As often happens in the technology business, what matters to suppliers does not register nearly so much with consumers. Consider operating systems for smartphones.
Most consumers probably don't know much about the software running on their phone, and most probably don't know which operating system they might be using, or why it might matter to them.
Historically, product strategists have focused on industrial design, and that still matters.
Apple’s iPhone (News - Alert) changed phone design, but perhaps its most revolutionary impact was in software. First, in a platform that developers could exploit to create an explosion of new experiences, and second in software that made the phone’s features easily accessible.
The advent of mobile app stores, and their growing importance as a core part of the value any single handset represents, is one example of the new importance applications are playing.
Google's Android initiative likewise is part of Google's awareness that the mobile market is strategic and crucial for its future relevance.
Nokia remains the global smartphone market share leader but has seen its share slip as its Symbian (News - Alert) platform struggles to deliver an experience on par with Apple and other competitors. It invested in an entirely new Linux-based platform, called Maemo, for its high-end devices, and it has now merged this platform with Intel’s (News - Alert) Linux-based Moblin platform to produce MeeGo.
HP’s acquisition of Palm gives it entry into the smartphone business as well, with Palm's webOS seen as key to creating value around HP mobile devices through applications.
That doesn't mean consumers see matters the same way. Forrester (News - Alert) Research surveyed 30,452 US mobile-phone-owning adults. Nearly half of the respondents who said that their phone used either Windows Mobile or Android got it wrong, as that characterization contradicted either their phone brand or mobile operator response. This includes the 13 percent who said that their phone used both operating systems and the one in six iPhone and BlackBerry owners who said that their device used one or both of these platforms (Windows or Android).
None of that might matter. Users probably only care about application richness. Consumers, operators and handset makers increasingly focus on the number and selection of applications that are available to add to their phones, while brands are investing in applications as well.
Golvin thinks consumers’ confusion about platforms will translate into confusion about applications, though some might disagree. Most people know nothing about the mechanics of their TVs, cars or other appliances and it doesn't seem to stop them from using the devices and choosing between models based on the end user features.
Buit Golvin thinks the number of different platforms the major operators support will introduce confusion. One example is a situation where a consumer on one platform buys a new device using a different platform. A customer who has invested money and time in learning how to use applications on one platform might be confused and unhappy if those same apps and experiences are not available on the new device.
That could lead to churn, Golvin argues, if users decide they really don't want to invest time to learn how to use the new device and environment, or lose some key functionality they had on the device that was replaced.
Product strategists at mobile operators, handset makers, and any brand engaging with its customers through mobile applications need to have confidence that their customers can easily discover, purchase and use the applications designed for their phone’s platform.
Likewise, customers are heavily influenced in their buying decisions by operators’ subsidies, promotions and marketing, which may have little to do with the manufacturer’s brand. There therefore is some danger that all the work and effort brands put into their devices might be outweighed by operator marketing of other devices and platforms, Golvin says.
Also, consumers likely are familiar with the idea that popular apps will run on any platform, and that can cause dissatisfaction as well.
The bottom line is that the entire ecosystem has to work together to avoid such potential end user confusion, Golvin says. One might argue that Apple and RIM are most insulated, as there is a uniformity about each of their devices, apps and features that are relatively independent of operator choices.
Android and Microsoft arguably are most exposed, as their apps and features can be modified by each handset manufacturer. A corollary is that some handsets using Android or Windows Mobile do not highlight those facts consistently enough to add the brand luster the application environments can add, Golvin argues.
Retailers can help or hinder matters depending on how they explain the importance and relevance of an operating system environment during the buying process.
Operating systems probably aren't a big deal for most end users, but the applications environment clearly is. Though every participant in the ecosystem obviously wants to emphasize its own brand and role in the ecosystem, more attention should be paid to highlighting, on a consistent basis, the applications environment ("what can you do with it?") that end users do care about, generally more than the details of operating system, manufacturer or even service provider in many cases. Gary Kim (News - Alert) is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Beecher Tuttle