Crossing the Wires: Does Hardware or Software Matter for Smartphones?
Is the smartphone race becoming one based on software and apps, or does hardware still matter when it comes to swaying consumers?
Why Hardware Will Always Matter
As Apple's iOS and Google's Android platform continue to battle for market share, it's easy to think smartphones have become all about the software, but what's under the hood, and the hood itself, still matters and it always will.
The argument here isn't that software doesn't matter. It does. In fact, software is probably the number one thing people consider before making their choice about which smartphone they're going to buy. Android or iOS? Maybe the user wants to try something different and go with a Windows Phone device. However, after that choice is made, it all comes down to hardware.
Hardware Drives Consumer Choices
Let's say the customer decides to go with Android. Great. The next question customers must ask themselves is what they will use the device for. Are they a heavy consumer of media? Will they use the device as their primary camera? The answer to which smartphone works best for them is in the hardware.
An argument could be made that most top-tier Android phones share the same specs. Most will have a dual-core processor, an 8-megapixel camera and run on the carrier's fastest available data network. However, different devices will have different strengths based on the hardware used. For example, the top three selling Android devices on Amazon right now are the Samsung Infuse 4G, Samsung Galaxy S2 and HTC Incredible 2, all free with a contract.
They all run Android, so how does the customer decide? Each also sports similar specs, but the devices are not interchangeable. The handsets have different strengths that all come down to hardware. Camera lovers are best off with the HTC Incredible 2, media heavy users are likely to enjoy the Samsung Infuse and its 4.7-inch screen and customers looking for a light, thin device would likely want to pick up the S2.
The iPhone's success is the best argument to be made by the other side that hardware doesn't matter anymore. Millions of people line up to buy a device that comes in just one flavor of hardware -- aside from storage capacity -- because the iOS software and Apple's App Store offer a great experience.
However, even that is changing, and Apple now offers a wider array of hardware choices and price points for consumers to choose from. Now, even if a customer decides they're going with an iOS device, users still must decided if they want the power and glass design of the iPhone 4S or if they prefer to keep it simple with the plastic iPhone 3GS.
The iPad offers even more hardware differentiation: the latest model of the iPad offers a retina display, for consumers who want to experience media and games on the tablet with clear detail and resolution.
The PC-Wars Pushed Hardware Differentiation
Analysts love to draw the comparison between the personal computer market and the smartphone market, and for good reason since they are very much alike. Smartphones have become pocket computers and the rise of Android and iOS is akin to the war between Mac OS X and Windows in PC land.
That only further strengthens the argument that hardware matters. The customer decides whether they want a Windows computer or a Mac, and then weigh a host of hardware options.
An older couple looking for a Windows computer to browse the Web and send e-mails does not need a laptop that's packing the same power as a college student who intends to edit video and play games. All the machines are running the same Windows software, so how do they differentiate? The answer is hardware.
Whether it's a computer or a smartphone, customers will always have different needs. The smartphone's operating system now plays a bigger part in a customer's decision in which device to buy. However, once that decision is made, the reason a buyer walks out of the store with one smartphone as opposed to another is always going to come down to the hardware.
Software Makes All the Difference When It Comes to Phones
As smartphones sales push out dumb phones, consumers have an increasingly powerful mini-computer in their pockets -- shifting the focus from hardware to software and apps, much like PCs shifted decades ago.
There comes a point where hardware is "fast enough," where consumers don't have to wonder whether their smartphones can run the apps they want. Once that point hits, people won't care about the components. Instead, they'll care about the brand, and the apps and services available.
Five years ago, the range of smartphones was wide. Not only did buyers have to decide on a carrier, but also power, features, camera, MP3 player, everything. Phone makers touted bells and whistles, largely in the way of hardware improvements -- such as better cameras, better screens, slimmer designs.
Then Apple and Google got into the picture. Smartphones got faster, and suddenly there were platforms for developers to create third-party apps. Consumers started caring that iOS had a better browser or iTunes, or Android had Google Apps and futuristic augmented reality glasses.
Software to Stand Out
As smartphones advance, fragmentation is converging. And that's becoming a problem for hardware makers. The truth is companies find it harder to stand out from the crowd. Their phones all run the same platform, albeit a few minor tweaks. So what's the difference?Android makers, like LG, HTC and Samsung, faced a dilemma -- when you all run Android, how do you stand out? Some companies have resorted to hardware gimmicks like 3D screens, 3D cameras and 3D sound. But guess what? Consumers didn't care, and those products flopped.
Perennial successes know that the platform -- does it run Android 4.0 or 2.3? -- and the brand -- the Galaxy vs. the Droid -- draw in customers. Maybe some still care about the guts, but it's less than a few years ago. As long as the hardware is "fast enough," consumers care less about the number of colors on the screen, or megapixels on the camera -- just as long as it runs Angry Birds.
Consumers choose their phones based on the platform and the apps available -- which is the heart of the Apple/Google battle. Control over the computer in your pocket, much like Microsoft dominates the PC on your desk.
If you're used to Apple's interface, or you really need that iPhone-only app, you'll be less likely to buy Android. And vice versa.
Apps Drive Smartphone Success
That's why Apple and Google dominate, and why HP and RIM tried so desperately, and failed, to enter the smartphone market with WebOS and the PlayBook. It's not that their hardware was bad -- in fact, they sported some of the most advanced components at the time.
The problem was much deeper. Consumers didn't buy them because their platforms didn't have as many apps as Apple and Google. And developers weren't creating apps for them because there were so few users. It's a software Catch-22 that ultimately forced both companies to shut down their mobile operations -- not hardware.
As further evidence, Android makers worry about Google entering the smartphone market with its own Google phone. Google has repeatedly said it will not play favorites, but that hasn't stopped them from beefing up their services. Android makers understand they're tied to Google's hip, for better or worse, and one move can doom them -- because Google wants a service play, integrating Google Search, Gmail and Google Maps, while tracking you to better target advertising.
The Google Phone
Frankly, if Google makes its own phones, it'll contract to someone like Foxconn, a company many electronics giants user to make its products. But not everyone integrate services the way Google can.
This happened to PCs decades ago. Remember when you used to build your own systems? That new video card mattered. That new Intel chip mattered. That new sound card mattered. Then, as hardware got "fast enough," somewhere along the line, you stopped caring about the parts. The big choice became, "Do I want a Mac or PC?" And if you chose PC, "Do I want HP? Or Dell?"
Windows and Mac fought it out. And Microsoft's "open" approach -- anyone who wants to develop for Windows, can -- ultimately won. Apple's "closed" approach -- we want to control the look, feel and experience -- hindered the number of programs available. Sound familiar? It should, because history is repeating itself.
The difference now is Google has replaced Microsoft, but the shift in consumer taste is the same -- hardware didn't matter for PCs. And it won't matter for smartphones.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦
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