Friday, December 5, 2008

Just say no to smartphone monopolies!

Speaking at the Symbian Partner Event yesterday, I was asked a question about fragmentation of the smartphone OS space. The reporters were all gone by then, but a related issue came up in the talk by AT&T executive Roger Smith. Smith had a great talk overall, but a lot of the coverage focused on an inaccurate report of one sentence of his speech.

Here is the oft-cited passage in the Yahoo account:

[AT&T] believes smartphones will make up the largest portion of devices connecting to its network by about 2014, and it wants to avoid the fragmentation of platforms that has made it hard to develop mobile applications, said Roger Smith, director of next generation services, data product realization at AT&T. Speaking at the Symbian Partner Event in San Francisco, he said Symbian is "a very credible and likely candidate" to become that one operating system.
The account was quoted on Ars Technica, ZDNet, FierceWireless and elsewhere.

While the first sentence is accurate, Smith never said a single operating system. Here is what I typed as he was saying it: (the “” is a direct quote and the [bracketed] comments are added later for clarity)
[We] want to avoid the fragmentation problem of today. “We want to standardize on a very few – ideally one - open operating systems.” Symbian [is a] credible candidate.
In other words
  • “very few” open operating systems, which might be one
  • this doesn’t include non-“open” operating systems, so this doesn’t count Windows Mobile, iPhone or BlackBerry.
C’mon, folks, the original account doesn’t even pass the sniff test! Is AT&T going to drop the iPhone for which they have a US exclusive? Are they going to drop the BlackBerry, the most popular family of smartphones in the US for the past five years?

What AT&T might be saying is “we don’t need both Android and Symbian.” I think it’s certainly saying (as I imagine other carriers are saying) “we don’t need multiple versions of Linux like Android and LiMo.” Of course, if AT&T picked Symbian, T-Mobile might still stick with Android, and all would have BlackBerries.

Which brings us to my own small part of the morning session, where I spoke (in lieu of my friend Michael Mace) on a panel with Gregory Gorman about “Succeeding in the US: the key factors.” We were expected to bring an outsider’s perspective, invited by David Wood, Symbian EVP of Research, for whom I’ve worked as a consultant for the past two years.

During Q&A, I was asked about how we should eliminate fragmentation in mobile phone platforms. What I should have said (and have said previously) was
A single mobile phone OS would be bad for the industry. No matter how tempting the efficiency arguments, monopolies are bad and competition is good. Even if the technology is open source, if you want innovation then users and carriers and handset makers need to have a choice between competing platforms.
What I did say (paraphrasing) was
There’s nothing wrong with having 3-5 platforms in the industry. The problem is not having 5 platforms, but 400 — the number of different J2ME implementations. The videogame industry does quite well with 2½ - 3 platforms, and I certainly think the mobile phone industry could support three platforms.
In fact, the experts have been saying for months (if not years) is that some fragmentation (i.e. choice) will always remain for mobile phone platforms, even if the odds for LiMo are lower than those quoted six months ago.

Specifically, a single platform would not be good for AT&T (or Verizon Wireless or Vodafone or anyone else) and I think they know it. AT&T would not want a single OS supplier to have that sort of power over them, just as they have carefully made sure that no handset supplier has monopsony power over them.

Palm OS (the one I personally use every day) is essentially dead, but I don’t see Windows Mobile, iPhone or BlackBerry going away any time in the next 5-10 years. Where I see the opportunity is if we ever get an open source† mobile phone operating system, then there is no reason for firms to continue to maintain their own proprietary OS, but instead should shift all their feature phones over time to an OSS platform. In other words, open innovation — sourcing your OS outside — would be the norm for everyone outside RIM and Apple.

† Symbian says it will be gated source “during first half 2009,” and “ultimately” (perhaps 2010) moving to open source. Both Android and LiMo remain gated source today.

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