Lets talk about mobile handset input methods. And just a brief note of history.. The early mainframe computers were operated by punch card entry (like long white postcards, with holes punched into them in some patterns). The outputs were printouts on paper. (Ah yes, I am that old, that the first computer I used, was still run on punch cards..) The big jumps forward were the keyboard entry and on-screen displays we had in the 1970s and leading into the PC era. The revolution in PCs was by Apple's Macintosh in 1984 that brought us the mouse as a pointing device (and one should remember, it was not an Apple invention, the mouse, or the other revolutionary aspects of the first Mac, Apple was just a master at doing it better than anyone else). When mobile phones first started to try to become 'pocket computers' via the early smartphones, the inputs were still keyboard, some pointing devices like a mouse ball or stylus or arrow keys, and the output was still the screen.
So along came Apple once again, revolutionized the way we did our smartphones with the iPhone in 2007 and its touch screen interface. Again, Apple didn't invent touch screens for smartphones, we had had those for years, but Apple came and looked at the whole clumsy and unpleasant interface, and simply made it better. We got our multitouch touch input, with the huge 3.5 inch screen, so even fingers worked very well, rather than pinpointing with a stylus, and using capacitive rather than resistive screens helped the whole experience feel smooth and comfortable. Apple has never made a smarpthone that had any other input than touch screen, not even a hybrid input with QWERTY slider etc. And Apple sells about one in five of all smartphones sold worldwide.
Its easy to think that therefore all phones of the future will be controlled by touch screens (and indeed, it is possible that they will). But what should we make of this brand new consumer survey of input preferences published at Nokia's official Conversations Nokia site, by which globally 48.6% of us, mobile phone users, prefer QWERTY inputs, only 34.7% prefer touch screens, still a strong 8.9% prefer traditional T9 basic 12 key number keypads and 7.8% prefer voice inputs?
NICE DATA BUT LETS BE CLEAR
Same data tells us that only in North America is the touch screen the strongest preference and even there it did not pass half of all mobile phone users, receiving 47% of the votes. Meanwhile the Philippines, a country of 90 million in the Emerging World, finds touch screens preferred only by 30% of the population.
So yes, nice data Nokia, thank you for sharing. And this QWERTY preference thing is rarely reported, we had a couple of years ago the statement by Motorola that about one third of consumers will not buy a smartphone that didn't have QWERTY on it, and looking at recent annual smartphone data, that is roughly in line with what we find in global sales. Similarly, US readers may find surprising that while the US market seems overflowing with touch screen smartphones, globally, only 40% of smartphones in use have touch screens (Deloitte calculated 400 million at end of Q2, when the world had just passed 1 Billion smartphones in use). And across all mobile phone handsets, that is 8%. If we add in 'featurephones' with touch screens, the total number is still not going to be more than 600-700 million or in the range of 12-14% of all handsets in use.
So lets understand this issue a bit more. First, I have no quarrel with the Nokia finding. I don't like it, that Nokia didn't reveal any statistical survey info (they usually give that very precisely when Nokia reports on mobile phone consumers, but probably Nokia has fired all those professionals in the market research department and now what they have left, is some web people doing things on the very quick and cheap..)
Nonetheless, this is rare information and gives us some valuable data points. And it is consistent with global trends. The touch screen input format is most prevalent in the USA, also where Apple is strongest, and where in featurephones Samsung and LG are the biggest, both which provide touch screen featurephones as well as their Android based smartphones. And in the Emerging World, the high end touch screen smartphones like the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy have not sold in their biggest numbers, but Blackberry is strong in very many countries from Indonesia to Nigeria to Venezuela, so its no surprise QWERTY preferences are far stronger than touch screens (currently). This data in general is consistent with global trends.
But we must also remember, that it is a Nokia website survey, not a more thorough and representative market research survey by an independent researcher using traditional sampling methods. Who would go to a Nokia website? Often that will not be the fanatical iPhone and Apple loyalist, nor very unlikely to be a Crackberry-level Blackberry user. These are predominantly, obviously, current Nokia users. That introduces several biases.
In all other continents, the findings can be taken to be fairly consistent with local needs, as Nokia has until very recently been clearly the biggest handset maker and biggest smartphone maker in those regions. So sampling Nokia users is a relatively fair (while still imprecise) instrument for measuring consumer preferences in mobile. In the US market, Nokia's market presence has been tiny in the past few years and its product portfolio has also been non-representative either of that market's overall handset offering, nor of Nokia's own product lines. So we could take the findings of the rest of the world Nokia users as a reasonably accurate proxy, but its USA findings should be taken with a lot of caution.
NOKIA EXPERIENCE BIAS
Then we should think a bit about Nokia vs the global market trend overall. Nokia invented the smartphone. Nokia invented the QWERTY keyboard (yes, long before there was a Blackberry smartphone, there was the Nokia Communicator with its full QWERTY). And Nokia launched a full touch screen smartphone well before the iPhone appeared. Nokia missed one trend, and mis-analyzed another. While Nokia invented the consumer smartphone (again, years before the iPhone), and Nokia pursued it rigorously with the N-Series branding etc, Nokia did not see the youth trend in QWERTY and heavy texting users. That trend was spotted by RIM with youth-oriented lower-cost Blackberry models. Nokia created its series of Blackberry clones, under the E-Series, but these were for the longest time marketed only at enterprise/corporate users. So Nokia was quite late to capitalize on the youth interest in QWERTY inputs with lower cost smartphones and featurephones aimed at that user segment.
The trend Nokia mis-analyzed, obviously, is the touch screen segment. Because Nokia had released its touch screen smartphone, and had studied that product and its consumers, Nokia had come to the conclusion that touch screens were not going to be a major trend in mobile. That is also what we heard when the iPhone was launched, if you remember. Nokia was right there in the forefront promising the world that this could not be big, because Nokia had tried it before, and it didn't work. Nokia had a huge hit smartphone in its N95 (which outsold the first iPhone by a wide margin actually) and Nokia proceeded with the next iteration of non-touch screen smartphones like the N96 and the E90 Communicator. Not until it was obvious that Apple's revolutions in inputs had truly broken any barriers to the success, did Nokia rush the N97 to the market, and as rushed products often are, it was a big disaster, but it was Nokia's first attempt to do a proper flagship smartphone with touch screen entry. And typical of Nokia's thinking at the time it of course also had QWERTY, as the slider format. But the screen was resistive, the version of Symbian was not yet anywhere nearly ready for comfortable touch screen uses, and the N97 was hailed as a big flop as a flagship phone. Nokia's first successful touch screen flagship would not be until the N8, on a later edition of Symbian, called S^3, and of course, with capacitive screen technology. I should note, that Nokia released a sister phone to the N8, in the E7, a top end flagship smarpthone of very similar size and price, but with the slider QWERTY input in addition to the touch screen, and minor variances in the tech specs, such as an 8mp camera rather than 12mp etc.
What does this all mean? It means, that when we consider all major smartphone brands and their users, Apple, Samsung, RIM, Nokia, HTC etc, Nokia was the pioneer in QWERTY and has often had QWERTY on its top-end enterprise/business oriented smartphones but didn't get into consumer QWERTY smartphones and featurephones until recently. Thus some of Nokia's current user strong preference of QWERTY reflects the long history, and/or any pent-up demand by youth segment as recent converts to Nokia QWERTY offerings.
And simultaenously Nokia was a clear laggard in both deploying touch screens and doing that well. In contrast, Apple and Apple users would be 100% touch screen users and often might never even have used a QWERTY based smartphone at all, so they might not even be in a position to fairly compare. And in the other corner, is the Blackberry user base that would be biased strongly in favor of QWERTY as all Blackberries have this ability. This means that when we sample Nokia owners or Nokia-friendly visitors to the Conversations Nokia website, that means we under-sample iPhone users especially, and over-sample 'disappointed' existing Nokia owners of poorly-designed touch screens or those existing Nokia users who once tried an early (poorly designed) Nokia touch screen and have now moved away from that.
So while I do not want to quarrel with the findings of the Nokia research, I want to point out, that this finding may be under-emphasizing touch-screen users vs all other three forms, and perhaps to some degree might be over-emphasizing the QWERTY format vs the others.
I should also point out, that there was no question about 'hybrid' inputs, ie smartphones that have both touch screen and QWERTY input for example via slider or folder mechanism. When my consultancy did its annual survey of European new handset models last year, it found 21% of all phone models had hybrid inputs - 61% had pure touch screens, and 6% had pure QWERTY, and only 12% had traditional 12 key T9 keypad entry as its only input method. So when more actual phone handset models currently selling (at least in Europe) have a hybrid QWERTY+touch screen input, as opposed to pure QWERTY-only, then a Nokia question asking consumers to pick only one of the two, but not offering the hybrid option, is forcing consumers to make a choice that is not always realistic to the market situation.
Lastly, remember, this is a survey of mobile phone owners, not 'smartphone' only owners, so the preferences are biased by the far larger population of 'dumbphone' users than smartphone users, and considering Nokia market segments, Nokia phones, both in dumbphones and smartphones, are at the lower end of the price scale, so this is a survey of often mid-priced or low-end price handset owners. Its a bit like surveying Walmart or Lidl consumer market shoppers, rather than the whole consumer market including more upmarket stores as well.
WITH THAT, WHAT DO WE LEARN?
First, regardless of whether it is 49% of all mobile phone owners, or only 33%, a very sizeable segment of the total mobile phone consumer market prefers - prefers - QWERTY inputs. While touch screen preference is clearly growing strongly, from essentially zero in year 2006 to between 30% and 47% even by this (somewhat biased) survey, today, nobody is 'surprised' anymore by the appeal of touch screens. They allow very large screens in our pockets and video content and photographs and websites look better on large screens. The touch screen can do a very good approximation of a QWERTY keyboard on the screen (but for most heavy users, the need to look at the screen to type accurately is still a problem, on real QWERTY keyboards, you can type blindly). And touch screens can easily bypass language and character restrictions, being able to be changed instantly, just by software.
But between 33% and 49% of these survey respondents preferred QWERTY? How can that be? Ah, its the SMS addiction. This still dumbfounds many US pundits and 'experts'. But I've been telling the SMS growth story for fifteen years now at public conferences. For more than a decade now, been also telling the world that SMS is addictive. Its been proven to be addictive in university studies from Belgium to Australia to the USA. Proven to be addictive. That means, once you get hooked, you don't stop. Its been tested to be as addictive as cigarette smoking. So there is no going back. The only 'cure' to SMS addiction, is a 'heavier drug' like Blackberry Messenger, Twitter, iMessage, Whatsapp etc. Just now, in May of 2012, a survey by Acision of US smartphone users, found that 91% of them used SMS, even though most of them also had other messaging solutions. Just to see how huge that number is, Facebook was used by 37% and Twitter by 17% !!!!
The USA is the global laggard in SMS adoption, they passsd the 50% population user level of SMS as late as year 2008 (the year presidential candidate Obama announced his VP selection via SMS rather than press conference). Europe had passed 50% of population using SMS early in the decade, leading countries like Finland, the Philippines etc had done that at the end of the 1990s. So US pundits will regularly under-estimate the relevance and addictiveness and appeal of SMS. Heavy users of SMS send 100 text messages per day, again, stats repeated from the UK to South Korea to the USA. If you send 100 SMS per day (or use other mobile messaging platfroms to do it) you also receive 100 SMS per day on average and you look at your phone every 5 minutes of every waking hour, just because of your messaging addiction. And at that level of traffic, you learn to send SMS blindly. Half of British and US teenagers admit to the ability to send SMS blindly. That means.. a physical keyboard!
We just had the US championships for texting again, this past week. Winner is Austin Wierschke of Wisconsin. The contest was run by LG and all contestants were using the same handset, an LG Optimus Zip, an Android smartphone with yes, a hybrid input form factor (and the contestants were not allowed to use touch screen input which the Optimus Zip also has). The contest was the final out of 100,000 total entrants and featured a blind texting contest as well as 'behind your back' texting contest. But yes, if you are really heavy into mobile messaging - and this being an addiction, clinical addiction, not some kind of consultant hype addiction, measured, clinical, university-study addiciton - that means it never goes away.
Maybe some day touch screens will be as good as physical QWERTY inputs for blind typing and there won't be any meaningful difference. Maybe some day we have better inputs once again (from our brainwaves directly - there is research in that area obviously). But just like the outputs are evolving still - now the pico projectors and the Augmented Reality glasses etc - so too will inputs in smartphones still evolve more. But right now, if you are a major smartphone manufacturer, you should know, that from half to a third of your potential market - prefers - prefers - QWERTY inputs. The more you deal with non-USA markets, and especially Emerging World markets - where all the growth in mobile is today - the more the tendency to prefer QWERTY is pronounced.
FOUR HANDSET STORIES
If you are RIM and maker of the Blackberry, and you have always provided QWERTY, while you see your global sales declining, you need to be sure that you keep offering QWERTY at least as an option and in hybrid formats even for your touch screen variants, because you own most of the heavily loyal, addicted QWERTY users. Don't make the mistake of ruining your (albeit diminishing) competitive advantage. If you don't offer a physical QWERTY on every Blackberry, you would be just another HTC or Motorola or Palm and could be as dead as soon as well.
If you are Apple, with the magnificent iPhone, whose dramatic climb up to the top of smartphone sales was stalled in recent years, and you now linger in limbo, no longer able to grow by leaps and bounds, then it is likely you have reached the limits of your self-induced barrier to further sales. Yes, you can forever keep making iPhones that fit only one form factor, but the world is not like that. Look at cars, some like sports cars, others like SUVs, others like minivans, others like little citycars, others like fleet taxi vehicles, others like pickup trucks etc. Give us some choice. If Apple released a QWERTY iPhone - it would obviously be the best hybrid smartphone ever made - that goes without saying - but look at the stats! Even if Nokia survey was wrong by 50%, it means that there is currently a market of at least 16% in the USA and 24% in the rest of the world, who will be buying phones but will not buy one that is a pure touch screen. I don't mean to abandon the iconic Apple design. I don't mean not to have the iPhone OS and touch screen experience, obviously. I mean, that to include a slider QWERTY to one variant of the iPhone - like there are many bluetooth keyboards for example for iPhones, some even as cases to create your own iPhone-with-QWERTY-hybrid model iPhone today. If there is a third party-market out there, please Apple do look into this, you could expand your market - highly profitably, far FAR more profitably than say your margins in Macs and iPods, by simply adding a QWERTY variant top range iPhone. Grow your market share at least by 25% maybe even by 50% and by charging far more than the true additional cost - your QWERTY iPhone would actually be more profitable than the other iPhone models. You could call it the iPhone 4Q (or 5Q) model?
(But I've been begging Apple to release the QWERTY variant to the iPhone for ages and it still doesn't come. I am not holding my breath, haha).
Then Samsung - which does the smartphone market just about as brilliantly as you can expect. Of course they have QWERTY hybrid variants to the Galaxy range. Samsung once again shows the right way to take commercial advantage of the smartphone market opportunity.
And then Nokia? Nokia which invented the QWERTY smartphone? Nokia which always had at least top-end QWERTY models from the original Communicator to the E7 and N950 last year. But what of this crazy product line of Lumia smartphones? Four smartphone models that are near clones of each other, but not one QWERTY slider amongst them? This while Nokia has seen these stats internally in surveys year in and year out, knowing that HALF of their customer base prefers QWERTY keyboards! What moron in charge of Lumia authorized the design of four separate Lumia handsets without even one QWERTY model amongst them? Oh yeah, it was the CEO, Stephen Elop. Is he still around? Hasn't that incompetent fool already been fired? But yeah, Nokia knew this years and years and years ago. They now release their very latest survey that says the same thing. If you were the CEO of a major tech company, and found that half of your customers prefer one form factor (vs one third preferring the second most popular) and you release a whole new range of models with four new devices - wouldn't you make at least one or two of them to conform to the form factor that your customers want the most?
Maybe its just me haha, I always thought business corporations should try to satisfy their customers to be able to make profits..
So, is the QWERTY going to forever be a major form factor? Maybe not. But today, even with a somewhat biased survey, a huge portion of the population wants a QWERTY keyboard to their phones. I say to all smartphone makers, include QWERTY variants in your portfolio and you don't miss out on this big market segment. But the growth of touch screens is an obvious trend, that will soon be the predominant and preferred option. Soon. But not yet. And when designing the most profitable models, the premium top-phones for highly addicted users (older youth and young adults) - make sure you include a QWERTY variant for them!
For anyone needing more info about the mobile phone industry, check out my TomiAhonen Phone Book 2012 about shortly (see special offer including 2010 edition here).