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Apple Is Not Winning the Smartwatch War

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Apple’s iPhone is by far the most popular smartphone, with a more than 100 million unit penetration in the US market alone. Combined with the iPod, and later the redesigned Macbook, a commonly held view is that the device “saved” the company – brought it from mediocre stock prices to industry-leading profits. It was only a matter of time before the company then entered the arena of “smart” watches, or watches that are capable of various types of computing along with telling the time.

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Apple delivered its watch product last April among a herd of competition from the likes of Samsung, Motorola, and the usual massive gaggle of no-name competitors. According to recent numbers, the latter group, combined, is currently pummeling Apple in the war of the wrists. It seems that Apple’s great mass of iPhone users have not embraced the full “wearable” experience – at least not as provided by Apple.

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It is hard to get hold of actual sales figures of the Apple Watch itself, but the category that Apple reports it in (“other”), lost 16% since last year in recent showings. It would seem that if there were a severe uptake of the product, this category would have gained in a measurable way. Part of the reason that consumers are opting for other products is price: Apple has one of the more expensive devices in the category. But another reason is the inescapable coupling of Apple Watch with the iPhone, a current reality which limits adoption to those already in the Apple ecosystem.

The Apple Watch’s first generation lacks a standalone GPS, meaning it requires an iPhone to track the location of its wearer. This makes it just an additional piece of equipment for exercise enthusiasts who might otherwise adopt the technology. The requirement of an iPhone, in and of itself, is a break from Apple’s previous innovation strategy. The iPod and iPhone were compatible with Windows computers via iTunes from early on and this fact could be credited with the company’s later boom in the personal computing market. People were able to experience what might be perceived as Apple’s “high quality design” without spending thousands. Meanwhile, Sony and others have already been offering a competing product with standalone, built-in GPS capabilities for many moons.

Apple

Today’s Apple event is believed to play host to the unveiling the Apple Watch’s second generation, and while it is expected to include a standalone GPS offering, many believe that the company will have to go the extra mile if it wants to regain ground in this area. Other areas of the wearables market, which include “basic” devices that are not Swiss Army knife-like in nature, saw a rise in sales over the past year. Andy Hargreaves of Pacific Crest Securities believes that Apple should take advantage of this, telling CNBC: “Despite the potential for GPS to drive growth in Apple Watch unit volume, we continue to believe Apple will have to expand its wearables lineup with lower-functioning devices at lower price points to fully capture the opportunity.”

Apple has been in a perceived period of innovative stagnation for some time, with the iPhone nearing 10 years of age, the Macbook widely receiving criticism for having older hardware but high price points, and inexpensive devices like the Chromebook dominating the market that Apple sought to enter with its Airbook line.

The company will also be unveiling the iPhone 7 today, which is said to be introducing a feature many are viewing as a mistake – the total elimination of the headphone jack in favor of wireless headsets. This device, along with the second iteration of the Apple Watch, will need to be a true jaw-dropper if Apple expects to maintain and continue to expand its dominance in the mobile sphere as time goes on.

Images from Shutterstock.

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Artificial Intelligence

Bitcoin Giant Bitmain Enters the High Stakes AI Race

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Artificial Intelligence

The Sophon, named for a fictional proton-sized supercomputer, could be the tool to train neural networks in data centers worldwide. It is the latest project being developed by Bitmain Technologies Ltd., the bitcoin mining giant that has carved out a dominant position in bitcoin mining.

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Such chips, called application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), could unleash a new wave of distributed computing, according to Michael Bedford Taylor, a University of Washington professor who studies bitcoin mining and chips.

Sophon is due to debut before the end of the year.

Bitmain Has The Know-How

Bitmain has the background to play a role in the expanding artificial intelligence industry. The company designs the silicon that goes in bitcoin mining equipment, assembles the machines and sells them worldwide, in addition to its own bitcoin mining operation and the ones that it manages for other mining pools.

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Bitmain’s founders are not averse to playing a spoiler role.

Jihan Wu, the co-founder of Bitmain, supports the New York Agreement that seeks to double the bitcoin block size under the SegWit2X proposal, a move that some in the bitcoin community view as an attempt to give the miners control over bitcoin.

Some also believe Wu was behind the recent bitcoin split known as bitcoin cash, which at least one of Bitmain’s miners supported, a contention that Wu has denied. Wu points out that he was among the supporters of Bitcoin Unlimited, an earlier bitcoin scaling proposal that did not get activated.

Why Wu Supports Forks

Wu nonetheless said splits should be allowed. He said a fork is inevitable since people in the bitcoin community do not agree on how to best scale bitcoin.

Wu met Micree Zhan, Bitcoin’s co-founder, when Zhan was running DivaIP in 2010, a company that made a device that allowed a user to stream a TV show on a computer screen.

In 2011, Wu needed a chip designer to build a mining operation and approached Zhan. Zhan first designed an ASIC to run SHA-256, the cryptographic calculation used in bitcoin, at maximum efficiency. It took him six months to finish the job. His first rig, Antminer S1, was ready in November 2013.

Bitmain felt the sting of the 2014 Mt. Gox meltdown. But by 2015, bitcoin’s price bottomed out and later recovered. In the meantime, Bitmain introduced its Antminer S5.

Bitmain now employs 600 people in Beijing.

Also read: Bitmain clarifies its ‘bitcoin cash’ fork position

Ready To Take On Google

Bitmain has since developed a deep learning chip with improved efficiency. Users will be able to build their own models on the ASICs, enabling neural networks to deliver results at a faster pace. Google’s DeepMind unit used this technique to train its AlphaGo artificial intelligence.

Bitmain plans to sell the chips to any company looking to train its own neural nets, including firms like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. Bitmain could build its own data centers with thousands of deep learning rigs, renting out the computation power to clients the way it does with bitcoin mines.

Professor Taylor said companies like Bitmain that have excelled in bitcoin mining could take on the Googles and Nvidias since they have developed the skills to survive in an ultra-competitive and highly commoditized industry, and have the system level design expertise and the ability to reduce data center costs.

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Cloud Storage: Mature Saturation or Early Adopter Phase?

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Cloud storage options have been available at a consumer level for decades, in fact, if you consider them properly. One of the earliest such options was called iDrive, which began operations in 1995. A private company, they are still in operation, offering services that directly parallel that of their newer rival, Dropbox. Additionally there have been efforts like Carbonite and Google Drive.

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It seems that the curve of technological adoption begins with centralized services and is later revolutionized by decentralized ones. In the same way that Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general are in the early stages of disrupting how people transmit money, Storj, Filecoin, Siacoin, and others are in the process of disrupting cloud storage. However, what is unclear to this author at this point is how much this market really can be worth long-term.

While there has been a period of time where extremely fast local storage was more expensive, these prices are coming down now. You can buy a 1TB SSD drive for a few hundred bucks, and with two of them you can have a RAID setup for redundancy. The price of extremely reliable, extremely fast, and extremely large drives is only going to continue coming down. How long before it’s so inexpensive that the concept of charging for access to it is less enticing? Even large firms with scaling needs might eventually be able to do it cheaper in house as the cost of hardware comes down.

Okay, so it’s unlikely that this will be a huge problem for the industry. In digital services, virtually everything has a market. Fair enough. But we must also consider what advantages these decentralized offerings have over their centralized counterparts. For one thing, encryption and security are sort of at the heart of the networks. As such, only the file owners are able to view their contents. This has great value to international firms, legal firms, and more. There may be cases where someone determines a file is safer in an encrypted cloud than in a local semi-encrypted disk.

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Then there are businesses where no amount of redundancy is too much, such as web hosting companies. Apart from Siacoin, Storj, and Filecoin, there is also SONM, for which storage is just one more computer resource they would like to allow people to distribute in a decentralized manner. SONM appears to this author as one of the most technologically interesting solutions to the problem of computer resource costs.

Forbes says that that we will see close to $300 billion spent on cloud services this year alone. It would seem that as more and more people come online from remote parts of the world, there will be a higher demand for inexpensive storage and back-up services. The long-term trajectory of all decentralized efforts in this category is probably, if executed correctly, nearly vertical.

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Analysis

Telecoms Outpace Tech Stocks In July; For How Long?

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Tech stocks might have led indexes to new highs this year, but in July, telecoms displaced tech stocks as the leading S&P 500 performers. Telecoms rose 5.1%, eclipsing the tech sector’s 4.1% gain and doubling the S&P 500’s gains, according to The Financial Times.

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While tech stock showed weakening signs, investors favored AT&T Inc. The Financial Times noted strong results from both AT&T and Verizon this past week that compensated for concerns about heightened competition from smaller players like Spring Corp. and T-Mobile US.

Verizon

Verizon

Verizon operates in 150 countries and is the world’s second largest telecom behind China Mobile Ltd., and the largest in the United States, according to Investopedia.

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Its market value was estimated at $191.72 billion as of April 2017, with of $131.8 billion, according to Forbes. The company formed in 2000 as a result of a merger between Bell Atlantic Corp and GTE Corp. In 2015, Verizon acquired AOL following a purchase the previous year of Vodafone’s 45% interest stake in Verizon stock.

Verizon reported second quarter revenue that surpassed expectations last week as the company attracted more subscribers with its unlimited data plan.

In the quarter, Verizon added 614,000 subscribers, including tablet customers, compared to an increase of 615,000 in the year-earlier period. The additions exceeded the JPMorgan estimate of 115,000 and consensus expectations of 70,000, JPMorgan analysts said in a research note.

Second quarter net income rose to $4.36 billion, or $1.07 per share, from $702 million, 17 cents per share, a year earlier.

Total operating revenue rose to $30.55 billion from $30.53 billion a year earlier.

Adjusted earnings per share of 96 cents on revenue of $29.91 billion are expected, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

AT&T

AT&T

AT&T Inc. is the world’s third largest telecom and the second largest in the U.S. with a market value of $245.58 billion. The company provides voice services in more than 200 countries and has more than 34,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. According to its website, AT&T serves more than 355 million people. It recently expanded AT&T GigaPower, a fast Internet service, to 56 metropolitan locations in the U.S., with plans for further expansion. In 2006, the company acquired BellSouth. In 2014, it purchased DirecTV $48.5 billion, allowing the company to provide customers the option to bundle more services into the same package.

AT&T Inc.’s stock looks poised to regain its 2017 high after the company on Tuesday delivered its first earnings bear in five quarters, noted investorplace.com. The stock rose as much as 3% in the after-hour session Tuesday, breaking above $37 on strong volume due to better-than- expected second quarter of 2017 results.

The company’s second-quarter earnings were 79 cents per share, up from 72 cents a year ago, with revenue declining 1.7% to $39.8 billion. Wall Street was looking for a profit of 74 cents on $39.80 billion in revenue. Wireless revenue was flat at $9.73 billion, while legacy voice and data service revenue declined by about 16% year over year to $3.5 billion.

AT&T was still able to meet expectations even as it continues to scale back in consumer mobility and legacy wirelines business.

Telecom Competition Intensifies

Telecom competitors expanded consumers’ access to unlimited data plans, The Financial Times noted. Colby Synesael, a Cowen analyst, said a rebound in subscriber metrics unexpectedly boosted the telecom industry’s wireless revenue, which surpassed analysts’ estimates.

Whether Level 3 Communications and CenturyLink continue to rise could depend on quarterly results released following Wednesday’s close of trading.

Level 3 Communications

LVLT

Level 3 Communications Inc. reported strong results for the second quarter as its bottom and top lines beat the Zacks Consensus Estimate.

Net income on a GAAP basis in the quarter was $154 million, 42 cents per share, compared to $156 million or 44 cents per share in the year-ago quarter. But quarterly adjusted earnings per share of 42 cents outpaced the Zacks Consensus Estimate of 39 cents. The bottom line declined 19.23%.

Total second-quarter 2017 revenue was $2,061 million, up 0.24% year over year and above the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $2,059.5 million.

Century Link Inc.

CTL

CenturyLink Inc. had mixed results in the second quarter of 2017. The bottom line fell short of the Zacks Consensus Estimate, while the top line surpassed it.

CenturyLink’s second quarter net income was $17 million or 3 cents per share, compared to $196 million or 36 cents in the year-ago quarter. Adjusted earnings per share of 46 cents missed the Zacks Consensus Estimate of 49 cents. In addition, the bottom line fell 26.98% on a year-over-year basis.

Second quarter operating revenue was $4,090 million compared to $4,398 million in the prior-year quarter. The decline can be attributed to a drop in legacy revenues and the revenue reduction from the colocation sale effective May 1. But the top line surpassed the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $4,085 million.

Quarterly operating expenses were $3,723 million, down 1% year over year. Operating income, meanwhile decreased to $367 million from $647 million in second-quarter 2016. Operating income margin was 9.0% versus 14.7% in the year-ago quarter.

Adjusted EBITDA excluding special items fell to $1,316 million from $1,634 million in 2016’s second quarter on account of a decline in operating revenues. Lower operating expenses partially offset the decline. Adjusted EBITDA margin was 32.2% versus 37.2% in the year-ago quarter.

Are Telecoms Bargains?

Investors could be bargain hunting the sector since the telecom index is one of only two wider sectors to post declines so far in 2017, the other being energy. Energy posted slight gains in July, pushed by a rise in crude prices that bottomed out in June.

Telecom’s surge stems in part from being undervalued when highly valued tech stocks have slowed or fallen as investors reconsider the market’s outlook. The next sustained decline could test whether telecoms have longer staying power or fall with other sectors.

To evaluate a telecom, it is important to consider metrics affecting that industry, according to Investopedia.

Telecom Evaluation Metrics

Average return per user (ARPU) is critical for telecoms because it illustrates a company’s operational performance. The company’s ability to maximize profits and minimize costs involved in servicing customers is important. Since these companies are service providers rather than product manufacturers, investors must consider marginal profit and cost per unit to determine how well the company uses its resources. The higher the average return, the better.

Telecoms that offer bundling services usually have a higher ARPU.

Churn, often reported quarterly, measures the number of subscribers who leave the company. A low churn rate is desirable. Companies with a high churn rate face more pressure to generate revenue from other areas or gain new clients.

A telecom’s future growth also relies heavily on its ability to grow its customer base. Hence, subscriber growth is a critical metric. A solid subscriber growth rate reflects a competitive telecom that is keeping up with technology trends, keeping customers satisfied and attracting new ones.

In evaluating any stock, investors need to consider earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, free cash flow and debt-to-equity, according to Investopedia. Evaluating a stock also requires a specific understanding of the company’s sector and industry, in addition to knowledge about the forces affecting companies in the same category.

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