The Next Big Mobile Wave

The popular history of the evolution of mobile phones is something on the lines of pre-iPhone and post-iPhone, which is, admittedly, quite a convenient way to look at things. The actual history, though, is a far more nuanced (or, complicated, should you prefer that) affair. The evolution of the mobile phones has gone through various phases like full QWERTY keyboards, colour screens, touch screens, WAP browsers, ability to record and handle videos — the list is endless. Reducing that to a pre and post iPhone world does a lot of injustice to pretty much everyone but Apple.

While Apple deservedly gets a lot of credit for changing our idea of what a smartphone is and how we interact with it, what they don’t get enough credit for how they also changed the way we think of how to use data on a smartphone. If you used a smartphone in the pre-iPhone era the one thing that stood out was that packet data was a second class citizen on the phone. The devices were phone-frist and data access devices second, or later. More than the iOS interface or the physical experience of using an iPhone what is seldom spoken about is this drastic change Apple bought to the market – it was a data access device first, while the phone functionality was a secondary issue.

Always On Data

Data being always-on was a game changer. Phones prior to that would ask you which connection you wanted to use to access packet data and if it should ask you again should the need to use data arise again. Taking data connectivity for granted has changed the way we use these devices. More than faster processors or wider and longer screens, always-on-data is the critical path that has led to the state of affairs today in the mobile domain. Pretty much all of our interactions on a smartphone now takes it for granted that it will be able to access packet data. If it was not for that we’d still be largely relying on text messaging and closed access methods like Blackberry Internet Services.

Momentum, Implications

If you look at the winners and losers in the smartphone game, you will see a clear pattern. The players, like iOS and Android, who adapted quickly to the always-on-data paradigm have moved rapidly ahead of the competition. The ones who failed to adapt that quickly, like Nokia, Palm and RIM, have struggled and continue to struggle. Rapidly growing and evolving markets like smartphones place a premium on momentum and you’ll always find that on the winner’s side. Without momentum, the best of platforms will struggle. And smartphones, being one of those rare objects that potentially can belong to every human being, is a ruthless market where you cannot blink for even a second.

Cycling is a brilliant analogy in this case, especially some of the stages of the Tour de France. The best riders always look to stay in the front group — called the peloton — at all times. This is due to two factors. 1) Momentum: The guys at the front have a much better average momentum through any stage than the rest of the others 2) Safety: In the case of unforeseen eventualities like crashes and crazy headwinds, being at the front gives the riders a better chance of working around problems. Always-on-data was a headwind that was unforeseen by the industry.

The Next Big Wave

Changes in these domains can easily make or break companies depending on whether they ride or miss out on the important waves. Even established big companies can die or go through near-death experiences if they can’t ride these waves quickly. If the last big wave was the switch from seldom-on-data to always-on-data (the one that made Apple), the next big wave in mobile could be anything from a multitude of devices using the same OS to devices that are embedded within/on us than being actual handhelds.

Crystal ball gazing, though, is not an easy task here as products in the domain are not often ruled by simple value choices either to the consumer or to the companies that are involved in the game. There is considerable regulatory interference that stands in the way of services and there’s considerable commoditization at the hardware end. For the skeptics, this is the reason why Apple is very touchy about keeping a cash hoard, the size of which confounds everyone. You don’t take anything in this market for granted and ease off, Nokia is a classic example of that.