The Wild Wild West

I like mobile phones. When traveling internationally a good phone is pretty important. More than just a way to talk to people, my phone has increasingly become entertainment and guidebook. I tend to buy phones based on what I think I’m going to want to do, not what I do today. I want a new phone, but I’m trying to convince myself I don’t need one.

Somebody who travels a lot recently asked me what sort of phone they should get. Initially I couldn’t really give them an answer, but I wrote most of the following as an email that works through some of the background noise in my head.

According to Market Share data synopsis from Canalys report “Worldwide smart mobile device market” which I pulled off of wikipedia, the top Smartphone OSes are,
1. Symbian (has UI Variants of S60 and UIQ) 57%
2. RIM (Blackberry) 17.4%
3. Windows Mobile 12%
4. Linux and variants 7.3%
5. iPhone 2.8%
6. Palm 2.3%

In the last few year or so we’ve seen several things happen to change the mobile os playing field. I’ll talk about that a little later, but in the existing market Symbian is king by the numbers. We don’t hear much about it in the States, but it’s hugh overseas. Symbian is the core OS and there are two graphical overlays that can run on top as UI. S60 is used by Nokia and has the lion share of the market. Sony Ericsson uses UIQ which is adds touch and stylus support. I have a M600i which I really like, but the software is flakey and UIQ doesn’t have much the market penetration, so is probably going to go by the wayside unless Sony-Ericsson does something amazing. Nokia’s uses the S60 overlay and their N Series for lifestyle and E Series for business have always been really interesting to me. I would have probably gotten the E70 instead of the M600i if they weren’t so expensive. Symbian is a good OS, but I think that it has too much momentum in it’s current paradigm to be able to react to recent changes successfully.

RIM has been killing it with their Blackberries. I had a Blackberry and I liked it, but it made me just too connected. The way that they do email makes the data plan expensive and for an international traveler like myself it’s probably tricky to use with multiple sim cards. The storm adds a touch screen but it’s still focused primarily on business so it has some perceptions and limitations to over come for consumers.

There has been speculation that Microsoft will buy RIM. It’s debatable how likely this is. If it does, it would be an acceptance that Windows Mobile is a failure. Microsoft hasn’t been doing anything interesting with their Mobile OS for a while. Windows Mobile 7 starts to be interesting but that’s not due to 2009 and it won’t be till Version 8 that they’ll completely catch up to what the consumer thinks the iPhone does today. So if Microsoft doesn’t acquire RIM it will take them some time to get Windows Mobile to be competitive and even if they do it will take them time to rebrand and integrate it into the rest of their line up. End result is they’re going to be a backseat driver until 2010.

As for Palm well they haven’t updated their OS significantly in a long time and while it was a great product, the company has been mismanaged, lacking vision and unable to figure out what they’re doing. Again unless they do something amazing they’re not going to be a player.

Like I said before, there are things that have mixed up the status quo which I think are game changers.

1. iPhone – Techies have been complaining about how bad Mobile Phone OSes are. They were all bad and most of them still aren’t great. Along comes the iPhone and shows them how bad they really are and in a little over a year it has gone from a vapor to nothing to an icon. What this taught mobile manufacturers is that it doesn’t matter how good your hardware is, it’s only as good as the software it runs. They’ve shipped something like 6.9 million of them this quarter which was more than RIM did. It’s an amazing phone. They’re expensive though and only sold unlocked in Hong Kong.

2. Android – Google’s entry into the Mobile space. It’s not a phone but an OS. Aside from the fact that it has the Google brand and presumably their special sauce, the interesting thing about it is that it’s been open sourced. There is only one released phone with this OS, the HTC G1. There’s some controversy on how many they’ve sold, but it seems to be selling pretty well.

3. Convergence – The One Laptop per Child project by Nicolas Negroponte was a great idea. It failed because a certain level it was sabotaged by Intel and Microsoft. Even in it’s failure it catalyzed a whole new market of computers known as Netbooks. In the race to the bottom they’re getting smaller and cheaper. As phones get larger and more powerful the line between Netbook and smart phone starts to blur. ie is better to get a expensive phone or tether a cheap $200-$400 netbook to a cheap phone via bluetooth? Add devices like Peek (http://www.getpeek.com) into the mix which is an email only device for the states that’s contractless and only $20/month, MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) and wifi based skype phones, and things get even more gray. For example, a device like the Nokia N810 WiMax edition which I would classify as a MID is only slightly larger than a phone and runs linux. WiMax is a next generation high speed data protocol which promises high speeds, large coverage areas and cheap access. With that scenario, I’d only have a WiMax data plan and get phone service through Skype.

The mobile device is evolving into a standalone platform and what we’re seeing is the equivalent of the OS wars in the early 90’s when you had Microsoft, IBM, Apple and a bunch of smaller players, Amiga, BeOS, etc. etc. duking it out. But by the time 95 comes out we have a fairly clear winner. Over the next year or two this space is going to dramatically evolve until there are only a few players left. My bet is that unless something dramatic happens to change the status quo in 2 years that will be Android, the iPhone OS and what ever RIM evolves into.

Addendum: I would have posted this earlier, but Robert Cringely wrote made pretty much the same observations more eloquently about the time I finished writing up my ideas. http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/2008/pulpit_20081023_005500.html

The reason I actually write now is that I saw Gartner’s numbers for 2008 and it’s not pretty for Nokia and Microsoft.

The new list is
1. Symbian 49.8%
2. RIM 15.9%
3. Mac OS X 12.9%
4. Windows Mobile 11.1%
5. Linux 7.2%
6. Palm 2.1%

This is pretty much confirms the trends I’ve been noticing. When it really comes down to it, we are the cross roads of the next generation of computing. For better or worse this is the point where the functionality of mobile devices starts to compare to that of full blown computers. There is one device out there that can be purchased today that is part of that future and has a roadmap. The iPhone. If I was in the States I’d walk down to the Apple store and buy one, end of story. But I’m in Bangladesh and that isn’t an option. Everything else may have promise but isn’t quite there yet. I’m most tempted by a Nokia N series device, like a N79. It’s a very cool phone and while it would work very well today with a few more hardware features, it wouldn’t be significantly more capable than the 2 year old phone I have. The other thing is it doesn’t have a migration path to have a place in that mobile future. Operating systems like Android and mobile Linux have the potential but don’t have have a handset that offers the hardware I want. I could come from the other direction and get a Nokia N810 but we don’t have WiMax in Bangladesh quite yet. Net net is that the mobile devices are going through a lot of growing pains and I might have talked myself out of a new phone.

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One thought on “The Wild Wild West”

  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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