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"Predictions" that need to stop in 2012 - Windows Phone, BlackBerry and the rest

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BlackBerry

If you had asked us just a couple weeks ago, we would have told you flat out that we would be shocked if RIM hadn't gone bankrupt, sold off BlackBerry or completely opened up to Android by the end of 2012. Now, RIM has a new CEO, and maybe it's nothing more than a clever illusion, but at the very least Thorsten Heins has reignited just a tiny bit of hope in the company. Sure, we know that BlackBerry 10 won't be making it to market until late 2012, and there will only be two BlackBerry 10 devices. But, it is just so refreshing to see some heart and fire coming from the RIM CEO's office that we kind of hope that the ship can be turned around. 

Granted, that's not very likely. RIM has been sinking for a couple years now and ex-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis had no idea how to right the ship. They never showed that they really understood the problem or the competition that BlackBerry was suddenly facing in the smartphone market, and rather than the spunk we've seen from Thorsten Heins, Balsillie and Lazaridis exuded a more reserved bumbling ignorance. The tailspin that the company has found itself in, and the failure of new hardware like the PlayBook are hard to get past, but at least part of those failures can be placed on the ex-co-CEOs. Still, when the new CEO comes out being honest about the problems BlackBerry has faced, and taking shots (albeit fairly weak and somewhat misinformed shots) at competitors like Android, it is a very nice thing to see. Regardless of how well BlackBerry does over the coming year, it seems that Heins will be a beautiful goldmine for mobile technology pundits. Heins seems to know how to play to journalists in order to get RIM back in the media in a positive light. And, Heins seems like the kind of guy who is filled with so much blind optimism that he may actually be able to beat the odds and bring BlackBerry back from the brink. 

We don't really believe that will happen, but really, wouldn't we all love to live through that ridiculous Disney story? RIM may be a Canadian company, but it is going to take some classic American arrogance to pull the company through this rough time. Still, BlackBerry may be too deep to save, given how long it will be before we see BlackBerry 10 devices, and how few of them will exist. And, even if Heins wants to try some radical moves in order to save the company, there's no guarantee that he'll be able to pull it off given that both ex-CEOs are still on the Board of Directors, and Lazaridis is still going to be the vice chairman of the board. A new CEO can be a great shot in the arm, but if you still have a Board of Directors that is ignorant to the reality of the mobile market, there may not be any way forward for BlackBerry. 

The rumor mill will be running for BlackBerry this year, but there aren't any "predictions" that we can see becoming all that annoying. Obviously, people will be making predictions on BlackBerry 10's quality and likelihood to succeed, especially since an anonymous insider supposedly already claimed that the OS "couldn't beat iPhone OS 1.0 or Android 2.0". RIM has obviously denied those allegations, but it still puts BB10 in a troubling light and it hasn't even been released yet. But, we're more interested in some of the possibilities that Heins put forward. He hadn't been CEO for more than a week before he confirmed rumors that RIM is looking into the possibility of licensing the BlackBerry OS. 

This seems like an easy way to boost the number of BlackBerry 10 devices that will be on the market, but RIM would have to be very careful to set up strict rules about hardware. Much of BlackBerry's past success has been due to the tight integration between hardware and software and overall security that RIM had been able to build in since it controlled the entire process. Opening up the OS to outside manufacturers could lead to more security holes, because it wouldn't be able to control the process as well. There is also the issue of actually getting hardware partners to sign up for BlackBerry 10. As analysts have pointed out, there is nothing concrete that BlackBerry could offer manufacturers that they couldn't find in other, more proven platforms. The idea of licensing is an interesting one, but it doesn't work if no one wants to license the product. 

All that said, there is obviously no clear path to success for BlackBerry, but it should be pretty interesting to watch because RIM has set itself up to either crash and burn or pull off an amazing comeback. There's really no in-between. 

The Field

As always, there are a number of other players in the mobile OS race, but the likelihood that any of them will do anything noteworthy, or even have any "predictions" made about their fates is fairly unlikely. No matter how good platforms like Symbian, bada or webOS may be, that doesn't really matter because there isn't a solid driving force behind each platform. That's the side of it all that fans especially may forget. As we've seen with webOS, having a great mobile OS doesn't matter if the management behind it is incompetent. And, that is the problem, to a certain extent, that both webOS and bada are facing. There are other players in the mobile OS race, but when we get to the lower end, only Symbian, bada and webOS even warrant any mention. 

Symbian will only get a perfunctory mention, because like BlackBerry, the platform has been in decline for years. Symbian had been losing market share for a long time before Nokia decided to abandon ship and get in deep with Microsoft and Windows Phone. Symbian had such a big market share that it just lost its number one spot to Android this past year. But, that's the point: Symbian is on the long slide down and there is no one to turn things around because Nokia has moved on to Windows Phone. Symbian will likely hold out long enough to serve as a backup for Nokia in case Windows Phone turns completely bust, but by then there's no guarantee what state the OS will be in. Either way, we don't expect Symbian to make any significant news this year, so let's just move on.

bada is a quality platform, which has been suffering from one major issue: its owner, Samsung, is focused elsewhere. Given that Samsung is not only one of the biggest handset manufacturers in the world, and the majority of its products are part of the Android ecosystem, it's no surprise that bada has been languishing with a respectable marketshare in Europe, but nothing more. Now, Samsung has partnered with Intel to merge bada with Intel's Tizen OS. Unfortunately, that's a small gesture at best. Merging with Tizen will give bada more exposure and a slightly larger market, but overall it really isn't going to be anything more. Perhaps if Samsung were to put its entire focus behind this new venture and abandon Android completely, there could be a chance that bada could make a run at carving out a solid piece of market share. bada already has a good following in Europe, especially in France, and theoretically that could be enough exposure to push the platform in other areas. But, if Samsung is going to keep investing in Android, as it should given the success Android has afforded Samsung, there isn't really that much left over for bada. 

webOS is in a very similar position. Palm completely mismanaged the platform, which led not only to webOS being sold to HP, but a number of the top webOS developers have jumped ship for brighter shores, most notably Jon Rubenstein and Matias Duarte who was the head of Human Interface and User Experience for webOS, who is now Director of Android User Experience with Google. Possibly because of all of those losses, HP wasn't able to find any market for webOS until it put the TouchPad tablet on fire sale this year. Now, HP has decided to make webOS open-source, which doesn't really mean anything good for the platform, but at least it leaves an intriguing ellipses on the story. 

Unfortunately, webOS won't be made fully open-source until September, meaning there won't be any devices carrying the OS until the end of 2012 at the very earliest. But, even then, that would be a relatively old operating system at that point, so we can't really expect anything from webOS. Thinking about this rationally: the OS will be open-source by September, but that OS will be the one that failed with the TouchPad this year, so in order to catch up to smartphone platforms like iOS, Android and Windows Phone, webOS will need quite a lot of development. The only open-source project to find a large amount of success has been Android, because it has Google pushing the way behind it. Mozilla may have had success, but if it weren't for the money it gained from having Google in its search bar, that project may not have gotten as far as it did. Ubuntu has had a modicum of success in the Linux market, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't have any significant part of the PC market. 

We have been fans of webOS, and we liked the ideas that it brought to the mobile OS world; unfortunately, with no driving force behind it, there is no clear path forward for it. The best minds that were instrumental in creating webOS have moved on to other endeavors, so the success of webOS lives in whatever companies adopt it, but we can't imagine who those companies will be. Even if a big name company, like perhaps HTC, were to throw its weight behind webOS there won't be enough time left in 2012 to make it anything more than an extremely minor player in the mobile ecosystem. Perhaps there is enough value there that the platform can be updated for use in 2013, but we don't expect anything worthwhile from it this year. 

Conclusion

As sad as it may be, it is shaping up to be just another year in the iOS/Android saga of "who will win"? If you've been following us, you'll know that we don't really care about which platform will "win" because we don't believe that there will be one winner. Which mobile OS you choose is a matter of opinion, and it doesn't seem that either Apple or Google will be changing its strategy any time soon in order to include the users from the other side. We can't expect Google to close down and create the curtated end-to-end ecosystem that Apple has created, and we can't expect Apple to open up to allow the more customizable, user-centric ecosystem that Google has created. Similarly, without any strong leadership or support, we can't expect any of the other mobile OSes to make a big move this year, except for one: Windows Phone. 

webOS and bada are solid mobile OSes, but webOS has no support system, and bada's backer, Samsung, is too focused on its Android devices. On the other hand, Windows Phone is not only a quality platform, but it has the support of one of the biggest tech players around in Microsoft, and Microsoft has bought the support of one of the biggest hardware manufacturers in Nokia.

This section of the "predictions" didn't really have the legs that we hoped it would, but really, it's far more interesting than any of the others. We already know that Android and iOS are going to be the biggest players this year. It's more than likely that Android is going to extend its overall market share lead, despite losing a bit in Q4 of 2011. As always, once the top players are in place, it's the underdogs that are the most interesting of all. Unfortunately, as much as we'd like to hope, it doesn't look like there are any competitors to Windows Phone for the platform that will take the most market share this year. The real question is just how much market share Microsoft will take this year. It all depends on how well Microsoft can turn the corner from playing catch-up with other mobile platforms to innovating new features for itself. We haven't seen Microsoft do that so much as yet, but we'd like to believe that the talent is there to make it happen. Ultimately, we're not sure it will be all that much, but we certainly wouldn't be surprised if Windows Phone pulled in a good amount of visibility and set itself up for a very impressive 2013. 
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