Pick of the week
In a thoughtful article this week, Benedict Evans wrote about how it’s getting harder and harder for an Android OEM to innovate with Android based products or indeed with their own software and services built on top of Android. Arguably the only companies innovating with Android are Google themselves and a few cross-platform OTT propositions who are effectively decoupling their innovations from the underlying platform. Everyone else in between is at some level really struggling even industry giants like Samsung as highlighted in several links below. In an article covering the same space, Fred Brooks of Andreesen Horowitz highlighted the power vested in platform monopoly players like Google and the lack of any real mechanism to police their moves.
- Samsung have taken the unusual step of issuing an earnings reference note to provide analysts with some background context for their lacklustre Q2 earnings estimates. The note outlines a range of causes but ultimately Samsung are being squeezed by Apple at the top end and a formidable array of Chinese ‘landfill Android’ OEMs at the low end. Some are already speculating that they may be in danger of a cliff collapse like previously dominant phone manufacturers: “The pattern of companies maintaining success and then dropping rapidly was seen in the results of Siemens, Motorola, Palm, and both the Symbian and Windows Mobile operating systems.” The most spectacular demise was that of Nokia and in an unwanted parallel, Samsung are also struggling with seemingly endless delays to an in-house Linux based “saviour” platform. Ben Thompson at stratechery is surprised that anyone is surprised and makes this bleak long-term assessment: “Samsung’s fundamental problem is that they have no software-based differentiation, which means in the long run all they can do is compete on price. Perhaps they should ask HP or Dell how that goes … it turns out that smartphones really are just like PCs: it’s the hardware maker with its own operating system that is dominating profits, while everyone else eats themselves alive to the benefit of their software master.” NYT agrees and suggests the company will have to: a) cut costs further to compete at the low end and b) genuinely innovate it’s way out into competitiveness at the top end which will be tough: “Because all Android smartphones work similarly … hardware does not make a device stand out. Software and Internet services, like video streaming or messaging, will set the devices apart.” Without differentiating software, there’s nothing to stop Samsung users moving to any other Android phone – “their customers are actually Google’s, they’re not necessarily theirs”.
- Another company facing a critical innovation dilemma is Microsoft. Satya Nadella six months in as CEO made innovation a clear priority up front in a company-wide long 3100 word memo this week: “The day I took on my new role I said that our industry does not respect tradition – it only respects innovation. I also said that in order to accelerate our innovation, we must rediscover our soul”. And his take on what this meant suggests a different type of Microsoft: “We must each have the courage to transform as individuals. We must ask ourselves, what idea can I bring to life? What insight can I illuminate? What individual life could I change? What customer can I delight? What new skill could I learn? What team could I help build? What orthodoxy should I question?” The memo was short on specific plans though it reiterated at several points that Microsoft will become a “mobile-first and cloud-first company”. Bob Cringely is clear the memo portends nothing short of a major Cultural Revolution with inevitably bloody consequences likely to involve a global Reduction In Force across Microsoft’s 127k employees. Said RIF will presumably include many of the intake from last year’s Nokia Devices acquisition something that the Register also highlights. The Enquirer is reporting that “one in five Nokia staffers could face the chop, with Microsoft also planning to shut down Nokia’s Oulu R&D labs“. Repeated use of the term “productivity” in the memo clearly suggests a switch of focus from consumer to Enterprise and from Windows Phone to Azure and cloud services. Even there, in what has been uncontested space for Microsoft, they will face a formidable challenge from Apple who this week announced a massive tie-up with IBM aimed at addressing any remaining BYOD issues around iOS and making it the gold standard platform for Enterprise mobile. Jean Louis Gasseé’s Monday note is scathing about the “lack of clarity and ease” in Nadella’s memo and offers up a reduction in force of his own in 200 words with a tl;dr of “shape up or ship out” which one assumes as much as 10% of the workforce will. Joshua Topolsky of The Verge secured an interview with Nadella about the memo and his gameplan for Microsoft.
- Update: It turns out that the figure of 10% was somewhat of an understatement as Microsoft laid of 18,000 employees in its largest ever downsizing. 12,500 of them from the Nokia Devices and Services unit as they brutally cut back on phone development and shut down the Nokia X Android experiment. Many of the Finnish staff involved will be receiving the news on their traditional long summer break. Stephen Elop retained his post and broke the news to his team with a widely panned long woolly email of his own: “How not to cut 12,500 jobs: send your staff a windy 1,100-word memo that starts “hello there”, proceeds to torture its readers with phrases like “appropriate financial envelope” and then finally mentions job cuts about two-thirds of the way through.” Many commentators thought he should have gone too. Om Malik certainly didn’t mince his words in a post entitled Rewarding Failure: “since Elop took over as Nokia CEO, the company has cut over 50,000 jobs (if you include today’s announcement.) That is just mind boggling. That bumbling strategy which was the hallmark of Elop’s Nokia tenure still continues — in other words, Microsoft doesn’t really have a Nokia strategy.”
- Staying with Microsoft, Windows Phone app network AdDuplex did an analysis to figure out global Windows Phone popularity. USA, the four BRIC countries and Italy are top of the list according to the chart below “based on data from 11 global apps and games that served AdDuplex ads on the day of July 8th, 2014 (UTC time). These apps served ads to around 200,000 users on that day.”
- In terms of devices, it’s all Lumia with all other Windows Phone OEMs lumped into a 23% “other” segment:
- Meanwhile at Apple innovation seems to be in rude health with more speculation about their purported plans for sapphire displays and news that a small British company called Intelligent Energy is working with Apple on fuel cell technology for their consumer devices. A key part of solving the innovation conundrum at Apple is an ability to work effectively with small, agile outfits like this.
- Deep linking allows app developers to link their apps to specific content in other apps mirroring the behaviour of links on the wider web. It’s important because it is promises to break down mobile application silos and “opens up a far wider range of mobile ad experiences” and corresponding monetization routes for developers. It also allows clearer architectural separation of concern between apps applying the microservices approach with apps (“microapps”?) with the upside of potentially reducing app download size. The approach of decoupling app propositions into separate individual application elements is sometimes referred to as unbundling and it matters a lot because there is a clear correlation between download size and download success rate:
- Android Police exclusive outlines a new UI direction for Google Play Store to align with Material Design language. Before and after renditions of Play Store refresh highlight a more immersive and colourful approach with “hero images”:
- Google have released a Chromecast v1.7 app for Android which allows compatible Android devices to steam their screens to a screen display using a Chromecast dongle: “with the right device and updated app, anything you see on your Android’s small screen can now be shared on a larger screen”.
- The Chinese authorities want Chinese MNOs to clamp down on the level of promotion they are providing for high end devices with a particular concern around the iPhone: “China told the nation’s state-owned wireless carriers to cut marketing expenses after concluding they spent too much on promoting high-end devices“. The three main Chinese MNOs (China Mobile, China Unicom, China Telecom) have also agreed to setup a network sharing venture “to reduce the cost and optimise the construction, maintenance and operation of infrastructure”. This may result in future rationalisation of FDD vs. TDD LTE offerings in China.
- In further evidence of concern over Apple, China’s state broadcaster has labelled the iPhone a “national security concern” on account of its location tracking feature and a court in Beijing has upheld voice recognition patents held Zhizhen Network Technology threatening the sale of Siri-capable products in the country. Although Apple smartphone share is still relatively small in China, its revenue and influence is growing. According to Umeng, “Apple dominates the higher end of the market. About 80% of smartphones priced at more than $500 in China are iPhones” and “iPhone users include Chinese government officials and executives.”
- Xiaomi sent out invitation letters for what looks like being a next-generation metal flagship smartphone: “Each [invitation] letter is made of a real piece of steel and modeled after a smartphone, which is a very obvious hint that it will be announcing a next-generation flagship smartphone made of metal, which should be dubbed the Mi 4”
- Doogee are a good example of the Mediatek-powered “landfill Android” Chinese OEMs giving Samsung a hard time at the low end. They just announced two phones, the octocore white DG550 with 13MP camera retailing at under $180 and the cheaper quadcore DG330 on sale at the lucky price of $88.88 🙂
- The Economic Times of India underlined the marketing muscle Google are planning to put behind Android One in India.
- Crocodile in the Yangtze looks like an interesting film chronicling the growth of Alibaba and the struggles of its founder Jack Ma from a Western perspective: “The film is based on 200 hours of archival footage from 35 sources and is an extremely comprehensive overview of Ma’s journey to eventually set up Alibaba. “
- InfoQ provided the transcript of a highly insightful interview with Adrian Cockcroft, ex-Director of Web Engineering at Netflix who led their move to public cloud. The interview outlines a range of techniques Netflix use for what he refers to as”operational disaster recovery testing” involving a variety of Monkey tools. One of the tricks the Netflix dev team use involves isolating broken interfacing using their “API Breaker” technology: “they, being developers, developed a defence mechanism, which is that they built this circuit breaker layer into the API Server which wrapped every dependency in a circuit breaker that basically said, “If this thing breaks, I’m going to stop calling it and I’m going to flag it and I’m going to point at it and I’m going to say ‘that thing is broken’”.
- Netflix’s backend system development has been heavily influenced by microservices architectural approaches and InfoQ also just published a collection of useful links on building and deploying microservices.
- Popular Application Performance Management (APM) tool provider, New Relic is introducing a new real-time analytics tool called Insights. which their CEO claims “will bring real-time analytics of application usage data to business users.”
- Silent Circle have expanded their Out Circle secure call service across 79 countries allowing “Silent Phone users to make truly private calls to non-Silent Circle members worldwide”. Sounds like a P2P encrypted version of Truphone: “From today, subscribers enrolling in the service will be given a unique ten-digit Silent Phone number to make and receive calls in 79 countries without a roaming charge in sight.”
- Wiper used $2.5m seed funding to launch its eponymous secure IM service positioned as “a self-deleting messaging service controlled by its senders” which sounds like Silent Circle’s Silent Text.
- DidFail is a free Android static analysis tool built by the CERT Secure Coding team that is “capable of analysing the leakage of sensitive information from an Android app”.
- The Germans appear to be thinking of going back to the future in the wake of a year of drip-feed NSA revelations by resorting to typewriters as the Russians apparently did last year.
- Amazon analysis from NYT suggests they are the single most polarising influence on the world of writing since Vietnam with one side claiming Amazon’s rise is ” the best thing to happen to storytellers since the invention of movable type” and others “denouncing what they see as its bullying tendencies and an inclination toward monopoly“. The latter can now buy their evil Bezos print from NY Books:
- All the while, the Amazon juggernaut moves remorselessly on. This week they variously: a) hired Babak Parvis, the founder of Google Glass presumably to work on further enhancing the Fire Phone and Firefly service, b) threw down the gauntlet to Box, Dropbox, Microsoft and Google with their AWS-backed Zocalo file sharing service and c) asked the FAA to test 50mph delivery drones with geofence support though they will need to overcome some fundamental obstacles before we see them in service: “the company claims that 86 percent of its deliveries weigh less than five pounds, which would make them suitable for drone delivery. Given the technical and regulatory challenges, however, an Amazon drone is unlikely to arrive at your door for at least five years.”
- Interesting anecdotal insight into how smartphones have disrupted restaurant service over the last 20 years mainly negatively in respect of cameras interfering with the act of eating: “14 out of 45 customers take pictures of each other with the food in front of them or as they are eating the food. 27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo. 14 of those requested the waiter retake the photo as they were not pleased with the first photo.”
- Dropbox are introducing streaming sync support to improve sync performance with large files: “The next time you need to sync a large video file (or any file over 16MB) from your computer to your connected devices or in a shared folder, Dropbox will make sure you get an extra sync speed boost.”
Big Data/Machine Learning
- The German football team that won the World Cup this week did so in part thanks to a big data led approach. They used a custom match analysis tool created by SAP AG to collect and analyse huge quantities of player performance data: “The tool, called Match Insights, analyzes video data from on-field cameras capable of capturing thousands of data points per second, including player position and speed. That data then goes into an SAP database that runs analytics and allows coaches to target performance metrics for specific players and give them feedback via their mobile devices.” The SAP database in question is the in-memory RDBMS-based SAP Hana.
- Staying with Germany’s performance in the World Cup, Quora provided a brilliant data-supported analysis of why they fell apart against Brazil. It includes this dramatic visualisation detailing all German activity on the pitch during Brazil’s “30 minutes of hell” highlighting how they exploited the right wing:
- TechCrunch review of the BMW i3 provides further evidence that electric cars are beginning to get serious. Priced at $44k it has “an engine that doesn’t feel like what you’d expect from an electric car: the i3 can jump from 0 to 60km/h in under four seconds, and leaps to 100km/h in just over 7.”
- LinkIt, a development board for the Mediatek MT2502 “Aster” will be available in August: “MT2502 is based on the older ARM7 architecture, and that can support screens up to QVGA (320×240). So it clearly aims at entry level wearables, similar to the Pebble smartwatch, or Fitness Trackers, and it’s not a candidate to run Android Wear.”
- iFixit teardown comparison of LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live. The LG G Watch is particularly praised in terms of relative ease with which it can be taken apart:
- The HiCon Wearable “social bangle” illustrates that just because you can doesn’t mean you should: “awkwardly large bracelet that’s lined with enough square charms to remind you of fourth grade. Each charm is interchangeable and represents a different service (SMS, calls) or social network (Facebook, WhatsApp, etc), and they vibrate and light up whenever you get a notification from that particular service.”
- Misfit, a fitness and activity tracking startup, have partnered with Beddit who make a sleep-monitoring system: “The Beddit deal brings a co-branded device to Misfit’s lineup of offering, allowing the Misfit app to now also track advanced sleep information.”
- Bluetooth-enabled EEG headband “with parental controls” from ChinaVision. Retailing at just over $300:
- WSJ reviewed a bluetooth toothbrush from Oral B which connects with your smartphone to monitor your brushing habits: “Brush for two minutes or more and you’ll be greeted by a smiley face” on your phone.
- Staying on the Bluetooth theme, ABI Research is reporting that by 2019 there will be as many as 60 million BTLE powered iBeacon shipments.
- News of an energy scavenging printed diode that may one day be used to enable IoT use cases: “A research team based in Sweden and the UK has now created the first printed e-label than can communicate with a smartphone. As a proof of principle, the device harvests energy from the smartphone’s signal, and uses it to illuminate a small display.”
I thought of a new term when talking about code: "It's made from unmaintainium."
— Andrew Kilpatrick (@Elmood) July 10, 2014
- Apple have started a public blog on Swift development. It looks pretty corporate with no individual names involved but they do seem be making some efforts to be more developer friendly: “Alongside the move, Apple’s done away with the need to be a paid member of its iOS or Mac developer programs in order to download a beta version of Xcode 6, which lets programmers make Swift-based projects.”
- News of an upgraded Raspberry Pi model B+ with extra USB ports and microUSB:
- TechCrunch assert that hardware is hot right now with VCs because: “while software is incredibly attractive as a business proposition, there’s something truly special about hardware that software lacks. Hardware ignites intense passion in people – to the point of camping out for days to buy the latest gadget or tattooing logos from their favorite consumer tech brands.” and furthermore “It’s incredibly difficult to build a great hardware company and it’s incredibly difficult to build a great software company. However, it’s insanely difficult to build a hardware and software company all in one. And it’s the new Holy Grail that venture capitalists and the largest of tech giants are pursuing with multi-billion-dollar investments and acquisitions worldwide.” As if to underline that, they provided an arresting example of hardware disrupting software in the form of a drone arrangement for providing perfect scene photo lighting:
- A good Medium article suggested that technology journalism faces software-driven extinction and will need to evolve to add insight and political context to remain meaningful. An observation that needs to be taken on board by this blog too.