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.
The review embargo on the Samsung Galaxy S8 lifted this morning and so a slew of reviews was published. The consensus appears to be that the hardware is beautiful and generally very good, while the software is mixed at best. Which is about the least surprising sentence anyone ever wrote about a Samsung phone, but is also bad news given the extent to which Samsung emphasized software this time around. On the hardware side, reviewers seem to love the screen, the dimensions of the display versus the overall footprint, and the feel in the hand. The one knock from a hardware perspective is the fingerprint sensor, which bafflingly is high up on the back and right next to the camera, where it’s both hard to reach and easy to miss and smudge the camera lens instead. From a software perspective, the main criticisms revolve around Bixby, which is missing its voice feature in the US and seems redundant and gimmicky, but the other criticism is around face unlock. As I said when it launched, face unlock is a sop to users who miss the fingerprint unlock on the front and want a simple way to get into their phone without typing in a passcode, but Samsung arguably hasn’t done enough to make clear that it’s a pretty insecure way to actually lock a phone. As such, it’s fine for grandma but not for the corporate IT department, and Samsung needs to make that clearer, especially given that iris scanning is also present as an option. This certainly won’t be exactly the debut Samsung wanted, but the positive reception to the hardware will do a lot for it. Also worth noting: Samsung provided a review unit to the Wall Street Journal but not the New York Times, whose reporter Brian Chen has been very critical of Samsung over its customer service among other things.
Bloomberg Confirms Existing Reports about Next iPhone (Apr 18, 2017)
Bloomberg has a report out today which basically just confirms all the existing reporting on the iPhone. Given that the Samsung Galaxy S8 goes on sale this week, this may be coming off the back of leaks from Apple itself, though the byline includes at least one reporter in Asia, suggesting there are supply chain sources too. There’s really nothing new here – the new iPhone is to come in three variants, with the high-end one getting an edge to edge OLED screen, with the glass but not the screen itself curved, and two other models similar to the existing sizes. At this point, this isn’t a surprise, but it’s good for Apple to have this news out there in the week the S8 goes on sale, because it’s been working on this shift to much smaller bezels for some time but has been beaten to the punch by several Android vendors, and needs to ensure that iPhone buyers are aware something similar is coming this fall. The big questions, which go unanswered in this piece, are about pricing and design differences between the new top-tier iPhone and the others. I continue to expect just another $100 or so price difference between the Plus model and the premium model rather than the $1000 iPhone many seem to think we’re going to get. But I’m curious to what extent the design of the two regular models evolves and how similar or different it is from the new high-end one.
LG Confirms Interest in its Display Business, Doesn’t Mention Google – Android Authority (Apr 12, 2017)
Huawei to Create Cloud Business Unit, US Remains a Secondary Focus – Mobile World Live (Apr 11, 2017)
Huawei is holding its annual analyst summit in China this week, at which it offers an update on the different parts of its business. Two notable items are mentioned in this summary of the first day presentation by the CEO. Firstly, the company is creating a cloud business unit, which will sit alongside existing carrier, consumer (device), and enterprise business units. That’s a sign of the growing commitment of the company to the cloud, but also of the close ties between network equipment (and the telecoms operators who deploy it) and the cloud services which run over it. Separating cloud in this way is a public signal to operators that Huawei wants to provide more than just the guts of cloud services and wants to establish more of a partnership relationship, something which may be challenging, especially given its home base of China, which has already created issues in the US and elsewhere for its network business. Secondly, the CEO stated that (partly for the reasons I just mentioned) the US isn’t a focus for the network business, and even for the devices business it’s not a major focus, as Huawei continues to struggle to break into the mainstream here with its smartphones. Lastly, though there was strong growth in parts of Huawei’s business, the CEO didn’t address the lack of margin expansion, something which was reported on previously and was likely due to aggressive growth of the smartphone business at the expense of margins in 2016.
At this point, I’m pretty sure the only people still worrying about the Note7 and the impact the recall has had on demand for Samsung phones are reporters. All the evidence from consumer surveys right from the start has suggested that (a) no-one’s views on Samsung were changed all that dramatically by the recall, and more importantly (b) those with recent direct experience of Samsung products budged least in their views. In other words, if you’d used lots of Galaxy smartphones and they’d never blown up, you had reasonable confidence the next one you owned wouldn’t either. These new statements from Samsung back that up, and it looks like the phones are doing even better than last year’s, which shouldn’t be surprising because they really do look pretty compelling, at least on paper (reviews should be coming out in the next week or so and that may change demand for the better or worse). Given that sales are mostly going to be coming from existing owners of Galaxy S phones, none of this should surprise anyone. And I know from talking to them that Samsung employees are desperate to put the Note7 behind them, and quite reasonably so at this point.
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.
The first part of this article gives too much credence to Xiaomi’s CEO’s projections about its future growth, taking them as given even though Xiaomi has struggled to meet its targets for smartphone shipments and growth for the last several years. But the rest of the article is interesting for what it says about where Xiaomi’s focus will be geographically going forward. Importantly, whereas one of the biggest questions about Xiaomi in recent years has been when it would come to the US, it seems to be moving in the opposite direction, doubling down on emerging markets like India rather than pushing into more mature markets. That will limit both its overall addressable market and the average selling price of its phones, given the disposable incomes in those markets and its product focus there, so Xiaomi’s future certainly won’t look very much like the one it projected a number of years ago, as a premium Android-based alternative to the iPhone.
I actually excluded this DeX solution from my various comments on the Samsung announcements yesterday, not deliberately, but probably because it seemed like the least important thing Samsung announced and I simply forgot about it. These solutions have been around for years, and they’ve never done well, only in part because they’re clunky but mostly because the compelling use cases are pretty hard to find. Anyone who regularly travels almost certainly has a laptop they could plug into a similar setup (or use independently), while anyone who doesn’t would be unlikely to justify the investment in not just this $150 dock but also several hundred dollars’ worth of monitor, keyboard, and mouse too for occasional use. I did spend this morning with Samsung’s enterprise team and saw some impressive demos of virtual Windows desktops from Citrix and VMware running on this solution, and those are slightly more compelling than the Android hybrid this thing runs by default as a desktop experience, but the caveats all still apply. This still feels like a very niche solution which very few people are actually going to find useful.
via The Verge
The Samsung Galaxy S8 voice assistant Bixby can’t recognise British accents – Business Insider (Mar 30, 2017)
This is a great example of something I wrote about on Techpinions this week, which is that here in the US we often assume technologies available to us are ubiquitous globally, but that’s actually rarely the case. In this case, it’s the Bixby assistant / interface that ships with the Samsung Galaxy S8 which not only won’t work in languages other than English and Korean but won’t offer voice services at all in the UK, where of course accents are different. (Another tidbit in this piece is that it won’t actually work in US English until May). Building voice interfaces is tough to begin with, but localizing them for different accents and languages is another massive layer of work, often made harder by the fact that voice recognition technologies are trained on single languages like US English.
via Business Insider
This is an interesting little announcement – it’s short on details, but it appears Microsoft will be selling a version of the Galaxy S8 with more of its apps pre-installed. The big downside is that this seems to be a highly manual process and the devices are only available at full price from Microsoft rather than through carrier stores and installment plans, so that’s going to dramatically limit the addressable market. But it’s interesting to see Microsoft deepening its investment in Android at a time when its own mobile devices continue to be all but irrelevant.
Samsung Debuts Galaxy S8 and S8+ (Mar 29, 2017)
Samsung today announced its next-generation flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S8 and S8+, at an event in New York, which I was able to attend in person. I’ll post separate comments on some of the other announcements made today. The phones look really solid, with a great new design that quite dramatically changes the relationship between screen size and device size, in much the same way as Apple is expected to do later this year. The new design is much more comfortable to hold than last year’s fairly angled efforts, but it has two tradeoffs: the fingerprint sensor is now on the back, and the aspect ratio is very long and thin, which may cause compatibility issues with apps and will mean letterboxing with videos. There are a few software features worth noting too: the new assistant Bixby, which combines voice control with some clever camera recognition tricks and proactive notifications, and broader application of Samsung Pay and Pass (the latter uses biometrics to log the user in to websites and apps). While the hardware is clearly impressive at first glance, we’ll have to wait until reviewers have spent some time with the software and services to know whether it’s as good as advertised – this has been an area of weakness for Samsung in the past, so there’s a steep hill to climb here. The other thing worth noting is that Samsung is pricing these devices around $100 higher than all its previous entrants in this line, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage relative to other flagships, and may offset the sales benefits it might have otherwise achieved from what looks like a strong effort here. All this should finally help move the Samsung news cycle beyond the Note7 and into a more positive narrative for a while.
Apple just made a historic and risky change to all iPhones — and you probably didn’t even notice – Business Insider (Mar 28, 2017)
Apple this week pushed iOS 10.3 to iPhones and iPads, and although there were various other headline features, the big under-the-hood change was the upgrade from Apple’s historical HFS+ file system to the new Apple File System trailed a while back at WWDC. That this upgrade went off seemingly without a hitch is remarkable given just how disruptive it might have been to devices and the apps that run on them, and given that Apple has had one or two buggy iOS releases in the last couple of years, including one that bricked a lot of phones. I suspect Apple deliberately rolled this update out off the usual big annual schedule because people tend to adopt these point releases more slowly, so that if something did go wrong it could pull it before it did too much damage. But Apple is also benefiting these days from the extensive developer and public beta programs, which get its releases into many more hands (and onto a wider range of devices used for a wider range of tasks), which likely helps iron out some bugs before they ever get to wide release. But it’s arguably been underappreciated this week just how big a change this was and how flawlessly Apple seems to have executed on it. That’s a good counterpoint to some recent suggestions that Apple’s quality control around its software has suffered lately.
via Business Insider
This feels like a huge misstep, especially announced the week of the S8 launch, which could otherwise have been the moment Samsung finally put the Note 7 debacle behind it. While the desire to minimize the environmental impact is admirable, and Samsung would no doubt benefit financially from refurbishing the phones, it would have been better off simply doing what it originally said it would and abandoning the line entirely and merely recouping parts. Another story that both keeps the Note7 in the news and raises the prospect of people actually buying them again (even if under a different name) just seems like a terrible tradeoff to make for those benefits. Ironically, this was the week when Samsung also finally issued a software update which will kill the remaining devices still in use in the US, yet another milestone in moving past this whole mess.
via The Verge