Android: Third among equals

Google, Apple and Microsoft all have decent mobile operating systems.

Last year I spent a week working exclusively with each. My conclusion is you won’t go far wrong with any of them. All three cover the basics adequately. None of them is perfect and none has a fatal flaw. Each has pluses and minuses.

You many find yourself in one camp almost by accident, if, say, someone gives you an iPhone. It may be a deliberate choice: after researching the market you chose a Surface Pro 3. It could be you work for an organisation that standardises on the Galaxy Tab S.

Once in a camp, your relationship with that world generally deepens. As an iPhone user you may learn to make the most of iOS. You may spend money on apps, store everything in iCloud and generally take on a commitment to Apple’s way of doing things. This works the same with all three operating systems.

While the three operating systems are equal in many senses, there are ways in which they are anything but equal. Android has by far the largest market share, Windows Phone has a tiny market share. There are roughly 25 Android users for every Windows Phone user.

Market share is often overstated. It’s implications are misunderstood More customers doesn’t mean more profit. Android device makers struggle to break even while Apple, on a smaller market share, is highly profitable.

Many developers focus on iOS ahead of Android despite there being fewer users because that’s where there are app sales.

Which brings me to why do I say Android is “third among equals”?

In my work I make a point of working with all three mobile operating systems. I also use Windows 8 and OS X.

While the three mobile operating systems are, to a point, largely functionally equal, Android doesn’t have things nailed down as neatly as Windows or Apple. This is a blessing for some, for most people it’s a problem.

For a start you always know where you are on any Windows or Apple device. That’s just not true on Android. Samsung’s Android user interface is different to LG’s Android and so on. Not all apps run on all variations.

This means that from a usability point of view Android isn’t one thing, it’s many. Where I mentioned earlier about staying in one camp, for Android owners getting all the productivity benefits might mean sticking with Samsung, LG or HTC. Working with one maker’s Android phone and another maker’s Android tablet can be almost as jarring as moving to another operating system entirely.

My second gripe about Android is that users are lucky to see one OS upgrade on any single device. When iOS or Windows Phone moves from one version to another, everyone gets to move so long as their existing hardware can support the new software. This rarely happens with Android. It’s not uncommon to get left behind.

For me, this is important. It’s why I see Android as the least best choice of the three operating systems. It’s harder work for everyday users who want to get business or other tasks done efficiently.

I understand how Android appeals to more technical types who like to go beneath the surface. It’s a great OS for those who want the freedom to tinker. If that’s you, then fine, I don’t think you’ve made a silly or dumb choice opting for Android.

However, I worry that Android is often the lowest cost option and because of that it is often the OS used by the least technical users. I see that as a problem. Some will struggle to do simple things because of this. Many will not enjoy the full functionality of their tools.

NZ telcos wince as they foot rural bill

One of the National Party’s election promises was to extend the government’s Ultrafast Broadband network. Originally the plan was to spend $1.5 billion to cover 75 percent of the population living in cities and towns. Now the government aims to spend another $150 million to $200 million reaching an extra 200,000 people for a total of 80 percent of the population.

It’s a good idea and solves the problem of connecting people living in medium-sized places not reached by the earlier UFB plan or the Rural Broadband Initiative.

Updated: Previously this section wrongly said the government would extend the Telecommunications Development Levy for three years to pay for the UFB extension. The government is using its Future Investment Fund — from asset sales — to build out the UFB. The Telecommunications Development Levy is paying $50 million to fix rural mobile black spots and $100 million for the contestable fund. Thanks to Chris O’Connell for pointing this out. 

Although the name suggests otherwise, the TDL is effectively an extra tax on telecommunications companies. They collectively pay $50 million a year into a fund to pay for the RBI. It replaces an earlier levy collected to compensate Telecom NZ (now Spark) for maintaining a universal telephone network reaching rural customers that would have been commercially unprofitable to serve.

The Commerce Commission gets to decide how much each telco pays into the levy based on calculations about their relative market share. Chorus, which isn’t a retail telco, also pays into the fund.

In some ways the fund is an unfair imposition on telcos. New Zealand’s carriers have faced falling revenues in recent years as competition bites. The effect of earlier government imposed regulations also eat into their margins.

At the same time, New Zealand’s telcos are losing revenues to giant multinationals like Google and Apple. These companies offer so-called over-the-top services that let people make calls or send messages bypassing traditional carrier networks.

There are a number of ironies here. While Google and Apple make a lot of money in New Zealand, they barely pay any taxes. Like many multinationals they claim their local sales are actually made elsewhere — usually Ireland. Meanwhile, New Zealand’s telcos do all their business here and have little opportunity to transfer sales to more favourable tax regimes.

So, in effect,we tax telcos twice while the competitors who are eating their lunch are barely taxed at all.

One proposal would be to compel companies like Google and Apple to contribute to the TDL. There’s a good case to make for this although because they don’t charge for telecommunications services, as such, it would be difficult to fix a fair sum.

It’s worth keeping in mind that should Google or Apple be taxed on New Zealand sales to the same extent as the telcos the extra revenue would be greater than the amount raised by the TDL.

New Zealand’s government doesn’t have the clout to unilaterally change the way large multinationals shuffle money between countries to avoid taxes. If they paid up we could afford to extend the UFB network and pay for other essential services. That’s not going to happen, but it might be an idea to put some of our best brains on to finding ways to squeeze them for TDL contributions.

Five must have free business apps for any device

Whether you use a smartphone, tablet, PC or all three here are five apps to give your business an immediate productivity boost. All are available for Windows, OS X, iOS and Android:

OneNote: Microsoft’s excellent note-taking app was an overlooked jewel for a decade. Now it is free.

OneNote looks and works like a paper notebook. You can use it to save all kinds of data: text, audio, pictures and video. It’s unstructured, you simply clip items and drop them anywhere on a OneNote page.

Once you’ve saved material you can organise your hoard in pages, sections and notebooks. Best of all you can sync notebooks across your devices, so you can find that essential piece of information on your phone when away from your desk.

Dropbox: There are many ways you can save files in the cloud. Dropbox is simple, reliable and completely independent of hardware or operating system brands. Store a file in Dropbox and it is immediately available wherever you have an internet connection. Many also use it to back up data.

Wunderlist: Dozens of apps aim to replace writing to-do lists on scraps of paper. Wunderlist scores as the best because it stays simple while adding enough extra functions to keep you on your toes. You can prioritise tasks, give yourself timed reminders and set up recurring items.

Pocket: Seen something worth reading online, but don’t have time to finish it now? Send a link to Pocket and read it later. it’s a great way to head off distraction when working I also use it when I see something on my phone, but the print is too small to read. A quick clip to Pocket means I can view it later on a bigger screen.

Skype: Plenty of alternatives products do voice or video calls and provide messaging services. I find Apple’s FaceTime works best when there’s decent connection at both ends. However, nothing works reliably across as many devices and operating systems as Microsoft’s Skype. You can chat, swap files, send txt messages and even call conventional phone lines.