Tag Archives: Apple

When ‘Her’ Becomes a Reality, She’ll Be a Digital Booth Babe

My latest Huffington Post blog post is up. It starts off with me talking about the Tamagotchi in relation to the Spike Jonze movie ‘Her’ and ends with a denouncement of sexism in tech trade shows. I’m pretty confident that the progression makes sense, but I’ll let you decide:

When ‘Her’ Becomes a Reality, She’ll Be a Digital Booth Babe

Her

An exclusive to this blog post coming soon, as well as potentially some pretty awesome news.

Mat

Wearable Technology will succeed. Eventually.

You’d be forgiven for getting optimistic about wearable technology lately – almost every public appearance of Sergey Brin has made him look like a motivational speaker for the Borg and several tech firms have shown off their first offerings of carpal-computers, like Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. Even I, though usually a cynic skeptic, can see the rise of wearable tech resulting in something really inventive – but I think it has a long way to go yet.

Wisely, technology pundits have been careful not to totally write-off the idea of wearable technology too early, as such predictions usually come back to bite them – remembering the embarrassing backlog of 2006 articles laughing off the iPhone. Many have suggested that, as with the Jesus Phone, whilst it may be difficult for us ivory-tower tech writers to conceive of a practical use for the technology (or ‘weartech’ as it’s sometimes referred to, by me alone), surely those cleverclogs app developers can. Resulting in a repeated insistence that someone might, maybe, perhaps hit upon an idea for a weartech-specific app that will be so darn helpful as to launch it into the mainstream. However, this comparison is not a valid one as it ignores the circumstances that allowed the iPhone and its app ecosystem to thrive.

Galaxy Gear

This is the first time that manufacturers have created form factors that have no precedent and are looking to – indeed, depending on – app developers to assign it a purpose. Mobile phones were already ubiquitous when the iPhone was announced and manufacturers had long-since hit upon the idea of the handset being more than just your basic blower. There was a proven market for mobile devices – old enough to have already refined the form factor and normalise it with consumers – and clear demand for them to be multi-purpose tools.

The original iPhone was successful even without third-party apps (only introduced with the iPhone 3G) because it did all the things we’d come to expect from a phone (and more) really well. But without an antecedent market for mobile phones, the iPhone would have been attempting to create and popularise an entirely new type of contraption, rather than build on an existing one, and its success would have been far less assured.

Even tablet computers had a precursor (of sorts) in the form of netbooks. Their fleeting success towards the end of the last decade proved that a market for smaller computers existed, to complement smartphones rather than compete with them. Steve Jobs introduced the original iPad to replace netbooks as this third-category device.

Google Glass Fitness App (yes, really)

That’s not to say that no useful applications for wearable tech exists, but these tend to be gimmicky or niche or both. At least for smartwatches, their use as a fitness monitors could result in respectable sales amongst exercise enthusiasts. But when many cheaper wrist-worn activity trackers already exist, it’s hard to see how these users will regard the Galaxy Gear’s other features as anything other than expensive add-ons. Samsung may have announced what will turn out to be the most versatile pedometer in history. There are far more worthy uses for wearable technology than just calorie-counting of course, such as medical applications, but nothing that would put a smartwatch on every wrist or a Glass over every (other) iris in the consumer space.

The supposed selling point behind a lot of the consumer weartech being created at the moment is that it’ll link with your smartphone and augment some of its functionality and notifications – such as reading SMS and email messages – onto a screen visible somewhere on your body. Given that most of these products currently match (or exceed) the average price of a smartphone, it’s not wise for manufacturers to position the tech as a mere accessory to your phone.

Moreover, the limitations of the form factor would soon outweigh the novelty of using it. Sneaking a sideways glance at your phone is much more compatible with our sense of decorum than bellowing “OK Glass” in the middle of a crowded room, or having an intimate conversation with someone whilst stroking your temple like you’re trying to coax a tapeworm out of your skull. For a much more in-depth look at why using a watch as a phone would be a surreal and impractical experience, see this bias rant objective analysis.

ok_glass

This reliance on the inventiveness of third-party developers is a backwards and potentially ruinous strategy for companies like Google and Samsung who, though in different ways, are trying to be the first-movers in the weartech market. Especially since the sheer variety of forms that wearable technology can take means that it will initially be very difficult to create apps without heavily fragmented support. Whereas a smartphone or tablet has a very limited and easily generalised set of interfaces, an application for weartech will have to account for each device’s unique ergonomics and quirks.

As the field matures and the myriad types of wearable tech become more clearly defined, this will become easier, since the best ways to handle the user interaction will evolve from successive generations. But without any comparable precedent and a lack of useful applications right now, wearable technology must rely on its gimmick driving enough sales to reach that level of development. The company that makes wearable technology a success will need to be patient, attentive to feedback and tolerant of making a loss at first but (if done right) the result could be truly revolutionary. Wearable technology can succeed, but now is not the right time.

Nokia Lumia and Windows Phone – Needs of the Many

Since September, Nokia have churned out ten different Lumia devices of massively varying specifications and sizes – not including the 810 which was discontinued in April. Whilst Microsoft’s Windows Phone software is licensed to HTC, Samsung and Huawei to use on their handsets, around 80% of WP7 and 8 devices currently in use worldwide are Nokias. The Finnish company, in particular, has a vested interest in helping Windows Phone to grow, since their strong association – albeit not an exclusive one – will hopefully echo back into a resurgence in Nokia sales. The overload of Lumias seems to be them trying appeal to every section of the market, but is that really the best strategy?

Nokia_Lumia_range

For all concerned, the separation of device and OS into two distinct entities has been a welcome change. For the hardware makers, this frees up time and resources to focus on the device itself without having to go through the rigamarole of tailoring bespoke software to run on it. Naturally Nokia, who clung to its own Symbian software as late as 2011, has taken full advantage of this judging by the plethora of new Lumias. However, entrusting the OS – and by extension most of the user experience – to a different company altogether is risky. If the user is dissatisfied because of a problem in the OS then they’ll think less of every logo attached to it, regardless of their culpability in the fault.

Whilst the relative homogeneity of an OS makes this less of a risk, the more handsets the manufacturer produces the less time they have to perfect the integration between hardware and software. Apple’s iPhone – being a single device with a homegrown OS – has the benefit of being tightly integrated whereas other manufacturers have to adapt both their hardware and the OS to smooth the synthesis. Having to repeat this process for many handsets, each with varying specifications and quirks, means that corners will inevitably be cut.

Of course, the average consumer doesn’t usually notice these things, so you could argue that it makes sense for manufacturers to offer as wide a variety of handsets as possible so that people are more likely to find a device that suits their needs (not to mention wallet). Whilst this is true in theory, it assumes that the average consumer has the time or inclination to exhaustively research every handset presently on the market. Let alone make sense of what the information means practically and how they each compare, exacerbated now by the need to choose a preferred OS as well.

This is where the simplicity of Apple’s single-device approach shines – albeit helped largely by the power of their brand – as it allows people to choose the most up-to-date version of a phone that they (at least anecdotally) know to be good without having to weigh up all the options. Thereafter, the deep platform lock-in that has been ingrained into iOS since the very first iPhone means that customers are far less likely to stray after they’ve sunk a great deal of time, money and content into the Apple ecosystem. The fact that Apple got there first means that this success could not easily be replicated, even by them.

Android Fragmentation
Infographic showing Android device fragmentation in 2013. Source: OpenSignal

But how can that be when Android has a majority market share and continues to grow each year? Consider that all the major spikes in Android’s growth since its introduction has been on the back of single flagship devices. The HTC Dream, better known as the T-Mobile G1, kicked off this trend and a succession of distinctly recognisable HTC devices (the Desire, Hero and Nexus One, for example) facilitated Android’s rise in its first year. More recently, as the infographic above demonstrates, the most prominent Android phones have all been from Samsung’s Galaxy line (primarily the S3) and presently the S4 seems to be the most recognisable “iPhone-alternative”.

The app infrastructure of a mobile OS is a factor that even the most technophobic smartphone users will take into account when selecting a mobile OS and is an area where Windows Phone has a lot of catching up to do. Nokia has a strategic role to play in helping tempt app developers to the Windows Phone platform and bolster Microsoft’s claim to the “third ecosystem”. Too many varying handsets and the result will be to fragment support and deter developers, as we’ve seen happen to Android. Its initial popularity, before the discrepancies became too obvious, helped Android survive as a profitable system for developers but Nokia and Microsoft have no such head-start.

Microsoft imposes strict hardware requirements on manufacturers it licenses Windows Phone to, which should prevent the OS from becoming fragmented. Nokia needs to ensure it appreciates the necessity of this and doesn’t use the influence it has with Microsoft – as the most popular Windows Phone carrier – to demand that they lift the restrictions so they can churn out more phones.

With ten impressive Lumias already on the market, Nokia should slow down and let the most popular ones shine through, giving them a basis on which to create a more recognisable smartphone brand that will endure regardless of Windows Phone’s ultimate fate.

AppleCare on the NHS

Before Russell T Davies retconned their history so that they were created by Trigger from Only Fools and Horses, the original Cybermen on Doctor Who were humans who’d gone overboard augmenting their bodies with technology. In my vision of the future we’re still emotionless monstrosities, but with unnecessarily-glowing Apple logos embossed on our cold, metallic skin.

Sinister.

JobsCo haven’t quite gotten to the point of delving beneath human flesh, networking your nervous system and linking it to a proprietary port for which you have to buy a separate £39 cable just so you can play your iTunes purchases out of your coccyx. But if rumours that Apple are developing a “smart watch” are to be believed, then I can’t help but think it’s getting sinisterly close to the Apple Geniuses receiving surgical training and AppleCare coming on the NHS (which won’t make it any cheaper, by the way).

If true, which I doubt but I’ve been wrong before, then it would inevitably connect (exclusively) to an iPhone via Bluetooth, have a camera to allow Facetime and be controlled either by a touch-screen or Siri or both. The microphone on the iPhone has never been great, so unless you link a Bluetooth headset to a Bluetooth watch to a Bluetooth phone, you’d have to mutter into your wrist like you’re conspiring with your armhair to overthrow the Illuminati.

They wouldn’t be the first to try and bring out a “smart watch” (though I hope to God that’s not what we end up calling them), LG tried to persuade us that an entire phone strapped onto your carpus was a good idea back in 2009. They made lofty promises of “basic functionality” and “various clock faces” but sadly it never quite caught on. More recently, the Kickstarter-darling “Pebble” watch and Sony’s SmartWatch are at least being realistic by connecting to existing smartphone platforms rather than trying to overthrow the iPhone and Android giants with a concept device more niche than a Josef Fritzl fanclub.

iPod Nano in a wrist-strap, but still

The idea of watch-gadgetry has been around in fiction for a while: Dick Tracy, Secret Squirrel and Power Rangers all famously wore watches with (amongst other things) communicators. Whilst the idea is nifty, it’s always struck me as a prospect that wouldn’t work well in reality. For one thing, modern gadgets (particularly Apple devices) have a notorious scratch-rate and that’s just when it’s in a pocket, imagine what lacerations it’ll emerge with after a day in the open air. Even if you work a desk-job, proximity to coffee, hard-surfaces, blue-sky thinking or (worst of all) clichés would still afford it a scrape or two.

The screen would be so small that working out who’s calling you from the hopelessly-pixelated scaled photo would be like watching a bizarre witness-protection episode of Deal or No Deal. Their position as a highly sought-after device (which the Great Apple Publicity Machine would see to) would be incongruous with their nature as being visible and easily accessible, since it’d be easy for thieves to target people who were sporting one. Wrist-mounted tech seems about as practical to me as a marzipan sledgehammer.

Of course, practicality has never stood in Apple’s way when it comes to selling a product. In much the same way as trainers, mobile phones or regular watches (hereafter referred to as “caveman timepieces”, “Luddite chronometers” or “wrist sundials”), this gadget would be a fashion symbol first and a tool second.

But if people are willing to pay for it on the basis of branding alone, then why shouldn’t Apple take advantage? Though I may regret those words in five year’s time when I’m running down a corridor desperately spraying bullets behind me to escape a swarm of iCyborg and a mechanically resurrected Steve Jobs.

Excruciatingly typed on my new iPad Mini. Happy Christmas.