Multi-function = sub-optimal?

There have been a lot of rumours flying around in recent days about Apple’s ambitions in the mobile space. The most recent speculation is that Apple is poised to launch an MVNO in the US to offer its Motorola iTunes handset as part of an integrated mobile music service. One could make a compelling argument for such an approach, as it would address Apple’s traditional concern over whether it could exercise the same level of control over the user experience in the mobile telecoms space as it has in the PC and portable music player markets.

With iTunes, Apple is already a service provider of sorts, so this wouldn’t be a business model incompatible with its existing company DNA. However, at PMN our feeling is that it’s still too early for Apple to make a success of this approach. Although packaging its services as an MVNO would provide Apple with full control, the technology to support such an offering is not quite there yet – we’d want to see a more mature market for hard-disk based mobile handsets and ubiquitous 3G coverage in the relevant market before such a service made sense.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, made some interesting comments at a recent Wall Street Journal conference, recorded in this AlwaysOn article. Jobs made his views on the experience of downloading music through a mobile device pretty clear: “Actually, discovering and buying music on a computer and downloading it to the iPod—in our opinion, that’s one of the geniuses of the iPod. So you can look at changing that—and maybe that will happen over time—but I think the experience you’ll get on a device optimised for putting in your pocket is going to be far less satisfactory than on a personal computer. You may still want to do that [on a small screen] occasionally, but I don’t think it’s ever going to mean that you can not have some other device that is your primary device for buying and cataloguing music.”

The iPod, particularly the iPod Mini, is arguably the ultimate example of a singular user experience. Everything about it is geared towards one objective: providing easy access to music. All of the design decisions and the service strategy which support the iPod have been crafted with this objective in mind. Apple is right to preserve the purity of this experience in its own products. It is an approach which differentiates Apple from its competitors and has helped elevate the iPod to iconic status.

So what is Apple doing working with Motorola to install iTunes software on Moto handsets? Apple believes there are elements of the iTunes experience which can be integrated with mobile communications devices and, in doing so, create an overall experience which is compelling, albeit in a different way from the iPod. As Jobs stated, the ability to browse music on a desktop PC and easily transfer it to a mobile device is one of the ‘genuises’ of Apple. There’s no reason why that device shouldn’t be a mobile phone, but Apple will need to ensure there is no confusion between the iPod experience and the iTunes + handset experience. That’s an important differentiation to make.

When we were planning the agenda for MEX there were two sessions (‘Innovations in software interfaces and industrial design‘ & ‘Media opportunities, MVNO partnerships and alternative business models‘) which were intended to stimulate debate of Apple’s influence in this area. Given the strides Apple has made even since the MEX agenda was finalised, we expect the company to be the subject of a much wider ranging discussion.

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