Bill Bennett

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Samsung serving advertising on $2400 Galaxy Flip

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip is the best foldable phone so far. It flips and folds like phones did 20 years ago. The difference between then and now is that today both halves are part of a full colour touch screen.

My hands-on session with the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip was positive, but I ended by mentioning a potential problem with the phone.

Overseas reports say Samsung put advertising on the phone. That’s on the nose when you pay NZ$2400 for the hardware.

According to Android Police the ads are intrusive and annoying. I decided to check this out.

Ads embedded into key apps

 

We’re not talking about the kind of ads you see if you head to a web page on the phone, we are talking about ads in basic phone apps, like the one used to dial calls or get a weather report.

Take the Samsung phone call app. When it loads, a bunch of Yelp ads for cafes and restaurants show up. The choice is weird, many are a long way across town from where I live. The nearest is 19.5km. At a guess, these are the companies who paid someone, possibly Yelp, for the placement.

More worrying in some ways is that the Samsung Galaxy Store shows a gambling advertisement for a Poker app that offers 100,000 chips and 300 coins to get you started. That’s going to be a problem for some people.

The stock web browser opens on a page showing an ad for Vodafone broadband. On the notification page there are advertisements for Spotify.

Advertising everywhere

There are ads everywhere. It’s a reminder of when grasping PC makers loaded up Windows computer with unavoidable crapware that you need to remove before you can work.

 

Except that it doesn’t seem possible to remove, mute or otherwise bypass the ads on the Galaxy Z Flip.

You might expect to see advertising if you use free software like Gmail or the Chrome browser. That’s part of the deal. But this is among the most expensive phones on the market.

It’s another to make me rethink the last thought on my hands-on look at the phone where I said I’d like one. Make that, I’d like one if I could get rid of the ads.

Afterthought: Assuming Samsung makes a decent margin selling phones at NZ$2400, it is probably doing its overall business more harm than good when it sells ads. If normal prices apply, the Samsung phone ads can only be worth a few dozen dollars per phone per year, but once word gets out Samsung will lose hardware sales worth hundreds of dollars.

Galaxy Z Flip: Samsung’s folding phone

In February I posted a short note about the then forthcoming Samsung Galaxy Z Flip. This week I got my hands on one.

It is by far the best foldable phone I’ve seen to date. There’s a satisfying feel to the way it folds.

The way the screen copes with being folded again and again is also satisfying. When you hold and fold the Galaxy Z Flip you are not left wondering if you are dealing with classy engineering.

Impressive

The Flip is technically impressive, cool looking and fun to use. Sadly these three qualities do not necessarily make a great phone.

Mind you, no-one can accuse the Galaxy Z Flip of being boring.

Nor can you accuse it of being cheap.

You could spend the NZ$2400 Samsung asks for the Flip elsewhere, even with Samsung, and get better value for your money.

The cost of folding

Samsung’s much vaunted foldability adds about NZ$1200 to the device price. Which would be fine. Yet it turns out being able to fold the Flip is not always a huge benefit.

Yes, the neatly folded square is about half the length of and the same width as other premium phones. It also happens to be twice the depth.

In other words, the Flip occupies the same volume of pocket space as any other phone. The difference is that Flip redistributes the volume.

It’s fine in the jacket pockets and loose trouser pockets that might otherwise contain a normal size phone. It’s a problem in the tighter pockets that would struggle with bigger phones.

So while folding could be helpful, it might not always be NZ$1200 worth of helpful.

 

Flipping futuristic

Despite all of this, I find myself liking the Flip more and more. It feels right. It also feels futuristic.

Let’s not discount that emotive and subjective response. When you buy a phone you commit to spending a lot of time with the device, you don’t want it to not feel right.

One aspect of being able to open and shut a phone is the distance this activity puts between you and the device. This can be positive or negative.

Most of the time I like the fact that it requires more effect to respond to every incoming stimulus. On the other hand, you can’t surreptitiously glance at the screen without others noticing.

The Galaxy Z Flip has been around for months. You can find plenty of in depth reviews elsewhere. Look harder and you’ll find some long term test drives. For what it’s worth here are my observations:

Screen:

The display is tall and narrow. When you turn it sideways to watch a movie you get black bars unless you watch a widescreen version.

In everyday use the crease stays out of the way although I wouldn’t go as far as to say you don’t notice it. You will, but your eyes and brain adjust so it is less of an issue.

Yet, you constantly feel it with your fingers. There’s also a shallow dip at the top above the selfie camera.

External display:

When the phone is folded there is a tiny display on the outside. You can see the time and date without opening the phone. That turns out to be more useful than you might imagine if you don’t wear a watch.

The small screen will show remaining battery life. I’m not convinced that’s much help.

There are notifications on the small screen. They wizz past fast. Often before you can read them.

By double tapping the power button, you can take pictures with the camera without opening the phone. When you do this, the tiny external display works as a selfie viewfinder.

 

Durability:

Open or shut, there’s a solid feel to the Galaxy Z Flip. It seems robust enough to take the kind of treatment we usually mete out to phones.

Unlike almost every other modern phone you can buy in 2020 there is no water or dust resistance. This could be a problem for many potential buyers.

I also found dirt, pocket fluff and even hair could get trapped in the fold. It’s not clear what that might mean over the long haul. In the short term it isn’t a problem.

Camera:

Phone makers usually make a great song and dance about the cameras on their phones. There’s a feeling in the industry that people choose cameras rather than phones. I’m not convinced of that. Some will. Others won’t.

Samsung has used the same camera technology as the Galaxy S10. It’s good, but not up there with, say, the iPhone 11. Few people will buy the Samsung Galaxy Flip for the camera.

Verdict

Samsung has got screen folding technology right with the Galaxy Z Flip. You get a phone that looks and feels a little ahead of its time. On paper you might not get a huge amount of phone for the price, in practice this matters less than you might expect.

After a few days with the Flip I found myself coming back to it again and again. Yep, I’d like one. But there is a big problem that I’m saving for another post.

Galaxy Z Flip brings notification relief

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip is a another take on the emerging foldable phone format.

Unlike earlier foldable phones which are the size of everyday phones that open to become an iPad mini-sized tablet, the Flip opens long ways. It resembles the flip phones that we are supposed to feel nostalgia for.

It’s neat, but not as useful as other folding phones for reading complex documents.

 

But there’s something else about the Galaxy Z Flip that appeals to me. It goes a long way to protect you from notification hell.

There’s a tiny screen on the front of the phone which lights up when there is an incoming notification. This is a lot less distracting than having a conventional phone screen light up with with a notification message.

Moreover, because you have to physically open the phone to read the full notification, there is a lot more distance between you and the incoming distraction.

It is easier to ignore the notification and easier to park it for later when you are not trying to focus. It’s not much protection, but enough to ease the cognitive load for a moment or two.

Of course the other possibility is to turn notifications off. That would be cheaper.

Smartphone glory years behind us

It’s all downhill from here. 

Apple’s 2016 iPhone launch confirms what has been obvious for a while. The phone golden age is over.

It’s over in two ways. Saturated phone markets in rich countries mean everyone needing a call-making pocket computer now has one.

And it’s over for hardware evolution. For now, at least, phone design has reached the end of the line.

That doesn’t mean phones won’t improve. They will.

Today’s new iPhones are better than last year’s models. Apple isn’t lying when it says these are the best-ever iPhones. Yet it isn’t important.

The plateau of phone productivity

Phone technology plateaued two years ago about the time of the Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Since then improvements have been incremental.

Sure today’s processors are faster and phone cameras are better. Battery life is a little longer. Some apps are smarter. None of this changes much in the real world.

You won’t be much more productive with a 2016 phone than with a two year old one. Nor will you have much more fun. Since 2014 upmarket phones from top brands have been good enough for most purposes.

There could be an evolutionary jump when mobile networks move to 5G. And there’s always a possibility a new technology will emerge from left field.

That’s all folks

Yet for the most part, that’s it. Phones have evolved to the point where they do everything we need and they do it well enough for most people.

There are few compelling reasons to upgrade phones. Unless you’re rough with your hardware, there is no urgent need to spend on new kit every two years or so.

You may want the newest features, but you won’t get productivity benefits or more fun. The returns on phone investment have diminished. At this point it becomes a matter of fashion or cosmetics. Some many view phones like they see jewellery.

Nobody needs a phone that does iris recognition. Features like this are like chrome and tail fins on 1960s American cars. They do little more than tell you this year’s model is different from last year’s model.

Today’s phone market is a replacement market.

Wear and tear

Phones wear out. They wear out faster than PCs. That’s because you use them more often. You drop them more often, charge and discharge their batteries more often.

You can expect to get a good two years from a phone so long as you don’t drop it or use it to stop bullets. If you are more careful, three or four years is possible. There are people using even older phones.

Switching from constant upgrades to a replacement market means phone sales will stop growing. They may decline. This is already happening.

Top of the phone market declining faster

The downward sales trend is more noticeable at the top of the market. And it’s even more noticeable in the Android world.

With Apple you get the benefits of a wider ecosystem if you also use iPads and Macs.

This effect is less pronounced with Android. There are no less expensive ways to get an Apple ecosystem phone.

Samsung’s top phones are twice the price of similar models from, say, Huawei. Most of us would struggle to think of useful things to do on, say, a Galaxy S7 that we can’t do on a Huawei P9.

Where more means less

The more expensive phone may have five or ten percent more functionality.

It could be worth the money if the extra features make you more productive or stay entertained longer. Otherwise, it’s money that could be better spent elsewhere.

This poses a problem for phone brands like Samsung and Apple. For now, they still have momentum from the glory years and there may be pockets of untapped growth.

Yet they need to find ways to persuade existing users to upgrade before existing models wear out. They need to give users reasons to switch brands. They are running out of headroom.

SenCbuds: Know when you’re not listening

New Zealand-designed SenCbuds are smart earphones that detect when you stop listening. They know when you pull the earphones from your ear and pause whatever is playing. Put them back in and the audio starts again.

While this feels like magic, the trick lies in smart engineering, not hocus-pocus.

I tested a SenCbuds prototype with music on an iPhone, an Android phone and my laptop. Then I tried watching a movie, listening to a podcast and an audio book.

Testing 1-2-3

In each case they worked as promised. the music would stop if I pulled the buds from my ears. If I put the earbuds back in, the audio would start playing from where it left off.

At first I had to remind myself not to hunt for a pause button when this happened.

It’s a simple idea, that makes sense if you have to live with constant interruption.

Audiobooks and podcasts

In practice I found it more useful with audiobooks and podcasts than with music. Missing your place with music is annoying, but I can live with that. It’s easy to find where you stopped viewing a movie. Navigating back to the right spot on an audiobook or podcast is often difficult.

The SenCbuds earpieces are a fraction larger than those that came packaged with phones. That means they are tight-fitting in the ear, but this tightness acts to block external sound.

Although I found the sound quality better than on most of the earbuds I have to hand, the difference is hard to quantify. Perhaps I need better ears.

Departure

Because of the automatic stopping and starting, SenCbuds design departs from everyday earphones. There’s a reel for managing the cables — you can wind the wires around it so they don’t get tangled.

The reel has four buttons. Two advance and rewind music. The third allows you to take incoming calls on a phone. There’s also a USB port for charging the battery.

While the SenCbuds are good at handling disruption, the plus version helps stop disruptions happening in the first place. There are LEDs set into the outside of the earpiece that glow red to tell others you don’t want them to disturb you.

At the time of writing SenCbuds are an Indigogo project. You can order a set for US$50 ahead of production. When they go on the market the price will be US$70. The Plus version is US$70 compared with an expected retail price of $100.

Microsoft blew US$7.6 billion on Nokia

Things got crazy towards the end of Steve Ballmer’s time as Microsoft CEO. One of his dumbest moves was buying Nokia.

Some say the decision cost him his job. That wasn’t all. Last month the software giant wrote down US$7.6 billion it spent buying Nokia.

Until the acquisition, Google, Facebook, Amazon and, most of all, Apple dominated technology news reports and discussion.

Microsoft relevant

They still do. Yet Microsoft is relevant again. In a way the Nokia episode helped the company get back on track, in part by being the catalyst for a much-needed change of leadership. It also helped the company’s top brass focus on where the business is and where it can go.

From the sidelines Ballmer saw Apple win revenue, margin and respect while Microsoft appeared to drift towards irrelevance[1].

His last roll of the dice was an ill-judged attempt to remake the business in Apple’s image. Hence the talk of “software and devices”.

In itself that was not a stupid strategy. But it ignored Microsoft’s strengths and weaknesses.

Great phones, late to market

Buying Nokia was meant to catapult Microsoft into the phone market. The company’s phones are great. In many respects the Windows Phone operating system is better than Android[2]. I used one for a couple of years, but they were too late.

It then bet on phone and tablet-like touch screens being dominant. It went too far too fast.

Instead of a steady-as-she-goes update to Windows 7[3] Microsoft went in boots and all with tablet-like touch screen technology for Windows 8.

Microsoft disrupted

Microsoft intended the move to be disruptive. In the event it was disrupted.

Buying Nokia was a disaster. Many of the 25,000 employees at the phone maker have lost their jobs. There are empty factories and ghost towns in Nokia’s native Finland.

It didn’t go any better for Microsoft. Almost every dollar it spent has gone down the gurgler.

However, Microsoft was big enough to weather that storm. A new boss, a new direction and a new confidence mean any lasting damage is now safely behind the company.

Destroying value

Microsoft should have known better. Large scale technology company mergers seldom deliver the promised gains. Most destroy value. There are as much about ego or distracting attention with big gestures as about creating fresh opportunities. Savvy investors run a mile when they hear the term synergy.

Microsoft’s Nokia acquisition is the latest in a long string of large-scale technology deals that failed to deliver on promised benefits. Think Oracle and Sun Microsystems.

This year Microsoft wrote down US$7.6 billion on the deal. In effect that means the Nokia mobile phone business is now worthless, a decade ago dominated the market. Blame the iPhone.


  1. There was some truth in this, but CEO Satya Nadella has Microsoft back on the Cluetrain.  ↩
  2. Lots of users are unhappy about the holes in the Windows Phone app store. Too many “must haves” are either not there, woefully out-of-date or poorly supported.  ↩
  3. Windows 7 was itself a rescue job after the horror of Windows Vista. There’s a lot of truth in the idea that every second version of Windows is a clunker.  ↩