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Smartphones are about to get more interesting, but is it enough to drive growth? – TechCrunch

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Smartphone numbers are down. In 2018, global shipments dropped 3 percent, and while the long-promised arrival of 5G will help numbers get back into the black, IDC predicts that even then growth will be in the low-single digits.

With a few exceptions, handset makers are starting to feel the pain of stagnation, due to a confluence of different forces. There’s slowed economic growth in China and internationally, prolonged upgrade cycles and price hikes as tariffs are levied amid a looming trade war.

For many consumers, however, it comes down to one simple thing: most phones today are already quite good and manufacturers are offering fewer compelling reasons to upgrade every one to two years. Unlike many of the aforementioned external factors, this is something phone makers can actually do something about.

Of course, this could be the year that changes that. After years of minor upgrades, far-off concept designs and being backed into a corner by diminishing returns, handset makers are coming out swinging. Less than a month in, 2019 is already shaping up to be one of the most innovative years for smartphones in recent memory.

Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi and Royole all have folding phones in the works, and Motorola may be joining their ranks with a new Razr. Google, meanwhile, has promised to support the new wave of foldables with updates to Android. 5G phones are set to start trickling in this year, as well.

This week we saw a pair of handsets from Meizu and Vivo that take advantage of a handful of trends (wireless charging, Bluetooth headphones, etc.) to offer handsets fully devoid of ports. And then there’s whatever this LG thing is.

Not all are great or guaranteed hits, but with Mobile World Congress just over a month out, it already seems safe to declare that 2019 will be a good year for intriguing devices and concepts. Sales have been flagging, so companies are scrambling to stand out — heck, even HTC is going all-in on crypto with the Exodus One.

All of this should serve to make my job more interesting. But will far out concepts really drive growth? Foldables are already proving to be something of a mixed bag. Take Royole, which contorted its way into the spotlight by being the first company to make the long-promised folding screen a reality. The product ultimately left something to be desired. Early glimpses at devices like the dual-folding Xiaomi, however, have offered hope for the space’s potential.

5G, meanwhile, is going to have trouble living up to its own prolonged hype cycle. Those who pay attention to the industry have been hearing about its unlimited potential for years. The mainstream media has picked up on it in the intervening months, courtesy of CES and promises from handset makers and carriers alike.

But carriers have already done a lot to cloud the definition of 5G — take AT&T’s 5G Evolution. The carrier calls it its “first step on the road to 5G,” when really it’s more of a souped-up LTE. It has led to a whole lot of snipping between carriers, further muddying the waters for an already nebulous technology. There will be a number of 5G devices on the market before year’s end, but actually getting 5G coverage with your carrier in your city is another issue entirely.

Price will also be major a factor. Companies like OnePlus have shown just how good inexpensive handsets can be, all while prices have continued to rise on flagships. Models from Samsung and Apple now regularly start around $1,000, and the average price for a foldable looks like it will be more in the neighborhood of $1,500. At that price, it’s going to be difficult to attract anyone beyond early adopters with money to burn. Real mainstream adoption is going to require lower price points and a genuinely useful feature set that expands the products beyond sheer novelty.

The mobile industry is at a crossroads. It has hit maturation and, in some markets, saturation. 2019 will be a key year in determining the fate of the smartphone going forward, whether this space continues to have life in it, or if the stagnation will continue while we wait for the next big thing in consumer electronics.

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Meta plans hiring freeze, NASA shoots an asteroid, and Elon’s texts about Twitter are made public • TechCrunch

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Hi all! Welcome back to Week in Review, the newsletter where we quickly sum up some of the most read TechCrunch stories from the past seven days. The goal? Even when you’re swamped, a quick skim of WiR on Saturday morning should give you a pretty good understanding of what happened in tech this week.

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most read

  • Elon’s texts: As part of the ongoing Musk vs. Twitter trial, a big ol’ trove of Twitter-related texts between Elon and various key figures/executives/celebrities has been made public. Amanda and Taylor look at some of the most interesting bits, with appearances from people like Gayle King, Joe Rogan, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (or, as he seems to be named in Elon’s contacts, “jack jack”.)
  • Instagram bans PornHub’s account: “After a weeks-long suspension,” writes Amanda, “Pornhub’s account has been permanently removed from Instagram.” Why? PH says they don’t know, as they insist everything they put on Instagram was totally “PG” while calling for “full transparency and clear explanations.”
  • Interpol issues a red notice for Terra’s founder: “Interpol has issued a red notice for Do Kwon,” write Manish and Kate, “requesting law enforcement agencies worldwide to search for and arrest the Terraform Labs founder whose blockchain startup collapsed earlier this year.”
  • Google Maps’ new features: A bunch of new stuff is coming to Google Maps, and Aisha has the roundup. There’s a new view style meant to help you “immerse” yourself in a city before you visit, a “Neighborhood vibe” feature that aims to capture an area’s highlights, and augmented reality features that use the view from your camera to show exactly where ATMs and coffee shops are.
  • Meta’s hiring freeze: The era of explosive hiring at Meta/Facebook is over, it seems. The company will freeze hiring and “restructure some groups” internally, Zuckerberg reportedly announced during an internal all-hands this week.
  • Hacker hits Fast Company, sends awful push notifications: If you got a particularly vulgar push notification from Fast Company by way of Apple News this week, it’s because a hacker managed to breach the outlet’s content management system. The hacker also apparently published a (now pulled) post on Fast Company outlining how they got in.
  • NASA hits an asteroid: If we needed to hit an asteroid from millions of miles away — to, say, change its course and steer it away from Earth — could we do it? NASA proved they could do just that this week, smashing a purpose-built spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,700 mph. The asteroid in question was never believed to be a threat to Earth, but these are the kinds of things you want tested before they’re necessary.
  • Microsoft confirms Exchange vulnerabilities: “Microsoft has confirmed two unpatched Exchange Server zero-day vulnerabilities are being exploited by cybercriminals in real-world attacks,” writes Carly. Even worse? There’s no patch yet, though MSFT says one has been put on an “accelerated timeline” and offers temporary mitigation measures in the meantime.

audio roundup

Didn’t have time to tune in to all of TechCrunch’s podcasts this week? Here’s what you might’ve missed:

  • Evernote and mmhmm co-founder Phil Libin joined us on Found to share what he’s learned about remote work and why he’ll “never go to work in the metaverse.”
  • The Chain Reaction crew went deep on why crypto exchange FTX bid billions on a bankrupt company’s assets.
  • Amanda joined Darrell on the TechCrunch Podcast to explore whether Tumblr was reversing its controversial porn ban (spoiler: no), and Devin hopped on to talk all about NASA’s wild anti-asteroid test mission.

techcrunch+

What hides behind the TechCrunch+ paywall? Lots of really great stuff! It’s where we get to step away from the unrelenting news cycle and go a bit deeper on the stuff you tell us you like most. The most-read TC+ stuff this week?

  • Is Silicon Valley really losing its crown?: A provocative question, one asked all the more after COVID flipped the switch on widespread remote work pretty much overnight. Alex dives into the investor data to see where the money is going, and whether or not that’s changed.
  • Investors hit the brakes on productivity software: It’s an Alex Wilhelm double feature this week! After a few quarters of consistent investment growth, it seems investor interest in productivity tools might be waning. Why? Alex looks at why/how investment in the vertical has shifted.
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ByteDance’s Pico debuts its Quest rival, but challenges remain • TechCrunch

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When ByteDance bought the Chinese VR headset maker Pico a year ago, the message it sent was clear: it was betting that the immersive device would be where future generations spend most of their time consuming digital content. It’s a marriage reminiscent of Meta’s acquisition of Oculus back in 2014, except the world is now in a different place with technological advances that make VR headsets cheaper, less laggy, and more comfortable to wear.

The TikTok parent has long aimed to compete in a market dominated by Oculus’s VR devices for consumers. When Meta launched Quest 2 in 2020, ByteDance worked on a confidential internal project to develop AR glasses, The Information reported. Pico’s product launch this week is a further indication of its ambition to challenge Quest, which has enjoyed roughly two-thirds of the global AR and VR market for the past two years.

The Pico 4, which starts at €429 (around $420 thanks to a strong dollar) for 128GB and ships to Europe, Japan, and South Korea aside from China, has received applause in the VR community. It weighs only 295 grams without the straps and can function as a standalone device but also be tethered to PCs for more advanced VR experiences. It uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 processor as Quest 2 does. 

“It’s inexpensive and good quality, with specs that can match Quest 2,” says Gavin Newton-Tanzer, host of mixed reality conference AWE Asia.

“Was impressed with the weight, comfort, LCD display, pancake lenses, color AR passthrough, and controllers. All it needs now are serious triple-A VR exclusives to distinguish itself from Meta to get gamers interested,” writes a VR content creator.

Merely “matching” Quest 2 specs doesn’t sound good enough given the latter came out two years ago and became an instant hit. Pico not only has a lot of catch-up to do on the technological front but also in terms of content and branding.

“Oculus’s content ecosystem is more established, providing a better understanding of what consumers want,” says Newton-Tanzer. Popular rhythm game Beat Saber, for instance, had generated $100 million in revenue on Oculus Quest by October 2021.

Pico is facing a chicken-or-egg problem, the XR expert suggests. Its user base across product lines isn’t currently large enough that top-tier creators would be devoted to making games, videos, and other VR content exclusively for its platform. It reportedly sold 500,000 units last year, half of its target. In contrast, Quest 2 shipped 10 million units in the space of October 2020 and November 2021. But without premium content, Pico will have a hard time attracting users in a meaningful way.

The good news is Pico has established a strong foothold in China and doesn’t face much competition in the home market. Oculus doesn’t have an official presence in China, meaning users have to go through the hassle of ordering an overseas version, getting the Oculus app from a foreign app store, and accessing its global app ecosystem through a virtual private network as Meta’s servers are blocked in China.

The technological bifurcation could allow Pico time to test and learn in the home market before launching into the West at full steam. Expansion in the U.S. is already set in motion as ByteDance began building a team for Pico on the West Coast, according to Protocol, with a focus to attract talent in content, marketing, and R&D.

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YouTube TV users can now subscribe to standalone networks without a base plan • TechCrunch

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YouTube TV launched a new option that allows subscribers to purchase add-ons without subscribing to the full channel offering in the service’s Base plan. With this new à la carte plan, subscribers can access more than 20 add-on channels, from Showtime and HBO Max to NBA League Pass, MLB.TV, and Starz among others.

This confirms reports that the company was looking to launch a YouTube channel store and join many other services that aggregate streaming subscriptions. Sling TV, Roku, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV offer standalone options.

So, rather than spending $64.99 a month for the YouTube TV Base Plan that provides over 85 channels, consumers can now choose a more flexible option that allows them to mix and match from select entertainment networks, live sports and more, all within one app.

Customers can add or remove a network at any time they want as well as manage billing from the YouTube TV interface. To switch to the add-on only plan, users can go to “Settings” and select “Membership” then “Manage” to cancel the base plan. Choose “Update memberships” to add individual networks to the membership.

Like the base plan, subscribers with the à la carte plan still get access to an Unlimited DVR, three simultaneous streams and six household accounts.

Here is the full list of channels that subscribers can select from.

  • HBO Max
  • Showtime
  • Starz
  • MLB.TV
  • NBA League Pass
  • Cinemax
  • Epix
  • Hallmark Movies Now
  • Acorn
  • CuriosityStream
  • Outside TV Features
  • ALLBLK
  • Shudder
  • Sundance Now
  • IFC Films Unlimited
  • Dove Channel
  • CONtv
  • Docurama
  • Law & Crime
  • VSIN

 

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