Few will have missed the unveiling of the iPhone 4S. Central to the launch was the introduction of a voice activated assistant which allows users of the phone to talk to it and get information or perform commands. Questions such as “do I have any meetings on Friday afternoon?” change the way we think about a mobile phone. I use my smartphone as a communication device and as a source for information but even with a highly visual interface I don’t really enjoy searching for content on it. It’s just not a big enough form factor. Voice commands change all that. By simply talking to it, I can get the information without having to type it several times. I think voice will change the way we use smartphones but also what kind of content we access. The old adage that only get what you ask for applies. When we type we express ourselves very differently from when we talk, so what we get back is different. It’s the difference between calling someone to ask a question and emailing them. We get subtly different content. I’ve no real idea where this takes us but I’m pretty sure that we’ll see an explosion in news types of content that voice driven requests will create. As someone yesterday suggested, imagine using the voice command to enable your phone to talk to someone in another language. An instant translator if you like. Lastly, voice commands pushes natural language searching miles forward and as we know, when we improve search we improve what we find. When we improve what we find, people get very rich…
Apple has been grabbing all the innovation headlines with the iPhone and the iPad and its iMac business has benefitted in the process. Microsoft showed off Windows 8 at D9 today and in so doing showed the world that markets are always open to those who innovate. Windows 8 has a completely different look and feel to the current operating system. Gone is the start button and the icons for apps. Instead the new version will use live tiles. These will be familiar to those who use a current generation of Windows phone. Indeed this is part of what makes Windows 8 so clever. It shares the same interface across mobile and PC, meaning you learn one way to find and access content. It also makes it easier to share content between systems. To get a good feel for Windows 8 see the demo on YouTube. Windows 8 looks very cool and may well be the kind of innovation that will draw Mac users back to the Windows platform. It also demonstrates why Nokia may have chosen to go the Windows route for its mobile products. I love it when you can actually see innovation and with Windows 8 that innovation is not just visible it’s also screaming at you.
Apple has applied to trademark that expression. Even if they hadn’t it always reminds you of them. They made having thousands of apps available for you to buy and install on your phone something we all thought was very important. They made it so important that all their competitors had to copy them. Google, Microsoft and RIM (BlackBerry) now tout the thousands of apps you can choose from. Of course the reality is that for most of us, having thousands of apps to choose from is nice but we are never going to actually buy thousands of apps. I have about 40 apps on my iPhone. I used to have a few more that my kids had downloaded but most went unused and I managed to purge them from my phone. When I do buy a new app, I tend to buy from the top 25 list. Only rarely will I seek out an app not amongst that list. Now I’m sure the apps I need differ from the apps most students want. Indeed my daughter has games that leave me cold. Even then she has no more than 100 apps. So, by my calculations, less than 1% of the apps for sale actually get a big market. Put another way, the vast majority of apps get no audience whatsoever. Today’s app developers are like the Victorian prospectors in search of gold. They’ll invest in a piece of land in the hope that they’ll strike it rich. Most of course don’t. So when you think about it, all the app choice message that Apple started is effectively just marketing. They want us to believe that we should buy their phone because somewhere out there is an app we don’t know about that we might need. Truth is the universe of apps we really need is really small, maybe a 1000 at the most. I don’t blame Apple for taking this path. They are, after all, protecting the market they created. But sooner or later, two things will happen:
1. All the phones will be able to offer all the apps you want
2. Consumers will realize that they don’t really need hundreds of thousands of crappy apps. Instead a few hundred good ones will do very nicely.
Until that happens, the app war will continue and we’ll all wonder if there is an app out there that would make our day that bit better.
Steve Jobs has done an amazing turnaround at Apple since he retook the helm. Apple was in a death spiral it appeared; yet today they are the most valuable tech company in the world. For a while Apple was a bitter, twisted company that produced nice looking products that nobody but fanatics bought. Today, everyone but my mother has an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad. Some poor souls like me have all four. Apple, in short, is king of consumer tech right now. Will that last forever? I for one doubt it.
Right now Apple has a great team headed by a visionary leader. At some point that team will grow old, run out of energy and start to fragment. Apple’s future will be determined by the ability of the company to create a new generation of leaders. I know I’m stating the obvious when I say that but my point is that it is easy to assume that Apple has that problem nailed in the same way they have their product strategy right now. But do they?
When news of Steve’s illness was pushed on to the market, people speculated about who would take over from him. All of that speculation tended to focus on internal rather than external candidates. This makes a great deal of sense and is most likely what will happen. However, if they do go internal we can expect the losers of that battle to be at best disenfranchised and at worst leave. This will in turn lead to a weaker team at the top. Furthermore Apple is likely to have to live through a period where any new CEO is constantly being measured against Steve. That’s a hard act to follow. They’re not going to get standing ovations like he does when they walk on stage at the Moscone for product launches. The crowd isn’t going to laugh at the little jokes that are thrown in. In other words the ‘Steve factor’ will be lost and Apple will be just another good company, rather than a great one.
When this happens, the door will be wide open for rivals large and small. Right now Apple is all but impossible to beat in the consumer space. Sure there are some that hate them but they are a minority. That could change very quickly. Microsoft could fix its mobile strategy, RIM could design a BlackBerry that iPhone users would like or some new player could appear.
My point in all this is that innovation within a company is directly linked to its success but is also linked to the people that run that company. They are the ones that decide which products to sell to whom and at what price. They are the ones that create the markets, the excitement and so on. While some companies do a good job of creating a culture of innovation, even they know that it is what you do with that innovation that matters. Put another way, you will only keep on winning for as long as you have the best team. Today Apple has that team but there will come a time when they don’t. And come that day, others will take their chance.
Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry, the smartphone category leader for most of the recent past seems in danger of going the way of Palm, who created the category, did. In recent weeks there has been a steady flow of negative news and commentary form the media, ranging form today’s piece on Bloomberg that said “more companies opting for rival devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone. Of 200 companies in the U.S. and U.K. surveyed, 74 percent now let their employees use devices other than BlackBerrys,” to news that various governments have raised questions about its security. On the surface it appears RIM is suffering from bad PR and government relations. My question is: Is this a marketing problem or a product problem?
It does appear that RIM has a significant PR challenge. Blackberry 6 has rolled out via a TV ad campaign but with little attention in the editorial side of the media. What attention it has got has tended to focus on this being “RIM’s last roll of the dice.” Of course RIM has also been berated for having a relatively weak product line up and for also having opted for a software application model that gave customers a few really good apps versus the thousands and thousands open to iPhone and Android users. It would thus appear to be a perfect storm. A weak product line up, a software strategy error and less than effective PR. In other words it’s not just a marketing problem.
Can marketing save RIM? I for one believe the BlackBerry brand could still do well. The iPhone, though beautiful, isn’t without its flaws: dropped calls, touch screen keyboard that can lead to horrendous typos, AT&T coverage in markets like San Francisco, the list goes on. The iPhone is also becoming a target for people who like to exploit security holes. I was recently told of a major investment bank that wanted to trial the iPhone for staff. To make it secure they had to disable the camera, iPod functionality and the ability to download apps. In other words it became a phone and email device. Given these are actually two of its weaker functions (see list of weaknesses above) that should make the BlackBerry a very good alternative. This is where marketing needs to step in and hammer the iPhone for all it’s worth. For people who like to email or text message the BlackBerry s still the best device going. But they need to do more than that. RIM needs to get aggressive and invest in a real content and applications model that people see as a real alternative to iTunes. This could easily be done via a comprehensive agreement with Amazon (who also has an interest in unseating Apple). Now of course we hear that RIM is readying an iPad rival. This makes it a rival to Amazon also given the Kindle. Bad, bad idea in my mind. I think there is far more to be gained by having Amazon on its side than having them as a rival. Amazon, after all, offers the only real alternative to Apple’s content strategy.
I could go on and on about how RIM needs to ‘re-win’ the smartphone battle and how this requires them to win over both consumers AND the IT community. It’s achievable with some well executed PR provided they also look at their content/application strategy AND roll out a product line that rethinks their current look. RIM is where the American carmakers were when the Japanese arrived. They were focused on the wrong things and just couldn’t see how tastes had changed. It’s going to be a tough battle for RIM but as of today they have the resources to win if they are willing to take some bold steps and admit some of their mistakes.
Just had to go into the Apple store for something (Mac people always need something when they are passing an Apple store). While I was in there I noticed a LOT of kids. I then noticed a mom I knew who had four of those kids in tow. She freely admitted that going to the Apple store for an afternoon was her form of summer camp. The kids were effectively allowed to play with all the iPhones, iPads, iPods, iMacs and anything else beginning with ‘i’. They weren’t allowed to buy anything of course. The staff at the store seemed quite happy to be hosting all the kids. Perhaps Apple could start selling summer camp T-shirts, or rather iShirts.
PS – turns out Apple does offer free summer camps to kids, where they get to learn how to make movies. It also turns out my wife signed up two of kids to do it… details: http://www.apple.com/retail/camp/
PPS – in case you are wondering the Apple store is still sold out of iPhone 4s. Seems Antennagate isn’t harming business.
Look at any major retail area and you’ll find a Starbucks somewhere in the mix. Starbucks was, for some time, such a draw that mall owners would give them incentives to open stores. After all, with a Starbucks in their complex other retailers would benefit from the people seeking a latte. Facebook and Twitter are becoming online equivalents. Imagine you launch a new smart-phone and you don’t have a Facebook or Twitter app? Well you just wouldn’t. There aren’t many apps that are essential for smart-phone vendors but access to Facebook and Twitter top the list. Imagine that Facebook decided only to offer an official version of its app to say Microsoft. It wouldn’t hurt Apple much right now but it could be the kind of move that could put Microsoft back in to the smart-phone wars. They wouldn’t do that surely. But imagine if they did.
It seems that whenever Apple intros a new version of the iPhone or the iPad customers are prepared to camp out overnight just to be one of the first to own such a product. While I drove past the Palo Alto store yesterday and studied the line I couldn’t help but think that these lines were a marketing opportunity for someone. I could easily see an app vendor creating some stunt that gave the first 100 people in each line a free copy of their app, so that their app instantly became a hit just as the new platform comes out. I could see consumer brands such as Dr Scholls (the people who make foot care products) creating ‘Apple Line Waiting’ gift bags. I could see Starbucks offering a ‘mobile (get it?) latte service’ for the people stuck in line. Right now the only people benefiting from the lines is Apple. With lines formed in major cities across the world, surely there’s an opportunity for someone to capitalize? Come on all you creative consumer marketers, get your thinking caps on.
As the media speculated about the launch of the iPhone 4 there was a lot of chatter about them also launching a Verizon version of the new phone. Rationally this was never on the cards for a few simple reasons:
1. AT&T has really struggled to provide reliable service in two major metros (New York and San Francisco). If Apple had opened the door to Verizon, customers would have fled from AT&T at an alarming rate. I’m pretty sure AT&T knows this and will have been negotiating with Apple to keep the exclusive arrangement until its coverage issues are resolved. According to Mr Jobs that should be by late summer if his answer at D8 is to be believed.
2. The Verizon version of the phone uses different technology. One presumes that the engineers at Apple will want to get the version they know working before they introduce an alternative.
3. Apple actually likes the single supplier deal it has with AT&T. Apple never went down the clone route because it loves to control as much as it can. Having multiple carriers isn’t something Apple wants as it gives them more risk. Apple signed up single carriers in lots of other markets – eg O2 in the UK. They’d prefer to stay single carrier as long as they can. Multiple carriers makes life more complicated and unless they need to do it, they won’t.
Don’t get me wrong, at some point Apple will let other carriers in, not many but some. But right now it is no hurry. It can sell all the iPhones 4s it can build. Pre-orders on eBay are already going for over $1000. If they open up now they will simply have two channels they can’t fill. They are much better waiting ’till the buzz has died down around the 4 and then introducing it on Verizon. My guess is late this year…