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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Smartphone OS debates... who really cares? The action's somewhere else

To my mind, an inordinate amount of focus is placed on debating "which operating system will win on mobile phones?".

Microsoft vs. Symbian vs. Palm vs. Linux vs. SavaJe vs. whatever.

I've lost count of the number of presentations I've seen which have basically said "If all phones were based on our OS, then you, the operator, could do all sorts of cool new apps / save costs / increase ARPU / solve world hunger".

Very few of those Powerpoint decks, however, have gone on to point out how the real world works - that there will, clearly, be a mix of OS's, at which point some or all of their "benefits" start to disappear.

Let's face it, heterogeneity in mobile phone OS is permanent. At the bare minimum, Nokia will continue to champion Symbian, Motorola will push Linux, HTC is making a good living with Windows Mobile, and assorted proprietary OS's continue to make traction because consumers don't care.

It doesn't matter if 2008's coolest phone runs on FORTRAN or has a dozen monkeys with abacuses inside it. People will buy it, the way they bought the Moto RAZR, because it's cool. And therefore operators will clamour to sell it, irrespective of their internal goals to reduce the number of OS's they support.

So - OS diversity is a baseline. Most manufacturers recognise this, and most mobile operators as well. Even the most proscriptive, NTT DoCoMo, which develops its own software stacks, dual-sources from Symbian and Linux.

As a result, the focus of the action is moving a little further "up". I am seeing a revitalised set of attempts to compete at the "application platform" layer. Clearly, Java and BREW have been around for a while. DoCoMo has championed iMode around the world with a measure of success. Most of these can work "on top of" multiple OS's (although I'm not aware of any BREW-on-Symbian phones).

I see various new attempts by the Java and GSM communities to create essentially a "BREW clone, but without having to deal with Qualcomm". The OMTP and the approach of firms like SavaJe exemplify this. I see Qualcomm itself use its success in 3G chipsets and possibly its UIone interface solution to subtly push BREW towards wider acceptability anyway. I see DoCoMo getting greater traction with iMode (and maybe FOMA in the future?), and the Koreans seemed very enthused about the possibility of exporting WIPI. Arguably, even higher-level software layers like Macromedia Flash Lite, and Surfkitchen's & Action Engines' UI tools could be counted in this category too. If it didn't have more pressing concerns, I would have expected RIM to be playing harder here as well.

To some extent, this is the promise of J2ME, but updated with better functionality, security, less fragmentation and better end-to-end control by operators.

Where does this leave the underlying OS's? I'd argue that - except for specific usage cases - they are heading towards commoditisation. Clearly, they're not commodities in the way that suppliers of oil or coffee beans are - the investments and switching costs remain very high. But I see the debate remaining very restricted to internal bean-counting and engineering debates inside handset manufacturers, in a similar fashion to phone chipsets. I see no real reason why Symbian vs. Windows Mobile should get more coverage than Texas Instruments vs. Infineon.

Do you know what chipset is in your phone? Or what its differentiators are from its competitors? Is there a dedicated blog site extolling the virtues of Agere-based handsets? Sure, these matter if you're building phones. But so does the type of battery, the audio chip and a 100 other things. Add the OS to the list.

What are these "specific usage cases" I mentioned? Well, obviously Nokia's range of high/mid-end devices is one of them. Then, clearly, the Internet is stuffed with enthusiastic evangelists of one OS or another, who would gladly beat each other to death with the device of their choice. Certain groups of developers have natural leanings towards Microsoft or Symbian too, for example in the enterprise. But the Holy Grail of the OS vendors, to have mobile operators standardise on specific OS's, seems to have run out of steam. It's also much easier to test and develop new solutions on smartphones before pushing them downmarket - there's a reason why so many of the DVB-H mobile TV trials are on Symbian-based phones.

So, operators are increasingly happy to standardise on application layers, and have these run across multiple OS's. Sure, they might prefer fewer OSs - but we're maybe talking reducing from 10 to 6, not down to 2 or 3.

But fundamentally, we're moving to the "not-quite-lowest-common-denominator" position, abstracted a layer from the OS.

What this means is that OS's are not major differentiators for manufacturers. I have a feeling that Symbian may end up as a loser here. It's notable that Panasonic has shifted allegiance from Symbian to Linux this week, and that the Koreans I spoke to a couple of weeks back had tested - and rejected - WIPI-on-Symbian.

Microsoft's position is more obscure, but its focus on IT-type applications and more corporate-aimed devices may mean it runs parallel to the more consumer/content-centric WIPI/Brew/Java/i-Mode debate.

Linux seems to be a potential long-run winner (recent developments in APIs and standards are helping), but it "isn't as easy as it looks" seems to be a familiar refrain in my research. A newly-revitalised SavaJe is an outside bet, but my general belief is that all this means proprietary OS platforms still have several years' breathing space in front of them.

[Oh, and any VCs interested in funding my MPMMAOS (massively-parallel mobile monkey abacus OS) programme, please contact me at the usual Disruptive Analysis address]


Anonymous said...

Interesting blog... I agree with some points that many users don't really care about the underlying OS.

About who will be the winner in the long term... nobody has the crystal ball...

I myself make my living from Symbian OS, so I hope that it won't be a loser... :) But yes, if Nokia dump Symbian OS and move to other OS, the story will change.


Anonymous said...

users wont care but developers most certainly will with so many porting issues