Microsoft and Xioami to collaborate on AI, cloud computing and hardware


After Microsoft signed a deal to test Windows 10 on Xiaomi devices in 2015 and then Xiaomi bought a trove of patents to help run other Microsoft services on its devices in 2016, today the two companies announced another chapter in its collaboration. Xiaomi and Microsoft have signed a Strategic Framework Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work more closely in the areas of cloud computing, AI (including Microsoft’s Cortana business) and hardware.

To date, Xiaomi has largely focused its mobile phone strategy in Asia Pacific, where Gartner revealed yesterday that it (and Huawei) were the only two vendors to increase their market shares at a time of general decline. This deal could point to how Xiaomi is looking to raise its game in the West, specifically in the US.

On the side of Microsoft, it’s particularly interesting given that the company has largely pulled back on a lot of its hardware efforts, and has visibly had some major stumbles in this area especially in mobile — most recently with its failure to take on and grow the Nokia mobile business and Windows Mobile.

Understanding that this isn’t an area that Microsoft can quite quit altogether, it seems that the company is going to have one more go now on a slightly different framework.

“Xiaomi is one of the most innovative companies in China, and it is becoming increasingly popular in various markets around the world,” said Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, in a statement. “Microsoft’s unique strengths and experience in AI, as well as our products like Azure, will enable Xiaomi to develop more cutting-edge technology for everyone around the world.”

“Microsoft has been a great partner and we are delighted to see both companies deepening this relationship with this strategic MoU,” Wang Xiang, Global Senior Vice President and Head of International Business, Xiaomi, added in his statement. “Xiaomi’s mission is to deliver innovation to everyone around the world. By collaborating with Microsoft on multiple technology areas, Xiaomi will accelerate our pace to bring more exciting products and services to our users. At the same time, this partnership would allow Microsoft to reach more users around the world who are using Xiaomi products.”

The deal covers four major areas of services for the two companies.

Cloud support will include Xiaomi using Microsoft Azure for data storage, bandwidth and computing and other cloud services. Meanwhile, Xiaomi’s efforts in laptops and “laptop-style devices” that run Windows will be co-marketed by Microsoft. Then Microsoft is also going to be talking with Xiaomi on how to improve collaboration on AI-powered speakers using Cortana.

That appears to be just the start for the company’s AI collaborations. They also “intend to explore multiple cooperative projects based on a broad range of Microsoft AI technologies, such as Computer Vision, Speech, Natural Language Processing, Text Input, Conversational AI, Knowledge Graph and Search, as well as related Microsoft AI products and services, such as Bing, Edge, Cortana, XiaoIce, SwiftKey, Translator, Pix, Cognitive Services and Skype,” Microsoft said in a statement.

No financial terms to the arrangement are being given but we are asking.

Nuance ends development of the Swype keyboard apps


The party is over for third party keyboards. But hey, it was fun while it lasted. Nuance, the company that acquired veteran swipe-to-type keyboard maker Swype — all the way back in 2011, shelling out a cool $100M — has ended development of its Swype+Dragon dictation Android and iOS apps.

The news was reported earlier by the Xda developer blog, which spotted a Reddit post by a user and says it got confirmation from Nuance that development for both the Android and iOS apps has been discontinued. We’ve also reached out to the company with questions. A search for the Swype app on iOS now results in suggestions for rival keyboard apps.

As Xda points out, Nuance has been concentrating on its b2b business using its speech recognition tech to enable speech to text utility — such as a dedicated version of its dictation product which is targeted at healthcare workers.

The b2b space also provides the business model that’s so often been lacking for keyboard players in the consumer space (even those with hundreds of millions of users — frankly, the typing was on the wall when major player Swiftkey took the exit route to Microsoft back in 2016).

The wider context here is that as speech recognition technologies have got better — improvements in turn made possible thanks to language models trained with data sucked up from keyboard inputs — voice interfaces can start to supplant keyboard-based input methods in more areas.

In the consumer space, Google especially has also doubled down on its own Gboard keyboard (which includes a dictation feature). While Apple’s native iOS keyboard is less fully featured but does include next-word prediction built in. So with mobile’s platform giants wading in there’s added survival pressure on third party keyboard app makers.

Nuance targeting its efforts at a narrow problem like patient documentation also makes sense because of the specialist nomenclature and routine procedures involved, which naturally provides a better framework for voice input accuracy vs more unpredictable and/or creative environments where dictation inaccuracies might more easily creep in.

So while Siri might still suck at understanding what you’re asking, a dedicated speech to text engine that’s been trained on medical data-sets and processes can provide compelling utility for clinicians needing to quickly capture patient notes, potentially even reducing inaccuracies which can creep in via old handwritten ways of doing things.

Connectivity getting embedded into more and more types of devices, including things that lack screens like (many) smart speakers, also means voice interfaces are naturally getting more uplift. And Nuance has been building dictation products for cars too, for example.

Still, it’s not quite the end of the road for third party consumer keyboard plays. VC backed freemium keyboard app Grammarly — which last year raised a whopping $110M, promising to improve your writing not just pick up typos but keylogging everything you type to do so — has been making a lot of noise and plastering its ads all over the Internet to drive consumer uptake. (My App Store search for Swype returned an ad for Grammarly as the top result, for example.)

And while Grammarly is taking revenue via a set of pricing plans to get a more fully featured version of its service, it also says its using typing data to improve its underlying algorithms and language models. So it remains to be seen what its data-mining keyboard business might evolve into (or exit to) in time.

Another consumer player, the Fleksy keyboard, also got revived last year — with a new developer team behind it, whose vision is for the keyboard to be a services platform and whose stated mission is to keep an independent and pro-privacy keyboard dream alive. So don’t stop typing just yet.

Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon


The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

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I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.

Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon


The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

  1. ph1-halo-gray-angled-hi-res

  2. ph1-halo-gray-34-hi-res

I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.

Tech Tip: Sampling Twitter (Without an Account)

Q. I do not have a smartphone. Can I still use Twitter? Do I need an account?

A. Using the Twitter app on a smartphone or a computer is a popular way to keep up with the state of the world in 280-character posts. However, you do not need a touch-screen mobile gadget or even an account to sample the free service.

With or without an account, it is possible to write posts and follow other Twitter users over S.M.S. text on a feature phone that has texting capability and a data plan. Twitter has a set of S.M.S. commands, described in its online help guide and a frequently asked questions page, that let you perform basic actions, like following or unfollowing another Twitter user.

You can also browse posts from users with public accounts on the Twitter.com site, as long as you know the name of the account — also called the “handle” — or accounts you want to read. Once you know the account name, just add it (after a slash) and the end of the twitter.com address to go to that user’s page of tweets on the web — like twitter.com/nytimestech or twitter.com/nasa.

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Even if you have not signed up for Twitter, you can browse and read posts from a specific public account by adding the user name after twitter.com in the address field. Credit The New York Times

Using Twitter’s search page to look for account names or topic keywords is another way to see activity on the service. Clicking links or on Twitter posts embedded in other stories can also take you to a user’s account page on the web.

If you want to post and experience Twitter without having to fiddle with S.M.S. codes or manually search for content — but are not quite up to being a public presence in the Twitterverse — you can also create a protected account instead of a public one. With a protected account, you can follow other users with public accounts and add their posts to your feed, but people who want to follow and interact with you must send you a request first.

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HTC’s smartphone chief and ex-CFO, Chialin Chang, resigns


HTC’s smartphone and connected devices president and former CFO, Chialin Chang, has resigned. The move, spotted earlier by Engadget, was announced today and is effective immediately.

Chang joined the company in 2012 as CFO. He also previously ran HTC’s global sales business — before eventually becoming president of smartphones and connected devices in 2016.

HTC’s investor note specifies Chang is leaving for “personal career plan” reasons, and local press in Taiwan is reporting that Chang intends to set up his own AI startup.

HTC does not list a replacement for the position and did not respond when we asked about its plans for rehiring a smartphone chief. A company spokesperson provided the following statement on the news: “We can confirm Chialin Chang has resigned from his position as President of the Smartphone and Connected Devices Business at HTC.  We thank him for his dedication to the Company for the last six years and wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Chang’s departure follows HTC transferring more than 2,000 of its best engineers to Google at the end of last month on the completion of a $1.1BN cooperation agreement between the pair, which was announced last fall — with Mountain View taking charge of many of the HTC engineers who worked on its Pixel devices.

In exchange HTC has a chunk of cash but the size of its engineering team has shrunk by about a fifth — and it’s now down a smartphone president to boot.

How it can go about reviving a smartphone business which has for years suffered lackluster earnings — on account of being outmanoeuvred and outgunned by faster and better resourced rivals — remains an open-ended question at this point. A glance at this statista graph amply illustrates the challenge.

In recent years HTC has been increasingly focused on its emerging VR business — under the Vive brand and in partnership with games publisher Valve. Though, in September, it said it remained committed to both VR and smartphones, including its U series of premium smartphones.

And it also said its collaboration with Google means it can continue to work with the engineers that now work for the Pixel maker.

Chairwoman and CEO Cher Wang is giving a keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow later this month. But there will be no flashy HTC press conference — as was the norm in its smartphone heyday.

Indeed, it does not appear to have any flagship hardware launches in the pipe for MWC 2018. Though, once again, it will be demoing its Vive VR technology to delegates at the world’s biggest mobile show.

Featured Image: Joan Cros Garcia/Corbis/Getty Images

Essential reportedly only shipped 88,000 phones in 2017


Essential knew it had a hard road ahead of it. Andy Rubin and company acknowledged as much when they launched a handset aimed at taking on the likes of Apple and Samsung. Given that the company hasn’t issued anything in the way of official numbers thus far, a new batch of numbers from IDC are the best we have to go on at the moment — and things don’t look great for the product’s first half-year.

A tweet posted by research director Francisco Jeronimo puts the company’s total shipping at 88,000 units for 2017. We reached out to Essential about the report, but the company wouldn’t comment as is its policy with outside reports.

When I spoke to the company’s president and COO Niccolo de Masi the day the phone was launched, he called the handset a “long-term play,” speaking in terms of a decade’s worth of development to reach the heights of the big names.

Of course, he also framed things relative to the first Google Pixel, noting that the handset was a bomb compared to Apple and Samsung — though that phone’s reported sales number was around 2.5 million.

“We will effectively run a similar growth trajectory probably to what you saw with Apple’s approach to the iPhone,” he added at the time. “They sold a million in the first year. Not because there wasn’t demand for more, but because they couldn’t build more than that when it came to capacitive touch-resistant screens.”

If those were, indeed, the benchmarks for the company’s planned first year of sales, 88,000 is a drop in the bucket. And even with the long runway, the company afforded itself being tied to the man who invented Android, it’s hard to imagine investors being thrilled by this sort of estimate.

Essential hasn’t talked numbers yet — no surprise, really for a young company. But early reports were low, a fact seemingly confirmed by the company’s decision to slash prices in October. At the time, Darrell called the phone “the best deal in smartphones,” but a $200 drop soon after launch wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence in the brand.

“We could have created a massive TV campaign to capture your attention,” the company wrote at the time of the drop, “but we think making it easier for people to get their hands on our first products is a better way to get to know us.” The notion of cutting out advertising in order to pass the savings along to the consumer is a noble one, but word of mouth isn’t exactly a reliable launch pad for a mainstream consumer product.

The company confirmed a total of $330 million back in August, which should give it wiggle room, especially given the importance the company’s executives place on couching expectations early on. It’s easy to forget that Android got off to a pretty slow start as well, given how wildly successful the mobile operating system has become.

Aside from some software updates, however, things have been pretty quiet on the Essential front. The company’s Hub smart home device has been largely MIA since it was first announced alongside the phone.

Featured Image: Darrell Etherington