This is going to be one of those ‘to save me from repeating myself’ sort of blog posts, as I seem to have been frequently engaged in conversation recently about this topic.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Apple redefined the smartphone with the launch of the iPhone, and though I don’t have one myself I’ve had an iPod Touch since the early days so I’m no stranger to the platform. Many seem to be convinced that the iPad is going to work the same magic, but I’ll stick to what I said previously on this – I think the iPad will create a category but won’t necessarily dominate it.
Apple clearly has a head of steam in its app store, and seems for the time being to be the app that developers will do first. I expect this to change though; as other platforms proliferate, and developers tire of the walled garden constantly having its walls moved against them, then the talent and economics will stack up elsewhere.
Long term I expect that Apple as a mobile platform (in both smartphone and tablet form factors) will become much like Apple as a personal computer platform e.g. a design led premium product that leads on the simplicity of its user interface. Apple will do very well from this arrangement financially (as premium products bring with them enhanced margins), but the growth that has propelled them past Microsoft will stop sooner than many buying the stock today might hope.
Android is the clear challenger to Apple’s crown, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I don’t presently own an Android device as I believe the platform is (or at least was until very recently) in a phase of such dramatic change that it was a sure road to buyer’s remorse – any Android handset bought today (on a typical 2 year mobile contract) will seem positively prehistoric before it’s upgrade time (just look at the G1!). Since Google Apps is where I live on my laptop I expect that I will get an Android device when my present handset is due an upgrade, but that’s almost a year away. I desperately hoped that the plan by Google to sell the Nexus 1 SIM free and without a contract would be something I could buy into, but the economics of mobile remain a strange beast (it seems $SIM free handset + $contract > $handset with contract).
I don’t subscribe to some of the present arguments that Android will conquer the world because it has tethering and the iPhone doesn’t etc. This is not a features war, and features can easily be copied between platforms. Android will conquer the world because it will out evolve the competition – it will suck developers and handset manufacturers and everybody else in the ecosystem in, and collectively they will push the platform forward faster than any single organisation could on its own. Google may be in the driving seat, but others will provide the pit crew, and the engine, and stickier tyres etc. Android will win the race because it’s more manoeuvrable.
The rest of the field
Having already declared what I expect to be the winner (at least in terms of long term shipment volumes and application footprint) it’s worth taking a look at what else is out there (and I’m inclined to agree with Tim Bray that ‘Two is not the cosmically correct number of viable mobile platforms.’
This seems to be the one that people keep overlooking in this debate, and that the techies always have a reason to discount, but that keeps on being there stronger than ever. BlackBerries have this perception as being business only, just for email, but that’s just not the case any more. The BlackBerry has a huge market share, and it’s not all business – ordinary people buy them as consumer devices because they don’t care that the browser sucks so long as they can email friends and use a (barely functional) FaceBook application. I’ve read elsewhere that BlackBerry messenger is a huge hit with US teens, which I’ve seen no first hand evidence of. What I do know from my own experience is that they make great devices for symmetric communication (via email) – where you send stuff rather than just reading. Also the apps are getting towards ‘good enough’ – the recent Twitter App may not be as swish as TweetDeck on my iPod, but it does the job – I can read (and write) tweets on the hoof.
For some reason I can’t quite pin down the BlackBerry has fallen way behind on its browser, which always was clumsy and slow compared to the state of the art. It also seems to be execrable from a development point of view (and their app store is truly awful). This will be what kills RIM (unless it raises its game) – when the choice is between mobile optimised HTML5 and ‘there’s an app for that’ and their device does neither well. I chose my present BlackBerry because I wanted a keyboard (and knew I couldn’t get on with an iPhone style touch interface); when it comes to upgrade time I may be able to get an Android device that has a keyboard, or somebody might just have a touch screen that I can live with (unlike the Storm).
The Treo was perhaps the device that first defined the smartphone by colliding a PDA into a phone. I remember when I first saw the 600 and I was frankly amazed by how small but functional it was (and I put up with its flakiness for a whole year and a bit until the 650 came out shortly after my upgrade window had opened). Sadly Palm OS was limiting, and the diversion to making Windows Mobile devices didn’t help with development. When the Pre came along last year I could see ‘too little, too late’ writ large on the impending tombstone.
and then HP came along and saved the day, and I’ve been scratching my head ever since trying to figure out why? On one side there’s the cost (and inflexibility) of a WinTel approach to mobile/tablet, but why didn’t they just join the Android party? One thing’s for sure, the $1.2Bn that HP paid for Palm is just table stakes, and they’re going to have to throw down a lot more money if they want to seriously have a go a bringing WebOS into centre frame for developers and consumers.
There was a brief period a few years ago when the iPhone wasn’t born and Windows Mobile sucked just a bit less than everything else in the PDA inspired world of smartphones. During that period I bought an Orange M3100 (aka HTC TyTN), which wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great either.
These days the only positive vibe I hear about Windows Mobile comes from Microsoft partners who’ve been sucked into the Redmond spin machine. They’ve been shown shiny Powerpoint, and talked to by evangelists who are passionate and convincing. What I don’t see is a passionate user community. People (including MS employees) always seem to put up with Windows Mobile rather than loving it. I don’t believe that the desk bound .Net developer ecosystem magically translates into a huge pot of Windows Mobile developers (and great apps). MS are kind of caught between a rock and a hard place on this one – how do they monitise Windows Mobile without charging a per unit license, and yet who would want to pay that license fee when they can get Android? How does MS add the value that it’s trying to extract from its licensees?
I used to love the way that Nokia phone just worked when others didn’t (in particular Motorola, but Ericsson were guilty too). I still use a 7210 as my travel phone as it’s unlocked and the battery runs for days on end (weeks when it was fresh). Nokia sadly seem to have lost their way. They still make great little phones, but they don’t make great little smartphones. The last Series xx device that I spent time with was just awful.
My bet is that Nokia will eventually join the Android pack, but that it will take a long time for them to get over the (emotional) sunk cost of where they are with Symbian. Open Source will not save them – an open source project without a grass roots community is always a worse place to be than a community without open source.
There’s some other interesting stuff rattling around out there like INQ (and we don’t have to look too far in the rear view mirror for things like the Sidekick), but frankly you’d have to be mad these days to start something from scratch with such great open source platforms available.
What about the operator?
Android is shifting the balance of power in the mobile space, and this seems to be disrupting the operators as much as the incumbent platform plays. Eric Raymond has had a string of meaningful things to say about this in recent weeks (though he does fall into the same trap as others by fixating on specific features). I think he’s probably right – the operators can bitch and moan as much as they like about what’s happening here, but the market will route around them if they become an obstacle. Sean Park covers this superbly in his platforms, markets and bytes presentation at eComm 09. The real problem here is that the operators have been trying too desperately to have some kind of value add (that justifies the enormous cost of those spectrum licenses), but all the consumer wants is reliable service and accurate billing (the stuff that telcos are supposed to be good at). Which brings me to my endnote…
 Tethering is going to be a very controversial feature. On the consumer side I can completely understand people not wanting to carry around another device like a dongle or a MiFi, and tethering is the natural answer to that (provided your battery can hold out, or you’re happy to tether by wire). The mobile telcos seem less happy with this route, as it turns out that the ‘killer application’ for those expensive 3G licenses is data – plain dumb pipes, and the only way to monitise that data is to sell a separate contract for it. Selling a separate device along with that separate contract has been an integral part of the smoke and mirrors game of getting the consumer to pay for (mostly) the same thing twice.
Update 2 Jun – AT&T have just relaunched their smartphone tariffs, and tethering is now on the menu (in anticipation of iPhone OS 4). The price is $20/month, which just gets you the right to tether – no extra data! This seems pretty outrageous to me when compared against $10/GB for AT&T’s out of bundle usage, or £15/15GB that I pay to Three for mobile data. So there we have it, AT&T think that the right to tether is worth around 2GB/month – I find this pretty disagreeable, but it will be interesting to see how consumers and other suppliers respond. I suspect that the operator that offers tethering with a bump to the data bundle will be the consumers choice (e.g. charge the extra $20, but give the extra 2GB headroom with that).
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Tags: android, apple, blackberry, INQ, iPad, iphone, mobile, Nokia, Palm, RIM, telco, tethering, WebOS, Windows Mobile