Hoverboard 2.0 From Amazon, Tesla or Razer?

hoverboardAs CES 2016 opens its doors this week, this is a show typically dominated by appliances and mostly TVs. But one of the biggest commercial successes of 2015 (and the 2015 holiday season) was the unbranded hoverboard. Yes, those Segway-like boards that are best known for catching fire and helping toss a few potential Darwin Awards finalists.

When Amazon decided to pull the plug on hoverboard sales for its vendors, it created a vacuum where consumers ignored the warnings and bought the hoverboards elsewhere, paying hundreds of dollars for a trendy device that is admittedly far cheaper than a real Segway but with a record of danger. In fact, Amazon asked people to toss or recycle boards out of safety concerns.

One of the big expectations in 2016 is that a “hoverboard leader” will finally emerge with safer battery technology and remove the fire danger of its batteries. Given Amazon’s push to create itself as a consumer electronics maker and considering the PR backlash from removing hoverboard sales from Amazon.com, it seems that Amazon could make an interesting PR pivot from banning sales to creating a new market for itself by working with its Chinese manufacturing partners to engineer safer hoverboards. Of course, given that the company’s consumer devices have incendiary names like Fire and Kindle, it would need to come up with a different naming scheme.

Another potential hoverboard 2.0 leader might come from Tesla Motors. The Tesla is a tech-minded person’s car and the company has engineering teams that already specialize in getting the most out of batteries and designing consumer experiences around its vehicles. Plus, Tesla’s shopping mall showrooms could offer an elite “Tesla Board” at those locations to increase revenue and interest, it’s a great way to build a safer board and massive brand awareness. Who wouldn’t want a “Tesla Board” vs. a brand-less board?

Another outlier is Razer. It’s a high tech brand that was featured in April 2015’s Fortune as “This gaming company is worth $1 billion, and you’ve probably never heard of it“. While the company is still a peripheral maker for gaming consoles, PCs and the growing list of wearables, Razer could easily apply its dark black, male-centric brand to a Razer Board. Given the company’s deep roots in gaming culture tournaments and gaming culture’s love of hoverboards, Razer has the relationships and engineering to potentially lead or innovate hoverboards into the 2.0 phase.

Of course, this is all speculation. Given the dangers and the legalities of creating a safer hoverboard 2.0, many big tech companies might simply wait for the fires to die down before they decide to enter the hoverboard market. While it might be too soon for hoverboard 2.0 to emerge at CES 2016, it is going to be a topic that’s bound to be discussed.

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Nintendo’s Unlikely Savior — Amazon

Nintendo is not dead, despite all reports. Yet, after three consecutive years of loss, it does appear that Nintendo’s leadership is finally willing to admit that all is not well in the house of Mario.

nin-ama2Wii U is not selling and while the DS line of handheld gaming devices continues to sell, Nintendo’s reliance on branded hardware, limited first party releases and a denial of market trends may be the three things that end its reign. When tech companies have troubles, tech journalists suggest that the biggest competition will gobble them up whole through acquisition. I have a completely different idea. One that might help it return to profitability in two years or less. Yet, it has to admit several problems before it can do it.

The Software Problem: Nintendo is a for-profit company that needs to maintain its IP, earn revenue from that IP and while it might make more money by creating more titles based on that IP, it doesn’t. My suggestion would be to create a program where Nintendo approached game studios with a proposition. Create a stellar game on any IP in the Nintendo library. Nintendo would still need to approve of the IP use but giving a license to any game developer to create the next Mario, Donkey Kong or Wario game would be welcome.

On the same idea, developing a program where Nintendo allowed up and coming (or indie) game makers to use its IP would help add new titles to the small online libraries it has. Nintendo would still maintain the distribution but these solutions would do something that Nintendo fans would embrace, a wealth of choice.

The Single Purpose Problem: The Wii can’t play DVDs. The Wii U can’t either. You can’t use the DS to Skype. Sure, you can use Netflix (finally) but adoption of Netflix on those devices can’t be high.  The Wii U is a powerful device that simply does one thing – it plays a limited amount of games.  Players invest in products to use in their everyday lives that have more than one purpose. The phone in your pocket plays games, plays music, plays videos, monitor stocks, watch sports scores… Nintendo needs to finally embrace its Japanese culture. A culture that is addicted to technology because its culture has helped innovate technology worldwide. Now it needs to embrace what its fans want and deliver a device that does more than just play games.

The Hardware Problem: Developing hardware is not a cheap activity and while it helps Nintendo maintain its exclusivity, it hurts distribution. While I am a big proponent of broad releases (like Sega’s post-Dreamcast strategy), Nintendo would never go for it. Yet, it would need an innovative, global partner who had the means to stay ahead of the industry, had an already established product line to use as a platform and wasn’t Sony or Samsung. While the Wii U has problems, I do think that the Wii U’s GamePad is where Nintendo’s future will head. It’s a smart way to let the less profitable Wii line lessen, move DS gamers to a new platform on a bigger screen and still maintain its exclusivity. Yet, with extremely limited power supply, the GamePad isn’t able to keep itself going very long.

The Solution: Nintendo needs a global partner who can take over its hardware development, improve its current hardware, offer security to limit piracy, products that it wants to sell, no gaming competition and access to a high-powered cloud infrastructure and distribution engine. The answer seems obvious….

Amazon. With its Kindle HD line of tablets, the company has a solid platform of tablet devices, a third generation all-digital distribution engine, global marketing and, I believe, would love to have exclusive rights to having Nintendo games on its devices. Amazon has recently been dabbling in the gaming universe but a super-exclusive deal with Nintendo would make Amazon a global player overnight and would allow Nintendo to be creative powerhouse it has always been. And, I think that with Amazon’s drive, it could develop that platform in less than two years.

That device, which might be based on parts of the Wii U GamePad design, would get games on the day they released, offer new ways for gamers to communicate, more access to potential add-ons, create an engine for MMO-like titles for games like Pokemon and might help developers come back to Nintendo.

Bash if you must but I think that Nintendo isn’t dead. And I think that a deal with Amazon gives Nintendo an unprecedented opportunity to push itself to the forefront of gaming on tablets.

Mr. Iwata, it’s time to give Amazon’s Jeff Bezos a call.

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How to Kindle African Education

Education is just one of the many issues facing the second largest continent, Africa. A lack of public capital for funding free education means that books, writing materials, teaching implements and spaces to teach in means that many children move into adulthood without ever learning to formally read, write, formulate math problems or even learn better work techniques that would help their earning potential to grow.

With over 1 billion people, it’s a place that was long forgotten for its many opportunities. Yet, education hampers the continent’s progress towards forming a self-sustaining plateau, one that would eventually lead to considerable growth.

Rather than stick to the old book and paper model, educating Africa and its 52 nations might be better done by seeking educational innovators who want to create part-time or nearly digital school programs.

One idea might be to use simple cell-network enabled devices like Amazon’s lower-cost Kindle devices to store age or grade appropriate reading materials, develop an SMS-style system to send that student’s progress back to a regional or governmental agency to further develop those systems, and update outdated materials as corrections are made.

Efforts like this have already begun thanks to the tireless work of organizations like Worldreader.org, a group that has partnered with Amazon, country-native publishers and other donors to take Kindles to western Africa. With over 500,000 Kindles pre-loaded with books delivered to students, those students have become positive influencers by sharing their knowledge with their parents, siblings, family and neighbors. Worldreader says that the use of Kindles has the potential to reach 5 times more people. That’s an amazing number considering that potential could be as high as 2.5 million new readers, people powered with more knowledge tend to want to continue to read. Imagine what could be done with 5 million Kindles.

Teachers in those regions would first teach students reading skills and thus, how to enter the digital realm of their education. Those teachers would still be invaluable as the children move to high levels of courses as they progress and seek guidance on what to do next.

Such digital hybrid systems would have to be ruggedized for use with multiple students; power management would need to be done by support personal who would also manage the publications in each device (due to the use of e-ink in many Kindles, battery life can be up to many weeks). Many of those countries, especially those with an abundance of sunshine (especially Ethiopia) could easily go solar and avoid local power grids. Many countries that lack the landline communication infrastructures have erected considerable cell phone networks that would take care of any updates. Such systems might also be used to recover misplaced or stolen devices.

Children who have graduated from their schools might get the option to continue their education through the use of their special login and their mobile phone device. Such continuing education programs might be available for a small fee; graduates might be able to shop around for different educational programs that might fit their special skills, religious views, tribal history or other views. The other butterfly effect of such knowledge will be new authors who may have their own stories to tell and sell to others. Creating readers not only creates smarter and more dynamic people, it also can create smaller homegrown markets for those authors.

Governments might also choose to augment or subsidize those fees for programs that might educate locals on developing new skills roles that are needed regionally. In regions where farming might be difficult, programs for better livestock or crop management might be offered to curb any issues or teaching people about how to fix cars, trucks or other modes of transportation could create a wealth of experts for any burgeoning economy. And that’s just one part of the force that might help move many African countries from seeking charity and start creating more entrepreneurs.

As I’ll be visiting a few schools in Ethiopia in a few weeks, I’ll revisit the digital solution to education soon and weigh several of the realities against the idea.

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