Ben Brooks gets close to the heart of the problem with pay walls when he writes Subscription Hell. It’s hard to make money from pay walls.

The only online sites that do well are those like New Zealand’s National Business Review or The Economist. Both serve well-heeled audiences with unique, quality content readers can’t get elsewhere.

Brooks makes two interesting points.

First, differentiation. Brooks is thinking about podcasting, but it applies to all online media. In essence he says there are thousands of undifferentiated podcasts chasing the same audience.

…but will they pay?

The implication that no-one will pay to listen to one of the podcasts when there are dozens of free alternatives. You could say the same about most online media. This, in part, does not apply to pay wall successes like the NBR and The Economist. Their audiences don’t have obvious alternatives.

The other point is subtle. Brooks makes the connection between people paying for apps and buying pay wall subscriptions.

On the surface these are two quite distinct markets. And yet, recently I was thinking about exactly this concept from the opposite point of view. I have a number of subscriptions to pay each month. Some are for apps or online services. Others are for, it’s not the best word to use, but let’s go with it: content.

Pay wall, subscription software: two aspects of the same thing

In my budgeting, I see the two as aspects of the same thing. I allow myself so many dollars a month for subscriptions. It’s a single pool of money to cover things like cloud storage, online music, movie downloads, pay walls, apps and services. What isn’t spent on  apps is available for media. What isn’t spent on online media can be spent on apps.

A decade ago the budget was zero. It’s not zero today. While it isn’t a huge amount of money, it’s about the same as I spend on coffee. It may grow larger in the future.

The issue is, consciously or not, people only budget so much money for subscriptions. I have a limited pool of funds. So does everyone else. The world has a limited pool of funds for subscriptions. On a world scale it is huge and still growing. Even so, there is not enough to go around for everyone who would like to earn money selling pay wall subscriptions or apps. Too many sellers, too few buyers.

And there’s the problem. It’s not hopeless. Services like Press Patron (see the red button at the foot of this page) offer a way out. People can choose to set their own amount to pay. If you go back to my budget approach, if I don’t buy software one month, I can flip a few bucks into someone’s Press Patron.

But it’s difficult. The market for content pay walls or subscription software is not infinite.

Clare Curran says: “We have to do more than better connectivity”. The minister for broadcasting, communications and digital media was speaking about the digital divide at last month’s Tuanz Rural Connectivity Symposium in Wellington.

Curran names ‘closing the digital divide by 2020‘ as one of her two big goals. The other is for technology to be the second biggest contributor to GDP by 2025.

Both are fine goals. Neither will be easy.

Digital divide

There are at least two types of digital divide. The first is geographic. To use Curran’s words, that issue is one of better connectivity. People in rural areas don’t have the same easy access to communications networks as people who live in towns.

Blame economics. The cost of getting fibre to a city dweller is lower than the cost of connecting someone living in a remote area.

Both types of customer pay the same price for a connection if they are on the regulated UFB fibre network. This means people living in easy-to-connect areas subsidise those elsewhere. Almost no-one complains about this subsidy. It’s a step towards bridging the digital divide.

And anyway, a flat rate simplifies billing for service providers. Billing is expensive, so simple bills help keep costs down.

Clare Curran at Tuanz rural connectivity symposium - digital divide

Drawing the dividing line

By the time the UFB project completes, 87 percent of the population will be able to connect to fibre. while the other 13 percent are more at risk of being the wrong side of the digital divide, they won’t all have second rate connections.

While the 87 percent cut-off point seems arbitrary, it is a reasonable place to draw a line. At least for now. Beyond that number each extra fibre connection gets more expensive to build.

Theory says that some point fibre isn’t economic. It’s not clear where that point is. When our ancestors built the copper phone network they managed to cover 99 percent of the population. We weren’t richer in those days, if anything the job was harder. So the choice about where to draw the line is as much about social priorities and politics as economics.

Beyond 87 percent

One day we may stretch the network further than 87 percent. There are already plans for still more fibre. Getting to 90 percent coverage wouldn’t be economic unreasonable. Getting to 100 percent would be.

As things stand there are more cost-effective ways of reaching the most remote 13 percent. Most involve wireless. That’s the approach favoured by the government subsidised Rural Broadband Initiative.

The problem is that wireless technologies are not as good as fibre. They offer slower speeds, are contested and they not as reliable. They are, in theory at least, cheaper. It costs less to beam radio waves across paddocks than to build fibre lines over them.

Contested

Contested means that users on a wireless network share bandwidth. If a lot of people are online at the same time everyone’s speed can drop. In contrast UFB fibre is uncontested. Contracts between fibre companies and the government guarantee performance.

Another problem with wireless is there is less network capacity. To get around this service providers impose data caps on users. Most fibre connections have uncapped plans. Wireless users get a set amount of data each month.

Although some fixed wireless data plans are generous, life is not carefree when you have to limit, say, your television viewing towards the end of the month to be sure of having enough data left for other uses.

Rugby World Cup

These issues could come to the fore during next year’s Rugby World Cup. Spark and TVNZ won the broadcast rights. Spark intends to stream games, the technology is like Netflix. We love the game nationwide, but Rugby’s heartland is rural New Zealand. Will fixed wireless networks cope when every connection on a tower is streaming high-definition television? Spark doesn’t say so in public, but some insiders have voiced fears about how this might go.

Wireless plans often cost as much as fibre plans. They offer less. Not a lot less. Yet on a like-for like basis they are more expensive than fibre plans. The extra cost may be an annoyance, but it doesn’t put a customer on the wrong side of the digital divide.

There’s a handy proof for this. Spark offers fixed wireless to customers everywhere on its network: rural and urban. Thousands of city dwellers have chosen fixed wireless.

If fixed wireless was dreadful you’d hear more about it. There would be a lot of angry people. Sure, there are some unhappy fixed wireless broadband customers. Yet citizens aren’t marching on Spark’s headquarters with pitchforks and burning torches. For many people it’s not bad.

Fixed wireless broadband may be inferior to fibre, but people who have it are on the right side of the digital divide.

Not there yet

It isn’t quite that simple. There’s a limit to the number of connections a wireless tower can accommodate. This means its possible there are some rural users who can’t get a connection because their local tower is full. Carriers can add capacity, but it may not happen immediately. A handful of people may miss out.

A bigger issue is that fixed wireless broadband doesn’t reach all the last 13 percent of the population. Not yet. The exact number is hard to gauge. At the Rural Connectivity Symposium, someone said there could be as many as 100,000 homes still out of reach of RBI. That’s about 5 percent of total connections. I’m afraid I didn’t make a note of who said this.

Moving goal posts

There’s another aspect to this. A decade ago when the Rural Broadband Initiative was being set up, the aim was 5Mbps. That’s enough for web surfing, email and movie downloads. Today’s acceptable broadband threshold is the 30 to 40Mbps needed to stream HD video. RBI towers can and do deliver these speeds. Wireless internet services providers do a terrific job getting connectivity to remote places.

Today’s rural network performance is way past the 2009 test of acceptable broadband. Also, thanks to the wisps, today’s broadband network reaches further into valleys and outlying areas than the 2009 RBI architects expected.

Yet the question mark hanging over the Rugby World Cup tells us there is still a rural-urban divide. Today the bar isn’t 5Mbps or even 40Mbps. It’s “is there enough broadband for people in rural New Zealand to enjoy the Rugby World Cup on an HD screen?”

And that’s the rub. The urban-rural digital divide is a moving target. Some rural New Zealanders will always feel they have second-rate broadband right up until the fibre network reaches them. Whether that’s reasonable or economic is a political matter, not one for the industry. Are we as a country willing to spend what it takes to get fibre as far as we managed to spread those copper lines?

Closing New Zealand’s rural-urban digital divide was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Nokia 6.1, 7 Plus. Both are Android One phones.Google’s Android phone operating system is often a mess when compared with Apple’s iOS. Android One aims to fix that. You can’t get it on phones from Android market leaders like Samsung or Huawei. At least, not yet. Nokia, with nothing to lose, has gone in boots and all. The company hopes Android One can revive the brand’s fortunes.

Earlier this year Spark launched two Nokia Android One models into New Zealand. While they could put Nokia back on the map, many Android phone buyers won’t care enough to take notice. This could change if there is another big, well publicised Android security scare. The reality is a regular slew of small security worries gets little attention.

Android can be frustrating on many counts. First, most phone makers can’t leave it alone. They feel the need to overlay the raw Android operating system with their own software. In almost every case, these overlays detract value. None are great. They can make for a lesser user experience than you might get on a pure Android phone. It can also make for a fractured market.

Fractured software market

This fracturing is invisible to everyday Android phone users. If you pick, say, a Samsung phone with TouchWiz, you may not know which software is Android and which is TouchWiz. I see many phones every year. In that context switching between different Android overlays is jarring.

Yet, if, say, when you come to upgrade your Samsung phone and like the look of a rival model, changing can be troublesome. Controls are sometimes not where you’ve come to expect them. Some used features are missing. Things work in different ways. I can find switching between two Android brands is as much of a jump as moving from Android to iOS.

To be fair to phone makers, there are fewer deal-breaker differences between today’s overlays than in the past. It was once common for popular apps to run on one model, but not on another. I haven’t seen that in recent times with the big apps. But there are still many inconsistencies.

You need to take care reading through feature lists to know if a different Android phone has a feature you loved on your last one.

Geeks versus the rest

Some geeks see this through a different lens. Many phone enthusiasts love to customise their Android phones and play with options. What’s fun to them can be a nightmare for less technically minded phone users. Geeks often deride Apple iPhones for reducing user choice. Yet that lack of confusion is major plus point for those who don’t get off on tinkering with software.

Two other things stand between Android as we’ve known it until now and the best phone experience. Many Android phone makers are, to say the least, slack when it comes to keeping software up-to-date. This applies to both their own software and their versions of Android. Many Android phones have never seen a software update. Apart from anything else, this makes those Android phone insecure. It’s no accident that more malware targets Android than iOS.

Sure some Android phone makers are better than others. Yet how are mere mortals to know which is a wiser buy?

Android One attempts to fix all these niggles. It didn’t start out that way. Four years ago Google introduced Android One to help move people in emerging economies from dumb phones to smart phones. It was a barebones, lowest-common denominator version of Android. People elsewhere soon realised a lowest-common denominator Android might be popular with users in richer countries.

Android One quality mark

Today Android One acts like a quality mark. Google says all phones with the badge come with certain guarantees. You get:

  • An approved design. Google signs off on the phone hardware.
  • The core Android interface along with Google services.
  • Regular security updates for three years.
  • Android OS updates for two years. In practice this means the next two official versions of Android.

Android One phones also come without added, unwanted third-party software. In other words: no bloatware.

The other thing no-one mentions, at least not in the marketing material, is that the Android One phone you buy today should be good for three or more years. This is something Apple users take for granted. Phone makers in the Android world tend to take the attitude that you need to upgrade every year, or, at a pinch, every second year. Getting three years use from a phone is better for the planet and better for your pocket.

Nokia 6.1

Spark sells the Nokia 6.1 for NZ$500. In price terms that puts it at the low-end of mid-range phones. Yet it looks and feels more like something higher up the market, say the top-end of the mid-range. For the money you get a solid aluminium case. It is about the same size as an iPhone 7 or 8 Plus model, although 10mm shorter. The two weigh about the same.

The screen is a 5.5 inches with FHD resolution, that’s 1920 by 1080 pixels. Nokia has stuck with the older 16:9 screen ratio which is still standard on all but the most expensive phones. It’s not the best screen, but is more than you might expect given the phone’s price. In practice it is more than bright enough. You may need to adjust the brightness at times where it is automatic on other phones.

Nokia uses the, now standard, USB-C connector for charging. The phone still has an audio jack, in this case it is along the top edge of the case. On the left hand edge is a pull out drawer for the Sim card, it will also take a MicroSD card. If you want to carry a lot of music or photos you’re going to need that memory card slot. The phone only comes with 32GB of storage as standard, around 19.7GB that is available for you to use.

Nokia 6.1 drawback

This is the major drawback to the Nokia 6.1. Its standard 19.7GB is not enough for many people. It’s better to pay extra for more built-in storage than deal with SD cards. This may not bother you, if, say, you get all your music from Spotify and stream all your video. There is a Nokia 6.1 model with more storage, but it isn’t sold in New Zealand.

There is a fingerprint reader on the back of the phone.

Nokia 6.1 performance is a fraction ahead of what you’d expect from a $500 phone. If you want to push hard with the latest games you might run up against limits. Yet for most people the processor and 4GB Ram are more than enough for everyday use. It’s an octa-core Snapdragon 630 if you care about this kind of detail, most people buying the Nokia 6.1 will not.

You get a 3000mAh battery, that’s normal for mid-range phones. It should last a full day without too much trouble unless you spend a lot of time running games or watching video. If you do either of these, then you might be better off spending more on a phone anyway.

Nokia’s camera is capable enough, it can even shoot 4K video. Again, it’s behind what you’d find in $1000-plus phones, but more than you’d find in another $500 phone. In summary, the Nokia 6.1 manages to pack all the phone punch everyday users need at a reasonable price.

Nokia 7 Plus

At $700, the New Zealand asking price for the Nokia 7 Plus is $200 more than for the 6.1. The extra money buys better cameras, a bigger screen, extra storage and more battery. On the 7 Plus there are two rear cameras. One has a 12MP sensor with an f/1.4 lens, the other is a 13MP sensor with an f/2.6 lens. Both lenses are from Zeiss.

While you’ll get better shots than you might see on the Nokia 6.1 with its single 16MP sensor and f/2 Zeiss lens, neither is a patch on the cameras you’ll find on phones costing twice the price. That said, the 7 Plus camera is more than enough for everyday snaps. The only time it lets you down is in low light conditions. It can handle time-lapse, 4k and slow-motion video.

The 7 Plus’ 16MP front camera is a big step up from the 8MP front camera on the Nokia 6.1. Both phones can take photos using the front and rear camera at the same time. It’s a gimmick, but then gimmicks sell phones. This one is not going to set the market alight.

The 6-inch screen brings the Nokia 7 Plus up to the size of the Apple iPhone 8 Plus. There are few more pixels than on the Nokia 6.1, in this case 2160 by 1080. This brings it to the 18:9 aspect ratio that you’ll find on today’s more expensive phones. The 3800mAh battery is enough to power the extra screen size and then some. In practice you get an extra hour or two use compared to the Nokia 6.1.

Nokia 6.1, 7 Plus Verdict

Nokia won’t thank me for saying this, but the two Android One phones are excellent choices for buyers who don’t care to show off a prestige brand. They are all about bang for buck. They are affordable, capable handsets that can do all the important things you buy a phone for. If you want more camera, you need to spend more. Otherwise, there’s not that last bit of fairy dust sprinkled on phones to add $1000 to the price.

Android One is a better experience than anything from the more expensive Android phone brands. Even so you still may prefer to stay with what you know if you’re wedded to on Samsung, Huawei, Sony or whatever. If you are thinking of switching brand, Nokia is a good choice and you’ll save money into the bargain.

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Put aside for one moment the recent headlines. Forget about Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg facing politicians in Washington. And park everything you’ve heard about Cambridge Analytica.

There are problems with the way most media organisations report Facebook. It’s something no-one ever talks about.

The first problem is that media organisations are not disinterested external observers.

Media company

You could argue that Facebook is the world’s most powerful media company. You could make a case that it is more powerful than any other media company in history.

Sure, Facebook insists it is not a media company. But that idea is ridiculous. It publishes material and extracts revenue from advertising. That’s a classic description of how the media world has operated for over a century.

Even if you don’t accept Facebook is a media company, it is not separate from the media industry.

The site can channel huge numbers of readers to, say, an online news site. The fact that it doesn’t do a good job of this is neither here or there.

What’s important is that editors and publishers are wary of making an enemy of someone with that power. This doesn’t have to be conscious or cynical. Unconscious influences are as effective as deliberate kowtowing.

Desperate times

That said, some media organisations and their employees feel so desperate that they may put aside traditional media ethics when it comes to scrutinising the hand that they hope will feed them.

Never mind that Facebook is responsible for the mess those media companies are in.

The second problem with the way the media covers Facebook is that most media organisations see it as a technology company. They usually assign specialist technology writers to cover it. A lot of the time, they relegate coverage to their technology ghetto pages.

While Facebook uses technology, so does everyone else. It’s no more a technology company than, say, the newspaper publisher in your city. Sure, there are apps. But most newspapers also have apps. It uses a customer database. So does almost every other business.

There’s very little that is unique, clever or inherently technical about Facebook. The one thing it has going is a powerful algorithm for connecting people to each other, figuring out their preferences and then packaging them so advertisers can target them with, what the company would claim is, pin-point accuracy. It’s big, but in technical terms it is trivial.

Technology

Compared to Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon, Facebook is not a technology company. You could describe it as a technology-enabled business. Now go and find any global enterprise that isn’t.

The problem with this is that media organisations frame Facebook as a technology story. They categorise it in a technology ghetto. They assign the story to journalists who might be skilled at decrypting an annual report from, say, Apple or interpreting the latest software from Google.

And, let’s be honest here, most of the time they do not give reporters the time or resources needed to unpick the story behind the story. After all most stories about Facebook don’t seem worth much more than the once-over-lightly treatment.

All of this explains why the media, indeed most of the world, was blindsided by revelations about what goes on behind the scenes at Facebook. It’s not so much the company was operating in stealth mode, at least no more than any other large corporation, it’s that there’s not enough outside scrutiny.

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spark-vodafone-boost-mobile-data-in-tandemPeople get exciting about phone features. Productivity is more important yet often overlooked.

My work involves looking at a lot of new phones. Most are premium Android phones. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one that I couldn’t recommend. Within limits they are all good.

The last was the Huawei P20 Pro. It could be the best Android phone on sale at the moment. I haven’t seen anything better in 2018.

When I spend my money on phones — I don’t have to because there are lots of loan models for specialist journalists — I buy iPhones. 1

For me, productivity is everything

There are two reasons for this. First, I use iPads and Macs.

Apple devices play well together. There’s something almost magic about cutting text on the phone and pasting it into a desktop Mac document. Likewise, everything syncs between devices. I started writing this post on an iPhone and finished it on a Mac.

I have spent a lot of money on iOS and MacOS software and services. Some of those tools are not available on Android. When they are, they can be as good. But more often, there is either no equivalent. Or the equivalent is second-rate or involves compromise 2.

My productivity plummets when I switch to an Android phone during a review. Apple won’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

Walled garden

Some people reading this will question my choice on the grounds that Apple is a walled garden. By that standard so is Android and so is Windows. Apple may be a walled garden, but it is a productive one for me.

Linux may be the pure ideological choice, but so is North Korea — and that’s how it feels sometimes.

Second, with Apple there’s never any question about security updates.

Apple is quick to patch and repair iOS, updating is often immediate. I can wake up and be ready to go from the day after a security issue appears. Some Android phones never get updates. Many get them, but slow. Even the better known brands can be slack.

Again, that won’t bother everyone, but it bothers me.

Apple isn’t perfect

This doesn’t mean I’m biased in favour of Apple3

Apple is not perfect. There are flaws. Most of the tech media is happy to pounce when one appears. This, by the way, is a good thing in general although it can get silly.

Either way, Apple’s flaws are generally things I can live with. The productivity gain is too precious to trade away.

One notable exception at the moment is the controversial new keyboard on MacBook and MacBook Pro models. I see it as a backward step.4

No doubt you can be just as productive with Android if you have the right mindset. It takes a different form of mental discipline. Whatever that is, it isn’t me.


  1. If I was going to buy an Android phone I’d pick one without a software overlay. Google Pixel and Nokia phones are good candidates. That’s because I have yet to find an Android overlay that isn’t frustrating. ↩︎
  2. Like handing over private data ↩︎
  3. Until Windows 8 I was happy with Microsoft’s walled garden. Switching back to Apple was an eye opener. My productivity soared. I accept this wouldn’t be the case for everyone and, yes, Apple kit can be more expensive. ↩︎
  4. I’m working on a personal answer to this. It may not suit you, but stay tuned anyway. ↩︎
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