Thursday, 19 March 2015

Why the Apple Watch will be the ultimate brand loyalty barometer

Apple are renowned for the brand they've created. The Apple brand is one envied by all other manufacturers because it is desirable and aspirational.

Simply put, Apple is the one that people will queue for. Users want Apple products, regardless of cost, but because of status.

Until now, Apple have been able to rely on the highest levels on brand loyalty when launching new items, even when the products haven't been cutting-edge or particularly innovative. They've leant on that loyalty with launches of the iPhone 4S and the 5S, alongside endless minor upgrades to the Macbook. The public still flock.

It is also true that Apple have always produced products that sit towards the top-end of the pricing spectrum, tugging on that brand loyalty to lace the pockets of the company. It's true of the iPhone, MacBook and now, the Apple Watch. Users have been able to show-off an iPhone as the same phone that the celebs use. It's been a status symbol and continues to be so. It may be the same with the Apple Watch, as Apple will be sure to intelligently seed the watch to influential figures. The key difference however, is that the iPhone and MacBook have demonstrated clear consumer purpose, so whilst they've been priced high, consumers have been happy to part with the money to ensure the seeming quality.

Everyone needs a smartphone. Apple makes them happy to part with a little bit more in order to get one.

This is not true for the Apple Watch. Apple have, alongside all other manufacturers, failed to show a purpose to owning a smartwatch - and perhaps even more concerning is a battery life that will only last 18 hours. Being priced north of £300 for the sport edition, and £450 for a fashion edition (not forgetting the watches priced at £1,000-£10,000) the price is pushing consumers to the edge of their loyalty to the Apple brand.

There's no denying that whilst Apple are continuing to post staggering profits, their brand loyalty has been shaken over the last few years. Their innovation and high-end quality have been placed under scrutiny, and the numerous competitors have had an impact.

Come April 24th, we'll be able to judge just how powerful that Apple brand loyalty really is and be in a position to see if and how that brand loyalty has been affected - using the Apple Watch as a barometer.

Thoughts welcomed.

Monday, 9 March 2015

HTC One M9: Everything You Need to Know

HTC are releasing the latest in the One Series to the public in late March. I'll get my hands on it for a user review closer to the time but should you hold out to buy it? Let's have a look at everything you need to know about the HTC One M9.

Headline specs
HTC's older younger brother to the M8 sports a familiar 5" 1080px screen, but an increased Snapdragon 810 OCTO-core processor. That's all supported by 3GB of RAM which will make the device lightning quick.

Storage also remains the same as the One M8 but HTC appear to have dropped the 16GB edition of the handset - a smart move in my experience. Obviously, the expandable storage option still remains, with a further 128GB optional addition via microSD.

The battery has been given a slight boost too, going up to a competitive 2840mAh. That’s more than Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and far more than the iPhone 6 which only holds 1800mAh.

In more or less every way, the M9 looks identical to the M8. That disappointed me. It's not that the M8 isn't a gorgeous phone - far from it. I've got it and marvel at its beauty when I remove the case.
For me, it's the same problem that's plagued the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy range. The M9 feels old already. It seems uninspiring and lazy. HTC cannot afford to be lazy - especially when their smartphone share is being attacked from all sides, and I just can't understand why they've left it.

Since the beginning of the One series, HTC has been relatively flawless in terms of build quality and the HTC One M9 is unsurprisingly no different. The beautiful curved back has remained, with HTC boasting that its creation is a 70-step process. There's a minor difference in the side-on profile from the One M8 where the unibody appears to have been altered, but this doesn't affect the feel or quality one iota.

One of the few significant changes with the HTC One M9 is the abandoning of the rear-facing UltraPixel camera in place of a monster 20 megapixel shooter. It's a sensible move given they never managed to communicate the UltraPixel lens to consumers. They've not abandoned it completely though - it still appears in the front facing 'selfie' camera.

The rear camera video has been upped from 1080p to 4k, and the front boasts a 2 UltraPixel sensor.

The HD screen shows off HTC’s seventh edition of their Sense UI. The UI has been updated to be more reactive to stimuli around you. Your home screen will now reorganise based on the time of day. Alarms, apps and wallpapers, will react to the time of day. If you cycle to work, you’ll get notifications to charge your lights before heading home in the evening. It will be interesting to see how it dovetails with Google Now.

What Else
HTC’s Dot View case has been upgraded as well, and now, for some reason, you can play games like tetris on the front. Utterly pointless, but quite clever.

HTC’s ridiculously named 'BoomSound' speaker system for the One Series has been upgraded once again. This time, Dolby have taken over from Beats to provide a 5.1 surround sound to the phone. Thanks to Harman Kardon, a three-finger swipe can send the music out to speaker systems in the house.

HTC have upgraded the best phone of 2014. It's no mean feat to achieve but that’s where it ends. As I’ve said before, we seem to have reached a smartphone impasse. I’m disappointed to see HTC nudge the bar – but not raise it.

The HTC One M9 is still a stunning phone, and one that no-one will regret purchasing. Then again, I’d argue there’s little point in paying for the M9 when the HTC One M8 is cheaper, and 99% of the M9.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Ignore Wearables - You don't need them

'Wearable Technology.' The buzzwords of 2014, the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2015. Tech companies are pushing 'wearables' in the direction of consumers and saying, "That'll work, they love this stuff". But do they? Do consumers really want it? The signs are suggesting no, not yet.

Firstly, I'm not including fitness bands in this. Fitness bands have a proven purpose and have sold relatively well. Other wearables, however, are still in 'geek' territory. People like me, into my tech, want wearables, simply to pick apart about how amazing some aspects of the technology are, and how woeful the rest is. Google cancelled Glass through little more important than a growing lack of interest. They felt they couldn't make it work for the moment.

Smartwatch sales are frankly, very poor. Pebble have had limited success with 1m sales in just over 2 years and so have Samsung (mainly because the watches are given away with Galaxy devices). Maybe the introduction of the Apple Watch will change that. Apple has a habit of doing making something currently available, copying it, and making it desirable.

The immediate reaction from consumers has been quite clearly - we don't really care. The intrigue isn't there, and it is just lost on the mass audience. Research by Fizz (below) shows a few problems for wearable manufacturers:

Firstly, the average price willing to be paid is far below the current price of wearable tech. Many Android Wear devices cost somewhere north of £200, and if rumours are to be believed, the iWatch could cost double that. More than half of those that responded with interest about smartwear mentioned cost would be the deciding factor which will worry manufacturers.

Finally, the purpose issue is of utmost importance. 37% of respondents pointed to a lack of necessity for the devices being the reason for lack of desire.

These items still have failed to find their place in society. There is no need for them. In response to the lack of purpose, wearables are trying to do everything. I use 1% of the Sony Smartwatch 2 capability on a day to day basis. The reviews are relatively useless, when in practice, those features just don't step into everyday life. Nothing has changed since I first wrote about the Samsung Galaxy Gear in 2013. Back then I complimented the smartwatch on its appearance and functionality. I still defend that stance with my 2013 hat on - but really, the smartwatch should have come on a lot since then. They've cracked the appearance element - now just for sorting the need.

(Huawei's new smartwatch - gorgeous)

It's a criticism I levelled at Microsoft with Windows 8 - too much, too fast. We're just reaching the point when smartphones are struggling to progress in innovation, and that needs a chance to settle and allow flagship capabilities seep through to the lower-end.

The smartwatch is an incredible feat, it really is. To cram all that technology into such a small piece of kit is astounding - but that doesn't mean it needs to be forced to consumers who are voting with their wallets.

Wearables will breathe again, but manufacturers need to find out how they can help the consumer before they'll fly off the shelves. For the moment, they might as well be ignored.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Watch the live stream of the Samsung Galaxy S6 launch

We're at the start of MWC - aka smartphone season - and Samsung join Huawei as the first out of the door to announce their new addition to the Galaxy family. Watch the live stream of the Samsung Galaxy S6 launch below. It starts at 5.30 GMT.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

SmartWatch Evolution in Appearance - Not Purpose

It's always nice to be on the money, and thankfully, regarding smartwatches, I have been.

It wasn't long ago that I was writing about the central problem with the smartwatches on the market - was that, first and foremost, they had forgotten to be a watch. I used the first Samsung Galaxy Gear and, whilst enjoying the technology, just couldn't get past the central issue - I didn't really want it on my wrist. 

Let's be honest, the smartwatch is a novelty. It serves no important purpose. Yes, it makes checking notifications that tiny bit quicker, but making £150+ difference to a life? No chance. It's for the people with the disposable income, or want to be on the forefront of technology, or finally, for fashion. It's that last point which is where manufacturers have finally cottoned-on. Us tech geeks are not a mass-market. We're a cynical bunch who are rarely 'fashionistas' so we are able to look past the image, and more at what the thing can do.

So, using my unpenetrable testing criteria for the appearance of the watch, I tested out the Sony Smartwatch 2 through London. Overall, it's only a rare and investigative second-look look that claims the attention of the passer-by. For me, that's the way it should be. It should be a watch, first and foremost, with technology following. I chose the Sony Smartwatch 2 because it looked most like a watch, and not some space-age invention.

With the Moto 360 and Pebble Steel leading the way, manufacturers have caught up. LG G-Watch R followed, and now finally Samsung too, with the Gear S. Obviously, the iWatch too. These watches have stripped back the technology, and focused on design, with more subtle (and more practical) technology.

I use 1% of the Sony Smartwatch 2 capability on a day to day basis. The reviews are relatively useless when in practice, those features just don't step into everyday life. 

Nothing has changed since I first wrote about the Samsung Galaxy Gear in 2013. Back then I complimented the smartwatch on its appearance and functionality. I still defend that stance with my 2013 hat on - but really, the smartwatch should have come on a lot more since then.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Have we really reached a smartphone impasse?

It seems so.

For the first time in several years, smartphones stepped back from the frontline at CES and that's no surprise. Sure, many manufacturers are looking to MWC for smartphone announcements, but over the last two years, we've seen less and less revolutionary changes in smartphones, and more performance tweaks.


It's a boring phrase, but 2015 IS the year of the wearable tech. Perhaps not for consumers, but certainly for the top-tier manufacturers. The endless wearable uses were shown at CES, and its all focusing around the clamour for that first 'hit' in the wearables market. Of the glasses, watches and fitness bands, no-one has managed to truly capture the public's imagination.

So where does that leave smartphones? Well, the new kids on the block are catching the others but offering little new to market. Look at Xiaomi; impressive company, impressive growth, but are they changing the smartphone? No. They are offering available features in a different shell and at a more affordable price.
     And it's that last point which is important. The price of smartphones is being driven down and less margin available for manufacturers. Given the impasse, consumers are seeing less reason to upgrade on an annual basis, and even sticking with devices for 2-3 years. Smartphones are becoming less of the cash-cow they once were. The annual performance updates and optimisation are in place to save the manufacturer money, and maintain face within the saturated market.

MWC is coming up, and both Samsung and HTC have announced launch dates for their new devices. We expect to see the evolution of Samsung's Galaxy Edge, which is a nice idea, but not greeted with rapture by consumers so far, and HTC will be likely to finely tune the M8. We are confident in neither bringing a drastic update to the smartphone market, but the opportunity is there for a surprise. Let's wait to see about that impasse but the signs are there.

Chances are, we should ignore the HTC One M9, and Samsung Galaxy S6, as that impasse has been reached.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Big challenges await Xiaomi

There's no doubt about it. The new kids on the block are here to stay.

Xiaomi had a standout 2014. Sales of 61.12m smartphones in 2014 brought the company into third place in the smartphone market, only behind Samsung and Apple. In fact, they outsold Samsung and Apple in China during 2014. However, the path they are about to walk isn't a downhill stroll from here, and plenty of obstacles still stand in the way.

Firstly though, how have they managed to jump straight into the race with the top two? Simply put, through targeting emerging markets with a strong pricing model, and getting the right balance of smartphone innovation with consumer-desired basics.

At this point, you might be thinking: "I've never heard of Xiaomi". Well, if you're in a 'Tier 1' nation, then don't be surprised if you don't know much about Xiaomi, or if you've never seen a Xiaomi phone. Also, don't be surprised if that doesn't change soon. Hugo Barra, VP at Xiaomi, said that it'll be a little while before Xiaomi is in a position to take on the UK, the US etc. That's a sensible route forward. To take on the Tier 1 markets, it's all about the brand - and eastern 'budget' brands typically find it harder to break into the market.

The Tier 1 consumer is sceptical of budget brands - and this, matched with a desire for ever-progressive and top range electronics, means that budget isn't a particular selling point. I've said before, phones like Project Ara are commendable, but will struggle to break down the Tier 1 markets on mass. This is because of the same desire for latest technology and brand-new electronics.

This is what Huawei have tried to do, but have stalled in doing so. The brand-strength is not resistant to the stresses of Tier 1 consumers, and brand-presence is the same. Learning from the mistakes of Huawei, and adding a premium effect to the Xiaomi brand is vital in breaking into the Tier 1 markets.

As we saw in 2014, the mid-range pricing was the force when the Tier 1 markets swung. The successes of HTC's Desire range highlighted this, and it's similar with the likes of the iPhone C.
Mid-range smartphones, with low-line or sim-only contracts are where Tier 1 has settled for the time-being.

This doesn't fit with Xiaomi as yet.

2014 was a big year for Xiaomi - and there is no doubt that 2015 will be as well. However, there are big challenges awaiting Xiaomi when they want to push into Tier 1. The main one - can they make the Xiaomi brand resonate with a Tier 1 market? We'll have to wait and see.

Do you agree/disagree? What do you think of the Xiaomi branding, positioning and short-term future?