Early mobile phone ownership could lead to academic deficiency – study

Recent research indicates those children who own mobile phones at an earlier age will go on to perform less well academically versus their peers who do not.

The Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland research paper, titled “Later is better: Mobile phone ownership and child academic development, evidence from a longitudinal study” was published in the journal “Economics of Innovation and New Technology” on 20 December 2018. From the outset the project had two purposes: to examine “whether there is an association between early mobile phone ownership and academic outcomes and whether delaying mobile phone ownership benefits the development of children’s academic skills.”

It used the data of 8,500 nine-year-old students in Ireland, then followed their development till they reach 13-year-old. By this time, the researchers compared the academic performance of those who already owned mobile phones when the project started with that of those who owned mobile phones later. The results showed those had mobile phones earlier fell behind their peers in both maths and reading by about a 4 percentile scale.

Therefore, to answer the first question, the researcher believed there is a negative correlation between the students’ starting age of mobile phone ownership and their academic performance when they reach adolescence. The researchers did not give a definite yes or no answer to the second question, though the title of the published report suggests they are leaning towards the Yes side, i.e. delaying mobile phone ownership would benefit the children’s academic skill development.

However, if this indeed is what the researchers believed, here is a leap of faith. To start with, the researchers claimed that “the findings suggest that there may be significant educational costs arising from early mobile phone use by children.”  The existence of a correlation does not mean there is a causal relationship. The researchers admitted that other socio-economic factors are involved in the children’s development. These factors may have been “taken account of” in the analysis, they are very hard to be controlled and a causal relationship is very hard to establish.

The researchers then went on to suggest that “parents and policymakers should consider whether the benefits of phone availability for children are sufficiently large to justify such costs.” Here is another problem. Even if there were a causal relationship between an early mobile phone ownership and impaired academic advancement, it could not lead to the logical conclusion that delayed mobile phone ownership would improve the children’s academic performance.

Thanks to its near ubiquity and the reduced age of ownership, mobile phones have become an easy target for educators as well as politicians. The researchers commended the former Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, when he “asked schools to consult with parents and students to make decisions on the place of smart phones and personal devices in school.” The French President Emmanuel Macron went much further and much faster: during the election campaign he pledged an outright ban on mobile phone use in all primary and secondary schools and was supported by the legislature after he assumed the presidency. He did not hesitate to blow his own trumpet:

On the other hand, most parents and schools in Estonia and Finland do not seem to have any problems with children already having mobile phones when they start primary school at the age of seven. Various reports have indicated that not only do the majority of first graders come to school with mobile phones, many of them are actually using low-end smartphones. Incidentally these two countries have consistently outperformed any other European countries in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of 15-year-old students’ knowledge and skills in science, maths, and reading. So far, no researcher has attributed their strong academic performance to early mobile phone ownership.

Xiaomi unveils new strategy stressing AI, IoT and smartphones

The Chinese device maker Xiaomi has announced its new strategy will be built around two core areas: smartphone and AI+IoT.

At the company’s annual party, Lei Jun, Xiaomi’s founder and CEO, pledged an investment of CNY 10 billion ($1.5 billion) over the next five years, in a strategy it calls AIoT (meaning both “AI+IoT” and “All in IoT”). The objective is to develop this part of the business into a second core of the company’s strategy, to dovetail with its current core business: smartphones.

Xiaomi is no stranger to artificial intelligence. AI has been in the centre of Xiaomi’s marketing messages for its photo technologies on the new smartphones and the smart speakers. Nor has it been a novice in IoT. In fact, Xiaomi claims to be the world’s largest IoT company, “connecting more than 132 million smart devices (excluding mobile phones and laptops), including more than 20 million daily active devices as of September 30 (2018).” This mainly comes in its smart home category including products ranging from smart suitcases to smart scooters and everything in between.

Smartphone, on the other hand, has always been the linchpin in Xiaomi’s ecosystem. After its fast growth in China and the rapid market share gain in emerging markets like India, Xiaomi recently expanded into Europe, including choosing to debut its latest flagship smartphone in London. Additionally, Xiaomi sees in Latin America new growth opportunites. It is also one of the smartphone OEMs to endorse Qualcomm’s 5G chipset. However, as Lei recognised, “Before the proliferation of 5G technology, Xiaomi’s success in smartphone business segment lies in striving to consolidate its leading position in the smartphone markets across the world.”

As a means to continue strengthening its smartphone positions, Xiaomi also announced a dual-brand strategy. Its flagship and other high-end products will continue to come under the “Mi” brand, while the mid-range value-for-money products will carry the “Redmi” brand. Here Xiaomi may have taken a page from Huawei’s brand strategy, which has used “Honor” to address the mid-range segment while its flagship products have been branded “Huawei” and come in Mate or Pro series.

The foldable phone will reportedly be with us next month

It’s been rumoured for months and an ambition of the industry for years, but it seems Samsung is almost ready to unveil a foldable phone in a few weeks times.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Samsung is set to reveal a foldable phone at various launch events around the world on February 20, a week ahead of the industry’s annual bonanza in Barcelona. Traditionally Samsung has launched new flagship devices at Mobile World Congress, but it appears the team is determined to beat Huawei to the punch, with the Chinese also rumoured to be pretty close with their own device.

Although Samsung still claims the number one spot for smartphone sales worldwide, it must be peering over its shoulder with Huawei’s recent momentum. Having overtaken Apple to secure the number two spot, Huawei is certainly on a good run, despite political pressure and suspicion over its relationship with the Chinese government.

A prototype of the device was showcased at a series of events last September, though people familiar with the matter claim three new, foldable devices will be hitting the shelves in March. There is yet to be any form of official confirmation as of yet, though it is also believed a fourth device will follow the initial launch; this model will be 5G compatible.

There are still a lot of questions surrounding the device, but one thing is clear; this is the sort of innovation the industry has been craving for years.

When you look at the reality of smartphones, there hasn’t been any genuine disruption for years. Each new flagship brings incremental advances in features and usability, a better screen or less battery intensive applications for example, but nothing could really be described as ground-breaking, despite what the manufacturers tell you. The last genuine disruption to the smartphone space was probably Apple ditching the keyboard a decade ago.

This stumbling period of innovation is probably one of the factors which contributed to the global slump in smartphone sales in recent years. Despite a lack of new features, manufacturers have been asking consumers to produce more cash, indirectly encouraging trends which have seen product lifecycles and the popularity of second-hand or refurbished phones increase.

Whether the phone will be any good remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, this is a device which will certainly attract attention at Mobile World Congress next month.

Apple iPhone sales plunged by 20% in November – Counterpoint

Facing more affordable competition from the Chinese brands, the iPhone’s total sales suffered a 20% decline in November, with the cheaper XR model outselling the more expensive models, according to an update from Counterpoint.

The research firm published its monthly update on iPhone sales for November, estimating that the decline was across the board. In Europe and North America, replacement cycles are getting longer while operators are reducing their subsidies, both trends playing to the decline of iPhone sales.

One exception was China, where the sales held largely thanks to the 11.11 (“Single’s Day”) sale, where all online channels would hand out discounts. However, the China market is expected to go down in December. On one hand the Single Day sales already satisfied much of the demand; on the other hand, the ongoing trade war with the US has pumped anti-American sentiment into some consumers, which Tim Cook also employed to explain away the weakness in its phone business.

When it comes to the model breakdown, Counterpoint said the best-selling model was XR, the cheapest among the three new models recently launched. More specifically, the 64GB version, the one with the smallest memory, was selling the best. This is in stark contrast to a year ago, when the best-selling model was the then newly launched iPhone X, the most expensive one in the new line-up. The research firm also concluded that when looking at the performances of the two most expensive models of the two years, the “iPhone XS Max, when compared to iPhone X during the same month last year, shows a 46% decline in sales.”

iPhone-November-Sales-2017-vs-2018

The decline should not come as a surprise though. In all markets the Chinese brands are gaining momentum, not the least in emerging markets like India, where smartphone market is still expanding. “iPhone has never achieved a significant share of the Indian market because it’s just too expensive. It rarely makes it above 1% of the overall market or 2% of the smartphone market. Recent changes to import taxes made the cost even more prohibitive. Apple has now decided to start assembling in India through Foxconn. This should help offset the import taxes it currently has to pay. This move may also be a hedge against potential damage from the ongoing China/US trade war.” Peter Richardson, research director and partner at Counterpoint told Telecoms.com. “However, while Apple’s brand is certainly well-regarded, Indian consumers have become accustomed to the quality of Chinese Android products, from players such as Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo. It is questionable whether they will see the value in iOS relative to these Chinese players that are innovating much faster. Huawei (and Honor) has also been a marginal presence so far, but is expected to grow relatively quickly, adding to the market’s competitive landscape,” Richardson added.

Even in the more advanced markets Apple has shown weakness for a while. Earlier we reported that Apple was compensating the Japanese operators to offer discount and considering reviving iPhone X in Japan to boost sales.

Samsung imposes Facebook on its smartphone customers and blocks uninstall

Smartphone giant Samsung has apparently struck a deal with Facebook to force the installation of the app on its phones.

The move, which was highlighted by Bloomberg, is not by itself remarkable. It’s not uncommon for smartphone OEMs to partner with third parties to preinstall their stuff on phones, although push-back against ‘bloatware’ has made this less common than it once was. What is causing some degree of backlash is the fact that it’s not possible to uninstall this imposed Facebook app, only to disable it.

The Bloomberg story quotes a Facebook spokesperson as saying the disabled app is effectively uninstalled as is no longer collects data for Facebook, but if that’s the case then why prevent its removal? Samsung didn’t provide Bloomberg with any further explanation.

This correspondent can confirm that this doesn’t just apply to new phones. I recently did a factory reset of my old Samsung Galaxy S7 in order to bequeath it to my son. Once the process was complete I was surprised to see the Facebook app appear on the home screen and can confirm that I wasn’t given the option to uninstall it.

Which raises a significant issue with the imposition of social media apps on phones that other reports seem to have overlooked: mental health. In a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt revealed a sharp increase in reported mental health issues among US teenagers and young adults in the last decade. As you can see in the clip below he theorises that a major contributing factor to this is social media use, especially on smartphones.

Many parents, this one included, have decided that their children should not use any form of social media, including IM apps such as Whatsapp, due to the threat they pose to their mental health. Not only does social media seem likely to make children more socially obsessive, self-conscious and distracted, it also facilitates some forms of bullying and leaves a digital footprint that it seems likely their adult selves will regret.

For this reason, on top of the general arrogant presumption involved in trying to commercially manipulate your own customers, this looks like a bad move by both Samsung and Facebook. Neither of them are in the strongest position to throw their weight around these days and the smartest thing to do in the light of this revelation would be for them to reinstate the ability to uninstall the Facebook app from Samsung phones.

 

Samsung warns sales and profits are going down the toilet

Korean giant Samsung has become the latest major tech company to warn about significant under-performance towards the end of 2018.

In its earnings guidance for Q4 18 Samsung Electronics advised that it expects sales of around 59 trillion Korean won and 10.8 trillion Korean won. In the same quarter a year ago it racked up sales of 66 trillion and profits of 15 trillion, so that’s a pretty major drop-off, especially for profit, with margin dropping from 23% to 18%.

Analysts expected a bit of a drop in profit, according to Bloomberg, but only as low at 13.8 trillion. The same story points the finger at the trade aggro between the US and China as a major reason for the drop off, citing reduced demand for memory chips which are a big thing for Samsung.

Among the companies presumably buying less chips is Apple, which also issued a sales warning last week, thanks largely to smartphone demand dropping off a cliff in China. Samsung has blamed its woes on ‘mounting macro uncertainties’ affecting chip sales and good old ‘intensifying competition’ in the smartphone market.

The latter claim seems somewhat implausible in the light of Apple’s recent admission. What seems more likely is that the downward trend in smartphone demand has accelerated, compounded by the fact that neither of Apple or Samsung’s latest flagship models offered much to entice people to upgrade. Two-year-old smartphones still do a decent job so upgrade cycles are extending, which means lower sales for the foreseeable future.

Samsung reckons its new smartphone UI is more intuitive than ever

The latest user interface for Samsung smartphones – One UI – tries to account for larger screens while avoiding excessive clutter.

“These days, our smartphones are so much more than phones,” opens the press release, apparently hoping to convey Samsung’s profound understanding of the current smartphone situation. All this extra functionality, we’re told, has caused many UIs to become cluttered. This is not a trap Samsung is about to fall into anytime soon.

“Samsung’s One UI is the company’s most simple and streamlined UI yet, built from the ground up to help users focus on what matters most,” effuses the release. “One UI’s intuitive design fosters convenient interactions, while its clean aesthetic minimizes clutter to make viewing your screen more comfortable.”

One fairly sensible innovation is to force most of the stuff you might need to interact with towards the bottom of the screen, where the average thumb has a better chance of reaching it. Now that smartphone screen sizes in excess of six inches have become commonplace, superhuman feats of manual yoga are often required to interact with them, which can be trying.

Somewhat less welcome is the apparent aim of presuming how much of a given app the user might want to see at a given moment. In order to do this “One UI keeps things simple, displaying only the functions and info the user needs to complete their task.” This seems pretty presumptuous and an example of a company overstepping the mark in its desperation to innovate and appear to be useful.

Xdadevelopers had a good play with One UI recently and concluded little more than grudging acceptance of its inevitability, given the evolution of the smartphone form factor. Custom UIs are a delicate balance as they present one of the few ways for an Android OEM to appear to innovate, but a bad one can drive users away. Samsung seems to have struck an OK balance here, without setting the world on fire.

The HTC fall from grace is quite remarkable

In years gone, HTC was one of the most successful and sought-after smartphone brands worldwide, but time has not been kind for the Taiwanese firm as financials for 2018 emerge.

Back in 2012, your correspondent had a One X model HTC and it was a very good phone. Due to a slight malfunction more recently, there was also a couple of months with a second-hand HTC 10. It wasn’t a phone which set the world on fire (although ask Samsung how that went down), but it was a perfectly good device. Unfortunately, it appears the brand is just not doing enough right.

As you can see from the table below, 2018 has not been a kind year as the team brought in revenues of 23.7 billion New Taiwan Dollar (NTD), 61% down on 2017.

Month Revenue Year-on-year comparison
January 3,404 -27.03%
February 2,613 -44.04%
March 2,772 -46.66%
April 2,099 -55.47%
May 2,445 -46.03%
June 2,230 -67.64%
July 1,400 -77.41%
August 1,389 -53.72%
September 1,256 -80.71%
October 1,307 -78.44%
November 1,474 -73.98%
December 1,352 -66.36%
Full year 23,741 -61.78%

All figures in New Taiwan Dollar (millions)

Just as a comparison to previous years, in 2017 HTC brought in revenues of 62.120 billion NTD, 2016 was 78.161 billion NTD and 2015 was 121.684 billion NTD. If you go all the way back to 2012, the team brought in a remarkable 465.795 billion NTD.

Of course, you have to bear in mind the business has offloaded a substantial part of its business to Google for $1.1 billion, most notably c.2000 engineers who were working on the Pixel device anyway and a horde of IP, but HTC is still running as a standalone business. Back in November, Sprint announced it was partnering with Qualcomm and HTC to develop a mobile ‘smart hub’ that will run on 5G next year.

Every now and then it is useful just to look back through the years and remember how different things were. HTC used to be one of the mobile industry’s heavyweights, alas, no more. RIP HTC.

Google wins FCC approval for gesture control tests

Google has finally won regulatory approval from the FCC to start testing the more advanced features of Project Soli, a radar-based motion sensor to allow the user to control devices through gestures.

The approval document, which you can read here, will allow Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects unit greater freedoms in testing the technology, which might look familiar if you are a fan of Tom Cruise’s Minority Report. Just when innovation is grinding to a halt in the smartphone segment, Google’s whacky scientists are working on something which could completely revolutionise the smartphone.

Project Soli initially came to be in 2015, though due to concerns the radar system would interfere with other spectrum users, power levels were limited. However, the waiver now allows Google to play with higher power levels while users can also operate the devices when on airplanes.

The idea is of course very simple. Radar sensors are in a small chip which features in the device, which detect hand and finger movements with high accuracy. Various different movements could be used to operate different features of a smart device, perhaps making the touch-screen redundant in the future. Check out the video at the bottom of the page for more details.

Interestingly enough, the FCC has not only decided Google is allowed to pursue this technology as there are no technical reasons not to do so, but also believes this project could be in the public interest.

“We further find that grant of the waiver will serve the public interest by providing for innovative device control features using touchless hand gesture technology,” the document states.

The last few years have been a bit of a baron time for smartphone innovation. Apple’s recent financial bombshell perfectly demonstrates this; not even Apple can rise above the mediocrity of innovation and grow revenues. This sort of innovation might just be what the smartphone segment needs.

And perhaps this is a sign of things to come; who knows what a smartphone or smart communications device will look like in the future. Maybe users will revert back to having two separate devices; one specialised for entertainment and the other for communications. With gesture control and voice recognition technologies, is there any need for a screen if communications is the purpose? And if you don’t need a screen, do you need such a big battery? Devices could become significantly smaller and much more power efficient.

Over the last 20 years, mobile communications devices have changed significantly. From big to small and back to big, foldable, slidable and closable, through colourful, sleek and offensive, the concept of the mobile device has always been changing. Who knows what it will actually look like in ten years’ time…