Friday, 29 April 2016

Microsoft Lumia 640 XL: Big In So Many Ways

My decision to add the Lumia 640 XL to my smartphone collection was driven by necessity rather than desire (for a change) and having picked this mid-range phone to sit amongst my collection of premium handsets I have to say that it has proved to be a very successful and competent handset.

First some background. Having updated my Lumia 930 to Windows 10 Mobile I discovered that it was suffering from the bad microphones bug that appears to affect a significant proportion of 930 users. Of the four mics that make up the sophisticated audio recording sub-system tow of mine weren’t functional - unfortunately the two mics which are used during video recording in Windows 10 Mobile. The problem had been masked previously because Windows Phone 8.1 handles audio recording differently.

Unable to continue with a phone that wouldn’t record video but also having been greatly enthused by my exposure to Windows 10 Mobile I needed something else to fill the gap. At this point my Lumia 735, bought specifically to use as a Windows 10 Mobile test device should be getting called into service. However earlier in the year my wife managed to smash the screen of her own 735, meaning that I’d given her my test device.

After some debate, I decided that the Lumia 640 XL was probably going to fit my needs well enough - at NZ$339 unlocked it was less than half the price of the newer 950 and far more capable than either of the other launch phones. There was also a degree of hesitation in going all in with my first choice phone - a Lumia 950 XL - because of the lukewarm message Microsoft had been putting out about its vision for Windows on phones.

The 640 XL I picked up went straight onto Windows 10 Mobile. There was an intermediate step when in installed an enabling Windows Phone 8.1 update, but within an hour of purchase I had a 640 XL running Windows 10 Mobile. I couldn’t actually use it though, I hadn’t noticed that the 640 uses a micro SIM, whilst the 930 has a nano SIM and I had to wait to pick up an adapter to use my SIM in the new phone.

First impressions are good. The 640 XL packs a great screen - very bright indeed and with good deep blacks (as close to AMOLED as I’ve seen an LCD screen come). The resolution of 720p doesn’t actually impact the phone, even compared side bv side with the Galaxy S6 and its QuadHD screen. Partially that’s because Windows 10 Mobile has an interface that masks the lower pixel count and partially its because the extra pixels aren’t really visible (and here I refer you to the Retina display argument, which suggests 300ppi is about as much as the eye can resolve at smartphone using distances).

As I wrote earlier after a few days with the phone, battery life is exceptional. After a few charge cycles have been through the battery the endurance has settled down to two full days and change. I can take the 640 XL off charge on a Friday night and run through to Monday morning without any problems. The relatively mid-range CPU and the lower resolution screen, together with the larger battery made possible by the bigger body all contribute to this achievement.

In the hand the 640 XL is excellent. The (removable) back cover may be plastic but it’s texture and solidity add up to a tactile experience that betters many more expensive handsets. Its not excessively wide or deep, which means for those of use with bigger hands its possible to use with one hand. Realistically though you’ll be two-handing this device for most tasks.

That removable back cover hides a micro SD card slot - I added a 64Gb card for next to nothing (well NZ$14 anyway) and Windows 10 Mobile’s ability to offload (almost) everything to the card means the built in 8GB of storage won’t be a problem.

That extra storage will be required to hold images from the surprisingly capable 13mp rear camera. Its not a Pureview unit, so no OIS, but it does sport Zeiss optics and produces a remarkably good image in good light and manages to be impressively capable in low light too. Microsoft’s Auto HDR helps in this respect too, taking images with and without the flash and allowing you to select just how much flash is applied to the image after its been taken. Living Images are here too, although there’s no slow motion video or panorama mode - yet.

The most impressive thing has been how quickly Microsoft has been pushing out updates to Windows 10 Mobile, little niggles or missing functionality gets fixed on a regular basis. Having just received the most recent update from Microsoft the news that the next update has reached the Preview release stage has me expectant for new goodies. So those missing camera add-ons don’t worry me as I’m sure they’ll arrive in a release soon.

The rate of update is impressive in another way. For those phones that receive Windows 10 Mobile Microsoft has delivered an Apple-like update experience. Meanwhile neither of my Android phones (Galaxy S6 or Xperia Z3C) has seen a hint of Android 6 Marshmallow even though Google is previewing the next, version 7 release.

The Lumia 640 XL is a mid-range handset which is coming to the end of its shelf-life. Microsoft has just reduced its price and it is a massive bargain at the current figure. Its a shame that Microsoft hasn’t seen fit to add a replacement of this phone in its Windows 10 Mobile range - especially as this is the sort of price point where Microsoft reigns supreme over Android competitors and Apple hasn’t even begun to consider competing.

If you’re looking for something to try Windows 10 Mobile on, are updating a handset that isn’t in line for the upgrade or are after a mid-range handset that outperforms its price tag, the 640 XL is a phone that you should definitely look into.

Reviewing Watches On The Web

Shaun McGill, publisher of Lost In Mobile, the technology news blog that started off deep in the midsts of history as a Sony CliƩ website, has announced a new site reviewing watches on the web.

The good news is that this isn't a blog about smartwatches (which I still maintain aren't actually useful or value enhancing) or about the high end watches which many lust over but can't afford, rather it promises to focus on the affordable, and notable watches for everyone.

The initial round of reviews has a good mix - from a sub £20 Chinese brand of little reputation, to the old favourite G-Shock.

There's something about watches, a tangible, tactile expression of what we like and enjoy, so I'm looking forward to reading Shaun's take on things.

Just a shame that so many of the younger generation don't see the benefit of wearing one.

If you're interest is piqued you can find the new site here.

Did The Microsoft Surface Outsell The iPad Pro Last Quarter?

A number of Apple fan sites and bloggers made much of the news that the all new iPad Pro had outsold Microsoft’s Surface range last quarter, ignoring the very different aims of the two products.

The Surface was a product which Microsoft designed to give direction and leadership to PC OEMs. It wasn’t seeking to own the market, rather to create a direction which showcased Windows at its best and gave PC builders something to ‘riff’ on when putting together their own products.

So although the iPad Pro outsold the Surface it was swamped by Windows two-in-one sales as a whole.

However the recent financial reports would seem to suggest that the Microsoft’s Surface probably outsold the iPad Pro last quarter despite not intending to.

Apple’s sales numbers and revenue figures suggest that the mix of iPads sold in its financial Q2 was not much different to that in Q1. Based on the numbers that Apple provided that equates to about 1.4m iPad Pros shipped.

Microsoft doesn’t give us any information on device shipments for Surfaces, but based on revenue figures last quarter and this quarter, and accounting for some run out pricing offers on the Surface Pro 3, it looks like Microsoft may have shipped slightly more than 1.4m Surfaces over the same period.

Whether the mark was achieved this quarter or happens some time in the future, Apple’s refusal to deliver a true hybrid still looks incredibly short-sighted. iPad sales as a whole dropped by 16% - faster than IDC estimate of a 14% fall for the market as a whole, whilst Microsoft saw Surface sales jump 61% year on year.

Like its lengthy delay in producing a large screen phone Apple’s just doesn’t seem to be able to skate to where the puck’s going to be at the moment.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

How Do You Fix A Problem Like Twitter?

If Apple's financial results this week were bad, at least the company can point to another huge profit to ease any concerns about its real world performance. Twitter, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have anything in the cupboard.

The messaging service missed analysts revenue predictions by some measure and for the fifth straight quarter reported effectively flat user numbers. The company halved its net loss in comparison to last year, but even so another $80m was sucked out of the business.

Twitter has decided to throw its efforts behind video streaming as its revenue source - and its NFL deal may not be its last. That's really an example of trying to be something the service is not and has never been: just another media provider.

Twitter needs to find a way to monetise its core messaging service instead of trying to be something it isn't. How does it do this? There are a few options, and it appears that the service has never investigated any of these. 

Premium features for paid accounts. Particularly for businesses using the service to provide support and customer engagement. Twitter is providing the medium for these business to improve their relationships with existing customers and to reach out to potential new customers. Charging those businesses for the privilege seems like a logical step. Where else can you get such a valuable service for free? 

If Twitter were to make that premium service charge to businesses $100 a year and converted just one percent of its current user base (or around three million users) it would bank a healthy $300m - or nearly enough to cover its current losses. Political campaigns run on Twitter should obviously attract significantly higher fees.

As well as businesses there are endless hordes of 'celebrity' tweeters using the service to engage with fans. An annual fee to verify those users seems reasonable to maintain that verified status. 

Improving cash flow is just one of the issues that Twitter has to address. The other is the perceived height of the barrier of entry to the Twitter community. Two years ago Twitter broke the 250m active user barrier - now it's running at 300m. Which means that almost 85% of its current user base have been active for more than two years.

Why are new users so rare to find? Because Twitter doesn't really make them welcome and incentivise their participation in the conversation. Its a big, bad world out there and its difficult to find a niche as a new user.

How can Twitter fix this? Well it could certainly look to steal a feature that worked well on Google+ - special interest groups. Breaking Twitter down into more consumable, friendly chunks of users talking about specific topics and offering a newbie a chance to find their voice.

Lastly Twitter needs to clean up its act. Its all too easy for mob rule to damage the user experience. Whether right or wrong we don't need to see the kind of witch hunt that drove Stephen Fry from the service, nor the kind of abuse that has dogged users because of their gender, sexual preference, racial origins or even because of a poorly thought out or off the cuff comment.

Users need to be able to prevent their tweets being shared, either individually or across the board and moderation of the sort of whirlwind assaults on Twitter users needs to happen much more quickly.

Ultimately I don't believe that Twitter's problems are related to the content available on the service, rather that by not understanding the value of what they have Twitter's management or going to be sidetracked into a battle with Facebook that it just can't win.

Microsoft Needs A Lumia 1020 Level Halo Phone


Microsoft is constantly rumoured to be on the point of releasing a new Windows 10 Mobile that will reach the market and save the business. The mythical beast is almost universally known as the Surface Phone on the rumour sites and some with good track records are suggesting that it will arrive in April next year.

Jam tomorrow? Almost certainly. A whole year is a long time to wait for something that may or may not save a dying platform. However, let’s be honest here, outside of Windows Phone fans, Windows 10 on Mobile isn’t really ready for a big push. Since its launch Microsoft has pushed out 11 fairly big updates, each of which has brought the platform closer to completion. There are still some holes and bugs, but Windows 10 Mobile users can be pretty confident they’ll be filled or squashed as a matter of routine.

Its the same sort of process which has taken Windows 10 on the desktop from unfinished to nicely polished part way through its first year since release.

So we know that Windows 10 Mobile will get better and we’re also seeing more and more third parties releasing universal apps to fill the app store gap. Its only a small number in the grander scheme of things, but its the sort of movement the Windows Store has lacked since arriving with Windows/WP 8.

With gaps in its armour being closed on an almost daily basis it makes sense for Microsoft to hold off on a flagship phone until such time as both hardware and software are as good as they can be.

Assuming that the Windows Phone fan community keeps buying devices in sufficient number to keep platform recognition up (and prevent Windows 10 Mobile disappearing into the Other category in market reports) Microsoft has the time in hand to delay its big play.

But it needs to make that big play.

The last Windows Phone that really drove any kind of consumer interest was the Lumia 1020. Its camera was a big enough differentiator to be recognisable even amongst focused consumers who could see no further than Android and iOS. The camera was a talking point and an opportunity to demonstrate what Windows Phone could do.

Of course the marketing was tepid and sales weren’t great, but the very existence of such a remarkable phone (well okay, a remarkable camera on a phone) meant that potential customers saw and tried a Windows Phone, most of them for the first time. And some of those users went on to buy a Windows Phone of some description.

If Microsoft does create a Surface Phone next year it has to have that same jaw-dropping, attention grabbing quality that the 1020 had when it arrived – looking like and working like nothing else out there.

I’m not sure that anyone can create such a phone given the maturity of the market however given Microsoft’s low market share and apparent desire to lead (as demonstrated by the Surface / Pro / Book range) maybe it can create something which doesn’t fit the current smartphone template and is better for it.

IDC Sees 0.2% Growth In Smartphone Shipments


IDC has reported growth of just 0.2% in global smartphone shipments in the first calendar quarter of 2016, with a significant fall in the rate of growth in China identified as the driver behind the slowdown.

Samsung comfortably managed to retain its position at the top of the tree, maintaining its year on year volume. As previously discussed Apple saw a massive contraction in volume, though it retained second place in the market. However the growth of Huawei at number three continues at a pace, with volume up by nearly 60% year on year.

It’s not inconceivable that Huawei may sneak past Apple into second place in the market ahead of the launch of the iPhone 7 – which will undoubtedly fix Apple’s sales problems.

Oppo and vivo are now the fourth and fifth placed manufacturers, both growing massively – IDC suggests that this is a result of the change in the buying patterns of the Chinese market, with average selling price rising from $207 in 2013 to $257 last year.

None of which explains why Apple sales are so far off. The Chinese market has continued to grow – and we’re told that Apple is strong in China. The richening of the average sales price should benefit Apple. So either Apple has seen a massive slowdown outside of China, whilst still performing well in China, or it has failed to maintain its momentum in the region.

With Q1 containing the Chinese New Year sales bump, it will be interesting to see what happens to the market in Q2 – will there be a contraction of the market as a whole, mirroring the fall in Apple’s sales at one month delay or will it hold steady, with the fall in Apple’s sales being a blip, perhaps caused by delays ahead of the iPhone SE launch and supply problems once it became available.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Microsoft Closing In On iPhone Sales Figures

Yes, finally, Microsoft has started to close the gap on Apple in the smartphone market, and all it took was a global macroeconomic slowdown!

This time last year Apple sold a massive 61.5 million iPhones against Microsoft's 8.5 million Lumias. That 53 million unit gap in sales has shrunk to a far more manageable 49 million after sales of the iPhone collapsed by ten million units, against a mere six million fewer Lumia sales.

At this rate of collapse Microsoft could be outshipping the iPhone in a mere twelve quarters!

Joking aside (and I am joking here folks!), it demonstrates how badly Microsoft has been doing since taking over Nokia. Apple managed to drop a whole year's worth of Lumia shipments off its quarterly sales figures, still retained number two slot and made a handsome profit in the process.

By concentrating on its successful markets (Europe and Latin America primarily) and continuing to bring in good value budget phones, Microsoft could have bucked the market fall this quarter. Instead it took the very North America-centric view that what it was doing wasn't working and sliced off the whole of its inherited Nokia division, with its market knowledge, design chops and customer goodwill going down the pan in the process.

Apple Q2 Results: iPhone Down, iPad Down, Mac Down

Turns out Apple isn't immune to the tech slowdown after all. In its Q2 results Apple reported an unprecedented sales collapse with year on year sales down in every one of the companies key product lines.

The biggest shocker is the rate of collapse of iPhone sales. 10 million fewer find buyers than this time last year, with sales hitting 51 million. It's possible that the huge success of the iPhone 6 inflated last year's numbers, and the iPhone 7 will do the same in a years time. Still, to see Apple's number one product hit the bumpers so forcefully must be a concern and might be an indication that we'll see more cheaper iPhones in the future.

The iPad has been something of a car crash for a while now. This quarter sales dipped even lower, despite the introduction of new iPad Pros and Minis. At a time when Microsoft is seeing Surface sales booming Apple's refusal to build a true hybrid looks short sighted.

Interestingly Mac sales are down too, probably as a result of some cannibalisation by the larger iPad Pro. At the moment Apple is selling five iPads for every two Macs it moves on. Until this quarter those two numbers were converging quickly. They're still converging though.

As all three product categories registered bigger hits than their respective market sectors the results amount to Apple's worst quarter in more than a decade. 

The only bright spot was an increase in revenue for the services side of the business - driven by news that Apple Music now has 13 million subscribers. However still no concrete figures on Apple Watch sales - which I find to be another worrying indicator, if ever an Apple financial report needed some good news on Watch sales this was the one.

Still, all the doom and gloom around a quarter where Apple added another $10bn to its cash stockpile seems a little over done. That $230bn war-chest should be more than sufficient to allow Apple to regroup if there's an extended period of falling sales.

Let's face it, other than Samsung, there's nobody else out there turning over fifty million phones and ten million tablets every quarter. So in the wider scheme of things this isn't anything like bad news.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Oh Canada! Microsoft Offering Two For One On Lumia 950s

Microsoft Canada seems to have come up with an innovative way of improving its sales numbers for next quarter: everyone you buy a phone they give you another free. Excellent tactic tainted only by the stink of desperation that emanates from the offer.

It's a bad move in so many ways.

Firstly, it's not actually going to coax any more sales out of the woodwork -  buyers who would otherwise have ignored the 950 XL aren't going to stop doing so because of the prospect of getting a free 950. Those already planning to buy one will likely shift the free handset the don't want or need on ebay, dropping the second hand values of those handsets out there and also limiting new sales by throwing a lot of unopened, warranted devices into the second hand market.

And of course customers in other regions are going to halt that 950 purchase have they were planning as they wait for the offer to go global.

So far from having a positive effect (except perhaps on Microsoft Canada's stock inventory) there's no real benefit for Windows Mobile.

There were other ways in which Microsoft could have made this deal more attractive. A years subscription to Office 365, a year's subscription to Groove Music and a free Continuum dock would have cost less whilst offering a consumer a pretty compelling bundle.

Of course Microsoft couldn't do that as it seems intent on keeping Groove a completely secret service, and bundling it would have let customers know that it existed.

There's widespread acknowledgement that the Lumia 950 and XL don't feel like the premium handsets their price tags suggests. Microsoft seems to have significantly overshot in its attempts to correct that mistake.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

F1: Women, Bernie And The Art Of Proving It

Bernie Ecclestone was reported as saying some rather divisive things about women in F1 recently -not the first time. This time around Bernie's argument was weak, to say the least. He argued that women hadn't made it in F1 because they were weak.

Given the ability of wet behind the ears teenagers to step up and do a competent job in an F1 car I seriously doubt that physical performance is a limiting factor preventing women from becoming F1 drivers.

The counter arguments that women are pushed out of the sport in the junior formulae sound just as wobbly when emotional reasoning is left at the door. Progress through the junior ranks is almost entirely related to finances. Good sponsorship equals good cars equals development support equals results to a large degree. With women in the sport being a tiny minority its easy to see that appealing to sponsors with largely female audiences should ensure the progress of at least some women through the ranks.

The problem is that some of the women who have made it through the ranks into higher formulae have done so on the basis of everything but their driving ability. Take Susie Wolff. A history of having won nothing, ever, doesn't really promise a great career in any sport. Her entry into F1 was undoubtedly eased by her husband's partial ownership of the Williams Grand Prix team, and at the first prospect that they might have to give her a race seat (due to one of the team's real drivers suffering an injury) they showed exactly what they thought of her potential by categorically stating the Wolff would not be racing one of the team's cars.

Wolff did manage to appear in a number of suggestive publicity shots though, working her actual talent, rather than her imagined driving one.

There are much better prospects out there - the unfortunate game of musical chairs that Sauber played at the start of last season prevented Simona de Silvestro getting a race seat with the team. Given that she's shown plenty of talent and has race wins to back that up, it would have been a much better measure of the ability of a woman to compete at the highest level of the sport. I for one think that Simona would have achieved some good results in the Sauber. 

Unfortunately we'll probably never see de Silvestro in an F1 car now, but the time will come when F1 welcomes a real female racer into its ranks - and its not too far away.

So long as that comes as a result of talent rather than glamour I'm all for it. And I suspect Bernie is too.