Saturday, April 11, 2009

War Between The Smartphones

The conversations are really heating up and turning into a somewhat religious debate, but regardless of where your beliefs lie, there is some fundamental truths about each platform. A battle is shaping up in the next few years to see who will dominate this new hand held device platform — who will attract the most users and third-party apps? So, here’s a quick snapshot of the strengths and weaknesses of the main combatants in the war for the handheld platform.

Strengths: Having defined this new class of handheld computers, Apple has a huge head start, with 30 million modern devices running a powerful and attractive operating system. That includes 17 million iPhones, plus Apple’s secret weapon: 13 million iPod Touches, which do almost all that an iPhone does, except connect to the cell phone networks.

It has an easy-to-use app store, which is now estimated to hold over 30,000 apps. The iPhone also offers wireless synchronization via MobileMe and Microsoft Exchange.

Weaknesses: Apple is susceptible to three radical obstacle. First, there are millions of people who prefer a physical keyboard, which the iPhone and Touch lack. Secondly, at least in the U.S., the iPhone is tied to a single carrier, AT&T, whose 3G network is still lousy in some major areas. Finally, while the iPhone’s $199 price has been good enough to make it a hit, people in a deep recession might respond better to a lower price, even if it was for a stripped-down lesser model.

Research in Motion
Strengths: The BlackBerry is an icon, with a large installed base estimated at over 50 million. The company has made progress in migrating the BlackBerry to consumers from corporate IT departments. It has a robust marketing campaign and is available from multiple carriers. Most models have physical keyboards.

Weaknesses: The new BlackBerry app platform leaves out much of the installed base; it only works on BlackBerry models introduced after the fall of 2006. RIM (RIMM) stumbled with its first touch-screen BlackBerry, the Storm.Its app store and apps are clumsier and less polished as compared to the iPhone’s. More importantly, the BlackBerry desperately needs a major user-interface overhaul.

Strengths: Android is a modern and powerful smart phone. It is different, but in the same class with, the iPhone OS. Its app store has an excellent wireless synchronization with Google’s calendar and contacts. Like Windows Mobile, it’s a horizontal product, which can be used on numerous handsets and even tablets or netbooks.

Weaknesses: The first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, was clunky and didn’t set the world on fire. Handset makers can build Android phones that aren’t tied in to Google services, so it will be important to see how these variants fare. Another problem is that, as versions of Android diverge among handset makers and carriers, app developers may face a compatibility challenge.

Strengths: Windows Mobile has a large installed base, with many developers who created lots of apps for older versions of the software platform. Microsoft also plans an app store. The company has also launched a wireless synchronization service for consumers, called My Phone. Unlike Apple or RIM, Microsoft (MSFT) has a horizontal strategy, which places its platform on the hardware of numerous handset makers and carriers. The operating system can work with or without a physical keyboard.

Weaknesses: Windows Mobile is old. It is less powerful than the iPhone OS or Android, and has a user interface that needs a major redo. The company laughed off the iPhone phenomenon, and is now late in catching up. A minor new release is planned for this year, but Microsoft is racing to do a complete overhaul of Windows Mobile, called version 7. Unfortunately, that won’t be out till 2010. The new app store won’t work with current versions of Windows Mobile.

And, currently, Windows Mobile lacks a killer hardware device. The best Windows Mobile phones today are models from HTC that feature HTC’s own software, which works to hide as much of the hidebound Windows Mobile user interface as possible. It isn’t clear that apps built for the HTC user interface will work properly on regular Windows Mobile phones, and vice versa.

Strengths: With a slug of venture capital money, and the leadership of an ex-Apple exec, Palm has reinvented both, its software and hardware. The new Palm Pre and its new webOS, which will launch this spring, have impressed those who’ve seen them, and appear to have a real shot at competing with the iPhone and BlackBerry. The new platform is built for wireless synchronization and third-party developers, and, unlike the iPhone and some planned Android models; the Pre combines its touch screen features with a physical keyboard.

Weaknesses: Even if the phone and OS are hailed once reviewers test them, there are many business issues for Palm (PALM). The company is running on fumes, financially, and its launch carrier, Sprint, is hemorrhaging as well. That could make it tough to subsidize.