State of the mobile industry

January 1, 2013
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Apple vs Android

The mobile industry is evolving all the time. We always want what’s new and exciting, and everyone in the industry is continually trying to impress. We are in the golden era of mobile technology, and the industry isn’t resting on its laurels. We are seeing the best from the best as developers and manufacturers are beginning to realize their potential. While Apple may have started this industry on a new path, its reign at the top may soon be over.

We’ll hit on the major topics and news from 2012, but we’ll have to do it quickly. With the way this industry moves, this article may be obsolete by the time I finish it.

A necessary evil

Carriers are what I like to call the necessary evil. We can’t live without them if we really want to enjoy our mobile devices. Sure, a Wi-Fi tablet is great, but we still need phones. In fact, a large number of people use their mobile phone as their only phone, forgoing the traditional home land-line. As we transition into a new era of mobility, it may be the carriers themselves who alter the direction of the industry.

While we once needed a phone to simply make calls, that model has taken a turn in the opposite direction. As consumers, we want data… and lots of it. The recent move by Verizon to move away from an “everything” plan is troubling. Not because it diminishes the amount of time you can talk (because it doesn’t) or text (seriously, stop texting… it’s archaic), but because of the strains on data usage. With a diminished amount of data that is meant to be shared, it really hampers the way we’ve grown to use our devices. We simply did what we liked without concern for data caps. Being throttled on data usage is one thing, but having a cap is a dangerous trend I hope ends with Verizon. There is an alternative to that, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Another interesting topic is all the movement by carriers. T-Mobile bought Metro PCS to become a very respectable player in the industry, while Japanese mobile company SoftBank purchased a controlling interest in Sprint. While both moves seem like a company solidifying itself, let’s take a step back. T-Mobile was nearly bought out by AT&T a year ago, so the company could just be acquiring more spectrum to make itself more valuable. Sprint, on the other hand, has been in trouble for quite some time and needs capital to stay alive, much less grow. The bet on WiMax rather than LTE was a losing hand, and if it intended on staying in the game it would need some help. SoftBank, however, has an eccentric CEO who may be a wildcard in this equation. Time will tell with both of these moves.

Samsung-Galaxy-S3

If you build it, they will buy

We’re seeing a thinning out process with manufacturers. Where we once had a new phone from every manufacturer imaginable monthly, we are now seeing a top tier showing. The Samsung Galaxy S3 was a monster this year in terms of sales, and it can be directly pointed to as the device that sets a standard. Not only does the S3 have great specs at a decent price, it was the one thing that is truly important: available. As the Nexus 4 debacle plays out, LG is taking a very damaging blow to its reputation and perhaps future as a mobile device maker. I have a Nexus 4… and I love my Nexus 4… but in design it’s much more Google than LG. Google does a great job of spreading the wealth around with the Nexus lineup, and we as Android fans look to the Nexus as our shining example of new tech. The decision to go with LG is one that may never be repeated for Google, if not simply for the lack of supply to meet the demand.

With Samsung rising to the top as a major Android manufacturer, we’d be wise to examine why that is and why it may not be such steady ground moving forward. As we strive for great devices with a smaller price tag, there should be some consideration as to whether or not that hurts the manufacturer of the device. The Nexus 4 may have set a dangerous standard in terms of unlocked phone pricing and given us a new bar to limbo under in our “race to the bottom”. Even though these manufacturers have gigantic factories capable of churning out an unreal amount of devices, is the cost worth the stretch for them? Most manufacturers are based overseas, and simply shipping the goods here is an enormous cost.

While the cost of shipping may be a concern, staying home isn’t  As Asia continues to blossom and adopt new mobile technology, it will allow manufacturers to sell devices there on a large scale as well. As China is fast becoming one of the major markets in the world, device makers such as Acer are targeting the region with introductory devices. This will help us here in the United States. With a new revenue stream, manufacturers will be willing to placate our desires for low cost devices that are built well.

Buttons?

Maybe you remember, maybe you don’t… but the original Motorola RAZR was the coolest thing around for about two years. It was slim, sleek, and did just about anything we could have waned at the time. The design was revolutionary, too. It was simply different… in a good way.

What happened to different? Aside from very minor changes, all smartphones are essentially the same. There is a screen, maybe a button on the front. A volume rocker and power button on the side… and that’s about it. It may sound like complaining, but it’s not. This new design philosophy is necessary to how we use our phones, and really steps the game up elsewhere. Rather than style, which was all we really had to worry about back then, we now worry about substance. All devices may have the same form and function, but the hardware inside is what sets them apart from each other. With the design being so similar across the board, it makes it easier to pick one up when purchased new. I know the OS, I know the interface, I know what I’m doing. The speed at which the device handles my commands is more important now.

As we have a very concrete design, we still have room for new thoughts. As phone screens get bigger, and tablets get smaller, are we heading for a collision course? We may see a 6-inch device soon that is meant to take the place of your phone and tablet. While these types of things have a niche, I just don’t see them being widely accepted. My Nexus 7 may fit in my pocket, but that doesn’t mean I want to walk around with it in my pocket. As tablets settle into their 7- and 10-inch forms, people will begin to accept them fully as must have devices. Tablets are no longer confusing for consumers, and the larger screen is great for most things, just not carrying around all the time.

CDMA-Vs-GSM-Technology

Is GSM retro-cool, or overlooked?

I’m going to get a little personal for a minute. No no no, not the “turn your head and cough” personal… I’m going to tell you a little about my recent experience with GSM and how it really has changed my tech lifestyle.

I was like most people, in that I had a plan, a carrier, and a device. I had the Galaxy Nexus, which is still an amazing phone in my book. I was about two months into my contract when I had decided the poor service I was getting was a joke, and I needed out of the contract. Of course, at 60 days in, they weren’t going to let me out without a hefty termination fee. I was told LTE was being built out in my area when I purchased the plan, and would take a month at best. Upon digging deeper, it turned out my market was not meant for any LTE upgrades until December… of 2013. The term “bamboozled” comes to mind.

As I started to question things with my provider, I began noticing a trend: they didn’t seem to care. I was under contract, and that is probably all they really worry about. This was about a month before the Nexus 4 was set to debut, so I really got interested in going unlocked. Until that point, I considered unlocked to be a bit weird, and a prepaid plan something poor college kids do to have a way to call home and ask for more cash. As I began to look into it, I felt foolish. I had no idea you could have unlimited data on a month-to-month plan! I’d never thought about it so I didn’t care to check it out.

I did the math, and even with terminating my contract, buying a new phone, then getting a new plan… I saved. Long term (meaning over the course of 12 months) I would break even, and over the course of two years I would come out way ahead. I also worked in the cost of buying the next Nexus device, because let’s be honest… it’s going to happen anyway. My coverage is the same, and service is a dream. The best part is, if I want to I can simply pick up and move to a new carrier. I can travel freely and if I find a plan that is better priced, I can switch when I like. If that plan doesn’t work well, I simply switch back.

While that is my story of leaving the traditional contract behind, I think it’s a trend we will see continue heavily. The Nexus 4 showed that with the right price point, an unlocked phone is a very viable option. We balk at spending so much on unlocked phones because it’s not the way we’ve been conditioned.

While an unlocked phone will only work on the GSM spectrum, the only carriers not utilizing that are Verizon and Sprint. GSM is the standard throughout the world, and we are really the only country that has this two-spectrum system. The propriety of CDMA is prohibitive and only benefits the carrier, not us as consumers. The unlocked phone-GSM scheme made its mark in 2012, and I really hope it spreads like wildfire. What the Nexus proved is that the unlocked phone market is there, and people (like me) just need to be aware of it so they can make an informed decision rather than continue down the path of contracts and subsidized phones.

Apple invented (fill in the blank)

Seems that way, doesn’t it? Apple seems to be taking the “litigate, not innovate” route lately. While we used to look to them as leaders, they are now simply the nerd in the room that says “actually” to start every sentence. Okay, poindexter, we get it… you invented this game. Can we move on now?

While it may be tiresome, what’s important to realize is that when Apple sues, it’s essentially saying “don’t do this”. When you tell someone what not to do, you are essentially telling them to do something else. If Apple continues to go around telling people what not to do, those companies will find workarounds. A company like Samsung, even at losing a high profile court settlement, is not simply going to fold-up and quit. Oh, you patented a circular hardware button? Well here’s an oblong one. Game on, Apple!

While the patent suits will never really end, there is hope. As Google and Apple play nice on their deal to buy Kodak patents, it seems to signal an understanding. These companies understand that they can litigate until the end of the earth, but it will get them nowhere. There will be a workaround to anything, any time. Heck, LTE is available in the Nexus 4 with a workaround. You don’t think a company with billions invested in this industry will find a way to succeed?

Google v. Apple

Years ago, a search company bought a small mobile platform. At the Apple offices, it probably sounded like a single drum off in the distance. What would they do with it? Maybe they’d simply develop apps, or that small company had some patents Google needed. Then Google gave the source code for this platform away. The noise got louder, and seemed to have more drummers.

Like anything open source, it caught the attention of the real muscle in the industry, the developers. As the developers catch on to this new open source mobile platform, the drumming got louder and louder at Apple. They ignored it in Cupertino. It was Linux based, and who cares about Linux, right? As it turns out, there was something behind all this drumming.

As the drumming got louder, it was deafening. Apple had no idea where it was coming from, only that it was surrounding them. They wanted desperately to make it stop, but how? They were sure this beat they were drumming to was stolen! As it turns out, that drumming was Android… and not only is it not stopping, it’s evolving. Evolution is the natural order of things, but will this monster evolve to eat Apple?

Apple had always been a bit blustery, and its position on Android was no different. As we in the Android community enjoyed our toys, a man hidden away in a building claimed it was stolen, and that he was ready to go “thermonuclear” to prove as much. This raised the ire of an entire nation of Android enthusiasts. We now had an enemy. We had a fight.

Like most revolutions, it was a fight born of fear; we fought because we were afraid of the old Apple way of devices, and Apple was afraid of becoming obsolete. I use the past tense because when a general passes on, the war is over, by and large. As Steve Jobs passed, a new era dawned. Apple still takes issue with Android, and probably always will, but it may be ready to concede to its niche. Both sides are playing nice, at least in the interim. The Kodak patents are a big step, and accepting that Google Maps is better for your users is not something Steve Jobs would have conceded, I think. Remember, he was the guy who told you how to hold a phone… so humility was not his strong suit.

apple-vs-google

Apple has an arc it travels. Apple creates an entirely new market, then slowly fades out to a niche within that market. It did the same with the PC market as they are doing now. Create the market, then nestle into your niche. Same with the personal digital music player, and now the mobile device market. Look back in time to see the present, and you will see it understands its patent victories may ring hollow. Is it time to fight, or time to nestle into the industry you created?

Android is massive, powerful, and loved. It has effectively put Apple in its place. When presented with an equally diligent and committed adversary, Apple has problems. Android and Apple can coexist, but that depends on Apple understanding as much. Android is happy to occupy its place, but Apple needs to be content in its own place for this to work. The iPhone will always have its place, as will the myriad of Android devices. These two giants define the industry, and their cooperation and mutual respect is more important than they may know.

Conclusion

With Amazon being very proprietary and fenced in and Windows still finding their legs in the mobile industry, we have only Android and Apple to look to. We’re fortunate, really. We are blessed to exist in a time when technology is catching up to our dreams. While all the players learn their parts, we reap the benefits. Just about every mobile device out there is worthy and meritorious, so you really can’t go wrong.

The deciding factor won’t be which phone you pick, or which tablet has the best screen. It will be decided on ecosystems. The “Apple or Android” argument used to be about iPhone and Nexus, but now it’s about services. Do you like the iOS environment, or do you like Google’s bundle of services? As for me, I’ll take the Android road. It suits my needs, I like the interface, and the fact that Google operates in the cloud and doesn’t charge me for anything is a big deal. Besides, who wants a maps app that tells you to drive off a bridge?

As much as this industry is evolving, it’s also finding its way. What used to be about cool designs is now about supporting developers design by having amazing hardware. The ecosystem battles rage on, and Android is developing a huge following the world over. The familiarity of iPhones will always be a juxtaposition to the variety of Android, but there is room for both.

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