Apple and Google have already won the smartphone wars, now what?

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Last year, Android and iOS devices accounted for 93.8% of global smartphone shipments. That’s 94 out of every 100 shipped to operators and retailers. And the trend is accelerating… in 2012, the number was 87.7% (according to the IDC). By the fourth quarter of last year, it was 95.7%.

During 2013, shipments of smartphones hit one-billion for the first time, and also surpassed shipments of feature phones. The line between the two categories is blurring – Nokia’s Asha range of devices is perhaps the best example of this (and it doesn’t seem to be included in IDC’s smartphone numbers).

Now, of course, ‘shipments’ is not the same as market share (there are tons of year-old, two-year-old and even three-year-old devices in use worldwide), and these figures are applicable to smartphones only. But, we’ve hit the tipping point of more smartphones than feature phones being bought by consumers, and they’re practically all iOS and Android devices.

With all the smartphone devices already in use (plus the sales last year and in the first quarter of this year), we’ve surely passed 3 billion active smartphones on the planet?

Benedict Evans, previously with Enders Analysis and now with VC firm Andreesen Horowitz, is probably one of the top mobile analysts in the world. He constantly probes and asks questions and shares insights about things that the rest of the market eventually catches up to, six or twelve (sometimes 18!) months later.

In his most recent blog post, he makes the point (in his acerbic manner) that the “platform wars are over and everything is wide open”. Evans contrasts the “perhaps” 3bn smartphones to the 1.5bn PCs in use worldwide. You can quite easily see smartphones hitting 4.5bn in the next two or three years. The number of traditional PCs aren’t going anywhere from here.

And, as interesting and obsessed the churnalists are about the one new feature added to iOS or to Android, Evans says that that simply doesn’t matter and that it’s “really not a very interesting topic anymore”.

He suggests there are three differences between the desktop internet (the world wide web, we’ve become familiar with over the past 20 years) and the mobile one:

There’s no “single unifying interaction model”. With the web, we have the browser. With mobile, we have the browser, apps, app stores, operating system-level services, messaging services, secondary devices (that smartphones tether to), and more. Fragmentation continues.

The ‘discovery’ problem hasn’t been solved yet. There’s no single search box that provides structured, filtered search results. Evans calls this “pre-PageRank”.

The final difference, he suggests, is identity. With an embedded contact list (including e-mail) and layered expressions of identity on top of that like Facebook/Google/messaging apps, mobile offers possibilities we haven’t even contemplated yet. WhatsApp – an idea so startlingly obvious and simple today – figured this out two or three years ago. You simply don’t have this level of identity on PCs.

We haven’t even scratched the surface in any of these. Yes, Apple and Google continue to innovate on their platforms. Very broadly, Apple is moving down the stack and innovating at the hardware level (witness TouchID, iBeacon) while Google is innovating up the stack at the cloud and services levels. Each are playing to their strengths. Will we see them move more deliberately and aggressively into each others’ strongholds?

I asked this question a fortnight ago: Where is South Africa’s next big mobile business? We’re at a time in history and innovation where there are infinite possibilities, given the state of the ‘mobile internet’ right now. Ignore the Android vs iOS noise.

Why is the mobile paradigm (which smartphones offer) not the point of departure?

Start there. Smartphones offer so much more than responsive layouts of webpages.

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