Friday, December 30, 2011

The state of smartphones

Apple didn't invent the smart phone. Phones capable of running applications and accessing the Internet were around well before the iPhone. Apple's big contribution was to replace the dedicated keys with a touch screen. That was enough to revolutionize the cell phone industry. For years Apple has produced the biggest-selling phone.

Apple did leave some openings. The biggest one was their deal with AT&T. The deal was good for both companies but it left the other phone companies hungry for a competing device.

The big winner here was Google's Android. It succeeded because it was the anti-Apple. Where Apple makes and sells one phone at a time, Android is freely available to anyone for any device. If you want to make a smart phone or a tablet or an ebook reader, you can customize a version of Android to run it. This also allows for customization. You can get android phones with screens bigger and smaller than the iPhone. Some have forward-facing cameras, some don't. Some have slide-out keyboards. You can even run it on a tablet and hide the interface like the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet.

This diversity creates some problems. Apple ties the hardware and software together tightly and limits variations. In contrast, Google releases an operating system and allows the vendors to modify it any way they want. Developers for the iPhone only have to test on a couple of models. Android developers have to worry about dozens of possibilities so the apps are less reliable and less polished.

For many people, that polish is the deciding factor. They go with Apple. Others prefer the freedom of having a phone that accepts an SD card and can use Windows Explorer to copy files instead of iTunes.

For some time, industry pundits have been complaining about updates to the Android operating system. When Google releases a new update it can take months before your phone receives it, if ever. Many phones are not updated. these pundits see this as a huge problem.

I don't. In the year and a half I have had my Android phone it has gone from version 2.1 to 2.3. I am highly technical and I read the release notes for each update. Despite this, I can hardly tell the difference between the updates. The biggest difference I noticed between 2.2 and 2.3 was that the Gmail icon in the notification bar changed slightly. Knowing this, it would not have mattered a bit if my phone had not received the upgrade.

I think that what concerns most people is if the phone does what they bought it for.

I do not expect my phone to receive Android 4.0 aka Ice Cream Sandwich. It would be expecting a lot for a phone to get a major upgrade two years after it was released. Even Apple drops support for their older phones.

That brings us to Microsoft which is trying to get traction in the phone market. They invented their own interface which looks nothing like the iPhone. Microsoft is trying to split the difference. They let others make the phones like Android but they have strict hardware requirements and allow little customization. That means that there is little to distinguish one Windows phone from another. That gives manufacturers little incentive to push a Windows phone. On top of this, Microsoft was at least a year late in entering this market. They would have a much bigger market share if they had entered while the iPhone was limited to AT&T and before the Droid line of phones.

My prediction for the phone market is that it will continue as it is with Android being the dominant operating system, the iPhone the biggest individual seller, and the Windows Phone a niche player. The biggest change will be that manufacturers will do less customization to the Android interface.

Tablets are still an open market. The iPad has been out less than two years. The first crop of competing Android tablets were based on the 2.2 or 2.3 release. Most of them were buggy and overpriced. The tablets based on 3.0 were not much better. Google was never satisfied with 3.0 and never released it as open source. The only way a tablet could compete was on price but many of these cost more than an iPad. The Kindle and Nook tablets changed this, offering a 7" tablet at or below cost with the expectation of future profits by selling content. Ice Cream Sandwich promises to support both phones and tablets and may finally let Android tablets compete with the iPad.

Microsoft has an opening here but they need to get a product out the door soon and it needs to be either competitively priced or superior to the iPad (and I mean really better in every way). Changing the Windows 8 interface to look like a touch phone will not be enough to sell tablets. Otherwise the subsidized Kindle and Nook will continue to dominate the tablet market for the next year.

1 comment:

Upcoming Smartphones said...


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