Two months ago, I mused over handsets, packages, and the like. The reason was – if I may briefly recall – that my contract ran out. I reported on a number of options but never told what happened. Here’s what:
I hinted as much before: it is Vodafone who have me in their grip now. The data roaming rates did it (although they have fairly decent international rates, too, specifically with Vodafone Passport, which must be one of the first programmes where a large multi-national carrier leverages its geographical spread; T-Mobile, take note!).
Quick recap: I was looking at device options (the contracts I tend to be on are unhealthily big, which normally gives you a free device on top of it, and why the heck not). Since I already have an iPhone (3 and 4), a Google Nexus and various Nokias, I thought what next? Do I try out another Android device? Do I give Windows Phone 7 a go? Or do I return to my old love, Blackberry. And the last one won me over. So I fell for it, and went with the brand-new Blackberry 9800 Torch. Touch screen plus QUERTY plus Blackberry e-mail. You should think that that’s pretty need and, really, all you could wish for (sorry, Microsoft, I didn’t dare – yet).
Trials and Tribulations
But, alas, it was not so. It turned out that two-odd years in the claws of the iPhone and Android had seriously spoilt me, also – and this was concerning – with respect to e-mail. I first learned that I could actually type pretty damn quickly on a touch keyboard now (better on the iPhone, less so on the Nexus), so the keyboard did not really do it. But that was not really it. The little things did it:
- Checking multiple e-mails at once so you can delete or file them all in one go? I’m sure there was one rather ingenious shortcut to do this but it was not very obvious and I had forgotten how it worked. Do I look it up on the web? Nah, it should really just work, shouldn’t it? It just felt clunky.
- Maps: a nightmare! It put me regularly miles away from where I was (and I was actually on home turf, so – thankfully – was able to survive without accurate directions.
- Browser: unusable (and, yes, I know it already is a little better than the old one).
- App World: slow and not very well stocked, is it? And, mind you, I was not looking for a gazillion funny novelty apps like light sabers and such. But even some fairly standard ones were not available.
- Speed: the handset does not run on the quickest of processors, and you could feel it. Some latency in certain processes, no really smooth pinch-zooms, etc, etc.
- Camera: OK but not more.
- Even the beautiful Blackberry Messenger (or BBM as it is also affectionately known) managed to confuse me a little: where on earth can I find that 3D barcode that allows me to add a contact on BBM? I still haven’t found it. Once up and running, it is a beauty as it always was. However, there are now many IM apps that are similarly good, and with most smartphone users on data plans, the fact that BBM is free might no longer matter as much.
On the good side? There is of course Brickbreaker (new high-score: 28,350 (!!!)) but, aside from that, the fairly solid feel of the handset, the nice rubbery back (really nice in fact) and the somewhat quaint but familiar design lines plus decent touch was all very good. I really liked the handset as such. But what was in it, not so much.
The New Kid
So – you probably guessed it – I gave it back and exchanged it for an HTC Desire HD. Only a couple of years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Not only was I a fairly die-hard Blackberry fan but to replace a Blackberry with a Taiwanese newcomer handset? Voluntarily? Noooo! However, it is gorgeous (besides being a bit of the big – no, really big – side). It does all the things that so frustrated me on the Blackberry so much better. Well, slicker at least. E-mail set-up is a breeze for Gmail but only a little less onerous than on the Blackberry for others (and, yes, the QUERTY does help for weird password combinations), but, once done, it works really well. And then, there’s of course the little things: 8 mega-pixel camera with stunning quality (although the lens sticks out a little at the back, which might be not so good), comparatively wholesome goodness when it comes to apps (in spite of the shortfalls of Android Market), heck, it synced all my apps from my Nexus automatically. And, Apple get this, it adds little raindrops (and a windscreen wiper) in one quick animation should it rain where ever you are (which, in England’s North-West, it does quite a lot, I’m afraid). Sweet! Browser works beautifully, maps come with proper satellite navigation on par with dedicated devices, and so on, and so forth.
Mind you, I am not yet sure if I may not change back to my iPhone 4 (which is, let’s face it, damn slick!). But I will give the Desire its run, and it does pretty well so far.
Blackberry Needs to Up the Ante!
But let’s look at my old friend Blackberry. Read through the last two paragraphs, and you know where Blackberry needs to up the ante. The Torch – its newest handset with its newest OS – feels slow, sluggish, dated, laboured.
But not all might be lost: last week, at CES, I could catch a glimpse of the future: RIM’s Blackberry PlayBook, which runs on QNX, rumoured to be the foundation for the next generation of “proper” Blackberries, too. And a beauty it is: much more hardware power (dual-core processor, namely a 1 GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4430), swish graphics (1080p video inclusive), really impressive multi-tasking (HD video + game + websites + whatever open in parallel and seamless change from one to the other in an easy and casual swipe with no lag in any of it), and it will apparently be available on Sprint’s 4G network. Check here for the full specs.
It did however lack e-mail! Yes, you read that correctly: you can apparently not get RIM’s mother of all killer apps on the PlayBook – unless you also happen to have a “normal” Blackberry (or something to that end; the folks at the Blackberry booth were a little shy about this). What were they thinking???
But let’s take stock. What does RIM have? A – so far – healthy balance sheet, good hardware, still great e-mail service infrastructure (albeit not as unassailable as it used to be), in BBM a hit in the youth market and – arguably – a bit more of a runway than most because of the – again arguably – longer times it will take enterprise IT departments to swap systems (or something along these lines; Dell is probably an exception so far). In QNX, it also seems to have a really powerful OS at its disposal (just add e-mail, please). And, finally, it has a proud history of very good handsets (the Bold must have been one of the best ever) as well as demonstrated expertise to break into new verticals (as the Pearl had shown).
So, my dear friends from Waterloo, Ontario: do it. I think you can, just show us, will you?
Every now and again, war breaks out on the web. Or, rather, a full-on discourse of learned scholars on the world at large or, in our case, mobile in particular. This week saw one such blog fights and, no, I am not talking about Wikileaks. The formidable Robert Scoble (he of recent European ignorance but, hey, he is American after all… ) and Tomi Ahonen (Rat-Hat of Forum Oxford and a certain [but not blind!] Nokia-fandom but, hey, he might live in HK but he is a Fin… ) brought it on about the fall or not of Nokia.
It started with one of Tomi’s long, long posts on “Some Symbian Sanity” to which Scoble responded “Why Nokia is Still Doomed“. Because he referenced Tomi, he – if you know him, you’d say “of course” – responded with another long post defending Nokia’s smartphone strategy and execution. You should think Tomi has the harder corner to fight, right?
Let me briefly summarise the warring parties’ viewpoints. I will then offer my own take on this to decide who’s right.
Scoble first, he, never shy for words, delivered a swift and damning verdict on Nokia: Illustrated ventured Eastwards again to LeWeb last week and took stock of Europe’s smartphone pulse.he reckons that Nokia is dead because none of his friends has one or, if they do, they don’t like it. People pile up in Apple stores and wax lyrical about the apps they find on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Nokia is arrogant rather than cognisant of its shortfalls and he has not recently heard of a strategy. The people (and/or Scoble’s friends) love iPhone. Case closed.
Tomi’s Original and Scoble Riposte
It’s always a little more difficult to summarise Tomi’s posts as he doesn’t do quick ones. Who knows him is aware that he is a big fan of numbers, of big numbers, in fact. And this is why he hangs on to Nokia: because, you know, their numbers are big! His original post goes – very, very simplified – like this: he sets off to compare Apple with Porsche (as opposed to, say VW). He didn’t reference my recent post on this (tut, tut, Tomi) but the gist is the same: Nokia doesn’t only do Porsche, it does everything from VW Polo (or Chevy Matiz, Kia something or other) to Bentley (well, maybe that not anymore unless you count Vertu in). Its competitor is therefore not Ferrari but Toyota or – in the mobile world – not Appele but Samsung.
He then dives into Nokia’s strategy. And this is when it goes a little, well, foggy. Symbian being miles ahead (yes), Symbian kicking a** today with the N8 (erm, no), Apple’s original (sic!) iOS failing when it comes to phone features (well, yes, maybe, but who is using the “original” iOS today? Or the original Symbian for that matter?). And then he goes on to run the numbers. Now, according to him (and I didn’t check the numbers) Nokia + Japan = 45% smartphone market share for Symbian in 2009 (down a whopping 11% even by his count from 2006). Now, here’s where the questions start (more later). Then onwards to the mass market (more later). And, Tomi (being the very smart man and learned scholar he is) recognises Symbian might be a bit old and clunky and (rightly and unsurprisingly) pits MeeGo against this: new, open, Linux-based, etc. A winner, right? (more later). Therefore, Tomi heralds Nokia as being the perfect example in moving from “dumbphone” to smartphone.
Following Scoble’s burst of opinion as per above, Tomi reverted with more (as he does). I’ll skip through most of it. However, one point he raises is that the US is only 8% of the global market (true). It is though higher on smartphone consumption and (one language, one currency and all) provides a cool launchpad in a rich (yes, still) market. And Nokia is the Robbie Williams of the mobile world when it comes to the US: never managed to break it! He goes on to answer the “Nokia’s not cool” argument and refers to eco-friendly. Well, Tomi, that’s a little lame. Face it: Nokia lost its cool. Period. No argument! Apps? Yes, I know Ovi is catching up but, come on, the app store changed the bloody ecosystem (Nokia had about 4 iterations pre-Ovi who all miserably failed; Apple provided the paradigm-shift – face it).
Who is right?
The weird thing is that they both are (or, more controversially, neither is)!
And here’s why (hint: Tomi did get it right but then got carried away on the Finnish ticket): Tomi nailed it in his first post when he compared Apple to Porsche. Apple is not (or not yet?) competing with the Volkswagens and Toyotas of the mobile world. Now: in the automotive world, Porsche failed with the big coup (but, let’s remember, only just!). Apple might yet pull it off. The starting point is not dissimilar: super-high margins, a very comfortable lead in the luxury segment and loads of cash. Porsche over-reached (driven by a perhaps over-zealous ruler). Apple might, well…
Scoble looks at the US first and foremost. And it is – in spite of the many struggles – a formidable market still. And Apple made one of the most impressive market entries of all time! Now, will it be equally easy to capture China, India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, etc? I doubt it. Does Scoble see this? No.
As to Tomi: you may want to count in the likes of Foxconn in the more formidable competitors of the mighty Finns. But that aside, yes, it’s mainly Samsung today. As a matter of fact, we need to start looking at handset (and OS) segments a little differently. Symbian might be a smartphone platform in the old definition but it does not (usually) stack up against Apple’s iOS or the slicker iterations of Google’s Android in the new world. This is why Nokia keeps losing market share in the high end rapidly (and loses market capitalization equally fast) and why Apple’s market cap is at an all time high! Will it win the war? No, not necessarily. And Nokia still has a shot. But the N8 was too little too late: hardware specs don’t count, the user experience does. And Nokia lost it on that front (compared to its up-market rivals).
So, folks, just re-read my post on Volkswagen and Porsche, will you? And settle your little tiff…
You hear it often (most recently by Average Jane): people who complain about unwanted features and complexities of mobile phones. And now here comes a company (not your ordinary OEM, mind you) who is bringing out just that: the ultimate dumbphone (I am referring to features not potential users). Meet John Doe’s new phone, the anti-smartphone: Dutch agency John Doe (sic!) premiered John’s Phone, which can do, well, make and receive phone calls. SMS? No. Address book? Yes, from paper with a pocket to stick it in at the back. Java? No. Apps? No. Anything other than making phone calls? No.
It is, I would posit, a luxury phone nonetheless, i.e. for people in countries where there is actually a choice of information and media sources. Alas, these countries (Western Europe, US, Japan) also are the countries with an ageing population and, judging by my own mum, they might well be fed up with all those fancy gimmicks they have absolutely no use for and, hence, yearn for simplicity (because, let’s face it, the fact of being reachable and able to make a call even when you’re out and about is intriguing, as demonstrated by the early success of phone booths).
The news highlights something I have been harping on about often and for a while (both in public and in private), and that is the fact that there is more than one market out there for phones (in much the same way that there are different segments for, say, cars). And whilst there are the Porsches of the mobile world (few models, high-end, high-priced), the Hyundais and Kias are often overlooked by the mobile afficionados and their attempts to read the crystal balls of mobile technology evolution. Porsche is (OK, was, prior to their misguided attempt to take over Volkswagen) the most profitable car maker in the world (as, incidentally, Apple is in the mobile space), Nokia and Samsung (and ZTE, and …) shift many more handsets. Who is better? Well, the answer is: this is the wrong question. Porsche and Kia do not serve the same segment and are, hence, not competing.
Nokia and Samsung could be described as the Volkswagen or Toyota of the mobile world: broad range of models attempting to also capture the high-end (Volkswagen through its Audi, Bentley, Bugatti ranges, Toyota with Lexus) and they do so with varying success (Bugatti and Bentley are, I believe, loss-making). However, they do it in any event with lesser margins than Porsche (it’s a distorted picture now that VW effectively owns Porsche but, hey). Again, is this good or bad? And the answer is again: neither.
When we bring this back to the larger discussion on Nokia’s demise (or not), we should probably just identify Nokia’s (alleged) problem on the high-end. Symbian might be high-powered VW but it is no Porsche. That will still leave the VW Golf as the top-seller in many countries though, meaning that and s40 and the likes might still be very viable (and appropriate!) platforms for large parts of the market. So not all might be lost. It is “just” that Nokia needs to look at the challenge of providing the broad range. And it might be worthwhile looking at VW as a comparison: they do share certain platforms but run Audi as a unit separately! And this is where Nokia differs. Might that be the solution?
As to John’s phone, I am not sure if South Park-esque icons appeal to the golden oldies but then, it either just might or (perhaps equally plausible) they might not even know South Park, which would be just as good. Will it shift? I doubt it. Why, you say? Because they don’t have the distribution of the Nokias and Samsungs of this world, that’s why (plus, it might be just too crude after all; or is that the geek-me?).
Thanks to @claireboo for the heads-up.
Recently, previously civilized and subtle top executives of the world’s big mobile handset makers took the gloves off and became, well, a little more outspoken. What sticks from this is, of course, always only the most figurative snippets. Because all of these esteemed people have the most vested of all vested interests, their statements tend to distort reality a little. And because of that, we have increasingly lively debates at hand. But, alas, these debates may not necessarily lead to enlightenment.
So I thought I undertake a little mapping exercise and see where we end up…
The War of Words
I don’t know who started this. But we have had a couple of outbursts recently. Nokia’s soon to be former smartphone maestro Anssi Vanjoki (of nGage and other fame) likened switching to Android to boys who pee in their pants for warmth in winter. What he wanted to say is that it gets worse after brief relief. Apple supremo Steve Jobs sees no one (and in particular not RIM) getting anywhere near his beautiful iPhones anytime soon (he probably has not forgotten Mike Lazaridis riposte to the iPhone 4′s Antennagate). Others are convinced that Apple cannot beat Android. Period. Everyone wonders what Nokia will come up with (and, no, we do not think the N8 is it). Etc, etc, etc.
A Lot of Little Worlds
When one looks at the world map and then listens to the good folks cited above (and others), it appears that there is not one but many little worlds out there. Nokia is sitting high and dry in overall handset rankings with over 35% market share across all handsets. It is estimated to ship more than 500m handsets in 2011, too (so hold back with your obituary just yet). However, it is nowhere to be seen in the US (and even less in US smartphones where it is fighting a close fight with Palm around the 4-5% mark). Samsung (one of the few big boys not to participate in the above bickering) is building out its #2 spot with around 20% market share. Apple is well behind (although recording fairly impressive numbers given that it is basically a single handset company).
Does this matter in the discussion who is “winning”? No, it does not. An iPhone is useless if you are in an emerging (or developing) country with no 3G coverage and no abundance of power outlets from where to re-charge your fancy beauty every 8-12 hours or so. On the other end of the spectrum, a Nokia 1100 is useless if you would like to navigate on your handset through the urban jungle of Manhattan whilst shooting photos for the ones at home. But it runs forever, doesn’t mind a bit of sand or water and will never ever break. Ever.
The point is that there is more than one market here. The market is not mobile phones. The market is not even smartphones. There are many. And in some of them, Apple is looking really weak. And in others, Nokia is looking really weak.
Single Segment vs. Multi-Segment
Nokia’s strength (and, to an extent, curse) is that it wants to be everything to everyone. The N8 is a great handset from a hardware perspective but, after having played around with it for a week or so, I think it has a distinct 3-years-ago feel to it. It makes great phone calls though (which, well, the iPhone does not always). However, will Apple be able to challenge Nokia (and Samsung) in the broad lower-end mass market? Not for a long time, I would say.
The situation is a little more serious for other single-segment OEM. RIM used to live off the fat of the land in the enterprise sector. And it continues to thrive there. In recent years, it has seen a huge upswing amongst kids – because of the now almost legendary BBM (Blackberry Messenger for the uninformed). However, can you successfully build or expand on a single feature? And then on one that could really also be mimicked, worked around or substituted by something similar? Tricky.
Tricky in a different way is the situation for the likes of Motorola, HTC or Sony Ericsson: they have all committed their life to the Android platform. With Google’s muscle in the Open Handset Alliance, this means that they depend more and more on hardware design only. It feels a little like the movie business: hit-driven. And that is a tricky situation to be in. HTC looks good at this: this is home turf for it. On top of this, it has quickly started to try some gentle steps to distinguish itself (HTC Sense; Google Nexus One, etc) from other Android makers. Motorola’s Blur was less successful initially. And Sony Ericsson has yet to show its hand.
Vertically Integrated vs. Multi-OEM
All this does of course not bother Android (and perhaps also Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7) as they have the advantage of being able to bringing many weapons to the battlefield. Android’s huge advantage is one of price due to its open-source nature: For Windows Phone 7, you need to pay a software license. Android is – basically – free. Both have multiple OEM that fight their corner though. Which is, or at least can be, good. Google will not really care if the next killer phone is produced by HTC or Motorola or Sony Ericsson (or Foxconn directly for that matter).
Apple will likely struggle to match the sheer number of iterations being thrown at it. And therefore it is likely that Android will be winning, or rather continue to win.
Does this matter much to Apple? Possibly not. The margin discussion will, in all likelihood, be one that Apple execs will happily take. They will look better at it. However, will it manage to break the old Mac vs. PC pattern? Probably not. However, Apple’s position looks much brighter than it did in the decades of 5% OS-share mediocrity. The company has perfected the hardware-software-service-sex-appeal equation, which looks likely to cement a much more comfortable niche for it (just have a look at its market cap).
Vertically Integrated Multi-Segment
Nokia and Samsung try (or seem to try) a different way. Nokia is betting on MeeGo (its Symbian support sounds more and more hollow by the day). Samsung, which traditionally bet on almost every horse, made a big push for its proprietary bada OS.
This approach could be a winner: with their strong grip on emerging markets and the ability to roll out a proprietary OS across multiple segments, it presents an opportunity to nurture users in emerging markets (where the real growth will be in the next 5 years) into the use of their respective ecosystems. It did pay off for Nokia the first time around!
The Real Battlefield
In the more saturated markets in the Northern hemisphere though the battlefield is likely to be one involving OEM and network operators. This is where Apple really shook up the markets. A lot of the revenue streams from the iPhone simply bypass carriers. The Android OS opens similar avenues. The reason why Apple managed to pull this off is likely to be seen in the branding side of things: it enjoys such pulling power that carriers were bending over backwards to get their hands onto it (and then of course started moaning about the strain on their networks). Android is now being positioned as the alternative. At least, carriers can put competing offers onto Android devices.
Now, in markets where handset purchases are also driven by the overall package (cf. my recent post on this), this is likely to be important.
Nokia, Motorola, RIM, Samsung, etc all enjoy good distribution relationships with carriers. Apple is in a special position because of a) its brand but also b) its price; not much flexibility here, I suspect.
Nokia for instance struggled however to assert itself with some further-reaching ideas it had: some carriers pushed it back over e.g. plans to put Skype onto its handsets. It apparently has less brand power than Apple. Or the carriers were more used to having a say over what gets onto its handsets and what doesn’t.
Conclusion: We don’t Know What We don’t Know
We are, hence, in essence still in a fairly foggy situation: other than Apple’s brand power, we really don’t know as yet what, who, how will prevail. And that is in itself good news. Because it means we will have some time left with competing concepts, competing OEM and competing approaches. And with more CEO banter of course…