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As my friends’ tame geek, I am often asked: “What mobile should I get? I’m due an upgrade.” It is a good question. There are so many handsets that do more or less the same things and look more or less the same that it can be hard to know where to start.

In some ways it should be straightforward. There are just four main mobile platforms – Android, iOS, Windows Phone and BlackBerry – so choosing a new handset is based on what platform they already use. Yet most of my friends do not know which platform they are on. What they can tell you, is which handset they use: “I love my Samsung” or “iPhone all the way”.

That is good news for handset makers that are finding it increasingly hard to stand out. Manufacturers need strong brand stories and points of difference from their rivals. Operating systems are the brands of the software houses – Apple with iOS, Google with Android, Microsoft with Windows Phone and RIM with BlackBerry. Handset makers have to assert their brands ahead of those powerhouses.

“It used to be much easier,” says Carolina Milanesi, a research vice-president in the consumer devices team of Gartner, the IT research company. Before the four platforms emerged to dominate, hardware manufacturers could differentiate their handsets in a number of ways. “The [user interface] was part of that, and then you had technology and design to differentiate them – you had clamshells and candy bars and sliders. There was much more variety in the market,” says Milanesi.

“Now it is a piece of glass in different sizes; there is not much that allows the vendors to differentiate other than in brand strength and quality,” she adds.

The biggest of the big boys is Samsung. The Korean company sold more than 100m units in the first quarter of this year, according to Gartner, giving it a market share of 23.6 per cent. Samsung is best known for its Galaxy range of smartphones and tablets, and it is here that it focuses most of its marketing effort.

The Galaxy devices use Google’s Android, which is overwhelmingly the dominant mobile device operating system. Gartner found Android held 74.4 per cent of the global smartphone market in the first quarter of 2013.

Yet Samsung makes little or no mention of Android. At the launch of the Galaxy S4 earlier this year, the focus was on Samsung’s own applications, which run on its customised version of Android, TouchWiz. It knows that consumers go for the brand, not the platform. Samsung wants you to choose Samsung, not Android.

People used to choose HTC. However, at the end of July it warned that it could face an operating loss for the first time, tellingly pointing to “the lack of economy of scale”.

HTC’s brand story had been focused on its own custom user interface, HTC Sense, and the quality of its hardware. Certainly, the high-spec HTC One, launched earlier this year, was widely liked by reviewers, who compared it favourably with the Galaxy S4. Yet HTC dropped out of Gartner’s top-10 list in May, having shipped just 5.36m units in the first quarter of the year to give it a market share of 2.5 per cent.

So how do manufacturers make their brand stand out? The most recent move has been to focus on the camera. Cameras in smartphones have been notoriously poor: there is only so much quality you can squeeze out of the small sensor and mediocre lens shoehorned into the average smartphone body. Yet despite the poor quality, billions of photos are taken and shared every day. Cameras count.

Enter Nokia. It was widely accepted that Symbian, its smartphone operating system, was at the end of the road. But when the Finnish manufacturer announced that it would partner with Microsoft to make smartphones running Windows Phone, observers were surprised. It had been expected that Nokia would move to Android.

Choosing Windows Phone has been an important point of brand differentiation. However, Nokia’s strongest brand story has been the cameras in its Lumia range, which compare very strongly with the competition. Mounting the camera in a gyroscope means the shutter can open for longer as shake is reduced. This in turn means photos taken in low light are much less likely to require flash – and can be very good indeed.

Nokia’s marketing has focused very heavily on the quality of those images. In July, it upped the ante significantly with the launch of the Lumia 1020, which boasts a 41-megapixel camera. The image quality is stunning.

But other manufacturers are elbowing their way into that space. Samsung’s recently launched S4 Zoom is the only smartphone to have an optical zoom – a lens that makes the phone look like a proper camera.

Are better cameras the way forward? Gartner’s Milanesi is not sure: “The camera can make a difference as long as [it] doesn’t come with a compromise,” she says. Will the “proper” lens of the S4 Zoom put people off? Will the lack of a “proper” lens on the Nokia Lumia 1020 be too much of a compromise for serious photographers? Sales figures later this year will tell us if the camera chapter in the handset-makers’ brand stories is one that will close with “and they all lived happily ever after”.

The mobile life: apps that help you work and play on the go

Microsoft Office 365

(iPhone, Android)

Windows Phone (WP) users get a portable version of Microsoft Office baked in. Office 365 is finally available for iPhone (but not iPad) and Android (only in the US for now). The catch? You need an active Office 365 account. The app allows you to create, save and share documents, but is basic. It is hard to love this when everyone really wants standalone versions of the Office apps for phones and tablets – which WP users get.

. . .

VLC (iOS, Android)

VLC has long been the go-to media player for computers. Newly arrived in the Google Play store, and recently reappeared in the App Store after a two-year hiatus, VLC knocks spots off any similar app. In Android, it is a dream: it will find your video files and offer to play them, and gives you the option of a file browser so you can move those files around. It is trickier in iOS. The best way to get files into the app is to use the WiFi upload option.

. . .


(iPhone, Android)

Revelations about online data collection have focused minds on finding alternative providers for web functions. DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track users, has seen numbers jump. Now there is an app, though built for phones. It is not available for the iPad and is no looker on a bigger Android tablet. Search is good, however, delivering a choice of straightforward results and crowd-sourced “stories”.

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