The last few weeks saw some big announcements in the smartphone world:
- Palm released the phone that they’ve been promising us for years, the Palm Pre, with it’s new WebOS, to reviews that were mostly favorable and summed up as “The iPhone’s baby brother“.
- Apple stole some of Palm’s thunder by dominating the press two days later with news of their relatively unexciting new phones and 3.0 software.
- In the weeks prior, news came out that about 18 more Android phones should be out in calendar 2009 and that, by early 2010, all of the major carriers will have them.
- And Nokia’s E71 hit our shores, an incredibly full-featured phone that you can get for just over $300 unlocked, and use the carrier of your choice. While this isn’t a touchscreen, and is therefore suspect in terms of it’s ease of use, it is an amazingly full-featured product.
Left in the wings were Blackberry, who keep producing phones, including their iPhone competitor, the Storm — to yawns from the press, and Microsoft, who are talking a lot about Windows Mobile 6.5 and 7.0, but seem to have really been decimated by the ugliness of their mobile OS when compared to just about anyone else’s.
What’s clear is that a few things differentiate smartphones these days, and the gap between the ones that get it and the ones that don’t are huge. They are:
Responsive Touchscreen Interfaces. The UI’s of the iPhone, Android and Palm’s WebOS get around the sticky problem that phones were just to small to support anything but simple functionality without requiring an oppressive amount of taps and clicks. This is why Microsoft has fallen down the smartphone food chain so far and fast — their mobile OS is just like their desktop OS, with no flagship phone that does the touchscreen nearly as well as the new competition.
Desktop-Class Web Browsers. This is where Apple and Google have drawn a huge line, and it looks like Palm might have joined them. All three use browser’s based on Webkit, the same technology that fuels Safari and Chrome. On a 3G phone, this makes for a fast and complete experience that puts the Blackberry, Mobile Internet Explorer and the Treo’s hideous Blazer. Add Google’s voice activation (native on Android and available for iPhone), and their smartphone-optimized results (which don’t work on the non-webkit browsers) and the task of finding a Starbucks or hotel on the road takes seconds, instead of the average ten to 15 minutes on the old, lousy browsers, which simply choke on the graphics.
Push Email. If you connect to Exchange servers, the iPhone and Pre have Activesync built in. If your mail is with Google, you’re connected to it as soon as you tell an Android phone your login and password. And the Android phone app is the best out there, with Apple’s mail running close behind it. What’s ironic is that Microsoft targeted their biggest threat with Activesync — the Blackberry’s kludgy, but, at the time, unparalleled email forwarding — and gave it wings by licensing it to Palm, Apple and others. This is fueling corporate acceptance of the iPhone and Pre, meaning that this Blackberry-beating strategy might have worked, but more likely it did it for Apple and Palm, not Microsoft.
Music. The iPhone is an iPod; everything else isn’t, meaning that, if having a high quality phone and music experience on one device is a priority, you’re not going to go wrong with the iPhone. I love my G1, but I weigh my value of the real keyboard and awesome, open source OS on T-Mobile over the iPhone’s built-in iPod and Activesync on AT&T. As OSes go, Android is only marginally better than Apple, but the Apple hardware is much better than the G1. Newer Android phones are going to show that up.
People make a lot of noise about the apps available for the iPhone (and Windows/Blackberry) as opposed to the newer Android and Pre. I think that’s a defining question for the Pre, but it looks like companies are jumping on board. For Android, it’s quite arguably a wash. All of the important things are available for Android and, given that it’s open source, most of them are free. And with those 18 phones due out by year end on every carrier, the discrepancies will be short-lived.
I have to wonder how long it will take Microsoft to “get” mobile. They have a heavy foot in the market as the commodity OS on the smartphones that can’t get any buzz. But the choice to bring the worst things about the Windows Desktop experience to their mobile OS was unfortunate. Should I really get a pop-up that has to be manually dismissed every time I get an email or encounter a wireless network? Do I have to pull out the stylus and click on Start every time I want to do anything? What’s even more worrisome is that Windows Mobile is a separate OS from Windows, that merely emulates it, as opposed to sharing a code base. Apple’s OS is the same OSX that you get on a MacBook, just stripped down, and Google’s OS is already starting to appear on Netbooks and other devices, and will likely fuel full desktops within a year or two — it is, after all, Linux.
So, the state of the smartphone market is easily broken into the haves and have-nots, meaning that some phones have far more usable and exciting functionality, while most phones don’t. There’s a whole second post dealing with the choice of carriers and their rankings in the race to offer the most customer disservice, and it does play into your smartphone decision, as Verizon might be a very stable network, but their phone selection is miserable, and AT&T might have the best selection but, well, they’re AT&T. I love Android, so, were I looking, I’d hold out until four or five of those new sets are out. But I don’t know anyone with an iPhone who’s unsatisfied (and I know lots of people with iPhones).