Tidbits in the News: The 5G Age, Instagram’s Snap Game, Cortana Can You Hear Me?

This was, again, yet another busy week in the news, from Floridian teenagers giving US politicians a difficult time, to yet another exciting week for the Olympians in Pyeongchang. But you already have news sources for all that. I’m here to focus on the small stuff, and overthink them into oblivion.

So let’s get started.

5G Age

It feels like yesterday that LTE was the hot buzzword of the day. In fact, there was a time when the definition of “4G” was being hotly debated in the industry, ultimately ending with the relaxation of 4G standards to allow HSPA+ to technically count as 4G. That was already 8 years ago. Today, it’s all about 5G.

Before we begin, what is 5G? Well, there’s an excellent Techquickie video on the matter, which I highly suggest you go check out, but the gist of the matter is that 5G is supposed to be the final stage of wireless communications standards, with only marginal upgrades to increase network capacity and speed. Or so they hope.

Well, we all thought that was a far fetched dream. Heck, I thought it’d be at least the end of this decade before any rollouts could happen, but KT is showcasing its 5G network in Pyeongchang during the Olympics, and AT&T just announced its list of the first cities in the US to get its 5G network. AT&T did admit, however, that its rollout is “sooner than most people thought possible,” according to Igal Elbaz, SVP of Wireless Network Architecture and Design at AT&T. The preliminary 5G network rollout is to be completed by the end of 2018.

This is notable for 2 reasons. First, it’s a signal from AT&T that it won’t play catch up a second time. When LTE was first being rolled out in the US, Verizon was the first to act. This was a rather big marketing point as, despite there having been preexisting LTE networks in other parts of the world, Verizon acted as the de facto flag bearer for the LTE brand. It’s a marketing distinction that many people still associate with the company today, helping build a credible brand image for the Big Red.

Second, it’s a sign that 5G is ready for prime time. This is rather monumental. It means that technologies like autonomous vehicles and IoT can proliferate and mature, ultimately coming into the lime light. Let me explain. Autonomous vehicles, and the connected home, require immense bandwidths for their operations, many of which may be urgent. 5G network technologies is optimized for these developments, with the ability to distinguish “urgent” data from “non urgent” ones, with the capacity to process them in parallel without much hiccups. Experts say that if we used 4G networks for the same duties, it would easily overwhelm, perhaps even take down the network infrastructure.

It’s signs of an exciting future, with immense possibilities for new players to disrupt the world. The next decade will be an exciting time for tech enthusiasts, and AT&T is vying to be your network of choice.

Instagram’s Snap Game

If you don’t know the history behind Snapchat’s creation, all you need to know is one word: sexting. Yet, today, Snapchat is known more for its stories, and messaging functions. In fact, Snapchat has largely walked away from its sexting days, with the ability to re-view every Snap received.

Well, Instagram is stepping up to fill the void, by allowing users to decide how many times the content can be viewed, from once to permanently. This change is being applied to Instagram’s direct messaging feature, and it seems to be filling a very real need in the market.

Moreover, it’s perfectly in line with Facebook’s larger vendetta against Snap Inc.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Snap. In fact, things seem rather rosey. Daily Active Users, or DAU, is the main metric that investors are using to value Snap. So far, those numbers are on the rise, which is  of great relief to the company — so long as there are users, there’s hope for monetization. Or so the company hopes.

A huge part of the value proposition for the company, at least for end users, was sexting. In fact, it was the corporate identity early in its history — something that’s largely been neglected on the roadside in its search for an audience. Today, the company is hip with the teens who are looking to stay away from what they perceive as “parent apps” like Facebook and Twitter. That’s what drove their growth, sure, but, even now, a large portion of their users use the app for its original purpose.

That’s the market Instagram seems to be trying to take away from Snapchat with this move. They’re betting that the original, first generation users of Snapchat still makes up a large portion of the platform’s DAU numbers. Once Instagram is able to convert those dedicated users, the others should follow suit.

Hit them at their base, where it hurts the most.

Bear in mind that this is all speculation, as is most things I write. But, logically speaking, Zuckerberg’s seeming crusade against Snap (on purpose or otherwise), coupled with the  changes that Instagram has undergone throughout the years, and you can see how I arrived at this scenario. The countless articles comparing the two platforms is just confirmation that I’m not alone in this thought.

Hopefully Snap pulls through, especially since they paid Evan Spiegel an unimaginable financial compensation last year. So far, it’s sounding like a giant nope.

Cortana Looking to Compete

There’s the Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, Samsung Bixbi — let’s just say there’s a lot of companies looking to be the center of your home. With Amazon, Google, and Apple having hardware homes for their virtual assistants (and Samsung on the verge of releasing theirs), there’s a curious player missing from the field — Microsoft.

Microsoft, with the release of its Cortana assistant, seemed eager to enter the running for best virtual assistant. In fact, they were so eager that they integrated it into their Windows OS. Yet, they seemed curiously reluctant to release a hardware for their AI. Perhaps it was a sign from the software giant that the PC was the center of the home in their version of the universe. They tried, once, with the Harman Kardon Invoke, which was largely seen as a market failure. And, that seemed to be the end of that. That was, until now.

Microsoft just announced that it signed off on an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with Xiaomi to partner up on AI powered ventures, specifically AI powered speakers competing directly with Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home, and Apple’s Homepod. The partnership is to start off with Xiaomi using Microsoft’s Azure platform for its back end solution, ultimately culminating in the integration of Cortana into its speakers. As this is simply an MOU, there is no legal obligation for either party to uphold the agreement, nor is there a timeline outlined for this project. But it’s a sign from Microsoft that it’s not quitting on the home AI solutions market. Not yet.

This will be a critical product for Microsoft, especially considering that its prolonged reluctance to revamp the Windows Mobile platform ultimately doomed its mobile business. It’s honestly looking to be a repeat of that performance, considering every Microsoft effort to embed its AI in consumers’ living rooms has been met with lukewarm response at best. The Xbox One launched with voice control and Cortana support, but was met with criticism over its expensive price tag, and the system’s over dedication of computing resources to its AI back end. Even Cortana integration on Windows isn’t taking off like Microsoft would like.

Trouble is, it’s a more fundamental issue that Microsoft has to overcome. People just don’t like using Bing over Google. Cortana’s entire solution is built off of the Bing search engine. So is Amazon’s Alexa, but it gives people the option to search Google instead, by way of its skills feature. Cortana isn’t the problem. In fact, Siri is often seen as the weakest of the competitors. But Cortana’s reliance on Bing for many of its features is what keeps people from jumping aboard.

Moreover, Microsoft’s services are often an isolated solution than a comprehensive platform. Most people who use Siri consolidate under the Apple brand. Most people who use Google consolidate under the Google banner. Amazon is much the same. The key is that these three companies have a presence on mobile which Microsoft sorely lacks. Their office suite of apps is a good start, but unless the company can get consumers to use its apps in lieu of Amazon, Google, and Apple’s, there’s no hope.

But Microsoft isn’t betting on itself. Microsoft is betting on its Azure enterprise clients to fill the void for them. They’re looking to use Azure as a way for developers to plug in seamlessly to the Cortana AI ecosystem they hope to build, working somewhat akin to Alexa’s skills. How well this will work is out in the open, but it’s an idea definitely worth exploring.

I like Microsoft. I really do. But their corporate decision making since the turn of the millennium has been rather questionable. Hopefully, with this MOU, they’ve set foot in the right direction.


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