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Microsoft and Google have ended five years of litigation, agreeing to drop about 20 lawsuits in the US and Germany. This brings more than a long-running patents feud to an end - it is also another sign that the industry is wearying of law courts as means to weaken competitors, which may put pressure on Apple to end its own cases.
Google - which was largely an eminence grise behind the scenes of the legal battles Android was waging with Apple and Microsoft - was drawn into the battle directly when it acquired Motorola Mobility for its large store of patents.
Recently, however, the lawsuits have increasingly seemed self-defeating and a distraction from real invention; and the major IPR holders have been more inclined ot band together to drive more transparent approaches to licensing technology, which would stimulate innovation, deter trolls and gain uptake for their platforms. For instance, Google and Microsoft are among the major companies backing the new Alliance for Open Media (AOM), which is promoting a royalty-free, open source alternative to the HEVC/H.265 video codec.
Such alliances make the legal tussles seem anachronistic. The companies, in their joint statement, promised to cooperate in various areas of intellectual property, including development of the royalty-free, video codec; and to lobby for a unified patent system throughout Europe. "Google and Microsoft have agreed to collaborate on certain patent matters and anticipate working together in other areas in the future to benefit our customers," the statement said.
In particular, the firms want to restrict the activities of patent trolls. Google has signed a series of patent truces with major players like Ericsson and Cisco in the past two years, aiming to starve trolls of oxygen.
The companies did not reveal any terms of their new agreement but it ends two sets of claims - that Microsoft owed royalties for Google patents used in Xbox and other products; and that Motorola mobile phones were infringing on some Microsoft Android IPR (the lawsuits stayed with Google when it sold its handset business on to Lenovo), and particularly its ActiveSync technology.
The tide had gone Microsoft's way. The company claimed that Motorola's demands were excessive and broke the Frand (fair reasonable and non-discriminatory) rules for SEP, amounting to about $4bn a year in royalties. In July, a US appeals court agreed that Motorola had breached an agreement on Frand licensing. And Microsoft also succeeded in winning a US injunction against Motorola handsets infringing on the ActiveSync patents, though this was never enforced.
"This opens up the door for partnerships between Google and Microsoft, as Nadella is changing the image of the company into a lover and not a hater of other technology stalwarts," Daniel Ives, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, told Bloomberg.
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OnHub is initially launching as a stylish and easy-to-use WiFi router, but will expand to become platform for many connected devices.
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Google just can't keep away from devices. It may have sold Motorola's handset business - already making a bigger splash than it has for years under Lenovo's wing - and delayed trials of its Project Ara modular smartphone, but it continues to follow the dream of taking the design lead in the gadgets which will fuel usage of the web, and Google's services, in future.
The latest example is the new OnHub WiFi router. Like other Google-driven hardware efforts - the Nest thermostat, Nexus handsets, Chromecast TV dongle and Chromebook Pixel - OnHub attempts to turn a mundane and often ugly gadget into something stylish and covetable. Only a few companies, such as Apple and vacuum cleaner maker Dyson, have really pulled off this trick, but in a world where every appliance may be connected, the wireless players will need to pay more attention to aesthetics.
OnHub is cylindrical and seven inches in height, with a dimmable light ring at the top to show how the router is functioning. Inside, it has six 2.4 GHz and six 5 GHz antennas. The design is partly about pushing the Google brand - with associated web services - to the forefront of the home wireless experience, in the same way that Android muscled its way into the mobile platform.
But it is also about ease of use, which is critical to all Google's experiments, because it increases the time people spend on the web. In particular, OnHub will deliver a better signal than most routers because its owners will be happy to display it at eye level, rather than hiding it away on the floor, says the vendor. In addition, set-up and troubleshooting is simplified, because it is all done via the Google On app, which runs on Android and iOS. The app supports functions such as speed testing and router problem detection, and allows users to prioritize a certain device to achieve the maximum speeds.
Like Google's Nexus and Nest devices, the OnHub was actually created by a hardware specialist - China's TP-Link - with the search giant contributing the design vision. It will ship in north America from August 31, priced at $199. As in the Chromebook and Nexus markets, multiple hardware vendors will partner with Google to create different OnHub variants - Asus is already involved, for instance .
Of course, like the Amazon Echo - which it visually resembles - the OnHub will aim to be a Trojan Horse in the smart home, starting by supporting a single familiar function, but then, once established, expanding into many other capabilities.
In future, Google acknowledged, OnHub will support a wide range of connected devices via Bluetooth or 802.15.4 (ZigBee or the Nest-driven Thread protocol). That will put it at the heart of the smart home ecosystem Google aims to create around Thread and its Brillo and Weave platforms.
by Caroline Gabriel, Research Director
So Mobile World Congress (MWC) is over for another year, amid the usual record-breaking statistics (from 93,000 visitors, up 45% on the first Barcelona event in 2006; to 7.55Gbps wireless transmission speeds demonstrated by SK Telecom and Samsung).
There were plenty of eye-catching devices, with the Galaxy S6 Edge undoubtedly the star of the show in terms of headline power, though otherwise the mobile gadget space is fragmenting rapidly. The days of a line-up of remarkably similar large-screened smartphones are over - those handsets are there, at ever cheaper price points, but they jostle for attention with virtual reality headsets, connected clothing, smart coffee makers and whisky bottles, and of course the connected cars (Fiat 500 seemed to be the most popular model on display). Indeed, wearables and associated IoT (internet of things) apps virtually colonized MWC's second venue (its previous home in the Fira complex at Plaza Espanya).
Other headlines were sparked by the companies which, back in 2006, when the 3GSM show relocated from Cannes and changed its name, scarcely figured. Google's MVNO plans, Facebook's extension of its internet.org initiative, PayPal's endorsement of NFC with its acquisition of Paydiant - these were the talking points, drowning out the traditional keynote addresses by the major mobile operators.
Traditionally, the CEOs of the established cellcos have used their conference platforms to lay down their demands to the industry (remember then-CEO of Vodafone, Arun Sarin, warning the LTE sector in 2007 to speed up its efforts or face the WiMAX threat; or trading insults with his Nokia counterpart over 3G delays in 2004). These days, it is the new breed of service providers which are setting the pace - Google's Sundar Pichai may have announced a fairly cautious MVNO plan, but his speech had far wider implications, including the call for full WiFi/cellular convergence, still a divisive theme at an event dominated by the entrenched interests of 3GPP platforms.
Those interests are particularly threatened in the IoT, which was a huge theme of the show this year. As the news that Freescale and NXP are to merge neatly demonstrated, this is a dangerous world for the traditional wireless operators and vendors. It throws up significant opportunities to extend their businesses into new, high growth markets, bringing companies like Freescale and NXP - which had been squeezed badly in the smartphone segment - back to Barcelona with new connected device platforms. But the margins on those chips are low and the IoT is already sparking consolidation, as this semiconductor mega-merger illustrates, with the old-school suppliers and operators needing to huddle together for warmth in a business of scale.
Of course, the carrier's network - wireless RAN, core and transport, and increasingly virtualized versions of those - remains the heart of the serious conversations and trading at MWC. With that in mind, we selected our key themes of 2015:
The shape of the new cell site:
After several years when the ever-shrinking base station was the central theme in RAN discussions, this year saw most of the major equipment vendors announcing major refreshes of their macro layers. Massive MIMO (or at least, 8x8 arrays), carrier aggregation across three bands and including TDD, Coordinated Multipoint and Cloud-RAN - these were the important features of the new macro. This was not 5G, but technologies that will be deployable this year or in 2016 - indeed, it seems more than likely that, however '5G' turns out, it will be focused on the dense capacity layer, while the macro coverage umbrella will remain 4G for decades to come.
Small cells were out in force too, and in a widening variety of form factors. Traditional homogeneous mini-base stations are part of a very variegated approach to the capacity layer. They may form clusters with their own controller (local or virtualized) to support an enterprise or a rural deployment. For the former, the big news was that Cisco will resell the Spidercloud Enterprise-RAN solution, despite its own 2013 acquisition of small cell pioneer Ubiquisys. For the latter, the Small Cell Forum kicked off its latest Release Program, devoted to easing deployment issues in rural and remote scenarios, from villages to oil rigs to temporary situations such as disaster relief. Quortus, with its virtualized packet core, was one of the first to update its portfolio to target this important area, while Parallel Wireless was showing off its rural solution, implemented by EE in the UK.
The classic small cell is expanding its reach, seeking to provide greater value than basic coverage and capacity. Ip.access, another of the founders of this industry, has gone as far as to position its Presence Cell purely as the enabler of big data and e-commerce services - and not necessarily connected to the main network at all. Its approach has convinced Vodafone, which announced that it would deploy the retail-oriented platform.
Then there were small cells which did not follow the traditional architecture. Stripped-down antenna/radio units for Centralized-RAN; separate antennas optimized to work with urban small base stations, from companies like Kathrein and CommScope; a converged WiFi/cellular unit from Alcatel-Lucent; hosts of carrier WiFi access points and management platforms as well as lower-power DAS solutions. This is a segment where all options are open, and in which operators will pick and choose the solutions which suit their individual spectrum, business model and capacity requirements.
The virtualization of the RAN is a more distant prospect, for most operators, than the lower risk decision to run a packet core or even a CPE as software on off-the-shelf hardware. However, some pioneers were demonstrating their vRANs, notably Telefonica and China Mobile, and Intel was locked in combat with the ARM ecosystem over the market for high performance processors, optimized for C-RAN servers and accelerators, as the industry chases a general purpose chip with the horsepower to run high end network processes as well as customized silicon.
Not everything can be converted to software of course, though even the physical elements like antennas and radios will be increasingly software-defined and programmable. Pushing that trend to its extreme was Cambridge Consultants, which has developed the IP for the first all-digital radio transmitter, Pizzicato. Unlike conventional software defined radio, it has no analog components, which allows many radios to work together without interference. In the first trial, Cambridge Consultants created 14 simultaneous cellular base station signals at low power, and with the radios "squashed together in a way that analog doesn't tolerate". Such solutions can be programmed to generate manhy combinations of signals at any frequency in an adaptive way. The Pizzicato transmitter consists of an integrated circuit outputting a single stream of bits, and an antenna.
Of course 5G was a massive talking point, though outside the conference halls and the big vendors' glossy demonstrations, there was less hype than expected about the next generation of wireless, with most operators more focused on technology they could deploy in the next 1-2 years, and eager to wait for key decisions at the World Radio Conference in November, and at the 3GPP and other standards bodies, before getting too excited about 5G. Many alliances were formed and roadmaps laid down, but the most tangible aspect of the discussion was the use of millimeter wave spectrum, in which there were many demonstrations for access and backhaul. The high frequency bands are almost certain to play a key role in next generation wireless, and like many supposed elements of 5G, they will start to have a real impact far earlier, as seen in technologies like 60GHz WiGig and some small cell backhaul solutions, notably InterDigital's Peraso baseband system-on-chip for this market.
There was considerable excitement about LTE-LAA (Licensed Assisted Access), which uses 5GHz spectrum for supplemental downlink to a licensed-band 4G network. Although it will not be standardized until next year, supporters like T-Mobile and Qualcomm showed off their plans, along with a companion technology which aggregates a 5GHz WiFi carrier to LTE. Cellular players were trying to dampen down talk of colonizing licence-exempt spectrum, and stressing that LTE and WiFi could coexist peacefully, both in technical terms and in carriers' business models. However, while LAA is clearly a small cell play, given the high frequencies and low power limits involved, some were arguing that the industry would do better to focus on getting 3.5GHz standardized as a specific small cell band, avoiding WiFi showdowns and the quality challenges of unlicensed spectrum.
As noted above, the IoT was an important theme, but given the nature of the event, there was a particular focus on LTE solutions to support IoT applications, and the question of whether these will prove viable as alternatives to WiFi or specialized long range networks such as Sigfox or LoRa. Huawei was demonstrating its contributions to future LTE-M standards, while the LTE-only baseband specialists, such as Sequans and Altair, have a major opportunity to push 4G-only solutions into a mass market. While the 3GPP works on LTE Category 0 as the underpinning of LTE-M, for now the vendors have resurrected Cat-1, whose low data rates made it a Cinderella specification in the broadband world, but whose ultra-low power consumption now makes it a candidate for the cellular IoT. Sequans, Ericsson and Verizon announced that they had run tests on a commercial LTE network, delivering 10Mbps data rates at very low cost and power, and with peaceful coexistence with higher-powered LTE devices.
The new operators:
Facebook and Google both tried to paint pictures in which they had ongoing close alliances with cellular operators, but they managed to visualize a world in which the MNO's role was severely constrained. They are driving new approaches to the network - full WiFi/cellular convergence; harnessing of LTE-Broadcast for social media as well as content; dynamic spectrum allocation on-demand to hundreds of providers; low cost delivery to the 'next billion' world inhabitants. All of these examples see the web giants becoming less over-the-top and actually shaping the network of the future, with the cellcos just providing part of the plumbing, however important that part. The vision will be supported by virtualization and the ability for cloud platforms to support a new generation of network as a service concepts, spanning WiFi, LTE and other connections, and eventually assigning capacity dynamically to large numbers of MVNOs. That is the end game for platforms like XCellAir, which has been spun out of InterDigital. Such services could be run by traditional operators, as AT&T's Domain 2.0 roadmap clearly envisages, but they could equally be controlled by web or IT majors.
The new operating systems:
It isn't all going Google's way though. Android dominated a show in which Apple plays not part (except in everyone's conversations), but the search giant is struggling to control and unify the user experience as large device and service providers create their own user interfaces and developer platforms. Amazon AppStore broke the 400,000 apps mark, for instance, boasting of "huge progress" with its alternative to Google Play. And as smartphones morph into many new types of connected device, many of them driven from the cloud, there may be the chance for different operating systems to break the Android/iOS duopoly. There was considerable interest in the mobile implementations of Windows 10 from Microsoft, while start-up options like Jolla's Sailfish and Mozilla's Firefox Mobile were looking, for the first time, like credible platforms with operator support, not just bright open source ideas.
Google's Nest unit, Samsung and ARM head up latest IoT-focused standards group, with focus on 802.15.4 wireless home networks
The Thread Group initially contains Nest, the smart home gadgets maker owned by Google, and Samsung, along with ARM, Freescale, Silicon Labs, Yale Security and ceiling fan maker, Big Ass Fans. Samsung and Google both have devices as their entry point to the smart home, and from there the broader IoT, but have ambitions to influence the whole stack, using 'open' vehicles to try squeeze mutual arch-rival Apple back behind its garden walls.
In contrast to some other recent IoT groupings - such as the AllSeen Alliance, based on Qualcomm's AllJoyn technology, and the Open Interconnect Consortium, led by Intel - Thread aims to standardize the physical network which could then support any of those higher layer standards.
Thread is initially heavily focused on 6LoWPAN, because it is already used by Nest, and because it supports IPv6, important to ensure the IoT is future-proofed against running out of address space. 6LoWPAN is effectively a version of IP for the embedded space, providing a compression format for IPv6 that is optimized for low power, low bandwidth wireless links.
But the new body also hopes to lure the larger base of ZigBee developers, claiming many ZigBee devices could be upgraded to support Thread with just a software update. Attracting a home-focused ZigBee company like GreenPeak would be a valuable endorsement in the first major target market, the smart house.
Thread will add software to the 802.15.4/IPv6 foundation, for functions such as routing, set-up, security and device wake-up, to standardize these capabilities and reduce power. The Thread group will provide testing and certification for its specifications, emulating WiFi and Bluetooth rather than the more splintered ZigBee. Some Nest products already use an early form of Thread, rather than vanilla 6LoWPAN, pointing to the heavy influence of Google's subsidiary on the shape of these specs, though there is also likely to be considerable input from ARM via its Sensinode acquisition. The Finnish software firm was a significant contributor to 6LoWPAN and other low power M2M standards.
To win sufficient critical mass to become a de facto standard, Thread will need to prove superiority over Bluetooth Smart. The new group's backers argue it will do this because 802.15.4 supports true mesh - a useful architecture for home networks and not currently enabled by Bluetooth - and the new Thread additions will promise stronger encryption and IPv6, and even lower power consumption.
The appeal for ZigBee stalwarts - which include Samsung, the only major handset maker to propose implementing the protocol in mainstream smartphones - is that the industry weight of Google might give their standard a boost in the home market, where it has had far less impact than in the industrial world.
"Existing wireless networking approaches were introduced long before the IoT gained ground. The Thread protocol takes existing technologies and combines the best parts of each to provide a better way to connect products in the home," said Vint Cerf, VP and chief internet evangelist for Google and advisor to the Thread Group.
Major job cuts loom, including in former Nokia business, as CEO puts cloud first, and chases new productivity
The missive - a 3,000-word email to employees, but also made public - raised alarm bells for the former Nokia business, and those will soon become louder. Microsoft is expected to make swingeing job cuts within the next few weeks, which are likely to hit the handsets activity hard, and just to rub salt in the wound of bad timing, Nomura analysts also expect the firm to take a charge of at least $1bn "to mitigate the risk of the Nokia acquisition" - finalized, of course, less than three months ago.
Not that Nadella is suggesting axing hardware like Surface or Xbox, but we can expect a slowdown in any new moves to expand the mobile range, especially the Nokia family. The document places the cloud platform Azure - which Nadella formerly headed up - at the heart of the company, and in a pointed strike at his forerunner, Nadella writes: "While the devices and services description was helpful in starting our transformation, we now need to hone in on our unique strategy."
Nadella wants Microsoft to become the "productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world", he writes - and by productivity, he looks "beyond solely producing something to include empowering people with new insights". He argues that people are "swimming in a growing sea of devices, apps, data and social networks" and need applications and gadgets that can make sense of that, for instance by dividing work and personal data intelligently.
However, under all this vision there are plenty of old Microsoft favorites being dusted off for the new era. We might have hoped Nadella would be bold enough to turn his back on hardware altogether, given the limited success of Surface and the conflicts with OEM partners. But he insists that Surface Pro 3 "is the world's best productivity tablet" and that "we will build first-party hardware to stimulate more demand for the entire Windows ecosystem".
This is, however, a shift away from older Microsoft claims that it would take significant tablet and handset market share over time. Instead, like Google with Nexus, it is focusing on making new markets, stimulating interest and showing what can be done, and then stepping back for OEMs to ramp up the volume.
Nadella wants to stop talking about individual devices, or even about mobile, and to create 'experiences' which are common across all kinds of screens, gadgets and connections. "While today many people define mobile by devices, Microsoft defines it by experiences," he says. "We're really in the infant stages of the mobile-first world. In the next few years we will see many more new categories evolve and experiences emerge that span a variety of devices of all screen sizes."
The CEO acknowledges that achieving his goals will need "fundamental cultural changes", including management and organizational shake-up, which will prompt groans in many quarters, given what a short time has elapsed since Ballmer's last big restructuring. One of the critical aims of the latest shake-up will be to address criticisms, from the Microsoft board as well as many customers and partners, that development times are too slow for the rapidly changing needs of enterprises, consumers and the mobile world. "Every team across Microsoft must find ways to simplify and move faster, more efficiently," Nadella writes. "We will increase the fluidity of information and ideas by taking actions to flatten the organization and develop leaner business processes."
Flatter structures and streamlined processes usually mean significant layoffs too, and Microsoft's stock leapt to $42.47 on Tuesday morning on Wall Street anticipation of these efficiency drives.
The uptick was prompted by a research note from Nomura's Rick Sherlund, which predicted "bold moves and organizational changes" as well as increasing his earnings forecast from $45 to $50 for the fiscal year. He expects Microsoft to take a $1bn-plus charge related to changes in strategy following the Nokia acquisition - probably connected to major cuts to the 25,000 workforce that came with that transaction.
Ericsson's demo is impressive, but Cambridge conference highlights the far bigger challenges for mobile evolution
Subtitled 'changing the world with wireless', the event was clearly looking to look beyond technology and address both global social issues and new applications for wireless networks. The '5G' word was overused, perhaps inevitably at a conference focused on the future, and one speaker even managed to mention not just '6G' but '7G' - but in general, the program successfully steered clear of esoteric technology debates and focused on the impact of wireless.
Inevitably, that raised more questions than answers. Much-repeated statistics about access to mobile networks being higher than access to clean water did not seem to say much for the priorities of global infrastructure programs; there were interesting but inevitably open-ended debates about cause and effect (mobile phone penetration correlates to increased wealth and productivity in many areas, but our industry is perhaps too eager to claim the credit).
The conference was best when focusing on real world applications, with a host of interesting case studies of mobile devices being used to enable people in emerging economies to communicate and do business in new ways.
"The internet and modern mobile technology enables us to address inequalities between men and women and to drive growth on a global scale as never before," said Cherie Blair, the after-dinner speaker, who has a foundation dedicated to helping women build businesses in developing markets.
The other big theme was the internet of things, and while these sessions tended to focus more on developed markets - and perhaps too much on 'middle class problems' such as opening garage doors without getting wet - there were some common issues. Most notably, that in discussions about emerging market services, or the IoT, wireless technology was sometimes scarcely mentioned. This was about applications and gadgets and business models, with the network purely an enabler and the specific technology incidental.
That is the real context for '5G'discussions. There will be massive technology challenges involved in supporting billions of things and addressing a billion more people in widely scattered locations. Those challenges will be difficult and interesting, and will justify conference sessions of their own - but to a large extent they are understood. Very dense small cells, high frequency spectrum, huge numbers of antennas, new modulation schemes - all these are technically tough to implement in an affordable, commercial way, but they are evolutions of existing work.
The new standards will have to find a way to tap into all these evolutions as they happen, in whatever band and with whatever air interface, in order to support the massive diversity of applications and devices in the future. There were even some eloquent cases made for the emerging notion of keeping GSM in the mix, evolving it as a highly efficient basis for IoT services.
The 'mine's faster than yours' demonstrations in the labs of the big six OEMs already look outdated and, in terms of the critical issues, a sideshow. Doug Pulley, co-founder of Picochip and now CTO of Intel's wireless infrastructure division, nailed it when he said: "Talk of bits/sec/Hz/square kilometer is a vestige of the 3G wars and should be consigned to history." Coming from a wireless engineer this sounded like sacrilege, but it summed up how the mobile industry needs to shift its focus, even while continuing to solve the technical issues behind the scenes.
The big problem., of course, is that networks still need to evolve, which requires significant investment, traditionally from mobile operators, which are rewarded with controlled spectrum. Those operators cannot afford to fund another big-bang upgrade, but if the world shifts towards a true heterogeneous network, with significant non-cellular spectrum, and with a cloud player, perhaps, coordinating all the pieces, it is questionable where the investment will come from, and whether it will be consistent around the world.
Certainly new centers of power may raise a question mark over the role of the 3GPP. If 5G is about end-to-end experience using a mass of technologies, and only peripherally about traditional cellular standards and MNO models, then who will drive it?
If 5G does not prove to rely on a single new architecture or a new air interface, it will have to be defined by a whole mixture of standards organizations, coming from all layers of the network, from apps, and from vertical markets. This is a concerning prospect because it seems impossible that any real cooperation between these interest groups will be possible, certainly given the timescales (the future, as the FWIC event emphasized, is coming closer, with some speakers talking about '5G' roll-outs in 2018, two years earlier than the previously hyped deadline).
And that opens the way for a small clique of large players to take the reins, in the interests of getting things done and bringing mobile benefits to the globe, but with the end result of creating a new power base far stronger than anything the mobile operators enjoyed.
Tim Carter, head of Android business development for Google EMEA, talked from the conference floor about Project Loon, stressing that it is purely experimental at this stage, but he was more direct than any presenter at addressing the elephant in the room for traditional operators. Developing almost any new aspect of '5G' will be very expensive, but their established models do not permit that kind of outlay - so the baton will pass to those firms which still have deep pockets and forgiving shareholders. Carter pointed out that the only organizations which can afford to experiment are "rich people, like Google, and people who have nothing to lose, like entrepreneurs. People in the middle, like carriers, they feel there's pressure on revenues so they feel there's less room to experiment."
Big questions, and the conference did a good job of allowing attendees to step back from clever modulation schemes and antenna configurations, and to ponder the issues of how all that continuing innovation can be used both for the common good, and for profit. Assuming that the real power players will deliver on both agendas, it is unsurprising that Google was mentioned so frequently, but this is not just about carrier models versus web models, or licensed spectrum versus unlicensed - the debate has to consider far bigger questions of economics and control, as the wireless network itself becomes ubiquitous and a utility.
One keynote speaker, Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, highlighted just how big the changes in thinking need to be, when wireless moves from clever technology for the middle classes, to an essential of life akin to electricity. "There are amazing opportunities out there. We just need to influence the system around us if we are to deliver a sustainable future. We have the technology solutions that could solve problems, but we have to get the last meter, the user experience, right," she said.
Event expected to refocus on its developer roots with programs to expand Android's reach further into wearables and across platforms
The next release of Android is likely to make an appearance, following a firm I/O tradition, and no doubt named after a sweet starting with the letter 'L' (to follow the current KitKat, or 4.4, iteration). It is actually more important whether it is called Android 4.5 or 5.0, since Google is under pressure to deliver a major upgrade this time, as Apple achieved with iOS. For both companies, it will be essential to reshape their smartphone-focused platforms to support completely different experiences - embedded and wearable devices, video-intensive user interfaces, new intuitive search mechanisms powered by deep learning, and so on.
These technologies are starting to take shape in the labs and even in some high profile gadgets like the Nest thermostats, but they need a rich unifying base of apps and web services, something Google will try to encourage with Android Wear, Glassworks and other efforts to extend its software in all directions. Its developer community, and those which have previously been loyal to iOS or Windows, will be looking for some clear and inspiring directions this week.
Some more fundamental changes programmers want include replacing the ageing Dalvik compiler and making 'Android RunTime' (ART) the default in order to help software run more efficiently and prolong battery life. And there may also be an update to OpenGL ES, the 3D programming interface for Android. Efficient graphics languages are vital to modern platforms, to support gaming and other multimedia apps, and adapt mobile platforms for TV, so many will be looking for a new Android to introduce a convincing response to Microsoft's DirectX 12 and Apple's Metal.
There will almost certainly be comprehensive support for 64-bit processors and the ARMv8 architecture this time, pushing Android towards higher end products. This will rob Intel of a headstart it has made in 64-bit Android, but make such capabilities more available and standardized.
The other important tactic for mobile and web players is to expand their platforms into new devices and user bases, notably the internet of things (IoT). Apple was surprisingly low key about its HomeKit and HealthKit services for embedded devices when it launched them earlier this month. Google is likely to be far more flamboyant about its response, Google Fit, which is expected to make its debut at its annual developer conference, I/O, next week.
The search giant has already showed its hand in the smart home with its expensive acquisition of the Nest connected devices firm, but of course its real interest is in the data such gadgets generate, and the services it can layer on top of those. It is expected to add to its home platform at I/O, but also to move into health and fitness monitoring.
According to report, this service will collect data from a wide range of fitness-related trackers, monitors and applications, including smart watches. The platform will aggregate biometric and performance data and feed it into analytics software, and Google is likely to surround its system with a range of wearables manufacturers (and perhaps even buy one, given its recent love affair with making devices).
On that front, Google Fit is likely to integrate closely with devices which are announced or planned for the existing wearables platform, Android Wear. One of the reported products, the Moto 360 smart watch, is still Google's own, at least until Motorola is sold to Lenovo, while LG is expected to be preparing a G Watch, with inbuilt pedometer and touch sensor.
Apple will not be sitting still either. Its history says that it succeeds best when it has platforms and devices in tandem, as with the iPod and iTunes a decade ago. It is widely expected to release the long expected iWatch in the fourth quarter and to tie it closely to HealthKit and to health monitoring applications.
As well as Fit, there will be wearables action in extensions to Android Wear as well as new gadgets from partners, and many are expecting the full release of the Wear software developers' kit (SDK).
Other predictions for the I/O keynote on Wednesday? Yet another attempt to succeed in TV, renaming the disastrous Google TV experiment as Android TV, though sources are divided on whether there will be an actual box, perhaps Nexus-branded, or an open platform. And extensions to the in-car offering, with support and announcements from Google's partners in the Open Automotive Alliance, the equivalent of Android's Open Handset Alliance.
Some pundits think there may be preview handsets based on the Project Ara modular concept, but it's probably too early for real devices, and Google has already outlined the developer aspects in detail. There may be Google devices on the Nexus front though, probably with details of the much-rumored Android Silver program, a new generation of smartphones sporting the 'pure' Google Android experience and co-developed with partners such as LG. Showcasing that user experience, and convincing the faithful that it remains ahead of the game, will be essential to stop developers' (and the media's) eyes straying disloyally towards alternative Android-based platforms like Amazon's new Fire Phone or Samsung's recently enhanced UI.
As the Android Police blog reports, another interesting development which could make its debut this week is Quantum Paper, which one one level is the latest in a series of Google attempts to unify the Android experience, this time with a set of tools and guidelines spanning all kinds of consumer devices.
However, some reports indicate it will go further and that the search giant will seek to assert its influence over the whole mobile world just as the next wave of user experiences - based around HMTL5 and cloud services - is evolving. "Quantum Paper is a hugely ambitious project, looking to unify and codify paradigms for visual, motion, and interaction design across all platforms, including web, Android and iOS," wrote Android Police.
Of course, if it emerges, Paper will hit the same problems as every other attempt to impose uniformity on a mobile world which is by its nature diverse. Makers of products will continue to want to differentiate themselves and promote their brand; developers will chafe at any limits on their freedom to innovate; consumers are always looking for choice and the next big thing. That will remain true in wearables as in handsets - though in the real internet 'things, embedded workaday items for the smart home or factory, there may be a greater logic to having a harmonized platform and interface. It is just not clear that Google and Android will be the optimal choice.
Its Nest subsidiary pays $555m for Dropcam, filling out IoT stack, while Alpental brings 60GHz network expertise
The Dropcam deal, made under Nest's own auspices rather than directly by Google, is worth $555m. The firm's cameras can be checked from a mobile device anywhere in the world, and add a home security element to Nest's core gadgets, smart thermostats and smoke alarms.
"We care very deeply about helping people stay connected to their home, especially when they're not in their home," said Nest co-founder Matt Rogers. He said his company had been looking for a camera maker for months before the Google acquisition and approached five-year old Dropcam a month ago. The latter's CEO Greg Duffy wrote on a blog post: "Nest and Dropcam are kindred spirits. Both were born out of frustration with outdated, complicated products that do the opposite of making life better."
Behind the gushing words, there is the hand of Google, steadily building a complete smart home stack. It is very questionable whether the company really needs to own these gadgets - an approach more like Apple's HomeKit, building a broad platform around partners' products, would seem more in keeping with Google's open, software-driven philosophy and more suited to the diverse and unpredictable patterns of the IoT.
The fact that Nest is being kept so separate from the main Google structure perhaps indicates that Google, whose experiment with owning a mainstream handset maker failed, knows it has to be careful of alienating partners by making its own hardware - even as it fails to resist the charms of the integrated hardware/software model. So ironically enough, Apple is creating smart home and smart health platforms without, as yet, its own devices (though iWatches are on their way at last, supposedly), while Google is aiming for the full stack.
Meanwhile, Google's second purchase - actually made in May, but just revealed - is very different. Seattle-based Alpental is led by two founders and former Clearwire engineers, CEO Pete Gelbman and Mike Hart. They have developed a system which they say lowers the cost level of 60GHz technology with a self-organizing, ultra-low power implementation. Gelbman describes it as a "hyper scalable millimeter wave networking solution for dense urban next-gen 5G & WiFi - at the form factor and cost of an iPod".
Overhype or not, these are words to hit many of Google's hot buttons. The company has spent a decade investing in wireless technologies which could help fulfil its aims of extending low cost internet access to the whole world, and making it easier for those with access to increase their usage - all in the interests of boosting Google's advertising and services revenues.
The company raised $850,000 in 2012 and delivered working prototypes and demonstrations at Mobile World Congress in February this year.
Chip giant offers integrated hardware/software platform to support infotainment today, driverless vehicles tomorrow
The new family of In-Vehicle Solutions products aim to help carmakers and their supply chains to "quickly and easily deliver in-vehicle experiences", said Intel, by providing a complete platform, with processors, operating system and development kits. This pre-integrated, pre-tested and application-ready approach, so powerful in low cost handsets, will also reduce time to market for auto infotainment systems by over a year, claims the chip giant, and reduce cost by up to 50%.
The first available products focus on in-vehicle information (IVI) and entertainment systems, along with advanced driver assistance capabilities. Future additions will center on advanced driving experiences and self-driving cars.
"We are combining our breadth of experience in consumer electronics and enterprise IT with a holistic automotive investment across product development, industry partnerships, and groundbreaking research efforts," said Doug Davis, corporate VP of Intel's internet of things group, in a statement. "Our goal is to fuel the evolution from convenience features available in the car today to enhanced safety features of tomorrow and eventually self-driving capabilities."
Intel signalled its interest in this growth sector back in 2012 when it launched a $100m Connected Car Fund via its venture capital arm, with the stated goal of accelerating "the automotive industry transition to seamless connectivity between the vehicle and consumer electronic devices". That is the key to the intense interest in cars from many mobile and PC players - not just the chance to sell chips or software into a new segment, but the way a connected car could support new interactions with conventional devices; increased internet usage; and new revenue-generating applications.
The latest beneficiary of the Connected Car Fund was ZMP of Japan, which has developed an autonomous driving platform and vehicles connected with sensors, radars, and cameras. Intel's technology is used in BMW's Navigation System Professional, the Infiniti InTouch infotainment system in the Infiniti Q50, and the Driver Information System in the new 2015 Hyundai Genesis.X
Processor IP provider creates Prpl to encourage open software ecosystem and keep its challenge to ARM alive
IBM created the OpenPower consortium last August, putting a great deal of its hardware and software into the open environment and signing up supporters including Google, Nvidia and Mellanox. Its main target is the emerging breed of low power servers for the cloud.
Now MIPs, owned by GPU specialist Imagination Technologies, has its own foundation, called Prpl. Initial members, aside from Imagination itself, include many of the names you'd want to give an architecture credibility - Qualcomm, Broadcom and Cavium (major ARM users all) plus Ikanos, Lantiq, PMC-Sierra and some smaller licensees. The aim is to build software that runs on MIPS to ensure a solid continuing base for its instruction set.
Prpl is the brainchild of Amit Rohatgi, who joined MIPS from Qualcomm in 2011 as principal architect and was responsible for bringing Android to the MIPS platform. "We will work on everything from the data center to the internet of things," he told EETimes. "Every company does a lot of open source work behind the firewall; prpl aims to move out the firewall."
The platform's heartlands are in broadband equipment, set-top boxes and some industrial gear, and Broadcom is a particularly important customer. However, ARM has been challenging in the set-top and networking spaces, and is also looming wherever MIPS seeks new markets. The latter's smartphone efforts failed, bar slots in a few low cost tablets, and now it has its eyes, like everyone else, on low power servers and the internet of things (IoT).
Like ARM's own Linaro effort, Prpl hopes to establish a significant software base, because its members are pooling their efforts, and because it will offer standard implementations of MIPS code. This should make it less risky for companies to use the platform. Among the items in focus are Linux distributions for data centers; and real time OSs for embedded systems. Prpl will also work on secure OS, hypervisors and Java developer kits. Among other elements, Imagination will contribute its ARM-to-MIPS binary translation software as open source code.
The first work item will be to create a standard version of OpenWRT for home gateways and routers and this shows Imagination's wider ambitions for Prpl - to help establish it as a mover and shaker in industry standards for the next wave of the internet, even beyond its own architectures. OpenWRT will be one reason for Qualcomm's interest - its Atheros unit already uses it in its WiFi router chips, to encourage a third party apps ecosystem. Dan Rabinovitsj, SVP of Atheros, said the hope of a more standard stack and a broader developer community was Qualcomm's motivation to join Prpl.
This shows how Imagination hopes to build influence beyond the user base for MIPS processors. It insists that any firm can join Prpl, including backers of x86 and ARM, which Rohatgi claims makes the foundation more open than Linaro.
A surprising omission from the initial line-up is Oracle, which recently announced a partnership with Imagination to optimize Java technologies, including the embedded version and the developer kit, for the UK firm's PowerVR and MIPS cores.
Comcast, the US's largest broadband provider, attended the Prpl launch and its chief software architect, Sree Kotay, told EETimes he was interested in an ecosystem focused on security and connectivity. Comcast is increasingly using open source code, he said, because it could not "afford to buy our way out, nor could we build all we needed".
Prpl is to some extent about keeping existing customers loyal by making it easier for them to bring open source software to their products. But Imagination is looking to new areas too, and aims to harness optimized support for Android, Java and other open software to help. The next major product will be new 64-bit MIPS cores supporting 64-bit Android - an area where Intel has so far led the race. Imagination CEO Hossein Yassaie says the firm is now shipping about 800m MIPS cores a year and has signed almost 70 new licensees since it bought the firm.