I was reading this post about the new “Droid” phone based on Google’s Android operating system.
What is interesting to me is how Google seems to be playing Microsoft to Apple once again. Apple came out with a clearly technically superior product enhanced by a very well done user interface. Meanwhile Google and its partners have been putting out versions of Android that started at mediocre and have been gradually improving. This new phone is at least the third release of the basic platform and is apparently the first to be in the same ballpark as the iPhone.
The question is not so much whether the Droid, in particular, is a real competitor for the iPhone. If not, we can reasonably presume there will be another version. That was the Microsoft strategy after all, to get close enough with a lower price to be a valid alternative. The question is, will Apple rest on its dominance as it did with the MacIntosh?
The other question is why do other companies find it so hard to get the slick user interface? A good team capable of doing that quality of work is hard to find and expensive, but really — Google can’t put one together, in a market worth potentially billions of dollars? For computers it might be debatable about how slick the user interface really needs to be but for a cell phone, a far more commoditized product with few technical differences, the user interface is the plurality of the product. It is the “value add” for which people pay.
I expect it’s a common problem that Apple, institutionally, has overcome. That problem is the realization that nice user interfaces are a lot of work. When I build enhancement in to our product the effort of implementing the backend is usually about 25% of the work. The other 75% is creating a user interface to make the feature accessible to the user. My pattern is to figure out the basic implementation (so I know I can implement the backend) then work out the details of the user conceptual model. If I can’t do the latter well we don’t put the feature in because it’s better to do without than to have an irritatingly unusable one. I suspect that too many tech companies haven’t figured this out and that’s why Apple has been so successful.