In Smartphone Wars, Darwinism Triumphs Over Intelligent Design

With the release of the Verizon Droid, the smartphone market now has two apex predators with advanced, feature rich mobile embedded operating systems. There's no room for smaller or less evolved players, and survival of the fittest in the war of the handsets may very well mean industry and carrier consolidation.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

With the release of the Verizon Droid, the smartphone market now has two apex predators with advanced, feature rich mobile embedded operating systems. There's no room for smaller or less evolved players, and survival of the fittest in the war of the handsets may very well mean industry and carrier consolidation.

At around 8PM Friday evening, I walked into the Route 4 Paramus, New Jersey Verizon corporate store and walked up to the counter and said two words: "DROID Me."

The store was busy, but there were plenty of demo units and lots of staff around -- a far cry from the iFAIL experience I had when I first attempted and failed to purchase my wife an iPhone 3G at AT&T's Fort Lee, New Jersey store during its launch in early July of 2008.

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The saleswoman, an attractive and smart 20-something young sandy blonde was more than happy and patient with my purchase as she went over the various wireless plans and helped me pick out my accessories, including helping me pick out the exact phone number I wanted (after going through about two dozen choices over a period of five minutes until we got a "lottery" phone number I liked with repeating digits) and showed me how to use the device, including how to set up my GMail and FaceBook connectivity.

In total, the saleswoman spent probably a half an hour with me answering all my questions and to make sure I was happy before I walked out of the store with the DROID in hand, which seemed like a LOT more time than AT&T ever spent with me when I first signed up with my BlackBerry 8820 just over two and half years ago, and when I had to face the dreaded "Early Upgrade" on my Bold 9000 when my 8820 died mid-contract and just out of warranty.

AT&T was happy to take my money when I signed up and sell me a full retail replacement when my phone died, but actually help me out with my purchase provide me with a pleasant customer experience? Fuhgeddaboutit. Verizon's saleswoman also volunteered up front to tell me about the $8.00 per month protection plan, which AT&T never did. This time, knowing full well of what the consequences would be if my $600 retail phone dies a year from now, I gladly took the insurance.

If Verizon store potential DROID customers are being treated with even half the care as I was on Friday's busy launch day, then all I can say is that the other carriers had better watch out -- Verizon is about to eat your lunch, particularly if you don't have a device that's as compelling as the DROID or runs on a 3G network as comprehensive as Verizon's.

There is certainly an emerging Darwinist trend in the smartphone and mobile wireless business, a natural selection, if you will. And if I may be so bold or so arrogant enough to say, this natural selection process is going to trump any "Intelligent Design" that the other smartphone players and carriers may currently be enjoying, despite any unique features that they may have.

In the new smartphone ecosystem, there is really only going to be room for two "Apex Predators" so to speak -- the iPhone, which resides temporarily at the top of the food chain, and phones based on Google's Android, with Verizon's  Motorola DROID and HTC DROID Eris clearly taking the lion's share of that market for any foreseeable period to come in North America.

While Apple and iPhone may have nothing to fear for the time being with their 90,000 App-store strong developer ecosystem, its multi-million corps strong cadre of faithful Apple customers and a 17 percent world-wide market share in the smartphone industry, other device OS players such as Research in Motion, Palm,  NOKIA, Sony Ericsson and Microsoft had better start scurrying for cover and re-trenching their battle plans.

It would seem that on the surface, Research in Motion, the Canadian-based manufacturer of the BlackBerry occupies a position of dominance in the corporate messaging device portion of the smartphone market, with a 30 percent market share according to recent IDC estimates. However, the reality is that the company is at serious risk of losing most of their consumer customer base to Android, and to a much lesser extent, the iPhone.

To those who say that RIM has nothing to be afraid of and that I'm engaging in New Media fear-mongering, I would also submit that there used to be a lot of wooly mammoths as well until the end of the Pleistocene and global warming came along. Dramatic climate change introduces a lot of unforeseen variables that can result in serious consequences, and if the current economic climate and disruptive technology coming out of Google and Verizon is any indication, we're due for a mass extinction event.

Let's face it, from the perspective of your average consumer, the Android 2.0 OS does everything and more than what a Blackberry can do for the same price or less, will be available in multiple forms on every major mobile carrier in 2010, has 10,000 applications and growing, and has a far more sophisticated user experience and better GMail/Google web services integration than what is available on even the most advanced BlackBerry phones or even on the iPhone now.  And as good as their Canadian-based NOCs are, RIM also cannot compare to the massive back-end web infrastructure and services available to consumers in Google's own cloud.

On the corporate side, the BlackBerry's core customer base, things aren't looking so rosy for RIM either. While Android 2.0 and iPhone OS  don't use the same "Push" messaging model or have nearly the same level of security controls and policy support the BlackBerry OS has (due to its use of a private communications network rather than the public Internet cloud) both competing smartphone OSes now support Microsoft Exchange, which runs on the majority of corporate email systems. With BlackBerries being declared a luxury for all but management-level employees at large companies these days, the "Bring Your Own" smartphone model may become more of the norm.

Instead of companies issuing BlackBerries to their mobile employees, all but the most security-paranoid firms may opt to allow iPhone and Androids and other devices into their networks rather than eat the significant BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) per-device licensing overhead.

Given the compelling nature of iPhone and Android's software and application stacks, why would a Bring Your Own employee choose a long-in-the-tooth BlackBerry OS-based device for their personal use over the iPhone and Android competition? RIM's BlackBerry may occupy 30 percent of the smartphone market today, but that could very quickly change if corporations cut out a large portion of their BlackBerries in order to reduce costs.

Given the economic climate, It would behoove RIM to migrate its secure messaging services to Android and iPhone, before Google and Apple develop competing and more economical services of their own. I had suggested in the past that RIM partner with Google on a Android-based BlackBerry device, but realistically, RIM is unlikely to make such a dramatic platform migration unless it had full proprietary control over it, which is something no device manufacturer ever can truly have with Android.

Google's smartphone OS is completely Open Source and open up to community development, and the best Android experiences will be with phones that use Google's-branded Android experience in which it partners directly with a carrier, such as with the Verizon DROID.

If things are looking bad for the corporate mobile messaging titan RIM, then you can imagine how bleak things look for the smaller and meeker creatures in the ecosystem. While Palm indeed has a compelling open development platform with its Linux-based WebOS on the Pre and the soon to be released Pixi, the phones are only available on one of the smallest 3G national carriers in the US, Sprint Wireless.

There is very little chance that WebOS will attain the critical mass of Android without a LOT of additional help, and without compelling back-end web services it will have little to offer a potential customer compared to what Google has to offer, particularly when Android will be the privileged recipient of those services.

Perhaps, instead of partnering with Google, Research in Motion might want to consider the platform capabilities of WebOS for future generations of the BlackBerry and take PALM off the market entirely, so it would have a Linux-based smartphone OS all to itself. Combined with RIM's datacenters and corporate messaging services, Palm may rise again, and RIM will have at least a fighting chance against DROID and iPhone and a compelling platform to offer up carriers where Android and iPhone are currently falling short on secure corporate messaging. At a current market cap of $1.61B, it could be a worthwhile investment for the Canadian firm.

And what of NOKIA?  The company has a reputation for making some excellent quality high-end devices, most of which haven't landed here in the US. But with Android's popularity, can it continue with it's niche offerings? NOKIA recently launched their own high-end Linux-based smartphone, the N900, but it's awfully expensive and their Maemo OS doesn't have nearly the community supporting it that neither Android nor even WebOS has.

NOKIA may have a lot of marketshare right now worldwide with their lower-end handsets, but that could very soon change, now that Android 2.0 is available for the taking from competitors in China and Korea.

Many of NOKIA, Samsung, Sony Ericsson's and Fujitsu's smartphones currently use the Symbian platform, which while mature and now Open Source, the platform never really took off in the United States and standardization efforts between the various manufacturers that support it largely failed to occur. For Symbian, there's no "App Store" per se for a common development target that consumers can buy from, although Nokia recently launched its own, called Ovi.

Given Symbian's failure to get overall smartphone mindshare from consumers and developers, it wouldn't surprise me if all the remaining member manufacturers participating in the Symbian Foundation decided they wanted to take an "experimental" dip in the Android pool, to test the waters for a potential alternative as Sony Ericsson appears to be doing with its upcoming and high-end XPERIA X10 "Infinity" phone, which is largely targeted at the European market.

And Microsoft? For all practical purposes, Windows Mobile is a dead platform, which is why I didn't even bother to include it in my evolutionary chart accompanying this article. Compared to Apple and Google's offerings, there isn't a Windows Mobile phone on the market that can compete in terms of technology and capability with either iPhone or DROID.

Windows Mobile is currently the smartphone equivalent of Vista, nobody wants to touch it. While reports of Windows Mobile 7's development at Microsoft are promising, the company is probably a year away from device manufacturers and carriers releasing products which use it -- the very same manufacturers and carriers which will be enjoying success with Android well into version 2.x/3.x territory by that time.

Are we about to see a mass-extinction event in the Smartphone industry as a result of Android reaching critical mass? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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