Why a Messaging App Is Worth $19B to Facebook
All photos: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery
Curious about some of the gadgets that either recently arrived or will soon be lining store shelves -- if not necessarily flying off of them? You might have wanted to attend the Consumer Electronics Association's Line Shows conference in New York City. This two-day gathering and the surround events that make up "CE Week" function as a vastly condensed edition of the sprawling Consumer Electronics Show that the Arlington, Va., trade association runs each January. Here are some of the more interesting things I saw there. (Note that "interesting" is not always a compliment in this business).
Pioneer's AppRadio Even the most digital dashboard looks dumb compared to the average smartphone, but how are you going to get the phone's maps and directions into your car's navigation screen? Pioneer's new, $399 AppRadio aims to close that gap by plugging an iPhone or newer iPod touch into its cable, then running apps off the device on its in-dash screen. Well, some apps: Developers have to revise their software to work with this system. And so far, only four third-party programs work with it: navigation apps from MotionX and Inrix and Web-radio programs from Rdio and Pandora. The AppRadio also includes AM and FM, if you're into that sort of thing.
MakerBot's Thing-O-Matic If you don't like the gadgets on sale in stores, you could always try to make your own. MakerBot's exquisitely named Thing-O-Matic does just that: This computer-controlled machine prints in three dimensions, layering on quick-drying plastic to create small machines, objects and toys. This Brooklyn startup has been selling it in a do-it-yourself form for $1,299 (it estimates 12 hours of work to put it together, assuming you're handy with a soldering gun), but early in June, it began offering full assembled Thing-O-Matics for $2,500.
Barnes & Noble's Nook Plain old e-book readers looked a lot less stylish after the iPad upended the market, but they still beat tablets handily in terms of price and weight. Barnes & Noble's just-updated Nook could be the paperback of this category, selling for $139 and weighing a tossable 7.5 ounces. It only connects by Wi-Fi and uses a 6-inch, gray-scale, battery-saving e-ink screen that has less of a distracting delay when going from one page to the next. But it may need to drop below the psychologically significant $100 barrier to stay competitive in this market.
ETC's Evo 3D A lot of people aren't sold on 3D video on their HDTVs, so naturally the industry is doubling down on the concept by putting it in phones. Sprint recently began selling HTC's Evo 3D for $199.99; this Android phone uses two lenses to take three-dimensional pictures and can display them in 3D on its screen without your having to wear glasses. (LG will soon be joining this market with its Thrill 4G for AT&T.) From gawking at the Evo 3D, I can report that the 3D effect looks realistic -- but I still think I'd trade the second camera lens for a bigger battery.
Toshiba's Thrive Can anybody compete with the iPad in the high-end tablet market? Toshiba will be taking a stab at this difficult category with its Thrive in mid-July. Built around a 10.1-inch touchscreen, it offers a feature absent from most other tablets: a standard-sized SD Card slot, allowing for easy transfer of files from a camera, desktop or laptop. It will also sell for less than Apple's tablet, starting at $429 for a model with 8 gigabytes of storage. But it's substantially heavier than the iPad 2, and the Honeycomb edition of Google's Android operating system that it runs has been criticized as buggy.
Vizio's VIA Tablet HDTV vendor Vizio is taking a different strategy with its VIA tablet. Starting in July, it will sell this 8-inch Android tablet for a lot less than the iPad, starting at $349 for a 4 GB model. Vizio is also holding off on Honeycomb, instead shipping the VIA with the phone-oriented Gingerbread release until that newer version gets a little more stable. It's built one interesting extra into it: an infrared transmitter that, with an included app, lets the tablet serve as a universal remote control.
Westinghouse's 3D TV If nobody's willing to pay much -- or anything extra -- for a 3D HDTV, manufacturers will have to make 3D cheaper. Budget-minded manufacturer Westinghouse Digital will ship its first 3D TV in the fourth quarter of the year, with an estimated list price of $1,199.99. The interesting part of it is what's in focus in the photo: its cheap, light "passive" 3D glasses, which don't require any special circuitry to synchronize with the image on the screen. That just leaves the lack of 3D content to deal with... which is not something that most electronics manufacturers can do anything about.
Celestron's SkyProdigy Telescope Finding the moon with a telescope is easy. The planets and the bright stars take more work. Galaxies? Prepare to spend some time panning the scope clumsily around the sky. Some computer-aided telescopes will put an object in view for you, but you first have to tell the telescope where it is by pointing it at a brighter object. Celestron's SkyProdigy line of telescopes, starting at $699 and going on sale in July, use an internal camera to align themselves in about three minutes, the company says, then let you select objects off a small onscreen menu. Note, however, that the camera won't let you save any photos -- and you'll still be on your own if you want to keep the International Space Station in view.
Scosche's freeKEY Most smart phones and tablets will let you connect a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, but then you have yet another piece of fragile electronics to pack. Scosche's freeKEY looks like what you'd use to pack one of those peripherals; this $59.99 rubberized, waterproof keyboard easily rolls up when you're done. I could not test its typing on my Android phone -- for some weird reason, it only supports Honeycomb, not any phone flavor of Android -- but other reviewers have tested it and found it touch-typing compatible (while noting that cheaper takes on this concept are available).
HP's TouchSmart Desktop computers just aren't that exciting these days, but at least HP's TouchSmart 610 desktop looks different from the rest. This $899.99-and-up, all-in-one model includes a screen on a stand that pivots up and down; with the screen pulled up away from a desk, you can walk up to it and use it by touch. HP has provided a software front-end that allows you to navigate through some common functions with the same sort of simple gestures you'd use on a phone. The browser was a little jerky at resizing text, but the Twitter app made it a easier and a little more fun to wander through the Twitterverse.
Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion may sound like a Silicon Valley tycoon's ransom for a simple mobile messaging service. But the acquisition gives Facebook access to a mobile messaging service that can reach millions of people worldwide who access mobile Internet services through either smartphones or simpler feature phones.
The acquisition of WhatsApp, based in Mountain View, Calif., comes at a time when Internet-based mobile messaging services have become increasingly popular at the expense of standard SMS text messaging. That's because WhatsApp and other mobile messaging services offer "free" Internet messaging if users have a mobile data plan, unlike many SMS packages sold by telecommunications firms that charge customers per text.
The trend has left many telecoms worried that they will become sidelined by Internet-based services and reduced to providing the mobile Internet infrastructure while others profit, the Financial Times reports.
An Informa consultancy report estimated 50 billion messages would be sent from WhatsApp and other mobile messaging services in 2014, according to TheNextWeb. By comparison, Informa estimated that just 21 billion traditional text messages would be sent this year. Still, the usage of SMS text messaging continues to rise annually, even if it pales next to the rapid growth of mobile messaging services.
Future trends among both mobile data plan subscriptions and smartphone ownership seem to favor the continued rise of mobile messaging services.MobiThinking reports that there were an estimated 2.1 billion mobile Web users as of mid 2013—a figure that has grown by 40 percent over the last three years.
On the hardware side, Gartner consultants announced that worldwide sales of smartphones surpassed sales of feature phones for the first time in 2013.
WhatsApp has attracted 450 million users worldwide in part by building upon Java 2 Mobile Edition (J2ME), according to TextIt Blog. That has made the mobile messaging app usable on the many Nokia or Samsung feature phones available at cheaper prices compared to Apple's iPhones or Google's Android smartphones. And that advantage has allowed WhatsApp to reach customers beyond smartphone users in the developing world.
But WhatsApp is not alone in the mobile messaging market. Its rivals include Japan's Line with 350 million registered users, China's WeChat with 272 million monthly active users, and South Korea's Kakao with 133 million registered users, according to The Wall Street Journal. Such rival services differ from WhatsApp by offering many more services on top of messaging, including games and mobile payments.
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