Category: Mobile Strategy

The Mobile Platform Trap

BearTrap_01-1000x1000Caught in The Platform Trap:
– Our humble contributor asks, “How did I get here? And how do I get out?”

Somehow, as fate would have it, I became a Mac person. It was all-unintentional, but here I am. But that’s just a precursor to a real issue that I became more starkly aware of recently. So, just to get you up to speed:

Induction Phase 1: Smartphone:
It all started, like most, with my purchase of an iPhone 4 in 2010. I was a Blackberry holdout at this time – in love with my QWERTY and my BBM community. The iPhone 3G was a nice salvo to the tech industry, but the 4 really set the stage for Apple’s vision for how mobile communications would advance into a more ubiquitous ecosystem. The iPhone was the new cool phone to have, and being a mobile marketing professional it made practical sense for me to be using the very thing that provided the framework for what it was I was advocating at the time. I kept my Blackberry 9000 clutched in my hand for 2 years after this – walking around with two devices. Once this became too problematic (and BB failed to get itself up to par with Apple) I weepingly ditched my qwerty and officially became an iPhone user (Fade in violins).

Induction Phase 2: Laptop:
The iPhone’s compatibility with my Toshiba laptop was not an issue for me – and having used PCs for over a decade I was still very comfortable with the Windows OS feel and organizational logic. I was hard-wired for the Windows OS – and I was fine. Last year when I was in my initial discussions with WWD&S about coming aboard, one of the partners, snickered at me during one of our meetings, “so, you ready to be Mac guy?”. It didn’t strike me until that moment that they were a Mac-based office. “Uh, I guess so”. I saw her smiling at me – my expression looking like the host of a dinner party just asked me if I would like to try the fried liverwurst and gorgonzola rolls. Two months later when I officially came on board, we explored the option of letting me keep my Toshiba, but it soon became obvious that the workaround was not optimal for a whole host of reasons (interconnectivity, file-sharing, OS incompatibility, network issues, etc.). So I relented and they equipped me with a new MacBook Air. I’ll concede it’s a gorgeous machine. In the Apple tradition, their total control over the box and software makes for a lovely integration of form and function. I’m still getting used to the OS (I jumped in at Mountain Lion, so I didn’t have to work off any of the UX/UI paradigm shifts that some of my stalwart Mac users reported). In getting used the new OS environment, I would describe the re-mapping of my brain like going from working inside a structured grid made of silicate (Windows 7), to working inside of a room made of gelatin (OS ML). Every nuance now has this rounded-edge feel, and the navigational dynamics are more fluid and “gooey” than Windows. It’s been a strange experience and my brain still wants to find files, store documents, switch applications and move around the Windows way. Anyway, perhaps more on that some other time.

Induction Phase 3: Tablet:
WWD&S recently had a Holiday party, and one of the gifts for the staff was an iPad mini. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of this – and really excited, as I held off on getting a tablet while I waited to see which one would be best option in the array of new ones coming into the market. So, now, here I was, firmly placed with the entire Apple user ecosystem. All of my devices synced to my iCloud content and my iTunes account/library, all of my devices receiving the same iMessage at the same time (which results in a very strange moment: which one do I use to respond? And, what made me choose that one? A weird experience for sure).

Trapped:
So, here I am. A fully ensconced Mac person. Surrounded by Apple’s 360 consumer offering. And much like riding around for the first few weeks in a new brand of car (like when my Pop went from GM to Acura), I found myself making some attitude adjustments when I opened up the Mac in public – embracing myself as a Mac person. But then something else happened: At CES in January, I took some time to peruse the Samsung exhibit area – and played around with their new selection of Galaxy phone and Tablets (Phablets?). I was taken in by some of the innovations that Samsung is loading into these devices – and started thinking, “hey, this may be a good option”. But it struck me. I’m stuck now. I have all of my stuff in iTunes, iCloud, iMessage, iThis iThat, and migrating to a new “platform” would be a royal pain in the ass. Which forced me to ask: Would it be worth the effort? Do I love these new Android features so much that I would be willing to extricate myself from this nicely organized (well, most of the time) soft-OS world? The answer was no. It wasn’t. So I walked on and made my way to the LG booth, feeling kind of dejected and defeated over that realization.

Cost of Migration:
This puts me square into the conundrum that both consumers and the big platforms are wrestling with: The Platform Trap.
This of course is not just my experience. Apple and Google and Facebook (and now Microsoft and maybe even Blackberry) are long past selling products or devices. They sell platforms and ecosystems, designed specifically to create indispensability. These platforms “require” total immersion in a controlled system of tools in order to gain the full benefit of the preferred platform. The idea is pretty simple – and it’s getting harder and harder for consumers to make sense of. For example, Google smartly created Gmail way back in the Stone Age, and now has established a huge base of users: 288 million unique Globally and 80 million domestically. This was the beginning of Google’s plan to create ubiquity and drive users to link up to all of Google’s other services – Google Docs (now Drive), Google Calendar, Maps, etc. For those who selected Android as their mobile platform of choice, the Google app integrations were a seamless experience – and only further promoted the cementing of those users into Google’s eco-system. But what about iPhone users like me? For us, there are options, but we are not getting the full value of the Google app offerings while stuck inside of the Apple world. Sure, Apple has created their own versions of each of these tools, and some are inferior – so we are forced to work in a fragmented world, patching together a series of tools based on familiarity and paths of least resistance. God forbid a better mousetrap comes along that is not compatible, and we are left with being left out – and resentful of this rut we have been wedged into without our consent.

Open Source or Closed Gate?
This issue gets even more complicated when we layer in the different approaches that these platform giants take when it comes to their systems. Apple is a notoriously over-controlling landlord, and has strict rules as to how users can personalize, customize and change their devices (simple: they can’t). This approach was driven by Jobs’ vision that Apple knows how to best manage their world, users are going to be thrilled with their choices and all will be good on the planet. And as they do a great job for the most part, the majority of their users are satisfied with Apple’s governing style. Google took the opposite approach: Lets create a world that anyone can modify, personalize and customize. Lets let developers use our world as a playground and work with users to make the best end-result. This has its obvious benefits as well as some annoying issues: crappy apps fill the store, OS fragmentation is rife – wreaking havoc on the consumers choices and options, and the experience is inconsistent. But it’s really innovative. But they are still stuck.

Who loses?
These platform firewalls are only getting more defined, and as more and more device choices come to market, and consumers are lured into considering their options, its getting harder and harder to keep hold on brand loyalty. So who pays the price?
1) We do. If we are committed to a device, we are going to see things in the market that we cannot have or take full advantage of – be left peering into to the store window with our faces pressed up to the glass looking at cool stuff that we just can’t use. And if we want to make the jump from OS to OS, we will have to endure the pain of migration: like switching banks, tantamount to root canal surgery. So, as the market matures, and newer cooler and more functional stuff comes online, we will all be forced into this position at some point.
2) The Platforms do. I am sure that Google, Apple and their ilk are all snickering and hand wringing over this grand scheme that they have perpetrated but they lose, too. While they maintain retention (and mind you, retention and loyalty are not the same thing – I am not “loyal” if I am trapped), they lose opportunities for growth. Within a year, everyone will own a smartphone, an by virtue of their device selection they will have by default committed to a platform (whether they know it or not). Because carrier contracts last 2 years, that gives users ample time to entrench themselves into their selected platform (reads like an evil conspiracy, I know) and hence be far less inclined to switch. So, NEW customers are going to be harder and harder for these guys to capture. They are going to be cannibalized by their own design.
3) Carriers do. So what? Who cares? We all hate the damn carriers anyway. But nonetheless, they will have a hard time getting new customers for the same reason. Even with number porting, until the carriers offer the same features, people will stay on their carrier even though it can be like chaining oneself to a rotting, infected corpse. (Still think I don’t like the carriers?).
4) Enterprises do. This is a growing issue. BYOD is now on the rise at Corporations, which is creating a slew of issues (more on this topic in my next post) ranging from security, privacy, IT support, Device Management, etc. Many of these companies are being forced into this position as more and more executives are also locked into these eco-systems and don’t want to be forced to have to switch over to another – or, be forced to carry around 2 (sometimes 3) devices. As a result, an entire industry has been created around Mobile Device Management to build a working infrastructure around platform fragmentation. This becomes an insidious process – spreading throughout the IT infrastructure via Security, Privacy, Storage, Retrieval, App Store management, Application versioning and messaging systems.

In the end, this issue does not seem to be improving. With the announcement of the new Blackberry “platform” last week, and the huge push by Microsoft to maintain their chokehold on businesses, the game of platform indispensability will only continue.
Well, time to run, as my iPhone, iPad and iMessage app are all sending me the same message. Need to go decide which one to respond to.