Is there really any value to 3-year smartphone forecasts?

Smartphone forecasts out to 2014 appeared online from Gartner this week, but I have a tough time putting too much value when we have seen two recent operating systems go from 0 to 15% in just three years.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

We get quarterly reports from different analysts for past smartphone performance and then every once in a while we see reports predicting smartphone performance in the future. After looking more closely at and thinking further about the latest Gartner predictions that show Symbian falling 10% over the next four years, Android rising 12%, RIM falling 6%, iOS falling 0.5%, and Windows Phone falling 0.8% I have to say I think these type of forecast reports are interesting to talk about and discuss, but should not be taken too seriously. The smartphone market is not like the PC market. The smartphone market moves very fast and just because one platform is extremely popular at the moment and shows major growth does not mean it will continue for years.

Symbian is currently the worldwide leader by a large 23% margin and with the newer versions of Symbian coming from the Symbian Foundation I don't think predictions of such a steady reduction in market share over the years is accurate. Symbian has no measurable impact in the US, but that could easily change with proper marketing and wireless carrier support as we saw with Android and the Motorola Droid on Verizon. Symbian is tightly tied to Nokia and Nokia has their new MeeGo operating system, in partnership with Intel, so we could see this new OS showing up in future numbers.

Android launched in late 2008, but with just a couple of devices primarily only on T-Mobile it stayed down in the low single digit percentage area of the market. It wasn't until Motorola launched the Droid on Verizon that Android took off at breakneck speed to the level now where every carrier has decent Android devices with nothing looking to stop the momentum at this time. However, to rise another 12% in four years (going from 47.5 million to 260 million) in a crowded smartphone market will be quite a feat for Android with operating system fragmentation and an almost overwhelming number of choices for consumers. As Microsoft and Windows Mobile found out before, too many choices and fragmented versions of the operating system is not always the best route to success.

RIM has been able to count on the enterprise market for a fairly steady share of the market and the largest in the US, but the rather disappointing incremental upgrade seen in OS 6 doesn't look to bring in too many new smartphone consumers. I think the forecasts may be correct here with a slow decline in RIM market share in the future.

The Apple iPhone and iOS showed a meteoric rise when it went from a nonexistent entity to 15% in just three years. It has now flattened out and is primarily selling to previous iPhone buyers who upgrade and will most likely continue this way until they expand beyond AT&T in the US. Apple charges premium prices for their devices and is quite profitable with the iPhone business so that could sustain them and help them continue to gain market share. Other smartphone operating systems have caught up to and in some cases surpassed the user interface and functionality of iOS so Apple's yearly major release schedule may feel a bit slow in the smartphone world.

I don't think any valid predictions can be made at all for Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform since it has not yet even launched and past performance with Windows Mobile is not a good indication of future performance. As you know I spent a few weeks with Windows Phone 7 and it is quite a departure from what we are used to from Windows Mobile while offering a user experience that is unique when compared to the other major smartphone players. Microsoft has LOTS of money and if they can get marketing like they have with Xbox behind the platform we could see this OS take off just like Android has, especially given that WP7 should be launching across multiple carriers with multiple hardware manufacturers.

Palm hit a home run at CES a couple of years ago with the announcement of webOS, but has yet to show up in any market share or forecast measures with limited, and rather flawed, hardware and limited carrier support. The operating system is fantastic, but needs great hardware, enthusiast carrier support, and worldwide availability to gain in the smartphone market. HP now owns Palm so the resources should be there to support the platform and HP/Palm could capture something like 5 to 10% of the smartphone market if they get going soon.

In today's extremely fast moving smartphone market we have seen two operating systems (Apple's iOS and Android) each go from 0 to 15-18% in three years. Given these performances, predicting who will hold what amount of market share three years from now is simply a guess that should not be given too much weight. It will be a wild ride over the next three years and I have to say it is lots of fun to follow and be a part of the smartphone world.

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