Smartphones in a world without iOS

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There is a theory in quantum mechanics, many-worlds interpretation, which implies that the universe branches into multiple parallel universes for every probability. There could well be a parallel universe in which Apple decided not to release an iPhone, others where Apple itself does not exist.

Have you ever wondered what a smartphone would look like today if it wasn’t for Apple?

January 2007, a paradigm shift from Apple

The late Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone five years ago. In development since 2005, the iPhone was designed from the ground up as a touchscreen device. With no keyboard or keypad there is no denying it marked a paradigm shift in user interface and user experience for a mobile device.

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Smartphones prior to 2007

To truly understand how a modern day smartphone would look had the iPhone not existed we need to rewind to 2006 and examine the devices, the trends and the companies in the pre-iPhone world.

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The joint venture between Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia took place in 1998 with the formation of Symbian Ltd. Nokia was undoubtedly a giant in Europe in the early 2000's, releasing a number of popular Symbian smartphones. To make things confusing, the UI and platform running atop the Symbian OS could vary, for example Sony Ericsson utilised UIQ while Nokia employed the S60 platform.

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Symbian may well be quirky, but in terms of features it had the capabilities one could expect from a smartphone. Email, web browsing, Java applications, 3G support, etc - all present in pre iPhone Symbian devices. The Sony Ericsson P990i above was released in August 2006.

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While Symbian was almost confined to Europe the USA similarly had Palm OS confined to its shores. Originally intended for use in PDA's the Palm OS was launched in 1996. Palm OS 5 was unveiled in 2002 as their ARM port. The Treo 700p released in 2006 received mixed reviews, with many bugs, a lack of GSM support, lack of multi-tasking support, lack of Wi-Fi support, limited graphics and so on. Palm was also releasing devices with Windows Mobile, which is understandable given Palm OS limitations.

Though Palm had done great things, I don't think they were in a position at this point to influence the future of smartphones with or without the iPhone's existence.

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In this crowd RIM is the young start up, the first BlackBerry smartphone was released in 2003. BlackBerry smartphones of this era were certainly full featured with push email, web browsers, multi-tasking, third-party application support, etc. Though RIM had many strengths, their BlackBerry OS remained on their own hardware. This limitation in form-factor support is a double-edged sword - the OS is highly optimised for the hardware but gives limited room to scale well to other hardware designs.

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Windows Mobile was born in 2003, from the previously titled Pocket PC operating system, it is based on Windows CE which dates back to 1996. Microsoft was clearly well established in the mobile market. Windows Mobile 6.0 was announced in February 2007, far too soon to be a reaction to iPhone, thus is a great example of Microsoft's view for the mobile future prior to iPhone.

In terms of functionality, Windows Mobile 6 certainly ticks the boxes for smartphones. Email, web, third party applications, it's all there. The UI, however, is rudimentary, with multiple layers of menus WM6 is essentially a desktop UI trying to scale down into a phone screen - there is even a start menu. What is noteworthy with WM6 is the form factor support is very broad, touch screen support through stylus was widespread. WM6 was widely regarded as the best mobile OS at this time.

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"Windows Mobile 6 is the best mobile operating system out there, but I say that guardedly. It's still clunky, with some memory leaks and seriously unintuitive parts. But the other mobile options fall short in major ways. Palm OS still doesn't multitask, and doesn't work at all on new GSM 3G networks. It's an OS of the past. Symbian suffers from a low profile in the US, with relatively few devices available, and it has its own quirky ways of doing things. Blackberry OS is smooth and stable, but just beginning to develop its potential in terms of media and third-party apps. We've heard great things about Linux, but nobody's yet managed to convince a major US carrier to pick up a Linux smart phone. The radically new interfaces of Apple's iPhone could give Microsoft's team a kick in the pants, but that phone isn't out yet."

- PC MAG, Feb '07

Along came Google

Android Inc. was founded in 2003 by Andy Rubin (& others) and was acquired by Google in 2005. Android wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to iPhone, this was happening literally years before the iPhone. Google knew the mobile future was on the horizon and we see evidence for this in many places. Eric Schmidt's 'mobile-first' Google strategy was a clear sign the company was targeting mobile services. Let's rewind to September last year when Dieter Bohn reported on some of the files surfaced by the Oracle vs Google case. Also, more recently where early Android concepts have also been surfaced by this case.

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"It is widely believed by that if an open platform is not introduced in the next few years then Microsoft will own the programmable handset platform: Palm is dying, RIM is a one-trick pony, and while Symbian is growing market share, it's becoming a Nokia only solution."

Andy Rubin, 2005

We have also seen early Android prototype hardware running an early build of the software. Again this is a portrait QWERTY design. However, we cannot blindly assume that Android phones were likely going to be devices with physical keyboards and without touchscreens. The first time Google publicly announced the Android platform was in November 2007 with a release of the Android SDK and a YouTube clip which shows Android running on larger screen devices. Dianne Hackborn, a Google employee working in the Android Engineering group, came to the defence of Android.

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"From a software perspective, Sooner and Dream were basically the same -- different form-factors, one without a touch screen… The main reason for the differences in schedule was hardware: Sooner was a variation of an existing device that HTC was shipping, while Dream was a completely new device with a lot of things that had never been shipped before, at least by HTC (new Qualcomm chipset, sensors, touch screen, the hinge design, etc). So Sooner was the safe/fast device, and Dream was the risky/long-term device…

Even if there was no iPhone, there is a good chance that Sooner would have been dropped, since while it was a good idea to get Android out quickly from a hardware perspective, the software schedule was much longer. I don't recall the exact dates, but I believe the decision to drop Sooner was well before the iPhone announcement... So be careful when you look at screen shots. People who aren't programmers, understandably, see a UI and take that to be all there is to know. We should know however that what is behind the part you can see is actually a lot more complicated, stuff you could never realize just from what you see with your eyes."

Dianne Hackborn, Android Framework Engineer

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Crystal ball gazing

In chaos theory there is the frequently used concept of the butterfly effect, in short it describes the sensitivity of an event based on initial conditions. Something as seemingly insignificant as a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa could change the entire global weather pattern because of their highly complex and chaotic nature. This could well be true of history, the smallest changes might have large impacts on the course of events. For that reason I would like to caveat everything beyond this point as pure speculation.

Android without iPhone

The hardest question to answer is just how Android would look without the iPhone. With the Android SDK released in November 2007 and large touch-screen devices seen at this time it's hard to imagine that Google really changed the entire Android interface in under a year. However, we have seen are plenty of physical keyboard conceptual devices and prototype devices for Android, and an OS that has a user interface much heavier in menus and older fashioned, almost similar to Windows Mobile.

I have no trouble in believing that Android was also being developed for big screens, and that contrary to recent news it wasn't simply going to be limited to form factors similar to BlackBerry. Let's not forget that that there were devices with large touchscreens running Symbian and Windows Mobile before the iPhone came along, and that Google was clearly looking to compete with Microsoft.

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The first set of assumptions is that Android would be more menu-heavy, rely on physical keypad and/or keyboard and that some portrait QWERTY Android devices would have made it to market. It appears as if the HTC Deam (aka T-Mobile G1) was in development as a prototype phone before the iPhone was announced. I believe this hardware would have made it to market, but what we know as Android would have had a different UI.

The smartphone market without iPhone

Apple have managed to amass a very loyal customer base, as a brand they have an almost cult like status. We all know people who swear they are going to get the next iDevice before it is even announced. This kind of faith in the brand is undoubtedly a huge factor in the growth of the smartphone market. The UI/UX on the iPhone was bringing something truly unique to the market, I don't intend to belittle Apple's achievement, but I can imagine if it was another company releasing similar hardware and software at the time it would not have made an impact as large as Apple did.

Apple's popularity amongst consumers was a key contributing factor into the success of the iPhone and the explosion in the iPhone and smartphone market. I don't believe Google would have had this same impact in a world without iOS.

2012 smartphones in a world without iOS

In conclusion; we have examined the market prior to 2007, established that Windows Mobile was the big player of the time and the one to watch. We have an insight into Android prior to iPhone and realise that it's an OS best suited to physical keyboards, as with Windows Mobile. We could expect devices from Google and Microsoft not to have the same impact as those from Apple, and that the UI's from Google and Microsoft also weren't as clean as those in iOS. Without the impact of the iPhone I strongly suspect that smartphone growth would have been much slower, and that only now in 2011/12 would smartphones be gaining momentum amongst consumers switching from feature phones.

As for Android, based on everything available I believe it would look something like this in 2012 (in a world without the iPhone):

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And I believe the hardware would look something like this (originally a Milestone 2):

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In very brief summary - the iPhone changed the look and feel of a smartphone. Apple didn't invent the smartphone, the original version of iOS was actually less fully featured than some of the existing smartphones at the time. In a world without Apple the smartphone market would likely be dominated by Microsoft and Google, and slowly converge on large touch-screen devices. Apple brought the future forward a few years in terms of UI/UX and hardware design, without them Google and Microsoft would have likely got there through competition, just a few years later.