Special Reports

Smartphones: The good, the bad and the ugly

Brett Haggard

A technophile looks at the smartphone platforms of today and predicts what the future looks like.

The iPhone has become the benchmark for everything else in the smartphone industry. (AFP)

Remember feature phones? Those candy-bar-shaped gadgets that allowed you to make voice calls and send SMS messages?

Yes, just voice and text - no email, no Twitter or Facebook, no browsing- the internet or running applications (other than a clock, radio and possibly a diary of some description), but with keypads (yuck) and sketchy cameras. And of course batteries that weighed a ton. There is very little functionality I would want back from the pre-smartphone era, except maybe the ability to go for a few days without needing to charge my battery.

But if we make the benchmark simplicity, it is a different story.

Please don't get me wrong.

Smart-phones are one of the most important things to have happened in the technology industry in the past -decade. But they are far from perfect.

Although we really wouldn't want to live without the way our smartphones manage to keep us abreast of things (previously we had to lug laptop around for that), they add a great deal of hassle to our lives.

Their batteries rarely last more than a full day.

There are always application updates waiting to be downloaded. Their primary input mechanism - the touchscreen - is also their -primary output mechanism, -meaning that there's an unusual amount of wear and tear to content with.

And, of course, depending on your line of work or opinion on work/life balance, having your email, social media and other digital information follow you around can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

If you're honest with yourself, though, chances are you're not going to get by without a smart-phone.

So why not choose the technology ecosystem that suits you best?

No ecosystem is without its benefits, drawbacks and unnecessary annoyances, which I have set out in detail below.

What is a 'technology ecosystem'?
A technology ecosystem is the -combination of:

  1. An operating system (for -example iOS, Android, Windows or BlackBerry) and
  2. The devices that use that -operating system (for example the iPad, Samsung Galaxy or BlackBerry Curve) and
  3. The applications (aka apps) that run on that operating -system (for example Angry Birds) and
  4. The communities of software developers who make the apps that run on that operating -system and
  5.  The online platforms that sell the apps that run on that -operating -system (for example the iTunes store, Google Play Store and BlackBerry App World)

All five these entities interact and feed off each other, much like a -biological ecosystem does, hence the name.


Apple iOS: Old faithful

It seems ironic to say anything Apple does is staid, traditionalist and conservative, but the reality is that the smartphone platform that kicked it all off five or so years ago - the iPhone - has become the benchmark for everything else in the smartphone industry.

And in being the benchmark it has become a little boring.

Yes, it is wildly popular. And yes, Apple makes more money and sells more units of the iPhone today than it ever did. And yes, its application store and developer community are the Holy Grail for other smartphone players.

But, aside from a level of polish that other vendors - most notably Google Android - just don't have right now, Apple's operating system is beginning to look a little long in the tooth. It can also be a painful thing to use if you're a developer.

Let's talk look and feel first.

iOS still uses icons and architecturally requires an application to occupy 100% of the user's attention while it is active.

Younger operating systems such as Android and Windows 8 use tiles, widgets and equally innovative mechanisms to bring information that is stored in applications to the user's field of view.

They are also tinkering with split-screen capabilities that allow users to "be in" more than one application at the same time.

Apple's curated market-place - the second major criticism aimed at iOS - is also a contentious topic.

For users, there is the obvious bene-fit of having big brother sitting in the corner, checking each and every app submitted to its store for malware, overall quality and user experience.

But this hampers the development process and can be such a pain for developers that many choose to take their business elsewhere - for instance to the Android marketplace, where it takes less than 24 hours to sign up and begin selling appli-ca—tions.

I am not saying that Apple is wrong in its approach. I am saying that Apple is in the precarious position of being the leader. It is easy to criticise leaders, learn from their mistakes and innovate around problems they seem to be facing.

The new iPhone 5 is a clear example of this.

Every major addition and enhancement to the phone was either hinted at, predicted or leaked prior to the announcement of the handset a couple of weeks ago.

That tends to dampen the excitement about the upgrade and gives me the sense that, unless Apple reinvents itself soon, it runs the risk of becoming a has-been.

Use an iPhone if…

  • You're a sheep. But you're not one of those unfashionable, ugly, black sheep. You're cool, -dammit.
  • You wear Ray-Ban Wayfarers and skin-tight jeans (because you heard the Eighties are -coming back any day now).
  • You like a little edge, but not too much.
  • If smartphone eco-systems were hard-rock bands, you'd be Nickelback (sorry).
  • But, it just works™. #justsaying

Google Android: The challenger

Arguably the most exciting place to be if you're a smartphone enthusiast, because things fly a little by the seat of their pants in the Android world. And interestingly enough there's a dual focus with Android: cheap, low-end devices that are bringing the smartphone to the masses, and extremely high-end devices that satisfy power users' need for the latest and greatest.

 

Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sand-wich) was a real success when it was launched towards the end of 2011. Android 4.1 (Jellybean) has received an equally good reception.

The tragedy of it all is that there are fairly modern handsets that have not yet received the upgrade to either of these versions of the Android operating system.

It's up to the handset manufacturers - Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola (now part of Google) and Huawei, to name a few - to push these updates out to their users. And largely speaking they do a really bad job of keeping users on the latest version of the operating system.

Why is this a problem? It means that app developers often can't take full advantage of the newer functionality that operating systems like Ice Cream Sandwich and Jellybean offer; their apps have to remain compatible with a host of devices and versions of Android.

They therefore either need to develop separate versions of their apps for each distinct Android version or simply choose to leave some features out. It is probably also worth mentioning that one of the complexities of building applications for the Android world is that much is left to the hardware vendors: screen resolution, processing power, memory and the like.

It means that applications might work brilliantly on one smartphone, but be noticeably less stable and performance-rich on others.

Functionally, Android is way more advanced than iOS. The drawback is that you don't get a more advanced, customisable operating system without exposing every possible option, switch and toggle to users in the "settings" menu. So there's an element of complexity to contend with if you're using an Android phone. The future of Android is definitely more compelling than that of other platforms, because the operating system's open-source nature means the direction it will follow is really up to the market. Hell, it's even pitching up on notebooks and smart television sets.

Conventional wisdom is that Android will ultimately dominate the smartphone world.

Unlike Apple iOS, which has become the benchmark in the industry, Android changes so fast and is so open to each partner's interpretation that it is unlikely to become a staid, conservative ecosystem.

Use Android if…

  • You're underground. You're a -control freak.
  • You want the ability to have everything just so.
  • You don't mind micro—managing your smartphone if it means extra -battery life and cooler features.
  • You dress in clothing labels that haven't been discovered yet.
  • You grow your own vegetables on the balcony of your inner-city apartment.
  • You'd tell us about your favourite band, but chances are we haven't heard of them, or the genre they address. #hipster

BlackBerry: The comeback kid

If you have been following the press for a year or two, you will know that RIM, the company behind BlackBerry, is going through some tough times.

But, as the old adage goes, it's always darkest before the dawn. And RIM's hopes of a dawn are firmly pegged on its upcoming (but still hellishly late) updated operating -system, BlackBerry 10.

From what I have seen so far, it really is all that and a bag of chips.

Smooth, fluid, quick and intuitive to navigate, visually stunning and really robust (it's built on the QNX platform RIM acquired a few years back and built into its Playbook -tablet), the operating system is something to look forward to.

Is it the silver bullet RIM needs to come back from the near dead?

The answer is not that cut and dried.

BlackBerry is flourishing in emerging markets such as Africa, South America and the Middle and Far East.

But that success is all about its current low-end smartphones and its attractive BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) package that bundles all of the user's internet costs into a single, cheap monthly subscription.

What's unclear is just how Black-Berry 10's value proposition will map to those BIS subscriptions.

If the BIS subscription is not going to be an integral part of what drives the new platform, RIM better be sure BlackBerry 10 can compete head on with the iPhone, Android devices and the upcoming Win-dows 8 phones.

BlackBerry 10 is a very data-hungry operating system in comparison to its predecessors, so it is unlikely that the volume of data it will consume will form part of a cheap, all-you-can-eat bundle.

Can RIM regain its lost mojo in the developed world?

The competition is tougher than ever.

When it lost its place in the sun, it was competing with two smartphone vendors (Apple and Google) and a handful of feature-phone vendors.

Now Android is a few years stronger and wiser and Windows 8 is about to hit. Despite this, my gut feel says that BlackBerry will succeed.

The new platform is as good as, if not better than, its competitors' offerings and that in itself will mean that the company won't lose customers to Apple, Google and Micro-soft going forward.

The challenge will be to gain new customers. We won't know just how this goes until the new platform ships next year.

Use BlackBerry if…

  • You do all of your shopping at Woolies because, frankly, it is so much easier. Your BlackBerry Bold has served you so well over the past years, you couldn't possibly part with it - at least not until the new version ships. It's the same as your BMW or Mercedes motor-plan.
  • Either that or you're a student on a budget who is counting the Salticrax until the end of the month but could not possibly sacrifice connectivity for sustenance. You do not mind being seen as a little uncool or not with it, provided you can get things done faster and more effectively than your peers. And you do. You'll hold out for BlackBerry 10 because you're a believer in -second chances.
  • You know (deep down inside) that Roger Waters and David Gilmour will bury the hatchet and revive Pink Floyd ... some day. #whatever

Windows 8: The newbie

Microsoft doesn't have the best track record in the mobile-phone operating system space.

In fact, Pocket PC and Windows CE had shocking user experiences: unintuitive, sluggish behaviour and non-existent battery life. Windows Phone 7.5, which was released last year, was a vast improvement but struggled to get traction. Now, with Windows 8, Microsoft believes it can conquer the world. And for a change it might be right.

At the core of Windows 8's value proposition is that the same operating system will reside on your notebooks, desktops, tablets and smart-phones. Yes, Microsoft has tried this before. The difference is that this time it has found the magic it was looking for all along.

Why would you want the same operating system to reside across all of these devices? Well, from an application development perspective, software engineers get to build something once and deploy it in multiple places at the same time.

That's an attractive prospect that might get all of the developers in Microsoft's ecosystem to start paying attention to this smartphone revolution. And because Microsoft has the largest formal development community of any software vendor in the world, that's a lot of developers. Lots of developers mean lots of apps. And having a multitude of apps available on your smartphone platform makes it that much more appealing to users.

It's not just that Microsoft finally has a worthwhile play in this smartphone space that makes its story interesting, though. The company really has done its homework on the user experience and has pushed the envelope in terms of design.

Windows 8 is simultaneously easy to use and functional. Every Win-dows 8 application gets to have a live tile, which at a glance acquaints and updates the user with the information stored within the application - without the user having to physically launch the application. An example of this is the ability to see how many unread emails you have in your inbox and get a sense of what your inbox contains by glancing at the subject lines of the most recent ones. Another great example is social media. Instead of having to launch Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, you can simply scan your eyes across the live tiles for these applications and they'll inform you of recent updates on each.

While we're on the topic of social media, sharing has also become a breeze, with all applications now being granted access to "charms", a smart way of enabling developers to allow their applications to share (and accept) content from complementary applications.

Expect Windows 8 to become popular because users like having a uniform interface across all of their technology. It will look and behave the same way across all forms of computing device, hook into the same cloud services and go a long way towards solving the problem of compatibility. The other reason it will succeed is that Microsoft still holds a dominant position in the desktop and notebook markets. Windows 8 will live in this space and create a halo effect for the smartphone (and tablet).

Why not have the ability to run the same apps on your smartphone as you can on your desktop or notebook computer?

Use Windows 8 if…

  • You wear chinos and a blue-checked shirt. On weekends, however, you like to rock around in torn jeans and vintage T-shirts.
  • You drive a nice car, you live in a nice house. You have 2.5 kids and a white picket fence.
  • Your music tastes are best -epitomised by whatever is on the Radio 702 top 100. You are -distinctly -average, but let's face it, it's way -better than being below average. #predictable

Brett Haggard is a -technology journalist- and publisher based in Jozi who spends more time online than offline. He uses an iPhone and an Android tablet, with a BlackBerry for back-up. He used a -Windows -computer once upon a time. www.bretthaggard.com

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