The Cellular Phone Outlook

I have been in the market for a cellular phone for a while now, and even though I'm not yet ready to pull the trigger on the mobile device that I'll be stuck with for the next two years, I have made a few observations about the different types of phones available from the Big Four now.

Smartphones--phones that incorporate some PDA functionality in excess of what's required a normal phone--are increasing in popularity these days, and are thus the phones that the cellular companies push most heavily in their advertising.  Right now there are four major smartphone operating systems being sold today.  They each have their own benefits and drawbacks, and they each have a different outlook for the future.

iPhone. This is still the one to beat. Even though it doesn't have the largest market share, it's growing at such an impressive rate that its more mature rivals in the smartphone market have stood up and taken notice. The iPhone is very accessible to newbies, handles media very easily, and adding new apps is a breeze. It's not a perfect phone due to some arcane restrictions on the types of apps/mods that Apple approves, and it's rather light on PDA features, something that may keep the business crowd from embracing the phone wholeheartedly. But for mainstream consumers, there's a lot to like. It's a competent, easy-to-use phone with enough entertainment features to make it your go-to device.

There will be continued growth for the iPhone platform in the near future regardless of whether it moves to other carriers or what its competitors do.

Blackberry. The stronghold for RIM has always been in business thanks to good integration with corporate email. Despite a few assaults on their territory, the Blackberry is still the device that businesses trust most. But RIM has seen opportunities to broaden their base by going after casual users with more "fun" multimedia features, the same kind that has catapulted the iPhone to cell phone stardom. Not only has it introduced a touch screen device, but it launched an ad campaign targeted squarely at young hipsters who want to use their phones to record videos, listen to music, and fall in love. Their expansion into this market has been modest, but it's not uncommon now to see people with Blackberry phones that are not being used for business purposes.

Blackberry may make slow inroads into the consumer market, but the business crowd is still its bread and butter, and it will continue to defend that territory through the coming onslaught from competitors.

Palm. Palm has seen better days. Once the number one maker of smartphones, Palm has watched market share erode as its PalmOS stagnated and got overtaken by younger competitors.  Palm reemerged this year with the Pre and Pixie running its new WebOS. But despite critical acclaim from reviewers, the new devices haven't grabbed enough traction to change analyst predictions about Palm's dismal future. Some point to the lack of apps as a hindrance. Others say that being tied to Sprint is the problem. Whatever the case, Palm's fortunes are not as good as it's competitors. It needs a hit to stay in the fight.

Palm will look to broaden the base for its WebOS phones, either with new handsets or agreements with other carriers.  If it doesn't strike oil in the next year or so, look for the vultures to start circling.

Windows. Where did they go? Microsoft, one of the pioneers or modern mobile computing, has failed to innovate or update it's aging Windows Mobile OS. Granted, it has been rebranded many times, and thanks to manufacturers like HTC, we continue to see attractive phones running Windows Mobile. But the core OS looks eerily similar to what it looked like back in 2000. That made it easy for new entrants to the market to leapfrog it with more modern interfaces. The core WinMo OS is still solid, but it is in tremendous need of a facelift and updates to its core/included applications to stay competitive.

Look for Windows Mobile to try to recreate itself with version 7 due out next year. If that should fall short, Windows Phones will continue to lose market share until Microsoft rights the ship.

Android. Google's new open source OS is currently the hottest thing in mobile outside the iPhone. Despite a sluggish start last year, lots of manufacturers are throwing their weight behind the new OS in the hopes of taking on Apple. Though no iPhone killer has emerged from the Android camp so far (sorry, Droid) the phones have shown tremendous improvement with each new release, quickly closing the gap with the iPhone. And manufacturers love that the OS has no license fees and source code that allows them to tweak it perfectly for their devices.

Android should continue to see improved market share as newer, hotter devices hit the market. But the iPhone isn't standing still, so whether it can catch up to the iPhone remains to be seen.

Symbian. Symbian isn't doing bad worldwide, but they haven't had a buzz-worthy phone in the US for a couple years now. And that doesn't look set to change soon. I haven't heard of anything noteworthy from that camp in a while.

I expect to see Symbian's market share continue to decline.

So that's the market as I see it right now. Which phone will I get? I don't know yet. I have a long history with Windows Mobile and lots of applications for it, but Microsoft hasn't done much to keep me excited about their smartphones lately. Still, I would hate to jump off the bandwagon just before something amazing (Windows Mobile 7) hits.