For last 5ys or so, we have seen a gradual transition of mobile popularity from a simple feature phone to a feature rich smart phone. I think, this transitions is also fueled by growth of social networking websites, collaborative gamings, music downloads, 3G/4G, LTE services, easy GPS access, etc. Whenever i see any mobile Advertisement, they show facebook and messenger chats on the mobile homescreens. The importance of handset hardware and form-factor is diminishing. Its shown as mear rectangular block with a large screen. The software & content delivery is overtaking it. The TV and newspaper Ads dont show the mobile form factor, but the Apps Icons on the homescreen. The whole focus has shifted.
Because of good ecosystem trend set by Apple(iPhone) and Google Android, any developer in the world can realize his idea into a Mobile App and sell it too. The design and beauty of a mobile is now not limited to the small in-house UI team who usually dont have time. The earlier smart OS was only dominated by Microsoft who made windows mobile OS by just copying the PC ui without thinking mobile user needs. They did provided a dirty appendix called "Stylus" to solved their own "non-Touchable Tiny-Icon" problems. And users were left with carrying another gadget(Stylus) like PC mouse. Microsoft also made a half cooked OS and left to handset manufacturers to clean the design and make it usable. This also provided UI teams in handset companies like (LG, Samsung, Sony, Motorola, etc) a chance to provide a differentiating unique UI for their brand even if all were using same windows OS. But actual Users had to suffer for OS updates as they had to depend on the handset manufacturer rather then Microsoft. This was because, the handset company had screwed the OS with their customization and direct update is not possible now. This case is true for Android too as you cannot easily upgrade the OS. Well, Google at least releases new updates frequently as against Microsoft doing one update after 2-3yrs. Apple is the only company where any user can update OS immediately after Apple releases new OS, no matter which part of world he is and which carrier he is on. This strategy is now being copied by Google and Microsoft. Going forward, Google and Microsoft will not allow for UI customization by handset comapny, which is very good, provided Google and Microsoft do not make half baked UIs.
Another famous smart phone is Symbian OS based phones by Nokia. This OS was only used by Nokia untill this year. I personally like Symbian more then windows. It was easy and not the PC way atleast. But I wonder why Nokia didnt made any Apps store, and made it horribly difficult for developer to develop apps and impossible for users to download it. They never did it untill now, may be 2009, as they see a threat from Apple. To get a symbian app you have to go to some 3rd party website, download it, then transfer that .sis file to your phone, then certify it and install it. Well, Symbian was not allowed for any other company other then Nokia. But Windows mobile was licensed to other hardware manufacturers. Nokia has now abandoned this Symbian OS as it was originally designed for buttons based ui. Now its the time of Gestures and touch screens and symbian is an outdated OS. So you have to rewrite it from scratch. I think they are looking at LiMo OS or MeGo. Similarly, Microsoft Windows mobile OS was neither for good for touch screen, nor for hardware buttons UI. Till date, iPhone and Android are the only full touch screen and gesture based UIs.
Its just shame that Microsoft and Nokia never cared for end to end experience. Nokia has recently in 2009 put the ovi.com store to make the apps for Symbian OS. Microsoft is still dreaming of the Window 7 OS to be launched late 2010.
The Big Question for Mobile UI Designers in Handset companies ?
OK, the smart phone is all about creating a scalable and easy OS. This OS is supposed to be invisible and the Apps more visible.
If smartphones OS are going to get cheap and developers around the world are going to build apps on the smart OS, thus making the phone(eg.iphone) better and better everyday, then what are UX designers in handset companies going to do ? Is there any role left for UX designers of handset companies in defining future mobile UI. ? Because 90% of UI is done by Apps developers and their designers.
Handset company will only provide industrial design, large good capacitive screen, Good camera and all kinds of sensors. Then its upto Apps developers and their designer to build that phone and give it a shape.