06 April, 2009

Smartphone Wars to heat up this Summer

The new hotness, no not Twitter, but the smartphone, is gearing for an all hands on deck gadget war this year and beyond. While smartphones have been around for sometime, it was only until recently (read: iPhone) that momentum has picked up faster than Usain Bolt. With two main rivals now leading the charge, Research In Motion (RIM) and Apple (AAPL).

This isn't a 2 horse race however, nor will it be over soon. As RIM executive Jim Balsillie recently said on the company's conference call in baseball terms, the smartphone wars are somewhere in the 2nd inning. What may seem like an Apple and RIM race to win, certainly can be turned upside down with entrants from all of the world. Although smartphones account for less than a third of the phone market, they command nearly 90% of the media coverage and almost all of the growth. According to Mobile Advertising Network AdMob, smartphone share increased from 26% to 33% in the past 6 months. This growth trend seems likely to continue as popularity in these devices continue to gain and subsidies for the most popular devices reign in even the most worrisome economic consumer.

Although Nokia (NOK), may be the biggest phone maker in the world, its smartphones have yet to inspire consumer desires such as the iPhone from Apple or the Blackberry Bold from RIM. Although by sheer volume, Nokia with its range of models holds 3 of the top 5 most popular smartphones spots globally, trailing only the aforementioned iPhone. Trends are shaped by consumer decisions as well as the push from corporate entities, and as such none of these companies are standing still, nor can they afford to.

What's on the horizon then? An analyst at Barclays is reporting that Apple has doubled iPhone production in anticipation of new models coming in June (Link). Recent iPhone speculation has pointed to not one but two phone models expected out of Cupertino this time around, conveniently coinciding with the release of Mobile OS X software version 3.0 in June. When Apple reports results for the first calendar quarter of 2009 it will surely surpass 20Million unit sales for the iPhone, not too shabby in about a year an a half.

With the AppStore becoming a global phenomenon Apple is making it extremely tough for users to ever switch away from an iPhone. If you've spent hard earned money on applications to make your phone function exactly how you want it to and have the features you want, you'll of course be less tempted to switch to something else if it means losing those precious applications. When iTunes purchases only worked on iPods for all those years, it drove an upgrade cycle for the company like nothing the music industry had ever seen.

RIM, fresh off the release of a new Curve, the well-received Bold and the mixed touchscreen Storm, has had information leak out about 3 new devices codenamed Onyx, Driftwood and Magnum. This coming from a company that had shipped almost 8 million devices in its most recently announced quarterly results, sending shares higher by 20%. RIM is certainly hard at work, but its not an easy task convincing the general public the virtues of a Blackberry. Always the device of choice for the business user, as smartphones have become increasingly consumer-focused RIM had a tough balancing act to strive for. For the most part, judging by the results, RIM has done very well. Initial critical thrashing of the touchscreen Storm notwithstanding the device has been successful and further forays into iPhone touchscreen territory by RIM will likely be greatly improved. And not a soul can say negative things about the hardware RIM uses for its keyboards, they are always top-notch.

Palm (PALM) has somehow starting erasing its name from the gravestone it was surely destined to have after several quarters of significant losses. The driving force for the resurgence! A little device by the name of the Palm Pre. Wowing audiences earlier in the year with iPhone-like admiration, the Pre is set to launch in the US soon, followed by International markets later in the year. There still is much at stake for Palm, but the feedback thus far has been incredibly positive on the new device, and with the work put into Palm's WebOS platform the company, and consumers, expect a wide range of WebOS devices going forward.

Google's (GOOG) Android has had a rather slow start but will likely pick up steam in the latter parts of the year as not only a second handset from HTC, the company that produced the G1 for T-Mobile, is due as well as multiple devices from Samsung. With carriers in the US and abroad looking at, adopting, and testing Android, it seems only a matter of time before Google's vision of hundreds of Android phones becomes a reality. T-Mobile is even talking about launching Home phones and netbooks running Android, and a recent story about HP had the company confirming it will be testing Android for its netbooks. The free, open-source platform has proved resilient despite some questionable early roots, and as the platform stabilizes and is available on more handsets and in more incarnations consumers will increasingly see Google's web based products, and ads, within their mobile world.

Like Google, Micrsoft (MSFT) has only been providing software for smartphones, however all the momentum a bloated Windows Mobile has garnered in the past has seemingly been lost in the past year. With flashier devices like iPhones, Blackberrys, Androids and Pres being on consumer minds the battle remains uphill for Microsoft. A software overhaul is needed for Windows Mobile and it certainly doesn't help the company that it announced a visual overhaul (Version 6.5) but slated it for release at the end of this year, while a proper, better Windows Mobile 7 is scheduled to come sometime in 2010. Microsoft can't afford to wait much longer as Android gains momentum, and while the other most popular smartphones all run their own platforms.

All in all, consumers will have an abudance of choice in 2009 and beyond, and as their devices do more things they need, the world as we know it will change from the at-home/at-work Internet dominated era to the mobile/on-the-go Internet dominated era. The one constant is being connected and with each software platform making a better Internet experience each time around the debate surrounding Internet browsing is fading. The only way to get ahead in this game is to bring incredible new features (such as 3rd party applications) wrapped in elegant hardware that consumers feel inspired to purchase and use. While Apple and RIM are leading in that sense now, by the time this year's crop of devices are released we may just be nearing the bottom of the 4th.

Disclosure: Author owns AAPL, GOOG, owns long-term call options on MSFT

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