There’s No Such Thing as a Killer Feature for Smartphones

1Executive Summary

The smartphone market has surged in the past two years (PDF), largely due to adoption by mainstream consumers after years as a niche segment that appealed to techie and enterprise types. By most accounts, the appearance of the Apple (s aapl) iPhone exposed the appeal of the smartphone to “regular” phone customers. The success of the iPhone has created a race to grab smartphone market share, with all the major players participating. This race has players reaching to determine the “killer feature” that can be used to attract those new customers. This is a futile effort, as a single “killer feature” doesn’t exist. However, omitting some key features can directly limit sales.

Smartphones are personal devices, and end users are increasingly diverse. Any hand-held gadget is personal by nature, and users’ expectation of such products vary wildly from one to the next. Consider the reaction a new smartphone gets from consumers after it hits the market. Some say it’s “too thin,” others that it’s “too thick”; some say it’s “too light,” others “too heavy” — well, you get the picture. Consumer reactions can vary so much that it’s surprising they’re reacting to the same gadget.

Features play a role in that reaction. Take, for example, the iPhone’s lack of a physical keyboard. The iPhone is a popular smartphone by any standard, yet even after a couple of years on the market, consumer reaction still varies from person to person. There are those who praise the touchscreen keyboard, yet a great many see the lack of a hardware keyboard as a glaring omission by Apple.

So, what’s a handset maker to do? How can a feature list be determined that will appeal to the mass market? That can be tough, but there are some features that can cross the “personal divide” and appeal to the greater market. There are several “hot features” currently generating a lot of buzz in the consumer space:

  • Touch: large, high-res touchscreens open up a lot of user benefits
  • 3G: the expansion of smartphones into the social web require high-speed connections
  • Keyboards: full QWERTY keyboards are deemed mandatory by a large segment of the market
  • Wi-Fi: the ability to tap into high-speed hotspots opens up web possibilities
  • Trackballs: BlackBerry owners understand the utility of these little things
  • Email: seamless ability to work with email has hit mainstream requirements
  • Web: consumers have realized that web browsing and social networking is a fundamental expectation from their phone

This list of features is by no means complete; there are many features that can be included in today’s smartphones. However, a good approach to feature selection for new models should take into account at least a few of those features that bring so much to the consumer that exclusion can easily limit sales. This insures that new smartphone models have the broadest appeal to consumers.

High-speed connectivity
High-speed connectivity has become important to virtually all users, so 3G is not optional for smartphones — it’s mandatory. This connectivity extends the utility of the smartphone to wherever the owner happens to be, and coupled with a good email and web experience reach the largest potential market.

Wi-Fi should not be overlooked for the same reason. RIM has chosen to forego Wi-Fi capability on several BlackBerry models, and consumer reaction indicates this has limited their market appeal. A smartphone with 3G capability but without Wi-Fi is not sufficient, because an expensive phone is in danger of becoming a brick once it leaves a 3G coverage area, as smartphone users have come to expect access to online activities.

Trackballs
I think trackballs have become a must-have in the market. Trackballs are mostly found on BlackBerry phones today, and many fans point to that feature as a big reason for their devotion. HTC chose to include a trackball on the G1, and it greatly increases the usability of that device. However, the benefits of a trackball are not universally acknowledged, as witness by the lack of one on the hotly anticipated Palm Pre.

Hardware Keyboard
A physical keyboard should be a serious consideration at the phone design stage. The success of the iPhone sans keyboard shows that a phone can be well-received without one, but it still limits the market for a device. Handset giant HTC put a large touchscreen as well as a physical keyboard on the first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, in an attempt to cover the entire market. The Pre is also pursuing this approach, one I think we’ll see more of going forward.

However, the rumored successor to the G1 has reportedly dropped the keyboard. Research in Motion (RIM), the leader in QWERTY-equipped phones, also recently released the Storm, its first BlackBerry phone without a keyboard, and response has been all over the map. It was panned in the media by tech luminaries like Om Malik and David Pogue for the lack of the keyboard, but the Storm is Verizon’s top-selling phone so it’s clearly being well received by a healthy number of consumers.

It’s not easy to get past the personal nature of smartphones, but giving careful thought to the features can go a long way to a better reception by the marketplace.

James Kendrick is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of jkOnTheRun.

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3 Comments Subscribers to comment
  1. Stephen Scanlon Friday, May 29, 2009

    Having switched between 5 smart phones over a three year period, you’re right. They are very personal. ^^^I loved the experience of the iPhone, but getting back down to my business needs has landed me back with RIM (Bold).^^^

    By the way, I’m now a subscriber of the GigaOhm Pro because of the work you and Kevin have done over the years. I followed you to a service I had never even heard of before you joined up with them, and I’m willing to pay the subscription price in anticipation that reporting from others will be as insightful and enjoyable as yours and Kevin’s has been.

    Tell your boss you brought-on a paying customer for him. Time for a raise??

    1. Thanks so much Stephen! It is readers like you who make what we do so fulfilling. Welcome to GigaOM Pro!

  2. Liz Shannon Miller Friday, May 15, 2009

    I can’t agree enough regarding the hardware keyboard. It was a major factor in my decision to not get an iPhone and it’s a major factor in my excitement over the Palm Pre. Simply because as a lifelong typist, it doesn’t feel like typing unless I feel the keys move.

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