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Day September 19, 2010

Is a Facebook phone destined to be a Vanity smartphone?

What do Palm, Kin, Nexus One, and the Simon have in common?

Beside being market failures, it’s the fact that they were efforts by large companies that had no business in smartphones. What’s more important is that the motivation for participation was not well thought out.

HP, Microsoft, Google and IBM tried (or are still trying) to capture a piece of the hardware revenues from smartphones, but their results were dismally poor. It turns out that with the exception of RIM, HTC and Apple, there have been no smartphone entrants which have succeeded against the incumbent voice phone makers.[1] Furthermore, Apple is the only large technology company to succeed. Studying the efforts that the successful entrants undertook shows that (1) it takes a very dedicated effort, led from the top, and (2) it takes a lot of capital or a lot of time. Those who tried and failed were not dedicated to the concept at a high enough level and were not patient enough for growth.

I think the real motivation to enter the market is rooted in vanity: appealing to the need management to feel a part of something new and important. If you are an ambitious internal champion skilled in political maneuvering, it’s fairly easy to appeal to this vanity in order to secure funding for these efforts.

This string of vanity-induced failures is not likely to end anytime soon. No doubt Dell will keep trying with the Aero, and we might see the PC companies rush in again as they did with PDAs.

We also hear today of the evolution of INQ’s product (INQ Social Mobile) into some sort of Facebook phone. However, is the Facebook phone project a vanity phone? Maybe, but the counterpoint is that this is not likely to be a smartphone. It’s more likely to be a feature phone and, as such, it’s not attempting to be something so grand or vain.

The real comparison might be to the Kindle. A specific, purpose-product built by the most motivated and best-positioned service provider. The Kindle has had some (unspecified) amount of success because it was developed to light specs and with a well-established distribution channel (amazon.com).

So although the motivation might be more sound, the challenge for Facebook will be the same as for Google: distribution. At the end of the day, without operator support the product will still remain a niche.

[1] I note here that Android and Windows Mobile are not phones but platforms and this article deals specifically with hardware.

US Population by Phone Operating System

Since wireless subscriptions in the US are running at about 100% penetration, it’s possible to classify the wireless subscribers as representative of the entire population. So it’s safe to categorize the population of the US by the phone OS they carry.

The left part of the chart shows data from Nielsen that breaks up the population by the OS to date. The right part of the chart shows my estimate for how the platform shares will evolve by this time next year. The non-OS share will still be above 50% but it looks like it might shrink even more rapidly after reaching a tipping point of half the market. (Note these charts do not show quarterly sales but installed base of each OS).

My hypothesis remains that smartphone user bases will be balanced (or fragmented, depending on your point of view) by operator portfolio decisions and chronic constraints on distribution.