SAN JOSE, Calif. A stampede of new mobile systems is thundering on the horizon. Two words of advice for system makers who want to survive it—think different.
Apple Inc.'s old motto may be grammatically incorrect but it is strategically right on target for this era of innovation by imitation. The good news is there is no shortage of novel technologies and ideas to leverage a company out of the parade of me-too lemmings.
An ARM executive warned about the coming stampede in a press event in Taipei this week, saying as many as 50 media tablet designs will hit the market this year, including ones from each of the top ten telecom service providers.
Giants are running with this herd. In the wake of the Apple iPad announcement, Hewlett-Packard is ratcheting up the volume on its Slate product. Dell and Sony are also leaking news about their plans.
At the Consumer Electronics Show, we saw a similar flood of e-books debut. Others are experimenting with more loosely defined concepts for smartbooks and mobile Internet devices.
Meanwhile, netbooks—miniature notebook PCs—have hit the mainstream. And smartphones have become the center of mass of the mobile maelstrom, said analysts and other attendees at the Mobile World Congress, the big annual cellular event.
The problem is many OEMs will get trampled in this surge of similar tablets, e-books, netbooks and smartphones. Indeed, Apple recently fired a legal warning shot to scare off an industry that has been busy cloning the look and feel of its iPhone--and has started imitating its iPad even before it hits the streets.
The relatively slow legal system is not likely to stop imitators. Apple's patent infringement suits on the iPhone look-and-feel are likely to have as little market impact as its Macintosh look-and-feel suits against Microsoft did twenty years ago. Competitors are more likely to be tripped up by watching Apple too closely and failing to see some other key hurdles on the way to success—like a compelling user experience and a broad ecosystem.
New mobile systems need to be designed to serve a genuine user need, and serve it well. That's a hard discipline at a time when it's so easy to build or source an iThing knock-off for a set of service providers hungry to sell more gadgets they can get subscribers to attach to their networks.
The overarching problem for many mobile devices is they are either too big to fit easily in a pocket (even the iPhone falls into this category for the blue jeans crowd) or they are too small to do real work. There is a list as long as my arm of startups with display and input technologies that could address those issues. In a cover story, my colleague R. Colin Johnson just called out a dozen of them in the e-book sector alone.
The simplest way to think different than Apple is to think open. As veteran mobile analyst Gerry Purdy of MobileTrax points out Apple has yet to support flash cards, multi-tasking and Adobe Flash in its mobile systems.
Google with its Android environment is already exploiting those rather large holes. The search giant's growing store of applications also helps OEMs tap into an instant ecosystem. For its part, HP is showing how it can think different and open by trumpeting support of Adobe Flash in its upcoming tablet.
A few years from now we will look back on the period from 2007 to 2012 as a time of great experimentation in mobile system design. Many ideas will wind up under the hooves of an industry racing ahead, but a few will ride to heights we haven't even seen yet.