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.

Adele close to the unheard of: 10 million albums sold

Adele and all those Grammys (Photo: Reuters)

Adele, the soulful British songstress, has broken all kinds of records with her hugely successful sophomore album ’21′ since it was released in the US in Feb 2011. The album, which picked up 6 Grammys this year,  was by far and away the biggest selling album of last year with 5.8 million copies sold. And in 2012, at the halfway mark, despite endless plays in supermarkets, gyms and your dentist’s waiting room, it’s still burning up cash registers, moving another 3.7 million units through the end of June, or more than four times the next best-selling album (Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee in case you wondered).

Combined, “21” has sold 9.5 million copies in 15 months, putting it just 500,000 copies shy of the magical 10 million-mark. That’s unheard of in today’s music business. To put that figure in perspective, consider that the most recent album to cross the 10 million sales threshold was Usher’s “Confession,” which only broke that barrier this year. “Confessions” was released eight years ago, in 2004!

In fact, overall album sales for the first half of 2012 were down 3.2 percent, according to Nielsen Soundscan, as fans buy fewer and fewer albums — probably in favor of streaming and other forms of entertainment away from music.

Sony’s case of iPad 3 launch envy

Sony, in a bout of bad timing, is hosting an event on March 7 in San Francisco for tech reporters at the same time as Apple’s reported iPad 3 unveiling and the Japanese conglomerate wants to make sure it won’t get ditched.

Sony, which some people consider to be the “Apple of the ’80s”, sent out a helpful e-mail on Tuesday informing invited members of the press of the scheduling conflict without mentioning the world’s most valuable tech company. 

The email said:

Another press event invitation went out today which conflicts with the Sony roundtable on March 7.
Please confirm if you are still available to join the Sony event.    

Cage, Witherspoon feature in box-office battle

Three new movies compete for filmgoers over the long President’s Day weekend in the United States. Nicolas Cage is expected to lead the pack of newcomers with Sony’s 3D action sequel “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.”

Box-office watchers project Friday-through-Monday sales in the United States and Canada could roar to $30 million for the follow-up to the original “Ghost Rider,” released over the same weekend in 2007.

Reese Witherspoon also battles for audiences with 20th Century Fox romantic comedy “This Means War.” Fox sees the story about two CIA agents (Tom Hardy and Chris Pine) trying to win over the same woman bringing in around $14 million over four days. Outside forecasters say it could go a few million higher. The movie pulled in about $1.7 million from Valentine’s Day showings.

More vampires and werewolves at your local cineplex

Impatient Twilight fans rejoice: vampires and werewolves are staging another movie-theater invasion.

This time, it’s the fourth movie in the “Underworld” series starring Kate Beckinsale, which distributor Sony projects will ring up U.S. and Canadian ticket sales in the low-$20 million range from Friday through Sunday. The newest installment, “Underworld: Awakening”, sees humans trying to drive vampires and werewolves to extinction.

“Red Tails,” a George Lucas-produced story about Tuskegee Airmen starring Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., also reaches theaters. Twentieth Century Fox is releasing the movie and hoping for opening-weekend sales of in the $8 million to $10 million range.

Familiar script: Home entertainment spending slips

Spending on home viewing of movies and television, on a downward spiral in recent years, fell again in 2011 as sales of DVDs and rentals at video stores dropped.

Total U.S. consumer dollars spent on home entertainment — including DVDs, video on demand and online streaming — declined 2.1 percent to $18 billion for the year, according to industry group DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group. Consumers continued to shift to lower-priced rentals from companies such as Netflix and Coinstar’s Redbox kiosks, eschewing outright ownership.

The DEG pointed to bright spots, including a 20 percent jump in sales of high-definition Blu-ray discs that topped $2 billion for the first time. “The industry’s performance clearly stabilized in 2011,” it said in a statement. (The top choices for the year? “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1,” followed by “Part 2″ at No. 2)

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.

Sony’s Sir Howard Stringer makes fun of News Corp hacking scandal

On the same day that James Murdoch was fighting for his career at a parliamentary hearing on Thursday in London, Sony’s CEO Sir Howard Stringer was making fun of the whole situation an ocean away.

At a fancy breakfast hosted by News Corp’s Wall Street Journal in New York (where Sirius XM’s CEO Mel Karmazin was in the house), Stringer was the guest of honor.  WSJ editor Robert Thomson kicked off the Q&A session introducing Stringer, who later took the opportunity to show off one of Sony’s new products, a pair of binoculars that can be used to record video or pictures in 3D. That’s when Stringer seized the moment to turn the breakfast into an impromptu roast about News Corp’s woes.  Wielding the binoculars, he said:

“These are 3D binoculars. I venture it got good reviews. The Wall Street Journal will equip all their reporters with this. And if you think hacking the Royal Family is fun with phones, this is the ideal device. If you stay at the Hotel InterContinental Hyde Park, you can actually gaze into Buckingham Palace with these. I am telling this to (Thomson), wherever you are. Did you leave already? This is for you. This is for you. Video recording or stills.”

Tech wrap: Net neutrality closer to reality

Democrats in the Senate blocked a Republican-backed resolution to disapprove of the FCC’s rules on net neutrality. The vote was 52-46 against the resolution. Adopted by a divided FCC last December, the rules forbid broadband providers from blocking legal content while leaving flexibility for providers to manage their networks. The rules still face a court challenge. Lawsuits by Verizon and others have been consolidated. Backers of net neutrality say big providers could otherwise use their gatekeeper role to discriminate against competitors. But Republicans said the rules were an unprecedented power grab by the FCC.

Sony CEO Howard Stringer vowed to stay on as head of the Japanese electronics conglomerate, dismissing reports the longtime helmsman will step down next year and adding that he remained keen on leading the once-dominant corporate powerhouse in its battle to reverse losses and fight rivals. Last week, Sony shocked investors by warning that the company would report a fourth consecutive year of losses and offered few details of its plan to halve losses in its television division, which itself is headed for its eighth consecutive annual loss.

Investigations into scandal-hit Olympus revealed an elaborate scheme for concealing losses on risky bets behind a facade of inflated bank deposits and securities holdings, The Nikkei reported. Sources say Olympus moved the impaired securities off its books — a trick known in Japanese as “tobashi” — to prevent the painful write-downs that would have followed the introduction of fair value accounting in fiscal 2000, Nikkei said. The third-party committee conducting the investigation said it will report its findings early next month. Olympus is waiting for these findings before it reports first-half earnings and issue second-quarter financial statements, the daily reported.