The general consensus among Twitter and the tech blogs about this week's iPhone launch seems to be one of general disappointment as Apple failed to announce the highly anticipated iPhone 5.
Understanding the way the technology market is evolving gives us some valuable insights into the way new media technology is being marketed and sold, and who it is being sold to. Three interesting things about the mobile landscape came out of Apple's announcements;
- When the original iPhone was launched, the target market was very high-end; affluent and design conscious. The added features of the subsidised 3G model widened the potential market to a broader gadget-loving (but still quite premium) audience. The availability of the 3Gs model for free (in the US- UK prices have yet to be announced at the time of writing) opens the target up completely – Apple are now aiming beyond the smartphone market, and at the entire mobile handset market.
- In case the rapid and accelarating growth of smartphone penetration and mobile internet usage hasn't already made it clear, the mobile internet is now mainstream. If your brand isn't prepared for customers who are browsing and searching on a mobile device, then it isn't a case of time running out any more; its overdue.
- With the launch of iCloud and Siri, Apple's iPhone product is now just as much about Apple's online services as it is the handset – just as one of Android's key selling points is the integration with Google's services, and BlackBerry's is the email and BBM services. But this also marks a shift away from relying on the PC. Today, you might be able to expect a frustrated mobile user to have a PC they can fall back on– but that won't remain the case for long.
So, should we be surprised by the disappointment? As our Head of Social Media Mat Morrison points out that excitement about iPhone 5 was somewhat different to previous generations of the iPhone; for the iPhone 3Gs and iPhone 4, search traffic followed the announcement. For "iPhone 5", searches had been building up since shortly after the launch of the iPhone 4;
This indicates a huge level of expectation– more than twice as many people were searching for information about the mythical "iPhone 5" than were looking for information about the iPhone 4 after it had been announced. (This may explain why many liveblogs of Apple's event crashed under the volume of the online traffic.)
As Mat explains;
Bloggers and journalists are increasingly using social signals (search & twitter volume) to determine their editorial policy. After all, search and social are big traffic drivers - and a good indicator of what interests your audience.
In this case, however, it became a terrible feedback loop. Even the more sensible commentators and analysts found that -- when the conversation was about the iPhone 5, there was no virtue or value in writing about it in any other way.
When the pattern that Apple had set with the previous 5 releases of a June/July launch of a new iPhone was broken by a "late" launch, perhaps the build up of anticipation was inevitable as the expectation that Apple was working hard on their new device continued to build.
But something else changed with Apple's pattern of releases; the way customers were buying iPhones. The original iPhone was announced in January, and went on sale in June. The iPhone 3G was announced and quickly released the following July, with the 3Gs establishing a consistent pattern the following year. Before the launch of the iPhone 4 (presumably as people held off iPhone upgrades or purchases while they anticipated the new release), there was a slight dip in sales.
But there was no corresponding dip this summer. Even as the anticipated launch came and went, sales continued to grow with only the slightest slowdown.
(Note- Apple's 'Q4' financial results cover July-September, so account for the first quarter of sales following previous iPhone launches. 2010's 'Q3' results covered May-July, following the original iPad's launch in May. iPod sales regularly peak in the 'Q1' Oct-Dec holiday sales period.)
In other words, while there were no doubt a number of people waiting for the new iPhone again this time around – probably many of whom had bought the 3Gs at launch and then came out of 18-24 month long contracts – they were more than outnumbered by those who were buying new iPhones anyway. Those watching and waiting for something they had already decided to buy were more than outnumbered by those who aren't interested in the smartphone competition, or bothered about whether their friends will be able to tell that their new iPhone is the new iPhone as soon as they take it out.
Horace Dediu points out that due to the nature of the upgrade cycle, the target iPhone market for the next 12 months consists of about 70 million out-of-contract iPhone 3G/3Gs owners (and those who own either 'feature phones' or competing smartphones, who will be sold on the iPhone platform, rather than a specific handset), while the market in 12 months time will consist of 70 million out-of-contract iPhone 4 owners, looking for a more convincing upgrade than what appears to be the same phone with some upgraded internals.
But, aside from the lesson that can be learnt about managing consumer expectations, there is a broader point that all marketers should be taking note of.
Since the iPhone 3Gs was launched, previous models have been kept on sale at a lower price point. This time, not only is the price of the iPhone 4 dropping (to $99), but the 3Gs is seeing a second drop– free on contract in the US (no news yet on UK prices.)
Alongside the changing pattern in sales, a third iPhone at an even cheaper price point (free on all tarriffs ), Apple's target market is no longer about "smartphone users" or gadget fans — its about the mainstream audience, of anyone looking to buy a new phone, at virtually any price point.
As Apple CEO Tim Cook said as he summarised the iPhone's sales to date;
The iPhone has 5% share of the worldwide market of handsets. I could have shown you a much larger market if I had just shown you smartphones. But thats not how we look at it. We look at the entire market of handsets because we believe over time, that all handsets become smartphones. This market is one and a half billion units annually. Its an enormous opportunity for Apple.
Once again, this highlights the point that smartphones and mobile internet use is now mainstream; the majority of new phones sold are smartphones, and the battleground in the smartphone market isn't about the most expensive, premium handsets anymore; its across all price points.
People buying smartphones are now considered "late adopters." If there are brands who don't have a mobile strategy (or worse, a mobile-friendly website), then what does this make them?
Postscript: With the launch of the iPhone 4s, Steve Jobs' vision has driven Apple from bringing the first successful computers with a graphical interface, through the age of networked computers, pocket computers, and now into an age of natural language, voice control; an incredible achievement.