Google’s Design Gridlock

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Another hamfisted design effort from Google, I’m afraid: this time, they’ve compressed the links at the bottom of the Gmail page to Google-related services to a grid, which you have to click on to find the service you want to access. 

This is what it used to look like: 

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This is what it now looks like: 

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Not only does this add a step to the process, but it also requires a significant move of the mouse to the services at the bottom (and don’t get me started on why you’d want to go to Gmail when you’re already in Gmail.) 

And there’s no way I can see of being able to go back to the old set of links at the top. 

This was a design experiment dating back to March, according to TNW. Back then Emil Protalinski commented that this seemed to borrow from Chrome OS and be an attempt to align with its mobile interface: 

We can understand Google replacing the navigation bar with a menu button: it saves horizontal space and works well with the goal of keeping things minimal. That being said, it adds a click to every action.

In the scheme of things this is probably no biggie, but it does seem to suggest that the wrong people are running design at Google, or they’ve run out of ideas, or they’re so intent on getting Google+ buttons everywhere that everything becomes secondary. Whatever, every incremental step that reduces the experience of Gmail adds to the likelihood it will start losing users.

Asha to Ashes: Microsoft’s Emerging Markets Conundrum

A piece I wrote with Devi in Delhi, and the help of a couple of other colleagues. 

Asha to Ashes: Microsoft’s emerging market conundrum

By Jeremy Wagstaff and Devidutta Tripathy

SINGAPORE/NEW DELHI | Thu Sep 5, 2013 9:22pm EDT

(Reuters) – Microsoft Corp’s acquisition of Nokia’s handset business gives the software behemoth control of its main Windows smartphone partner, but leaves a question mark over the bigger business it has bought: Nokia’s cheap and basic phones that still dominate emerging markets like India.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has said he sees such phones – of which Nokia shipped more than 50 million last quarter – as an entree to more expensive fare.

“We look at that as an excellent feeder system into the smartphone world and a way to touch people with our services even on much lower-end devices in many parts of the world,” he said in a conference call to analysts on Tuesday.

But analysts warn that’s easier said than done.

The problem, said Jayanth Kolla, partner at Convergence Catalyst, an India-based telecom research and advisory firm, is that Microsoft simply lacks Nokia’s retail and supply chain experience in the Finnish company’s most important markets.

“The devices business, especially the non-smartphones business in emerging markets, is a completely different dynamic,” he said.

Kolla pointed to the need to manage tight supply chains, distribution, and building brands through word-of-mouth. “Microsoft doesn’t have it in its DNA to run operations at this level,” he said.

India is a case in point. Nokia has been there since the mid 1990s and the country accounted for 7 percent of its 2012 revenue while the United States generated just 6 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data. Its India roots run deep: it has a presence in 200,000 outlets, 70,000 of which sell only its devices. One of its biggest plants in the world is in the southern city of Chennai.

For sure, Nokia has slipped in India as elsewhere: After nearly two decades as the market leader it was unseated by Samsung Electronics Co Ltd in overall sales last quarter.

But it still sold more of its more basic feature phones.

As recently as last October, market research company Nielsen ranked it the top handset brand. The Economic Times ranked it the country’s third most trusted brand.

LOYALTY RUNS DEEP

In a land of frequent power cuts and rugged roads, the sturdiness and longer battery life of Nokia’s phones have won it a loyal fan base – some of whom have stayed loyal when trading up.

Take Sunil Sachdeva, a Delhi-based executive, who has stuck with Nokia since his first phone. He has just bought his fifth: an upgrade to the Nokia Lumia smartphone running Microsoft’s mobile operating system.

“Technology-wise they are still the best,” he said of Nokia.

But Microsoft can’t take such loyalty for granted. Challenging it and Samsung are local players such as Karbonn and Micromax, which are churning out smartphones running Google Inc’s Android operating system for as little as $50.

Such players are also denting Nokia’s efforts to build its Asha brand, touchscreen devices perched somewhere between a feature phone and a smartphone.

Nokia shipped 4.3 million Asha phones globally in the second quarter of this year, down from 5.0 million the previous quarter.

“The sales performance of the Asha line has been quite poor,” said Sameer Singh, Hyderabad-based analyst at BitChemy Ventures, an investor in local startups. “With increasing competition from the low-end smartphone vendors, I’m unsure how long that business will last.”

That leaves the cheap seats. Singh estimates that the Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa accounted for two-thirds of Nokia’s feature phone volumes in the last quarter, at an average selling price of between 25 to 30 euros ($32.99 to $39.59).

“I don’t see how Microsoft can really leverage this volume,” he said. “The market is extremely price sensitive and margins are racing into negative territory.”

TOO BIG TO IGNORE

The quandary for Microsoft is that while the basic phone market may be declining, it may simply be too big to ignore.

“If you look at markets like India and Indonesia, more than 70 percent of the volume comes from the feature phone business,” Anshul Gupta, principal research analyst at Gartner said. “It’s still a significant part of the overall market.”

That means that if Microsoft wants to herd this market up the value chain to its Windows phones, it needs to keep the Nokia and Asha brands afloat – while also narrowing the price gap between its smartphones and the feature phones and cheap smartphones.

Microsoft has hinted that lowering prices of smartphones would be a priority. The Windows Phone series includes the top-end Lumia 1020, which comes with a 41-megapixel camera, while it also sells simpler models such as the Lumia 610 and 620 aimed at first-time smartphone buyers.

“The lower price phone is a strategic initiative for the next Windows Phone release,” Terry Myerson, vice president of operating systems said on the same conference call, while declining to provide details.

An option for Microsoft, analysts said, would be to shoe-horn services like Bing search, Outlook webmail and Skype, the Internet telephony and messaging application, into the lower-end phones as a way to drive traffic to those services and make the devices more appealing.

“So you can bundle services with these low-end products and that way you can reach a wider audience,” said Finland-based Nordea Markets analyst Sami Sarkamies.

But in the meantime Microsoft needs to brace for assault on all fronts as emerging market rivals see an opportunity to eat further into Nokia’s market share. In India, said Convergent Catalyst’s Kolla, cheap local Android brands have been held back by Nokia’s strong promotion of its mid-tier Asha brand.

“Now, I expect them to pounce,” he said. ($1 = 0.7577 euros)

(Reporting By Jeremy Wagstaff in Singapore, Devidutta Tripathy in New Delhi, Bill Rigby in Seattle, Ritsuko Ando in Helsinki; Editing by Emily Kaiser)

Smartwatches: Coming Soon to a Cosmos Near You

This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week. 

There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?

First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.

So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.

That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.

But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.

This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.

So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.

Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.

So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.

In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.

But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.

In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.

I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?