No One Buys Cellphones Anymore

There was a day when it was relatively simple to buy a cellphone.  Back in the “olden days” of pre-2008, cellphone features were generally limited to talk, text and email.  Then along came Apple.

Apple ushered in a fully integrated mobile ecosystem consisting of sophisticated smartphones connected to ubiquitous wireless broadband networks that provided anytime/anywhere access to large repositories of mobile-optimized content that could be used by a plethora of third-party apps that were all purchased through an easy-to-use mobile commerce platform.

After the release of the Apple ecosystem, millions of consumers stopped buying “cellphones” and started buying mobile ecosystems.  Google, Nokia, RIM and Microsoft were quick to take note of this and follow with ecosystems of their own.   None of these ecosystems, however, were designed to be interoperable.  Once you bought into one ecosystem, you were more or less tied to that ecosystem with little ability to easily cross from one to another.

As the various ecosystems matured, they acquired value-added features that did two things: 1) Made the ecosystems more powerful and of greater value.  2) Tightened the ecosystem’s grip on the end-user, which made the movement to another ecosystem even more difficult.  Apple’s iCloud service, which is built upon the Apple ecosystem, is a perfect example of this.

The iCloud service coupled with Apple’s core ecosystem enables music, photos, videos, books, apps, notes, contacts, calendars, reminders, mail, bookmarks, etc. to be wirelessly and seamlessly synchronized across a user’s full complement of Apple devices.  With iCloud, just make a note, reminder, appointment, etc. on one device and it shows up on all Apple devices that are linked to the same iCloud account.  It does this seamlessly and without any user intervention.

I’ve been using the Apple ecosystem since 2008 and have become very dependent on its many features.  However when Apple failed to include NFC in the iPhone 5, I was forced to move away from the iPhone in order to get an NFC-enabled smartphone to support my business’ NFC focus.

I chose to try the new Windows 8 Mobile ecosystem.  I selected the Windows 8 platform for two reasons: 1) It represented the latest in mobile-centric technology. 2) Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, had publically expressed strong support for NFC deployments.

I, therefore, bought a Microsoft Surface tablet to replace my iPad and a Nokia Lumia 920 smartphone to replace my iPhone 5.  I did not, however, replace my 27” iMac or my 13” MacBook Pro Retina with Windows 8 devices.   I chose to delay replacing these items until after completing a thorough test of the Windows 8 mobile experience.  Let’s face it; I wanted to be sure that I was making the right decision before laying out the big bucks.

The following is what I learned about moving from one ecosystem to another.

I began my transition to the Windows 8 ecosystem by enthusiastically embracing Microsoft’s Surface tablet.  Right out of the gate, I was particularly impressed with the Surface’s detachable keyboard.  I also liked the keyboard’s ability to control the on-screen cursor.  The keyboard’s touch pad was far more pleasant for directing cursor movement than continually reaching for and then touching the screen, which is the case with many iPad add-on keyboards.

In terms of a Windows smartphone, I chose the Nokia Lumia 920.  After several weeks of using it, I am a strong advocate of this device.  It feels great in my hand, the larger screen is terrific and the look and usability of the Windows Mobile 8 Live Tiles is both aesthetically and functionally superior, in my opinion, to the iPhone’s folder metaphor.  The Lumia 920 made my iPhone 5 feel small and uncomfortable to hold – this despite the fact that I thought I’d never like a larger phone.

I was not, however, pleased with the inventory of available apps for my 920.  That, of course, is not Nokia’s fault, but a likely consequence of the newness of the Windows 8 platform as well as the slowness of some developers to embrace Windows.  Unfortunately, some of my most frequently used apps were not available in the Windows app store, which was a major frustration.  Herein lies one of the first lessons of switching ecosystems: Some of your favorite apps may not be available.

Of those apps that were available, the aesthetics were generally fantastic.  The same, however, cannot be said, about their usability. While the aesthetics of the Windows 8 apps were generally far superior to those of iPhone apps, most apps presented information in a less intuitive manner.  Many of these Windows apps required a lot of swiping between screens to locate the desired content.  This was a marked contrast to Apple’s menu-oriented, list-centric approach to presenting content.  Herein lies the second lesson of switching ecosystems: Your favorite apps may not function as you expect or desire.

I found that Apple and Microsoft take two very different approaches to delivering their core services.  Apple anchors its ecosystem on the iTunes application, which positions digital content, such as music and videos, as the focal point of the engagement experience.  Microsoft anchors its ecosystem on Xbox Live, which is a cloud-based service that positions gaming as the focal point of the user experience.  Since I’m not a gamer, the Xbox live experience felt foreign to me.  Herein lies the third lesson of switching ecosystems: The ecosystem itself may not feel comfortable to navigate.

Unfortunately, registering with the Microsoft Xbox Live service proved to be difficult.  I chose to use a credit card to register my account, but every card that I entered was rejected as invalid. I contacted the Microsoft support line for assistance, but they could neither debug nor correct the problem.  I finally just gave up and registered my account using PayPal. Herein lies the fourth lesson of switching ecosystems: You may not experience the same level of customer support with which you’ve become accustomed.

Once registered, I found the Xbox Live user experience to be less intuitive than that of Apple’s iTunes platform.  In the Apple ecosystem, iTunes functions as the conduit for acquiring and managing all of your audio and video content  — regardless of the device being used.  In the Microsoft ecosystem, the process of acquiring and managing content varied by device.  Acquiring content on the phone involved a different process/app than acquiring content on the tablet.    Herein lies the fifth lesson of switching ecosystems: Navigating the core features of the ecosystem across multiple devices may not be consistent.

In the Apple world, your entire content library is stored locally.  The local storage of content is great if you are without an Internet connection and want to have unrestricted access to your complete content library.  The Microsoft service is largely cloud-based. You can download content such as a song or video, but you’ll have to build your local library on your phone or tablet one item at a time unless you sync them with your PC’s existing content repository. Unfortunately, the process of syncing with your PC’s existing repository requires the use of another application, which adds complexity to the process.  Herein lies the sixth lesson of switching ecosystems: The process for acquiring and managing content may be fundamentally different across devices.

One of the advantages of the Apple ecosystem is that many forms of content purchased or created on one Apple device can be seamlessly synchronized across multiple Apple devices.  In the Microsoft world, I did not find the same level of content synchronization.  Some content elements such as calendars, mail, and calendars easily synchronize across devices without user intervention, but automatic synchronization of other types of content such as music, books, apps, etc. was not an inherent feature of the Microsoft ecosystem.  Herein lies the seventh lesson of switching ecosystems: Automatic content synchronization across multiple devices may be limited or may require the use of third-party devices.

Some applications in the Apple ecosystem, such as iMessage, were proprietary to Apple and were not available in the Microsoft ecosystem and visa versa.  Herein lies the eighth lesson of switching ecosystems:  You may be forced to abandon well-loved applications that are proprietary to a specific ecosystem.

The ninth lesson learned about switching ecosystems was this:  The value of an ecosystem is maximized when all devices (e.g. smartphones, tablets, desktop PC’s, notebook PC’s) are homogenous, which means all devices within the ecosystem have the same operating system (e.g. iOS, Microsoft, Android) and/or use the same supporting applications.  Introduce a new device that disrupts this homogeneity and the ecosystem’s value decreases – sometimes significantly.

Conclusions

In summary, a decreasing number of consumers are buying cellphones just for their ability to talk, text and email.  Most are buying cellphones for their ability to facilitate the purchase and/or delivery of a broad range of learning, entertainment and social experiences.  But, it is not the cellphone alone that is making all of this possible.  It is the ecosystem with which the cellphone is aligned that is facilitating these new experiences.

Once a consumer adopts and then becomes immersed within a given ecosystem, it becomes very difficult to disengage any element of that ecosystem without severely diminishing its value.   This leads one to ask a very big question: Is there any way to avoid ecosystem lock-in without losing the value of having an ecosystem?  The answer is “yes”, but the average consumer is not likely to adopt this apporach because it’s complex.

A consumer can build their own ecosystem consisting of third party applications and services.  For example, rather than buy music from iTunes (Apple) or Xbox Live (Microsoft), the consumer can buy their content from third parties such as Spotify.  Books can be bought from Amazon.  Notes can be managed via Evernote.  Bookmarks can managed through Xmarks.  Videos can be bought through Hulu.  On and on it goes.

The final question is this: How many consumers will construct a personalize ecosystem?  I think the answer is not many.  So the tenth and final lesson is this: Most consumers will chose an ecosystem based upon the look, feel and feature-set of their first smartphone.  Once they begin to heavily engage with the ecosystem, they will be locked.

Post Script

I have since returned to Apple as my chosen ecosystem.  Since I still need NFC and don’t prefer to add an NFC-enabled slip-case to my iPhone, the Nokia 920 is now my secondary phone.  It was just too much of a hassle to move ecosystems and the sacrifices were just too great!  I long for Apple to adopt NFC, which rumor has they will do this time around.

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