Two months ago, I mused over handsets, packages, and the like. The reason was – if I may briefly recall – that my contract ran out. I reported on a number of options but never told what happened. Here’s what:
I hinted as much before: it is Vodafone who have me in their grip now. The data roaming rates did it (although they have fairly decent international rates, too, specifically with Vodafone Passport, which must be one of the first programmes where a large multi-national carrier leverages its geographical spread; T-Mobile, take note!).
Quick recap: I was looking at device options (the contracts I tend to be on are unhealthily big, which normally gives you a free device on top of it, and why the heck not). Since I already have an iPhone (3 and 4), a Google Nexus and various Nokias, I thought what next? Do I try out another Android device? Do I give Windows Phone 7 a go? Or do I return to my old love, Blackberry. And the last one won me over. So I fell for it, and went with the brand-new Blackberry 9800 Torch. Touch screen plus QUERTY plus Blackberry e-mail. You should think that that’s pretty need and, really, all you could wish for (sorry, Microsoft, I didn’t dare – yet).
Trials and Tribulations
But, alas, it was not so. It turned out that two-odd years in the claws of the iPhone and Android had seriously spoilt me, also – and this was concerning – with respect to e-mail. I first learned that I could actually type pretty damn quickly on a touch keyboard now (better on the iPhone, less so on the Nexus), so the keyboard did not really do it. But that was not really it. The little things did it:
- Checking multiple e-mails at once so you can delete or file them all in one go? I’m sure there was one rather ingenious shortcut to do this but it was not very obvious and I had forgotten how it worked. Do I look it up on the web? Nah, it should really just work, shouldn’t it? It just felt clunky.
- Maps: a nightmare! It put me regularly miles away from where I was (and I was actually on home turf, so – thankfully – was able to survive without accurate directions.
- Browser: unusable (and, yes, I know it already is a little better than the old one).
- App World: slow and not very well stocked, is it? And, mind you, I was not looking for a gazillion funny novelty apps like light sabers and such. But even some fairly standard ones were not available.
- Speed: the handset does not run on the quickest of processors, and you could feel it. Some latency in certain processes, no really smooth pinch-zooms, etc, etc.
- Camera: OK but not more.
- Even the beautiful Blackberry Messenger (or BBM as it is also affectionately known) managed to confuse me a little: where on earth can I find that 3D barcode that allows me to add a contact on BBM? I still haven’t found it. Once up and running, it is a beauty as it always was. However, there are now many IM apps that are similarly good, and with most smartphone users on data plans, the fact that BBM is free might no longer matter as much.
On the good side? There is of course Brickbreaker (new high-score: 28,350 (!!!)) but, aside from that, the fairly solid feel of the handset, the nice rubbery back (really nice in fact) and the somewhat quaint but familiar design lines plus decent touch was all very good. I really liked the handset as such. But what was in it, not so much.
The New Kid
So – you probably guessed it – I gave it back and exchanged it for an HTC Desire HD. Only a couple of years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Not only was I a fairly die-hard Blackberry fan but to replace a Blackberry with a Taiwanese newcomer handset? Voluntarily? Noooo! However, it is gorgeous (besides being a bit of the big – no, really big – side). It does all the things that so frustrated me on the Blackberry so much better. Well, slicker at least. E-mail set-up is a breeze for Gmail but only a little less onerous than on the Blackberry for others (and, yes, the QUERTY does help for weird password combinations), but, once done, it works really well. And then, there’s of course the little things: 8 mega-pixel camera with stunning quality (although the lens sticks out a little at the back, which might be not so good), comparatively wholesome goodness when it comes to apps (in spite of the shortfalls of Android Market), heck, it synced all my apps from my Nexus automatically. And, Apple get this, it adds little raindrops (and a windscreen wiper) in one quick animation should it rain where ever you are (which, in England’s North-West, it does quite a lot, I’m afraid). Sweet! Browser works beautifully, maps come with proper satellite navigation on par with dedicated devices, and so on, and so forth.
Mind you, I am not yet sure if I may not change back to my iPhone 4 (which is, let’s face it, damn slick!). But I will give the Desire its run, and it does pretty well so far.
Blackberry Needs to Up the Ante!
But let’s look at my old friend Blackberry. Read through the last two paragraphs, and you know where Blackberry needs to up the ante. The Torch – its newest handset with its newest OS – feels slow, sluggish, dated, laboured.
But not all might be lost: last week, at CES, I could catch a glimpse of the future: RIM’s Blackberry PlayBook, which runs on QNX, rumoured to be the foundation for the next generation of “proper” Blackberries, too. And a beauty it is: much more hardware power (dual-core processor, namely a 1 GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4430), swish graphics (1080p video inclusive), really impressive multi-tasking (HD video + game + websites + whatever open in parallel and seamless change from one to the other in an easy and casual swipe with no lag in any of it), and it will apparently be available on Sprint’s 4G network. Check here for the full specs.
It did however lack e-mail! Yes, you read that correctly: you can apparently not get RIM’s mother of all killer apps on the PlayBook – unless you also happen to have a “normal” Blackberry (or something to that end; the folks at the Blackberry booth were a little shy about this). What were they thinking???
But let’s take stock. What does RIM have? A – so far – healthy balance sheet, good hardware, still great e-mail service infrastructure (albeit not as unassailable as it used to be), in BBM a hit in the youth market and – arguably – a bit more of a runway than most because of the – again arguably – longer times it will take enterprise IT departments to swap systems (or something along these lines; Dell is probably an exception so far). In QNX, it also seems to have a really powerful OS at its disposal (just add e-mail, please). And, finally, it has a proud history of very good handsets (the Bold must have been one of the best ever) as well as demonstrated expertise to break into new verticals (as the Pearl had shown).
So, my dear friends from Waterloo, Ontario: do it. I think you can, just show us, will you?
You hear it often (most recently by Average Jane): people who complain about unwanted features and complexities of mobile phones. And now here comes a company (not your ordinary OEM, mind you) who is bringing out just that: the ultimate dumbphone (I am referring to features not potential users). Meet John Doe’s new phone, the anti-smartphone: Dutch agency John Doe (sic!) premiered John’s Phone, which can do, well, make and receive phone calls. SMS? No. Address book? Yes, from paper with a pocket to stick it in at the back. Java? No. Apps? No. Anything other than making phone calls? No.
It is, I would posit, a luxury phone nonetheless, i.e. for people in countries where there is actually a choice of information and media sources. Alas, these countries (Western Europe, US, Japan) also are the countries with an ageing population and, judging by my own mum, they might well be fed up with all those fancy gimmicks they have absolutely no use for and, hence, yearn for simplicity (because, let’s face it, the fact of being reachable and able to make a call even when you’re out and about is intriguing, as demonstrated by the early success of phone booths).
The news highlights something I have been harping on about often and for a while (both in public and in private), and that is the fact that there is more than one market out there for phones (in much the same way that there are different segments for, say, cars). And whilst there are the Porsches of the mobile world (few models, high-end, high-priced), the Hyundais and Kias are often overlooked by the mobile afficionados and their attempts to read the crystal balls of mobile technology evolution. Porsche is (OK, was, prior to their misguided attempt to take over Volkswagen) the most profitable car maker in the world (as, incidentally, Apple is in the mobile space), Nokia and Samsung (and ZTE, and …) shift many more handsets. Who is better? Well, the answer is: this is the wrong question. Porsche and Kia do not serve the same segment and are, hence, not competing.
Nokia and Samsung could be described as the Volkswagen or Toyota of the mobile world: broad range of models attempting to also capture the high-end (Volkswagen through its Audi, Bentley, Bugatti ranges, Toyota with Lexus) and they do so with varying success (Bugatti and Bentley are, I believe, loss-making). However, they do it in any event with lesser margins than Porsche (it’s a distorted picture now that VW effectively owns Porsche but, hey). Again, is this good or bad? And the answer is again: neither.
When we bring this back to the larger discussion on Nokia’s demise (or not), we should probably just identify Nokia’s (alleged) problem on the high-end. Symbian might be high-powered VW but it is no Porsche. That will still leave the VW Golf as the top-seller in many countries though, meaning that and s40 and the likes might still be very viable (and appropriate!) platforms for large parts of the market. So not all might be lost. It is “just” that Nokia needs to look at the challenge of providing the broad range. And it might be worthwhile looking at VW as a comparison: they do share certain platforms but run Audi as a unit separately! And this is where Nokia differs. Might that be the solution?
As to John’s phone, I am not sure if South Park-esque icons appeal to the golden oldies but then, it either just might or (perhaps equally plausible) they might not even know South Park, which would be just as good. Will it shift? I doubt it. Why, you say? Because they don’t have the distribution of the Nokias and Samsungs of this world, that’s why (plus, it might be just too crude after all; or is that the geek-me?).
Thanks to @claireboo for the heads-up.
Both Gartner and IDC have recently published their handset rankings for Q3/2010, and both have Apple moving into the #4 spot globally. That is impressive, as this is not measuring smartphones but all phones, and it is not measuring North America and Western Europe but the world.
In Smartphone-only terms, Apple has leapfrogged RIM into the #2 slot.
On a platform-basis, Apple’s iOS is now #3 behind Symbian and Android but ahead of RIM’s proprietary Blackberry OS.
Interestingly, IDC has the rankings identically but the market shares of the leading players lower, which would suggest a higher share of the “others” (which is probably unduly diminutive for such companies like Motorola, HTC or Sony Ericsson).
IDC’s smartphone numbers are here.
Recently, previously civilized and subtle top executives of the world’s big mobile handset makers took the gloves off and became, well, a little more outspoken. What sticks from this is, of course, always only the most figurative snippets. Because all of these esteemed people have the most vested of all vested interests, their statements tend to distort reality a little. And because of that, we have increasingly lively debates at hand. But, alas, these debates may not necessarily lead to enlightenment.
So I thought I undertake a little mapping exercise and see where we end up…
The War of Words
I don’t know who started this. But we have had a couple of outbursts recently. Nokia’s soon to be former smartphone maestro Anssi Vanjoki (of nGage and other fame) likened switching to Android to boys who pee in their pants for warmth in winter. What he wanted to say is that it gets worse after brief relief. Apple supremo Steve Jobs sees no one (and in particular not RIM) getting anywhere near his beautiful iPhones anytime soon (he probably has not forgotten Mike Lazaridis riposte to the iPhone 4′s Antennagate). Others are convinced that Apple cannot beat Android. Period. Everyone wonders what Nokia will come up with (and, no, we do not think the N8 is it). Etc, etc, etc.
A Lot of Little Worlds
When one looks at the world map and then listens to the good folks cited above (and others), it appears that there is not one but many little worlds out there. Nokia is sitting high and dry in overall handset rankings with over 35% market share across all handsets. It is estimated to ship more than 500m handsets in 2011, too (so hold back with your obituary just yet). However, it is nowhere to be seen in the US (and even less in US smartphones where it is fighting a close fight with Palm around the 4-5% mark). Samsung (one of the few big boys not to participate in the above bickering) is building out its #2 spot with around 20% market share. Apple is well behind (although recording fairly impressive numbers given that it is basically a single handset company).
Does this matter in the discussion who is “winning”? No, it does not. An iPhone is useless if you are in an emerging (or developing) country with no 3G coverage and no abundance of power outlets from where to re-charge your fancy beauty every 8-12 hours or so. On the other end of the spectrum, a Nokia 1100 is useless if you would like to navigate on your handset through the urban jungle of Manhattan whilst shooting photos for the ones at home. But it runs forever, doesn’t mind a bit of sand or water and will never ever break. Ever.
The point is that there is more than one market here. The market is not mobile phones. The market is not even smartphones. There are many. And in some of them, Apple is looking really weak. And in others, Nokia is looking really weak.
Single Segment vs. Multi-Segment
Nokia’s strength (and, to an extent, curse) is that it wants to be everything to everyone. The N8 is a great handset from a hardware perspective but, after having played around with it for a week or so, I think it has a distinct 3-years-ago feel to it. It makes great phone calls though (which, well, the iPhone does not always). However, will Apple be able to challenge Nokia (and Samsung) in the broad lower-end mass market? Not for a long time, I would say.
The situation is a little more serious for other single-segment OEM. RIM used to live off the fat of the land in the enterprise sector. And it continues to thrive there. In recent years, it has seen a huge upswing amongst kids – because of the now almost legendary BBM (Blackberry Messenger for the uninformed). However, can you successfully build or expand on a single feature? And then on one that could really also be mimicked, worked around or substituted by something similar? Tricky.
Tricky in a different way is the situation for the likes of Motorola, HTC or Sony Ericsson: they have all committed their life to the Android platform. With Google’s muscle in the Open Handset Alliance, this means that they depend more and more on hardware design only. It feels a little like the movie business: hit-driven. And that is a tricky situation to be in. HTC looks good at this: this is home turf for it. On top of this, it has quickly started to try some gentle steps to distinguish itself (HTC Sense; Google Nexus One, etc) from other Android makers. Motorola’s Blur was less successful initially. And Sony Ericsson has yet to show its hand.
Vertically Integrated vs. Multi-OEM
All this does of course not bother Android (and perhaps also Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7) as they have the advantage of being able to bringing many weapons to the battlefield. Android’s huge advantage is one of price due to its open-source nature: For Windows Phone 7, you need to pay a software license. Android is – basically – free. Both have multiple OEM that fight their corner though. Which is, or at least can be, good. Google will not really care if the next killer phone is produced by HTC or Motorola or Sony Ericsson (or Foxconn directly for that matter).
Apple will likely struggle to match the sheer number of iterations being thrown at it. And therefore it is likely that Android will be winning, or rather continue to win.
Does this matter much to Apple? Possibly not. The margin discussion will, in all likelihood, be one that Apple execs will happily take. They will look better at it. However, will it manage to break the old Mac vs. PC pattern? Probably not. However, Apple’s position looks much brighter than it did in the decades of 5% OS-share mediocrity. The company has perfected the hardware-software-service-sex-appeal equation, which looks likely to cement a much more comfortable niche for it (just have a look at its market cap).
Vertically Integrated Multi-Segment
Nokia and Samsung try (or seem to try) a different way. Nokia is betting on MeeGo (its Symbian support sounds more and more hollow by the day). Samsung, which traditionally bet on almost every horse, made a big push for its proprietary bada OS.
This approach could be a winner: with their strong grip on emerging markets and the ability to roll out a proprietary OS across multiple segments, it presents an opportunity to nurture users in emerging markets (where the real growth will be in the next 5 years) into the use of their respective ecosystems. It did pay off for Nokia the first time around!
The Real Battlefield
In the more saturated markets in the Northern hemisphere though the battlefield is likely to be one involving OEM and network operators. This is where Apple really shook up the markets. A lot of the revenue streams from the iPhone simply bypass carriers. The Android OS opens similar avenues. The reason why Apple managed to pull this off is likely to be seen in the branding side of things: it enjoys such pulling power that carriers were bending over backwards to get their hands onto it (and then of course started moaning about the strain on their networks). Android is now being positioned as the alternative. At least, carriers can put competing offers onto Android devices.
Now, in markets where handset purchases are also driven by the overall package (cf. my recent post on this), this is likely to be important.
Nokia, Motorola, RIM, Samsung, etc all enjoy good distribution relationships with carriers. Apple is in a special position because of a) its brand but also b) its price; not much flexibility here, I suspect.
Nokia for instance struggled however to assert itself with some further-reaching ideas it had: some carriers pushed it back over e.g. plans to put Skype onto its handsets. It apparently has less brand power than Apple. Or the carriers were more used to having a say over what gets onto its handsets and what doesn’t.
Conclusion: We don’t Know What We don’t Know
We are, hence, in essence still in a fairly foggy situation: other than Apple’s brand power, we really don’t know as yet what, who, how will prevail. And that is in itself good news. Because it means we will have some time left with competing concepts, competing OEM and competing approaches. And with more CEO banter of course…
It is this time again: my phone contract comes up for renewal. And – as anyone who is following this blog will know (to recap, look here), I have not been all too happy with the treatment I got from O2 UK. So today I started looking around. Given my rather fat tariff requirements, carriers normally throw in all sorts of goodies (scil. free handsets), so started there. I have an iPhone 4 and a Nexus One already, so started to see what else is out there, as there are:
- Samsung Galaxy S or its Windows Phone 7 (which I rather fancy) sister, the Omnia 7.
- HTC Desire HD or – again Windows Phone 7 – HTC HD7 or HTC 7 Trophy
- Or maybe Nokia’s latest attempt at recapturing the upper hand, the N8 with its stunning 12 MP Carl Zeiss lense?
- What about the Motorola Milestone 2 (yes, my dear Americans, that’s the horrible name the Droid 2 got over here)?
- Finally, the LG Optimus 7 doesn’t look bad either…
Then I started looking at where, what, how I could get it and at what price, and the UK carrier labyrinth was entered: The Omnia 7 is carried by 3, Orange and T-Mobile, not by O2 or Vodafone (at least I couldn’t find anything to that end). The HD7 is an Orange exclusive, the Trophy is a Vodafone exclusive. The Galaxy S and the N8 seem to be with all of them.
Step 2: tariffs. With an unhealthy amount of traveling abroad to do, my main cost item on phone bills regularly is data roaming, so this is where my sensitivity lies (because of the eye-watering bills I regularly get, I am not bothered about 600 or 900 UK any-network minutes costing £5 more or less), and it became clear quickly: Orange, T-Mobile and 3 are out of the race (their charges are even higher than O2′s). Vodafone looks good (about 1/3 of O2′s rates) but O2 claims to still have their Blackberry tariff for international data roaming (although I struggled to find it on their website). Now, THAT would bring my bill down by a cool £150-200 a month or so. Enter Blackberry. The Bold (which I dearly loved when I had it) or the Torch (which gets decent but still very mixed reviews)? And then: O2 again? In spite of my anger with them?
And then I started to compromise: anything exclusive to Orange, T-Mobile or 3 was out of the question (because data roaming is pretty much a killer for me), which boils it down to Blackberry and O2 or any of the others on Vodafone (which would mean that I couldn’t get what started being my favourite, the Samsung Omnia 7). Hang on: I compromise over some shoddy pounds? Is the handset then not so all important as one might have believed when reading all those blogs, news blitzes and tech publications over the last months?
And, yes, I think it is true to say that – at least in instances where there are certain usage requirements (in my case data roaming), the package is what rules. This is perhaps then the wedge that the carriers - scrambling for meaning in this new app store world – could use to pry that dump pipe/smart phone dichotomy open. How’s that for an idea?
So, good folks at the carriers, listen up: do it (oh, Vodafone, and get me that Omnia 7, will you? ).
by putting services at a zero-click distance to the user and pushing services directly to the front screen.
Think push notifications to a J2ME feature phone. Abaxia works with carriers and OEM to optimize the interface across multiple devices from different suppliers, which seems an apparent benefit to carriers as it will allow them to make their on-device brand communication consistent throughout the handsets available through them. That an OEM should then buy the company could therefore surprise…
And as to the use of idle screens? Hm, I am not totally convinced: an idle screen is, well, idle. I may be tempted to jump to it if an app sends me something from a friend (because, hey, it’s a friend in need) but I am not sure if the same attention can be garnered from the latest and greatest service offer from your operator. This is however what Abaxia claims it excels in. According to its website, the company helps
to drive not only data revenue but [...] to recover failing voice ARPU and secure advertising ARPU.
And here, well, show me the money. I have yet to see a convincing solution for this, and I am not sure if an attempt to capture the idle screen is the way to go.
However, when it comes to interface improvements, it might just work. So all might not be lost. And, in any event, congratulations to the teams at Abaxia and HTC!
Gartner published the latest smartphone numbers for Q1/2010 (or so I read), and it is testament to the continuing rise of this segment: sales increased by nearly 50% year-on-year (and do remember that there was this recession-thing last year). Total sales were 54.3m units in the first quarter of this year. Not too shabby!
On the OS side, the rising stars are Android (9.6% global market share from 1.6% a year ago), which is now bigger then Windows Mobile (and it took it only a year!) and iPhone (15.4% vs 10.5% in Q1/2009). The silverback gorilla still is Symbian which dropped to 44.3% from 48.8%. Blackberry is also down (albeit only slightly: 19.4% from 20.6%).
Here’s a table: