10 Mobile Predictions for 2010

Last year is in the rear-view mirror, and it’s time to sober up and get back to work. With a sharp — if bloodshot — eye on the new year, then, I’ll wager some predictions for 2010:

Microsoft will acquire Palm. There may be no better fit in mobile than these two companies. Palm continues to spin its wheels despite a flagship device (the Pre) and operating system (webOS) that have garnered raves. Microsoft, meanwhile, is watching its market share erode and inexplicably won’t offer a full new version of Windows Mobile until late next year. Redmond can handle the likely price tag — Palm’s market capitalization is $1.7 billion as I write this — and it would instantly gain the consumer-friendly mobile OS and browser it has always lacked. Put simply, if Microsoft acquires Palm, it instantly regains relevance in mobile. If it doesn’t — and if it continues to stake its future to WinMo — it will forever be relegated to the enterprise. Which is a very small, lonely place to be in the new world of smartphone OSes.

Google will  be forced to police Android Market more closely. Apple has rightly caught a huge amount of flack for app-store approval policies that are unclear, heavy-handed and sometimes arbitrarily enforced. But Google’s laissez-faire strategy with its storefront is sure to spur a surge of questionable apps from shady developers, especially as in-app purchases gain traction in Android Market. So Google will reluctantly pull out its baton to club rogue developers into submission, or to oust them completely.

Nokia will officially deem Maemo its flagship operating system. The guys from Finland will invest heavily in Symbian this year, overhauling the aging platform in a big way. But while it performs much-needed maintenance on Symbian it will officially become smitten with Maemo. Which is wise, because Symbian simply can’t compete with the Androids and iPhones of the world.

Research In Motion will begin to lose substantial ground in Western markets, while HTC continues to pick up steam. RIM’s evolution from a manufacturer of buttoned-down business handsets to more consumer-targeted devices has been impressive, but the company’s phones are far less user-friendly than the iPhone and many of the superphones that have followed — and user-friendly is what the smartphone space is now all about. Also, while RIM has benefited in a huge way from Verizon Wireless’s buy-one-get-one offers, the smartphone space is now crowded with impressive handsets that sell for less than $100. HTC, meanwhile, got a huge lift from being quick to join the Android bandwagon with touchscreen phones that boast an impressive user interface. And HTC has come out from the shadows with a knockout ad campaign that raises brand awareness as it demonstrates to users just how valuable a personalized phone can be.

The fascination with Twitter will wane dramatically. No real data for this one, but I have a strong hunch the phenomenon of 2009 will lose momentum in 2010. Some viable (if niche) business models may emerge, but usage will drop off significantly. The emperor may not be naked, but he’s not wearing much.

NFC will come to market only to be ignored by consumers. It seems I’m in the minority in doubting NFC’s prospects, but if 2010 truly is a key year for the technology, I think its backers won’t like the results.

Operators who don’t carry the iPhone will feel AT&T’s pain. As the (thus far) exclusive U.S. carrier of the iPhone, AT&T is all too aware that supporting the device is a double-edged sword. Data-hungry iPhone users brought AT&T’s network to its knees at times in 2009, and the gadget is causing the same congestion troubles across the Atlantic. The iPhone has long been the device for heavy mobile data usage, but that’s changing as Android gains steam and as other handsets become more multimedia friendly. And that’s sure to result in some bogged-down networks next year. Which in turn will mean…

Carriers will begin to experiment with different pricing models for data traffic. Expect plenty of consumer backlash to follow.

Ad-sponsored Wi-Fi will explode. I know I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but the fact is that most of us aren’t willing to pay much for Wi-Fi. Adjust your business models accordingly.

At least one true mobile-gaming phone will come to market — and thrive. Yes, the iPhone is cool, but it doesn’t offer the kind of controls hardcore fans of twitch games require. Sony Ericsson could fill the void with a PSP-branded phone, but lots of other players could succeed here too. And at least one of them will in 2010.

Question of the week

What are your predictions for 2010?