MediaFile

Building the perfect smartwatch

In my tech predictions of 2013 I somehow missed that this would be the year of the smartwatch. But now the most established names in tech are realizing the future may be all in the wrist.

Smartwatches are shaping up to be the Next Big Thing about a decade after they were offered to the public and met with a collective shrug. Timing can be everything in tech. Microsoft marketed a stylus-enabled PC in 2001, but the tablet concept was a nonstarter until the iPad. Even the e-reader had a first life as The Rocket — before the dot-com boom. But it was Amazon, in 2007, that reimagined the device and took the brass ring.

There is still essentially no smartwatch market, but at least one analyst is asserting that more than a million could be sold this year. That astonishing — and dubious — claim would amount to one-third of the anticipated 2013 sales of netbook (which I did predict would surge in 2013).

The renaissance began last year when a startup called Pebble began a Kickstarter campaign to build an eponymous smartwatch. Pebble’s small team raised the $200,000 it sought two hours into its 30-day fundraising period. Pebble stopped taking seed money when it reached $10 million.

Behind schedule, Pebble has finally shipped to all 55,000 backers (I was one of them). The wait to now buy one is two-three months. So the project was a rousing success. So good, apparently, that it got the attention of big tech companies — which is to say it stoked their competitive impulses to leave no, er, pebble unturned to tap into a new market.

How tablets can save the PC

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

‑ Winston Churchill

These are tough times for the personal computer: The 30-something device that everyone used to covet is being crowded out by younger objects of our affection. Time for a makeover.

Visionaries like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs started a revolution by imagining that computers — at the time, massive, room-filling machines that basically just did arithmetic — could become indispensable tools for the masses. PCs led to a world filled with powerful electronics we could take anywhere: Desktops became laptops, phones became mobile and then smart. And now there are tablets.

Back in Blackberry

With a brand-new smartphone – and a new brand – BlackBerry (neé Research in Motion) has embarked on a critical reboot aimed at restoring the fortunes of the company that sparked the mobile revolution.

RIM has been left for dead. For years it hasn’t been able to shake off the stink of irrelevance as the iPhone proved that apps were more important than a physical keyboard, and that mobile “push” e-mail wasn’t rocket science. It endured brand-damaging outages to its private network while competitors crowed that their reliance on a public network was far more stable.

Now the company is reinventing itself in a last-ditch effort to survive. In a press conference yesterday, it announced that it had changed its corporate name to “BlackBerry” to better identify with its iconic product. Meanwhile, it has dramatically upgraded that product after a two-year effort that resulted in new phones designed from scratch and powered by what would be a major mobile operating system: QNX.

What happens if smartphones become commodities?

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published at PandoDaily.com

Remember Antennagate? Back in the summer of 2010, the brouhaha over reception glitches in the iPhone 4 dominated tech headlines for weeks and led to a class-action lawsuit and a $15-per-user settlement. In retrospect, the controversy seems meaningless, which is why I thought of it amid the current flap over Apple Maps.

Apple will survive the Maps controversy, just as it weathered Antennagate. But there is another trend affecting Apple that the announcement of the iPhone 5 revealed, a larger trend that will take much longer to play out: Smartphones are becoming too similar for their own good.

Only five years after Apple refashioned the smartphone with its touchscreen and its iOS software, smartphones are becoming a commodity. Any must-have feature that distinguishes one phone from the pack is quickly adopted by the pack itself. Fandroids and Apple fanboys will always argue passionately about which phone is superior, but for mainstream consumers, it’s getting harder to see that one brand’s phone is better than the others.

Apple’s patent victory is a victory for competition

Apple’s resounding patent victory over Samsung in a California courtroom last Friday is a blow to the competition, which now won’t be able copy Apple’s technology. But it is a win for competition. It will force everyone to think harder about turning the unimaginable into the normal.

And that’s what technology innovation is all about.

I am all for intellectual property (it’s how writers make a living) and no particular fan of software patents, which can be vague and overly broad. It’s a very tangled area of IP that in the modern-day tech industry has been a life-support system (think Kodak) and a means of protecting oneself against patent trolls (like that guy who tried to sue the World Wide Web). Patent troves, in the astute description of technologist Andy Baio, have also been weaponized in perverted campaigns to stifle innovation.

Apple and Samsung are duking it out all over the world — some 50 lawsuits in about 10 countries, by one reckoning — in a sort of forever war. Samsung got a favorable ruling just days before in a South Korean court. But the marquee case was the one in San Jose, California, where a jury found that Samsung had violated six of the seven patents Apple sought to defend – three software and three design – and awarded the company $1.05 billion.

Tech wrap: Apple cares, says CEO Tim Cook

Apple has never turned “a blind eye” to the problems in its supply chain and any suggestion it does not care about the plight of workers is “patently false,” Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said in an email to employees. Cook was responding to a report in The New York Times about working conditions at Apple’s main contract manufacturer, Foxconn, in China, an issue that for years has been a thorn in the company’s side.

Facebook plans to file documents as early as Wednesday for a highly anticipated IPO that will value the world’s largest social network at between $75 billion and $100 billion, the Wall Street Journal cited unidentified sources as saying on Friday.

Jon Rubinstein, who was instrumental in crafting Apple’s iPod music player, has left Hewlett Packard after two years on the job there. Rubinstein was CEO of smartphone maker Palm when that company was acquired by HP in 2010. He last held a product-innovation role within HP’s Personal Systems Group headed by Todd Bradley.

Tech wrap: Era of .yournamehere domains arrives

ICANN, the body that oversees the Internet’s naming system, gave the green light for organizations to begin applying to name and run their own domains instead of entrusting them to the operators of .com, .org, .gov and others. Up to 2,000 applications were expected for the so-called “top-level” international domains. At $185,000 per application, estimated start-up costs of $500,000 and annual running costs of about $100,000, a .yournamehere domain will be out of reach of the smallest companies and organizations. But applications were expected from cities or regions with strong identities, such as .london and .mumbai, from companies aiming to build a business based on new domains, and from community identifiers like .eco or .gay.

Samsung is open to forging an alliance with troubled Olympus, potentially joining other electronics firms in circling one of the world’s biggest names in medical equipment, sources said. Samsung has ruled out any interest in Olympus’s loss-making camera business, but a company source said that it might consider an alliance with Olympus in other areas. Earlier, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that Olympus was scouting for a friendly investor to take a minority stake in the company, and that Olympus had drawn up a short-list of five potential partners, including Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Japanese medical-equipment firm Terumo, and Fujifilm Holdings.

LG is in talks with various parties on possible partnerships, the head of LG’s mobile business said, as the world’s No.3 handset maker seeks to turn around its struggling handset operation. The  firm, however, remains committed to its mobile business and does not have any plan to ditch the loss-making operation, Park Jong-seok, chief executive of LG’s mobile communications business, told Reuters.

Tech wrap: Nokia throne in Samsung’s sights

Samsung CEO Choi Gee-sung told reporters in Las Vegas the company overtook Nokia in handset revenue terms in its latest reported quarter and was confident of topping the Finnish group in shipments this year. Samsung’s bullish forecast is in line with some analysts, including Royal Bank of Scotland, but on average analysts have expected Nokia to keep its lead on the market. According to the latest polls by Reuters, Nokia was expected to sell 418 million phones in 2011, versus Samsung’s 320 million, the gap narrowing this year to 388 million versus 359 million.

Google made changes to its search engine, combining content posted by users of Google’s social network Google+ and pic sharing site Picassa with regular search results. Links shared by a Google+ user’s connections are given more weight and will show up in Web search results with a person icon beside them, VentureBeat’s Jolie ‘Odell writes. The changes increase Google+’s prominence online, which is lagging behind Facebook in total number of users.

Sony’s videogaming business, led by its just-launched handheld “Vita”, will prove pivotal in returning the company to profitability, Kazuo Hirai, the executive pegged to succeed Howard Stringer as president, said.

Tech wrap: Samsung savors smartphone supremacy

Samsung Electronics, the world’s top maker of memory chips and smartphones, reported a record quarterly profit, aided by one-off gains and best-ever sales of high-end phones. The South Korean firm posted 5.2 trillion won ($4.5 billion) in quarterly operating profit, beating a consensus forecast of 4.7 trillion won by analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. Samsung, which surged past Apple as the world’s top smartphone maker in the third quarter, only entered the smartphone market in earnest in 2010, but its handset division is now its biggest earnings generator.

Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC recorded a worse-than-expected yearly profit decline in the fourth quarter, and the first decline in two years. The former investor darling shocked markets in November by slashing its fourth-quarter revenue guidance, sending its shares down 28 percent in two weeks and 15 percent to date. Investor concerns linger over whether HTC still has the innovative streak that catapulted it from an obscure contract maker to a top brand.

Sony will promote its consumer business chief Kazuo Hirai to the role of president as early as April, taking the title away from Howard Stringer, who is expected to remain chairman and CEO, the Nikkei newspaper reported. Such a move would give Hirai, 51, who made his name in Sony’s PlayStation video game division, more influence over the whole company and its wide range of technology and entertainment businesses, likely cementing expectations he would succeed the 69-year-old Stringer eventually.

Samsung takes the Sony media route with ex-AOL, ex-YouTube hire

Samsung Galaxy tablets (Photo: Reuters)

Samsung, the South Korean consumer electronics giant, has spent most of the last two decades eating the lunch of rival Japanese electronics giant, Sony.  While Sony has had struggled with all types of existential debates and attacks at home and abroad including, the global hacker attack of its online network, Samsung has gone from strength to strength in setting the electronics agenda with its cutting edge  TVs, phones and tablets.

A lot of Samsung’s success could be put down to be its focus on the basics: making great mass market products and not getting distracted with creating or distributing content. By contrast, Sony not only owns the world’s second largest music company and a major Hollywood studio but also a video games business.

The problem is that Sony has never been able to figure out how to make all those things work in conjunction with its position as one of the world’s largest device makers. Most recently it has launched new online music and video services that it no doubt hopes will help sell more devices. It’s very early to tell if that will strategy will work.