There’s a big pink elephant in the room. With all the current fuss over smartphones, no one is asking the obvious question: Where do mobile devices go next?
There’s a famous quote by Bill Gates, talking about business survival in the computing field. “In this business, by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s too late to save yourself. Unless you’re running scared all the time, you’re gone.” In other words, if you’re not already thinking ahead, planning for what comes next, and avoiding pitfalls like complacency, you’ve got the shelf life of ice cream in the Arizona desert.
It’s happened time and again across the tech landscape — companies from Kodak to Gateway and back have run aground because they didn’t anticipate the next big thing, whether it was digital cameras or PC commoditization. It’s hard to blame them too much. The fast and yet subtle ways in which the tech market works can turn the world upside down before you ever even realize that something’s out of whack. And that same effect can produce a fog of war that makes forecasting the future difficult.
Case in point. The current smartphone vogue seems to have blinded many manufacturers. They’ve become so caught up in the hype surrounding smartphones that they’ve lost sight of that old rule about planning for the future. In fact, there’s barely even been any discussion about what that future is. A large unspoken assumption is that the entire future of mobile devices is in telephony, and incorporating phone features. But a bit of market analysis, delivered from outside the fog, shows that that idea isn’t going to hold out for long.
The simple fact is that smartphones are never going to supplant traditional “dumb” phones, at least not within the next decade. That being the case, what we currently think of as smartphones are eventually going to become a low-margin market due to overcrowding, and to competition from more advanced dumb phones. If manufacturers want to have an edge, they need to be looking past smartphones to where the next money market is. Not in telephony, but in audio/video applications.
iPods and all their various competitors are a very lucrative field, made all the more so by the sales of digital music and video that they’ve sparked. People are willing to pay a lot of money to have their entertainment walking around with them. Handhelds are uniquely suited to break into this market, if manufacturers take just a few simple steps.
Envision, for a moment, a handheld geared for use as a music and video player. Devices like the Dell Axim X51v are already halfway there, with a dedicated video processor for smooth playback and optional output to a larger display. Add in, say, 8 GB of internal flash memory — increasingly cheap in today’s market — and a little bit of software which is mostly already available, and you’ve already got a good start that combines better battery life than the video iPod, a bigger and better screen, and the ability to play almost any format of audio or video.
But where handhelds can take it one step further is in their talent for data and networking. How about an online music store that connects directly to the handheld? Heard a song you like on the radio? Plug in the lyrics to find out the title, then download and add the tune to your collection without ever touching a desktop PC. Connectivity can be provided either by the increasingly ubiquitous Wi-Fi, or through the new WiMax and 3G networks that are just beginning to spring up.
8 GB of flash may not compare to a 40 GB or 60 GB iPod, but for most people the trade-off would be worth it. 8 GB will hold an entire average size music collection, plus 5 to 12 hours of video, and the battery performance will greatly surpass an iPod. Combine that with a big screen, superior format compatibility, and advanced functions like streaming music, video, and Internet access, and you have a serious contender to an overpriced paperweight like the iPod.
You might think that this sort of tactic could be easily countered by Apple and its current competitors, but it’s not quite that simple. The iPod is a very efficient, simple music player. And one of the primary characteristics of simple systems is that they don’t scale up well. This is what bit Palm OS on the neck when they tried to make the jump from simple organizer to full computing platform, a jump which took years to execute. If you tried to add wireless capabilities to the iPod tomorrow you would need to develop an operating system, a network connection, a web browser… on and on. A handheld already has all of these things in place, polished, and ready to go right now. If a company chose to do it, they could have a product on shelves by Christmas.
Models like Palm Inc.’s LifeDrive were a start, but the hardware and performance need to be more compelling, and the vision a little bit grander. The “cool” factor will do a lot to move the sales of this sort of devices, if they’re worthy of it. The key is to produce new killer apps. How about integrating GPS, and allowing the user to select different playlists based on location, speed, or other condition? Or audio recognition software tied into that massive online music database we mentioned earlier, for the capability to recognize a song being played from another medium? Or a docking station that doubles as a digital video recorder, to pull programs from live TV and later download them to the device?
There’s literally a world of possibility out there, if anybody bothers to explore it. Not every usage may catch on, but even a handful of solid new applications would lever open the door to the multimedia market for today’s mobile devices.