Category Archives: Phones

A New Form Factor for the Phone?

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photo @arubin via twitter

The smartphone hasn’t changed much, at least in terms of proportions, since the first iPhone (the iPhone belatedly adopted the 16:9 aspect ratio most other phones had long assumed in 2012 with the iPhone 5). Yes, Samsung made it bigger, an idea considered dumb at the time but one which has largely become the norm. Phones have gotten thinner — anorexic, in the words of one writer — which has produced its own problems (and may hold back 5G). But the essential dimensions of the phone haven’t changed in more than 10 years. 

That is, sort of, changing, with Samsung’s Fold and the Surface Duo hinged Android phone. But that in itself isn’t that radical — both are just two phones stuck together, design-wise, which is something that designers have been playing with for a while. (I wrote about bendable screens back in 2013 and revisited it a year ago).

Step up Andy Rubin, the former Android guy who left Google over allegations of sexual misconduct (retaining a huge severance package). He now works at Essential, which make a nice-looking but essentially conventionally sized phone. 

The phone, pictured above, seems to be about the same length as a conventional phone, but is maybe half the width. At first that doesn’t seem to make any sense, but looking at the way it sits in the hand, it seems to fit more snugly. I’m guessing the idea here is that most of the time we’re operating a phone with one hand while moving — walking, on a bus, hopefully not driving, jogging, abseiling, windsurfing, under-the-desk-in-meetings — so this form factor makes a lot of sense. I assume that’s why the screenshots are of maps. 

And I suppose that lain horizontal it would make for one pretty cool cinematic perspective. Although nowadays everyone seems to be shooting vertically, so who knows? It’s not clear whether this phone is an Essential one according to Sean Hollister at the Verge.

It’s good that we’re seeing experimentation in this space again. This isn’t a massive leap forward, but it does suggest that some minds are showing signs of thinking outside the box. It also shows that we are probably using our phones in ways we didn’t a few years ago. Certainly navigating the average street these days involves having to dodge people glued to videos or games while in motion. 

5G’s Achilles Heel: Heat

5G promises a lot. a mobile internet of things, new immersive VR and AR experiences, lower latency, washboard stomachs. But something the industry isn’t addressing is that the devices themselves heat up. A lot. This from Digits to Dollars‘ Jonathan Goldberg: 

5G phones get hot. Really hot. Probably not hot enough to ignite your battery (probably), but enough to generate a definite burning sensation in your pants pockets. At Mobile World Congress in February, we spoke with an engineer from Sony who was demo’ing a phone (behind glass) that was clocking 1 Gbps speeds. Wow, fast. We asked the engineer why it was not going faster and he said “It overheats.” A good solid answer, from a nuts-and-bolts-and-antenna person. We will wager any amount that at next year’s show, no one on the floor will be as open about this problem.

The industry, Goldberg writes, is tackling this issue by er, ignoring it. And indeed the standard response appears to be that “we’ve seen heat problems with every new generation and what we have with 5G is nothing significant, 3G was way worse,” as one commenter said he’d been told at a 5G conference. But that may be underestimating the problem — Goldberg says the “heat budget” is 67% higher than current phones. (Heat budget is the total amount of thermal energy transferred to the chip when the device is in operation.) And he points out that both no-one seems yet to be offering a solutions and “solving the issue in 3G broke a couple vendors.” 

Some background: what we call 5G is actually two stages of technology. What most carriers are currently rolling out is phase 1, or what is called, confusingly, sub 6, an evolution of 4G that bring (quoting Goldberg again in a different post): “modest improvements in data rates as well as some important, but hard to observe, changes in the software the operators use to run their networks.” The big step will be the second phase, mmWave, “will bring much more tangible changes, notably including data rates at or above 1 Gbps.”It’s these mmWave radios that are (indirectly) causing the problem. 

As I understand it, these mmWave operate at very high frequencies — close to microwave — which require high clock speeds in the chips. The heat this creates is concentrated in a small subset of the electronic components within the phone, and there’s no easy way to move that energy around. Goldberg again: 

Of course there are some solutions, but none of them are complete and they all have serious drawbacks. It turns out that the way we cool electronics has not advanced in 40 years. There are really two methods used currently to cool Things down- Fans and Dissipation.

Fans are what you think they are. Anyone who has ever opened up their desktop PC or overclocked their laptop knows what these look like. But fans have two problems: they are big and they have moving parts. Both of those require design decisions that go counter to every mobile design trend in the past 15 years.

Dissipation is just the idea of moving the heat around to hasten air cooling. In a PC, this is typified by those funny looking prong-things that sit on top of CPUs. Those things are too tall to fit inside a 10mm thick phone. So for mobiles, OEMs are looking at using ‘straws’, or copper pipes that span the length of the phone. These take up a lot of space and inserting a large conductive element (copper!) inside a phone wreaks havoc on mobile radios, (i.e. hurting data rates).

We all know the problems of overheating phones, but what is surprising is how little this issue seems to be addressed. Goldberg says that this is a problem on a whole new level to previous generations, and one that is only now being addressed: “The problems with 5G mmWave are larger and will not go away as quickly. Handset makers are just waking up to the existence of this problem.”

The only place to find discussion of this issue appears to be in academia, which itself notes the lack of discussion. In a paper published last year three researchers at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology wrote (PDF):

the heat dissipation of smartphones restricts the maximum receiving rate of smartphones. Although the maximum receiving rate of smartphones is restricted by the computation capability and heat dissipation, detailed studies of basic models used for evaluating the maximum receiving rate of smartphones are surprisingly rare in the available literature.

The researchers ran their own tests and reached some sobering conclusions: 

– anything above 4 Gbps and the temperature of the smartphone reaches above 45 C “within a few seconds.” (5G has promised peak data rates up to 20 Gbps and Qualcomm’s first 5G modem “is designed to achieve up to 5Gbps downlink peak data rate.” So the smartphone has to “decrease the computation capability of the chip to reduce the heat generation, e.g., decrease the working frequency of the chip, to prevent low-temperature burns on the user’s skin. Thus, smartphones cannot sustain the original receiving rate and may even have to shut off wireless communications.” This is obviously not an optimal outcome. This is already happening with the first mmWave 5G rollouts (what AT&T calls 5G+) — which, remember, is not the one that involves mmWave radios: The Wall Street Journal wrote in July that their Galaxy S10’s 5G switched off in the Icelandic summer. Others have reported similar problems.

The researchers recommend that to address this”using new materials or redesigning the components’ structure to improve the heat conduction rate from the chip to other low-temperature components in smartphones. Additionally, mobile edge computing, one of the 5G technologies, can be applied to improve the maximum receiving rate of smartphones by offloading the computation assignments in the chips.” It’s hard to imagine that would be a welcome advance, since as I understand it it would mean transferring a lot of the hard work from the phone to the base station — and who exactly would pay for that? 

The researchers are, in their academic way, somewhat scathing of how the field has failed to address the serious matter of device heat: “In 5G and future 6G cellular networks, most of research is focused on the core networks and BSs. However, many potential impacts triggered by the maximum receiving rate of smartphones have not yet been investigated. How to design reasonable mobile terminals for matching with 5G and future 6G wireless communication systems is still an open issue for industries and academic researchers.” 

That was a year ago. One can only hope the device manufacturers are addressing this. For now, it seems to make sense to take 5G promises with a pinch of salt and a bucket of ice.

Why we hate video calls

Good piece in the New Scientist about why we’ve always hated video calls:

When another New York Times reporter went to Pittsburgh in mid-1971, however, he found only 33 Picturephones in operation, with just 12 able to dial outside their own buildings. Aside from impracticalities such as cost, it seemed that, against all predictions, no one actually wanted video calling. Users were more interested in seeing graphics than face-to-face video conversation. At Bell Labs, Lucky recalls that the only person who called his Picturephone was his boss, Arno Penzias. “I found it very awkward because I had to stare at him,” he says.

More than that, I think the enduring non-appeal of video is that it doesn’t start to replace talking face to face. Face to face talking is not about seeing the other person, or looking them in the eyes — it’s about non-verbal communication — gestures, body language, touching, etc. It’s also about allowing other things to intervene — movement, distraction, interaction with objects.

Video calls are exhausting, because you are trying to replace all that with just maintaining eye contact, or at least giving the appearance of remaining engaged. It’s a new form of communication, and we’ve tried and rejected it. Whenever Cisco drag me over to their HQ for some elaborate video conference I always feel it’s a waste of time, and a major overengineering of a flawed medium.

Talking on the phone, meanwhile, suits us perfectly (although I’ve come to hate it almost as much as video calling.) As George Costanza once said, after going through a phone conversation with a blind date:

George: She had to be impressed by that conversation, had to! It was a great performance. I am unbelievable on the phone. On the date they should just have two phones on the table at the restaurant, done.

Phone calls have become useful because we are able to transfer a lot of the body language and non-verbal cues into speech (and silence). We’re still working on text chat, but we’re getting there. It works — it’s not exhausting. It’s communicating what we want to communicate, and filtering out what we don’t — and not reading, at least for the most part, anything into anything else.

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. 

A Tale of Three Asias

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Source: GfK data

I’ve just been playing around with some smartphone data from GfK, which collects its data by point-of-sale (POS) tracking in 90+ markets and estimates values based on unsubsidized retail pricing — meaning I guess that these are not the prices that folk may be paying for their phones exactly, but ultimately. The chart above is me calculating the Average Selling Price by dividing unit sales with sales value.  

Raw conclusions: Emerging APAC — India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam — have the cheapest smartphones in the world, and they’re getting cheaper. Two years ago they were above $200, now they’re less than $160. 

Then there’s Developed Asia: Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. There smartphones are the most expensive in the world, by a yard or two. Although prices have fallen too, by 8%, in the two years, folk in this part of the world still pay $150 more for their smartphones.

And then there’s China. China started below the Middle East and Africa, Central/Eastern Europe and Latin American but ended it up above all three, with the ASP rising by 16%. Interestingly, the rise occured in one spurt (making me worry there’s a problem with the data, though this might be down to the launch of the iPhone 6 in China in the last quarter of 2014. ASPs there have held steady since.) 

Bottom line: Anyone selling phones in Asia — indeed, anything that involves mobile — needs to think in terms of at least three distinct markets, in terms of purchasing power, in terms of computing power, in terms of screen size and connectivity. 

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

(Reuters) – The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach.

Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale – the $4,000 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X “Brick” – half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but up to a fifth of the population, or some 1.4 billion people, live where “the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built,” according to a Facebook white paper last month.

Even these figures, says Kurtis Heimerl, whose Berkeley-based start-up Endaga has helped build one of the world’s smallest telecoms networks in an eastern Indonesian village, ignore the many people who have a cellphone but have to travel hours to make a call or send a message. “Everyone in our community has a phone and a SIM card,” he says. “But they’re not covered.”

Heimerl reckons up to 2 billion people live most of their lives without easy access to cellular coverage. “It’s not getting better at the dramatic rate you think.”

The challenge is to find a way to connect those people, at an attractive cost.
And then there’s the frontier beyond that: the oceans.

Improving the range and speed of communications beneath the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet is a must for environmental monitoring – climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, and protecting harbours.

There is also interest from oceanographers looking to map the sea bed, marine biologists, deep-sea archaeologists and those hunting for natural resources, or even searching for lost vessels or aircraft. Canadian miner Nautilus Minerals Inc said last week it came to an agreement with Papua New Guinea, allowing it to start work on the world’s first undersea metal mining project, digging for copper, gold and silver 1,500 metres (4,921 feet) beneath the Bismark Sea.

And there’s politics: China recently joined other major powers in deep-sea exploration, partly driven by a need to exploit oil, gas and mineral reserves. This year, Beijing plans to sink a 6-person ‘workstation’ to the sea bed, a potential precursor to a deep-sea ‘space station’ which, researchers say, could be inhabited.

“Our ability to communicate in water is limited,” says Jay Nagarajan, whose Singapore start-up Subnero builds underwater modems. “It’s a blue ocean space – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

BALLOONS, DRONES, SATELLITES
Back on land, the challenge is being taken up by a range of players – from high-minded academics wanting to help lift rural populations out of poverty to internet giants keen to add them to their social networks.

Google, for example, is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of drones that can stay airborne for years, while Facebook has bought UK-based drone maker Ascenta.

CEO Mark Zuckerburg has said Facebook is working on drones and satellites to help bring the Internet to the nearly two thirds of the world that doesn’t yet have it. As part of its Project Loon, Google last year launched a balloon 20 km (12.4 miles) into the skies above New Zealand, providing wireless speeds of up to 3G quality to an area twice the size of New York City.

But these are experimental technologies, unlikely to be commercially viable for a decade, says Christian Patouraux, CEO of another Singapore start-up, Kacific. Its solution is a satellite network that aims to bring affordable internet to 40 million people in the so-called ‘Blue Continent’ – from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands.

A mix of technologies will prevail, says Patouraux – from fiber optic cables, 3G and LTE mobile technologies to satellites like his HTS Ku-band, which he hopes to launch by end-2016. “No single technology will ever solve everything,” he said.

Indeed, satellite technology – the main method of connectivity until submarine cables became faster and cheaper – is enjoying a comeback. While Kacific, O3b and others aim at hard-to-reach markets, satellite internet is having success even in some developed markets. Last year, ViaSat topped a benchmarking study of broadband speeds by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

And today’s airline passengers increasingly expect to be able to go online while flying, with around 40 percent of U.S. jetliners now offering some Wi-Fi. The number of commercial planes worldwide with wireless internet or cellphone service, or both, will triple in the next decade, says research firm IHS.

WHITE SPACE

Densely populated Singapore is experimenting with so-called ‘white space’, using those parts of the wireless spectrum previously set aside for television signals. This year, it has quietly started offering what it calls SuperWifi to deliver wireless signals over 5 km or more to beaches and tourist spots.

This is not just a first-world solution. Endaga”s Heimerl is working with co-founder Shaddi Hasan to use parts of the GSM spectrum to build his village-level telco in the hills of Papua.

That means an ordinary GSM cellphone can connect without any tweaks or hardware. Users can phone anyone on the same network and send SMS messages to the outside world through a deal with a Swedish operator.

Such communities, says Heimerl, will have to come up with such solutions because major telecoms firms just aren’t interested. “The problem is that these communities are small,” says Heimerl, “and even with the price of hardware falling the carriers would rather install 4G in cities than equipment in these communities.”

The notion of breaking free of telecoms companies isn’t just a pipe dream.

MESH

Part of the answer lies in mesh networks, where devices themselves serve as nodes connecting users – not unlike a trucker’s CB radio, says Paul Gardner-Stephen, Rural, Remote & Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow at Flinders University in South Australia.

Gardner-Stephen has developed a mesh technology called Serval that has been used by activists lobbying against the demolition of slums in Nigeria, and is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross.

Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has called them “the most essential form of digital communication and the cheapest to deploy.”

Even without a balloon and Google’s heft, mesh networks offer a bright future, says Gardner-Stephen. If handset makers were to open up their chips to tweaks so their radios could communicate over long distances, it would be possible to relay messages more than a kilometre.

In any case, he says, the Internet is no longer about instantaneous communication. As long as we know our data will arrive at some point, the possibilities open up to thinking of our devices more as data couriers, storing messages on behalf of one community until they are carried by a villager to another node they can connect to, passing those messages on several times a day.

It’s not our present vision of a network where messages are transmitted in an instant, but more like a digital postal service, which might well be enough for some.

“Is the Internet going to be what it looks like today? The answer is no,” said Gardner-Stephen.

PISTOL SHRIMPS

As the Internet changes, so will its boundaries.

As more devices communicate with other devices – Cisco Systems Inc estimates there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018 – so is interest increasing in connecting those harder-to-reach devices, including those underwater, that are beyond the reach of satellites, balloons and base stations.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to.

That’s partly because there are no agreed standards, says Subnero’s Nagarajan, who likens it to the early days of the Internet. Subnero offers underwater modems that look like small torpedoes which, he says, can incorporate competing standards and allow users to configure them.

This is a significant plus, says Mandar Chitre, an academic from the National University of Singapore, who said that off-the-shelf modems don’t work in the region’s shallow waters.

The problem: a crackling noise that sailors have variously attributed to rolling pebbles, surf, volcanoes, and, according to a U.S. submarine commander off Indonesia in 1942, the Japanese navy dropping some “newfangled gadget” into the water.

The actual culprit has since been identified – the so-called pistol shrimp, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey. Only recently has Chitre been able to filter out the shrimp’s noise from the sonic pulses an underwater modem sends. His technology is now licensed to Subnero.

There are still problems speeding up transmission and filtering out noise, he says. But the world is opening up to the idea that to understand the ocean means deploying permanent sensors and modems to communicate their data to shore.

And laying submarine cables would cost too much.

“The only way to do this is if you have communications technology. You can’t be wiring the whole ocean,” he told Reuters. “It’s got to be wireless.”

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Meshing and Stacking Away from Disaster

I’m often haunted by the folk in Wall-E, the movie where humans have abandoned Earth to trash, a small waste-collecting robot and a cockroach. That’s not the bit that scares me: it’s the space-bound humans who are ferried around on pods, their eyes permanently glued to a screen in front of them.

Is this, I ask my worried self, our future? Or has it already happened?
In some ways it has. But for what it’s worth I think it’s a blip. The future won’t in fact look like that at all.

Right now we definitely have a problem. The problem is that screens have gotten smaller, or rather more portable, more convenient, and the content on them has become so compelling that we risk life and limb to watch them as we walk, stand and sit.

But this is just a phase.

I detect the beginnings of a shift. Not of our behaviour – sadly we’ll always be vulnerable to fixating on any screen with bright colours and movement. But the sheer multiplicity of screens is forcing change on us.

Consider the following: Of the seven hours a day spent gazing at a screen, at least two of those hours are actually watching two or more screens. Millward Brown, a brand consultancy, calls it meshing and stacking.

Whereas before we’d pop off to the kitchen to put the kettle on, now we scroll through our tablet to see what people are saying on Twitter about what we’ve just watched. Then there’s shifting, where we start watching something on one screen, and then finish it on a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet.

This may seem like appalling behaviour, slicing our attention into ever thinner chunks. And in some ways it is, but it means that we’re unlikely to be subsumed by any one screen. And that’s good, because we’re dominating the screens, not them dominating us.

There are other things afoot. Screens don’t need to be big to do big things for us: the latest version of Google’s Android operating system allows the user to stitch together separate photos of a view and then relive the panorama by moving the phone around in the air, the image moving as if the scene was in front of the viewer. It’s a extraordinary feeling, recreating a mural on a screen the size of your hand.

Then there’s something called Spritz, an app that allows you to speed read a book in a viewer no larger than 18 letters. The maker of the app says by shuttling words past your vision at speed 80% of your effort is saved for reading and absorbing. I was pretty amazed; it seemed to work, and makes you think about whether you really need a book-sized screen to recreate the experience of reading a tome.

Then there’s something called Snapchat, where users can send photos to each other which can only be viewed for a few seconds before disappearing forever. It’s hard to see the value in this, until someone pointed out that the value lies in the intimacy of the moment. Users don’t open the picture immediately, preferring to find a quiet, private space to enjoy it. Counterintuitively, by making the photo ephemeral, the app makes the process of viewing it special and the memory of it longer lasting.

Some might say I’m grasping at straws. But I see in these examples the beginnings of a new approach to how we relate to our screens. For sure, some of us will remain their slaves. But for others we may find new ways to derive pleasure from them, whether it’s recreating a vista, reading a tome or viewing a photo.

WhatsApp: Silly Money or New Front in the Platform Wars?

It’s been a few days since Facebook announced to the world it had bought WhatsApp. And Rakuten bought Viber. You are forgiven if only one of those names rings a bell. so while I’m at it, let me throw in a few more: WeChat, LINE, KakaoTalk. Nimbuzz. Mig33. Fring. Telegram. Tango.

OK, that’s enough names. But while I’m at it I’ll throw out a prediction: You’re going to hear a lot more of these messaging services in the years to come. That’s because we’re entering a new phase of what we might pompously call the platform wars. One where those with the biggest network win.

It sounds arcane and complicated but it’s not really, if we strip it down to the fundamentals. Phones were always about the network effect. The first phone, for example, was pretty useless, like the first subway station. But the more phones were added to the network, the more useful the network became, and the more worthwhile it was to get a phone and plug it in.

Networks are about communicating. When SMS came along folk loved it because it offered a less intrusive option for the mobile phone; you didn’t have to talk to people to communicate with them.

Messaging applications like WhatsApp are a return to this simplicity. And of course, it’s cheap. So it’s not surprising that more than 450 million people use it.

And this is the thing. Facebook and Rakuten, the Japanese ecommerce company that bought a smaller version of WhatsApp called Viber, want to get as close to you, the mobile user, as they can. They want to get you to buy stuff, or share stuff, or see stuff because that’s how their business models work.

In that sense it’s simple. But under the hood there’s a larger shift at work in the layout of the engine. In the old days, to get close to the user you built a browser. Remember all those wars over the default browser in Windows?

That’s all old hat now. The conventional wisdom is that on mobile phones, where all the action is, the chokepoint is the operating system. That’s the software that the device runs, and comes with. That means Apple, with their iOS, and Google, with their Android, are in pole position. If you want to do something, like sell an app, you have to go through their app store. Upset them and you’re out. Oh, and they get a cut of anything you make on their device.

Only hang on a minute.

What happens if the choke point, the place where the rubber hits the user, as it were, wasn’t the app store but, say, a messaging app? Or if you wanted to order a taxi? Or buy insurance?

This is what is happening already, in China, South Korea and Japan. And it’s big, because it threatens to undermine a lot of what these big players, not just Apple and Google, but phone makers like Samsung, and telephone operators, and everyone in the mobile game, has been trying to do.

In short, if you can insert yourself in the what folk call the value chain so all the user sees is you, you’re good to go. And that’s what’s happening with the likes of WeChat, KakaoTalk and Line.

You may not have heard of these guys, and you may not again. But if you think them about in that way you’ll have a clearer idea about why Facebook splashed out $19 billion on their Western equivalent WhatsApp, and Rakuten $900 million on Viber.

Big money. But when you’re elbowing big names aside to get to be the first and only thing the nearly 7 billion mobile phone users in the world interact with, maybe it doesn’t look like silly money.

This is a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily program riffing off the Facebook and Rakuten purchases. Podcast here.

Taxi Dating Apps?

I’ve been meeting a better class of taxi driver lately. It’s been made possible by something called GrabTaxi, which I have begun to think of as a dating app for passengers and taxi drivers.

Of course, it’s not really, that would be weird. But it kind of is.

It’s just one of many apps and services across the world seeking to make the process of booking taxis easier. At one end of the scale there’s Uber, which aspires to allow anyone to be a taxi driver, matching car and driver with passenger. At the simpler end are apps like GrabTaxi, which offer taxi drivers another way to take bookings beyond their usual dispatcher.

Prospective passenger and cabbie install the app, and the app does the rest.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about all these apps, as they contribute to making what can be a very a frustrating experience more efficient. Eventually, it’s likely they’ll change what we think of as a taxi ride: imagine a world where every car could offer taxi-like services, driven either by their own or someone who rents them. Taxi companies and the authorities which regulate them look set for a bumpy ride.

But that’s not here yet, and anyway, I’m more interested in a different kind of benefit: providing a way for passengers and taxi drivers to have more say in who they share a car-ride with.

Think about it: it’s kind of weird that we place so much stock in safety on the roads but entrust our lives with strangers — either driving or sitting in the back. In some countries it’s like playing Russian roulette.

But even in supposedly safe places like Singapore it’s a bit of a raffle. As anywhere, Singapore cabbies are a motley bunch, ranging from those you’d happily take home for tea to those you wouldn’t, er, share a car with, let alone drive it. It’s not that they’re deliberately trying to kill you, but you sometimes get the feeling they’d rather you weren’t really there. Rides can vary from stony silence to being a captive audience for angry tales of woe or pet enthusiasms.

I just spent a good half an hour in one cab listening to the cabbie’s collection of CD sermons from a charismatic preacher called Justin. It was OK until he started extolling the virtues of the birch on one’s offspring, complete with sound effects. I made my apologies and alighted.

This is where apps like GrabTaxi come in. There’s something about downloading and installing an app that seems to appeal to a classier kind of cabbie: on each occasion I’ve had need of their services, each has been a joy, if a tad eccentric.

One young man we’ll call Dave took us the airport the other day in car decorated like his bedroom, or what I imagine it to look like, obviously we didn’t get invited back. It was black, like his Iron Maiden t-shirt, complete with laced black curtains that made it feel like a cross between a heavy metal shrine and a coffin. In a nice way. Dave himself was charming.

This is the thing, you see. The great thing about first adopters of technology is that they all have something in common — in this case a taxi app. I the passenger have something to break the ice with, while they — and I’m trying not to generalise here — presumably quite enjoy their job and want to do more of it. With some taxi drivers that is not always the case: many, when they’re not actually trying to kill you, will spend a lot of the ride complaining about pretty much everything: the government, the taxi company, other drivers, life in general.

Not so early adopters. They have a more positive outlook on life. Hence this sense that the usefulness of GrabTaxi is less about finding a taxi, than finding a taxi driver who can get me from A to B and not either kill me or make me want to kill myself before we get there.

Of course, all this is incidental to apps like GrabTaxi. Their goal is to match taxi and passenger based on availability, not on compatibility. But that’s where I think they’ve missed a trick. Add a few tweaks to their app and they could allow passengers to choose cabbies based on their likely conversation topics, attitudes to issues of the day, history of comments from other passengers, whether they help with pushchairs and shopping. And vice versa: passengers, too, could get rated by cabbies.

It might encourage both parties to put on a better show.

And who knows? A few of us might get invited home for tea.

This is a longer version of a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. I no longer upload the podcasts here because of time constraints, but they can usually be found from time to time at the tail-end of the Business Daily podcast available here. While I’m a staff correspondent at Reuters, this is not written for Reuters.

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?