Hasn't Microsoft come a little late to the mobile party?

Microsoft/Nokia deal

News this morning that Microsoft have bought Nokia’s mobile phone unit for £4.6bn is a natural step for the two companies, who have already been working together very closely on smartphones since originally signing a strategic partnership in February 2011. But the question of whether two companies which have both have been accused of falling behind in the smartphone race and resting on their laurels can really regain lost ground, is one that seems too little too late.

The deal, which will see Microsoft license Nokia’s brand to use on its products for a 10-year period, was hailed by Microsoft chief executive, Steve Ballmer, as: "…a bold step into the future — a win-win for employees, shareholders and consumers of both companies… We are excited and honored to be bringing Nokia’s incredible people, technologies and assets into our Microsoft family."

Nokia’s shares rose an incredible 45 per cent on the news and on first glance, it seems like Microsoft have made a canny move in purchasing the second-largest mobile phone maker in the world, who managed to ship 60.9 million units in the second quarter of 2013. However, the truth is that the lion’s share of these sales were feature phones, less powerful than their smartphone brethren, and a shrinking market sector, which actually resulted in Nokia’s sales dropping by 27 per cent from the same quarter in 2012.

But where Microsoft is really hoping to make some waves is with Nokia’s Lumia range of smartphones, which run Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 operating system and have seen robust growth of 78 per cent year-on-year. In their announcement to the media, Microsoft made a big splash of the fact that the Lumia range was outselling Blackberry smartphones in 34 markets. This seems like a great achievement, but hides the fact that shipments are a country mile behind the likes of Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s devices running Google’s Android operating system, of which more than 100m were sold in Q2 this year.

With such well developed competitors, it’s going to be a long hard road to fight their way back to the top, especially given the nature of the smartphone market today. It is not just the hardware and the operating system that informs a consumer’s decision on which phone to purchase, it is also the range of apps on offer. Apple and Google’s Android launched their app stores as far back as 2008 and have stolen a march on the Microsoft alternative. By July 2013, both Apple and Google celebrated app downloads in excess of 50 billion.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone Store, on the other hand, has yet to reach such dizzying heights, and this was one of the biggest criticisms of Nokia’s decision to embrace Microsoft’s operating system for its Lumia range. The first product to be launched in November 2011, the Lumia 800, was lauded as a compelling alternative to the duopoly of Apple iOS and Android powered phones, but many critics voiced concerns over the relatively limited range of apps available for the Windows platform. Although the situation has been constantly improving since then, it still lags a long way behind.

To make matters worse, Microsoft has something of an uneven track record as a hardware manufacturer. Traditionally a software developer, it has only had limited exposure in the hardware sector, most recently with the launch of its Surface tablet last year, which has failed to live up to expectations. The company was recently forced to slash the price of the tablet, after writing down $900m because of unsold stock of the Surface RT, more than the $853m it had earned for sales of the device.

Hopefully some of Nokia’s expertise in this area will rub off on the software giant, otherwise things could go from bad to worse in the mobile phone sector for both companies.

Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.