How the mobile phone biz lost the plot
Will the iPhone save the mobile industry?
Opinion Nokia's recent announcement heralding the arrival of "widgets" is further proof that the entire mobile industry is a rudderless ship furiously innovating in circles.
Having lost sight of consumer sentiment years ago, all sectors of the industry seem to be clamouring to give every crackpot idea a chance in a desperate attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Nokia used to set the benchmark for everyone else, being renowned for its simple and snappy user interfaces, exceptional reliability, great battery life, and fantastic call quality.
Unsurprising to everyone else, is that these qualities are still paramount to the average consumer. That a company that got so many things right is now trying to distinguish itself with "widgets" is a telling depiction of how the mighty have fallen.
A little retrospective to the days of focused innovation may help highlight the dullness of today's "all cherry, no ice cream" offerings. Consider the Nokia 3210, probably the most successful phone of all time, and for good reason.
The 3210 is the Model T Ford of mobile phones. By 2000, the phone was cheap enough that almost anyone could afford it. Yet despite its affordability, it was packed with features not yet seen in the mass market; most of them market firsts. Among other things, it introduced internal aerials, T9 predictive text input, downloadable ringtones, downloadable operator logos and a user interface as easy to use as a doorbell.
The ubiquity of the phone combined with its downloadable ringtones, operator logos, and changeable XPressOn covers gave birth to the billion dollar "Blingtone" industry, while the sheer number of "Snake"-related thumb injuries more than proved the viability of a mobile gaming industry. While exact figures are hard to come by, it seems unlikely that any other phone to date has had a higher market share or a bigger impact.
That Nokia still has the market share that it does today can only be explained by dark art of "brand psychology". The N-series must surely take the cake as the world's most ill-conceived range of phones, being slower than treacle, as reliable as Windows 3.1 and clearly designed by a committee of unloved marketing droids.
There is literally no one in this cursed industry that hasn't joined the frantic race to the bottom. Time and again, the industry has shown it is willing to sacrifice essential features on the altar of progress, fluff, and bling.
The Nokia Communicator, a phone that can check all the "cool boxes", has no vibrate. The Sony Ericsson P990, loaded with more bullet points than a US Marine, has had the much acclaimed 5-way jog dial of its predecessors tragically neutered. The Samsung X820, which has a UI fast enough to make Nokia owners weep with nostalgic despair, has no automatic keylock. The K-series Sony Ericssons, otherwise almost perfect phones, have SIM card slots designed to punish the world's nail-biters and tragically have neglected a volume setting for message alerts.
Greed and loathing
Operators also seem to be scrambling to find new ways to abuse their customers. Two year contracts, removing any software which competes with the operator services like email software and VoIP (Vodafone Live deserves special mention), shipping with only a handful of hideous ringtones (you can purchase the nice ones later), cramming the phone with branded guff, making the phones automatically use MMS at the slightest provocation, and locking phones are some of things that make using a phone a lot less fun than it was a few years ago.
But perhaps what differentiates the operators from everyone else is that they are screwing customers over on purpose. Handset manufacturers merely seem to have lost the plot. What is desperately lacking in today's offerings is the laser-like focus of latter-day Nokia.
Innovation is great when it is directed at a well-understood target market, but understanding markets has never been this industry's forte. How is it possible that a technology as wildly successful and influential as SMS, was initially thought to be a novelty for socially handicapped geeks and teens?
And while the entire entertainment industry seems hell-bent on convincing anyone who'll listen that television can only be enjoyed on high frame-rate, 40-inch, LCD HDTVs, handset manufacturers are proudly announcing the opposite - the forthcoming mobile television revolution, aka "TV on a Post-It Note".
Has anyone really done any research into whether TV can be actually be separated from the couch?
It says a lot about this industry that Steve Jobs can generate hype by claiming the "killer app" on the iPhone is "making calls". The iPhone will never be the same runaway success that the 3210 was, but then again, that's not its stated ambition.
However, the product has a refreshing sense of purpose in the current climate of aimless exuberance. It brings with it the one of the cornerstones of the iPod's success: do a few useful things really well.
Not everyone agrees the iPhone will be as successful as Jobs hopes, but Apple does seem to make the perfect bogeyman for the mobile phone industry. What could be more scary than an organisation capable of working in total secrecy, with a track record of creating highly desirable products, headed by a man who's beaten cancer and an SEC investigation and comes equipped with a Reality Distortion Field that would make Darth Vader jealous.
Frankly, it's just what the doctor ordered for this very sick industry. ®
Brendon McLean is a part-time IT consultant and full-time office-chair critic located somewhere between the laid-back tropical paradise of London and the frantic bustle of downtown Cape Town.