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Bill Bennett

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Apple is one world’s largest companies. It got there by giving people the technology they want. Products include the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and AirPods.

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.

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 iPhone models every year, but 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.

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. ↩︎

Computer revolution underway behind the scenes

Yesterday’s review of the Dynabook Satellite Pro says the laptop computer looks and feels dated next to modern MacBooks and Surfaces.

This was not a flippant remark.

Modern MacBook and Surfaces include smartphone technology. The M1 processor in today’s MacBooks derives from an Arm chip Apple developed for the iPhone.

Microsoft uses Arm in its latest Surface Pro models.

Power sipping Arm processors

Compared with the Intel processors used in more traditional laptops, Arm sips power. Computers made with Arm can go the best part of a day between charges. The M1 MacBook Air battery gets close to 24 hours.

Another company, Huawei, offers the MateBook which is a neat laptop containing technology developed for phones.

There are a handful of 2-in-1 and similar devices from HP or Lenovo. While they might not derive directly from phones and may include Intel processors, they have many phone-like characteristics.

Old-school computer

In contrast, Dynabook and the other more traditional computer designs descend from flip-lid laptops.

It’s a format that has been around since the mid-1980s. Yes, the Dynabook is slimmer than those models. It is way more powerful and its batteries last longer. It is better.

But its pedigree comes from the old breed. Not from the new phone lineage.

Blurred lines

Phones and personal computers have been on a converging path for at least twenty years.

For much of that time, computer sales were in decline while phone sales soared. Last year’s lockdowns saw a move to working from home that temporarily confused matters. Despite this, there are now many more phones in the wild than PCs.

The phone is the computer people use most often. That’s as true of people who own phones and computers as it is of those who have just a phone.

Computer tasks

Computers remain important for creative tasks. You could edit a movie or write a book on a phone. Yet who would want to when these jobs are easier with a big screen and a keyboard?

Phones and phone-derived devices are pushing into new areas all the time.

You can view tablet computers as big phones.

Apple makes iPads with slots for Sim cards, there are Android tablets that do the same. Technology doesn’t get much more phone-like than that.

While tablets are not designed for voice calls, that’s no longer a phone’s primary function.

Phoning it in

When 5G mobile is everywhere and wireless bandwidth is cheaper and plentiful, you might wonder how you ever computed without an ever-present internet connection.

Apple blurs the lines between device classes. It uses Arm processors everywhere. iPhones, iPads and MacBooks share a lot of common technology.

Microsoft has an issue running Windows apps on an Arm processor. Few developers have rewritten Windows app code for these devices. The next version of Windows should fix that.

Yet Windows 11 can now run Android applications. That is, apps that were made for phones. The convergence is underway. Likewise, Apple’s new Macs can run iPhone apps.

The next generation

Arm processors are at least a generation ahead of anything Intel has. The traditional chip maker is in a tailspin and does not have a plausible roadmap.

MacBooks and Surfaces sit at the high end of the portable computer market. Chromebooks live at the opposite end. They come from a different tradition, in effect, they are cloud computing terminals dressed up as laptops.

Chromebooks may be simple, but in their own way they are every bit as modern as MacBooks and Surfaces.

Always connected computer

There’s not much phone hardware in a Chromebook. Yet they share one important characteristic with phones. Both sets of devices need a constant internet connection to be any use.

You could work with a laptop on an internet-free desert island. A Chromebook is pointless without a connection.

Chromebooks, MacBooks, Surfaces, tablets feel like progress in a way an old-school Windows laptop can not. We’ve gone past an important turning point. In a few years we’ll look back and it will be obvious.

Collabora Office for iOS: Unfinished open source productivity suite

Collabora Office is a promising mobile open source document editing suite based on LibreOffice. There are versions for iOS, tested here, and Android.

At the time of writing, Collabora Office Version 6.4.8 for iOS is not ready for everyday use.

Collabora Office for iOS

At a glance:

For: Free, open source productivity suite for iOS and Android. Plenty of features. Compatible with Microsoft Office and Open Document Format.
Against: Unfinished, bug-ridden, unstable, user interface jars with iOS.
Maybe: Has potential to be fine if Collabora is able to fix up the problems.
Verdict: Avoid for now, worth watching for future improvements.
Rating: 1 star out of a possible 5.
Price: Free.
Web: Collabora Office.

 

Collabora is a UK-based private company specialising in open source software. The business sells support and services based on LibreOffice. Collabora Office is, in effect, a version of LibreOffice for iOS and Android. There are also desktop versions.

The software comes with plenty of features. You can create and edit text documents, spreadsheets and presentation.

Collabora Office can open and save in a variety of open document formats along with Microsoft proprietary formats. It will also open PDFs. If you open, say, a Microsoft Word document, you can review or edit and return the finished work to a Microsoft Office user.

For this review I tested Collabora Office on a 12.9-inch 2020 iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard Folio and a 2020 iPhone 12.

Impractical

When reviewing a product like Collabora Office, I like to use the software to write the review. This proved impractical. That tells you everything you need to know about the current state of Collaborate Office.

There is a lot wrong with the user interface on iOS. It doesn’t take long to go down a user interface dead end.

While attempting to write this review, again and again I found I had to shut the app, remove it from the iPad’s memory and start again from scratch. In the end, I gave up.

In a way this review feels more like writing a bug report for the developers.

Beta if you are lucky

Collabora doesn’t describe the software as beta. That would have helped, but even beta is generous. This is more an alpha version of an app that’s in development. To be fair, the Collabora Office App Store Preview makes it clear the program is in development.

It would be possible to write many pages about the problems encountered during the review. To keep things short, let’s look at one area:

You load Collabora Office in the normal iPad way by touching the app icon on one of the home screens. This takes you to a Files-like display where you can see folders in a sidebar and any recent documents that are in compatible file formats.

Not iPad-like

If you then chose a document, you’ll see a non-iPad-like loading screen with tiny text telling you the document is loading and a progress bar. The document opens in a read view.

Departing from iPad-like conventions is fine. The iOS version of Microsoft Office does this at times. But Collabora Office looks like it has been ported from a PC and left in that state. Microsoft managed to add iOS polish to its version of Office.

Before you can edit the document, you have to find and select the pencil icon that shows up in the bottom right corner of the display. There’s no user interface continuity here. It feels like you are jerking from one user interface design to another.

Mac style menu bar

Across the top of the display there are dropdown menu items like you’d see on a Mac or PC. To the right of these is a Collabora Office icon that looks as if it may have a function, but it doesn’t do anything.

The document shows centred in what applications like Microsoft Word describe as a page view.

There’s a ruler across the top of the page. Above the ruler the document name shows… but in the case of my test document, I can only see the first four characters of the name, the rest is hidden. Presumably it is behind something.

This makes for a crowded space. It would be fine on a Mac or PC. It’s something you could live with on a large screen iPad. On smaller screens it is cramped and cluttered.

It feels like you can select this and, maybe edit the document name. It blinks if you try selecting the name, but nothing else happens.

Tiny characters

At the bottom of this display is a search box. The word ‘search’ is printed in tiny, faint characters. Next to that a box tell you this is page 1 of 1. And there’s a language indicator. In my case telling me the document is in New Zealand English.

It’s possible to use the iPad stretch gesture to make the document bigger for a closer look. However, stretching is not smooth, the screen adjustment is jarring. And after a while, without touching the display, the page display got smaller and moved to the left of the screen.

The only way to get the page display back to full-width was to close and reset the app.

Dead ends

The first time I clicked the pencil icon to edit the document, I saw an empty screen. It may be possible to get back to the previous screen, but if it is, it is not obvious.

At this point I had to close the app and clear it from memory yet again. You have to go all the way through the document opening steps again.

The second attempt with the pencil icon opened the document in an editing screen. This problem with documents not always opening as expected happen again and again during in my review.

There’s a worrying instability here. During the review there were a few times where something would work, then not work later.

Resembles LibreOffice

Collabora Office’s editing screen resembles LibreOffice or Microsoft Word. There’s a ribbon across the top of the document and a menu row above. The ribbon changes function as you move from one menu item to another.

Editing works as you’d expect. You can move around the page using cursor keys or the touch screen. Selecting text is a hit and miss affair. A long press on the touch screen can select a word, but this didn’t work for me every time.

I had more success using the keyboard cursor keys and then the shift key to select a string of text.

Unstable

Having said that, there were times when the cursor key movements didn’t line up with text. Again this was unstable.

Collabora Office had difficulty when I tried using the Apple Pencil. At one point it deleted text as I moved the Pencil.

In practice I found the software struggled to display certain documents. In a few cases the lines of characters overlapped with each other making them hard to read on screen. At times the page display seemed to break down altogether.

Another problem area was documents could get lost when saving.

Other iPad writing apps are smooth. This is not. The dialog boxes that appear are crude looking. Collabora hasn’t paid much attention to making things look good.

Verdict

Investigate Collabora Office by all means. It’s a work in progress and you can expect it to improve over time.

By the time you read this is may have moved on from version 6.4.8. The version history suggests the developers update the app every month.

That said, Collabora Office is unusable for day to day work at this stage.

If you want an iOS productivity suite and you can’t bring yourself to use Microsoft Office, you have options. There’s Google’s Workspace. Or you could stay with Apple’s iWorks apps. Pages, Numbers and Keynote will get the job done. There are plenty of other options for people who want to write on an iPad.