Brighthand’s Predictions for 2009

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Continuing a long Brighthand tradition, I have once again made some predictions for what’s going to happen in the mobile market during the next twelve months.

The first of these is a safe bet: Apple’s iPhone line will continue to have a strong effect on the market as a whole. And I’m not just talking about being the best-selling single model, either.

Apple has set the price point for the the entire smartphone market: $200 will be the target price for models throughout this year. Some will cost a bit less less, some a bit more more, but few will be successful asking for significantly higher.

More and more models with an iPhone-type shape will hit the market this year, too. Tablet designs with large screens will be the rage in consumer-oriented devices. Not everyone is going to get on the bandwagon, though; most business buyers will still demand a physical keyboard, so there will be plenty of phones to meet this need.

To go out on a limb a bit, I predict that Apple will meet the current economic crisis with a lower-cost smartphone. The iPhone Nano will be smaller than the current version, lack 3G support, and debut at $99. The announcement could be at this week’s MacWorld conference, but if it isn’t it doesn’t mean this model is a myth; Apple’s not going to unveil this device until it is good and ready, as an announcement well before the actual debut of the device would hurt sales of the current model. 

What about Palm’s Nova?

Many long-time PDA and smartphone users are eagerly awaiting the debut of Nova, the new version of the Palm OS. Fortunately, the wait won’t be much longer, as the formal unveiling will be later this week.

I think Palm’s initial PR for Nova emphasizing its “newness” is a strong hint of what to expect. Although the new version will allow users to run legacy Palm OS, given a choice between making Nova work like the classic Palm OS or creating something better, I expect Palm has gone with the new and improved option.

I’m expecting a user interface based on fingertip control and employing capacitive screens. That means large icons and navigation elements and no stylus. Users of legacy software will have to depend on a D-pad to work with UIs that aren’t finger-friendly. 

I’m hoping Nova has a user interface that emphasizes information and tasks over applications. The basic UI of the current Palm OS — and the iPhone too — is an application launcher. Palm would be better off with something that lets you immediately make phone calls, play music, surf the Web, and more without jumping around to different applications. Think HTC’s TouchFLO 3D.

But the operating system is only half the equation, Palm will need some compelling hardware, too. What I’m hoping for is two models, one with a tablet shape and a high-resolution screen, and a second that adds a QWERTY keyboard. It would be a big mistake for Palm to stick with its tried and true — but boring — standard old Treo shape.

Nova has a built-in customer base, and assuming Palm hasn’t totally flubbed it, will have carved out a niche for itself by the end of 2009. It’s not going to be a major factor in the market, but will still be around for years to come. On the other hand, if Nova is just the Palm OS with some extra bells and whistles running on a Centro’s body, Palm won’t be here when 2010 begins.

Here Come the Androids

As I said, the iPhone will continue to dominate the smartphone landscape, but Android is going to grab plenty of headlines, too. I expect it to rapidly evolve into the premier iPhone-alternative in the U.S. consumer market.

The number of device running Google’s mobile operating system will grow steadily in 2009, and before the end of this year there will be Android smartphones from most of the major wireless carriers around the world, made by a variety of companies, and using a range of form factors.  

While Android is going to do well in the U.S., the situation is going to be different in Europe. Nokia’s dominance of the smartphone market there doesn’t leave much room for competition, and everyone else, including the iPhone, Android, and Windows Mobile, will be just bit players.

I’m hoping for a major revamp of Android this year. The operating system is stable and well written, and the web browser is impressive, but the other bundled applications are too limited. The Android version of Google Maps is a sad joke, and the lack of a video player is a critical flaw.

BlackBerry and Windows Mobile in the Same Boat

I’m lumping BlackBerry and Windows Mobile together because both will find themselves in the same situation in 2009.

Microsoft and RIM have come to divide the business-oriented smartphone market between them, and will continue to do so in 2009. At the same time, both are having limited success appealing to consumers.

The BlackBerry Storm — RIM’s first device with a touchscreen — may put this company on consumer’s shopping lists, but it’s early stability problems could easily hamstring it. Remaking the BlackBerry OS with touchscreen support isn’t a simple process, and it’s one that’s going to tie up much of RIM’s attention for many months to come. By the end of this year, the follow-up to the Storm should have the wrinkles ironed out.

Microsoft says it has been working to make Windows Mobile more consumer friendly for years, but each iteration is only marginally different from its predecessors. Microsoft has the problem of trying to make an OS that appears to teenagers without alienating its business customers. It’s going to take a lot of nerve to make the radical change that’s necessary, and I haven’t seen any signs that Microsoft is ready for that.

While this is going on, Windows Mobile licensees will keep moving ahead, coming up with their own user interfaces and — especially HTC — pushing the hardware as far as it will go.  Nevertheless, even their best efforts will be just enough to keep this operating system where it is now, not moving in any direction.

Nokia/Symbian S60 in Transition

2009 will be a transition year for Symbian S60 in all kinds of ways. The new Symbian Foundation is in the process of merging Symbian, S60, S40, and UIQ into a single entity, and then making it open source. At the same time, Nokia is in the difficult process of adding touchscreen capabilities to its S60 devices, something that can’t wait on the progress of the whole Symbian Foundation.

Nothing related to Nokia happens quickly, so I suspect that by the end of this year Symbian and S60 will still be somewhere close to the same situation they are in now. Progress will have been made, but nothing will be complete.

In the mean time, Nokia will continue to put out smartphones that will sell well in Europe but don’t make a dent in the N. American market.

Wireless Carriers: Yawn

I hesitate to even mention the wireless carriers — Verizon, Sprint, Vodafone, O2, etc. — because I’m not expecting any significant changes from them this year. I supposed that’s a prediction, of sorts.

The only notable progress will come from Sprint/Clearwire, who will continue to roll-out WiMAX service, and T-Mobile USA, which will keep growing its burgeoning 3G network.

Pretty much everyone else is going to be static. LTE, the choice most carriers have made for 4G service, is still coming together as a standard, and we won’t see any real-world progress on it for a couple more years.

One of the few changes isn’t necessarily a positive one. I expect U.S. carriers to increasingly require smartphone users to sign up for some kind of a data plan. Some have already started this. 

 

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