Vodafone pulls out a genuinely good 5G demo – get ready for holograms!

While many 5G demos show technical progress, few wow an audience in the same way Vodafone did at its Future Ready press conference, unveiling the UK’s first live holographic call.

After CTO Scott Petty set the stage with a number of impressive announcements indicating Vodafone is perhaps not the cumbersome beast we have come to expect, an underwhelming skit involving a VR headset and England Women’s football captain Steph Houghton led irritable journalists towards a slumber. But with a drop of the curtain, the demo was unveiled in all its glory. And it was incredibly impressive.

5G will enable remote surgery and 4K gaming experiences, though there is little excitement generated through this announcements nowadays. Using 5G technology to underpin the experience, Houghton, who was located in a Manchester studio at the time, appeared in Vodafone’s Newbury HQ as a 3D hologram. The image was sharp, the lag was unnoticeable and all of a sudden the audience was engaged. It was cheesy, as Houghton showed off her skills and answered some questions from 11 year-old football fan Iris, but it was an excellent demonstration of the power of 5G.

“Vodafone has a history of firsts in UK telecoms – we made the nation’s first mobile phone call, sent the first text and now we’ve conducted the UK’s first holographic phone call using 5G,” said Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffrey.

What is worth noting is this is not a world first, KT is developing hologram calling as a flagship 5G service and has conducted a test call between Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam and its own CEO Hwang Chang-gyu. That said, this should not take the shine off an impressive demonstration.

Some might look at such an idea and scoff; what is the opportunity aside from showing off what the network is capable of, surely this isn’t realistic for the real world? But why not?

A decade ago it would have been inconceivable to consider video conferencing as a mass market product. In the early years it was reserved for the board room, due to the price of equipment and the software to make it work. Nowadays, Skype calling is as common as a sausage sandwich. We’re not suggesting hologram calling is going to be commonplace over the next couple of years, but who knows what is possible when the price point of technology starts tumbling down.

CTO Petty referred to the famous Bill Gates quote when discussing the potential for a mass market product; most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten. The mind runs wild when you consider what could be possible; GP consultations from your living room, distance learning would take on a new spin and some sports events, boxing for instance, could take the live audience from tens of thousands to millions by setting up holographic arenas all over the world. Healthcare, education and entertainment could be completely revolutionised.

It’s been a while since a 5G demonstration has genuinely got a room full of journalists excited; well done Vodafone!

 

The FDA certified Apple Watch is still not a medical device

The new Apple Watch has been cleared by the FDA to sell as a low-grade health tracking device but is not producing medical grade data.

At the event where the new iPhones were launched, Apple also launched the 4th iteration Apple Watch. Though it was not the focus of the event, Apple deservedly prided itself for being the first smart watch to pass FDA test. One feature highlighted at the presentation is, by combining the readings from the gyroscope and the accelerometer the Watch can tell when a user has tripped or fallen. If the user stays static after the fall for more than a minute, the cellular equipped Watch can automatically call for help from emergency service or reach out to the family or friend. This can turn out very helpful for the aging population.

Another function of the Apple Watch being marketed is its capability to detect and alert the user irregular heartbeats which can be a symptom of a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, or AFib. This can also be a meaningful feature for a large user group: according to estimates by the US Centers for Disease Control, between 2.7 and 6.1 million people in the US have AFib, many of whom may not be even aware of it.

Apple has conducted an “Apple Heart Study” with Stanford University, the findings of which became the basis on which it gained the FDA clearance. However the total sample size was small (few than 600) and the match rate with professional medical devices was not extremely high. But the data was good enough to convince FDA that the solution worked and it was safe. Apple Watch was given a Class II risk device category, meaning it will not be life threatening even if it does not work. In contrast, if a pacemaker stops working the patient will die, therefore it is classified Class III.

In its approval file to Apple, the FDA demanded Apple to explicitly spell out the possibility of inaccurate reading as well as warn users that the is not a replacement for medical care, although the worst that can happen when the Watch reading is wrong is to cause scare for a healthy user.

Therefore, the new Apple Watch can do the job of a low to mid-range electrocardiogram reader, but it is not a medical device. In a typical professional situation, a patient will have 12 reading leads attached to different parts of the body, including the chest and the limbs, to provide accurate reading. What Apple Watch can give is equivalent to one of them, on the wrist.

No professional physicians will make judgement based on the reading on the Apple Watch. Any sensible users had better not either.

Fitbit fights back at Apple in the smart watch market

The latest smart watch numbers from analyst firm Counterpoint reveal Apple is still the dominant player but Fitbit is giving it a run for its money.

Total global smart watch shipments grew 37% year-on-year but it’s rapidly turning into a two horse race. Apple hijacked the market as soon as it took the segment seriously but its initial success seemed to stall. Meanwhile Fitbit more recently made the strategic decision to diversify beyond fitness bands and that move seems to have paid dividends.

Apple still dominates with a 41% of global shipments, but that’s down from 48% a year ago. Meanwhile Fitbit has managed to propel its share from 8% a year ago to 21% in Q2 2018, thanks to the apparently popular Versa smart. Everyone else is miles behind, with one-time leader Samsung now bordering on irrelevance.

Counterpoint smartwatch Q2 2018 1

“Back in Q4 2017, Apple stepped up its strategy in the smartwatch segment by enhancing the features of smart watches into broad-based functionalities, including some health and fitness tracking capabilities,” said Satyajit Sinha of Counterpoint. “Moreover, Apple is catalysing the trend of ‘smart watch as a standalone wearable device’ with adoption of cellular connectivity, which is driving the new wave of cellular connected wearables globally, great news for mobile operators.”

It doesn’t look like the market got the memo about standalone smart watches, however. As Sinha’s colleague Neil Shah notes, people seem reluctant to pay the premium just for the opportunity to talk to their wrist like a nut-case.

“Despite initial hype and traction of cellular based Apple Watch Series 3 in the first two quarters, Apple iPhone users are actually choosing the Series 1 as a non-cellular option over Series 3 non-cellular model which is surprising to many industry watchers,” said Shah. Not all industry watchers mate. The strong inference here is that Apple hasn’t done much to improve on the Series 1 other than whack in an expensive and largely redundant modem.

As indicated the Apple Watch Series 1 is the best selling model, followed by the Fitbit Versa. Given that Chinese vendor Amazfit has the third best selling brand despite only having a 4% total market share, that implies these two models are by far the biggest sellers. Unsurprisingly the Fitbit Versa is significantly cheaper than any Amazon Watch, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see it continue to grab share in the coming quarters.

Counterpoint smartwatch Q2 2018 2

Apple looks set to get into the augmented reality glasses game

Gadget giant Apple has acquired a startup that makes a glass technology which can display holographic AR images.

There was no formal announcement, but Reuters got the scoop and obliged Apple to confirm the move. The startup in question is called Akonia Holographics and, while it has a website, it doesn’t seem to have been very active for a while. Its main technology is called HoloMirror, which seems to combine regular ‘heads-up display’ style AR with holography.

Various other tech companies, including Google and Snapchat, have dabbled with smart glasses over the years, but they have yet to take off as a consumer tech category. Aside from the complications associated with superimposing AR over your regular life, there have been widespread concerns about the privacy implications of glasses that could surreptitiously record whatever the wearer sees and hears.

For some reason the Reuters story cited Pokemon Go as an example of augmented reality, where in fact it mainly just presents digital images on the camera screen without context. True augmented reality offers information and digital interaction with whatever you see through the lens or camera and has the potential to fundamentally blur the boundary between digital and analogue.

If Apple does bring some kind of AR glasses (or even contact lenses!) to market, it will be interesting to see if it manages to do so in a way that both makes them more user-friendly and successfully addresses the creepiness factor. It hasn’t done a great job of getting into other consumer electronics categories recently, so Apple is likely to spend a long time thinking this through before it makes its move.

Maybe Fitbit can be more than just a niche exercise product

Fitbit might not be turning in the results of yesteryear, but riding the wave of Versa to beat analyst expectations demonstrates there might be mass-market appeal for the brand.

Total revenues stood at $299.3 million for the three months ending June 30, and while this is still considerably down on the $353.3 produced in the same period for 2017, it beats expectations from analysts. The success for this period has been attributed to Versa, the team’s attempt to break away from the fitness-tracking niche and enter into the mainstream smartwatch market.

“Our performance in Q2 represents the sixth consecutive quarter that we have delivered on our financial commitments, made important progress in transforming our business, and continued to adapt to the changing wearables market,” said CEO James Park.

“Demand for Versa, our first ‘mass-appeal’ smartwatch, is very strong. Within the second quarter, Versa outsold Samsung, Garmin and Fossil smartwatches combined in North America, improving our position with retailers, solidifying shelf space for the Fitbit brand and providing a halo effect to our other product offerings.”

Overall, Fitbit sold 2.7 million wearable devices across the quarter, with the average unit price increasing 6% year-on-year, primarily down to the newer product releases. Those devices released in the last twelve months accounted for 59% of total revenues, providing confidence in the brands ability to diversify from the niche which has served it so well through the underwhelming years for wearable devices.

Fitbit launched the Versa on 16 April and boasted about selling one million devices just over one month later. The product is more in-line with what you would have expected from a smartwatch device, moving beyond the fitness tracking niche Fitbit has become known for. Just looking at the device demonstrates the shift, though what’s on the device is what counts, as it features all the apps we have become accustomed to. It is a big move from Fitbit, and it looks to have worked.

Perhaps this is a positive sign for the wearables industry on the whole. For years, Fitbit appeared to be the only wearables brand which could survive as devices failed to meet the expectations of consumers. Maybe the consumer was not ready for the wearables craze, but the simplicity of Fitbits fitness trackers worked. In being able to move out of the niche and into mass-market appeal, this might be a sign the general public is ready to embrace wearables on the whole.

Looking at the share price, it is still way down on the peak from 2015, some 87%, but there have been signs of recovery across 2018. There is a notable dip in the last 5-6 weeks, though should Fitbit be able to maintain this venture into the mainstream market, we can only see the share price going up.

Fitbit Shareprice

Qualcomm launches a bunch of chips in China

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm used the first day of Mobile World Congress Shanghai 2018 to launch new chips for smartphones and watches.

Qualcomm has the market for third party smartphone SoCs sewn up at the premium end, but Chinese chip-maker Mediatek, among others, is giving it a run for its money in the middle and lower tiers. It’s presumably no coincidence, then, that Qualcomm chose this event to make its mass market chip announcements.

The Snapdragon 800 range is all about the premium tier, then we have 600s for the high tier and 400s for the mid tier. Qualcomm just announced the Snapdragon 632, 439 and 429, which will all be a bit better than their predecessors at things like performance, battery life, and that sort of thing.

“The introduction of Snapdragon 632, 439 and 429 builds off Qualcomm Technologies’ highest-selling mobile platforms and provides users with increased performance and power efficiency, superior graphics, AI capabilities and enhanced connectivity features,” said Kedar Kondap, VP of product management at Qualcomm. “We’re excited to offer these new platforms with enhanced features to our OEMs and consumers.”

The 632 SoC features a Kryo 250 CPU, an Adreno 506 GPU, the X9 LTE modem, and supports a 24MP camera. The 439 has an Adreno 505 GPU and the 429 has an Adreno 504 GPU. No branded CPU cores are detailed, which probably means they use off-the-shelf ARM cores. They support 21MP and 16MP cameras, respectively.

Qualcomm’s other announcement at the show was a new chip designed specifically for the kind of cheaper smart watch you might give to a child. The Snapdragon Wear 2500 Platform has features like extended battery life and low power location tracking so you can keep an eye on where your kids are. The platform also has an LTE modem and a special version of Android designed for kids.

“If you look at the targeted kid watch and tracker segment the growth in these designed-for-kids but highly capable devices, is very exciting, and customers are seeing wide spread global demand,” said Anthony Murray, GM of Voice, Music and Wearables at Qualcomm. “Qualcomm has helped to drive this fast expansion of 4G kid watches with its Snapdragon Wear 2100 platform and there are more than 10 devices commercially available today through retail and carriers,”

“With this next generation Snapdragon Wear 2500 platform, we are supporting new performance and features that customers will be able to use to create even more fun features and compelling use cases for these connected 4G kid watches and with our dedicated kid watch platform we aim to deliver a robust foundation that supports a rich and engaging experience for children.”

There is lots of talk about the whole platform and how great it is for this sort of thing. It supports limited camera, AI voice assistants and name-drops NXP NTC technology that can be handy for giving kids some limited digital wallet functionality. The marketing for these sorts of devices is understandably aimed at parents and talks about things like fitness tracking too. It’s not clear, however, how much traction there is for kid-oriented smart watches and for them to take off they would probably need to be pretty cheap.

Somehow Fitbit continues to make the wearables market work

While everyone else seems to struggle to make any money in the floundering wearables market, Fitbit has boasted of shipping more than one million Versa devices since general availability began on April 16.

Fitbit’s Versa smartwatch has been marketed as a ‘personalized daily health and fitness companion’, featuring an on-device health dashboard, tetherless connectivity, mobile payments, Android quick replies and healthy battery life. Aside from having a use which is appealing to a niche, but dedicated demographic (fitness and health fanatics), pricing the product at $199.95 makes Versa accessible. With more than one million shipments inside seven weeks, it seems Fitbit might be onto another winner after a couple of difficult months.

“With Fitbit Versa, we are delivering on our promise to offer a true mass appeal smartwatch with engaging new features,” said James Park, CEO of Fitbit. “The positive response to Versa shows that we are filling this void and well positions us to gain share of the fast-growing smartwatch market.”

Despite Park’s positivity, the company has been struggling in recent months. The firm announced sales of $247.9 million for the quarter in May, and while this number was up on analyst expectations, it was short of the $298.9 million generated during the same period of 2017, and even further behind the $505.4 million in Q1 2016. Fitbit had defied the trends in the wearables community for years, but it seemed time had caught up. That said, the numbers being quoted for the Versa device seem to offer hope.

For years Fitbit has seemingly been one of the few companies who was able to make headway in the struggling wearables market. In truth, the technology was not, and probably still isn’t, ready. Standalone connectivity was a big step forward last year, if a device was tethered to a phone what was the point, but the simplicity and niche appeal of the Fitbit exercise devices made it a lucrative venture for the team.

Another positive move for the team seems to be the launch of a new female health tracking feature, which has been downloaded by 2.4 million users. Entering into the services market is certainly a good move for Fitbit, as the last six months have shown how dangerous the product market can be; Versa was needed to recapture momentum, though recurring revenues through apps is a sensible supporting revenue stream.

This is not the moment of euphoria for wearables, Nokia’s plight with Withing’s demonstrates Fitbit is the exception not the rule. The product is still reliant on the development of other technologies before it becomes a genuine feature of the connected economy. Standalone connectivity was an important step forward, but the voice interface will be another one, as will eSIMs, gesture control and specific connectivity plans for the devices.

Fitbit might be able to make this space work right now, but there is still some way for everyone else.

Nokia disposes of Withings and yet another Technologies President

Nokia has indicated that Gregory Lee’s main job was to get rid of Withings, so now that process is complete he’s moving on.

When Lee was poached from Samsung Electronics North America less than a year ago the messaging was that his consumer electronics expertise would take Nokia’s re-entry into the consumer space to the next level.

“Gregory’s passion for innovation and operational excellence, along with his proven ability to build and lead global consumer technology businesses, make him well suited to advance Nokia’s efforts in virtual reality, digital health and beyond,” said Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri at the time.

Withings, which had only been acquired the previous year, was clearly meant to be a cornerstone of this consumer tech effort, so imagine Lee’s dismay when, at the start of this year, Nokia announced it was ‘reviewing strategic alternatives’ for its digital health division. By the start of this month that process concluded flogging it back to the bloke they bought it from was the best strategic alternative, which kind of called Lee’s position into question.

“Gregory came to Nokia, made a clear-eyed assessment of our consumer business and incubation activities, and took the bold decision to refocus Nokia Technologies on licensing,” said Suri. “As part of that effort, he assessed strategic options for Digital Health, which led to the sale of that business. Given that, we have agreed that his work at Nokia is done. He leaves the company with my great appreciation and thanks.”

So the official line is that the guy they brought in to head up its consumer tech business quickly concluded Nokia shouldn’t be in the consumer tech business. OK, fair enough, but that’s a pretty strange narrative. A simpler explanation would be that, by the end of 2017, Nokia realised (once more) that it couldn’t hack it as a standalone devices player and that Lee just had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nokia’s confusion about what to do with the devices IP it kept hold of when it flogged the handset division to Microsoft seems to have manifested itself in turmoil at the top of the Nokia Technology division. Ramzi Haidamus was brought in from Dolby in 2014, oversaw the brand licensing idea, but cleared off after two years, just after the acquisition of Withings, indicating he maybe disagreed with the move.

They then brought in Brad Rodrigues, but only ever named him as ‘Interim President’ of Nokia Technologies and he lasted a year or so before moving on not long after Lee came on board. Now, were told, current Nokia Chief Legal Officer Maria Varsellona has been handed this poisoned chalice, a move that makes sense if the division is reverting back to patent trolling, which seemed its most likely strategy from the start.

We all make mistakes. Nokia thought it could re-enter the devices market in a narrower, more targeted way through Withings and at the same time position itself to capitalise on consumer IoT when it starts to take off. It then had to be reminded the hard way that devices are no longer a core competence and Lee has been unfortunate to be at the helm during that process.