A pile o’ quad-core smartphones.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Editors’ note: This article originally posted on April 8, 2012, and was updated on December 19, 2012.
Open up your wallet today and there are no fewer than five smartphones you can buy running on quad-core processors. Seven months ago, there was one, the HTC One X, and only if you bought the international version, which lacked the 4G LTE speeds coveted by U.S. phone-buyers.
By summer, you may turn up your nose at perfectly fast devices running on dual-core chipsets, wondering if you should saddle yourself with something so “slow.” After all, the more processing power, the better the phone, right?
Who’s who in quad-core (Dec 2012) Major quad-core phones Major quad-core tablets Qualcomm (Snapdragon S4 Pro) HTC Droid DNA, LG Nexus 4, LG Optimus G, Aquos Phone Zeta, Xiaomi MI2 None Nvidia (Tegra 3) HTC One X, HTC One X+, LG Optimus 4X HD, LG Optimus Vu, ZTE U950, Fujitsu Arrows Z ISW13F Google Nexus 7, Microsoft Surface RT, Asus Transformer Pad Series, Acer Iconia Tab series, Toshiba Excite series, Sony Xperia Tablet S, Fuhu Nabi 2 and Nabi XD, Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11 Samsung (Exynos 4 Quad) Samsung Galaxy Note 2, Lenovo LePhone K860 Galaxy Note 10.1, Google Nexus 10 *This chart represents more major product launches, but is not globally exhaustive.
Maybe not. A tremendous amount of detailed architecture and circuitry go into processor chips, which can make understanding their exact effects on performance a serious undertaking for most. (Note: If you could teach a class on processors, this article isn’t for you.)
In the end, your smartphone’s internal performance boils down to more than the number of cores. Instead, it depends on a delicate balance involving everything from your base chip and batteries to your operating system, and even on the people who code your favorite apps.
Quad-core is great in theory
Fujitsu showed off a quad-core gaming phone at CES 2012.
(Credit: Brian Bennett/CNET)
The theory of multicore processors is this: if you can divvy up a task among more than one processor, you can finish up faster.
Roughly imagine it as an assembly line production: instead of having one person do everything on their own (single core), you can have each member of a team do their part and finish faster as a whole (multicore).
Beyond promising dramatically faster performance, quad-core chip-makers may also claim better battery life. Since each core works less hard to accomplish a task, it draws less power than if fewer cores strained with heavier workloads apiece. The higher the battery draw per core, the faster you drain your battery.
In the real world, that means your phone should get swifter thanks to the assembly line analogy, while depleting the battery slower. In addition, screen resolution should look sharper, photos and apps will load faster, you can stream HD videos smoother, and you’ll be able to play games like a demon.
Sounds good, right? Right. But the performance you get out of a chip isn’t as simple as just piling on the cores.
Myth No. 1: A chip is a chip is a chip
At the heart of every mobile application processor is the even more elemental ARM processor that forms the building block for the final product we know as the quad-core chip (really, an entire system on a chip, often called an SoC.)
ARM is the company that masterminds the layout design of the chips inside Android phones, Windows phones, and even Apple’s iPhone 4S. Chipmakers license the set of instructions (and even the right to tweak these blueprint instructions), to integrate into their own final chip design.
ARM’s application processors
Differentiation comes two ways. ARM designs different chip models with different architectures — like the A8, A9, and A15 chips — each more capable than its predecessor.
As a starting point, says Samsung’s Nick DiCarlo, vice president of product planning, you have to compare the architecture of each chip when comparing SoCs. A single-core A9 chip (also called Cortex-A9) will dominate a single-core A8 chip, and so on.
Modifications are a second way that chipmakers differentiate and fine-tune their product’s performance. Nvidia’s claim to fame is a lower-powered fifth core on its Tegra 3 quad-core processor, which handles low-power tasks like background app updates and has the ability to control how many cores run at a time.
The path to even better performance, says Qualcomm’s Raj Talluri, vice president of product management, is getting a license to custom-build a CPU core based on ARM’s raw instruction set and managing everything from design of the entire ARM-based system to the final production.
“We’re able to get more performance with two processors than our competition can get with four,” he bragged of Qualcomm.
Although Talluri didn’t say it outright, at the time, he could have been defending HTC’s decision to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 dual-core processor on the HTC One X in the U.S. and Nvidia’s quad-core Tegra 3 processor elsewhere.The reality is that the quad-core could be better, it could be equal, or it could be appreciably worse. — Nick DiCarlo, Samsung
The two paths to differentiating ARM-based chips make predicting performance slippery for the average phone buyer. According to the logic of chip math, a smartphone with a dual-core A15 processor should perform in line with a quad-core chip using an ARM A9 processor.
Specifically, the global version of HTC’s One X uses Nvidia’s quad-core Tegra 3 chip, which is based on ARM’s Cortex-A9 processor. In the U.S., Qualcomm’s dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor stems from an ARM, version 7 chip that’s been built to perform similarly to the ARM Cortex-A15 chip. Performance could be similar across both devices.
This fall, HTC’s One X+ handset entered the U.S., featuring both a quad-core chipset and LTE. CNET mobile editor Brian Bennett compared the two HTC One Xes side-by-side, and his results were more or less a draw:
Linpack tests (multithread) verified that the HTC One X+ is fast, but not faster than its older dual-core rival. In fact, it notched a fast 168.7 MFLOPS in just 1 second. On the same test, the One X actually scored a higher 205.7 MFLOPs (in 0.82 second).
Further muddying the waters, on the more graphically intense Quadrant benchmark, the One X+ notched a much higher 7,355 compared with the One X’s 4,324.
Linpack tests (Single Thread) confirmed the HTC One X’s processing prowess: it notched a fast 103.5MFLOPS spit out in just 0.81 minute. On the same test, the One S, running an identical CPU, scored a virtually identical 102.4MFLOPS.
If only chip math were as easy as 2×2=4.
Myth No. 2: Doubling the chip doubles the performance
You double the number of chips when you evolve from single-core to dual-core and from dual-core to quad-core, but what you’re not doubling are the rest of the resources. All cores still must share a single battery and pool of memory.
If the entire system is efficient (more on that later), Qualcomm’s Talluri told me, you will see increased performance. Just don’t expect said performance to actually double when you migrate from a comparable dual-core chipset to its quad-core fellow.
LG’s Optimus G became Qualcomm’s first quad-core smartphone.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Myth No. 3: All cores, all the time
The assembly line analogy to explain how four cores speed up processes on your smartphone is handy, but incomplete. That’s because no matter how many cores you have, there’s only so much they can share tasks without the help of software.
First, the operating system itself has to support “multithreading”; that is, assigning each processing core a chunk of a task. The device manufacturer also gets into the game, adding some software layers to help the hardware and operating system communicate.
I spoke to five experts in the course of preparing this article, and they all emphasized the need for the developers who actually program the apps and games to code with multithreaded execution in mind.Multicore won’t help you in a world where the apps aren’t threaded. — Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Microsoft
The problem, says Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Microsoft, is that writing code to take advantage of multiple processor cores makes writing apps much harder. Likewise, there’s a lot more complexity in debugging apps when something goes wrong, a challenge that many app developers are reluctant to face.
Gaming and video are two examples of many apps that can take advantage of multiple threads. Let’s say you want to stream a video clip from YouTube or ESPN. Video streams aren’t easily broken down. According to Sullivan, video spools in a serial process, it doesn’t easily divide up for multiple cores to work on and then reconvene. As a result, some tasks, like watching a video, will max out one of the cores while the other core or cores update apps in the background, pull in e-mail, and so on.
Read: Nvidia Tegra 4 leaks
Sullivan’s take on video is up for debate. Chipmaker Nvidia claims that its Tegra 3 processor can efficiently make use of its multiple cores even if the apps themselves aren’t threaded, and codecs do exist to thread video streams.
Either way, all signs point to even better core performance with apps that are specifically designed for multicore use.
Myth No. 4: More cores save battery life
Many CNET readers have shared with me their skepticism that more cores will save battery life, believing instead that quad-core phones will drain a battery faster.
Although it isn’t always the case, they have a reason to doubt.
The car engine analogy was a favorite with the experts I spoke with for a very simplified way to explain what happens with power. GHz (as in a 1.5GHz processor) are like RPMs, and more processor cores are like more cylinders. More cylinders give you more engine power, but at the cost of guzzling gas.
The smartphone’s display, CPU (that’s the application processor we’ve been talking about), and the cellular radio suck up the lion’s share of the battery. There’s a Catch-22 when it comes to performance. Faster CPUs let us accomplish more tasks in a shorter period of time — rendering images smoother, connecting to the Internet faster — but they also demand more juice.
Nvidia, however, points out that their chip’s fifth smaller core fits into the analogy differently.
“When the car is in city traffic and does not require the high performance engine, the high performance engine is turned off and only the electric engine is used,” said a company representative. “When the car is on a freeway, then one to four cores are used depending on the desired speed.”It’s just like punching the accelerator on the sports car. The faster you do that, the faster you burn through gas. — Francis Sideco, IHS iSuppli
The increased demand on the battery during times of high-level performance (like streaming Internet video, for instance) is exactly why system-level optimization is so important, said Frances Sideco, senior principal analyst of consumer and communications at the analyst firm IHS iSuppli.
Engineers on the manufacturing side can be smart about creating software that can help efficiently assign processor tasks, which in the end mitigates battery strain and could help make the battery-saving theory of quad-core a reality (where more chips each doing part of the work drain the battery more slowly.)
Nvidia’s Tegra 3, for instance, boasts system-level optimizations that can turn cores on and off depending on which tasks need to be done.
On top of that, some chips will be inherently more efficient than others (see myth No. 1.) Battery life is an ever-present issue, and the chip makers that can produce the most battery-balanced systems will see slower battery drain for the same task.
The HTC One S takes photos in the blink of an eye.
(Credit: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
Myth No. 5: The CPU stands alone
HTC blew me away with photo rendering in the One X, One S, and One V that was as quick as it claimed. I mean, it was really, really fast. HTC points to its own image processing chip.One of the ways that the ARM-based ecosystem is able to optimize the power efficiency is with peripheral side cores — Francis Sideco, IHS iSuppli
The more you can free up the application cores from having to perform certain resource-heavy tasks, the more they can focus on quickly updating your Facebook status and downloading a podcast.
That’s why today’s system-on-a-chip includes peripheral cores built around the ARM processor, like the graphics processing unit (GPU), any image processors like HTC’s, video and audio units for encoding and decoding, and Flash processors. And guess what? The performance of these separate modules all add up to affect the entire system as a whole.
Myth No. 6: Don’t forget the operating system
Right now, quad-core mania is centered on the Android OS, though the iPhone 5 and Windows Phone OS are currently capable of supporting two or more cores.
Not too long ago, the single-core/quad-core divide was a pain point for Microsoft, which had them leaning hard on its “Smoked by Windows Phone” campaign, which pits a Microsoft employee on a Windows Phone against Android and iPhone users to see whose phone performs simple tasks faster.
Now that Windows Phone 8 OS enabled dual-core processing for phones like the Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC Windows Phone 8X, the point is no less important: we should evaluate performance based on real-life tasks, and not on theoretical benchmarks.
Microsoft’s 2012 Smoked by Windows Phone campaign pushed the point that specs matter less than actual performance.
In the real world, said Microsoft’s Sullivan, performance rests on how efficiently the operating system can manage tasks, period. One advantage that Sullivan points to is Windows Phone’s behavior to suspend apps when you switch focus, rather than run them in the background and take up cycles and power to do so.
Of course, Microsoft may sing a different tune now that it’s shipping its own multicore phones, though I suspect that Android phones will long be ahead in the game of processor one-upsmanship.
However, Microsoft’s Sullivan isn’t alone in his approach. Qualcomm’s and Samsung’s VPs, and the IHS iSuppli analyst I spoke with all echoed Sullivan’s main sentiment, that the way the operating system manages threads of code and processes in general affects the phone’s overall performance, no matter the number of cores.
Myth No. 7: Benchmarks don’t lie
Samsung’s Nick DiCarlo has a strong opinion about chip performance benchmarks. He explained that most processor performance tests measure dozens of elements of the chip, including subcategories of optimization.
Yet, 30 separate and highly specific measurements aren’t often useful, especially when manufacturers have a range of chips to report on and compare.Chip guys…will absolutely show you benchmarks where their chip will dominate everybody else’s. — Nick DiCarlo, Samsung
Aggregating the results with benchmark tools offers a shortcut. Diagnostic apps that calculate benchmark performance for the GPU, CPU, and browser can be useful indicators, but like all statistics, they’re also ripe for manipulation.
“Can they be exploited?” DiCarlo offered, “Definitely.”
What’s to come
The rise of quad-core smartphones began in 2012 and will grow in 2013 for flagship phones. They’ll even start becoming mainstream, as chip makers like Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung, and others continue to aggressively push the release cycle and help market the processor as a larger part of the purchasing decision.
While I’m just as excited to see ever-faster chips lead to ever more powerful smartphones, it’s worth remembering this: quad-core isn’t automatically faster in every case, and more cores aren’t always better.(Credit: Josh Long/CNET)
Smartphones Unlocked is a monthly column that dives deep into the inner workings of your trusty smartphone.
I was recently stupefied to find out it’s extremely easy to get into my (former) bank accounts. All you needed to do was call up customer service and verify very basic information. One bank even reset my security questions when I said I didn’t remember them. This is unacceptable; here’s how to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
Most banks have pretty good online security measures, such as two-factor authentication, which requires you to log in only from approved computers or devices. But as my phone calls proved, the human element is often the weakest link of any security system (remember the Apple and Amazon exploit that wiped tech writer Mat Honan’s accounts?). The easiest way to hack an account is often by manipulating the front line of defense—the people stewarding that data.
One bank I called asked for my social security number and name before resetting the password to “password.” The other asked for my username and email before resetting the password to the last four digits of my social security number. Social Security numbers are not difficult to guess or steal, as Science Magazine points out, and because most people use the same username everywhere, that’s not a great means of authentication. (It’s why you might want to use a unique username and separate, dedicated email address just for password recovery.)
I definitely sounded earnest and trustworthy over the phone—even when I said I didn’t remember the security question answers (at that point I was testing them)—but so, too, could any persuasive hacker.
Call your bank now to see how they handle password resets. Don’t ask them how they do it or try to reset on the website (those seem to be more secure), but try to get your account login reset over the phone, as if you’re socially engineering your own account, to find out the criteria and see how easy or hard it is to get your bank login handed over.
After finding these weaknesses, I switched my accounts to banks that not only have stronger online protections, but those that have improved measures over the phone or at least extra guarantees in case of unauthorized access. Charles Schwab, SunTrust, First Tennessee Bank, HSBC, Ally Bank, and others (you’ll have to check for those near you) guarantee your accounts in case of unauthorized access. For comparison’s sake, the standard guarantee for most banks, from the FDIC, doesn’t cover that.
Also, these and other banks (such as ING Direct) might ask you to verify basic information (such as date of birth and address), but they also may have several other additional authentication steps over the phone, including PIN #s or Security Keys that the customer service agent can’t/doesn’t know; if you forget one of those, you can only get it reset in a few days via snail mail. That may sound like a hassle, but it’s well worth it for the extra security.
In this age where strong passwords aren’t enough, make sure your most important accounts are as secure as the system currently allows. If you do end up looking for a new bank, ask prospective banks about the measures above. Get Rich Slowly asked readers last year which bank was best for both service and security, and the comments on that article are worth a read. My Bank Tracker also features user reviews of banks. But most of all, for your new bank, test out the account reset system yourself over the phone. If you have a bank you particularly trust, please share them with us in the comments and let us know why.
Keyboard shortcuts are the easiest way to do things faster, but with the wide variety of software we all use it’s hard to remember all the different shortcuts. In turn, even though we all know shortcuts are useful, few of us bother using them. Here’s how to learn to make use of shortcuts, ranging from the beginner to expert.
Why Keyboard Shortcuts Make You Faster at Everything
You’ve probably heard about keyboard shortcuts, and you’ve heard keyboard nuts talking about how they’re so much faster than using a mouse. They’ve probably even called you crazy for not using them. The truth is, keyboard shortcuts are great and fast. But that’s not the whole story. Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood lays out the truth:
I’ve long been an advocate of two-fisted computing—using both your keyboard and your mouse to the fullest. That’s what keyboard shortcuts are to me. I’m not sure why this always has to be spun as a cage match between the keyboard and the mouse. Keyboard shortcuts don’t replace my mousing; they complement it.
Keyboard shortcuts get a bad rap because they’re hard to remember, and learning one keyboard shortcut doesn’t seem like it saves you a lot of time. But once you learn the lot of them, you’ll definitely notice a boost to productivity because you’re not unnecessarily reaching for a mouse. That is, you’ll never reach for that mouse or trackpad unless it actually makes sense to do so. This makes you a lot more efficient particularly on larger displays, and feels a lot better than moving your hands around a trackpad. Photo by Samat Jain.
How to Force Yourself to Learn New Shortcuts
The reason most of us don’t bother with keyboard shortcuts is because they feel like they require too much mental effort to learn. The most obvious way to force yourself to learn shortcuts is to disconnect your mouse (or in my case, grumpily refuse to go buy batteries for few days), but most people don’t want to go to that extreme. Thankfully, you can grab a few programs that’ll train you to use more shortcuts.
You have a few different ways you can approach this. The easiest is to grab an application that shows you the keyboard shortcut every time you perform an action with the mouse. For example, if you use your mouse to click Edit > Copy, these programs will pop up the shortcut (Ctrl+C for Windows or Cmd+C for Mac). For Windows, we like Keyrocket and on Mac we like Eve. Similarly, KeyRocket for Gmail is a Chrome extension that does the exact same thing in Gmail.
Alternately, you can run yourself through some drills to teach yourself the muscle-memory required to remember these shortcuts with Shortcutfoo. With Shortcutfoo, you run through a training program that teaches you shortcuts for programs like Excel, Photoshop, Gmail, and more by having you repeatedly enter them.
Finally, if you want a quick reference guide to a ton of different keyboard shortcuts in different apps, Ultimate Windows 8 Shortcuts and CheatSheet for Mac pull up all the keyboard shortcuts for an app on the spot so you can reference them quickly. The cheat sheets are very helpful when you’re learning the ropes and you might be surprised at how much you can do with a keyboard.
Advanced Keyboard Uses
The idea of ditching your mouse isn’t just about keyboard shortcuts. It’s also about making everything else you do on your computer simpler. You have a few different ways to do this, and with a little effort you can make it so you’re almost never reaching for your mouse.
Use app launchers to do just about everything with a keystroke: With software like Launchy for Windows or Quicksilver for Mac you can make your keyboard perform almost any action you want so you never have to reach for the mouse. YOu can also launch apps and perform actions with Windows and OS X’s built-in search tools, but app launchers will give you even more options.
Make your own shortcuts: Chances are you have a lot of unused keys on your keyboard. Maybe it’s that totally useless Scroll Lock key, or the End key you never have a use for. On Windows we like to use AutoHotKey to customize these keys to your liking (as well as countless other great custom shortcuts). On a Mac you create custom shortcuts with built-in software.
Use text expanders to save you hours of typing: Finally, if you really want to speed up your day with keyboard tricks, few things work as well as text expansion. On Windows we like PhaseExpress and on Mac we like TypeIt4Me for text expansion. In this case, think of text expansion like a word-based keyboard shortcut. Type out a couple letters, and the text expander replaces it with a whole word. It saves you a lot of time, especially if you’re always copying and pasting the same text.
Learn Your Favorite Program’s Shortcuts
Of course, you really don’t need to go about learning every single keyboard shortcut for every application you use. It’s more useful to learn all the shortcuts in the software you use the most, and don’t worry about the rest. Here are a few different guides for doing just that.
- The Best Windows 8 Shortcuts
- OS X Keyboard Shortcuts
- Learn all of Ubuntu’s Keyboard Shortcuts with a Wallpaper
- Master Gmail’s Shortcuts
- Highlight Text Like a Keyboard Ninja
- The Power Users Guide to Chrome
- The Power Users Guide to Firefox
- The Facebook Keyboard Shortcut Cheat Sheet
- Learn All the Microsoft Word Shortcuts with this Printable Cheatsheet
- Quick Reference Cards Show All the Excel Keyboard Shortcuts
- Become a Command Line Ninja with These Time Saving Shortcuts
The 20 Most Common Shortcuts Everyone Needs to Know
Even if you don’t want to dig into the deeper recesses of keyboard shortcuts, and few of the most common shortcuts can still save you a ton of time. If you need to really learn these set the below image up as a desktop background, or print it and place it on your wall (click to expand or right-click to save):
The trick with keyboard shortcuts is that you have to train your muscle memory to just automatically go for them instead of a mouse. It takes time, and it’s not exactly a fun thing to do, but it’s worth it in the end. Once you get the hang of it you feel like a cyborg ninja who can instantly jump to anywhere in a text document, launch a web browser and research a term, and then jump into a spreadsheet to quickly create a table without ever touching a mouse. You’ll likely never ditch the mouse completely, but that’s not the point. It’s about making yourself faster with both.
We were dazzled by an array of smartphones. We were fascinated and then disappointed by Facebook’s initial public offering. And we held our breaths as we awaited the verdict in the Apple v. Samsung trial.
But all that’s so 2012. Let’s talk 2013. Will we still be paying attention to patents, smartphones, and IPOs? The answer is “yes, yes, and yes,” but not in the way you might imagine. The great thing about writing about the high-tech industry is its constant march forward. New companies get built on the bones of old companies, and new faces emerge while others fade. It’s what keeps us going and sitting on those hard, wooden courtroom benches.
So what can we expect next year? We’ve been talking and writing about it a lot here at CNET, and we’re running reporters’ predictions on their beats through the rest of the year. But here are some predictions on the big tech trends we’ll be writing about next year:
1. The competition reels in Apple(Credit: James Martin/CNET)
It was inevitable, and in a way it’s amazing Apple dominated for as long as it did in high-growth markets. But Samsung finally overtook Apple for the lead in smartphone sales. While that could reverse with a full quarter of iPhone 5 sales, it’s indicative of where the market is heading next year. Apple is one company, and it can’t beat back forever an array of just-as-resourced competitors building off the Android mobile platform.
This isn’t meant as a dig toward Apple. And I find myself grudgingly writing this on a MacBook, while listening to music on iTunes as an iPhone sits on my desk. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that the competition finally has its act together. We’ve seen challenges to the iPhone’s dominance come and go. HTC looked strong for a while. But collectively, the Android collection (and maybe the companies building on Windows Phone 8) will be an overwhelming if profit-challenged mass. And, yes, by the end of 2013, we could be saying about the iPad what we’re now saying about the iPhone.
“This is a huge platform change; this is of the scale of 20 years ago — Microsoft versus Apple,” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said in a recent interview with Bloomberg. “We’re winning that war pretty clearly now.” Schmidt added: “The core strategy is to make a bigger pie,” he said. “We will end up with a not perfectly controlled and not perfectly managed bigger pie by virtue of open systems.”
In other words, as we wrote yesterday, Google is gleefully doing to Apple what Microsoft did two decades ago: Bit by bit, closing the quality gap and flooding the market with cheaper competitors. Courtroom dramas or not, that’s only going to accelerate next year.
2. The IPO market heats up again, but not for consumer tech
Facebook’s less-than-dazzling entree into the public markets likely cooled Wall Street’s enthusiasm for social media and consumer tech. It didn’t help, of course, that overhyped companies like Zynga and Groupon (unlike underhyped companies such as LinkedIn and Yelp) looked so wobbly.
Groupon CEO Andrew Mason
(Credit: Dan Farber/CNET)
Does that mean Wall Street isn’t hot for tech? Not at all. The big tech stars of the last decade have created big problems and opportunities for the next generation of tech startups. We’re talking less gee-whiz apps and more behind-the-scenes types working on big data, cloud apps, and open source.
As they say, follow the money. And in tech, you follow the venture money. Acquia, a Massachusetts company that’s building quick-to-deploy content management systems built on the Drupal open-source project, is one of those companies. It closed a $30 million investment round at the end of November, bringing its venture funding total to $68.5 million. It grew about 100 percent last year and should grow another 80 percent next year, topping out at 400 employees. Executives hope to go public within the next 12 to 24 months.
“In 2010 and 2009, it was almost impossible to get venture investors interested in enterprise software. Some of them said it was dead,” said Acquia CEO Tom Erickson. “Now you’ve seen a reversal of that trend.
Acquia isn’t alone. In Bellevue, Wash., SmartSheet, a company that’s taking spreadsheets and other types of business collaboration into the era of cloud computing, landed a $26 million funding round last month. And just two weeks ago in Silicon Valley, Cloudera, which has built big-data analytics technology based on the Hadoop Apache open-source project, raised $65 million.
They may not be sexy, and the people who start them are probably the last who will ever have a Bravo reality television show about them, but they’re indicative of the future. The tech industry’s fashion swings between consumer and business tech. Next year, expect it to swing a little further back toward the back office.
3. Things get even more interesting at Microsoft
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
(Credit: James Martin/CNET)
2012 should have been the year we were talking about the big Microsoft comeback in consumer markets. Windows 8 was all lined up. So was Windows Phone 8. There was a nifty new tablet in the works. The gaming business was still going strong, and so was that vast enterprise-software business to which few pay much attention.
So what the heck happened? It’s too early to grade sales of Windows 8. But early returns seem to indicate so-so. The same could be said for the Surface tablet, which has received mediocre reviews. Even more noticeable: Steven Sinofsky, the guy responsible for both, will be teaching at Harvard Business School next year instead of running the Windows division.
Yes, Microsoft finds itself in an unaccustomed role: It’s the undisputed leader of a market that’s not expected to grow, PCs. Yet it’s the upstart in two fast-growing markets, smartphones and tablets.
And since Sinofsky left, Microsoft is climbing up this hill without a clear leader of Windows development. Don’t be surprised if Microsoft’s center of gravity shifts further toward Xbox and Skype, which seems underutilized by Ballmer & Co. since it was acquired in 2011. Could that be more deeply integrated into other Microsoft products without scaring away longtime Microsoft users?
Most of all, you can expect pressure to mount on Ballmer to prove his company is more than a middle-aged titan looking more and more like a slightly smaller version of IBM. And you can expect investors to start asking if, with Sinofsky gone (and it’s doubtful he was ever a realistic alternative), there’s any sort of management succession plan.
4. Facebook will continue to tick us off and we will continue to love it
Perhaps this is what a difficult love affair looks like: A company upsets its users, they lash out and swear they’ll never use the company’s product again. The company apologizes (sometimes it says it was just misunderstood), and everyone forgets about it a few days later.
Welcome to Facebook’s sometimes dysfunctional relationship with its users. I say “users” rather than “customers” because, as CNET’s Nathan Bransford wrote two days ago, Facebook’s users are its product. It’s real customers are the advertisers. The latest dustup was over what exactly Facebook’s Instagram unit could or would do with users’ (not customers’) photos. Facebook ended its community voting system because of anemic turnout. In a case of cyberlife imitating real life, it seems we like to complain but we don’t like to do much about it.
Here’s a bet: There will be at least three more of these confrontations in the coming year. Facebook is a publicly traded company now. Wall Street expects growth, and once you’ve topped 1 billion users, the law of numbers is bound to catch up with you. So Facebook will continue to tweak and sometimes tick off as it searches for more profits. And why shouldn’t it? We’ll keep coming back.
5. Patents will still plague us, but solutions will emerge
Tuesday afternoon, I finished a year-in-review piece that said patents were the big story of 2012. Wednesday morning, I helped write a story about how a consortium of companies ranging from Intellectual Ventures and RPX to Apple, Google, and Microsoft was spending $525 million to acquire Kodak’s imaging patent portfolio. Do you see a trend here?
There’s little reason to expect anything different next year. Apple and Samsung have another trial scheduled for 2014. Lawsuits involving called nonpracticing entities (that’s a nice way to describe a patent troll) will continue to increase, and big tech outfits will continue to spend billions to acquire patent portfolios. There is nothing on the radar that indicates this will change. Heck, the outgoing head of the U.S. Patent Office even thinks all these lawsuits indicate the system is working just fine.
It would be easy to complain about the patent system and how it needs reform. But here’s the reality: It was reformed last year, and by the time years of negotiations became law, the solution was a watered-down compromise that didn’t make much of a difference. The conundrum facing patent reformists is pretty simple: There are “twin sisters” of tech. One is high tech and the other is biotech/pharmaceuticals. On the high-tech side, allowing a patent owner to sit on a patent without doing anything with it doesn’t make much sense.
But on the biotech side, it makes perfect sense. High-tech folks often forget, in their rush to keep up with product cycles that rarely last more than three years, that biotech product cycles can be measured in decades. Moving an invention through regulatory approval and testing is a long, expensive process, and patents are often the way to offer hope of a return on that big investment.
Should software and Internet concepts be unpatentable? Interesting idea, but unlikely to happen, and do you then disallow the many software and Internet patents that have already been granted? Regardless, any regulatory change will take years.
There is, however, a market solution any techie libertarian would love. You may have noticed in the Kodak sale announcement that a company called RPX was mentioned. RPX, in San Francisco, is trying to act as a clearinghouse for patents. Yes, like Intellectual Ventures, it acquires patents. But unlike Intellectual Ventures, it promises not to sue. Companies subscribe to RPX and pay a rate based on their size and income. Big companies pay more than little ones. Seems fair, right?
By the end of next year, we can hope that RPX and companies like it start bringing some sanity to the state of tech patents. It’s a classic tech opportunity: A problem in need of a solution. And no one should expect the government to solve it.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg
(Credit: Paul Sloan)
Mark Zuckerberg has built the world’s largest startup. His is a giant company, for sure — $5 billion-plus in revenue, a stock market value around $60 billion — but it’s as nimble as they come. Its engineers push out products and features at a near-constant pace, emboldened by posters around Facebook’s campus that read, “Move fast and break things.”
Zuckerberg, too, moves fast when he wants. He’s even structured the company so that he can make huge decisions without his board’s approval, and he hasn’t hesitated to do just that. His surprise purchase of Instagram in April is exhibit A.
While 2013 might see another big acquisition — a run at Yelp or Pinterest, say, or some hot startup that suddenly has too much traction for Zuckerberg to ignore — that’s not the path the company is on. Instead, it’ll keep scooping up smaller companies. And given all the changes that occurred in 2012 — a range of new ad products, the rollout of Facebook Gifts, closing the Instagram deal, and, oh, that big IPO that helped set the we-need-to-make money mindset — much of what happens next year seems somewhat predictable. Here are five things to look for:
1. Cashing in on your location
Facebook, as Zuckerberg and his team like to remind the world, is all about mobile now. While Facebook’s mobile revenue, which mostly comes from so-called Sponsored Stories, is growing, there clearly are opportunities beyond ads as Facebook strives to better make sense (and cents) of all your data.
First up: Sending you offers to restaurants or stores based on your location. Last spring, Facebook bought a startup called Tagtile, a mobile-based customer loyalty business that offers local merchants a device for customers to tap on with their phone when they check out. Facebook already let’s merchants offers deals via Facebook Offers. Putting this all together is the next logical next step so Facebook could, for instance, notify you of a deal at nearby store it knows you “Like.”
Facebook’s Nearby feature
In mid-December, in fact, Facebook took a big step in this direction. It rolled out a major revamp of its “Nearby” feature for iOS and Android devices so that the apps show you local hotspots based on ‘Likes’, check-ins, and recommendations of your friends. In a blog post about Nearby, Facebook says it has a long way to go, and making this all useful is harder than it seems, particularly if Facebook starts to work in coupons or promotions.
Facebook might, for example, offer you a deal for a restaurant you “like,” but it would be a lot better if it also knew if you were hungry. Or if you had time to eat. As Sam Lessin, Facebook’s product director, put it in an interview with CNET: “You don’t want to hear from all the companies that want to reach you.”
2. A Yelp-like rating system
Facebook should buy Yelp. Facebook’s market value is about 50 times that of Yelp’s, so money wouldn’t be the issue. But takeover talk aside, the reasoning is this: Facebook needs a rating service, similar to that of Yelp or TripAdisor, to help it parse what might interest a user, as I mentioned in the item above. And the roll-out of Nearby is a direct shot at Yelp and Foursquare.
Facebook’s “Likes” give Facebook helpful data, as do check-ins and shares. But it needs more useful data. And full-on Yelp-like rating system would give Facebook additional structured data upon which to build. Plus, adding this sort of system — and it seems it’s building it, not buying it — would boost Facebook’s search ambitions. We learned about those in September when Zuckerberg told the world he has a team working on search. Facebook’s version of social search will begin to emerge in 2013.
3. The Instagram bonanza
The folks at Facebook/Instagram ended 2012 with quite the firestorm, after rewriting their terms of service to allow Instagram to sell your photos. A rapid backlash forced Instagram to quickly pledge to rework the whole policy.
Even so, Facebook will get through this mess. And even if a few million users bolt — Flickr and others are trying hard to lure them away — Instagram, which now boasts more than 100 million members, will probably weather it handily. Its growth has been so strong that people are no longer talking about Instagram’s steep price tag, which got cut by a cool $285 million or so due to Facebook’s sagging stock price. The deal made strategic sense for Facebook to jump start its mobile efforts.
Instagram will become a big revenue driver for Facebook, even without selling your vacation photos to advertisers. Now that Facebook is pooling data it collects via Instagram with what collects from Facebook itself — something that happened based on a policy change in December — expect Facebook to amp up all sorts of cash-making tactics.
The most obvious way is ads. Facebook needs to tread carefully so as not to annoy users, but some analysts expect Instagram to generate as much as $700 million in ads over the next three years, an effort we will see beginning in 2013. What kind of ads? That’s unclear, but Facebook isn’t going to start taking over your the screen on your phone.
Another possible opportunity would be to sell Shutterfly type products and services. The company could also start tapping into your activity on Instagram to target offers or ads to you on Facebook itself. So if you’re taking photos from ski mountains, Facebook could start sending you offers for discounts at ski resorts. A basic example, for sure, but it illustrates how the data from Instagram should help as Facebook tries to make its platform more personal, lucrative and — it hopes — free from controversy.
4. Facebook’s ads go… everywhere
File this under boring but big. Facebook will launch — possibly in stages, and possibly all at once — an ad network that lets the company sell ads outside of Facebook. This has been talked about for a while, but the financial pressure is on and 2013 will be the year this goes big. Facebook is already plugged into tons of Web sites through Facebook Connect, and each time people share or like items on a site, Facebook’s data trove gets a little bigger. Facebook can connect that data with the data from within Facebook — the social graph — to create a social ad network that competes with Google’s AdSense.
It’s already taking steps toward this. While Facebook just put its fledgling mobile ad network, which sells ads that appear on apps or mobile sites you visit outside of Facebook, on hold, it will surely start it up again soon. And remember, Facebook is reportedly in talks to buy Microsoft’s Atlas ad platform, which helps advertisers buy and manage ads across the Web.
Facebook executives have been quiet on this topic, but it’s a logical way for the company to expand its business without cluttering up Facebook itself. And a third-party ad network could become a multibillion-dollar business. “This is a big opportunity and definitely on the list of to-dos,” said Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co. “It’s a matter of when they think the platform is ready and they’re comfortable with privacy issues. The minute people go to other sites and see ads that look like they’re coming from Facebook, alarm bells go off. They have to go into this slowly.”
So, yes, there’s a good chance Facebook will again stumble when it comes to privacy concerns.
5. Facebook, the shopping network
Well, not quite. But Facebook Gifts, launched in the fall, is a big step that will mark the beginning of Facebook’s steady march into commerce. Facebook isn’t about to take on Amazon.com’s core business, and the big companies, such as Walmart, don’t need Facebook to drive traffic and certainly won’t want to pay the Facebook toll. But small and mid-sized companies will find this a terrific way to their wares, and even if a small percentage of a billion users send gifts, that will add up to a lot.
This was one of Facebook’s smartest moves in 2012, and 2013 will bear that out, especially when Facebook rolls Gifts out internationally. By the end of 2013, the vast majority of gift-giving will occur through Facebook’s mobile apps. The best part: Gifts are not ads. Despite the claims to the contrary by Facebook execs, I suspect users are getting fed up of seeing clutter their phone screens.