Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired Have Phones Become Boring? Well, They’re About to Get Weird

Hexbyte Tech News Wired Have Phones Become Boring? Well, They’re About to Get Weird

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

This week, Chinese smartphone-maker Vivo released a video calling out one of the brand’s signature innovations from 2018: a pop-up camera that extends from the top of the phone’s metal frame and eliminates the need for a cut-out notch in the display. Vivo calls this particular feature the Elevating Front Camera, which makes it sound like it hovers above the phone in an act of magic. In reality, the camera behaves like the mechanical flash module on a digital camera.

The Vivo video primarily highlights last year’s tech, and since it’s already late January, it seems belated. But it also included another message—that the company plans to “take the Elevated Front Camera further in 2019!” Based on early reports, this year’s innovations might just be a phone without ports. Your new Vivo smartphone might look like something akin to a large pebble or a bar of metallic soap.

Smartphones, it seems, have gotten weird. And they’re only going to get weirder in 2019. Our glass slabs will be punctuated by pop-out cameras, foldable displays, hole-punched notches, and invisible fingerprint sensors. These features will be marketed as innovations. Some will be innovative. Some will just be weird, in the way that tech inevitably feels forced when design decisions are borne out of a need to make mature products appear exciting and new.

“Everyone is making foldables out to be the next savior of the industry, and that only makes sense if they can deliver on the value.”

Wayne Lam, principal analyst at IHS Markit

Just look to foldable displays. The concept isn’t new, but Chinese display maker Royale kicked off the most recent hype cycle at the end of October when it debuted a 7.8-inch flexible display named FlexPai. A week later, electronics giant Samsung showed off its own concept for a folding phone, one that “fits neatly inside your pocket” and then unfurls into a 7.3-inch display. The company declined to share a timeline for when the concept phone will be released, but Samsung’s annual flagship phone event is scheduled for next month, and it’s possible we’ll see more demos of the folding phone in addition to a new Galaxy smartphone.

Then last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Motorola Razr phone will make a comeback this year, evolving from a flip phone into a high-priced smartphone with a foldable display. (WIRED emailed Lenovo-owned Motorola for comment; a spokesperson responded with an animated “shrug” emoticon.) Chinese smartphone maker Oppo is also reportedly planning to unveil a folding smartphone at MWC Barcelona next month.

Flexible display tech has clearly gotten good enough that smartphone makers believe it can be deployed in a mass-market consumer product. During the Samsung event, company executives suggested that the “tech has improved to the point where it’s possible to fuse an ultra-thin screen onto the foldable design,” as WIRED’s Arielle Pardes wrote.

But those technological leaps don’t automatically create a use case. Wayne Lam, principal analyst at IHS Markit, says he sees two paths for foldables: a larger foldable, in which a phone-like device turns into a 7- or 8-inch tablet; or “making the thing smaller—you take a phone and fold it in half, or you wrap it around your wrist and it becomes a wearable.” Either path presents challenges in terms of cost, value proposition, even ergonomics. “Everyone is making foldables out to be the next savior of the industry, and that only makes sense if they can deliver on the value, if you can truly replace your phone and your tablet,” Lam says.

Even nonbending phones will include features driven by display tech this year. If 2017 and 2018 were the years of the notch, that unsightly cutout at the top of screen-suffused smartphones, then 2019 might be the year of eliminating it. Vivo’s pop-up camera is just one example of moving parts around in order to make the most of an edge-to-edge display. Huawei has attempted to minimize the notch on its new View 20 smartphone by shrinking the cutout—it now looks like it’s been hole-punched in the display—and moving it to the left-hand side of the phone. Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy flagship phone is rumored to have a hole-punched face as well.

Edge-to-edge displays have also forced the hands (or, ahem, fingers) of innovators when it comes to bio-authentication. Once upon a time, our smartphones had chins, which were useful for housing fingerprint sensors. Now that displays stretch to all four corners of a phone, there’s no place to put that sensor, except for under the displays themselves. Which is exactly what Vivo, Oppo, and Xiaomi have done recently, and is something we’ll almost certainly see from other smartphone makers this year.

The big question isn’t whether these new features are actually innovative or not. On some level, phone makers have always experimented with new tech—or at the very least, with miniaturizing components that were originally designed for much larger products. To Lam’s earlier point, if the innovations provide a real value, they find a home. The question to ask as smartphones reach increasing levels of weirdness in 2019 is: why? Or maybe: why now?

The short and lazy answer might be that smartphones have gotten boring. Most now have good cameras, decent battery life, lovely displays, and a swath of software features optimized to run on even low-end hardware. Consumers aren’t seeing the need to upgrade to a new phone when they’ve all started to look and perform the same, and when internal boosts, while legitimate in some cases (like Apple’s 7-nanometer A12 Bionic chip), are described in uninterpretable tech terms.

As a result, smartphone makers are doing everything they possibly can to make smartphones seem exciting again. “At a functional level, there is not much basis for differentiation,” David Webster, partner at international design firm IDEO, wrote in an email to WIRED. “This is when semiotics become more significant. Which brand tells the most aspirational story? Whose device is the most powerful prestige symbol? The iPhone was obviously the winner for a long time on that front, but now they all look pretty much the same from the other side of the room.”

It’s not just that smartphones are boring, or that they’ve plateaued. Sales of smartphones have actually declined (and so, again, smartphone makers are going to do everything they can to hawk their wares). According to research firm IDC, global smartphone shipments were down 6 percent in the third quarter of 2018, from 373.1 million to 355.2 million units. That IDC report marked the fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year declines. In December, the same research firm said it expected worldwide smartphone shipments to show 3 percent declines for the whole year, from 2017. And in early January, Apple cut its revenue guidance for the first quarter of 2019, citing macroeconomic factors and slowing iPhone sales in China as a key reason.

The reason for slowing sales may ultimately be a combination of the aforementioned factors: trade tensions, economic softness, and a resistance from buyers to upgrade every year. As IHS Markit’s Lam points out, the smartphone market is an increasingly bifurcated one. Right now, “there’s China, and then there’s the rest of the world,” he says. Experimentation from Chinese phone makers is great for the market; it’s also an indicator that the market is “kind of stalling, too.”

But Lam doesn’t think these very real headwinds will keep certain smartphone makers from trying. “I would probably characterize it as a Cambrian Explosion, with so many new species coming out, and they’re trying every little thing,” Lam says. “The Chinese market is nothing but risky or ambitious in their designs.”


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Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired Why Lyft Is Trying to Become the Next Subscription Business

Hexbyte Tech News Wired Why Lyft Is Trying to Become the Next Subscription Business

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

In many US cities, ride-sharing is a commodity. Both drivers and riders pull up Uber and Lyft interchangeably on their phones, weighing which to use based on price and wait time.

That’s a problem for ride-sharing companies. In an industry where new apps like Via, Juno, and Gett are coming online regularly, riders have myriad choices. Uber and Lyft can’t keep undercutting each other and everyone else to win riders forever; eventually, they’ll have to charge enough to retain drivers and also turn a profit, competing on the strength of their products and their brands. Both companies wish to be the one app we open every time we need to go anywhere. Lyft and Uber are attempting to compete for this alpha slot by improving their technology, boosting the quality of the service, and providing the most competitive prices.

But to become the one platform that people trust with their transportation needs, these companies will need to lock their riders in. That’s why Lyft’s new subscription service is so interesting.

Lyft has been testing versions of the plan since December, and last month it began rolling out the tests more broadly. “You’ll subscribe to a Lyft plan like you would subscribe to Netflix or a Spotify Premium plan,” president and cofounder John Zimmer explained when I visited the company’s San Francisco headquarters recently. He didn’t say how many people were enrolled in the program but pointed out that it was now being tested in every market.

The subscription program is still in the early stages, but it’s easy to see how Lyft would benefit. Indeed, many startups have adopted the subscription model to form a durable bond with sporadic users. “Spotify, Amazon, and others have employed ‘land grab’ strategies like this to change behavior and build new habits, as a means of forging loyalty in a moment of disruptive change,” says Robbie Kellman Baxter, consultant and author of The Membership Economy, a book that addresses subscription businesses.

Many startups, like Netflix and Spotify, have adopted the subscription model
to form a durable bond with sporadic users.

Subscription business models are very popular among investors, and that could be important as Lyft prepares for an initial public offering. “Wall Street loves them,” says Daniel Ives, the head of technology research for GBH Insights. He calls this approach a “golden business model” because it locks in repeat customers over time. “This is something that, as the company goes from private to public, would be looked on very favorably,” he says.

In recent years, digital startups have launched subscriptions in nearly every industry. You can get monthly razor deliveries and weekly dinner supplies. For $10 a month, cinephiles can watch a movie every day with MoviePass. You can listen to music with Spotify, get free delivery (and just about everything else) with Amazon Prime, and take fitness classes with ClassPass.

But ride-sharing subscription businesses have challenges that other industries, like software, do not. “Up until recently, most of the subscription-oriented businesses were for digital offerings—where variable costs were negligible,” Kellman Baxter says. “But with rides, there is a real cost for each ride.” Drivers must be paid enough to make it worth their while, regardless of the cost to riders. “The biggest concern is going to be coming up with pricing that doesn’t bankrupt them but is still compelling,” she says.

Since 2016, Lyft and Uber have experimented with membership passes—testing similar, simple programs. A rider pays an up-front fee and then gets reduced-cost rides for a month. (Prices and services vary according to the individual market.) But two years in, these passes remain experimental and hard to search out. Riders discover they are eligible through the app, and they can only try it for one month.

While Uber has no immediate plans to move the program out of its testing phase, Lyft’s subscription program takes the concept much farther. Right now, riders have two options. They can subscribe to the “All-Access Plan” for $299 per month and get 30 rides of up to $15. If a ride costs more than $15, a rider will be charged the difference. Or, they can subscribe to the “Commute Plan” and pay $3.99 month in exchange for 45 Lyft rides between work and home, set at one personalized price.

One early tester, a Chicago rider named Rachel Morrison who is a competitive intelligence analyst for the company Arity, blogged about her experience. “The deal was no joke,” she wrote. She payed a $135 monthly subscription fee for 30 ride using Lyft Line, the carpooling service, that cost up to $10 each.

In Morrison’s case, at least, the subscription had the intended loyalty-generating side effects. Morrison blogged that after signing up, she buried her Uber app in a folder on her iPhone’s last screen and moved her Lyft app to a prominent place on the opening screen so she’d remember to check it first every time. She also reported that she’d begun to use the service more, and had opted for taking a Lyft Line over public transportation to commute to work more often.

A subscription business also sets Lyft up for a future where its riders use more forms of transportation, like renting bikes and scooters, and turn to the Lyft app to figure out when to use a car and when to take the bus. Zimmer plans to expand this even further in a bid to be a full replacement for car ownership. “If we have a rental car program now that has tens of thousands of vehicles for drivers, we could potentially offer that to passengers,” Zimmer told me.

A subscription business also sets Lyft up for a future where its
riders use more forms of transportation, like renting bikes and
scooters

Ride-share loyalty could help these other revenue streams thrive: If riders are opening the app nearly every day to call the Lyft Line, for example, they’re more likely to discover and experiment with these new services. But changing behavior is hard. When it comes to ride-sharing, most people are looking for the best price, and it will take a lot to train them to stop searching for something better.

I checked in with Morrison, the woman who’d blogged about her experience with Lyft’s membership, to see if she was still using the service. She loved it the first month, she told me. But rather like a gym membership, she didn’t use it as much the second month, and so she let her subscription lapse.


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