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Smartphone Wars

The battle for smartphone supremacy is heating up

Written by Eric Harper and Todd Swensen

"There's a war out there, old friend, a world war. And it's not about who's got the most bullets, it's about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think, it's all about the information!"

--Cosmo to Martin Bishop, from the movie Sneakers (1992)

How many of you remember hearing something like this from your parents? “You are so lucky to be living in a time of such exciting technology.” To them, “technology” meant the space shuttle, more than one television in the house, and the dawn of the personal computer. Twenty-five years ago, they couldn't have imagined iPods, tablet computers and ubiquitous cell phones. (But then again, we were supposed to have flying cars by now, so maybe it's a wash.)

Of course, now the trend is toward technology consolidation. Most of us want our MP3 player, e-mail client, Web browser, camera and cell phone all in the same handset. Not only does it mean carrying fewer things in your pocket or bag, but these consolidated devices, called smartphones, are changing the way we all look at staying connected, informed and entertained. All of the different smartphone developers are scrambling for market share. Some industry heavyweights aren't looking so strong right now. And some newcomers are making a big splash. But who's winning this war? And just as importantly, who's losing?

Some industry heavyweights aren't looking so strong right now. And some newcomers are making a big splash. But who's winning this war? And just as importantly, who's losing?

Following Smartphone Trends

A lot of people never really gave smartphones a thought until the release of the iPhone, but Apple was actually quite late to the game. Although no industry-standard definition exists, most consider a smartphone to be more of a miniature computer that also has phone capabilities. The first attempt in this category came from IBM way back in 1993 with the release of the Simon Personal Communicator. It wouldn't be considered a smartphone by today's standards. The address book, Web browsing and e-mail capabilities that made it a smartphone back in the 1990's are available on nearly any plain old cell phone model you can buy today. But it was way ahead of its time.

Over the next ten years, cell phone manufacturers like Nokia and Ericsson made their own smartphones. And in 2002, Handspring released the Treo 180 smartphone built on the Palm OS. Because of the already mature third-party application support for the Palm OS, users of the Treo quickly took advantage of the additional features outside developers could provide. When Handspring subsequently merged with Palm, the Treo line continued until it was replaced in 2009 with the Palm Pre.

RIM also released their smartphone, the BlackBerry, in 2002. Optimized for e-mail, the BlackBerry enjoyed a fairly loyal customer base. (They don't call them “CrackBerries” for nothing.) And Microsoft introduced the Windows CE Pocket PC OS at nearly the same time.

In April 2007, Apple made a big splash with the all touch-screen iPhone. Industry analysts immediately called it a “game-changer” and, given the product's immediate success and the way many phone manufacturers have copied the iPhone's design, it apparently was.

In 2008, Google got into the mix with the cross-platform Android OS. Leaving the hardware side to manufacturers like HTC and Motorola, Android is an open source operating system based on a Linux kernel.

Extending Smartphone Capabilities

While smartphones may set the status of everyone from junior high students to CEOs, the business productivity potential of these tools is widely varied. Sometimes only including a PDA, a Web browser and e-mail, the real utility smartphones provide is largely dependent on add-on applications. These applications can give users access to social networks, standard office applications, vertical market tools and even custom-made software. But how those applications get from the minds of designers to handsets can vary from one vendor to another.

The first iPhone didn't even allow third-party applications until nearly a year after it was released when Apple launched the App Store. It's still a fairly closed distribution model. Other platforms allow users to download applications from various Web sites. However, citing usability, stability and security concerns, Apple pretty much thumbed its nose at this approach and decided that users could only install iPhone applications through their own App Store. Oh and, by the way, Apple has to approve every application that sits in that store.

This rigid tactic has irked a whole slew of power-users who would rather hack (or “jailbreak”) their iPhones than play by Apple's rules. Ironically, some of the most popular features of jailbroken iPhones—multitasking, app folders, custom backgrounds—have made their way to iPhone OS 4.0, set to be released this summer.

Google, on the other hand, went for the open-source model. The Android OS allows third-party developers to create unlimited applications, utilities and extensions. And, because you can't have an open OS and a closed app market, developers can distribute their wares however they wish. It's true, most Android users find applications through Android Market, the over-the-air application installation tool, but that's not the only way. Other sellers like Handango, SlideME and AndAppStore provide alternative installation points. This antithetical approach from Apple may end up being what makes Android a game-changer. Only time will tell.

Industry analysts immediately called the iPhone a “game-changer” and, given the product's immediate success and the way many phone manufacturers have adopted the iPhone's design, it apparently was.

Other Smartphone Battles

Meanwhile, other smartphone suppliers are trying to make their marks. The Palm Pre is enjoying some success, but not as much as investors had hoped. Windows Mobile is currently at v6.5, but Microsoft announced at the Mobile World Congress 2010 in Barcelona that there won't be a Windows Mobile 7. Instead, they're developing a new OS to be called Windows Phone 7 with an interface that is said to be similar to the Zune HD. No one knows yet how many developers will jump on board. And, although pressure continues to come from a number of competitive forces, Research In Motion will no doubt work to maintain its position as one of the smartphone market's enterprise leaders.

Ironically, some of the most popular features of jailbroken iPhones have made their way to iPhone OS 4.0, set to be released this summer.

Winning the War

Your parents were right. It is a good time to be alive. While space shuttles and televisions are certainly exciting in their own right, smartphone advancements are right up there. And new products that live in the space between smartphones and notebooks, like Apple's iPad, Microsoft's (still semi-secret) Courier, and HP's Slate—may turn out to be smartphone market disrupters. Will the iPhone continue to ride the popularity rocket? Will Android attract more developers, more applications and, consequently, more users? Will Palm and Nokia rebound? This war is far from over, and the fights we've seen so far have just been battles. But with all this competition, this drive to win, this innovation, the real winners of the smartphone wars are us. The users.

Now, about that flying car . . .

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