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Winners and Losers?

So far, much smartphone development has been based on the assumption that it will be like previous OS wars rather than the games market. Nokia (with Symbian), Microsoft and Google have even tried to establish multivendor platforms on the DOS/Windows model without going through the preliminary stage of developing an integrated top-to-bottom system like RIM’s BlackBerry or Apple’s iPhone. But, so far, RIM and Apple are winning.

However, the smartphone market is not like a computer market for at least two reasons. First, smartphone users, like gamers, are willing to abandon their sunk investments to adopt something new and obviously better. Second, users may be able to change their mobile phones without losing access to all their programs and data. Those could be, or perhaps should be, where they were before: in the cloud.

In the old days -- not so long ago -- getting a new phone meant re-entering all your numbers by hand. Today, you should be able to reload your address book, family photos and other data just by synchronising your new phone with an online service. And all your current online services such as Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay and Expedia should work even better than they did before.

Smartphone operating systems are still platforms and still run apps, so I expect there will be some similarities to previous platform wars. For example, dozens of manufacturers and every network are now adopting Google Android, so it’s growing very quickly. It’s not hard to see the battle between open Android and Apple’s single-source iOS as being like the battle between the openly-licensed Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac OS. It’s also not hard to see Android winning in the long run.

But cloud-based services should make it easy for users to switch platforms, so perhaps it won’t tip into another “winner takes all” market. And if Android does win, it needn’t mean that everyone else loses. Perhaps times have changed for the better.

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