ARM vs. Intel – Pause for thought.

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Intel shoots at Asia rather than at home.

  • With another attempt to replace Intel chips in PCs on the cards, Intel has moved to protect its position with a not so subtle reminder that its instruction set is covered by a large number of patents.
  • The 40th anniversary of the x86 processor is approaching and to celebrate, Intel has published an editorial extolling the innovation that has made x86 by far the dominant processor in both PCs and servers.
  • The problem has always been that the x86 was never designed to run on battery powered devices meaning that it consumes meaningfully more power than its ARM equivalent.
  • Consequently, there has always been a desire to allow battery powered PCs (laptops) to use the ARM processor as this would, in theory, meaningfully extend their battery life.
  • The first attempt to do this was Windows RT which involved adapting the Windows software to run on the ARM instruction set which failed miserably.
  • The current effort involves an emulator which takes the ARM instruction set and translates it into x86 so that the regular Windows software and applications can run with no modification.
  • However, this proposition already has question marks around implementation and performance (see here) and now Intel is muddying the waters further with its patent pool.
  • Intel has filed around 1,600 patents (533 families) on its x86 instruction set of which around 1,000 (333 families) I estimate are still enforceable.
  • It seems pretty likely that an emulator that makes use of the x86 instruction set will infringe these patents and hence would need a licence from Intel to operate.
  • There are two reasons why I think this warning is not aimed Qualcomm and Microsoft but rather others who may be considering taking a similar route.
    • First: Qualcomm knows and understands more about IP licencing than almost anybody and consequently I think that it will have foreseen this issue.
    • Hence, I think that, together with Microsoft, it will have sorted these issues out with Intel before officially announce its progress down this route.
    • Second: in its 8th June comment, Intel states that “there have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization”.
    • At the time of writing, the co-operation between Microsoft and Qualcomm to use an emulator to get Windows running on x86 was not a report, it was an announced fact.
  • This combined with my view that Qualcomm is likely to have sorted the IP issues out in advance, leads me to believe that this warning is targeted elsewhere.
  • Hence, I do not think that this will impact the effort by Qualcomm and Microsoft which, in my opinion, remains completely dependent on the implementation.
  • Emulators have a very bad track record in terms of consuming extra resources which to date, has rarely resulted in any real benefit accruing to the user.
  • I still think that to succeed, these devices must perform at least as well as an Intel powered device at the same price point and have better battery life.
  • I think that this is the minimum requirement as without this, there is no incentive for a user or an institution to purchase the device.
  • This is what I think Microsoft and Qualcomm will be most concenred about but for the other chipmakers in Asia Intel’s comments will have given them pause for thought.

Alphabet – Goodbye blue sky pt. II.

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Homeless robots find permanent shelter.

  • Alphabet has reached a deal to sell both Boston Dynamics and Schaft to SoftBank leaving it more focused on its core business of collection and monetisation of Internet data.
  • Boston Dynamics is a robotics company that specialises in robots that are autonomous as far as navigating and adjusting to their immediate environment.
  • SoftBank is also acquiring Schaft from Google which is a humanoid robotics company that was spun out of the University of Tokyo.
  • These robots can move around with relative ease but how they would be able generate value for Alphabet shareholders was always unclear.
  • At the end of the day Alphabet is a data and analytics company whose objective is to categorise and understand every piece of digital information that users generate and to sell those insights to marketers.
  • Every other piece of hardware that Alphabet makes from Google Home to Pixel and Internet Balloons, have the capacity to collect huge amounts of data and thereby generate can value to the core business.
  • Autonomous robots that can carry out physical tasks do not generate data about users because they are designed to replace them making them a bad fit inside Alphabet.
  • Furthermore, the robotics effort at Google was the brainchild of Andy Rubin and his departure, combined with the much greater focus on fiscal discipline, meant that the robots became homeless inside Alphabet.
  • I have long believed that Boston Dynamics will be much more at home inside a company that can make use of them.
  • Good examples of this are Amazon and Alibaba for logistics or someone like DHL or UPS.
  • Softbank is a good example of this but also has the benefit of a very long-term mindset when it comes to its strategy.
  • SoftBank already produces the Pepper robot which is supposed to be able to read human emotions and help shoppers when they enter a shop or place of business.
  • I met Pepper when wandering the halls of Mobile World Congress and CES and have to admit I was not that impressed by what it was capable of.
  • Consequently, it looks like SoftBank needs to really beef up its robotics expertise if it wants to be a player in this space which is what these two acquisitions should start to accomplish.
  • Hence it looks like this acquisition will not be part of the $93bn Vision Fund but instead be part of SoftBank itself.
  • Boston Dynamics, Schaft and I suspect SoftBank’s own robotics division have been struggling to find ways to generate revenue necessitating a home with a very long-term view.
  • That home used to be Alphabet, now it is SoftBank.
  • The sale of these two businesses will further boost Alphabet’s short term financial performance but I continue to think that all of the recent fundamental improvement in Alphabet is more than discounted in the share price.
  • Hence, I continue to prefer Tencent, Baidu and Microsoft.

Essential Products – Domestic bliss.

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Home is where the heart is

  • While I am not a fan of Essential Products’ phone (see here), I think that the strategy around the smart home is bang on I think it has created the right product.
  • I don’t like the phone simply because it does not do anything particularly special in a brutal commodity market and given the company’s overall strategy, I see no real need why it can’t make use of the phones of others.
  • However, the Home product is something else, and although it may not succeed, I think that it has a good chance.
  • This is because, I think Home has been designed to explicitly address the two biggest problems with home automation that exist today.
  • These are:
    • Firstly, voice control: RFM research (see here) has found that voice communication with machines is very far from being good enough to work effectively without a screen for output.
    • The issue is that even the best machines are not yet intelligent enough to provide a useful experience using voice only and often have to fall back to a screen.
    • In Google Assistant’s and Alexa’s case this means using the screen of the phone which is not an optimal experience especially as most voice usage is when the hands are busy doing something else.
    • Essential Home has already taken this into consideration and the small device has an attractive looking screen on the top.
    • This looks much better than hideous Amazon Show which seems to have been designed to be a jack of all trades.
    • I think that Essential has hit the nail on the head and its product should optimally fix the single biggest current problem with human machine voice interaction.
    • Second, fragmentation: Despite Amazon Alexa being able to talk to almost everything, the experience remains horribly fragmented.
    • The real use case for the smart home is where all elements of the home are aware of each other and can be controlled together.
    • For example, the use should be able to say “I am going to bed” resulting in the doors locking, blinds drawn, heating turned down and so on.
    • Instead each separate device has to be manually operated and adjusted.
    • The experience on Alexa is so bad that it is quicker and more convenient to make these adjustments by hand.
    • Apple HomeKit also addresses this problem effectively but I see little traction among the smaller, more innovative smart home device creators.
    • Furthermore by being limited to Apple products only, 85%+ of the market is not being addressed.
    • This is the problem that Essential has recognised and is trying to address this by making its Home APIs and Ambient OS as open as possible.
  • I like the potential of this product as it is both differentiated from its competition and has been designed to explicitly solve the biggest problems with home automation.
  • There has been no word as to what assistant will be resident in the device, but if Essential is smart, it will ensure that the user can use any assistant he chooses.
  • The problem is going to be getting the device into the hands of users in volume.
  • This will be critical because volume deployments will be needed to get developers to make their products work on Ambient OS.
  • This is the old chicken and egg problem which is very difficult to crack but once it is solved creates real momentum for a platform.
  • This is the problem that Amazon cracked earlier this year and now every developer of any smart product will make it work with Alexa.
  • This will be the key to getting the Home product to succeed but it is going to be an uphill battle even for a start-up as well financed as Essential Products Inc.

Amazon – A song of ice and fire.

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Project ice has nothing to do with phones.

  • After racking up nearly $1bn in losses from its last foray into handsets, one would think that Amazon would have had enough but it appears that it is at it again but for a totally different reason: India.
  • Project ice appears to be the development of another Android device but this time at the other end of the price spectrum.
  • One of the devices in the pipeline features a 5” to 5.5” screen with 2GB RAM, 16GB of storage, Snapdragon 435 and a cracking price to match at around $93.
  • The device is fully Google compliant with its ecosystem installed and set by default but I am pretty sure that at least Amazon’s core e-commerce apps will also be installed.
  • Amazon’s last set of results (see here) showed a big dent in profitability in its overseas operations that I think can be largely put down to its determination not to lose India as it lost China.
  • Alibaba wiped the floor with Amazon (and Walmart) in China and with developed markets maturing, Amazon’s long-term growth is at least partially dependent on history not repeating itself in India.
  • In the Indian market, Amazon is the underdog with around 23% market share compared to Flipkart on 35% and Snapdeal on 15%.
  • However, it is by far the best financed and if it comes to last-man-standing battle, it is likely to win.
  • However, Softbank, the backer of Flipkart is keen for it to merge with Snapdeal which if perfectly executed, would give the combined entity 50% share (see here).
  • According to RFM’s rule that to become the go to place to transact, a marketplace must have at least 60% market share or be at least double the size of its nearest rival (see here).
  • The combination could be enough to see off Amazon but never to back down from a fight, Amazon has a trick up its sleeve.
  • I have long believed that the internet in India has very little to do with fixed (like developed markets) and everything to do with mobile (like China).
  • Consequently, the ice device portfolio could serve as a way to encourage users to do their online shopping with Amazon rather than Flipkart & co.
  • Google has no e-commerce offering to speak of and so Amazon can produce Google ecosystem devices (which Indian users demand) and at the same time install its shopping apps, optimise them and set them by default.
  • Studies have shown time and again that having apps preinstalled leads to them working better and being used more, even if they are not as good as other apps that need to be downloaded (e.g. Apple Maps).
  • Hence, I can see Amazon selling ice devices at 0% gross margins in order to win over more affluent Indian users to its shopping proposition at the expense of Flipkart & co.
  • This is exactly the strategy that it uses with Fire tablets and Kindle with the money being made on the content sold over the device.
  • This example looks no different except that the strategy here is to gain share in e-commerce before Flipkart can reach an unassailable position through consolidation.
  • This is why Flipkart has to act promptly to consolidate Snapdeal as the longer it delays, the more share Amazon is likely to gain and the harder it will be to become twice Amazon’s size.
  • Amazon’s strategy to control the primary device, from which Indians will do their online shopping, only increases the urgency for it to act and act fast.
  • Winter is coming.

WWDC 2017 – Catch-up gems.

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Mostly catch up but studded with a few gems.

  • While Apple spent most its time catching up with innovations made by other ecosystems, there were a few areas where its announcements put it ahead of the pack.
  • Machine Learning
    • Apple is weaving machine learning into all of its services.
    • This combined with increasing integration of Apple’s own apps and services promises to enhance the user experience.
    • This includes new predictive faces (like Google Now) on the Apple Watch and photo recognition and organisation and smart responses predicted from the user’s history in other apps.
    • The demos were slick and effective but how well this will work in the field and with a user that does not use all of Apple’s Digital Life services remains to be seen.
    • Apple is working hard on AI but I think it still remains way behind Google, Baidu, Yandex and even Microsoft.
  • iOS 11
    • For the iPhone, iOS11 is an incremental update but one that focuses most attention on iMessage and the App Store.
    • Apple, is following Tencent in allowing users to do more and more with iMessage including the enablement of peer to peer payments using Apple Pay.
    • iMessage and Photos are the only two services that really got some attention this year leading me to think that these are the two areas where Apple is really trying to create stickiness.
    • This is particularly relevant as I observed yesterday (see here) that leaving iOS for Android was particularly easy as I don’t use iMessage.
    • The network effect can be particularly strong leading me to think that iMessage is now one of the most important services that Apple has.
    • I think that it is much more important than photos as Google Photos is just as good and makes it easy to move photos off iOS.
    • The App Store update aims to address the problem created by its own success which is that discovery of new apps and services is now pretty difficult.
    • New tabs aimed that highlight the new and cool stuff as well as give tips on existing apps is curated through the user’s history and aims to drive more purchases.
    • The aim is clearly to further distance itself from the humdrum experience of Google Play.
    • App Store is an area where Apple is extending its lead.
  • iOS 11 for iPad
    • However, it was for the iPad that the new iOS software really shines.
    • In conjunction with a solid update to the line, iOS 11 enables new functionality that takes the iPad even closer to the laptop.
    • The iPad now has a file system which combined with enhancements to multitasking and window management take its usefulness to a new level.
    • This includes the ability to drag and drop links, pictures and files from one place to another and to share them in multiple ways more easily.
    • This takes the iPad (particularly the pro) closer to a laptop in terms of functionality but it does still fall short.
    • Without support for a mouse and full fat office, the iPad cannot replace a laptop for most content creators although it is getting closer all the time.
  • Hardware
    • In addition to the iPad Pro, the iMac and MacBook Pro all received incremental updates that keeps them in line with the high end of the PC market.
    • Apple also launched a super high end iMac Pro all in one aimed at the professional who needs to spend more than $5000 on a computer.
  • HomePod
    • Apple also gave a sneak peak of a home speaker that aims to replace expensive WiFi Speakers but also has the functionality of Amazon Echo and Google Home.
    • This is a high-end speaker that sports features that are designed to produce excellent sound quality and functionality potentially rendering Sonos obsolete.
    • At the same time the HomePod has Siri embedded meaning that it can answer questions and control the smart home through HomeKit.
    • Apple has positioned this as something that the user buys for a high-quality audio experience with Siri coming as an added bonus.
    • This is a smart move because Siri is not that bright and is easily out performed by Google Assistant while being on a par with Amazon’s Alexa.
    • HomePod shows no sign of being open to developers other than through HomeKit and I was disappointed that Spotify and other music services have not been enabled on the device.
    • Hence, this a device for the Apple Music subscribers of which there are now 27m and not really for anyone else.
  • The net result is that while I think there are some very interesting moves being made around the productivity elements on the iPad, Apple is mostly keeping step with the competition.
  • The good news is that its edge as the best distributor of apps and services of third partied has yet to be matched by Google, giving it time to re-invent its hardware differentiation.
  • The valuation case in Apple is not nearly as strong as it was 6 months ago leaving me still preferring Microsoft, Baidu and Tencent.

iOS vs Android – The big switcheroo

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The Digital Life pie is essential for stickiness.

  • Following 2½ years as an iPhone user, I decided to try and make the switch to Android and was amazed by how easy it was.
  • I have switched from iPhone to a Samsung Galaxy s8
  • I believe that the ease of transition came down to three factors:
    • One: Android is much better now than it was in 2014.
    • Two: I am not a user of any of Apple’s Digital Life services.
    • Three: Most apps are now free to download with either in app purchase, advertising or a subscription.
    • Furthermore, most apps now store user data in the cloud meaning that switching is simply a matter of downloading the app and signing in.
  • My thoughts after living with Android for one month are as follows:
    • Get out of jail. Android is a breath of fresh air in that I can install anything that I want with no problems.
    • The Google Play store does not offer some apps in my region but this was easily fixed by downloading Aptoide which has virus-screened versions of almost everything.
    • Furthermore, on Android anything is possible and a developer has already worked out how to re-map the Bixby hard key to Google Assistant.
    • However, this freedom comes at a price in that many things simply do not work as well or as reliably as they do on iOS.
    • I suspect that this is mostly a result of the endemic software fragmentation that exists across Android devices which remains as bad now as it has ever been.
    • I still have to be my own systems integrator.
    • For example, the weather widget that ships as default on the home screen of the Galaxy does not work properly when it comes to updating the weather information in other cities that the user has added.
    • The biometric security unlocking does not work properly all the time and apps crash and quit with greater regularity compared to iPhone.
    • Voice and radio performance: The iPhone still sets the gold standard in terms of the quality of voice calls and radio performance in areas where the signal is not optimal.
    • Fortunately, because I am not a big voice user, this is not a huge issue.
    • Furthermore, even though the s8 offers much better control of Bluetooth devices when more than one is connected at the same time, the iPhone offers better stability and reliability.
  • The main observation that I have made is that moving my Digital Life from iOS to Android was far easier than I thought it would be.
  • A major reason for this is that outside of photos and videos which are a cinch to move thanks to Google Photos, I am not a user of Apple’s Digital Life services.
  • I have never used Facetime or iMessage and as a result I was not locked into the network that Apple has created around those services.
  • This throws into sharp relief the key weakness of the iOS ecosystem which is the same now as it has always been.
  • Apple’s position in Digital Life services is weaker than many of its peers meaning that the key selling point remains the quality of its user experience and its ability to distribute the apps and services of third parties in a fun and easy to use way.
  • If Android close this usability and security gap to iOS, I think that users will be less inclined to pay a substantial premium for iPhone compared to something similar running Android.
  • This is why Apple has been working hard on things like Apple Pay, HealthKit and HomeKit but I think it needs to do much more before these can be considered really defensive.
  • Given, Google’s very slow progress in taking control of its ecosystem on Android, I think that this still gives Apple a good 3-5 years before its handset margins will come under pressure.
  • Apple’s developer conference kicks off today where I hope to see announcements aimed at keeping Apple’s differentiation over Android.
  • Furthermore, the iPhone 8 promises to be a worthy challenger to the excellent Galaxy s8.
  • I have liked Apple on valuation grounds for a considerable time but following the recent increase in its valuation, it no longer offers the same value that it did.
  • Hence, I still prefer Microsoft, Tencent and Baidu.

Samsung Bixby – Failure to launch

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Bixby is not fit for purpose.

  • Samsung has once again delayed the roll out of the voice component of its digital assistant Bixby further reinforcing my opinion that Samsung can really only compete in hardware.
  • This, combined with the poor performance already offered by Bixby services on the Galaxy s8, leaves me unsurprised that a method to rewire the Bixby hard key to Google Assistant has already been published.
  • Bixby was launched with much fanfare at the unveiling of the Galaxy s8 and promised the following:
    • First, completeness: This promises to give users complete control of enabled apps rather than the few tasks offered by other assistants.
    • Second contextual awareness: Samsung is promising that Bixby will be aware of the context within which it has been triggered, making it more relevant and useful.
    • Third natural language recognition: Bixby should be able to understand complex, multi-part questions as well as prompt the user to clarify the pieces that it does not understand.
  • I have been testing Bixby extensively and so far, the experience bears no resemblance whatsoever to these promises.
  • Instead Bixby offers a series of suggestions of videos to watch and articles to read that bear little relevance to any of my interests or my history.
  • The one thing that Bixby can get right is to highlight which apps I use most but the functionality of suggesting which app I am likely to want to use next based on the time of day or my circumstance is nowhere to be seen.
  • These features are very similar to those promised by Viv, the artificial intelligence company that Samsung purchased in October 2016 which is clearly the source of this product.
  • However, It appears that Bixby as it exists today has nothing to do with Viv which partly explains the poor functionality but also makes me wonder why Samsung acquired it in the first place.
  • This is a sure indicator of just how far behind Samsung is compared to everyone else when it comes to developing intelligent services.
  • RFM research (see here) has identified three stages of voice recognition of which the first and by far the most simple is the accurate conversion of voice to text.
  • Almost everyone, even Facebook, has pretty much cleared this hurdle but it appears that Bixby still has not.
  • Furthermore, Bixby vision is also way behind the curve as it is unable to properly identify objects.
  • Instead what it does is search Pinterest for other pictures with similar pixel patterns.
  • It does not identify objects nor offer any real functionality beyond finding similar pictures rendering it useless.
  • Even Facebook, which I have long identified as being behind in AI, is demonstrating reasonably good machine vision which leads me to put Samsung far behind even Facebook.
  • This leaves Samsung exactly where I left it as a manufacturer of excellent but commoditised hardware that outsells it nearest competitor by more than 2 to 1.
  • As long as it can maintain that edge, I have no fear for its handset margins but Huawei is trying very hard to close the gap.
  • Huawei’s disappointing handset performance in 2016 has led it to be more focused on profitability this year meaning that it will not be trying to turn the screws on Samsung with quite the same vigour.
  • Hence, I think that Samsung is set up to have a good 2017 but the rally in the share price has more than taken this into account.
  • Hence I continue to prefer Microsoft, Tencent and Baidu.

ARM vs. Intel – Silver bullet pt. II

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Implementation and performance will be everything.

  • The second lap of trying to get Windows to work on ARM processors is in full swing but the key to success will be the performance of the devices.
  • At the Computex trade show in Taipei, ASUS, Lenovo and HP have all announced that they will be producing Windows 10 devices that are powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835.
  • This is the final piece of the puzzle to get devices into the hands of users after Qualcomm and Microsoft announced that they would be giving Windows on ARM another try (see here).
  • ASUS, Lenovo and HP will be using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 to provide both the horsepower to run the device as well connectivity to ensure and always on experience.
  • With its first attempt, Microsoft modified Windows 8 such that it would work on an ARM processor and in the process killed flexibility and backwards compatibility to legacy software.
  • The result was a platform that was shunned by both developers and users, completely killing any hope that ARM would gain penetration in Intel’s home turf of PCs.
  • This time the approach is completely different as Qualcomm and Microsoft have produced an x86 emulator that fools the software into thinking that there is an x86 chip present.
  • The net result is that any Win32 and Universal Windows Apps (UWP) will run on the device with no modifications being required by the developer.
  • I understand that UWP apps will run natively on the Snapdragon 835 but the emulator will be required for everything else.
  • This is where the success or failure of this venture will be determined.
  • The computing devices will lightweight, low cost with a long battery life making them ideal candidates to run Windows 10S (see here).
  • This device category is ideally suited for schools but for students who have their own devices, the appeal is less clear.
  • This is because the majority of the kind of apps that I think students will want on their PCs are not available as UWPs.
  • Students tend not to have a lot of spare cash and therefore will rely heavily on free software which if they are using Windows 10S needs to be on the store.
  • Taking the top free PC software as recommended by TechRadar, I found that 3 apps were available as UWPs compared to 10 that were not but of which, for 2 or 3 there was something similar.
  • Google Chrome, iTunes, Google Drive or any BitTorrent clients are available as UWPs, all which I suspect are pretty important for cash strapped students.
  • Therefore, the performance of the emulator will be critical as I think it will be heavily used in these devices.
  • On bench tests, the Snapdragon 835 is perfectly capable of running Windows 10, but there is a huge difference between performance in the lab and performance in the hands of real world consumer.
  • Furthermore, emulators always incur a performance overhead meaning that apps running via the emulator can never perform as well as those running natively.
  • The key questions are:
    • First: How well will Windows 10 be implemented on the ASUS, HP and Lenovo hardware to ensure the Snapdragon 835 can perform to the best of its ability.
    • Second: How much performance drag will the emulator incur?
  • The answers to these questions will only be apparent once the devices are available but I think it is quite easy to draw a line in the sand.
  • To succeed, I think these devices must perform at least as well as an Intel powered device at the same price point and have better battery life.
  • I think that this is the minimum requirement as without this, there is no incentive for a user or an institution to purchase the device.
  • I also think that always on connectivity is not a requirement for a Windows 10 device because all of the Digital Life activities that require this kind of connectivity have long since moved to smartphones.
  • Hence, I do not consider it to be a valid selling point of the devices.
  • The launch of these devices is obviously a negative for Intel but it is worth remembering that every attempt to dislodge Intel to date has been a miserable failure.

 

Essential Products – Not essential.

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Andy Rubin still works for Google. 

  • Essential Products Inc has launched a series of products aimed at creating an ecosystem but none of them do anything or enable anything that is desperately new.
  • Consequently, the real beneficiary from another nice looking, easy to use phone will be Google whose ecosystem will be front and centre of the flagship device.
  • Essential Products Inc. was founded by Android creator Andy Rubin and has launched two devices and two accessories in a bid to stitch together the fragmented smart home space.

Phone

  • The Phone is similar to the Galaxy s8 although its screen is lower resolution, not waterproof and the battery has a slightly lower capacity.
  • Its one major area of differentiation is that the chassis is made from injected Titanium and has a ceramic back, potentially making it much more resistant to being dropped and scratched.
  • When it comes to screen protection, both are using Gorilla Glass 5 meaning that resistance to screen smashing should be about the same.
  • It also has two pins on the back (much like the Moto Mods concept) to which accessories can be attached.
  • The API for the accessory pins will be made available to developers to create their own devices to attach to the phone.
  • However, it has the price to match at $699 compared to $750 for the Galaxy s8 which is where I think the trouble will begin.
  • Phone is nice looking but I can’t see how it does anything that is not already available and outside of chassis resistance, Samsung gives more hardware bang for the buck.

Home

  • Essential products has also launched a voice activated home controller that aims to bring the smart home together in one place.
  • This is something that the smart home badly needs as the Alexa user experience is dire and hardly any products and services work with Google Home.
  • This product is different for two main reasons:
    • First: it is not designed to play music unlike other offerings although it does has a small speaker like the Echo Dot.
    • Instead, it is aimed at bringing all of the home’s devices together into a single place to manage them in an easy and fun to use way.
    • This device is also able to integrate these products such that smart devices can work together in new, fun and potentially very useful ways.
    • For example, when the timer goes off, the room’s lights can be flashed on and off rather than the generic alarm bell sound that everyone else uses.
    • Second: Home has a small screen on the top that is designed to enhance communication and interaction with the user.
    • RFM research (see here) has found that voice communication with machines is very far from being good enough to work effectively without a screen for output.
    • Consequently, this configuration makes a lot of sense.
  • The device runs its own OS called Ambient OS but Essential intends to open this up completely such that anyone can write functionality for the product.
  • This device takes a massive risk because 70% of the usage of devices in this category is as a Bluetooth speaker.
  • Consequently, there is a sizeable risk that this device will not appeal to the majority of users looking to buy something in this category.
  • Another big issue is the source of the AI that will be running Home as this will be the heart and soul of this product and the AI in Ambient OS currently looks as dubious as Bixby (see here).

Accessories.

  • Essential products has launched a charging plate for the Phone that connects through the two pins as well as a 360 degree camera.
  • I think that the charging plate is pretty useless as wireless charging is starting to come of age and inclusion of one of the standards in the device would have enabled a good user experience with products already present in the market and in users’ hands.
  • For example, because the Galaxy S8 supports Qi charging it will work with any compatible pad.

Take Home Message.

  • When I originally wrote on Essential Products (see here), my view was that it needed to produce must have devices and in that regard, I think it has failed.
  • The Phone is a Google Ecosystem device with a few nice features but less bells and whistles than the Samsung Galaxy S8 for almost the same price.
  • The Home has the most potential but it is taking an awful risk in that it is not addressing by far the biggest use case and has dubious AI.
  • It will also be dependent on third party developers meaning that it will need volume but even in its best case it is not going to out-ship Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.
  • Consequently, I remain unconvinced with regards to what is special and different about Essential Products and suspect that many consumer electronics buyers will feel the same way.
  • Differentiation in hardware is extremely difficult meaning that Andy Rubin needs to have some software tricks up his sleeve that he is yet to show.
  • Failing that, it seems that this company will end up enriching Google more than itself.

Google DeepMind – Pebble hanging.

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AlphaGo’s retirement shows that humans are still needed. 

  • AlphaGo is hanging up its pebbles after emphatically demonstrating that from here on, machines will be better Go players than humans.
  • This move also indicates that despite being one of the most advanced AI’s developed, it will still consume a huge amount of human resources to keep it running.
  • Last week AlphaGo crushed the world’s best player Ke Jie 3 to 0 in a convincing display that has left little doubt that human rule of this game is now over.
  • DeepMind, the Google owned developer of the AlphaGo, has decided to retire the algorithm and focus on more useful areas such as health, material sciences or clean energy.
  • This makes complete sense as DeepMind has proved its point with regards to its AI prowess but also since it published its methodology for AlphaGo, it has already been copied.
  • For example, Tencent is very keen to show the it has a strong presence in AI and recently its AI Go player called Jueyi was able to play to a very high standard.
  • However, on inspection it appears that Jueyi is little more than a carbon copy of AlphaGo, leading me to completely discount Jueyi as an example of Tencent’s prowess in AI (see here).
  • This is possible because AI is a co-operative field and DeepMind has published most of its methodology and results for the creation of AlphaGo in the scientific magazine Nature.
  • Most importantly, I think that the retirement of AlphaGo indicates that to keep it going would still require a lot of human time and effort.
  • AIs need to be constantly evolved to keep up with how the task for which they have been created is changing.
  • Although, AlphaGo was touted as an AIs that could do a lot of learning by itself, the reality was that much of its crucial learning was human supervised thereby consuming resources.
  • One of RFM three goals of AI (see here) is the creation of AIs that can build their own models and while there is plenty of evidence that researchers are working hard in this problem, results have been pretty scant to date.
  • If AlphaGo could be left to its own devices, there would have been little reason to retire it, but seeing as it will consume resources that can be productively deployed elsewhere, it makes no sense to keep it going.
  • This is yet another sign of how nascent AI really is as I think that many of the capabilities which the big ecosystem companies would have us believe are just around the corner, are actually years away.
  • I think translators, executive assistants, personal trainers and so on have plenty of time to find other lines of business.