I’ve spent about a week with an iPod Touch, the non-cell phone version of the iPhone, and like most I am impressed but perhaps for different reasons than others. I have nary a song on my iPod, and while I’ve synchronized a couple movies for an impending transpacific flight, the crisp video was not what wowed me. What impressed me most about the iPod/iPhone, and what I see is key to its success, and the critical element that competitors must upstage, is that it is the first device tightly integrated with a marketplace; a marketplace-driven device if you will.
Contrast the iPhone with my primary communications workhorse, a Windows Mobile device. On paper, the Windows phone does everything the iPhone does: email, web browsing, music/video playing, phone calling, etc. The Windows phone even does some things markedly better, providing superior integration with my corporate email servers and a slew of add-on productivity software. On the iPhone however, when I tapped the little “App Store” icon I entered what I believe will be the future of computing.
Without going into painful detail, the App Store is Apple’s platform for storing and distributing add-on applications for the iPhone. This is combined with access to the iTunes store, which together provide access to a library of music, video and applications directly from the phone. This does not sound all that revolutionary until you use it. Going on a trip to Hong Kong? With a couple of taps in the App Store you can search for and install a world clock, global weather and a Facebook client to keep your friends updated on your trip. You can also pull down a TV show and your favorite podcast. For my Windows phone, there are obviously similar applications, but installing them requires more effort: first, put down the device and take a seat at your computer. Figure out what application you want and wade through Google results until you find something in the ballpark. Now the “easy” part: find an application store, or the software vendors site, search out a review or two, determine which version of the OS and processor you have, download the correct file, install the app on your desktop, connect your phone, sync, wait for the software to install on the device, etc., etc. One you can do when the mood strikes in five minutes in the airport, the other process might take an hour or two.
Having a complete library of content and applications at your fingertips lets the user modify their device for the task at hand, or to suit a whim (not to mention providing a handy revenue stream to the marketplace owner). Unlike my Windows phone, most of the technical backend is locked down. You can’t browse the file system or tweak the registry, or install an application outside the App Store, but the ease with which I can access useful content immediately and from any location makes this less necessary in my mind. The iPhone becomes about the the experience, not the bits and bytes. Embedded connectivity and a market-place driven device are the killer applications in my mind, far more so than the flashy music player and fingertip navigation. The problem with competing devices is that they seem to focus on the latter, adding flash and complexity without reengineering the device to focus on usability and connectivity.
To beat the iPhone, hardware and software makers need to focus on the marketplace behind their devices, and create a superior platform to exploit that marketplace rather than thinking animated weather icons and gestures layered over the same tired operating system will do the trick. Obviously we need some slick hardware, but the world has enough black and metal iPhone wannabes. Give us optional keyboards and different form factors. Try some new sizes and formats, and most importantly, build a compelling marketplace. Create a superior version of the App Store, perhaps add integration to Netflix on the consumer end, or a universal data and report browser on the business end that allows companies to dispense corporate reports through a marketplace. Integrate location-based services into the core of the device, allowing people to locate friends or get access to relevant content based on their location, rather than just dumping in a GPS chip and forcing the consumer to figure out how to use it. Take the superior email handling of the Blackberry or Windows Mobile and tie it to instant messaging, Social Networking and location services, delivering a Xobni-like application, make it pretty and the operating system rock solid, and you’ll have your iPhone killer.
Now, market the hell out of it. No need to try and outdo Apple’s advertising style, but show us how the phone can be personalized and keep us connected to our friends and coworkers, rather than telling us how we can jockey an Excel spreadsheet on the subway. Phones are more than a productivity tool, to an extent they have become jewelry and something that speaks to our personality. Show us how your device does cool stuff and enhances our ability to stay in touch through multiple media, unless your professed target market is lifeless worker bees that get excited about manipulating a Powerpoint. Seemingly everyone in the tech industry save for Apple has forgotten that yes, sexy does sell, whether it’s perfume or a phone.
The company I am most interested in watching in this space is Microsoft. They have several years of PDA and smart phone experience, decent email integration and a relatively powerful operating system (although in dire need of some tweaks and streamlining). They also have proven ability on one hand to create a high-quality marketplace, which they have done quite successfully on the Xbox 360. On the other hand, they created the debacle of the Zune MP3 player, trying to out iPod the iPod, and crippling the few differentiating features. It will be an interesting battle to watch as we see if Apple can outflank Windows and Blackberry in the boardroom, and competitors can replace the metaphorical starched shirt with a bikini top and build the marketplace to back it up.