Google Assistant is leaving the door open for Bixby

When Samsung announced the Galaxy S8 and S8+, it also announced its new voice assistant called Bixby. In fact, the S8 models have an actual dedicated hardware key to invoke the assistant. Many people have criticised Samsung for going down this road instead of just embracing Google Assistant. Personally, I am hopeful and I actually think that Google Assistant is leaving the door wide open for Bixby.

Google Assistant is arguably the best of the voice assistants out there, mainly due to Google’s advances in natural language models and search technologies. However, it completely relies on server-side technologies and you sharing absolutely everything with Google. This is where I believe lies the opportunity for Samsung.

I personally don’t like sharing everything with Google and have the following activity controls turned to off:

  • Web & App Activity
  • Location History
  • Device Information
  • Voice & Audio Activity
  • YouTube Search History
  • YouTube Watch History

Turning these things off, though, means that you loose out on all functions from Google Now/Assistant. Some are understandable, but many also don’t seem at all understandable and in fact are a bit frustrating. On this site you can see many different commands that can be given to Google Assistant. I have tried several that should simply work with all the Activity Controls turned off, but don’t:

  • Navigate Home: in order to ask it to take you home, you need to turn on Location History. This makes no sense, as I have configured in Google Maps my home address, so it should simply take me there, but instead requires me to give it access to all my movements.
  • Baby Driver: looking for information on the film Baby Driver. It could just launch Google with this search term, but instead needs access to web & app activity, voice and audio activity and device information.
  • Set an alarm for 17:00: again, it needs acces to the same things, while this is a purely on-device action.

Apple is betting that people want functionality like this, but are not willing to give up their privacy. Sure, as a result, it is slower rolling out features, but Siri is actually quite feature-rich already. Perhaps, Samsung should be the Apple within the Android ecosystem, focussing on an on-device Assistant that respects the users’ privacy.

I am certainly going to look into this, once Bixby is more widely available, as I don’t know currently how Samsung deals with the privacy aspect. I admittedly worry that they’ll want to have access to it all, just like Google, but a part of me hopes it will respect the data of the customers that just spend 800 euros on a phone. I’ll keep you posted.

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Apple’s new iPhone, a strategic mistake?

This article is based on rumours, but I felt it was worth writing about it.

If we believe the latest rumours, then we can expect Apple to launch in September two updated iPhones – iPhone 7S and 7S Plus – as well as a completely re-designed iPhone – iPhone 8/X/whatever (I’ll call it iPhone 8/X below). iPhone 7 and 7S Plus are expected to be evolutions of the current models, whereas the new iPhone is expected to be substantially different. If you wish to know about all the latest rumours, I suggest you check out iMore .com’s article .

rumoured-iphone-8

On the one hand, it is exciting to see that Apple is finally pushing design innovation after 3 generations of upgrades, but at the same time I can’t help but think it shapes up to be an unfortunate move. Allow me to explain.

The current iPhones are already expensive phones. People pay for them, because they prefer to use them, but their biggest complaint is always price. When compared to the rest of the smartphone world, you can see below that the current iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are already quite a bit above what an Android user pays. And the new iPhone may well start above 1.000 dollars.

smartphone-price-ranges

I would argue that iPhones do command a premium – given their good user experience, quality hardware and top-notch after sales service – however, on the design front I am afraid that they are not state of the art anymore. If the current iPhones need anything at all, it would be a reduction in their footprint, i.e. improve the screen-to-body ratio.

samsung-galaxy-s7-edge-vs-apple-iphone-6s-plus

I was fortunate enough to try out a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, and wrote about the experience here . Although I think iPhones have great build quality, nice materials and so on, they can’t compare to what Samsung brings to the table. I found my iPhone 6S Plus dimensions/design to be very outdated.

I realise that with the regular iPhone 7 this is less of a problem, but the iPhone 7 Plus is quite an unweildy device. It would greatly benefit from shaving 4 mm of the width and 6–8 mm from the length. This would certainly result in a better user experience (all else being equal, of course).

Fortunately, it seems Apple agrees that they can do better, but it also seems that the “regular” iPhones will not benefit from this effort. The new design would be reserved for the new iPhone 8/X. And this is the reason I am calling this possible development quite unfortunate.

“Regular” iPhone users already pay a premium in the market. Is it not reasonable to expect Apple to update the design of these immensely profitable phones after 3 generations of limited changes? And not just expect a re-designed iPhone for an even higher price. I think that development would be disappointing.

I realise that Apple can get away with it, but I just wish it were different. I am very keen to see how this all plays out.

Smartphones and their ecosystems

samsung-galaxy-s7-edge-vs-apple-iphone-6s-plusMy current mobile phone is the iPhone 6S Plus, but I have been trialling a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. I realise that both are not exactly new phones, but still I am finding it to be an interesting comparison of the iPhone and Android ecosystem at large. More and more I am finding that the decision making process of a smartphone go beyond just the smartphone and how it performs. In fact, I will most likely choose to stay with the “inferior” smartphone.

To put this comparison in context, I should point out that I am an Android user at heart. Although I have used only an iPhone for the past 6 months, these last few days with the Galaxy S7 Edge have shown me that I feel more at home in the Android user experience. It is only fair to highlight that, as it impacts my personal view points.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

So, what is it that I like about the S7 Edge? These are the standout features in my opinion:

  • The design and form factor. The S7 Edge is a very compact design for a large screened phone. It is really nice to handle in one hand. When side-by-side with the iPhone 6S Plus, the plain truth is that the S7 Edge looks and feels from a different planet. The iPhone 6S Plus is rock solid but feels like a truck, and the S7 Edge feels like a nimble machine. Samsung really has done an incredible job designing this phone and Apple needs to step up its game in terms of ergonomics.
  • The screen, including the edges. I have owned many Samsung phones, and I always find that they have the best screens in the market. It is no different for the S7 Edge: the blacks, the colours, the brightness and the resolution are spot on. I have even started liking the curved edges. I thought it was perhaps only a gimmick, but there is something about it. The screen  feels more immersive with image and video content.
  • The camera. Everybody knows that the top Samsung cameras are up there with the very best. I am very pleased with it. I find that it shoots better pics in indoor situations than my current iPhone. It manages to capture a bit more light and detail. Besides that, the camera experience is great as well.
  • Android user experience. I just feel more at home with the home screen, application drawer, notification pane, ability to set default apps, third party keyboard support, file system access, no iTunes …
  • Extras. Although not critical, the water proofing, wireless charging, and Samsung Pay all help build an attractive package.

The phone is not perfect of course, and here are some things I did not particularly like:

  • Delicate and slippery. I could not comfortably use this phone without a case. With this much glass on both sides and such a slippery feeling, I had to buy a case. Now with a sleek TPU case it is a joy to use. Still, Samsung should worry about this sort of thing more.
  • The fingerprint scanner. It is not bad, but too many error readings and a bit too slow. Samsung needs to figure this one out.
  • Firmware updates (or lack there of). You never really know when and what you will receive, even with an unlocked phone. We are still waiting for Nougat and it should arrive soon, but who knows.

Lastly, I can’t deny that I am worried about the two biggest flaws in Android: performance takes a hit after months of use and occasionally you experience an unexpected battery drain. Performance was very good in my usage, but only a long-term test can inform about how it maintains that level.

The scale of positives and negatives is in favour of the positives, but still I am not sure that I should keep the S7 Edge. The key to that apparent incongruence is that increasingly smartphone purchase decisions will be based on other factors than the smartphone alone.

Apple

So what is it that Apple does so well for me that I may choose a slightly inferior (completely my opinion and based on my experience and preferences) smartphone:

  • Apple Watch. Although smartwatches don’t appear to be exactly a success, I quite like them and Apple Watch is the best of them (after having tried a couple of Android Wear watches and a Pebble). I could live without the Apple Watch of course, but the biggest problem is that on the Android side I don’t see a clear vision from Google. They have posponed Android Wear 2 and manufacturers like Motorola have indicated they won’t be a launch partner. Uncertainty, to be sure.
  • Homekit. I am starting to play with home automation and really like what Homekit has to offer. I feel that Apple has implemented the right security and usability requirements to make it the best solution. Knowing that I can buy secure components and control them from a central place is great. Again, Google has tried to make this work for Android as well, but it is a real mess. They announced Google Home a long time ago, but that didn’t go anywhere. After that they announced some protocols – weave and brillo – but that also failed to take off in a significant manner. Now they have packaged this all up as Android Things, but I have serious doubts they will get there act together.
  • Apple TV. This is less of a factor, as the Apple TV is a great stand-alone product in its own right. However, the iPhone and Apple TV do complement each other very nicely.
  • CarPlay. Although Android Auto is available, Apple has again an advantage: car manufacturers just need to worry about compatibility with iPhones, all made by the same manufacturer, and often on the latest OS version. Also, Apple is slow at rolling out new features, which is great  for car manufacturers.

So yes, beyond the apps that you may have bought on a certain platform, it is the investment and tie-in with other accessories/equipment that really makes for a compelling reason to stick with what you have and what works.

Conclusion

When relating this back to Samsung, they are in a difficult situation. They are trying to make their own ecosystem with Tizen running on watches and TVs and having their own SmartThings solution for home automation.

The problem they face is that they don’t manage to get scale with any of these (except for the TVs, perhaps). Should they totally back Android Wear, Android TV, and Android Things, perhaps these would take off and create an ecosystem that can compete with Apple’s. However, that ecosystem is not on a Samsung level, but rather the platform level.

Allthough it may not be ideal, I do feel that Samsung should build more on the Android ecosystem as any ecosystem is better than none, I have come to experience now.

Lumia 1520 is pretty nice for only a small crowd

I’ve had the Lumia 1520 for two weeks now and wanted to summarise here my experiences with it. Before I get into it, I want to highlight that I have come at it from a Galaxy Note 3 user’s perspective. The Galaxy Note 3 is probably its main competitor and anyone looking to buy a large screened phone would potentially compare them. Naturally, I also made those direct comparisons.

Hardware

The main selling point of the Lumia 1520 is its screen size. If you want a large screen on your phone, this is certainly a phone to consider. The 6″ screen is incredible (and slightly better than the one on the Galaxy Note 3): beautiful colour reproduction, very readable in direct sunlight and very good viewing angles. The only issue I had with the screen is that when I watched some (darker) videos in low light conditions, the screen would be too dim/dark. I could have changed that via the settings by turning up brightness, but I had hoped for the phone to manage that for me.

Whereas the large screen is a real luxury, the body it comes in, is at the same time by far its main downside. This phone is really large! I found it quite difficult to manage with one hand for just about anything. Add to that the slippery materials of the phone and I can assure you that I never felt comfortable managing it in one hand while walking down the street.

You may feel that is a trade-off for the large screen, but I would have to disagree. The Galaxy Note 3 has a 5,7″ screen and comes in a body that is considerably smaller and with a back made of a material that is far less slippery. The Note 3 is a phone I can quite comfortably handle with one hand for 90% of the things I want to do.
Although the difference is size is not really big, the Note 3 is easier to handle.
Although the difference in size is not big, the Note 3 is certainly easier to handle. Milimeters make a difference.

All that being said, I understand that the size of phone you can handle comfortably is a very personal thing. I feel that Galaxy Note 3 size is my upper limit, but I realise that if you have smaller or larger hands, your mileage may vary. In any case, Nokia should have at least done a better job in the screen size to phone size ratio.

The Huawei Ascend W1 has a 4" screen and the Lumia 1520 a 6" screen. The Note 3 maximises the screen size vs its body size.
The Huawei Ascend W1 has a 4″ screen and the Lumia 1520 a 6″ screen. The Note 3 maximises the screen size (5,7″) vs its body size.

Besides screen quality and phone size, I can only say good things about the remaining hardware aspects. The camera performs as expected, the speaker quality is nice, and wireless radios work fine. It is the hardware quality that I have come to expect from Nokia.

Lastly, I really liked the headphones that shipped with the Lumia 1520 (Nokia WH-208). Not great sounding bass, but very comfortable. I even picked up a pair on Amazon for 12€.

Performance

Windows Phone 8 (update 3) runs fast and responsive on the Snapdragon 800 processor + 2Gb RAM inside. Absolutely no complaints running 3D games, HD videos or switching between apps. The truth is, though, that I also never had complaints on the Lumia 1020 or 920 (with slower processors and less RAM), which is a testament to the optimisations done to Windows Phone by Microsoft.

The large battery allowed me to enjoy all that performance and large screen goodness without having to doubt whether I would get through the day. If there is one additional advantage to every large screened phone, it is that they stick a lot of battery underneath that screen. With the Nokia Lumia 1520 that is no different.

Software

As I said before, Windows Phone 8 performs very nicely on this phone. However, I have WP 8.1 on my Huawei Ascend W1 and really feel that it is a nice upgrade that should arrive for the Lumia 1520 sooner rather than later. The big advantages of Windows Phone 8.1 are Noticification Centre, Action Centre, better SD Card support, swipe keyboard, a much better app store, and nicer extensibility of the Share menu, to name a few.

Even with Windows Phone 8.1, Windows Phone does not yet have the level of maturity as Android on the Galaxy Note 3. The Galaxy Note 3 is much more feature rich, including an excellent S-Pen, and makes more use of the larger screen (particularly with regards to multi-tasking). On the Lumia 8.1 it is mostly larger text, and sometimes a line or two of additional content. Not bad, but could be better.

The app ecosystem is unfortunately as I remembered it from 6 months ago. It is OK, but definitely not a selling point. I feel it is adequate for 70% of the population, but if you want to play with the latest or niche apps, Windows Phone is not the OS for you yet.

On the other hand, if you use a lot of Microsoft services and/or your company is an Microsoft environment company, there is quite a bit to like here. The phone performs admirably as a work phone, with great battery life, call quality, data speeds, ample storage, email and office document support.

Summary

If you can handle the size of the Lumia 1520, are not looking for niche/latest apps and want to use it quite a lot for work (Microsoft environment), I think the phone is a very good option. However, this is only a small part of the population, I realise. For the rest, it has to compete with the likes of the Galaxy Note 3 and I feel that it simply can’t. The Note 3 is better value mainly due to the size, OS, Galaxy Note enhancements and app ecosystem.

One more chapter in my Windows Phone journey, trialling a Lumia 1520

When it comes to Windows Phone, so far I have tried a HTC 8X, Huawei Ascend W1, Nokia Lumia 800, 920 and 1020. With every iteration I have come closer to actually using Windows Phone (particularly the Lumia iteration) on a daily basis. However, it is hard to move away from Android after so many years with that flexible and powerful platform.

Today the fine people of Nokia Connects, will allow me to trial a Nokia Lumia 1520. This may be the phone that confirms that I can use it on a daily basis and let go, for some time, of Android.

Does it fit comfortably in a jeans pocket?
Does it fit comfortably in a jeans pocket?

Of all the phones I have tested I have found the screen sizes to be a little bit too small, perhaps – although I do go through phases. That particular issue certainly won’t be the problem for the 6″ monster of a Lumia 1520. If anything, it is going to be too big! I am currently using a Galaxy Note 3, so I am used to a large phone, but the Lumia 1520 is a whole step up in terms of size compared to my Note 3. Only day-to-day use will allow me to judge its size.

The other issue was always Windows Phone itself and perhaps to a larger extend the app ecosystem. I have installed the preview of Windows Phone 8.1 on my Huawei Ascend W1 and I quite like it. I should think that in terms of OS, Windows Phone 8.1 is good enough now.

The app ecosystem is getting more and more mature for Windows Phone and I hope that trying it now in Q2 2014 it should be better than 6 months ago. I realise progress is slow, but let’s see how I get on.

Those are really the only doubt I can have about this phone, because everything else is top-notch: screen quality, speaker quality, camera quality, performance, battery autonomy, … I shall be comparing extensively to my Galaxy Note 3, which is certainly its closest and fiercest competitor in the market place.

OnePlus One (p)review from Engadget

OnePlus One review: A $300 phone that looks, feels, and acts like a premium device (Brad Molen/Engadget) http://www.engadget.com/products/oneplus/one/

The respectable people from Engadget have given a (p)review of the OnePlus One.

It seems that it lacks a little in terms of camera performance and audio output volume. It could of course hardly be better in every respect and cost only half of what competitors charge.

Still looking forward to trying it myself.

Moto X is a good exercise of listening to what people really want

Product management is all about making the right compromises, particularly if you are interested in hitting the masses.

Motorola Moto X
Motorola Moto X

Yesterday, Motorola took the wraps of the Moto X. We already knew a lot about the phone and there was a ton of hype leading up to the event. What we got was a really good mid-range phone. And that is a good thing.

Motorola is close to non-existent at this point in time. Having been purchased recently by Google, this could and should change, but it all depends on the products (and marketing, of course). The Moto X is a phone made for the masses and if they manage to position the price point well and get it in the right sales channels, they should have a winner.

Why do I think it is such a good phone? Because I think they have done a good job listening to consumers, or at least to me it feels like this is what people want (based on observing people around me and research that I do and read about).

  • People enjoy a large screen on their smartphone, but it needs to be manageable in one hand for many of the use cases. Going above 4,7″ makes the latter difficult.
  • You can only offer 4,7″ with good handling if you minimise the overall foot print of the phone, which they have done really well ().
  • 1080p screens are nice, but not a necessity for a good user experience. I am glad they went with 720p, as that should help the price point and the battery life.
  • Talking about battery life, they managed to squeeze a 2.200 mAh battery in there, that should give up to 24 hours of regular use. That is more than average, if it actually manages that.
  • In order to get that much juice in the phone, it had to be a bit thicker. Phones don’t need to be 6mm thin, as long as it sits well in the hand. 1cm and a nicely curved back allow for that.
  • People clearly like taking pictures. Making sure that you have an above average camera is good. Nokia’s Lumia 1020 has a fantastic camera, but admittedly, people don’t generally look for that much quality.

What really sets this phone apart though are two features that I am not sure people are looking for and whether it factors into a buying decision.

  • Customisability. The look and feel of the phone (and some accessories) can be customised. The truth is that it allows for a really nice and personalised phone. In focus groups we do often get people asking for that sort of thing, but for me the jury is out on whether it really is something people will be persuaded by in the moment of truth.
  • Touchless controls. You can ask the phone things with your voice via the Google Now app. Google Now is great, but I have two doubts around this. On the one hand, how often can you really talk to your phone and not look silly? I think that is only possible if you are alone, which in my case is less than 5% of my day. Also, I wonder how much the average person actually uses Google Now. Although I like the idea of Google Now, I really do believe that it will take time before people actually incorporate it in their life / work flow.

Having said that, they are two things that you can talk about in your communications/ads and that is important – just look at all the gimmicks that Samsung stuffs in their Galaxy S4 phone. People don’t even use half, but it shows off the phone nicely in shops and in ads. That is very important!

This brings me to my last point. They need to get this in front of people, which means operator deals, and it needs to be available soon at a competitive price. Particularly the latter is important, in light of a possible iPhone 5C coming out this autumn. At the same price, I can’t see many people choosing a Motorola phone over a an iPhone (assuming that Apple does a good job with the phone).