Back in January of 2007, when Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, it was positioned as taking the previously limited usefulness of the mobile phone to an altogether new level, by appealing to a wider market than the business-oriented Blackberry. At the time, this wasn’t an ill-supported claim, as the iPhone offered a range of applications, or apps, beyond what was available in any other device, including RIM’s immensely popular Blackberry and Nokia’s Symbian phones.
Of course, it wasn’t very long before other devices hit the market, each offering its own set of unique qualities, and each a pretender to the throne that Apple had so thoroughly claimed. By April of the same year, Microsoft had sold millions of its Windows Mobile phones, and in November, Google began offering its open-source Android operating system for free in an attempt to make up for lost time and become a player in the smartphone market. It wasn’t too long before the appeal of the Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and Symbian fizzled, but the Android started looking like it could actually pose a threat to the iPhone’s supremacy. The biggest obstacles the Android had to overcome were Apple’s juggernaut marketing program and the rapidly swelling list of apps available through its iTunes Store. But the focus on all fronts was still to offer a be-all and do-all mobile phone.
Specialization begins to drive the market
Customers liked the iPhone’s ease of use, attractive design, and reputation for reliability, but the more they used their mobile phones, the more they demanded higher-end features, particularly a camera capable of taking pictures whose quality surpassed that of cheap point and shoot film cameras. The rush to include higher-resolution cameras began, and ironically, Apple lagged behind some of its competition in the race to higher resolution. The iPhone still remained the popular choice as a music player, however, largely due to users’ familiarity with and affection for the ipod music players upon which the iPhone’s player was based. And the once-ubiquitous Blackberry retained a much reduced market segment, consisting almost entirely of corporate and government users.
Manufacturers other than Apple began catering to smaller niche market demands in their subsequent designs, while still developing models that they hoped would chip away at Apple’s market supremacy in the user segment that still wanted an intuitive universal appliance. In 2014, Android sales surpassed 1 billion devices, eclipsing Apple’s 192 million iPhone sales.
Lest anyone mistakenly believe that this is bad news for Apple, it should be noted that the Android sales figure represents all Android phones built by many different companies, including Motorola, Samsung, LG, and others. Apple is still the only company making iPhones, and largely as a result of iPhone sales, has ascended to become the most profitable and wealthy company in the world.
The different manufacturers who base their phones on the Android operating system have each endeavored to carve out their niche in the huge market, offering extreme high-definition displays, ultra high definition still and video cameras, durability to withstand abuse that would destroy more delicate mobile phones, and, in a relatively new twist, music players that appeal to actual musicians, and are capable of reproducing good sound in a small package.
It is anyone’s guess which direction the mobile phone market will ultimately take. There are segments of the market that demand everything from the simplest basic phones of previous decades to pocket computers that can perform all the functions of a desktop system and everything in between. Fortunately, there are also plenty of companies that are eager to fill a specific part of that market. It is doubtful that we will see audiophile level music players or professional grade cameras in our smartphones anytime soon, but even these doubts are based in a perception of limited space and battery capacity that could well be overcome in the very near future. The one thing of which we can be fairly well assured is that whatever features are on our smartphone wish list, there will likely be a phone in our future that manages to check all the boxes. And that is a good thing by any measure.