Friday, January 11, 2013

Android Challenges the iPhone in Every Category

This post was also published on CNET and VentureBeat.

The new breed of Android devices exceeds the iPhone 5 in every way, including hardware, operating system, and apps.

For the past month, I have been using an HTC Droid DNA, which has similar specs to the rumored upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4. People approach me at grocery stores, airports, coffee shops, even on the street and ask me about the phone. The device is indeed quite compelling, even from a distance.

The HTC DNA has an amazingly bright 1080p HD display with a higher resolution than Apple's iPhone 5 Retina display. The operating system is modern with dynamic widgets that tell you at a glance what's going on. The apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and such are equivalent to those available to iOS, and Google Apps such as Google Now, voice recognition, and Google Maps are sleek and modern. This is hands down a better device than the iPhone 5, and people seem to intuitively recognize it.

What phone would I recommend for my mom? An iPhone. It's safe, predictable, and uniform. What would I recommend for anyone under 40? Definitely one of the new breeds of Android phones. Android might still be a bit quirkier than an iPhone, but it's definitely not confusing for people who interact daily with a variety of advanced technology. Samsung really nailed it in its commercial where a young woman is waiting in line for a new iPhone and it turns out she is holding the spot for her parents.

The new breed of Android devices exceed the iPhone 5 in every category -- hardware, operating system, and apps.

The spec is alive and well -- and killing Apple

Hardware from Samsung, HTC, LG, and others has now caught up and eclipsed Apple's devices. Smartphones don't really have that many specs to evaluate, and each of the specs actually means something tangible to an average consumer. After five years of advanced smartphones, specs like screen size, screen density, screen brightness, camera speed, camera megapixels, physical dimensions, physical weight, amount of memory, and battery life are easily understandable and relevant to even the average smartphone consumer. Even specs like the number of processor cores and speed that are typically not easy to understand are easily understood when framed as "faster than the iPhone 5."

Conversely, the spec is definitely irrelevant when purchasing Apple products. There are so few products to choose from that decision making is essentially boiled down to a Goldilocks-style small/medium/large decision mainly driven by cost rather than actual features. While this is great for my mom and MG Siegler, the lack of spec-based decision making is not necessarily a good thing in a world where consumers actually understand each of the specs and would like to choose how to balance them out relative to cost. Apple has been a follower on many specs, particularly in terms of form factors, trailing the market in both 4-inch phones and 7-inch tablets.

iPhones are definitely gorgeous devices, but they are relatively uniform and monotone. Aluminum is definitely great. Conversely, I was surprised by how many women commented on the red accents on the HTC DNA, which are part of the DNA's crossbranding with Beats Audio. People like colors and variety, and they don't necessarily like having to completely cover a phone's shell and make it bulkier in order to express themselves.

Let's not forget that all of those Samsung Galaxy phones you see cost the same as an iPhone -- their owners are not bargain shoppers; they are spec and style shoppers.

The screen should actually show you something!

As mobile app developer Ralf Rottmann recently noted, the new generation of Android 4 Jelly Bean is a fundamentally better operating system than iOS -- better rendering, better cross-app sharing, better app/OS integration, and more polished.

But the real standout for Android is the customizability of the display. Rather than iOS static icons with embedded notifications, with Android, apps are front and center, displaying the time in different time zones, the weather, appointments, emails, texts, whatever you want in numerous themes that can completely reinvent the user interface.

Windows Phone 8, the dark horse in this race, is actually even more integrated, with a unified messaging interface that consolidates emails, texts, and Facebook messages into a single thread, and a consistent tile interface with which apps can display information on the home screens.

The operating system is not as important as the apps, and this is where Android is beginning to shine.

The cloud behind the app is more important than the app

In a world where the hardware and operating system have become commoditized, the apps are the differentiator, and more and more, the apps are a viewport into a cloud service driven by machine learning.

The vast majority of Internet users rely on Google Search, Maps, YouTube, Mail, and such, and spend more time in those apps than in the mobile operating system itself. As people are beginning to note, Google's apps are way better than Apple's. What good is Siri if it thinks "Hurricane Sandy" is a hockey team, when Google knows what's actually going on? Google Now is adding ambient awareness to Android devices, letting people know what's going on around them and what they need to do in a very personal way, with features like a notice that you need to leave for your next meeting because there is now traffic en route.

Perhaps, as is rumored off and on, Apple will start snapping up cloud services such as Waze. However, it is hard to buy and integrate a new type of product category into a large company that doesn't have it in its DNA. Competing with Google, an entrenched, dominant player in machine intelligence that recently added Ray Kurzweil to its roster is going to be a challenging affair. Microsoft actually had a better track record of delivering large-scale cloud services, such as mail, mapping, and storage, than Apple.

Beyond Google's apps, the reality of the app market is that all of the applications that matter are now on Android, and it actually will soon have more apps than iOS. Dan Lyons of ReadWrite is lambasting the Silicon Valley tech press for living in an iPhone echo chamber, and he does have a point. Pundits are lauding Google Maps features on their iPhones that have been available on Android devices for literally years. Bloggers breathlessly reveal new Facebook iPhone app features such as "Find Friends Nearby" that had been available for over a month on Android.

The feedback loop of the echo chamber is that developers initially develop apps on iOS, much like the recently popular Cinemagram. However, developers like Rottmann like cool devices, and are starting to shift over to Android. In addition, developers are feeling limited by iOS user interface patterns and its skeuomorphic apps and are branching out. Like the Mac OS of the early '90s, the consistent UI across applications will likely splinter.

The numbers speak for themselves. Android has a 75 percent smartphone worldwide market share, as evidenced by the hordes of Samsung devices in use throughout Europe and Asia. While Apple is regaining market share in the U.S. with the iPhone 5, it is about to face an onslaught of 5-inch Android phones with specs that far exceed the iPhone 5's. Wall Street clearly sees a shift coming, and has hammered Apple's stock price over the past quarter.

The average consumer has moved past the days of pious, scruffy haired, unshaven, thick glasses-wearing dudes lecturing us on how Apple is so cool. Perhaps soon Silicon Valley will catch up. When you see someone in a cafe with a MacBook Air, iPad, and iPhone on the table in front of them, is "Think Different" really what comes to mind?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2013: The Internet of Things, Delivered via Smartphone

This post was also published in VentureBeat.

Virtually every electronic device has now gained a smartphone controlled equivalent over the past year. The well known products in this category, such as the Nest thermostat and Sonos music system, have now been joined with smartphone controlled light bulbs, door locks, refrigerators, security systems, home theater remote controls, game consoles, weight scales, and even vacuum cleaners. Services such as teleconference systems that used to be controlled just by touch tones are now controllable by smartphones. There are even smart device powered telepresence robots.

Historically, these types of devices had unintuitive control panels, small, hidden buttons, and other such complex interfaces. The smartphone ecosystem makes is easy for manufacturers to deliver mobile apps as control systems, and for users to intuitively control devices by using a familiar interface.

The tech underneath it all

This device revolution has been powered by a new generation of cheap, embedded controllers, where full web-enabled systems can be cheaply embedded into a device. Consumer versions such as Arduino and the Rasberry Pi have kicked off a generation of controllable devices that even include do it yourself smartphone controlled power strips.

One quagmire that many users run into is that it can be hard to add a device to a home network and then connect a smartphone to the device. It can sometimes takes a while for a smartphone to find and log into a home Wi-Fi network. Sonos solves this problem by broadcasting over your network and letting users push a button to pair devices together. New peer-to-peer wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi Direct are attempting to address this problem in a more seamless manner.

There is a definite threat that hackers can gain control of a home network, and thereby control all of the devices in a home, so it is important that users secure their WiFi with a password and a high level of encryption.

This new era of control by smartphones is actually quite cheaper than legacy electronic controls. For example, both a legacy “smarthome” lightswitch and an overstock 7” Android tablet each cost $70. iPads are far cheaper and more usable than state-of-the-art systems such as Crestron.

Touchscreens are not applicable to every dedicated device. My personal experience waiting for clerks to use iPad enabled point of sale terminals has not been positive. For whatever reason, it seems to take about twice as long for items to be entered and a receipt printed than with old-school push button registers.

Where is this going next?

A very interesting facet of this next generation of devices is their ability to add ambient awareness to devices. Just like the Nest thermostat learns your comings and goings and the FitBit monitors your activity level, all of these devices will be soon be able to monitor their surroundings and fetch information like the current weather for their location.

Google Now is currently providing this for Android users. Hobbyists have had a boon tinkering with the Xbox Kinect to add ambient awareness to their projects, and this type of technology is likely to be embedded in numerous devices in the near future.

Another area that may soon feel the impact of smartphone interfaces is vehicles. There have been quite a few attempts at vehicle touch interfaces, with a large level of investment, from manufacturers including Ford with its MyTouch panel, Tesla with its huge 17” panel and Audi’s Multimedia Interface. While these interfaces are functional, they are not familiar to users that expect iOS and Android style touch interfaces.

In the near future, vehicle manufacturers will likely be pairing up more with software vendors, much like Ford partnered with Microsoft for its Sync voice recognition system. Imagine a day when you can add the iOS or Android control panel as an option when purchasing a vehicle.

It is likely that every room of a home will have a 4” or 7” smart device mounted as a control panel for lights, music, and more. Soon, “flipping a light switch” will sound as archaic as “dialing a telephone”.