Smartphone Wars: The Empire(s) Strike Back

Monday October 24, 2011 – Stewart Wolpin

This has been one wacky and wild week for smartphones, lots of fun if you’re an analyst or tech pundit, not so much fun for consumers trying to make heads or tails of this sudden series of one-upmanship announcements.

Earlier this month, Samsung fired the first shot with its three Galaxy S II models, two versions sporting a 4.52-inch screen and the T-Mobile edition humming on a 1.5 GHz dual core engine.


Late last week, in case you missed the news, Apple unleashed the iPhone 4S starring Siri, the voice-controlled comedienne…er, personal assistant.


Then this past Tuesday, Motorola smacked down with its skinny 7.1mm thin Droid RAZR that supplies 12.5 hours of talk time.


Almost simultaneously, beleaguered BlackBerry quietly announced BlackBerry BBX, its long-awaited one-OS-to-rule-them-all (all being BlackBerry smartphones and the Playbook tablet).


At around the same time during Apple’s quarterly briefing, CEO Tim Cook noted the company had sold “just” 17.07 iPhones in its fiscal Q4 compared to 20.3 million in Q3.


But then we heard a record 4 million 4Ss had been sold in the phone’s first weekend of availability.


Tuesday night/Wednesday morning (depending on which side of the international date line you were on) in Hong Kong, Samsung swung back with its Galaxy Nexus with a 4.65-inch screen and the first smart phone running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.


At around the same time (again, I’m getting a headache about relative time in Hong Kong, New York and London), Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer confirmed new Windows Phone 7.5 “Mango” phones would be coming from Nokia next week. This follows up last month’s announcement of the Samsung Focus S and Focus Flash Windows Phone 7.5 phones.


The next day (Thursday), Samsung swaggered that it had sold more phones than Apple in its last quarter, more than 20 million units.


I need a nap.

What it all means

My head is swimming not just with this sudden swirl of smartphone spectaculars, but how radically the cellphone space has changed in just a couple of years when Android appeared to give Apple a run for its iPhone core and made the flip phone as old-fashioned as a corset.

Three things are striking about all this recent activity.

1. If iPhone 4S had come from any other phone maker, it would have been laughed off as hopelessly antiquated – a “new” 3G phone with a 3.5-inch screen? That’s sooooo 2010!

2. Yes, Samsung sold more smartphones than Apple last quarter – before iPhone 4S, after Apple pulled back the 4 in anticipation of the 4S, and before Apple spread its distribution wings to include Sprint domestically, moved more aggressively internationally (Apple says 12 percent of its Q4 revenue came from China), and started selling $99 and free iPhones, finally recognizing true market growth lies at the low end of the market.

3. In cases of too-little-too-late, are BlackBerry and Microsoft Windows Phone doomed? With the way Apple and Android have seemingly split the smartphone market between them, and considering the failure of the PlayBook, BlackBerry’s recent service outage and subsequent reports of a mass migration of BlackBerry users to iPhone, and how late Microsoft has been to roll out Windows Phone updates and products, it’s hard not to think the A’s have it.

The Siri affect

The game changer in this competition free-for-all could be Siri. She (yes, I’m already anthropomorphizing her) has generated an immense amount of positive publicity that has smothered the specification drawbacks of iPhone 4S as well as both Siri’s serious side and her drawbacks (you have to connect to the Internet to do everything and anything, even local tasks such as simple voice dialing). As if in a final tribute to the late Steve Jobs (RIP), Apple’s reality distortion field perception has once again triumphed over reality.

But you can tell Apple’s competitors are spooked by Siri – both Microsoft and Google have taken swipes at her while touting their own sound solutions. Only the worried malign new competitive features with absurdly dismissive “man will never fly” predictions.

Regardless of her pros, cons and sideline sniggering, however, bear in mind, Siri is technically still in beta. She’s already proven to be a sexy prodigy, so she has nothing but upside potential as she grows up and moves to phones with faster network connections and more powerful processors. (Personally, I’d play Yenta and try and match Siri with IBM’s Jeopardy-champion Watson. What do you get for the couple who knows everything?)

And we know the last project Steve Jobs was actively involved with before his death was the true iPhone 5. Due next summer, this is the iPhone we geeks were all expecting and presumably will be a 4G model (finally!) with a larger screen (finally!) powered by the company’s new quad core 1.5-1.7 GHz A6 processor, which should provide Siri with the platform that could turn her into a supermodel.

And probably one more thing…