Windows Phone 8, is it compelling enough?

More than half of the first world’s consumers already use smartphones. Most  devices out in the wild are iPhones or Androids.

This means Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 challenge isn’t about carving out virgin territory. The software giant must grab market share from incumbents.

Microsoft, can you remember how hard it was for your rivals to win customers away from Windows during the PC era?

That’s what it will be like.

Great looking smartphones

The new phones look great. Without getting my hands on one, I’m reluctant to say they beat the competition. Yet, considering what I’ve seen of the iPhone 5 and the latest Androids, then taking my Nokia Lumia 800 experience into account and reading the specs, Microsoft is possibly now top of the heap.

Sadly, being best isn’t enough.

Again, this is the lesson from Microsoft’s PC era dominance. Windows wasn’t always the best PC operation system, Office wasn’t always the best software. The products had momentum and they were safe purchases.

To win the smartphone game – in this context winning and survival are the same thing – Microsoft must prise consumers away from their existing investments in apps, music and add-ons. Not to mention getting them to climb back up the learning curve.

And the market demands it does that faster than consumers normally update phones.

New-look Microsoft

Microsoft now has the right products in place across all its main low-end product lines. They fit snugly together – glued partly by SkyDrive.

I’d be more confident if Microsoft had positioned its Windows 8 and Surface tablets as Windows Phone 8 afterthoughts, and not the other way around. Smartphones are today’s flagships. They should be the priority.

Microsoft won’t disappear if Windows Phone 8 fails: it will be less relevant and less in control of its own destiny.

Mobile news readers want web not apps

The NZ Herald’s iPad app is among the best examples of its kind

Remember how publishers saw tablets and mobile apps as an opportunity to reboot the online news business? Or Rupert Murdoch describing Apple’s iPad as the newspaper industry’s saviour?

They had a point.

The latest numbers from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism show readers who use apps to get news are more attractive customers in every regard. They read more news than others, they choose a wider range of news sources, they read longer and in greater depth. They are even more prepared to pay for online news.

There’s just one problem. Only a fraction of tablet and smartphone users rely on apps for news and their numbers are falling. Most tablet and phone owners prefer getting news from browsers.

Pew says 60% of tablet users and 61% of smartphone users turn to browsers for reading news. A year ago just 40% of tablet users preferred browsers. That’s a rapid turnaround.

While the number of user who prefer apps is roughly steady at 23%, the number of users who choose both apps and browsers and halved.

There’s a marked difference between iPad users and those with Android tablets – most of those who still prefer apps are Apple customers. With Android’s market share increasing, it looks as if those news apps are likely to decline still further.

My experience as a reader says news apps are often more flawed than web sites. Some limit what you can access, others are buggy, many are slow. On the other hand they tend to look better and are much better for displaying photographs.

Tablets: all about Wi-Fi, not cellular

Wi-Fi-only tablets outnumber cellular connected models by roughly 10-to-1.

We can argue about the exact ratio. The graph above shows data collected by US-based analyst Chetan Sharma up to the end of 2011. It shows a slight movement from Wi-Fi-only to 3G connected models – a trend which may have accelerated since then. And Sharma’s numbers are American – things may be a little different here in New Zealand.

While America has proportionately more free public access Wi-Fi hotspots than New Zealand, I suspect the overall pattern here is much the same.

Wi-Fi in all the right places

It makes sense. Most connected homes now have Wi-Fi, so do many offices. When you’re out and about there are plenty of coffee shops offering free or low-cost wireless connections.

Mobile data is great for smartphones. Most people use their phones while on the move and have the devices permanently switched on. Tablets are mainly used intermittently, for most of us the benefits of a 3G – hopefully soon a 4G – cellular connection are not as compelling.

Big savings from Wi-Fi only

It costs about NZ$200 more to buy a 3G-equipped Apple iPad than one with just Wi-Fi. In the case of today’s bottom-of-the-range model that’s a premium of more than 30%. Add to that the cost of feeding its Sim card and the sheer administrative hassle of dealing with an extra mobile account. This all adds up to a lot more cost for not much gain.

Most of us carry a mobile phone where-ever we go. At a guess I’d say for almost every tablet owner, that phone will be a smartphone.

Smartphones can easily act as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. So on the rare occasion when you find yourself needing a tablet connection and there’s no handy coffee shop, you can link your tablet to the internet using your phone. this is simple.

It may cost you extra to do this in the US, here in New Zealand there’s no extra charge. You will need to pay for the data consumed by your phone, but there’s no need for an extra Sim card or mobile account.

So, unless you have a specific need for 3G, buy a Wi-Fi only tablet and put the money you save towards a better smartphone.

NZ mobile wallet edges closer

Smartphones loaded with electronic versions of travel cards, bank cards and telephone prepayment credits were on show yesterday at the Thales test laboratory in central Auckland yesterday.

Auckland Transport, Telecom NZ and Westpac Bank were on hand to demonstrate how New Zealanders will soon be able to pay for ferry and bus rides by waving a suitably equipped phone in front of a terminal. The equipment has already been installed at Auckland ferry wharves and key railway stations, Field trials are now underway.

Cautious approach

While Telecom NZ says the smartphone travel card could start operating early next year, the partners are taking a cautious approach to its wider roll-out.

That’s sensible because there are issues to fix first. Mobile wallets depend on near field communications (NFC) technology – that’s a tiny transmitter chip inside the phone. Only the latest phones have NFC, but there are different flavours of NFC and competing standards to link mobile phone software to the chips.

And just to make things difficult, Apple hasn’t built NFC into its iPhone 5 – although I understand there’s a workaround for that. There are also non-NFC alternatives some simply use the mobile data network while Snapper and 2degrees are pushing something called Touch2Pay. That’s going to find it harder to get traction in Auckland than a system linked to public transport.

One mobile wallet to rule them all

Telecom NZ is working with Vodafone and 2degrees as well as with New Zealand’s banks to develop mobile wallet technology.

Eventually we’ll use phones to pay for everything, but NFC is not just about payments. Speaking at the demonstration Telecom NZ’s Roxanne Salton said the technology will replace all the other cards we now carry, such as coffee loyalty cards and library cards.

Goodbye Polar Bear Farm

Computerworld has a front page story about iPhone app developer Layton Duncan planning to move his Polar Bear Farm business from Christchurch. That piece isn’t online yet, but Toby Manhire had an earlier story on this at The Listener.

No-one can blame Duncan for wanting to up sticks. The last two years of earthquakes would test the patience of a saint.

The authorities running the show in Christchurch seem clueless. We can all sympathise with Duncan’s frustrations.

What concerns me most and what should worry other New Zealanders is Duncan hasn’t chosen to set up shop in Wellington, Auckland or anywhere else in this country. He has chosen Melbourne in Australia.

I hope someone in government has asked Duncan why he chose to move overseas.

If it was just one person making a trans-Tasman move, it would be a pity. But it isn’t, we’re looking at an entire generation. That’s not a pity, it is a tragedy.