Picking the Right Mobile Platform Isn't Hard If You Know the Rules

As I write this, I'm preparing for MIX'11, a Microsoft web developer show that's recently turned into a web and phone developer show because of Windows Phone. I'm curious to see what the company says about the future of its currently struggling new mobile platform, though there are signs of hope from IDC and Gartner, both of which have predicted huge success for Windows Phone thanks entirely to Nokia's decision to focus on it.

I'm not so sure.

Of the viable smartphone platforms of today, Windows Phone has the longest shot at success, and while some current Nokia customers are sure to make the leap, I suspect many will use this event as an excuse to see what's happening in the iPhone or Android markets. And that will be a good choice: Either of these solutions is, I think, a better bet, at least for the foreseeable future.

At least Windows Phone has truly innovative and differentiating features. Previously, Microsoft wasted years jamming the desktop Windows user interface into small devices, first phones and then Tablet PCs, and more years working on shells that would sit on top of Windows, trying to mask the complexity beneath. None of these efforts ever panned out. So it was with a sense of relief and excitement that when the company finally figured out it needed to start over with its mobile efforts, it somehow managed to birth Windows Phone OS, a platform that isn't just different to be different but was instead designed from the get-go to be truly efficient in a mobile environment. That this kind of pragmatism is now considered innovative is, perhaps, the best condemnation I can make of the mobile industry, which, in the wake of the iPhone, has consisted largely of me-too-ism and small evolutionary leaps, often delivered piecemeal on a device-by-device basis.

(Speaking of innovation, it's interesting to me that this trend is repeating with the iPad as well. I see nothing on the horizon that can rival the depth and quality of the iPad ecosystem let alone most individual features of the hardware itself. Apparently, history serves as no guide to Apple's would-be competitors. More on this below.)

But Windows Phone still trails its rivals by a long shot, not just Android and iPhone, but RIM's Blackberry too. And that's especially true if you're considering a smartphone for work.

As I noted last week, each of these platforms supports most of what I consider to be the most basic Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies: EAS-based email, calendar, and contacts support, remote wipe, auto-lock, password policies, and so on. But Windows Phone, alone in this group, does not support encryption, either on the device itself or on storage cards. (Only a few Windows Phone models even support storage card expansion, but let's not go there right now.) If security is a primary concern, then, the choice comes down to just Android, Blackberry, and iPhone.

Blackberry does have, and will continue to have, its fans, and even more so in the most security-minded firms, including governments, which often exclusively offer Blackberries to users. RIM is an interesting story right now: The company is experiencing record growth from a unit sales perspective but many analysts are writing it off (as with Nokia's outgoing Symbian) because of even faster growth with Android and iPhone. This is short-sighted: While I think RIM's market share will shrink over time, it's going to be a player in corporate markets especially for some time to come. The only question is how many mobile platforms the market can sustain? Three? Four?

Android and iPhone are roughly on-par, though the platforms each offer some interesting differentiators. Apple offers the higher quality platform overall and the best and most complete ecosystem, and if you have any love of digital media (music, pictures, TV shows and movies, podcasts, audiobooks, and even a surprisingly rich selection of educational content), the iPhone is a no brainer. It is, for typical consumers, the clear choice. It's the one phone that can do virtually everything, and do it well.

On the other hand, Android is improving from an ecosystem standpoint, offers more choice (in device types, manufacturers, and wireless carriers), and is more likely to offer leading edge features, at least on a device by device basis. It seems like a new Android phone ships each week, always with one key feature (4G, whatever) that the competition (and the iPhone) lacks ... for now. But Android is fragmenting because of this choice, too, and the number of devices with mismatched Android versions and capabilities is multiplying. Developers are starting to revolt.

So I get why people choose Android, but until Google reins in the fragmentation, really fixes its marketplace, and offers some kind of cohesive digital media strategy that even remotely competes with iTunes, I can't really recommend it as strongly as the iPhone, not yet. And it wouldn't be my own choice.

And that sets us up nicely for the next big mobile battle: tablets. Today, the iPad accounts for virtually all tablet sales and many believe that Android-based tablets will take a sizable chunk later this year as well. (And let's not forget RIM's PlayBook, HP's webOS tablets, and, next year, Windows 8 tablets.) I don't see this happening, and for the same reasons that iPhone is such a great choice today, so is iPad, if you simply must get a tablet: The ecosystem is in place and best of breed, and there is simply no way Android or any other platform is going to close that gap anytime soon. And iPad, like iPhone, is based on iOS and thus also shares all of that system's enterprise-class capabilities around EAS support. When it comes to tablets, there's iPad and then there's everything else.

So there you have it: I just recommended iPad. Watch out for the flying pigs.

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