In a forum post on
his personal fan worship portal H4Vuser.net yesterday, RED founder and CEO Jim Jannard all but declared the company's first smartphone, the RED Hydrogen One, a failure. Well, it wasn't that RED failed (of course not!), it was that someone else failed RED. Specifically, its ODM (original design manufacturer).
Without getting too mucked up in smartphone business jargon, an ODM is basically a full-service design and firmware support company. While the specific services they provide depend on the client and product, in general, an ODM takes a conceptual product design, basic specifications, and a price point from a customer, and then creates a working smartphone which can then be mass-produced by an OEM (original equipment manufacturer). Companies like Samsung, Oppo, Huawei, Apple, and now even Google generally don't employ ODMs much in their smartphone design process anymore, instead working directly with their OEMs, like Foxconn. That is, they have the very significant resources and know-how required to design a phone from the ground up. RED does not have those resources.
Even if some companies may rely on partners like Qualcomm to supply a huge amount of their underlying technology, it still takes tremendous expertise and absurd sums of money to turn a fancy bundle of microprocessors and cellular modems into the smartphone you're holding in your hand right now. Like so many companies before it, RED—and frankly, Jannard himself—did not seem to understand this very well. RED learned its lesson the hard way, launching a buggy product that reviewed poorly, had one not-very-good-gimmick, and was never able to deliver on the one thing RED hoped would set its phone apart: a high-end video camera. But RED blaming its ODM for these failures is preposterous—a carpenter blaming his tools.
If you're forever going to be chained to the ODM-and-outsource product model, why build a phone at all?
Despite a reputation for incredibly high-tech cinema gear, RED will almost certainly never be able to build a great smartphone - "good" ODM or not. It will never achieve the sales necessary to support the staff required to do significant design work in-house, the staff to build and maintain the software, or the staff to provide customer support. All of these things will forever need to be outsourced, unless Jannard is literally willing to bankrupt his company trying to build a phone. And this begs the question: if you're forever going to be chained to the ODM-and-outsource product model, why build a phone at all? I have yet to see a compelling reason (aside from shamelessly cashing in on your brand's aspirational value).
The invariable retort to this position is that it is defeatist, that innovation has to start somewhere, and that consumers should always feel happy about having more choices versus fewer. None of these things are wrong, it's simply that not a single time—not once!— has a weird, niche smartphone ever worked. Even the most competent attempts to inject variety into the market, like TCL's Blackberry, eventually sputter out because of the sad, boring truth that the vast majority of people don't want a phone that's different: they want one that's reliable, functional, and comes with a good selection of cases. For every technology enthusiast out there titillated by the prospect of physical keyboards, wacky modules, and a new Xperia Play, there are millions of people who simply want a phone. The companies producing the best of those phones—all of which are very "normal" smartphones—have resources and operate at scales that make it all but impossible for smaller players to break in on the ground floor.
The smartphone's revolution is over.
A truly new competitor in the smartphone space would require a truly transformative, revolutionary product to match. But the smartphone's revolution is over. The next revolution will be our networks, connected devices, infrastructure, and in the ways we see and experience the world. The smartphone will be necessary, even critical, in enabling that revolution to take place, but that in itself is a sign of the incredibly rapid pace at which the smartphone achieved maturity. Our phones are so powerful because they've become indispensable in the modern world, and that indispensability fueled tremendous financial and technological progress over a very short period of time. In that brief historical moment, most of the necessary human expertise and highly specialized industrial capacity powering that revolution became concentrated in relatively few players. Phones have become so complex and so expensive to develop that without ODMs like Oppo, OEMs like Foxconn, and technology suppliers like Qualcomm, it would be impossible for most companies to make them at all.
If not niche phones, then, what about exclusive ones? Is there a place for the exotic smartphone? Unlike desirable high-end sports cars and mechanical watches, which are valued for their craft, precision, and technical capability as much as their appearance and perception as status symbols, it is incredibly hard to imagine a smartphone of a similar nature. Apple can't spend 200 more man-hours precision-crafting its latest processor to make it faster. It can't make the screen brighter by coating it in exotic materials. It can't make the signal any stronger by sourcing parts from a small, multigeneration family of Swiss antenna craftsmen. We have become so good so fast at producing these pocket supercomputers—and the competition for our business so fierce—that every new smartphone is for all intents and purposes the very best smartphone it can be, because it absolutely has to be.
RED seems destined to learn the same, hard lesson all over again.
I have no reason to think RED cares about any of this. Jannard has made it clear from the outset that his phone is a vanity project, a product of a company that is driven by the sheer force of its founder's personality. But given how much that company has accomplished in the world of digital cinema equipment, it seems like an incredibly short-sighted cash grab to devote resources and time to building a product that will never, ever be as good as the ones it competes with. And yet, RED seems destined to learn the same, hard lesson all over again. It won't be the last time, but with peak smartphone having been reached, I have a feeling fewer and fewer companies will make RED's mistake.