The man, the boy, the donkey and the iPhone

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.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

48 thoughts on “The man, the boy, the donkey and the iPhone”

  1. Business productivity revolves around access to core enterprise apps that contain enterprise data. Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, Siebel, jive etc. All of which are on iPhone and android. How does BB offer an advantage here? Hardly any enterprise cares enough about email security to exclude iPhones etc. and all platforms now have Office, Adobe workflows etc. What advantage does BB offer these days apart from security that fewer companies are willing to pay for?

    Passport seems to be an unwieldy device, with a keyboard that can’t get it right after years of good keyboards with an OS that few have any interest in adopting and a terrible app situation (don’t talk about non-Primetime solutions like sideloading apks or hacking the Play store or using Amazon etc.). Not getting plan A, seems to be no plan B. I’d love to hear from actual enterprise IT folks about this (not rabid BB fans).

  2. I’m wondering what focus means in an age of programmable devices and multi-layered distribution, especially with an open OS and multiple OEMs.

    Do people actually want to carry multiple devices for different uses or aspects of their lives, say, pro vs personal, or gaming vs e-reading vs taking pics vs phoning ? I think history and phablets have answered that one.
    Can’t a single OS be perfectly competent at running Yo ! and SAP, aren’t the ergonomics and tech requirements basically the same ? RIM used to have a clear lead in messaging, as much the personal as the entreprise kind. That was just an app + server, not a device or an ecosystem.
    Isn’t diversity what OEMs and VARs are for ? On the same Android base, you can have total control and security (KNOX), also Remote Control via TeamViewer QuickSupport, rugged devices, pretty much any format from Watch to 12″ tablet w/ stylus to laptop to desktop to USB dongle.

    I’d argue on the contrary, there are huge network effects to be reaped, much commonality of requirements, and very few incompatible ones.

    That’s at the ecosystem level though. At the OEM level, it’s probably much harder to competently cover all segments and advertize that, than it is to focus on one or a few segments. I think there’s some confusion because besides Android, iOS, BB and even Windows are basically single-OEM ecosystems.

    1. “I’m wondering what focus means in an age of programmable devices and multi-layered distribution”

      “Can’t a single OS be perfectly competent at running Yo ! and SAP, aren’t
      the ergonomics and tech requirements basically the same ?”

      Jan is mostly talking about focus of form factor. But you need focus in the realm of software as well.

      There’s a difference between programming the OS to have a broad range of capabilities (eg, using the same kernel for tablets and for desktops), and the implementation of those capabilities (having one shell for desktops and one for tablets, vs including both in the same OS and forcing your users to adapt to the extra complexity).

      Focus comes in with determining what capabilities you ought to include in any given distro of the software, based on the target customer/market for that distro. Lack of focus in software leads to things like the extremely muddled approach of Windows (just about any version, talking XP here because I know that version best), which saddled consumers with always-on enterprise features they would never need (netmeeting, etc), on the one hand, and saddled businesses with similarly unneeded consumer features (movie maker, etc).

      Besides the confusion/frustration of your customers, lack of focus in software leads to security vulnerabilities, because every additional component represents another potential attack surface for malware creators.

  3. Two takeaways:
    * Get a cart: Separate hardware thinking from software thinking. Google just feeds the donkey; Samsung sells carts.
    * Better yet, buy a car: combine hardware and software into integrated systems. Get an iPhone.

    Just to say: Chairman Schmidt’s comments this week lead to another possibility: Steal a guy’s donkey. Have someone else steal his cart. That way, you can blame each other endlessly cus’ neither one stole the guy’s transportation.

        1. ’cause I don’t listen to (or believe) any of them.
          Lest you think I’m “rooting” for anyone, I’m already on record as favoring controlling search as a public utility (since you can’t use the net without Google making money).

      1. O shameless revisionists, Apple licensed the technology (for one million dollars’ worth of IPO shares, which Xerox cashed in on eventually), vastly improved the GUI technology (Xerox windows could not overlap or resize for instance) and made it cheaper (Xerox workstations started at $16,000, and required a $24,000 server to operate at all).

        1. A copy is a copy. MS was also found innocent when Apple sued them. “Stole” is allegory for copy. The best you got is that MS was accused of copying Xerox thus violating Apple’s license from Xerox.

          If Apple copied Xerox, and MS copied Apple, then MS copied Xerox. Logic 101.

          1. No, a copy isn’t a copy. Apple played with the Xerox mouse, and went away and created a whole UI from scratch based on the idea.

            Ten years later, MS was working on a graphical version of Office for the Mac and required access to Apple’s complete code base in order to figure out how to create their first software using a GUI. Apple failed to lock down a good contract governing the access. MS was not innocent, but was found ‘not guilty’ because they didn’t violate the letter of the lax agreement they had.

            That led to Windows having a GUI. MS had “played” with the Apple mouse and interface for 10 years. It took access to the code for them to produce Windows.

      2. Can we please make relative distinctions? Google stole far more of the iPhone than the reverse.

        If that were not true, Android would resemble palm pilots and Blackberrys.

        1. iOS is based on BSD, Android on Linux. iOS uses pre-compiled code, Android uses Java. If any imitation was done it was to go full screen touch, which many devices, including the LG Prada (2006) had before them.

          You could have it your way, but answer me this… How can Android be a slavish copy yet still have more features, and still manage to suck?

          1. You said “How can Android be a slavish copy yet still have more features, and still manage to suck?

            We can agree that Android sucks. The fragmented platform and insecurity of it should make everyone avoid it. That Google also maintains a digital blueprint on its users should make everyone run.

            However, your history of the LG Prada is incorrect. The LG Prada was officially revealed January 18, 2007. The iPhone was revealed at a special event on January 9, 2007. Are you trying to convince people that Apple responded to LG Prada that was formally revealed with photos 9 days AFTER Apple’s event?

            You’re not giving Apple enough credit for revolutionizing the smartphone.

          2. So they were developed approximately simultaneously. Meanwhile ATMs and other public access terminals had full screen touch for years.

            I don’t think Android sucks, your opinion can differ. I will only defend Android on factual grounds. What Jobs anointed as “fragmentation” boils down to hardware/software requirements. All computer ecosystems, including iOS, are “fragmented”. There are still iPhones in use that can never get Siri, or other more modern features.

            I personally owned every iPhone through the 3GS. My kids through the 4S. It was, at launch, revolutionary. Then, in my eyes, got hampered by “policies”.

          3. Did ATMs and public access terminals really use multitouch with capacitive sensing? I thought Fingerworks was still working on this technology and gestures in its niche products and its labs up through 2005 (when Apple bought it).

          4. I was just asking the question as I don’t think ATMs used multi-touch nor capacitive sensing (at least not back in 2007). I have no clue whether others can or can’t copy it, but since no one has sued anyone, I’d guess everyone can.

          5. You mean LG copied Apple in just 9 days ? Is iOS so small to copy in few days from development to market ?

            In a competitive environment, everyone keeps copying others good features. Thus, the better products evolve and reach customer.

          6. What makes Android/Google and Samsung such grievous stealers vs wannabe copiers is two things—Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board and Samsung was a major parts supplier and partner during the development of the iPhone and iPad. That’s what makes it theft.

            The court agreed that Windows was a copy of Mac. The problem was the court decided the agreement between Apple and MS at the time allowed for it.


          7. It is a conundrum. Could it be that the gimmicky crap Samsung et al introduce at a blistering pace then dump is the mark of a directionless copycat, waiting for the market leader to show them the way?

      3. I disagree. If I take a sticky note from the pad on your desk, and you take my car, we are morally equivalent?

        Ideas get copied all the time, and we’re all better off for it.

        But Samsung and Google produced a phone that was so much a copy of the iPhone that in its first iteration they could barely be distinguished from a few feet away.

        Car makers all copy each others’ good ideas, so all cars can have similar features. But if Hyundai made a car that was an actual copy of Mercedes S-Class, such that they were difficult to tell apart even by people familiar with them, don’t you think that would be a bit different?

  4. That’s EXACTLY what I like about Android (and OSX and Windows for that matter). Proprietary and openness are false associations. Both Windows and OSX are proprietary but open. Android, Windows and OSX at least permit a more open innovation, regardless of their proprietary (or not) nature.

    The compromises you cite made by Android or Windows centered companies yields a vast choice of models and features so the customer can CHOOSE what’s important for them. Apple is the one who can’t please everyone. One company can’t do it all. Now if only either:

    a) Apple opened up (on some models at least)
    b) Everyone else cared as much about product development as Apple does.

    These are not mutually exclusive. I’ll pick Android as the lesser evil.

    As far as who makes the most money… I don’t care. I care about MY money and MY choices within MY platform of choice.

    End of rant…

      1. If you see any morality in my statement, it has to do how it impacts me, not how companies impact each other. That, to me, is a higher standard. Yes, I’m all for fair play… especially with me, the device’s owner.

        Edit: If you think I have Android loyalty, I don’t. No where else to go…

        1. That’s right, it is very difficult to have “Android Loyalty”, because the reality of the situation is that you, as “the device’s owner” still have to make choices about which one device to buy and use. All the supposed “personal benefits” of this openness of Android is not accessible to most Android users, if any.

          To quote the Macalope:
          “Look, all you need to do is get an Android phone from HTC for build quality. Then get an Android phone from Sony because their cameras are so good. Then get a Galaxy Note from Samsung for the largest screen. Then get a Nexus from Google to get a decent software experience. Finally, get a phone from Hauwei because they’re cheap. Then mash them all together and you’ve got one phone that’s better than the iPhone!”

          1. -You do realize that you’re quoting a mascot! 🙂
            Fine, I prefer a pre-jailbroken device with expandable storage. Where’s the iOS device that provides that?
            I prefer “Liberal with a libertarian streak”.
            Great comment friend.

          2. The quote is a humorous “spin” by a known Apple fan.. Someone who makes a living being an Apple proponent and evangelist. But let’s stay with that. Different people value different attributes above other attributes. To me, freedom and latitude rank number one. What gives me that expectation?

            a) Traditionally, computers have had those attributes.
            b) There are competing devices that have them

            “If there were a “pre-jailbroken iOS device with expandable storage”, you would be welcome to express your preference by buying that model. Again, you are not dealing with reality.”
            That IS reality. It’s what I want. I was speaking for myself.

          3. Yes, it was humorous, and the Macalope does spin, but the quote makes the point.

            Yes, the reality of your preference is real. The reality I am speaking of is that, since there is no Apple product that fits the bill for your deal-breaker preference, you are subject to the same reality as everyone else: namely, you must choose a phone that does exist, and that phone will have its own trade-offs.

            As it stands, millions upon millions of people find that the iPhone offers enough value propositions to outweigh any trade-offs or perceived disadvantages, and outweigh the perceived advantages of competing products. Things proclaimed as “deal-breakers” become less of a big deal in the light of day and the reality of accomplishing day-to-day work (as did the loss of the floppy disk and serial port, etc).

            The people that do choose the iPhone are by all accounts, more pleased with their phones than other people are with theirs — as evidenced by satisfaction surveys and “loyalty” (to get back to your first comment I relied to) which exults in repeat purchases. That is not spin. That is reality. Apple aims to please more people more, and it apparently accomplishes that; it surely does not “please everyone” as it does not please you. But I reckon it does a jolly good job. It is not “marketing” or “spin” (check out Samsung’s methods and spend for that) — it is value proposition and jobs to be done.

  5. “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.”

    Two responses:

    1, Google has focus, it’s just not directed in a direction that makes sense to their users. They are laser-focused on increasing their ability to collect and aggregate user data and use that data to sell advertising.

    2, You could say that Android is focused on being the anti-apple. Eg, Apple places simplicity first, even when that means making the OS less customizable or less flexible. Android puts customization and flexibility first, even when that makes it less easy to use. This has the benefit of attracting customers to Android who find Apple’s offerings too limited or too restrictive in some way or other.

    1. Point 2 is just wish fulfilment or to be honest “idiocy”, over 70% of android users say price is the #1 consideration beyond meeting basic requirmeants, that is if they could afford an iPhone they would choose it. Your living in a bubble, a first world bubble that makes up less than 1% of android customer base. In the great scheme of things, no one cares. Look at Linux on the desktop, a compleat and predictable failure, so pridictiable that I could have told you 20 years ago why it would fail (PROTIP: at free it’s still too expensive).

      As android moves to 2 and then 3 billion users this will become more clear even to the retards who proclaim themselves the “technological literate”, it’s always about usefull functionality and has alway been about that.

      1. Right? It’s not as if we have an Android handset maker using being the anti-Apple in their marketing. Oh, wait…


  6. I would be very surprised if the Passport proves to be even a minor success. How many must it sell to be a long term viable product? I suspect that is a bigger number than the sum of A) the number of people who are willing to replace their current Android or iPhone with the Passport, and B) the number of people who are willing to carry around a Passport aside from their Android or iPhone.

  7. Your memory of the fable differs radically from the one I read in childhood.

    While comically hefting the donkey along, they happened to pass by the window of a princess who had never smiled in her life, and her all-powerful father had vowed that whosoever made her smile would be rewarded with her hand in marriage and a sizeable chunk of his kingdom as a dowry to boot.

    Not only did she smile at the sight of man, boy and donkey, she split her sides laughing.

    So the fable ended quite profitably for the hapless duo. And may I suggest that this modern tale is far from over yet, as the totally irrelevant and null effect of “Antennagate” on the iPhone 4’s unprecedented (at the time) success eventually showed with hindsight. As usual, premature tangos are being stamped out on what is believed to be the grave of the fruity one. Such bravado in the face of history.

  8. Inasmuch as we would like the new BB to succeed, they would have a really hard time doing this because:

    1. Android is now so entrenched in terms of Market share.
    2. Lack of Developer support -due to minimal incentive to writing apps in a low market share Oem.
    3. Pricing. -If they price to high-medium- they’ll have to compete with Apple, Android.. And if they price low- their Gross Profits would suffer and that Android has already its two feet on this territory as well.

    How they can improve, things to improve:

    1. Ditch the proprietary OS theyre building and switch to android. Or go back to R&D and create the next user interface that will totally revolutionize touchcreen or whatever in the smartphone.

    2. Hire a very reputable marketing and ads firm that can rival apple’s. And iterate to your strenghts esp security and privacy that Android and just recently Apple’s IOS iCloud found vulnerable lately. If they can market this reality of perceived threat to such devices and somehow convince a minority of public to believe that their phone is better, all the better.

    3. Create a deal with telcos the way Apple established in its early days- by coming up with clever ways for the telco to earn more money- incentive for the telcos to sign a partnership with BB.

    4. Finally, if you cannot beat em, install em. Create another product line that runs the Android os. Sure their destiny is not theirs atm, but it will surely somehow recaptivate loss consumers to the brand BB had in its former glory days.

    5. Create a consortium of OEMS who will use another OS platform other than Android. To ensure that this succeeds though the top 20% of OEMS manufacturer should align to support to create using this new platform. OEMs will surely love this because they can the get free of google Android ‘s grasp in the longer run.

  9. Great article reminding us the importance of focus for a company. Combined with the TP Podcast (not sure that came out sounding right) there may still be hope for BB. The iPhone was perfect timing as the smartphone industry at that time was just starting to expand to non-enterprise customers. So BB and MS had a bit of a false positive that they could be a popular consumer brand of smartphones easily enough. Apple and Android pretty much sucked the wind right out of that (although I still contend they would have done better with only iPhone, vs iPhone and Android).

    Love the corollary. Thanks for that insight as well.


  10. The fate of iPhones will be same as fate of Mac. They will shrink day by day and die smoohly or become useless for the company.

    Unfortunately, Apple (Steve Jobs) did the same mistake second time limiting the customer base to rich people. They had so wonderful product to begin with but they kept it for less than 1% of people and thus allowed Android to grow from 0% to 85% in just 4 years. Now, Android has already started eating Apple’s share and thus iOS will ultimately be lost.

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