The mobile platform wars

9 minute read

As a child born in the 70’s, I lived through the PC platform wars of the 80’s. Although I was oblivious to what was happening at the time, I did notice some of its effects as much as any other child would. One day my dad was using WordPefect, Lotus 123, dBase and DOS; the next day we had Word, Excel, Access and Windows. s a teenager in the 90’s I read about the events of the 80’s: How Microsoft came to dominance not only through brilliance on its own but through idiocy on the part of its competitors

For anyone who’s interested, a fascinated account of the rise and fall of the tech giants of the 80’s and 90’s can be found in the book: In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters, Second Edition. An interesting aspect of this book is its title which is a reference to In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies.

For anyone who has been following the tech scene for the past 10 to 20 years, its obvious that we are in the midst of the 2nd major platform wars. The war for the mobile platform.

The protagonists are a mix of the same crowd from the 80’s and 90’s(Apple, Microsoft)  mixed with some new players ( Nokia, Google, RIM) and the strategies seem to be refined versions of the ones used in the earlier platform wars. Some players even seem to be making the same mistakes of the past, giving credence to the following quote.

“The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” - Friedrich Hegel (German Philosopher. 1770-1831)

Lets have a look at the current state of affairs from the point of view of a consumer and technophile: Me.

The Rise and Slow decline of Nokia

For much of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Nokia’s name was synonymous with cell phones throughout the world with the exception of North America. I’ve had several Nokia cell phones over the years and I truly believed I would always be a Nokia supporter.

My first though, was not a Nokia. It was a Ericsson T28 if memory serves. A sleek flip phone which was all the rage at the time. I liked its size and the way it fit in my pocket. And its battery life was pretty good. If Ericsson had continued along those lines it would have been them and Nokia that dominated the mobile industry. But Ericsson phones just seemed to get clunkier and less user-friendly. Nokia rose to prominence in my neighbourhood with launch of the Nokia 6110 (not to be confused with the Nokia 6110 Navigator). It was the first phone that I had that apps and games including the popular snake game. It seemed everyone had a snake high score.

In those days, once you had a Nokia phone, chances are you next phone would’ve been a Nokia as well. Its ease of use, while not exceptional, was above other phones on the market.

It seemed that Nokia phones kept getting better and better and, every time I got a new phone, I wondered what could they possibly improve on when I chose my next phone in two years time.

Throughout the late 90’s and earlier 2000’s I’ve had several Nokia phones: the 6110, 6210, 6610i, 6630, N80 and the E71. While certain things improved, other things seem to stay the same or get worse. The Symbian interface, introduce to me in the 6610i, hardly changed to the E71. In addition, Nokia made some peculiar hardware decisions. the processor seemed just about capable of running the phone in the beginning and then performance slowly degraded as time went on. Nokia also split their phone lines into the E-series for business users and N-series for multimedia users. The problem was I could classify myself as being in both camps. At work, I need a business phone and at home I wanted a multimedia phone. But the E-series had poor a camera and a terrible speaker for music while the N-series did not have business capabilities such as Mail for Exchange. I was not about to carry around two phones.

Nokia really missed a chance after the release of the E71. It was a well engineered solid phone. Add a fast processor, better camera and speaker, more memory and a simplified user interface and I would have been sold. But Nokia took ages to simplify the Symbian OS. And their hardware philosophy never changed from “just good enough for now”. Their phones also seemed to aged much faster than before. New OS releases would contain new features that would not make it to phones barely a year old.

Developing for the Symbian platform

Around the time I got the Nokia 6610i, I decided to try my hand at developing apps for the Symbian platform. Nokia followed the Microsoft model for platform development. They had a huge is slightly confusing website with tons of examples, tips and tutorials and they had two versions of their development IDE, Carbide. A limited but free version and a more complete but pricey version.

I went through some of the simple “Hello World” type examples quickly and then trying writing an app I had thought a while back. And that’s when it got difficult. To develop my app, I needed access to the microphone which I couldn’t get unless I was a manufacturer. Even if I did have access to the hardware, my app would’ve only worked on a small percentage of Nokia phones since the other ones did not even allow hardware access. Then the was the fragmentation factor. Different screens sizes, different screen resolutions, different form factors, etc. I realised the platform was not easy for hobbyist especially if not developing a mainstream app.

Nokia seemed to recognise this as problem later on. They made the entire Carbide IDE free. But for me, it was a little too late. I had already moved on.

The rise of Google’s Android platform

After my Nokia E71 contract expired, I started looking for a different smartphone platform. I was loathe to try the iPhone 3GS since people I knew who had the phone complained about the poor battery life and dropped calls. I already had the iPod touch so I knew what to expect of the iPhone as a platform.

Google’s Android platform looked very attractive to me. Google followed Microsoft’s strategy of creating an open mobile operating system available to any hardware manufacturer to implement on their mobile phone. The Android platform also allowed me to install applications from outside Google’s app store. This openness appealed to me. There were plenty of stories at the time of Apple rejecting legitimate applications from the app store. This did not appeal to me since there was no other way install application on the iPhone short of jail breaking.

So I decided to try an Android phone. The only Android available at the time was the Samsung Galaxy Spica. But after only a couple of hours with it, I knew I had made a mistake. The Galaxy Spica came bundled with Samsung software that did not support the phone. This put me off Samsung as a brand.

The second issue I had was that it was running Android 1.6 when Android 2.0 had already been out for a couple of months. Luckily for me there were websites out there that provided detailed instruction on how to root the phone and upgrade to 2.0.

The differences between Android 1.6 and 2.0 were quite profound. Higher resolution being the most striking improvement.

At that stage I was still attached to the full keyboard that the E71 had. So I sold my Galaxy Spica and got a Motorola Milestone instead. The build quality of the Motorola Milestone was way better than the Galaxy Spica. It also had a better screen and was running Android 2.1. After about 3 months of using I found I was hardly using the keyboard anymore.

So when the HTC Desire came out, I sold Motorola Milestone and got it instead.  This was the best phone by far. HTC basically was Android. Their customised Android Sense interface was several notches above anything else. The HTC Desire could also do Microsoft Exchange integration with all the additional security policies my company required.

The AMOLED screen was brilliant and clear and the 1GHz Snapdragon processor lightning quick.

The only feature I was missing from my Nokia days was a front camera for video calling. I tend to use video calling a lot so it was not easier to get by without it.

The total domination of Apple’s iOS platform

I started work on a project in Dubai a month after Apple’s iPhone 4 was launched. I took my HTC Desire with me to Dubai hoping to use the free WiFi,  which was available everywhere, to make VoIP calls to my family. Unfortunately, this proved to be impossible. The WiFi network at my client site required proxy authentication which the Desire did not support. After some research, I found out that the iPhone 4 did support this feature. Apple had also resolved the issues that held me back from buying the original iPhone two years prior. The iPhone 4 also seemed to be everywhere in Dubai. Every store sold the phone despite it not being officially launched in Dubai. It did not take much to convince me to sell the HTC desire and buy the iPhone 4.

It was, without a doubt, the best phone I had ever owned. The retina display was incredible; the call quality excellent; and the variety of quality apps on the iTunes store was a dream for a technophile like me. I was able to make crystal clear VoIP calls via Skype to my family which helped ease the pain of the homesickness. The battery life held extremely well considering I had Skype on permanently.

The beauty of the iPhone was in its simplicity. Settings are a few touches away and not hidden in layers of menus like the Nokia E71. The phone is designed to make you want to use it. After a few days of using it, I was certain that my next phone would be an iPhone as well. I currently have the iPhone 4S and, with 420 apps, I’ll probably be on the iOS platform for a while.

The future: Patent litigating for dominance

Today, the its very much a two horse race between Android and iOS for mobile domination. Windows Phone is emerging as dark horse but it still has a long way to go before it can mount a significant challenge. Nokia has all but give up on Symbian and embraced Windows Phone. Will this be the company’s salvation or is it a little too late?

Samsung has overtaken HTC as the Android flag bearer. The issue of Android fragmentation still exists. As a consumer, I prefer to buy the latest handset which I know will be updated to the next firmware release than play the firmware lottery that is Android updates.

A significant twist to the current platform wars is the use of litigation to gain dominance. Every single player is involved in patent litigation. The Guardian newspaper has an interesting graphic which shows the complexity of the mobile battlefield. Will the  impact of these lawsuits will have significant impact on the mobile landscape? Time will tell.

One thing is certain though: We are living in interesting times!