Saturday, March 15, 2008

Revisiting Apple's iPhone strategy

In the post I wrote about Rich Miner of Google saying that the Android mobile software stack will gain more users than the iPhone, several people commented. The general consensus is that Apple is the BMW of the personal computer industry and is the standard for innovation that its competitors, with far more market share, follow. Android is a non-factor.

The challenge for Apple is to keep coming up with proprietary products that fuel its business model, which is based on innovation and R&D around both hardware and software. Since Steve Jobs returned to Apple, the company has had a series of hit products that don't dominate markets (with the exception of the iPod) but appeal to an elite and influential minority. Even Apple's advertising makes the marketing from competitors look tedious and uninspired.

Apple's tightly bound software and hardware provides unique differentiation in a world of mostly undifferentiated PCs and mobile devices. RIM's Blackberry also has had success by controlling its entire product.

Microsoft has made progress with its Windows Vista operating system, and its OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) have created slicker PCs and laptops to run the software, but the Macintosh is still considered a superior product overall.

Jobs is clearly making the right choice for now not to license the Mac, iPhone, or iTunes software to hardware makers. Getting into a battle for OEMs with Microsoft, Google, Symbian, RIM, and Palm, etc. is a losing strategy at this juncture. The best mobile operating system and user experience doesn't necessarily win the deals, even with Steve Jobs as the chief negotiator. Microsoft is extremely capable in working with OEMs and developers, which is a key factor in building out a platform.

On other hand, it would be interesting to see what developers could do if Apple open sourced the iPhone software. The mobile Web experience is the new center of attention and R&D spending in the tech industry. Google's Android will be a good test case. If Android were to become successful, due to its openness and developer community, Apple would feel the heat. An army of smart developers with Google behind it could create a next-generation mobile Web operating system and application platform that challenges Apple far more than the current set of incumbents.

But Jobs is uniquely talented and a master of total product design. Handset manufacturers come up with dozens of phone designs per year, but haven't been able to duplicate the user experience of the iPhone. You could say the Nokia N95, the HTC Touch, and other smartphones have similar capabilities, but they don't match the slickness, pinching, and other capabilities of the Apple device despite its flaws (no 3G network and inaccessible battery, for example). The iPhone is also part of a family of personal devices that will become even more integrated.

Throwing open-source Android into the mix could give mobile device makers a better platform to take on the iPhone, but they will be mostly competing with each other for market share.

The iPhone will continue to be the BMW or Lexus of mobile devices, with modest share and lots of profit and envy from other mobile device makers. However, Apple could stumble, failing to keep up the rapid pace of innovation, but I wouldn't count on it as long as Jobs is in the house.

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