My Kingdom For An iPhone Rival

It’s a shame, it really is. By the end of this week, almost every person in my close family will be sporting an Apple iPhone as their primary communications device. Both my parents, both my parents-in-law, my two brothers, my wife and one of her sisters.

Of the 10 people in my immediate family, 8 of them have Apple iPhone 3GS devices. Soon it will be 9 iPhones and one BlackBerry. It’s getting ridiculous, it really is.

But I can’t argue with it. I can’t find a way around it. What alternative is there?

It’s Fisher-Price but…

The geek in me points out that the iPhone is effectively a Fisher-Price mobile phone, seriously limited in its capabilities. You can only do one thing at a time, something that I find seriously frustrating. But it’s not a problem for the rest of the planet. Indeed, it’s painful watching the look of joy on the faces of those finally getting iPhones.

My Father-in-Law was phoned last week by Vodafone because his contract had expired. Would he like to renew, they asked — and get a free phone? Certainly, he replied and initially accepted a new BlackBerry Bold. Then he phoned his daughter — my wife — and asked if that was the right decision.

“No,” she said, “I don’t think you’ll like the small keys.”

I happen to really enjoy the BlackBerry’s physical keyboard layout, but she had a point. Within 30 seconds, the BlackBerry decision was reversed and Vodafone were asked to supply an iPhone instead.

This is happening all across the UK and in developed countries around the world. Ever so slowly, the iPhone is seeping into the mainstream marketplace, replacing Nokias, Samsungs, LGs and BlackBerries — and bringing great joy with it.

My members can’t believe how easy it is to get email. They can’t believe how cool it is to be able to flick through their photos and buy media with just a touch of a virtual button. They’re astounded by the simplicity of the user interface. This is manifested by their confidence in the device. I don’t see family members being ‘astounded’ instead I see them confidently asserting their preferences and delights. I am accosted regularly by iPhone friends and family with the phrase, “Have you seen this app?”

Expert In Minutes

Within a week of getting her iPhone, my wife was an expert. Such is the command that iPhone users have over their Fisher-Price device, they can confidently feel that they’ve ‘got it’ within days.My wife is downloading applications left right and centre. She doesn’t differentiate between free or premium, provided the cost is below £5.00. She makes her download evaluation based on the App Store reviews, the screenshots and whether her friends (the majority are also iPhone users) recommend the app.

My wife’s biggest issue is that she’s being woken up by 630am push notifications from some lady in Perth, Australia. By way of explanation: She’s recently taken to playing Words With Friends (iTunes link) — the scrabble-like game that enables you to play, in turns, with other people. She’s been checking out the ‘play with a random person’ function and started a game last week with a lady called Laura thousands of miles away. Once or twice a day, each of them knocks out a word via the app and the other is notified with a push update. Simple pleasures. My wife thinks it’s fantastic. I dare say that Laura is a big fan too.

My wife’s only issue is wondering whether it’s possible to turn off the vibrate option for push notifications. She asked and I suggested she check out the push-notification-menu. She disabled the vibrate function. And now she is entirely content.

Confidence & Delight

This remarkable confidence is one of Apple’s best inventions. By controlling their platform with tyrannical zeal, they are enabling their consumers to relax with their devices. To know that, for example, installing an application won’t screw things up. That if you take a photo, it’ll stay on your phone until you delete it. Oh, and plug it into your computer and it’ll be backed up. Properly. That is, if you lose your iPhone and buy another one, plug it into your computer and bang! it’ll be restored to precisely the last time you backed it up. Sounds simple but other mobile manufacturers haven’t quite got there yet.

Perhaps one of Apple’s biggest achievements has been to reach the disenfranchised mobile masses with disposable income. These are the people who previously couldn’t give a toss about their mobile handset. It was simply a communications device. I’m thinking of the over 40s, the over 50s and beyond — who earn sufficient not to have to worry about their precise spend each month.

I’m continually astonished at the fact my parents and parents-in-law cannot program their video recorder, but they can download and use iPhone applications. Targeting those with disposable income is a super move. They tend to be content to pay a slight premium for devices and services that make sense, that are easy to use. So whilst your average twenty-something might be too price sensitive to the ‘iPhone tax’ premium applied to the monthly operator contract, it’s not a problem for my wife’s father. He simply didn’t blink at the extra tenner a month.

My father-in-law has never had mobile email before. All of a sudden, he’s about to experience it — in all the iPhone’s simplicity. The email will just arrive. It’ll have a simple blue dot next to the unread items. It’ll make a satisfying ‘woosh’ when he sends a mail. It’ll make a little ding sound and show a counter on top of the email icon when new mail arrives. It’s ridiculously revolutionary for him.

His previous handset? Nokia N95 8GB.

Simple Works

For all the geeks reading who think the iPhone is a step-down from the ‘mobile computer’ that is (or was) the N95, the only feature my father-in-law used was the telephone and the address book. Everything else was too stupidly designed for him to bother wasting time using. The N95 was from a different era. The pre-Apple era. Everything was ‘your problem’. Nobody but the end user did the heavy lifting. You had to read the manual. You had to figure out how the stupid commands worked. You had to fit yourself around the mindset of the uber tech geeks who’d created the technology.

One of the key reasons people love Apple so much is because Steve Jobs simply won’t allow the stuff out the door unless it makes sense. It’s certainly not all about Steve — there’s a lot of other smarts working at the company who all think and believe the same. But when you look at the other companies and service providers out there, they’re simply too lazy to care. They will cite excuses like ‘nothing’s broken’ or ‘but we still make lots of money’ and ‘people still buy our products’.

Apple — in the context of the user experience — will not accept anything other than their own brand of brilliance. They make it work the way it should do. If that means a re-write or a lot of hard work, they make it happen. How many other manufacturers would have required the 140,000 applications written for the iPhone to have been re-written entirely for the iPad? It would have probably been easier not to bother. But no. They made sure that the iPad was backward compatible. Because you and I expected that to be the case.

Because It’s Cooler

You might not agree with a particular Apple strategy or viewpoint, but when Mr Jobs gets up on stage and explains that ‘this is cooler’ or ‘because we like this more’, it’s difficult not to at least respect the position.

Android hasn’t helped the end-user much. The plain vanilla viewpoint works nicely for geeks. HTC’s glorious ‘Sense’ UI does its absolute best to cover up the failings of both Windows Mobile 6.5 and Android. Indeed Android is now becoming a byword for ‘Symbian in 2002’. You only have to read the Android market feedback for most applications to see frustrated users demanding to know why the application they’ve just purchased doesn’t work with their new Droid. It’ll work with the T-Mobile G1, but not the Droid. Sorry? Isn’t this the ‘open source’ Android platform we’re talking about? Yes. But it’s been nailed by fragmentation already. Utterly nailed.

Nokia has got the message, it seems. Indeed, so has Symbian. A lot of what I know isn’t in the public domain yet so I can’t comment except to say their strategies look good. We’ll need to look at the execution and see.

As for the other manufacturers, well, Microsoft could well be on to a winner too. Again, we’ll need to wait and see. As for Samsung and LG? I think the jury is most certainly out whilst the painful transition from shitphones (“feature phones”) to smartphone continues.

The iPhone Customers: Lost Forever?

Meanwhile some of the industry’s best customers — the highest spending, the quiet ‘AAA’ masses, the contract customers who spend, day-in-day-out — have been hoovered up by the iPhone. And they’ve been locked into 24-month contracts.

And the majority aren’t coming back. That’s them, now, locked into the iPhone platform. Provided Steve Jobs and the Apple chaps keep knocking out the same quality and ensure their platform doesn’t stagnate, that’s it. These customers are Apple’s customers now. The mobile operator is simply the bit-pipe provider — and a happy bit-pipe provider too — because those monthly bills aren’t going away whilst customers continue to delight in their iPhones.

I can’t see my mother shifting from her iPhone to any other platform. Ever. Not in the next 10 years. Even if something amazing hits the marketplace (without the Apple brand on it — and that’ll be a shock), it’s going to take her time to even bother thinking about changing.

Of course, we are only talking about a small percentage of the industry at the moment. I’m not writing this as a true representation of the worldwide mobile market. I’m only talking about a small percentage of the marketplace. Why should (for example), Nokia bother investing in the North American marketplace when it’ll take — I don’t know — $500m worth of effort, when, for example, one operator (for example, Sprint) accounts for just 48m customers. India could shit 48m customers. They added 19m NEW subscribers to their customer population in December alone. That’s a Sprint every 2.5 months. You can see why Nokia doesn’t necessarily need to chase the Western markets. And why if I was a shareholder, I really wouldn’t want them doing so other than because it would feel good.

But the Western markets are still influential. And if you can unlock the income potential beyond just flogging hardware, there’s a significant amount of money to be had. But the industry doesn’t seem able to do anything other than put it’s best people and best resources to work trying to emulate the iPhone. Long ago, it seems, they gave up trying to — no pun intended — think differently. To innovate. To create and deliver bold new services.

The Nano Strategy

That said, I don’t know what would happen if Apple decided to change from it’s premium strategy. What would happen if Apple decided to go global, properly. To make ONE of their next generation iPhone range available at a total cost of $50 per unit. (Otherwise known and hugely feared within the industry as ‘the Nano strategy’). Apple’s challenge there would be to ensure that they don’t write off their premium Western customers but could they get their old 2G unit down to $50 retail? Critics argue that Apple would never cannibalise their ‘premium’ position in the marketplace, but they did a nice job with the iPod Nano, iPod, iPod Touch and so on.

‘As Good As The iPhone’

Meanwhile, though, the most depressing point about the mobile industry is that — collectively — they’ve given up even trying to exceed Apple’s technical and user interface capabilities. Now it’s about making things ‘as good as’ the iPhone. It’s utterly frustrating to sit in a product launch conference and witness rival industry executives demonstrating that they’ve finally managed to make a touch screen that ‘rivals the best in the marketplace’ — by which we all understand to be iPhone. How many devices can you name that now sport the same iPhone 4 x 5 icon user interface?

If you’re going to copy the iPhone, at least make the copy exactly the same in terms of abilities. The industry couldn’t even do that. Can’t you do better? Can’t you change the paradigm? Can’t you use your might, your billions, your collective intellect, to move the marketplace onward? No. Because when it comes right down to it, the people running the industry are technical. Their heritage is about selling infrastructure, about selling airtime, about shifting boxes. They’re not dreamers, they’re not innovators and (broadly speaking) they’re most certainly not passionate about the next generation.

And that’s the fundamental problem.

Can’t Think Big

We need the Chief Executives and the senior executives in the industry to think big.

We need them to walk into London Paddington Train Station and wonder why ANYONE still needs to walk to a machine, stick in a piece of plastic, type a pin and receive a PIECE OF PAPER in order to travel.

Why isn’t this fixed? Why doesn’t every Nokia come with integrated NFC transaction capability tied to your operator bill? If they’ve got Ovi Store carrier billing in at least 18 markets right now, why can’t they introduce NFC transaction capabilities for every new device? Why not?

Well, we know why. Even if Nokia decided to do this, they’d face push-back from almost every single mobile operator, not sure whether Nokia’s brand of NFC is for them. Questions would need to be asked. Committees would need to be formed. Decisions would need to be considered carefully and in the fullness of time. Until, that is, Apple releases their own strategy into the market. And once again the industry will jump up and dance to the Cupertino tune, badly. Like your embarrassing uncle after 6 pints and two shots.

The industry’s still stuck in 1995 flog-a-phone-n-airtime mode and doing it’s best to drag itself into the next generation.

Why are people still being charged for sending sodding text messages? 2010 and we’re still being charged for transmitting 160 character text messages. Because that’s it. That’s the best the industry can collectively do.

Where’s the independent thought? Where’s the central belief in what’s needed, what’s next, what’s cool and what’s best? Where’s the market-moving, agenda-setting, table-banging, THIS-IS-NEXT confidence?

Alas, right now, we have to dance to the funky Apple tune, because everybody else is playing catch-up knock-off piped elevator ‘musak’.

Won’t somebody please save me?

(My Original Blog Post: http://ping.fm/I7uHg)

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