Plato wrote about Socrates wandering around Athens questioning assumptions and challenging complacent thinking and conventionally held views. (It didn’t end well.) Over the last few months in my own very minor way I have been wandering around asking myself and the odd person here and there — Is it possible to build an Irish smartphone?
It wasn’t a survey where I had people ticking boxes. It was just an idea I floated into the conversation every now and then. I was curious to know whether others, or even I, thought it could or couldn’t be done.
The engineering knowledge already exists to build a smartphone. All the hard grind has been done. Although, it is still by no means an easy task — if you take a few minutes to watch John Breslin’s video, “Lecture 2: Systems, Plugged In” you can’t help but marvel at the amount of things that have to happen in such a tiny space and the nature of the components needed — but it is a knowable task.
Aside from resolving patent issues, either by licensing or innovation, there are no major R&D costs. Manufacturing is undoubtedly a challenge but there are companies around the world that specialize in the volume production of the needed components. Assembly tends to be handled separately from manufacture and the location for that part of the process is determined mostly by labour costs and access to transport.
So making an Irish smartphone, while difficult and challenging, is far from impossible. There are no wheels to invent.
But that is just the fabrication of the smartphone. We now have this great device made of the finest materials able to run the software apps that most users would use frequently, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. (What apps do you use? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am very curious now that I have brought the subject up. The Podcast app gets the most use on my phone.)
The next stage is to sell it.
The first step of getting the device into a customer’s hand is to tell them that you have it in the first place so it has to be marketed.
Oh, goodness, not that black box of nonsense.
Marketing seems to be an anathema to many of those who think of themselves as practical sorts who deal daily with quantitive realities. After all it took an extraordinary amount of very hard, concrete thinking and experimentation to make the device a reality, introducing intangible and unquantifiable attributes such as branding and the creation of customer desire for the product seems like being dropped into a room full of smoke and mirrors with only magical thinking to guide you to the exit.
This is a terrible, self-defeating error. Marketing is not something separate to innovation and development. It is just as integral to the process of making ideas a reality as the first sketch on a napkin or in notebook.
So, as makers of a device that has the same quality standards and functionality as any other smartphone out there, but lovelier to look at and easier to use, we now have to get into the hands of customers.
First of all would they want it? Well we know the market for smartphones is growing. Over a billion have been sold already and that figure is expected to double by 2015. Clearly, people want them. More importantly, we know they will want more in the future. So there is plenty of room to expand.
What about competitors? All we know is that they exist but also that they come and go. It is not a static marketplace. Just before the start of the smartphone era mobile phone use was essentially divided up between Nokia in the domestic market and the Blackberry for business. Eighteen months ago Apple was predominant and HTC was the alternative of choice.
Now we have a situation where Apple is no longer the leading player in smartphone sales. Samsung now shares (for the time being) the number one spot. HTC has faded away, Nokia is down but not dead and Research In Motion (Blackberry) are promising to reignite their sales efforts with a new product.
Essentially, no one owns the market. There is no monopoly to overcome. No absolute deterrent to participation.
After discounting all the other factors involved in making or selling a phone we are left with financing the initial stages of product development. Engineering and the marketing factors are well known and therefore R&D costs are minimal but it would still take a chunk of change to get to the stage where one could plant one’s studs in the grass.
But even then, considering that no original or very little original research work has to be done, what is really needed is a team of highly organised managers that are solely devoted to the development of a system of creation and delivery that are as competitively efficient as any other manufacturer.
Ireland has some of the best managerial talent in the world. Just by looking at the names listed in company reports in the US and UK, executive ability seems to be one of our more successful exports. Lack of ability isn’t a barrier.
I acknowledge that to many people this seems silly and impossible and, of course, they will have all sorts of good reasons why that may be so and they are right. But they would be missing the point.
If, on paper anyway, it is possible that we can contend favourably in the global market for smartphones then by the same logic we can participate in any technology-based global market.
Just a reminder that we are going to put out a podcast in a couple of weeks time (TBA) and we would love to have you send in comments, suggestions, questions, points for debate to our good selves at email@example.com. Look forward to seeing what you send.
Shamrock image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Thomas Gun