A 3D-capable Amazon phone might signal the next wave in retail

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.com

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.com

Interesting times for Amazon. Especially in the hardware space. First we get the surprise launch of their new set-top box, the Fire TV, now rumours are spreading of an imminent smartphone from the retail giant.

Not that this rumour is new, per se. We’ve been hearing speculation about an Amazon phone almost as long as we’ve been hearing about an HDTV from Apple. But this time, the rumour comes with a new level of specificity at least as it relates to a key tech spec: the handset will supposedly ship with a quad set of cameras that will enable a retina-tracking, glasses-free, 3D display.

Let’s assume for the time being that this phone, if real, will be a logical stable-mate to the existing Kindle Fire line of tablets. This would mean Amazon’s proprietary fork of Android and access to all of Amazon’s streaming services. Certainly not a bad set of specs. Especially if they include access to the Fire TV’s game store.

Frankly, if this was all there was to this rumoured handset, the right price would make it a very popular choice. Amazon’s tablets have received very favourable reviews and it seems likely that an Amazon phone would fare equally well.

But I’m troubled by the 3D aspect of the report. I know that movie studios continue to flog 3D on all of their mega-budget releases as a way of luring audiences to theatrical releases (with the correspondingly over-priced tickets). Some people even choose 3D over 2D when given the choice. Not me. I’m completely over 3D. Most of the time my brain becomes so accustomed to the effect that 20 minutes into the movie the only thing I’m noticing is the glasses on my face and the darker picture on the screen (non-3D movies are noticeably brighter).

As for home 3D? Fugedaboudit.
Even if we owned a 3D TV I doubt we’d ever use the 3D part. My neighbour, who is as big a movie buff as you’re likely to find, never uses his TV’s 3D capability. I suspect he’s far from an outlier on that count.

Which brings us back to why Amazon would choose to include 3D on a handset, especially when others have tried (and failed) to market one successfully.

The most obvious reason is that they want to enable traditional 3D content, i.e. movies and games. Nintendo has enjoyed relative success with their 3DS line of hand-held game consoles and those who have them assure me that the 3D part is really enjoyable (I’ll have to take their word for it).

But there may be a secondary element to Amazon’s 3D strategy: retail. Though I’ve never felt that the current model of multiple-angle images in gallery format was insufficient when looking at products online, perhaps Amazon wants to take the virtual shopping experience to the next level by giving shoppers a more immersive and realistic view of catalog items.

Could such an evolution in the display of retail objects (or indeed any objects) be a game-changer? My instinct is to say “no” purely based on my lacklustre experiences with 3D in other contexts. But I underestimated how profoundly popular having an “iPod Touch on steroids” would be when the iPad was first released, so I’m willing to concede that the experience of 3D shopping might be one of those things you need to see, before rendering judgment.

What are your thoughts on a 3D phone from Amazon?

 

Google’s PhoneBloks concept is exciting and it’s never going to work (for the mass market)

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When you love tech (sometimes just for tech’s sake), it can be pretty heady stuff to read up on the projects that Google has on the go. Consider this incomplete list, it’s really quite extraordinary:

You’ve got to hand it to Larry and Sergei. When they dream, they dream big. How cool is it that a couple of guys who came up with a better way to index the web are now in a position to influence the course of human history?

But when you roll the dice on monster concepts, you’ve got to be prepared when some of them don’t pan out. Of the items on the list above, there’s a good chance that all but the space elevator and human lifespan will make it from concept to reality. Even the driverless car–an idea that we were scoffing at less than 6 years ago–is real, and it works and they’re even legal in some places.

What I like about all of these projects is that there is a strong chance that if they work out as planned, they will see mass adoption. A lot of people are going to want the benefits these projects will offer.

But I can’t say the same for Google’s most recent foray into the future: Project Ara.

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Project Ara is Google’s concept for a modular smartphone platform. You may have heard of this already under the name PhoneBloks. Turns out, they were once separate efforts that are now united under the combined Google/Motorola banner (even though Google has agreed to sell most of that company to Lenovo).

It’s a fascinating and wonderful idea: What if, instead of having to trade in, sell, or giveaway your old phone when newer features hit the market e.g. a fingerprint scanner or better WiFi, you could simply upgrade just that component, leaving all of the phone’s other features and functions untouched? Moreover, what if you could choose from several sizes of device and then customize exactly which of these modules it came equipped with when new, knowing you could swap the modules later if you needed something different?

It sounds like techno-nirvana, especially for those of us who grew up playing with LEGO and admiring the component Hi-Fi systems our parents had lovingly assembled in the family room.

But as appealing as this concept might be for the small percentage of folks who value versatility and upgradeability over simplicity, PhoneBloks will never reach a mass market and that’s why its future is bleak.

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Don’t get me wrong, I would like PhoneBloks to succeed, but after watching industry trends for the last 20 years, these are the factors that are going to work against it:

Design

Though the name makes it obvious (as do the product renderings), let’s not forget that these phones will be well, blocky. Even if the modules themselves end up with gently curved corners and are made as low-profile as possible, it’s physically impossible to create a phone using swappable modules that can be as thin and light as a phone that embeds these components internally. If the PhoneBloks concept takes off, after a few generations the modules might actually evolve to the point where they don’t protrude from the phone’s frame. But even if that happens, the overall product will remain larger and bulkier than an equivalently equipped embedded-design.

The Myth Of Upgradeability

One of the core beliefs that the PhoneBloks concept is based on is that consumers really want to be able to change their phone’s capabilities over time. And while that might be true of certain elements (like wishing you could have a better camera or be able to access Siri) the market has proven itself exceptionally willing to forego features like expandable storage or even replaceable batteries. Just think, back in 2007 when Apple launched the iPhone, people who were used to having BlackBerrys and feature phones scoffed loudly at the iPhone’s sealed battery (not to mention its pathetic battery life). Once BlackBerrys and other competitors started shipping with expandable storage via MicroSD cards, these same people scoffed again at Apple’s apparently disdainful decision to only offer the iPhone in set storage sizes (8, 16, 32 etc.) But we’re all familiar with what happened. The market decided, much to the surprise of tech pundits and Apple’s competitors alike, that these things just don’t matter as much as everyone thought. Did consumers wish that Apple had offered these two features? Perhaps. But you’d never know it by looking at the sales numbers.

The Myth Of Customization

It seems especially true in western countries—and no more so than in the U.S.—that a person’s individual nature is considered holy. We are all unique, with our own personalities, and thanks to our freedom within our wonderful democracies, we get to express these personalities any way we see fit. Or so the theory goes. From that belief comes the notion that what people value is the ability to make an object “their own” through customization. And sure enough, this is true in areas like people’s homes, their choice of clothes, makeup, vehicles and consumption of the arts. Everyone picks what she or he likes. Everyone’s different, right? Actually, no, we aren’t.

The truth is, while we might have differing tastes on small things like the colour of our walls, or brand of footwear we’re loyal to, on a massive scale, we’re far more alike than we’d like to think. Not convinced? Just look at the success of a store like IKEA, or a movie like Frozen, or a musician like Bruce Springsteen. We might not all like the same things, but when we do agree, we agree on a massive scale. So it follows from this that, despite our whining about wanting choice and customization, what we really want is the same thing that a lot of other people want: a really good experience. We happily join the crowd when we find one.

We even have a recent example of customization’s failure to win over a mass market: Last year, Motorola debuted the Moto X, a really well-built, well-designed Android smartphone. It had a competitive feature set, it scored highly with reviewers, and it had a killer feature that should have catapulted it to dominance: In the U.S. you can order it online and pick from a wide variety of case colours and materials including real bamboo and wood. If there was any truth to the notion that the market was being heavily underserved in the area of choice, the Moto X should have been a runaway success. After four months on the market, it had reportedly only sold 500,000 units – a tiny number when compared to the 33.8 million iPhones Apple sold during a similar period. So much for wanting to be different.

The Enduring Appeal Of “New”

PhoneBloks should be lauded for their environmentally-conscious goal of not tossing out a phone simply because you want a feature upgrade. So-called “built-in obsolescence” is a drag. Why won’t my first generation iPad run Apple’s latest version of iOS, for instance? It just makes a ton of sense to stick with the product we bought and then, over time as things change, we just upgrade the parts that need upgrading.

Except that human beings are a peculiar species. We can simultaneously acknowledge the logic of such an idea, while we gaze longingly at the brand-new, shiny model. It’s possible to upgrade a car through the dizzying array of aftermarket products. But most of us don’t. It’s possible to upgrade the components of a desktop PC (as long as it’s not an iMac!) but apart from more RAM, most of us don’t. Even when faced with one of the most popular upgrades of all time: the home reno, it’s amazing how many people will opt to sell their house and buy one that already has the features they want.

We love what’s new, even when it’s only a little better than what we currently own. Especially when buying new won’t break the bank. We see this every time Apple releases a new iPhone model. A huge chunk of the early buyers are always existing iPhone owners, many of whom are upgrading from the immediately prior model.

So despite being able to soup-up a PhoneBloks phone hot-rod style, the mass market will continue to value a shiny new phone over a shiny new Blok.

So What, Who Cares?

If you’ve been thinking throughout this piece that I’m being thick, and that of course the PhoneBloks concept isn’t for everyone, I know what you mean. After all, why get all negative over a new idea just because it won’t resonate with a mass audience? And how do you really know? After all, it hasn’t even hit the market yet and the idea has almost a million supporters. Plenty of successful ideas started small, right? Ahem, Facebook! Yes, yes and yes.

It’s absolutely true that PhoneBloks needn’t achieve iPhone-like sales figures in order to prove itself a successful model for the smartphone industry. But it’s also true that it must nevertheless achieve a minimum level of adoption in order to simply stay alive. Given what I’ve outlined, I just don’t think this will happen. And it’s a shame, because ideas like PhoneBloks are what we need to spark the next round of innovation in an industry that has become dominated by two giants.

When heartbleed leads to heartache, what’s a person to do?

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By now, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about the so-called “Heartbleed” vulnerability recently discovered in the software that is responsible for creating the secure connections between us web users and the sites we interact with.

No? Well here’s a quick re-cap.

Turns out that every time you’ve seen that little yellow lock icon and the "https://" in your address bar over the last two years, your private and confidential info wasn’t as secure as you’ve been led to believe. Around two years ago, the group that is responsible for updating OpenSSL (the free software that tons of sites use to enable encryption), made a small change to the way that software handles secure connections. A small change with huge consequences. That change not only made it possible for a 3rd party– and I mean any 3rd party– to listen in on your secure session, it also made it possible to decode what was being said and from that info they could glean usernames, passwords and potentially credit card and other data too. Yup, it’s as bad as it sounds.

Worse still, OpenSSL isn’t just installed on a few small websites. By all accounts, it’s been implemented on a third of all secure websites, including some monsters like Yahoo and even a few of Google’s too. Revenue Canada was one of them.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Goddamn it. Yet another threat to my personal info. What’s with these companies that they can’t take security more seriously? And you’re right, this is yet another instance of our personal info being exposed thanks to insufficient measures being taken by the companies we trust.

But before we hop on a plane, pitchforks in hand, to show our displeasure to these groups who opened us up to such a deep invasion of our privacy, let’s take a second and consider a few things.

First, even though this flaw has been a part of OpenSSL for nearly two years, it was only in the last week that security researchers were able to identify it and exploit it (that last part being frighteningly easy to accomplish). But as easy as it was to exploit, it was not easy to find. That means that if you’re concerned about your personal info having been stolen during this period, you can probably relax a little. The nature of the exploit is such that only the information that was transmitted during a small window of time prior to someone “listening in,” would be available to an attacker. So unless we’re talking about a very sophisticated group of thieves with the resources to set up 24-hour “surveillance” of vulnerable sites (something that has a few folks screaming “NSA!!”) statistically it’s not all that likely that your info was taken.

But I realize that’s cold comfort. Especially now that the flaw has been exposed and no doubt every hacker worth their salt will be trying it out. But there’s some good news.

Because the flaw is a fairly “real-time” vulnerability, meaning it can only be exploited within a few moments of a secure transaction taking place, if you stay away from vulnerable sites until they’ve had a chance to seal up the hole, you aren’t increasing the risk of your info being taken (assuming it hasn’t been taken already).

So hold tight, and check your favourite sites for news that they’ve taken the necessary steps. How? Here’s a simple tool that lets you input the URL and get the results.

Once you’re fairly convinced that the site has got the fix in place, go and change your password as soon as possible. I know I said the risk wasn’t high, but why take chances? But here’s the part you’re going to hate: Don’t just change all of you passwords to the same, new password. Use a different one for each site. Yes, it’s a total drag but I have two suggestions to ease the pain.

1) Sign up for and use a password service like LastPass. It costs money and it takes a bit of a change of habit to use, but these services create very strong, unique passwords for each site and you only have to remember one (hopefully very strong) password to access everything.

2) If LastPass isn’t your cup of tea (or you simply distrust all of your passwords being kept in one place no matter how much like Fort Knox it may be protected), create your own password template and use it for each site. Here’s an example: Come up with a base for the password, e.g. IronM@nIsCool3rThanTh0r (yes that’s kind of long, but when it comes to passwords, longer is always better). Now, figure out a two or three character way of identifying the site you’re on. For instance Amazon.ca could be “Ama” or “Amz”. You’ll have to figure out which three characters to use, but it’s not that hard. Then throw these characters into your base like so: IronM@nIsCool3rAmaThanTh0r

The idea here is that even if Amazon were to be compromised, the attacker would have to find your username and password and then go about the process of figuring out which of the characters you changed on all of the other sites. This is difficult stuff, best done by humans instead of machines, and most hackers just don’t care enough to try – they’ll be plenty busy trying out passwords that actually work because they’re the same on every site.

Lastly, wherever possible, turn on two-factor authentication. Yes, it’s another painful step in an already painful security environment but this one really does make it tough on the thieves. You can give your mobile phone number to sites and then when you go to log in, they’ll text you a code to your phone. If the thief doesn’t have your phone, they won’t be getting into that site.

Good luck!

 

Why I decided to back The Micro, a home 3D printer

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New Kickstarter project brings the price of 3D printing down-to-earth for the first time ever.

I’ve been a little (OK a lot) fascinated with consumer-grade 3D printing ever since I saw my first MakerBot device in the flesh at the Consumer Electronics Show back in 2010.

The MakerBot booth was surrounded by onlookers on a nearly constant basis and not because the company had employed scantily –clad women to attract the milling masses. They didn’t need to. They had something way better than a booth babe: a new technology that let people create virtually any 3D object from scratch. Show attendees huddled around small wooden boxes that looked like they’d been made from spare TinkerToy parts, while a robotic mechanism jumped and jerked around, slowly producing a 3D object, layer by layer. It was mesmerizing.

Back then, three things were true of consumer 3D printing. 1) It was expensive. Even MakerBot’s original Thing-o-Matic (the device that kickstarted the 3D craze even before Kickstarter had its first hit project) had a starting price of well over $1,000 and it was the least expensive model on the planet. 2) The examples of what you could make were limited to what you could download from a 3D library or design yourself using 3D software. And 3) it wasn’t exactly consumer-friendly. Calibration was regularly required and the software was not the easiest to master.

Continue reading the rest of the article on Canadian Reviewer

Amazon’s Fire TV yet another set top box with compromises

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Amazon takes the proprietary route with its Fire TV set top box and gives consumers one more choice that won’t serve all of their needs.

I’ve always admired Amazon for their customer-centric view of the world. Their online shopping experience is second to none. Their customer service is superb. Their dedication to creating devices and services to meet the needs of their customers has always impressed me – especially given that the hardware space is so competitive (and littered with failures).

So I was really keen to find out what Amazon’s latest toy, the $99 Fire TV set-top box had to offer. Even though it isn’t available to Canadians currently, the U.S. version is likely a very strong indicator of what we’ll get when it arrives.

Sadly, what we’ll get is a series of compromises.

Continue reading the article on Canadian Reviewer

Google Chromecast Vs. Apple TV: Which is better and for what type of users?

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Now that Google’s diminutive WiFi media player is available in Canada, how does it stack up to Apple’s set-top box and which should you buy?

It’s been several months since Google unleashed the Chromecast, a tiny dongle-like device that turns any HDTV into a Wi-Fi enabled display. Initially only available in the U.S., the $35 gadget was very well received and Canadian Reviewer’s Gadjo Sevilla found it to be an easy and reliable way to stream content to a TV.

But if you wanted a Chromecast back in 2013, you needed to order one via the U.S. and frankly that was a hassle. Now that it’s being sold in Canada for $39, the time is right to take a look at this new player and see how it compares to one of the most popular devices in this space: Apple TV.

Continue reading the full article on Canadian Reviewer

LG-G-Flex

Hands-on Review: LG G Flex Smartphone

LG-G-FlexUnless you’ve been hiding under a rock (or simply not reading Canadian Reviewer) you’re probably aware that curved screens are all the rage. First it was TVs, with both LG and Samsung debuting curved OLED and LCD HDTVs and UHDTVs.

The rationale being that a curved screen offers viewers better picture quality because it eliminates edge-distortion caused by the increased distance of the sides of the screen to your eye. Yeah, I’m not necessarily buying that reason either, but one thing’s for sure: Curved screens are here and starting with the LG G Flex, they’re going to be in your hand, not just your living room. So the question is, why do we need a curved smartphone?

Read the rest of the review on Canadian Reviewer…