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The Smartphone Wars

The handheld computer is the new PC–the most exciting, promising new platform for running software and connecting to cloud-based services. What do I mean by a handheld computer? Well, it could be one of the new generation of super smartphones, like Apple’s iPhone–which pioneered the new generation–or phones powered by Google’s Android operating system, or the latest BlackBerries from Research in Motion. Or, it could be a small tablet powered by the iPhone’s OS and user interface; by Android; or by other competitors, like Palm’s new webOS.

What I don’t mean to include in this new class of devices are netbooks running Microsoft Windows, which are just fine, but are really merely small, cheap laptops. Nor do I mean to include the tens of millions of older, less capable, phones labeled “smartphones,” which can be a slippery term.

These devices, like the Palm Treo, older Windows Mobile phones, or older-model BlackBerries, were breakthrough products in their day. But they use wimpier operating systems and less capable hardware than today’s new class of smartphones. They do run third-party apps, but these look primitive compared with, say, an iPhone app.

A battle is shaping up in the next few years to see who will dominate this new handheld 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.

Apple

iphone

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 cellphone networks. Apple (AAPL) also has an easy-to-use app store, which is now estimated to hold over 30,000 apps that have been downloaded over 900 million times in just about nine months. The iPhone also offers wireless synchronization via MobileMe and Microsoft Exchange, and has had terrific marketing. And rumors persist that Apple is working on a cheaper iPhone, and/or a larger iPod Touch, in a tablet format.

Weaknesses: Apple has three key vulnerabilities. First, there are millions of people who prefer a physical keyboard, which the iPhone and Touch lack. Second, at least in the U.S., the iPhone is tied to a single carrier, AT&T (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, beloved by many, 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 understands the importance of software, and has launched its own Apple-like app store, with a decent initial selection. It has a robust marketing campaign and is available from multiple carriers. Most models have physical keyboards.

blackberry-storm

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 touchscreen BlackBerry, the Storm. And its app store, and the apps themselves in many cases, are clumsier and less polished than the iPhone’s. Most of all, the BlackBerry desperately needs a major user-interface overhaul. Email addicts who know lots of shortcuts love the UI, but it’s very dated for a world where the device must do more than email. There are way too many clicks, steps and menus, and the browser is still weak. RIM has just hired a new user interface guru who worked at Apple and Microsoft, so it apparently gets this problem.

Microsoft

windows-mobile

Strengths: Windows Mobile has a large installed base, with many developers who created lots of apps for older versions of the software platform. Microsoft (MSFT) also plans an app store. The company has also launched a wireless synchronization service for consumers, called My Phone. Unlike Apple or RIM, Microsoft 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.

Google

Strengths: Android is modern and powerful–different from, but in the same class with, the iPhone OS. It has an app store, and 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, some of which are rumored to be in the works. It will be available on multiple carriers, and can work with or without a physical keyboard.

android

Weaknesses: The first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, was clunky and didn’t set the world on fire. The Android app store has so far attracted surprisingly few apps compared to Apple’s at the same stage. Some users might balk at the tight tie-in with Google (GOOG). 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.

Palm

palm-pre

Strengths: With a slug of venture capital money, and the leadership of an ex-Apple exec, Palm has reinvented both its software and hardware, after allowing them to grow stale. 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 touchscreen 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 (S), is hemorrhaging as well. That could make it tough to subsidize the Pre enough to compete on price with the iPhone and BlackBerry, especially if Apple does a cheaper iPhone. In addition, Palm will have to mount a costly marketing campaign to match the advertising machines of Apple, RIM and Microsoft. And it may need financial incentives to tempt developers to write apps for the Pre.

Nokia

nokia-5800

Strengths: Nokia is the world-wide leader in cellphones, including smartphones (by the loose definition of that term.) It understands that software and cloud services are key, and has launched an online service called Ovi. There are many older apps already for the Symbian operating system that powers most Nokia models, and Nokia (NOK) is working on an app store. The company is good at hardware, and has huge brand loyalty, at least outside the U.S. And its best known smartphones have physical keyboards.

Weaknesses: Nokia’s software has been inferior to Apple’s and Google’s. To fix this, the company has handed off Symbian to an open-source consortium with a complicated structure. That could make Symbian, and thus Nokia, less nimble than Apple, RIM or Google. Some of Nokia’s competitors will also be using this new Symbian, attempting to differentiate their products with user interface and feature differences. Thus as in the case of Android, there’s a danger that, if variations of Symbian diverge too much, application compatibility could become  a problem. The company also has historically been only a minor player in the very important U.S. market.


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