Why The Mobile Race For 3rd Still Matters

Android & Apple may have 1st & 2nd tied up in the mobile market, but the race for 3rd is wide open.

Global smartphone penetration is due to reach 50% by 2017. Feature phones are slowly sliding in obsolesce. The two major factions of the modern smartphone era, Apple & Android/Samsung, tie up almost the entire market between them. Looks like the dust has settled on the smartphone wars right? Nope.

A piece on Read/Write claimed that there’s so little to pick between the phones these days that the conflict is over. The consumer gets decent phones, the split between manufacturers and OS providers will stay roughly the same and everyone’s happy.

Still a war to wage

I agree with the idea that such heavy competition means the users win, but I disagree with the idea that we’re at peace now. The race might be over for 1st & 2nd. But not for 3rd, or even 4th, 5th 6th and beyond.

For Bronze, it’s a straight two horse race between Windows and Blackberry. The latest figures from IDC show Microsoft has dislodged BB; the former selling double the amount it did in Q1, while the latter sold half as much. However, the release of Blackberry’s Q10 and Q5 phones hadn’t been out for long enough to make an impact at that point, and recent figures from Seeking Alpha show the QWERTY phone is actually outselling iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 in parts of Europe, and is yet to come out in the US.

Whether Blackberry will regain its podium place from Windows remains to be seen. BB are still rebuilding after a difficult few years, and are trying to update their legacy while staying relevant in an era when QWERTY keyboards are now a niche, not the standard. Meanwhile Windows have a clean slate with which to work, backed up by Nokia, who have very little left to lose. The company is still in good shape with computers, so can afford to take more risks, and is well placed for Cloud & Mobility orientated phone experiences. IDC assumes Windows will only grow, and by 2016 will almost be within touching distance of Apple and its iOS. While Blackberry will always have a QWERTY faithful to fall back on, it needs the Z10 & Q5 to really take off in order to still be relevant in a few years.

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5th, 6th, 7th- The Open Source brigade

As Nokia’s Symbian OS dies a slow death, in its place comes a host of new options, each trying to corner a different segment of the market. Mozilla have started shipping their Firefox OS phones, but only in a few markets. The all-HTML5 operating system, essentially using supped-up weblinks in lieu of actual dedicated apps, is primarily geared towards emerging markets such as Latin America and Eastern Europe, but high-end options will be available. Strategy Analytics predict FFOS to corner 1% of the market by the end of the year. Proclamations it will become the third major mobile OS in the market may be a bit early, but maybe in a few years once it’s established itself.

Canonical’s Ubuntu is also readying its mobile assault. It recently won the ‘best OS’ award in Mobile World Congress, beating out Mozilla’s OS, and is promising some fun things. No buttons, gesture and voice control, and the ability to use the phone as a PC when connected to a monitor. While it may be one of the most popular versions of Linux, few predict anything more than a small, but dedicated following for Ubuntu. Expected sometime next year.

Our third newcomer is Sailfish. Formed from a Nokia breakaway group and based on the now defunct MeeGo project, the Sailfish OS can be seen on Jolla, the first phone from the Finnish company of the same name. It’s another Linux-based platform, and the first models available for around £400. There’s not as much hype around Jolla as Mozilla or Canonical’s offerings, but it could be a dark horse.

And finally, in a sly gesture towards Google and Android, Samsung is also looking elsewhere. The Korean company, looking to replace its Bada OS, formed a partnership with Intel and created Tizen, yet another open-source, Linux-based mobile platform. Seen as a way for Samsung to reduce its reliance on Google, and gain more ground in Asia (where the search giant isn’t as all powerful as in the West). Details on what to expect are thin on the ground, but it might be a popular option, especially with Samsung’s backing behind it. Due sometime in the summer. While it shouldn’t cause a major rift, it explains why Google have announced the return of Motorola with the Moto-X.

Who wins? Innovation

It’s not just new OS options that this close competition creates. It’s better innovation. Russian e-ink phones, Braille phones, rumoured Nintendo phones are all getting the web excited. And with Samsung and Google looking to occasionally see other people, the possibility of flexible phones from one and super-intuitive phones from the other point to a bright future.

In related news, wearable tech could be a bid decider on the outcome of phone successes. The Smartwatch war looks likely to heat up soon, and those that work best with mobiles are the most likely to succeed. I predict smartphone/watch combos going on sale before long. The conflict will never end; just occasionally change to a different warzone occasionally.