The future of mobile phones?


So I’m sitting in a panel discussion at the IE Digital Forum and we have representatives from Google and RIM, among others, discussing the future of mobile computing, so I thought I’d chime in.

So I discussed some of the history yesterday, in the context of Microsoft’s struggles with Windows Phone 7 … or is it Windows 7 Phone?  I always get that mixed up.

So let me go in order from worst to best.

Symbian (and Meego). Since Nokia already announced they were migrating away from this platform, you can put a fork in it – its over for Symbian (and Nokia too, in my opinion – they may survive as a Motorola sized company but their glory days are gone).  The previous future platform for Nokia was Meego, which is based on Linux (like Android and Pre).  Without Nokia, I don’t see Meego happening at all in mobile phones.  Perhaps you will see it running your fridge in a few years.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t seem to get the thing out the door and have made an alliance with Microsoft to be a favored partner for the latest version of Windows Phone.  Unfortunately for Nokia this creates a number of questions.  For one, the first phone won’t even be released for a year while you’ve completely demoralized your internal and external developer community.  As a result, they are basically starting from scratch, and with an unproven platform in Windows Phone.  For example, if you can’t control your own software how can you truly differentiate yourself?  Even worse, if somehow their phones take off their apparent lack of development focus on value added software and services means that they can be easily copied by the Samsungs and HTCs of the world.

Windows Phone 7. I discussed some of the issues here so far.  Yes, if Microsoft can execute on this it will provide some level of strategic differentiation for their clients (the operators and manufacturers) then it can at least reduce the level of platform fragmentation faced by Android.  With that said, they can’t get updates out, they can’t sell handsets in large volume, and they really don’t have very many apps considering how mature the market is (10,000 for them, 100k+ for Google, 300k+ for Apple).  Even worse, they’ve just spent a ton of money (which I think is not a bad decision if it pays off) focusing on Nokia, which is likely to alienate their other partners into supporting Android even more, when Nokia can’t even get a phone out the door in a year.

RIM Blackberry. Unfortunately I think RIM, despite their past leadership in the market, probably is going to be relegated to being a low end platform for the next couple of years and if they don’t make a shift soon they will have to move to Android and then build their management services on top of it.  With that said, I’m intrigued by the potential of the QNX OS (soon to be) shipping on the Playbook tablet.  I don’t believe that RIM has announced that as being their future phone platform, but technology wise it’s ahead of the ancient blackberry OS.  I think that relying on another company for your operating system is a dangerous game, and if you play it you want to be HP and not say Dell.  I would be a lot more bullish on RIM considering their still considerable market share and brand name, but considering its been 4 years since the iPhone was announced and they still can’t compete with version 1 very well (or perhaps 2 is a better comparison, once Apple allowed apps).

HP / Palm Pre. I would have considered this company surely gone not very long ago, but considering that they appear to have a very good team behind the Pre (many Apple iPod / iPhone team alums), deep pockets in HP, and a leadership newly dedicated to cloud computing and software they could very well turn out to be the dark horse candidate.  The Pre operating system has always received good reviews.  Downsides?  They aren’t shipping a whole lot (if any) phones, and HP was never a phone manufacturer.  Even in the case of Palm, they did a lot better with the software than the hardware.  This would have been a great acquisition for Nokia a year ago in terms of product fit (not sure about the culture in Finland versus Silicon Valley), but it’s too late now.  Let’s see how HP can handle the Pre.  An interesting aside is that the culture of Apple, where many of the Pre team came from, originated at / was inspired by the old culture of HP, so they’ve come full circle.

Google Android + Apple iOS. I am cheating a bit by not picking a winner, but let me explain.  I think that Apple will continue to lead in terms of user experience, profit, and driving operating system innovation.  I think that Google will drive search, cloud computing, and form factor variety.  Google won’t make anywhere near the amount of money that Apple will, but I don’t think that’s their point.  They needed Android to prevent Apple from completely dominating the next generation of computing like Microsoft did in the 90s / 00s.  I think emerging markets will heavily break toward Android based devices because Apple simply will not make devices *that* cheap, or devices focused on specific niches.  Apple will gain market share in richer countries as a result of their increasing carrier presence, and especially once they add a lower price form factor like they did with the iPod.  One caveat in the rich countries is that I can’t predict how the vastly increasing presence of various computing devices in the near term will affect Android distribution – I don’t see iOS in your fridge, or your microwave, or your streetlamp – but maybe Google will go in that direction.

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