Oh, for another Jobs to give us a truly innovative mobile!

Tuesday March 1 2016

Visitors test smartphones during the Mobile

Visitors test smartphones during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 23, 2016, on the first day of the world's biggest mobile fair, which ended on February 25. AFP PHOTO 

By LARRY MADOWO
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Your mobile phone cannot make you tea after all these years, and honestly, that’s a shame. The first call on a mobile phone was made on April 3, 1973, yet phones appear destined only to let you play Candy Crush!

That said, they have slimmed down beautifully since that original 2kg hand-held gadget that John F. Mitchell and Martin Cooper of Motorola used.

In the last decade, the mobile phone has seen spectacular innovations, with some striking features. From a hardware standpoint, there are phones that you can dip in water and they’ll be fine, phones you can use to project a presentation, phones that carve at both ends of the screen for a beautiful visual edge, phones that you can use to track your heart rate and all manner of other nifty tricks.

Then there is software and everybody agrees that apps are eating the world. Google’s Android had 1.6 million apps as of July last year. Apple’s App Store has 1.5 million for its iPhones and iPads. Here’s the thing though: the mobile phone has stopped developing.

There’s nothing more to do with the device, it is now a shiny brick. Majors like Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG and Huawei have struggled to impress potential customers with groundbreaking features. Every new device is more a gimmick than an upgrade of the previous one.

BOTTOM OF THE PYRAMID

They thought customers wanted bigger screens, so they created a whole new category called a phablet – a portmanteau of phone and tablet. Now Apple is rumoured to be close to announcing a 4-inch iPhone SE to replace the 5S. There was a time front-facing cameras were all the rage, and who could make the best one.

At one launch event in Paris, France, Huawei proudly proclaimed theirs the best for groufies (group selfies). Smartphones have utterly failed at providing any semblance of a battery life worthy of the best engineering of the 21st century.

At Samsung’s S7 and S7 Edge announcement in Barcelona, Spain, last week, the Korean company showed off thicker devices with a larger battery. Everything has been done and you can’t help feeling underwhelmed by every new announcement.

The only exciting new developments in the mobile phone space are the attempts to bring smartphones to the lowest end of the market without cutting down on features.

One of the significant players in this area is Obi Worldphones, from former Apple CEO John Sculley. I listened to him last August in San Francisco, US, explain the design and engineering thinking behind an Apple-style phone but at Sh20,000 or less. New players like French company Wiko Mobile, as well as Chinese outfits ZTE and Xiaomi, are also making interesting inroads at the bottom of the pyramid.

Unless you want a gold-plated smartphone or a ridiculously overpriced luxury wearable (I’m looking at you $10,000 Apple Watch), there’s nothing happening to write home about.

That explains why the surprise appearance of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Samsung S7 announcement was so critical. They snuck him in while we were all wearing those big, Gear VR headsets so nobody saw him come in. When he got on stage, he got a rock star welcome before laying out the future of virtual reality.

His showcase of Oculus and the ways Facebook was innovating around virtual reality far outshone the launch of the new devices, and with good reason. Finally, here was a bona fide tech A-lister letting us in on a new world of new thinking using new technology to expand the reaches of the human experience.

DIMINISHING APPLAUSE

Like a moth to a light, I join more than 90,000 other people in Barcelona every year for the Mobile World Congress, described as “the biggest and most important mobile conference in the world”. Companies from every corner of the world fall over themselves to show off new products, to preview upcoming releases and generally outdo their competitor.

The marquée events are usually new device announcements by Samsung, Huawei, LG, HTC, ZTE and others. In the three years I’ve been going to Barcelona, the applause has become quieter and shorter. That is perhaps the best non-scientific proof that the hard-core mobile crowd is no longer as enthusiastic about new phones because they have seen it all.

Exuberant marketing types still use such colourful words like “reimagine” and “exciting” as well as “groundbreaking”, but these are almost never there. I still remember how truly revolutionary the iPhone was when Steve Jobs showed it to us in 2007.

The Motorola RAZR was the coolest device at the time but what Apple managed to do was completely rethink what a phone should be and we ended up with a true marvel. Somewhere along the line, BlackBerry and Nokia lost the plot as the ground shifted. What we need now is a new Steve Jobs to look at the mobile phone with a fresh pair of eyes.

***** 

CAPTAIN ALISTAIR PATRICK Llewelyn was caught on tape assaulting Corporal Mercy Wandera in Nyandarua and the outrage machine kicked in. Racism, they said, and sexism. Llewelyn was the deputy president’s pilot on that day and he was incensed that the policewoman “was not doing her job”, and the crowds were milling dangerously close to his helicopter. While he did not use any racial slurs, he was obviously worked up and used an expletive while demanding that she do her job.

DP William Ruto’s office quickly pointed out that he wasn’t an official employee and his employer fired him. The pilot was charged with assaulting an officer and is now out on bond, though he had to turn in his passport.

A few days later, a video of Domino’s Pizza Kenya CEO Eric André berating his employees at the fast-food outlet’s Fortis Tower branch with a barrage of expletives. “I wish to apologise sincerely for the abusive language that I used towards my staff. It was absolutely not acceptable and I deeply regret it,” he said in a replying video. “There was absolutely no racism.” From his accent, André is probably French and could be a good replacement for Gordon Ramsay, given his language. When is it racism, and when is it just passion?

 

******

Chris Rock true Oscars winner

LEONARDO DICAPRIO finally won an Oscar (narrowly beating the bear) for The Revenant, but the true winner was really host Chris Rock. He skewered Hollywood’s racism from his opening monologue all the way to the end, and all the nice White people had to laugh awkwardly in reaction shots. The 51-year-old African American comedian wasted no time addressing the controversy of #OscarsSoWhite and the snub of actors of colour for a second year.

“You realise if they nominated hosts I wouldn’t even get this job,” he said. “You’d be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.”

I’m surprised they let him focus on the Academy’s lack of diversity throughout the show, considering how divisive it is. “We want black actors to get the same opportunities.“ At the end of the show, he was still proving his point, declaring that Black Lives Matter before adding: “I want to invite you all to the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards this summer.”

 

Amidst the hype about democratisation, it’s important that the people of Africa understand that the military has outlived, and will outlive, democracy. The military is not a recent phenomenon like democracy. As Africans, the first criterion we must subject a presidential candidate to is, is s(he) commander-in-chief material? If the answer is no, forget about him or her. Where would Egypt be today without the military’s intervention. Perhaps in subsequent succession scenarios, Africans should groom potential commanders-in-chief and not presidents.

Benson

*****

Larry, your article was straight to the point, but I think Ugandans should take notes from Kenyans on how to remove a dictator. We did it to Daniel arap Moi in 2002. The only way to remove Yoweri Museveni is by the opposition forming a single party and rallying behind one man – Kizza Besigye, who is obviously the most popular. What Narc did to remove Moi; it is not rocket science. Museveni can fight one man, but he cannot fight a united opposition, can he?

Irene Oreta

*****

Larry, you advised Ugandans and the losers in the recently concluded presidential election to move on, Kenyan style. You sound like a supporter of the status quo. You indicated that anybody who has never been president should not dare challenge incumbency. That means Kizza Besigye, Amama Mbabazi and Raila Odinga should not think of becoming president.

I believe President Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidency in a hotly contested election in 2013. Had he been president before? His main challenger, Odinga, in your own view, should not even think of winning the presidency in future.

Since you support incumbency, you come out clearly as a supporter of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. If your advice were to be taken by Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s opponent over the years, it is clear that he should also forget about the presidency.

Meanwhile, let me also move on, Kenyan style.

Tom Nyamache