Samsung – Edge dancer pt. II

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I think Bixby will struggle against Google Assistant.

  • Samsung has launched its offensive on the digital assistant market but I think it will still be dancing around the edge of the main act on the Galaxy s8: Google Assistant.
  • Samsung has announced that its new digital assistant, Bixby will be present on the Samsung Galaxy 8 with its own dedicated key on the side of the device.
  • Bixby promises to offer:
    • 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.
    • I suspect that it will do this using the hooks in Android that Google wrote to enable Google Assistant to do the same thing.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • If Bixby can truly fulfil the promises that it is making, then it will almost certainly will be better than Google Assistant.
  • However, I think that this is a very big ask given that RFM research has found that AI excellence to date has been a factor of time and data volume.
  • Viv was founded in 2012 and has no data from commercial products while Google has been crunching data for 20 years and has orders of magnitude more data than its nearest rival.
  • Consequently, I think that compared to this highly ambitious billing, Bixby is going to fall very far short of the promises that it has made.
  • Furthermore, Samsung’s delivery of Bixby is going to be hobbled by the 2014 agreement that it made with Google where it agreed not to compete in the ecosystem (see here).
  • This is why I suspect that Bixby has been relegated to a button on the side of the device whereas it will be Google Assistant that is sitting on the all-important home button.
  • As a result I think on the smartphone, Bixby will lose out to Google Assistant but on other devices it has some chance.
  • Samsung has a good portfolio of other electronic devices, which combined with its SmartThings offering, could allow Bixby to offer intelligent and intuitive control of other Samsung devices.
  • This could help Samsung to encourage greater ownership of Samsung devices across its range but again this will depend on how good Bixby really is.
  • Over 20% of all Google mobile searches are already done using voice meaning that many users are already conditioned to pressing the home button and asking as well as being used to Google’s quality of service.
  • Consequently, I think that the odds are heavily stacked against Samsung having much success with Bixby but as long as it can continue to outsell Huawei by more than 2 phones to 1, the profitability of its handset business should remain intact.
  • I still pretty cautious on Samsung as I am not convinced that the full fall-out from the Note 7 disaster has been felt in terms of market share, which is what makes the Galaxy s8 launch so important.
  • I prefer Baidu, Tencent and Microsoft.

 

Intel – Auto ambition

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Intel must break out of the mould that success has cast for it.

  • The acquisition of Mobileye by Intel highlights both Intel’s determination not to miss the next big trend as well as the concentration of Google’s competitors around HERE.
  • Intel will buy Mobileye for $15.4bn and merge it with its existing autonomous driving business to create one of the leading supplier of autonomous driving systems.
  • Intel already has a substantial effort in this space but adding Mobileye gives it a very strong position in visual sensors and most importantly, gives it direct access to 80% of the automotive market.
  • These doors were already open for Intel but I think that going in with Mobileye will ensure that the automotive industry takes it much more seriously.
  • I think that missing the boat in mobile has damaged Intel’s reputation to the point where some potential customers think that Intel has little to offer beyond chips for PCs and chips for servers.
  • In reality, this is very far from the truth but dispelling that impression is one of the most important tasks that Intel faces over the next few years.
  • The fact that Intel will soon become one of the top 4 shareholders of HERE will also help in improving its credibility in both location and automotive.
  • This is because HERE is the only realistic alternative to Google in high definition maps for autonomous driving which are now recognised as essential for a car to drive itself.
  • Even Mobileye, which early in 2016 was adamant that a HD map was not needed, has caved in and is now working with HERE to use its HD map in its systems.
  • In addition, other ecosystems such as Tencent, Baidu, Facebook and Amazon are also working with HERE for their location data, all of which will benefit Intel as it tries to break the mould that the market has set for it.
  • Mobileye represents that second largest acquisition in Intel’s history underlining the need for semiconductor companies to move into markets beyond consumer electronics and PCs.
  • This is why Qualcomm is buying NXP and why Samsung is buying Harmon.
  • Intel has now armed itself with the potential to offer an end to end solution for autonomous driving but the key to success will be how well it can execute on that offering.
  • History is not in Intel’s side but I detect a change in the way Intel thinks about its place in the world that just might allow it to break the x86 mould that history has cast for it.

Enterprise AI – IBM and Salesforce

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Microsoft to Facebook could be what IBM is to Salesforce.

  • Salesforce and IBM have announced a wide ranging partnership which will combine their two AI offerings but they will continue to sell the combined offering under two brands.
  • At the same time IBM has announced that it will move its CRM business to Salesforce, depriving Microsoft of a landmark customer.
  • IBM and Salesforce also stated that they already have about 5,000 clients common but virtually no overlap which means to me that the cross-selling opportunity is actually not that large.
  • Hence, I think that the main reason for the combination is that today AI requires both a lot of time and a lot of data and it is here where IBM and Salesforce can help each other out.
  • IBM’s Watson has been around for many years which makes it one of the most experienced.
  • Salesforce is a relative new comer to AI but I think that it is generating far more data than IBM is.
  • Consequently, it is not hard to see how using Watson’s brains and Einstein’s data could result in more effective AIs being trained in a much shorter period of time.
  • Compared to consumer, enterprise AI is much trickier as each corporation wants different things from AI and the data sets are quite specific to each company.
  • Hence, I can see more general algorithms being trained by the supplier which are then customised with the requirements and specific data set of specific customer companies.
  • The net result is that I can see a lot of sense in this tie up as both companies will be able to do what they are currently doing better without treading on each other’s two.
  • In the same vein, there may be some sense in Microsoft doing a similar deal with Facebook in consumer.
  • Facebook is sitting on the second largest data pool in the world but has no idea what do to with it while Microsoft has some history in AI, but its waning consumer ecosystem means that its data volumes in this area leave a lot to be desired.
  • Furthermore, Facebook and Microsoft do not really compete against each other anymore and are already co-operating on building an undersea cable (see here).
  • Consequently, a co-operation on AI could have significant benefits to both companies and would go quite some way to fixing the serious problem that Facebook has with AI (see here).
  • I continue to prefer Microsoft, Baidu and Tencent over Facebook.

Digital assistants – Man and dog

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Late-comers have very little chance

  • The latest craze to hit the mobile industry is digital assistants where every man and his dog is now building one to try and drive engagement through the ecosystem.
  • LINE is the latest entrant with its offering called Clova but just like everyone else, LINE is going to find that digital assistants are fiendishly difficult because they require top notch artificial intelligence to power them.
  • To make life even more difficult, digital assistants suffer from a chicken and egg problem (see here) where they need usage to improve because its with usage data that they can improve.
  • The problem is that no one will use them if they are not already very good meaning they will be unable to gather the data they need to get to level of quality where users will engage with them.
  • LINE is an instant messaging company that has done an excellent job of monetising messaging through the sale of stickers and games but needs to find other avenues to keep its growth growing.
  • The problem is that when I look at LINE, I see no AI competence to speak nor do I see any history of it working on AI.
  • The search engines are the leaders in AI, but they are not the leaders because they are the cleverest.
  • They are the leaders because they have doing it the longest.
  • This is why RFM thinks that Google Assistant and Baidu Duer are miles ahead of everything else that is being offered including Alexa, Siri and Cortana.
  • Now that Google Assistant is being rolled out onto every Android phone that has Marshmallow, Nougat and above, I think many of the others have very little chance at all.
  • Siri will continue to live on iOS devices but the real battle will be between Google and Amazon for the home speaker.
  • Here Google has a vastly superior product but Alexa is much better at controlling the smart home, albeit with an awful user experience.
  • This is because Amazon has done a great job at getting smart home developers on board whereas Google has been very late in even making the API available.
  • RFM estimates that Amazon has around 8m Alexa enabled devices in the hands of users whereas Google has just over 0.5m.
  • Consequently, Google is at risk of losing (see here) to Amazon but I think the shock of seeing itself wiped out at CES has shaken it from its stupor.
  • Consequently, I think that LINE, Huawei, Samsung Viv, JD.com Ding Dong, SK Tel Ding Dong, Sony and so on have very little chance and would be best served by doing a deal with one of strong ones rather than wasting shareholder’s money.

MWC Day 2/3 – Show barometer.

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What’s hot and what’s not at MWC.

VR / AR

  • Along with the number of drones, the number of VR units on the stands has fallen substantially compared to last year.
  • I think that this is because last year, VR was a novelty that everyone wanted to try but interest has now waned as very little has changed in 12 months.
  • VR has hugely disappointed in terms of user adoption and there is very little that is new and exciting is being offered on the stands.
  • I think that this is symptomatic of the limitations that plague VR (see here) and until these limitations are properly addressed, VR will continue to disappoint.
  • AR has exactly the same problems with the exception that it has plenty of applications in the enterprise where the content, comfort and price limitations are less important.
  • Consequently, those AR companies that are focused on productivity applications are likely to fare better in the short term.
  • I would steer clear of any investment dependent on VR for now, and HTC in particular.

Jolla – Last man standing

  • Jolla has shown remarkable resilience to the difficult conditions that have caused its competitors to fall by the wayside.
  • I think Sailfish is now the only really viable alternative to Android.
  • Furthermore, the market environment has become far more favourable with both Russia and China far less willing to allow US controlled software into their networks than they were 3 or 4 years ago.
  • Russia has certified Sailfish as an approved OS for state owned enterprises which Jolla is now actively trying to leverage into China.
  • There, it has announced the creation of the Sailfish China Consortium which aims to take the core Sailfish OS, and adapt it for Chinese enterprises that wish to have software over which they have full control.
  • The consortium has three Chinese entities that have expressed an interest in joining.
  • It has also got some interest from Latin America but it is still quite early days.
  • This creates credibility for Jolla and raises the potential for Jolla to get some revenues in the door in order to keep the ship afloat.
  • It is still early days but the dark days of 2016, when the ship looked like it was holed below the waterline look to be behind it.

Artificial Intelligence

  • Artificial Intelligence has made a big appearance at the show this year but still most companies demonstrating it do not seem to have absorbed what AI really is.
  • There are many robots from Asia that are billed as AI but can only respond to a series of pre-programmed responses.
  • In a similar vein, many companies are touting their service or app as being driven by AI but when one looks under the hood one finds little more than advanced statistics.
  • AI is currently the realm of the big companies who can afford the very high salaries that AI engineers can now demand and have the balance sheet to continue investing for a long period of time.
  • The exception is tiny start-ups that have come out of universities but already these companies are very hot property.
  • I have no doubt that AI will be a major differentiator and driver of the digital mobile ecosystem over the next 10 years, but developing AI is still an incredibly difficult, time consuming and expensive task.
  • In AI, I continue to look for those that are developing:
    • Firstly: the ability to train AIs using much less data than today,
    • Secondly: the creation of an AI that can take what it has learned from one task and apply it to another and
    • Thirdly: the creation of AI that can build its own models rather than relying on humans to do it.
  • I consider fixing these problems as essential to fulfilling the dreams that so many companies effusively discuss but have no idea how they will fulfill. .

Google vs. Amazon – Homefront.

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This could be a repeat of VHS vs. Betamax. 

  • Google is adding functionality to allow Google Assistant to compete more directly with Amazon’s Alexa, but what it really needs is to offer love and support to developers of smart home products.
  • Google’s failure to do this was visible on every stand at CES where a smart home product was to be found as they all will work with Amazon Alexa
  • Only a very tiny fraction will work with Google Assistant.
  • Google’s shopping functionality has involved singing a up a series of retailers such as Costco, PetSmart and Target to link their online ordering systems with Google Home such that a similar (to Amazon) shopping experience can be offered through the device.
  • Measuring up to Amazon in this category is going to be tough because Amazon has one system through which millions of products are available globally, whereas Google will have to sign up lots of retailers in every locality where it aims to have this service available.
  • However, when it comes to almost all of the other features, Google Assistant is capable of offering a vastly superior user performance than Amazon Alexa.
  • This is because the AI that powers Google Assistant is top of the class while Alexa’s is second rate at best.
  • Furthermore, the Google Home speaker is $50 cheaper than the Amazon Echo and in my opinion, a nicer looking product.
  • However, where Google falls over is home automation and here Amazon is currently ruling the roost.
  • RFM research has found that device developers receive plenty of love and support from Amazon which combined with the fact that there are now 8m devices in the hands of users drives them to make their products work with Alexa right from launch.
  • This is despite the fact that using many of these products with Amazon Alexa is a frustrating and fragmented experience.
  • A good example of this is Plex, which recently enabled an Alexa skill so that the user could control the Plex player using Alexa.
  • However, because Alexa lacks the brains to make service intuitive, the user experience is so bad that one tries to control Plex with Alexa once and quickly returns to the remote control.
  • In contrast to Amazon, many developers find that Google is difficult to work with and some did not even know who to at Google to call to enable Google Home with their product.
  • This is the opportunity for Google Home even though it only has around 0.5m devices in the market today.
  • I think Google needs to ramp up its love and support for developers immediately and thinking that they will just turn up at Google i/o is not nearly good enough.
  • There is a whole segment (home) of the digital ecosystem up for grabs right now and I still maintain that this is Google’s to lose.
  • However, at the moment it is Amazon that is blazing the trail and if Alexa makes it into the majority of households before Google pulls its finger out then the game will, in all probability, already be lost.
  • This will not be the first time that an inferior product will have won the day and I think there are valuable lessons that Google can learn from studying this history.
  • From an investment perspective, I continue to not really like either Alphabet or Amazon preferring Baidu, Tencent and Microsoft.

Huawei & Baidu – Bodies and time.

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I think Huawei would be better off doing a deal with Baidu.  

  • It looks like Huawei has decided to build its own Chinese language digital assistant to cement its recent gains at home but no matter how many bodies it throws at this task, its lack of the core raw materials (data and history) is going to cause problems.
  • The digital assistant is the first real Digital Life service that is entirely dependent on artificial intelligence for its functionality which creates a huge challenge.
  • Furthermore, in order to evolve, all digital assistants need to generate usage data which can then be used to improve the algorithms that power the user experience.
  • Even the best assistants out there today are hugely limited in terms of what they can understand and what they can achieve.
  • For example, to accurately answer questions around exchange rates, the assistant has to be taught what these are, how they work and in what form the questions are likely to be asked.
  • For example, asking Amazon Alexa how many US Dollars there are to the GB Pound provides the correct answer but ask for UAE Dirhams to the Pound or Dollar and Alexa falls silent.
  • Only Google Assistant was able to provide the right answer due to the combination of the best search system and the best AI available.
  • In effect RFM research has found that Alexa, Cortana and Siri have been programmed with a fairly narrow set of capabilities and the AI and data set is simply not there to support the service when something unexpected is requested.
  • Fortunately for Huawei, Google is not present in China but at home it will be facing an opponent that is almost as good: Baidu.
  • Baidu dominates the search market in China and has been working on its AI algorithms for nearly 20 years.
  • Furthermore, Baidu has already launched its own digital assistant called Duer which I suspect will be significantly better than anything that Huawei is likely to produce in the medium term.
  • However in China, none of the ecosystems are preinstalled devices meaning that Baidu will be unable to install Duer on the device and set it as default.
  • RFM research (see here) has found that this could confer a substantial advantage to any ecosystem as strategy is virtually absent in the Chinese market outside of the app stores.
  • Huawei as a handset maker will have this advantage and so I can see a scenario where users try its digital assistant but unless it is superb they will quickly switch to Duer.
  • This is where I think Huawei will have difficulties as even though it has 100 engineers working on this product, it is starting from scratch and building decent AI takes years and requires vast quantities of data.
  • Hence, I think it unlikely that Huawei will ever come up with a product as good as Baidu’s.
  • This is where I think Huawei and Baidu could help each other as Baidu has the product and Huawei a mechanism for distributing it.
  • A deal where Huawei installs Duer at the factory and sets it by default in return for being paid TAC (traffic acquisition cost) makes more sense to me than paying 100 engineers to come up with an inferior product.
  • This will not help Huawei’s ambitions to develop an ecosystem and generate better profitability, but TAC revenue from Baidu would certainly help improve margins.
  • Given its recent market share gains at home, the time to negotiate this deal is now rather than when its own assistant has tried and failed.
  • Although Baidu looks like it may be backing out of its ecosystem, the short-term improvement in its financials that cost cuts could generate could give the shares a lift (see here).
  • This is why it is still on my preferred list along with Tencent and Microsoft.

Facebook – Brainless video.

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Focusing on video first makes complete sense.

  • I think that Facebook is making the right choice in targeting video first as it already has traction and video-based services tend to have the lowest requirements for artificial intelligence to make them easy, fun and useful.
  • With the launch of a TV app being just the latest move Facebook has made in video, it is increasingly clear that Media Consumption is Facebook’s number 1 priority for 2017.
  • The TV app that is being launched is very simple in that it makes it easy for a user that does not have time to watch videos on Facebook during the day to easily to so at night on a larger screen.
  • This should enable a better video experience and begin to spread engagement across other devices but it will come with the added complication of multiple resolutions and bit rates.
  • On a mobile device the screen is small which means that lower resolution videos and bit rates are acceptable, but once these are played on a larger screen, their shortcomings quickly become obvious.
  • This move into TV comes hot on the heels of the addition of a tab at the bottom of the Facebook app which links to the top trending videos as well as videos that Facebook thinks that the user might like.
  • The TV app will initially be available on Amazon TV and Apple TV but I expect that it will quickly spread to Xbox, PlayStation and the other streaming TV devices that are available.
  • The one place I don’t expect to find it is Chromecast as Facebook’s video aspirations are clearly a challenge to YouTube.
  • Of the three new areas of Digital Life (Gaming, Media Consumption and Search) that I see Facebook targeting (see here), going for video first makes complete sense.
  • This is because Facebook already has a lot of traction in this space and also because it is the least demanding in terms of requiring intelligent automation.
  • The total number of video items that are present is very low compared to other things like music or searches and knowing who posted the video is a good indicator of its content and who will like it.
  • I continue to see Facebook as the laggard in AI (see here) and targeting video is sensible as it gives it more time to improve its AI before having to apply it to more difficult tasks.
  • Furthermore, the fact that video is a fast growing, but likely soon to mature, medium for digital advertising also means that the time to really address it is now.
  • I see the app on the TV as just the beginning and would not be surprised to see this being followed up with premium content taking it into the realm of Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Amazon Prime.
  • That being said, I don’t think that Facebook’s offering in Media Consumption is anything like mature and so I think it will be some time yet before it becomes a real destination like YouTube.
  • Consequently, I still see a slow period of revenue expansion while its new strategies mature before revenues take off again.
  • As this reality sinks in, I think the valuation could unwind somewhat providing a better opportunity than now to invest for the long-term.

Facebook vs. Alphabet – Worlds apart

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Facebook and Alphabet are worlds apart when it comes to AI.

  • While Google is pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence forward, Facebook is making excuses for its inability to control hate speech highlighting once again who is the leader and who the laggard in the field of AI.
  • Google has demonstrated a system that it has built that allows very poor digital photos to be enhanced to reveal details of the photograph that have been completely obliterated.
  • In a similar fashion to the way that Deep Mind built AlphaGo, Google has combined two neural networks to produce the algorithm capable of enhancing low resolution images.
  • One of these networks uses its knowledge of certain images to add details while the other effectively reverse engineers the process by which the image was compressed into its current form.
  • The result is quite startling but it is worth remembering that the machine knew what the original image was a face or a bedroom but no more than that.
  • Despite Google’s claim that this was an experiment only with no plans to put it to use, I think that the uses for this are endless.
  • This technology would be useful in upscaling video to high resolution screens as well as being highly applicable to law enforcement, security, military, medical and so and so forth.
  • Hence, I think that this technology or an off shoot of it is likely to find its way into Google’s products and services in the medium term.
  • To me this is another demonstration of how well Google leads the field of artificial intelligence and is the closest to using it to enhance the richness and quality of its Digital Life services.
  • This will be a huge benefit to Google as better services will drive more usage through its networks giving it a greater opportunity to monetise.
  • However, this is also the opportunity that Facebook is chasing but when it comes to making its Digital Life services deeper and richer with intelligence, I see it being miles behind.
  • The problems that it has had with fake news, idiotic bots and Facebook M, all support my view that when Facebook tries to automate its systems, things always go wrong.
  • The problem is not that Facebook does not have the right people but simply that it has not been working on artificial intelligence for nearly long enough.
  • RFM research has found that time is the single most important element when it comes to having a solid foundation of intelligent algorithms upon which to build intelligent services (see here).
  • In contrast, Google has been working on this for over 20 years and is still innovating as fast as it can.
  • Facebook’s most recent pronouncement by one of its lawyers that it is unable to control hate speech on its platform due to the scale of data that is posted every day, is just another data point highlighting the problem.
  • Facebook has to get this under control otherwise I fear that it will fail to really expand beyond social networking and instant messaging as the offerings from its rivals will be more useful and more fun.
  • Facebook has some time to get to grips with this problem but I still think it will have to resort to making a series of acquisitions in order to catch up with its rivals.
  • I remain uninterested in both Alphabet and Facebook at this time preferring Microsoft, Tencent and Baidu with Apple for income based investors.

Essential Products Inc. – What’s essential?

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Something must-have has to come out of the bag at launch. 

  • Essential Products Inc. is the latest in a long line of protagonists which is aiming to have a crack at the high end of the handset market and while it knows where it should compete, I am not convinced that it will be able to.
  • Essential is a start-up led by Andy Rubin who was the founder of the company that Google very successfully turned into Android.
  • Essential aims to compete in high-end consumer electronics by offering differentiation if the following areas:
    • First: Hardware. In any ecosystem strategy today, the most important device is the smartphone as this is where users spend almost all of their time.
    • Essential aims to compete here by offering a device which has a screen with no or almost no bezel.
    • Xiaomi has already done this quite effectively with the Mi Mix but this currently only available in China.
    • This is also the strategy, that I think Apple might use in the iPhone 8 but Essential should be able to launch well ahead of this.
    • Second: Artificial Intelligence. RFM research has recently identified AI as the 8th Law of Robotics concluding that AI is likely to have meaningful impact on the quality, and hence appeal, of Digital Life services in the medium term.
    • However, RFM research has also concluded that good AI requires a huge amount of time and a vast trove of user data in order to develop.
    • I seriously doubt whether Essential has either of these characteristics and while it may try to develop intelligent services, I suspect that it will struggle.
    • This is especially the case as its services are likely to end up competing with Google’s own which Essential will be obliged to implement on its smartphone and to set as default.
    • Third: Mods. Essential’s patent filings include a design for a proprietary magnetic charging port that can also be used as an expansion slot to add hardware functionality to devices.
    • In this day and age, unless you are Apple, proprietary charging ports are a big no-no and may be an indicator of the inexperience that Essential has in making smartphones.
    • Furthermore, the best mod on the market is currently made by Motorola which already has some volume and a reasonable range of third party brands making devices to connect to it.
    • All other modularity plays have either already failed or are struggling for relevance.
    • I struggle to see how Essential is much different.
    • Fourth: Cross device: Essential intends to produce a series of devices that will work together to deliver its proposition to users in all aspects of their Digital Lives.
    • This is also a vision pursued by Samsung, Xiaomi, Apple, Microsoft among others, and it does make some sense.
    • This is because if devices from one manufacturer all work together seamlessly, it provides a reason for users to buy all of their other devices from the same manufacturer.
    • This is one way of generating device preference without having an ecosystem and hence of earning better than commodity returns.
    • The problem is that getting all of these devices to work seamless together is fiendishly difficult and even the mighty Apple has not really got it right.
    • Microsoft does a reasonable job but there are still glaring holes in the experience that it offers.
    • Combined with this difficulty, will come the capital intensity of having to design a series of device types all at the same time which could easily be beyond the financial resources of Essential Products Inc.
  • With the segment that Essential chosen to compete in, there is very little scope to compete in the ecosystem as it will invariably have to support Google.
  • This is because its target users whether they are on iOS or Android will already have a meaningful part of their Digital Lives invested in Google are unlikely to want to switch.
  • Consequently, I remain uncertain as to what is special or different with regards to Essential Products Inc.
  • I am hoping to be well informed when it launches its proposition at some point during H1 2017.