Reading about the latest Snapdragon-enabled smartphone, I recalled the big splash that Qualcomm made when it announced the platform in 2006. The vision of a world filled with mobile broadband–enabled consumer electronics, ranging from gaming handhelds to portable media players to digital cameras to smartphones, was an enticing one.
Three years later, are we there yet?
The answer is no. Instead, what we have is a world filled with smartphones, netbooks and more smartphones. Throw one or two million e-readers in the mix, and you really have about three devices categories.
All in all, progress has been disappointing for mobile broadband in the consumer electronics market. Sure, smartphones and netbooks are shipping big-time numbers, but outside of these devices — which aren’t even traditional consumer electronics products — when you compare the vision of three years ago to today, the lack of diversity for mobile CE products becomes painfully evident.
Why the lack of variety?
It comes down to four reasons:
- Cost: The cost of embedding mobile broadband into devices is significantly higher than that of Wi-Fi or other connectivity. In the price-competitive world of consumer electronics, Wi-Fi wins out over embedded 3G.
- Long product cycles in traditional CE devices: When Sony launches its fourth iteration of the PSP five years into the platform (and at a higher price), instead of launching the PSP2 with 3G, you see how slow the incumbents move.
- Carriers don’t understand how to operate in a one consumer/multi-device world. Carriers prefer consumers have one device that does everything on their 3G network (i.e. a smartphone) rather than multiple devices for different applications, and if consumers must have more than one device, well then, the new mantra is Mi-Fi.
- Lack of imagination: There is very little imagination in the consumer electronics space today, and even less in the phone business. Sure, some like Archos dare to be different and Apple is likely percolating a potential disruptive device, but even there – with web tablets – everyone seems to be copying each other.
Some would also argue that the real problem is the smartphone, which is fast becoming the super-CE device. That may be so to a certain extent as more features are subsumed into the phone, but as digital cameras have shown, traditional device categories threatened by phones don’t have to disappear overnight.
Instead of launching another me-too phone, CE makers would be wise — as Kevin Tofel has suggested in the past — to integrate mobile broadband into devices. New models such as Amazon’s whispernet offer a beautifully simple way of making of making mobile broadband fees invisible to the end user. Let’s not leave this opportunity to the e-readers. Otherwise we’ll end up with a world in which we all own the same iPhone or Android device and lots of big-name CE makers will be out of business.