Archive for the ‘Mobile’ Category

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Hardware is so hot right now. So hot, in fact, that
another European hardware startup is formulating an
attack on the smartphone hardware space — joining
the likes of Finland’s Jolla and Spain’s Geeksphone
to have a go at handset making. The newest comer
stepping in with a plan to shake up the “status quo” is called Kazam: a startup co-founded by a pair of
former U.K. HTC execs, Michael Coombes and
James Atkins. Coombes, who spent just over a year and a half as a
U.K. head of sales for HTC, according to his
LinkedIn, is Kazam’s CEO. Prior to HTC he
apparently worked for mobile and telecoms
companies including Nokia and Vodafone. While
Atkins, Kazam’s CMO, spent just over a year as HTC’s head of marketing for U.K./Ireland, and has
previously worked in U.K. marketing roles for freesat,
LG and Panasonic. The pair’s professional network is
clearly tied tightly to the local market, hence,
presumably, Kazam’s focus on Europe first. “Kazam will focus on Europe at the outset,”
“We are currently
establishing a network of regional sales and
marketing offices to ensure we deliver outstanding
products and customer service.” The startup has a U.K. base in Mayfair, London. Details of how exactly Kazam plans to assault the
Samsung and Apple smartphone duopoly were not
forthcoming when I asked. Atkins declined to answer
the bulk of my questions — including such specifics
as whether Kazam’s planned smartphones will run
Android and be skinned with a custom UI or keep the experience familiarly stock. Instead, he trotted out a
repeated PR mantra: “Today we are just announcing
that the Kazam brand is here, for the rest you will
have to wait and see.” It’s notable that this startup has already engaged a
PR company (Noire) — and talks about creating a
mobile brand — even before having a great deal to talk about. Which does serve to underline how
smartphones have become a game of who can shout
the loudest. A game of brash tones (as I have
previously described it). What did Atkins say? Not a whole lot. He declined to
reveal how much funding Kazam is backed by at this
point, or whether it is currently looking to raise a
round. He did at least confirm it has backers, and that
those backers have links into Asian mobile
manufacturing companies — which suggests it’s following Jolla’s manufacturing playbook. “Kazam Mobile has been set up by a group of private
equity investors, who have previously launched and
operated successful mobile telecommunications
companies and technology businesses. Some of their
current investments include NF Technology Limited,
an R&D company specialising in developing and customising mobile phone devices and tablets and
Nichefinder (S’pore) PTE Limited, a proven
technology procurement and supply company,”
He also confirmed Kazam’s plan is to launch “a range
of smartphones at different prices point/specs” later
this year. Asked whether it will look at other types of
mobile devices, such as tablets, he said only that its
initial focus is on smartphones. He added that he and
Coombes left their roles at HTC earlier this year “with the desire to build a new brand that really stands out
in the mobile space”. He also declined to be drawn on the differentiation
question but in Kazam’s inaugural press release
today Coombes said: “We believe your smartphone is
a digital reflection of who you are, and since we are
all different, it’s important that we don’t adopt a one
size fits all approach. Kazam’s dynamic structure and focus on local markets means we can react quickly to
the ever evolving and diverging needs of today’s
consumer. We aim to provide quality smartphones
that are accessible to everyone.” The release also includes a statement from Atkins
hinting that aftersales service might be how Kazam
attempts to stand out in a crowded market: “There is
a real opportunity for a new mobile brand to disrupt
the status quo. We are passionate about delivering a
truly positive mobile experience that doesn’t just stop once you’ve bought the phone. Kazam is about
stunning design, robust hardware and intuitive
technology, underpinned by outstanding customer
service.” Further details about exactly what kind of customer
service opportunity Kazam reckons it has identified
were not forthcoming. The size of Kazam’s team at this point is just Atkins
and Coombes — a few more if you count the hired
help from their external PR company. But Atkins also
said the startup has already “established an R&D
centre”. Hopefully with some staff in it, but
presumably no permanent headcount yet. Should Kazam get off the ground with its grand status
quo shaking plan it will need to significantly boost its
body count — if only to staff the network of regional
sales and marketing offices it is currently
establishing. It will also need to make decent
smartphone hardware — hardware that’s worth shouting about. Whether it will be able to deliver that
is clearly something to file under “wait and see”. Asked how a startup with inevitably bounded
resources can succeed in such a fiercely competitive
space — when veteran players such as HTC are
having such a tough time standing out despite making
cracking handsets like the HTC One — Atkins’ said
only: “The mobile market whilst competitive, seems to have stagnated.” Stagnation is one word for it. Saturation is another.
Smartphone hardware and software has achieved a
very high quality bar, with Android OEMs like
Samsung pushing high-end features lower and lower
down the price-point range to pull up the capabilities
of mid- and even budget handsets. This has resulted in a surfeit of great phones, across a very broad
spectrum of price-points. Which means precious little
room for anyone new to elbow in. Or stand out. So there are huge question marks over any startup
entering such a fiercely competitive space, especially
with so many better resourced former mobile giants
continuing to struggle. Disruption often starts small
but in a market so beholden to carriers, where the
bulk of phones sales occur, it’s especially hard for an upstart to get traction. Carriers tend to be risk averse
and have established distribution partnerships and
(incentivised) relationships with the smartphone
giants so have disincentives to push anything too
new. Going it alone with online retail distribution is the
alternative, but that route requires a sizeable marketing budget to even get noticed. Creating handsets for an underserved niche may be
one way to carve out a business, as Geeksphone has
been. Securing carrier distribution agreements to
carry your hardware is another strategy, as Jolla has
with Finland’s DNA. For now, it’s unclear whether
Kazam has any similar moves up its sleeve, but it will certainly be hoping it has enough local telco
connections — and financial backing — to give it a
regional chance of inching in. To say it has its work
cut out to make any kind of impact is an
understatement.

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We’ve been working on getting more details on a
press event that Facebook is having this week.
Earlier, we wrote it could launch a news-reading app,
but we have since heard more details that point to
something else entirely. On June 20, a source says
Facebook will unveil that Instagram, its popular photo- sharing app, will begin to let people also take and
share short videos. Call it the Vine effect. We are still looking for more information because we
understand that Facebook has not wanted the details
of June 20 to leak out — so this could be an
intentional blind alley. But if the Instagram video
report is true, you could say the event invite itself —
sent by snail mail, coffee cup stain charmingly in one corner — is a red herring of its own. Earlier reports about Instagram getting video provide
some indication, though, that this is not coming out of
the blue. Most recently, about three weeks ago
Matthew Keys broke a story noting that such a
service was getting tested internally. At the time,
there wasn’t any information on when it would be coming out, nor whether there would be filters, nor
whether this would be in a separate app or part of an
Instagram update. The videos would be between five
and 10 seconds in length, he noted. Getting video on Instagram is a move that would
make sense. Specifically, it looks like a direct
response to the rising popularity of video-sharing
services, namely Twitter’s Vine. It, and others like
Viddy, Cinemagram and Socialcam, sometimes get
described as “Instragram for video” apps. The Vine app — which lets users take six seconds of
video footage on an iOS or Android handset and then
share those clips to Vine’s own network, Twitter or
Facebook — has shot up in popularity since going
live in January. After Twitter debuted an Android
version of Vine in the beginning of June, usage reached a tipping point: shares of Vines surpassed
those of Instagram photos on Twitter — usage that
has only diverged even more since then: Of course, you could argue that part of the reason is
because Twitter no longer shows inline views of
Instagram photos — that may have affected how
many Instagram photos have been shared to Twitter. When those Instagram/Twitter cards disappeared, we
noted that part of the reason for the move — taken by
Facebook/Instagram, not Twitter — appeared to be to
drive more direct traffic to Instagram itself, a popular
social network in its own right, with over 100 million
monthly active users, rising sharply since Facebook bought the company last year for $715 million. Putting in a video service could serve to further that
strategy even more, before new-but-already-popular
services like Vine get more of a foothold. It will mean
one less app and social network for users to build up,
and, for those who like to take and share videos,
another reason to visit Instagram. You can see how something like video could be a very sticky
complement to its photo service. There could be another reason for adding video to the
service: it’s a very attractive medium for advertisers
and marketers. Of course, Instagram is not running any ads yet — in
fact, Facebook and Instagram got a lot of heat over
changes in their terms of service in December over
how it could implement advertising services in the
future — so much heat that they rolled back the ToS
and apologized. And in Facebook’s last quarterly earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a point of
noting that while big brands were interested in
advertising on Instagram, for now there were no plans
to implement this. (That’s not to say that Instagram is
not already a substantial marketing platform for
brands.) And with 100 million+ users, you could argue that
there may not be enough scale there yet to really
monetize ads properly. Adding in video is laying the
groundwork — and providing one more engine to grow
that Instagrammer base.

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Irish startup Galvanic has just launched a Kickstarter
to crowdsource funding a wireless stress biosensor
it’s calling PIP. PIP — which stands for ‘personal
input pod’ — is a Bluetooth biosensor that monitors
its user’s stress levels by measuring their galvanic
skin response (GSR) as they hold the PIP pinched between thumb and forefinger. GSR means skin
conductance — so basically how sweaty you’re
getting and therefore how nervous you’re feeling. PIP isn’t just a quantifiable self-tapping biosensor; it’s
been designed to work in conjunction with iOS and
Android phone and tablet apps to provide a
gamification element. The company has created three
games designed to be played using the PIP, which
utilises Bluetooth as its data transport tech. The user’s stress level is then incorporated into each
game as the core gameplay mechanic — with the
ultimate aim being to help the player learn what they
need to do to relax. It sounds a bit counterintuitive, since competitive
gaming can be synonymous with sweaty palms,
which is presumably why Galvanic’s project extends
to designing stress-busting games. It’s created three
games to be used in conjunction with the PIP — a
relaxing racing game, a seasonal mood game where players meditate on a wintery scene to turn it into
spring, and a more playful lie-detector multi-player
game — but it does also plan to launch an SDK in
future to get third party developers expanding the
PIP’s gaming ecosystem. With this initial handful of in-house games the PIP
can only be so interesting, but if Galvanic can
convince enough people to buy in to the gadget and
thus lure enough outside developers to join in, there’s
plenty of potential for other cool biosensing software
ideas. The price per PIP is $79 for a limited number of early bird Kickstarter backers, or $99 thereafter.
Presumably each new PIP-compatible game may
also carry a consumer price-tag. Galvanic is gunning for $100,000 in Kickstarter
funding, with the money to be used for finalising
manufacturing and readying its own apps. Assuming
it hits this rather ambitious funding goal, the company
reckons it can gear up for mass production by the end
of 2013, and expects to be shipping in Q1 2014. In future it said it plans to expand platform support
beyond Android and iOS, to add Windows Phone,
Blackberry, Windows, MacOS and also game
Consoles and set-top boxes.

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Last we saw Lumu Labs it was in Hardware Alley at
Disrupt New York where the Slovenian startup was
showing off a prototype of its digital light meter plus
iPhone app — aiming to convince photographers to
replace “bulky” traditional light meters with a
pocketable gizmo that plugs into their iPhones. Now, the startup has just kicked off a Kickstarter
campaign, aiming to raise $20,000 over the next 25
days to get its light meter into the wild. Lumu’s hope is to replace the standalone light meters
that pro photographers carry around with them by
harnessing the iPhone’s processing power and
battery, and coupling that with its own digital light
sensor. The sensor plugs straight into the iPhone’s
headphone jack. Lumu says its hardware is more sensitive than the on-board iPhone light sensor,
hence it’s able to provide photographer-friendly
luminance measurements. The basic idea is for a photographer to grab a light
reading using Lumu on their iPhone, then input the
suggested settings into their camera. Settings are
displayed in Lumu’s app, which also allows the user
to save data to the cloud so they can retain light-
setting and location info, plus add voice records, notes, pictures, photo parameters, and more. Returning to Kickstarter, Lumu said campaign funds
will be used to help with the manufacturing costs of
the device, and to recruit more coders so it can
further extend the features of the app. The startup’s
main software guy, Benjamin Polovičm, told
TechCrunch: “We want to take advantage of the smartphone’s processing power and different sensors.
The plan is to make different smartphone apps with
custom functionalities for all sorts of professionals
(photographers, videomakers…). “We also believe that other developers are more
creative than us and hope that they make their own
software with new ideas and features, or inspire us.
Further, we have to make Lumu work on (almost) all
Android devices. But we don’t want to be too specific
about our future ideas, because we don’t want to limit our supporters’ creativity.”

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Sunrise, the Google-friendly calendar app that
focuses on design, may have some competition
coming from iOS 7, but even with the added pressure,
the Sunrise team is clearly making strides. Today, Sunrise was updated in the App Store to add
support for foursquare check-ins, CrunchBase and
Google Maps, along with some design tweaks. The biggest part of the update comes via foursquare.
Users now have the ability to see their past
foursquare checkins direct from the app, complete
with mapping support. As the folks over at Sunrise
know, the more information you can source from a
single app, the better. Foursquare integration makes sense, considering that
the Sunrise team is made up of ex-foursquare
engineers and designers. In fact, it’s a wonder why it
took so long to bake in the location-based social
network in the first place. Foursquare integration transforms the calendar into a
log of where you’ve been just as much as a plan for
where you’ll go. Speaking of where you’ll go, Sunrise also added
Google Maps integration to the app instead of Apple
Maps, which should make many a weary traveler feel
just slightly better on their way to someplace new. But the update isn’t just about where you’re going, but
how awesome you are at life when you get there. That
said, Sunrise has baked in support for CrunchBase, a
database of people, companies, and investors that is
a part of the TechCrunch network. CrunchBase
support will now automatically pull in extra data about companies and people you’re meeting based on the
domain of their email address. In terms of design tweaks, Sunrise has switched up
multi-day events to show their duration on the main
view, with a countdown for the duration left of the
multi-day event. Moreover, the app now offers
cilckable links for all phone numbers, websites and
addresses. Sunrise v 1.4 is available now in the App Store for
free.