Mobile Platforms

Post MWC: Android’s Tour-de-force. Is that the shape of things to come?

Over the last week I’ve had several discussions with colleagues about MWC 2011. The general gist of things was “wow, how far Android has gone”. And indeed, Android’s presence at the conference was impressive, to say the least. The usual Android suspects were there, of course – HTC, Motorola, Samsung and others. But what was even more impressive was the vast number of unknown Android manufacturers, mainly Chinese, who’ve flocked to the free platform en-masse. Known names like ZTE and Huawei were to be expected, but upstarts like Malata (who seems to make impressive Android tablets, incidentally) were there by the dozen. And of course – given Nokia’s and Apple’s absence, and RIM’s limited presence, it sometimes seemed like Android is the only game in town.

Malata Android Tablet

The Nokia / Microsoft news just fanned the fire. Essentially while it is a feather in Windows Phone’s cap (not necessarily a beautiful peacock feather, incidentally), it means that Nokia will be out of the smartphone game for a long time. And to judge by the employees’ reaction – could be long indeed.

The general conclusion I heard drawn, then is simple – Android is taking over the market, Android will define the shape of things to come, Android is where to take your mobile start-up / corporate mobile app first cause that’s where all the users will be. Right?

Sorry, it’s not that simple. Contrary to what some people think, Android to phones is not going to be Windows to PCs. At least not in the next 2-3 years. There are many reasons, but I think the most important one lies in the personal relationship between consumers and their phones. Unlike PCs (at the time), phones are a means for personal expression both explicitly (as in what you put on them / use them for) and implicitly (as in making sure your peers know what you have – just like cars). Most smartphone users associate their phone selection and habits with their identity. And with identity, a “one size fit all” strategy doesn’t work, fortunately. So as long as there are technologically credible alternatives with a well differentiated product (e.g iPhone, BlackBerry), they will draw significant audiences.

Furthermore, the wider Android spreads as a mid-market solution, the less appealing will it be to some of these people who seek to distance themselves from “the middle”. Think the Mac cult of the ’90s and early ’00s but at a wholly different level. After all – these devices are used in the open. People see what you use, so better pick the “right” one.

So clearly – the fragmentation in the smartphone space is going to continue. Each platform’s market segment will be different demographically and psycho-graphically,  and these compositions will continue evolving. I expect we’ll keep seeing Android pandering mostly to the mid-market (with of course a meaningful number of power-users and high-end customers too). iPhone will generally remain a high-end phenomenon. BlackBerry may well lose its hold on the enterprise, but acquire new audiences amongst the young and price-conscious (free messaging). And when Nokia eventually rolls out Windows Phone handsets, it is quite possible that their considerable distribution clout in European and Emerging markets will make this a meaningful platform for those audiences.

I believe a very similar phenomenon will be seen in tablets. While Android tablets are improving, the good ones are still not meaningfully cheaper than the iPad. Apple only needs some minor improvements with the anticipated iPad 2 in order to stay in the lead. Only when significantly cheaper tablets (probably running Android 3.0) will come to the market can the balance be upset. And what will we have then? A similar market structure with iPad as the premium product and Android tablets as cheaper, “good enough” devices for mid-market consumers.

Where does this leave the Android makers? With the proliferation of Chinese manufacturers with great pricing power, we will see the PC-wars re-enacted. Margins will drop to low single digits for most manufacturers, probably leading to consolidation and elimination of key brands.

So essentially – nothing earth-shattering really came out of MWC. We will see even more Androids, Symbian and MeeGo are dead (duh!) but little change to the fabric of the market as we’ve known it in 2010.

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Mobile Platforms

In Smartphones: Google is King but Apple is Rich

A couple of weeks ago, the inevitable was announced. According to Canalys, a leading mobile market research firm, in Q4 2010 Android has overtaken Symbian as the world’s most-pervasive smartphone platform. According to Canalys, 33.4 Million Android phones were shipped by Google licensees in the quarter – more than double the iPhones or BlackBerries.

While this has been touted with much fanfare, some seemingly contradictory information is “common knowledge” to mobile application developers. It is still much easier to get traction and especially monetize iPhone apps than Android apps. How come? With such momentum for Android, you’d expect it to be at least as successful as iPhone.

The answer, which I’ve been proclaiming for awhile now, can be summed up this way – “Android is the new Symbian”. Now I’m sure some Googlers will resent this, so maybe a different way to put it is – “Android is the new MS-DOS”.

What I mean by this are really two things. First, that Google’s strategy with Android is to reach as far and as wide as it can. That’s one of the reasons it is free to licensees, open-source etc. Google intends to eventually leverage Android by tying it to its other assets and ultimately use advertising to monetize it. This means you can build cheap Android phones and target the mid-market, not just the high-end as other smartphones have (in truth, Android hardware requirements are still relatively high, but Moore’s law is taking care of that cost). Furthermore the abundance of licensees means that a price war is evident – and indeed we now see free (subsidized) Android phones on many operators portfolios. So – Android is becoming the dominant player in the mid-market, with high-end presence too, and ultimately low-cost aspirations. This is exactly the path Symbian took in 2004 – 2008, becoming the world’s leading smartphone platform by volume – but dwindling in consumers’ eyes to a point where it drives low-margin devices, with BlackBerries (initially) and iPhones (later) commanding the high-end, high-margin sector. In 2008, a Nokia executive told me personally that Nokia learned the hard way that the top 10% of the handset market commands 50% of the margin. Think about it – if one company takes over the top 10%, it can be worth as much of all the other companies combined (who sell in aggregate 9 times as much as it does). Right? So this is the second point – a smartphone platform that is focused on mass is doomed to become a low-margin platform. Google doesn’t mind. But it’s licensees are doomed to fighting over scraps.

Now this is a tall order claim, that I couldn’t really publish before, until I ran into this analysis by Asymco’s Horace Dediu:

Which brought to mind Noam Wasserman’s “Founder’s Dilemma” metaphor about Rich vs. King. Apple’s startegy with the iOS devices, just like with the Mac before, is to aim for the top 10-30% of the market. The people who can spend, the people who care deeply about the product they are buying and using. Google’s strategy is more like carpet-bombing. If we can get to 80% of the people, we’ll surely find a way to monetize that.

So is this just an interesting business case? Or Valley gossip?.

If you’re involved in this business in any way – you might be an app developer, a marketer wanting to reach mobile device users through mobile ads or a mobile app / website etc., or a service provider who is pushed to provide a service to his customers through their phones, this is critical info. Cause it means that you are going to reach a different demographic and psychographic when you target the different platform. In the Apple case, your demographic will be skewed towards high-income, users may be more engaged with the product, and there may be more willingness to pay. On the Android platform you will eventually reach more people, but engagement and purchasing intent will be different. And your adoption ratio (compared to the total available Android market) will be different, as many of these users are much less enthusiastic about their phones. Yes – they bought a smartphone, but maybe because “everyone else is getting one” or because “it was free, so why not”. So choose your audience wisely, and plan your marketing moves with consideration for its composition.

Mobile Platforms

If Steve Jobs Kept A Pet, It Would Be A Hamster

The App Store’s Hall-Of-Fame: Making It  Worse For New Developers

Just last week, I wrote a piece explaining the detrimental effect that the Top-25 charts have on new apps. To make matters worse, in a move just out of Yahoo’s books (circa 1998), Apple announced the “Hall-of-fame” – an “all-time top-50 chart” that seems to be part quantitative, part curated. What it means for new developers is that old, established, previously successful developers have yet another advantage now – one more search mechanism that steals what limited customer attention there is, and deflects it back at existing incumbents.

Is this a good move from a consumer’s perspective? On the surface, it is – now the consumer has an way to find out “what everyone else has downloaded” (the Hall-of-Fame) and “what everyone else is downloading” (the existing Top-downloads list).Everyone who gets an iPhone can quickly get up to speed with what’s best out there.

But what it really does is turn more and more of the attention in the direction of fewer and fewer applications, ultimately stifling innovation. If the Internet was managed the same way, we’d all have MySpace rather than Facebook accounts, we’d be getting directions from MapQuest, not Google Maps, and this blog would  have been a GeoCities page. To enable innovation, the “long tail‘ has to be long enough and thick enough for some good stuff to emerge – and ultimately displace the people at the top. But if it’s too hard to get noticed, even great stuff will just dry up and die before it is. So no long tail – or a very thin and shrivelled one.

So what comes next?

I have no idea. I think new iOS developers will find it even harder to penetrate that market. And incumbents will get an even bigger piece of the pie.

Where should app discovery be headed?

In my mind – probably something similar to the way Google displaced Yahoo. An effective Search mechanism, based on keywords possibly. It should study how people relate to apps, which apps are downloaded by whom, rank relationships between apps and users, possibly in an analogous way to Google PageRank, and take into account velocity and current trends, much more than it does historical downloads. A marketing mechanism based on the keywords search would make much sense too.

Any better ideas out there?