In many respects, 2010 was the year of the smartphone. Global sales of smartphones spiked 72% compared with the previous year, according to Gartner research. This year, mobile phones and tablets may become the most popular means of accessing the Internet.
In preparation for this likelihood, smartphone manufacturers are scrambling to differentiate their products. Never was this more in evidence as at the Mobile World Congress, wrapping up today in Barcelona, Spain. Smartphone makers strutted their stuff, introducing such cool features as separate Facebook buttons (on the ChaCha and the Salsa, two phones made by HTC) and 3-D content that can be viewed without special glasses (from LG).
Attendees may have been buzzing about Nokia's partnership with Microsoft, which locked the world's largest mobile phone manufacturer into Windows Phone 7 software. Stephen Elop, Nokia's new CEO and a former Microsoft executive, said at the Congress, "The world is shifting from a battle of devices to a war of ecosystems."
One of those ecosystems, of course, is Google's Android operating system, which is locked in a fierce battle with Apple's iPhone.
Increasingly, Android, not Windows Phone 7, seems to be the platform of choice for mobile phone manufacturers. Andy Rubin, a chief architect of Android, told the New York Times that phone makers are moving in Android's direction because "they can just focus on innovating a better design. They don't have to worry about adding multitasking and managing memory." Android, says Rubin, provides "basic tools" so phone makers can concentrate on design instead of software.
Still, with dozens of manufacturers building on the Android platform, phones could begin to look alike. In order to distinguish their products, some phone makers are seeking out their own special apps (HTC is investing in gaming and entertainment, for example), while others are leveraging Facebook's popularity (INQ, a British phone manufacturer, introduced phones with strong Facebook integration).
Some manufacturers are also trying to come up with a unique hardware footprint. Sony Ericsson, for example, unveiled an Android phone with "a slide-out set of controller buttons" and other phones with built-in cameras, in the hope that its brand could attract U.S. consumers, where adoption of Sony mobile phones has been slow.
The bottom line is that phone makers with rectangular look-alikes are beginning to realize "there's only so much you can do with a piece of glass," as analyst Chris Jones of Canalys says. Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, adds, "It's a very disruptive time. Both software and hardware companies are going back to the drawing board and rethinking their business plans."