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The Android (in)adequacy: How to tell if a platform is good enough

About 10 years ago I met an advertising executive in New York who explained the difficulty of advertising a new brand of deodorant to consumers. “Most people never change their deodorant,” I remember him saying. “They pick one brand when they are young, and stick with it for a long, long time. If it works, why switch?”

The same theory can be applied to customers who are making the switch to smartphones today. Once they have picked a type of phone, whether it’s Apple iOS, Google Android or something else, it’s difficult, and often expensive, to switch. Consumers become comfortable with the interface and design of the phone and the apps they have purchased on that platform. If it works, why switch?

Many Smartphone Customers Are Still Up for Grabs – NYTimes.com

This quote says a lot. The notion that customers remain captive to a platform is well understood. After all, it seems impossible to get people to switch out of Windows (or Mac or iPod). Platform vendors are aware of this as the land grab for users seems to be running at full pitch.

However, there is a critical condition described in the quote above: “If it works, why switch?”  The condition which keeps users loyal is that the product they chose is good enough–i.e. “it works.” That’s a symptom of over-service and commoditization. If a product, like deodorant, is good enough you won’t be tempted to move to another brand even if it’s marginally better since the new brand has switching costs in the form of uncertainties (“Will it be as good? What if I don’t like the smell? etc.) People are inherently conservative and you can’t compete with comfort and familiarity by launching a marginally better product.

So with that in mind, why is it that millions are switching mobile platforms?In this blog I’ve cataloged the massive shifts occurring away from mobile platforms that have been around for years with deeply entrenched user bases. Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, Nokia’s Symbian, Palm’s PalmOS and RIM’s Blackberry have collectively lost tens of millions of users. A net of half a million Blackberries are being abandoned in the US every month.

So we would need to say that the condition of “it works” or being good enough was not met with those platforms. The attraction of something better is clearly greater than the switching cost.

So this highlights a good test for how to tell if smartphones are good enough: If users are fiercely loyal with a given platform then it’s probably good enough but if they are willing to switch (i.e. disloyal) then it’s probably not good enough. It seems like a trivial observation but it’s a very important clue to the bigger question of whether we can “call the end” of the market. Just like it would have been premature to call the end in 2006 when Symbian and RIM seemed unbeatable, it will seem premature to call the end now in the event that a significant innovation is yet to appear.

The correct calling of the end has profound investment implications. Do you (like Microsoft) invest billions in a new platform if you know that there is no more room for entrants? Should Samsung bother with Bada or HP with WebOS if the game is already over? Even more, should Apple even bother to improve iOS if they have no shot at switching a billion likely Android adopters. Why not just nurture the current installed base and work on building walls and moats around them?

So with this hypothesis in mind, it makes sense to analyze whether Android or iOS, the current presumed champions, are “good enough” on the basis of how often users switch out of them. My bet is that neither is good enough and that there will be increasing churn between platforms. I imagine that Android is less sticky (and hence less than good enough) based on app consumption but there is little evidence of churn because most phones in use have been bought less than one device generation ago. More importantly, there have been few opportunities yet for switching as many Android buyers don’t even have the choice of other platforms either due to where they live or how much income they have available.

To really tell where we stand, we would need to collect stats on switchers to know just how satisfactory the platforms may be. Remember that a choice of a new deodorant on the same shelf at nearly the same price is the test for loyalty. For an adequacy test we need to see better distribution and more choices for consumers. It’s still very early even in the US for any conclusions to be drawn about the adequacy of Android.