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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The device that won best of show for this year’s CES, is finally destined for Canada, at least in Wi-Fi flavour.
According to a Motorola press release sent out today, the Android Honeycomb-powered tablet will be in retail “beginning April 2011.” If that wasn’t vague enough, there was no pricing info included either.
Beyond just a repeat of the specs for the Xoom, which most people are probably familiar with by now, the only new info that was offered was a list of the accessories that will be available at launch:
- Standard Dock for watching videos on the Xoom while you listen through external speakers
- A Speaker HD Dock “for sending HD content directly to a TV or clearly listening to music through two built-in speakers”
- A Bluetooth keyboard with Android-specific shortcut keys
And – you guessed it – no pricing on these items either.
So stay tuned. Oh BTW, the 3G version is coming “mid-year”.
Update 2:54 p.m.: Okay looks like we have a price by way of a TELUS press release… $599. Interestingly, nowhere do they say that they have an exclusive on the Xoom, so hopefully more retailers will join the fray before the April launch.
Update Mar 22: You can pre-order the Xoom on FutureShop or BestBuy, both sites selling for $599 for the 32GB version. For some reason Motorola hasn’t seen fit to offer a 16GB version to match the 16GB iPad 2, though some rumours suggest this may yet change.
Remember we also mentioned it would be a Bell Mobility exclusive when it finally came to Canada?
Well we finally have a confirmed launch date: March 17.
If you’re curious how folks in the U.S. have reacted to the ATRIX, here are some good reviews we’ve rounded up:
Engadget: They give it a 9/10… that’s quite a statement. “this device more than holds its own against the the best of the best on the market right now”
CNET: 4 out of 5 stars “earns its place at the top of AT&T’s Android lineup”
BoyGeniusReport (BGR): “The device is so powerful that it can power a laptop with full Firefox browser, and spit out 1080p video like it’s nothing”
We’ll be getting our own review model shortly and should be able to pass along our impressions in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here’s what we can tell you about the Canadian debut:
- $169.95 on a 3-year contract with a minimum $50 voice/data plan or
- $599.95 no-contract price
The ATRIX of course is compatible with two unique accessories: the Lapdock, which effectively turns the ATRIX into a full-fledged netbook equivalent, and the HD Multimedia Dock which lets you turn the ATRIX into a media hub for your living room. Unfortunately Bell remains mum on the pricing for these accessories at launch, but it’s a fair bet they’ll be priced in-line with the U.S. market which currently has the Lapdock at $500 and the HD dock at $99 USD, but as is the case in the U.S., there might be bundle deals here too.
Onboard the ATRIX, you’ll find:
- A dual-core processor
- qHD display – 540×960 resolution in a 4” screen
- 1GB of RAM
- Android 2.2
- Front- and rear-facing cameras for video chat and the ability to record and output in HD
- Biometric fingerprint reader for unlocking your phone and extra security
- 1930 mAh battery
- the ability to locate, wipe and restore data if the device is lost or stolen
- Up to 48GB of storage (16GB internal and optional 32GB MicroSD card)
- Download speeds of up to 14.4Mbps and Mobile Hotspot service for connecting up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices
- preloaded apps: Bell Remote PVR, GPS Navigator and Kobo eReader
Another interesting fact for those of you who have been following the U.S. mobile scene and wondered what all the fuss around “4G” was: Turns out, the ITU which is the governing body for mobile telecommunication standards, decided late last year that networks which had been calling themselves “3G or 3.5G” – such as the Bell/TELUS HSPA+ network – could now refer to themselves as “4G”. This despite the fact that the ITU had always said that you needed 100mbps service in order to be considered 4G.
Anyway, bottom line is that the ATRIX, which is marketed as the “ATRIX 4G” in the U.S., is officially running on a 4G network here too. It’s the same network that was running yesterday, but with a brand new name. I know. Don’t be surprised if you start hearing that term used a LOT more in advertisements in the near future.
Let me leave you with one more tidbit… if you’re dying to get your hands on the ATRIX but don’t want to pony up the cash, Bell will be giving away 5 ATRIX prize packs including the phone, Lapdock and HD dock… you can sign up for the giveaway here.
Update Mar 18: The ATRIX is now for sale and we have confirmation on final pricing from Bell. Lapdock accessory: $329, HD Multimedia Dock: $129, Standard Dock: $49.95, Vehicle Dock: $59.95. Also, be sure to check out Marc’s video overview of the ATRIX and accessories.
Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada.
Ever since the BlackBerry started to give people access to their email anywhere, and probably long before that, we’ve been imagining a day when the only computing device we need will be small enough to fit in our pockets. That day may be here, at least if Motorola has anything to say about it. Their new ATRIX smartphone, a dual-core speed demon boasting 1 GB of RAM, is the centre of an entire portable ecosystem that includes a laptop-like screen and keyboard combo and a home-theatre dock which turns the ATRIX into an HD media hub. It’s essentially just another Android-powered smartphone, but the ATRIX’s power and peripherals (and some very specialized custom software) make this Android device the first of its kind to free its user from ever again needing to power up a regular computer.
At a CES that was packed to the rafters with Android tablets – each one looking to capture a piece of the exploding market created and kick-started by Apple – there were few that managed to stand out from the crowd. But Motorola’s XOOM was an exception. Boasting a dual-core processor, unusual 16:10 screen ratio, the first implementation of Google’s “Honeycomb” version of Android (built specifically for tablets) and excellent battery life, the Xoom was named Best of Show. Check out this video to learn a little more about this device that will be hitting the market later this year.
This year at CES, several themes have become apparent to observers: 3D is here to stay, TV’s are now the entertainment hub of living room, tablets are on fire and smartphones are becoming er, smarter.
As if to prove this last point, Motorola, which has enjoyed good reviews for their Android-powered phones but hasn’t quite achieved the success of its competitors such as Samsung and HTC, has come out with both guns blazing. Their new take on the smartphone is more than just a fancy handset – it is quite fancy – they’ve bolstered the unit with not one but two companion devices that position the ATRIX as the ultimate mobile road warrior.
First up, the phone itself – it runs Android 2.2 – not Honeycomb which is the upcoming release specifically for tablets. Now I’m going to quote liberally from the press release…
Motorola ATRIX delivers unprecedented mobile computing capabilities in a package less than 11mm thin, including:
- A full 1 GB of fast, PC-grade RAM is twice more than offered in most other smartphones and delivers effortless multi-tasking, such as watching a movie while receiving and responding to email.
- The world’s first qHD smartphone display, offering high resolution and 24-bit colour, making it easier to read indoors and outdoors
- A dual-core 1 GHz processor capable of opening web pages twice as fast as most other smartphones, rendering games faster and displaying HD video on big-screen TVs
- Front and rear facing cameras for video chat and the ability to record and output in HD.
- Biometric fingerprint reader for easily unlocking your phone while providing extra security
- Under 11mm thin, but with an extra large 1930 mAh battery for extended standby and talk time
- Keep up to date on social networks with automatic delivery of messages through MOTOBLUR, also adding the ability to locate, wipe and restore the device data if lost
- Up to 48GB of storage (16GB internal and optional 32GB MicroSD card) – enough to store thousands of songs, photos and as many as 15 full-length movies
- Mobile Hotspot service for connecting up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices
And the accessory docks:
- The Motorola HD Multi-Media Dock has three USB ports and an HDMI port, enabling connections to a keyboard, monitor, mouse, speakers or HDMI monitor for working on traditional PC tasks, and connects to an HDMI-enabled television and home theater audio system for enjoying video, music, games and more.
- The Motorola Laptop Dock has an incredibly thin laptop-like industrial design with an 11.6-inch screen and full keyboard. Users simply dock their Motorola ATRIX into the back for working and playing on the go.
As you might expect, there is no word on price or launch date yet, but Bell clearly wants people to get on the ATRIX bandwagon and has conveniently set up a sign-up page similar to the ones they made for the Galaxy S and iPhone handsets before they came out. You can find it here: http://www.bell.ca/atrix
Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada.