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The parable of the the PDA: predicting the smartphone's future

When reading the comments disputing the possible end of the voice-phone era I’m reminded of similar comments disputing the end of the PDA era.

Although the Apple Newton pioneered the market in 1992 and John Sculley came up with the acronym, the Newton did not sell in significant volumes. It wasn’t until 1997 with the Palm Pilot that the PDA market took off. Microsoft quickly followed with a licensed OS based on Windows CE. In 2001 Microsoft launched the Pocket PC brand to cement its attack on the PDA market. The first phones using a Microsoft OS were using something called Pocket PC Phone Edition. The first Nokia smartphones (Communicators) were built like mobile PDAs.

The logic was quite compelling. The original PDA was built to mobilize contacts, calendars and notes. They replaced bulky paper organizers and seamlessly synced to PC productivity software like Outlook. It was a compelling product in the US where small business customers needed to keep track of hundreds of contacts. Users could even ‘beam’ contacts to each other via infrared. The idea of adding a phone function to the device made sense insofar as contacts could be immediately dialed from the contact app rather than typed into another device’s phone keypad.

By the early 2000’s PDAs were forecast to sell by the hundreds of millions. There were millions of dedicated users who downloaded apps and thousands of developers being courted by platform builders. Palm even invented the word “ecosystem” as it refers to mobile platforms.

However, I remember reading sites dedicated to this community and there were many people who rejected the concept of a PDA with an integrated mobile phone. They liked the fact that the PDA was not bundled with a phone plan. They upgraded PDAs in a different cycle from phones and besides, phones are for talking and PDAs were for something else.  It was even more difficult to justify the conflation of the two products when considering the corporate purchasing of PDAs. PDAs were procured by IT departments and phones came with contracts that were managed by a different department.

What’s a device vendor to do? The most avid customers of PDAs did not like the idea of burdening the product with a phone. RIM was doing its thing with moving pagers to include voice, but that was a different job to be done. The story is picked up here by this comment:

I was hired by RIM in 1999 just before they began work on their first phone …. Coming from a two-way pager background, RIM decided that phones should have two-way push synchronization of pretty much everything that Exchange provided along with a limited WML browser. The general thought was that phones would never have sufficient power density or radios sufficient bandwidth to allow anything more. That was incredibly predictably wrong, but it’s how things went down.

Along with RIM was Ericsson, Palm, Motorola, and Qualcomm. Motorola came from a similar background as RIM and went on to build very similar devices. Both Nokia and Ericsson had come from phones and had decided feature phones should have far more sophisticated PDA functions. Palm started with PDAs then moved to the phones, but adamantly dismissed ideas like wireless synchronization for years making their first attempts at smart phone far more like early Nokia Communicators than early Blackberrys…

So the point is that all these companies were fighting over what amounts to overgrown PDAs with phones and wireless stacks strapped on. Everyone assumed power density was no where even close to what was needed for general computing, that a full featured browser and heavy duty Internet services were impossible due to bandwidth and latency. Take a look at how our Java expert groups named standards, how people at the time talked about what features smart phones should have, and its clear that no one thought an iPhone was possible. Even Danger, which eventually went on to work on to create Windows Phone 7 and Android, was just working on a better Blackberry.

via: shacknews

But what does this have to do with the future of voice-phones?

The problem is that the vendors that lost this game failed because they listened to their customers. Like with PDAs or with the original mobile phones or first generation of PCs, early adopters are not the audience that should be consulted on how to improve the product.

Early Windows Mobile users were ecstatic about the platform and rejected new UI metaphors because they wanted a “mobile Windows”. Palm fans stuck with the PalmOS even though it was well past its shelf date in the Treo because they treasured the original PDA metaphors.

Every company paying attention to the market in 2005 would have been eagerly pursuing corporate buyers of PDAs and aiming complex products at enthusiastic PDA users.

And yet, non-consumers should also not be trusted with their opinions. Most early surveys would show that the vast majority of consumers found that mobile phones were not good value for the money. Later the same audience would declare that smartphones were not worth buying.

There are many voice-only users in the world who are happy with their products and not interested in any new options.

So what’s a marketer to do?

If you can’t ask early adopters and you can’t ask non-consumers for hints then where can clues be found?

What history shows is that consumers have been happy to trade up to technology that offers more option value.

  • Television went from cheap/free over-the-air broadcast with limited channel options to expensive cable with large option value in channels. Even if most of those options went unused, they are still valued.
  • Telephony went from low cost reliable landlines to high cost, less reliable but with much more option valuable mobility. Having the option to call a person vs. calling a place (where a person might be) changed the calculation of whether you make the call. Calling became much more popular.
  • Data as well went from metered dialup to unmetered high option valued broadband. From a luxury, to the least likely service an unemployed user might give up.
  • Emerging market users hungered for mobile phones even though they cost more than several months’ wages because they gave access to information and increased the option value of their labor.

Each of these huge technology transitions came associated with increased costs for the consumer, but that cost went toward the purchase of a far larger option value.

The problem is that users cannot calculate option value in their minds when faced with a market research questionnaire. How can they envision all the ways they would use a new product they’ve never used before? How can they “get it” without observing it in use or spending time thinking of “how they would use it” or asking someone who tried it? In a nutshell, users are willing to pay for option value but can’t envision or quantify this value without observing a finished, polished product in use.

This is the problem faced today by branded phone vendors. Asking or observing current users of smartphones does not provide any incentive to sell low end versions. Asking or observing non-consumers seems to indicate no interest in newfangled complex or costly products.

But the calculus that must be made is one of option value. Does the new product offer significant option value? Will this option value be easily realized? This is not easy to determine, but it’s a method that is far more promising than asking users their opinion.

The PDA was not a product that was introduced by the incumbent computer vendors because their customers did not ask for it. Once established, the PDA was not replaced by a product that PDA users asked for either.

Smartphones are following this well trodden path. The high end devices are evolving into computer replacements nobody asked for (but everybody will use). The low end products are adding data option value to voice-oriented users who never asked for anything more.