Smart Devices – How are the Cell Phones Evolving

I remember a time when the phone was a phone, and all you could do was make calls with it—that is, if it worked. Cellphones changed all that, not only did they work (well at least back then they did) but were bought on a simple pretext—what do you like. If it had a game and having a colour screen was a big thing. And then, suddenly, something happened—the cellphone transformed into an intelligent device, and you could now download software applications to do more with your phone.

I remember when Symbian just came out and all the rage was to get the Opera browser working on the phone and get on the most sluggish GPRS connectivity and be happy that you reached a Web page. Symbian also brought along with it headaches, of phones crashing, not performing well, acting up on you and getting infected by virus, though most technology pundits at that time ruled that we will go back to non-smart phones. But today, the market is crowded with smart phones.

Buying a phone is no longer about the brand or the looks—it’s also about what it can do and does it have applications. Some ask, does it have an app store. Others say let them backup the phone online to their servers so that whenever they change the phone (be it dead or lost), just switch on the new phone, punch in a few buttons and get their data back. It can’t be more complicated than it is now.

It is a confused state of mind, with smartphones from Blackberry that run the Blackberry OS, some phones supporting Windows Mobile (6.1 and 6.5 are currently available and the 7 is coming out), Symbian, Linux, or plain simple Android. Most users today go in for what the phone looks like and try to stick to the same brand and family of phones for fear of retraining themselves and having a comfort. Only the tech guys go in and ask for platforms. In an opinion poll that I did with a few retailers and some people known in the mobile industry, the focus is very basic at the end of the day to get a phone that is easy to use as a phone, both for single-origin calls and conference calls, to be able to do email and messaging well.

Blackberry has started to emerge as the winner. It is one of the most stable phones in the market when it comes to a smart phone, also because of the reason that applications on this platform available to the end user were limited and you really could not infect a Blackberry out of the box. The lovely interface and inter-operability with any personal computer operating system has given it a winning edge.

Though still the most popular platform in India seems to be the Symbian OS Phones, the currently defining market share of one operating system versus others is really not possible. Closed operating system phones such as the iPhone have also picked up market momentum. People still end up choosing phones on preferences such as how good the camera is is the GPS worth it; how much capacity is the data card; does it have a touch screen; a big screen, can one listen to music on it; does it have an FM radio, etc.

The phones are now becoming application centre pieces, with data being the next revenue for telecom operators. After all, with the current and future falling rates of voice calls, the average revenue per unit (ARPU) does not make any business sense to operators.

Microsoft recently announced its Windows 7 Mobile operating system, though most of the phones that had Microsoft Windows 6.1 Mobile Edition never even came out with Windows 6.5 in India. We will have to see if the Windows 7 will really make an impact.

Due to its openness, Android has a lot of people making some great applications. Even the team at Google, and the Open Handset Alliance backing it, are creating a great set of location-specific applications, and also changing how you interact with the phone. From a point where the phone was a 12-key numeric touchpad, and changed to touch screens, hybrids and then multi-touch, the next frontier is to talk to your phone either through voice, or use pictures for it to do your work. Android takes a huge leap in it.

And then there are captive operating systems, owned by companies such as Samsung, Nokia and Motorola which are run only on their devices. These phones perform marvellously in terms of basic telephony and messaging, but stick to very simple applications. A set of people wants to stick to phones that are only phones. To people looking at a phone that can replace their camera, MP3 player and gaming device, look at the smarter phones.

Linux the other open operating system, has been chosen by a lot of players; Motorola brought in a Linux phone that had partial success. Some other players had their own Linux variants, but Nokia funded a software platform called Maemo that is based on Debian Linux. Though the operating system is more targeted towards tablet computing than phones, there have been mixed reactions to its success. At the Mobile World Congress in February this year, Maemo merged with Moblin to form MeeGo. It is expected to generate a lot of interest. A not so well known platform called Brew from Qualcomm is taking shape. With already more than 18,000 applications on the platform and 1,200-plus handset models already out there, this is going to take the feature-rich, low-cost phones mainstream.

It is the best time for developers. Now you can write an application for the platform you like and there is a wonderful SDK that lets you build out some interactive applications. With the iPad here in a few weeks, development on the Apple platform is increasing. What lags it that both the phone and the iPad will be closed devices and can only have application access from Apple-owned stores.

Linux developers were stuck with the kind of applications they could develop on the mobile Linux platform. That is also one reason that phones such as the A910 were not very succesful, but the MeeGo platform offers more opportunities. Symbian and Java have been leaders in their own ways, though limited options were available on what the apps could look and feel like. But the way Symbian OS has been adopted and if it maintains a good speed, it will remain the chosen smartphone OS for many manufacturers. The new look on the Windows 7 Mobile phone is very interesting for the user to develop and a large Microsoft development community should come out with some good looking applications, but how much and when is still a bit unknown.

With cheaper operating systems such as Android, MeeGo and Brew, handset manufacturers will be able to offer application- and feature-rich phones, that have different OS. Some manufacturers like Brew will allow you to change the OS on your phone and use their apps. The market is still evolving, and it is difficult to say who will emerge as the winner, but for now, I would rather stick to a stupid simple phone.

The Above article appeared in the Financial Express, on Thursday, 4th March 2010