Friday, 21 November 2014

Innovation for the sake of Innovation

The digital era is amazing. We can contact one another from anywhere, at any time. We can make high quality film from our smartphones. And we can even interact with computers via our voices. This unbelievable advancement has happened in a relatively short space of time too. From 2007 to around about this year are debatably the golden years of technological innovation for commercial use. However, in an industry with an estimated yearly value of approximately £60bn in the UK alone, it’s hard to pretend that it’s not about the money. Intuitive innovations and sales figures go hand in hand. So why is Apple guilty for forcing U2’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ upon all of their customers in iOS8 and why do some Android devices come preloaded with third party apps such as ‘Trip Adviser’? Are technology companies running out of revolutions?

The graph below shows the amount of innovation since 2010 on iOS and Android. I’ve split the types of innovation into three categories… ‘New Native Apps’ - which are exactly like what it says on the tin; new apps developed by the company. ‘Main features’ covers completely new features or settings which are unique, new or significant. And ‘Secondary features’ are updates to native apps and smaller updates to settings (for accuracy, they only count as half an innovation).

Source: and Wikipedia – because Apple doesn't keep OS version history on their website.

(Inaccuracies in the graph have occurred as new apps have been hard to date as Google services operate all year round – updating their own apps and adding new ones any time during the year whereas native iOS apps are updated once a year when the latest version of iOS is released. This makes the Google innovations hard to track. Also, to a degree, the ‘Main features’ and ‘secondary features’ is down to personal opinion. Individuals may gauge one change in settings as a major improvement however some might not even notice it at all, so the graph attempts to show a general consensus of how consumers view new features.)

Innovation on a steady decline.
Although it’s not a steep decline in innovation as a whole, main features and new apps have definitely become less common. It seems companies have opted to improve upon the apps and settings they already have rather than coming up with something new completely. Why do they keep improving things that are pretty close to perfect already? For the sake of it – and fundamentally, to make more money.

So where have the big ideas gone? It’s not like the companies don’t have the money.

Android has been worse than Apple, Android stopped major innovation in 2012. Since then they've made the materialistic decision to focus on making Android more widely available and earlier this year they redrew Android but with material design all the way through.

Since 2011, a number of intelligent personal assistants with voice-recognition have appeared on the scene. If you’ve bought a smartphone this year you won’t have been able to escape Siri’s soft sound, Cortana’s concise call or Google Now’s unnamed woman. Apart from a few exceptions, I cannot see the point of intelligent personal assistants apart from to fulfill our wildest dreams of being able to have conversations with robots and computers like what we see in the movies.

Also, in the past year, Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft have all invested in launching some form of health tracker. There are literally thousands of health and fitness tracking apps available so all four of these tech companies have launched a service that third party applications can plug into. These have the potential to give users extremely precise analytics about their personal health.

One year ago, these services were unheard of yet all of a sudden – as is the case regularly in technological innovations – it seems all the major technology companies have jumped on the bandwagon. This is either because everyone has recently had the epiphany that health is important causing this huge trend, or, the more likely reason, these large technology companies have ran out of inspiration and are clutching at straws. There is practical use for one central health app that other apps feed data to however smartphones have existed without them for seven years so are they really needed now? This might be another case of innovation for the sake of innovation.

Don’t even get me started on smartwatches.

This shortage of big ideas - like what were seen only a few years ago such as iOS 5’s ‘Newsstand’ app, ‘People Hub’ in Windows Phone, and ‘Google Now’ in Android Jellybean - might not even be a crisis, it simply means than this industry has worked efficiently to launch essential services and features. I suspect a slight loss of direction has occurred now because all the single-purpose objects such as alarm clocks, catalogs and photo editing software have all migrated onto smartphones, computers and tablets. Possibly, there are no practical innovations left to do.

From a hardware perspective, we have reached the climax of innovation too. Smartphone cameras are on par with expensive point-and-shoot cameras, mobile internet connection is speedy (some of the time anyway), and there are tons of sensors to monitor our every movement. Admittedly, battery life on most mobile devices could ideally be improved… and they would be if people weren't obsessed with having ridiculously thin smartphones. I would rather have a slightly thicker smartphone in my pocket if it meant getting another day’s worth of battery life. The innovations have been made already, they just need to be executed properly.

No matter what, innovation must continue, even if it is for a perpetuating reason - and for the sake of innovation. Consumer innovation is not so important, but in fields of medical science and astronomy, there is a lot of innovations to be made; endless possibilities.

Innovation in consumer products is slowing down and there is a rise in unnecessary features and OS redesigns (iOS 7 and Android Lollipop). Despite this, it is worth bearing in mind that nobody knew that they wanted a smartphone until they magically appeared in 2007, same story with tablets and, well, the whole internet. So maybe, whilst intelligent personal assistants and health tracking apps might seem like small innovations now, they might be paramount features in a decade from now in iOS 18 and Android V (possibly Viennetta?). I’m keen to observe what the technology industry will throw at us next.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Chromecast Review

Chromecast, made by Google, was released initially in 2013 for £30 and it is a dongle which plugs into your high definition television so you can stream apps from your phone to your television easily. It is compatible with a handful of apps on iOS and Android (mostly video apps such as Netflix and YouTube - but also Google Play Music).

I purchased one earlier this week, followed the instructions on how to plug in and set up – it magically connected to my Android phone immediately – however I soon ran into an issue; connecting to Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi in my house included quotation marks and exclamation marks which bizarrely caused an excessive amount of forward-slashes to appear and the Chromecast refused to connect. Only after I had removed the unwanted punctuation would the device connect. Once it had, I then needed to reset the Chromecast and my phone because I couldn’t stream anything despite the Chromecast icon telling me that they are aware of each other’s existence.

Backdrop on Chromecast
I’m sure if I didn’t have an awkward Wi-Fi name, set up would have only take a matter of minutes.

Chromecast doesn’t take long to load up (no time at all if you keep it turned on constantly by plugging it into a plug socket - however I opted to give the device power via my television’s USB port so it only is on when my TV is). Also, having holiday pictures from my Google+ gallery as the backdrop on my television when I’m not streaming is a nice touch.

I mainly use Chromecast to stream music from Google Play or videos from YouTube or Netflix and once I’ve launched the content on Chromecast I can close the app on my phone and simply use the phone as a remote whenever I need to. Chromecast streams straight from your rougher rather than through your phone.

Streaming from Netflix to Chromecast
I’ve used Chromecast for a week now on a daily basis and it has worked flawlessly (apart from the initial setup); content loads quickly, and because of how small it is, it never gets in the way. I have noticed through that it only takes two back to back episodes of House M.D (which got added to Netflix UK this month, by the way) before the Chromecast becomes worrying warm.

Overall, ‘The Verge’ described Chromecast as ‘one of the best impulse buys you will make this year’ which is a very true statement however this device doesn’t need to be an impulse buy, it is extremely practical for iOS and Android users who are seeking an inexpensive, smart content streaming solution.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Google 'Material Design'

Inbox by Gmail demonstrating
Google's new 'material design'
Google recently announced Android Lollipop; the most significant Android update since Ice-cream Sandwich in 2011. Although many new features have been added – some vastly more significant than others - the real talking point about Android Lollipop is what Google is calling ‘material design’.

‘Material design’ is a paper-like design language that will be implemented in most Google products over the next few months. It unifies mobile, tablet and desktop applications so they all have the same user interface with only slight modifications. The first major example of this is ‘Inbox’. Inbox is currently in beta and is a Gmail client made by Google. Once a user has been invited to use the app and website, their email is displayed in a format that has a resemblance to Google Now. It splits your email into relevant categories (e.g travel, promotions, and purchases) and it looks beautiful on any device.

Google does seem to have strict guidelines for designing apps with ‘material design’ specifying to developers how animations should look and how shadows should form however this is debatably necessary for apps to use ‘material design’ correctly.

‘Material design’ is native on Android Lollipop but is also included in Google’s iOS apps and on the web. It will be interesting to see how well ‘material design’ is received by consumers as it rolls out to Google products over the next few months.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Tattoos and Piercings (with Ellie Rycroft)

With an estimated 83% of Americans owning a piercing of some sort, and approximately 15% of Americans owning a tattoo, I thought it was about time that I investigated what the fuss is all about and where the line is between a tasteful tat, and awful art - and a perfect piercing, and what is just over the top.

So I spoke to ‘amazing’ Ellie Rycroft, self-confessed Tattoo lover, about her tattoo and piercing ideals.

First: tattoos. Ellie shared that she was a fan of most tattoos and a strong believer in letting people express themselves via body art. She said “everyone is allowed to express themselves and if they chose to do it in the way of body art, then they should be allowed”. Ellie then went on to say that in the future she would like a couple of tattoos, possibly on her rib cage or behind her ear, of some meaningful words/symbols. When I asked her if there were any tattoo that she doesn’t approve of, she said “I wouldn’t get some if they had no significance to me, but people need to understand that some tattoos are a form of expression for others”.

Most pierced person: Elaine Davidson
Then we moved on to piercings. Ellie already has ear piercings varying from the upper lobe on each side to her tragus and helix – six in total, but she says she wants more. She does agree however that Elaine Davidson who currently owns the Guinness World Record for the most piercing (462 of them) has went too far. Also, Ellie is personally not a fan of the implants you can get for piercings.

“Most people wear earrings to express themselves however for some it can be a confidence thing also.” Ellie revealed, “I have a horrible scar behind one of my ears and people used to point it out and start asking me questions about it, so I started to get piercings on that side and people didn’t notice anymore because the piecing got their attention insisted.”

To round up the interview I enquired whether Ellie had any favourite tattoos or piercings. “Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Selena G√≥mez,” Ellie replied “because they all have meaning behind them.”