The best and worst tech events of 2014

PHONES

Cheap thrills as giants fall

Rise of China smartphones

The standouts of the smartphone market are no longer the bright shiny stars of LG, HTC, Microsoft, BlackBerry or Sony, said Strategy Analytics, a market research firm that tracks global smartphone shipments.

Samsung and Apple are still the market leaders, it said, but China's Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi made it into the top five in the second quarter of this year, on the back of huge sales of their low-cost handsets.

While prices of high-end smartphones hover around $1,000, the up-and-coming China brands, though not as rich in features nor as elegant in design, start at around $150 and often sell out when launched in various markets.

The end for Nokia devices

The rise of Xiaomi, a smartphone brand previously unknown outside China, came in a year that saw the demise of Nokia, once the biggest mobile phone brand in the world.

Nokia as a company is still alive, but it sold its mobile-phone division to Microsoft last year, with limited rights to the Nokia name, and Microsoft decided a few months ago to delete the brand completely from its line of Windows Phone devices.

This effectively killed off the Nokia mobile-phone lineage as consumers knew it, although the parent company has since started to license the name to third-parties wanting to make electronic products under the Nokia brand.

Rebirth and return of brands

The first of these is the N1 Android tablet made by Foxxcon.

BlackBerry has also made a comeback of sorts with the BlackBerry Classic, a device that runs the latest BlackBerry 10 operating system but comes with a full Qwerty keyboard for those who still prefer a physical keyboard.

It is debatable if BlackBerry, Microsoft and Nokia can stay relevant in the smartphone market next year, but the reign of Chinese brands is not guaranteed.

Strategy Analytics' numbers represent only the second quarter of this year. Since then, Apple, Samsung, Sony and HTC have all launched newer devices.

The question now is if Lenovo will take advantage of the situation and finally launch its smartphones in more Asian markets.

Score card: B

The smartphone market is seeing a wave of newcomers winning over consumers, as established brands have to try harder to convince consumers to pick them over the cheaper competition.


No access to Google's best

Google's the problem

Four of the top five smartphone vendors in the second quarter of this year are Android supporters. Still, six years after Android was launched, there are factors that keep it from being rated the best platform for hardware and software.

At the heart of the problems is Google itself.

Since 2010, Google has worked with partners to launch the Nexus series of smartphones and tablets to the market.

These are devices that rely on a pure, unmodified version of Android, unlike those that each vendor tweaks for its own devices.

But Nexus devices are not readily available around the world.

The company usually sells Nexus devices directly via the Google Play Store. But not in Singapore.

So, buyers here do not have access to Google's best devices - including Nexus tablets and Google Glass - unless they pay extra to have them shipped in. Nor do users in Singapore have access to some Google services, such as Google Play Music.

Further fragmentation

The Android ecosystem includes hardware and software. But by limiting the reach of both, Google is not rewarding the loyalty of Android users.

This leaves hardware companies, such as Samsung, Sony and LG, to launch their own software services, further fragmenting an already fragmented Android platform.

Apple, on the other hand, offers a full suite of hardware and software services to customers here.

Score card: C

If smartphone makers have found some success with the Android platform, imagine what they can do if Google throws its full weight behind them to grow the platform even more.


Now, where's that cab?

Rise of taxi apps

With cash rewards for drivers for picking up passengers, and real-time maps that help passengers track the locations of the taxis they have booked, apps such as GrabTaxi, Easy Taxi, Uber and Hailo are changing the way that people travel around Singapore.

Support has even come in the form of funding - Vertex Venture Holdings, a venture capitalist firm owned by Temasek Holdings, pumped US$10 million (S$12.5 million) into GrabTaxi.

Some of these apps also accept credit card payments, which is extremely helpful, as cab companies such as Comfort Delgro and Trans Cab have stopped accepting Visa for payment over issues related to surcharges imposed by the taxi companies.

A step backwards

Given the sudden growth in such services, it seemed inevitable that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) would step in to regulate the apps and services provided.

The agency commissioned a taxi app of its own but the LTA's Taxi-Taxi@SG app tells users only where taxis can be found.

To book a cab, one would still need to call a cab company's hotline, or fire up one of the taxi apps.

Moving forward

On a more positive note, the app shows that LTA now has real-time information of taxis on the road. It just needs to put the data to much better use, such as monitoring stationary taxis downtown, or the "lurkers", who are not available to be flagged down because they are only waiting to snag a booking.

Score card: A

Instead of trying to recreate or duplicate the functions of taxi-booking apps, taxi companies should work on augmenting their fleet, drivers and services to the point where these apps are no longer a necessity in the taxi-taking landscape.

VIDEO GAMES

A few hits and many more misses

Year of the Flappy Bird

Launched in the middle of last year for iOS for free, Flappy Bird did not take off until early this year. Then its popularity soared and it became the most downloaded app in Apple's App Store, spawning many copycat versions.

Unlike many "free" games, this one does not feature in-app purchases. Published by .Gears, a games studio based in Vietnam, Flappy Bird is emblematic of the studio's penchant for producing games reminiscent of the 8-bit era. Earlier titles include Shuriken Block and Super Ball Juggling.

The game is really easy to learn. All you do is keep tapping to control Flappy Bird so that it can fly between green pipes without making contact with them.

Reviewers have alternately cursed and praised its gameplay, citing its deceptive simplicity as a reason it is so addictive, while complaining about the copycats.

Though the game is free, at the height of its popularity in January, it reportedly generated some US$50,000 (S$66,120) a day from in-game ads.

And all this from a few nights of work put in by Dong Nguyen, the head of .Gears.

The company has released a new game, Swing Copters, which promises to be equally frustrating.

Blizzard strikes back

Blizzard Entertainment had a quiet year last year. This year promised to be just as lacklustre for the video-game giant.

In late September, it had cancelled the development of Titan, its long-awaited MMORPG game, citing a general loss of interest among the staff who had worked on that title for about seven years.

But in reality, Blizzard had its most promising year yet. Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft was lauded by critics and the community alike for its great design and simplicity.

It had another ace up its sleeve. Its Heroes Of The Storm game, featuring many characters across the Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo franchises, entered the Technical Alpha testing phase.

Gamers who got a chance to try out the game lauded its fast pace. More people were added to the team working on the title, signifying its importance to the company.

Diablo III got an expansion titled Reaper Of Souls, which provided Blizzard the chance to address many problematic issues in the base game. Reaper Of Souls sold 2.7 million copies in the first week alone.

World Of Warcraft received a much-needed expansion. Titled Warlords Of Draenor, it increased the level cap to 100, up from 90, added a number of new dungeons and introduced new aspects to the player-versus-player system.

Blizzard Entertainment came out with guns blazing this year and may have reversed its fortunes. Its announcement of a new shooter game, called Overwatch, also signalled its intentions to dominate the PC gaming space.

Quality drops in rush to roll out titles

It seems that game studios today are misusing the ability to roll out online updates and bug fixes.

They release titles too early, sacrificing polish in return, they hope, for an early boost in sales from gamer hype.

Triple-A franchises and their latest titles - Assassin's Creed Unity, Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Halo: The Master Chief Collection - are especially guilty of flawed releases that may offer an unfinished multiplayer mode or even comical cutscenes where a character's face is completely missing.

The gamer, it seems, is being taken for a ride. The problem afflicts many titles, not just a handful.

Are publishers and developers simply looking to cash in on a new generation of consoles and, therefore, not caring if releases are rushed out prematurely?

Increasingly, gamers are speaking wistfully of "the good old days" when no patches were needed and most games ran without a hitch.

However, even then, there were games that sorely needed the bug-fixing and updates that today's technology affords. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest for the Nintendo Entertainment System was criticised for its poor English localisation. That was in 1987.

Fast-forward to 2002 and the Rocky video game was seen to suffer from such glitches, such as the main character falling through the boxing ring as if he were sinking in quicksand. At some points, a fighter could lose his teeth or even his entire mouth.

This year has not been a forgiving year for the video-game industry and there were many reasons for the mass of broken titles at launch.

As a result, developers and studios are slowly learning from these missteps and have delayed the launch of titles such as Batman: Arkham Knight and Evolve, in order to iron out these kinks.

Score card: C

This was not a forgiving year for the video-game field. The rush to cash in on the latest generation of consoles led to many problems, but studios and publishers have learnt their lesson and things are looking up for next year.

INTERNET

Homing in on hacking, piracy

Hacks too close for comfort

This year, the Internet was rocked by a number of high-profile hacking incidents across the world.

In August, Apple's iCloud service was compromised.

As a result, nearly 500 private pictures belonging to celebrities, including nude photos, were leaked, in an event dubbed "Celebgate", or more crudely, "The Fappening".

Sony suffered possibly the most brazen and damaging cyberattack in history, leading to a continuing series of operational problems and public relations fiascos for the company.

The repercussions have rippled beyond the business sphere and become a diplomatic issue between North Korea and the United States.

In June, more than 1,500 SingPass accounts were compromised and 419 people had their passwords reset without their permission. At least three accounts were used to make fraudulent work-pass applications.

Three months later, an M1 customer managed to breach M1's website, causing the telco to suspend pre-orders for the Apple iPhone 6.

A day later, news broke that the personal details of more than 300,000 of K Box's customers had been leaked onto the Internet.

The Pirate Bay finally sinks, but then...

Piracy, in its many forms, has long been the thorn in the side of the media industry.

Back in the 1980s, the BPI, a British music industry trade group, railed against cassette-tape recording. Home taping, it said, was killing music.

From there, the film and music industries went on to protest against VCRs, CD duplication and, of course, peer-to-peer file sharing.

The Pirate Bay, up until its shutdown this year, has been the most notorious file-sharing site in existence. For nearly a decade, it managed to stay afloat, despite a raid in 2006 and lawsuits against its founders in 2009.

One would think that the site's takedown would be a sucker punch for Internet piracy, but illicit file-sharing activity barely slowed in the wake of the closure.

According to Excipio, an anti-piracy firm, the number of IP addresses downloading content that it was tracking dropped slightly in the two days that followed, before bouncing back to their usual levels by the end of the week.

The file-sharing site has since been "revived" by isoHunt, which created a clone from a copy of The Pirate Bay's database.

Score card: D

Much is at stake - hacking incidents are no longer just pranks and minor annoyances. While piracy still remains widespread, the media industry may finally be wising up and offer compelling paid alternatives.


Independent ISPs drive local broadband

One would think that the big three telcos - SingTel, StarHub and M1 - would be in the best position to advance the broadband market.

But it has been MyRepublic and ViewQwest, though smaller and lesser known, which have been far more adept at disrupting the market.

MyRepublic sparked a price war earlier this year with its $49.99 a month 1Gbps plan, undercutting the big three by a huge margin.

M1 matched MyRepublic's pricing and SingTel slashed its prices by 30 per cent.

StarHub relaunched its 1Gbps plan in November as a dual fibre-plus-cable plan for $69.90 a month.

Affordability is not the only thing that the independents have pushed. They offer service improvements, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), and allow customers to make use of services otherwise unavailable here, such as Netflix, Hulu and BBC iPlayer. They also offer perks such as static IP addresses, low-latency routing for gamers, and no BitTorrent throttling.

And if these are not enough, ViewQwest has beaten every other Internet service provider to the punch by announcing its 2Gbps fibre service last month. It claims to be the first provider outside Japan to offer such a service.

Although it is still being tested by selected customers, ViewQwest says it will be made available early next year.

Score card: B+

Competition is good - customers stand to benefit greatly from the telcos duking it out.

PC & TABLET

Cause for optimism in PC industry

PC market turns a corner

After a disastrous 2013 that has been described by market research firm Gartner as having seen the worst decline in global PC shipments in its history, the industry appears to have stabilised this year.

In October, market tracker IDC predicted that PC shipments will shrink by 1.7 per cent this year. This was revised upwards from the original forecast - a decline of 4.1 per cent from last year.

Another sign of recovery: chipmaker Intel had a good Q3 this year. Revenue for its PC Client Group, which deals with desktops, notebooks and 2-in-1 systems, was up 9 per cent on Q3 last year. When Microsoft pulled the plug on Windows XP in April, it may have sparked an upgrade cycle.

Intel expects the market to continue its rebound in the last quarter of the year.

Too late for Sony, Samsung and Toshiba

But the recovery has come too late for smaller PC vendors. Sony sold its Vaio PC brand in February to a Japanese investment fund. As a result, Vaio PCs are currently sold only in Japan.

Samsung stopped selling its mainstream laptops in Singapore. It announced in September that it was exiting the PC business in Europe.

In the same month, Toshiba announced its withdrawal from the consumer PC space in certain markets, including Singapore, as it restructures its PC business.

While PC stalwart HP did not, after all, sell off its PC business, it announced in October that the company would split, with Hewlett-Packard Enterprise focusing on the enterprise segment, while HP Inc would sell printers and PCs.

For all of HP CEO Meg Whitman's efforts to restructure the business, her latest solution is not that different from former CEO Leo Apotheker's - ditch the PC unit and focus on the enterprise. Unsurprisingly, she is helming the enterprise business.

The main beneficiary of this market consolidation has been Lenovo. It has strengthened its grip on its position as the No.1 PC maker, holding 20 per cent of the market at last count. This year, it bought IBM's x86 server business, which gives it more resources to fight HP and Dell.

2-in-1 devices proliferate

For most consumers, this year was all about convertibles, hybrids and such 2-in-1 computers that can be a tablet or clamshell laptop, and anything in between.

PC makers were mostly focused on launching 2-in-1 devices while their traditional laptops got, at best, a hardware refresh.

Many of these 2-in-1 computers feature a flexible hinge, a design popularised by Lenovo's Yoga hybrid series. But of all these, the one most consumers will probably remember is Microsoft's Surface Pro 3.

The company's third attempt at creating a tablet-laptop hybrid is its best effort yet. While Microsoft does not release sales figures, its latest earnings report showed revenues for its Surface products at US$908 million (S$1.2 billion).

Windows 10 revealed

The other big Microsoft reveal is of its next operating system, Windows 10. With Windows 8 looking more like a flop with each passing day, the company really needs this to work. The Start menu is back and the interface looks more desktop friendly. Microsoft will reveal more details next month, which hopefully will include a release date and pricing.

Score card: C

The worst appears to be over for the PC industry. The coming year looks promising, with Intel Broadwell processors and Windows 10 expected to make their debuts.


... but tough times for tablets

Honeymoon over for the iPad

Apple's trailblazing iPad came down to earth this year. For the first time in its history, iPad sales are expected to fall this year.

According to the market research firm IDC, Apple will ship 64.9 million iPads this year, down 12.7 per cent on last year. Apple's own figures, released in October, paint a similar picture of decline over the previous three quarters.

Shipment numbers for the latest iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 will be available next year. But unless you and everyone else got an iPad for Christmas, the decline seems a foregone conclusion, especially when the latest models offer only minor upgrades.

The flat numbers could be due to a couple of reasons.

Phablets, such as Apple's iPhone 6 Plus, could be cannibalising sales of the iPad mini.

Consumers are also holding onto their tablets for as long as four years, unlike smartphones, which are often replaced within two years.

In other words, perhaps tablets are not that different from PCs after all.

Vendors turn to large tablets

Overall, the tablet market fared slightly better, with total shipments growing by 7.2 per cent over last year. It is still a steep drop from last year, when sales grew 52.5 per cent.

Android tablets still hold the lion's share of the market (67.7 per cent) compared with Apple's 27.5 per cent.

But with 8-inch and smaller tablets feeling the heat from phablets, vendors such as Samsung and Lenovo have been trying out slates with larger screens.

Samsung, in particular, has tried to make Android more viable for business devices. Its Galaxy Note Pro tablet has a stylus and productivity apps designed to use the extra screen real estate.

Apple, too, was rumoured to be releasing a 12-inch "iPad Pro" this year. But the device, which is expected to have multitasking and split-screen features, was a no-show. Rumours now say it will be launched next year.

Score card: B-

It has been a year to forget for tablets.

 


This article was first published on Dec 31, 2014.
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