To Survive In The Post-PC World, Device Manufacturers Need To Get Tough

While Google and Microsoft downplay the significance of their Nexus 7 and Surface tablets, the message to their device manufacturers is abundantly clear: If you’re not building devices that surpass what we can do ourselves, you’re not adding value. Their intent in sending this message is to push device manufacturers to abandon their race-to-the-bottom strategy that emphasize low prices and incremental improvements over new product innovation. 

As I discuss in my new report, Humdrum Hardware: Why Google And Microsoft Are Goading Their Partners To Innovate, this strategy worked well in the Windows PC era, when there were no other viable ecosystems to draw consumers away and device manufacturers competed primarily on price, but they are no longer relevant in today’s post-PC world, where multiple ecosystems (Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft) compete against one another. To survive in the post-PC era, device manufacturers must get tough:

  • Pick sides in the platform wars. Device manufacturers need to concentrate their resources and commit to a single platform if they expect to develop compelling and innovative products that can compete against Apple.
  • Start playing hardball with Google and Microsoft. When Nokia went all-in on Microsoft, Nokia demanded special benefits, support, and concessions in exchange for platform-exclusive innovations. Other device manufacturers should replicate this model.
  • Push Google and Microsoft to adopt a co-opetition-based ecosystem model. In order to compete effectively against the vertically integrated ecosystems of Amazon and Apple, Google and Microsoft need to coordinate and optimize the innovation efforts of device manufacturers. 
  • Focus on bigger innovations for fewer products. Rather than churn out countless undifferentiated devices, device manufacturers need to focus on making a few highly innovative devices that can turn the tables on more-dominant players.

Given the changes that have taken place, what do you think device manufacturers need to do to survive in the post-PC era?


Pricing, Customer Loyalty and The Single Platform

Tony, great post and summary. I am exploring a tangential subject for a client of mine looking to pitch an idea to those big four firms you mentioned - Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Some observations:

1. Price points in the "race-to-the-bottom" are in direct conflict with innovation beyond the increment. One of the challenges for a Google or Microsoft is to groom super-loyal customers as Apple has done by providing bigger product leaps than competitors can, and building tangible/unique advantages (content, customer experience, etc.). In this regard, the "all-in" bet of a Nokia is advantageous insofar as the cost to consumers of competitive innovation doesn't overshadow the innovation itself, AND Microsoft reaps the benefits of a new generation of loyalists unwilling to switch to another ecosystem. Otherwise, back to square one while Apple continues to pre-sell millions of iPhone units.

2. But customer loyalty can work both ways in this regard. Take the iPhone 5 as an example. The most innovative aspect of the phone may be the iOS6 operating system recently released (have it on my 4S now), which boasted more in the way of progress than the actual hardware. I've heard mention of designs for the 6 and 7 versions of the iPhone are Apple customers so entrenched that Apple can draw out incremental innovation over a longer period of time than without such loyalty? If so, than won't Microsoft and Google, assuming success independent of OEM devices, eventually reach a point where the same is true? Will OEMs be able to innovate before Google and Microsoft move permanently to in-house hardware manufacturing? My first impressions of both the Nexus and Surface are very positive from a "first go" analysis, particularly as both Google and Microsoft ramp up available device content, user experiences, application compatibility and unique device functionality (the Surface keyboard is a very good example here, although not wholly inimitable).

3. HTC is gambling on Windows phones now, but HTC's presence in the Android environment signifies this half-and-half approach, as if the bet is on the table but the player hasn't looked at his cards yet: only the expressions around him. HTC not historically strong in hardware (except last year 3Q, top US manufacturer), and Microsoft not historically strong in phone software. Right now, Samsung and Apple dominate US phones with over half the market. Seems like a steep slope that will require incredibly savvy and attractive design and user interfaces for the HTC/Microsoft duo to capture double digit share in phones. Not to say it isn't possible, particularly since the Windows 8X is available for $200, which is competitive with iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy models.

4. If Apple can get Samsung phones banned from US markets (I have no insight on the probability of this happening), this would provide a clear opening to Microsoft, and be a huge blow to Google. Meanwhile, Samsung is planning to sue Apple over iPhone 5 technology while Google is looking to get Apple products banned as well. And Apple is looking to increase the $1bn award due from Samsung. With patent wars heating up, where is the upside for OEMs to manufacture innovative technology if real threats exist to that technology's existence in the marketplace?

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