Joining the Dots to a Connected Car Future

connected carI’ve been prepping a new feature on the future of the connected car industry and one thing is pretty clear: things are moving faster than you think.

We’re currently working our way through three of the four stages of industry evolution mapped out by Gartner. It claimed in a December report that efforts to integrate mobile and cloud-based apps into the car are almost complete – that’s one stage down. Then, up until 2024 it’ll be all about “digital lifestyle convergence”.

The report explained:

“This convergence means that consumers want to be able to communicate with friends and family members, remain productive to their workplace, and to be entertained with the content that they also access outside of the automobile. Users will also expect an automotive connectivity experience that is similar to other device experiences they are increasingly accustomed to, such as remote, over-the-air software updates and content/services upgrades.”

Microsoft has a good chance to capitalise on this shifting focus, with its new Connected Vehicle Platform. One of the five main pillars outlined by EVP of business development, Peggy Johnson, at CES, is “improved in-car productivity” via tools like Cortana, Dynamics, Office 365, Power BI and Skype for Business.

“For instance, imagine that Cortana seamlessly connects you whether you’re at home or in your car,” she explained. “Let’s say you’re on your phone at home and tell Cortana to set up a meeting for you and your colleague the next morning at a coffee shop. The next time you get in your car, Cortana reminds you of the morning meeting and starts navigation to get you to that coffee shop.”

With its heritage in the office productivity space, Microsoft obviously has an edge in these scenarios over connected car rivals like Apple, Google and Amazon, although its Azure-powered platform will also cover predictive maintenance, advanced navigation, customer insights and autonomous capabilities.

The platform’s open, partnership-based approach could also play well with consumers who are sick of many current systems, according to Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom.

“Users are increasingly frustrated with in-car technology,” he told me. “Even new models tend to be based on old, proprietary technology; technology that is impossible to swap out and replace with something more up to date and flexible.”

The Redmond giant knows the industry better than most, continued IHS Markit principal analyst Egil Juliussen.

“The auto industry is among those global industries which adds numerous requirements for how connected cars are treated (i.e. privacy, data storage locations, etc.),” he told me via email. “All of these complexities make it expensive and time-consuming for any auto manufacturer (even the largest) to develop, update and maintain cloud and software platforms to manage their network of connected cars.”

Partners on board

And therein lies the opportunity for Microsoft and others. The firm has also announced partnerships with Volvo, Daimler, Nissan-Renault, BMW and Toyota which will see each use its cloud-based tech to create their own unique platforms. This ability to customise is another obvious benefit of its platform for carmakers.

So where are we headed? Well, autonomous vehicles of course. Gartner reckons that by 2030 self-driving tech might even have created a new car ownership model – where we simply “hire” on-demand driverless cars for our journeys rather than own a vehicle outright. Already a third of Americans the analyst surveyed said they’d forgo purchasing a new vehicle if they could pay for such a service.

Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto are certainly major contenders for the connected car crown, especially in terms of integrating the car into the whole mobile experience. But Microsoft’s cloud-based approach, which is flexible enough to incorporate new technologies as it goes, has a decent chance of winning more carmaker minds and driver hearts.

 

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Intel Outside: the story behind Edison

edisonI’ve just written up for The Reg a news story based on one of the most interesting interviews I’ve done since moving here to Hong Kong: Intel Labs China’s chief scientist, Randolph Wang.

There wasn’t enough time to put everything in that piece so here’s the unabridged version (unfortunately without pics as most of the gadgets mentioned here have never formally been shown to the public).

Wang joined the labs around three and a half years ago but spoke about the recent launch of Intel’s SD card-sized computer Edison with the zeal and excitement of a start-up founder.

This is probably pretty accurate, since he told me the labs function “more like a start-up” than part of a global chip behemoth.

He walked me through the process by which Edison was developed in those labs, by as few as 10-20 people on average, with the focus on “creating something new”, not reliant on preconceived notions on buzzwords; of “going to work, playing around and having fun”.

It started life apparently as an actual smart SD card which they plugged into an off-the-shelf camera and went about seeing what applications they could run on it.

The idea of a “slave device” soon became limiting, however, but they decided to keep the size, pluggable form factor and self-contained design and work with that.

“Over time we got rid of the constraints, so the SD card could be born to tell the device about it – to be a master not a slave,” he said. Eventually they got rid of the final constraint by building devices (30-40 odd of them) themselves to fully exploit the potential of Edison.

At this time the idea was not just to build simple, box-like prototypes but, in partnership with Tsinghua university’s industrial design department, to “build something beautiful”.

He told me about a pair of “crystal speakers” made of a transparent material where the light inside responds to the music being played, or of a smart bird feeder – as described in The Reg article – which recognises which bird lands on it, takes and pic and sends an alert out to the owner if it’s an interesting breed.

Another project he was keen to promote was the porcelain cup demoed by CEO Brian Krzanich on stage at CES last month.

“There’s an LED matrix embedded in the cup wall that allows the cup to display subtle info or alerts. At CES, our CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated that the porcelain cup was working with the baby monitors (also powered by Edison) developed by Boston area start-up, Rest Devices,” he explained.

“If the baby’s respiration or temperature info is abnormal, the cup displays alert info. Alternatively, one can put applications in the cup so that it displays current temperature, or current Intel stock price, or as I was saying, with a pair of cups, the boyfriend cup lights up when the girlfriend puts coffee in her cup.”

What excited him so much was that the cup was made in a town called Jingdezhen, which has been making ultra-thin, high quality porcelain for over 1,700 years. Being so thin enables the light to shine through better, he explained.

Wang continued:

This is a remarkable story of marrying 2000 year old craftsmanship with the latest silicon technology. But it’s more than that. The town, though famous, is located in an impoverished area. One of the things talked about by the proponents of the “Maker revolution” is the idea of spawning new industries and generating new wealth at the most unlikely places, because the democratising effect of the “Maker phenomenon”. There’s a local “porcelain research institute” that we’re collaborating with, who see great potential in producing a new line of porcelain married with the latest cutting edge Intel technology to open new markets, thus breathing new life into an ancient local industry.

This kind of thing is not the end but the beginning for Edison, and with true SoCs, in which everything including Flash and DDR memory is on-die, set to land in a couple of years there’s the potential for the micro-computer to be made even smaller and cheaper in future.

The strength of the project will, however, depend on how developers take to it, Wang concluded.

“Each Edison-powered device is meant to house multiple applications that users can download into them and third-party application writers could write for. And these things can work together,” he said.

“We’ve tried to do something with the best intentions but I’m fairly certain that the best is yet to come and probably not from inside but outside.”

From Intel Inside to Intel Outside in a few short decades.


Why Lenovo can’t launch its phones in the US yet

lenovoLenovo is the number one PC maker in the world and rapidly gaining popularity in the smartphone space, where it’s second in China, yet it’s been forced to delay its planned entry into the US mobile space by up to 3 years.

Reports from CES last week had Lenovo execs lowering expectations in front of the media rather than the usual ambitious predictions and bravado that characterise the world’s biggest consumer electronics show.

As I reported on The Reg, CEO Yang Yuanqing predicted last May that the firm would launch a phone Stateside within a year.

However, at CES Lenovo’s Americas president Gerry Smith told journalists it could be another 2-3 years, and that the firm was waiting for the “right time”, the “right product” and looking to boost marketing/branding spend first.

It’s certainly a given the firm will eventually take on Apple in its own back yard, but with PC sales tanking globally, why such a long lead time?

I spoke to some local analysts to find out.

IDC’s Melissa Chau argued that it comes down to brand recognition and industry partnerships.

“The biggest challenge any smartphone player has in breaking into the US has to do with partnerships. Even Nokia found it a problem building the right relationships with carriers and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lenovo is finding the same,” she told me.

Lenovo needs also to find a unique selling point – something to differentiate it from the likes of Huawei, ZTE and others which have already shown they can produce decent handsets for US punters at low cost.

Canalys analyst Jessica Kwee was more optimistic, arguing that Lenovo already has good brand recognition thanks to its Thinkpad laptop line.

“Lenovo is one of the most well-known Chinese brand with a good brand image even in the US, which may help it do better than some of its Chinese peers when it does launch its smartphones there, although there are plenty of other reasons that will help determine its success, such as the products, channels, marketing and timing,” she told me.

In the end there’s nothing wrong with a company like Lenovo taking its time before launching into an important market.

But I have a feeling that it will make a move sooner rather than later. Giving your rivals – especially Chinese ones like Huawei – a 2-3 year head start is never wise, let alone in a fast-moving and highly competitive space like the US smartphone market.


ZTE in 2013: do smartphone designers dream of electric sheep?

blade runner posterI popped down to ZTE’s pre-Chinese New Year lunch for journos in Hong Kong earlier this week to see what the world’s fifth largest smartphone maker had to say for itself.

It’s not been an easy year for it or Shenzhen rival Huawei, who were both named as a national security risk in a US congressional committee report released at the tail end of 2012 in the bi-partisan hubbub typical of pre-election months.

In addition, ZTE has been under lengthy investigation by the FBI on suspicion of selling embargoed US-made tech to Iran and then covering it up when found out. Then there were the false rumours of swingeing job cuts at the firm and a $5bn cash injection from the Chinese government.

Despite its problems, however, ZTE remains on the move in the smartphone space, an innovator in telecoms infrastructure with its LTE offerings and has plans to grow the enterprise business despite the kind of government roadblocks put up in Australia, the US and now India.

Head of handset strategy Lv Qian Hao battled manfully with the flu to show me the firm’s latest high-end handset, the 5.7in Grand Memo (no pics I’m afraid). It comes across as a smallish version of Huawei’s massive six-incher the Ascend Mate and probably benefits from not being quite as large – in other words I could just about use it as a phone without looking daft.

In the rapidly developing smartphone space, specs like 13 megapixel camera, quad core 1.7Ghz Snapdragon processor and a 720p screen – specs which might once have elicited gasps of awe from the assembled masses – are now pretty standard at the high-end.

This is no criticism of ZTE but it certainly makes its job of climbing up the smartphone rankings and a goal of 50 million shipments this year that bit harder.

So where can it differentiate? Well, with high-end specs almost commoditised now, design is obviously one key area. With the best will in the world ZTE is not know for its beautiful design, but it’s hoping to change that with Hagen Fendler on board.

Pinched from cross-town rival Huawei, Fendler’s appointment and a new design centre in Shanghai certainly serve to highlight the firm’s vaulting ambitions in this space.

Fendler explained that his job is to create a design DNA which can be seeded throughout the firm’s handsets to help create a brand identity. It got off to a flyer with the launch at CES of the Grand S, an HD handset which at 6.9mm is currently the world’s thinnest.

It won’t be an easy job creating handsets that are both beautiful and distinctively “ZTE” but with 400 staff working on design alone, they’ve as good a chance as any.

It can be a frustrating time for a journalist talking to a designer, because so many of the concepts they tend to reference are abstract, ethereal and emotive rather than the nuts and bolts practicalities of engineering.

However, Fendler did reveal that much of his design inspiration comes from outside the immediate environs of the smartphone space – from books, magazines and films.

1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner was singled out for particular praise for sparking interesting ideas about “how humans interact with the technology around them”.

Just don’t expect to see the ZTE Blade Runner phone anytime soon. Actually, Google already got there with the Nexus, didn’t it?