Things have changed a lot over the past couple of years in the smartphone space. Where once Nokia and Sony Ericsson (the two examples that I will use that illustrate the point – there are undoubtedly others) lead the way in high-end consumer mobiles, now they hardly get a second glance, being overpowered solely by Apple and Google’s offerings.
The touch effect
The big change that I saw as being a deciding factor in this shift of balance was the implementation of the touchscreen interface. Nokia and SE just didn’t ‘get it’, opting to bolt on touch capabilities to their existing platforms (Symbian), which just didn’t work. When Apple came along with the first iPhone, the OS had been written entirely from scratch for use solely by fingers. They were so confident in their implementation that they didn’t even provide a physical keyboard. Apple put their own vision first, and what people were understood to be wanting second, and created a whole new experience.
I remember so many people, including Steve Balmer (Microsoft CEO), saying the iPhone will never take off because of the lack of a physical keyboard. They thought that because people at the time ‘wanted’ a physical keyboard, that was the only way to do it. What they failed to understand is that people unintentionally define what they want by what is available, and so by providing a viable, better, alternative, Apple changed what people wanted and expected from a phone. The music industry is another really good example of this philosophy – the latest pop sensation isn’t a result of people neutrally choosing between all available music – it is the result of extensive and well thought-out marketing campaigns by record labels. They tell us what we want to listen to, and we then think that’s what we want to listen to.
The Apple ‘experience’
Nokia and Sony Ericsson have failed to keep up with the smartphone developments, and I put this down to an institutional inability to think outside of the box and confidently take a gamble with design. They saw a touch interface as a ‘bonus’, whereas to Apple it was at the heart of the entire phone’s design. This is a massive difference in approach, and one that Apple really excels in. To Nokia, a phone has features. To Apple, a phone has an experience. This is something I’ve come to learn about Apple – everything about the iPhone is carefully considered as part of the overall experience. And I mean everything.
The point is that by treating iPhone as a brand rather than a phone, and keeping the user experience so unbelievably simple and striking, they have enticed people who otherwise would not have even considered a ‘smartphone’. This is what separates them from the likes of Nokia and Sony Ericsson – people who aren’t interested in phones will buy an iPhone without even thinking they are buying a smartphone. Smartphones aren’t cool, iPhones are. Google’s Android is trying hard, and slowly succeeding, to become ‘a brand’ in order to reach this market. Nokia aren’t even trying.
Can Nokia or Sony Ericsson catch up? At the time of writing, Nokia are still sticking to their Symbian guns, whereas SE are adopting Android. I can understand how it would be hard for someone like Nokia to relinquish control of the UI, but at the same time, their UI doesn’t seem to be having the desired result. Similarly, Sony Ericsson have now lost a significant portion of their impact, the UI, and are now simply a hardware vendor like HTC, who are cleaning up in the Android scene at the moment. Microsoft are in hot pursuit with Windows Mobile 7 but have years of developer buy-in to compete against as it is a brand new OS. So it’s between Google, Apple and Nokia, and I don’t think Nokia stand a chance.