TIME the big picture

Why Chevron Is Helping Fund STEM Education

Chevron Posts Heavy Decline In Quarterly Profits
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images The Chevron logo is displayed at a Chevron gas station on May 2, 2014 in Greenbrae, California.

Chevron's STEM efforts should serve as a benchmark for other companies, says analyst Tim Bajarin

Over the last year, I’ve become more interested in the Maker Movement and programs that focus on STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math. Like many people, I believe the U.S. education system needs to do more to get kids interested in math and science, as technology sits at the heart of new job creation and is impacting our lives in ways none of us could have imagined 50 years ago.

I shared my thoughts in a TIME column last May about the Maker Faire, a very interesting program that has sought to bring technology closer to kids. The Maker Movement is quite exciting, and dedicated Maker Faires are popping up in many places around the world that emphasize how people can create all types of things from scratch and learn a great deal in the process. The movement has its roots in tech hobbyists circles, where people were using things like Raspberry Pi motherboards to create various tech gadgets. However, Maker Faires now include things like knitting, bee keeping, organic gardening and just about anything that involves making things.

At the beginning of the new school year last fall, I visited a unique STEM program that the San Francisco 49ers, with help from Chevron, created in their new stadium in Santa Clara, California. In a piece I wrote for TIME on the project, I shared how the 49ers were bringing 60 students to the stadium each school day to run them through three distinct activities related to STEM.

Here’s a short excerpt from that article that explains this program:

Each day during the school year, 60 kids from one of the various schools in the Bay Area are brought to Levi’s Stadium in one of the 49ers’ official team buses. They are then broken up into three different groups of 20 each to rotate through three distinct activities.

The first activity features a full tour of the stadium, focusing on the engineering involved with creating a stadium. It shows off the green aspects of the stadium, including a visit to the garden on the roof as well as a look at the solar panels and how they’re used to create energy. The tour also demonstrates how clean technology is used to irrigate the field in order to care for the grass and turf.

The second activity takes place in the new 49ers Museum and includes lessons using various games and interactive screens. Students learn how engineering and math are used to create 49ers football equipment, and how physics is applied to things like passing, kicking and running. The day I was there, they also included a section on careers in math and science. The third activity takes place in an actual high-tech classroom that’s built into the new 49ers Museum. This classroom has multiple screens as well as half a dozen touch-based video worktables created by Cortina Productions. They serve as interactive teaching tools that the students can use to do various projects. For example, one class might teach how a helmet is engineered. Another might be on the physics of throwing a ball, explaining how a physical object like a football deals with airflow, throwing mechanics and force, and how each impacts the direction and length of a throw.

The class on applied mathematics explains angular attack and game geometry as well as teaching about statistics, using the Super Bowl and its various Roman-numeral numbering schemes as part of the lesson plan.

I find the use of sports metaphors to explain physics, math and science a fascinating way to bring these subjects alive for kids. Since then, I’ve looked for other examples of how sports can be used to get kids interested in STEM. The folks from Chevron shared another sports example with me a few weeks ago.

At the recent AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament, Chevron put up a huge tent in their area dedicated to STEM education. Inside, it had special areas where kids could learn about various aspects of golf, including the math and science that goes into a golf swing, the physics involved with hitting the ball and how air flow impacts its speed and direction, as well as lessons on agronomy, or the science used to create a golf course.

Hundreds of kids from the Monterey Peninsula were brought to the golf tournament to go through the “STEM Zone,” as Chevron called it, to do hands-on experiments and learn first hand how math, science and technology impact the sport. They also got to participate in some fun video projects. All of the kids I talked to at the event were having a great time learning about science in this most interesting way.

I had chance to speak with Blair Blackwell, Chevron’s manager of education and corporate programs, and asked her why the company was so interested in STEM education. She told me: “Chevron is an engineering company at heart, and needs well-qualified people in the workforce to hire as part of their team today and in the future.”

Chevron’s backing of various STEM programs around the world comes from over 100 years of early workforce development commitment. As one of the biggest companies in the world, Chevron needs to have an educated talent pool to draw from at all times. Chevron will spend $30 million in STEM-related programs in 2015 and has another $130 committed to STEM and other educational projects over the next three years.

The more I look into various STEM-related projects, the more I see major companies that need tech workers putting a lot of money and effort behind them. Many companies, like Intel and Boeing, for example, are doing the same as Chevron and backing STEM education in a big way. Many other tech companies are putting money and effort around the Maker movement too. Here in Silicon Valley, you need a serious education in math, science and engineering to get hired for key jobs at any of the Bay Area tech companies. And as more companies integrate technology into their work flow, the need for STEM-trained workers will multiply. That’s why it’s so important that Chevron and hundreds of other companies today work harder to get STEM programs in schools — and bring these programs to inner city areas where they can reach kids at all socioeconomic levels.

I’m impressed by Chevron’s financial commitments to STEM education as well as the amount of talent, effort and passion it puts into these specialized programs. I hope its efforts serve as a benchmark for other companies who help make STEM education central in schools all over the world.

Tim Bajarin is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc and has been with the company since 1981 where he has served as a consultant providing analysis to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry.

TIME the big picture

Why Microsoft’s Future Suddenly Looks Bright Again

Satya Nadella Delivers Opening Keynote At Microsoft Build Conference
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

Microsoft's new leadership is fundamentally changing the company for the better

The first time I visited Microsoft in the early 1980s, it was in its then-new red brick offices in Bellevue, Washington, packing less than 50 people. You could walk down the halls and see Bill Gates plugging away at his keyboard and Paul Allen coding in a small office. In fact, I was told that I was one of the first analysts to ever visit Microsoft, as it was just gaining ground with its MS-DOS operating system thanks to IBM’s decision to use it in its first PC.

Consequently, I got to watch Microsoft grow from the beginning. It quickly became a high priority for me as an analyst, as its actions greatly impacted the growth of the PC industry. The company even asked me to advise on several different projects over the years, from its early experiments in graphical interfaces to its first steps into mobile. However, I haven’t worked on any Microsoft efforts since 2004, and now mostly watch the company from afar.

While plenty of today’s pundits write about how Microsoft missed the boat on mobile, I was concerned about Microsoft’s Windows-only focus as early as the late 1990s. By then, the market was already starting to expand well beyond PCs and moving towards a mobile future. And after the turn of the millennium, I felt then-CEO Steve Ballmer had become so Windows-centric he could no longer see the tech world expanding and splitting into different directions. As Microsoft rival Apple gained important ground in music players, smartphones and tablets, I felt Microsoft was way too Windows-focused, causing it to miss the opportunity to expand the company well beyond the Windows brand that, while still important, was keeping the company from innovating.

Apparently Microsoft’s board had similar issues with Ballmer, who early last year was succeeded by Satya Nadella. While Ballmer and I had a strong relationship and often swapped ideas over lunch, I’ve only met Nadella once, and then only briefly. But since he has taken over, I’ve seen a new Microsoft emerge.

Microsoft is now more inclusive, finally embracing the diversity driving the next wave of personal computing. The recently revealed Windows 10 is a great addition to the Windows world, fixing the sins of Window 8. And Microsoft is finally doing something I lobbied for in the early days of its mobile efforts: Making a consistent Windows interface that functions about the same no matter what kind of device it’s running on.

If what Microsoft is doing with Windows 10 isn’t a strong enough indication of how the company’s culture is changing, this might be: When I visited Microsoft last fall, a software team leader pulled out his personal iPhone to show off Microsoft apps built for iOS, like the new Outlook app. For a Microsoft employee to show off an iOS app would’ve been unthinkable under Ballmer. But Nadella is extremely realistic about making Microsoft relevant to all platforms, mining for dollars well beyond the Windows brand. That’s fantastic for Microsoft, as it’s a strategy that’s going to give them broad potential in the future.

Read next: Apple Is Still a Startup

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TIME the big picture

Why Sapphire Isn’t the Future of Smartphones

Apple Unveils iPhone 6
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Apple CEO Tim Cook shows off the new iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch during an Apple special event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on September 9, 2014 in Cupertino, California.

Sapphire just costs too much and doesn't make for good screens

Apple’s long-awaited announcement of its new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus last fall came with an unexpected twist: Contrary to rumors, the company opted not to use an ultra-strong glass called sapphire for the devices’ screens. That was startling because Apple was involved in a major deal with sapphire company GT Advanced, ostensibly to provide the material for Apple’s newest phones.

After Apple announced its sans-sapphire iPhones, it was revealed that GT Advanced couldn’t deliver the amount of the material Apple required on time because of production issues. In a column I wrote last fall, I said Apple never planned to put sapphire screens in the iPhone 6 regardless of GT Advanced’s problems. However, it turns out that Apple did in fact enter into the GT Advanced deal wanting to use sapphire screens in its new iPhones, but by late 2013, the company realized that issues at GT Advanced meant that just wasn’t going to happen. Apple changed direction at the beginning of 2014, when it began working with Corning to deliver its newest version of Gorilla Glass for use on the iPhone 6.

Not long after the iPhone 6 was announced, the relationship between Apple and GT Advanced imploded, with the latter filing for bankruptcy. As of today, there’s no indication Apple is still seeking sapphire screens for any new iPhones — but its patent filings mean it’s impossible to rule out this possibility.

But there are other reasons sapphire won’t see the light of day in smartphones. First, it’s incredibly difficult to make sapphire screens in serious quantities at a cost that would make them feasible for even top-of-the-line smartphones. Also, the smartphone market’s trend toward bigger screens is making sapphire even more expensive to produce and buy.

I recently recorded a podcast with two professors of material sciences that helped me gain a better understanding about the costs and difficulty involved with creating sapphire screens in volume. Joining me in this discussion were Richard Lehman, a professor and chair of Rutgers University’s Advanced Polymer Center, and Dr. Helen Chan, chair of Lehigh University’s Department of Materials Science.

You can listen above, but here are some of the key points we discussed:

  • Glass is used in almost all smartphone screens, and is a great solution. Lehman pointed out that sapphire is used in watches and products that have a long life. But because smartphones have a lifespan of 18 to 24 months, the extra cost involved may not be worth it for most consumers.
  • Lehman said glass costs about a nickel per square inch to manufacture, while sapphire costs several dollars per square inch to make. He also pointed out that manufacturing glass is highly scalable, while Dr. Chan explained that it takes a 2,000-degree furnace to melt sapphire, which has a serious impact on the environment.
  • While both professors are not experts in manufacturing, they brought up key points on the virtue of sapphire as a potential material for screens, but questioned anyone’s ability to make these screens in large volumes. In addition to the melting process, sapphire must be cut razor-thin and subjected to extra polishing, according to Chan. It takes at least four different steps or procedures to produce each sapphire screen.
  • The issue of transparency came up, too. Lehman pointed out that with sapphire, “there is a high reflective index involved that cuts down on the transmission through the screen and it also could give glare.”
  • Lehman said Corning’s new Gorilla Glass 4 is twice as tough as Gorilla Glass 3, providing 80% more protection in standard tests on survivability.
  • The professors also pointed out that hardness (a key attribute of sapphire) might not be the best way to go with next-generation smartphones. Here’s a video from that illustrates this point well and explains the breaking point of glass compared to that of sapphire:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVQbu_BsZ9o

Although the podcast and the video explore the possibility of using sapphire as a screen material for smartphones, they reinforce the idea that the long-term prospects of sapphire screens on smartphones just aren’t viable. Given the additional costs to make a sapphire screen and the increasing strength of more traditional glass, anyone pursuing sapphire for use on smartphone screens would be up against some pretty formidable challenges. For sapphire to be the future, we’d need to see a major breakthrough in its manufacturing process — and from what I can tell, that just won’t happen in the near future.

TIME the big picture

This Will Be the Most Disruptive Technology Over the Next 5 Years

Internet
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Miguel Chateloin (L) and Lazaro Gamio (R) use their computers to write code that would allow people living in Cuba to use email to post to blogs during the Hackathon for Cuba event on Febr. 1, 2014 in Miami.

The Internet continues to be the most disruptive innovation of our time

Robotics, self-driving cars, drones, sensors, wearables and so on are just a handful of the technologies that could change our world over the next five years. But Ben Bajarin, partner at Creative Strategies and Tech.pinions co-founder, believes it will be an older innovation that will be the most disruptive over the next half-decade: The Internet.

Speaking on a panel at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada last week, Bajarin said that more people will come online for the first time over the next five to 10 years than ever before will have disruptive global implications.

Bajarin pointed out, for example, that while the Arab Spring was clearly an important event, it could just be a precursor to more technology-enabled social change if people in repressed countries get more access to information via the Internet. And Internet-connected smartphones could help people conduct commerce and run their businesses, potentially increasing their earning ability.

His comments are based on research we’ve been doing at Creative Strategies as we forecast the longer-range demand for smartphones. More than 2 billion cellphones will be sold in 2015, with about 1.5 billion of them smartphones. However, thanks to lowering prices, nearly all cellphones sold will be smartphones by 2018. At the same time, new wireless infrastructure being built in developing countries is opening the door for an increasing number of people to get online via the mobile Internet. If those people get access to low-cost smartphones, it could have major political, economic and educational ramifications few of us realize is possible.

When smartphones get the next two billion people online, it will be like what the Gutenberg Press and the Bible were to the masses in the Middle Ages. Before the printing press, all knowledge was in the hands of a select few who controlled the flow of information — and so was the power.

Today, it’s hard to believe that kind of information control still exists, but all one has to do to find it is look to North Korea. North Korea’s rulers keep knowledge from the masses, lording their authority over the people. Imagine what might happen if North Koreans got access to a smartphone and, with it, broad access to information.

The breakup of the Soviet Union proves that access to technology can accelerate social change. Back in 1973, I went to Moscow with a group of protesters to demonstrate against the country’s lack of religious freedom. We were arrested and kept completely away from Russians so we couldn’t give them any outside information. More than a decade later, I was in Hanover, Germany, meeting with a clandestine group smuggling fax machines into Russia. Five years after the Soviet Union broke apart, I met former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who said those fax machines and other technologies helped bring about the end of the USSR.

Of course, repressive leaders could block Internet access and bar technology from crossing their countries’ borders, as we’ve seen them do time and time again. But even in these regions, technology is often smuggled in. Over time, I expect these borders will become even more data-porous, thanks to tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that can help users evade government firewalls. As more people in repressive countries get access to data from the outside, their knowledge base will expand. The impact on their lives could be dramatic.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

TIME the big picture

The 7 Hottest Trends We’ll See at This Year’s CES

Newest Innovations In Consumer Technology On Display At 2014 International CES
David Becker—Getty Images A Samsung curved OLED television is on display at the Samsung booth at the 2014 International CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 7, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

4K televisions, smarter cars and the Internet of Things will dominate the 2015 International CES

When I attended my first Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 1976, I was in my mid-20s, new to the tech scene and highly impressionable. When I entered the show floor back then, my senses were bombarded by audio and video displays and vendors hawking their tech toys. In those days, Playboy Bunnies and Penthouse Pets were routinely used to draw dealers into booths — in fact, part of CES included an adult video section, since VCRs and their tapes were considered tech products.

Fast-forward to today, and CES has morphed into one of the most respectable consumer business events in the world. Hosted annually in Las Vegas, it spans more than two million square feet of show floor and includes enough gadgetry to fill 35 football fields. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which puts on the show, said it expects between 150,000 and 160,000 industry professionals to attend CES between Jan. 6-10, 2015, on par with last year’s show.

Every year leading up to CES, I get hundreds of requests to meet with companies that want to show off their latest and greatest gadgets. Based on those invites, I’ve got some guesses as to what will be hot at CES 2015:

1. 4K Televisions and sound bars

High-def televisions were the big news at CES five to seven years ago. TV makers’ goal was to get everyone to move from analog to HD digital TVs, and that push has been widely successful. Now the industry is set to take television to the next level with 4k TVs.

4K TVs are capable of displaying four times the resolution of today’s HD sets, provided you’re playing true 4K content on them. At this year’s CES, we’ll see well over 100 different 4k TV models from dozens of vendors showing off stunning images and video.

Sound bars, tiny sound systems that sit in front of your TV and pump out HD stereo and 5.1 surround sound audio, will also be hot at CES this year. 4K TVs tend to be very slim, meaning there isn’t much room for serious speakers inside them. Sound bars fill that gap, greatly enhancing sound quality to match 4K TVs’ incredible visual output.

Also, don’t be surprised if we see a couple of 8K televisions launched at the show. Although 4K will be the big thing for the next three-to-four years, 8K TVs will debut in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which should be broadcast in 8K by that time.

2. Connected Everything

The Internet of Things (IoT) will be a major theme at CES 2015. Many devices will come with some type of wireless radio that can connect to the Internet or other devices within the home, enabling you to control various aspects of your home with your smartphone.

There will be an emphasis on home automation, with smart door locks being the next big category to be pushed by the IoT crowd. We’ll also see connected lightbulbs, thermostats and even beds that gather data about how well you sleep.

3. Intellegent Cars

About two years ago, the world’s biggest automakers decided they should attend CES. This year, we’ll see 10 car companies at the show, including Audi, BMW, Toyota, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and Ford. The latter two will be giving keynote speeches on Monday and Tuesday of CES.

We’ll see several forms of self-driving car technology, as well as news from Toyota around fuel cell technology. The car makers will also be touting in-car Internet connectivity and smartphone-syncing features, with many showing off integration with Apple’s new CarPlay service.

4. Wearables

Even though the most anticipated wearable of 2015 — the Apple Watch — won’t be at CES, wearables will still be everywhere, with fitness wearables dominating the show. We should also see some new smartwatches and perhaps even some Google Glass-style headwear, although interest in smart glasses has waned dramatically since last year’s show.

Even though Apple doesn’t attend CES, its presence will still be felt in a big way. The Apple Watch will be a major part of the wearables discussion at the show, while well over 100 booths will feature wearable accessories for the iPhone and iPad.

Outside of Apple, the wearable I find most interesting will be from GoMore. GoMore has added EKG monitoring to its device, allowing athletes to monitor their stamina as well as heart rate. That could be valuable for anyone doing serious training.

If you’re attending CES this year, I’ll be moderating the CES Supersession on smartwatches on Wednesday, Jan. 7. The event, titled The Market for Smartwatches, will feature executives from Samsung, Motorola, Intel’s Basis division and Yahoo discussing who might buy smartwatches and why. Find more info here.

5. Consumer Robotics

CES 2015 will have a special section for robotics, and we should see some interesting new twists on robots for the home. While iRobot’s Roomba dominates this space today, we could see variations around robots as servants, doing things like cleaning up after your pets or washing your windows. And plenty of new airborne robots — drones — will be debuting at CES 2015 as the category becomes more mainstream.

6. Tablets

Although tablet growth slowed in 2014, tablets will again be big stars at this year’s CES. We’ll see lots of very low-cost tablets, with more of them focusing on application-specific functions, serving as personal TVs or alarm clocks. These single-feature devices could give new life to the tablet market in 2015.

Smartphones, meanwhile, won’t make much of a splash at CES 2015. New smartphone models typically launch at the annual Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona every March.

7. 3D Printers

The CEA says 3D printers are one of the top tech trends to watch in 2015. Indeed, 3D printers have come down in price significantly, and we should see several models under $1,500 at this year’s show. CEA’s 3D printer predictions include:

  • Double digit percentage growth in units shipped by 2018
  • $76 million in total revenue in 2014 (up 44% from 2013)
  • $175 million in total revenue by 2018

However, at prices around $1,500, 3D printers are still mainly being bought by hobbyists and those in the Maker movement. While some consumer devices, like HP’s 3D camera-equipped Sprout, are intriguing, it will take more hardware and software innovation — and lower prices — before 3D printers and cameras make it into the mainstream.

Read next: The Science of Why Your Kids Can’t Resist ‘Frozen’

TIME the big picture

Your Tablet Will Be Your TV: 5 Bold Tech Predictions for 2015

Tablet Television
Nick David—Getty Images 2 people watching television on a tablet.

And Apple will make the MacBook Air even thinner

Every winter for the last 26 years, I’ve taken a stab at predicting tech trends for the upcoming year. I’ve had a solid track record: Last year, I was half-right when I said Google would spin off Motorola — it was instead sold to Lenovo. I also predicted PC sales could actually grow in 2014, and that was basically true: In 2013, PC sales were down 10%, and this year they’ll only be off by about 2.5%. That resurgence came as people figured out their shiny new tablets couldn’t fully replace their PCs.

Oh, and back in 1998, I said Apple would be the largest consumer electronics company in the world within a decade. I remember that one mostly because the piece got so many comments calling me an idiot.

With that in mind, here are my top five predictions for tech in 2015:

1. Tablets will be positioned as personal TVs. The tablet market has become competitive enough to drive prices down to the point that about half of American adults own one. Tablets have become major hits worldwide, too, especially lost-cost models meant for consuming media.

But in 2015, we will see a major push to position tablets as personal televisions. Qualcomm’s new Broadcast LTE chip, which enables media to be broadcast directly to a smartphone or tablet, will help make this happen. One of China’s major TV broadcasters, for example, is creating a branded tablet marketed as a TV that can get all of the broadcasters’ content as part of a subscription service. The Chinese tablet will be $99 with a small monthly content fee.

I already turn all my tablets into televisions via Slingbox, but I need a secondary device to make it happen. Tablet owners can already get video content via apps like Netflix or over the web, but come next year, tablets will be marketed as televisions first and computing devices second.

2. Streaming media will be everywhere. HBO’s decision to offer streaming-only services in early 2015 is a big deal. This type of unbundling of traditional cable content is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to moving even more content into direct streaming models and services. Add to that the dedicated social media platforms being developed around streaming content and shared viewing from remote locations, and next year we could see streaming media expand its reach and have a big impact on traditional media distribution.

3. Apple will release a new ultra-thin, ultra-light MacBook Air. While Apple is rumored to be releasing a bigger iPad next year, I think Apple’s really big hit in 2015 — besides the Apple Watch — will be a newly designed MacBook Air. Apple’s MacBook Air pushed the laptop market to thin and light designs overall, but if Apple does something even thinner and lighter with a new MacBook Air (and maybe a retina display) it could make “ultra-thins” the next big thing in laptops.

4. Application-specific tablets will take the market by storm. Did you know it’s cheaper to buy a $99 tablet than a souped up clock radio for the bedside? And the tablet gives you not only a variety of clock faces and alarms, but the versatility to hear Internet radio, AM/FM radio, podcasts, police and fire radio bands and more. This is just one of the trends we’re seeing as people buy cheap tablets to hang under kitchen cabinets, place in bathrooms or put in their kids’ rooms for news, podcasts and television.

5. You will finally start using 3D scanners and printers. While 3D printers will gain more traction in 2015, what the market really needs are easier ways to design 3D products. I believe we will see the first laptops with built-in 3D cameras by end of the year. Along with a 3D printer, that would make it possible to take an object, put it in front of your laptop camera and push print. Don’t be surprised if Apple goes big on 3D cameras or ways to capture 3D images for use with 3D printers in 2015.

TIME Sports

Why 49ers Fans Totally Love High-Tech Levi’s Stadium

San Francisco 49ers Levi's Stadium Ribbon Cutting Ceremony
Michael Zagaris—Getty Images Workers head down the stairs during the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for Levi Stadium on July 17, 2014 in Santa Clara, California.

They have Wi-Fi, food-ordering apps and more

When the San Francisco 49ers set out to build their new stadium, they wanted to make it one of the most tech-advanced in the NFL. Now that Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium has been open for nearly a full season, it’s time to see if they actually pulled that off.

When the new stadium was built, the 49ers laid close to 400 miles of cable that allows for all types of wired and wireless connectivity in the arena. At the professional level, that gave TV, radio and online broadcasters access to some of the most high-powered infrastructure and world class broadcasting equipment ever installed in a stadium. For 49ers fans, new Wi-Fi routers, beacons and an app make it possible to order food, beer and merchandise from their seats or stream replays on their phones or tablets.

12 games into Levi’s Stadium’s inaugural season, I headed to catch a game to get a sense of how successful all that new technology has been. I can report the new features have made the arena experience much more immersive and interactive, putting it on-par with watching a game in the comfort of your own home.

I talked to over a dozen people at the stadium who have used the new Wi-Fi and various apps, and they all seemed to love the experience, especially the ability to have food and drinks delivered to their seats. Many 49ers fans also told me about the Beacon-powered tools that helped them find their seats or check on the bathroom line without getting up and missing a key play.

However, there’s a catch-22 about Levi’s Stadium’s new tech: When the 49ers are doing well, fans seldom check their mobile devices, preferring to keep their eyes on the action. However, if the home team is struggling, fans’ attention drifts, and many of the people I talked to said they used the stadium’s Wi-Fi to go online and check email, surf the web, or post disparaging comments about the team’s performance.

About 21,000 to 23,000 people use Levi’s Stadium’s Wi-Fi per game, with the exception of Sept. 14’s home opener that saw 41,000 unique users, according to the 49ers’ IT department. The peak bandwidth usage has ranged from 1.5 GB/s (Nov. 2nd) to 3.1 GB/s (Sept. 14th). The team’s last home game, on Nov. 27, registered a figure of 2.5 GB/s. Most games have seen fans use more than 100MB of data each, no small feat considering how hard it can be to use mobile data during games at big sports arenas.

The various San Francisco 49ers officials I talked to say the stadium’s tech has performed well. They admitted there have been Wi-Fi glitches every once in a while, but there have been no major problems. They are also pleased that once people first try the stadium app, they often keep coming back to it.

The 49ers hoped that Levi’s Stadium could be a poster child for other stadiums, and have been very gracious in sharing details about their plans with other NFL teams. The fans, meanwhile, are happy that the 49ers went the extra mile to make the stadium experience even better through technology the ticketholders have widely embraced.

TIME the big picture

How Smartphones Could Evolve Into Something Totally Different

FRANCE-ECONOMY-TELECOMMUNICATION-SMARTPHONES
Philippe Huguen—AFP/Getty Images People show their smartphones on December 25, 2013 in Dinan, northwestern France.

Smartphones may become modular computers you drop into larger interfaces like "dummy" tablets or laptops.

One of the more interesting comparisons of computer speeds often checks the computing power aboard NASA’s Apollo moon missions to the computing power in your smartphones. Indeed, The Daily Grate actually compared how much more powerful your phone is compared to the computer that tracked all the Apollo missions and flew grown men through the narrowest event windows while guiding a tin can in the infinite reaches of space — the Apollo computer had 1 MHz of processing speed, your iPhone 5s sports 1.3GHz in two cores.

I’m not sure if the Apollo crew actually understood how underpowered their computers were, but thankfully they didn’t ask the question, and came back in one piece. However, the idea that we have this kind of computing power in our pocket could make smartphones the most important computing device we have, eventually powering all kinds of personal computing products.

About 23 years ago, I wrote a paper on what I called back then a “vision for modular computing.” I’ve traveled a great deal in my career, and in the early days, I lugged portable computers that looked like singer sewing machines. Once clamshell-style laptops came out, I started carrying them instead — but they weighed 6-9 lbs. and had short battery lives. But I envisioned — or actually longed for — a time when I could just carry a small modular computing core with me, plugging it into a TV in my hotel room or fitting it into a screen and keyboard on the flip side of an airplane seat tray.

I wanted the full power of a personal computer in a small device that could connect into all types of stationary devices. Now I know I was describing then what smartphones have become today, although they have the screen and keyboards built in as part of their design.

But that might not be the endgame for smartphones. In one of the more interesting products on the market this year, Asus has created something that embodies part of that original vision I had for modular computing. The Asus PadFone X is a unique product that includes a smartphone which slides into and powers a 7-inch tablet. The idea here is that all of the computing power is based in the smartphone, while the tablet simply mirrors what’s on the smartphone. However, if you undock the phone from the tablet, the tablet does nothing — all you get is a blank screen. The PadFone costs $199 without a contract and works with AT&T’s prepaid program.

The PadFone’s idea to put the computing power in the smartphone and using it to power a tablet is quite interesting and very much modular in design. I’m hearing another angle on this in the works in China, wherein you’d take a smartphone and pop it into a laptop clamshell design, using the smartphone as the core processor mirroring the device’s operating system and apps on a 12-inch laptop screen with a full keyboard. Motorola had a product like this a few years back called the Atrix Smartphone with LapDock. The Atrix never took off because 2011’s smartphones weren’t powerful enough to deliver on the idea, among other reasons. But the concept of using a smartphone docked to a laptop shell is now being tossed around design shops in Asia, and we could see new versions of the idea sometime next year.

The smartphone-based modular computer has plenty of potential, and what Asus delivers with the PadFone could just be scratching the surface. It would not surprise me if someday my original modular computing vision finally plays itself out in ways that make the smartphone the center of our computing experience and it becomes docked into tablets, laptops and desktops that powers our future computing experiences.

TIME Big Picture

Why Your Next Computer Might Be a Dell

Dell World Keynote With Michael Dell
Gary Miller—Getty Images Michael Dell gives the keynote address to Dell employees to kick off Dell World 2014 at the Austin Convention Center on November 5, 2014 in Austin, Texas.

The now-private Dell is looking better than it has in a long time

The PC market has undergone incredible consolidation over the last five years, leaving only five or six brand-name players in a market which once had at least 17 serious PC vendors. Among the top of today’s list lies Dell, a company that over the last 15 months has gone through the kind of major changes that will determine if it’ll remain a major PC market player.

In early 2013, Michael Dell and his team made the decision to take the company private. That got serious pushback from some Dell investors, with the most intense recalcitrance coming from activist investor Carl Icahn. Icahn felt Dell was undervalued, and tried to take over the board and kick Dell out of the company. Dell and his team fought back, and in the end got major backing from Dell’s own personal wealth and private investors, enabling them to take the company private just over a year ago to great initial success — Michael Dell and his partner Silverlake has realized a 90% gain on their investment since they did this leveraged buyout, according to Bloomberg. The irony here is that Icahn might’ve been right that Dell was undervalued, Dell wouldn’t have seen this increased gain without Michael Dell at the helm.

I got the chance to speak with Michael Dell and some of his executives at last week’s annual Dell World consumer event. I’ve known Dell for decades, and during the final years before he took his company private, he often seemed very weary. Running a public company can beat a person down, and I’m sure the pressure to perform for investors took its toll on Dell.

That no longer seems to be the case.

Dell is the happiest I’ve seen him in a decade, more relaxed and reassured about Dell and its future. He still has pressure to perform and stay profitable, but that now comes from meeting the needs of his customers, not his investors. That means Dell can stay customer-focused and not have to deal with Wall Street and its various machinations that can distract a company’s executives. In fact, I know a few CEOs of public companies who are jealous of Michael’s newfound freedom, which makes it possible for Dell as a company to respond more quickly to market demands, be more nimble and more free to experiment.

More importantly, Dell has recently posted some serious growth. During Michael Dell’s Dell World keynote, he said the company delivered nothing but positive outcomes over the last year. Some of these results included seeing year-over-year growth across all regions globally, increasing worldwide PC shipments by nearly 10% year-over-year in Q3 of this year, which led to growing its market share in the North American market by 19%. It gained triple the share of HP, five times as much as Apple, and 10 times as much as Lenovo, making it the number three PC vendor in terms of worldwide shipments, behind Lenovo and HP.

Dell also said the company performed well in servers and storage, but during the Dell World event, the CEO told me that close to two-thirds of Dell’s enterprise business comes through its PC business. He added that he “loves PCs and is highly committed to creating new innovative laptops and desktops” to support his customer’s needs.

This is a big deal for Dell. Even if they’re no longer a growth market, PCs are not going away. They remain business workhorses and a key productivity tool for students and consumers. Dell having a company focus on creating great new PC and laptop designs is good news for those who will continue to buy PCs for many years to come.

“The company’s future strategy has been aligned to four customer imperatives — transform, connect, inform, and protect — which addresses the major technology trends of cloud, mobile, big data, and security,” Dell said in his keynote speech. “The company is highly focused on providing complete solutions to their customer, that includes helping them manage everything from the back end to all end points that connect to these servers and applications. While Dell has been doing this for years, there is a renewed commitment to deliver world-class solutions to IT and consumers. I see a really new Dell, and one that is committed to being a top-level company for the long run.”

At last year’s Dell World, Michael and his team had just won their battle against activist shareholders and taken the company private. At that time, the Dell team was optimistic about the company’s future without the pressures of Wall Street. However, it was too early to tell if a private Dell would be a successful Dell. Given what I saw at Dell World last week, I think it’s safe to say that Dell’s bet on themselves was a good one. If it continues to perform this way going forward, Dell will certainly remain one of the top PC players in the market for many years to come.

TIME Big Picture

Phablets and Bluetooth Headsets Are Perfect Companions

When I saw the original Samsung Galaxy Note a few years ago, I couldn’t believe it was actually a smartphone.

It sported a 5.3-inch screen and at the time, it looked more like a small tablet. But I was told that it was indeed a full-fledged smartphone, designed to be used as a phone as well as a small tablet.

When I picked it up and put it to my ear, I thought I looked ridiculous. In fact, in one of my columns at the time, I pointed out that something this large did not make sense for use as a phone given its form factor and what I considered its unruly size.

Yet the Galaxy Note struck a nerve in many regions of Asia and became quite a hit. In these markets, people generally only carry one device with them and with the Galaxy Note, they got a small tablet and a smartphone in one.

Now Apple has jumped in with a phablet of its own, which has immediately become a hit in all of the markets that it’s sold, including the U.S. and Europe. To be clear, the iPhone 6 with its smaller 4.7-inch screen is outselling the 6 Plus at least five to one, but there are still many people buying the 6 Plus who like its actual size. I am one of them. I struggled with which new iPhone to get but decided on the 6 Plus because of its large screen and the fact that I could read its screen without my glasses. Now I love it and feel like a hypocrite for dissing phablets in the past.

However, I will not put it up to my ear and use it as a phone, as I still think I look ridiculous putting something this size to my ear and talking on it. I might be the only one who feels this way, but I find that for me, a Bluetooth headset is the best solution. I use one religiously when making or receiving calls with the iPhone 6 Plus.

The Bluetooth headset I like the most has been the one from Bose. It fits in my ear well and delivers great sound, and the people who hear me on the other end say I come in clear.

I have tested over 15 headsets and while I especially like a couple of models from Plantronics and Jabra, so far I keep coming back to my Bose Bluetooth headset for use with the iPhone 6 Plus. However, I recently got to test a new Bluetooth headset that has the potential to become my primary headset. While it works like a Bluetooth headset with any smartphone, it’s unique in that this feature is secondary to its purpose.

The folks from Soundhawk, who make this new headset, call it the worlds first smart listening system:

Soundhawk was founded by one of the world’s leading hearing experts, Dr. Rodney Perkins. He started his career as an ear surgeon but quickly became one of the world’s most successful life sciences entrepreneurs. He has started twelve companies, four of which were in the hearing sciences and three of which went public. As a physician, he realized that there were limits to the number of patients he could help. As a result, he began to apply his knowledge and creativity to building products and companies that could have a much broader impact.

What makes the Soundhawk headset so different is that its main purpose is to help enhance and amplify the conversations around you, especially in noisy restaurants, sporting events, or any gathering when you want to hear people but it’s too loud to hear them clearly. This is not a hearing aid in the traditional sense, although its use to help people hear better has its roots in Dr. Perkins’ medical practice. He would often have people come to him thinking they might need a hearing aid but when they were tested, they didn’t have the aural problems that qualified them for such a device. Yet he understood that these folks had real issues with hearing, so he started Soundhawk with the idea of creating a headset that would help people hear better in noisy situations.

SoundhawkThe Soundhawk system from left to right: charging case, wireless mic, smartphone app and Scoop earpiece

The Soundhawk smart listening system consists of four components. The first is a smartphone app that gives the headset precise controls for four distinct situations. It can be fine-tuned for use indoors, when dining, when driving and for outdoor activities. Then there is the headset itself, called the Scoop. It’s smaller than my Bose headset and fits well in any ear. It uses adaptive audio processing to enhance key sound frequencies in order to elevate what you want to hear while reducing unwanted background noise.

Its third component is a wireless mic that gets you closer to what you want to hear in even the noisiest environments. You simply place the wireless mic near what you want to hear and it will pick up that sound and deliver it in great clarity to the Scoop. The wireless mic is perfect for noisy places like restaurants, coffee shops or even at home.

I spent last week in Honolulu working on a project, taking many meetings in restaurants. I took the Soundhawk mic and placed it on the table front of the person speaking, and even in these very loud environments, I could hear them clearly. The mic even has a clip on it, so if the environment you’re in is really loud, you could ask the person you’re talking with to clip it on their lapel instead.

One interesting thing about using the Scoop and the mic together is that when someone was talking to me in a noisy area, it was like the person was speaking only to me. Their voice came in loud and clear, making the conversation seem even more personal.

The fourth component is the case that houses the Scoop and the mic. The case has a rechargeable battery inside and protects, organizes and recharges them so they are always ready to go. This is a really cool feature. All other Bluetooth headsets need to be plugged into a wall outlet directly to charge them. This charges in the case and the case itself can be recharged over night. This is a very handy feature.

According to Michael Kisch, CEO of Soundhawk, “As our world gets noisier, many people are hearing less of what matters most. At Soundhawk, our mission is to transform the listening experience simply and affordably, and empower people to hear the world the way that they want to.”

The Soundhawk’s Smart Listening System launched recently, and at the moment is only available on the company’s website for $299. I realize that most high-end Bluetooth headsets are priced much lower than this, but keep in mind that this product has a lot of added value to it. It works on iOS and Android devices.

It’s an interesting product, and one I think will meet a need for a lot of people who would like to be able to hear better in noisy environments and also want a great Bluetooth headset for use with any of the larger smartphones on the market. Of course you could use this with any size smartphone, but at least in my case, it’s a perfect companion to my iPhone 6 Plus. Even though I have only been testing it for a week, it has the potential to become my primary headset.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

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