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?

Cuckoonomics

Here’s a piece I wrote for the BBC which went out today. (They often air some time after I’ve recorded them.) 

It’s very hard to be in the technology business these days because you don’t know when someone is going to be a cuckoo, A cuckoo, in case you are not an ornithologist, are what are called brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in another bird’s nest — effectively outsourcing the whole brooding process.

Technology players have been playing this game for a while. The problem is that no one is quite sure who is the cuckoo, who is the sucker and what’s the nest. I call it cuckoonomics.

Take the recent spat between Apple and Google. Google was quite happy to have its Maps software on an iPhone — after all, it makes more money from an iPhone than it does from a phone running its own Android software — but it didn’t want to give away the farm. So it wouldn’t allow a feature which allowed users to navigate turn by turn. So Apple ditched the whole thing and went, somewhat disastrously, with its own version of maps.

Google in this case thought it was being a cuckoo, and the iPhone was the nest. But it didn’t want iPhone users enjoying the product so much that its own users jumped ship. 

In the old days technology was about hardware. Simple. You make something, put a sticker on it, and sell it. That’s all changed. Now it’s about software, about services, about experience. I may run an expensive telecommunications network but I can’t control what goes on it. Cuckoos offering video, games, messaging etc flock onto it, parking their eggs and reaping the benefits.

It happens in more subtle ways, though the implications may be just as drastic. Microsoft is about to launch a new version of its operating system called Windows 8. It’s quite quite different from before and a major gamble; not surprising, because Microsoft’s once cushy nest is being dismantled by Macs, mobiles and tablets.

It’s a brave attempt by Microsoft, but what’s interesting to me is how they’ve aimed their sights not at Apple but at Google. Microsoft have baked search so far into their new operating system they hope it will be where we do most of our stuff. From one place we can search all our apps, the web, our contact list, our saved notes and documents.

Of course this isn’t new. You can do this on a Mac, on an iPad, on an Android phone, even on a Windows PC. But it’s not been quite as well done before.

I’ll wager if Windows 8 catches on this will be one of its biggest features, and Google as a result will take a hit. Which is ironic because it’s been Google who have used cuckoonomics against Microsoft for more than a decade, gradually building a library of services around search that have ended up taking over Microsoft’s nest. Think Gmail taking over Outlook and Hotmail; Docs taking over Office, and then eventually the Chrome browser taking over Internet Explorer. 

What’s intriguing is that Microsoft is also trying to the same trick with Facebook. Windows 8 dovetails quite nicely with your Facebook stuff but at no point does it look like Facebook. I couldn’t find a Facebook app for Windows 8 but it didn’t seem to matter; instead all my Facebook friends, updates, photos and messages all appeared within Windows 8 — with rarely a Facebook logo in sight. 

Which cuckoo is going to win? 

The Real Revolution

This is also a podcast, from my weekly BBC piece. 

While folks at the annual tech show in Vegas are getting all excited about a glass-encased laptop, the world’s thinnest 55″ TV and a washing machine you can control from your phone, they may be forgiven for missing the quiet sound of a milestone being crossed: there are now more smartphones in the world than there are ordinary phones.

According to New York-based ABI Research, 3G and 4G handsets now account for more than half of the total mobile phone market. Those old ‘dumb phones’ and the so-called feature phones–poor relations to the computer-type iPhone or Android device can–are now officially in decline.

This is, in the words of ABI Research’s Jake Saunders, “an historic moment.” While IDC, another analyst company, noticed that this happened in Western Europe in the second quarter of last year, Saunders points out: “It means not just mobile phone users in Developed Markets but also Emerging Market end-users are purchasing 3G handsets.”

So why is this a big issue? Well, a few years back it would have been hard to convince someone in an emerging market to shell out several hundred bucks for a phone. A phone for these folks was good for talking and sending text messages. That was a lot. And enough for most people–especially when the handset cost $20 and the monthly bill was even less.

Now, with prices falling and connectivity improving in the developing world a cellphone is so much more: It’s a computer. It’s an Internet device. It’s a portable office and shop front. It’s a music player. A TV. A video player. A way to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

And for the industry these people in emerging markets are a life saver. For example: The developed world is pretty much saturated with smartphones. People aren’t buying them in the numbers they used to.

But that’s not to say the feature phone is dead. In fact, for some companies it’s still an important part of their business. Visionmobile, a UK based mobile phone research company, says that Nokia–busy launching its new Windows Lumia phones in Vegas–is still the king of feature phones, accounting for more than a quarter of the market.

And they just bought a small company called, confusingly, Smarterphone, which makes a feature phone interface look more like a smartphone interface. So clearly at least one company sees a future in this non-smartphone world. In a place like Indonesia, where the BlackBerry leads the smartphone pack, nearly 90% of phones sold in the third quarter of last year were feature phones, according to IDC.

So companies see a big chance for growth in these parts of the world. But they also need the spectrum. If you’re a mobile operator your biggest problem now is that smartphone users do a lot of downloading. That means bandwidth. The problem is that one piece of spectrum is for that 3G smartphone, and another is for your old-style 2G phone. The sooner you can get all your customers to upgrade their handset to 3G, the sooner you can switch that part of the spectrum you own to 3G.

So this is a big moment. We’re seeing a tipping point in the world’s use of cellphone use, from a simple, dumb communication device to something vastly more useful, vastly more exciting, vastly more lucrative. All those people moving over to smartphones

ABI Research reckons there’ll be 1.67 billion handsets sold this year. That’s one in four people buying a new device. Forget fancy Vegas. The real revolution just started.

News: Microsoft Blogger Fired

 Hard times for Bloggers Like Us: MicrosoftWatch reports that a temp worker, Michael Hanscom, has become the first Microsoft employee to lose his job over his blog. But, as with all these cases, it gets murkier the more you look at it. Hanscom doesn’t believe it was the act of blogging, per se, that led to his firing but for taking a photo inside the company, and possibly revealing information in his blog about his work. The irony: Microsoft is busy encouraging its own employees, as well as others working with its products to blog. Here’s a list of them.