Bill Bennett

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Category: mobile

Thanks to cellular networks and wireless technologies mobile computing means you can work anywhere. Done well it can mean huge productivity gains. That means the right devices and apps.

iPhone 13 – Incremental is only half the story

Apple iPhone 13 reviews from the US press are in. There is a wider spectrum of opinion than you’d expect to see when Apple launches a new iPhone.

At the New York Times, the headline on Brian Chen’s Apple iPhone 13 review – the story is behind a paywall – dismisses the new phone as “the most incremental upgrade ever”.

He says the annual phone upgrades from Apple and Samsung are a “mirage of tech innovation”. For Chen, upgrades are “a celebration of capitalism”.

Chen has a jaundiced view, not negative, but not positive.

Battery and cameras…

Joanna Stern is kinder. At the Wall Street Journal her headline reads: “iPhone 13 Review: From Mini to Pro Max, It’s All About the Battery and Cameras”. This is also behind a paywall.

Stern is positive about the battery life improvements. This will make more difference to many iPhone users than the new camera mode which is her second focus.

…better display

There is no paywall hiding the Verge’s Dieter Bohn more positive take. The headline on his review says: “…A better display, the best camera, and incredible battery life.

Bohn makes an important point about the cameras on the new iPhone models. Other reviewers can get bogged down with technical specifications and intense testing. Bohn writes: “ I also can’t remember the last time I’ve said “whoa, look at this photo” as many times as I have during this review.”

Reporting his response this way says more than raw figures ever could.

Low light

His big point is that the iPhone 13 takes excellent photos in low light conditions. I’ve found this to be the case with the last two iPhone ranges. Yet the iPhone 13 takes this one better.

This is the one last feature I want from a phone. Now Apple has fixed low light photography, there is little more to ask for. Phones have reached the end of one evolutionary path.

There’s scope for incremental improvements, there always is. Yet that’s it for today’s metal and glass slabs. The next change to get excited about will be revolutionary.

Incremental or not, Apple does a good job of pushing the boundaries of what is possible with a handset.

A different world

Apple may not throw up as many new ideas and features as the Android phone makers, but they live in a different world.

First, Android phone makers have to compete with each other and prove their phones are not commodities. They crave novelty and points of difference regardless of whether these are things customers want or need.

Second, many of the so-called innovations that turn up in Android phones go away again after a generation or two. Some are half-baked, some are change-for-the-sake-of-change. A few, think of ‘beauty mode’, appeal to people’s worst instincts.

It would be easy to dismiss the iPhone 13 as an incremental update. Indeed, that is exactly what the New York Times review does. Yet that’s not the whole iPhone 13 story.

Numbers, revenue, profit

Apple has won the phone market. While Apple may not sell the most handsets worldwide, it does make more phone revenue than anyone else. Moreover, Apple makes more profit from phones than anyone else. Almost no other company does.

Huawei is, in effect, out of the picture. This month Oppo, a would-be rival, hit the wall. Samsung sells more phones than anyone else, but it makes more money selling technology to Apple. No other phone maker gets close.

Earlier this year Apple sold its 2 billionth iPhone. There are more than a billion active iPhones in use today. It accounts for one mobile phone in four around the world. In the US Apple has a 60 percent market share. That’s 50 percent in the UK.

The most telling statistic is that more than 10 percent of US and UK iPhone users switched in the last two years. The company’s dominance is accelerating.

Apple allure

When discussing this subject, there are frequent comments about Apple’s allure all being in marketing or snob value. And there are claims iPhones are expensive.

The first assertion is clear nonsense. Samsung spends many times as much on marketing as Apple does. So did Huawei when it was still a player.

Likewise the snob value argument doesn’t hold much weight. Apple always sells its phones on the functionality. The product may have cachet, but the company doesn’t talk that way.

When Samsung launched the Galaxy Z Fold2, the company’s reps talked about it being a status symbol.

Oppo tried to push the same snooty buttons with a ridiculous overpriced Lamborghini phone. The market ignored it.

Expensive is in the eye of the beholder. You can spend NZ$3000 on an iPhone 13 Pro with a terabyte of storage. The cheapest iPhone 13 is the mini which starts at NZ$1250. Apple still sells the NZ$900 iPhone 11 and a NZ$750 iPhone SE.

Apple doesn’t have a monopoly on expensive. There are Android phones at all these price points.

Active life

The second part of this is that iPhones have a longer active life and have better resale prices. None of the critics take any of this into account. A $2000 phone with a five year working life is cheaper and better for the planet than a $1000 phone that needs replacing after 24 months.

It’s true you can get by with a $600 Android phone. On the surface there is validity to the argument that no-one needs to spend more than that on a phone.

But this ignores many of the less tangible but valuable aspects of life inside Apple’s curated garden. The App Store is better, the app choices are better. The integration with other Apple products beats anything offered in the Android world.

It’s a better all-round phone experience. I should know, my work involves a constant stream of new phones to test. I have access to almost any model and still choose to invest my own money on an iPhone.

The pay off is better productivity and convenience. Don’t take my word for it, there are a billion other iPhone users you can ask.

NY Times says smartphones may be too good 

 

“Smartphones have been so successful that it’s possible new technology won’t be able to displace them”.

The New York Times’ Shira Ovide has a point when she writes: What if smartphones are so successful and useful that they are holding back innovation?

She starts by pointing out the risk making this kind of statement:

“I may wind up looking like a 19th-century futurist who couldn’t imagine that horses would be replaced by cars.”

That’s fair enough. There could always be something waiting around the corner that isn’t obvious yet.

“But let me make the case that the phenomenon of the smartphone may never be replicated.”

Yes, it definitely looks like its was a one-off revolution. The nearest equivalent might be the way the television eventually reached into every home and every corner of the world. It took the TV decades to reach that level of penetration, phones got there in ten years.

“The challenge for any new technology is that smartphones succeeded to the point where it’s hard to imagine alternatives. In a sales boom that lasted about a decade, the devices transformed from a novelty for rich nerds to the only computer that billions of people around the world have ever owned.

Smartphones have succeeded to the point where we don’t need to pay them much notice….The allure of these devices in our lives and in technologists’ imaginations is so powerful that any new technology now has to exist almost in opposition to the smartphone.”

The next big thing

That’s right. Take the smart watch. As things stand today it looks like the most plausible contender for the next big thing.

And yet it isn’t.

Apple launched its Watch seven years ago. It wasn’t the first smart watch and it is not the only one. It is the most popular by a long way.

One estimate says around 100 million people have an Apple Watch in 2021. A bullish estimate might put the total of all watches in use at twice that. On those numbers, smart watches will never catch up with smartphones. They are unlikely to hit one-tenth the sales.

What’s more, smart watches rarely exist in isolation from phones. They are, in effect, an extension of the phone.

VR, Glass

Virtual reality headsets and products like Google Glass are much further behind. And anyway, they offer considerably less functionality than a modern phone.

Where I take issue with Ovide is the idea that phones are holding back innovation. If anything is holding back innovation it is the tight grip a small handful of companies has on the crowning heights of the technology sector.

While there are examples of the big tech giants stifling potential competition, there are other reasons for a slow down when. it comes to hardware innovation.

Where next?

We’ve reached a point where there are few new places for device makers to go. Chip makers are bumping up against quantum limits which mean transistors can’t get much smaller. Batteries are improving, but progress is glacial.

A forward thinker might have dreamed up the essence of a personal computer, smartphone or smart watch any time in the last 60 years. That Dick Tracy wristwatch screen featured in cartoons decades before the technology was possible.

Now the best people can do is dream up ways for computers and devices to move even further into the background.

 

 

 

 

Oppo stumbles as phone competition picks up speed

Bloomberg reports that Chinese phone maker Oppo says it will cut 20 percent of the staff in its software and device teams. Oppo plans to merge operations with OnePlus, another phone brand in the BBK stable.

With Huawei, in effect, out of the picture, Oppo was one of a handful of Android phone makers with global reach. For a while it was the top-selling brand in China and it has been the number three brand in New Zealand.

Over the years Oppo’s phones have been serviceable, but otherwise unremarkable Android handsets. In the company’s early years it went to extraordinary lengths to make its Android hardware and software resemble Apple’s iPhones.

Higher prices

More recently Oppo has attempted to push its prices higher without delivering enough features and functionality to justify the extra cost.

The report says:

Oppo… is retrenching after expanding too rapidly on the hiring front in recent years and attacking a premium segment dominated by Apple Inc., people familiar with the matter said.

The cuts affect important units including a team that customizes Android into its in-house ColorOS, and an Internet of Things division that develops a spectrum of wearables such as smartwatches and earbuds, said the people, asking not to be identified discussing a private matter.

…heavy investments to expand into markets from India to Southeast Asia and Europe have not paid off as expected against fierce competition from the likes of Xiaomi Corp. and Apple. It’s now contending with a Chinese retail slowdown as Covid’s resurgence locks down parts of the country.

Forays into adjacent arenas also haven’t worked out. After several years, Oppo’s share of the global smartwatch market remains under one percent, while it accounts for a mere 1.7 percent of earwear shipments, IDC analyst Bryan Ma estimated.”

Profitless Android

Oppo’s move underlines a recurring theme on this site: Aside from Apple and, to a lesser degree Samsung1, there is little profit in making Android phones. Nearly all the value in an Android phone goes to Google who gets to clip the advertising ticket almost every time someone picks up their phone.

This is unlikely to be the last phone market consolidation. You can expect to see more brands to merge or leave the business over the next 24 months or so.


  1. Samsung makes more profit selling phone components to Apple than it makes from its own hardware sales.↩︎

How long must you work to buy an iPhone 13 Pro?

According to online retailer Picodi the average New Zealander has to work 8.4 days to afford an Apple iPhone 13 Pro.

This is 0.6 days less than it took a year ago to buy an equivalent iPhone 12.

New Zealanders have it easy compared to people in Turkey. There the average worker needs to toil for 92.5 days to buy a new iPhone. It takes the average Pom 10.8 days.

Things are easier in Australia. There it takes 6.4 days. In the United States it takes a mere 5.9 days. The Swiss have it best of all. They only have to show up at the workplace for 4.4 days to earn enough for a new iPhone.

It’s all relative

Younger readers have no idea how these matters have progressed over the years.

In 1987 when I was working for The Dominion in Wellington, I calculated that it would take a Wellington bus driver over three months to afford a PC. It would take them more than four months to buy a Mac.

Knowing how long it takes to buy an iPhone is useful when it comes to making a buying decision.

Buying decisions

Let’s say you are tossing up the merits of an iPhone 13 Pro and an Android phone that costs half the price. You know it would take 6.4 days to buy the iPhone.

Simple maths tells you the Android would mean 3.2 days of your labour.

You may also know you can do things a little more efficiently on the iPhone. This might not work for everyone, but stay with me, the thought experiment is useful whatever your circumstances.

That spanking new iPhone 13 Pro should be good for three years. So, in round numbers, you have to work one day for each of those iPhone owning years.

Assuming you use the phone every day, you’d come out ahead if the iPhone saved you four minutes a day. That is, one day divided by 365.

This is all before you take the resale value of the two phones into account. After three years an iPhone would lose less value than an Android.

Two hidden messages behind iPhone 13 launch

Apple may launch new models every year, but the iPhone 13 shows the product cycle is, in effect, two years.

In year one Apple unveils a major design update. In year two it refines the design, then gives it a coat of paint and a brush up.

The September 2021 iPhone launch falls into the second category. Yes, the iPhone 13 models are better than iPhone 12 models, but the difference is incremental.

Upgraders

Only the most die-hard fan would spend money upgrading from iPhone 12 to 13. Not much changes. Owners of earlier iPhone models would see a significant improvement.

You wouldn’t be alone if you feel the leap from iPhone 12 to 13 is less of a step than previous leaps.

This brings us to the first hidden message in the September 2021 iPhone 13 launch event.

Incremental

Conventional modern phone designs have gone about as far as they can. For now.

The unconventional folding phones from Samsung represent a fork in the path, but it is the road less taken. Folding phones account for less than one percent of all phones sold in the last year.

We are not talking about a motorway junction here. The folding phone is more a scenic route or a diversion1.

Away from folding, for the last four or five years, the most noticeable change from one year’s model to the next has been in camera technology.

The room for improvement in that department has now slowed. The extra photography features and capability in each upgrade appeal to smaller and smaller groups of users.

It’s a fair bet to say half of all iPhone 12 users could not tell you what changed from 11 to 12 without looking things up.

Evolutionary

Apple can continue to introduce better phone models every year, but the current smartphone format has reached an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

The second hidden message is harder to spot if you are not intimate with the Apple world. Apple doesn’t have much competition any more.

This sounds odd given Apple doesn’t sell as many phones worldwide as Samsung or BBK, the Chinese phone maker behind the Oppo and OnePlus brands.

In the US Apple accounts for almost two out of every three phones sold. Worldwide that figure is closer to one in five phones. Yet Apple continues to collect the lion’s share of phone making profits.

iPhone 13 competition

You can argue all you like that Android phones have this feature or that feature. It doesn’t matter. The closest competition to the iPhone 13 is the iPhone 12.

It is possible to make a case there is more innovation in the Android space. Most of that ‘innovation’ is vapid, unimportant change for the sake of change.

Often the phone makers drop that feature one or two product cycles later2.

There’s a reason Android phone makers toy with new ideas more than Apple does. They throw ideas out there because they are competing with other Android makers for the same market.

Few iPhone users would switch to Android because they want a bigger zoom or a phone that has ‘beauty mode’. The main reason people step away from Apple is to do with price. Many who switch from iPhone to Android to save money later switch back to Apple.

None of this is saying that Samsung or Nokia don’t make great phones. They both do. Yet they are not in direct competition with Apple in any meaningful way. The two worlds barely intersect.

No doubt people reading this will disagree with this point of view. That’s why I’ve reinstated comments below. Feel free to chime in with your view.


  1. That’s not to say folding phones are without merit. It’s that, for now, we can’t take them too seriously. ↩︎
  2. Apple does similar with Macs. It never made a second model of the confusingly named 2016 MacBook and it looks like it has quietly dropped the unpopular Touch Bar. ↩︎

A meditation on Samsung’s new foldable phones

From next month well-heeled New Zealanders will be able to spend NZ$2700 on a Galaxy Z Fold3 phone. NZ$1600 will put a Galaxy Z Flip3 in one of your deep, deep pockets.

As the numbers in the names suggest, these are Samsung’s third generation folding phones. That does not mean they are mature, nor does it mean they are heading for the mainstream any time soon.

The first folding phones were a disaster. Within hours of unpacking the devices, reviewers reported broken screens.

No longer embarrassing

By the second generation the technology was no longer embarrassing. But it was no easier to see the point of a folding phone.

Yes, there was the promise of being able to fit a device with a screen the size of an iPad mini in your pocket.

But how necessary is that? You can buy an iPhone 12 Pro Max with a 6.7-inch screen or a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra with a 6.8-inch screen.

The Galaxy Z Fold3 opens out to 7.6-inches. That’s roughly 25 percent more screen real estate, which sounds good, but means less in practice than you might expect.

Heavy, thick

In return for that extra screen you have to carry a phone that is heavier and, when folded, thicker than a conventional phone. It weighs 271g,

Carrying an 300g iPad mini is unlikely to be much more trouble. And you’d have the benefit of an even larger 7.9-inch display and a more robust device.

Prices for the iPad mini start at NZ$680.

Another consideration is the operating system. Android has plenty of fans, but it has failed to ignite in the tablet market. There’s a reason for this. The software can be good on phones, but does not adapt well to larger screen sizes.

Samsung is not the only company making foldable Android devices. Huawei was early into the market with a foldable phone that never made it to New Zealand in any volume.

And then there is Microsoft’s weird Surface Duo. It undoes a lot of the good work the Surface brand has done for what is now a cloud computing company.

Fashion statements

When the first Samsung folding phones arrived, the company positioned them more as fashion statements than practical answers to everyday productivity problems. At the New Zealand launch the company’s representatives stopped just short of saying they had snob value.

The new models are tougher, able to take more punishment. And they are more waterproof. Their ancestors were fragile things.

Much as Samsung would like us to believe folding phones are heading for the mainstream, that is not the case. Not even close. The first models sold about half a million phones.

This year Samsung says it hopes to sell up to 7 million. Given around 350 million phones sold world wide in the first quarter of 2021, that’s a rounding error.