Second, they give phone makers a route of the design cul-de-sac.
Phone formats have stabilised as slabs of glass and metal. They would be almost featureless if it were not for the ever swelling camera bumps. Makers add more lenses and more receptor pixels in a bid to competitive1.
Folding phones open up new ways to differentiate and compete.
The third benefit of folding phones for phone makers is they sell for premium prices. Phone makers can increase the average unit price at a time of intense competition downward pressure on prices.
Phone makers announced two more foldable models in the last week or so. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip and Lenovo’s $1,500 Motorola Razr are both flip phones with folding screens.
Foldables have not got off to a good start. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold was a botched launch. A second wave of models was better, but they are still fragile and expensive at NZ $3400.
The Motorola Razr is as fragile and has poor battery life.
In other words, the models we’ve seen so far are undercooked. They will sell to well-heeled early adopters. These people will pay a king’s ransom to act as guinea pigs. Meanwhile the phone makers can go back to the drawing board and perfect their designs.
They will make it into the mainstream in one of two ways. Either Apple will create a folding iPhone that gets the technology right and resets the market or Samsung will brute force its way to success. The other possibility is that folding phones go the way of 3D television sets.
There’s no doubt this is a development worth watching. My advice is to hang on to your money for now, maybe squeeze another year from your existing phone. The benefits of having a bigger screen are not enough to outweigh the risk of spending a lot of money on something that’s easy to break.
It’s questionable this is what most buyers want. ↩︎
Phone sales dropped two percent in 2019. That’s the first time sales dropped since 2008. It’s been a wild ride since Apple introduced the first iPhone.
Gartner says it expects sales to climb three percent in 2020. The rebound is down to the 5G networks being built around the world. The research company says this is likely to stimulate a replacement cycle as people upgrade to the new, faster standard.
Samsung has poured resources into 5G. It’s range now includes the Note S10 5G, the Note S10+ 5G, the Galaxy 10 5G, the Galaxy Fold 5G and, at the bottom of the range, the inexpensive Galaxy A90 5G. This tells another 5G story. While much fo the talk about the technology is looking at flagship phone models, there’s plenty of demand lower down the market.
Although Samsung’s early 5G dominance looks impressive, it’s not a big deal. those 6.7 million 5G phones were roughly two percent of the company’s output last year — a drop in the ocean.
Phone or smartphone?
Gartner and many other companies like to talk of smartphones. The idea is that these are distinct from phones that are not smart. (The industry calls unsmart phones feature phones, which is confusing because the main point is they have fewer features).
As far as countries like New Zealand are concerned, phones are nearly all smart, feature phones make up a tiny fraction of the total.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It could be more than 200 hours, I’m not counting ↩︎
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
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.
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.