I’ve changed the headline here to reflect two key points from the article: that Lenovo has done an about face and decided to re-enshrine the Motorola brand as the main brand for its phones globally, rather than de-emphasize it as previously planned; and that the company is doubling down on its Moto Mods concept, rather than abandoning it as LG has. The branding decision is a no-brainer: it always seemed odd to take an iconic brand like Motorola and retire it in favor of the Lenovo brand, which has far less (and less positive) recognition among smartphone buyers globally. The Mods decision is an interesting one – this article has one of the first numbers I’ve seen on how well they’re selling – it sounds like roughly half of Moto Z phones are bought with at least one Mod, which is actually a pretty decent attach rate (no pun intended). But Lenovo’s latest financial results say the Z is on track for just 3 million shipments in its first year, relative to Lenovo’s 51 million total smartphone shipments in 2016, so this flagship is still a tiny fraction of its total sales. And that’s a problem, because the rest of Lenovo’s sales haven’t been going nearly as well, and those that have been are very low-end focused. That’s not a great recipe for eventual profitability in smartphones, something that’s remained elusive for Lenovo since it bought Motorola.
Google calls time on the Pixel laptop – TechCrunch (Feb 28, 2017)
This is a minor news item, but a slightly surprising one – the first product to bear the Pixel brand at Google was a laptop, but the company won’t be making any more of those in the foreseeable future, apparently. With the big hardware push underway at Google, I had been anticipating that we might well see updates to both the laptop and the tablet that also bear the Pixel name alongside a revision of the Pixel phone this fall, but it seems Google’s hardware vision isn’t quite as expansive as I thought. It would be great to hear from Google at some point some sort of specific vision of why it’s in the hardware business, and why it wants to be in some categories and not in others (even some it’s done in the past).
5G Schedule Moves Up to 2019 – PCMag (Feb 27, 2017)
As I expected, 5G seems to have been a big theme at MWC this year, with lots more marketing type announcements but also some actual products being announced, albeit ones which should technically be described as pre-5G. The headline here is a bit funny, because of course it’s in these companies’ interests to suggest 5G is more imminent than previously thought, but it’s not up to them how quickly the technology gets deployed – that’s entirely up to the carriers, and I’m still very skeptical that we’ll see 5G available to more than a handful of locations before 2020 in the US (or probably anywhere else). And of course the idea that Qualcomm’s 5G modem would premiere in an iPhone seems laughable – Apple has been deliberately slow to adopt both previous wireless generations (3G and 4G), because the early trade-offs between performance and battery life make early entry unappealing. I don’t see that changing with 5G. But as a previous piece suggested, 2017 is going to be the year of pre-5G commercial trials, which is an important step along the path to eventual mainstream rollout and adoption.
Apple and SAP today announced that the partnership they first unveiled last year is beginning to bear real fruit. Last year, they had announced plans for an SDK, a training academy, and some sample apps from SAP itself designed to show third party developers what could be done. All of those things have now made enough progress at this point to justify a second announcement about imminent launches and progress made since. Several of the elements of what the companies announced originally are going to be available in the next few weeks, and all that should help SAP’s enterprise customers and their partners develop better iOS apps that tap into the SAP back-end. This is part of Apple’s broader push into the enterprise over the last few years, something that’s critical for squeezing additional growth out of an increasingly saturated smartphone market in mature economies. But it’s also a good reminder that the announcements Apple makes in the enterprise space are very different from its usual product announcements – they’ll take at least months to come to fruition, and in many cases will take even longer after that to deliver really meaningful results – this is a long game.
via Mac Rumors
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.
Moto G5 + Moto G5 Plus hands-on: A little less convention, a little more action – Android Central (Feb 27, 2017)
Lenovo’s Moto G range is one of its most popular, providing a pretty nice Android experience at fairly competitive prices, and at MWC it got some nice upgrades. This part of Lenovo’s portfolio has performed much better than the rest at a time when its smartphone sales overall and in China in particular have been collapsing. Those sales have been strong in markets like Latin America, where low-cost Android is a good fit. This is yet another example of the various strategies Android OEMs will have to pursue to find workable market niches – Sony is going up market, Samsung and Huawei rely on large scale in very different segments, and Lenovo/Motorola is finding some success in this low-mid range although not elsewhere.
via Android Central
Sony’s focus on premium continues with these new phones announced at MWC, one of which has been priced at $699, above the base price for other premium phones in the US, with the other not yet priced but featuring a higher end processor and therefore likely to go for even more. These devices also seem to continue the Sony design language of thin, relatively squared-off devices with lots of glass, which is still somewhat distinctive relative to other Android devices, but can make them seem fragile and also often makes them a little uncomfortable to hold. It looks like there’s some clever stuff with the camera, which will continually take shots when you open the camera app so that there’s literally zero lag when you press the shutter button. The big problem here is that what’s ostensibly the flagship, the XZ Premium, won’t launch for months, so any buzz generated now will die down entirely or be channeled into the less premium device instead. It’s also unclear from the reporting which US carriers will actually sell the phone, which is critical because Sony has had a tough time getting US carrier support for years now.
Samsung’s Gear VR headset has been by far the top-selling VR device so far, with over 5 million units “sold” (although many were likely given away or bundled at a very low price with smartphones) versus under a million so far for Playstation VR. Mobile VR is the mass market segment, and it’s always going to beat the hardcore VR rigs on volume, but the performance is often sub-par, and the user interface on the Gear VR has been pretty abysmal. The Daydream VR headset Google debuted late last year was much better in this regard, with a nice little hand-held controller which was mostly much easier to use, though it can be a little glitchy at times. It looks like Samsung now has a much more usable controller too, which should be a big help in making its VR experiences more enjoyable. The new controller ships with a new version of the Gear VR headset, and may or may not be available as an accessory for existing owners (price and date are also still unavailable).
This, to my mind, is one of the bigger announcements coming out of MWC – that Google will finally allow other smartphone makers to use the Google Assistant, after several months of keeping it exclusive to its own Pixel smartphone. I described that decision at the time as representing a big strategic shift for Google, and probably a mistake, and the evidence since has borne that out. The Pixel has sold in small numbers, Amazon’s Alexa has extended its lead considerably as the voice platform of choice for hardware makers, and even at MWC itself Android vendors announced Alexa integration despite Google’s shift here. The good news is that it’s only been a few months, but the bad news is that this change in policy will come too late to hit the new flagships debuting at MWC, including the new ones from both Samsung and LG. It will likely become available later, but shipping as an integrated part of these new smartphones would have been much better. I’m betting that Google will continue to pay for this strategic misstep for some time to come – even once it’s available, OEMs will want to offer more differentiation than the Google Assistant allows them, which will continue to make Alexa an appealing alternative.
After last year’s largely unsuccessful focus on modularity, it looks like LG has gone back the other way, with a really solid, slab-like phone that trades removable items for dust and water resistance. We’ve seen phone makers go for durability as a selling point before, sometimes in a core model and sometimes in a rugged variant (Samsung favors the latter), and it’s rarely enough to act as a big differentiator, especially in a premium phone. But it looks like LG is also majoring on the combination of a really big, high-res screen with small bezels and better one-handed use. It’s always interesting to watch the pendulum swing back and forth between masses of clever features and simplicity with the Android vendors, and we’re seeing that here. I’m betting this phone does better than the G5 last year, but LG continues to be in a tough spot in smartphones – it’s losing money every quarter, sales are falling, and it’s stuck in that unfortunate middle within the Android ecosystem where it’s neither at big scale in premium devices nor price competitive enough to do really well in the mid market. I don’t see this phone dramatically changing its fortunes.
Huawei Watch 2 and Watch 2 Classic officially unveiled at MWC 2017 – AndroidAuthority (Feb 27, 2017)
These two watches are somewhat reminiscent of the LG smartwatches that debuted with Android Wear 2.0 a few weeks back – there are again two, with somewhat different form factors, but this time the feature set is more consistent across them, as is the price. That price, though, is fairly steep – in line with the low end of Apple’s Watch price range, which continues to be a tough place to be when your watches look very much like the smartwatches they are rather than nice pieces of smart jewelry. Huawei definitely has the scale to do some interesting things in watches if it chooses to, but I can’t see these new models selling in very large numbers at these prices.
Nokia Making Big Move Into Digital Health, Relaunching Withings As Nokia This Summer – Forbes (Feb 27, 2017)
This is where things are going to get interesting – on the one hand, you now have HMD Global launching Nokia phones, and on the other you have the entirely separate company called Nokia launching its own consumer gadgets under its own brand. So there will be both smartphones and fitness devices in the market carrying the same brand, which have nothing to do with each other. It looks like Nokia is going to kill off the Withings brand it acquired and make a big push into health and fitness. As a non-consumer brand since its sale of the phone business to Microsoft, this is going to be an uphill battle for Nokia, and especially in a crowded and somewhat stagnant wearables market. Withings produced some interesting devices over the last several years, but it’s never had significant market share, and I’m not convinced Nokia will change that. Health (as opposed to pure fitness) is certainly one of the more promising aspects of this broader space, and it looks like Nokia is investing there, with a HIPAA-compliant Patient Care Platform among other elements. That may be its one opportunity to succeed where others have failed.
HMD Launches New Nokia Phones – Wired (Feb 27, 2017)
Quick explainer for those that haven’t followed the saga of Nokia over recent years: Microsoft bought Nokia’s Devices and Services business, including the smartphone and feature phone businesses, a few years back, along with exclusive use of the Nokia brand in these markets for several years. That exclusivity has now expired, and Microsoft last year sold the rump of the feature phone business to a new Finnish entity called HMD Global, which now has the rights to manufacture phones under the Nokia brand. The original owner of the Nokia brand and devices business, which now mostly makes telecoms network gear, has essentially nothing to do with these new phones. The MWC announcement actually covered three smartphones, the Nokia 3, 5, and 6, but almost all the attention has been on its resurrection of the extremely popular candy bar feature phone from 17 years ago, the Nokia 3110. It’s fascinating to see both the BlackBerry and Nokia brands get reboots at MWC from new companies – both were once key players in the global industry but have fallen enormously from those heights, and are probably past the point where a meaningful resurrection is possible, considerable nostalgia notwithstanding.
I think this headline from the Verge captures my sentiments on this phone pretty well. I have covered BlackBerry as a company pretty closely in the past, and still do to some extent, and whenever I write about them or post charts on Twitter, the first response I almost always get is “I though they went out of business”. The reality is that BlackBerry has dropped so far out of the public consciousness in what were once their biggest markets that a phone like this at this point isn’t really going to get them anywhere. The moment for this phone was years ago, not today, and at this price ($549) it’s not an option for the markets where the BlackBerry brand still means something to consumers, like Indonesia. So many of even those who once insisted on a physical keyboard have now caved to the inevitability of the full touch screen, and the vast majority of those won’t go back now they’ve discovered apps, content stores, and everything else modern smartphones have to offer and BlackBerry devices have never really been able to. At least now the risk is mostly on TCL’s books rather than BlackBerry’s, and the reality is that the hardware business at BlackBerry is so small now (under $100 million in the November 2016 quarter) that this is almost all upside for the company – if TCL doesn’t sell any, that’s more or less a continuation of the tiny hardware revenue BlackBerry has been booking, and if it sells a few hundred thousand, that’s useful additional revenue. But this is very likely to be a tiny overall revenue opportunity for both companies, and I’m curious to see how long TCL sticks with the partnership.