Who says there has to be a third smartphone platform?

AT&T executive says RIM, Microsoft battling to become third major smartphone OS

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While he seems inclined toward the former, AT&T Mobility President Ralph de la Vega said Monday that the race between Microsoft and Research in Motion to become the third major smartphone platform vendor is too close to call.

However, the AT&T wireless exec, who made his comments at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, added that he was impressed with Nokia's Lumia 900, the high-end smartphone running on the Windows Phone mobile OS that AT&T will begin selling next month.

From Bloomberg:

“I think they’re going to have a winner in the U.S.,” de la Vega said of Nokia. Dallas-based AT&T, the world’s largest phone company by revenue, also sells BlackBerry, iPhone and Android models.

We'll find out soon enough, though I'd like to know how de la Vega would define "winner" in this context. To me a "winner" means that Nokia's Windows-based phones at the very least take some market share from devices running on Google's Android and (though less likely) Apple's iOS.

I don't see that happening. What does the Lumia 900 have that would make an Android or iPhone user say, "I want to switch to that phone"?

Implied in de la Vega's comments is the assumption that the market has room for a third major player. But in the fourth quarter, Android had 51% of the global mobile OS market, with iOS at 24% (and gaining). That leaves 25% of the market for everyone else.

Everyone else would be Symbian (12%), Research in Motion (9%) and Microsoft (2%). Let's stipulate that Symbian's 12% goes to zero since Nokia is walking away from the platform. Even if Nokia hangs onto all of that market share, it still would be at 14% (combined with Microsoft's big 2%).

That would make Nokia the third major mobile platform the way Sprint is the third major U.S. wireless carrier. It is in name only; in reality, Sprint's a second-tier company trying desperately to survive.

Beyond that, the "race" between RIM and Microsoft/Nokia is a race to the bottom. Both companies are losing market share, not gaining. And both companies keep touting magical comebacks that have yet to happen.

A third major mobile platform will emerge when someone can actually offer customers something of value that isn't offered by Android or the iPhone. Until that happens, don't hold your breath waiting for a third mobile OS option.

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