Why the 'Smartphone Wars' Seem So Familiar

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The current smartphone playing field looks amazingly familiar. In fact, I think I've seen this movie before.

The names have changed, but the roles remain the same. The players today are RIM, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Twenty years ago it was IBM, Apple, Microsoft, and Novell.

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You might recall that once upon a time, IBM had a stranglehold on the computing market. It wasn't threatened by anything, really. If you wanted computers, you went to IBM, where execs held court like emperors who meted out technology from on high at a spectacular price. Then IBM introduced the PC, and although there were were a few comprtitors, IBM didn't really care. PCs were small potatoes and IBM was making beaucoup bucks with big iron.

Everyone else, however, did care about PCs. Apple introduced the Macintosh, showing the world how an intuitive computing interface should work. Then as now, Apple kept things proprietary and locked down. Microsoft, on the other hand, opened up to everyone, allowing its inferior product to gain acceptance simply because it was everywhere. IBM finally saw its mistake and started pushing OS/2 heavily, but eventually gave in and accepted defeat.

To sum up War No. 1: Even though it was first, IBM missed its chance to capitalize on the PC market; Apple created a superior product, but the lack of external licensing severely limited its market share; and Microsoft grew absolutely huge on the success of Windows and Office.

Meanwhile, Novell was trying really hard to show everyone that Netware was the superior NOS to Windows NT, only to be crushed by the Microsoft juggernaut.

This is pretty much what's happening right now with RIM, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. RIM bears an unfortunate similarity to IBM: It basically created the smartphone market and enjoyed years of success as the only viable business communication device. However, it got lazy and for the most part stopped innovating, producing phones that seemed years behind the competition. Apple, meanwhile, is in the same position it was in way back then. With the iPhone, Apple showed everyone how an intuitive smartphone UI should work, and its product took off, but only on Apple hardware with Apple-approved applications.

Google holds Microsoft's place in this comparison, since it has released a product inferior to Apple's iOS. But Google has licensed Android all over the place, so it's enjoying broad adoption. Android is "good enough" for many people -- and it can be found running on devices in a variety of form factors available through just about every carrier.

Microsoft, of course, is filling Novell's shoes. Windows Phone 7 is so lacking in inspiration, it's likely to follow the path of the Zune, which is to say it will wander aimlessly for a few years before being refreshed with yet another incarnation that will do the same thing. (Frankly, that's the weakest part of this comparison, since Novell actually had a compelling product. Novell just couldn't -- or some say, wouldn't -- sell it the way it should have been sold.)

The wireless wars are every bit as heated as the PC wars -- except that they are transpiring at Internet warp speed. If history is any guide, RIM will become an also-ran in the consumer and business smartphone market; Apple will enjoy a steady revenue stream from the iPhone; and Google's Android will basically take over everything else, if for no other reason than because it's everywhere else.

RIM and Google are new to this situation, but Apple and Steve Jobs have been here before. I have no doubt that Jobs knew which way this was going to go as soon as the iPhone was an official success, but he's maintained the same position with the iPhone that he did with the Macintosh back in the day.

If nothing else, it's clear that Jobs absolutely values quality over quantity and always has. He'd rather be a smaller part of the market and offer the best user experience than be the market leader and relinquish control over his creation.

Based on Apple's stunning recovery in the past 10 years, I suppose it's hard to blame him. On the other hand, RIM must see the writing on the wall and know that there's little aside from a miraculous and revolutionary product release that can stave off the inevitable. Google is flying high right now, although the Oracle patent lawsuit may be curtailing the jubilation somewhat.

And then there's Microsoft, scratching its head and wondering how it wound up being the Novell of the smartphone wars.

This story, "Smartphone wars: The PC wars all over again," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com.

This story, "Why the 'Smartphone Wars' Seem So Familiar" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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