Why PC Vendors are Watching Mac Sales Closely

For many years, Apple’s Mac has had a solid run in customers buying computers from Apple. In the last year, Apple has continued to sell over 5 million units per quarter. On the other hand, Windows PC sales dominated pretty much the rest of the market. In the last quarter, according to Gartner, Lenovo sold 18,310 million units, HP sold 15.446 units, and Dell sold 10.827 million PCs. Thanks to demand during the pandemic, Apple sold 5.513 million Macs in Q3, up 7.3% over the same quarter in 2019.

While the Mac has never been a major threat to the big PC makers to date, they still watch Apple closely, especially for any innovations Apple may add to the Mac that might impact the market and, ultimately, their future designs.

But when Apple announced that they have moved on from Intel’s CPU’s to their own, the PC makers have become even more interested in Apple being a potential threat to their PC dominancy.

The biggest reason is that Apple now controls its processor destiny as well as its cost, to a degree. Conservative estimates for a Core i7 processor from Intel cost as much as $80-$90+ per chip. That, along with Apple’s premium pricing model, always kept the Macs well over the same laptop’s price from computers in the Windows camp using the same processor.

For Windows laptop makers, their sweet spot for most of their profits come from making laptops in the $599-$899 range. While they all make Chromebooks priced mostly under $400, margins are slim to none. That is why most of them try to pack as much technology as possible into their laptops in their sweet spot range and market them aggressively. Of course, they all sell even more expensive laptops, but most of the profits and volume come from products in the $599-$899 range.

Apple recently announced a MacBook Air with 256 gigs of storage for $899, the only MacBook to even touch the high end of the Windows PC maker’s sweet spot. But this uses a low-end Intel Core i3 processor and has only eight gigs of memory. Dell sells at Latitude 3510 laptop with an Intel Core i7 processor and 500 gigs of storage for $899.

Apple has invested a great deal in their processor design. Their new A14 Bionic chip is expected to be on some of their laptops, perhaps before the end of the year. Apple has most likely already amortized some of the costs of their designs and using their processors, and they no longer pay the Intel tax.

This shift from Intel to Apple’s homegrown processor has some Windows laptop vendors more worried about Apple potentially threatening their core laptop business. The two price points they are the most worried about, should Apple decide to be more aggressive, is in the range of $799-$899 and using their most powerful A14 Bionic processor. Note this article from Ben Bajarin analyzing how a lower cost Mac entry point could dramatically increase the Macs PC market share.

There is a sense that should Apple offer a Mac in this power and price range; it could pressure their bottom lines. Apple has a great marketing machine, and they are showing more marketing focus on the Mac these days.

Suppose they make a lower cost/higher performance Mac that broaches on prime Windows laptop territory. In that case, it can impact all of the traditional Windows laptop vendors.

This issue is causing some of the PC forecasters to struggle with 2021 forecasts. Apple has not said when we would get our first Mac’s with an Apple homegrown processor, although there are rumors that Apple might hold another event in November to launch the first models.

A more likely scenario is that they launch A14 laptops in early Q1 and market them aggressively. If so, Apple could increase its Mac’s unit sales and potentially decrease some Windows PC sales in the near future.

I have had many discussion’s with Windows Laptop vendors over the years about Apple. These talks were always about Apple, not threatening their overall market position, especially in corporate markets.

Only in the last three months, since Apple announced they were leaving Intel and moving to their own silicon, have I heard a potential concern about Apple making a bid for what is their sweet spot.

Without knowing what Apple will bring to market with its chips and its pricing, it is hard to forecast Apple’s Mac growth at this time. However, their competition is rightly concerned about an Apple move in its direction and will be watching Apple closer than in the past.

Apple’s Patient Strategy for the Home

Apple’s strategy for the smart home has been one of the areas I’ve been most critical. Mostly out of frustration when I see Amazon and Google flooding the market with options for smart home control centers. At Apple’s fall launch event yesterday, their smart home strategy becomes more clear and quite differentiated.

For as far behind as Apple has seemed in the home, the caveat in our analysis was always that Apple owned the pocket more than Amazon, and even Google to a degree. I always felt if Apple could better leverage its end computing devices, mainly the one you have with you at all times, they could catch up quickly. I use these words catch up somewhat lightly because, in Apple’s mind, they were never behind, but that’s a different story.

The broader picture Apple painted was how much stronger their HomePod + all other devices strategy could come together now that a $99 HomePod is an option, and you can have one in many rooms of your house. Where this story came together was with Apple’s Intercom feature, where when you want to send a message to your family, it can play on not just the HomePod/HomePod mini in the house but any device, including AirPods.

This image demonstrates Apple’s ability to leverage the numerous other devices in the home and outside the home and glue them together with the presence of a smart speaker. What this highlights again is Apple’s ability to integrate and how a solution can cleanly tie together the more devices you own. Many of the voice assistant products from Amazon and Google feel more like island experiences where the device does what it does, and that’s it. Largely that is because Amazon and Google may have an Echo in a room in the house, but they don’t own all the other common endpoints most consumers care about used daily.

The elephant in the room for this strategy is, of course, Siri. And while I admit Siri is still weak in many of the areas where Alexa and Google Assistant are strong, the more consistent parts of the Siri experience that do shine are the ones where you don’t have to talk to Siri.

Overall, Apple’s positioning of Siri was telling. While I blatantly disagree with calling Siri a world-class assistant as they did, Siri is, for now, a mostly competent assistant for what it is designed for. Apple gave examples of Siri in use cases I’ll bucket as automation, facts, and anticipation.

For automation, I’ve long argued that is all people do with smart assistants mostly anyway. Things like to set the alarm, play music, set a timer, or simply turn off a light. All you are doing is using your voice to complete an action you would have otherwise had to use your fingers for. This is easily the dominant use case for voice assistants today, and Siri is competent here.

Facts had traditionally been Siri’s weakness, and even study after study we did on how people use smart assistants, we did not find facts or general information to be a top use case for any assistant other than Google’s. While it is nice Apple added more facts to Siri’s knowledge base, it is unclear to me if there is much value here for Apple/Siri.

Anticipation is the most interesting category for me. This is where Apple owning the pocket of its customer can reveal the most value in Siri. And most interestingly, the best examples of this today show up in situations where you don’t talk to Siri. Siri suggestions in things like contacts, mail, apps, and others are looking at behavior and attempting to limit steps you need to take to get to the desired action. These are the powerful areas where Apple can press on their advantage of owning the pocket and do more than Amazon can and Google to a degree.

We are beginning to see more of Apple’s home category start to take shape. When they created a subcategory for home out of “other” from a revenue standpoint is indicated they had more products and services than just HomePod in the pipeline. The smart speaker market is a relatively large one with estimates of the current installed base being ~280m smart speakers worldwide. Amazon having the largest chunk of that, and an interesting question is how loyal will current iPhone owners are also Echo owners be to the product when they see more of the ecosystem value and price of HomePod mini. A study we did months after HomePod was released showed price as the major barrier for people to purchase one and the vast majority (54% of people saying they would be very interested in a lower-priced HomePod mini. A note I read from Morgan Stanely indicated the lower-priced HomePod Mini increases Apple’s total addressable market by ~4x.

The lack of Spotify could be an interesting problem for Apple, although I do hope Apple works with Spotify to support the service as it will greatly aid in the value proposition. Other areas to watch are ways Apple can tie HomePod nicely into Apple TV and perhaps even with things like AppleTV+ with unique audio experiences. Another angle for Apple to drive up HomePod’s base is to offer the Mini as a bundle with other hardware via promotions.

Ultimately $99 is a much more aggressive price for the Mini and a key strategy for the home for Apple in my opinion, and HomePod Mini should help Apple gain ground against Amazon and Google and lay a deeper foundation for Apple’s ecosystem.

The iPhone 12 Family Future-Proofs Apple’s Lineup

At the “Hi, Speed” event Apple aired on Tuesday, it was all about the iPhone. Of course, it was about the iPhone 12 new models, all four of them, but the iPhone was front and center even as Apple introduced the new HomePod Mini and Apple’s vision of the smart home.

Many have covered all the speeds and feeds of the different models, so I will not spend time doing that. If you have missed something, you can easily find a model comparison on the Apple website. What I want to spend time on are a few key bigger picture points that help to position the new models in the market and broader Apple context.

The Super-cycle

I was asked several times whether Apple would see a super-cycle with the iPhone 12, and the answer I gave was honest but not very helpful: it’s complicated. All things equal, Apple has the perfect product lineup: new design, four products that span a wide enough price range, and a new technology, 5G.

However, the reality is that the iPhone 12 models are hitting the market during an economic downturn and, in the US, a time of considerable uncertainty. There is a high degree of reliance on technology that we all have experienced during the pandemic, which might counter this market negativity by encouraging an upgrade cycle for the device that we still all turn to the most: the smartphone.

On Apple’s side, there is a user base with the largest proportion of users falling into higher-income brackets, a factor that will soften the impact of the economic downturn. Outside the early-adopter group looking for the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, and likely to jump on the new products as soon as they are available, we might see a more spread out cycle. This is because different countries are opening up more while others are fighting the threat of a second wave of the pandemic.

Three LTE models remain in the portfolio, iPhone SE, iPhone XR, and iPhone 11, which will continue to drive some decent volume for Apple both from users who are upgrading from older models as well as for users and markets moving to 5G more slowly. Being a year old or less, combined with the value Apple always provides through software updates, gives buyers choosing these models confidence in their purchase.


Apple had a slide during the event that said “5G just got real.” Depending on where you sit on the 5G hype cycle, you either think that 5G has been real for over a year now or, that we are still all waiting for it to be real. As it’s often the case, the truth is somewhere in between. 5G has been available in many markets for a while, but networks’ coverage and performance still leave much to be desired.

I did not think Apple would make a big deal out of 5G, and by and large, that was the case. Tim Cook reminded us of the privacy and security benefits of 5G over Wi-fi. The rest of the time dedicated to the topic was spent explaining how Apple differs in its implementation of 5G.

Apple made a couple of interesting decisions given when they are joining the 5G party. First, as expected by most, the full iPhone 12 family is 5G. Apple highlighted its space efficiency, which allows enough room for multi bands support.
In the US, the entire iPhone 12 family supports mmWave rather than just having one Verizon model. This helps Apple with economies of scale and better production and inventory management at a time when the pandemic is making it harder to forecast. With mmWave support spread across the family, the premium that we have seen other manufacturers put on the Verizon skew is less evident but might become more apparent as we see pricing in other regions.

The second interesting decision was to apply AI to 5G through “smart data mode.” This means that the iPhone smartly decides when to use 5G or LTE based on speeds and use cases. When your iPhone doesn’t need 5G speeds, it automatically uses LTE to save battery. But when 5G speeds matter, the iPhone 12 starts using it. Apple also delicately pointed out that users will experience different 5G speeds based on where they are located.

iPhone SE vs. iPhone Mini

When the iPhone SE was launched in April 2020, I wrote:

“The iPhone SE feels like a different kind of product, though. It is not a model we should expect to be refreshed with the regular cadence we see in the rest of the portfolio. Instead, it’s a product that serves the purpose of getting the most pragmatic users to upgrade after holding on to their phones for years. These users might be coming from a hand-me-down or a secondhand iPhone or even be Android users looking for their first iPhone… If I had to guess when a good time for the next refresh of the iPhone SE might be, I would say that in another four years sounds like a good time considering that by then, 5G will be truly mass market.”

After this week, I have started to change my mind, and I am guessing that the iPhone SE we have in the lineup today might be the last model that will bear the name. Going forward, the iPhone Mini will reflect a more compact form factor with all the essential features and a lower price point. Next year as the iPhone 13 Mini is introduced, I would expect to see the iPhone 12 Mini hitting a price point much closer to the iPhone SE, which will probably remain in the portfolio perhaps till 2022.

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. iPhone 12 Pro

At the other end of the iPhone 12 Mini, we find the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. After a couple of years of providing parity of features but a difference in size in the high-end models, Apple returned to making the largest model the one with the best camera system. When Apple first did this with the iPhone 6Plus, they were unprepared by how much the mix skewed towards the larger size. Users were prepared to buy a larger device to take advantage of the superior camera system.

Both Phone 12 Pro models offer the ability to shoot in RAW format, meaning that the user can manually make the photo look its best rather than having the iPhone automatically do it for them. For video, both Pro models support HDR video with Dolby Vision, up to 60 fps, and even better video stabilization. The iPhone 12 Pro Max takes the pro camera experience even further with a new ƒ/1.6 aperture Wide camera with a 47 percent larger sensor delivering an 87 percent improvement in low-light conditions. It also includes the expansive ultra-wide camera and a 65 mm focal length Telephoto camera for increased flexibility with closer shots and tighter crops. Combined, this system offers a 5x optical zoom range.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max impact might end up being quite different from what we saw with the iPhone 6 Plus. The iPhone 12 Pro Max might not end up skewing sales volume, but it might certainly capture new generators of creators, a segment that Apple has always cared a great deal about and that over the years have become more and more mobile-focused.

Much like many users buy into 5G to future-proof their smartphone purchase for a few years, it seems to me that Apple has used 5G to rethink its iPhone portfolio setting it up in a way that makes it easier for buyers to pick the right product for them. I will be sharing more about the iPhone 12 cameras, the new MagSafe wireless charging, and 5G performance as I test the devices between October 23 and November 13. With no MacBooks being announced at the “hi, Speed” event, I am also guessing we will have “one more thing” from Apple before the end of the year.

Podcast: Nvidia GTC, Arm DevSummit, Google Workspace, AMD Ryzen 3, Big Tech Antitrust

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell analyzing the news from Nvidia’s GTC Conference and Arm’s Developer Summit, as well as the potential impact of a merger of those two companies, discussing the latest version of Google’s productivity suite, chatting about the latest desktop CPU introductions from AMD, and pondering the potential impact of the US government’s huge new report on potential antitrust concerns with Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

Google Workspace Elevates Collaboration by Focusing on the Task at Hand

In July, Google gave us a taste for a more integrated collaboration experience when it brought Meet and Chat into Gmail. This week the metamorphosis continued as G Suite becomes Google Workspace. Back in July, I looked at the news from a communication vs. collaboration perspective, making the point that communication is really at the center of  Google’s collaboration strategy. However, this week, as Google talked more about Workspace and how it plans to deliver a more integrated experience across collaboration and communication, it seemed that content is at the center of the Workspace and att the center of collaboration.

With Workspace, Google is addressing some specific issues. First, the fact that due to Covid-19 collaboration has changed. Of course, we have all experienced that in one way or another and when we move past the hours of video analysis one aspect that really has changed is that you are likely to be collaborating more with people outside your organization. This is because those face to face meetings which would have been independent of the work to be done are now happening online. This means that the tools must be more flexible when it comes to sharing information and collaborating than they might have been before.

Second, Google wanted to address first-line workers by making them better connected with their own organization which is likely not in the same place as they are. This goal of connecting people to get the job done extends to reaching consumers, the final user of whatever product businesses are trying to sell. By doing so, of course, Google bridges the consumer and the business world by giving people (2.6 billion MAU) tools they are already very familiar with.

While we will eventually go back to an office, we will face a more heterogeneous work environment we did before the pandemic. This means that connecting people who are not physically together in a rich but simple way will remain a priority for a long time.

Workspace also builds on Google’s focus on delivering helpful technology. This has become the big theme that brings together the different areas of the company from the CEO Sunday Pichai to the Head of Made by Google Rich Osterloh. Helpfulness in this case comes from a simplified user experience by also from the intelligence that Google is able to offer on top. One of the features that better explain this balance between simplicity and richness is “picture in picture” which gives you the ability to hear and see people you are collaborating live with on a document. This featured was launched in July for Gmail and Chat and it will soon also include Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Not Just a Rebranding

I am sure, given there isn’t an actual new product, one could be tempted to see this as a rebranding exercise. But the new features that have been introduced and the way all the tools come together really speak to the direction Google is taking with productivity and the G Suite name no longer fitted with that vision. Workspace is no longer a bunch of apps that take care of the different tasks you need to perform, it’s an orchestrated experience empowered by AI. I wish there was a different name than Workspace, to be given to this hub especially considering consumers will have access to it as well. The name is often seen as a location, a landing place, which, although technically correct, fails to convey the active lift these tools deliver. Yet, it is certainly a better illustration of the experience Google wants to deliver compared to G Suite.

Google also introduced a new pricing plan that adds one level for medium businesses and now takes Workspace from small businesses all the way to large enterprises in a more granular way. Mostly the difference in price accounts for the number of users, cloud storage size, and security features. Not much has changed with the first two levels, Basic and Business still priced at $6/user and $12/user. The new tier called Business Plus edition offers enhanced capabilities for $18/user to those organizations that might be large in size (up to 250 users) but don’t need the entire enterprise-level offerings. I would argue this last one is the category where Google has a lot of opportunities and where organizations might have struggled in the past to feel their needs were properly addressed.

Betting on Content Rather than Meetings

There were two aspects of the announcement that I found particularly clever and I want to highlight.

One is that Google does provide the option not to sign up for the whole experience. Thanks to Workspace Essentials ($8/active user), which lets a business get started with video and collaboration without having to replace their current email or calendar systems. This can lower the barrier of entry considerably if you think about how much more effort and disruption migrating mail and calendar system represents for an organization. It might also help Google entering businesses dominated by Microsoft with a “land and expand” tactic. Our data points to a lot of crossover within organizations between Office 365 and Google Workspace especially for Docs that remain the preferred tool for collaboration. This is not a new offering but it is certainly one that has become much more relevant in the current environment when digital transformation is accelerating but also when IT professionals are already extremely stretched.

The second aspect that I believe will give Google an advantage long term is centering the Workspace experience on the content to be created or the task to be completed rather than the way in which one will do so. There are many collaboration hubs offered by the likes of VMWare, Citrix, and of course, Microsoft. Office 365’s Workspace equivalent is Teams where users are led to choose how they work together first. In other words, I get to Microsoft Teams to do a video call or a chat while I get to Google Workspace document or email and then decide how I communicate with others bout the task at hand. Albeit subtle, I think the approach Google is taking might better withstand the return to the office and a shift back towards face-to-face meetings when we will eventually be able to do so.

It will be fascinating to see how all these different hubs will drive value to users. Locking people in is never a good approach. Creating different points of entry and delivering value across the board will ultimately determine the success across a workforce that is probably the most varied in both age and skills than it has ever been.

Microsoft Expands Surface Lineup; Announces Updates to Windows on Arm

This week the Surface Team at Microsoft announced a new, more affordable notebook called the Laptop Go and an update to the Qualcomm-based Surface Pro X. The former fills a gap in the company’s lineup and is going to appeal to many buyers. The latter reaffirms Surface’s commitment to Windows on Arm and will take advantage of several software updates the company also announced this week, including new and updated native apps and new 64-bit x86 emulation capabilities.

Expanding the Lineup
The Surface team has had a monumental year and a very busy Fall. Back in September, they announced the Surface Duo, its category-launching, Android-running, dual-screen having re-entry into the don’t call it a smartphone, smartphone. I’ve had the privilege of using that product at length, and it’s made a believer out of me in terms of the utility of a two-screen mobile device. Similarly, last year’s Surface Pro X helped cement my long-held belief that there is a place in the market for Windows on Arm. This week’s new hardware does not usher in any new categories but is monumental, nonetheless.

The Surface Laptop Go starts at $550 and includes a 12.4-inch touchscreen display, an Intel 10th Gen i5 processor, up to 16GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. It comes in three colors (Ice Blue, Sandstone, and Platinum) and supports One Touch sign-in through Windows Hello and a Fingerprint Power Button. I’ve long been a big fan of the design of the existing Surface Laptop, now on version 3, which starts at about $960. The new Laptop Go brings many of those same design sensibilities to a lower price point. And like the Surface Go detachable—which brought to market a lower-priced Surface tablet—I expect the Surface laptop to appeal to a wide range of buyers and to ship in notable volumes.

With the Laptop Go, Microsoft is attempting to bring the Surface brand downward into the mid-priced market without tarnishing its premium status. It pulled it off with the Surface Go, now in version 2, and starting at $399, and I expect it to do it here, too. We watched Apple do something similar with the launch of its $399 iPhone SE, which I suggested might just be its most important iPhone launch of the year.

Microsoft’s timing of the Surface Laptop launch bodes well, too. As I noted earlier this year, as COVID-19 swept the globe, the first technology product many people, companies, and schools moved to purchase was the PC. That resulted in a blockbuster second quarter, and all signs point to the just-completed third quarter as being similarly robust. We should see those strong volumes carry into the holiday quarter, even as the world continues to contend with the pandemic and the resulting economic hardships. All told, it seems a very sensible time to launch a well-designed but affordable notebook product into the market.

Focus on Windows on Arm
In addition to the Surface Laptop Go, Microsoft also announced an update to its flagship tablet, the Surface Pro X. The first Pro X launched last October, leveraging a custom processor Microsoft partnered with Qualcomm to design called the SQ1. This year’s refresh offers an update to that processor, called the SQ2, as well as a new platinum exterior finish option. The new device slots in at the top of the Surface Pro X lineup with a starting price of $1,500, while the existing Matte Black version 1 with the SQ1 chip remains in the lineup with a starting price of $1,000.

The updates to the Surface Pro X line will appeal to buyers looking for the best performance they can get from an Arm-based Surface. But perhaps more important was the news that dropped just before the Surface announcement, which was that Microsoft was bringing a host of improvements to the broader Windows on Arm platform and its supporting apps. Chief among them: Plans for an updated version of the Edge browser it promises will run faster and use less battery and a new native Microsoft Teams application. Finally, starting in November, it will roll out support for 64-bit x86 emulation to the Windows Insider Program. That last part is incredibly important, as to date the platform has only supported emulation of 32-bit Windows apps. That lack of 64-bit X86 emulation left out many modern desktop apps. This support, which will roll out widely next year, could be a game-changer for the platform if the performance of those apps is good.

With the updated Surface Pro X and the upcoming enhancements to the Windows on Arm platform, Microsoft clearly affirms its plans to support the platform going forward. To date, industry support for Windows on ARM has been tepid at best, with Lenovo being the only other major PC OEM to consistently ship products utilizing Qualcomm’s newest PC parts. However, as Apple moves to ship its first Macs using Arm-based Apple Silicon later this year, I can tell you that the broader PC industry is watching closely. With these improvements to the Windows on Arm platform, Microsoft makes it much more compelling for these OEMs to move to support it with new products down the road.

And those same OEMs will also be watching closely to see how both the updated Surface Pro X and the new Surface Go Laptop perform in the market during the all-important holiday quarter. Over the years, Microsoft has built up an impressive portfolio of devices that spans form factors, technologies, and price points, silencing anyone who doubted the company’s commitment to hardware. With these latest products, Microsoft expands its lineup again, positioning Surface for a big holiday quarter and continued growth into the new year.

Whose Home Is It? Amazon? Google? Apple?

In the tech world, September has been synonymous with Apple for many years. Over the past couple of years, however, Amazon has also started to claim the month as its big device reveal. Last year Amazon introduced fifteen new products with Alexa integration and focused on privacy. This year the number of devices was a little lower, and together with privacy, the focus was on sustainability. But that was last week! This week it was Google’s turn to announce a new smartphone, Pixel 5, as well as new smart speakers and Google TV.

Apple’s iPhone event is rumored for mid-October, and the same sources expect the launch of an updated HomePod and an HomePod Mini. So, it might seem unfair to attempt to name who is winning the control of the home before then. Yet what we have seen from Amazon and Google shows enough of a difference in approach to at least attempt to highlight what it would take for Apple to be considered at the same level.

The Core Business

I said before that looking at a company’s core business model will shed light on many of its products and business decisions.  If your business is built on selling hardware, it is more likely that you focus on individuals. If your business is centered on advertising, you are also likely to focus on individuals.

As Prime services started to expand, Amazon has been able to cater to both the individual and the household. This approach seems to be working and can grow to the car, which Amazon clearly sees as an extension of the home. Within a home context, Alexa remains extremely useful, especially since that individual users can choose to register their voice so that Alexa knows who is interacting with it. Alexa can now even join multiple people in a conversation.  The car is no different from the home. The interactions we are likely to have are related to content, navigation, or the car itself, making it reasonably straightforward to deliver value. Out in the world, Amazon and Alexa quickly lose impact as users turn to their phones’ assistant. The recent move into wearables with earbuds, glasses, and fitness bands all aim at addressing this weakness by offering Amazon valuable ways to collect information and provide value when out and about.

As Amazon moves beyond content into services such as home security, health, and even personal care, it starts to lock people into services that are more about delivering a better quality of life, in one way or another, rather than entertainment. This is a similar formula Apple has used for Apple Watch. Providing health benefits has considerably increased the appeal of the device. Apple will continue to find ways to use this aspect of Apple Watch to open the door into its ecosystem as it did with the recently launched Family Setup. Monetization for Apple will come from hardware; however, while for Amazon, the opportunity rests in the services, not the hardware.

Google falls somewhere in between Amazon and Apple by delivering good value for money hardware and services. But the real value is not in the services per se, but the AI, often associated with Google Assistant, that delivers helpfulness. This is possibly Apple’s weakest link both against Amazon and Google. Siri has improved, and it can provide moments of delight like reading your messages when you are wearing AirPods. Yet, across the board, Siri lags both Alexa and Google Assistant. Value is also dependent on what kind of services Apple will embrace. While I expect Apple to continue to get deeper into health and content, I do not expect it to have a wide range of services or penetrate the home with the number of devices we will continue to see from Amazon.

The Phone as an Entry Point to the Home

There are different paths to our homes, but the phone remains the strongest because it is easier to drive value from the outside than the other way around. This is especially true about digital assistants, and while it is not the case right now, most of us spend more time away from their homes. A digital assistant that can always be with me will just be smarter because it will know more about me. The phone is the significant advantage Google and Apple have over Amazon. The phone is the device we interact with the most, creating stickiness and generating data these companies can use to improve my experience with both the device and their services. The phone’s importance does not mean that Amazon cannot play a substantial role in the home. It has clearly demonstrated the opposite thus far. However, it means that Amazon will have to have a broader set of devices to capture our time and interactions and find different hooks for users.

As critical as the phone is to get into the home, more is needed to be useful in a family context, and this is where Apple has to cover more ground. The expansion of Apple TV as an app is helping content. More HomePod models will help music, podcasts, and smart home. HomeKit support on other brands will not be enough for users to connect the dots between the device they are using and Apple. As unsexy as it is, home networking seems an obvious opportunity for Apple considering the firm stand on privacy. I am not sure that when Apple exited that business, it was clear that delivering a networking solution meant providing a digital security and privacy solution not for the home but the family. It might also be interesting to see if Apple believes that delivering more screens to the home should only be done through iPads rather than through a HomePod with a screen.

They say there is strength in numbers. It seems to me that when it comes to the home, strength is in the meaningful interactions a brand can deliver. Whether those interactions are through hardware, software, or services does not matter as long as the user is crystal clear on who is bringing them value.

Podcast: Microsoft Ignite, AMD, Arm, Qualcomm Semiconductors, Amazon Fall Product Blitz

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Ben Bajarin and Bob O’Donnell analyzing the news from Microsoft’s Ignite event, chatting about multiple semiconductor chip and IP announcements from AMD, Arm and Qualcomm, and discussing the large range of products and services that Amazon unveiled.

The Future of Work Calls for Employees’ Wellbeing

Close to six months into different levels of sheltering in place, most organizations have been shifting their focus from temporary measures to supporting working from home long term, whether fully remote or hybrid work. A lot must come into play when working or learning remotely: connectivity, security, device deployment, and management, but nothing has been talked about more than collaboration tools. Maybe this is because collaboration involves both work and productivity and a natural need for human interactions. Technology providers that are active in the modern-work space have been adding features and intelligence that make collaboration easier and effective as well as more natural and less mentally and emotionally tasking.

As Microsoft kicked off their Microsoft Ignite conference this week, CEO Satya Nadella spoke of the foundations that technology must build on. There are four: inclusivity, trust, equity, and sustainability. Nadella also highlighted that when it comes to modern work, collaboration does not start and end in a meeting, and organizations should focus on continued learning and the wellbeing of their employees.

Corporate VP of Microsoft 365, Jared Spataro, built on that idea by highlighting the importance of not focusing on short-term productivity from treating employees like machines.

Microsoft already announced back in July some features focused on making collaboration easier like Together Mode in Microsoft Teams, but at Ignite, Spataro talked about the responsibility Microsoft feels to study the challenges and opportunities that remote work and hybrid work are presenting organizations across the world. To do so, Microsoft is relying on its own telemetry and first-party research as well as commissioning research from partners, including the likes of Harvard, Stanford universities. Finally, Microsoft will depend on their daily conversations with customers.

So far, Microsoft has learned from its Work Trend Index that people experience more flexibility and greater empathy for team members. 62% of people surveyed said they feel more empathetic toward colleagues, mostly because they connect with them in their homes. That said, there are concerns about a loss of connection and feelings of isolation. The lack of clear boundaries results in people working longer hours with growing fears of burnout, especially among information workers and first-line workers. Microsoft Teams usage gives a sense of the new work practices with hours extended from the typical nine to five, including weekends. Workday length increased 17% in Japan, 25% in the US, and 45% in Australia.

According to Spataro, business leaders went from worrying about employees’ ability to be productive while working remotely to worrying about whether people are working sustainably and healthily.

All this information has pushed Microsoft to double down on using technology to empower every person and every organization to achieve more, but doing so sustainably in all the ways possible.

In the new year, Microsoft Teams will add the option to schedule a virtual commute to allow for that time many used in the morning to get mentally ready for their day and decompress on the way home at the end of the day. Microsoft’s global study also showed that 70% of people think meditating could decrease their work-related stress. To help with that, Microsoft announced the integration of the meditation app Headspace right into Microsoft Teams. This is an interesting idea and not that different from some applications that wearables brands like Apple and Samsung have already added to their devices. The interesting part for me will be to see how organizations will communicate these features to employees as part of a broader effort to improve working conditions or a tool they see as ticking the box and getting them out of delivering any other support.

Data is helping Microsoft, but it is also helping organizations through the Microsoft Graph. From October, Microsoft will help managers through the integration of Workplace Analytics into Microsoft Teams. Managers will have the ability to analyze teamwork, after-hour collaboration, meeting effectiveness, and focus time. The integration with Microsoft Teams will allow to schedule unplug reminders, monitor the number of meetings to avoid burnout, and even check in with the employees on how they feel on a particular day. Balancing trying to help achieve a more balanced work practice with the feeling of being continuously monitored will rest mostly on how these tools are used, managers’ transparency, and the trust they built with their employees. Suggesting time to unplug when setting unreasonable deadlines will only add to the frustration and ultimately achieve the opposite result, with employees not feeling valued and cared for.

Employees are not the only ones coming to terms with this new way of working. Organizations are facing a similar learning curve. To build a more resilient business, Microsoft created a Productivity Score that will help organizations understand how they work and how they function. The Score covers five categories content collaboration, meetings, communication, teamwork, and mobility through tools such as the creation of workspaces and industry best practices on meetings effectiveness. The data across the organization can get down to the individual level or be entirely anonymized.

Microsoft is very clear that the Productivity Score is not designed as a tool to monitor employees and their output. To limit the risk that organizations could use the data in such a way, Microsoft only provides data as an aggregate over a 28-day period. The Productivity Score is about measuring the efficacy of productivity tools, and technology employees are using. It is the technology that is getting assessed, not humans.

Despite all these warnings, once again, there is a concern that organizations might just inappropriately use these tools because, sadly, it would not be the first time. Today, we have apps like Sneek, that takes photos of employees to see if they are at their desks. Meanwhile, project management programs such as Jira and Basecamp can allow managers to spot when workers are not maintaining a high level of output. The reality is that, while we have all proven we can be productive working from home, trust, often, is yet to be proven.

Podcast: Oculus Quest 2 VR Headset, Sony Playstation 5, Apple Event

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell discussing the news from the Facebook-owned Oculus press event on their new VR headset and plans for AR glasses, chatting about the release details of Sony’s forthcoming gaming console, and analyzing the news from Apple’s event, including new Apple Watches, iPads and its Apple One bundle of services.

Facebook Doubles Down on VR with Oculus Quest 2

At its annual Virtual and Augmented Reality-focused event, now named Facebook Connect, Facebook announced that the Oculus Quest 2 would begin shipping in October with preorders open now. In addition to announcing the Quest 2 at the virtual event, the company also took the opportunity to talk about upcoming VR software (including an early-stage desktop experience), its research projects around AR, and its plans to ship a pair of smart glasses in partnership with Ray-Ban next year. Today I will focus on the Quest 2, its technical specs, its price, and its potential ramifications for the VR market.

Standalone VR
Today’s VR market offers three headset types: screenless viewers that use your smartphone screen (such as Samsung’s discontinued Gear VR); tethered headsets that connect to a PC to leverage its processing and graphics capabilities (such as the Rift S); and standalone products that are self-contained units. Since the launch of the original standalone Quest and competitive products from a growing list of other vendors, we’ve seen the standalone market explode in popularity with Facebook leading the charge and products a wide range of other vendors gaining momentum.

Standalone VR cannot push as many pixels as a tethered headset that can leverage a PC with a powerful CPU and GPU. But I find that standalone products help drive a more immersive experience because you are not dealing with the physical cable connection to the PC, which is constantly yanking you back out of the immersive experience. And last year, Facebook launched a beta version of Oculus Link that lets you use a USB cable to connect the -first generation Quest to a PC to achieve tethered-like performance for apps that only run on the PC.

Throughout the pandemic, as my family and I have sheltered and worked from home, my kids and I have been using the original Quest to play a growing list of games. I have also been enjoying the fitness app Supernatural. What I have not really done is use it for anything related to work. The fact is, if VR as a technology and a platform had been further along at the start of 2020 (and headsets had been more widely available), the pandemic could have been the catalyst for a significant shift to VR for virtual meetings, training, collaboration, events, and more. To be sure, all these things are happening, but not at scale. However, the shifts set in motion by COVID-19 will be a major catalyst for both consumer and commercial adoption; it will just take some time. The Quest 2 positions Facebook to drive much of that next wave of adoption.

Evolutionary Updates
As noted, I have used the original Quest extensively, and it is a very good product that Facebook has made better with regular updates. With Quest 2, Facebook clearly focused on iterative improvements rather than a radical rethink. Perhaps the most notable specification changes are the processor and the screen. Quest 2 features Qualcomm’s new XR2 processor supported by 6GB of RAM and a single, fast-switching LCD rated at 1832 x 1920 per eye, versus the Quest’s dual OLED panels. Facebook says the display can support a 90Hz refresh rate (but it won’t at launch). Facebook also tweaked the Touch controllers and says the new ones will be more ergonomic than the current ones.

These evolutionary changes should drive a better experience when it comes to both consumer uses cases such as gaming, as well as commercial use cases such as training and collaboration. Facebook clearly believes the Quest 2 has enough horsepower to be its primary VR product, as it announced that it would discontinue its tethered Rift S hardware in 2021.

Perhaps the most important news around the Quest, though, is its price. Facebook chopped $100 off the price of the new headset versus the original Quest, which means the entry-level version with 64GB of storage starts at $299 versus $399. A version with 256GB of storage sells for $399. The company is taking orders now, and the product will ship in late October.

I have yet to test the new Quest 2, but initial tech press reviews are mostly positive. However, not everyone is enamored with some of the changes Facebook has made to the physical design of the headset or the new touch controllers. Some complain that to hit the new price point Facebook had to cut too many corners in the design.

Too Much Social?
Facebook has worked hard since the launch of Quest to drive VR adoption and has stood up its Oculus for Business group to focus on commercial use cases. However, in the end, it is still Facebook, and at its core, it is a social networking company. As such, it has recently decided that in October, all new Oculus headsets must log in using a Facebook account, versus using a new or existing separate Oculus account. This will allow Facebook to serve up personalized content and ads inside the Oculus experience.

As you might imagine, many Oculus users are not happy about this move. It is not clear if this will impact Oculus for Business users, but I know from talking to many organizations looking at VR for commercial use cases that they find any ties to social problematic at best. I also have mixed feelings about the Facebook account requirement but will reserve judgment until I see the implementation.

Based on the information we are seeing from our supply-side analysts, Facebook expects to ship a huge number of the Quest 2s in the second half of this year. I expect that to be a mix of consumer and commercial shipments, as the company leans into its Oculus for Business offering. I’ll be watching closely to see how the market reacts to this new offering, and how Facebook’s competitors respond as we close out 2020 and head into a new year.

Takeaways from CBRS Auction and Implications for the C-Band

The 3.5 GHz CBRS PAL auctions were concluded on August 26, and the winners were announced a week later. Overall, the auction raised $4.4 billion, which was slightly above what many analysts had expected. The big winners: Verizon, DISH, Comcast, and Charter. Also interestingly, a number of enterprises also won licenses, which demonstrates the interest to deploy private wireless networks as a complement to/replacement for Wi-Fi and for certain specialized applications.

Here’s my take on the winners and losers in the auction, what it means for 5G and the competitive structure of the wireless industry, and the implications on the even more consequential C-Band auction, which is scheduled to start on December 8.

As a quick backgrounder, the FCC has made 150 MHz of spectrum available in the 3550-3700 MHz band, or the 3.5 GHz CBRS ‘mid-band’. This band, incidentally, is also being used for 5G in many other countries. The initial phase of the CBRS auction, called the GAA layer, consists of 80 MHz of shared spectrum, meaning that it can be used by anyone (i.e. not auctioned) as long as it’s available, through a regime managed by four spectrum database administrators (SASs). The GAA layer became commercially available in late 2019, and so far has been used for mainly corporate or venue type deployments.

The second phase was the 70 MHz PAL auction (called Auction 105), for 10 year licenses, in 10 MHz channels, on a county-by-county basis. A provider could bid for up to 40 MHz in a particular geographic region. That auction concluded on August 26. Of the $4.4 billion spent on the auction, Verizon was the big winner, spending $1.9 billion. DISH spent $913 million, Comcast spent $458 million, and Charter spent $212 million. T-Mobile only won a handful of licenses, and AT&T did not win any licenses at all.

The auction was especially critical for Verizon, which is in the weakest spectrum position of all the major operators, especially in the mid-band. I expect its 3.5 GHz efforts are a precursor to what will be a more significant spend in the C-band auction, where 280 MHz of spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band will be made available.

The magnitude of DISH’s spend was a bit of a surprise, given DISH’s already strong spectrum position and its rather precarious cash situation, as the company bleeds pay TV subscribers. But it’s an important signal of DISH’s commitment to being in the wireless business. In addition to its treasure trove of low-band spectrum, DISH reaped the spoils of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, getting some of the excess spectrum, Boost Mobile from Sprint, and an MVNO relationship with T-Mobile. So DISH is now a bona fide retail player in the prepaid wireless space, with 9 million Boost subscribers (and 270,000 from the recently acquired Ting), with plans to build a nationwide 5G network in what is likely to be a hybrid of retail/wholesale strategy.

The cable companies were the other notable winners in the auction. Cable — mainly Comcast (Xfinity Mobile), Charter (Spectrum Mobile), and Altice — have been steadily growing their wireless business, counting some 4 million wireless subscribers between them. However, their mobile business relies on the several million Wi-Fi hotspots and an MVNO relationship with Verizon (Altice’s is through T-Mobile). Their participation in the PAL auction is the first time the cable companies have acquired a meaningful amount of wireless spectrum, enabling them to add some physical cellular infrastructure to complement their Wi-Fi/MVNO strategy. It demonstrates their commitment to being in the mobile space, and their desire to be less dependent on the MVNO structure, given the rather unfavorable economics.

T-Mobile’s relative lack of participation in the 3.5 GHz auction was no big surprise, given its strong mid-band position by virtue of the 150 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum it got from Sprint. AT&T was conspicuously absent from the CBRS auction. We suspect they’re saving their powder for the C-band auction.

Outside of the major operators, this was also a successful auction in bringing in some new, innovative players. Among the winners were:

  • Several Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), some of them already using the GAA spectrum, who will use it to provide rural broadband using fixed wireless access (FWA). They’re also counting on additional funds being made available for rural broadband initiatives, an idea that’s gained steam in the wake of Covid and the need to narrow the digital divide.
  • Numerous private companies. A 10 MHz license is sufficient bandwidth for a company to deploy a private LTE or 5G network. Among the auction winners were Deere & Company and Chevron, who could use their licenses to provide connectivity to manufacturing and other facilities that are harder to reach with Wi-Fi. Several real-estate companies also won licenses, the idea being that building or campus-wide networks could be deployed. Power companies also spent more than $50 million, collectively, on licenses, to power smart grid and IoT applications, or to use wireless as a connectivity backup.

Implications for the C-Band Auction

Given that the CBRS auction is in the mid-band, it’s viewed as somewhat of a warm-up act for the upcoming C-Band auction. This will be the largest auction in U.S. wireless history, with 280 MHz being made available in the attractive 3.7-4.2 GHz band. We expect all the major players to be there. Wall Street analysts expect this auction could raise $50 billion or more.

The auction is probably most consequential for Verizon, which still needs additional mid-band spectrum to meet 5G coverage and capacity needs. I also expect AT&T to spend big, especially since it sat out CBRS. And even though DISH and T-Mobile are in a pretty good spot spectrum-wise, it’s almost certain they’ll be active in the auction, given the attractiveness of the C-band, the seemingly insatiable need for additional capacity…and a defensive strategy to ensure that major competitors don’t end up in an overly advantageous position.

Financing will be a big story over the next three months, as the C-band auction looms. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there have been recent rumors about AT&T potentially shedding some of its media assets, particularly DirecTV and possibly Xandr. AT&T’s balance sheet isn’t pretty. Wall Street and Elliott Management aren’t going to let AT&T go wild at the C-band auction without the means to pay for it.

DISH also needs to come up with some source of funding if it’s going to both be active in the C-band auction and spend the $10 billion (or more) required to build its 5G network. I believe that DISH’s strategy is to offer a retail wireless operation (like Verizon, AT&T, etc.) but also to run an active wholesale business, given its favorable capacity position. In fact, DISH really needs a major anchor tenant to sign a long-term deal, which would provide DISH with the resources needed to execute its wireless strategy. My bet is that it will be one of the major Internet players, such as Amazon. The cable companies are also possible candidates, as they look for more favorable MVNO terms than they currently have with Verizon. Given that DISH is a major competitor in the pay TV space, this would be among the frenemiest relationships in telecom.

Between the mmWave auctions completed earlier this year, the recently completed CBRS auction, the upcoming C-band auction, and the FCC’s announcement a few weeks ago that it would auction off another 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band in 2021, we’re seeing an unprecedented expansion of capacity being made available for commercial wireless use. This will alter the competitive landscape and will be a catalyst for the sorts of innovative new use cases envisioned for 5G. Ensuring adequate spectrum resources for 5G is also the ante needed for being competitive on the global 5G stage.

Apple “Time Flies” Event Lets the Spotlight Shine on Apple Watch and iPad

The rumors went back and forth on whether Apple would unveil the iPhone 12 at this event. I argued that, with the events now being digital, Apple did not have to cram everything together in one event, especially given they had said the iPhone 12 would be shipping a little later than usual.

All being business as usual, Apple might have announced everything into one event, but given the circumstances making lemonade out of lemons meant that the iPad and the Apple Watch got some undivided attention for a change. The new iPad Air was even the showcase for the new A14 Bionic chip. This is usually something the iPhone gets to do, as the iPad adopts it in the cycle immediately following the latest iPhone release.

These two devices share one common trait: in one way or another, they have been playing an important role during the pandemic. Whether it’s using Apple Watch to keep active and balanced or using the iPad to do distance learning, gaming or binge-watch Netflix, many have been turning to these devices daily, and some of the announcements from the event will add to their appeal. Apple also referred in a couple of occasions to Apple Card Financing, which had been introduced already for iPad, Mac, and AirPods and now can be used for Apple Watch as well, with monthly payments as low as $12.

Apple Watch Widens Appeal with Family Setup and Lower Price Points

There was a lot of news on Apple Watch, starting with the new affordable Apple Watch SE, the new high-end model Apple Watch Series 6 with its blood oxygen measure and Family Setup, to connect an Apple Watch to someone else’s iPhone.

Family Setup had been rumored for a while, I was actually expecting it to launch with the Apple Watch 5, but it turned out we had to wait a little longer. I am sure Apple would have launched Family Setup even without the pandemic. Still, with kids returning to school and many families caring for older relatives, it certainly seems like this feature is very timely. Family Setup will be available for cellular models only, from Series 4 and later.  I do wonder how much cellular connectivity will be a hindering factor for potential buyers, given the extra monthly cost. Of course, if you see these devices as emergency devices, being always connected is a must. Unfortunately, carriers in the US still seem to be profiting way too much from a connected watch, which in most cases uses very little data.

The choices Apple made in what kids are allowed to do right on the watch vs. what the parent or guardian can do on the phone connected to the Apple Watch are quite interesting. Apple offers some thoughtful options like being able to set up which contacts can be called and messaged, or the ability to set up automatic location notifications, and a “Do Not Disturb” mode for school time. Kids can create their own memoji for messages, and they can track their move goal.  I appreciate that Apple took a more kid-friendly approach to the rings by focusing activity on minutes of movement rather than calories. Kids who are still growing should not concern themselves with calories, but how active they are, associating physical activity with good health.

Apple is doubling down on Fitness, with the new Fitness + service that ties Apple Watch to fitness videos one can follow along on an Apple device to deliver an integrated work out at a time when most people still cannot go to the gym. Apple also continues to pursue medical research with the new blood oxygen level readings linked to three new studies.

Keeping the Apple Watch Series 3 in the lineup for $199 and adding an Apple Watch SE at $279 offers some new entry points into the ecosystem for new users or multi-device users as Apple makes Watch an integral part of the new Fitness + service.

At $9.99 a month or $79.99 for an annual subscription for a family up to six people, Fitness + is priced quite aggressively compared to subscription such as Peloton, which is currently $39.99 a month. Furthermore, with the new Apple, One service bundle for many users who already subscribe to multiple services, Fitness + might end up being free. For instance, if you are paying for Apple Music Family ($15), Apple Arcade ($4.99), Apple TV+ ($4.99), 2T iCloud ($ 9.99), and Apple News+ ($9.99), you would see a savings of $25 and a free Fitness+ subscription if you signed up to the Premier tier. The Premier tier will only be offered in selected markets, depending on service availability, which keeps things easier than adjusting pricing by market. It will be very interesting to see how Apple will let current subscription holders know pricing is changing.

The iPad Air is Back

iPad Air used to be Apple’s most popular iPad, and then came the iPad 7th generation. Apple surprised most by refreshing the iPad Air to a design and specifications that positioned it right below the iPad Pro, making it an appealing option for users who want a high-end experience for both creation and consumption but don’t need cutting edge features like a Lidar scanner.

The portfolio before the Apple Air was leaving a gap in the middle. If you want to think about it in terms of iPhone, Apple was missing an iPhone 11 iPad equivalent. We will see if Apple retains the smaller iPad Pro model in the future, especially as there will be an ARM-based Apple Mac that could play as a continuation of the iPad portfolio.

With the iPhone/iPad launch out of cycle, I am sure many were reading the tea leaves of what features we saw on the iPad will be in the iPhone aside from the A14 Bionic. I would guess the colors are one, as it would be strange that Apple went for different colors for the two product lines. The second feature would be TouchID integrated on the power button. Considering wearing masks will stay with us for longer than first anticipated making unlocking with FaceID more challenging, adding a fingerprint reader would be very useful. Samsung already offers that option on the Galaxy Z Fold.


Apple continues to widen its reach by strategically lowering the barrier of entry for those products that have the potential to delight the user and create a level of engagement that will make it difficult for them to leave the ecosystem especially now that it is not just about hardware and software but services too.








Surface Duo and Two Screens vs. One

I have had the opportunity to spend time with the Surface Duo. A product that certainly has room for improvement, but which I think signals something about the future of mobile computers.

The emphasis from Microsoft was on a true two-screen experience with Duo, which is where the differentiation with this product and it’s most interesting use cases reside. As always, when I use a tech product that brings something new to the table, my exploration focuses on what I can do with this device that I could not do before. With Surface Duo, this was evident from the start where the side by side screens allowed to run two apps together side by side. What immediately hit me about this experience was how it was a mobile experience of my favorite way of working on iPad by using two apps side by side at the same time.

The bigger the screen, the more customers can do with their devices. This is why the notebook/desktop has always been positioned as the ultimate productivity computing devices. But also why the debate with iPad got blurry since it allowed for much better multitasking but on a more mobile device than a laptop and desktop. To that end, those of us who have always study consumer behavior has always been fascinated by just how much traditional computing tasks most consumers do with their smartphones, which has continually led me to conclude that what consumers really want is the most mobile device form factor that they can get the most done with. This is why the Surface Duo is so intriguing to me because it enables a dramatic amount of productivity in a pocketable/pursuable form factor. Which, as I mentioned, I have concluded, is exactly what consumers will continue to gravitate toward and exactly why I’m convinced folding pocketable devices have a bright future.

One of the more difficult parts of testing the Surface Duo was getting ample opportunities to stress test the productivity angle while out and about due to COVID-19 and the reality that many of us are not leaving the house. But I did take it out into the world every chance I got and intentionally took some video calls/meetings while out in the world which, given the work from home moment we are in, actually proved to be one of the more interesting use cases.

We can all relate to the painful amount of video calls/meetings we are all experiencing lately, and to be honest, before using Surface Duo, this is not something I would have considered doing with my smartphone due to my need to be present and on camera as well as take notes. This use case, in particular, is where the side by side apps and increased multitasking function of Surface Duo stood out to me as quite compelling. This use case is also made more functional due to the size of the side by side screens on the Duo, compared to something like the Samsung Galaxy Fold. While the Fold can run apps side by side, the Duo allows a little more real-estate for those essential productivity apps, which was quite empowering and gave me quite a bit of confidence to do more while I was on the go.

Going back to my point about how the Duo brought the most empowering productivity angle of iPad in side by side apps to a more mobile device causes makes me think it is better to think of Surface Duo as a pocketable tablet than a smartphone. The more time I got to use Surface Duo out in the wild, the more this became clear that using it feels more like using a pocketable tablet than a smartphone.

V1 and Software
There was a great deal of conversation around the software with Surface Duo. There were many fair criticisms of the Surface Duo hardware specs, and the greatest challenge for the platform and Microsoft, and Google is to get more apps optimized for the folding mobile device experience. Yes, Duo is a V1 product, but the broad commentary about the hardware was spot on. From a design standpoint, the hardware is amazing. The biggest hardware knock being the camera, which is also fair. But again, if we think of Duo more like a tablet than a smartphone, both the potential customer for this and the broader future of mobile devices becomes clear.

For all the criticism the Duo has taken in software, I think it is worth pointing out that getting the hardware right for this is an equally important task and arguably the first important task. The software can update over time, but hardware can not. In fact, even with the shortcomings in the camera specs on Duo, if this product was running the Google camera that powers Google’s Pixel phones, I don’t think the Duo camera criticisms would have been as negative.

I think Microsoft nailing the hardware design in many regards was the most critical first step on their journey. They are collaborating deeply with Google, which is an interesting side point. And given the bent on the productivity potential of Surface Duo and the fact that most of Microsoft’s productivity suite was highly optimized for Duo, being productive with Office was quite effective.

For Microsoft, this is a marathon, not a sprint. And for Surface, the goal of the Microsoft hardware line was never to be the market share leader in terms of sales but to be a catalyst for innovation and push the Microsoft ecosystem of software and hardware forward. While I am certain Microsoft has more Surface mobile hardware coming, if this product and their collaboration with Google causes the mobile ecosystem to move forward and support more sid by side app usage, then everyone wins. Especially Microsoft, as the more we can all get done in more places for our day jobs the better positioned Microsoft software and services solutions are on all devices.


I found the flexibility of folding the Duo over for one screen usage quite compelling when I went to triage email or to enter long text. My biggest complaint was the keyboard for text entry when the device was opened to two screens. A challenge I think, will need to be solved for us to take folding devices more seriously. But that was solved by flipping Duo over into single-screen mode when I could use it more in a context like my iPhone for inputting and feeling comfortable inputting long text.

One very interesting thing I found, was because of some of the challenges inputting text I found myself using voice input more often. It caused me to wonder if this two-screen/folding screen mobile solution may cause more usage of voice as a computing interface and the role of smart assistants whenever it becomes mainstream.

Microsoft also did something with the software that I wish Apple would with iPad. Which was group different apps together so you could launch specific pairings of apps you pre-determine. Essentially I created several dual-screen workspaces with the most common pairings together. I did things like pair Teams and OneNote or Twitter and Edge, Facebook, and Instagram, etc. This way whenever you clicked the app grouping they both launched together side by side.

Ultimately, I land on the same point many reviews did with Surface Duo. It’s not perfect. It will get better (both hardware and software), but by using it, we get a chance to use a bit of the future today.

Podcast: Microsoft Surface Duo, Motorola Razr, Microsoft XBox Series X, Apple Event Preview

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell discussing their experiences with Microsoft’s Surface Duo device, analyzing the launch of the second generation Motorola Razr foldable 5G phone, chatting about the details of the next generation XBox gaming console and previewing Apple’s Event for next week.

Motorola Updates Its Foldable razr

These past few weeks sure feel like foldable heaven. In the span of a few days, we have seen the Microsoft Surface Duo, the updated Samsung Galaxy Z Flip now with 5G, the Galaxy Z Fold2, the LG Velvet and now the new Motorola razr.

In an exclusive online event, Motorola introduced the new device, which stays true to its predecessor in form but adds some improvements to the foldable display technology, the processor (going from Snapdragon 725 to the 765G), the camera (from 16MP to 48MP for the primary camera and from 5MP to 20MP for the selfie one) and drops the price by $100 to $1399.

The event was nothing like a phone launch, similar to the launch of the first foldable razr about seven months ago when Motorola held a party in Los Angeles for the big unveil. In the era of COVID-19, this event was digital and focused around a short movie directed by Luke Gilford and starring Julia Garner. While, to be honest, the film itself felt more like a glorified commercial, the experience that was meant to be shared over a PC and a phone screen was quite intriguing. I would say the same about the choice of words to describe elements of the movie, which also reflected the razr positioning: “evoke confidence and spark excitement,” “sexy, nostalgic sleekness.”

In an interview with Bloomberg, Motorola’s President Sergio Buniac shared some interesting data points.  Twenty percent of buyers of the first foldable razr was iPhone or iPad owners. Also, Motorola accounted for 50% of foldable sales in North America. While, of course, we are talking about a small number of sales as a whole and a minimal number of brands, the results must be encouraging for Motorola.

Part of Lenovo and under Buniac’s leadership, Motorola has been focused on profitability and creating a solid foundation in some key markets like China, the US, Brazil, Mexico, and India. Such a foundation was built, mostly on more affordable products like their Motorola G, Motorola E and Motorola One series. The razr was the product that opened the door for Motorola to re-enter the high-end segment. The razr brand, as well as the foldable design, created an aspirational product that will work as a halo on the rest of the portfolio. Given this intent, Motorola was smart in focusing on marketing and positioning around life-style rather than tech. The foldable design of the razr, similarly to the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, is certainly more about design and individuality than productivity. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it just addresses a different market to the one the Galaxy Fold and the Surface Duo (yes, I know this is a dual-screen, not a foldable) are targeting.

This round two of foldables from both Motorola and Samsung has two things in common: first, it adds 5G and second, it strengthens the durability of the screen. The two brands take a different approach to it, but the goal is the same: limit damage from wear and tear, or in this case, fold and unfold, and limit damage from debris entering underneath the screen itself. Motorola reduced the moving parts within the hinge itself and added a metal plate underneath the screen to give it more support.

The Quick View Display is, for me, the biggest differentiator against the Galaxy Z Flip. From some of the video footage, there are a few new apps that are supported by the external display like Google Maps, which could come in handy for pedestrian navigation. I compare the Quick View screen to the screen of a smartwatch. A small screen that helps you view and take quick actions on notifications, control your music and even allow you to take a selfie using the more capable external camera system while using the display as a viewfinder. The familiarity of the main screen centered around a one-hand operation and the comparable experience to a smartwatch of the external screen considerably lower the learning curve on the razr. Considering Samsung moved to a larger external display for the Fold, I expect the next Galaxy Z Flip to also sport a larger external screen.

I know there has been a lot of talk about nostalgia with the razr brand and design, but I do believe it would be a disservice to the foldable razr to think of it as riding on nostalgia alone. The younger generations are likely to have never heard of the name or seen the form factor. And older consumers will remember that the original razr had this super cool design but delivered a terrible experience because of poor software. This is precisely where the foldable razr is very different. While the design is most likely the biggest purchase driver, users will not be disappointed by the razr’s performance and how it addressed essential needs like camera, fast charging and battery life. As far as durability, Motorola says that “the razr is designed to withstand up to 200,000 flips, which would take a power user more than five years to reach this level of use.” Of course, all foldables today should be considered as more delicate than the traditional smartphones we have been using and this is not a flaw of these devices, but a reality of the new foldable displays that are used and the hinge mechanism wrapped around them.

Looking at Motorola’s website, the first razr remains in the lineup, at least for now, at the reduced price of $999, which is not a bad price if you are interested in trying out for size the foldable experience.

There are more foldable products coming with less traditional form factors like the upcoming LG Wing that has two screens folding open like a T. Hard to know which one will win. Still, one thing is sure there is a limit to how much sexy alone will sell, especially with a price tag of a couple of thousand dollars. Brand experimenting with designs should always ask themselves what the benefit is and whether the unique design will never come to life because the lack of apps will limit what users can do. Ultimately a phone is our most precious device because we do so much with it and we cannot allow for it to let us down.