★ 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.
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.
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
★ Apple Announces Upgraded Watch and TV Devices (Sep 12, 2017)
★ Apple Announces iPhone 8 and X (Sep 12, 2017)
Fitbit has finally announced its second smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic, following the launch of the Fitbit Blaze in May last year. At the time, Fitbit described the Blaze as a “smart fitness watch” but it seems to want everyone to forget that designation now as it launches the Ionic and wants to frame it as its first entry in this space. To be sure, when it launches, this device will have an app store, something the Blaze didn’t have, but it’s far from certain that there will be anything meaningful in it. One reason Fitbit is pre-announcing the device two months ahead of launch is to get developers going, while the other is surely to get out ahead of Apple’s third set of Watch hardware, which will be announced in a couple of weeks. Based on what we know so far, the Ionic looks very similar on paper to the Apple Watch in several respects: it has GPS, contactless payments, it’s swim proof, stores and plays music, provides personalized fitness coaching, and so on.
But on paper is about the only place it does look like the Apple Watch – the Ionic is very much in the design tradition of Fitbit’s other devices: angular and industrial looking, with garish colors an optional extra. It hasn’t published the dimensions of the device, but at least a couple of shots in its promotional video make it look enormous, especially for wearing in bed. That’s important, because multi-day battery life and eventual ability to track sleep apnea are among the very few differentiators here against the Apple Watch, and if it’s uncomfortable to wear at night, none of that really matters.
We’ll have to wait and see all the details in October, but based on what we’re seeing today, my guess is that the Fitbit Ionic will sell maybe a couple of million units, or roughly ten percent of Fitbit’s annual device sales, over the first year, maybe slightly more if the third party app ecosystem is stronger than I’m expecting. At those numbers, it’ll barely make a dent in the overall smartwatch market, which is dominated by Apple, with Samsung in second place and other Android devices in third, though it might provide a boost to Fitbit’s ASP, which is currently around a hundred dollars. I would guess it’ll mostly appeal to existing Fitbit users who admire its aesthetic, and will likely do better among Android users who have relatively few other compelling options than among iPhone owners. Fitbit today also announced wireless sports headphones called Flyer, which will retail for $130 and be available online right away: these are a sign that Fitbit recognizes its lack of an ecosystem is going to be an increasingly big challenge going forward given its lack of integration with either Android or iOS, and it therefore needs to build its own.
Tesla On Track to Deliver First Model 3s by End of July, But Q2 Production Falls Short (Jul 3, 2017)
Update: following another release from Tesla on Monday, I’ve amended both the headline and content on this piece significantly from the first version published Monday morning.
Overnight, Tesla CEO Elon Musk had tweeted that Model 3 production would begin shortly, with the first deliveries happening by the end of July, with production ramping up slowly from there. Hitting the launch milestone is something of an achievement for a company that’s often missed its own self-imposed deadlines, but the real test is ramping production enormously above past levels, and that continues to be the achievement I’m far more skeptical of. The new numbers provided today suggest far lower total production than Tesla has promised in the past, at least in the second half of this year and first half of 2018. Later on Monday, the reason for getting that news out overnight became a little clearer, as Tesla released its production and delivery numbers for the June quarter, including a shortfall in both due to battery shortages. That’s bad news for Tesla, and more evidence of its inability to plan and execute on production in predictable ways, and therefore to meet the targets it sets itself. None of this gives me any more confidence in the longer term projections of Model 3 production.
Apple Reportedly Updating MacBook Line at WWDC (May 16, 2017)
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.
Samsung Galaxy Note7 Goes on Sale (Aug 19, 2016)
The Note7 went on sale on August 19th in the US with all the major carriers, off the back of mostly very good reviews from major tech publications.