Battle for the mobile platform space in 2008

Between Apple's iPhone, Google's Android and Microsoft's Windows Mobile platforms, what will it take to secure the market in the coming year?

The sale of smartphones continues to rise, with Asia having the most voracious appetite.

According to figures from IT research firm Canalys, worldwide shipments rose 60 percent to hit 115 million in 2007. By volume, the Asia-Pacific region was the world's largest, at 47.9 million units shipped last year.

With the planned arrival of Apple's iPhone in Asia and Google's Android platform this year, the mobile platforms scene is heating up. In particular, Microsoft's renewed focus on mobility places it in good stead with the competition, but what will secure each platform's place in the Asian mobile market?

Android: Harnessing the power of open source
Arguably, Google's new Android platform has been the most hyped of the three. The platform, which will be developed by an alliance of over 30 companies, aims to be an "open" platform, inviting developers to build applications, as well as the ability for it to fit a myriad of devices.

This "openness" promises to lower barriers to Android's relevance in the enterprise market, as well as give users and companies a choice on which devices to adopt.

Google's interests in Android lie in its focus on Web applications and delivering those for the mobile platform. This provides more appeal to Asia's emerging markets over the other two platforms because mobile devices are expected to be the interface through which many in developing markets will access the Internet for the first time.

According to the latest report from Strand Consult, markets such as Asia "will use new technologies in advanced ways, and we will see operators...continue to grow their customer numbers, turnover and profit.

"Maybe in 2008, the term 'emerging markets' ought to be abolished, and we should recognize that consumers in these regions are actually active and advanced mobile consumers," said Strand Consult in the report.

Aloysius Choong, IDC research manager for personal systems, said in an interview with ZDNet Asia that Asian users "typically have higher demands" for mobile Internet, and the industry moving toward 3.5G is in line with that trend.

In a search for better mobile applications to answer that demand, Google has pledged US$10 million in prizes to the winners of a developer competition for its Android OS.

While Google is focusing on developing the OS, securing the market may require it to expand its equipment manufacturer ecosystem, such as the established one surrounding Microsoft. To date, only HTC has confirmed it is making an Android-based device.

According to reports, HTC CEO Peter Chou said in November last year that the Taiwanese manufacturer expects to launch two to three Android-based handsets this year.

But Google may see a new strong ally in the enterprise market in Cisco. Cullen Jennings, Cisco’s distinguished engineer for unified communications recently told ZDNet, the company is seriously considering joining Google's Open Handset Alliance.

Apple's iPhone: Branding is key
Apple's main leverage for the iPhone's success is likely to be its strong brand name in the region.

As it is, the attraction of the iPhone is so great that even though it is not available in Asia yet, rampant unlocking of the phones shows its appeal to the market.

Apple expects to sell some 10 million iPhones this year, helped by launches in the region and parts of Europe. The model coming to the region is expected to include 3G functionality, but as the industry moves toward HSDPA, the 3G iPhone may still find itself catching up with Asian users' demands.

According to IDC, the volume of mobile data traffic is expected to rise as mobile Internet gains in popularity. "As users become more comfortable and more compelled to use their phone to access the Internet, operators are poised to gain from greater data usage," said the research house in a statement.

In Japan, for example, the iPhone does not hold much clout in terms of features compared to the phones in the country's advanced market. Makio Inui, managing director at UBS in Tokyo, predicted the iPhone's high price and limited features will be a turnoff for many in the country.

China remains Apple's biggest opportunity in the region, which has the world's largest cellular market at over 500 million users. However, nine out of 10 phones are estimated to be unlocked in the country--it remains to be seen how quickly the Chinese market will snap up the new sets.

Chua Sock Khoong, SingTel's Group CEO, confirmed that the company is in talks with Apple. Khoong said at a press briefing: "Everyone's been talking to Apple. But [as the operator with the] largest subscriber base in Singapore, we're attractive to any handset supplier who wants to penetrate the market quickly. Our size puts us in very good position [to negotiate]."

Apple's largest barrier to market penetration may be the prohibitive cost of acquiring the device. According to IDC analysts Shiv Bakhshi and Chris Hazelton, the cost may be an issue. This includes both the price of the device and the potential cost of switching carriers, which might be an issue when Apple awards one operator exclusive rights to distribution in each country.

Microsoft: Enterprise presence through the power of its ecosystem
As of mid-2007, Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS was already running on over 140 phone models, aided by its extensive partner ecosystem. Its enterprise partners count vendors such as HP, PeopleSoft, SAP, Siebel and Oracle, to name some.

Microsoft is leveraging its enterprise functions to battle the other platforms. Chris Sorenson, Microsoft's Asia-Pacific head of smartphone strategy, told ZDNet Australia, that the rival iPhone is not suited for business functions, unlike devices on Windows Mobile.

"It's a closed device that you cannot install applications on, and there's no support for Office documents. If you're an enterprise and want to roll out a line of business applications, it's just not an option. Even using it as a heavy messaging device will be a challenge," Sorensen said.

Sorensen added that the iPhone's focus on integrating features such as Internet browsing and music playing differs from Windows Mobile's enterprise-targeted features such as better synchronization of data between mobile devices and office servers in its latest version, Windows Mobile 6.

In a separate interview with ZDNet Asia, Sorensen said Microsoft's game plan "should not be changed" with the emergence of Android, because he does not expect the platform to encroach upon the business mobile market--where Microsoft is "focused".

Microsoft believes its dominance in the PC industry will aid its presence in the online market. Sorensen said: "People are used to [applications like] Windows Media Player, Office and Outlook. The mobile OS industry is about bringing the same features to Windows Mobile. The power comes from the familiarity of a similar experience."

However, with plans for Motorola to spin off its handset business, Microsoft loses one more partner handset manufacturer that could be carrying its Windows Mobile OS.

Microsoft is also looking to lock heads with the iPhone in its next platform update. According to reports online, Microsoft plans for Windows Mobile 7 to be intuitive, operated with the finger not the stylus and use touch gestures to navigate--very similar in concept to the iPhone's platform.