Thursday, October 25, 2007

The rewards of platform control

This semester, my MBA students have become familiar with Symbian and its relationship with Nokia. Although little known on this side of the pond, Symbian is the leading supplier of operating systems for those high-end cellphones that are most driving development and adoption of the mobile Web.

At Monday's Smartphone Summit, Symbian's Executive VP of Research David Wood delivered an important keynote on Symbian's plans and expectations for competing with mobile Linux and other platform rivals. I'm sorry I couldn't hear my friend talk, but this fall I'm spending Monday and Wednesday morning's imbuing 20-somethings with the tools and techniques of competitive strategy. Fortunately, the talk was covered by one of the two main US cellphone trade journals, RCR News.

Seeing the dead tree version of RCR News was one of the highlights of my visit to the CTIA conference, as it brought back memories of my subscription to RCR 12-13 years ago when I started doing research on the cellphone industry. Reading the articles from the RCR weekly (and show daily), it was interesting to note that the "reporters" were quite opinionated (if not caustic) in their interpreting of the news. The coverage of David's talk by Phil Carson was no exception:

With no authoritative, tech-savvy rebuttals to slow Wood’s steamroller, the all-roads-lead-to-Symbian view may have carried the day for the uninitiated.

To be fair, Wood’s data on Symbian’s current market dominance may be irrefutable—even if his rhetoric would have you believe that market trends spell nothing but doom for competitors. Smartphone sales now outstrip laptops, seven of 10 smartphones run Symbian and the latter has successfully defended its market share against rivals for two years. One can understand how Symbian’s most fervid evangelist would declare: Game over!

Except that the market clearly demands diversity and the forces arrayed to compete with Symbian, particularly in the United States, are among the toughest competitors in the business. It might have been more entertaining if representatives for those camps suddenly popped out on stage to rebut some of Wood’s rhetoric—a sort of OS cage match. But, of course, that goes with the territory here at CTIA I.T. & Entertainment 2007.
Symbian's high market share worldwide has not translated (yet) into success in North America. Certainly Carson is right that Symbian faces more competition here, with the onetime dominance of Palm that's now been supplanted by RIM. Of course, the real problem is that carrier control determines which mobile phone technologies get in customer's hands, and for a GSM-based technology (like the Symbian-enabled Nokia phones), access to the US market means cooperation from AT&T, which thus far has not been forthcoming.

In between the sarcasm, Phil did seem (somewhat) persuaded by Wood's belief in the future of convergence mobile phones:
The smartphone, Wood predicted, will become life’s remote control, handling home functions and financial matters as well as stodgy old communications.

The upshot, according to Wood, is that smartphones are becoming a matter of lifestyle.

“You don’t have to be smart to use them and the device makes you smart,” Wood said.

And with 25% of all network operator revenue derived from smartphones that run Symbian—Wood’s figures, not ours—then Symbian is destined to rule!

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