What Is A Smartphone?

I’ve been thinking about the current state of the mobile device market, and the challenges facing RIM and Nokia as iOS and Android phones continue to chip away at their marketshare. As a developer, I’m always interested in technology. As someone trying to sell software, I’m always interested in finding a way to broaden the reach of my product ideas. I currently have apps that I have created for iPhone, and my goal is to make those same apps available on other platforms. I haven’t developed on Android or BlackBerry yet, but I have started to look into the two platforms, and what is involved. I’ve also had a chance to review the history of mobile devices in general, partly because I am always interested as to “why” things ended up the way they did. This combination of some history lessons, and the current state of developer tools and mobile products has led me to some conclusions about why the market is unfolding the way it is right now.

What I see right now is a continuum on the philosophy of handsets. At the one end you have companies like Nokia and RIM which seem to treat smartphones as phones with smarts in them. They can run apps, and do some sophisticated things, but their software, support and development tools are all driven by this underlying view that they are handsets first, and something smarter second. Old units are largely ignored, except for the occasional bug fix, and little attention is paid to ensuring that new versions of the underlying operating system (or development tools) are compatible with older machines.

At the other end of the spectrum  you have Apple and Google, which treat smartphones as little general-purpose computers that happen to make phone calls. In fact, many of the devices that run the underlying operating system don’t have any phone features at all. New operating system releases make some effort to include older devices, where possible, so that a customer doesn’t necessarily have to buy the latest and greatest hardware to also get the latest software. The development environment is more stable from a language and API point of view.

In the middle you find systems like PalmOS, WebOS and Windows Mobile, at least in their current incarnation. There was some effort to allow PalmOS devices to upgrade their system software, and the PDA functions came before the phone did. Windows Mobile was particularly bad for not allowing system upgrades, meaning you had to buy new hardware to get the latest version of the OS. But for developers, there was consistency and some degree of stability in the platforms, and many apps that run on older versions could run with little or no modification on newer versions.

So, why does this matter? If you look at the technologies enjoying the most success in the smartphone market, with the fastest growth and largest inventory of 3rd party apps, they are from the two companies that view smartphones as little computers that make phone calls. RIM and Nokia’s share of the market, both in terms of new sales and installed base, continues to decline at the expense of iOS and Android. Neither RIM nor Nokia have app stores with an inventory that comes close to matching the iTunes App Store or Android Market, and neither have a significant base of developers that continue to add to that inventory.

To make matters worse for RIM and Nokia, neither seems to be able to expand their products beyond their current technology base of smartphones. You can get iOS on more than just a phone: it also comes on the iPod Touch and the iPad. Android is available on a growing number of non-phone devices including tablets. In all cases, apps built for the underlying operating system can run with some degree of success on these new devices.

The new PlayBook from RIM illustrates what I believe is a flawed approach to this market: the device has virtually nothing in common with a BlackBerry. It runs a different operating system, requires a new suite of developer tools, and it is completely divorced from the BlackBerry family of devices. Rather than trying to leverage the existing base of apps (such as it is), RIM has forced its developers to build yet another version of their apps if they want it to run with any success on PlayBook. Contrast that to the iPad: virtually every iPhone app out there runs on the iPad. Yes, it is an emulator of sorts (but the 2x magnification definitely makes some iPhone games easier to play 🙂 ), but at least the inventory of apps that an iPhone or iPod Touch owner has will be able to run on the device. Building a universal app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad is very straight-forward and 95% of what developers knew about the iPhone they could apply to building iPad apps.

For RIM and Nokia to thrive, and not just survive, in the evolving mobile device market, I think they have to take a different approach to designing and building their devices and their ecosystem. They need to stop looking at these things as handsets first, and “smart device” second, and start to view them as highly mobile general purpose computers, some of which can make phone calls.