28 Sep 2014

Simplifying the Phone Market

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but not on Android or anything mobile-related.)

There are thousands of models of smartphones in the market. Flipkart lists 1431, for example. Given so many options, it’s hard to find the one that’s right for you.

One phone may have something another lacks, but lack some other feature the first one has. Weighing these options becomes hard. Not to mention that no one knows all the decision factors ahead of time. For example, after buying the iPhone 5s, I found that I kept dropping it, because of its slippery aluminium back, while the Nexus 5, for example, has a plastic back. It isn’t as pretty, but it actually works better. This is something I didn’t know ahead of time. And this is just one example. There are dozens of factors that come into play when you compare smartphones. Nobody can keep all of them in mind and weigh them appropriately.

What can we do to simplify the smartphone market?

A big part of this is having minimum standards. For example, no one wants a blurry screen. People may want a small or a big screen, but no one wants a blurry screen. So one minimum standard might be a screen that’s around 300 pixels per inch. Companies should look to the standards their competitors set, and try to either meet or exceed them, but not fall short. For example, Motorola sells a great phone for $170, which has a 300 PPI screen [1]. So, if anyone else sells a smartphone for $200 or more, it should have at least a 300 PPI screen.

And all the other factors that make a great display, such as a great contrast ratio, wide viewing angles, full sRGB coverage, color accuracy, and everything else that makes a great screen. What matters is the overall user experience, and specs are merely a means to that end. Don’t make them an end to themselves, like a 2560 x 1440 screen on a phone — no one’s going to notice the difference over a 1080p screen, except probably a lower battery life. Or thinking that a 13 megapixel camera is better than an 8 megapixel one. Or rejecting a 8 megapixel camera if that takes better photos than your competitors’ 13 megapixel cameras.

So, any company that ships a $200 or above phone should internally review it against the Moto G, and make sure it’s at least as good in all or most respects. Needless to say, this review should be fair and balanced for it to serve its purpose.

Another way of setting standards would be the following: if a company is considering shipping a phone that uses a $7 camera module, say, they should compare it against off-the-shelf camera modules that go for $7 or so, and check whether their camera is indeed the best of the lot. If not, just go with the best off-the-shelf module you can get. That will result in a better camera, and therefore a better phone, for the same price. Sure, if a great camera module costs $25, then that will drive the price of the phone up, but if you can get a better one for around $7, like $8, there’s no reason not to go for it.

A certain amount of customizability will also help. For example, why can’t I buy a Galaxy Note with the same great camera as the Galaxy S5? Maybe I prefer the larger screen of the Note, but I also want the awesome camera of the S5. Absent even a small amount of customizability, it makes the buying decision harder — do I compromise on the camera or on the screen size? No one wants to compromise. And when a buyer gets into the compromise game, they might also consider an iPhone 6 Plus, which hurts Samsung.

There are dozens of factors that go into a phone, so it’s hard to even compare models. In this example, if you have chosen the Note 4 but want a better camera, and you end up buying the S5, you may be worse off in some dimension that you weren’t aware of when you bought your phone. Maybe the S5 has a worse battery life? Maybe it doesn’t work on LTE in your country? Maybe it doesn’t have enough memory, and so can’t handle as many tabs in the browser at once, without reloading? And so on. There’s no way anyone can know all the implications of the decisions they are making. This means unhappy buyers, for some reason or the other. Some buyers, in this example, will be unhappy about the battery life, and others about LTE not working in their country, and yet others about memory, and so on. Whatever the reasons, when you force people into a compromise, a lot of them will be unhappy one way or the other.

It’s much better to let someone who loves the Note 4 but wants to upgrade the camera do so.

Without flexibility, you have a combinatorial explosion of models. If you have 5 different screens and 5 different cameras, then you have 25 models. No one can understand what’s what, keep track of all the models, and find the right one. Whereas if there were just 5 models, each with a different screen size, but you could choose a camera, that’s just 10 choices you have to make (5 + 5), rather than 25.

It’s also much easier to make independent decisions rather than interlocking ones, where each decision changes a lot of other things you may or may not like. In the above example where you wanted a Note 4 but with a better camera, and ended up going for the S5, the S5 is not just a Note 4 with a better camera. It has a dozen or so differences with the Note 4, and you don’t know what they are, even if you’re a geek, unless you review phones for a living. Whereas it’s much easier to make independent decisions, such as choosing a screen size and camera separately.

I think a lot of customisability is one of the reason for the market having thousands of phone models. This is a nightmare for buyers, who’ll end up buying phones that are not the best for them.

And for manufacturers, where it drives up the cost to make thousands of models: hardware, software, user experience, marketing, distribution and everything else. This means that a company cannot invest as much in a phone they expect to sell a million units of as much as they can in a phone they expect to sell 10 million units of. Which means the buyers lose, by getting a mediocre or merely moderately good, rather than excellent, phone.

The car market, for example, is much better structured than the phone market: you pick a car, and then add accessories such as a particular type of seat cover, wheel caps, music system, and so on. Imagine if you choose a particular car, but then found that it was offered only in blue, which you don’t like. You’d be forced to pick another car, but you’d then find that it doesn’t come with airbags, which you insist on. So, you’d look for yet another car, but find something else missing, such as a four-speaker music system. This scenario would be a nightmare, but that’s exactly how the phone market works.

I’m not asking for a top-of-the-line camera in a $100 phone. The PC market has that kind of customizability, where you can get a $600 laptop with as much memory as a $1800 Retina Macbook Pro. Or attach a $8000 lens to a $400 SLR. I’m not asking for that kind of flexibility here. I’m not asking for a top-of-the-line camera in a $100 phone. I’m asking only for Samsung’s best camera on their flagship Note 4.

Neither am I asking for the flexibility to modify my phone after the fact, by swapping modules. I’m only asking for flexibility at the time of purchase. This is again a lower expectation than the SLR market.

Neither am I asking for customisability along all dimensions, such as taking a Note 4 but then customising the CPU, memory and screen size. I’m talking about only limited customisability, such as upgrading the camera.

Some amount of customisability would go a long way, reducing the profusion of models, while making it easier for them to pick a model (by letting them make independent decisions rather than compromises between predefined bundles). And increasing choice for buyers, because no one can make a combinatorial explosion of models.

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