web analytics

On January 9 2007 Apple chief executive Steve Jobs stood on a stage and showed the world the iPhone.

It seemed important at the time. Yet nobody knew just how significant this would turn out to be.

Thanks to the iPhone Apple became the world’s most valuable company. It defined our times.

It isn’t hyperbole to divide the history of personal technology into eras before and after iPhone.

End of the consumer PC

Apple’s iPhone did something else. It killed the consumer PC market. This didn’t happen overnight and it hasn’t finished yet. But it happened.

It may seem remarkable to talk about the death of consumer PCs when one contemplates the massed ranks of glowing Apple logos one often sees on laptop lids. But, while those computers may be fun, they are mainly used for work or education. They are not mere consumer computers.

PC sales didn’t stop immediately. It took until four years after the first iPhone appeared for sales to peak.

From business to consumer and back again

In 2011 the world bought 380 million personal computers. According to IDC, consumers purchased 54 percent, a little over half the total. The rest went to businesses and government.

Since then PC sales numbers have dropped. Or to put it more accurately; they have dropped off a cliff. By 2015 the total market had fallen to around 275 million units a year. Consumer PC sales fell faster than business computer sales. IDC put the consumer share of the total sold in 2015 at around 49 percent.

In round numbers that means consumer PC sales dropped by around one-third from roughly 200 million to 130 million. That fall took four years.

The end of the world as we know it

It is not the end of the PC story. It is the end of a chapter.

Analysts like IDC and Gartner expect PC sales will continue to fall over time. They think that, eventually, business computer sales will stabilise.

For now there is still a need for workers to use desktops and laptops to keep the wheels of industry spinning. Long term that market is also at risk.

Happy days

Nobody makes a similar optimistic forecast about consumer PCs. There is no happy ending in sight. The end point may or may not be where zero consumer PCs are sold. If we stabilise at a point before that one, the number will almost certainly be a tiny fraction of the 200 million units sold in 2011.

Almost overnight PCs are less relevant to people’s away-from-work lives.

IDC runs a programme called ConsumerScape 360 to track how people use technology. In 2012 about 90 percent of PC owners would check email on their computers each day. By 2015 the number had dropped to 65 percent.

Out of favour

If you need to check work mail away from the workplace you no longer have to use a home PC. You can do it just as efficiently on a phone or a tablet.

In fact more efficiently. With a phone or tablet you can reply while on a bus, in a train or while sitting in a pub. PCs are not that flexible.

IDC found similar declines in other popular computing activities. It turns out that when it comes to reading mail, checking news, web browsing and social media, using the PC is often far too much trouble. We now have more convenient devices close to hand all the time.

Planet of the phones

Today, most people are more likely to go to their phone first when doing anything online.

It’s not just Apple iPhones. People also use Android phones from brands like Samsung, Huawei and Sony. They are also using tablets like the iPad, which is, in effect, more phone than PC. But all these devices can trace their roots back to the moment Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone.

That was the turning point.

Rocking all over the world

In developed countries this represents a major change in technology use patterns. It’s an even bigger revolution in much of the developing world: phones the only computers most people in those places have ever known.

Modern smartphones outsell personal computers four to one. Despite the name they are more personal and, sometimes, better computers. They know far more about you than your PC does.

Phones are ubiquitous. About half the global adult population owns a phone. By the end of this decade that number will reach 80 percent.

Replacing PCs the Microsoft way

Even if people buy new consumer PCs, they won’t buy as many or buy as often as in the past. There are tasks which don’t work well on phones and tablets, but the list gets shorter every year[1]. Soon it will be negligible.

Some of those consumer PC replacements will be devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro, which is as much tablet as PC.

After ignoring the march of progress, Microsoft has responded to the change with a dramatic change of focus. It is one company, possibly the only company other than Apple, with the ability to build a tightly coupled combination of hardware, software and services. It comes as no surprise that companies like Samsung and Huawei are now making Surface-like devices.

Microsoft has also responded by bowing to the inevitable and making great versions of Office available to phone and tablet users.

No consumer PC rebound in sight

There’s little question the consumer PC is now in a death spiral. As sales numbers decline, the demand for apps and services declines. Developers will put less investment into satisfying user needs.

What was a virtuous circle fuelling the rise of consumer computing during the 30 years until 2011 has become a vicious circle on the down slope.

It’s hard to see how consumer PCs can rebound from this. At best there will be a long, slow slide into irrelevance. Expect to see PC makers consolidate further, with some brands disappearing. Expect to see hand-wringing at more angst at PC dependent companies like Intel.

Consumer PCs are not dead yet, but it is now only a matter of time. Customers have moved on.


  1. Games are one consumer area where the PC still beats phones and tablets hands down. Even the best iOS or Android games are unsatisfactory compared to PC games. And don’t get me started on the horror of “in-game payments”.  ↩

Apple iPhone SE with IPad Pro
Apple iPhone SE with IPad Pro

You know how, as an adult, you visit the place you grew up and everything seems smaller than it did at the time? That’s what the iPhone SE feels like after 18 months with bigger iPhones.

There is no better way of getting to grips with a device than using it to write about the product.

In the interest of science I’m typing this post on the iPhone SE. I’m using Byword, a great iOS Markdown writing app.

Writing a review on the device in question may be ironic, postmodern and meta, but it’s also practical and powerful. By the time I finish this post, I’ll understand the iPhone SE’s practical advantages and flaws.

A classic iPhone design

Apple’s iPhone SE gives small phone seeking consumers most of the power of the latest iPhone 6S in an updated iPhone 5S case.

The 12th iPhone to hit the streets uses a classic design that stretches back to the iPhone 4. If you used iPhones before they grew big with iPhone 6, you’ll know what to expect.

New Zealand prices start at NZ$750 for The 16GB model. A 64GB model is NZ$950. The prices are NZ$250 less than iPhone 6 models with the same amount of storage.

The iPhone SE weighs around 115 g. It measures 124 by 57 mm and is about 7.5 mm deep.

At first sight it seems tiny next to the iPhone 6S Plus, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By the way, that’s a 13-inch iPad Pro next to the iPhone SE in the picture at the top of the page.

Holding it one-handed doesn’t stress my little finger, something I dislike about the heavier, bigger iPhone 6S Plus.

If you come to the iPhone SE from a 5 or 5S you’ll feel at home from day one. You will revel in the extra power and take delight in the new capabilities. The screen will feel normal.

Going back home

If, like me, you find yourself back with a four-inch iPhone after time with a five or 5.7-inch display it’s like visiting the home you grew up in.

It’s familiar and cosy, but you’ve moved on. While you can live there again, you quickly remember why you don’t live there any more. Then after a while, you’ll wonder if moving out was such a smart step.

When it comes to reading, bigger iPhone screens are better. That’s obvious and, for the most part, doesn’t need explaining. But that better screen comes at a financial and practical cost.

Small screen

Where screen size matters is in the context of tasks like writing this blog post. I notice I’m squinting more than normal. It’s hard to navigate the page on a small display. I can see less, so I’ve less feel for the flow of my words and for the entire text. I can’t easily tell if my narrative jumps about.

Writing on a small screen is difficult, proof reading is harder again. Proofing your own writing is always difficult. It’s tougher on the small screen because the brain is using up so much of its processing power just reading the words and navigating the text.

Even getting the cursor to the right spot in the text to make an edit is a challenge with the small screen.

On a positive note. iOS auto-correct does a sterling job fixing up the mistyped words and other minor errors. I don’t normally depend on this tool, with the iPhone SE it takes on a new importance.

Typing

Typing on the iPhone SE’s tiny on-screen keyboard is challenging. I’m used to typing on the 6S Plus screen. While not the best tool for feature writing, it can cope at a pinch.

The iPhone SE belongs to a higher difficulty level. It took five tries to type the first capital S in that last sentence. My pudgy fingers kept hitting the A key. Writing speed is glacial.

Finding the shift key is not easy, switching to the number keyboard is tricky. Even typing a full stop requires more effort than on bigger phones.

All this is a wake up call to revisit voice recognition. My 35 years as a journalist mean I think with my fingertips when writing, that may need re-examining. I’ll look at voice recognition on the iPhone SE, if I find anything interesting I’ll report back.

Less productivity than a big iPhone

If I was writing this review on the iPhone 6S Plus, a laptop or a tablet, I would have finished a long ago. When it comes to serious productivity, the small iPhone SE lags behind the 6S or the 6S Plus.

It’s not the right tool for the job. At least not for me.

And yet, there’s something delightful about the iPhone SE that transcends things like productivity: This phone feels right.

My hand is comfortable holding the iPhone SE in a way that it is not with bigger phones.

Many readers will see this as a subjective view. Perhaps it is. But that’s the main thrust of this review: The iPhone SE excels as a small, pocketable iPhone, but unlike the bigger iPhones it doesn’t rate as a practical PC replacement.

The sound of one hand typing

Despite the productivity gap, I typed this and the last three or four paragraphs one-handed using my left hand. My thumb reaches all the way across the keyboard. I don’t need to do the iPhone 6 trick of double hitting the Touch ID button to move the top of the screen down.

Writing long-form posts one-handed on the iPhone SE is not comfortable. Nor is it fast. But it works. If I had to, I could compose stories while standing on a commuter bus or train. Typing on a bigger iPhone needs both hands and more elbow room.

Because the iPhone SE is a touch thicker it is more comfortable to hold. It feels easier to grip. Less likely to fall from my hands.

Flat

I like the flat sides — you can stand the phone on a table if necessary. I also like the small volume control buttons.

Apple has put the power button back at the top like on earlier phones. It’s a better, more logical position.

One of the nicest physical aspects of the iPhone SE is that the thicker body means there’s no need for the ugly camera bump now turning up in iPhones and iPads. The back of the phone is flat and elegant.

Another benefit of a smaller screen is longer battery life. I set up the review phone 24 hours ago straight from the box. It hasn’t seen a charger since I got it from Apple and yet there is still 27 percent in the tank. I got to the end of this post with charging.

Given the phone didn’t arrive with 100 percent charge, this hints at two days use. That’s a big plus. Either way it looks to have better battery life than the iPhone 6S, about the same as the 6S Plus.

Storage

iPhone SE storage tops out at 64GB with the $950 model. When I first transferred my data from the iPhone 6S Plus last night I found there was 22Gb that didn’t make the trip. Almost all of that was music files.

That is a likely deal-breaker for some potential buyers.

If you choose the 16GB iPhone SE you’ll need discipline managing the storage. Even 64GB is a challenge when you have a large collection of digital music. I recommend you choose 64GB unless you are certain you’ll not be shooting video, carrying photo collections and listening to stored audio.

Not just storage

There are other possible shortcoming to watch out for. None of them are deal-breakers, but collectively they may add up to a reason not to buy the iPhone SE.

The iPhone SE uses an older version of Apple’s Touch ID sensor. In practice this doesn’t amount to much of a compromise. It just works a fraction slower. Some may find this a blessing, at times the newer Touch ID sensor is a little too quick for comfort.

If you’ve used an iPhone 6S or 6S Plus you may miss the 3D Touch feature where you can press harder on the screen to fire up secondary commands. I found myself trying to use it on the SE even though I knew it wasn’t there.

This is not likely to worry anyone who is coming to the SE from an older iPhone, but if you use 3D Touch a lot, you may be frustrated by its absence.

Apple has used an older front facing camera on the SE. If you make lots of FaceTime calls or use similar video conferencing, this may bother you, but, on its own, this is not a reason to dig deeper and spend on a more expensive iPhone.

Likewise the display doesn’t have as much contrast as the 6S and 6S Plus. I did a side-by-side comparison and its clear that photos have better contrast on the bigger iPhones, but again, this is not a deal-breaker.

Is it worth buying?

There are two questions to consider before choosing the iPhone SE.

First, can you get away with 64GB of local storage? Given that many buy iPhone 6S and 6S Plus models with 64GB, that’s down to how you use your phone and what you want from it.

While most of us can live with this, especially if we store audio, photo and video files in the cloud, some users will find this limit too restricting.

Which brings us to the most obvious question: is the smaller display going to work for you? The larger screen shows much more text or graphics at the same time. Or, you can use the extra screen size to zoom out making text easier to read and picture detail easier to view.

As I found when writing this review on the iPhone SE this aspect of the larger iPhones is a big deal in terms of productivity.

If you don’t use your phone for heavy-duty apps, writing or to read large amounts of material, you’ll probably be happy with the iPhone SE’s trade-off between screen size, pocketability and being able to control it one-handed.

The eyes have it…

In my case the killer deciding factor is eyesight. Until recently I had good eyes and found a four-inch screen more than adequate. That changed when I found I had macular degeneration. This is kept under control with drugs, but for a while I struggled to see a small screen. Many, many people also have eye problems and need a bigger display.

The flip side is that I only need a big screen iPhone some of the time. There are Macs, tablets and PCs at home with all the screen real estate I need.

Some of the time the convience of a small, one-hand device trumps the productivity benefit of a bigger iPhone. And it is much more portable. It fits into short trousers and shirt pockets — bigger iPhones have trouble with both.

Well, that’s the theory. You’ll need to decide on these matters for yourself, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll stick with the larger screen iPhone 6S Plus because on the occasions when I need iPhone productivity, I can’t compromise. And on the days my eyes are bad I’d struggle to read the small display.

… And yet that little iPhone SE feels so right in my hand.

Why is there an iPhone SE?

Apple says it made the iPhone SE because of customer demand for a smaller iPhone.

This isn’t a marketing hunch. It is a hard-nosed decision backed by powerful evidence. Last year 30 million people bought the iPhone 5S.

Which is a good place to start. The iPhone SE has the same four-inch screen as the 5S. The case is the same size and physically similar.

Looks are deceptive

While the outside looks like the iPhone 5S, under the skin it is an iPhone 6S.

This is a marketing challenge for Apple.

Conspicuous consumers — let’s not pretend they don’t exist — want to be seen and noticed with the latest glamorous hardware. The iPhone SE looks like an old iPhone. Few casual observers would see it as anything else.

In the case of the review model in my hands, the only clue that it isn’t an iPhone 5S is that it has a Rose Gold finish. You’d have to be intimate with Apple’s product range to know that colour wasn’t available on the 5 series phones.


Footnote: Writing the review on an iPhone SE

I composed, wrote, fact-checked and otherwise researched almost all the text in this post on the iPhone SE. The post took about half as long again to write as it would have taken on a Mac or iPad Pro. That’s maybe 25 percent slower than writing the same story on a large screen iPhone.

In the end I couldn’t do everything from the phone. I had to open the document on my Mac to give it a last proof-read and polish.

If I was writing a story to send to another editor to proof-read, I would have gone straight from the phone, but found my eyes were starting to feel the strain of dealing with over 2000 words on a tiny screen.

Apple iPhone SE

New Zealand consumers often pay more than their overseas counterparts for hardware.

In recent years Apple has done a better job than most rivals when it comes to reducing the gap between New Zealand and US prices. How do the Apple iPhone SE and 9.7-inch iPad Pro measure up?

Apple iPhone SE price compared NZ US
Apple iPhone SE NZ and US prices compared — click to enlarge

There are two iPhone SE models. The 16GB phone sells in New Zealand for NZ$750. The same phone sells in the US for US$400. At today’s exchange rate of 1.48 and taking GST into account, New Zealanders pay a 10 premium over US prices.

The premium for a 64GB iPhone SE is 12 percent.

New Zealand prices for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro are close to US prices. At the time of writing the premiums paid in New Zealand are between three and four percent.

Given the New Zealand dollar fluctuates, this is close to parity.

Apple iPhone SETwitter was underwhelmed by Apple’s launch event. There wasn’t the usual hoopla from Apple’s cheer leaders. Nor were there as many gushing, excited editorials as we’ve become used to.

In part this is because the four-inch iPhone SE is not aimed at Apple fanatics. Nor would it appeal to Geekzone readers. It’s a more modest phone. It will mainly sell to a less engaged set of users and those who find 4.7-inch displays too big.

The iPhone SE isn’t spectacular or ground-breaking. It fleshes out the less glamorous lower reaches of Apple’s phone product line. This is an area where Apple has been weak, although the iPhone 5S it replaced sold 30 million phones last year.

iPhone SE niche

That isn’t to say there won’t be a ready market for an iPhone smaller than the 6S and 6S Plus. If it wasn’t for my eyes, this would be the phone for me.

The iPhone SE packs all the important iPhone 6S specs into a device with a four-inch screen. You get the same main processor and graphics processor. There’s a similar quality camera. It’s useful, a good working tool. Yet it all fits in a smaller pocket.

It also has a smaller price tag.

At NZ$750 the 16GB version seems like decent value for an iPhone until you realise the spare storage can only copy with a few seconds of high-definition video.

The NZ$950 64GB version makes more sense. While the same money may buy a higher specification phone elsewhere, the likely customers are not the sort who compare processors and GPUs.

There are compromises. You don’t get 3D Touch, although I doubt many who have yet to use this would miss it. The front facing camera has a low specification.

None of this will matter to those who want a smaller or cheaper iPhone. It’s still an iPhone. It still looks good. It still offers great integration with other Apple hardware. For Apple users it is a far more productive choice than any other brand of phone.

9.7 inch iPad Pro

Twitter was equally unexcited about the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

There’s more to it than just being a smaller version of the 13 inch iPad Pro. It has a new screen technology with “True Tone” which takes ambient lighting into account to adapt the display brightness and colour.

There’s an improved iPad camera, but it comes with the same camera bump found on the iPhone 6S models. This will be a deal breaker for some users and detracts from the iPad’s ability to lie flat for use with the Apple pencil.

At NZ$1050 for a 32GB wi-fi only model, Apple is pushing the price envelope with its newest iPad. The top of the range model with 256 GB and a cellular sim slot is a whopping NZ$1820.

Apple iPhone 6S PlusLast week Apple confirmed iPhone sales grew at their lowest-ever rate during the last quarter of 2015. Apple went on to say sales could fall in the current quarter, ending in March.

Mike Hosking asked me to put this into perspective on Newstalk ZB.

Yes, it does spell the end of stellar iPhone sales growth. No, it doesn’t mean the end of the iPhone or Apple.

Apple made a profit of US$18.4 billion during the last quarter of 2015. That’s more than any company has ever earned in a single quarter at any time in history.

That’s not the worst problem a company can have.

At the New York Times Farhad Manjoo writes:

“Apple’s iPhone business is now so huge it sounds almost fantastical — Apple books more revenue from the iPhone (about $154 billion in its last fiscal year) than Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard or IBM generate from all of their operations. Two-thirds of the world’s countries have gross domestic products smaller than annual sales of the iPhone.”

That isn’t going to go away overnight.

What is behind the iphone sales slowdown?

First, Apple reported problems selling in China where the economy is hitting headwinds. For the last two or three years most new iPhone sales have come from that country.

Second, Apple’s flat looking sales report comes after a huge sales surge the same time a year earlier. In late 2014 there was pent-up demand for a big screen iPhone. That meant a larger than expected increase at the time. Beating those record sales was never going to be easy.

Third, Apple changed the way it sells phones in the US. Until recently the iPhone was sold on a plan which meant buyers were subsidised by carriers. Now Apple sells phones outright, which means consumers have to dig deeper.

The phone market

There’s something else going on too. Just as Apple reported its slowdown, Samsung told investors it also sees slowing demand in 2016.

Owen Williams’ story suggests phones have hit the same saturation point as PCs.

That’s possible, but there are differences. People use phones every day and wear them out faster than they burn through PCs. They drop them more often, lose them, have them stolen more often than PCs. The average useful working life of a phone is between two and three years, although they can go on longer.

Phones eventually need replacing. Which means sales will stabilise. What level that happens at is a matter of guesswork, but it won’t be far from the sales peak.