Home automation, powered by cloud-based artificial intelligence, is now a mainstream product category, taking center stage at the major consumer electronics companies’ booths at CES. The huge 4K and 8K screens that dominated Samsung’s display the past few years were stuck in a back corner, while the main aisles were lined with home appliances with voice recognition systems and driven by artificial intelligence.
LG led its press conference with artificial intelligence, via both its in-house platform and Google Assistant. Its flag bearer is CLOi, a smart speaker shaped like a cute little robot with expressive eyes that’s “capable of physical and emotional interaction”, according to marketing VP David VanderWaal.
Yes. It is.
He asked “what’s for dinner”? CLOi just blinked and stared at him. “CLOi, are you talking to me yet? What recipes can I make with chicken?” More blinks and stares. Instead of a virtual June Cleaver, VanderWaal was dancing with Peg Bundy. Sorry guys, AI won’t be a wormhole back to the 50s.
In-house AI platforms might still be a work in progress, but Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are ready for prime time and are also included in products from major manufacturers. When VanderWaal invoked Google Assistant during his demo, it responded flawlessly.
There was no shortage of third-party home automation hubs on display, many of them claiming AI capabilities and universal compatibility, but the prospects for most are fading. The one bright spot remains vertical markets, such as home security or commercial properties, where professional installation and support makes economic sense.
Consumers don’t want to wrestle with the things they buy – it’s a lot easier to flip a light switch than it is to wrestle with a Z-wave network or hack at automation scripts. When you speak a command and it just works though, it’s a mainstream product.
LG is in the Firefox game too.
The Firefox OS smart phone universe is expanding. ZTE, which launched the Open last year, essentially as a software developers’ kit, will be unveiling two new phones based on Mozilla’s open source, HTML5-centric operating system. The expected Wednesday announcement will launch the Open C and Open 2 smart phones, which are pegged to move up the value chain with more features than the $80 Open.
Two other Firefox phones were on display at the Pepcom event at CES this evening: the LG Fireweb, which is currently available in Brazil, and the Alcatel One Touch Fire. As the gap between mobile and traditional consumer electronic and computing products continues to narrow, mobile OSes are finding their way onto fixed platforms. The Firefox OS is no different. Panasonic has a Firefox smart TV in development, with availability expected before the end of 2014. Foxconn is building a Firefox tablet.
The more devices and the more carriers that support Firefox, the more apps, services and content will become available. Whether it’ll gain enough momentum to put a dent in Android’s or iOS’s market share is another question. Between them, the two dominant mobile operating systems have more than 90% of the mobile device market.
Firefox has the potential of claiming a distant third place, though. Of the HTML5 based OSes launched last year, it’s gained support from the broadest range of manufacturers. It costs less than Android and app development should eventually be far easier, assuming that HTML5 is finally wrestled into submission. With smart phone and tablet growth expected to increasingly shift to developing markets, those advantages should be enough to keep it in the game.
Twitter top pick on Firefox app store.
The Firefox mobile operating system is clearly a work in progress, but that said, it works well enough already. I’ve been using a ZTE Open Firefox phone for three months, and can do most of the things I need to do and, as time goes on and software is released, more of the things I’d like to do.
The OS performs better than Bada, which I used for about a year on a Samsung handset. There’s more software available and it’s a snappier, less frustrating experience. On the other hand, it’s not as smooth or well stocked with apps as my two-year old LG Android phone. All three are in the same, low end price range.
The phone itself is well worth the $80 I paid for it. In its current form, it’s effectively a software developers’ kit rather than a consumer product, but even so it performs well. It also sold well – the first thousand phones were gone in hours. ZTE has been following up with purchasers, as it irons out bugs and extends the platform’s capabilities.
The Open lacks LTE connectivity, as did the unlocked Android phones that ZTE previewed at the Pepcom Holiday Spectacular in San Francisco last month. Which is a problem for developers, since the Firefox OS is built on HTML5, which in turn depends on fast connections between tiny apps and big servers.
On the consumer side, a ZTE product manager said that he didn’t think users would notice the lack of LTE on unlocked phones. Or maybe he’s just hoping they won’t. His argument was that since LTE networks are getting slammed by heavy traffic from high end phones, value conscious buyers will be happier with what he considered to be less crowded 3G bands. By that logic, though, they should be overjoyed using 2G Edge networks. Good luck with that.
LG and Samsung muscle their flex.
LG and Samsung are firing press releases at each other, each claiming to have the first flexible OLED smartphone screen. Samsung teased their new technology at CES earlier this year, while LG unveiled its flex screen yesterday. Regardless of who is first, it’ll create marketing buzz for both companies as they build speed through the fall selling season.
A flexible screen means you can do cool things with design, like offering more useable screen real estate in more interesting ways. Putting text and images along the edge of the device is one example. Getting away from the standard slab form factor is another. Flexible screens can be used to wrap phones around wrists, and allow smartphone design to go from two physical dimensions to three. Giving designers a third dimension to work with will unlock imagination and innovation.
Flexibility means OLEDs will continue to be the screen technology of choice for high end smartphones. The basic OLED/LCD trade-offs, such as power consumption versus lifetime versus resolution aren’t changing. But flexible design is possible to accomplish with OLED technology and not with LCDs, so it’s an unambiguous competitive advantage at the high end of the market. Even if someone is working on flexible LCDs somewhere – I’m willing to be someone is – it’ll be awhile before flexible LCD screens show up in products.
Particularly Apple products. With its ho hum fall product announcements well astern, there’s no reason to think Apple will have flexible screen products in the market this year, or even early next year.
If Samsung and LG deliver on their promises, Apple’s designs could look ancient by Christmas.
Firefox hasn’t quite landed yet.
Firefox has sharpened the debate over prospects for HTML5. The open source, connectivity-centric mobile operating system developed by the Mozilla Foundation gained a lot of attention at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Sceptical attention, mostly.
When the OS landscape is so thoroughly dominated by two superpowers – Apple and Google – it’s risky to bet on a challenger. Several mobile carriers expressed support, but manufacturers lagged behind. Geeksphone, a small Spanish company, had demo units to show at Barcelona, but missed its February ship date for SDKs. Nice words from LG and Sony amounted to taking out an option.
It’s a lightweight operating system that, like Google Chrome, is little more than a browser and depends on a live Internet connection for most of its functionality. The power is supposed to come from HTML5-based web services. The idea is to write an OS-agnostic app once in HTML5 and serve it to high end browsers running on any kind of mobile phone. So far though, practice has lagged behind promise. Firefox barely rose above novelty status last week.
Samsung was more forthcoming about its plans for Tizen, a Linux-derived open source OS. As predicted, it’ll replace the in-house Bada OS on future lower end smartphones. Ubuntu was on hand promoting its one OS to rule them all concept, essentially a repeat of its pitch at CES earlier this year.
Blackberry and Windows didn’t get much love at all, though. Microsoft put marketing money into the event but, viewed from outside anyway, didn’t rise above the background noise. Despite its loud and awkward relaunch in January, Blackberry was all but ignored.
It’ll be a while before we know if any of these alternatives have genuine traction. Significant consumer market product launches aren’t expected until the fall, which allows plenty of time for manufacturers and carriers to reverse course or accelerate ahead. For now, it’s still an Android and iOS world.
The “four elephants” of the mobile electronics industry – if not the entire tech world – are Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung, as Tae Hea Nahm, founding general partner of Storm Ventures put it at a recent Wireless Communications Alliance event. They’re prepared to do “whatever it takes to win.”
Samsung is positioned to take honors as lead bull at CES next week, if only by default. Apple and Microsoft won’t be there. Google is relying on partners like LG and, maybe, Intel to build buzz. But even if they were there, Samsung would still be the odds on favorite. CES is home turf.
So, which one of the remaining three is the likeliest candidate for the elephant’s graveyard?
It won’t be Apple. Their product sales and zeitgeist share are as strong as ever, recent share price turmoil not withstanding. Google has the mass market side of the mobile operating system business firmly under control and occupies commanding positions in other tech sectors. No signs of weakness.
Come the end of the year, it’s Microsoft that won’t be mentioned in the same breath as the rest. Speculation about its collapse is years premature, but it no longer controls its own future. Mobile carriers and manufacturers, computer makers and IT professionals will make the decisions and launch the innovations that will determine how small Microsoft’s eventual slice of the pie will be.
The more interesting question is who will take its place. LG isn’t giving an inch to Samsung. Amazon is a champion in both consumer technology distribution and core Internet services. They’ve scored one hit with the Kindle and might be ready to expand further into mobile devices. Or maybe it’s finally time for a Chinese player like Huawei to step up.
Watch for signs of someone making a move on the front of the herd next week.
The machine-to-machine sector is getting a lot of attention this week at the CTIA Enterprise and Applications conference in San Diego. The growth of M2M figured into CEO keynote speeches and panel discussions. AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega called connected devices “the next big thing for mobility.”
The growth is driven in part by the decisions taken by service providers to back out of the hardware and hosting ends of the M2M business, and just provide connectivity. Users are moving faster and with far more knowledge of their own needs and objectives than carriers could ever hope to do.
Users do not have this kind of freedom of action in consumer voice and data segments. Mobile carriers like to control hardware and transactions. As do manufacturers. Apple’s App Store forbids direct transactions between app developers and publishers and their customers, and takes a 30% cut off the top of any sale.
Embedding connectivity into devices doesn’t necessarily put the power to choose into consumers hands. Companies can put a product on the market, tie it to a specific service and monopolize transactions by owning and controlling the connection. Amazon’s Kindle device and service is a prominent example of this rapidly growing business model.
As the cost of thin stream mobile data modules drops, expect transactional connectivity to be built into more and more devices, moving from content-driven hardware like e-book readers that are of limited use without the ability to continually make purchases, to products that don’t need it but can occasionally offer upgrades and updates at critical moments.
Consumers may well be reluctant to buy products that come with an ongoing service fee, or buy optional services at the time of purchase. But making an impulse purchase possible at any time puts the selling proposition in front of the customer at the moment of greatest need and propensity to buy.
LG exhibited networked appliances at the show, including a washing machine. It’s easy to say no to a service contract in the store. But when the washer starts making funny noises a couple years later, pushing a button and paying $20 for a virtual repairman will seem like a bargain. And you won’t have to watch him bend over. Bonus!
So far, the only close-to-really-new announcements have come from ASUS. That might be because the 2011 CES story is about incremental improvement and minor innovations, not radically new products or services. Or it could be a question of chipsets.
Everyone is hinting or outright pimping upcoming tablet computer announcements, but not actually saying what it is. That’s a little unusual for press days at CES, but it could be because Intel has what it thinks is a huge announcement to make in a few minutes, and they’ve turned the screws on their customers with the idea of managing some kind of coordinated roll out.
ASUS could talk because its Eee Pad family is powered by Snapdragon and Nvidia silicon, plus an older Intel chip. The rest – LG, MSI, Microsoft and more – could be hiding under an embargo agreement for now.
We’ll soon know.
Last to first, real time tweets from Las Vegas…
- Bill Gates is the UrGeek. Love or hate him, he’s an original with historic scope. Heroic in classical sense. Ballmer…
- Listening to Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO. Microsoft will rule the world. Honest.
- Sony shows great respect for mobile telecom carriers. Has WiFi Walkman in pipeline, but no 3/4G product that would cause consternation for Sony Ericsson’s mobile carrier customers.
- Sony sez not in negotiations for NZ/Australia mobile carrier deals for netbook, sorry Lifestyle PC, but GSM deals in Europe are locked.
- Even so, Sony netbook, sorry Lifestyle PC, is way cool. 600 grams, 20 cm screen. Uses Windoze OS but has a Linux bios & can boot either way.
- Sony intros netbook, sorry Lifestyle PC. $900. Includes wireless data card. Verizon deal for US, T-Mobile, Vodafone in EU. Nothing in New Zealand or Australia.
- Of course, Sony is cautious. Sony Ericsson is in bed with, and enthusiastically servicing, mobile telecom carriers.
- For CES, Sony divides its business into “in-home” & “out-of-home”. But out-of-home is mobile carrier-friendly, not consumer-focused.
- A couple words of Tagalog got me the sympathy of the bartender, though.
- My Japanese & German is an advantage at CES, Italian & Spanish no help.
- Lots of consumer-grade PR minions at what are supposed to be trade press-class events. Frustrating.
- Snuck a peek at Intel booth, heavy on mobile Internet & 4G, at least the WiMAX flavor.
- Cisco likes femtocell technology, puts it in the same bucket as WiFi. Interesting perspective.
- Steve Ballmer is tonight’s keynote, but here’s the advance scoop: Microsoft Bob is back!
- Apple it’s not but it’s a start for Cisco. They’ll need a lot of help though.
- Linksys by Cisco new consumer brand strategy, paying attention to product design now
- People started leaving, slid in for Q&A. Service provider guy talking about making networks video aware.
- Cisco PR kiddies say look it up on their website later. Duh.
- Cisco press conf overfull. Sent to watch a live web feed. Didn’t work. What business are they in?
- Line for Toshiba press conf too long. One way to manage reduced attendance is to book a smaller room.
- Sharp showing big displays. Really big.
- Line for Toshiba press conference out of control. Must be giving away free stuff.
- Netgear also showing IPTV player and home media center. Category is getting crowded, not much secret sauce anymore.
- Netgear has no deals with mobile carriers but sez they’ll appreciate increased data usage. Not convincing.
- CE guys determined to hang gizmos on mobile data networks: weeds in the walled garden!
- Streaming TV + tethered wifi router = bandwidth hell for carriers. CE guys are on the march!
- Netgear introing wifi router with slot for 3G data modem card. Sez 1 use is streaming TV.
- Skipped main event, checked out stuff afterwards. LG showing netbook, usual mobile phones, nice. Just nice.
- Line for LG press conf already strung out at 7:30am