Operating Systems, or operators’ systems?

Having your own operating system, or OS, for mobile phones is tempting. Over the past few years the mobile industry have witnessed Apple and Google gradually gaining global market shares with iOS and Android. Who wouldn’t want to have a slice of that pie?

Today it’s well known that there is more to the OS than merely releasing new versions and discussing with operators what applications to pre-load the phones with. Analysts started talking about “ecosystems” to define a new era of third-party developers doing the application innovation and app stores out of mobile operator control doing the distribution.

The “old” masters of the mobile OS universe such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Microsoft never managed to dodge the blow from the newcomers. Eventually Sony Ericsson turned to Android and Nokia recently scrapped Symbian for Windows Phone 7. It would be fair to assume that these developments would make would-be new entrants on the mobile OS scene think twice. Still, it seems that the possibility of having your own operating system that is not controlled by Apple or Google is too tempting to resist for some.

Stéphane Richard, the CEO of Orange, pointed out to Le Figaro in September 2010 that iOS and Android were “trojan horses” rolled out to establish relationships with customers that the operators own. It is worth noting that Orange’s customers obviously appreciate both iOS and Android very much and it’s fair to assume that they don’t see themselves belonging to a single company.

In a similar vein China Unicom revealed the creation of the Wophone OS in February 2011, aimed to take on Android and iOS in the Chinese market. The Wophone press release boasted support from handset manufacturers including Motorola, Samsung and Huawei among others. Support from developers, let alone consumers, is unknown.

There is presently little room for new entrants on the mobile OS market unless one possesses huge resources and a very strong market position – preferably global. Without those two features, it’s too difficult and too costly to keep up with the overall innovation pace of Apple and Google. In addition, getting a critical mass of developers to start innovating for your OS before consumer have adopted it is bordering a Catch 22. Intel and Nokia faced this exact problem when their joint venture MeeGo was announced early 2010. Only a year later, MeeGo’s outlook is very gloomy due to the Nokia-Microsoft partnership.

Anyone thinking about releasing a new operating system, and operators in particular, should probably think again. Some of the industry’s largest players have tried and failed so unless one is willing to bet the farm on success, efforts are likely more efficiently allocated elsewhere. Why not focus on improving some very specific parts of the OS colossus some operators is so keen on building? For instance, Android Market has severe deficiencies as an interface to the Android app world, and security is clearly hampered (as we recently pointed out in the post “In Android we trust…(?)”).

Operators (and others) who don’t fancy a game they unlikely would win should focus their innovative resources and investments better. There are plenty of opportunities up for grabs but the OS market is not one of them.

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In Android we trust…(?)

The recently discovered malware on Google’s Android Market highlights a flaw in the current design of that system. A large number of applications, including a knockoff of a guitar simulation game, have been discovered to contain code that steals the content of an Android phone and leaves it open to other further invasions by opening [...]
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