The mobile phone industry is boring.
It can be summed up in simple terms: the iPhone rules, everything else sucks.
And that’s getting really, really tired.
Fortunately, it might be about to change.
Apple’s would-be competitors are finally, at long last, after years of navel-gazing, gearing up to launch products that might, just might, be able to compete with the iPhone.
The reason I remain doubtful that a qualified iPhone competitor is on the way is because no other company seems to understand exactly why Apple’s mobile device is such a hit.
And it’s really quite simple.
Apple is helmed by a grumpy old man named Steve Jobs, and it’s generally understood that the iPhone was produced solely to please Mr. Jobs.
So the iPhone had to be easy and pleasurable enough for an über-critical, busy, surly, and impatient older person to use without any problem.
And it is.
That’s what the other companies don’t get.
Regardless of what it does, or how it looks, the iPhone is, at heart, a highly usable piece of technology.
Of course, aside from usability, there are two other essential qualities that any device must have: functionality and design.
Functionality is what a device does.
Design is what a device looks like, and how it represents itself to the person who is using it.
The iPhone is also very strong in functionality and design. But at the end of the day all you or I care about is the ease with which we can use the device, and that’s where the iPhone really shines.
For some reason, though, companies currently presuming to do battle with the iPhone are attacking it on one of these other two fronts.
Google, for example, is designing its devices and software around the core concept of functionality.
The Android OS – that’s the software that Google has created for mobile phones – is all about enabling devices with lots and lots and lots of features.
I recently had a chance to use a Google Nexus One for a little while and my first impression was one of confusion. I couldn’t figure it out.
It took a 5-minute tutorial from the device’s owner before I was able to operate it.
As a result of Google’s single-minded focus on functionality, the device is really difficult to actually use.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised. That’s Google’s Achille’s Heel: the company obsesses over what their products do, and forgets about how people want to do it, and that we want to enjoy doing it.
On the design side of the mobile device spectrum we’re very soon to find a new entrant, and it’s not who you’d expect.
Microsoft is set to launch their brand-new, unfortunately-named Windows Phone 7 platform later this year.
They hired a guy who used to design shoes to lead up the assault.
While that sounds weird, it actually shows some unusual marketing savvy on Microsoft’s part.
People, after all, buy shoes for one reason: appearance. We don’t consider crap like comfort or ankle support. It’s all about the look.
Microsoft knows that they have to use the same tact to at least overcome that lame name they’ve conceived for their next mobile phone platform, if not catch up to Apple.
Unfortunately, design ain’t everything. And quite often design can undermine the whole experience of the person using the device. Just think of Apple’s infamous puck mouse. Or any Sony clock radio ever. Or the blisters you get from a beautiful shoe that just doesn’t fit quite right.
Something that’s pretty isn’t necessarily easy or joyful to use. But pretty is what Microsoft’s betting the farm on.
We won’t know how defeatist Microsoft design-centric strategy might be until there are actually some devices in the field being used, however.
Then there’s the new wildcard in this market: HP.
HP just bought a company you might have heard of called Palm.
As a result of this acquisition, HP will dump Microsoft’s various software platforms from its mobile devices in favour of the fresh and intuitive WebOS. (That’s the software that Palm used in mobile phones like the Pre.)
This is a brilliant move.
From a software perspective, Palm’s WebOS is the competitor most qualified to trounce Apple’s iPhone. It’s highly usable. It offers a well-balanced and integrated set of features. And it displays a fresh, unique, and appealing sense of visual design.
Palm, in fact, might just have unseated Apple’s iPhone if not for a series of Darwin-Awards-grade strategic blunders committed by the company’s executive.
Now that the WebOS is in the more qualified hands of a company like HP, however, there may yet soon be an able competitor for the iPhone.
So, maybe the mobile phone industry is about to get interesting again.
Maybe Google will figure out that there are actually real people on the user end of their products.
Maybe Microsoft will have managed to slip a sense of user-friendliness into their ultra-chic design.
Maybe HP will conceive of a marketing strategy that properly communicates how great and useful the WebOS really is.
There’s just one hitch: Apple’s just about to launch an all-new iPhone.
And it will certainly blow whatever Google, Microsoft, or HP offer out of the water.
Yeah, the mobile phone market is totally freaking boring…
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 14, 2010.