BBC World Service – Smell tech

At the end of this program is my piece on smell technology, if you like that kind of thing. BBC World Service – Business Daily, UK FinTech Mulls a Post-Brexit Future (with everything else going on it might seem a bit flippant, or maybe light relief. 

Can the UK’s financial technology or FinTech sector maintain its global lead after Brexit? We speak to Lawrence Wintermeyer, the chairman of the industry’s trade body Innovate Finance, about what he hopes the British government will negotiate in a new deal with the EU. Also, Michael Pettis, professor of finance at Peking University, tells us what Brexit looks like from China and why financial markets have been resilient to the initial shock of the referendum’s result. Plus, what’s the point of a smart phone that can smell? Jeremy Wagstaff, Thomson Reuters’ chief technology correspondent for Asia, says you may be surprise. 

Connected cows, cars and crockery prod chip mega mergers

My Reuters piece attempting to place the recent chip mergers in a longer timeline. Yes, I hate the term internet of things too. 

Connected cows, cars and crockery prod chip mega mergers | Reuters:

SINGAPORE/TAIPEI | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND MICHAEL GOLD

Chip companies are merging, signing $66 billion worth of deals this year alone in preparation for an explosion of demand from all walks of life as the next technological revolution takes hold: the Internet of Things.

As cars, crockery and even cows are controlled or monitored online, each will require a different kind of chip of ever-diminishing size, combining connectivity with processing, memory and battery power.

These require makers to pool resources and intellectual property to produce smaller, faster, cheaper chips, for a market that International Data Corp said would grow to $1.7 trillion by 2020 from $650 billion last year.

By comparison, chip markets for personal and tablet computers are stagnant or in decline, and even smartphones are near peaking, said Bob O’Donnell, a long-time consultant to the chip industry.

‘We’re very much done in terms of growth of those traditional markets,’ said O’Donnell. ‘That’s why they are looking at this.’

Last month saw the biggest-ever chip merger with Avago Technologies Ltd agreeing to buy Broadcom Corp for $37 billion. That eclipsed the $17 billion Intel Corp agreed last week for Altera Corp, and the $12 billion NXP Semiconductors NV offered in March for Freescale Semiconductor Ltd.

On Friday, Lattice Semiconductor Corp said it was open to a sale.

 

CONNECTED COWS

The Internet of Things relies on chips in devices wirelessly sending data to servers, which in turn process the data and send results to a user’s smartphone, or automatically tweak the devices themselves.

Those devices range from a light bulb to a nuclear power plant, from a smartwatch to a building’s air-conditioning system. This range presents both opportunity and a challenge for semiconductor companies: their potential customer base is huge, but diverse, requiring different approaches.

Qualcomm Inc, for example, is used to selling chips to around a dozen mobile phone manufacturers. The Internet of Things has brought it business from quite different players, from makers of water meters to street lights that sport modems and traffic-monitoring cameras. All have their own needs.

‘You can’t think the new market is just like the old one,’ Qualcomm Vice President of Marketing Tim McDonough said in an interview.

Qualcomm estimates that the Internet of Things will bring in more than 10 percent of its chip revenue this business year.

And then there are those cows. Instead of monitoring herds by sight, farmers in Japan have tagged them with Internet-connected pedometers from Fujitsu Ltd and partner Microsoft Corp, to measure when they might be ready for insemination. Cows in season, it turns out, tend to pace more.

SPECK OF CHIP

This new business is pushing chip companies together in part to consolidate their expertise onto one chip, a trend forged by mobile phones.

The Avago-Broadcom deal, for instance, brings together motion control and optical sensors from Avago with chips from Broadcom that specialize in connectivity via wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

In the past ‘if you wanted to build a board that has all the components, then you needed to buy three different chips,’ said Dipesh Patel of ARM Holdings PLC, which licenses much of the technology inside mobile phones – and, increasingly, in the Internet of Things.

‘Now you only need to buy one chip. But you’re trying to get more of the same system on the same chip.’

As chips get smaller, they could be tiny enough to ingest, according to Vital Herd Inc. The Texas-based startup’s pill-like sensor, once a cow swallows it, can transmit vital signs, warning farmers of illness and other problems.

Jen-Hsun Huang, co-founder and chief executive officer of graphics chips maker Nvidia Corp, predicts chips will shrink to the size of a speck of dust and find their way into almost anything, from shoes to cups.

‘Those little tiny chips, I think they’re going to be sold by the trillions,’ Huang said in an interview. ‘Maybe even sold by the pound.’

PROCESSING

Installing chips into end products is only one side of the equation. The more things connect, the bigger the number and capability of servers needed to process the vast amount of specialized data those chips transmit.

To meet the demand, Intel could employ chips for its servers designed by new purchase Altera that analyze streams of similar data – specializing in one function, as opposed to multiple functions like chips inside personal computers – industry consultant O’Donnell said.

Combining such strengths is going to be vital, said Malik Saadi of ABI Research, because consolidation is not over yet.

More chip companies ‘will have to make that radical decision to merge,’ said Saadi. ‘This is just the starting point.’ 

(Additional reporting by Liana Baker in New York; Editing by Christopher Cushing)”

BBC: The Rise of Disappearables

The transcript of my BBC World Service piece on wearables. Reuters original story here

Forget ‘wearables’, and even ‘hearables’, if you’ve ever heard of them. The next big thing in mobile devices: ‘disappearables’.

Unless it really messes up, Apple is going to do for wearables with the Watch what is has done with the iPod for music players, the phone with its iPhone, the iPad for tablets. But even as Apple piques consumer interest in wrist-worn devices, the pace of innovation and the tumbling cost, and size, of components will make wearables smaller and smaller. So small, some in the industry say, that no one will see them. In five years, wearables like the Watch could be overtaken by hearables – devices with tiny chips and sensors that can fit inside your ear. They, in turn, could be superseded by disappearables – technology tucked inside your clothing, or even inside your body.

This all may sound rather unlikely, until you consider the iPhone is only 8 years old, and see what has happened to the phone since then. Not only do we consider the smartphone a status symbol in the salons of New York, but they’re something billions of people can afford. So it seems highly plausible that the watch as a gizmo is going to seem quaint in 10 years — as quaint as our feature phone, or net book or MP3 player is now.


So how is this all going to play out? Well this year you’ll be able to buy a little earpiece which contains a music player, 4 gigabytes of storage, a microphone to take phone calls – just nod your head to accept – and sensors that monitor your position, heart rate and body temperature.

Soon after that you’ll be able to buy contact lenses that can measure things like glucose levels in tears. Or swallow a chip the size of a grain of sand, powered by stomach juices and transmitting data about your insides via Bluetooth. For now everyone is focused on medical purposes, but there’s no reason that contact lens couldn’t also be beaming stuff back to you in real time — nice if you’re a politician being able to gauge the response to your speech so you can tweak it in real time.

Or you’re on a date and needing feedback on your posture, gait, the quality of your jokes. 

In short, hearables and wearables will become seeables and disappearables. We won’t see these things because they’ll be buried in fabric, on the skin, under the skin and inside the body. We won’t attack someone for wearing Google Glasses  because we won’t know they’re wearing them. 

Usual caveats apply. This isn’t as easy as it looks, and there’ll be lots of slips on the way. But the underlying technologies are there: components are getting smaller, cheaper, so why not throw in a few extra sensors into a device, even if you haven’t activated them, and are not quite sure what they could be used for? 

Secondly, there’s the ethical stuff. As you know, I’m big on this and we probably haven’t thought all this stuff through. Who owns all this data? Is it being crunched properly by people who know what they’re doing? What are bad guys and governments doing in all this, as they’re bound to be doing something? And how can we stop people collecting data on us if we don’t want them to? 

All good questions. But all questions we should be asking now, of the technologies already deployed in our street, in our office, in the shops we frequent, in the apps we use and the websites we visit. It’s not the technology that’s moving too fast; it’s us moving too slow.

Once the technology is too small to see it may be too late to have that conversation.  

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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?

Smarter smartphones for smarter people

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service..

So, the iPhone 5 is here, and while it will sell well, probably better than any phone before it, there’s a sense of anticlimax: this, we are told, is evolution, not revolution. None of the mind-bending sense of newness and change that the iPhone and iPad used to engender. This is a sign, we’re told, that the market is mature, that there’s not much more that can be done.

I’d like to suggest another way of looking at this. For sure, not every new product that comes out of Apple HQ can blow our minds. But that doesn’t mean the mobile device is now doomed for a stodgy and reliable plateau of incremental improvements, like cars, washing machines or TVs.

In fact, quite the opposite. The world of the mobile device has already made extraordinary changes to our world, and we’re only at the start of a much larger set of changes. Our problem is that we’re just not very good judging where we sit amidst all this upheaval.

Consider these little factlets from a survey conducted last year by Oracle. At first glance they seem contradictory, but I’ll explain why they’re not.

More than half of those surveyed thought their mobile phone would replace their iPod/MP3 player by 2015. A year later when they asked them again, a third said it already had. Oracle found more or less the same was true of people’s global positioning systems, or GPS.

Then there’s this. More than two thirds of the people surveyed said they use a smartphone, and of those people, 43% have more than one.

In other words, more and more functions that used to be a separate device are now part of our mobile phone. And yet at the same time a significant chunk of users have more than one mobile phone.

What this means, I think, is that we are integrating mobile phones into our lives in a way that even those who spend time researching this kind of thing don’t really get. In fact we’ve integrated them so much we need two.

That’s because, of course, they’re not really phones: they’re devices that connect us to all sorts of things that we hold dear, whether it’s social, work or personal.

But there’s still a long way to go. The device of the future will make everything more seamless. A company in Thailand, for example, allows you to use your smartphone to open your hotel door, tweak the room lights and air con, order food and switch TV channels.

In other words interact with your surroundings. Some via connected devices, from air conditioning units to washing machines, from street signs to earthquake sensors. Other services will sift piles and piles of big data in the cloud, and push important information to us when we need it. Google already has something called Google Now which tries to anticipate your problems and needs before you do: a traffic jam up ahead, a sudden turn in the weather, a delayed flight.

Devices will also interact with the disconnected world, measuring it for us — whether it’s our blood sugar levels or the air quality. Sense movement, odors, colors, frequencies, speed. It may even, one day, see through walls for us.

So our smart phones are just starting to get smart. We’re already smart enough to see how useful they can be. The bits that are missing are the technologies that blend this all together. This could still take some time, but don’t for a moment think the mobile world is about to get boring.

Forks in the Road Ahead?

Two interesting pieces in the past 24 hours that, almost in passing, look at a growing conundrum for Google: how to cope with the fact that Android is largely a profit center for Samsung and nobody else.

Horace Dediu at Asymco (From bad to worse and from good to great) looks mainly at how the mobile world’s value is mostly going to Apple. Samsung is the only other one making any money out of the whole thing:

In absolute terms the iPhone franchise created $244 billion in value while Samsung created $83 billion. The others destroyed $37 billion.

Elsewhere Horace has looked at Android economics (The Android Income Statement among others) and concludes that “Google’s benefit from the platform is modest. He concludes:

In contrast, Samsung, and Samsung alone, is benefitting greatly. It could even be said that today Samsung is the only Android profit engine.

This seems to be the case. Which prompts several questions, some of them addressed in the comments. Is Samsung likely to continue merely taking another person’s operating system, free though it is, and adding a skin or two? How does Samsung feel about sharing a brand — Nexus — with competitors like Asus?

Jean-Louis Gassée in his weekly column for the Monday Note takes a look at this (Business Model Dances). Google, he argues, have not necessarily followed Microsoft by extending vertically with the Nexus 7, but he does believe that “the gentle folks at Samsung are not going to take this with a smile and a quick genuflection.”

If they’re not cowed by Apple, they certainly aren’t going to let Google eat into their tablet business. As for phones, there’s Google’s $12.5B subsidiary, Motorola Mobility, another irritant for Samsung and other Android smartphone makers.

It’s interesting to consider whether Samsung think that the Nexus 7 is a challenger. I tend to think they’re more worried about what’s behind it: lots of content.

As Jean-Louis says, it’s going to be interesting.

The Tablet is the Computer

One thing discussed often and at great length in nerdy circles these days is this: Is the tablet—by which we really mean the Apple iPad, because it created the market, and presently accounts for nearly two thirds of it—a computer. A PC, if you will?

Some say that the iPad is not really a computer. It has no keyboard. People don’t sit at desks to use it. It lacks the horsepower of most of today’s computers. So they think it’s a big smartphone. I think they are wrong. They misunderstand what is happening.

This is not hard to see in action. Wandering around an airport cafe the other day, everyone had at least one device. But those with an iPad were by far the most comfortable, whether curled up in an armchair or sitting at a table. And they were doing everything: I saw one guy watching a movie, another writing a letter, another CEO-type playing Angry Birds. I was thrown out of the cafe before I was able to finish my research.

At the hairdressers no fashion magazines were being read: Everyone was cradling an iPad, oblivious to the time and their hair being teased into odd shapes.

So let’s look at the data.

Surveys by comScore, a metrics company, point to what is really happening. In studies in the U.S. last October and of Europe released this week [Registration required], they noticed that during the week tablet usage spikes at night—as computer usage drops off. So while during the work day folk are using their PCs, come evening they switch to tablets. (Mobile usage, however, remains flat from about 6 pm.)  The drop in PC usage is even more pronounced in the U.S., while tablet usage in the evening continues to rise until about 11 pm:

image

In other words, people are using their tablets as computers. Not as mobile devices. Not as replacements for their phone. They’re using them, in the words of a friend of mine, as a replacement to that ancient computer sitting in the corner gathering dust that gets booted up once in a while to write an email or a letter to Granny on.

Now not everyone is using tablets like this. The first surveys of tablet usage indicated they were using them as ‘TV buddies’—things to play with while watching TV. But this still doesn’t quite capture what is happening.

One study by Nielsen found last May that 3 out of 10 Americans were using their computer less frequently after buying a tablet. What’s surprising about this figure is that it’s higher than for all other devices—including gaming consoles, Internet-connected TVs and portable media players. Given the plethora of games and stuff you can get for a tablet, surely more people would be saying that they use these devices less than their netbook, laptop or desktop, now they have a tablet?

That survey was done when less than 5% of U.S. consumers owned one. A year on, that figure is much higher. Pew’s Internet and American Life Project reported on Jan 23 that the number of American adults who owned a tablet grew from 10% to 19% over the holiday period; although their data may not be directly comparable with Nielsen’s it sounds about right. And represents an unprecedented adoption of a new device, or computing platform, or whatever you want to call it.

(Pew also surveys ebook readers and finds the same results. But I think we’ll see a serious divergence between these two types of device. Yes, some tablets are good for reading and some ereaders, like the Kindle Fire, look a lot like a tablet. But they’re different, and used in different ways. I think that while the market will overlap even more, they’ll be like more like the laptop and netbook markets, or the ultrabook and the PC market: they may do similar things but the way people use them, and the reason people buy them, will differ.)

This is rapidly altering the demographics of the average tablet user. Back in 2010, a few months after the first iPad was launched, 18-34 year olds accounted for nearly half the market, according to another Nielsen report. A year on, that figure was down to a little over a third, as older folk jumped aboard. Indeed the number of 55+ iPad users doubled in that period, accounting for more than 25-34 year old users.

(Pew’s figures suggest that while older folk have been slower to adopt, the rate of growth is picking up. Around a quarter of adults up to the age of 49 now have a tablet in the U.S. (a shocking enough figure in itself.) Above 50 the number comes down. But the telling thing to me is that the rate of growth is more or less the same: about a fourfold growth between November 2010 and January 2012. While a lot of these may have been gifts over the holidays, it also suggests that the potential is there.)

So it’s pretty simple. The tablet, OK, the iPad came along and reinvented something that we thought no one wanted—a tablet device with no keyboard. But Apple’s design and marketing savvy, and the ecosystem of apps and peripherals, have made the tablet sexy again. Indeed, it has helped revive several industries that looked dead: the wireless keyboard, for example. ThinkOutside was a company in the early 2000s that made wonderful foldable keyboards for the Palm, but couldn’t make it profitable (and is now part of an apparently moribund company called iGo).

Now look: the website of Logitech, a major peripherals company, has the external keyboard and stand for the iPad as more or less its top product. Logitech reckon a quarter of tablet users want an external keyboard, and three quarters of them want their tablet “to be as productive as their laptop.” Most peripheral companies offer a kind of wireless keyboard, and there are more on the horizon.

And as BusinessWeek reported, the highest grossing app on the iPad appstore this Christmas wasn’t Angry Birds; it was a program for viewing and editing Microsoft Office documents, called QuickOffice. The app itself is not new: it’s been around since 2002, and a paired-down version came preinstalled on dozens of devices. But people wouldn’t shell out the extra $10 for the full version—until the iPad came along. Now they happily pay $20 and the company sold $30 million’s worth in 2011. (BusinessWeek links this to growing corporate interest in the iPad but you can see from comScore’s data that this is not necessarily correct. The tablet is a personal device that is mostly used outside the office.)

So. There’s a new industry out there, and it’s for a device that’s not a phone, though it has the same degree of connectivity; it’s not a desktop, though it should be able to do all the things a desktop can do; it’s not a laptop, though it should make the user as productive as a laptop can. And it’s many more things besides: a TV buddy, a sort of device to accompany your downtime in cafes, salons or on the couch.

Gartner, a research company, reckon that from about 17.5 million devices sold in 2010 there will be 325 million sold in 2015. An 18-fold increase. In the same period the annual sales of notebooks will only have doubled, and desktops will have grown by, er, 5%. Hard not to conclude from that that the tablet, OK, the iPad, is going to be everyone’s favorite computer—replacing the desktop, the laptop and whatever ultrabooks, netbooks or thinkbooks are the big thing in 2015.

(Update: This was written before Apple’s results. Tim Cook has confirmed the PC is their main competitor.) 

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

IMG_20100831_202009-1

There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Filling the Tablet Hole

This is a guest post by my old friend and collaborator, Robin Lubbock

I’m still waiting for this hole in the market to fill in. It’s the tablet hole. The space for a viewer/reader/player about the size of a novel. It’s easy to type on, it runs apps like an iPhone and everybody’s going to love it. But it’s not here yet.

 
Apple’s iPhone, let’s be frank, isn’t that wonderful a piece of technology. It’s a beautiful piece of sculpture: nice to look at and hold, and it’s just the right weight. But now that I’ve had mine for a year it has such a lag in its response time that it’s actually somewhat entertaining. You type, then sit back and after what seems like seconds you watch the keyboard apparently hitting keys of its own accord. Like one of those old pianos that plays itself, the keys moving in that wonderful ghostly way.

 
One impact the iPhone has had on me (and I’m sure I’m not alone) is that I now find myself touching screens everywhere and expecting them to do something. Of course by and large they don’t, which is disappointing. David Pogue had an article in the Times this week about screens that play images and music, but aren’t touch sensitive. He points out that one of the screens he reviews looks as if it was originally designed to be touch sensitive. But it isn’t. Either the market won’t bear the cost, or the technology won’t bear the burden.

 
Manufacturers of tablet sized computers still seem to be stuck with the choice between power and portability. So you have a rash of e-readers that aim to trickle out their power over a long time, and so have slow two-tone screens that can’t be asked to do very much.

 
Add to that the absence of a standardized platform for e-books and you’ve created an unmanageable mess of choices for users.

 
Somewhere on the heels of the Kindle and Sony’s e-reader, you’ll soon have Plastic Logic’s business e-reader (see demo): a reader that’s aimed at people who like to print out documents before they read them. This may sound a little bizarre as a business proposition, but the reader does have a touch sensitive (if rather slow) screen. This alone puts it ahead of other readers. But how will people with Kindle accounts use it?

 
These are murky waters, but they are turbulent with activity and they will clear one day. I hope it’s one day soon.