We might be only midway through September but the world of consumer technology is already preparing for Christmas. Over the last few weeks, the technology giants have begun setting out their products for the holiday season.
The mobile device is the current king of the gadget world so the biggest fanfare is for new smartphones, tablets and phablets (yes, it’s a word; yes, I’m sorry about that too; and, yes, we’ll get to it in a minute.).
The highest profile event came last week when Apple announced not one but two new iPhones. The iPhone 5S is the new high-end model. It’s the first smartphone with a 64-bit processor, which will make it faster, particularly once developers start optimizing their apps for it. It also has a fingerprint sensor under the Home button, allowing you to unlock your iPhone and pay for iTunes purchases with a touch. The system, which Apple calls Touch ID, encrypts your fingerprint and never sends it to Apple or, more importantly, the US National Security Agency.
The final significant new feature is the M7 chip inside the 5S, which allows the device to track your movements so it can act as an activity monitor, similar to the Fitbit or Nike’s Fuelband. But if the device could replace your fitness wristband, then is it more or less likely that Apple is developing one of its own, the so-called iWatch? The M7 would be perfect for such a device but would an iPhone 5S user need one?
The iPhone 5S, which comes in black, silver or gold, now has a more colourful little brother. The iPhone 5C, replacing the current iPhone 5, comes in a range of bright colours and is, in the words of Apple’s design chief, Sir Jonathan Ive, “unashamedly plastic”. It’s also slightly cheaper than the iPhone 5 but not as cheap as some analysts had predicted. Nevertheless, expect it to fly off the shelves when the new iPhones launch on Friday.
Apple’s biggest rival, Samsung, held its launch event at the beginning of the month, announcing a new version of its Galaxy Note phablet. The name refers to the fact that it’s bigger than a phone and smaller than a tablet and, some would argue, not as useful as either. However, the Note has a significant fan base. Those who love it, really love it. The Note 3 has improvements to processor, memory and battery life, as well as a textured back and a range of special accessories.
The real headline grabber at the Samsung event, however, was the Galaxy Gear, the Korean firm’s smartwatch. Designed as a companion for the Note 3, the Galaxy Gear pairs to the phablet (that’s the last one, honest) via Bluetooth and transfers alerts from the device. Just put it to your ear and the built-in microphone and speaker will let you take a call or you can use the camera to take photos or video.
The Gear was greeted with a degree of puzzlement from some observers. Smartwatches have the potential to be an important new product category but a lot of people are still unsure why they would want one. Samsung’s effort will help to determine whether there is a demand. One obstacle could be battery life, which might not get you through a day of heavy use.
Before those announcements, Microsoft arranged to buy Nokia, or at least the part of Nokia that makes handsets. The 5.4 billion euro deal will be completed next year but it’s unclear whether the move is part of a change in approach by Microsoft or simply an entrenchment of the existing Windows Phone strategy, which has yet to see significant success. By making mobile hardware and software itself, Microsoft is adopting the Apple model, which it eschewed in the PC era.
One crucial part of the deal could be the transfer of Stephen Elop to Microsoft. Steve Ballmer, the US firm’s chief executive, announced at the end of August that he will step down in the next 12 months. Elop, a former Microsoft staffer, resigned as president and chief executive of Nokia, and is expected to move to Microsoft when the Nokia deal completes. Could he be in line for the top job?
All of the above overshadowed what was once the big technology show of the autumn, Berlin’s IFA. Like its American counterpart, CES, IFA has become less prominent as big brands follow Apple’s lead and hold their own special events. Nevertheless, plenty was announced in Berlin by the likes of Sony, Panasonic, LG and Lenovo. TechRadar has a good round-up.
Expect more product launches over the next six weeks, not least from Apple, which has yet to announce its 2013 iPads.
Author: Shane Richmond is a specialist in digital media, who writes about technology for the Forum:Blog.
Image: A journalists is seen testing the new iPhone 5S REUTERS/Jason Lee.