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Gunning For Third Place

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Think of the smartphone space as being a tight tug-of-war between Apple and Android. On one side, you have just one super-designed phone but with an ecosystem of usage-defining apps and a cult following that may well have a blind spot for anything else. On the other, you have the anti-Apple, led by the aggressive, undaunted Samsung but followed by others who together have more of the global smartphone share than Apple. Both are mini universes with their own appeal but of course they’re also always busy fighting each other.
In this push-and-pull, the room for a third and fourth mega-player to break in is very tough to squeeze into. Unless Apple or the Android faction let the rope slacken or Microsoft and its partners or Research in Motion do something so ground-breaking that the other guys let go of the rope at least for a moment. 
And if they were to get a toe-hold and pull the rope in a third direction, we don’t know whether the crowd would cheer or jeer. In recent weeks, Nokia, Samsung and HTC have all teased with Windows 8 phones like the Lumia 920, ATIV and 8X — and yet, those phones remain unknown quantities because, one presumes, either the features of the OS or the hardware isn’t quite ready yet. Hardware, of course, isn’t nearly enough today, so we also need to see an ecosystem bursting with choices, like Apple’s is and like Android’s is growing to be, so that there’s something interesting to do on those expensive phones. 
While it won’t be long before the waiting world does finally see Windows 8 devices, they’d better have enough of a pleasant surprise to justify all the teasing. The ecosystem of apps may get there in time, but it’s the disruptive thing — huge features, enabling interface, never-thought-of innovations — that is more elusive. But since everyone was only allowed a superficial peek at Windows 8 phones, no one knows what they’re hiding. All we know is that in the foreseeable future, a few companies depend on it. But Windows has the advantage of being already present on computers and if we’re moving to an era where our devices will constantly talk to each other, Microsoft is doing all it can to ensure that seamless experience happens. It hasn’t sold many Windows phones yet because everyone knows those are not the final product. Come to think of it, it might have been a good thing if there weren’t a Windows Phone 7 and variations of it — then Windows 8 would have been a whole new well-timed take on mobile devices.  
As for Research in Motion; they’re also hoping to muscle in on the third place — though many point out that it’s where they already are, though for how long, one can’t say. Recently, RIM posted stronger than expected figures (or rather, losses for the third consecutive quarter, but not so bad) for the quarter ending September 1, surprising everyone, though not necessarily instilling confidence about an assured comeback because some of this is attributed to the number of jobs they have cut. It’s from strong sales in India, and the Philippines, Nigeria and other emerging countries. 
RIM has a bigger problem on its hands. Its BlackBerry 10 devices will only come early next year, provided they’re not delayed as they have been before. Every so often, RIM holds developer events and peels back a few more of the layers to let everyone see what their upcoming products will have — or at least what the interface and OS will be like. What’s been seen so far on the hardware front has been described as nothing particularly interesting — but that’s only the hardware and may not be the final devices we’ll see. 
On the software front the reactions are that there do seem to be impressive features such as the way all kinds of sharing is immediately accessible with an intuitive swipe of the finger, no matter where you are on the phone. And the overall Flow interface, as it’s called, is also interesting, but many features are known from other operating systems, specially WebOS. It’s also said to be a little complex and requiring a bit of getting used to — but that can be said for the new Windows as well. And Android is a constant learning process. But again, no one knows what the reception for BB10 devices will be like until they come and by which time there may well changes to the overall smartphone landscape. 
While choices apart from Apple and Android would be rather welcome, other players can’t afford to come in  with anything less. Today consumers pay a lot. And expect solid value in return.  
mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter 

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 15-10-2012)