[Infographic] How to design a growth strategy for your app.

When devs create apps, it feels like that is the project. But once an app is built and released on an app store, it becomes obvious: creating the app was just the start of the journey.

Developers are makers. They solve pains, entertain, enlighten, and enhance productivity. Building an app can be an exhilarating experience and the joys of shipping can linger for… about ten seconds. Then comes the question, “I’ve built an app, now what?”

Now comes the really exciting (and scary) stuff: getting that app in front of users who will find it useful, and making sure they keep coming back to your app on a regular basis.


Building strategies for user acquisition and retention are the two major tasks for dev teams after they have built an app. Acquisition  is really about marketing (app store optimisation, paid & organic acquisition) and user retention is about marketing and the product working together (user experience, re-engagement and performance).

Analytics helps understand exactly what is happening and how to keep building traction. From there, new possibilities can emerge that will help you grow your user community even stronger and help you identify novel ideas that may offer you a winning edge.

Check out this  infographic based on on VisionMobile’s series of articles by Mark Boyd on:  User Acquisition , User Retention and Growth Analytics.

 

Built_an_app_Infographic (3)

 

Mobile Megatrends 2011

[We ‘re excited to release our fourth annual Mobile Megatrends 2011 – themed around what else? how software is fundamentally changing the telecoms value chain. In this fourth annual research presentation we take a deep dive into the many facets of change in the mobile industry; the DELL-ification of mobile, the battle for experience ecosystems, apps as web 3.0, the use of open + closed strategies to commodise + protect and how telcos can compete in the age of software.]

After many months in the making, we ‘ve released our annual Mobile Megatrends 2011. It’s our fourth and biggest Megatrends research we ‘ve published to date featuring 68 juicy slides with detailed analysis on the future of mobile.

[slideshare id=6863232&doc=mobilemegatrends2011visionmobile-110209095522-phpapp01]

(want more? Contact us to schedule an on-site Megatrends workshop)

We take a deep dive into how software economics is fundamentally changing the telecoms value chain setting new rules for innovation. We ‘ve broken down the 2011 Megatrends into 8 core themes:

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1. The DELL-ification of mobile: The world of handset OEMs has been irreversibly changed by software and Internet players. All traditional top-5 OEMs (from Nokia to Motorola) that used to enjoy a combined 80% market share in 2008 are now reduced to below 60%, while Internet players are reaping the majority of industry profits and market growth. The OEM market now seems destined to match the shape of the PC manufacturer market, made up of price-led assemblers (Dell, Asus) and performance-led leaders (Apple). For the old guard of top-5 OEMs, the race is on to innovate or die.

2. Software: the new era for telecoms: Besides Android and iOS headline grabbers, more than 30 software platforms have risen and (mostly) fallen in the last decade; Lesson learned: big bucks and software DNA are critical success ingredients for software platforms. The 10 or so remaining software platforms are battling for mass-market smartphone reach below the $100 retail price barrier. At the same time, every major industry player – from telcos to facebook – are striving to grow their own ecosystem, spanning from UI to social networks. However, in the software era of telecoms, not everyone is born equal. Speed of innovation, addressable consumer income and access to a partner ecosystem are all home turf for Internet players, while telecoms incumbents (from Nokia to Vodafone) are taking small, naïve steps. The new rules are: if you can’t innovate in software, you will be replaced sooner than later.

3. The battle for Experience Ecosystems. Convergence between telecoms, PC and Internet has long been talked about. But it’s not about the all-in-one all-powerful smartphone. Convergence is proving to be not about technology, but about experience convergence; how the user experience can ‘roam’ from one screen to the next (phone, PC, TV, mp3 player, etc). Apple is the poster child of experience roaming by consistently integrating the key experience ingredients – from UI and industrial design to an apps ecosystem – across multiple screens. The next battle in mobile is to build experience ecosystems which create user lock-in and cross-sales – and therefore present a sustainable strategy for both handset vendors and telcos to survive commoditisation pressures.

4. Apps are the new web. Everyone wants to compete with their own app store these days, but only a handful of app stores are above the developer radar. Why is creating an app store so hard? Because a successful app store needs 5 unique ‘genes’ from 5 different ‘species’ across the value chain. And thanks to app stores, apps succeed where the web failed; in discovery, personalization and monetization. Apps are in fact a new information paradigm, which the web is adopting. Supported by web benefactors and technology commoditization, web is becoming mainstream application development platform, in what could be could termed the web 3.0.

5. Open + closed: two sides of the same coin. Android took the mobile world by surprise when it launched a free-for-all software platform. But like Qt, MeeGo, WebKit and many other open source projects, ‘open’ is only the tip of the iceberg, since Google et al are using closed governance models to control the direction of the product. Besides open source, ‘openness’ is used as a business strategy to commoditise product complements while closing off other products to protect core assets; in Google’s case commoditizing handset and networks while protecting its own ad network.

6. Developers, the engine behind telecoms innovation. Mobile software developers have come a long way, from back office engineers to front row success stories. However the mobile developer market is still in its infancy. We present a novel way of looking at the developer journey and reveal how most commercial products cater to just a narrow section of that journey, with opportunities abound for catering to the needs and wants of telecom’s innovation engine.

7. Communities: the new currency. Communities are the new frontier for differentiation in the mobile industry. Everyone has tried creating their own communities – from Nokia to Vodafone – but only companies with social DNA have succeeded. Why is that? while you can buy an audience (eyeballs or subscribers), you can’t buy a community (the user interactions). Building a community is a form of art where tools and techniques are being explored, from game mechanics to religion engineering. One thing is certain; that communities are now a core asset in customer attraction and are expanding into communication networks and handsets, with Facebook leading the way.

8. Telcos: stuck in the telecoms age. Telcos are in the midst of an identity crisis and losing control point after control point – location, discovery, billing and authentication – while having no innovation to show in their core voice and messaging business. Yet the real value of telcos is still untapped with micro-billing, customer insights and retailing channels gone largely unexplored. We present 8 novel strategies for telcos and argue why WAC (the telcos’ answer to competing in the software age) is repeating history mistakes and is ultimately misguided.

Want to dive deeper into how software is fundamentally changing the mobile value chain? Contact us to schedule an on-site Megatrends workshop.

Want to reuse the slides within your presentation? Feel free to remix, but please provide attribution to VisionMobile.

Comments welcome!

– Andreas
follow me on twitter: @andreascon

RIM: a leap ahead in user experience, but can it execute?

[RIM’s acquisition of UI firm TAT marked the largest mobile software M&A of 2010. Research Director Andreas Constantinou explains why the acquisition places RIM a leap ahead of the top-10 OEMs in terms of UI capabilities and asks – can RIM execute on the promise?]

RIM: a leap ahead in user experience, but can it execute?

In December, RIM surprised industry observers by buying TAT (The Astonishing Tribe), a 200-strong UI technology and design firm based out of Malmö, Sweden. At nearly $130 million, RIM’s move marked the largest mobile software M&A transaction of 2010 globally and an impressive 5.5x multiplier over TAT’s 2009 revenues of 170 million SEK. It follows a string of RIM acquisitions since 2009, namely QNX (operating system), Cellmania (content billing and distribution), Dash (two-way navigation), DataViz (document viewer), Torch Mobile (WebKit experts) and Viigo (software house).

More importantly, TAT’s acquisition places RIM a leap ahead in the league of top-10 handset manufacturers in terms of own UI capabilities. Here’s why.

A leap ahead of the competition
TAT was founded in 2002 by 6 games engineers and designers out of university (here’s their story) but has come a very long way. TAT is not just another technology company. It has seen its Kastor 2D/3D graphics framework deployed in over 500 million phones across 5 out of the top-7 OEMs. More important to the RIM story is TAT’s Cascades product, a UI framework that allows OEMs to design their phones not in terms of applications, but in terms of screens, allowing what can be termed ‘rapid variant management’ (more about that later).

TAT has also been clearly ahead of the UI technology vendor pack – vendors like Ikivo, Digital Aria, Acrodea, Bluestreak, YouILabs and Scalado – thanks to its design skills. When other vendors have banked on technology marketing, standards implementation or operator deals, TAT has used its design skills to get into the door of both OEMs and operators/carriers (check out this video on the ‘future of screens’). The marriage of design skills and technology licensing allowed TAT to build momentum and cash-flow when OEMs were cutting budgets post-2005. These same skills were what got TAT the deal to design Google’s Android 1.0 UI. TAT’s strength lies in the combination of UI framework technology and the first-class design skills – both of which are now with RIM.

So what does RIM get?

TAT’s acquisition is far more encompassing than many would have thought – it puts RIM a leap ahead of the pack in the league of top-10 handset manufacturers in six ways:

1. Match the iPhone
With the Cascades technology, RIM can now match and even exceed the sophistication of the iPhone UI (see this and this video demos). Long term this means RIM has a chance to contain the exodues of enterprise customers opting for replacing their RIM with iPhones due to the outdated UI and usability on the Blackberry OS 6. Heck, it would be even easy for RIM to offer ‘deep skins’ for BlackBerry handsets where the navigation and core apps closely resemble the iPhone apps.

 

2. Rapid variant management
TAT’s Cascades is a departure from how OEMs build handsets today, by allowing the UI to be designed in terms of screens and not applications.

The downside is that Cascades-enabling an existing software stack means that legacy ‘spaghetti’ applications have to be ported one by one on top of TAT’s framework, which takes 9-12 months for the complete UI (it’s 10s of millions of lines of code that have to be ported). This is what has historically limited Cascades to only tactical wins for specific applications on Motorola, Samsung and Asus handsets.

The upside is that with Cascades RIM gets rapid variant management; creating 100+ operator variants from a single vanilla UI is just a button (and an XML file) away. Designing in screens rather than apps means that RIM can keep its investment into messaging, graphics and enterprise middleware but radically change the UI look and feel. This allows RIM’s carrier customers more differentiation and exclusivity opportunities, all without delaying the time to market – and therefore securing the carrier multi-million subsidy and marketing carrier budgets.

Rapid variant management is today one of the few domains where Android suffers and Nokia’s Symbian still excels, so a very important differentiator for RIM once the integration work is out of the way.

3. Consumer and enterprise personas
We covered earlier how RIM needs to escape its dual personality disorder by designing separate consumer and enterprise product lines. However, designing a different set of apps for enterprise and consumers is complex – not to mention managing many more device models and variants in the field.  With TAT, RIM buys the ability to have enterprise AND consumer UI personas ship in the same phone – not only that, but in a way that can be easily switched by the user at the flick of a button. Switching between enterprise and consumer personas is also much cheaper to do at the UI level rather than the bare metal level with what’s called ‘mobile virtualization‘.

This implies that with TAT’s technology, RIM can allow users to switch between consumer and enterprise UI personas; a consumer UI when you want to browse on Facebook and check out Flickr and an enterprise UI when you want to check the email attachment for your next meeting. Note that Nokia and HTC Sense have also implemented basic switching between work and personal skins.

4. Enterprise UI customization
Besides the runtime technology, TAT develops Motion Lab, a tool that a designer can use to define UI screens and UI flows through a drag-n-drop environment. For RIM, this means that enterprises can customize the phone’s navigation to focus on the few key applications that are used most of the time. It also offers RIM a level of enterprise customization beyond what other OEMs can achieve out of the box.

5. UI personalities
With the erosion of the market of downloadable ringtones and wallpapers, the industry has turned to apps as the next premium content market. Yet, there are still new revenue opportunities in downloadable content. In Japan, DoCoMo has led the market of downloadable UIs in the form of “standby screens” (programmable home screens), and which Acrodea has extended to the dialer and menu apps.  This has created a small market of downloadable UIs for both DoCoMo and KDDI.

With TAT, RIM can extend that market to the world, and across more embedded applications – creating what can be called the market of downloadable UI personalities. Whether RIM can turn this capability into a new ‘market’ is questionable, but it certainly presents a unique point of differentiation and an opportunity for a new revenue stream for RIM.

6. Connected experiences
With the acquisition of Dash, a 2-way car navigation company, RIM has its sights set beyond phones and tablets into the automotive segment. To deliver a consistent UI across these varied form factors a new OS (QNX) is far from adequate. It needs a portable UI technology that allows RIM to reuse its UI assets with minimum maintenance overhead across different form factors, from phones to cars. TAT’s Cascades is exactly this technology and as TAT has shown, it can be extended to connected screens in the living room, in the street, in the car, and in the hands.

Filling in the gaps that TAT left
With TAT out of the picture, how can other OEMs catch up to the level of UI technology sophistication and design skills? There’s a variety of UI technology vendors out there (see below for an extract from our Mobile Industry Atlas), but none really combine the UI ‘screens’ framework or the design skills of TAT.

Many companies claim to have “UI frameworks”, but they all invariably mean a combination of SVG engines, 2D and 3D graphics toolkits or compositing engines – which address UI development as an application, not a screen paradigm. Historically there have only been three companies who have developed screen-based UI frameworks; TAT, Digital Airways and Next Device. Digital Airways was behind the UI of the Vodafone Simply series of five handsets launched between 2005 and 2007 and the Porsche P9522 handset introduced by Sagem in late 2008; the company has since transitioned into UI services in mobile, embedded, automotive and aerospace – however the company ceased trading sometime in 2010. Next Device was acquired by Mentor Graphics (makers of the Nucleus RTOS), who didn’t manage to leverage the technology asset as the licensing model was markedly different to Nucleus’ site-licensing. The gap that TAT left creates an opportunity for other UI middleware vendors (e.g. Ikivo, Acrodea, Digital Aria, Sasken,) to maneuver into this technology space.

Another way to deliver ‘screen-based’ phone design and variant management is via development tools; much like how OpenPlug (now Alcatel Lucent) uses the Adobe Flash IDE to create mobile apps. However this is still virgin territory and we ‘re not aware of any sufficiently advanced UI tools vendors in the mobile domain.

Can RIM execute?
All in all, TAT can deliver Apple-class user experience that offers RIM a strategic advantage compared to OEMs leveraging 3rd party Windows Phone and Android platforms.  This all sounds great on paper of course, but it’s all a question of execution.

Can RIM’s corporate monoculture adapt to the creative minds of TAT? Will the TATers get the mandate and budgets to innovate deep into RIM’s product lines? How long will RIM take to integrate the TAT technology on top of the QNX platform and where will the competition be at that point?

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

– Andreas
you should following me on Twitter: @andreascon

[Andreas Constantinou is Research Director at VisionMobile, and oversees the research, strategy and industry mapping projects at VisionMobile. Andreas also served on TAT’s advisory board during 2008-9]

The MeeGo Progress Report: A+ or D-?

[Eight months after the announcement of the MeeGo  project by Intel and Nokia, guest author Dave Neary analyses the progress made to date in MeeGo Handset, and the project’s prospects for the future]

VisionMobile - The MeeGo progress report

The end of October saw the release of MeeGo 1.1, the second major milestone release of the platform since it burst onto the scenes in February 2010. The MeeGo project was born under the auspices of the Linux Foundation from a merging of Nokia’s Maemo platform, targeting smart phones, and Intel’s moblin platforms, aimed at netbooks.

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The merger grew from a core idea: pick the best of breed components from both stacks, collaborate on the integration and testing of shared components, and standardise a number of open source UX (User eXperience) profiles, on which vendors could build and deploy complete commercial grade stacks. The initial UX profiles announced were netbook, smartphone, IVI (In-Vehicle Interface) and media center/TV.

Nokia and Intel have both made a major commitment to the platform, but critics say that the relationship is little more than a marriage of convenience. After all, Intel is a silicon vendor, betting heavily on the Atom-based Moorestown platform, and Nokia is a handset designer, largely shipping ARM-based devices.

Growing pains

The project has had some teething problems. Troubled Nokia has changed CEO, and the founding father of the Maemo project, Ari Jaaksi, has been among a number of high level software executives to leave the company, leading some to ask whether Nokia might have a change of heart about the platform. The first MeeGo device for Nokia, originally expected at the end of 2010, will now appear in 2011, according to recent comments from new CEO Stephen Elop, as Nokia strive to ensure a good first impression for its first MeeGo device.

There are some early public signs of friction in the working relationship of the stakeholders in the project, also.

The adoption of Qt as the primary toolkit for both platform and applications has met with resistance from Intel engineers, who acquired Clutter in 2008 and integrated it heavily into the netbook user interface, plus partners like Novell who developed versions of GTK+ applications like the Evolution email client and Banshee music player specifically for the netbook form factor.

Long-awaited MeeGo compliance specifications have resulted in drawn out and sometimes acrimonious debate.  Trademark guidelines have been a sticking point for community ports of the MeeGo netbook UX to Linux when these ports do not include required core components.

Related to the technical governance of the project, there is some uncertainty around the release process, and the means and criteria which will be used when considering the inclusion of new components. And there are some signs that the “all open, all the time” message at the project launch has been tempered by the reality of building a commercial device.

The Promise of Openness

Many of these issues are to be expected when merging two projects into one and pairing two very different animals. Every open source project has its own culture, and Moblin and Maemo are no different. Relationship capital which participants built up in the contributing projects must now be rebuilt within a broader group.

MeeGo has had some early successes. MeeGo 1.0, which included the Netbook UX and an early prerelease of the smartphone UX, was delivered in July, complete with the source code of a number of components which had previously been proprietary. Novell MeeGo has been shipping on a number of netbooks since then. The MeeGo wiki lists dozens of MeeGo-compatible devices. The inaugural MeeGo Conference is set to take place in Dublin, from the 15th to the 17th of November, and has sold out with over 600 registered attendees to date.

And there is no denying that the companies involved in the project are committed to it. With the recent rumours that the Symbian Foundation may be shutting up shop, Nokia has few choices of platform left for upcoming high-end devices. Announcing their updated software strategy during their quarterly results call this month, the company confirmed that they are fully committed to MeeGo as the only platform for high end devices from now on.

Clearly, there is a future for the project. The question is, how will MeeGo Handset hold up against the competition from the platforms with the most momentum in the market – iOS and Android, or the recently released Windows Mobile 7. Will a newly reinvigorated WebOS (with Ari Jaaksi at the helm) challenge it for the mantle of the exciting new upstart? In short, is it any good? And will operators, handset manufacturers, application developers and users adopt it?

User experience

Since we do not yet have a MeeGo handset device available, it is very difficult to accurately judge the user experience at this time. It is possible to install MeeGo on the Nokia N900 and use it as a phone, using Nokia’s proprietary drivers to enable the hardware, but a lot of basic functionality is missing at present. In my tests, the camera, GPS, battery indicator, network signal strength indicator and WiFi did not work correctly. Features which do work can be slow, or have stability issues. Basic functionality like reading contact details off a SIM card, or unlocking the SIM card on boot, are still missing.

A MeeGo device getting to the market will undoubtedly have pristine hardware integration using 3rd party drivers, and a considerable amount of fit-and-finish which the basic MeeGo stack does not yet have.

The MeeGo handset user experience is still in transition. Maemo 5, the platform’s predecessor, was created using GTK+ and Clutter, while the MeeGo user interface has been built from the ground up using Qt. By all accounts, there are still a number of stability and quality issues with the stack, which we can expect to be addressed in a release shipping on a device.

At this time, the MeeGo Handset UX is not intended for anyone but developers. It is too early to be able to tell how the final product will compare to iOS or Android.

The Developer story

At the time of its announcement, one of the key advantages held up to developers was the potential to use a single toolkit, Qt, to build native applications which will be portable across Windows, Linux and Symbian. Nokia has been investing heavily in RAD tools like Qt Quick to allow developers to get up and running quickly. In addition, their as-yet unavailable Web Run Time promises to allow developers to easily integrate web applications.

The developer tools are in development, and do not yet compare favourably with the equivalent Android offering, which includes easy tools for building, testing and deploying applications using Eclipse. In addition, since the project is still in relatively early stages, there is a marked lack of entry-level documentation to help developers get started.

It is still unclear what software distribution channels or app stores will be available for application developers on a MeeGo device. Ovi Store will be available on Nokia devices for commercial applications, and there may be a community distribution channel made available for community-built applications, but what form this channel might take, and to what extent it will integrate with the MeeGo user experience is still unclear. Presumably other handset manufacturers, should MeeGo gain wider adoption, will provide their own application stores, further fragmenting the application developer story.

MeeGo certification ensures that it will be possible to build applications which work across all vendors, but at this point the jury is still out on how useful “MeeGo Compliant” will be to application developers. There is a possibility of considerable fragmentation among non-core APIs when MeeGo devices from several vendors are available.

From the point of view of tools, documentation and software distribution channels, MeeGo is undoubtedly behind its primary competitors – but for such a young project, this is to be expected. The success of the project among application developers and the free software community will depend to a large extent on the project’s ability to fill these gaps and provide developers with an excellent development experience.

For platform developers, the story is much more encouraging. The source code to the entire MeeGo stack is available, and anyone can download images built daily. Images built for ARM and Intel Atom can be installed and tested on a range of developer devices, including the Nokia N900, TI’s BeagleBoard or PandaBoard, or the Aava Mobile developer kit.

On the other hand, there has been a tendency of the platform architects to reduce the range of hardware and software supported by the basic MeeGo stack. There is limited support for non-Intel x86 chipsets, and support for only a subset of ARM chips. Kernel modules have been aggressively trimmed, sometimes arbitrarily, to disable functionality such as NFS.

Community and governance

MeeGo development is all happening in a public git repository, most discussions are on public mailing lists, and there are a large number of experienced free software developers among the community development team, which is ensuring that any communication or transparency problems are identified and addressed swiftly. In the mobile platform development world, it is fair to say that MeeGo is second to none in terms of its open development model.

This contrasts sharply with Android which is primarily developed behind closed doors by Google, and iOS which is a completely proprietary platform. If there is a key differentiator for MeeGo in the hand-held market, this is it. It remains to be seen whether the open development model will be a selling point which will tip the balance when manufacturers are choosing a platform for a device.

The MeeGo community is made up of members of the Maemo and Moblin communities, and in the case of Maemo, there have been a number of contributors who have decided not to contribute to the MeeGo project. The move to MeeGo represents the third major change in the project in two years (after the move to GTK+/Clutter in Maemo 5 and the announcement that Qt would be the only supported application toolkit) and has left some shell-shocked.

The Moblin community, on the other hand, did not develop a large platform developer community, partly since the project did not offer a distribution channel for application developers. It seems like all those who were productively contributing to moblin have followed the project move to MeeGo.

OEMs and operator support

One of the key differentiators between traditional handset manufacturers and the young guns (iOS and Android) which have taken the market by storm, is that both Android and iOS have concentrated on the user and application developer experience to the detriment of their relationship with OEMs and operators. It is widely argued that Apple’s iPhone has reduced the role of the operator to that of a bandwidth and infrastructure provider. In turn Google takes a take-it-or-leave-it approach with handset manufacturers; unless manufacturers comply with Android’s compatibility definitions (CTS and CDD), they can’t have access to the Android trademark, Android Market’s 100,000+ application, Google Maps and several other closed source applications.

Nokia has a more traditional approach of putting handset manufacturers and network operators ahead of developers. This shows through in many of the architecture decisions in MeeGo. The platform has been built with operator and OEM customisation and integration in mind from the start.

A primary concern for OEMs with MeeGo is the time required to integrate the platform into a specific device and ship to market. With the time to market for Android handsets dropping to 4-5 months from project to production, it will be very hard for MeeGo to compete, even with the MeeGo 1.2 release, due in the first half of 2011.

Still a long way to go

It does not feel fair at this point to compare MeeGo, a project which came into being 8 months ago, with iOS or Android, but this is the yardstick which will be used when the first MeeGo smartphone comes on the market. The project has come a long way since its inception, in particular in working towards an open and transparent development model. There is still some way to go but improvements have been happening daily.

However, to succeed as a platform, the application developer story and the user experience are vital. There is a lot of work to be done in these areas for MeeGo to gain serious traction outside of the small community of Finnish handset designers. Nokia still has a long way to go.

– Dave

[Dave Neary is the docmaster at maemo.org and a long-standing member of the GNOME Foundation. He has worked in the IT industry for more than 10 years, leading software projects and organising open source communities,  He’s passionate about technology, and free software in particular.]

Why handset OEMs shouldn't mess with UX and other lessons from the automotive industry

[Why are so many phone manufacturers trying to develop their own branded experience? Guest author Thucydides Sigs argues that there should be a limit to UX innovation and looks at what the phone industry can learn from how car manufacturers differentiate]

In Mobile World Congress, during a special panel on “New Devices” Motorola’s VP of software, Christy Wyatt, made an interesting statement: “I don’t want the same phone as my teenage daughter“. This was followed by Ari Jaaksi, Nokia VP of Maemo – nodding his head in confirmation.

Hmm. Last I checked, most soccer moms in the US either use an iPhone or want to get one. Most of their teenage daughters either have one or beg for one. And a surprising number of dads do as well. So why is it that Apple is doing quite well without customizing their iPhone, while Motorola and Nokia make a “Signature experience” such a core components of their strategy?

Before we start, half of the challenge is due to terminology, so lets setup some definitions. For years, OEMs have been trying to create a unique “Branded Experience” that spans multiple dimensions: how the device feels, which functions and services are bundled, how polished the graphics look. Part of this “Branded Experience” is also how consumers launch or switch between tasks, i.e. the “User Interaction model” which is largely dictated by the underlying “Software Platform”.

Most of the major consumer electronics brands have made significant efforts to establish their own “branded user experience”. Lenovo just showed their new U1 Tablet with their own OS and UX during CES, and Dell have been playing with “Dell Experience” on their Linux devices as well.

Nokia, which could have been shipping millions of Android phones today, felt compelled to do their own thing and have been spending hundreds of millions on building their own software and services platform – included the user interaction model, consumer services and branded user experience; making an almost life or death bet that they can become a ‘real’ software company.

The Phone Industry vs the Car Industry
So why are so many device vendors chasing this illusive goal? What are they trying to gain? What kind of user experience customization that makes sense for an OEM? And what doesn’t?

To crack this challenge, lets use the car industry as an analogy. Car vendors compete on industrial design, engine and performance, cost, colors, finish, entertainment, comfort and many other factors. But they don’t try to move the gas pedal to the other side just to have their own “Driving experience. Ford or BMW don’t say “We need to create our own driving experiences so we will use a joystick in the center panel and throttle on the door.”

Why is it that the Car industry competes on “overall user experience” but mostly refrain from touching the “User Interaction” model ?

Design constraints
Any interaction design is driven by three constraints: (i) The human body physical constraints, (ii) the task at hand constraints and (iii) the established paradigm constraints

First: the human body constraints. How many legs we have effects how many pedals we can use simultaneously. How we sit effects what we can do with our hands vs. legs. Same applies to the phone; the size of our palm, the number of fingers. These physical constraints limit the possible variations of both physical design and interaction design. Sure, you can come up with five pedals but you can’t reach them all at the same time. Or in the phone case, you can create a design with twenty main choices – but you don’t have enough fingers. And then there are the mental constraints of the human mind; how many choices we can effectively deal with at the same time, how we scan from right-to left and top to bottom, etc.

Second: the task at hand constraints. You need to drive the car: control speed and direction simultaneously so you need to access both the steering wheel and pedals at the same time. Same with phones; when phones were used mostly for voice calls, you needed to easily access the 0-9 digits with your right thumb and all phones ended up with the 3×5 key matrix. Nobody thought to customize the experience by providing 0-9 keys in a single row.  Well – Nokia did decide to try a circular keyboard with the 3650 – and it didn’t go that well.

Third: the established paradigm constraints: once a working interaction model is accepted, it reinforces itself as more and more consumers use it. It does not – and often is not – the best possible interaction model. It just needs to be good enough so consumers will keep on using it. And once they do – and more and more users do – it becomes very hard for others to transition to a different paradigm. So even if you have a better user interaction model, it is often impossible to change the dominant existing interaction model (the Qwerty keyboard is a great example here: suboptimal arrangement, but impossible to change the established paradigm). Small tweaks here and there (a la Manual vs. Automatic cars, Mac vs Windows, or Android vs iPhone) are possible – but there is only so much that makes sense to customize.

Android didn’t really copy the iPhone – they are similar because of the human and paradigm constraints involved in small touch devices. Once you design an interface for a four inch touch device, there are not too many different choices. The designs just converge on similar concepts. Attempts to customize the UX beyond that are futile – they result either inferior user experience (because the human or service constraints are ignored) or just don’t get adopted for lack of critical mass.

What actually matters
What actually matters for a “branded experience” and where differentiation makes sense – is the services & features. Audi can compete by adopting their automobile industrial design language to the latest fashion, bundling “Services” like  infotainment system or features like ABS. In a similar way, phone or computer vendors can differentiate on slicker industrial design, bundled music or navigation services (Nokia attempts to do with Ovi) or features like inductive charging (Palm).

Instead of OEMs focusing on strengthening their brand by building their own interaction model, they should focus on the consumers (what a novel concept) and what consumers want: which means empowering the consumers to personalize the device to their own needs. This is the powerful role the application store fills and why Apple can ship the same iPhone to the teenage girl, the soccer mom and the business daddy.  Not only is focusing on the services and app store good for consumers, it is also good for the OEMs: making consumers happy is the best thing you can do to strengthen your brand. And – there is a lot to gain by selling real-estate on their app stores: turning them into “Malls” and renting out sections. Turning the OEM into a ‘landlord’ who can ‘auction’ this ‘real-estate’ statically or dynamically to all application developers. VisionMobile have been covering this trend in their annual Mobile Megatrends report.

So why are so many OEMs going down the slippery slope of “Branded User Experience” and end up with their own flawed user interaction model and a large software team needed to keep the effort alive?

The faulty OEM logic
First, because they are looking at Apple and getting envious. We industry insiders hate to admit it, but there is a strong Apple envy syndrome in the industry. The OEM false logic is something like this “Apple has high margins, branded user experience and owns the user interaction paradigm. So if we develop our own user interaction and create a branded user experience, we will have high margins”

WRONG: Just pure faulty logic. The fact that lions have a mane does not mean that if you bought a mane wig you will become a lion.  There is much more to Apple’s high margins than owning the user interaction model.

Second, when new usage paradigms emerge, and there is no dominant user interaction model, there are opportunities to innovate and be the first to build the new paradigm.  When the world was dominated by closed source software (the Microsoft era) this offered significant revenue upside.

But we live in a different era – “Open Source” has changed the dynamics of the game. All it takes is that at least one of the software solutions be open sourced, and the upside from controlling the basic interaction model and underlying software platform is minimal or none. The company who leads this effort gets industry recognition, establishes itself as a thought leader and strengthens its brand – but it is no longer a sustainable source of revenues or competitive advantage.  To the contrary; quite possibly, they can turn into the “mule” which guides the rest of the industry and can be embraced and extended.

Motorola’s Sanjay Jha realized this when he made Motorola embrace (and extend) Android. Nokia on the other hand could have been selling millions of fantastic Android phones with Ovi services if it wasn’t for their Finnish pride.

When Microsoft had to fight Netscape in the mid nineties, it has done so by an “Embrace and Extend” strategy. It would be beneficial to many OEMs to remember this and put an end to their mediocre attempts to invent new interaction models. Instead focus on what matters to consumers; great app store, superior services and overall compelling device experience.

– Thucycides Sigs

[Thucydides Sigs – a pseudonym – has many years of experience juggling computing constraints, mobile software and consumers needs. With that said, imagine listening to a violin sonata not know who the artist is or who composed it. You end up having to listen more carefully in order to make a judgment. He can be reached at thucydides /dot/ sigs [at] gmail [dot] com]