Wednesday 20 January 2016

Motorola Xoom (2011)

Motorola Xoom (2011)
Announced January 2011

The Motorola Xoom was Moto's attempt at competing with the Apple iPad, a device that had been announced almost exactly one year previously. Announced at CES in January 2011, the Xoom was slightly better than the original iPad in terms of hardware specifications, and it was a bit cheaper.

It also introduced Android 3.0, which had been especially designed for tablet devices. On top of that, it was a sleek looking device, so you might have expected it to be a success. Unfortunately, the Xoom wasn't the success that Motorola had hoped.

The Xoom had a 10.1" 1280 x 800 pixel display, a 5 megapixel primary camera and a 2 megapixel secondary one on the front. Inside was a dual-core 1GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM. It was a little heavier than the iPad, but overall everything was at least as good as the Apple product, if not better.

Perhaps the software wasn't as polished as the iPad, but then surely it would appeal to the growing army of Android smartphone users? Lots of press coverage and advertising would surely help as well. Well.. not really, it turns out.

Over the time the Xoom was on sale, it shipped perhaps 1.5 million units or so. But over a comparable period, the iPad shipped 15 million units. But the Xoom wasn't alone in lacklustre sales - interest in Android tablets overall remained low. Market researchers could speculate as to the reason why, but perhaps it boiled down to the fact that the Xoom cost quite a lot of money.. and people just preferred to by an iPad with that cash instead.

Also, although the Xoom launched against the original iPad, the iPad 2 was announced in March 2011 which was thinner, lighter and faster than the original. This eroded the advantage that the Xoom originally had. The launch of the Xoom 2 in November 2011 brought a better product to market, but still it wasn't the breakthrough that Motorola had hoped. The Xoom 2 was Motorola's last attempt at a tablet.

Eventually, Android did start to make inroads into the tablet market.. but a lot of that is based on the availability of very cheap devices. But when it comes to high-end premium tablets, Apple are still king.

Sunday 10 January 2016

The rapid rise and fall of BenQ-Siemens (2006)

Launched January 2006

By 2006, Siemens Mobile of Germany had been a major player in the mobile phone market for two decades. Various “firsts” for Siemens included the:
  • Siemens S10 in 1998, the first phone to feature a rudimentary colour screen
  • Siemens SL10 in 1999, the world’s first slider phone.
  • Siemens SL45 in 2001, one of the first phones to feature an MP3 player and expandable memory.
  • Siemens SL55 in 2003, a cute and very successful mini slider phone.
  • Siemens MC60 in 2003, one of the first camera phones available in Europe.
  • Siemens Xelibri fashion phone range, which ran from 2003 and 2004.
Their design department was probably one of the very best in the business, probably only second to Nokia when it came to attractive handset design, and coming up with blue-sky ideas.

But by the mid-noughties, market share had dropped steadily and the company was making enormous losses. A combination of poor reliability and lacklustre features meant that customers were looking elsewhere.

Over in Taiwan, electronics firm BenQ had been trying to break into the European market with little success. Although some carriers such as O2 had picked up BenQ devices (for example, the O2 X1i), whatever technical strengths their handsets may have had was let down by boring design.

Presumably taking some inspiration from the progress made by the rival Sony-Ericsson joint venture, BenQ and Siemens also agreed to merge their operations. But unlike the Sony-Ericsson deal with two equal partners, the BenQ-Siemens tie up basically involved BenQ taking over the German firm, receiving all of Siemens’s relevant patents AND getting an investment of a quarter of a billion euros from the Germans.

The agreement was signed in October 2005, and BenQ-Siemens launched officially in January 2006 with the launch of three handsets, followed by a raft of others. Some stand-out designs include the very elegant EF71, the fun AL26 “Hello Kitty”, and the surprisingly popular E61 music phone. And just to prove that they could make something very different, the EF51 looked more like a digital music player than a mobile phone.

But with a few exceptions, consumers remained indifferent to the BenQ-Siemens offerings. The vast amount of money being ploughed into R&D was not generating the sales that were needed, and the new company was bleeding red ink at a frightening rate. In September 2006, just nine months after the brand was created, BenQ announced that it was closing down the BenQ-Siemens operation in Europe at the cost of 3000 jobs in Germany.

The fallout was extraordinary. Siemens turned on its partner angrily and there were accusations that the whole thing had been conceived just to grab the Siemens patents. Siemens also created a €35m hardship fund for its former staff, including €5m that was redirected from management bonuses. But in the end, nothing could be done and the German operations were closed down.

The name didn’t quite die out. BenQ produced a couple of other phones under the “BenQ-Siemens” name in 2007 while also soldiering on with BenQ-only handsets in Asia. But in the end, that too failed with BenQ closing down mobile phone operations in 2008.. although in 2013 they introduced a line of Android smartphones with the BenQ A3 that continues to this day.

In the end, Siemens was just another once-successful mobile phone company that disappeared along with Sagem, Sharp, Sendo, Ericsson, Panasonic, NEC and even Nokia. BenQ and Siemens are still very much around, and employ hundreds of thousands of people between them.. but perhaps this particular episode is one that both companies would sooner pretend never happened.

Saturday 9 January 2016

Motorola StarTAC (1996)

Launched January 1996

Twenty years ago, mobile phones were big brick-like affairs. But in January 1996, Motorola changed people’s perceptions with the Motorola StarTAC clamshell phone – a device that was half the weight of the competition, and which would easily slide into your pocket.

Perhaps the first recognisable clamshell phone, the original GSM StarTAC weighed about 115 grams and set a form factor that became the standard for this type of device. Of course, this being the 1990s, the StarTAC didn’t have much in the way of features, but it was the small size and weight that got all the attention.

Unlike most later clamshell phones, the StarTAC squeezed both the keypad and monochrome screen onto one half of the inside which made everything rather cramped. There was no camera on the outside, but there was an easily removable battery and an extendable antenna.

The StarTAC was available on most networks, including GSM and CDMA plus the old AMPS analogue system. It was also sold in most major markets worldwide, which lead to significant sales. But it wasn’t cheap – originally costing between $1500 to $2000, the StarTAC was more expensive by weight than gold.

Despite the excellent hardware design, the phone was actually rather difficult to use. Motorola’s clumsy and clunky user interface was poorly thought-out, and even though rivals Nokia were still producing more brick-like handsets, they were at least much easier to use. And crucially, those Nokia phones had Snake on as well.

Motorola didn’t really have another hit on the same scale as the StarTAC until it created the RAZR in 2004, a handset which had many of the same innovations and flaws as the StarTAC itself.