State of the SmartPhone (and Tablet)

In the last few months, the smartphone market has been substantially shaken up –  culminating most recently in Nokia’s CEO announcing a “change of direction”. This new direction is one that many smart people, especially Eric Raymond who’s consistently predicted how things will go when naysayers and business analysts have said otherwise,  are referring to as the beginning of a “death spiral,” or a “suicide note.”

So – which way are things going overall?

Barring some sort of dramatic refocusing that it’s apparent Nokia’s CEO is not doing, Nokia is no longer relevant. It’s still possible that Pheonix-like, they will find a new vision and become relevant again, but they missed the boat on how to make smart phones that normal people can use without reading the manual. While Apple brought itself back from the brink of death, they did so by finding a vision, jettisoning a confusing product lineup, and completely reinventing itself, and what people expect from a computer. People in the tech industry snickered at the iMacs, the lack of floppy drives, the first iPod, and the first iPhone – and yet this focus on vision, on experience as an integral part of the design and not just a sprayed-on patina, this attention to little details, and the constant reinventing of itself is how it’s regained relevance, and is so far keeping it.

Creating two different divisions, focusing on two product lines at cross-purposes to each other is not the way to rebuild yourself. Worse, they’re tying themselves to the new Windows mobile. Tying yourself to a product line that, despite initial love and admiration from the tech crowd, has dismally failed in the marketplace is also not a winning proposition. I thought it would be pretty competitive myself, but the sales figures are damning.

Confusion of mission and scope is especially a “bad thing” in a world where people, courtesy of their experience of the iPhone, iPad, and Android, expect simplicity. Focussed, effortless simplicity is indeed simple, but it’s hard. It takes work. It takes a ruthless attitude towards “how do people use this” and “which of these features do I really, really, really need.”

RIM has similarly made many missteps, and is also finding itself drowning in a sea of iOS devices and Androids.

So what’s left?

In the phone space, I see Android as dominant, market-share wise, and Apple still hanging on. This market share dominance is why I’m exploring programming for Android on top of taking time to learn programming for the iPhone. Unlike some, I’m not discounting the survival of Apple in this space. They’ve too consistently reinvented themselves – they almost have a fetish for replacing product lines with something new even as they’re still selling well, and have survived decades of doomsaying. Android will have the variety of features, while the iOS devices will be streamlined to do a number of things most people want very well in a very polished manner that Google still barely approaches even when some features are better implemented.

Android will probably keep and retain the bleeding edge, but remember, Apple’s rarely been first to do anything: windowed OS’s, MP3 players, online music stores, smartphones, even tablets – they’ve just been the first to do them in a way that makes them insanely popular outside of the geeksphere (guilty!) or niche, vertical markets. It’s telling that the Android OS we see today has almost no resemblance ot the Android previews before the iPhone came out. As long as Apple keeps that culture (and with Jobs’ hand-picked execs in there that should be another couple years after he gives up running the company), Apple will do well, sales-wise, and stay relevant. While the actual intro-day sales on Verizon this last week were slower than expected, I can’t discount the number of Verizon users I personally know who hate AT&T and were incredibly excited to have an iPhone available on Verizon. And bought one.

It’s also important to note that Apple is the first phone maker that has managed to mostly divorce the features of the phone from the carrier, though some limitations do exist (look at how long it took AT&T to allow tethering long after it was available for the iPhone). Google is still getting there, as there is fragmentation in not only the add-ons that various manufacturers provide, but the various carriers also restrict what features and software are available. Add to that the fact that Android updates are relatively complex for consumers – after Google updates the OS, each manufacturer needs to modify that update to work with thr changes made for its handsets – and many don’t bother to. Nevertheless, the obvious trend for Android is to be more and more independent of the carriers and the manufacturers.

Tablets are trickier. Here, Apple has less of a lead, and the Galaxy Tab, as well as the demos of Android 3.0 for tablets shows that there are some things that can be done differently (for god’s sake, Apple, fix your notification system already!!). You also have HP joining the game with their WebOS-based tablets by mid-year, though there’s no announcement on price.

I predict roughly the same for Android vs. Apple. Yes – Apple’s lead is smaller, but using modern tablets is a much more tactile experience than a mobile phone screen – and build quality here matters. As a result, the Samsung based-tablets are no cheaper for the features than the equivalent iPad. One advantage the Android platform tablets have is that they are already incorporating faster processors that make up for some of the jerky responsiveness on the Android phones that breaks the tactile illusion that the iOS devices maintain.

WebOS is a wildcard – we’ll have to see what HP can make of it from a developer and App perspective, but the product itself seems solid.

No matter how you add it up – interesting times, and the presence of several players will keep Android and Apple honest.