The smartphone market is a big one, and growing fast.  This is an area where operating systems become ecosystems, and where ecosystems become synonymous with their respective companies.  Looking to the next few years, the most important mobile ecosystems will come from Apple with iOS, Google with Android, Research in Motion with BlackBerry, and Microsoft with Windows (Samsung has Bada, but who cares?).

At the top, we have the Android.  By flooding the market with its “free-ness”, it has managed to secure the largest smartphone and tablet market share worldwide.  In second, we have iOS, making ridiculous amounts of money with only a few devices.  But in such a large, expanding market, even third is a lucrative position to be in.  Most analysts claim there is room for three mobile ecostems.  BlackBerry 10 or Windows 8, the leading non-androidian, non-pomaceous ecosystems are duking it out for that ever-so-decent third slice of the mobile pie.  Who shall emerge the victor?

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The case for BlackBerry 10

The new BlackBerry 10 operating system is set to be released later this year and we’ve seen some demos and brief previews of what it offers.  The new swipe-based virtual keyboard is a truly innovative feature in itself, making single-handed typing less annoying on a touchscreen.  The time-adjustment camera  feature is nothing new, but its implementation creates a smartphone camera experience that is entirely better in every way to anything else we’ve come across.  The “flow” of BlackBerry 10 is efficient, impressive and well-designed.  The inclusion of a re-vamped BBM in BlackBerry 10 on a modern touch-screen OS is also sure to attract some users back to BlackBerry.

In addition, I believe that developing for BlackBerry has improved by leaps and bounds over the past couple years, fostering a potentially great App World for BlackBerry 10 devices.  I’ve had first-hand experience with the BlackBerry developer tools, creating a few apps using the WebWorks SDK, Native C SDK, AIR SDK and the BlackBerry 10 SDK with Cascades.  My expeience has been great.  In fact, I already have a native BlackBerry 10 app ready to go by using the BlackBerry 10 Cascades tools!  The sample apps, documentation, and great native tools for the BlackBerry platform allows developers to create high quality apps that people will want.

The case for Windows 8

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 has been out for a while.  Windows 8 is supposed to unify the “Windows” experience across all devices, from desktops to smartphones.  The user interface for Windows 8 (presuming its similar to Windows Phone 7) is sleek and different.  I like it quite a bit.  It’s fast, fluid, and easy to use.

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The developer tools for Windows Phone 7 are good as well.  The tools are all there and allow you to quickly make a good app.  They shoud only get better for Windows 8.  With OEMs able manufacturing large volumes of these devices, the potential for Microsoft to enter to market as Android did is there.

All this aside, let’s look at the larger picture. Looking at RIM’s position, they have about 80 million BlackBerry users, some cash, strong roots in the corporate market.  Not bad at all.  Microsoft’s is the opposite with much fewer users and wads of cash.  But what is more important for third place?

Despite many open questions, I feel its safe to make a few predictions.  RIM is in third place and should remain there for the next couple years, thanks to its current large user base.  Frankly, Microsoft is too far behind to contend with RIM at this point.  Yet, the only thing that is certain about the mobile market is its uncertainty.  And the determination of these two companies to succeed in the mobile market is also quite certain.

Over the next five years, I expect both BlackBerry and Windows 8 to slowly grow their market share at the expense of Android and iOS. I find it hard to believe that both Apple and Google will maintain such a large share in a market that is constantly changing and expanding.  With market shares of at least 5% each, RIM and Microsoft can both do well as the “alternative” ecosystems.

Of course,  little will change over the next couple of years.  Apple and Google will still maintain their lead (and even grow it some more). A continued effort by both RIM and Microsoft with their newer ecosystems should increase their presence in the industry to profitable levels. Beyond that, who knows?  But I believe the bottom of the podium has enough room for two.  Microsoft and RIM would be wise to target the largest user bases of Google and Apple and not each other’s, where much more market share can be gained.