Friday, January 31, 2014

More Minolta Moments. Which handset vendor will leave the hardware business next? Here I venture to guess.

Minolta Moments. Perhaps no industry has more of them than the handset biz.

What's a Minolta Moment? Well, ask most people these days what Minolta makes and they'll tell you "cameras." Good, Japanese-quality cameras. But they don't. Minolta hasn't made cameras in almost 10 years. Back in 2006 Konica Minolta announced that their market share was too slim, as were the profit margins in the camera biz, to stay in the market. They packed up and left. Konica Minolta doesn't make cameras any longer. They make copy machines and other office equipment. They are an enterprise company.

The handset business has been full of Minolta Moments during the past two decades. For fun, let's look twenty years back at the world's top-ten handset vendors of 1994 and see which are still making phones. (When a mother company sells off the brand, that means they got out of the business in my opinion.) In 1994, Motorola was the dominant global player. But Motorola's mother ship got out of the business. (As did Google.) Nokia doesn't make handsets any longer. Ericsson doesn't. NEC really doesn't. Panasonic barely does. Siemens got out. Philips did. Oki. Toshiba. Mitsubishi.

So, these handset vendors in 1994 had a combined global market share of around 90%. And today? To be honest, I'm not quite sure. The number is so small, it's difficult to figure out. The combined share is likely less than 1% now that Nokia phones are Microsoft phones, and Motorola phones are Google phones soon to be Lenovo phones, just as Alcatel phones have nothing to do with Alcatel. To put this in perspective, imagine for a second the combined automotive market shares of GM, Ford, Toyota, VW, Nissan, Renault, Honda, Fiat, Mazda, and Hyundai dropped to 1% over a period of a decade or two. That's how much the handset market has changed.

So, now it's time for some conjecture. It's time to ask who's next. Where will the future handset Minolta Moments come from? Well, BlackBerry is a goner as far as I'm concerned. They're getting ready for a perfect Minolta Moment. Ready to concentrate on soft enterprise solutions. Then there's LG. Sure, LG is still a top-ten handset vendor, but they're a long way off from where they want to be. (I'm guessing Sony will stay the course, trying to leverage their sub-brands and content.)

The semi-surprise will be when Microsoft announces their handset Minolta Moment. Perhaps such a second-hand Minolta Moment can be called a "Google Shift:" At some point in time, Microsoft will sell off the Nokia brand they have access to, likely to an Asian vendor. (Nokia is still a great brand name in many Asian countries.) They'll sell off the factories they bought. Some of the patents they have access to. Offices and chairs and pencils and market channels. Microsoft press releases will call it a strategic move allowing Microsoft to concentrate on creating amazing mobile software while working with a fantastic hardware partner. Or something like that. Yep, the platitudes will pour out, bloggers will have a field day, Microsoft's stock will shoot up 3% seconds after the announcement as they also announce plans to close their sad-looking, empty retail stores.

I have to say, for the handset business, it's been a rather ugly picture for legacy vendors.

Strange. Minolta doesn't make cameras. And Nokia doesn't make phones.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Red Light. And Blue. Key trend: get ready to enter the Red-Light District.

B&W to RGB. It's a recurring trend you see.

Color movies, color television, color computer monitors, color-screened handsets. So, what's next? This trend is so obvious, it practically lights itself.

Before... and after.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Remote possibilities...

Back in the year 2000 when I was working for a business development group within Nokia Ventures, I remember reviewing a few consumer wishlists of new features people would most like to see in their handsets. Number one on such lists was consistently a bottle opener. Number two was often a television remote control.

Not many phones have infrared these days (although there are some), so using a phone as a remote for most existing boxes isn't so straight forward. But smartphones do have WiFi and Bluetooth, meaning it's possible to at least indirectly communicate with televisions and set-top boxes. But despite promised of Bluetooth-enabled STB's, it's looking likely that ZigBee could be the wireless standard for such things going forward.

But, to the best of my knowledge, there are no mainstream smartphones or tablets with built in ZigBee support, although there are rumors that Samsung and HTC will be introducing ZibBee-enabled devices soon. If such devices hit the market, it would mean that smartphones could be used to directly control such things as ZibBee enabled set-top boxes, locks, and light bulbs without the need for a gateway. (Even Nest's Learning Thermostat is ZigBee-enabled, meaning it could become part of the home's ZigBee mesh network, and potentially act as a ZibBee-to-WiFi gateway.)

So, it's interesting to note the increased interest in the relatively new category of the smart home phone, a smart device dedicated to being the remote control for all things in the home. Television & temperature. Lighting and laundry. The concept has been around for years and has been addressed in piecemeal ways so far. But now the pieces are really coming together.

So, who'll be in control? Device vendors, cable operators, security companies, energy companies, Google? Get ready for the rush toward remote opportunities.

There could be possibilities in remotes.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Does anybody else remember when our lightbulbs weren't connected to the internet?

How to build a smart, connected home? Screw in a light bulb. The key technology enablers have been on the market for a few years now (like chipsets from NXP), just enough time for the end products to start pouring onto the market. This is going to be standard stuff quite soon. Challenges that remain: prices and usability.

There are 12 billion bulbs sold each year worldwide. The majority are still incandescent bulbs -- the kind guys like Edison invented. Nominally one of the biggest market shifts ever will take place during the coming decade.

The key technology enablers such as chipsets have been out on the market for a few years now. And now the products are following the components to market.

Research Capsule's five forecast coming out soon...

Key enabler from NXP for IP connectivity.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Home game. The battle for the home heats up with Google's Nest purchase, after selling its set-top box unit.

Should cable operators be worried?

Google's $3.2 billion purchase of Nest Labs was interesting but for me, raises questions about the potential of the television set-top box as a gateway for the home.

I say this because when Google purchased Motorola Mobility back in 2012, in addition to the handset unit, they also got the set-top box division as part of the package deal. Motorola's set-top box unit is the world's second largest STB vendor and has an installed user base of tens of millions. As cable operators are looking to the set-top box as a springboard to offer more services for the home, hardware vendors are adding WiFi and ZigBee making them part of the home network, and for many, a thing of the internet. But last year Google sold off Motorola's Set-Top Box unit To Arris For $2.6 billion.

Nest is reporting some very impressive volumes, with more than one million Nest thermostats sold already. That's a very impressive number for the startup, and does put Google into the homes of many innovative users. And of course it does provide Google with some fantastic talent. But why on earth did Google sell off the set-top box unit that was in many

Having some experience from the set-top box industry, I know that cable and satellite operators can be rather protective of their walled gardens, and understandably so. But this does hurt innovation. And given the significant potential conflicts of interest between operators and Google (YouTube, Google TV,...), Google was looking for a more forward-looking way into the home.

Google gave up a fantastic footprint in the home for some good reasons. I assume Google has no seller's regret getting rid of the unit. They came to the conclusion that the set-top box business wasn't the best way through the front door. Rather, now they're looking to bring combine an Apple-esque hardware experience with their vision of the internet of things.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The unbearable standardization of lighting. (Or, how to confuse consumers in one easy step.)

From B to Z, wireless standards can be so confusing you see.

"The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from." That's a great quote from computer scientist Andrew Tanenbaum.

Like sausages and laws, you should never watch standards being made. It can be a messy process. And very competitive. There's the pure technical work. And then there's the lobbying. And the backroom deals. And the temporary alliances. There are the IPR battles and legal battles. And then there's the time required for the market to settle things.

I've been looking at the market for smart bulbs lately. The day will come when even our light bulbs are part of our personal connected networks. A bit Rube Goldberg-esque perhaps. A solution looking for a bigger problem to solve, but cool stuff nonetheless. There really are lots of cool use cases with connected, colored lighting.

But one thing that's confusing me is all the air interface standards being used in these bulbs. And I follow standards pretty closely. Could you imagine how the average consumer will feel? Interoperability? That's for the other vendor to worry about.

So, connected bulbs are hitting the market now. And lots more will during 2014. Let's see what technologies vendors are using to make the wireless connections into the home network: some use ZigBee and and some use Z-Wave. Some are planning on (low power) WiFi and one uses Bluetooth. There's something called 6LowPAN (IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks) and then, of course, there are several proprietary interfaces.

As we enter the age of the smart home and the internet of things, this is no small matter. Either things will work smoothly together, or they won't. For now it's looking like ZigBee with its many specific use-case specific protocols is looking like it might pull ahead. Set-top box vendors together with their cable operator partners are looking at ZigBee for cable boxes and remote controls. And at least two handset vendors might soon include ZigBee directly in their smartphones. And the most popular smart bulb and the most popular connected thermostat use ZigBee. But now I read that most new PAN implementations will be using Z-Wave. And some love IETF's 6LowPAN. Of course Bluetooth and WiFi have their installed user-base advantages. And I could list more here.

So, which PAN spec do you like best? Pick and choose. You just can't lose.