Android remains the most popular phone operating system. It has seen-off Blackberry, Nokia Symbian and Windows Phone. It’s polished and complete, yet many will tell you iOS offers a better experience.

Both iOS and Android are good. Each has its advantages. If you want more control over your phone choose Android. If you worry about your privacy and security choose iOS.

Fans of both swear their favourite is more productive or more fun. They both can be. And anyway, these things depend on your definition of productivity or fun and how you work.

Should you change phone operating system?

Before we look closer at the differences, one other key point. If you’ve spent the last ten years using one or the other, you’ll need a good reason to switch.

Making a change is disruptive. You’ll need to learn new ways to do things and, if you see your phone as a work tool, chances are, you’ll spend a small fortune buying new apps. You may also need to budget for things like earbuds and any other peripherals.

Only Apple makes iOS devices. You can’t buy them from a third-party. It makes the hardware and it makes the software. This is important.

There are no jarring glitches where one company’s responsibility stops and another’s starts. Apple gets to control every step from the moment you open the product box.

The hardware and software knit together. The experience is seamless and integrated. It is not always clear where one stops and the other starts.

Apple hardware is often beautiful. The beauty isn’t skin deep; it goes all the way through.

Integration

Android can’t match Apple’s integration.

Take Samsung, the leading maker of Android phone hardware. It speaks volumes that Samsung hides Android behind its own software overlay. So do the other phone makers.

You can buy Google Pixel branded phones with vanilla Android versions. Nokia also makes a range of pure Android phones with no overlay.

These are better integrated. They are a smoother experience than the phones with overlays. Yet, even here, Android’s integration is not as tight as Apple’s.

There’s also an inconsistent user experience.

Consistency

Move from any Apple iPad to an iPhone and things work much the same. This is not always ideal, but third-party apps are  consistent across the iOS range. Controls are consistent. Things act in the same, predictable way wherever you are.

Someone who uses an older iPhone can move to the latest one with little difficulty.

Android is better than it was five or six years ago. Yet, it still lacks consistency. A user switching from one Android brand to another will have to make mental adjustments. It’s not huge. For the most part it is no longer jarring. But it’s there. It’s a barrier to productivity.

Phone operating system fragmentation

When Apple introduces a new version of iOS, most users upgrade in days. That’s less the case with Android. It is a fragmented market with different users on different Android versions. And that’s before you account for overlays.

Although matters have improved in recent years, there are times when an Android app may not run on every model and OS version. Fragmentation makes life harder for app developers. They tend to write code for the most popular options, not all options.

While there are iOS apps that don’t run on some iPhones, there’s no similar fragmentation in Apple’s world.

Sometimes free is too high a price

Apple’s business model is about selling hardware and services like Apple Music. iOS is made for that purpose.

Google’s business model is selling advertising. Android’s  key commercial goal purpose is to collect data so Google can sell more ads. Google doesn’t even sell its software to phone makers. They get it free. This tells you everything.

You might be cool with that. You may think owning an Android phone means you’ll see better targeted advertising. And it is fair to say Apple collects data. But there’s a difference between data collection being a byproduct and being the goal.

It shapes how Google views you as a customer.

The problem comes when Apple engineers make a choice about how something works. Their point of reference is how do we make this experience better?

Google engineers ask themselves the same question. But they’ll also think about opportunities to collect more data.

Android not all bad

Android is not a bad phone operating system. It’s great.

Yet compared with iOS, it’s feels messy and disorganised. That’s not all negative. Some geeks like to tinker with their phones – that’s easier in the Android world. For some the freedom to tinker is more important than being productive or efficient. For others freedom is a path to productivity and efficiency.

Android has its charms. Apart from anything else, there wouldn’t be affordable phones without Google’s mobile operating system. Not everybody can afford to pay Apple’s premium prices. Not everybody wants to pay a premium. Android means you can get a  decent phone for a few hundred dollars.

And let’s not forget Android allowed Samsung and others to get into the phone market. It made competition possible. For that Google deserves everyone’s thanks.

For many people, a mobile phone is the computer they spend the most time with.

That makes sense. Phones don’t do everything well, but they are handy. Up to a point they are easy to use. Best of all, as the name suggests, they are mobile. You can take them to the work instead of bringing the work to them.

Modern phones handle voice calls, messaging and video calls. That’s only the start. They all have internet browsers, which gives you access to many cloud applications.

They also run apps in their own right. Your phone includes a camera and a GPS device that knows where you are and how to get to your destination.

All modern phones can play music and games when you are not working. Some include features allowing you to measure distances or handle other specialist tasks.

We’re not at the point where you can leave your wallet at home, but you can pay bills or unlock doors using your phone.

Popular mobile phone choices

There is a bewildering array of phone models. Although there is less phone brand choice than you might imagine. Here I’ve focused on the most popular models from the best-known brands. There are also a couple of wild-cards worth considering.

You should consider whether you need a 5G mobile. While 5G is faster than 4G, the older network is good enough for every mobile application in use today.

There’s no pressing need to upgrade. At the time of writing Vodafone and Spark have limited 5G networks. But they are growing fast. If you expect a phone to last years, it may pay to get a 5G model the next time you upgrade.

A word of warning, the Covid pandemic disrupted phone supply chains. New Zealand is not always at the front of the queue for models, especially with the Asian phone brands.

You may need to look further this year than in the past.

Apple is favourite

At the end of 2020 Apple was New Zealand’s top selling phone brand. It got there on the back of the iPhone 12. This comes in four models ranging from the $1350 iPhone 12 mini to the $2700 iPhone 12 Pro Max. The less expensive models are doing best at the moment.

The iPhone 12 represents the biggest change to Apple’s phone line since the iPhone X in 2017. It’s an all-screen design which brings together the best features of recent iPhones in a thinner, lighter package. Battery life is long, I go two working days between charges.

Performance is better than any other phone on the market and the iPhone 12 is more durable than other mainstream phones. The iPhone 12 works with the new 5G networks carriers are now building around New Zealand.

Depending on the model you either get a great camera or what could be the best camera available on any phone.

While iPhone 12 is expensive compared to rivals, you can expect it to earn its living for the next five years. That’s not something you could say about most alternatives.

Samsung top Android

There’s a reason Samsung, along with Apple, dominates New Zealand phone sales.

Samsung’s Galaxy models have been the best Android phones over the long haul. Rivals, especially Huawei, may pull ahead at times, but you can’t go wrong with a Samsung phone.

This year Samsung sales have fallen back a little. Yet the brand still enjoys success with its high-end and mid-range models.

Phones don’t get any further upmarket than the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2. It’s beautiful. If you need a device that is more a tablet you can fit in a pocket than a traditional phone then it is worth the $3500 asking price.

A bigger, 7.6-inch, screen, means you can read much more than on an ordinary phone. It also works better with web-based cloud apps.

There’s something magical about looking at a web page on the outside screen when using the Fold2 as a normal phone, then opening it to the same place on the same page on a much bigger screen.

Samsung has less expensive phones. According to IDC Research, the company’s A Series phones sold well last year. This year Samsung has updated A Series models.

The $700 Galaxy A51 has many of the features found in upmarket phones. It includes a fingerprint reader hidden behind the main screen. There’s a huge 6.5 inch AMOLED screen that is brighter than everyday displays.

Huawei in decline

Until recently Huawei was the clear challenger brand. That changed when President Trump banned US companies from working with the company. This meant Huawei couldn’t use American technology.

Huawei has the resources to make its own hardware and software. That’s what it does now, but the ban means users don’t have easy access to services like Gmail, Google Maps and so on.

It’s possible to work around the ban. Yet to no-one’s surprise most people chose not to buy Huawei phones. If the ban doesn’t worry you, the Huawei Y6p is an excellent budget phone. You can expect to pay around $230 for the Y6P.

For the money you get a lot of phone. There’s a 6-inch screen, 64GB of storage and a 5000mAh battery that will run for a couple of days. The catch is that you can’t run Google services. Many Android apps are not available. Although Huawei does offer a vast library of suitable apps through Petal Search, a few popular choices are missing.

Beyond the mobile phone big brands

Nokia and Xiaomi are two interesting smaller Android phone brands worth considering.

The $400 Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T is New Zealand’s lowest priced 5G phone. It does 95 percent of what a phone costing four times the price might do but leaves you with cash to spend elsewhere.

You may remember Nokia. These days another company, HMD, uses the brand under license. It makes a range of non-nonsense Android phones.

Nokia guarantees its models, like the $300 Nokia 3.4, get regular software and security updates. That puts it ahead of most other Android brands.

It’s slow compared with other phones mentioned here. And isn’t outstanding in any department except the quality of its software and its value for money. It’s a great choice if you don’t plan to push mobile tech to the limit.

A version of this post was first published in NZBusiness magazine. It is online as Which mobile phone is right for you?

New Zealand’s rural mobile users face slower download speeds than people in towns. In almost every case the rural mobile experience is worse.

Although the gap between rural and urban has closed, it could open again as carriers roll out 5G networks.

Opensignal’s May 2021 mobile network experience report puts the improvement down to government-led initiatives.

Both the updates to the Rural Broadband Initiative and the Mobile Black Spot Fund have played a role.

Rural Connectivity Group kudos

Above all, credit must go to the Rural Connectivity Group. This is a joint venture between Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees set up to deliver rural network upgrades.

The three companies had government funding and invested their own money to build additional cell sites in areas needing extra coverage.

To date there have been 200 new RCG towers. Eventually there will be more than 500. If it seems like only yesterday there were 100 RCG towers, that’s because it happened less than a year ago.

RCG carriers share spectrum and resources. The towers are open access, other carriers can use them.

RCG delivering

Opensignal’s analysis shows the programme is already delivering results. There is more to come as further towers are added to the network.

To measure mobile network performance Opensignal collects data from handsets. The business is UK-based and produces similar research in a number of countries.

UK-based Opensignal says the gap between rural and urban mobile experiences is closing.

In its May 2021 report Opensignal says while disparities between rural and urban mobile remain rural mobile is improving.

Time connected to 4G

It reached this conclusion by looking at the proportion of time users spend connected to 4G networks.

In recent months this figure has increased at a faster rate for rural users than those in urban areas. Although rural comes from a far lower base, it is catching up.

Opensignal takes a competitive view of performance. It also zooms in on applications like video and mobile gaming. Yet the interesting angle is how the urban – rural mobile gap is closing.

It ranks the three carriers against each other. If you’re wondering about Skinny, that’s a Spark brand with customers using the Spark network.

2degrees shows the greatest improvement, Vodafone the least.

Customers on the Vodafone network saw the gap between urban and rural time on 4G networks fall 4.8 percent. For Spark users the drop was 5.8 percent. At 2degrees it fell 7 percent.

Closing the gap

Opensignal says before the Covid lockdown 4G availability for rural users was close to 25 percent behind urban levels. Now it sits at around 17 to 18 percent behind.

The report goes on to compare the mobile experience with different types of use. It says only 2degrees urban customers enjoy an excellent video experience. The company’s rural customers do better than Vodafone’s urban customers.

Meanwhile the mobile games experience is underwhelming everywhere. The three carriers deliver a ‘fair’ gaming experience in urban areas. This drops to ‘poor’ outside the towns and cities.

Opensignal scores for rural download and upload speeds are a long way behind urban speeds. Spark is fastest overall. Its urban customers can download at an average of 41.9Mbps. In rural New Zealand, 2degrees’ customers get less than half that speed: 20.2Mbps.

5G can close or open rural mobile gap

The report concludes that if carriers use 5G on lower frequency bands in rural areas, the performance gap with urban mobile would close.

Eventually carriers will be able to use a range of frequencies for 5G.

The distance a mobile signal covers changes depending on the frequency. Lower frequencies travel further, higher frequencies cover a small area. There’s more bandwidth the higher you go up the spectrum.

Alternatively, if they focus on adding high capacity in urban areas, the mobile digital divide will widen.

To date Vodafone has concentrated on building 5G in urban areas. That’s where it sees the greatest demand, not necessarily the greatest need.

Spark started its 5G build in small South Island towns. Now it is building capacity in the main centres.

If the government wants to narrow the rural mobile experience gap, it may need to impose usage conditions on 5G spectrum in future auctions.

Last week LG said it will get out of the mobile phone business.

When the company’s phone business peaked in 2013 LG was the third largest player.

It’s doubtful anyone in New Zealand will miss LG. The brand had been close to invisible in this country for the last five years.

State of the mobile phone market see less choice

LG’s departure is a good time to step back and take a fresh look at the shape of the phone industry in 2021.

It may look healthy on the surface. Up-to-a-point the phone market appears competitive.

Yet the phone sector is less vibrant than you might think. Phone buyers have less choice than at any time in the last 20 years.

A two horse race

Two companies; Apple and Samsung dominate the mobile phone market. No-one else comes close.

Another two companies might like to think of themselves as challenger brands. But that’s unrealistic.

If you follow the phone market you may have heard of BBK and Xiaomi. Take it as read that more than nine out of ten potential buyers in New Zealand would not be able to name them.

Chinese phone makers

BBK and Xiaomi are Chinese phone makers.

You won’t find Xiaomi in Spark, Vodafone or 2degrees stores. The phones sell here through stores like PB Technology.

Even seasoned phone fans struggle to recognise BBK. It is the Chinese company behind the Oppo phone brand. BBK is an entire stable of brands including OnePlus, Vivo and a handful of names we don’t see in New Zealand.

A cloud over Huawei

China’s best known phone brand is Huawei.

Until 18 months ago it was the world’s third top phone maker.

At that time Huawei was almost on a par with Apple and Samsung. It sold more phones than Apple, albeit cheaper mass market models.

Huawei’s technology and phones were ahead of its other rivals. It’s broad range of phones gave users more choice whatever their budget.

Banned means less choice

Then the US government banned American technology companies from selling to Huawei.

Among other things, that means Huawei phones can no longer use Google services. The company’s home grown alternatives are a pale imitation of the orignal.

Now there is a cloud over Huawei. Its phones continue to sell in China, elsewhere it is out of serious contention. They are no longer a wise choice.

There’s no hint the US government will take similar action against BBK or Xiaomi. Yet we can’t rule it out.

It’s an Apple and Samsung world

In recent years Apple and Samsung accounted for four out of five phone handsets sold in New Zealand.

Their success with premium models mean they take an even larger share of the money spent on phones.

Apple invented the modern mobile phone when it released the first iPhone in 2007. It remains the most important phone maker. That’s not about to change. We’ve seen 14 years of headlines claiming there are iPhone killers, nothing has come close.

More important, Apple has the best customers. They are loyal and prepared to pay for a quality product.

Apple may sell fewer phones than Samsung, but it is the only phone maker making healthy profits. This fuels product development. There’s a virtuous circle that means the company can stay ahead of rivals.

Samsung the scale player

Samsung may make more profit selling phone components to Apple than it makes from its own hardware.

The company survives in the phone business because it has unmatched scale. Samsung’s margins are smaller than Apple’s. To a degree that is offset by selling more units.

Samsung is a large, sprawling business with many parts. Its economics can be complex. Yet there is more going on beneath the surface than might be obvious at first sight.

Earlier this year Spark announced it would be working with Samsung to build 5G networks. Its handset business gave it a clear leg-up in telecommunications infrastructure. And the brand recognition helps.

Choice beyond the big four

Any discussion about the phone market generates questions about other brands. Where are Nokia and Google’s Pixel phones in this picture? Sony and Lenovo (Motorola) remain active. Another company, Transsion, makes less powerful phones for countries in the developing world.

The simple answer is they all have a tiny market share. Taken as a group they don’t account for more than a few percent of total sales.

Yes, they make decent hardware. Yes, Nokia offers the best Android experience. But in market terms, none of these other players are important.

Not that competitive

While the market appears competitive from a customer’s perspective, that’s not the reality.

Chances are when you next choose a phone, you’ll be looking at no more than three possible phone makers. Less if you feel locked into iOS or Android.

Any of the names mentioned above, other than Apple, may decide it can no longer thrive in this market at any point.

From a consumer point of view, Samsung looks as unassailable as Apple. Yet it may decide there are better margins to chase elsewhere. There may be better uses for its capital expenditure.

This can change overnight. Apple disrupted the phone market with the iPhone in 2007. A similar disruption could do the same. Yet, it doesn’t feel as if there is anything out there likely to have the effect.

LG Electronics said Monday that its board decided to terminate the company’s loss-making smartphone business, with analysts saying focus is now expected to shift to the more profitable home appliance and TV divisions.

Source: LG Electronics to end loss-making smartphone business – Nikkei Asia

LG hasn’t been a visible player in New Zealand’s phone market for years. For that reason, it won’t be missed. Yet there was a time when it was a leading Android phone brand.

LG pioneer brand

The company was a pioneer, showing up when Google’s phone operating system first challenged Apple’s iPhone. In 2013 LG was the world’s third largest phone brand.

In this business, when you fall, you fall fast.

It is six years ago since I last reviewed an LG mobile phone. The G4 was decent enough, but it offered nothing outstanding.

And that was the problem. It’s phones fell out of favour because they didn’t offer anything special.

In 2016 I visited the company’s Mobile World Congress stand. From memory it was showing an oddball modular phone. The G5 was the successor to the phone I reviewed a year earlier. It came with plug-in options to add extra features.

Lack of interest

While that idea attracted attention at MWC, it did not resonate with phone buyers.

The other highlight of LG’s MWC stand was a virtual reality product. I can’t recall anything about it except LG chose to use exactly the same VR content as almost every other brand showing the technology.

In other words, OK, but nothing special.

These were not good omens. I remember discussing this with a colleague at the time and we decided LG wouldn’t be around much longer.

I could be surprised LG hung on this long. After all, its phone business has lost money for six years in a row. Yet the company is a South Korean chaebol. These are odd beasts that can deal with everything from shipbuilding to making TV programmes.

This structure allows profitable divisions to prop up loss-making divisions longer than might happen in less diversified companies.

Apple Watch Series 5

Strategy Analytics, a research firm, says smartwatch shipments grew 20 percent annually to 14 million units in the first quarter of 2020.

Apple Watch remains the top brand. It has a tick over 55 percent market share. Sales of Apple Watch were up almost 23 percent during the year. There is the Apple Watch market and then there is everything else.

Samsung is a long way behind with almost 14 percent of the market. Its watch sales are also up, but only a shade under 12 percent. That means Samsung in particular, and Android watches in general, are losing market share.

Third place goes to Garmin, which you rarely hear of in New Zealand. It has eight percent of the market but saw sales increase by a whopping 37.5 percent. ‘Others’ make up 22.6 percent and, in market share terms, are falling relative to Apple and Garmin.

Huawei, which sells its own brand of Android watches and was early to the smartwatch market doesn’t appear to register in its own right. Count it among the ‘others’.

Phone up while PCs and phones languish

It’s interesting to see smartwatches are selling well. This is at a time when phone sales are plummeting and while there has been a temporary surge in PC sales, overall sales are, at best, flat.

The results underscore the recent trend which suggests Android struggles to break out of the phone sector. It may dominate mobile handsets, but has not successfully translated that success with either watches or tablets.

One key to this is that Apple understands how to build an entire support system about a product. The Apple Watch integrates with everything else Apple. You might, for example, use it to unlock your desktop iMac computer.

This integration and support system creates value for third parties to develop apps and complementary products. That’s not so much the case with Android watches. Yes, the watches overlap and integrate a little with phones, but pairing adds little value.

Gartner says phone sales were down 20 percent in the second quarter of 2020. These numbers mirror the first quarter as the pandemic rages on.

Phone makers shipped a total of 295 million phones world wide in the second quarter. This compares with 370 million phones in the same period a year earlier.

Samsung and Huawei are neck and neck for first place. Both companies sold a fraction under 55 million phones. Apple remains third.

Shifting shares

The relative positions hide a huge shift in performance. Samsung saw a 27 percent decline in units sold during the quarter. Huawei’s numbers dropped almost seven percent. Meanwhile Apple sales were flat. Which means the market shares have moved around with Apple being the winner.

Lesser phone brand Xiaomi, which we don’t often see in New Zealand had a 21 percent drop in sales. Oppo, which we do see in New Zealand, but not much, experienced a 16 percent drop in sales.

Gartner says Samsung’s new S Series phones did nothing to revive its business. Huawei did OK in China, it has a 42 percent market share in its home country. Without a strong performance there, it would have seen a Samsung-like drop.

Apple did best

In relative numbers Apple did better than its rivals in both the first and second quarter. Part of the reason for that was the lower cost iPhone SE which attracted upgraders from old iPhones.

There’s a lot of talk and analysis linking the sales drop to Covid-19. It’s true lockdowns and precautions are behind a shift from mobility to home working. Yet phone sales were already in decline.

Some analysts believed the arrival of 5G networks would trigger a fresh wave of phone buying. The faster mobile technology has its charms, but there is no incentive to buy a phone to download data faster. 4G is more than enough for every popular practical mobile application.

Toshiba portegeAt The Register Simon Sharwood writes: Toshiba has finally and formally exited the laptop business.

The Japanese computer maker had a long run. It made its first laptop in 1985. As Sharwood says:

Toshiba “…claims to have been the first to make a mass-market computer in the now-familiar clamshell form factor. By the 1990s the company was producing solid workhorses in the Satellite range and started to make meaningful stretches of mobile work possible with the small, thin and light Portégé range.”

It’s no accident that the first tiny, portable computers came from Japan. In the 1960s and 1970s country was ahead of the world when it came to miniaturisation. This is the culture that introduced the world to the Sony Walkman.

Space saving Toshiba

There’s another reason laptops took off early in Japan. They take up less room.

Japanese homes and offices have far less space than elsewhere in the world. Even senior managers would have small desks. A desktop computer, which in those days meant a large and heavy CRT display along with a hefty main box, wouldn’t leave much space for anything else.

Toshiba enjoyed an early success in New Zealand. For years it was one of the top five PC brands. In September, 1993 I interviewed an IDC analyst who told me Toshiba was a leading brand here because its products “allowed executives to take work home with them”. The NBR published this story.

In their day Toshiba laptops were great, but as Sharwood reminds us:

“As the 2000s rolled along Toshiba devices became bland in comparison to the always-impressive ThinkPad and the MacBook Air, while Dell and HP also improved. Toshiba also never really tried to capture consumers’ imaginations, which didn’t help growth.”

Toshiba’s fortunes waned. Japan’s followed. The country was never more than a bit player in the PC business after that. NEC faded from sight, at least in New Zealand. The last we heard of Toshiba was years ago. In 2014, it delivered a Chromebook to New Zealand.

Sharp picked up the Toshiba brand two years ago. By then Japan’s remaining visible laptop maker, as far as New Zealand is concerned, was Panasonic with its range of hardened Toughbook models.

Since this was written, the Toshiba brand has resurfaced in New Zealand with Dynabook models