By Joe Levi | March 21, 2013 2:18 PM
Back in the day we had “phones”. They hung on the wall in the kitchen and usually had comically long cords connected to them so we didn’t have to stand right next to the receiver to carry on your conversations — and they were anything but “smart”. Eventually the cord was replaced by an antenna and we were free to walk around the house, phone in-hand, as long as we didn’t stray too far from the base station. Eventually someone figured out how to make this “cordless phone” something that we could take with us by placing “base stations” around the city. As long as our phone was within range of one of these “cells” we could make and receive calls.
Software didn’t sell phones, features sold phones
Eventually these “cellular phones” started getting smaller, and able to do more things. Some even let you play games on them, like “Snake”, to pass the time. When someone had to get a new phone they didn’t look to see what games or “apps” were installed. They looked at what carrier it worked on, how long the battery life was, and how small the phone itself was. It was a phone, not a portable entertainment device! Back then we didn’t know what “smartphones” were. They were all just “phones”.
The Era of the smartphone
Eventually “feature phones” gave way to “smart phones”. The difference? “Smartphones” are less “phone” than their predecessors. Sure, they still make and receive phone calls, but their allure and their functionality centers around their ability to run apps. Like it or not, they really are a computer in your pocket.
Notice I said “apps”, not “software”. Yes, apps are software, but in this context, we’re talking about what sells products. Having a healthy app ecosystem is a vital part of any platform, without it customers are given a disincentive from choosing a particular platform. That’s where “software” comes in. In this context, “software” is what comes pre-loaded on any given smartphone. Some of that software is “bloat”, stuff that you don’t need and may not even want, but some of it includes features that other devices don’t have.
Samsung could be considered the current king of “features”. They have Smart Stay, Air View, Smart Pause, Smart Scroll, S Translator, Group Play, S Health, Story Album, S Voice Drive, and probably a dozen more that I’m forgetting. Yes, forgetting. Why? Aren’t these features cool? Yes, absolutely! So why can’t I remember what they are?
You know the prize that’s at the bottom of the cereal box? Kids love to rope their parents into buying boxes of cereal because of the “free prize” that’s inside. They may not like the cereal. They may not even eat the cereal. All they want is the prize. But the prize is something in addition to the cereal, it’s not an integral part of the cereal. It’s a gimmick. And it’s embarrassing. Cereal companies that use the “free prize” marketing methodology are essentially saying “our cereal isn’t good enough for people to want to buy on its own”.
Software gimmicks are out there, too. NFL football apps that are only available on select devices from select carriers, for example. These say “our service isn’t good enough to get people to want to buy it on its own”, so they provide an incentive by offering exclusive content.
“Features”, however, are something different — but not very much. Features offer abilities to one device that others don’t have, and they’re not standard. That’s worrisome.
- What if a feature that you rely on on your current phone doesn’t make it into the next version for whatever reason? That’s a reason NOT to upgrade, and whoever made the decision not to include the feature in the next version just painted their company into a corner. Even if they do include it in the next version, they have to support it. This support means development time and expenses that either add to the cost, or subtract from something else.
- What if you want to be able to use a feature with a friend that doesn’t have the same phone, and can’t because that feature is non-standard. Who’s left looking silly? You, or your friend?
Software won’t sell phones
Unless we’re talking about the people who want the free toy in the bottom of a cereal box, packing in extra software won’t sell phones. Sure that software may be fun, it may be helpful, it may be groundbreaking. At the end of the day that software is just extra fluff.
People buy phones for all sorts of reasons: they’ve got the best specs, their friends all have one, they want to upgrade to the latest hardware, they need something affordable, they got it “free” with a new contract… For the good customers, the ones who companies should want to keep — those who will be loyal to their brand or faithful to their service — those customers don’t care about software. Those customers want the platform, they want the ecosystem, and they don’t want to be told what they can and cannot have.
Software doesn’t — and shouldn’t — sell smartphones.