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What Comes after Smartphones?

Doc Searls

Issue #218, June 2012

Will it just be smartTV?

Android (and therefore Linux) is winning the smartphone war, at least in terms of market share. Eric Raymond has been charting Android progress with great care during the past several years, and he noted in April 2012 that Android has moved into the majority position, breaking past 50%, according to comScore data. (You can keep up at this link: www.catb.org/esr/comscore.)

ESR's chart shows that the smartphone war is now between just two OSes. Only Android and Apple are on the increase, with Apple breaking past 30% (though gaining on a lower slope than Android). All the other OSes are, as telecom maven Tomi Ahonen says, going over a cliff (www.brightsideofnews.com/news/2012/4/3/introducing-the-cliff-theory-how-handset-makers-die.aspx). Microsoft is in the single digits and dropping, and RIM announced in April that it was dropping out of the consumer marketplace. That's a death rattle, without the sincerity.

History happens fast in the smartphone marketplace. It's amazing to think that the smartphone as we know it today was born only four years ago, when Apple began distributing apps through the iTunes Store and the first Android phones appeared.

Smartphones are two things. On the smart side, they are whatever we make of them, using any of the countless apps that run on them. They can be magazines, flashlights, maps, seismographs, GPSes, cameras, calendars, games, televisions or whatever. On the phone side, they are still, well, phones. Nearly all of them are bought with contracts that tie them to a phone company. Each has its own phone number and its own billing plans for voice, data and text. In terms of form and status, smart is the adjective and phone is the noun.

So, even though talking to other people in real time on a handset no longer requires phone companies (witness the success of Skype, GoToMeeting and the rest), our phones are still very much tied to phone systems. To a degree that should make us uncomfortable, our mobile networked world is one contained and controlled by our relationships with phone companies.

What those companies want most these days is to get into the TV distribution business. That is, they want to move TV “content” over their mobile networks, onto phones and tablets. Given that TV always has had a huge share of the time we spend staring at glowing rectangles, companies like Verizon can't wait to turn their well-oiled billing machinery loose on TV viewing over handhelds on mobile phone networks.

On March 30, 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon CEO Lowell C. McAdam said the company would have a cable-like video service going by the end of the year, if regulators approve a $3.9 billion deal to acquire spectrum from cable companies. Says the Journal, “Serving up TV shows and movies on mobile devices—and getting paid for it—has been a long-held dream for the wireless industry. With the introduction of next-generation high-speed wireless networks and big-screen devices like Apple Inc.'s latest iPad, ubiquitous mobile video seems closer than ever.” McAdams also said, “We are willing to do an à la carte approach here.” This is from a company that weighs (and bills) every bit, minute and text. Billing for à la carte “content” will be a piece of cake.

While the deal as it's laid out still will require users to have a cable TV subscription, it's also clear that moving TV onto mobile devices is the long-term strategy here, not only for Verizon, but for the other major carriers as well. The setting for this game isn't the open marketplace, where the infrastructure that matters is the Internet, and where PCs and servers can still operate in relative freedom. This game happens in a regulatory space where the biggest weapons are licenses, patents, money and lobbying clout.

The stakes are very high. For example, it's clear that Google paid $12.5 billion to secure Motorola's patent portfolio, not because Google wanted to compete with all the other Android OEMs. Apple, Google, Samsung and others have been caught up in various patent disputes over mobile stuff, and Microsoft recently bought AOL's patents (including many inherited from Netscape) for $1.1 billion. Living in the patented world is not a Linux-lover's fantasy. But the patented world is a better description of the mobile data environment than of the old home- and office-based Internet.

PCs and the Internet both grew to ubiquity thanks in large measure to the absence of regulatory, licensing and intellectual property burdens. Thanks to the same absent burdens, Linux experts today are in far more demand than the market can supply.

Yet, as smartphones morph into smartTVs, the openness of Android will take a backseat to whatever deals the carriers and the device-makers do with the “content providers” in Hollywood and New York.

In Silicon Valley, Google announced in January 2012 that it was investing $100 million in original programming for YouTube. While that's nice in the sense that it's for distribution over the Net rather than through cable or new cable-like mobile telephony systems, we're still talking about TV.

Can we move past that? Maybe we're there already, just given all the other apps a smartphone can run. But I'm not sure. Again, the smartphone business is still very young. If smartphones evolve into smartTVs that also happen to run a lot of apps, is that a good thing?

Whether or not it is, I don't think we should settle for it.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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