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My Kingdom For An iPhone Rival

It’s a shame, it really is. By the end of this week, almost every person in my close family will be sporting an Apple iPhone as their primary communications device. Both my parents, both my parents-in-law, my two brothers, my wife and one of her sisters.

Of the 10 people in my immediate family, 8 of them have Apple iPhone 3GS devices. Soon it will be 9 iPhones and one BlackBerry. It’s getting ridiculous, it really is.

But I can’t argue with it. I can’t find a way around it. What alternative is there?

It’s Fisher-Price but…

The geek in me points out that the iPhone is effectively a Fisher-Price mobile phone, seriously limited in its capabilities. You can only do one thing at a time, something that I find seriously frustrating. But it’s not a problem for the rest of the planet. Indeed, it’s painful watching the look of joy on the faces of those finally getting iPhones.

My Father-in-Law was phoned last week by Vodafone because his contract had expired. Would he like to renew, they asked — and get a free phone? Certainly, he replied and initially accepted a new BlackBerry Bold. Then he phoned his daughter — my wife — and asked if that was the right decision.

“No,” she said, “I don’t think you’ll like the small keys.”

I happen to really enjoy the BlackBerry’s physical keyboard layout, but she had a point. Within 30 seconds, the BlackBerry decision was reversed and Vodafone were asked to supply an iPhone instead.

This is happening all across the UK and in developed countries around the world. Ever so slowly, the iPhone is seeping into the mainstream marketplace, replacing Nokias, Samsungs, LGs and BlackBerries — and bringing great joy with it.

My members can’t believe how easy it is to get email. They can’t believe how cool it is to be able to flick through their photos and buy media with just a touch of a virtual button. They’re astounded by the simplicity of the user interface. This is manifested by their confidence in the device. I don’t see family members being ‘astounded’ instead I see them confidently asserting their preferences and delights. I am accosted regularly by iPhone friends and family with the phrase, “Have you seen this app?”

Expert In Minutes

Within a week of getting her iPhone, my wife was an expert. Such is the command that iPhone users have over their Fisher-Price device, they can confidently feel that they’ve ‘got it’ within days.My wife is downloading applications left right and centre. She doesn’t differentiate between free or premium, provided the cost is below £5.00. She makes her download evaluation based on the App Store reviews, the screenshots and whether her friends (the majority are also iPhone users) recommend the app.

My wife’s biggest issue is that she’s being woken up by 630am push notifications from some lady in Perth, Australia. By way of explanation: She’s recently taken to playing Words With Friends (iTunes link) — the scrabble-like game that enables you to play, in turns, with other people. She’s been checking out the ‘play with a random person’ function and started a game last week with a lady called Laura thousands of miles away. Once or twice a day, each of them knocks out a word via the app and the other is notified with a push update. Simple pleasures. My wife thinks it’s fantastic. I dare say that Laura is a big fan too.

My wife’s only issue is wondering whether it’s possible to turn off the vibrate option for push notifications. She asked and I suggested she check out the push-notification-menu. She disabled the vibrate function. And now she is entirely content.

Confidence & Delight

This remarkable confidence is one of Apple’s best inventions. By controlling their platform with tyrannical zeal, they are enabling their consumers to relax with their devices. To know that, for example, installing an application won’t screw things up. That if you take a photo, it’ll stay on your phone until you delete it. Oh, and plug it into your computer and it’ll be backed up. Properly. That is, if you lose your iPhone and buy another one, plug it into your computer and bang! it’ll be restored to precisely the last time you backed it up. Sounds simple but other mobile manufacturers haven’t quite got there yet.

Perhaps one of Apple’s biggest achievements has been to reach the disenfranchised mobile masses with disposable income. These are the people who previously couldn’t give a toss about their mobile handset. It was simply a communications device. I’m thinking of the over 40s, the over 50s and beyond — who earn sufficient not to have to worry about their precise spend each month.

I’m continually astonished at the fact my parents and parents-in-law cannot program their video recorder, but they can download and use iPhone applications. Targeting those with disposable income is a super move. They tend to be content to pay a slight premium for devices and services that make sense, that are easy to use. So whilst your average twenty-something might be too price sensitive to the ‘iPhone tax’ premium applied to the monthly operator contract, it’s not a problem for my wife’s father. He simply didn’t blink at the extra tenner a month.

My father-in-law has never had mobile email before. All of a sudden, he’s about to experience it — in all the iPhone’s simplicity. The email will just arrive. It’ll have a simple blue dot next to the unread items. It’ll make a satisfying ‘woosh’ when he sends a mail. It’ll make a little ding sound and show a counter on top of the email icon when new mail arrives. It’s ridiculously revolutionary for him.

His previous handset? Nokia N95 8GB.

Simple Works

For all the geeks reading who think the iPhone is a step-down from the ‘mobile computer’ that is (or was) the N95, the only feature my father-in-law used was the telephone and the address book. Everything else was too stupidly designed for him to bother wasting time using. The N95 was from a different era. The pre-Apple era. Everything was ‘your problem’. Nobody but the end user did the heavy lifting. You had to read the manual. You had to figure out how the stupid commands worked. You had to fit yourself around the mindset of the uber tech geeks who’d created the technology.

One of the key reasons people love Apple so much is because Steve Jobs simply won’t allow the stuff out the door unless it makes sense. It’s certainly not all about Steve — there’s a lot of other smarts working at the company who all think and believe the same. But when you look at the other companies and service providers out there, they’re simply too lazy to care. They will cite excuses like ‘nothing’s broken’ or ‘but we still make lots of money’ and ‘people still buy our products’.

Apple — in the context of the user experience — will not accept anything other than their own brand of brilliance. They make it work the way it should do. If that means a re-write or a lot of hard work, they make it happen. How many other manufacturers would have required the 140,000 applications written for the iPhone to have been re-written entirely for the iPad? It would have probably been easier not to bother. But no. They made sure that the iPad was backward compatible. Because you and I expected that to be the case.

Because It’s Cooler

You might not agree with a particular Apple strategy or viewpoint, but when Mr Jobs gets up on stage and explains that ‘this is cooler’ or ‘because we like this more’, it’s difficult not to at least respect the position.

Android hasn’t helped the end-user much. The plain vanilla viewpoint works nicely for geeks. HTC’s glorious ‘Sense’ UI does its absolute best to cover up the failings of both Windows Mobile 6.5 and Android. Indeed Android is now becoming a byword for ‘Symbian in 2002’. You only have to read the Android market feedback for most applications to see frustrated users demanding to know why the application they’ve just purchased doesn’t work with their new Droid. It’ll work with the T-Mobile G1, but not the Droid. Sorry? Isn’t this the ‘open source’ Android platform we’re talking about? Yes. But it’s been nailed by fragmentation already. Utterly nailed.

Nokia has got the message, it seems. Indeed, so has Symbian. A lot of what I know isn’t in the public domain yet so I can’t comment except to say their strategies look good. We’ll need to look at the execution and see.

As for the other manufacturers, well, Microsoft could well be on to a winner too. Again, we’ll need to wait and see. As for Samsung and LG? I think the jury is most certainly out whilst the painful transition from shitphones (“feature phones”) to smartphone continues.

The iPhone Customers: Lost Forever?

Meanwhile some of the industry’s best customers — the highest spending, the quiet ‘AAA’ masses, the contract customers who spend, day-in-day-out — have been hoovered up by the iPhone. And they’ve been locked into 24-month contracts.

And the majority aren’t coming back. That’s them, now, locked into the iPhone platform. Provided Steve Jobs and the Apple chaps keep knocking out the same quality and ensure their platform doesn’t stagnate, that’s it. These customers are Apple’s customers now. The mobile operator is simply the bit-pipe provider — and a happy bit-pipe provider too — because those monthly bills aren’t going away whilst customers continue to delight in their iPhones.

I can’t see my mother shifting from her iPhone to any other platform. Ever. Not in the next 10 years. Even if something amazing hits the marketplace (without the Apple brand on it — and that’ll be a shock), it’s going to take her time to even bother thinking about changing.

Of course, we are only talking about a small percentage of the industry at the moment. I’m not writing this as a true representation of the worldwide mobile market. I’m only talking about a small percentage of the marketplace. Why should (for example), Nokia bother investing in the North American marketplace when it’ll take — I don’t know — $500m worth of effort, when, for example, one operator (for example, Sprint) accounts for just 48m customers. India could shit 48m customers. They added 19m NEW subscribers to their customer population in December alone. That’s a Sprint every 2.5 months. You can see why Nokia doesn’t necessarily need to chase the Western markets. And why if I was a shareholder, I really wouldn’t want them doing so other than because it would feel good.

But the Western markets are still influential. And if you can unlock the income potential beyond just flogging hardware, there’s a significant amount of money to be had. But the industry doesn’t seem able to do anything other than put it’s best people and best resources to work trying to emulate the iPhone. Long ago, it seems, they gave up trying to — no pun intended — think differently. To innovate. To create and deliver bold new services.

The Nano Strategy

That said, I don’t know what would happen if Apple decided to change from it’s premium strategy. What would happen if Apple decided to go global, properly. To make ONE of their next generation iPhone range available at a total cost of $50 per unit. (Otherwise known and hugely feared within the industry as ‘the Nano strategy’). Apple’s challenge there would be to ensure that they don’t write off their premium Western customers but could they get their old 2G unit down to $50 retail? Critics argue that Apple would never cannibalise their ‘premium’ position in the marketplace, but they did a nice job with the iPod Nano, iPod, iPod Touch and so on.

‘As Good As The iPhone’

Meanwhile, though, the most depressing point about the mobile industry is that — collectively — they’ve given up even trying to exceed Apple’s technical and user interface capabilities. Now it’s about making things ‘as good as’ the iPhone. It’s utterly frustrating to sit in a product launch conference and witness rival industry executives demonstrating that they’ve finally managed to make a touch screen that ‘rivals the best in the marketplace’ — by which we all understand to be iPhone. How many devices can you name that now sport the same iPhone 4 x 5 icon user interface?

If you’re going to copy the iPhone, at least make the copy exactly the same in terms of abilities. The industry couldn’t even do that. Can’t you do better? Can’t you change the paradigm? Can’t you use your might, your billions, your collective intellect, to move the marketplace onward? No. Because when it comes right down to it, the people running the industry are technical. Their heritage is about selling infrastructure, about selling airtime, about shifting boxes. They’re not dreamers, they’re not innovators and (broadly speaking) they’re most certainly not passionate about the next generation.

And that’s the fundamental problem.

Can’t Think Big

We need the Chief Executives and the senior executives in the industry to think big.

We need them to walk into London Paddington Train Station and wonder why ANYONE still needs to walk to a machine, stick in a piece of plastic, type a pin and receive a PIECE OF PAPER in order to travel.

Why isn’t this fixed? Why doesn’t every Nokia come with integrated NFC transaction capability tied to your operator bill? If they’ve got Ovi Store carrier billing in at least 18 markets right now, why can’t they introduce NFC transaction capabilities for every new device? Why not?

Well, we know why. Even if Nokia decided to do this, they’d face push-back from almost every single mobile operator, not sure whether Nokia’s brand of NFC is for them. Questions would need to be asked. Committees would need to be formed. Decisions would need to be considered carefully and in the fullness of time. Until, that is, Apple releases their own strategy into the market. And once again the industry will jump up and dance to the Cupertino tune, badly. Like your embarrassing uncle after 6 pints and two shots.

The industry’s still stuck in 1995 flog-a-phone-n-airtime mode and doing it’s best to drag itself into the next generation.

Why are people still being charged for sending sodding text messages? 2010 and we’re still being charged for transmitting 160 character text messages. Because that’s it. That’s the best the industry can collectively do.

Where’s the independent thought? Where’s the central belief in what’s needed, what’s next, what’s cool and what’s best? Where’s the market-moving, agenda-setting, table-banging, THIS-IS-NEXT confidence?

Alas, right now, we have to dance to the funky Apple tune, because everybody else is playing catch-up knock-off piped elevator ‘musak’.

Won’t somebody please save me?


  1. I am really hoping Nokia will do it. I really am. So lets hope all of your top secret info will make that happen. I love my MacBook Pro, but couldnt care less about the Iphone.

  2. Iphones biggest advantage is also it's biggest weakness, simplicity, the UI is genius as is the app store, but the HW element is light years behind what's coming out of Asia.
    If Noddy had a phone it would be the iphone it's UI is simply too limited and tied to itunes compared to everything else, people buy them because they lack the brains or inclination to do what a 99P app can do for them, the vastly superior Android devices are eating chunks out of Apples market share, and i wont go in to Apples price fixing efforts that ensure that you cant find as much as a 10p discount on a 400 quid device. you guessed it, i hate the bloody thing! 🙂

  3. Ewan, I generally agree with you (as always). One thing I don't quite understand though is why you always seem to think that charging is wrong. I am sure SMS is a low cost feature for MNOs to offer, but mobile data in volume is not. Operators have a network to keep running a and a profit to make – where is the profil model if everything should be free or fixed price? Don't we want profitable networks who invest in their network? Just look at mobile broadband – fixed price but mostly sh!t, I would rather pay for quality than be stuck in the middle lane with everyone else.

  4. Good point Barry-Jon. I certainly understand that network operators have to keep the lights on. Most definitely. However if I send you an instant message — and you've got 'unlimited' data, and I've got 'unlimited' data, there is no additional cost.

    If I choose to send the same 160 characters via the SMS gateway, it can cost me up to 12 pence per message.

    Why? Is this it? Is this the height of our technological sophistication? After years upon years of SMS traffic out there, how come sending 160 characters of text still 'costs' 12p? Or 10p? Or 5? Why is it still metered? Why are we all limited to 3,000 messages a month when we've opted for 'unlimited'?

    Is there nothing better? Is this it?

    Yes, is the answer. That's the best the mobile operator can do. The innovation has been patently ridiculous. Don't get me started on MMS!

    Yes I want service level. But isn't there anything else out there? How long are we going to be saddled with this stupidly rubbish 160 character limitation for 'text' messages?

  5. “Yes I want service level. But isn't there anything else out there? How long are we going to be saddled with this stupidly rubbish 160 character limitation for 'text' messages?”

    For as long as the operators can get away with it. SMS uses almost no bandwidth (and never has) so it is the perfect revenue generator. Think of it was your penance for using mobile data at a very low cost:)

  6. “Don't we want profitable networks who invest in their network?”

    We do indeed. My job is centered around providing network capacity for the UK networks and the investment is huge at the moment. The problem is that they all started offering fixed price data when nobody used it and so it was like the SMS model, and then the iPhone happened. It would be very difficult to back down from the current structure, but it may have to happen because mobile data kills SMS and voice as well. However, £45 / month over 24 months for a free iPhone still looks like a good deal for the operator…

  7. Epic. Rant.

    As I frequently tell anyone who will listen to my drivel, you're not just buying a handset, you're buying into an ecosystem. From the iPhone perspective, this includes the UI, the availability of third party applications, the mechanisms for getting data on and off the phone (iTunes), and (at least in the US) the operator that has the exclusive on that phone.

    While I miss some of the flexibility of my Nokia devices (multitasking, tethering), Apple has made all of the stuff I do regularly braindead simple. It “just works.” I don't have to arse around with half solutions. I actually use my iPhone for more things because it is simple.

    Everyone I've seen try and “compete” with the iPhone fails to address one or more parts of the ecosystem. Without a cohesive end-to-end experience to compete with Apple, iPhone, and iTunes, you've got a second-rate solution at best.

  8. This past weekend, I presented twice at the BibleTech Conference. I kept mentioning that folks haven't seen yet what mobile can do, and most of that is because its sitting under their iPhones hidden and overt at the same time. Ewan, you've pretty much nailed it (again).

    I don't think you want a rival to the iPhone. You want to be as geeked to do mobile as your “normob” family and friends are. You want to have your creative energies stroked, and to find connective events as invigorating as playing with that Fisher Price toy. To know that there's such a thing next door – the emotion and the realization that life with a mobile device/service can be so easy – but it not quite fit you at this point is like knowing you've got a friend next door with the new toy, but you've got to wait till the weekend to visit. Prophetically speaking, the weekend does come. And so does the time when you are once again with the toy that others want to play with; the toy that your friends and family won't understand (or will) but will be spurred by your interests in it. In time, more than a rival will come. And it will be something freeing.

    In respect to those things that you cannot say, its amazing how much you do say and folks might miss because you write with such emotion. Don't change that writing style ok 😉

    In respect to that point about leadership, there's a sociological/governmental theory that talks about the types of leaders within societies, and how they change over time. Covering this to mobile, visionary persons will stay on top for a time, only to be replaced by someone who shares the vision, but not the passion. This next person is replaced for the technical leader, while the person(s) who are passionate and have a vision are groomed in that company/culture, only to move from it and create their own roads – becoming a paradigm shift because the second generation leader didn't prep the internals enough while they noticed that future leader there. Such will be the same here… I'd question what company it would be, but not too much so because history has shown that some companies have been very adept that making this transition where others have not.

    If there's a chance to disrupt the paradigm of doing things, it will happen. I don't wonder when anymore, but I do know that it will happen. I feel that you have the same inlkings as well Ewan, and that's one of the reasons I appreciate reading your emotions/passions for those things people and mobile.

    Maybe its you who will save others; maybe a company will make the weekend come sooner.

  9. wow, over here, it's a bunch of Blackberries and Androids, definitely the iPhone's in the minority

  10. Probably because Apple allow you to multitask on your computer. Shame they don't let you run the software you've bought on non-Apple machines.

  11. The question is though… why do you even bother using SMS, Ewan?! It costs a fortune (compared to data), and as you say it's severely limited. If your entire immediate family are all using iClones, why not just e-mail each other?! These days with Internet communication, and my girlfriend using an older smartphone of mine, I barely text at all, and phone calls are usually just with work clients who (still) aren't very good at e-mail.

    As Shaun says, the operators will keep selling SMS while enough consumers keep using it – it's not in their interest to give us a better deal! And do remember that the vast majority of people still don't have smartphones (or phones at all – my dad's never had one and I suspect never will, despite working in IT all his life), or want to waste time giving their messages a subject line when all they want to say is “your dinner's in the fridge” or “wassup?”, and can tap it out using buttons with one hand in less than three seconds, not a touchscreen that needs two and takes much longer.

  12. I barely text too. But now and again I have to — because I know that the person is using a handset that doesn't deal very well with anything other than text messages. It's a total arse. My point is that I'd have liked to have seen some innovation with the medium, rather than just keeping it plodding along. 😐

  13. just people I know in the San Francisco Bay Area. One lost her iPhone and replace it with an Android.

  14. Fantastic post, Ewan — really well-argued. I think you're completely right: much as I love mine, the iPhone's dominance has sort of blunted the industry's hunger and downgraded what once was a frenzy to innovate into a race for second place. Bad news! I concur, the kind of thinking that's going to vault us past the now isn't catch-up muzak meandering, but visionary, 'he might be crazy, the sh*t he comes up with', verging-on-madness rethinking.

    I reckon the quickest way to something new and even wondrous is through collaboration, where the brightest from across and around the creative and tech industries work together. Alas the culture of secrecy is annoyingly pervasive and tends to thwart this sort of thing. I think the fear of sharing is easing somewhat in creative but, perhaps not surprisingly, ironclad confidentiality is still the way we roll in tech. Oh how I would love to see this change!

  15. Sara, the culture of secrecy is, I suppose, a necessity. But there's nothing more disappointing than attending a launch — or opening a press release — to find out that, for the last 18-months, a company has been working away on, frankly, a piece of irrelevant shit. A piece of 'safe' engineering. A 0.1 increase, making version 2, version 2.1. Great. Nobody ever got shot for not really doing anything in the mobile industry. That's because when they do 'innovate', the rubbish that vents forth has, hitherto, been simply shocking. I'm making sweeping generalisations, but unfortunately, I think they're pretty accurate.

  16. See, when I hear the term iNano I'm drawn to a vision of a small, pocket sized unit. The cost is less of an issue to me than the size. I don't mind using an iPhone sometimes, but the two things that really irk me are the lack of a proper Back button and the thing being so big I have to give it a dedicated pant's pocket to carry it. An offering in the Nano size, even at 100-200 quid would jolt the marketplace. But then, that's just me…

  17. Apple has done for mobile with the iPhone what Sony did to gaming with Playstation.

    They made it cool to be a geek and lowered, lowered, lowered the barrier to entry beyond anything before.

    The geeks might not like it much, but the mass-market does.

  18. Brilliant article. Just got my iphone and I consider myself to be a techie, yet it was a no-brainer for me. Even the best Android phones are still struggling to work as seamlessly with as efficient and smooth touch interfaces as the iphone, and despite the price premium the iphone is still more attractive than any HTC phone I have encountered to date. Plus it just works, which is just as important for someone technical like me as it is for someone who has only just grown accustomed to using webmail like my dad. I'm pretty much inseparable from my iphone now and I've only had it 3 days! And whatever anyone says, as a 23 year old cityboy I can assure you, it still has the cool factor that so many spinoffs are trying so desperately to imitate.

  19. my first android device was the htc magic. i loved it from the moment i turned it on. i am now using the nexus on and love it even more. you wrote that most apps have issues and wont work on all devices, and while this is partly true, i dont know that it is fair to say most apps wont work. we are creatures of habit, and every single app i originally downloaded for free and paid apps all work fine on my nexus one and worked great on my magic.

    like most apple fanboys your points about the iphone are exaggerated 😉

  20. Brilliant post, Ewan! I was expecting a bit more iPhone bashing from you, but I totally agree with what you are saying . Would be interesting to see if iPhone “Nano” will ever hit the shelves.

  21. Revel, an iPhone 'Nano' would have serious consequences for the rest of the industry — I'd really like to see the market adjust to that!

  22. Faketext is a hot new app that allow you to hide your real text messages on your iPhone. Check it out at, you can go there straight from your iPhone since it is a webapp and is free.


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