HTC Reportedly Building New Mobile OS Specifically For China Market, In Partnership With Chinese Government


HTC’s Hail Mary play might not take the form of another new smartphone: The Taiwanese company is reportedly working with Chinese government officials to build a mobile OS that includes “deep integration” with China-specific services like Weibo, aimed specifically at the Chinese market. The project could see the new mobile OS launch before year’s end, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news.

The report said it wasn’t clear whether HTC’s China OS would be forked from or based upon Android in some way, and a source speaking to the paper said that in fact the company has changed plans throughout the year regarding whether it would be something completely new, or just a new user interface based atop Google’s mobile OS. Already HTC has some devices using the OS in active testing, and prototypes are in the hands of Chinese government officials.

Attempting to partner with a company to build a partially homegrown OS solution isn’t a new move for China. The Chinese government recently partnered with UK-based Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu, to build a China-specific version of its own OS that likewise favored integrations with China-made apps and services. In general, the Chinese government has been actively trying to lessen reliance on foreign-made software. A white paper from China’s tech ministry released in March criticized its country’s over-reliance on the Google-made Android OS.

A strategic alliance with the Chinese government could help HTC secure some good lasting power even as it faces challenges in terms of worldwide market share and sales of its Android-based smartphones. It’s unlikely that its own China-specific OS will pose any major threat to the dominance of Android and iOS, especially in the short-term, but if China’s government is serious about putting lasting investment in home-grown alternatives that favor Chinese software and services, building significant market share early might not be a necessary component of its survival.

In other words, making yourself integral to a long-term China government plan for technological independence is probably a wise move for HTC in uncertain times, which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be better served by also improving its fortunes elsewhere in the world, too.

TechCrunch » android

Courting All Bookworms, Kobo Debuts 3 New Reading-Friendly Arc Tablets, A New Aura E-Reader, And A Plan To Gain An Edge Over Amazon

Kobo Arc 10HD angled right

Kobo, the e-reader and tablet company owned by Rakuten (aka Japan’s answer to Amazon), is today taking the covers off four new devices — three new Android-based Arc tablets and a new Aura e-reader. And it is using the occasion to kick off a redoubled effort to focus on a specific segment in the market — die-hard bookworms — to help itself gain an edge over Amazon and differentiate itself better in the market. Now, in addition to its catalogue of 4 million books, Kobo has built in integrations with Pocket, new reading-focused storefronts (starting with a store for children’s books and one for magazines), and two new Android feautures, a launcher Kobo calls “Reading Life” and a new Reading Mode, both designed to put reading front and center on tablets more than it has ever been done on tablets before.

“As Netflix is to video and Starbucks is to coffee, we want Kobo to be the name people think of for reading,” CEO Michael Serbinis said in an interview.

Aura E-Reader. Despite analyst speculation that e-readers are dying, they continue to be an important route to tapping dedicated customers, Serbinis tells me. “In the U.S. specifically there has been a slowdown in e-reader sales but for those who buy them we see very high purchase intent.”

And Serbinis notes that even if it sounds limiting to focus only on a small and shrinking segment of the market that are avid readers, so far this has actually paid off well in its e-reader lineup. When the company launched its limited edition, power-reader-friendly Aura HD e-reader earlier this year, sales expectations were not very high. “We thought that they would be one to four percent of sales,” he said. “The quickly became a quarter.”

If the existing Aura HD was an attempt to recreate some of the aesthetics of a hardback book experience, the new 6″ Aura launching today, Serbinis says, takes its cues from the world of tablets, with an edge-to-edge display, and at a thickness of 8mm and weight of 174g, a thinner and lighter body. Like the HD it is front-lit but without as high-resolution a screen.

New Arc tablets. Sebinis says that the three new tablets — 7″, 7″HD and 10″HD models, going on sale in October — are all multipurpose Android devices, running Jelly Bean and full of all the specs you would expect in devices like this. But like the Aura e-readers, they are built with a very specific intention in mind: targeting those who buy these devices to consume books, magazines and other reading materials. “We think there is a space for us. No tablet has really been designed for readers,” he notes.

Kobo came to this conclusion, he says, by canvassing users. “We have a lot of data from users around the world and those who download apps on our tablets read for minutes, not hours. They read once a week versus daily.” So Kobo asked its top 10,000 customers, why don’t the read on tablets? The answer, he says, was that it was too distracting. Too many alerts and other things happening on the screen, and “also they are generally too hard on the eyes, and weight is a problem. Basically, it’s pretty obvious tablets up to now have been multipurpose first and reading second.”

So Kobo decided to concentrate on these points. The screens on the HD devices, he says, are “better than Apple’s Retina display,” at up to 2560×1600 on the 10HD model. And on top of this, Kobo has developed a launcher that it calls “Reading Life.” This is essentially a user interface that sits on top of Android, that tracks what you’ve been reading, and offers recommendations for new titles to read, presented in a “Pinterest-style” scroll, he says. (It’s not an integration with Pinterest, although he doesn’t rule that out for the future. More on that below.) It’s in Reading Life that Kobo is also integrating Pocket, the app that lets users tag something online and save it to a list to read later. Swiping to the right takes you back to a “standard Android experience.”

On top of Reading Life, there is another reader-friendly service that Kobo is incorporating, which it is calling Reading Mode — essentially this is like an automatic airplane mode that you can turn on to cut off alerts from other applications, and at the same time it uses sensors on the device to optimise lighting on the screen. The third thing it does is automatically turn off all other processing functions on the device that is not needed for reading mode, also to help extend battery life. Serbinis says that Kobo has patents filed for this, and “We will be building this out as a feature on our devices” in the future.

Content. In addition to the new devices and the new reading applications, Kobo is kicking off its new strategy to present storefronts for specific reading categories. The first two coming out are for children’s literature, with 100,000 titles at launch, and magazines.

The magazine storefront, starting with “hundreds” of magazines from Hearst, Conde Nast and other top publishers, signals some other interesting developments for Kobo. It has been developed with technology from Aquafadas, a French startup it acquired last year that offers a technology for “guided” reading on magazines — essentially more tablet friendly than straight PDF renders but at the same time preserving the layout of the original magazines and therefore less like apps, Serbinis says.

I also asked Serbinis about a number of other topics, which give a bit more insight into how Rakuten, and Kobo, see their business developing in the future:

On forking. Absolutely no plans to follow Amazon and Barnes & Noble down this road, he says. “What we’ve found is that the customers looking for a device and everything that it can do. They don’t want to be shorthanded on all the things that their $ 199 or $ 299 will buy them. Theyt want access to gmail, YouTube and importantly Google Play apps. With the very first Kobo Arc we were pretty set on offering that and have not deviated. We see ourselves as a Google partner. Yes, we’ve provided Reading Life to make it great for reading but it’s open Android and upgradeable. We never went down that road on purpose.”

On Pinterest and other Rakuten holdings. This, of course, is one of Rakuten’s key, strategic investments, and Serbinis says that there are discussions with Pinterest already, but nothing concrete yet. “What makes Rakuten successful is that they’ve built an amazing ecosystem in Japan and they’re building that around the world. It’s a direction that we will support as Rakuten continues to expand, including preloaded shopping apps. It’s part of our future. When we think of some of these experiences, I’ve always thought that reading is an entry point, it’s how someone tells us, I’m interested in something. You can see the bridge from from content to commerce in that. One place you may see it first is in magazines. When you see an ad for a tennis racket in a paper magazine, you are at a dead end, but now all these tools are tappable. It’s a tap through to make a purchase or set up a demo or whatever. That kind of deeper integration is definitely in our sights.”

He notes that there are a couple of reasons why this is not there yet. “Part of this is technology and part of this is the industry catching up with tech and retooling. I suspect it’s within the next six months because the tools are now available with this launch the initial hurdle of getting that content. Now we’re through that it’s time to educate and help publishers leverage these tools to do the more fun and imaginative things.”

Wifi versus cellular? These tablets and the new e-reader remain Wifi only, he says. “We’ve talked to carriers pretty extensively and the price points are important. Offering 3g devices take you well beyond that price point and adding extra cost is not something that makes sense for us. But it’s not out of the question.” He says cellular connectivity will be important to crack certain markets. “In India you just don’t see the same kind of Wifi penetration that you do in the UK, U.S., and other countries. So 3G becomes more of an important feature to support so it’s something that we’re strongly looking at.”

Distribution. How best to battle Amazon on the retail front? Serbinis describes this task as “David battling Goliath,” and he says that the solution is “you have to leverage a bunch of friends.”

“While we don’t have the massive direct channel, we have partners that have the best book-buying and book-loving customers. For our competitor they are running out of direct channels as they expand internationally that means it’s more expensive for them.”

All the same, Kobo will be going “beyond booksellers” in the future. “We are looking to different kinds of partners, educational institutions, government and telcos. There are ways we can partner with them and being a neutral content provider is a pretty attractive thing.”

In the UK, the Kobo Aura is selling for £119.99, the Kobo Arc 10HD for £299.99, the Kobo Arc 7HD £159.99 with 16GB and £189.99 with 32GB and the Kobo Arc 7 for£119.99. Prices in the U.S. start at $ 150 for the 7″, non-HD tablet.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Syntellia Raises $3M To Make Fleksy The Default Keyboard For The New Generation Of Connected Devices


San Francisco-based startup Syntellia announced $ 3 million in Series A funding today, including investment from Highland Capital Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Middleland Capital and others. The new funding will help Syntellia drive development of Fleksy, the software keyboard it created that is currently available on Android devices, with expansion via iOS developer partners and to other kinds of gadgets and devices coming soon.

“It’s very easy to adapt our technology to different platforms and different input methods, like the Leap Motion,” explained Syntellia founder and CEO Kosta Eleftheriou in an interview. “All we need to do essentially is take the input and feed it through our algorithm. We take the points, or simulated points of touch and feed it to the algorithm and the rest just follows, because we built the software from the ground up to make it possible to determine where the keyboard was in a user’s mind.”

I’ve actually used Fleksy a number of times and it’s hard to explain Eleftheriou’s vision in action unless you’ve done so as well. It’s actually as simple as typing fast where you think your fingers need to hit on a device screen, using your ingrained muscle memory for QWERTY key positions, and the words just work themselves out. The keyboard has immense potential for use by vision-impaired users, and would likely easily be able to beat record-setting times in mobile device typing competitions, as Eleftheriou says that he can approach world record times without even really trying.

That ability to bridge our existing familiarity with standard hardware keyboards with an input method that makes sense for the future of computing, which isn’t tied to desktop and notebooks, is what attracted investors to Syntellia and Fleksy in the first place. It’s a bet not just on reinventing smartphone communication, but also on powering interfaces ranging from smart appliances to your in-car entertainment, navigation and information system.

In the near-term, there’s still the hurdle of getting Fleksy more presence on iOS, which is hard because Apple doesn’t allow users to switch default features and services like the software keyboard. Fleksy co-founder Ioannis Verdelis says that the company still has confidence that could change, and in the meantime they’re signing up developer partners to incorporate Fleksy into their own apps individually, the first examples of which will roll out soon.

“What Apple seems to do, is that when there’s a real innovation in the platform and compelling reason to open things up, they might do it,” he said. “For the time being, it’s very possible to replace the keyboard when you work with application partners, and it’s worth remembering that when the first Pandora app came out you couldn’t run music apps in the background.”

Fleksy is putting this funding into hires to help it acquire more subject-matter expertise in different categories of connected devices, and in general partnership and market expansion efforts. The company has clear vision, but becoming the next default in a veritable wild west of new connected devices (and other virtual keyboard options) will still be a tough mountain to climb, so more funding and backing from some big name partners definitely can’t hurt.

TechCrunch » android

Rumors Of Apple’s New A7 Chip Could Indicate That CPU Innovation Is Flagging


With every new iPhone, most of the discussion centers around its look and not what comes inside. But, according to reports, Apple has designed a new dual-core A7 system on a chip for the iPhone 5S. If rumors are true, the A7 could supposedly be 31 percent faster, representing a serious slowdown in spec improvement. It could indicate that the smartphone market may have matured and that existing smartphone owners won’t feel the urge to upgrade to a new model anymore.

When it comes to smartphone chips, Apple is a lone ranger. It has been designing its own ARM-based chips for a couple of years. It outsources production to Samsung and other manufacturers. But the important part is that only Apple devices use Apple chips. So far, this strategy has proven to be successful.

The iPhone 4S was twice as powerful as the iPhone 4, and had nine times the graphics processing capabilities. The iPhone 5 was once again twice as fast as the iPhone 4S, with twice the graphics performance. That’s why this year’s 31 percent performance boost is lackluster, it it turns out to be true. If the new iPhone is indeed called the iPhone 5S, the ‘S’ will probably not stand for ‘speed’.

On paper, Android phones are more powerful. Right now, the Snapdragon 800 and Tegra 4 both come with at least 4 cores and more raw power. But Apple doesn’t want to compete in the spec game.

The main advantage is that Apple can optimize the A7 for its own set of APIs, making it feel faster than it actually is. Even though Snapdragons have more GHz, iPhone apps are still fast because Apple takes advantage of its chip architecture like no one else. That’s why the gap isn’t as wide as expected. Moreover, Apple’s custom design strategy improves battery performance.

Apple needs to reduce both component costs and R&D costs

Yet, why were the A6 and the A5 much faster than their predecessors? Because smartphones were not as fast as Apple wanted them to be. If you want to use Siri or play nice games, you need the iPhone 4S. If you want to use the upcoming AirDrop feature, you need the iPhone 5. Today’s rumors could tell another story. Apple could think that the iPhone 5 can run everything perfectly fine, and there is no need to put more raw power. In other words, smartphones could have matured.

As smartphones get more widespread, Apple needs to reduce both component costs and R&D costs. The company can’t invest as much money in developing its new chips if smartphones become more and more commoditized products. The company wants to avoid hurting its margin more than it needs.

The A7 needs to be future-proof. While the iPhone 5C will not receive the A7 at first, entry-level iPhones will eventually get those rumored chips. It needs to be powerful enough and cheap enough so that Apple doesn’t have to develop yet another chip next year for its cheap iPhones.

If Apple judges that current chips are becoming fast enough to power iOS for years, iPhone users shouldn’t expect speed increases. Instead, the company will bet on new features and software updates. With market maturation coming soon, Apple faces a difficult challenge as well. How do you convince your customers to upgrade their phones?

The same thing happened for the iPod — they got lighter and lighter. In 2001, the original 5GB iPod was 6.5 ounces (184 grams). In 2004, the iPod mini was 3.6 ounces (102 grams). In 2005, the iPod nano was only 1.5 oz (42 grams). At this point, if you already had an iPod and used it as a portable music player, there was no real incentive to upgrade to a new one, except more gigabytes. The same thing is true for your microwave — you only buy a new one if your old one breaks.

Yet, there is one last thing that can be improved again and again on the iPhone — the camera. Everybody uses their phone as their primary camera. It’s the camera that you always have in your pocket. While it has greatly improved over the years, there’s still room for improvement — especially now that HiDPI displays are getting more popular. This single spec upgrade will make people upgrade.

That’s why the most interesting news of the day isn’t the A7 rumors, but the new dedicated chip for video capturing rumors. In addition to helping for image stabilization, it could allow you to take 120 fps videos.

If the iPhone 5S can shoot smooth slow-motion videos, it could be the feature that stands out and steals the show at Apple’s event. In fact, the ‘S’ could stand for ‘slow motion’.

The article was slightly edited to reflect the fact that the A7 specs are still unconfirmed.

(Image credits:, Wikimedia Commons)

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Motorola’s New Keyboard-Packing Droid 5 Reportedly Caught On Film


Motorola just showed off three new Droid smartphones last month (or, if you prefer, one new Droid and two spinoffs), but it’s apparently not done cranking out Verizon hardware just yet. Another new Motorola device clad in Verizon livery was spotted in a batch of newly leaked images from Chinese social network Weibo, and it seems to hearken back to the Droid line’s roots.

Unlike the trim, all-touch smartphones that Motorola has been enamored with lately, the most eye-catching feature of the alleged Droid 5 is the same sort of slide-out QWERTY keyboard its forebears also had. According to Engadget, the D5 also has a display between 4.3 and 4.5 inches and a body that’s resistant to dust and water.

I know, I know, it seems a little yawn-worthy at first glance (even for sliding keyboard suckers like me). Curiously enough, that big five-row keyboard isn’t the only difference between whatever this is and the other Droids that have just started hitting store shelves. One of the images depicts a camera interface complete with a discrete shutter button on the touchscreen, a UI flourish that doesn’t exist on either the Moto X or the Droid Ultra. That super-simple, touch-anywhere approach to snapping photos on the go is a feature Motorola brass have been talking up for a while now, so it’s quite surprising to see that the company may be mulling a reversion toward the mean.

If we’re lucky, that just means Motorola is still trying to lock down some of its UI experiences… though arguably a solution the company already worked out was the better way to go. The grimmer scenario is that the Droid 5 outright lacks some of the niceties its cousins have, which is certainly one way to compartmentalize a product portfolio. At this point there are still more questions than answers, but judging by the fit and finish of the phone in those images, it shouldn’t be too long before Motorola officially springs this thing on us and all our questions are answered.

TechCrunch » Gadgets