Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Who's ready for the mobile web?

In January, Mike Mace and I both had an intuitive feel that the iPhone was going to change the mobile phone industry. Four months after the first iPhone shipped, I think our intuition has been born out to a greater or lesser degree.

Aided by very satisfied customers and the consequential word of mouth, Apple sold nearly 1.4 million iPhones in the first 94 days. This is AT&T's top selling phone (at 13%) and 4th overall in the US. Of course, Apple is not #4 overall since most vendors sell dozens of models.

In particular, one thing came through loud and clear last week at the CTIA Wireless IT conference (the premier mobile web conference in the US). Admirers and rivals admitted that Apple finally did a mobile browser right, and that accounts for much of its success (an advantage emphasized by their current advertising).

Web browsing solves the fragmentation of the US market, and provides a least common denominator between desktop and cellphone. If all app developers, content providers, cellular operators and mobile phone makers all agreed to use the web -- based on W3C and IETF open standards -- then the mobile Internet couldn't be any more open than that. This openness and ubiquity would eanble all sort of positive network effects to spur adoption, and leverage off the installed base of the wired Internet. Another factor for openness is that Apple's iPhone browser is based on WebKit, the open source project Apple created (from KHTML), which in turn reduces the barriers to imitation for its web browser. (In case web apps aren't enough, this month Apple adddressed the criticism about a "closed" iPhone by announcing it will release formal software development kit for native apps in February.)

If Apple establishes the browser as the key enabler of the mobiler Internet, how well situated are the major handset vendor? Based on Q3 2007 sales estimates, here's the list and my prediction:

  • Nokia (38.6%). It ships more smartphones than anyone, owns S60 and the largest share of Symbian Ltd. It has been taking more risks with software than any other cell phone company, including its Maemo web tablet platform. Even if we worried about Nokia falling behind, they are already ready to match Apple by porting WebKit to S60.
  • Samsung (14.7%). Has a wide range of software strategies, including Symbian S60, Windows Mobile and its own OS. Historically the Koreans don't grok software, but S60 will have a good browser and Windows Mobile could too (assuming Mobile IE is a fully compatible browser) -- so it may depend on the mix of software platforms they are selling.
  • Motorola (12.9%). Like Samsung, Motorola has a mix of platforms: Windows Mobile, Symbian UIQ and its own solution (now shifting towards mobile Linux). Although in principle Linux should have a great browser, Motorola once said that the browser choice was up to the carrier.
  • Sony Ericsson (9.0%). SE's smartphone strategy is tied to UIQ -- a Symbian OS layer that it used to own but is now going to share with Motorola. Since UIQ 3.0, UIQ has depended on the Opera browser, which has yet to inspire the enthusiasm of WebKit.
Any others? I think HTC will do well, because it thus far has made its impact with Windows Mobile, but now also has the prospect of the Google phone. On the other hand, while RIM has always understood software and has done well with e-mail, it is not known for its browsers.

Of course, this is a very US-centric view. For Europe, I expect browsers to be important too, but the smartphone market is much less fragmented than the US and much of the market can be reached by writing a native S60 application. Meanwhile, in Japan, the mobile Internet (as Jeff Funk as noted) is whatever DoCoMo says it is.

1 comment:

Doug k said...

Ok, how about an opposing view? Totally unscientific and potentially completely wrong, but reading your entry makes me wonder how valid the impression that the iPhone is being used for the web really is. In my very casual "looking over shoulders" of real iPhone users at conferences, in coffee shops, in meetings, I almost never see anyone actually using the browser. What I see is a really nice calendar, email, and contact system (PIM) merged with the leading music entertainment system (iPod). I dabble with the browser on my iTouch, but let's face it, regardless of what Mr J says, it ain't the "real web" :)

That being said, certain web sites, once "tuned" for the iPhone, work really well. Some never well, sadly.

Perhaps I'm completely off base, but I have really found no compelling reason other than status to move from my Blackberry to the iPhone. Everything I normally do with a mobile device I can do just fine with the Pearl. The only place I actually use an iPod is at the gym and I have found the Shuffle to be infinitely better than the big iPods (include the Touch).

Again, I can't back this up at all, but it would be interesting to do a survey of users and really test this out :)