Amazon offers a range of hardware, including its Kindle e-readers and tablets, but now it’s looking to expand the line with two new smartphones and an audio-only device that streams music, according to the Wall Street Journal. The phones include a high-end one with a glasses-free 3D screen, as well as another about which details were not included in the report, which presumably would be a more traditional design.
Amazon has been rumored to have been working on a phone for a while now, and the recent hiring of top Windows Phone evangelist Charlie Kindel also raised alarms that Amazon might be in the smartphone business soon. Natasha wrote about how Kindel had previously discussed Android’s fragmentation problem, and how it provided opportunity for other players to step up and innovate. This could be what he’s attempting at Amazon, and these devices might be part of that project, although nothing about its plans have been officially revealed as of yet.
The rumored 3D device is said to use some kind of retina-tracking technology to present a holographic image that’s viewable without glasses, and that hovers above the screen. It sounds a little like a gimmick to be honest, especially considering how CE devices with 3D have fared so far, like the 3DS, which recently has downplayed its 3D capabilities in recent marketing. Other phone makers, including HTC and Sony, have also dabbled with 3D displays on phones, all of which have essentially failed to make an impact.
Lately, however, a lot of companies have been creating hardware which doesn’t necessarily have an immediately apparent niche. There’s the Chromebook Pixel, for instance, as well as Google Glass and rumors of the Apple smart watch. There’s the Acer Aspire R7 more recently, too, all of which essentially point to a need to have a big, splashy marquee product that isn’t necessarily the hottest consumer device.
Amazon’s other phone could be the more mass-market play, and the dedicated audio player sounds like it might want to become the iPhone of the streaming music generation. WSJ says that some of these devices might launch as soon as in the next few months, though there’s no guarantee that they won’t be shelved, so 3D screens could also just be something Amazon is testing internally.
We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment and have yet to hear back, but will update this post if they provide any official comment.
Whom do the idols idolize?
Lei Jun, the CEO of Android handset and OS maker Xiaomi, is arguably the face of tech entrepreneurship in China as a long-time angel investor and serial entrepreneur behind companies like Amazon-acquired Joyo.cn and the recently IPO’d YY.
He’s been called the “Steve Jobs of China” in the sense that Xiaomi is an integrated hardware and software maker that has altered Android for Chinese tastes. They sell high-end Android phones at or slightly above the cost of materials and profit through accessories and eventually, software and services. While the country has been known for lower-end hardware makers, Xiaomi is pushing the idea that world-class products can be both made and designed in China.
The company has its own fanboys to prove it. Just two years after launching their first device, Xiaomi plans to sell 15 million devices this year, bringing the company $4.5 billion in revenue. Last year, they sold 7 million phones. Sales in batches of 200K to 300K phones on their website regularly sell out — sometimes in less than an hour.
But Xiaomi also has incredibly high expectations to realize; the company’s valuation is not just predicated on raw hardware sales, but also on the idea that Xiaomi will eventually be able to monetize software services — something it has yet to prove against giants like Alibaba and Tencent in the ridiculously competitive Chinese market.
While founding the company three years ago, Jun thought about the history of Chinese business and entrepreneurship to find role models.
“What kind of company in China can last for a century?” he asked at the GMIC conference in Beijing this week.
He said he ultimately looked up to two companies: a 340-year-old traditional Chinese medicine company called Tongrentang and hot pot chain Hai Di Lao.
He said Tongrentang’s mission taught him two things — never produce lower-quality products for the sake of cost and never spare any effort in creating the best quality products.
Hai Di Lao, which is indeed a delicious hot pot chain (yes, I’ve tried it), taught him about the value of customer service. In a separate interview, co-founder and president Lin Bin suggested that I order items not on the menu or even praise the dishware in the restaurant.
“They take customer feedback very, very seriously and always leave you with a surprise,” Bin said.
In a way, Jun is critical of the prevailing business culture in China. “There’s a big problem with integrity in China,” he said. “People sell pigs but you’re not eating pork,” he added on-stage, alluding to recent health scares where rat meat has been marked as lamb.
Paired with this focus on high-quality parts is a marketing model that’s unusual for any handset maker globally.
Xiaomi sold 72 percent of its phones directly through its online store last year, bypassing the costly logistical headache of dealing with brick-and-mortar retailers. Right now, they have two models: one that retails for 1999 renminbi ($326) and a more basic version that goes for 1499 renminbi ($245).
They can do this because the company has cultivated a unique participatory model of designing phones. Every week, the company releases a new version of its customized Android experience: the miUI.
Of their millions of customers, there are a few hundred thousand “hardcore” fans who do the teardowns, scrutinize every spec and offer suggestions on how to change the phone.
“Chinese consumers are actually very critical in the sense that they compare not just the build and look and feel of phones, but also everything that goes inside — the CPU, memory, speed, the specs,” Bin said. “They are pretty savvy about the money they pay for these phones.”
Jun uses Weibo, the public Chinese social networking platform that sometimes draws comparisons to Twitter, to solicit advice and communicate with Xiaomi fans. He’s offered different levels of hard drive storage based on user feedback. He said they even added a sound recording app at the behest of a reporter.
“We co-develop the phone,” Jun said in another interview. “I’ve used more than 70 phones in the last couple years. I have lots of suggestions, but will they change their phone? Even Nokia? Most likely not. So I created a model where I’ve invited all of my fans to be involved in designing the phone. It’s one of the most exciting things for them.”
He says this is a key part of why Xiaomi spends less than its peers on marketing.
“If you invented a feature in the Xiaomi phone, will you tell your classmates and friends that you invented a feature? Most likely you will.”
Their approach ties into a big trend that is fueling a hardware Renaissance globally: the ability to feel out product-market fit through social media before a capital-intensive manufacturing process — be it through Twitter, Weibo or a Kickstarter campaign.
Through that feedback and Xiaomi’s own in-house engineers and designers, miUI includes improvements over the standard flavor of Android. Jun says that they’ve tweaked how applications run in the background so that a Xiaomi phone can go up to six or seven days without a recharge. (I’ve been carrying an older Xiaomi around and it has held up for a few days at a time, unlike my iPhone, which needs to be recharged every day.) There are also lots of UI flourishes that are, frankly, Apple-like.
While Xiaomi has done well at positioning itself as much more than a commodity hardware maker, one of its next challenges will be to prove that it can make money off software and services. Because it sells phones at or near the cost of the build of materials, Xiaomi will rely on accessories and services to boost its margins.
Jun is reluctant to say whether Xiaomi is at heart more of a software or hardware company (a question that has also perplexed analysts of Apple).
“We positioned ourselves as triathlon athletes,” Jun said. “We do software, hardware and Internet services, so if you would ask which part of the three is stronger, my answer is: would you ask a triathlon athlete whether they are best at running, swimming or cycling?”
They’ve shared some vanity stats showing traction, although it’s hard to understand what they mean. Xiaomi’s app store sees 3.5 million app downloads a day, 3.5 million photos uploaded to its cloud service a day and has seen 2 billion messages uploaded cumulatively. Its messaging app MiTalk is way behind Tencent’s WeChat, which is the other big China tech story of the year with 190 million active users.
There are some promising metrics, though. Bin says Xiaomi’s customers are twice as active on the mobile web as those of other manufacturers. That sort of engagement could lend itself to interesting revenue opportunities down the line in gaming and e-commerce, although the company declined to share specifics.
Two other growth areas for Xiaomi are international markets and in other types of hardware. The company is expanding to greater China — or Taiwan and Hong Kong. Bin is reluctant to talk about even more international markets, saying that the company just wants to prove itself in these two areas first.
There are unique challenges. For one, these markets rely on more of the subsidized model that’s common in the West where carriers lower the list price through post-paid plans. In China, many consumers pay for the full cost of the phone upfront. They also don’t know whether the marketing model where they heavily engage a core set of fans will work outside of mainland China.
The other growth area is with Xiaomi’s new set-top boxes. It was a rocky start with the initial sales of the set-top boxes blocked by Chinese regulations around TV content. But they re-launched two months ago. Bin and Jun declined to share figures on sales so far, except to say that Jun has seen second-hand models show up on eBay and Taobao for $90 (which is about twice the list price of 299 renminbi).
Bin is hesitant to share too many targets, because he claims that Xiaomi doesn’t really even have that many internally. Even the goal to get to 15 million handsets is to produce that many, not necessarily to sell that many (although they invariably sell out).
“We don’t have any KPIs (key performance indicators) — not even internally,” Bin said. “Our KPI is to get handsets to everyone who can place an order online and make a full payment.”
I don’t want to awaken the ire of any committed pet owners — because I think you can do whatever you want with your pets (and your money) — but I would be lying if I said I didn’t cringe a little bit when I hear about extreme pet products and services like doggie treadmills, pet psychiatrists or pet fitness centers and the like.
In a quick conversation behind the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, an unofficial, unscientific, non-statistically sound poll indicated that “if you don’t have time to walk your dog and need to outsource that to a health club…maybe you just shouldn’t have a dog.”
I concur with those results.
Still, I came across FitBark on the floor of the Hardware Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 and while it could, at first, seem “extreme” I found that after talking to these guys and hearing their explanation, their little device actually seems pretty reasonable.
What is the FitBark? From a technological standpoint, it is a wearable accelerometer that you put on your dog’s collar to monitor their activity. In most ways the product is very similar to products like the Nike Fuel + Band or the FitBit, however the strategy behind it — and this is the reasonable part — is quite different.
FitBark is not designed to be a performance indicator or weight loss utility or competitive device for animals. Instead, it’s just an activity monitor so loving pet owners can make sure their dogs are getting enough activity.
How it works is that, as the dog moves about, their activity is captured and stored on the device (up to three weeks of data can be stored).
Whenever the FitBark comes into the proximity of the owners iPhone’s or optional homebase unit — via Bluetooth 4 or Wi-Fi — the data is transferred off of the FitBark, passed through the FitBark app on the iPhone and transferred up to the cloud where that data is stored.
The historical data can then be visualized on any of the iOS devices that are allowed to view the data. In this way, dog owners can have real-time info about the pet’s activity.
Another hint that the FitBark is reasonable is their one-time pricing model. There are no ongoing monthly service fees or memberships required. You buy the hardware device upfront ($99 from their Kickstarter page), and you get the data it produces for free. I”’m guessing they have worked their data hosting costs into the hardware price.
In this way, it really seems like a tool for care and not a stingy racket for recurring fees.
I’m not sure this is a product I myself would ever use, as I tend to think dogs are evolutionarily equipped to survive living in what James Brown would call “a man’s world.” However I can see how loving, caring and yes, reasonable pet owners might like to see this data about their dogs. Because of that, the FitBark seems like a useful piece of hardware.
There’s a long-held notion that China should be the go-to place for those in need of inexpensive manufactured products, but some prominent makers don’t buy it. Our own John Biggs sat down with Adafruit Industries founder Limor Fried (perhaps better known as Lady Ada) for a chat on the Disrupt NY stage that quickly turned to deal with the benefits of manufacturing hardware close to home.
When Adafruit needs to make some injection-molded cases, they don’t run to China — they turn to an experience Canadian supplier. The same goes for the multitudes of printed circuit boards that Adafruit needs, except they reach out to a company in Colorado instead. One would imagine that the end results aren’t quite as cheap as if Adafruit has just linked up with Chinese vendors, but Fried says the price difference isn’t as substantial as it used to be.
“If you’re a small company, the risk is very high,” she noted, before pointing out that rising wages in China are contributing to a shrinking gap between products crafted in Asia and in North America.
Adafruit’s general preference for North American manufacturers is mostly because it’s much easier to have trusted people on the ground to make sure things are going as intended — there’s a certain level of ambiguity that comes into play when smaller businesses place an order to a supplier halfway across the globe and trust that things are completed as planned. These sorts of arguments aren’t exactly new — Makerbot founder and CEO Bre Pettis said that makers who produce relatively small 50,000 to 100,000 unit product runs were better off keeping the manufacturing process in the United States because of the benefits of proximity.
Adafruit’s approach to manufacturing isn’t just a function of what it makes, it’s based on the company’s vision. In case it wasn’t already clear Adafruit Industries definitely isn’t your average electronics manufacturer — Fried refers to Adafruit as a “tutorial company or an educational company with a gift shop at the end.” It deals with plenty of open-source hardware projects, and the team provides its users with the necessary CAD files and instructions to get those homebrew gizmos up and running. In theory, a person interested in cobbling together an Adafruit project doesn’t need to buy anything from them, but Adafruit has done well financially by providing those parts just to lighten the load on prospective tinkerers.
It’s a refreshing take on the process of hardware production and sales, and it seems to be doing rather well — Adafruit Industries saw $4.5 million in sales in 2011, and Fried was named Entrepreneur Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year at the end of 2012.
Originally posted here: Limor Fried Explains Why Adafruit Industries Likes Manufacturing In North America
Nokia has announced another handset in its Series 40-based Asha portfolio of low end mobiles which compete with the budget end of Android and cheap BlackBerrys. The 2G-plus-Wi-Fi Asha 210, due to ship before the end of Q2, packs a physical Qwerty keyboard and comes painted in Nokia’s now trademark eye-popping colours (yellow, cyan, magenta), plus black and white. But the most notable addition to this BlackBerry-esque device is a hardware key on the front that short-cuts to messaging app WhatsApp — which, extending the BlackBerry comparison, is the phone’s BBM replacement.
As well as the ability to fire up WhatsApp by long pressing on this dedicated key, Nokia said Asha 210 buyers will get a free subscription to the messaging service for the lifetime of the device. On the Series 40 platform, WhatsApp normally charges a $0.99 annual fee after a first year of free use. Last week the messaging service said it now has north of 200 million monthly active users (this compares to BBM’s more modest 60 million). Tapping into the hugely popular social messaging craze is clearly Nokia’s aim here.
Nokia describes the Asha 210′s WhatsApp hardware key as a “world first”, although we’ve seen the mobile maker (and others) stick a Facebook button on a phone before. But before you start wondering how displeased Facebook is going to be with Nokia for two-timing it with a deadly messaging rival, the handset actually comes in two social messaging flavours, with a second variant having a dedicated Facebook key (shown below, on the black handset) instead of a WhatsApp button.
The two Asha 210 social flavours — which also each come in single SIM/dual SIM variants – won’t be offered together in the same market but will rather be region specific, presumably corresponding to where the respective services are most popular. Neil Broadley, marketing director for Nokia’s mobile phones division, told TechCrunch the WhatsApp device will generally target Asia-Pac and Middle East & Africa, while the Facebook flavour will mostly be heading to Europe and Latin America. He also confirmed that neither device will be sold in North American.
“On a market by market basis we will have either WhatsApp or Facebook,” said Broadley. “Both of our partners are hugely successful around the world and as we go on a market by market basis, some of our market teams would like to have the WhatsApp variant, some would like to have the Facebook variant. And of course we already have the Nokia Asha 205 on a global basis with the Facebook hard key there as well.”
Broadley added that Nokia is looking at the possibility of making a third variant of the Asha 210 — specifically targeting the Chinese market — with another, as yet undetermined social service loaded on the hard key (China has a variety of homegrown social services that outstrip the popularity of global offerings, such as microblogging service Sina Weibo vs Twitter). Nokia certainly has work to do to win back buyers in China. In its Q1 results last week, China saw the biggest drop of any of Nokia’s regions in terms of sales by value and volume, with $334 million in sales in Greater China, down 56% on the year ago quarter.
Aside from differing social shortcuts, the Asha 210 variants have identical hardware and software, with a sub-1Ghz chip; 2 megapixel rear camera plus a dedicated camera key on the front of the device (in addition to the WhatsApp/Facebook key plus standard nav/call keys); Nokia’s Slam Bluetooth-sharing data transfer tech and its hot-swap SIM system; plus a rubberised full Qwerty keyboard which recycles the pillowed keys of 2008′s Nokia E71. The keyboard also includes shortcut keys for turning on/off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
On the software front, the device comes with WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter preloaded; support for YouTube streaming and web apps; a ‘Games Gift’ of 15 free downloadable “premium” games & apps from the Nokia Store; plus Nokia’s neat voice-guided self-portrait feature, which gets around the lack of a front-facing lens by helping users align a self-portrait when they can’t see the screen.
Nokia’s earlier Facebook-button-packing phone, the full Qwerty Asha 205, was announced in November last year. At the time, the company’s decision to introduce a phone with a dedicated Fb button revived a 2011 trend which, for the majority of last year, appeared to have run its course — without, apparently, covering any of the device maker particpants (including HTC, Orange and Vodafone) in huge heaps of gold.
Asked about sales of the Asha 205, Nokia said it has not broken out any numbers for the model but added that the number of Facebook activations for the device is “significantly higher” than for the average Asha family device. Whatever the sales figures, Nokia clearly believes there is more gold to be mined from low end mobiles by associating its hardware with the biggest brands of the social messaging space.
The Asha 210 — along with the entire Nokia Asha range — targets developing markets and cost-conscious consumers, which explains its focus on seeking ways to reduce not just the initial outlay but also the total cost of ownership, while simultaneously amping up its core social offering by making sure it can provide access to big name apps and allow for easy social photo-sharing, as Android does.
The Asha 210 will have a $72 price-tag (before taxes and subsidies). The price-tag puts it in touching distance of budget Androids and while the S40 platform is not as user friendly, flexible or as app-rich as Android, Nokia has been working to strength its competitiveness against Android’s low end with additions such as its cloud-based data-compressing Xpress Browser, which ekes out up to three times as much data as non-compression browsers to help keep the user’s data costs down, plus offers such as ‘Games Gift’ and the free WhatsApp subscription.
As with other Asha devices, the 210 also boasts a long battery life — of up to 46 days on standby, and around 12 hours talk time. Nokia noted that it is using push notification technology to reduce battery drain caused by the Asha 210 checking for WhatsApp/Facebook updates. Update checking is done by Nokia in the cloud, with any new info pushed out to the user’s phone when it arrives.
One more thing…
Nokia and WhatsApp are about to hold an online Q&A about the launch of the Asha 2010 so we’ll be checking for any interesting tidbits that come out of the discussion to add as an update below. Currently, around the world, there is still plenty of regional diversity across messaging and social services – messaging apps are especially fragmented. Many of these apps inevitably compete with and come into conflict with social networking giant Facebook, which wants to own all the world’s chatter. And with Facebook having just launched its app-sidelining Android skin, social challengers such as WhatsApp are likely to be keen to find ways to increase their own visibility on mobile. Having your brand stamped on the outside of a phone sounds like a great place to start.
Updates from the Q&A, with Nokia’s Broadley and Neeraj Arora, business development, at WhatsApp:
On whose idea the WhatsApp hard key was, Nokia’s or WhatsApp’s… Broadley: “We have an ongoing relationship with WhatsApp that spans a range of Nokia Asha and other Nokia products. We are both really excited about this opportunity.”
On whether the WhatsApp hard key will be exclusive to Nokia devices… Arora & Broadley: “We are very excited to bring a dedicated WhatsApp button to Asha 210 and we will take consumer feedback for future consideration.”
On whether Nokia will bundle WhatsApp’s software with all Asha devices… Broadley: “We already bundle WhatsApp with many Nokia Asha family devices and are working on extending it to as many Nokia phones as possible.”
On what evidence there is consumers want social messaging hard keys on phones, or whether they just want easy access to lots of apps & services… Broadley: “With the Nokia Asha 210 we’ve worked hard to give people the best of both worlds. People have access to a dedicated hardware button, preloaded social networks ready to go right out of the box, and access to the Nokia Store to download and install more.”
On WhatsApp’s support for dual SIM devices… Arora: “The launch of Asha 210 does signify WhatsApp’s availability on Dual SIM devices. We are working on extending it to other Dual SIM devices.”
On the differences between the Asha 210 and Nokia’s earlier Facebook button phone, the Asha 205… Arora & Broadley: “There is WhatsApp deep linking into social share gallery and there is more to come.”
On the Asha 210′s battery performance… Broadley: “We have a really high quality Nokia 1200 mAh battery in the Nokia Asha 210. The software really helps get great battery life — for example we have something called Nokia Notifications which works in the cloud to check for your social network updates, then pushes them to the phone. This stops the individual apps having to continually check for updates — saving battery.”
On Nokia’s approach to phone design… Broadley: ”Starting with the Nokia 206 announced just before Christmas we’ve been progressively uniting the Nokia portfolio under a single, coherent design language… We have one stunning design approach across the Nokia range.”
On whether Nokia could introduce a Lumia product with a physical Qwerty to differentiate its smartphones from rivals’… Broadley: “We don’t comment on future plans.”