Permalink 06:20:16 pm, by dano Email , 1239 words, 16729 views   English (US)
Categories: Analytics

The (current) future of mobile operating systems

The start of a new year triggers a standard exercise for planners within the mobility ecosystem; trying to figure out where the market is headed over the next 18 to 24 months. There are an enormous number of variables at play, and the market dynamic shifts constantly and often unpredictably. If you think 2011 was busy, wait until 2012 rolls through.

While there are a lot of variables that drive mobility, the one I’d like to focus on is mobile operating systems, since it drives so many other ecosystem components. The players include iOS, Android and its variants, webOS, RIM, Windows Phone, and Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko.

The recent announcement that HP is pushing webOS into the Open Source wilderness is another step in the seemingly random lifecycle of what had once been a promising technology. So at this point, why does it make any difference?

There are already two open source mobile OS alternatives in the market; the first is Android and all its permutations, and the second is Mozilla’s geekily named “Boot to Gecko” (B2G). The background context for any open source alternative is the perceived dominance of iOS (even though Android is selling at a much faster rate). Apple has set the bar, painted it gold, and created incredibly tight filters for anyone who wants to play in their gilded ecosystem. Google by comparison has taken a very hand-off approach to Android (we’ll let the device manufacturer’s worry about it), and as a result, Android comes in at a lower threshold and is much more “open” in the traditional sense. The problem with this is, of course, that having a lower threshold means the quality control is a lot looser when it comes to experiencing Android apps. There are a ton of free apps in the Android market, and most of them are worth what you’ve paid.

From a software development perspective, Android is not a unified offering either; because of Google’s loose grip, every handset vendor offering an Android device delivers their specific flavor of Android. Android-based apps running on a Samsung device need to be tweaked to run on a Motorola device, or an LG device, etc. In addition, the fact that Motorola is now a part of Google’s stable means there is bound to be built-in OS release bias in favor of Motorola (I mean, how could there not be?). The net effect of Google gobbling up Motorola means the other Android device vendors are looking fast and furious for alternatives, and at the time of the announcement, the only other viable alternative was Microsoft/Nokia. WebOS was officially “End-of-Lifed” in August of 2011 (HP having just a few months earlier announced that a version of webOS would run in Windows OS), and Mozilla was quietly cruising below the surface with B2G.

So now, only a few months later, HP has changed direction (again) and resuscitated, then kicked out its child, and Mozilla has broken the surface on their alternative. So there are now two more open source mobile OS alternatives. What is unusual about this is that normally the market for this sort of technology would be consolidating at this stage, not expanding. So the question is, can either of these alternatives gain traction against Android (since there is virtually no chance that either of these will displace iOS)?

webOS has the advantage of having been around a lot longer, and presumably has some level of developer ecosystem that has experience building apps against a webOS framework. On the other hand, it has been tightly contained within HP’s folds, and has not seen the light of day much outside of HP. HP’s pockets are pretty deep, but they also have a lot going on at the moment, and webOS is not likely to be a priority. It seems unlikely that HP will throw its weight and influence behind webOS in an open source world, so this is likely to be a quick sink or swim scenario.

Mozilla’s B2G is an interesting alternative, and their timing is either really good, or really lucky (which in the long run works out the same). While B2G may be relatively new, it comes from a pedigree of Open Sourcedness, which implies a built-in developer ecosystem that can be leveraged to take advantage of a mobile paradigm. The question will come down to how similar B2G is to the existing Mozilla development framework; developing to a mobile OS is different than developing to a browser or desktop paradigm, and will require a very robust SDK and support infrastructure. If Mozilla can ramp up a mobile developer ecosystem, and provide tighter on-boarding controls than Android (with the intent of creating a more compelling end-user experience), this could conceivably work. The bottom line for this will be that it can’t be a free-form “organic” growth model; there is a middle ground between Apple’s stunning control and the wild west mindset Google has applied to Android. If Mozilla can straddle these two extremes (leaning more towards the Apple model) they have a reasonable chance of making this work.

Then there is also the increasingly hapless RIM, who’s most likely scenario for 2012 is acquisition at a fire sale price, assuming the RIM board finally grows a pair and cracks the whip on the CEOs “leading” the company. BBX (the RIM OS name du jour) is unlikely to expand the RIM footprint in the enterprise (where Apple is starting to dig in deep), while at the same time they’ve had marginal success in the consumer space (which Apple also dominates at the high end, and Android at the low), both segments being critical to RIM’s long-term growth strategy, which is being systematically marginalized by continuous mis-steps.

Then finally there is Windows Phone, and the alliance with the previously formidable Nokia. Windows OS dominance globally is still staggering (except in the critical mobile space), and their presence across the enterprise ecosystem gives them a huge advantage, except that Windows Phone appears to be more of a consumer play than an enterprise play. Microsoft has been very effective on occasion, but tends to do best when it’s going into an expanding market with limited competition (e.g. IE vs. Netscape). This is not that case. Apple has become a formidable competitor within Microsoft’s historical target market, and Android is growing like kudzu in their secondary market (same dilemma as RIM, although Microsoft is in a relatively stronger position).

Who wins in all this? Not the handset manufacturers, they’re jumping from frying pan to frying pan at the moment. Apple will clearly come through this smelling pretty good, and that is likely to continue for a while. Android will continue to do well, but their model is so nebulous, its going to be hard to put the crown on an individual head (it won’t be Google/Motorola). For those waiting for goods news from RIM, you might want to get comfortable, it could be a while. Unless HP takes WebOS seriously in its new model, it could face another slow, lingering death. And then there is Mozilla. The overall market dynamic could work for them, they have a lot of smart people chasing after this, and their timing is pretty good. It will, as always, come down to focus, investment, and a bit of luck.

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