Why iPhone killers aren’t

It’s very common that when something becomes really popular or a category killer (no, monopoly is not a good term here), the competitors start claiming their products as XYZ killer. There are plenty of examples, like iPod killer, Windows killer and more recently iPhone killer. This post is generally about the concept of product killers and specifically about the so-called iPhone killers.

First let’s talk about the product killers in general. There is no common definition of what a product that kills another product actually means. The marketers aren’t talking about actually destroying the physical product :-) I suppose it’s an euphemism for a very aggressive marketing tactic which means their new product is going to halt the momentum (in terms of market adoption and buzz) of the existing category killer and eventually turn the momentum into the new product’s favor. This is, of course, what all marketers dream off. There is an old Indian (probably also other cultures) saying that a man is judged by quality of his enemies. Pitting yourself against a powerful enemy can help you position your product and at least give prospective customers a reason for pause. The question, though, is whether this is a good long term strategy. This strategy assumes that the new product meets all the current requirements plus fills all the voids left by current leader. This would imply that the product is going to please everyone. Whoever has ever been involved in any product development knows that this is a recipe for disaster. Every product requires some features that you would have to consciously omit in order for the whole package to work. If you cram too many features your product will become hard to use, position and end up not being liked by anyone. While launching a new product a better bet is to get a few passionate early adopters and then iterate and grow into adjacent feature areas. The passionate early adopters tend to have very strong opinions about how a product should work and your are not going to please them with a product that has 1000 other features they don’t care about. Even if you do make a better product with all the features plus everything consciously left out by the current leader (for some reason – often stupidity is not the reason), you still have an uphill battle because of the network effect, ability of current leader to cut prices or simply because the leading product has become a fashion statement.

So what exactly does calling your product an XYZ killer do? It sets the expectations very high, which is generally a bad idea while launching a new product. No matter how hard you try, most likely you will disappoint because you simply can’t please everyone. And all the negative reactions will end up hurting your chances in the long run.

The iPhone killers
Before the iPhone, there were the iPod killers. Often times the devices actually were quite good, they had FM radio, cameras, better sound quality, wifi connectivity and so on. None of this seemed to have put even a small dent into the iPod’s market share. The reasons why none of the missing features were important enough for the customers to switch, though they have sometimes missed them, was because the whole iPod+iTunes package worked. Somehow the competitors couldn’t figure out the right mix and mostly ended up completely forgetting the content strategy. They fought the wrong battle and eventually lost the war. It’s also interesting to note that the horizontal strategy that worked great for PCs hasn’t translated very well into consumer electronics. Not only iPod/iPhone but also the video game consoles are a good example of that. That is a separate topic though.

Now on to the iPhone, just this week we have heard about DroidTM and how “Droid Does”. Make no mistake, some of the “iDon’t”s are real and can be a bother often times. Of course, before DroidTM there were Palm Pre, Google Phone (a number of android clones *pun intended*), Samsung Instinct, LG Voyager and the so the list goes. They had everything that iPhone didn’t for a very long time including their own app store clones. Why have they not succeeded in killing the iPhone then? The reason again, I suppose, is that the iPhone is a better overall package and all the things it “doesn’t” are not important enough to that experience. Now to Apple’s credit they have listened to the customers and have fixed or added the issues, but only when they were sure it was the right time and right way to do it (cases in point: copy-cut-paste, SDK, MMS, tethering etc.). So what would it take to kill the iPhone? You would have to do a lot better than replaceable batteries. Almost always you can kill a product category leader if you stay long enough (and keep investing) and wait for the category leader to stumble in execution or strategy. Though I doubt this is going to happen anytime soon with the iPhone.

It’s also interesting that while introducing the iPhone, Apple never claimed it to be a BlackBerry or Nokia killer. The expectation was set relatively low, the focus was on delivering the whole package and whatever little iPhone did, it did it with perfection (except making the calls :-)). They listened to the market and kept iterating. I wonder if they were following Minimum Viable Product strategy mentioned below.

This post has already become a lot longer than I had intended, so I will probably write follow up later. But I would be interested in knowing examples of product killers which dethroned the market leaders by building slightly improved product (without the market leader failing to execute e.g. Netscape vs. Microsoft is not a good example).

  1. turn.self.off says:

    i would say that rarely is the marketing team for the product that calls it a XYZ killer, and instead the journalists/bloggers covering the launch and writing reviews that talks about its being a potential killer…

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