Examples of Smartphone Specialization and Implications for Google’s Control

A while back, Bob O’Donnell wrote a piece on Techpinions titled “Tablet and Smartphone Futures: Specialization”.

Ultimately, technology products are likely to follow the path of other mass-produced goods, such as cars, appliances and even clothing. In all those markets (and many more), the ability to specifically target different types of consumers and then create products that match the unique needs/interests of those different consumers is what allows companies to thrive. Now, it’s time for technology companies to step up to those challenges and give us the breadth of product options that the market is hungry to see.

I very much agree with Bob’s point. The wider a product penetrates a market, the more diverse needs it will have to address. This is what has happened in almost all markets, and although personal computing devices are different in that customers can install software to customize to their preferences, there is little guarantee that this is sufficient to satisfy the very divergent needs.

Furthermore, diversification is not necessarily aligned with the interests of the platform owners. In the case of Apple, they try hard to control the experience on their devices. They minimize customization options in the name of simplicity. They try hard to find a single one-size-fits-all that works well. In the case of Google, the first started by allowing OEMs and carriers to customize the Android OS, but then scaled back when they felt they were losing control of the platform, and that fragmentation was becoming an issue for developers. It is clear that the platform owners are discouraging diversification.

What we are seeing is a natural tension between conflicting requirements. In this situation, small changes in the market could dramatically shift the balance of power. This is why I’m very interested in observing how specialized products will enter the market, and what level of success they will achieve.

One example that cropped up recently is the announcement of some very interesting Android smartphones from KDDI, the second largest carrier in Japan.

The first exhibit is a smartphone targeted towards primary school pupils (miraie KYL23). Apart from the hardware which is designed to withstand the constant abuse that one can expect from small children, it has good Web filtering features, and can even track what swearwords and insults your child may have typed-in. You cannot use Google Play or other Google Services; instead, you install apps from a specialize app store.

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Message pops up when you try to enter “ばか” (stupid). It tells you that you are using a bad word, and your parents will be notified.

When you think about it, it’s absolutely obvious that you don’t want to use a Google certified Android device on these smartphones, and you really have no choice but to go with AOSP.

As the smartphone market saturates and it becomes important to address the smaller niche markets, it is very likely that we will see even more customization. In this situation, the restrictions that Google applies for Google Play certification may be too limiting, and AOSP may see more adoption. Obviously, Apple will not play in this market.

Update

Importantly, the miraie KYL23 smartphone is manufactured by a Japanese smartphone vendor, Kyocera, which also sells Google certified smartphones. Therefore, although it has been rumoured that Google does not give out licenses to companies that also sell AOSP or forked-Android, this does not always seem to be the case.