When Are Too Many Options a Bad Thing?

by Reads (4,007)

Probably the best thing about shopping online is being able to find many different prices for the same product. The amount of web shops versus products usually makes it pretty easy to find a good buy. In the same way, when an industry has many similar products in the same price range and with the same features, the chances for competition can grow and consumers can benefit. But what happens when one company overlaps themselves with multiple product releases? What does that do, besides confuse the consumer? I believe HP has done it with the releases of its new hx2000 series PDAs. And consumers will not end up well because of it.

I will start though at the source of things: PDAs. For one reason or another, PDA models have very similar designs and, depending on price range, similar abilities. PDAs that use the Windows Mobile platform really suffer from this as between the topmost and bottommost models; there is very little feature differentiation besides wireless technologies and exotic casing materials. So if a consumer is looking for a specific Windows Mobile device, he or she will have a tough time trying to figure out whether and what each model does.

Many PDA makers have gotten around this by offering clearly defined lines of models. There is a low range, with little in terms of additional software and hardware. There is a medium range; combining the best of feature availability and low cost, while usually offering a reasonable user experience. And finally, there are those high range models that come with every feature under the sun, and do a few circus tricks in an Easter suit. For the most part, you will see this reflected in the Big Three (Dell, HP, and palmOne) and their model offerings. Some models may blur the line, such as Dell’s X30 High, which is priced in midrange areas, but overall, this is an expected and followed practice.

But like Allen Iverson, some companies just don’t like to practice. HP has broken the usual delineation of a low/mid/high model range for three model series that seemingly cover all ranges, but with so many features, that a consumer can easily become confused. A quick browse to the HP Shopping website will show that there are quite a few categories of PDAs: iPaq Mobile Media Companions, iPaq PocketPCs, iPaq+phone+camera devices, and iPaq Value Bundles. My gosh, what’s the difference?

Within the Mobile Media Companions, there’s the low range rz1715 ($220), then the rx3115 ($350), and the high-end rx3715 ($500). The PocketPC range has the h2215 ($380), the h1945 GPS bundle ($500), the large and magnesium-cased hx4705 ($650), the h4155, and the thumb keyboard toting h4355. Don’t forget the phone either, the h6315. Of course, at the time of this writing, the new hx2000 series iPaqs were being rolled out world-wide. Who knows where those will fit within the current model lines.

Granted, some may say that having too many choices is better than having too few. PalmSource, who distributes licenses to companies much like Microsoft does Windows to people like Dell and HP, has only one major and a few minor offerings in the US market with palmOne, Tapwave, Samsung, Kyocera and Fossil. Since Sony left the PalmOS scene this summer, there has been a whole in PalmOS offerings in terms of style and hardware availability. Currently, there is one, only one, PalmOS device that has WiFi built in — the Tungsten C. People who want to use WiFi in other PalmOS PDAs have to resort to using SD cards that may deny a person the ability to use that slot for memory or other uses. To that end, choice is good. Choice means that the consumer has an option and is not locked into one company. Too many choices, however, mean that consumers become confused and the market suffers because people don’t buy when they are really confused (better to do without than have and be confused).

So what is a manufacturer to do? Have a few focused products that sell well overall, but are always missing the mark in one place or another? Or, have many products that cover all the possible scopes of usage along with price and styles to cater to each? In both cases the market will suffer. The challenge for the manufacturer is how to balance product variation with meeting the needs of the customer, while making a profit at the same time.

In my opinion, HP is at one end and palmOne is at the other. HP has so many products, even those dedicated to the model line have trouble trying to figure out what model to go with (unless it is all about looks, in that case the new marshmallow looking iPaqs will not sell at all). PalmOne has to figure out how to diversify their product line without losing the simple effectiveness that has characterized PalmOS devices for nearly 10 years. All the other manufacturers fall in between these two, and rightly so, they are the segment leaders for Windows Mobile and PalmOS. The question for them to answer in 2005 will have to be: can they keep that lead in sales and clearly meet the needs of their customers? I think palmOne is in a better position to than they were a year ago. I think HP has gone away from that in order to be the be-all-end-all of Windows Mobile PDAs. I do not see that working in the short or long term. Dell, who is on the heels of HP, competes with similar models but only two lines and at a lower price point. With a smartphone device and Dell’s usually competitive pricing scheme, Dell is primed to take that spot of most effective PDA manufacturer if they choose to move that route.

End of the year and all the bells are going. Who knows what company will answer the call? No matter which one, I am sure that we consumers will fare quite well from whatever jingles.



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