Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Follower fallacies

Wired has an article arguing that "focusing on hardware is the wrong way to compete with the iPhone." It's an indisputable point. The Apple aesthetic has always been a combination of hardware and software; the hardware on its own conveys a simplicity and elegance that has value in its own, but Apple's devices also show that a lot of thought has gone into how the hardware supports the software and the software supports the hardware. Imitate one and not the other, and you might get a good device but you're not going to get a great one. (Which is pretty much how I'd sum up the entire Android ecosystem.)

So  the point in the article is valid, even important. It's not new, however -- people have been making the same point for years now. The question, then, is why it never seems to stick. In part, I think this is a function of the engineer culture. For an engineer, flexibility and power are synonymous with quality, and if you have two devices that are otherwise similar the engineer will look for the one that has the superior processor power and other quantifiable specs.

However the primary reason, I suspect, is that followers are simply not in the position to do anything other than tweak the leader's designs. Apple personnel have testified that the iPhone was five years in development before it was released; meanwhile other smartphone designers were so far removed from what Apple was thinking that RIM's leaders responded to the first views of the iPhone by refusing to believe that the phone could be as good as what Steve Jobs demonstrated. Since then everything has flipped; nearly every phone that comes out is directly inspired by the iPhone. The designs we're seeing on the market today are rushed copies, rather than concerted design efforts. They're not the product of five years worth of iteration and refinement; they're me-too efforts in which the only chance for distinction is to say, "We're just like that other phone, only better!" When you're in a hurry, software+hardware is too big of a problem to solve. Instead you make the screen slightly larger, or the camera slightly better, and hope that consumers will see that as a compelling difference.

My hope for the market is that, behind the scenes, R&D efforts are going on at these various companies in which they pursue singular visions and are willing to tweak and fuss and polish until everything is just right. The first iPhone came out just about five years ago, which means that companies like Motorola and Samsung have had enough time to begin with iPhone inspirations and develop their own designs that marry hardware and software in unique and compelling ways. I have my doubts, but we'll see how it goes and hope for the best.