Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Mobile Madness - The Middle East's Smartphone Spring

ecosystem services collapsing
(Photo credit: Kalense Kid)
Got a lovely ring to it, hasn't it? Smartphone spring. If you wanted it to sound really cool, chuck an 'i' on it - Smartphone iSpring. Ah, what the hell, let's go for broke - The Arab Smartphone iSpring 2.0!

All the UAE's English papers have stories today on BlackBerry's Z10 and the high demand (and low supply) of the Handset That Could Save The Company. Tuesday is technology supplement day for Gulf News, so its coverage of the relative merits of the various handset choices is more in-depth - laced with original editorial and locally sourced comment, which is great to see. Retailer Axiom got a couple of smart media hits by sending out pictures of customers at its outlets.

Compared to Nokia's relatively low-key entry with the Lumia, BlackBerry has certainly managed to create some headlines, although not everyone's drinking the Kool-Aid. There are major unanswered questions over quite what services will be supported in the UAE - and users are going to have to pay more for data packages and  effectively lose the free roaming benefits the 'old' BlackBerry BIS brought - as I point out in this here post the other day. Quite why you'd queue up to buy a mobile without knowing what services it'll support is a mystery to me.

Mind you, it's funny how media-friendly the smartphone story has become. While other areas of technology are considered most definitely un-sexy, anything to do with mobiles or tablets is a sure-fire winner. One is left wondering how long this love affair will last and when the media will simply tire of trotting out new smartphone features and speculation about who's going to launch what when.

The mobile handset has undoubtedly been transformed - and done more than its fair share of disintermediating on the way. The first thing to go was the radio pager, killed off by SMS - the world's most accidental killer app (SMS was originally only intended as an engineering tool). But how many people have bedside alarm clocks these days? The 'point and shoot' camera has been rendered virtually redundant, mobiles are now music players, video players, personal trainers and all sorts of other things. How many payphones are out there these days? When you start adding payment capabilities, you've got a transactional network access device that will be a wallet, ID card and a window to information and content of quite stunning capability - so mobiles will continue to play an ever-increasingly important role in our lives.

Behind the handset, though, there are important ecosystem choices to be made - and each of those ecosystems is working hard to lock you in. If you buy your content and apps from Apple, you'll effectively lose it all by going Android - a situation you'll experience with any ecosystem hopping you do unless you go Kindle, in which case you can install reader apps on any of the devices. There's a Kindle app for the old BlackBerry, I'm not sure whether there's one for the BB10 yet. That's one problem with the new BB - it's a new operating system so its ecosystem is effectively being bootstrapped from scratch. And BlackBerry has little of the sheer grunt of Microsoft, Apple or Google when it comes to developers. Those third party innovations are key to making today's mobiles work.

It's one reason why Amazon has perhaps stayed clear of the handset market while being so happy to dive into the tablet wars with its fists flailing - the Kindle app lets Amazon support any of the players and effectively place a cuckoo in each ecosystem's devices.

How long that will continue to be Amazon's sole interest in mobile remains to be seen - it's the only major ecosystem player without a mobile handset. My money says it won't be able to stay away. The rewards are irresistible and Amazon has an enormous vested interest in putting content in your hands...

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