Cellphone manufacturers: Tell us a story, damnit.
Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008
When Apple releases a product, you know it's released. You know its features, you know its character, you know its story, because Steve Jobs told it to you. You know whether you want it and you know how you feel about it even if it will be weeks before you actually see or touch one.

On the other side of the world is virtually every other cellphone manufacturer on the planet. When HTC or Blackberry comes out with a new phone, first you find out about it from a leaked powerpoint slide of their product roadmap which gives both a skeleton view of the device's functionality, but also tells you what product will render it obsolete, how, and in which quarter.

Next you get the sketches and exploded diagrams from the FCC certification reports, and possibly a few fuzzy photos (often photoshopped) from people purporting to have held an actual unit. You might get a leaked product brief from a carrier to its salespeople or a product page that was mistakenly put live on the web for a few hours until someone got a frantic call that it made Engadget Mobile.

Eventually the launch day rolls around, unceremoniously and only given attention when a gadget site snags a promo shot and details the minor differences between their predictions for the product and the actual shipping unit. The determination between 'publicly announced', 'ready for ordering' and 'now shipping' is usually fuzzy and not given much importance.

Eventually someone posts an anticlimactic unboxing video which nobody cares about because someone just posted a leaked product shot of the [model number]+10 edition coming out 'before the holidays/summer/semester/tradeshow'.

This slow leak of information means that it never has the power to get anywhere further than the mobile phone and gadget fan blogs. You, gentle reader, might know what the BlackBerry Bold is, but does your spouse/SO/child? There's no excitement about a launch day or a big dump of information. There's absolutely no narrative that can be used to build desire for a product, or give you a cheat sheet on how to pitch to your spouse/SO/parent why you need this thing and it's not just another frivolous purchase.

The first Android phone (HTC Dream) is likely going to come out next month (if the blurry videos and FCC sketches are to be believed) and the only narrative to follow is how the public SDK is still at version 0.9, and several cool features were just removed from it. The public is forming a narrative based on the plot points they're given and right now it's all about the SDK, the least sexy part of the product to people who aren't engineers and software developers.

I hope the Android folks aren't hoping that a slick UI and great user experience will sell itself, because phones ain't the web. The cognitive and financial switching costs for mobile phones are greater than for almost any other device you can buy. Helio and Sidekick are two great examples of how slick mobile products can fail to gain traction because they rely on carriers and customers to generate demand. Take a page from the Book of Jobs and tell the story to the people. Tell them why they want it. Show it to them. Educate them so well that they can proselytize another person to buy a product that neither of them has ever seen in the flesh.

In short: Don't let people who don't have your best interests at heart tell your story to your customers.

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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
I've been blogging at since 1998.
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I've led design at Mozilla Labs, designed Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, FriendFeed, and a few special projects at Facebook.

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