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Copying Apple improves Samsung’s phones and payment system but won’t help its sales

Mobile payment.

Samsung is nothing but persistent. Having lost 10% of its market share over the past year, it has reverted to doing what it really knows how to do best, which is to copy Apple. With a few tweaks of the specifications, Samsung has taken the iPhone 6 design and created the new Samsung S6, announced this week at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Samsung has also rebooted its payment system with the somewhat unoriginally named Samsung Pay, its version of Apple’s mobile phone payment system, Apple Pay.

The problem Samsung faces with producing things that are largely copies of other products is that they basically aren’t that product. People will buy substitutes for an original product if it is substantially cheaper, but Samsung’s phones are at the same price point as Apple’s. Although the Galaxy S6 boasts a bigger screen and wireless charging, at best, these features may staunch the flow of existing Samsung users to Apple. It is extremely unlikely to tempt existing Apple users to switch to a Samsung phone.

Like the devices themselves, Samsung Pay follows very closely to the design and functionality of Apple Pay. The technology itself comes from LoopPay, a company Samsung purchased earlier this year. It broadens the S6’s tap-and-pay capabilities by being able to work with magnetic stripe readers in addition to those powered by NFC. The other major advantage of LoopPay, is that it will technically work with any card that carries a magnetic stripe and so doesn’t need the involvement of the issuing bank or organisation. This means that Samsung users anywhere could use the technology even though Samsung is going to concentrate Samsung Pay on the US market in the first instance.

The other unknown is whether Samsung will shut down LoopPay’s existing products that already work with Apple phones. Even though this is done by adding an external case to the iPhone, it does give Apple phone users the same capabilities of mobile payments.

Samsung hasn’t clarified when Samsung Pay will actually be available on their phones and whether it will need external hardware for it to work. Samsung may also be planning to make modifications to the way LoopPay currently works by “tokenizing” the card details - hiding the actual numbers and making the process more secure and less vulnerable to skimming devices.

The big question here, and this goes for Apple Pay as well, is whether the average consumer really cares about paying using a mobile phone rather than using their card. Even though the technology is relatively simple, it doesn’t offer the consumer a huge advantage over using cards. Plus there is the social awkwardness that is common to using any uncommon technology of explaining to people operating checkouts how the device works. Unless the technology is perfect, users will need to carry their card just in case, diminishing the benefit of having this capability on the phone.

Samsung has had tap and pay capability in both the Samsung S4 and S5, its two previous models. Neither phone saw significant adoption of owners using this technology.

Samsung has an additional challenge in that it is competing not only with Apple, but with Google. Google, like Samsung, is trying again with its own mobile payment system, Android Pay. This will work with the Google Wallet but will also allow banks to create their own wallets and payment apps.

Ultimately, the move to using mobile phones for payment will make the whole process more secure and less vulnerable to theft. The fact that this functionality will be available on a range of phones will help in driving general adoption.

Samsung is becoming increasingly desperate to stem its fall in sales as it competes with Apple at the high end and the Chinese phone companies at the cheaper end. Late last year it recycled a large number of senior staff in its mobile division and the S6 and Samsung Pay is the product of that change in strategy. Although both products are a significant improvement on their predecessors, it is still doubtful though whether it will be enough to reverse Samsung’s fortunes.

Mobile phones have quietly become a global identity device we don’t really need

Phone as ID

Mobile phones have become central to our lives. In the US, 90% of adults have one. Although we think of mobile phones for their primary role in communication, they have quietly become a global identification device. Governments, and their secret services and law enforcement agencies in particular, have in most countries moved to prevent individuals from being able to buy a mobile phone without producing official identification. As far as these agencies are concerned, being able to identify the owner of a mobile phone is essential in being able to track the parties in a conversation. For countries like Australia that are considering metadata retention, having people identifiable greaty facilitates the analysis and detection of information of interest.

The problem with requiring identification for purchasing mobile phones is the same problem as for collecting metadata of all citizens in a country, it is not a particularly effective means of stopping or even deterring crime or terrorism but it has a disproportionately large impact on privacy and civil liberties of ordinary people.

Requiring identification to buy pre-paid mobile phones for example has not been shown to increase detection of criminals and has had the opposite effect of creating markets for stolen phones and unidentifiable SIM cards. The sorts of criminals law enforcement and security services would be after would also be generally more than capable of avoiding using phones that they had personally bought. At the same time,

On the flip side, there are a range of scenarios in which law abiding citizens are disadvantaged by the need to produce identification in order to buy a phone. This can range from people who don’t have access to official identification documentation like the homeless, through to people in family situations who don’t have control over their documentation and so are prevented from using it for this purpose.

More insidious however has been the way social networks like Facebook have adopted the mobile phone as a way of preventing anonymity on their networks. Although Facebook does allow just an email to create and verify an account, if a phone number is used, it needs to be a number that has not been used before and is registered with a recognised telecommunications provider. As Facebook states:

“We have limits in place to make sure that everyone is using their real information on their account.”

There is no real way around this. Facebook mobile verification will not work with “virtual phone numbers” such as those that can be set up in different countries to forward to your real phone number or even to a “soft phone”.

In fact, there are services from companies such as Telesign that will do the telephone number verification to ensure that it is a legitimate number from a recognised service provider.

Another consequence of using mobile devices for identification purposes is that it also acts to limit technological advances. The inability to use virtual numbers that might be associated with Skype or other services for the purposes of verification means that ultimately, that flexibility that these services offer is compromised.

Countries like Australia, that have struggled with the population when trying to introduce national identity cards have met with no resistance when introducing proxies for this card and in particular, mandatory identification for mobile phone purchases. The argument for identity cards was given as the need to fight terrorism even though in the last terrorist attack in Australia, the identity and significant information about the terrorist, Monis, was actually known by intelligence services.

Even with this information, the attack went unforeseen. If 18 phone calls to report the individual could not alert the services to an imminent attack, the idea that they will be able to discover this information in metadata is dubious at best.

Identification features of the mobile phone have taken a bigger leap with the advent of fingerprint use in the Apple iPhone and other smartphones. The use of the fingerprint links phones to bank details and by design establish the identity of the phone user at any point in time. Of course, Apple, Samsung and other companies will claim that this information is not made available to governments, but post-Snowden, that argument no longer holds very much validity.

The surveillance of a population is an easy option for politicians, even when they struggle to understand the technologies involved. It gives the appearance of using sophisticated means to combat potential threats. It also, like the identification properties of mobile phones, gives a country hidden benefits in control of whistle-blowers and political activists. It also means that these actions can be carried out without oversight, making the abuse of this power almost inevitable.

Email is still a problem that Google and others are happy to keep that way

Email overload

Despite the rise of social networks and messaging apps, email continues to be the dominant mode of written electronic communication. Over the next few years, email use will continue to grow in the business world and decrease by less than 4% each year for consumers. The average business worker will have to deal with 140 emails a day by 2018, up from 120 emails a day now.

Although perhaps not surprising, the fact that we will continue to have to deal with unmanageable amounts of email is a testament to the fact that behaviour significantly lags technology and that technology still hasn’t come up with a particularly good way of dealing with the deluge of email we all have to manage.

Like dieting and getting rich quick, there is no easy and foolproof path to an empty inbox. The trouble with any of the schemes like “inbox zero” and “Getting things Done” or “GTD” is that it still requires discipline, effort and more importantly, time. None of it guarantees that the email arriving will be dealt with efficiently nor that it won’t cause the receiver undue amounts of stress. Email software that claims to assist with this process is therefore likely to be overstating the benefits that it can actually deliver.

The problem with email is not that you have something sitting in queue that requires clicking, dragging, deleting, archiving or saving until later. It is that you have requests sitting in a queue asking for an action from you which may require anything from the time it takes to read the email and respond, archive, delete, file, etc. to initiating a major piece of work that takes days, months or years.

Dealing with email becomes a process of actually assessing how much work is being asked of the recipient. The difficulty is that these requests don’t come from a carefully considered project manager who knows what your current work obligations are; they are largely random requests that could arrive from anywhere. Each request is usually independent of all others and the sender of the email is expecting a response as if their request was the only one sitting in your inbox, instead of the hundreds that are likely to be there.

This means that the only effective strategy that we have to deal with email is to find ways to either say no or yes to each email that arrives. If the answer is no, then the question becomes, do you delete with no reply, or delete after replying with a courteous “no”. If the answer is yes, then the question is whether to deal with it immediately, delegate or set it up as something that will be dealt with in the future.

From a software perspective, the primary feature needed in an email application is the ability to delete. There is little point in ‘archiving’ these emails because you have decided it is something that you are not going to be able to do. In a worst case scenario in which you delete something that later does become important, the person requesting can always re-issue that request by sending a new email.

Given that every other action in dealing with email is secondary to being able to delete, it is surprising that Google in particular has built its email around the concept of never having to delete emails. In the “Trash” feature of Gmail, they declare:

“Who needs to delete when you have so much storage?!”

Google, and other cloud email providers, have a vested interest in getting customers not to delete their emails and archiving them instead. For a start, their aim is to get people to have to pay for extra space when they fill up their free allocation. A second motivation is the ability to use the information stored in archived email for analysis and marketing purposes.

Gmail

Google’s latest email application Inbox, which is currently in an invite-only beta, is another attempt at re-arranging email that has not been discarded. Although a “pretty” update on the more utilitarian Gmail application, it does nothing to help with actually what matters, which is to get rid of as many emails in as short an amount of time as possible. Inbox emphasises bundling of emails into categories like travel, finance and “purchases”. Unfortunately, this simply groups things together in a largely superficial way and doesn’t distinguish on the basis of what is important and not important, what needs to be actioned and what can be ignored. Deleting an email is a two step action, with the delete function being accessed through a menu.

Dropbox is another company with a vested interest in getting people to archive emails rather than delete. Like Google, they make the email functionality free on the basis that it will encourage people to use space that they will eventually have to pay for. Their email product Mailbox again sets default actions to emphasise archiving, “snoozing” to have emails reappear later, and filing. Finding out how to delete an email and even setting this up as the default action is made more difficult than necessary.

The only way email will become less burdensome and manageable is for people to stop sending it in the first place. Perhaps two key features for an ideal email application would be a large question that comes up every time you send an unsolicited email that asks “Do you really need to send this email?” The second feature would be to make it extremely easy to delete emails. Everything else is going to be largely surplus to requirements.