Consumer electronics is a tricky business. The scale is such that the rewards can be huge, but the logistics of manufacturing at that scale can limit who can jump in. Smartphones, however, have provided an opportunity for the Little Guy to leverage the platform by figuring out new and innovative ways to use the hardware that’s already there. The sensors in particular have been a rich source of innovation.
I’ve you’ve got a clever invention, then, assuming it’s all software, all you have to do is make sure it’s rock-solid (hopefully, if that’s convenient and you feel like it) and then put it up for sale, where it will compete with only hundreds of thousands of other apps for your target customer’s attention. In this case, access is easier, but standing out is hard.
I recently saw an invention announcement that falls somewhere in between. It has the feel of a small guy trying to impact the actual hardware of a cell phone. The company is Fraden and the application is the ability to take the temperature of a person or thing simply by “taking a picture” of the item.
The classic “Awwwww” picture that they show is that of a camera taking a baby’s temperature. (Although it’s clearly a chopped photo…)
But the announcement wasn’t about a new application that you could buy, nor was it about a new phone platform. It was about technology ready for license – and it likely involves adding hardware to the phone: an infrared sensor. The rest works with the camera in the phone. If the camera auto-focus were active, using an infrared ranging system, then all the hardware would already be in place (assuming the software had access to the sensor). But most cell phones use passive auto-focus, so this means adding a new piece of hardware to the phone (albeit one claimed to be inexpensive).
That’s a much harder row to hoe. You can’t go directly to the consumer: you have to convince phone makers to add yet another sensor to the laundry list they already have. How do you do that? By trying to tap into phone-makers’ desperation for differentiation. The phone that can accurately take a kid’s temperature is likely to have an advantage, at least in the people-with-kids demographic. (To the extent that anyone gives a crap about people over 20 as a useful target market for gadgetry…)
Of course, as the inventor, you really want to show up in all phones. Which actually means modulating the differentiation message as penetration changes. At first, you can say, “This is huge for differentiation: you’ll be the only phone that has one!” After a couple successes, that changes to, “More and more phones are differentiating themselves with this feature.” Until finally the message morphs to, “Everyone else has this: you’ll be the only one without.”
In other words, differentiation enablement as a selling point can only work at the beginning of the campaign. If you’re completely and utterly successful in penetrating the market, then, by definition, your differentiating technology has eliminated any differentiation.
You can read more about the Fraden story in their announcement.