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Will Apple, Google and Samsung lose the smartphone market?

January 26, 2013 07:00 AM ET

Although the market punished Nokia's earnings, a careful analyst might notice that Nokia's Lumia line failed horribly in the so-called "emerging markets" of China and elsewhere, but succeeded in the U.S. and Europe. The company is making more money on far fewer handsets than before. In other words, Windows Phone 8 may be helping Nokia's economic situation become less like Google's (high volume, low margin) and more like Apple's (high margin, low volume).

Beyond iOS, Android and Windows Phone, there are other emerging platforms under consideration by some current Android handset makers.

In fact, Google's biggest and most profitable Android partner, Samsung, is supporting a new platform called Tizen. (Intel is also a backer.) If Samsung switched from Android to Tizen, the phone platform scene would be transformed overnight. The first Tizen devices are expected within three months.

Mozilla, the people who make the Firefox browser, are developing the Firefox OS for smartphones. The first Firefox phones are expected to hit next month.

The people at Ubuntu Linux, the most popular client version of that operating system, are building a version for smartphones.

HP's WebOS, acquired from Palm, is still a potential factor, especially since HP plans to release an open-source version called Open WebOS.

Note that all of these platforms -- Tizen, Firefox OS, Ubuntu Linux and Open WebOS -- are Linux-based and all or most will be relatively open compared with Android.

Meet the new handset makers

While upstart platforms threaten to take advantage of weaknesses in the iOS and Android worlds, a similar thing is happening in handsets.

Right now, Samsung and Apple dominate. But in China and in other markets, Chinese companies are growing faster than the global leaders.

Sometime this year, we'll reach the point where half the mobile phones sold in the world will be smartphones, rather than feature phones. The reason for that shift is partly caused by a drastic reduction in pricing for smartphones, thanks to low-cost Chinese brands. And also high-end brands.

In China itself, for example, Samsung is the No. 1 handset maker. But No. 2 is Lenovo, a Chinese company, and its handset business is profitable, too. According to one article, there are more than 100 Chinese companies now making smartphone handsets, and they all want to be Samsung.

Rumors have been circulating that Lenovo is in talks to buy RIM -- a development that, combined with continued aggressive growth, could thrust Lenovo into Samsung territory as a global maker of phones.

So if Samsung is No. 1 and Lenovo is No. 2, Apple must be No. 3, right? Wrong!

No. 3 in the Chinese market is Huawei, followed by ZTE, followed by Coolpad. By unit sales, Apple is the No. 6 handset maker in China -- and its market share is shrinking.

These companies, especially Huawei and ZTE, are bringing the smartphone revolution to emerging markets, for the most part. And now they want entry into the U.S. and European markets. Huawei and ZTE each had a large presence at the International CES trade show, which served as a kind of coming out party for those companies in the U.S.

Samsung and Apple fans may scoff at the idea that some obscure Chinese brand like Huawei or ZTE could take market share away from the leaders. But if either or both of these companies can make phones that are 95% as good as Samsung's best phone, and cost half the price, people are going to buy them in large numbers.

Apple, Google and Samsung control the global market for smartphones. But over the next year or two, all that could change as new software platforms and new handset makers take advantage of the leaders' stumbles to gobble up market share, market power and influence over the direction of mobile devices.

Correction: This column has been changed to say that Samsung was the maker of the Nexus S smartphone. The story originally stated that the phone was built by HTC.

writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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