“Even a child can do it” is a terrific competitive advantage, until its not

by jeffhilimire on April 11, 2013

Last night at a conference event I heard a really nice presentation on the art of simplicity from an executive at Metlife. She was great, however she is still references Apple’s competitive advantage as their ability to make products so simple that “even a child can use them”.

Let’s be honest, when the iPhone first came out in 2007 the rest of the smartphone world was putting out some pretty terrible devices. I know because I used almost all of them in hopes of finding something worth using. So when people started learning that they could hand an iPhone to a toddler and within minutes they knew how to use it, that was a pretty steller competitive advantage.

And that’s all well and good as long as the rest of the market is unable to do the same thing. When you’re in an immature industry, the first company to really figure out the user experience and make something that people crave instead of something people pull their hair out trying to use will dominate. And that’s why we see charts like this one or this one.

Until a few weeks ago I thought Apple still held the unique ability to claim that “even a child can use this device”. Then I was handed the Nexus 4 and I immediately realized that the world has caught up. If you haven’t tried this device – and I can only recommend this phone because I tried the Galaxy Samsung S3 a few days before and it absolutely hasn’t caught up to the iPhone yet – you need to borrow one from a friend and give it a whirl. It’s fantastic. And I’m bullish on trying the Samsung S4 when it comes out.

The point is, Apple no longer can claim to be the absolute best user experience. That playing field is leveled and soon their “we have more and better apps” playing field advantage will also be leveled. And I’m not sure what they’ll have in their war chest to pull out this time to stay ahead of the competition. This is the first time I’ve had a real feeling that without Jobs, they might struggle mightily finding their way.

I’ve heard, but haven’t actually tested this, that this advantage still exists for Apple in the tablet space. The iPad still dominates but there is no reason to think this same evolution won’t happen in tablets and again I’ll wonder what Apple will do to remain dominant. I think part of their strategy has been to lock people into their ecosystem – a smart if not annoying strategy – to make switching much harder for consumers. I just don’t know if that will be enough.

For the first time in six years I can start to see that Apple is going to have a hard time remaining #1 in mobile devices. Which, by the way, I think is a great thing for “us”. The more serious competition that exists, the more everyone has to up their A-game and we will all benefit.

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