Mobile Platform Wars

mitchell-baker

When it comes to mobile operating systems attention usually centers on the highly popular Apple iOS and Google’s Android. But over the next two years, say analysts, innovation in user experiences is likely to come from new software platforms.

This year’s Mobile World Congress will see major announcements from Jolla (Sailfish OS), Mozilla (Firefox OS), Samsung’s Tizen, and Ubuntu. All will claim advantages of openness and differentiation over Android and iOS but face a significant struggle to generate the scale needed for success. That said, a successful launch in Brazil in early 2013 and the requirement for an alternative to dominant Android look likely to help Firefox OS begin to succeed where other open-source alternatives have failed, predicts mobile consultancy CCS Insight.

The industry is ripe for change. Indeed, operators’ need for an alternative to Android and iOS is expected to be discussed at the length during MWC, which will be held in Barcelona February 25-28.

The Current Duopoly

To be sure, Apple’s iOS still has a strong position in terms of high-tier market share. The user experience, combined with a thriving, easy-to-use system for buying content and applications, makes the experience so sticky for users that the vast majority will never leave the ecosystem. It does, though, face several challenges. It remains to be seen if Apple can successfully take on Android in the lower end of the market. And, analysts say, the launch of new platforms will deliver a fresh wave of innovation such as extensive support for HTML5, visual multitasking, deep third-party service integration, and gesture-driven user interfaces. iOS offers none of these things, raising questions about the future of iOS, its integration with OSX and the timing of a new platform architecture, says CCS Insight.

Android, for its part, looks set to dominate this year’s MWC. Don’t expect to see major flagship launches, though; the focus will be on mid- and low-tier devices, which will make up most of the more than 900 million smartphones that analysts expects to be sold in 2013.

What’s more, analysts say Android, already the world’s most successful smartphone operating system, is now expanding into new areas. It appeared at the 2013 Consumer Electronics show in cameras, media streamers, video monitors and even an oven. There was also widespread support for Android applications that worked in conjunction with all manner of consumer electronics from TVs and domestic appliances to watches and personal fitness devices.

That said, handset manufacturers are struggling to differentiate themselves and make money on Android phones. Indeed, it is one of the reasons that Samsung sought to reduce its reliance on Android for high-tier phones. Its Tizen platform has so far gained limited support from other manufacturers, but represents a growing proportion of Samsung’s portfolio of smartphones and consumer electronics devices in 2013.

A lack of profitability among most licensees, coupled with fresh competition from rival platforms, could force Google to reconsider Android’s business model, says Geoff Blaber, an analyst at mobile consultancy CCS Insight. He predicts Google could end up providing additional incentives to a few favored manufacturers by offering a share of advertising revenue in return for a more-tailored Google user experience on their phones.

Microsoft’s Move

Microsoft has yet to grab a meaningful market share in the mobile space. In October it launched Windows 8, creating a new user experience that stretches from the desktop to tablets to mobile phones. Windows 8 uses two modes: the desktop mode (which looks just like Windows 7) and Metro, which is oriented for touch. The Metro user interface looks very promising for tablets as it offers more functionality than iOS and Android. Microsoft is billing Windows 8 as an easy-to-use, integrated, turn-it-on and it just works user experience coming at a price that is more akin to Android than iOS, says Richard Windsor, who owns and operates Radio Free Mobile, a blog that covers the mobile handset and handset software space. But Windows phones still face an up-hill battle in the market. (See the Nokia-Microsoft story on pages 8 and 9 for more information.)

Blackberry’s Back

On January 30th BlackBerry announced its new Blackberry 10 platform alongside new BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 devices. It also announced a company rebranding that will see RIM become simply BlackBerry. “The successful launch of BlackBerry 10 and two new devices is a remarkable achievement but represents merely the first step in a long and challenging recovery that remains far from certain,” says CCS Insight.

Is The Future Stacked?

Winners are far from clear. But one thing is: the jostling for market power among some of the players is limiting freedom of choice. A February report from Morgan Stanley estimates that Google pays rival Apple roughly $1 billion per year to remain the default search option on devices like the iPhone and iPad. But, Google, in turn, is allegedly blocking rival Yandex by prohibiting Android handset makers from integrating its Russian rival as a default search engine.

Browsers are also raising questions about openness. They can run applications and have the huge advantage of being able to offer developers a true “write once run anywhere experience” but – up until now — that has come at a cost. These applications do not run in native code and as a result have both a performance and a functionality disadvantage compared with those written directly to iOS, Android or Windows Phone. The integration may lead to a smoother experience but integrating the software stack has a darker side. Apple, with its native apps, locked-down platform and tight control over which developer apps are released; Google with its Chrome browser being integrated into Android’s operating system, Google search technology and Google Plus; and Microsoft, which is also developing integrated offerings for its desktop and phone operating systems, makes independent offerings and interoperability much more difficult.

Mozilla, the organization behind the Firefox browser, believes it is wrong – and unnecessary — to bind users of mobile phones to a single corporate entity. “The fight is about keeping the Internet — including the mobile Web — an engine of choice and innovation as well as economic value,” Mozilla Chairman Mitchell Baker said, in an interview with Informilo earlier this year. Mozilla is launching what it hopes will be a powerful counterweight: the Firefox OS, a browser-based operating system for mobile devices that bills itself as “fully open” and seeks to push the adoption of HTML5 as a viable platform option for the mobile industry.

HTML5 promises to enable developers to create apps that work on any operating system and plug into a device’s advanced hardware and software even if the apps are not native. The first commercial deployment is planned in Latin America with Telefonica early this year. Other telcos – including Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Telenor – have also signed up. Expect a flurry of announcements during Mobile World Congress. Operators are eager to have an alternative to Google and Apple. They have placed their bets on Linux and Microsoft in the past, only to see those efforts sputter.

For the next year or so the impact of Mozilla looks like it will be minimal. But it is gunning for emerging markets, the biggest growth markets going forward. And it has demonstrated – with the Firefox browser – that it can rally developers to take on a giant and wrest away significant market share. When Firefox came on the market Internet Explorer had 98% of the global market. Today it accounts for 54% of global browser usage. The mobile industry also has its share of market leaders who looked like they had the market sewn up. Think Symbian or Nokia. For now, Apple and Google may be ahead; but there is plenty of opportunity for new entrants. The war is by no means over. It is just getting started.

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