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Monday, February 14, 2011

The in's and out's of mobile phones

The largest annual trade show of the mobile phone business worldwide is this week in Barcelona, Spain. Trade shows of this size are not a pleasant venue for introverts like myself, and I'm happy not to be there.

Nokia and Microsoft have made a big splash in Barcelona by announcing that future high-end mobile phones from Nokia will be built on the Windows Phone platform. Windows Phone had been struggling to get traction.

The phenomenal success of Apple's iPhone turned the mobile phone business upside down in only four years. Early in the last decade, the major providers of mobile phones were Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, and Siemens. It's a very fluid marketplace. Motorola and Sony Ericsson are now struggling, perhaps in vain, to remain relevant. Siemens sold its mobile phone business to a Chinese company. More recently, Nokia has been floundering.

These days, every list of dominant mobile phone platforms includes Apple's iPhone and Google's Android. Many lists include Nokia (based mainly on brand recognition) and RIM's BlackBerry (which is showing signs of deterioration). Some lists leave room for HP's WebOS that it acquired with the remnants of Palm. Maybe that's justified, but it might be merely sentimental.

For companies that write and sell mobile phone applications, proliferation of platforms is a nightmare. Developing and testing an application that runs on all these platforms is expensive -- and technically challenging, if the objective is to maintain a consistent user experience. But, betting on a subset of these platforms to survive is a risky proposition. Just look at the extent of platform churn over the last 5 years. Life in a mobile app company is stressful... and the price points aren't great, either.

If you want more detail on this topic, I highly recommend the blog of Michael Mace. He worked for Palm at their peak and has as accurate a lens for the mobile phone industry as anyone I know of. His posts seem to have become more regular recently, to my delight.

Personally... among smartphone platforms I expect Apple, Google, and HP to prevail. I'm not keen on Windows Phone, and I find Michael's argument that RIM is entering decline to be persuasive.