Android is notorious for its poor track record in supporting older devices, but one of the supposed advantages of the old Nexus program and the new Pixel devices was supposed to be solving that issue by removing the carrier and OEM middlemen from the process of OS updates. However, Google has officially stated that the Pixel devices aren’t guaranteed to get further OS updates beyond two years from their launch, while they will receive security patches for another year after that. Given that these are Google’s current and only devices, the idea that someone would buy one today with no guarantee of OS updates after 18 months is a bit much, especially given that average upgrade cycles are lengthening towards three years. Bear in mind, for example, that all iPhones back to the iPhone 5 (now four and a half years old) run iOS 10. For Google to offer such limited upgrade support even on its own devices is baffling and a sign that it’s not yet taking its first party hardware seriously enough. My guess is that these are bare minimum timeframes and that it may end up prolonging support beyond these official dates, but the message it’s sending here isn’t great.
Nintendo Sells 2.74m Switch Units in First Month (Apr 27, 2017)
Amazon Readying Launch of Echo Device with a Screen (Apr 27, 2017)
Spotify is Hiring for a Hardware Project (Apr 24, 2017)
Spotify is apparently hiring a senior hardware product manager, even though it doesn’t currently make any hardware of its own. The job listing (which is as far as I can tell no longer on the Spotify Jobs site) suggests that Spotify is looking to create a hardware product, although there are no real details about what form it might take. Predictably, the focus is music and talk content, so this is likely an audio player of some kind. The fact that Spotify has now removed the listing suggests that it probably gave a little too much away (or didn’t expect any reporters to find the listing), though the attention this is getting now may well spur just the kind of applications Spotify is looking for even without a formal listing. A move into hardware does and doesn’t make sense for Spotify. On the one hand, given the difficulty it’s had in generating a profit from music services, it might see hardware as a source of margin. But hardware is a notoriously low margin business, with single digit margins even for large scale players, and with many consumer electronics companies actually in the red frequently if not permanently. As such, coming from a standing start into what’s likely to be an established category feels like a steep uphill battle for Spotify, and I don’t rate their chances highly. To top it all off, of course, Spotify currently benefits enormously from being a device- and platform-agnostic service, which makes it appealing for other hardware vendors to integrate it. If it starts to compete with those vendors, that attitude might start to change. Also worth noting is that the company seems to be hiring people with voice technology and natural language processing skills, which may be part of the same project, but also looks like a wider initiative at Spotify.
Nintendo Kills off NES Mini but May be Working on SNES Mini (Apr 19, 2017)
Here’s our second LeEco story of the day, both fairly momentous (the first was news that the Vizio acquisition had fallen through). This one fits with the recent narrative of financial troubles at LeEco, and if the numbers in here are right, then things are indeed going very badly, with revenue of $15 million versus a target of $100 million in 2016 and layoffs of around a third of the US employee base planned. I’ve been skeptical of LeEco’s strategy from the beginning, and have only become more so as we’ve seen that strategy play out in the shadow of the financial troubles of the parent company. More broadly, LeEco’s struggles in the US demonstrate how different the US and China still are as markets, and how hard it is for companies to go either way across that chasm. No big Chinese company has yet been successful in the US, and Apple remains something of an exception as a US company that has done well long-term in China. LeEco was up against this from the beginning and its focus on an ecosystem play was always going to struggle without a big known brand like Vizio at the center of it here in the US.
This is an interesting strategy for Microsoft, which is releasing specs but not many more details for the next generation Xbox, which is codenamed Scorpio. On paper at least, it’ll be more powerful than its major competitor, the Sony Playstation 4 Pro, in several departments, but the consensus among gaming blogs seems to be that what Xbox needs isn’t so much better hardware as better software, or in other words more compelling games. This is where the Sony console has taken the lead in the current generation, and where it continues to do quite a bit better than the Xbox for now. It’s possible that the better hardware might spark better games from developers keen to push the limits, but Microsoft will obviously have to work hard and directly to get more developers and more titles on board. For now, this spec release by itself does little to tell us how the next-generation Xbox will do.
It’s time to roll out that old Alan Kay maxim again: “those who are serious about software should make their own hardware”. Google started working on its own machine learning chip, which it calls a Tensor Processing Unit or TPU, a few years back, and has now shared some performance characteristics, suggesting that it’s more efficient and faster than CPUs and GPUs on the market today for machine learning tasks. While Nvidia and others have done very well out of selling GPU lines originally designed for computer graphics to companies doing machine learning work, Google is doing impressive work here too, and open sourcing the software framework it uses for machine learning. As I’ve said before, it’s extremely hard to definitively answer the question of who’s ahead in AI and machine learning, but Google consistently churns out evidence that it’s moving fast and doing very interesting things in the space.
The Ars Technica view I’m linking to here is fairly negative on LG’s new flagship, while the Verge review also linked below is a little more positive. Both note that this is really the first widely available flagship phone to go down the “much smaller bezels” route, but while the Verge review focuses on that fact, the Ars review suggests that it will quickly be overshadowed by the Samsung Galaxy S8. The fact that this phone is launching to the public a week after the Samsung event certainly doesn’t help – almost anyone considering it has to at least be thinking about the S8 as an alternative – but until reviews are out, writing off the G6 so quickly feels premature. At least some early indications suggest that there may be one or two concerns with the S8, though I’ll withhold judgment until more thorough reviews are out. Both of these G6 reviews, though, highlight some flaws, notably some odd design choices in the hardware (poorly rounded display corners, tricky home button/sensor placement and size) and counter-productive software customizations on top of stock Android. This definitely looks like a better phone than last year’s G5, but I’m not convinced it’s going to help LG have a much better year this year than last as a result. One more thing worth noting – it seems LG has a version it’s selling in Korea with an integrated DAC which dramatically improves audio quality, but that won’t be available in the US, an odd decision.
What do you do if you have two separate hardware products for the home which are selling modestly but not fantastically and have some common elements? You combine them, of course, and so Google is apparently considering a future device which would bring the features of its Home and WiFi devices together in a single unit. That would lower the combined cost and depending on the price potentially also increase the attractiveness relative to either the standalone Home or WiFi devices as they exist today. Given that a single unit of either item today costs $129, it’s entirely feasible that Google could combine the two in a new unit that would still be price competitive with the Amazon Echo while offering a lot more functionality, so this is an interesting angle. But Google Home’s main challenges continue to be less about price and more about name recognition and distribution – the Echo captured the early interest in this space and quickly became the market, heavily leveraging Amazon’s retail distribution channel, while Google continues to struggle to get adoption for its version. Though this move may help spur sales, I don’t think it’s going to lead to the kind of step change Google needs to be a more meaningful competitor.
via The Information
This is yet another sign that LeEco may be struggling financially because of an overly aggressive expansion into the US and into new product categories over the past year. It’s apparently struggling to meet payroll on time, and has also been struggling to close its acquisition of Vizio. It’s still somewhat baffling to me that LeEco pursued such an aggressive strategy in the US, because it’s meant not only stretching its tight finances even tighter, but also launching with quite a different set of assets from those that made it successful in China.
Apple today updated its online store and issued a press release around a new 9.7″ iPad, confirming a change in strategy which seemed apparent when the 9.7″ iPad Pro launched but wasn’t made explicit until now. The new iPad drops the Air branding, and offers specs a year or two behind the iPad Pro line, while reducing the price to the lowest in Apple’s iPad lineup, at $329 (the only iPad mini available now is the 128GB model, which starts at $399, meaning that for the first time it’s cheaper to buy the new 9.7″ iPad than the newest iPad mini). What we have now, then, is a clear bifurcation between the iPad Pro, which is the latest and greatest with high-end specs, new features, and accessories like Pencil and the Smart Keyboard, and the more basic and low-end iPad. The iPad Pro is therefore not just the iPad for people who want to replace their laptop, but also the best iPad for everyone else. The iPad, then, becomes the low-cost alternative, the one for people with simpler needs, for giving to kids, and so on. That’s going to do interesting things to average selling prices, which had gone up slightly with the launch of the iPad Pro line and will now come down, but also to Apple’s competitiveness in a price band where it really hasn’t played before, expanding its addressable market. This new iPad is effectively the equivalent of the iPhone SE, taking older innards and wrapping them in new branding to bring the price down to a new level, and I suspect that – like the iPhone SE – it will indeed bring the device to new people. However, I suspect it’ll take quite a bit more share of the overall market than the SE has in iPhones.
Facebook’s Building 8 working on camera, augmented reality, mind reading projects – Business Insider (Mar 20, 2017)
This is an interesting roundup of signals about what Facebook is working on in its advanced hardware projects group, which is named Building 8. The most interesting part of the article in some ways is that Facebook might show off some of this stuff at its F8 developer conference next month, which I’ll be attending. The whole point of a division like this, though, is to try to do hard things, which means many of their efforts will fail, and ultimately even many of those which succeed might not be built by Facebook. Though Facebook does now have an explicit hardware product arm in Oculus, it just doesn’t strike me as a company well placed to make a big hardware push, so I’d expect a lot of what this group develops to be proofs of concept and prototypes, with the technology open sourced, spun off, or otherwise made available to other organizations to build and market. There will be some exceptions that end up being built into things like Oculus, but I suspect – as with Google’s similar ATAP group – we won’t see many actual Facebook hardware products come out of Building 8.
via Business Insider
Nintendo to Double Production of Switch Console – WSJ (Mar 17, 2017)
Another sign that the Switch is a hit, despite some fairly mixed initial reviews: Nintendo is reportedly doubling its production run for the console from eight to sixteen million, which would put it on pace to match the initial sales of the Wii, and well ahead of Wii U sales. It should also help prompt more game makers to produce titles for the console, which is a good thing since lack of games was one of the big criticisms at launch. That will, of course, take time, so it’s not an instant fix by any means, but it looks like Nintendo finally has another hardware hit on its hands after a tough few years. Alongside a long-awaited push into mobile gaming, that could mean a good period of growth for Nintendo is coming, assuming they learn the lessons from their Super Mario Run launch.
There are several interesting elements here – a cheaper Nest thermostat, a thermostat with the power to control the temperature in individual rooms, and a home security system. Bringing the price down could certainly help drive adoption – $250 is a little steep for a single thermostat, but it really adds up when you have several (as we do in our home). Of course, one of the reasons why you might have several Nests installed is to control the temperature in different rooms more effectively – we have a number of different zones for just this reason, and no smart thermostat I’ve seen can manage more than one zone at once. Of course, this might also require a professional HVAC technician to create some new zones in your home – I can’t imagine how it would work without those changes. However, all that said, I think the security system is potentially the most interesting thing here, because it opens the door to the kind of service model I think is key to the future of the smart home (see the narrative attached to this post). When Nest’s new CEO was installed, I pointed out that he comes from a services background and would be an appropriate leader to drive a transition from a retail model to a services model – I’m very curious to see if we see a move in this direction when this hardware launches. That could drive much stronger growth in Nest’s business, but it would likely be heavily reliant on partnerships, which is the other important part of such a shift.
It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that not one but two rumors about Snap working on additional hardware have sprouted the week of its IPO, both apparently well sourced yet conveniently vague on whether a product will actually ever be launched. This is good hype fodder for an IPO with some serious question marks over it, and yet non-specific enough that the company can afford never to release either of these two products (the Times reports a drone, while TechCrunch discusses a 360 degree camera). None of this is to say that Snap – which now calls itself a camera company and has one piece of camera hardware already in Spectacles – won’t release more camera hardware in future. In fact, I’d say it seems very likely. But when it happens, we’ll see whether that’s actually a bet that ends up moving the needle or just ends up being a novelty as Spectacles seem to have been. I’m still not convinced that Snap will ever be able to make a serious business out of hardware, its marketing genius notwithstanding.
HTC is making several announcements at the GDC gaming conference, but to my mind the most interesting is its installment plan for paying for a Vive headset. Instead of paying a lump sump of $799, would-be buyers can now pay $66 per month for 12 months, much as many of us now pay for our phones. One of the criticisms (and limitations) of early high-end VR is the price, but of course an iPhone 7 Plus or Samsung S7 Edge or Pixel XL comes in at $750-770, and we don’t all balk at that price, because none of us pays it upfront. Installment plans make these purchases a lot more palatable, and that’s going to be important for reducing the barriers to adoption here. That doesn’t mean we’re all going to rush out and buy one of these, not least because it still requires a high-end PC as well, but this kind of small step will help accelerate the spread of VR just a little bit.
Samsung is doing its flagship smartphone reveal a month from now in New York, so it’s focused on other things at MWC. I already covered its VR headset update, but another announcement involved a couple of new Windows tablets. As is so often the case with these trade show announcements, specific prices haven’t been announced, but these are on the ultraportable side of the PC range, looking a lot like some of Samsung’s Android tablets but with Windows onboard instead, and with detachable keyboards. This definitely feels like the hottest segment of the PC/tablet market at the moment, with Microsoft’s own Surface, lots of alternatives from OEMs, and of course Apple’s iPad Pro coming at this from a different angle.