No Changes in Mobile

Today’s announcement by Nokia that it would acquire all of Symbian represents an important move in the upcoming battle for next generation mobile devices (to call them phone seems unfair as they tend to do more than just make calls). In this entry, I’ll take a quick look at how the different players are currently approaching the market and what it might say about their potential moving forward.

Strategy: Hardware? Software? Service? Partnership?

Let’s take a look at the players in the “smart phones” market: Apple, Nokia, Microsoft, RIM (blackberry),  Linux Mobile, and Palm. Sun used to have a Java Mobile but it seems to have dropped off the market, in terms of device market share. And then, there’s the new pretender to the crown in the form of Google, with its Android OS offering.

How do they stack up in terms of Hardware? Operating System? Service Offering? Well, here goes:

Hardware Software Service(s)
Apple Y Y Y
Google N Y Y
Linux N Y N
Microsoft N Y N
Nokia Y Y Y
Palm Y Y N
RIM Y Y N
Sun N Y N

A first glance at this table seems to reflect some of the player’s pre-existing biases. Microsoft is known for its software business so that’s where it put the most weight; Google is all about free software to power their services; RIM and Palm do a hardware software combo; Apple throws its weight behind a fully Apple controlled experience.

However, there are a few caveats: For example, while Microsoft is in the space primarily as a software provider, it also owns Danger Inc., makers of the Hiptop. And while Palm has its own software, many of its devices are powered by Windows Mobile.

But apart from those exception areas, it appears that strategies are organized across four business models:

  • OS only: This strategy is preferred by Sun and Linux. The model here is to provide an operating system that can be used by others. For Sun, this strategy has largely failed as substantially less than 1% of all handsets around the world is powered by their OS. Linux, which really was the first open source mobile OS has captured about 4 percent of the global smart phone market to date. Microsoft is the big leader in terms of that strategy, with its Windows Mobile OS currently powering about 12 percent of all smartphones around the globe.
  • Software + Service: All this leaves us with Google and their Android offering. Much of the commenting today is that the move Nokia just made was aimed at the fact that Google had an “open” operating system. But what Google is really trying to do is provide an operating system that melds OS and services. Either that or they are in the OS only camp. Either way, they are not playing in the same space as the iPhone or Nokia (see triple play below).
  • Hardware + Software: This model is preferred by RIM, makers of the Blackberry, and Palm (especially with their inexpensive Palm Centro line). This strategy works best if you want your device to be focused on few use scenarios: The blackberry is first and foremost a portable email station; Palm devices are first and foremost PDAs. This orientation comes from a past where the device wasn’t initially intended as a phoe but morphed into one.
  • The triple play (ie hardware/software/service): This is the strategy currently used by Apple with the iPhone: they provide the hardware, the software, and a set of services (me.com, iTunes, Software store) on a complete package.  Through recent acquisitions, Nokia has been moving in this direction: while they were traditionally a hardware player, they started adding services to their devices. With today’s announcement, they’re also getting some control over software.

So looking at this, it becomes apparent that while many are pointing to Nokia going after Google, it may not be the target. Since Nokia does service and hardware already, getting more control over its own OS is probably an important move.

Open Sourcing

I can already hear some readers snickering: Symbian’s been open-sourced so Nokia does not have control. Let me make something very clear: the gold rule (“he who’s got the gold makes the rule”) applies to Open Source as it does in other areas. While it won’t get exclusivity, Nokia, having paid $400+ million to open source Symbian will be considered “more equal than others” by the Symbian foundation, I’m sure.

But why open source? If we look at the players mentioned above, their position on open source and their market share, the picture becomes clearer:

Open Source Handset Market Share (in percent)
Apple N 7
Google Y 0
Linux Y 4-5
Microsoft N 12
Nokia Y 65
Palm N >1
RIM N 11
Sun N 0

Looking at the market share date, Nokia’s move doesn’t seem to make sense: They currently control 65 percent of the market, why would they bother? But here’s the thing: There’s this newcomer called Apple and they didn’t exist 18 months ago: they now have 7 percent of the market and are growing.

If I’m a Nokia executive and I’m looking at this data, I start worrying. So what do I do? I look at competitive advantage: initially, I try to compete with cooler devices (the Nseries) and while it stops some of the bleeding, it doesn’t appear to fully halt the competition. So I start looking at services as a way to stabilize revenue (Maps, Music, Games) but that doesn’t stick. Then I realize that my problem is the operating system: I’m stuck with that alliance of partners I have but they’re slowing me down. So I have to take over. But I can’t do that by just kicking all of them out. So I acquire and open source.

The open source move fills three strategic objectives:

  • I get to keep partners still involved but get them to agree to my taking charge.
  • I get other people to improve my code and/or developing FOR it, thus allowing me to counter a potential Google threat if it ever materializes.
  • I get to look more “open” than Apple and will use that in my messaging

The Future: Collateral Damage Then Status Quo

Of course, while it works out great for Nokia, there is a little bit of collateral damage:

  • Sun’s offering, while interesting had already sunk largely into irrelevancy so they’re no longer a player.
  • Palm OS, was teetering on the edge but now it’s pretty much cooked.
  • Linux, while still having teeth, will probably see its market share dwindle as its unique selling proposition (more open than others) is gone.

So that’s unfortunate but what does it do to the rest of the market. Well, in fact, it looks like today’s events wont’ have much impact: Palm, Linux and Sun represent about 5 percent of the market. With Apple at 7%, RIM at 11%, Microsoft at 12% and Nokia at 65%, it looks like the market will stay pretty consistent. The remaining 5% will be carved out by the existing players and by Google’s entry into the market. Nokia will remain at the top for now.

Potential events that could have a more disruptive effect: a Microsoft/RIM partnership (or outright acquisition) which, when integrated would give Windows Mobile a 23% market share. But short of such a move, it looks like the situation will mostly stay at status quo for the time being.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched 6 companies, of which 2 (internet.com and Earthweb) went public and two were sold (Net Quotient and MoveableMedia). My latest, Keepskor provides tools allowing anyone to develop mobile and connected TV games without writing a line of code. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • http://rolandtanglao.com Roland Tanglao

    great piece except that N series is *NOT* a reaction to iPhone