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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Google's Project Fi

In case you never heard of it, Project Fi is Google's attempt to enter the world of cell phone service. What first caught my eye was its price: $20/month for unlimited talk and text.  Data is not unlimited, but even there the terms are better than most other providers: $10/GB.  The great thing about the data plan its that you only pay for what you use.  If you only use 852 MB for the month, you pay $8.52.  This is done by paying for a 1 GB plan for $10 then getting a $1.48 rebate for unused data.  If you go over your data plan, you till only pay the same.  For example, if you set a plan of 1 GB/mo and use 1.53 GB you pay an extra $5.30 for the 5.3 GB you went over.  If you can keep most of your data usage on WiFi, which is free, Your cell phone costs can plummet.

Even better if you to a lot of international travel. Google allows you to travel to over 120 countries where you still pay the same $10/GB for data use.  International texts are always unlimited and included in your base costs.  Calls while abroad are only 20 cents/minute.

There are a few down sides: first, you have to buy an unsubsidized phone.  Also, that phone has to be one of a very few models: the old Nexus 6 or the new Nexus 5x or 6p.  The cheaper 5x will set you back $379.  The 6p starts at $499 for the base model.  Since we are used to paying subsidized charges of $200 for the very best phones, this may seem like sticker shock.  But if doing so reduces your monthly charges from $60 or $70 per month to $30 or $35 per month,  You will see big savings pretty quickly.  You can also pay off the phone cost over a standard 24 months if you prefer.  Given that the Nexus phones are probably the among best Android Phones on the market, you are not compromising quality.

Coverage may not be the best.  Project Fi allows you to use both the Sprint and T-Mobile networks. So you get better coverage than either one of those carriers alone, but most people demanding of coverage everywhere will find this service a cut below the better coverage of Verizon or even AT&T.

Part of the poor cell coverage is ameliorated by the fact that Google Fi is always on the look out to connect to available secure WiFi, which is used not only for data but also voice and text.  

I could see this plan being very useful for people who mostly use the cell phone for talk and text, and you don't use a great deal of mobile data.  It also makes sense if you to a fair amount of international travel.  Even if you mostly use data when you are connected to Wifi, it is a real convenience to have the mobile when you need it, and not pay a huge base cost every month just to have it in case.

I also like the idea of not being locked into a contract.  For people needing a phone for only a few months, they don't have to worry about a two year contract and can sell their relatively new phone when done with it so as not to take a huge hit on that.  For people who are happy using the same phone for three or four years, you will rack up even more savings than you would under the subsidized phone model.

The plan probably doesn't make sense if you are a heavy data user.  In that case, an unlimited plan from Sprint or T-Mobile is probably better.  Similarly, if you have a family plan with shared data, you may be better off financially going that route.  I'm also not convinced that Project Fi will be viable long term.  If it gets too successful, one of the supporting carriers may bail on it.  You can use your Nexus phones on any network, so you don't have to worry about being left with a brick. Even so, a stable carrier experience is preferred.

It would be nice if there was a completely pay as you go plan that gave a reasonable price for talk minutes and texts as well as data.  I know a great many people who use their cell phone very little and simply want it for rare occasions and emergencies.  There are already pay as you go options out there, but Google could be really competitive in that market.

I would like to see where Google is going with this.  I certainly understand why they want to kill Verizon and AT&T's strangle hold on internet mobility and support those efforts.  I hope the competition may force all carriers to cut prices.  All that remains to be seen.

At present, all I can say is the Google's latest foray into mobility is interesting.  This company has already upended several markets to the benefit of the consumer.  I'll be interested to see how Project Fi grows in the coming years.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Apple has Peaked

Many speculators have gone broke predicting the downfall of Apple, now the largest company in the world.  It seems to hit home run after home run and just keeps growing.  I could be wrong, but I think Apple is finally hitting its peak.  Of course it is not going away.  It will continue to thrive as a successful company.  Its years of amazing growth, however, may be over.

Apple has thrived by putting out new devices every year that amaze and astound.  It has built a large fan base.  But you are only as good as your latest device.  The new iPhone 6s is nice, but not an amazing leap forward.  In a few ways it is a step backwards: slightly thicker than its predecessor and a smaller battery.  But that's not the real problem.

Apple phones have gained market share in recent years.  Apple's decision to make larger screens on the iPhone 6 caused many consumers to turn back to Apple, abandoning the Samsung Galaxy, which as I have commented in an earlier post, seems focused on becoming a mere clone of the iPhone.  But this trend is going to change soon, not because of any problems with the new 6S, which has received relatively good reviews.

Portable devices have been through several years of revolutionary change.  Improvements going forward are likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.  As a result, other companies are producing similar devices at lower cost.  Price is going to be Apple's Achilles heal.

Major phone companies are doing away with subsidized phones.  Customers are going to face sticker shock when they have to put out $750 for a new base model iPhone ($850 if you want enough drive space to save pictures on your phone) then start paying for monthly service.  Apple has tried to soften the sticker shock by offering payment plans for new phone purchases.  But will it be enough? Customers did not mind shelling out an extra $200 for a subsidized iPhone, especially when a top Android cost the same.  But Android phones under competition are likely to fall greatly in price, while Apple will try to maintain its high prices.

Over the next few years, iPhones will become more of a premium device for high end users.  It will likely settle into a 20-25% market share for people willing to pay a premium, compared to 43% of the smartphone market today.  Worldwide today, Apple holds only about 13% of the smartphone market. That will likely drop below 10%. Android will continue to dominate the rest of the market.  This gives Android a major benefit over Apple as App makers focus on the larger audience and begin to neglect Apple.  This cycle of fewer users leading to fewer apps leading to still fewer users is hard to break once started.  Eventually Apple will become a small niche player in mobile devices much like it did with its Macs once MS Windows took over the world.

Apple could focus on cutting costs and remaining competitive, but that is not the Apple way.  In fact, it really is not was Apple consumers want.  The Apple 5c was meant to be a lower cost, slightly lower quality Apple phone.  It failed miserably because Apple consumers want the very best.  They do not want compromise.

By contrast, Android comes on hundreds of different devices made by dozens of different companies. By sheer numbers, innovation and advancement is more likely to show up in these devices.  At the same time, effective competition will be able to find the best way to cut costs while maintaining performance in this highly competitive market.

Perhaps if Steve Jobs was still churning out miracle devices, this might be avoided.  But alas Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs.  New Apple presentations, like Apple TV and the Apple Watch have received relatively tepid reviews.  They are not the game-changers Apple might have once hoped.  No, price will have a much larger impact on future sales, and that is not an area where Apple can compete.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Windows 10 - Why Bother?

Microsoft has decided to join Apple and Google in its control of users.  This, for me, is a great disappointment.  I'd like to say I would boycott its products, but I know that is not true.  Despite its reduced importance, Windows is still the only OS for PCs and laptops.  Sure, Macs are an alternative, although Apple gives you even less control over your system.   Much of what I dislike about Windows 10 involves its efforts to become more like the Apple OS.  There is also Linux, but the inability to run many of my applications in Linux makes that a nonstarter for me as well.

For me, Windows reached its peak with XP. This OS, which came out in 2001, was a masterpiece. The world flocked to its adoption because it was far more stable than its predecessors, had a good familiar interface similar to the previous versions we already knew, and ran just about any program ever made.  When Microsoft stopped support for it last year, there was great anguish among users who did not want to let it go.

Microsoft, however, could never stay with a good thing.  XP was replaced by Vista which was an unmitigated disaster   Vista, in turn, was replaced with Windows 7, which was reasonably good, very similar to the XP interface, but still gives me a great many problems with legacy applications.  In particular, many of my favorite old video games regularly crash on 7.  As a result, I have stockpiled at least a half dozen old XP machines (which you can buy for almost nothing today), so I can hopefully continue to use them for the rest of my life.  I don't use them for everything, but if I want to enjoy a game of Quake III or Return to Wolfenstein, nothing after XP will work properly.

After Windows 7, Microsoft jumped off a cliff with Windows 8 and 8.1.  These were complete disasters for the company.  Microsoft essentially tried to build a tablet OS for the PC, where touch screens remain unavailable (and unwanted) and where large graphic icons that move just hog screen space and distract the eye from what you want to do.  Microsoft also hid access to many features making them nearly impossible to find.  I remember my first Windows 8 laptop.  It took me over an hour to figure out how to turn it off.  I did not want to look it up since I thought it was crazy that such a basic feature was not obvious. I wanted to see how long it would take.  It was just that hard to use.  The market agreed with this assessment and rejected Windows 8/8.1 in a big way.

Now, Microsoft has released Windows 10 (formerly called Windows 9 while in development - not sure why they went to 10 for release other than to put as much distance between 8 as possible).  I have not upgraded any of my computers to 10. The first question I ask myself is why should I?  What benefit to I get out of Windows 10 that I don't have on my Windows 7 computer?

There is no "killer app" that I need on Windows 10 that is not available for 7.  In fact, I can't think of a single thing that 10 can do that 7 cannot.  I had hoped that 10 might improve on voice recognition, which is horrible in 7.  Alas, it seems just as bad in 10 as it always was, no improvement there.

Cortana received a great deal of hype on release.  The new search feature allows you to search both your computers and the Internet at the same time for something.  I find this to be mindbogglingly annoying.  When I use Windows search, it is always to find a specific file on my computer.  Showing me gobs of Internet results only wastes my time.  In fact, I often simply want to search a specific drive or folder.  I often want to search by date or some other factor other than content.  This seems impossible now.  I use Internet search all the time, but that is a completely different thing.  When looking for the answer to a question, I don't want to search my computer.  Combining these is beyond useless.  It is a huge step backward.

The new Edge Internet browser has also been touted as a great new advance. Sure, it's probably better than Internet Explorer, but who uses that anymore?  Most of the world lives on Chrome and Firefox, which as far as I can tell still beat Edge.  In fact, I still have a few Java enabled devices that newrer browsers won't even let me access. They don't just warn me. They absolutely forbid access, even though I know the device is safe.  Well, back to an XP machine running IE 6 for that purpose.  New browsers are no good if I can no longer do what I did with the old one.

If you are an Xbox fan, you may find some benefit to the integration of Xbox live feeds in Windows 10.  Since I've never used Xbox live and have no desire to start this holds no interest for me.  It can be a distraction for people who want to keep work on their PC and fun on their Xbox.

The biggest hype is the return of the Start Menu, which went missing in Windows 8.  For those of use who have remained on XP or 7, this return offers nothing new, just a move back to what we already have.  But even here, the new Start menu is not nearly as good as the old one.  The new start menu gives  you a Windows 8 style list of programs with large bulky blocks that waste screen space and distract the eye.  When I open my start menu, I want to see a list of all my programs, several dozen, maybe over 100, in a list that I can scan quickly and easily. Instead, I get bulky entries that waste space, forcing me to scroll through multiple pages to see everything.

So 10 offers nothing new that gives me incentive to upgrade. What am I losing? For starters, Microsoft no longer supports DVD movies.  These codecs have been built into Windows for many generations.  I can get a DVD movie, slap it into my computer at watch it.  That is no longer possible.  Yes, I can get a third party program that will do this, but that for me is a loss.

I am also a big fan of Tivo.  I not only have one attached to all my TVs, but I love that it allows me to download shows to my laptop to take with me on trips.  Unfortunately, my free Tivo Desktop software will not work on any version of Windows after 7.  So this is another feature I need to sacrifice.

There are a number of other old programs that are either not supported at all, or which require me to purchase a newer version. I get that change may require some of this, but since there is no incentive to change based on new must have features, I have no reason to go through the upgrade hassles or give up my favorite legacy apps.

Windows 10, however, does not stop there.  It makes a much greater effort to integrate the user experience into the Internet.  You now have no control over updates.  MS can update Windows whenever it wants with you having no way to stop it.  In its first few months, MS has released several updates that have caused problems for people.  Too bad, you can't uninstall updates.  You simply have to wait to see if MS every decides to issue a fix.

Windows 10 also tries to push you into using Bing search, for email and Office 365.  Using alternatives from other companies becomes much more complicated.  As a heavy user of Google's online services, I find this an unnecessary annoyance.  Windows is also apparently monitoring everything you do on the computer.  I get that Google does the same thing, but at least I know I have to go online to be public.  Microsoft reaches into my home and monitors even things I am doing locally on my computer without using the Internet.

I'm sure I'll eventually be forced to move to Windows 10 as support for 7 ends and there begin to be important new things which XP or 7 cannot do.  But for now, I see no good reason to upgrade anything.