In the world of smartphones and tablets, there are Apple products and there are Android-powered products, and beyond the BlackBerry there are a few bit players that get the market-share crumbs left over.
That's the story—for now. But the market is still very young, and things could look quite different in the next couple of years.
For one thing, Android, an open-source mobile operating system created by Google and then made available to any manufacturer for free, is getting squeezed in several ways.
For another, software giant Microsoft and chipmaker Intel, who together have just a few dollars between them, are looking to ensure Windows has a future where the market is going, and that means mobile.
At the same time, Samsung and Intel, looking to hedge their bets on Android and Windows, are collaborating on Tizen, a new Linux-based open-source mobile OS. Samsung is one of the biggest manufacturers of Android smartphones and also has a few dollars to spend.
Amazon, meanwhile, which is expected to set the world on fire with its newly introduced, Android-based $199 Kindle Fire color tablet, is said to be eyeing webOS, the operating system that Hewlett-Packard acquired when it bought Palm and then wasted in its short-lived HP TouchPad tablets.
Research In Motion's BlackBerry is hemorrhaging market share, hampered by an aging OS, indecisive leadership and exacerbated this month by a several-day global network outage just when Apple was introducing a new iPhone model.
One of the big forces at work here is the patent squeeze on Android.
Microsoft is accused of extorting money from various Android-device manufacturers, demanding license fees because, Microsoft says, Android violates several of the operating-system patents it holds. Smaller manufacturers, in particular, can't afford taking on the software giant in court, and pay up as the lesser of two evils.
Apple also claims that Android violates its patents, but isn't demanding licensing fees, instead seeking a ban on the sale of rival Android-powered devices altogether. Apple and Samsung are involved in patent suits in nearly two dozen countries, and Apple has won temporary bans against Samsung's 10.1 Galaxy Tab tablet in Australia and Germany for “slavishly copying” its iPad tablets. Apple also is in lawsuits with HTC, one of the other big makers of Android mobile products.
Google paid $12.5 billion in August to buy Motorola Mobility, reportedly largely for Motorola's intellectual-property portfolio that it could use to defend against Android patent lawsuits. But the deal also worries manufacturers of Android products because they fear Google will compete against them with Motorola phones, and possibly play favorites by releasing Android upgrades to Motorola before the other manufacturers get them.
Microsoft had been struggling to stay relevant in the mobile market until its release of Windows Phone 7 late last year, which was a replacement for its Windows Mobile. Windows Phone received generally good reviews and stabilized Microsoft's U.S. market share at just over 5 percent. Then, last month, Microsoft released a major update to version 7.5, also known as Mango, that introduced 500 new features, including many that were friendly to business.
That, combined with Microsoft's marketing muscle and the coming tablet-friendly Windows 8 that shares the same Metro interface with Windows Phone, could entice app developers. The developers in turn could give the phone the critical mass of apps necessary to entice consumers.
On the hardware side, Samsung may want to increase its bet on Windows Phone given the gathering storm around Android. Intel is developing new low-power chips designed specifically to run Windows 8 tablets, while the new OS also will be able to run on the chips made by British manufacturer ARM Holdings, common in phones and tablets.
Beyond Android and Windows, overseas mobile-device makers are leery of depending on two giant U.S. companies, Google and Microsoft, to provide the OS that runs on their tablets or phones. For that reason Tizen may appeal to them, and in addition serves as an insurance policy should Google decide to compete with them through Motorola. Tizen was only recently announced, however, and isn't expected to be ready until mid-2012 or later.
On the tablet front, Amazon may become a dominant player and not want to depend on Google's Android. Already the company reportedly plans to “fork” Android—customize and update it so much that it no longer can be updated with new releases of Android from Google. Rumors this month have Amazon looking for an OS that it could completely make its own, and one it was looking at was webOS.
Whatever the outcome of all these forces at play, it fairly ensures that what you see on the market now is not what you'll see in a couple of years.