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:
- Google “X” Robots
- Driverless cars
- Space elevators
- Clean energy
- Extending human lifespan
- Android Wear
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.
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.
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:
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.
If you’ve never heard of the word “showrooming,” you might not be aware of one of the most fundamental shifts in retail. Heck, you might even have showroomed and not even known you were doing it.
Here’s how to tell: If you’ve ever been in a store and pulled out your smartphone to see if another retailer or online store has the product you’re looking at for a better price, you’re a showroomer. It’s a growing trend and it has retailers rightfully worried.
The biggest benefactor of showrooming is Amazon.com. eBay, Kijiji and Craigslist pick up a lot of business this way too, but the sheer size of Amazon’s catalog paired with a high degree of customer loyalty means they win.
You’d think that the company would be doing whatever it could to facilitate showrooming. The most obvious way to do so would be to create iOS and Android apps that let you scan the UPC barcode of the product in question, to trigger a quick lookup on Amazon’s website. What could be easier? Companies like CNET have had this functionality built-in to their apps for years.
And yet, rumour has it that Amazon has bricks and mortar ambitions of their own.
Now while I have tremendous respect for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his team, this strategy – if indeed real – seems out of sync with the company’s strengths. Considering that the company only makes a single product line – their highly successful Kindle readers and tablets – they aren’t in the same game as Apple, Microsoft or even Google who arguably have strong reasons to give consumers a physical place to experience their products.
Would these rumoured stores be a new take on the book-seller? That also seems odd. Let’s face it, if they simply added a barcode scanner to their Kindle app, every single bookstore on the planet would become an Amazon bookstore. Prefer e-reading? Buy the book immediately and have it delivered to your chosen device before you can pass by the physical cash register on your way out. Want a physical copy? You’ll probably get a better price on that too.
The current belief is that these stores will sell high-end devices like laptops and tablets in addition to Amazon’s own Kindle line.
If this is true, Amazon might need to watch their backs…. Showrooming could just as easily turn the tables on them too.
Update, Feb 21: Well lookee here… Amazon.ca announces new shopping apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Phone. I guess that dollar store crystal ball I bought might be working better than I thought ;-)
Image credit: LuxuryLuke via Flickr.com
The gang at Google are at it again, or so it would seem. On the eve of Google Canada’s 10th birthday, they’ve added a fun feature to their wildly popular search engine.
If you’re running Chrome, Firefox or Safari (sorry IE/Opera users), simply head on over to google.ca (or use your browser’s built-in search field) and type “Let it snow.”
Voila! Instant snow fall on your computer monitor. The first time you do it, the virtual flakes continue to accumulate until you can no longer see the page of results. Thankfully Google also provides a “Defrost” button once things hit semi-white-out conditions, so you can resume your search session with just a smattering of flurries.
Let It Snow is just the latest in a line of Easter eggs the search engine has created for people’s amusement over the past few months.
Want to make things even more interesting? Once the flakes have started to fall, go into the search box and type “Do a barrel roll” and then grab the edges of your seat as the web page does a full 360-degree roll around the inside of your browser.
Have a taste for the slightly off-kilter? Type “askew.”
Known simply as YouTube Movies, the service which launched in the U.S. earlier this year, is now ready for a Canadian audience.
Similar to other online rental options such as iTunes, YouTube Movies lets viewers choose from an ever-increasing catalog of titles ranging from new releases such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and Battle Los Angeles to older favourites like Superman II and Roxanne.
Pricing for the rentals, which will be viewable for 24 to 48 hours (depending on the title), will start at $3.99 for older releases while the most current titles will cost $4.99. The rental period begins the first time you hit play.
YouTube, which will be competing with established powerhouse Netflix, has no plans at the moment to offer a subscription price plan for unlimited viewing.
Another challenge for YouTube Movies is a lack of integration with popular home entertainment devices like Sony’s PS3, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s Wii, all of which have embedded Netflix options to let users watch movies on their big screen TVs.
At launch, the only way to get YouTube Movies on your TV is to connect your computer to it, preferably with an HDMI cable. Auxiliary devices like D-Link’s Boxee Box and others that offer full web access might provide another alternative.
But viewers may be fine sticking with their PCs or small screen devices like iPads: for the moment, all YouTube Movie titles are in standard definition – roughly the same quality as a regular DVD.
The Canadian version of YouTube Movies will offer many more Canadian productions than its U.S. counterpart: Google has established partnerships with several distribution companies such as Alliance Films in order to differentiate themselves in the market while also making it less likely that CRTC will want to regulate them over a lack of Can Con as some journalists have suggested might happen to the nascent online video space.
To rent movies from YouTube, simply sign-up for a Google account (if you are already a Gmail user or are registered with one of their other products you can use that account) and provide the company with payment information in the form of a credit card.
We also chat about Baby Monitor, a $4.99 App Store purchase for your iPhone or other iDevice. If you have an iPhone, it can place a call to any phone number you like so you can listen to what’s going on in the room. One thing to keep in mind though: You need to reset the app after every “call”.
Finally we describe Google’s social network ambitions with their just-released Google + product.
Let’s say you’ve got a web browser that competes with the number one player in the market. And let’s also say that your name is Google and your competitor is Microsoft. Now, if you wanted to provide people with a strong motivation for switching from the other guy’s browser to yours, what would you do?
Most reasonable answers would include:
- Make your browser faster
- Make it more secure
- Have it be compatible with more websites
- Don’t force people to upgrade from one version to another to get new and improved functionality – just add those features invisibly in the background
Google has done all of that.
Yet Microsoft’s Internet Explorer continues to dominate the browser landscape, albeit with a smaller position than they once enjoyed.
So what to do? Well, how about you reach out to Rovio, the software publisher responsible for the most successful time-waster since Solitaire, namely, Angry Birds – and convince them to offer a free version of the game that can be played on the web – but only in your browser.
Done and done.
And of course, if you don’t use Chrome, I’m sure Google is hoping that this was the incentive you were waiting for.
Update: Well ok here’s what happens when you don’t quite do all your research… Despite the fact that nowhere on Rovio’s blog announcement does it say this, it turns out this game works just fine in IE 9, Firefox 4 and Opera too. So, feel free to ignore all of the not-so-clever explanation above and just enjoy all of the Angry Bird goodness, regardless which browser you happen to be using.
Last year, Google broke new ground in the mobile space when they announced the “Google phone” which was to become known as the Nexus 1. HTC built the handset but Google took the unusual step of marketing it directly to consumers from their own e-commerce website.
And while this “selling direct” model didn’t last long (Google eventually stopped selling this way and partnered with Best Buy in the U.S. to sell the phone) the Google phone itself has continued to evolve.
And while Canada missed out on the first version The latest iteration is the Nexus S. This time around it’s built by Samsung (that’s the ‘S’ part of the name) and if you’ve ever used Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphone, you’ll feel right at home with the Nexus S. The two phones share much in common, including the dazzling Super AMOLED screen, which is incredibly vivid. But there are some significant differences too. The Nexus S has a slightly curved screen – curved from top to bottom, not side to side. Samsung claims this not only makes the phone more comfortable to hold as it matches the contour of your head and hand, but also helps to improve visibility by better handling reflections off the glossy surface of the screen.
The other big difference is that while the handset itself is 100% Samsung, the OS is 100% Google. Unlike other Samsung phones running Android and in fact unlike *any* other Android phone from other manufacturers, the Nexus S has no 3rd party software on it whatsoever. No TouchWiz or other manufacturer layer on top of Android, no third party app store like Samsung Apps, and no carrier apps (such as carrier-specific GPS apps) pre-loaded.
The whole user interface is unadulterated Android Gingerbread. Now, depending on your experiences with other Android devices this may or may not be a good thing. If you’ve come to enjoy the extras that TouchWiz or HTC Sense bring to Android, you won’t find them on the Nexus S. One of the biggest downsides to this in my opinion is the lack of the superb “Swype” application that gives users a whole new (and I think far more efficient) way of inputting text from the on-screen keyboard.
On the upside – and many folks will be delighted with this – there is no longer an middle man between you and upgrades to your mobile OS from Google. As soon as Google releases an update for Android, it will be available to Nexus S users.
This positions the Nexus S as the ultimate smartphone for those who simply must have the latest upgrades and can’t stand the idea of waiting while the manufacturer figures out all of the compatibility issues with their proprietary software. When you hear people refer to the Nexus as a “Google phone” – that’s why. The hardware might be Samsung, but everything else is Google.
Interestingly, both carriers and Samsung will provide first-line tech support for the Nexus S, only handing off to Google if they can’t resolve the problem themselves.
Speaking of carriers, the Nexus S represents the first time a new handset will launch simultaneously on every provider in Canada. And I mean *every* carrier. In addition to the big three (Bell, TELUS, Rogers) there will be a version for WIND and Mobilicity too and Videotron in Quebec. This is unusual if only because most manufacturers release their GSM (or EVDO) versions first, and then only after an initial exclusivity period move on to the AWS version – that is if they do one at all.
I know you’re probably itching for a firm launch date and price point but Samsung wasn’t offering either up when I met with them today. All they would say is “early April.”
They did mention that in addition to the usual batch of carrier store locations, there would be a big retail partner too. Your guess is as good as mine.
I’ve got a demo unit in my hands as I write this, so you can expect a full review as soon as I’ve put the device through its paces. In the meantime, here are some images to keep you entertained as well as this link to Engadget’s review of the U.S. Nexus S.