The best and worst tech events of 2014

The best and worst tech events of 2014


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.

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