The imminent demise of killers

Before proclaiming the death of a company or product it’s important to understand what makes it live. I’ll illustrate with a personal experience.

I was once asked to comment on a product designed to be a “Blackberry killer”. Much like the latest Droid Pro, the product looked like a Blackberry. It had a monoblock keyboard and a nearly square screen. It was, in other words, a product designed for thumb typing emails.

The backstory is that, like many phones, the requirements came from operators. At the time, RIM was growing extremely quickly and was causing some consternation at operators over an upstart’s increasing reach into the relationship with end-users (sounds familiar?)

The rigidly predictable response was to call all phone vendors and task them with developing Blackberry alternatives (aka killers). Of course, each vendor was called independently so they all got excited about having this opportunity to be assassins.

So when I looked at the product my employer was building as a “killer” I asked: “Well, what makes Blackberry live?” This was not just rhetorical. I felt it was critical to the success of the product. Unfortunately it was not a question on anybody else’s list. My cursory review of RIM’s business would show that the product Blackberry was popular because it enabled a service, not because of the design of the device.

RIM was like a barkeeper who enabled socializing on his premises by selling beer. The product he sold was not really beer but meeting services. A brewer looking enviously at the high margin beer being sold there might try to compete by launching “Pub-style beer” but the product won’t help people socialize any more if they drank it at home. Bar patrons were paying the high price of bar beer because it had an implicit rent attached for using the meeting site.

So no matter how much a brewer tried, unless they got into the business of managing taverns, they won’t ever put the barkeeper out of business.

But the rush to copy the design was in full force. Not only Nokia (E 61), but HTC (T-Mobile Dash), Motorola (Q), Samsung (Blackjack) and even Sony Ericsson (M600) rushed similar products out. And they all reached the market at about the same time. (Evidence that not only were they all asked to make products by operators at the same time, but that their product development cycles were roughly the same.)

The deluge of keyboard monoblock Blackberry killers led to lots of comments predicting the imminent demise of RIM by way of powerful entrenched incumbent responses.

RIM’s market share actually grew after these launches.

This is because none of the products addressed the real question of what makes Blackberry live and thrive. They were just pub-style beer, not thinly disguised meeting places.

So next time you hear about the imminent demise of an upstart due to the reaction of suddenly awakened incumbents, ask whether the reaction is to the product or to the way the product makes money.

  • maddoguk69

    Yet one more example of why Asymco has quickly become one of my "go-to" blogs, like Daring Fireball, where a new post commands an instant read.

    • Stu

      I'll only disagree as far as that I now go to Asymco before DF. DF has interesting stuff, and his insight comes in the form of one liners. Asymco has awesome insight, having great problems explained in nice clear detail.

  • Ted Cranmore

    What a great read! Thanks Horace.

  • Martijn

    Absolutely brilliant! We’ve seen it many times with iPhone killers, from cheap LGs to the Samsung Galaxy S and none of them seems to really get what makes the iPhone live.

    Any comments on Bada, which seems to copy Android and iOS, or any comments on WP7?

  • Yeah, I can see between the line the product killers this article mostly refers to… So, so true.

    In 2007, Apple had to convince the world already familiar with smartphones, what a true smartphone should be. It took them 2-3 to overcome a worldwide product portfolio of products with unquestionably inferior user experience.

    In 2010 Apple all but set the gold standard themselves of the tablet user experience. There was no competition to overcome.

    In 2011, these other companies plan to enter the Apple home turf, were they have no experience, stand up against a company who beat them at their own games, has set the standards of quality, has a firm hold on the entire supply chain of the most essential components and is continuing to relentlessly out-inovate itself. These other company are planing to make an iPad Killers? Give me a break.

    One curious fact. iPhone adoption seams to have been from the bottom up. Regular folks bringing their iPhones to work and gradually replacing other similar devices.

    iPad adoption seams to have started from the top to bottom, with executives and CEO caring iPad where previously they carried Paper. Seams the iPad is replacing paper more than anything else. Paper!

  • Robbo Robertson

    Great article! Like one of the other posters said, this blog is now one of my go-to reads.

  • Mark

    RIM do deserve to die though. They have this ridiculous system of "leaks" for new OS versions, they give no changelogs, they release software which breaks apps that users have bought (and there is no notice or warning), their store is shambolic as it will tell you an update is needed, it will make you login and then tell you the product is not in the store, they make zero effort to capture any Mac market as evidenced by their amateurish desktop software, they change shortcuts which have existed for ages yet give no reason, their help docs are woeful.
    I have no doubt that business interests will keep it afloat and they will slap BB's into the hands of as many celebs as possible but as someone up for a contract renewal on Dec 5th my Blackberry Bold will not be replaced with another offering from RIM.

    So the efforts of RIM and Apple (who I will also avoid) mean that I get a better choice than I would have done. So that is a consumer win. If they can continue to linger as businesses start to look at cheaper alternatives that would be helpful for all too.

    • Marcos El Malo

      Where I come from, the word "leak" means mirror. If you say you're going to take a leak, that means you're going to steal a mirror.

  • MattF

    I understand the argument, but there seems to be more than this at work with the iPhone (and possibly, the iPad). What service did the iPod provide that overwhelmed all the would-be iPod-killers? What's the connection with Apple Inc.? Maybe the answer is that 'Apple' itself signifies some set of services, or a willingness-to-provide services. Hmm.

    • FalKirk

      Matt, I can think of at least two things the iPod brought to the table that the would-be-iPod killers missed. The first, and easiest to understand, was iTunes.

      The second is a more subtle and therefore, perhaps, a more important. Apple focused all of it's efforts of providing an excellent user experience with the 80% of the features that 80% of the people used 100% of the time. Competitors didn't grasp that concept then, and I haven't seen any evidence that they've grasped it yet. They thought that the way to beat Apple was to add "missing" features. They never understood that adding features adds complexity and that for Apple's target market, those features were never missing in the first place because they never used or wanted them. In other words, Apple was playing darts and always shooting for the inner rings while their competitors were playing Jenga and always piling feature upon feature upon feature until one had a mountain of features that was a wonder to behold but would collapse at the slightest touch.

      • pk de cville

        "Apple focused all of it's efforts of providing an excellent user experience with the 80% of the features that 80% of the people used 100% of the time." This simple meme is being overused…

        I think what Apple provides is assurance that everything Apple ships will be top quality with excellent service and support AND DAMN EASY TO USE, providing Apple customers with a sense of empowered ownership…

        Android gives the masses jobs to do: Android owners MUST manage memory, security, threads???, battery life, and privacy.

        Android's slogan should be:

        "Android: Got Work?"

      • Really? You feel 'empowered'?

        Apple's control on their iOS devices makes me feel the opposite.

        I know what you mean about Android though. It's the same thing I felt with Windows. I was spending so much time managing the OS that when I switched to a Mac I found I had like a whole extra day a week.

    • OpenMind

      You have raised a very good point: What make iDevice different? RIM enabled a pub-style meeting service. What does iDevice enable? I try to give an answer: iDevice enables an easy of use service. Even for first timer, one can easily use an iDevice to do what he want to do within a few minutes he laid hand on an iDevice. I personally witness both 5-6 years old kids and 70-80 years old seniors feel comfortable with iDevice instantly. People want devices to do the things they want. They want devices to be transparent to them, not in the their way. Only techie and geekie wants device instead of "use of the device". To techie and geekie, device itself is the goal, is their toy. That is why most of techie and geekie community still not get it.

      • famousringo

        I think you're right that the first iPhone brought easy use. It made brought a mobile browser that didn't feel like a dentist appointment and all the good things from the iPod/iTunes ecosystem.

        But I think a year later that service was compounded by the App Store. It's a service that offers to quickly and cheaply provide whatever kind of software might suit a particular user's needs. Those needs range from entertainment, to productivity, to creativity, to social networking, to reference and information. Whatever it is you want to do, there's an app for that. You can find it easily, and you can download it right now for a very inexpensive price, and you don't have to worry about what horrible things it might do to your pocket computer.

        One the subject of 'killers,' I've always felt that one of the reasons they always fail is because they implicitly acknowledge that their intended victim is the gold standard in that market. It just draws more attention to an already successful product.

  • I've been saying this for 3 or 4 years now and it looks like most companies still aren't catching on; You can't beat a popular product by imitating it and slightly bettering the popular product! Let's take the iPhone as an example. There have been countless iPhone "killers" throughout the years that copied the look and feel of the iPhone and added something to the feature list or the specs of the phone.

    The reason why the iPhone was able to get so popular was because it was so different! It wasn't just another Blackberry killer or WM killer. It was so different than what Windows, Palm, or RIMM had on the market at the time. The only way for someone to actually "kill" the iPhone is to come out with some brand new, highly innovative device that is much different from the iPhone, not extremely similar. I can't tell you what that new innovation is gonna be though, because I don't know!

    • airmanchairman

      Bingo, dude!

      That's why when Apple announced the iPhone 3G in its intro video, they said "the iPhone Killer is here".

      Apple realised that the single biggest threat to their iPod dominance of the PMP market was the emerging "kid on the block", the smartphone – and guess who reacted first?

      My money's on Apple reacting first to "the next big new thing"; they're probably working on it as we debate, right now. And like you, I can't say what it is, because I don't know…

  • Angel

    To Matt, The argument goes beyond the distinction between product and service. The argument is about thinking out “the whole package”.

  • joe c

    To add to that list of BlackBerry copiers, have you all seen what Google's Android phone prototype looked like BEFORE the iPhone was announced?

    • asymco

      Very good find. I remember that. Google was going to have multiple form factors matching the most popular options on the market at the time. Reminds me of 2002 when Microsoft entered the smartphone business by offering PDA class devices and candybar devices (because that was what was popular at the time.) Google and Microsoft are platform vendors, they are not dedicated to redefining the whole concepts of what a phone is.

  • austin

    horace, this is why i love your stuff. i never would have thought of it this way but after reading the analogy it makes perfect sense. keep up the good work.

  • A splendid analogy. Using the word "killer" to describe a product intended to mount a serious assault sometimes reveals misplaced focus resulting in flawed strategy.

  • AlleyGator

    I would have thought this was obvious to anybody who has even seen a demo of the iPad, but it's even more obvious that hardware manufacturers don't get it with the junk they're releasing. The iPad, like everything else Apple has created, is a miracle of software and not an amalgamation of hardware.

    A form factor is not a product. Hardware companies will never be able to compete against a software company on software.

  • Gandhi

    This post is a great synthesis and must read for any executive wanting to go on the offensive against a strong competitor. When you wish to compete, assess the competition's core strength and the competitor leverages the core strength in to making money. Then attack where the competitor makes money, not where the competitor's core strength lies.

    In other words, if you are going to attack Google, go after their advertising platform like Apple did, not Google's search engine like Microsoft attempted and failed at.

  • Mark Hernandez

    Worth repeating: Brilliant.

  • Mark Sigal

    Doesn’t it get a little tiring how often so-called experts confuse attributes with outcomes, as if a world-class restaurant is defined solely by ingredients, and not recipes, execution of the recipe, service of the wait staff and the environs that combine together in a more than the sum of the parts fashion to create a memorable “experience.”

    • arjun_

      Exactly, it isn't just Apple or RIM. Competitors to most leaders attempt to replicate what is seen on the surface and expect similar outcomes.

      Also, while there are advantages to firing salvos, most successful attacks to unseat incumbents are stealth attacks. Quietly prepare yourself and THEN launch. I think it was DF that had a post or a link to someone else's on setting yourself up for failure by announcing what you WILL do 10 months from now and then being held to that standard. Why not quietly iterate and announce when it is ready, it makes for a much more pleasant surprise.

      • Possibly because it is much easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk…

  • Horace, you're right about the Blackberry killers though I'll take my Nokia E71 over a Blackberry any day.

    Horace's commenters – you're forgetting all the HTC re-branded XDAs and other large touch screen WinMob devices and the SE P Series touch screen phones that were out before the iPhone or perhaps just not aware of them being that your US carriers didn't carry them. The iPhone killed these off. It's the perfect counter example to Horace's article where somebody launched a 'killer' and it actually was better than the original product it was meant to kill.

    • asymco

      The products that failed at the hand of iPhone (mostly Windows Mobile) were not entrenched because of a great asymmetric service. They were themselves attempts to unseat the established voice phone franchise (Nokia mostly). And they did not succeed because they were just attempts at making flavored beer. In the end traditional beer won the beer market. RIM and Apple came with new business models that were not exactly breweries.

  • Horace, I think you did not quite drive the train of thought far enough here. After all at least to me it's pretty obvious that RIM has been disrupted and it's not mainly by Apple. Let me split my answer in three pieces (I'll try to keep your analogy along, let's see how it works):

    1) So, how did the disruption happen if not through killers? The barkeeper got disrupted by McDonalds. McDonalds figured that why should anyone go to a bar AND a McDonalds when they could just stay at one place. No one gets fired for going to McDonalds, right? So, they decided to sell burgers and what nots with really cheap beer. Not as good, but really cheap. It turned out people didn't actually want to drink beer out of the McDonalds paper mugs. So, they eventually partnered with glass ware manufacturers and agreed, that you can bring your own glass to show your personality etc and use that for your beer at any McDonalds. And with an increasing pace people going to McDonalds started drinking the not-as-good beer from the fancy glasses, eventually causing the main business of thr bar keeper to run out. Nowadays the barkeeper is trying to franchise the bar concept to sell juice alongside residential roads, let's see if that's sustainable. The point: The disruption did not come from one company per se but rather an ecosystem.

    2) So, why did the Killers not prevail faster? Simple, Inertia. The solution,ActiveSync, was there for quite some time and likely even in the product Horace was asked to review. People just did not know about it, were afraid, did not know how to use it and so on. But from a functionality point of view little has actually changed with ActiveSync in the past five years and from what I hear it's doing well, backed by pretty much every device vendor, apart from RIM. It seems to prevail, even if it's a harder to set up, harder for operators to sell, less feature rich solution. MSFT just needed partner to do what they've done before, make it cheaper.

    3) So, what makes Apple live and where is their disruption comming from? This is to me the most interesting question. The RIM example showed that you can get disrupted by a cheaper, less organized ecosystem, rather than just a company. More open disrupted the closed. Could this also work in disrupting Apple? I'll exaggerate a bit to make a point, I hope I don't offend anyone. Apple is closed ecosystem, they take in stuff from others (like the ActiveSync) but don't really give out much (like iTunes). So the current AppStore app experince becomes typically very unintegrated. Apps don't work too well together or with the core apps of Apple (skype<->address book<-> facebook type of interaction). The experience is also, despite MobileMe and Apple TV, pretty single screen. This brings me to think if you could build a more open lives-in-the-cloud OS that would not be as smooth but would be available from more devices. HTC Sense, MSFT Kin, Sidekick and to some extent Google seem to all be going in that directions. Your contacts, SMSs, Pics are available to you everywhere if you so wish, and pretty much everything is built around social rather than social being built around everything. Anyway, this is not something that would be rady yet or will not be for the next five years. It took 10 years for RIMs competition to catch up, and I guess Apple follows the same timeline.

    • asymco

      I don't necessarily agree that RIM has been disrupted. My most recent thoughts on RIM are here:

      It's not a clear verdict. It's still the simplest solution for messaging of all kinds and that' s great, low end business.

      When you write about disruption of Apple, I assume you mean disruption of iPhone. My bet is that the source of that disruption will come from Apple itself. Most probably through something like the iPod touch. Cloud-based technologies are disruptive to software licensing businesses. They can be sustaining to hardware based businesses. The devices still need to be in use and they do wear out rather quickly when they are handheld.

      • No, I was really thinking about the iOS / iTunes ecosystem (native apps, download music, own, sync information). For OSX I think Apple will disrupt that eventually them selves with the iPad continuation.

        My assumption here was that you could provide a radically different experience across multiple devices with a cloud based approach. Fundamentally changing your device from master to slave. And I assume that you can't really tweak anything existing through this change.

      • asymco

        The iDevice ecosystem is adapting rather well to the cloud. Both in terms of content and configuration. The key has been MobileMe. I believe that their core businesses are not threatened by cloud services.

      • airmanchairman

        There's this big honking DataCentre slowly taking shape in North Carolina that says "don't bet on the Cloud leaving Cupertino behind".

        The Infinite Loop is already heading skywards…

        LOOK OUT!

  • Following someone else's lead is rarely a path to winning.
    Everyone thinks they can pull this off because of the Wintel market-share triumph over Apple in 90's.
    However, this was an exception and Apple today is not the same as Apple of the 80's and 90's.

    These carrier specified phones (and services) are doomed to 2nd class citizenship. Carriers mistake their "billing relationship" with "customer intimacy" or "product expertise".


  • Danthemason

    For Limbaugh the phrase of choice is "Dittos". It means what everyone else has said previously in praise.