The Smartphone for the Masses

On October 04, 2011, I sent an email to many people expressing excitement about the upcoming announcement of the next iPhone model later that day. At that time there were pervasive rumors of an iPhone “5”. Instead the iPhone “4s” was announced and many expressed disappointment. Someone responded to my email saying: “More than a little disappointing don’t you think?” The following was my reply… (The more interesting part is after that review of what was announced)

(beginning of email)

Regarding the iPhone 4s… The outside did not change but everything inside improved including:

  • Faster processor
  • Better camera
  • Improved antenna which is compatible on both GSM and CDMA networks (in US and abroad)
  • Improved OS (with cutting edge features that may only be available on the 4s like the Siri feature). Since iOS 5 was highlighted months ago it isn’t news anymore however, the average consumer has not yet used it and will be impressed when they see it.
  • Data download speed doubled which is arguably 4G (I need to verify this) *this was not true, I confused statements about the improved antenna.

*Availability on Sprint is big also.

The only missing feature I really wanted was a larger screen which will probably be included in the iPhone 5 next year. The 4s is impressive but not revolutionary. Apple can’t do that every year. This is in line with the 3g, 3gs pattern where the 3gs follows the 3g form factor with improvements.

Now Apple sells a low (iPhone 3gs), middle (iPhone 4) and high (iPhone 4s) end smartphone which should help especially with the 3gs being free! (with 2 year contract) The fact that they are still selling the 3g and 4 means that people that bought these phones still have something current and supported. They remain valuable. I can imagine someone giving their old iPhone 3g or phone to their child or parent so they can get the 4s (I’m not naming any names). The child or parent would be overjoyed to receive a still relevant and cool phone.

Though it may not make for impressive sound bites today there are so many improvements to iOS 5 that they will have a big impact over time. I think the news about Android increasing in sales over iPhone in the last few months is from iPhone customers starting to wait for the next iPhone. It reminds me of what happens before a tsunami when the water is sucked out to sea before an insanely powerful wave charges the shoreline.

Many Verizon customers decided to wait it out for the next iPhone instead of buying a belated Verizon iPhone 4. They might have been stuck in contracts anyhow. I finally broke down and bought a white iPhone 4 for my wife but that was only because she did not have a smartphone at all and I wanted her to have one. I did so begrudgingly.

iPhone availability on Sprint with unlimited data should enable many more iPhone customers.

I think a lot of feature phone users are ready to jump into a smartphone for the first time and the iPhone 4s (or cheaper iPhone 4 or iPhone 3gs) will be it. Anecdotally, my technology challenged mother-in-law and a good family friend are examples. Our family friend is a part time hair stylist and part time stay at home mom. She feels the need for a smartphone for her business to keep up with her clients. She has been waiting for the next iPhone. My mother in law has a laryngectomy (removal of voicebox) and wants a mobile computer to keep in touch via email when on the move. She may also use a text to speech app to help the untrained ear understand her.

In my opinion Android (which I use) is more appealing to techy people and that market is more saturated. iPhone is for the masses and the masses are ready to dive in.

We’ll see. Google and Microsoft are fierce and capable competitors. I expect great things from them in the mobile space.


(end of email)

Our friend waited a few months and bought the iPhone 4s. Her husband was given an iPhone 4 from his employer (a commercial heating and cooling installation company). Their son is looking forward to his first smartphone in a month, a new “free” iPhone 3gs. My mother in law recently bought the iPhone 4. My younger sister gave my mom her first smartphone, the iPhone 4, for Christmas. (To give you a rough idea of the ages involved, I am 40)

None of the aforementioned people are devoted to Apple. They’ve never owned a Mac. Their first exposure to Apple products was the iPod.

I believe these anecdotes are representative of a larger trend: After observing how early adopters and tech geeks are benefitting from their smart phones, the average consumer wants one. The average consumer characterizes the group of people who do not yet have a smartphone. The iPhone was designed for the masses. If this is true, the iPhone will continue to push ahead of competitors in the next year or two. The release of the iPhone 5 this summer will add more momentum to this wave.

I am not saying that the iPhone is the best smartphone. The best smartphone for a given person is driven by what they value. The average consumer values simplicity in their first smartphone. They view a smartphone as a “black box”, not something they want to tweak, take apart, upgrade, or spend a lot of time understanding. Apple has consistently valued simplicity and design over price. Their products are intended for the average person not technology hobbiests. I don’t think Apple has changed, I think the average consumer and the market has changed.

The average consumer of smartphones now values simplicity and design. Competitors can imitate Apple’s products but cannot immitate their values. Imitations will be percieved as not authentic. Cost is less of a factor since the iPhone is priced similar to equivalent competitors. Cost becomes even less of a factor when you consider the overall cost to own a smartphone in the US. Most of the cost of the phone is subsidized into the phone contract. The price the consumer is asked to pay is relatively small compared to the cost of two years of data and phone service.

Let me know what you think. My interest is in smartphone trends is because I develop software for smartphones. These trends influence how I develop software and what I recommend to clients. I am not promoting one company over the other and am not interested in dogmatic technology arguements.