May 29, 2010

In Today's World of Mobile Choices, Look to the Core


Since gaining the HTC EVO at Google I/O last week, I have been using it exclusively, as promised, leaving my iPhone 3G aside in an effort to remove the Apple fanboy shackles and find what it is I may be missing or gaining by making a choice of one platform versus another. While others are already comparing the EVO device to the iPhone, I am going to save that post for early next week. But while I am thinking about phones and mobile devices in general, I think it makes sense to first consider how each major mobile platform provider is approaching their device. Find the core to each platform, and you will have a better guide as to what is the right choice for you.

The world of smartphones is one of the most dynamic markets today, one full of change, and innovation. Application developers and most of the top technology companies are looking to mobile for considerable growth, both in software and hardware revenue. As the phones become more capable in terms of processing power, network capability and memory, many activities traditionally aimed at the personal computer, or television, are finding their way to your handset. It's not enough to have a dumbed-down Internet for dumbed-down devices. Consumers are expecting the same Web experience on the go as they do when in front of their home or work PC, and they are expecting applications to behave in the same way as they do on the desktop. Armed with this knowledge, Microsoft, BlackBerry, Google, Apple, Palm (HP) and others are each taking their own direction, and you can see what they have tried to accomplish resulting in why market segments are gravitating one way or another, and whether they can gain share.

BlackBerry and iPhone have to contend with Android now

For example, let's take a look at three major platforms: BlackBerry, Apple and Google.

BlackBerry, at its core, is an amazing e-mail device. It is targeting those people who send and receive hundreds of e-mails a day. The common target customer for the platform is a business executive on the go, be they a Wall Street trader or a field sales rep. BlackBerry handsets are well known for their extremely capable QWERTY keyboards, while they are less known for their applications or Web experience. Customers who need a phone that does e-mail extremely well love their BlackBerries, and BlackBerry, even with its newest array of devices has not been able to shake its legacy of being a messaging device. You aren't likely to see people talk about BlackBerry as an amazing gaming platform, or one built to browse the Web in a more capable way.

For Apple, the core of their approach to the smartphone market is in iTunes, the App Store and their ties to digital media. The iPhone is practically an extension to their incredibly successful iPod line. The product is managed through iTunes, synchronizes music, videos and photos through iTunes, and the iTunes App Store (an extension to the existing iTunes Music Store) is where all new functionality arrives. The iPhone changed the game for smartphones in terms of eliminating the QWERTY keyboard and becoming touch centric, but it isn't known for being the best in the world at e-mail, like BlackBerry is, and the company's App Store approach makes iTunes both a conduit and a bottleneck for applications - as they need to go through tacit approval from Cupertino before gaining the green light. If you are a customer looking for an application-centric phone, or you want a superior phone built for music you own, or to show movies you rent from iTunes, iPhone is the best.

For Google's Android line, their core is the Internet and Search, just like the company's fleet of Web applications tend to focus on data in the cloud and superior integrated search. While the Android Marketplace is a parallel of Apple's iTunes Store, its core applications assume always-on Internet access, and proudly feature not just simple hooks to Google Search, but also voice-activated search. Its Navigation application taps into the cloud, and the company's newest features, proudly highlighted at Google I/O, are about enhancing the way the Internet can be leveraged to transfer data through the air to downstream Android devices. There is no equivalent desktop application to iTunes for Android, and the focus of the device is on delivering a high-quality Web experience and accessing apps that tap into the cloud.

Of note, the much-discussed tiff between Apple and Google presents a more direct conundrum for Apple iPhone users than it does for Android users. iPhone users still leverage Google Apps, such as Google Maps, Earth and search Google on Safari. But on Android, Apple is practically invisible. Strike that - it is invisible. So if the two had a messy divorce, only iPhone users would be negatively impacted.

So for those three players, what makes the best mobile choice for you depends on how you actually use the phone. Keep in mind that for none of these players is their core focus to actually give you a better phone experience. Even a "feature phone" can get that right without too much work.

But what about Palm? What about Microsoft? What is their core?

I believe part of the reason Palm failed with its WebOS approach is because they didn't have an easy answer for what they did better than anybody else. Their messaging around the Palm Pre was that it was "fully featured", offering both the beauty of an iPhone and the QWERTY keyboard of a Blackberry. But it didn't do either thing better than anybody else, and there was no compelling reason to choose Palm.

Microsoft's new Windows 7 Phone Series similarly makes me question their core. To date, Microsoft's core has been in Enterprise and Office. They have dominated the business OS market, the office suite market and have had significant roles in a wide array of downstream services, from e-mail to peripherals, and yes, entertainment devices with the XBox. If Microsoft can make a compelling case that their Windows 7 Phone Series is the best business phone that integrates Outlook better than BlackBerry, hooks into companies' Active Directory and synchronizes Office documents better than any other device, then I think that's their core. (See: PC World: Microsoft Windows Phone 7 Should Rule Business Smartphones) But even PC World says Microsoft sees smartphones "through the eyes of the desktop". The desktop business OS has been their core, and it's come too late. Even their usual fans at PC World say "Windows Phone 7 will face a formidable challenge just to establish relevance."

The world of mobile smartphones is not the same old war we saw with the desktop. It is one about Web connectivity access to rich media, and being social. I believe there is room for perhaps one more player who can make "social" the center of their phone. Maybe Google gets there. Maybe Apple gets there first. Or maybe one of the players like Twitter or Facebook can find a way to launch a line of phones or a phone OS that is all about social, at the core.

Until that happens, I think you really have four choices - BlackBerry, Apple, Google or a mistake. Know who you are and what's important to you, and the platform choice will become clear.