Is the Smartphone Industry ‘Curious’ about Curiosity?

The world holds its breath as the next battle for dominance in the smartphone industry begins with the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4. Apple recently defeated Samsung in a patent lawsuit involving user-interface elements. Samsung lost the battle, but they don’t necessarily have to lose the war. Samsung will not fade away into the night without putting up an aggressive fight. Samsung plans to sue Apple on its using the LTE (a technology for faster data speeds called Long-Term Evolution) chip in the iPhone 5.

As the smartphone war rages on, it is evident that there are many areas where industry giants compete for dominance – user-interface, operating system, physical design, connectivity, storage, and camera.

But there is one area where companies haven’t done much – the battery. Until the smartphone industry invests heavily into battery technology, devices are limited to what they can do on a single charge. Lithium-ion batteries are used extensively in all smartphones as of today. The life of a single charge is a few hours (assuming a user talks, texts, and uses data connections such as Wi-Fi or 3G/LTE). After a smartphone runs out of battery, users have no option but to carry a charging cable, USB charger, portable USB charger, a battery pack (like Mophie), or just wait to reach home to charge the phone.

Talking about battery life, the smartphone industry can learn a lot from the Mars Rover Curiosity. Curiosity has reached Mars and has starting sending photos, conducting experiments and, exploring the Martian mountains. For doing all this, Curiosity needs one thing – power.

Previous generations of Mars Rovers used solar panels to power various devices. However, dust settled on the solar panels making them inefficient. Also, note that the Sun looks much smaller from Mars as Mars is at a greater distance from the center of the solar system. Smaller sun = less light = less solar power.

To solve this problem of inefficient solar power, Curiosity uses a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). Simply put, Curiosity uses the radioactive isotope Plutonium-238 as the raw material. Heat is automatically generated due to the natural decay of Plutonium-238. A device called a Thermocouple uses this heat to generate electricity. The Plutonium-238 is well shielded, and the heat – and not the radiation – is used to generate electricity. This device can last for 14 years without requiring any maintenance! Curiosity will constantly receive its power until Plutonium-238 completely decays.

Now, coming back to the smartphone industry, why can’t we design something like this for smartphones? Imagine having a very small amount of radioactive isotope that is well-shielded and attached to the smartphone. The device could then, theoretically, produce electricity for at least a year (or more!). Instead of battery packs like Mophie, we could have smartphones that generate their power and don’t need a recharge! Depending on the stability of the technology, we could have a smartphone that could last for years without a recharge. You buy a smartphone and dispose of it after a few years without charging it even once.

When I told my wife about this idea, she said, and I quote: ‘I am not carrying a nuclear bomb in my pocket!’. Well, what I am proposing is not exactly a nuclear bomb since there is no chain reaction like nuclear fission or nuclear fusion going on. The natural decay of Plutonium-238 generates heat and hence the power. Theoretically, a well-shielded pack of Plutonium-238 is safer than batteries that we have today. The current batteries have greater chances of exploding than a well-shielded pack of Plutonium-238!

The future of the smartphone industry is uncertain. There are no obvious winners as of today. In my opinion, only the company that designs and patents advanced battery technology will emerge as the winner. The company holding the key to advanced battery technology will be the undisputed winner and will rule the smartphone industry for generations to come. Simply because, more power equals to more things the smartphone can do without dying.

Hey Apple and Samsung – are you listening? Hopefully, I can expect to be paid a billion dollars for my idea!

(MMRTG Source: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/technology/technologiesofbroadbenefit/power/)

Edited by: Prarthna Sri

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Milk, Diapers, and an iPad

During my recent visit to the Apple store, I saw Apple experts demonstrating an iPad to a group of kids and their parents. I increasingly see kids holding iPads instead of toys. An iPad is expensive, and fragile. I was curious see how a 2-year old could use an iPad. Most importantly, I was also curious to see if an iPad App was simple to use for a kid.

I downloaded Crayola Paint and Create – a free App for the iPad. I was interested in studying the features, user interface, user interaction, and the overall user experience. This is how the App looks:

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The main elements were Coloring Pages, Fun Activities and Free Draw. I decided to use Coloring pages and color a drawing:

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I clicked the Crayola icon at the bottom of the screen to display various types of crayons with different colors. You can see the following icons on the right: Pause (to pause the movements like snow falling or pause other interactive elements), Undo, Redo, New, Settings, Share (to share via email or on Facebook), Help, and Exit.

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This is how a partially colored coloring page looks:

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I could easily use different colors and fill different parts of the page with solid colors. This is how a fully colored page looks:

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The app is configured to use a finger by default. There is also a setting to use an iMarker instead of a finger (an iMarker is like a pencil that can be used with the iPad). Obviously, the Help and Settings are a little complicated for kids since they may not be able to read. Apart from Help, Settings, and Share, the other options were extremely easy to use.

What is Apple’s strategy to promote iPads for kids by launching a Kids Corner in the Apple store? What is the value proposition for parents to purchase such and expensive device for their kids? Here’s what I think:

Get an Apple user for life – That’s right. Catching them young will ensure they are Apple users for life! Kids will never choose an Android device or another tablet if they are introduced to the iPad at the age of 2. Apple’s strategy of catching users at a very young age will lead to huge revenue for years to come.

Reduce cost per user – The cheapest iPad costs approximately 400$. If a family of four – two parents and two kids use an iPad, the cost of buying an iPad is divided by 4. Although families do not use terms like Cost per User to decide whether to buy an iPad, they definitely calculate it sub-consciously.

Tap a new market segment – Kids are a huge market segment – not just for games, but also in the field of education. Tapping this market segment leads to a huge revenue for Apple.

Use kids to market the iPad and Apps – I was amazed to see how Apple was using kids to market the iPad. With the Share option, kids could share their coloring pages with their friends (the parents might share it for them). Other kids looking at these colorful pages would want to do the same. Not only is Social Media being introduced at a very young age, the iPad is being marketed via Word of Mouth (the most powerful way to influence prospective buyers).

Save money for families and schools – Families and schools can save money on paper, crayons, and other consumables required on a daily basis.

A safer option – Kids (at home or in Pre-K) eat crayons that may be harmful for their health. Since the crayons on an iPad are electronic, it is very safe for kids.

Save the environment – Reducing the usage of paper obviously save trees.

Crayola Paint and Create gave me great insights to Apple’s strategy. I could also envision the future – where most of the interaction happens through touch screens instead of keyboards. It also helped me realize that language will never be a barrier for user interaction since expressive icons are a great way to communicate with the user. Intelligence, knowledge, skills, language, and education will never be a barrier for users in the world of touch screens.

Hello kids, welcome to the iWorld!

Apple’s Art of War

Apple is the most valuable company in the world today. The main reason for Apple’s success (apart from great products) is how it fights in the mobile war. Apple uses the Guerrilla warfare strategy to make all its competitors bite the proverbial dust.

Strategy 1: Rise from the ashes with infinite wisdom

Guerrilla battle teams rise from the ashes of past defeat with the wisdom required to win. Apple was a fading company in the 90s. With the learning from previous failures, Steve Jobs’ leadership, and the launch of the iPod Classic, Apple rose from the ashes. The rest, as they say, is history.

Strategy 2: Remain hidden until it is ready to attack

Guerrilla battle teams are hidden until they attack the enemy. Similarly, Apple, with its absolute secrecy, ensures that its product strategy is always hidden. Its product lines, features, and components are always shrouded in absolute secrecy before launch. For example, nobody knew Siri was the key feature before iPhone 4S was launched.

Strategy 3: Use its weakness as a strength

Guerrilla battle teams use their weakness as strength. For example, they are small (weakness) and hence extremely mobile (strength). Unlike Windows, that can run on a variety of hardware Mac OS X could only run on the Mac hardware. This exclusivity was perceived as Apple’s biggest weakness. Today, because the iOS runs on iPhones, iPods, and iPads, it thus creates a common framework for Apple Apps. Across various Apple devices, Apple users have downloaded the apps over 25 billion times. This uniformity of hardware and operating system is now Apple’s biggest strength.

Strategy 4: Enjoy Public Support

Guerrilla battle teams enjoy public support – that’s why they win. Similarly, Apple has built a huge cult following over the years that it can tap into. Mac, iPhone and iPod users always remain loyal to Apple. This fan base is a huge plus for Apple since loyal users always upgrade to the newer versions of Apple products. For instance, have you ever heard of people standing in lines overnight for Android or BlackBerry devices?

Strategy 5: Grow stronger as the enemy grows weaker from within

Guerrilla battle teams draw their strength from the weakening enemy. This tendency is psychological as well as practical. As RIM constantly reduces the price of the BlackBerry Playbook, it shows that the BlackBerry Playbook is not worth the original price. HP shutting down its tablet business signifies defeat. The weakening and dying enemies help Apple grow stronger psychologically as well as in market share.

When Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War, I’m sure he did not think Apple would use it to reach the zenith of excellence and success!

An Apple a day for every age

I was wondering why Apple is more successful than other companies out there. Why is Apple’s growth phenomenal even through the recession? What is it that Apple is doing right? What is Apple’s mantra for continuous success?

I have heard many reasons for Apple’s success such as: Apple has a cult following, People are crazy about Apple products, Apple is a good marketer, Apple’s secrecy is the reason for success, and the very best It was only because of Steve Jobs’ charisma.

There is a perfectly logical reason for Apple’s success. Let’s analyze what Apple is doing differently. Apple creates both hardware and the software for that hardware. The hardware specifications for each device type (smartphone, tablet) are exactly the same. When programmers write the code for the software, they have a uniform hardware platform to work with such as CPU, memory, or GPU. As a result, they are able to create a uniform operating system. A uniform hardware and a uniform operating system lead to a Uniform User Experience.

Android is an awesome operating system. However, the Android market is extremely fragmented with multiple hardware devices and hence, developers need to write different drivers for different hardware specifications. Screen resolution, input buttons, processing speed, memory, and Internet speeds are widely different for different Android devices. Android, in spite of being an amazing operating system, is thus unable to provide a uniform User Experience across all its devices like Apple.

While writing code for Apple apps, programmers can work with very uniform hardware and operating system specifications. However, for Android Apps, multiple devices and multiple operating systems need to be considered. It may not be possible for the Android apps to be tested and optimized for every hardware device out there.

But what does a Uniform User Experience mean for the success of the company? How does a Uniform User Experience translate to becoming the world’s most valuable company? How does a Uniform User Experience translate to a 100 billion dollar cash hoard?

The uniform programming environment and a Uniform User Experience has led to apps being used by a wide demographic/age groups finally leading to 25 billion downloads from the Apple App Store:

  • 2-3 years – Crayola Apps and devices for the iPad are used for kids to draw and enhance their creativity. Technology is being used at such a young age to do the same thing that was done using colors and papers.
  • 3-5 years – iPad is now being used in PreK and Kindergarten to teach kids the basic stuff that was being taught using a whiteboard. A Uniform User Experience ensures that each kid is learning the same way using the iPad. Toys are also a great hit amongst kids. (See Disney’s Cars Toys and App for the iPad)
  • 6-10 years – iPad and iPod touch are used by children to learn subjects like Math and Science. The interactivity boosts their interest and helps them learn. Each child using the same App learns in the exact same way. (Check out the Solar walk 3D App)
  • 10-16 years – Games are a huge hit in this age group. Thousands of games are being used today by pre-teen and teens today.
  • 16-20 years – Social networking and music are a great hit. Again, the User Experience is uniform across all devices for the same App.
  • 20+ years – News, Cooking, Games, Social networking, Music, Utilities and thousands of apps for every age is available today. Each App provides a Uniform User Experience for all users.

Android is a formidable opponent for the iOS. If there was a single hardware device (say Samsung Galaxy II, or Samsung Galaxy Tab), with a streamlined and exhaustively uniform Android operating system, the landscape of the mobile market could be very different today.

Meanwhile, there’s always an Apple App a day for every age.

Siri: The First Step Towards SkyNet?

When Apple introduced Siri with the iPhone 4S, critics laughed out loud. They predicted that nobody would use Siri unless talking to your phone became ‘socially acceptable’. The Internet is now full of videos and jokes about Siri keeping us entertained.

Siri: The first step towards SkyNet?

But think about it for a moment. Siri has access to a lot of data from your iPhone. Firstly, your speech – which is a combination of talking style, accent, grammar, perceived punctuation, tone, and breathing rhythm. Secondly, the data from your GPS, calendar, emails, text messages, contacts and browser. Finally, the ability to use all this data to make a decision and execute a task for you. Going forward, adding data from both cameras, accelerometer, proximity sensor combined with the GPS co-ordinates would be extremely useful for Siri to take decisions.

Today, we live our lives through our smartphones. Siri has all the data to take control of our lives like the Daemon and force us to do something (in the techno thriller Daemon by Daniel Suarez). In today’s smartphone world, this would not be impossible. Siri could also be used to analyze data and predict crimes before they are committed (like in the techno TV series Person of Interest). For example, Siri would automatically know if I am in debt (bank account accessed), if I just lost my job (my emails, calls, text messages) and my new application for a gun permit, thereby predicting the possibility of me shooting someone. It’s that simple.

Terminator 1,2,3, and Salvation may seem a bit farfetched for now, but we are certainly moving in that direction. Imagine if Siri became self-aware like the SkyNet. We are already connected! Siri has the access to all user data across the world. Imagine the total power, control, and decision-making Siri could force upon us.

The next time you make fun of Siri, just remember one thing – SkyNet is just round the corner.