Last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the last big technology event to take place before Covid hit. The following month, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was cancelled, heralding in a year in which the traditional platforms for product announcements disappeared. That hasn’t stopped new products appearing, not will it; the design lead times for phones and TVs are at least two to three years, so even next Christmas’ products will have started off before Covid. The design departments for major high-tech companies are a bit like supertankers – they’re difficult to stop or change direction. Where the absence of exhibitions may be more keenly felt is within smaller companies and startups, who typically use these events to gauge interest in their products and visions.
As the UK moves towards a more major lockdown, it’s becoming apparent that this will not be a short-term disruption. Imperial College have published their modelling plans, on which the UK strategy has been based and it’s clear there is no quick fix. The Coronacrisis looks set to be with us for the next twelve to eighteen months.
It’s a hundred years since the Spanish flu pandemic, for which society had no medical solution. The result was that millions died around the world, as the best that medical science could do was to alleviate the symptoms of the dying. Since then, medical science has progressed to the point that people expect it to save them this time around. The unfortunate truth is that we have no drugs or vaccine available and it will probably be eighteen months before we do. Until then, all we can do to limit the spread is suppression, i.e. keeping people apart to reduce the number of infections.
Where we have made advances is in the technology to treat those who progress to secondary infections which are resulting in the death toll. Again, we have no pharmaceutical cure, but we can use ventilators on Intensive Care Units which can save many patients. Not all, as anyone with underlying health issues is likely to succumb. The following chart, based on US stats from Statista shows the percentage of patients who need intensive care after hospital admission, broken down for different age ranges. It also shows the mortality rate. If you are young or healthy, ventilators have a big effect on survival rate.
Apple’s big Special Event last week was marked by a noticeable lack of excitement in the days running up to it. A few years back, everyone would have been on tenterhooks, but it seems that it’s increasingly becoming a so-what event. If you use Google Trends to search for the word iPhone, you’ll find that it used to peak around these events, but they’re no longer generating the level of interest that they used to. If you filter those searches down to news mentions, it’s apparent that these Apple events are not really news anymore.
It should have been a good Christmas for Apple. Millions of happy Apple fans were likely to unwrap one of their products on Christmas Day. But just a week before, Apple got a present it really didn’t want. The news broke that they had been releasing updates which slowed down the performance of older phones.
The reason for doing this is that as lithium batteries age, their performance gets worse. If you keep on putting the same demands on them, there is a double risk – they may degrade faster and need to be replaced, or in an extreme case, they could fail, possibly disastrously. So, there is a definite logic in trying to limit those demands to keep the user physically safe.
However, it’s a difficult concept to sell. Consider if an automotive manufacturer were to do the same thing with your electric car. If you bought the car on the basis that it had a top speed of 80 mph and a range of 200 miles, you’d probably be rather irate if, twelve months later, you discovered that they’d decided to restrict the top speed to 35mph, in order to ensure that the range didn’t fall below 200 miles. But that’s what the headline claims against Apple are implying – that unbeknownst to the users, software updates are deliberately throttling back the phone’s performance. The electric car example above is not a valid comparison, but to understand why requires a level of technical knowledge that few journalists or lawyers possess. They’d rather cast Apple as the villain, turning this into an Applegate conspiracy. Viva fake news.
Last week, with a fair degree of razzmatazz and press coverage, Microsoft launched a smart thermostat called Glas. Except it wasn’t really Microsoft’s. And whilst it might be pretty, it certainly isn’t smart.
If you look behind the promotional video, it’s clear that it’s not really driven by any desire to be smart. It’s come out of Johnson Controls, who have been designing dumb thermostats for many years, and it perpetuates the dumb elements of control, which means it won’t save users as much money as a proper smart device could. However, small things like the truth didn’t stop them headlining it as “reinventing the thermostat”. I suspect the only reason that Glas exists is that Microsoft are currently in a poor third place in getting their Cortana speech recognition capability into the market. I quite like Cortana, but compared with Amazon and Google’s success in persuading consumer product manufacturers to support their offerings, Cortana is definitely an also-ran.
What you see if you watch the video carefully is an outdated control system, a user interface that was probably inspired by Bishop Berkeley and an attempt to break the second law of thermodynamics. All of which details appear to have slipped past the rose-tinted editorial glasses of the technology press, who have just said “Shiny – want one!”. So let me explain why it’s another smart opportunity missed.
It’s almost four years since I coined the word “hearables”, so it was pleasant to see it displayed as a headline product category on NXP’s stand at the Mobile World Congress last week, confirming that hearables are taking off as a serious market sector. It was also encouraging to see the range of products that they had on display which are already available, or close to being available to buy, including models from Bragi, Doppler, Earin, Nuheara, MyManu and Jabra.
Most of these still come from start-up companies. With the exception of Jabra and Apple, the majority of companies shipping hearable products started off life through crowdfunding campaigns. I’ve been tracking many of these, and was fascinated to see that at the end of February, the overall total that has been raised for hearable devices passed the $50 million dollar mark, with backers placing orders for over 300,000 products. With major headphone brands starting to weigh in, it’s a good indication that hearables are topping the list of wearable products that consumers want to buy. That’s in stark contrast to other wearable products, where the demise of Pebble and continuing layoffs at Fitbit and GoPro suggest that the initial customer enthusiasm has not translated into a compelling desire to continue wearing them.