The Future of Mobile Phones: Android vs. iPhone vs. WinMo (and the rest)

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UPDATE: Recent turn of events revealed the new Windows Phone Series 7 won't have:
  1. Copy-paste
  2. Multi-tasking
  3. Flash (initially)
  4. Open applications
Microsoft seems to be basically copying iPhone 1.0 and going down the same path of a tightly controlled App Store... I guess it was too good to be true... looks like it's back to hoping for Android to take off...
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Let's face it. The iPhone was a huge success. It sold relatively well throughout all regions it was released in and it helped to redefine the purpose and usefulness of mobile devices as a whole. The iPhone is more about fun, entertainment, convenience and utility then it is about making phone calls or sending messages. It's partially all about making web browsing on a mobile phone tolerable, but really, it's all about the AppStore. Having easy access to thousands of free or cheap games and apps is what made it a runaway success.

Sure, Symbian and WinMo had third-party apps support for many years prior, but these never really took off. The apps were either hard to find, hard to install, expensive or just plain ugly and boring. Apple turned this around by making everything easy, cheap and fun for the 'average' consumer (i.e. not an IT geek who knows to troll through symbian forums looking for jars compatible with their phone JVM version, download these to their PC, transfer via bluetooth, go through phone interface to install to memory card, etc).

Since the AppStore runaway success, every other manufacturer has started to follow suite by promoting online stores of some sort. None are really quite there yet in terms of application numbers, big name developers, or ease-of-use.

Another key reason for the AppStore's success (besides ease of use) is platform standardization. The iPhone has had the same screen aspect ratio, resolution, sensitivity and accelerometer from the beginning. This ensured that if a developer made an app for the 2G, it would work on the 3G and 3GS. Or in other words, the newer models were all backwards compatible as not to fragment the consumer base, and confuse the 'average' Joe.

So what's happened in the last two or three years? Google's Android has come out of nowhere and threatened to knock the iPhone off it's pedestal...only that it still hasn't happened yet. Sure the Nexus One is cool and tricked out with all the latest technology (even though the capacitive screen seemed a little unresponsive to me in comparison, but maybe it was only my unit). It supports multitasking. It's an open model where you can download and install any app without the developer having to go through Apple approval. It will soon support flash. It has an App Store that's growing in size (although it doesn't yet have the big name developers that iPhone enjoys).

Has Android taken over? Depends who you ask, but I'd say no. Will it take over? Hard to say, but again I think no. The main reason for this is fragmentation. Every manufacturer that's adopting Android is trying to differentiate itself by customizing the interface, implementing their own widgets and extensions, creating their own form-factors, using vastly different internal components and input methods, etc. If you're an Android developer wanting to make a game, what standard do you follow? What screen res and dimensions do you optimize for? What touch-screen sensitivity thresholds can you rely on? What physical buttons can you consider as available? What minimum CPU/GPU capabilities do you have to play with? How sensitive is the accelerometer (if there is one)? What Android versions will you target?

iPhone avoided all these problems from the beginning which is why it experienced the explosive AppStore growth and why it's still number one three years later. But does that mean the iPhone will continue to dominate? Maybe, but maybe not. The AppStore success may end up being its ultimate downfall. Apple makes a fortune by being the sole reseller of third-party apps, around 30% of each sale I think it was. This means it's in their best interest to funnel customers into the AppStore (an iPhone without any Apps installed is nothing but a very, very mediocre feature phone). Rejecting Flash from their browser could be one example of this. Flash would potentially give users access to hundreds of thousands of existing online Flash games that Apple cannot monetize. Just look at the new iPad. What good is a tablet intended for casual web surfing, entertainment and productivity if you can't access over half the content out on the internet? No, wait, let me guess...Flash is evil... you don't really need it...there's an app for that!

So if Apple may fall, and Android may burn out, who'll be the next big player? Nokia has been flogging the Symbian 60 platform for a few years too long. They finally realized they couldn't compete with this forever so turned it loose and made it open-source, leading to Symbian^3. I think this'll head more or less the same way as Android. Every manufacturer that picks it up will feel compelled to mod it into their own image, and as such fragment the platform into oblivion. Nokia has also been working on Maemo, with the N900 being the first Maemo 6 device. This managed to generate a bit of a cult following, but never made it mainstream. Since then, Nokia teamed with Intel and merged Maemo with Moblin to form MeeGo, which now natively supports the cross-platform Qt framework... Where will this lead? Who knows, but it seems the plans for MeeGo are a little too ambitious. Intel and Nokia want to use this thing in pretty much every new device they release, from mobiles to netbooks to in-car navigation systems and more. It seems to lack a specific purpose. It may end up taking off eventually (although I doubt that too), but not any time soon.

Samsung, not to be outdone, have gone out and developed their own open mobile platform as well, i.e. the new Bada which will first appear in the Samsung Wave due for release in a few months or so. Samsung is throwing a lot of focus on this at the moment and it has the potential to do well. The core features supported are already very impressive (pinch-zoom Bluetooth 3, Flash integration). It will be interesting to see how this develops in terms of other manufacturers picking it up. Will it become another fragmented Android? Will any developers feel inclined to jump onboard? What differentiates this from Android, MeeGo and the new Symbian^3 releases?

Microsoft hasn't given up either though. While their older WinMo 6/6.5 series has been dying a slow and painful death, the code monkeys have been busy in the basement cooking up Windows Phone Series 7. This actually looks very promising for a few key reasons:
  1. Microsoft is releasing 3 form-factor standards for manufacturers to follow. These come with recommendations for minimum CPU requirements, RAM, screen res, aspect ratios, physical buttons, etc. This means Microsoft understands fragmentation is bad and is trying to retain some control over the OS. This is great news for developers.
  2. Microsoft is restricting interface customizations to within certain boundaries. This hopefully means that manufacturers won't be able to use Win7 but make it look exactly like a Bada or Symbian or HTC Sense or some other phone. While manufacturers want to distinguish themselves through software, this is bad for consumers. Again, fragmentation. By keeping things consistent, customers that buy a Win7 phone can immediately recognize it as one and can feel comfortable navigating through the UI.
  3. It will support Flash.
  4. Microsoft is pushing for seamless integration between Win-PCs, Win-Phones and the XBox. The same development tools can be used to code, compile and release the same application across all three platforms with minimal to no development effort. Again, great news for developers. Also great news for those who enjoy games on their iPhone. Microsoft has a good chance at encouraging small arcade game developers at cross-releasing titles across all three systems. Something Sony should have actively encouraged and pursued for a long time now.
So will Windows Phone 7 be the next big thing? It's anyone's guess really. But it seems Microsoft has been following the triumphs and pitfalls of others and are trying to combine all the best aspects together into something that benefits consumers and developers above manufacturers. Perhaps this is the start of true separation between software and hardware for mobile phones. It's time for manufacturers to step aside and let a software company handle the interface and just focus on building low-cost, reliable hardware. Let me buy a phone the same way I buy a PC, i.e. based on hardware specs alone. Let me choose what software I want to run on it later.

UPDATE: New details have emerged showing Windows Phone 7 running full 3D games as developed through XNA - same tools and APIs used to make XBox games (Direct 3D is supported). This gives me great confidence that WinPho7 will give the iPhone AppStore a good run for its money in terms of big developer games (something that none of the other mobile platforms have even come close to). Microsoft seems to be going in all the right directions here.

Comments

  1. MS would score a decent win with such smooth integration. iPhone is a great "out of the box" smartphone, as is Blackberry (with their respective strengths and weaknesses). Tried Android based phones as well. The lack of NTLM capability in the browser makes Android a non-contender for the business user's pocket. Sure, there may be workarounds and add-ons, but a key component needs to be built-in and work right out of the box: Winmobile, iPhone, and Blackberry all do it.

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