Tag Archives: technology

The New Baseline

All the colours of the candy rainbow.
Lickable shiny. Just … keep your tongue away from mine, okay?

The announcement this week of Apple’s new range of iPhones has generated some new and some standard complaints from pundits. For the new top-of-the-line iPhone 5s, the complaint is that it’s not all that different from the previous model. For the new midrange 5c, it’s that it isn’t a cheap iPhone. Oh, and the colourful plastic shells look tacky.

To deal briefly with the 5s: yes, it’s a speedbump. Everyone saw that one coming. However, initial reports suggest that it’s a substantial speed bump, and there are new and useful features in the form of an improved camera, an intriguing standalone motion detection chip and the much-discussed fingerprint sensor. Perhaps most importantly, it shifts the iPhone towards 64-bit computing, providing some decent futureproofing.

I’m not going to comment on the looks of the 5c until I have one in hand, other than to note that those who have handled them seem to have come away impressed. The issue of whether the 5c is too expensive to work for Apple as a “cheap” iPhone is the more interesting question, and it’s one where most critics (including the perennially misled markets) seem to have missed the point.

For all the talk of a “cheap” iPhone prior to the arrival of the 5c, Apple doesn’t do cheap, certainly not since the second coming of Steve Jobs. Its products tend to fit between “premium” and “affordable luxury”, depending on how you view those scales. In that sense, the 5c has been positioned as a “midrange” iPhone, fitting just beneath the new 5s.

Except that doesn’t tell the entire story either. Up until now, Apple had only one model of iPhone: the new iPhone. (It also sold last year’s new iPhone, and the previous year’s new iPhone too.) Selling older iPhones alongside the new model allowed Apple to leverage investments in manufacturing and economies of scale, but those old iPhones always felt a little second-hand.

With the release of the 5s, Apple has doubled the breadth of its new-iPhone product line in a stroke, giving consumers a choice much more appealing than one between the “new shiny” and the “old shiny that you can actually afford.” Relatively expensive the 5c may be, but to balance that it’s still a fully capable smartphone, in a brand new form factor that offers a splash of colour never seen on iPhones before.

Yes, an old-new iPhone still remains on the product list, in the form of the 4s, but I’m not sure that’ll last even a year. With two lines of iPhones above it, both using the iPhone 5 form factor and manufacturing lines, Apple is going to be shifting as quickly as it can to focus solely on these products. Improved manufacturing techniques and greater output lead to economies of scale and enhanced margins for Apple—or lower prices.

Because that’s really the thing with the 5s. Once the 4s goes, it becomes the new baseline for the iPhone line, and while it will never be “cheap”, I can see Apple cutting its price by €100 or so in about six months, making it even more price-competitive with Android smartphones.

After that, Apple suddenly has two product lines to work with—the “top-end iPhone” for those who want the latest and best iOS device, and the “iPhone for everybody” who wants an iPhone device but doesn’t want to break the bank for the latest and greatest.

What the 5c means is that the latter group no longer has to see themselves as buying last year’s cast-offs. The 5c isn’t about what it is now, as much as it might sell on its release. It’s about what it’s going to be a year from now. Because Apple always plays the long game, and it’s just shifted the iPhone baseline.

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Beauty, not Brains?

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Hairy arm: model’s own.

Pebble Smartwatch, $150, iOS and Android

As people smarter than myself have already pointed out, taking part in a Kickstarter funding campaign is like buying a present for your future self: by the time it arrives, you’ll have forgotten that you paid for it, and be pleasantly surprised that it showed up at all. That and the feeling of actually participating in a product rather than just buying it are all the reasons you need to know why Kickstarter is still huge.

To date, I’ve participated in five Kickstarter campaigns, mostly for small amounts. In each case, it was clear that I’d be waiting a long time for the results, something I didn’t mind at all. Well, in recent months my currently impoverished self has been reaping the benefits of my affluent former self, in that two of the results have shown up (in one form or another).

My biggest Kickstarter contribution to date was for one of the site’s most famous campaigns: the Pebble ePaper watch. A customisable bluetooth watch for Android and iOS phones, the Pebble raised $10,000,000 through Kickstarter, far above an original funding goal of $100,000. Due to the fact that I opted for a grey watchface rather than black, red or white, mine took a little longer to arrive than it might have otherwise, but a few weeks ago I wrested it from the hands of Irish customs and onto my wrist.

For the first wave in a new breed of smartwatches (Kickstarter is already hosting its more ambitious next-gen brethren), the Pebble has a definite retro, plastic feel to it. Which is not to say it’s not solid: the plastic case keeps it watertight while allowing charging through a USB lead and keeps the body light despite the its bulk.

The ePaper screen is basic but readable, with a motion-activated backlight, and can be modified with a multitude of watchfaces. Figuring out how to do so can be a bit of a chore: the online setup process is straighforward enough, but for more expansive options, you’ll need to use your phone’s web browser and the app that manages the Pebble itself.

In use, the Pebble is a handy accessory. I often don’t hear my phone when it’s in my pocket, but I can feel the Pebble’s vibration on my wrist without a problem, alerting me to calls, texts and mails. I can even read the mails and texts, or at least the first few lines of the mails, on the Pebble’s screen, though this only works in the moment—there’s no way to browse older messages.

At the time of buying the Pebble, my main reason was to have it as a running accessory. I’d just started recording my running with RunKeeper, and the idea of having a watch that would tell me my pace and distance covered sounded pretty good. Well, mission accomplished on that front: the Pebble keeps updated throughout a run

There are only three issues with the Pebble, all of them technology based. The first is that it drops the bluetooth connection occasionally. This is an issue because the Pebble isn’t a smartwatch. It’s a terminal for your smartphone, and lacking the connection, it can tell you the time in various pretty ways but not much else (there are game apps for the Pebble, but the chunky buttons don’t allow for sensitive control).

The second issue is battery life. I’ve averaged around five days so far, which isn’t too bad for a bluetooth device, but the phone software doesn’t do a great job of indicating when you need to recharge, so there have been a couple of times when I’ve looked at my wrist and found a blank screen looking at me. Annoying, but some of those multitude of watchfaces promise to fix that issue.

The last issue is probably the biggest one for Pebble: this is a first-generation device, cute and functional, but staring down the barrel of technological innovation. As stated, Kickstarter is already hosting second-generation devices, and Apple and Samsung look set to enter the space before long, bringing all their engineering know-how to the field. When that happens, Pebble’s retro looks may become all-too apt.

For now though, I’m wearing a watch for the first time in a couple of years, and I’m more than happy with the present my former self bought me. Runkeeper functionality, message and call alerts and a variety of funky watchfaces. It may not be smart, but it sure is handy.