Back when his company dominated the auto industry, Henry Ford infamously quipped that his customers could have a car from Ford painted in any color … as long as the color was black. Old Henry ended up ruing those words, and the business attitude they implied, as a rival manufacturer by the name of General Motors usurped Ford's top-dog status in the auto world by offering cars in a far greater variety of shapes and colors and quickly revamping those designs from one year to the next.
We can only hope for Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) sake that Steve Jobs isn't remembered for making a similar error: offering the iPhone and the iPad in one particular model type each year, while rival Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) has Android phones and tablets catering to the diverse tastes of consumers through a variety of designs and associated feature sets.
It wasn't too long ago that most Android phones looked a lot like the iPhone, just with some additional controls at the bottom and maybe a slide-out keyboard attached. But with untold millions (billions?) of R&D money having been poured into Android phone designs over the last two years, the situation is starting to look much different. Since last June, we've seen:
- The release of oversized Android models such as Motorola Mobility's (NYSE: MMI ) Droid X and HTC's EVO, whose 4.3-inch displays dwarf the iPhone's 3.5-inch screen.
- Motorola and AT&T's (NYSE: T ) announcement of the Atrix, which can attach to a laptop-like docking station.
- Sony Ericsson's announcement of the Xperia Play. Expected to be offered by Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , the phone features PlayStation-like controls that can be used to play a custom set of games.
- A leaked commercial showcasing the LG Optimus 3D, which features a glasses-free 3D display.
- Sprint (NYSE: S ) and Kyocera's introduction this week of the Echo, which contains two 3.5-inch displays that can be used together as a single 4.7-inch display.
A skeptic might argue that a lot of these differentiating features are things that the average smartphone buyer doesn't want, or at least hasn't shown that he or she wants. A 4.3-inch display is overkill for many; most users would prefer a netbook or tablet to a docking station; 3D displays are unproven; using two displays will hurt battery life; and so on. But to bring up the ghost of Henry Ford again, I think that argument is a bit like claiming that there's no point in selling an orange car, since black is a more popular color. This doesn't change the fact that there's a subset of consumers who would prefer an orange car, or maybe a lime-green one (but don't ask me why), and that a car manufacturer risks losing out on sales by not offering models in those particular colors.
Much in the same way, the crazy assortment of bells and whistles now being attached to various Android devices will give the platform an edge over the iPhone and Apple's one-size-fits-all approach. With so much diversity in the Android ecosystem, a particular new feature doesn't have to be a smash hit with consumers to help put a dent in Apple. It just has to appeal to some niche of smartphone buyers who find the feature a big selling point relative to the iPhone and any other competition.
Apple certainly has its reasons for wanting to keep its iPhone lineup as simple as possible. From the standpoint of product support, software upgrades, and fine-tuning of the overall user experience, it's a lot easier to get the little details right with one phone model than it is with several. But with Google's approach of letting a thousand Android flowers bloom, Apple's devotion to simplicity is bound to come at a price. The auto industry's history is good proof of that.
Do you think Apple's one-size-fits-all approach to the iPhone will succeed in the long run? Leave a comment below!