Cringely on WinMo: She is dying

I usually agree with Senor Cringely. He writes thoughtful, longer pieces about tech and he often portends grave changes in the industry. Today, however, I’m not quite sure he’s hit the nail on the head.

His piece posits that there is an 85-10-5 split in most markets, most notably the phone market. In this case you have 85% feature phones, 10% smartphones, and 5 odd ducks like Nextel and MVNOs bringing up the rear where the feature of interest isn’t quite smart but not quite mass market – walkie talkie features being a notable example.

He then extrapolates Samsung’s plan to stop producing “smartphones” for the mass market as proof that what they are actually planning is to produce smartphones masquerading as cheaper feature phones. Instead of trying to beat WinMo, Symbian, or OSX, they are going to use Android in a highly customized way to offer smartphone features at feature phone pricing. Fair enough.

His next bit of extrapolation is a stretch. He believes that Android will essentially turn Windows Mobile into an also-ran and could completely subsume Symbian. His expectation would be a world in which the feature/smart/odd duck percentages mentioned above turns into an iPhone/Android/Everyone Else trichotomy. While I’d love to be smoking his happy grass and while I’d love for Windows Mobile to get the heck out of my life, the chance is slim to none. He writes:

If I had to bet right this moment on the mobile 85-10-5 of 2011 I’d say iPhone, Android, then RIM, Symbian, or something completely new from behind Door Number Three.

Why iPhone over Android? For exactly the same reason why the iPod holds that approximate 85 position among music players, including ones using open source software. iPhone has a really great SDK (light-years ahead of any other right now). The App Store distribution platform is great, but locked on too many points. This is a careful timing issue for Apple. If they open the APIs too quickly they risk being blocked. They need to open an API once they are perfectly sure it is the right one and the right way to export that function. Apple is going to relax the restrictions progressively when they better understand the use cases and what are the best APIs. In the meantime it is giving an advantage to Android, but one that I think a year from now Apple will have reclaimed.

Here is my concern: to project the success of the iPod onto the iPhone is tempting but essentially incorrect. The iPod is a CE device. It requires little investment after the initial purchase and frequent and sometimes unnecessary updates encourage brand loyalty. It is a verb, like Google, rather than a formal noun.

The iPhone, on the other hand, is like a MacBook Pro. It’s perceived as exclusive, it’s a bit more expensive, and once you see one you find that you can’t look away. But that doesn’t change the fact that the average consumer will still get the $9.99 RAZR with 10-year contract because of perceived quality issues with networks and phone models. There’s a reason why Verizon runs those “Can You Hear Me Now”/ “You’ve got a whole team behind you” ads and it’s not because their network is better. Networks are highly subjective and my AT&T experience can be excellent while yours is horrible. Perhaps they have incrementally more coverage in areas you frequent. Then, once you’re locked in at a carrier there is very little impetus to switch. Therefore, at best only 1/4 of mobile customers has the opportunity to try the iPhone and over that a miniscule fraction will make the jump. Carriers complain about churn but they never seem to crow about the middle-aged suburbanites who will go through the next twenty years paying $200 a month for a crappy phone in a sad recreation of the salad days of Ma Bell where your grandma leased a rotary for $10 a month.

So, at the risk of having to turn in my fanboy badge I can’t agree with RXC in this case. I could see a 60-20-20 spread with Android in the lead, and WinMo/RIM/Symbian and iPhone picking up the last two slots. I know I’m cheating lumping everyone into a 20% chunk but I think you’ll note that there is no space for feature phones in this equation and that Android will become the de facto feature phone OS.