Google now has a boss for its virtual reality business

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Google confirmed to VentureBeat late Tuesday that Clay Bavor, VP for product management and one of the execs behind Google Cardboard, will head up the company’s virtual reality team.

The confirmation comes after Re/code sparked a frenzy of reporting on the move earlier on Tuesday.

“We can confirm Clay’s new role on the VR team, but we are not providing any additional comment at this time,” Google spokesman Joshua Cruz told us in an email.

The appointment of Bavor is seen as a sign of greater commitment by Google to developing its own VR tech going forward, a potentially lucrative field that — by all appearances — is soon to be dominated by Facebook’s Oculus, HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s Playstation VR — all expected to launch this Spring.

Microsoft, too, is working on augmented reality tech with HoloLens, though that’s predicted to still be at least half a decade away.

Arguably, Google’s real push into VR is also years away from seeing the light of day — virtual reality startup Magic Leap, which Google led a $542 million investment round into back in October 2014, keeps fairly quiet about its progress.

In its coverage of Bavor’s appointment, The Wall Street Journal specifically interprets the move as signalling Google’s attempt “to keep up with some of its rivals in the rapidly expanding world of virtual reality.”

Meanwhile, Reuters notes that “Google has been flirting with virtual reality, but never quite fully dived into it until now.”

As for Google Cardboard, in just the past few months the company has released a virtual White House tour, and launched a Cardboard Camera app for making 3D panoramas with your Android phone.

It also gave away Star Wars-themed viewers in the run up to the release of The Force Awakens. And in November, Google made every YouTube video compatible with Cardboard (though we found the experience is still underwhelming).

In one of its biggest marketing wins, The New York Times partnered with Google in October to give out more than one million free Cardboard viewers. But Oculus founder Palmer Luckey isn’t impressed: he compared Cardboard to “muddy water” last month, while calling Oculus “fancy wine.”

Cheeky. Perhaps Bavor will help change that.

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Uber’s China rival Didi Kuaidi now allows ridehailing within any third-party app

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China’s top ridehailing service, Didi Kuaidi, today rolled out its public SDK (software development kit) enabling third-party apps in the country to bake in the ability to hail a Didi ride from within their own apps.

It comes just days after Didi claimed 1.43 billion rides in 2015. By comparison, it took Uber six years to hit the billion-rides milestone, but Didi admittedly offers more services than Uber — including traditional taxi tie-ups and even buses.

Hailing a Didi ride from within the Tencent Maps mobile app

Above: Hailing a Didi ride from within the Tencent Maps mobile app

Image Credit: Didi Kuaidi

Uber’s China unit, which just raised more cash this week at a $7 billion valuation (Uber keeps its China operations separate from its main U.S. entity), similarly rolled out its public API to developers in China in September — likewise enabling third-party apps to hail an Uber.

Didi says it’s already been piloting the feature in apps including Tencent Maps, WeChat, AliPay, and on-demand service provider Dianping, among others. Uber already enjoys integration with Baidu Maps.

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LG bets big on solar amid ‘unclear’ future as mobile and TV growth slows

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LG told VentureBeat today that its newly-announced $435 million investment to ramp up its solar cell/panel manufacturing output represents a hedging of its bets as smartphones and TVs enter a “mature period of commoditization.”

Under the South Korean electronics giant’s new plans, it will ramp up its current solar output capacity from 1GW to 1.8GW by 2018, and 3GW by 2020. That latter figure is equivalent to the electrical power consumed by one million households, LG said.

“One thing you will learn about Korean conglomerates is that they tend to invest big when times are tough or the future unclear,” LG’s global communications director, Ken Hong, told us in an email.

LG is said to be supplying the OLED screens for Apple’s upcoming iPhone 7 alongside Samsung, and in November announced plans to invest $8.7 billion in a new OLED plant. That makes today’s figure of $435 investment sound relatively small in the grand scheme on things.

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“This is the how the likes of Samsung, Hyundai, and LG have leapfrogged the competition in the past decade to become global brands. Western companies, on the other hand, tend to batten down the hatches when times are tough to protect shareholders. Korean companies do not exist solely to appease shareholders.”

LG cites data from IHS forecasting global solar demand will grow from 68GW this year to 82GW by 2019.

IDC predicted in August that worldwide smartphone growth would slow to 10.4 percent in 2015, down from 27.5 percent a year earlier. In November, LG said its core businesses, including mobile and TV, will be more independent this year.

That was part of its attempt to “respond quickly and decisively to market conditions and business growth opportunities” under new leadership.

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Notably, at the time of the leadership changes LG cited energy as a key growth area for its future operations: “Complementing [our] ongoing leadership in televisions, mobile devices and appliances, high-growth areas such as automotive components, energy, IT, and B2B are expected to drive more of LG’s growth going forward.”

That said, LG hasn’t exactly been quiet on the smartphone front. Last year, it partnered with Google to build the well-received Nexus 5X, and its flagship LG G4 smartphone and the slightly larger LG V10 have also been well received by the industry at large.

Its new 4K OLED TV, meanwhile, stole the show at CES 2016 last week, measuring in at just 2.5mm thick — or four credit cards stacked together.

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Hulu shares Valve’s sentiments on VR: ‘We just want to learn’

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Hulu executive Ben Smith said that the video-streaming service “just wants to learn” as it ramps up its virtual reality push, during comments given at CES 2016 last week.

That rather strongly echoes earlier comments from Valve writer, Chet Faliszek, in May last year, who said: “When it comes to VR, we don’t know anything.”

Valve is working in partnership with HTC to bring the Vive VR headset to market this spring. Hulu likely has plans to release an app on the Vive.

“None of us know what the hell we are doing,” Valve’s Faliszek said last year. “So we want to share what we’re doing and what we learned along the way.”

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Hulu, which announced its push into VR last autumn with an app on the $99 Samsung Gear VR headset, is preparing to unveil its VR products this Spring. That will include content for headsets and apps.

Smith, who is Hulu’s head of experience, was quoted by Variety as saying:

We are spending a lot of time on virtual reality. We are spending a lot of time in incubation. Trying things, seeing what works, what doesn’t work… Really spending attention to the dividing line between an experience that feels good for the first five minutes, and what you are actually going to do habitually. Day after day, or what you are going to do for two or three hours… Maybe we don’t release it [our new VR content] right away, maybe we archive it. But you are gonna start seeing some stuff from us this spring on VR, on the core experience of VR for video and also some content as well… We are setting our expectations appropriately. This is about early adopters. This is going to be about a lot of advanced technology, a lot of people who come from gaming. It’s not for Mom and Pop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa yet. But it will get there. So we just want to learn now.

Netflix is also known to be working on VR.

CEO Reed Hastings, also speaking at CES last week, said the that while Netflix has “no concrete plans” to deliver 3D virtual reality content, it will ensure that its existing content can at least be watched on VR devices. It also has an app available on the Samsung Gear VR.

The combination of VR and AR (augmented reality) could be a $150 billion industry as soon as 2020.

In any case, it’s refreshing to hear top execs from giants like Hulu admitting that VR is entirely alien territory, and that they essentially have no clue what they’re doing. That’s what makes it — and any new tech — so exciting.

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HTC Vive’s year of uncertainty

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HTC’s Vive VR, Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, and Playstation VR are the three big virtual reality headsets from major tech companies that are getting ready to disrupt your living room this year. But for one of the three — *cough*HTC*cough* — the push into VR is arguably more about short-term survival, as its smartphone business continues to decline.

In fact, HTC’s cofounder, Cher Wang, this week specifically said that the “more realistic” company is refocusing its efforts on VR and away from smartphones. “Yes, smartphones are important,” Wang told The Telegraph in an interview on Monday. “But to create a natural extension to other connected devices like wearables and virtual reality is more important.”

Following CES, we now know that the $599 Oculus will begin shipping to original Kickstarter backers on March 28. Playstation VR, meanwhile, possibly priced at $1,125 (based on a leaked Amazon listing), still has no confirmed shipping date — or official price, for that matter. Preorders for HTC’s Vive begin February 29 ahead of April shipping, but there is no confirmed pricing, as of now. Expect that soon.

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It’s been an uncertain past 12 months for the HTC Vive.

The Taiwanese company announced the Vive VR headset in partnership with U.S. gaming company Valve during its Mobile World Congress keynote in Barcelona in March of last year. This after Oculus declined HTC’s offer to work together on VR technology back in 2012. Who would have guessed that Facebook would buy the small startup just two years later for $2 billion? At the time of the Barcelona announcement, HTC estimated that the Vive would be available for purchase by the end of that year (2015).

Vive delivers optimal experience

In the keynote, the company claimed Vive would “redefine the gaming experience” and said it was working with the likes of Google, HBO, and Lionsgate to create video content for the platform. By March, our own writer Jeff Grub called the Vive “the most believable virtual reality experience yet.”

Writing about his experience of using an early prototype of the Vive that month at the GamesBeat 2015 Game Developers Conference, Grubb continued: “I’m looking over the edge of a derelict sea vessel. It’s lying on the ocean floor, and I’m standing on its deck as sea life swims around me. As I look long into the abyss and feel vertigo begin to grip me, the voice of the Valve employee running the demo tells me to look left. I have to duck as a humpback whale swims up to me.”

HTC_Vive

By April, things were moving along steadily as Valve launched its OpenVR developer kit for virtual reality hardware makers. Our games writer Dean Takahashi called it “a big step toward enabling developers to start making VR applications that run on a variety of Valve Steam VR devices” — the most important, of course, being HTC’s upcoming Vive.

There had been concerns that VR tech would make the user feel “seasick” — but the very next month, we learned that HTC had achieved an experience that wasn’t at all unpleasant or nausea-inducing. In fact, Valve programmer Jeep Barnett told us at the time that the precision of the Vive system is purposely designed to minimize motion sickness. “That’s always a plus when you don’t throw up,” Takahashi wrote following his hands-on with device.

With growing interest from the gaming community in May, Valve writer Chet Faliszek — perhaps best known for titles like Left 4 Dead, Half-Life, and Portal — reminded developers and studios that, “When it comes to VR, we don’t know anything.” In other words, VR is still a medium in its infancy and everyone has to work together to come up with ideas. “None of us know what the hell we are doing,” he said. “So we want to share what we’re doing and what we learned along the way.”

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We actually produced a 5,000 word report on the VR and AR (augmented reality) industries around the middle of last year, with the Vive being one of the products cited. You can check that out here.

Delays and…more delays

In a move that left many fans disappointed, Valve announced that it would not be showcasing any products (namely the HTC Vive) during the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show in Los Angeles in June. HTC, likewise, had no official presence at the show. Bummer.

By August, news of delays were kicking in. That was when we learned that a scheduled November launch had been pushed back to a far more vague “first quarter of 2016.” It also made clear to the industry that any dream of HTC beating Oculus to the market was unlikely. At the time, we already knew that Oculus was eyeing a Q1 2016 release. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it left many wondering if HTC would really be able to deliver on its lofty VR promises. Reports about layoffs at the company were highly cited.

HTC Vive virtual reality headset, which uses Steam VR.

Above: HTC Vive virtual reality headset, which uses Steam VR.

Image Credit: Valve

But now, writing with the benefit of hindsight in early January 2016, it’s apparent that HTC is finally nearing delivery of its long-awaited VR offering. It seems unlikely that there will be any other major delays at this point. (Emphasis: unlikely.)

The future of VR

While entertainment and gaming have remained at the forefront in reports on HTC’s Vive, it’s worth noting that the company itself pointed out in an August blog post “rumblings of the potential of VR in medical science and training, architecture, and other areas many of us haven’t even considered.” That was around the same time that we reported HTC cofounder Peter Chou was joining a Hong Kong visual effects studio, in what appeared to be a strategic partnership centered around VR.

HTC told me in an email at the time: “[We’re] working with over a hundred content developers on our world-class virtual reality platform, such as our collaboration with WEVR. HTC has different levels of engagement with these strategic partners; Peter currently holds a directorship with one of our partners to assist them in steering the global development of virtual reality content and production. HTC will continue to seek good partnership opportunities that provide synergy for our innovative technologies.”

Vive was back in the headlines in late October when the movie Paranormal Activity enjoyed a VR demo on HTC’s headset at a few AMC Theaters in the U.S. Our writer Jeff Grub commented at the time that Paramount Pictures, the studio behind Paranormal Activity, wasn’t alone in using VR tech to “stand out from the crowd.” Other studios, including Lionsgate, have used similar VR promotions for their films.

Epic CEO Tim Sweeney had predicted during the GamesBeat 2015 conference that we’ll see “a ton of very fun-but-small games to play” at the dawn of the VR revolution, ushered in by the likes of Vive, Oculus, and Playstation VR. That will be a great opportunity for developers, he said, but it will also lead to “very high-quality game experiences” for consumers as competition grows.

By November, there were more grumblings about delays at Vive. But the same month, we reported that venture capital firms and other businesses had pumped more than $1 billion into AR and VR tech companies in the 12 months prior. And, if all goes smoothly, HTC will be one of the early proponents of the technology able to enjoy a VR/AR market worth a forecast $150 billion by 2020.

Promise of a brighter future?

As December rolled by, the delayed April launch of Vive was officially announced — a date that, thankfully, hasn’t changed at the time of writing. But the April launch also left Vive conclusively lagging behind Oculus, with its March entry into the market. HTC’s commitment to make 7,000 headsets available to developers prior to launch remained in place, but, again, concerns around the company’s future surfaced — it had just cut 2,900 jobs in August.

In a blog posting at the time, HTC again stressed that Vive’s application would not just be limited to entertainment and gaming, but would also span uses in “medical, education, and retail” fields. Also in December, the cocreator of hit mobile game Farmville and a former HTC executive announced a new $10 million seed fund for VR games and apps.

This just about takes us up to January (now). So far this month, we’ve heard that HP is partnering with HTC to build virtual reality gaming PCs, slated to be available from the 16th of this month at a starting price of $1,700. Meanwhile, one report last week pegged consumers spending about $5.1 billion on VR hardware and software this year — outside of Oculus and Vive purchases.

In any case, it looks like HTC has a winner with the Vive, and 2016 will be the year when its VR push could finally change the company’s fortunes — even if it takes hilarious marketing videos to help consumers understand what VR is all about. Because, as our writer Jeff Grub pointed out recently: “No one knows how to sell virtual reality yet.” But, he conceded, “HTC is in no way alone in struggling to market VR.”

While we can certainly expect 2016 to be a year of challenges for HTC and the Vive, we can also expect the Vive to start bearing fruit as the VR industry finally begins to look like something beyond mere speculation and conceptual ramblings. That’s assuming, of course, that the Vive doesn’t end up costing $1,500.

Could VR be what makes HTC “quietly brilliant” once again?

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Grindr bootstrapped for 7 years before landing today’s $93 million investment

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In a period where venture capital investment seems to be flowing like champaign at an oil tycoon’s latest yacht party (though perhaps not for much longer), Grindr is a refreshing exception — and, arguably, a beacon of hope to tomorrow’s startups.

The gay dating app’s founder and CEO, Joel Simkhai, announced today that the startup has secured a $93 million investment from Chinese gaming giant Beijing Kunlun Tech Company in return for a 60 percent stake, valuing Grindr at $155 million.

That’s after “nearly seven years… of self-funded [growth]”. Or, in other words, seven years of bootstrapping. I wouldn’t be the first to highlight this extraordinary journey.

Joel Simkhai, Grindr's founder and CEO

Above: Joel Simkhai, Grindr’s founder and CEO

Image Credit: Joel Simkhai

“For nearly seven years, Grindr has self-funded its growth, and in doing so, we have built the largest network for gay men in the world,” Simkhai said.

“Most importantly, none of this growth and change would have been possible without the hard work of our Grindr employees and partners, who have made so much happen in just under seven years, and keep me inspired every day to keep growing our brand.” One other notable executive gave a big nod to employees this week.

Grindr now clocks two million daily active users across 196 million countries, and generated $32 million in revenues in 2014, representing a year-on-year growth of nearly 30 percent. Incredibly, users spend an average of 54 minutes of the app per day.

Kunlun’s chairman, the 38-year-old (straight!) Yahui Zhou, is estimated to be worth $1.7 billion according to Bloomberg.

Simkhai stayed humble regarding the investment: “We have taken this investment in our company to accelerate our growth… It will generally be business as usual for us here at Grindr, but with a renewed sense of purpose and additional resources.”

However, as both the BBC at AFP point out, Los Angeles-based Grindr has not specified whether it plans to introduce its app in China, where homosexuality was officially classed as a psychiatric disorder until 2001.

Some tech industry commentators, including Josh Horowitz over at Quartz, argue that by investing in Grindr, Kunlun is “following in the footsteps” of the fellow Chinese Internet companies including Tencent (owns stakes in Snapchat) and Alibaba (funded mobile messenger Tango.)

Despite the cash and strong growth numbers, apps like Tinder and Grindr still face challenges.

This week, we learned that reports of crimes mentioning either app (including rape) have increased sevenfold in two years in England and Wales. That, though, didn’t stop both apps being among the most-used at CES last week, alongside the likes of Facebook Messenger, Twitter, and Snapchat.

With venture capital possibly slowing, it may be time for more startups to follow Grindr’s example and get bootstrappin’.

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David Bowie dead at 69: star’s official social media accounts confirm lost battle with cancer

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David Bowie has died at the age of 69 after losing an 18-month battle with cancer, his official Facebook and Twitter accounts confirmed on Monday.

“David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer,” a statement posted on the star’s official Facebook page said.

“While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.”

Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, confirmed the news via a tweet:

Kanye West was one of the first musicians to tweet his condolences shortly after the news broke:

Meanwhile, the most liked comment on the Facebook posting read: “I’m confused, shocked, and I don’t know what to believe. My heart nearly stopped reading this post. I hope this is not true, but if it is, I am truly, truly sorry for the loss of such a great man, performer, musician, and inspiration. My heart goes out to you, David Bowie, the blackstar.”

As BuzzFeed points out, Bowie had only just released an album on January 8, his 69th birthday.

On behalf of VentureBeat, R.I.P. David Bowie. <3










Xiaomi’s Redmi 3 is the perfect example of why Apple will sue them if they enter the U.S.

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Xiaomi today announced the Redmi 3, an all-metal, 5-inch Android smartphone retailing at about $107 (initially available only in China) that continues its legacy of selling impressive devices at disruptive prices. It comes just six months after the plastic Redmi 2 launched, and sees the battery nearly doubled from 2,200mAh to 4,100mAh. Its larger cousin, the 5.5-inch Redmi Note 3 ($140), was unveiled in November.

Regarding Apple comparisons, let’s just say that both phones seem to have taken more than a few design cues from the iPhone 6 — something Apple probably wouldn’t let slide easily if the company ever decided to enter the U.S. market. (Read: expect lawsuits.)

While I’ve historically been a Xiaomi fan and have dished out my own money on its phones in the past, it’s true that the Chinese upstart is starting to feel like just another smartphone maker in a crowd. Perhaps the company is growing up and its rapid-growth period — at least in smartphone shipments — is starting to plateau. Xiaomi does make other products, but they certainly represent a very minority part of its business/revenues.

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Xiaomi sold 61 million smartphones in 2014 but kept mum on 2015 numbers, leading many to question whether it missed its own internal target of 80 million units for the year. Its attempt to grab a substantial foothold in India doesn’t appear to have quite worked out yet, either.

That’s despite Xiaomi’s homegrown rival, Lenovo, sitting comfortably as one of India’s top-five smartphone players alongside the likes of Samsung (as of data from Q3 2015). As time will prove, India’s an important market for Xiaomi to win in. At home, Huawei is starting to outgun Xiaomi by all appearances.

Let’s talk specs real quick.

The Redmi 3 packs a 720p display and is powered by an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 616 processor. Its 16GB of internal storage is expandable up to 128GB with a microSD card, and the 2 GB of RAM is generous enough. As I mentioned at the start, the 4,100mAh battery is the real show-stopper here. At 8.5mm thick, it’s a pretty slim device weighing 144g (a tad thicker and heavier than the comparatively-sized LG Nexus 5X at 7.9mm and 136g).

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The main camera is a 13MP with an f/2.0 aperture, while the front-facing is 5MP with f/2.2 aperture. A dual-SIM allows one slot to double as a microSD, and it all runs on MIUI 7, Xiaomi’s latest custom version of Android (though whether it’s based on 6.0 Marshmallow or an earlier version is unclear). On the whole, I don’t mind MIUI — I prefer it to Huawei’s EMUI. But skins in general are never my cup of tea over vanilla Android as Google intended it.

Looking at the back of the phone, the speaker grill, Mi logo, and diamond pattern are the only things keeping it from easily being mistaken for the back of an iPhone 6 by the unassuming eye. It’s really quite blatant — and yes, Chinese consumers will very likely love that. Xiaomi wasn’t exactly original in its Mi Pad 2 design, either, which really quite resembles an iPad Mini.

So what’s next for Xiaomi? Well, its much-delayed flagship smartphone of 2015/16, the Mi 5, is due to launch next month after the Chinese New Year, according to cofounder Liwan Jiang. While the Redmi 3 could very likely do strong sales with those on a budget, the Mi 5 is the one everyone’s been waiting for. Let’s see if the iPhone comparisons continue or stop there.

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Huawei Mate 8 review

Huawei Mate 8 in white

If you think Huawei is still relatively unknown in the U.S., you’d probably be right. At least, it’s still not a household name among the general non-techie population. But you may be surprised to learn that it’s not exactly well known in Asia outside its home turf of China, either. Not yet.

All signs, though, point to 2016 being the year when that starts to change for Huawei. The 2015 launch of the Huawei-built Nexus 6P really did a lot to raise its profile globally, and especially in the U.S.

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Chinese smartphones go global

While Xiaomi is the Chinese brand that has until now stolen most of the limelight from international tech media — often at the expense of Huawei and Lenovo — I think it’s fair to say that the tides are beginning to shift a little more in Huawei’s direction. Xiaomi, meanwhile, has been faced with unexpected setbacks and likely missed its own 80 million unit sales target last year.

Huawei’s new 6-inch flagship, which launched internationally this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, is called the Mate 8, and it’s certainly generated a good amount of buzz. That’s despite the fact that it’s not even available in the U.S. yet, with its “global” launch largely limited to Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and Mexico. It launched in China back in November.

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I’ve spent a couple weeks with the Mate 8 over the holiday period and into the new year, and while Huawei has produced a solid, premium-feeling Android smartphone, I can’t find a single reason as to why I’d recommend it over other widely-available phablets like the Nexus 6P, the Moto X Pure, the gorgeous OnePlus 2, the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, or even the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium with a 4K display. All retail at similar or lower price points as the €600-€700 Huawei Mate 8 (based on its European pricing). Heck, you can even pick up an iPhone 6 Plus at these prices.

But, if you’re dead set on making this the year you check out a smartphone from a Chinese OEM, it’s probably still worth waiting until February to see what Xiaomi has in store with its delayed Android flagship, the Mi 5. Yes, that will be a smaller phone — probably no larger than 5.5 inches — but it’s expected to retail at under $500 and will likely pack a better screen than Huawei’s. The other obvious contender from China is the OnePlus 2, as I’ve already mentioned.

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Design and screen

The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up the Mate 8 is that it feels premium. It’s a 7.9mm-thick, all-metal unibody design weighing 185g — Huawei says it’s “aerospace grade aluminum metal” — with chamfered edges and an 83 percent screen-to-body ratio. That means it has extremely thin bezels and actually manages an impressively small device footprint considering the 6-inch full-HD display.

At 367 PPI, it’s not the best screen around (the upcoming Xiaomi Mi 5 is expected to have between 550-600 PPI), though contrast and viewing angles are good. Some have complained about a slight blueish tint to the display. The screen curves slightly at the edges, but it’s not as prominent as on the iPhone 6. With Corning Gorilla Glass 4 hopefully protecting it from careless drops, it’s certainly not a screen I’d complain about using day-to-day. But it also wouldn’t be my first choice.

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The outside of the phone is largely predictable. Volume rockers are under the power button on the right, a dual-SIM card slot is on the left (one slot doubles as a micro SD slot, expandable up to 128GB). Down below are speaker grills and — perhaps disappointingly for 2016 — a microUSB port instead of USB Type-C for charging.

Up top is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Round back is Huawei’s much-improved circular fingerprint scanner as we saw on the Nexus 6P (the one on the previous generation Mate 7 was square). It’s fast, and certainly comparable to the one on the iPhone 6S except that it scans the index finger instead of the thumb. Another use: triggering the camera shutter.

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Cameras

As for cameras, the main shooter round back is a 16MP Sony sensor with an f/2.0 aperture, dual-flash, and three-axis optical image stabilization. The front-facing camera is 8 MP, and offers a “beauty algorithm for taking the perfect selfie.” We’ve seen a big focus on selfies from a range of OEMs last year. Huawei says it invested $98 million over three years to develop “the first proprietary image sensor processor for faster focusing, higher clarity, and more accurate color shading.”

That’s all well and good, but in my experience the cameras are just decent — good enough for every day use, but not the best on the market. They’re also far from bad or inadequate. Here are some example shots in a range of lighting conditions that I took in Singapore this week (sorry, no selfies included):

12483449_10153831252834509_723041416_n 12506540_10153831252959509_213602705_n 12506605_10153831253094509_2008473485_n 12506693_10153831252949509_580537011_n 12511537_10153831253109509_1215152230_n 12511948_10153831253129509_1078911909_n 12512009_10153831252929509_1800587600_n 12516066_10153831252939509_478129303_n 12516127_10153831252859509_2031517768_n 12516537_10153831252974509_1988807712_n 12528095_10153831253074509_1731575635_n 12528111_10153831252839509_157753605_n

The camera software comes with all the features you’d expect of a flagship Android smartphone in 2015/16, including a professional/manual mode that allows you to tweak all sorts of levels. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shoot in 4K, but it does have time-lapse and a range of filters. In my use, it snaps pictures fast and reliably, and I don’t really have any gripes with the camera hardware of software.

huawei-mate-8-camera

Hardware and software

The Huawei Mate 8 comes in two versions: either 32GB with 3GB of RAM or 64GB with 4GB of RAM (and four colors: Champagne Gold, Moonlight Silver, Space Gray and Mocha Brown). It’s running on Huawei’s own HiSilicon Kirin 950 octacore chipset that it unveiled back in November (four high-power Cortex-A72 processors running at 2.3 GHz, and four low-power Cortex A53 processors running at 1.8 GHz). Graphics are handled by a Mali-T880 processor. In my use, the phone is snappy and lag-free, even with Huawei’s heavily-skinned version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow — which it calls EMUI 4.0 (more on that after). Game performance is excellent.

The 4,000mAh battery is impressive as heck, easily getting you through two full days of light-to-normal use. Even on heavy use, you’ll likely have juice left over after a full day. Its quick charge functionality tops up 37 percent in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the new Kirin processor (which Huawei says boosts power efficiency by 70 percent compared to the Kirin 925 that we saw in the Mate 7) and the fact that it’s not pushing a 4K display (like an increasing number of phones are this year) really helps conserve power. Google’s new Doze feature, which it baked into Android Marshmallow, also helps by putting the phone into a “deep sleep” state to conserve power when it’s not being used.

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EMUI 4.0 gets rid of the app drawer, instead showing all your apps and folders on the home screens. Xiaomi’s custom Android skin, MIUI, also does this. It’s probably a discrete nod to Apple in a market where iPhones are still seen as the most premium offering (yes, I’m talking about China). As you’d expect, there’s a bunch of ways you can tweak the look and feel of EMUI by playing around in settings.

While I don’t think EMUI completely butchers Google’s efforts with Marshmallow, it certainly isn’t my cup of tea. App icons are squared-off (also like Xiaomi), and folders display in grid view by default instead of stack, so there can appear to be lot of empty space on the home screens if you only have a couple of apps in a folder. And just to rant real quick, I found it frustrating that Huawei won’t let you swipe down to check notifications from the lock screen if a passcode is set.

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That said, it’s not all bad, and if you’re not so much of an Android purist you may not mind. Huawei has a cool recording app that allows you to directionally control audio input (and output in playback) by manipulating levels on the three microphones. While this is clever and potentially useful, it remains to be seen whether people actually end up using it. EMUI 4.0 also comes with a “built-in automatic defragmentation service,” which in reality is a pre-loaded version of Clean Master that you can simply uninstall if you wish.

In all, Huawei says it’s made “hundreds of user experience tweaks and improvements”. (I hope it means improvements over EMUI 3.0, rather than Google’s stock design. It would be easy to agree with the former — but much harder, if not impossible, to agree with the latter claim.) In any case, if you really don’t like what Huawei has done with EMUI 4.0, you can always install a custom launcher like Nova. There is a split-screen mode that I didn’t find myself using, and multitasking feels like it’s taken a step backwards from the new card-stack layout that Google introduced in Lollipop — instead opting for a horizontal side-by-side layout.

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Verdict

Ultimately, while it’s hard to fault the Mate 8 on paper — it’s a solid, if expensive, phablet that does the job — I still don’t find myself particularly excited about it. In today’s day and age, the spec war is largely over and smartphone makers are staging battle on much more of an emotional playing field. Is there something that makes me want to reach out and touch the phone, to pick it up and use it even if I’m not trying to do anything in particular? Is it just a joy or thrill to use or look at?

For me, the Mate 8 doesn’t quite achieve any of that. By comparison, devices like the Nexus 6P or the OnePlus 2 do achieve that mysterious, intangible quality that keeps me excited about smartphones while much of the industry shifts the discussion to the IoT push by brands like Samsung and LG, or insane concept cars and collision-avoidance drones.

Should you buy the Mate 8? Probably not. Is it a disaster if you end up with one as your daily driver? Again: probably not. I just don’t know why you’d want to based on the rest of the offerings available on the market today — ironically, including Huawei’s own Nexus 6P.

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Alibaba’s 2015 year in review — and its plan for 2016

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Alibaba’s CEO Daniel Zhang — not to be confused with its better-known founder and executive chairman Jack Ma — this week vaguely laid out the Chinese ecommerce titan’s expansion strategy for 2016 during a speech to employees at its Hangzhou headquarters.

“Global import, rural e-commerce, and top-tier cities are the three key battlefields for Alibaba in 2016,” Zhang said. Here’s the rest of his comments, as shared by Alibaba in an English-language translation:

We are going to consolidate and expand our current market, particularly by enhancing reputation, optimizing user experience and increasing our market share in first-tier cities … We are going to build our businesses around the two brands [Tmall Global and Taobao Marketplace’s niche global channel], in order to raise their awareness among customers and offer optimal user experience … In 2016, we are going to ramp up our efforts to bring quality goods to rural buyers, and deliver local produce to urban customers so the rural market can be connected to the whole country and even the whole world.

Alibaba’s 2015 year in review

Unsurprisingly, Alibaba had one heck of a busy 2015. It kicked off the year in a partnership with Tencent to launch a consumer credit rating service, and the same month (January) outlined a new plan to help U.S. businesses better sell in China in what some interpreted as the beginning of a “U.S. invasion.”

Last year saw it push more seriously into supporting QR codes — its online payments platform, Alipay, has been using QR codes for in-store mobile payments since 2011. But Alibaba struggled with meeting Wall Street expectations as the year kicked off, and had a tussle with the Chinese government over alleged illegal business practices.

Rumours surfaced in late January that Alibaba may have been planning to make its own gaming console after it pumped $10 million into struggling Ouya. By March, it had launched its first U.S. cloud data center (more about Aliyun here and here; it opened its second cloud data center in October), and began expanding aggressively into media and entertainment (more of that was evidenced later in the year when it bought Chinese video-streaming giant Youku Tudou in a multi-billion-dollar deal).

Yahoo was often in the headlines alongside Alibaba in 2015 concerning the spin off of its stake in the ecommerce giant (it then backtracked on that decision). By May, QR codes were back in the headlines as Alibaba embraced new visual QR tech for its offline-to-online transactions. In July, we learned that the company was investing a whopping $1 billion to expand its cloud business into Japan, Europe, and the Middle East.

China’s economic downturn around August hit Alibaba — and fellow Chinese companies including Tencent and Lenovo — hard. By September, it was trialling its own video-streaming service in what was immediately interpreted by the industry as a direct challenge to Netflix. The same month, it inked a deal with the United States Postal Service to develop international shipping solutions and enhance cross-border ecommerce between the two countries.

Coming back to payments, an Alibaba partner unveiled a $110 payments-focused smartwatch for the China market, and Alibaba itself inked a strategic investment in India’s ecommerce giant Paytm. That deal was said to be worth $680 million and left Paytm valued at around $4 billion. McDonald’s also started accepting Alipay at its restaurants across China.

2015 was an important year for Alibaba’s global push — it’s desperate to be better understood outside China. Towards the end of the year, its main rival, JD.com, opened its first office in the U.S. as competition between the two reached new heights. At the same time, Alibaba opened new offices in Europe, making clear to all that it had no signs of slowing down international expansion.

Fake goods continued to plague Alibaba’s perception in the West and at home, and it narrowly avoided the U.S. government’s fake goods blacklist. But as a testament to its ecommerce might, it generated an astonishing $3.9 billion in sales in the first hour of Singles’ Day. It further evidenced its media intentions when rumors flew that it was in talks to buy the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong (that deal closed in December).

In a soft-power highlight for the company, its founder Jack Ma interviewed President Barack Obama at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila in November. Alibaba was the same month one of a handful of major tech companies that committed to investing in clean energy, alongside the likes of Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Amazon.

Looking to the year ahead, one analyst firm pegged Alibaba’s spending power for investments and acquisitions over the next 12 months at around $38 billion. No matter what you think of the Chinese powerhouse, the world is sure to be watching it closely in 2016.

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