Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Danger! Mobile Feature Fatigue Ahead?

Are we running out of great new features with which to dazzle smart-phone buyers?

The last few days have been an enlightening few for me.  I just purchased a new Motorola Droid 2 Global Edition from Verizon.  This is one sweet phone: a 1.2 ghz processor, keyboard, screen, removable battery and it comes on Verizon's rock solid network and with the option for Verizon's best-in-class international data plan.

There's only problem: I just hated it.  People said they could not hear me and the battery lasted typically no more than 3-4 hours before needing a charge.  Power levels dropped by 10% every hour, calls dropped, and the screen was sluggish and unresponsive.  At first I thought I got a dud unit, but after consulting with other users and Verizon, it seems that my experience is not ideal but also not exactly unique.  The high processor speed and the addition of Bluetooth, WiFi and lots of unfettered multi-tasking is a killer.

Unable to find another phone I liked on Verizon, I started looking around and settled on either the Motorola Defy, the MyTouch 4G or the Nexus S.  The Nexus is not yet available and, being American, I need gratification right now.  I went to a T-Mobile dealer and tested out the MyTouch4G and the Defy and compared them side-by-side with the Droid 2 Global.  My take-aways (in addition to a new Motorola Defy):

  • Some level of sluggishness pervades the Android UI on all devices regardless of make, model, manufacturer or CPU speed.  I couldn't really tell the difference in usability between the Defy (2.1) and the MyTouch or the Droid 2 - which have faster processors and a newer rev of Android.
  • Battery life seems to be the killer app.  Reviews and anecdotal testing suggest that some phones do much better than others with battery life despite very similar-seeming specifications.
  • Android 2.2 doesn't seem to be noticeably better than 2.1.  I found only one issue on the Defy which was the lack of a built-in tethering application, a problem I solved easily enough by rooting the phone and adding wireless tether.

So, after looking at three different phones with radically different prices and features, I selected the cheapest and least powerful one: The Motorola Defy.  And after 18 hours with it, I think I'm going to like it.  Though T-Mobile doesn't have great coverage in Woodside, it's decent and WiFi calling works nicely in my house.

I found the overall speed of the device comparable to the theoretically much faster Droid 2 Global and I love the ruggedized, water-resistant shell.  That makes this phone just perfect for drops, kiddie drool, and bike rides in the rain.  And if water-resistance and better battery life can help sell a under-powered phone with a down-rev OS version, what does that mean for the industry as a whole?

Smartphone buyers have been driving huge gains in the mobile and wireless business.  They are still a minority of the overall market and so there's lots of raw volume growth left.  But smartphone buyers have also been driving very high average selling prices and a very very frequent cycle of upgrades.

The iPhone is a good example: first it re-invented the category, then it re-invented the market for apps, and then it added multi-tasking and video-calling and re-invent mobile gaming.  With each of these step changes, early adopters have jumped on board.  But what next?  Like laptops before them, we may have fewer step changes we can offer consumers to drive a rapid upgrade cycle.

There's still a lot coming on the horizon: LTE and multi-core processors to start with, and while both will drive the earliest adopters into an upgrade cycle, they offer little for ordinary consumers to get excited about.  These new features will help enterprises deepen their use of mobile, offering secure virtual machines (announcement) and secure alternatives to giving employees 500GB hard drives.

For consumers, however, the real action is at the low end of the smart-phone market where bargain-priced smartphones that offer all the same major features as premium ones but with a bit less polish and oomph are going to drive explosive growth.  LG, for example, missed out big time on the early Android gold rush but they seem to have a blockbuster hit on their hands at the lower end of the market.

Underpowered, Down-Rev, but still very good.  Image CC Flickr.

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