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As companies like Samsung and Huawei announce foldable smartphones, the tone of the critics has been interesting to observe. A lot of commentary, particularly on Twitter, has been quite critical of both devices with pundits being quick to point out their flaws. I feel the quick critique and overall negativity by many pundits misses an important perspective.
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When I joined Creative Strategies in 1981, one of my tasks was to work with customers to help source materials and components for use in their products. Initially, I sourced materials for PC’s and over time became involved in sourcing all types of components and materials for a plethora of tech devices.
In most of the cases where I was asked to help in sourcing materials, the issue of quality of materials was top of mind. Because of those efforts, the kind of materials that go into a product has become an important part of my work and analytical thinking for the last 38 years.
Now that smartphones are the dominant tool that people use dozens of times a day and carry with them most of the time, I have been looking much more closely at the types of materials that are used in these devices and how the quality of these materials are becoming more important to customers.
One of the more significant developments in Smartphone design has been the use of glass backs to bolster the design, look and feel and the technical quality of the smartphone itself. Glass backs are essential for wireless charging, antenna reception and protection of the backside of the smartphone from scratches and breakage.
A recently released report from Counterpoint Research explains the growing glass back adoption:
One of the reasons for glass becoming a preferred choice over metal is the overall look and feel of the device. With average smartphone prices within the premium segment going up, smartphones with glass backs add to the overall look and feel. It makes them look more attractive and premium.
Another reason in favor of glass backs is the increasing adoption of wireless charging. Metals don’t support wireless charging as effectively as a glass back does. However, the adoption of wireless charging is relatively low, with Samsung and Apple driving adoption. As more smartphone makers start including Qi technology, the adoption of wireless charging is set to increase and can penetrate the mid-tier segments.
In addition to the above, the decision to go with glass backs for an OEM also reduces the BoM cost as glass sourced in a larger quantity will be cheaper than an all metal build.
From a connectivity standpoint as well, glass doesn’t interfere with radio waves and allows them to pass through easily and hence ensures strong signals for LTE/WiFI/Bluetooth.
The adoption rate of smartphones with glass backs has mostly been driven by use in premium smartphones. Counterpoint predicts that glass backs will find their way into as many as 60% of smartphones by 2020.
Exhibit-1 : Smartphones with Glass Backs – Penetration by Shipments
The other big trend that is impacting the smartphone business is that people now are keeping their smartphones for as many as three to four years, so the quality of the materials used in their smartphones matters a great deal more to them than when phones were much less expensive than they are today.
However, I had a meeting at CES with a significant smartphone ODM and found out that some smartphone vendors are using a kind of bait and switch approach to some of the smartphones they are designing these days. While they are using one of the versions of Corning’s Gorilla glass cover on the front of their phones, they are using inferior materials on the back.
More specifically, they are using various types of plastic or polycarbonate material that might look like a glass, but is much more susceptible to damage and scratches easier than glass. Some of these smartphones have been positioned as having quality materials on the front and back. The bait and switch come when they highlight the glass front but do not tell the users that the back is plastic, hoping they assume the back is glass too.
The good news is that this bait and switch are not used on any premium phones, but it appears in some mid to lower end smartphones where they are using this strategy to attempt to get costs down to mainly gain more market share. Besides being disingenuous, it gives the buyers of these phones a false sense of quality that does not exist given the plastic materials that are part of their final product.
Strengthened glass has been a proven material that has superior qualities when it comes to being scratch and damage resistant. Glass is also an excellent electronic conductive material too, so it makes sense to use glass on both the front and back as much as possible to deliver to the best user experience to a customer.
Ironically, as the ODM I spoke with told me, using an earlier version of Gorilla Glass on the back would be very cost effective in most of the mid-range phones and even some low-end phones and still allow them to be very price competitive in these categories. More importantly, it would deliver the kind of quality their customers expect now that they are keeping their phones much longer than in the past.
Inferior materials have been used in low-cost phones for over a decade. But today, smartphones are much more than a phone. They are pocket computers used for a variety of functions and applications. Consequently, their use is more critical to an individual and with people keeping them longer, the quality of the materials is more important than ever.
This issue of using some plastic in smartphones and, more recently, folding or flexible phones, will become a bigger problem for the vendors who make devices that use this material in the future. Any plastic cover, even the new fortified one’s from Samsung and others, can’t deliver the kind of quality and capabilities of glass. Corning’s various versions of Gorilla Glass has outperformed plastic covers from the beginning, and no plastic alternative material has come out to compete with their glass solutions to date. Glass is lightweight, has superior quality to plastic and can be shaped to fit any size smartphone easily.
Samsung’s plastic cover for their flexible smartphone that was announced recently at their Unpacked event in San Francisco is the best of a breed of an alternative plastic material so far. And while they seem committed to using this in this early model, I believe that once Corning releases their flexible glass cover for use in folding smartphones, they will move to glass for their future folding phones.
Indeed, Corning has only briefly talked about work on a folding glass cover and has not committed to anytime when it can be ready for the market. But the smartphone ODM’s I have spoken with who are working on a whole host of flexible devices, say there will be pent up demand for Corning’s foldable glass cover whenever it comes to the market.
As people continue to embrace smartphones as pocket computers, and plan to keep them longer and longer, they become a must-have digital companion at their side at all times. That means that out of all of their digital devices, smartphones will most likely get more use and take a greater beating than any other tech product they use daily.
Because of that trend, I believe that people around the world are going to become much more conscious of the quality of their smartphones and demand, even in many lower cost phones, that their vendors use quality materials. Much like computers of the past, smartphones are increasingly becoming investments that a consumer keeps for three-to-four years now and they need to last.
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This week’s Tech.pinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell analyzing all the announcements from Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event in San Francisco, including their new foldable smartphone, the S10 line of smartphones, their Galaxy Buds earbuds, and their new wearables.
If you happen to use a podcast aggregator or want to add it to iTunes manually the feed to our podcast is: techpinions.com/feed/podcast
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My firm did several research studies early on in the mobile payments era. Interestingly, the concept of digital/mobile payments is a much more widespread phenomenon when you look at it globally. M-Pesa in many countries in Africa is becoming the default way to send payments since carrying cash in many regions there is dangerous. In India, Paytm has grown incredibly as an alternate form of payments, and certainly in China cash is almost entirely gone thanks to digital wallets and payments mechanisms like AliPay and WeChat pay.
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Samsung celebrates ten years of Galaxy S and technology is not the only thing that has evolved over this time period. The user base has evolved too. The Galaxy S started as a single product aimed at the higher end of the market. At the time Samsung had a portfolio that counted tens of products aimed at different price points and regions. Thanks to carrier subsidies the Galaxy S spread from early tech adopters to a much broader addressable market of users who wanted the latest and the best and could now afford it. Fast forward to today, and Samsung is faced having an installed base of Galaxy S users who are not as homogeneous as you think. In a way, this is not that different from the problem Apple is facing. The three new Galaxy S10 models introduced at #Unpacked2019 in San Francisco are aiming to address exactly this diversity in the user base.
Samsung had different flavors of Galaxy S since introducing the Galaxy S Edge, but there was limited differentiation in features beyond screen size and price. The Galaxy S10 S10+ and S10e are all addressing different technology needs and budgets without compromising on the high-end experience that a Galaxy S user is looking for. While some might see multiple products as confusing for buyers or as a lack of focus, I think of it differently. Once in a store, price, color, and tech specs will take buyers to their optimal product. As far as focus, considering how replacement cycles are lengthening and consumers are considering pricing more carefully offering choice is a plus, not a minus.
Throwing 5G in the Mix
Aside from the three main Galaxy S10 models, Samsung also announced the new Galaxy S10 5G powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 combines with the Snapdragon X50 modem. Jumping on 5G early in the cycle brings some challenges. First and for most is the fact that carriers more than brands are the ones picking launch schedules and availability. Samsung showed clear support from carriers in different regions, which of course was not a surprise, given Samsung’s position in the market. In the US the Galaxy S10 5G will launch with Verizon in Q2.
I really appreciated the way Samsung talked about the Galaxy S10 5G. The focus was on the experience the phone delivers thanks to a thoughtful choice of specifications and 5G. Connectivity per se has never sold, and it is no different for 5G. With the Galaxy S10 5G, Samsung is selling you a 5G experience, not a 5G connectivity. As nuanced as this might seem, it will make the difference between an aspirational product for users who are not tech savvy and one that would otherwise only appeal to those who care about speeds and feeds. The potential of seamless online gaming, AR experiences, video streaming and more come together through design choices, features, and connectivity.
The Promise of Foldable
The Galaxy Fold stole the show with the promise of what smartphones can be in a non-distant future – the launch date is set for April. Samsung was brilliant in positioning the Galaxy Fold as a luxury device for now. It was smart not because it reflects the $1980 price point, but because the Galaxy Fold is certainly not a device for the masses. There is a lot of technology packed into the device, including many firsts, which justifies the price but differentiated use cases are still to be defined. Furthermore, purposefully designed apps taking advantage of the two screens through app continuity still need to be built. Early tech adopters have a higher degree of patience in finding the quirks and learning what a new category can do, so they are a prime target. Consumers who want a device that delivers status will also be interested in the Galaxy Fold.
We will see if the Galaxy Fold is a one-off or the start of a new category and much of this will depend on what Android and app developers will make possible. We know there will be more foldable showcased at MWC in just a few days and what I am interested in seeing is the design approach vendors will take. Overall, I think foldable phones have a more significant opportunity than 2in1 had in the PC market. Phones, unlike PCs, are always with us and while I argued many times that consumers have little left to give to Android tablets – both in terms of time and money – they will still benefit from a tablet-like experience from the device that is always with them.
Has Samsung Done Enough?
This is the question I always get at the end of a launch event: has company X done enough? This time, the question is actually multifaceted so let’s break it down:
Has Samsung done enough to see sales growth year over year?
Possibly. I think overall this year’s Galaxy S10 portfolio has a broader and stronger appeal than the last two years. The different price points and the new designs around key features such as the Infinity O Display, the three-camera system, and the ultrasonic fingerprint scanner will undoubtedly capture the interest of early tech adopters as well as consumers who want their new purchase to stand out from the past models. Bundling the new Galaxy Buds in preorders for the Galaxy S10 and S10+ is a good incentive too but also a smart move to create more stickiness for valuable customers.
Has Samsung done enough to change the trajectory of the smartphone market?
Um, no and nobody else will. This is the new normal. The smartphone market will not see the kind of year over year growth we had been accustomed to. 5G could potentially help in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G. This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones. The 3G rollout also coincided with the start of the smartphone market and app stores while 4G coincided with smartphones becoming more affordable. In both cases you had two strong trends joining forces in creating a buzz for consumers.
Has Samsung done enough to hold on to its market leadership?
Early to say as this battle will not be won with a strong Galaxy S10 line up only. The Galaxy S10 models will certainly help in mature markets, but in emerging markets and the prepaid segment of mature markets, it will be the Galaxy A Series that will help Samsung hold or gain share. While it is possible for Huawei to get to the number one spot in the world without playing a meaningful role in the US smartphone market, I am not convinced the Chinese brand would be able to sustain that position long term. Being an early mover with 5G might help Samsung in China, a market where Samsung used to be number one but where the brand has lost traction among consumers who saw local household name being more responsive in addressing their specific needs.
I was encouraged by how Samsung continues to pay more and more attention to overall experiences rather than delivering a string of features. The partnership with Instagram for a camera mode and with Adobe for on-device video editing show not just the ability to bring other brands to the ecosystem but a higher degree of attention to make things easier for users. This, combined with more obvious examples of different devices working together to deliver more value is what will ultimately start to matter more and more to users. Apple owns this model and was able to build a loyal user base that invests across devices and services. Samsung has more work to do, but it is certainly showing more promise than Huawei, which will make a difference particularly in more mature markets. Huawei could, of course, embrace stock Android, but I am not sure they are quite ready to do that especially considering the current political climate and the risk that such a move might bring if they were suddenly shut off.
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I was born in Silicon Valley and have been privileged to be part of the tech revolution. I have seen the Valley go from a sleepy agriculture community to a thriving technopolis. I cut through Apricot orchards to go to grammar school, and I lived in the center of San Jose at that time. The Silicon Valley of my youth is long gone.
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We, as consumers, now know more about our own health and wellness than ever before. […] Think back a decade: How many times, outside of a medical appointment, did you pause to check your pulse? I’ve been a regular runner since junior high, but I don’t think I ever bothered to track my heart rate while training or racing until I started wearing a Fitbit.
Now? With a twist of my wrist, I easily can check how close I am to my daily goal of steps taken, my pace, and my heart rate without breaking stride. Almost every day I check how I slept the night before and how often I was restless or woke up. And I can do it all with “over-the-counter” consumer technology that sets up, syncs, and begins tracking in minutes.
Technology is improving the human condition, helping us live longer, healthier, more productive lives. The medical community is unlocking mysteries about diet and disease detection with cutting-edge research, lightning-fast data analysis, and technology. All these exciting new developments are pushing towards what I call the ninja future––a connected world powered by the people and the innovation to shape the world into a better, bolder place. The main technological driver behind our skyrocketing access to our own wellness data is the development of the microelectrical-mechanical systems (MEMS). These tiny sensors are becoming less expensive even as they become more accurate. Understanding the mass-market appeal of such highly precise and personalized healthcare, ninja innovators keep developing new services to delight consumers and to solve real problems. But MEMS’ size and cost make them ideal for use in wearable devices, such as earbuds that monitor your body temperature and utensils that help offset hand tremors when someone is eating while also collecting data on the tremors for researchers.
And here’s where it gets exponentially more valuable to us (and, personally, exciting to me). Our growing appetite for anytime/anywhere connectivity with our friends, family, colleagues, and doctors will improve our health and wellness. How do you respond when your doctor asks, “Tell me about your symptoms” or “Describe your pain”? Probably with a lot of subjective, anecdotal self-analysis: “I seem more tired than usual,” or “It feels like it hurts less.”
But there’s a gap between what’s actually happening to your body and how you interpret it. So out comes the blood pressure cuff, “Open wide and say Ahhh,” and “Does it hurt here?” Maybe you have blood drawn. In every case, you wait for information.
Now consider a medical consultation powered by ninja innovation—one that doesn’t even involve parking lots or waiting rooms. Without asking a single question, your doctor could review your activity levels over a given time period. She could check your recent hydration, sodium, and oxygen levels without needles. A quick review of your connected prescription dispensers might show you inadvertently skipped a few doses of your medicine.
An example: A friend of mine has been a diabetic since childhood and frequently had to extract blood samples. Recently he told me his life has changed thanks to a small, flat device he wears that samples blood from a subcapillary every five minutes and sends the information to his smartphone. An alert goes off if his blood glucose level is outside the normal range. There are also automatic glucose-level monitoring-and-adjusting devices that give diabetics an “artificial pancreas” to keep their blood sugars at safe levels. This sensing technology has amazing implications for the 425 million adults worldwide who live with diabetes.
Digital therapeutics—apps, sensors, and smart technologies that function as stand-alones or in combination with conventional treatments such as medicine or therapy—have the potential to change behavior, and in some cases may be more effective than drug treatments. These treatments work well for conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and insomnia. The idea is that a patient’s well-being starts with doctor’s orders, but ultimately depends on the patient’s willingness to change behaviors and monitor his or her own health.
Focused ultrasound holds the promise of noninvasively treating myriad conditions—from tremors to cancer—at early stages. Cutting-edge prosthetics combine software with sensors that respond to the wearers’ movements, allowing them to perform highly precise, complex tasks (like turning keys in locks) that were unimaginable just a few years ago.
On sports fields and on the battlefield, head injuries are another frontier. Concussion-sensing technologies in helmets—like those developed by MC-10—are increasingly providing coaches, trainers, and the U.S. military with immediate information about head injuries, so they can appropriately assess, extract, and treat those affected.
Future ninjas also understand that our genetic makeup is fertile ground for innovations in health tech. Cloud computing and big data mean we can analyze millions of patient medical records to uncover which diets and treatment regimens work best, depending on patients’ maladies, genetics, demographics, and physical activity. Each individual’s genetic code can now be mapped, and the cost of doing so is dropping rapidly. Increasingly, the individual human genome will be a baseline for recommended exercise, sleep, stress, and nutrition for wellness programs. When you get sick, genetic mapping will also allow personalized diagnoses and treatment plans.
Future ninjas are on the cusp of other ingenious breakthroughs in genetics, health care, and telemedicine that will soon become mainstream. These discoveries will allow millions of consumers to assess and address their health concerns, and will enable doctors to diagnose and treat patients with greater accuracy than ever before.
Adapted from the book NINJA FUTURE: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation by Gary Shapiro. Copyright © 2019 by Gary Shapiro. Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
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We recently ran a study, across a range of demographics and smartphone platform owners in the US, to get a read on current behaviors and frustrations with the smart assistants we use on our smart speakers and our smartphones. For this analysis, I want to focus on the assistants on our smartphones and some insights our research revealed.
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Ever since the rise to prominence of cloud computing, we’ve seen businesses grapple with how to best think about and leverage this new means of computing. Some companies, particularly web-focused ones, dove in head-first and now have their entire existence dependent on services like Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services), Microsoft’s Azure, and Google’s Cloud Platform (GCP). For most traditional businesses, however, the process of moving towards the cloud hasn’t been nearly as clear, nor as easy. Because of large investments in their own physical data centers, thousands of legacy applications, and many other customized software investments that weren’t originally designed with the cloud in mind, the transition to cloud computing has been much slower.
One of the stumbling blocks in moving to the cloud for these traditional vendors is that the shift has often required a monolithic change to an entirely new, distinct type of computing. Needless to say, that’s not easy to do, particularly if the option you’re moving to is seen as a singular choice, with few alternatives. In particular, because AWS was so dominant in the early days of cloud computing, many organizations were afraid of getting locked into this new environment.
As alternative cloud computing offerings from Microsoft, Google, IBM, Oracle, SAP and others started to kick in, however, companies began to see that many different viable alternatives were available. What’s been happening in the cloud computing world over the last 12-18 months is more than just a simple increase in competitive options. It’s a significant expansion in thinking about how to approach computing in the cloud. With multi-cloud, for example, companies are now embracing, rather than rejecting, the concept of having different types of workloads hosted by different vendors.
In a way, we’re seeing cloud computing evolve in a similar path to overall computing trends, but at a much faster pace. The initial AWS offerings, for example, weren’t that conceptually different from mainframe-based efforts, focused around a platform controlled by a single vendor. The combination of new offerings from other vendors as well as different types of supported workloads could be seen as a theoretical equivalent to more heterogenous computing models. The move to containers and microservices across multiple cloud computing providers in some ways mirrors the client-server evolution stage of computing. Finally, the recent development of “serverless” models for cloud computing could be considered roughly analogous to the advancements in edge computing.
In this context, the announcements that IBM made at last week’s Think 2019 conference around their Watson AI services are well timed to meet the evolving cloud computing demands. Specifically, the company said that through their Watson Anywhere initiative they were going to be making Watson AI services available across AWS, Azure, and GCP, in addition to their own IBM Cloud offerings. In addition, for situations where companies may want to develop and or run AI-based applications in private clouds or their own data centers, the company is licensing Watson to be able to run locally.
Building on the company’s Cloud Private for Data as a base platform, IBM is offering a choice of Watson APIs or direct access to the Watson Assistant across all the previously mentioned cloud platforms, as well as systems running Red Hat OpenShift or Open Stack across a variety of different environments.
This gives companies the flexibility they are now expecting to access these services across a range of cloud computing offerings. Basically, companies can get the AI computing resources they need, regardless of the type of cloud computing efforts they’ve chosen to make. Whether it’s adding cognitive services capabilities to an existing legacy application that’s been lifted and shifted to the cloud, or architecting an entirely new microservices-based service leveraging cloud-native platforms and protocols, the range of flexibility being offered to companies looking to move more of their efforts to the cloud are growing dramatically.
Vendors who want to address these needs will have to adopt this more flexible type of thinking and adapt or develop services that match not only the reality of the multi-cloud world, but the range of choices that these new alternatives are starting to enable. The implications of multi-cloud are significantly larger, however, than just having a choice of vendors, or choosing to host certain workloads with one vendor and other workloads with another. Multi-cloud is really enabling companies to think about cloud computing in a more flexible, approachable way. It’s exactly the kind of development the industry needs to take cloud computing into the mainstream.
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This week Amazon announced it has signed an agreement to acquire home mesh networking company eero. It’s the latest shot fired in the growing battle for dominance in the smart home and represents a savvy move by Amazon to catapult itself into a leadership position in home networking. Some of the company’s biggest competitors in the smart home market including Google and Samsung already have competing products in the space. Meanwhile, Apple recently exited the home networking space, in a move that’s looking more ever-more questionable over time.
Least Sexy; Most Important
Home routers may well be the least exciting piece of hardware anybody buys for home use. However, as the WiFi connection to your home broadband pipe, they perform a critical job that ultimately dictates the quality of experience you receive on every connected device in the house. Moreover, anyone who’s struggled to set up a router knows that it can be a challenging job that forces the consumer to deal with strange naming conventions and esoteric hardware settings.
Eero is a pioneering brand in the mesh network market. Instead of using a single router to cover your entire house, mesh networks use multiple boxes spread out around the house to ensure more robust coverage and faster speeds. In their eero piece on IDC.com, my colleagues Adam Wright and Brandon Butler note that eero owns about 15% of the total mesh WiFi market, which is expected to grow well beyond a billion dollar market in the coming years.
Products like eero not only provide better WiFi coverage inside the home, they also make the setup process dramatically easier than traditional routers using apps that walk you through the process. Perhaps the most interesting piece of this acquisition is the eero services component. Today, the company offers an eeroPlus service that includes a range of security features and add-in apps for an annual fee of $99. I can see Amazon adding more service options and features to this bundle over time, including divergent offering such as its music and video services.
Amazon’s eero Play
Amazon has said it won’t make changes to eero’s branding or operating structure after the acquisition goes through. However, you can be sure of one thing: eero is going to become the top result for all home-networking searches on Amazon.com. You’re also likely to see the company begin to push eero bundles with its long and growing list of smart home products, which includes everything from Echo speakers to smart plugs to connected cameras and Alexa-enabled microwaves. Over time, I would expect to see the eero setup app evolve to make it even easier to add these types of devices to the network. Over time, I think it’s likely will see eero hot spots integrated directly into other Amazon products, including its echo line of smart speakers.
With eero, Amazon will now have access to information about all the devices on a home network. This insight will not only help it drive new experiences on its own-branded connected devices, but it will also give it leverage to ensure a higher quality of service for those devices and the services it offers. It’s this access that has some criticizing this deal, and it will be incumbent upon Amazon to make sure that customer privacy and security remain intact.
It’s a challenge facing the other players in the home networking space, especially those who also have smart home aspirations and network-based services. Google, perhaps Amazon’s strongest competitor in the smart home space to date, has its own mesh networking product called Google WiFi. Samsung, another player in the smart home market, offers a product called SmartThings WiFi. Traditional networking company Netgear also has a very competitive product in the space called Orbi.
Apple’s Missed Opportunity
While it also has smart home aspirations, Apple is notably missing from the home networking category and its hard to see this as anything but a missed opportunity. Especially when you consider that Apple was a player in the router market for years with its AirPort, Airport Extreme, and Time Capsule WiFi routers. The company stopped refreshing its products years ago and officially exited the market as supplies dwindled in 2018. Arguably, a significant part of eero’s success came from offering an easy-to-setup experience that many reviewers said was Apple-like in its simplicity.
In addition to being able to help drive a better home-networking experience, Apple could also drive home its continuing story about privacy and security, offering a clear narrative about what it is and isn’t doing with the data collected from a home network. And this all becomes even more relevant as Apple moves aggressively toward offering more services including the widely expected video service this year.
While Apple sits this market out, Amazon, Google, Samsung and others will continue to press hard into the space, leveraging their early advantage. Expect to see eero prominently featured on Amazon’s search pages, and its services bundle to expand over time. Watch for 2019 to be an exciting year for the world’s least sexy but vitally important device category.
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It seems there is quite a lot of smoke around a hard date for Apple’s launch of at least it’s subscription news and magazine service. Whether or not the rumored video service is released at the same time is an open question, but with several different reports being published it seems something is near.
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It’s no secret the Internet has brought disruption to the news media and publishing industry. Unfortunately, I think a lot more disruption is still to come.
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If you, like me, are a parent, this is one of the questions you must be asking yourself lately. It is hard to go for more than a few weeks before we are reminded by a news article or a study that extended screen time is bad for kids in so many ways: from creating addictive behaviors to developing social ineptitude. Gaming and social media are the usual culprits for the mental and social deterioration of our children. I do not mean to be flippant about the effect that gaming and social media could have on young minds, but I wanted to try and find out if it was all bad. I am going to leave social media alone for now and focus on gaming. I am making a separation between the two because I believe the way teenagers use social media has more to do with life values and goals than screen time.
I am no scientist nor have I studied the human mind beyond what I covered in my Masters in Psychological Research Methods, so I went looking for help from someone who has done and continues to do a lot of work in the area of neuroscience and sensory perception: Poppy Crum, Ph.D. Mrs. Crum is an adjunct professor at Stanford where her work focuses on the impact and feedback potential of new technologies with gaming and immersive environments on neuroplasticity. Mrs. Crum is also the Chief Scientist at Dolby Laboratories where she directs the growth of internal science. She is responsible for integrating neuroscience and knowledge of sensory perception into algorithm design, technological development, and technology strategy. As it pertains to gaming, for instance, Dolby has done a lot of work on how sound improves your response, which if you ever played a game you know can quickly determine if you will be a winner or a loser.
I first met Mrs. Crum at CES where we quickly engaged in an exciting conversation about the positive impact of gaming on our cognitive system. I was fascinated by her class at Stanford where she teaches: Music 257: Neuroplasticity and Musical Gaming. Aside from focusing on current research in neuroplasticity and auditory physiology, her students spend time in the labs learning how to design and implement video games from a neurological perspective, with the final group project being a video game that teaches a new skill using neuroplasticity.
Here is the Official description of the class:
What changes in a musician’s brain after hours and years of daily practice? How do skills that make a great violinist transfer to other abilities? Can directed neuroplasticity be used to target skill learning? Music 257 covers fundamentals of psychoacoustics and auditory neuroscience with an emphasis on targeted neural adaptation. Students will develop video games in Unity that use perceptually motivated tasks to drive neural change. Emphasis will be on music, linguistic, and acoustic-based skills. Projects may include development for virtual reality and/or biofeedback. Students will present projects in annual Arcade event at conclusion of the course. Programming experience is highly recommended, but not required.
Aside from being extremely jealous that my university in the UK did not have anything remotely that interesting when I studied there, I was fascinated by the excellent learning for the future of gaming and the opportunity we have to use gaming to enhance cognitive abilities.
Gaming and empathy
I have talked before about how my daughter is a big Fortnite fan, and I shared how when her time is up she gets genuinely upset, not about ending her fun time, but about letting her friends down by leaving the game. I have to admit that I struggle to feel sorry for her as I tend to think of these people more as imaginary friends than real friends.
Last week, however, I started to feel differently about it after reading a story about the discovery two parents made about their disabled son and his gaming life in World of Warcraft. Through his gaming life that crossed over a decade, Mats had developed strong friendships with people all over Europe, who when they found out about his passing showed their love and shared their memories by writing to his parents and some even by attending his funeral service. Connections were made, lives crossed in a way that it would have never been possible for Mats in real life, as he was confined to his parents’ basement due to his disability.
I think it is hard for many to believe that virtual relationships can be as genuine as real-life ones. Yet, Mrs. Crum shared with me a study run at McGill University that looked at pain reaction and empathy. The researcher, Jeffrey Mogil, measured pain reactions (caused by submerging an arm into an ice bucket) from people who were alone; with a friend; with a stranger; with a stranger when both had been given a stress-blocking drug; and with a stranger when both of them had just played Rock Band together. People who had a friend sitting across from them felt the highest level of pain, showing there was empathy between the two. Interesting, after 15 minutes of playing Rock Band together, the group of strangers exhibited empathy toward each. On the other hand, playing Rock Band alone didn’t increase empathy. According to Mr. Mogil the experiment proved that even 15 minutes of shared experience like playing Rock Band moves people from stranger to friend status, expanding the level of empathy.
Designing Gaming with Purpose
Mrs. Crum also pointed out to me how players of Call of Duty display higher visual acuity and strategic thinking ability. Their ability to think under pressure is even higher. These are all positive reactions to a game that was not designed to focus on enhancing cognitive skills. So think of the possibilities when game developers actually think strategically about the games they develop? This is precisely what Mrs. Crum’s students do during their project. Interestingly these students are often an unlikely group of people who would hang out together in real life. Gaming class at Stanford like in the larger world brings together people with different backgrounds and interests. Mrs. Crum’s class has athletes, math and science students as well as musicians all coming together to create an experience that while delivering a ton of fun also helps improve your mental and physical health.
So rather than labeling all gaming as bad and being concerned about how much time our kids spend with their devices, why not have the big gaming labels be more aware of both the positive and negative aspects of the shared, immersive experience that is gaming? As we move from 2D experience to AR and VR, our senses will be even more impacted by the experiences we live through gaming which means there is even greater potential to focus on improving our cognitive skills, lowering our stress in real life and improving our mental health all while still having fun running away from zombies.
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From the first time I attended CES and Comdex, I became keenly aware of what would be loosely called corporate espionage. Some of this corporate espionage was rather blatant as Japanese businessman pulled out their cameras and took pictures of competitors products. Many instances where clandestine and used tiny cameras to try and get all of the details they could on a product or technology of interest.
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Sometimes major technology trends happen without us really noticing. That’s certainly the case with a concept that’s been called portable digital identities or digital personas. Essentially, these terms refer to the practice of accessing a consistent set of data and services across a variety of devices. It’s something we all do—especially with the growing range of different computing devices and cloud-based services we now all have access to—but it isn’t something that most people consciously set out to achieve. It just happens without us even really thinking about it.
At a basic level, for example, we all now expect to have a synchronized email inbox across all our devices. But that wasn’t always the case. Though it may be easy to forget, there was a time when even if you read an email on one device, it didn’t show up as read in the email application on a different device, or a response you wrote on one device didn’t automatically appear on other devices you might have used.
We’ve moved well beyond that basic level of email organization now, of course. We have synchronized services for everything from a list of the movies and TV shows we’ve watched on a service like Netflix across smart TVs, PCs, and smartphones, to all the recent rides we’ve taken with companies like Lyft, to a consistent list of browser favorites across operating systems, browsers, and devices. Individually, these are all nice features to have, and they make using the services or applications that support them much easier. Collectively, however, they start to paint the bigger picture of a consistent digital identity that we are each building, without a conscious effort on our part.
Once you recognize this portable digital identity concept and start to think about what the implications of this development are, you quickly realize that there are a lot of very interesting new possibilities, particularly in terms of how digital personas and shared computing experiences can be further enhanced. One of the first, and most obvious, extensions is to our actual identity—linking all our various accounts and services to who we actually are. While that may sound odd, remember that in this era of account spoofing, take-overs, and other hacking efforts, it’s not always clear that any particular account is owned by you. If, however, you could develop methods that more clearly tie you with your digital persona—such as through biometric authentication, which organizations like the FIDO Alliance are working on, or linking it to the unique SIM card (or eSIM) in your mobile phone, as startup Averon has started to do—then your physical and digital identity could start to be linked in a more definitive way.
Cloud-based storage services such as OneDrive, iCloud, Google Drive, Box, and OneBox are also critical enablers for this device independent world of digital personas. While cloud-based backup is certainly an extremely important feature, the real beauty of these services is the ability to let you access all your data easily across all your devices. This, in turn, lets you jump across different devices, depending on what happens to be the best choice for a given situation (or what you happen to have access to at a given time). The tech industry hasn’t completely resolved all the situations, or updated all the applications necessary to enable completely seamless data sharing across everything, but tremendous progress is being made all the time.
Another intriguing opportunity to expand on our digital identity is to extend our computing experiences across the range of physical devices we own. Take, for example, the possibility of linking and or extending the screen of one device onto another. Recently, for example, we’ve started to see applications like Microsoft’s Your Phone app, or the more complete Dell Mobile Connect, provide you with the ability to view and control content from your mobile phone on your PC. The idea is to link the physical experience of using a particular device with your other devices, so that they start to intentionally function as a single, larger system. This is only possible with a consistent set of data services, but once it’s there, the possibilities for leveraging it become very intriguing.
The next step I’m hoping to see across the device sharing spectrum is the ability to use multiple devices together in an even more cooperative way. Imagine, for example, the ability to essentially “throw” the content from your phone screen onto a tablet or other nearby larger screen device with a simple gesture, or even automatically. In business meetings and conference room environments, we’re starting to see some of these capabilities now, but more work has to be done to make it easier for consumers. Ironically, I think the appearance of foldable phones with larger screens may actually help spur this on, because, while the initial high prices of these devices may limit their sales, the appeal of quickly seeing content on your phone on a much bigger display is going to be universal. As a result, I expect to see more efforts that can create a larger-screen phone experience from a non-foldable phone going mainstream shortly after the launch of foldables.
Similarly, on the connectivity side, it’s going to be critical for multiple devices to share consistent, high-speed data connections. Again, we’ve started to see some efforts here from the carriers to let you add devices to an existing master data plan, but I think we’re going to need to see person-based plans that automatically connect all the devices an individual owns without having to worry about managing them individually. The expected proliferation of LTE and 5G-equipped devices will likely make this easier, but more work needs to be done to create a single connection persona that works across all our devices.
Of course, an interesting implication of all these developments is that the previously critical distinctions of different platforms, operating systems, and even applications start to become significantly less important. While I’ve said this many times before, it bears repeating that in the era of digital personas, it’s all about your data—not the software or even devices you happen to be using.
In the commercial world, products that take advantage of this device and platform independent approach also start to take on more importance over time. Products like Citrix’ Workspace, for example, have been built to create a digital environment that allows you to get access to your information and data, regardless of what device you happen to be using. Specific enterprise applications are still central to computing in the business world, so the ability to transparently virtualize applications built for one platform and let them run on another becomes a critical part of being able to function in the modern business environment. By adding in the ability to run tasks via microapps that require some amount of work across multiple applications (such as filling out and then filing expense reports), as Citrix has done with their Sapho acquisition, the company is taking the platform (and even application) independent concept even further.
While names like portable digital identities or digital personas may be a bit vague, there’s nothing unclear about the impact that these concepts are making on our computing environment and the advancements now occurring in the tech industry. The best technology advancements serve the needs that people have. Given the explosion of different devices and platforms, it’s never been more clear that people are hungry for capabilities that let them get access to their data and services in the easiest and most compelling way possible across the range of devices they now own. The time for expanded, multi-device digital identities is here.
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In December of 2017, I attended Qualcomm’s launch of their Always On, Always Connected PC program in Maui. I consider this a landmark event for the PC industry for a couple of reasons.
First, it was the biggest push to add Windows to an ARM-based processor. It had been done before but with minimal support from Microsoft and Qualcomm partners. But at the Qualcomm Maui event, HP, Asus, Acer, Sprint, and Microsoft were there to lend their support for what is loosely called the Windows on Arm platform, and Qualcomm invited close to 300 media and analysts to be at this special launch event.
In Dec 2018, Qualcomm did their second Maui event, this time to push their newest and most powerful mobile processors and to update these media and analysts on their Always On, Always Connected PC initiative. They introduced a new processor called the 8CX, which is their first processor built from the ground up for use on a laptop and is slated to deliver as much as 30 hours of battery life when it ships on new Always On, Always Connected PC’s later this year.
The second reason I consider these two events in Maui landmark events is that I believe it is ushering in the next major innovation in laptops, which is to add the cellular connection to a computer to make it possible to be online instantly no matter where you are, and there is a cellular network available. Although some laptops have had that option in the past and it never took hold, this time around the impact of cellular networks on our business and consumers lives, driven by our smartphones, makes a cellular connection in a laptop more exciting and feasible now.
Nearly all laptops shipped so far have been only WiFi equipped. That means for it to be used online, it needs to have a WIFI connection. WIFI has become more available thanks to places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and many other areas where WIFI has sprung up, but there are way too many instances when a mobile user needs to connect, and WIFI is nowhere to be found.
Smartphones of today have hotspot connections, so a user who has a phone with this capability does have an option to use that cellular hotspot when they are out of an area where WIFI will work. But less than 15% of people use this option according to multiple reports from the carriers about hotspot usage, especially in the US.
There is another interesting data point that bolsters the idea of an Always On, Always Connected PC being the laptop design of the future. We recently did a consumer study and found that people’s use of a smartphone has caused them to want the same type of experience in a laptop. A smartphone is Always On and Alway’s Connected. Consumers told us that they wished that same experience on their laptops. They what to open the laptop lid and it is ready to go and already connected.
While I understood the value of an Always On, Always Connected PC from the start, I held off using one in 2018 given the fact that the first generation of chips and Windows were too underpowered for my liking. But I have had a chance to use the most recent, updated hardware and software for an Always On, Always Connected PC and it is indeed a transformative experience.
In this case, I have been using the new Lenovo Yoga that sports Qualcomm’s 850 mobile processor and the updated version of Windows 10 for Arm processors. Lenovo has done a great job creating a light and powerful laptop that, when you open the lid, the computer is activated and ready to go. And the cellular connection kicks in instantly and is so fast, and you don’t have time to even think about its connection to a cellular network.
Some of my analyst colleagues have been singing the praises of the Always On, Always Connected PC’s transformative nature for some time now. A few of them, who have many laptops to use at their disposal, are now mainly carrying this new Arm Based Always On, Always Connected Yoga too.
I have a found a few quirks with Windows 10 on these laptops though. For example, the symbols that show how much battery life I have left is wrong. Even though it may show I am down to 20% of battery life yet, it turns out that I have another 4-5 hours of power left to work. The Qualcomm 850 extends the life of these laptops even though the battery symbol is inaccurate. Qualcomm told us that this is an issue with Windows 10S, but Microsoft is working on that.
The other quirk is the Yoga ships with Window 10S that is not the full version of Windows. So far I have had minimal problems with 10S, and it runs all of the software programs I use now. Upgrading to Windows 10 Pro would cost $49.00, and if I ever need that bump up in Pro functionality, I could upgrade.
After using an Always On, Always Connected PC for some time, I can see that this idea has a lot of legs and am convinced that it will influence the designs of most laptops over the next five years. Intel has a similar new processor that they have given to their vendors to create a competing Always On, Always Connected PC and the first of these Intel-based products should be out by mid-year.
When my analyst friends told me that using one of these PC’s was transformative, I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical. I was one the 15% who just used my iPhone’s Hotspot if WiFi was not available. But the ability to open up the Yoga and immediately start using it with no thought of having to take any other steps to be connected does change the user experience for the better, and I expect to see more laptops with better battery life and cellular connections inside in many new laptops soon.
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This week’s Tech.pinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell analyzing some of this week’s Apple news, debating the future of connectivity with embedded LTE or 5G vs. WiFi, discussing some news and ideas around digital privacy, and chatting about some recent developments with Spotify.
If you happen to use a podcast aggregator or want to add it to iTunes manually the feed to our podcast is: techpinions.com/feed/podcast
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I’ve been doing investor calls on Apple the past few weeks. Mostly post-earnings as most investors are trying to form a new, better, narrative on Apple. I’ve been loosely theming my comments to investors around Apple’s next five years. While I go into much greater detail in the course of a 90 min call, I’ll briefly highlight some key points. There are three technology fundamentals Apple will bring to market which will be the foundation for hardware, software, and services innovation over the next five years which will set the foundation for a much longer timeframe.
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Apple has been aggressive, and quite public, in recent months in vilifying some of its Silicon Valley coopetitors for how they’ve handled privacy and customer data. This stuff is of course catnip for the trades, who have gleefully coined the term ‘tech civil war’. Apple is certainly right to point out certain egregious practices, and reinforce its own, supposedly more protective, approach. No doubt Apple is also seeing this as an opportunity for some political and competitive gain. I find this disingenuous in part because some of the companies Apple is criticizing are also an important source of how its bread is buttered.
I’m also surprised that Apple seems to be fighting this largely in the media, at public events, and in various internecine missives and salvos. In the midst of all this, Apple hasn’t been very proactive at communicating its approach to privacy and the handling of consumer data with its own customers. As a customer of multiple Apple devices and services, I have not received one email or other item of proactive correspondence related to Apple’s approach on privacy, what safeguards I might take, or what settings on my device or apps I might adjust. There is very little about this issue prominently displayed on Apple’s website. There aren’t any ‘privacy’ tutorials at its stores.
That said, if you dig a little, there is a lot of information on Apple’s approach and what a consumer can do. But it’s buried pretty deep on the company’s website (way at the bottom, under Apple Values—Privacy). There is a lot of information here, and it’s quite nicely explained. Why not place it more front and center rather than on a part of the site where 99% of its customers won’t go?
Overall, this is a missed opportunity for Apple. It’s an opportunity for the company to educate its customers, in a more user-friendly way than Facebook or Google could probably do. Given Apple’s recent travails, and the increasing importance of the services side of its business, this is an opportunity for Apple to reinforce its customer relationships and build loyalty. And this will take even greater importance as Apple increases its focus on the health sector, and the opportunities/risks associated with that.
Apple can take the high road here, and say: “Look, being aware of privacy, how your data can be used, and knowing how to take the right measures, adjust settings, and so on is the digital equivalent of taking a Drivers Ed course before getting behind the wheel”. Here are the steps I would take if I was Tim Cook:
- Develop a compelling video tutorial/class, with the objective of getting every customer more educated on these issues and what steps they can take. Put it front and center on the Website. Develop a version for phones and tablets that comes pre-loaded on all new devices and in the next major software update. Incent customers to take the tutorial and complete it ($10 credit?).
- Develop a pro-active security check-up. I see this as sort of like the way one does a virus scan on their PC. Perhaps this is a new app that Apple develops, which the customer can run and receive information and alerts – i.e. “this location data is being shared with Starbucks…are you OK with that?” The check-up would not only look for vulnerabilities, but also identify any app that is using the customer’s data in violation of certain pre-sent limits.
- Add Privacy/Data Security tutorials at stores. This is a category that should be added to the list of Apple’s ever-expanding catalog of sessions available at its stores.
This ‘Digital Drivers Ed’, as I’m calling it, should not be limited to strictly to Apple’s own apps and services. Recognizing that the iPhone is the remote control for the digital life for billions of consumers worldwide – including some 50% of U.S. smartphone owners – Apple should also provide some guidance on how settings on its devices affect leading apps. Focus on the popular ones, such as Google Maps, the Facebook universe, key messaging apps, ride sharing, shopping, and media/content apps, and apps/games targeted at minors. Do it in a way that doesn’t criticize these companies or take them down. Rather, ensure that customers are aware of the following:
- What are the default settings?
- What information is, or can be shared? What can be adjusted, and how is that done?
- What are the tradeoffs?
- If you’re a parent, what are age-appropriate options and settings for minors? And what can you control?
Maybe this can be done in cooperation with some of the leading firms, rather than this ‘tech civil war’ that squanders a lot of calories and goodwill but does little to help or educate consumers. Being proactive here will also forestall regulators getting involved. Few of us believe they would do a better job addressing this than Silicon Valley’s best and brightest.
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Last year, Apple became the first company to hit the trillion dollar valuation point. For the overall market and the tech industry, in particular, this was a considerable achievement. But due to slower sales of iPhones, various headwinds due to tariffs, the overvalued dollar and the general slowdown of smartphone sales in 2018, Apple’s valuation is well under that trillion dollar mark these days.
Reading Time: 5 minutes
It is no secret to the people who know me that I cannot even fake a mild understanding of football or any excitement about the sport. Yet, every year since we moved to California, I have been watching it mostly to see the Halftime Show and the ads. And this year it was just about the ads! I find fascinating to see what the different brands decide to focus on and whether the ad lands with the general public.
Last year I did the same with the Oscars, and it is quite interesting to compare and contrast the approach companies take for these events. Comparing the two audiences might help understand the tactics brands are using. Being aware of what audience you are addressing influences the message you want to drive. Interestingly the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony had the lowest audience in history in the midst of the “me too” campaign with viewers dropping to 26.5 million people. Similarly, this year’s Super Bowl drew the smallest crowd since 2008 but still bringing in over three times the audience at 98 million.
When it comes to ads, the Super Bowl ads are usually more expensive than those aired during the Oscars, but on average those Academy Awards ads can be 30 to 40 percent more expensive per user. The Oscars audience skews not just female but also well- educated and affluent with high disposable income. It also attracts a higher number of social media influencers making a better fit for certain brands targeting those higher-end consumers.
Apple who has had several ads during the Oscars including the first-ever commercial for an iPad in 2010 and then one entirely shot on an iPad in 2015 has been absent from the Super Bowl stage for thirty years, and many were wondering if this was the year for a return. But alas, Apple passed. It is interesting to me given the current stand Apple is taking on privacy that the company did not think there was an opportunity to send a message. Considering that despite all the negativity around Facebook its latest quarterly results show that daily active users grew in all geographies including the US, Apple could have read the audience well and thought it was not the right place for that message. Or it could be that this year, given the current battle between the NFL and Colin Kaepernick, was just not the right time to advertise during the game. It will be interesting to see if Apple will have an ad on Sunday the 24th and what the focus will be.
For the companies who did have an ad, it is always interesting to see what the focus is: business model, products, larger social message and this year there was certainly a mix of all the above coming from companies I consider squarely or loosely linked to tech.
The Core of the Business
Google and Amazon seemed to have chosen to highlight an aspect of their business that has become a cornerstone: AI and voice. Google had two ads one paying tribute to the military and showcasing the power of search in the context of jobs. While I appreciate the tribute to the men and women who serve, it did feel a little mercenary to boil down the message to “you can search for a job using our engine.” Maybe because of that I found the “100 billion words” commercial much more impactful. Focusing on Google’s translation service, it showcased the power of bringing people together, helping people, sharing experiences. The examples used in the commercial were highly emotional and built up to a feel-good ending that certainly put Google as an enabler of something good. This is a much less threatening positioning compared to the recent Google Duplex presented at Google’s Developer Conference that showcased where AI could take human to machine communication. While Google could have focused on other aspects of AI, like photography, I think picking communications as a way of building human connections was a great way to redeem itself from the somewhat dystopian picture painted with Duplex.
Amazon focused once again on Alexa and this time specifically on use cases that are not the best ideas: from an Echo collar that understands dog barking and converts it into dog food orders, to an Alexa enabled toothbrush that plays podcasts. Aside from being hugely entertaining, I like the subtle messages I took from the content; one, Amazon is experimenting much more with voice than what we see becoming commercially available but also that Amazon is not afraid to try and see what sticks by making it available. To counter that, though, there was in my view another message that not everything can and will be done with voice. One can sure read too much into everything so I won’t go as far as suggesting that Alexa turning the lights across the world on and off is ultimately what Amazon is envisioning for Alexa: global domination!
Current Social and Political Issues
Many believe that the Super Bowl is not the right show to push political messages and over the years we have seen most brands opt for more positive and uplifting messages, but this year three politically and socially charged ads stood out.
Hulu had a chilling ad presenting Season 3 of the Handmaid’s Tale which played on Ronald Reagan re-election advertisement “Morning in America.” You would have been sleeping at the wheel if you missed the parallel between the commercial ending with Elisabeth Moss’ voice-over saying, “Wake up, America. Morning’s over.” and the #MeToo movement and Oprah’s #TimesUp moment at the Golden Globes.
Women were also at the center of Bumble’s commercial as to be expected by the dating app that has women make the first move. While less spooky than the Hulu ad, Bumble spoke of female empowerment too with Serena Williams delivering a message of self-awareness, conviction, and purpose.
The Washington Post owned by Jeff Bezos ran an ad to pay tribute to the free press and some of the reporters that sacrificed their lives to do their job. Many reporters on social media criticized the ad as a waste of money that could have been spent instead to hire more reporters or pay existing ones better. Many, I included, however, applauded the commercial for speaking out straightforwardly against the danger of misinformation and ignorance. This commercial, more than the other two, shows how difficult it is to get it right especially when you consider the money involved to air those ads.
The Good of Tech
At last year’s Oscars, Microsoft decided to focus on AI but this Sunday for the Super Bowl, Microsoft had a great commercial showcasing how the new Xbox adaptive controller that, just like one of the kids in the ad says, allows everyone to play. True to Satya Nadella’s mantra that Microsoft’s goal is to empower everyone, the message was loud and clear: technology at its best is inclusive, not divisive. “When everybody plays, we all win” concluded the ad. Gaming certainly brings people together today more than ever as popular games like Fortnite are available on multiple platforms and allow gamers to play together no matter what device they are using. Gaming has also become an actual social experience which makes the Xbox adaptive controller even more of an enabler to communicate, part take, share, and game. While I am sure not intended by Microsoft, I could not help but think how ironic that message was in the context of the NFL and Kaepernick.
If I knew anything about football I would dare to say the commercials were much more entertaining than the game this year, but what do I know?
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I’ve been writing about the rise of gaming as a global trend for a few years now. A whirlwind of things came together at the same time which helped lay the groundwork to fuel a rapid rise in gaming globally. What started with dedicated video game consoles and PC hardware, moved into the mobile and cloud landscape and, in some way or form, billions of people play video games on a regular basis.
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With less than three weeks to go before the big Mobile World Congress (MWC) trade show in Barcelona, Spain, there’s a lot of attention being paid to wireless technologies, particularly 5G. The next generation cellular network is expected to make a particularly big splash this year, as the first devices that incorporate the technology are expected to be on display. In addition, many are expecting to see a rash of telecom infrastructure equipment suppliers unveiling the latest components necessary to power 5G networks, telecom carriers announcing their pricing and planned rollouts of 5G services, and just about everyone else trying to make some kind of connection between what they’re offering and the new network standard.
But 5G won’t be the only wireless technology making some important debuts in Barcelona. At long last, we should also see the first client devices that incorporate the latest version of WiFi: 802.11ax, more recently dubbed WiFi 6. According to FCC documents discovered by the DroidLife website, for example, it appears Samsung’s next generation Galaxy smartphones, predicted to be announced at their upcoming pre-MWC event, will include support for the faster new WiFi standard. In addition, there are rumors of many more WiFi 6-equipped smartphones and other gadgets being introduced at this year’s MWC. Many of these new devices are expected to be powered by the recently unveiled Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, which includes built-in support for WiFi 6.
Interestingly, even though 5G and WiFi 6 are different technologies, there are a surprising number of similarities between them, at many different levels. In fact, there’s enough of them that some have wondered if one of the wireless network standards might eventually subsume or replace the other.
First, at a high level, each of the new standards contains a wireless data connection protocol that builds on previous generations and is specifically designed to increase the density of wireless networks. One of the biggest problems limiting the performance of both cellular broadband and local area wireless networks is clogged airwaves—too many people and too many devices trying to leverage a limited amount of space. It’s a classic data traffic jam.
As a result, both 5G (and many of the enhancements introduced with gigabit LTE—which AT&T is misleadingly labeling 5Ge) and WiFi 6 are using some of the same basic technical principles to help alleviate the congestion. Though there are differences in implementation between 5G and WiFi 6, both are using technologies like enhanced Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO), OFDMA, advanced QAM, and beam-forming to make more efficient use of the defined radio spectrums for each technology. Taken together, these enhancements should help each technology reach theoretical peak transfer rates in the high single digit gigabits per second range as well.
Just to add to the complexity, there are also a number of efforts, such as LAA (License Assisted Access) and MulteFire, which are designed to allow cellular radio signals to travel over the same, unlicensed 5GHz radio spectrum used by WiFi. Concerns have been raised that this combination of cellular and WiFi could lead to interference with WiFi operation, however. In addition, telco carriers, who exclusively license the radio spectrum they use for broadband cellular connections, have voiced concerns about losing access to what could become “private” LTE or even 5G networks.
Despite these issues, a number of wireless vendors, including Qualcomm and Intel, have discussed the potential opportunity for companies to build these kinds of private cellular networks—in essence, replacing WiFi with 5G or LTE. Though this would require all devices connecting to the network to have an integrated cellular modem—no small feat right now—the idea is that this could improve coverage across a campus environment or in a factory, and wouldn’t require any type of log-in process that you typically need with WiFi.
At the same time, some similar benefits of integrated LTE (and eventually 5G) in PCs and other devices is also starting to take hold. The ease of having a single network connection that doesn’t have to be changed or be remembered or be logged into (if you even can) no matter where you are becomes much more appealing the more you get used to the concept. Throw in the critical fact that cellular connections are considered more secure than WiFi, and you can understand why you should expect to see a lot more devices with integrated cellular broadband over the next few years.
Of course, as appealing as a single network may sound, there are still a number of critical issues that exist. First, telco carriers still have a long way to go to make this a financially attractive and realistically practical option. Yes, the “add a device for $10 more a month” model does exist for most people, but it’s not consistently available, a number of limitations often apply, and it’s still not easy to manage multiple devices on a single account. This is particularly true for companies that have thousands of employees, each of whom could easily have 4-5 different connected devices.
In addition, there are a number of attractive, lower-cost and relatively easy alternatives. Right now, WiFi signals are nearly as ubiquitous as cellular connections, and in most cases, they’re free, which is always tough to compete with. Plus, some of the enhancements for WiFi 6 will likely fix the frustrations that people often have with WiFi in dense environments (and which typically trigger the switch to a cellular broadband connection—such as at a trade show, etc.). On top of that, tethering a WiFi enabled device to a cellularly connected one is getting much easier, particularly now that Google just announced that the automatic tethering features of some ChromeOS devices are coming to most all Chromebooks and a wide range of popular Android-based smartphones.
Ultimately, 5G and WiFi 6 aren’t really competitive technologies, but complementary ones—at least for now. In fact, it will probably be difficult to find a new 5G device that doesn’t also support WiFi 6—the two technologies can work hand in hand. For most people, 5G will handle the wide-area wireless connection, and WiFi 6 will handle the local wireless connection. Eventually, however, there could certainly come a time when only one of them will be necessary.
It may seem crazy to think that WiFi could go away, especially given how pervasive it is today. But if you fully take into account the advances that 5G is expected to bring—not least of which is a huge number of small cells that can be used indoors and other places where WiFi has typically reigned—the idea may not be as far-fetched as it first appears.
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In the summer of 2009, I had the privilege of hosting in my office the former CEO of a large healthcare system in the US. This person was here to share with me about some new healthcare investments he was involved with, but during my conversation with him, he shared with me about a meeting he had with Steve Jobs and some of his team earlier that year. I cannot share this person’s name as his project was private and personal but can share what he told me about his conversation at Apple.
He said that in the meeting, Jobs emphasized that he was deeply frustrated with the health care system and the amount of red tape and disconnection he observed in his quest to deal with his health problems. He then suggested that one of Apple’s future missions was to try and help deal with the healthcare bureaucracy as he called it and to make health a significant initiative for Apple in the future. This former healthcare CEO assessed that “Apple could be the company that could solve some critical problems in healthcare in the future.”
Later that year I wrote a piece in which I relayed this story and said that I felt that Apple’s commitment to health would be one of Steve Jobs’ greatest legacies. This piece was about 16 months before Steve Jobs lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Now, ten years later, I am more convinced that Apple’s commitment to healthcare is stronger than ever. More importantly, Tim Cook and his team appear to be working overtime to make various aspects of healthcare and personal health a key mission and in the process, honor Steve Jobs’ vision of a better healthcare future. The most recent example that underlines this commitment to health comes from a partnership that Apple launched with Aetna in 2016 and now has a new app that helps their customers manage and monitor their health.
Here is the definitive section of their recent press release on this project:
“Aetna, a CVS Health (NYSE:CVS) business, announced the launch of Attain, a unique health experience designed by Aetna in collaboration with Apple. Through the use of an Apple Watch, the Attain app will provide Aetna members personalized goals, track their daily activity levels, recommend healthy actions, and ultimately reward them for taking these actions to improve their well-being. Reward opportunities include the ability for eligible users to earn their Apple Watch through their participation in the program.
This launch builds on the 2016 collaboration between Aetna and Apple in which 90 percent of participants reported a health Aetna has deep clinical experience, engaging its members across their health care needs from wellness to chronic disease. Apple consistently delivers highly personalized products in a simple yet elegant fashion that prioritizes privacy and data security and helps people live their best lives. The Attain app is the first of its kind — designed specifically to offer users a personalized experience that combines their health history with the power of the Apple Watch to help them achieve better health and well-being.”
This new program with Aetna underlines Apple’s strong commitment to keeping Jobs’ health care legacy moving forward. More importantly, it outlines a more aggressive plan for Apple to be working closely with the healthcare industry in general.
This program with Aetna could be likened to a lot of what we see other big tech companies doing when it comes to IT consulting in general. Companies that can provide hardware, software, and services are adding dedicated programs where the vendor gets more involved in the actual software customization and helps the enterprise develop tailored programs for their customers and employees.
Although Apple does not have a dedicated IT services group, this is the closest to that type of program which mirrors successful services being done already by Dell, HP, Lenovo, and IBM. But this project with Aetna shows Apple has the skills and wherewithal, even without a dedicated IT services group, to meet these kinds of needs and challenges by their customers when it is needed or makes sense.
It also puts the Apple Watch in the spotlight as an essential vehicle for Apple to impact personal healthcare. In the Aetna program, the Apple watch delivers their new Attain app that helps Aetna customers monitor their health on a highly individual and proactive basis. When I talk to healthcare related insurance companies, they tell me it is much cheaper to help a customer stay well then to have to have to cover their hospital costs when illness strikes. That is why almost all primary health care providers are jumping on the role technology can play to keep customers healthy and help them avoid disease.
I rely on the Apple Watch to manage my Diabetes. I wear the Dexcom Continuous Glucose Monitor that checks my blood sugars 24 hours a day. When I need to see what my blood sugars are I no longer have to prick my finger and instead look at my Apple Watch to see the Dexcom reading of my blood sugars. I also use it to take an ECG at least once a week to check my heart health. And of course, I use it to monitor my steps and try to get to 10,000 steps each day. What Apple has done with Aetna is probably just the beginning of many more similar projects they could undertake with healthcare providers.
Although I believe that Apple’s commitment to healthcare started with Steve Jobs’ health problems and this influenced their top leadership to find ways to make Apple more focused on health technology in general, Apple’s commitment to innovation goes well beyond their quest to honor Jobs. Tim Cook and team understand better than most tech leaders how technology could be used in new ways to keep us healthier. They encourage new apps for IOS and Apple Watch and continue to deliver hardware and developer tools that can optimize and maximize ways people can use technology to manage their quest to have healthier lives.
This partnership with Aetna can serve as a guide for how Apple works with other major healthcare industry heavyweights in the future. What they learn from these projects are bound to help Apple create even better hardware, software and services to keep their customers healthier.
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