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THE Mobile Landscape. NextBigWhat?

In Technology by Sameer

Not that long ago, a smartphone would by default be assumed to be on Nokia’s Symbian S60 and later the S90 operating system. There were a couple of attempts at selling proprietary operating systems here and there, and after lagging massively on the web, Microsoft tried desperately to grab some mobile market share but it did not amount to much.

Of course, from the recent past we remember little else but Apple and Android, and the now fading challenge that BlackBerry posed till a while ago.

So what does it all look like now?

Numbers from a Gartner report provides some context about who’s where- its slightly dated but gives a pretty good idea nevertheless:

Essentially, Google’s Android is the the lead followed by Apple’s iOS and RIM.

And here’s what Wikipedia says in graphs about the changing fortunes of various platforms over the years:

From the pictures above- some conclusions are easy. But  the numbers only tell part of the story. There’s lots we can wonder about when it comes to the reasons for the proportions and directions we see in those graphs.

Let’s go one at a time.

iOS : All Time High, And The Final Countdown?

Apple, emerging out of nowhere in a market dominated by Nokia, caught the imagination of consumers first with the iPhone and later with the iPad, and iOS spread faster than any other platform. It still commands a premium, is a default choice for millions and drives a majority of mobile data usage especially in the US.Apple iPhone 5s

However, from the data above, and from what we see everywhere around us, the Android surge has meant iOS is not the dominant platform – not by a mile. With Steve Jobs gone and the recent spate of glitches which followed, the gloss has worn off just a little.

The iOS is still the biggest platform for tablets; many will argue that’s the most critical category of consumer devices right now. In 2009, there were 2 million tablet computers in the world, so when the iPad took that to 20 million in 2010 – all of it Apple – it practically created a market. Yet, by 2011 other platforms had already grabbed about a third of the now rapidly expanding market – and now iOS has a slender majority. Most of the competition – again – came from Android. Of course, a lot of it was one device – the Kindle Fire. With Google getting serious about pushing the Nexus tablets now, this may see further erosion. In countries like India, the Android tablets already rule a growing market!

Yet, its too early to predict that the iOS era is over. Consumer interest is still strong and with the recent iPhone5 launch, the platform regained a lot of lost ground lost to Android and other competitors. Though yes, some think that its a platform that might be past its prime.

NextBigWhat for iOS:

It does seem like Apple’s changing. The iPad Mini, chatter around a cheaper iPhone and the India focus do suggest they might be starting to look at a wider market than they have traditionally. And like other manufacturers and platforms have shown earlier, there’s users, adoption and eventually, money in those segments as well.

Android : more than mobile

Android isn’t a story worth retelling – mostly because everyone knows it, and see it every day! Also – the numbers and graphs above are worth more than whatever we could write about. Any store – online or offline, any price point, whether mobile or tablet. – Android’s there in numbers, with multiple manufacturers betting on it. Its starting to get into TVs as well (and even the odd refrigerator, and maybe car audio as well). We could safely surmise that this is the dominant consumer device platform at least for the next few years.

Micromax A 110 Canvas 2

Micromax A 110 Canvas 2

From the growth of Samsung its clear that both Samsung and Android have given each other a massive leg up – and then a slew of smaller budget device manufacturers – mostly from China – helped too. In India, Micromax has not only ridden atop the Android wave, but announced itself as a major challenger to the big guys! All this can only help Android grow even more in the short to medium term.

Yet, manufacturers are wary of a dominant Google having complete control and are looking at diversifying – and its success is also Android’s biggest worry. Customizations over the basic platform also cause fragmentation and dissonance in the user experience, and the “techie-friendly” perception that has always hovered around it despite mass adoption leave the window of opportunity for a smart new OS open just a crack.

Firefox – The Sexy HTML5 Promise Ahead

And Mozilla’s Firefox might be just that smart new OS, if the promise on their website is anything to go by.

Firefox has ZTE, Alcatel and leading global network operators backing it – including Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica and Telenor backing – and the first devices should see the light of day as early as February – perhaps first out of Spain!

From the official Mozilla Firefox OS website:

Firefox OS will produce an implementation of these new Web standards to free mobile platforms from the encumbrances of the rules and restrictions of existing proprietary platforms.

Using HTML5 and the new Mozilla-proposed standard APIs, developers everywhere will be able to create amazing experiences and apps. Developers will no longer need to learn and develop against platform-specific native APIs.

Due to the optimization of the platform for entry-level smartphones and the removal of unnecessary middleware layers, mobile operators will have the ability to offer richer experiences at a range of price points including at the low end of the smartphone price range, helping to drive adoption across developing markets.

Open OS platforms have not really done too spectacularly thus far – we’ve seen multiple consortiums attempt Linux derived OSes time and again with no results. But Mozilla seems to be be very focused on this, and the pedigree and partnerships are both in place.

Windows Phone

Microsoft’s Windows 7 mobile did ok, and more recently, Windows 8 mobile, has been getting some good press. The first attempt at creating a phone OS in the form of Windows Mobile, like Microsoft’s earlier adoption of the web, was not what one might call a huge success, though multiple manufacturers did attempt multiple devices with them. With the promise of the much better windows phoneWindows Phone platform, and Nokia having backed it quite solidly (especially with their Lumias), this is back as a serious contender once again.

In fact, an IDC report claims that Android will soon be hitting its peak growth, and its Windows that will gain the most as a mobile platform – getting to 19.2% market share past iOS at 19% by 2016!

Most major manufacturers have at least one Windows 8 phone, and users have appreciated the UX and performance that the new platform offers. The fact that it shares a lot with the desktop version in terms of look and feel can only help – though the adoption of Windows 8 itself is not as widespread as that of earlier versions.

Will it be a major platform? Its got all the attributes – a neat UI, good hardware backing it, and some industry support. Microsoft has thrown its weight behind it – encouraging lots of developers to adopt the platform, ensuring design integrity and coherence across devices, and also clawing its way back on the web. Can they get the execution spot on (there were some early reports that it might be too confusing for users to actually make a decision in its favour), get price points right (most users have not reacted well to Lumia 920 pricing), and will their partners be aggressive enough in backing them are open questions and will decide if this ship goes anywhere.

BlackBerry Shades of Grey

Oh well, the just announced BB10 is supposed to bring the company back into the reckoning.

BB10 is far more open and integrated than the earlier versions and the BB10 SDK supports apps created in native C/C++ and C++/Qt Cascades. Plus, the sdk supports porting of apps created in Action Script with Adobe AIR, HTML5 (WebWorks) and Android devices.bb10

Early review of the devices and the OS looks positive, but mind you – this isn’t just a hardware or a software business. It is as much a business of distribution and of creating hype in the target segment.

Blackberry, once big in enterprise space has consistently lost the battle to iOS and Android, so it would be interesting to see if Blackberry can win them back. What’s amazing is how WhatsApp has challenged BBM with its cross platform service. But the good news is that Blackberry is changing and is changing for good.

Blackberry is open to licensing its BB10 OS to other manufacturers and the new BES 10 (Blackberry Enterprise Server) enables corporates to manage devices/data and supports Android as well as iOS.

That is, more open and nimble and not a ‘black’ hole, it earlier was.

BADA Boom – now Tizen!

Samsung launched BADA at the time of their Wave phone announcements. Announced at MWC in 2010, BADA received a lot of support from companies like Twitter, EA etc and launched SDK in May, 2010.

It never really took off; the initial handicap of very few apps that led to low adoption in the smartphone market – that in turn meant hardly any developer interest despite Samsung trying its best to get folks involved in creating apps for their OS. In response, the pricing of the BADA phones settled down at a notch below Samsung’s Androids, and they offer terrific value for those looking at a smarter-than-feature-phones experience but aren’t really power users and don’t customize the phones much or download too many apps.

Samsung shipped 4.5 million phones in Q2 of 2011 and later merged Bada into Tizen in 2012.

“Tizen is the new badge placed upon MeeGo, the formerly promising Linux-based OS that Intel and Nokia were going to rock our world with until Nokia decided Windows Phone offered a better shot at success.” [TheVerge]

However, Samsung’s not giving up yet – they recently announced a continued focus and in fact promised to devote more resources to taking BADA – oops – Tizen to more devices. Given their dominance in the marketplace, they could still make this work.

Symbian dead, just not buried?

A hardware company building software? Nokia’s flagship smartphones led the market for years and in 2008, they even bet big and bought Symbian. A flurry of phones were launched, and subsequent versions of the platform crammed in more to keep pace with the fast improving mobile hardware. With this the portability pains for developers increased manyfold as well, and even J2ME apps needed to worry about which version of Symbian they were building for! And despite initially being an open platform, other manufacturers never really warmed up to Symbian and it remained firmly married to Nokia and their hardware and strategy choices.

Then the Apple storm hit hard and Nokia suddenly found themselves a generation behind, and unable to respond. All of a sudden, all they seemed to be doing is try to redo what by then was bloatware to act and be more like iOS which set the new benchmark for what a smartphone needed to be. They even yielded to smaller players in their traditional markets where they dominated based on other attributes – primary being that they always made very robust handsets that worked brilliantly as phones. Symbian phones started to seem heavy, expensive and with clunky UX compared to the much lighter, smarter and quicker iPhones and Androids. And in the corporate world, the disruptive BlackBerry service dominated for the longest time, sealing the fate of their E-Series which were up to then the default executive choice.

Symbian S40 continued the battle for a while, especially as Nokia found its feet again in the mid-range segment of the market, but that has started to get breached as well by cheaper Androids.

Finally, Nokia themselves seem to have completely given up on Symbian as of February 2011.

Who else is doing what?

Intel’s push to create a Linux derived mobile OS – first as Maemo and then Meego – eventually fizzled out as they shifted focus to their own architecture for Android.

There’s already Ubuntu for increasingly powerful mobile devices, but lets see how this is received by lay users. Still early days.

Huwawei, as a defensive strategy, is pursuing its own OS – just in case.

“Whatever consumers like, we’ll develop,” Wan Biao, CEO of Huawei Device, said in an interview on Monday at the company’s headquarters. “We’re also devoting resources into coming up with a phone operating system based on our current platform in case other companies won’t let us use their system one day.”

Motorola too had openly expressed their desire to build an alternative to Android to diversify Motorola’s options.

Alibaba had staked a claim with their own OS – Aliyun – which was about to launch with an Acer phone – but drew a pretty sharp reaction from Google leading to a high voltage withdrawal from the space.

It does look like a pretty engaging set of battles in the years ahead, despite a dominant and growing Android, and a strongly followed and much admired iOS. Both open platform proponents, as well as device manufacturers, are preparing to ensure they stay relevant and are not blown over by the blitzkrieg of the major platforms. Device lifecycles are short, and while it might not be a winner take all market, the dominant platforms do benefit hugely from the virtuous cycle of user as well as manufacturer interest and app developer activity around them.

What are your thoughts?