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Meet the top contenders in the smartphone battle.

I mentioned earlier on this tumblr that there’s never been a better - or a worse - time to buy a smartphone.

Well, if I have managed to entice you - or failed to deter you - then this story I wrote may be just for you: The top contenders in the smartphone battle. And why we don’t know anything about one of them.

Ich bin dann mal weg.

And then I’ll be gone.

Yes, the report in the Media Guardian is true: After 20 years, 5 months and two weeks I’ve quit the BBC, but I’ll be hanging around for a couple more months or thereabouts.

Many thanks for the deluge of kind greetings and messages on Twitter, Facebook and email. I am very touched by all your good wishes [wipes away tear].

However, after 20 years of public service [media division], it feels like a good time to move on - leave on a high and while the job is still a lot of fun. 

I’m going to tackle a new challenge, so watch this space for news where I’ll pop up next.

Oh, and because many of you have asked: No, I won’t stop tweeting. Or writing the occasional blog post.

I’m not going away, so it’s way too early to say “thanks for all the fish”.

tim

An Icecream Sandwich is best eaten cold.

So I’ve now upgraded my Sony Xperia Arc S to Android 4.0 Icecream Sandwich (ICS). The upgrade went very very smoothly.

ICS is pleasing to the eye, and does hold a number of improvements - not least of which is the ability to switch off the very prominent display of the unlocking pattern, which made it way too easy for others to see and copy it.

The settings are now much easier to access, and the OS is sprinkled with nice little touches.

But still. To me it felt as if I had to relearn how to use my phone, which is fine for a mini-geek like me. But will normal phone owners really want to put up with that?

For most people it will be better if they come cold to ICS, not steeped in previous versions of Android.

By the way, HTC continues to provide the best Android skin. The ICS implementation on the HTC One X I currently have as a plaything is outstanding, and less of a jolt than the jump I had to make on the Arc S.

It’s too early to speak about performance, but just based on feel I believe that ICS is rather demanding, and has introduced a lag for some apps on my system, especially Gmail.

ICS is definitely not something to be entertained on older phones.

I can’t comment on battery life yet, but a friend with a Samsung Nexus S tells me that ICS is more power hungry than the previous version of Android.

Still, it’s a very nice OS, and as energy efficient quad core chips are set to dominate the lineup of forthcoming Android phones, neither speed nor battery should bother ICS users too much.

Accelerate.

There’s never been a better time to be a smartphone buyer. Nor a worse time either. Unless you’re really rich.

Remember the days when every three or four years you’d upgrade to yet another Nokia phone? Or a Sony Ericsson, if you wanted to be different. Or a Motorola, if you wanted to be fashionable? Your contract was for two years, and you kept your phone a year longer, because the old one was still solid as a brick, an upgrade was expensive and technical developments were not THAT dramatic to warrant an upgrade.

And now?

Just as you’ve decided to bite the bullet and sign that expensive two-year contract, newer and significantly better phones will be touted in all gadget magazines.

That HTC Legend of yours? Wheezing and short of internal memory, unable to cope with your ever growing collection of must-have apps.
Your iPhone 4? You’ll suffer from 4S envy, the screen is chipped and the battery barely makes it past lunch.  IPhone 5, anyone?  
Your Motorola Droid? Stuck in the Android past, two versions short of the full experience.
That Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S? Just half a year ago considered fast, but now also suffering memory problems.
How long will the Sony Xperia S with its glorious HD screen be competitive (and when oh when will its Android Icecream Sandwich update arrive)?
And all those Samsung Galaxy S2 owners: 18 months on the contract to go, and next week we’ll be on standby for the launch of the quad core Galaxy S3.
And Nokia’s awfully big Windows Phone adventure? Oh well…

Spin cycle

The update and upgrade cycle for smartphones has accelerated so much, that even affluent Apple fans are struggling to keep up. Cue for a link to my favourite Oatmeal cartoon.

It doesn’t help that battery technology has barely kept up with the ARMs race in our pockets - although British chip designer ARM keeps tamping down the energy hunger of its mobile offerings.

The ARM design for Samsung’s latest quad-core mobile chip, for example, is said to use 20% less power despite being significantly faster than the old dual-core chip.

Still, after six months of ownership, pity the power user that forgets to charge his smartphone towards the end of the office day.

And so we find ourselves trapped, either having to pay the punitive price of short-term contracts or lumbered with slowing and power-poor hardware.

The makers

Spare a thought for the manufacturers in all this.

Only Apple can bet on the lure of its one and only latest and greatest phone - and the fact (or trap) that its customers have sunk large amounts of money in the iTunes universe.

Other manufacturers see their all-new top phone overtaken and outclassed just a few months after launch.

If you’re not sure what that means for a company’s business model, just look at HTC’s latest results (although the new and well-reviewed HTC One series may change all this. For a short while.)

Smartphone owners and manufacturers alike may want to recall the lyrics of the REM song Accelerate.

The bursting of the dot.tv bubble. Kind of.

Whatever happened to the great digital revolution in our living rooms?


Weren’t we all supposed to be sitting in front of smart TVs right now, browsing clever interactive programme guides that had learned our likes and dislikes, pre-recorded our favourite shows just so, and  infused our personalised schedules with recommendations from social networks?

Remember Joost and all the other experiments?

Instead we still slump in our sofas and lap up whatever channel schedulers throw at us.

Fact: More than 90% of tv consumption still happens real-time. A measly 2% is true on-demand television. The remainder comes to you courtesy of the hard drive of your personal video recorder or (gasp) VCRs.

So, what’s gone wrong? Why aren’t we living  in the much promised on-demand tv nirvana?

Well, dramatic shifts in media consumption habits are like war, or a natural disaster: the best-laid plans crumble on impact with reality.

It’s a lesson we had to learn when the dot.com bubble burst, and it’s a lesson we had to relearn the past few years, during the bursting of the dot.tv bubble.

Here are the five hurdles that brought down the plans of everybody who was plotting our on-demand future:

  • Networks I: Broadband speeds and bandwidth are lagging well behind the needs of true on-demand services (although we should bear in mind that even at peak time, services like the iPlayer gobble up only a tiny proportion of the UK’s internet bandwidth. Who is hogging the network then, you may ask? Well, in the UK about 50% of traffic are blamed on - ahem - adult entertainment.
  • Rights: Broadcasters have learned a few tricks, but sorting out the rights for on-demand access to television archives is still an activity that triggers premature ageing in everybody involved.
  • Networks II: Even when the pipes to our homes are fat and uncluttered (contention ratios, anyone?), once the web videos arrive with us, they are passed through ageing ADSL or cable modems with poor Wifi quality.
  • Televisions: Right now, this is the biggest hurdle. Have you ever tried to connect your broadband enabled television to your router? Well, it can be quite an adventure. For starters, not that many people have their router in easy cabling distance to their main television. So everything stands and falls with the Wifi connections, putting us at the mercy of furniture and walls, especially as we’re not talking about serving some light-weight web pages, but bandwidth-heavy video streams, ideally in HD quality. It doesn’t help that TVs are not particularly good or fast at rendering web pages either.
  • UI/UX: And now for the final turn-off -  the lousy user interfaces and user experience of most on-demand video players. Navigating any on-demand player with your remote control will be a sub-optimal experience. 

So far so bad. But not all is lost.

On-demand television is set to sneak up on us.

Somebody, somewhere will get the hardware or the user interface just right - and will have it built in a way that allows for constant iteration.

Yes, it may well be the BBC and its partners, with its YouView platform. It could easily be somebody else.

And - in a few years from now - bandwidth constraints will at long last be disappearing, while hardware can finally deliver the data speeds we need.

It may happen as on-demand television’s very own iPad or iPhone moment. Not that it will be necessarily Apple who provides the hard and/or software. 

Or it may just come as a result of many incremental improvements - just like ubiquitous internet and e-commerce arrived some time after the bursting of the dot.com bubble had seemingly dashed most of our online hopes.

In the meantime, though, the world’s television channel schedulers can celebrate a few more triumphs - albeit it only because they haven’t noticed that their tv sets have become a secondary medium, as attention switches to the smartphones and tablets in our hands.

Lean forward, lean backward

One of the things that’s been exercising me a lot in recent months is the prospect of, or potential for a dramatic shift in how we use the internet.

I’ve been predicting for a while that 2012 will be the year that the internet will make the jump from the study to the living room.

So what’s new, I hear you say as you clutch your iPhone. I know, I know, the arrival of a second screen in the living room is well-known. But there is more to it.

Two weak (or rather not so weak) signals:

1. Last Christmas was probably the first time that a very large proportion, if not the majority of all tv sets sold was internet enabled.

Of course, hooking up your tv to your WiFi router is still a black art, or at least a painful experience. But these sales are a sign of things to come.

2. Last year, the BBC’s on-demand television service, the iPlayer, served some 1.94bn programmes in the UK. That’s a big number, but not my point. 

In 2010, more than 90% of all programmes delivered through the iPlayer went to PCs. In 2011, more than 30% went to smart TVs, smartphones and tablets. That is a huge shift. In new media speak, you could call it a tipping point.

You’ll say “iPad 2” and “Android phone”, and you’re right. And yes, the iPlayer apps on these devices are all nice and tidy.

But I believe that more and more internet consumption will happen through the television.

If I’m right, it will transform at least three industries:

Broadcast

Suddenly broadcasters won’t compete with 3 or 30 or 300 rival channels anymore, they’ll compete with the whole internet. Already YouTube is a pretty fun experience on my Samsung television (if my USB wifi stick is well behaved and my router not too temperamental). As YouTube and Vimeo and all the other services out there morph into multi-channel offerings, and Netflix and Lovefilm stake out their ground and sign up subscribers, old school broadcasters will have their work cut out. Facebook, meanwhile, will undoubtedly soon enter the “video” game as well. Amazon TV anyone? (Never mind Google and Apple TV).

Now combine video consumption with social and stick a clever User Interface in front of that … and broadcasters will have to pedal pretty hard to stand out.

Of course, the first attempts to make it work will fail. The user interface will be way too fiddly. TV sets will be slow, remote controls difficult to use etc etc.

But throw Microsoft’s Kinect and Xbox into the equation, plus the dozen or so start-ups developing rival (and simpler and cheaper) touchless interface technologies, shake it for three or four years and you’ll have difficulties recognising media consumption habits.

The Internet

So far, so video. Because now it gets really interesting - but also really uncertain.

The internet is a lean forward proposition. We lean towards our computer screen, hover over our tablets, squint at our smartphones.

But what if our tv sets become truly internet enabled. What if the user experience, the “natural user interface” (to use Microsoft terminology), the touchless interface becomes so simple that we actually are quite happy to use the TV to quickly search the web, get the video to accompany the movie, read some background material, scroll through our Facebook timeline? (No, I don’t want to get up to fetch the phone from the kitchen; and the tablet is still hooked up for a battery recharge).

Simples? No, because at that point you as a website owner will have to forget everything that you’ve learnt about online design. Remember that there are only that many Apps or Widgets that a TV can take (or an TV owner is prepared to install). It’s your website that will hit the TV screen. And this website has to be optimised for TVs. It needs to sniff that a television is calling, and send back a page that’s dynamically scaled both in terms of design and content to deliver just enough to provide the perfect “lean backward” experience that suits a tv screen. Don’t forget to provide the right kind of navigation that draws your viewers or customers deeper into your website.

Suddenly, your web development team ain’t gonna be in Kansas anymore.

And this has profound implications not just for the technology of your website, but for its content as well.

Yes, there will be plenty of people still clutching their tablets or wifi-connected smart paper or whatever the future holds. Yes, these will be the ABs or ABC1s who want to go deep. But I believe that a majority may prefer the quick hit of information or entertainment or titillation or comment or video. And touchless user interfaces and big internet-connected tv screens might be their main portal to your content.

Advertising, public relations

That, in turn, will change how companies engage with their customers. How they can push out messages and content. How they can deliver viral messages. The BBC is not the only organisation that plans to build “social” into its on-demand content platform. But once “social” comes into play, the content provider very rapidly loses control over the message and - most crucially - the user journey.

I may be completely wrong, of course.

These natural user interfaces may continue to be fairly cumbersome to use. My time horizon may be way out, say by five or ten years.

Still, I think the internet experience will soon split in two - lean forward and lean backward… or actually three or four if you throw in mobile and the world of apps.

And if you are a digital company, especially if you are a content provider, and miss that trend, you’ll be like the the next Betamax. Or HD DVD.

Digital is such an old-fashioned word…

Of course, I’ve already got a pretty popular platform for my musings, should I desire to use it - the BBC News website’s technology and business indexes. 

However, most of what my teams and I produce is news driven, and from time to time I want to reflect on a few more fundamental and incidental things digital.

Talking of digital: it’s such an old-fashioned word, isn’t it? Give it a few years, or a decade or two, and talking of the “digital economy”, “e-commerce” and suchlike will sound as quaint as speaking about the “steam age” or the “electricity economy”.

There’s a reason why I abolished the BBC News website’s e-commerce index in 2006.

Still, for now “digital” is the name of the game. And so I’ll post.