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.
Perhaps more than any other company in the consumer electronics industry, Sony has repeatedly baffled customers and analysts alike with its product strategies. Music players that could only playback proprietary formats, cameras that could only use proprietary memory cards, a tablet that could control your entire home theatre but not your Sony PS3, an iPod-competitor that isn’t PlayStation-certified, and phones that could provide a great mobile gaming experience but couldn’t display those games on your TV.
That’s just a short list.
Much of these decisions can be attributed to Sony’s desire to exert the kind of control over user experiences that Apple is famous for. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio even lends credence to the idea that Apple learned this lesson from Sony. The other explanation is that Sony is a company divided. With interests in consumer electronics and media publishing, the fabled Japanese tech giant has been fighting for harmony amongst its divisions for decades, with few visible successes.
But this might be changing.
Consider the new Xperia S, the first Sony smartphone in Canada to ditch the old Sony-Ericsson branding. It’s a dual-core, HD smarpthone running Google’s Android 2.3 OS (upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich later this year) and like it’s predecessor, the Sony-Ericsson Xperia Play, it’s PlayStation Certified which means you can enjoy a catalog of games from Sony including older PlayStation 2 titles that have been optimized for the mobile device.
Unlike the Xperia Play, these games are no longer confined to the phone’s 4.3″ touchscreen. Equipped with a micro-HDMI port, the Xperia S lets you enjoy video and gaming on your HDTV.
Sounds like a solid feature right? Well, yes and no. Yes, the ability to view your mobile games on the big screen makes a ton of sense. Not only will they look better on an HDTV, but friends and family can watch the action without having to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with you. But there’s a down-side too. The Xperia S, unlike the Play, is a touch-screen only device. There is no slide-out set of physical buttons (the Play’s slider featured a PSP Go layout). So while you’ll be able to view games on your TV, it will likely be impossible to control the gameplay without looking down at the phone to make sure you’re swiping and tapping the control areas accurately.
Let’s hope that Sony brings back the Play’s slider form-factor on their next model so gamers can really harness the HDMI-out feature to its full extent.
The Xperia S also features a 12.1-megapixel camera that can shoot 1080p video along with NFC (Near Field Communication) – a technology that will enable everything from mobile payments via Google Wallet to content sharing between compatible devices, so gaming isn’t the only reason to consider this smartphone.
Pricing has been set at a very reasonable $99 on a 3-year phone & data package from Rogers Wireless. The Xperia S will be available exclusively through Sony Stores when it launches April 17th.
You’ve got to hand it to the guys and gals at CrackBerry.com – they’re on a roll. First they publish some leaked photos of the as-yet-unannounced BlackBerry Superphone codenamed “London”, and now they’ve posted some similarly leaked photos of the next OS that will power the make-it-or-break-it devices from RIM.
Makes you wonder if these “leaks” are leaks at all, or a clever guerilla marketing effort designed to create some buzz for the beleaguered tech giant.
It makes sense if you think about it: Given all of the negative press RIM has received as of late, it certainly can’t do any harm to let it slip out that it is indeed working toward a new and improved hardware and software system if only to give some hope to those thinking of jumping ship.
And in a best-case scenario, the company can use the informal feedback from reader comments and blogger reactions to gauge whether they’re on the right track or need to do some last-minute course-corrections. I know that’s certainly not how Apple would go about product development, but RIM can’t claim (unlike Apple) that they have an innate sense of what the user wants before the user knows (or at least it’s been a long time since RIM has shown this prescience).
You can see all of the leaked shots over at CrackBerry.com and make up your mind if you think BB 10 is headed in the right direction. My initial reaction is yes, I like what I see. There’s no question the new UI borrows heavily from iOS, but then again so did Android. Some things just work. But RIM has also borrowed from Android too with the homescreen widgets concept, demonstrating what Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying: “Great artists steal”.
CES 2011 is in some ways no different than in previous years: massive. The sheer number of companies exhibiting their products is overwhelming. But that’s CES and I wasn’t expecting anything different. What has come as a bit of a surprise is the number of attendees. The show is jam-packed with people milling around the show floor and making it nearly impossible to navigate some of the larger and especially flashy booths like LG’s behemoth which I suspect is consuming more power right now than the entire Las Vegas Strip – it has hundreds of TV screens of every shape and size imaginable.
This attendance level would seem to indicate that while the U.S. is still trying to pull itself out of a lengthy recession, worldwide interest in consumer electronics is hitting a feverish pitch which hasn’t been seen in the last four years, possibly longer.
Full Article below the Photo Gallery…
So what’s driving this curiosity? Strangely nothing ground-breaking or hugely innovative. Instead it appears that the industry has decided to hunker down and work on improving two categories that have been around for a few years: 3D and smartphones, while at the same time aggressively playing catch-up to the unprecedented success of Apple’s iPad in the tablet space.
3D, which made a big splash at CES two years ago, and then affirmed its presence last year with more products, is now pretty much everywhere. Every major manufacturer (and most minor ones) now have 3D HDTVs in their lineups and the focus is now on differentiation.
What started out as a single approach to in-home 3D – that being the use of “active shutter” glasses – has now fragmented into at least 3 techniques: the “active” approach, still being pushed aggressively by Panasonic and Sony, the “passive” approach which uses the same polarized technique employed in movie theatres, and a third – glass-less 3D which allows viewers to see the 3D effect with their naked eyes.
While the glass-less or glasses-free TV technology isn’t being scheduled for release just yet, it is maturing rapidly and is already slated to appear later this year in Nintendo’s handheld gaming device the 3DS. The “passive” technology however will be hitting store shelves this year and I strongly suspect will win over consumers who have been hesitant about making the 3D plunge. The passive glasses are so inexpensive they can be considered disposable, there’s no limit to how many people can watch simultaneously, and it’s inherently flicker-free and perceptually brighter than the active shutter displays. The only catch might be the price of the TVs. At least initially, the polarized TV screens might be more expensive than the non-polarized type.
Will passive win out over active as the true single-standard? It’s far too early to tell, especially since consumer appetite for 3D remains suppressed due to our still-struggling economies, a lack of library-depth in 3D titles and an unwillingness to spend a lot of money buying new technology when many people recently upgraded to HDTV within the last year or two.
On the smartphone front, “4G” and Android are the dominant buzzwords. The 4G label is being pushed around a lot down here in the U.S. and I think it’s creating a lot of confusion for consumers both north and south of the border.
What is 4G exactly? Well according to a strict definition as cited by Wikipedia, it’s a mobility standard that doesn’t exist commercially yet with any provider as 4G requires “Peak data rates of up to approximately 100 Mbit/s for high mobility such as mobile access and up to approximately 1 Gbit/s for low mobility”. The fastest mobile devices at the moment are capable of up to 21 Mbps – a far cry from the 100 cited in the 4G standard.
So why are the U.S. carriers crowing about “4G”? It’s a marketing game. What they’re really referring to is the HSPA+ communication standard – the one that can deliver up to 56Mbps (but is currently running at up to 21Mbps in most countries) and is probably better labeled as “3.5G” since it is an upgrade of the slower HSPA standard (up to 14 Mbps) which along with EVDO was the original “3G” standard.
I guess these companies needed a way to tell people that they were getting something significantly better with HSPA+ than they were getting with HSPA, and probably felt that saying 3.5G just wasn’t going cut it. So they skipped it altogether and adopted 4G. For a good explanation of the current mobile landscape in the U.S. see CNET’s article on the issue. In the Canadian market you probably won’t hear the 4G term used at all. That’s because the major national mobile carriers are already operating HSPA+ and are thankfully resisting the incorrect 4G label. But naturally the power of U.S. marketing will leave some thinking that our American cousins are enjoying something that we can’t get. Rest assured, it ain’t so. So while Motorola’s new ATRIX will likely bear the 4G moniker in the U.S., the very same phone up here will simply be called the ATRIX – no other letters or numbers needed.
Finally, there are really more tablets here at the show than I can effectively discuss in this post, but I will be dedicating a separate post cover just these devices. Everyone it seems now has, or has plans for, an Android-powered tablet of some description, with many companies trying out several different sizes simultaneously. Most of these were anticipated, such as Motorola, RIM, LG etc, but some have been a surprise like Panasonic’s line of VIERA tablets which seem to be designed more as a complement to their TVs than as iPad competitors.
Stay tuned… more (much more) – and videos, to come…