Smartphone Evolution 2.0: Who's the biggest loser?

With Microsoft's Windows Phone about to enter the Smartphone ecosystem, it's clear that we don't have that much room for other wannabe apex predators.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

With Microsoft's Windows Phone about to enter the Smartphone ecosystem, it's clear that we don't have that much room for other wannabe apex predators.

Back in November of last year, I made a number of observations about how the smartphone industry was progressing, based on the exploding adoption rate of Google's Android by mobile carriers and handset manufacturers.

In that analysis, I completely wrote Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform off. I had this to say about it at the time:

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.

As of yesterday, that all changed.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Yesterday, my colleague Mary Jo Foley wrote about the launch of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series, the next step in Windows Mobile's evolution.

Indeed, it could be argued that Microsoft had smartphone entries before, but in what I would call the Smartphone Pleistocene era. Windows Mobile 6.x was an evolutionary dead end -- the Windows Phonis Neanderthaliensis -- and Windows Phone 7 Series is Windows Phonis Sapiens.

While Windows 7 Phone is a Microsoft product, I think it would be unfair to characterize it to be anything like the Microsoft technology-based phones we've seen in the last 10 years. The interface and user experience is a major departure from previous Windows CE/Windows Mobile phones, more resembling what we've seen in Microsoft's Zune HD media player device.

The idea of a Zune-based Microsoft smartphone which leverages Microsoft cloud services such as XBOX Live is not new. In fact, I proposed two different variations of the idea two years ago, just before starting this column.

Also Read:Zune+Yahoo = Y!Phone (April 2008)

Also Read:How about an XPhone? (April 2008)

My proposed features and functionality of "XPhone" from 2008 are not unlike the Windows 7 Phone Series that we are going to see released  in the latter half of 2010. I said this about "XPhone" at the time:

"For starters, it would have the unique market position of being able to integrate with both enterprise technology and consumer technology, right from the get go. With built in Windows Mobile Device communication protocols and Wi-Fi, in addition to HSDPA 3G data connectivity, the XPHONE would be able to communicate and share data with XBOX 360s in addition to home PC networks, corporate back-end Exchange servers and .NET applications thru a secure subscriber network of redundant NOCs as well as hosted applications."

Two years later, we now see the missing pieces of that picture with Microsoft's emerging public and private cloud strategy -- Azure. "Cloud" was just in its infancy as a concept at the time and was not front and center of the IT buzzword bingo vocabulary.

We just didn't know what Microsoft's SAAS strategy was going to be called back then or what it really was going to look like, and we also had no idea at the time that the Microhoo stuff would not turn out as we all had thought. Cest la vie.

After viewing the Windows 7 Phone demos, I have no doubt in my mind that Microsoft will be able to produce a compelling product, and the company is on the right track.

But as ZDNet's editor-in-chief, Larry Dignan says, its got one heck of a hill to climb.

For Windows 7 Phone to succeed, other smartphone players' platforms need to die. As with any ecosystem, you can only have so many apex predators, and now we have too many. At best, I believe the high-end smartphone ecosystem can only sustain 3 major platforms -- Android, iPhone and one other alternative.

I think that it is a given that with Microsoft's strong offering, it is unlikely that Palm will continue to survive. As good as a platform WebOS is, it's just not that much different from Android or substantially better than iPhone to continue to sustain itself, and it certainly doesn't have the advantage of being able to have guaranteed back-end messaging capability with Exchange that Windows Phone 7 will, or the combined weight and might of Microsoft, Google or Apple.

So we can probably file Palm under extinct species within a year, unless some other company such as Research In Motion which badly needs a mojo and technology injection in the consumer space picks them up.

I think it is also fair to say that Windows Phone's entry into the marketplace will make Symbian's ability to hold high-end market share in North America very difficult, especially when iPhone and Android are also eating away that market share.

Symbian will not become extinct, certainly not in Europe and Asia where it has a strong foothold in entry level and high-end camera phone devices. I see Symbian as a weird smartphone infraclass that succeeds elsewhere, like all the strange marsupials which thrive in Australia that exist nowhere else on the planet. Symbian will become the Australidelphia of the Smartphone world. You know, wombats, kangaroos, koalas. That kind of stuff.

This gets us back to BlackBerry and Research in Motion. Although solvent and posting excellent earnings, RIM is facing a bunch of strategic problems.

Also Read:RIM and Google, the Perfect Storm? (May 2009)

iPhone and Android are quickly eroding significant portions of their consumer market, because its OS is antiquated and for the time being has an inferior browsing and social networking/application experience. Its enterprise market, however, remains strong, at least for now.

In my previous piece about Smartphone Evolution back in November, I had initially suggested that it might be a good idea for Research in Motion to buy Palm, so that it had a Linux OS it could control and maintain without having to become all Open Source lovey-dovey.

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.

But now that I have given it some thought, it makes a lot more sense for RIM to align itself with Microsoft.

Let's face it, what RIM does best for enterprise customers is secure Exchange messaging. Yeah, they can do Lotus Notes too, but it's not the biggest part of their enterprise revenue stream. Adopting Windows 7 Phone Series OS and producing enterprise touchscreen and keyboard form factor smartphones using their secure messaging technology and BES would give them an immediate sex appeal boost while maintaining their customer base.

Existing BlackBerry Java applications could be dealt with by porting the RIM J2ME stack to Windows CE, or by using technology such as Wind River's embedded hypervisor to run the legacy RIM pieces as a virtual machine.

How this marriage would be consummated is a matter of details -- RIM begins a strategic alliance with Microsoft, or Microsoft buys Research In Motion. Either way, the results are the same.

Do several species of smartphone need to die out or evolve for Windows Phone 7 Series to succeed? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Editorial standards