2013: The year the smartphone became boring


This may be remembered as the year smartphones became boring.
Although high-definition displays on smartphones have gotten bigger and their cameras have gotten better, the pace of gee-whiz innovation has dawdled.
Smartphone and software makers are working on ways to snap out of this technological lull, although it probably will be at least another year or two before breakthroughs revolutionize the design and function of mobile computing devices.
In a foreshadowing of things to come, LG Electronics Inc. is boasting about the G Flex (First impressions), a new phone with a curved display. Previously available in Korea and Singapore, the concave device arrived in Hong Kong on Friday.
"We want to claim this as the future of smart devices," Ramchan Woo, the head of LG's mobile product planning division, said during a recent demonstration in San Francisco.
If such visions are realized, smartphones and tablets will be equipped with display screens that can be rolled up like a scroll or folded like a wallet.
Making the devices even easier to carry around will be important if software makers want to deepen the bond between people and their phones. That could happen as smarter tracking tools and voice-recognition technology let smartphones understand habits and thoughts like a family member.
The future smartphone "will be small enough to carry with you at all times without thinking about it, and it will be essential enough that you won't want to get rid of it," Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo said. "It will become a context engine. It will be aware of where it is, where you are going and what you need."
The G Flex provides a peek at the shape of things to come. Despite its name, the G Flex isn't pliable. The device is slightly bowed from top to bottom, allowing it to curve toward a person's mouth when used for phone calls. It also has a curved battery, something LG says is a first for smartphones. LG applied a "self-healing" protective coat on the G Flex to automatically repair any minor scratches.
More than anything, the G Flex is meant to begin the smartphone's evolution from the primitive state of flat screens. In theory, the curved-screen technology will lead to bendable screens, which will then pave the way to foldable screens. If that progression plays out, it would be possible to fold a larger smartphone so it can easily fit into a pocket.
For now, though, the G Flex's size makes it too cumbersome for most people to lug around. It has a six-inch screen, measured diagonally, making it among the largest phones out there. The cost also will limit its appeal. LG introduced the G Flex in its home country of South Korea last month for $940. LG wants to sell the G Flex in the U.S., but hasn't set a date or price or reached distribution deals with any wireless carriers.
Another Korean company, Samsung Electronics Inc., also is selling a concave smartphone there. Unlike the G Flex's vertical bow, Samsung's Galaxy Round (Review) curves horizontally from left to right when it's held upright. With a price tag of about $1,000, the phone is more an expensive novelty than a mainstream product.

Like LG, Samsung is setting the stage for bigger things to come. Samsung Vice Chairman Kwon Oh-hyun told analysts last month that the company believes it can produce a mobile device with a foldable display by 2015.
Samsung appears to be working on two slightly different concepts, according to two analysts who saw prototypes of what's in the company's product pipeline during last month's meetings. Reporters weren't given a chance to see the prototypes. One featured a tablet-sized display panel that could be folded in half in the screen's midsection, according to the analysts. The display was thin and could be folded in only one direction. The rest of the panel was firm and flat, the analysts said. Another version had a more flexible screen capable of bending anywhere.
An Apple Inc. blueprint for making a device with a curved display was granted a U.S. patent this week, a development likely to feed recent speculation that the iPhone maker is working on a concave model. The Cupertino, Calif., company declined to comment.
Other device makers may show off products with curved screens in Las Vegas next month at CES, where tech companies often unveil their latest innovations.
Building smartphones with more pliable screens will pose several challenges for manufacturers. The battery, smartphone chips and other key components will have to become flexible, too, so they can bend with the device. Flexible screens also will probably be made of plastic, a material more likely to degrade or fail when exposed to high temperatures, oxygen or water.
The push to turn smartphones into more intelligent devices appears to be further along than the attempts to transform the display screens.
Both Apple and Google Inc., the maker of the Android operating system and the world's dominant search engine, already offer voice recognition technology and virtual assistants that enable smartphones to engage in rudimentary conversations and offer helpful tips. The ultimate goal is for smartphones to become so intuitive and efficient that they reflexively cater to their owners' needs.
"You'll be speaking to the phone, asking it to do things, and it will be responding and actually doing what you intend," said Dennis Woodside, CEO of Google's device-making subsidiary, MotorolaMobility.
The technological advances could border on the supernatural, according to IDC analyst Ramon Llamas. He expects the future relationship between people and their phones to be akin to fictional billionaire Tony Stark's connection with the computer-controlled armor that he dons to become Iron Man, a comic-book hero popularized in a trilogy of movies starring Robert Downey Jr.
If Llamas is right, future smartphones will become a person's navigator, security blanket, counselor and talisman. Without a smartphone to come to the rescue, a person may even feel reduced to being a mere mortal.

India lags behind Bhutan, Nepal and Zimbabwe in Internet download speeds

The Internet infrastructure in India is improving with broadband speeds going up, though penetration is still low due to the high cost of bandwidth. However, the country still lags behind countries like Bhutan, Cambodia, Nepal, Nigeria, Laos and Zimbabwe when it comes to Internet download speeds.
According to Ookla's Net Index, the average download speed in India was 4.18Mbps, ranking it at 130th position. In contrast, the average download speed in Nigeria was 5.14Mbps, while Nepal had an average download speed of 4.92Mbps, Cambodia had 4.66Mbps, Laos had 4.73Mbps, Bhutan had 4.41Mbps, and Zimbabwe had 4.20Mbps.
The top five positions were taken by Hong Kong at 71.22Mbps, Singapore at 52.75Mbps, Romania at 50.26Mbps, South Korea at 47.20Mbps and Sweden at 42.35Mbps in terms of download speeds. The US ranked 31 with an average download speed of 20.74Mbps, while the global average was 16.20Mbps.
Countries such as Afghanistan, Malawi, Cuba, Benin and Gambia were at the bottom with average download speeds of 1.13Mbps, 1.16Mbps, 1.21Mbps, 1.36Mbps and 1.46Mbps, respectively.
In terms of upload speeds, India's position was a little better as it ranked at 93rd position with an average upload speed of 2.91Mbps. Hong Kong recorded the highest average upload speed at 58.99Mbps, followed by South Korea at 40.06Mbps, Singapore at 37.14Mbps, Macau at 36.48Mbps and Andorra at 35.98Mbps. The US recorded an average upload speed of 6.30Mbps while the global average was 7.08Mbps.
According to Ookla, the company that offers Speedtest.net and its mobile apps which help in comparing and ranking consumer download speeds around the globe, the data is based on over 1.5 billion records. The company claims this is the largest number of broadband speed and quality results ever compiled.
As per the company, the results are based on millions of recent test results from Speedtest.net. "The value is the rolling mean throughput in Mbps over the past 30 days where the mean distance between the client and the server is less than 300 miles," it informs.

Google officially launches its election portal in India

After Facebook, Google has jumped on the bandwagon of polls in India, the world's biggest democracy, by setting up an election portal that gives all polls and politics related news to users in India.
The US-based search engine major Thursday launched its election portal which also provides information on political parties.
"Election portal will serve as a one-stop destination to help voters get answers to their elections and voting-related queries to make an informed decision," Google said in official blog.
In the first phase of the launch, the portal will cover news information and videos related to state elections in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mizoram covering news from leading publications and broadcasters both in English and Hindi.
Users will also be able to watch content hosted by YouTube partners on elections and links to Hangouts done by political representatives in the recent past.
Earlier this month, social networking site Facebook joined hands with the Association for Democratic Reforms to help the voters access election candidates' criminal, financial, educational, professional information directly on their mobile via Facebook using USSD technology.
Facebook launched 'Register to Vote' feature, which seeks to promote its users to exercise their voting rights.
The feature encourages users to add on his/her Facebook timeline as a life event that the person has registered to vote and share this story with other connected users.
With over 200 million Internet users in the country, the Internet audience in India has reached a critical scale and it will play an important role in influencing decisions of a large proportion of the urban Indian population in the upcoming elections, Google said.
"Elections related search queries on Google have shown a considerable increase and the interest in news information related to elections and politics have started to peak," Google India Head of Public Policy and Government Relations Chetan Krishnaswamy said.
Leading political parties are active on most social media platforms, and users will be able to access all information sent out by the political parties on platforms like YouTube, Google+ and connect directly with the candidates in their constituency, he added.

Nokia's 6 New Exciting Devices

 Nokia, on a mission to regain its old glory is churning out variety of models in short time span. The latest ones to join this list is the first ever Lumia tablet and two models of Lumia phablets. Adding to it, the company has also released three new models under the prominent Asha series. The gadgets were unveiled during the Annual Nokia World event hosted at Abu Dhabi. Here are the 6 new exciting models that will hit India soon, as compiled by TOI.

# 6 Nokia Lumia 2520

Lumia 2520 is the ever first tablet released by Nokia. The makers have added a 10 inch wide screen displaying HD images at 1080 pixel guarded with Gorilla glass 2 protection. The gadget is running Windows-RT and packs a 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor under the hood. The tablet has 2GB of RAM coupled with 32GB built-in memory and houses a 6.7MP primary camera and a 2MP secondary camera. The other features of Lumia 2520 include 4G-LTE connectivity, free SkyDrive storage and two USB ports. The device houses 8000mAh battery case and also has an additional battery which can provide charge for another extra 5 hours. The device comes in red, white, cyan and black color variants and has free apps like Nokia’s story teller, Video director and Microsoft office preinstalled.

#5 Nokia 1520

The debut phablet from the Finnish manufacturer runs on Windows 8 mobile OS and has a 6 inch wide HD display screen with 1920 X 1080 pixel resolution. Nokia 1520 is fueled by a 2.2Ghz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor coupled with 2GB RAM and 32GB expandable memory. The phablet sports a 20MP OIS camera with PureView technology and supports NFC connectivity. A 3,400mAh battery provides uninterrupted power supply for the device.

#4 Nokia 1320

Nokia 1320 is also one among the newly released phablet with a 6 inch wide screen display at 720 pixel resolution. The gadget is powered by a dual-core Krait processor coupled with 1GB RAM. The Micro-SD card allows the user to expand the 8GB built-in memory upto 64GB. The other features of the phablet include a 5MP rear snapper, VGA front facing unit and 4G-LTE connectivityThe model comes in orange, yellow, black and white color and is powered by a 3,400mAh battery.

#3 Nokia Asha 500

The gadget comes in both single and dual SIM variants and sports a 2.8 inch capacitive display screen. Asha 500 has 64MB of RAM and supports upto 32GB of expandable memory. A 2MP camera can be sported on the rear side of the device. The new model supports connectivity features including bluetooth 3.0 with SLAM, AV jack, WLAN and micro-USB.

#2 Nokia Asha 502

Nokia Asha 502 is a dual-SIM phone featuring a 3-inch capacitive QVGA screen and a 5MP primary camera with LED flash. The gadget includes 64MB of RAM which is expandable upto 32GB with the assistance of an Micro-SD card slot. The makers have added bluetooth 3.0 with SLAM, AV jack, WLAN and micro-USB connectivity into the device.

#1 Nokia Asha 503

Nokia Asha 503 is the first phone under Asha touchscreen series to provide 3G support. The gadget houses a 3 inch display screen with Corning Gorilla Glass 2 protection and comes in single SIM and Easy Swap dual-SIM variants. Similar to other new release Asha phones, Asha 503 as has 64MB of RAM with expandable memory upto 64GB. The gadget supports connectivity features including bluetooth 3.0 with SLAM, AV jack, WLAN and micro-USB.

Review: Google Plus thoughtful answer to Facebook

My first thought about Google Plus: "Here we go again." After Google's earlier attempts at social networking failed spectacularly, it was easy to scoff at this seeming Facebook wannabe.

Its "Picasa ultimatum" didn't help much either. If you have an account with Picasa, Google's photo-sharing service, the first thing Google asks is whether you'd want to share your Picasa photos. Say no, and you're not allowed to sign up at all. That seemed unnecessarily harsh.

But I quickly became addicted to Google Plus, a free service that the company is testing with a small group of users for now. It has smart and thoughtful solutions to some irksome limits entrenched in other social-media sites, mainly related to privacy settings and how to share links and posts with groups.

Google Plus seems aimed at people who are more interested in sharing things with people or groups with similar interests rather than simply amassing the biggest number of online "friends." Its seamless integration with other Google services you may use, from search to online documents, makes it easier to share things online.

I found privacy settings much easier to manage on Google Plus than on Facebook. The Picasa ultimatum forced me to learn about the settings. After all, the first thing you're likely to do after joining is limit who can see your photos.

Privacy - deciding whom you share different posts with - seems to be top of mind on Google Plus. That's a relief after Google's earlier debacle with Google Buzz, which had arrived unsolicited and initially created circles of friends automatically based on whom 
they've corresponded with on Gmail. That meant your boss could see lists of people you've been corresponding with for a new job.
With Google Plus, no one gets added automatically. Once you sign up, you add people - similar to how you follow people on Twitter. 
Then, rather than throwing everyone into the same bucket, you choose a circle to put them in.

Four circles are standard: "friends," "family," "acquaintances" and "following." You can follow anyone without being accepted, whereas Facebook requires the consent of both sides.

You can create new circles, too, such as "co-workers" and "cousins." Facebook has customizable groups, as well, but I found the groups on Google Plus much easier to use and quicker to navigate.

Separating people into categories can seem awkward at first. I felt impolite putting people in "acquaintances" rather than "friends" even though no one can see which circle you put them in. But once you get used to it, you can easily share photos of your beach vacation with just your friends - your actual friends, not the broad Facebook definition. Those photos could be off-limits to your boss or your great aunt Zelda, say.

Any post or link goes only to the circle or circles you designate, and you can drill down to sharing with just one or two people, or no one. You can also make a link public to share it with everyone - including people who have added you to their circles but whom you haven't added to yours.

However, the privacy settings aren't perfect. Although you can choose to share a post with a limited number of people, the recipients can re-share the post further. It takes some digging to figure out that you can disable re-sharing by clicking on an icon to the right of a post. Google Plus is in very early testing, so these types of settings could still change.

Unlike Facebook, Google Plus also lets you edit posts after you post them and decide for each post whether to allow comments, a feature I liked.

Two other features, the ability to group video chat via webcam, called a "Hangout," and the ability to chat with a group, called a "Huddle," have proven to have so much appeal that Facebook quickly followed suit. The company said Wednesday that it will also roll out group chatting and video chatting by teaming with Internet phone company Skype. It will be interesting to see if Facebook ends up adding other Google Plus features.

Other facts: Google Plus has a "+1" button rather than a "Like" button, but the feature is similar. The only difference is, once you sign up for Google Plus, you see this "+1" button next to every single Google search item, which feels a bit Big Brother-ish.

On that note, whenever you are on the main Google site or any of its progeny, you also have a black Google bar across the top of your browser, with a Google Plus link. That makes it easy to log on at odd moments. A red notification box alerts you to Google Plus activities, such as when people add you to one of their circles.

Google Plus has a few gaping holes.

For example, you can't search ... yet. And there are no addictive third-party apps such as "FarmVille," which people have sunk countless hours playing on Facebook.

Another thing you can't do easily, strangely, is send a message. To do that you have to create a post and only select one person to see it. It's not rocket science, but with Facebook you can simply click on a person's profile and send a message instantly. I realize 
Gmail is a button click away, and Google Plus is intended to be a sharing site rather than a full-service social media site, but I still wanted this feature.

Overall, in my early testing, I find Google Plus a compelling answer to some existing problems in social media. Because of its integration with other Google services and its general ease of use, I would probably prefer using Google Plus to Facebook or Twitter.

But it all depends on how many people sign up. A sharing site isn't much fun if no one is around to share with. For now, I can't invite friends to join. Google Plus is free, but the company is restricting new sign-ups. Even those who already got a coveted invite are told to try joining later because Google Plus had exceeded its capacity.

That points to widespread interest the service and its potential to challenge Facebook. Unlike Google Wave and Google Buzz, which never resonated with users, Google Plus does seem more attuned to what people actually want.

As my co-worker put it, Google Plus is the "grown-up Facebook."

Do we really need that? We'll see.