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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As Microsoft refocuses to chase enterprise cloud opportunities, Google has an opportunity to lead the productivity software market. It has taken a decade, but now G-Suite can challenge Office.


Almost every office worker of my generation spent years working with Microsoft software.

For a while Windows was, in effect, a monopoly. Any other operating system was, in number terms, a freak show.

While Windows was the star of the show, it gave Microsoft leverage elsewhere. The most obvious example was with Office. Almost everyone used it. Most people had no choice.

Even people who chose a Mac over a Windows PC were more likely to use Office than Apple’s iWork.

Windows, Office everywhere you look

In the media companies where I worked, Office was the only option for over a generation. Today editors, publishers and designers still expect to receive Word documents.

Send them something else and they think you’re weird.

Or they don’t understand. Some get angry. Others make a private promise never to commission work from such an infidel again. Not using Word was a poor career move. It can still be.

When I use a non-Microsoft writing tool, nine times out of ten I still send the finished document in a Word format.

This keeps everyone happy. It keeps me in work. This is no exaggeration.

It doesn’t matter that often a plain text file might be a better option for everyone concerned.

Edit, review in Word

This works in reverse. People send me Word documents. They may need reviewing or editing. This has to be done in Word. The application borders on compulsory.

Sure, some alternative products can handle reviewing and editing functions as well as Word. At least they can most of the time. However, in practice the process is not always smooth or straightforward.

Which means, like it or not, it makes economic sense to pay the $160 or so each year for an Office subscription. It’s a bargain even if the software sits idle on the hard drive.

There’s an instant return on that investment the first time a piece of work arrives that you can only fix in Office. This is something that might happen a handful of times a year. It always happens sooner or later.

Apart from anything else, dealing with incomptabiliti takes time. For many of us time is money.

A $165 Office subscription is cheaper than spending half a day dealing with file formats.

The end of the Office era?

Windows, Office and Word are all still dominant. It may not stay that way much longer.

Before we go any further. Let’s deal with LibreOffice. This is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office.

While LibreOffice has its charms, it is Office for people who don’t like giving money to Microsoft. The user experience is similar. So is the workflow.

Your productivity is unlikely to change if you switch from one to the other. That is not the case with moving from Office to Google Docs.

Generation Docs

Many younger journalists and communications people prefer Google Docs. While I’m uneasy about privacy and security with Google, that’ not how other people see things.

I’ve worked for publications and editorial services where Docs is the tool of choice. Its collaboration features are great. Google Docs is easy to use.

It has flaws. Yet, flaws, privacy and security questions aside, Google Docs is better for journalists than Word.

That’s because it’s simple and pared back. Many of the heavy-duty features in Word are for lawyers or other specialist users. Most of us never fire up three-quarters of the program’s code.

The privacy and security questions about Google Docs are big ones. Especially in the light of recent revelations about how big technology companies snoop on customers.

Google can trawl through your Google Docs documents. It can collect data to help its customers target you with advertising. It can learn things about you. By now you should have figured out that with online services sometimes free can be too high a price.

Still, Google Docs does everything a journalist or communications professional might need.

Docs is good enough for most folk

In other words, Google Docs is at least a good enough alternative to Word. For many, if not all people, it is better.

There are reasons why it has yet to conquer Word. We’ve already looked at privacy and security. There’s also the question of inertia.

People might not love Word, but they are comfortable with it. The software took us a long time to master. A lot of people aren’t happy with discarding such an investment in time and effort. Of course this is an internal version of the sunk cost fallacy.

It’s easy to think about our personal productivity when we get to make our technology choices. Not everyone has that freedom. In large corporations Microsoft continues to hold a huge market share. Corporate IT departments tend to be comfortable with the devil they know.

And anyway, the security and privacy issues that worry individual users loom larger. Google Docs is often treated with suspicion by streetsmart IT professionals.

Exteral disruption

An external event could change the move from Word to Google Docs to switch from a trickle to a flood. One may be on the way.

Twenty years ago Windows accounted for about 19 in 20 personal computers. Today it is around four out of five and falling. Apple’s MacOS is now at about 12.5 percent of the market. Google’s Chrome OS is on the rise.

Computing is no longer restricted to personal computers. If we add tablets and phones to the mix, then Windows’ share has plummeted compared with its golden age in the 1990s. It may be around a third of the total today. Its share of new device sales is closer to 10 percent. So its influence is only going to drop.

Let’s not labour this point too much. After all phones are not great for writing tasks. The key here is that Windows no longer dominates. That, in turn, means the writing is on the wall for Office. It’s going to be less important in the future.

Windows and Office are under threat from two directions. In both cases the biggest threat is from Google.

Chromebook looms

At the low end, Google’s Chromebook hardware is winning hearts and minds in schools. For now this is more true in the USA than in places like New Zealand. It’s a real trend there.

Few young American students have ever seen Windows or Office. They use Chromebook, Android or iOS. In most cases they work with Google’s G-Suite, now the preferred name for Google Apps.

When those students graduate and start work they are going to take that experience with them. Where they have a choice they’ll pick G-Suite because that’s what they know best.

Many will find Office to be clunky, restrictive and old-fashioned. They will puzzle over the clumsy collaboration tools — clumsy compared to G-Suite.

More Chromebooks coming

There are reports that PC makers are looking at extending their Chromebook ranges. Microsoft’s move into own-brand hardware makes any decision here easier.

The word from the US is that by the end of the year the big PC brands will offer business-oriented Chromebooks. They’ll be cheaper than Windows PCs. Chromebooks have a lower total cost of ownership. What’s more bypass the infrastructure corporations need to make Windows and Office work.

This is happening at a time when Microsoft is in transition. The company has gone from being The PC Company, to a cloud and enterprise computing business. Windows is no longer central.

Office licence revenue remains strong. Yet defending this may soon be a distraction from Microsoft’s new corporate mission. The company seems to have lost interest in Windows or, at least, pushed it down the pecking order.

This leaves a vacuum. Apple isn’t going to fill the gap. It has its own mission, the brand will remain a niche up-market option. Google has its eyes on the bulk of the market.

None of this will happen overnight. Most likely we’ll see Google gain market share at Microsoft’s expense for a while. Then something else happens to change the dynamic. A possibility is for Microsoft to spin-off what, by then, will be the non-core business.

Either way, Windows’ dominance is over. Google has an opportunity to win customers.

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Windows 10Since taking over as Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella has remade the company. What was a PC giant is now a cloud and enterprise computing giant. And that has implications for Windows.

Microsoft’s latest financials underline the change. In the three months to December 2017 the company’s revenue was almost US$29 billion. Of that, what Microsoft calls Productivity and Business Processes was almost US$9 billion. Intelligent cloud made up almost US$8 billion.

The remainder, a little over US$12 billion, fell under the label of More personal computing. This unit includes Surface hardware, advertising and everything Xbox.

Given the gaming business brought in around US$4 billion, that means in round numbers, Windows accounts for only a quarter of today’s Microsoft.

That proportion is falling fast.

Windows stagnant as cloud, enterprise booms

Microsoft’s More personal computing business grew around one percent between the end of 2016 and the end of 2017. Intelligent cloud was up almost 15 percent. Productivity and Business Processes climbed 25 percent.

Draw a straight-line projection and Windows will be under 20 percent of Microsoft’s revenue by the end of this year. Within two to three years it will be less than 10 percent.

Microsoft’s accounting is hard to break down, but looks as if the operating system business is fading into the background.

Some parts of Windows have done more than fade. During the year Microsoft dropped Windows Phone. Then company admitted it failed to keep pace with iOS and Android.

You can’t dismiss the phone OS as a meaningless sideshow. Former CEO Steve Balmer spent close to US$10 billion on it. This figure includes the US$7.6 billion write-down of the Nokia acquisition.

Poor performance

It would be fair to say Microsoft’s Windows strategy hasn’t been right since Windows 7. Some less kind souls say it hasn’t been right since XP. That’s extreme, yet Windows 8 was clearly a flop.

Windows 10 stopped the immediate rot, but did nothing to recover Microsoft’s reputation with uncommitted users. It’s no accident that PC sales have stayed in free fall since 10 appeared. Nor is it an accident that Apple sales have climbed in that time. Likewise Chromebook sales rocketed.

Those users who can are bailing out.

Something else is going on. Writing at ZDNet Ed Bott says: “Microsoft’s steady retreat from consumer products is nearly complete.” Bott’s story looks at how Microsoft has shifted its focus from the consumer towards business.

What’s next to go?

Bott doesn’t say so, but you could read between the lines when looking at the financial numbers and conclude that Windows could be next. He writes about Microsoft: “…shifting resources to business units that are thriving: enterprise software and cloud services”.

Go back to the financials mentioned earlier: those thriving business units do not include Windows.

People who are heavily invested in Microsoft and its OS may argue otherwise, but if you use another operating system and make occasional visit back, there’s a feeling things are running down. Not a lot, but there is a sense Windows is past its prime.

There’s also a sense Microsoft no longer has a clear vision for its operating system. Or maybe any vision.

A year ago Microsoft introduced Windows 10 S. The company said it was a new edition. On paper it sounded good. 10 S boots faster, is more secure, offers better battery life and is more robust in the sense that its harder to corrupt files.

These positives are down to the fact that Windows 10 S is a cut-down, limited version of Windows 10.

10 S was a mess

Windows 10 S turned out to be a mess. Nobody outside Microsoft seemed to like it. Reviewers panned it. Consumers hated it. It is another shot-in-the-foot disaster on the scale of Windows 8.

At the time of the launch the idea was that users could pay US$50 to switch to Windows 10 Pro. Microsoft would pack 10 S with a new computer. Customers buying a new PC would then be hit up for an extra charge later to unlock all the features of the computer they purchased. Almost everyone would want to upgrade. At Redmond it looked like free money.

Let’s hope no-one at Microsoft wonders why Chromebook and MacBooks are selling so well.

Last week Microsoft backtracks on that madness. It said users can now upgrade to Windows 10 at no extra charge.

The10 S debacle tells us Microsoft no longer employs its best thinkers on its operating system software. It suggests Microsoft doesn’t really care about the product any longer. After all, it doesn’t make much money.

Microsoft has a huge cash cow. The software is still installed on most of the world’s traditional computers — although not the pocket computers people now use most often. There are ways it can and will continue to squeeze money out of its huge installed base.

Ring out the old, ring in the new

And yet you can’t help getting the impression Microsoft’s top brass are no longer interested. That’s the old world; a declining empire. Meanwhile there are exciting new opportunities to chase in the cloud and enterprise spaces.

One possible way out would be for Microsoft to hive off Windows into a seperate business and sell or otherwise demerge the operation. This worked for IBM’s PC business, although not for IBM. A similar approach also worked up to a point for HP.

More likely Microsoft will continue to manage down its Windows operation. Sooner or later even the most die-hard fans will realise they are neglected. Apple and Chromebooks loom. There’s an opportunity for Android or for a revival of desktop Linux.

We’ll soon be in a post-Windows world. It’s just that two-third of computer users don’t realise that yet.

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phone cameras

Every recent high-end phone launch has focused, sorry about that, on the device’s camera. Likewise, phone promotion or marketing always pushes cameras to the fore.

Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 in Auckland last month. The company invited journalists to an open plan restaurant. There, Samsung invited journalists to photograph the chef preparing food.

The menu included a dish with a viscous pour-on sauce. This was a clever way of highlighting the S9’s very slow motion video function. The results were impressive.

Samsung hired a video professional to take slow motion footage of bees entering a hive. Shown on a giant TV screen, the pictures were crystal clear and, at times, had stunning clarity.

When phone makers show journalists new devices, they devote at least half the time to cameras.

Apple and Huawei have the same emphasis on photography.

Phone makers with smaller budgets push camera features to the top of their press releases.

Camera talk

During technical presentations company insiders talk at great length about phone features. At least a third of allotted time is camera talk. You can come away with the impression that’s all they want to talk about.

Every phone maker mentioned so far and some others will tell you they have the best phone camera. In a limited sense most of them are right, although it depends on your terms of reference. No phone costing, say, $800 or more has a bad camera.

In the last year or so, every phone maker used the word ‘bokeh’ at least once in their launch presentation. It would not be hard to think up a cliché bingo card for phone launch attendees.

If this sounds like ‘me too’ market, well, it can be at times. Everyone seems to think a fashion parade is original.

Yet there are important difference. Each company’s best camera excels at something else. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 does well in low light and can do very slow motion video. Huawei’s Mate 10 is best for black and white photography.

Most phone makers can point at unique camera hardware features. They can all point at unique software.

The quality of still and moving pictures from high end phones is remarkable. If you know what you’re doing — we’ll come back to that point — you can achieve wonderful things. This is even more impressive when you consider how small the lenses are. Phone lenses are prone to finger smudges and camera shake is a given.

A point of difference

So why do phone makers put so much emphasis on cameras? An obvious reason is cameras differentiate what can otherwise be me-too products.

Telephony and connectivity are much the same on all phones including cheap ones. Screen resolution is higher than the human eye can perceive. Few high-end phones struggle with processing power. These days they all look alike.

While there is a huge and obvious software difference between Apple’s iPhone range and Android handsets, you couldn’t say the same for Android models. Phone makers add their own software skins to stock Android. In almost every case this detracts value, at least from the customer’s perspective.

This leaves cameras and camera software as a playground for creativity and innovation. Which, in turn, brings us to the second reason phone makers place so much emphasis on photography.

Phone hardware designs and specifications have stabilised. With the move to remove bezels, that is the borders around screens, there’s little left to tinker with. Samsung struggles deciding where to put its fingerprint scanner. Otherwise, physical phone design has reached a cul-de-sac, at least for now.

The Galaxy S9 looks so much like the S8. Samsung had to come up with a new case colour for people wanting to show off their new phone.

Room for improvement

Over the last few years phone makers found room for improvement in their camera hardware and software. It’s likely this will soon reach another dead end. The laws of physics mean there’s only so much you can do with a tiny lens and sensor array.

The last big innovation was the move to dual lens cameras. This hasn’t played out yet. Meanwhile, at least one phone maker, Huawei, is talking of a triple lens camera.

There’s a danger this could become like the disposable razor business. There, for a time, adding an extra blade gave the appearance of innovation to an otherwise evolved product. It could be like tail fins on 1950s American cars. In effect we’re talking innovation for the sake of having an innovation talking point.

Another danger is that customers are loosing interest in phone cameras. Or, more likely, customer interest in phone cameras is not in alignment with phone maker hype.

Take, again, the Samsung Galaxy S9 slow-motion video feature. As mentioned early, the results are impressive, but how many Galaxy S9 buyers will use it?

Or, more to the point, how many will continue to use it beyond playing around with it when they first get their phone?

You can ask the same question about many of the camera innovations phone makers promote. Is the beauty mode, which attempts to make people look better, anything more than passing fad. How many phone owners have taken more than a handful of bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds?

Are people buying cameras or phones?

Slow-motion video is nice-to-have, but it’s unlikely more than one phone buyer in 20 will use it often. Similar reasoning goes for all fancy high-end phone camera features.

The flip side of this logic is worth considering. High-end phones with fancy camera features sell at a considerable premium. You may pay NZ$500 extra to get that super camera in your hands. If you only use it a dozen or so times, that feature has cost you $40 a shot.

Skeptical readers might see the industry’s obsession with camera phones as a way of forcing up handset prices. It also repairs margins in a business where only Apple and Samsung make decent money.

Of course, you can use phone cameras for serious work. If you need to take pictures in your job, the extra cost can be a smart investment.

Yet, in general you can’t take pictures of the quality you’d get from a SLR or any decent camera with a much bigger lens and sensor array. Phone cameras are handy, we carry them with us all the time. And the quality is so good that at times it is hard to tell if an iPhone or a Canon took the shot.

Hard to use

One phone camera drawback is they are hard to use in a hurry. Sure, all the phone makers tell us how easy their products are to use. Even so, the software can be confusing.

Phone camera interfaces are often tiny and you need to hunt around to find controls. Almost everyone uses the default mode for every shot. What’s more, stabbing at controls on a phone screen is not the best way to steady your hand to take pictures. Adjusting and using a digital SLR is easy in comparison.

There is still some room for improvement with phone cameras. Among other things Huawei’s third lens could do the trick. There is scope for yet more innovation in the software and, yes, a better user interface.

No doubt other improvements are in the works. At best we may see one or two more cycles. In the meantime some phone makers are switching their marketing attention to what they call AI or artificial intelligence.

It’s questionable whether this is real AI in the sense that the software learns things from use. There’s also a big question over whether phone buyers give a toss for this approach. We’ll see.

End of the golden age

Phone makers face a far bigger problem than competition with each other. It appears phone sales have faltered and now may be about to end the same kind of fall that has plagued the PC sector.

People are hanging on to phone longer. Research companies like IDC and Gartner put this down to consumers not being so enchanted with new feature that they feel a need to upgrade.

Given the marketing emphasis phone makers put on cameras, that can be evidence they are out of sync with what customers want. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be a way of taking better photographs or videos.

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Apple iPad Pro 2015
Apple iPad Pro

CEO Satya Nadella has turned Microsoft around. It is relevant again. Things didn’t look that way when he took over the company. His switch of focus to the cloud was timely and has been a huge success. Much of what he says and does is sensible.

Much, but not everything.

In November, Nadella made a playful, off-the-cuff remark about an Apple iPad not being a proper computer. The comment should not be taken too seriously. But as Sahil Mohan Gupta notes at Tech Radar, Nadella’s words speaks volume about where Microsoft is heading and how it views computing.

Real computers

No doubt Nadella thinks all computers made by Microsoft are real computers. Even if some of those computers share a lot with the iPad Pro. Microsoft’s Surface models have many good points. They also have well documented flaws and angry customers. Making too much of a comparison with iPads could backfire on Microsoft.

Nadella’s comments got me thinking about the iPad, especially the large 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I use one now as my main mobile computer.

As far as I’m concerned it is a proper computer. It seems the best computer for a technology writer on the move, although others may not agree with me. Apart from anything else I find writing long documents on the iPad Pro is at least as easy as working on a Mac. There’s something about iOS 11 that helps me focus more on the job in front of me.

iPad Pro ready for serious work

A year ago the iPad Pro was not ready for serious use. The software didn’t handle files outside of application silos. Moving text from, say, a word processor to a text processor or a web-based app was simple enough. But opening a document in a different app was often tricky.

Dealing with attachments that arrived through mail was just as hard. There were basic things the iPad could not do. My router needed a firmware update. The new software arrived as a zip file, needs unpacking and uploading. The old version of iOS couldn’t handle that. The new iOS 11 makes it all possible.

While there are still times I need to reach for the MacBook, those ‘need’ times are fewer and fewer. It’s already a real computer.

There is a Windows computer that is mainly used for games, for running digital audio workshop software and for testing Windows apps. Increasingly Windows looks old-fashioned and iOS looks like the future.

This isn’t everyone’s view, many people reading this will scoff at the idea.

Yet despite Nadella’s comments, Microsoft takes the iPad seriously enough to make sure its key productivity apps and OneDrive all work on the iOS hardware and stay bang-up-to-date. I’d argue that Word is better on the iPad Pro than on a Mac and possibly even better than on Windows. What could be more serious than that?

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