Google’s purchase of Motorola’s mobile phone division was major news on Monday, but not entirely surprising to industry insiders. Indeed, a fierce battle has been raging in the smart-phone world, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The ultimate winner will largely control the future trajectory of personal computing.
The old hardware model is dead. The inexorable shift from desktop to mobile computing, shrinking components and manufacturing costs, maturing operating systems, and the emergence of the cloud are all converging to create tremendous advances in mobile. Maybe it’s not exactly the end of the PC, but there’s no question that mobile computing is where the action will be from now on. This is where the most interesting new products and capabilities will appear.
Today, it’s all about the relationship between hardware and software. Only a few short years ago the physical device itself reigned supreme, with a dizzying array of options and styles for every type of customer. Interestingly enough, Motorola—well known for introducing a new line of phones every year—was much more in tune with the fashion market than with creating devices with true innovation and unique functionality. Yes, Motorola had some very cool products—such as the flip, the razor, and the pebble—but these products succeeded only as industrial design pieces, never surmounting the ultimate challenge of creating an integrated hardware and software platform.
This is exactly what Apple has done with the iPhone. While Motorola was busy creating phones as “personas” and designing ever-changing models for the fickle consumer market, Apple was focusing its future on building a bulletproof operating system, coupled with a single, elegant hardware solution. Apple’s tightly integrated iPhone hardware/software solution has demonstrated that people actually prefer a single, straightforward, easy-to-use design to twenty different product styles, all offering the same mediocre functionality and performance.
Still, it’s not all about software either. As an industrial designer, I recognize the value of good hardware. Software is ephemeral and hard to pin down. It doesn’t carry the same significance as a cherished physical object. That’s why the smart phone, when it’s done well, becomes a physical manifestation of the much larger software ecosystem—a system so broad and complex that it’s difficult for any individual user to fully comprehend.
This is where the importance of great industrial design comes into play. Great design in this era requires developing a new perspective in which industrial design is less about the functionality of the object itself and more about what it represents.
When a physical product is well executed, it acts as a talisman, representing something greater than the thing itself. Think about brand icons or religious or national symbols, all of which represent feelings and experiences that are exceedingly complex. Getting the hardware right and imbuing it with desirable qualities—simplicity, ease-of-use, and good quality materials and construction—makes it something that an ordinary person can relate to and value. Just look at the iPad. People may appreciate what it can do, but they love the thing itself—the coolness of the metal, the crisp edges, the intuitive functionality—the industrial design communicates confidence, performance, and superiority, which is why people love holding it, using it, and showing it off to their friends.
With Google’s acquisition of Motorola’s mobile phone division, Google now has an opportunity to leverage Motorola’s deep expertise in design and engineering, which will allow Google to deliver seamless integrated devices that express and leverage the power of its immense software capabilities.
It all points to an exciting time for consumers in the coming years. The Microsoft/Nokia partnership, HP’s purchase of Palm's Web OS, Google’s acquisition of the Motorola Mobile group, RIM’s (Blackberry) comeback and introduction of six new models, and the rise of Asian telecoms will lead to a healthy ongoing battle over market share. And it won’t only be for hardware, but for elegant, highly-functional hardware/software systems. Consumers can only benefit from what are sure to be mind-blowing new capabilities with this next big step in the evolution of personal computing.
All the key trends in mobile will be explored at The Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco Nov 2-4. frog's Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston will join John Donahoe CEO eBay, Sanjiv Ahuja CEO LightSquared, David Small CTO Verizon Wireless, Kevin Rose and more at the industry's thought-leadership event. VIP code "frog" for discounts. Register here.