It is fascinating how, as the technology industry matures, it goes through repeating phases.
First there is the babble of multiple platforms until one emerges dominant. Then the dominant vendor takes its dominance for granted and a new babble arises. This is followed in turn by another dominant vendor until the pattern repeats.
The first dominant platform was IBM, and the platform was the mainframe and IT driven. The second was Microsoft, and the platform was Windows and user-driven. The third will be determined when the current babble surrounding smartphones once again finds a leader to coalesce around, and it will likely encompass both the client and server-based (cloud) portions of the solution. This third cycle appears to be focused on a blend of user and business needs, forming the foundation for the first true digital assistant and a product class that could define this century.
The seeds may be at the Barcelona Mobile World Conference this year.
At this year's conference, the big platforms included Android, LiMo, Symbian and Windows Mobile, as well as WebOS and BlackBerry, which currently is single-vendor. Not at the show, but still a major presence in mindshare, is the other single vendor-platform, the mobile version of MacOS (it needs a name like Baby Leopard).
If I'm correct about what the next platform must embrace, two platforms float to the top: Android and Windows Mobile. This is because LiMo doesn't have the resources to drive the required standards and solution; Symbian would be blocked by vendors who compete with Nokia; and BlackBerry, MacOS and WebOS are too tied to one vendor, neither of which have the strength to do the required business back end to make the offering dominant.
Google and Microsoft don't get there without partners, and both have shown strong tendencies in the past to get the partnership deals they need to get the job done. Google is moving faster and has the lead at the moment on the device and with the required applications store and developers. But Microsoft is more deeply embedded with the critical path business ecosystem and, historically, is stronger at building and driving a developer-based model. But IBM couldn't be beat in its day, either.
We are early into a cycle that I don't expect to complete until at least 2015. Mergers and business model changes (as will likely happen at Apple when Steve Jobs departs) could shift this dynamic dramatically before we reach the next steady state. This means that it remains anyone's game for at least the next four years.
After seeing what happened with President Obama's BlackBerry, one thing is clear -- the result will likely be vastly more secure than we currently have with both some kind of biometric user authentication and a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) to assure the connection and security of the device.
It's the cloud-based services that will define this result as much as the device, and we've certainly seen the beginning in terms of an application store, syncing tools, and targeted SaaS applications. But at the moment this is all a bunch of bullet points on a chart still waiting for that spark of brilliance that will cause something new to be created.
This something new will blend the technical capability of the handheld hardware with more reasonably priced wireless broadband and the cloud to create an environment where it will be nearly impossible to determine where the software is actually running. It is this, I think, that will allow the device to become more intelligent and capable, allowing it to morph between uses that can range from media player and entertainment device to a work tool simply based on need, proximity and location. This, in turn, will finally allow for the creation of a user-focused machine intelligence that will turn the device into more of a Global Mobile Companion than the tool a smartphone currently is, though, I expect, that will take another decade or so.
In the end, it will matter less which vendor wins than the imagination of the vendor that does win. Can it see through the mass of technology to create a solution that, like the automobile was for the last century, defines this one? I think, whatever we call it, this device and service could become the defining product for the current century and that the firms that dominate once the platform matures should be good, much like Ford and GM were, through to the end of it. The result, much like the automobile was for the 1900s, could define a number of generations and, for good or ill, change this world.