With 2017 being the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, there have been numerous articles reminiscing on the historic device. The buzz got me thinking about the other side of smartphone world – what happened to all the other smartphones not named iPhone or Galaxy?
I spent much of my career in the smartphone world so I thought I’d reflect on some of the observations I gained over the years of working with virtually every single smartphone manufacturer gunning to take on the iPhone.
I first started visiting cell phone manufacturers in 2006 to talk about what features and products they wanted in their phones. At the time, the iPod was all the rage and every cell phone manufacturer on the planet was focused on integrating music and media into cell phones. At the time, Nokia was the undisputed champion of the cell phone world, with 40% market share, Motorola was riding high off of the glamour of the RAZR, and Blackberry was king of the nascent smartphone industry.
The iPhone came out in 2007 and in less than 10 years almost all of the big names – Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, hTC, Palm, Blackberry have all crumbled, been sold, or are on life support.
What happened? There were definitely a multitude of factors that contributed to each of the company’s decline, including many internal factors I’m probably not aware of, but I’ll highlight 3 observations I made from the hundreds of meetings and dozens of phone designs I was involved with.
The lack of speed to respond
When the iPhone was first released, at more than a few of the phone manufacturers I met with, the iPhone was viewed more as an interesting niche product than a massive threat. Granted, at different levels of the organization the sentiment may have been different, but at the level of people I was working with there was a strong belief that they were steering the industry and they knew what the market needed.
Apple and Google had a vision of where the future was heading and pushed aggressively into the smartphone OS and apps ecosystem. All other competing manufacturers/OS’s were caught off guard and either didn’t want to or were unable to react fast enough.
Even though the first Android phone came out in 2008 (the T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream, which was still far behind the iPhone), feature phones focused on MP3 playback or keyboards/texting were being rolled out for years by all the big names.
Motorola and Sony Ericsson wouldn’t introduce their first Android smartphone until 2010 and Nokia hung onto its dated OS Symbian all the way until 2011. By 2011 the hype inducing iPhone 4 had already been out for a year and Apple was already on the iPhone 4S, releasing groundbreaking features such as Siri. Others had just gotten into the touchscreen smartphone game.
By 2011 the hype inducing iPhone 4 had already been out for a year. Others had just gotten into the touchscreen smartphone game.
The difficulty of catching up
With every iPhone model being a massive success, and each “iPhone killer” fizzling out pretty fast, manufacturers went into scramble mode and released more and more phones, with more and more new features, all trying to finally make a dent at the iPhone. Many of the manufacturers went into panic mode but even they acknowledged they were behind Apple (ref Nokia’s burning platform).
The onslaught of phone models, the rush to get them out, and the fact that manufacturers were all a few years behind Apple in know-how meant that many well intentioned, but half baked or inferior phones were released.
The cell phone manufacturers were no longer steering the industry, and were just desperately fighting to stay a player in the industry. Mediocre phones pitted against a stellar phone just pummeled the manufacturers harder.
Mediocre phones pitted against a stellar phone just pummeled the manufacturers harder.
The lack of marketing might
After a few years, manufacturers started coming out with phones that got stellar reviews and were legitimate challengers to the iPhone. The HTC One was released to critical acclaim in 2012, and the Sony Xperia Z, a waterproof and glass encased design beauty, was released in 2013. One could easily argue that these phones were as good as or better than the equivalent Samsung Galaxy, the reigning champ of the Android world.
But by now, it was near impossible for any manufacturer to garner any attention in a world drowning in Apple and Samsung’s marketing bravado. The carrier support, the omnipresent advertising, and the buzz were all absent for otherwise stellar smartphones, as well as for their even better follow up devices. Add in the fact that Samsung was releasing a new flagship twice a year (Galaxy S and Note) and virtually any phone that came out lost any buzz within a matter of weeks.
After 10 years of the iPhone, many of the remaining smartphone manufacturers have retreated from competing with Apple head on. Arguably, only Samsung remains.
Arguably, only Samsung remains.
What’s interesting now is that the gap between the iPhone and other devices now is sufficiently small and that the iOS/Android ecosystems are quite mature. The prior “smartphone wars” are over. But technology moves on and the death of smartphone industry stalwarts has birthed just as many new tech behemoths, with a whole new technology war brewing again.
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