Here are my thoughts about the smartphone market intertwined with my own device history.
For many years, I was a loyal Palm user, having started with the Palm Pro (1997) and going from that to the Palm III (1999) -> IIIxe (2001) -> Kyocera 6035 (smart phone) (2002) -> Treo 600 (2003) -> Treo 650 (2005) and then finally the Treo 700 (2007). I kept the Treo 700, even though it was dying and I was out of contract on Sprint because I was waiting for Sprint to release an Android phone and to see what the next iPhone would be like. I had also heard about the upcoming Palm Pre on Sprint and was interested in it.
The PalmOS was a pretty good one, at least in the late 90s and early 2000s. It started to show its age once smart phones came around and mobile web browsing starting becoming more popular. Palm never really updated their Blazer browser and it was terrible and slow. One of the awesome things about the Palm products was that most of the apps from 1997 could still be used on the latter day devices. The reverse wasn’t true however, as later devices had upgraded OS versions, which meant that apps written specifically for them and the newer features they supported would not work on older devices. I’m not sure how much of an impact that had on things though.
The PalmOS app landscape was fractured and difficult to navigate. There were a number of app aggregator sites, such as handango. Developers could also just post app binaries on their own websites, which you could download (directly if your device had network access) or to your computer to sync to your device later. Many apps had prices that were way too high for the functionality that they offered. The various aggregators often had different versions of the same software. Reviews were shoddy or nonexistent.
Blackberry and WinMo were in similar situations. Both also have the problem of hardware and software versioning. Blackberry releases various models with different hardware features (screen size, wifi, etc) and has not made a good effort to keep their OS versions across all handsets up to date. With WinMo, MS is one step further removed as they don’t make the hardware. They both suffer from severe UI design and usability problems, especially for novice or general users.
Given those factors, it’s easy to see why the app industry (as a strong revenue generator) for WinMo, Blackberry, and Palm never took off. There were tons of PalmOS and WinMo apps, but for the most part, people didn’t really make money developing them.
Then a year after the iPhone was released (2007), Apple opened the App Store (2008). This was pretty amazing. At launch, there were 500 apps. All the software for your iPhone from one source and easily accessible on the device. Yes, Apple has somewhat restrictive rules and mismanaged things quite a bit, but in all honesty, for all of the noise about it, the normal person hasn’t really noticed or been effected. Currently there are over 100k apps in the store. Even if there is the same percentage of good apps released for each of the platforms, due to the sheer number of apps in it’s store, there will be more quality apps available for the iPhone.
Android seems to be following the same strategy as Blackberry and WinMo. There are various handsets with different OS versions and hardware capabilities. It does have the benefit of a centralized App Market, which currently has about 10% of the apps that Apple has. There are some cases of publishers creating apps for both, but not many.
There’s also the technical issue that Blackberry, Android, and WinMo phones have very small on-device storage for apps and content. This forces the caller to rely on some form of external memory card (usually some form os SD card). On Android at least, apps cannot be installed on the SD card, which is very limiting. Both PalmOSprovides 8GB of onboard storage and is not expandable.
This past summer (in 2009), the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre were released. The Palm Pre was also released. The Android HTC Hero came in September 2009 and the Verizon Droid came out at the end of October.
My wife’s Sprint Mogul WinMo phone was dying as well; we had to make a move soon. That meant deciding between the Pre and the iPhone. So I checked out the Pre and was really underwhelmed. While I was used to hardware keyboards from long-time use of the Treo and at the time preferred them, the keyboard was rubbery and somewhat narrower than the Treo, which I didn’t like. The screen seemed small (although clear and bright). The Touchstone charger is a cool idea, but not compelling at such a high price point. I didn’t find the OS as easy to use as the iPhone, which I had experienced going to the Apple stores a number of times. WebOS wasn’t difficult to use, and I’m sure with some more time spent using it that it would become second nature. It just seemed a bit more obtuse than I would have liked. And there were basically no apps available.
It was hard for me to understand Palm’s launch strategy of having so few apps in their App Catalog. When Apple launched their App Store, it was the first of its kind. However, in 2009, when Apple had over 50k apps, for Palm to launch with less than 50, seemed really weak. I am also waiting to see if their app strategy (in terms of technology that devs can create apps with) changes. When the iPhone launched, people could add shortcuts to web apps, but there were no apps that you could download and install on the phone. But, it was 2007, and while there were other phones available that you could put apps on (as discussed above), it seems that Apple made the right decision to wait and integrate it with the iTunes store concept. With the Pre, developers can create apps that are installable, but use web technologies (AJAX, html, etc) to create, which might rule out more resource intensive types of apps like games.
During its launch week, the Pre sold between 50k and 100k phones. Contrast that with the launch of the iPhone in 2007, which sold over 500k phones; the launch of the iPhone 3G in 2008 sold over 1M in the first weekend. In 2009, with the launch of the 3GS, Apple sold over 1M phones in it’s first 5 days. The recently released Verizon Droid sold roughly 100k phones during it’s launch weekend.
Blackberry has the highest percentage of the smartphone market, and many people swear it’s because of enterprise email. However, I suspect that a considerable portion of their sales are due to being free or cheap. As an example, Verizon currently has 11 different BB models, 8 of which are $99 or less w/ 2 year contract.
Apple currently sells the 8GB iPhone 3G for $99 with the 16GB 3GS at $199 and the 32GB at $299. The Palm Pre is $150 and the Pixi is $99. The DROID is $200.
I’ve never considered Nokia to be a credible contender in the US due to their lack of carrier subsidy. Their feature phones were pretty good, but I’ve never been a fan of their more advanced phones. They had many features, but were pretty clunky to use. Also in 2008, Nokia announced that they were spinning Symbian off as a separate open source entity, in the same vein as the Mozilla Foundation. Then they announced the creation of their own Ovi store, which is a total mess, and the creation of their own Linux derived new platform, Maemo. Ack.
So, the moral of the story is that based on all of the above, my wife and I each got iPhone 3GSes and have overall been very happy with them. There are some things that I would love to see improved, but that’s a separate post.