How my wife and I managed tech at our wedding

I got married this month, and as most legally-bound couples can tell you, a wedding is a lot of work. Businesses need to be paid, family members have to be corralled, and members of the wedding party must be able to work together for the night to be successful. It’s a bit like throwing a house party with the added pressure of spending a few grand on a hopefully-once-in-a-lifetime moment.
That said, the last thing we wanted was to get upstaged by modern technology.
My wife and I, being the busybodies that we are, decided we needed to manage a few other things on top of all the other craziness: Making sure people kept their phones in their pockets during the ceremony, and (stereotypical millennials that we are) encouraging them to use a dedicated hashtag for pictures from the reception.
We decided to ban phones from the ceremony years before we even picked our venue. We had attended a family member’s wedding, and so many people were taking pictures as the bride walked down the aisle that trying to catch a glimpse of her was like trying to check out your reflection in the fragments of a shattered mirror.
That makes sense. Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks thrive because people use them to share images of things that make them happy. It’s almost a Pavlovian response: “Did I feel a squirt of dopamine? Better grab my phone!” Still, we decided to fight those instincts by adding a rule to our program and having the officiant repeat it before the ceremony started in earnest.
And it worked! I didn’t see a single phone out while I, my wife, nor anyone else in the wedding party walked down the aisle. A shirtless man on a bicycle screaming classic rock songs at the top of his lungs did make an appearance, but by some miracle, the audience managed to leave their phones alone for about 5 minutes.
We didn’t have as much luck with the hashtag. The only person who has used it, in fact, is my wife. (I tend not to share much to social media, so I haven’t posted any pictures myself.) Most of the people attending took pictures, but many of them either shared them without the hashtag or didn’t share them at all.
I suppose that shouldn’t come as much of a shock. Many of our family members qualify for senior citizen discounts at Denny’s, and at one point a thirty-something cousin had to ask my teenage brother how to use Snapchat. These people all know how to use Facebook — at least to play games or “poke” their grandkids — but I doubt most of them even know what purpose a “hashtag” serves.
Yet, I was surprised. Maybe it’s because I spend most of my time writing about tech, or maybe it’s because people my age were among the first to start using many different social networks, but I just kind of assumed that I’d see more pictures of the reception when I went searching through Facebook and Instagram.
Either way, it’s strange how some stereotypes (everyone taking pictures regardless of what’s happening around them) rang true while others (people knowing what a hashtag is and why they should use it) failed to manifest themselves in the real world.
And here I thought that if something happened and it wasn’t catalogued on Facebook that it might as well have been a dream.

In praise of the $50 smartphone

It’s time to stop what may be the most offensive, yet generally accepted, bias from smartphone analysts: “don’t get caught in a race to the bottom.” It’s a sneering dismissal of the people and companies that are building advanced, feature-packed mini-mobile computers with little to no margin — and of those who might benefit from their use.
Newsflash: The vast majority of the world is “the bottom.” Like me, like you, they also deserve a smartphone. Mocking the companies that are making this happen is misguided, to say the least.
Now for the good news — very low cost smartphones are within reach. Last month, Google announced it was revamping its Android One initiative to help bring the cost of devices to below $100. For this price, the buyer gets Google Play, search, maps, apps, camera, and more. The effort originally launched in India though will now include parts of Africa. Combined, these regions have a population nearing 2 billion.
Unfortunately, even $100 for a smartphone is still too expensive for many. Rajan Anandan, Google’s managing director in India and Southeast Asia, told the Financial Times that the “sweet spot” for Android One is 2,000 – 3,000 rupees. That’s about $30 – $50. Anandan says getting to this price will take “the next few years.” I expect it much sooner.
Consider the Micromax Canvas A1, typical of current Android One devices:

  • 5mp rear-facing and 2mp front-facing camera
  • 4.5″ VGA display
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 4 GB storage (expandable)
  • 1700 mAh lithium-ion battery
  • Text type by voice
  • 3G
  • Android 5.1 Lollipop

That’s better than the second iPhone — which cost $600 off-contract in 2008. The A1 costs $92.
A Google spokesperson told me the company is now “working closely with phone and silicon chip makers to share reference designs and select components,” hoping to drive prices even lower. The effort is paying off. For example, the Infinix HOT 2, a new Android One device, has a quad-core MediaTek processor with 1GM memory, dual SIM support, and is assured of running Android Marshmallow, the latest build. It costs just $88. The HOT 2 is available for sale in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Egypt, and Morocco.
And we are being told to mock these efforts? To praise those companies that are focused on “profit share?” Why? The great magic of technology is not just that it aids our life but that it spreads, oftentimes quickly, to the poor, the marginalized, the non-connected.
No doubt, Android One is an attempt by Google to effectively port its search and maps dominance from desktop to mobile to the entire world. So what? That’s business. Too often, we focus on these short-term plays rather than the long-term potential. A $50 smartphone!
The company told me that “really good phones at great prices” will bring the web to more people. “Access to the web changes the way we live for the better — whether it’s connecting with different people, exploring foreign countries, identifying new educational opportunities, or simply watching a movie with your family.”
Google is just one of many making the low-cost smartphone a reality. Xiaomi has teamed with Foxconn, which manufactures the iPhone, to assemble smartphones in India. Their first phone, the Redmi2 Prime, costs $110. Perhaps next year it will be less than $90.
Why then are so many analysts and tech bloggers not praising these efforts? Earlier this year, TechCrunch lauded Apple’s capturing of “89% of all smartphone profits,” while noting that “Android handset makers are in something of a race to the bottom.”
In 2014, it was repeatedly asked by numerous business and tech sites: “Is it now a race to the bottom in the smartphone market?” A post in Techcrunch titled “Samsung’s race to the bottom” opined:

In a market saturated with essentially undifferentiated players (and again you can argue this point and you will lose that argument), the main differentiator is price. And that’s never the game a smart hardware maker wants to play but, in the end, it is a game they will be forced to play in the coming year. And it won’t be pretty.

Not pretty? It’s beautiful!
This is exactly how technology is supposed to work. Yet, this “race to the bottom” meme continues, and with it a host of negative connotations. It’s not just the tech press. Last year, the Telegraph decried how “smartphone makers (are) stuck in ‘race to the bottom’ on price.”
In 2013, Bloomberg ran a piece filled with trepidation: “Is Apple Really Going to Join a Race to the Bottom?” Even way back in 2010, Fast Company lauded Apple for avoiding the “race to the bottom” in the smartphone market.
There are numerous other examples.
As Google notes, only 1 in 4 people own a smartphone. How long do you go without your smartphone? A week? A day? An hour? These devices have transformed our work, our learning, our play, how we connect, and from where. We are on the cusp of a world where it’s possible for most people to have the same amazing tool at their disposal. The $50 smartphone deserves to be celebrated. Embrace the race to the bottom.

Here’s what should excite you about the new iPhone 6S

Apple has released some new iPhones. They come with the company’s new operating system, are available with a new aluminum finish, and boast a bunch of the incremental upgrades that accompany every new product under the sun.
In these ways, the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus would be easy to dismiss as the same off-year product updates Apple popularized with the iPhone 4s or 5s. But these new iPhones also have features that will change how people take photos, interact with their phones, and view the concept of ownership in this new age.
Apple iPhone 6s

Cosmetic changes & improved specs

First the easy stuff. These new iPhones are available with a new Rose Gold finish, and Apple claims that it has developed new forms of aluminum and glass to make the devices more durable than their predecessors. They have updated processors, ship with iOS 9, and boast improved front-and rear-facing cameras.
iPhone 6s Live Photo

GIFs & Live Photos

Then comes the more interesting things, starting with Live Photos. These are basically animated GIFs that the new iPhones make whenever someone takes a picture. They have sound, are about three seconds long, and can be viewed by making a long press on any photo captured with these devices’ new cameras.
Automatically generating these GIFs is a nice nod to the forms dominance on the Internet. Who wants to watch a video or see a still image when an animated GIF is available? I suspect these Live Photos will be very popular — and that their popularity will be increased by the fact that services like Facebook will support them within the year, thus helping them attract all kinds of attention.
It’s hard to overstate how having Live Photos available on something like Facebook could help sell the new iPhones to many consumers. There’s nothing like good ol’ fashioned jealousy, especially where social media is concerned, to make a bunch of people want something they might have otherwise dismissed.
The interaction that allows people to view Live Photos — a long press — is part of a much larger change Apple is making to how people interact with the sheets of metal and glass that serve as windows into much of their lives. Apple is calling the upgrade 3D Touch, and horrible name aside, it’s kind of a big deal.

A screenshot showing the iPhone 6s' 3D Touch capabilities in action.

A screenshot showing the iPhone 6s’ 3D Touch capabilities in action.

3D Touch – Awful name, big addition

3D Touch is essentially bringing the concept of a right-click to the iPhone. Instead of restricting people to interacting with content shown on the screen, 3D Touch allows iPhone owners to view pertinent information or perform common tasks with little more than a long, forceful press or simple gesture.
This means things that previously required a few taps, like responding to an email or viewing flight information from a text message thread, can now be found a little more easily. It might seem like a small change, but this could make the day-to-day experience of using an iPhone less painful than before.
Features like 3D Touch and Live Photos aren’t going to make anyone want a smartphone. Hell, both of them probably sound like gobbledygook to people who aren’t already sold on animated GIFs or using smartphones every day. Instead, the features are supposed to appeal to people who already own a smartphone, whether it’s an iPhone or some Android device or another.
Apple iPhone Upgrade Program

iPhone upgrade program

That’s where the iPhone Upgrade Program comes in. Apple wants to make it easier for people to get a new iPhone every year. To do that, it’s offering unlocked devices for a monthly fee starting at $32, effectively allowing people to rent the latest-and-greatest iPhones for the 12 months between releases. Once that new device is available, consumers will be expected to turn in their old one.
It does sound tempting. But, then again, I’m also a foolish consumer who has been willing to do obscene things with his Verizon account just to get new phones whenever an old one starts showing any kind of problem, or a new one is announced with enough new features to warrant even a little excitement.
And it’s hard not to think of this as an iPhone-as-a-service play. Instead of having something you own forever, Apple is basically asking people to pay for their phones the same way they pay for their Netflix subscription. Why buy a movie when you can rent all of them? Why get an iPhone you’ll eventually replace? It’s so much more convenient to just rent one out for a little while.
That could have questionable consequences for the concept of ownership. Do we really need to rent everything we use? Wouldn’t it be nice to own some things outright instead of having everything depend on monthly payments? Those are just a few of the concerns I have about this new upgrade program.
Still, I have to hand it to Apple: the company picked the right time to introduce this new, potentially lucrative pricing structure. These new iPhones aren’t just incremental upgrades; they’re poised to change the way people use their phones or share moments from their lives. I’d pay a few bucks each month for that.

Why it makes sense that Huawei could make the next Nexus

Here’s an interesting rumor out of China: iSuppli researcher Kevin Yang posted on Weibo on Wednesday that Huawei will be making a Nexus device this coming fall. The post has since been deleted.

Huawei isn’t a household name in the United States, but it actually makes a good deal of sense that Google would contract with the Chinese electronics giant. Here’s why:

Huawei has promised its American phones will come with stock Android

Speaking to the Verge, Huawei’s consumer boss Richard Yu said that Huawei’s stateside phones will come with “stock Android” instead of Huawei’s version because “American consumers trust Google.”

“If you have a problem you can check with Google,” Yu told the Verge. That sounds a lot like Huawei phones will be able to tap into Google Play support, like the Device Assist app, which is only available for certain devices, such as the Nexus line, usually sold directly by Google.

In fact, given that Huawei seems so fixated on consumer cachet — Yu called Xiaomi a “low-end” brand — breaking into the American market with a device that can be purchased directly from Google seems like a good introduction to savvy consumers.

Huawei Mate 7

Huawei Mate 7

Huawei already makes expensive phones

Although Nexus devices from years past have been affordably priced, last year’s Nexus 9 tablet and Nexus 6 smartphone were priced at $399 and $649 respectively — as expensive as anything out there.

Huawei, as opposed to rivals like Xiaomi, makes expensive phones. Although it makes affordable devices too, it’s concerned with the high-end of the market. The Ascend Mate 7, Huawei’s flagship, costs as much as 3699 RMB ($590). If Google is still positioning Nexus devices as the best that Android can offer as well as developer devices, Huawei is a good fit.

Huawei is a big company, and would be able to handle a Nexus order — it shipped 75 million smartphones last year. It can certainly deliver premium fit and finish, judging by its new Android Wear smartwatch.

huawei watch official

Fingerprint scanners

At one point, the Motorola-made Nexus 6 was supposed to come with a fingerprint scanner in the place of the dimple in its back, but it was cut for some reason. There hasn’t been a recently released Motorola phone with a fingerprint scanner, probably because the available technology hasn’t been good enough. (You’d have to go back to the Atrix, which came out in 2011, to find one.)

Huawei-Ascend-Mate-7-fingerprint-01

Aside from Samsung and Apple, Huawei has done more with smartphone-mounted fingerprint scanning than any other smartphone maker. The Ascend Mate 7 has a fingerprint scanner on its back — close to where the Nexus 6 would have had one — and it’s pretty good. It doesn’t require users to swipe their fingers, instead, it only needs a tap, like Samsung’s new scanner and Apple’s Touch ID.

If Google is serious about mobile payments — and given the rumors about Android Pay and its recent purchase of Softcard, it certainly is — then it will need to introduce biometric security to more Android devices. This means that it’s a safe bet that the next Nexus will have a fingerprint scanner, and Huawei has proven it can provide one.

Why it might not happen

Huawei designs its own ARM-based processors, which are named Kirin. Although Android is designed to work on top of all sorts of chips, it’s difficult to imagine that Google’s next developer device would eschew a Qualcomm chip, which has been the go-to supplier for years.

It also seems a bit early for Google to be locking down Nexus suppliers. The first murmurs about Motorola making the Nexus 6 surfaced last July, after Google’s annual developer’s conference.

Also remember that Google was rumored previously to be working on a “Silver” line of devices with Google support and stock Android. Although that plan seems to have been scrapped, there’s still a chance that Huawei’s new device could be one of many Google-directed phones and tablets coming out this fall.

Watch this: Hands free phone gestures from 2 meters away

Back in October, we saw how Elliptic Labs integrated ultrasound hardware and smart software to interact with phones and tablets though gestures. At the time, the company said its technology worked from up to 50 centimeters away. Now, Elliptic Labs has boosted the range: You can wave at your phone from up to 2 meters away to make things happen.

There aren’t many scenarios where you’d be up to six or seven feet from a phone and want to do something with it; after all, you really can’t see the small screen that well. But there is one specific, and highly popular activity that gesture tech can can help with: Photos. Elliptic Labs says its new 2 meter range is great for selfies and group photos.

While the tech is interesting, I’m not sure device makers will be sold on it: Many camera apps have timers to accomplish the same thing for a group shot and some already support gestures.

And that touches upon the other challenge Elliptic Labs faces: It relies on device makers to use the technology, so it has to continue showing how gesture interaction will help sell devices and benefit users.

I can think of another simple use case I’d love to see that could theoretically be done with gestures: Muting the microphone on a phone call. I often take hands-free calls for product briefings and I have the bad habit of walking around the room during the conversation. Sometimes, I need to mute that mic and it would be great if I could do that with a gesture. Elliptic Labs says its solution works within a 180-degree area, so it ought to be possible.

Apple iPhones outsell Samsung smartphones in last quarter of 2014

We had an inkling that the fourth quarter smartphone sales crown was close: Last month, Strategy Analytics suggested it was a dead heat between Apple and Samsung. On Tuesday, research firm Gartner stepped in and declared Apple the winner with 74.8 million iPhone sales compared to an estimated 73 million for Samsung.

For the year, Gartner says 1.24 billion smartphones ended up in consumers hands. And while both Apple and Samsung sold more phones in 2014 than in the prior year, neither actually outpaced the overall market. We know that because Gartner’s data says both lost market share in 2014:

gartner smartphone sales 2014

So who were the winners for the year?

Lenovo and Huawei both made gains in overall market share around the world, with the former surely aided from its purchase of Motorola. With Lenovo now selling Motorola smartphones in China for the first time in years — with a compelling blend of both hardware and software — I’d expect 2015 to look rosy for Lenovo as well. Of course, the company is competing with another China-based manufacturer in Xiaomi, which was actually fifth overall in the final three months of 2014. Xiaomi’s quarterly smartphone sales rose to 18.6 million, compared to 5.6 million in the 2013 holiday season.

But the real winners were those namely companies lumped together in the “others” category.

According to Gartner’s data, this group moved from 38 percent smartphone market share in 2013 to 43.3 percent last year. This speaks to the many Google hardware partners who are offering low-cost hardware with Android software in various parts of the world; a trend that’s likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Waze gets Google’s greenlight to be pre-installed on Android

When Google purchased Waze for roughly $1.15 billion in 2013, it was easy to assume that it would largely end up folded into Google Maps. But it looks as if Google has different plans for the mapping software. At Mobile World Congress this week, Waze announced that it would be included in the batch of apps that can be preinstalled on Android phones.

Obviously, now that Waze is an official Google Mobile Services app — joining apps like Gmail, Chrome, and Google Play — this leads to Waze possibly being pre-installed out of the box on future devices. But most Android phones already come with Google Maps, also a Google Mobile Services app, which is more than good enough for most users. This could lead to confusion and accusations of bloatware: Why does Google need to stick two different mapping apps on your device?

Waze actually has a couple of features that you won’t find on Google Maps, even though that app does track traffic as well. For instance, Waze recently added a feature called Places, which allows users to update or add information about places they’ve visited. Waze’s press release also points to its Connected Citizens program, which takes road reports from Waze users and passes them on to government departments, ostensibly to improve city efficiency. Waze still is best known for its feature that takes traffic into account when deciding the best route.

Google Maps taps into Waze data for its traffic reports, so users can benefit from Waze’s user reports without using the app. But Waze is much better at collecting reports than Google Maps is, and that’s probably why Google wants it on as many phones as possible.

Google backtracks on Android 5.0 default encryption

When the Nexus 6 handset arrived late last year, it came with full data encryption enabled out the box. Google also pushed its hardware partners to do the same at first, but now appears to have quietly changed the requirement with a strong recommendation to enable encryption by default, reports ArsTechnica.

The same site noted performance issues with Google’s Nexus 6 in November, particularly with regards to read and write disk speeds, which it attributed to the encryption. How much of an impact did the tests show? In some cases, the new [company]Google[/company] Nexus 6 was slower than the Nexus 5 it was designed to replace, even though the handset had much improved internal components.

Nexus 6 side

Google did say in September of 2014 that the then called Android L software — later to become Android 5.0 Lollipop — would have encryption enabled by default out of the box. New devices with Android 5.0, however, don’t have the security feature enabled: The new $149 Moto E with LTE, is a perfect example. So what’s changed?

According to Ars, Google’s Android Compatibility Definition document is what’s changed; specifically, the section on disk encryption with Google making emphasis on what it recommends:

If the device implementation has a lock screen, the device MUST support full-disk encryption of the application private data (/data partition) as well as the SD card partition if it is a permanent, non-removable part of the device. For devices supporting full-disk encryption, the full-disk encryption SHOULD be enabled all the time after the user has completed the out-of-box experience. While this requirement is stated as SHOULD for this version of the Android platform, it is very strongly RECOMMENDED as we expect this to change to MUST in the future versions of Android.

Essentially, Google has gone back to having encryption as an option for new Android 5.0 devices, not a requirement: They must support it but it isn’t necessary to enable it by default. However, the last sentence in the guidelines indicates that hardware partners should be ready for this to change back in a future version of Android.

From security standpoint, this is a bit of a disappointment. If encryption impacts performance, however, Google has little choice here.

The concern I have is that most mainstream Android users won’t know that they should enable encryption their device or simply don’t know how. My hope is that if Google reduced the requirements due to performance, it finds a way to address the root cause of the issue and then get device encryption back as a default option.

You unlock this smartphone with your eyes

Some of the new phones launching at Mobile World Congress are sporting fingerprint scanners, but a new device from ZTE uses a very different biometric security measure to lock its screen. Using technology from Kansas City-based EyeVerify, the ZTE Grand S3 uses its front facing camera to check you are who you say you are, based on your baby blues.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUKEn2UNY5k

EyeVerify’s technology uses an ordinary front-facing camera — its only requirement is that it takes photos at least one megapixel large. Instead of looking at your retinas, EyeVerify authenticates users by looking at vein patterns formed by blood vessels in the whites of the eye. ZTE calls its implementation Eyeprint ID, and it will come to other devices in its high end “Grand” line of smartphones. Android Central was able to try the ZTE Grand S3, and its eye-based unlocking software even works if you wear glasses:

One major question is what EyeVerify does better than fingerprint scanners, which have become the de facto biometric security measure for smartphones.

EyeVerify CEO Toby Rush wrote a blog post earlier this month comparing the two approaches. One of EyeVerify’s largest advantages is that it doesn’t require new hardware. Fingerprint scanners are expensive, and according to Rush, users have to look at their phone ever time it is unlocked, making eye-based verification preferable. However, he admits, in the burgeoning payments market, a fingerprint scanner makes more sense. Imagine standing at a retailer and staring at your phone to confirm your identity.

yXWpaL

The fact that EyeVerify doesn’t require specific hardware means it could also work well for security on cross-platform apps. Banks and credit unions are looking into EyeVerify as a way to lock down their mobile apps.

Other specs on the ZTE Grand S3 include an 8 megapixel front camera, a 16 megapixel rear camera, and a 5.5-inch 1080p display. The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. It’s running Android 4.4.

The ZTE Grand S3 is already in sale in China for a very pricey 2999 RMB ($477) and the company hasn’t mentioned whether it’s bringing the device to markets outside of China. Although ZTE isn’t a household name in the United States, it currently has about six percent of the United States smartphone market, mostly in the low-end. Recently, it’s been trying to raise its profile by sponsoring NBA teams like the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks.

MWC-2015-ticker

Podo: It’s like a selfie stick that you just stick to things

Meet Podo. It’s a Bluetooth-enabled camera that fits easily in the palm of your hand, and connects to your Android or iOS device. There’s not a lot to say about this device, other than a certain class of people will probably really, really see the value in buying a tiny cube that sticks to walls, mirrors or any smooth, solid surface and lets you snap a selfie with ease.

Obviously, you could use it for more than taking a selfie. It might be fun to set it up to snap photos of your pet sleeping in a hard to reach location or less positively, could become a boon to voyeurs everywhere. The photos it snaps are transmitted wirelessly back to your device via the Bluetooth connection.

The device is part of a Kickstarter campaign launching Monday with an early bird special of $79 per Podo and a regular Kickstarter price of $89 per camera. The regular price will be $99. Podo was founded in 2013 and had raised $1.5 million. It was part of the Highway 1 incubator and the camera is expected to ship by August.