The Echo Dot is Amazon's Best Seller

Andria Cheng, writing for eMarketer in the wake of holiday sales: 

"Rising sales of digital assistants reflect changing user behaviors as more people become comfortable with the idea of spoken word commands and queries. In September 2016, Google said that fully one in five search queries on its mobile app were voice initiated. And in November, a Google/Ipsos survey found that more than half of the smartphone users had used a voice-activated app to answer a question or perform a task.

Amazon said Tuesday that popular requests made to Echo over the holidays included queries about mixing cocktails and requests to play holiday music."

the $50 pricepoint of the Dot 2 was an incredible move to get the device into the hands of myriad consumers, which, through their voice platform, makes the entire system stronger. The Skills piece is also a huge part of the device's success.

Accolades these may be; the app interface leaves a lot to be desired in terms of UI and performance. Echo will need all of these elements to be top knot here if it wants to survive the oncoming onslaught from Google and (eventually) Apple, who is no doubt developing hardware with similar functionality that ties in deeply with its existing tech toy ecosystem.

Tesla Motors under investigation by the SEC

Last week, the story broke that on May 7th, Tesla driver Joshua Brown lost his life as his 2015 Model S drove beneath a tractor trailer and was destroyed. It was the first fatality in an autonomous car and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration  ("NHTSA") is investigating the crash. New this week, Jean Eaglesham, Mike Spektor, and Susan Pulliam of the Wall Street Journal collaborated on a report which reveals that in addition to the NHTSA investigation, the Security and Exchange Commission is investigating whether or not Tesla Motors breached securities laws by not properly disclosing the details of the fatal May 7th crash to their investors. 

"Tesla did alert NHTSA to the crash but it's unclear, what, if any notifications they sent to their investors aside from a discussion about how their technology, if caught malfunctioning, could affect their brand image."

For context, while Tesla's Autopilot reminds drivers to pay attention to the road, the May 7th crash was the first in which a human died while their vehicle was in autonomous mode. That's a tragic, but important moment in automotive history, especially for Tesla, which has built its brand on ushering in a new era of not only attractive and efficient cars, but of smarter cars, in the vein of smartphones, which can be updated and upgraded with new skills. Autopilot is probably the highest profile of those skills and has become the company's flagship feature. The fact that someone died while the functionality was in use would be of keen interest to investors as the NHTSA investigation, and the possibility that regulations or restrictions can come down on autonomous driving technologies or Tesla Motors as a company, could change the outlook for shareholders significantly, leading them to change how they planned on supporting, or not supporting the company with investment. To put it simply, this crash presents non-experts and experts alike uncertainty about the future of autonomous cars and the SEC wants to know whether Tesla communicated that effectively with its shareholders.

In addition to how shareholders would react, it’s important to note that Tesla recently raised money by selling more than $2 billion in stock, $598m of which belonged to Elon Musk. Would investors have purchased this stock if they knew about this fatal crash on 7 May? Maybe. Maybe not.

The issue here is whether the automaker did the proper thing with respect to disclosures of this issue. Certainly automakers do not report every fatal crash that takes place in their cars every quarter to their shareholders, so the question is asked, why would Tesla? That's usually a stat automakers leave to organizations like NHTSA and SAE International, the worldwide auto-association of engineers, which compile stats on this sort of thing.

What we do know is that Tesla Motors did add new language to the 10Q form they filed with the SEC on May 10th, just three days after the autopilot fatality-- language that alludes to knowledge of the potential impact of the May 7th crash and the press surrounding the NHTSA of Tesla and their autopilot feature. It reads:

“Claims related to any misuse or failures of new technologies that we are pioneering, including autopilot...could generate substantial negative publicity about our products and business...and would have material adverse effect on our brand business, prospects and operating results. We self-insure against the risk.”

Eight days later, on May 18th, Tesla sold $1.4 billion in stock. On the same day, Elon Musk sold $598 million in stock.

The question the SEC has is: With the potential damage to Tesla’s brand and perhaps their operations based on the May 7th crash and investigation, was their sale of stock in good faith? Did they make sure that buyers of that stock fully understood the risks that may threaten Tesla Motors’ future viability?

Only time will tell.

Google's Mobile Maps Get Even BETTER with multi-stop

Jillian D'Onfro, writing for Business Insider:

"The feature has long been available on the desktop version, which made its absence on the app even more annoying for those of us (like me) who like to plan roadtrips on a computer but rely on a phone for navigation. Not being able to add multiple stops on the app was incredibly frustrating."

What's similarlly interesting, is that Waze, a mobile navigation app which Google has owned since 2013, has had this same functionality for at least a couple of years now-- even allowing passengers of moving cars to insert a stop into an established route. I really wonder what took so long.

Beijing Regulator Orders Apple to Stop Sales of Two iPhone Models

Eva Dou for the Wall Street Journal: 

"Beijing’s intellectual property regulator has ordered Apple Inc. to stop sales of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in the city, ruling that the design is too similar to a Chinese phone, in another setback for the company in a key overseas market."


I was in Beijing a couple of weeks ago and on the subway I was surprised by the look of one Android phone that at first glance, looked like an iPhone 6/6S. It was white and it was everywhere.  

Dieselgate: Korea

It's our nature to move forward and leave the past in the past. Still, it's important to realise that Dieselgate is still here, and that while the US EPA discovered the scandal, the US isn't the only nation affected by it.

Some highlights:

Prosecutors also recently confiscated 956 vehicles of Audi Volkswagen Korea from its pre-delivery inspection center in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, and said 606 of them had been imported without proper environmental authorization.
The legal action came a few days after prosecutors said last week that Volkswagen Audi Korea allegedly submitted 37 doctored reports of the vehicles’ emissions results and noise levels from 2010 to 2015.
Meanwhile, the environment ministry here last week rejected Volkswagen’s plan to recall its vehicles with fabricated emissions results, saying the local unit of the German carmaker did not admit to using a defeat device to trick vehicle testing.

The ministry rejected two previous recall plans in January and March for insufficient data and the lack of a proper outline to rectify the shortcomings of the vehicles affected.
— -Korea Times.

It's incredible that the facts are still yet to be uncovered in this matter because of the sheer scale of the deception, which appears to have been perpetrated by the VW management worldwide.

You can read the full Korea Times story here.


The Tesla Model X - A Lifestyle Take

Whereupon Bloomberg's Hannah Elliott takes a road trip in a $150,000.00 Model X through super-charger rich California and produces a video assessment of the vehicle with a duration of less than three and a half minutes.

Elliott's video review is posted below from YouTube. The conclusions are that the car feels virtuous but it's cost isn't the money, but the time-sucking lifestyle of an electric auto's charging requirements and the lack of "mechanical" nature of the drive.

I genuinely appreciate the lifestyle discussion from Elliott due to her funky personal fashion taste and the casual but caring but also matter-of-fact tone she uses, but when you put it all together it doesn't ring with sincerity. She scratches the surface of lifestyle, states that doors open unexpectedly without any real visual evidence, and forgets that a single-gear dual motor drive train is about as direct as once gets when it comes to the mechanics of a car-- especially when one compares that to the Triptronics and paddle shiftiness of modern, conventionally powered sport luxury vehicles. 

When it comes to complaints about range, the crossover segment, perhaps more than any other auto segment, is designed for the daily errands and the weekend warrior-- both well within the battery range of the top-end model Elliott evaluated-- and that's in Colorado, where mountain climbs are steeper (I-70) than CA and Superchargers are bit more rare.

Then there's the ample time that the (very short) evaluation spends on waiting for the Model X to charge up at the super charging station. The editing makes the charging seem disproportionately long compared to the balance of her five day trip along the CA coast. Time that could be spent discussing the intimate details of any connection she has with the vehicle are spend bouncing a ball in a corner or talking on the phone...which she does on the handset while sitting in the car rather than showing us how well the bluetooth hands-free works.

I'm disappointed. Elliott could have done a lot more in the time she had.

One Year On, the Apple Watch Is in Need of a New Direction

Nilay Patel, writing for The Verge:

"I look at the Apple Watch and it's so obviously underpowered. We can sit around and argue about whether speeds and feeds matter, but the grand ambition of the Apple Watch is to be a full-fledged computer on your wrist, and right now it's a very slow computer. If Apple believes the Watch is indeed destined to become that computer, it needs to radically increase the raw power of the Watch's processor, while maintaining its just-almost-acceptable battery life. And it needs to do that while all of the other computers around us keep getting faster themselves."

I agree with him completely. But his argument is not impervious to critiques. As a close friend pointed out, the watch will get faster. Apple's moves to Watch OS 2 and native apps has helped immensely. And it's "a given" that future generations of the device will move more quickly.

But when I look at those truths, I remain unsatisfied. Patel's point is, in essence, that the watch was premature because the tech wasn't there in the first place. 

It's slow and has barely OK battery life from his (a quite a few others') perspective. When you think deeply and critically about those drawbacks, you realise that Apple compromised on performance in order to get the thing to last through the day, and that compromise lead to a poor experience-- consistently labelled as "laggy" -- from Day One. That's the opposite of what we expect from Apple.

My 120mhz Pebble Classic does a lot less than the Apple Watch to be sure, but the interface remains snappy after myriad of software updates and the battery still lasts for days on end. Those attributes are ones that I consider more "Apple-y" than the experience that I felt when I owned the watch for a couple of days before returning it; and that Patel has concluded over the course of a year of usage. 

When Apple lover and analyst John Gruber says he hopes Apple can "take a step back and reconsider some of the fundamental aspects to the *conceptual design,*" he's sugarcoating nothing less than severe dissatisfaction with the product and signalling that the iPhone+Wrist paradigm, with its gestures, buttons and swipes, and mostly-off screen doesn't make for a compelling device. When you combine his take and Patel's it sounds like they would hope that Apple chooses to make the watch less of a computer on the wrist, and more native to a watch experience- because this thing isn't working. 

This is not just an Apple problem. Google-based watches suffer from the same soup of technical yuck. The fact that purpose built, fitness trackers are still a thing rather than being sidelined by last year's touch-screen wonder watches means that if Apple and others want to attract people with their take on this new category, they need to offer truly snappy interfaces (read: quick), along with long enough battery life so that users don't really think twice about it. Charge it every night, sure, but build it so an active person gets an perceptually unlimited amount of use from the thing during the day. Additionally it's got to feel durable enough for users to really not worry about scratches to glass  and anodised paint, and yet retain whatever stylistic grace it's come to hold. And if it can't do these things, and do them soon, it needs to get cheaper. 

Especially when they at Apple's leadership claim such devices have a lifetime of only three years.

Report: Google is the default iPhone search engine because it paid Apple $1 billion

Caitlin McGarry, writing for PCWorld:

"Apple has admonished Google for violating user privacy with practices like mining emails for keywords to generate ad revenue. Now we know that Apple financially benefits from Google’s ad-targeting practices."

This quote (and  the article's headline) strikes me as bothersome. First-- Google has a revenue sharing agreement with Apple on search ad revenue. They didn't cut Apple a check for $1 billion up front to exclude other search engines. The arrangement is performance-based. It doesn't seem as if there's any sort of barrier to MS's Bing outbidding Google for the same arrangement. 

As for the quote-- this statement simply doesn't ring true. In fact, Apple's making money on search ads-- ads that have context based not on scanned emails but on terms that users input to a search engine for the purpose of receiving a contextually relevant response as output. The ads they receive are based on the search terms, not on scans of email or browser tracking.


Just Tap Ten Times

Ever since iOS 9 showed up, my App Store app has been acting funny. Before upgrading my phone (due to certain reports, I waited until 9.1 arrived)  the App Store would often display "Cannot Connect to App Store" on every screen but the update page. After upgrading.... Same thing.

Today, the page is just blank and it's been that way for a bit. But Quartz reported on a trick worth trying: "Tap on the tab bar of any item 10 times." They report that tapping on any item in the App Store navigation bar should clear the app's cache and get it working again. Further, this is apparently a fix for other Apple App's with caches, like iTunes and  Watch's included app. 

Why not allow users to clear caches in the app's settings page, which is clearly the most obvious place to put the tweak?

"Don't Count Fitbit out Yet"

 "Fitbit, an eight-year-old company, went public in June amid a wave of skepticism about the impact that Apple's new smartwatch might have on its business.

Yet Fitbit has consistently beaten Wall Street's earnings estimates in the second half of the year. On a conference call with analysts in November, Fitbit's CEO said the Apple Watch had "no material impact" on its business. And now Fitbit is proving to be one of the most popular gifts over the holiday season, a key period for gadget shopping.

Translation: Don't count Fitbit out yet."

While some may be surprised, Fitbit's resilience actually makes a lot of sense. The fact is that Christmas has always been about kids and kids today care about the one huge experiential offering that (1) Fitbit has focused on and (2) that Apple's never been able to get their products to properly exploit: Social.  

Hop into the Fitbit app and one of the first things you'll notice is that the bottom navigation bar has four items. Two of them-- Challenges and Friends are not only in the Center, but they're easy to tap on because of that location. Challenges allows you to compete against specific friends for the day, weekend or week and friends is a more casual way to see what life is like on the leaderboard. As Apple's Watch is somewhat an "all things to all people" device, the lack of focus on that Fitness component is to be expected. But it's also something that Apple may be able to overcome. 

Let's get back to kids. Kids are relatively irresponsible compared to their adult counterparts since they're still being raised. Parents factor this into their gift decisions. A) They break things. Which means if you're a parent that wants to support your post-Millennial, Generation Obesity child, and you can choose between an indestructible watch+fitness band for 

B) They're forgetful so battery life matters because they always want to play with their device. The Apple Watch lasts about 20 hours with moderate use. The Fitbit HR counts battery life in DAYS. Sleeping over at a friends for the weekend and forgot your Fitbit charger? You'll be fine. Not so for Apple Watch. 

C) Price is also a thing parents are concerned about. At $147 for the Charge HR (Amazon as of this writing) , a couple with two tweens or teens can get each of them a robust fitness device without breaking the bank. 

D) Finally, the most important thing-- interaction. The Apple Watch is wonderfully compelling. For children, that's an issue. While a Fitbit HR quietly does its thing all week long; allowing youngsters to wear it in class with little to no distractions or associated drama, the Apple Watch, like all Apple products, wants you to play with it and to pay attention to it. This isn't because it's the One Ring or anything nefarious like that but because that's what happens when devices have touch screens-- users are compelled to touch them. To a teacher, that touching, no matter how meaningful, is fiddling with a distraction. 

this isn't to say that Apple didn't have a strong showing this Christmas with their wearable. It's safe to say that they've trounced the Pebbles and Galaxy Gears and even Android Wear devices sales numbers this holiday. That's probably the more important target...not Fitbit.

 "Instead, some industry watchers now believe there are enough wrists out there for both Fitbit and Apple to succeed — at least for this holiday season."

These devices -- especially the base models are inexpensive enough to own more than one. And in 2016, that's probably what's going to happen for a lot of interested consumers; especially when the second version of the Apple Watch debuts.

Who knows? Maybe they'll buy Pebble and become the "independent wearable company." 

Quartz - More Americans are relying exclusively on their phones for Internet access

The cost of home broadband is just too high.

And paradoxically, we can't afford for it to be too high since:

(1) our economy requires rich connectivity to support its entertainment, software, and services-based sectors and

(2) young people need regular, cheap and abundant access to the Internet in order to become the workers and innovators of tomorrow.

The solution is simple: The broadband market must be made more competitive. Congress, in league with the FCC and the FTC can and should make this a priority.

Walt Mossberg isn't impressed: His Year in Review

Walt Mossberg on the tech of 2015:


 "Perhaps the most disappointing new twist came from Apple's 3D Touch. In my iPhone 6S review, I said I thought it could become a big deal. But, so far, it hasn't seemed to take off. Maybe next year. Maybe never."

new 12" MacBook:

"The newest Mac is slow, overpriced, and has a keyboard some find tough to get used to."

Mossberg continues with a discussion about the resurrection of MS and the general "meh" surrounding the Apple Watch, along w/ similar wearables. 

 I'd agree with most of his assessment but for one thing-- the Amazon Echo. To be sure, it was m released to a pilot audience in (late) December 2014, but it changed my domestic life in 2015. The Echo has gotten better and better-- week after week and month after month without my ever needing to approve an update or download apps for it. Between its lightning fast voice recognition, growing library of content along with it's aforementioned seamless updates and robust IFTTT support (you can set custom voice command triggers), Amazon really felt like the Queen of the Cloud.  What made the device stand head and shoulders above Apple's Siri and Google Now was the way the Echo was implemented, with seven microphones and a bunch of other kit, meant that I didn't need a phone nearby to take advantage of its functionality. I spoke to my house and it listened. I even picked up a second device for the bedroom to replace an app-enabled iHome clock radio. 

Other smart/connected home devices like Piper NV and the growing suite of Belkins WEMO tools also came in handy, with the latter certainly integrating nicely with the Echo directly as well as with IFTTT. 

It's true that the idea that every year needs a breakout super hit is part and parcel with what Paolo Bacigiulupi often "the Expansion Economy," in his work. It's a flawed measurement of success. Indeed for me, the Echo became indispensable (I very much want some version of it for my car), but like so many things, Echo is a remix of many ideas, implemented well. A revolution every hearsay make for great news cycles, but I'd rather tech giants take what they have, and refine it than drop half-baked moonshots at us all year long. 



Understanding the iPad Pro


In a recent piece on his site, Daring Fireball, John Gruber (who inspired the format of this blog) layed out an effective response to anyone confounded over the price and purpose/scope of the iPad Pro:

"We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 more than the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life. It's not a clear cut-and-dry win..."

At first, many complained that the iPad Pro was too expensive since it began at $700 ($200 more than a base model iPad Air 2) and that to add insult to this imagined injury, its storage capabilities are tiny at 32GB.

When you look at the device as a computer replacement however, the pricing begins to make a lot more sense to me-- especially since this iPad, with the Pro designation, is not marketed as a movie watching, comic reading, couch surfing device - it's meant for productivity. It's meant for work. It delivers on that front and that means as is the case with all well-used tools, it pays for itself.

Perhaps if Apple had called the device the "iMac Mini," or the "Mac Nano," there wouldn't be any confusion on these points. But they won't because it runs iOS rather than Mac OS, so it can't be a Mac. As Apple continues to develop two operating systems, iOS will have to struggle with growing out of the perception that iDevices are toys or field hardware to be synced up w/ a computer later; that they're the stuff of reading, and Instagramming and games. It's a marketing struggle, to be sure, but one which Apple will handle with aplomb, as it always does.

The iPad Pro is the first device to directly confront that struggle.