A Marriage Made in Heaven

I’m off to a wedding this weekend, and it’s prompted me to think about hitching hardware and software.

Nokia 5110 source: Nokia

Let’s rewind back to 1998. The Nokia 5110, shown on the right, had just been launched. It married great hardware — the groundbreaking Navi key, solid battery life and changeable covers — with fantastic software — a user interface that was a joy to use, and (possibly the best bit of the phone) it had Snake.

The 5110 went on to become one of the best-selling phones of the decade, mainly because of this marriage. Since then there have been many examples of devices selling well because they had great hardware. You only have to look at Motorola’s V3 Razr, which took hardware design to the next level. The phone was beautiful to hold, with excellent materials. But it was let down by a poor user interface. The hardware convinced a lot of people to buy a Razr; the software convinced many of them to switch to another brand.

As mobile phone designs become homogenised (particularly touch-screen models), more manufacturers are pinning their hopes on software to set their phones apart. Making it easy to use the phone is always important, but consumers (and network operators) are increasingly concerned about what the device can do for them, and the value it will add to their lives (or balance sheets).

Apple’s recent advertising campaign focuses on the iPhone’s App Store. Consumers are no longer told about the amazing user experience, or the amazing hardware; they are told about the things the iPhone can do to improve their lives. The App Store lets people customise their iPhone and add the things important to them. Other smartphones can do this, of course, but Apple has turned it into a primary marketing message, alongside the iPhone’s great software and hardware.

The many manufacturers launching Android products realise that while they can use hardware as a differentiator, the software is almost identical on rival handsets. So how will they create unique products using the same user experience? In many respects, this quandary has already played out on other mobile operating systems. Windows phones come with manufacturers’ custom interfaces. S60 devices also feature specialised skins. In their rush to get Android phones to market, some manufacturers are not bothering to customise the software. I’m sure this will change as Android becomes less of a novelty.

Phone-makers now have to jump through a series of hoops. They need to create unique hardware designs, pick software that will be accepted by operators, as well as give people a different, but pleasing, user experience. Then they need to add value by offering applications and services. In my view, the “smartphone war” will be won by the companies that do these things best.