Friday, April 11, 2008

Tech companies: how not to market your new iPhone killer

Nokia Corporation (ADR) (NYSE: NOK) is a well known, and quite successful phone manufacturer. So it's no surprise to find out that, like many other companies, they've felt a need to come out with a phone that competes with Apple, Inc (NASDAQ: AAPL)'s very successful iPhone.

Nokia has announced that they're working on 'an iPhone killer' according to this article at Forbes with the 5800 Tube. Well, since I started keeping track of Apple's stock as an investor myself (so keep in mind my bias), I've seen a number of iPod killers come and go. And I've seen on iPhone killer come and go. And they've all made similar mistakes in their approaches, so I've come up with four points to help Nokia, and other potential smartphone makers, go up against the iPhone without more flops. Because after all, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

1) Do not announce that your device is a 'killer.'

The moment you announce that you are working on a 'killer' you've just raised expectations. Apple already has a halo of hard to meet expectations around it, leading invariably to disappointed fans when the actual device comes out (what, the iPhone doesn't make TOAST? Are you kidding me? I thought it would have a terabyte of memory and make toast!). So now you've not only set yourself up to have to beat a popular and bestselling device, but you're expected to beat it in a big way! You're not expected to just match it now, but also beat it.

Even if you don't announce that you are working on a 'killer' some will come to that conclusion for you. Don't look arrogant, because when you fail to meet up to being the 'killer' it just makes you look like you fell flat on your face.

2) Do not announce that you have a 'killer' before you even have a device to show at all.

Even if the phone comes out, if you're planning on giving everyone a phone that's almost a year away you're basically guaranteeing you won't have a 'killer' device. Why? Because the specs and functionality you're trying to beat, the iPhone, a year from now, will be a different beast altogether. Apple isn't sitting back waiting for you to catch up. It's another reason not to call your device an iPhone killer. Think of it as a cheaper phone that incorporates the 'best of' practices of the iPhone (you've added a touch screen and some integrated music and video ability) that you think your customers would like to have because they a) like your products or b) can't or won't switch to Apple's cell network.

3) Do not compete on just hardware specs alone

Here's another place where companies get it wrong. To compete with an iPod or iPhone they'll tout that their 'killer' device has more memory, can store more songs, has a faster chip, or a larger screen, or what have you. This might affect a smaller, core group of tech-heads and gain some popular reviews by early adopters. But Joe and Jane average buyer don't care. What they care about is that it works well, or is easy to use. What most iPhone users (and an iPhone killer is aiming at people interested in an iPhone or who already has one) admire about the iPhone is the ease of use.

Look at how people react to an iPhone or an iPod who see it for the first time. They admire how compact and good looking it is. Then they admire how easy it is to use the touch features. Then they start trying to figure out if it has enough room. The hardware specs don't even make sense to your average buyer, and for many, they just don't care. If you win at hardware specs, you can still, and will probably, lose.

4) It has to be a smaller, more svelte device

Often, in order to 'beat' the device, 'killers' cram so much extra everything else in that the device ends up bulky and heavy. That's fine if you want the early adopters and tech heads. But if you want the big crowds, they care about a sharp looking, easy to pocket, small device. Your device can't be bulkier or seem bulkier, or seem heavier, or look uglier. Invest in the outer appearance, and benchmark the 'I want to like that' response. It shouldn't matter, but it does to the average consumer. It's not just a functional device for most, it's an accessory.

I'm hoping more companies will take these four little points to heart, but I doubt it. I just have this gut feeling that we're going to be seeing more plain looking, bulky, over-specced 'iPhone killers' trumpeted by phone makers that aren't killers because they don't focus on the essentials that have made the iPhone a success.

Tobias S. Buckell is a futurist, blogger, and author. He owns stock in Apple.


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