Monday, 30 June 2008 13:03

iPhone is the last 'must have' handset, says analyst

Carriers may have been working hard to gain the rights to sell Apple's iPhone, but the idea of exclusive access to particular mobile phone handsets is on the way out, according to an analyst.

"In every market around the world we have seen headlines on feverish bidding by communications carriers to secure the rights to the iPhone," said Bruce McCabe, managing director of S2 Intelligence.

"Within three years, however, the notion of telecommunications companies trying to secure an advantage through exclusive rights to a handset will be dead."

McCabe points to three factors that will drive this change: Android (and similar relatively open platforms), virtualisation, and cloud computing.

I'll deal with what I think is the least important first.

Even though McCabe is looking three years ahead, I'm not sure that virtualisation will be a big deal. Firstly, the CPUs used in mobile handsets are relatively low performance parts. Virtualisation, especially where it is also necessary to emulate different hardware, is a big ask. And even if you want to run HTC's software on a iPhone or iPhone software on a Touch, why do you think the companies would allow it?

Doing the work in the cloud is going to be more significant, but we're not there yet. Look how much outcry there was when the original iPhone required that third-party applications be web-based rather than running directly on the handset.

What about virtualisation. and why do I think Android is the key to McCabe's argument? Please read on.

"Most software won’t sit on handsets at all, but will be online and accessed over networks," is McCabe's prediction. But the more you do on the web, the more data you'll be transferring each month. Mobile data charges are coming down in some countries, but in many places aren't at the stage where you can ignore the cost.

How many mobile carriers provide unlimited data for a flat fee? And how many fixed ISPs are moving away from all-you-can-eat plans towards relatively small base limits with swinging penalties for excess data?

Back at the peak of the dot-com boom, everyone seemed to think bandwidth would soon become practically free. Eight years later, that's still a long way off.

So I reckon we'll all be running apps on our handsets for a fair while yet.

The thing that might make the biggest difference is the advent of Android. The idea of an open-source platform for phone firmware and applications is a very powerful one.

The wide adoption of MS-DOS and subsequently Windows provided with a wide selection of hardware and an even wider range of applications to choose between, not to mention a relatively standardised user interface. If Google and friends have their way, phone buyers might come to see Android as the new Windows - in the most positive sense!

If customers like what they see when Android phones start to arrive later this year - and that depends on what the phone manufacturers' design teams come up with as the Android software - mobile carriers are going to find it hard to resist the platform.

As McCabe said, "Telcos need to get ready for a world where they don't control the bundling of handsets, software, online services and phone plans, but their customers do. It is coming faster than they think."

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Stephen Withers

Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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