Thursday, 30 May 2013

The battle for the living room

This article (ReadWriteWeb) makes a good case for the next big consumer electronics battleground being in the living room.

It mentions, but doesn't really expand on, the key success criteria too: content, intelligence and user experience. Two of these are radically from traditional media. User experience is generational: older generations are used to being served content, to 'tuning in' to a broadcast. Whereas kids these days are very selective, and fickle about their content - they have to be because there's so much of it. So how to find the middle ground? That will be the critical challenge, and I suspect Apple will crack it first because that's what they excel at.

Intelligence on the web is massive, literally: every click or tap you make is tracked by something, somewhere. At the very least, it's the site you are on, more likely it is tracked by Facebook (if you browser is aware of your Facebook account), Google (ditto) and a few of the common advertising cookie trackers. Attach that to your TV and movie watching habits and that's a considerable portion of peoples' lives fully mapped. But data capture is only half the story. To engage and monetize you have to use the data intelligently. That's where Google have the advantage.

Content (which the article mainly focuses on) is the same issue as traditional media: it is still king, but cheaper to produce than ever. Sure, good stuff is still expensive, but that's about production, not distribution.

There's one other aspect that the article does not mention, but that I think will be vital: social.  Sharing content is a big thing already, but there's still some friction when you do it. Imagine a monetized version where you get a micropayment whenever you successfully share a piece of content (like, say, a movie trailer). There's also the participation aspect of social: gaming. Currently, there are very few multi-platform online games: an Xbox player cannot play with a Playstation player online. On some games they can play against PC players, but for quick reaction games the PC players have the advantage of a richer, more responsive interface (a mouse has a greater more accurate range of movement, plus a keyboard has more programmable combinations than a gamepad). This limitation is tolerable because consoles are primarily about games, with media playing being a bonus feature. In the future living room, audiences will not tolerate being restricted to sharing only with others on the same platform.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Optimum smart phone size?

I think smart phones are getting too big.

Usually technological progress is about miniaturisation: packing the same or more into less. The computer industry, while adhering vigorously to this principle -to the extend of inventing a law about it (Moore's Law) - also has a propensity to get ahead of itself. PC specs in the 1990's were all about mega and giga hertz processors. These days clock speeds are pretty standard: about 1.5GHz for small laptops, 2.5GHz for larger laptops, and 3GHz for desktops. They've plateau'd.

Now think about the progress of mobile phones. The first mobile I had was a Nokia 2110 that was the size and weight of a slim brick. It was cool because, as well as making calls, you could manage your contacts. Phones were less about features and more about size/weight, coverage and cost. Then came feature phones, with cameras and basic apps. Software and computer companies stirred at the potential: a new battle ground. The smartphone was born.

Software, by its nature, evolves rapidly and has an insatiable appetite for hardware. The old PC expression was that "Intel builds them, and Microsoft fills them"- no sooner was the latest PC processor released, then the latest Windows OS would require it to run properly. And the software process was always linear: more features = better.

But mobile is different. A modern mobile already has enough processing power for me to write a book, do my accounts and even edit and shoot a short film. But would I do any of that on my phone? Not if I valued my eyesight, thumbs and patience. What I want in a phone is still just portability and connectivity. Sure, I want to connect in more ways than ever before: text, voice, video and all the social gloop in between, but try carrying your phone around in airplane mode for a couple of days. It rapidly devolves into a toy: a walkman or a gameboy. Amusing, yes, but not essential.

So, it's really just a screen to all the things I want to connect to. A little window to my online world. So I sort of understand the implied trend that this little window should be as big and bright and hi-res as possible.

But what about that other essential attribute: portability? If I can't wear it and it doesn't fit in my jeans pocket it's not portable. Pouches on belts do not count: I'm not on maneuvers, nor am I a hobbit. While the latest big 5" screen, flat smartphones look slick and fun to fondle in the shop, once you get one and put a protective case on it, you're basically trying to carry a 1980's calculator in your pocket. I may have been a geek in the 80's but I only ever had a calculator in my bag for maths lessons.

So why bigger? Because marketers need a killer feature to brag about and screen size is simple to understand and literally visual. There's another more cunning reason: battery life. Mobile processors are getting faster, hotter and more energy consuming. That kills battery life, so make the battery bigger but do not make the phone thicker because thick is ugly. So make the screen bigger. People think they are getting more screen, and they are, but really it's for the bigger battery to support the bigger processor (and bigger screen!).

Apple did a clever thing with the iPhone 5. They made it bigger, but only taller: they kept it narrow, so that it could still fit in a pocket. Also, the screen is still small enough for your thumb to travel to all corners without having to adjust a one-handed grip, unlike all the bigger screen smartphones, that effectively require two hands to use.

The final silliness: screen density.  The latest smartphones have over 400 pixels per inch.  The naked eye can only effectively discern 300 ppi. So all those extra pixels are for the marketing feature lists, not for your eyes.

Where I'd like to see it go is where Mark Shuttleworth's Ubuntu are dabbling: using your phone as a PC. Hook it up to a display, keyboard and mouse, and you have a proper PC. Take off the peripherals, and you're back to simple touch interface. Add a secure wireless display standard to all displays (TVs and monitors) and you have no need of oversized screens. The touchscreens of today will become like the little outer screens on the old clamshell mobiles. That's worth putting in your pocket.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

China hacking

While watching this video ($pjOWVcVRO7w source: Bloomberg) it struck me as ironic that China's supposed control over it's people could work so badly against it, at least from a diplomatic perspective.

The telling stat is that 40% of the worlds hacks emanate from China, but only 10% from the US. Yet nobody accuses "the US" of hacking because state-sponsored naughty behavior is not what the US is about, right? Whereas when a hack comes from China it is heavily implied that it is state-sponsored. 

Maybe they just have script kiddies and organized crime too? There are 1.2 billion Chinese, so they could have hacking clubs larger than formal cybercrime entities in the West. Certainly, the organized crime is bigger. Also, given China's regime, those hackers would have to be pretty adept at covering their tracks, so you'd imagine that they'd figure out how to point the blame at the regime's institutions. Especially as it would suit the west's ideology to blame the Chinese state rather than a bunch of very good hackers who happen to be from China.

Maybe it is state-funded Chinese hacking, and they are probing ways to disrupt western economies and defense industries. While I can appreciate the latter, I don't think they'd need to resort to hacking to disrupt western economies. So who has been hacking Wall Street firms? Organized criminals seems a better bet to me.