Author(s): Ben Wood
Geoff Blaber, George Jijiashvili, Kester Mann, Martin Garner, Paolo Pescatore
Google Assistant Receives Belated Boost
Google's Assistant was caught napping in the initial battle for a place on smartphones. The decision by Huawei to include Amazon's Alexa when it announced the Mate 9 at CES in January must have stung. So it comes as little surprise to see a steady stream of Google executives gracing the stages of all the major Android smartphone launches this week. Today, Google announced that English and German versions of Assistant would be coming to phones running releases 6 and 7 (Marshmallow and Nougat) of its Android operating system. The arrival of Assistant on phones beyond Google's own hardware should help it regain some ground lost to Alexa. However, Amazon is not standing still and it has deepened its relationship with Lenovo, unveiling an Alexa Moto Mod accessory for the company's Moto Z handsets. Voice assistants and their related cognitive capabilities are becoming the next big battleground across all aspects of technology.
AT&T Unlimited Plan Highlights Need for True Tariff Innovation
AT&T has ensured the industry spotlight remains firmly focused on the "unlimited" data plan battle being waged in the US. The carrier made much needed changes to its unlimited data plans — its premium offering now includes 10GB of tethering data but maintains the largely standard usage cap of 22GB. However, it also introduced a new lightweight plan called Unlimited Choice for a lower monthly price of $60 but with a download cap of 3 Mbps. This is a deeply questionable approach. Although it may suit some users, it comes as device abilities are about to expand significantly to support sustained download speeds beyond 100 Mbps. In our view, the move reflects a desperate need for more innovative thinking about pricing structures.
Deutsche Telekom Announces Augmented Reality Glasses
At its press event, Deutsche Telekom unveiled a partnership with Zeiss for connected glasses. CEO Tim Hoettges said that the glasses would display information, apps and images to users. He boldly forecast that such a device could eventually replace the smartphone. The operator will provide the connectivity — for which it says 5G will be paramount — and undertake research aimed at moving computation to the cloud. The latter goal is significant as it would help make the glasses look and feel more like a regular pair of spectacles — a major hurdle to the adoption of wearables so far.
Sony Projector Concept Commercialised as Xperia Touch
The Sony Xperia Touch projector is one my favourite new gadgets at this year's Mobile World Congress. Sony first revealed the concept in Barcelona last year, and it's encouraging to see that it's now becoming a commercial product. Sony should be applauded for having the courage to invest in a completely new area. At its current price of €1,499, the Xperia Touch is out of reach for anyone but the most dedicated and affluent gadget-lover, but Sony may well be steering a course toward the future of projection technology in people's homes. We believe there could be an interesting fusion of touch-enabled projection technology with smart speakers that adds a visual element to a voice interface.
360-Degree Video Spins Up to Speed
Many examples of wireless streaming of 360-degree content are being displayed all around the exhibition space. Highlights include Nokia's Ozo professional-grade camera, Intel's collaboration with Ericsson to stream live video in 8K resolution and the Ricoh R Development kit, capable of 24/7 live streaming. While these early examples are very encouraging, more work needs to be done on reducing the bandwidth and hardware requirements.
Netflix CEO Addresses Mobile World Congress
Overall, I was disappointed with Reed Hastings' session at Mobile World Congress. He missed an opportunity to delve deeper into certain areas in order to court potential new partners. Agreements with network operators and hardware manufacturers are essential to gaining those much-needed new subscribers. Although the presentation lacked substance, a couple of interesting things stood out. Mr Hastings highlighted partnerships with Comcast and Liberty Global to integrate Netflix into set-top boxes, and he suggested that operators should look at offering unlimited video traffic at lower speeds. Overall, the session reinforced the importance of content. Netflix is clearly becoming a content producer akin to the other channels that viewers are accustomed to seeing on an electronic program guide.
Philips Lighting and Ericsson Launch Smart Street Light
Philips Lighting has worked with Ericsson to integrate a small cell LTE base station into an LED street-lighting pole. Known as the Philips Lightpole Site Slim, the product should make it easier for operators to increase network density in cities. The key innovation is in the way the antennas are integrated into the pole; in addition, the pole holds up to four transmitters, so it can be used by multiple operators. Advances in technology still don't address questions such as whether municipalities install the fixtures and rent them out to one or more operators, or whether operators should sponsor the installation. Philips is keen to position itself as the company that rents out space in its poles, and then shares revenue with city councils — a new approach from Philips.
Smartwatches Run Out of Steam
Compared with previous shows, when wearables formed the centrepiece of many device manufacturers' press events, this year the focus on this category was significantly subdued. Although some companies showcased their wearable products in the exhibition halls, smartwatches and fitness trackers were generally relegated to the back of the stands. Advanced smartphone companions like the Apple Watch, Android Wear watches and Tizen-powered devices had a particularly disappointing 2016. According to our latest wearables forecast, this sector saw growth of only 5 percent over 2015, with shipments of fewer than 16 million units. The release of Android Wear 2.0 is not likely to reinvigorate full-touch smartwatches on its own, but upcoming announcements from traditional watchmakers at Baselworld in March could breathe life into this increasingly stale category.
Sony's New Flagship Packs Innovative Features But Will Struggle outside Japan
Sony's new ultrahigh-end Xperia XZ Premium smartphone ticks every box when it comes to the latest and greatest features on an Android smartphone. It has an incredibly powerful 19-megapixel camera that can create slow-motion videos at an astounding 960 frames per second. It also sports predictive image capture and excellent low-light performance. The 5.5-inch display has equally high specifications, delivering the first 4K HDR screen on a smartphone. To showcase the display, Sony has teamed up with Amazon, a somewhat unexpected partnership given Sony's extensive in-house content assets. Whether smartphones really need a 4K HDR screen is questionable but it is an impressive feat. The Xperia XZ Premium also uses the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, so is capable of supporting gigabit LTE. All this technology is wrapped up in a stunning mirror-effect "luminous chrome" finish. However, despite the phone's impressive specifications and striking design we still believe Sony will find it difficult to compete against Apple and Samsung at the very top of the smartphone market, although the Xperia XZ Premium will prove popular in Japan, which now accounts for the largest share of Sony's smartphone sales.
LG Has Window of Opportunity for G6 to Shine
Having stumbled in 2016 with the modular G5 smartphone, LG knew it had to deliver a solid flagship device at this year's show. Based on our first experiences with the G6 we are very impressed. It's a well-designed device and, echoing a trend we predicted, it minimises the bezel around the edges of the device. LG must now capitalise on Samsung's decision to announce the Galaxy S8 at an event at the end of March and get the G6 as widely publicised as possible before it goes head-to-head with Samsung's flagship during the rest of the year.
Gigabit LTE Devices Become a Reality
At the show we have already seen two gigabit LTE-capable phones unveiled. The Sony Xperia XZ Premium and ZTE Gigabit phones both sport Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor and so are capable of high-speed LTE connections. We expect Samsung's Galaxy S8 will use the same chip. These devices come in addition to the Netgear Nighthawk M1 mobile router that is being used by Telstra to support its gigabit LTE service in Australia. In the UK, EE has confirmed its intention to launch gigabit LTE services and sell the Sony Xperia XZ Premium to support them. We believe the technology is an important stepping stone to 5G as it allows operators to evaluate usage of high-bandwidth applications on their existing 4G networks.
Cambridge Consultants Showcases Pizzicato, Its All-Digital Bluetooth Chip
Cambridge Consultants is at Mobile World Congress to show off what it claims is the cheapest connectivity chip for the Internet of things, with a price tag of $0.07 each. The size and cost of Bluetooth chips has been constrained by their analogue components. By moving to an all-digital design Cambridge Consultants has been able to shrink the chip size and cut its cost dramatically. It claims that its technology will reduce costs to a level at which disposable connected things become feasible. This takes us a step closer to "smart dust", which could be mixed with paint and other materials.
MediaTek Announces Commercial Availability of Helio X30
MediaTek first announced the Helio X30 in mid-2016 as its first 10 nm system-on-chip, but since then Qualcomm has beaten MediaTek to market with its flagship Snapdragon 835 chipset. The Helio X30 is a crucially important product for MediaTek given its current difficulties. However, we believe MediaTek will struggle with the product's premium positioning. Although the performances of the processing and graphics elements are likely to be competitive, an LTE category 10 modem falls substantially short of the benchmark for high-tier devices established by Qualcomm. With Intel and Samsung announcing gigabit LTE modems at the show, MediaTek must address connectivity shortcomings if it's to avoid being further squeezed between Qualcomm and a highly ambitious Spreadtrum.
Spreadtrum Unveils 14 nm LTE Chipset
Spreadtrum is firmly on the ascendancy as it seeks to rival MediaTek and expand beyond the entry level of the smartphone market. The SC9861G-IA features eight 64-bit cores using Intel's Airmont architecture and is built using Intel's 14 nm foundry platform. It offers a penta-mode LTE category 7 modem capable of reaching peak download speeds of 300 Mbps. The product is an important advance for Spreadtrum and a leading example of China's commitment to become a meaningful supplier of high-volume smartphone chipsets. Spreadtrum is making steady progress and although it's unlikely to mount a challenge at the top end of the market in the near term, it poses a considerable threat to competitors in entry-level and mid-tier LTE.
Dell Unveils Edge Gateway 3000 Series
During 2016 Dell did well with its gateways for industrial IoT applications, which were marketed as "IT on the inside, OT (operations technology) on the outside". They supported a number of industrial IoT uses, and brought large-scale IT support services into an area that has traditionally run on longer slower cycles. With these new gateway models Dell is aiming at automation, energy, transportation and digital signage markets. The new devices are smaller, hit a new price of $399, and will ship from mid-2017.
Samsung Launches Portfolio of 5G Solutions
Samsung unveiled a range of 5G infrastructure solutions, all of which are due to support trials and early network launches in 2018. Announcements were heavily focused on fixed wireless usage and support the 28 GHz millimetre waveband, with products including a home router, base station, and network infrastructure products. They underpin Samsung's focus on the supply of network infrastructure and close ties with operators that are leading deployments of 5G technology for fixed wireless uses. Samsung is a major partner of Verizon for the recently announced trial of 5G technology in 11 US markets in 2017. I expect Samsung to become more vocal about its strategies for device modems and chipsets in 2018.