How is mobile being Googled by outsiders?

Another week, another set of rumours about the ‘Google phone’. What interests me most about these rumours – and the iPhone circus before them – is why they have such a powerful hold on the public imagination.

Why, in a supposedly cut-throat competitive handset market filled with innovative vendors, are companies like Apple and Google able to generate such huge publicity from the mere rumour of forthcoming handsets? These companies have no history of producing mobile phones, yet the the iPhone generated some USD 400m in free publicity according to some estimates, much of it before the device was even announced. Now rumours of a handset from Google are causing similar excitement.

What are the current products from existing vendors missing that the thought of a device from one of these companies so captivates users?

The common factor linking Apple and Google – which, if we are to believe the current rumours about the Google project – will come to market with very different strategies, is user experience. Both companies are strongly associated with understanding customer needs and delivering products which meet them in an uncomplicated, direct way. The spartan iPod interface, the uncluttered Google homepage: both are the work of development teams starting with user requirements and finding technology to match them – a concept still alien to many in mobile telecoms.

The buzz generated by the idea of companies like that coming to market has created more excitement than any of the mobile industry product launches I can remember in more than 10 years of reporting on this business. It speaks of huge pent up demand for products which genuinely meet user needs, marketed by companies that understand the importance of getting close to their customers.

If I was a Nokia or a Sony Ericsson or even a Vodafone or an Orange, I’d be worried. I’d be asking myself: “Why, after years of trying to develop revenues from non-voice services and billions spent on marketing and R&D can companies with nascent mobile teams capture such huge consumer momentum without even shipping a product?”

This question won’t have a material impact on revenues today and maybe not even for several financial quarters. Even if Apple and Google were shipping killer handsets right now, it’s unlikely device manufacturers would feel any effect for some time. They have the advantage of massive distribution through well established channels to defend their entrenched market positions. However, it is definitely a strategic challenge which needs to be addressed at the most senior level by both hardware companies and network operators.

Setting aside the question marks over Apple and Google’s ability to compete in mobile, the buzz generated by their respective rumours mills has identified gaping cracks in the industry’s incumbent businesses. It is an issue for both handset companies and operators to address – Apple’s style-drive premium pricing and close links to the iTunes music service challenges both groups and you can be sure that whatever form Google’s long-term mobile strategy takes it isn’t going to be built around charging for voice minutes and text messaging.

Recruiting designers to put a cool form-factor around a handset and develop a touch-screen UI isn’t enough. Nor will it be sufficient to look to mobile advertising to fund the proliferation of mobile data. These things are just manifestations of the key competitive advantage companies like Apple and Google nurture: understanding their customers and maintaining a tight focus on meeting those customers’ needs.

This is at the heart of what we’ll be talking about at the MEX conference on 2nd – 3rd May in London. Through a series of keynotes, breakouts and panels, we’ll explore long-term strategies for the mobile industy to grow its profits through improved customer experience. I invite you to join us for the debate – perhaps by then we’ll have a real Google phone to discuss?

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  1. 1
    Anders Borg, Abiro

    Slightly anecdotal comment:

    I think a major reason for the appeal is that these industry players give the impression they can fulfil user needs and expectations on a higher level than pure technology (multimedia experience for iPhone, information experience for Google Phone), and current mobile phones don’t have e.g. a seamless information experience (actually very far from). Rather existing phones are experienced as being patched up devices with “everything” in them, but nothing is really easy to use, nor having the right functionality.

    Compare with iPod and the “MP3” players existing before it. There were tons of such players before the iPod, but finally when the iPod came out, people finally got it. It’s not about technology, it’s about experience, on a practical and metaphysical (for lack of a better word) level.

    Buying an iPod seems to be like buying a car. You don’t have a clue how the device works, you sure wouldn’t be able to repair or tweak it, but it seems to do exactly what you want, it looks nice and you can probably brag about it too.

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