The man, the boy, the donkey and the iPhone

on September 25, 2014

There’s an Aesop’s Fable about a man, a boy and a donkey. In short form, the story goes like this: A man, his son, and their donkey set off for the market. At first, all three are walking but soon, someone criticizes the man for having a donkey but not riding on it. So he puts his son on the donkey and carries on, only for people to criticize his son for being lazy and riding while his father walks. So he switches places with his son and carries on, but now people criticize him for riding on the donkey while his poor son has to walk. Now, they both ride the donkey. Pretty soon, they near the market town, but now people challenge them both for overloading the donkey. Finally, they find a way to carry the poor tired donkey on a pole between them, to much ridicule, until finally they drop the donkey on their way across a bridge and he drowns.

Happy story, right? But as with all Aesop’s Fables, there’s a moral. What is the moral to this story? It’s generally stated as “please everyone and you’ll please no one”. In other words, if your general barometer for what you should do is trying to make everyone happy, you’re heading for a dismal failure. How is this relevant to the technology market? Very simply: it’s often much easier to be successful if you’re clear about which specific audience(s) you’re trying to serve, and rigorously focus on that audience. (There’s also another, secondary message to this story, which I’ll come back to at the end.)

BlackBerry and focus

On Wednesday this week, I attended the launch event for BlackBerry’s new device, the Passport, in Toronto. While BlackBerry has suffered in the past for being too broad in its ambitions, there’s a refreshing focus to the Passport phone. The tagline BlackBerry uses for the device is, “Serious Mobility for Serious Business”. This smartphone is clearly designed for the business and productivity-centric user. Of the hour and forty-five minutes or so BlackBerry took to introduce the device, I’d estimate five minutes or so was spent on consumer-centric features (the camera and the Amazon App Store which is available on the device, for “fun” apps). When you have that kind of focus, it helps you to zero in on what’s most important from a feature and functionality perspective. Access to business data, long battery life, ability to review and edit documents effectively, and so on, all come into view as key priorities. BlackBerry has delivered on all of that with this device. Is it perfect? No, of course not, and it’s likely not a good fit for the vast majority of the smartphone using population, because the app situation continues to be spartan. But it is a good fit for at least some of the users BlackBerry is focusing on and that’s the key point. I hope BlackBerry maintains this focus, something I and others have argued for some time, but I’m worried its next device may make the mistake of being too broad in its appeal again.

Windows Phone’s lack of focus

Contrast this with Windows Phone, which also treats productivity and getting things done as a key selling point, but has never been explicitly focused on the business user (in marked contrast to its predecessor, Windows Mobile). Office support and other features make Windows Phone a good fit in many respects for the email- and productivity-centric customer, but Windows Phone is rarely positioned as such. Instead, Windows Phone tries to be all things to all people, appealing to people in their personal lives as well as their business lives but, in the process, doing neither well. If you’re a pure productivity user, you might well be better off with a BlackBerry and if you care more about apps for your personal life, you’re better off with an iPhone or Android smartphone. Without a clear focus on a particular type of user, especially in today’s crowded smartphone market, Windows Phone is adrift, attempting to please everyone like the man in Aesop’s story, but pleasing no one in the process. Windows Phone badly needs focus, something I’ll talk a bit more about later on.

Apple and the iPhone

A key part of Apple’s approach to the market has always been focus and its strategy has always been as much about who it wouldn’t serve as about who it would. In the in-depth profile I wrote for my clients a couple of months ago, I said this:

Apple’s competitiveness in hardware may be summed up by saying that it chooses not to compete in certain areas, but where it does choose to compete it is often the most competitive vendor.

Apple’s success comes in great part from the fact it chooses narrow areas to compete in, sticks to those, and, as a result, does very well in its target segments, while leaving other segments essentially untouched. This is true for the iPhone as it was true for the Mac before it, though perhaps in a different way. The high price of the Mac compared with similarly spec’ed competitors, and the fact it couldn’t run Windows, limited its appeal dramatically. The iPhone has its own limitations but they’re not as dramatic. Yes, price is still a significant factor – the biggest – but iOS has actually become the most widely supported platform from a developer perspective, rather than an also-ran. However, the point remains Apple has made many choices about what not to do with the iPhone and though that’s limited its addressable market, its actually raised its share within the markets it does address.

Android and choice

It would be easy to look at Android in this context and see it as the anti-Apple, with no focus at all and trying to serve the whole world at once. And in some senses, that’s exactly what Android is. But of course Android isn’t a finished product – it’s an ingredient that goes into products made by others, and those in turn do make choices about where to focus, with any given device that actually runs Android. Even Samsung, with its amazingly broad range of devices, makes specific tradeoffs with each phone and tablet it ships running Android. Some are productivity-centric, others are media-centric; some are priced at a premium, while others compete at the mid- or low end of the market. Android as a whole offers myriad choices while each individual device meets specific needs. That’s the benefit of an open OS approach: as the OS vendor, you don’t have to make those hard choices, because your OEMs will make them, allowing you to serve many different markets at once with a single product. The challenge for Windows Phone is its vendors aren’t providing this same sort of differentiation based on function, in part because Windows Phone is relatively inflexible in its user interface and operations. Microsoft, as the owner of Windows Phone and now also the vendor that makes over 95% of the Windows Phones sold, desperately needs to specialize in its devices, creating phones for specific users.

The corollary

The main thrust of Aesop’s fable about the man, his son, and his donkey is we shouldn’t try to please everyone. But I see a corollary in this story too, which is as observers we shouldn’t criticize for criticism’s sake. As an analyst, it’s my job to think critically, but there’s always a danger this criticism serves no end other than some perceived sense of false balance. At my previous firm, I often felt pressure to find a weakness to offset every strength, and a threat to offset every opportunity, when analyzing a company or a product. But the reality is some products and companies are unusually strong, featuring far fewer weaknesses than strengths, while the converse is often true as well. If I do criticize a company, its strategy or its products, I also try to do so constructively, proposing solutions or a better way forward. When I’m not just writing but actively advising big technology companies, I have to do this; my clients insist upon it. But it’s a habit I try to carry over to my writing too.