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Can it ever be game over in tech?

Can it ever be game over in tech?
by Don Dingee on 09-12-2016 at 4:00 pm

The opening line of a recent Benedict Evans piece makes a bold statement: “The smartphone platform wars are pretty much over, and Apple and Google won.” Reading that line reminded me of the William Shatner scene in Airplane 2; let’s just shut it down and go home. That’s not the point Evans is making, however, and that leads to an interesting conversation.

Evans is pointing out the critical mass in ecosystems strongly favoring Apple and Google. Symbian is gone for all practical purposes, BlackBerry is headed there having moved over to the Android dark side, and Windows 10 Mobile has bet its last cow on the new (yes, new) HP Elite x3. What’s Sailfish OS? Where are those 3 million Tizen phones?

In particular, Evans is trying to size the install bases in a world where “a billion is the new million” and industry investment is moving from the PC ecosystem to the smartphone ecosystem. His estimates of install base using data updated through March 2016, taking the upper end of his figures:

[TABLE] border=”1″
| style=”width: 115px” |
| style=”width: 85px” | Smartphone
| style=”width: 72px” | Tablet
| style=”width: 115px” | iOS
| style=”width: 85px” | 630M
| style=”width: 72px” | 250M
| style=”width: 115px” | Android
| style=”width: 85px” | 1.4B
| style=”width: 72px” | 200M
| style=”width: 115px” | Chinese Android
| style=”width: 85px” | 450M
| style=”width: 72px” | 200M

In rough terms, that adds up to 2.5B smartphones out there. That last line is rather interesting. It’s Android licenses not using Google Services (like the Play Store in particular) and thus not counted in Google numbers. Remember those complaints from Qualcomm of being underreported by certain Chinese OEMs? It’s just hard to get an accurate count in some cases, but Evans’ analysis is logically solid based on online activity.

So, why are Microsoft and Jolla still trying?

One has to go back to the earlier stages of the smartphone war for a clue. As late as 2002, there were five smartphone operating systems – and Android and iOS didn’t exist yet. Symbian, Palm OS, Windows CE, Linux, and J2ME were fighting for share. Defectors tore Symbian apart, Palm missed the ARM wave, Windows Mobile underwent several brand reboots, and BlackBerry moved from stock J2ME into their own branded OS.

Then we read Evans’ piece along with the recent news. Samsung is working vigorously on the halt-and-catch-fire model. Apple can’t decide if it is a fashionista or a technology purveyor. Huawei has gone public with its intent to become one of the top two in smartphones, meaning either Samsung or Apple has to die, and Huawei will probably get that done with lower cost Android models in emerging smartphone markets.

Here’s the bottom line: it’s never game over. Nothing has remained static in technology. Even good solutions get the boot eventually. The extended run of the PC is an exception, not the rule. All it will take is someone redefining some the functionality of the smartphone in a way that catches on, and Android and iOS could be in trouble. I’m not saying either Microsoft or Jolla have a realistic chance to accomplish that with their current offerings, but someone will break through.

It’s likely to happen as the pendulum swings back the other way. Smartphones won big because they were convergence devices, combining several popular pieces of consumer gear into one slab. Convergence devices are by nature compromised, bigger and more power hungry than something built to do only one job. A really strong use case will have to emerge, stronger than the current wearable/fitness idea, and more cohesive than the fragmented IoT market.

Nonsense? Well, the only constant in technology is change. Betting that we’ve done everything with smartphones we can do, and the Android and iOS platforms will last forever, isn’t a reasonable bet. Food for thought as the smartphone wars near their endgame. Evans says he’s looking at AR and VR and machine learning. I’m leaning toward voice interfaces (get rid of the screen) and medical devices (beyond just fitness) and more IoT-ish stuff.

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