While all four tech giants have stumbled to various degrees, each has individual strengths. Investors in the space should be aware of each company's unique value proposition.
Apple: The best user experience, and a robust ecosystem
Apple's biggest advantages lies in its interface and ecosystem. For the average user, iOS is the superior mobile operating system, with the best apps, and greatest continuity across all devices.
Unlike Android, where devices can be hit or miss, all of Apple's mobile products have been well received, and they work well together. Apple goes to great lengths to have all of its devices running the latest version of its mobile operating system, and Apple's iTunes remains the single hub for all things iOS.
This sort of polished, curated experience has resulted in unparalleled consumer loyalty: Surveys indicate that more than 90% of current iPhone owners intend to stick with Apple over their next upgrade cycle. The "stickiness" of the ecosystem is something other mobile giants can only envy.
Google: Android has taken over the world
In contrast to Apple's walled garden, Google's Android is fragmented. That might be seen as a weakness, but it also doubles as Google's biggest strength.
Android devices run the gamut: There are dozens of different manufacturers, screen sizes, and hardware configurations, all delivered at wildly varying price points. That means there's an Android device out there for just about anyone.
That sort of variety has allowed Google's mobile operating system to conquer the world. Last quarter, about 79% of the smartphones shipped worldwide were running Google's operating system, up dramatically from just a few years prior. China is among the markets that have been completely overrun, with the Chinese government going so far as to label Android's dominance a cause for concern.
Samsung: Integrated supply chain gives huge hardware advantage
Although there are tons of different Android smartphones, the majority are made by Samsung. Analytics group Flurry estimates that Samsung manufactured about 60% of existing Android devices and,, as rivals like HTC struggle, that dominance could grow in the coming quarters.
Samsung's strength lies in its supply chain: Unlike its rivals, Samsung makes most of the components that go into its Galaxy devices, including the screens, chips, and memory. Samsung's supply chain advantage is meaningful; Apple isn't vertically integrated, and it's forced to rely on its frenemy for certain components.
Samsung's vertical integration was great enough to scare off Nokia. Back in 2010, that company had considered going with Google's Android, but as former CEO Stephen Elop told The Guardian, the company believed Samsung would rise to dominate the Android universe.
Windows Phone: Microsoft's services, solid hardware to back it up
Microsoft's mobile operating system, Windows Phone, remains in distant third place behind Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Nevertheless, Microsoft has some advantages when it comes to mobile.
Microsoft's move to acquire Nokia's handset business gives it some of the best phones (hardware-wise) on the market. The Lumia 1020's 41-megapixel camera is unmatched, while Nokia's midrange phones, including the Lumia 620, have been well received.
Critics have praised Windows Phone's interface, with its live tiles and customizability falling somewhere between Apple's iOS (more controlled), and Google's Android (more customizable). Most important is Windows Phone's integration with Microsoft's services, particularly Office and Skype, which could make it more attractive to enterprise users.
Microsoft's pursuit of an integrated strategy is about to be taken to the next level with the Nokia deal. The company is hoping that it can increase gross profit per unit from $10 to $40 in the coming years after realizing cost-saving synergies, and other integration benefits.
The rise of mobile computing
As sales of traditional PCs continue to decline, both businesses and consumers are turning to mobile devices; that means machines and software made by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung.
Apple and Samsung continue to rake in billions directly from device sales, while Google's Android increasingly connects users to the search giant. Microsoft remains the underdog, but is undeterred in its quest to catch up.
Sam Mattera has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.