We talk a lot about the platform game in mobile: Is Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) Android winning? Is Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) iOS losing? Does Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) Windows Phone have a chance?
There's a problem with most of these debates. They mostly focus on the rich world, and that's increasingly not where the action is.
The smartphone market in the rich world is maturing. The growth is in the emerging markets and, increasingly, as hardware prices go down and connectivity goes up, the growth will be coming from poor countries. Cell phone ownership (albeit of the dumbphone kind) is already very high in sub-Saharan Africa; if Google's Project Loon doesn't make cheap wireless high-speed Internet ubiquitous some other technology will; and some time soon the equivalent of a second-generation iPhone will be as cheap in poor-country-salary hours as a cell phone is today.
As I argued in a previous column, this actually creates an opportunity for a new platform to emerge. Today, the cheapest smartphones still have limited chip and memory capacity and battery life, which means that a software platform tuned to those limitations is attractive. OEMs like China's ZTE who are comfortable working at very tight margins and have astonishing expertise making really cheap devices have made a big priority of winning this market, while Samsung and iPhone battle it out for the high-margin segment.
All of this points to an opportunity in the way of the classic disruptive innovation model: Attack an underserved segment of the market with a cheaper, lower-featured product, and gradually eat your way up the value chain as the incumbents spend their time focusing on the premium side of the market.
In other words, there's a huge opportunity there to become one of the world's major mobile platforms, competing with -- and perhaps even overtaking -- Android and iOS. And the striking thing is that none of the incumbents (or almost) look like they have what it takes to win it.
So, who or what could be that platform of the future?
Nokia. It's possible to imagine an alternate universe where, instead of shacking up with Microsoft and trying to compete with the iPhone, Nokia had used its tremendous distribution network and expertise in emerging markets to really compete to be the emerging markets platform of the future. In fact, for a while, Symbian was the emerging markets platform of the future...until it wasn't. There may still be some hope for inexpensive Windows Phones or "Windroids" (Android phones with Nokia services) in emerging markets.
Firefox. That's the case I made previously. That's the opportunity they're tackling. Firefox OS has all the right features. It's based on HTML5, so it's lightweight and open to developers. They shouldn't be dismissed, but they're not the only potential player.
Google Android. Google doesn't seem to be focused on this opportunity, but they should never be dismissed. Google's corporate culture has shown two things thus far: A willingness to pull out all stops to win in mobile, and a refusal to stand by and be disrupted. Google has tremendous clout, and it's possible that if they wake up to the opportunity soon enough, they could develop a suitable version of Android for this market.
China Android. I wrote "Google Android" above and not just "Android" because Android is bigger than Google now. In particular, in China where Google is banned, the dominant mobile platforms are forks of Android that Google has no control or impact over. Most notably, Xiaomi, one of the fastest Chinese OEMs, has its own fork of Android that it is working hard to develop.
Amazon. Very likely not -- Amazon has little presence in emerging markets -- but it is worth throwing the name out there for a few reasons. Firstly, after making a tablet and a TV box, it's almost certain Amazon is working on a smartphone, as has been repeatedly rumored for the last two or three years. Second, Amazon loves competing on price, which will be one of the key issues in this battle. And third, Amazon has proven willing to do things that sound crazy. If you'd told anybody five years ago that Amazon would be building data centers for the CIA, producing TV shows and games, and building drones and robots, would they have believed you?
Safaricom. Safaricom is one of the biggest telcos in Kenya. Telcos aren't typically software and platform innovators, but Safaricom is an exception, having launched the stunningly successful M-Pesa mobile payment system. Now present in Kenya, Tanzania, Afghanistan, South Africa and India, M-Pesa is the most developed mobile payment system in the world, and has become a life-changing institution upon itself in Kenya. If Safaricom wanted to introduce a super-cheap smartphone-for-Africa, it would have the brand and the distribution network to make it take off in Africa, and its past record at innovation means we can't discount them.
...Somebody we haven't heard of. There's no reason why the future has to come from a big company. In fact, history suggests otherwise. We live in a world where it's possible to outsource the design and manufacture of cheap hardware, where software is open source, where developers live everywhere, and where distribution is always changing. Startups happen. (Like Newkia, founded by ex-Nokia execs based in Singapore.) Tectonic shifts happen. Maybe the Android or iOS of the next billion smartphone consumers is being built as we speak in a garage in Shanghai, Mumbai, or Nairobi.
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