You might call it a lack of ambition. Or you could just call it being very pragmatic. At a recent roundtable with reporters in Tokyo, the head of Sony's mobile business professed his desire to be the No. 3 player in smartphones behind Apple and Samsung. BlackBerry's CEO said the same thing heading up to the launch of BlackBerry Z10. Breaking the Sampple duopoly is no easy task, given that IDC says the two companies account for more than 50 percent of smartphones sold worldwide.
It's not all doom and gloom. China-based Huawei's smartphone shipments are actually growing faster than Samsung, and both ZTE and Sony are growing faster than Apple. All of the above upstarts use Google's Android software, but there are plenty of promising alternatives, from Windows Phone (led by Nokia) and BlackBerry to more off-the-beaten-path platforms like Firefox OS (embraced by ZTE). So which of these contestants have the best shot at taking on the two-headed monster? Here's my take.
Nokia: Time to Rethink Windows Phone
Given that China is expected to comprise about a third of the smartphone market this year, it makes sense that Nokia just debuted lower-cost Windows Phones like the Lumia 520.Meanwhile, Nokia says it sold 4.4 million smartphones in the fourth quarter, a significant jump from 2.9 million in the previous quarter. Still, Windows Phone has seen very little traction in the U.S. In fact, share for Nokia's platform of choice fell from 3.2 percent to 3.1 percent from October of last year to January, according to comScore.Nokia CEO Stephen Elop recently said that Windows Phone “can be the biggest operating system in the world,” but it won’t be with progress like that. A shot in the arm could be coming soon in the form of the rumored Lumia 928 for Verizon. Nokia fans are also waiting for a thinner, lighter Lumia with an aluminum design. Of biggest concern is whether Microsoft will release its own Surface phone, which would really take the wind out Nokia's sales. Outlook: It’s not a good sign when Nokia is literally begging Instagram for a Windows Phone app. It’s time the company brought its design expertise and PureView camera to Android and hedge its platform bet.
HTC: One for the Ages?
The news keeps getting grimmer for HTC on the financial side. The company just announced a 44 percent drop in revenue, and its share of the smartphone market dropped from 10.3 percent in 2011 to 4.6 percent in 2012. HTC CEO Peter Chou blamed most of this downward spiral on ineffective marketing. Can the HTC One save the day? The One certainly has a lot of potential, sporting a very Apple-like aluminum design and a first-of-its-kind Ultrapixel camera. The handset even doubles as a TV remote. Unfortunately for HTC, Verizon Wireless hasn't decided to carry the phone (at least not yet). And while the HTC Windows Phone 8X gave the Nokia Lumia 920 a run for its money, it accounts for a mere 3 percent of Windows Phone users worldwide, according to AdDuplex. Outlook: The HTC One will need to be a monster hit for the company to even stay in the game. To me, though, it looks more exciting than Sony's flagship Xperia Z.
Huawei: Big in China Won't Be Enough
Quietly but confidently, Huawei has amassed serious market share, growing an astonishingly fast 89 percent in 2012 to become the world's No. 3 smartphone maker, eclipsing the likes of Nokia and BlackBerry in Q4. The company has outgunned its competition on the low end of the market both in China and to a certain extent in the U.S. In fact, MetroPCS says about half of the phones it sold last year were made by Huawei. Now Huawei is courting premium smartphone shoppers with devices like the ginormous 6.1-inch Ascend Mate phablet and the Ascend P2, which Huawei calls the fastest smartphone in the world. Huawei deserves some credit for is its software prowess. Its Emotion UI eliminates the app menu in favor of a more streamlined iOS-like approach. There's also a Me widget on the main home screen, which includes customizable tiles. The biggest issue for Huawei isn't the stigma related to a security and espionage probe--and related 60 Minutes report--but its sheer lack of brand recognition. Outlook: Mostly bright, but Huawei needs to find a way to break through with the big carriers in the U.S.
BlackBerry: Apps Will Be Everything
Back when the BlackBerry Z10 launched internationally, I was pretty high on the OS, saying that the company formerly known as RIM would be able to sell more units than the Windows Phone camp this year. I still believe that, because the platform has plenty to offer both existing CrackBerry addicts and even those who defected to other platforms. The UI is slick, and it’s easy to both keep tabs on all of your messages and social updates and respond quickly with BlackBerry 10’s killer keyboard. Now comes the tough part: persuading more developers to jump on board. BlackBerry is off to an OK start, offering social staples like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Foursquare, along with USA Today, Slacker and Flikster. I’m also encouraged by the fact that real 3D games are showing up, like Nova 3. Still, some key apps are missing, from Spotify, Pandora and Instagram to TripIt, Yelp and Netflix. The real battle between BlackBerry and Windows Phone is over developers. Outlook: BlackBerry may have shot itself in the foot by staggering its U.S. launch for the Z10 — and Sprint is only selling the keyboard-equipped Q10. A big marketing push is needed to move the needle now that the Galaxy S4 is upon us.
Sony: A Premium Rebirth
Sony is treating 2013 as a rebirth year for the company, and it's easy to see why. The PlayStation 4 launch could provide a huge boost for the brand, a console with plenty of mobile and cloud gaming potential. The perennial Apple and Samsung also-ran has unified its mobile strategy with the Xperia line, which includes not only the world's thinnest tablet in the Xperia Tablet Z but the Xperia Z phone. The slick, water-resistant handset impressed enough to earn a Best of CES Award from LAPTOP. However, early reviews of the international version of the phone are mixed, praising the design and camera but lamenting relatively short battery life. I also don't think Sony is going far enough with mobile-PS4 integration; its phones will be able to access some PlayStation services and serve as a dashboard, but mobile gameplay will be largely limited to the struggling Vita. I would suggest that Sony offer its Music and Video unlimited services for free to play up its ecosystem. Outlook: It remains to be seen if a much-improved Sony phone will make enough of a splash.
LG: Serious Software Chops
The Optimus G was an important stepping stone for LG because it demonstrated that the company could deliver hardware on a par with Samsung and innovate on the software front with features like QSlide. Ultimately, though, the phone fell a bit short with a lackluster design and below-average battery life. It also didn’t help that Verizon ignored the handset. The follow-up, the Optimus G Pro, is looking a lot better. LG's new flagship combines a 5.5-inch 1080p display with a beefier 3,140 mAH battery, but the star of the show is a revamped version of QSlide that lets you run multiple apps on the screen at once. You can also shoot videos using the front and back cameras at the same time. On the other hand, the remote control functionality pales in comparison to the HTC One, and the design reminds us a lot of the Galaxy line. Outlook: Although LG’s phablet should turn heads in 2013, it will have to do so quickly before the Note III debuts. Getting support from Verizon would be a big help, too.
More: Top 10 Smartphones
ZTE: Embracing Firefox and Intel
It’s safe to say that ZTE isn’t afraid to take risks. The smartphone maker, which was No. 5 in the world as of Q4, rose through the ranks on the back of lost-cost Android devices for emerging markets. But now the company hopes to bring more smartphones to the masses with its ZTE Open, one of the first handsets to run the Firefox OS. In our hands-on with the device at Mobile World Congress 2013, we said the Open breaks the barrier between the Web and apps with a dynamic search function. On the high end of the market, ZTE is one of the first companies to partner with Intel on its Atom Z2580 processor for phones, promising double the performance and three times the graphics muscle as Intel’s last chip. For now, though, ZTE is mostly known for its cheap Android phones sold through smaller carriers. And most of the ZTE phones available on Sprint and T-Mobile use carrier branding, like the Sprint Force. Outlook: ZTE has a similar awareness problem to Huawei, but it should continue to gain momentum throughout 2013.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter and Google+.