Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/02/24/in_which_i_go_shopping_for_smartphones/

Yes! New company smartphones! ... But I don't WANT one

Since I don't have an iPhone with a worn out battery

By Trevor Pott

Posted in CIO, 24th February 2014 09:36 GMT

Sysadmin Blog It's mobile update month at my company, and that means it's time for a look at the smartphones. I've researched every single unit that will work on a Canadian cellular network and come to some interesting conclusions. For the first time I'm looking at a refresh cycle more from the standpoint of a business owner and end-user rather than as a gadget-obsessed nerd and that changes things significantly.

The first conclusion I've reached shouldn't come as a shocker to anyone: smartphones are no longer sexy. For the better part of a decade every Blackberry refresh was a major jump in capability, featureset, speed and so forth.

My HTC Desire destroyed any need for a Blackberry and on I went into a whole new world where my phone was not merely a palm pilot that could make phone calls, but a portable computer. From there, every new phone seemed like a generational leap. My Samsung Galaxy S II allowed me enough internal storage to install more than five applications, moving smartphones from "interesting potential" into "tool I use for hours every day."

My Galaxy Note II was a massive speed boost, seemed to hit the point where I couldn't use the internal storage up with applications and allowed me to use a MicroSD card for my media. It had a pixel density high enough that I couldn't make out individual pixels, even on that enormous screen. It also came with a double-sized battery meaning a decent amount of battery life.

A year and a half after getting my Note II the carrier is offering to annul the device balances, allowing us to upgrade our mobiles without penalty. This being Canada, "bring your own phone" doesn't give you much of a rate discount, especially if you are on corporate plans. This is slowly changing, but for this refresh cycle the rather complicated plan maths mean that it actually makes sense to take the "free" phones on offer and run.

But for the first time in nearly 20 years of owning cell phones I see nothing of interest to me. Josh (who also has a Note II) and Katherine (currently using a Galaxy S II) are similarly unimpressed.

Look at them Apples?

Apple has to be the first smartphone manufacturer anyone considers. It makes the mindshare-leading device. It has the best ecosystem: a walled garden that keeps at least some of the malware out and offers good enterprise management capabilities. Apple makes a good, solid product, but even a free iPhone 5s isn't worth the effort for me.

There's nothing I care about in its feature set that I don't already have on my Note II. If I switched, I wouldn't be able to take any of my apps with me, and the eleventeen squillion MicroUSB cables I have squirreled away in every bag, coat, car and desk would instantly be useless.

Switching to Apple wouldn't just be a change in phone, it would be pitching an entire ecosystem. Josh and Kat are passing as well, and for the same reasons.

Blackberry...crushed

It may come as a shock to readers, but Blackberry's Z30 is the one device that made us all interested. Specs wise, it seems to have a great screen, middling-to-decent battery life, a UI that isn't crafted from fundamental awful and it runs Android apps in a safer way than actual Android phones. It has a full 1080p screen, but that is well into the "pixel density has reached stupidity" range and doesn't actually attract as a feature.

Where things go sideways is trust. I know nothing about the Blackberry of today. I don't know the OS, the limitations of the device, this Android-on-QNX magical voodoo it is offering, and I don't know how the mobile device management software has evolved since the version 5 that I am using now.

I have a whole bunch of applications I've bought on Google Play. Will those be available (and usable) on a Z30, or will I have to repurchase them? What are the native apps like? What is the battery life actually like? How badly does using Android versus native apps affect battery life? Will Blackberry (the company) be around long enough to see the two year contract through?

I tried wading through a few reviews on the unit, but ultimately gave up. Nothing answered the practical questions I have, and Blackberry's marketing and media relations people have proven fairly impenetrable.

I'm interested in the idea of Blackberry's "Android on QNX" quite a lot. I'm not interested in it enough to commit to a complete unknown for a two year contract. Nobody I trust can vouch for it, so my risk aversion tops my curiosity and Blackberry finds itself off my list. Josh and Kat have made the same decision.

As a side note, I feel Sailfish and Tizen phones fall into a similar category as Blackberry. These phones are unknown, untested and in many situations not even available through carriers. The possibility of these phones being "a better Android than Android" sparks curiosity and interest: however, this comes up against risk aversion and loses. Smartphones are just that little bit too costly to be an impulse buy.

HTC?

All of us had HTC Desires back in the day, and we loved them. Today, however, I see nothing in HTC's lineup that intrigues me.

Katherine prefers the Sense UI to all other Android UIs and loves the HTC One's styling and design. The features and specs meet her needs as an upgrade from the Galaxy S2, but she isn't sure the battery life will be adequate for her needs. As Kat would be running the stock OS, updates matter to her; HTC has a terrible reputation here and this ultimately earns them a pass.

Josh gave the HTC One some very serious consideration, but was ultimately put off by reports of poor battery life and a lack of any option that allowed him to attach a great big honking battery to the back of it. There are battery covers, but having tried that with the S2s, he refuses to take that route as the battery covers have a nasty tendency to make the microphone both directional and less sensitive. That strikes HTC from contention for all of us.

Motorola

Motorola got a resounding pass from all three of us based upon nothing more than reputation. Moto has a history of viciously locking down phones so as to make them virtually impossible to root, unlock or load an alternate OS. It has proven stingy with updates and rarely is feature-competitive on its flagship phones.

Put simply: around here, Motorola's name is mud. Google seems to have left the company largely unchanged, which means the chances are slim that there have been changes in attitude since our bad experiences with the Milestones. Lenovo's purchase offers hope for the future, but it will take Lenovo years to work its magic on that bureaucracy and create a company that is responsive to customer needs.

Microsoft. Really?

From a business standpoint, Windows Phone offers me management and control over the devices that would make life a lot easier.

Microsoft does so many things right with Windows Phone. Updates are well handled, the OS is well designed for mobile use, and it's a stable, fluid experience that works well on any hardware. Microsoft has a phone OS that I would put on par with Apple or Blackberry's efforts, and is better than Android in almost every way.

Personally, I prefer the Cyanogenmod Android UI, but not so much so that it would sway me all on its lonesome. What does stop me is Microsoft itself. Microsoft's vision for computing seems to be one of cloud computing pay-for-everything-per-month rental and design decisions forced upon users by fiat.

All of that shouldn't matter when talking about "do you buy this phone or not," excepting that the deep ecosystem integration is the primary selling point of Windows Phone. Unfortunately, years of actively demonstrating that everyone from end users to ecosystem partners don't have a say in anything Microsoft does, means that we are in the process of either ditching Microsoft's software or moving it into legacy support.

For me, it just doesn't make good business sense to go investing in Windows Phone for the next two years. Josh doesn't like the UI to the point where he won't use it and Katherine says at least half of the apps she uses aren't available for the platform. So that's Microsoft off the list.

Samsung

Samsung scores a win with us. Josh reluctantly chose the Galaxy Note III. He found out he could get the style of extended battery he wanted and could replace the OS with ease. As far as he's concerned it's an upgrade to a slightly better screen in exchange for the time and effort to move his media, settings and apps. He does make it clear, however, that if it weren't free it isn't an upgrade he'd be interested in.

The Galaxy S4 tempted Kat, but she ultimately passed it up. There's nothing overly special about the S4; there are a number of similarly sized and specced competitors on the market. It didn't stand out, so it got binned. I'm on the fence; Josh's take on the Note III seems to match my own feelings in the matter, but I'm not sure if I want a third Samsung phone in a row. There is some desire for variety.

Up all night to get LG?

LG scores the second win with the Nexus 5. From a specs standpoint, it's an unremarkable flagship phone, but multiple reviews hold that it stands among the best of this generation in battery life. Katherine spends most of her time on the phone reading ebooks, and this was her primary criteria.

The Nexus 5 saw off the HTC One, the Galaxy S4 and various Sony and Alcatel devices. The Nexus brand was the deciding factor between the Nexus 5 and the virtually identical LG G2: Kat feels updates are important and thinks she'll get them more regularly with a Nexus branded device.

Josh passed on the Nexus 5 only because he preferred the larger screen of the Note III. I am passing because of the lack of MicroSD card slot.

Still walking with Androids

With all of that done, I still haven't chosen a device. Nothing on the market actually seems worth the time and effort required to move all my data, settings and so forth to a new device. Even if the device is free.

The hardware and software of the smartphone scene feel like PCs circa 2006: there's nothing out there that makes upgrading worthwhile. In cases where people have any incentive whatsoever not to upgrade their smartphone, I suspect that they simply won't.

Apple's strategy of planned obsolescence through batteries that can't be replaced seems positively genius. Whether customers feel a new unit offers a real advantage or not, they'll keep upgrading just to get battery life back up to acceptable levels.

Perhaps more disappointing is that despite a sea of options, we're right back at Android one more time with the only two viable options being "Samsung" and "Nexus". As a sysadmin and business owner, I'm not fond of Android. The OS and ecosystem are Swiss cheese and as such are a magnet for every malware writer on the planet.

I've served my time with Windows XP. Just as I'm finally seeing that nightmare off it looks like I'm in for two more years of tech support. The difference is that nobody has made Hirens or Ninite for Android phones so it feels like 2001 all over again. I'm back to a carefully curated and updated collection of imaging, diagnostic and anti-malware tools as well as cursing at manufacturers for doing esoteric and non-standard things that make actually doing proper maintenance on these systems miserable.

End of "explosive" smartphone growth in sight

Over the next two years you are going to read a lot of headlines about "peak mobile" and analysts wailing about the end to explosive growth of Smartphones, at least in the developed world. Growth will come from developing nations, but western markets will stagnate and decline in short order.

Money is not the obstacle here. The western mobile markets won't be stalling out because the widgets cost too much. The issue is one of cost versus benefit.

The PC market didn't stall out because we all suddenly started moving our workloads over to tablets and smartphones. It stalled out because what we had worked, what was new didn't offer any tangible improvements, and we knew how to defend what we had.

We'll keep buying new PCs and notebooks as our old ones die, just as we'll keep buying new smartphones. But both markets are now dominated by inertia: we'll stick with what we know, what we already have investments in, and what seems comfortable and familiar.

Phone specs won't even move the needle for today's purchasers. The number of cores, amount of storage and the resolution of the screen just don't matter anymore. Battery life matters more than manufacturers are willing to admit, while style and "thickness" don't matter nearly so much as they think.

Both the PC and Smartphone markets are in the same place: corporate reputation and novel innovation are what matter now. You might capture market share with pricing, but people will pay more for a brand they trust.

Despite the razzing the world gave Samsung, its Smartwatches were a half-decent idea. "Accessories" are going to define the future of the smartphone market as the computer you carry around with you powers an ever-increasing array of portable doo-dads. From medical devices to head-mounted displays, the real growth from here on out is "the internet of things" and "wearable computing."

Smartphones have finally become "good enough". ®