The life of a tech analyst

Nice quote from an essay by Benedict Evans:

There’s an old joke that the career of an analyst progresses from Word to Excel to Powerpoint. That’s pretty much what’s happened here over the last 20 years: first we discussed what might happen (“imagine if everyone had a phone!”), then we tracked the numbers of what was happening, and finally we draw diagrams and bullet points of what that means. That’s where we are now – we try to work out what it means that almost everyone has a phone or a smartphone.

But this also means that now we go back to the beginning: I’m not updating my smartphone model anymore. The next fundamental trends in tech, today, are probably machine learning, crypto and regulation. I can write about those, but it’s too early to make charts.

Size matters. (But so does speed)

Although I’ve been a relatively early-adopter (aka sucker) of tech gadgets for much of my adult life, I’ve generally been relatively slow to upgrade my mobile phones. One factor was that I moved from being on a mobile contract to buying the phones outright and choosing the mobile data deal that suited me best. (I make very few voice calls.) I had an iPhone 4 for years, and when I eventually moved to an iPhone 6 I kept that for years too, reviving it a year ago with a new battery. (It’s the one on the right in the picture.) But in recent years it’s become sluggish and I began to find it increasingly hard on my ageing eyesight. I resisted the temptation to move to an iPhone X for various reasons: the outrageous prices, for one; and, more importantly, I don’t like Face ID and find fingerprint authentication very convenient for the few security-conscious services that I use.

So I had more or less resigned myself to soldiering on with the 6. After all, it did the jobs I needed it to do. And if I needed to read, there was always my iPad. But then I had a conversation with a friend who’d also had an iPhone 6 for years and whose circumstances had recently changed. He’s been spending a lot of time in hospital in the last six months, and didn’t want to be lugging around a laptop, or indeed even an iPad. He’d found, though, that it’s very difficult to run a busy life on such a small phone. So he bought a used iPhone 7 Plus on Amazon.

Next time we met, he extolled the virtues of the bigger format. It made it much easier to browse and to use web-forms, he reported. He found it easier to keep on top of his (formidable) email load — which he would normally have managed on a laptop. And the phone was quicker — a lot quicker — than his iPhone 6.

I followed his example and bought an iPhone 7 Plus on Amazon. My conclusion: it was good advice. The phone came with a year’s guarantee. It has a much faster processor. Web browsing is easier. The camera is a lot better. My email response rate has improved. I make fewer typing mistakes. And I’m using my iPad less. There are still things it’s useless for — blogging, for example. But overall, it’s been a revelation. It’ll do me for a few years, I think.

The 5G enigma

This morning’s Observer column:

The dominant company in the market at the moment is Huawei, a $100bn giant which is the world’s largest supplier of telecoms equipment and its second largest smartphone maker. In the normal course of events, therefore, we would expect that the core networks of western mobile operators would have a lot of its kit in them. And initially, that’s what looked like happening. But in recent months someone has pressed the pause button.

The prime mover in this is the US, which has banned government agencies from using Huawei (and ZTE) equipment and called on its allies to do the same. The grounds for this are national security concerns about hidden “backdoors”: it would be risky to have a company so close to the Chinese government building key parts of American critical infrastructure. Last week Huawei filed a lawsuit against the US government over the ban. New Zealand and Australia have obligingly complied with the ban, blocking the use of Huawei’s equipment in 5G networks. And last December BT announced that it was even removing Huawei kit from parts of its 4G network.

Other countries – notably Japan and Germany – have proved less compliant; the German Data Commissioner was even tactless enough to point out that “the US itself once made sure that backdoor doors were built into Cisco hardware”.

The UK’s position is interestingly enigmatic…

Read on

So what’s the Killer App for 5G?

If Ben Evans doesn’t know (and he doesn’t, really), then nobody knows.

In 2000 or so, when I was a baby telecoms analyst, it seemed as though every single telecoms investor was asking ‘what’s the killer app for 3G?’ People said ‘video calling’ a lot. But 3G video calls never happened, and it turned out that the killer app for having the internet in your pocket was, well, having the internet in your pocket. Over time, video turned out to be one part of that, but not as a telco service billed by the second. Equally, the killer app for 5G is probably, well, ‘faster 4G’. Over time, that will mean new Snapchats and New YouTubes – new ways to fill the pipe that wouldn’t work today, and new entrepreneurs. It probably isn’t a revolution – or rather, it means that the revolution that’s been going on since 1995 or so keeps going for another decade or more, until we get to 6G.

The real significance of the Apple slide

Apart from the fact that the Chinese economy seems to be faltering and collateral damage from Trump’s ‘trade war’ what the slide signals is that the smartphone boom triggered by Apple with the iPhone is ending because we’re reaching a plateau and apparently there’s no New New Thing in sight. At any rate, that’s Kara Swisher’s take on it:

The last big innovation explosion — the proliferation of the smartphone — is clearly ending. There is no question that Apple was the center of that, with its app-centric, photo-forward and feature-laden phone that gave everyone the first platform for what was to create so many products and so much wealth. It was the debut of the iPhone in 2007 that spurred what some in tech call a “Cambrian explosion,” a reference to the era when the first complex animals appeared. There would be no Uber and Lyft without the iPhone (and later the Android version), no Tinder, no Spotify.

Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark.

Yep. Situation normal, in other words.

The end of the internal combustion engine

This morning’s Observer column:

Two interesting things happened last week. One was Tesla’s delivery of the first batch of its Model 3, the company’s first “affordable” car. (If you think $35,000, about £26,500 – is affordable, that is.) The second was a “diesel summit” held in Berlin, a meeting where the bosses of Germany’s leading car manufacturers (VW, BMW, Audi, Ford, Porsche and Daimler) got together with ministers to ponder the industrial implications of the emissions-cheating scandal and the decisions of the British and French governments to outlaw petrol cars and vans from 2040.

Although no one in the car industry will say so, diesel technology has been a dead duck since the emissions-cheating scandal erupted, followed by the revelations of how polluted London’s atmosphere has become, with emissions of nitrous fumes from diesels being blamed for much of the problem. And the fallout is already being seen in the sales figures…

Read on

So the iPad is “done”. Really?

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by a headline in the Register, an invaluable online source of tech news and opinion. “Clearance sale shows Apple’s iPad is over. It’s done,” it read. This was a quotation from a piece by Volker Weber on the latest product announcements from Apple. “iPad is the biggest news,” he wrote, “and it says: the iPad is done. Apple is just refining the components, but there isn’t much they can do these days to make yet another super-duper Earth-shattering innovation here.”

Since I was reading this on my iPad Pro, which is probably the most useful electronic device I have ever owned, it came as a bit of a shock. But in fact Volker was really just articulating a truth about digital hardware, which is that the evolution of all such products (and a good deal else besides) follows a sigmoid curve.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t really…

Read on

Why the Apple vs. the FBI case is important

This morning’s Observer column:

No problem, thought the Feds: we’ll just get a court order forcing Apple to write a special version of the operating system that will bypass this security provision and then download it to Farook’s phone. They got the order, but Apple refused point-blank to comply – on several grounds: since computer code is speech, the order violated the first amendment because it would be “compelled speech”; because being obliged to write the code amounted to “forced labour”, it would also violate the fifth amendment; and it was too dangerous because it would create a backdoor that could be exploited by hackers and nation states and potentially put a billion users of Apple devices at risk.

The resulting public furore offers a vivid illustration of how attempting a reasoned public debate about encryption is like trying to discuss philosophy using smoke signals. Leaving aside the purely clueless contributions from clowns like Piers Morgan and Donald Trump, and the sanctimonious platitudes from Obama downwards about “no company being above the law”, there is an alarmingly widespread failure to appreciate what is at stake here. We are building a world that is becoming totally dependent on network technology. Since there is no possibility of total security in such a world, then we have to use any tool that offers at least some measure of protection, for both individual citizens and institutions. In that context, strong encryption along the lines of the stuff that Apple and some other companies are building into their products and services is the only game in town.

Read on

The Wille E Coyote effect

Benedict Evans is at the huge annual mobile phone gabfest in Barcelona. On his way he wrote a very thoughtful blog post about the world before smartphones, and why Nokia and Blackberry didn’t see their demises coming.

Michael Mace wrote a great piece just at the point of collapse for Blackberry, looking into the problem of lagging indicators. The headline metrics tend to be the last ones to start slowing down, and that tends to happen only when it’s too late. So it can look as though you’re doing fine and that the people who said three years ago that there was a major strategic problem were wrong. You might call this the ‘Wille E Coyote effect’ – you’ve run off the cliff, but you’re not falling, and everything seems fine. But by the time you start falling, it’s too late.

That is, using metrics that point up and to the right to refute a suggestion there is a major strategic problem can be very satisfying, but unless you’re very careful, you could be winning the wrong argument. Switching metaphors, Nokia and Blackberry were skating to where the puck was going to be, and felt nice and fast and in control, while Apple and Google were melting the ice rink and switching the game to water-skiing.

I love that last metaphor.

In a way, it was another example of Clayton Christensen’s ‘innovator’s dilemma’. It’s the companies that are doing just fine that may be most endangered.

It’s a great blog post, worth reading in full. Also reminds us that mobile telephony was much more primitive in the US than it was in Europe (because of the GSM standard over here), and that Steve Jobs and co really hated their ‘feature’ phones as primitive devices. Evans sees something similar happening now with cars. It’s no accident, he thinks, that tech companies (Apple, Google) are working on cars. Techies hate cars in their current crude manifestations, whereas the folks who work in the automobile industry love them. Just as Nokia engineers once loved their hardware.