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Smarty Phones

If you're going to buy a phone, chances are it will be a smartphone - one that can do email, web browsing, play and record audio and video, run apps, and connect with everything, in addition to the now standard and ubiquitous phone call and text messaging capabilities. Such devices used to be mainly bought by corporations to give to their staff, but now they have popular appeal amongst consumers as well. Today's smartphone market parallels the early personal computer market in an intriguing number of ways. Apple were present then, as they are now, and just as the market was fragmented between 5 or 6 different vendors, so it is now, with again Apple having a healthy lead over the rest.

Eventually, by the late 80's, the personal computer market settled, and Windows became the dominant platform, garnering something like 85-95% of the market, with Apple reduced from the frontrunner to a minority, and stuff like Linux taking up the rest. It is too early to predict what will happen with smartphones, because of two reasons, one being how quickly the pace is changing, and the second being that the market is now in its infancy, and so every change has the potential to make a huge impact. But already some see this market going the same way as the other, with eventually one dominant platform, and Apple again relegated to a minority, though this time the platform being thought of as winning is Google's Android.

It's an intriguing prediction. And one that is easy to justify, especially given the parallels between android and windows. To explain - there are four distinct levels of operation that allow anything to be done on a computing device. There is the hardware itself, which contains a physical limitation on what a device can and cannot do (camera, keyboard, screen, etc). Layered above that is the operating system (OS), which is a device that controls the hardware, and sets parameters for its use. Then layers above that are the programs, which are created for specific purposes, and, with the permission of the OS, access the bits of hardware (speakers, keyboard, screen) that are needed for their function. And above all this is the end-user, who controls the programs and gives the computer work to do.

And the parallel? Android and Windows are both OSes, designed to be adaptable to run on as many possible hardware configurations as possible. In the same way that Windows can run on a laptop made by one company, and a desktop made by another, and a tablet made by a third, Android can run on a phone which is touch screen only, or has physical buttons, or as many buttons as you want, or even a tablet as well. If you're a phone maker, you don't have to worry about adding your own OS onto your hardware, because you have a high quality one readymade, in a sense. And because Google own Android, integration with Google services like Gmail, calendar, search is standard. All you have to do is adapt the core to suit your individual hardware specs, and add or remove whatever you want, as it's all open source. And so the foundation for a dominant platform is laid - because the platform is independent of any handset maker, and adaptable to a wide range of hardware specs, widespread adoption is pretty much guaranteed. Then comes the "network effect" - if enough people have it, especially among friends and family, then the benefits of getting something different, and potentially incompatible down the line are diminished, and people go with what is familiar.

That, the argument goes, is how Android will be the Windows of the smartphone world. Again, it's an intriguing prediction, and one that seems solid, because that is exactly how Windows became the dominant platform today in the computing market. But it relies too much on the story of the past repeating itself, and one would probably do well to assume that all the players involved here have learned from the history of the personal computer market (which is only at most 30 years old), and developed strategies accordingly. One hopes, anyway.

For example, consider the late-to-market Windows Phone 7. It's strategy will basically be the same as that of Android, so instead of only one choice for a hardware independent OS, there are two. Of the major phone makers, Samsung, Sony-Ericsson, HTC, and Motorola have chosen to go down the "hardware plus Android" route, so it seems likely that when Windows Phone 7 becomes available, they'll follow a similar strategy. Which is good, as Android and Windows Phone 7 will then have to compete. It looks like android will have a slight lead now, as it's free to all handset makers, and has a better app store, but Windows Phone 7 will have a huge amount of backing, as Microsoft will not want to lose out on this new market. The handset makers will probably carry both Android and Windows, and let the market decide.

There are others who will be following different paths. Nokia appears to be the one with the most to lose in this market as they make phones with decent enough hardware, but the OS is generally deemed to be lower in quality than their competitors. And at this level, the user interface and experience is what is most likely to win customers. They could emulate their competitors and start using Android or Windows, but they don't appear to want to do that, as having developed their own Symbian OS, they want to stick with it for the time being. MeeGo, an alternative OS, is currently in development, in partnership with Intel, and is a potential way forward for them, but nobody will know until it first ships, just like nobody knew if Android was viable until the first couple of Android phones went to market.

Then, of course, there's BlackBerry. They differentiate themselves, and that is important, as it means they stand out from the others, and deserve recognition on their own. They have their own OS, which has just been given a significant upgrade to make it more competitive, although to some it would seem just playing catch-up to Android and iOS. They also have BlackBerry Messenger, which allows any two Blackberries to communicate for free, a solid connectivity/notifications system, especially with regard to email and the like, which is why they're really popular with corporate clients, and the cute red blinking light. Most of their phones  have physical keyboards, although they have experimented with touch screen phones as well. The market seems to like them, and right now they're one of the few handset makers actually posting a profit.

Finally, we have Apple, the darling of the tech press (most of the time), and the company with the lion's share of profits in this industry, even though they don't sell that many phones, relatively speaking. They play a different game altogether. Only one new handset is released every year, and all have the same form factor - a 3.5 inch touch screen, with as few buttons as it is possible to have. They brought the touch screen to smartphones, focus on build quality and design aesthetic more obsessively than most, have the biggest (in terms of numbers) and best (in terms of quality) app store, and innovate relentlessly. Their OS, called iOS, has been leveraged into other products like the iPod Touch and iPad with resounding success, and they will not add a feature if they know it's implementation will not be satisfactory - in other words, user experience is the most important thing, or so they say. And it seems to have worked for them. A loyal following that will queue up and buy the new model every year on a long term contract is no bad thing. It is what every other handset maker on this list wants.

In conclusion, this is an interesting time to be a smartphone maker. We have 7 major handset makers (Dell will be entering soon, with both Android and Windows phones), and 4 (soon to be 5) competing operating systems. Apple and BlackBerry seem to be doing the best right now, but nobody knows how the market will turn out when it eventually stabilises, or what the next big thing will be.

Imran

What do think about Smart phones... Are they a Smart Choice???

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Comments (3)

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I like the Samsung Galaxy with the Android. Battery life is reasonable.

[1] ai at 13:13 on 1 Oct 11 report this
 

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It depends on ones preferences....
I've just managed to get my hands on the Samsung Galaxy S.... its a good phone, but I still miss my basic phones like... Nokia 3510i which was my first phone.... but yeah with smartphones it does kind of depend on what you need them for, I dont use facebook or any social networking websites but the Galaxy S is handy for email as it is a Google phone, so being able to respond to emails on the go is a big thumbs up!

[2] Missy at 16:01 on 21 Jan 11 report this
 

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smart phones are not a smart choice it doesnt matter if u have one or not
however people only get them co their friends have them

[3] somalinigga97@yahoo.com at 21:36 on 14 Nov 10 report this
 

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