Several years ago, a phone company boss proudly showed me Britain's first mobile phone with internet access. I was surprised by just how bad it was: a tiny screen, incredibly slow downloads and an inferior, stripped-down version of a web page. When Apple's chief executive, Steve Jobs, stood up at the Macworld exhibition in the US in 2007 to launch the iPhone with pizzazz, mobile communications – how we interact with friends, relatives, employers, companies and government – changed for ever.
Since then, iPhones have become the gadget of choice for the trendy well-off, a device for flaunting one's modernity and connected-ness, despite its often mediocre reception. Media coverage has, generally, been fawning and excitable. But the simple fact is that, despite the iPhone's functionality and style, it has only ever been a small part of the UK mobile market and most handsets are still basic models costing £100 or less.
Figures from the research group Nielsen show that in the second quarter of 2010, Nokia had the largest market share; one in three UK mobile phones is made by the Finnish company. Next is Samsung (20 per cent) and Sony Ericsson (16 per cent), then Apple and Korea's LG, both on 6 per cent.
Apple's popularity is likely to continue to grow as more people buy smartphones which, like its versatile invention, can display the web, take pictures and play music. Last year, one in seven UK phones (14 per cent) was a smartphone; now the figure 27 per cent. Nokia is still the biggest player in smartphones, with 38 per cent against Apple's 27 per cent. BlackBerry, once the only practical way to access emails on the go, has 17 per cent, ahead of Taiwan's HTC.
What do all these figures mean? Not much on their own perhaps, but they do illustrate there are many alternatives out there to buying a £499 iPhone. Apple's two biggest handset rivals are about to launch new products. Nokia, whose web-enabled phones have tended to have small screens and physical keyboards and retail for around £200, will start selling the N8 for £429 later this month. Next month, BlackBerry launches its £480 Torch 9800.
Several devices with iPhone-like dimensions and functionality are already on sale. At £449, the Samsung Galaxy is a neat piece of kit with Apple's sleekness and ease of use. HTC's £429 Desire has also garnered good reviews, as has the Motorola Milestone XT720 which is keenly-priced at £350. These devices are really iPhones in all but name and price, except they use Google's Android operating system. Unlike Apple's OS system, handset-makers are free to use Android, meaning it is likely to become hugely important for "apps" – the downloadable software that furnishes phones with extra functions, some merely amusing, others highly practical. Nielsen's figures show that in the second quarter of 2010, 4 per cent of UK smartphones ran on Android, but it is growing and – because its phones are cheaper – it may eventually eclipse OS, in the same way that JVC's VHS videos triumped over Sony's Betamax.
If you have an old, un-smart phone is it worth buying a new one? Until the iPhone, new phones offered little more than cosmetic improvements to their 10-year-old forerunners. But smartphones are different; they are not really mobile phones at all, but mobile computers. You can already do a vast range of things with them: email, hold video conferences, book films, restaurants and concerts, run a bank account, even bet on a horse on the 3.45 at Kempton.
They are likely to change our lives in a way most of us are only just beginning to understand.
Heroes and villains: Spreading a little sunshine for home-owners
So, this is the deal: a firm called HomeSun will install solar panels on your roof, providing it's south-facing, unshaded and a minimum of 30 square metres; in return it will snaffle government grants for the next 25 years. Some complain that home-owners will miss out on the grant money, but their fuel bills will fall. What's not to like?
Villain: EDF Energy
EDF has put up its standard electricity tariffs in 11 of 14 regions. The changes, affecting 1.2 million people, mean electricity bills rise from £429 to £438 and dual-fuel bills from £1,159 to £1,167. Price rises are not necessarily bad, unless EDF has not fully passed on falls in wholesale electricity costs ... as many commentators suspect.