There is one thing clear in the business of product marketing and that’s that those that figure out who their customers are and cater to them win. This is no different in the mobile world than it is anywhere else. The future winners in the smartphone world will have laser focus on their value statements.
A Mobile History
Once upon a time, there was an upstart company named Palm. Jeff Hawkins, one of Palm’s founders and its creative lead, was unhappy with the various mobile systems that came before, having worked on some of them and been observer of others. Jeff felt there had to be a better way and a better purpose.
His belief: that the purpose of this device is to organize his personal information. He spent months walking around with a carved piece of wood in his pocket. Periodically, he’d pull it out of his shirt pocket to check his calendar, to do list, perform a calculation, or look up a phone number. Of course, he didn’t really do any of those things as it was a piece of wood, but he pretended. And through this process refined the device, operating system and product features which became the first massive success in mobile computing.
After Jeff and the original crew left to form Handspring, Palm Computing invariably lost it’s way. Instead of continuing to advance the greatest personal organizer in the history of organizers, Palm played feature war with Microsoft’s Pocket PC (later Windows Mobile) operating system, confusing it’s customers and eventually falling in such disrepair it licensed the competing operating system.
After 20 years of innovation and advancement, fits and starts, handheld computing is mainstream. These modern devices, combining yesterday’s handhelds, today’s cell phones, and add-on software, will sell in excess of 100 million devices this year alone. And while Apple isn’t the sales leader, they clearly are the thought leaders with more than two billion app downloads.
But it’s not Apple’s applications that have made it so successful. It’s Apple’s laser focus on an entertainment device that makes it so spectacularly successful. World-class browsing? Check. Elegant, simple device? Check. Cameras, video? Check. Music? Duh. Oh… and lots and lots of games.
But Apple wasn’t the first to make mobile take off here in the Western hemisphere. Arguably, RIM with their ubiquitous BlackBerry devices has been even more successful. Figuring out how to penetrate the IT department through control and security, figuring out how to make business people and administrators everywhere salivate like Pavlov’s dog every time the red light blinks at them (new email!), RIM, too, was laser focused.
And the rest? Well, not so much. Microsoft and Nokia were busy creating devices that included everything but the kitchen sink. Palm, too, disintegrated into this world. Who could really blame them? Customers were pulling them in all directions and, with the only history of technology in the modern era being PCs, clearly the licensed operating system was the only way to go.
A Look Ahead
It’s too early to quit, but it’s not too early to predict some winners. Assuming they stay focused on their core constituencies, Apple and RIM will be clear winners. Both have carved out a large but prominent niche in this new mobile world.
Symbian (the operating system some of Nokia’s smartphones), Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and Google’s Android are bigger questions. They cater to a niche — hardware companies that don’t want to write their own operating systems. The problem, of course, is that consumers buy combined devices, hardware and software, and to cater to a wider net of potential hardware licensees, these operating systems must expand the breadth of capabilities. And customers have shown that, at least in the mobile world, they don’t want products that don’t do everything well.
For this reason, Android and Symbian have a leg up. Since they are open source, it allows the hardware vendors to mix and match features with their target niches. While this is a major problem for software developers who need consistency across devices, it gives the hardware vendors the ability to focus on their own niches, assuming they can define one.
The big question is, though, where are the additional niches? Is there room for more than two players in this space and, if so, what customer are the others focused on? Does Palm fit into this picture with their proprietary hardware and software? Is an integrated web/mobile device, as Palm is basically pitching it, a real opportunity and do customer think of themselves this way?
While no one knows for sure who the winners will be, you can bet that whomever it is has a clearer focus on their customer than the others.