The global factor
The final factor hedging against a single, dominant mobile platform is regionality. Given how splintered the smartphone marketplace is across the globe, there may never be the equivalent of a Windows for mobile, providing a near-universal standard for users, IT, and developers alike.
Nokia, for example, doesn't matter in the United States when it comes to smartphones, but its BlackBerry-like devices are very popular in Europe. Conversely, iPhones are not nearly as popular in Europe as in North America.
In the United States, Canalys reports that the BlackBerry accounted for 52 percent of smartphone sales this year (down from 56 percent the previous year) and the iPhone for 23 percent (up from 7 percent the previous year). And the iPhone's pace is accelerating, closing in on the BlackBerry family as the most popular smartphone, according to a September survey.
Europe is seeing Nokia's dominance steadily erode, mainly due to iPhone sales; the BlackBerry has not gained as much traction in Europe. Canalys's most recent sales data show Nokia at 64 percent (down from 71 percent a year earlier), iPhone 13 percent (up from 2 percent), and BlackBerry at 10 percent (up from 7 percent).
Asia is a Nokia-dominated continent, with Nokia devices accounting for 60 percent of smartphone sales (up from 61 percent a year earlier), followed by Sharp and Fujitsu, both at 9 percent (and both down from 12 percent). Both the iPhone and BlackBerry are inconsequential in Asia.
Worldwide, Gartner says the iPhone is the No. 3 smartphone sold at 13 percent, after Nokia (at 45 percent) and Research in Motion's BlackBerry series (at 19 percent). Google's Android and Palm's WebOS are inconsequential across the globe.
Sales is one thing; usage is another. And usage dictates where content developers, cloud providers, Web app developers, and others place their investments. The iPhone is the second-most used mobile device (including regular cell phones and smartphones) worldwide to browse the Web -- and No. 1 in North America and Europe, according to StatCounter. (Opera Mobile is No. 1 globally, thanks to its high usage in more conventional cell phones and in Asia, where iPhones and BlackBerrys have made little impression.) For just smartphones, mobile Web advertising firm AdMob reports that globally the iPhone now has the largest percentage of Web use, at 40 percent, followed by Symbian (mainly used by Nokia, which essentially controls its development) at 34 percent, and BlackBerry at 8 percent.
Developers and global enterprises may find themselves facing regional mobile differences, forcing them to support perhaps four platforms: iPhone, BlackBerry, Nokia's Symbian, and Android -- assuming the Motorola/Verizon combination drives its adoption in North America and adoption by Asian manufacturers such as Aver and HTC helps it catch fire in Asia.
How the mobile market will pan out
The mobile market is young and fluid enough to confound any predictions. For example, Android could fail under the competing interests and reactionary approaches taken by its big-company backers, or it could become the standard forced onto consumers by these dominant providers. If Verizon is disappointed with Android, it could turn to Palm's WebOS and give Palm a new chance at meaningful success -- unless Verizon cuts a deal with Apple instead. Microsoft may pull a rabbit out of a hat and reinvent Windows Mobile in an insanely compelling way, though a Zune-like result is more apt given its history.