BitDepth#883 - April 30

Ready to make a smartphone choice among the many new devices on offer? Some things you may want to consider...
Getting smart about phones
Samsung executives demonstrate the S4 to the media at Prime Restaurant after the launch of the new product. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

This week, two major manufacturers of popular smartphones launched the newest versions of their flagship devices in Trinidad and Tobago.
Blackberry, the company formerly known as RIM, introduced their new touchscreen device, the Z10 on Wednesday, and Samsung offered the fourth iteration of their premium “S” series smartphones the day before.

Add in the iPhone 5 and Windows Phone and the question that inevitably arises, normally while I’m contemplating cornflakes brands at the grocery, is “Which phone should I buy?”
Normally, I try to weasel out of such direct questions by waffling about personal choices, but the market has matured to the point that there are some questions that every buyer should be asking themselves.

Curiously, what needs to be considered has very little to do with what people normally use phones for, which is making calls. You can do that for far less with cheaper devices, and the considerations involved in choosing have more to do with computing than with talking and texting.
It will surprise nobody that the current market is a straight fight between the iPhone and Samsung’s devices, which is to say it’s a choice between iOS and Android, the operating systems underlying these phones.

In the US, iOS grabbed 53 per cent of the market with Android running a strong second with 41.9 per cent of smartphone sales. In Europe that inverts to 61 per cent for Android and 25 per cent for iOS.
I’ve used both for some time and while I’ve been using an S3 for the last eight months, I also handle the IT chores on the household management’s iPad and iPhone.

Android may be coming on strong as an operating system and developer platform, but it remains in the shadow of iOS, which delivers better looking apps across a wider range of disciplines. I’ve griped long and hard about the difficulties I’ve had finding a good word processor and slideshow app for my images on Android, both of which I consider mission critical. I was spoiled for choice for both on iOS.

For most users, the most important apps are not only available on both platforms, they are almost identical in function. If you jump between browsing, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, either iOS and Android will serve you equally well.
Where they differ though, is in end-user experience. Getting apps from Apple is an easy, fluid experience, but even after significant work on improving its interface, Google’s Play Store still feels like a frontier town. Software curation also seems less strict there.

I visited a free template based app development site (, plugged in the information I wanted and had software for a buddy’s news site up on the Play store less than an hour after paying the US$25 developer fee.
You’d think that this would mean that iOS is a better option, but some interesting Apple fatigue is setting in lately. The company’s iPhones, which work well and are quite extensible, are now seen by the hip and thrillseeking as dull. It’s the boredom of seamless functionality that reached its zenith in the work of Dieter Rams.
Android, in contrast, is seen as exciting, adventurous and innovative, the phones, more feature rich.

But what’s really happening here?

On Tuesday, Samsung executives at Prime were keen to show off all the new features of the S4, but almost everything that was featured was implemented through software developed by the company to distinguish the new device.

It’s growing harder to separate phones on the basis of hardware. Fast processors, pixel-rich screens and other features tend to be replicate quickly in this competitive environment and it will eventually come down to what a phone can do for its user.

Apple’s iPhone, out of the box, is pretty basic. It’s only when users begin to add apps and kit their phone out that it becomes a truly personal computing device. Just imagine what might happen if Apple discovered that the world doesn’t, in fact, end at the Florida Keys.

Casual smartphone users will be pleased by the additional features offered by Samsung’s new S4 and Blackberry’s Z10, though tech savvy purchasers will be annoyed that they usually can’t get rid of these apps if they don’t care for them.
There was a word for this type of thing when it got out of control on cheap PCs, and that word is crapware. With any luck, we’ll see less of it in the future on these handheld computers.

Blackberry and Microsoft, once the leaders in smartphones and computing software respectively are the marginal players in this fast growing sector and need to decide fast which model they plan to align with.
At the March 2013 Mobile World Congress,
Microsoft VP for Windows Phone Terry Myerson announced that Windows Phone was beating the iPhone in seven markets and Blackberry in 26. Unfortunately, none of these markets are major metropolitan countries.

Smartphone customers haven’t begun to factor this new reality of software customisation into their purchases, but it’s going to be the next distinguishing factor in the marketing of devices to increasingly savvy users.
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