Short Circuit is a quarterly newsletter intended as an antidote to the onslaught of information that characterises both technology and financial markets. Inspired in part by Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock, I hope to use some of the latest news, events and developments as a jumping off point for discussing a broad range of issues that will be vaguely technological and future related. It is designed to be thoughtful but relaxed; as a comfort blanket against the barrage of the outside world; like your first cup of tea in the morning. Try it on your tablet.

Ascot, UK


Smart phone?


It has been my view for a while, although with all the hoopla surrounding Samsung I have only had to courage to whisper it, that the state of mobile phones is a poor one. Not only that, we have been going backwards. With the world’s top two phone manufacturers spending close to $1bn each year on advertising in the US alone it is not always easy to stay sober enough to realise it, although that itself is probably a red flag.  And yet an examination of the field quickly suggests as much.

Apple revolutionised the phone six years ago, that much is indisputable. Looking back at some of the reviews of that first generation device it was clear that, even without 3G and (my goodness) the App Store (a point for Devil’s Advocate to pursue against the deification of Steve Jobs, if ever there was one), Apple had changed the market overnight. But how far have we really come since then? Apple themselves are as guilty as anyone, they seem to be increasingly obsessed with becoming a “services” company and to my mind have ended up looking like AOL in the dial-up era. There is far too much mediocrity when a curated experience is much richer, and the point of the “cloud” is not that an all or nothing approach is necessary, much more that it is such a powerful computing paradigm that it becomes that standard for any service provider. Point being, the human interactive experience has not changed a lot since that first iPhone.

Ditto on Android which has pursued a similar app-centric approach, albeit a more catholic one. Yet no one, really, despite its openness and susceptibility to this, has fundamentally changed or innovated around that experience. Instead, let’s be honest, Google has just been strengthening the platform behind the scenes in an attempt to keep pace with iOS and consumers have been left in the hands of the hardware peddlers.  It’s not a surprise that they have tried to push us forward on specs but seriously, stop making bigger screens and adding more cores. It is, quite sincerely, pointless, as Huawei’s head of consumer products recently observed. It is the result of a semiconductor industry that powers forward at Moore’s pace and offers all this extra capability but just as we have seen with the laptop vendors, they haven’t a clue what to do with it, other than cram as much as they can in, appealing to novelty and hoping we keep paying whatever has become the de facto price for the latest versions. Universally, the android experience to date has been compromised by custom ‘skins’ applied by hardware manufacturers.

And then there is battery, which is where I think we really start going backwards. That anyone can release a phone, whose raison d’être is that it is untethered, wireless, mobile,  which cannot last from dawn until dusk without being charged, is almost beyond contempt. Yet it is all too common. I have a great deal of respect for modern technology blogs; the standard of their journalism and the content is extremely high, but when it comes to phone reviews they have proved suckers to this appeal to novelty, focusing on all the wrong things, which in turn feeds the beast. In review after review, batteries are compared to the competition, without an real value judgement based on their ability to keep the bells and whistles sounding for a sensible amount of time. It is the ketchup economics of phone reviewing. It sounds like a #firstworldproblem rant, which is because it truly is: no-one in the third world would pay more for a mobile device that did not last the day. They would consider it laughable to think that we do. Battery life is the only spec that matters, as Gizmodo has rightly noted, but it is a lonely voice in the tech blog world.

The situation has reached such a low that I would argue that  it is Microsoft that is taking the most risks with software today. Seriously. If you haven’t used it, Windows Phone OS feels like a welcome change; iOS and Android feel stale by comparison. Nokia, a firm that was nowhere two years ago, is now making the best phones. Can it really be denied? They have nailed crucial features (that really do make for a smart phone) like mapping and camera, and aesthetics of course, and they seem to actually care about battery life.

Facebook may have just changed all this. I have been trying to find a way to describe what I felt about their new pseudo-OS on seeing it, and I kept coming back to one word: fresh. It’s immersive, integrated, innovative. But the real news for me was a subtlety of the launch. Not only have they pushed the user experience forward in what I think is a very significant way, it was the nature of the first partnership that really caught the eye. The phone from HTC was unremarkable by bleeding edge standards, and yet so perfect. A 4.3 inch screen, just the two processor cores, 8MP camera, and thankfully, mercifully, (presumably) no clunky Android skin. Even with the Facebook software sitting atop everything else this phone has a chance of lasting 24 hours and beyond. And Zuckerberg was clear about it, “they’re nice and minimal, they’re crisp and big, but not too big.” Damn right.

Let’s be honest, Samsung’s attempt at innovation on the user experience has taken us nowhere. Moving a page with your eyes? Please. They had their shot at glory, a brief moment when the world was watching, and they missed. No crime, they make incredible hardware, it really is no surprise in the end. Instead, Facebook has grasped that crown. Being immersed in their world in particular might appear unedifying to some, but the important thing is they have shown us the way forward. We can stop yawning as we count the pixels and look forward to a genuinely exciting future in mobile. Although I for one will not be properly cheering until we are back in the halcyon days of the early noughties when the mobiles were still going strong into their third day. Truly, that would count as a great leap forward.

Chris Woodcock is an independent technology analyst and sometime global nomad. Get in touch: chris [at] cedillaresearch [dot] com / @chrisjwoodcock