opinion


Apples are not the only fruit

Although sales of Apple’s iPhone did not exceed 5.5 million units until 1Q08, its launch clearly changed the dynamics of the smartphone market, raising the bar for user experience by delivering a range of desirable, easy-to-use features.

Consequently, a number of “me too” device models were launched, in an attempt to compete directly with the iPhone, among them Samsung’s F700, HTC’s Touch and the LG Prada KE850. But although these phones have a similar industrial design, the majority of them have failed to reproduce the user experience. That’s because the iPhone’s real value, and the ease of use that distinguishes it from competitors, is delivered by its software. And that cannot be quickly or easily matched, given the rich legacy of Apple’s experience in developing the Mac OSX used in its notebooks – on which the iPhone’s OS is based – and the search engine used in its iPod series of consumer-electronics products.

The iPhone platform seamlessly integrates touch-screen technology with multitouch-user-interface (UI) software, the search engine and motion sensors. It offers a consistent UI experience for a number of applications, such as voice mail and playing music.

No other OS offers such a high level of functionality. Will Nokia’s next-generation S60 platform be able to?

The next-gen edition of the S60 is expected to hit the market in 2H08. It works on top of the Symbian OS and is the first generation of S60 to offer touch-screen and multitouch capabilities comparable to the iPhone’s. It is also equipped with a sensorial user interface, to enhance the look and feel of the UI; ScreenPlay functionality, which enables multiframe exposure on the display; and enhanced graphical acceleration for multiservice support and better video streaming and telephony functionality.

S60 third-edition applications can run on the new edition, and Nokia plans to provide tools to its developers to optimize their applications to support the new features.

Informa Telecoms & Media says the addition of such capabilities to the already feature-rich S60 portfolio will enable Nokia to bring touch-screen capabilities to the mass market. And other factors make this likely: the openness of the platform, which enables the creation of more content and applications for S60-enabled phones; Nokia’s strong brand and manufacturing and production scale; its widespread distribution channels; and its deep understanding of mobile handset segmentation. Mobile phones powered by this version of the S60 OS are also likely to be used to support both the open Internet and Nokia’s Ovi service.

If Nokia manages to avoid any patent conflicts with Apple, the next-generation S60 phones will compete strongly with the iPhone when they appear on the market by end-2008. They are also likely to be dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular devices that support mobile broadband access, including EDGE and HSPA, and come with advanced features, including Bluetooth, a camera with resolution of more than 3 megapixels, Java multimedia-application support, a Flash player, GPS functionality and probably TV-output connectivity.

Will the iPhone still be the smartphone with the best end-user experience? Even today, the iPhone’s advanced UI does not, by itself, guarantee the best experience for all mobile data users. To enable end-users to have a truly mobile broadband experience, the iPhone has to be able to support next-generation mobile access technologies, including HSDPA/HSUPA and 1xEV-DO Rev. A and B. Also, the iPhone OS has to be opened to the developer community and to other application environments, such as Java, Flash and AJAX. Unfortunately, the current version of the iPhone – developed in a closed environment – lacks many of the features and applications enabled by the Java and Flash environments that users have come to expect and rely on.

Apple wants to enable the iPhone OS to offer 3G services and make it more open to the developer community. In March, Apple finally released a software-development kit (SDK) designed to encourage the development of a wealth of applications that could run in current and next-generation iPhones. Apple said that the number of downloads for the SDK topped 100,000 in the four days after its launch.

Sun Microsystems and Adobe welcomed the release of the SDK and stated that they would port the Java virtual machine and the Flash framework, respectively, to the iPhone. But the two companies also said they would need more support from Apple than is available in the current SDK and the license around it. IPhone users will therefore not see many multimedia and video applications using Flash or Java – including those that run on popular networking sites, such as YouTube, Facebook and MySpace – any time soon.

The second version of the iPhone SDK is scheduled for release in June. Perhaps this version will provide further support for Java and Flash.

The current version of the iPhone is hobbled by Apple’s decision not to make it a 3G device, made because 3G chipsets were immature when the iPhone’s hardware was being designed in early 2006. 3G chipsets then came in the form of discrete components that would have taken up a lot of handset real estate and were power-hungry to boot. Also, AT&T, Apple’s main partner for the iPhone, was not ready to roll out its 3G services at the time of launch, prompting Apple to go with GSM/GPRS/EDGE to gain the largest possible market for the iPhone in Europe and North America.

Today, the majority of mobile operators – including Apple’s main partners – are aggressively migrating their subscriptions to 3G networks. Dozens of more-power-efficient 3G single chips are available from Infineon, Broadcom, Qualcomm, TI, NXP and Freescale. In fact, the shortage of iPhones in US stores and the price cuts in Europe suggest that Apple is about to launch a 3G iPhone. So it does seem to be preparing for the coming Nokia challenge.

The question is: Will being first to market be enough to counter Nokia’s manufacturing scale, established distribution channels and expertise with market segmentation? With both companies aiming to launch their products in 2H08, time to market will most likely determine whether the second-version iPhone or the next-generation S60 becomes the most popular smartphone.

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One comment

  1. hardmanb 30/04/2008 @ 4:14 pm

    Nice article. Informative, and obviously Malik has tried hard to be objective.

    I’d like to make a suggestion. As the iPhone has become somewhat of a “benchmark” for cellphone makers, it could be insightful if Malik would get or borrow an iPhone for a couple of weeks, since the most important issue seems to be useability and consistency of interface.

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