Battle of the Smartphones

Less jaw-jaw, more war-war as Palm rejoins the smartphone fray taking on Apple, Nokia, and RIM

January 14, 2009

8 Min Read
Battle of the Smartphones

For quite sometime, I’ve been on record that smartphones are going to be our mobile Internet devices of choice in the near-term future. I’ll leave it to you to determine the context for "near-term." While netbooks are getting a lot of press, they tend not to fit well in a pocket or purse, and, for the life of me, I’ve yet to figure out how to make a phone call with one. Consequently, I’m still in the smartphone camp, and it’s an area that I expect to grow significantly faster than the overall handset industry over the next several years and, in essence, squeeze out what is much of the current "mid-range" of the handset market.

Palm Inc. 's Pre at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) generated a suitable amount of hype and hope that it will be the catalyst for a turnaround at the struggling company. Someone must think so because if you had had the wisdom – or bout of temporary insanity – to put the whole 401(k) into the stock just 30 days before the CES, you’d be up more than 300 percent right now. (See Palm Unveils WebOS & Pre Phone.)

Despite the terrible holiday selling season, the new Blackberry Storm was capacity constrained until just a few weeks ago. High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) (Taiwan: 2498)'s new G1 based on the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) Android platform has attracted a lot of press and the company has reportedly increased production targets. Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) recently announced its first touch-based device called the N97 with availability expected in the second or third quarter. Now there are rumors circulating that Dell Technologies (Nasdaq: DELL) may enter into the smartphone market as well. (See CES Photos: Wireless Gadgets.)

There will probably be another dozen or so other entries into this arena, but what investors want to know is: Who will win?

From my perspective, it’s an easy answer: Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) – but not for the reasons you might expect. I think the device is great but not without its flaws. But the iPhone's competitors are telling you just how good it is by copying it. Sure, the competition will add some whistles and bells in an attempt to claim they are better, but that’s not going to matter very much in the long run.

What will make the difference is applications because in many respects this is essentially a rerun of the early days of the personal computer industry, as well as the video game industry.

Generally speaking, software developers are not charities, and, like many creative individuals, they enjoy being compensated for their talent and efforts. As a result, those with good ideas for an application, tend to target the largest possible platform to make the most money possible. It’s why software was developed for the IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) PC long before it was available on a Wang PC or a TRS-80 or a Xerox PC. It’s why Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE)’s PlayStation was a huge hit for years, Sega bit the dust, and Nintendo wandered alone in the desert until it stumbled upon the Wii.

Page 2: The Vendor List

The vendor list

With that as the background, where do the current smartphone players stand?

  • Apple has more than 13 million units in the hands of subscribers today, and that figure is certain to be significantly higher after the holiday selling season. It recently (July) introduced its Apps Store that includes 5,500 applications from more than 60 countries that have been downloaded a staggering 200 million times as of October by iPhone users.

    Granted there are some who will argue that Apple is far too controlling in determining which applications live or die on its platform, but that’s a quality control issue. The key for them longer term will be avoiding becoming a little too picky for the wrong reasons.

    If there’s one area that some of the newer entries may have an advantage at this point it's that the iPhone doesn’t support multitasking right now. However, with only 128MB of DRAM to access on the iPhone, that’s not a lot of room for complex applications, let alone multiple applications running simultaneously with any degree of speed. Despite this concern, any perceived disadvantage is a moot point at this juncture, given the limited amount of DRAM on most of competing devices, as well as some design choices that have been made.

  • The HTC G1 hit the market last September as the first phone based on Google’s Android platform. The attraction of Android is its “open” status, allowing everyone and anyone to develop software – unlike Apple, which controls which apps live and which don’t. Right now Android Market (the application distribution site) only includes a few dozen apps with another couple of dozen on sites like in various stages of "testing." Granted, not a lot of hardware out there to write for, but even the Android Market’s blog posting is showing a lack of activity. It hasn’t been updated since the end of last October. Suffice it to say that the current Android applications market is limited at best, but a year from now, who knows?

    Although the Android platform is designed to support multitasking, I seriously doubt that the G1, as currently configured, will be doing much of that. Unlike some other devices, the G1 does not employ a separate applications processor, but rather uses a digital base-band from Qualcomm to perform phone functions as well as execute applications. This holds down the overall cost but under some circumstances may lead to less than stellar performance. In addition, a limiting factor will be only 128MB of DRAM on board.

  • RIM’s BlackBerry Storm hit the market running in November. The famed BlackBerry brand has been around for many years and has its own very large applications infrastructure already in place. The new Storm is based upon the company’s version 4.7 of its operating system, so there is a wealth of resources already available. Exactly what tradeoffs have to be made to accommodate for a touch-screen is yet to be determined but this puts BlackBerry in the game.

    Here again, as was the case with the G1, the Storm does not employ a separate applications processor. It too uses a Qualcomm digital base-band for both telephony and application execution leading some reviewers to suggest that that choice may explain what they perceived as sluggishness. Given the success the product has had thus far, that concern remains to be seen.

  • As previously noted, the Pre from Palm made its debut at CES to a great deal of positive commentary. However, beyond some of the basics, we don’t know a lot of the details because it doesn’t ship until mid 2009. The Pre does employ a separate applications processor from Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) (OMAP3) that is considered by many to be the most powerful available on the market. However, at this juncture we do not know how much DRAM is included on the Pre, but the OMAP3 is capable of supporting up to 1GB.

    In addition, its new webOS operating system also supports multitasking, but therein lies a problem. WebOS is not compatible with the company’s older operating system. While extolling the virtues of the new environment, that lack of compatibility also means that the wealth of applications built for the Treo will not run on the new Pre hardware. Palm management naturally downplayed the issue and will work with existing developers to port their Treo applications to Pre. However, from a user perspective, some will certainly be put off by the idea of repurchasing an application that they had previously purchased.

    There is another hurdle Palm needs to overcome that I wrote about several weeks ago. The Pre is late to the party. As I noted earlier, developers are in business to make money and they’ll do that by leveraging the combination of installed base and platform flexibility. Pre doesn’t have an installed base and is falling behind every day until is ships. This is just like getting shelf space in a retail store. You can’t carry every brand and developers can’t write for every platform. While the Pre platform may have some attractive features, there are only 24 hours in day.

  • Lastly, Nokia announced its new touch-screen–based N97 to the sound of one hand clapping. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually ship until next spring and very little is known about the internals of the device at this point. Granted, the press release provided plenty of superficial “features,” but those aren’t telling me what I need to know.

    Download!, Nokia’s applications center is somewhat limited at this point to a few dozen basic functions that were developed for devices other than the N97. Just what Nokia does to enhance these capabilities is yet to be seen at this point.

    From where I’m sitting, Apple’s iPhone 3G is 50 meters ahead in a 200 meter sprint and on cruise control. The silver medal is really up in the air at this point and could go to either Research In Motion or Android, but the jury is still out on both.

    Nokia and Palm could both very easily wind up out of the money in this race and it has big implications. The smartphone market grows, and, I suspect, that’s big trouble for Nokia because the mid-tier for handsets has been Nokia’s bread and butter for years. That doesn’t bode well for Nokia’s P&L.

    Over at Palm, this is about survival, and at this point, I don’t see them overcoming the hurdles. A couple of years ago, I wrote that Dell should acquire Palm given the direction computing was taking. Maybe that’s still a possibility, but now each is in far worse shape.

    — Bob Faulkner, Special to Unstrung

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