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  • Are Smartphones Now Commodities?

    October 5th, 2010

    With the proliferation of Android OS gear, it is becoming near impossible to tell one from the other. The situation is very similar to what prevails in the PC industry, and throughout the consumer electronics space, where numerous mostly similar products are released with distinctions that often aren’t obvious without carefully examining a product’s specs.

    Yes, the OS themes are skins might vary, but that’s another issue entirely, since they’re usually meaningless variations that offer little in terms of extra value to the customer.

    When it comes to the hardware, the actual variations may be too subtle to make much of a difference in the real world, except for power users and product reviewers who care about such matters.

    At one time, Apple was just as guilty of that practice. Back in the days before Steve Jobs returned to the company he co-founded, Apple offered so many similar versions of the Performa, I doubt that any company product person could explain the differences without a cheat sheet to refer to.

    Having far too many similar models, however, benefits a company or, in the case of smartphones, the wireless carriers, because they can flood the market and gain a larger number of customers. Or at least, that’s the plan.

    In the end, however, the customer is not being well served.

    Take the current Verizon Wireless promotion, where, if you buy one smartphone at the regular subsidized price (usually $199), you get your choice of a second smartphone free. Now when they tie you into a two-year contract, the company can’t lose. More to the point, I have little doubt that the manufacturers likely have to discount products sold in these offers, but if they move enough gear, maybe it doesn’t hurt so much, although overall profit margins are probably not so great.

    What happens, however, is that the value of any individual product is lessened. It’s just another smartphone to Verizon Wireless or any of the other carriers. One is no different from another, so long as you take the deal.

    Add to that the lack of consistent Android OS branding, and you have one big mess, and the ability to compete with Apple is reduced, even if more units are actually shipped. You can’t depend on the same user interface, nor even what the collection of bundled apps might be. The default search engine will, as I’ve said before, not necessarily even be Google. Verizon last year contracted with Microsoft to deliver Bing on some models.

    That’s not the sort of confusion an iPhone or iPad customer suffers. The product look and feel remains consistent across the product lineup. You can be assured that OS upgrades will be promptly accessible and easily downloaded and installed, although some features may not be supported in older models.

    The skills you mastered using the original iPhone are easily translated to the iPhone 4 — and the iPad. Sure, there are more features and additional Apple apps, but the basic skills required have changed only slightly, usually to accommodate the new capabilities, such as cut, copy, paste, and multitasking.

    With an Android OS smartphone, once you get past the changes in OS themes, you can’t be assured of being able to download the latest and greatest software updates, unless the carrier or manufacturer decides to let you have it. Otherwise, you probably have to “root” or jailbreak your device, and download one of the online disk image files that contain the unvarnished Google OS upgrades.

    Is that really a better idea?

    Well, for the wireless carriers, yes, since they don’t care which model you buy, so long as you buy something and sign a service contract. No single model is better than another, and distinctive features crafted by the manufacturer may, in part, be subservient to the needs of the carrier.

    This is considered a main reason why Apple and Verizon didn’t make a deal early on with the iPhone. Apple wanted full control of the hardware, including the support experience, while Verizon would want to stuff the gadget with V Cast apps and other extra-cost junk.

    Visual voicemail? Forget about it, because no other smartphone offers it.

    Under such circumstances, the iPhone would have become just another generic smartphone, and Apple’s mobile initiative would have been doomed to failure.

    Indeed, when the iPhone was launched, the tech media and competing makers laughed. How could a computer company enter a market with which they were totally unfamiliar and deliver a winning product?

    Of course, nobody says that now. As Microsoft struggles to launch the latest Windows Mobile OS, and their partner companies prepare to introduce a new lineup of smartphones for the holiday season, you wonder what, if anything, is being brought to the table. It’s not as if Windows Mobile 7 will deliver anything that you can’t already get in an iPhone or Android OS product. So what’s the point, other than to serve the ego of a company and an erratic CEO that cannot admit that some product initiatives are destined to fail? Evidently the extent of the Kin fiasco still isn’t being grasped.

    Of course, Microsoft might just be hoping for a victory in their patent claims against Android OS smartphone makers, and use the royalties to cover the costs of developing more inferior products.

    Right now, the iPhone sits in one corner, offering a stable, reliable, predictable and elegant user interface, and loads of other products that mostly the same, but often sport incomprehensible interface variations. Which product line do you prefer?



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