Smart phones aren’t new, but the industry has moved in some dramatic new directions and the battle for the hearts and minds of mobile device buyers is hotting up.
Why now? For the longest time, there were computers you did stuff on using applications and phones you did little on besides make phone calls, maybe check a few appointments or emails.
The mythical handheld computer was a long-promised ideal with many false starts including the ultramobile PC, but a few years back Apple finally proved to the consumer mainstream (and its many competitors) that a sweet spot existed.
The answer was to port the philosophy of applications to the handheld device and make them easy to find, buy, install and use. The result was the iPhone, and it’s driven an entirely new generation of mobiles that can’t only do everything, but do it well.
For one thing, the handheld is the natural home for social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. Keeping up to date with friends, checking in with them or broadcasting your opinions to your legion of followers should be immediate instead of onerous, little more than the click of a button before typing out your message.
And though it might sound disingenuous for a device designed to type on, we’ve seen the gradual disappearance of keypads on smartphones. Instead, most manufacturers are sporting large, bright, responsiveness touchscreens that make navigating and using the software easy.
The other revolution to drive uptake of smartphones has been the explosion of software developers and device vendors hoping to sell you apps. Tens of millions of them, in fact — everything from ebook stores to random profanity generators.
Apple again sits at the top of the heap because the platform to sell and deliver apps (iTunes) was already the industry standard music player for countless computer owners. Other entrants to the market like Nokia’s Ovi store are a poor second. Microsoft is yet to jump in, announcing the Windows Mobile store for later in 2010, but the Google-owned Android market is giving Apple’s App Store a run for its money.
Android Market is part of the open source Android operating system. So far it’s mostly been found on devices from other vendors, but Google’s own handset (the Nexus One) is now available in Australia. With Google’s online tools and applications so popular, the Android platform has a lot going for it as people will recognise the apps and find them easy to use after using them on their PCs.
It’s also a good time to be a smartphone manufacturer because if you’ve been watching the news you’ll know Apple’s iPhone 4 has been plagued by problems. Early testers reported reception issues caused by merely holding the device wrong. Apple initially tried to shrug off and defuse the gathering discontent, finally issuing an embarrassing admission there was a fault with the software calculating the signal strength display bars. There’s even been talk of a complete product recall and at a press conference before the weekend, Steve Jobs went on the defence.
He opened his half hour talk by telling the gathered journalists ‘we’re not perfect’ and ‘phones aren’t perfect’. He went on to claim Apple has been ‘working our butts off’ in the 22 days since complaints surfaced. He said the story had been blown out of proportion and that the same problems were found in competitor models, but it was affecting a small percentage of iPhone 4 users. Starting from this week, Apple will offer free cases (which many have reported solve the problem) or refund iPhone 4 users fully if they’re still not happy.
But Apple’s still in a good position. A May 2010 estimate put the number of iPhone users in Australia at 2 million — before the iPhone 4 had even arrived. Several brave manufacturers have launched their own completely new operating system platforms like Samsung’s Bada, which will come complete with its own app store. But for now it’s anyone’s race, with consumers spoilt for choice the clear winners.