Mobile phone handsetPeople are paying more for phones. After years of falling prices, market research firm GfK reports the average price of a phone climbed seven percent in the last year. The number of phones sold worldwide climbed three percent during the year. Sales fell in North America and Western Europe.

GfK works with actual sales data rather than the shipments preferred by some analysts. This means the information is a more accurate reflection of consumer behaviour.

The clear pattern is that phone makers have switched focus towards more expensive premium smartphone models. Apple, Samsung and, most of all, Huawei all moved their customers upmarket. GfK says the premium features have become more important to customers.

What phone buyers want

They now look for: “water and dust protection, battery power and memory, high-resolution sound, camera and video capabilities, bezel-less design and even biometric sensors”.

Rising handset prices run counter to conventional technology hardware wisdom. The usual pattern is for prices to fall over time as manufacturers improve processes and wring out economies of scale. This is accelerated by new market entrants undercutting existing players.

The phone market has been running on a different track ever since Apple introduced the first iPhone a decade ago. For most of that time Apple has made almost all the industry’s profit despite having only a minority market share.

Aggressive phone prices

To a degree Apple’s rivals bought market share with aggressive discounting. That made sense to them during the growth years as people around the world bought their first smartphones.

It meant the phone business went through the usual economic cycle much faster than earlier technology waves. While it was always a competitive business, there were far few players than in, say, personal computer hardware.

There have been casualties along the way. Blackberry, Nokia and HTC were all roadkill on the route to today’s market.

Chasing margins

Now the phone makers, especially the Android phone makers, have turned their focus to margins and profitability. Hence the price rises. Apple pushed the bar higher again with its iPhone X which costs more than NZ$2000. Huawei has an even pricier phone.

Huawei is knocking on the door of Apple and Samsung. It aims to be the first Chinese company to be a global technology quality brand.

There’s still a way to go. The company’s products are excellent quality and contain as much innovation as brands like Samsung. Unlike Samsung, Huawei is on the whole more inclined to invest in engineering than in marketing budgets. That said, the company uses Scarlett Johansson in its advertising to great effect.

Huawei also teams with prestige brands. Its high-end phones use Leica camera lenses and its most expensive models have blingy Porsche designs.

Despite the company’s engineering prowess, Huawei has yet to master the art of looking after a customer after the sale. The biggest complaint you hear is that phone software is rarely, if ever, updated. That may be an issue that only concerns a certain market segment. Ironically, it is the market segment most likely to be drawn to advanced engineering.

Artificial intelligence

Huawei’s latest phone, the Mate 10, includes the kind of artificial intelligence features found in Apple and Samsung models. It’s ability to translate written languages feels almost like magic, or perhaps something from science fiction. In a similar vein, the phones take screenshots when you knock on the display with your knuckle.

For now, the sector’s move upmarket has created opportunities for mid-tier phone makers like Oppo. It’s another Chinese brand. Oppo sells an Android phone with about 90 percent of premium phone functionality for about 50 percent of the price.

Although Huawei would love to be seen as a serious rival to Apple, in truth the two address two quite different audiences. Few Apple iPhone owners would jump ship for a Mate 10. That’s not the case with Samsung customer, the two brands both use the same basic Android software and switching is relatively painless.

Phone prices rising as users move upmarket was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus landed in New Zealand six months ago. At the time I posted my first impressions. Here’s a more reflective review of what the phones are like to use.

Both new iPhones are a success. The Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus dominated worldwide phone sales in late 2014. For the first time Apple sold more phones than Samsung.

Sales are one thing. Profits are another. In the last quarter of 2014, iPhone accounted for 90 percent of all smartphone profits. Apple made more money in one quarter than any company in history.

Six months on both iPhone 6 models still outsell all rivals.

iphone home screen

 

Samsung homage

Apple’s closest rival, Samsung, paid the iPhone 6 models the greatest compliment when it launched the Galaxy S6 last week. It looks like an iPhone 6. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

To get a better feel for the two iPhone 6 models and how they compare, I spent three months with each.

Here’s an updated overview of the two phones. Many comments apply to both the iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus.

At first I thought the iPhone 6 Plus might be too large for everyday use:

To me the iPhone 6 Plus feels just a tad too big for everyday comfort even if it is still a beautiful device.

While I’ve seen no sign of the phone bending, it doesn’t fit comfortable in my jeans pocket. That’s doubly so when driving and it’s near impossible to get the phone out in a hurry if someone calls — even if I’ve parked the car.

I need not have worried.

Not only have I adapted to the larger size, I did it without noticing. The iPhone 6 Plus no longer feels uncomfortable in my pocket. I didn’t realise this changed until thinking about the matter to write this post.

In that sense the iPhone 6 Plus now feels like just another iPhone.

It can still be tricky to get the phone out of my pocket in a hurry when sitting in the car, but I’ve learnt to cope. Once again, it’s not something I notice any more.

On the other hand, it’s comfortable in my suit jacket pocket. And the bigger screen is better when I’m driving to an unknown address and need to read a map.

The iPhone 6 Plus is still comfortable in my suit pocket or any jacket. It doesn’t weigh too much nor does it make the jacket hang weirdly.

apple maps ios iphone 6 plus

 

Reading the map

Map-reading is a practical example of how a bigger iPhone makes a difference in everyday life.

The BlackBerry Classic has merit even with a display half the size of the iPhone 6 Plus screen.

BlackBerry’s keyboard means it does some things well.

When it comes to maps, the smaller display is troublesome. You just don’t get enough pixels to read place names. There’s not enough scope to zoom in and out.

IMG_1180

This is less of a problem when on foot, but in a car the larger display on the iPhone 6 Plus makes navigating a breeze.

Writing on iPhone 6, 6 Plus

Mention of the BlackBerry keyboard brings up another point. Some people find BlackBerry’s physical keyboard better than a touch-screen keyboard. When I tested this I didn’t find myself typing faster than on a screen.

In fact, I find I can touch type fast enough on the iPhone 6. The 6 Plus is better again thanks to the larger screen. It is so good that I’m planning to leave the laptop behind next time I travel to an overseas media event and file copy from the phone. I’ll report back on how that works out.

When typing more than a tweet or quick email reply I turn the phone to the landscape position. That way I can get to read an entire line of text on a document.

I’ve used Byword, Apple Pages 5 and Microsoft Word. All seem to do a great job on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Better still is when I use Pages 5 and the Apple Continuity feature which makes moving between an iPad, iPhone and Mac a cinch.

The iPhone 6 Plus is made for reading

iPhone 6, 6 Plus made for reading

It’s not just the larger screen sizes on the new iPhones, there are more pixels too. This makes it easier to read text.

Poorly designed PDFs are still a pain. If the text is too small and the lines too long you need to scroll left and right even in landscape. Otherwise almost every web page or document is easier to read on the iPhone 6 models than on any other phone.

A lot of reviewers complain about the new iPhones being too large for one-handed use. I don’t have big hands, but I haven’t found this as much of a problem as I feared.

The bad news is the Reachability feature that allows you to pull down the screen to reach the top buttons doesn’t always work. I find a quick reboot fixes this.

One-handed operation is important if you’re sitting on a crowded bus or holding something in your other hand. but there have been few occasions where I’ve not been able to do whatever I set out to do.

Battery life

Bigger screens, more pixels mean more demands on batteries, but the extra size also leaves space for greater power capacity.

This is where the two iPhone models differ the most.

Both iPhone 6 models use the new A8 processor chip. It is more powerful than the A7 found in last year’s iPhone 5S, you may or may not notice a difference. I can’t say that I do.

What is noticeable is that the A8 processor does a better job of handling power.

Apple claims the iPhone 6 gives 14 hours of talk time and 10 hours of the internet when on a 3G network. The claim for the iPhone 6 Plus is 24 and 12 hours.

In practice this means I can get a full working day from a full charge on the iPhone 6. A long day extending from breakfast meetings to an early evening function is a stretch, but do-able so long as I don’t push the phone hard.

The iPhone 6 Plus manages a full day and then some. When I’m at home I can get through two or more days without needing a top-up charge. Ironically this means I’m less vigilant about recharging. When I started using the iPhone 6 Plus I would often forget to charge the phone on the second day.

On an iPhone 6 Plus the home screen looks more like an iPad than a traditional iPhone

iOS 8, software

Having a bigger screen means the iPhone 6 Plus sometimes looks like an iPad. On the home screen you get icons and a dock across the bottom just like any other iPhone. Turn the phone to landscape mode and the dock stays in place.

The iOS Mail app

Other apps take advantage of the bigger screen when in landscape mode. The Mail app uses a two column layout, so does the calendar.

IMG_1174

This adds up to something more tablet-like than phone-like. Some iPhone 6 Plus users have ditched iPads, moving from three devices to two. That doesn’t appeal to me, a ten-inch iPad is still better for reading magazines and PDFs than a tiny screen on a phone.

iPhone 6 hardware

One thing that struck me again and again while using the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is the build quality is excellent. There’s a robustness and an attention to detail that you don’t find on all phones — the only ones as good are Microsoft-Nokia’s high-end phones.

You wouldn’t want to sit too often on an iPhone 6, but it’s strong. I’ve dropped both models a couple of times on hard floors and there is nothing to report.

You’ll get the most productivity and enjoyment out of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus if you use other Apple hardware. Data moves between either phone and my iPad or Mac without a hitch.

It can be strange when everything starts making a noise at the same time to tell me there’s an incoming phone call. Overall the Continuity and Handoff features are a great step forward.

Would I recommend either iPhone 6 model? Yes, they remain the best smartphones on the market today. They’re not cheap, but you get a lot of value for the asking price which starts at NZ$1000 for an iPhone 6. Only a die-hard Android owner would argue that point.

You have to admire BlackBerry’s never-say-die pluck. This week the phone maker announced two new models and says to expect a total of four new phones this year.

There is remarkable in two ways:

First, troubled BlackBerry is throwing out daring, original phone designs at a time when other phone makers work off the same flat glass template1.

BlackBerry may as well experiment2 because…

Second, today BlackBerry accounts for just 0.4 percent of global phone sales. That’s down from 0.6 percent last year. Seven years ago it was the leading smartphone brand3.

Leap

The Leap phone announced this week has a five-inch screen and is all-touch. It’ll sell for about half the price of today’s premium phones. A lower-than-premium screen resolution will help keep the price down. Leap will be the only rectangular big-screen phone running the BlackBerry 10 software.

There’s also a phone with a slide-out keyboard. BlackBerry promises another with both a slide-out keyboard and a Samsung Galaxy S6-style curved screen.

BlackBerry’s sales pitch continues to push the extra level of security that it says other phone makers can’t match.

Security, privacy

Until now that message has mainly been for companies who see business benefits in keeping data from prying eyes. The latest pitch seems to target people worried about who can get at their private data.

If making and selling phones doesn’t work out, the company has a Plan B. There’s a wealth of software that it can sell to business users for whatever phones and tablets they use.

Waiting in the wings is the BlackBerry Experience Suite. This is a set of integrated apps that users and companies can buy either piece-by-piece or in bundles. The software runs on Android and iOS. BlackBerry Experience includes tools for communications, encryption and collaboration.

blackberry experience
Blackberry Experience

BlackBerry Experience will go on sale later this year. There are three main suites:

  • Productivity, mainly about email and document management.
  • Communication, real-time collaboration software.
  • Security, tools to protect that data.

It’s a sensible strategy, pull out the parts of its offering that big companies still like and offer it to them in ways that may or may not include hardware.

Elsewhere there’s a cloud version of BlackBerry’s mobile device management software on the horizon.


  1. It is a good design template and, yes, the Samsung Galaxy S6 does look a lot like an iPhone.  ↩
  2. Who knows? One of these designs could take off.  ↩
  3. Despite everything, BlackBerry made a profit last quarter, so there are reasons for optimism.  ↩

BlackBerry ClassicBlackBerry Classic takes the company’s designs back to a time when the brand was still a name to conjure with.

It arrived in New Zealand last week. New Zealanders can buy the BlackBerry Classic from Vodafone for NZ$650.

Externally the BlackBerry Classic looks like the 2011 Bold 9900 series — arguably BlackBerry’s last successful phone.

Steampunk phone

Four years is a long time in the phone business. It’s beyond retro.

These days physical phone keyboards have a whiff of Steampunk about them. The, by today’s standards, tiny 3.5-inch screen with only 294 pixels per inch only underlines that old school feel.

BlackBerry has almost dropped out of sight since the Bold 9900 first appeared.

It’s not that the company stopped making phones. Far from it.

BlackBerry 10

In 2013 there was the Z10. The first phone to sport the company’s BlackBerry 10 operating system. It had a touchscreen instead of a keyboard.

BlackBerry Z10

 

The Z10 wasn’t well received. Nor was the BlackBerry Q10, a squat version of the Z10 with a Qwerty keyboard.

There was also the BlackBerry Z30. It had a bigger touch screen than the Z10 and plenty of smartphone grunt.

More recently the square BlackBerry Passport had a more mixed reception but still failed to fire.

A long time between drinks

Let’s be blunt, it’s been a while since BlackBerry had a hit phone.

Given that the BlackBerry Bold 9900 was last successful model, there’s a logic in reviving its physical design with the Classic.

BlackBerry fans loved owning a smartphone with a tiny physical Qwerty keyboard.

Readers with long memories will recall a time when BlackBerry was a prestige brand, especially with the suits.

That little Qwerty keyboard told the world the person stabbing at the tiny buttons meant business.

A tool in a time of toys

While other smartphones were, let’s face it, essentially toys, BlackBerry owners could do important work things like check email or manipulate financial portfolios while on the move.

You still see the BlackBerry Bold out in the wild.

There’s a personality type that still loves the Classic BlackBerry format. There are also companies which have yet to move on from using old-school BlackBerries as their work-horse phone. They like the security features and the back-end management tools.

It’s not clear whether reviving the classic BlackBerry format is a smart business move or yet another in a line of missteps.

Perhaps if BlackBerry had served the Classic up in 2013 instead of the all-touchscreen BlackBerry Z10, it would have lost fewer customers to Apple or Android. Maybe large corporations and government departments would have stayed with BlackBerry.

Or maybe not.

 

A phone with a keyboard

BlackBerry’s marketing says a physical keyboard makes users more productive than touch screens. Apparently we can type fast and with more accuracy.

One claim is that you can type four times as fast on a physical keyboard as on a touchscreen.

After a few days with the Classic, I’m not sure that’s true. At least not for me. I don’t find I can type faster than on an iPhone 6 Plus. If there’s a productivity boost I haven’t found it yet.

That four times productivity claim sounds spurious to me. And I’ve been touch typing on real keyboards since Olivetti typewriter days.

Productive? Your mileage may differ

Maybe the extra productivity comes with familiarity. I’m told long-time BlackBerry users can type at speed on the keyboard.

Despite not getting a productivity boost, I find I like using the physical keyboard. Getting used to the position of numbers, knowing when to shift or use the alt-key takes time, but overall it feels good.

There’s something satisfying about feeling a button click down as you type.

Small screen

The BlackBerry Classic has a small 720-by– 720-pixel display. In practice, this isn’t a problem.

You may not get the screen real estate of, say, an iPhone 6 Plus or a Galaxy S5, but it is sharp and bright. You can read the Classic display outdoors on a sunny day.

Text works well, even in small sizes. Small pictures display OK and things like maps are perfectly readable. You rub up against limits when viewing video, but no-one is going to buy a BlackBerry Classic for the multimedia experience.

Beautifully made

At almost 180g, the Classic is a little heavy by 2015 standards when you consider its size.

Part of this is down to solid construction. The phone is as well made as an iPhone, it feels better than the Samsung Galaxy S5.

These days making calls is low on the priority list for most phone buyers. If you need to get a decent sound quality, you’ll warm to the Classic. I found this is better for making and receiving voice calls than most smartphones.

Software

Despite what the marketing says BlackBerry’s software is for business users. The minimal phone OS is a little jarring after iOS 9 or recent Android versions.

That’s because everything centres on the messaging hub. BlackBerry optimised the phone for communications and notifications. It’s precisely what people used smartphones before they replaced most other aspects of personal computing.

If you want lots of apps you’ll be disappointed. If you want the tools you need to get work done, you might find there are minor gaps. Being able to run Android 4.3 apps is not that helpful without Google services.

Even the built-in BlackBerry apps are sluggish. Normally I can’t be bothered worrying too much about smartphone processors, they generally deliver all the necessary power, this one doesn’t.

For the record the BlackBerry Classic has a Snapdragon S4 Plus. That’s a chip that first showed up in phones in 2012 making it almost as retro as the BlackBerry Bold 9900.

BlackBerry Classic verdict

At core the BlackBerry Classic is a great smartphone for people who value voice calls and dealing with messages above the ability to run apps. It’s still a good business phone.

It’s a perfect choice for old-school BlackBerry fans who miss the Qwerty keyboard. You’ll get secure messaging as part of the deal. If that’s important, you should also consider this phone.

Satya Nadella Microsoft CEO

It’s one year since Microsoft appointed Satya Nadella as its third CEO. He was clearly the right person for the job.

Things are not perfect at Microsoft, but Nadella has done a great job of reinventing the company and making it relevant again.

Some of his achievements:

  • Made Microsoft a player in the booming iOS app market with first class versions of key Office apps.
  • The Office apps were in the pipeline, but stalled, when Nadella took over. However, it was under his leadership Microsoft acquired Accompli then raced to get a terrific version of Outlook for iOS out to market.
  • For a long time Microsoft was openly hostile to Apple. Former CEO Steve Ballmer spoke contemptuously of iPhones and iPads. Nadella stopped the cold war, even choosing to use Apple kit to display Microsoft products to audiences. He has a clear understanding of symbolism.
  • Likewise Microsoft has built bridges to the Android world. There are Android apps and new Microsoft tools for building apps on Windows, Apple or Android devices.
  • Microsoft is investing in Cyanogen to build a new, non-Google, fork of Android.
  • There have been a swag of new products including Sway and Delve. Also the Skype translator.
  • Revitalised Windows which badly lost direction and momentum under Ballmer with Windows 8. Windows 10 looks to change that. Apart from anything else, it’s one OS, one code base, that will run on any device from tiny to huge.
  •  Made Windows free for devices with screens smaller than nine inches. That’s going to change the dynamics of the market for low-end tablets and small computers.

Underlying this is a new confidence in Microsoft from investors. The company is worth 20 percent more today than when Steve Ballmer announced his departure.

It’s not all rosy. Microsoft has a problem with smartphones, the otherwise excellent Windows Phone OS has failed to get much traction in the market. At the moment, the Nokia acquisition looks more like a millstone around the company’s neck than an asset. Nadella will need to conjure something magical to cure that problem.