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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Amazon confirms Australian plans, but what will this affect?

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It’s been the worst kept secret in the retail space that Amazon was looking into launching in Australia. For some years now it’s maintained the Amazon.com.au as a way to sell its Kindle e-book readers and ebooks, and more recently as an avenue for its Amazon Prime Video service, headlined by The Grand Tour, a series that’s essentially Top Gear with the previous hosts on board.

Still, Amazon has had larger ambitions for Australia for some time, even though in global terms it would be a very small market for the globally dominant retailer. While rumours circled for some time, Amazon remained relatively quiet until recently, when it made a rather formal announcement around its upcoming plans.

In a statement, Amazon said that “The next step is to bring a retail offering to Australia, and we are making those plans now. We are excited to bring thousands of new jobs to Australia, millions of dollars in additional investment, and to empower small Australian businesses through Amazon Marketplace”

Head to Amazon’s Australian site now and you’re just as likely to be met with a merchant message suggesting you get ready to sell your wares through Amazon Marketplace as you are an Amazon Prime Video advertisement. Amazon is quite serious about Australia, but what will that mean for Australians looking to buy online?

Hopefully, what it will mean is that Australian online retail will be rather more forcibly kicked into the 21st century, because on a global scale, most of our online retailers are woefully underprepared. Pretty much any time there’s a large scale sale, and especially if there’s a given hot commodity item, you can bet that an Australian online store will melt down into oblivion.

The manic consumer interest in Nintendo’s tiny NES Classic just before Christmas last year is a good example. It was the hot toy (and in many cases, nostalgic throwback for 30-40 somethings) of 2016, but supplies were low. Both EB Games and Target tried to manage online sales, only to find their sites utterly swamped every time they tried. Some folks got lucky, but far more were left disgruntled by sites that simply couldn’t cope.

You may not care about videogaming per se, but the reality of what happened there shows how relatively underprepared many Australian online retailers actually are relative to customer expectations. Amazon should push that along nicely, whether it absorbs those merchants into its own marketplace, where third party companies sell their own wares under the Amazon banner, or if it simply forces them to up their own game.

Amazon could also well be a blessing for Australian consumers in more remote and regional areas where existing retail opportunities are more limited by distance. Naturally, if you’re in those areas online shopping is already open to you, but often shipping costs and time delays make it impractical. Setting up warehouse space in Australia should remove most of those barriers.

That’s not to say that Amazon will be all smiles and roses for existing Australian retail. There’s bound to be complaints from some retailers, both big and small, but that’s essentially their problem to adapt and survive. Any business that can’t adapt to a changing market where a competitor can offer better service, whether that’s delivery, availability or pricing isn’t one that’s likely to survive that long without being willing to adapt.


Will we see a mobile price war soon?

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If you use a mobile phone in Australia, you connect to only one of three actual mobile networks, even though there are more than 30 brands of mobile provider. That’s because the underlying networks that service those brands rely on those three networks, built and maintained by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone respectively.

It’s been a very long time since a “new’ mobile network launched in Australia. Indeed, you’d have to go back to just past the turn of the century when Three launched in Australia, offering 3G-only services on its own network with 2G backup supplied via a partnering agreement with Telstra. These days 2G is on its deathbed in Australia, and Three is a long-forgotten relic having merged with Vodafone in Australia some years back.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t space in the market for a new entrant. TPG, arguably best known as a cut-price ISP (although it does own some more premium ISP brands such as iiNet and Internode) recently announced that it’s going to spend more than two billion dollars building out a mobile network in Australia. Most of that cash is being splashed out on 700Mhz frequencies to assist the network rollout, which will commence from 1 April 2018, although it’s a fair bet we won’t see TPG’s own mobile network available for consumers for a good few months if not years after that date. Right now, TPG does sell a mobile network product, but it’s piggybacking off Vodafone’s existing 4G network. What TPG is proposing is to built its own entire network and to switch over to that.

Network space is regulated by the ACMA and there’s only so much to go around, with TPG’s 700Mhz acquisition coming off the back of the sale of the last of the spectrum left over from the mass switchoff of analogue TV signals. Still, it only estimates that it will serve around 80% of the population, compared to the 95+% population figures the other three networks currently cover. It’s worth pointing out that those are population coverage figures, not landmass coverage figures. Australian cities (especially the large ones) hug the coastline, so it’s a fair bet that the 20% of the population that TPG doesn’t serve will be the predominantly inland folks.

In some ways it might not matter if you’re in a TPG coverage area anyway. TPG will be looking to snaffle up a larger part of the mobile pie than it currently has, which means it will need to compete against the other big players and their existing networks. It won’t be able to to do so on the basis of network coverage, because it’s starting from behind there. It’s unlikely to get into a bidding war for premium streaming rights, a la Telstra’s lock on AFL, NRL and Netball streaming. It will no doubt offer bundles of mobile and broadband packages, but given the likely 2019-2020 timeframe, and the accelerated rollout of the NBN, such packages are likely to be very common from multiple providers. Existing mobile-only provider Vodafone has signalled already that it will offer NBN packages this year and that bundles are on its radar.

So how will TPG compete and attract customers? It’s most likely going to come down to price, and specifically data pricing. The value of a mobile call or text within Australia is almost zero these days, given that it’s astonishingly easy to pick up a cheap plan with unlimited standard national calls and texts. But data is something that we’re all using more and more of, which means it’s where the telcos make their profits and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future.

TPG’s been down this path before, and the benefits of a price war for consumers stretch beyond whether or not you choose to use them as your mobile telco. If TPG drops, say, the cost of excess data down to $5/GB from its current industry standard of $10/GB, not everyone will follow straight away. Telstra’s the most likely large incumbent to drag its heels, but other players who don’t want to lose customers will follow, and they’re likely to drag Telstra along with it.

It might be some time before TPG is a major player, but in order to even establish a foothold, it’s going to have to engage in a price war that could see some very rapid benefits for everyday mobile consumers.


ACCC jumps into testing NBN speeds, but how can you test your own broadband?

If you’ve ever been on the Internet, you will have hit a point where you’re stuck with insufficient speed. It’s a fact of life, whether you’re streaming 4K video or just checking your emails that at some point you’ll be stuck with a spinning wheel, slowly increasing status bar or percentage count indicating just how slow your connection is ambling along.

Plans sold on the National Broadband Network, the Australia-spanning multi-technology network that’s intended to encompass every Australian by 2020 are sold at different speed tiers. There’s some complexity to the model depending on the connection type and the whims of individual ISPs, but typically you’ll be offered plans at 12/1, 25/5, 50/20 or 100/40 Mbps, where the first number represents maximum download speed and the second maximum upload speed.

NBN itself has somewhat shied away from presenting those numbers in recent years thanks to that shift to a multi-modal delivery model, because it’s much harder in technology terms to guarantee those speeds on some connection types and in some circumstances.

That makes it tough to work out relative value on broadband plans, especially as it’s not just a matter of hooking up a different speed pipe. Indeed, as consumers we don’t really deal with NBN (the company building the network) at all. Instead you buy access through a traditional internet service provider, who itself is a wholesale customer of NBN. The quantity of access it purchases can have a distinct effect on the real world speeds its customers enjoy.

A quick reminder is needed here, as the NBN connection, once it lands at your premises, isn’t an optional matter if you want a fixed line broadband or telephone service, outside a very few small building locations where third party, NBN-like services exist. Equally, you don’t get a choice when it comes to the connection technology used to hook you up, with quality notably higher in principle for full-fibre customers and lower for those on fibre to the node connections.

The ACCC recently announced that it will commence monitoring real world NBN connections in order to report directly to consumers relating to the actual speeds achieved through different providers. It’s largely an NBN-only play, so if you’re on, say, ADSL they won’t be monitoring what you get, although some NBN-like providers will also be monitored to provide comparative performance figures. The scheme will run over four years at a projected cost of 7 million dollars.

I’m interested to see what the ACCC’s figures show, because measuring internet access performance is a very complex topic indeed. Just off the top of my head you’ve got the quality of connection from device to your router, whether wired or wireless. Then the connection from your premises to an exchange, with wide variability depending on the NBN technology of choice, condition of cables, length of copper and overall network stress. Then there’s the question of the capacity available to the ISP and how well it can manage that load. Even then you’re not done, because you have to then ping your signal (whatever it is, whether you’re asking for a Netflix show to download, checking your emails or reading a web site) to the server that hosts that material, which may well be overseas. That’s another set of routing cables and exchanges before it reaches the server… which may well be overloaded anyway.

If you’ve ever tried to hit a popular web store during a large sales event you’d be aware of some of the potential pitfalls there. Naturally times of day can also affect the speeds you get, with evenings a particular peak, and any school holiday usually worse because of the larger mass of school-age kids who suddenly do have the time to be online all day.

The ACCC’s figures will be one metric, but they’re far from your only option when it comes to sorting out the kind of connection quality you’re getting. At an individual level web based utilities such as speedtest.net can be used to give you an idea of peak speeds. That’s nice to know as and when you can get it, but if you’re pondering an ISP switch, especially with the NBN imminent, the ACCC’s figures could be a better recommendation tool.

Netflix provides its own Netflix speed index (netflix.com/country/australia/) based on averaged of prime time connection speeds from an aggregate of devices, and ranked both by country and ISP. The figures right now are low — the top ISP for all of February in Australia measured in at an average speed of just 3.52Mbps — but that may trend upwards as NBN connections proliferate. At least, we should hope that they would if ISPs are going to anywhere near meet both the claims made for connections and Australia’s growing appetite for broadband.


Samsung’s Galaxy S8 wants to jump the desktop divide

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Samsung recently announced its latest premium smartphone in the form of the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+. Prior to the launch there wasn’t much that wasn’t already known about the new phones, which combine curved screens, a la the phones that Samsung used to throw an ‘Edge’ suffix onto with high powered processors, water resistance and the latest version of Google’s Android operating system.

All so far and so good, and entirely what was expected and needed from Samsung following the debacle that was the Note7 handset. However in the world of premium phones, you need to go a little bit further than just throwing in a faster processor and hoping consumers will flock to buy them. What we’ve seen in mid-range phones recently shows that we’re hitting a power peak where you don’t have to spend a fortune in order to get an entirely capable handset, even if you’re a relatively heavy phone user. That means that premium phones have to offer a bit more again, whether it’s design or additional features.

Samsung’s design for the S8 and S8+ is certainly eye catching, with no front buttons at all to distract from the curved glass. The front buttons are virtual, while the rear houses the fingerprint scanner. It also features an iris scanner and facial recognition to unlock your phone, although the latter isn’t the most secure idea ever. Samsung is also bundling its own “Bixby” AI to take on digital assistants such as Google Assistant or iOS’ Siri, and Samsung reckons it will learn more vocabulary and perform more functions than its competitors. That we’ll have to wait and see, with early sample not yet running the full Bixby package.

Where the Galaxy S8 really caught my attention was via one of the peripherals. The $199 DeX dock covers the basic charging functions you’d want out of any dock, but also acts as a desktop-style hub, with ethernet, USB and HDMI output for connecting to an external monitor and keyboard. Samsung says they’re working with companies such as Microsoft and Adobe to ensure that the DeX experience for a docked phone is essentially laptop-like.

The appeal of a single device that’s also your office is quite readily apparent, but it’s not one that’s unique to Samsung. Some years ago Motorola went down this path with its Atrix phone, which had an optional laptop body you could slide the phone into. Do so, and a virtual Firefox browser-based OS popped up. It was a neat idea for its time, but the underlying phone hardware really wasn’t up to the task, and as such it rather quickly flopped.

Microsoft has also tried at this concept with Continuum for its Windows 10 Mobile platform. Again, this used a dock and its own phones (or the very limited number of third party Windows 10 Mobile phones) to give users a Windows-10 style experience every time they docked their phones. While it has its own bugs and limitations, it’s a more fully realised experience, held back largely because Microsoft’s actual phone market share is essentially zero, especially in Australia. It’s hard to trumpet a feature that virtually nobody uses because no-one has your phones!

Samsung is in an interesting position here. In the laptop space it’s a very minor player. At CES 2017, it launched a number of interesting laptop models, and I was disappointed to note that Samsung Australia had no plans to launch them locally. But in phones it’s a powerhouse, and one of only two players in the smartphone space that makes actual profits. Not everyone will need a Galaxy S8 to speak of, but plenty will opt for one when their contracts roll over, especially if you were coming from, say, a Galaxy S5 or Galaxy S6 phone. There the power jump would be quite marked. A large quantity of users and a relatively inexpensive dock could lead to an entirely new ecosystem for Samsung, and a neat way for it to jump into the laptop and desktop space entirely via its phones.


Could Apple’s new iPad be your next productivity laptop?

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Apple rather quietly announced its latest update to its iPad line this week, along with new colour options for the iPhone 7 and a doubling of storage size for the iPhone SE. But while early rumours had suggested that it would announce a new range of iPad Pro tablets, instead it went a little further back in its history, updating the iPad Air 2 into a device that will simply be known as the “iPad”. There hasn’t been an “iPad” since the very first one, back in 2010.

Still, what you get is remarkably similar in some ways to the iPad Pro 9.7 inch model released last year, at least at first glance. Both run on iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system, and both feature 9.7 inch displays, making them remarkably portable. You can connect Bluetooth keyboards to them if you want to type into the expanding range of iOS productivity applications, which includes Apple’s own productivity suite (the apps that used to be called iWork) and Microsoft’s mobile versions of Word, Powerpoint and Excel.

The entry level iPad Pro 9.7 inch Wi-Fi only model with 32GB of storage will cost you $849, where the “new” iPad 9.7 inch Wi-Fi only model with 32GB of storage will cost you only $469. That’s an exceptional difference in price, and it’s well worth examining what each model will get you.

The iPad Pro 9.7 inch runs on Apple’s A9X processor, where the iPad only gets the A9 processor. There’s a claimed 20 percent or so difference in processing power, which is most likely to hit you if you do use it for either multi-tasking or very intensive applications, a category which also includes some non-productive apps such as graphically intense games.

The Pro model is marginally thinner and lighter, but not by all that much to be noticeable. If you care about the numbers it’s 437 grams to the iPad’s 469 grams. If you put a case on the iPad Pro — and at that price you should — you’re going to wipe out that weight difference entirely.

If you’re wondering about the weight, it’s almost certainly due to the difference in battery capacity. The 9.7 inch iPad Pro packs in a 27.9 watt-hour battery while the newer iPad stacks a 32.4 watt-hour cell. Oddly Apple still reckons they’ll get the same rough battery life. That’s largely because that A9X processor is more power efficient than the A9 is, although realistically the charge you’ll get from them depends entirely on your usage profile. Hammer either and you’ll be looking for a charger before the day is out, but use them moderately and either could be a fine lightweight productivity tablet.

The other aspect that the Pro line gets is utility from Apple’s Pencil stylus. The regular iPad will work with an ordinary rubber-tipped stylus, and those are plentiful, but if you want the use of Apple’s rather more precise Pencil (and not everyone will) you’re stuck in iPad Pro territory, as the new iPad won’t even recognise the Pencil.

Rumours do suggest that we may see a refresh of the iPad Pro line, including possibly a 10.5 inch intermediate model between the iPad Pro 9.7 and the much larger iPad Pro 12.9 inch device this year. That may well enlarge the differences between the iPad Pro and the regular iPad lines, but right now, if you simply want into the iPad world, the regular model should do just fine, while the extra price of the Pro lines is really only worth it if you’re a heavy productivity user, especially considering that there are many mid-range laptops available at that kind of asking price.


How can I tell if my gadgets are safe?

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The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) recently issued a general warning around the use of electronic gadgets inflight after an incident where a passenger’s headphones exploded inflight en route to Melbourne from Beijing.

They didn’t release a whole lot of additional details regarding the make or model of the headphones, or whether there were any other issues with the device prior to its failure. That makes it hard to discern what went wrong. All we know is that something did go wrong, and as with anything that could cause a fire on a plane, that’s a big concern. For the record the person involved was slightly burned but beyond that, and a foul smell in the plane there’s no indication of further worries.

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that airlines would generally prohibit the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing, citing concerns about communications safety during those critical times. Now, outside of much smaller planes you can be assured of being able to use most devices from gate to gate, although you’re still prohibited from using anything with a radio transmitters.

There’s a huge gap between a radio transmitter and a set of headphones going up in flames, however. While we don’t know much about the case beyond that it happened, it does highlight some general safety principles for any mobile gadget, whether it’s a battery pack, mobile phone, tablet or laptop. If you’ve been on a flight recently you’ve probably heard that safety demonstration that tells you not to try to move your seat if your phone drops down into it. That’s easy to understand, because if you crunch the batteries in your phone, very bad things can happen above and beyond crushing your device. Likewise, you’re not allowed to have larger capacity batteries in your checked luggage, because if anything goes wrong inflight, nobody might notice until it’s way too late. Those are sensible precautions for inflight, but what can you do to check that your device is electrically safe? Most of us don’t have the relevant tools or ability to safely open up devices run on lithium ion batteries, especially if we want them to stay within warranty.

Typically the issue that causes most concern is battery failure, because that’s where fires or explosions can start. If a Lithium Ion battery is about to fail, however, there are usually a few warning signs. The battery (whether it’s a battery pack, phone, tablet or laptop) may bulge and expand in size; this is often more evident in a thin phone than a laptop where there’s more space, but if that describes your device, stop using it immediately. Likewise if it leaks fluid or warms up a great deal more than it used to. The discharge of a battery and its use will lead to some heat, but if it’s gone from tepid in the hand to territory where you could fry eggs on it, it’s a good sign that something’s going bad.

It’s not just inflight that you should worry about such issues, of course. Samsung’s Note 7 recall last year was due to phones catching afire in houses and cars, and that’s not something that anyone wants to face. Yes, getting a repair or replacement device will cost some money, but nothing compared to the damage, physical and financial, that an exploding device could cause. Simply put, it’s just not worth the risk.


Optus’ NBN stumble highlights the need to be prepared

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For years now we’ve been promised a bright shiny NBN future of broadband for all. It’s been bogged down by political boondoggles (no matter which side of the political fence you sit on) and an often significantly delayed rollout schedule, but the reality of the NBN is starting to hit more and more Australians as the implementation gains speed. This was always going to be the case, no matter which fixed line technology you were set to receive; for customers on the more remote satellite service it was always a matter of getting the satellites up in the air, at which point the interim service would be shuttered. That happened at the end of February, and while satellite NBN isn’t a patch on the fixed line variant, for those under its umbrella it’s still a marked step forwards.

For the rest of us, bearing in mind that fixed line NBN is the majority play within a few different technology types, now is the time to start thinking about your NBN switchover plans. You don’t get a choice as to the technology you’re connected to, with a mix of full fibre, fibre to the node, fibre to the curb and HFC (that’s the older Foxtel/Optus/Telstra cable) all part of the NBN mix. You also don’t get a choice once your premises are declared NBN ready. The practical way that NBN manages this is with an 18 month shutoff window from when a premises is declared “NBN-ready” (which is to say that there’s a connection point nearby, whether that’s fibre, fibre to the node or HFC), after which traditional broadband services will be disconnected, along with phone services that run along the same lines.

Or at least that’s the way it’s meant to happen. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, Optus has been using strongarm tactics for customers currently in its HFC servicing areas in Melbourne, informing customers on HFC that they only have 30 days to switch and (not surprisingly) suggesting Optus NBN plans to switch to.

What Optus is doing here flies in the face of NBN’s position of an 18 month switch off window, although it states it’s working within a 90 day rather than 30 day period. Essentially because it controls the HFC network for now, it can make the business decision to cease services declared “NBN Ready” (which in this case means largely switching to what was Telstra HFC, because Optus’ own network was judged to be beyond repair or upgrade when handed over to NBN) on its own HFC infrastructure.

If it was in an ADSL space, you could conceivably switch to another provider in the short term, but with no HFC competitors, you’d be stuck. What’s rather more suspect here is that some of Optus’ communications to customers appear to be suggesting that their only choice would be to switch to an Optus-provided service. That most definitely isn’t the case, because one key plank of the NBN is that multiple providers will be available across different technology types.

The Optus example may not hit you, although if you are on Optus cable it’d be wise to be planning ahead. That same planning should be being undertaken by anyone with a current internet connection regardless. I suspect the noise being made around Optus’ business decision may come to haunt the ISP, and it may well back down and give customers a little more time.

Still, if the NBN rollout can keep to its 2020 timeframe for completion, that means that the clock is ticking for every Australian to be aware of their NBN options when the time comes. Simply waiting out the 18 month window will only see you lose phone and internet connectivity, because there won’t be any ADSL or cable services to provision. Lining up a connection takes time, so leaving it to the last minute will do you no favours at all.


At Mobile World Congress, Mobility doesn’t just mean phones

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I’ve recently been at the huge Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona. Mobile World Congress (MWC for the sake of brevity) is the world’s largest mobility event, held annually in Barcelona, and typically where the big phone manufacturers announce their flagship phones, excluding Apple. Apple doesn’t play well with the other children, you see, and has its own launches. But typically, you can expect to see between 3-6 flagship phones launched there, along with announcements about mobile networks, mobile payment and the future of mobility generally.

This year’s event was a little different, primarily because manufacturers took a differing view of what mobility meant.

If you were Nokia (or to be strictly accurate, HMD Global, the company that has the right to produce phones under the “Nokia” brand), mobility meant a range of mid-range Android phones along with the surprising re-emergence of the Nokia 3310. If you had a mobile back in the early 2000s, chances are high it was a Nokia, and probably the 3310, although the new model is much brighter and slightly more feature-packed than the original. Yes, it still plays Snake, but don’t get your hopes up for it in Australia, as the model announced is a 2G only phone, and by the end of September, there won’t be any mainland 2G signal at all on any network. If you live on Christmas Island you’ll still have 2G signal, but that feels like a small market to me.

For Sony, mobility was the launch of the very impressive Sony Xperia XZ Premium. It’s Sony’s third “flagship” phone in a little under a year, but this one really does seem to bring the goods, with a Snapdragon 835 processor under the hood, 4K HDR-ready display and a truly stunning camera that can record slow motion video at up to 960 frames per second. If you’ve ever played with the slow motion feature on your phone, these typically top out at around 240 fps. 960 is an entirely new level, and while the Xperia XZ can only handle recording at that rate for 0.6 seconds, it’s then able to stretch that recording out to a full six seconds of playback time. The results, even for normal motion events, is mesmerising.

Sony has a challenge, though, because rival Samsug has the early exclusive on that Snapdragon 835 processor that powers the Xperia XZ. For its part, LG and Huawei played it safe on that score, with the LG G6, which will launch in Australia before the end of March running on the older Snapdragon 821, and Huawei’s P10 using its own Kirin processor.

The Snapdragon 835 will (pending testing) probably be this year’s best processor for mobile devices. We’ll see it first in Samsung’s own Samsung Galaxy S8, but we didn’t see it at MWC. Instead, Samsung will announce that phone on the 29th of March. Samsung instead used its MWC event to showcase new productivity tablets. The Galaxy Tab S3 is a stylus-enabled Android tablet, while the two new Galaxy Book tablets are full Windows 10 machines, available in 10.6 and 12 inch sizes. The 12 inch model is by far the better option if you want a 2-in-1 style device, with a faster processor, better display and more ports. Is mobility a tablet? Samsung thinks so.

Then again, it wasn’t alone. Budget phone maker Alcatel unveiled a trio of mobile phones, including the LED-backed A5 LED phone that lights up like a disco dancefloor, but it also showed off the Plus 12 Windows 2-in-1, which will launch in Australia in July $649 outright. While the specifications at that price are much more mid-range, one of the interesting aspects of the Plus 12 is that it’s LTE-ready, so you can drop a SIM into it for on-the-go mobility. That’s not an entirely new play for laptops to speak of, except that Alcatel has placed the SIM card slot into the detachable keyboard of the Plus 12. That means that it can also act as a standalone Wi-Fi hotspot for other devices, which is a neat trick. Not to miss out on the nostalgia vibe, Alcatel’s parent company, TCL also launched its licensed BlackBerry phone, the KEYone. It’s an Android device with that classic BlackBerry keyboard built in, and from my brief testing time, quite a compelling device to boot.

The reality here is that as mobile devices have become more powerful, the focus on what mobility actually means has expanded rapidly. As we race towards the practical emergence of 5G networks, that’s not likely to slow down any.


When will smartwatches prove themselves?

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Google has recently announced the release of Android Wear 2.0, its updated operating system for wearable computing devices. You could put Android Wear 2.0 on just about any wearable technology, but the key market for Android Wear to date has been smartwatches.

The first Android Wear 2.0 watches that will launch with the new OS installed are made by LG with Google apparently having significant input into their design and specifications, although not quite so much that it wanted to brand them as “Google” devices, as it does with its Pixel phones, and previously its Nexus devices. LG has two new models, the LG Watch Sport and the LG Watch Style. There’s even a model that incorporates LTE mobile data connectivity, so if you wanted to go all Dick Tracy while out and about, you could do so just from the watch with no phone required.

Before you get too excited, however, sadly LG Australia has announced that it has no plans to bring the new watches to the Australian market. There are some Android Wear 1.0 devices that will see the update, but not all of them. If you’ve got an Android Wear 1.0 device, you should be prompted by it if the upgrade is going to appear, as happens with existing Android and iOS updates.

There’s a pattern here for wearables. We won’t see the LG Watches down under, and last year Motorola released its 2nd generation Moto 360 here many months after it was available elsewhere on the planet. This isn’t just a matter of ignoring Australia for its own sake, but much more the reality of smartwatch sales. Specifically, while manufacturers don’t release sales figures, all the available evidence suggests that the category that was meant to be “the next big thing” simply isn’t, or at least isn’t to the degree that most smartwatch manufacturers might have hoped it would be.

The issue from my perspective — and I’m someone who wears a smartwatch every day — is that the essential problem that smartwatches are best at solving was fixed from day one. That’s notifications, whether it’s of an incoming call, although not every watch can actually answer calls, or text messages or emails. If you’re busy and need quick notification, glancing at your watch makes a lot of sense.

Outside of that use case, however, things become murkier. Most smartwatches have integrated fitness tracking, but that’s something that’s rather easily available more affordably with a dedicated fitness band that doesn’t require charging every day. Manufacturers have tried to throw every other “app” style category at smartwatches that they can try, from social media to photos, but there are some real challenges when you’re dealing with a display that has a diameter of around 1 inch.

It’s not the same situation as we saw with smartphones, where once the app ecosystem developed you could add all sorts of functions to devices that otherwise were best used for calls and texts. Smartphones have given rise to social media in the mainstream, services like Uber or AirBnB and plenty of others.

Smartwatches, however are good for notifications, and maybe a few other niche cases. They tell the time, but if you’re fussed about wearing a watch (and I’m in that camp, being slightly OCD about the whole matter) you could already do that. Android Wear 2.0 brings with it some interesting side features, but we’re still really waiting for that so-called “killer app” use of the devices to make them a must-buy gadget.


Will inflight Internet be a boon or a bust?

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If you’ve travelled internationally, and especially in the USA, you may have hit the opportunity to use internet services while flying. This is usually at a cost, sometimes a quite severe cost depending on your flight status and quantity of access required.

For many of us, stepping onto a plane is precisely when we step outside of the online world. That’s especially true for domestic flights in Australia. Or at least, it was true.

Qantas has announced that from late February, selected domestic flights will have free Wi-Fi internet access offered to all passengers. The airline has been testing inflight internet for domestic travel purposes for some time, and the intention is to gradually roll it out to its entire fleet of Boeing 737 and Airbus A330 aircraft by the end of the year.

This does mean that if you’re flying on the smaller, older Qantas branded flights (often branded as QantasLink) then you won’t get the service, at least for now. As per Qantas’ statements regarding the service, it will be free for passengers to use.

What’s interesting here is both Qantas’ confidence in the service, and the way that it plans to make it available. Qantas announced the plans specifically calling out streaming services from Netflix, Spotify and Foxtel as being able to be accessed from its inflight Wi-Fi service. Netflix and Spotify both offer 30 day trials if you’re not already a subscriber, and on the Foxtel front, passengers will enjoy a complimentary 3 day access pass with no ongoing subscription every time they fly.

Netflix and Foxtel’s services require a solid broadband connection, even just for standard definition video streaming, so Qantas clearly has some confidence in the quality of signals it’s going to be able to beam to planes. It’s going to use spare capacity from the NBN’s freshly launched SkyMuster satellites to provide inflight internet.

As an aside, SkyMuster NBN plans are now available if you’re part of the very small section of the population whose NBN compatibility is limited to satellite delivery. That means that the interim satellite service that previously provided your internet connection is set to be decommissioned from the 28th of February. If you haven’t yet made the move to switch over to SkyMuster services, do so now, as from the end of February it’s going to get awfully quiet if you try to connect to an interim service which is no longer there.

Providing such services for free is a canny move. I can envisage situations where, as happens so frequently with mobile broadband services over 4G networks, that the signal is so congested from every single passenger trying to stream video at once that nobody can get all that much done. If it’s free, and you’re really on the plane to get from point A to point B, whether that’s for business or pleasure, you’re not likely to complain too much.

Where it gets more interesting is in the social aspect of inflight Internet usage. It’s fair to assume that more, shall we say, socially unacceptable content would probably be filtered so that you’re not suddenly faced with an eyeful of something generally unacceptable, but it does raise the spectre of not being able to escape the online world while you travel.

That means that work email, and indeed work issues could chase you all the way from Perth to Cairns, and anywhere in-between. I’ve certainly been known to work on planes, where the reality of small seats allowed for it, but largely in an uninterrupted, focused way precisely because I can’t be contacted. Persistent online access rather puts an end to that.

Even if you’re travelling for pleasure rather than business, it raises some interesting challenges. Many flights have quite decent inflight entertainment, and adding Netflix, Spotify and Foxtel to the mix might not be a bad thing, except if it doesn’t work. I’d certainly suggest if you’re a Netflix subscriber that adding a few offline playback titles to your tablet or phone might not be a bad precautionary measure. If it works inflight, then great, you have an expanded choice. If not, your choice is constrained to those titles you’ve already downloaded, but at least that’s better than staring out the window for the whole flight.


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