The potential market base for smartphones is bigger than for games consoles, so it's entirely possible that more than three platforms can flourish. But it will be interesting to see what the smartphone landscape looks like by the time the next generation of consoles hits the market.
Smartphone OSes still finding feet
It's a tumultuous time for the mobile OS market, with development of some platforms – WebOS and MeeGo – being scaled back, while fresh platforms – Samsung's Bada, Baidu's Android-based Yi – emerge.
The state of play puts me in mind of the very early years of video game consoles, particularly in North America, when the market was still emerging, and the industry structure still being established.
Some companies – such as Atari – quickly rose to a strong position in the market, but many other consoles – ColecoVision, IntelliVision, Vectrex – failed to carve out a niche big enough to shelter under during the video game crash of 1983 (an event which the smartphone sector is fortunately showing no signs of replicating).
Decades later, the console market is indisputably a three-horse race between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. The barriers of entry are so high, and the relationships between hardware and software makers so entrenched, it is difficult to imagine another company being brave enough to throw their hat into the ring.
The still emerging smartphone market is showing early signs of heading down the same path. As with games consoles, it is increasingly the content rather than hardware that sells handsets, so new OS contenders need to spend big to build up a developer ecosystem, and the success of a platform is starting to hinge on attracting enough app developers.
Indeed, the parallels between smartphone and console makers are striking, if you compare them at different stages of the latter market's development.
Apple can be likened to Nintendo, which kick started the creation of the entire post-crash console industry, and is known for great first-party content and innovative technologies, despite a history of heaving restrictions on third-party developers.
Android is Sony, whose PlayStation console started as an upstart against then market leader Nintendo, but with the backing of a multi-billion dollar tech company attained dominance by the time of the PS2-era (though that position proved short-lived by the time of the current console generation).
Sony created the technology that would become the first PlayStation when it was commissioned by Nintendo to create a cancelled CD add-on to its Super Nintendo console. Apple insists Andy Rubin conceived Android while still employed at Apple.
RIM, and arguably Nokia at the moment, can be compared to Atari and Sega - once major players in the market, but increasingly relegated as its rivals surpass them by consumer traction. (Atari and Sega eventually bowed out of the console hardware market, with their last consoles launched in 1993 and 1998 respectively, but live on as game publishers).
But who is Xbox developer Microsoft's equivalent? Microsoft itself? So far Windows Phone hasn't gained nearly the kind of traction required, but maybe the partnership with Nokia and/or the upcoming Windows 8 can change that. Or will it be another contender? That is the opportunity that upstart mobile OS developers likely envision.