The Future of Phones: Forever Unknowable

By  |  Monday, January 23, 2012 at 3:08 am

In a release exuberantly titled “Lumia 900 Introduction to Trigger Smartphone Renaissance for Nokia and Microsoft,” IHS iSuppli analyst Wayne Lam has some predictions about where the phone market is going between now and 2015:

Largely based on Nokia’s strong support, Windows Phone is set to regain the No. 2 rank in the smartphone operating system in 2015. Finnish-based Nokia in 2009 lost its second-place worldwide ranking because of rising competition from Google Inc.’s Android and Apple Inc.’s iOS.

In 2015, however, Windows Phone will account for 16.7 percent of the smartphones shipped, up from less than 2 percent in 2011, according to the IHS iSuppli Mobile & Wireless Communications Service at information and analysis provider IHS (NYSE: IHS). This will allow Windows Phone to slightly surpass Apple’s iOS to retake the market’s second rank behind Android, as presented in the table below.

That’s awfully confident-sounding. Windows Phone is “set” to become #2 by 2015 and “will” have market share of 16.7 percent and “will” overtake iOS. And hey, it’s an analyst who knows his stuff doing the talking, so the rest of us should pay attention.

But as Todd Bishop of GeekWire points out, iSuppli also released smartphone projections in 2009. Back then, it thought that the operating system then known as Windows Mobile would hit the #2 position by 2013, not 2015. And the #1 operating system in 2013? Why, that was, um, set to be Symbian. An operating system which is already so moribund in early 2012 that iSuppli no longer bothers to break it out into its own line.

A reasonable and well-informed person might express opinions about the long-term prospects for various mobile operating systems. Expecting Nokia’s commitment to Windows Phone to result in a substantial spike in sales isn’t the least bit nutty. But making market-share forecasts for 2015–down to the decimal point!–and discussing them as if they were factual is goofy at best and disingenuous at worst.

The only prediction I feel safe making about smartphones in 2015 is that it will be startling if nothing disruptive has happened in the category by then…and once a category gets disrupted, all bets are off. (Strangely enough, this 2006 story about phone market share in 2010 doesn’t mention the iPhone or Android.)

Really, making forecasts about mobile devices for 2015 is a little like predicting the results of the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary today. And nobody is silly enough to do that.

I wrote about all this last year when IDC released its 2015 forecast, which also had Windows Phone shooting up to the #2 slot. I came back to the topic when Gartner published a tablet forecast. (Since Gartner’s numbers came out, HP canceled its WebOS hardware and Intel discontinued development of Meego, rendering the Gartner forecast for 2015 obsolete four years ahead of time.) I’ll probably write about it again.

Here’s a smartphone-related something I’d like to see happen by 2015: Wouldn’t the quality of discussion about the mobile market improve meaningfully if research companies stopped making these forecasts–or at least if the rest of us stopped taking them seriously?


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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Ray Soneira Says:

    Agree completely… Same as giving monkeys calculators… Mindless results devoid of any understanding. Their predictions sound exactly like generic Wall Street reports. I thought iSuppli was better than that – apparently not… Thanks for the examples showing how completely wrong their earlier predictions turned out.

  2. Charles Forsythe Says:

    "Really, making forecasts about mobile devices for 2015 is a little like predicting the results of the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary today. And nobody is silly enough to do that."

    I see that you've never met a Ron Paul supporter. 🙂

  3. Kevin Says:

    I've played that game, and it's much more proper form to qualify prognostications with phrasing such as "the market is forecast to do x" and "it's predicted that ____". Otherwise you're guaranteed to look like a haughty fool.

    As to why haughty fools bother to pretend they can predict the future in the first place …. there's a market for it. Operators who are trying to allocate resources value second opinions, if nothing else. No one thinks market research analysts actually have a monopoly on the crystal ball, it's just an input.

  4. Bryan Says:

    Harry, I'd love to see an analysis of consumer tech product predictions for a range of product types over different time frames–e.g. 1-, 2-, 5 years out–and see where the predictive power falls off a cliff. I'll bet it's not all that great even just a year out.

    Who would have called the outcome of last Saturday's SC primary? Even a week before?

    I often pull nutrition and chronic disease research from Riley, NCBI, and other pay/free research sites. It's remarkable how so much sober, confident, seemingly well-researched (and often very pricey) information later proves silly and just plain bunkum. You'd think these pubs would have at least a fair track record, because most of these reports aren't even trying to predict the future, but just explain current phenomena. Apparently not so. I've recently learned that one of the most downloaded research reports is, ironically, this:

    Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, John P. A. Ioannidis

    Ioannidis' report spawned a spate of coverage on this rampart wrongness. Including these pieces in the NY Times and The Atlantic:

    Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

    I read these reports, and analysts predictions, mainly as food for thought. And occasionally when I need a good laugh.

  5. Marc Says:

    I completely agree with what you wrote in your article. I always take predictions of this sort with a pinch of salt, which in this case is definitely a good thing. To make such bold prediction – even down to a decimal point – for a date three years in the future, and with a past history being wrong, is just sheer idiocy.

  6. Mr Green Says:

    I don't believe in these predictions. Maybe there will be a new mobile OS that will gain huge success? How can they know that?

  7. Samir Shah Says:

    iOS is too 'walled garden'.

    WP7 is too late.

    My bet is on android

  8. macyourday Says:

    So what………..are you an analyst? Did you the bet the company? Did you get that – anal-ist?

  9. Bulk Dried Fruits Says:

    With all due respect to the care with which this article was written, its premise is unsound. Software that has real value is becomes more widely used and is further developed, evolving over time into something different, and, sometimes, something new. Its use and continuing development are what protect its existence. Software that has low to nil value fades away because there are thing that do what it does, only better