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What Pixel 3a tells us about the state of the smartphone — and Google – TechCrunch

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Announced yesterday at Google’s opening I/O keynote, the Pixel 3a arrives at a tenuous time for the smartphone industry. Sales figures have stagnated for most of the major players in the industry — a phenomenon from which Google certainly isn’t immune.

CEO Sundar Pichai discussed exactly that on the company’s Q1 earnings call last week. “While the first quarter results reflect pressure in the premium smartphone industry,” he explained, “we are pleased with the ongoing momentum of Assistant-enabled Home devices, particularly the Home Hub and Mini devices, and look forward to our May 7 announcement at I/O from our hardware team.”

That last bit was a clear reference to the arrival of the new budget tier of Google’s flagship offering. The 3a is a clear push to address one of the biggest drivers of slowing smartphone sales. With a starting price of $399, it’s a fraction of the price of top handsets from competitors like Apple and Samsung.

There’s been a fairly rapid creep in flagship prices in recent years. Handsets starting at north of $1,000 hardly warrant a second glance anymore, while many forthcoming foldables are hovering around double that.

As Google VP of Product Management Mario Queiroz told me ahead of launch, “The smartphone market has started to flatten. We think one of the reasons is because, you know, the premium segment of the market is a very large segment, but premium phones have gotten more and more expensive, you know, three, four years ago, you could buy a premium phone for $500.”

Inflated prices have certainly made device purchases more burdensome for buyers. That, coupled with a relative lack of compelling new features has gone a ways toward slowing down upgrade cycles, hurting sales in the process.

I’ve enjoyed my early hands-on time with the 3a — more to come on that later. It’s important to note the different factors that have allowed Google to get to this stage. A key driver is, of course, Google’s purchase of massive R&D resources from HTC. That result of HTC’s dip into sub-replacement level hardware manufacturer has resulted in the ability to develop hardware in house, on the relatively cheap at a new campus in Taipei.

Also important is Google’s ongoing quest to further uncouple the importance of hardware from smartphone upgrades. The company’s big investments in machine learning and artificial intelligence particularly are driving many of the innovations best demonstrated on the imaging side of things. Devin captured this sentiment in this piece written in the wake of the iPhone XS announcement.

Notably, the Pixel 3a has essentially the same camera hardware as the pricier 3. Google cut some corners here, but that wasn’t one. There are still and will continue to be some limitations to what the 3a is able to do, based on processing power, but the line between what the two devices can do is already pretty blurry when it comes to taking photos.

There’s another factor that’s been looming over Pixel sales in all of this — but for several reasons, Pichai wasn’t ready to discuss it on the call. For years, the line has been hampered by carrier exclusivity, something that feels like it ought to be relegated to the smartphone past.

Certainly that sort of arrangement makes sense for young companies like OnePlus or Palm, which are looking for a way into a market, while seeking to maintain manageable growth. But Google certainly has the resources to grow outside of a single carrier deal. And the fact of the matter (as Huawei has discovered the hard way) is that carrier distribution and contracts as still key drivers of smartphone distribution here in the States, even as most manufacturers also offer unlocked devices. I suspect those upfront costs are enough to make many consumers do a double take — even though we all know in our hearts the contract is ultimately where they get you.

Thankfully, Google announced that it will be making the Pixel 3 and 3a available on a lot more carriers, starting this week. That move ought to have a marked impact on the Pixel’s sales figures going forward. The addition of Sprint and T-Mobile among others means a lot more retail shelf space and ad dollars across the U.S. Devices are a harder sell when your average consumer has to go out of their way to find them — not to mention the difficulty of convincing users to switch carriers for a new device.

I’d caution against using Q2 results as a direct measure of the 3a’s appeal and Google’s move toward a six-month device release cycle. At this early stage it’s too early to uncouple that from new customers who are coming on board courtesy of those carrier additions. Even so, the device is an interesting litmus test for the current state of the smartphone, right down to the return of the headphone jack.

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Samsung opens beta on Galaxy Upcycling to breathe new life into old phones – TechCrunch

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Samsung announced Galaxy Upcycling a few years back, but has largely been quiet on that front, aside from some stage time at CES back in January. Today the company announced that Upcycling at Home is being opened to beta today for users in the U.S., Korea and the U.K.

It’s a pretty novel program, in a world where consumers are encouraged to scrap their old devices every two to three years for something shiny and new. The program is designed to breathe new life into handsets that might otherwise be tossed in a landfill or stashed away in a drawer.

Image Credits: Samsung

“We are rethinking how we use existing resources, and we believe the key to upcycling is to enable solutions that transform old technology into something new by adding value,” VP Sung-Koo Kim said in a release tied to the news. “We are committed to integrating sustainable practices into our day-to-day lives, and through Galaxy Upcycling at Home, users can join our journey toward a more sustainable future.”

Specifically, the products can be revamped into smart home devices, like childcare and pet monitors.

The feature can be accessed within the SmartThings Labs feature found in Samsung’s SmartThings App. When enabled, the product can send alerts when things like a crying baby or barking dog are detected. The recorded sound will be sent as part of the alert. Another feature uses built-in sensors to turn on a room’s lights when things get dark. The service will optimize device battery so it can operate for an extended period while detecting these inputs.

 

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UK’s IoT ‘security by design’ law will cover smartphones too – TechCrunch

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Smartphones will be included in the scope of a planned “security by design” U.K. law aimed at beefing up the security of consumer devices, the government said today.

It made the announcement in its response to a consultation on legislative plans aimed at tackling some of the most lax security practices long-associated with the Internet of Things (IoT).

The government introduced a security code of practice for IoT device manufacturers back in 2018 — but the forthcoming legislation is intended to build on that with a set of legally binding requirements.

A draft law was aired by ministers in 2019 — with the government focused on IoT devices, such as webcams and baby monitors, which have often been associated with the most egregious device security practices.

Its plan now is for virtually all smart devices to be covered by legally binding security requirements, with the government pointing to research from consumer group “Which?” that found that a third of people kept their last phone for four years, while some brands only offer security updates for just over two years.

The forthcoming legislation will require smartphone and device makers like Apple and Samsung to inform customers of the duration of time for which a device will receive software updates at the point of sale.

It will also ban manufacturers from using universal default passwords (such as “password” or “admin”), which are often preset in a device’s factory settings and easily guessable — making them meaningless in security terms.

California already passed legislation banning such passwords in 2018 with the law coming into force last year.

Under the incoming U.K. law, manufacturers will additionally be required to provide a public point of contact to make it simpler for anyone to report a vulnerability.

The government said it will introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Commenting in a statement, digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman added: “Our phones and smart devices can be a gold mine for hackers looking to steal data, yet a great number still run older software with holes in their security systems.

“We are changing the law to ensure shoppers know how long products are supported with vital security updates before they buy and are making devices harder to break into by banning easily guessable default passwords.

“The reforms, backed by tech associations around the world, will torpedo the efforts of online criminals and boost our mission to build back safer from the pandemic.”

A DCMS spokesman confirmed that laptops, PCs and tablets with no cellular connection will not be covered by the law, nor will secondhand products. Although he added that the intention is for the scope to be adaptive, to ensure the law can keep pace with new threats that may emerge around devices.

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Watch Apple’s Spring Loaded event light right here – TechCrunch

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Today, Apple is holding a (virtual) keynote at 10 AM PT (1 PM in New York, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris). And you’ll be able to watch the event right here as the company is streaming it live.

Rumor has it that Apple plans to unveil a brand new iPad Pro. In particular, Apple’s tablet could get a big display update as the company could switch to mini-LED displays. You can expect some better specifications as well.

But that’s not all, we expect to see a refreshed iPad mini. Apple could also be ready to release AirTags after many months of rumors and leaks. As always, the only way to find out is by watching the event.

You can watch the live stream directly on this page, as Apple is streaming its conference on YouTube.

If you have an Apple TV, you don’t need to download a new app. You can open the Apple TV app and find the Apple Events section. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old ones.

And if you don’t have an Apple TV and don’t want to use YouTube, the company also lets you live stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed now works in all major browsers — Safari, Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome.

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