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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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Apple TV+ announces new series ‘The Savant’ based on true story of a woman who infiltrates online hate groups

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Apple TV+ is getting a new limited series, the company announced yesterday, that is based on a deep-cover investigator who infiltrates online hate groups to prevent violent attacks and mass shootings.

“The Savant” will have eight episodes and stars Jessica Chastain. The show is inspired by the true story published in 2019 by Cosmopolitan writer Andrea Stanley, who will consult on the Apple TV+ series.

A release date has yet to be announced.

Stanley’s article, “Is It Possible to Stop a Mass Shooting Before It Happens?” is one that will send chills down your spine. But that’s probably a familiar feeling by now. Many of us are already aware of the mass influx of hate speech on the internet.

“The chase of getting the bad guy? Oh, man, that feels good,” K, the anonymous investigator with the alias “The Savant,” told Stanley.

The nickname stems from K’s keen ability to track hateful men online and determine if/when they’ll go from trolling misogynists, white supremacists or other extremists hiding behind computer screens to violent, frightening murderers.

According to the article, K has reported tons of violent men to the FBI, such as Michael Finton, a 29-year-old who posted disturbing videos of Islamic extremists on Myspace and would later attempt to bomb the Paul Findley Federal Building in Springfield, Illinois.

Besides her profession, not much else is known about K, except that she joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school, has a degree in justice and public safety and studied rapists and murderers when she worked for a state-run agency that reinvestigates capital-murder cases. K eventually applied for a job with the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) to monitor online hate groups.

Apple didn’t share in its press release how similar the series will be to the Cosmopolitan story.

“The storyline and character details are being kept under wraps,” the company wrote in the announcement.

Online hate, misinformation and harassment have circulated the internet for quite some time. In 2018, the ADL found that 37% of Americans were subjected to extreme hate online.

And while the January 6 United States Capitol attack in 2021 urged tech companies like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to incite policies to identify and remove harmful content, reports continue to come out about major social media platforms failing to curb online hate.

Lately, Twitter CEO Elon Musk has been under fire after restoring problematic accounts, including Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin (@WorldWarWang), and his overall leniency toward toxic internet culture.

Earlier this month, YouTube updated its profanity rules, which are more relaxed about the use of strong language. The platform also unsuspended Trump’s YouTube channel.

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Google gets antitrust attention in Spain over news licensing

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Google can add another antitrust investigation to its stack. This one has been opened by Spain’s competition authority, the CNMC, which said today it’s concerned about possible anti-competitive practices related to the licensing of news content by local publishers.

In a press release it said it is investigating “a series of practices that could involve an abuse of Google’s dominant position vis-à-vis the publishers of press publications and news agencies established in Spain” [NB: We’ve translated the text from Spanish with machine translation].

“In particular, these practices would consist the possible imposition of unfair commercial conditions on the publishers of press publications and news agencies established in Spain for the exploitation of their content protected by intellectual property rights,” it also wrote. “On the other hand, the investigated behaviors would also include practices that would constitute acts of unfair competition that could distort free competition and affect the public interest.”

The competition authority said it is acting following a complaint by the Spanish Center for Reprographic Rights (aka, Centro Español de Derechos Reprográficos or CEDRO).

We’ve reached out to all concerned.

News licensing is an area where Google has faced severe sanction in Europe already. Back in July 2021, France’s antitrust authority fined the tech giant over half a billion dollars for breaching an order to negotiate copyright fees with news publishers for reuse of their content. That followed the EU a copyright reform, agreed back in 2019, that extended IP to snippets of news content — requiring platforms like Google to negotiate with publishers.

Spain transposed the EU reform into its national law in November 2021, paving the way for a return of Google News to the country.

Google’s news aggregation service had closed in Spain in 2014 after the country passed a law that aimed to force Google to pay a collective licensing fee for the news snippets. The EU copyright reform replaced the prior fee regime with a requirement to negotiate with individual publishers — and Google News duly reopened in Spain in June 2022.

At the same time, the company also announced it would launch its News Showcase product in the country. Google’s News Showcase product was spun up by the tech giant in fall 2020 as lawmakers in Europe and elsewhere were zeroing in on making it pay for news content reuse — creating a licensing vehicle it could use in the looming, inexorable negotiations with publishers.

It’s not immediately clear whether the Spanish probe will focus on Google’s News Showcase licensing arrangements or on copyright fees talks — or both.

While it remains to be seen what Spain’s investigation of Google’s news licensing practices will finally determine — the authority has up to 18 months to conduct the probe — it said its preliminary information-gathering phase found “indications of possible infringement”.

Germany’s antitrust authority, meanwhile, has already pushed back over Mountain View’s practices in this area after starting to scrutinize its news-related fine print in summer 2021. The regulatory attention on Google from the German FCO — which is currently armed with beefier powers to tackle Big Tech than other European countries (thanks to a 2021 update to competition law squarely targeted at digital giants) — has led to Google offering a series of concessions over how it operates News Showcase locally, including an offer not to include the showcasing of licensed content in general search results (which is one trigger for antitrust concerns).

The News Showcase product provides the prospect of raised visibility for participating publishers, since the offer is for Google to feature participants’ content to users across a number of touchpoints. However that could create a disadvantage for publishers who don’t pay Google (i.e. if it leads to their content being less visible in Google’s general Internet search, given its continued dominance of the Internet search and content discovery market).

Google has also sought to co-mingle negotiations with publishers over News Showcase with what are, under the pan-EU reform, legally required talks over copyright fees — something France’s watchdog slapped down in its hefty enforcement in mid 2021.

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Disney cuts metaverse division as part of broader restructuring

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Walt Disney Co. has eliminated its metaverse division as part of staff cuts that promise to reduce head count by around 7,000 across the company over the next two months, reports The Wall Street Journal.

CEO Bob Iger said Monday that those layoffs would begin this week. Disney’s next-generation storytelling and consumer experiences unit, the small division that was developing metaverse strategies, looks like it’s one of the first to go.

The metaverse division is headed by Mike White, who was promoted to the role from SVP of consumer experiences and platforms in February 2022 and charged with getting Disney deeper into the web3 space. The unit aimed to find ways to tell more interactive stories in immersive formats using Disney’s extensive library of intellectual property, according to WSJ. Aside from the Disney we all know and love, that extensive library includes Pixar, Marvel and all of the Star Wars movies and shows.

All 50 or so members of the team have lost their jobs, sources told WSJ. White will remain at the company, but it’s not clear in what capacity.

The company could not be reached for comment.

Disney’s former CEO, Bob Chapek, brought White on last year with the goal of creating “an entirely new paradigm for how audiences experience and engage with our stories,” according to an internal memo. Chapek also described the metaverse as “the next great storytelling frontier” and a “perfect place to pursue our strategic pillars of storytelling excellence, innovation and audience focus.”

The hiring of White and the creation of the new metaverse unit came a few months after Facebook rebranded to Meta in an attempt to identify with the futuristic technology into which CEO Mark Zuckerberg had been pouring billions of dollars.

Iger took over for Chapek in November and, despite recent developments, seems to be bullish on the metaverse. He invested in and joined the board of Genies Inc. last year, a startup that lets users create online avatars for use in metaverse applications.

The metaverse is still many years from going mainstream, which has frustrated many big tech companies that invested large sums on new entertainment formats. Despite Meta’s billions spent on the Oculus headset and building out the metaverse, there has been low user demand and general confusion among users about how to use the new technology for anything but gaming.

Last month, Disney said it would make $5.5 billion in cuts and cut 7,000 jobs as part of a broader restructuring. Like many other large conglomerates, Disney is feeling the pressure to bring costs down, and that often means cutting out expensive moonshot projects that aren’t bringing in any near-term revenue.

It’s not yet clear if Disney will continue to work on metaverse applications via other teams, since it’s a long-term bet. Zuckerberg has repeatedly asked investors to trust him, be patient and play the long game.

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