CES 2016: A Place for the Insane and (Sometimes) Useful Technologies

CRB_1271The international Consumer Electronics Show, held annually in Las Vegas gets underway today. This popular show gathers tech companies, reporters, advertisers and analysts for one giant sprawling series of events dedicated to showing off thousands of new gadgets.

The CES typically offers a mix of cutting-edge tech products that range from exciting and potentially world-changing to insane ideas, with a likely mixture of both. However, most of the time, the CES offers an excellent window at the big new trends in consumer technology that companies hope will be successful in the coming year. Some technologies, like 3D TV or ultrabook laptops, have fallen completely flat. But others, like virtual reality and 4K TV, are steadily making their way into our living rooms.

What are some of the things we should expect to see this year?

Wearables

The year 2015 was a big one for wearables. The release of the Apple Watch, updated Android Wear OS and new versions of the Pebble Watch made their way to our wrists. This year, we could see many of the same themes: fitness tracking, notification serving and always-connected will likely play a big role in the new year. Most of the wearable tech present at CES in 2016 will take the shape of small gadgets. But those looking to make a statement have no shortage of options either.

Virtual reality

It looks like 2016 will finally be the year that consumers will be able to get their hands on powerful VR headsets. Major players in VR like Facebook-owned Oculus and Sony-owned Playstation VR will drum up pre-launch buzz at each of their CES booths by showing off some of the most advanced headsets on the planet.

Smart Homes

At this year’s CES, almost all of the Tech West hall will be covered by new smart home gadgets. Products that are compatible with Google’s Nest Learning Thermostat, Apple HomeKit, Wink, and Thread are expected to be there in numbers.

Driver-less Cars

Driverless cars are set to come onto the scene in a big way. Appearances from Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Hyundai, Mercedes, Toyota and more could bring some interesting features to the car industry in their own right. Chevy and Volkswagen are expected to unveil new electric automobiles. And Ford might be looking to unveil its Google-powered self-driving cars.

Drones

A newly designed drone from Amazon was revealed for its fleet of proposed delivery drones in a video posted to YouTube. The new Amazon “hybrid” drone can switch between flying like a helicopter and airplane, and has a range of 15 miles, according to the company.

Times have changed for drone technology. As recently as 2014, there were only four exhibitors at CES that were offering drones. This year, there will be 27 different exhibitors, with a massive marketplace taking up a large percentage of the showroom floor. Today’s demands for drone technology is that they have advanced sensor arrays that monitor the environment, keep them from crashing, remain in legal airspace, and make flying them easier.

Google’s Machine Learning TensorFlow Is Now Open-Sourced

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Machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence that employs software to interpret and make predictions from large sets of data, is in popular demand in Silicon Valley. Some of the largest of those companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple have thrown their hat into the ring. But it was Google that started the trend, and in order to remain innovative, Google needed to keep looking like the cutting-edge leader.

Hence TensorFlow, a machine-learning system that Google has used internally for a few years. Today, Google is taking it open source, releasing the software parameters to fellow engineers, academics and hacks with enough coding skills. There is no denying that learning systems have made it possible to create and improve apps when it comes to speech and image recognition technologies.

For example, Google Photos have benefitted from their own machine learning system, called DisBelief. Developed in 2011, DisBelief has helped Google build large neural networks, but it has its limitations, including difficult configurations and its inability to share code externally. As a result, the company has open-sourced TensorFlow, which was designed to fix the shortcomings of DisBelief. However, it’s important to note that it only allows for part of the AI engine to be open-sourced.

By releasing TensorFlow, Google aims to make the software it built to develop and run its own AI systems a part of the standard toolset used by researchers. It may also help Google identify potential talent for the future.

Is the “iRing” On Its Way?

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With increasing pressure to diversify its products, Apple seems to be doing just that as evidence of a patent application has been spotted recently.

Of course, it is important to note that Apple issues patents on a regular basis, and some of the most publicized and plausible of these patents have never been included in any form of Apple technology. So this latest patent shouldn’t be seen as stone evidence that Apple is about to release a Smart Ring in the foreseeable future, but it does indicate that the company has at least considered the possibility.

The “iRing” is based around a finger-mounted gadget packed with motion sensors, microphones, cameras and a tiny display. With Apple having releasing the first Apple Watch earlier this year, they are likely expected to update the smartwatch next year. And if the Apple Watch never sees the success that Apple was hoping for, it has still come to almost completely dominate the smartwatch market.

An Apple Smart Ring may seem to be pretty limited in terms of its capabilities, but it certainly seems that Apple is considering such a gadget. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published the application for what appears to be such a device, and the title of the patent provided a further clue into Apple’s thinking on the subject. Titled “Devices and methods for a ring computing device,” it seems certain that Apple is thus considering an Apple Smart Ring at some point in the future.

Apple Axing Advertising

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Apple is waging a battle on advertising, as they have made ad-blocking software available on the iPhone with the new operating system iOS9. This likely undermines their arch-rival Google, which dominates the $120 billion online ad market.

For the first time, third-party software strip out marketing messages such as banner and video ads when people surf the web via the Safari browser. But Apple’s new approach will not affect advertising inside applications such as Facebook, casual games, or even Apple’s own applications. In effect, Apple is nudging companies to shift spending to apps, rather than traditional online ads where Google leads. 200 million people have used ad blockers last year, up 40% from a year earlier, resulting in $22 billion in lost advertising revenue.

Incidentally, Apple has launched their own news app, which will allow media companies to bypass blockers to serve their own ads or let Apple sell ads and share the revenue. It will be interesting to see how these moves made by Apple will affect its own interests, and if it will loosen Google’s hold on the mobile ad market.

Ding Dong the Fire Phone is Dead

As Apple demonstrated its brand new lineup of smartphones, it looks like Amazon was quietly killing off its own.

Amazon had been rumored to be working on a smartphone for years before the Fire Phone was unveiled. Just over a year ago we got our first look at the device, and all the predictions about Amazon’s phone being inexpensive were wrong; the high price tag and gimmicky features kept consumers away and the phone flopped. Now even Amazon has admitted defeat by ending sales of the device.

You would have to really dig for the Amazon Fire Phone now as most links to the phone in Amazon’s Fire device pages have been removed. When you do find them, both the AT&T and unlocked Fire Phone show up as unavailable and no more stock is expected. This isn’t just a question of running out, they just aren’t being offered for sale on Amazon’s website anymore.

Amazon’s move to stop producing the phone is no surprise. Despite all the buzz, it failed to become the success the company hoped. Only a few months after shipping, Amazon admitted last October that it took a $170 million charge mostly associated with the Fire phone and related supplier costs, and $83 million worth of phone inventory surplus.

While Amazon blamed the phone’s flop on badly pricing the device, some in the industry pinned the failure on the phone’s concept. Like Amazon’s other Fire devices, the Fire Phone ran a heavily customized version of Android without Google’s services. Amazon supplied the apps, music, video, and everything else. This was the Fire Phone’s greatest weakness as Amazon’s services lacked many of the features that make Android phones great. Fire OS is fine for a content consumption device like a tablet, but not a phone. The Fire Phone had a feature called “Dynamic Perspective” that used head tracking to adjust the UI, but it didn’t really make up for the missing features.

A Buyer for Twitter?

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I hate to join a mob scene, but really Google, it’s time to spend some money wisely and buy Twitter. The little blue bird has been having a tough year. It’s trading at about $30 with a market cap of about $20 Billion, which is roughly half of where it was 18 month ago. Its investors are screaming about profits, which must make trying to plan ahead tough (trust me, I know of which I speak). Its management team is looking a little shaky, and it’s also seen slowing membership growth, which makes the market nervous. Last time I checked, Google had roughly $60 Billion in liquid cash stuffed behind the sofa, more than enough to pay cash and still have walking around money to fund their next moon shot projects.

 

Some argue that Facebook, Microsoft or Apple should make an offer, but Google would be the best fit. Apple has more than enough to do already, Facebook doesn’t need it, and Microsoft has their own social effort in Yammer. In contrast, Google could really use Twitter. To start with, in addition to the cash behind the sofa, it has another $440 Billion in market cap to play with, so putting the deal together seems feasible. Next, Google has been getting it in the neck of late for spending cash on projects with a high cool factor but no actual revenue. Google isn’t a car company or a Wi-Fi company or a VR company; at its core it’s an advertising company and a really good one at that. What twitter represents is a massive pool of end users who could be great consumers for the advertisers Google already possesses.

In recent months, Google has been killing off its failed social media effort Google+ (may it rest in peace). That leaves Google with a ton of advertisers, a difficult landscape in terms of making money out of mobile users, declining desktop traffic, and no social media component. If they were smart, they would make a play for Twitter and get them under their wing as a wholly owned subsidiary like they did with YouTube. YouTube thrives with a light managerial touch from Google and is now the second largest online search. If Google can annex Twitter, it can pretty much guarantee that it will also have the third largest search in Twitter as well.

Facebook has been focusing more on search recently, Apple has fired Google as their search, and with Windows 10, there is a chance that Microsoft will be able to grow Bing’s market share. If Google loses Twitter to one of those guys, its opportunity to grow its search in social will be greatly reduced at the same time their rivals are making aggressive moves into Google heartland.

It will be expensive, no doubt, and many will cry “foul” and “monopoly,” but it’s a move which makes perfect sense in many ways. It may by now be as close to a “must do” play for Google as makes little difference.

Apple’s iPod Touch is Getting a Facelift

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Apple seems to not have forgotten its roots, as recent reports suggest that the iconic computer and phone manufacturer are releasing a brand new iPod Touch. Yes, it’s been a while since the iPod has really, really meant something in the world of consumer electronics, but new models will likely be announced this week. Additionally, the company is expected to unveil new models of iPod Shuffle and the iPad Nano.

Apple’s upcoming iPod Touch will likely offer a 64-bit processor, or the same processor as the iPhone 5S. The music player with touchscreen display is also expected to include an improved back-facing camera, and additional storage option including models with 128GB non-expandable internal storage.

This round of updates in the Apple factory should not have surprised anyone. Back in June, Apple launched the revamped version of its Music App to compete with Spotify. Adding new, inexpensive iPod Touch models with new bells and whistles could help the new Apple Music rake in additional revenue from new subscribers, although the new Apple music player is also coming to Android this fall.

Some have suggested that Apple might use the new iPods to sell more Beats Music-branded headsets and earphones. The new reports about the iPod refresh also comes as Apple introduces the new build for the iOS, a beta preview, and it highlights the company’s first attempt in the online news business.

Apple Gunning for Google…Again

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A few weeks back, Facebook announced that it was adding a good sized index of Facebook-exclusive stuff to its product, which in theory presents a threat to Google News and possibly other search products. At its developer conference this week, Apple announced a much larger threat to Google.

This gets inside baseball very quickly, but it’s worth it; hang with me. If you are an iDevice user, you will be familiar with Spotlight search. It’s the search box that appears if you swipe down from pretty much anywhere in iOS. At the moment, it pulls up matches from some native apps on your phone; things like your contacts, calendar and some email programs.

The Apple announcement today will allow pretty much any app to link into Spotlight search through an API (that’s the language in which programs talk to each other). So if you have the CCN app (for example), and you searched for “ISIS” in the Spotlight bar, the CNN app could return stories from the main site CNN.com without you ever calling up a browser or doing a search on any other search engine. That’s potentially huge. It would also allow apps like Amazon and eBay to pull up commercial results, again without recourse to Google.

The nuance to this is that (unlike Google) Apple doesn’t rely on exploiting search results with commercials to drive 95% of its revenue, so it can promise (as it did this week) that your searches will never be shared or targeted. Given the massive and accelerating growth of mobile vs. desktop usage, this could make a significant dent in Google.

The good news for Google is that it owns Android, which holds a significant market lead in mobile devices. It could certainly make a similar move and return Google Ads around the results, but it doesn’t have the vice-like grip on its own mobile OS the way Apple does. Carriers futz with Android, which makes this kind of over-arching play trickier. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Apple Crawling…

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Did anyone get rich by betting against Apple recently? The short answer is probably no, unless you were lucky enough to pick the short round about Christmas last year. So, if I were to suggest that Apple is planning to take on Google as a search provider, who’d give me $50 against them making that work? Any takers? Didn’t think so.

There has been a rumor circling out there for a while that Apple is going to build their own search engine. The challenge of doing that is both simpler and more difficult than it was back in the early days. It’s simpler because the processor power needed to do something that huge is much cheaper, but the scale of the task has ballooned along with the internet.

As Apple inserts themselves into more and more of our lives, it makes perfect sense that they would try to claim at least a part of the search pie. I (like many people) have Apple devices on which I mostly run Google Apps. Since mobile and wearable continue to dominate our interaction with the web and each other, it might be more convenient if we could use a decent Apple search rather than always having to divert to Google.

Apple has given us perhaps the strongest indicator yet by announcing webmaster guidelines around their web crawler or search bot. Just in case you have a life and aren’t familiar with the term, a web crawler is a program that roams over the net following links and indexing the content it finds. You can stop it from indexing all or part of your site by naming it in your robots.txt file. Apple is now telling webmasters which syntax to use to stop Applebot from indexing their sites.

Google and Bing have an enormous head start in terms of familiarity for both users and advertisers, but Apple has a massive user base to which it could immediately propagate its search. It doesn’t mean that people will use it, but if they put it on the home screen, I bet may would at least try it.

The search pundits (yes such things exist) are speculating that this is Apple only looking to build a search for Siri. But why stop there? If you are Apple, with the brand recognition and user base they have, why wouldn’t you go the whole way and jump into search full on? If they are just now announcing their bot, it won’t happen overnight. But in a year — absolutely possible.

Apple Watch Ad Campaign In Full Effect

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Apple is no stranger to robust marketing campaigns and the company is known for its clever advertisements, but no one can deny Apple is pushing into new territory with its media blitz for its smartwatch, which includes 10 short videos demonstrating the Apple Watch’s usefulness. Three of the short videos, which Apple calls “Guided Tour” videos, are available online, and are broken down into different categories based on the feature described, such as Messages, Faces, and Digital Touch. Among the features highlighted in the upcoming videos are maps, Siri, phone calls, music, activity, Apple Pay, and Workout.

The company had previously released a series of short videos, made with Apple’s typical flair and highlight the precision manufacturing involved in the creation of the watch, after the device was first announced last year. Though the launch of the Watch is almost guaranteed to garner significant media coverage, the new reservation-only system will deprive Apple of one of its standard, and most durable PR images that includes lines of Apple fans huddled in lines stretching city blocks, waiting for store doors to open.

It remains to be seen whether or not the company’s marketing blitz and expansion into luxury stores will have an impact on sales. Smartwatches currently hover at 2% market penetration, and nearly half of the smartwatch owners surveyed (48%) had an income below $45,000.

However, Apple entrance into wearables is expected to give the overall market a boost, especially after the disappointing sales of Android Wear. Still, it is not known if the Apple Watch will be a short-term phenomenon, or one that translates into long-term growth of wearables.