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First thoughts on the new Apple Watch

Apple WatchApple revealed the much rumoured Apple Watch at their Cupertino keynote on September 9th. I previously predicted that they would use this device to start dropping the ‘i’ from their device names and I also expect future phones, tablets, computers and software to gradually become ‘i’-less too. Calling everything ‘Apple X’ makes far more sense from a brand recognition perspective and also significantly reduces their need to sue every ‘i’ product that someone else releases – which must cost them a fortune.

I’m going to go straight out there and say that unlike pretty much every previous keynote from Apple (at least since 2007), I feel unable to make a purchasing decision based on what I’ve seen before I physically handle the watch and indeed the new ‘super-sized’ iPhone 6 and 6+ (+? Not a lot of thought went into that did it!).

What I can say though is that my first impressions are that the watch may not be the game-changer that we were hoping for.

iPod Nano

One from the archives: Apple’s discontinued iPod Nano also worked as a watch when coupled with third party straps. Surprisingly similar to look at – some would even say perhaps the Nano had the edge?

It’s undoubtedly beautifully engineered and constructed – from an engineer’s perspective, but as a consumer I wanted to see different, future, uniquely Apple – in the way the original iPhone was. Let’s face it it’s pretty much a square block of round-edged steel (or aluminium if you go for the Sport version) with a high-res screen and a twiddly dial on the side. My immediate reaction was – oh, they’ve reintroduced the iPod Nano! Maybe that was a conscious decision – where most premium watches, and Android powered smart-watches, are circular. But imagine how much more eye-catching and mould breaking it could have been if the watch face was a much longer and thinner piece that melted into the strap? I can see that they are banking on making a killing from interchangeable straps as they did with phone cases – but as mentioned later I also think that was missing a bigger opportunity.

applewatchmockup

How it could have looked. Did Apple dare to ‘be different’ enough with the design of the Apple Watch?

From a user perspective they have clearly put a lot of thought into how a wearer interacts with the device and this seems to have largely paid off. However Apple made a big play on the way two users can communicate with each other showing a very gimmicky emoji-like 3D smiley face which for me was a clear indication that Ives didn’t have total reign over the software on this watch, as that was almost straight out of the Microsoft Office bag of 80s clipart!

Not a great deal was said about battery life, although later comments imply a day if you’re lucky with a definite need to charge over night. This could be the one unsurmountable issue for Apple. It’s not untypical for people to surface around 6 in the morning, travel to work and be travelling home from work 10 or 12 hours later at which point the watch could be flat out of juice. For me, I was really looking forward to being able to keep the device on at all times, to monitor sleep patterns for example – but with the ‘mag-safe’ charging device needing to plugged into the rear of the watch, this is looking unlikely. A neat idea – but surely they could have come up with a solution that wouldn’t mean having to take the watch off to charge it? Why not build the battery in as part of the strap so that we can simply add a new strap to extend the watches life while another is sat charging? Apple have had years to design this thing – I’m thinking off the top of my head so I’m baffled as to why these obvious ideas weren’t considered.

It also looks as if Apple Watch is going to be not a lot more than a watch without being within a few feet of an iPhone (from a 5 to a 6+). I reserve judgement on how useful this makes it until I’ve had a chance to live with one – but I really hope it is more autonomous in function that it appears at first sight.

One other notable omission, particularly when compared to competitor’s offerings is a headphone socket! OK, if the device is to be joined at the hip with a phone it’s fair to assume that you may not need one – but what about listening to music when out on a run? One of the only reasons for getting one of these is to not have to carry a phone around at the same time. And as it goes music playing was not something that Apple mentioned or demonstrated at all (another tick in the box for the poor old defunct iPod Nano!) and therefore may not be part of its feature set. What if I don’t want to have Siri reply to me out-loud in public (and personally I hate talking to my devices at any time so Siri is useless in my use-case)? I’m sure a blue-tooth enabled headset will cure all ills – but a cleverly designed socket to enable both a device charger that doubled up for a headset with mic would surely have been possible (especially with something as thick as this) – so why leave it out?

moto360

Shape shifter: Is Apple Watch distinctive enough to better the recent Android smart-watch offerings from Motorola and others?

Apple are launching with three different versions of the device. The main Apple Watch is constructed from a hefty chunk of stainless steel with a choice of straps and a screen cut from a a single piece of crystal sapphire. The Sport version is constructed from a ‘new blend’ of aluminium which is said to be stronger but lighter than any previous. It has a toughened glass front and only comes with a choice of garish ‘Swatch’ like straps which are apparently more resistant to sweat – but also good taste by the looks. And the final one is a blinged up version of the stainless steel model coated with 18 carat gold which I assume is in the line up to satisfy Asian and Middle-Eastern tastes as there is no other obvious benefit in the line up (the same reason why Apple brought out a gold coloured iPhone). I’m unconvinced that this was the right way to go. Personally I want all the functionality of both the general Apple Watch and the Sports one – without the garish strap and fail to see why they would go to the expense of separating them (different materials require separate construction lines).  Who would have complained if the device was made from aluminium and not steel? All iPhones and iMacs are aluminium – no steel option and sales haven’t suffered! Why is ‘toughened’ glass better than sapphire? I thought that was the toughest material available? Presumably glass is lighter? Not that I’ve heard.

The new Apple Watch is set for release at some point in early 2015. As there were no working models in Apple’s demonstration area after the keynote it’s fair to assume that this is still very much a work in progress. They probably launched this far ahead of roll-out to try and disrupt the Christmas sales for other manufacturers leaving a clear run-way for Apple Watch. Whether what they demonstrated was good enough to do that remains to be seen. My jury is currently firmly out.

WhatsApp – what’s up??

WhatsAppNo matter how hard I look at this, I still can’t see a justification for Facebook paying $16b for WhatsApp.

The media speculates that it’s to acquire 450 million users, many from emerging countries who aren’t using Facebook at all, but many of them will be (which makes them worthless) and even if all weren’t that would equate to $35 per user, which is a massive acquisition price.

How can Zuckerberg have stood up in front of the board to justify paying that amount? If the issue really is that in emerging markets more people were using WhatsApp than Facebook, then spend more on promoting Facebook! The cost of running campaigns across all major media in those territories day and night for a year wouldn’t have topped more than $1b with change to CODE WhatsApp from scratch! In any case if Zuckerberg is true to his word, Facebook won’t change WhatsApp – which means those users won’t be exposed to Facebook or its advertisers any day soon. Go figure!

Putting this into some sort of meaningful context; if you were to combine the gross box-office takings (adjusted to today’s money taking inflation into account) of ALL the 60+ movie back-catalogue from Steven Spielberg (valued at $9b http://www.forbes.com/profile/steven-spielberg) – that includes movie gold such as ET, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, Private Ryan, War Horse, Schindler’s List, etc etc etc., – you would still have only spent HALF the money that was spent on WhatsApp!!!

Within the hallowed halls of Facebook Towers there is undoubtedly some amazingly sound and considered reason for purchasing WhatsApp Messenger (to give it its full title) – but my suspicion is that history will show this to have been the apex of Silicon Valley folly.


UPDATE: Meanwhile later that day…

Following on from the recent purchase of WhatsApp, and my blog post above, Facebook have now released an unbelievable set of financial reports with advertising revenues up 82% on the previous period and regular users now exceeding well over a billion. Over half of Facebook’s revenue is now coming from mobile – that in itself is an astronomical achievement given that just 12 months ago working out how to monetise mobile was seen as Zuckerberg’s biggest challenge.

To continue the mind blowing figures further, 80% of users are now OUTSIDE North America and this gives us the biggest clue yet as to why WhatsApp was seen as such a valuable prize. In India for example, due to high cost of SMS texting, WhatsApp dominates with the majority of smartphone contract holders using it all the time. On top of this in a recent interview Zuckerberg stated that Facebook was changing tack over previous mobile policy and breaking up the ‘blue app’ into constituent parts (messenging, photos, news etc) whilst at the same time ensuring access across all their mobile assets to the user’s social network – because this had proven to be what users wanted.

Does that justify the high price tag of WhatsApp? Only time will tell as its value will take some time to truly be seen – but given Facebook’s ongoing success few in the camp are going to stop to question it right now.

 

Google Chromecast road test – initial thoughts

We recently started trialling Google Chromebook laptops at Rokk Media. The verdict from staff is that they are a really viable alternative to Windows or an Apple Macbook Pro for general business use (particularly as we are a company-wide Google Apps user) – but only when dedicated applications outside of the Google universe aren’t needed to be run from the device.

Google have recently rolled out its Google Chromecast device in the UK which adds additional value to Chromebooks by allowing streaming of onscreen content directly to an HDMI enabled monitor or TV. This is perfect for running presentations or simply sharing browser based content for example.

The Chromecast is being promoted showing various content on a TV screen from YouTube, Netflix, BT Sport etc., so a would-be purchaser would be forgiven for thinking that once connected these would be ready to watch out of the box in the same way as, say the Apple TV set-top box, or an internet-ready TV set , but this is not the case. In essence the Chromecast works in harmony with an existing and separate device acting as a bridge between the device, content running on it, and the TV or monitor. It contains no content itself – in fact it doesn’t even come with a remote control.

Google are working with third party content providers to ensure as many of their apps can stream to the Chromecast as possible for putting content on your TV. At the time of writing that includes Netflix, YouTube, BT Sport, BBC iPlayer, Vevo and others (in the UK – other countries do differ, particularly the US). So – and this is the really important point, as well as the Chromecast itself (around £30 direct from Google or Amazon) you will need local wifi and a device capable of running the compatible third party apps. As the Chromecast is from Google you would correctly assume it works best from an Android enabled device including smartphones and tablets, but most of the partner apps are also available on other devices such as iPhone and iPad – and these work perfectly as well also.

As well as mobile devices you can also stream directly from any PC or laptop running the latest version of the Google Chrome browser as long as you are happy to install Google’s platform-specific browser plugin that is. The exception to this is of course with Google Chromebooks where access to the Chromecast is baked in and designed to work seamlessly from the off.

Is it worth getting one? Well, given that every internet enabled television, gaming system and set-top box available today already has most of the content currently available to Chromecast built in, including the headlining Netflix, BBC iPlayer and YouTube apps, if you have any of these devices and that is your only goal there isn’t any real point. However, if you are looking for a way to stream photos and videos from your Android device (not possible currently outside of a Google app on your iOS device other than loading each individual file into the browser window one by one) or to show content from your computer’s Chrome browser window on a TV or monitor, then this is a very affordable solution when compared to an Apple TV for Mac OSX or Windows.

It’s worth also noting that it is possible to stream local content from a Raspberry Pi in the same way – and the device is still a few pounds cheaper (with lots of other potential uses), but it’s still very much an enthusiasts kit and nowhere near as easy to configure and get up and running as the Chromecast.

So, in summary, don’t be confused into thinking that the Google Chromecast is a set-top box, as it isn’t. You will need at the very least a mobile phone or laptop to use it with the end result simply being a way to share content with more than one person, or on a bigger screen than the one you are streaming from. If that sounds like it solves a particular need then it’s a very affordable solution that works extremely well.

Also read the Rokk Media blog post:  ‘Is Google’s Chromecast Better Than Apple TV’

Sony Announce PlayStation Now – why I’m not convinced

Sony reveal PlayStation Now at CES 2014

Sony revealed the much anticipated PlayStation Now at CES yesterday. A game streaming service based on the Gaikai technology they purchased for $380m.

Initially for US only this will enable Sony PS3 games to be played on PlayStation consoles (and eventually TVs and mobile devices) across the internet without having to have the physical disk.

Sony will provide this on a pay per game or subscription basis with other territories live before the year end.

All sounds good. But here is why I will almost certainly let this pass me by.

In the UK I rent games from Boomerang Game Rentals (www.boomerangrentals.co.uk). They are the only dedicated game rental service left in the UK after LoveFilm pulled out and Blockbuster block busted!

For £10-£15 a month ($20) I can rent any game for as long as I want, in any console format, get an original disk with no limits on how long I keep it and they cover the postage.

PS Now is probably going to cost something like £10-£20 PER GAME to rent (why cannibalise their sales market by renting them out cheaper? Movies are typically rented for half to a third of sale price of DVD) or £35-£50 per month to subscribe (based on most people not being able to get through more than two games a month anyway).

It will be limited to a PS3 games library – which will suck for PS4 owners inside a year, will be limited to 720p but in (truth feel nothing like it), suffer from lag and compression artefacts and be Sony content only – which apart from a few obvious titles will contain a lot of dross (note what’s available on PS+!)

So in short I’ll take a look nearer the time but don’t anticipate moving from Boomerang any day soon! Having access to an extensive multi-platform library at a reasonable price makes a big difference. And although Sony or Microsoft may move to halt rental (as was originally mooted regarding sale of second hand games), user outcry will keep this at bay for some time to come yet.

The future of wearable devices

Larger screens definitely have their place, but as the majority of what I do on my phone requires very little screen real estate, I can’t wait for wearable devices.

Google Glass looks perfect with the exception of voice control (it just doesn’t work for me as for some reason when that little icon pings I get stage fright and fluff my lines!). Also it’s a tad conspicuous (although the final release will almost certainly be less so). A smart watch like the offering from Pebble and rumoured offering from Apple would work if I could navigate with fingers, but having to look at my wrist for long periods seems to defeat the object of replacing a phone which does more and is almost as accessible.

Maybe the solution is a hybrid of these two. An eye level HUD which is controlled from a tactile device worn like a watch. Rather than that being entirely touchscreen it would have embossed areas, a dial, buttons or some other option to allow me to navigate and select without looking down. I recently saw an amazing technology which injected a fluid into cells within a layer beneath a touchable film allowing buttons to be created on the fly. Something like that on a small screen would be superb as the user would have the best of both worlds.

The watch element would be thick enough to contain the guts of the system allowing the ‘glasses’ to be nothing more than a screen and holder – virtually invisible in effect.

Just a thought but this could be a great way forward for most users.

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