Which mobile device companies get it?

PDA 24/7 just ran an interview with me. In one of my answers, I talked about which device companies "get it" – which ones understand how to make a truly effective smart mobile solution. Looking back at my answer, I realized I had left out a couple of companies. I want to correct that oversight.

Before I list the companies, I should explain what I mean by "get it." I think that a truly effective smart mobile device must be both focused and integrated. By focused, I mean that it must first and foremost solve one particular problem for a particular type of user. Kitchen sink products that try to be everything for everyone sell to enthusiasts but no one else. The companies that get it specialize in leaving out features that aren't essential to the core product.

By integrated, I mean that the product must combine hardware and software (and in some cases wireless services) seamlessly to produce a product that just works. People usually tend to use mobile devices in short spurts while they are on the go. This makes them very intolerant of even small usability problems that might be overlooked on a PC. If the user must hassle with configuration, or if the user experience isn't dead simple, you're back to selling to the enthusiasts.

Most companies in the mobile market don't know to design like this, either because they don't know how to make hardware and software together, because they're not good at usability, or because they don't know how to focus on solving a single problem. The lack of these skills is holding back progress in the mobile market, so it's worthwhile to study the companies that know how to do it. Here are the ones on my list:

Nintendo: Differentiation, not features. Frequently written off by the feature-centric press, Nintendo has continued to succeed because it focuses on a particular market (gaming) and type of customer (young people), and it adds features that do special things for them. My favorite example is the Nintendo DS gaming device. A technophile would ask for WiFi, a high-res screen, and a faster processor. Instead Nintendo added a second screen – and a touchscreen at that. Nintendo then designed applications that take advantage of the touchscreen to create a unique gaming experience.

This is a classic example of designing for the solution. The traditional PC-style design approach says you have to be "up to date" in all of your specs in order to sell well. Nintendo realized that its customers don't care abut features as much as they care about the gaming experience. Nintendo doesn't add features, it adds differentiation.

I don't know if Nintendo will manage to survive forever in the face of the overwhelming financial muscle of Sony and Microsoft, but if it loses I think it'll be because it was spent into oblivion, not because it lost touch with its customers.

Apple: A solution, not a product. It's hard to remember today, but there was a time when MP3 players were viewed as a curious little niche, and many people were skeptical that they'd ever amount to a truly large category. Apple changed that.

The folks at Apple realized they weren't actually selling a music player, they were selling a music purchase and playback system. I think their integration of the whole thing, from iTunes out, is what made the iPod take off.

Apple has wisely resisted most of the advice to load new features into the iPod. Although video has been added, I think it's the exception that proves the rule. Apple could have opened up the OS to third party apps, added a touch screen, built in WiFi and Bluetooth, and an SD slot. Apple could, in short, have transformed the iPod into a Pocket PC. Smart move that they didn't.

In addition to creating a nice business for Apple, this systems focus creates huge barriers to competitive entry and commoditization. To match Apple's solution, a company needs to duplicate the iPod itself, the iTunes music store, and all of the business development deals that Apple has made with the music industry. It's not impossible for a competitor to replicate this, but it's enormously more difficult than copying a piece of hardware, and it takes a lot more investment. The hardware-cloning shops of Asia, looking at that huge mountain to climb, tend to focus their efforts elsewhere.

Apple's well aware that it gets it. Here's Steve Jobs in Rolling Stone magazine: "We do, I think, very good hardware design; we do very good industrial design; and we write very good system and application software. And we're really good at packaging that all together into a product. We're the only people left in the computer industry that do that. And we're really the only people in the consumer-electronics industry that go deep in software in consumer products."

Steve's exaggerating a little, but after all the times he's personally been written off by the industry, I think he's entitled to brag.

RIM Blackberry: Patience pays off. You've heard it before – the old folks who reminisce and say things like, "I remember ol' Georgie Bush when he was just a little so-and-so getting blitzed at frat parties." Well, I remember RIM when it was a weird little Canadian upstart making e-mail pagers. The company wasn't flashy. It didn't hold big parties like us important companies in Silicon Valley, its products couldn't be bought in consumer electronics stores, and oh by the way it ran on an obsolete paging network.

RIM's current success was many years in the making. It carefully built up a franchise in targeted corporate markets. Selling to those companies takes years of patient work, while they do trial deployments and make you prove yourself. RIM gradually got its servers into a huge number of companies, which resulted in an explosion of device sales once the trial deployments were finished. RIM also took the time to create a very reliable e-mail management network, something that is not at all easy to do. It integrated its products very nicely with Outlook, the leading corporate e-mail system. It carefully honed the user experience for mobile e-mail users. And for its first few years it rented time on a paging network that had excess capacity and was therefore inexpensive.

I'm not completely comfortable with everything RIM's done. The company was very aggressive at enforcing its patents against competitors, which set the stage for others to do the same thing to it. And it has been very slow to deliver on its promises to let its service run on other companies' devices. But to me, the most important lesson from RIM was its single-minded focus on doing e-mail right and building its market over time. It had a vision, and it methodically implemented that vision over a period of many years – far longer than most Silicon Valley companies would persist at anything.

Palm: Obsession with detail. I wasn't with Palm during the days when they first designed the Pilot, unfortunately. But I spent a lot of time with people who were there, and the thing about them that impressed me most was their passionate obsession with tiny details.

They could sweat pixel placement and interface flow better than any bunch of people I've met before or since. It wasn't a science they were practicing, it was a craft in which they went over and over and over the details of how a typical user would operate the product, constantly asking how they could save that user a half-second in time or a moment of confusion.

The interfaces they designed weren't always pretty. In fact, they were often darned ugly. But they were amazingly efficient in the way they used screen real estate. Here's one of my favorite examples:

This is Palm (left) and Pocket PC (right) circa 1999. I deliberately chose an old example because I don't want to get sidetracked into an argument about whose interface is better today.

Some important things to notice in these images:

--The Pocket PC screen has about 40 clickable icons and controls, the Palm one about 24. More isn't better in this case, because the Pocket PC screen is bewilderingly complex.

--It's hard to see from a static screen, but the Palm calendar lets you tap in an entry and edit it directly (you can see the text cursor in the word "villa"). On Pocket PC, tapping in an appointment opens up a separate dialog box to edit the item. That's a waste of time.

--Although the Palm screen has a smaller active area, you can read more of the calendar than you can on Pocket PC. That's because Palm blanks out unused hours, whereas Pocket PC tries to replicate the look of Outlook, where every hour is displayed. That works much better on a PC than it does on a tiny handheld screen.

Those little touches like editing in place and hiding unused hours didn't just happen, they were the result of many hours of agonizing effort by the designers at Palm.

A more recent example -- look how the Treo keyboard has evolved:

From left to right, these are the Treo 600, the Treo 650, and the Treo 700. Look carefully, and you can see how the designers at Palm are thinking. In each product generation, they've rounded the corners of the case a little more. This makes the device look and feel thinner. They've added more of a "smile" to the keyboard (which makes it easier to round the edges), and they've steadily increased the color contrast between the keys and background. The buttons themselves have become more square, which gives more room to print letters and icons on them. Squaring the keys also makes them larger, which may make it easier to press them with a thumb (although I worry that it also has the effect of making the keys closer together). Overall, Palm is gradually figuring out how to make the best use of every millimeter available to them.

This sort of incremental, obsessive rethinking is typical of Palm's best designers. Nothing's ever perfect.

Although Palm spends a lot of time on hardware and user interface, the thing Palm hasn't tried lately is creating an online or wireless service to go along with its devices. Palm dabbled in that once with its Palm.net service for the Palm VII, and it worked very nicely. Unfortunately the company didn't build on it. It will be interesting to see if a future Palm solution includes an online component.

Danger: Lots of potential. I think Danger deserves honorable mention here. They haven't been as successful as the other companies I listed, but I admire their focus on making a communicator for the youth market. Even though they're stuck with the weakest major US carrier, they've produced pretty good sales – in the monthly unit numbers I used to get, the Danger device often outsold any single model of RIM Blackberry at TMobile.

This level of success has been achieved even though the Danger device lacks an MP3 playback capability, something that's almost essential for the youth market. If Apple really wanted to create a great music phone, they ought to build iPod capability into a Danger device.

There you are, my four (and a half) companies that "get" the smart mobile market. What do you think? Does anyone else belong on the list?


Anonymous said...

Although my personal preoccupation with Palm OS devices blinds me a bit, I think Garmin probably meets your criteria as a mobile device company that "gets it." They have kept their laser-like "location, location, location" focus as they've branched into PDAs and through artful integration of GPS have turned the modern Palm OS PDA into something that in the minds of the consumer is quite different and unique.

I'm not sure if people realize what an enormous undertaking the Garmin iQue was. It runs the Palm OS middleware on top of a proprietary kernel that Garmin developed themselves to enable effective integration of the GPS--something that no other Palm OS licensee has attempted. That in itself doesn't prove that they "get" anything, but I think it's emblematic of a powerful commitment on the part of Garmin to get things absolutely right when it comes to what they consider to be the primary functions of their devices.

I have no idea how well the iQues have done in the marketplace, but I wouldn't be surprised if they've sold well. In addition to their great attention to detail with both hardware and software Garmin seemed to do an admirable job of product placement. Distributing them in retail stores like Radio Shack, REI, and the WalMart sporting goods section was smart, and I thought their TV campaign did a great job of differentiating their product from both PDAs and car navigation kits.

Michael Mace said...

Good comment, David! I think you're completely right. One of the cool things about working for PalmSource was that I sometimes got to meet interesting new companies. Fossil was one, and Garmin's another. They're located out in the middle of the US, far from Silicon Valley. Nobody ever told them Silicon Valley's diktat that you can't build hardware in the US, so they do a lot of their own manufacturing here.

I always admired their obsessiveness about navigation. They also seem to learn pretty well -- the interface on their latest Palm OS device looks beautifully simplified.

Unfortunately, Garmin's not as well distributed in Europe as it is in the US.

Anonymous said...

Michael, a few comments...

1) I seem to recall you proudly proclaiming in the PDABuzz forums long ago how the "zen" mentality was being killed off at Palm. In this article you seem to be championing that mentality. Glad to see you've come around.

2) I don't have a high level of comfort in the current Palm management's appreciation for usability. IMO, the Treo 650 was a step backwards in terms of usability from the 600. I would, in fact, point to your keyboard layout example as a good example of that. In your blog entry, you wondered aloud whether putting the keys closer together could pose a problem. Indeed, it does. The newer 650/700 thumbboards allow for more space to write on, but they wider spacing between keys of the 600 design reduced typos. I also think that their decision to make many of the keys white was a bad usability decision as many of us early 650 owners pointed out to them (loudly). The keys were *far* too bright. So much so that I wondered whether any of the palmOne team actually used the thing in real life. Fortunately, they were able to remedy this via a ROM update they later released.

3) I'm not sure that I buy into the mentality that a product must focus on one particular piece of functionality and do that well. In fact, I'd use the Treo as a good example of a convergence device that doesn't necessarily do any one thing great, but does a good job of several things and demonstrates that convergence, for convergence's sake, is a feature in and of itself. Having said that, I'm not one who believes that convergent devices can't be great at one or more of the features they provide and I'd like to see the quality of the individual features improve significantly (photo quality being a good example).

As for Nintendo, I think that they demonstrate that focusing on overall usability, fun, and affordability is more important than the "feature list." Palm (palmOne) used to be of that mindset as well. I remember those days fondly when Palm didn't feel the need to compete with the Pocket PC's feature list touting megahertz or RAM size, but instead focused on what it could actually do for the user. They took a lot of flak for that by the geek community, but I think they were right. Sadly, they shifted away from this and into the "feature list" mindset as the years progressed.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments, Scott. I've always admired your work at Tapland.

I agree with most of what you said...

>>I seem to recall you proudly proclaiming in the PDABuzz forums long ago how the "zen" mentality was being killed off at Palm.

Are you sure? If you can find the quote, please point me to it. I hope I never said anything that stupid. Since Rob Hitani (main author of the Zen of Palm) had left the company to go to Handspring, I kind of inherited the Zen of Palm presentation. It was and remains the best product strategy presentation I've ever seen in my life. For a couple of years I was the guy who presented it at new employee orientation. The presentation got gently updated over time, but I was doing my best to keep it going.

>>I'd use the Treo as a good example of a convergence device that doesn't necessarily do any one thing great, but does a good job of several things and demonstrates that convergence, for convergence's sake, is a feature in and of itself.

That's a really good point, and I struggle with it a lot. The way I'd phrase the question is, is the Treo a converged phone and e-mail device (in which case it does two separate things in mediocre fashion), or is it the best product in a new category, communicators (defined as a device to let someone communicate in several different ways)?

I kind of lean toward putting it in a separate product category rather than thinking of it as a converged anything. Maybe I'm just playing with words, but the core customers for the Treo (and RIM) are a very distinctive group of people. They're communication-holics; they want to keep in touch with others by any means possible. I think the Treo isn't a compromise to them; it's one of the best versions yet of what they ultimately want.

>>As for Nintendo, I think that they demonstrate that focusing on overall usability, fun, and affordability is more important than the "feature list."

I agree very strongly about the feature list, as you'll see in my next post.

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

I think before you hail Palm for a simplistic yet functional and to-the-point user interface in their OS, you should mention Apple's Newton platform.

I don't think anything today comes close in user interface elegance and functionality on a portable device as can be found in Newton OS.

The most striking feature of Newton OS to me was its object oriented approach with context-sensitive menus throughout applications. For a note, for instance, you can choose whether to mail, print, fax or beam it.

Of course, Apple abandoned Newton in 1998, but that's another story.


Michael Mace said...

Good comment about Newton, Schorschi.

I loved the use of gestures in the Newton UI (Want to delete something? Just cross it out. That was so cool.)

I think the Newton team erred in two areas. The first was the one everyone points to -- they put too much emphasis on handwriting recognition, creating expectations the device couldn't fulfill. I remember one of the former senior managers in the Newton team telling me, "I tried to tell John (Sculley) that the product needed another six months of work, but he went ahead and announced it anyway."

Of course, there's always another side to a story like that. Often the CEO will tell you something like, "the team had already missed three deadlines, and I realized that if I didn't announce the product they were never going to finish it at all."

Who knows what the reality was.

The second problem was that Apple tried to make Newton a standalone computer rather than an accessory to the PC. Apple learned that lesson -- you can't picture an iPod without iTunes.

The sync work that Palm did in the early days was a key factor in the success of the product, in my opinion.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments, John.

>>Palm should have done a deal with Xerox to keep G1

(Graffiti version 1, in case anyone's confused.) You're assuming Xerox was willing to do a deal with reasonable terms.

Michael Mace said...

I'm with you, John. I wish PalmSource had been able to find a way to keep or bring back Graffiti 1.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about the iPod/iTunes thing. I can certainly imagine an iPod without a PC or Mac to sync it to. Yes, there would be the back-end iTunes Music Store, or a generic third-party MP3-friendly site where you could sync your iPod, but there is absolutely no requirement there to have a desktop device involved in the mix.

In fact, I think if you eliminate the desktop as a required component and allow for a generic back-end sync component, you get a much more elegant model -- you'd be able to walk up to any computer anywhere, log into your .Mac/iTunes/whatever sync account, and manage your media from there. Sure, that could be on your local desktop, but it doesn't have to be.

I think this is the key flaw in most portable device schemes -- they insist on a local desktop computer in the mix. I want to be able to sync to a local desktop computer if that is convenient for me, but I also want the option of being able to by-pass any local desktop computer and sync my handheld devices directly to a back-end service somewhere, which I could manage through any standard cross-platform web browser -- which might be on the handheld itself.

Michael Mace said...

brad wrote:

>>I can certainly imagine an iPod without a PC or Mac to sync it to.

I think it's a lot easier to imagine today than it was even five years ago. And even today, I'm not sure the download over a typical wireless connection is going to be something most people are willing to wait (and pay) for. You need to be sure you're on a flat-rate data plan, and within 3G or WiFi coverage when you want to get new songs.

But definitely it's a lot more practical now than it used to be.

If you enabled both a PC client and an online client, where would you keep the archive of the user's songs? Would you mirror it in both places?

The question you're asking -- tie to the PC or be independent -- is a really important issue that a lot of mobile companies struggle with. You can create a richer experience on the PC because it's faster, has more storage, a bigger screen, and a mouse and keyboard. But you limit your market to PC users, and you give yourself three code bases to maintain -- the device, the PC client, and the Mac client (if you choose to support Mac).

Working through a PC doesn't limit your market too badly in the US and Europe because so many people have PCs. But it's a big drawback in much of the developing world.

In the end, I think each company should make the decision based on the particular needs of their product -- "what will produce the best solution for our customers?"

Good topic. Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike, well written about mobile phone's companies. As the mobile market is growing up in all countries rapidly i.e. in India, Srilanka, England and all over world, every mobile company is trying to sell their mobile phones in electronic market at the lowest price, that's why they are not considering on the quality, that's most important factor.There are just few companies in the mobile market which really performing good but they need still better consideration.