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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.

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.

New Zealand phone market rebounds

IDC says the New Zealand mobile phone market was up 30.1 percent on the previous year in the first quarter of 2021 . This is the highest growth in a quarter since 2013.

In part the result is because phone supplies were restricted when New Zealand went into lockdown early last year. Yet the total, 319,000 units is up four percent on the same period in 2019.

Revenue was up 34 percent. The higher figure shows people were spending on fancier phone models.

IDC says: “the ultra-premium segment (US$1000 ) accounted for 30 percent of shipments in Q1.”

Apple, Samsung continue to dominate phone market

Apple and Samsung accounted for 84 percent of the market. That’s a record for their combined share and in part is down to Huawei’s rapid decline. That company can no longer include Google services with its Android phones, a restriction that greatly reduces their attractiveness to potential buyers.

“Premium models, the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 (released in January 2021) exceeded expectations, as Kiwi consumers flocked in numbers to buy the new flagship devices. The supply of these models also held up despite strong demand for the high-end phones.”

NZ phone market share Q1 2021 - IDC

Huawei collapsed

Huawei’s market share is now in the low single digits. This has created room for other phone brands, but none have created much excitement. Oppo is the third most popular brand. Likewise Xiaomi is the world’s third largest phone brand, but barely rates as a rounding error in New Zealand.

None of the three Chinese brands, Huawei, Oppo and Xiaomi can offer consumers much that is interesting. Many of their phones are at lower prices.

IDC doesn’t even mention Nokia. It does pick up on Vodafone’s own-brand handsets which it says are gaining share in the sub-$150 price range.

A key trend in the quarter is the growth in 5G phone shipments. Almost half the models sold in the quarter are equipped to use the new standard. Not that users will notice the difference in practice beyond showing off Speedtest scores.

iPhone, Android: Which is best phone operating system?

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.

Google docs drops geared-for-print

Google has finally dropped the idea that the end goal of Google Docs is to print words on a sheet of paper.

It’s been a long time coming.

When personal computers were new, word processors were all about print.

But it is now years since everyone used computers to produce printed documents. We may not have the promised paperless offices, but there is a lot less paper in the modern workplace.

These days documents usually spend all their time in a pure digital format.

Yet, until now, editing tools remain geared to print.

Word processors

Take Microsoft Word. You can’t use it for long before seeing a page break. Yes, you can use the web layout view which doesn’t have breaks. But that’s ugly to read as you put down words. And the outline view is for specialist uses.

Likewise Apple’s Pages or the Writer section of LibreOffice. They all assume you want to print documents on paper.

Dive in deeper and you’ll find word processor settings for page headers and footers. Again, these features are print-oriented.

Text editors have a digital-first perspective. But they still nod to printed pages at times.

Google Docs has offered an option not to show pages for years. I wrote Word processor software still geared to print on the subject in 2014.

Google Docs part of Workspace refresh

This week Google announced sweeping changes to Workspace, a set of tools that includes Google Docs.

The big idea behind these changes is that you are no longer working to put words on paper. It’s a symbolic move. It’s a philosophical move and it’s also a practical move.

Instead, Google Docs becomes part of a bigger picture: dynamic, interactive documents that integrate with other tools. This includes embedding video, even links to video conference meetings.

The challenge for Google is that many customers liked Google Docs the way it was. They may not print much these days, but the concepts and workflows are familiar. There’s no discontinuity adapting to a fresh approach.

There’s a lot more coming from Google. More to write about here. Yet for now, Google has untethered its popular word processor from print.

That’s progress.