Near the eve of Apple’s tablet announcement, I’d like to turn my 2010 predictive eye again to the mobile space where, as my title suggests, there are only three software players that matter — Apple, Google, and RIM (Blackberry).

But wait a minute, isn’t Nokia the big Kahuna in this space and aren’t they right now suing the heck out of Apple? Yes, but that’s an act of desperation, a stalling tactic intended just to slow Apple down or, possibly, send some useful license revenue from Cupertino to Finland. It doesn’t change the inevitable.

So-called “feature phones” are going away, to be replaced within two product cycles (three years, tops) entirely by smart phones driven by mobile app stores and the need for carriers to generate additional revenue. It’s not like you’ll even be able to find a feature phone to buy.

The smart phone marketplace will consolidate around three operating systems — Android, Blackberry, and OS X. Though there will be some ups and down in the market and the complete transition will take longer to complete than my usual 12-month timeline, Symbian, Windows Phone, and every other smart phone OS that isn’t from Apple, Google, or RIM, are likely to die or be reduced to insignificance.

None of these platforms expect to die, but that’s the way it is with these things. You don’t expect to lose until you’ve lost, generally.

On some level Nokia even thinks it still has a chance to win the war, but it doesn’t.

Nokia has faith in its very popular cross-platform application development environment, Qt, which it acquired in 2008 with the $153 million acquisition of Norwegian company Trolltech, father of Qt. Nokia sees Qt as its secret sauce — a potent weapon against Apple.

Qt, like any of a number of 4GLs can write once and deploy a lot of places. Where Qt is different from the other 4GLs (in the mind of Nokia at least) is that it manages to do what it does without killing app performance, probably because Qt began as a mobile product and mobile apps have to be lean and fast.

So Qt is growing up at just the time applications and OSes are growing down, thanks to OS X and the iPhone. Qt has made notable progress supporting 3D apps and a huge variety of processors, chipsets, and GPUs. They showed at CES the same apps running from the same source on a ton of different hardware platforms from handsets to desktops to set top boxes. And now Nokia has reportedly done the unthinkable, which is to rewrite Maemo, its Linux, in Qt.

Meanwhile, Apple has been rolling forward with its PA Semi strategy, the first fruit of which we’ll apparently see announced next week. I sense that Apple is headed toward a family of devices from handhelds to servers all linked to a cloud and ostensibly running the same OS. Apple is mining the ARM ecosystem for this move in addition to its own PA Semi extensions.

Nokia thinks that, through either Qt or various legal moves (or both), it can slow Apple’s mobile juggernaut. They won’t, and here’s why.

Apple hires the meanest lawyers it can find, paying extra bucks for that “kick them for good measure” attitude. I know a company that had long legal battles with both Microsoft and Apple and they said Apple’s legal team was far worse than Microsoft’s, hands down. So while Nokia’s appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to punish Apple, is an act of desperation, Apple’s similar response is just the way they do these things.

This legal situation is going to get uglier and uglier but in the end it will be settled with patent cross-licensing, no monetary damages or license fees, and Nokia feeling relieved to get out of the negotiating room alive.

This will happen, I believe, because Apple doesn’t really give a damn about Qt or Nokia. They care much more about Google and Microsoft.

Nokia is going to fail in using Qt and Symbian to compete with Android or iPhone application frameworks because Nokia just doesn’t understand software. Nokia is a hardware company that does software and hardware companies aren’t fighting this new war, they just build the weapons.

Remember Apple is a software company that sells its products in an expensive hardware box.

Ultimately (more than 12 months from now) there will be a shakeout and Nokia will drop Symbian and even Maemo in favor of Google’s Android and Nokia custom apps, UI, and hardware.

Meanwhile Microsoft will cut its rumored (and incredibly expensive) iPhone search deal with Apple, then it will introduce Windows Phone 7, which will fail to gain market traction for Redmond. Microsoft will ultimately align with Apple to avoid the embarrassment of working with Google, but this alignment will be solely for mobile.

That is unless Microsoft buys RIM and then doesn’t screw it up.