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BlackBerry’s wryly jovial CEO Thorsten Heins spent quite a bit of time talking up the new mid-range Q5 at this morning’s BlackBerry Live keynote address, but the folks in Waterloo may be working on a follow-up smartphone that’s staggeringly different from the one we saw today.
According to a report from KnowYourMobile, the struggling Canadian company is working an all-touch BlackBerry smartphone with a 5-inch display. KnowYourMobile’s Richard Goodwin goes on to note that the device is currently in testing being tested at by unnamed Canadian wireless carrier, and the anonymous tester providing the info pointed out that the device would make its official debut within the next few months.
For what it’s worth, Jefferies’ analyst Peter Misek foretold of a 5-inch BlackBerry 10 device last month, but his track record with this sort of thing isn’t exactly sterling. It should go without saying that you should be taking all of this with a mighty big grain of salt, but it’s an intriguing notion to consider.
I mean, let’s assume for a moment that this report is accurate and that such a device really is being worked on behind closed doors — it’d be quite a bold move on BlackBerry’s part. It’s not hard to see that a considerable chunk of people have embraced large form factor smartphones, and it’s possible that BlackBerry wants to cash in on that consumer fervor. Then again, this whole thing is just loaded with question marks that could trip BlackBerry up as it works to reverse its fortunes.
By embracing so many form factors so quickly, BlackBerry runs the risk of alienating users who have perhaps prematurely pulled the trigger on an earlier model. It doesn’t help that there’s plenty of competition in the hefty smartphone space, either. Samsung is leading that particular pack with Android-powered devices like the Galaxy Note II, but rivals like LG and Sony are working to give the Korean juggernaut some competition. Couple that with persistent rumors that Apple is working on a larger smartphone of its very own and BlackBerry’s 5-inch follow-up may wind up facing the same issues with standing out as the company’s current hardware crop does.
The Q5 is a device that needed to exist — after all, a huge chunk of BlackBerry’s userbase can be found in developing markets where relatively few people could comfortably shell out the money necessary for an up-market device like the Z10 or Q10. If all goes according to plan, the Q5 may be the phone that helps BlackBerry maintain its strongholds across the globe. But a 5-inch BlackBerry? Heins and company will have to make an awfully strong argument for if it wants the world to give it a shot.
Here’s a little noodle-scratcher for you fellow mobile hardware nerds to ponder this evening. This little Motorola Mobility beauty, brandishing the model number XT1058, recently passed through the FCC and left the customary paper trail in its wake.
Alright, maybe calling it a beauty is a bit of a stretch, but here’s the kicker: the rudimentary sketch included with the listing looks bears a striking resemblance to a slew of earlier leaked images that purportedly showed off Motorola’s secretive X Phone.
Consider the alignment of those three circular elements on the back — those bits match up rather nicely with the camera, LED flash, and Motorola logo/button as seen in images of an unreleased smarpthone originally circulated by the team at Tinhte.vn. Even the seemingly curved section along the top edge where the device’s headphone jack lives and the placement of what appears to be the sleep/wake button are spot on when compared to those leaked photos.
Having a hard time visualizing all that? Here’s a side by side view to give you a sense of the similarities:
Of course, this doesn’t bring us any closer to figuring out what the device is actually capable of — all the FCC’s listing reveals is that this thing sports radios for Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11ac and NFC. It could be that this is the first regulatory appearance of the so-called XFON, a device that noted gadget leaker @EvLeaks posted photos of earlier this month. After all, the XT1058 has been found to support AT&T’s particular LTE bands, and the XFON’s IMEI label clearly calls it out as an AT&T device.
At this point no one (save for the lucky chump who snapped those photos in the first place) can definitively say whether or not the XFON and this curious AT&T device are the same, but it’s distinctly possible. There are a few cosmetic similarities between the two — namely the Motorola logo stamped on the top left corner, the shape of the speaker grille, and the placement of the indicator LED and the front-facing camera. Don’t pay too much attention to the chunky chassis though, as it’s not uncommon for non-final hardware to undergo testing clad in patently ugly shells. You may recall that BlackBerry’s Dev Alpha and Beta devices lived in similarly unflattering boxes before the innards were officially unveiled at a series of simultaneous launch events back in January.
For all of the things that Google is expected to show off next week at its annual I/O developer conference (the refreshed Nexus 7, a unified chat system, redesigned Google Maps, etc.), a brand new smartphone wasn’t expected to be one of them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the X Phone (or XFON, whatever) won’t make an appearance in San Francisco, but there has been a distinct lack of chatter that leads me to think that such a smartphone isn’t on the agenda. After all, Google’s been downright lousy at keeping things under wraps lately.
BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins seems to be among the most transparent executives in tech in terms of showing his hand regarding future product plans, which may be partly because he doesn’t have much to lose at this point. In an interview yesterday, he downplayed tablet computing in what looks to be an indicator that BlackBerry will drop the PlayBook, its own lame duck tablet and the first of its devices to sport a QNX-based operating system.
Heins should’ve stuck to specifics, however, as he went way overboard and came off as though he was losing touch with reality in the interview as quoted by Bloomberg, with broad sweeping statements like “In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore,” and “[t]ablets themselves are not a good business model.”
Tablets may not be a good business model for BlackBerry, which took huge writedowns on BlackBerry PlayBook inventory, were forced to run massive fire sales with price cuts of up to $400 to clear out inventory, and even finally discontinued the entry-level 16GB version entirely. By any real measure, the PlayBook was and is a failed product. But to say tablets won’t last five years, or that they aren’t a good business model requires that you completely ignore Apple’s tremendous success with the iPad, including the 19.5 million iPads it sold last quarter, an all-time record that came in well above analyst estimates.
Heins has recently made remarks that indicate BlackBerry may be experimenting with alternate device form factors, possibly taking a cue from hybrid gadgets like the Asus PadFone which combine a smartphone and tablet or mini-notebook style device in one. Once again, Heins said that he would need a BlackBerry tablet to be a unique device in an increasingly crowded market.
BlackBerry may have blown it on the PlayBook, but trash-talking tablets in general is worse than sticking your head in the sand: it makes the company look hopelessly out of touch. There’s definitely a lesson to be learned in the fact that Apple is the only company that’s really been able to succeed with a tablet device, but that lesson isn’t that the tablet market is a write-off entirely.
IDC is the first of the big analyst companies to come out with quarterly mobile device shipment numbers that indicate Q1 as the first quarter where smartphones have outnumbered more basic feature phones in worldwide shipments: in a total market of 418.6 million devices, 216.2 (51.6%) were smartphones. But it is was a kind of tipping point of another sort, too: it is a sign of how Apple is not the juggernaut that it once was.
(BTW… for those of you keeping track, this is not the first quarter where Android has all but dominated the top-five rankings, save Apple’s presence. That happened in Q4 2012, according to IDC’s figures.)
Samsung shipped nearly 71 million smartphones in the quarter, giving it a market share of almost one-third of the whole of the smartphone sector (32.7%). Apple, meanwhile, shipped 37 million devices — just over half as many as Samsung, for a market share of 17.3%. With all others in the top-five — LG, Huawei and ZTE — still with less than 5% market share apiece, Samsung and Apple remain a strong top-two.
But looking at the pattern of growth something else comes out: Apple only grew its volumes by 6.6% over the same quarter a year ago. In fact, in that regard, that growth puts it far behind not only Samsung (at 60.7% volume growth), but also behind LG (110.2% growth); Huawei (94.1%); and ZTE (49.2%). As a point of comparison, Samsung and Apple were more nearly level a year ago, in Q1 2012, (44 million versus 35.1 million in Q1 2012), and respectively saw growth of 267% and 89% in shipment volumes — the only two that increased:
A year ago:
As we’ve pointed out before, shipments to those who sell devices are not the same thing as sales to users, but it is an important barometer for where the wider market is going. (The most recent figures from Kantar Worldpanel, which track sales, spell out how the difference between Android-based and Apple sales is not as wide as 2:1 in every market, but is in fact significantly wider in some.)
It’s notable that Nokia, BlackBerry, and HTC whose shipments were on the decline last year but still enough to keep them in the top-five, are now out of the picture altogether. It also shows that Nokia’s sub-10 million sales of smartphones, with 5.6 million Lumias, are not big enough figures to break out of the sizeable ‘others’ category.
With Apple still shipping more than three times as many devices as its next-closest competitor, LG, even if things continue as they are today, it will likely still be some time before it gets overtaken by the others in the list. Its performance also was enough to keep it in place as the world’s third-largest mobile handset maker overall, in a list otherwise dominated by companies that make both smartphones and feature phones:
IDC notes that LG, which shipped 10.3 million smartphones in the quarter, a rise of over 110% over the year before, was helped by three factors in the last quarter. The first of these was the popularity of the Nexus 4 device it created with Google; the second was the success of its lower-priced L Series (15 million sold in this category alone since launched); and the third was its LTE line. These three point to how those Android handset makers that can create strong enough and distinctive handsets that are set apart from the rest of the Android crowd can continue to pull away from the crowd.
Apple’s iPhone brand has never been seen as anything other than premium, and true to type, it is still not playing at the same level as others smartphone industry in creating new models that aim at the “cheap smartphone” market.
CEO Tim Cook did not discuss the prospect of a new, low-cost device, on Apple’s earnings call this week — the focus remains on selling older models, namely the iPhone 4, in markets like China as a route to bringing new smartphone users on to the platform. Other handset makers like Samsung, Nokia and many “others” are building out portfolios that hit not only at high-end users but those looking for entry devices priced at closer to $100 or even less. Some handset makers, specifically in emerging markets, are targeting only this market.
On the other hand Cook also left open the possibility that whatever comes next may be something different altogether: the “really great stuff” coming out in the autumn and in 2014 could be another iPhone. Equally, it could be something else altogether, and not a handset at all.
After the success of gesture-based keyboards such as Swype, the next obvious disruption to keyboard technology is optimisation of the legacy Qwerty layout that’s persisted since the typewriter era. Not that people haven’t tried alternatives to Qwerty already (e.g. Dvorak et al.) – and generally failed to make them stick. But that’s not stopping a group of academic researchers — including the co-inventor of the gesture IP behind Swype — from devising a new touchscreen keyboard layout in the hope that people can finally be persuaded to shift their typing habits.
KALQ, which is named, like Qwerty, after a string of its keys, is designed to speed up thumb typing on tablets and phablets (aka big phones). Its creators, who are from the University of St Andrews, the Max Planck Institute for Informatics and Montana Tech, claim that once users have accustomed themselves to the non-Qwerty layout — with about eight hours practice required to be as fast as Qwerty and 13-19 hours to surpass your Qwerty typing speed — typing performance can be about a third (34 percent) more efficient than thumb typing on split-screen Qwerty layouts.
They are planning to release KALQ as a free Android app for tablets and phablets, which will also work on smaller screen smartphones but stress their research and performance claims relate specifically to larger devices, rather than phones. They are also not directly comparing the performance of the new layout against any of the gesture keyboard input methods (Swype, SwiftKey’s Flow etc) — their performance data is based on a direct comparison with thumb typing on a split Qwerty.
Dr Per Ola Kristensson, Lecturer in Human Computer Interaction in the School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews, who is one of the academics involved in the research, told TechCrunch they tested KALQ on a Galaxy Tab 7.7, adding that while the keyboard may also offer speed improvements on smartphones it’s not a claim they have tested. Kristensson is no stranger to keyboard disruption, being the man who wrote the pattern recognition algorithm underlying Swype, and co-founder of ShapeWriter, the startup that commercialised the gesture keyboard system in 2007 — before being acquired by Nuance in 2010 (the company that now owns Swype).
Kristensson said the KALQ researchers used a subset of publicly available emails from the Enron trial that were tagged ‘Sent from my BlackBerry’ as their data pool, analysing the mobile users’ use of language to figure out the best positions for the keys. As well as using computational optimisation techniques and looking at how devices behave when users are touch typing, they also modelled thumb movements with the aim of making a fast yet comfortable keyboard. KALQ is an English-language optimised letter layout, but the process that came up with its layout is “general,” said Kristensson: “You can feed it whatever language you want. So the layout may change, depending on your country.”
There’s been lots of crazy text input technologies proposed… The problem with a lot of them is they are not fast enough.
For English speakers, KALQ’s split-screen layout repositions the alphabet into two unequal blocks of letters, with consonants in the left block (plus Y which can be classed as either) and vowels plus the remaining consonants (including K, L and Q) in the right. A space key is included towards the edge of each block for easy reach with either thumb. The letter order is specifically designed to minimise typing long sentences with just one thumb — which is cumbersome and slows touchscreen typists down — and also places frequently used letter keys centrally close to each other to minimise thumb movements. In addition, the layout generally aims to encourage typing on alternating sides of the keyboard — which Kristensson said is a more ergonomic and comfortable way to type.
As well as learning the new letter layout, KALQ typists need to learn to move both thumbs at once to get the fastest speeds. “Experienced typists move their thumbs simultaneously: while one thumb is selecting a particular key, the other thumb is approaching its next target. From these insights we derived a predictive behavioural model we could use to optimise the keyboard,” noted Dr Antti Oulasvirta, Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute, in a statement.
The researchers said trained KALQ users were able to reach speeds of 37 words per minute — which they said is the highest ever reported entry rate for two-thumb typing on touchscreen devices, and “significantly higher” than the approximately 20 words per minute entry rate users can normally reach on a regular split Qwerty layout. The group will be presenting its research next month at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Paris. The Android KALQ app will be available for download in due course.
Persuading users to adopt a new keyboard layout is likely to be a tough ask but Kristensson said the problem with most of the Qwerty layout challengers to-date has been that they are not disruptive enough — in terms of the performance bump they offer users who have to go through the pain of learning how to type quickly again.
“If you want to get people to change their layout you basically have to get people to invest, you have to get them to give up the assigned cost, their previous investment in Qwerty typing. And then we have to invest new time in learning KALQ,” he said. “There’s been lots of crazy text input technologies proposed. Actually hundreds of them. Most of them have failed. I would say probably 99% of them have filed but the problem with a lot of them is actually they are not fast enough so why would people reinvest in learning a new text entry method if it doesn’t provide a substantial performance advantage so I think [KALQ] is one of the few keyboards that can provide that. So I’m hopeful.”
Asked whether the group might look to commercialise the research, he said the priority is to try to encourage people to adjust their typing behaviour and accept a Qwerty alternative but added that the group may look to monetise their algorithms in other ways — by, for example, using them to optimise other menu-based user interfaces.
“What I’m hoping here is that we will have impact,” he told TechCrunch. “I wanted to get people away from thinking about the Qwerty keyboard. And I think impact here may mean that we will release [KALQ] for free — but remember we are the ones who have all the algorithms to come up with optimal keyboards so we learn a lot about how to optimise user interfaces in general. My co-investigator, Antti Oulasvirta, he’s completely passionate about optimising any sort of user interface. So the process we use here can also be used to optimise other user interfaces like menu structures for example so there is lots of potential for the underlying technology. This is just one instantiation of that. But I think trying to sell a new keyboard — that’s a risky proposition. I’m not sure a venture capitalist would go for it.”
The BlackBerry Q10 is, some might say, the BlackBerry OS 10 device that the company should have led with, ahead of its all-touch Z10. That’s because it sports a hardware QWERTY keyboard, something that has become a unique distinction among top-tier smartphones these days. BlackBerry tells me they wanted to nail the all-touch experience first, in part to prove that they could, but based on my last few days with the Q10, this is the phone that’s more deserving of the “flagship” moniker for the new BlackBerry fleet.
While the Raspberry Pi is great for educating kids about computing, can it brew a mean beer? The BeagleBone Black can. Trevor Hubbard, an engineer at Texas Instruments, uses the new, next-gen board to control heat exchangers and monitors to handle beer temperature remotely.
The board itself is quite cool. It runs a AM335x 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor with graphics accelerator and has two 46-pin headers for IO, making it ideal for monitoring and robotics. The board itself costs $45 and is available now.
It can run Android and Ubuntu linux and connects to the Internet via Ethernet or a USB Wi-Fi dongle. Interestingly, the entire board is open source, allowing you to download and tweak the design to suit your needs.
The company was founded by Jason Kridner and Gerald Coley, two TI engineers. The headers allow for multiple styles of input and output including serial connectivity, timers, and digital I/O. While not as inherently simple as the Raspberry Pi, it’s still a formidable board.
Hubbard, who recorded a video about his project, shows how he can control his beer temperature remotely using a BeagleBoard, the Internet, and a taste for bubbly hops. There is, I’d wager, not much more a man could ask for.
BlackBerry has been hit hard by Apple and Android in the enterprise smartphone market, and now it’s making some moves to make sure that it doesn’t face the same fate in the automotive segment. QNX, BlackBerry’s operating system subsidiary that makes the new BB10 operating system, today announced that it would be adding music streaming service 7digital into its in-car entertainment and information system, QNX CAR. The deal will see 7digital’s catalog of 23 million tracks, and HTML5-based music store, preloaded on to the QNX system, and the music service will work across the 40 countries where 7digital already has licensing agreements.
(As a point of comparison on footprint, yesterday music streaming service Spotify added several new markets to its global coverage, and now works in 28 countries.)
QNX says that this will in turn mean that automotive OEMs and others working on in-car systems can now build customized digital music stores into QNX-based “infotainment systems.” These will link up with 7digital’s wider service across mobile and web platforms so that subscribers can access their music on all of them.
The move is another sign of how everything, including cars, are fair hardware game today. “The lines between in-car systems, mobile devices, and the web are blurring,” said Derek Kuhn, vice president of sales and marketing at QNX Software Systems, in a statement. “Our partnership with 7digital is a testament to how well digital music services can be integrated into a seamless automotive user experience.”
At the same time, digital music specifically has a huge opportunity in the next generation of cars — something companies like Spotify are also considering as they also look to integrate with new platforms.
“Connected and mobile devices have changed the way music is consumed, but one thing that hasn’t is people’s desire to listen to music in the car,” said Ben Drury, CEO of 7digital. “We’re already working with partners in the automotive sector and now, for the first time, automotive companies using the QNX CAR platform can leverage our HTML5 music store, where their customers can access the largest collection of digital music from the convenience of their vehicles.”
7digital already has a strong relationship with BlackBerry; the service is preloaded on a range of the company’s smartphones, including the newest BB10 devices. The company, based in the UK, has raised $18.5 million to date, with its named investors including Sutton Place Managers and Balderton Capital. Its last round of funding, $10 million in October 2012, came from “two public technology companies.” I’ve reached out to 7digital to ask if BlackBerry happens to be one of them.
Samsung is another strong partner of 7digital; the streaming company power’s the world’s biggest smartphone maker’s Music Hub music service. 7digital also works on Pioneer’s in-car system.
For its part, QNX, which was acquired by BlackBerry in 2010 as part of its bigger drive to update its mobile platform, has been an early and strong player in in-car systems for years already, and it works with companies like Audi, Toyota, BMW, Porsche, Honda and Land Rover.
Interestingly, it has something in common with BlackBerry in that both have reputations as workhorses. “The only way to make this software malfunction is to fire a bullet into the computer running it,” an automotive customer once said of QNX.
But as the mobile industry has shown us many times, it’s not always the early movers who are the long-term winners in this space.
While QNX has built a reputation with reliable in-car navigation and other legacy car-computer systems, in the new age of connected everything, the car could well become a hot battleground, like the smartphone is already, in the bigger war of ecosystems. QNX has been, like others, developing next-generation systems to meet that demand.
There are already companies working on ways of synchronizing the apps in one’s phone with those in the car, and companies like Apple and Google, as well as automotive companies themselves, all want a piece of the action. Cars and car news featured prominently at both the CES and MWC events earlier this year.
The bigger risk for BlackBerry is that QNX goes the way of its crown jewel, the BlackBerry smartphone, which was once the default smartphone — the only smartphone in many cases — used by enterprises. These days, it’s a different picture. IDC noted last November that iPhones are bing bought “in droves” instead of BlackBerry handsets. Some of this is down to individual users bringing in their own devices; and some is down to larger corporate contracts.
Jolla, the Finnish startup comprised of ex-Nokians who left to keep the MeeGo fire burning, has confirmed it will be showing off its first handset next month, and kicking off a “pre-sales” campaign to allow fans to register to buy the phone. Although Jolla has demoed its Sailfish UI in some detail before, it has generally been tight-lipped about its plans for the device’s hardware design — so next month will mean another big reveal.
Jolla had previously pegged the second half of this year for its debut device launch. Today it has confirmed to TechCrunch that this launch timeframe is not changing, despite its intention to show the phone next month. It provided the following emailed statement confirming the pre-sales campaign and noting that the shipping timeframe remains the same: