If there's anything this week's Mobile World Congress (MWC) has shown, it's that Apple's seemingly unassailable position in the smartphone market is anything but.
Google's Android was getting most of the attention, but with new platforms from Microsoft and Nokia there was a surplus of new ideas — and the carriers, by all reports, love it.
Android, after all, has the decided commercial advantage of being completely open. While that might not mean much to the average punter, for carriers it means they can customise the operating system to their heart's content, regaining control over the phones they sell — control that Apple had wrestled away with its massively popular iPhone.
In the iPhone's world, carriers are just conduits for delivery of Apple's services, and Apple takes its share. But carriers want phone users to access their services — none more so than Telstra, which has invested heavily in its own music, video and other services and only reluctantly supported the iPhone because everybody else had it.
One assumes things will go differently with the HTC Desire, which Telstra will launch in April. Although pricing hasn't been announced, the company could well take a more aggressive stance with the Android-powered device than the iPhone, because of what one assumes will be an interface designed to channel users to Telstra's own online properties.
Telstra has already played this game on other mobile platforms, launching its TelstraOne Experience mid last year to give users of its Motosurf A3100 and Sony Ericsson W705 a more Telstra-fied interface.
Whether this approach has been successful or not, I cannot say; the fact that no new phones have since been given the TelstraOne treatment suggests customers may have been underwhelmed. But Telstra's intentions are clear, and its strategy gels with the efforts of other carriers which have launched portals for owning the customer experience (Optus Zoo, Vodafone live!, and Three's Planet 3).
But those are all accessible through phones' web browsers, while the TelstraOne Experience is built into the devices' menus. Duplicating this approach on an Android device will make it easy to get Telstra's Android-toting customers buying their media through Telstra and accessing Telstra services from individual menu items.
Carriers finally have viable, potentially lust-worthy alternatives to the iPhone if they want to offer a smartphone experience without compromises — and, potentially, a little something of theirs on the side
This might seem quaint for many consumers, but it could be a boon for businesses that could get direct access to Telstra's hosted telephony, virtual private network, managed email, and other services used by millions of Australian businesses. Just as Google's Nexus One was built as a gateway to Google's services, Telstra's Android could become a gateway to its own. Similarly, Optus could customise Android-based phones for seamless access to the Optus Business App Store it launched this week.
With so much attention on Android at this year's MWC, Google may well have succeeded in righting the apple cart — carrier domination of mobile strategy — that Apple upset. Enter Microsoft, with its totally reworked Windows Phone 7 and Nokia with its long-overdue Symbian 3, which leverage the software giant's ubiquity and the mobile giant's ubiquity, respectively — and unite the software vendors with carriers around the world to build an App Store rival that will (in theory) support all manner of mobile platform.
As the options on the market multiply, carriers finally have viable, potentially lust-worthy alternatives to the iPhone if they want to offer a smartphone experience without compromises — and, potentially, a little something of theirs on the side. Consumers may not yet be flocking to Android-powered phones, but if carriers can invest in new services without feeling they're being bypassed by Apple, everybody can benefit.
Apple isn't standing still, though: Steve Jobs has already been quoted as saying there's an A+ update for the iPhone on its way. And some carriers are concerned Google is getting too powerful as it extends its online leadership to the mobile space. But if carriers begin favouring the new breed of Android-powered devices over the iPhone, one wonders whether Apple might not be forced to take a more conciliatory stance towards its carrier partners.
Of course, not all of those carrier partners have major investments in services that compete with Apple's own services, as does Telstra. Many carriers have welcomed the iPhone with open arms, revelling both in the inrush of new customers and the way the device has fostered a continuing surge in usage of online data services. Remember that carriers could never really get customers interested in mobile web browsing or other services before the iPhone came along.
Apple handily resolved all that. But now that its biggest fans and imitators are finally coming to the mobile party with new and more-desirable offerings, carriers' feelings for the iPhone will face their biggest test — and many may find they're falling in love with Androids instead.