Crash of the mobile titans: What happened to Palm, BlackBerry, Nokia, and HTC?

Apple and Samsung are dominating the smartphone world. Founding companies in this space are down and out with a couple possibly able to make comebacks in the years ahead.

crashofthemobiletitans
Image: iStockphoto

Last weekend Apple set a new record and sold over 9 million new iPhones . This incredible sales rate and continued success by Apple prompted me to sit back, look over the last 16 years since I started using mobile devices, and ponder how far four pillars of the industry have fallen.

Apple and Samsung rule the mobile phone space with nearly 50 percent of the worldwide market share with LG, Lenovo, and ZTE all experiencing significant growth .

However, Palm, Nokia, HTC, and BlackBerry are either gone or going, or starting over.

There are many reasons for the failure of these four smartphone vendors, including failed leadership, stubbornness to adapt, poor marketing, and success from competitors. It's a shame that these companies couldn't be competing at a time when the mobile phone space is hot and everyone seems to be writing and talking about the latest smartphone in their hand.

Let's take a walk down memory lane and reflect on the good times.

Palm

In early 1997, US Robotics reached out to my small team of marine salvage engineers and asked if we wanted to start carrying a couple of Pilot 1000 devices out with us when we responded to marine casualties. I was immediately hooked on these small portable computers and started following PDA websites, participating in online discussion forums, and saving up for the next great Palm PDA. I set aside my Franklin Planner and embraced this new handheld device.

I still clearly remember the anticipation of a new device arriving, especially the iconic Palm IIIc that was the first color screen Palm device. I remember having a CompactFlash adapter that connected via cable to my Kyocera mobile phone that dialed up my ISP and provided me with the latest news via AvantGo. We were rocking for weeks with our AA batteries and the future was seen in Palm.

We saw spinoffs and new companies releasing Palm OS devices, including Handspring, palmOne, PalmSource, Handera, Sony, Tapwave and more. The Handera 330 pushed memory expansion, Handspring had slick designs and then took us into the smartphone space with Treos, Sony rocked the world with its CLIEs devices, which were focused on media, and Tapwave's Zodiac was a gamers dream.

I owned all of these and have vivid memories of visiting CompUSA to exchange an old Sony CLIE for the next latest and greatest that seemed to launch every other month. Tapwave's Zodiac was an awesome gaming machine that reminds me a bit of what is being done today with the NVIDIA Shield.

The Treo line was extremely popular and made our Palm devices even more valuable with constant wireless connectivity. At one time it seemed everyone with a mobile device had either a Palm Treo or a BlackBerry. There were still very capable Palm and Sony PDAs too, but the phone was the future.

Back then, Microsoft's Pocket PC was seen by many as the evil competitor to the Palm devices. However, Palm's lack of attention to multimedia and pushing innovation forward, along with Microsoft's efforts to bring the desktop to your hand, resulted in Microsoft overtaking Palm and eventually Palm using Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS in its Treo line.

Palm OS eventually went away and they reinvented themselves with webOS. This was a revolutionary mobile operating system and we see signs of it today in Apple's iOS 7, BlackBerry 10, and more. The problem there, in my honest view, was the rather poor quality hardware and limited carrier support. No matter how great the operating system was, not enough people were using it and the slide-out keyboard didn't give you a quality found in competing devices.

HP then took and killed webOS after its Palm purchase and a great operating system failed after three short years. For those of us who started using Palm Pilots, it is sad to look back and see that Palm is no longer with us when they were the ones who brought us into the mobile world in the first place.

BlackBerry

As Palm was working on PDAs, then-named Research in Motion (RIM) launched the BlackBerry 850 in 1999 as a two-way pager. And businesses were immediately hooked.

I remember seeing BlackBerry devices on the belts of doctors, lawyers, and other successful business people. Our salvage team ended up getting these so that the team was always reachable in time of emergencies. In the beginning, they were definitely seen as communication tools for work more than anything related to a consumer device like Palm Pilots were.

BlackBerry devices moved from pagers to devices with keyboards and the hardware QWERTY keyboard became synonymous with the BlackBerry. Who remembers side-mounted scroll bars, monochrome displays, batteries that went forever, trackballs, then trackpads?

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) was a standard across the BlackBerry world and in many cases people continued to use BlackBerry devices to stay in touch with their BBM friends.

BlackBerry tried to compete with modern smartphones a couple of years ago, but its touchscreen Storm devices were failures. They continued to launch QWERTY devices running an operating system that was getting a bit dated when compared to Android and iOS devices and then they basically took a year off to work on BlackBerry 10.

BlackBerry 10 is actually a refreshing and functional mobile operating system that was launched in early 2013. I like the ability to quickly get to a central communications center and you can see that BlackBerry devices still place a premium on communications. Apps are still lacking and in today's modern smartphone world the apps seem to mean more to people than a solid base operating system.

Unfortunately, it appears that BlackBerry 10 was too little, too late as we see private investor interest possibly purchasing the company for less than $5 billion .

RIM ruled the enterprise world and in the late 2000s started making some real progress in the consumer market. I think a lot of that success was due to BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) and the fact that a consumer could go into a carrier store and walk out with a connected smartphone that had data at a lower price than the iPhone. We then saw way too many BlackBerry models and even people who followed the smartphone industry were confused by the overwhelming number of available models, often with actually numbers in their names.

The competition became better, enterprise markets started looking at iOS and Android, and RIM took a year off to figure things out with BlackBerry 10. The mobile space moves fast, and BlackBerry was a year or two too slow to compete.

Nokia

I remember back in the early 2000s when it seems everyone had a Nokia that they received for free when they signed up for a new line of service. Very few actually knew that the device they had in their hands was actually a powerful Symbian smartphone that could be used to browse the web, install and use applications, and more.

The Microsoft-Nokia Deal

ZDNet's coverage of the Microsoft-Nokia deal

On September 2, 2013, Microsoft announced that it was buying out Nokia’s devices business for $7.2 billion. ZDNet has this story covered from virtually every angle and from perspectives across the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia.

In the mid-2000s Nokia was releasing some fantastic smartphones, including the N-Series and E-series. I was blessed to be a part of the N-Series Blogger Relations program where I was able to test out most of the consumer-focused N-Series devices and they were truly innovative smartphones at a time when Palm was doing well with Treos, and Microsoft had Windows Mobile competing in the space.

Very few Nokia Symbian devices appeared in the US as carriers seemed to steer clear of these Finnish marvels. I personally embraced and enjoyed the customizability, raw power, and innovation of the Symbian platform and understood what it could do.

Nokia's hardware was usually top notch and no one could beat its radio-frequency performance. Imaging became a real focus for Nokia and today they remain the top performer when it comes to camera phones.

While Nokia's Symbian devices had it all, the user interface seemed to primarily appeal to those of us who had been using the devices for some time. Apple's iPhone had a slick, modern user interface that was easy to use and standard across the device. It seemed that Nokia's leadership also believed their devices were more capable and they didn't seem to give much validation to what Apple, and then Google, were doing with their modern smartphone operating systems.

Nokia owned about 63 percent of the mobile phone market at the end of 2007, just after Apple launched the iPhone. By the end of 2010, Nokia still had something like 32 percent of the market share with its Symbian devices and the smartphone unit was still profitable. Nokia then hired an outsider, Stephen Elop, who quickly killed off the promising MeeGo operating system. He then promised that Microsoft's Windows Phone OS, which was being slowly adopted by the world, would replace Symbian.

Nokia's hardware was usually top notch. Imaging became a real focus for Nokia, and today they remain the top performer when it comes to camera phones.

Nokia's market share continued to decline as Symbian was left to dry up and Windows Phone attempted to gain some measurable market share. Nokia when from the world's leading smartphone vendor in the beginning of 2011 to the tenth largest today in 2013.

They are easily the most successful Windows Phone vendor with around 80 percent of that market. However, the Windows Phone platform is still down in the 3.5 percent range of global market share. Recently, Nokia and Microsoft announced plans for Microsoft to purchase Nokia's smartphone division in 2014, if approved by shareholders.

I personally enjoy using my Nokia Lumia 1020 , but personally find Android works better for my daily needs. Microsoft has a ways to go with Windows Phone, but they have the financial power to stay in the game for a long time. Look back at what they did to beat Palm, and we could eventually see Nokia, a Microsoft company, gain the third place position in the smartphone market.

In the meantime, it is rather shocking to see how far Nokia has fallen in the time since Apple launched its first iPhone in 2007.

HTC

I am a fan of slick hardware and HTC, founded in 1997, rocked it hard back in 2000 when they released the Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC device. Microsoft was getting into the PDA business and competing against Palm. The iPAQ was available with a brilliant color display and super fast performance.

HTC continued to serve as an original-design-manufacturer for Compaq, HP, and even Palm (it built the iconic Treo 650) with some of its devices branded by carriers directly.

They went from competing in the PDA space to then launching the best Pocket PC Phone Edition and Pocket PC Smartphone devices. Remember the O2 XDA — this is why the XDA Developers site has that name — the Blue Angel (XDA II), Universal, Canary, Voyage, and so many more. Take a look at this GSMArena.com site to reminisce about all the great HTC devices. I owned at least 20 of the devices on that list and have fond memories of brilliant designs.

HTC is known for both its physical design expertise and software enhancements. They started selling HTC-branded devices in 2010 and saw record phone sales in excess of 24.6 million in 2010. Canalys data in 2011 showed HTC with 24 percent of the smartphone market, ahead of Samsung, Apple, and RIM.

Unfortunately, since 2011 HTC has experienced depressing financial reports and estimates have HTC with about 9 percent of the market as of early 2013. 2013 profits fell 98.1 percent over the previous year and even though I continue to believe the HTC One is the best smartphone I have ever used , it is going to take more than a single phone to revive HTC.

We have heard of many layoffs in leadership at HTC and while change in management may be needed to help get things fixed, we have yet to see if that strategy will work for HTC. The Taiwanese phone maker has also been fighting legal battles with Nokia, Apple, and others, with some recent losses not helping matters. HTC still shows some much promise with its designs and innovation.

Who will rise up to the challenge?

These four pillars of the mobile industry are either gone, going, or struggling to come back in mid-2013 while Apple, Samsung, LG, Lenovo, ZTE, and a few others are experiencing skyrocketing success. Smartphone sales have now surpassed feature phone sales and all I see on my daily commuter train is people with their heads angled down looking at their smartphone display.

There are opportunities in this industry, but is it just left to Apple and Samsung to meet those needs?

Many of us have good memories of these four companies introducing us to this industry and while change may be needed I would still like to see some survive and continue to compete in this space. Do you think their failures are due to company leadership, lack of innovation, lack of timely support, lack of applications, or some other reason that failures came quickly?

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