Has Apple Lost Its Cool to Samsung?


By Ian Sherr and Evan Ramstad

Samsung Electronics Co. is succeeding where other technology companies have tried and failed: closing the coolness gap with Apple Inc.

The deep-pocketed Korean company has used a combination of engineering prowess, manufacturing heft and marketing savvy to create smartphones that can rival the iPhone in both sales and appeal.

Samsung, the market leader in smartphones, on Friday said its fourth-quarter profit surged 76% to a record high on the strength of smartphone sales, including its Galaxy S line. The latest version is considered comparable by many shoppers in both design and technical features.

Apple, meanwhile, reignited concerns about demand for its iPhone 5 after reporting flat earnings for the holiday quarter, sending its stock down 14% in the past two days. The stock has also dropped 37% since hitting an all-time high on Sept. 19, just two days before the iPhone 5 launched in stores.

At that time, Samsung had just unleashed an aggressive marketing campaign including a television commercial that poked fun at the iPhone 5. “The next big thing is already here,” the spot said, referring to its Galaxy S III phone.

The ad was part of a more than $200 million U.S. marketing blitz that Samsung launched in 2011 to lampoon Apple, according to Kantar Media. The creative vision for those ads was a former Nike executive, Todd Pendleton, who now runs Samsung’s marketing in the U.S.


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(Published Jan 28, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal.)

Driverless Cars Move Closer to Reality


By Ian Sherr and Mike Ramsey

Driverless cars are no longer the domain of science fiction.

Auto manufacturers such as Audi AG and Toyota Motor Co. are beginning to roll out advanced prototypes of vehicles that can drive themselves, adopting new technologies like self-parking, lane-departure correction and collision avoidance.

The idea of driverless cars has been around for decades. What’s changed is that the advanced computers and sensors needed to make this technology work is cheaper and more accessible.

That type of technology is already what powers devices like Google Inc.’s driverless prototype car, which began road tests in 2009. It uses various cameras, global positioning sensors and lasers to orient itself on the road, watch for obstacles and map its route. Google engineers say the device is a better driver than its human passengers.

“This [technology] is the starting path to the ultimate fully autonomous vehicle,” said Derek Kuhn, vice president of sales and marketing at Research In Motion Ltd.’s QNX software unit, which writes software for major auto manufacturers. Changes are also happening under the hood, he said, where various sensors placed in modules and separate computers throughout the car are beginning to be consolidated, allowing them to work together in quicker and more efficient ways.

Toyota showed off a car at the Consumer Electronics Show that can more fully take control from the driver in the event of emergencies.

Efforts are underway to have cars begin speaking to one another, alerting drivers in cars several lengths back of an obstacle in the road or even sensing that they are about to collide. There also is a push to rebuild traffic lights, parking spots and other mainstays of the modern road with smarter equivalents, which can plan and organize where various cars go.

Customers aren’t yet convinced. A poll conducted of 5,000 drivers last year by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Washington lobby group for the industry, found 72% of people thought driverless cars were a bad idea. In that group, more than half conceded that the technology might work, but it was years from being safe.

Audi recently unveiled a new self-driving technology that it says can allow a car to seek out a parking space in a garage, find it and park all without a driver in the seat.

Still, the group also found that people who had been exposed to safety features like forward-collision warning systems or blind-spot monitoring had a more favorable view, said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the alliance.

Ms. Bergquist said the main concern of the industry right now is establishing whether car makers or drivers are liable if there is a crash while one of these systems is in use.


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(Published January 17, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal.)

Hardware Startups Look to Tap Overseas Markets


By Ian Sherr

Bay Area hardware startups are accelerating plans to sell their products overseas, seeking new opportunities for growth after seeing unexpectedly strong international demand.

Thermostat maker Nest Labs Inc. and Leap Motion Inc., which makes a motion-control device for computers, are hiring staff to handle sales and administrative functions, such as overseas partnerships, regulatory compliance and customs issues. They are also tailoring their product websites and modifying their software to handle local languages and data.

These startups and others are learning that in the age of online shopping, customers outside the U.S. are eager to purchase products from American startups that they hear about from blogs and social networks like Twitter. And through partnerships with large multinational manufacturers and distribution firms, the startups can ship just about anywhere.

The efforts come as hardware startups, benefiting from faster prototyping technologies that have made it easier and less expensive to build electronic products, are hot again in Silicon Valley. Fledging companies making everything from health-monitoring devices to speakers are trying to get off the ground—and finding that overseas demand can give them a boost.


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(Published January 10, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal.)

Meet the Great Tech Busts of CES


By Ian Sherr

LAS VEGAS–The high-definition DVD, the Palm Pre and Lady Gaga’s Polaroid Glasses have one thing in common: They launched at the Consumer Electronics Show to much fanfare, only to disappear from sight or languish as failures on store shelves.

The annual trade show, which runs through this week, is the place where many awe-inspiring technologies have launched. The conference has been held for more than three decades and attracts more than 150,000 attendees to its nearly 2 million net square feet of convention facilities each January.

Some products have gone on to change the world. Others have fallen flat.

What has changed, convention goers say, is that the spectacle has gotten bigger, pushing technologies that might be works-in-progress to seem more ready for store shelves than they are, while others never should have been.

The products being shown should be coming out in the next 12 months,” said Jon Abt, the 44-year-old co-president of closely held Abt Electronics in Chicago. “That’s what they initially intended, but things have changed a bit.”

In the past three decades he has been attending, since he was a pre-teenager walking alongside his father, he has watched as numerous concept technologies have fallen flat, from Motorola’s OJO video phone, a precursor to Apple Inc.’s iPhone with FaceTime video chatting, to 150-inch televisions, which have yet to hit the consumer market.

“Everyone wants to have bragging rights—I was the first, I have the biggest,” he added. “These products take years to perfect and refine, and to manufacture profitably.”



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(Published January 7, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal.)

Toyota, Audi Prep Self-Driving Cars


By Ian Sherr and Mike Ramsey

Toyota Motor Corp. and Audi AG are throwing their hats into the ring of potential suppliers of self-driving vehicles.

Both auto makers confirmed on Thursday that they will be demonstrating autonomous-driving features at the Consumer Electronics Show in the coming week, signaling a new effort to raise the technology’s profile among consumers.

In a preview video posted to its website on Thursday, Toyota showed a five-second clip of one of its Lexus brand cars outfitted with various sensors and the caption, “Lexus advanced active safety research vehicle is leading the industry into a new automated era.”

An Audi official also said the luxury-car company will be demonstrating autonomous vehicle capabilities at the Las Vegas show, including a feature that allows a car to find a parking space and park itself without a driver behind the wheel.

Toyota’s prototype vehicle is a Lexus LS 600h fitted with radar and camera equipment that can detect other vehicles, road lane lines and traffic signals, giving the vehicle the ability to navigate streets without a driver. It also includes what appears to be the same roof-mounted laser that Google Inc. has been using on its autonomous research cars. Google began testing self-driving cars in 2009.


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(Published January 3, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal.)