Archives For smartphone

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The funny thing about data is, there are often multiple ways to slice it.  And there is never enough of it.  Take the recent (and not-so-recent, if you wish) reports on the death of the PC, for example.  Gartner and IDC produced data about how mobile shipments are taking over and PC shipments are crumbling.  As with anything, to look at the other side of the coin, there have been a lot of posts about how the PC is hardly dying, forget being dead!  Particularly this one on TechCrunch that I really enjoyed reading!

What’s all this data telling us? Is the PC dead? Could it be dying soon? Are the tablet and smartphone owners throwing out their PCs or donating them to charity?  For all practical purposes, I’m using the term “PC” here to denote all desktop and laptop computers, including the Macs – I know, that’s outrageous, but, I’m sticking to it (and yes, I love my Mac, but am not ashamed to call it a PC in the context of this post!).

So, what’s really wrong with this data that is causing all kinds of frantic debates about whether the PC is dead or alive?  For one, it is incomplete.  First, let’s see what it clearly suggests:

  • That mobile shipments are trending towards overtaking PC shipments
  • People are spending increasing amounts of time on mobile devices

Heck, we didn’t need a Gartner or IDC report to actually know that, did we?! Look around in restaurants, trains, subways, streets, malls, wherever and you know this is true – we didn’t think all these people sat around at their PCs to spend that time browsing instead of going about their lives before the era of smartphones, I hope!

So, what is really the problem here? In all the hype to beat up the Microsofts, the Dells and the Intels, we are really not delving deep enough into the data here. Let’s take a closer look at the same two aspects I wrote above:

  • Shipments are trending in favor of mobile devices.  Could it be that more people are becoming owners of multiple devices? Or that the lifecycle of PCs are getting longer, as the TC post suggests? 
  • Percentage of time spent (or advertising revenue or sales, whatever) on mobile devices is up drastically.  Of course, going from nothing to some number is an infinite increase in terms of percentages!  Mobile devices, especially tablets, are still in the early years of adoption!

This data, by itself, certainly says nothing about whether the PC is dead.  The people that are writing about these massive numbers on usage, advertising revenue, internet traffic, etc. coming from PCs are all still right.  But, the really important thing here are a few subtle points that require a more nuanced look at the data.

  • Tablets and smartphones are increasingly becoming the consumption devices. They are easy to use, always-on and don’t require a drastic situation change to interact with. We don’t have to sit up in bed, we can just keep lying down and let’s admit, we love technology that allows us to be lazy!
  • The use of a PC for leisure is declining. For the same reasons as above, we don’t need to be sitting straight to be leisurely connected to the Internet.  And we can do it while watching TV.  Two things we love doing, we can now do together, all while feeling restful! Data suggests people are doing exactly this!
  • Enterprise content creation is still going strong on the PC. Okay, I’m an early adopter, but I don’t expect to be creating presentations and documents on my phone just yet. I’ve tried some of this and it is fairly painful. This needs more innovation and more importantly, we geeks are just not ready yet!

But the reality is that more innovation on the mobile for the content creation aspects will come and come fast.  We are not there yet, but it will come sooner than we think.  Perhaps not for the enterprise use cases yet, but for the leisure, user generated content, it will.  While the PC isn’t dead, it is definitely doing less than it used to.  And it is going to do lesser and lesser for more and more segments of people in the coming years.

It’s just aging, not dying yet!

The Galaxy S series of devices are not cheap.  They are cheaper to the consumer than the iPhones, but, if you take a look at the Bill of Materials (commonly called BoM), the Galaxy S3 actually has a greater BoM than the iPhone already, with the S4 costing even more.  This sparks the curiosity of whether Samsung is hurting its profit margins by selling this device (at least the S3, as we don’t know the pricing of S4 yet) for less than the iPhone, but that is not what I’m going to explore here.

So many articles have been written about the differences between the Galaxy S* devices and the iPhone.  At the end of the day, it comes out as a draw or sometimes even as the Galaxy S3 or S4 being more feature packed.  All true, if we take the totality of features into account.  But, it is useful to look at this more closely, especially to answer the question “if price was not a factor, would the Galaxy S4 still win”?  Because, if Samsung’s goal is to become known for making the best smartphone that exists, period, it has to win out on the features beyond the price.  Here are a couple of examples where Samsung (and in some cases, Android) needs to think harder about bridging the gap.

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  • Camera – Photo Quality
    Moving to a 13MP camera is not what is really needed here – great marketing stuff, but what about photo quality?  So many studies have been done on how the camera does in the two devices and some end up concluding they have comparable quality, but my own experience has been that the sharpness of the image and colors is simply better on the iPhone.  I frequently find myself asking my friends with iPhones to take the same pictures I’m taking and send it to me (that’s embarrassing, but true!).  Data gets sliced in different ways, but photography remains one of the top uses of the smartphone for users – even if it doesn’t top the list in terms of time spent.
    So, Samsung, I hope you are paying attention and really trying to up the bar on image quality with the next device!
  • Call (And Voice) Quality
    This has never been Samsung’s strong area – in the past, I’ve refused to own a Samsung phone because I didn’t tolerate its poor voice quality.  Granted it has improved a lot and I currently use phones made by Samsung (and would even think about the S4!), the voice quality is still a bit frustrating.  This study seems to claim that the iPhone call quality is good – perhaps Apple got its act together with iPhone 5 (I will admit that I haven’t used it all that much, other than times when I’ve borrowed it from a friend), but, I remember a time when the iPhone sucked in call quality (note though, that call quality and voice quality are not necessarily the same thing!).
    Even though phone calls are not the coolest thing these days, when we have to make a call, it is critical.  We cannot ignore call and voice quality just yet!
  • Battery Life
    I wrote about how the biggest fear of a smartphone user these days is running out of juice.  It is true.  Smartphone is undoubtedly my primary device at the moment.  I don’t want to have to set up smart power management apps.  I don’t want to have to moderate my use.  Admittedly, I’m a power user and I know it will take a while before I can stop worrying about my phone’s battery life.  But, my HTC Incredible II had a much better battery life than any of my Samsung phones.  And 4G is just one of the reasons.  Further, I don’t care that 4G is a reason – it is not my problem as the consumer!

There may be more to this list, but these three aspects will remain critical to making the best smartphone on the planet!

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The S4 from Samsung is the talk of the town.  It was a highly anticipated launch event and as with any such event, there was a good amount of criticism to go with it.  May be Samsung needs to be better at PR; may be the storytelling needs to improve.  Whatever be it, one thing you cannot accuse the company of at the moment is innovation on the product itself.  The focus on user experience is clear and the device has been receiving good reviews already with the early assessments.

The thing that strikes me the most is the sensor composition in this device – clearly, Samsung is setting itself up for the future.  Let’s start with the camera.  13MP camera in a phone – that has to be a marketing tick box!  The engineers know that the additional mega pixels are not buying anything on such a small device, with the real capabilities and limitations of the lens.  But, that’s not the coolest part about the camera.  It is the dual capture mode that is fascinating! Imagine the possibilities of inserting the front image or video into the captured scene!  Trying to buy a dress?  Take a picture of the dress and superimpose it on your photo captured at that moment with the front camera.  Be in the party you are capturing.  Capture the moment and don’t lose yourself.  The possibilities are really amazing!  The first round of this may not be perfect, but it is certainly heading in the right direction.  Not to mention the ability to capture sounds with images.  It is unclear how popular the sound capture would be – but, you have to applaud the company for its innovative thinking and focus on the user.

And then come the other sensors.  The Galaxy S family of devices have always been at the cutting edge of sensors, but this one adds the temperature, humidity and IR gesture sensing capabilities.  With the IR gesture sensing, a whole new world of gestures come into existence.  Touch gestures can go so far – but, IR gestures address so many limitations of always-on gesture sensing that exist solely with touch.  Touch gestures always have this limitation where differentiating between an intentional gesture and an unintentional natural use of the device is hard.  Or rather, it is at odds with natural gestures – the more natural a gesture needs to be, the harder it is to separate it from the unintentional use.  Hence, often, an external trigger is needed to know that it is actually a gesture.  However, the IR gestures can really help addressing this limitation and bringing the world of always-on gestures a step closer.

Temperature and humidity sensing are in early stages of use – however, interesting possibilities exist when fused with other types of data in terms of where the device is held (differentiating between a device that is in a pocket vs in a bag hung on a shoulder), what the environment is like and so on.

One step at a time, we see that Samsung is getting closer to a truly personalized experience.  It is interesting that they have chosen to go from “S Life” to “Life Companion” as the slogan for the device – it certainly seems like they are getting closer to delivering that experience!

Cupertino really needs to be worried – what will the next iPhone have that will stump this?

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I reset my iPad to factory settings, wiping all of my content from it and set it up for my mom this past weekend.  This has been coming for some time now, but I finally came to terms with it – I had no use for the iPad any more!  The truth is that I haven’t used it in a while – months now, really.  When I first bought the iPad, I was thrilled.  I used it a lot – the key role it played for me was that of an electronic note taker.  I transitioned from having notebooks and pieces of paper I couldn’t find or decipher to having electronic copies of all the notes of any significance.  Other apps and uses of the iPad were secondary.  The portability and ease of notetaking alone were worth it for me.

And then I found predictive keyboards on Android, such as Swiftkey.  As the algorithms trained on more of my data, I got to a point that I could type very well and fast on my Android phone.  That is when the I really stopped ‘needing’ the iPad.  As of now, I can type better on my phone than I can on my iPad.  Typing on the iPad even annoys me.  Apple’s keyboards are not as predictive yet and the auto-corrections are also somewhat lame.  And given the restrictions that exist on iOS ecosystem, there aren’t third party predictive keyboards that can be used.  It is a reminder of how not all of the innovation can come from a single company – not even Apple!

Granted, the bigger screen is useful for watching videos and makes for a better working environment.  However, between my Macbook Air and my smartphone, I have it covered.  When I am really working for an extended period of time, I’d much rather have my laptop anyway.  And, with what the Macbook Air weighs, anywhere I can take my iPad, I can take my Air too – so, it is really about all the other hours of the day when I need ultra light portable devices.  For those hours, I find the iPads too big – I want something that fits in my pocket and allows me to be handsfree when I need to be!

The iPad seemingly served a need when I found typing on the phone to be a pain.  But not now.  The more time I spend with my phone, the more I customize it.  My apps know me better.  Pulse on my phone is actually more relevant to me than Pulse on my iPad.  I know I can use the crazy concept of “identity” and actually log in to Pulse (gasp!) to have more or less the same experience across all my devices – but, I hate that!  When my devices can figure out who I am based on all the things I do anyway, I’m in.  Until then, I will customize the device I use the most.  For the videos I watch and all the content I consume, the tradeoff of the form factor is worth it.

Convenience wins, until there is something I do a lot that is painful to do.  As of now, I do a lot on my Android phone and I love it!  I will wait for the day when the world around us become peripherals to create bigger displays dynamically as I need them.  As much as I feel sad parting with my iPad, the time has come – it’s yours, mom!

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It is certainly the era of user experience.  An era where Apple is teaching the rest of the world about the importance of user experience – one where others are learning fast to figure out how to get it right and be a player.  An era where user experience as a science is getting its due credit.  One where it is clear that computer science in isolation does not make or sell great products.

This does lead to the question of the end goals of a perfect and intuitive user experience. Is it really about the user? Do Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others care so deeply about their users that they feel compelled to pour billions into getting this right? Maybe – but, just a little bit!

As is evident from the numerous patent wars, no one wants to get along in this game. Sure, the patent wars are broader than user experience at the face of it, but isn’t everything about the user? Faster speeds, lower power processors, better networks, more memory, better applications, slicker UIs, you name it – if it isn’t about the user of the product, there would be no incentive in investing in it.  So, why then can the players not get along to create the best unified experiences?

The end game here is hypnosis – yes, it is an era of digital hypnotism.  Wikipedia describes the characteristics of hypnosis as “The hypnotized individual appears to heed only the communications of the hypnotist. He seems to respond in an uncritical, automatic fashion, ignoring all aspects of the environment other than those pointed out to him by the hypnotist.”, among other things.  Every player in this game is trying to be a hypnotist and the subject is the user.  User experience is a means to an end.

Let’s parse it a bit further.  Apple has demonstrable success in the art of hypnotizing the user.  By creating intuitive, simple to use products, they built a faithful user base.  A user base that will adapt to their products and swear by their products.  They look past flaws in their products to the extent that flaws appear to be a feature.  Having established that loyalty, they enjoy the luxury of rolling out a flawed product (Maps of course!), a highly important one at that, and still not losing the user base!  It is a perfect win for their years of investments in user experience!

There are no incentives in working together – when everyone wants to claim the user, there is no question of unity.  After all, multiple simultaneous hypnosis is proven hard in psychology!  As every one of these major players try to grab every piece of data about the user that can be used to bring them under their influence, the users themselves are undergoing a transformation.  We talk less and type more.  We smile less and use more smileys (more on this later).  Running out of battery on our phones is our biggest fear.

It is a new world.  As long as the net result is making our lives better, being hypnotized by one of these players may just be par for the course.  We win some, we lose some.  As in psychology, you can only be hypnotized if you want to be hypnotized.  As every big player tries to do everything, they are trying to take over the users’ lives in totality.  They want to know our past and present and predict our future.  Or, better still, lead us towards paths we will be happy to follow.  The trick is in having enough snippets of what we, the users, want to do.  Once we are hooked (err, hypnotized), we will do as we are told!