With the launch of an Android-based Sidekick and the close of the Danger service, can the brand recover its status as a cultural icon?
The inevitable shuttering of the Danger service earlier this month came and went without a lot of hoopla, providing an inauspicious end for the original T-Mobile Sidekick, the first truly consumer-focused smartphone. The Sidekick name was cleaved from the Danger intellectual property after the acquisition of the company by Microsoft and the subsequent dissolution of the exclusive distribution agreement that Danger had with T-Mobile.
Earlier this year, T-Mobile, which maintained the rights to only the Sidekick name and the subscriber base, transferred the moniker to an Android-based device produced by Samsung (previous generations were made mostly by Sharp,). Built over eight major releases and six Limited Edition co-branded versions, the Sidekick name lives on as the moniker for a new mobile phone experience, and raises the question – how far can you leverage a brand?
As a product development executive at T-Mobile for three years during the Sidekick’s heyday, I led a team of product managers responsible for defining our unique carrier requirements for the Sidekick user experience, and ultimately the Sidekick brand. I remember vividly the day that I found out about the Microsoft acquisition of Danger, and wondered, like everyone else, what the news would mean for the future of the product.
[With full disclosure, I also had the good fortune to manage, at the same time, a team of product managers who launched the first Android device, the T-Mobile G1. That product also shares ancestry with the Sidekick through Andy Rubin, who co-founded Danger before he left and founded Android, which he then later sold to Google. The fact that now the Sidekick brand has ended up on an Android-powered device may be either the result of Rubin’s master plan or simply the irony of fate.]
The Suits Vs The Street – Establishing the Brand
The Sidekick story started before there was an iPhone, when smartphones were really just about the Blackberry, a device that mobile warriors like me carried to stay connected to office email. Carrying a Blackberry was a sign of corporate status, bringing along with it a sense of importance, urgency, and responsibility.
But a Blackberry also reminded me that I was on a short leash to work. Despite how quickly I got addicted to having email on a portable device the size of a deck of cards, I also had a hard time using it as a phone.
Sidekick, on the other hand, gave consumers a way to feel important within their social circle, always connected, but very personal. Sidekick customers were the star of their own movie, networked but always displaying their individuality proudly. The sound of the signature flip-top swivel snapping open, the distinctive alerts and flashing lights made any Sidekick user easy to spot in a dark nightclub. All of which made me – and most corporate professionals – unlikely to ever carry the Sidekick as an ever-present mobile companion.
Because of its flashy and big personality, the Sidekick was wildly interesting to young and highly social Hollywood types, like Paris Hilton and Travis Barker, and the brand’s unique industrial design and graphical UI naturally aligned with fashion and style icons, like Juicy Couture and DIane Von Furstenberg, as well as sports superstars, like Dwayne Wade and Tony Hawk, all of whom who signed on to create Limited Edition models which enforced the hip and social image.
Sidekick’s statement was that it connected users with friends, not just with a secure email server.
Over time, with the help of Paris Hilton and personalization, the Sidekick customer profile evolved. Male teens enjoyed handling the swivel hinge like a switchblade, and Mr. Cartoon along with the T-Mobile sponsorship of the NBA gave the Sidekick street cred. From Oakland, California, to Oak Park, Illinois, whenever I would work in a T-Mobile retail store (which as an executive we were required to do twice a year), I was amazed at the attachment Sidekick customers everywhere showed to their device.
What makes a brand iconic?
In June of 2009, an article on Forbes.com declared, “If the wireless industry had a Hall of Fame, Apple’s iPhone, T-Mobile’s Sidekick and Motorola’s Razr would occupy a special niche.” All three phones were labeled “dynasties,” because of the many versions released under the brand names that share recurring hardware and software design cues.
Industrial designers understand that the persistence of a visual language facilitates consumer recognition and, in general, builds brand equity. That is especially true with iconic brands that span years, and spawn more than a dozen versions, as the Sidekick did. Typically, an iconic brand authentically reflects the zeitgeist of a community, and within the group the icon may be intimately tied to a customer’s identity. However, for a brand design to be truly iconic, people outside of the group should also be able to instantly recognize the product.
The Danger-powered Sidekick was easily identifiable by a number of external cues that customers and non-customers could enumerate:
- The “swivel” hinge
- The surfboard shape
- The control keys on either side of the screen, the trackball and the 4-way navigation pad
- A multi-colored lighted trackball and multi-color flashing alert lights
- The five row QWERTY keyboard
- Its size
On the inside, the Sidekick user found a simple UI controlled by a scrolling chooser wheel and surface key strokes that worked as short cuts, enabling consumers to jump around the software and quickly activate menu options.
The Danger service provided a number of unique user experiences, which endeared the OS to its fans, most notable among them being its PC-like instant messaging capabilities. The Sidekick also was one of the first device platforms to provide its customers with over-the-air updates, cloud back up, and web browsing; the Sidekick Catalog even pre-dated both the iPhone and Android app stores.
In 2008, my team at T-Mobile introduced a Sidekick with fully personalize-able shells, enabling users to easily choose the look of their Sidekick’s hard casing and replace the cover that everyone had with one designed just for them. Thousands of individually designed shells were generated from the online customizer, and more pre-designed replacement shells were sold. This mass personalization effort was the ultimate realization of the brand’s individuality and a reflection of what was most important to Sidekick customers – to stand out from a crowd.
Mobile Handsets “Blur “Together
The delayed release of the last Danger-based Sidekick LX, with its wide, high definition screen, coincided with the explosion of consumer touchscreen devices, and left reviewers and customers disappointed by the fact that when they touched the large, inviting graphics on-screen, nothing happened.
Web browsers, apps for Twitter and Facebook, location services and content catalogs of music, games and applications quickly proliferated on other platforms. The Sidekick Catalog was a closed ecosystem like the one on Apple’s iPhone, but had far fewer applications than RIM, Android or iOS. One by one, attribute by attribute, the differentiation and brand reputation Sidekick had as a quirky, trendy and innovative mobile technology, was eroding.
Apple redacted its mobile handset design down to a single surface control key, and the multi-button, full QWERTY Sidekick quickly seemed complicated by comparison. Even with such a sleek, monolithic design of the iPhone, Apple still could provide consumers with one-of-a-kind mobile gaming experiences using an accelerometer and touch interactions.
By the time Microsoft and T-Mobile officially parted ways, the Danger service had a major outage the users without access to their contacts, email or any of their cloud-based content. The smartphone market was lapping the Sidekick while the partners severed the device’s name, which T-Mobile owned, from the Microsoft-owned Danger design and technology patents. In design terms, the brand was strip-mined.
The new Samsung version of the T-Mobile Sidekick has a lot to recommend it. But can the new Android-based services and overall user experience provide the Sidekick brand with enough value to maintain its iconic status? With a hardware design that looks contrived to force a landscaped orientation that appears similar to previous Sidekicks, this reincarnation of the Sidekick has much less of of the “fidget factor” or feel of a “nightclub,” but I’d imagine that’s was the point. So is it still a Sidekick?
When I bought a house once in California, it was re-built from the ground up, except for one original wall in the basement that remained in order for the house to be classified as a re-model and not new construction, and then it could be taxed at a better rate. But to any reasonable person, it was a completely new house.
The Sidekick 4G is that completely new house, except it has retained its original name just to save it from being labeled ‘new construction.’ To compound the metaphor, imagine this new house has a completely new flow for entertaining than the old one had; it was also styled with a totally different interior design scheme. If you loved the original, there is no guarantee you’ll feel the same about the new Sidekick.
So, how far can you leverage a brand? My answer is, as far as customers will let you. Many companies mistakenly believe they own the brands they deliver to customers, especially if they own the underlying patents and trademarks, like Microsoft owned the Danger IP, or if they trademark the name, as T-Mobile did.
But in reality, a brand’s identity is merely the amalgamation of the consumer’s perception of the experience they have when they interact with your company through the products or services you offer. Customers are the biggest driver of your brand’s equity; how attached they are to your product experience increases lifetime value and drives valuable word of mouth.
If you want to know how durable the Sidekick brand really is, just ask yourself this question: Have you heard people talking about how much they love their Sidekick 4G?