With Apple's new iPhone, is smartphone race down to two?

Jeff Chiu/AP
Senior Vice President Philip Schiller at Apple spoke about pricing for the new 16GB iPhone 3GS at an Apple developers conference in San Francisco Monday.

Recessions don't seem to slow innovation. Some surveys suggest they actually encourage it.

Which brings us to the growing battle for smartphone supremacy in an economy that hasn't looked so bad since the 1981-82 recessions, when Apple and IBM began to duke it out for the top spot in personal computers.

Smartphone and PC technologies are so different it's hard to draw comparisons. Even if they were similar, predicting winners is a fool's errand. Hardly anyone in 1981 would have pronounced Microsoft the winner of the PC wars. Nor could they have possibly known in 1996 that mighty Microsoft would be eclipsed by just-started Google.

Lessons from the '80s

But at least two lessons from the PC era do remain relevant for today's smartphone wars: the importance of timing and the need for speed.

Timing is all about hitting the market with the right product at the right time. The Apple II was a hit in 1977 but it took 2-1/2 years to sell 50,000 units. The IBM PC, launched in 1981, reached that same number in 7-1/2 months and quickly established itself as the standard business computer.

By 1984, when the Monitor upgraded me to an IBM PC from a Teleram (don't ask), the technology race was over, although we didn't know it at the time. That's the second point: In technology, the race really does go to the hare – and it can end in the blink of an eye.

In April 1984, Apple launched the Macintosh, a superior and far more elegant computer than the PC, and sold 50,000 units in a day. But it didn't matter.

Other computermakers had already begun turning out PC-compatible machines and Apple never really regained its footing in the computer market. Steve Jobs was ousted for a time from the company he founded because he seemed out of touch with the new reality.

So Mr. Jobs created his own new reality, finding corporate redemption by returning to Apple and creating cool consumer products. Today his iPhone is creating the biggest buzz in smartphones. On Monday, Apple announced it would sell its current 3G model for $99 and begin offering its much anticipated, twice-as-speedy 3GS on June 19.

Other companies are trying to create similar buzz. Google has tried to elbow into the business with its Android operating system that will run on Verizon phones in coming months. Handheld pioneer Palm introduced the Palm Pre on Saturday and got quite positive reviews.

Can Palm top Apple?

By one estimate, the Pre sold 50,000 units this past weekend. But Apple sold 1 million iPhone3Gs in its opening weekend last year.

So the smartphone race may already be down to two competitors.

Apple owns the consumer market with 11 percent of the worldwide market in the first quarter of 2009, double its share from a year earlier, according to a Gartner report. Research in Motion, maker of the popular Blackberry, is the corporate favorite with 20 percent of the market as it gains share from faltering Nokia.

Perhaps the more intriguing question is who will emerge as the big winner of the smartphone revolution: a manufacturer, a telephone carrier, or a company that comes up with some revolutionary end-use for mobile Internet devices?

You can pick. This PC war veteran isn't hazarding a guess.


– Tip of the hat to Monitor researcher Adrian Mitescu for digging up the data for this blog. Don't forget to catch us on Twitter.

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