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Opinion: How healthy is the Apple-Samsung smartphone duopoly?

Is there room to challenge the status quo?
Opinion: How healthy is the Apple-Samsung smartphone duopoly?

Of the scores of new smartphone models that will launch over the course of this year, how many will we remember five years down the line? Not many.

How many of those will sell in market-leading quantities? Even fewer.

As desirable as the current BlackBerry, HTC, Sony and Nokia handsets all are in their own right, it's the least controversial statement of the year to say that the only serious competitor to Apple in the marketplace right now is Samsung.

And now that Samsung has taken the wraps off the upcoming Galaxy S4, what are the chances of that situation changing any time soon? Minimal.

From what we've seen so far, the S4 ticks all the boxes: slimmer, lighter, more powerful, and with a more robust design.

Most commentators reckon that Apple has its work cut out to keep pace in the high-end smartphone sector - and with around six months before the iPhone 5S launches, that's a fair assessment.

Top dogs

At the end of 2012, Canalys pegged Samsung and Apple with 29 per cent and 22 per cent of the global smartphone market.

But how healthy is this apparent duopoly at the top of the smartphone tree, and what can the chasing pack do to provide competition to the top dogs?

From our slightly skewed perspective in the games industry, more competition is undoubtedly healthy.

Insider analysis suggests that the iOS games market usually generates around double that of the Android, and a lot of developers would prefer it if Apple didn't wield all as much control and, ultimately, power.

For example, Apple currently has no apparent appetite in allowing games with challenging themes to appear on the App Store.

If you've got an overtly political message, for instance, you're asking for your game to be pulled. The swift disappearance of LittleLoud's tower defence title Sweatshop from the App Store earlier this year was just one recent example.

Apple has its own reasons for such restrictive practices, but in doing so, it curtails the independent creative spirit that exists in abundance among smaller, more risk taking developers.

Safety first

That's not to say that Apple's rivals are any less conservative, but it does shine a light on what studios have to put up with when they're considering the creative direction of an otherwise fairly innocuous game.

Such strategies bring to mind what Sega and Nintendo used to be like in the early 1990s, when publishers and developers had to go through hoops before they were allowed to get their titles approved.

As a result, the 16-bit games market was awash with cutesy, kid-friendly games that perpetuated gaming's adolescence, and prolonged the myth that games were just for kids.

It took the combined might of the burgeoning PC scene and the arrival of the Sony PlayStation to shake things up and tailor games for a more adult audience. The market came out of a lull, boomed and the growth and diversification has barely slowed ever since.

If Apple doesn't watch out, it could find itself suffering a similar fate if it continues to act as some kind of moral gatekeeper.

At some point over the next few years, all handsets will essentially be as good as each other in all areas that matter. Brand and design reputation will keep the pot boiling, but eventually the key differentiating factor is most likely to come from content - as it has been so often in the past.

Out of touch?

As edgier alternatives arrive, who's to say that Apple, Samsung and Google won't end up being seen as cuddly, out-of-touch uncles, feet up with their pipe and slippers?

If tech history has taught us anything over the decades, it's that market dominance never lasts forever. The moment you think a company has an unassailable position, along comes a new player to disrupt everything forever. Just ask Nokia about that.

As for where that disruption is coming from, you might want to keep an eye on what's happening in China.

In the last three months of 2012, three Chinese manufacturers entered the Top 5 behind Samsung and Apple - Huawei, ZTE and Lenovo.

Now, none of them are exactly household names just yet, but when you consider that China accounts for nearly three-quarters of all global smartphone sales, it might not be long before people sit up and take notice.

The question, though, isn't so much whether a new handset manufacturer can emerge, but whether a new OS can make a dent.

The signs aren't good. In 2012, Android accounted for a whopping 70 per cent, with iOS reportedly 22 per cent, BlackBerry trailing in at a meagre 3.5 per cent, Windows-based phones at 2.5 per cent and Nokia at just 1.5 per cent.

With such a vast chasm between the leading pair and the also-rans, it's going to take a gargantuan effort for anyone else to make a meaningful impact.

But the comforting thing about market dominance is there's always some cocky so-and-so who comes along and changes everything forever. The trillion dollar question is, what direction is that going to come from?