The superphone experience

17. The superphone experience

Symbian’s internal “Omega” strategy reformulation, in 2003, identified the following differentiating feature as being something not only where we could “beat the competition”, but as the manifestation of what we saw as the “soul” of our product strategy:

  • OS support for a superior user experience

Even though Symbian was no longer in the business of creating the user interface for phones, we thought the operating system would provide unmatched rich support – including graphics, multimedia, seamless networking, and connectivity between application engines – so that manufacturers could create devices with the best user experience.

In this thinking, it was less important whether our platform had the very best support for, say, developers creating after-market applications (as discussed in the previous chapter). What would determine the take up of Symbian devices was, instead, whether users fell in love with these devices.

What’s more, if manufacturers saw that users were deeply enamoured with their Symbian devices, they would keep on selecting Symbian for their future smartphones, regardless of other drawbacks or difficulties with the platform.

This view continued to hold centre stage in Symbian leadership thinking as years passed, and as sales volumes grew and grew. The larger sales volumes seemed to confirm that Symbian devices were doing a better job of meeting user expectations. It was therefore a real jolt to Symbian when end users increasingly reported that they had a superior user experience with the Apple iPhone.

No nine day wonder

Initially, Symbian seemed to have good reason to be sceptical about the prospects for iPhone sales. We thought the media frenzy over the Apple device would soon blow over:

  1. Apple was the latest in a series of companies with a computing background that were venturing into the smartphone arena. Companies that had previously trodden that path, such as Dell and Acer, had failed to set the world on fire. The phone component of smartphones was innately hard – not something that could easily be tacked on to a cut-down computer system by a company that lacked profound experience in telephony systems
  2. Apple’s previous (2004-2005) involvement with the “Rokr” music phone project with Motorola had been a market failure. The device sold poorly because of slow download speeds for music, and because of limitations in the numbers of songs that could be stored. Steve Jobs of Apple and Ed Zander of Motorola had a public falling-out over the project.

What was less obvious, however, was that Apple was capable of learning a great deal from its experience with Rokr. It’s a mistake to conclude, just because a company has failed to achieve its market targets with v1 of a project, that it will inevitably fail in the same way with v2 and later releases. After all, Symbian had walked the same path: initial releases of Symbian OS were late and had reduced functionality, but the company put in place learnings from these experiences, and eventually built a very powerful software creation engine. In the same way, Apple converted its disappointments with Rokr into insight that helped it make such a success with the iPhone.

Second, the Symbian world underestimated the extent to which:

  • Third party telephony modules were now available, that could be integrated reasonably straightforwardly into new smartphones
  • Users would accept second-rate telephony experience (with e.g. a greater proportion of dropped calls, or poorer quality voice audio), on account of better experience with other aspects of the device
  • Voice calls had diminishing significance, overall, compared with the greater significance for users of messaging, video, and browsing
  • Consumers would adopt the unexpected usage model of carrying both a smartphone and a “dumb phone”, with the latter (often a lower spec Nokia phone) being used for voice calls.

Further, Symbian was wrong to group Apple together with companies like Dell and Acer that were primarily manufacturers of computers; Apple was not only a manufacturer, but also the creator of a rich operating system (Mac OS). Critically, Apple had the ability to create a version of their desktop software (Mac OS) which could be used in smartphones (iOS).

I can put a definite date on the occasion when I started to become seriously worried about the iPhone. It was the 24th of July, 2007. I was on a family holiday in the eastern states of Canada and the United States. One stop on that trip was in Boston. I took the opportunity to spend some hours together with Stephen Randall, one of the original co-founders of Symbian.

[ SNIP ]

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