The Multi OS Conundrum

by Bob O'Donnell   |   February 11th, 2014

The worldwide market for smart connected devices continues to be a battleground not only for device makers, but for the companies that create the operating systems and ecosystems that power those devices: most notably, Google, Apple and Microsoft. Each of the companies currently offers two major OS choices: Android and Chrome for Google, MacOS and iOS for Apple and Windows and Windows Phone for Microsoft. While people have argued that some of these OS’s will merge over time, I believe we will continue to see these six choices (as well as a few others—though I expect the others to remain relatively small) for at least the next five years.

As I built the TECHnalysis Research Smart Connected Devices forecast that I first referenced in last week’s column, I used that assumption to create a forecast for operating system share through 2018, both in the US and WW. Perhaps not surprisingly, I believe Google will continue to dominate the worldwide OS share through 2018, particularly given the success of lower cost smartphones running Android that are getting popular in many emerging countries. However, the news is not all good for Google, as I believe the company’s share of total smart connected devices will actually peak in 2014 at 63% and then decline modestly to 57.1% in 2018.

The reasons for this expectation are all around the theme of this week’s column: the overabundance of OS choices (as well as the expected slowing growth for tablets and even smartphones discussed last week). Apple may not ever go for the low-end of the tablet and smartphone markets, but there’s no question that they will widen their reach into emerging regions and take some share in those critical markets. Also, while Samsung’s recent announcements with Google would certainly suggest there isn’t much hope left for the Tizen operating system, other low end alternatives, including Firefox OS and perhaps even Jolla or some other Linux-based variant will likely become an important Android alternative in these emerging markets. I even believe Nokia’s strong feature phone presence in these regions could lead to Windows Phone gaining some ground if the company is smart about transitioning the tens of millions of Nokia feature phone users over to low-cost Windows Phones. Finally, there’s also the big concerns about the ongoing splintering of Android, and even the possibility the company will battle itself by bringing Chrome over to the tablet market. The resulting worldwide market view is shown below.

WW SCD Shipments by OS

Of course, the story in the US is very different. Here there is a much closer race between Google, Apple and Microsoft and other alternatives are nearly non-existent. I do expect that Google can maintain a very modest lead over Apple throughout the forecast, but it will be very tight. Microsoft, on the other hand, will continue to lose share due to the struggling PC market, but I believe they will gain modest share in tablets as more of them are deployed for business purposes (the only part of the US tablet market I forecast to grow between now and 2018) and if they can build on the modest momentum they have started to create around Windows Phone in the US market. The chart below shows my operating system market share forecast for the US.

US SCD Shipments by OS

Regardless of where the exact figures end up, there’s no question that the multiplicity of OS choices is going to continue to be a serious challenge for app (and application) developers. Admittedly, not all OS vendors are going to necessarily want to be on six (or even more) platforms, but the prospect of having to support 3-4 different operating systems is a very real one that will many software vendors will have to face.

If you’re interested in seeing the highlights of the new TECHnalysis Research forecast document (which covers significantly more than I could cover in a single column), you can download a free copy at

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a brand new technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. He previously was Program Vice President, Clients and Displays for IDC.
  • jfutral

    Some major software developers seem to have a hard enough time serving 1-2 OS’s of one platform type (desktops), I can’t imagine them serving more. Would love to be wrong about that one!


  • Bob O’Donnell

    Yes, very true. The question will be how successful will app development tools become at supporting multiple operating systems in a relatively simple way. Of course, this was supposed to be the promise of HTML5, but having spoken with some software vendors (both large and small), regarding the issue, it seems the promise was a bit bigger than the actual reality. I will be curious to see if there are some innovative companies who can help solve this. Ironically, I’ve seen a demo of and played around with a new tool from Microsoft currently called Project Sienna that could actually help out…it basically lets people with advanced Excel and PPT skills build mobile applications. Out of the gate they plan to support multiple flavors of Windows and iOS but I understand Android support is coming as well.

    • JoeS54

      Microsoft is pursuing this in a more serious way with the integration of Xamarin into Visual Studio. C# (a language developed by Microsoft) has been gaining in popularity for some time, and can now be used within Visual Studio to write for Windows, WP, Android and iOS. The basic program logic is separated from the user interface, making the code portable. All you have to do is tweak the UI for each OS, and leave everything else as is. Project Sienna is a different idea (and there are a number of similar services out there) – giving non-programmers a very basic way to construct their own apps. There are many similar services for building websites using drag-and-drop functionality. But such services are by definition limited in their capabilities.

  • capnbob67

    Unit count for OS is as low value here as it is in device unit count. It is the value of the user that is most important to determine OS value and prospects. Their usage, value of usage etc. is key. Just like iOS users surf more, drive more clicks, have better demographics, drive more ecommerce, buy more apps etc. than Android users, that is what drives the incentives for devs and long-term health. Apple is severely underweighted by unit count alone, as may Windows (desktop) vs. the majority of cheap, commodity Android and WP Phone users.