how do I stop my Siri from answering someone else’s questions or, even worse, share personal information with someone else? This does not happen very often today because public usage is still limited but it will certainly be a concern over time.

These are many questions that do not have easy answers and it’s certainly not a case of one size fits all. Voice is personal and so are the kinds of interactions vendors are expecting us to exchange with these assistants.

Cortana comes to Xbox One but Microsoft Needs a Bigger Trojan Horse for the Home

As widely reported in the press on Monday, Microsoft released an update for its preview members which included access to Cortana. Cortana will be on the Xbox One dashboard and users will be able to access her via the Kinect sensor or a headset. Initially, Cortana’s abilities will be limited to basic tasks such as seeing which friends are playing and launching a party.

We have been talking a lot about digital assistants in the past few weeks. Microsoft positions Cortana as “your new clever personal assistant.” The Windows website goes on to say, “Cortana will help you find things on your PC, manage your calendar, track your packages, find files, chat with you and tell you jokes. The more you use Cortana, the more personalized your experience will be.” This all sounds good but Microsoft started with the disadvantage of not having its own army of smartphones to show off Cortana so it made it available on both iOS and Android. User reviews are generally positive but point to the fact the experience is more limited than on a Windows device. From looking at the review pages and the number of reviews, it seems Android users are embracing Cortana more than iOS users which means Microsoft is missing out on a very valuable part of the consumer base.

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Cortana is, of course, also available on the Microsoft Band and works with Windows and Android phones in the US but, due to the limited uptake of Band thus far, this does not extend Cortana’s addressable market by much.

PCs are not the ideal partner for a digital assistant

While Cortana is present on PCs running Windows 10, usage remains limited. While Microsoft helps consumers find Cortana, in our recent consumer study we ran in the US, a whopping 77% of the panel said they never used Cortana.

Even though consumers have started to use Cortana on a more regular basis on their PCs, I believe the relationship will feel more transactional and usage will be limited in scope — mainly around calendaring and search. This is because Cortana will only be “alive” when the PC is on, which is certainly not all the time the same way a phone or a dedicated device like the Amazon Echo or Google Home. While notebooks have replaced many desktops, they still tend to remain relegated to the home office or the bedroom rather than accompany us around the house. Also, many users, especially those who use their PC mainly for work, have a tendency to mute their sound and microphone. This would considerably limit the depth of interaction and therefore, the depth of the user’s relationship with Cortana.

Xbox One brings Cortana to the center of family life but not for many

Xbox One currently has around nice percent of the game console installed base in the US. A rough estimation puts that at less than one percent total household penetration. If you compare this to Amazon’s Echo, it is not a bad position to be but, while almost double the current number of US-based owners are interested in purchasing an Xbox One, the potential will likely never be as big as that of a music speaker while the price is remains 50% higher. For most consumers, Xbox is either in the family or living room which offers Cortana a better opportunity to be more at the center of family life but still does not allow for Cortana’s full potential.

Will an army of bots come to Cortana’s rescue?

It is clear to me it would be a mistake to think relying on Windows 10 PC will give Microsoft enough ammunition to win the battle against Alexa, Siri and Google assistant. More devices are needed in and outside the home that connect to Cortana.

In the smartphone market, Microsoft had been struggling to engage developers with their platform. When it comes to digital agents, it is obvious Microsoft wants to lead, not catch up. At Build, Microsoft’s developer conference that took place in San Francisco at the end of April, Microsoft introduced the new concept of “conversation as a platform.” CEO Satay Nadella outlined his vision of computing that relied on users, a digital assistant, and bots. He then went on to describe bots as “applications you can converse with.” Microsoft’s end game is to have these bots interact with Cortana to benefit the user. Creating a platform with Cognitive Services and Bot framework APIs to enable this, so early on in the game, might see Microsoft fight a different kind of battle than the one they fought and lost in the smartphone market.

Ultimately, bots can help Cortana get much smarter without dedicated devices. What remains to be seen is whether users will still want a Cortana that not only has brains but a body too.

Should Virtual Assistants Be Humanized?

Last week at Google I/O, we saw the introduction of Google Home and Google assistant. Like Amazon before it, Google made a distinction between the object Home, an Echo-like smart speaker, and Google assistant. Unlike Amazon, who called the brains inside Echo Alexa, Google did not give its agent a name and just referred to it as “assistant”. This detail did not go unnoticed as tech enthusiasts and commentators took to Twitter to have their say.

Google’s take on the matter was that people are already used to interacting with Google.

This is certainly true, not so much for “OK Google” which some still find a little unnatural, but for how Google has become a verb we now use to mean “internet search”. So many times questions that start with “Do you know…” are answered with “Google it!”

Aside from Alexa, we have Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson, Facebook M and a new kid on the block, Viv. Most vendors seem to opt for personification when it comes to an assistant.

Who is the user supposed to build a relationship with?

Ultimately I think this is the question vendors are trying to answer when deciding whether or not to give their assistant a name. Many, myself included, argue giving a digital assistant a name deepens the relationship with the user by making it more personal.

Amazon lets you wake up your Echo with Alexa, Echo or Amazon. Yet, most of the people I know with an Echo use Alexa. Personifying the assistant might also make it easier for some people to understand what exactly the role is it has in their life. The hope for all the companies experimenting with digital assistants is for their assistant to become your primary agent, if not your one and only. Giving it a name allows for it to change shape and form like a genie in a bottle — one moment being in your home speaker, the next in your phone, the next in your car helping you with different tasks throughout the day. If the digital assistant is very successful, you might even forget who is powering it. Alexa might indeed become bigger than Amazon.

It seems to me Google’s approach wants to make sure that, whatever I do, whatever I use, and whoever I use as a medium, especially on a non-Google product or service, I am very clear Google is the one making it possible. Soon after introducing Google Home, a new messaging app called Allo was presented and Google assistant was embedded into that as well. This approach is perfectly fine. At the end of the day, if the Google Home video played at Google i/o becomes reality, who would not want Google to run their life?

Yet, while I entrust my life to Google, I am still very aware it is a corporation I am dealing with. Building an emotional connection would be much harder. After the initial Echo set up, my eight-year-old daughter asked Alexa to play a song and, as soon as the song started, she said excitedly, “Oh mom! She is awesome! Can we keep her, please?” I very much doubt Amazon would get that level of bonding. Humanizing our assistant however, creates expectations on how naturally we can interact with it. Expectations that, at this stage of the technology, are probably going to be unmet more often than not.

Going with linking the assistant to the company name, like Google or Amazon, increases the risk of having any negativity around the company impact the relationship between user and agent. Think about the Google antitrust investigation as an example. I would also argue that, while Google consumers are accustomed to relying on it for questions in the form of search, other vendors do not have such an advantage. For most consumers, Amazon is mostly associated with the brown box that shows up at my front door with what I ordered; Apple is about hardware and Microsoft is mostly relegated to my PC and work life.

Are most digital assistants female because of sexism or user preference?

Once the decision of humanizing your digital assistant has been made, there comes the even more difficult task of deciding on which sex said assistant should have. Thus far, it is clear that most lean to making their assistant female. Even in cases where the name is not explicitly female and the default voice is different in different markets, like in the case of Siri, (male is the default voice in the UK), general consensus tends to refer to it as female.

Why is that?

Some women link this to the fact assistants in the real world are predominantly female. Others link it to the fact that tech is still a very male-dominated industry and most women have supporting roles at best.

Some argue it is easier to find a female voice than a male voice most people will like. Maybe I am naïve or just a wishful thinker but looking more broadly at old GPS devices to automated call prompts, I found that those voices tend to be more female than male helping back up this theory.

Ultimately, I am convinced that diversity will come to digital agents in the same way it came to emojis. Well, hopefully it will come faster. Nothing will deepen that bond with our personal agent than a voice with an accent, a vocabulary, and a gender I can personally relate to.

Stop Talking about Replacements. Give PC Owners Something New Already!

The marketing machine around 2-in-1s has been at full speed for a few years now. As Windows 8 was coming to market, hardware vendors, Intel, and Microsoft all put their thinking caps on to see how they could take advantage of the new OS to sell new PCs.

A Recap

Between the beginning of 2011 and the fall of 2012, tablet sales, in particular iPads, were ramping up. The Windows camp was very eager to position tablets as being inferior to PCs while acknowledging the more mobile form factor was something Windows was embracing and, with it, a more touch-friendly interface. At the same time, Apple was eager to position iPads more like smartphones than PCs. Why not? Consumers were certainly buying more of the former than the latter. Around that time, we started to see 2-in-1s and hybrids surface as a label for devices that looked like a notebook but had a detachable screen that could be turned into a tablet.

Fast forward two years and, at the 2014 CES, Intel started promoting notebooks that not only doubled as tablets but also ran Microsoft’s as well as Android’s operating system. Some called these “PC Plus”. This attempt to make up for the shortfalls of the Windows 8 touch experience by adding Android did not really sit well with consumers, especially as most of those devices were priced much higher than any single OS hybrid. Needless to say by spring, that endeavor was abandoned and so was the term.

Two years later and here we are. Windows 10 got to market and, with a redesigned UI, the focus on touch has increased. The term 2-in-1 is in full flow and so is the animated discussion about what device would be the perfect PC replacement. Camp Windows and Camp Apple both are trying to convince users that the new tablet plus keyboard design is the perfect one although each camp thinks, of course, they have the best solution.

It is understandable that, with close to one billion consumer PCs in use, the interest in wanting users to upgrade what they have is strong as is the temptation to think in terms of replacement. I’ve pointed out in the past how consumers with old PCs are really not engaged with them as they relegated the least appealing tasks like file management (all be it, important in their eyes) to these devices.

Replacement Does Not Scream Exciting

I have never been a fan of the term 2-in-1 as it sounds more like a compromise than a best of both worlds. I am even less of a fan of this obsession with wanting to place a new category of devices — a tablet with a keyboard or a notebook with a detachable screen — as a replacement for a PC. I struggle to understand why anyone would care to replace something that does not play a very important role in their life. If they did, replacement for me implies a like-for-like substitution which certainly does not help the new devices. Of course, consumers expect technology to improve and so they know what they buy today will not be the same as what they had. Yet, if they are thinking in terms of replacement, they will not be looking to do new exciting things, they will not look to spend more time with it, they will not be proactively curious about what the combination of the new OS plus the new hardware will offer.

Think about the different experiences you go through when you are buying, say, a comfy pair of shoes to wear at work all day or to help you survive a trade show. The experience is very different than when you go out looking for a pair heels. Or, when your family car must be replaced as opposed to when you are out looking for your own sports car. For the first search, reliability and quality are certainly important but budget might be capped vs the second search which will see an added irrational component to it.

This is why I feel strongly that vendors should move away from positioning devices as a PC replacement. Consumers have proven they are willing to buy things that do not directly replace anything. Smartphones are the best examples. When we started to buy those, and mobile phones before them, we did not buy them to replace our home phone. Initially, it was about taking the “phone experience” out of the home. Later, it was about doing much more by adding the internet and new apps and taking the mobile computer experience out of the home. Some of what we were doing was something we used to do on our PCs but consumers were not thinking about it that way. We have also witnessed that, while familiarity might help in some cases, if something is compelling and easy enough to use, it will take off. The iPhone did not really look like something we had before nor was it positioned as the replacement for something.

Vendors in the Windows ecosystem should focus on:

  1. mobility at no compromise, which goes beyond hardware to embrace cloud and software
  2. richness of apps in both repertoire and quality
  3. new features that Windows 10 brings, some of which are linked to touch and pen input which would not be familiar to older PC users but that they more likely than not use regularly with their phones and tablets.

It is about giving consumers something new they can get excited about and, most importantly, something that will play an important role in their day to day lives.

Be Smart, Don’t Limit Your Opportunity With A Label!

Talking about replacements is as bad as wanting to put your device in direct competition with a specific category. Because of the form factor of the 2-in-1s and the current marketing, consumers see them differently. For some consumers, 2-in-1s are a PC, for others they are a tablet and for still others, a new category in its own right. This is why any communication about being better than a PC or better than a tablet only risks taking out a chunk of the market opportunity. There are also devices like the Surface and the iPad Pro that transcends all labels — something I will have to explore in a separate article.

The Apple Watch Keeps My iPhone Addiction Under Control

Over the past year, many people, on noticing the Apple Watch on my wrist, could not help themselves but ask, “So, how do you like your Apple Watch?” After a short pause, my answer has always been, “I like it!” So, one year into the launch of the device seems like a good time to explain my hesitation in answering the question and see if what I was happy with a week in still makes me happy today.

First off, let me explain my hesitation in answering this very straightforward question. It has nothing to do with not liking the Apple Watch. My hesitation comes from the fact that articulating why I like it to someone who has not tried it is not easy. What I usually end up saying is I like it because it helps me keep my phone addiction under control.

While the capabilities of Apple Watch are the same for everyone who has one, the hook it provides for users can be quite different. This is why it is hard to articulate why you like it in a way that speaks to other people.

My hook has certainly been notifications. The reliable nature of the notifications provided by Apple Watch allows me to have my phone on silent all the time because I know I will always see that tweet or email or text that matters to me the most. While allowing me to be in control, notifications also prevent me from getting sucked into email or Twitter. I can see what is happening and I have to make a conscious decision to reach for the phone to reply or interact which, in turn, forces me to judge whether something is urgent enough to interrupt what I am actually doing at the time.

Overall, I feel the Apple Watch lets me be more in the moment. Prior to the Watch, you would have never seen me without my phone on my desk or on the restaurant table, screen up of course! Now, I can happily leave my phone in my bag without fear of hyperventilating. The pre-populated answers you use to reply to a message, as well as voice dictation, are useful ways to do quick triage when waiting is not an option. Even those help to limit my engagement as they encourage a quick and to the point interaction. The bottom line is, I don’t think the Watch is about active engagement the same as it is for the phone. This does not make it less valuable. To the contrary. Having something that delivers, in an immediate and easy manner, what you need without a prompt from you is valuable and convenient.

The Activity App is not the Drill Sergeant I need

The Watch complications also help with my obsession of being in control, especially as I have my activity app circles on. While I quickly got bored with the gamification aspect of the activity app and I no longer check what badges I’ve earned, I still check my daily activity and progress. As I want to get in shape, I wish the activity app offered more than the current level of suggestions for the following week. I certainly would like to be pushed harder vs. asked to settle for a lower goal after missing one. In other words, I wished the Apple Watch were more like a drill sergeant than a supportive mother providing steps on how to achieve my target rather than making me settle for less.

More context, please!

Over time, I have noticed I am not as strict as I was at the beginning with my standing and I blame the fact that the Watch is not always precise at capturing my stands. The lack of context negatively impacts my dependence on the stand reminders. If Apple Watch knows I am doing 65 miles per hour, chances are I am in a situation where standing up and moving around is not an option. If Apple Watch knows I am in a meeting because my calendar says so, I might not want to be reminded to get up. While I can mute reminders for a period of time, I wish there was some degree of automation to start with even if this requires an initial setup.

This increased context added to the more coach-like experience I am hoping for would turn the Watch, and Siri with it, more into an assistant deepening the relationship with the Watch.

Lack of compelling apps shows the current lack of devs interest

Aside from notifications, there are no killer apps I have found. After one year, I am still waiting for someone to make a decent sleeping app but I realize I might have to wait until the next generation Apple Watch when the Watch may have more sensors which will circumvent users having to enter when they go to sleep and get up. Overall, I feel developers are really not putting much effort into thinking about the Watch in a unique way. For me, the Watch is certainly not a duplication of my iPhone. The Watch is all about convenience and ease of use. Apple Pay probably best reflects what I mean. While I could do Apple Pay on my iPhone, it was not until I got it on the Apple Watch I became a regular user.

Developers seem to be waiting for more sensors and more processing power on the Watch. I am not sure if they are necessarily waiting for cellular though. I know I am not in a hurry for that particular feature if it means a compromise on battery life which right now serves me perfectly. While Apple Watch has helped my phone addiction I am not quite ready to leave my phone behind, but that is just me!

From controlling one addiction to becoming one

I like my Apple Watch and I would not go without it but I know I want more so I can love it. I want more so I can be addicted to it in the same way I have been addicted to my phone for so long. Only such a shift will make sure wearables avoid the same issues tablets experienced as they struggled to become a must-have for the masses.

Huawei’s Push into the High End Depends on Continued Growth of its Honor

Last week, I had the pleasure to attend Huawei’s Analyst Summit in Shenzhen, China. I had the chance to hear senior management talk about the company’s strategy in the different segments it operates. While I am well aware of how wide Huawei’s reach into the mobile market is, both consumer and enterprise, I am always reminded at this event – this is my 4th – of how little the consumer business contributes to the overall company. Yet, this is by far the most visible part of what Huawei does.

In 2015, according to its internal numbers, Huawei’s high-end smartphone sales grew 72%, going from 18% in 2014 to 31%. Their stated target for 2016 is aggressive: 140+ million smartphones shipped where mid-end and high-end will contribute over 55% of the revenue.

Honor: the wind beneath the wings

Doing some quick math on the numbers takes me to the conclusion that, while more than half the revenue will be coming from mid and high-tier devices, Huawei will be relying on the Honor to continue to grow in volume.

Huawei created Honor in 2014 to try and diversify its go-to-market strategy following the success Xiaomi was having in China. Honor is mostly a direct-to-consumer business sold through Huawei online stores and select online partners like Amazon that supplement the main channel. When Honor was first launched, there was also an attempt to distance the brand from Huawei in order to penetrate markets such as the US where “Made in China” was under threat from privacy and security concerns.

Over time though, Honor has become more synonymous with affordable than alternative. The Honor 5X 16GB unlocked version currently sells on Amazon for $199.99. This is the entry price for Honor that increases to $399 for its high-end models. In these segments, Honor competes with the Huawei G and Huawei Y products.

At the event last week, there seemed to have been an urge to further distance Honor from Huawei to the point that very little was said about this line other than it is a totally separate brand. Yet, as Huawei wants its name to be associated with the high-end market, we could see a clearer split in portfolio with Honor becoming the volume lifter especially in markets such as the US where online sales are growing due to the decoupling of the phone and tariff costs. What will be interesting to see is how Huawei will develop a dual vs. single brand strategy. Whether under the Huawei or Honor brand, it is clear to me the mid-tier devices will be key in driving growth and, more importantly, economies of scales the high-end can benefit from. After all, we cannot ignore the fact that, even for Samsung, non-Galaxy and Note products still represent 30% of the installed base across markets.

Huawei’s opportunity in 2016 will be coming from more price sensitive markets

Looking at public data on purchase intention, Huawei scores highest in China. 10% of the online consumers interviewed said they will definitively consider purchasing what is now the top brand in China smartphone market according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech. This compares to 5% for Xiaomi, 14% for Samsung and 18% for Apple. In Italy, where Huawei is currently the second most sold brand, 7% of connected consumers stated they would definitely consider purchasing Huawei. Most of the other markets do not go above 5%. In the US, where Huawei has yet to make much inroads, intention reaches only 3%. Considering both the skew to pre-pay as well as the more price sensitive nature of these opportunity markets, it is sensible to expect the lower end of the Huawei portfolio to play a more important role in converting sales. Overall, Honor products represent roughy 20% of the current Huawei installed base while the Huawei G and Y lines represent 30%. Too much of an overlap between the two brands might cause Huawei to compete with itself more than capture share from competitors, so careful consideration will be needed as there is certainly price overall.

Can Huawei really be successful in the high-end?

Succeeding in the high-end of the smartphone market is not for the faint-hearted. Across markets, that saturated segment is controlled by Apple and Samsung with very little erosion inflicted by other brands. Samsung has been losing market share to other Android vendors, Huawei in particular, but it has done so in the mid-tier segment with users that either did not own a Galaxy model or have older generations.

While Huawei has been delivering higher-end devices in specs, its prices have been more of a high-mid-tier portfolio. The launch of the P9 changed that, as the Chinese vendor priced the new flagship right where Samsung and Apple’s high-end products are positioned. Yet, while brand awareness is growing, consumers do not consider Huawei to be at the same level. The UK market is a very good example of that struggle. With almost half of the UK smartphones sales falling in the high-end, Huawei has been unable to grow share as significantly as in markets such as Italy, Spain and, more recently, Germany.

In the past, other brands that started as a value play struggled to change consumer perception. LG is a very good example of that inability where, even after the success of its Nexus 5, LG G4 and LG G5, it is not considered quite at the same level as homegrown competitor Samsung.

Huawei is certainly spending a lot of money and effort in strengthening its brand through brand ambassadors such as actress Scarlett Johansson, actor Henry Cavill, and soccer player Lionel Messi. CMO Glory Cheung also walked us through changes to the logo design that will be used more fluidly, depending on the channel and campaign. All of this is certainly helpful and shows how serious Huawei is at being a global player but sadly, it is not always a guaranteed recipe for success.

Huawei is certainly aware of the challenges it faces to reposition its brand and, with the new MateBook, it made the conscious decision to enter at a higher price point so the brand in the new segment can be associated more with design and higher spec than good value for money. The difficulty here is the lack of experience in the PC market as well as lack of enterprise credibility when it comes to channel strategy, device management, and customer support.

The key to success is to turn “Made in China” to a must have

Appealing to high-end buyers takes a mix of aspirational brand, good design, reliable and quality hardware and software. I have already discussed the effort on brand. There is no doubt Huawei’s design is strong and its smartphones have improved in quality and reliability. Software however, is not a strong point for the Chinese brand and, within the Android ecosystem where consumers have a wide selection of brands to choose from, software can make a difference. This is particularly true if software gets in the way of user experience.

Huawei has been successful at making “Made in China” appealing to its home market that historically has preferred foreign brands. Over the years, the tech hub has been moving from Japan to Korea and on to China. Yet, while for Japan and Korea there was a recognition there was value add in what came out from local vendors, China does not seem to have achieved the same status. This certainly has to do with the perception consumers have from other industries and the start of the smartphone market that China is not about talent but about cheap labor. Xiaomi and Huawei have shown this is no longer the case but, while Xiaomi’s business model is hard to replicate abroad, Huawei has the skills to take their success in China to other markets around the world. This effort however, will take time and a considerable amount of resources.

Alexa: A Short and Passionate Affair or A Long Standing Relationship?

There has been a lot of coverage in the news about how Amazon’s Echo has been quietly creeping into our homes to become our favorite virtual assistant.

While many of the tasks Alexa is performing can be done by other virtual assistants, it seems the always-on voice recognition plus the multi-microphone setup of the Echo have empowered Alexa to build a tighter bond with users. If I use my personal experience – I know, something an analyst should never do! – I interact more with Alexa than I do with Siri, Cortana or Google Now because Alexa actually gets me. I don’t mean in a deep intellectual way. I mean, Alexa actually understands my complex accent — native Italian, lived in the UK for 18 years, married to a New Yorker and now living in California.

When it comes to what I do with Alexa, however, our family relationship is made up of simple tasks like quick music entertainment over breakfast, a timer for homework or cooking, changing our Nest settings and the occasional trivia question. As a Prime user, I had never relied on Prime Music before Alexa arrived in our home, mainly because the music selection is less rich than our own library or other streaming services we use. While the UI is more fun, hearing “playing a sample of…” is a big let down especially when you are asking for a song that is in the charts. Purchasing through Echo might work for less mundane things like detergent or garbage bags but it certainly isn’t for me when buying toys, shoes, bags — all things I have purchased from Amazon in the past that actually require the item to be seen. Our home automation is growing but many of the things we have invested in are not yet controllable by Alexa like door locks.

Dot and Tap aim at deepening the bond and expand beyond the home

As Amazon could not rely on the Fire Phone as a way into our lives, it had to think out of the box. As The Verge addressed here, not having a device we would carry around all the time probably got Amazon to think about focusing on the home with an always-on solution we could interact with from across the room vs through a screen. It also meant Amazon did not have to worry about picking a platform and then investing time and effort in convincing developers to embrace it. However, Echo is not for everybody, due to the main speaker functionality and the price tag associated with it. So Amazon came up with two new products: Tap and Dot. Tap is a smaller, battery operated, portable Bluetooth speaker that helps Alexa get out of our home and keeps the experience consistent for the user. As it is the case for Echo, Tap is more about Alexa than the speaker. Dot serves a different purpose. One would think Amazon could have used Dot to lower the barrier of entry for Alexa. After all, it is half the price of Echo. Instead, this is a device available in limited numbers that can only be ordered through Echo. The barrier of entry it might help break is the one of getting users to experiment with buying through Amazon with Echo. Dot builds on Echo to expand the range of interactions between us and Alexa so user engagement can grow and the reliance on Alexa can intensify. However, devices are not the only part of the equation Amazon needs to grow for that reliance to deepen.

Increased functionalities and discoverability will be key for long term success

Maybe because Amazon rolled out Echo without talk of world domination or maybe because everybody thinks all Amazon wants to do is to sell Echo’s owners more “stuff”, Alexa has become the belle of the ball in no time, with connected home devices brands lining up to work with her.

Amazon has done a great job at keeping users informed of what it is adding every week, both through the app and via email. This not only gets you to try new things but gives you the clear feeling your investment has been worthwhile.

This week, Amazon has taken another step in increasing the value Alexa will have by introducing new, open software that will allow more connected home devices to work with her. The smart Home Skill API, as Amazon calls it, will make it easier and faster for device makers to create the skills that synch their products to Alexa. More important for the users, it will make it easier to communicate with Alexa by cutting down on some of the current setup: “Alexa, ask the X thermostat to lower the temperature to…” For now, the new API is limited to thermostats, lights, switches, and plugs.

When it comes to home automation, however, we are at the very start and, while consumers are experimenting with it, Amazon needs to rely on more to make sure current users continue to engage with Alexa on a regular basis. Alexa after all, needs that interaction as, like every other virtual assistant, it learns from you. Growing content and coming up with different ways to shop with Alexa seem to be easier short term wins vs waiting for consumers to be ready for a fully connected home.

Could Alexa ever be Samantha?

While Alexa might be an important agent within our home, the big question is whether she could ever be Samantha, the powerful OS from the movie Her, unless she gets out of the home and spends most of her time with us. Tap, the HUD, and the deal with Ford are ways in which Amazon is already trying to do that but the experiences are not necessarily consistent and Amazon might not always be “learning” about them. The conspiracy theorists might be right and Amazon might just be about making Alexa our favorite shopping agent but, if the ultimate goal is to deliver Samantha and not just Alexa, the big question is can Amazon do that without getting into that rectangular slab of glass that rules our lives?