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Little can save Google and Nokia from mobile failure

Any company playing catch up to a market leader needs a disruptive strategy--and significant resources--to win, but Apple's iPhone competitors fail this test.

If you look at the history of computing, very few companies manage to resurrect falling fortunes to lead their respective markets. Does this mean that once down, a company should resign itself to being out?

Apple is a famous example of a come-from-behind victory, but also a poor one: while it wins plaudits for its sexy MacBook Pro laptops, it still commands less than 10 percent of the personal computer market. Good, but not great.

In browsers, Firefox was left for dead years ago, only to get a new life and 22 percent market share. But Mozilla executive Mitchell Baker is quick to call Firefox's resurgence against Microsoft an "anomaly."

Few companies or products challenge an incumbent, at least not on its own turf. Disruption is required to displace an incumbent, following Clayton Christensen's thinking in "The Innovator's Dilemma."

Steve Jobs
Laughing all the way to the bank...

All of which makes me doubt Google's efforts to beat Apple in smartphones, and suggests Nokia and Motorola aren't going to fare much better. They simply aren't disruptive enough.

Nokia, for its part, made a big gamble open-sourcing Symbian after years of nurturing it as proprietary software to run mobile devices. The company has now discarded Symbian for its foray into Netbooks by partnering with Microsoft, a move that exacerbates its weak-kneed decision to bolster its mobile strategy with Microsoft Office. Nokia's approach leaves pundits like Joel West wondering "how Nokia will have an advantage on scale, innovation, features, branding or distribution over existing netbook makers," not to mention traditional mobile and laptop makers.

Disruption through Windows or Office? Unlikely.

Microsoft compounds the error by playing up its more expensive application for Windows Marketplace for Mobile, a strategy doomed to fail. Microsoft is playing to the developers' wish to make more money per customer, but if those customers prefer the iPhone, who cares how much Microsoft lets developers charge?

It's not just Microsoft and its crowd that are screwing up. Open source has also failed to offer a disruptive panacea. Motorola is betting big on the Google Android platform, but thus far has little to show for it.

Google, for its part, has attempted to disrupt Apple's iPhone in its apparent area of weakness: its closed nature. Google open-sourced the Android platform and invited the world of third-party developers to flock to it.

They never came.

As Slate's Farhoo Manjoo writes, "Even though it's far friendlier to developers, Android has failed to attract anywhere near the number of apps now clogging the iPhone." Android may be open, but it's not cool, and "cool" is where customers and, hence, developers are.

Which leaves me with my original question: if a vendor finds itself playing catch up, should it even bother running the race? In response I'd suggest that unless a vendor is willing to commit significant resources to a disruptive strategy, it might as well give up.

Of the companies mentioned above, only Google has a disruptive strategy, but it isn't spending nearly enough resources to tackle Apple's iPhone. Until it does, it will lose, open source or not. As for the others, neither Microsoft nor open source will save them, as they lack even a hint of disruption in their game plans.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.