Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Keeping up with the Joneses: the cars of Mobile World Congress

Connected vehicles are a big theme again this year at Mobile World Congress, with many operators and OEMs rolling out their automotive partners on their stands. Since all of them are secretly just trying to keep up with the Joneses, I thought it might be entertaining to engage in a game of AutoTelco Top Trumps...

Typically in this game a Ford Focus would score pretty low down the pecking order. In this case, however, Ford score big points for actually making theirs. Plus, they brought an electric one and that has enormous torque. And a mediocre app. So there.

Next up AT&T, who, being wealthy Americans brought not one, not two, but three VeeHicles to the Congress. Their all American Cadillac CTS and electric ETS were rendered anonymous by a mighty Audi S7. 'It's not electric' said the demonstrator, 'it's plugged in to save the battery'. Bonus points to AT&T for surrounding the ETS with Virtual Reality headsets: another must have stand item in 2015.

China Mobile only managed a solitary Cadillac ATS on their booth. The lonely Caddy was the poverty-spec 3.6 too, scoring nearly no points. Envious glances must have been cast across to AT&T...

...and to Vodafone, who rolled in a white Porsche Panamera e-Hybrid. Flair... But I think Guards Red would have been more appropriate so no victory for Vodafone. Soz. Close but no cigar for Qualcomm, who scored massive points for the Maserati... But it runs QNX so I'm not going for that, nor LG's Audi RS5 convertible, complete with obscene red detailing. The only telco bit is the key though. Fail.

In the end, I was totally disappointed by AutoTelco Top Trumps. I only saw one thing that was remotely compelling: T-Mobile's partnership with BMW and a publisher, which uses tablets in car to create an experience similar to the entertainment system on an aeroplane. It's a simple, fun navigation experience with lots of child-friendly features like a virtual dashboard that lets the kids see how fast the car is going, where it is and whether they're nearly there yet. So the unlikely winner of AutoTelco Top Trumps is T-Mobile.

Well done to them. 

And of course, this is a competition and we need a loser. And that loser is definitely Samsung. Bad enough that their connected Seat appeared to have no obvious Samsung tech in it, but it also committed the cardinal sin of being accompanied by a showroom specifications board listing one of the key features of their connected vehicle as: "chromed roof rails". Those Joneses have definitely been kept up with.

More cars of MWC:

Monday, 2 March 2015

Bikes?? What the £&@# are you doing, Ford?

Ford is one of the many auto companies creating innovation centres that develop digital experiences around what are very industrial economy (and very disrupted products). They have three and their stand at Mobile World Congress showcased some of the fruits of their endeavours.

Most conventional is an all electric Ford Focus that can sync with a mobile app, which gives the user a modicum of personalisation over the vehicle. You've seen it before. Ford's isn't the best. It isn't the worst. Blah.

Then there's an electric bicycle designed with Dahon. This is supposed to be a range extension product that enables commuters to make a choice of methods of commuting based on traffic conditions, weather, lifestyle etc... There's a pointless app for the cycles lights, turn signals etc... Clearly none of them have ever ridden a bike as poking at tiny buttons while in the saddle is a bit of a dangerous idea!

Finally and most interesting is a project being run out of their Palo Alto centre that measures the routes that cyclists take through cities as well as the prevailing weather conditions. The idea is to add that mapping data to navigation systems in order to enable people to make better choices about their mode of transport. I also suggested that it would be useful contextual data to feed into self-driving vehicles so that they know to leave extra room for cyclists on days when there are likely to be a lot of people commuting that way, but be less attentive on rainy days. I was met with a blank look, so maybe not!

In general I had a really nice time at Ford. The people were lovely. But I also asked several times why they were doing this. And no one seemed to know. Strava and Garmin know far more about cycle routes than Ford can with their little experiment. Weather data is available very freely. Mash them up for an MVP. Very few people are likely to choose their commuter bike based on the model of car they have... Unless they have a Lotus, perhaps. And so it goes on... 

This is a classic case of an idea in the lab not working in the real world because the people who would buy it don't actually make the choices that the developer thinks. Ford would have done well to actually think about commercial value and use cases before diving in and engineering clever telematics and stupid apps. Then they could have used a Lean Startup method to try it out for real. Not as glitzy but so much better!

Value hypothesis first, Ford. Henry wouldn't have been happy.

iPhones-only at the clubhouse: Sony snatches defeat from jaws of victory

It would be fair to say that I significantly overestimated Google's ability to kickstart a successful market for connected eyewear in 2014. I was therefore fascinated to see how Sony, that long dormant tech giant, would do with their belated take on the category. After all they remain imaging experts.

Smarteyeglass Attach, developed by former Sony Ericsson engineers in Sweden, does what it says on the tin. It turns a normal set of spectacles into a smart set that can display data into the user's eye line by way of a tiny screen. It isn't a particularly elegent device, being nearly 3 times the size of Glass, but it's nothing like as cumbersome as the initial advertising videos suggest. For occasional use it'd be fine.

Sony had two demos, one of a game of tennis, the other cycling. The latter was the more obviously useful. A map with directions, speed and direction data are displayed dynamically as the demo rolls through. Although you do have to look quite far to the right and up to see the screen, the imagine was very sharp and clear in artificial light. Better than Google Glass, in my opinion. 

In fact, I could see the combination of being able to attach to any frame and a big manufacturer brand being an attractive one. We don't know the pricing yet, which is a concern. At £200 it would be attractive. At £400 it's not.

But here's the rub, and the real problem with both this and Sony's other fitness and lifestyle IoT devices. You need an Experia phone to use the Attach. And let's be frank, who has one of those? Particularly in the apparent target market of cycling, golf and tennis enthusiasts.

That's right: no one.* iPhones only at the clubhouse, gents. So long as Sony persist with their dwarf locked ecosystem all of this technology is wasted. Which in the case of the Smarteyeglass Attach is a shame.

* this may not be factually correct :)

Is this Microsoft's real way back into mobile?

I've been watching Microsoft win real interest in 2015. They've got tech journos salivating with clever augmented reality technology, made Windows free, brought office to iOS and Android and launched a major ad campaign based on the superiority of the Cortana virtual assistant. 

But one thing that's gone under the radar is the launch of the Lumia 435, a new smartphone targeting first time smartphone users and upgraders in less wealthy segments. In the UK is retails at just £70 without a contract. I spent some time with the device at MWC and was very impressed with the experience. 

Physically the demo units all sported rather garish luminous plastic backs and have a screen about the size of that in the original iPhone. It's thick and rather sharp edged next to the zeitgeist devices of today, but is still a fun, coherent package. The OS is Windows - for those of you haven't used the mobile version of this OS, that means scrolling down through tiles of various sizes rather than clicking icons and navigating between pages filled with them. I like it. It's simple and intuitive in a way that Android isn't.

So despite the price point, the 435 is very slick to use. There was no spec sheet to compare with the Asian horsepower brutes elsewhere, however you still wouldn't need to worry about speed if you were using this, unlike any other device I've ever used at the price point. There's a camera with lots of complicated settings too. It takes average photos and struggled with lens flare in the bright lights of the event... But at this price point it was still better than decent. Fiddling with settings would probably help fix some of the issues.

Bundled with ONE TERABYTE of cloud storage (seriously, is any user of a £70 ever going to need that much right now?) and a year of Office 365, this is an amazing value package for domestic and business users... With the slight challenge of a still weak app environment.

But there's so much in the package that I am beginning to see what Microsoft saw in Nokia, long masters of the high quality budget device. This has the potential to be a seriously disruptive product in the sense that it undercuts and outclasses the generic Android clones in the market, particularly in terms of core software bundle. I even wonder whether this joyful, cheap little phone will be more important than all the high technology MS are pushing at the top end. Win a generation of kids and emerging middle class and the chances of long term victory are good for resurgent Microsoft. 

If you think this unlikely, remember that in the late '90's we bought Apple would never be cool again...