The Smartphone Wars

It’s been almost fifty years since Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, goof-balled the mobile phone into the popular imagination when he used his shoe for clandestine conversations. A lot has happened since then in the ‘smart’ phone world.

Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies are now out on Windows Phone 7. Nokia has released the amazing N9 with its Carl Zeiss lens.  Windows Mango is on the way. And didn’t we get a sneak glimpse of Nokia’s new Sea-Ray just recently?

Plus, the iPhone 5, apparently, is also coming soon to an Apple Store near you.

All this brings to a head the iconic battle for market share in the Smartphone Wars. But smartphones are no longer just about communications, they are entertainment devices as well. And laptops and desktops are also communication devices.

If Agent 86 was operational today, what mobile technology would he use? Would there be a watch phone, a glasses phone; maybe even a mind phone – a chip embedded in our brain so we could communicate telepathically? Certainly there would be new devices to keep us enthralled. We would laugh at them today and use them tomorrow.

A friend recently showed me his new Google Android phone while I showed him my Windows Phone 7. “Very pretty,” he said, “but my phone is really a computer.”

Then it hit me. Have we come to accept that the device market is divided into three parts – smartphones (I exclude cellphones), tablets (sometimes called slates) and PCs (sometimes called laptops or desktops)? Many analyst reports show by the year ‘whenever’ tablets and smartphones will replace PCs as dominant devices.

But what if these devices are all just computers that come in different shapes and sizes?

Is what is really happening in the computer industry what happened long ago in the car industry? The Model T Ford came in one shape, size and color – black. But it wasn’t followed by the Model i-Ford. Instead we were treated to a variety of different types, models and colors - sedans, sports cars, racing cars and station wagens. And just when we thought the market was saturated, along came the Smart Car and the Stretch Hummer. Interestingly, they are all more empowered by computers.

Personal computing devices, PCs, are now becoming available in different shapes, sizes and colors, with different engines (operating systems) but similar applications. And you can make phone calls from all of them.

A distinction is often made between consumption and production devices. But as new ways of engaging with computers emerge – voice, touch, video, and gestures – the distinction between consumption and production will become blurred. It is the physical keyboard that is becoming obsolete not the PC and maybe the virtual keyboard as well. After all, the QWERTY key board has done well to survive since 1873.

So instead of looking at three basic form factors, aren’t we really just looking at one, but in multiple versions? And as devices become more varied and more powerful, thanks to new chip technology and the cloud, aren’t the Smartphone Wars really a side show in a much bigger engagement?