4 potential smartphone scenarios for 2010

With the current market, smartphones are just as much a source of headaches as they are productivity tools. Here are four predictions about what could happen in the smartphone industry in the next 18 months.

I love following smartphones. From the incredible hardware to the innovative operating systems and the strange and tumultuous companies that create and market them, it is an industry that always seems to be in flux. Where desktop hardware and software have more or less reached a peaceful détente between the major players, the smartphone industry looks like a map of post-WWII Europe, with borders, influences, and alliances changing almost weekly. Many in the corporate space have a love/hate relationship with these devices. With a rapidly shifting industry with no totally dominant player to new employee expectations about what they should be able to do with "their" phone, smartphones are just as much a source of potential headaches as they are productivity tools.

With that in mind, here are four wild predictions about what could happen in the smartphone industry in the next eighteen months. These are purely hypothetical but plausible scenarios based on my observations, rather than any insider information or sources within these companies. Disclaimer out of the way, here we go:

#1 Apple gets distracted

I see the iPad primarily as a distraction for Apple. Sure, Apple is masterful at marketing, and they'll sell a truckload of iPads, but I don't think they'll sell the boatload they are hoping for. Like the Nexus One smartphone, the hype cycle that led up to the device's release made it nearly impossible to meet pundits' or consumer expectations. Since the iPad does not seem to be the slam dunk Apple had hoped, it's going to require significant corporate "attention span" that might otherwise be devoted to enhancing the iPhone platform. While Apple may remain the dominant consumer player in 2010, its iPhone OS is starting to show crow's feet around its eyes, and without some significant enhancement (multitasking, anyone?) it will likely fall behind as competitors grow increasingly hungry.

#2 Platform consolidation

I don't think the market, either on the consumer or business side, can support five major smartphone platforms (Apple's iPhone OS, Google's Android, Palm's WebOS, RIM's Blackberry OS, and Windows Mobile) for much longer. Much like when desktop OS dominance was in a wild state of flux in the 1980s and early 1990s before settling down to three major players (Windows, MacOS, and Linux), I foresee a similar scenario in mobile operating systems.

Palm was arguably last year's wildcard and impressed the industry with hardware and software that was polished and usable far beyond what was expected. Despite this yeoman's effort, I don't see Palm as having the muscle to compete, especially when it is designing its own hardware while also maintaining WebOS. What would keep the rather impressive WebOS growing would be an acquisition, and I personally see RIM as the most likely suitor. RIM has an aging OS in need of a major overhaul, entrenched corporate users focused on usability and information management rather than games and music, and experience building and marketing its own hardware and software. It would be a marriage that would make WebOS a major player and prepare RIM for the next several years.

Assuming RIM buys Palm and adopts WebOS as the "new Blackberry," that still leaves us with four major players. Despite Apple getting distracted with the iPad, they're here to stay for the next few years. That leaves us with Windows Mobile and Google.

#3 Google becomes the Linux of smartphones

I realize that Android is based on Linux, and I'm not referring to the technical nuances of the phone operating system, but rather the position in the market that it holds. Linux has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, but it still remains a niche player in the desktop world, and even the most user-friendly distributions require some level of tinkering to get everything working "just right." It can be hacked into something wonderful, but the trouble just isn't worth it to casual or corporate users outside a few niche markets.

I don't think Google actually has a huge interest in smartphones, save as yet another vehicle to sell their existing products and services, and Android and the Nexus One phone in particular seemed more an ego-driven demonstration of technical prowess than a major push into a new market. In many ways, Google could be just as happy with an excellent suite of cloud applications that dominate the Blackberry or iPhone platform to put eyeballs on its ads and buyers into its cloud services. After seeing the difficulties of building an OS, wrangling hardware partners, and introducing and supporting their own device, I get the sense that many inside Google wish they had done exactly that.

Like Google's office suite that pundits predicted was going to maul MS Office and take over the world, which was effectively left to languish in a stew of good ideas that were half-implemented, I think Google will direct its attention elsewhere, leaving Android as a niche OS or perhaps as a "base layer" for other carriers to build a customized UI on top of. While I like Android and find it full of potential, Google needs to decide if the smartphone space is a key element to their strategic vision to be fought for with everything they've got or if they want to just produce great apps for the dominant players and quietly leave Android to the open source community as a hobbyist phone OS.

#4 Microsoft: The Dark Horse

Of all the tech companies, Microsoft seems to have the worst case of corporate attention deficit disorder. They invest millions in a product, leave it to languish until an upstart competitor bests it, then spend months and millions more playing catch up, only to leave the product to languish yet again.

This has clearly been the case with Windows Mobile, the high-dollar response to the Palm PDA a decade ago that morphed into the cobbled-together mess we have today. Clearly Microsoft can beat an incumbent, as they have demonstrated with Internet Explorer vs. Netscape and more recently with XBOX 360 vs. PS3, but on the other side of the coin, one can't help but look at the Zune as a failed also-ran to Apple's iPod.

On the smartphone front, with its newest release Microsoft seems to have made the wise decision not to attempt to "out-Apple Apple," and in its initial demonstrations it appears Windows Mobile 7 is a completely new take on how people and businesses should interact with their phones. Microsoft also has the unique advantage of potentially integrating with the dominate desktop and server operating systems and applications in most homes and businesses, and if they can take advantage of this position, something amazing could result. They can also clearly exploit the social media space as they have done so well with XBOX Live, but translating that into a smartphone experience could be tricky.

Overall, we will see some interesting action on the smartphone front in the coming months. For CIOs attempting to decide where to direct their corporate dollars, a Blackberry or Microsoft Exchange backend seems to provide the most flexible backoffice as the market makes its shift, supporting everything from Andriod to iPhone. Rather than attempting to select a single platform, CIOs should look for infrastructure that allows basic asset tracking and data management (remote wipe) on the most potential platforms, keeping their options open rather than attempting to enforce the use of a handful of devices.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...