This feels more like a confirmation of how I think many of us were already thinking about Microsoft’s approach to Windows 10 Mobile, but we do now have official confirmation now from one of the erstwhile champions of Windows Phone and Microsoft’s smartphone hardware that the platform is essentially dead in terms of future development. Yes, there are companies that have deployed devices on the platform, and Microsoft will support them, but that’s about it. Notably, Joe Belfiore, an exec in the Windows team and for quite some time the face of Windows on mobile devices, says he’s now using an Android device. This outcome has seemed inevitable for a long time now, and Microsoft arguably took far too long to make it official, giving a small number of fans false hope that the platform would somehow live on. The actual number of users must be absolutely tiny at this point, while Microsoft’s main focus in mobile for the last several years has been making or acquiring really good apps that could run on iOS and Android, albeit without an obvious strategy for monetizing most of them.
via Windows Central
★ Google Announces Pixel 2 Smartphones (Oct 4, 2017)
I’m breaking up Google’s announcements today into several chunks, starting with the Pixel smartphones it revealed here. Much was already known about these new devices, starting with external images and some of the features, but there were some details such as pricing and availability, as well as one or two additional features which were more of a surprise, as well as the marketing and positioning, which is always one of the most important parts of these launches but which doesn’t leak ahead of time. What we got from Google was a pretty confident launch, building on last year’s decent start, and emphasizing even more than last year the software and AI capabilities behind what the phone can do, while de-emphasizing the hardware itself, which got fairly short shrift. That reflects Google’s relative strengths and weaknesses in this space, but it forces it to ignore the big hardware advancements being made in things like dual cameras, 3D depth perception, wireless charging, and so on, which have been themes in other flagship phone launches this year.
Last year’s Pixels suffered from four big challenges: firstly, the phones were competitive but not notably better than other phones on the market in any key ways; secondly, Google’s marketing was handicapped by targeting the iPhone whereas the most likely buyers are existing Android owners; thirdly, devices were in short supply; and lastly, distribution was limited, with just Verizon as a US carrier partner. This year’s phone looks a little stronger relative to the competition, but not enormously so given the big advances from the other major players. From a marketing perspective, we’ll have to wait and see what Google does as the time of launch approaches, but I’m not holding my breath for anything dramatically better or different relative to last year. There was at least one reference to short supply by Google hardware exec Rick Osterloh at today’s event and so I’m guessing it’ll fix that this year. But distribution remains limited to Verizon in the US, which is a baffling choice given how much Google is pouring into this hardware effort – why go to all that fuss and expense in making hardware that three quarters of US smartphone buyers won’t even consider?
All told, I’d expect this year’s phones to sell better than last year’s, but not nearly as much as if they’d launched on all four carriers as they should have. That should leave other premium Android OEMs breathing a big sigh of relief, because it means Pixel 2 won’t even be a consideration for most of their buyers. This marks two straight years of Google making somewhat puzzling strategic choices with regard to the Pixel launch, something I wrote in depth about last year.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai has called for Apple to “activate the FM chip” built into at least some iPhones as a way to help with disaster relief in places hit by recent natural disasters. Others have also made similar calls over the last couple of years, including industry groups with obvious interests in Apple doing so, such as the National Association of Broadcasters. But of course to suggests that this is as simple a matter as activating a chip in a device is to ignore the fact that without some kind of app to tune the radio, it would be useless. So in fact Apple would need to create an SDK for developers to use to create apps, it would need to release an iOS version that incorporated the new functionality and turned on the FM radio functionality, app developers would need to create apps using the SDK, and then Apple would need to approve those apps to be distributed through the App Store. So this is a far from simple process, and not one that could be implemented overnight. It’s also unclear whether FM radios are actually in all iPhones, given that Apple recently switched some of its modems to Intel. The idea that FM radios in existing devices should simply be switched on is obviously an appealing one, especially in a place like Puerto Rico where communication infrastructure is currently in poor shape following the hurricane, but the practicalities of trying to force such a solution in the short term seem unfeasible. The broader issue of whether Apple should enable such uses in general rather than in response to a particular current situation is rather different – Apple has never said why it won’t do so, and I’ve never heard a good reason why it shouldn’t, but that is very different from suggesting there’s some sort of immediate fix to the current problem.
Also worth reading: this piece from PC Mag’s Sascha Segan, which talks about one potential hurdle, which is that FM radio functions in phones typically require wired headphones, something Apple is moving away from in its newer iPhones.
Update: Apple has now issued a formal comment, which among other things says that its newer iPhones (the 7 and 8 models) don’t even have FM radios to turn on, making much of this moot.
BayStreet Research financial analysts say that Sprint has sold just 5,000 Essential smartphones since its launch earlier this month, as reported here by FierceWireless. My guess is that the figure is based on channel checks, in which analysts call around random stores and ask how many units they’ve sold, and then add those up to create an estimate. Given the number is so low, I’m guessing the analysts found an average of just one sale per store. None of this should surprise anyone – I’ve been skeptical about Essential right from the start, and though I’d guess it’s sold quite a few more devices through its own online store than Sprint has, the numbers are likely still very small. Given the massive financial backing Essential has received, it’s got plenty of runway to go to figure all this out, possibly including a broader carrier distribution once its exclusivity arrangement with Sprint is over. But it’s increasingly clear that even a well-reviewed phone from a name with a history in the industry can’t break through the oligopoly that is the US smartphone market.
Google and HTC finally announced the deal that’s been rumored for a while and for which many details leaked yesterday. Google is in the end only acquiring 2000 employees and some non-exclusive intellectual property, for $1.1 billion, an amount over half of HTC’s market cap before the deal was announced. The 2000 are around half the research and design team at HTC (and a fifth of the total workforce), while the other half will remain and work on a streamlined portfolio of first-party HTC hardware including a new flagship already in the works. Google’s blog post about the deal is remarkably vague and unhelpful, and it’s equally remarkable that there’s no SEC filing or press release on Alphabet’s investor relations site about the deal given its magnitude. It’s almost as if Google doesn’t want to talk about the deal or its details, but HTC very much wants to, emphasizing both the financial boon – the money to be paid in cash once the deal closes in early 2018 – and its ongoing commitment to making smartphones and VR devices.
The deal has echoes of Microsoft’s bailout acquisition of Nokia a few years back – HTC is a far less important strategic partner to Google, but this very much feels like Google offering a financial lifeline to the very unprofitable and shrinking HTC in return for some assets it needs. Those assets are IP necessary to make Pixel phones without being sued by HTC or anyone else but also the research and design skills necessary to build those phones exactly to Google’s specifications and needs rather than having to work off HTC’s foundation and platform, originally built for other devices. That optimization and the integration with Android it should enable are going to be critical for Google to squeeze the most out of its hardware efforts, though it also needs to go deeper on the chips side, something it’s been reported to be doing separately.
One of the things I’ve been asked about by reporters over the last 24 hours or so is what effect this will have on other Android OEMs. The simple answer is that it clearly strengthens Google’s first party hardware capabilities, which for now aren’t much of a threat. But it’s not as if those OEMs can do anything about it – Android is the only viable open smartphone platform out there today, and if OEMs aren’t producing top-notch, differentiated hardware, Google’s efforts in the space are far from their only problem. One thing is notable: Android engineering head Dave Burke is apparently in Taipei – which is interesting because Google hardware has been said to run at arm’s length from Android team, like any other OEM, so there’s no real reason why Dave Burke would need to be involved in this transaction, and yet there he is in HTC’s home city as this deal is announced.
From HTC’s perspective, the cash infusion will give it breathing room to continue working on a strategy that can again provide sustainable profits in the long run, presumably with its Vive VR business at its core, given that even a shrunken smartphone team isn’t likely to be profitable at its current (or smaller, Pixel-less) scale. I do wonder why Google didn’t just buy the whole company – at under $2 billion market cap, Google could presumably have paid roughly double what it is and had the whole thing, taking what it needed, including manufacturing capability, VR hardware expertise, and other useful pieces, and shut the rest down. This deal is certainly simpler and less painful from an integration perspective, but I’m still not sure I see a viable future for HTC even with this investment and the attendant changes.
Moto X4 Brings Android One to the US and Google’s Project Fi (Sep 20, 2017)
I noted a couple of weeks back with the launch of Xiaomi’s first Android One device that the project appeared to have morphed from a low-tier emerging markets play to one focused more on the mid market, and today’s news reinforces that perception. Motorola is launching its Moto X4 device into the US market as part of the Android One project, and this $400 phone will be available on Google’s own Project Fi service as an alternative to the Nexus and Pixel phones it’s offered until now. (The Nexus phones Google has offered are, by the way, currently showing as out of stock on the Project Fi site, suggesting they’re likely to get phased out with the launch of new Pixel devices in a couple of weeks.) The Android One version isn’t the only one Motorola offers – as I noted when it was announced, the main version actually comes with Alexa baked in, something the Google version certainly won’t do. All of this is indicative of Motorola’s falling leverage with carriers, and its need to do deals with other market players to parcel up its phones in different ways to find attractive niches.
HTC has formally announced that its shares will halt trading for a material announcement tomorrow, and Bloomberg is reporting that it will be that Google is acquiring at least part of the company’s smartphone operations. Other sources – including Taiwanese site Apple Daily and as I understand it shortly also the Wall Street Journal – are saying that it’s the smartphone design operations specifically that Google will acquire, for a relatively small sum in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As I’ve said before, there’s a strong logic to this acquisition despite the history with Motorola. The biggest change since that earlier acquisition is that Google is now far more clearly serious about hardware, with a consolidated division about to announce a second generation of major products at an October 4th launch event. In addition, acquiring a very focused slice of HTC would be a very different proposition from buying what was at the time a much larger and more diverse Motorola business, which was subsequently run largely at arm’s length inside Google. I would expect Google to bring the HTC assets deeply into its own hardware division and to use the new capabilities to drive much more optimized and integrated hardware design relative to the ODM approach used for Pixel hardware, which likely relied heavily on existing designs and platforms from HTC.
All of this is, of course, further validation along with Microsoft’s Surface push of the approach Apple has long taken to tightly integrating hardware and software. It’s increasingly clear that the best results in hardware are achieved by those who can combine hardware and software in such a way, preferably with tight control of the whole process, and Google would get a lot closer to that goal through this acquisition. The big question still remains what happens to whatever’s left of HTC, which presumably will abandon making smartphones and focus on its Vive VR efforts, something that’s going to be a tough proposition in an increasingly competitive market. I’m still surprised that Google isn’t taking over the whole thing, because it could clearly benefit from the Vive assets as it seeks to deepen its own Daydream VR capabilities.
Droid Life appears to have obtained images and pricing for three of the hardware products Google is expected to unveil at its October 4th hardware event. It has four separate posts on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, a Chromebook called the Pixelbook, and the Google Home Mini, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Pixel 2 models seem to lean heavily on the design of the first versions from a hardware design perspective, with some minor changes and some new color options, with the smaller one being made again by HTC and the larger one by LG, as reported earlier. It looks like Google will embrace this year’s super premium pricing for larger flagships, too, with an $849 starting price on the XL, although it’ll offer monthly financing (whether directly or through a partner is not clear) as well. The Pixelbook is the predicted successor to the original Pixel, a high-end Chromebook, though this time with a screen that folds over the keyboard to become a clunky tablet, and an optional pen, while it retains the premium pricing. So that’s more or less in the Surface ballpark and a more expensive and laptop-like alternative to Apple’s iPad Pro line. Lastly, the Google Home Mini is exactly what you’d expect, borrowing from the Google Home’s slightly softer design relative to Amazon’s fairly industrial looking speakers in a smaller and cheaper form factor.
We’ll have to wait for the event itself to see all the software and feature details – these leaks are pretty much exclusively about external features and pricing – but I half wonder whether Google has allowed some of these details to leak out ahead of Friday’s iPhone 8 launch to give at least some potential buyers pause before jumping into a new iPhone. Given the breadth of the leaks, though, I suspect it’s more likely a rogue employee looking for some attention and/or notoriety. As with the iPhone leaks, I think this kind of thing benefits all of us very little while trampling on the hard work of many who’ve been prepping these devices for launch.
The embargo on iPhone 8 and 8 Plus reviews lifted this morning and in its wake came a flurry of reviews from many major tech publications. Rather than link to any one of them, I’m linking below to Techmeme’s roundup, which as usual will give you every possible angle you could want. As is often the case with smartphone reviews, many make the mistake of asking the question of whether it’s worth upgrading from the previous year’s model, which is something very few people ever do. The better question is whether these phones are good upgrades from the models people are still using from two or three years ago. For those upgrading from an iPhone 6 or 6s, the change will be significant: better screens, better audio, much faster chips, longer battery life and wireless charging, better camera performance, and on the Plus model dual cameras with Portrait Mode, Portrait Lighting, and 2x optical zoom, among other things.
The reviews do suggest that the improvements to the cameras are particularly noteworthy, and the TechCrunch review focuses on that aspect in depth, something I think more smartphone reviews should do. Otherwise, there are some complaints about a too-familiar hardware design (although there are all new materials and finishes this time around in contrast to the last two years), and there’s still some griping about the lack of a headphone jack and the “camera bump”. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the 8 Plus later this week and spending some time testing it myself, but my guess is the iPhone 8 line is a really solid upgrade for many people considering one this year and will be the devices many of this year’s upgraders will end up picking. However, as I said in yesterday’s item about preorders, there will be many waiting to take a closer look at the iPhone X, an approach certainly endorsed by at least some of the reviewers of the 8.
iPhone Pre-Order Wait Times Remain Short After First Weekend (Sep 18, 2017)
Like others, I was up at the local equivalent of midnight on Friday to place preorders for a couple of Apple devices as they went live, and it’s now been four days since that window opened. What was apparent as early as Friday was that most of the devices were still in pretty decent supply for delivery on day 1 – September 22 – or shortly thereafter, and on the following Monday pretty much every device I’ve checked in the US is available within “1-2 weeks” on Apple’s site. There are two ways to interpret this pretty decent supply four days in: either fewer people than usual are ordering devices, or Apple has got better at making enough to fulfill early demand. Given Apple’s guidance for the September quarter, it’s been clear for some time that it certainly believed it would sell plenty of devices in the first week and a half or so, and likely more than last year. With the prices for the iPhone 8 line being slightly higher than last year’s iPhone 7, the amount by which sales need to grow is smaller, but they likely do still need to grow year on year, which means at least part of the explanation for the shorter wait times is more devices being available for shipping in time for the launch.
But I also think it’s almost certainly the case that at least some who might otherwise have ordered an iPhone 8 are waiting for the iPhone X, depressing early demand somewhat. That will all come out in the wash during the December quarter, with the X available for nearly two months, but it does mean we could see some interesting things happen in the September quarter. Despite those higher overall prices, if a disproportionate number of those who might otherwise have ordered an 8 Plus opt instead for an X, then ASPs in the first week and a half or so might actually be down on last year, requiring rather stronger unit sales. There are so many moving parts here, but I come back to Apple’s guidance, which at the very least suggests that it was very confident of having more devices available to sell. The earnings call this coming quarter is going to be a fascinating one when it comes to this topic.
via Business Insider
Samsung held a press conference for Korean media today to promote the Note8 smartphone it recently launched and in the process made several announcements. It said that it saw 650k preorders for the Note8, which is strong by Note standards but highlights what a marginal phone the Note is in the grand scheme of things relative to a device like the iPhone or Samsung’s own Galaxy S line. It also said it plans to introduce a bendable smartphone – ostensibly under the Note brand – next year, though the timing is up in the air, and reiterated plans for a Harman Kardon-branded smart voice speaker. None of this is likely to have made much of a dent on a day when Apple dominated consumer tech news, and the Note preorder number is likely the biggest announcement for today, signaling unsurprisingly healthy sales for a device launched into a market with significant pent-up demand after last year’s Note7 fiasco.