Crumbling ecosystems

Microsoft Surface Pro 3
The Surface Pro 3 boasts a natural pen and paper experience. (Image: Microsoft)

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27 May 2014 | 0

Can companies excel at hardware, software and content? It may be the goal of every tech brand to create ecosystems (or ‘walled gardens’ if you want some sinister jargon) but evidence from four stories last week indicates that any attempt to be all things to all users is doomed.

Exhibits A and B come from Samsung: first, the decision to close its ‘hub’ music smartphone app and second, the announcement that it’s working on a virtual reality headset to be paired with its Galaxy smartphones and tablets.

Exhibit C comes from Sony, where CEO Kazuo Hirai admitted the company had reached a “make or break” point where massive losses from its electronics business have not been alleviated by selling off assets, exiting the PC and e-reader markets, and spinning out its TV business as Sony Visual Products. As an aside, Hirai is also toying with wearable tech, especially the use of smartglasses as gaming peripherals – a whole other catastrophe in wait, albeit it less risky one thanks to the PlayStation 4 outselling the Xbox One.

This brings us to Exhibit D: Microsoft’s latest attempt to crack the tablet market. In an earnest presentation, Microsoft’s vice president for surface computing Panos Panay showed how the Surface Pro 3 should be not just be considered your next tablet, but your next PC as well. Positioned as productivity tool and content consumption device, Panay owned the criticism of the Surface Pro as an expensive ‘tablet that thinks it’s a PC’, by introducing an impressive 12” supertablet with the same virtues and flaws as its predecessor, only better.

Each of the above provide examples of brands contorting their way into shapes outside what would be regarded as their core competencies.

Retreat
In the case of Samsung, the retreat from content barely noticeable. One of the reasons Galaxy smartphones and tablets sell is that they are competent (occasionally superior) alternatives to the iPhone without the tug of Apple’s cultish fanbase. Where iTunes won user buy-in thanks to a sluggish music industry that didn’t see the appeal of digital formats, Samsung could never hope to emulate its success beyond a courtesy ‘me too’ alternative. Ducking out of content is a smart move that will free up resources to make better handsets than the lacklustre Galaxy S5.

As for entering the VR space by turning immersive headsets into smartphone peripherals, much as everyone likes the idea of augmented reality and Google Glass, this can only end badly.

Sony’s problems stem from an attempt to emulate the competition and stagnating in markets it had dominated. Sony had a solid position in e-readers, a PC division that shouldn’t have languished and a TV brand that at one time was a gold standard. In the last five years these spaces have been carved up by Amazon, Samsung, HP and Lenovo.

What links the Samsung and Sony cases – adventures in wearable tech aside – is the lack of a figurehead to sell their view of the market instead of making their product ranges easy to navigate. A paradox of any brand ecosystem is that is needs a figurehead to communicate its values. Apple’s message was clearly communicated by Steve Jobs to the extent that competitors had to define themselves as ‘not Apple’. Microsoft did it with the ‘I’m a PC’ campaign (and is doing so again with the anti-Google ‘Scroogled’) and Samsung did it by aping Apple’s TV ad style before reverting back to a more product-centric approach.

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