The mobile industry loves hype. Now that 4G phones have reached the market, suppliers are keen to promote the next dollop of “jam tomorrow” by offering the world 5G – something that’s still rather nebulous, but as always in this industry, allegedly better than what we have today. Most users have still to experience 4G, but that’s par for the course. The industry loves something new, preferably with a bigger number. It begs the question of whether we need it, and even what it is? To try and answer these questions it’s instructive to look back at the history of mobile to see just what the “G”s mean.
A few months ago I wrote a report about the wearables market. At the time I was sceptical about the future of the smart watch. That was before the Apple Watch announcement. I didn’t think I’d find it very interesting. Now I’ve seen it, I’ve changed my mind – I think they’ve redefined the market by turning the concept of the smart watch on its head.
The prospect of Apple owning the wrist galvanised many other manufacturers into pre-empting them, of which the most notable contenders were Pebble, Motorola, Asus and Samsung. All want to seize the wrist, in what might be described as a case of carpus diem. Many in the industry want to believe in these products, predicting massive sales volumes and revenue. Few have bothered to ask customers what they want. Two who did were Kantor and Apple Insider. Kantor’s panel suggested up to 60% of iPhone owners would buy one, Apple Insider found “as many as 4%” of iPhone users would be early adopters, translating that finding into an estimate of sales between 5 and 10 million units in the first twelve months”. So what’s the truth?
When the Apple Watch announcement came, it only generated a muted whimper of excitement. It wasn’t what most commentators had expected. That was hardly surprising given the level of hysteria which had been whipped up prior to its unveiling. Whilst a lot of subsequent reviews have complained about its lack of functionality I found that I warmed to it, or at least its potential. It’s not just clever packaging of technology, which is what exemplifies the Asus, Motorola and Samsung watches – it’s a redefinition of the purpose of the wrist. I think it may be more of a game-changer than has been reported, but not necessarily in a positive way for the rest of the smart watch industry.
Today Apple announced their purchase of Beats Electronics for a spectacular $3 billion. It’s left many industry analysts scratching their heads. Although a little shy of the original, anticipated $3.2 billion price tag, it’s surprising how close it is to the amount that Google paid to acquire Nest earlier in the year. So what’s behind the new $3 billion price point?
There are some interesting similarities in the two acquired companies. Both were started for similar reasons – their founders were exasperated with the quality of products which were currently on the market. In the case of Nest, Tony Fadell wanted to design thermostats and other household products which were intuitive and worked, whereas at Beats, Dr Dre was exasperated that expensive music players and smartphones shipped with low quality earbuds which cost less than $1 and failed to reproduce the music. (The Register has a nice opinion piece on whether they succeeded.) Both companies have produced high profile, high end products to address these deficiencies along with very high media profiles for themselves and their founders in industries which have historically had little branding.
Last month, Nest Labs managed to haul in a further $80 million of VC funding for their Internet-connected smart thermostat. That’s good news for Nest, but makes one wonder what the investors are hoping to get back? There is no questioning its success in the US. Nest claim to be shipping about 40,000 thermostats every month. That equates to around 5% of the 10 million a year US market, which has historically been dominated by Emerson, Honeywell, Johnson and Lux. But how much of the other 95% can they win?
A basic programmable thermostat in the US costs under $20, not the $250 price tag of the Nest. As such, Nest appeals to those who like buying technology and form rather than function – it’s no surprise that it sells as an accessory in Apple Stores in the US. It has all of the glamour and pizzazz of Apple products, but with a worrying limitation – it is just hardware – there’s no service model. In other words, it’s a bit like an iPhone without an App Store.
There is no doubt that it’s a lot easier to use than most conventional thermostats, which seem to be exclusively designed by engineers who failed their user experience courses and want to get their own back on society. However, there are plenty of alternatives which are cheaper, just as easy to use and which work outside the US. And there have been for the last few decades. But these alternatives have historically failed to sell. That’s changed, but this new generation of connected wireless thermostats has an Achilles’ heel – they need someone to support the web service for their life, which may be ten to twenty years, and I can’t see where that’s been factored in. So is Nest going to feather the pockets of its VC backers, or make an omelette out of their investments?
One of the more interesting recent announcements in the wireless space has been the appointment of two new companies to the Board of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) – Apple and Nordic Semiconductor.
Neither are immediately obvious candidates, which is what makes this interesting. But taking a deeper look their appointment could highlight some interesting changes in where Bluetooth is going.
There’s trouble in Mobile Earth. Or so it appeared at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week. Darkness is spreading throughout the networks, as the twin towers of Apple and Android continue to suck application developers into their empires. But help was at hand. Step forward those plucky little hobbits at the GSM Association. Prior to the Conference their ivory burrow had been echoing to the sound of furry feet as they hastily put together the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) to thwart those twin evils of the cellular world.
ARPU is precious. Brand is even more precious. As without that, you’re just a data pipe. But both are fading. The only thing that consumers appear to value these days is downloadable apps, and lots of them. Last year at MWC, every operator was busy launching their own Apps Store. A year on, the cellular shires have realised fighting alone didn’t work, so they’ve banded together to pit their combined forces against the dark empire.
It’s an odd alliance, and probably one that is doomed to failure.