Google launches a bunch of hardware

Internet giant Google has launched the latest version of its own smartphone, together with a bunch of other stuff, as it continues to expand its hardware offering.

The tagline for the Pixel 4 smartphone is that it’s the most helpful version yet. On the surface this is a reference to Google Assistant, which has been beefed up with even more AI power to ensure it knows what you want before you do, thus sparing you the pain and indignity of having to do things like choose, decide, think, etc.

On those rare occasions when the phone feels the need to consult its owner about their best interests, it’s further assisted by improved speech recognition, which is now largely processed locally. This feature also enables a new voice recorder app that will be able to transcribe in real time – very handy for lazy journalists.

Other than that the Pixel 4 seems to come with all the expected bells and whistles; an improved camera, better chips, etc. You can possibly find out a bit more in the first of the videos below, we’re not sure if the motion sensor will be more help or hinderance. It will ship globally on October 24, costing $799 for the regular one and $899 for one that’s a bit bigger.

On top of that Google also launched some new BlueTooth ear buds, a smart speaker called the Next Mini, a wifi router incorporating the Next Mini called Next Wifi and a new laptop called the Pixelbook Go. Goole has been generous with its YouTube videos for this launch so we’ll let them do the rest of the talking.

 

US wearables market surges to $2bn in Q2

After years of letting the industry down, the wearables segment has seemingly finally got its act together, with sales totalling $2 billion in the second quarter of 2019.

According to estimates from Canalys, shipments in the second quarter increased 38% year-on-year to 7.7 million devices, with Apple leading the market share rankings, though homage should be paid to Samsung. The Korean brand saw shipments more than double, 121% year-on-year increase, to roughly 800,000 devices.

“Smartwatch vendors are increasingly getting nearer the bullseye – hitting the right price point in a way that spurs massive demand,” said

“With Samsung’s new Galaxy Watch branding in place, and showing robust performance, the company has moved to cultivate a fitness-focused line-up with the Galaxy Watch Active series, with prices between $200 and $300.

“Packing features into a compact form factor that has an appealing design is challenging but rewarding. Samsung most recently showcased these capabilities with its latest Watch Active 2 series, though other vendors are close behind.”

Of course, this market has offered many false dawns for the excitable industry on the whole, and Samsung has been one of the contributors to this trauma. Despite having a leadership position in the smartphone space, Samsung has struggled to translate this into the wearables market, though these numbers suggest the Korean brand has turned a corner.

Overall, this is a very promising trend to keep an eye on. There is a huge amount of potential for the wearables market, especially now more connectivity and entertainment options can be embedded into the products.

This is perhaps what has stuttered enthusiasm for these products over the last few years. They are functional products, few would suggest smartwatches can compete with traditional time pieces from a fashion perspective, though the functionality was never enough to justify the financial outlay. Introducing stand-alone connectivity and embedded more features is addressing this challenge, while the progress of the voice user interface will add another element.

Interestingly enough, this might just be the tip of the iceberg. The more normalised smartwatch devices become, the more open consumers will be to other connected devices. It might not be too-long before we are talking about LTE-connected glasses or headphones to act as an alternative to communications devices.

Apple continues to command the smartwatch market – report

Analysts believe Apple has increased its smartwatch shipments by 50% to capture a bigger share of an expanding market. The gap between the Apple Watch and the chasing pack is widening.

Unlike the contracting smartphone market, the smartwatch market is still experiencing fast growth, although the absolute volume is still small. According to data published by the research firm Strategy Analytics, 12.3 million smartwatches were sold in Q2, up by 44% from 8.6 million a year ago.

5.7 million pieces of Apple Watch were shipped in the quarter, up by 50% from 3.8 million in the same quarter last year, giving Apple, the run-away market leader, a 46.4% market share, up from 44.4%. The biggest market share gain, however, was registered by Samsung. The Galaxy Watch maker more than doubled its volume to 2.0 million from 0.9 million in Q2 2018 and took over the number two position on the leader board with a 15.9% share. Samsung’s gain was primarily at the expense of Fitbit, which saw its market sharing plunging from 15.2% a year ago to 9.2%.

“Fitbit has struggled to compete with Apple Watch at the higher end of the smartwatch market, while its new Versa Lite model has struggled to take-off at the lower end,” Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics, commented on the competition dynamics. “Fitbit will have to move fast to execute a recovery, because Samsung, Garmin, Fossil and other competitors are keen to grab a slice of its valuable health and fitness customers.”

The research firm does not publish the value and value share of the smartwatch market, but it should be safe to estimate that Apple’s leading position would be more commanding if calculated in monetary terms, considering that Apple Watch is generally priced 40% higher than the Galaxy Watch with similar features, which in turn is generally more expensive than the smaller competitors.

Smartwatch market Q2'2019 SA

Although Apple does not break down sales income to product lines, “Wearables, Home and Accessories”, the business unit that includes the Watch, reported the highest growth (+48%) among all the business units in Apple’s Q2 results, and has overtaken the total revenues from the iPad unit.

Tim Cook, the CEO, is also banking high hopes on the Apple Watch for future growth. In a January interview by CNBC, Cook claimed the Apple Watch has democratised health care. “We are taking what has been with the institution and empowering the individual to manage their health. And we’re just at the front end of this,” Cook said. “But I do think, looking back, in the future, you will answer that question: Apple’s most important contribution to mankind has been in health.”

Apple CEO triggered by reports of design decline

When Apple’s famous head of design decided to call it a day last week, there was widespread speculation around what may have caused such a move.

The most Juicy gossip came from the Wall Street Journal, which wrote a piece contending that Jony Ive started the process of clearing off long ago and that it was motivated, at least in part, by CEO Tim Cook’s relative disinterest in the design process. This in turn demoralised Ive who, according to the account, became an increasingly distant figure at Apple Towers.

Tim Cook has always been known as an operations specialist with a particular talent for managing an efficient supply chain. Since he took over from the more creative, mercurial Apple founder Steve Jobs in 2011, these talents have ensured the company has gone from strength to strength in terms of revenue and profitability, but there has always been speculation that this has come at the expense of innovation.

That last truly disruptive move from Apple came with the launch of the iPad in 2010, but it looks like Ive was hoping the Apple Watch launch in 2015 would be a similar inflection point. While Apple has flogged quite a few of them and doubtless trousered a pile of cash in the process, there’s very little that differentiates the Apple Watch from its competitors and the category itself has failed to set the technology world on fire.

So it’s easy to see why a narrative that contends innovation at Apple is being suffocated with him in charge might trouble Cook somewhat, which seems to be confirmed by his response to the WSJ piece. Uncharacteristically he publicly took issue with the story via a statement sent to NBC News, in which he asserted it was at odds with his own perception.

“The story is absurd,” wrote Cook. “A lot of the reporting, and certainly the conclusions, just don’t match with reality. At a base level, it shows a lack of understanding about how the design team works and how Apple works. It distorts relationships, decisions and events to the point that we just don’t recognize the company it claims to describe.”

Grizzled Journalists soon recognised this as the kind of non-specific denial companies often send out when they want to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a story without calling out any specific inaccuracies. Cook is essentially saying he disagrees with the conclusions but then he would, wouldn’t he?

Ive’s departure doesn’t seem to have done Apple’s share price any harm, but it does increase the pressure on the company to prove it can still be a consumer technology trailblazer without him. While Apple hasn’t shown much evidence of this for a while, that lack of differentiation was largely put down to the maturity of the smartphone form factor and the openness of the component supply chain. If Apple still hasn’t invented anything revolutionary in a few years’ time, people now might pin the blame on Cook.

Apple’s design chief decides to call it a day

Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, has announced that he is leaving the company at the end of the year and will set up LoveFrom, his own creative business, with Apple as its first client.

Sir Jonathan “Jony” Ive has been instrumental in giving the world a string of iconic Apple products over the last two decades. Among them the most influential ones should be the iPod, which turned the recorded music industry upside down, the iPhone, which redefined what mobile handsets are and do, and the iPad, which practically created the tablet market. In addition, he was also behind the Mac computers and the Apple Watch, the success of which has been more muted.

Ive stressed that his departure from the company does not mean he will stop working with Apple. “While I will not be an [Apple] employee, I will still be very involved — I hope for many, many years to come,” Ive told the Financial Times in an interview. “This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change.” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, believed the company would continue the success of the Ive era, and was looking forward to the collaboration with Ive’s new venture. “We get to continue with the same team that we’ve had for a long time and have the pleasure of continuing to work with Jony,” Cook told the FT. “I can’t imagine a better result.” Apple will not announce a successor to fill Ive’s CDO position immediately. Instead, the managers of the design teams will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s COO.

Ive’s decision to leave should not appear to have come out of the blue to those that have followed the industry, and the company, closely. He was the late Steve Jobs’ closest ally and, among other things, had been an active presence at product debuts, through video links. After Jobs passed away this patterned continued, up to the point when the Apple Watch was launched. Ive would appear at the events on pre-recorded videos, unveiling the products, in particular talking about the details. That has not happened since. In a 2015 feature by the New Yorker magazine, Ive said he had been “deeply tired”. In May that year he was appointed CDO, a position that would rid him of the day-to-day responsibilities to run the design team.

More recently it appears Ive has expand his interest beyond sleek consumer products. For example, his team were heavily involved in designing Apple’s new headquarters. This is also a vision he gives his new business. “There are products that we have been working on for a number of years,” Ive told the FT. “I’m beyond excited that I get to continue working on those, and there are some new projects as well that I’ll get to develop and contribute to.” He also denied that the weakened appeal of the iPhone, which has not been helped by the trade war with China, is a contributing factor to his decision. To tell from his reduced involvement in products over the last few years, the decision seems to have been long in the making.

Before he was knighted for “services to design and enterprise” by the Queen in 2012, Ive had already been hailed by Stephen Fry as one of the two Englishmen alive to have the most profound impact on people’s lives. The other, according to Fry, is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Xiaomi is meeting Huawei domestic aggression head on

Smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi plans to increase the investment in channel and retail development in the Chinese market by $725 million, to improve its position and to counter the expected aggression from market leader Huawei.

Bloomberg cited its source at Xiaomi that the Chinese smartphone company has decided to invest CNY 5 billion ($725 million) over the next three years to shore up its channel and retail position in China’s contracting smartphone market. This will come on top of its current budget and will be spent on channel expansion, partner incentive, and sales force financing, according to the report.

The decision is also made in anticipation of Huawei’s aggressive channel and retail movements in China in the near future, the source told Bloomberg. Huawei, the smartphone market leader in China admitted recently that its business will suffer from the US sanctions and the severance of business relations by companies like Google. In the consumer segment, which now accounts for more than half of Huawei’s total revenue, the impact will mainly in the overseas market with the disappearance of Google services from its smartphones posing the biggest impediments to consumers’ purchasing decision. This will drive Huawei to further strengthen its grip on the Chinese market, where it is already supplying one out of ten of the smartphones being sold.

Xiaomi has reaped the benefits after investing heavily in the overseas markets in recent years, having broken into the top five in a number of European markets while also well received in growth markets like India. It has the ambition to become the market leader in its home market too, but so far, the company has been vying for the fourth position with Apple, trailing Huawei, OPPO, and Vivo.

Huawei and Xiaomi also adopt different retail strategies. In addition to smartphones, Huawei also sells its full line of consumer products in the retail outlets including PCs, tablets, and other consumer devices.  Xiaomi, on the other hand, has carried the “ecosystem” concept from online, which used to its exclusively channel, to offline retail. In addition to its own branded products, centred around the smartphones, partner products on its IoT ecosystem are also offered in the retail outlets, in line with its strategies.

EFF to testify in support of California facial recognition technology ban

Last month, the City of San Francisco banned law enforcement agencies from using facial recognition software in cameras, and now the issue has been escalated to the State Senate.

While this is still only a minor thorn in the side of those who have complete disregard for privacy principles, it has the potential to swell into a major debate. There have been numerous trials around the world in an attempt to introduce the invasive technology, but no-one has actually stopped to have a public debate as to whether the disembowelling of privacy rights should be so easily facilitated.

After the City of San Francisco passed the rules, officials voted 8-1 in support of the ban, the issue was escalated up to State level. SB 1215 is now being considered by State legislators, with the Senate Committee on Public Safety conducting a review of pros and cons.

Numerous organizations have come out to support progress of the bill, and of course the official organizations representing law enforcement agencies at State level are attempting to block it. As part of the review process, EFF Grassroots Advocacy Organizer Nathan Sheard will testify in-front of the California Senate Public Safety Committee later on today [June 11].

The issue which is being debated here is quite simple; should the police be allowed to use such invasive surveillance technologies, potentially violating citizens right to privacy without knowledge or consent. Many laws are being passed to give citizens more control of their personal data in the digital economy, but with such surveillance technologies, said citizens may have no idea their images are being collected, analysed and stored by the State.

What should be viewed as an absolutely incredible instance of negligence and irresponsible behaviour, numerous police forces around the world have moved forward implementing these technologies without in-depth public consultation. Conspiracy theorists will have penned various nefarious outcomes for such data, but underhanded Government and police actions like this do support the first-step of their theories.

The City of San Francisco, the State of California and the EFF, as well as the dozens of other agencies challenging deployment of the technology, are quite right to slow progress. The introduction of facial recognition software should be challenged, debated and scrutinised. Free-reign should not be given to police forces and intelligence agencies; they have already show themselves as untrustworthy. They have lost the right to play around with invasive technologies without public debate.

“This bill declares that facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technology pose unique and significant threats to the civil rights and civil liberties of residents and visitors,” the proposed bill states.

“[the bill] Declares that the use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance is the functional equivalent of requiring every person to show a personal photo identification card at all times in violation of recognized constitutional rights. [the bill] States that this technology also allows people to be tracked without consent and would also generate massive databases about law-abiding Californians and may chill the exercise of free speech in public places.”

Under existing laws, there seems to be little resistance to implementing these technologies, aside from the loose definition of ‘best practice’. This would not be considered a particularly difficult hurdle to overcome, such is the nuanced nature of ‘best practice’. Considering the negative implications of the technology, more red-tape should be introduced, forcing the police and intelligence agencies to provide suitable levels of justification and accountability.

Most importantly, there are no requirements for police forces or intelligence agencies to seek approval from the relevant legislative body to deploy the technology. Permission is needed to acquire cellular communications interception technology, in order to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of residents and visitors. The same rights are being challenged with facial recognition software in cameras, but no permissions are required.

This is of course not the first sign of resistance to facial recognition technologies. In January, 85 pro-privacy organizations, charities and influencers wrote to Amazon, Google and Microsoft requesting the firms pledge not to sell the technology to police forces or intelligence agencies. It does appear the use of the data by enforcement agencies in countries like China has put the fear into these organizations.

The accuracy of the technology has also been called into question. Although the tech giants are claiming AI is improving the accuracy every day, last year the American Civil Liberties Union produced research which suggested a 5% error rate. The research claimed 28 members of Congress had been falsely identified as people who had been arrested.

Interestingly enough, critics also claim the technology violates the Forth Amendment of the US Constitution. It has already been established that police demanding identification without suspicion violates this amendment, while the American Civil Liberties Union argues such technologies are effectively doing the same thing.

What is worth noting is that it is highly unlikely a total ban will be passed. This is not the case in the City of San Francisco, as the city has introduced measures to ensure appropriate justification and also that data is stored properly. The key with the rules in San Francisco is that it is making it as difficult as possible to ensure the technologies are not used haphazardly.

What we are most likely to see is bureaucracy. Red-tape will be scattered all over the technology to ensure it is used in an appropriate and justified manner.

Accessibility is one of the issues which privacy campaigners are facing right now. Companies like New York-based Vuzix and NNTC in the UAE are making products which are not obviously used for surveillance and are becoming increasingly affordable. Software from companies like NEC is also becoming more available, giving the police more options. A landscape with affordable technology and no regulatory resistance paints a gloomy picture.

The introduction of more red-tape might have under-resourced and under-pressure police forces frustrated, but such is the potential invasion of privacy rights and the consequence of abuse, it is absolutely necessary. The quicker this technology is brought into the public domain and understood by the man-on-the-street, the better.

Enhanced privacy protection is now at the core of Apple

At its 2019 developer conference Apple introduced new measures to strengthen user privacy protection, as a point of differentiation from other big tech companies.

Apple is hosting its 2019 edition of Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in California. On the first day the company announced a number of new products including the iOS13, new version of MacOS (called “Catalina”), the first version of iPadOS, and WatchOS6. At the same time, iTunes, which has been around for nearly two decades and has been at the vanguard of Apple’s adventure into the music industry, is finally retired. At the event, Apple also unveiled the radically revamped Mac Pro. Instead of looking like a waste basket (as the 2nd generation did), the new top end desktop computer looks more like a cheese grater.

One key feature that stood out when the new software was introduced was Apple’s focus on privacy, in particular the new “Sign in with Apple”.  It will be mandatory for apps which support 3rd-party log in to also include this new option, in addition to, or as Apple would like it, instead of, Facebook and Google. Although Tim Cook, in a post-event interview with CBS claimed “we’re not really taking a shot at anybody”, Craig Federighi, Apple’s software chief, was pulling no punch when introducing the feature. After showing the current two options to sign in apps or websites, he declared Apple wanted to offer a better option, which will be “fast, easy sign-in without all the tracking.”

In practice this means Apple will act as a privacy interlocutor. A user can log in to an app or a website with his or her Apple ID. Apple will then verify the email addresses, make dual-factor authentication, then send developers a unique random ID, which Apple asks developers to trust. Users can also choose to use TouchID or FaceID for authentication. In addition to the Apple products (iPhone, iPad, Watch, etc.), and it can also work on browsers built on other platforms (Windows, Chrome, etc.).

In addition to Sign in with Apple, the company also updated its Maps, so that apps that track users’ location would need to ask for permission every time it is activated. On MacOS, all apps need to request permission to access the user’s files on the computer, while Watch users can approve security requests by tapping the button on the side.

Although both Facebook and Google have been talking up about their focus on privacy, these companies have an intrinsic conflict of interest: their business model is built on monetising user data. Apple, on the other hand, makes money by selling products and services. Therefore, it is in Apple’s own interest to guard user privacy as close as possible, to enhance current and future consumers’ trust. By making privacy protection its differentiator, or as TechCrunch called it, delivering “privacy-as-a-service”, Apple is elevating the match to a level Google, Facebook, and other internet companies will be challenged to match.

Wearables are on the up – IDC

Global shipments of wearable devices are increasingly healthily increasing, according to IDC estimates, up 55% to 49.6 million over the first three months of 2019.

Wearables are a tricky segment for the technology and telco world. So much is promised, a new revolution in digital society, but for years it has failed to deliver on the potential. That said, the last couple of quarters have looked a lot more promising.

“The elimination of headphone jacks and the increased usage of smart assistants both inside and outside the home have been driving factors in the growth of ear-worn wearables,” said Jitesh Ubrani Research Manager for IDC Mobile Device Trackers.

“Looking ahead, this will become an increasingly important category as major platform and device makers use ear-worn devices as an on-ramp to entice consumers into an ecosystem of wearable devices that complement the smartphone but also offer the ability to leave the phone behind when necessary.”

This was perhaps the watershed moment for wearables; standalone connectivity. Smart watches, the flagbearer for the segment on the whole, struggled to gain traction due to a lack of standalone connectivity. These certainly weren’t fashion accessories in the early days and tethering the devices to a smartphone largely undermined the selling points.

With standalone connectivity there is now attention on the devices, and the increasing adoption of voice user interface, the devices more appealing for a wider range of applications. That said, the fitness niche is still proving to be a profitable one.

“Shipments of wristwear – including watches and wristbands – grew 31.6% year over year, and continue to dominate the wearables landscape,” said Ramon Llamas, Research Director for Wearables at IDC.

“While the functionalities and capabilities have grown and changed, the one common thread is the relentless focus on health and fitness. This has resonated strongly with users and health insurance companies alike, and new health and fitness insights attract a larger audience.”

Brand Shipments (million) Market share Year-on-year growth
Apple 12.8 25.8% 49.5%
Xiaomi 6.6 13.3% 68.2%
Huawei 5 10% 282.2%
Samsung 4.3 8.7% 151.6%
Fitbit 2.9 5.9% 35.7%
Others 18 36.3% 26%

Interestingly enough, over the last few quarters the top five manufacturers have been consolidating their position in the market, with the ‘others’ category claiming less and less. Like the smartphone space, this is increasingly looking like a market which will be tough for new-comers to crack, with market preferences shifting towards those who have an established brand in the space.

Google has another run at the AR world

Google is taking another crack at the growing augmented reality segment with the launch of Glass Enterprise Edition 2.

While the first enterprise product has seemingly trundled along without fanfare, Google will be hoping the segment is ripe enough to make the desired millions. Although this is a technology area which promises huge prospects in the future, sceptics will suggest society, networks and the supporting ecosystem isn’t quite ready to make this dream a reality.

“Over the past two years at X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, we’ve collaborated with our partners to provide solutions that improve workplace productivity for a growing number of customers – including AGCO, Deutsche Post DHL Group, Sutter Health, and H.B. Fuller,” said Jay Kothari Project, Lead for Glass. “We’ve been inspired by the ways businesses like these have been using Glass Enterprise Edition.

“X, which is designed to be a protected space for long-term thinking and experimentation, has been a great environment in which to learn and refine the Glass product. Now, in order to meet the demands of the growing market for wearables in the workplace and to better scale our enterprise efforts, the Glass team has moved from X to Google.”

This is a massive step for any Google idea. Graduating from the moonshot labs to be listed as a genuine brand in the Google family is a sign executives think there are profits to be made now, not in the future. Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen the likes of Loon and Fi make their way into the real world, and now it is time for Glass to hit the big time.

Google Glass was first brought to the market in 2013, though this wasn’t exactly a riveting success. Perhaps it was just a sign of the ecosystem and society at the time; people just weren’t ready for this type of innovation. However, Google is a company which often demonstrates innovation leadership and it was never going to completely give up on this idea. The products were taken back to the labs and refined.

What you have now is an enterprise orientated product which has the potential to run into the mass market. This makes sense for two reasons; firstly, there are more immediate usecases for the enterprise world, and secondly, businesses have more money to spend on these types of products than the consumer.

What remains to be seen is whether Google has any long-term interest in the hardware space or whether this is a game-plan to generate momentum in an embryonic segment.

When you look at the smart speaker segment, Google was always set to make more money in software and services than the hardware space. As soon as the traditional audio brands got the idea, its products were going to come up short. However, selling the hardware cheap to gain consumer buy-in while simultaneously demonstrating market appetite to the traditional brands was an excellent move.

Now there are more mainstream brands starting to develop their own smart speakers, Google can create partnerships to ensure its virtual assistance is exposed to the consumer and make money through means which are embedded in its corporate DNA; third-party relationships and online advertising.

Google might well have ambitions to take a leadership position in the AR glasses space, but you can also guarantee it has bigger plans to make profits through the supporting software and services ecosystem.