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Untangling the stats to establish the smart phone leaders

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So what is the most popular smart phone platform out there? BlackBerry? It certainly seems that way with our former Prime Minister telling his peasant mob to use it to watch a certain coloured TV channel that is otherwise banned. 

Or is it the iPhone and iPad with all the hype surrounding it right now? Or Android? Walk into a tech press conference now and the Google Nexus One seems to be standard equipment for executives these days. Well, if sheer bulk is anything to go by, it is Symbian.

According to numbers by Canalys, in 2009 the entire smart phone market totalled 166 million units. Symbian made up 78 million units, or 47 percent, BlackBerry 34 million (20.8 percent), Apple 25 million (15 percent), Windows Mobile 14 million (8.8 percent) and Android coming in last at 7.7 million (4.7 percent), or a nice round figure that was one tenth that of Symbian.

Yes, Nokia, despite fading out of mind share recently, is still very much the market leader worldwide when it comes to smart phones. The installed base is even more skewed in favour of Nokia/Symbian.

So, a savvy developer should develop for the biggest market out there. One should hurry out and download the Symbian SDK (software development kit) and start playing around, right? Well, perhaps not.

Nokia may be selling the bulk of smart phones in the world, but people are simply not using them.

Another market analysis by AdMob which, as its name suggests, sells advertising to mobile platforms, paint a very different picture. As of February this year, iPhone made up 50 percent of all traffic, Android 24 percent , Symbian 18 percent, RIM BlackBerry 4 percent, Windows Mobile 2 percent.

The contrast in these numbers would make a statistician busy all day slicing it up and writing reports with so much fun. So Symbian may sell almost half the phones in the market, but they make up less than one fifth of the Internet traffic. Apple has just one sixth of the market in terms of unit shipments but make up half the market in terms of traffic.

So, at a glance, one could say that Apple is doing something very right and Symbian has totally lost it.

But beyond those headlines, the numbers have more to say.

RIM BlackBerry may be everywhere these days and may be used for anything from chatting to schoolgirls to sending coded messages to protest negotiators while they are busy debating 4,000-year-old laws from the Babylonian Era on the right to protest. It has a healthy 20.8 percent of the market but in terms of AdMob web traffic, it ranks at a lowly 4 percent.

Obviously BlackBerry, despite how RIM is trying to promote it, is still very much a device focused on its messaging capabilities, be it email, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) or even Twitter. People do not surf the Internet much on their BlackBerries. It is almost as if it were a different market entirely.

The other quirk is Android. Less than five percent of the market by handset numbers but a solid quarter of Internet traffic. If anything, that ratio means that of all the platforms out there, Android users use their phones the most, and by quite a margin. It has less than a tenth of the number of phones that Symbian has but considerably more traffic. The momentum is clearly with Android and with the advent of sub-10,000-baht Androids in the local market this year, it will no doubt go from strength to strength.

As of this month, Google is selling 60,000 phones a day, which would mean it was on course for 22 million this year, just from one source. No wonder Apple is scared of Android and is now using the courts and its patents to attack HTC.

As for Windows Mobile? May Redmond rest in peace. From what was once a two-horse race just a few years ago between Symbian and Windows Mobile, the Evil Empire has slipped into oblivion. It just nudged out the new kid on the block (Android) out in unit shipments last year but two percent of traffic is a sick joke.

To think that just a few years ago they were in a market-leading position pushing their partners such as HTC and Sony-Ericsson for their preferred placement of the Windows logo on their phones. The once arrogant giant of Redmond must now be wondering what went wrong.

Well, selling software and charging a lot of money for what others (Google Android and now Symbian) offer for free is one thing. Google displaced the market from under its feet. Another is the verging on pathetic clumsiness of the platform. Anyone who has ever tried switching a Bluetooth headset between Bluetooth Stereo and Headset profiles on a Windows Mobile 6 phone will understand. It involves icon-based menus, drop-down menus, press and hold menus and a great deal of patience and head-scratching wondering how many cooks were involved in cooking up this demonstration of every kind of UI action.

Locking down Windows even further the way Windows Phone 7 will do (applications can only be installed from the Windows Marketplace) might have made sense when it had half the market. Today, it is a one-way ticket to oblivion.

Much has been said of the architecture and of multi-tasking. iPhone does not multi-task (yet). Windows Mobile has been doing it pretty well for years, though the Windows CE5 core (used for Windows Mobile 5 and 6) has some severe threading and memory limitations. Windows Phone 7 will change that.

Symbian? Well, a hacker recently demonstrated a Symbian S60 Release 5 Samsung i8910 Omnia HD running 62 programs at once. A cynic might say he could have run more than 62 if the software was available, given the relative drought in Symbian applications out there. Architecturally Symbian is pretty good, though hampered by its C++ roots. That will change soon.

In 2008, Symbian was bought by Nokia, Open Sourced and given a lot of money to play with. The first fruits of new Symbian will be the Nokia X8 (touch screen) and X10 (side slider) phones. The future of Nokia and Symbian rests on these phones.

Maemo (now MeeGo) was lumped into the "other" category in both numbers. With only one shipping phone, the Nokia N900, it was no surprise. How it will fare in 2010 with the backing of Intel and Nokia will be interesting. The Atom-based MeeGo LG GW990 cannot arrive soon enough.

Palm? Pre had a chance but the choice of ad agency probably made even the most ardent fan cringe with its retro, feminine image. Its HTML 5 support was ahead of its time, only this year is Google and Apple jumping on the bandwagon. Now it is up for sale.

2010 is all out war for smart phones. 3G by ToT is nice, but more important is the nationwide Edge Class 32 upgrade by Dtac, which means 100 to 140 KBPS real world speeds are now achievable. Time to get (or start using) a smart phone. Question is, which one?

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