Thursday, June 26, 2008

Who cares about mobile phone operating systems?

Obviously I’m interested in Tuesday’s announcement of Nokia’s plan to buy Symbian, convert all its employees to Symbian employees, and then release most (all?) of the technology as open source. Since I do research about operating systems strategy, open source and the mobile phone industry — and have been a consultant to Symbian — this is of great interest to me.

However, this month has been the most crazy one of my research career. I have worked on nine different papers this month, and four of them (three of them brand new) in the past 36 hours. So let me offer some quick observations and provide the real post later on. (For thoughtful analysis, see the postings by David Wood and Mike Mace.)

I want to engage one quick point. Jason Hiner of ZDNet asks whether the war of mobile phone operating systems between open source Symbian, Android (the gPhone), and Windows Mobile can ever be won — if the fragmentation will ever coelesce around a single standard:

They all seem to be assuming that the mobile phone market will mirror the computer market, which is dominated by a small handful of platforms: Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. The reality is that there is likely to be a much larger diversity of platforms in the mobile world.

In addition to Android, Symbian, and Windows Mobile, there is now the iPhone with its OS X-based platform. And, beyond those four, there’s a plethora of phone makers that run their own proprietary operating systems on a variety of phones, sometimes with a customized OS for each phone.

It’s going to be very hard to put the genie back on the bottle in the phone market. All of these different types of phones are already out there and will be in use for years to come. Some may argue that the smartphone market does not have as many players as the general mobile market, but the lines are blurring between standard mobile phones and smartphones.

All of this means that counting on software platforms to deliver mobile applications and services to a large number of users is probably not going to be very practical. There’s too much platform fragmentation and diversity, and that’s unlikely to change.
I am willing to agree that there will never be a single winner — even Microsoft admits that the fluke of the Wintel monopoly will not be repeated. But that doesn’t mean the contest is not worth fighting: there will be winners and losers in the mobile OS platform wars, and the financial returns are always better for the winners.

Meanwhile Oh Malik (in his excellent posting) shows more understanding of the mobile phone industry dynamics by handicapping the likely survivors of this war. In first place is LiMo (which Hiner ignored) at 60%, while Symbian and iPhone are tied for second at 50%.

Malik also notes that platform standardization is really only a factor on high-end smartphones which account for 10% of the market, while low-end phones are done as do-it-yourself proprietary operating systems. So there is a lot of growth left for multi-device, multi-generational standards for the vast majority of mobile phones that don’t use one of the major technologies. Nokia shifting S40 to S60 (once it’s in-house) is the most immediate opportunity. The other big opportunity is for Motorola to resolve its fragmented platform strategy — between LiMo, gPhone, Symbian and Windows — and put all its weight behind a single technology.

OK, so I’m a platform guy, and I love platform wars. Even so, I think the relative success (and survival) of these various platforms will influence the market share of handset makers and also how quickly users make regular use of the mobile Internet.

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