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Radio and the Future of Mobile Phones


In January, Google will reportedly release a “modular smartphone” in an attempt to disrupt market leaders Apple and Samsung.

Project Ara is Google’s attempt to make a mobile device where the major components, including the camera, speakers, GPS and other common features of modern smartphones, can be swapped out for new ones, mixing and matching modules to customise the phone to do what the user needs it to do.

“Designed exclusively for 6 billion people,” says the project site.

While the jury is out on the future of this particular gadget, the lesson behind it is one we should all attend to closely:

Increasingly, personalization is not just what we do on our devices – it’s baked into the devices themselves. Apps will be hardware, not only software.

Call it “hardware as LEGO.”

Want your personal gadget to have a camera? Add one on! What about a radio – maybe even an over-the-air AM/FM radio – add one on!

What are the consequences for radio in this world?

Historically, radio has been an unavoidable component of entertainment technology: It was baked into every stereo system and every car and every clock/radio. You used it not only because you wanted to but also because it was pretty much all the dynamic content there was.

But what about a world where features are modular – where hardware is “apped” and optional?

In that world, nothing is “baked in.”

Forget about the notion that handset makers will ever activate an FM chip on those devices. Indeed, the trend will be to remove features (and make them options), not to add them.

In that world, entertainment and information options become limitless and no two smartphones are the same.

“Radio” as an option means it is no longer unavoidable. It must be specifically demanded. And to be specifically demanded there must be something on the radio the consumer desperately wants.

The radio industry is awash with conversations about technology and trends, but we are suspiciously silent when it comes to content.

Who is talking about providing the kind of content which makes a modular radio a must-have? Indeed, who in radio is talking about must-have audio content regardless of platform?

When your smartphone becomes a LEGO and all the bright and shiny baubles in the app store – hardware and software – beckon, consumers will add on a radio because what’s on it is that great, that essential, that exclusive.

Or they simply won’t.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Well, the option of a radio is better than no option of a radio, which is what we have on most smartphones today.” But that is wrong because it assumes that the mere presence of radio solves the problem of consumption. That may have been true in the “all I have are CD’s and radio in my car” era, but it is no longer true in the era of “anything, anytime.” Consumers ignore options every single day. Being on a store shelf is no substitute for being desperately in demand.

Don’t plan for the presence of radio in mobile phones as the goal: Plan for content that consumers find irresistible as the goal.

Because in a field of broad and increasingly equal choice, the best content will always win.

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