Whenever a new decade kicks off, it's always tempting - almost mandatory, actually - to took at the previous one to see what's changed in the last ten years. In the case of the wireless industry, take devices. Ten years ago, in the pre-3G era, it was all about handsets. Before the iPhone came along, everyone was going bananas over phones like the Motorola Razr and the LG Chocolate phone.
To get an idea of how far we've come since then, you really need look no further than the biggest mobile device launches of the past month.
The most recent of course - announced more or less as I was typing this - is the Apple iPad, a tablet netbook that looks like an iPhone on steroids. Initial reactions from the gadget intelligentsia have been mixed, if only because ever since the iPhone came out, many have naturally come to expect Apple to produce iconic game-changing devices.
Then there's the Nexus One - the long-awaited GooglePhone that's mainly different from the other GooglePhones (which is to say, handsets running Google's Android OS) in that it's Android as Google intended it, as opposed to previous Android handsets produced by, say, HTC (which, as it happens, makes the Nexus One).
Both device launches are noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One: they further illustrate the reality that device hype is now far more likely to be generated by an Internet brand than a traditional handset maker. (Yes, HTC is a proper handset-maker, but it's arguably Android that is drawing all the attention right now.) And two: the hype isn't about the hardware so much as the content, application ecosystems and business models associated with them.
In the case of Nexus One, the real eye-opener is that it rewrites the retail playbook by essentially giving the platform vendor complete control over the device, from sales to web service availability. Google - rather than HTC or the cellco - is the point of sale and the company that gets to define the relationship with the customer, to include the customer experience. Granted, Google is discovering the dark side of that equation - customers that have encountered problems with the handsets have been complaining about Google's poor customer support, according to Rethink Wireless.
Still, this puts Google at the forefront of a new trend in what Ovum calls managed device platform (MDP) vendors, in which smartphone vendors will differentiate themselves by how well they manage the platforms and web services on the devices.
Meanwhile, the most interesting angle of the iPad isn't the hardware, but the iBookstore that Apple is launching with it. It's hardly an original idea - Amazon.com (another mobile outsider) broke that ground a year ago with the Kindle backed by Amazon's digital book service that also served up newspapers and magazines. Steve Jobs admitted as much during the iPad launch.
But that's also the point. E-book readers are tipped to be a hot growth item in the mobile device sector. But Amazon is already preparing to move beyond the dedicated optimized e-reader model. In January, just a couple of weeks prior to the iPad launch, Amazon released an SDK for the Kindle with the aim of turning it into a platform for apps developers to come up with new ideas for content, formats and capabilities that, in all likelihood, will expand the Kindle from a dedicated e-book reader to something closer to tablet territory. Apple clearly saw a need to respond to the Kindle phenomenon, if only because Amazon eventually cribbed the App Store model in terms of revenue sharing.
Welcome to the exciting new world of mobile in 2010, where hardware is just a vehicle for service-enabling software platforms and devices are anything you can stick an RF chip inside. Admit it: the '10s are going to be a fun decade.