Has the iPhone killed mobile innovation? How all phones now look, and behave the same

Has the iPhone had an overall negative impact on the mobile phone market? Thomas Curtis looks at how how the lack of ecosystem pull for other platforms is a real issue.

iPhone Mobile Innovation

Take a good long look at that picture, you may have seen it before, on the left we have pre 2007 phones and on the right are handsets from the same sort of companies after the iPhone was launched.

Now, many of you may laud the fact that the iPhone disrupted the marketplace; it brought many features to the mainstream and simplified them for a consumer in a way not thought possible. And whilst I echo those sentiments, I can’t help but feel a little pang of sadness when looking at the range of phones on the left because they each were trying something different.

What happened?

The iPhone is a successful product and although not the market leader in volume sold it certainly is when it comes to consumer mindshare. This is for three reasons, a simple product offering Apple only ever has two iPhone models on the market at any given time. They really are fantastic devices, expertly crafted and you can feel this through the device. Finally the ecosystem is well developed and has reached the stage that it can lock in the consumer due to the amount of money spent on apps and other services not available elsewhere.

So its pointless competing against Apple, they have got the market locked up if a consumer doesn’t have an iPhone, they will want one right? However the mobile sector is going to experience huge growth in the next five years as emerging markets join the Smartphone world. This means that there is still a lot of money on the table and few companies can afford to walk away, given that other formerly mainstream tech sectors like PCs now offer slim pickings.

iPhone Mobile Innovation

What do companies do when their product has fallen out of favour and there is a product available that is number one in mindshare and even its disappointing models sell like hot cakes?  You copy, sorry I mean imitate or perhaps pay homage to that competitor and design a similar device. The question is, if the market has moved and consumers want something different, is changing your product to suit copying or just moving with the times?

 Furthermore, does following a market leader create a successful product in its own right?

If Apple were a hardware company then perhaps, however to emulate Apples hardware is only half of the reason why they are successful. The lack of ecosystem pull for other platforms is a sucking chest wound, Apple spend a lot of time talking about what you can do with the device rather than what it is made up of. This leaves competitors like Samsung, Google, HTC and LG in a sticky situation; if we they can’t compete on ecosystem and software, how do they stand out in the market?

Specifications, or as Daft Punk puts it “Better, harder, faster stronger” We saw it at this years Mobile World Congress, a plethora of new handsets like the HTC One X with eye grabbing specifications like bigger screens (4.7 inch) and faster processors (Quad core!) and whilst I as am a tech junkie like everyone else there is a huge problem with using specifications.

HTC vs iPhone

This is because there are two fundamental flaws in using them as your primary marketing message. Firstly, specifications mean nothing to the consumer and in most situations they often scare them, as they are unfamiliar. You have to go to great lengths to explain what benefits a quad core processor will do, or how a SMOLED screen will enhance their user experience. The second issue is far more problematic for manufacturers; using specifications are attention grabbing right until someone launches something better. Launch a single core phone it’s the best thing until a dual core comes along, which is the bees knees until a quad core phone is released, repeat ad nauseum for graphics, screen and weight, cameras.

But what if you can’t compete on specifications or eco system? You compete on price! This has been Androids message along side “free” and “open source” since the beginning, sure it had halo models but making sure it had devices at every price point was critical.

And whilst this has made Android successful, in that it’s the operating system powering a huge number of devices, competing on price has the same problems as specifications. Instead of a race to the top, it’s to the bottom, who can get the cheapest device out, what can you shave from the device? What hardware limb can you cleave to bring the MSRP under £100? £50? £10? To what degree will this damage the user experience? Does it create a disposable phone?  If they use an Apple product after a low end device does it actually help them make the decision to swap platforms after thinking “This is how it should be!”

Emulating Apple will not work, because companies can only offer half of the picture. If all you can offer is that you are cheaper or faster it creates a floating consumer, great for the sector but bad for individual companies. By competing on price you make the device a commodity, that fails to drive customer loyalty and the critically important repeat custom that comes with it

This is why the picture that started this piece is so important, device manufacturers need to stop following and try something different. Look at the devices on the left hand side, sliders, QWERTY, all different shapes and sizes. Look at the N-Gage, a product that arrived too early but showed the potential of future Smartphone gaming.

Nokia N-Gage

Nokia N-Gage: A wonderful failure?

N-Gage a wonderful failure

For the last few years it feels like the industry has stopped thinking, Apple has redefined the phone and for the rest of time until Apple do something else, that’s it. This is why I think the rest of the industry has been struggling, because eventually people will stop wanting an iPhone knockoff and buy one, never to return. On the flip side it seems that mobile companies are terrified to do something different from the Apple norm, naturally concerned that their already small sales might be negatively affected if they were to do so. That thinking leads to stagnation in the industry, Apple needs healthy competition as much as anyone to stay fresh, especially in three or four years when Apple enters the post Steve Jobs era. Which is why there is one company I am watching who isn’t following the Apple design doctrine quite as much as others, Asus.

Asus Transformer

The first product launched that grabbed my attention was the Transformer

A tablet that came with a keyboard dock with a touchpad that enabled you to have the best of both worlds, a tablet for on the go and a hardware keyboard for long form writing. The follow up product, the Transformer Prime improved this with faster processor, graphics but more importantly they added a larger battery in the dock. This means that with both fully charged the Transformer prime can go for fourteen hours which is better than the iPad and a whole host of laptops (including Asus’s own Zenbook line). Add in remote desktop software and you begin to wonder how much longer laptops have left in the consumer market. At Mobile World Congress, alongside the pomp and circumstance of phones focused on the specifications race, Asus announced the Padfone.

Asus Padfone

One manufacturer who isn't following the Apple design doctrine quite as - is Asus

I have a tablet and a Smartphone, I never use them at the same time so what if I could combine the two? This is the question that the Padfone seeks to answer, if you need a larger screen, just slot it into the Tablet case and you have a 10-inch device that will also charge your Smartphone whilst you use it. What’s more is that you can plug the tablet screen into a keyboard dock ala transformer prime.

Asus, the Transformer and the Prime give me hope as they offer something that completely different, which Apple had not done first and makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it can help show other vendors that blindly following Apples lead is not the only way, that they too can try something different.

Because in short, to succeed (and not just against Apple), you need to innovate not imitate.