Gazing Into a Smartphone Crystal Ball: 2010 Edition

There is one thing clear in the business of product marketing and that’s that those that figure out who their customers are and cater to them win. This is no different in the mobile world than it is anywhere else. The future winners in the smartphone world will have laser focus on their value statements.

A Mobile History

Once upon a time, there was an upstart company named Palm. Jeff Hawkins, one of Palm’s founders and its creative lead, was unhappy with the various mobile systems that came before, having worked on some of them and been observer of others. Jeff felt there had to be a better way and a better purpose.

His belief: that the purpose of this device is to organize his personal information. He spent months walking around with a carved piece of wood in his pocket. Periodically, he’d pull it out of his shirt pocket to check his calendar, to do list, perform a calculation, or look up a phone number. Of course, he didn’t really do any of those things as it was a piece of wood, but he pretended. And through this process refined the device, operating system and product features which became the first massive success in mobile computing.

After Jeff and the original crew left to form Handspring, Palm Computing invariably lost it’s way. Instead of continuing to advance the greatest personal organizer in the history of organizers, Palm played feature war with Microsoft’s Pocket PC (later Windows Mobile) operating system, confusing it’s customers and eventually falling in such disrepair it licensed the competing operating system.


After 20 years of innovation and advancement, fits and starts, handheld computing is mainstream. These modern devices, combining yesterday’s handhelds, today’s cell phones, and add-on software, will sell in excess of 100 million devices this year alone. And while Apple isn’t the sales leader, they clearly are the thought leaders with more than two billion app downloads.

But it’s not Apple’s applications that have made it so successful. It’s Apple’s laser focus on an entertainment device that makes it so spectacularly successful. World-class browsing? Check. Elegant, simple device? Check. Cameras, video? Check. Music? Duh. Oh… and lots and lots of games.

But Apple wasn’t the first to make mobile take off here in the Western hemisphere. Arguably, RIM with their ubiquitous BlackBerry devices has been even more successful. Figuring out how to penetrate the IT department through control and security, figuring out how to make business people and administrators everywhere salivate like Pavlov’s dog every time the red light blinks at them (new email!), RIM, too, was laser focused.

And the rest? Well, not so much. Microsoft and Nokia were busy creating devices that included everything but the kitchen sink. Palm, too, disintegrated into this world. Who could really blame them? Customers were pulling them in all directions and, with the only history of technology in the modern era being PCs, clearly the licensed operating system was the only way to go.

A Look Ahead

It’s too early to quit, but it’s not too early to predict some winners. Assuming they stay focused on their core constituencies, Apple and RIM will be clear winners. Both have carved out a large but prominent niche in this new mobile world.

Symbian (the operating system some of Nokia’s smartphones), Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and Google’s Android are bigger questions. They cater to a niche — hardware companies that don’t want to write their own operating systems. The problem, of course, is that consumers buy combined devices, hardware and software, and to cater to a wider net of potential hardware licensees, these operating systems must expand the breadth of capabilities. And customers have shown that, at least in the mobile world, they don’t want products that don’t do everything well.

For this reason, Android and Symbian have a leg up. Since they are open source, it allows the hardware vendors to mix and match features with their target niches. While this is a major problem for software developers who need consistency across devices, it gives the hardware vendors the ability to focus on their own niches, assuming they can define one.

The big question is, though, where are the additional niches? Is there room for more than two players in this space and, if so, what customer are the others focused on? Does Palm fit into this picture with their proprietary hardware and software? Is an integrated web/mobile device, as Palm is basically pitching it, a real opportunity and do customer think of themselves this way?

While no one knows for sure who the winners will be, you can bet that whomever it is has a clearer focus on their customer than the others.

7 thoughts on “Gazing Into a Smartphone Crystal Ball: 2010 Edition

  1. Palm seems to be driving between the entertainment focus of Apple and the business focus of RIM (or at least the more alert people at Palm seem to). It might work, it might not, but it’s a viable strategy — it very nearly worked for Napoleon in the Waterloo campaign (not that Palm bears comparison to Napoleon in any other way).

  2. I actually think Apple’s focus on entertainment is means to an end. They don’t bother with specialization and courting specific niches like RIM. The purpose of their design is to win masses of consumers, and let others fill in the specialized features.

    I personally hate these mass market economics, but it’s working for them. I think companies should solve problems for their users, RIM does so I’m their customer. But it’s hard to say which way will win in the end.

    • I agree with what you are saying but Apple is targeting a niche — a very big one. It’s consumers. They want Facebook and Twitter and a great browser and lots of games, just like RIM has targeted a huge niche of enterprise and government workers. What I can’t figure out is whether there are other niches that can be a target for the other vendors, or whether someone else can worm into Apple’s or RIM’s dominance of their niches to take a chunk for them, at least here in North America.


  3. Elia,
    Thanks as always, one part that you didn’t mention that I think gives Apple and potentially Google a leg up over the competition is the little known area of tools. Many people think computer programmers “code straight to bare metal” but unless you’re writing assembly code much of the heavy lifting of writing programs for specific operating systems is done the the compilers and OS tools provided by the softwares vendor or in “Open Source” products by the “community”. Apple was forced to make really good tools in the dark days in the late 90’s when they were about to go out of business. No one was writing Mac apps since the market was shrinking and so they had to cater to the developer base.
    Apple’s programming framework for the Mac is remarkable. They provide tools for free that programmers have to pay thousands of dollars to buy for Windows. Since I gave up programming for more profitable pursuits many years ago I have not used the new Apple developer kits for the iPhone but I hear they are excellent. I have heard that the Symbian tools are there but lack documentation and clear standards.
    I would love to hear what your impression of each of the mobile OS’s developer enviornments is like. What support to you get? Do they update the tools often? Do they charge for them? I think you can predict success of a platform based on the support the companies provide developers. Apple has learned to love and support their developer base I am very curious about the others.

  4. Thanks P. Doug – this is exactly what I’m talking about. My how times have changed! It looks Palm no longer Hates it’s developer community. I used to work for a company that built Palm apps. Palm seemed to hate us and treated us like a nuisance. Also they tried to “nickle and dime” us at every turn for making apps on their platform. We often remarked they treated us like “unwanted” customers. It looks like they are getting their act together but too little too late. I for one will “dance on their grave” when they finally collapse.

  5. Developer environments are very subjective. Some developers prefer Objective-C and love Apple’s approach. Others love Java and prefer Google’s approach.

    To be honest, I don’t think it’s very important. Developers will go where they perceive the monetary rewards reside. In other words I believe Google and Apple are attracting developers because developers perceive that these are the horses to ride. RIM’s IDE work is very focused on enterprise IT departments and are attracting those folks to write.

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