Can You Hear Me Now?

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A few months back, I teased the fact that Google was about to pull the trigger on their plan to become your cell phone provider— and they just did exactly that. They have just announced Google Fi, which is a cellular and WiFi network they say will be the new way to call.

Put simply, they have cut a deal with Sprint and T-Mobile (arguably the worst two networks out there) to piggyback on their cell coverage. It doesn’t end there. They are adding a network of strong WiFi hubs, which will give users Internet access over large areas and the ability to make phone calls over the WiFi rather than cellular service. That neat feature is currently limited to the Google Nexus 6 phone (a phone nobody has bought), but it points the way to the future.

It’s about time. When I visited South Korea about a decade ago, they already had strong and ubiquitous WiFi covering the entire country. Most people could make calls through either the cell service or the Internet connection. The new move by Google means that sometime soon, the average Google Fi user will be paying $50 a month for 3G service, WiFi hot spots and 3GB of data. That’s a considerable savings over what most of us are currently paying. Data you don’t use gets credited back to your account. Finally!

Though it’s still early, it’s likely that this will accelerate to work with all next-gen Android phones. Hopefully this new competitor with very large pockets and even larger ambitions will help stir the competitive pot in the same way that streaming technologies are helping to free us from the yoke of the cable company.

What’s missing is an Apple play in this space. iOS has already lost market leadership to Android. If Google starts bringing out really good smart phones that offer the kind of service we are talking about at these price points, it’s going to be tougher for Apple to stay relevant. Some kind of WiFi partnership with a major carrier (even a cable company) might make a lot of strategic sense, but I’ve heard no rumors to that effect yet.

Testing the Capabilities of 3D Printing

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Over the past few years, 3D printing has become more common and companies are turning to this technology as it is an effective way of manufacturing products. Disney has recently been tinkering with this technology and conducting experiments, which has led to the creation of a printer that can print flexible and soft products, like that of stuffed animals and the possibility of clothing in the future.

While a paper published by Disney only reveals the idea in concept, the process that it would go through to achieve this would be relatively simple. Interestingly, this would be one of the most-advanced concepts, and would completely revolutionize the way things like stuffed toys are made. 3D printing has come a long way over the course of the last several years. However, previous models utilized plastic instead of other materials like fabric.

This developing technology has cleared some of the arguments that 3D printing with plastic has limited practical applications by using another ingredient to create something new. However, expanding the number of raw materials that can be used in the 3D printing process is incredibly beneficial. No longer are we talking about just using hard plastics. Instead, we’re talking about using fabric, a softer material – and who knows what that could lead to in the future.

The real opportunity here is expanding on something that is quickly becoming mainstream. That’s not to say that this is going to make a 3D printer common in every house, but it will do a lot to actually innovate the world around us and really that’s what this is all about. Disney is innovating in an arena that typically only big tech companies are innovating.

Reasons to Hate Your Cable Company

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Ask pretty much any household about the most hated and most intractable monthly bill; the chances are they will cite the cable company. Even though I live in what amounts to the low desert, where 76 and sunny is the norm and 100 degrees is not uncommon for three months of the year, the cable usually out strips even my electricity bill. Though, I do have whole-house DVR with 60+ Mb up and down and I have to have HBO for Game of Thrones and my very own (made just for me and ten thousand other industry geeks) Silicon Valley. The price never comes down and the quality of service rarely goes up without a corresponding increase in charges.

So, it was with some glee today that I learned of the impact that Google is having on Charlotte, NC and surrounding cities. In response to Google announcing that it will be bringing Google Fiber to those towns, Time Warner Cable announced that it will be delivering six times the speed of the current service for no extra cost starting this summer. Six times faster!

We all know that we are living in a cable monopoly, where we take what we are granted and keep our mouths shut, but six times faster? Really? So now the cat is out of the bag: the cable monopolies are deliberately not giving the US the kind of world-leading internet infrastructure it deserves because they are a monopoly and they don’t have to. Once again, (as in Kansas City a year or so back) Google shows up with great service at a great price and miraculously things get way better almost immediately.

With the rapid growth of streaming devices, you can get a good subset of what you actually want to watch (as opposed to the seven hundred channels of un-watchable ad-stuffed garbage) for a few tens of dollars a month — not the hundreds most of us pay right now. So come on over Google; Riverside County is a great place badly in need of your wonderful cable service. Maybe we can lift the jack boot of Verizon FIOS off our throats.

The Wearable Solution

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It’s happened again. An armed white cop guns down an unarmed man of color who apparently presented no actual threat, after an altercation during a routine traffic stop. It’s interesting to note that simply because a passerby caught the entire thing on video, the cop involved has been arrested for murder rather than been given administrative leave pending investigation and cover up.

As I have mentioned probably half a dozen times before in this very blog, there is a simple wearable solution to the problem of our over militarized largely racist police problem. It’s called a body camera. In a perfect “slamming the stable door shut after all the horses have escaped and murdered a bunch of people of color” the Mayor of the town involved announced that they would be acquiring an additional 150 body cameras in an attempt to control their out of control police organization. With the 150 cameras they already have on order that’s enough to equip every officer on their streets.

It need not be expensive either, the 64 GB 1080 HD Muvee I have costs less than $200. They are already in wide use elsewhere, even the local animal control officer I met the other day was wearing one. It makes no sense that teens on skateboards boast better wearable tech than the guys who are supposed to protect and serve us.

I’m sure over time wildly over priced wearable “engagement visualization and analysis” equipment will be integrated with other secure systems which will not only cut down the police on public violence but will also be useful in identifying suspects and risks. That’s great…let’s call that the full on RoboCop 2015 solution. For now, every single cop on patrol on every street in this country should have $200 of wearable tech attached to their $500 Kevlar vest to serve as a reminder that it’s we who they are supposed to be protecting and serving and as a deterrent to more acts of casual murder.

Apple Watch Ad Campaign In Full Effect

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Apple is no stranger to robust marketing campaigns and the company is known for its clever advertisements, but no one can deny Apple is pushing into new territory with its media blitz for its smartwatch, which includes 10 short videos demonstrating the Apple Watch’s usefulness. Three of the short videos, which Apple calls “Guided Tour” videos, are available online, and are broken down into different categories based on the feature described, such as Messages, Faces, and Digital Touch. Among the features highlighted in the upcoming videos are maps, Siri, phone calls, music, activity, Apple Pay, and Workout.

The company had previously released a series of short videos, made with Apple’s typical flair and highlight the precision manufacturing involved in the creation of the watch, after the device was first announced last year. Though the launch of the Watch is almost guaranteed to garner significant media coverage, the new reservation-only system will deprive Apple of one of its standard, and most durable PR images that includes lines of Apple fans huddled in lines stretching city blocks, waiting for store doors to open.

It remains to be seen whether or not the company’s marketing blitz and expansion into luxury stores will have an impact on sales. Smartwatches currently hover at 2% market penetration, and nearly half of the smartwatch owners surveyed (48%) had an income below $45,000.

However, Apple entrance into wearables is expected to give the overall market a boost, especially after the disappointing sales of Android Wear. Still, it is not known if the Apple Watch will be a short-term phenomenon, or one that translates into long-term growth of wearables.

Amazon Takes to the North

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Amazon is testing its drone delivery service at a closely guarded, secret site in Canada, following repeated warnings that it would go outside the US to bypass what it sees as the US federal government’s avoidant approach to the new technology. Amazon acquired a plot of open land lined by oak trees and firs, where it is conducting frequent experimental flights with the full blessing of the Canadian government.

Drone technology is seen by many tech companies and aeronautics experts as the next frontier for innovation, with billions of dollars potentially in the balance. Traditionally, the US has been at the vanguard of both tech and aviation innovation, but the approach of the Federal Aviation Authority has been markedly tentative so far compared with that of regulators in Canada and Europe.

Until it opened its Canadian base, Amazon had been limited to indoor testing in its Seattle laboratory, backed up with research outposts in the UK – in Cambridge – and Israel. Requests by the company to begin outdoor testing on company land in the state of Washington have so far largely been rebuffed by the FAA.

The federal agency recently published its guidelines for commercial use of small drones. The new rules will take at least two years to come into effect, a delay which Amazon finds unacceptable. Last July, the company applied for a so-called 333 exemption that would allow it to carry out outdoor experimentation immediately. Eight months later, the FAA has not responded.

The federal body did agree last week, amid considerable fanfare, to award the company a so-called “experimental airworthiness certificate” that can be used to test a specific model of drone. But it took so long for the certificate to come through that by the time it was granted, Amazon said it was obsolete.

The contrast between the relative rigidity of the FAA’s approach to drone testing and the relatively relaxed regulatory regime in Canada is startling. Under the Canadian system, Amazon has been granted a virtual carte blanche regarding its entire fleet of drones within its designated airspace, having gone through a licensing process that took just three weeks.

By comparison, it takes the FAA many months to grant approval. The US regulator insists on an initial 23-page application, a review of 75 pages of further documentation and a four-hour presentation at FAA headquarters followed by a three-hour site visit, together with ongoing reporting and record-keeping obligations.

Early experiments in Canada have focused on a range of individual drone capabilities: sensors that can detect and avoid obstacles in a drone’s path; link-loss procedures that control the aircraft should its connection with base be broken; stability in wind and turbulence; and environmental impact. Once each of these facets has been perfected, a new Amazon prototype drone will be assembled that would be utterly safe and wholly unlike anything seen before.

Google As Your Bank

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I refuse to get sucked back into the vortex of what the hell Google will or will not be doing with Google Glass at some point in the foreseeable future…instead let’s look at something that may actually matter to most of us.

Unless you are living under a rock the chances are that you are using online banking for almost everything. I haven’t written a check in years but each month my bank dutifully mails out checks to everyone I need to pay. according to documents obtained by those enterprising folk at re/code Google is planning to launch a service called (or code named) Pony Express which will allow us to receive online bills and pay them straight out of Gmail. Receiving e-bills by email is not news but being able to have them automatically organized withing email then pay them from right inside Gmail is really interesting.

The end user will be able to organize and pay most bills simply and directly without having to jump off to a bank site or the site of the bill issuer. I’d certainly use the service.

That sounds all well and good…but let’s put our tinfoil hats on and talk about security and other concerns. We hear almost daily of data breeches and other hacks…the personal and financial data collected in this process would paint an enormous target on the Gmail….come on in guys all our financial data is over here! Gmail has s really good record in terms of data security …but it’s a concern.

Now let’s think about what all this extra data could mean for Google. It will know when you move house, when you are having a baby…when you have had a baby. It will know when you are struggling with bills and only paying minimums on credit cards. It will know where you live and what your mortgage is.It also knows all of your searching behavior and the content of all of your email. In theory this additional data will put Google in a much stronger place to target you with super effective messages.

Having gone that far what’s to stop Google from actually becoming a bank. The answer is almost nothing.  I’d be shocked to discover that Google hasn’t already started this process. Look at PayPal…it started as a way to pay online and now offers a range of financial services. The Google credit and debit cards can only be months away. What’s in your wallet?

Android Wear going Up Market?

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Apple has thrown down the gauntlet to the luxury watch industry with their recent announcement of the gold Apple watch priced at about $17,000. Word has it that the Swiss watch giants are more than a little worried by these developments. Google has just announced a partnership with Tag Heuer and Intel to make an Android Wear  premium watch…so things just got real in premium watch land.

To date wearable watches have been all over the map in terms of pricing and design. Most are stuck in the “Get Smart” world of clunky geekery, I have yet to see one I really like…and as an Apple phone user I couldn’t use them anyway. Interestingly fitness trackers have completely out sold smart watches, they are typically priced afford-ably and do something which their users actually value. Most people already carry a smart watch in their pocket…it’s called a phone. I like the form and function of my Tissot watch. It’s robust, doesn’t need charging and if I destroyed it or lost it I wouldn’t be devastated. It does one thing really well. I don’t leave home without it…but I easily could. I probably check the time on my phone more often than I do my watch by a factor of three to one.

The announcement with Tag Heuer is interesting especially because the top guys at Tag explicitly said they would not be going the “Get Smart” route. Out the box the smart money will be on their watch being much more expensive than most Android Wear devices. I’m OK with that. Having Tag use their watch expertise to make an attractive robust watch which does something which users care about is a really good idea. Most people won’t be able to afford it but having them pull it off (assuming they can) may set a new direction where wearable meets functional meets style…and I’m all for that.

Glass as Fight Club

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The tech portion of SXSW ground to a hipster halt yesterday with the boss of the Google X division sharing insights and updates. As you may recall I’m not a huge fan of Google Glass…I like wearable tech but I always thought the way Google positioned Glass as an elitist ‘too cool for you’ gimmick was flawed.  Back in the day Google reveled in product demand, celebrating the desire from the Brooklyn Bearded ones to decorate their faces with the ultimate symbol of in-crowd cool. The mere fact that the battery life was awful, the functionality clunky and the obvious invasion of privacy concerns were ignored was neither here nor there. In yesterday’s session Astro Teller (yes that’s really his name) pinned most of the blame for Glasses failure on the way Google over hyped the project.  In effect they misled their audience to think that it was a cool finished piece of cutting edge tech as opposed to a cool looking but clunky second screen for an Android phone. In short they talked it up…then talked it to death.

Google loves long betas. as I recall their main search was in “beta” for five years.  That’s fine with a free to use web product, but in high priced consumer electronics getting the 1.0 of something is problematic…getting the beta is a recipe for disaster.  If it was never really a stable product hyping it hurt them and the entire wearable market. They turned wearable tech a into a punchline for late night talk show monologues. Next time (and I’m sure there will be one) I imagine they will take a much lower profile marketing approach….the first rule of the new Google Glass will be….Don’t talk about Google Glass.  The second rule…DON’T TALK ABOUT GOOGLE GLASS.

Becoming a Solar Power in India

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India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, made headlines last year by announcing his ambition to install 100 gigawatts of solar power capacity (over 30 times more than India has now) by 2022. Skeptics noted the lack of a detailed plan and budget, but some well-capitalized industrial players have apparently caught the Prime Minister’s solar fever: at a renewable energy summit called by Modi last month he collected pledges for 166 gigawatts of solar projects.

At the New Delhi summit, energy renewable giants such as First Solar and SunEdison mixed for the first time with chief ministers from Indian states and top executives of Indian industrial conglomerates such as Adani Enterprises and the National Thermal Power Corporation, India’s largest power generator.

Tobias Engelmeier, founder of Bridge to India, a solar-market consultancy, says Modi’s ambition has “changed the conversation” about India’s solar potential. But what happens next, will depend only in part on what renewable energy strategy Modi can devise from within the central government. The ultimate driver could be India’s unmet demand for electricity. A quarter of India’s population is not connected to the power grid, and electricity supply is chronically short for those who are.

Modi has said that India had to “make a quantum leap in energy production,” and he said solar could deliver with its rapid construction rates and crashing prices—from 20 rupees (32 cents) per kilowatt-hour to less than seven rupees over the last three years.

In some Indian states, renewable energy can compete with fossil fuels even without the benefit of any subsidies, at least for commercial and industrial consumers, who pay the highest rates in India. Industrial firms normally pay 10 rupees or more per kilowatt-hour for grid power, but solar developers there are selling their power at a profit for eight rupees per kilowatt-hour.

Engelmeier’s firm reported in November 2014 that even rooftop installations, which cost more to install, now match or beat the grid rates for commercial and industrial consumers in one out of four Indian states, with rates of about eight rupees per kilowatt-hour. Between 2012 and 2014, solar capacity increased from 461 megawatts to over three gigawatts in India, and Engelmeier projects that developers will add up to two more gigawatts this year. An increasing number of states, including Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh, are leasing public lands for solar parks. This eliminates the need for solar developers to work through India’s complex land registries to support their own solar farm.