Monday, October 11, 2010

The Mythology of Product Positioning - Freedom, Rooting, and the Evolving Android Ecosystem

Right now, your head is swimming with lies and half-truths. But it's not just you, it's everyone that you know, everyone that you've ever met. You didn't plan it. It just happened because your brain is sucking up information like a sponge, absorbing the data your exposed to without the capacity or ability to effectively analyze it.

Every day, we are like a computer on the Internet connecting to web sites and servers that our computer thinks it knows -- we take in information from sources that we deem credible and assume that there are no underlying messages in the bits of code, no malware. Many established marketing practices count on this relationship -- from celebrity endorsements to astroturfing -- there are a wide range of techniques designed to "spoof" your information authentication credentials.

True, false, or somewhere in between, these pieces of information come together inside our heads, forming the mythology of things that we know (or think that we do). This mythology lives inside of our heads, providing structure and guidance for how we perceive things and how we handle new information -- our ongoing set of authentication credentials.

Product Positioning and Baseline Product Mythology
Most people don't make substantial rewrites to their knowledge mythology. With products and marketing, this often means that the first messages that they receive function as the ruler by which all future interactions are measured. Talk to someone about your iPhone 4 and they will probably ask you reception problems. If you talk with someone who doesn't use Facebook, they'll probably touch on privacy concerns. Sometimes these mythology memes may be constructed out of a single experience, "that company was late delivering my product once. I know that they are not a reliable supplier."

The battle for product positioning starts early, and those first experiences can be critical. If your price is too high or your product is too buggy, most people probably won't give it a second look. On the other hand, if you can create favorable impressions early, you can probably ride that mythology long past any connection to reality -- and the emerging market for Android phones is proving to be a great case study in that behavior.

Android Phones and the Myth of Free and Open
In the early positioning of Android phones by Google and the media, the meme was basically:
The iPhone is a closed system, limited and controlled by Apple. With Android, you have an open source phone OS that enables you to unlock any capabilities of the phone and use it however you want. All of those limitations that Apple has imposed like what software applications you can run on your phone are not limitations of Android. Multitasking, video streaming over your cellular network, Wifi hotspots -- whatever you want, downloaded from wherever you choose. 
Now, as you start to see Android phones propagating across the various carriers, you're also seeing where the carriers have applied the same approaches to Android phones that they have traditionally used for other phones -- limiting capabilities, locking the hardware down, and tightly coupling unique carrier-based software that can't be removed. Some have even opened their own application stores so that they can control that revenue stream. In short, they have taken the "open" platform and closed it. But, while it has some of the gadget-focused tech media upset, Android unit sales continue to race along.

Here's a link to a recent post on Techcrunch's "MobileCrunch" site. John Biggs has noted, along with a number of commenters, that T-Mobile has basically implemented a version of Android that prevents you from "rooting" the handset. If you try to "jailbreak" these handsets, embedded hardware will restore the unit to it's default state. MG Siegler has authored a number of other posts with concerns about the evolution of Android in the carriers' hands. The long and short of these concern's boil down to this -- that the carriers have looked at Android and recognized it as an opportunity to produce handsets with an advanced OS and minimal (if any) licensing fees.

What transforms this from a win-win for the carriers into a win-win-win is that consumers still see this as the free and open alternative to the iPhone. It doesn't really matter what the interface looks like. It doesn't really matter whether they would ever root their phone (or jailbreak their phone if they had an iPhone), they have already bought the sales pitch on the "free and open" OS message, and it will be about two years and a completed contract before they have the freedom to change their minds.

My point with all of this is that it no longer matters what the original position really was. It doesn't even matter if some (or most) Android phones just suck. It doesn't matter because, in their campaign to sell the "it's just as good as a xerox", they found a soft feature that they could promote and differentiate on.

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