A challenge of smartphones, a desperation of smart watches

Everyone has heard of a school of fish. Most people know there’s also murder of crows.

To my knowledge, there’s no collective noun for smartphones. Judging by this week’s activity, days before Apple takes the wrap off the next iPhones, we can talk of a challenge of smartphones. I counted new models from Sony, Huawei, Motorola, Lenovo, Microsoft and Samsung all released in the space of four days. Maybe I missed some.

These also-ran smartphone makers raced to get their kit out before Apple sucks all the oxygen.

Sure some of the phones will be nice. Some will be innovative. A few will even be plausible choices. There will be good ideas among them. Few will be unusable or ridiculous.

Yet none of them will grab as much attention as Apple’s next move. That would be every bit as true if Apple drops a clunker.

It’s good that companies step up to the plate to compete in the phone market. Without viable rivals, Apple would just sit on its laurels. The market would stagnate.

Yet it’s also worth remembering, few, if any, of these new models will be profitable.

All the above applies to the conga-line of smart watches that danced off various assembly lines this week. Outside of geek circles, the case for a smart watch is unproven. Early adopters tell me they are happy with wrist-top computers, but sales are well short of taking off. They’re not even taxiing down the runway. They are somewhere in the security check line before entering the departure lounge.

There’s a desperate, pleading feel to some of the smart watch press releases I’ve seen. It’s sad.

Like the wanna-be smartphones, they’ll get zero attention if Apple shows a wearable device next week. The same logic applies. Apple’s smart watch could be appalling and it will still make news headlines.

By the end of the year there will be remainder bins full of smart watches in electronics stores. I’m not saying the smart watch will never take off. I am saying the current generation is for fringe dwellers. There’s nothing wrong with buying one if you find such devices useful. But for most of us it’s a case of move alone, nothing to see here.

Apple, Microsoft — two tablet visions

When Steve Jobs took the wraps off Apple’s first iPad, he showed an entirely new class of device. The iPad was neither a new type of PC nor was it just a giant smartphone. It opened new territory.

Apple sold the original iPad as a personal digital media consumption device. It stuck with that approach for the first three tablet generations. It wasn’t until the iPad Air arrived that Apple’s marketing bowed to the inevitable and admitted tablets are also useful for creating content and as business tools. Even now that’s not the main sales pitch.

Google doesn’t sell its own tablets. When the company’s partners began selling Android tablets they all followed Apple’s lead. Samsung took great pains to emphasis the entertainment and media consumption aspects of its Galaxy Tab S. Business takes a back seat.

Microsoft Surface — productivity first

That’s not how Microsoft views tablets. Even before CEO Satya Nadella told the world Microsoft is now a ‘productivity and platform’ company, Microsoft emphasised the Surface range are business tools.

This explains why Surface evolved quickly in just 18 months and three generations from tablets to tablet-cum-laptops.

The way Microsoft’s marketing says the new Surface Pro 3 is a “PC when you need it and a tablet when you want one” speaks volumes. The implied message is “you need a laptop to do real work, but tablets have a place too, so here’s something covering both bases”.

It’s no accident that almost every Surface buyer picks up a keyboard along with their tablet.

How does this play out in business?

You could argue the Surface, particularly the Surface Pro 3, is the kind of tablet corporate technology buyers always wanted. That’s clearly the market Microsoft wants.

And yet, Apple does a great job selling iPads to large companies. If I walk into any CBD glass tower I’ll almost certainly see people walking around with iPads.

The iPad took root in business from the bottom up. People who bought iPads for personal use took them to the office and found new ways to be productive. In some cases using third-party add-ons and apps from the iTunes store. Companies had little choice but to adapt to this trend, hence all the hand-wringing you hear about BYOD, bring your own device.

I’ve no evidence, but I suspect most Surfaces are bought either by companies who give them to staff as productivity tools or by people who are deeply committed to Microsoft products and services. I also suspect many Surfaces replaced PCs.

One device or two?

Microsoft thinks you need only one device to do two jobs. The Surface Pro 3 is quite possibly the best Windows laptop. It’s a nice tablet, but not fabulous and it is expensive.

In Apple’s world, there are two jobs requiring two tools. The tablet is a consumption device. If you are serious about creating content, then you should buy a MacBook. You are, of course, welcome to buy both.

Apple is doing something right. While iPad sales have hiccupped, sales of the company’s innovative laptops continue to rise. Windows laptop sales are falling, attacked from above by Apple and from below by the Chromebook.