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Too many mobile Operating Systems, but who will win?

by Sravan Kundojjala | Feb 24, 2010

The number of mobile operating systems just keeps getting bigger and to our count close to ten platforms are now competing in this space. They include Symbian, Android, iPhone OS, BlackBerry OS, WebOS, MeeGo, bada, Windows Mobile, LiMo Foundation-compliant platforms, Brew Mobile Platform and Linux variants. The question that obviously comes to everyone's mind is who will win in this mobile software platform market.

There are some interesting angles to think about this.

• Can the smartphone market size accommodate this many platforms?

• Do consumers care about operating systems?

• Is it a zero-sum game or can there be a more than one winner?

• Everyone is talking about carriers becoming dumb pipes but what about handset OEMs? Will Google and Microsoft make handset OEMs as dumb pipes or add value?

• Should every handset vendor build their own OS? Can they cope with incremental mobile OS R&D costs?

• Can horizontal and vertical business models co-exist in the mobile industry?

• Is there enough developer support to address every OS?

• How many platforms operators can support?

We think R&D capabilities, scale, brand, and strong partner and developer ecosystem are necessary ingredients to sustain a long-term smartphone OS and only few of the above mentioned platforms check most of the boxes. Strategy Analytics estimates that smartphone OS vendors currently spend close to $100-$200 million on R&D on average and this is expected to grow incrementally.

Nokia (Symbian and MeeGo): 2010 will be remembered as a software transition year for Nokia and 2011 will see a settled software platform strategy with both Symbian and MeeGo (Maemo) getting much waited Qt UI and app frameworks. Nokia has a unique software strategy and is the only vertical vendor who is open sourcing its proprietary platforms. Nokia already has scale, brand, and R&D capabilities and if the company can excite the developer community and consumers with Qt then it should keep its smartphone lead for a long time to come. Nokia is well positioned to democratize the iPhone and BlackBerry experience to the masses. Nokia's software transition will be watched closely as competitors becoming stronger.

Microsoft: We believe Microsoft can not afford to lose in the mobile platform market given its synergistic importance to its other businesses and Windows Phone 7 Series (WP7 Series) announcement just reiterates that. It remains to be seen how WP7 Series platform will fare in terms of price points, hardware requirements, OEM support, developer and consumer reaction which can decide whether Microsoft can get the scale that is required to sustain a long-term smartphone OS. Microsoft will face a strong challenge from Google as both companies are targeting the same OEMs. Microsoft may position older Windows Mobile versions for low-end smartphone market but it remains to be seen how OEMs will react given more appealing nature of WP7 Series platform.

Android: Google and its partners executed very well so far and 2010 could be the Year of Android. Unlike Microsoft's WP7 Series platform, Android can also run on low-end chipsets which can increase its addressable market. Android and Symbian are the only mobile OSs that are targeting mass-market smartphone segment currently. This gives edge to Android to gain scale as handset OEMs push Android to feature phones. However some key risks like fragmentation and future Google moves that may cause friction to OEMs and operators will be watched closely. We also believe that the expanding size of the smartphone market should create enough opportunity for horizontal software platform players as Google and Microsoft currently lack high volume handset customers.

BlackBerry OS: RIM continued to gain with its market leading "Push" technology and security features. However, its web browsing and touch screen experience needs to be addressed. RIM already trying to fix the web browsing problem with new WebKit-based browser but touchscreens remain a challenge.

iPhone OS: Apple continues to win mindshare from developers and consumers alike and is well positioned to be a long-term player in the smartphone OS market. Apple's web browser is equally capable even if the trend shifts to web applications in the future. Apple may come under pressure from Android and resurgent Microsoft in the future but the growing size of the smartphone market should give enough room for iPhone OS to grow.

LiMo Foundation: Being a middleware platform and because of its governance structure, the LiMo Foundation currently lacks a direct relation with the developer community and currently depends on its operator partners for ecosystem. 52 LiMo-compliant handsets have been announced so far and 24 major global carriers are members of the Foundation. We believe that the LiMo Foundation's middleware platform is technically closer to Nokia's MeeGo and it remains to be seen how the Foundation will pursue its strategy given global OEMs are currently choosing Android.

Palm's WebOS: Despite seeming to have one of the best mobile platforms, Palm's limited geographical reach, and limited R&D budget could prevent the company from scaling as much as its competitors Nokia and Apple. Palm's lack of brand-awareness outside North America is not helping the matters. We believe Palm's lack of scale could hurt it in the future as its competitors become even stronger.

Samsung bada: Samsung bada's definition and market positioning remains still subjective given its kernel-configurable nature. It remains to be seen how Samsung's bada will keep pace with Android, iPhone OS, Symbian and others. Like Android and Symbian Samsung's bada also expected to target mass-market smartphones.

Qualcomm BREW Mobile Platform (BMP): We believe Qualcomm is positioning BREW as a low-end smartphone platform but it will face a stiff challenge from Android and Symbian as they are also trying to address the feature phone market. Qualcomm's BMP is also not supported by other chipset vendors but Qualcomm is expected to leverage its existing relations with operators and handset OEMs.

Despite the desire of OEMs to control their platforms, we continue to believe that the growing R&D costs to develop a smartphone OS and ecosystem around it could potentially force them to consolidate their efforts around licensable operating systems while also building OS-agnostic differentiating layers on top of that. Examples include Nokia (Qt / OVI), Motorola (Moto Blur), Sony Ericsson (UX), HTC (Sense UI), Samsung (TouchWiz) and LG (S-Class).

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