Nokia Launches a Full Scale War for the Mobile OS

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It has been years since we have seen a full scale operating system war. Today’s announcement by Nokia that they will be open sourcing Symbian and making it available royalty free is the opening of yet another front in the blossoming mobile OS conflagration.

Mobile computing is a complex market with intricate relationships between the mobile carriers, device manufacturers, regulators, and their various suppliers. The best way to think about this is to see its similarity to the early days of the personal computer. In fact, mobile devices are getting to look a lot more like personal computers every day as Moore’s law continues to drive down the size and price of mobile device components while increasing their power. Most of today’s low end smart phones are far more powerful than a laptop from even just a few years ago. Think about a device that is priced at $199, has a web browser, e-mail client, word processor, calendar, video, audio, camera, etc. Sounds a heck of a lot like a laptop only it is cheaper and fits in your pocket.

So who are the early winners and losers in this war? More importantly how does today’s announcement impact other Linux mobile platform efforts out there such the Google’s Android, the Limo Foundation, ACCESS, and others? Finally how will this impact the proprietary hold outs in the mobile computing world such as Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s Blackberry OS, and Microsoft Mobile? Answering these questions requires a little bit of history.

History repeats.

Just like the early days of the PC, we are seeing a scramble from a variety of operating system vendors to become the mobile platform of the future. Back then it was PC/DOS, MS/DOS, Apple, Amiga, Atari, Commodore, IBM. OS/2. The winner of that war was clearly Microsoft and the reward was greater than anyone could have imagined. At around the same time we saw the Unix Wars with Sun, IBM, Novell, HP, DEC, Silicon Graphics and others all forming various “open” alliances (sound familiar?) such as the Open Software Foundation, Unix International, the Open Group and others which ended in Sun dominating the Unix market, the SCO Group descending into oblivion and Linux eating the Unix markets lunch. In server computing two winners are emerging from that war: Linux and once again Microsoft.

What is each side competing for?

Developer mind share. Becoming the defacto application development platform for mobile is the goal here. The more applications that are available on a phone platform the more interesting things you can do with it. With applications you can automate your sales force, track your friends locations, calculate currency rates, keep up with people on facebook, listen to music, watch a movie, etc. The more applications on a platform, the more people want to use it, the more people who use a platform, the more developers want to build applications for that expanding market, and so on and so forth. For Microsoft winning the PC war enabled them to become the defacto application platform for desktop computing locking users who had applications that only ran on Windows into their platform for years.

Wars generally produce one or two winners

Have you ever played three way tennis? It doesn’t work very well because eventually two players gang up on the third and eliminate him or her from the game. This is the basic rule of alliances; when the stakes are big enough alliances are formed in order to eliminate other players from the game. This is going on in the mobile industry right now. All the players know that they must form alliances out of necessity. Competing firms generally don’t join together unless they have to do it. When a rival threatens to dominate the world and lock others out often firms will join together to combat this threat. Combinations of alliances ebb and flow until the market reaches a reasonable equilibrium or until a single winner takes all.

Who are the players? How does this impact them?

Microsoft: Windows mobile has large and growing market share in the smart phone world. They got there by providing a experience on a mobile device similar to the one people are comfortable with on their desktop PC. Which means they leveraged their desktop monopoly in order to attempt to dominate the mobile computing world. This is their sole advantage in this war. Their problem is that they are using an outdated development model which requires a massive internal R&D effort, slows innovation, and requires every other player in the industry to pay licensing fees to Microsoft. Simply put; this boat is not going to float for long. In the cut throat, low margin, high volume world of mobile computing, device makers are simply not going to cede the high margin software business to Microsoft. Companies like Motorola, Samsung, LG, NEC, Panasonic, Nokia and others have their own brands and their own ambitions. In that context today’s announcement comes as a big blow to Microsoft as their only other major proprietary platform competitor has just announced they are reducing their license fees to zero and open sourcing their code. Ouch.

Apple iPhone: Apple produces a niche operating system on a single device with a very closed model. They do it extremely well. Their innovation and cutting edge consumer electronic design is unparalleled. However, by creating a closed platform Apple is repeating history by engaging in the exact same tactics that caused it to lose the PC wars. They may have a short term lead amongst a group of consumers who are will to pay a lot for elegant design and cutting edge technology, but sustaining this against a more open ecosystem is not a long term strategy for success. Nokia acknowledged this today. At the end of the day Apple is becoming more of a services company offering music and entertainment for a fee, something Nokia openly acknowledges they want to become as well and is certainly Google’s motivation behind Android. Which is yet another battlefront.

RIM: See Apple without the services.

Linux: Google Android, Limo, et. al. Now that Symbian will be open and royalty free one of the advantages that Linux had over that platform is gone. The only other advantage Symbian had was a large installed base and that will continue to serve them for some time. However, there continue to be some fundamental disadvantages relative to Linux that Symbian must deal with. First is their large installed base. While it has it advantages, it also locks Symbian platform development into the obsolete API’s that were developed for devices with obsolete form factors and significant performance limitations. Think of all the problems Microsoft has had with Vista and XP compatibility. Symbian also fails to benefit from sharing a code base across the entire pantheon of computing. Linux shares development with embedded systems, desktop devices, super computing and server side computing. Efforts to reduce power consumption in a large data center will benefit battery life on Linux mobile devices. Nokia has now put the Linux mobile community on notice that it needs to rapidly produce the development tools and testing infrastructure that will enable the creation of an ISV ecosystem. Expect both Android and the Limo Foundation to meet that challenge quickly. Finally, Linux supports more device components than any other platform in the market. One can simply walk down the streets of Guangzhou and assemble a Linux based device with almost any set of commodity components.

Waiting in the wings: Abobe Air, Microsoft Silverlight, Java Mobile, Google Widgets, and the web browser. These development platforms lie one layer up from the operating system and seek to abstract away the relevance of the underlying operating system. Why write an application for Windows, Symbian or the iPhone when I can simply write an application in Adobe air and it will run across all three.

The hope: Open Systems

Today’s announcement is further acknowledgment that the future of computing is one of collective innovation. It is testimony to the fact that while the old model of hiring the best people, locking them away in a lab, and zealously guarding your code may have worked before but that long term it simply is not going to work. The hope is that a mobile platform can be developed and offered by multiple vendors with application compatibility across their competing devices. In this world the consumer wins by being able to get the most innovative device from a variety of competitors without losing their application investment if they want to switch. To do this will require five things: open source reference software (ie; Linux and Symbian), an open standard which defines a mobile platform, a set of tests that device vendors can use to insure the operating system they use is compatible with the standard, a set of developer tools that make it simple for new applications to be created for the platform, and a trademark indicating compliance with the platform “Built on Android” or “Powered by Symbian.” It appears the industry may have the will to do this.

Nokia should be lauded for its step in the right direction. It should also be noted that Nokia has its feet firmly planted in both the Linux and Symbian camps as members of the Linux Foundation and as creators of the N Series Mobile Linux device.