Bursting my Bubble


Bursting my Bubble

No, I’m not dead. I just have an annoying combination of exams and parents to deal with, although not for much longer. Additionally, I can now be reached at phoenix@coolsmartphone.com, in case anyone actually wants to talk to me

It’s been a little over three years since I first became interested in smartphones (just in time for the original iPhone release), and closer to two and a half since I got my first (An HTC Touch, which I broke and somehow managed to switch for a Kaiser/TyTN II, which then got upgraded to a Touch Pro2), but in that relatively short space of time (even for somebody as young as me), the market has dramatically changed, although a few things have remained constant. Apple and Google came onto the scene, HTC has become a brand in their own right, and Palm and most recently Microsoft have reinvented themselves, trying to fit in with the rapidly changing interests of today’s consumers. It doesn’t take a genius, and I’m certainly not one, to see why this has been necessary; say what you like about the iPhone, nobody can deny that it kickstarted a move towards finger-friendly UIs taking precedence over advanced features.

So what’s really changed in the smartphone market? Click the link below to find out what I think the most important shifts have been. Go on, you know you want to.

Number one, there’s the major players. Three years ago, there were relatively few notable names around; Microsoft, RIM, Palm (Who had mostly moved to using WinMo) and Nokia/Symbian. Now you’ve got Microsoft with two or three separate brands, Apple, Google, Palm/HP, Nokia (With several operating systems), and good old RIM. It’s RIM that’s suffered, and changed, the least out of the original set; I could devote an entire article (And in fact I probably will next time I get a chance to write) into their product DNA and consistent industrial design, and the fact that Blackberries have gone from strength to strength even in a more diluted market, finding a new home among teenagers who increasingly want to be more and more connected. Of course, their real competition in that market is a “new” player in the iPhone, which with the announcement of 4.0 has got smarter than ever, but which is still in no way a device for everyone, due to a variety of factors (Such as cost and that prickly question of software keyboards).

Palm, on the other hand, all but died before re-inventing itself with WebOS and the Pre. Ultimately, this has failed, resulting in a purchase by HP, something else I’ll be devoting time to as more details become clear.

Microsoft appear to be following in Palm’s footsteps, rebranding WinMo as Windows Phone and focussing on the UI a lot more than before. Additionally, they’ve got the legacy devices being released with WM6.X, and the new Kin devices (The third thing I’ll be writing about in the near future). This scattergun approach could be good or it could be bad; tailoring devices to markets can pay off if done right, but if done wrong it just creates confusion.

Android is another operating system that’s come onto the scene, which also takes a scattergun approach. We’ve all heard people slamming on Android for having several (currently about four) versions circulating at once, with different features and supporting different software, plus the fact that there’s so many devices running the same software on the same basic hardware that it becomes impossible to split them apart. On the other hand, Android is getting better, quickly, and it’s growing in market- and mind-share.

Nokia are still well and truly alive and kicking, although Symbian has taken a bit of a beating. They’re in the process of a reinvention as well, with Maemo and the N900 taking centre stage, along with MeeGo and the new versions of Symbian. Nokia still retains a serious following and reputation, even though much of their success these days as with extreme hardware junkies and software developers, and in low to mid range handsets.

 

Number two is the approach these companies are taking, and the way that consumers are chosing their devices. The major change is obvious; look at a device from four or five years ago, and one from today. Aside from the stuff that was always going to happen (Increased hardware power and storage), there’s a few things that are apparent across the market; more touch screens, less buttons, and more focus on making user interfaces easy to use with your fingers. The iPhone was the first real step in this direction, but it’s also visible in WebOS, both versions of SenseUI, Android, and Windows Phone 7/Kin. Styli are being banished to antiquity, and today’s phones are all about ease of use.

What’s /really/ interesting is the approaches of Apple and Microsoft to UI innovation. Apple are building from a base of a featurephone with a very finger-friendly UI, gradually making it smarter and smarter, to the point of finally (sort of) including (sort of) multitasking. Microsoft have done the exact opposite thing; they’ve taken the very smart WM6.5, and /removed/ multitasking, copy and paste and various other things, all in the name of simplifying the UI and the user experience. A few years ago, nobody would have thought of /removing/ features from one generation to the next.

 

I haven’t really mentioned HTC so far because I wanted to focus on them separately. Their progression over the last few years is perhaps the most interesting of all, because they’ve gone from stock Windows Mobile, to Windows Mobile with a new homescreen, to Windows Mobile so thoroughly skinned that it’s unrecognisable, to… Well, to mainly focussing on a skinned version of Android. It’s not really surprising, since HTC were in on Android from the start, but a few years ago the Evo 4G would have been Windows Mobile (Actually the Max 4G is the much-overlooked first WiMax device HTC made, and it WAS Windows Mobile), but the fact is that HTC have jumped ship, and really, you can’t blame them. We might see a shift back to Windows Phone 7, but it’s never going to be as attractive (To ANY device maker) due to the cost and the lack of customisability. One of Android’s strongest points (and one of the strong points of WM6.X) is the way that any end user, and any manufacturer, can customise it however they want, and WP7 takes the exact opposite stance, almost as much as the original iPhone. It’s a shame in many ways, but HTC have really begun to shine, going from a little-known OEM who always had the credit stolen by networks and other brands to a full-on device making powerhouse. In fact, I’ve had people see my phone in school and go “Oh, is that an HTC? I want one of those”, something I would never expected (I’m used to people going “Is that like an iPhone?”, to which my snap response is “It’s like an iPhone only it doesn’t suck”). HTC have ridden the changing market and, unlike Palm and despite Apple’s best attempts, have really come out on top, along with Google, Apple, and the good ol’ dependable, RIM.

 

On the other hand, this isn’t the same field I became interested in. My own platform of choice is now becoming defunct with no real successor, and I’m gonna have to find something else for my next phone. My view of the smartphone market has been turned on its head, and my bubble has been burst.

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