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What would it take to convince you to ditch your iPhone?

Mobile Only: Week 47

Benjamin Robbins, an EMF member, is spending the next year working solely from a single mobile device. Each week he shares his thoughts and experience with us on what it means to be mobile-only.

Apple’s stock prices have fallen quite dramatically recently. Share price has fallen so much, from $702 USD on Sept. 19, 2012, to $439 as of close of market on Friday, that Apple is no longer the most valuable company on the planet. Much of the reported reasoning for the slide is due to Apple losing ground to Samsung in market share and also because investors worry that the future holds more revision to existing products rather than revolution of new ones.

The market is, of course, always over-speculative and emotional, but the drop in share price and market dominance should raise concern for the Cupertino, California–based Apple. It is one data point that represents a vote of no confidence. Apple’s well-controlled iOS ecosystem drove its meteoric rise, but could also be the self-asphyxiation that causes its demise.

Each mobile platform embodies a fundamental approach that affects the outcome of the experience and ecosystem. Apple’s tightly controlled, top-down–managed iOS ecosystem delivers an unparalleled experience. The hardware is consistent and elegant in design, the apps undergo stringent evaluation, and the platform is relatively bug free. This approach, devised under the leadership of Steve Jobs, kept all control in-house.

Android’s tactic, on the other hand, is not reliant upon a single company for innovation. It is much more of a free-market system. There are many hardware manufacturers. Many manufacturers customize the OS. Apps are loosely evaluated, if at all, and are inconsistent in experience. In short, you are on your own with Android. There is a lot of crap out there. But there are also some great products. If one company can’t innovate there are others who will.

These different approaches attract different demographics of users. iOS’s sleek, “just works” approach has cornered the market on hip and trendy. Because they are perceived as top-of-the-line, they are the gadget to have. Android, on the other hand, attracts users who are interested in variety and the ability to control the experience to their liking. Android users trade off consistency for customization.

Smartphones are deeply personal. They are often the first thing we look at when we get up and the last thing we put down when we go to bed. Smartphones say as much about our personality as the car we drive or the clothes we wear. They’ve become the reification of the self-image we desire to portray to ourselves and the outside world. In a way, our phones are our philosophy. What does this mean for the company that attracts people who want the best of the best?

Apple’s approach has put it in a difficult position. The innovation must all come from within. The control and experience emanates from Cupertino. When Apple ceases to innovate or falters, its users, those who desire that well-controlled, top-of-the-line experience, will migrate to the next greatest thing.

Sound absurd? I have to admit it does to me, too, but here is an example that should give you pause. Just three short years ago, in June of 2010, RIM’s BlackBerry platform made up 40.1% of the US smartphone market. It has now fallen to just 1.6%! RIM’s similar tightly controlled, top-down approach was very innovative at the time. They understood the form factor and offered enterprises the next leap in mobility for workers on the go. But somewhere along the line they failed to innovate and are paying the price for it now.

The mobile industry can change and change fast. It’s done it before and it’ll do it again. It has the potential to change so much that what we call mobile today could all but disappear into a footnote of history. Apple’s approach puts them in a precarious spot that shouldn’t be shrugged off lightly just because of their present market dominance. Apple must innovate in order to keep the lead. RIM should be a big, flashing warning sign of what’s ahead for Apple if it takes a path of mediocre revisions.

Now, before you all flame me in the comments as an Apple and iOS hater, I want to say that I honestly think Apple has some phenomenal mobile products. Apple led the charge in showing the world there is a whole new level of what the mobile experience means. But so did RIM. Apple is different, you may counter; Apple is innovative at its core. I would respond that you only have to look at the period of time in Apple’s history when Steve Jobs was ousted for some reall lackluster me-too, follow-the-leader business decisions that almost put the company out of business. Does the company now have the internal vision to produce the innovation that will hold your attention in to the future?

A Super Bowl commercial spot and a me-too operating system aren’t going to save RIM. They have lost the imagination of the end-user and therefore the enterprise. The world has moved on and merely offering basically the same features that everyone already has with Android or iOS isn’t going to generate the political or personal will to switch back. If companies who invested so heavily with RIM can change so quickly, how fast do you think the fickle masses will abandon ship when the next big thing in mobile rolls around and isn’t made by Apple?

Mobile doom and gloom doesn’t have to be in the cards for Apple. There is every opportunity to continue to inspire and to lead. However, their approach, following, and the competitive landscape demand that they innovate or suffer the same fate as RIM. Who knows, perhaps the next great leap in mobility is just around the corner, but from whom? When that next big thing comes out and it isn’t from Apple, what’s it going take before you ditch your iPhone? Probably a lot less than you think.

Benjamin Robbins is a co-founder at Palador, a mobile consultancy located in Seattle, WA. He can be followed on Twitter @PaladorBenjamin.

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