Virtual, augmented or mixed: the new realities

News and commentaries, Technology

viewmaster234231

Many, many years ago, I somehow managed to borrow a View-Master and saw for the first time, stereoscopic images of some tourist attractions (I can’t even remember which ones). What I remember is how my heart skipped a beat and I felt an unnamed longing – probably wanderlust. A few weeks ago, I felt a very similar reaction when I saw another video from Magic Leap. This time the longing is more defined. After decades of being promised the wonders of virtual reality and mixed reality, I have a longing to see this technology bear its full potential.

Needless to say, I have been thinking of virtual reality as one of the most exciting consumer technologies since I first heard of Magic Leap. But, outside of my little bubble, I am taken aback by how little people know about it or even how unexcited some people can be about it. So, in thinking of ways to approach this post about VR/AR/MR, I want to answer the question of: What is it and where are we at with VR? This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to answer those questions.

What is virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality?
You and I are not alone in being confused with the terminologies. I most often use virtual reality as a blanket term or if I’m being generous, use augmented reality when I think of mixed reality. There are several articles on this, including Wikipedia ones. I will share the definitions that makes the most sense to me.

Virtual reality or virtual realities (VR), also known as immersive multimedia or computer-simulated reality, is a computer technology that replicates an environment, real or imagined, and simulates a user’s physical presence and environment in a way that allows the user to interact with it. (Wikipedia)

In today’s parlance, VR refers to an experience afforded by a head-mounted display, filling your vision with a real or imagined environment. It also includes 3-D audio for surround-sound and controllers that let you interact with this virtual world.

Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. (Wikipedia)

AR augments or inlays digital information on top of the real world. This is probably not as exciting as space travel with VR, but AR is very useful for hands-free work.

Mixed reality (MR), sometimes referred to as hybrid realityis the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. (Wikipedia)

MR is simply that, a mix of VR and AR. Just like AR, you can still see the real world but you will also be able to see an interactive virtual object. In MR, when you walk around this virtual object and get close to it, it will project just like a real object would.

On the next post, I will talk about the devices that go into these categories. Stay tuned!

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Gravitational waves, Einstein and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries, Technology

So, you do you want to hear two black holes colliding? Take a listen (audio from the New York Times):

Imagine coming up with a theory that upends 200 year-old accepted laws of physics because something about it just doesn’t make sense to you. Imagine not having any kind of instrumentation to even experiment the equations that you come up with and in fact, would take a hundred years for you to be proven right. Imagine coming up with an equation so elegant as this:

E = mc2

That was Einstein. But imagine also, the minds that came up with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and the willpower of some who pushed for building it amidst all the budgetary constraints and the skepticism? Yesterday’s announcement of the first direct detection of gravitational waves is not just about proving Einstein’s prediction on the existence of ripples in space-time set off by violent and cataclysmic events in the universe. More than anything, I find it very human in the beauty and perseverance of the people who made this happen. So, yesterday should not be rejoiced by the scientific community alone but by all of us because, see what we can be capable of? By the way, nice Googly, insider scientific joke there:

Gravitational waves? We're relatively excited.

A post shared by Google (@google) on

If you need a refresher on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, there’s a great infographic here. Or if you’re like me, I get a refresher during an afternoon car ride with my husband, which is pretty cool too.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail (just in case space-time is not your thing):

  1. Google: In boost to self-driving cars, U.S. tells Google computers can qualify as drivers; Google reportedly building a completely stand-alone virtual reality headset
  2. IRS says identity thieves nabbed 100,000 income tax e-file PINs
  3. Medicine: 23andMe and Women’s Health Startup Celmatix Combine Forces To Research Genes Affecting Infertility; Robotic system can lead to faster medicine development
  4. Visa takes 9.99% stake in Square
  5. Zenefits CEO steps down over compliance issues

In retail:

  1. Amazon launched a free sommelier service to help customers buy wine; Yes, you can rely on Amazon’s new game engine during the zombie apocalypse
  2. Marc Jacobs will price 70% of its handbags under $500
  3. Yoox Net-a-Porter beats forecast with 2015 pro-forma sales of 1.7bn euros
  4. Adidas sees higher profit after 2015 earnings beat estimates
  5. L’Oreal sales beat estimates on accelerating luxury growth

Happy Space Year

News and commentaries, Technology

Happy holidays and all that but let’s talk rockets, shall we? More specifically, let’s talk SpaceX’s historic vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL)* of Falcon 9 on Sunday, December 21. The questions and comments have centered largely around who really is first to do VTVL (Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing) – Bezos’ Blue Origin or Musk’s SpaceX.

Blue Origin 

When I first heard of Blue Origin’s launch and landing, I didn’t even bother to check out the video because I thought SpaceX’s Grasshopper have done that already. I’m actually wrong, Grasshopper did eight successful VTVLs but the maximum height it reached was 744 m (2,440 ft) before it was retired.

So, For the category of VTVL rocket to reach space and successfully land, then yes, Blue Origin is the first of its kind. But when Jeff Bezos tweeted:

A lot of people, including me, was incredulous. What club? Because SpaceX right now is on a league all its own.

Space vs. orbit
First of all, where does “space” begin?

Earth's atmosphere

Conventionally, the Kármán line at 100 km (62 mi) above sea level is used to define the beginning of outer space. And Blue Origin did breach space, reaching an altitude of 100.5 km before descending back to Earth.

But putting something into orbit is an entirely different kind of animal. First of all, the rocket does not just shoot straight up, it goes up and then goes sideways really, really fast after reaching a certain altitude. XKCD has done a great explainer on space vs. orbit here.

SpaceX Falcon 9 vs. Blue Origin’s Shepherd

  • Speed – In order to for a rocket to go into orbit and to stay there, it has to reach horizontal speed of ~8 km/s. The International Space Station hovers above Earth at 330-410 km and it goes around the world every 90 minutes at a  speed of 27,000 km/h or 7.5 km/s. SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage (the booster and the one landed) reached a max speed of around ~5,900 km/h while the second stage (the one that put the payload into orbit) reached a max speed of ~25,990 km/h**. Blue Origin reached a maximum speed of ~3,700 km/h.
  • Fuel – Obviously, in order to achieve those speeds, the engines would need a LOT of fuel. In the case of SpaceX Falcon 9, the first stage booster not only need enough fuel to shoot the rocket into space, it needed enough fuel to reorient to come back down to earth, slowdown from its crazy speed, and maneuver to land in an upright position.
  • Size and weight – SpaceX Falcon 9, at 70 m high, not only had to shoot the rocket into space and go into orbit, it had to carry a payload (or cargo) into space, in this case 11 satellites for ORBCOMM. Blue Origin’s New Shepard had no payload at all.

Space race is heating up
Now that we have that cleared up, it is great to see private companies focusing on space. Competition will yield the best technologies and the best practices and also prod the incumbents into action. And that is already happening.

An omnibus spending bill passed by Congress this month appropriates ~$55M and instructs NASA to develop a “prototype deep space habitation module” no later than 2018. It also requires NASA to submit a status report to Congress within 180 days of the bill’s enactment which could be early 2016.

Furthermore, SpaceX’s accomplishment could push Russia to reassess the costs of their own projects in order to maintain market share. The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space and Security, uses Russian-built engines for most of its rockets. On December 23, 2015, the ULA announced that it had ordered 20 RD-180 engines to power up to 20 launches of the Atlas V rocket.

So, here’s to a wonderful 2016 and to hopefully more space exploration. And let me leave you with this: 

* VTVL is a term used for a form of takeoff for rockets, not to be confused with VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) for aircraft – helicopters, fixed wing aircraft like the Harrier.
**Speed taken from SpaceX launch video

Apple Watch and the continuing cult of Mac/iOS

News and commentaries, Technology

A few years ago in early 2013, I had a discussion with one of my MBA professors at Hult. We were both agreeing on the fact that Apple’s innovation pipeline is drying up – especially after the death of its visionary leader, Steve Jobs. I don’t know exactly what he meant but for my part, I was referring to Apple’s innovation pipeline in terms of its iOS and that users will eventually get tired of it. I was an Apple fangirl – having converted to Mac OS in 2005 when the cult of Mac was reaching the masses. I had a MacBook Pro (still do), an iPad and the iPhone 4S. I’ve been holding on to my iPhone 4s and was looking forward to the launch of the iPhone 5.

The launch came in September 2012 and it was such a disappointment in so many ways – both in hardware and in software. The screen, which was supposed to be bigger in the face of rising competition from Samsung’s bigger devices, was bigger but far from satisfying. The iOS was faster but there was just nothing more remarkable about it. I switched to Google’s Nexus right after that, betting on the Android platform. It was frustrating at first, the interface was not as intuitive and it did crash on me a few times. But once I got over that, I was able to do a lot more on my phone – I was no longer constrained by Apple’s walled garden.

However, I underestimated a few things: the ongoing marketing genius of Apple, the loyalty of Apple fans, and the devices’ easy, intuitive interface.

Marketing genius
This is probably most apparent in the launch of the Apple Watch. As I watched Apple’s live event on Monday, despite knowing what I know, I was almost swayed by the blitz. The phrase – “in a way that has never been done before” – almost got to me. Every. Single. Time. In some instances, it was true (eg. being able to call and receive calls via the watch) but in a lot of cases, it was just not true. The most egregious is by implying that the Apple Watch is the first of its kind. I can imagine the Pebble Watch and the Android Wear teams groaning and hurling epithets on their screens.

Early reviews are mixedNegative reviews in general point to a lack of a compelling use case for the watch. Furthermore, there does seem something douche-baggy about the Apple Watch Gold Edition, which starts at $10,000. It also says, “mug me.” But, in the end, do these negative reviews really matter? It’s not like conspicuous consumption is so out of fashion as to render the Ferraris and Hermés of this world out of business. It’s just another in a long line of status symbols.

As for a use case*, I have argued here that people will still buy the watch. Marketers call it the “halo effect”. In this case, potential buyers who already own an iPhone and who happen to like the experience, will most likely buy the Apple Watch. Furthermore, the Apple Watch can even be a gateway product – if you want to buy one, you will need to get the iPhone 6/Plus as well. It’s actually great – if you’re interested in wearables, you get the Apple Watch + iPhone 6 and if you have the iPhone 6, you’re going to be very curious about that Apple Watch.

The loyalty of Apple fans
It is so hard to believe now, but seeing an Apple product was like seeing a unicorn. Apple’s market share in consumer electronics was so marginal that one had to search wide to find someone owning an Apple computer. In the Philippines, they were practically non-existent in the 80s, 90s and even early 2000s. My first introduction was a desktop Macintosh – the interface of which was so foreign to me but the owner’s enthusiasm stayed with me. It was this encounter that guided my decision to buy my first MacBook.

It is such Apple owners’ enthusiasm that is perhaps the most compelling. Apple may have the marketing genius but it is the company’s ability to recognize customers as marketing  evangelists that continues to fuel Apple products adoption. A 2014 survey among 2,000 iPhone users found 60% of respondents to having “blind loyalty” to Apple.  Call them iSheep if you will but that loyalty has translated to healthy profits for the company and a rise in smartphone market share.

From: Statista.com

Easy and intuitive interface
My sister is not the most technologically savvy of electronics users. More than that, she has a healthy suspicion for expensive and fancy-schmancy devices. And yet, a few years ago, she finally got herself an iPhone and an iPad. She will likely upgrade to yet another iPhone/iPad soon. I mention this because the laggards in smartphone adoption – the holdouts and the older generation – simply find Apple’s mobile devices easier to navigate than Android’s. Even my 1 year old daughter has a much better time understanding Apple’s home button than my Nexus’ side home button. To be fair, that “home button” is patented so even if its utility has been proven, no other company can copy it even if they want to.

(Side note: One of the things that confused me about the Android OS when I first used it was: “Where are my apps?” On iOS, all the installed apps are at the “home” screen, even if that turns out to be several “pages” of “home.” On Android, there’s the home screen where (other than Google’s or the manufacturer’s default apps) you manually add your apps. Then there’s “all the other apps” that you can access by clicking sort of above the “home” button on the glass interface. I find that even hard to explain. Needless to say, the Android interface is definitely not for those who don’t want to spend time learning it.)

Furthermore, Apple devices simply have a much better camera than Android phones. This is actually not always a question of hardware. Most of the time, it’s just that Apple focused on relatively quick access, understanding that users just want something that will literally point and shoot. They focused on that first, sacrificing photo quality over speed. And then, they came up to speed with the hardware part. Now, the iPhone 6/Plus are on par with other phones in terms of image quality. I want to echo this article’s point and also fervently say:

I don’t want an iPhone, but dammit, I want the effortlessness of the iPhone’s camera

And with all the sharing happening on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Meerkat, etc., the quick and effortless composition of pictures and videos could be the driving force for a smartphone purchase.

Although, it is yet to be determined whether the Apple Watch and it’s newly-patented “crown” have the same ease of use as the iPhone/iPad, brand loyalty and marketing will definitely propel Apple Watch way ahead of the competition. Despite the initial protests, people who happen to be Apple users and who pride themselves on being early adopters, will buy the Apple Watch. They will become the watch’s evangelists and the cycle begins yet again for the profit machine that is Apple.

*By the way, there was not much use case for the first iPhone either. There weren’t that many apps, Internet browsing was so slow and for that price, who really needed it? Yet, look where we are now.

Smartphone apps to organize your life

Lifestyle, Technology

My first smartphone was the 1st generation iPhone in 2007. Back then, it was just a really cool and beautiful machine that you can use sometimes to browse the web or look up an address via Google maps. Everything was so slow probably because mobile network providers couldn’t really handle the load yet. Apps were still a new concept and app makers came and went so that an app that you liked one day could lose support the next.

Fast forward to today and this is what you get:

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 12.43.02 PM

With all that noise, we sometimes end up downloading apps that we use once or never. Over time, here are the apps that continually occupy my home screen and that I have found the most useful. I use an Android phone these days, the Nexus 6, so functionalities for Google’s suite of apps might be a little ornery on iOS and other mobile OS. But the rest of the apps I’ve outlined here should work just as beautifully and maybe even better on iOS since most of them were developed first for iOS. I hope these apps help you as much as they have helped me over the years. Remember, your smartphone is more than just for calling, it’s your mini-computer. Now, put that awesome and expensive device to work.

  1. Google apps
    • Gmail.This is a no-brainer. Even if you have an iPhone with a Mail app and use GMail extensively, nothing parses through Gmail better than the Gmail app itself. I don’t even have the Mail apps activated in my Macbook Pro and iPad. The last time I used the Mail app on my Macbook was in 2009.
    • Maps. Again, there’s not much to say except that Maps is a game-changer. I don’t mind driving but I really don’t like knowing where to go or how long it will take for me to get there. The longevity of Maps means that you have the best data available (for traffic, new routes, public transit/walking/biking directions). Plus, Maps now has data on major shopping centers and airports as well. Back when I used to have the iPhone, I refused to update my iOS (when Apple replaced Google Maps with its own Maps app) until I was sure that Google Maps was available for the iPhone.
    • Calendar. If you have an Android with the latest OS (Lollipop in this case), Calendar’s integration with other Google apps is amazing. If you received some sort of invitation via Gmail, Calendar automatically adds it as an event with all the details: location, time, date, phone number of organizer. On the day of the appointment (if the event has a location in it), it will appear as a Google Now card which tells you what time to leave for the appointment based on your current location. From what I can understand, a similar feature exists on the iPhone but you have to manually turn the settings on. Here’s a guide on how to do that.
    • Drive. This is probably not well understood by most people because of Google’s iterations over the years. Used to be simply called Docs, it became Drive. Within Drive, files can be opened/edited in 2 apps: Sheets (for spreadsheets) and Docs (similar to Word documents). But you don’t even have to think about that. Opening a file within Drive automatically opens it in those respective apps. If Sheets/Docs are not installed, Drive will simply ask you to install them. I used Drive for any document that I want to share and co-edit. If push comes to shove and I want some fancy formatting, then I simply do the final edits on Word or Excel but I hardly do that. I’ve submitted plenty of my MBA assignments formatted in Docs or Sheets.
    • Translate. If you’re planning to travel to a country where you don’t know the language, this is a must-have. For more on my thoughts about Translate, I talked about it and some of its new features here.
    • Wallet. I know, I know, Apple Pay is the bomb. But for Android users, Google Wallet has been around much longer and it does get handy (at least for online retailers where it’s accepted). I hope that Google’s latest moves of partnering with wireless carriers and acquiring of mobile payments systems Softcard will lead to Wallet’s widespread adoption. For now though, I use Wallet to keep track of my loyalty cards. You know those loyalty cards that you either clutter your wallet with or your key ring? Input or scan the barcode into the app and you can just use your phone to scan it at the store. Wallet can also keep track of gift cards via barcodes as well. For an alternative (before this Wallet feature), I’ve used the Cardstar app over the years as well.
    • Hangouts. There’s a lot of complaints about the replacement of the Voice app with Hangouts but I really can’t complain. I’ve moved 5 times in the past 5 years to different cities/countries. I’ve used numerous SIM cards/phone numbers but my friends/family only has one number to contact me by, which is my Google Voice number. No matter where I am in the world, I can forward phone calls to Hangouts and receive them. For US or Canada-based callers, the call stays free. The road has not been completely smooth on my phone because some network providers block Google from bypassing the default Phone dialer. For example, I want to use my Google voice number to call internationally which bills my Google account (at competitive rates) but my T-Mobile won’t allow it. With the release of Hangouts dialer though, I can now make those international phone calls using my Google Voice account. I would also mainly use the app for messaging but internationally, WhatsApp is still the leader.
    • Google Plus. G+ might be a joke for some people but it is my main photo storage provider. All my photos are automatically backed up in Google+. Only photos over 2048×2048 pixels and videos longer than 15 minutes count toward my free storage limit of 15GB. Any pictures/videos than these have unlimited storage in G+. When I’m ready, I can easily share them with families and friends via G+ or by sending a private link. As with any photo sharing feature, you can tweak the settings of each photo/album if you wan to make sure that photos/albums can or can’t be re-shared. Furthermore, G+ AutoAwesome automatically enhances some pictures or even transform series of photos into GIFs. Another great feature is “Stories” which automatically sifts through a series of photos, picks the best ones and give you travelogues that you can share or just keep.
  2. Flipboard. I’ve tried to look for alternative reading apps that curate the news for me but so far, this is the one that I keep going back to. It’s simply well-built and beautiful to boot. If you like to follow current events in any field (world news, tech, fashion, etc.), this app delivers in a beautiful format.
  3. Mint by Intuit. Other companies have tried and are trying to topple Mint’s dominance in personal finance but you can’t beat Mint’s integration with other products – most importantly Intuit’s TurboTax. Over the years, Mint has proven its worth – easy to navigate, easily integrated with banks/credit cards, great support.
  4. CamScanner. If you’re like me and don’t own a scanner but find yourself needing to scan something every once in a while all the time, then this app is for you. Via the app, you take a picture of the document, and the app transforms the picture into a PDF or JPG file that you can easily share via mail, upload to any cloud storage app on your phone or even over Bluetooth. On the iPhone, sharing options might be limited to Mail, iCloud and Bluetooth but on the Android, you can send it via messaging apps (doc link only), email, and any storage app you’ve installed on the phone.
  5. Trello. I’ve used other to-do-list apps such as Asana, but have since switched to Trello for its simplicity. You can organize to-dos based on timeline such as: To do this month, this week or Doing today. You can also organize it based on the person responsible if you’re sharing the lists with other people.
  6. Baby Connect. As a new mom, I needed a way to track my daughter’s sleep and feeding times. Even for parents, this may not be something that you will find useful. In fact, my doctor once told me to stop tracking the times and instead pay attention to visual cues from my daughter. Still, I find it fun to have all these data because I’ve learned to predict whether my daughter will be more or less resistant to naps based on the number of her sleep hours from previous days. You can also track milestones (first steps, first smile, etc.) which can also be exciting to do.
  7. SeatGuru. When I first traveled with my daughter, especially on airlines where we didn’t have any status, I wanted to avoid the most uncomfortable seats. I also needed to know where the bassinets can be attached or if they’re available at all. SeatGuru helped me figure this out because airline websites are not always reliable/transparent on seat information. Browsing seating maps also show specific notes for certain seats. Example: “Seat 17F (Economy, Standard, AC Power, Seatback, TV). Seat 17F is a standard Economy seat, however, this seat has extra space around it due to the blocking out of the middle seat… the armrests are still immovable which some may find uncomfortable.”
  8. Uber. You can use the same payment information in different countries, be able to track your driver, know the wait times and pay less compared to taxis. Enough said.
  9. Life360. I used to have Google Latitude to track my husband’s location or allow my husband to track mine. And no, it wasn’t that we wanted to control each other’s movements but every once in a while when I had to pick him up or vice versa, then we knew exactly where to go instead of getting frustrated with trying to describe a place (especially when traveling). Unfortunately, the app was retired in 2013 and I had to find a replacement. Life360 is a great alternative and can be shared with the whole family – especially useful for a growing family like mine.
  10. If this, then that (IFTT). To be honest, I have yet to set this up on my phone because it will require some planning on exactly how I want my activities to be organized. Furthermore, I find Google’s default actions (see Google apps above) to be more than sufficient for my needs. IFFT sets up of corresponding responses to certain actions. An example: if I post a photo on Instagram, upload that photo on a specific file on my Dropbox. If you’re very prolific and a power-power user, then IFFT can be very useful. IFFT users come up with different recipes all the time so you also don’t need to come up with your own recipes if you don’t feel like it.

Last minute tech gift ideas

News and commentaries, Technology

We’ve all been there: waiting for the last minute to find that perfect holiday gift. Here’s a gift guide for that techie in your life with mostly free express shipping to make it in time. Of course, you can always buy e-books, e-gift cards, etc. This is for when you really want to impress. Happy gifting!

 Last minute tech gifts

  1. Beats PowerBeats2 Wireless In-Ear Headphones, $179.95 (originally $199.95), free 2-day shipping
  2. GoPro Hero, $129.99, free 2-day shipping
  3. Nest learning thermostat, $249.00, free ground shipping
  4. Zero Gravity Phoenix iPhone 6 case, 32.00, free 3-day shipping
  5. iRobot Roomba 650, $399.99, free ground shipping (until 12/21 in time for Christmas)
  6. 1-year Amazon Prime membership, $99, right after sign-up
  7. toryBurch for Fitbit, $195.00, free express shipping for Paypal and ShopRunner orders (must order today)
  8. Poweradd Pilot Pro portable charger, $129.99 (originally $349,99), free standard shipping for Dec. 24 (must order today), free 2-day shipping with Amazon Prime
  9. Selfie on a stick + bluetooth remote shutter, $25.00 (originally $29.99), free shipping on orders over $50 with code SHIPFREE (order by 12/20)
  10. Apple TV, $99.00, free 2-day shipping, HDMI cable sold separately or Google Chromecast HDMI streaming media player, $29.99 (originally $35.00), free 2-day shipping on select orders

iOS vs. Android and why I shop less on Android

News and commentaries, Technology

IBM and Adobe recently released some numbers for Black Friday and Cyber Monday online sales in the US. Here are some highlights from the IBM report and Adobe report:

  • Overall Thanksgiving online sales were up 14.3% compared to 2013 (IBM)
  • Total online spend on Thanksgiving day reached $1.33B (Adobe)
  • Thanksgiving day mobile traffic accounted for more than half of all online traffic (IBM)
  • Black Friday online sales were up 9.5% YoY (IBM)
  • Black Friday mobile traffic increased by 25% over 2013, accounting for 49.6% of all online traffic while mobile sales accounted for 27.9% of total online sales (IBM)
  • Total online spend on Black Friday reached $2.4B (Adobe)
  • Cyber Monday sales were up by 8.5% compared to 2013 (IBM)
  • Cyber Monday mobile traffic accounted for 41.2% of all online traffic while mobile sales accounted for 22% of online sales (IBM)

With the historic numbers related to the use of mobile devices, there is a lot of focus on iOS vs. Android shoppers. Simply put, iOS users use their mobile devices more for online shopping and more importantly, buy more than Android users – in this case, four times more. This comparison is not new. Historically, iOS users spend more on apps than Android users. With these recent numbers, there’s again a lot of talk on how these affects future app development. Developers will almost always develop for iOS first and may even forego developing for Android.

As an Android user, it irks me to have to hold on to my iPad because some apps are simply not available on Android but I understand why. It further irked me when I saw this quote from Jay Henderson, director of IBM Smarter Commerce:

iPhone and iPad buyers tend to be slightly more affluent and more comfortable with technology.

Affluent, I can agree but more comfortable? The iOS’ value proposition is its simplicity – don’t offer too many choices on how something is done and the user will just get it. This is why, even your most un-tech savvy friend or family member has an iPhone/iPad. Go to an Android and the learning curve is a little steeper (but once you’re there, you can do so much more productive things on an Android). But I digress, this post is not about pitting iOS and Android users’ tech-savviness. This post is to poke some holes on those mobile spend numbers because as an Android and iOS user who happens to *love* shopping, I have experienced firsthand as to why I browse/buy less on my Android.

Why I browse and buy less on my Android vs. iOS

  • There are fewer shopping apps for Android. Thankfully, most sites are now mobile-friendly but they are far from perfect. Case in point is Net-a-Porter: I was filtering for dresses in size S. But after sorting for low-high prices, it resets the size. This only happens in the sale section which is what Black Friday and Cyber Monday are all about.

net_a_porter

Incidentally, browsing the sale section at Barney’s mobile site is limited to filtering between “Men”, “Women”, “Home”, “Kids”, etc. There are no filters for size and sub-categories so results number to 12,000 items which can test the patience of even the most avid shopper.

Based on sites that I use, here’s a sample of shopping apps for iOS and Android:

iOS_Android_apps

*Recently launched on November 24, 2014

  • Even when shopping apps exist, they can be buggy. During Black Friday when Zara, site-wide was 30%, the bugginess of the app was very pronounced in my Android. While the iOS experience remained smooth, I saw blank spaces where images of items should be when I scrolled down. This happens all the time but during big sale periods, the blank space stays longer (minimum 5 seconds) and the app crashes constantly.

zara_blank

Google’s ambitions for Android are not focused on the users’ immediate dollar value
As more and more metrics pit the dollar value of Android users vs. iOS users, it will only perpetrate the cycle: developers will focus less on making the Android experience more robust; Android users spend less money; iOS users are more valuable – and so on. In this case, I sometimes get frustrated with Google for not marketing the Android platform better to developers. I understand that they have ambitions beyond users spending money within their devices but at some point, will Apple’s easy/seamless ecosystem trump Android adoption globally? But then again, Google’s currency, to put simply, is information and large amounts of it. Even if Android dominance falters in North America, there’s billions in the rest of the world who will not be able to afford iOS devices (especially if Apple continues to act like a Veblen good*) and will most certainly adopt the Android platform. And that’s several billions of users using a platform that Google controls. Scared yet?

A handy guide to the iOS 8 upgrade

News and commentaries, Technology

Yesterday, Apple released iOS 8 and Twitter exploded in what could only be a first world problem with a multitude of complaints. As of this writing, #iOS8 is still trending, which begs the question, should you or shouldn’t you? If you want to join the modern age of Android users where you can use Swype keyboard, act on notifications *within* the notifications window, instantly edit/share pics “in seconds”, send messages by voice, project your device screen on TV, use a camera timer – then you need to upgrade. To be fair, iOS 8 offers other nifty features which I will outline below.

But first, you need 5 GB of available storage
This is probably the loudest complaint. You will not be able to download iOS 8 unless you have 5 GB sitting free on your device. You can start deleting those baby videos and awesome selfies, which I found to be the fastest path to free storage or you can go the roundabout way and download the update through your computer. By the way, this doesn’t mean that the upgrade will take up all the space, the iOS itself is ~900 MB (on the iPad) but it needs that much free space in order to download.

iOS 8 is compatible with the following devices
Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 10.14.52 AM

Most exciting features so far
Other than the ones I mentioned above, here are some notable features, some of which Android users will be salivating over (features can be had through third-party apps and not built in to Android):

  • The new Health app which will probably make your Fitbit redundant
  • Searchable photo library by date, location (geo-taggging has to be enabled), album name (I tried the same feature on my Nexus and was also able to search for “sunglasses”, “baby” – a little eerie)
  • Revamped iCloud Drive allows for seamless editing between devices
  • iOS users already shop more than their Android counterparts (I do shop more in my iPad because there’s a lack of shopping apps for Android) and this feature will drive that even more – scanning your credit card within Safari:

IMG_0136

  • Time-lapse video mode to capture “the experience of the sun setting” (similar to Instagram’s Hyperlapse)
  • Family Sharing allows for up to 6 people to share purchases from iTunes, iBooks and the App store – you can set it up via Settings>iCloud>Set up Family Sharing
  • HomeKit programming protocol for developers will allow for third-party devices to connect with your Apple device

The kinks so far and miscellaneous notes
Before you upgrade, consider the following:

What the billion-dollar Twitch acquisition means for Amazon’s long-term view

News and commentaries, Technology

Amazon has been unprofitable for years. In a 1997 interview with Inc., Jeff Bezos said:

“We’re going to be unprofitable for a long time. And that’s our strategy.”

Image from International Business Times

Bezo’s long-term view does not equal profits
Kudos on Bezos for such a long term view: always make customers happy, earn their trust, get their business, and offer them even more business beyond what you were originally offering. Investors are more than happy to buy Amazon stock at P/E multiples of hundred times earnings, betting that Amazon’s constant reinvestment and foregoing of profits will allow the company to capture the biggest slice of the retail pie, with e-commerce only set to increase over the years. In 2013, US retail sales reached $4.5 Trillion with e-commerce accounting for 8% of that number. In 2nd quarter of 2014, e-commerce sales accounted for 6.4% of total retail sales.

This strategy comes with a huge price of multi-million dollar acquisitions and infrastructure investments to constantly be ahead of logistics technologies. In the spirit of building new business lines to always keep customers within the Amazon umbrella, the company entered hardware with the Kindle readers and most recently the Kindle Fire Phone, offering these devices at cost and making money with e-book purchases.

Is Amazon Prime past its prime?
As a fervent Amazon Prime member, I can attest to being a very satisfied customer and perfectly willing to pay the recent Prime price hike. Two-day shipping that spans beyond Amazon.com (Prime shipping includes Shopbop.com), excellent customer service, easy payments (Amazon payments can also be used at Diapers.com) and for a long time, tax free purchases. Being a Prime member also meant that I get free access to a selection of Prime videos and e-books.

I have certainly been a great believer in Amazon’s long-term and dominant strategy but I have been having doubts lately. The shopping differentiations that I mentioned as a customer are being whittled down by increased competition from other retailers, new services (eg. Shoprunner which offers 2-day shipping in partnership with hundreds of online stores ) and a lobby to abolish the Internet sales tax loophole. Since May 2014, Amazon started charging sales tax in Florida for example.

To add to all these, Amazon seems to be on a roll of fighting with its suppliers – its fight against book publisher Hachette has yet to be resolved, canceling pre-orders of books from Hachette. Already, the company is in the middle of a dispute with another supplier, Disney; again restricting DVD pre-orders from the supplier.

Amazon’s investments in hardware and digital media content add more costs
Beyond these examples focused on Amazon’s e-commerce portal, I question Amazon’s investments in hardware and content offerings. I am not a believer of the Kindle Fire Phone. It is a cool gadget, yes, but imagine the resources that Bezos spent on developing a device that many consider to be a flop – resources that he could have used elsewhere.

Then, there’s Amazon original programming. The company’s last quarter report ending June 30, 2014 showed worldwide revenues of $19.34B. To get this seemingly impressive revenue, Amazon had to spend $19.3B (Cost of sales at $13.4B and SG&A expenses at $5.93B). The quarterly report was vague on how much the company spent on original programming but they do attribute the increased cost of sales to digital media content.* And the company is far from finished.

This week on August 25, 2014, Amazon bought game-streaming site Twitch after Google/YouTube failed to close the deal. At $970M in cash, the acquisition must surely be hurting Amazon’s cash flow. At least with Twitch, users are the ones who upload the content and with 45 million viewers watching 13B minutes of gaming a month, Amazon reaches a broad, new audience to peddle gaming hardware and software.

Is Amazon losing its focus?
Despite the massive size of Google, its acquisitions and its projects have almost always been aligned with its business model: ads. Build Gmail, Chrome and Maps, offer it for free, serve ads, accumulate data to make those ads even more relevant. Build a driverless car so people can spend more time online; expose them to ads. Buy a satellite company for an even better Maps experience and improve Internet access. Some moves are longer term view than others but they somehow still make sense.

Amazon is blurring the lines between its core business model and new business lines that bolster the core. Amazon means (or maybe meant) e-commerce. The argument with its hardware investments is that they enable customers to shop at Amazon. A new business line such as Amazon Web Services makes sense because Amazon has gotten so good at managing its infrastructure, they might as well offer the service to other companies as well.

Supposedly with the Twitch acquisition, Amazon can take a cut from video game revenues, serve ads, and help Amazon with digital content. But that’s precisely it. I struggle to understand Amazon’s drive for content, rather than remaining as a platform for content. The only thing I can think of is this: offer content to attract customers to Amazon Instant Video and thus pay $100 for Amazon Prime. For a cost that is estimated to reach a billion this year, that’s a very expensive customer acquisition strategy. After all, Amazon already executed a major coup with its multi-year agreement with HBO – the first time HBO content is streamed legally. This alone can already steal customers from Netflix or Hulu and attract a slew of new Amazon Primers. So what gives?

Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon each want to be THE platform for our lives
The interactions we have with companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are almost constant and continuous. If you have an iPhone/iPad/iWhatever, Apple will work hard to keep you within its walled gardens – iTunes, iCloud, iMessage, etc. Google might be more “open,” but being that it can scan your email and access your web searches, they don’t need to work hard to keep you in. Facebook is the go-to for interacting with friends or almost-friends online for an average of 40 minutes a day, according to Facebook.

But unless you have a problem, shopping is not something you do every minute of everyday. If being THE platform is Amazon’s play then it needs to catch up. The company needs to find a place to engage customers constantly and they may have found it in video content. Nielsen reported in June 2014 that video on demand (VOD) users watch 20% more live TV than non-VOD users; Americans already watch over 5 hours of traditional television per day. Meanwhile, gamers spend an average of 22 hours a week playing video games. These are big chunks out of customers’ lives and Amazon is willing to pay to be a part of that. The question is: how long before investors start balking and lose faith in Bezos’ long-term view?

*This was originally inspired by a blog post here.

Amazon’s new Fire phone and why I’m not buying just yet

News and commentaries, Technology

 

Dynamic Perspective in Maps

Yesterday, Amazon and Jeff Bezos unveiled the Fire phone during an event shrouded in mystery, ending the weeks-long speculation. The phone definitely packs a punch and could be serious contender in the smartphone market especially as it is backed by Amazon’s ecosystem: full year Prime membership which means access to all that Prime has to offer. But the most groundbreaking and exciting features are the “Dynamic Perspective” and Firefly.

Dynamic Perspective
In order to generate a 3D viewing experience, the tech works by tracking where the user’s head is at all times in relation to the screen. In doing so, the user will always have the perspective of looking at a 3D image. Do you remember those 3D posters in the ’90s? Looking at the Fire phone video, it reminds me of those except obviously in this case, you don’t need to focus too hard to get the perspective that the image is floating, i.e. in 3D rendering. This feature is especially compelling in the phone’s map app and in gaming. The question is how many more apps will be built on the Dynamic Perspective SDK.

Firefly
First of all, as a huge fan of the Firefly TV series (which happens to be available in Amazon Prime), I already like this name (did Amazon pay for the name?). In a similar way that Shazam can tell you the name of a song after “listening” to it, Firefly can identify products, songs and TV shows by “looking”. The Firefly database has currently 70 million products; 240,000 movies and TV episodes, and 160 live TV channels. It can also scan text on paper for phone numbers, web and email addresses.

These two features alone are making me seriously consider the Fire phone for my next device. I currently have a Nexus 5 from Google and have been looking forward to Nexus 6. I mention this because the fact that I am deeply entrenched in the Google ecosystem might be the biggest dealbreaker for me. Below, I outline more of the reasons as to why I and others like me might *not* want the Amazon Fire phone.

Dealbreakers

  • The phone is powered by Fire OS 3.5.0, which was built on top of Android OS and integrates Amazon’s software and content. As such, it does not have have any access to the Google Play Store nor any of Google’s apps such as Google Maps, Chrome browser or Gmail. Amazon has its own mail app and uses Nokia’s HERE maps.
  • There seems to be a slew of features and gesture controls related to Dynamic Perspective. Apple’s smartphone dominance is largely attributed to its simplicity such that even your grandparents now have iPhones. The Fire is definitely not simple. Case in point from the Fire promotional video: you can tilt the phone to the right to access the menu. Or is it the left tilt – you get the point. Even with instant Mayday access, a human-to-human customer service designed to help with the features, who has the time or the inclination to talk to someone when all you want to do is send an email?
  • Dynamic Perspective looks exciting but without developer adoption, users would be limited to using Amazon-developed apps. It’s not clear yet how many apps are there to render the 3D perspective but a robust app marketplace needs to be in place in order for the tech to resonate with users.
  • With plenty of other options in the smartphone market, Fire is not exactly price friendly. Sure, it goes for $199 with a 2-year AT&T contract but hasn’t Amazon heard of T-Mobile’s Uncarrier strategy? For those who are loath to get stuck with AT&T, the phone comes for a hefty price of $649 – quite a leap for a smartphone that is just entering the market even with all the bells and whistles.

So, if you consider yourself as an innovator in the tech adoption curve, *and* you don’t mind the price point, then this phone is for you. But for the rest, you might want to wait this out and see what shakes loose especially in terms of what apps will be developed for the Fire phone. Unfortunately, it is the “waiting out” period for most consumers that could prove Fire’s undoing if it wants to be *the* next smartphone platform.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, AMZN stock is down by 6%.

AMZN 2014-06-19 at 12.31.39 PM