Looking at the ugly side of platform exclusives

If there’s a word that’s capable of generating more bad feelings in the mobile industry than “exclusive,” I don’t know what it is.

There’s little worse than following the rumors leading up to the release of some headline-grabbing superphone, only to find out at launch time that it’s only going to be available for one carrier – and of course, you already have a family plan with another/don’t get good coverage on that network in your area/any number of other reasons why carrier exclusivity makes that insanely desirable handset a complete no-go for you.

It’s not just phones exclusive to carriers, either: platform exclusives, manufacturer exclusives… the companies in this game have though up about every way possible to artificially restrict the market. Suffice it to say, I hate this sort of junk, and really think it highlights some of the worst qualities of the industry.

To be fair, I’ve got a pretty pro-consumer bias. In my little capitalist fantasy world, shoppers everywhere have access to the same devices and same services, and make their purchasing decisions based on what’s best for them. If they buy phone X from carrier Z, it’s because that’s exactly what they desire, and not because carrier Y isn’t allowed to sell phone X.

fuelbandLast week, I was reminded of all this once again when Nike came out with its second-gen Nike+ FuelBand. Fitness trackers like the FuelBand have really been picking up steam over the course of the last year – whether it’s just a fad or not, I can’t say, but the important thing is that they’re selling. Unlike much of its competition, however, Nike has decided to make its FuelBand devices Apple-exclusives.

Let’s be very clear about one thing: while Apple may have the dominant presence in certain regional markets, we’re living in an Android world right now, with something like 80% of smartphone shipments this past summer consisting of Android handsets. Are all of those in markets Nike cares about? Almost certainly not. But the numbers are just so big that it’s baffling to see Nike ignoring them.

Why would a company do something like that? Isn’t the goal to make as much money as possible? How can you do that when your product ignores such a large segment of interested shoppers?

Well, there’s certainly a history between Nike and Apple. Remember the Nike+iPod? We’ve also seen Apple hire Nike’s Ben Shaffer, a designer on the first FuelBand, and Apple CEO Tim Cook himself serves on Nike’s board of directors.

Still, that doesn’t feel like enough. Nike has reasons to prefer Apple, sure, but I think this goes deeper. Nike clearly has the resources to support Android, and FuelBand users have been vocal about their desire for such compatibility. A pro-Apple sentiment within the company might mean iOS development getting priority, but needn’t cause Android development to be actively discouraged. That has me asking, “what does Nike have to gain from its behavior?”

air-jordan-5-retro-laneyAnd really, I don’t like any of the answers I can come up with. The one that dominates my thoughts is that Nike – though very much mainstream – is still a premium brand. No one’s waiting in line overnight for the new Keds, but you better believe that folks continue to line up for Air Jordans.

Hey – that sounds a lot like the sort of behavior we seem from people interested in another company. Just like Apple, Nike positions its wares such that they’re generally affordable to plenty of people, but still carry a certain cachet to them and fetch premium prices.

The flip side to all this is where I get to that “ugliness” bit from my headline: having exclusives in order to get better carrier placement may suck for users, but it’s still generally an inoffensive slight. With Nike, I’m sort of worried that it’s steering clear of Android because it sees Android users as, well, people who wear Keds – who shop at discount shoe stores.

And there might be a point to that – Android users spend less money on their apps than iOS users do, not to mention on their phones themselves. Most companies don’t care if Android has a reputation as being “cheap,” because the sheer volume of its user base makes up it.

Maybe I’m way out of line about Nike’s motivations here, but that’s not to say that decisions like the kind I’m describing don’t regularly occur elsewhere. Perhaps it’s a developer choosing which platforms to bring his work to (or not) based on broad prejudices about users. However they happen, prejudices hurt the industry, and make unnecessary exclusives all the more difficult to swallow.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bits Read more about Stephen Schenck!