Thoughts On The SmartPhone MarketNovember 4, 2010
I thought I’d spend some time talking about smartphones. In the smartphone OS market today we have 5 major players: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7, RIM’s Blackberry and Nokia’s Symbian. There are others who make OSes for smartphones, but I believe that they are so insignificant that I don’t need to mention them as contenders here. I also believe that 2 the above platforms are going to be disappearing soon. Nokia has not competed well with their Symbian OS. There is a lack of apps for the platform and it just seems old fashioned compared to iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7, which were all built from the ground up for capacitive touchscreen phones. I believe the same fate will occur for RIM’s Blackberry OS. Developers have not flocked to the Blackberry OS because it has been too difficult to develop on in the past and while they plan to improve this, I think it’s a bit too late. Everything the Blackberry OS used to be good at, iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7 can also do just as well.
The reason I listed Windows Phone 7 as a major competitor, even though it’s only 2 weeks old is because it’s a great OS that consumers will love because it’s innovative and simple, but also because Microsoft has spent a lot of time, effort and money ensuring that developers will flock to the platform. To write apps for the Windows Phone 7 platform, you simply need to download the free Windows Phone Developer Tools which include Microsoft Visual Studio Express for Windows Phone which is a development environment focused on coding, Microsoft Expression Blend 4 for Windows Phone which is a development environment focused on design and user interfaces. Also included is an emulator so that you can test your applications without having to have a phone. The language used to code a Windows Phone is mix of Silverlight XAML for user interface elements and properties and C# .NET for the actions that each user interface item performs. Also coming soon is the ability to program the actions in Visual Basic .NET instead of C# .NET. Games are programmed using the XNA Framework, the same language that is used to write games for the Xbox 360. So what this means for developers is that they can use the same tools they would normally use to write Windows applications and Xbox 360 games to write phone apps, without having to learn a new language or programming environment. Although currently the Windows Phone Marketplace doesn’t have a lot of apps, it has all the right apps. It has Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Messenger and plenty more coming soon. Microsoft is also working with developers who need special access to the OS (such as Skype and its need to use Sockets) so that their apps will be available soon.
The rest of the reason why I believe Windows Phone 7 will be a success is that it currently fills a void that is missing in the market. The iPhone was the first serious player in the smartphone market; in fact it defined the smartphone market. The problem is that it is a very tightly controlled platform. There is only one iPhone, it has one form factor, it is only made by one company, it only allows apps into its one App Store if they successfully make it through the strict application process and apps can often be rejected for the smallest reasons, you can only write apps for it if you own a Mac and you can only sync it using iTunes which is not a great program. It’s very controlled, which is a good thing in some ways because using it is consistent between iPhones and developers only have to target one OS and everyone generally is running the same version of the OS, but some of the control is just a bit over the top and anti-competitive.
Google Android on the other hand is extremely uncontrolled. There are multiple handsets with multiple form factors from multiple companies running different versions of the OS with different UI skins, multiple app stores (or manual install from a website if you don’t want to use an app store), you can write apps for it using Windows, OS X and Linux and do just about anything with it. Google simply writes the base OS and throws it out there to whoever wants to use it. This is good because it provides the user with choice, but it is also becoming the single biggest problem for the platform. Each model of Android phone these days seems to come with a different UI and also there are at least 4 different versions of the OS floating around that are still in use and even still available to buy. Lots of Android phones still on sale come with version 1.5 or 1.6 and many of these phones will never be able to upgrade to 2.1 or 2.2 which means they will always be inferior. Android users say, well just root the phone and install it yourself, but I can’t imagine my Mum or Dad rooting their phone anytime soon. There’s just too much choice for many consumers. The main reason that Android has taken off has been a lack of cheap competitor to the iPhone and also because there are many more models of Android phones available instead of the one iPhone. Having competition drives down the price of all Android Phones. What consumers really need is something in the middle. Something between the openness and chaos of Android and control and simplicity of the iPhone: That middle of the road is Windows Phone 7.
Windows Phone 7 will be available on a number of different handsets with different form factors (e.g. some with keyboards, some without) from a number of different phone carriers like Android is, but each handset must have the same minimum hardware requirements for CPU, memory, graphics capabilities and storage, plus they must have the same buttons on the phone (Back, Start, Search, Volume Up, Volume Down, Power and Camera) which ensures that every Windows Phone will have the same compatibility as the next one. This is a similar experience to what you get on the iPhone, every app designed for iPhone works on every iPhone. Windows Phone’s App Marketplace takes similar route to the Apple App Store in that you can’t install apps that don’t come from the store and apps that are in the store have to be approved first. Thankfully, unlike Apple, Microsoft’s App Marketplace rules aren’t draconian. Microsoft is also taking Apple’s route for updating the phone to new software versions. Unlike Android where it is the carrier’s responsibility to provide updates to the phone (and they very frequently don’t because they’d rather sell you a new handset), Microsoft will be the one controlling the updates and will make all updates available to all phones. Carriers can delay an update by one update cycle for testing if they wish (it is assumed that one update cycle will be about 1 month), but for the most part, updates will reach all phones as soon as they are released. This will mean that Windows Phone 7 will not become fragmented like Android and like Windows Mobile before it, they’ve learnt their lessons.
Finally, it’s important to address the problem of missing features. Windows Phone 7 is a version 1.0 platform (even though it has 7 in the name). It shares absolutely nothing in common with Windows Mobile. With nearly every version 1.0 platform, features will be missing initially. When the iPhone first came out, it was missing stacks of features. Many of the features most demanded didn’t appear until version 3.0 of the iPhone software. The difference between the way Apple and Microsoft have dealt with missing features is that Apple normally says, “You don’t need this feature, our device works fine without it and there are no plans to implement it” and then they’ll implement a stack of the missing features in a new version of the iPhone saying “brand new, you’ll find this experience just magical, so buy today”. Microsoft’s way of dealing with this is to say “We realise that this feature is missing, but we will add it as quickly as possible via a free software update and we’ll release each separate update as soon as it’s ready”. It’s a more honest approach and it means that you won’t have to wait for your new features once per year.
So all in all, I think Windows Phone 7 is a serious contender in the market because it provides the middle ground between Android and iOS and ultimately will be a win for customers. I plan to get one of these devices around Christmas and the New Year so I’ll be able to write more about the device then!