Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Smartphone wars: Android hot; Windows not

Who's winning the smartphone wars? Android, Apple and Blackberry - according to new figures from the research firm Gartner. Its figures for the first quarter of 2010, shown below, will be immensely cheering for most makers of high-end phones - though they may cast a pall over Microsoft's Redmond headquarters.

Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Operating System in 1Q10 (Thousands of Units) Source: Gartner May 2010

The first good news is that sales for the whole smartphone sector are rising at the highest rate since 2006 with consumers around the world apparently willing to pay more to do more with their mobiles. But let's look at the smartphone league and work out who's hot and who's not.

(1) Symbian: Nokia fans often testily point out that Symbian phones - mostly made by the Finnish giant - still dominate this sector while getting little credit from Apple- and Android-obsessed journalists. That's fair enough: as these figures show, Symbian is still streets ahead, having created the sector with the Nokia Communicator over a decade ago. The trouble is that Nokia is no longer a "thought leader" in smartphones - it always seems to be one step behind the innovators, and that means lower margins and a deal of nervousness in Helsinki.

(2) Research in Motion: This morning, I got a press release telling me that a waste-management firm is giving Blackberries to binmen so that it can keep track of rubbish collections. More evidence that the clever Canadians at RIM, the makers of the e-mail device, have pulled off one of the great marketing tricks of recent years. They've turned a dull but essential business device into the phone that, its fans say, every teenager - and binman - wants. The Blackberry has gone mainstream but hip at the same time by offering a simple and cheap way to communicate for one sector of the market, while retaining high-end business customers. It's only when it tries to make devices that are a little too smart that it appears to stumble.

(3) Apple: Remember the cynics who said back in 2007 that the iPhone would be a niche gadget that would have no major effect on the mobile industry? Just look at Apple's share price today - and the way other manufacturers have rushed out their own touch-screens and app stores - to see how wrong that judgement was. With more than twice as many iPhones sold in the first three months of 2010 as in the same period last year, the success story continues. But look at number four in the chart for proof that Apple needs to keep "thinking different".

(4) Android: And a year ago, the cynics still thought Google's Android operating system was going to be a niche geeky platform. But a rash of new phones - from the Motorola Droid to the HTC Desire - has given Android lift-off, with nearly 10% of the market in the first quarter of 2010. In the United States, Android phones actually outsold the iPhone. The open nature of the platform, and the fact that Google does not act as a gatekeeper to its app store, has made it very attractive to developers. Mind you, next month we should see the iPhone 4g - and that will make Apple v Android all the more interesting.

(5) Windows Mobile: Poor old Microsoft, relegated to fifth place as consumers ignore the reliable old stager in favour of newer, shinier operating systems. At Mobile World Congress, the company unveiled a new operating system, Windows Phone 7, which appeared extremely impressive, imitating and perhaps surpassing the kind of innovations we've seen from Apple and Android. Major phone manufacturers were all supportive, promising to work with Microsoft on compelling handsets with the new system - but by the time they hit the market at the end of this year, consumers will have seen new iPhone and Android models. Maybe Microsoft has already missed the smartphone bus?


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