The end of the portfolio mega stars

Don’t you sometimes long to be CEO of a company like Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia or Microsoft? So that you can say to your coders, your designers, your development teams and your software architects: ‘Not Fucking Good Enough. I haven’t said ‘Wow’ yet. I haven’t gasped with pleasure, amusement or admiration once. Start again. Not Fucking Good Enough.’
— @stephenfry

Late in 2008 Stephen Fry wrote an excellent article about how the rest of industry players better step up their game. For sure at times teams may indeed need a proverbial kick in the bum. Although back in 2008 myself and many colleagues were delighted with this article it also misses some key problems that no amount of shouting or better yet, high standards, would have fixed.

How the industry looked in 2007

The dominant way to create phones at the time was with what is known as portfolio theory. The main players created tens of products every year to fit every possible niche in the market. These portfolios would then gain you a large amount of marketshare that no individual product could ever hope to gain. These products were divided up based on various different factors. Some on price that ranged from entry level cheap phones to expensive flagships. They were divided based on what they could do, be it music focused, camera focused, media focused, etc. Others were then divided up based on types of user. Be it tribes they belonged to 'young hipsters' and 'busy family parent' or personality such as 'early adopter' and 'technology laggard'.

Each of these products would then have tens to hundreds of hardware variants. This was to support everything from different types of cellular network to local laws such as the banning of GPS or cameras. These would then in turn be running many hundreds of software variants. The vast majority of these variants were just tweaks to turn off or on specific features. But they also included full interface customisations for various network carriers.

Products of the time had a wide range of personalisation options. The hardware supported changeable covers and a loop to allow phone jewellery to be hung from it. Then the software could be customised from everything to setting a home screen picture to changing the ringtone. You could even download UI themes so that all the apps and icons on the phone would fit the aesthetic of your favourite sci-fi movie or Hello Kitty.

The end result was the successful companies of the time were masters of managing the complexity of hundreds of hardware products and software versions. I cannot stress this enough, it was amazing. A management, engineering and production feat that was difficult for even those of us who were part of it to fully at the time appreciate. These companies could even juggle multiple platforms and operating systems. Back when I worked at Symbian it was not uncommon for members of the foundation to announce that as well as products based on their own OS and Symbian, they would also be working on various new phone platforms that came along. Everything was optimised towards this end. It wasn't just a theory reflected by a wide range of products but how entire companies were organised. 

Here comes the iPhone

So come late 2007 I have in my hand a product that just thumbs its nose at everything we held to be good and true. From the perspective of an industry insider the iPhone seemed unashamed in its attempts to appeal to as few people as possible. You could only buy the phone in the USA and on a single network carrier. It only came in one colour with just two storage options of 4 or 8GB of memory. The phone was essentially tethered to a desktop PC. On turning it on for the first time a graphic appeared showing a connection to a PC or Mac running iTunes was needed to activate it. Even the contract with the carrier had to be a more expensive one with a data plan. At the time it was remarked that maybe the device only had appeal in the USA, something further compounded by English being the only language it then supported.

It just seemed outrageous. Data plans were so expensive and at the time the majority were on voice plans. How could a modern product not ship with at least twenty languages supported from day one? What about people that don't have a desktop PC or Mac that would want to use a product like this? No one sane would ignore the enterprise market. Then to add seeming insult to injury it was missing countless features that conventional wisdom demanded to be in any product. 3G network support, cut-copy-paste, MMS messaging, video recording, front facing camera and video calls.

It was just mind bending. If Apple had decided to just give the product to the existing players they would have rejected it for not fitting any portfolio. There was just a single product with essentially one hardware version and one software version. Surely more had to be coming? Even personalisation was brutally limited in the first version to just selecting a different image on the lock screen. The ringtone could be changed, but only to one of a handful of built in tones that Apple supplied. Until a software update late in 2007 you could not even change the one single standard tone for new messages.

But what became clear as time went on was that many of these so called weaknesses were strengths. Like an early arthropod climbing out of the water to live on land. This product was going to carve out a secure niche before going on to eat everyone else's lunch. I plan to come back to how these so called limitations as important design learnings can be taken form them. But I want to finish on a different revelation around the user experience.

Who knows what experience your customers are having?

It slowly dawned on me that this product had to of been created by a small team and uniquely they had created and controlled the experience everyone was getting. Let me explain. With a portfolio, variant and personalisation strategy it is simply impossible for the team responsible for the overall design of a phone to also be involved in every possible version. You have to divide up the work into separate teams. This is further compounded by the reality that most employees will run the default vanilla version of the software. They won't see all the different custom versions as you can only run one variant at a time on any device. It would be a full time job just managing multiple phones running multiple versions of the same software. So you have no idea how well some of these variants even work. Thus you get a double whammy of an experience that was not designed by the core team and as a company you have become ignorant of the experience customers are having with your own products.

Although few people probably know every aspect of the iPhone inside out, it is possible to achieve this knowledge. As well as knowing this knowledge relates to all the other iPhone users out there. After all they are all running the same software on the same hardware. From a design perspective it is then crystal clear who is accountable for the user experience and it is trivial to get the same experience yourself.

But could the iPhone still be an iPhone and support a portfolio? It was pondering on this that lead to seeing how focused on being a single product the iPhone actually was. Something so different to products of the time and interestingly still unique to this day. But more on that will have to wait for a future post.