Mobile's game of risk

Which operating system should mobile developers support?

Mobile's game of risk

When executives from mobile operating system company Symbian and a collection of handset makers and network operators decided to move the mobile phone operating system to an open source basis, it seemed an odd move.

Symbian is way ahead in the market in terms of the number of advanced handsets shipped, despite a royalty for each handset of up to $5. Based on figures from market analyst Canalys, Symbian has almost two-thirds of the global market for 'converged devices', more popularly known as smartphones.

The market-share picture is different in the US, where Apple, Microsoft and RIM dominate. Yet the US is also a market where devices running proprietary mobile-phone operating systems outsell those based on royalty-free software such as Linux, which has no more than 10 per cent of the US or global market.

Despite the low penetration of Linux, analysts believe that open source will become a driving force in mobile phone software. Adam Leach, principal analyst for Ovum, says: "Open source principles are increasingly being used to establish standards in the mobile industry. The adoption of the Eclipse public licence by the Symbian Foundation will encourage adoption and collaboration. This is what the Symbian ecosystem needs to push its market penetration to the next level and achieve real momentum beyond Nokia's volumes."

The problem that the mobile-phone industry has today is platform proliferation. A few years ago, there were not very many choices of smartphone operating systems - Microsoft and Symbian dominated. But the rise of Linux has expanded the options and Symbian even wound up with three distinct user interfaces - Nokia's Series 60, UIQ and MOAP(S) - each of which operators need to customise separately. The network operators have tired of dealing with so many options.

Vodafone director Guido Arnone says the company started trying to whittle down the number of operating systems it deals with three years ago: "Basically, we support three open operating systems. Two are vendor driven: Microsoft and Symbian. One uses the open-source model: LiMo."

Arnone welcomes the move to bring Symbian, MOAP(S) and UIQ under one, royalty-free umbrella over the next two years, because it will further reduce the integration work for Vodafone.

The move to open source, Arnone says, will encourage handset makers other than Nokia to embrace Symbian. "Some of the other OEMs might have been sceptical as to how Nokia would be open. Making it open source is a strong statement."

A second reason for a move among mobile phone software providers is to garner application support. They all realise they are now in a beauty contest for developer attention. For developers, two factors come into play: volume and accessibility.

The push by operators such as Vodafone to control the number of environments they support will focus the volume on a few platforms. At the same time, companies are expecting a massive expansion in smartphone sales. Tommi Uhari, executive vice president of STMicroelectronics, thinks the removal of the royalty for Symbian will help lower the point at which handset makers use the operating system. Although the Symbian application framework was devised to drive the smartphone business, the move to remove royalties now makes it easier to push the operating system towards featurephone price points.

Nokia has one eye on a massive expansion of sales of software-rich handsets. Kai Öistämö, executive vice president of Nokia, says: "The next billion [people] to join this mobile conversation will change the terms of engagement. Their first phone will not just be their first experience of the mobile Internet but their first camera and music player."

Accessibility is less obvious to developers. Notionally, as an environment built on Linux, LiMo is an open platform. But the group has yet to release a software development kit, and companies providing mobile software find it difficult to get answers unless they pay a membership upwards of $40,000.

"They are not an open source project: they only allow communication between members and not with non-members," says a spokeswoman for mobile-email specialist Funambol, which has ported to most operating systems in the market, including the iPhone and Qualcomm's Brew.

The difference in software policies means that application developers such as Funambol have to modify how they deliver software for some platforms.

For example, the Funambol plug-in for the iPhone that is in the Apple Store is not open source. But the company will offer, outside the Apple Store, a separate version of the Funambol plug-in that is.

Until the market winnows out the weaker players, developers will have to look carefully at the pros and cons of each platform. Equally, as they vie for market position, you can expect the providers of the core operating systems to become more responsive to developer needs, and to gradually open up their offerings.

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