Yesterday, Telstra kicked off its social reviewer program for the HTC Mozart mobile phones. I'm not involved (although I recognise quite a few names as AuTechHeads members!) and have already given my thoughts on one that was purchased via work for the purpose of evaluation. I certainly wish the social reviewers all the best, and will read their own thoughts with considerable interest.
It did, however, get me thinking more on a train of thought that's already been at the back of my head, especially when seeing the first sets of comments and gripes about the phones flowing via Twitter. I'm talking about, for example, "I miss X app" or "I miss X feature". And here's where the fragmentation first becomes evident.
We used to have phones where the biggest concern, when switching, was making sure your contacts were copied to SIM or to your PC somehow. It was largely seamless to transition between Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, etc. Even with the advent of Pocket PC Phones and Smartphones from Microsoft's OEM partners, it was a relatively harmless concern in switching. Sure, maybe that app you bought won't run on the Nokia you now use .. but you can always use the PPC as a PDA, or have a dedicated PDA, that it'll run on.
Enter the iPhone, and developer demand for the ability to write native applications. Eventually Apple provided it, and a whole new era of profitability was ushered in - above and beyond the phone itself. You see, once people buy an iPhone app, it'll only run on iPhone or iPod touch. (and now, of course, iPad). No major issue for Apple devotees that never intend to switch around, but we're not talking about them - we're talking about Mr and Mrs Average.
See, Mr and Mrs Average get a phone with no immediate plans to switch. They use it for a year, two, three, four - who knows. They happily buy apps for it, use it, abuse it, and just get on with life. Then one day they see a new phone. They have no idea what it "runs". They like the look of it, or the features, or get talked into it by a salesperson who cares only about his cut. Or something like that. They now have a new Android phone.
Wait, what? Oh dear. How do Mr and Mrs Average get their 'stuff' onto the new phone? Wow, that's tricky for a consumer. Let's assume they're smart and work that bit out. Cool. But hang on - where's Bill and Joe's Awesome App? Where do I take this phone for repair? Halps?
Yes - sorry about that. You've got some new rules to deal with now. See, iPhone apps won't run on this. Some are ported, but some aren't. You'll have to buy them again if they have been. But hey! There's a lot of great free apps and you don't need iTunes to do it all!
Repair? Well, it's a bit embarrassing. See, unlike Apple, these are OEM phones, so you don't just take it to an Apple store or even your carrier. Your carrier probably won't stand by the warranty unless you're ready for a battle, either. But if you go to Happy Joe's Mobile Repair Shop, I'm sure they can help you out. Or maybe you should load a new firmware.
Oops. You loaded the new firmware from your PC and didn't realise it would wipe your data? And didn't have a backup? Um. That's a bit unfortunate. You do remember how you got it on there last time don't you?
Sigh. It's ok. They've got used to it. They kind of like the features. Bought some apps. But now the new phone bug has got them. Here's Windows Phone 7 come out! Maybe this will be a smoother experience - after all, it's Microsoft!
Let's stop here. It's fairly predictable, aside from mentioning of course the relatively sparse number of genuinely useful Windows Phone 7 apps at the moment. The point of the scenario is to point out what's wrong. The new business model for mobiles - smartphones in particular - is to lock people in using apps, rather than contracts. That's potentially a much longer retention. And carriers also benefit, because they follow up with the next model, and the next, and the next - as exclusives where possible.
It's a poor business practice. It is, in a number of ways, deliberate, and more so as time goes on. It grows worse as new platforms come to market, and it can contribute to the failure of a new line of phones. I suppose I could point at the Palm WebOS as a tentative example, although HP's acquisition leaves this yet to be definitively seen. This can start to lead into anti-competitive behaviour, as well. After all, locking in people to Windows was the root cause of the Department of Justice's stouche with Microsoft.
I really feel for Mr and Mrs Average. It irritates the hell out of me to see a little old lady struggling to navigate her iPhone on the train. It burns me to see the look on people's faces in a phone store when told their warranty won't be honoured, or they should have known it wouldn't run their old apps - and so on.
It's not geeks that suffer from this - they can complain loudly, find their own fixes, and so forth. The fragmentation of the market will isolate consumers into smaller and smaller pockets of users who are stuck. Developers who commit to only one platform will lose portions of their customer base. Developers who try to port to all platforms will spend more money for lower return. And consumers will get a half-baked mix of apps irrespective of which platform they're stuck with.
There is already evidence of this - all you have to do is look in the marketplace for a given platform, and on various communities for the voices of "why isn't this app on X". Hell, just look at the marketplace itself for your device. It's utter crap. It is hard to find good stuff that you want - because these devices were not designed for Mr and Mrs Average.
So how does this get fixed? I can't pretend to have all the answers here, but I suggest that a heavier focus on web apps would help. Personally, I dislike most web apps on mobile, though. I wouldn't be surprised for others to feel the same. Native apps are far nicer.
My feeling is that the real answer is for people to ask why phone manufacturers can't insist on common standards for phone apps. I kind of think in terms of .NET in some regards with this. The common language runtime is quite good in its way, allowing developers to pick their language of choice. But it would need to be cross platform and consistent in application. So perhaps more like Mono than .NET in itself.
In addition to this, I think that platform developers - Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc - need to become the boss when it comes to OEMs and carriers. Personally I'd like to see OEMs wiped, having seen far too many issues at the hands of the ones that Microsoft and Google use, but let's assume that's not going to happen. Instead, an instance on quality - rigid battery life requirements, for example, and durability standards - and enforced approach to update handling. If a new release can feasibly run on existing hardware, it should be released (without carrier crapware); and the platform developers should hold themselves to a high standard in this regard too. Frankly I think Apple should actually be commended for their attention to this, and I'm no iPhone fan.
I learnt a lot from my Android experience too. Not, let me stress, from the official OEM and carrier crapware. Instead, I'm talking about the mod community. ROM Manager allowing you to arbitrarily chop, change, and upgrade firmware over the air, without losing data and with far less fuss - it's impressive. Not perfect, by any means - but platform developers could learn a lot
I rather like the idea of the social reviewer programs from Telstra. I just don't think they go far enough. My thinking is that instead, the platform developers should engage Mr and Mrs Average in the development process - allowing them to do the testing and feedback, such that phones are developed around how people really use them. Let them talk about that - great marketing, which ultimately is the point of social reviews. And a better overall result - both in the final product and in the sales achieved.
If the platform developers were to take this approach - and by no means do I expect it to happen - they'd actually make more money, in my opinion. Consumers with intuitive phones, where they can take their apps and data with them, regardless of platform (they really don't care). Developers able to write once and publish to all. Easy to use marketplaces which allow people to filter the wheat from the chaff. My goodness. What a concept. All the platform developers would have opportunity to reach more markets.
I know, I know. I'm being optimistic and pie-in-the-sky again. I can dream.
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