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Apple – Not A Technology Company

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Each time a new highly promoted mobile phone is launched, the media adds the following by default: “potential iPhone killer”. It seems to be believed that almost any phone launched is made to compete directly with Apple. The same is now said of tablets, where everything launched since the iPad is an iPad competitor. The sense of these comparisons is questionable at best, since Samsung, Motorola, HTC and others are technology companies. Apple is a fashion company.

A company launches a revolutionary product that changes the way in which we consume media on the move. Sold at a premium, this device becomes the “must have” item of its generation and propells the company to worldwide success, as it becomes a household name. Anyone looking to purchase a device for personal media consuption immediately thinks of this product before all others, not because of a superior feature set but due to its status as THE device of this type. There were others on the market of matching and even superior quality, but with no premium brand recognition, consumers were always going to choose the safe, accepted option.

Competitors eventually realised that you can not beat someone at a game that they did not invent themselves. What they needed was a new, evolved game, one with rules that they could control and shape in their own favour. With a new game they could compete on price and functionality in a way that suits your needs and gives you access to the market you desire. Sony was too slow to react; the iPod destroyed the Walkman.

Apple achieved this victory over the previous champion of portable media consumption, and in recent years took control of the smartphone market (without actually producing smartphone initially) because they changed the game. A hard drive instead of a cassete tape or CD meant it couldn’t be directly compared to the Walkman, which used inferior technology, so they were able to price it as a premium item, immediately creating an “exclusive” label for something most never realised they wanted (unless you truly do need to take 1500 hours worth of music with you for your daily 90 minute round trip to the office). A mobile with a capacity touchscreen, perfect for finger based navigation could not be compared to resistive devices as they were meant to be used with a stylus. In both cases the products took years before they could be classed amongst the top tier on features, but in the eyes of the consumer they were the ones to own.

Ask the typical iOS user why the are not using another operating system. You will not be impressed with reasoned, informative views on the failings of competing products and why they can not match their needs. You will be informed that Apple is better because it has better applications. Push for examples of this and you will be lucky if even a single app name is provided as being better on iOS than other platforms. I can only assume that companies have so far failed to realise exactly what they are fighting because they refuse to look at the industry through a different window. This failure is ever more shocking when you consider how Apple propelled themselves into the position they hold today. 

If you were to look into the home of a typical Apple user today you would see their Macs and iOS devices take centre stage, placed and positioned so precisely they could be mistaken for ornaments. But ornaments they are, used to present their owners as “cool” and “up-to-date” with today’s technology. They are on show to highlight that their owners buy the best, regardless of cost. Apple products are fashion accessories to the general public, in the same way that Nokia devices with the changeable faces were a few years ago.

Buzz words like “eco-system” and “closed environment” are used in ways that imply this is a game never before seen. This game is just another evolution of the one always played, and the key remains the same – “cool” always wins. Not the most features, the most open source, the best applications or the best screen technology, just ask Apple of the 80s or every other mobile manufacturer when the iPhone first arrived that could not even send MMS and had no app store behind.

Attempting to best Apple by offering products with improved specifications but at a higher price will never work, nor will offering a device with matching specifications at a slightly lower price. You must offer something different, something unique that blurs the lines when comparisons are drawn.  You can not play Apple’s game and win; their game, their rules. Change the game.

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How To Convince Mobile Users To Change Their OS

Over the next 12 months there will 6 major smartphone operating systems vying for the warmth of your trouser pocket: Meego, Web OS, Blackberry OS, iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7. With so many options to users, how can any one OS rise up to dominate in the manor Apple has achieved?

The key is not in being the best, but in educating the user.

A mere 5 years ago moving from a Nokia to a Siemens device only required copying your contacts to the SIM and deciding just how important it was to play Snake on a daily basis. As simple as this seems, the mere thought of changing manufacturers and using a device with unfamiliar icons was considered adventurous beyond belief by the average user. Those who dared to peruse such a road were considered mavericks (or nerds and shunned to the “weirdo” corner of the social stratosphere). Returning to the present and we now have the dominant smartphone OS of Apple, which has taken mobile handset Neanderthals into the area of installing applications. These same people just a few years previous struggled to comprehend placing their contacts on a SIM to switch manufacturers; how can they even begin to grasp the concept of installing applications on a different platform and no longer using iTunes?

Believe it or not, Apple has laid out the rule book for how this can be achieved:

The Promise – Great products fail before they have stepped off the factory floor because they are never presented to the public as something that can fulfil their needs. I believe the main culprit for this failing is the belief that the need must first exist to the public at large before it is addressed. This is a common misconception; you need only to observe any Apple product launch to see how such a situation is handled. First, a problem allegedly found by their analysis of the market and highlighted by their customers is explained in great detail, to emphasise the depth of their “investigation”. This detail is vital, as it implies that the solution that will be announced over the following minutes has been well thought out, and it is unlikely any other solution can be found. If this is executed correctly, the reveal of the solution produces a psychological sigh of relief, as the short lived (but “important”) problem has been resolved. The launch/re-launch of an OS is thus defined by its ability to solve the problem its designers highlighted. For the iPhone OS, the problem was complicated, ugly UIs and the solution was a visually appealing UI matched with incredible simplicity.

Hype – No successful product has been launched on hype alone, but hype is still vital. Gaining “hype” is quite simple as long as you have a worthy Promise. The key is to minimise the time between announcement and shipping. If you are unable to launch within a month, it becomes necessary to supplement the hype with leaks or interviews. If we use Android as an example, the build-up and hype would be towards the next release. A supplementary leak would be a screen shot or two of a pre-release version of the OS on a device (using a device rather than emulator implies that the release is close). Committing to providing units early to certain websites/blogs such as Engadget, Tech Crunch and CNET also guarantees some extra coverage as you build towards release.

Marketing – Apple are renowned for their advertisements; they are able to get across their message using simple, concise methods while still making their products aspirational to the public at large. The construct of an Apple advert is quite interesting: a normal person, a normal environment, a desire to conduct a simple task in the environment + The Solution to complete the task. This entire construct is almost the exact opposite of how mobile devices are currently advertised. For example recent campaign by Motorola contained a series of advertisements showcasing the differences between the iPhone and their new Droid device, using a “Droid Does” slogan. These advertisements were entertaining to the geek community and did highlight key failings in the iOS platform, but none of this mattered to the average user. The adverts placed the device in the typical high-end mobile device niche (advanced, hard to use device “full of features I do not require”) and insured it would never become a mass market success in the vein of the RAZR or iPhone. Apple’s method works because it appeals to people of all ages. An OS with intentions of competing directly with the iPhone must appeal to the same user base.

Another method Apple uses to market their devices is product placements. Here also we must learn from the way in which Apple is presented. Their is no real focus on their devices or any major functionality in their product placements in television shows beyond on occasion a character finding it necessary to install an application to accomplish a goal (note the simplicity of the problem – resolution method used here). In most instances we see average people use their iPhones to achieve simple tasks like making a call, sending a text message or taking a picture. There is one key element however that is highlighted by every TV show – the speed of use. There is an assumption that in fact the focus is on simplicity, but that is purely a by-product. TV shows are about progression, the movement of a storyline from one scene to the next. Each scene is filled with as much information as possible to allow the ease of transition on to the next one. Its impossible not to be aware of this while watching your favourite shows; a common example is when you are checking the clock profusely if it seems a story may not be resolved before an episode comes to an end. A regular viewer of a series also recognises when a foreign element is introduced. When this happens, if The Promise and Hype have been executed correctly, the viewer will recognise the product and be interested to see its use by familiar characters. The viewer will notice if this product changes the manor in which a character normally operates. What viewers notice with Apple products is their favourite characters completing tasks quickly and simply. A great length of time is not spent with a character demonstrating and explaining what they are doing as its simply not necessary. Far too many marketing departments wrongly assume that showing someone achieving some great technical wizardry on a device entices customers. They assume that if they have your attention, they’ve succeeded in selling you the product. What they fail to realise is that while an image can be eye-catching, if they have failed to show the average user that they can still achieve their simple, day to day tasks with ease on this device (or OS), the average person will never assume it can also fulfil their needs.

Matching iOS apps experience – Applications are the key to any OS; they can be used to highlight how mature, stable and innovative a platform is, while also showing all of its limitations. Handset manufacturers using the Android platform believe that the purpose of the applications being used is more important than the apps themselves, so as long as the same goals can be achieved on their devices, there is no problem. They are wrong however, there is a problem. On a mobile device, the method in which a task is achieved is fundamental. Any change in this behaviour affects a user negatively at first, as they will need to learn the flow of this new UI. What this means is that a user of an email application on one platform will not be convinced that their experience will be the same on another platform, just because there’s an email app there too. Users have to be shown that their experience with their applications can be transferred. Individual applications have to be highlighted, showing the quality of the experience available and that it works almost exactly like what they are used to. Added features and functionality is fine, but asking a user to use a completely new menu structure in order to update their Facebook status will not win customers. The focus should be on making the transition as seamless and pain-free as possible. You are more likely to convince users to switch by offering them the same basic package + more, than by offering them something completely different. Different means new, something to learn and things to consider. Even if its better, this only matters if a user is unhappy with what they already have. Ideally, the easiest way to achieve this is to get the same programmers building versions of their application for your platform, but this is not always as easy as it would seem.

This last, final step is the hardest to achieve for any platform. Good product management practices dictate that to achieve such a goal, development of applications would be brought in-house, or at the very least a multi-year contract would be signed guaranteeing support of the application on the handset, backed up by a financial reward and penalty. The truth is the margins in the mobile space currently are being squeezed almost past the breaking point; the risks for such an undertaking are too dear for anyone other than Microsoft to consider.

Or Google. With their Android platform they are in a prime position to take on such a strategy. They have nothing to loose with such an undertaking. Android will become the dominant mobile device platform with or without their promotion, purely due to the wide ranging support they have not just from handset manufacturers but makers of tablets, laptops, microwaves, cars… The breadth of support allows them to take more risks, recognising that the potential pay-offs are immeasurable. Even if their campaign somehow managed to fail, it would not hinder the growth of the OS by any stretch of the imagination.

Consider this strategy being used for the upcoming Android 3.0 (Gingerbread) release. They announce that this new release will run on every new Android handset released after the 30th of November, and will allow all devices to have access to all of the applications in the Android Market. A week or two later screenshots emerge of the OS running on a handset and a tablet. An Android Market icon can be seen on the tablet, indicating that tablets will now have Android Market support. A couple of weeks on and the advertisements begin. One airs showing someone taking pictures, then emailing them to a friend. The friend opens one of the images, then using a menu option plans a route to the location as the image was geotagged. Another ad shows someone sat on a couch browsing on a tablet. They come across an ad for a sale starting tomorrow at a local store, so they click on the Google Maps button on the website which brings up the address and they save the location as a starred item in Google Maps. The next morning we see the person walk out the door leaving their tablet on the couch, but with their phone in hand the user launches Google maps where they are already logged in and sees the starred item created on the tablet. They select on the shop address and choose the options to navigate there. One advert explains to a user that they can do something that they have done before (take a picture, email it easily, navigate to a picture) and another shows them something new which they have not done before. Put simply, they are able to do exactly what they do now, but there’s also more. This is beginning to become a compelling product.

The general public does not care about the best OS, as they have no way of knowing what that means. They only care whether something is easy, familiar and enjoyable. The iPhone OS is all of these things, while not being the best OS, but that doesn’t matter. For the majority of iPhone users its the best OS because it gives them exactly what they want. No other OS on the market is currently able to match the iOS this out-of-the-box experience (applications do need to be installed for an idevice to have any real value but this is still a much easier process than competitor offerings), but this will not be the case forever. There is a massive opportunity for Google, Microsoft or even Nokia to step out and demand attention, to declare themselves ready and willing to not only match but beat the iOS platform. The move is bold and almost certainly suicidal for someone like Nokia at this stage but, he who dares wins.