It’s that time of year; looks backward and forward are expected. In point of fact this is a lousy time to be prognosticating about the mobile space, because we’re only days from CES and weeks from MWC, both of which will have tons of announcements, some of which might even be game-changers.
But here’s my overview. At this point I should emphasize once again that nothing I say represents what Google thinks, and further, that I am not in the Android strategy loop where Google executives think these kinds of thoughts.
Here are a few things that seem obvious:
The insanely-high volume of mobile-device sales isn’t going to ease off any time soon.
Like Horace Dediu says, “the bottom of the phone market is very vulnerable to becoming smart”. The future of bone-simple “Feature phones” isn’t over, but their days in the overwhelming majority are numbered. Go ask Gordon Moore.
Android and iOS will do really well. RIM and Nokia are headed for market-share declines; but it would be perfectly possible for either of them to halt their slide.
Windows Phone 7 might start getting some real traction; I wouldn’t be surprised either way.
An unencumbered high-end handset at around $500 is cheaper than the same device at $199 with a contract. I wonder if someone will notice this and offer conventional financing packages like you can get for fridges and TVs.
As for Nokia, their current flagship OS has been end-of-lifed and if there’s any hope it’s from the direction of MeeGo. That offering is starting from way behind, but who knows, there’s nothing terribly wrong with what we’ve seen so far.
Both Palm and WP7 have a much stronger developer story than either RIM or Nokia at the moment, which is why I’m hesitant to write either of them off.
Contrarianism · Here are opinions that probably aren’t seen as obvious; maybe I’m a minority of one on these:
Tablets and handsets can displace computers as play and reading devices, but they really can’t become dominant as work tools until we have a better solution for high-speed low-friction text input. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see dramatic progress in this area; it’s so obviously the number-one usability barrier for everything that isn’t badged as a “computer”.
I’m increasingly coming to think that people buy phones based on the quality and volume of old-fashioned advertising put behind the products. Not coincidentally, not only are the iPhones and iPad excellent devices, they have what is to my eye probably the best advertising in the mobile industry.
Apple will totally do a 7" device. Anyone who’s spent quality time reading books or playing games on the Galaxy Tab knows; there’s a great big hole in the ecosystem that needs something bigger than a handset but that still fits in one hand and you can use for four hours in a row sitting up. This argument is over.
Apple vs. Android · This is of course the question that’s up in lights all over the Internet, providing great bales of pundit fodder every direction you look. The conventional wisdom, and who knows, it might be right, is nicely laid out by Don Dodge in 2011 The Year Of Android vs iPhone — who wins? It goes like this: Android gets bigger market share but Apple wins on price and profit; just like the personal-computer biz.
I’m less convinced. The iOS ecosystem is something like the Apple ecosystem of yore, but the App Store bouncer at the door is a huge, qualitative difference. And the Android ecosystem, at least in its hardware-agnosticism, recalls Windows, but Google’s business goals are so different that trying for historical analogies seems really risky to me.
Anyhow, what do I think? I think Apple will sell a ton of devices because they’re good, and superbly marketed. I think a bunch of people will sell a ton of Android devices because they’re good and there are so many options for different needs and networks and price-points.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple shipped a cheap iPhone. And there’s nothing fundamental in Android that would get in the way of a industrial-design and user-experience rock-star team, whether at Google or one of the handset makers, testing the hypothesis that these things are central to Apple’s success.
Which is to say, it would be sort of surprising, but not that much, if this time next year, dirt-cheap iPhones were competing against Androids that push the user-experience lever farther than Apple or anyone else ever has. In that scenario, where are the prognosticators’ towers of sand?