What is a “Great Product”?

Rod Hall, JPMorgan, after cutting Apple Watch estimates in half: “We think it’s a great product; it’s just that the traction for these watches, people still haven’t figured out what they want to use them for.

Takeaway: Great products need not a purpose or reason for its target demographic to use.

Breaking it Down: Console Evolution

I am likely somewhat biased, but I thought the E3 Xbox briefing was well done. Not only was there a nice mix of hardware and software announcements (with launch dates!), but more clarity was provided on the vision and roadmap for console hardware.

But wait, that’s been the focal point of much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing. Here’s one from Engadget, speculating that Xbox One sales will dry up, because something better will appear next year.

At the macro level, here are the critical take-aways on where the industry is headed:

  1. Expect console hardware to iterate more rapidly.
  2. Expect great developers that make great games to tune for the few “click-stops” of consoles and their respective capabilities, not unlike supporting N and N-1 console generations or cross-platforms, today.
    1. Consoles and PCs are becoming more and more alike, so assets and content should be sharable, but with an extra layer of closer-to-metal API access and specific settings to be tuned for consoles.
    2. Over time, the top-of-line AAA games will raise the min-bar, but expect studios to support N, N-1 and possibly N-2 iterations, to hit the experience-install base sweet spot.
  3. And, like nearly all other industries (TVs, phones, even your toothbrush and home furnishings), potential customers will have a cost-benefit trade-off to make. A novel concept.

For the Xbox family, specifically, the One S is the natural cost and form-factor reduction version of the original One. This time, the deal has been sweetened with additional functionality and hardware (UHD Blu-Ray). The change for next year is that both the One S and Project Scorpio will exist, side-by-side, and unlike compatibility breaks of some previous generations, there won’t be one here.

Some may postpone purchases until next year, for Scorpio, but given the S is incremental and a year earlier than the typical mid-cycle refresh, I doubt there will be significant overall sales cannibalization due to the Scorpio announcement. Instead, the S maintains the new entry-$299 price-point and entices new users with a smaller, nicer-looking console, riding the wave of 4K marketing. There isn’t remotely close to 100% TAM overlap, as some allude to, nor the even more outlandish claim that someone eying an Xbox will now suddenly buy a PS4. Because, why?

Change is challenging for most to accept. So while one might question why console gaming is the anomoly in consumer electronics (recall all those bemoaning that smartphone GPUs were more capable then previous-generation consoles), the fact that it’s about to change is the most anxiety-inducing part.

I’ve had the Samsung Galaxy S7 for just about three months. During that time, it’s not only supplanted my Windows Phones, but also an iPhone 6. It’s that good, but also unexpected, for me.

I haven’t exactly been a Samsung fanboy or even proponent to date. I’ve always thought the hardware designs uninspiring, physical quality lacking, and the TouchWiz (what a name) software glaze amateur. That perspective is why I’ve not owned a Samsung device, aside from the very first Windows Phone 7, the Samsung Focus. All my Android devices have been some early devices from HTC (remember the One M7?) or Nexus devices from the likes of LG and Huawei.

Form Factor

Ironically, it was the iPhone 6 that led to me to the Galaxy S7. After years of using pants pocket-busting devices, including the Lumia 1520, 950XL and the Nexus 6P, the iPhone 6 form factor was a breath of fresh air. My hands are relatively small; the 5.7″+ devices were largely 2-handed affairs. Always a delicate balancing act, I just wanted a phone I could hold securely. The iPhone 6 fit the bill.

I used the iPhone on and off, interspersed with Windows Phones and the Nexus 6P for much of the past 6 months. When the GS7 was released, I was intrigued. On first impressions, the step between the GS6 and the GS7 isn’t significant. Both are metal sandwiches, bounded by glass, with a 5.1″ QHD display. However, in comparison to the iPhone 6, with its 4.7″ display, the footprint is only marginally larger: 142.4 x 69.6mm versus 138.1 x 67mm, while fitting in a 0.4″ larger display, with nearly 4 times the resolution.

But, it isn’t just the footprint that’s important. The iPhone is a smooth bar, with no sharp edges. Swiping across the slightly curved display (at the edge) and fingers curling around the back and sides make it feel smaller than it actually is. Contrast that with the Nexus where a flat slab of glass and sharp edges makes it feel every bit its 5.7″ size. The GS7 is a close relative of the iPhone 6 design. The front glass tapers towards the edges, flowing into the metal frame around the phone. The rear glass panel curves, providing a surer grip. In-hand, the GS7 feels similar to the iPhone, although there is more of a perceptible transition between glass and metal. Perhaps the GS8 will address that.

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Things feel sturdy enough. Construction quality is great, weight and density lend an aura of quality, and the glass back’s penchant for picking up too many fingerprints and hand-grease ends up helping with grip, particularly compared to the slippery-as-a-bar-of-soap iPhone 6/S. On the downside, unless it was just plucked out of my jean’s pocket, the fingerprint-riddled back is bit gnarly to look at.

Unfortunately, after a few of months of use, the rear glass has picked up a number of rubs/scratches around the corners. I don’t drag it on tables, spin it around or jingle it with keys in my pockets, so that’s disappointing. Get a case, if you really care about maintaining its pristine condition.

On the plus side, the GS7 is rated IP68 without any port covers (impressive), which means an Ingress Protection level of “dust-tight” and complete immersion in water. For water immersion, Samsung specifies this means 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. Combined, this means the GS7 should survive considtions from a gusty sand dune in Death Valley all the way to an accidental plunge into a freshwater lake. It’s a nice peace of mind, for an expensive gadget.

Display

The display is a 5.1″ 2560×1440 (Quad HD – QHD) Super AMOLED panel. It’s covered with slightly curved Gorilla Glass 4 and generally looks good. It also performs well in sunlight, with the lower-reflectivity AMOLED panel shining through nicely.

By default, colors are oversaturated and vibrant. Samsung provides a Display option to change this. You can choose a setting called “Basic”, which does a much better job of mimicking an LCD panel’s color profile, but then what is the fun of having an AMOLED display and its crazy qualities? I have the phone set to AMOLED Photo, which is a reasonable middle-ground Basic and the full-fat default mode.

Aside from that, there’s not much else to say. The sub-pixel structure is still Pentile, I believe, but at these resolutions, it really doesn’t matter. You’ll not see any color fringing, much less the pixel structure itself. The panel itself is mounted very close to the surface glass (love the display stack-up afforded by AMOLED panels), so there’s little-to-no parallax when looking and poking at the display.

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Battery and Charging

The GS7 comes with an integrated 3000mAh battery. It throws together a dichotomy of microUSB and Qi for fast charging. I’m sure no one at Samsung liked the idea of including microUSB on a flagship 2016 device, but I suspect that had much to do with compatibility with the existing Gear VR headset, which supports only microUSB. It also supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0 protocol, and in practice, charges just over 1% per minute until close to full.

Marshmallow includes a number of features to improve battery life, mitigate runaway apps, and quiesce the system when it doesn’t appear to be in use. Despite this, battery life is still quite variable. Some apps just suck the life out of the phone (Outlook, Snapchat). After monitoring the battery usage charts for a couple of weeks, I’ve weeded out the culprits, and now I get (typically) very good battery life. I get through a day of use, with typical 2-2.5 hours of screen on time and heavy background email sync, now using the built-in client. In a typical off-charger at 8am through 11pm day, I end with 33-40% battery left. The wireless chargers I have sprinkled around my work and home make battery life even less of a concern.

Software

TouchWiz (is that really short for Wizard?) is apparently toned down with the GS7 generation. Awesome, because I don’t even want to imagine what it was like to use before. Things are “flat”, which perhaps translates from the Material design language that Google is using throughout its properties. However, Samsung has made unnecessary changes to the core Android experiences, such as changing the settings page and notifications shade, as well as including numerous redundant apps, such as email, phone, contacts, messaging, clock (really?), calculator (really x 2??) and gallery. And because some apps are “Nexus-only”, such as Contacts and Phone, you can’t easily get to a better stock experience. Absolute rubbish.

I’m dredging my mind for positive things to say about the software additions, but they’re hard to come by. Even the icons Samsung uses are a weird approximation of what iOS used 2-3 generations ago, but more cartoon-y.

I ended up purchasing the “pro” version of the Nova Launcher and the Elta icon pack, so I could theme away as much of the TouchWiz experience as possible. It’s what you see in the photos, here. (Also, I’ve since purchased the Toca UI icon pack, which feels even better.)

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Camera

Samsung went back to a 12MP sensor (from 16MP in the GS6), while maintaining the same sensor size. It also kept the optical image stabilization capability while growing the aperture by approximately 1/3 stop. The pixel size plus aperture growth should mean, shutter speed and ISO equal, the GS7 can capture around 2x the light as the GS6, at their respective maximum apertures.

The second huge improvement of the GS7 module is its PDAF capability. Samsung coins the sensor a “Dual Pixel” one. It means there’s both a light-capturing sensor as well as a phase-detect sensor in each pixel. The result is autofocus performance (both speed and accuracy) approaching that of a DSLR.

And, to further reduce pocket-to-capture latency, you can double tap the home button to launch the camera app. It works well, the camera module initializes quickly, and the app is ready to go. I’ve definitely captured moments I’d have otherwise missed.

It also helps that image quality is fantastic.

Performance

The GS7 is equipped with a high-end SoC, 4GB LPDDR4 RAM, and at least 32GB UFS storage. In North America, the SoC is a Qualcomm MSM8996 (Snapdragon 820 series, in marketing-speak); across many other markets, Samsung uses their home-grown Exynos 8890, which has twice the CPU cores and a Mali GPU, but otherwise similar CPU and GPU performance.

I don’t play games, so I can only comment on day-to-day productivity and system responsiveness. Both are fine, although there are occasions where the phone stutters, piles up a series of inputs, then finally catches up, to my dismay, as now-random touch inputs or buttons issue in short order. I’m not sure if it’s Samsung’s TouchWiz customizations mucking things up; however, by comparison, the Nexus 6P on the average feels more responsive, despite the generation-older SoC (Snapdragon 810). It’s not bad, per se, but clearly not as good as it could be, considering the silicon that powers the device.

Extras

Everything above already makes up a solid smartphone. But, this is Samsung, so there are extras:

  1. Fingerprint Reader – It’s built into the home button. When it works, it works extremely quickly. However, it’s not as accurate as the TouchID I’ve used on my iPhone 6 or iPad Mini 4. It’s occasionally so inaccurate that, along with Microsoft’s Exchange device management policy to wipe the device after 5 failed login attempts, I worry I’ll accidentally reset my phone. (update: this happened once)
  2. Always On Display – The GS7 also supports an “always-on” display mode, where a bit of device information along with date-time can be displayed, even when the phone is in standby. It takes advantage of the AMOLED panel to only illuminate the necessary pixels, so it should consume less power than a typical backlit LCD. It’s been hit or miss, for me. The always on data is useful, I like to know what time it is, but it also seems to consume far more than the 1%/hr quoted by Samsung. Those sessions may have simply be correlated with other poor power scenarios.
  3. Samsung Pay – This “extra” might be the one I’m most impressed with. The GS7 supports secure NFC, so supports Android Pay. But that pales in comparison to the magnetic stripe-supporting Samsung Pay feature. Magnetic Secure Transmission uses a similar tokenization service as secure NFC payment services, e.g. Apple Pay and Android Pay, but also works with payment terminals that only have a magnetic stripe reader. It is awesome and reduces the number of cards I put into my wallet. A recent update that adds support for membership cards means I can remove even more!
  4. Gear VR – I purchased the GS7 early enough that I received a Gear VR headset,  otherwise $99, for free. It’s a fun gateway drug to VR. 360 videos and photos appears to be the most compelling, ocassional use scenario, for now.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S7 is a truly impressive piece of technology. It’s the first Samsung phone I’ve used that has that special feel about it, made up of just the right materials, formed in just the right way, with just the right feeling of density.

Couple that with an impressive display, pretty good performance, great battery life, and excellent camera and you have a great all-round smartphone.

Not all is perfect; the fingerprint sensor is markedly less accurate than the iPhone, for me, the glass back isn’t very resistant to scratches, and despite some seriously powerful silicon, responsiveness is occasionally poor. Slathered on top are the less-than-tasteful TouchWiz customizations, which I could do without.

That said, there are two simple statements that sum up my feelings about the Samsung Galaxy S7: I’ve not longed to switch back to my iPhone and I’ve also not felt gear-envy for any of the flagship Android phones that have launched since. In a world of relativity, that’s the highest praise I can give.

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Market Forces Also Apply to Unicorns (it just takes time)

While the unicorn club of startups were doing amazingly, insanely well, they commanded an endless stream of press coverage. Stories of overnight riches appeal to the populace. Jealously often begets just as much attention to overnight implosions and associated schadenfreude, so I expect many stories of the fall of these unicorns, too. A particularly interesting article popped up at Techmeme today, one that I thought balanced the typical pomp and glamour of unicorn stories with rational arguments.

TL;DR? Yes, all will eventually be subject to, whether in private or public, market forces, supply and demand, and capitalistic gauges of success (value). It’s really beginning to show up now.

Perhaps it was just a phase. Over the past 3-4 years, you weren’t trying if your startup wasn’t pitched as the disrupter of a trillion dollar industry and your goal wasn’t to become a complete monopoly. You didn’t “win”, unless you’d ground your competitors under the heel of your boot, on the way to at least 1 BILLION users.

There are still a couple of those, whose visions of such grand proportions are not yet over (perhaps Uber and Airbnb?). For most, though, they’re simply also-rans that haven’t undergone the level of scrutiny publicly traded companies do. And with mutual funds openly adjusting their book values down, even the private markets look less like the way to avoid the spotlight. (Okay, some are still fighting this – “Some venture capitalists anticipate further markdowns by mutual funds. That could make some startups more reluctant to seek mutual-fund money, since public disclosure of their valuations is watched so closely.“)

The revaluations are good and fair. This is the system returning to a period of normalcy, before the cycle repeats itself. It’s starting to sound a bit like the early part of 2007, when the MBS and CDO bagholders were only beginning to mark down the absolutely toxic investments on their books, all the while offloading them as fast as they could and getting on the opposite side of the trade. I just watched The Big Short.

Just about two years after I joined the team and a couple public demonstrations of the device later, HoloLens is now available for pre-order! That means, in very short order, devices will begin showing up on developers’ doorsteps and the vision of a holographic future unfolds.

I’m usually pretty proud of the stuff I’ve worked on, but this one holds a special place. I joined the team without any inkling of what I’d be working on, only sold on a pitch of a complete upending of how we experience technology. But since finding out the truth, it’s consumed the vast majority of my waking moments, much to the chagrin of my friends and family, I’m certain. I’ve not only dedicated much to solving technical problems, but also to help build a team and culture that will foster many more programs of similar scope and aspiration in the future.

It’s already been a crazy journey, but this is only the first step towards a much grander vision. Off we go!