What Nike’s exit from the wearables race means to an industry

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A scant two years after Nike launched the FuelBand – a fitness tracker designed to be worn on the wrist and used in conjunction with a smartphone like the iPhone – rumours are rampant that the mega-sports brand is shutting down the FuelBand hardware division and ceasing production of any future FuelBand models.

This is (if the rumours prove true) a dramatic turn of events in the nascent wearables industry.

Wearables are by far the hottest category in the consumer electronics space and it has seen massive expansion since getting its first mainstream products three years ago when FitBit released its FitBit One, the first activity tracker that used Bluetooth as its syncing technology (previous models required a manual connection for charging and sync). Now the field has many more players including Samsung, Polar, Nike, Jawbone, Google, TomTom, Motorola, and it goes well beyond single-focus of activity tracking.

So if wearables are so hot, why has Nike decided to cede the race so early in the game?

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from two other tech races.

The pocket cam

Remember Flip Video? After its debut in 2007, the tiny solid-state memory-only camcorder went on to capture 13% of the camcorder market, at least as far as Amazon.com sales were concerned. It also inspired a whole wave of imitators with everyone from Sony to Toshiba to Samsung joining the fray. Then, less than two years after Cisco bought Flip Video’s parent company for $590 million, they abruptly shuttered the entire business, leaving fans and industry watchers alike scratching their heads.

While Cisco never offered a concrete explanation for their decision (other than the desire to focus on their core business) the prevailing belief at the time was that pocket-cam market share had already reached its zenith and would soon see slow but steady attrition thanks to the increasing ubiquity of high-quality video cameras in cellphones. In hindsight, this has proven mostly true as the camcorder industry as a whole has been attacked on two sides (the smartphone and the inclusion of video capture in high-end dSLRs).

Could it be that Nike has seen a similar fate on the horizon for fitness trackers and decided to get out now, before the impending bloodbath?

The BlackBerry

Even though analyses of the failure of Waterloo’s favourite business have become more common than hipsters at the local fair-trade coffee shop, it’s worth taking another look at BlackBerry’s trajectory in the context of the wearables industry.

The current conventional wisdom on the subject goes something like this: BlackBerry started with a killer product. It grew like crazy until Apple came along and launched a product with a similar set of capabilities but in a far more consumer-friendly package. Apple then doubled-down on their success by developing an ecosystem around the iPhone that remains the envy of the industry to this day. Meanwhile, believing that they simply needed to take a few pages from Apple’s (ahem) playbook, BlackBerry tried to jazz up their product line with tablets and new smartphones with a more consumer-y feel to them. This new direction, as logical as it was, has failed to reverse the company’s hardware business. The latest rumours suggest that BlackBerry, under new leadership, will finally give up on trying to please average consumers and focus once more on the enterprise – and mostly from a software perspective.

Could it be that Nike sees the wearables hardware space as one that will ultimately be dominated by companies like Samsung and Apple, and has chosen to quit the business before they get handed their defeat by these tech giants?

Just a fad?

There is of course, a third possibility. But if you’re a fan of fitness trackers you might not like this one at all. What if the whole fitness/activity tracker thing is a fad?

I’ve used the FuelBand. I wore one for a month after its Canadian launch. Like many other users, I was initially obsessed with my Fuel points and steps taken and calories burned and I enjoyed watching the companion app on my iPhone keep a running tally of these stats. I also enjoyed the celebratory animation whenever I reached my pre-determined daily activity goal. But then I stopped caring. I quickly learned that on the days that I went to the gym, I would achieve my goal. The days that were spent only going to work and back and doing normal activities, would only get me about 50 per cent of the way. So why did I need to keep wearing and syncing and charging the FuelBand? I now knew exactly what it would take for me to maintain a certain level of activity (as if I didn’t already know), which as far as I was concerned, was the only real reason to wear the FuelBand.

Last year, I was sent a demo of the Polar Loop, a virtually identical product to the FuelBand. Thinking perhaps I hadn’t given the FuelBand a decent try, I began using the Loop. My experience was no different. As soon as I learned what kind of day would yield me the activity level I desired, I stopped caring what the Loop had to say.

Maybe I lack the competitive urge to gradually increase my activity goals and then strive to meet them, regardless of the reality of my daily schedule. Perhaps I’d be more interested if these products tracked other stats such as sleep patterns which the FitBit Flex is designed to do. Or maybe, our interest in these gadgets is merely a by-product of our curiosity. It’s the first time we’ve been able to strap a small device to our bodies and learn about the numbers that describe what we’re up to in the real world and we’re keen to hear that story… at least for the first few tellings.

Ultimately, I just don’t think that the current batch of activity trackers offer enough value to the average person to warrant the expense and maintenance of owning yet another gadget. True fitness buffs are of course a different breed. But they are also a niche. A fairly small one at that. And Nike, just like every other major marketing machine, isn’t interested in niche. It wants the mass. According to NPD, the entire tracker market was only worth $330 million in 2013. Nike’s share? Just 10 per cent.

So whether Nike thinks its FuelBand runs the risk of becoming a BlackBerry when other, more experienced consumer tech companies jump into the segment, or they think that newer devices will squeeze pure-play trackers out of the market, or they’ve acknowledged that it’s only ever going to interest a niche audience, leaving the hardware race might just be the smartest move they can make.

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

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…

Why I’m convinced this is the next iPhone

Yesterday, Business Insider posted this leaked photo of an as-yet unreleased and unannounced phone.

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They claim that it’s the iPhone 6, and I think they’re right. Here’s why:

  • The case design borrows directly from the iPad mini and the new iPad Air. All of the styling cues are there. Smooth corners on the back of the case, satin-like finish, ultra-thin profile.
  • The home button is clearly a TouchID unit, which we would expect Apple to keep in any update of the iPhone.
  • The balance of earphone jack, Lightning connector port and speaker/mic perforations are all exactly where you’d expect them to be based on the iPhone 5s layout.
  • According to BI, the phone’s screen dimensions are pegged at 4.7″ which up slightly from the iPhone 5/5s/5c at 4″. This might be the biggest surprise of all given that until now, Apple has been reluctant to increase the width of the iPhone, arguing that based on their extensive R&D for the original iPhone, the current width is ideal for most users. But if there’s one thing that Samsung has been able to prove, it’s that a lot of folks either don’t mind bigger phones, or they’re happy to trade off a little comfort in return for a bigger screen size. In any event, it looks like Apple has finally bent to consumers’ tastes on this, although it’s clear from the photo that they have done their best to minimize the impact on width. Look closely – the side bezel is razor-thin, providing what I suspect is the closest thing we’ve ever seen to a true “edge-to-edge” display.
  • So what about sticking to their guns? Well here’s where we get to the fun part. Rather than acknowledging they were wrong about screen size, I think Apple will market this new iPhone as the “iPhone Air”  – the choice for people who want ultra-thin, ultra-light and “the most beautiful display of any mobile phone” while retaining both the 5s and the 5c as options for those who still prefer the original dimensions.
  • I expect the price to be the same as the current iPhone 5s, while the 5s and 5c will drop by between $50-$100 at launch.
  • So a bigger, thinner iPhone? Is that it? Yes. With the possible exception of the inclusion of NFC and a better camera (you can never have too much improvement in a camera), I don’t think the iPhone Air will have (or will need) any new features. I think the simple fact that folks who didn’t buy the iPhone because the Galaxy line was bigger (and who will now reconsider the iPhone) represents a huge potential win for Apple, especially as they start to compete in China now that they’ve secured the China Mobile deal. I think that Asian users of smartphones have already shown a significant preference for large-screen phones and that this will continue.

Waiting for an Apple iWatch? Don’t hold your breath.

Last week, I finally received my Pebble smart watch. You may recall hearing about the Pebble back in April of last year. At the time, it garnered a lot of press, not only because it was a pretty cool device being created by a small startup and not one of the major players, but also because it broke all of Kickstarter’s records to become the most funded project to-date.

Pebble Smartwatch

The Pebble smartwatch in black, with mag-power cable attached.

The Pebble isn’t so much a new idea (the concept of a smart watch has been floating around in one form or another for years) as it is an evolution of popular notion: a watch that is less time piece and more a wearable computer, possibly as an accessory to a smartphone.

The success of the Pebble project immediately gave rise to rumours that Apple themselves had started work on a smart watch product. The idea gained instant currency because of the iPhone, and the inclusion of watch faces on the 6th generation of their iPod nano, a feature which spurred many entrepreneurs to devise watch bands for the squarish, touchscreen media player. Further fueling the fire were other smart watch projects from companies like Sony and Motorola. Surely Apple would join the fray.

Those rumours have only grown in recent weeks with talk of Apple placing orders with Corning Glass, the maker of Gorilla Glass, for curved glass lenses. It was just too much in the way of coincidence for those seeking verification of the mysterious “iWatch”.

But before we start readying our wallets and our wrists for this next magical and revolutionary product, let’s consider a few reasons why Apple might disappoint those hoping for a wearable with the famous bitten-fruit logo on the back.

1) Apple has a history of staying focused on products that fulfill needs that consumers don’t even know they have until Apple shows them the latest gadget. Though this pattern hasn’t been in evidence much lately what with a few year’s worth of purely iterative launches, an “iWatch” would need to have serious wow factor in order to meet the criteria for a new Apple product.

2) Apple doesn’t play around with niche products. With the possible exception of the Mac Pro, all of Apple’s current line of devices are mass market crowd pleasers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the iPhone and iPad, each of which has recorded sales in the millions of devices annually since launch. An Apple watch would be a risky play. Yes, most people wear watches. But no one company dominates the watch market. It is heavily commoditized and new styles appear every day. Watches have become fashion accessories, even amongst men, with plenty of folks owning more than one and switching up the watch they wear according to outfit they’re wearing or the event or activity they’re participating in. A smart watch wouldn’t be very helpful if you weren’t wearing it, and if you are wearing it, you’re not wearing another watch at the same time. So it had better be VERY helpful if it’s going to be the last watch you ever put on. Apple’s ability to design beautiful devices is the stuff of legend but they have never had to design a device that by its very nature, is a part of a person’s wardrobe. Phones are returned to pockets or purses when not in use. Tablets, laptops, media players are merely tools. Yes, it helps if they look appealing but it isn’t mandatory. A watch is a different story altogether. Can Apple or any company for that matter design one that will be appealing to both sexes, complimentary to  – or at least not detracting from – most outfits, and still offer that wow factor I mentioned earlier? If the answer is no, Apple has a problem. Because they need to sell millions of their iWatch. The 80,000 that Pebble racked up won’t even pay for the software this thing will run.

3) Battery life is a major concern. It’s bad enough that iPhones and almost every other smartphone on the planet require charging every 24 hours or less depending on usage. But we’re reasonably content to go through this exercise in exchange for the seemingly endless number of ways these devices improve our lives. Could the same be said of an iWatch? Right now, unless you own a Pebble or one of the handful of other smartwatches on the market, you probably only think about what keeps your watch running every few years when the battery finally dies. Is the mass market ready for watches that are as high maintenance as phones? Again, the answer depends on just how useful this device turns out to be. Keep in mind, the more wonderful a watch like this is, the more power it will consume. Even the Pebble, with its monochrome e-paper display and limited processing power requires charging every 7 days according to the company’s claims – it’s probably more frequent in the real world. If an iWatch is a colour, touchscreen device with Bluetooth (all very likely specs) we can expect to have to charge it at least once every 48 hours – possibly more if it displays a watch face 24/7.

Now that I’ve thrown cold water in the whole iWatch idea, it’s probably worth mentioning that such a device would have to offer at least a minimal amount of water resistance, if not the ability to withstand showers and the occasional dip in a pool. The Pebble can do this and it drastically increases the likelihood that owners will wear it during key activities like working out.

Bottom line: I don’t think Apple is going to be launching an ‘iWatch’ anytime soon.

So what about that whole curved-glass thing? Am I saying that was all just B.S.? Not necessarily.

When it comes to curves in the Apple design language, they seem reserved for the corners. Keyboards, mice, iMacs, iPads – heck even Apple TVs all have curved or rounded corners. But the screens on these devices? Flat. Very flat.

The only product that I can remember ever possessing a curved glass screen was the 4th and 5th generation iPod nanos. They were gorgeous devices, with a double-curved body (thus the need  for a curved lens for the screen) and a built-in camera on the 5th gen. Interestingly, this was the last of the non-touchscreen nanos.

But there’s one other product that Apple still makes that features a very similar double-curved body. The Apple remote. It ships with the Apple TV and is a delightfully understated chunk of solid aluminum with a simple set of controls embedded in the top, curved surface.

So bear with me now, because here comes the crystal-ball part: What if Apple is nearing completion of its heavily rumoured yet still unannounced next-gen Apple TV product?

Much has been speculated with regard to this theoretical product, mostly because of the tantalizing quote from Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs in which he said:

I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use […] It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.

Words like those are hard to dismiss. While I’m still not convinced that Apple is ready to market an actual TV set, I strongly suspect that they are hard at work on the next generation of remote control. If I’m right, it will share much of its physical DNA with the existing Apple remote, but with a much more advanced set of capabilities. It will need a screen. That screen will be curved.

Apple remote

The current Apple remote. A lovely, simple design that makes use of a double-curved block of aluminum.

If that doesn’t seem like a stretch, this next part ought to get you questioning my sanity:

That curved screen will not be touch-sensitive. I know, crazy right?

But here’s the thing with using touchscreen devices for remote controls: they suck.

A really great remote becomes an extension of your arm. You can leverage its most commonly used functions like changing the channel or muting the volume without ever looking down at the device. Touchscreens simply can’t deliver that kind of experience. You need buttons. Well-placed, well-shaped, buttons.

Loewe Assist Remote Control

The Loewe Media Assist remote control with colour display screen. Could this be the next Apple remote?

If you’ve used the existing Apple remote, you know what I mean. The raised surface of the round directional ring, the slightly depressed design of the centre enter key, and a similar difference in tactility between the menu and play/pause buttons – these elements combine to make the Apple remote a device that you never need to look at. Within minutes of picking it up for the first time, your thumb knows exactly where it need to go.

I predict that Apple’s next TV product will combine this kind of superb blind-operation with a display capable of giving you more information when you want it.

Now if you’d like a rumour to back up this wild speculation, here it is: Apple is supposedly in talks to acquire Loewe, a high end European consumer electronics company that builds HDTVs and – you guessed it – remotes with built-in screens. The rumour has been circulating since mid-2012, and just like rumours of an Apple TV product, it refuses to die.

Okay, your turn… does this all sound like a reasonable interpretation of what we know so far or should I be paying my doctor a visit for a re-evaluation of my meds?

Feature image credit: Gizmag.com