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Why Samsung is no longer Cinderella at the iPhone ball

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Apple has reported a record sales slump, while Samsung’s latest phones win market approval. How did it come to this? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK tells the tale.

What’s wrong with this picture? Global smartphone sales down 3%, Samsung sales down 4%, Apple iPhone sales down 16%.

Or this one? Samsung revenue up 6% and profit up 12%, Apple revenue down 13% and profit down 23%.

For one thing, Samsung is tracking global trends in smartphone shipments, which is hardly wonderful news for a brand that wants to run ahead of the market. But, for another thing, Apple has lost the magic sauce.

One could be sympathetic and believe CEO Tim Cook when he blames a tough “macroeconomic environment”. But, during the worst financial slump in living memory, the big bad Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, Apple not only held its own; it kept growing, quarter after quarter.

The iPhone had been launched in 2007, and kept getting better, allowing the company to outperform not only the market, but also all forecasts. It kept breaking through every barrier, eventually helping Apple rack up 13 years of continual growth that had begun with the launch of the first iPod.  That is 51 quarters, of which around 8 had seen the destruction of entire national economies across the globe.

Tough macroeconomic environment? Apple used to trample on tough macroeconomic environments. Rather, try tough competitive environment. In the growing Chinese market, iPhone sales slumped 26%. Meanwhile, Chinese brands like Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi hungrily took global markets from their respective positions as the world’s 3rd , 4th and 5th biggest smartphone brands.

Which brings us to the Samsung Galaxy S7. It marks four out of the last five Samsung devices flagship phones that have no longer been part of the catch-up game with Apple. Back in 2012, The S3 was the best that Android could offer at the time, but also for the first time showed that someone else also gets what a smartphone should be. Still, it was considered a Cinderella, a poor copy of the finery invented by Apple for the iPhone ball.

Apple stuck doggedly to its finery: a form factor premised on a mantra that the world was satisfied with a 4” display. At 4.8”, the S3 was already pulling away. However, the iPhone 4S, still enjoying the Steve Jobs halo effect, easily kept up.

In 2013, the Samsung Galaxy S4 truly disrupted the ball, offering a phone as close to perfect as the technology of the time allowed. It overreached with some features, like gesture control.  But compared to its peer, the iPhone 5, it was a breath of fresh air, with a 5” display, 50% more power than the iPhone, and a camera that for the first time gave Apple a run for its money.

It gave Samsung undisputed leadership of the smartphone market. Along with the Note series, which introduced the phablet format and proved a voracious market appetite for even bigger displays, the S4 would prove to be a wake-up call at Apple’s Cupertino HQ.

However, Apple pushed the snooze button a couple of times. Instead of coming to the party with a larger iPhone, it delivered the 5S and a youth-oriented 5C, with the same 4” display, but in multiple colours. Crucially, it fell short of market expectations that it would be a phone targeting lower-income users and emerging markets.

Luckily for Apple, the 2014 contestant from Samsung, the S5, was a rare miss-step, offering almost no good reason for anyone to move on from the previous edition. In effect, Samsung did an Apple, offering only incremental improvements.

Both brands then upped their game phenomenally, with Apple’s alarm finally penetrating its snooze late in 2014, and a wide-awake look in the mirror resulting in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus – respectively 4.7” and 5.5” phones, targeting both the regular Samsung flagships and the Note phablet. Apple reported record sales.

Then, in 2015, came the Samsung Galaxy S6, with its beautiful curved screen Edge as well as a flat-screen option, and an absurdly good camera on both. Apple responded in time-honoured fashion later in the year, with a 6S and 6S Plus, delivering – surprise, surprise – only incremental improvements.

At he beginning of 2016 it followed with the cunning trick of cramming iPhone 6-like power into an iPhone 5-type body with 4” display and calling it the SE. Because, you know, the world is still hungry for 4” displays.

In contrast, the new Samsung S7 Edge pushes the curved device’s display from 5.1” to 5.5”, while the regular S7 keeps to 5.1”. Both have less powerful cameras but more powerful processors and more RAM, along with substantially bigger batteries. The larger phone increases battery life by up to 50% over its predecessor.

Samsung added one other feature that probably made the biggest contribution to its sales holding pattern: it dropped the recommended price by more than 20%.

In a market where the latest features are often not enough to persuade someone to upgrade, and where a good phone remains a good phone for several years, the ever-rising pricetags on flagship phones from the leading brands was bound to result in a backlash. That was probably the main reason the S6 and S6 Edge were sales disappointments, despite arguably being the best smartphones in the world.

Which brings up one of the less publicised numbers from the latest Apple results: gross profit margin, which is the real secret sauce of Apple’s astounding profits and its unprecedented $233-billion cash pile.

Gross profit margin for the last quarter was an eye-wateringly joyful 39.4%. However, that was down 40.8% for the same period the year before and from it being routinely above 40% in years before. Apple has offered guidance for the next quarter that it will fall yet again.

In the “macroeconomic environment” of increasingly thrifty customers, ferocious competitors and Samsung’s cutting edge devices, don’t expect it to begin rising again any time soon.

* 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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Low-cost wireless sport earphones get a kickstart

Wireless earphone brands are common, but not crowdfunded brands. BRYAN TURNER takes the K Sport Wireless for a run.

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As wireless technology becomes better, Bluetooth earphones have become popular in the consumer market. KuaiFit aspires to make them even more accessible to more people through a cheaper, quality product, by selling the K Sport Wireless Earphones directly from its Kickstarter page

KuaiFit has an app by the same name which offers voice-guided personal training services in almost every type of exercise, from cardio to weight-lifting. A vast range of connectivity to third-party sensors is available, like heart rate sensors and GPS devices, which work well with guided coaching. 

The app starts off with selecting a fitness level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Thereafter, one has the ability to connect with real personal trainers via a subscription to its paid service. The subscription comes free for 6 months with the earphones, and R30 per month thereafter. 

The box includes a manual, a USB to two USB Type B connectors, different sized soft plastic eartips and the two earphone units. Each earphone is wireless and connects to the other independently of wires. This puts the K Sport Wireless in the realm of the Apple Earpods in terms of connection style. 

The earphones are just over 2cm wide and 2cm high. The set is black with a light blue KuaiFit logo on the earphone’s button. 

The button functions as an on/off switch when long-pressed and a play/pause button when quick-pressed. The dual-button set-up is convenient in everyday use, allowing for playback control depending on which hand is free. Two connectivity modes are available, single earphone mode or dual earphone mode. The dual earphone mode intelligently connects the second earphone and syncs stereo audio a few seconds after powering on. 

In terms of connectivity, the earphones are Bluetooth 4.1 with a massive 10-meter range, provided there are no obstacles between the device and the earphones. While it’s not Bluetooth 5, it still falls into the Bluetooth Low Energy connection category, meaning that the smartphone’s battery won’t be drastically affected by a consistent connection to the earphones. The batteries within the earphones aren’t specifically listed but last anywhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the mode. 

Audio quality is surprisingly good for earphones at this price point. The headset style is restricted to in-ear due to its small design and probable usage in movement-intensive activities. As a result, one has to be very careful how one puts these earphones, in because bass has the potential of getting reduced from an incorrect in-ear placement. In-ear earphones are usually notorious for ear discomfort and suction pain after extended usage. These earphones are one of the very few in this price range that are comfortable and don’t cause discomfort. The good quality of the soft plastic ear tip is definitely a factor in the high level of comfort of the in-ear earphone experience.

Overall, the K Sport Wireless earphones are great considering the sound quality and the low price: US$30 on Kickstarter.

Find them on Kickstarter here.

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Taxify enters Google Maps

A recent update to Taxify now uses Google Maps which allows users to identify their drivers, find public transport and search for billing options.

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People planning their travel routes using Google Maps will now see a Taxify icon in the app, in addition to the familiar car, public transport, walking and billing options.

Taxify started operating in South Africa in 2016 and as of October 2018 operates in seven South African cities – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Polokwane.

Once riders have searched for their destination and asked the app for directions, Google Maps shares the proximity of cars on the Taxify platform, as well as an estimated fare for the trip.

If users see that taking the Taxify option is their best bet, they can simply tap on the ‘Open app’ icon, to complete the process of booking the ride. Customers without the app on their device will be prompted to install Taxify first.

This integration makes it possible for users to evaluate which of the private, public or e-hailing modes of transport are most time-efficient and cost-effective.

“This integration with Google Maps makes it so much easier for users to choose the best way to move around their city,” says Gareth Taylor, Taxify’s country manager for South Africa. “They’ll have quick comparisons between estimated arrival times for the different modes of transport, as well as fares they can expect to pay, which will help save both time and money,” he added.

Taxify rides in Google Maps are rolling out globally today and will be available in more than 15 countries, with South Africa being one of the first countries to benefit from this convenient service.

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