With Google Inc.’s GOOG +1.59% $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola MSI +0.48% Mobility and Microsoft Corp.’s MSFT -4.55% $7 billion purchase of Nokia Corp.’s NOK1V.HE +33.94% phone business, we are now inside a truly converged world, where distinctions between form and function have evaporated. Software is hardware. Hardware is software. Everything is everything.
BlackBerry BB.T +1.03% tried it before, though never on this scale. Today only two true mobile “ecosystems” have flourished: Apple Inc.’s AAPL +0.28% iOS and Google’s Android. We are now witnessing the collapse and reordering of the remnants, with Nokia, Microsoft, HTC and BlackBerry chief among them.
What happens next? Here are five things to consider:
1. Scale matters more than ever before.
Building mobile ecosystems are the massive industrial projects of our age—requiring synchronized engineering, programming, evangelization and marketing. Apple has been most adept at this task, but Google hasn’t been far behind, with a different approach of licensing its Android mobile operating system far and wide.
Scale in distribution obviously allows for these costs to be amortized across tens or hundreds of millions of units. This is why BlackBerry’s net margins turned negative after the launch of its new phone, and Apple’s net margins barely budged. (Interestingly, Nokia outspent Apple’s $4.2 billion research and development budget by $1.3 billion over the last 12 months.)
But what’s now required is a different kind of scale—a scale of skills. This means every company is trying to get better at another side of the business. Google gambled on a Motorola purchase to get better at hardware. Samsung has proved a masterful and profligate marketer, but still lacks its own software platform (more on this later). Apple has to refresh a software and services platform that has gotten stale.
Microsoft’s Nokia purchase is unique in that neither has proved adept at hardware nor software. Nokia’s smartphone market share has been in decline and is now at just 3% through the first half of 2013. What suggests that Microsoft can do better over time? Having just announced it was writing off $900 million on its heavily-promoted Surface tablet, Not much.
2. The coming Google-Samsung showdown
All of those factors get us to the real action in the smartphone market: The relationship between Google and Samsung. Right now the two are in a relatively peaceful détente, as each has helped build world-wide Android share to an impressive 79%. They need each other for now.
But for how long? Some clues surfaced in March, when Samsung showed off new handsets at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. There it made paltry mention of Google and Microsoft. The Samsung name was paramount.
Samsung is trying to create its own operating system with Intel, called Tizen, but it remains underdeveloped. Google’s purchase of Motorola at least gives it some measure of independence should Samsung split off in the years ahead. For now, though, Samsung lacks an alternative. Look for it to eventually build or buy its own—which would splinter the current ecosystem world into Apple, Google, Samsung, and the ragtag stragglers.
3. Competition is from the Eastern periphery. Not the Western core.
BlackBerry, Nokia, HTC. Just three years ago, each legitimate players with devoted customer bases, and each challengers to the Apple and Android ecosystems.
It is probably best to put these names aside when assessing the future of competition. BlackBerry is willing to sell itself for parts. HTC is in financial straits of its own, with sales down 22% from a year ago.
Instead, think of the following: Huawei Technologies Co., Lenovo Group Ltd., ZTE Corp, and China Wireless Technologies Ltd. 2369.HK 0.00% In fact, China-based Huawei had the world’s third-largest smartphone share at various points in 2012.
These companies are important largely because they are where the new smartphone buyers are: China. Despite massive growth, today less than half the country’s phone-using population goes online.
These firms have largely hitched themselves to Android, and will probably continue to do so. But two years from now, it may matter much more to the market what happens with Coolpad—a cheap offering from China Wireless, than the newest BlackBerry. And in that are the potential seeds to long-term competition to Apple and Google.
4. Developers lose leverage.
Unless Microsoft can develop a true alternative to Apple and Android, software developers will continue to lose leverage in the marketplace. Broadly speaking, each will have little choice but to commit to the two ascendant platforms. This will only enhance those platforms’ power—a matter of scale that Microsoft knows all too well from Windows.
5. The winner is the network.
Lost in today’s shuffle was the final announcement of Verizon Communications Inc.’s $130 billion buyout of the remainder of Verizon Wireless.
There’s a reason this number is so large. As these ecosystems get ever more advanced, the opportunity for serving more data gets equally enticing. The barriers to entry for building wireless networks also remain very high.
In a world where everything is everything, the distinctions between good hardware and good software won’t matter much to the middleman. Whatever happens to Microsoft, there will be more bits floating up and down these networks than we could possibly have dreamed of.