The last six years of mobile innovation, missteps, and regrouping will come to a head next year. We'll see if Apple has plateaued or, worse, petered out. We'll see if Google can rationalize the Android ecosystem and cement its market dominance through cohesion, and if Samsung can sustain its effort to be more than a mere device maker. We'll see if Research in Motion's two years of promises will become reality with the BlackBerry 10. We'll see how -- or if -- Microsoft recovers from the confusing Windows 8, anemic Windows RT, and inadequate Windows Phone 8, and whether Nokia can hang on long enough now that its Windows Phone bet seems to have failed.
Since 2008, when Apple introduced the App Store and made the iPhone really compelling, much of the mobile story has been very familiar: Apple blazed the mobile trail while competitors either made inadequate copies (Google, Microsoft) or ignored the phenomenon (RIM, Nokia), both to their peril. But in 2012, both Google and Samsung woke up. Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" started to do more than just copy iOS, then Android 4.1/4.2 "Jelly Bean" began to differentiate the Google platform from Apple's in meaningful ways. Samsung took a parallel journey, mostly on the hardware front -- for example, bringing back pen computing and pioneering new form factors -- that resonated with the market.
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Also in 2012, Apple stalled, with an excellent iPhone 5 that pushed no envelopes, a modest iOS 6 upgrade that sported the PR disaster of Apple Maps, a bungled conversion to the Lightning connector, and an unnecessary upgrade of the iPad. Only the iPad Mini was a meaningful release, a return to Apple's tradition of taking an existing idea executed poorly and doing it right (this time, the 7-inch-class tablet).
As a result, 2013 will be a pivotal year for all the major mobile providers, with make-or-break decisions to be made by all. What follows are the key challenges I believe each faces and what they should do about them.
Apple: Get serious about iOS/OS X integration; port iTunes, AirPrint, and AirPlay
In fall 2012, Apple updated most of its iOS and OS X hardware, and what it didn't update then it had updated earlier in the year -- with the exception of the Mac Pro tower used by a very specialized audience. Apple can now -- and should -- focus on its software.
iOS 6 and OS X Mountain Lion were decent updates, but evolutionary in nature. Apple needs to push them both to a new level. That means further intertwining the two. iOS is essentially a subset of OS X, with extensions for touch and telephony, and Apple has done a decent job cross-pollinating the two. iCloud is a great example, as are accessibility support (from OS X) and gestures (from iOS).
But as tablets essentially become the new laptop, Apple should blur the boundaries even more. Android is already doing so, with the notions of parental controls and multiple user accounts finding their way into Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean" and multiple windows in Samsung's newest devices. iOS apps should run on OS X, for example. Also, iOS should support multiple users and be able to easily become windows to Macs (without requiring third-party apps, as is the case today).
Microsoft's Windows 8 is a great example of how not to create an OS continuum across device types. Android "Jelly Bean" has some lessons to offer, but as long as Android stops at tablets, it can't offer the full computing experience Apple can.
Apple also needs to open up its key content technologies, porting iTunes to Android, Windows 8, and perhaps BlackBerry if that platform survives 2013. Just as porting iTunes to Windows made iTunes the dominant music platform, porting it to mobile competitors will ensure that dominance. Apple should also make its AirPlay and AirPrint protocols available to other platforms (both are available in limited ways in Windows now). That may not drive iPhone and iPad sales, but it will drive Apple TV sales and boost the licensing revenue from the protocols to printer makers, TV makers, stereo makers, and the like -- all of whom have held back from full commitment due to their Apple-client-only nature.
After all, DLNA and the other non-Apple media-streaming technologies have foundered or been deployed haphazardly, so the market remains there for Apple to take. But the Miracast standard, backed by the industry group that brought us interoperable Wi-Fi, could finally provide a common standard that isolates AirPlay. The ubiquity of Apple media and protocols across all modern devices made possible by making AirPlay available on competing platforms will mean more to Apple than potentially diminished device and Mac sales. If its iTunes for Windows experience doesn't convince Apple, perhaps looking at Google's cross-platform success with search and maps will make the case.