The Android fashion accessory

Android is expected to have strong growth in 2011. Is that a permanent trend, or a transitory shift in fashion trends?
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

I've long thought that computing devices you carry on your person are different than the beast stuck on your desk at work, or sitting in your entertainment center at home. Those devices are tools, and people identify themselves by their choice of tools about as much as they do by their choice of bookshelves. Granted, there are exceptions. People who know a lot about TVs may pride themselves on acquiring the most technically sophisticated model to add to their home entertainment center. Ordinary consumers, however, tend just to buy something functional and affordable.

Devices like mobile phones are different. As something you take on your person, it makes certain statements about you that a DVD player doesn't, but a brand-name pair of jeans or fancy handbag does. That's why I'm not sure if Android's upcoming sales gains should be viewed as a long-term permanent state of affairs. I would view it as more a transitory shift among consumers who now view Android as an exotic choice in a jungle where iPhones have become relatively common. I certainly don't see it as a permanent consolidation around Android as a platform, because smartphones aren't like desktop computers.

Think about the market for mobile phones prior to when Apple turned it upside-down. I wasn't very loyal to any one brand. Granted, I tended to purchase a disproportionate number of Nokia devices, but that might have been due to the preponderance of such devices at stores. Even so, I wouldn't stick with the same Nokia phone over the years, and I would intersperse it with another brand whenever it struck my fancy. I used to be a fan of Volkswagen, but now I favor Honda. The next time I buy a car, who knows what I'll buy?

Just as different brands of clothes move in and out of fashion, will smartphones brands and platforms move in and out of favor with consumers?

Network effects are the Mule in the psychohistorical ledger, to some extent (if you don't know what I'm talking about, you need to read more Isaac Asimov), but past trends do offer some support for the theory. If I'm right, though, then Apple is well positioned to thrive in such a market, with stores strategically placed in the best shopping locations. Proximity to fashion brands builds subliminal association, and Steve Jobs is the only person on Earth who realized it (well, at least was the first to capitalize on it). Best Buy might be useful venue for sales of computing tools, but in a world with shifting trends catering to those who don't strongly identify with the technology (which likely doesn't include any of the people reading this post), it isn't going to keep a brand strong.

On the other hand, a risk factor for Apple could be that there is only one style of iPhone. Though it makes life easier for developers, it does create little scope for variability. Would everyone in the world want to own the same model of BMW?

Granted, Apple is fairly religious about creating a new iPhone version every year, which is smart if you insist on having only one variety of smartphone device. However, their approach is a bit like being a fashion designer for Orthodox Jews (you can have any color you want, so long as its black). Fortunately, if that does prove a problem, Apple can create more shapes and sizes of iPhone, much as they did with the iPod. Though different form factors might make life more complicated for developers, it would allow consumers to express taste differences while remaining firmly in the Apple spacetime continuum.

If consumers do treat smartphones like a fashion accessory, it does provide hope for newer entrants, such as Windows Phone 7 (new with the WP7 platform, not new as a participant in the category), or lagging leaders, such as Blackberry. In Blackberry's case, Research in Motion needs to adapt to the changed nature of smartphone buyers. Though enterprises and businesses were once the mainstay of the smartphone market, those days are long past. Business spending will still move the needle, but people want more than a glorified tether to their worklife from a smartphone platform. Blackberry is moving in that direction, but like Microsoft, started life as a company focused on the needs of business users. That's a difficult DNA to replace.

As for WP7, clearly, Microsoft is late to the party with a consumer-focused offering. Even so, if party trends shift from year to year, there is an opening for Microsoft, provided they keep improving the platform and adding features that make them different. When Android first launched, its sales numbers wouldn't lead one to believe that it would be the "shiny new thing" of 2011. There certainly seems plenty of scope for tie-ins to other products in the Microsoft catalog, provided the company can herd the fractious cats who populate the competing divisions within the company in a common direction (as a former employee, I know that is no easy feat).

Clearly, focusing on Best Buy, or mobile phone shops featuring rows of hollow devices with paper screen inserts, is the wrong way to go about building a fashionable brand. Those new Microsoft stores popping up like slow-growing mushrooms across the US may be rather important to Microsoft's personal device future. They would, at least, give Microsoft the power to control its own marketing. Getting the marketing right is another issue entirely, and a company that was traditionally focused on business users has more barriers in that regard.

Some have argued that having multiple WP7 devices just splinters attention for Microsoft's new mobile platform, pointing to the clear and focused iPhone advertisements as an example. In the short term, the naysayers have a point. Marketing one iPhone is a heck of a lot easier than marketing nine WP7 devices. In the long term, though, having more varieties of the same underlying platform caters to more "statements of personal identity" than one device. If Microsoft can provide a degree of development consistency while at the same time offering the variety that leaves more room for personal expression, they can boost their market share, once they manage the right combination of features and marketing to catch that fashion wave.

Of course, as everyone knows, waves eventually dissipate. I think it is highly likely that the mobile companies that are popular today will just as quickly find themselves less popular as the fashion jet stream ebbs and flows.

Major brands are important, and if managed properly create certain expectations of quality and experience which provides them a strong foundation upon which to withstand the shifts. However, there will we never be a "Windows" of the smartphone world, in the sense of one platform that accounts for 90+ percent of the market for a particular computing product category. And, just as happens with clothes, I can easily see there being a lot more variability in market share over time, particularly with growing depth and breadth of functionality offered by web development environments. The more browsers can do on phones, the less you need to turn to custom "apps."

That's good for consumers, as it means smartphones could have a higher natural level of competition. That means staff lawyers won't have to spend their time fending off antitrust investigations. That leaves them free to charge after other private companies wielding patent libraries as jousting sticks.

Oh well...the smartphone gods giveth, and they taketh away.

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