Saturday, April 26, 2014

#TechSeven - Facebank, iPad fades & Netflix pricing

My weekly Friday afternoon tech talk with Barry Morgan on Montreal's CJAD 800 radio station this week was chock full of geeky goodness. In case you missed it, here's a rundown of the major topics we talked about:

ONE - Facebook wants to be your bank

Would you trust Facebook to be your online bank? You may soon have the opportunity to find out first-hand.

A Financial Times article (additional link here) quotes unnamed sources as saying Facebook is asking Ireland's central bank for permission to launch an electronic wallet that would allow users across Europe to store and exchange money online.

If this gets the go-ahead, it would signify an important milestone in social media's evolution from means-of-sharing-trivial-snippets to a full-blown online utility that's indispensable to everyday life. At the same time, I think this begs a couple of fundamental questions: why would Facebook be doing this in the first place, and should we trust it to be the online platform of choice for our most critical financial transactions?

To the first question, why? 1.2 billion reasons, really. Fully 1 in 6 people on the planet now use Facebook. And if Facebook can upgrade them from status updates to full-on financial transactions, it stands to make a lot of money in the process. This is especially critical now that Facebook is a publicly traded company, with investors who care about growth and profit.

And the pot at the end of the rainbow is a big one indeed. According to Gartner, mobile transactions will grow 35% per year between 2012 and 2017, and the market will hit 450 million users and $721 billion by 2017. Here's some good background on what's driving Facebook's moves here.

Traditional banks, understandably, want a piece of this, and have dipped their toes in the online transaction waters. Canadian banks including RBC and CIBC have all partnered with carriers like Rogers and Bell to launch mobile payment programs - but they haven't fully gone mainstream yet, and most Canadians still haven't broken their addiction to traditional means of payment, namely credit and debit cards, and cash. Facebook's massive size (27 million users in Canada alone, far more than any one bank or carrier) means it could hit critical mass far more quickly.

The move comes as Google adds a payment option to its Gmail service - additional background here - for its half-billion users, and Apple makes moves to include mobile payments in its next major update to its iOS mobile operating system. The battle lines are being drawn.

And then there's the second question around trust, security and privacy. We've already seen a number of high-profile hackings of e-mail and social media services. Our propensity to store all our most confidential data in our inbox and social media accounts doesn't help matters. Facebook also has a somewhat checkered reputation on the privacy/data stewardship front, so any moves to become the e-wallet provider of choice will have to be accompanied by significant assurances that they've learned to treat our data with care.

I wrote about the perils two years ago in an article for Yahoo Canada - Mobile wallets hold promise and peril- and those worries remain as valid today as they were then. Facebook Canada, in particular, has been especially vocal about the global company's moves to become a trusted partner, and will figure centrally as the company further fleshes out its m-commerce, e-wallet plans.

TWO - Is it game over for Apple's iPad?

Apple announced its latest quarterly results, and to no one's surprise it raked in record revenues and profits. A stock split - designed to make shares more affordable for regular folks - and a boost in the dividend sent shares soaring.

That's the good news. The bad news: iPad sales are DOWN for the first time since the iconic tablet was first introduced in 2010. In the year-ago quarter, the company sold 19.4 million iPads. This last quarter? 16.35 million. That's down almost 16 per cent.

I wrote an article for Yahoo Canada: Fading iPad sales mark the end of Apple’s big bang era

CEO Tim Cook tried to explain the drop, saying variations in the supply chain, and a big backlog of iPad minis after the holiday season rush, contributed to the wonky numbers. But in the end, weakness in a flagship product is worrying for the company's longer-term prospects. Could your next tablet be an Android-powered device instead?

My thesis: Folks who have iPads tend to really like them - and don't see much need to replace them every year or two. Also, everyone's waiting for the Next Big Thing from Apple. It could be either a watch, a TV, a fitness device, something for the car, etc. And when it launches, they expect it to end Apple's long-ish period since its last major new category-creating product (the iPad) and power its next major chapter of growth.

Unfortunately, relying on the tech equivalent of a hit record is so last decade. Going forward, Apple's best prospects lie in larger numbers of smaller products, all of which somehow connect to its current iPhone (and by extension iPad) franchise. Software will allow the company to truly differentiate itself from its competitors, and it's only a matter of time before Apple-enabled cars make it a no-brainer for drivers to buy Apple devices, too, so that they can get the most out of them.

So if you really like iPads, buy one now before they're radically redesigned in an attempt to get us to want to upgrade. And if you were planning on camping out for a week later this year to buy the first on your block to have an iWatch, you may want to cancel those plans. The future Apple just won't work that way anymore.

THREE - Game Boy turns 25

We had a big anniversary in tech this week, as Nintendo's iconic portable game machine, the Game Boy, celebrated its 25th birthday. When it was released on April 21, 1989, no one knew it would go on to sell 118 million copies - and another 501 million game cartridges - and revolutionize the world of portable gaming.

No one also suspected it would legitimize the idea of portable electronics. The Game Boy wasn't the first portable gaming system, but it was the most well thought-out, with great performance (for its time), great battery life, and the kind of toughness that today's smartphone buyers wish they had. Indeed, much of today's smartphone revolution wouldn't have been possible if not for this single breakthrough product.

It also turned a strange little game from a Russian developer, Tetris, into a worldwide phenomenon, arguably the first virally popular mobile game. Tetris shipped in the box with the Game Boy, and it legitimized the practice of launching a device or platform with strong software - the killer app, if you will. Today, we may look back at the Game Boy's primitive technology and laugh, but there's no denying how important this one product was to establishing many of the fundamentals of today's mobile economy.

FOUR - And YouTube turns 9

Still with the anniversaries, nine years ago this week (April 23, 2005), some then-unknown guy named Jawed Karim uploaded an 18-second video to a then-unknown website called YouTube. At the time, Twitter hadn't yet been invented, Facebook was still a largely unknown service for students only, and MySpace was the only social media game in town. was actually registered on Valentine's Day 2005, and went live to the public a month after the first video was posted.

And what was in this video for the ages? A trip to the San Diego zoo to visit the elephants. His take?: "The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really, really long trunks."

Since then, of course, Jawed, who co-founded YouTube, sold the service to Google for $1.65 billion. So I'm guessing he can buy the entire zoo if he wishes.

His little video literally started the viral video revolution. Yet as viral videos go, this one did well, but it isn't YouTube's top video, not by a long shot. It's had 14 million views, 130,000 likes, and 7,000 dislikes.

But without it, we would have never had Gangnam Style.

FIVE - Netflix prices could be going up

It's probably the best entertainment value in the universe. 8 bucks a month, all you can watch, any device, anywhere. Movies, TV shows, documentaries, anything: as long as you have the bandwidth, Netflix has stuff for you to watch. It's the single most successful online streaming service, the Kleenex or Coke of the digital content age, and the one that kickstarted the chord cutting revolution. Because of Netflix, more and more of us are getting rid of conventional cable and satellite subscriptions entirely so we can watch content on the cheap online.

Well, that screaming deal may not be so screaming anymore. Netflix has given its biggest hint yet that it could be getting set to raise prices by a buck or two a month. In a letter to shareholders, CEO Reed Hastings and CFO David Wells all but confirmed they're about to raise prices:
“In the U.S. we have greatly improved our content selection since we introduced our streaming plan in 2010 at $7.99 per month. Our current view is to do a one or two dollar increase, depending on the country, later this quarter for new members only. Existing members would stay at current pricing (e.g. $7.99 in the U.S.) for a generous time period. These changes will enable us to acquire more content and deliver an even better streaming experience.”
Even at $10 a month, though, it's hard to find a better deal anywhere. Still worth every penny. And if the extra revenue lets them buy more and better content - and continue to produce groundbreaking new shows like House of Cards - then it's a price more of us will likely be willing to pay.

SIX - Charge your a TAXI?

We've all been there: you're heading out for a night on the town and you realize you forgot to charge your phone. If you're taking a taxi in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, the solution soon might be as simple as plugging in.

Telus is partnering with Play Taxi Media and certain taxi companies in each city (Ambassador Taxis in Toronto, Taxi Union in Montreal, Mayfair Taxi in Calgary and Blacktop & Checker Cabs in Vancouver) to install charging stations in about 1,000 taxicabs. The plug-in stations are free to use - well, aside from your taxi fare - and are accompanied by a screen in the headrest that plays ads and other content.

The partnership plans to expand the program to other taxi companies and cities, as well.

The stations can recharge a tablet, as well, but I don't want to imagine how long you'd have to drive around to fully top off an iPad Air. That would be one expensive cab ride.

SEVEN - Glow-in-the-dark roads

It's a common problem, especially in Canada, with its long stretches of highway between distant cities: how do you maximize visibility for motorists and keep them safely between the lines? The Dutch may have a simple answer: glow-in-the-dark road paint.

They're using a 500-meter stretch of the N329 highway in Oss to see if it works. They've added photo-luminescent powder to the road paint. It charges up during the day, then glows once the sun goes down. In its current form, it'll glow for up to 8 hours - not quite all night long, but better than the barely-visible lines that we're stuck with today.

Future versions of the technology could add other capabilities - like notifications when the surface is about to ice up or that hazards may be ahead. It could also allow direct-to-vehicle communication. Smart cars. Smart roads. Now smart paint. Neat.

We'll be back on the air next Friday at 2 p.m. with a whole new set of craziness from the world of tech. If you're in Montreal, tune in at 800 on the AM dial. Online, point your browser to for the live stream.

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