Fragmentation is REQUIRED for mass market success

Name the examples of successful products or product categories that obtained that success by giving consumers only one or two options to purchase. Seriously, think about it for a minute. What mass-market products do you buy where you only have a single choice: buy the product or don’t buy the product vs. choosing between multiple products that will suit your needs — some better than others.

Soft drinks? Cereal? Bread? Toasters? Pens? TVs? Cameras? Cars?

It seems absurd to think that of going to buy any of those products and only having one choice. One style of bread. One type of TV. One camera. But oh, 6 different brands for each, with each brand using the same feature set. Apple says “we know best for everyone” and so do everything in their power to make their ecosystem revolve around a very small set of devices. Some say that if Google doesn’t follow suit, Android will not succeed, but that just doesn’t make sense.

The very nature of “mass market” means appealing to a huge variety of consumers. From your dad to your 13-year-old daughter. From your grandmother to the college kid. How many times do they all agree on what they like or what they want?

Let’s tie this back to Android as it’s a hot topic on how bad fragmentation is for the success of Android. If you ask a developer, they will generally tell you they would like consistency across the Android platform to ease their development efforts. Dealing with fragmentation is (aside from the initial design and coding of a mobile app/game) the single largest headache for mobile developers. If you ask the business/sales guys, they will want a large install base for a platform to increase the available consumers to sell the products to.

As fragmentation increases, the cost of development increases but generally fragmentation leads to devices that appeal to a wider audience of consumers and therefore increases the available market size to sell products to. That leads to an obvious simple inference: if fragmentation increases the available market size at a rate greater than the cost of supporting the fragmented devices increases, you get more potential for profit. (I’ll leave the discussion on the difference between ‘available’ and ‘addressable’ market size for the future)

“Old school” mobile developers will complain about fragmentation like anyone else (we complain about anything that takes more work!) but privately, most successful mobile developers that have been around for the last decade will shrug their shoulders and plow forward with their systems and processes they have in place to deal with fragmentation. Any developer that made money doing J2ME mobile games/apps should laugh at the fragmentation issues with Android since they’re WAY less difficult to deal with than the J2ME fragmentation of the last decade.

Apple has been and will be wildly successful with their iOS platform for mobile devices. They’ll have a limited set of devices they will design, sell and support and those will be extremely successful in the demographics for which they are targeted. But it’s simple to see why it’s impossible for them to have a higher market share in the long-term than Android.

Multiple manufacturers producing a wide variety of devices appealing to every demographic imaginable at price points from free to ridiculous guarantee that there will be more Android devices sold that iOS — and I suspect the delta will become quite significant over time. This is the very nature of fragmentation. It’s why Google shouldn’t (and probably doesn’t) really care about fragmentation on Android and why, over time, Microsoft will need to let the Windows Phone 7 market fragment (in a controlled manner) in order to succeed as more than a niche player in the mobile OS space. It’s one of the core reasons for the success RIM has enjoyed on BlackBerry and what will help keep them in the number 3 spot for mobile platforms for quite a lone time to come.

Fragmentation is not a problem or a bad thing. It is what drives the mass appeal of a product and what will, ultimately, be a driving factor in Android’s success and BlackBerry’s continuing appeal. Just because fragmentation can be difficult for some people to deal with, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. In the larger picture, fragmentation is about giving consumers what they want, and in the end, isn’t that what making products is all about?

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