At A Crossroads
There’s no doubt that the smartphone market is growing quickly. With more than 1 billion devices sold worldwide, according to published reports, smartphones already account for 25 percent of the overall mobile market. Naturally, those numbers would pique the interest of even the most pessimistic speech developer. However, don’t get overly optimistic just yet; it’s a fragmented market, separated by various mobile operating systems.
Most industry analysts agree that two mobile operating systems stand above the rest—Apple iOS and Google’s Android. But why is that the case when Symbian still holds the biggest share of the market?
When it comes to developing speech applications on a mobile operating system, it seems that which company has the most market share is the beginning of the story instead of the end. Popularity and profits play significant roles and are often considerations for developers when determining how difficult it would be to get an application into the market. All of those issues make for an interesting and complex mobile ecosystem, where speech developers have much more to consider than who has the biggest market share.
In terms of share, Symbian certainly has the biggest piece of the pie. However, its current market dominance is not expected to last very long. (See the chart on the facing page, “OS Market Share Shuffle.”)
Nokia, which had released various mobile phones based on the Symbian operating system, purchased Symbian Ltd. in December 2008. Many say Nokia is also on the decline because it produces low-end devices, which are becoming less popular as the smartphone market expands. The demand for smartphones in the U.S. in particular is becoming more lucrative, and the demand is also spreading to other parts of the world, contends Michael Morgan, senior analyst of mobile devices at ABI Research.
Despite Nokia’s attempt to offer a high-end device with its Nseries phone, based on the Symbian operating system, the company has lost too many customers to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. “People don’t want to buy a $600 Nokia Nseries device; they want to buy a $600 iPhone every single time,” Morgan says. “Symbian was no longer able to keep up the demand for these devices.”
In February, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop firmly established the beginning of Symbian’s end when he revealed the company’s plan to abandon Symbian for Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system.
“Nokia and Microsoft intend to enter into a strategic alliance subject to the completion of a definitive agreement,” Elop said during a news conference in London. “Together we have the opportunity to disrupt the current trajectory in the battle of ecosystems. We have a formidable plan to ensure our collective leadership in the smartphone market and in the ecosystem that surrounds it.”
The move aims to address Nokia’s declining market share. While the company still tops the list of mobile device manufacturers, with 28.2 percent of the worldwide market in the third quarter of 2010, according to Gartner, that number is down 8.5 percent from the same quarter in 2009. Microsoft, which stands to benefit from Nokia’s global reach, intends to bundle its Bing, Xbox Live, and Office applications into Nokia’s phones. The fruits of their combined efforts will likely not be available before October 2011.
While pairing the heavyweight mobile phone developer with the world’s largest software company cannot be taken lightly, not all industry pundits are impressed. “The decision to tie an incomplete operating system with an ailing handset design company is a very risky proposition,” Morgan said in a statement following the partnership plans.
So, should developers completely forget about Symbian? According to Nokia CTO Rich Green, there’s still some life left in Symbian. “Operating system platforms don’t quickly go away,” Green said after the partnership announcement in an interview with conversations.nokia.com.
Green stated that Nokia plans to ship 150 million more Symbian devices, which presents a “unique opportunity” for developers that “doesn’t exist [elsewhere] on this planet. This is a great opportunity to keep going with building Symbian apps.”
At least one contender has emerged besides Apple and Google: Research in Motion (RIM), renowned for its BlackBerry smartphones, is still standing, according to industry analysts. While it might not have the biggest chunk of market share, RIM is still very much a player in smartphones.
One reason that BlackBerry has remained successful is that it has honed its focus on business users over the years. “BlackBerry has a well-defined market segment,” asserts Bill Scholz, president of NewSpeech Solutions and president of AVIOS, who says that BlackBerry peaked with its BlackBerry Pearl offering. “They have also made good decisions to keep them directly competitive,” Scholz adds, saying that the company should not be written off, especially because it is dominant internationally.
One of BlackBerry’s selling points is a unique server that is super-secure. RIM manages BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry communications, instead of having an operator do it. Moreover, as Scholz notes, that feature results in more use by enterprises because they want to keep their information secure.
Furthermore, this kind of server allows for free text messaging among BlackBerry users, which may not seem like a big deal, Morgan says, but it’s a desirable feature for users internationally and makes RIM a lot of money, especially in an emerging youth market.
Windows Phone 7
Unlike BlackBerry, many in the industry are uncertain about Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 (WP7). It remains a bit of a dark horse to some and an underdog to others. At worst, some say the operating system is just too late and point out that it’s struggling for a tiny share of a market dominated by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
“Microsoft is way late coming to the table trying hard to get a toehold in the mobile world, and it has not done well,” Scholz says bluntly. He adds that Microsoft’s WP7’s specs look good, but they are far behind the leaders in this space, and that it’s currently difficult to take them too seriously. “I would not invest a penny in it,” he says.
However, there are a few who say that there’s still time and hope for WP7 to catch up with the pack. According to Morgan, the WP7 application tends to end up in the purview of a big programming house. “They have some revenue and can afford to take their time for development,” he asserts.
Others, like Bill Meisel, president of TMA Associates, state that WP7 is a “sleeper” and that, despite Apple’s acquisition of Siri, Apple might end up falling short because the company doesn’t have its own speech recognition engine.
“They [Microsoft] are trying very hard to have good speech technology, and Apple is the one that will play catch-up with VUI [voice user interface] when speech becomes a critical part of things,” he says.
Despite its slower pace, which might get a boost from the Nokia partnership, Microsoft has already proven its commitment to speech technology with the acquisition of voice services company TellMe in 2007. Microsoft TellMe representatives assert that the combined entity is competitive with iOS and Android because the pair offers a different approach in creating a mobile experience.
“Today’s phones take a very traditionally PC-like approach in that they are built around icons linking to apps,” Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Windows Phone 7, said in an interview with thealistdaily.com. “To get information, users must run the applications one by one. They force the user to coordinate across the device and piece together disconnected experiences.”
Instead, WP7’s interface is integrated into the phone’s design, he said. “Windows Phone 7 is built around the tasks users really do, integrating them seamlessly with a rich, ‘glanceable’ home screen view and common experiences, like photos, gaming, and productivity built into “hubs” designed specifically for those tasks,” Sullivan said in the interview.
Android versus iOS
Aside from their growing popularity in the U.S. market, Android and Apple’s iOS are appealing because, beyond Internet capabilities, the operating systems offer a variety of services and tasks that can be accomplished by downloading applications.
While Android is still relatively new, at least newer than Apple, the former has been gaining on Apple for awhile and is growing quickly. Nielsen reported recently that Android had snagged 40 percent of smartphone purchases during the six months leading up to November 2010.
While it remains to be seen whether Apple will catch up—especially as Verizon adds the iPhone to its network and as Apple’s CEO takes a break for his health—there are other reasons Android is moving ahead. It has an open-source operating system that’s free and speech that’s more integrated into the device than Apple, which uses third-party services provided by Vlingo and Nuance.
“Android is the new kid on the block that a lot of people think will overtake Symbian and become the most popular OS, probably by sometime next year if it continues at this pace,” Morgan asserts. One reason he thinks Android will succeed is that Google is not afraid to go anywhere: The company will make a high-end device, but it also will come out with low-end devices. “You may have not seen them, but they’re going to creep into the market,” Morgan adds.
Not surprisingly, Android’s free open-source operating system is one of the central reasons that many application designers create their first applications on the Android. The goal of developers is to get an application together and get it to the market quickly so it can sell.
“If I’m an app developer, what do I care about?
The answer is always very simple: I want to make some money...for these poor guys time is money,” Morgan says. “If they want to go full time on this, they have to quit their jobs, have the app written, posted, and selling in a short amount of time before going broke. So economics really point people to Android or iOS/Android. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing.” He affirmed that Android is usually where inexperienced developers first turn when putting out an application.
As most are aware, Apple’s iOS is the most rigid, exercising tight control over which applications are allowed into its highly lucrative App Store. Apple can, however, afford to be stringent because of its popularity, though designers have to consider that it takes longer to access the development tools and it costs $100 a year until you’ve basically earned access, according to Scholz.
“I won’t say they invented it, but [Apple] really brought the App Store to market. It becomes the draw—go to iOS first, they have 300,000 apps,” Morgan says.
Morgan also points out that Google followed suit with its version of the App Store, called Android Market, and that Android has fewer restrictions than Apple about what it will allow in its storefront. “Maybe it’s not as flashy and tailored as the App Store, but it’s up there, it’s big, and it’s growing. So those become the two choices to start with, and sometimes after that designers will move to designing an app for BlackBerry,” he says.
James Larson, vice president of Larson Technical Services, agrees that Android will grow in popularity, particularly because of the number of applications it supports. “iPhone is currently popular...but Apple has inhibited some vendors by the App Store acceptance policies.”
Scholz contends that iOS and Android are both good phones with solid operating systems. But he points out that Android allows for tighter integration of speech technology and that any place there’s a text input, people could use a microphone icon to speak. For the iPhone to conduct similar tasks, it must use third parties like Nuance and Vlingo.
Morgan states that Nuance has a legacy in speech technology, but Google has other offerings. Google “doesn’t have the heritage of Nuance, but what Google has that Nuance doesn’t is an incredibly powerful global server farm that can process speech requests in the cloud pretty quickly. And that will be the battle you will see.”
In addition, companies like Vlingo offer a way to add speech to an application even when the developer doesn’t know anything about speech, which could allow for many more speech applications in the future. Morgan says he considers Vlingo to be the tip of the spear.
Vlingo figured out how consumers can simply say, for example, Text Vicki, Morgan says. He adds that the company is saying to developers, “‘We know you don’t understand how to make speech work right. It’s not just a science; it’s a bit of an art to make it a user interface.’”
As far as popularity and ease of creation are concerned, there might be other aspects to consider when designing an application. Larson cautions developers who might look only to platforms on which development is easy, saying that they should instead choose a platform that will be widely employed by their intended user base.
Unfortunately, even that is a relatively small market, according to Morgan, who says that users still aren’t taking full advantage of mobile speech technology. “Nobody seems to intuitively think, ‘I’ll just touch the microphone,’” Morgan says, explaining that users who have had bad experiences with speech recognition will eschew a speech mode in favor of text searches.
He expresses hope, however, that if users tried it, they would see that it works well. “Voice search is a gateway to exposing people to voice on a mobile device,” says Morgan, who adds that he often uses the speech interface now.
—with additional reporting by David Myron
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