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Every year throws up a long list of news stories, product launches and events. This year was better than most. Here are six 2019 stories that resonated with me. It’s a personal, unordered list and it’s written from a New Zealand perspective. You may have other highlights. Feel free to share them in the comments below.

Apple AirPods Pro

Apple AirPods Pro

Apple used a busy, noisy Auckland cafe to show off the AirPods Pro. By the time they hit New Zealand there was already an excited buzz about the noise cancelling ear buds. I expected a positive experience.

Even so, the sound quality was surprising. It wasn’t only the active noise cancelling, although that’s impressive enough. The AirPods sound is accurate. It doesn’t seem possible that something so small could sound so good.

My review says Airpods Pro offer affordable noise cancelling. I recommend you read this.

Samsung galaxy foldSamsung Galaxy Fold

Until 2019 it had been a long time since I left a product demonstration with a smile on my face. Then it happened twice in a short period. First with the Apple AirPods Pro, then a second time with the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

The price tag is be north of three grand (NZ$3400). Samsung’s first generation folding phone is a touch more fragile than I’d like. Yet here is the first major breakthrough in handset design since Apple’s first iPhone. Samsung has broken the mould and come up with real innovation.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is less a phone, more a small tablet that you can fold and carry in a pocket. You might even see it as a pocket computer. Either way, it is beyond impressive.

When folded it is a long slim phone, a little thicker and heavier than we’ve come to expect. Unfolded it is about the size of an iPad Mini and does much the same job.

Huawei showed its folding phone earlier at Mobile World Congress. A brief look confirmed it was a contender. So far, only one of the two models on show in Barcelona has made it to market in New Zealand.

No doubt there will soon be more, better folding phone designs. I’d love to see what Apple can do with this format: how about an iPhone that morphs into an iPad?

But for now, this is Samsung’s triumph.

César Azpilicueta

Spark Sport, Sky Sport Now

Spark Sport’s Rugby World Cup service came in for flak and some cruel media attention. That’s what you get for interfering with New Zealand’s favourite sporting code.

In my experience the streaming service worked fine during the RWC. I’ve racked up well over a hundred hours with the app. A lot of that was watching Premier League football1.

There have been hiccups, yet it is better experience than the BeIN service it replaced. My only gripe was I enjoyed the preview shows and the run-up coverage before big games on BeIN. Spark offers less of that. Also, half time is not so much fun without pundits.

Spark’s entry into streaming sport services has seen Sky lift its game. The new Sky Sport Now app has 12 channels of sport around the clock.

Sky Sport Now has excellent cricket coverage. It fills the European and international football gaps left by Spark. Most of the time there are enough channels to cover every game. Although there was one Champion’s League round where my team, Chelsea, only showed up as a replay later in the day.

I’m not complaining. The service is excellent. It’s good to see Spark and Sky compete by offering the best customer experience. It would be great if we had more of this kind of competitive tension.

The two streaming sport options are great value. Buying Sky Now and Spark Sport works out less each month than an old-style subscription to Sky’s satellite service. By my reckoning, there’s a broader selection of content to watch. That’s a win.

Deebot Ozmo 900 with Howl Bennett

Deebot Ozmo 900

Robot vacuums aren’t new. The Deebot Ozmo 900 updates the idea. It offers mopping as well as vacuuming. I had low expectations before I saw it in action. It impressed me once we used it. This is the only way to go.

The best part about the Ozmo 900 is that it’s low-slung body can get under beds, cupboards and tables. These are places where manual vacuuming gets hard. Another great aspect is, because it does all the work, you can vacuum more often keeping the house cleaner.

Ozmo 900 is a long way from the Androids science fiction writers promised for 2019. The good news is we don’t need to hire bladerunners to take them out when we’re done with them.

Auckland's first fibre
Steven Joyce installing Auckland’s first UFB cable – Albany – 24 August 2011

UFB: end of part 1

In the end builders finished the national UFB fibre network on time and under budget. That’s rare for a major infrastructure project and unusual given the project length. Read how the project started in The Download.

For me one of the clearest signs the original UFB project succeeded is that government found more money to connect another 169 areas. The so-called UFB2 takes coverage to around 85 percent of the country.

Another clear sign of success was Spark’s decision to stream Rugby World Cup coverage.

Next year, Chorus and central North Island fibre company UFF will offer 2Gbps and 4Gbps fibre. We’ve come a long way from ten years ago. Then a 30mbps fibre service looked like the last word in modern data communications.

Vodafone 5G

The Vodafone giant awakes

In recent years it seemed as if Vodafone’s New Zealand operation wasn’t going anywhere. In part this was because the parent company felt it had better things to invest in than the second telco in a small, remote country.

That changed in May. Infratil and Brookfield Asset Management took control in a $3.4 billion deal. Chief executive Jason Paris wasted no time getting the new owners to free up capital. This let Vodafone steal a march on Spark and get a sizeable 5G network running. Vodafone switched 5G on earlier this month.

There has also been an investment in customer support. That’s something that was an embarrassment in the past.

These initiatives are important, yet there’s more to the change. It’s as if Vodafone has had a vitamin injection. Now there is an energy to the business that wasn’t there before. It helps that Paris recruited fresh talent to senior positions, but it goes beyond that. It is as if the company has awoken from a slumber.

What it means in practice is that Spark faces greater competitive pressure than it did 18 months ago. Likewise the next tier of telcos; 2degrees, Vocus and so on, are also feeling the heat. Ten years after government restructured the industry we are seeing the competition those moves aimed to unleash.

Christchurch call

Six of the biggest tech moments of 2019 are positives. The seventh is also a positive, but it’s a positive that came about because of an horrific negative.

In May Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke at the Christchurch Call summit in Paris. It was a response to the Christchurch mosque shootings. The terrorist shooter filmed his crimes, streaming them online in real time.

The summit attempts to force social media companies to take more responsibity for material they publish. During the year, 48 countries signed an agreement to stop social media publishing terror messages. The US didn’t sign.

It isn’t clear if the initiative will work. Yet it is a first step towards wrestling control of online media away from the murderers and criminals who use it as a weapon. I suspect there is more to do, but the longest of journeys starts with a single step.


  1. It could be more than 200 hours, I’m not counting ↩︎

Research company IDC reports that year-on-year phone sales dropped 6.6 percent in the first quarter of 2019. It’s the sixth quarter in a row to see a drop and the rate of fall is picking up. This time last year sales were down 4.1 percent over the same time in 2017.

Samsung remains the leading phone brand albeit with a falling market share. It has been the top-selling brand for each of the last four quarters. During that period Apple jockeyed for second place with Huawei. The Chinese phone maker is now back in second place.

It’s been tough for everyone. Only two of the top five brands sold more phones in the last 12 months than in the earlier twelve months. Huawei and Vivo, which is not visible in New Zealand, both saw sales increase.

Samsung in the driving seat

Samsung accounts for about one phone in five sold. It’s share nudged down a tick as it sold 6.3 million fewer phones than in the previous year. While the company’s premium phone models, notably the Galaxy S10 and S10+, remain popular, Samsung is losing ground lower down the market.

Huawei is the big winner. The company continued its surge that has propelled it past Apple in terms of unit sales. Year on year sales are up 50 percent. In the twelve months to March 2019 Huawei moved to 19 percent market share. That is closing on Samsung’s 23 percent and comfortably in front of Apple’s 12 percent.

This strong growth took place before sales of the recently announced P30 and P30 Pro models could influence numbers. Based on a comparison of the P30 Pro and the Samsung S10 , Huawei may get nearer to Samsung’s share in the coming months.

Worldwide phone shipments

Company1Q19 vol1Q19 share1Q18 vol1Q18 sharechange
1. Samsung71.923.1%78.223.5%-8.1%
2. Huawei59.119.0%39.311.8%50.3%
3. Apple36.411.7%52.215.7%-30.2%
4. Xiaomi25.08.0%27.88.4%-10.2%
5. Oppo23.17.4%24.67.4%-6.0%
5. Vivo23.27.5%18.75.6%24.0%
Others72.123.2%91.927.6%-21.5%
Total310.8100.0%332.7100.0%-6.6%
Figures from IDC, numbers in millions

Apple phone sales fall

Apple’s four percent fall in market share represents something of a sea-change, but is not as dramatic as it is viewed in some quarters. The company’s share price actually rose after it announced its annual results overnight. Apparently iPhone sales were not as dire as expected. The company aims to make up some of the lost revenue from selling services.

We don’t see much of the fourth and fifth brands in New Zealand. Samsung and Apple dominate the New Zealand market with Huawei challenging for a place at the top table. After that, it’s all rats and mice.

For the record Xiaomi’s market share dropped almost half a percent to eight percent. Vivo added two percent of market share taking it to 7.5 percent. Oppo, which is active in New Zealand, was flat and is now in sixth place with a 7.4 percent market share.

Most of the analysts commenting on the results focused on the way consumers are no longer as quick to upgrade phones to the latest models. This makes a lot of sense. A phone should last from three to four years and, advances in photography aside, today’s phones are often not much better than three-year old models.

When new people enter the phone market, they are no longer coming in at the top, but are buying lower priced models from Chinese brands.

Spark esim Samsung Galaxy Watch 4

Spark is the first New Zealand carrier to support embedded Sim or eSim cards. It’s a version of the Sim card that, instead of slotting in, is hard-wired into some of the latest phones and smart watches.

If you bought a 2018 iPhone, you have an eSim. Likewise it is there in the recent iPad Pro and Apple Watches. There’s also an eSim in the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4.

The list of eSim-equipped devices is growing fast, but for now Spark only supports a handful of devices: Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and iPhone XR, XS and XS Max. Owners of other suitably equipped devices will need to wait.

eSim in Galaxy Watch 4

Spark timed today’s launch to coincide with the launch of the Galaxy Watch 4. Spark offers what it calls the Unlimited Wearable Plan to customers buying the watch but they must also have a Spark phone plan.

The Unlimited Wearable Plan gives customers data, calls and texts for $15 per month. Spark says unlimited data, calls and texts which means after you’ve downloaded 22GB  Spark will drop the data speed to a lower rate.

If you manage to get through more than 22GB of data on a watch you deserve a medal, especially as you must already have a phone to get the Spark plan.

New iPhone owners can activate their eSim with Spark using a QR code. If you already have a suitable iPhone, you’ll need to visit a Spark store to have your current mobile number and plan switched to the eSim. This leaves the card slot free to take another number or plan. It doesn’t have to be with Spark.

This is a beach head for the eSim in the New Zealand market. Spark’s move will spur its rivals to get a move on with their plans. Vodafone has already hinted it has something on the way.

Lots of reasons to like eSims

One advantage is that there’s no need to stuff around removing and installing fiddly little cards. This is handy for phone owners, but essential in tiny devices like smart watches. It’s also important for industrial users and others wanting to use cellular connections in their Internet-of-Things devices.

Another feature of the eSim is that it allows a phone owner to add a second account, possibly from another carrier. This would be useful if you often travel overseas or if you need to work in a part of New Zealand only serviced by one carrier that’s not your first choice. Some people use this to keep separate work and private connections on a single device.

Spark’s eSim press release.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Samsung has postponed high-profile Galaxy Fold launches in Hong Kong and Shanghai. That’s after review phones sent to journalists had screen failures.

Samsung can ill-afford a second major phone launch disaster. In 2016 the company’s Galaxy Note 7 had battery problems that caused the phone to explode. There were two product recalls. Samsung had to withdraw the phone.

The most humiliating aspect of this came every time an airplane took off. Cabin crew would remind passengers of the explosion danger.

Lasting brand damage

If the Galaxy Fold fails on the same scale, and it looks as if it could, there could be long-term damage to Samsung’s brand.

This is a pity. Folding phones were the star attraction at this year’s Mobile World Congress. If they work as promised, they will give the business the biggest shake up since Apple’s first iPhone.

When folded, folding phones look much like today’s premium phones. The difference is they can fold open to give you a much bigger, tablet-like screen. This makes reading and working on a phone far easier.

Galaxy Fold expensive

Foldability comes at a high price. When, or if, they hit the market the early models will cost the thick end of NZ$4000.

Samsung and Huawei both had models on show at MWC. Some other brands demonstrated folding phones that are still in the pipeline.

Huawei gave New Zealand journalists a brief Mate X demonstration. It was long enough to get a feel for how the phones look. The display is impressive, but you do have to live with a slight crease or line down the centre of the larger screen. The hands on session wasn’t long enough to test the phones in any meaningful way.

Across the aisle, Samsung displayed its Galaxy Fold phone in a glass cabinet. There was no opportunity for the adoring crowds to get closer.

Samsung Galaxy Fold, part folded

Folding phones are impressive

At first sight both phones looked impressive. When folded they are at the large end of the phone spectrum. You could fit one in a jacket pocket. They weigh a few grams more than premium other phones. Opened, they are about the size of an iPad mini.

Most modern phone have toughened glass screens. Samsung covered the Galaxy Fold screen with a protective, flexible layer of plastic. The idea is that this stops the screen from getting scratched. If necessary, Samsung can replace this without the need to replace the rest of the screen.

In some cases review devices failed because journalists pulled off this protective layer. This left the screens vulnerable and easy to break.

Battle of the Galaxy Fold bulge

Yet that only accounted for some of the review screen failures. Journalists reported other screen problems. Some has models where half the unfolded display stopped working. At the Verge, Dieter Bohn’s review phone developed a bulge. This broke the screen.

Samsung cranked its communications machine into damage control mode. It issued a statement saying it durability tested phones to withstand 200,000 folds. It also said the problems were with a limited number of early samples.

If that’s true, the company still has a sizeable public relations disaster on its hands. Sending out half-finished breakable products is, at best, irresponsible. Remember, this is the company that once risked airplanes with exploding phones. Samsung should have learned to take extra care with launches.

Huawei Mate X

Meanwhile Huawei is prepping its Mate X for sale. If the company is prudent it will give the first batch extra testing before sending phones out. After all, Huawei has its own publicity problem caused by incompetence to deal with.

It’s starting to look as if Samsung could have a serious cultural problem. It’s not clear if the problem is engineering, marketing or management. One criticism is that management is rigid and unwilling to listen to warnings when things aren’t going well. Staff fear being punished for “disloyalty” and say nothing.

The company is capable of delivering stunning products. Every so often it can claim to have the world’s best phone. Yet, the Galaxy Fold and the Galaxy Note 7 have not been the only missteps. They happen to be bigger and more noticeable.

Otherwise impressive

The incident is disappointing on another level. Folding phones are amazing technology. They are a sight to behold.

I’m a hardened old campaigner when it comes to new products. Often at product launches I’m the grouchy one who isn’t impressed by demonstrations of slight improvements. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than an enthusiastic employee inviting me to praise a product when I’m working hard to stifle a yawn.

Folding phones weren’t like that. They charmed and impressed me. Sooner or later I’m going to want to own a folding phone.

It’s a cliché in the tech business to say that Apple is often late with the newest ideas, but that when it moves it gets things right. Yet, if Huawei’s Mate X fails to take off, we may have to wait for the iPhone Fold before folding screen technology is ready for prime time.

Certain western governments might be uneasy about buying Huawei kit, but phone buyers flock to the brand.

The latest phone sales data from Gartner shows Huawei has won market share from Samsung and Apple. In the fourth quarter of 2018 Huawei sold a shade over 60 million phones. This compares with Apple’s 64 million and Samsung’s 71 million units.

The fourth quarter is usually the most important period for phone sales.

Huawei growing fast

Huawei sales grew nearly 40 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Huawei’s success is that it is, in effect, locked out of the USA.

Gartner senior research director Anshul Gupta says; “Beyond its strongholds of China and Europe, Huawei continued to increase its investment in Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East, to drive further growth”.

Much of the company’s success came from lower price phones. Gupta says: “Huawei also exploited growth opportunities through continued expansion of the Honor series in the second half of 2018, especially in emerging markets, which helped Huawei grow its market share to 13.0 percent in 2018.”

Both Samsung and Apple sold fewer phones in the period than the same time a year earlier. Both companies had falling market share.

Samsung, Apple stumble

Apple suffered a year-on-year fall in sales of almost 12 percent. The company previously said this was largely due to falling sales in China, although numbers fell everywhere except North America and the wealthier parts of Asia-Pacific.

Samsung’s high-end phones failed to turn buyer’s heads. The company strengthened its mid-range models during the period.

Chinese brand Oppo, also enjoyed growth. It is now the world’s number four phone brand by unit sales. It has a market share of 7.7 percent.

The phone market has stopped growing. In the fourth quarter sales were 0.1 percent higher than a year earlier, essentially flat.

Gartner says the mature Asia-Pacific markets (which includes Australia and New Zealand) declined 3.4 percent.

While raw unit numbers excite many phone industry observers, the more important question is which brands are making money.