Apple. the ROKR phone and what it means to lead

In the week or so since the joint Motorola and Apple announcement of the new iTunes-enabled ROKR phone, the knives of the early adopter bloggers and tech pubs have been out. If you haven’t been following the coverage, a quick summary: the ROKR phone is basically a typical Motorola phone, with the addition of an Apple-supplied interface for playing MP3s and iPod-like integration with Macs and PCs through iTunes.
As far as I can tell, the criticism breaks down basically as follows:

  • It’s an ordinary-looking phone, and doesn’t reflect Apple’s typically brilliant industrial design
  • The experience of using the phone is largely typical Motorola — underwhelming.
  • Apple’s iTunes imposes an artificial limit of 100 songs, even if the phone’s hardware can store more.

I’m not one to be an apologist for Apple, and I’m the first to say that this phone isn’t for me. It’s uninteresting, crippled, and I’d rather visit the dentist than be forced to use a Motorola mobile phone interface. But I do think it’s useful to consider this phone in the context of how companies bring new products to market. Consider the following:

  1. MP3 players have been widely available on mobile phones for over a year.
  2. Despite their broad availability, customers tend not to use them very much.
  3. No one, including Apple, knows for sure why this is. Some possible reasons:
    • Is it too hard to transfer music onto your mobile phone?
    • Are phone interfaces for playing music not good enough??
    • Do customers prefer simpler devices that do one or two things well over more complex devices with multiple functions?
      • A number of industry watchers see increasingly capable mobile phones as the greatest threat to the iPod franchise and margins

Apple is probably pretty confident they can solve the interface and transfer problems — that’s largely what made the iPod such a success. But *if* there is a real customer preference for single-purpose devices, that can be pretty hard to overcome.
So if you’re Apple, you have a number of unanswered questions. How do you start to figure out the answers? By putting a real product on the market that you can learn from. And most importantly, do it quickly (before the your competitors) and cheaply (without having to engineer a whole new device). Focus on the problems you can solve, avoid cannibalizing your existing products as best you can, and partner with a company that can do the things you’re not good at.
Hence, the ROKR phone. If their experience with that phone reveals that a better interface and PC integration is the key to opening up a whole new market for music-enabled phones, you can bet that Apple will start to invest more — up to and including the entire experience of the phone, from hardware design to the phone interface. But to get to that point, they have a lot to learn first.
If the ROKR doesn’t fly — Apple learns that there’s not a burning need for MP3-capable mobile phones — they can think of it as cheap insurance. Better Apple invests a small amount and fails, rather than not trying at all and watching a competitor disrupt the whole iPod business.

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