Seybold's Take: Return of the device wars

Andrew SeyboldAs LTE systems are being built and LTE devices are becoming available, a lot of things are happening in the device world. Android is either slipping or gaining share, depending on whom you listen to, and the new Android 4.0 release is being called a do-or-die situation for Google. Meanwhile, Windows 8 devices are supposed to be available in November, perhaps too late for the holiday season but perhaps not. Apple released the Apple iPhone 4S and iOS 5 but NOT the iPhone 5 everyone was touting. I believe Research in Motion has a few surprises up its sleeve, and it now appears that the next target for graphical user interfaces will be feature phones in addition to smartphones.

It appears as though those developing the operating systems for our smartphones and tablets are trying to outdo each other with each release. When I downloaded iOS 5, before I even got started I was looking at a screen on my PC touting more than 200 different upgrades for both the iPhone and iPad. The list was fairly exhaustive and ran from very useful to why did they do that? I am still in the process of exploring some of these new features and functions but some of them I will never even notice or need. In addition, the voice recognition on the iPhone 4S is supposed to be the best yet, but so far I have not seen many reviews that put it to test.

Meanwhile enter Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and its extensive list of features and functions. Some of these have already been reported and include a new User Interface, facial recognition for device security, Android Beam, which enables users to share web pages, apps, and YouTube videos with others by simply tapping Android 4.0 phones together. Android 4.0 will also run on both smartphones and tablets. Of course this feature was one of the major pluses for the iPhone and iPad and it is assumed that Microsoft Windows 8 will provide the same capabilities. This makes it easier for developers and also enables customers with both a smartphone and a tablet to easily move between them.

You can bet that the folks in Redmond, Wash., are pouring over both iOS 5 and Android 4.0 to see what features/functions Windows 8 might have that the other two don't, but also to see which of the new enhancements it will need to include in the first or second upgrade of Windows 8.0. The battle for the customers is truly one of needed and desired features and functions that are built into the operating system, and then the device specifications, and of course the applications that are available and the ease of blending all of this together in an easy-to-use device.

RIM is also making noises about a new operating environment. Those within the industry and those analysts who count RIM out should go back and read what analysts have said every time RIM has stumbled since 1998. RIM has been pronounced dead more times than Motorola Mobility! It will be interesting to see what it has to offer and what it will do for its next tablet. All of the companies in the device business end up making at least one mistake with products and even with operating systems.

Remember that Nokia, once the world leader in devices, blew its U.S. device offerings by not building what the network operators were asking for but rather what it perceived the market wanted. In the United States at least, Nokia was wrong. But will it make a comeback with Windows 8 devices? It will depend on a lot of things, many of which are out of Nokia's control, just as some of the variables for other phone vendors are out of their control. If Windows 8 is really good, if it catches on and network operators want to start making Windows 8 phones available, then Nokia has a shot. If corporations find that the features, functions, and security in Windows 8 are easy to manage and easy to configure, and they start demanding Windows 8 devices, then Nokia has a good shot at becoming a player in the United States and perhaps getting back into the game in the rest of the world.

What about Sony Ericsson? Will Sony buy out Ericsson as is being reported? If so, what changes will we see and what devices with what operating systems will it move toward in the coming months? How soon will it have an LTE phone in the market? All of these are variables that we will have to wait to find more about.

The most successful device vendors are those that offer a number of different devices using different operating systems. Samsung, LG, and HTC are good examples of these types of companies. They are not afraid to build world-class devices using a number of the different operating environments. They don't report their failures in the marketplace (those that don't sell many of a specific device) but they do flaunt their successes.

This next six months will be telling for the device market. How will Android 4.0 be received? Are there some device vendors that are not as sure of backing the Android platform because Google is buying Motorola Mobility? Will Android devices be targeted for cyber and malware attacks? On the Windows 8 side of things, Microsoft needs a combination of winner, world-class devices and an operating system that is easy to use, easy to integrate with both business and consumer applications, and is fast.

RIM needs to hit a home run either with its new operating environment or new devices, preferably both at the same time. And Apple just keeps going. Yes, it slipped in the number of iPhones and iPads shipped last quarter but the iPhone 4S is setting sales records. The iPhone 5 is still out there in rumor land, waiting to be announced. One of my biggest questions is if Samsung, HTC, or LG will build a really cool smartphone and then offer that same phone with a choice of operating systems. This would, I think, let people decide on both the phone they want and the operating system they want.

With all of the second guessing, rumors, and product announcements, the world of devices that some thought would simply become commodity products is instead becoming even more of a way for network operators to differentiate themselves. The real winners in all of this, other than the consumers, will be those who sell not only the best device but the best device with the best set of services behind it. That means everyone else will continue to chase Apple for at least a while longer.

Andrew M. Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.