Swiss to Cheese: Apple Transforms Another Industry

Apple Watch VS Swiss Watch

Another Apple product I’m unlikely to purchase — a smartwatch. I don’t need more screens to look at frankly, but I doff my smartcap to the company for the way they’ve usurped an industry that already existed and then doubled it. This approach has some parallels to the AirPod strategy, which I looked at before : take a market that exists, wait until the technology works, have a couple of shots at it, dominate it and then expand it. Here are the latest numbers, courtesy of Strategy Analytics:

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In short, Apple has not only grown its shipments by more than a ⅓, it’s eaten a sizeable portion of the Swiss watch industry’s cheese lunch. As SA’s Steven Waltzer puts it: “Traditional Swiss watch makers, like Swatch and Tissot, are losing the smartwatch wars. Apple Watch is delivering a better product through deeper retail channels and appealing to younger consumers who increasingly want digital wristwear. The window for Swiss watch brands to make an impact in smartwatches is closing. Time may be running out for Swatch, Tissot, TAG Heuer, and others.” The full report can be purchased here.

So let’s put this in a slightly broader perspective. This is a tipping point in the evolution of the watch and a hammer blow to the Swiss watch industry. While the figures don’t quite tally with Strategy Analytics’, those from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry show just how effective Apple has not only created a market for itself, but also usurped another’s. For years the Swiss watch industry had been relatively settled, only to see Apple — and knee-jerk competitors like Huawei and Samsung, who have also carved a market for themselves on Apple’s coat-tails — gradually erode their business. Last year shows just how far it has gone:

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This is classic Apple in many ways. There were lots of ‘this is make or break for Apple’ type stories in the first year, and overblown predictions of 2015, and 2016, had to be revised. Indeed, while overall shipments of  smartwatches rose in 2016 (from 20.8 million to 21.1 million, according to Strategy Analytics, Apple’s shipments actually shrunk, while others rose. But these were teething problems: sensors needed to be more accurate, sales channels with telcos needed to be tweaked. By 2017 Apple had fixed most of this, and the trajectory is clear. Probably more importantly, consumers realised that if you were going to put a smartwatch on your wrist, it had to be a classy one. There was no ‘good enough’ syndrome for that bit of prime real estate. And, like the Air Pods, the device needs to have a seamless relationship with the parent device.

Lessons learned? I once again wasn’t convinced about the smart watch. I haven’t bought one, and don’t intend to. But I get it; Apple is currently making much from the stories of how these devices may have saved lives. This isn’t the reason people buy these things, but it’s a good argument to win over the spouse, or conscience, and it does point to how, eventually, medtech and consumer device will merge beyond the hobbyist and fitness fanatic. And it’s not hard to see how soon enough the ear piece and the wrist will eventually become The Device, and we can ditch the smartphone altogether.

Apple, Again, Creates a Market Out of Nothing. And It’s Massive

White AirPods

Having recently (finally) bought a pair of big chunky Bluetooth headphones, thinking they were so commonplace I wouldn’t get any weird looks, I now realise that once again I’m at the wrong end of a trend curve. People are staring at me — and not for my rugged visage. I’m the oddity: everyone else is sporting wireless earphones, the Apple AirPods variety (although I suspect quite a few of them are the cheap knockoffs which are indistinguishable in look and a tenth the price.)

Man wearing white AirPods.

Reality bites: what once looked a bit weird — massive headphones — looks weird again, and what looked even weirder — wireless earphones with little sticks dangling out of them — looks cool, and increasingly normal.

Man wearing a Bluetooth headphone
Man wearing a Bluetooth headset.

The data is surprising.  Canalys reports that what it calls “smart personal audio devices”– lumping together all the various wireless or semi-wireless buds, earphones and headphones — are this year set for strongest year in history, with real wireless earphones (true wireless stereo, or TWS) “the largest and fastest growing category.”

Indeed, it’s not only the fastest and largest growing category. It has leapfrogged the other two in the space of a year.

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That’s particularly interesting because the original AirPods were launched three years ago. It’s taken that long for them to conquer the market, and this is a product that cost anywhere between $140 and $250. Yes, I know people spent silly money on headphones but that’s a lot of dough for something so small you’re likely to lose it down the back of the couch or running to catch the bus. But it has become, in quite short order, a massive market when you consider how many smartphones there are. In terms of units, it’s a quarter the size of the smartphone market (see below) which, according to IDC was about 360 million units in Q3 2019. And that market is virtually static, while the ‘smart personal audio devices’ market has nearly tripled.

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This is all of Apple’s doing. They created the wireless earphone market singlehandedly. They were slow on headphones, and they never went for the wireless earpieces connected by cord, and their ordinary earphones have never really, in my view, stacked up, but it seems with the second version of the AirPod, and the AirPod Pro, they’ve taken the market they created and dominated it:

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You could argue that since they only work with Apple devices the data is skewed but you could also look at it the other way: the Samsungs, Huaweis and Xiaomis of this world have not risen to the challenge for the Android market, and are lagging woefully. Given that Samsung shipped 78 million devices in Q3, while Huawei shipped 67 million against Apple’s 47 million (IDC numbers again), it’s clear just how much of a market opportunity they’ve missed. Canalys’ numbers, meanwhile, suggest that Apple shipped 18.5 million AirPods that quarter, meaning that 40% of every iPhone sold was sold alongside, or nearby, an AirPod. That’s impressive stuff.

While Canalys focus on the ‘smartness’ of these devices — the control they allow, the possibility of sensors etc capturing health data and serving as payment devices — I think that’s not the point. The likes of Jabra have been trying to sell wireless earphones for swimmers, runners etc for years, and it’s remained a niche market. Apple have instead done what they do best — mastering the technology to make the experience of listening to stuff easy, seamless and, at least now, so cool it’s become de rigeur. The problem was always a simple one: wires. They got rid of the wires, and they made devices that sound good, fit snugly and well (at least with the Pros) and connect relatively painlessly.

That was the problem to solve, and hence the market unleashed.

Don’t overcomplicate it.

The Future of Work Rethought

I recently did two things I hadn’t done before. One was to cancel my membership at a co-working space. The other was to meet, face to face, my virtual assistant of seven years. I belatedly realised the two events were connected: the freelance world, once a parallel universe hidden from view, is fast switching places with the real one, and governments, companies and families should take note.

It’s tempting nowadays to think that technology is redefining work, and not in a good way. AI and robotics are stealing away work from top to bottom, from lawyers to assembly lines. Gig platforms like Uber and Deliveroo are slicing up jobs into ever smaller chunks, making robots of us before the jobs are actually handed over to robots. And technology outsources what can be outsourced.

But I realise this is just one side of things. Who are all these people to whom this work is outsourced? By 2020, the number of self-employed in the U.S. will triple, to 42 million people. Freelancers are the fastest growing labour group in the European Union. Behind these statistics is a story, not just of harried drivers and deliver guys, but of knowledge workers who have chosen their own lifestyle, who have defied the disintermediation of the so-called platform economy. They offer a counter-narrative to the usual technology story of innovative disruption.

Take co-working spaces. On the one hand such spaces have proliferated. I recall looking for a co-working in Singapore space back in 2009 and finding only one, on the campus of one of the universities, and when I turned up one morning there to find the curtains closed, bodies all over the floor and a distinct odour of unwashed students. Now, every other floor in the tower blocks of the business district are co-working spaces, though the business looks nothing like it was originally imagined to be. Just don’t expect to find many freelancers there.

Co-working sounded like a freelancer’s dream — a place for those working alone and from home to find space to work, to mix, to find work, to find comradeship. It may have started out like that, but you won’t find many freelancers in a co-working space nowadays. Respondents to a survey of 99designs freelancers, for example, showed only 4 percent of them used a co-working space.

I asked Patrick Llewelyn, CEO of 99designs, why this was. One reason, he said, was that most of the designers on his platform are primary care givers, looking after either their kids or a family member, and so tend to keep less formal hours. As co-working spaces have become substitute offices, they keep office hours which don’t suit most freelancers, most of whom want to get away from the 9-5 grind.

I also realised there was little that was appealing. I abandoned mine when I realised I didn’t enjoy going there. I had returned to working for myself a year or so ago and long admired co-working spaces as a vibrant, tasteful, colourful alternative to the dour, dusty and downbeat newsroom I worked in. But I realised that co-working spaces were too self-conscious, too brimming with hipness to be genuinely convivial. And expensive.

So freelancers choose their own path, and it doesn’t fall easily into any fancy new disruptive model.

And then there’s the other thing: my virtual assistant. She’s real, but based in a Philippines town far from the madding crowd. I had always imagined that one day I’d make the pilgrimage there to meet her, since when she started working for me, she didn’t have a passport. But by now she, husband and two kids in tow, was the peripatetic one, carving time for me in her hectic tour of Singapore.

This is the other thing that struck me about what Patrick told me. When I asked about how his freelancers find social fulfilment if they’re working from home, he said that’s the point. By staying home, often looking after family, they’re able to retain those physical connections that those working in an office tend to lose. And being able to support themselves gives them a sense of contribution as well as a creative outlet, which in turns give them confidence.

When Patrick recently went to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia and one of 99designs’ biggest markets, he attended a meet-up of freelancers who clearly knew each other and felt a kinship and warmth you’d be hard pressed to find in a co-working space. Amarit Charoenphan, cofounder of Thailand’s first and largest co-working space Hubba, told me that in the rush to grab market share and protect themselves from competition, many co-working players had lost the human touch, of fostering a community among their members. He sees the future in algorithms, co-working 3.0, where spaces draw on technology to address the emotional benefits of being together.

Freelancers might argue they already have that, using apps to connect to friends and colleagues, while staying or moving to the places they love. My virtual assistant continues to work from her seaside home, bouncing her two-year-old daughter on her knee on conference calls with her main client, a friend of mine based in Texas. She worries about brownouts and the occasional typhoon, but with internet connectivity improving, she’s rarely offline for long.

She’s part of a massive, gradual shift in knowledge work, from the big city to the smaller towns and villages. This shows up in the data: Less than a quarter of the 99designs freelancers live in urban hubs of more than a million people — just as many live in towns or villages of less than 20,000. This is true more or less across the board: In the U.S. and Indonesia the number falls to be low 14% who live in a metropolis. Data from Upwork, a general freelancing site, shows that for a lot of specialised work even those based in remote towns in the developing world can command decent USD rates.

For sure, freelancing isn’t for everyone, and it’s not always easy to get your first client. And platforms that break down basic tasks like delivery and driving will always be a race to the bottom. But for those with skills, or those motivated to acquire them, the freelance economy has grown in the past decade to be a vast continent in the landscape of the future of work, mostly unnoticed by governments and immune to Silicon Valley’s eviscerations. Which reminds me; I have to go, my virtual assistant is reminding me we’re due a virtual brainstorming session.

A Battery-less Future?

(Corrected: Atmosic has not (yet) won the GSA Award, but is short listed for it. The winner will be announced in December. Apologies)

At what point can we ditch batteries, the last encumbrance to our wireless nirvana?

The biggest single block on a wireless, connected future where everything everywhere is attached to chips and sensors which relay, receive and act on instructions from afar is power. And that means either that the device is connected to the electricity grid (which probably means you don’t need it to be wirelessly connected) or it has a battery in it. Which will need charging or replacing.

Long-range low-power technologies like low-powered wide-area networks (LPWANs think LoRa, NB-IOT and SigFox) have gone some way to solving this problem — instead of a power-hungry 4G modem you have a simple chip that sends only the most necessary data and runs off a battery that can run for years — but that doesn’t solve the problem of more complex or power-hungry devices that need to communicate more frequently and more loquaciously. These endpoints will need someone to service them. Internet of Things, Interrupted.

But what if the devices could find their own energy? What if they could “scavenge the energy they need to operate from whatever naturally occurring electrons were in their environment, regardless of that environment”, in the words of Chris Rust, founder and general partner of VC investor Clear Ventures?

Energy harvesting, as it’s called, is not new. Solar power is in effect harvesting the sun’s rays and turning it into energy via photovoltaic cells; wind or wave turbines do something similar (called electrodynamics). But scavenging ambient energy in the immediate environment into electrical power will yield only a few watts at most — enough to augment batteries or, possibly, to replace them. (Still enough to power your solar calculator indoors, and solar power is highly efficient at conversion.)

Energy harvesting can be done an in a number of ways:

  • kinetic energy — vibrations, stress, tension or movement using piezoelectric materials, for example. Imagine the vibration on aircraft wings being converted to energy, or the reverberation of heartbeats to power a pacemaker. (Some examples of vibration energy harvesting can be found here from ReVibe Energy of Gothenburg.)
  • Other examples of vibration-based energy harvesters are triboelectric charging — when certain materials are separated one becomes electrically charged (think the static electricity from running a comb through one’s hair) or the more traditional electromagnetic vibration, where relative motion between magnet and coil induces current into the coil. (Think turning a door knob or hitting a switch.)
  • Then there’s temperature — where differences across a thermoelectric crystal cause a voltage, or the temperature of a pyroelectric crystal changes, generating a charge. The new PowerWatch, for example, uses both thermoelectric — the heat emitted from your wrist — and solar charging. The device uses chips from Matrix Industries.)
  • Then there’s radio frequency (RF) radiation, emitted from routers and cell towers, or from RF chargers, that transmit electromagnatic waves in a specific area. So while this might be scavenging in the sense that it is capturing wasted or existing radiation, it could be deliberate — say, via pointing an RF source at your remote device and switching it on.

So some of this is happening. A RFID (radio-frequency identification) or NFC (near field communication) sticker (think price tags) or chip (think contactless cards, or has no battery in it, instead harvesting the power from the device connecting to it through a technique called backscatter, which transmits data by reflecting modulated wireless signals off a tag and back to the reader.

In the labs of academia the vision is that the body becomes a patchwork of, well, patches, where the energy is derived from the body itself to power unobtrusive sensors which monitor our health: solar-powered heart sensors no bigger or less flexible than a Band-Aid, or sensors that draw their power from the natural conductive properties of skin, storing their energy in stretchable capacitors made of carbon nanotube forests (so called because the material grows like trees 30 micrometers tall, their canopies tangled on wafers.)

But for now, the movement is in industry, and buildings. Companies like EnOcean sells self-powered switches and sensors for maintenance-free lighting which draw their power either, in the case of switches, from the kinetic movement of being pressed or in the case of sensors, from light (indoor and outdoor) or temperature differences to detect occupancy, say.

The changes will really kick in when devices can generate enough energy to be able to transmit over significant distances wirelessly. That means WiFi, which requires a decent-sized battery, rather than, say, Bluetooth, which has too short a range to be any use beyond your headset, mouse or keyboard. That, however, may not be true for much longer. The latest version of Bluetooth, version 5, expands its range by four times, making it comparable to WiFi. And companies like Atmosic Technologies believe they can extend a Bluetooth device’s battery life by between 5 times, to, well, forever.

Atmosic Technologies, just announced as winner of shortlisted for the Global Semiconductor Association’s startup of the year, says that “with the advent of Bluetooth 5, combined with ultra-low-power functionality, power consumption is low enough to be supported by harvested RF, light, or heat energy, while still able to provide the range and coverage equivalent to Wi-Fi.” In short, it makes “the concepts of “forever-battery” and “battery-free” IoT realistic. IoT devices can work for the lifetime of the devices on the batteries they come with, or without batteries at all.”

Atmosic says its a fully integrated single chip with RF energy harvesting (for size see the image at the top of this post) can provide small form factor battery-free operation up to a distance of several meters from the RF source. This could be a game changer, because it would mean not only that all your Bluetooth devices would not require charging, but that they could communicate over longer distances. It would also mean a lot more devices could communicate with each other without you having to worry about whether they need charging. But Atmosic acknowledges that “this is the first step in the journey,” which sounds as if we’re still some ways off the battery-free IoT revolution.

Volocopters, UAMs and eVTOLS

Another acronym you need to get used to: UAM, for Urban Air Mobility. Think flying cars. Or for now, helicopters and drones that carry people. Like the Volocopter, which completed its first manned flight over Singapore’s Marina Bay last week (see below). It’s also opened the first air taxi voloport (yes, you’re going to have to get used to these names, I’m afraid.)

You don’t think of Singapore as a place where traffic jams and poor infrastructure make you want to take to the skies, but in terms of friendly regulators and investment boards, it’s certainly the place to start. German-based Volocopter opened an office in Singapore in January 2019 and has plans to expand in South East Asia. The company has recently presented their VoloCity – the next generation eVTOL (that’s electric vertical take-off and landing to you and me) air taxi and recently announced Series C funding. Investors include Daimler, Geely, Intel Capital, BtoV, and Manta Ray Ventures.

They’re not alone, of course. There’s EmbraerX, a ‘market accelerator’ which is part of Embraer S.A., a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer which has crowd-sourced the design of an autonomous eVTOL (below, note apparently obligatory Singapore skyline), which is still at the theoretical stage, it seems (you can help them name it but please don’t suggest eVTOLy McTOLface).

There are several hurdles that need to be overcome before you see these things buzzing around the skies. The Singapore Volocopter flight, for example, covered 1.5 km and lasted for two minutes; blink and you’d have missed it. Airbus told a conference here in April that the three design hurdles are the development of a battery pack for flight beyond 15 minutes, the maturity of autonomous systems and noise levels. Airbus is working on an upper limit of 65 dB, which is the same as a passing subway train, and will affect where the aircraft can land in a city.

Some companies are looking to liquid hydrogen which is less efficient than batteries but has a better energy density. Skai of the U.S. is working on an eVTOL air taxi which could go as far as 430 miles.

Most of these companies talk about the ‘democratization’ of air transport which the cynic in me would sniff at. No way are the prices of these trips going to come down to one ordinary folk can afford any time soon. But then again, Uber etc have shown that it is possible to ‘democratize’ chauffeur-driven transport (which is pretty much what ride-hailing is) so maybe I shouldn’t be so sniffy.

Indeed, it’s partly’s at Uber’s prodding that companies like EmbraerX are exploring eVTOLs. Uber is someway down the track on this, realising that a lot of its rides are to and from airports. So it’s working with partners to get the infrastructure ready for when these eVTOLs overcome their current limitations. Who wouldn’t pay for the efficiency of getting to the airport in 15 minutes against an hour or so? The well-heeled, initially, but maybe it won’t be long before ‘taking an Uber to the airport’ has a different meaning to the one we currently assume.

Subscription Model Redux: Loadsa Money for Uncertain Returns

Subscription Model

Last week I wrote about subscription fatigue particularly as it applies to video. Ampere Analysis (I don’t yet have a link to the press release) have just released some data that looks at another angle of this.

Global spend on TV, film and sports content “expanded from $100 billion to $165 bln between 2008 and 2018 – a 65% increase. Nearly $50 billion of this growth was in the last five years alone.” But what’s interesting about this is that while Netflix and others have sunk a significant chunk into this — from $2 bln to $19 bln last year, the vast majority of spending is still done by the traditional networks and broadcasters, accounting for $111 billion in 2018. “It is their reaction to the entrance of the new OTT players,” Ampere concludes, “which has fuelled the global content boom.

This means that these broadcasters are having to dig deep to fend off these new players: in 2013, a typical broadcaster or network spent roughly 41% of its revenue on content rights. Ampere expects that by the end of 2019, this will have increased to 50%. Disney’s spending rose from $10 bln in 2013 to $13 bln in 2018. NBCUniversal’s content expenditure has risen by over $4 bln between 2013 and 2018.

Ampere sees this as a rising tide lifting all boats. As networks shift to what its calls a Direct to Consumer model (and I would call a subscription model) OTT platforms like Netflix will have to spend more on original content, as I mentioned in my blog. But Ampere argues it also represents an opportunity for producers and rights holders (read indie producers) that don’t have any interest in building their own subscription services to replace the content the likes of Disney withhold from Netflix.

I’m not so sure. For one thing the likes of Disney are going to face shrinking margins as they funnel more money into content, and a subscription model isn’t going to bridge the gap, at least for now. And are Netflix users going to be drawn to more indie content on Netflix, and are they going to be willing to pay the same fees as they did for the Hollywood stuff? The good thing, generally speaking, about Netflix-commissioned stuff is that the viewer feels a certain bar has been reached — not always true, but you’re willing to give it a few minutes based on the Netflix logo. Wading through lots of indie content looking for gems might not be quite the experience existing users are looking for.

Which brings me to another problem with video subscription services. It’s not like music, where if you’re a U2 fan you might be up for listening to something the algorithm reckons is similar. But you can only watch so many murder-set-in-rustbelt-town documentaries. The contradiction is simple: Quantity does not equal quality. But quantity is what brings the punter back to the service. Netflix and other streaming services are going to find it hard to maintain their position if their app starts slipping down the list of priorities the user reaches for when they want to watch something. Pretty soon they’re hitting the unsubscribe button.

Is 5G Bad for You?

5g

5G has reignited old discussions about whether mobile signals are bad for us — both from cell towers and from the devices themselves.

I’m not a doctor, first off. But I think it’s at least worth taking a look at the data.

A piece by Fierce Wireless’ Sue Marek points to some poor reporting on the 5G base station issue. This centres around the assertion that because 5G requires denser base stations — more antennae per square mile, in other words — there are going to be more radio frequency emissions which will put us in danger. She points to a report, to put it charitably, by RT (yes, them, let’s call a spade Russia Today) which was explored by the New York Times. This was quite easily dismissed as disinformation, but is the Times’, and Marek’s conclusion — that ” 5G is not a health threat”, actually true?

There’s plenty of solid reporting that suggests it is. The WHO, the American Cancer Society, the NIH and others all report that, as WHO put it, “RF exposures from base stations and wireless technologies in publicly accessible areas (including schools and hospitals) are normally thousands of times below international standards.” All these reports are helpfully collated at Wireless Health Facts, which carries the logo of an outfit called CTIA, which the website doesn’t explain, but is in fact a trade association representing the U.S. wireless communications industry. (I don’t have a problem with the CTIA putting up a website collecting the solid research about 5G and health, but I wish they would make it clear a) who they are, b) link to their website, c) offer some way to connect to them via that website and d) include some contrary research for balance.)

And that last point is the thing. There IS contrary research that does suggest there’s a problem. Medical News Today, a UK-based commercial publication owned by Healthline Media, produced a report in August whose tagline said: “As 5G wireless technology is slowly making its way across the globe, many government agencies and organizations advise that there is no reason to be alarmed about the effects of radiofrequency waves on our health. But some experts strongly disagree.” The piece was written by Yella Hewings-Martin, a PhD in pediatrics and child health from University College London. The piece was fact-checked by a Bristol-based copy editor, Gianna D’Emilio.

Hewings-Martin’s piece, which is worth a read, walks the reader through the issues. At its core the question is: do the radio frequency electromagnetc fields (fields of energy resulting from electronomagnetic radiation, itself the result of the flow of electricity) from base stations and handsets cause negative biological effects on us humans?

Yes, is the answer: at high levels they cause heating, which lead to burns and other tissue damage. But mobile devices emit these RF-EMFs at low levels, so is this going to be a problem?

A panel of 30 scientists the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2011 concluded that there was limited evidence, and so classified RF-EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, lumping it in the same group as aloe vera whole leaf extract, gasoline engine exhaust fumes, and pickled vegetables, according to Hewings-Martin.

Although IARC is part of the World Health Organisation, the WHO is conducting its own study. That’s not finished yet. For now, the WHO states that: “To date, no adverse health effects from low level, long term exposure to radiofrequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed, but scientists are actively continuing to research this area.”

Hewings-Martin acknowledges in her piece that 5G is a different kettle of fish. 5G needs smaller cells because the high-frequecy radio waves it uses have a shorter range. But she quotes a paper in Frontiers in Public Health from August that:

dHigher frequency (shorter wavelength) radiation associated with 5G does not penetrate the body as deeply as frequencies from older technologies although its effects may be systemic.

Here it cites two studies which both say our understanding of, for example, “the implications of human immersion in the electromagnetic noise, caused by devices working at the very same frequencies as those to which the sweat duct (as a helical antenna) is most attuned.”

The bottom line: Researchers always want to do more research. But their point is a good one: long term studies, like this one, are looking at the effect of all these EMF-related health risks over decades. We’re barely into two decades of mobile phone use, and now we’re shifting the technology into new areas. While I definitely agree with those who want to see less fear-mongering, I think it’s intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the medical and academic literature that points to concerns and which highlights our lack of understanding of the long term effects of the technology.

I would like to see the CTIA include these studies (or solid pieces like Hewings-Martin’s) on its website, and I would also like to see a proper investigation of claims by academics like Lennart Hardell that the provisional conclusion of the WHO cited above was written by a team of six people, five of whom were serving or former members of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), what Hardell calls “an industry-loyal NGO”. The ICNIRP is explored in an Investigate Europe piece here.

These alleged conflicts of interest are an area of controversy in themselves: Susan Pockett, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, wrote a paper for Magnetochemistry, a peer-reviewed journal published by MDPI, earlier this year, exploring outfits like the ICNIRP, concluding that “politicians in the Western world should stop accepting soothing reports from individuals with blatant conflicts of interest and start taking the health and safety of their communities seriously.” The paper has since been retracted, according to Retraction Watch, after its editorial board “found that it contains no scientific contribution and that Magnetochemistry is not the appropriate forum for this kind of “opinion” publication.”

Pockett accused the publication of “political interference in the normal processes of science. The paper was nobbled, by one of the many large entities (governments, regulatory agencies, Big Wireless) who would have found the facts it states inconvenient.” (It’s not clear who complained about the piece, and Pockett provides no evidence for her claims. Retraction Watch points to Pockett using some questionable instrumentation for gathering data used in her paper.)

The Phantom Prospects of 5G

Source: Light Reading
Source: Light Reading

Telcos are once again touting a new generation of mobile protocols as their saviour. And once again, we should raise an arched eyebrow. 

A great piece by Mike Dano from Light Reading dissects the reasons behind — and the challenges facing — telcos’ push for 5G. And why you shouldn’t be expecting 5G to rock your world any time soon.

The reasons are relatively simple. The above chart from Wall Street analysts MoffettNathanson show how, for US telcos (and the story is similar elsewhere) there’s a lot more data traffic (the black line) , but a lot less money being made per user (the blue line).

So telcos need something new. Hence 5G. But how are they going to make money out of it? The old thinking about 4G was that the improved speeds and bandwidth was going to enable telcos to make more money out of each user. But that hasn’t happened (see chart again.) So why do they think 5G will be any different?

5G is going to be very expensive to deploy. This is not just a question of attaching a new box or upgrading an existing one to an existing basestation or tower. Mike quotes MoffettNathanson in a recent research note on Verizon. “Deploying 5G networks with enough density to meet expectations for blazing fast 5G speeds will cost real money. If not from charging more for using more, then where will the money come from?”

Atop that are the problems of heat, which I’ve written about before.

So the most likely outcome of 5G, at least in the first few years, is that it’s aimed at business. Think the Internet of Things (IoT): connected (and self-driving) cars, smart cities, healthcare, industrial automation. Or outdoor surveillance cameras, according to a Gartner report cited by Mike, which says this is likely to be the largest market for 5G in the short term.

But even then, there are questions about this. This won’t be cheap for enterprises. And 3G and 4G hardly shone when it came to connecting devices. Attaching a modem to a device and then having that ping back is expensive — installing and replacing a battery, if necessary, having and managing a SIM card for each device, etc.

Ericsson, one of the cheerleaders for mobile IoT, acknowledges in a June report that despite its grand claims for a mobile IoT future, most mobile IoT devices are actually using 2G and 3G:

Today, the majority of cellular IoT devices are connected via 2G and 3G technologies (GPRS, EDGE and HSPA). The number of legacy connections is expected to increase slightly until 2022, and then remain stable throughout the rest of the forecast period.

Hard to imagine that’s a huge source of revenue.

And then there’s narrowband IoT, which I’ve written about before. Yes, 5G offers the kind of speed and low latency that would be attractive for a lot of use cases, but when you just need to send a few bytes narrowband is much more appealing. And needn’t involve the telcos at all.

Most likely outcome? Telcos are going to have to demonstrate, somehow, to customers that the new use cases they’re hoping will save them will actually work. And that means working closely with them or investing in them, or vice versa. Build it and they will come might be the mantra, but that is going to require a lot of faith that they will indeed come, and in a timeframe that makes sense. New verticals don’t pop up overnight.

Subscription Fatigue: A New Economy, or a Bubble?

At what point do we tire of the subscription model — or at least pare back that chunk of our income we set aside for subscriptions?

I’m of course not the first person to ask this, and the term ‘subscription fatigue’ is already a common one. But with the launches of HBO Max, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Peacock in the next few days and months, it’s likely to be the video streaming world that gets hit first. At what point do we end up back at the point where we have to effectively subscribe to a lot of stuff we don’t want, paying more than we want, just to get the stuff we do?

I already feel I’m in that place, taking Amazon Prime in Singapore (which is rubbish, useful only for the Amazon-created content), Netflix (also a pale imitation of its US, Australian and UK cousins), Apple TV (UK edition) and things like Curiosity Stream, which posts to its Facebook page programs which often aren’t available in my neighbourhood. I’m already taking more subscriptions than I’d like.

So it seems the most likely winners from the launch of these new services are going to be those that bundle other services with them — Jeff Baumgartner of Light Reading quotes a report by MoffetNathanson and HarrisX that Hulu could get a bump in subscriptions (this is in the US, of course) thanks to Disney’s plan to bundle Hulu’s ad-supported service with ESPN+ and Disney+.

But there’s likely to be some pushback. There are some 300 video streaming services available in the US, according to Deloitte, while GlobalWebIndex found that expense of subscribing to multiple services was the biggest (36%) frustration of users in the UK and US. Their second frustration — content being pulled from their services (as Disney is about to do with Netflix.)

There’s a school of thought that says folk will suck it up. a Harris poll found that that there may be some short-term pushback, but people will get used to it so long as they get high quality content. (That the poll was conducted on behalf of Zuora, which er, lets companies “in any industry to successfully launch, manage, and transform into a subscription business” probably should give you pause. See graphic above; the industry is expanding rapidly; and I’m guessing in part it’s because people haven’t yet figured out how to budget for all the subscriptions, and realised that all these nickels and dimes add up.)

My take? I don’t buy the idea that there’s no limit to what people will subscribe to. The point about these subscription OTT models is that they can be easily subscribed to and, at least in theory, just as easy to unsubscribe to. Gone are the days when you’d sign up to a long-term contract. So expect people to shuffle between subscriptions if they feel something’s not worth it. (It’s called cancel culture, apparently.)

The Deloite survey found that “with three subscriptions services as the average, many say having to piece together a variety of services is a source of frustration. What bothers them? The total number of subscriptions, the time spent searching for shows they want to watch, and when shows on streaming networks expire.”

And expect this fragmentation of the industry to get worse. If there’s even a sniff that Disney and HBO’s bids pays off, it’s not hard to imagine aggregators like Netflix and Amazon quickly hollow out. (And Spotify and Apple might go the same way with music.) People will subscribe to these services only for the original content, and they’ll expect to pay less for it. Quartz reckons that this content will veer towards the ‘product-based’ — think Marvel over Mrs Maisel. In other words, these services will become studios.

The bigger problem: none of this takes into account how we perceive content. We don’t think “I want to watch an HBO movie or a Netflix documentary tonight.” We don’t think in terms of who created the content, we think in terms of the content. We want everything within easy reach, and nowadays, though our forebears who had to get in a car and go to Blockbuster to rent their analog equivalents, we don’t want to have to cycle through lots of apps on our screen to find something. It’s hard enough to find what you’re looking for on Netflix; imagine 300 apps on your screen — it’s like channel surfing again, dumping us back where we started.

My longer view: the subscription model will eventually be replaced by a pay as you go model. We’ll get smarter as consumers, and either by default subscribe and cancel each time we watch a show, or services will pop up that do it for us. Eventually companies will get wise and offer us, effectively, VOD, but at a price that makes sense. That impressive graph Zuora came up with will disappear. You heard it here first: the subscription model is a bubble, that will eventually burst.

Soft Robots: Has Their Time Come?

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image: University of Toronto

When I first saw a room full of soft robots I was a little freaked out. A bunch of guys standing over what looked like colostomy bags or oversized centipedes as they navigated an obstacle course. It was hard to see the potential in it, but when I took a closer look I realised soft robots were the missing link in the computational evolutionary chain. The biggest problem we have with robots — whether they’re on industrial production lines, in homes, offices, airports — they’re too rigid. They’re parodies, robots that look like robots, instead of assuming the contours, movements, materials of nature, which is where they should be heading. Think adaptable, flexible, dexterous, able to go places rigid robots can’t — and safer. Hence soft robots. (Here’s the piece I wrote more than two years ago for Reuters) 

There’s been huge progress in the limbs, skin, movement and energy sources of soft robots. But there’s still a long way to go. For example, soft robots by definition have soft outer layers, and those layers need to stretch and adapt like the outer layers of the animals they loosely mimic. They also need to be energy-sensitive, since soft robots are (usually) self-contained, untethered things that rely on portable electronics for power — if that. 

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed such a material that can adapt its shape in response to its environment — shape-morphing, in the words of the researchers. Carmel Majidi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who directs the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon is quoted as saying:  “Just like a human recoils when touching something hot or sharp, the material senses, processes, and responds to its environment without any external hardware. Because it has neural-like electrical pathways, it is one step closer to artificial nervous tissue.” (You can see some videos of the material in action here.) 

The composite, which is made up of liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs, a type of the LCD you see in flat panel displays but linked together like rubber) and liquid metal gallium indium, is also resilient and, to an extent, self healing:

“We observed both electrical self-healing and damage detection capabilities for this composite, but the damage detection went one step further than previous liquid metal composites,” explained Michael Ford, a postdoctoral research associate in the Soft Machines Lab and the lead author of the study. “Since the damage creates new conductive traces that can activate shape-morphing, the composite uniquely responds to damage.”

The researchers believe the material could be used in healthcare, clothing, wearable computing, assistance devices and robots, and space travel.

Another problem with soft robotics relying on soft actuators is that they tend to be bulky. Soft robots need to move and do stuff, and often this is done by pumping air or fluids through chambers. One — the colostomy bag lookalike — moved around in this way, and it was effective but took up a lot of space — a pump or something like it is usually required, which keeps them tethered and unwieldy. Researchers at UC San Diego reckon they have a solution in creating soft actuators that are controlled not by air or fluid but by electricity. (h/t Nanowerk)

If that sounds like a step backward, the point here is less that they’re using electricity, but are using material that is used for artificial muscles in robots, the LCEs I mentioned above. As with the CMU researchers, the UC San Diego team focused on how LCEs change shape, move and contract in response to stimuli such as heat or electricity. They sandwiched three heating wires between two thin films of LCE. The material was then rolled into a tube, pre-stretched and exposed to UV light. Each heating wire can be controlled independently to make the tube bend in six different directions, as well as contracting. 

The researchers built an untethered, walking robot using four actuators as legs. This robot is powered by a small lithium/polymer battery on board. They also built a soft gripper using three actuators as fingers. The thing was slow — each leg takes about 30 seconds to bend and contract, but they’re working on ways of speeding it up. 

Movement of soft robotics is a challenge. There’s lots of biomimicry involved, where researchers seek inspiration from land and sea creatures. Researchers at the University of Toronto have created a miniature robot that can crawl like an inchworm. This uses electrothermal actuators (ETAs), devices made of specialized polymers that can be programmed to physically respond to electrical or thermal change. A robotic inchworm in itself isn’t that novel— I saw one up the road at NUS here in Singapore a couple of years ago  — but the Toronto folk say theirs is different largely because it’s more efficient. And, I’d have to say, more like a real inchworm. They say their approach can be applied to other movements, including the wings of a butterfly. 

Their goal: to see it in clothing. “We’re working to apply this material to garments. These garments would compress or release based on body temperature, which could be therapeutic to athletes,” says Hani Naguib director of the Toronto Institute of Advanced Manufacturing, and the manufacturing robotics lead of U of T’s Robotics Institute. The team is also studying whether smart garments could be beneficial for spinal cord injuries.

There are other announcements — all of them in the past few weeks — that suggest major progress in this field: 

  • A Florida State University research team has developed methods to manipulate polymers in a way that changes their fundamental structure (think caterpillar turning into butterfly);
  • Soft robots could get smarter at solving everyday tasks after a team from MIT and Tsinghua University have developed a “soft finger” with embedded cameras and deep learning methods to allow the robot to better understand and manipulate their position, environment and items in it; 
  • Researchers from Linköping University in Sweden have come up with a way to fabricate soft microrobots from a single design process, hopefully making it easier to use soft robots in minimally invasive surgery or drug delivery. The researchers, intriguingly, say they “are now working on soft robots that function in air.” 

Look, I don’t think these things are going to find their way out of the lab any time soon. But clearly serious headway is being made. And in the end if it’s seen as commercially viable we’ll see big players get involved. So far there are a few players: Breeze Automation of San Francisco (a piece on them here from TechCrunch), and Fusion Fund, which says it’s interested in funding entrepreneurs using soft robots for “task automation beyond the capacities of current robotics technology.” It see soft robotics beyond industrial manufacturing — and I think they’re probably right. Soft robots will thrive in places either humans (and other devices) can’t get to — think search and rescue, like a Thai cave to reach stranded boys, or in interacting with humans safely and in an engaging way (a robot that can hug or catch a falling person, anyone?) and in miniature — hard to reach places inside an engine, inside a blood vessel, or in water.