Too Far Ahead of the Curve?

Imperial Furniture Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Imperial Furniture Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My former employers used (I’m stressing used here ) to like my tech stories because they had never heard about the stuff I wrote about before, which was considered good. But in later years as the editors were replaced by other, saner heads, and there were grumbles.

Write about what’s happening now, not what’s going to happen, was usually the refrain. They had a point. But I didn’t think that was my job, and I still don’t. But it does raise a question which journalists in any field often have to address: When is the right time to write about something that you know will happen, but hasn’t happened yet?

Take curved and foldable screens.

We have the former already, in TVs and the occasional Samsung mobile phone. And the excellent and venerated Tim Bajarin, who has watched this world since the early 1980s, writes in Tech.pinions this week (subscription required) about Samsung being about to introduce their first foldable smartphone. His headline says it all: Apple’s Foldable iPhone Patents and the Inevitability of Foldable Displays

He points to a patent that Patently Apple wrote about which specifically covered a foldable iPhone — submitted to the patent office years ago. “That means,” Tim writes, “that Apple has been working on a foldable iPhone for quite some time and this is not a knee-jerk reaction to Samsung doing a foldable phone now.” While Tim is more interested in the legal implications, I’m more interested in the journalistic implications — when is it too soon to write about these things?

Well, I wrote about flexible displays for Reuters back in 2013, and I was by no means a trailblazer:

The touted arrival this year of wearable gadgets such as computer displays strapped to wrists and in wrap-around glasses is just a step towards a bigger revolution in screens – those that can be bent, folded and rolled up.

Once freed from today’s relatively heavy, breakable and fixed glass displays, tomorrow’s devices may look very different, with screens that can be rolled out, attached to uneven surfaces, or even stretched.

But there’s still some way to go.

“It becomes a product designer’s paradise – once the technology is sorted out,” says Jonathan Melnick, who analyses display technology for Lux Research.

There is no shortage of prototypes – South Korea’s Samsung Electronics this year showed off a display screen that extends from the side of a device – but obstacles remain: overcoming technical issues, figuring out how to mass produce parts cheaply, and coming up with devices compelling enough for gadget buyers.

The story went on in that vein. I didn’t really tease out anything new, but if I had cared to look I would have found that Apple was filing patents around that time on flexible displays, which became the basis of its later more elaborate patent filings. This one, for example, was filed on April 20, 2012, a year before my story, and was titled “Electronic devices with flexible displays having fastened bent edges”.

My argument as a technology journalist is that it’s never too early to write about a technology if you can prove that it’s real — that means, are there people investing in it, turning it into something that can be practical used? It doesn’t have to be generating revenue, it doesn’t have to have a business model, it doesn’t have to have a customer, it doesn’t even have to have a tried and tested use case. But if I was someone making investment decisions I would prefer to know that somewhere down the track — and I would hope the journalist would give me an idea of how far that track might be in the story — this technology is going to find its way to market. I wouldn’t want to wait. My argument — and they were quite frequently arguments — was that if we waited until usual newsroom yardsticks applied, we would never write about Facebook, Google, Baidu, Alibaba, Uber, Airbnb, Netflix or any of these industry-shifting companies until they’d already shifted industries.

But five years? Was that too early? I don’t think so, but I’m biased.

Microsoft, never sexy, grows up

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We didn’t really notice it but the past week or so has seen the passing of an era. We are no longer in a world where Microsoft wants to peer through our Windows, as it were. As Ben Thompson noted in his Stratechery newsletter, the company’s recent Ignite Conference passed largely unnoticed by the wider world, in part because it was aimed squarely at “information technology professionals”. All the talk was of cloud, AI, office.

This is the market for Microsoft these days, not consumers. No more queuing up round the block for the next version of Windows. No more bossing you around to get Microsoft’s own browser to be the default on your computer. Well, actually, that’s not completely true. In September, Microsoft did try to prod Windows 10 users away from Google’s Chrome or Firefox browsers but later thought better of it. Bad habits die hard.

It’s not that Macs have taken over PCs, though if you attend any geek fest, or give a lecture, you’re bound to be struck by how many Macbooks there are. Macbooks are about the 4th biggest brand of notebook out there — all the rest run Windows. But of course people aren’t usin notebooks, or laptops, or whatever we call them, as much anymore. We use smartphones. In the last quarter there were 350 million smartphones shipped. In the same quarter there were 62 million PCs shipped. (And as smartphones get bigger and more powerful, they are also nudging out tablets of which only 33 million were shipped in the quarter, its 15th straight decline.)

The stark reality: Microsoft, which you may recall once owned Nokia, is no longer in the consumer mobile phone business, and is in full and open retreat. Last month it said it would not update its Office Mobile apps, which had been designed for its Windows Phone and smaller Windows 10 tablets. Tellingly, and perhaps humiliatingly, it’s continuing to develop versions of the app for Android and Apple’s iOS.

This doesn’t mean that Microsoft is out of the consumer world. Its Surface devices get good press, some more are about to be announced, and 700 million PCs are running the latest version of Windows. But the world has changed and Microsoft has woken up to it. Apple now produces the devices we like to stroke; Google produces the operating system every manufacturer of a mobile device will happily install; others will sit happily somewhere in between. Microsoft, under Nadella, has realised that sitting on the device at your workplace, and increasingly in the cloud behind it, is not a bad place to be. If it can also be one of the main apps that you use on your Galaxy or iPhone all the better.

It won’t be a sexy business, but Microsoft, let’s face it, was never sexy. We took their stuff, from the mid 1980s to the the late noughties, because we weren’t seriously offered anything else. We were in a way the enterprise customer of today: we accepted what we were given, and made the most of it. Installing apps seemed somehow radical, unless they were from Microsoft — and most were, let’s face it, from word processsing to encyclopedias. Microsoft was the Ford of the computer world.

But now the world is a lot different to 20 years ago, when what we saw on our desktop screens was the vista of our digital world (no mistake that the desktop background of Windows was a sloping field leading to enticing blue sky.) Microsoft could box us in because it was the only window we had onto that world: now we have a mobile phone, which while smaller, moves around with us, holding our gaze. Soon virtual, augmented and mixed realities will be the new normals. In between will sit algorithms, data, artificial intelligence, sensors, haptics, collecting, anticipating, feeling, trying to understand us better. The consumer world will move a little too quickly for some.

The enterprise, on the other hand, will be what the consumer world once was: less demanding, more uniform. Led by demands of security, compatibility, standards, efficiency. There will be overlaps, and a lot of the AI and other innovations driving the consumer world will be there in the enterprise world too. But the enterprise will be a safer bet for Microsoft, one it understands better. It may do very well.

Disrupting Travel Disruption

easyJet seem to be taking an interesting, if not pioneering, approach to disruptive tech. While fintech has mostly absorbed the wave of startups that went after the financial industry from about 2011, travel startups initially went after the middlemen, creating a host of algorithm-based disintermediators, and put a lot of travel agents out of business. 

But airlines? Well there was this kind of thing, which I reported on a year or so ago. But what about the airlines themselves? EasyJet are taking the approach of incubating companies that complement its business, adding layers and businesses on the edge of what it does — which is ferry people around in the air. 

Today, for example, it announced that it had adopted a new raft of startups into its accelerator programme: 

– WeTrip an online, group travel booking platform which sells holiday packages to small groups. Their algorithm is connected to distinctive activity suppliers comparing endless combinations of components to build real-time offers, according to the preferences of the group. Payment is also made simple as group members can pay separately.

– Car and Away a peer-to-peer car sharing community where car owners make money out of their parked vehicle whilst they are away on their travels. 

FlightSayer  uses sophisticated simulation algorithms and machine learning to better predict flight delays hours, days, and weeks before departure. With a $1.75m grant from NASA, the company’s technology is being used in the US by corporations, airlines and travel management companies to improve travel experience and increase efficiencies with plans to adapt to the European airspace.

TrustedHousesitters, a global community of pet sitters.

So none of these detract from easyJet’s business, but enhance it. None are disrupters, per se, although Car and Away does eat into car rentals. Instead easyJet uses these startups to add value to its own service: 

– easyJet and TrustedHousesitters have partnered up to allow passengers  to choose a free house sitter for their pet or find free accommodation as a house or pet sitter when booking flights at easyJet.com.

Previous graduates of the program have already partnered up — FLIO, an airport app, is working on integrating its content with the easyJet Travel App. LuckyTrip are also working on something similar. 

Behind all this: Founders Factory, a sort of innovation factory backed by corporates from six sectors:  easyJet (Travel), L’Oréal (Beauty), Aviva (Fintech), Holtzbrinck (Education), Guardian Media Group (Media) and CSC Group (Artificial Intelligence).

 

2017 Predictions

This piece was written for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily.

This year is going to be an interesting one, but in technology it’s going to be particularly so. Social media is going to see some reverses, as users start to wake up to the compromises they make in sharing information with companies, governments and the world. But the real progress is going to be making our machines understand us better, in ways that we want.

Artificial intelligence: you’re no doubt rolling your eyes at the phrase, given how many times this technology has been promised as being around the next corner. I’m with you. But I think the focus has been on the wrong place: voice. Apple’s Siri has not been a huge success — except for my daughter, who loves talking to an adult she can be rude to — and Amazon’s Alexa, though impressive, is going to confine itself to those places where we feel comfortable talking to machines: the home.

That makes it inherently limited. Ours is actually a largely text-based world — we still use email, we prefer to text, or Whatsapp our friends, and this is where AI is going to be most useful. I already use an AI assistant called Evie to schedule my appointments; she parses emails I send her and, with a little human help, sets up meetings and calls on my behalf. I save an hour or so a week.

Expect to see more of this: using natural language – the way we usually write — to interact with devices, not via special apps but via whatever channels we already use. It’s our devices — fridges, computers, databases — that have to learn our language and preferred medium, not the other way around. AI will be a success if it can master this, and this year will be key.

Indeed, the same principle will be applied elsewhere: removing the machine-like elements of our interactions. AI will help us talk to machines better, but machines will also help immerse us in experiences. Pokemon Go, the mobile app that led many people astray catching and battling weird critters, was a hit because it took a decade-old technology, augmented reality, and bolted it onto something that people actually found useful. Well, not useful, exactly, but compelling.

Augmented reality took technology into the real world, and gave it an enticing layer. The next step — using technology to shrink the distance between people and the real world. Optimists are calling it teleportation — moving you to places you wouldn’t normally go, or can’t go. That could be a 360 degree video from a live event, or drones filming from way above you, or even experiencing something akin to physical touch with someone whose far away from you. A Singapore startup offers a remote kissing machine, which it of course has called the Kissenger.

Industry is getting excited about this because it sees the possibility of creating a digital twin of a real world device — a turbine say — and then manage and experiment on that digital version of the real thing. A Malaysian company does something similar with corpses — scanning the deceased so that post-mortems can be conducted digitally. The original body is left untouched — which may please relatives, but also means the number of post-mortems can be limitless, and performed by someone on the other side of the world.

All of this technology is available now, but it still takes some vision and money to bring it to market. But what people want is clear enough: technology should bring people closer to each other and their machines, but stay out of the way as much as possible. We may not successfully wean ourselves off our mobile screens any time soon, but we could at least make what we see, hear, and do on those screens as useful, exciting and human as possible.

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

A piece I wrote for Reuters on travel startups:

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Some start-ups are taking on one of air travel’s last undisrupted bastions – the economy-class cabin. While first and business class travelers have long enjoyed comfort upgrades, there’s been less attention to innovation at the rear of the plane.

“We want to make travel memorable and comfortable for all of us, not just the top 1 percent,” Alireza Yaghoubi, founder of Singapore-based AirGo, told a recent start-up conference to pitch his superlight economy-class seat.

He’s not alone. Half a dozen firms are pitching something similar, wanting to make seats more comfortable, improve cabin lighting, make it easier to use and charge mobile devices on flights, and even upgrade the humble food trolley.

They are trying to penetrate an industry eyeing significant growth on the back of strong jetliner demand, illustrated by this week’s $6.4 billion deal for Rockwell Collins to take over B/E Aerospace, an interiors manufacturer.

Persuading the airline industry to upgrade, however, is a tough ask. In a fiercely competitive market and with single-digit margins, carriers have gone as far as they can with economy-class innovation, says Anthony Harcup of Acumen, a UK design house that works with planemakers and airlines.

“Right now, we’ve designed ourselves into a corner with the current economy format,” he says. “It’s about as tight and tiny as you’re going to get it. So something has to give, and it’s difficult to see what that is.”

Acumen, which designed the world’s first flat bed for British Airways 20 years ago, has had only two of its in-cabin concepts lie unused: both involved re-thinking the form and layout of economy-class seats.

But that’s not stopping a new generation of outsiders working with new materials and technologies to make economy class, if not luxurious, at least more bearable.

FLAX SEED TROLLEY

AirGo’s Yaghoubi, for example, vowed to do something about airline seats when he flew back to his native Iran on its national airline and noticed the seats hadn’t been replaced since the plane was bought 40 years ago. “Actually, they were quite a lot more comfortable” than today’s seats, he said.

The latest prototype of his seats, he says, offers a wider back rest by having smaller elbow rests that fold down rather than up, and has better head support. Extra leg room is created by moving the literature pocket and improving the seat posture to have people sit more upright.

But these firms realize they can’t just pitch their seats on comfort alone.

UK-based Rebel.Aero, for example, promises to speed up boarding and integrate a child seat by letting the seat slide upwards, like an inverted cinema seat. This frees up space for passengers to move in and out and stretch their legs. Founder Gareth Burks says he’s halfway through getting certification and has delivered sample seats to some aircraft manufacturers.

AirGo is counting on airlines liking that its seats are made of carbon fiber composites, where fibers are braided like hair, creating a hollow structure that halves their weight.

Others are experimenting with other materials. France-based Expliseat has announced Air Tahiti as the first customer for its titanium seats, freeing up the equivalent weight of up to four passengers.

And UK-based FlightWeight has redesigned the food trolley, ditching the usual aluminum casing for mostly flax seed waste, volcanic rock, sugar and water – making it almost a third lighter.

OBSTACLES, GRUMBLES

Changing consumer habits also offer airlines a chance to shed weight.

Most passengers would prefer to use their own mobile device, says Fred Cleveland, former vice president at American Airlines and now an adviser to PricewaterhouseCoopers. This allows some airlines to ditch some expensive and heavy wiring and hardware, and convert seats into charging stations.

Cobalt Aerospace, another UK-based design firm, offers ways to customize seats, including wireless charging in tray tables and arm rests.

This could be bad news for suppliers of in-flight entertainment systems such as Thales and Panasonic. Singapore Airlines’ budget subsidiary Scoot has already abandoned traditional seat-back consoles in favor of pre-loaded iPads.

But there are obstacles for start-ups.

A lot has already been spent by companies such as Germany’s Recaro and France’s Zodiac Aerospace on making seats as light as possible by using advanced materials. Many leading airlines are already installing them.

But production bottlenecks in the interiors industry highlight the challenges it faces in keeping up with demand, and may make airlines wary of gambling on untested suppliers.

Persuading airlines to spend more isn’t easy, says Martin Darbyshire of UK-based Tangerine, which customized the head rests in Cathay Pacific’s A350 economy seats. Cathay was willing to make the changes, he said, because it makes money from economy. “But for most other airlines the costs are prohibitive.”

Maybe the biggest hurdle is certification.

There are strict rules about what can and can’t be done, and any tweaks require approval. When one airframe maker reduced the weight of the tracks where seats slot in, it found itself having to restore all the saved weight to ensure the design met certification requirements, said Darbyshire. “It becomes a vicious circle.”

Part of the problem is that while passengers grumble about economy-class travel, they are sensitive to price and don’t differentiate much on features, says Acumen’s Harcup.

Unlike booking a hotel, he says, where cost is just one of many metrics a customer looks at – internet access, parking, a pool – when it comes to the airline seat “the passenger is confronted with one metric and that’s cost. So it’s no wonder we’re in the situation we’re in.”

Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff, with additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

Xiaomi Goes Virtually Edgeless By Using Ultrasound

NewImage

Regular readers will know I’ve been looking out for this to happen for a while: the use of sound, or rather ultrasound, as a form of interface. Here’s a Reuters piece I did on it a year ago:  From pixels to pixies: the future of touch is sound | Reuters:

Ultrasound – inaudible sound waves normally associated with cancer treatments and monitoring the unborn – may change the way we interact with our mobile devices.

But the proof will be in the pudding, I reckoned:

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to commercialising mid-air interfaces is making a pitch that appeals not just to consumers’ fantasies but to the customer’s bottom line.

Norwegian start-up Elliptic Labs, for example, says the world’s biggest smartphone and appliance manufacturers are interested in its mid-air gesture interface because it requires no special chip and removes the need for a phone’s optical sensor.

Elliptic CEO Laila Danielsen says her ultrasound technology uses existing microphones and speakers, allowing users to take a selfie, say, by waving at the screen.

Gesture interfaces, she concedes, are nothing new. Samsung Electronics had infra-red gesture sensors in its phones, but says “people didn’t use it”.

Danielsen says her technology is better because it’s cheaper and broadens the field in which users can control their devices.

That day has happened. Xiaomi’s new MIX phone, Elliptic Labs says, is the first smartphone to use their Ultrasound Proximity Software:

INNER BEAUTY replaces the phone’s hardware proximity sensor with ultrasound software and allows the speaker to be completely invisible, extending the functional area of the screen all the way to the top edge of the phone.

Until now, all smartphones required an optical infrared hardware proximity sensor to turn off the screen and disable the touch functionality when users held the device up to their ear.

Without the proximity sensor, a user’s ear or cheek could accidentally trigger actions during a call, such as hanging up the call or dialing numbers while the call is ongoing.

However, INNER BEAUTY — built on Elliptic Labs’ BEAUTY ultrasound proximity software — uses patented algorithms not only to remove the proximity sensor, but also to hide the speaker behind the phone’s glass screen.

Besides eliminating the unsightly holes on a phone’s screen, Elliptic Labs’ technology eliminates common issues with hardware proximity sensors, such as their unreliability in certain weather conditions or in response to various skin colors as well as dark hair.

This is a good first step. The point here of course, for the company, is that they can push the display right to the top, which definitely looks nice (the front-facing camera, if you’re wondering, is now at the bottom.) But the use of ultrasound has lots of interesting implications — not least for how we interact with our phones. If gestures work, rather than just say they work, it will make interacting with other devices as interesting, maybe more interesting, than voice.

Jack’s Hit: Apple’s Missing Socket

There’s been a lot of talk about the removal of the iPhone’s audio jack, most of it knee-jerk, albeit sometimes amusing. A sampling:

I’m no fan-boi, but I find most of this coverage small-minded. Yes, I get that there’s a potential inconvenience here:

  • if you don’t have the lightning-jack adapter, then you can’t use your existing earphones. 
  • Yes, Apple is prodding you in the direction of its expensive wireless AirPods. 
  • Yes, wireless tech is not quite as ready as it could be for the pairing to be seamless. 
  • Yes, these things are easy to lose.
  • Yes, using the headphone and charging at the same time is not going to be possible without some adapter. (This is an oversight, I agree.) 
  • yes, Apple makes more money, because it owns the lightning connector and makes maybe $4 off each device that uses it. (Yes, I don’t like this either. But the wireless 

But two years down the track these kinds of arguments will seem as anachronistic as those that lamented the phasing out of the floppy drive, the serial port, the parallel port, the CD/DVD-rom drive, its own Firewire and 30 pin connectors. (The ultimate Apple I/O death chart – The Verge)

Oddly, both the arguments by Apple and its supporters are also somewhat limited in their horizons. Apple argues that it needs more space inside the device to pack more goodies in. That the technology itself is more than 100 years old. That it makes it easier to waterproof the device. That audio via Lightning or wireless is actually as good as, if not a better, experience. Apple has talked about being courageous, which is a tad disingenuous: brave is risking everything on a startup, not when you’ve got $200 billion sitting around.

The real reason why being pro-jack is going to seem a little Luddite in the future is that the future is not just wireless, it’s deviceless. The smart watch tried (and in my view failed) to move the functionality of the smartphone to the wrist. It’s not a natural place for that functionality to be, because you’re still looking at, and tapping on a screen. It’s just smaller, closer to your face and strapped on. Same with Google Glass. Nice idea, but you’re still looking at a screen, and people hate you.

The device should disappear, all of its features — input, output — internalised. Preferably inside the body. But we can’t do that quite yet, hence the earbud. A good earbud should be both controller and receptor. That’s where we’re going. This is what I wrote for Reuters on the subject. Here’s what I said on Reuters TV.

Nothing too revolutionary here. It only seems so because the debate around jack’s hit has been so mundane, so parochial, as if technology should stand still, and technology companies should listen solely to their users. The phrase ‘faster horse’ springs to mind. Apple isn’t even leading the field on this. There are at least three other smartphone companies which have already ditched the audio jack — Oppo did it four years ago.

We’ll look back at the folk who protested the disappearance of the jack as slightly quaint folk who didn’t get it. Everything leads inexorably towards breaking down the barriers between us and the technology we use — until eventually it is inside our skull. Next to it is close enough for now. 

Hence Ben Thompson, who nailed it with this piece Beyond the iPhone, saying that this wireless, deviceless future is one which may not involve much of Apple at all. 

To Apple’s credit they are, with the creation of AirPods, laying the foundation for a world beyond the iPhone. It is a world where, thanks to their being a product — not services — company, Apple is at a disadvantage; however, it is also a world that Apple, thanks to said product expertise, especially when it comes to chips, is uniquely equipped to create. That the company is running towards it is both wise — the sooner they get there, the longer they have to iterate and improve and hold off competitors — and also, yes, courageous. The easy thing would be to fight to keep us in a world where phones are all that matters, even if, in the long run, that would only prolong the end of Apple’s dominance.

In that sense, Apple has never stood in the way of its own destruction. Yes, it has penny pinched — taxing accessory makers, avoiding taxes elsewhere, squeezing suppliers — but it has not shied away from making these bigger decisions. What is interesting is that in this new world to come it may be at a disadvantage. 

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. 

Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier | Reuters

My piece for Reuters about the technology of smell: Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier | Reuters. A video version is here.

Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier

SINGAPORE | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

Phones or watches may be smart enough to detect sound, light, motion, touch, direction, acceleration and even the weather, but they can’t smell.

That’s created a technology bottleneck that companies have spent more than a decade trying to fill. Most have failed.

A powerful portable electronic nose, says Redg Snodgrass, a venture capitalist funding hardware start-ups, would open up new horizons for health, food, personal hygiene and even security.

Imagine, he says, being able to analyze what someone has eaten or drunk based on the chemicals they emit; detect disease early via an app; or smell the fear in a potential terrorist. ‘Smell,’ he says, ‘is an important piece’ of the puzzle.

It’s not through lack of trying. Aborted projects and failed companies litter the aroma-sensing landscape. But that’s not stopping newcomers from trying.

Like Tristan Rousselle’s Grenoble-based Aryballe Technologies, which recently showed off a prototype of NeOse, a hand-held device he says will initially detect up to 50 common odors. ‘It’s a risky project. There are simpler things to do in life,’ he says candidly.

MASS, NOT ENERGY

The problem, says David Edwards, a chemical engineer at Harvard University, is that unlike light and sound, scent is not energy, but mass. ‘It’s a very different kind of signal,’ he says.

That means each smell requires a different kind of sensor, making devices bulky and limited in what they can do. The aroma of coffee, for example, consists of more than 600 components.

France’s Alpha MOS was first to build electronic noses for limited industrial use, but its foray into developing a smaller model that would do more has run aground. Within a year of unveiling a prototype for a device that would allow smartphones to detect and analyze smells, the website of its U.S.-based arm Boyd Sense has gone dark. Neither company responded to emails requesting comment.

The website of Adamant Technologies, which in 2013 promised a device that would wirelessly connect to smartphones and measure a user’s health from their breath, has also gone quiet. Its founder didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

For now, start-ups focus on narrower goals or on industries that don’t care about portability.

California-based Aromyx, for example, is working with major food companies to help them capture a digital profile for every odor, using its EssenceChip. Wave some food across the device and it captures a digital signature that can be manipulated as if it were a sound or image file.

But, despite its name, this is not being done on silicon, says CEO Chris Hanson. Nor is the device something you could carry or wear. ‘Mobile and wearable are a decade away at least,’ he says.

Partly, the problem is that we still don’t understand well how humans and animals detect and interpret smells. The Nobel prize for understanding the principles of olfaction, or smell, was awarded only 12 years ago.

‘The biology of olfaction is still a frontier of science, very connected to the frontier of neuroscience,’ says Edwards, the Harvard chemical engineer.

MORE PUSH THAN PULL

That leaves start-ups reaching for lower-hanging fruit.

Snodgrass is funding a start-up called Tzoa, a wearable that measures air quality. He says interest in this from polluted China is particularly strong. Another, Nima, raised $9 million last month to build devices that can test food for proteins and substances, including gluten, peanuts and milk. Its first product will be available shortly, the company says. For now, mobile phones are more likely to deliver smells than detect them. Edwards’ Vapor Communications, for example, in April launched Cyrano, a tub-sized cylinder that users can direct to emit scents from a mobile app – in the same way iTunes or Spotify directs a speaker to emit sounds.

Japanese start-up Scentee is revamping its scent-emitting smartphone module, says co-founder Koki Tsubouchi, shifting focus from sending scent messages to controlling the fragrance of a room.

There may be scepticism – history and cinemas are littered with the residue of failed attempts to introduce smell into our lives going back to the 1930s – but companies sniff a revival.

Dutch group Philips filed a recent patent for a device that would influence, or prime, users’ behavior by stimulating their senses, including through smell. Nike filed something similar, pumping scents through a user’s headphones or glasses to improve performance.

The holy grail, though, remains sensing smells.

Samsung Electronics was recently awarded a patent for an olfactory sensor that could be incorporated into any device, from a smartphone to an electronic tattoo.

One day these devices will be commonplace, says Avery Gilbert, an expert on scent and author of a book on the science behind it, gradually embedding specialized applications into our lives.

‘I don’t think you’re going to solve it all at once,’ he says.

iPad Pro Thoughts

Jean-Louis Gassée again hits the right note in his piece on the iPad Pro: Wrong Questions | Monday Note. Tim Cook shouldn’t go around saying it will replace the laptop. It might for him, but the laptop/PC has evolved to be used in myriad ways, not all of which are best suited to a big screen and unwieldy, optional keyboard. 

Why not say that the iPad Pro will helpfully replace a laptop for 60%, or 25% of conventional personal computer users? In keeping with Steve Jobs’ Far Better At Some Key Things formula, why not say that the iPad Pro is a great laptop replacement for graphic designers, architects, mechanical engineers, musicians, videographers…and that the audience will grow even larger as new and updated apps take advantage of the iPad Pro’s screen size, speed, and very likable Pencil.

And it’s not just that. Taking up his and others’ theme that at each stage of hardware evolution we’ve lacked the imagination to realise what these devices might best be used for, I imagine the big screen and power of the iPad Pro will yield uses that we so far have not considered. 

As with wearables, these devices are as much about creating (this is something I’ve never been able to do before) or extending new markets (I could do this before, but it wasn’t much fun) as anything else. I’m not about to replace my laptop with an iPad Pro, but I could see a lot of things I would love to do with it — music editing, photo editing and organising, and maybe a bit of doodling. As in Horace Dediu’s video  The new iPad is like nothing we’ve ever seen before there’s lots of great visualization possibilities too. 

Is it a work tool? Could be, for some industries. It’s not a very mobile beast. 

The question is: while developers see enough reward in supporting it with apps?