Samsung

The (Broken) Promise Of Wearables

This week the Moto 360 became available and sold out in record time. Next week Apple is rumored to introduce their iWatch along with the next generation iPhone. And Samsung just announced their next generation Gear watch last week that is expected to ship at the same time as the Galaxy Note Edge.

It is clear that Wearables hold a lot of excitement and a lot of promise, and obviously capture people’s imagination. But let’s pause for a moment first, and talk about past experiences with Wearables:

Wearables on a table

Among the many tech gadgets that I’ve acquired in recent years, I also purchased the first Samsung Gear watch when it came out last year, I bought the Google Glass Explorer Edition, and I bought the Fitbit fitness tracker.

Each device held a unique promise that it would make life easier and would add useful functionality. And each device ended up breaking that promise in subtly different ways.

My experiment with the Galaxy Gear smartwatch was very short-lived. The essential promise was to show important information about incoming emails or messages without the need to have to reach into your pocket and get out your phone. However, it wasn’t ubiquitous. Apps on your phone had to be written to be compatible with the watch. And for the most important communications medium – email – all the watch would tell me is that a message had arrived from somebody. No subject line. No relevant content summary. It was essentially useless.

The Fitbit fitness tracker held a simpler promise: wear it all day and all night and track your health. Except that it is so small that I lost it about 3-4 times during travels and only rediscovered it again when I emptied the suitcase after the end of the trip. Here it was the need to go to your computer and sync it there that broke the promise of ease of use. And the tracking information was primitive at best – a simple step counter. I gained no useful benefit from the device that would really help with my weight loss efforts.

Google Glass was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the three. The promise of having an augmented reality experience sounded great. But all it really did was provide notifications about messages, news, and occasional information from other Glass apps about restaurants, sightseeing spots, and other trivia. And after a short while any person wearing Google Glass was labeled a Glasshole and privacy concerns soon resulted in sings being posted everywhere that Glass was not welcome.

In the end, all three devices suffered from a lack of really useful and unique features that actually provided a real-world benefit combined with the need to be constantly charged using various different charging devices and having a fairly short battery life. The day came when I forgot to charge them and then left them at home. Then the day came when I forgot where I put the charger. And now they’re all sitting in a drawer somewhere…

So I look towards the new generation of Wearables coming out this fall with a bit of cynical skepticism: how long until they, too, end up in a drawer somewhere?

In the end, there are only two devices that I carry with me all the time and every day:

  • My watch is a Seiko Astron Kintaro Hattori Limited Edition. It is a solar-powered watch that has a built-in GPS receiver and synchronizes time with the atomic clocks aboard the GPS satellites. And it also automatically adjusts your time-zone when you have landed – based on the GPS position. It never needs to be charged and it does one thing extremely well that I care about: tell accurate time.
  • My phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (soon to be replaced by the Note Edge). I’ve gone through many smartphones over the years, and it is my favorite so far. I hate its battery life. I hate that I have to charge it. But it does so many things so well in just one device, that it’s worth the hassle. And I use it all the time.

That last point is, perhaps, the biggest question about Wearables that we should ask ourselves: if we already have our phones in our hands all day anyway, what is the additional benefit of a wearable device?

Isis Mobile Wallet silently goes nationwide

It appears that without much fanfare the Isis Mobile Wallet has just expanded from the initial test markets of Austin and Salt Lake City to a nationwide rollout - at least for AT&T and American Express customers.

Originally announced on July 30 this year, the nationwide rollout of this NFC-based mobile payment system was revealed to be planned for "later this year". Apparently that day is today, since I was able to go to an AT&T store in New York City this morning and replace my original SIM card with a new SIM card with "Secure Element", which is a prerequisite for the Isis Wallet app. Once that SIM card was installed in my Samsung Galaxy Note 3, the Isis Wallet App (downloaded from the Google Play Store) allowed me to add my American Express card to my mobile wallet:

Galaxy Note 3 w/ Isis Wallet

Registering a new account with the Isis wallet app took a few minutes, as did activation of the credit card in the wallet, which required logging into my American Express account, but once that one-time setup process is complete, starting up the app is fast and you can secure the app with a customary PIN code and can pick how many minutes the app will allow access until the PIN code is required again.

You can also use the Isis website to find out where you can use the Isis wallet today and it is pretty much any cashiers' credit card terminal that shows one of these contact less payment symbols:

Contactless payment symbol

I was pleasantly surprised that in Manhattan there are literally thousands of stores already supporting the Isis wallet and I did my first test purchase at a Walgreens at Union Square. The checkout process worked smoothly, I just waved my Galaxy Note 3 at the contactless scanner while the Isis app was up, and the NFC chip in my phone transmitted the payment information to the checkout terminal, which processed my payment.

I've waited for NFC chips to be available in our smartphones for quite a while and it is a great pleasure to see mobile payments finally becoming a reality! Now we just need more stores to use contactless credit card terminals so I can finally leave my real wallet at home and use my mobile wallet everywhere!

Samsung Galaxy S III vs. iPhone 4S - a phone-swap experience

I am always on the look-out for the newest gadgets and best technology for my own personal and business use, so when the Samsung Galaxy S III started shipping in the US this month, I pre-ordered a Verizon 4G LTE model in white with 32 GB and it arrived Monday last week. I set myself the goal of doing a "phone-swap" and using the new phone exclusively for one week to determine whether it could replace my iPhone 4S as my primary smart phone device. Having all of my data in the cloud already through a combination of Google Apps, DropBox, Evernote, and our corporate email system, setting up the S III was a breeze. All I had to do was configure my Google and Exchange server accounts, download the DropBox and Evernote apps, and I was ready to go with all my calendar, contacts, notes, to-dos, emails, etc. 100% in sync on the new phone. In addition I installed Google Voice and Skype for my telephony needs as well as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for social networking. The next step was to go through all the other apps on my iPhone that had accumulated over the past year and determine which ones I really used more than once a month. That in of itself was a true cleansing ritual and I was able to get rid of a lot of junk (yes, I do admit that I actually played all levels of Angry Birds Space when it came out). And I was pleasantly surprised to find that about 95% of the apps I actually used were available on the Android platform as well. For convenience, I arranged them in a similar manner with folders so that I would be able to easily locate each app on both devices: 2012 07 15 10 51 18 cropped For the few apps that I did not find in the Google Play app store (or other app stores) I was able to easily locate an equivalent replacement app with only two exceptions. More on that later… With all these preparations done in the first day, I was ready to embark on my one-week phone swap test and redirected my iPhone phone# to the Galaxy, as well as including it in my Google Voice list of active phones. The second day held three interesting surprises for me in stock and I was actually quite disappointed with the Galaxy at the end of that day. The issues that I encountered were the following:
  • Battery Drainage: Within only 2-3 hours the battery on my S III had gone from 100% down to 48%. I was only using the phone to play with apps and was on my home Wi-Fi network, so this should not have happened. However, I later found out that the severe battery drain was caused exclusively by a very poor cell phone signal at my location and the phone trying to communicate with the towers despite the poor signal strength. When I used the same phone in the office the next day, where we have good cell phone reception, the battery was still at 79% in the late afternoon.
  • No German Keyboard: For some reason Samsung had decided to only ship English, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese keyboards in the S III. I was, therefore, unable to compose any e-mails or text messages in German.
  • IPv6 Connectivity Problems: On my home network I already use IPv4 and IPv6 in a dual-stack setup and all my laptops, PCs, Macs, and iOS devices automatically get both an IPv4 and IPv6 address. Then, when communicating with an IPv6 enabled web site they already do that via IPv6, which can be easily verified using the test-ipv6.com site. However, the S III was unable to pass that test and could only use and IPv4 address and thus was unable to reach any IPv6 website. Samsung tech support proved to be highly incompetent in this regard an had absolutely no idea how to fix this problem (or even understand what IPv6 is).
However, on the third day I was able to resolve two of those issues and things were looking much better thereafter: The battery problem is strictly a result of bad cell phone coverage, and we had seen a similar problem with the iPhone about a year ago, so I expect Samsung to fix this shortly. Furthermore, when I am at home I plug my phone in anyway, so the lack of cell phone signal at home and the resulting battery drainage can easily be circumvented. But the battery meter makes it very clear how bad the problem is, if you look at this screen shot taken 1 hour and 15 minutes after taking the phone out of the charger and not using it at all. In that time it has already lost 11% of its charge doing absolutely nothing: Battery drain due to bad cell reception The keyboard issue was easily fixed by installing Swype Beta for Android. Swype is an alternative keyboard that not only supports multiple languages (including German), but also provides a much faster input method for text, because it lets you trace the letters of a word on the on-screen keyboard without lifting your finger, which is indeed much faster than tapping each key individually. Furthermore, it comes with a vast dictionary for each language and really recognizes your movements with amazing accuracy. Quick wcl The remainder of the week progressed on a very upbeat note and I really enjoyed my usage of the Galaxy S III after I had overcome those small initial setbacks. In particular, these are the features and app experiences I liked most:
  • Swype: this is really a powerful productivity tool and I found that text entry speed for me improved by about 50% compared to the standard on-screen keyboard.
  • Larger screen: I really like the screen size and form factor of the S III. The larger screen size directly translates to 30% more emails visible in GMail as well as better browsing experience in Chrome and other apps.
  • Much deeper integration with Google Voice: I've been using a Google Voice phone number as my primary phone number for several years now, and the Google Voice app for Android provides a much deeper integration with the telephony module on the phone than iOS would allow. In particular, it is possible to set up the phone so that all outgoing calls are automatically routed via Google Voice, which is brilliant.
  • Background apps: It has always been an annoyance for me to no end, that on iOS there is no facility for true background applications. For example, DropBox on Android really uploads photos in the background whenever I am connected to my home Wi-Fi network, whereas on the iPhone I have to actually go to the DropBox app to trigger the upload. Similarly Skype works much better on Android than it does on iOS.
  • Auto-update of apps: I love the fact that I can configure my apps to automatically update on Android. Whenever I am connected to my Wi-Fi network at home, all apps get their updates and I don't have to do anything. By contrast, on my iOS devices I have to go to the App Store and manually hit Update and then enter my password.
  • Google Voice Search: Maybe it is just me (and my German accent), but Siri and I never developed a true relationship. I found that for many queries on Google Voice Search I can actually get better results and faster responses than with Siri, and it seems that I am not alone in this observation.
  • 4G LTE: it is truly remarkable how much faster the 4G LTE data network is. Similar to what I had previously reported with respect to the iPad 3, the 4G LTE data speed on the S III makes a huge difference, if you are inside the LTE coverage area. Reading emails and news, browsing web sites, etc. is just lighting-fast.
  • Face Unlock: OK, unlocking your phone automatically via face recognition is really cool. It may not be super-secure, but you can always combine it with PINs etc. And it is really nice when the phone recognizes its owner.
  • Widgets: Yes, it seems like such a small thing, but being able to see the local weather details, Wall Street Journal headlines, and latest Engadget news directly on my home screen really makes me happy.
Samsung Galaxy S III home screen In many respects, these positive experiences as well as the abundance of apps that are now available on both the iOS and Android platforms in parallel made it very clear to me that Apple is about to lose its competitive edge in the smart phone business soon, if it hasn't already happened. Either platform allows you to be productive and connected in this mobile world and the differences are becoming more and more a matter of personal taste. Talking of which, in the past week I found that these are the iOS features that I missed the most and where I was unable to locate any reasonable equivalent on the Android platform:
  • iCloud backup: I found it truly astonishing, that Google would not think of providing Android users with a true cloud-based backup solution for their phones. Backup functionality is limited to calendar, contacts, and emails, and if you want to be able to backup your entire phone (including photos and all apps) you have to do so on an SD card, connected computer, or you have to hack your phone to get root access in order to use a backup app like Titanium Backup.
  • iMessage: being able to save on SMS costs by sending text messages via the data network in the form of iMessage was a game changer when it was first introduced on iOS. While there are some apps that promise to do the same on Android, the real killer-app feature of iMessage is that it is transparently integrated into the messaging app, so it will try to deliver a message via iMessage if it can, but will automatically revert to sending it via SMS when it cannot do so.
  • Find-my-phone: The ability to go to the iCloud website, and trigger a loud sonar-ping from your phone (irrespective of what the sound volume is set to) is a feature that we often use in our family to locate missing phones. And no, just calling the phone doesn't work, because they or often set to just vibrate.
  • Different notification sounds: On my iPhone I use different notification sounds for SMS vs. emails vs. voice mails etc. and I found no good equivalent that would let me configure this in a similar way.
  • Clear OS upgrade path: This is perhaps the biggest weakness of the Android platform at this stage. The Nexus 7 is coming out with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and there is no clear path that would let me know when I can expect to get 4.1 on my S III. There are so many different devices and variations and the fact that both device manufacturer and phone network provider add their own variations to the base OS results in a plethora of different versions of the OS. And after a while people realize that their 2-year old smart phone suddenly will either not get the latest version of Android or will get it with a substantial delay.
In addition to these platform differences between iOS and Android, I also found that I could not locate either one of the following apps, which I love and use on iOS on a daily basis: Dark Sky is a hyper-local short-term weather prediction software that allows me to predict rain within the next hour with super-accurate precision based on analysis of the weather radar. For boaters (and fireworks committee chair people) this is an absolute must-have. The second app is g! Mobile, which is part of my smart home system that lets me control HVAC, audio, video, irrigation, pool, and various other home automation systems from my phone. Last, but not least, here are four more observations that - when taken together with the above features and apps that I am missing - end up tilting the balance in favor of the iPhone from my perspective:
  • Battery drainage in areas of bad cell-phone coverage: While I was initially happy to accept this limitation based on the thought that (a) it would only occur at home and (b) would soon be fixed by Samsung, I have since then experienced this battery drainage repeatedly while underway. In all cases it was connected to poor cell-phone coverage, but that is just the reality of the networks today and I experienced battery drain while being out on the boat in Massachusetts Bay as well as while having dinner at Woodman's in Essex.
  • Larger screen not as useful as initially thought: despite the larger screen, there are several limitations built into Android that make things look quite ugly over time. For example, you get the same layout of 4x4 apps, folders, or widget space only, even though the screen should easily be able to accommodate more rows or columns. And even inside apps like Facebook or Skype or Twitter, the usage of the extra screen real estate is not efficient. By contrast, on the iPhone you get a smaller device yet makes better use of the screen real-estate and due to the high-resolution Retina display looks a lot sharper.
  • Verizon has much less real-world data coverage than AT&T: Yes, this is clearly a criticism that has nothing to do with Android vs. iOS, but the reality is that while 4G LTE is beautiful and fast wherever it is available, the second you move out of the core coverage area the Verizon CDMA network is really vastly inferior than AT&T's GSM network. And I found in my testing that I got a lot better and more consistent data coverage on my iPhone, for example out on the boat or away from the city.
  • IPv6 support not working properly: now that IPv6 is permanently activated since the World IPv6 launch day in June this year, I think it is quite astonishing that Samsung would introduce a device that is not capable of getting an IPv6 address or communicating with IPv6-only websites. And talking to Samsung tech-support via website chat and email revealed another weakness: there is no good and knowledgable technical support available. While it is true that the "geniuses" at the Apple "Genius Bar" are not always brilliant either, at least the Apple website and support forums provide the in-depth technical information and I had been able to solve every technical problem there in the past. By contrast, the Samsung website doesn't even have any reference to IPv6 at all.
So after a week-long phone swap, here is my conclusion: for now I'm switching back to my iPhone 4S for daily usage, but I'm really hopeful that future innovation on the Android platform with 4.1 Jelly Bean will close the gap even further and I'm looking forward to repeating this week-long test at that time. I also have a Nexus 7 tablet coming this week and look forward to experimenting with that. At the same time I hope that Apple won't stand still and will surprise us all with new innovative features in their iPhone 5 product this fall, including a larger-screen device. Long-term, I hope that Apple will finally become a more open platform. The ability to replace keyboards and use Swype, the ability to deeply integrate with the telephony capabilities - those are all huge advantages that Android has right now and they will eventually give Android the edge over iOS, if Apple sticks to the closed platform model forever. We've seen this happen before in the 80s with Windows vs. the first generations of MacOS and history is bound to repeat itself - especially now that Apple no longer has its charismatic leader and his reality-distortion field. Bottom-line: if you are looking to buy a new smart phone right now, the Samsung Galaxy S III is a really nice device and as long as you live in a city with great 4G LTE coverage, everything should be fine. It boils down to personal preference in the end. However, if you have been using iPhones for the past couple of years, there is no convincing reason to switch.