One of the major themes at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the Internet of Things or IoT. Many of the speakers — including CEOs of major corporations, industry analysts and investors — discussed the topic.

IoT refers to devices and home appliances wirelessly connected to the Internet, the cloud or to each other that provide new capabilities. And from all of the discussions, many think it’s destined to be the next big thing in consumer tech.

With such connectivity, including cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, devices can be smarter and behave differently as a result of external information or events. They can react based on communications from the cloud, the user or other devices, automating things that are now done manually.

For example, the Nest thermostat reacts to outside weather conditions, which it learns from being connected to the Internet, and detects activity levels in the home, lowering the temperature when no one is there.

While IoT offers great promise, it is also something that has the potential to make our lives more complicated if we are not careful. Clearly, there are some things we do that could benefit by this, but many of these will not make a huge difference, and some will be downright annoying.

One idea mentioned at CES was a device that turns off your TV and lights when your fitness tracker detects that you have fallen asleep. While it sounds innocuous and maybe even useful, can you imagine setting it up? You need to connect your fitness tracker, the TV and lights to the cloud or to a hub in the home. Each likely requires an app, and you need to set up your preferences. And it’s probable that each item, made by different companies, won’t work well together.

We already have devices that turn the lights on when we turn into our driveway or enter a room, and turn them off when leaving. But if we’re simply reading on the couch when the lights go out due to a low level of activity, we then must wave our hands to turn them back on. If something like this cannot be done perfectly, how well can more complicated activities be done?

The area of health offers great potential. New sensors that monitor vital signs that can alert us or our doctor could be life-saving. Dr. Brian Alman of Encinitas, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, imagines emotional-mental-behavioral solutions for health sensors detecting high stress where he can deliver a short phone message or video to the user, much like a personal coach.

The challenge is to make these devices easy to set up and maintenance free.

As more devices become connected, imagine trying to troubleshoot a problem. Was the alert message on my phone triggered by the heart sensor on my watch, the sleep sensor in my bed, or the activity sensor on my treadmill?

The CEO of Samsung says that all their products — including humidifiers — will have wireless connectivity. I’m sure he’s motivated by using IoT as an opportunity to sell us something extra and encourage us to buy only Samsung products so they can talk to each other.

We are already interrupted hundreds of times each day, if we allow it. Emails, messaging, phone calls and so on. Do we need more interruptions from our clothes dryer, frying pan or coffeepot? We don’t want to be a slave to inanimate objects. It’s important not to be awed by the technology, and focus instead on specific applications. Is the benefit worth the overhead?

These are some the challenges that need to be overcome:

• Standards: Every company will have its own standards and it will take years to sort this out so products from different companies can talk to each other. Just think of the difficulty now in setting up a universal remote control. While there are some industry standards evolving, we’ll likely buy a complete solution from a single company.

• Setup: It will be difficult setting up so many things with different interfaces and different functionalities. Some of us still have problems getting a Wi-Fi connection in our home.

• Privacy: With all these devices and sensors connected to the cloud, some enterprising startup will figure a way to provide us with free devices and services for sharing all of our home and health data and allowing them to sell it to advertisers.

You’ll hear lots about IoT in 2015. Some of it will offer amazing new opportunities. But remember, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be!


Read More...

I’ve tried and even paid for wine apps that promised to help me select a great bottle or glass of wine, yet have been consistently disappointed. The Wine Spectator app, for example, charges $5 per month to access its wine ratings, but more often than not a search for a particular wine brings up a not-found message. Other apps let you take a picture of the label to access a review, but the results are much the same: wine not found.

But now that’s all changed. I’ve been trying an app called Vivino (www.vivino.com), and have been delighted and amazed at how well it works. The app was created in Copenhagen in 2011 and Vivino now has an office in San Francisco with just five employees. It’s free for both the iPhone and Android phones and works the same way on each.

You start by taking a picture of a wine label that’s sent to Vivino. A few seconds later, a scrollable page opens with information about the wine, including a picture of the label, a 1 to 5 rating from other users who have rated it, average price, detailed reviews, a comparison with other vintages and recommended food pairings. You can also enter your own review and add notes for future reference.

I tried the app on about 20 different bottles; 16 were identified immediately and four required a delay for manual matching. Three of the four came back in a few minutes, and one never did (a Vosne Romanee). My test included a wide variety of wines from around the world and a couple of small family wineries.

What makes Vivino stand apart from other wine apps is the number of users — 8 million who have scanned in and reviewed 100 million bottles of wine. Of these 100 million reviews, there are 5 million unique wines in the database.

I spoke with Steven Favrot, Vivino’s vice president of marketing, who said their users are increasing faster than any other wine app — 15,000 to 20,000 per day. With so many users — he estimates 20 times more than any other app — there’s a high likelihood that many users have reviewed the wine you’re checking. Typically, there were as many as 10 or more ratings, making the results more meaningful.

If you ever perused a wine list in a restaurant trying to decide which wine to order, a second feature in this app can help you choose. Take a picture of a restaurant’s wine list and in a few seconds, that image will come back with ratings superimposed next to each wine on the list. That solves the dilemma of trying to find a wine with a high rating at an affordable price. This feature also worked for me when I took a picture of a wine list off my computer screen.

With that said, it’s likely you can get more nuanced opinions from a fine restaurant’s sommelier who’s much more familiar with the selections on the wine list or, if listed, from a publication such as Wine Spectator, where the tasting is done by professionals.

In fact, Vivino’s newly announced Premium version will add these reviews. For $5 a month or $49.95 per year, you can have them deliver a biweekly Wine Buying Guide. The guide tailors the report to your needs and includes access to up-to-date pricing from more than 50,000 merchants worldwide through Wine Searcher. It also adds expert wine reviews from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and so on, and helps you keep track of your wine cellar.

Vivino is a perfect example of the value of crowdsourcing, where a large population of users benefits each member, much as Amazon does for product reviews and Waze does for traffic conditions. Based on my use, Vivino improves the odds of choosing a wine of your liking and price point, whether in a restaurant or in a wine store. But don’t ignore recommendations from a store’s employees, restaurant’s sommeliers and other experts.

Read More...

I spent last week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) along with 170,000 others, making this the biggest show ever. Tens of thousands of new products were displayed by 3,600 exhibitors spread over 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space, primarily at two huge convention centers, Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands.

Of course, it’s not possible to see everything, even if you had a couple of months, let alone a few days. Moving from one center to another, about a mile apart, took about an hour, counting wait lines for the taxi and bumper-to-bumper traffic. In speaking with many of the attendees, we realized that the best way to see CES is to stay home and follow the gadget blogs on the Internet, such as The Verge and Engadget.

Nevertheless, by being there, it’s possible to get a flavor of the consumer electronics industry. There was great excitement and optimism, buoyed by the strong economy as well as the creativity and innovation from so many of the small startups exhibiting. It seemed like a high-tech gold rush.

Checking out the new products from these small startups is much more interesting than seeing more TVs, phones, routers and computers from the large multinational corporations.

But I noticed great naiveté in some of these entrepreneurs, many from Europe and Asia. So many think that reaching success consists of exhibiting at CES, running a Kickstarter campaign, going to China to build the product, then selling it on Amazon. As a result, many of these companies will be gone next year, because they fail to have adequate capital to promote and distribute their products, which often costs more than everything that came before.

As for new products, I found hundreds of smartwatches and bracelets that can send you reminders or measure your pulse, but few that are distinguishable from each other.

But as with other categories, there are outlier products that try to be different. Hyundai introduced a smartwatch that lets you unlock your door or start your engine with the press of a button. Why this is better than a key fob remains a mystery. It seems to be a silly idea, but you’ll likely see all their competitors jump on board mindlessly.

3-D printers were in abundance; some looked like sophisticated toys that let your kids create 3-D objects of designs they create on the computer. One interesting application being used by one company measures you for custom ear molds for earbuds and builds them on the spot using a 3-D printer.

A Parrott Mini Drone hovers at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas. Photo: Bloomberg News

Drones were in plentiful supply from dozens of companies. They come in all sizes, all remotely controlled. Most were designed either as a toy or, in a few cases, with a camera to create aerial photos. This is a burgeoning category that was barely visible at last year’s CES. But pity the person who wants to buy one. They are all so similar to one another that I don’t know how anyone could decide which one to choose.

Accessories were everywhere with one huge hall devoted just to those for Apple products. Typo, a company begun by “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, showed a $100 iPhone 6 case with a Blackberry-like keyboard extending from the bottom. There were many battery cases for the new iPhone 6, including a clever design from Esorun with a built-in stand for $70.

Transportation was another big category here; everything from Toyota’s hydrogen car to motorized skateboards and roller skates. While walking down one aisle, an attractive model whizzed by me riding a $995 Hovertrax, a small platform with wheels at each end that’s controlled by how she moved. It looked a little dangerous, zipping around at 8 mph with nothing to hold on to.

Solowheel demonstrated its Hovertrax, a small platform with wheels at each end that’s controlled by the movement of the rider last week at CES in Las Vegas. Photo: Bloomberg News

The Hovertrax, originally a Kickstarter project, is controlled much like a Segway, by leaning forward to go forward, leaning back to go backward, and standing straight up to stop. Unlike the Segway this is extremely lightweight and can be carried in one hand. A few minutes later, I passed two other booths with similar products.

Many automotive companies had some of their new models with new tech capabilities on display. Primary among them were always-on connectivity to the Web using a built-in cellular device, most with a monthly fee to Verizon or AT&T.

There was much discussion of self-driving vehicles, which technically are feasible, but still need government approval. Mercedes showed a concept car with a living room-like interior and no visible controls. Harman, which makes many of the audio systems for automotive companies, showed technology that allows some passengers to listen to music while others can make a call within a cone of silence. I don’t know if they can do the opposite — eliminate the noise of screaming kids.

Mercedes-Benz showed a driverless F 015 concept car with a living room-like interior and no visible controls last week at CES in Las Vegas. Photo: Bloomberg News

Audio was another big category with hundreds of new headphones, both ear buds and over-the-ear models. In the low to midprice range, the new B&O headphones sounded remarkably good. And at the top end, Audeze, known for making one the best headphones at any price, introduced a lower-cost model, the EL-8. Its price was not announced, but it should be about one-third of its top-of-the-line $1,800 model. (audeze.com)

Neil Young and Sony each introduced their high-resolution audio players, Neil’s Pono player costs $399 and Sony’s costs $1,149. Both are poised to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in high-quality audio. (Disclaimer: I led the team that developed the Pono player.)

Internet of Things is a new industry term referring to devices perpetually connected to the Internet, but it’s being taken to the extreme with Samsung’s president saying that in five years everything they make will have a connection, including humidifiers and dryers. It’s hard enough now to stay connected, but imagine needing to do this with hundreds of devices in your home — and needing to replace batteries on so many devices!

Ooma, the maker of Internet phones, announced that it will now connect with a Nest thermostat and smoke detector, and its phone will call you when the alarm goes off, wherever you are. This is an example of the efforts of many companies to create the connected home. Even a window company joined the craze, building sensors into its products.

Avi-on, a small startup, showed a light switch that can be installed with no wires, using Bluetooth and its wireless mesh technology. It lets you rewire your house with no wires, locating a light switch anywhere you want. (avi-on.com)

San Diego-based Ampl Labs displayed its SmartBackpack, a sleek gray backpack that charges your gadgets stored inside its pockets. The case contains a 5000mAh battery that can charge your phone, tablet, headphone and other accessories using the USB connectors that are in each of the pockets. An optional module with an inverter and AC outlet lets you charge a laptop as well. (ampl-labs.com)

And there were some innovative products for the kitchen. Drop’s Connected Scale works with its Drop Kitchen app to take you through recipes, ensuring you add the proper amount of ingredients as you adjust for the number of servings. ($99, getdrop.com).

The Anova Precision Cooker at $179 lets you turn any pot into a sous-vide cooker, a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath. This popular product wirelessly connects to your smartphone, allowing you to cook your meal with the touch of a button.

I’m now ready to return home, with a bag of brochures, a few giveaway samples, and the smoke-infused clothes from walking through the casinos. Next year I hope to follow CES on the blogs, instead.

One word of advice to CEA, the consumer association that runs CES: If you’re putting on a high-tech show, how about giving your attendees technology tools that work. CES’ app was bug-ridden and didn’t accept the password you registered with. You could click on a link, asking to chat for help, but the 70-minute wait time was even longer than most cab lines. And one of the biggest issues of CES — long, long cab lines — could have been alleviated with Uber, today’s technology solution but, not surprisingly, it’s banned in Nevada.

Read More...

Prepare yourself for the onslaught of smartwatches. Not since the introduction of the tablet has there been so much excitement and promise of a new product category.

As often happens, there will be uncertainty and skepticism about how successful the category will be. Some pundits will tell you it’s the greatest invention since the mechanical watch; others will proclaim it’s destined to fail.

Will people shed their conventional watches? Will a smartwatch really offer anything useful? Do we now need another device that does many of the things that our phone already does? Will we tolerate needing to frequently charge our watch? Can I read the tiny display?

The premise of the smartwatch is to add a display to your wrist to provide timely information at a glance without pulling out your smartphone. Aided by its Bluetooth connection to your smartphone. It can display messages and other information from your phone, provide directions and tell you about a restaurant nearby. It can be used as a remote control for your phone’s music player, as well as a way to answer and hang up your phone. Most can monitor your activity and some can measure your pulse. Others can transcribe messages and send canned replies. And yes, they can also display the time.

Clearly, the leader in this category will be Apple because of its technical and design prowess in both hardware and software and its huge billion-dollar commitment. As with the iPad, Apple will gain huge support from the developer community. And the Apple watch will have two things no other smartwatch has: It will be beautiful and fun to use.

Apple thinks of the watch in much the same way as the iPad: It’s a new platform with a new operating system that will attract tens of thousands of developers to create apps that do things we can barely imagine.

The big question is whether these watches will be able to provide enough value for us to wear one every day and to replace our conventional timepiece. For those who don’t wear watches, will they start now?

Apple is not the first one with a smartwatch nor will it be the least expensive. When its line of watches is introduced in a few weeks, the cost is expected to be from $300 to several thousand dollars, depending on the case material and the band

But there already are products on the market that cost as little as $100 from Pebble, LG, Samsung, Motorola, HP and others. I’ve been trying two of them to get familiar with the category and provide a preview of what we can expect.

Smartwatches from Pebble. Courtesy photo

The Pebble Watch is one of the first smartwatches, initially funded from a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s now in its second generation with new steel versions. Close to a half-million units have sold to date, and a strong developer community has created hundreds of apps for the Pebble. I tested the steel version ($199), which works the same as the plastic ones ($99). I used it with my iPhone 6, but it also works equally well with Android phones.

The Pebble is one of the smallest smartwatches, about the size of a normal men’s watch, and is designed to be worn by both men and women. It uses a black-and-white reflective e-ink display (similar to what’s used on eBook readers) rather than color; this makes it less glitzy, but more practical, giving it a battery life of about five days before needing to be recharged.

Its software is list driven; you scroll up and down using 2 buttons, and then select an item from the list using a third. A fourth button serves as a back button. I found it easy and intuitive to use.

The Pebble has basic built-in functionality, including a number of watch faces, notifications from your phone when messages arrive, buttons to pick up and hang up your phone, and buttons to control your music.

There are additional apps that can be added to the watch, such as Evernote, Yelp, Misfit and a connection to Map My Ride. These mini-apps provide access to snippets of information, with some requiring the app to be installed on your phone. One of the coolest is NavMe, a free app that displays next-turn directions augmented with a vibration when it’s time to make a turn.

Overall, the Pebble worked well and provided a good balance between size and function. It reminded me of the early Palm handhelds, smartly balancing cost, size, function and ease of use. While somewhat plain looking, it’s much smaller and more wearable than other smartwatches currently available. That feature alone makes it stand apart from the competition. It also has an app store with many free selections.

I’ve also been trying the LG G watch, running Google’s Wear platform, designed to work with Android phones. The G is representative of Google’s approach to smartwatches, being introduced from several companies. The watch retails for $239 and is available for less than $200. I tested it using an HTC M8 Android phone. (It was lent to me by AT&T, which sells it in their stores.)

The G has a larger color LCD display with touch capability as well as voice recognition. As a result, the watch is very large, more than 50 percent larger than the Pebble, and needs to be recharged every day or two.

The LG G interface uses cards that appear on the display and can be swiped away to dismiss, or tapped and swiped to get more information. A double tap displays “Go Google” in which you can speak commands to the watch. The higher resolution color backlit display looks better than the Pebble’s display, but it adds little additional functionality, and the cost is the need to recharge much more frequently, and for the dial to dim to reduce power.

The voice recognition was quite good on the G. I could dictate a message or make a request and it usually got it right the first time. Clearly the G is more advanced than the Pebble, but its size made it unwieldy and less likely that I would wear it.

The bigger question is whether a smartwatch is something that helps us in our daily lives or is just another distraction. Once the novelty wore off, I found it not to be very useful for reading messages or checking email; its value was knowing that you received something and from whom.

With the notification on, it was always vibrating, and I was unable to discern between what was important and what was not. The small display lets me see the sender and a few words of the message, but nothing more. I found the watches to be more useful for monitoring exercise, providing directions, receiving a message of a flight delay and seeing who is calling.

Smartwatches will bring us information with a glance at the wrist, but it’s likely to create new distractions and isolate us even more from those around us. Many of us have been accused of being rude by checking our smartphones at the dinner table. Now it’s even easier to be rude, by constantly looking at our wrists.

For now I’m not convinced it’s a necessity, just another way to access what we can do with our phones. But many said the same about the iPad and were wrong. What made the difference was the developer community coming up with new functionality that few ever envisioned.

If a smartwatch still seems to be something you want to try, the Pebble is a good way to begin for $100. The alternative is to wait for the Apple watch, probably near the end of the month, and learn along with all of us just how useful it can be.

As for those who like their mechanical watches, Montblanc is introducing something that offer both in one device. The new Montblanc Timewalker Urban Speed collection of timepieces offers an optional e-Strap, a leather watchband with electronic module that offers tracking and alerts for $400.

Read More...

What can we expect in the world of consumer technology in 2015? Here’s my annual assessment and predictions.

Looking back over 2014, we saw some real progress in reducing our energy dependence through new technology, and we’ll see even more in 2015. One big advance, well under the radar, has been the plummeting cost of energy-efficient LED light bulbs that require about one-eighth the power of incandescent lighting. A 60-watt equivalent bulb that cost $40 to $60 a year or two ago, now costs just $8, and will hit $5 next year.

Sales of electric and hybrid cars grew modestly for most companies, but doubled for Tesla. The company is not only selling cars around the world, but also building the largest battery plant in the United States and installing hundreds of charging stations around the country, a great example of how new jobs are being created through green energy. Other automotive trends we’ll see in 2015 are self-driving cars and always-on Internet connections in new cars.

Home automation is still something many talk about, but few seem to care about. Turning our lights on or being notified on our iPhone when the laundry or toast is done hasn’t caught on and won’t next year. The promise of home automation using devices such as the Nest thermostat (now owned by Google) will face increasing resistance because we just don’t want Google monitoring our activities inside our homes.

The trust issue — something Google, Facebook and others have taken for granted — will not go away. These companies keep apologizing for security breeches, but then come up with new ways to learn more about us.

Home networking of music will grow rapidly in 2015. Sonos’ music system, which lets you play music, radio stations or almost anything throughout your home, saw its sales accelerate this year. Expect to see other companies jump into this area, including Apple. Or might Apple buy Sonos?

Music is a hot topic, with new streaming services improving from less than MP3 quality to CD quality. But they all pale in comparison to Neil Young’s Pono player and its high-resolution music store that will roll out at next week’s CES show in Las Vegas.

Once people experience it, it will be hard to go back. (Disclosure: I oversaw the design, development and manufacturing of the Pono music player). It’s part of the growing trend of people wanting authenticity and dealing directly with the artist, whether it’s with the musician, the farmer, the chef or other artisans.

2015 will see little growth in tablets in the consumer space, resulting in some modest price reductions from Apple. It’s hard to improve on the current models; users are content to keep them for many years. So expect Apple to expand into business with its new IBM alliance, which will bring a new 12-inch iPad.

Internet security was a big issue in 2014, and it will be bigger in 2015. With credit card information stolen from Target, Home Depot, Staples and other retailers, Chip and PIN cards will finally roll out next year, years behind the rest of the world. While there’s no excuse for those who commit cyberattacks, corporations make it easier by leaving many of their doors unlocked, and it will be worse in 2015.

The best answer to protect our cards, however, is Apple Pay, designed to provide more security by not providing the merchant with our personal information or credit card numbers. Expect its adoption to soar in 2015.

Companies such as CVS, which refuse to use Apple Pay in order to use an industry-sponsored payment scheme that accesses our personal information for advertising, will find themselves on the wrong side of the future for putting their own selfish interests ahead of their customers.

Companies still fail to take security seriously. Sony, which had ample warning of its lax security, paid a dear price, and I predict it will cost their co-CEOs their jobs.

Network neutrality will continue to be a hot topic in 2015. Because of the huge outcry of citizens, the pay for speed schemes of Verizon and Comcast will fail to get approval. Comcast will continue to be one of the most hated companies in 2015, particularly after its new campaign of supporting net neutrality is exposed. Really? No, it just changed the definition of what net neutrality is.

T-Mobile will continue taking customers away from the other carriers by exposing the anti-consumer policies of their competition and offering services that are easy to understand and are not punitive. For example, the latest plan eliminates the need to guess data usage in advance and pay for what’s not used, and pay penalties if we guess wrong.

The hot product category for 2015 will be the smartwatch. The Apple Watch will go on sale in late January, and will be met with considerable success. If you think you can’t get away from your devices now, the smartwatch will be even more intrusive. It vibrates when new messages arrive, when an appointment is about to begin and when you need to get up and exercise.

3-D printers, used by engineers for prototyping new products and making one-up products such as an arm cast, will see new products for home use from major companies such as HP or Epson. What we do with them is another question. The business model is much like that of printers: Sell a low-cost device with costly consumables — in this case, the material for building the models.

Amazon will continue to dominate online shopping. But its aggressiveness and anti-competitive behavior will make its dealings with publishers seem like child’s play. Amazon will shut down merchants with their own stores on its site for no reason other than that it’s hurting their own business. Expect to see more products with the Amazon expansion of their brands and even shorter delivery times. Their goal: Just think about buying a product and it will appear at your doorstep.

Apple will grow to over $200 billion in sales, propelled by Apple Pay, smartwatches and several new categories of products, including audio hardware under the Beats brand. Once the Apple Watch is established, look for a device with a display size falling between the watch and a phone. Pretty much every other size is covered.

Samsung will continue to lose money in its consumer phones and tablets, fighting the emergence of Xiaomi and Huawei, which are making Google phones for half the price. Samsung will see similar competition in their TV business with lower-cost products from HiSense, TCL, and other Chinese brands. As a result, Samsung and Apple will make amends and the companies will renew their supplier relationship and settle all litigation.

High-visibility companies that will struggle to be relevant or be purchased in 2015 will include Fitbit, and Jawbone, all facing pressure from Apple, whose goal is “to own our wrist.”

Microsoft will introduce Windows 10, which will be a marked improvement over 8.1. It will make a major push to dislodge the $200 Google Chromebook with a similarly priced notebook computer. Google will then offer Chromebooks for $99. Yahoo will merge into another company, such as AOL, or just fade away into irrelevancy.

Last, I wish all readers the best of success and good health in 2015. That reminds me of one more trend in 2015: devices to monitor our health and connected software to give us advice on how to be healthier. That’s a good projection to finish up with: one that most of us can support.

Read More...