Is There Room for A New Mobile OS?

Tim Bajarin / August 22nd, 2011

A couple of years ago, when various handset makers were looking for a mobile OS to back for their devices, they were given a proposition from Google that was hard to refuse. Google would provide an open source version of Android and with it allow the vendors to customize and add their own features so that they could differentiate their products from other Android licensees.

At first this worked well and Google got dozens of device makers to hop on the Android bandwagon. And for the most part, Android took off, especially in smart phones. But over time, many Android licensees found Google difficult to work with because of their design approach to Android, which was always a moving target. And while Google called it an open mobile OS, as time went on, it became much more controlled by Google and licensees have had less room to do things to help differentiate their devices. Even worse, they have found it more challenging to control their own destiny when it comes to many key services tied around their own offerings.

Now that Google has bought Motorola, many Android licensees believe Google will be exercise tighter control over Android and with Motorola develop a more vertically integrated approach to the market. This is similar to what Apple does through owning the hardware, software and services; integrating them tightly together to provide customers a seamless user experience. While Google has said that they will continue to develop Android as an open source product and work with licensees equally, none of the licensees I have talked to actually believe this. At the very least, they expect Motorola to get early code. Many believe tighter integration between Android and Motorola hardware is inevitable and doubt they will get a similar deal in any way. The various lawsuits against Android as well as the potential of having to pay extra royalties to Oracle and Microsoft should they win their legal cases against Android does not make them happy either.

Not long after the news that Google would buy Motorola, and that HP was going to ditch webOS, Microsoft started courting Android and webOS developers even harder. In fact Microsoft is offering free Windows phones to webOS developers and more hand holding if they jump ship and start developing for Windows Mobile 7and 8.

But what I am hearing from vendors and carriers is that the original need for a completely open mobile OS is what still they really want. Supporting Microsoft is equal to just supporting Android. Indeed, Microsoft would still control the OS and dictate the terms of use and development and give licensees very little room to innovate at either the hardware or software level.

It is also not clear where webOS is going. We don’t know who its owner will be yet. Does it stay with HP or go with the spinoff? We also don’t know if it will ever be an open OS that licensees of the future can freely customize for their own markets and customers. One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that in developed markets, complete ecosystems of hardware, software and services define the user experience. But that may not be the case in emerging markets.

In emerging markets, the need to have a truly open source mobile OS is very important since they need to be able to customize their offerings around a specific language and localized services. This is especially true for emerging market carriers. The fact that mature markets demand hundreds of thousands of mobile apps does not necessarily translate to the actual needs of smart phone users in emerging markets. There they need the dozens or hundreds of apps that are customized for their regions, customs and traditions.

Everyone knows Apple’s approach to their OS is proprietary. Even though Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 7 OS is freely licensable, it is fully controlled by Microsoft. And now that Google has bought Motorola, Android is looking more and more like it could become more tightly controlled as part of a vertically integrated offering. Unless HP quickly states that webOS will not only be licensable but also truly open (which I don’t think they will ever do), then I believe that there is serious room for a completely new mobile OS to emerge and especially give handset vendors targeting emerging markets an OS of their own to work with.

We are already hearing that even the big handset vendors who are backing Android are seriously looking for an alternative OS to back to hedge their bets and to help them go after emerging markets where giant app stores are less important for success. This leads me to believe that there is not only room for another mobile OS but a need for one that is truly open that will never be encumbered by big company agendas that drive the designs of their mobile OS.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
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  • Tom Christian

    Hi Tim
    You probably know the emerging markets better than me, but working for a telco operating in emerging markets i see a strong demand for several of the same services we use in the west. The Facebook traffic for instance continues to surprize me. Maybe a better formulation would be that the component trade off vs price, is a lot more important in these markets, and as a consequence you will get more specialized phones for dedicated segments, experienced by developers as hand set fragmentation? for instance lower resolution cameras than standard or no camera at all?
    Thanks for a fine arthicle

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