Switched On: Shedding Dead Skins

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|08.05.12

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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Apple and Nokia don't seem to have much in common these days apart from participating in the global smartphone market. While the former may not have the broadest product line, it's riding high in the PC, tablet and TV accessory market, whereas the latter is fighting to make a comeback in the handset market it once dominated. But while their rationales might be different, both companies are providing more value to their users by focusing on differentiation via software and services rather than trying to make over user interfaces.

When Nokia cast its lot with Microsoft it negotiated a "best of both worlds" deal, in which it was free to change just about anything in Windows Phone that it wanted. It was a condition that other Windows Phone licensees, such as HTC, would have loved to enjoy. But Nokia sought constraint, citing a need to preserve UI consistency with other Windows Phone devices and avoid the disruptive variation seen in Android smartphones. Rather, as far as product went, Nokia would differentiate with its own apps, many of which were tied to services, such as Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive, Nokia Transit, Nokia Music (which provides ad-free streaming radio) and the augmented reality app City Lens. How some of Nokia's attached cloud services complement or compete with Microsoft's own serious cloud-based initiatives has surely been the subject of many meetings between the two companies, but the apps round out and enhance Nokia's offerings.

Apple doesn't have much concern about fragmentation on the Mac, but like Microsoft, it does have an interest in maintaining a certain level of consistency across its platforms. This is certainly true from what developers see under the hood, although it must be balanced against optimization for input methods and form factors in the user experience. When Apple brought over Launchpad and full-screen apps from the iPad to the Mac, it was a far cry from the kind of sweeping changes Microsoft is creating with its Metrofied Start screen, but Switched On observed it as a move that benefited new users to the Apple ecosystem while potentially alienating old Mac fans.

An enhanced Launchpad and full-screen apps are still around in Mountain Lion, but Apple has shifted focus somewhat in the latest major OS release. Yes, it is still borrowing from iOS (as iOS borrows from the Mac), but what it has brought over has been cloud-synced apps such as Notes and Reminders as well as a notification feature that now surpasses Windows'. These, along with the internet-driven features of Share Sheets and Documents in the Cloud, are features offering new choices to users who are content within the Apple ecosystem and don't need the extensive multi-platform support of services such as Evernote and Dropbox. This is all achieved with nominal changes to the user interface and functionality that is more likely to be appreciated by old users and new users alike.

While Nokia launches upon another's platform and Apple upon its own, the conclusion is the same. For better or worse, platform vendors tend to have de facto control over today's user experiences. Apps, and the services to which they connect, are a more worthwhile quest than stretching a user interface beyond its design, because they can unlock far more valuable spoils than a cosmetic identity.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is principal analyst at Reticle Research, an advisory firm focused on consumer technology. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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