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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.

Bloated Businesses

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the most frustrating lessons I have been taught over the years is that big does not mean better. It seems obvious now, but when this realisation first struck me it was met with great disappointment.

I started my career in the early days of the mobile industry, a time when every company tried to be as “flexible” as possible in order move products out the door. What this really meant was corners were cut in every area, processes and sound practices were ignored and bad habits formed within said companies, but we were convinced that this was the price we had to pay in order to get products out the door on limited budgets. Each business did however have its own lose 1-2 year strategy for improving processes, to be executed “once things settled down”. We all soon recognised of course that as businesses grow, they become more resistant to change. It seems to only take a matter of days before  new businesses have arranged their own “old boys club” and begin accepting new members, as everyone attempts to sit back and relax now that they have “made it”. The lesson here seems an obvious one, yet every day start-ups are begun with the same bad practices, largely due to the employees originating from the same bloated businesses with lofty ambitions to “do things a different way”, without seemingly ever having found what that right way could be.

The current boardroom turmoil at Nokia is a wonderful example of what can go wrong when established processes and good practices are ignored. This is a company where friendships were always more important than qualifications, as the “old boys club” thrived in every department. This was perfectly acceptable when the goal of the day involved releasing more of the same devices and copying the competition where needed with their multitude of patented products they had been “saving for a rainy day”. The success of the iPhone however brought with it an abrupt end to this easy life, as it became clear that for the first time, Nokia had nothing in the locker to immediately retaliate with. This was the beginning of the end for Nokia’s “old boys club”, as with each passing quarter it became more and more apparant that the company lacked qualified, experienced professionals in every area of the decision-making process.

We must give out Finnish friends some credit however, as they have recognised and are forcing through change while they are still the number one handset manufacturer in the world by some distance. Motorola allowed their “old boys” (with more than a helping hand from Finland) to drag the company right back to pre-RAZR days before they begun their own clear-out, and that hasn’t been particularly successful when you realise those who escaped the cull.

Samsung, HTC, Palm (poor Palm), Sony Ericsson, Panasonic, Apple, Siemens, every business has its own “old boys” club, some are simply better than others at hiding the deadwood amongst the pack, and not allowing it to drag down the entire company. All of these companies in some way of failed to move when the opportunity presented itself, failed to recognise a market opportunity that cost them millions etc. In the midst of all this, there is one benefit to such bloated, slow moving institutions: their inability to adapt quickly and move at market pace always leave the door open for someone new to innovate and take advantage. My bet goes on the company that recognises Archos are ripe for a take-over.

Nokia Makes Plans, Samsung Makes Moves

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

In June I posted on Nokia’s vision of the mobile market and specifically how they view the space in which tablet devices are intended to fit. While Nokia has been continuing with its planning (and re-planning, as they have since realised their initial tablet outlines do not match the market expectations), Samsung have surged ahead, taking centre stage with the same strategy.

Samsung recognised that a tablet at the right size can be the ultimate portable device, but even with its vast array of features, it can not truly replace the mobile phone. With this realisation, the Korean company looked for another way in, and it seems they came to the same conclusion as their Finnish rivals. Although it is not possible to completely replace a mobile handset, creating a device that prioritises the typical use cases of a phone (web browsing, text messaging, email, music, video, gaming) limits the benefits of the smaller device to one core feature – calls. If they can convince users that it is just as convenient to use a tablet for everything other than calls, while also giving an improved overall experience due to the larger screen, consumers will begin to look at tablets as not just mini-computers, but super-sized smart phones.

This approach immediately opens up tablets (and in particular, the Galaxy Tab) to the masses, but this alone is not the end game. As I highlighted in June, this development brings with it the opportunity for operators to sell consumers a second handset, and with it, a contract. The ultimate goal is for consumers to purchase 2 devices: 1 a portable browsing device and the second will be their handset for traditional calls and messaging. This may seem familiar and it most certainly is, as network operators have been trying to push netbooks alongside mobiles for a couple of years already. This however, is not in anyway the same thing. The tablet will replace your smart phone as you use it today; the second device will be pushed as a “minimalist” product, for when you are out on the town and only need a phone to stay in contact. These devices will more often than not be feature phones (such as the HTC Wildfire or the Samsung Wave 2) with displays no larger than 3.5 inches. The user experience will be largely transferable between a tablet and its “partner” phone, as manufacturers including Samsung and HTC have used their custom skins for Android as the basis of their feature phone UIs. Ultimately operators will attempt to make “bundles” of a tablet and a phone, allowing users to pay one monthly cost for both products.

The Samsung Tab is the trial run for how operators and manufacturers hope to position and market their products in the future. The early adopters will pay more for the convenience of a tablet and mobile phone with 1 contract, but as this type of bundle becomes more prevalent and our options broaden, we as consumers  should come out on top. The only real question is whether Nokia will be able to get its house in order quick enough to become one of those options.

Nokia’s Plan For World Domination Part Two: Smartphones and Tablets

The rumours have continued over the last few days, so you will not be surprised when I inform you about Nokia’s plans for tablet devices.

Navigation is becoming a utility, this is clear. There is however still no solid time-frame in mind for when this switch will be confirmed. In this temporary void, while the world awaits the inevitable, there is an opportunity for someone to name that date. Nokia will attempt to achieve this by pushing on two fronts: smartphones & tablet devices.

The mobile device will be a new flagship MeeGo product which I understand will be boasting a 4″ 800 x 480 capacitive screen, 8MP rear camera, a front facing camera, 32GB internal storage, 3G, Bluetooth, WIFI, A-GPS, DIVX support and Ovi Maps preloaded. This device will be advertised as a true “all-in-one”, with special emphasis placed on navigation and the aftermarket car cradle that can be purchased. This handset will also be shown to handle true multi-tasking and will have a built in client that handles feeds from Twitter, Facebook, Flikr, MySpace, Yahoo etc with full Contacts integration. The new flagship will also ship with Terminal Mode. Nokia will use this specific feature to not only re-enforce the navigation abilities of the device, but to also highlight the high-end market they would like the device to be associated with. The current plans are very impressive; the adverts will look like a typical offering from BMW or Audi, until you are shown a Nokia in the hand of the drive as they exit the car, and you realise that the instructions playing over the speakers and the route displayed on the vehicle’s built-in screen were sent from the Nokia device. That’s “Connecting People” in a whole new way.  While many have been assuming that this will be an N Series device, Nokia are considering at a very high level the launch of a new series. There is belief that the market will find it easier to recognise this as a brand new offering rather than just another iteration, which in turn is easier to sell on to consumers. I believe that many of Nokia’s most vocal supporters will see this as a positive step, as it gives them the ability to truly emphasise a departure from the past.

I am led to believe that the tablet device will be a MeeGo based product with a 7″ 800 x 480 capacitive display, 16GB internal storage,  WIFI, Bluetooth, 5MP camera, A-GPS and Ovi Maps preloaded with optional 3G. The tablet will be preloaded with a plethora of cloud and desktop based applications, revolving around art (paint and sketch programs), entertainment (media player with various codec support, flash games, browser) and creativity (note pad, voice recorder,  image & video editors). The biggest drawback for this device at present relates to the e-book market. While the tablet market is fairly undefined in terms of definitive use cases, with the majority of iPad owners purely web browsing, it is expected for a tablet to have the ability to replace an e-book reader to some degree. To this end Nokia are hoping to have a Kindle application pre-installed at launch, but this is no easy task. Not everyone within Espoo believes this is necessary at launch, but it remains to be seen whether this short-sighted view is allowed to win the debate.

I have no knowledge of names for these devices nor have I been privy to any glimpses of the IDs, but I do believe that these are the two devices that the global market leader intended to launch in the 3rd quarter of 2010, but have now been delayed until the 4th quarter. I hope I have toned this down a little so as not to over-emphasise the grandeur of the occasion, but please rest assured in the knowledge that what will unfold before your eyes over the next 12 months will be fascinating to observe as there are only two definitive outcomes – the toppling of the PND industry and Apple being de-throned as the market leader in smartphones, or Nokia’s dominating empire crumbling to ground as Samsung destroyers their defence built on Terminal Mode, Navteq & MeeGo.

Nokia’s plan for World Domination: Part One

June 23, 2010 1 comment

I raised my head above the water a few weeks ago, asking why no one seems to have recognised the big plans Nokia are making. Over the last few days a few blog sites have started to pick up on some rumours on this topic, but they have still failed to identify the true goal, so I will now share it with you.

Nokia believe that the key to regaining their status as the premium brand and fend off the rising threats of Samsung, RiM and of course Apple,  is the PND industry.

When it comes to consumer focused mobile innovation, Nokia has been more of a follower than a leader. Their share of the global market (over 30%) has never been due to producing “best in class” devices, its always been about familiarity. Their customers are loyal, having grown up with Nokia devices that have always matched their needs. This allowed the Finnish giant to become complacent, focusing more on market share (i.e. iteration over innovation) and bringing exuberant smiles to shareholders’ faces.

While Nokia was counting the coin, the market was changing. A company that refused to make flip phones because it was “simply a fad” and in the early days refused to jump onto the 3G bandwagon as it “wasn’t what their customers wanted” was slowly being forced to take notice of the world around them. They saw that Motorola had risen again from the ashes, only to quickly be overthrown by Samsung. Sony Ericsson with their Walkman devices were making waves, only for LG and HTC to clip their wings as they seemingly released new “best in class” devices month after month. And of course, there’s the iPhone. Due to its size and lack of true direction, Nokia’s reactions to these new and varied threats have not all been positive. While recognising the need for change, they were struggling to identify the best way in which to achieve their goals. Their attempts to use their engineering superiority to win customers spectacularly failed – this is after all a world where the all-conquering iPhone fails to handle a simple 3G to 2G handover, but their customers are more than satisfied.

The truth is that Nokia has always known that its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness – its UI. Without delving into too much detail, they knew it needed an overall almost 3 years ago but recognised that such an undertaking would amount to a lot of pain and suffering. In a market that evolves as quickly as this however, delaying the task was only ever going to make things worse. This again was always known, and devices like the N85 were released to simply buy them time while they got on with the painstaking process.

Well before the N85 however, in the middle of brainstorming this redesigned UI, it became clear that a new UI alone is not enough. No matter how good it is, without the developer support that Windows Mobile and the then new iPhone seemed to have, along with that unique “cool” factor thrown in by Apple, there was no way they would be able to get across how a great a difference this new UI really is. Software still being the key, they had to look for a marquee feature that would set them apart; something that would open up new revenue streams and have their name associated with an entirely new and modern function. The answer of course, was Navteq. In 2007 this purchase had already been marked for differing reasons, but by the middle of 2008 with the purchase just coming to completion, it became clear that there was an even bigger part this company had to play in Nokia’s future, bigger than anyone had ever realised.

While many recognised that Nokia was heading down a different road, it was still not read as a market altering purchase, as navigation on mobile phones was still seen as slow, clunky and just not fit for purpose. at this stage the analysis was indeed correct, but only in the short term. Google finally releasing one of the worst kept secrets in the industry – their free navigation app – opened the eyes of the world to the true potential of not just navigation on mobile devices, but location-based services. This had been seen as a potential growth area for years, but concerns over hardware, especially battery life issues had hindered investment. Google releasing their free navigation product however immediately squashed that barrier, since it was clear that as long as its free, people are willing to take the hit on battery.

We return to the Espoo base of Nokia, where the realisation of what free means to the industry fully hit home. The writing on the wall was clear – within 2 years, navigation products on mobile handsets would be seen in the same light as the calendar app – simply a standard utility. Many believe that this forced s drastic re-think of their strategy, but I very much doubt this was the case. Nokia already had plans in place to setup a standard API for interfacing with vehicles, recognising that being able to share information between devices (including map data) would be one of the marquee features for mobile devices over the coming years. they are still following their original plan, just at an increased pace.

Over the last few months Nokia has signed deals for the use of their Terminal Mode technology with some of the planet’s most well known car manufacturers including BMW, Daimler, Fiat, Audi, VW and Porsche. From the OEM and after-market side they have deals already in place with Alpine, Clarion and Harman Becker. These deals allow Nokia devices to connect either wired or wireless to a car’s infotainment system, potentially providing diagnostic information, music and navigation to the vehicle. The potential for this type of integration, and the choices it can offer to a user are simply incredible. While the world has been focused on purely convergence, bringing as much functionality to a mobile as possible, Nokia has recognised that there is another way. Imagine but for a moment, the ability to use a device the size of a Palm Pre for in-car navigation by having the map displayed on the built in screen in the car. Maybe you use your pocket-sized device to view movie trailers on the car’s LCD display before heading into the cinema. What Nokia’s Terminal Mode APIs allow are for smaller, more pocketable devices to still offer the same multi-purpose functionality of their larger brethren, without sacrificing a larger screen. It would no longer be necessary to only look at devices such as the HTC Incredible or Evo 4G with their +4 inch displays if you intend to use your phone for navigation. Handsets the size of Sony Ericsson’s Xperia X10 mini with its 2.55 inch screen become a lot more appealing. You can even “go large” with something the size of the HTC HD Mini with its spacious 3.2 inch display.

Questions are already being asked when it comes to screen sizes and where the breaking point is and many would note that Apple has not increased their screen size on the new iPhone, although there are also technical reasons for this. This type of option for smaller devices brings this discussion forward, as more alternatives are presented. Let’s not forget that while the new functionality coming to devices from Nokia is unique to the market, there is another, more established reason why smaller handsets could be appealing. Tethering for tablet devices such as the iPad is already being recognised as a viable alternative to purchasing a tablet with built in 3G. The opportunity to have a small handset and a tablet tethered offers the best of both worlds whilst undoubtedly being more cost-effective at the same time. A small device offers maximum portability, but when a bag is easily taken there’s no problem bringing along a 7 inch tablet for reading or browsing on the go.

This is Nokia’s grand plan, but only part of it. There are new devices involved as you would expect, and one or two in particular will be flagship products in their attempts to establish a new market category and ultimately, World Domination….

Nokia’s coming….

Over the last 12 months Nokia has made strides into a lot of new territory in what is being interpreted as their response to the growing market shares of their largest competitors. The most fascinating thing about this however, is that no one seems to have recognised that this movement is simply the prologue to the main event.

Nokia are planning something very big and very different. They are going to step into an arena over the next few months with a device unique in its offerings, but a device that simply makes sense. I’m not going to go into what device I think this will be right now, but I will leave this one clue – the key is in the software, not hardware.

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