Google IO’s keynote was fantastic

Yesterday, I watched the Google IO 2016 Keynote presentation and I actually felt giddie: it was fascinating, albeit a little scary, to see how a company with that amount of resources and focus can make such large advancements towards a more technological society.  Of all of the things they covered, a few things stood out for me.

Virtual Reality (VR)
VR is something that will probably be big. There are too many big companies pushing it and the experience is too immersive not to become a big thing. Exactly what role it will play in our lives is still to be determined, as so far only the Early Adopters are playing with it and they are by no means an accurate indicator of what the majority of people will do with it. That being said, Google is leading the pack here by integrating VR into their main OS, Android, and by pushing it on YouTube. Moreover, they are sharing spec sheets of what a Smartphone, headset and remote should have in order to work properly with Virtual Reality, or at least Google’s version (called Daydream).

Google Assistant
This is the next step of Google Search/Now. We can already talk to Google, but this is Google trying to make the service more conversational as well as context aware. In order to do that, they are linking up all of their efforts in modelling the world, natural language processing and machine learning. I am sure that the first steps will be slow, but this shows promise. Furthermore, Google Assistant appears to be a building block that can later on be found in many other products and services.


Google Home
One of those is Google Home. Goolge Home will be your home hub where the Google Assistant is basically the main actor. It will allow you to make queries, get things done, control your smart home and play media. The video they shared of the product is fascinating. It is incredible to see that we are already so close.


Allo
Messaging is an important platform for the near future. Google has tried with Google Talk in the past, more recently with Hangouts, and its next bet is Allo. Frankly, this will be an uphill battle for Google as it’s competing with some very big incumbents, particularly Facebook and Apple. That being said, Google is trying some new things here, amongst which is the inclusion of the Google Bot, which in reality seems to be the Google Assistant. You can include it in chats so that it can help get things done.


Machine Learning
Although there was no direct product announcement, machine learning is everywhere in Google’s services. The advancements they are making are incredible. And the scary thing is, it looks like progress will only become faster. The final words from Pichai were great. They are on such a mission to advance in these things and the world could be a better place for it.  

Are we ready for our machine overlords?
While I am excited about these products and services, they are all slightly scary. In order for them to really useful to me, I need to share personal things about me with Google. In fact, the benefits I, as a user, reap are directly proportional to the information I give Google. And this, in a nut shell, is the biggest challenge Google will face: making people overcome their fear of sharing with them. Getting and maintaining that trust.

I think Google can do it, though. I have written in the past about how I erase my Google history every month, but at the same time I am saving all my Photos with Google and wouldn’t want it any other way, because of the benefits it offers me. It’s all a trade-off. For me it was Google Photos and for someone else it could well be Google Assistant, but eventually we all need to make a decision: do we want the benefits enough so as to trust Google with our information? I think it is only a matter of time.  

Furthermore, we have to trust in Google’s self interest as well. Google does not directly make money on me, e.g. storing my photos with them. The transaction is indirect: they need to know as much as possible about me, so that they can earn the most presenting me with ads. As a result, I trust, to a healthy extend, that they will do everything in their power to not endanger the trust I have put into relationship.

I, for one, will get Google Home as soon as it is released, and I will be happy to try out Google Assistant and Allo as soon as it ships. It’s a bit scary, though, and I hope Google will not fail my trust.

The state of privacy in America: What we learned

The Tech sector sees as the next big things everything related to Smart: Smart Home, Digital Assistants, Internet of Things, the Cloud, etc. Although I would agree on their immense potential to make our lives more comfortable (and therefore become a big growth market for Consumer Electronics companies), there is one big condition: data privacy.

The linked article references a Pew Research piece regarding just this issue. One thing that is clear is that people currently do not feel that their data is safe, and that this will be important going forward when it comes to adoption of new products and services and the choice in which brand to trust. 

It should worry these companies to read the following: 

For instance, 54% of Americans consider it an acceptable trade-off to have surveillance cameras in the office in order to improve workplace security and help reduce thefts. But a scenario involving the use of a “smart thermostat” in people’s homes that might save energy costs in return for insight about people’s comings and goings was deemed “acceptable” by only 27% of adults. It was seen as “not acceptable” by 55%.

The article is an interesting read, and I don’t want to go into much more detail here, but right now Apple seems to have the best message. They stand for the privacy of the data of their customers and make that a corner stone in their marketing. Google, on the other hand, is going to have a much more difficult time convincing people.

The state of privacy in America: What we learned

Nexus 6P vs Moto X Style | Comparison

I have had a month with both phones and in this review/face-off I want to highlight the differences between them, and I’ll even declare a winner, if possible. Check out below what my thoughts are.

First of all, I am specifically comparing the grey 64Gb model of the Nexus 6P and the white Moto X Style with an additional 64Gb of storage via SD Card. To set the following in perspective, the Nexus 6P costs 699 euros on the Google Store while the Moto X Style currently costs 499 euros on Amazon.

Design and build

These are both large phones, with their 5.7" size screens. As a result, neither are easily used one-handed. However, I feel that the Moto X Style is slightly more pleasant to hold. This is a mixture of the shape and materials. The Nexus 6P feels larger and heavier and while made out of beautiful metal, it is as a result extremely slippery without a case (and putting one on, makes the phone larger still). In that sense, the Nexus 6P reminds me a lot of the iPhone 6S Plus – beautiful but a bit unwieldy. The Moto X Style is more pleasant to hold, and I don’t feel I need a case to use it comfortably and confidently.

Although functionally the Moto X Style may win, in terms of sheer design, the Nexus 6P stands above the Moto X Style. It is thin, feels very premium and is beautiful. The Moto X is not bad looking, but there is a noticeable difference. I am sure this is a place where the cost difference came into play.

Screen

First of all, the screens on both phones are reasonably good. That being said, I certainly prefer the Nexus 6P screen as its colours pop a little more and it’s a little brighter. Also, the viewing angles on the Nexus 6P are much better. In fact, the viewing angles on the Moto X Style are quite poor: the screen turns dull and washed out rather quickly if you don’t look at it head-on.

Although the 6P screen is better, it is not the best screen I have tried. My current phone is the Galaxy Note 4, and that screen has much better outside legibility. In that sense, Samsung clearly still has the best screens and both Huawei and Motorola have a lot to learn.

Active display

Both phones have some sort of Active Display, i.e. showing content while the phone is not actually unlocked (and the screen is off). Motorola is the brand that popularised this with the first Moto X, and they have a really good thing going. It is terribly useful to quickly view and act on notifications as well as play/pause multimedia. The Active Display turns on when you wave your hand over it or pick up the phone. Fantastic feature!

The Nexus 6P has an Active Display lite of sorts. When a notification comes in, it will show it briefly on the screen with white text on a black screen, making perfect use of the AMOLED panel’s qualities. It is useful for what it is – you can quickly see what the notification was for – but it is not as useful as Motorola’s implementation.

Performance and battery life

They both have similar specs, but the Nexus 6P has a slightly more powerful CPU and GPU. I would personally argue that this should not be noticeable, unless you play heavy duty games or load very large web sites. In general operation, these chips should give a very similar experience. However, for whatever reason, the experience on both phones is different. Scrolling is buttery smooth on the Nexus 6P, but not on the Moto X Style (or the Note 4 for that matter). As is generally the case, the Nexus phones are in a league of their own (in the Android world) when it comes to performance.

Although the Nexus 6P is as smooth an Android experience as you will find right now, web browsing is still not a great experience. A colleague of mine that uses iOS asked how the phone was and I said it was great. She loaded a web site on the 6P and tried pinch to zoom and panning on the screen and it was painful to see. Safari on iOS is how browsing on a mobile device should be. I realise this is not the Nexus 6P’s problem, as it affects all Android phones, but it is something that needs to be addressed urgently!

Both phones have big batteries and will last you more than certainly a day of moderate to heavy use. The nexus 6P is particularly strong in this area. Most of the days, I could finish with 20-30% in the tank. Great stuff and almost iPhone xx Plus territory. Once the Moto X Style got Marshmallow, it performed similarly, in my experience.

Speakers

Both of the phones have good speakers. They are stereo front-facing speakers, which is basically the ideal set-up. The Moto X Style speakers do get a bit louder which is nice, but the Nexus 6P is sufficient in my opinion, for car navigation, speaker calls and some podcast/music listening.

Camera

Motorola has a long track record of poor camera results. However, every year they make substantial improvements. This year’s camera is again a step above last year’s Moto X. It has a very high pixel count (21MP) when compared to previous year’s camera. Furthermore, it has a pretty unique camera interface, where you can move the focal point and exposure measurement by sliding it to the place you want with your finger. After that, by tapping on the screen in any place, the camera takes the picture. It hasn’t become second nature, as a tap to focus and then hitting the shutter button feels more intuitive, as just about all other cameras use that paradigm.

Under day light conditions the Moto X Style takes good pictures, although some HDR picture come out slightly blown out still. Where the camera falls down a little is in low-light shots, where it doesn’t manage to capture sufficient light and has quite a lot of noise in the pictures.

Nexus phones have a poor track record when it comes to camera quality. Arguably, this was often due to poor image processing algorithms. These are complicated/expensive to develop and often depend on work done by others (which means paying the necessary royalties to those folks). In order to avoid this, Huawei and Google, went with fewer, but larger, pixels so that the raw data captured is as rich and accurate as possible. Specifically, its camera has a 12MP sensor. From a specifications point of view, I would have liked to see OIS (particularly given the price point of the phone), but it does not have it (just like the Moto X Style).

The resulting pictures of the Nexus 6P are very nice I must say. The interface is plain, but works well enough for the regular person. It is reasonably fast in operation (launching, focussing, shot-to-shot time), with only the image processing taking up some time in the background (when you are shooting HDR). In day light it offers good results, although, similarly to the Moto X Style, it tends to blow out the high lights in outdoor HDR shots. This is a bit of a shame. In lower-light scenes, the pictures come out pretty good I find. It captures a lot of light and the photo is clear as long as the subjects were not moving around.

Finger print scanner

The Nexus 6P has a finger print scanner on the back of the phone. During the phone set-up, you are asked whether you want to set up the scanner. It takes very little time to do, and afterwards it is very fast in recognising the fingerprint and unlocking the phone. The fact that I can simply place the finger on the scanner and the phone unlocks is quite handy. However, I find the placement to be awkward. When you are out and about it is fine, however, whenever the phone is laying on the desk or placed in a cradle in my car, the finger print scanner on the back becomes a real nuisance. I have used both the iPhone’s and Samsung’s fingerprint scanners and I prefer the placement of the scanner on the home button on the front of the device (although I fully realise this a less natural location on a smartphone with a stock android interface that has on-screen buttons).

The Moto X Style does not have a finger print scanner at all. At this day and age, if you want the phone to compete with the flagships, I think it should have one. Personally, I find it to be an important omission on the part of Motorola. I realise it helps keep the cost down, but the OnePlus 2 is cheaper and does have a finger print scanner. I am pretty sure the next Moto X Style will have one, but that does not help with the omission on this one.

Conclusion

On an experience and specification level, the Nexus 6P wins over the Moto X Style. However, this is a must, given the price difference. The real question is, which phone offers better value for money. To answer that question, we will need to put the phones in their competitive land scape.

The Nexus 6P can compete with the likes of the Note 5/S6 Edge+ or iPhone 6s Plus or at least to a large extend. When compared to those phones, its unlocked price is actually pretty good. For that reason, if you have 699 euros to spend on a high end smartphone, I would say, look not further. It offers a great experience and saves you a couple hundred euros in the process (when compared to the before-mentioned smartphones).

The Moto X Style is a tougher sell, I feel. It competes in a market with the OnePlus 2 which is a similarly specified and performing smartphone for 399 euros. However, that phone is not readily available in the market yet and is also limited to online shops. The Moto X Style also competes with the LG G4, which is a bit cheaper and offers a better screen and camera, but with a poorer software experience than on the Moto X Style. All three of these phones are good phones and offer great value for money. However, if you want a large screen, good speakers, good performance, good battery life, stock android and the Motorola additions (like Active Display), then I do feel that the Moto X Style is great purchase.

Personally, though, I would go for the Nexus 6P. 🙂

Apple’s role in Google Voice’s rejection

About two weeks ago, Apple rejected Google’s app for the Google Voice service and ousted from the app store 2 applications, that had been previously approved, from independent developers  (link). As is only natural, this has caused quite the scandal across the Internet. Thankfully, in my opinion, the FCC has stepped in to ask for clarification about what happened to lead up to these events (link).

In all of the conversations I have read and listened to, there seems to be a certain agreement that Apple has no “personal” interest in rejecting these apps. And indeed, it makes more sense to think that AT&T is behind this. However, after reflecting about the situation, there is something that bothers me about Apple’s position.

Apple’s relationship with the operator is more intense and sensitive than usual. I would say this is mostly due to the monthly revenue sharing deal they manage to get with the operators. As a result of this, they need to be particularly understanding of the operator’s needs.

Normally, a manufacturer, say Samsung, talks to an operator, e.g. Vodafone, to get them to subsidise and offer their handsets. They agree on an order size and the price. The operator, in return of subsidising the phones, wants to have a little bit of control over what’s on the phone in terms of software and operator branding and, as such, there can be specific (operator) firmware versions that ensure that all is as desired. Once they come to an agreement, that is the end of the transaction.

With Apple, things are different. It has quite a few wishes that need to be met. In the first place, Apple wants the iPhone to be subsidised by the operator; it needs to be sold with a data plan; Apple maintains absolute control over the device and its ecosystem (there is only one version of the firmware); and, lastly, it wants to have a part of the monthly revenue. This is a rather long list. Operators agree to this, because the iPhone:

  1. manages to persuade people to switch operators like no other handset (very welcome in a mature market);
  2. it creates an incredible amount of loyalty (reduces churn) to the handset (and indirectly the operator);
  3. and last, but no least, the iPhone can only be obtained through the operator (it is not available unlocked).

Of course, the iPhone benefits the operator – otherwise they wouldn’t agree to this – but unlike a “normal” manufacturer-operator relationship, the power that Apple has in the relationship is great. They decide what goes on the iPhone and receive income throughout the contract duration for every iPhone sold. This is rather unusual. As a consequence, and in order guarantee the influx on money – Apple is in the money making business – it will have to be somewhat sensitive to the operator’s situation, which may mean blocking access to the app store of applications that may hurt the operators.

Consequently, I don’t think we can just blame AT&T for rejecting the Google Voice app. Apple is making a lot of money through them, but money does not come cheap. Sometimes it may need to harm the end user. I think Apple has gone too far.