Playing catch-up in 2010: Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Symbian

With iPhone and Android picking up more popularity every day, it's urgent for rival smartphones to enhance their mobile software environments, some analysts say. But while Microsoft, RIM, and Nokia are working on better user experiences, phones outfitted with new features aren't likely to show up until way after CES 2010.

Microsoft has the longest way to go in playing catch-up in market share, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, in an interview with Betanews.

But according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, Microsoft, RIM, and Nokia have all been "trivialized" by iPhone and Android. Moreover, Nokia's Symbian environment has suffered most of all, Enderle contended.

Numbers released by Gartner in mid-November show that Nokia's Symbian hung on to the smartphone market lead in the third quarter of 2009, but slipped from its share of 49.7% in Q3 of 2008 to 44.6% a year later. Meanwhile, Apple's iPhone climbed from 12.9% to 17.1% over the same time frame. RIM's BlackBerry also did well, rising from 16% to 20.8%, although analysts concur that RIM's strength is still in the business space as opposed to the growing smartphone consumer market.

During the same timeframe, Microsoft's Windows Mobile fell from an 11% share in Q3 2008 to a dismal 7.9% share a year later.

Rosoff noted that, following the rollout in October of new phones based on the interim Windows Mobile 6.5 release, Microsoft is now working on Windows Mobile 7, along with an updated Sidekick environment codenamed "Pink."

Microsoft's plans for Windows Mobile 7 remain mysterious. But at its recent PDC Conference, Microsoft promised an announcement at MIX in March of Windows Mobile Office 10. Rosoff anticipates that Microsoft will spill more details about WinMo 7 at MIX, and possibly even before that at CES in January.

"You can count on Silverlight support in Windows Mobile 7, although I'm not sure why Microsoft hasn't introduced that even earlier," according to Rosoff. "Also, Microsoft is definitely focusing on finger touch as an option to be supported throughout the phone. There'll probably be a new digital audio and video player that will be much better than the Windows Media Player that's in there now. When combined with Zune, this could make Windows Mobile an even better playback platform than iPhone."

Other possible additions in WinMo 7 might include new portable games and new search and "enhanced reality mapping" features, he speculated. But new phones outfitted with Windows Mobile 7 won't emerge until the second half of next year, according to the analyst.

In contrast, Nokia and RIM have been more forthcoming about their mobile environment plans, even if the timelines remain sketchy.

Last August, RIM acquired Torch Mobile -- a move that should enable its BlackBerry phones to offer the same kind of faster, WebKit-based browsing experiences as Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari, for instance.

Then, at the 2009 BlackBerry Developer Conference in November, RIM and Adobe announced intentions to let developers use Adobe's Flash platform and Creative Suite tools to produce "rich content and application experiences for BlackBerry smartphones."

At its Capital Markets day earlier this week, Nokia presented plans for new phone hardware and software in 2010 that will include larger displays, multitouch support, and the removal of some 350 annoying user prompts from the Symbian OS.

"Apple really shook up the market with the iPhone, because the iPhone showed people what a smartphone is able to do," observed Michael Cherry, another analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

It might not be enough for Microsoft and other rivals to simply "replicate the functionality of where the iPhone is today, in as nice a package," Cherry said, in another interview. "The market is moving fast. Apple is not standing still, and neither is Android."

Nokia, in particular, needs to produce a mobile platform that does more than just match that of the iPhone, according to Enderle. "Nokia is being widely perceived as no longer relevant," he maintained.

The actions taken by Nokia, RIM and Microsoft could also help to spur development of more mobile applications for their smartphone platforms. Beyond usability and feature sets, these three mobile environments lag behind iPhone and Android in this area, too, analysts agree.

In a blog post in October, Thomas Husson, a Forrester analyst, forecast that platform-specific software apps will become less important as a selling point with the impending creation of more mobile Web sites that are accessible by all smartphones. Rosoff told Betanews that while he agrees with this point, he expects that the widespread availability of these kinds of sites could take a decade to unfold.

The gist of that point was later echoed by Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, in a lunch briefing at PDC with reporters, including Betanews. There, Ozzie said he believed that as time goes on, popular smartphone apps would be ported between platforms, thus reducing their usefulness as differentiating factors.

Meanwhile, it seems that Microsoft and Nokia could continue to lose market share to the iPhone and Android, at least until the second half of next year. But Rosoff suggested that the smartphone segment is still so young that none of the leading mobile vendors should be considered down for the count just now.

Only about 15% of mobile phone users have stepped to smartphones yet, Rosoff estimated. "So there are still lots of people out there who will become brand new smartphone users in the future."

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