Clone Phones Lack Customer Loyalty: An 80s Flashback

Users aren't particularly loyal to their cell phones or the operating systems they feature, according to a survey by research company GfK.

A panel of 2653 people was questioned in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, China, and Brazil. Just over half of them were wavering over which manufacturer to chose for their next buying decision. Overall only 25 percent felt they wanted to stick with the same operating system regardless of manufacturer, although Apple will be pleased to hear that 59 percent of its existing customers planned to stick with iOS.

Lowest-scoring in terms of operating system loyalty was Microsoft, with only 21 percent of customers planning to choose a Windows OS for their next phone purchase, although it's likely the survey was completed before Windows Phone 7 had a chance to make an impact.

Nokia's perennial Symbian also ranked low at 24 percent, although Google's Android only scored 28 percent. RIM's BlackBerry OS scored a healthier 35 percent.

However, there was good news for smartphone manufacturers: 37 percent of those polled (China excepted because of its poor 3G infrastructure) said they intended to move up to a smartphone in the future.

The results might be troubling for those behind Google's Android, which, although popular in today's marketplace, apparently doesn't engender much loyalty among its users. However, it's worth remembering that Android is a very young operating system that sees several new releases each year. Those willing to give Android a second chance are very likely to be rewarded, although how Google can communicate this to the population at large is another matter. While a new release of the iPhone iOS quite literally makes front page news, releases of Android are largely of concern to manufacturers who must appropriate them how they see fit.

Some startling questions are raised by the survey, however. For example, are manufacturers doing everything they can to make their phones distinctive? What options are open to them?

It's beginning to feel very much like the 1980s out there. Remember the PC clone market? Beyond Apple, BlackBerry and Symbian-based products, it's a clone phone market with many manufacturers opting for the same operating system (Android) and processor combination (ARM, albeit from different chip manufacturers). The word "Wintel' was coined to describe the union of Windows and Intel in PCs, and perhaps it's time for a new word to describe the union of Android OS and ARM processors. Andrarm? Armroid?

Indeed, manufacturers adopting the "Armroid" platform should be looking to the clone PC market of the 1980s to figure out how to proceed.

At the moment moves to distinguish Android phones from competitors seem focused on custom interface skins, or custom launcher programs. However, adding in software components that alter the nature of the OS is likely to irritate rather than delight users. Those with long memories might remember various attempts to replace Windows 3.1's Program Manager with "better" swap-ins, back in the days of PC clones. Such replacements never, ever succeeded.

There's some space for manufacturer differentiation when it comes to hardware add-ins, but within a few years we'll hit a ceiling. Take camera components, for example. Go beyond 6MP and the law of diminishing returns takes effect, with larger camera sensors making little difference. And while phones offering 4G and Wi-Fi have a competitive advantage now, again, we'll soon hit a ceiling with what can be offered when all manufacturers adopt the technology.

What the PC clone market boiled down to (and still does) is the degree of computing power offered for the price and, to a lesser extent, the loyalty engendered by product quality. It's already clear that not all smartphones are created equal, with some being zippier than others--but cheap hardware choices such as a poor quality touchscreens can make all the difference between good and bad user experiences, regardless of the software.

The loyalty engendered by Apple's products isn't simply related to its operating system software. Buying Apple also brings with it the expectation of top quality hardware. Rival phone manufacturers need to take note of this.

Go into any cell phone store and you'll already hear talk of "fast" and "slow" phones. While some phones are built to get a competitive advantage with the likes of built-in Facebook access or media players, consumers are getting wise to the fact that any half decent smartphone will have access to such services anyway via an app store. Software is not the place to get sales.

Specification tags in cell phone stores rarely if ever make mention of hardware specs, but that's almost certain to change in the future as processor speeds, memory quantities, and storage become the chief differentiators between products.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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