Friday, 20 January 2006

Which mobile device companies get it?

PDA 24/7 just ran an interview with me. In one of my answers, I talked about which device companies "get it" – which ones understand how to make a truly effective smart mobile solution. Looking back at my answer, I realized I had left out a couple of companies. I want to correct that oversight.

Before I list the companies, I should explain what I mean by "get it." I think that a truly effective smart mobile device must be both focused and integrated. By focused, I mean that it must first and foremost solve one particular problem for a particular type of user. Kitchen sink products that try to be everything for everyone sell to enthusiasts but no one else. The companies that get it specialize in leaving out features that aren't essential to the core product.

By integrated, I mean that the product must combine hardware and software (and in some cases wireless services) seamlessly to produce a product that just works. People usually tend to use mobile devices in short spurts while they are on the go. This makes them very intolerant of even small usability problems that might be overlooked on a PC. If the user must hassle with configuration, or if the user experience isn't dead simple, you're back to selling to the enthusiasts.

Most companies in the mobile market don't know to design like this, either because they don't know how to make hardware and software together, because they're not good at usability, or because they don't know how to focus on solving a single problem. The lack of these skills is holding back progress in the mobile market, so it's worthwhile to study the companies that know how to do it. Here are the ones on my list:

Nintendo: Differentiation, not features. Frequently written off by the feature-centric press, Nintendo has continued to succeed because it focuses on a particular market (gaming) and type of customer (young people), and it adds features that do special things for them. My favorite example is the Nintendo DS gaming device. A technophile would ask for WiFi, a high-res screen, and a faster processor. Instead Nintendo added a second screen – and a touchscreen at that. Nintendo then designed applications that take advantage of the touchscreen to create a unique gaming experience.

This is a classic example of designing for the solution. The traditional PC-style design approach says you have to be "up to date" in all of your specs in order to sell well. Nintendo realized that its customers don't care abut features as much as they care about the gaming experience. Nintendo doesn't add features, it adds differentiation.

I don't know if Nintendo will manage to survive forever in the face of the overwhelming financial muscle of Sony and Microsoft, but if it loses I think it'll be because it was spent into oblivion, not because it lost touch with its customers.

Apple: A solution, not a product. It's hard to remember today, but there was a time when MP3 players were viewed as a curious little niche, and many people were skeptical that they'd ever amount to a truly large category. Apple changed that.

The folks at Apple realized they weren't actually selling a music player, they were selling a music purchase and playback system. I think their integration of the whole thing, from iTunes out, is what made the iPod take off.

Apple has wisely resisted most of the advice to load new features into the iPod. Although video has been added, I think it's the exception that proves the rule. Apple could have opened up the OS to third party apps, added a touch screen, built in WiFi and Bluetooth, and an SD slot. Apple could, in short, have transformed the iPod into a Pocket PC. Smart move that they didn't.

In addition to creating a nice business for Apple, this systems focus creates huge barriers to competitive entry and commoditization. To match Apple's solution, a company needs to duplicate the iPod itself, the iTunes music store, and all of the business development deals that Apple has made with the music industry. It's not impossible for a competitor to replicate this, but it's enormously more difficult than copying a piece of hardware, and it takes a lot more investment. The hardware-cloning shops of Asia, looking at that huge mountain to climb, tend to focus their efforts elsewhere.

Apple's well aware that it gets it. Here's Steve Jobs in Rolling Stone magazine: "We do, I think, very good hardware design; we do very good industrial design; and we write very good system and application software. And we're really good at packaging that all together into a product. We're the only people left in the computer industry that do that. And we're really the only people in the consumer-electronics industry that go deep in software in consumer products."

Steve's exaggerating a little, but after all the times he's personally been written off by the industry, I think he's entitled to brag.

RIM Blackberry: Patience pays off. You've heard it before – the old folks who reminisce and say things like, "I remember ol' Georgie Bush when he was just a little so-and-so getting blitzed at frat parties." Well, I remember RIM when it was a weird little Canadian upstart making e-mail pagers. The company wasn't flashy. It didn't hold big parties like us important companies in Silicon Valley, its products couldn't be bought in consumer electronics stores, and oh by the way it ran on an obsolete paging network.

RIM's current success was many years in the making. It carefully built up a franchise in targeted corporate markets. Selling to those companies takes years of patient work, while they do trial deployments and make you prove yourself. RIM gradually got its servers into a huge number of companies, which resulted in an explosion of device sales once the trial deployments were finished. RIM also took the time to create a very reliable e-mail management network, something that is not at all easy to do. It integrated its products very nicely with Outlook, the leading corporate e-mail system. It carefully honed the user experience for mobile e-mail users. And for its first few years it rented time on a paging network that had excess capacity and was therefore inexpensive.

I'm not completely comfortable with everything RIM's done. The company was very aggressive at enforcing its patents against competitors, which set the stage for others to do the same thing to it. And it has been very slow to deliver on its promises to let its service run on other companies' devices. But to me, the most important lesson from RIM was its single-minded focus on doing e-mail right and building its market over time. It had a vision, and it methodically implemented that vision over a period of many years – far longer than most Silicon Valley companies would persist at anything.

Palm: Obsession with detail. I wasn't with Palm during the days when they first designed the Pilot, unfortunately. But I spent a lot of time with people who were there, and the thing about them that impressed me most was their passionate obsession with tiny details.

They could sweat pixel placement and interface flow better than any bunch of people I've met before or since. It wasn't a science they were practicing, it was a craft in which they went over and over and over the details of how a typical user would operate the product, constantly asking how they could save that user a half-second in time or a moment of confusion.

The interfaces they designed weren't always pretty. In fact, they were often darned ugly. But they were amazingly efficient in the way they used screen real estate. Here's one of my favorite examples:

This is Palm (left) and Pocket PC (right) circa 1999. I deliberately chose an old example because I don't want to get sidetracked into an argument about whose interface is better today.

Some important things to notice in these images:

--The Pocket PC screen has about 40 clickable icons and controls, the Palm one about 24. More isn't better in this case, because the Pocket PC screen is bewilderingly complex.

--It's hard to see from a static screen, but the Palm calendar lets you tap in an entry and edit it directly (you can see the text cursor in the word "villa"). On Pocket PC, tapping in an appointment opens up a separate dialog box to edit the item. That's a waste of time.

--Although the Palm screen has a smaller active area, you can read more of the calendar than you can on Pocket PC. That's because Palm blanks out unused hours, whereas Pocket PC tries to replicate the look of Outlook, where every hour is displayed. That works much better on a PC than it does on a tiny handheld screen.

Those little touches like editing in place and hiding unused hours didn't just happen, they were the result of many hours of agonizing effort by the designers at Palm.

A more recent example -- look how the Treo keyboard has evolved:

From left to right, these are the Treo 600, the Treo 650, and the Treo 700. Look carefully, and you can see how the designers at Palm are thinking. In each product generation, they've rounded the corners of the case a little more. This makes the device look and feel thinner. They've added more of a "smile" to the keyboard (which makes it easier to round the edges), and they've steadily increased the color contrast between the keys and background. The buttons themselves have become more square, which gives more room to print letters and icons on them. Squaring the keys also makes them larger, which may make it easier to press them with a thumb (although I worry that it also has the effect of making the keys closer together). Overall, Palm is gradually figuring out how to make the best use of every millimeter available to them.

This sort of incremental, obsessive rethinking is typical of Palm's best designers. Nothing's ever perfect.

Although Palm spends a lot of time on hardware and user interface, the thing Palm hasn't tried lately is creating an online or wireless service to go along with its devices. Palm dabbled in that once with its service for the Palm VII, and it worked very nicely. Unfortunately the company didn't build on it. It will be interesting to see if a future Palm solution includes an online component.

Danger: Lots of potential. I think Danger deserves honorable mention here. They haven't been as successful as the other companies I listed, but I admire their focus on making a communicator for the youth market. Even though they're stuck with the weakest major US carrier, they've produced pretty good sales – in the monthly unit numbers I used to get, the Danger device often outsold any single model of RIM Blackberry at TMobile.

This level of success has been achieved even though the Danger device lacks an MP3 playback capability, something that's almost essential for the youth market. If Apple really wanted to create a great music phone, they ought to build iPod capability into a Danger device.

There you are, my four (and a half) companies that "get" the smart mobile market. What do you think? Does anyone else belong on the list?

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