Opinion: Developers, are you ready for round 2 of the smartphone wars?
Apple and co. press the reset button
Given many are pitching iPhone 5 as the product of a company switching strategy from innovation to consolidation, it might seem odd to suggest the current smartphone market as one gripped by change.
On the surface, iPhone 5 smacks of an Apple content with the current state of play. 2 million pre-orders placed in the device's first 24 hours on sale suggests such a feeling wouldn't be without merit, either.
But it's this very switch from an Apple striving to set the smartphone benchmark by all means possible to one secure in the knowledge that incremental updates will sell in their millions that highlights the changeover.
As iPhone secures its top billing, so its rivals are finally branching from from merely aping iOS to actually taking it on. Welcome, one and all, to the smartphone wars, version 2.0.
No risk, more reward?
If we accept Apple's supposedly strategy switch as an intentional one, it's reasonable now to suggest the wheels of such a phase were actually set in motion after the launch of iPhone 4.
Said device was, in the eyes of many, the last major – and potentially risky – update to the basic iPhone mould.
But, as commentators across the web have noted, while smaller steps forward with iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 have led to press reveals less energised by excitement, Apple's shift to secure its userbase through more modest updates to both iPhone and iOS alike is not without precedent.
Microsoft's Windows 8 is set to rewrite the rule book when it comes to the platform's UI. It's taken countless versions over the course of the last 20 years for the company to fundamentally alter its approach, however.
When consumers are used to a particular model and, happily or not, they lap it up in their millions, why risk rocking the boat with something they may not understand?
As such, it seems those calling for a radical change to iOS's UI and a more daring upgrade to iPhone's hardware with its next device are likely to be left high and dry for some time.
Until it deems its rivals a credible threat to its market share, at least.
Ready to go
Which – as I'm sure you may have guessed by now – I personally think they are.
It may have taken a court case or two to do it, but Samsung is finally finding its own space. I'm no fan of such legal challenges, but I do think Apple's insistence that the Korean giant's initial clutch of Galaxy devices to closely mirrored its own handsets was valid.
Samsung's Galaxy S III, however, looks entirely difference, and – some ill-advised anti-Apple marketing aside – the firm has now amassed a loyal userbase who see Samsung as delivering more than an iPhone-like experience on Android.
Samsung is now confident enough to begin to go its own way.
There's also the question of Windows Phone. Samsung's forthcoming WP8 device - the Ativ S – looks like a more serious assault on the market than its existing Omnia 7.
While Android devices remains susceptible to a legal challenge by Tim Cook and co., so Apple's rivals will be forced to bring in a level of flexibility to their strategy that, until now, has not been deployed.
The idea of all non-Apple OEMs adopting Android and only Android by default is fast dying. Firefox, a rejuvenated MeeGo and even BlackBerry 10 in consideration, the contest between operating systems is one that's still expanding, not narrowing
There is another way...
Nokia, too – presentational fumbles aside – now appears to be back in the game.
The Finnish firm's second round of Lumia handsets gained a lot more praise from journalists and bloggers alike than its initial range did – particularly in the US.
Indeed, it's a testament to the impression the Lumia 920 has made so far that the main criticism most have made is that Nokia is yet to allow people to part with their cash for one. So enthused are they, that the lack of a pre-order process is the main pain.
How things change. In round one of the smartphone wars, Nokia's decision to adopt Windows Phone was initiall view as two fallen giants hugging each other closely for some forth of warmth in an increasingly cold market – a move likely to hasten both firm's demise in the mobile market rather than enhance their positions.
Now, those behind Windows Phone are receiving plaudits – if not yet a rush of sales – for the decision to deliver something entirely different to the iOS model.
The contrast between the two platforms may have initially made handset's running Microsoft's OS as a harder sell, but there's little doubting the security Windows Phone – and Microsoft's bulging library of patents – provides OEMs looking to avoid the eye of Apple's legal department with another route to market.
It's not over yet
All this is good news for the consumer.
A third platform to challenge the top two? Yes please. An Android ecosystem where manufacturers are forced to offer distinctly different handsets to the market leader? That would be great.
And, most importantly, a market where challengers result in Apple abandoning its new found conservatism in order to stay ahead of the pack? That would be great.
For developers, iOS is the platform to bet on right now – it's popular, it's stable, and for the lucky few, it's profitable. But we can't afford this market to get stale.
We can't afford for Apple to roll out handsets that simply meet out expectations, rather than go beyond them. The industry needs to drive forward, and that only happens when all those involved are competitive, fluid, and prepared to take risks.
For developers, however, such statements are scary.
Just as the majority are bedding down in a market will still don't truly understand – try asking successful studios for the formula for a hit smartphone game, and most won't have one to hand – so any acceleration in innovation threatens to muddy the waters further.
But that's what drew consumers to smartphones in their millions in the first place: the sheer speed at which iPhone and co. changed the way we used mobiles for the better.
Five years on, it's time for another dose of that kind of spirit. It's time for round two.
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