Do smartphone specs matter or is it all about the experience?

Do smartphone specs matter?

The motivation for this post came from reading this very topical article by David Pogue of NYTimes. Why topical you ask?. I was obsessing (as was the technorati) about the lack of latest and greatest specs on the  new Nokia flagship phone- the Lumia 900 that launched on Easter Sunday. This phone has divided the tech bloggers in a way I have not seen in a while. And some of that stems from the core argument of do specs really matter on a smartphone or is the experience the only thing that counts?

The iPhone and hardware specs

Before analyzing the merits of the Nokia 900 situation, it would be worthwhile looking back at the evolution of smartphone specs in the last few years. When the iPhone launched in 2006, it was a closed box that promised a great user experience. Specs then were really what no one cared about as long as the device worked. The iPhone performed well and soon Apple was on an annual cycle of refreshing its device with hardware and software upgrades. iPhone  became the king everyone aspired to be. The iPhone was special because it was the only device for the user to experience the iOS platform (until the iPod touch and later iPad arrived) and the much vaunted AppStore. So to a certain extent, the iPhone specs have never mattered. Apple has done a fantastic job crafting an excellent experience to the user- one that is seamless, intuitive and as fast as it should be to allow the user to be able to do what he wants, when he wants and how he wants. The specs are no slouch but it blends into an experience that is far more important than the processor clock speed.

The Android specs race

Contrast the iPhone experience with Android. Google was not in the business of making phones. It still isn’t. Google wanted Android to be widespread- as much as possible in as many devices across the world as possible. This meant that the OS needed to be adopted by multiple device manufacturers. Given that the OS experience is the same across all these competing Android devices, the only way to distinguish was on hardware specs. So the Android specs arms-race began in right earnest when HTC, Samsung and Motorola pledged their allegiance to the OS. Each vendor piled specs on top of specs- be it newer display tech or bigger screens or more memory or whatever. And in some cases, it took a combination of these factors to build their version of a super phone. But the iPhone still sold much more than any of its competitors and continues to do so. This was not because of specs of the iPhone although it does boast of an industry leading display and an excellent camera. It is really because of the app ecosystem and the polish of the device experience- the marriage of great hardware, excellent software and a thriving app ecosystem. Most vendors had dual core processors and 1GB RAM in their devices well before the iPhone. Everyone boasted of a 8MP camera. The Android ecosystem boasted of as many apps as the AppStore. But no one put it all together like Apple.

Today, Samsung and HTC have started putting out fewer devices and are working towards a richer experience. Much of this is driven by the evolution of the Android OS which is starting to show its muscle with a well appreciated ICS release but part of it is also optimizing the Android OS in their own version of hardware. After going crazy with skins and customizations, there is a slight but perceptible trend towards fewer forks from the core Android experience.

The Nokia Lumia 900 review saga

And that brings us to the Nokia Lumia 900 review saga. When the Lumia launched a few weeks ago, most tech blogs and publications started rolling out their reviews of the Nokia Lumia 900. The Lumia 900 represents a critical moment for Microsoft’s Windows Phone ecosystem and beleaguered Nokia. It is the first major phone from the MS-Nokia collaboration (the Lumia 800 is a midlevel phone and the 710 is an entry level device). Reviews were odd, in my opinion. Many blogs complained of the hardware specs while others talked up the incredible $99 price point. Neither made sense. More on the latter soon.

The initial amount paid for a phone on contract in the US is trivial compared to the gobs of money spent over its 2 year contract life cycle. On an average, a smartphone with a data plan costs about $70-$80/month. Over the contract period, it adds up to $1900. Given that number, how does it matter if I pay $99 for the phone or $199. I could see it being a nice 2 digit number to attract attention but I wouldnt bite on a smartphone just because it costs $100 less than the latest and greatest iPhone or Android device. Ask an Angry Birds lover if he/she would take the $100 over not being able to play Angry Birds Space on their smartphone.

On the matter of the specs, do you care what the RAM on your device is if it has nothing to do with your voice call?. Do you care about single core or dual core processor if there is absolutely no perceived difference in experience while browsing or listening to music or using your favorite app?. So why then should a user care about specs?.  Agreed that having inferior hardware or dated specs can prevent you from a future proof device but what is a future proof device today?. My iPhone 3GS from 2009 crawls but I enjoyed my 2 years with it. Smartphones are built exactly to last 2 years. No more. No less. And given that, as long as the experience is polished, intuitive and quick, specs should not really matter as long as the hardware can support the best the software has to offer.

Now the apps availability on the other hand- thats a real issue. And seems like the Windows Phone ecosystem is not necessarily thriving, with or without Nokia. But not all is doomed. Verizon’s recent vote of confidence could potentially give the platform a big boost. And Windows 8 can bring more people to the fold (although MS did their fans no big favor by flipflopping on the upgrade path from Windows Phone 7). Nokia could put its Pureview tech into Windows Phones soon. It can and will lower prices sooner than later to fight the Android rise in Asia. And all these things matter.

Just not the specs alone.