Predicting the Future of Phones is Unpredictable

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Bad news, Apple: The iPhone's market share is poised to take a tumble over the next few years. Between now and 2014, in fact, iOS devices will fall from 14.7 percent of phones sold to 10.9 percent, a 25.9 percent drop. Android phones, meanwhile, will boom, going from 16.3 percent market share to 24.6 percent, a 51.2 percent bump. RIM's BlackBerry OS will dip slightly, from 17.9 percent to 17.3 percent; Windows Mobile will go from 6.8 percent to 9.8 percent. And even though handsets based on Nokia's Symbian will fall from 40.1 percent share to 32.9 percent, they'll still outsell every other mobile OS.

That, at least, is the truth as predicted by research firm IDC. The company has released those numbers as part of its sales forecasts for "converged mobile device operating systems." They certainly sound plausible. But I'm struck by how precise these 2014 numbers are. IDC's phone experts clearly think they can extrapolate a great deal from the current trajectories of major phone operating systems.

But change in the tech industry isn't always about trajectories -- sometimes it's about unexpected twists and big bangs that even experts can't anticipate. I'm pretty smart for my age, but I know enough to know that if I tried to predict what sort of phones Apple, RIM, Nokia, and Google's Android partners will be making in 2014, I'd probably be badly off on multiple major points. And absent a clear picture of what smartphones will be like in four years, I'd have a tough time saying anything intelligent about how the competitive field will shape up.

All of which leads to an obvious question: What sort of predictions did IDC make about today's phone market four years ago? So I dug up a story from 2006 with some IDC forecasts for 2010. The 2005 data focuses on enterprise smartphones, not the larger market -- which makes sense, since the consumer smartphone market didn't really quite exist yet. But it's clear that IDC failed to pull off the remarkable feat of foreseeing the amazing changes that would happen over the next few years.

In 2006, it predicted that Windows Mobile would have 32.3% of the market in 2010 (now it says that Microsoft has 6.8 percent). And it estimated that BlackBerrys would have 14.9 percent share (OK, that's not radically off its current figure for 2010: 17.9 percent).

What were IDCs 2006 estimates for iPhone and Android sales in 2010? That's easy: It didn't make any, because neither platform had been announced. As far as IDC knew, the typical "converged" handset of 2010 was going to sport a physical QWERTY keyboard and maybe a stylus, and it would run an OS from a company with years of phone experience and a large customer base.

You can't blame IDC for not realizing that the two dominant phone platforms in 2010 would be ones that didn't exist in 2006, invented by companies that weren't in the phone business in 2005. And I don't mean to bash the firm (which, like my former employer PCWorld, is a division of IDG). Other research companies make these sort of predictions all the time and take the same risk of being utterly blindsided by reality.

(In fact, I could have written this story about Piper Jaffray, which released its own predictions about the future of the phone market this week. Then again, in 2005 the company's Gene Munster correctly guessed that Apple might make a handset called the iPhone...although he also thought that Apple would probably get into the phone business by becoming a virtual wireless carrier.)

It's entirely possible that IDC's numbers will look downright prescient come 2014. But I'm thinking that the chances are at least as good that something will happen in 2011, 2012, or 2013 that changes everything. If we all end up carrying Facebookphones, Twitterphones, or phones from some company that hasn't been founded yet, you heard it here first...

This story, "Predicting the Future of Phones is Unpredictable" was originally published by Technologizer.

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