Revolutionary User Interfaces

A few years ago, around the middle of the last decade, the mobile phone market was characterized by the rivalry between a few established vendors. These were Nokia, Samsung, LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson. These incumbent companies had a broad portfolio of devices including smartphones and feature phones and basic phones. Many also sold networking equipment and were deeply engaged with their customers, network operators.

There was also a set of entrants who offered only smartphones.  They were quirky. HTC was a a prominent “ODM” or original design manufacturer who built phones for companies who added their brands and sold and supported the product. HTC made phones and PDAs for operator brands and for some large PC companies. It also began to sell phones under its own brand. RIM was also offering products that had evolved from pagers into email appliances with added voice capabilities. But RIM’s products were not very good as phones. Voice was so poorly integrated that many people carried both a BlackBerry and a voice phone. Then there was Palm with something called a Treo which promised many things but did not quite deliver.

In 2007 something happened which changed the industry. It took a few years to even realize it was happening but by the time it was obvious, it had changed to such a degree that huge companies found themselves in financial distress. This chart illustrates the effect.

In a few short years the rivalry between incumbent handset makers has evolved into a rivalry between mobile platforms where the incumbents were caught in an increasingly unprofitable role of hardware integrators. Motorola is now being absorbed by a search company. Sony Ericsson is being absorbed into a consumer electronics company. Nokia is going through a potentially existential crisis and even abandoned its platform. Acquisition talk surrounds LG’s phone efforts. Samsung is prosperous but sill at the mercy of its software suppliers. Even the entrants are starting to feel beleaguered. RIM, the oldest pure play smartphone company is trading below book value and has regressed in value to 2004 levels. Palm evaporated. A view into the changes is the rankings of the companies in terms of volumes, sales and profit as shown below.

How did large, powerful, smart companies let this happen?

It happened despite having a clear, front row view of the transition of the industry from mobile voice to mobile computing. The shift in the basis of competition from “connecting people” to “connecting people to data” ended up being a classic disruptive trap. Many will argue that it was the failing of individual managers. Perhaps, but how did they conspire to fail simultaneously?

When you see disruption happening, it’s natural to seek out a cause, a pivotal magical “force” or event that enabled the weak to humble the strong–the proverbial sling that enabled David to defeat Goliath.

My hypothesis is that The Primary Cause for the shift of profits from Incumbents to Entrants has been the disruptive impact of a new input method. I illustrated this with the help of the January 2007 slide presented by Steve Jobs at the launch of iPhone.

Each new input method led to not just a disruption but new platforms and new business models. Each new “sling” victimized a set of historic companies. Mainframe and minicomputers, consumer electronics giants and now telecoms.

Just like David’s sling, these technologies are not powerful in and of themselves, but rather, the way they are used makes them unpredictably sinister. The context of using capacitive touch on a handheld device rather than on a table-top makes it disruptive. Coupling it with high-speed mobile networks and powerful but efficient microprocessors made it into a force.

That is now ancient history. The consequences and repercussions are still being felt and weighed, but the smart money should be focusing on the next shift. From the time frame in the diagram above, it’s clear that the cycle time between “Revolutionary User Interfaces” is shrinking. It’s been five years since multi-touch. Is the next “RUI” already here? Is Siri the next RUI?

There are many things going for it:

  1. It’s not good enough
  2. There are many smart people who are disappointed by it
  3. Competitors are dismissive
  4. It does not need a traditional, expensive smartphone to run but it uses a combination of local and cloud computing to solve the user’s problem.
  5. It is, in a word, asymmetric.
My disruptive hypothesis for Siri is that it shifts the competition from platforms positioned on a device to a “coupled” super-platform dependent on broadband and infrastructural computing.
Just after collecting enough data and observing patterns in it that give us clarity, It looks like things are about to change all over again.