Year in Review: Smartphones ruled in 2008

2008 ushered in an air of uncertainty to the U.S. wireless market. As bidders geared up for the 700 MHz spectrum auction in January, there was lots of speculation about whether new entrants (Google) would walk away with valuable wireless spectrum and introduce a whole new "open" wireless business model to U.S. consumers.

That didn't happen--instead most of the 700 MHz spectrum ended up in the hands of the traditional Tier 1 operators (Verizon Wireless). But that didn't stop the "open" network debate from gaining traction. In 2008 there was lots of discussion about open networks, open devices and open applications. But if you want a clear definition of what "open" means to each operator, you are probably aren't going to get a straight answer. At the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment Conference in San Francisco in September, the leaders of three Tier 1 U.S. carriers--Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless--all provided different (and somewhat convoluted views) of what open means to them. I don't expect the open debate to end anytime soon, but I do hope that in 2009 carriers start to paint a clearer picture of this new open wireless ecosystem and how they fit into it.

One thing is clear, however, and that is that open mobile operating systems are the wave of the future. 2008 was the year Google's Android operating system made its commercial debut with its first device, the T-Mobile G1. And thanks to Google's inroads, competitors such as Symbian are also taking a new open source approach. In June, Nokia announced that it was acquiring Symbian and creating an open source platform.

Of course, one of the primary drivers of the open source operating system is that smartphones are finally achieving mass market appeal. Thanks to the 2007 introduction of the Apple iPhone, followed by the 2008 debut of the iPhone 3G, smartphones with touchscreen interfaces have become the new "must-have" consumer electronics device. In a recent discussion I had with Best Buy Mobile's Scott Moore, he said that nearly one in three people lined up in front of Best Buy at 3 a.m. on Black Friday were there to purchase a wireless phone--that's a big switch from year's past when Best Buy didn't sell its first cell phone on Black Friday until after 8 a.m. 

I suspect those consumers lined up at 3 a.m. weren't braving the cold and crowds to purchase just any phone. I bet they were there for a smartphone--either an iPhone 3G, a BlackBerry Storm, a BlackBerry Bold, or a T-Mobile G1. -Sue

P.S. Please note that FierceWireless is going on a short holiday hiatus. We will return to your inboxes on Monday, Jan. 5, 2009. Have a happy and safe holiday.