The phrase “killer feature” is an awfully tired phrase in the smartphone world. Every phone needs one, every smartphone platform must have one, and supposedly we consumers all want one. Now that we have several smartphone platforms vying for our cash, it is more important than […]

Spy_2The phrase “killer feature” is an awfully tired phrase in the smartphone world. Every phone needs one, every smartphone platform must have one, and supposedly we consumers all want one. Now that we have several smartphone platforms vying for our cash, it is more important than ever for smartphone OSes to have that killer feature.

Apple had an advantage when they introduced the iPhone, because the smartphone market was just getting defined. They knew they needed a compelling phone design, and they produced it. The iPhone OS was important too, but not as important as the phone hardware. Apple didn’t take any chances on that advantage lasting forever, though, and the OS was designed with the user in mind, and was much different than anything available at that time. Those days are over though, with smartphones appearing every day and several platforms on the scene to fight for acceptance.

The emergence of new smartphone OSes to compete not only with the iPhone but with industry veteran Microsoft’s Windows Mobile has turned the heat up in the feature department. Handset makers need compelling reasons to go with a given platform, and they are willing to ditch long-time platforms for new ones due to killer features. Palm has their own platform in webOS and they are ditching Windows Mobile going forward. Motorola has already ditched Windows Mobile to embrace the Android platform.

The smartphone OS space is heating up along with smartphone sales. The major platforms are clashing repeatedly, and fighting to get OEMs to embrace their brand of smartphone goodness. Today’s platforms (in no particular order) are:

  • BlackBerry
  • iPhone
  • Windows Mobile
  • Android
  • webOS
  • S60

While you can’t discount the importance of having good handsets to run the OS, for these platforms to be well accepted each must have a compelling feature for the consumer. We can look at these features on a platform basis and get a feel for the future success of each platform.

BlackBerry -- The BlackBerry has always been (and still is) the king of email for mobile users. The interface is now fairly dated, however, so RIM better get busy updating it for the consumer market. They have been successful penetrating the mainstream market due largely to their email support, but as other platforms catch up in this area they will need to do some heavy lifting in the interface design area.

iPhone – The touch interface was Apple’s killer feature when the iPhone was introduced, but no longer. Android and WebOS are now on the scene with good touch design, so the iPhone OS is having to rely on its other killer feature –the App Store. The success of the App Store is unparalleled in the smartphone world and this is not likely to change, despite everyone trying to copy it. Apple needs to give serious thought to innovation in other areas for the long-term development of the OS. The competition is catching up with them in phone OS features in other areas, and Apple better not rely so heavily on the App Store.

Windows Mobile – Microsoft has their hands full trying to make WinMo competitive. They have lagged behind in the touch interface for so long, any innovations they devise in this area will just be catching up with the new guys. The strength of WinMo has long been in the enterprise world, but this is no longer the big growth area. The consumer market is now the big number generator, and WinMo needs something to catch the eyes of consumers. Microsoft’s advantage in the smartphone world has long been the tight integration with Exchange Servers, which led the charge into the enterprise. They’ve licensed that integration to the competition over the years, so that advantage is no longer there. They have to come up with a killer feature for the mainstream, and they might not be able to do it as the competition is so far ahead of them in almost every area.

Android – Google has done a good job with the Android design to make it a competitive platform. Their killer feature is the tight integration with the “Google cloud,” by making Android stand alone with no computer needed to leverage its strengths. This is a feature that no other platform has duplicated, and Google is in a good position to continue developing that independence from the desktop.

webOS- – Palm’s first attempt at a smartphone OS has been a solid one. They combined a good touch interface, something that is required in today’s smartphone market, with innovative features to give it uniqueness. The Synergy technology built into webOS is a good beginning to tie the platform into the social web. Mainstream consumers are flocking to social networks in great numbers, and Synergy can be leveraged to take full advantage of that phenomenon. It is important that Palm continue this development as webOS evolves.

S60 – Long the OS for the Nokia product line, S60 is stretched at the seams in the current smartphone segment. S60 has evolved from the feature phone world, and it is simply not capable to handle today’s sophisticated smartphones. Nokia realizes this, which is no doubt behind their recent foray into the Maemo platform. The S60 OS may go away entirely, and Nokia needs to make sure that Maemo is a solid competitor to the other OSes. Nokia has a tendency to rely on their huge global handset sales to rest on their laurels, but if they wish to seriously compete in the smartphone arena they’d better get Maemo ready to compete.

  1. s60 is NOT an OS…you should know that…it´s only one of the different UIs that appeared for Symbian, like MOAP (used in Japan) and UIQ (the best one, stupidily killed by Sony Ericsson and Motorola).

    symbian does not sucks, it´s the most advanced mobile OS in alot of aspects, but s60 has an UI is bad for today standards, specially for touch interfaces

  2. @antonio

    You will have to be more more specific with your claim of Symbian being “the most advanced mobile OS in alot of aspects”. What aspects? I can’t think of any. That’s why Maemo is out on the N900.

    1. I agree with antonio as well. You should probably speak to a developer about the OS to know why Symbian is superior to most of the OSes out there. But in a nutshell, there are no limitations, all hardware can be accessed by third party apps, data can be shared between apps, it supports open design and web standards, it supports powerful hardware, it scales to a dynamic range of resolutions, its open, and it supports far more developer languages than any other OS.

      As for S60, its just a UI layer, just like HTC Sense or TouchFLO. Once the new UI for Symbian^4 comes out, not many differences will be evident between Maemo and Symbian from the average end user perspective. And Maemo isn’t designed to replace Symbian. It requires a touchscreen and at least 800×480 res. Maemo fits a small part of Nokia’s strategy, and Maemo isn’t a replacement. It’s not even a smartphone OS, but a mobilized desktop Debian Linux ecosystem.

      The N900 and Maemo 5 have been in development since 2006, when the N95 wasn’t even out yet! How is it a Symbian replacement? The N900 is a totally new genre capable of running desktop Linux apps. Its a desktop in your pocket. S60, iPhone, WebOS, RIM, Android, and WinMo all love to reach for that space, but Maemo IS that space, and has been for years. The world is just finding out…

  3. A question for the experts:

    Will Android become even more of an iPhone/RIM competitor for business users if it gets Active Sync? Or its focus purely on the consumer market?


    1. I don’t see Android succeeding in any market to any great extent. Business will shun the software because of the privacy concerns associated with using Google’s software and I don’t think it offers anything unique or useful to consumers.

      Android suffers from an even greater lack of identity and brand awareness than WinMo due to the fact that the few phones that use it are so heavily skinned.

  4. If done correctly, Windows Mobile 7’s killer feature could be a combination of hardware and interface along the lines of the Zune HD. The new Chassis 1 spec includes some pretty killer hardware and (apart from the fact that runs so smoothly) the UI on the Zune is simply gorgeous.

    Of course, as time passes this will become less and less of an advantage to Microsoft so they will need to act quickly if they want to capitalise on it.

  5. “Apple had an advantage when they introduced the iPhone, because the smartphone market was just getting defined.”

    err? i could have sworn smartphone had been sold for a number of years before the iphone launched…

    and at first it could not run third party apps unless “jailbroken”, so it was more like a media centric featurephone…

    1. I stand by my statement that the smartphone “market” was just being defined. Smartphones did not hit the big time until hitting the mainstream, not the enterprise market. The iPhone, no matter what we think about it, brought smartphones into the home unlike anything that came before it.

    2. James, I think you’re miscommunicating your point here. I agree the market was in the definition stage at the time, creating an opportunity for someone to step forward with a compelling design. However, that opportunity was open to anyone. It did not offer Apple a special advantage over anyone else, but they did use that opportunity far more effectively than anyone else did.

    3. You’re right, Sumo. The market is now better defined and the playing field is much more level now that it is. That’s why a “killer feature” is pretty much mandatory for the various players. It is so important to differentiate your product from the pack.

    4. I disagree with both of you.

      Apple did not define the smartphone market at all. What Apple did was what no one else bothered to do properly – the mobile internet.

      Up until the day the iPhone launched most mobile browsers were terrible, slow, clunky and riddled with menus, menus and more menus with a sprinkle of crashes. And when you weren’t dealing with these issues you were madly scrolling around webpages, both horizontally and vertically trying to read an article. Then oops, browser crash again. Then more horizontal scrolling.

      I still remember pocket internet explorer and how it didn’t work with hardly any sites unless they had a mobile version. I also remember when opera mobile came out and how it finally made my Win Mo phone usable on the “real” internet. Same for my blackberry.

      What apple did was deliver the real internet to a phone with a VERY slick interface to webpages. Double tap and article to zoom in, while obvious now, was a major revolution in mobile browsing. Pinch to zoom, flicking etc on a mobile browser was just gravy.

      When this wore off, they dropped a killer set of tools for developers to not only easily write apps, but make a lot of money off of them.

      However, the App store will not last forever and Apple better have something good cooking.

  6. I think that listing those together is not correct.
    Like when I was 13 I got my first SpectraVideo computer. My friends had Cinclare (if I pronounce right) and some later on had Atari and Commodor.
    Its the same way I look at BlackBerry, iPhone and webOS. As S60 is not really on this list the only two real contenders are the open operating systems being Windows Mobile and Android.
    While ChromeOS will fail in my opinion regardless of your recommendations for them lately, I think that Android will win eventually the MID-Smartphone hybrid market that will evolve in the coming few years.
    The obstacle they have in Google is one and that is their own perception. Add full user experience features to Android and then the XPphone will have less chances to succeed. E.g. give Android a webcam capability for full Skype experience.


  7. I’m shocked how little people know about mobile OSes. I’m surprised you didn’t separate Symbian from S60. Would TouchFlo be an OS too??

  8. I’m a consumer who prefers Windows Mobile because only it offers the functionality that I want, through its countless third-party apps that none of the other platforms can match. PocketBreeze + Pocket Informant. SoftMaker Office. TCPMP + Kinoma Play. Various methods of handwriting recognition. WMWifiRouter, if it’s a smartphone.

    However, I’m not in the market for a phone, either. I’m one of those “PDA 2.0″ holdouts demanding a pen-driven pocket computer that is completely phoneless and has a screen of at least 4″ 640×480 or 4.3″ 800×480. The market at large seems to have given people like me two middle fingers right in the eyes.

  9. Interesting post. I wrote something very similar the day prior.


  10. And for the record, Motorola has not (yet) ditched Windows Mobile – they chose to skip 6.5 and are planning on doing something with Windows Mobile 7

    1. Actually, I think they announced the end of WinMo development, putting all the eggs in the Android basket. I could be wrong, but I think I even wrote an article on it. Gotta search…


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