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Apple goes back to its old future

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Last week Apple went back to its old future, with a 4” iPhone that looks like a 5s but with 6s insides. Confused? So is Apple, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When marketing hype for a new product emphasises adjectives over facts and benefits, it’s usually a sign that its creators may be running out of ideas.

Last week’s unveiling of the new iPhone SE with 4-inch screen coincided with World Poetry Day, which seemed to be the cue to wax lyrical. The official announcement made less of the phone’s features than of the “beloved compact aluminium design that has been updated with matte-chamfered edges, a colour-matched stainless steel Apple logo, and four gorgeous metallic finishes, including rose gold”.

The facts are that the phone looks similar to the iPhone 5c released in 2013 with a 4” screen, but with iPhone 6s insides. From a 12MP camera (compared to 8MP on the 5s) and 2GB RAM (vs 1GB) to Apple A9 processor (vs A7) and 14 hours talk-time (vs 10 hours), it is clearly a far more powerful device. But then, it should be, given a 30-month period since the 5c release, in which time smartphone performance has been dramatically ramped up by most manufacturers.

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, called the iPhone SE “an exciting new idea”, justifying this puzzling statement by saying Apple “started with a beloved, iconic design and reinvented it from the inside out”.

“The result,” he said, “is the most beautiful and powerful phone with a four-inch display in the world.” By now, the official Apple line trotted out with each new iPhone release – “the most powerful iPhone ever”, “the best iPhone ever” – is wearing thin. If each new release were NOT the best or fastest yet, THAT would be news.

There is one claim made by Schiller that we can swallow more easily: “Everyone who wants a smaller phone is going to love iPhone SE.”

But therein lies the real problem for Apple. It held off global demand for bigger screens for several years after Samsung began leading the market into larger displays with the Galaxy S3 in 2012. It only gave in with the iPhone 6 in late 2014, by which time it had lost massive market share to the South Korean manufacturer.

It also produced a large-format version, the 5.5” iPhone 6 Plus, which was positioned precisely to compete with Samsung’s 5.7” Note “phablet” format. There it jostles for attention with numerous players in the phablet space, from the LG G4 to the Huawei Ascend Mate S to the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium. Low-cost players like Xiaomi, Alcatel also compete vigorously in this format, and we even have a homegrown manufacturer, Mint, that is beginning to pick up significant market share with larger displays.

It is ironic, then, that Apple is not trying to differentiate itself by going in the opossite direction, producing a phone that is smaller than almost anything in the mid-market. For some time, Samsung and Sony have appeared to be giving users an equivalent to the 4” iPhone, with their Mini and Compact ranges, but with slightly bigger screens at 4.5” and 4.6”.

Even more ironic,  the entry-level smartphone market is beginning a transition from 3.5” to 4.5” phones. There are three reasons for this: as volume of production rises, the cost of the larger display is coming down in price rapidly, to the extent that it will soon be more conomical to produce larger screens; an increasing use of video and images on phones and in apps makes larger screens more comofrtable and appropriate; and larger phones ha e higher perceived value.

The most unlikely reason for the new device is the argument by some that, because a large proportion of iPhone users still have 4” devices and have not yet upgraded, they are clearly waiting for new, more powerful 4” model. That is no doubt Apple’s fondest hope, but it appears unlikely. Again, given the rise of video as a primary content platform on phones, users are not only upgrading for the sake of hardware, but also for a better software and content experience.
That said, the new device has given fans of the 4” format a significant boost in power and quality. It shoots HD video with support for 4K, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160. Video capture goes up to 60fps for 1080p video and 240fps for slo-mo, and includes time-lapse with video stabilisation.

A Retina Flash is claimed to make the display three times brighter with True Tone lighting technology, and the phone includes the iPhone 6s camera features, like panorama photos up to 63MP in size.

All of which supports the argument that this is the most powerful 4” phone in the world. The competition is hardly formidable, though: low-end devices from Sony, Samsung, LG, Huawei, Lenovo and ZTE, and entry-level phones from numerous no-name brands.

However, in its price range – it retails at $399 in the USA, meaning It will cost somewhere between R7 000 and R10 000 in South Africa – it may well be the only 4” premium phone in the world.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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