Here’s my quick take on recent stories about smartphones, tablets, and supporting technologies that I found interesting.
The End of Two Year Contracts
Both AT&T and Sprint have joined T-Mobile and Verizon in ending requiring a two year contract when purchasing a new phone. The cellular service and phone purchase are now financed separately on all major US carriers as it should be. This is a good for consumers as they can shop for the phone and service separately. This should create more competition between carriers and sellers of phones which leads to better service and lower prices.
This is the way mobile sales works in the rest of the world. We can thank T-Mobile for starting the trend here in the US which forced the other carriers to follow suit.
iPhone Dominated Holiday Sales
It seems that Apple has a pretty good holiday season. According to Flurry, almost half of new phone activations worldwide during Christmas week were iPhones. Samsung came in second with about 20%.
These new iPhone owners seem to be using their phones too as Apple reported “in the two weeks ending January 3, customers spent over $1.1 billion on apps and in-app purchases”.
Smartphone with an Optical Zoom
The one camera feature I have wanted in a smartphone but never thought I’d see has been an optical zoom. All smartphone cameras have a digital zoom, where software attempts to zoom in on the subject, but the results are almost always poor. I never expected to see an actual optical zoom in a smartphone as it requires space between the lens and sensor and there is very little of that in a modern smartphone. Asus seems to have figured out how to make this work as the Zenfone Zoom offers an actual optical 3x zoom lens.
The rest of the phone seems unremarkable, but I’m hoping that other vendors will be able to offer similar technology in future devices.
Casio Smart Outdoor Watch
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Casio introduced the Smart Outdoor Watch WSD-F10 for people who enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, cycling, fishing, etc. The watch is a unique smartwatch in that it is customized for a certain user group. For outdoor use the watch is rugged (water resistant, vibration resistant, and shock resistant), has special sensors (magnetic compass, air pressure, altitude, and accelerometer) and comes with special apps for these activities (trekking, fishing, and cycling).
Also unique to this watch is that it has two displays; a color and monochrome display. When the battery drops below a certain level, the color display is disabled. Using the monochrome display, the watch can be used to tell time for 30 days but the other smartwatch functions are disabled.
The WSD-F10 will be priced at $499 and will be available in April.
I applaud Casio for making a specialized smartwatch. The price seems steep but for people who regularly participate in these activities this seems like it could be a worthy investment. My biggest concern about it is the battery life. Casio claims about one day’s worth of charge for the smartwatch features which seems too short for someone going on a multi-day camping or biking trip.
Fitbit Blaze Smartwatch
Fitbit also announced a specialty smartwatch at CES; the Fitbit Blaze. As you might expect from Fitbit, the Blaze has a focus on fitness tracking. The thought is that since people tend to take off their fitness trackers when they are at the office or out on the town which reduces the amount of data that is captured. The Blaze promises to capture more information since you can wear it all the time. Fitbit probably has better data about this than I do, but I see plenty of people wearing fitness bands along with a regular watch in the office and out at night.
Like other smartwatches, the Blaze can be outfitted in various styles and bands. The watch itself snaps into differently styled frames that can use different types of bands (rubber, leather, metal). You can easily snap the watch into a different frame when going to the gym or going out to a fancy dinner.
The focus of the product really is fitness tracking first and being a smartwatch second. While it displays notifications from your phone and can control audio, you cannot act upon any of the notifications. It also does not support third party apps.
For fitness, it contains the usual sensors including heart rate. A unique feature of the Blaze is that it claims five day battery life which allows you to sleep with it for monitoring your sleep patterns. You really can’t do that with a watch you have to recharge daily. Another sacrifice for the battery is that there is no GPS on the watch. It can work with the GPS on your phone so you will need to keep your phone with you to map your running or cycling routes.
It looks like Fitbit is trying to make a fashionable wearable. Whether you like the way the Blaze looks or not is personal opinion. From the pictures I think its a bit awkward looking but I’d have to see one in person to be sure. Like the new Pebble watches, it has a large bezel around a small display which looks cheap in my opinion. I do think that it is an interesting solution for people who otherwise are always wearing a fitness tracker. Starting at $200 with the rubber band, it is more expensive than most fitness trackers, but less expensive than many smartwatches which may make it a good compromise. The Blaze will be available in March.
Apple released the first beta of iOS 9.3 this week to developers and the public. There are many improvements but I wanted to call out the ones of most significance.
Night Shift changes the iPhone or iPad’s display to use softer colors at night as studies show that the blue tint of most color displays can interfere with a person’s sleep patterns. It is nice that Apple is adding this feature, but Apple is not the first to include such a feature. Amazon uses similar technology in Fire tablets. An app called F.lux does just this and has been out for various platforms for some time. It was available for iOS until Apple kicked it out of the App Store for using private APIs. It seems a bit shady that Apple would boot this app out and then integrate the same functionality into the OS without giving the authors of F.lux any credit or compensation.
Encryption in Notes
An update to the iOS Notes app includes the ability to encrypt individual notes. This can be handy to keep things like passwords and other personal information in Notes without worrying that anyone who has your phone can see them. It does make Notes more competitive to third party notes applications such Evernote and Microsoft OneNote which already have this feature. Keeping customers using Notes helps lock those customers into Apple’s ecosystem. It would be harder to switch to Android or Windows if all of your notes were trapped in iOS or OS X.
Education Updates for iPad
It is no secret that Google’s Chromebook devices have become dominant in classrooms across the country at the expense of the iPad. Apple appears to be attempting to regain some of that lost ground with iOS 9.3.
“Shared iPad” lets multiple students keep share a single device. This is a long requested feature that obviously benefits a classroom that doesn’t have an iPad for each student. I am hoping this feature finds its way into iOS for all users as it would be nice for families to be able to share a device too.
“Classroom” is an app for teachers to control their students iPads including:
- Viewing a student’s screen remotely
- Launching an app, web page, or eBook on students’ iPads
- Share any student’s screen to a projector via AirPlay
“Apple School Manager” provides centralized management of iPads for the school’s IT department.
All of these sound like good ideas for deploying large numbers of iPads an academic environment and I’m sure is a direct response to feedback from schools. Even with these new features Apple still has these problems in competing with Chromebooks:
- Chromebooks are much less expensive than iPads
- Replacing a broken or lost Chromebook is as simple as logging in with a new device since all programs and data are stored in the cloud
- Chromebooks have keyboards which give them the perception of being “real computers” to students instead of toys. Students treat them differently.
That’s it for now! I’ll be back when there is more to share.