Does the World Need Another Mobile OS?
There has been a lot of news about mobile operating systems lately. In the news of late has been the launch of the Firefox Mobile OS, LG’s purchase of webOS and Samsung’s renewed focus on Tizen. Given the fact that we already have two mobile operating systems, iOS and Android, which dominate the market, and a third with Microsoft making a go at it. This news causes me to beg the question of whether we really need a new mobile OS and if so, how would it fare against these two operating systems that reside on the majority of all smartphones and tablets today?
It is pretty clear that Apple’s iOS will be their only mobile OS. RIM has their Blackberry OS, but other smartphone and tablet vendors have the option of Android, Windows 8 or Windows 8 Phone. Another option is to create their own version of Android (known as a fork) as Amazon has done with their Kindle Fire HD tablets. Now OEMS have the option of the Firefox Mobile OS, Tizen and mobile Linux as well.
Given the strong market adoption of Android and iOS with the rich ecosystem of software, apps, and services tied to both, even Microsoft and Blackberry will have a tough time gaining any ground on them. On the surface, these new mobile operating systems have a bigger problem. In their case, there is not a solid ecosystem of software and services directly tied to their new OS offerings.
However, at the competitive level, I believe that these new mobile OS options may play an important strategic role, especially against Google, whose market position is exploding. Google receives the main monetary benefits of Android running on vendor’s devices and they give their partners a paltry portion of any ad revenue that comes through their partnerships. It is true that some of the smaller handset makers may continue to back Android no matter what. However, if a vendor has a lot of clout, the option of a new mobile OS could give them some interesting leverage against Google to try and gain more favorable terms. If they took this tact, one of these new mobile operating systems could become a strategic weapon for them.
The one company where this could become a real issue is Samsung. Today, Samsung gets only 10% of any ad revenue that Google gets from their devices. Samsung is by far Android’s biggest customer and in fact, many now think of Samsung when they hear the word Android. It is pretty clear that Samsung is now in a place to have a lot of clout with Google and if they are smart, they try and leverage this in their favor. Of course, Google would have a hard time giving more of the ad revenue to any partner and even with Samsung’s strong position, and reach, they could balk at any push to give them more advertising revenue lest it set a precedent for other Android vendors who would want similar terms.
Samsung’s decision to fold their mobile OS, Bada, into Tizen could be a first volley in a strategic dance with Google. I have heard from a few other handset vendors that while they make Google and Android more successful, their return on the investment of Android is minimal to them. Although Android is technically free, they pay through the nose in terms of ad revenue they have to give Google as part of the licensing deal. At the same time, word on the street has been that Google is getting very concerned about Samsung’s great market penetration with their smartphones and tablets. Google fears that Samsung could come back to them and ask for a larger share of the advertising revenues.
Interestingly, should Samsung decide that working with Google on their terms is just too onerous, it is not too far fetched that they could do their own version of Android like Amazon does and keep all of the advertising revenue for themselves. Given Samsung’s new push with Tizen, they could threaten to drop Android and over time migrate all of their customers to Tizen. They could conceivably even develop some form of virtual emulator that would allow Android apps to work on Tizen. I just can’t see Samsung becoming this great powerhouse in mobile and not at some point take control of their entire ecosystem. This would include owning and controlling the mobile OS. Without doing that, they just continue to feed the Google bank and leave a lot of money on the table that should go into their pockets.
While there may be some emerging markets that could use the Firefox Mobile OS, or mobile Linux, I find it hard to believe that any of these mobile operating systems will gain any serious traction in mainstream markets in developed countries. On the other hand, these new mobile operating systems do provide all vendors an interesting option should any of them continue to be concerned that Google is getting to powerful.