Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why No One Has The Smartphone Right Yet

The number of iPhones sold per second now outnumbers babies born per second, Android is selling even faster, and Microsoft are winning awards and great user reviews everywhere for their Windows Phone 7 platform (although they have only a tiny market share right now). Given all that, my title for this post might seem a bit provocative, so let me explain.

Regardless of the success of an individual platform in terms of reviews, user approval or sales, there seems to be one area where smartphone manufacturers are failing many consumers (myself included). This failing is the paradox of choice. You see, if I decided I wanted to buy a new phone today, I could not decide which one to to get, and no matter what I decided I would still come away with some level of buyer’s remorse.

On the Apple platform, assuming you want an actual phone (rather than an iPod touch or iPad), you don’t really have any choice. All you can get is the iPhone, and all the models are pretty similar. Sure, there are different models, like the iPhone 3, 3GS, 4, 4S etc. but the choice is often between a new model and an older model or two models that are very similar and differ only in in minor hardware specs or the OS version. Basically, if you want an iPhone with a 4.3 inch screen then you’re out of luck. If you want one with a faster processor, a different type of camera sensor or megapixel rating, a better quality external speaker etc. then you have to look at another platform. You are forced to choose from a very narrow band of options from Apple. On the plus side, you don’t suffer so much from the paradox of choice because your options were limited in the first place. You can be confident you bought the iPhone that best suits you, even if it isn’t the perfect smartphone for you. Of course if you really need or want something Apple doesn’t offer, then your only choice is to go to one of the other platforms.

Android has the reverse problem. There are too many options to possibly evaluate them all, so you can’t know you bought the phone that best suits you. What’s more most manufacturers and carriers heavily customise the user interface of Android (to the point where two different android users can’t necessarily use each others phones for simple tasks like searching contacts). This adds another dimension of choice over and above the hardware. No matter what you buy, there will probably be something not quite right about it, and given you had all those other choices you didn’t explore you’ll no doubt get some quantity of buyer’s remorse, sooner if not later. This is especially true since the quality of Android phones can vary greatly, especially across price ranges.

Windows Phone 7 sits somewhere in the middle. The minimum spec for the devices has, so far, kept truly awful devices off the market. Like Apple and unlike Android, you don’t buy a WP7 device that just doesn’t run well because the hardware can’t cope. There’s also more variety and more brands of phone than you get from Apple, and fewer than you get from Android. Unfortunately, this isn’t the best of both worlds.

Yes, you have a choice with WP7, but that still means you have to go out and evaluate as many phones as you can before deciding on one. It turns out, evaluating a phone in a store is really hard (for any platform or manufacturer, although slightly better for Apple product if you’ve used one before). Even when you know the OS fairly well, it’s not until you’ve taken the phone home that you find out whether the camera works in low light, or how the manufacturers customisations work, or what specialised apps the manufacturer has released that only work on their phones, whether that reception on that phone is better or worse in the places you regularly visit (or if the new models antenna is flawed) etc. There really should be a business that allows you to rent a phone for a week under no obligation to buy (but for a small fee) and then sells it to you (perhaps less the rental fee) if you decide you do actually like that model, otherwise you return it for a different model to try.

In any case, not only is the evaluation hard but comparing two models of WP7 often leaves you with an impossible choice. For example, if I was going to buy a new phone today the first two models I would look at (assuming they were available in my region) would be the Nokia Lumia 900 and the HTC Titan II.

The Titan has a larger screen, which I really like for all non-phone call activities (i.e txting, apps, games, browsing). Larger screens do make phones a little uncomfortable to use for calls but I’m prepared to live with that. Some reviews I’ve seen online suggest the camera is better than that on the Lumia (at least for now, apparently Nokia are working on a software update to improve camera quality on the Lumia models). I also know that HTC produce a really simple but good Flashlight application that is only available on their devices, and the HTC Attentive phone app. There other other flashlights in the WP7 marketplace so I’m sure I can replace that easily, I just like the one I already have. The Attentive Phone app is harder to replace however. Third party app developers don’t have access to the API needed to create an app like this, so it has to come from the manufacturers and I don’t believe Nokia have built anything like this. Really, I think the features provided by Attentive Phone should be built into the OS (perhaps as options), but they aren’t.

So if I buy the Titan I get a big screen, probably a good camera, and HTC Attentive Phone all of which are good. On the other hand Nokia have their ‘clear black’ display, which is really nice even if the screen is smaller. They also have Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive which are far superior to the maps offering baked into the OS. As far as I know, HTC (nor any other manufacturer) has a competing offering in that space for now. There are (expensive) navigation apps available in the marketplace, so I could get something for the HTC, but the Nokia offering for maps seems like the best. The Nokia is also very nice to hold and look at (I’ve seen the 800, I presume the 900 is similar). While I haven’t seen the Titan II in person, my existing HTC device has some quality issues with buttons that rattle and cracked chrome surfaces and I think the Lumia is probably better in that regard.

The OS will be pretty much the same on both although not comparing the two phones side by side I can’t be sure of what differences I might find. My HTC has tethering and can send MMS message fine, while my friends Samsung WP7 device can’t do either even though we’re both running Mango (on his phone there is no setup for the MMS stuff, and no OS update yet for his phone to enable tethering support). On the other hand his (in-built OS) camera app has more scene modes, and more options for controlling the camera itself (exposure settings and the like). Does either the Lumia or the Titan support tethering ? My HD7 didn’t use to but a recent update added the feature. My bosses Lumia 800 didn’t when he first got it, and he hasn’t mentioned an upgrade having added it so does that mean if I buy the Lumia I loose tethering ? Does the 900 have it and the 800 doesn’t ?

Given all of this you might think it’s impossible to buy a smartphone and be happy with it. That’s clearly not the case. I am happy with my HD7, and I know users of all three platforms who are happy with their handsets. What I’m really saying is that despite the proliferation of choices, and the fanboi-ism around each platform, there is still a section of the consumer market that is not perfectly catered for by any of the major platforms and the situation isn’t necessarily getting better.

Microsoft and their handset partners could fix at least some of the WP7 platform problems by ensuring that (hardware and firmware allowing) all manufacturer specific apps were available for purchase on other handsets. Microsoft could even mandate this. For example, if I bought a Nokia handset I would get Nokia Drive and maps free because that’s what happens now, but if I buy another brand of handset I can still purchase and use those apps (even if at exorbitant prices).

This probably won’t happen because manufacturers and carriers will be afraid of losing their competitive advantage, but that’s not necessarily true. If I did decide to buy a Titan rather than a Lumia but I bought the Nokia apps, Nokia would still earn money from me they wouldn’t have got otherwise and I’d still be staying in touch with the Nokia brand. That might lead me to buy a Nokia again in the future, rather than just putting them out of mind because I’m now an HTC customer. Right now, whichever brand I go with leads me to pretty much ignore the other (if only to avoid further buyer’s remorse), and profits only one manufacturer. I would suggest it’s better to compete on hardware as much as possible while still profiting from your losses when a consumer chooses another brand of handset.

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