22 March 2010

Lock-in and smart phones

This item over at Ars Technica is interesting. The article itself is an analysis of Palm's WebOS and why it failed to attain economic success. While many articles have been written about this (and even though the reports of Palm's death may be premature), I found this section of the article most interesting:
In at least one way, Palm's webOS was a victim of its own success. I ultimately found that the Pre's thoroughgoing cloud orientation, which I made a big deal about in my review of the device, meant that there was nothing tying me to Palm. And unfortunately for Palm, the Pre had to compete with client platforms from companies that also provided important cloud services, with the result that those providers could privilege their own clients and thereby gain a certain amount of vendor lock-in.

Three examples serve to illustrate my point that it was too easy to leave Palm, and that Palm's decision to be solely a client platform put it at a permanent, structural disadvantage against competition that offered both clients and services.

Back in January of this year, after unboxing my new, Google-provided Nexus One, I logged into a few accounts (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Amazon) and voila—I had all my data on this new phone, along with my existing phone number (courtesy of Google Voice). Think about that for a moment: I ported all of my data and my phone number to a new phone on a new carrier, without so much as swapping a SIM card or calling a customer service number. And every cloud service that I used on Pre was immediately available on the Nexus One.

So it was that on the day that I got the Nexus One, I dropped my Pre in a drawer and didn't turn it on again for two months, all without missing a single message.

Leaving the iPhone was a lot harder, because—and this is my second example—I was in the habit of syncing my music with iTunes. iTunes syncing was the main way that Apple got its hooks into me, and everyone who followed the Apple vs. Palm battle over iTunes and Pre sync support knows that Apple guarded that key source of lock-in jealously.


In the end, Palm's fundamental problem wasn't the lack of reliable, first-party Google Voice or iTunes support, but the fact that Palm itself never offered a similarly essential service that it could use to lock users into the Pre. Google had Voice, Apple had iTunes, and Palm had nothing. The Pre didn't have first-party support for anything that I depended on or enjoyed, so it had no hold on me at all.

By not having any way at all to lock the user into webOS, Palm ended up betting the farm on the proposition that the Pre could and would deliver an overwhelmingly superior mobile client experience for a common slate of cross-platform cloud services. In other words, because Palm doesn't own any part of a user's data or identity, the user experience is the only thing that could tie a user to webOS.

There is economic research that supports the notion that lock-in is good and desirable for companies; in fact, companies work hard to achieve lock-in to avoid being commoditized. So, as we migrate to cloud-based services, how do firms and carriers create compelling lock-in for consumers? Is this a good thing for consumers?

One of the interesting things for me is that Google, with its Nexus One and Android experience, is trying to drive the value to the cloud through a device that works hard to NOT provide lock-in (i.e., contractual or standards), while Apple is trying to create as much lock-in as possible. This is no surprise, given their rather substantially different business models.

1 comment:

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