Suddenly this week, Research In Motion began looking vulnerable. Still the top smartphone maker for U.S. customers, the BlackBerry company was stung when a new study revealed that 39 percent of its users would just as soon have an iPhone.
How much trouble is RIM in?
Well, RIM is to smartphones what Microsoft is to corporate computing--the safe, well-integrated choice. There was an old saying, perhaps still true in some companies, that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Well, in smartphones, RIM enjoys the same reputation.
That has the effect of slowing defections, giving RIM a chance to react.
Microsoft, of course, is third in U.S. smartphone sales, after Apple. And with Windows Phone 7 devices hitting stores soon, Redmond's smartphone customers will be facing a painful transition.
That means Microsoft, which has been losing smartphone share and now finds Android-based phones nipping at its heels, could be in even more trouble than RIM, at least in the short term.
RIM's troubles, I fear, are permanent.
Something I'd like to see correlated is whether the BlackBerry devices that users don't like were purchased by an employer or an individual. If the boss paid, some of this longing for an iPhone can be chalked up to routine workplace griping.
On the other hand, people who buy BlackBerry phones for themselves are ripe for the picking, but probably not by Apple. The BlackBerry users I know are closely tied to e-mail and love the hardware keyboard on their devices. The iPhone, of course, lacks a physical keyboard, but Android devices often have one. For this reason, given a little maturity in the Android world, it's not hard to imagine why conventional BlackBerry users would defect to Android rather than the iPhone.
This would be a good move for many business users, in that Google has proven to be far more enterprise-friendly than Apple is ever likely to manage. That will someday make Android devices the BlackBerry's toughest competitor.
What will become of Windows Phone 7?
This is going to be a tough transition for Microsoft. Its entire installed base is essentially in play. I think a generous trade-up program could keep many users in the Microsoft fold, especially if the new models are enterprise-friendly from Day One and can just drop into corporate environments as-is.
The issue, of course, will be money, but my guess is that if Microsoft offers some incentives it will keep a majority of current customers.
Windows Phone 7 is a much more competitive offering than Microsoft has had in the past. Applications support will be important, of course, but Microsoft's new smartphone platform has a much better shot at the iPhone and Android than the previous Windows Mobile smartphones.
Here's how I see things shaking out over the next 12 months:
Research In Motion slowly loses market share. That happens slowly because they are so entrenched with corporate customers. I am not sure the company will be able to stop these losses and, over time, RIM will slide out of the #1 position. This may take more than a year, but it will happen and Android will gain at RIM's expense.
Apple will continue in second place, though its U.S. growth will slow. That is unless the next iPhone, expected this summer, convinces large numbers of customers to upgrade and others to choose an iPhone over Android. Over time, it would not surprise me to see Android move past the iPhone, potentially pushing Apple into the #3 position.
Android will, at some point, move past the iPhone and into second place. It will take a large number of different handsets to accomplish this, so it's safe to say that no single Android smartphone will be a legitimate "iPhone killer."
Windows Phone 7 is a wild card. For the immediate future, though, Microsoft's market share will likely continue to tank, perhaps rebounding once several models using the new OS are released. I think Microsoft is potentially in a strong position to capture some market share, but I think it is still likely to end up in fourth place.
My presumptions are that the next iPhone will be competitive with Android, but won't be a challenger in becoming a corporation's standard smartphone. I have, of course, not factored in anything dramatic as a response from RIM, am giving Windows Phone 7 benefit of some considerable doubt, and continue to see Android as the up-and-comer.
I have not included any huge changes as a result of 4G wireless becoming more widely available in 2010. That is more likely to happen in 2011.
So, if the players make their ship dates and customers find themselves in a spending mood, this could be another great year for smartphones as well as offering some surprises.