5 Defining Moments in Mobile

Photo: wired.com

Android and iOS today account for the two biggest mobile platforms on the planet. However, things have not always been like this. If we were to go back in time to the year 2006, you wouldn’t find an iPhone or a Samsung running Android. Back then Nokia, Blackberry and Microsoft Windows Mobile were the kings. While Nokia held the overall mobile phone market with beauties like the Series60 powered N95 and other N-series devices leading the high end smartphone pack and oldies like the 1110 cannibalizing sales in the expansive feature phones market, Blackberry PDAs held sway over any businessman worth their salt. While the Palms were popular among the geeks and were every bit desirable, they just weren’t there and it is not surprising how quickly they fell in the pecking order after the iPhone heralded a new age.

If you are to look at Gartner’s charts in the year 2006 you’ll have Blackberry, Palm and HP leading as Windows, RIM (whatever was there before smartphones became Blackberry’s mainstay) and Nokia’s Symbian battled it out in the platforms arena. Fast-forward to last quarter’s Gartner numbers and you’d be shocked at how the mighty have fallen. Apple, Google and Samsung now feature predominantly as do newcomers like China’s Xiaomi. Blackberry and Microsoft still exist but under very different circumstances. The former’s share of the smartphone market has plummeted to single digits while the latter had to acquire a fallen giant, Nokia, in order to boost its mobile credentials and as far as immediate results go, still has a mountain to climb if it is ever to be successful in mobile. While Nokia had 49.4% share of all smartphone sales worldwide in the year the iPhone was announced, 2007, it’s nowhere to be seen today. How the mighty have fallen!

How did that happen? Where did the rain start beating them? Most of these companies at one point or the other made decisions that have come back to haunt them a few years later.

Here are some key defining moments in the mobile world that have helped shape things as they stand now:

1. Launch of the iPhone

first gen iPhone

When then Apple CEO and co-founder, Steve Jobs, took the stage at Macworld in January 2007, there was no shortage of rumours that Apple was preparing to enter the mobile phone business. While such rumours persisted up until that day, no one had an idea what Apple was working on. When the iPhone was shown on stage, the whole world stopped for a moment to take in what had happened. With a single keynote, Apple had changed the world forever and the first generation iPhone though basic when compared to what smartphones can do today, was every bit a wow device.

This is what the BBC wrote about the new iPhone that Tuesday:

It is essentially a computer with a blank screen that users configure so they can operate the monitor with their fingers.

The iPhone brought with it multi-touch, apps and easy access to the internet. Would you believe that the Gorilla Glass we’ve become so used to on our smartphones today came into being thanks to Steve Jobs’ insistence that the phone Apple would make had to have a piece of protective glass? From then on, the entire mobile phone industry struggled to keep up with Apple. That involved what Apple was to later call blatant copying as in the case of earlier Samsung smartphones and many other attempts.

There were rewards, handsome rewards for that matter, for everyone that reacted quickly to the unveiling of the iPhone. Samsung would in a few years time reap big as far as shipments of its Galaxy S II flagship smartphone went and even go the extra mile of being a pioneer in its own right with the super-sized Galaxy Note that heralded a new age of oversized smartphones that were seen as being more of a cross between tablets and smartphones than smartphones.

While there were definite rewards to those who reacted to the iPhone wave, those that stood their ground or took too long to respond were quickly erased from consumer’s shopping lists. Blackberry stuck its guns as it believed it was on the right track. The result? Lost market share as Apple gained and another offshoot, Android from Google, followed.

2. Samsung and the Missed Opportunity to Buy Android

Photo: extremetech.com
Photo: extremetech.com

It is no secret that Samsung really wants Tizen to work. Tizen is its own in-house effort (well it has partnered with others as well) that is intended to someday compete at the same level that Android and iOS are. Only that it isn’t and is a long way from doing so. You may not necessarily know it but Samsung had an opportunity early on to acquire Android but it passed on it. Yes, Samsung blew a chance to own Android only for El-Goog to show up later and acquire Andy Rubin and his small team.

A new book by Fred Vogelstein published two years ago, Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution, has the details in case you are interested but yes, it happened. Somebody at Samsung didn’t have the foresight that somebody else at Google had. Android today is the largest mobile platform in the world and the most popular. It is so big that its rivals can’t fail to take notice. Microsoft has most of its mobile applications available on its Windows Phone platform on Android as well and Apple will soon be getting off its high horse as it seeks to court Android users to switch to its new music streaming service.

Would Android still be the platform we know and love today if Samsung had, like the proverbial giraffe, seen its future potential and given it a home to grow and mature like Google later did? We will never know for sure but that snub by the Koreans surely was a blessing in disguise.

3. The Calm Before the Storm

Photo: wired.com
Photo: wired.com

Blackberry’s hold of the smartphone was undisputed up until the arrival of the Apple iPhone. Blackberry being the market leader at the time was under pressure to respond to the iPhone. It’s partner, Verizon, was also under pressure to offer its customers an iPhone alternative since rival AT&T was getting the iPhone as an exclusive. Well, the end result? A not-so-well-thought-out product. The Blackberry Storm. It had a touch screen just like the Apple iPhone and in order to stay true to its Blackberry roots, also had a slide-out physical keyboard. Just like its name insinuated, the device kicked up a storm that Blackberry, then Research in Motion, was never able to overcome.

Here’s what former Blackberry co-CEO Jim Balsillie had to say of the Storm a few weeks ago while admitting that it was indeed one of the straws that broke Blackberry’s back:

It was a touch display, a clickable display, it had new applications. It was all done in an incredibly short period of time and it blew up on us.

4. Samsung Ditching Bada for Android

Samsung Wave - Samsung Bada

Well, Samsung did not immediately ditch Bada for Android. It only abandoned Bada for another one of its many efforts, Tizen, many years later. However, up until that time, the company had relegated the operating system it had once positioned as a clear competitor to then market leader Symbian in favour of Android. To be casual, it’s not far-fetched to make this observation: Samsung had devices running Symbian back in the day but still developed and pushed its own Bada OS just like today it is making Android devices but is actively pushing Tizen.

Had Samsung stuck with Bada for its flagship devices, would the success the Galaxy S lineup has had over the years still have happened? We doubt. While Samsung did not have the foresight to grab Android when it could, it definitely made a wise move to go with Android.

5. Nokia Opting to Go with Windows Phone

This is mostly controversial. On one hand you have Microsoft fans and previous users of Windows Mobile who believe that Nokia adopting Microsoft’s mobile platform and abandoning its work on MeeGo was the best way to go. On the other hand you have true Nokia fans who still bemoan the company’s failure to go with Android or just pursuing a multi-platform strategy that would’ve seen Nokia still keep the teams working on Maemo (later folded into MeeGo) while still churning out devices running Android and Windows Phone.

The Nokia Lumia 800 was one of the first Windows Phone devices from Nokia after it made the switch
The Nokia Lumia 800 was one of the first Windows Phone devices from Nokia after it made the switch

For starters, Nokia was cash-strapped at that point in time. Even with meagre financial resources, it was still bleeding money by working on several strategies. Changes at the top brought a man we love to hate from Microsoft. With a single memo, that man steered the course of Nokia towards Redmond and the rest as they say is history.

It is an open secret that Nokia had made several strides towards going the Android way. We even had a brief look at Nokia devices running Android before Microsoft pulled the plug on those in favour of low cost smartphones powered by its own mobile operating system. While Nokia sold its mobile devices division to Microsoft, it’s non-compete obligations run out next year and the company can’t wait to get back to the mobile market, using eeer, Android devices. Would things have turned out differently had Nokia gone with Android? Yes there aren’t many OEMs making money on Android but Nokia was Nokia, a globally recognizable brand that was an easy sell to hundreds of millions. The truth is, we will never know for sure how things would have turned out had the decision to go with Windows Phone been made. All we know is that Nokia desperately needed the money that Microsoft was going to pour as “support” and that made for an interesting proposition and that decision may or may not have led to the events that followed.

We are keenly monitoring the Blackberry situation as it is a potential game-changer but before we get to hear more about that in coming days, what else has defined the mobile world in recent years?